CosmoKidz: Teaching Children Response-Abilities in Their Relationships

CosmoKidz: Teaching Children Response-Abilities in Their Relationships

Kimberly Pearce and Marit Eikaas Haavimb

CMM Institute for Personal and Social Evolution

Introduction: The Daily Experiences of Life as our Rationale for CosmoKidz

We begin with an all-too-familiar scenario. Imagine being at work. It is a nice day and you have every reason to be happy… but you’re not. You are feeling unease as you observe one of your colleagues being increasingly left out of general chit-chat and the water-cooler conversations that the rest of your colleagues are engaging in. What do you do? What skills and abilities do you need to draw upon to provide generative options for ways forward? For how long have you been practicing mastering challenging situations like this?

Now imagine being a young child in the earliest years in school in a similar situation. Due to your cognitive and social development, the skills you may draw on are much more limited. Imagine how young children in general might act and feel in these challenging situations.

Lastly, imagine young children who learn at a very young age how to talk about the challenges of their social worlds in ways that develop capacities for mindfulness and awareness of self and other, compassion for others, and productive ways to go on. How might they act into a challenging situation differently? How may they learn to create magic moments instead?

We have been close friends and colleagues for many years. Throughout these years, we have talked about our own experiences and observations of situations (both private and public) that become quite difficult and hurtful because of the apparent lack of communicative skills and abilities of the participants to navigate these challenging situations in productive and generative ways. And certainly, in the public sphere, we have witnessed a steady decline of skillful communicative practices that heal rather than divide. We have been deeply troubled by this and have asked ourselves “what is a leverage for change?” For us, an important answer has been to teach communicative skills to young children so that they will have the best chance to grow into creative socially and emotionally skilled and competent adults. Imagine what our social worlds might look like if we can teach a new generation to understand the power of their communication in (re)making their social worlds, while providing the skills and abilities that foster mindfulness, compassion and courage? We had that ah-ha moment about six years ago, and that ah-ha led us on a two-year journey (which included conversations with children on two continents, partners in a variety of educational settings and levels, collaborations with a design artist, and many beta-tests) to create what is now called CosmoKidz.

These activities can be done in a variety of settings—with parents or caregivers, with grandparents, in places of worship, in social organizations, in camps, or in schools, including pre-schools. Our focus has been in schools with an added research component to test the effectiveness of CosmoKidz in kindergarten through second-grade classes (ages 4-7). The goals of CosmoKidz in the classroom are to teach young children awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, to provide continual opportunities to productively talk about their thoughts and feelings with other children and adults, and to develop the skills to act more compassionately with other children who are not like them.

The name CosmoKidz refers to CMM’s notion of Cosmopolitan communication (Pearce, 1989). Cosmopolitan communication is a way of being that, among other things, honours one’s own stories and experiences while also acknowledging the stories and experiences of others, even if they are counter to your own.

The Why, What and How of CosmoKidz

The goals of CosmoKidz are to help children develop skills and abilities that help nurture cosmopolitan ways of being. These include:

  • Talking productively about their thoughts, feelings and experiences
  • Listening to the perspectives of others
  • Handling challenging situation in helpful ways
  • Connecting with diverse children who are not like them
  • Managing their strong emotions
  • Imagining alternative ways of acting productively into a situation
  • Taking first-person as well as second- and third-person perspectives on the social worlds of which they are a part

We have recently concluded a three-year research project with all kindergarten through second-grade classes (ages 4-7) in Oracle, Arizona with results showing that if these skills and abilities are practiced consistently, they become part of a child’s repertoire for acting into his/her social worlds (K. Pearce, 2014, 2015, 2016)

CosmoKidz is a set of activities comprising 31 topic areas with each topic represented on a separate card. Each topic represents an aspect of a young child’s social world. There are also 31 supplemental sheets for each topic that involve a “left brain” and “right brain” activity. On the topic of Sharingfor example, the supplemental activity asks the child to draw a picture of him/her and a friend sharing and write a sentence that describes what the two of them are doing.

Most of the 31 topics in CosmoKidz were chosen by kids themselves. We asked a variety of children ranging from 5 to 9 years in age to tell us what they face in their lives that they find difficult and challenging. The scenarios on each of the 31 cards represent the topics that these children expressed to us (we added a few topics like taking care of the environment, showing love and kindness, and conscious breathing because we think they are important too). As we were developing the questions and activities, we also piloted these activities with a variety of children in different learning contexts, different socioeconomic levels, and in two different countries. Doing this demonstrated the value of the cards in helping children name a wide range of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, as well as ways that they can act with more awareness into difficult situations to help make a better outcome.

