Almost five years ago, a little guy in Cathy Childs’ pre-k class in Washington State tried to yank a beaded necklace from her hand. He was 3. He and another little guy both wanted the necklace, and boy, they were fighting over it.

“I want that!” he shouted. She said she would hold it while they solved the problem—and right then, “he grabbed the necklace. And it broke. And he looked at me. He was so mad,” she says, “and he hauled off and hit me.”

The blow wasn’t anything major—only a toddler’s slap. “It didn’t hurt. It was more that it hurt my pride.” Still, he had smacked her, a violent move that in so many other circumstances, in so many other schools, would have led to some form of immediate and unequivocal punishment—likely followed by a close and potentially clinical assessment of his intensity. Especially if it was followed by further bouts of acting out. Especially if the child were tagged as disruptive, even disordered.

But not at North City Cooperative Preschool, a nonprofit run in conjunction with nearby Shoreline Community College that incorporates the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA)—a paradigmatically different model for coping with challenging behavior that Childs had just adopted and started to incorporate in her own classroom. Telling the story these years later, she knows her response wasn’t perfect. Initially she called him “bad” for hitting her, and she shouldn’t have. She had just been trained in the NHA and she was, she says, still working at it.

But Childs took a breath—thank goodness she had one, she says. She dialed herself down. Instead of punishing him, she pointed out what he was doing right. She told the child, no, it wasn’t okay to hit, but he had stopped. He was already cooling off. “Look at you,” she said.  “You were so angry a minute ago. You hit me! But now I see you taking a big breath. I see you coming back to center, and you look like you’re about to solve this problem.”

The boy, wanting nothing of it, told her—begged her, really—to take him out into the hallway. She said no, they would handle it right there. “He said, ‘Call my mom! Call my mom!’ And I said, ‘We can call her in a minute, but you seem to be calming down and feeling better and better.’”

Finally, he gave up and said “okay.” “And to me that was just such a telling, magical moment,” Childs says. It became “one of my favorite examples of the power of Nurtured Heart.”

Childs is director, lead teacher, and parent educator at the preschool, which serves children aged 1 to 5. She’s also an advanced trainer in the NHA and a parent educator with the co-op school, bringing families into the loop with an approach that asks parents and teachers alike to drop every preconceived notion they have about what to do with troublesome behavior.

Indeed, those who aren’t familiar with the Nurtured Heart Approach—and that would be most people—might hear her story and think, “Wait, what? No punishment for that kid? The teacher just told him to breathe and then wound up praising him?” They might be even more surprised to learn that such stories are, in fact, standard operating procedure for schools and other settings that incorporate Nurtured Heart.

In a world increasingly bent on labeling children of high intensity with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and trying to mute that intensity with drugs, Nurtured Heart takes an entirely different tack. When kids act out, they’re encouraged to “reset.” When they do something positive, they’re recognized, but not with a boring, generic “nice job.” NHA affirmation is specific by design, pinpointing an example of generosity, kindness, courage, creativity, cooperation, or some other “greatness” in a manner making it likelier they’ll repeat that behavior in the future.

The result: Good stuff gets the energy and attention from others. Negative stuff doesn’t. In turn, the child’s intensity gets rerouted toward the good, reinforcing the novel concept that, hey, guess what, grownups might actually notice you, even lavish you with attention, for something besides challenging behavior. Intensity in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, isn’t a wrong thing, isn’t a cause for correction. It’s something to be acknowledged, even celebrated. It just needs to be nudged in a positive direction, and there it can blossom. There it can take the hot-wired spirit that can get a lot of kids in trouble—getting a subset diagnosed—and channel its energy in another direction.

“We’re all in the same boat. We all have intensity—it’s not just those kids,” says Howard Glasser, creator of the Nurtured Heart Approach, director of the Nurtured Heart Institute, founder of the former Children’s Success Foundation, and author of such books as Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach.

Howard Glasser

“I want to build their inner strength,” he says. If a kid has strong feelings? Instead of taking a severe or corrective tack, say: “Regardless of these strong feelings—yes, you’re mad at me—here’s you handling being mad really well.”

“So it’s not about making intensity and worry and strong feelings go away,” he adds. Instead, it’s about using them as an occasion to recognize what they’re doing right.

Absolute no, absolute yes, absolute clear

Glasser is on the phone from Arizona, reflecting on the Nurtured Heart Approach roughly a quarter-century after first developing it. Its reach now extends into India; its practitioners include therapists, other clinicians, teachers of various grades, school counselors, administrators, parents; its philosophies and tools are being adopted in New Jersey public schools through a new state-funded program (Developing Resiliency with Engaging Approaches to Maximize Success, or DREAMS) that offers training in Nurtured Heart to districts across the state.

He realizes the message and tenets of NHA represent a massive shift in thinking—about schooling, about children and how to raise them, about how we regard those with intensity, about the medical model pathologizing them. Instead of something to punish and quash, intensity is something to reroute and engage in positive behavior. Instead of seeing bouts of acting-out as occasions for discipline and markers, potentially, for diagnosis and drugging, Nurtured Heart frames them as opportunities to encourage self-regulation in a neutral manner.

And that neutrality, according to those who practice it, is critical. Going back to Childs’ story of the little boy and the broken necklace: In a pre-NHA scenario, a teacher might have taken the child into the hallway to “help him regulate, and bring him down.”

