The Flexible Mindset

By: Emily Hayes, Hinda Lind, Chelsea Avchen
from The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School

Learning Environment

Subject(s) of entry:
Art, Engineering, English/ Writing/ Language Arts, Foreign Language, History, Ivrit, Music, Physical Education/Health, Science, Social and Emotional Learning, Social Studies, Technology, Tefila

Blended Learning, Design-Thinking Model, Social and Emotional Learning, 21st Century Skills

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
K, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Elementary school, Middle school, High school

The Flexible Mindset, used in a kindergarten classroom, is a combination of growth mindset, flexible seating, and integrated projects. This combination makes for a learning environment that is ever changing to meet the needs of each student in the classroom community and bring learning to life.

Entry Narrative

Introduction Video

The Flexible Mindset Video

When I was in kindergarten, I hated school.  School was hard, I barely made it into a reading group, and socializing seemed like the only way to get through the day, which meant I was moved to the back table A LOT!  I felt like my teacher did not understand me and how to teach me so that I could learn.  The entire school year was spent trying to keep up.  This led to many years of frustration, tutoring, and questioning why I was struggling.  I remember telling my mom that I did not want to go to school until I had a teacher in middle school who understood me.  She understood that I needed to have someone read the content to me instead of reading it myself. Thankfully, this was the time that audio textbooks were readily available.  This teacher recognized that sitting “criss cross applesauce” in my chair while twirling my hair allowed me to think better.  This teacher made me want to become a teacher, because she made me want to kids to they to could learn and love learning.  Now I am in my third year of teaching in a dual-curriculum kindergarten class in a small Jewish day school with a transient population of students whose parents work or study at large universities. All of the accommodations that would have made my kindergarten year meaningful have come to life in my classroom!  I am a firm believer that students in a mainstream general studies classroom can benefit from inclusive accommodations.  Through years of trial and error, I have come to recognize that there is not a one-size-fits-all way to set up a classroom to benefit a room full of five-year-olds.  The best way to describe how this looks is with one simple word:”try.”

The idea of “try” starts from the moment school starts each and every day.  Every morning, the students and teachers in the class start the day with a dance party.  Yes, a dance party! Our morning dance party is a time to move around, laugh, and welcome the new day with comfort and ease.  We dance to the same song for 171 days: Try Everything by Shakira. We reference the lyrics to the song to elicit confidence in the students when a challenge arises.

As we make our way through the day, the students are encouraged to have brave moments, make mistakes, change their physical learning environment as needed, and to guide their own instruction based on interest and developmentally appropriate practices. The class is like a finely tuned machine that flows with routine and known expectations.  As the year progresses, I kvell over how amazing my students are at using each of their Flexible Mindset tools.

The ability to have a brave moment or to make a mistake graciously are things that seem easy to accept, especially when you are five and everyday is new, according to The Investigators (the name that was given to the kindergarten at The Lerner School).  “Self check” toolkit cards, growth mindset chants, and group problem solving through tangible problems are just a few of the tools that are used daily by the students to communicate their mistakes from which they grow.  Each student has his or her own toolkit that holds their daily classroom materials.  Attached to each toolkit is a small card that allows the students to communicate with the teacher leading a lesson about their comfort level with the content or social situation.  The students can communicate the following emotions by placing their finger on a section of the self check card, “I can,” “I almost can,” or, “I am frustrated.”    In response to the students’ communication about mistakes or bravery, the teachers throw confetti…sometimes imaginary and sometimes we just like to make a celebratory mess!  At times, that celebration can get out of hand because bravery and mistakes are exciting!  How do we get back on track? Songs and fingerplays, of course!  These made up songs and fingerplays are based on student interest and pop culture.  One of the favorites is our walking in the hall song to the tune of Beyonce’s Irreplaceable that we call, To The Right:

To the right, to the right
Everyone in line, step to the right
Follow the person, in front of you!

