Sunday, January 10, 2016

LiiNK: 2015 Reflection

2015 has been an awesome year for the LiiNK Project. Let's take a minute to reflect on the different steps that were taken over this past year to help our children be more active and responsible through play and character development in the school setting for several public & private schools in Texas.
January, 2015
  • Signed two Texas school district MOU's for public schools to begin the LiiNK intervention in Fall, 2015 (Irving ISD & Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD)
  • Continued the 2nd year of the LiiNK Project with K-2 private schools (Starpoint & Trinity Valley School) - each of these schools was paired with a matching control school in the area
  • The Miles Foundation and the Andrews Foundation gave funding to the LiiNK Project
  • Ordered Positive Action character curriculum for the schools - this is the one we use exclusively for the LiiNK Project (
February through May, 2015
  • Irving & EM-S schools engaged in three LiiNK trainings
  • Observations & data collection began & continued in all 12 schools (public & private)
  • Parent talks interspersed
  • Board of trustees presentations
  • Webinar #2 with Texas Department of State Health Services on recess in the schools click here
  • Invited speaker presentation at the U.S. Play Coalition Conference on LiiNK (Rhea)
  • Follow up LiiNK presentation at the U.S. Play Coalition Conference (Rhea & Rivchun)
  • Shape America presentation - LiiNK
  • Discussions began with other school districts interested in being part of the LiiNK Project
  • Discussions continued with funding partners
August, 2015
  • One more half day training before school started
  • Talk to parents at Open House
September through December, 2015
  • Irving & EM-S school districts launched LiiNK in four elementary schools - grades K & 1 (four recesses daily and three character lessons weekly)
  • Observations & data collection began & continued in all 12 schools (public & private)
  • Parent talks interspersed
  • Webinar #3 with Texas Department of State Health Services on recess in the schools click here
  • Presentation at the TASA & School Board Convention - Austin, Texas
  • Presentation at the CEFPI Convention - how to design playgrounds differently - San Diego, CA
  • Two presentations about results of Year 2 data - TAHPERD Convention - Dallas, TX
  • Two school districts signed on to be part of the LiiNK Project for 2016
  • Discussions continued with funding partners
It is a non-stop process to move this project forward each and every day. I reflect back on how the project began. We wouldn't be in private and public schools today without some very forward thinking leaders in the schools. I have to thank some very deserving superintendents/associate superintendents for their trust in me and my team to do the research right and keep the information as transparent as possible within each district. So a shout out to Dr. Jim Chadwell, Superintendent at Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, Daniel Gallagher, EM-S ISD Deputy Superintendent of Elementary Services, Dr. Adam Grinage, Associate Superintendent for Academic Services and Dr. Sandi Cravens, Physical Education & Health Coordinator from Irving ISD. The principals at each of these schools have also been amazing: Bryan McLain, EME principal, Kelli Shipp, EME asst principal, Angela Long, Irving Townsell principal, Raymie Ramsey, Irving Brown principal, and Jorge Acosta, Irving Gilbert principal. And definitely not least, the teachers from all four schools have been wonderful through this learning process. Change of this magnitude in schools cannot happen without a group coming together as a unified team. These four groups definitely showed how to do this. Thank-you all from the bottom of my heart for a wonderful 2015. Can't wait to see how great things will be in 2016 as we expand in the districts we are already in and as we move into other cities and states across the country.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reflecting from Finland: Where Liink began

Almost three years later and I'm back in Finland to rejuvenate and explore some more. I have confirmed that Liink has the right purpose and is going in the right direction for children in the U.S. I arrived in Finland five days ago and rented the same apartment I stayed in back in 2012. While here, I have walked the same streets, watched the people, questioned the educators, and reflected on then and now all while having my time for play as well. What I have confirmed again is that physical activity, music, the arts, culinary experiences, the outdoors, leisure time, and especially saunas are still very important to the Finns. I have watched the families gravitate to the outdoors with their children in strollers or playing at a park no matter if it is raining or sunshine, windy and cold, or sunny and warm. The weather doesn't stop the people from enjoying the outdoors. I also passed many individuals and groups playing their music for enjoyment or for performance. People are happy here. They are less stressed, less anxious, smiling more, and walking everywhere. The very aspects I picked up when I was here in 2012 were resonating with me again on this trip.