From the kid’s perspective, that’s golden. “You’re getting all this juicy energy from what went wrong,” Childs said. Focusing instead on what’s right—“it is hard work,” she says. “But it touches my passion, because that child? They call it the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Starting in preschool, we are telling them how awful they are, how horrible they are, how they don’t belong. . . and I am absolutely committed to breaking that cycle. You do belong. You do belong, and this is why. I’m gonna show you, and I’m gonna show your parents.”

Often described as a “three-legged table,” the NHA rests on a trio of basic “stands.” As The Nurtured Heart Institute explains on its website, laying them out in non-negotiable all-caps, they are:

ABSOLUTELY NO! . . . I refuse to give my time, energy and relationship to negative behavior. I will not accidentally foster failure nor will I reward problems by responding to them in animated ways. I will save my time and energy for searching for success.

ABSOLUTELY YES! I will relentlessly and strategically pull the child into new patterns of success. I will constantly recognize the success and achievement that children are displaying no matter how small and present them with clear undeniable evidence of their value and how great they are.

ABSOLUTELY CLEAR! I will have clear and consistent consequences for children when a rule has been broken. “Here are the rules, and here’s what happens when you break a rule.”

That final stand, the clear one, requires a full understanding of what those rules are; in a classroom, they tend to be delineated plainly, in everyday ways and terms that the child will grasp and internalize. Then, when a rule is broken, a non-punitive, non-emotional, non-energized consequence occurs, and the child gets a reset. A redo. A chance to calm down, get back to center, start over. This is distinct from timeouts, particularly those that are issued as flat-out punishments with no attempt to emphasize other, more positive, behaviors.

After all, why would a kid want to avoid any bad behavior, if it gets a rise out of the adults in the room? If it prompts a parent or teacher to drop everything and escort them into a hallway, a corner, a seat somewhere for designated rule-breakers? Glasser, who’s fond of analogies and metaphors, has referred to grownups as “children’s favorite toys,” a comparison he explains at length in his preface to 2007’s The Inner Wealth Initiative: The Nurtured Heart Approach for Educators (co-written with Tom Grove and Melissa Lynn).

We’re loaded with features and we’re animated, reactive, and interactive. We also have the best remote control ever made. In addition to our ability to walk, talk, skip, dance, wax poetic, make faces, and do just about anything else under the sun, we can display a multitude of fascinating emotions and moods in a virtually infinite number of combinations, subtleties, and gradations. . . . No other “toy” could possibly compete.

So kids love pushing our many buttons, and will do almost anything to wind us up.

Another metaphor: In other writings and comments, he’s compared the notion of the reset to the forgiving nature of video games, which let the player make a fresh start after the most disastrous of turns. As he explained in both a recent Mad in America column and a podcast interview, heads can literally roll in a session gone horribly, graphically, almost comically wrong, and yet the person at the controls is allowed to restart. Rules are clear; rewards and consequences are obvious; resets are the norm.

“It’s the furthest thing from punishment,” he says. “So, game in, game on. . . . The kid wants to be back in the game.” And wants to be working hard for rewards.

Working together, and learning a new way to talk

A third metaphor, this one based on Glasser’s personal backstory, dates back to his 15 years in woodworking—more on that later—and his appreciation for structure. At one point, he worked at reconstructing an old farmhouse and barn. Say you’re working on the walls, he says. You need all of them, upright and aligned, to keep the building steady. If one of them isn’t quite right, the whole thing wobbles.

You need to level them with cables, but you can’t work the cables all at once. “Instead, you would crank the tension of all those cables little by little to get it to square, and get it to stable. And that’s kind of what we’re doing with the three stands.”

That is, he says, how Nurtured Heart’s three stands work: together. Aligning them takes time, patience, and attention to detail—and it helps when parents as well as teachers are active participants, learning to adjust the cables in their children and themselves.

In Washington State, the seven co-op preschools run by Shoreline Community College’s Parenting Education Program include two that incorporate the NHA approach with instructors who are also certified or advanced trainers. One is North City Cooperative Preschool, north of Seattle; the other is Crystal Springs Co-op Preschool, to the west.

At both, parents are active participants, taking introductory and smaller, ongoing classes in Nurtured Heart and regularly assisting teachers in school. The idea is to familiarize parents with the approach and help families get acquainted with a whole new set of ideas, a whole new way to cope with challenging behaviors—e.g., have they been inadvertently energizing a child who refuses to go to bed at night?—and a whole new set of verbiage. Words like “integrity,” “cooperation,” “collaboration” (not to mention “reset”) can take time to internalize and put into practice.

“I think most people who are motivated find their way through the language barrier,” Glasser says. Adds Dorothy Anderson, director and instructor at the Crystal Springs preschool: “It’s a different way to talk. It’s a different way of communicating. And sometimes, you know, people go, ‘Well, I don’t—I can’t say that.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you have your own way to say it, and you don’t have to say it the way I say it. Because your child’s going to know that authenticity in your face.’”

Fortunately, children are sponges—and the younger they are, the more open and flexible they are. “They are soaking it in, they are listening, they are watching, we are modeling it,” says Anderson. “And as we model it, the younger ones—they’re just taking it in.”

In Anderson’s class, the kids range from 1 to 5. With the one-year-olds, the NHA lessons and language occur with the parents: What to do when their wee one is having a tantrum, for instance, or how to guide them into a reset. But by age 2, those same wee ones “already have heard the verbiage,” and they’re starting to use it themselves.

