Leaning on Habits of Mind in Times of Fear and Uncertainty


By Dr. Nick Bruski

“The Easter Bunny came! He took a responsible risk!” (heard from a 3rd grade student)

The Institute for the Habits of Mind has a vision, “To create a more thoughtful, cooperative, compassionate generation of people who skillfully work to resolve social, environmental, economic and political problems.” Just over two years ago the Montecito community was faced with disaster as the combination of the Thomas Fire and Debris flow devastated our community and forced us to build a remote school from scratch without access to our physical building and community. With a strong foundation in the Habits of Mind, our community learned countless lessons that we hope will help usher us through the new challenges our planet is now facing. As we are asked to stay home, socially distance, and go to school remotely, there is no better time to embrace the Habits of Mind vision. Our world is full of new social, environmental and political problems for our children, families, schools, and communities to solve. More than ever we need a thoughtful, cooperative and compassionate society to get us through this time.

Thinking Flexibly

Does the stay-at-home order affect the Easter Bunny? Is it “essential” to venture out for candy and cheap toys to stuff Easter baskets with in order to provide our kids with some sense of normalcy? We are facing countless decisions on a daily basis that we are not used to answering and are often forced to find creative solutions by thinking flexibly. Adults are running laps in their backyards for exercise and “zooming” happy hours to connect socially. Children are having drive-by birthday parties, are going to school virtually, and trying to figure out how strict their new “homeschool teachers” are going to be. After finishing our third week of distance learning we are now on school@home plan3.0. We’ve tried things that have worked fantastically and things have failed miserably! Our community’s ten years of work with the Habits of Mind has been critical in supporting these evolutions, as our students, families and teachers have worked to embrace thinking flexibly. They are used to meeting change and challenges optimistically and have shown our school grace and patience as we tweak our learning, technology and expectations each week.

I encourage families (and teachers) to be explicit in naming these opportunities for children to practice being flexible. The framework of the Habits of Mind will bring familiarity to this unknown time by providing specific tools for children to lean on. When they are frustrated because they cannot play with their friends, ask them to think flexibly about other ways to connect and communicate with them. When they are bored at home, ask them to think flexibly about new ways to use old toys. Can they use their imagination by building forts or creating new games and challenges around the house (and you can even remind them about creating, imagining, and innovating!). Any time a child is frustrated with an effect this pandemic is having on them, ask them to think flexibly about the situation to find alternative solutions. They may roll their eyes at first, but when used consistently they will develop the habit of thinking flexibly and find ways to adapt to the new normal.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

As everything is new and there is so much to adapt to, it is critical that we all work to think and communicate with clarity and precision. One of our school’s biggest current challenges is communicating expectations and schedules to students and families. Is this remote learning required? Will there be grades? What do I do if I need help? Technology has made communicating easier than ever but it can overwhelm the receiver with too much communication. Our school and staff were inundated with well intentioned offers for free virtual tours and field trips, online subscriptions and links to thousands of learning resources. We compiled list after list and shared them with families only to find that this caused more stress! Families were overwhelmed with the choices and did not know where to start. During times of anxiety and fear, less is more. Teachers and administrators must thoughtfully plan how many emails are being sent and how often. Websites need to be updated and streamlined. As parents balance working from home, supporting their children’s learning, managing a household when toilet paper is nearly impossible to find, and worrying about the health of loved ones, they do not have the time to wade through mountains of resources and emails. Keep your communication clear and precise!

Listening with Understanding and Empathy

In order to develop a thoughtful, cooperative and compassionate community, we must listen with understanding and empathy. As all of this is so new to everyone, we have to slow down and understand how everyone is feeling. How are families finding the workload and ease of navigating the technology? Is the amount of teaching and preparation required of teachers reasonable and sustainable? What is it like to teach with young ones at home? We surveyed our families shortly after implementing our remote learning plan and received incredible feedback that helped us adjust our course and serve our students even better. We’ve also had regular check-ins and surveys of staff to understand and empathize with what we are asking of them. Both groups have helped create even more effective and meaningful learning experiences.

Responding with Wonderment and Awe

As news cycles and headlines might cause some to feel fear and despair, this is also an incredibly important time to practice responding with wonderment and awe. It is easy to focus on the negative in times of fear and anxiety. In our regular busy lives it is also not surprising that we do not slow down and appreciate the little things as much as we should. A colleague I greatly respect challenged me to reframe this situation as an opportunity. How can we learn to be even better educators through this new challenge? What joys can we find in our simpler daily lives by connecting even more closely with family and reaching out to friends in new and different ways? When you wake up each morning, do you talk yourself through a list of what is going to be hard about the day, or do you seek opportunities to respond with wonderment and awe to the simpler things in life? Take time to share the positive stories from news and social media with your children. Who are those going out of their way to do extraordinary things in service to others? Respond with wonderment and awe to the good in the world and we will send our children strong messages of hope and kindness.
I encourage families to lean on the Habits of Mind and explicitly use the language of the Habits with their children during times of fear and anxiety. This language and framework empowers children (and adults) by providing tools to make sense of the unknown. Our modern world has never seen such a dramatic shift in daily life in such a short amount of time and life continues to change on a daily basis. The Habits of Mind serve as a consistent foundation that allows us to approach these times with confidence and optimism.


Dr. Nick Bruski has served in various positions in education including classroom teaching, coaching, administration, training, writing, and higher education. His diverse work experience includes teaching in inner-city Los Angeles, serving as a principal in both high-poverty and high-affluence communities, extensive training of school administrators in the areas of culture, data, and teacher evaluation, and lecturing on leadership in UCLA’s Ed.D. program.

Read more posts by Dr. Nick Bruski.



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