Head of School

Head of School

Helping Students When They Struggle Build a Growth Mindset

Associate Head of School Leigh Doherty is leading a book (Mindset by Carol Dweck) discussion group with many faculty members, and I thought this would be an interesting and informative article to share with everyone.

Veteran researchers present five strategies—like maintaining success files and allowing choice—to help students develop a positive attitude needed for success.  (by Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, January 18, 2017)

As researchers and teacher educators, we have found that a gift many effective educators give struggling students is a practical and optimistic mindset coupled with strategies that help them learn successfully. Over the last two decades, we have supported teachers in teaching students about their brilliant brains and in showing students strategies to support positive outlooks about their learning capabilities.

Our research aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, or acting on the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In a previous post, we discussed the importance of growth mindset for teachers.

Now we turn to the benefits of helping students who find school difficult at times maintain a positive mindset as they persist in the sometimes hard work required for learning. When failures mount, it’s easy to give up. A positive mindset focuses on the gains that are possible when students persevere through learning challenges. Here are five strategies (for teachers and parents) to help struggling students develop a growth mindset.

Encouraging Optimism About Learning

This outlook helps students become more motivated, alert, and ready to learn, so that neurotransmitters that enable learning can be released. Many students who face challenges become pessimistic about subjects and/or school and lose hope that they can make academic progress. These teaching strategies help reinforce how useful it can be to develop a state of practical optimism:

  • Model practical optimism and point out examples of this approach in action; for example, say, “We knew this would be a tough project, but we stuck with it and worked hard. Just look at what we’ve accomplished!”
  • Share examples of how you have overcome learning obstacles. It’s helpful for struggling students to realize that everyone occasionally faces learning challenges.
  • Share stories that illustrate the benefits of practical optimism.
  • Maintain a positive learning atmosphere by posing questions such as “What was the best thing that happened today?”

Teaching Students to Learn More Effectively

When students learn how to “drive their brains” through the use of cognitive strategies, they’re more likely to be able to learn and think at higher levels. Teachers often tell us they need strategies for helping students learn how to increase their attention. Our post “Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention” offers tried-and-true strategies to support teachers with this common classroom issue. And Edutopia’s “Resources on Learning and the Brain” features other easy-to-use strategies for assisting students to learn more effectively.

Maintaining Success Files

A success file is a continually updated collection that provides ready evidence to help students internalize and remember their learning successes. Here is one way to use this strategy:

  • Give every student a folder to use as a success file.
  • Ask students to write the word successon their file and/or draw a picture that represents success for them.
  • Every day, when possible, ask students to add to their folders examples of successful learning, such as tasks completed, examples of learning gains, and assignments that support their personal definitions of success.
  • At the start of each school day or class, remind students to look through their success file. The more students can reconnect to their previous achievements, the more positive their mindsets can become and the more successful they’ll be in the long run.

Using Growth Assessments

Growth assessments is the term we use for formative assessments that help guide student learning and monitor progress. Students with challenges benefit when teachers check in often and provide additional instruction and feedback when necessary. Growth assessments help students identify their strengths and areas of weakness that need further practice and reinforcement, and may include class discussions, interviews with individual students, consultations on drafts of work, and observations of how students are applying what they’ve learned. Students may use self-assessments such as journal entries and personal checklists so they can be prompted to monitor their progress. Keeping track of their growth, including learning challenges they have overcome, helps to foster a growth mindset.

Letting Students Choose

When students can choose topics of personal interest to study or make the subject of a learning project, they are more likely to maintain interest and motivation. Giving students choices also underscores that they are in charge of their learning.

One of the greatest thrills for teachers is to see the light bulb switch on for students as they learn something new and internalize the belief that through effort and the use of sound strategies they can keep growing their skills and knowledge.


By | February 15th, 2017|Categories: Head of School|

Ninth Grade: The Power of the Culminating Year at Berkshire Country Day School

The wonderful opportunity to be “a senior twice and never a freshman” is one available at a select number of schools across the country. As one of those schools, Berkshire Country Day intentionally created a 9th grade experience and program that allows children to enjoy and benefit from an inspiring, culminating year of accelerated learning, increased confidence, and greater social and self-awareness.

The faculty remains deeply committed to the 9th grade and the unique opportunity this one year offers students to realize success as individuals, learners, leaders, and friends.  Our 9th graders really do experience the power of a Berkshire Country Day education at its fullest— they increase their independence and deepen their collaboration skills at the 9th grade class retreat; challenge themselves with advanced, independent secondary school level classes in English, Mathematics, Science, History, World Languages, and Latin; immerse themselves in our vibrant studio arts program with preferred placement in Arts Block Electives; explore a variety of leadership opportunities as mentors and role models across campus, on teams, and in ensemble experiences; and participate in a signature, multi-disciplinary, and culminating trip to Paris and Barcelona in the spring.