Recently, one such toddler was having a hard time, crying. But her older sister had just graduated from Anderson’s preschool class, so “she’s been hearing the verbiage”—and she knew what it meant. “I was able to say, ‘Look at your greatness and bravery. Look at how you calmed your body down. . . . So, how do we calm our body down? Let’s see. Can you take deep breaths?’”

She could. And she did.

But as anyone knows who has ever been or encountered a child, not all of them are alike. As with any modality, in any setting, using any vocabulary, their responses are inevitably diverse. “It’s not formulaic, in that you’re gonna read a bible on how to do these three stands. . . . It’s not like that,” Glasser says. “You’re a unique person, with unique features and a unique life, and you’re a unique kid—and you’re going to bring these stands to life in your own way.”

As a result, “A reset looks different for all kids,” Anderson says. The solution is communication—and an openness to playing by ear. “Like I’ll say, ‘Let’s breathe’—and a child will say, ‘I don’t want to breathe.’” Hmmm. So what then? The teacher explains to the child that soothing herself matters more than the breathing itself. How would the child like to reset? “I want to count.” So she counts—to five, then to 10, calmer at the last number she was at the first.

Bingo: reset.

“And I say, ‘Okay, so I notice you want to count when you reset. And so when we say ‘reset,’ what are you gonna do when your body’s feeling like it needs to reset? What are you gonna do? Count? Great.”

The usual approach: labels, drugs, and definitions of okay versus not-okay

In ways both large and small, the messages built into Nurtured Heart require a big pivot—rethinking both the response to a kid’s misbehavior in the moment and, beyond that, the entire, binary view of hardline child rearing and a cultural emphasis on obedient children versus disobedient, successes versus failures, goody two-shoes versus troublemakers.

And one more: Ordered children versus disordered. Any system based on kindness and affirmation is already unusual, but the NHA challenges the entire, existing characterization of childhood intensity as a problem insoluble, even incomprehensible, without diagnosis and treatment. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), citing a 2016-2019 national survey of parents, now puts the number of 3- to 17-year-olds ever diagnosed with ADHD at an estimated 6 million, or 9.8%. Of that, around 265,000, or 2%, are 3- to 5-year-olds. Two point four million, or 10%, are aged 6 to 11. Boys are likelier to be diagnosed than girls.

As the CDC also highlights, those numbers represent a considerable increase since 2003, when roughly 4.4 million children aged 3 to 17 had been diagnosed, at some point, with ADHD. And of the children now being diagnosed, most of them are drugged: A 2016 national parent survey reported 62% of children with the diagnosis are being medicated; that figure includes 18% of 2- to 5-year-olds and 69% of 6- to 11-year-olds.

And yet, according to a recent study from researchers at Florida International University—which cites an even larger number, 90%, for the percentage of such kids being medicated—such diagnoses and drugging have not been shown to improve academic achievement in schools, which have simultaneously ramped up an emphasis on testing while the ADHD diagnosis and medication of children increased. Additionally, in an even more recent study, researchers found that children diagnosed with ADHD had worse quality-of-life outcomes—and were likelier to self-harm—than children who had the same symptoms but were not diagnosed.

Nor does the pathologization of childhood end there. Beyond ADHD, the DSM’s listings of childhood mental disorders include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and conduct disorder—which first showed up in DSM-IV in 1994. Its fifth edition added two more: social communication disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.

Labeling doesn’t stop with the DSM, either: Consider the DC: 0-5 Diagnostic Classification of Mental Health and Developmental Disorders in Infancy and Early Childhood, published by the child-development professional organization Zero to Three. Many of its disorders align with the DSM’s and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), including “selective mutism disorder,” which pinpoints a child’s fear of talking and drawing attention.

Others are more specific to the Zero to Three classifications, such as “inhibition to novelty disorder,” which roughly aligns with the DSM’s “other specified anxiety disorder” (i.e., a label for those who don’t have enough symptoms to be diagnosed with another anxiety disorder). According to Zero to Three, this new label, introduced in the fifth edition, “defines extremes of behavioral inhibition that impair the infant’s/young child’s functioning. Infants and young children with this disorder show an overall and pervasive difficulty approaching new situations, toys, activities, and persons and experience impairing levels of distress.”

Another label found only in the Zero to Three manual: “Excessive crying disorder.”

Sometimes used as an adjunct to the DSM and ICD, the manual has been published and republished in multiple languages through five editions—and it further whittles down the idea of non-disordered childhood behavior to a slimmer and slimmer concept.

“It’s concerning to me that we are creating scales where you point to this narrow definition of what’s okay and not okay,” says Alyson Schafer, a family counselor, parenting expert and author who has written about the over-pathologization of childhood. For parents, such labels might ease the sense that they’ve somehow failed their children: “There’s this need to feel like there’s an explanation outside our control,” she says. That, in turn, “really narrows the range of how happy should a child be, how much should a child cry.”

Alyson Schafer (Photo by Denise Jones Productions, Inc).

Or talk. What about a kid who’s reluctant to speak? Maybe, she says, they have older siblings who tend to do all the talking. Maybe they’re taking their time, observing everything, waiting things out. Such differences among children aren’t new; what’s new is the urge to stamp them as disordered.

“Humans haven’t changed, but our ability to diagnose them as sick has greatly grown, and this need to classify comes more from the medical model.” She prefers the wider view, the philosophical view, in considering the creativity of human beings to respond to and manage their environments. “What is it to be a person? What is it to be whole? . . . How do they function, and where do they fall down?”