The kindergarten learning environment gives the students the choices that make them feel most comfortable to learn.  Flexible seating is a new and welcome innovation in education.  Education has caught up to the idea that not everyone learns best in a hard chair that probably has your feet dangling when you really need them flat on the ground.  There are so many expensive flexible seating options out there, but those options aren’t at home, at the library, or in another classroom.  That is the key to flexible seating–that once the students find what works for them, they should be able to use it everywhere.  This is why the flexible seating choices in the kindergarten classroom are ones that can be found everywhere or is one simple “DIY” project away!  With the help of the Flexible Seating Menu, the students can choose generalized seating options, from sitting on a pillow on the floor to standing at a taller table.  When needed, more specific flexible seating options were constructed by us by hand, like arms made out of PVC for a preschool sized armchair  or a foot fidget .  My experience in the Low-Incidence Preschool classroom has given me the experience to isolate a classroom need and create it out of everyday materials.  While working in an 8:1:4 classroom (eight students, one teacher, four assistants) of students with severe developmental and medical disabilities, my ability to use a pool noodle as a support*, create a first/then prism to  use  wherever a student needs a scheduling reminder*, or measure PVC pipe to create a vertical stand for vertical work space* became quick and efficient.


At the beginning of the school year, the students had free mobility to move around the options throughout the day.  After the first six weeks, the students selected a seating choice for the entire school day.  The students take pride in their daily choices.  They recognize which flexible seating choices work best for them as well as who they can sit with successfully.  Flexible seating isn’t just meant for the table tops, it’s meant for everywhere!  During the 2016-2017 school year, the kindergarten classroom was adorned with balance boards, standing boxes, and wiggle seats to make large group lessons attainable for all of the students.  This introduction led to one of my most favorite bulletin boards that I have ever put up–The Ways We Think.  This was a growing bulletin board located right under the whiteboard that allowed the students to reflect through writing and drawing about the educational accommodations they used which meant the most to them.  This bulletin board was a staple when guests would visit the classroom.  The two attached photos are of the 2016-2017 school year and the 2017-2018 school year.  As you can see, the set ups are different to meet the needs of each class.  Last year (16-17), a few of the students needed space to move between the tables to allow for thinking.  This year (17-18), a few of the students need to have the entire classroom between them to be academically and socially successful during content and group projects.  Each set-up is meant to work for the community and as the community matures, the layout matures.

(2016-2017 Mid-Year Classroom Set-Up) 

(2017-18 Beginning of School Year Classroom Set-Up)

When walking down the hall to the kindergarten classroom, the walls are always covered in student work and photographic evidence from the kindergarten room.  The students smile as they walk by and are able to reflect as the year goes on. Over the 2016-2017 school year, hallway walkers saw student work for The Pumpkin Challenge, Patience the Pickle, QU Wedding, and Geographic Exploration! Each of these student-led, academic explorations involved multiple content areas that made learning come alive for the students in multiple learning locations within the school campus and in the greater community.  Throughout these projects, the students would say that they we didn’t have math, science, or social studies but they were measuring, making observations, and learning about different cultures as we “traveled” to different continents.  They were leading their exploration and choosing to take their free choice time to write about what they were learning.  They learned to collaborate with one another by listening to each other’s ideas and revising plans. Each of the integrated projects involved a whole group project, individual take homes, and community improvement pieces.

(The 2016-2017 Pumpkin Challenge)

(Patience the Pickle display)


Imagine you are five years old and you walked into your classroom thinking that it is a normal Monday morning but you saw a note on the whiteboard.  That note gave you specific instructions about a set of pumpkins located on the playground right outside your classroom door.  The note said that your challenge was to bring the pumpkins into the classroom using a box of materials and the only tool you can’t use is your hands to pick up the pumpkin and carry it inside.  The excitement bubbled, and ideas began to flow!  You planned with your group and then attempted to put your plan into place.  As you worked with your group, the plan had to change.  Once the pumpkin was inside, you began to remove the seeds from the pumpkin to roast and turn the pumpkin into a sukkah for Sukkot!  Why were pumpkins on the playground?  Because the students spent snack times talking about pumpkins! The pumpkins helped the students connect skills that had been introduced to over previous content lessons.