The 31 topics include issues like getting angry, making new friends, sharing, and bullying. Every card includes the following:

  • A topic (in the purple bubble on the left side of the card)
  • A scenario related to the topic, under the word “imagine”
  • An illustration of the scenario on the reverse side of the card
  • Questions to help children meaningfully explore the topic
  • Activities to help children act more productively into a similar future situation (Act a and Act b)

The questions are meant to help children explore and name their own feelings and experiences, to imagine how other children might think and feel (perspective taking), and to imagine and name how their actions might affect relationships with each other.

The card below on the topic of Making Quiet Time is an example of what the 31 cards look like:

 

 

We also developed the acronym SOAR and a SOAR song that children can sing and dance to (the song and video can be downloaded for free at www.cmminstitute.net). SOAR stands for: Sense what’s around you, Open your hands to help others, Act with kindness, Respect other people.

Additionally, the teachers in our research displayed a SOAR poster in the classroom as a visual to refer to throughout the school week and to remind the children to SOAR. Teachers or other adults can refer to SOAR by asking children if their words and actions are anexample of SOARing behaviour and, if they are not, what the children can do to SOAR.

There are also Cosmo puppets that adults can use to keep children involved in the daily conversations and activities of CosmoKidz. Each puppet has a happy face on one side and a sad face with tears on the other. The puppets can become an integral aspect of CosmoKidz conversations and can be used in many ways. One example is to use the puppets to engage the children in naming emotions and emotional states as they talk about the weekly topics. Some of the teachers who participated in the research in Arizona went further by creating names, personalities, and even accents for their puppets. Over time, the students develop a connection with the puppets which allow the puppets to say things to the students that are heard differently than if other students had said it.

In the example of the card Making Quiet Time, a teacher might be frustrated that his/her students are making too much noise. Instead of using the card to begin a conversation, the teacher might bring out the puppet with its sad face and tears and ask the puppet what’s wrong. The puppet can then tell the teacher and students that she is feeling sad because she can’t concentrate with all of the noise and she is afraid she won’t understand the class lesson. This becomes the way into a conversation using the card, Making Quiet Time. The teacher might also give a puppet to the children and ask them to coach the puppet on how to nicely ask her friends to be quiet.

The “how” of CosmoKidz is simple: teachers have brief but daily conversations about the topic of the week. The topics are chosen based on the needs of the class. For example, if a teacher is struggling with a noisy class, it makes sense to choose Making Quiet Time as the topic of the week. If the students seem to need more than one week on this topic, the teacher can continue to use the topic the following week…or to cycle back to the topic a month later when the children are beginning to act up again. If sharing seems to be an issue with the students, the topic of the week can be Making a Fight or Sharing. If there is a new child entering the class, the teacher might choose the topic Making New Friends to help the children think about how they can be a friend for the new student.

Conversations can be as brief as ten minutes. Consistency is more important than the length of time since the purpose of these conversations is to begin to “normalize” ways of talking and being together. Additionally, a teacher can point out SOARing behaviours throughout the day to reinforce the learning. Juan may be sitting quietly two hours after the class conversation on Making Quiet Time and the teacher can use Juan’s behaviour as a teachable moment by saying, “Juan, you’re SOARing by respecting other people as you sit quietly to wait for my instructions. Thank you!”

The CosmoKidz cards can be used any time throughout the day. One teacher may decide to have a conversation first thing in the morning to set a tone for the rest of the day. Another teacher may decide that the best time to use CosmoKiz cards is right after recess or lunch when the children need a brief transition before starting the next academic topic.The beauty of CosmoKidz is its flexibility. For example, in school, a teacher can choose when, where and how long to talk with his/her students about a topic. At home, a parent or caregiver can use the cards as a springboard for conversations about their child’s social world. Therapists can use the cards and puppets as a creative way to connect with the child’s experience of the world. Any context or situation that includes young children is a potential opportunity to use the topics of CosmoKidz.

The Daily Experiences of Life When CosmoKidz is Used

Below is a sampling from teachers, parents and children themselves about the differences using CosmoKidz has made (K. Pearce, 2016).

Teachers Comments

We asked kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade teachers in Arizona what differences they have noticed in their students’ behaviours due to the conversations using CosmoKidz. Here is a representative sampling of what the teachers observed:

“The use of CosmoKidz and SOAR directly influences the children’s behavior. They apply and reference what they learned during CosmoKidz. SOAR gives them a standard of behavior to model themselves and gives them expectations for other’s behaviors as well. The expectation is that you SOAR. SOAR gives the kids an outlet for expression. They can talk safely about how they feel when they are mad or jealous or left out. They describe in detail the colors, visuals, physical feelings of being angry or sad or frustrated- often with body movements. One student almost vibrated when describing how angry he gets- like a volcano ready to explode. These children are much more in tune with their feelings and the why behind their actions. CosmoKidz encourages critical thinking about scenarios in their lives that carry over into their interactions with each other, creating better relationships and behavior.”