New research and study of the brain by Dr. Kurt W. Fischer, Professor of Human Development & Psychology and Director of the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education points to predictable years of brain expansion and powerful learning – 1st grade, 6th grade, and 9th grade. All too often, however, 9th graders find themselves caught up in, and under-recognized, during the “freshman shuffle,” those first few months of the year when high schools focus on orientation, getting to know their students, and designing classes with an eye on general preparation for all.  During this critical year of brain development, independence, and increased self-awareness, Berkshire Country Day School students experience advanced classes taught by the teachers that truly know them well.  Instead of becoming overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) by the transition to high school—academically as well as socially—they do not miss out on tremendous opportunities for personal growth and learning.  Thanks to our outstanding program and talented teachers, our graduating 9th graders go on to have joyful, well-adjusted, and distinguished careers in their secondary schools, colleges, and lives, in no small part due to the confidence and abilities that they gain during this culminating year in a community that knows, challenges, and supports them so well during a crucial time in their young lives.

One of the key benefits of our 9th grade experience is the comprehensive support we provide as families plan for the transition to high school. Given how well we know our students and their families, we are able to take a highly personalized approach as we help 9th graders move on to places like
Berkshire School, Monument Mountain High School, Miss Hall’s School, Hotchkiss, Northfield Mount Hermon, Concord Academy, Darrow School, Emma Willard, Loomis Chafee, Millbrook School, Middlesex, Milton Academy, Pittsfield High School, Putney School, Williston Northampton School, and more.  What do all of these selective secondary school and area high schools all have in common?  They all want students from Berkshire Country Day School to enroll and contribute to the quality of their educational environment and community next year.

We regularly hear how BCD alums are flourishing and meaningfully contributing at their next schools.  The following example speaks for itself.  “He was a leader in classroom discussions, offering insight and humor often.  His senior project presentation was extraordinary, and the work he completed was magnificent.  He was a formal and informal leader on campus, too, serving as a dorm leader and prefect and tremendous role-model for our youngest students on campus.  We credit his efforts as an integral part in the progress each of those students made this year.  A key leader in our largest on-campus fundraiser, he remained a committed varsity athlete, where his coaches noted his dedication and steady play. 

In his three years at our school, he grew in confidence and expertise in the classroom, followed his passions in a variety of interesting and challenging ways, and left his mark on our community in ways that will last for some time to come.  He truly embodies our goal of finding one’s best self, and we are certain that he will continue to amaze us as he moves on to college next year.  He will be missed!”


As one parent put it recently, “high school is inevitable, however, the 9th grade year at Berkshire Country Day is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be missed.”

By | February 14th, 2017|Categories: Head of School, Uncategorized|

Want honest kids? Commend them for telling the truth when they do something wrong.

Children know lying is wrong from a young age, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it. Most parents (myself included) wonder how to encourage kids to tell the truth, whether it be about a broken lamp or a missed homework assignment.

A new study suggests that parental behavior can help steer children to tell the truth. In work published online this month in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers found that children who anticipate a positive reaction from their parents after a confession are more likely to come forward, even if they might be punished.

“A parent who stays calm in the moment — listening to their kid and expressing pleasure their child has been honest — is more likely to have that happen again,” says study author Craig Smith of the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development. The findings support past research that has shown celebrating honesty as a virtue encourages kids to be more truthful.

Smith, along with coauthor Michael Rizzo at the University of Maryland, invited a small group of 4- to 9-year-olds to listen to stories about children committing misdeeds. In each story, a fictional child does some bad deed, such as stealing candy from a friend, then subsequently lies or confesses about it. Each participant heard the same stories.

During each story, the researchers asked the children about what the characters were feeling: Did the protagonist feel good after he stole the candy? How did he feel when he lied about it? Or confessed?

On average, the 4- to 5-year-olds associated positive feelings with lying, and expected that confessing would lead to bad feelings. The older children, however, had the opposite reaction: 7- to 9-year-olds associated positive feelings with confession. Those differences were expected, says Smith, as older children typically think about situations in more complex ways than their younger counterparts, such as understanding that a person can feel simultaneously happy to have candy, but guilty for taking it.

The psychologists also asked the children’s parents to fill out a survey about lying and confession behavior at home. Interestingly, children who were more likely to expect a fictional adult would feel happy about a child’s confession — even if the adult was also angry about the child’s misdeed — were also more likely to confess at home in real life. This trend held true regardless of the child’s age.

To encourage kids to fess up in the future, forget threatening punishment. Instead, parents should focus on trying to not get angry immediately after a confession, says Smith. “You can say, “I’m not always happy with what you do, but telling the truth is important, and I’m happy you told me what happened.’”