From an educational perspective, one aspect of Finnish education which is changing is the decision to add 60 minutes of physical education daily to the school schedule. This is great news! Once again Finland is showing that physical movement is at the root of learning. They have continued to require recess (unstructured, outdoor play) to happen for 15 minutes every hour of the school day. Now they are making sure the structured physical movement patterns are taught daily as well.

One aspect of Finnish education which has not changed is the respect the government gives to all content. Each class taught is considered a content specialization. They do not see art, music, and physical education as electives or specials, but instead see them as important as other content such as language arts, math, history, science, geography, foreign language, and so on. Every content has a number of hours it will be taught per week, but it is up to the teacher how that will happen. Many of the teachers have been teaching content as an interdisciplinary approach (i.e., science and math together) for a few years now because it makes so much sense. Other teachers still teach a content at a time. The Finnish government is emphasizing the need to teach more from an interdisciplinary perspective, although in order for this to happen, the university educators need to train teachers from an interdisciplinary approach as well. This concept will take time to change since we have taught in silos for so long.

The U.S. seems to be moving in the same direction as Finland when discussing interdisciplinary approaches. We are changing at the university level when doing projects and teaching classes, but it's changing slowly. This change may take more time to impact the K-12 setting to be more interdisciplinary. I do think it's the right way to go.

So, how is the Liink Project moving in a purposeful direction? We will observe the four recesses embedded in the school day and the character/ethics curriculum embedded three times weekly in four elementary schools this Fall. I visited with Dr. Liisa Hakala from the University of Helsinki today about these two changes taking place in Texas schools. She is the professor I worked with when I was here in 2012. She is very excited to see the results. We hope to see children thriving in the school setting with less anxiety, more confidence, better self-esteem, and better attentional focus as a result of this intervention. Ultimately, students will be able to achieve academically because of better brain function. Only a short time is needed to tell whether the intervention is working or not. Stay tuned.

Have a good summer and play often!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Liink Project: Public schools to launch multiple recesses daily in DFW area

A lot has happened this year. We were able to identify a couple of major Foundations (eg. the Miles Foundation in Fort Worth) to fund the Liink project pilot intervention this spring and on into fall of 2015. We are continuing to seek federal funding, but until we do, it is so helpful to have Foundation support.

Part of the process to move the Liink Project into the schools is to allow school districts to see results and see how the project has faired so far in other schools. So last fall, we had administrators from the two interested public school districts in the Fort Worth area come and observe the Trinity Valley School in action (one of our initial pilot schools). They were so impressed. They noticed things like: children who were relaxed and happy, responsible walking in the halls to and from recess and other classes, short transitions, and attentive children in the classroom. The administrative representation from each school district was different but both teams were comprised of individuals who could make decisions to do or not do the project. Both school districts, by the end of the Fall, decided they wanted to do the project. That was great news! Just because they wanted to do the project didn't mean it was a done deal. At that point, I had to construct an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding)which is a contract between the two parties (school district and TCU) to protect both parties on each of their expected responsibilities. Both districts needed to take this project before their school boards in the spring. Both school boards approved the MOU between their district and the TCU Liink Project for three years with evaluations at the end of each year to make sure everything was going well.

So, who are the two school districts launching this Fall, 2015 with four recesses daily and three character development lessons weekly? Irving ISD and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD! We are so excited to have them join the Liink Project with grades K and 1. Irving ISD has three schools involved in the project: Brown, Gilbert, & Townsell Elementaries. Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD has identified Eagle Mountain Elementary as their Liink school. We now have completed three full day trainings with the administrators, teachers, intervention specialists, counselors, and physical education teachers from these four schools. The trainings were very successful and created a real excitement to begin the new schedules in the fall. So as of the first day of school in August for these four schools, all grade K and 1 students will be going to recess for 15 minutes two times in the morning and two times in the afternoon. When looking at each of the schedules, the time between recesses in a classroom is never greater than 70 minutes at a time.

