Changing Education: 7 Habits for School

Synergize—a lot of adults may not apply this word to their daily lives, or for that matter, even know what it means; however, kindergartners at Botetourt County’s Colonial Elementary sure do. The word became a “bragging point” for principal Tammy Riggs as she described how The Leader in Me, a book by Stephen Covey, had impacted her school. When Superintendent Dr. Anthony Brads visited the school in the spring of 2011 on Career Leadership Day, he was talking with a kindergartener about what he had learned that year.

Even though the boy couldn’t pronounce his “R’s” he matter-of-factly stated, “I know how to synegize.” When asked what that meant, he responded, “When people wook togetha.”

Working together is how the largest elementary school in Botetourt County, with around 475 kids, has made a change for the better. It started in the spring of 2009, when a new group of Student Council officers had recently been elected. Typically, Riggs found SCA elections to be a mere popularity contest; however, that particular year, she noticed that several of the children had true leadership potential, yet they didn’t realize it. She made it her mission to come up with a plan to build on this. She recalled reading Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, while finishing her master’s degree. After researching, she found the companion book, The Leader in Me. An avid baseball fan, Riggs said, “It’s the only book you would catch me reading between innings of a baseball game.” This inspiring book that brought her to tears became her vision for her school. “I realized we’d be selling our kids short if we didn’t do this.”

The Leader in Me, subtitled “How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness One Child at a Time,” was written as a result of an elementary school principal’s attempt to teach the 7 Habits to younger children. In fact, Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People helped save the school, which is located just a few hours down the road from Blue Ridge, Virginia. A.B. Combs Elementary, a magnet school in Raleigh, North Carolina, was going to lose its funding if it didn’t find a new focus to attract parents and kids. A few months prior to hearing this news, A.B. Combs’ principal Muriel Summers happened to attend one of Covey’s conferences on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. She wondered if these habits could be taught to kids and even approached Covey about the topic. He said he didn’t see why not and to let him know if she tried it. She had found her new focus—leadership—and the school began incorporating the 7 Habits into its curriculum. That was in 1999. In 2001, Covey’s book The Leader in Me, was published. It documents the story of A.B. Combs and other schools that followed in its footsteps. Now Combs is the top magnet school in the country and serves as a model for other schools to follow—schools around the world, such as Colonial Elementary.

In the fall of 2009, Riggs invited Colonial 5th grade teacher, Stephanie Anderson, to attend Leadership Day at A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh to find out more about the leadership model. Riggs recalled how on the drive down she couldn’t stop talking about the principles presented in Covey’s books. “We enjoyed the day, crying and being inspired,” she said. “On the way home, I couldn’t get Stephanie to be quiet.”

Arriving home, the two were excited to implement the program at the school, but knew it would be a challenge, mainly because of funding. According to Riggs, for the model to work, everyone had to be on board and that meant lots of materials and training that would cost thousands.

In order to inform the community of the school’s plan, Riggs scheduled a town meeting where she only set out 10 chairs. “I didn’t want to set out 50 and fill five,” she explained. “I didn’t want to be disappointed.” To her surprise about 50 people showed up. After the meeting, two students’ fathers, who were also local businessmen, decided they wanted to help. An $8,000 donation kick-started the efforts. Pancake breakfasts, auctions, craft shows and yard sales followed. “It just happened little effort after little effort—supernaturally,” Riggs said. Between November and May they had raised $30,000. “That just doesn’t happen in education,” she said.

One of the first things faculty and staff did was to decorate the school. “We made it a place kids would be proud of,” Anderson said. Then came training of the staff—the entire staff. Custodians, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, teachers’ aides, office staff, teachers and adminstrators were all trained. “It was sacrificial on their part,” Riggs said. Teachers trained further with a book study where they read The Leader in Me and then met in small discussion groups.

The school’s curriculum was not changed, but rather enhanced with the 7 Habits. After Covey published The Leader in Me he published The 7 Habits of Happy Kids, a picture book that uses animals and short stories to help young students grasp the 7 Habits. Anderson explained that in her classroom they will read one of the stories at the beginning of the year, and then complete a connection activity. She continues to find ways to implement the 7 Habits throughout the year.  For example, after a novel study, the class might discuss how different characters in the book applied or could have applied the 7 Habits. So what are the 7 Habits?

  • You’re in Charge I am a responsible person. I take initiative. I choose my actions, attitudes, and moods. I do not blame others for my wrong actions. I do the right thing without being asked, even when no one is looking.
  • Have a Plan I plan ahead and set goals. I do things that have meaning and make a difference. I am an important part of my classroom and contribute to my school’s mission and vision. I look for ways to be a good citizen.
  • Work First, Then Play I spend my time on things that are most important. This means I say no to things I know I should not do. I set priorities, make a schedule, and follow my plan. I am disciplined and organized.
  • Everyone Can Win I balance courage for getting what I want with consideration for what others want. I make deposits in others’ Emotional Bank Accounts. When conflicts arise, I look for third alternatives.
  • Listen Before You Talk I listen to other people’s ideas and feelings. I try to see things from their viewpoints. I listen to others without interrupting. I am confident in voicing my ideas. I look people in the eyes when talking.
  • Together Is Better I value other people’s strengths and learn from them. I get along well with others, even people who are different than me. I work well in groups. I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than anyone of us can alone. I am humble.
  • Balance Feels Best I take care of my body by eating right, exercising and getting sleep. I spend time with family and friends. I learn in lots of ways and lots of places, not just at school. I find meaningful ways to help others.

