February 2012

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The kindergarten students in Room 109 at University Park Elementary might individually represent countries from around the world, but when they are together in the classroom they speak the common language of BrainWise.

Judy Cardenas has been teaching BrainWise to kindergarteners at University Park Elementary for 9 years, and is a strong advocate of the program. Four years ago, she was pleased to see Principal Dana Williams endorse character education through BrainWise as an integral part of the curriculum for the whole school. That move brought the school recognition by the U.S. Department of Education for successfully using the BrainWise program to foster common behavioral expectations and improve student achievement.

A set of five core values guide behavior at University Park Elementary. According to Cardenas, “Everyone in our school community is expected to be respectful, responsible, caring, cooperative and joyful; and these five expectations apply to our common spaces such as the hallway, stairs, cafeteria, playground and auditorium, as well as the classrooms.” Positive behaviors are acknowledged with coupons called “Wizard Hat slips” which are posted on the wall in the front hallway at the school. Conversely, behavior violations are met with opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes while giving back to the school community.

Like many public school teachers, Cardenas must fit her curriculum to a wide range of students from divergent backgrounds. Out of the school’s approximately 510 students, 37 percent are from an Ethnic Minority, 27 percent are recipients of Free and Reduced Lunch, and 19 percent are English Language Learners. Cardenas says that despite their differences, students all find BrainWise to be a useful tool that helps them reflect on their behavior and on the school’s culture.

In the classroom, Cardenas integrates BrainWise thinking skills, called the Ten Wise Ways, into lessons in several creative ways. For instance, Cardenas made up a song that is sung to the tune of Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” that the students sing together when they are doing a transition between activities. “When they are singing the words, “We will use our Wizard Brain, We will Stop and Think,” they are making a connection between their thinking brains and their actions,” Cardenas said. “That helps students have a plan for positive behavior during transition times.”

For students who are naturally introverted, or reluctant to participate in class discussions, Cardenas first examines how her teaching style might be affecting them. “I am really energetic, and I tend to get loud,” Cardenas admits. “The first thing I do is I go back and look at myself and see who I am and how I am with them. I look at myself as a Constellation of Support. If I need to, I will lower my elevator by doing some deep breathing and calming down before I approach a student.”

Cardenas wants her students to have an action plan for positive behavior. “I had a student who was really showing passive-aggressive behavior, rolling her eyes and not joining in with the class. I asked her what it is she really wanted, and she said, ’nothing’ I said ‘Your behavior shows you want my attention, but getting into trouble is not you. You could be a leader. My goal is for you to participate. If you want my attention, and for me to be nice to you, have a plan for that.’ This is a strategy that really works with my students,” Cardenas explained. “It doesn’t make sense if students don’t have a plan for achieving their goals. BrainWise gives them a positive framework for setting their goals and achieving them.”