LIVINGSTON, NJ – According to Student Assistance Counselors Christie Giacobbe and Erin Field, who were presenters at Monday’s Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) meeting, participants in the first-ever Challenge Day was just the agent of change needed to shift perspectives. 

Challenge Day, held at both Livingston High School (LHS) and Heritage Middle School (HMS) during the first week of December, was a six-and-a-half hour experiential program designed to foster empathy and bolster connection within the school community. It explored topics that are considered most “top-of-mind” with today’s students, parents and administrators including social/familial/academic pressures, substance abuse, social tolerance, mental health, negative judgments, bullying, isolation and conflict resolution.

Launched in California in 1987, Challenge Day is the brainchild of co-founders Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John and was put on the map by Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and MTV coverage, according to the presentation. The presentation also explained that it is an immersive program designed to substitute the feelings of isolation, separation, loneliness and alienation students often feel for a heightened awareness of and appreciation for individual differences and a feeling of inclusion and community for all.

Sign Up for E-News

Two Challenge Day organization facilitators were on hand to walk a group of 50 faculty, administrators and counselors and nearly 200 middle schoolers and high schoolers through the December program. Participants were hand-selected to reflect a representative but varied microcosm of the Livingston Public Schools (LPS) population.

Administrators, guidance counselors, child-study team members, supervisors, coaches, teachers, leaders of various clubs and activities and students were assembled to draw from as many avenues in the school community as possible.

Using a combination of icebreakers, activities and small-group discussions, participants had an opportunity to get to know one another at a deeper-than-surface level by asking questions that compelled them to expose more of themselves to each other.

“The activities were designed to break down some barriers and help us get more comfortable with each other,” said Field.  “Some of the activities were somewhat silly and we had to step out of our comfort zone.”

In one activity called “Drop the Waterline,’” for example, an image of an iceberg was shown and a discussion followed of how, while it may seem large, the majority of the iceberg lies beneath the water. Bearing this analogy in mind, the day’s activities focused on ways to effectively drop that water line to show more of what lay beneath. 

In another activity, entitled “Cross the Line,” the facilitators called out a life challenge and participants who had experienced that challenge crossed a line on the floor so that all could see who had experienced the issue and lend support.

In a testament to the strength of Challenge Day, a post-program self-assessment administered to participants showed higher levels of self-awareness, empathy toward peers and a feeling that they could now affect positive change in the school environment. 

“What we found was that a lot of the participants felt they had improved their communication skills and felt more open to others,” said Giacobbe.

As a result of the program’s successful kick-start, an offshoot program known as Challenge Teams has been put into place and will run throughout the year at both schools. 

“We were very clear that we wanted to take all that we’d learned from this day and be able to share it with the other students and staff along with the messages and lessons we took away from Challenge Day,” said Field.

Challenge Teams, which meet twice a month, are intended to continue developing and improving leadership skills in students from an earlier age with the aim of creating a more positive school culture for all by increasing the sense of community and decreasing bias.

Challenges are being issued through the LHS morning-news show AM Wired and school announcements for students to complement each other, talk to someone new, or sit with someone different at lunch.

LHS is quickly institutionalizing a Clap-Out tunnel on Fridays and HMS is working on a mass effort to leave positive Post-it messages on all student lockers. These are just a few of the ideas that have been set in motion to, as the program’s motto goes, “be the change we wish to see in the world.”