Classroom management techniques and often our way of disciplining children at home are based on an attempt to control our children’s negative impulses, selfishness, and greed. Adults typically try to identify all the negative behaviors in children and then try to invent ways to stop them. What we suggest here is a practice that intentionally cultivates what is inherently good, cooperative, loving, kind, and relational in children. We name this technique Rocks in the Basket because of the unlikely story of the way it began many years ago.
From Conflict to Happiness: Children Learn To Care
The thought manifests as the word.
The word manifests as the deed.
The deed develops into a habit.
And the habit hardens into
So watch the thought and its ways with care.
And let it spring from love, born out of a concern for all beings.
I was teaching in an impoverished rural school district in Northern New York State. My class of 28 first through third graders included several older students who had been retained again and again. Playtime was an anxious time, often erupting in anger, tears and physical violence. These children brought anger and sadness to school that came from being cold and hungry. Alcoholism numbed their parents’ disappointments, only causing additional suffering and discouragement.
On this gray fall day I stood on the playground by our big maple tree. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aaron pick up a rock, winding up his arm as if to throw a baseball. In the next moment he threw that rock directly at Kathy. Both of their families lived in the surrounding Adirondack woods and were notorious for their drinking and fighting. Everything stopped as that rock flew past Kathy’s head, barely missing her and crashing into the maple tree, where it fell to the ground. A cold silent shock ran through me. Without thinking, I bent down and picked up the rock. Clearly recess was over.
Silently we all walked into the classroom. The children watched me as I sat down. Aaron’s face betrayed his fear of punishment while Kathy seemed unaware of any danger. On top of my desk there was a small basket. The rock was still in my hand. As I held that rock tightly in my hand, I remember saying:
Children, it’s really a wonderful thing that this rock didn’t hit Kathy. It feels like a miracle. It could have knocked her unconscious or put out one of her eyes. If that had happened we’d be on the way to the hospital now and this day would be a very different one from how it can be now. I’m happy for you, Aaron, that you missed your target, and I’m happy that you are ok, Kathy.
Then I dropped the rock into the basket. The children were still shaky as they realized the damage that rock could have caused.
There was little hope in these children’s lives. It was a sad and frustrating environment. So I began to fight my frustration and sadness by concentrating on finding something positive, anything good, any example of caring, even noticing the sun shining, a smile; and when I noticed it, I’d say, “Children I’m putting a rock in our basket.”
My practice continued, and as it did, I began to see its influence on me and on the class. There were more smiles and a little less anger. I’d just look around the room and find something that contradicted the anger and sadness present in that environment. Soon I kept a journal near my basket and recorded why each rock was put in. The children began to bring me rocks and gradually to find reasons to put a rock in our basket themselves.
From that time on I’ve had a straw basket with a big bow on the handle, and a sign asking everyone to notice good energy in every classroom.
Rocks in the Basket can build our awareness of the positive in the present moment. Our awareness of the positive can become a habit of mind. This awareness can help us all become kinder and therefore happier every day. Ultimately we realize the impact of our own thoughts on our attitudes, actions, and feelings.
How to Begin
All that’s needed is one medium-sized basket and one hundred small, assorted rocks, plus your intention to find the jewel in each moment.
Step 1: Introduce Rocks in the Basket to your child.You can buy the basket together and collect the rocks with your children revealing its purpose when you have the basket and all the rocks. By then the children will be curious. You could simply say, “Every time I notice something wonderful happening or a happy moment, I’m going to put a rock in the basket. Right now, we’re sitting here together and I’m looking at your wonderful faces. Yes, I am putting a rock in the basket.”
We find what we are looking for!
Clearly intend to see something positive.
Consistent attention gives the best results.
You will discover that as you determinedly look for what’s positive, mysteriously positive things just seem to show up! Children begin to get the idea and notice happy moments themselves. They become “Happiness Detectives.”
Step 2: Look for a child’s good qualities.
For example, your child might have a high level of energy, cheerful exuberance all day long, and a strong will. Your child may be very sensitive, thoughtful and able to concentrate for long periods of time. Whatever the case, acknowledging what is true honestly is comforting to children. They feel seen, appreciated and understood as they are.
You’ll find yourself less worried and more relaxed.
Children flourish when they feel understood and accepted.
Rocks in the Basket is not behavior modification, or a reward promised in exchange for good behavior. For example, “If you get ready on time this morning, I will put a rock in the basket” is a promise for the future; it is not recognition of the present moment.
Step 3: Celebrate the discoveries.
Keeping a journal near the basket to write what is noticed is a practical idea. When the basket is full, dump out all the rocks and talk about why each rock went in. Checking your memory against what is written in the journal is fun. A classroom or family conversation that brings laughter and feelings of gratitude generally happens.
You may decide to create a celebration each time the basket is full. What is your special way of celebrating? This is unique for each family. Time spent together in a way you love will be remembered. I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor is a wonderful story I’ve read many times to my classes before we choose how to celebrate.
Step 4: The reward for patience is patience!
Be willing to accept the repetition necessary for a child to succeed. It takes time and repeated practice for children to learn positive actions and attitudes, and to trust their own experiences. Rocks in the Basket grows in power over months of practice.
Your sense of humor is invaluable!
You will feel happier as you acknowledge the good things in your child. You may also find that your awareness of your own moods increases so that you can accept them more lightly and trust that they will pass. Your child may even put a rock in the basket for you upon occasion!
Step 5: Be authentic.
Make sure that when you put a rock in the basket, the moment you notice is actually happening. It is important for your recognition to be sincere, especially because children have a knack for seeing right through insincerity. Do not exaggerate the positive.
The practice of rocks in the basket ultimately creates a joyful climate, the strength of which becomes greater than the individual efforts needed to build it. It reflects the truth that every moment of our lives contains something to appreciate, something to be grateful for and something to learn.
To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses ó that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.
– Pablo Neruda