“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”  -Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher.

When I recently came across this quote, I immediately reflected on the journeys of our 8th graders over both their middle school time and their St. Anne’s careers. They have grown as students, athletes, friends, and leaders, and the progress they have made between where they once were and where they are now is a source of pride for our whole community.

Further reflection on this quote reminds us of two important aspects of growth. First, meaningful journeys rarely are completed overnight. And second, journeys don’t begin until you take that first step forward. There are countless obstacles that can either delay or prevent the start of a journey from perseverating about finding the perfect path to being overwhelmed by the prospect of the whole journey itself. These obstacles can easily derail growth before an earnest attempt is even made.   

We’ve all experienced this at some point with ourselves and kids, and I’ve been intrigued by the concept of Kaizen, a mindset and approach used in Japanese businesses to realize growth by overcoming typical barriers to change. Big growth can feel daunting to achieve for a variety of reasons, and sometimes it is actually demotivating.


Consider the following situations as examples. First, imagine a middle schooler who is struggling with organizational skills. For this student, “keeping a clean locker” could seem like a monumental task, particularly if they’ve struggled with it for years or their locker looks like it exploded inside. Now imagine the student who is receiving feedback to participate more in class. It might feel confusing and intimidating thinking about how to go from not participating to being a more active participant. In another situation, we might picture a student going rafting for the first time with a group of people they’ve not gone with before, and the whole thing can feel like a giant leap of faith and cause anxiety.


So, what can we do? Kaizen suggests that instead of spending hours, days, or weeks wondering how to achieve the big growth, identify a small, simple, and concrete step that would represent even the tiniest of growth. 


Cleaning a whole locker or room might be a gigantic undertaking that you don’t think you have time for or really don’t want to deal with right now. However, putting in your planner to use the last minutes at BLOC/study hall every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to just collect loose pens, throw out trash, and recycle old papers is simple, quick and clear. It creates visible (hopefully) value and allows for success to be all but inevitable. Doing that every other day even for a few weeks creates a habit that you can then build on. It also keeps it on your mind in a way that might lead to a habit of not putting random loose papers or storing a half sandwich in your locker in the first place. Moreover, it makes the large undertaking of organizing your locker seem less daunting.


I’ve been trying this with my own desk at school that, admittedly, can have papers pile up (my digital organizational skills are far more advanced fortunately).  Putting in my Google Calendar to spend two minutes every other day cleaning my desk has actually paid dividends. It has also mitigated the situation of me seeing a desk that would take twenty minutes to sort through.  My hope is that it’ll also help me by discouraging me from simply putting a sheet on my desk without a plan.


To close, here are a few other suggestions/applications I came up with that directly relate to how we can use this technique to work for our kids:


1) Instead of trying to just be a regular participant, have a student put one box on the top of their notes every day at the start of class. The student’s responsibility is to check that box before the period is over by participating in asking a question (excluding a bathroom visit request) or making a comment. It’s a simple strategy that is visible, and it is much more likely to be successful long-term than jumping to four or five comments a class.


2) Rafting: Let’s say you’re rafting in Colorado this spring. You’ll want to consider all the possible components for a nervous student that roll into “rafting.” There’s the wet suit, life jacket and giant paddle that might be a new experience. There’s seeing an unfamiliar river and sitting with a group with varying paddle experience. Kaizen would suggest replying to a student who is reluctant to do it by simply asking, “How about we just put on the wet suit and/or life jacket inside and see how it feels?  Could you sit in the raft on the ground and hold the paddle?”  Just having those experiences before jumping in can make all the difference, reducing the number of barriers and worries.


3) Mitigating negative self-talk: For a student who struggles with frequent negative self-talk, try having them write one compliment to themselves every day or every Friday while eating breakfast. Have a jar at the table and a pencil there to lower the barriers to this task, and consider putting words on the jar as triggers (friend, artist, soccer player, brother, daughter). Again, make it simple, concrete, small, and routine.  Start with less frequency to help it be successful, but make it a routine so that the journey can begin.


4) Being more active: Do you have a student who every day goes right to a gaming system when you’d rather see them play outside? Instead of asking for 30 minutes of playing outside, tell them beforehand that they need to be outside for five minutes. Stick with it for a period of time before raising that time request. The first few days might seem like a struggle, but soon they might discover something growing in the garden or a cool bug on the tree, or they kick a soccer ball around. Most likely this will eventually lead to their voluntary staying outside longer than the five minutes you had agreed on together. You may not get to thirty minutes in the short-term, but you can get the student on their way to being outside more often.


Again, these are just a few suggestions of how the principle of Kaizen can be effective. Avoiding the decision paralysis of trying to select the perfect path by instead finding a simple small step that moves you along can make all the difference. In many cases, it makes the bigger change feel more attainable once the first steps have been taken and internalized. In other cases, the first steps can help by getting you some initial information or feedback. This in turn can give you new insights that ultimately lead to steps you couldn’t have imagined at the outset.  Whether it is in school or out of school, there are plenty of opportunities to embrace the technique of Kaizen to grow ourselves or support the growth of others.

-Sumant Bhat 

Head of Middle School