The Fourth of July is over, so summer’s almost gone. Close on its heels comes the first day of school. Here in the South, day one begins as early as August 1, and this year our local system starts on August 8. 

When looking forward to a new year, teachers both young and seasoned anticipate the blend of youngsters they will face that very first day. At that moment, the blend of personalities coming through your door will create a classroom atmosphere that will determine how the year will play out.

There is the shy, inattentive youngster—taking everything in, feeling inadequate, and questioning whether she is ever right. There is the overly self-confident youngster, sure only her way is the right one. The loud and bombastic character makes his voice an imprint in the class community. The opinionated student knows he’s always right and his way is to be known. Then there is the tormented soul, who never agrees with anyone. The impulsive but creative student thinks out of the box and shows an understanding beyond all others. These are the many faces of our youngsters with ADHD. Each contributes his or her own uniqueness. Each has a radar of sensitivity that questions himself or herself but defends others.

You, as their teacher, have the job of creating a warm atmosphere. You strive for an environment that exudes acceptance of others, an understanding of differences, with tolerance and forgiveness. It is your job to see that all your students are supported and honored for the gifts they bring, that they are safe to explore the unlearned and unknown.

I have a challenge for you… begin your year with Rachel’s Challenge.

Rachel’s mission, and now that of her family, is “to inspire, equip and empower every person to create a permanent positive cultural change in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.… If one person can go out of their way to show compassion it will create a chain reaction…”

This activity is simple. Use it instead of asking your class to write the traditional return to school piece describing their summer vacation or activities. Ask instead for each child to record those acts of kindness they did for others. Hand out colored paper strips preferably printed with Rachel’s Challenge – My Act of Kindness and Compassion.

 If your students are more mature, copy out some of Rachel’s statements from her website that share her philosophy of life. Paste these strips into rings, joining them into a chain much like we often do to decorate for holidays and celebration.

Record your own acts of kindness and how you show tolerance of others, how helpfulness becomes a gift. Starting your class on this road to discovery, the chain then becomes a constant reminder of all the acts of kindness and compassion streaming from your classroom.

You may choose to have the students tell about their acts out loud, sign them or not, depending on the nature of the group and your own comfort zone.  But be sure to start your year with positive affirmations.

By now you are probably asking, Who in the world is Rachel? Rachel Joy Scott, age 17, was the first victim of the Columbine High School attack on  April 20, 1999. 

This probably happened before your students were born, and certainly was an incident that should never have happened. Two boys, reacting to negative pressure and bullying had the Columbine High School on lockdown as they went on a shooting spree, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Something good has come of that tragic event, however.

Rachel was a unique teen with a winning smile and inward glow that had a desire to make a difference. Even at age 17 she had goals which included doing for others—including standing up for the other person through acts of kindness and compassion. She was confident and okay with whom she was, okay with being different, and didn’t feel dorky or weird. She expressed this when she wrote to a friend, “Don’t let your character change colors with your environment. Find who you are and let it stay in true color.”

Help your students begin the year by learning Rachel’s message. Help them to define what makes a good person. How understanding works when a person is supportive of others. How it is important to make a best first impression, to be challenged to think of others, and to identify what kindness and compassion are. Help your students to find those acts they have performed: “I opened the coke can for grandma as her arthritic fingers were hurting.” Students need to learn and identify small acts of kindness and learn to celebrate them so they can grow.

Yes, most of your students have been through an antibullying seminar by now, but this is the chance to invest in the positive interaction with one another. It is this understanding that will hit home on a personal note, developing a feeling of inner compassion and become one of the most power preventive measures we can have. The chain becomes a constant reminder and reinforcement of the good one can do toward another.

Hanging the first chain is just a start. Encourage additional chains all year long. Teachers, you will be leading the way by pointing out acts of kindness happening in your class, adding them to the chain becoming a model, encouraging students to add more.

Variations can be made on this common theme, depending on you own creativity, but never limited by thinking out of the box. Students can enlist chain making at home, perhaps bringing them in to share at Thanksgiving.

You can decide to go online and have your class record an Acknowledge an Act of Kindness Card, a postcard of kindness that gets sent along throughout the world. 

Capitalize on Rachel’s words written into an outline of her hand: “ These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of people’s hearts.” Why not try stringing hands with messages, or create a chain of people joining hands? I can envision first-grader Jamie writing, “I helped my Mom without being asked.” And Sam—“I fed my dog.”

However you decide to proceed, the environment of your classroom will be changed. Think of what a better world we could have if everyone did just one nice thing for someone else every day. You will be helping each child to identify with his or her own self-worth and extending this feeling of confidence in self to the act of kindness and compassion for others. You are giving the message that your students’ ADHD, LD, Asperger, Tourette, OCD, ODD or whatever alphabet soup you encounter can be able to find themselves and be comfortable in being just who they are. Rachel is counting on you and so am I.

 Joan

P.S. While you’re preparing for the new school year, be sure to visit the School and ADHD and Teacher to Teacher sections of CHADD’s website for more information on teaching students who are affected by ADHD.

Many thanks to the folks at Learning Rx in Buckhead, Georgia, who introduced me to Rachel. 

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