In her own practice, she sees children on one drug who wind up on several, and the polypharmacy never helps. “It makes things worse,” she says. “Not better.” Beyond that, “I don’t need a book to tell me that you’re moving along at a human growth and development arc—for yourself. And we want people to move along in a healthy, pro-social way.”

“Where am I looking?” A whole-school, whole-life outlook

In the history of education and in the habits of parenting, a healthy, pro-social way hasn’t always been top priority. In most schools across the country, there’s an “algorithm of managing kids,” says Mila Schneiderman, co-founder and co-director of the Oholei Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch pre-k and elementary school in Brooklyn.

A child plays with blocks at Oholei Yosef Yitzchok school in Brooklyn (courtesy Mila Schneiderman).

That usual algorithm prioritizes testing, schoolwork, and conformity, and rewards children who mesh with the system. If a kid doesn’t fit in, “They’re either gonna be constantly punished or they just won’t care.” They’ll tune out. “They’ll do their own thing. So we’re really creating this nurturing school setting where children really get nurtured—beyond just the academics.” That, she says, was the goal.

Schneiderman created and runs the school with her husband, Rabbi Mottel Schneiderman, within the Chabad tradition. Now in its 13th year, the school was not part of Nurtured Heart from the beginning—that came later. A special-education teacher and mother of eight, Schneiderman had worked in various other schools before deciding, with her husband, to create their own. What stood out to her, as an educator, was the huge variation in rules and culture from classroom to classroom, “because it’s really dependent on who was the teacher in that particular grade.”

One teacher might have the kids earn points and win prizes, another might not. “Even within one school, it was like every classroom had its own culture. It was every classroom as its own country. . . and it really bothered me,” she says. At home with her own children, she wanted more consistency and clarity, a priority that carried over to the school. She wanted a “universal” approach—and not only for her own kids.

“So when we opened the school, we wanted to get a unified approach regardless of who the teacher is.” The culture wouldn’t be classroom specific; it would pervade the school, ground up. “And the children, they grow into the culture. . . . They grow into it. They know exactly what to expect.”

After exploring the options, Oholei Yosef Yitzchok tried using other approaches and techniques for a couple of years, but they didn’t quite stick. “Teachers would come up to me very often and say, ‘I said exactly what needs to be said—and it didn’t work.’ And I remember mentioning, ‘Yeah, but you need to speak from your heart.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘How can they speak from the heart?’”

The approach didn’t teach that. The NHA did. In July of 2021, they all went through the training, and right away, she noticed a difference. “It was very interesting. As director, I really felt that I didn’t have kids in my office any more”—because so many of the disciplinary issues that previously ended up there were resolved, instead, in the classroom. Not all of them, “but I would say like 80 percent. Which is huge, in my opinion.”

Leah Goldshtein, educational director at the school, describes the transformation of just one boy with challenging behavior. He would sometimes get violent, throwing chairs. A table, even. But every time he did something helpful, she recognized it with a compliment—“You opened the door without my asking”—and he showered them back. His behavior began to change, she says. “This image of a violent kid is disappearing.” His parents are observing the shift at home.

Leah Goldshtein (courtesy Leah Goldshtein).

As a result of all this, the boy is seen differently: Not as a trouble-maker but, well, as a boy. Period. “He becomes a human being,” Goldshtein says.

Schneiderman describes a similar, broader transformation in how everything and everyone is perceived. Since adopting Nurtured Heart, the entire school setting has taken on a different vibe, a “milder” one. The community has swiveled in its priorities, its perspective, its consciousness—“from noticing what is working out versus what’s not working out. So I think this is the core of the Nurtured Heart Approach. It’s Where am I looking?

On Dec. 26, Schneiderman and Goldshtein—both Nurtured Heart trainers—will offer a free introductory workshop for NHA-curious parents, with the option for further sessions. But even without training, the hope is that Nurtured Heart will seep naturally into different facets of school and home life.

“It’s a whole-school outlook. It’s also a whole-life outlook,” Schneiderman says. “We really needed to change, to focus on ‘how much I do have?’ versus ‘how much I don’t have.’ And by focusing on that, you actually attract more of what you focus on.”

Flipping the dynamics, and learning how to love an intense child

Growing up in the 1950s, Howard Glasser was one of those kids who didn’t fit in. He was smart. He was funny. But no one knew what to do with him—and, just like one of the children Scheiderman was describing, he tuned out. He didn’t find a niche at home or at school, and had the diagnostic paradigm been in place, he might have ended up on Ritalin with a diagnosis of ADHD. Not might have. Would have. As it was, his teachers and parents responded as most parents did in those days, in punitive ways, and he lacked support. He also lacked a sense of being comprehended and valued for who he was.

If only Nurtured Heart had been around back then, he says. “Man, it’s what I would have liked. It’s how I would have liked to have been seen, and heard, and appreciated—and I have no doubt that I would have responded well. I have a sense that I would have been super-responsive to being empowered, and it probably would have set me on track early in life.”

Instead, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps—or not. “I don’t know if that’s what I did. I think I just got lucky. . . . I think there’s a lot of grace involved. I just feel very fortunate I made it.”

