Nothing stops Mike Erwin. A native of Syracuse, N.Y., he enlisted and served in the Army for three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s athletically fit — an endurance runner who’s finished 12 ultra-marathons — and mentally sharp — once a graduate student in psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who later taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He founded Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit consisting of 96,500 members in 178 chapters worldwide that enrich veterans’ lives by connecting them to their community through physical activity.
Lately, Erwin has focused on a very unique area than his military pedigree would suggest, but it’s one he believes is vital to the country’s future: How do you teach a second-grader about leadership?
It’s a question Erwin and several elementary school teachers in upstate New York have been contemplating over the past year as part of his latest venture, The Positivity Project. Originally sparked at a discussion group at West Point and later available only as a Facebook page, The Positivity Project now aims to be the defining curriculum for character education in America’s grade schools. (Talks are underway to see it in more than 20 schools across the country by next year.) Amid all the intense pressure to score highly on standardized tests and meet Common Core standards, Erwin is focusing on how public education can mold better citizens.
“I think a lot of people are scared right now. They see the levels of divisiveness. Just read the comments on Facebook threads on an article, they’re angry and negative,” Erwin says. “A lot of parents are looking at that and seeing we have got to create a better society for our children and how they interact with each other.”
Rooted in the concepts of positive psychology — a rigorous, if somewhat new, field of inquiry examining the conditions for happiness — Erwin and the teachers at Morgan Road Elementary School in the Liverpool, N.Y., school district are developing lesson plans based on the two dozen different character strengths at the core of the field, concepts like creativity, love, bravery, teamwork and forgiveness. For 10 to 15 minutes a day, four days a week, the teachings are a simple way to spark discussion in the classroom, a dialogue that’s continued outside of the school grounds via The Positivity Project’s savvy use of social media.
So how does The Positivity Project teach character? The short answer, the teachers say, is a subtle distinction in instruction: Don’t tell kids about behaviors — what they should be doing — and help them realize how their actions affect other people and their own identity — the why behind the behavior. That’s because, when it comes to character, a child is more likely to be respectful if he’s given models of courteous individuals (real or fictional) than if a teacher barks, “Be polite!”
At least that’s how second-grade teacher Amy Figger feels. Before The Positivity Project reinvigorated the school’s strategy for character education, several teachers had dropped it from their day, unwilling to sacrifice 15 minutes that could be used for test-prep skills, she says. But Figger never wavered. “This isn’t about elementary school; this is about something lifelong,” she says.
In her Morgan Road classroom, where she team-teaches 46 students with her colleague Marc Herron, another Positivity Project proponent, she says the focus on 24 character strengths gives them a way to pinpoint unique qualities in each 7-year-old student. “To be a leader, you have these strengths inside of you. Tap into them. And if something’s not your strength, surround yourself with other people to get something done,” Figger says. “You’re not teaching or telling, we’re saying you already have this inside of you. You only need to recognize it.”
Herron notes that character lessons can also help to create a conducive learning environment. Character strengths like curiosity come up in science lessons, and perseverance is noted after hard math problems. With the same lessons taught throughout the school, there’s a stronger sense of community. “We have a common language to use,” Herron says. Sometimes, the character strengths even make their way into faculty meetings, as the educators discuss a student’s progress or their own educational challenges.
Outside Morgan Road Elementary, clinical research seems to give credence to the effect of The Positivity Project on student behavior. Christopher J. Bryan, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, concluded that kids between three and six years old were up to 29 percent more likely to assist with a task when they were asked to “be a helper,” compared to children who were asked simply “to help.” Same went for cheating, which was reduced by half when youngsters were told, “Please don’t be a cheater,” compared to the other group, told, “Please don’t cheat.” (Younger children learn more from nouns than verbs.)
A similar study by Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler, psychologists at the University of Toronto, found that praise was better reinforced when it was tied to a fuller sense of self, rather than an isolated behavior. In an experiment, after giving marbles to other children, some kids were told “it was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” Others heard: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” When researchers returned weeks later and gave the children another chance to share, those in the latter group was more generous because they felt their actions were essential to being a “nice and helpful person.”
Taken as a whole, the findings suggest that positive reinforcement is not just working Pavlovian tricks on kids. Instead, as soon as children begin to recognize their actions are intrinsically related to who they are, they begin to act with a clearer moral compass.
Erwin steeped himself in this research as a graduate student at the University of Michigan under one of positive psychology’s co-founders, Dr. Chris Peterson, the co-author (along with Martin Seligman) of the influential text “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.” As a professor at West Point teaching about leadership, Erwin took heart in Peterson’s fundamental idea, “other people matter,” and invited him to speak to his students. But three weeks before the engagement, Peterson died of a heart attack.
Erwin grappled with how to memorialize Peterson’s legacy as he got Team Red, White & Blue — a organization Peterson inspired Erwin to create — up and running, On the side, he started a Facebook page that collected inspirational quotes on character strengths, drawing from the archives of Peterson’s research into how these ideals persisted back to ancient times: Plato, Aristotle, Sun Tsu and Lao Tsu. In March 2015, Herron, an old buddy, reached out to Erwin about the social media account, telling Erwin he loved sharing the quotes with his second graders. After more conversation about how the ideas could translate for young, The Positivity Project began.
Fitting with the times, Erwin’s curriculum has a special focus on technology and social media. Each classroom has a Twitter feed, where the teacher posts quotes that reinforce discussion and model good behavior online. Erwin concedes this focus is also a convenient marketing tool, spreading The Positivity Project’s message across the Internet. But his intentions are deeper. “We’re not very mature in how we [as a society] use our social media and technology. All this change has been thrust upon us so rapidly,” he says. “We need to make sure that we’re talking to our kids about being good people and about their strengths. Before you hit send on something or repost something or text something, okay, am I stopping to think what this is going to do to somebody?”
It all goes back to Peterson’s original message: Have I remembered that other people matter?