The Enduring Power of Rituals

Picture it. Twenty-four Grade 8 students are standing on one side of a creek, high in the Sierra Mountains in Northern California. Water rushes by, melted from the mountains behind them. This is the last day of their last camping trip of middle school. In the center of the creek, feet planted in a few feet of ice-cold water, stands one of their teachers. Each student gingerly approaches the water, shoes off and strung over their shoulders. They step in, wincing at the cold but bravely looking forward to their teacher and to their friends on the other side. In the center they pause for a word with their teacher, who asks them for an intention as they close their middle school journey and get ready for the next. Then they cross to the other side, greeted by whoops and cheers from their peers.

This ritual was invented by a middle school student. A teacher challenged the class to find a way and a beautiful place in nature to mark the occasion of graduating from middle school. As one student walked down the mountainside after a day’s hike, she spotted the creek and suggested to the teachers that crossing it could be the marker they were looking for. So it was, and it became a treasured memory for all the students and teachers who participated. In a time when many rituals and rites of passage are lost, these students got the benefit of a powerful, memorable ritual to mark a turning point in their lives. It brought them together to share in a common experience, while also celebrating a transformative moment in each student’s life.

Benefits of Rituals

In these times of high anxiety and tremendous change, routines and rituals are more important than ever. For students, they provide a degree of stability and structure in a time when their non-school worlds are filled with turbulence. This is especially true for teens, for whom so much is changing, from friendships to interests to their understanding of the world. Predictable rituals bring people together and provide common ground and safety from which to process and view these changes. They provide space to communicate and hold each other accountable to key values and agreements. Rituals, as exemplified by our eighth graders crossing the creek, help usher in transformative moments, fostering growth and development through communal experiences.

In their book, Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices that Promote Success and Resilience (Corwin, 2016), Rachel Poliner and Jeffrey Benson note rituals can be thought of as involving two fundamental ingredients: relationships and emotions. Rituals can facilitate connection, help bridge gaps between individuals, and provide space with one another for routine or special events. Rituals also provide a way to express, understand, internalize, or manage emotions to different degrees. They hold and generate special meaning for those engaging in them. If you think of rituals in your family or at your school, you might think of morning meetings, how you greet students when they arrive at school, birthday celebrations, movie nights, how your child gets ready for bed each night, or how you close the school year. In various ways, each of these experiences cushion, regulate, or facilitate emotions through relationships. Particularly during times of grief, rituals have an impact on how individuals cope with difficulty.

In the book Living with Grief: Children, Adolescents, and Loss (Routledge, 2013), Kenneth Doka notes that rituals provide students a structured way that allows for time, space, and support structures to recognize and absorb significant change. Doka notes four different types of rituals, categories that are applicable beyond the grieving process. These include rituals of continuity, rituals of transition, rituals of reconciliation, and rituals of affirmation. Rituals of continuity celebrate or mark connection between individuals or groups. Rituals of transition mark the passage from one moment to another. Rituals of reconciliation help address unfinished tasks, such as expressing forgiveness. Rituals of affirmation recognize and honor contributions. These types of rituals can be powerful in helping students in verbal and nonverbal ways by incorporating practices that are personally and communally meaningful. Enacting ritualized actions can enhance feelings of self-discipline and improve behavioral self-control.

While it might be counterintuitive to think of students, particularly teens, craving structure and stability, rituals provide much-needed connection. A well-designed ritual forms a safe container, a place that feels both familiar and authentic, inviting students to relax and participate fully. Particularly for teens, who are highly attuned to social dynamics and wary of speaking at the wrong time, the right degree of predictability and familiarity with a ritual invites them to drop their guard and participate. Rituals, paradoxically, help students appreciate change because they themselves are stable.

Creating Rituals

It takes practice and patient tinkering to get these rituals right, but the effort is worth it. At our school, we felt strongly that a Morning Meeting ritual would be important to start our day, yet, at first, we struggled to get the formula right. We began by attempting to transition students from a free-time, conversational space into a quiet mindfulness mode, and the results were comically bad. A teacher dinged a meditation bell in a crowded classroom as half of the students shifted their attention and the other half continued eagerly talking to one another. Our attempt to have a simple, peaceful meeting to set the tone for the day instead was chaotic and felt like a constant battle for attention.

Mulling this over, we decided that we were lacking a ritual, a set of psychological cues that would help students shift into a different mindset. Putting them all in a room with peers and then asking them to change their mindset on a dime was a tall order, especially for adolescents whose social motivation usually trumps all else. So, we came up with a new ritual: the hang-out time while students arrived would take place in an atrium outside the doors of the gym, and students could talk as much as they wanted. While they were socializing, a teacher went into the gym, turned the big overhead lights off so that only natural light from the windows came in, and then sat down near the center and began to play music on a harmonium or guitar. When this was in place, we asked the students to enter the gym one at a time, in silence, and take a seat in a circle around the center of the gym. Once everyone was seated, the music wrapped up, we did a minute of meditation together, and then a student moderator led the rest of the meeting.