Glasser knows he’s not alone. Many kids grow up in similarly difficult circumstances, with a similar sense of rebellion, of fighting, that barrel them along—only these days, children as young as 2 are being labeled and drugged, and the diagnostic model of mental and emotional distress continues to sprawl. Look at all the emphasis, these days, on blanket depression and anxiety screenings. “My belief is pharmaceutical companies would like nothing better,” he says, “than ‘no child left behind.’”

Glasser’s professional backstory, full of twists and turns, began with an interest in psychology—which he first studied as an undergrad at City College in Manhattan and later as a graduate student at New York University. After earning his master’s in counseling, he started in on a Ph.D., but eventually withdrew to focus on woodworking, making cabinets, furniture, and sculpture (a journey he describes at length in a 2014 Esquire article on “The Drugging of the American Boy”).

After a decade and a half, he moved to Arizona and worked as a therapist, tapping his own childhood experiences as he helped families with intense children too often labeled with ADHD. He saw what didn’t work in the existing methods, and he experimented with different tactics to find what might—often guided by observations and insights that would hit him, whether suddenly or gradually, and then not leave him alone.

One was this revelation, which he articulated in The Inner Wealth Initiative: “We adults have far more captivating, energized, animated responses to children when there is adversity. Adults tend to be more tuned-in when things are going wrong, displaying more emotion, discussion, relationship, intimacy, and presence.”

His idea: Flip the dynamics. Take the energy being thrown at—rewarding, enticing, compounding—negative behaviors and focus, instead, on the positive ones. The results were so striking, helping so many kids with ADHD, that Glasser was asked to speak and share his methods publicly. In the mid-1990s, he and likeminded clinicians launched the Tucson Center for the Difficult Child, where the new approach was gradually developed.

In 1999, he and coauthor Jennifer Easley published Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach, which became the top-selling book on ADHD. He went on to write, co-write, or contribute to 14 more volumes, including the Inner Wealth book and 2005’s 101 Reasons to Avoid Ritalin Like the Plague. He now teaches at the University of Arizona, speaks around the world, consults in different capacities, and is widely regarded as one of the earliest and most influential voices challenging the prevailing diagnostic approach to high-energy children.

But Nurtured Heart emerged gradually, he says. None of it was sudden. “This approach was like getting a letter in the mail day by day by day—or building a house. ‘Here’s a brick. Here’s another brick.’ I didn’t get a truckload at a time,” he says. “So, you know, the fact that this amounted to an approach that eventually had a name and became potable. . . transportable. That’s mind blowing to me. And the fact that it keeps going is mind-blowing.”

And while he’s not close with his family, he says, he’s forgiven them. “I know they love me dearly, they just had no idea how to love me. . . and I want to spare people that experience. You know, part of my passion is I want people to have that better experience. I want that counter-cultural revolution so people can have that better life.”  He wants intense kids to grow up with parents who know how to love them.

Emphasizing the affirmative, but no “Pollyanna-ish pretending”

Back in 1944, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded a Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” that famously, swingingly extols the benefits of seeing the bright side.

You got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-i-nate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr. In-between
You got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
And have faith, or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene…

Oh, listen to me children and-a you will hear
About the eliminatin’ of the negative
And the accent on the positive
And gather ’round me children if you’re willin’
And sit tight while I start reviewin’
The attitude of doin’ right

But as those who teach and practice Nurtured Heart repeatedly point out, inner wealth is more than self-esteem. The quest for it, the accumulation of it, requires more than simply “accentuating the positive.” It isn’t about being peppy for peppiness’ sake, or walking around with eyes shut and a fixed grin while the floor collapses into a pit of flames beneath you. It requires, most of all, attention to reality in its fullness.

“I kind of wince a tiny bit when I think of Nurtured Heart as a positive approach. You know, it’s actually born out of negativity. It’s predicated on energies of all sorts,” Glasser says. And yes, he adds, it really does strive to convert challenging energies into more positive energies. “So it is a positive approach in its form.”

But too often, “The danger of positive approaches can be that Pollyanna-ish pretending that you don’t see negativity.” That’s not the case with the NHA: A reset requires being aware of some line that’s been crossed—“what it sparks in us, what it triggers.”

The whole concept of “inner wealth” is based not on a blind emphasis on what’s right, but an understanding of one’s successes in the context and complexity of real-world challenges—for everyone, not just for challenging kids. In 2007, Glasser called it “a multifaceted inner experience of our greatness and deeply connected to our feeling that we have meaning—that we are important just by virtue of being alive.” But that doesn’t mean ignoring reality.

“You’re not praising children—you’re just recognizing them for what they’re doing, and you’re honoring them. And so much of people’s day-to-day occurrences just go unnoticed,” says Elizabeth Rezayat, Childs’ teaching partner at the North City co-op school and mother of one child now enrolled there plus one graduate. The same is true for children, whose good stuff isn’t getting any energy. “This kid just got his shoes on. This kid just got his coat on. This kid just packed his backpack, and he’s ready to go—and you’re yelling at him,” Rezayat says, “because he forgot to brush his hair.”

The affirmation goes both ways. As Childs wrote in a follow-up email, “It is the children who have really blown me away. Not only do they love pointing to their own greatness, but they also want to point to everyone’s greatness, including adults.”