Each of these integrated projects has a key feature that separates it from a normal classroom project–parent volunteers!  I have heard from parents that they want to be part of the classroom community, but they don’t know exactly how to do so.  These projects give structured opportunities to be part of an activity as well as a memory.  Each of the above integrated projects would not have been as meaningful and successful without the support of the parents.  During The Pumpkin Challenge, parents helped the students communicate to make a plan to retrieve the pumpkins from the playground.  During Patience the Pickle, a parent volunteer showed the students how to make pickles. During the QU Wedding, parent volunteers made the wedding a memorable occasion by adding decorations and a fabulous wedding cake.  And, during our geographic exploration of the seven continents, parent volunteers help to lead the entire project by coming in to share a family connection to a countries all over the world.


Parent involvement also gives the opportunity for parents to share what they do!  During our Community Helpers unit, we had a grandfather who was a dentist visit and show us how to floss our teeth the right way to make sure all of the“sugar bugs”, aka plaque, is removed.  We also had a field trip to the airport and had a private tour of a plane from a father who is a pilot.  When the parents are able to be part of the classroom community, the students take pride in characteristics of their parents that they normally find “boring” or being a “mom-job”.

The Kohelet Prize is asking teachers and administrators to show their learning environments and how their unique environments help students succeed academically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Walking into the classroom each day makes me feel that I have met and exceeded this expectation because I know that the students are comfortable being there and are excited to come in each and every day.  The use of language like, “I can,” “I made a mistake,” “I see that…” “I am frustrated by,” or, “this doesn’t make sense,” are phrases that flow freely throughout the classroom on a daily basis.  The opportunity to share my classroom with the Kohelet Foundation is an honor!

Entrant Bio(s)

Chelsea was born and raised in Florida where she earned a bachelors degree in Art Education with a concentration in painting from the University of Florida. She began her career as a high school art educator and yearbook advisor at Williston High School. After relocating to North Carolina with her husband Nate, Chelsea took a position at the Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School as an After School Teacher and Assistant Preschool Teacher. When her son’s were born, she left the classroom temporarily and was able to return to Lerner in 2015 as the school's Pre-K and Elementary Art Teacher. Her mission is to expose students to new materials, techniques and artists, but most importantly foster an environment where they feel confident to express themselves creatively.

Hinda started working at The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Community Day School in August 1997. It is her twentieth year at Lerner! She has a B.S. in Early Childhood education from Virginia Commonwealth University and a certificate in ESL from Old Dominion University. Her graduate studies were at Old Dominion University and Tel Aviv University. Her previous experience was at Hebrew Academy of Tidewater, Virginia Beach, Virginia and the public schools in Norfolk. She has worked in Jewish Education for over thirty years. Hinda is a Jewish songleader for the Lerner School and throughout the Jewish Community. She likes taking walks with her dog and all kinds of dancing.
Hinda believes that if we provide children with the tools and many experiences, they will be confident learners. If we also help them to understand themselves and to become problem solvers they can navigate themselves through the years.

Emily Hayes grew up in upstate New York and received a Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Sociology. She received her Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education and Inclusion from the University of Rochester. Emily worked at Hillel Community Day School in Rochester, New York in a co-taught kindergarten classroom while finishing her Master’s. When her husband, Ben, took a job in North Carolina, Emily and Ben moved from western New York to Cary, North Carolina. Emily took a job as a lead-Special Education Preschool teacher for Wake County Public Schools in a Low-Incidence Special Education Preschool classroom. She took a short break when her daughter, Sloane, was born in 2014. Emily returned to the classroom in the fall of 2016 as a kindergarten teacher at The Sandra E. Lerner Jewish Day School in Durham, North Carolina. In her free time, Emily likes photography, exploring local restaurants, and traveling.