By | February 8th, 2017|Categories: Head of School|

Did you know that:


the Seventh Grade will be traveling to Washington, D.C. on a combined art and history trip this March?  Their itinerary includes stops at the Baltimore Aquarium, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Visionary Art Museum, The National Gallery, Capitol Hill, National Holocaust Museum, Mt. Vernon, and Gettysburg Battlefield.

everthe Eighth Grade will be traveling to the Florida Everglades in March?  The class will experience and study this fragile and endangered ecological system as an extension of their environmental science curriculum and individual research.

paristhe Ninth Grade will travel to France and Spain as a culmination of their study of French, Spanish, and the Humanities in March? It is an immersion experience and one for which our students participate fully in its academic design. As a result of integrated work throughout the year, the students become the primary tour guides; each presenting on historical sites and museums and all in the target language.

Berkshire Country Day School’s distinctive, curriculum-based educational travel programs take our students beyond the Berkshires and Columbia County.  Students and faculty members venture out into the world to extend their academic experiences. Augmenting the classroom curriculum, and led by our talented teachers, these travel programs are designed to provide rare and relevant experiences that strengthen independence, build community, and culminate programs of study.

By | February 6th, 2017|Categories: Head of School|

Why Spatial Reasoning Is Crucial For Early Math Education

I received this article after an inspiring visit to our First and Second Grade classroom.  Perfect!

blocksby Katrina Schwartz

When Nicole Thomson first heard about the importance of teaching spatial reasoning and geometry in her kindergarten math curriculum she had already been teaching for several years. Her teacher training program hadn’t mentioned these skills, and yet at a professional development session for math teachers a group of researchers from the University of Toronto explained the large body of research that ties spatial reasoning skills to future success in math and reading. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommends that spatial reasoning should be a large focus of preK – 8th grade math education.

“At first we had no idea what it meant,” Thomson said, but as the researchers explained cognitive science studies showing the power of spatial reasoning in the early grades they were gradually convinced that it was worth trying. Early elementary teachers like Thomson in select Rainy River District schools began using Math For Young Children lessons designed by the researchers.

m4yc-800x450The lessons focus on specific spatial reasoning skills like mental rotation, visual spatial reasoning, and spatial vocabulary all done in a playful, exploratory style that is developmentally appropriate for students ages four to eight.

“On day one of our professional development, we would work with kids and directly show how these ideas play out in classrooms or with kids,” said Zachary Hawes, a doctoral candidate in the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario. He is one of the primary researchers on the Math For Young Children project along with Joan Moss and Bev Caswell. Including students in the professional development trainings gave teachers a chance to see the lessons in action and helped them imagine how they could bring them back to their classrooms.

“We would take those lessons and games and think about what else we could do with these. How could we extend it, what could we try?” Thomson said. She and her colleagues would take the lessons researchers developed in a lab and try them out in their classrooms, returning to the next professional learning session with feedback and examples of how they’d modified or extended activities.

“Everything is supposed to be exploratory and it comes from the kids,” Thomson said. She noted they particularly love pattern blocks, which are like puzzles to them and tend to calm them down. She doesn’t ever lecture her students on how to use the spatial reasoning tools, but rather sets kids a challenge and lets them figure out how to put the blocks together. Often she’ll lead them in one group activity and then leave the materials out around the room so kids can play with them during free time as well.

You can read the full article here.



By | February 1st, 2017|Categories: Head of School, Uncategorized|

All They Really Need To Know, They Learn In BCD’s Kindergarten


One of the joys of my job is that I get to experience and witness the quality of our talented teachers and program in action at BCD.  I especially enjoy my daily walks through our classrooms, and I always try to chart a developmental course – from Preschool through the oldest grades.

apOften I arrive in Kindergarten while Andrea Patel is leading “morning meeting,” a cornerstone of each day in her classroom and guided by her deep experience with, and commitment to, the Responsive Classroom approach.  In morning meeting, everyone gathers in a circle for twenty to thirty minutes at the beginning of each school day and proceeds through four sequential components: greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message.  It is here that our students learn how to build a safe learning community, to assert themselves, to become keen listeners, to join in collaborative work, and to engage in meaningful discussion about their world, learning, and the day ahead.

The Responsive Classroom approach is informed by the work of educational theorists and the experiences of exemplary classroom teachers. Several principles guide this approach, including:

  • The social and emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.bfly
  • How children learn is as important as what they learn.
  • Great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.
  • To be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
  • Knowing the children we teach—individually, culturally, and developmentally—is as important as knowing the content we teach.
  • Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children we teach.

peaceful-worldIndependent research has found that the Responsive Classroom approach is associated with higher academic achievement, improved teacher-student interactions, and higher quality instruction. It makes sense, right?  Everyone learns better in a safe learning environment where the teacher holds the guiding principles of the Responsive Classroom approach as truths.  Everyone feels supported in developing their uniqueness and special promise in an environment founded on mutual respect; where they feel known and understood; where care for and a concern for one another are norms; and when speaking up, participating, and taking risks are encouraged.



By Robert Fulghum

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school. These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.


By | January 26th, 2017|Categories: Head of School, Uncategorized|