From the first time we did this little ritual, it completely changed our morning gathering and even the tone of the school day. Students and adults alike began the day feeling more centered, peaceful, and connected. Student moderators began leading not only the meeting but also the meditation, with great success. The shift from the purposefully loud, social environment outside the gym to the calm, peaceful one inside was so obvious and visceral that nearly all students understood that a different way of being was called for. As adults, we received a powerful reminder of what we theoretically knew but had forgotten in this case: that simple, consistent rituals have a profound effect on behavior and culture.

In that example, a well-designed ritual made it easy for students to participate and became an important part of the culture of the school. Rituals like these are the foundation stones of many school cultures. There is still a further level of development, though: as an aspirational goal at minimum, middle and high school students can learn to create their own rituals. This not only taps into the deep motivation provided by student voice and leadership; it develops a skill for meaning-making in life, one that can serve students well beyond their schooling years are over. It may seem surprising, but adolescents are quite capable ritual-makers if they have good modeling, a sincere invitation, and time to practice.

We know that ritual-making is a learnable skill, and indeed that great teachers and great parents know how to consciously craft a ritual. There is certainly an art to it. Rituals that are too complex or contrived will be rejected. Rituals have to be given time to grow. Take a ritual common to adults, for example: the art of making coffee in the morning. You might start off making coffee in one simple way, and two years later be surprised to realize there are seven steps you follow precisely every morning; had you started with that long of a process as the only way to make coffee, you might have rejected it right away! Rituals are like plants, growing gradually, needing regular water, branching sometimes quite unexpectedly. They have a mysterious life cycle and at some point they will die and make way for something else, as a bedtime routine may no longer be needed as a child gets older, but may be replaced by an evening walk or something else entirely.

Rituals During Remote Learning

Lately, we have received a new challenge to our community’s ritual-making skills in the form of the shift to distance learning. We wondered which rituals could be transported into the online world? Would they seem ridiculous? What new rituals were called for? We learned that some forms of ritual, like the use of silence during meditation, did not work as well online, as silence can be interpreted as a chance to check your phone or even a technical problem. But we adapted, learning that using music during mindfulness helped keep people’s attention.

Other rituals still worked, sometimes surprisingly well. Our ritual of a “threshold ceremony” to step up to the next grade, in which students prepare a statement on their growth and how they would like to contribute, and read it to the whole school as an audience, still carried real emotion and authenticity. In online advisory meetings, we found that our ritual of students checking-in with each other, asking open questions to invite authentic sharing, still worked well online. And new rituals began to sprout up, like the use of the chat function in Zoom or Google Meet to share gratitudes during the last few minutes of a community or all-school meeting, while music plays, closing on a note of kindness and closeness. In short, while it can be easy to place rituals at the bottom of the priority list during the stressful and rapid adjustment to online learning, our experience would say that they are more important than ever, and as alive as ever, in forming and strengthening school culture.

This importance is not only for the students, but also faculty and staff, who benefit from well-designed rituals just as much. The responsibility of an educator to be the anchor for students weighs heavily during times when educators themselves are struggling to cope with day-to-day life. As administrators, it’s important to consider the ways educators can connect with one another, express and negotiate emotions, and seek support. At Millennium, we benefit from Forum, which is a nationwide well-being community of practice aimed at helping educators feel less isolated, more engaged, and more connected. Utilizing Forum, and the rituals it includes, has helped our team authentically express thoughts and concerns, gather new strategies, and build resilience in a time of uncertainty.

It has been a difficult year, and we are all grieving. We are facing the consequences of a global pandemic, experiencing tensions regarding race and privilege unseen since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and economic insecurity reminiscent of the Great Depression. Loved ones have died, all of us have witnessed brutality in its purest sense, and anxiety over the future looms heavily above us. However, if there is a result of all this calamity, it’s the reminder that community is vitally important. And that communities with powerful rituals are more able to stay united, to invite honest speaking from all, and to weather storms together. Rituals, like stories, are some of the oldest and most powerful tools humans have created. Let’s not forget to use these tools during this most challenging time.

Chris Balme is the co-founder and outgoing head of school at the Millennium School, San Francisco, California.

Roberto d’Erizans is the incoming head of school at the Millennium School, San Francisco, California.

Published in AMLE Newsletter, September 2020.