Most intervention studies completed in schools take place over a 6-8 week period or maybe a semester. Many studies also try to help 3rd through 5th grade students with interventions such as this. The Liink Project is taking place in the grades K and 1 setting for the first year with a grade level added each year through 8th grade if the data continues to show positive results for the children. What's exciting about this study is that each year we will add a new cohort of schools who are interested in seeing if the Liink Project will help their children be more productive in the classroom and in life. By the end of this next year, the Liink Project will have completed a full year in grades K & 1 in four public schools and grades K-3 in the two private schools. All in all, we will see the impact of this project on 1,280 students and 64 teachers across 6 schools in Liink's 2nd year in the schools. In order to identify whether the effects of the findings are due to the intervention or something else, we will also have four matching control schools for each of the four intervention public schools. We already added control schools this year for the two private schools in Fort Worth. So we will be observing and collecting data this next year in 6 intervention schools and 6 control schools. We're writing up the results now and will be submitting a manuscript in the next month for review. Once the data is published, we will send the link to the data. Just know, that what we are finding right now is off the chart!!! We are so excited with the positive changes that are happening in the children.

It's time to change the environment for learning. The Liink Project is showing to be an awesome platform to create a successful learning environment for teachers to teach and children to learn. If you want to follow us on facebook, please go to  and connect with us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Liink Project: The first year as a pilot study

We have changed our name to the Liink Project. This stands for Let's inspire innovation 'N kids. For everyone who has been following this project, you know that it wasn't an easy decision to change the name, but it has shown to be a great change in the long run.

We have been very busy since beginning this project as ISIS and now Liink. In Fall, 2013, three of the Deans and the Provost from TCU showed substantial support by giving $125,000 to launch the project. I had talked with several school districts and two private schools back when Dr. Pasi Sahlberg was here in the spring of 2013. By the summer, two superintendents had either been released from the district or walked away. The three school districts that I thought would be involved were no longer going to begin with us that Fall, 2013. So I talked with the Dean's involved in supporting the project and let them know that I could begin with a much smaller cohort and learn more about how to make this work once we went to the public schools, and be ready with some data and hopefully high quality findings by the time we launched in a public school district. They agreed that would be a really good idea. So, two private schools began training in the Fall of 2013 as pilot schools focused on grades K & 1 to implement 3-4 unstructured, outdoor recesses daily and three character development lessons weekly at 15-20 minutes per lesson. Each year, we will add one more year to the project. During the Fall, 2013 semester, we trained the teachers on different aspects of the intervention and collected baseline data on the grades K & 1 children.

In the spring, 2014, we implemented the multiple recesses in the two private schools and the character development curriculum called Positive Action. The teacher adherence to take the students to the multiple recesses daily was very high. The enthusiasm for the character development curriculum was very good from parents, administrators, teachers, and students. The behaviors improved significantly as a result of the intervention as well.

As of this spring, we now have two DFW area public school districts on board to try the Liink Project. We are hosting three full day trainings this spring just like we did with the private schools and then will launch the intervention in the Fall, 2015. We are also collecting baseline data on the children in the schools to make sure that the intervention schools do match the control schools demographically. So when we begin with the public schools in the fall, we will have the original two private schools, two control schools to match them, four public intervention schools, and the four control schools to match each of those intervention schools. All in all, we will be collecting data on over 2000 children across 12 schools in combinations of grade levels: some will be grades K-1 and others will be at grades K-3. We'll keep you posted on how things are going with results. So far, everything is going really well.

Monday, July 7, 2014

LIINK Project: What is so difficult about change?

