Habits help students to take on the world

Take a stroll down Balance Boulevard, across the Bridge of Understanding, through to Plan Place before making your way to Habit Hollow where students of St Brigid’s Catholic School can ponder The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People under the sprawling boughs of a painted gum.

In four years principal Jennie Werakso and her team have transformed the small Catholic school at Gwynneville to embrace motivational author Stephen Covey’s seven habits – made popular over the past 24 years because of their simplicity and common sense approach to life.

Covey’s book sold 25 million copies worldwide and was on the bestseller list for five years. In 2008 he followed it up with the release of The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents Around the World are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.

The aim says Werakso, who has implemented Covey’s habits into all aspects of school life, is to give each student the skills needed to be the best person they can be.

The Habits are already making changes  and will hopefully remain with each child as they grow into adulthood and go out into the world to be great people and great leaders, regardless of their academic achievements.

A few years ago the school, with its red bricks and concrete walls, looked like any other. Now there are reminders of the habits or leadership quotes at every turn. Werakso says it helps  for children to have something tangible – a gentle nudge of encouragement to make positive choices for themselves and their peers.

‘‘Integrity is doing the right thing – even if nobody is watching’’, reads one sign, and ‘‘Think win win – search for solutions that will make you happy and make other people happy’’. 

On the door of one classroom in big bold letters is written: ‘‘In year 4 we can all find the winner within’’.

St Brigid’s was one of the first schools in Australia to embrace The Leader in Me program in 2009, followed by St Michael’s Catholic School in Thirroul two years later. They are the only schools in the Illawarra and two of only 20 nationally.

‘‘Our students will grow up to be global citizens and global leaders,’’ says Werakso. ‘‘They will become people of really strong character and integrity, with good interpersonal skills focused on doing the right things for themselves, others and the world around them. They will make a difference in this world.’’

The Habits can be adapted to fit any school, of any religion or denomination.

St Michael’s principal Danny Sykes says it’s vital that each school develops its own approach to Covey’s model. For St Michael’s that has meant making changes to ensure it was distinctively Australian and also that it remained true to the school’s history.

‘‘At the centre of our school is a white cedar tree that was planted in 1940 by the sisters of St Joseph,’’ says Sykes. ‘‘We chose to use that tree as our motif because we wanted to be respectful and appreciative of those people who had worked so hard for our school in the past, but also because we wanted to look forward and prepare the children for living in the 21st century.’’

The motif has seven creatures living in the tree, each one corresponding to a relevant habit, including a possum and cockatoo. Already two years into the program the school is now at the stage of adapting its environment visually in what Sykes explains will be a  whole school approach.

At the front of the school he plans to use a 7 Habits motto ‘‘Great Happens Here’’.

‘‘It’s a strong message that we want to send to the community that our school is making a real difference,’’ he says.

At St Brigid’s there has already been positive, measurable change. Students report that there is much less bullying in the playground and academically the school’s NAPLAN results, which were strong to begin with, have also improved. Werakso explains this is because the habits teach students to have a plan and to take responsibility for their own learning.

‘‘You can provide as much money for programs and resources as you can want, but unless  students are willing to take responsibility for their learning and their behaviour nothing much is going to change,’’ she says. ‘‘So there’s a big focus on being proactive and making the right choices. Each child has specific learning goals which they write down in their data notebooks. In year one it might be as simple as remembering to put full stops at the end of sentences, which sounds simple, but if that’s what they need then that will be their learning goal for the next three weeks. The important thing is that each child has  a plan and they set out to achieve it.’’

Behaviour can be tracked in the same way by colouring in goals in their notebook at the end of each day – green means they’re on track, red means they’ve been involved in a major incident or meltdown.

‘‘They are still only little,’’ says Werakso. ‘‘They are still learning and our role is to help them. But our students are much more aware of each other’s feelings now. They stop and think, they know that they have to look after themselves and each other. That they have to work together. They are proactive in coming up with their own solutions.’’

The win win square in the playground is one way students can negotiate positive outcomes. If there’s conflict students are encouraged to stand in the squares until they have worked out a win win approach – with both students hopefully ending up in the same square.

‘‘We tell students that it’s OK to be competitive, that it has a place in life, but generally in everyday life it’s about stopping and knowing that everyone has different opinions about things,’’ says Werakso. 

‘‘We also want to encourage them to have a mentality of abundance. That there’s enough out there for everyone. That they can feel happy for those who do succeed.’’

To further inspire students along the path to greatness, on the walls of what was once a barren stairwell are four paintings of national and international leaders including Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Each day as they make their way to class students look into the faces of those great people and will hopefully one day see themselves also achieving great things – be it on a small or large scale.

Sykes plans to create a similar environment at St Michael’s in line with the school’s own vision and mission statement.

‘‘It’s about bringing leadership qualities out in every single child in the school,’’ he says. ‘‘A student might struggle academically but it’s important that we change our concept, that we recognise that there’s more in life than academic success. That we all have strengths and talents. That we make each child feel valued and that we give them equal attention in terms of developing their full potential so they can all go on to be strong leaders. This also gives them the self confidence in developing their abilities and improving other areas which may need improving by being organised and setting goals for themselves. This will help them achieve their personal best.’’ 

It’s not just the students and teachers who learn  The Leader in Me, but parents too are urged to continue using the language of the 7 Habits at home.

‘‘It’s a common language that we can all use,’’ says Sykes. ‘‘We want to make sure we are good role models for our students.’’ 

Covey, who died last year at the age of 79,  once likened the 7 Habits to gravity – calling them  ‘‘knowledge of natural laws’’.

For Werakso Covey’s habits have been tried and tested over two decades and are not just  another education model that will one day gather dust on a shelf in her office.

‘‘We will never be finished with the habits,’’ she says. 

‘‘This is very much a journey and that’s the beauty of it because it’s sustainable. It will change according to the needs of the time. It’s not dependent on me being here as the principal. It’s part of the school culture now and it will always be a focus at our school.’’

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