The North City school incorporates something called “The Greatness Chair,” inspired by a book of the same name by NHA-trained child psychiatrist Kathleen Friend. The colorful seats—Childs made two over the summer, one for each classroom—explode with words like “brave,” “patient,” “flexible,” “empathetic,” “welcoming,” and “tenacious,” mainly gathered from Glasser’s NH list of “Emotionally Nutritious” words. Greatness chairs serve as cheerful substitutes for the standard, gloomy piece of classroom furniture filling the standard, gloomy disciplinary role: they’re the opposite of time-out chairs.

Anyone can sit in them—and when they do, “You either exclaim your own greatness, or somebody else is going to tell you about your greatness. So I’m excited about implementing those, because it’s more concrete for the littles.”

Among those happy to take a seat is Rezayat’s daughter, Zadie, who turns 4 in December. Recently, sitting in one of the chairs, she wore a pink shirt and a beaming look of contentment as Rezayat snapped her photo.

Zadie sits in one of the “greatness chairs” at the North City co-op preschool (photo courtesy Elizabeth Rezayat).

“Hey Zadie,” Childs asked her, “want to tell me about your greatness?”

“At night my mom cuddles me, and I cuddle her back.”

“You are the greatness of giving and receiving love.”

“Yup.”

Of the chairs, Rezayat says, “They’re absolutely beautiful.” The positive messaging was glued on with permanent sealant, so “those words are there to stay. And every single person, adults included, who sit in that chair, either intentionally or unintentionally, really get their cups filled.”

Outside the greatness chair, kids can do something that’s a complete disaster—and still, there are positives to be gleaned and recognized. Take the child who “tidies” her room by trying to cram some giant heaping mess into a closet. Rezayat’s NHA response: “Oh my gosh! You cleaned your entire room. Wow. Wow. I see you have a hard time closing the closet door—would you like some help organizing?”

As she says this, she’s laughing hard. This is how parenting goes. How teaching goes. How growing up goes—and, for that matter, life itself. The Nurtured Heart approach “can change everything in an instant,” she says. “And it’s up to us educators and parents—it’s up to us—to really use that and help our kids through tricky situations. . . and make sure that we are empowering them with love and lessons.”

Crunching the numbers, seeing the effects

All of this begs an obvious question: Does Nurtured Heart work? Research is being conducted by New Mexico State University, the University of Arizona, and Rutgers University (a collaborator on the New Jersey DREAMS project). But according to the numbers so far, yes, it does. It works in homes; it works in schools.

First, homes:

In “The Online Nurtured Heart Approach to Parenting: A Randomized Study to Improve ADHD Behaviors in Children Ages 6–8,” published in the April 2020 issue of Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, the authors—Glasser included—found that children diagnosed with ADHD whose parents went through a six-week online NHA training saw a decrease in hyperactivity/impulsivity compared to the control group. They concluded, “The study provides preliminary data of the NHA’s potential to improve ADHD related behaviors.” Discussing the clinical implications, they added: “The NHA showed improvement by training parents, rather than a direct child-focused treatment approach, and thus could be diffused throughout the family, potentially yielding benefits for other children within the household.”

Past research into the NHA and its impact on parents and children “is limited, but promising,” the authors state. Among the previous studies cited is one from 1997, when mothers who engaged in an NHA intervention reported improved parenting skills and lower stress and depression; for their children, they reported improved behavior and lessened anxiety. It also notes a 2015 study of 326 parents who had gone through NHA courses, 94 who had not, in which the former group reported more positive attention to their child, less yelling, and less scolding.

In 2018, Sara E. Roth concluded a secondary data analysis of 219 NHA parents and 100 control parents, finding upticks in the NHA group’s confidence as well as perceptions of their children’s strengths. “NHA is a promising intervention for parents. . . . Parenting programs such as the NHA are important, since prevention is key,” she writes. “It is imperative that there be more opportunities to provide parents with the positive parenting inherent in the NHA program that allows them to confidently and competently parent their children from a young age in a way that allows for the positivity in the parent-child relationship to be primary rather than resorting to negativity.”

Second, schools:

In his preface to The Inner Wealth Initiative, Glasser describes Tolson Elementary in Tucson, Arizona—the first school to incorporate Nurtured Heart—and the dramatic shifts seen over seven years. Serving a predominantly poor and disadvantaged population, Tolson had, pre-NHA, the highest rate of suspension among 60 district schools. Annual teacher attrition was over 50 percent. Fifteen percent of students used special-education services; after adopting the NHA, that number shrank to fewer than 2%.

The book’s introduction lays out more of the changes seen with Nurtured Heart:

Since the Nurtured Heart Approach became integrated into the school’s classrooms, Tolson has had only one student suspended; no referrals to the juvenile justice system; no bullying; dramatic decreases in referrals for special education; no referrals for ADHD evaluations; and no new children on ADHD medications. Teacher attrition also fell dramatically. And Tolson’s standardized test scores have risen dramatically.

Granted, that’s just one school. But it was the first. And in the years since, the Nurtured Heart Approach has been adopted in a wide range of schools and settings, including those involved in the New Jersey DREAMS program’s pilot effort.

In a video showcase packed with interviews and clips from classrooms at participating schools, educators talk about the effects of NHA on their students and themselves—and students are shown taking part in Nurtured Heart projects designed to recognize their own and others’ greatness. We see photos of boards emblazoned with positive messages. We see pictures drawn by kids with self-affirming statements.

“You know, it feels good,” says Carlos Navas, a social worker at New Jersey Global Charter School, in the showcase. Anyone in the community can do something positive, “and all of a sudden you see somebody just pointing it out—like, ‘ Wow. What you did was amazing. As a matter of fact, everybody stop what they’re doing. Let’s clap it up. What this person did was great.’”