I have talked for a couple of years now about the need for more structured (physical education) and unstructured (recess) physical activity/play in the K-12 school setting. Children's brains need active, unstructured, outdoor time throughout the day to allow for several things: healthy social and emotional development, stimulation of brain activity, increased oxygen and glucose to fuel the brain, and continued building of highways where the retention of knowledge exists. The trend over the past two decades has been to eliminate recess in the schools in order to teach skills & strategies associated with literacy, math, and science. Furthermore, U.S. state and national policy makers and grant providers are beginning to emphasize a need for longer than seven hour school days that we have presently to increase school accountability, student testing procedures, and the belief that time could be better spent on academics.  In other countries like Finland, Japan, and England, recess is not only expected throughout the day, but in Finland, they even expect the school day to be much less time in the lower grades (K-2) than the middle schools (4.5 hours vs 6.5 hours) and still require recess every 45 minutes. Other countries get it, why can't the U.S.? This is a disturbing phenomenon for children to be required to sit in a chair all day and even withold recess from children who misbehave in order to teach them more curriculum. This phenomenon has no serious research to back it up, and is actually counterproductive to increasing the academic achievements of students (Skrupskelis, 2000). Professional organizations, educators, administrators, teachers, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned with this present trend. Even though we know all of this, we continue to give lip service to the idea, but no one in the public school sector is willing to go out on the limb to make it happen. Why?
A couple of thoughts we all need to consider.

One is that money allocated for schools from state and federal funds based on test scores and attendance rather than the health of our children drives educational decisions. If our children drove the decisions, then we wouldn't care what politicians, textbook companies, and educational agencies demanded and would create more chances throughout the day for unstructured outdoor play for children to explore, create, and socialize.  Research shows that the fundamental requirement for any child is to move. The brain will then work efficiently for learning to take place. Instead, these powerful entities demand that we extend the day, sit for longer periods of time, and continue to prepare for a test. So far, the test scores continue to lag, the children continue to burnout, and the spark of life continues to go out.

Second, we have become so consumed over the past 30 years with comparing ourselves globally to other countries academically, that we have lost sight of the fundamentals of life. It's really not all about a test score. Through teaching to a test, the children have lost the ability to critically think. It's bigger than a test score. We learn  much in life from social experiences, solving problems with different solutions, and making mistakes. We can not truly measure what children learn through a test score. We have a generation of children presently who are afraid to fail, have high anxiety and stress, cannot finish something they start, have no regard or respect for life or people, and want something for nothing.

The only way to change the educational problems we have is to trade quantity for quality of curriculum we try to cover in a year, allow students to explore through play, teach character development regularly, and redefine the rigidity we have grown to embrace in the classroom and on the playground to a more explorative environment. Language arts, math, science, & social studies should be balanced in a child's world with physical education, art, music, languages, and technology. All of this content is important, but more does not equal better in this case. As Aristotle states, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thinking that we have to have language arts, math, science, and social studies every day is the wrong way to think. The collection of experiences is greater than each experience alone.

We have the answer for changing the structure of the school to embrace unstructured outdoor recess, adding character development weekly, and backing off the amount of curriculum needed to be successful academically. It's the LiiNK Project. The results are in and they are very good.

Monday, March 10, 2014

LIINK Project: The first year has begun

The LIINK Project (Let's inspire innovation 'N kids) is up and moving in a good direction. We launched in September with two Fort Worth private schools. Starpoint is a lab school at TCU and the other is a K-12 prviate school called Trinity Valley. The goal this year was to collect baseline data on the K & 1 grade children this past Fall, train the teachers and administrators with the tools necessary to make some key changes in the school day by January, and observe behaviors in the classroom and recess arenas to make sure the observation instruments we developed were going to work. So, our goals have been met so far. We launched the intervention in January. The teachers are introducing Positive Action character development curriculum weekly and providing multiple recesses daily.

We have learned several things through this pilot study so far. We knew that parents needed to be part of the conversation from the beginning. What we didn't expect was the parents would be as supportive as they have been. Many of the parents, after hearing what we were going to do, asked if their children who were not K & 1 could somehow get similar experiences. The parents feel that their children do need more physical activity and breaks during the school day and especially when they raise boys. The research shows that boys need these breaks more than the girls at times which is showing up more and more with the discipline issues and lack of focus in the classroom. We have since decided that when starting this program in other schools, we need to launch it across all elementary grades even though we will only collect data on the youngest ones to begin. We still feel that all of the children will benefit from the program and the parents will be much happier as well.

