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Habits and Goals

June 17, 2020 | Nathan Johnson

Did you know that at Mustard Seed School, from the tiniest Nest students to the tallest eighth grader … all year, all together, in everything we do, we are working on developing twenty specific habits that we have identified as crucial to moving forward into high school and beyond?

Oh, you knew that already? Good, keep reading you’ll learn so much more…

Didn’t know that? You’re in luck, take a look at our …

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us”
– John Dryden

Here are our habits of . . .


  • listening with empathy and understanding, respect, forgiveness
  • responding with wonder and awe recognizes and appreciates beauty
  • celebrating and having joy, a sense of humor, affirmation
  • responding with gratitude, humility, openness
  • expressing kindness: serving, welcoming, encouraging


  • connecting and synthesizing: applying prior knowledge, connecting thoughts into a whole
  • creating: imagining, innovating, modeling
  • thinking flexibly: adapting and changing with purpose
  • questioning and pursuing inquiry with curiosity
  • reflecting: metacognition


  • persisting: learning and practicing with perseverance, tenacity, grit
  • self-regulating: using self-control, managing impulsivity
  • exploring: taking risks with boldness, willing to fail and make mistakes
  • striving for accuracy, clarity, excellence, elegance
  • using all senses and modes to gather information, communicate, represent


  • managing time – independently pacing actions in view of time
  • managing materials – independently and with purpose ordering materials, media, tools
  • organizing thoughts: plans, strategies, ideas, sequencing
  • attending with focus and stamina
  • engaging fully in tasks, participating with motivation and personal investment

… so that’s all twenty! Quite a lot to chew on. Although we work on all Twenty Habits throughout our year together and in the years beyond, the Sky and Trees teachers have each chosen three habits to focus on in response to the specific groups of children that they are leading.

Turns out the first two overlap between classes, and then each class has its own #3 …

Two habits the Sky & Trees Classes have chosen to focus on this fall:

1. Self-regulating: using self-control, managing impulsivity
— from Habits of Learning

We all know that our little ones struggle with this one! Here are three examples of how Sky and Trees children are learning the habit or self-regulation…

When Sky and Trees children want a turn in the Studio, they need to use self-control to wait a turn.

In the Sky Class they indicate that we would like to go next by clipping our picture to the empty pin and work on something else until a bracelet becomes available.

In the Trees Class, they have found that the best system is simply waiting to see when someone comes back in, and children will negotiate who goes next.

Before Sky children play a game, we talk as a group out loud about waiting for a turn. We say “Oh well. I’ll get a turn next time.” Being happy for the person who did get a turn is hard but we are practicing that, too!

In the Trees Class, we have a fox family that helps us in many ways. Holding a fox can help children stay calm, give them comfort, provide tactile feedback – like a fidget, or simply be a lovely toy to play with.

The children are learning to manage when they might need to go get a fox from the basket, which means being aware of their own behavior, and then deciding how best to respond if they don’t feel regulated. They could ask for help, take a break, … or get a fox!

The children need to hold and use the foxes in a way that are safe and, if its during a meeting or a story, in a way that is not distracting to others. This is hard work!

The children need to regulate their own emotions as well as the emotions of others around the foxes. There are only five foxes! Who else might need one? A child might love to hold a fox all day, but needs to recognize that others need a turn, and even recognize who might need one more and go and give it to them.

When the teacher says, “Foxes in the hole!” All children with foxes must immediately to pop up and put them in their cozy basket and continue on with what is next.

2. Listening with empathy, understanding,
respect, and forgiveness.
— from Habits of HEART

Children are always ready with something to share or a question, but it’s so much harder to listen to others! Here are three specific examples of how Sky and Trees children are learning the habit of listening…

In the Sky Class they have something called Peace Talks. Peace Talks are a way for the children to be heard and for them to practice listening to others after an argument or misunderstanding. After each child has been given time and space to become calm, they sit and face each other. We take turns telling our friend what we didn’t like and what we would like them to do next time. Then we listen while they speak. In the end we make a plan for next time and then shake hands to indicate that we understand and care.

In The Sky Class, we greet our Walking Buddies with a right-hand shake, look at our friend and say their name. We say, “Sarah, you’re my partner. I’m happy you’re my partner.” Then our partner tells us, “Mirabella, you’re my partner. I’m happy you’re my partner.” The children hear each other’s words and the structure for applying words to relationships is starting to form.

Every snack time, the Trees students are working on listening to each other. We have developed snacktime partnerships so that conversation in snack can go deeper, revisiting the same friendships day after day — and the listening is getting deeper. Ask your child who they snack partner with!

We are also doing a lot of listening with a new routine that we are trying in the Trees Class of having the children taking turns being a Friend of the Week. Through interviews, special sharings, and new choices, the children learn all about a friend in a deeper way each week. Read more about the Trees Class’s Friend of the Week routine in a blog coming soon!

The third Sky Class habit:
(find the third Trees habit below)

3. Thinking flexibly: adapting and changing with purpose
— from Habits of MIND

The children are learning how to play together and building is one way they are adapting their ideas when a friend offers a change or another idea to develop the same structure.

When Sky children build create together with friends, they are learning from each other
and constructing new knowledge and experiences!

The third Trees Class habit:

3. Persisting: learning and practicing with perseverance, tenacity, grit

Sometimes work is hard. Sometimes play is hard. Sometimes friendship is hard. Sometimes school is hard. What do we do when things are hard? This is one of the biggest questions that follow us throughout our whole life. Do we give up? Or do we keep on going? And, if we do keep going, how exactly do we do so?

We like to tackle this question early on in The Nest. Here are three specific ways Trees Students are learning the habit of persisting.

Drawing a self-portrait is not easy. It takes a long time, you have to look at all the details, you must not rush, and it takes many drafts. It was hard work, but they persisted with reminders and encouragement from Mrs. Jordan and from each other, like, “You can do it!” “Oh, look! When you slow down, your line becomes more beautiful.”

Henry set his own goal for perseverance, saying our scissor challenge was not hard enough, he came up with a much more elaborate line so that he could persevere and have and ultimate challenge.

“This is the hardest line of all — in all my kingdom.”

Pouring water is tricky. We had many shaky hands and spills at the beginning of the year. We still haven’t perfected the poor, but children are spilling less, with more time to drink, eat, talk and laugh. We are persevering!

And so there you have it. This is just a small taste of how habit building is embedded in what we do each day.

And we only talked about four out of twenty!

What new habits do you see forming in your child?

Nathan Johnson

Early Childhood & Lower School Visual Art Teacher

Nathan Johnson graduated in 2004 from Lenoir-Rhyne University with a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts (focusing on Illustration, Art History, and Puppetry), Theatre, and Elementary Education, followed by further time in Europe studying Art, and in Nova Scotia working with adults with developmental differences.

Happily back at his Alma mater (MSS class of 1995) Nathan has passionately committed his career to preserving the dignity and wonder of childhood. As children are more and more burdened with technology and privilege, he believes that in order for children to learn and grow, they must be given freedom within structure, choices with guidance, allowed to play, struggle, get dirty, and above all, to be taught that they are a beloved child of God.

When not in the classroom, Nathan can be found kayaking, camping, hosting a game night, wandering around New York City, making friends with strangers, and spending time with his 11 nieces and nephews.

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