Authentic Maturity

Yesterday, I blogged about schools in Finland and how they seem to be able to engage their students so much better than we do in the U.S. The students appear to enjoy the learning process, often do work with little or no adult supervision, and score higher in comparable tests in other nations. Teachers say the students are:

  • Engaged
  • Happy
  • Curious
  • Genuinely learning

Regardless of whether you’re an educator, coach, youth director or youth pastor, you gotta love this. So what’s the big secret?

Better, more frequent recess time.

Schools in Finland see it as key to the educational process, not a distraction from the process. They take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction time. During a typical break, students head outside to play around, socialize with friends or remain inside for time to connect and decompress. During that time, teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee.

I know. It seems soft. What a bunch of lazy slackers, right?

Hmmm. Nope. They actually do better than we do academically. In the U.S. we often pride ourselves in several hours of rigorous classroom time, believing kids learn better with longer stretches of instructional time. If you look at the numbers, however, you see our system isn’t as effective. Our “system” has pushed teachers to spend more hours, not less, with the students, thinking more hours will help us catch up and produce better kids. But does it?

I recall my days in class — wishing for a break after 45 minutes, and I was a good student. After an hour, feet are dragging, attention spans have slipped, and brains need a short break. Science even tells us this…but science class doesn’t practice it. In fact, come to think of it, longer stretches only work on paper. They don’t produce the results we’re after — even if it appears “soft” or undisciplined.

The Facts About This Groundbreaking Discovery

Frequent breaks keep students fresh throughout the day. Finnish schools have been practicing this since the 1960s. These breaks result in:

  • Focused students – They know their needs will be met soon.
  • Fresher students – They’ve just had a break and are ready to dig back in.
  • Fulfilled students – They’re energized by social time and curious to learn.

One teacher who decided to do class the Finnish way said, “Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom. Throughout the school year, my students would — without fail — enter the classroom with a bounce in their steps after a 15-minute break. And most importantly, they were more focused during lessons.

The Research Behind This Groundbreaking Discovery

Perhaps you’ve heard of the work of Anthony Pellegrini, author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, who has praised this approach for over 10 years. In East Asia, where most primary schools give their students a 10-minute break after 40 minutes or so of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed this phenomenon. After shorter recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom.

Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed — or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.

In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside — rain or shine — for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times. I realize that unleashing fifth graders on the playground every hour would be a huge shift for most schools. According to Pellegrini, breaks don’t have to be outdoors to be helpful. In one of his experiments at the public elementary school, students had their recess times inside the school, and the results matched those of other experiments performed outside.

Give Me a Break!

What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pellegrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge, they also learn to cooperate, communicate and compromise — all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.

So, how could you adjust your student programs to get more engaged students?


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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


Over the last four years, I’ve written several articles on the Finnish education system. Finland students consistently score high when compared to other industrialized nations in most subjects. All of this, as American schools continue to lag behind, globally. I’ll be the first to admit: There’s no simple solution.

But what is Finland doing differently? What is their secret?

photo credit: Ereine via photopin cc

photo credit: Ereine via photopin cc

Sophia Faridi recently wrote about being part of a small group of U.S. educators who had the opportunity to attend the Oppi Festival, held in Helsinki, Finland, to learn more about the Finnish educational system. During the trip, her group visited several innovative schools. She acknowledges that while they never uncovered one mysterious secret to their success, she did make a surprising discovery:

Happy teachers and happy students.

The faculty and students she observed were genuinely happy. They seemed to be enjoying their learning experiences, and teachers appeared satisfied and valued. It made Sophia wonder: What makes school in Finland such an enjoyable experience for everyone? Here are ten of her discoveries:

1. A heavy emphasis on play. In Finland, people believe that children learn through play, imagination and self-discovery, so teachers not only allow but encourage play. Development of the whole person is highly valued, especially in the early years. Even at the high school level, you can see students playing foosball or videogames in the student center.

2. No high-stakes standardized testing. Finnish schools believe more test preparation means less time for free thinking and inquiry. Accountability is measured at the classroom level by the experts — teachers.National standards are valued, and Finland uses a national set of standards similar to the Common Core State Standards. Yet, teachers have complete autonomy over curriculum and how the standards are implemented.

