Reading, Writing, Respect


In 1993, Mark Collin walked into Cazadero’s Montgomery Elementary School expecting to spend a few months accruing hours as a school counselor. A longtime student of Jungian and transpersonal psychology, Collin was interning at the Lomi Psychotherapy Clinic to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. Thirty-five years since his own stint in elementary school, he was shocked at the normalized cruelty he witnessed. Older kids were literally putting younger kids headfirst into trash cans while under-resourced teachers struggled to cope. Collin, who spent two of his college years living alone while building a cabin in the Mendocino redwoods, realized that the school’s commitment to “literacy” was too narrow. He started asking questions. How can kids learn reading and algebra if they are distracted by their own self-defeating behaviors? How can students be expected to thrive academically if they are suffering emotionally and socially? According to Collin, the answers came from the students themselves. He saw they needed to calm down. Starting in the safety of the kindergarten class, he sat with them in a circle on the floor and asked them to breathe. Thus was born the first of 12 “tools” designed to activate the innate wisdom inside each person. The breathing tool is a simple reminder that our most basic instinctual habit can bring relief.

From that starting point, Collin developed an entire “Toolbox,” a curriculum for social and emotional learning whose mission, he says, is “to build children’s capacity and resilience for learning through development of personal awareness, self-mastery and empathy for others.” Collin’s “few months” at Montgomery soon stretched into nine years.

People have long challenged Descartes’ rationalist “I think, therefore I am” philosophy in favor of a more holistic view of what it means to be alive. In the mid-’90s, Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, which challenged the sanctity of the IQ as the measure of success in life, spent a year and a half on the New York Times bestseller list.

Studies were conducted to show that social and emotional learning, which incorporate “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making,” are fundamental aspects of a high-functioning school or work environment. Even the federal government is taking notice. Currently, HR 4223, the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act of 2009, is in the first step of the legislative process.

The tools are based on action, a psychosomatic approach that recognizes the body’s ability to soothe the mind and spirit. Collin believes that the sacred should not be just “an idea, but an experience.”

The listening tool teaches kids to listen with their ears, eyes and hearts, reading body language and facial expressions to help, Collin says, “hear between the lines.” The garbage-can tool reminds us that we are free to let go of other people’s meanness, free to be actors, not re-actors, in our own lives. In many schools, this common language has become the basis for students to communicate their feelings.

The Toolbox curriculum is currently being taught in both English and Spanish in 26 secular and nonsecular schools in Sonoma, Marin and Butte counties. The curriculum recently received a large grant from the pro-education Stuart Foundation, and even television producers see potential programs. Bonnie Benard, a national resiliency expert, says, “Of all the programs on the federal list, [Toolbox] is the only one that teaches children about their own resilience.”

Recently, WestEd, a long-standing educational research nonprofit, conducted a 16-week study in the Wright Elementary School District of Santa Rosa, which utilizes Toolbox training. In K-3 classes they found significant measurable progress in several areas, including autonomy, self-management, problem solving, classroom behavior and improved family relations. But those are still only numbers. The real evidence comes, as usual, from the students themselves. As one fourth grader put it, “Toolbox is like having a school inside you. If you use them, you’re good.”

Seventeen years after creating the Toolbox with that initial pilot group at Montgomery, Collin reunited with several of the students, curious about the longitudinal implications of the curriculum. Now in their late teens, these students could not always recall Collin himself, but they remembered what he taught them. “These tools are just small chisels and life’s a big granite block, and little by little, we get better at it,” mused one boy. Another 18-year-old admitted, “If it weren’t for the Toolbox, I’d be in the penitentiary. I absolutely would be.”