Last year, the character task force finalized a framework that aligned five of our guiding principles with five attributes–curiosity, empathy, adaptability, agency, and responsibility. This summer, I read “The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance” by Rich Diviney, which deepened my understanding of how certain characteristics help an individual flourish in life. As Diviney explains, “Attributes are wired into our internal circuitry, always running in the background, dictating how we behave and react and perform.” He is then quick to clarify that “while attributes are part of everyone’s circuitry, they’re not immutable.” We all, adults and children, have the opportunity to bolster character traits so that our behavior changes over time. The character framework gives us a method to explore the behaviors associated with those attributes, make them more habitual, and model them for our children.
The first attribute that the character task force emphasized is curiosity. Since curiosity is central to our mission of both achieving intellectual excellence and building strong character, it is primary. In “The Attributes,” Diviney relates curiosity to open-mindedness, which he defines as “the ability and willingness to set aside our opinions, judgments, and preconceptions so that we can consider problems and environments from fresh, often unorthodox perspectives.” To devote ourselves to demonstrating openness, we need to devote ourselves to asking questions and listening actively. In the fall of 2020, at a PEN event on civil discourse, Bill Fulton from Civic Canopy introduced the “Four Types of Listening.” The third type of listening, “Dialogue,” relies on curiosity and questioning. In this quadrant, “Listening = Inquiring.” The inquiry within this type of listening propels the conversation into the fourth type, called “Creativity,” in which listening lets new understanding emerge. Active listening is a behavior that promotes curiosity.
In Fulton’s listening framework, another attribute from the character task force manifests within the “Dialogue” quadrant: empathy. Taking an empathetic approach leads to an openness to others, their diverse viewpoints, and experiences. Diviney defines empathy as “the ability to fully and genuinely imagine another person’s emotional state, even without those emotions being explicitly communicated.” Due to the subtle and complex nature of emotions, we have to work to become empathetic, and some may argue that true empathy is impossible, but this does not mean we can quit trying to understand someone’s experience as fully as possible through inquiry and openness.
The openness that comes from empathy also relates to the third attribute, “adaptability,” a trait that fortifies us in the face of change and uncertainty. If you can see an issue from many diverse perspectives, you are more adaptable. If you are more adaptable, you are more resilient because, as legendary coach John Wooden stated, “Adaptability is being able to adjust to any situation, at any given time.” Recently, parents and children gathered in our Innovation Lab to identify problems and solve them through inventions. Through this inventive work, it gave educators, parents, and students the opportunity to struggle with a problem and collaborate through both failures and successes. Ideally, instead of a blanket statement about their child’s intelligence—“You are so smart”—parents and teachers followed “Mindset” author Carol Dweck’s advice and commented on how they specifically showed grit. By avoiding general praise or judgment and discussing specific behaviors, adults help kids avoid a fixed mindset and embrace a growth mindset, which fosters adaptability and then perseverance.
Ultimately, the more adaptable a student feels, the more confident they feel. In tough situations, they will see, even seize, the opportunity, not the obstacle. That confidence relates to the fourth attribute: agency. In a world that is growing more uncertain, it is easy to feel like we are only at the whims of fate. Though it is true that we do not control everything, it is important to take ownership of what we do control and feel a sense of self-efficacy. Diviney describes self-efficacy as “a combination of confidence, initiative, and optimism [...]. Not only does it allow us to stretch boundaries, explore our potential, and take risks, but it also enables us to successfully charge through unanticipated challenges, even when the outcome is highly uncertain.” To promote agency and self-efficacy, it is important for adults to promote independence and allow children to discover their confidence, initiative, and optimism on their own.
Agency comes with owning your part in any situation; it comes with responsibility, the final attribute. Though Diviney doesn’t speak directly to responsibility, he does explore accountability and defines it as “Taking responsibility for, and ownership of, your decisions, actions, and consequences thereof.” Through Responsive Classroom methodology, our educators stress social and emotional competencies, including responsibility (as well as self-control, cooperation, empathy, and assertiveness) through well-designed teaching practices and expect students to follow the Graland Guidelines of safety, honesty, responsibility, and respect and take accountability for how their actions impact others. As adults, we can also look to model respect and civility. Through that modeling, we can help cultivate those same behaviors in our children as they become engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders in their classrooms, their school, and their communities.
By focusing on the behaviors that arise from these five attributes, we not only help our children build strong character, we also sustain a thriving community. The word “Thrive” in the middle of the strategic framework does indicate thriving students, but it also signifies a thriving community of children and adults. We all have a part to play in that thriving, and the character framework that builds out from our guiding principles becomes a roadmap to that destination. Thank you for engaging in the role of educator by focusing on the behaviors detailed above and joining me on the journey to thrive.