3. Trust. This was perhaps the greatest difference I observed. The Finnish government trusts their municipalities; they in turn trust school administrators, administrators trust teachers, teachers trust students, and in return, parents and families trust teachers. There is no formal teacher-evaluation system. Teachers, similar to doctors in the U.S., are trusted professionals.

4. Schools don’t compete with one another. There are no school evaluations since it is believed that all schools should be good. Non-competitive school structures result in no need for school-choice programs.

5. Out-of-this-world teacher prep programs. One reason why teachers are so trusted in Finland is that becoming a teacher is an extremely rigorous and prestigious process. Only the best of the best are accepted into education school. In addition to high test scores, candidates must pass an interview investigating their integrity, passion and pedagogy. Universities are committed to finding candidates that are the right fit for the teaching profession. Their programs are research-based, and teachers finish with master’s degrees, including a published thesis.

6. Personal time is highly valued. Every 45 minutes, students have the legal right to 15 minutes of free time. Finns believe that students’ capacity for engagement and learning is most successful when they have a chance to unwind and refocus. In turn, students work productively during class time, understanding that their needs to play, talk or even read quietly will be met shortly. Going outside frequently also encourages greater physical fitness. Finnish schools emphasize play, and students are encouraged to play during the school day all the way through high school.

7. Less is more. Students do not start school until the age of seven. School days are also shorter. Most elementary students only attend school for four to five hours per day. High school students, similar to college students, only attend the classes that are required of them. So while one student might have an 8 a.m. Swedish class, another might not start school until 10 a.m.Grades are not given until 4th grade. Evaluation of early learners focuses on meta-cognition and learning how to learn.

8. Emphasis on quality of life. The Finnish system recognizes that happy teachers are good teachers, and overworked teachers will not be at the top of their game. Teachers prep from home and only teach to students about 20 hours per week.

9. Semi-tracked learning. After age 16, students choose gymnasium (academic-based) or vocational school. However, both paths are highly respected in Finnish society. The vocational school we visited was an amazing state-of-the-art facility with hands-on learning infrastructures that surpass most American universities. Students graduating from either type of high school may attend university.

10. Ethics is taught in the primary grades. While many students learn their ethics curriculum through religion class, even nondenominational or nonreligious students are required to take ethics courses.

“Most of all, collaborative environments are strongly emphasized. The infrastructure of schools is designed to promote collaboration. Classrooms branch off from a shared learning area where students from various classes and grade levels work together, and teachers can interact in a common space. High school students have all sorts of cozy nooks and crannies to work together comfortably on campus, and students move freely around the building with minimal supervision. Perhaps what struck me most about schools in Finland was the relevant, genuine learning taking place right before my eyes. I had the chance to sit down with a group of high school seniors working on a project examining U.N. extradition trials. Without any teacher present, students were engaged simply because the subject was important to them. Their key is they’ve built a happy, conducive culture in their schools for everyone.”

“As one Finnish principal explained, ‘When a student struggles, the question is not what’s wrong with the student or what’s wrong with the teacher. The question is, what’s wrong with the system?’”

May this post launch a fresh conversation among your staff.


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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


I spoke to a Division 1, NCAA football player who dropped off the radar screen his senior year. All four years, he’d been a great student (3.8 GPA) and a well-respected starting player for his school. But after December (translate that — when his final season ended) he was missing in action. He didn’t show up to class, his grades dropped, and he became a social recluse. When I found this out and caught up with him, I asked why he’d disappeared. His response?

“I’m just so scared about what comes next.”

This student had figured out how to get a scholarship, how to pass a test and how to catch a football but felt entirely inadequate at becoming an adult. Adults in his life had focused so much on his current happiness, they forgot about future readiness.

Much more than the gift of happiness, caring adults owe each new generation some perspective. I believe we must be willing to sacrifice their temporary happiness for long-term happiness — including preparing them to be disciplined adults themselves. Instead of pleasure, let’s prepare them for fulfillment.


What if we borrowed a page from the playbook of the past? A few years ago, Izquierdo and Ochs wrote an article for Ethos, the journal of the Society of Psychological Anthropology. They posed cultural questions like: Why do Matsigenka children “help their families at home more than L.A. children?” And “Why do L.A. adult family members help their children at home more than do Matsigenka?”

