On a recent morning, Aimee MacClain had a group of fourth-graders' rapt attention.
With the sounds of hip-hop filling the room, they gather for another pep talk, with MacClain reminding them this time that they are "smart, powerful and have what it takes."
The day's theme is centered on the importance of having a positive attitude that counteracts any defeatist remarks students may encounter from peers or adults along the way toward reaching their goals.
"There are a 100 billion ways to be smart," she tells them, referring to myriad types of intelligence and skill mastery. "And the more you share the smarts with each other, the more powerful you're all going to be."
MacClain is a facilitator with Oakland-based Soul Shoppe, a program that offers ongoing workshops, assemblies and training in walking the Peace Path -- which is painted on the playground's asphalt -- and offering a constructive approach to problem solving, where both parties feel heard.
"You know how to communicate, to clean up (when you've made a mistake) and to empty your balloon," she reminds the group.
Students at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Martinez, and other area schools, have become well-versed in "I messages," knowing the early signs of when their "balloon is full" of fears, frustration or anxieties, and the importance of doing a "cleanup," committing themselves to making things right.
The principles of Soul Shoppe have become assimilated
"I've been looking for something like this for 30 years," says Principal Sandy Bruketta, citing the ensuing change from progressive discipline to more of an instructional approach. "I have very few repeat customers."
Principal Liane Cismowski also has noticed a change in the approach to discipline at Cambridge Elementary School in Concord with the introduction of the Soul Shoppe curriculum.
"(It's) so pleasant because it's done with a focus on respect for each individual. It's the 'I messages' and then doing the cleanup, so both children get a say," she says.
"Now it's all about teaching, instead of punishing them for doing the wrong thing. They are solving their own problems," Bruketta adds, noting how fifth-graders on their own volition recently have come up with norms for appropriate lunchtime behavior, and are holding themselves accountable.
At Strandwood Elementary School in Pleasant Hill, Principal Liz Kim cites a reduction in instances of name-calling and students excluding others from participating in an activity, along with the number of referrals she gets for suspected bullying.
"It gives them the tools so they know they're going to be heard," says Kim. "They can't just walk away."
Meanwhile at Hidden Valley, gone are the days of peer monitors sporting clipboards to document playground infractions and police their peers. Instead, the peacemakers are identified by their yellow vests and are trained in peacefully mediating conflict.
"There were (students) who bullied other kids and I just stepped up to help them and have them not feel bad about themselves and not get pushed around," says Michael McCarney, who's been a peacemaker since fourth grade.
One underlying premise is getting students to recognize that they are not isolated, that their feelings are shared among their classmates.
"It creates a sense of normalcy about these internal things we think are unique to us," says Kathleen Scott, principal at Walnut Heights Elementary School in Walnut Creek and a longtime Soul Shoppe enthusiast. "Now there are tools to help them resolve their issues."
"We are all born with a big heart, but then we start to put bricks around our heart and pretty soon we're building walls against each other," MacClain tells her fourth-grade audience.
With the Soul Shoppe model, students at Hidden Valley and elsewhere are being encouraged to speak up for themselves, to know when to ask for help, and to seek ways to take better charge of their home, school environs and themselves.
"When children don't feel safe, they react and lash out, and we incorrectly assign intent," says MacClain in a subsequent interview. "This is a way to empower everyone, especially the victims (of bullying)."
For more information, visit www.soulshoppe.com.