A new strategy for helping children develop self-regulation is catching on in the Sauk Prairie School District.
The Nurtured Heart Approach is an early intervention technique first developed in 1992 by Howard Glasser. According to Heather Reader, behavior program coordinator at Bridges Elementary School, Nurtured Heart is now making an impact in classrooms as more students are coming to school needing help developing socioemotional skills.
“We want our children to be happy all of the time,” Reader said. “More often we see kids coming to school lacking this ability to navigate delayed gratification; that coping mechanism. At school, there might be 22 kids in a classroom and they are not always going to get what they want at the moment they want it. They’ve never had to sit with yuck feelings and just let it wash over them and learn to carry on.”
Kelly Petrowski, principal at Tower Rock Elementary School, said something she read on a sign really hit home for her.
“It said when students don’t know how to add, we teach them math,” she said. “When they don’t know how to read, we teach them English. But when they don’t know how to behave, we punish them? We need to teach them how to manage their emotions so they can access education. Teach them what’s expected.”
Reader said this increased need for self-regulation stems in part to technology and how busy families have become.
“Technology is making it difficult for kids to manage their emotions,” Reader said. “Families are busier than they have ever been. There’s more stress. So it can be an easy fix for a kid who is whiny—we give them an iPad, a phone or something to calm them or keep them busy.”
Chanda Kulow, principal at Bridges Elementary, said Nurtured Heart is an approach that can help kids regulate their emotion or behavior without using technology. “It teaches them to just breathe and be in the moment,” Kulow said. “It’s an approach that is ingrained in everything we do. It’s about finding the good in students or in adults. It’s about being in the moment and minimizing the negative things.”
Petrowski said all students crave attention, especially when noticed and highlighted with adult interaction.
“So often we react to negative behaviors,” Petrowski said. “Nurtured Heart tries to flip that narrative by giving attention to positive behavior, so it’s building a habit of behaving.”
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, social and emotional learning is how people learn and apply knowledge, attitudes, and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
Reader said Nurtured Heart is built on three stands: absolutely no, absolutely yes, and absolutely clear.
Absolutely no discourages giving attention to negative behavior. Absolutely yes encourages giving attention to positive behavior. And absolutely clear says to give clear and consistent consequences for undesired behavior.
“It’s about giving them the goods,” Reader said. “It’s not just, hey, good job... It’s telling them what they did right in real, meaty ways so they are not only getting my energy but they know exactly why they are shining in that moment.”
Reader said kids can be more successful if you think of it like a game.
“If the rules are clear, then they can play the game really well,” she said. “The rules are consistent for everybody.”
“But if the rules of the game are changed, they are not going to play well,” Kulow said. “Because they don’t know the rules.”
Reader said the approach gives kids positive feedback.
“‘I see you getting your shoes on, and that’s exactly what I need from you,” Reader said. “It shows me you are ready to go. But if everyone is in a hurry, it’s a lot easier just to say, ‘Hurry up, I told you we have to leave.’”
Use of the approach in classrooms throughout the Sauk Prairie School District is growing; more than 50 of the district’s teaching staff has gone through the training. Some other Wisconsin School Districts have implemented Nurtured Heart K-12.
“I love that it’s catching fire here,” Reader said. She will be offering a Nurtured Heart presentation to district families likely in February.
“It’s a foundation, not a behavior modification,” Reader stressed. “It’s trying this approach as a human experience. And I think it’s going to pay in dividends.”