With the exception of the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty, contemporary kids in the U.S. may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert notes, “It’s not just that they’ve been given unprecedented amounts of stuff — clothes, toys, cameras, skis, computers, cell phones, televisions, PlayStations, iPods (the market for Burberry Baby and other forms of kiddie ‘couture’ has reportedly been growing by ten percent a year). They’ve also been granted unprecedented authority. ‘Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval,’ Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, both professors of psychology, have written. In many middle-class families, children have one, two, sometimes three adults who are ready and waiting to meet their every beck and call. This is a social experiment on a grand scale, and a growing number of adults fear it isn’t working out so well.: according to one poll, commissioned by TIME and CNN, two-thirds of American parents think that their children are spoiled.”

But who’s really to blame? Hmmm. We can’t just say it’s the kids. Let me suggest some key ideas to follow as you lead your young people:

1. They need to hear the word “watch.”

They need an example from you more than they need entertainment from you. When kids lack direction or discipline, they don’t need more diversion. What they need is an example that demonstrates how to grow wise as they grow up. They need to see adults living for something greater than themselves. They need leaders who show them how to be selfless and sacrificial.

2. They need to hear the word “practice.”

They need long-term preparation more than short-term happiness. Kids have plenty of amusements that offer pleasure; they need help getting ready for a not-so-pleasurable future where they’ll need to pay their dues on a job for a while. Real satisfaction comes when a person commits to a goal and masters it.

3. They need to hear the word “no.”

They need a mentor more than a buddy. I decided years ago, my kids have lots of buddies. They have only one dad. That’s me. So I must play the card that isn’t always fun but earns their future love and respect. This means they may not “like me” each week of their childhood or adolescence. If I earn their respect through leading them well, love will naturally follow.

4. They need to hear the word “wait.”

Today, most things happen quickly, with little wait time. Our ability to delay gratification has shrunk. I think it’s important for parents, teachers, coaches, employers and youth pastors to build “wait time” into the game plan for their young people — as a rehearsal for adult life. Kids naturally become happy when they learn to appreciate waiting for something they want and delaying gratification.

5. They need to hear the word “serve.”

Unlike other cultures in history, we’ve made “the pursuit of happiness” a part of our American tradition. It’s in the Declaration of Independence because service was so imbedded into the society at the time. Being happy was a relatively new thought to that generation. Today, we breed consumers more than contributors — producing dissatisfied kids. All I can say is: It’s no wonder.

Through the years, I’ve had the chance to interview hundreds of parents, coaches and parents on what adjustments we need to make as we lead kids. In response, my latest book, Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, was just released. In it, I outline a dozen common mistakes that sabotage our kids’ journey into adulthood, including:

  • We won’t let them fail.
  • We project our lives on them.
  • We remove the consequences.
  • We praise the wrong things…and others.

For a limited time, we’re offering the book for a discounted price. Grab one for you or a friend in need! To order a copy, just CLICK HERE.


I meet more and more students and parents who are stressed out about life after graduation. Some moms feel angst about the job prospects for their freshman son or daughter (even if graduation isn’t for three more years). It’s true, however, that one of the challenges in higher education is that they don’t always prepare students for the realities of the world that awaits them. I hear the phrase: “They don’t teach corporate at college” several times each year. If that’s true, it’s sad. Every student should receive a cautiously optimistic reality check before graduation. It could come from either the academic or student affairs side of the campus, but it should come.

I’m just sayin’…


According to a report released in April by InternMatch — a San Francisco-based website that lists internships and entry-level jobs — only 16.6% of college seniors this year have received a single full-time job offer. Ouch. Some new college grads still struggle to find work, while others accept jobs for which they are over-qualified. Unemployment for recent grads was still higher than the 9.6% rate for all Americans ages 20-29 last October, and the Department of Labor reports that 260,000 college graduates were stuck last year working at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. So what can we do as we seek to graduate healthy students?

Seven Messages Every Student Needs to Hear About Life After College

I believe we owe these great kids a set of honest messages about life, perhaps messages we needed at their age that were never shared with us. They don’t need to be negative or depressing, just filled with realistic information that enables them to prepare for a different life than what they’ve experienced so far in their first two decades. Here are some important messages I relay to students as I speak to them:

  1. Life is difficult.

My career is worth my energy, but success will likely take longer than I expect.

  1. Control is a myth.

I’m not in control of most things in life, but many are within my influence.

  1. It’s not about me.

Moving from childhood to adulthood means I play a role in a much bigger world.