Not just students need it, he says. So do parents. Everyone could use the affirmation when things go well and the reset when they don’t.

“We all need a new beginning at one point in our life,” he says. “So do our students. They need a new beginning maybe five times a day.”

Helping kids before they’re “put in a box”

At North City, Rezayat teaches the “Busy Ones” (1-2 year olds), the “Rising Stars” (2-3), and a multi-age class. Childs oversees the preschoolers, aka the “Super Heroes.” Among them is Amy Dacuag’s daughter, Luna, who just turned 4. She’s a newcomer to the North City and to the Nurtured Heart Approach, but already, Childs said, she’s talking about her own greatness in school and at home.

Amy Dacuag and her daughter, Luna.

Luna’s mom first heard about the NHA on the Therapists Uncensored podcast. “My ears were perking up—‘Oh, that sounds awesome.’” What popped out at her: “Before you even get a child into a clinic for therapy, before they even get diagnosed with anything, parents can do this at home. And oftentimes, it can turn things around. You know, they’re not pathologized. And I really loved that,” Dacuag says, adding that she’s not anti-medication or anti-diagnosis. “But if you can do this first. . . it’s just going to really reduce those potential negative aspects of kids feeling like they’re being put in a box, or that something’s wrong with them.”

A few months after hearing the podcast, she brought her daughter to an open house at the North City school. When she learned that it followed the Nurtured Heart Approach, her response, once again: “Oh, that’s awesome.”

A music therapist and early childhood specialist who had worked in non-NHA co-op school before enrolling Luna at North City, she was already attuned to other learning and behavioral approaches before stumbling across the podcast—and she already had concerns about Luna’s older brother, Wesley. “He can get really escalated with his energy,” she says. Not always a meltdown or a tantrum, “but his voice can get really loud. His body can get kind of wild, and he can lose his spatial awareness.”

His intensity had issues, last year, with a “really old-school, really punitive” teacher who didn’t know what to do with him. It also sparked a not-very-productive conversation with a child therapist she was interviewing. “His big solution was parent education for me, and he kept talking about time-outs. And I’m like, really? That’s all you’ve got?”

Only a month into using Nurtured Heart at home, she already sees a change in her son—and this year, his new first-grade teacher is calling in with positive reports. For Dacuag personally, “It’s training my eye to notice the best in others, and also myself. And in my own kids.” When she zeroes in on what’s great and remarks on it, “It really changes the whole energy. And you can really see them growing into their best selves. . . . So I feel that this approach has come at a really good time for me and my family.”

They even have a greatness chair—and, yep, Wesley likes it.  A lot. All of it. Just ask him. His replies will have the succinctness of any 6-year-old quizzed over the phone by a random grownup.

What does he like about this new way of talking about himself, of sharing stories? “Greatness,” he says.

Does he feel good when he hears about it? “Yeah.”

His mom, providing a reportorial assist, asks him how he feels when his teacher emails her with positive updates, and how it compares to last year: thumbs up. Then she asks how he feels when an adult gets mad at him: thumbs down.

When he sits in the greatness chair, how does he feel? “It made me feel good.” Then mom asks about his own greatness: What is it? When Wesley doesn’t reply right away, Dacuag reminds him that he helps his sister when she’s sad, fetching her a blanket or other special things.

“Do you feel like that’s something that’s great about you?”

“Yeah. Uh-huh.”

“What does it show? It shows that you’re. . . you can say it out loud.”

“I’m kind,” Wesley says, and he skedaddles off the phone.

Candles in the darkness, and cause for hope

On the other side of the continent, at the Oholei Yosef Yitzchok school in Brooklyn, Goldshtein talks about all this: About the effects of NHA on how we see, and what we say, as we respond to others and ourselves. Like Glasser, she’s fond of metaphors, describing the approach as a new lens that gives everyone a fresh angle on greatness within and without.

With the smallest ones, their youth and openness helps. “Their mind is more pliable, and they accept it in a more sincere way. With an adult, it’s like the brain is already wired. Like, it’s hard-wired for adults—it’s much harder to accept and take it, to hear it. The kids are so pure, so soft, it comes to them almost right away.”

She turns to another metaphor: “With children, they accept it as a balm. It’s a balm for dry skin.” And another: “Let’s say that each compliment, each time you focus on the good through NHA, using the tools of NHA, that’s another candle in a super-dark room. And the more candles there are, the more light is in the room.”

Slowly, the darkness abates. But lighting all those candles—that doesn’t happen spontaneously, on its own. “It’s a lot of hard work . . . It’s not a quick fix,” she says. Nor is it a magic pill, to deploy the most common metaphor for the medicalized approach.

In society at large, Goldshtein says, so much is punitive. So much is predicated on what we’ve done wrong and demanding payment for it, like a parking ticket. “There are all kinds of fines and fees and punishments out there,” she says. But she takes hope from various movements afoot, whether it’s people working to save the planet or efforts promoting kindness. Focusing on the good, and being proactive in achieving it: That’s the way forward.

Others talk about hope, too. Glasser included.

“What gives me hope is this approach has a mind of its own. It’s out there,” he says. He’s at a point, now, where others could take the lead if he ever had to step aside—“I see that as a beautiful thing. That it’s perpetuating. That there are people who love this work and are out there teaching it—and so that gives me hope.