While some of these might seem vague to us, the students at Colonial Elementary, even those as young as 5, know them and understand what they mean. “We now have a common vocabulary,” Anderson said. “It makes a bigger impact.” Kindergarten teacher Jaime West saw from a different perspective. She taught the youngest group and was anxious to see how they would be impacted by the time they headed to middle school. “Expectation is everything,” she said. “I never thought about this with five year olds. It’s applicable because it becomes a piece of who they are.” While teaching social skills had always been a part of elementary school, this program put everyone on the same page. “It becomes part of the class community,” West said. As a result of the program, her kindergartners now complete a Data Notebook each year. The notebook tracks their progress on specific skills and helps them take ownership of their work. Riggs hoped to implement the notebooks in all grade levels due to the success they saw with the kindergartners.

The Character Counts program, which kicked off in 1993 and promotes six pillars of character is already in place in most area schools, and is a county-wide initiative in Botetourt.  “It marries well with that program,” Riggs said. She explained that while Character Counts promotes kids to “Be Trustworthy” and “Be Honest,” the 7 Habits give them the path to do so. “It teaches them how to apply things in life that will make them a good person,” she said. Not only that, Riggs feels it helps prepare them for the business world. She explained that so often businesses have to intensely train their new employees regarding problem solving and social skills. “If we do it right the first time,” she said, “they won’t have to do that.”

With today’s schools bombarded by standardized testing, Riggs saw the bigger picture. “It’s not just about academics and SOLs,” she said. “Hopefully we will produce students that are leaders in the everyday and prepare them for the 21st century.” The best part about The Leader in Me is suggested by the title. This leadership model wasn’t created for natural leaders, but is about finding the leader in everyone. Referring to her school, Anderson said, “It’s not just about 8 leaders, but 475. Finding their niche and pulling it out. That’s what I’ve loved the most about this—really knowing my kids.” Riggs explained that there are two types of greatness: primary and secondary. Secondary greatness focuses on talent, labels and accomplishments; however primary greatness revolves around who you are as a person. “Everyone can have primary greatness,” Riggs said. West added, “Everyone’s a leader in something.”

Riggs recalled a Board of Supervisors budget meeting. A Colonial Elementary student was called up first to speak. Despite the fact that his parents couldn’t attend, he had them drop him off at the meeting because he was concerned about what was going on. He learned that all he had to do was fill out a piece of paper and he could address the board—his decision, no parent urging. So in a packed chamber room, he did just that. Riggs said he wasn’t necessarily a leader in school, so she was a bit surprised. But he fervently addressed the crowd. Afterwards, Riggs reminded him of The Leader in Me. “What you just did, is what that is,” she said. “That’s what this is all about.”

According to Riggs, parents have embraced the program, and it has spilled over into homes. Riggs recalled a first grader whose family allotted time each night for a family member to talk. On one of the student’s nights she asked her family, “How have you been proactive today?” Her parents were slightly confused until they learned about the 7 Habits. “Then they were all over it,” Riggs said. “Parents share all the time.” Stories such as their kids not fighting over doing their homework because they need to “put first things first” and students telling their younger siblings “if we synergize, we can get this done faster” when putting their toys away.

And then there was the young man who really tugged at Riggs’ heart strings. He was one of those kids on the 2009-10 SCA in whom she saw leadership potential. The SCA members had to read the story book and journal about each of the 7 Habits. When they met to discuss their journals, the young man told his principal that “Seek first to understand and then to be understood,” was going to be a struggle for him. “I could’ve cried. He gets it,” she said. That was his last year at Colonial before heading to Read Mountain Middle School. “I hope he has one sliver that stays with him because he has so much potential,” she said. “He’s an inspiration to me.” In fact, Riggs admitted that that particular “habit” is the most challenging for her as well. And she’ll admit that to the kids, too. Anderson added, “We’re not just expecting it out of our kids, but we expect it out of ourselves. Modeling is key.”

Riggs said that while kids will be kids, the frequency of office visits for discipline has decreased at her school since implementing the program. “And when they do come, it is so much easier. They can verbalize it and they know. At some point that’s going to be an action step.”

 Riggs has high hopes and total confidence. “I truly believe that the Lord Botetourt [High School] graduation rate will be different when these kids get up to the high school,” she said. In fact, Riggs said that the Lord Botetourt principal is equally inspired and working on plans to add a leadership focus to her school. Currently no other Botetourt County Schools have implemented the program. However, nearby Bedford County sent over a group to observe the 7 Habits at work and Franklin County shared in some training. Even more impressive, the head of the economics department at Longwood University, who has also implemented the 7 Habits, wants to partner up with Colonial and have the students Skype with one another.

Riggs said there is still so much room to grow and more stages to the training, but she is pleased. Since the implementation of the leadership model, the school has done away with the Student Council Association and replaced it with a 10-member cabinet called the Student Leadership Council. No longer is it a popularity contest where students are elected by their peers, but rather they go through an application process, complete with a letter and references. They also did away with Colonial Cash, a program that rewarded students with fake money and then allowed them to make purchases from the school store. A student approached Riggs and told her that they were paying them to do what they should already be doing; Riggs quickly recognized that this did not go along with the new model. “It’s still in the works. We are constantly looking for more opportunities,” she said. “I want it to be who we are. There’s really not a lot of fancy about it.”

With a new school year just underway, two new teachers joined the staff, having spent a good part of their summer dabbling in the works of Stephen Covey. The halls full of inspirational quotes and 7 Habits’ characters welcomed them. And Mrs. Riggs and the rest of the staff continued to, as they would say it, put first things first. “My goal is to be the best we can be,” Riggs said. “We are good. We can be great.”


Covey, Stephen R. The Leader in Me. Free Press: New York, 2008.

The Leader in Me. FranklinCovey, 2012. Web. June 2012.

Character Counts. Josephson Institute, 2012. Web. June 2012.


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