First-Grade Teacher

One of the interesting, but not surprising, outcomes from the daily use of CosmoKidz is that is has affected the teachers’ awareness of their own behaviour. Example:

“This program has reminded me to listen better and try to read what other people might be thinking and if there might be some misunderstandings that I can help resolve. I’m slowing down a lot more. I watch more—our words are very powerful.”

Parents

When we asked parents to describe the differences they are noticing in their child’s behaviour at home, they said the following (this is a representative sample):

  • She is so much nicer to her little sister at home and has made a lot of new friends at school this year
  • He is working harder at class and at home
  • He is all around better behaved
  • She is offering a helping hand and thinking of others more
  • She has grown so much! What an amazing program
  • He talks to his sister about being a bully
  • She is able to express her feelings more and truly grasps bullying which is a steppingstone as we move through the higher grades
  • She got two of the same doll. She said, “let’s give this to someone”

We end this section with the voices of children themselves. A first-grade and second-grade student were asked how they SOARed during the week. The first-grader said, “I asked someone if they would like to play with me and she said yes.” The second-grader replied, “I helped my cousin up because he cut his knee. I asked him, are you ok?” These children can identify very specific behaviours that they are doing that demonstrate kindness and compassion for others.

One of the kindergarten classes had an assignment in which students had to identify what they like to do and then choose anything they wanted to be and what differences that would make. This is what one student said: “My name is A. and I like to play with my baby brother. If I were a CosmoKidz, I would open my hands to help others and respect other people and be friends with them and help them go to the nurse.

”We are so heartened by these examples from children themselves. These are the daily experiences that support the rationale for CosmoKidz as a leverage for generative change in a world that desperately needs it.

Final Thoughts

We end this article with brief reflections of what we have learned about the implementation of CosmoKidz in schools. Although we have learned many things, the most important learning is that using CosmoKidz makes a significant difference! Children as young as 4 years of age can talk about their social worlds with the help of an adult. Classroom environments improve and many of the children practice their skills at home and in other contexts.

Another learning is that the teachers value the flexibility in how and when CosmoKidz is used. We know of individual teachers who are using CosmoKidz on their own in their school and we know of entire schools whose kindergarten through second-grade classes are using CosmoKidz. Some teachers don’t use puppets and some use puppets so much that the puppets have become part of the classroom culture. Some teachers don’t send the CosmoKidz supplemental topic sheets home to involve parents. Other schools see the value of parental involvement and have gone as far as having “parents and pizza” nights and weekly newsletters that feature the “Cosmo Student” of the week to enlarge the “system” of which the child is a part. Some schools have decided to make their own “CosmoKidz tee-shirts” for the children. Schools have developed their own twist on the CosmoKidz song, the latest being a wonderful rap song. And a variety of classes have enlisted the children in developing their own choreography and dance moves.

Lastly, because our orientation is systemic and social constructionist, we believe that the wider the system and broader the buy-in for these kinds of conversations, the better. Entire grades make a wider impact on children and school cultures than single classes; parental involvement helps bridge the classroom/home divide; administration and staff support help create a school-wide culture at the lower grade levels. Having said that, we also know that change happens one conversation at a time. So, any conversation with a young child about his/her social world has the potential to make a difference for that child in that moment. Therefore, let us endeavor to help a new generation of young children, individually and collectively, grow into socially and emotionally competent, loving, and compassionate human beings.

References:

Pearce, B. (1989). Communication and the human condition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Pearce, K. (2014).Reflections of CosmoKidz from kindergarten through second-grade classes at Mountain Vista school in Oracle, Arizona. Retrieved from http://cmminstitute.net/sites/default/files/documents/Research%20on%20the%20effectiveness%20of%20CosmoKidz.pdf

Pearce, K. (2015). Summary of the use of CosmoKidz in kindergarten through second grade classes. Retrieved from http://cmminstitute.net/sites/default/files/documents/2015%20Final%20Report%20CosmoKidz.pdf

Pearce, K. (2016). The use of CosmoKidz in k-12 classes in Oracle, Arizona to help children develop social skills needed for effective citizenship. Retrieved from http://cmminstitute.net/sites/default/files/documents/2015%20Final%20Report%20CosmoKidz.pdf

Siegel, D. and Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child. New York: Delacorte Press

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