Experience fueled Robyn Silverman's passion for helping children build the character traits necessary to help them navigate some of the difficult social and emotional hurdles most of them are bound to face, including bullying.
Robyn Silverman’s fifth-grade classroom was quiet – too quiet – and Silverman could feel the other children's eyes on her as she walked into the room, took her seat and waited for the teacher to arrive.
Silverman’s classmates then erupted into the song made popular by David Lee Roth: “I ain’t got nobody. Nobody cares for me, nobody, nobody.” The tune was aimed at Silverman.
“Fifth grade was a disaster,” said Silverman, who was bullied initially by one girl who ended up turning other classmates against her in a daily ritual of emotional torture that lasted the entire school year. “I would come home crying almost every day, and my mom would hand me tissues and tell me it was OK. It was one of the most painful times of my life.”
Decades later, Silverman can still vividly recall many details from that horrible period. Yet that year of pain ended up fueling in her a passion for helping children build the character traits necessary to help them navigate some of the difficult social and emotional hurdles most of them are bound to face, including bullying.
“I felt that kids needed a foundational program that gave them different tactics to understand other people, but also to understand themselves,” said Silverman, who’s been a guest on “The Tyra Banks Show,” and quoted in national magazines.
Silverman, a child development specialist known by children and parents as Dr. Robyn, developed a program called Powerful Words that she designed as a character building program for the children at the martial arts school she owned with her husband for eight years: EEMA Fitness and Martial Arts in Weymouth.
Years later, the program has taken off, and it is now being used by nearly 500 martial arts schools in nine countries. Locally, several schools are using the curriculum Silverman created: American Kempo Karate Academy in Weymouth, Rockland, Hanson and Hanover; Boston Tae Kwon Do in Abington; Boston Academy of Kung Fu in Milton; and Norwell Karate in Norwell.
The format is simple: The kids spend most of their martial arts classes learning typical karate skills. But in the first or last five minutes of class – when parents are present to drop off or pick up their kids – the karate teachers will start clapping their hands and bringing the children into a circle for a “power chat,” telling them to “lock it up, sit down, cross your knees and be ready to listen.”
The teachers lead the children in discussions about the powerful words of the month, concepts such as discipline, leadership, empathy, impulse control, anger management and responsibility. After defining the words, the teachers urge the kids to answer questions and provide their own examples of how they can be patient, trustworthy or respectful, for instance. The curriculum provides a word-for-word script for teachers.
“With a less experienced or younger teacher, these eyes are staring back at you and it can be hard,” she said. “If a teacher doesn’t know what to do, I am providing exactly what to say. I even provide sample answers of what the kids might say, so the teachers know what to expect from the discussion.”
Silverman, 35, updates the program monthly and avoids repeating the same powerful words for three years, although she might provide lessons in words that are closely related, such as responsibility and accountability. She also writes a newsletter for parents and provides suggestions for ways parents can reinforce the concepts at home.
When Silverman decided to add character lessons to the martial arts school she and her husband owned in 2000, she researched character education programs and found that they were either designed for the school setting – and were therefore as long as a typical math or English lesson – or they were written for kids of widely varying ages.
“The 4-year-olds were learning the same things as the 14-year-olds. The 4-year-olds were completely lost, and the 14-year-olds were rolling their eyes,” Silverman said.
Silverman set out to create her own developmentally-appropriate curriculum and devised three programs: one for children ages 4 to 6; another for kids 7 to 13; and a third for teenagers. She felt that a character education program was the perfect match for martial arts academies.
“Martial arts seems like an incredible forum to deliver this information. You have the children’s attention; Now what are you going to say? The children regard their martial arts teachers as gods. They look up to them as their heroes,” she said. “What I want these children to remember even as adults is not how to kick and punch, but how to be the very best person they can be, to be a powerful influence on their family and society.”
Besides, Silverman argued, where else are kids getting these messages? In some cases, nowhere.
“It seemed to me that schools were cutting budgets, and the first thing to go was anything related to the self,” she said. “Parents were working and either didn’t feel they had the time or they felt they were the only ones saying these things, and the kids weren’t listening.”
After testing and refining the program for five years at their own martial arts academy, the Silvermans piloted the program in April 2005 at eight other martial arts schools – some of which had heard about the program during competitions at the Silvermans’ school – and in September 2005 it became available to all schools.
“Many schools signed on at that point. They had heard about it and were all hungry to fill the void,” said Silverman, who has since closed her Weymouth martial arts school and moved to New Jersey with her husband and daughter.
Mark DiNino, founder of American Kempo Karate Academy, has noticed that the kids’ performance has improved in the two years his karate schools have used the Powerful Words program.
“They are learning things outside of punching and kicking, and we see an overall step up in their behavior and cooperation,” DiNino said.
He has gotten positive feedback from parents about the program. For example, the words “responsibility” and “accountability” had a big impact on one 8-year-old boy who regularly forgot to bring his karate belt to class and would say, “My mother didn’t pack it.”
“After the accountability discussion, he started remembering his own belt,” DiNino said. “And his mom says he’s working on more self-reliance at home, keeping his room clean, taking his own baths.”
The lessons can also help kids think beyond their own needs and consider the needs and emotions of others – a concept many children naturally need help with.
“Generally speaking, 6-year-olds are very selfish creatures,” said Kelly Hansen of Braintree, whose 6-year-old son Benjamin attends the American Kempo Karate Academy. “They’re intrinsically wired to get what they want and need. What he needs to learn from most are the words that take him out of himself, like empathy.”
Silverman works with kids on building their own outer appearance of self-respect. “Look up, look smart, look alive,” she advises.
“I have the kids stand up with their heads up, shoulders held high and see how that feels. Then I have them walk like someone who would be picked on, with their shoulders hunched,” she said. “Kids don’t know that they are sending out these messages. We need to give these kids tools that will actually work.”
Sheree Delprete of Rockland said her daughter Dominique had been the target of bullying in third grade. “It got to the point where Dominique became very quiet,” Delprete, 45, of Rockland said. Attending the Silvermans’ martial arts school and getting exposure to the Powerful Words program helped tremendously, Delprete said.
“I saw her gain confidence,” said Delprete, whose daughter is now a junior at Rockland High School. “I saw her learn how to turn the other cheek instead of coming home crying all the time. They say it takes a village to raise a child. If Dr. Robyn can be part of your village, then you’re a lucky person.”
On the Web: www.drrobynsilverman.com/
The Patriot Ledger