“And I think it’s probably a good thing, too, that the deck is stacked. The world is giving us very clear signs that ordinary approaches don’t work—and the world is kind of stressed and more tightly warped than ever. . . . The viability of this approach is probably stronger than ever. It came of age by way of these more intense people in general, and it got stronger by way of intensity.”

Glasser never expected any of this, way back when. He couldn’t have known his career would lead to his work with an Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Arizona, or the Transformational Wellness program with its School of Public Health. He couldn’t foresee the online certification trainings, the adoption of the NHA in so many settings, or the upcoming NHA “global summit” featuring speakers from around the country and the world.

Among them is Sandeep Aggarwal, a teacher at a high school in North Carolina who helped bring the approach to his native India, just one corner of the planet where NHA is expanding its reach—something else he couldn’t have predicted.

Exactly how many corners is pretty much impossible to nail down. Glasser has no hard numbers of therapists, schools, and other environments that employ Nurtured Heart—but points, for a start, to the roughly 600 school districts in the state of New Jersey with plans to implement the approach. “And that’s just New Jersey.” Beyond that, “You have a pretty enormous number. You have, say, 5,000, 10,000. I’d say worldwide there’s quite a few, tens of thousands, of mental health professionals, therapists. That would be my humble guess.”

Yet the culture at large—in the prevailing narrative, and in the stories we tell—is still a far cry from acceptance of intensity and affirmations of greatness. Dacuag, who’s been spreading the word among colleagues, friends, and family, wishes resets and recognition were the baseline habits of everyday life. “Yeah,” she says. “I feel like it’s kind of the key.”

Anderson agrees, seeing Nurtured Heart as “a bigger tool, if we can get it out there.” As she tells parents at her school in Crystal Springs, everyone can benefit from learning to reset. She uses it on herself all the time, especially when a child acts out, “screaming in my face, and literally pushing me.” Everyone has hard days. “We all have these abilities to flip our lid and be totally out of sorts.” To see and own our emotions—then step away, and “not let that emotion define me”—is everything, she says. That, and a community of like-minded people providing support. It helped her through COVID, and it helps her now.

Anderson calls this “that little seed of hope, right? That dot. Seeing the one dot of what’s right in a sea of wrong. It can give you enough hope,” she says, deploying her own metaphor, “to make it to the next day.”

Envisioning a world with inner-wealth “billionaires and trillionaires”

For children, that seed of hope can shape their lives. Within the current, pathologizing model, with more and more being diagnosed with ADHD, ODD, and other disorders—and more and more of them being medicated—too many kids are locked into boxes at an early age.

“Parents that have children that are labeled—I think they get stuck in that label,” Anderson says, “and I think this approach gives them the ability to go, yeah, they might learn differently. They might have these different characteristics. But they still need to be told their inner wealth. They still need to be in a classroom and hear how amazing they are. They still need to be in a class and not be focused on what they’re not doing—but focused on their greatness, of what’s going on in that moment. As opposed to always being told or always being labeled the ‘bad’ kid.”

Ultimately, Anderson says, Nurtured Heart “is empowering the child to handle their own body—handle their own emotions—in a way that gives them the identity of who they are.” This gives them a sense of agency and ownership, learning to express themselves in a way that’s safe for them and others—and, Anderson says, “still be authentic for who they are.”

Were that the prevailing model, everything would change. Howard Glasser can picture it.

“I’d love to see a school system, a district, that has no-to-low medications to prove the point. I’d love to contradict the notion that intensity is the enemy—that ‘ants in the pants,’ hyperactive, inattentive.” All the words that normally corral a diagnosis: “I would love to show that those are just sign points of a kid with a little more lifeforce. . . and actually, the more intensity they have, the more potential for greatness they have. I’m a fan of inner wealth. I’m convinced that every kid can be an inner-wealth billionaire. It’s not the one percent, you know?”

But the dream doesn’t end there. In his vision, he also pictures a whole town, a whole city, a whole region, a whole state, where the adults all have that sense of mission. Where they all consistently reflect to the kids the great qualities they see. Where the kids learn to build their own inner wealth, then more inner wealth, then more.  The more people have, the more they’re determined to spread their inner wealth and nurture it in others.

“That’s the world I want to live in,” he says. A world with “inner wealth billionaires and trillionaires,” all of them paying it forward.

That’s his vision of the future. Making a 180, looking back at the past, Glasser sees that the universe unfolded the way it was meant to. Almost with intent. Because of his experience growing up. Because he studied psychology. Because of his 15 years woodworking. Because of all those kids he saw struggling as he once did. Because he was open. Because he attended the original Woodstock—that, too, was formative, as it was impossible to be there without wanting to change the world.

All of that prepped him. All of that shaped him, even singled him out, as the one to create Nurtured Heart. “I mean, it sounds pretty flaky,” he admits. “But the cosmic can opener came out and opened me up sufficiently.”

And if he could head back in time and tap young Howie on the shoulder? What would he say?

“I would say: ‘Hang in there, buster. You’re gonna find exactly what you need. . . . The beautiful thing is, you’re not going through the motions. You feel some pain now of not being appreciated and seen—and it’s going to help you. Help a lot of people, eventually. So just fasten your seatbelt, and stay on board.’”

Children play with blocks at Oholei Yosef Yitzchok school in Brooklyn (courtesy Mila Schneiderman).



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