  1. Things will change.

I’m not doomed to an identical fate tomorrow. Life expands as I grow.

  1. I gain when I seek to add to others.

I must focus on adding value, not on grabbing value at work. I will gain as I give.

  1. No one can make me happy.

I can’t expect a job, spouse or income to make me happy. “Happy” is a by-product.

  1. I must live with the end in mind.

I am most satisfied when I choose a meaningful purpose and live with it in mind.

I wish someone had relayed these messages to me upon graduation. Can you think of any others that should make this list?


Looking to develop life skills in students? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


Frequently, I meet young job candidates who are freshly graduated from college and have never been taught how to make a good first impression. Or if they have, the adult who taught them did a miserable job.


In our work with employers who hire recent graduates, we hear from them that their job interviews with teens and twenty-somethings go south far too often. HR executives say young adults come across as…

  • Too loud
  • Too forward
  • Too self-absorbed
  • Lacking self-awareness

If they’re smart enough to get the job, they often fail to show up on time, gossip about colleagues or never develop a strong work ethic. Many treat the workplace like their dorm space: sloppy, careless and too casual. Even if they don’t care to keep the job, they embarrass themselves at some point due to a lack of job etiquette.

Further, youth often tie too much of their identity to appearance traits like tattoos, hair length, wardrobe, etc. This conditions them to believe that the “cosmetic” or the superficial is a central source of their identity. They don’t want to give these elements up when a supervisor asks them to for the sake of customers.

Why are these challenges so frequent?

Perhaps young adults have always needed tips to know how to act on a job. But reflecting on past generations, young employees tended to keep their mouths shut or knew enough to show respect to that eccentric boss. Today, they often don’t.

Millions of parents have praised and affirmed so much — and perhaps corrected and trained their child too little. Now, it’s time we begin to be honest about the job market and the real world. We owe it to our young people to communicate how they come across. In short, it’s time we cultivate social intelligence in them.

Building social intelligence

Making a first impression – and for that matter, a lasting impression — is usually a matter of social intelligence. This term has been defined as “The capacity to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments.”

Author and popular science writer Daniel Goleman tells the story of Lt. Colonel Christopher Hughes, an officer overseeing soldiers in Iraq years ago. Hughes and his troop had received a shipment of blankets and food to be distributed to displaced Iraqi citizens, and believed the best place to distribute these resources would be the Muslim mosque. When they approached the mosque, however, villagers assumed they planned to bomb it. Those villagers grabbed rocks or sticks and began yelling as they surrounded the mosque. As Hughes perceived the ensuing conflict, he knew he had to come up with a way to evade confrontation. Quickly, he commanded his soldiers to drop to their knee, put their guns down, look up at the people, and smile. Immediately, this single step disarmed the emotions of everyone, and soon they found a way to communicate.

That’s social intelligence.

It was originally defined in 1920 by Edward Thorndike as, “The ability to understand and manage men, women, boys and girls, to act wisely in human relations.” It’s the ability to develop healthy relationships. Social Intelligence separates good leaders and teachers from the rest. When we model this for students, we not only set an example, we teach them how to grow in this area themselves. If we can’t get this right, they have little hope to mature in it either.

Recently, I read Daniel Goleman’s book on this topic, “Social Intelligence.” He has drawn on social neuroscience research, proposing social intelligence includes:

  • Empathy
  • Attunement
  • Social cognition
  • Concern
  • Self-presentation
  • Influence

Goleman’s research indicates that our social relationships have a direct effect on aspects of our physical health, such as blood flow, breathing, moods such as fatigue and depression, and the weakening of our immune system. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the deeper the impact. To fully understand this subject, it’s helpful to review today’s social intelligence hypothesis. It states that complex socialization such as politics, romance, family relationships, quarrels, collaboration, reciprocity and altruism are the driving force behind the development of the human brain. It separates us from animals, as our brains are able to navigate complicated circumstances with other human beings. We are only fully developed in this arena when we become astute at negotiating win/win situations within difficult relationships.

Needless to say, prevailing technology allows us to interact with others and never develop this all-important skill set. This is why social intelligence is a differentiator. When young team members have it, they become more marketable. It all begins with first impressions: appearance, a handshake, a smile and common courtesy.

Let’s prepare these graduates in this important skill set.


Looking to develop leaders this year? Check out

Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes