Beatriz toms’ kindergarten class isn’t like others. Students still learn the alphabet and their numbers, but the application is different.
"When they notice that someone is unhappy, i see them going to that person and saying ‘I’ll be your friend.’ They’ll even come and say 'Ms. Toms, I found somebody that didn’t have a friend and i played with them," Toms said.
The La Belle Aire teacher said she noticed a difference in her students’ behavior beginning about five years ago. She attributes this change to a lesson plan called “Manners of the Heart.”
"This curriculum moves the focus from individual well-being to thinking about others," Toms said.
Students are given daily lessons about social interactions, with stories and illustrations, alongside their usual curriculum.
Toms’s principal, Da’Anne Lipscomb, says this foundation has helped students to teach each other. Sometimes, she said, students can communicate concepts to each other more effectively than a teacher can.
"Bringing [this behavior] to their math lesson, or to their reading group, or to whatever they’re working on. We take turns, we respect what the other person is saying - and that’s the part of this that spills over into everything," Lipscomb said.
But this emphasis on respect in the classroom is still somewhat radical, which is why executive director Jill Garner founded manners of the heart nearly two decades ago.
She says she blames the educational emphasis on building self-esteem for the violence and political vitriol that is all too common today.
"The big message underneath all of this, for me, is the debunking of that ridiculous notion that we were told – that self-esteem was going to fix everything," Garner said.
Garner's message is resonating. She says research chartered by Manners of the Heart shows their schools can expect a 30 percent reduction in disciplinary referrals, and a 15 or more point increase on school performance scores.
But that’s not all.
Inside the manners of the heart office, sits a basket with hundreds of "Thank You" notes from students that have gone through the curriculum.
"One day, we envision a world where the attitude behind the action reflects respect," Garner said. "It’s been the hardest thing i’ve ever done or ever will do, but I’m more committed today and more fired up than i was 18 years ago.
"When I look in the faces of my grandchildren, I have got to fix this. I have to."