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How do we “flourish” in the year ahead?

As we start the new school year during Covid and fire season, flourishing may not be the first thing on your mind, but I believe answering this question––how can we flourish?––for yourself and your family is essential. We’re living through a time of high anxiety. Many of our students––particularly adolescents––have experienced Covid-related malaise, stress, and social disconnection over the past year and a half.  Deliberately seeking strategies for conscious connection can help us move through crises and cultivate resilience, well-being, and community.

The hopeful news is that there are many practices, grounded in positive psychology and neuroscientific research, that build strong social-emotional bonds and cultivate awe. During one of our opening week meetings for HRS faculty and staff last week, Dr. Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center shared his strategies for sustainable well-being. He offered concrete data: “Finding happiness, with social connection, adds ten years to life expectancy,” he said. “Research shows that children who know how to cultivate awe do better in school.”   

While Dr. Keltner’s research is rooted in contemporary western studies, it is also inspired and affirmed by cultural practices and traditions from around the world.  He uses the  acronym BEARS to set out some direct and relatively simple strategies for parents and adults to practice with each other and our students. In times of stress or during challenges, we can remember our: breath, empathy, awe, reverence (or gratitude), and self-compassion. Together we practiced compassionate listening and shared memories of awe––that feeling of being in the presence of something big that you don’t fully understand. From the light-bulb moment your child learned to read to a view of the Bay on a clear day, moments of awe remind us there are bigger things to worry about than daily stressors like grades and growing to-do lists. “Awe shuts down neuroses,” said Dr. Keltner, “and makes us more collaborative and happier.” 

We’re urging our faculty and professional staff to remember BEARS this school year and encourage you to embrace wellness practices at home, too. 

What can you do as a parent to support your child’s well-being? 

  • Tell personal stories of redemption, growth, courage, and vulnerability. 

  • For older teens and young adults, take the Values in Action Character Strengths Test (15 min free version). Reflect on concrete ways to enhance your and your child’s strengths, rather than focusing on deficits.

  • Ask your child what their “gold medal” moment from this past summer was. If they can’t narrow down the full summer to one memory, suggest silver and bronze categories. Celebrate each other!

  • Plan “micro awe” experiences like visiting a nostalgic playground, viewing a work of art, or playing a song on vinyl.

  • Swap out your usual Netflix binge for an inspiring documentary like BBC Earth, Baraka, or even a favorite musical number from In the Heights!. 

  • Have your child write a short letter of gratitude to someone who has positively impacted them–––and then send it. Spend meal times sharing a few things you’re all grateful for. Ask each family member to be specific and explore why. Perhaps have your child keep a “WWW” journal, reflecting on what went well.

  • You can find more ideas at: Greater Good in Action. --there’s even a series of exercises specifically designed for parents. 

Why do these practices work? They help to interrupt our biological “fight or flight” response and activate our parasympathetic nervous system (often called “rest and digest) to help us settle and refocus. Though well-being, resilience, and connection is our theme for the 2021-2022 school year, these practices aren’t new in our community. Back in 2016, a group of board members, School leaders, and alumni joined together to create our Strategic Plan: Bridge to 2022. As one of our five core goals, we drafted one that was quite aspirational on balance and well-being, based on all we’d observed in our changing world: the pressures of perfectionism, an increasingly urgent need to address systemic inequities, an over-dependence on social media, and basic, ongoing wellness needs like sleep, family time, and playtime. 

Dr. Keltner reminded us that focusing first on our students’ well-being leads to increased connections in our classrooms and fosters a fertile environment for successful learning. After all, so many of our great achievements came out of awe; from Ankor Wat to Amanda Gordon. “If we aren’t sharing awe,” said Dr. Keltner, “we’re depriving our students of a major intellectual juice.” Let’s enter our campus and classrooms with a renewed focus on compassion, gratitude, and awe. 

 – Crystal Land