We love The Branch School because it is teaching our children to become peaceful, loving human beings and top-notch scholars!
Branch Elementary School parent
When parents begin considering educational paths for their children, beginning the search online, perhaps, for the best private school in Houston, most zero-in on markers of top-tier academics, a school that launches children into bright, fully-realized futures. At The Branch School, we joyfully partner with parents in that journey, supporting students as they explore and develop their intellectual capacities and interests, encouraging them toward deep exploration.
But academic accomplishment is but one aspect of a successful life. A well-rounded education, we believe, includes more than a STEM-infused curriculum, opportunities to hone public speaking skills, and engaged, project-based learning. The truly educated person understands himself in the context of others and embraces the notion that colleagues, classmates, and friends have worthwhile ideas too. The educated person recognizes she has much to learn from others. And as we share our positions and perspectives, it is imperative that we learn to do so with civility, through discourse both respectful and generous, even when we disagree. The approach in the wider world today seems to be to vanquish all those whose views do not align with ours, but that, we have seen, does not foster a harmonious, happy community. Employing a victor vs. vanquished approach does not build trust or create a connected, deeply-rooted, peaceable society. That is why, from the youngest grades, students at Branch are taught the art and practice of peacemaking.
Research confirms that students think more deeply and creatively in a peaceful environment. They’re better able to tackle academic challenges within an atmosphere of respect and consideration. Walk the Branch halls and you’ll see it: calm, confident children highly-engaged in their work, anxiety lessened because the way their school environment works is predictable, supportive, fair, and known to them.
The Branch peacemaking program is centered in part on the work of Stephen Covey, who taught that conflicts are resolved not through laying blame (Win/Lose), but through a Win/Win solution. Developing the ability to address conflict in this way, Covey says, is an aspect of leadership, i.e. asserting leadership over one’s impulses.
From Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Think Win/Win is the habit of interpersonal leadership. It involves the exercise of each of the unique human endowments – self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will – in our relationships with others. It involves mutual learning, mutual influence, mutual benefits.
The principle of Win/Win is fundamental to success in all our interactions. It begins with character and moves toward relationships, out of which flow agreements. It is nurtured in an environment where structure and systems are based on Win/Win. And it involves process; we cannot achieve Win/Win ends with Win/Lose or Lose/Win means.
Here’s how Branch teachers help children get to Win/Win after conflict arises, whether it’s a pair of preschoolers having a hard time sharing or middle schoolers who don’t see eye to eye on a group project:
First, students are given time to cool off, to gather themselves and get past hot emotions that can lead to heightened reactions. Sometimes, this means time spent in the Calm and Collect area of the classroom, where students can work through the strong emotions they’re feeling, the older ones might opt to journal about the conflict or consider tools given them by the school counselor.
When both students feel ready, their teacher helps them express their feelings to one another in “I” messages. Each child sits quietly and listens to the other describe how the interaction felt to them, absent any name calling or blaming. The children learn not to interrupt each other but to allow space for a full airing of the other person’s perspective.
Next, the students brainstorm solutions together, working until they arrive at a plan that satisfies them both. They close the interaction by expressing forgiveness and gratitude for one another.
The slate is cleaned, the residue of bad feelings swept away. The students are free to resume their relationship without recriminations. Because they have been heard and understood, these students won’t be compelled to rerun the drama on the playground, enlarging the conflict by drawing other students in. Through the peacemaking Branch teaches, the students’ sense of themselves and their regard for one another are restored. They’re ready to move on.
Are Branch students unusually mature, you ask? Perhaps. But likely not. They are normal, happy, rambunctious, opinionated children. More to the point, they’ve been equipped to navigate these waters by skilled teachers. Our faculty adheres to the practice outlined in the book The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton, which links the careful use of words, tone, and pace to greater student engagement, a more positive classroom community, and more effective behavior management. At the start of each school year, as students coalesce as a community in their classrooms or within their grades, our teachers bring this insight as they share the peacemaking perspective. They guide students through scenarios, giving them time to reflect on the healthy way to resolve differences. When a moment of disagreement comes, students are more able to recognize what is happening. They’re secure in knowing that resolution means a mutually-satisfying solution. As our school counselor notes, mindfulness exercises, including yoga and the use of calming breaths, help students recognize the agency they have to manage themselves in such moments, which leads to a stronger community:
Students not only learn about how to be peacemakers around them, but also how to be peacemakers “inside” of themselves. Everything starts with us. If we are in peace with our bodies and our feelings, we can reflect that to the world around us and be global peacemakers.
Indeed, lessons in peacemaking help students become more cognizant of the needs around them. Here’s one example from a Branch third-grade lower school teacher:
Part of peacekeeping is realizing we are not the center of the universe, that we are a part of a larger interconnected whole and have a responsibility to look out for others and the world around us. Our peacekeeping program helps children understand that. One morning, I asked the children the question, "What can you do today to help make our playground a nicer place?” We had had several days of heavy rains, and the ground was so saturated, it couldn't absorb any more. I expected the typical response of “include everyone in games” but got something very different. One of the children suggested carrying the excess water off the field with buckets from the sandbox. Much to my surprise, at recess the bucket brigade began! For two days, children across grade levels banded together to remove the water, bucket by bucket. New tools were found to help, carts to roll the buckets more easily, a toy dump truck to carry water. Shoes and pants were soaked, but laughter rang out and the field was cleared of all excess water!
These students have discovered their own agency, their ability to take steps to improve things for themselves and their classmates. Their lessons in peacemaking, as their teacher observes, cultivates a wider sense of responsibility for the world they inhabit. One parent tells us of a daughter who frequently reminds those in her family to “be a peacemaker!” – shorthand for acting kindly, patiently, cooperatively.
While other private schools in Houston promote character programs within their curriculum, this parent appreciates Branch’s more specific focus to equip children to build healthy, strong relationships:
The peacemaking effort and focus on how we treat others is wonderful. You just don't find that to be as prioritized as it seems to be at The Branch School.
Echoed a fifth-grade student who addressed classmates at an end-of-year celebration:
I have also learned so many things, from learning how to find the area of a circle and a lot about peacemaking too. The peacemaking skills will help me now and in the future.
We agree. In fact, we lament that everyone – in leadership, in politics, in marriages, in all realms of our culture today – doesn’t have these valuable skills in their toolboxes. Peacemaking not only helps us arrive at creative solutions to difficult problems, but produces an exquisite harmony in which happy souls thrive.
Emily Smith, Head of School, graduate of Smith College and M.A., University of Connecticut School of Education.
Learning the Skills of Peacemaking by Naomi Drew
Creating Classrooms and Homes of Virtue by Margaret D. Walding
The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and The Leader in Me by Stephen Covey
The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton