Roosevelt and Gussner elementary schools are taking a new approach to education that focuses on building positive and constructive relationships among staff, faculty and students.

Nurtured Heart is possible through a $15,000 grant from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction to the special education cooperative of Jamestown, Litchville-Marion, Ellendale, Montpelier and Kulm school districts. Designed by psychologist Howard Glasser, Nurtured Heart focuses on acknowledging positive behavior to build positive self-image or “inner wealth,” according to Jamestown Public School District Special Education Director Rhoda Young, who said the message is directed to what the student is doing correctly.

“It’s more specific and more intentional in giving positive recognition,” Young said.

Parents report that kids show more self-confidence and look forward to school with Nurtured Heart, Young said. The focus is on expectations more than rules, she said.

Gussner Elementary School Principal David Saxberg said current approaches to reaching children at a deeper level are not as effective as they need to be. Nurtured Heart seems to be a way to better relate to children, he said.

“I knew we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Saxberg said. “I think we are a good school but we want to be a great school.”

Nurtured Heart’s three-part framework includes “absolutely no,” which means not giving time and energy to negative behavior, “absolutely yes” for recognition of value and achievement to build patterns of success and “absolute clarity,” which outlines the consequences for rule breaking.

“Here are the rules, and here’s what happens when you break a rule,” said Pat Smith, Roosevelt Elementary School principal. She said Nurtured Heart strategies help in developing self-regulation and aid in better learning.

Teachers respond to negative behavior by reinforcing a child’s patterns of success, no matter how small, to highlight value and self-worth, she said.

Social skills are critical to student success and less than 1 percent of teachers report they are prepared to deal with challenging behavior, said Mindy Blackmore, a special education teacher and the Nurtured Heart expert who trains fellow educators and staff in mastering the approach at Roosevelt Elementary.

“It’s really focusing on relationships between teachers and students, but also between co-workers and bringing out everyone’s strengths,” Blackmore said. “It is about building inner wealth or self-confidence in individuals.”

Gussner Elementary special education teacher and Nurtured Heart trainer Mike Romans said the focus on what is going right is a different way to communicate from the usual “chew the person out” for doing wrong.

“As teachers, as parents, as humans, oftentimes we focus so much of our energy on the things that are going wrong, when it’s a very minute piece of the puzzle,” Romans said. “Shifting the thinking to focus on what’s going right, whether it’s something small or it’s something large, puts you in a totally different direction and kind of in a different mindset.”

If a student is struggling with responsibility then the goal is to ensure the child is aware where he or she is succeeding and acting responsibly as a foundation to grow, he said.

Zimmerman Elementary School Principal Rosemary Hardie in Wahpeton, N.D., introduced Nurtured Heart to Wahpeton, Cheyenne Valley and James River school districts in 2011. It has shown success after three years, but she said it was not built overnight.

“It is a very powerful approach and we train people all the time,” she said, “The credit really goes to the staff who take it and run with it.”

Hardie said there is a 20 percent annual decrease in behavior referrals to her office and a 50 percent drop for students with learning disabilities. There were 369 referrals for violent behavior in 2011, and that fell to 53 in 2013, and none as of yet in 2015.

“We have also had no parent complaints for two years,” she said.

As a non-mandated program Nurtured Heart has proved itself and is expanding into other schools, she said. It takes about nine weeks to establish the classroom culture, she said.

North Dakota Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said she became a believer in Nurtured Heart after visiting Wahpeton schools.

“They (the students) were very articulate and shared with me the skills they were learning, and they recognized the hero in themselves,” Baesler said. “They were also giving of their skills to assist peers and classmates with identifying positive things and in helping other kids who were lonely.”

Baesler said her student cabinets report that they want to know how to help their peers from withdrawing into risk behavior. Nurtured Heart helps create a safe and secure environment that allows students to support one another, she said.

“When we see a program like Nurtured Heart we see the students are involved, and with that we tend to see more success,” she said.

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