Another thing we've learned is that the training needs to involve everyone who will be impacted by the character development curriculum, not just the homeroom teachers. This includes all teachers, administrators, parents, and staff who have any connection with the children learning the curriculum. A couple of funny things have happened to bring us to this conclusion. One is that the students were going home talking to their parents about castles, different fun characters, and keys to doors with the parents lost to why the students were talking about these things. We realized real quick that the parents needed to be aware of the types of things their children were learning for carry over impact at home. The other funny thing was that the children began using the concepts by role playing at recess. It was really fun to see the impact of a curriculum being introduced in a short period of time having that kind of influence on the kids. This is only the 2nd month of intervention.

We've also learned that this intervention is working faster than we thought it would. We are seeing some very good annectdotal evidence of positive changes in the first 6 weeks as a result of additional recesses daily and character development curriculum implementation and can't wait to see pre-post comparisons in May!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

LIINK Project: What is it?

Many different strategies have been tried at different levels of U.S. schools over the past 20 years trying to increase children's ability to learn. Some of these strategies employed have been increasing the number of hours students go to school each day, increasing the number of hours the students sit in a desk to take in more content, decrease the number of minutes in a day the students are participating in physical activity or unstructured break times, increase the amount of homework students have to do each night, and increase the emphasis on teaching to the standardized tests per grade level. These strategies are not working.

The LIINK Project (Let's inspire innovation 'N kids) is the development and implementation of a four part intervention inspired by the Finnish education system and some bright spots in U.S. programs to improve academic achievement and the school/classroom environment which are very different than the above strategies. One evolving U.S. strategy, recognized for quite a few years now in state legislations, that needs more attention and a different way of putting it into action is character development.  48 out of 50 state legislations have either mandated or encouraged character development since as early as 1995. Each of the states has varied the instructions given to schools from implementing bullying curriculum to implementing no less than 10 minutes of instruction focused on character qualities to emphasizing principles of morality, truth, justice, & true comprehension of American citizenship. None of these mandates or emphasis has explained how to make this happen so many schools use more of a philosophical emphasis in the schools rather than a curriculum driven emphasis. Finland, on the other hand, has mandated religion or ethics as an independent course in the curriculum for at least an hour a week  per week of the school year per school year from the time they enter school at 7 years of age until the time they leave middle school at around 15 years of age over the past 20 plus years.

Some think, including me, in order for the school environment to be more conducive to learning, a structured character development curriculum as a designated content piece needs to be implemented from the time students begin school at 5-6 years of age through at least middle school.  High school should continue to build on character development as well, but I feel that our high schools need to be overhauled and this would be a standard content piece to consider when the restructuring begins. Therefore, one of the four parts of the Liink Project intervention is to add character development as a content area to the curriculum every year. A second part of the intervention is to add multiple recess periods throughout the day at 15 minutes per session. The third and fourth parts will be implemented as school districts are ready to move to those next two steps. The third part is to change from standardized testing to developmental assessments through 5th grade. The fourth part is to restructure the school day so the young children experience more play and creativity than academic content in the early years and develop more academic content as they mature in later elementary years through middle school.

Liink Project has launched as a pilot program in two Fort Worth area schools this Fall. Trinity Valley School, a private K-12 school and Starpoint School, a grades 1-6 lab school have collaborated with TCU to train and implement character development as a content area and add a designated number of unstructured, outdoor recesses daily. This first year will be used to figure out the different pieces such as training of teachers, scheduling of character development in the classroom and extra recesses throughout the day, as well as make sure the schools have smooth transitions from what they have done previously to this new format. Then next year we will launch this model in at least one public school district and try to add at least one of the last two parts of the intervention to the schools we are working with this year. This year and in future years, we will begin with the youngest children and add a grade level each year until all students are involved in the intervention from the pilot schools. We will be assessing several psychological and physical areas of development in children. I'll keep you updated on how the pilot is moving along.