The Toolbox Project is used by dozens of schools and endorsed by the Dalai Lama

If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then combining pictures and words that help instill in our hearts empathy, patience and kindness—among other invaluable traits—could potentially have the ability to change the world, one young, influential child at a time.

And what a wonderful world this could be if we all practiced what The Toolbox Project teaches. With an underlying theme focusing on “a brotherhood of man,” you might imagine that Toolbox was inspired by music legend John Lennon, but it wasn’t.

Rather, these documented “tools for life,” used in classrooms around the globe, are the genius of Mark Collin, founder of Dovetail Learning and the author of The Toolbox Project, which consists of 12 tools or “human capacities” that provide children with “fundamental practices and strategies” to help develop a sense of well-being and the ability to effectively communicate.

For example, when we use the Listening Tool, “we listen with our ears, our eyes and our hearts (and) we become deep listeners who can ‘hear between the lines’ and gather important information. Our ears bring us words and intonation; our eyes bring us body language, gestures and facial expressions; and our hearts bring us empathy—allowing us to reflect on how we are feeling and how to also take a ‘walk in someone else’s shoes,’” states information about each tool in the back of the Toolbox lyrical coloring book.

The coloring book comes complete with a compact disc of related songs, written and produced by West County’s Jim Corbett, also known as “Mr. Music.”

Collin—previously a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, who was clinically trained in eastern and western developmental and contemplative sciences—said the coloring book was published six months ago, but the Toolbox Project has been in local schools for about 10 years. The coloring book is now just another element of the curriculum.

He said he started creating Toolbox 23 years ago when he was working as a school counselor in Cazadero. From there it was instituted into Apple Blossom School in Sebastopol.

And that was just the beginning. What was launched in Cazadero is now going worldwide, Collin said, noting: Dovetail Learning (home of the Toolbox) is getting calls from Dubai, Jordan, Amsterdam, Croatia and Indiana, and it’s already being used at six schools in South Africa.

“It went from two schools to over 180 today, serving over 75,000. Before the coloring book, there was still a very comprehensive curriculum via posters, cutout tools… the coloring book is the expressive arts extension of the Toolbox curriculum,” he said.

While adults, too, would benefit from living their lives based on these same principles, the goal of Toolbox is to teach children about “the tools they have inside them, that they don’t even know about yet,” Collin said. “They have within themselves the resources they need to be the person they want to be, to reach their full potential, to find and realize their hopes and their dreams.

“It’s important because it provides children with the missing piece. If you really look at what’s going on in our society—self-defeating behaviors and a lot of adverse childhood experiences now—Toolbox is interwoven, and a prevention of that,” he said.

In a short Toolbox video called, “How do you fix a bully,” a small group of third and fourth grade students are shown having a discussion on the topic. Either they have already mastered the art of acting at a young age, or they have truly gained insight and empathy from what they have learned thus far.

“If somebody hits me, I don’t go hitting them back. I use the breathing tool,” one of the girls said.
“They have kindness in them, but it’s just really deep down in their hearts… so they are being bullies just because they want attention, but they feel like they are being lonely and not getting really along and getting love,” said one of the boys.

“Because they have something wrong with their life and they feel sad and they take it out on other kids,” said another student.
“Maybe they don’t get to see their mom or dad.”
“Maybe it’s ’cause their parents died.”
“Maybe it’s ’cause something bad has happened in their life,” chimed the others.

“Because if you hold on to something for so long it can crush your heart and it can crush your dreams to where you become a bully and you bully other people and try crushing their dreams and that wouldn’t be nice or fair. They feel bad for what they have done, really they do, they just don’t like to show it ’cause then they feel like they get in trouble by themselves,” concluded one of the boys in the video, which is one of several Toolbox clips found at dovetaillearning.org.

A desire to complete the hours he needed to obtain his Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) license is ultimately what led Collin to develop Toolbox, he said. “I went into the school in Cazadero as a school counselor. I was going to stay for three months (all the hours he needed for his license) and I ended up staying nine years. I fell in love with the kids. And clearly there was a missing piece in their education, and they helped me come up with the 12 tools while I was there. I brought in ideas and they would give a thumbs up, or thumbs down, basically,” he said.

Corbett gave it his thumbs up years ago, when Collin was still a school counselor developing Toolbox and Corbett was a music teacher working at the same school.

Toolbox Songs
“When I learned about the Toolbox from my friend, Mark Collin, I felt that each tool could be expressed in a song, which would teach the kids in three minutes what it might take a teacher a week to reinforce,” he said. So with Collin’s encouragement, Corbett wrote the first Toolbox song, which introduces the concept of the Toolbox ‘deep inside’ the child. After that, he said he procrastinated for a number of years, until “finally sitting down and working out all the songs.”

The tools in the Toolbox are strong qualities that each person possesses, but children and adults need to be taught that they exist and can be accessed, Corbett said. “I love writing songs and given each theme, I tried to match the feel of each tool with the melody and tempo of each song. The breathing tool and the quiet/safe place tool have a meditative quality, while empathy and garbage can invite a sing-along feel.”

The songs were recorded at Zone Recording in Cotati with producer/engineer Blair Hardman. Local musicians and singers, including Corbett, were used in all the tracks.

“Currently 45 schools in Sonoma County use the Toolbox for the elementary school kids, and it is used throughout the country and in places as far away as South Africa,” Corbett said. “It has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama as an effective tool for creating a positive world. Now if we can just get our politicians to use it, all will be well.”

Meanwhile, it sounds like children are getting the concept, which is being reinforced every time they sing the songs and color in the Toolbox Music and Coloring Book, illustrated by Sonoma County artist Allis Teegarden, who has taught drawing and painting to both children and adults for nearly 30 years.

Teegarden, whose grandchildren are in elementary school, said she has witnessed firsthand how much children enjoy the Toolbox songs and playful images and how much “they take these lessons to heart.” She said her grandson told her that the listening tool “really works” and that it made his sister happy when he used it with her.

“It turned out to be a really deep experience for me,” Teegarden said. “To come up with visual images of saying please and thank you, or patience or empathy… how do you say that in a picture? And keep it simple enough for kids, with lines and not coloring anything in?” she said.

She also didn’t want to just illustrate the book with her own complete drawings, but to let each child get involved and make it a personal experience. She did this by drawing simplistic outlines of people, which become self portraits, after the student colors in and adds his or her own hair style and color, eye color, skin color and even clothing and accessories, if wanted. On the pages with the self-portraits are illustrations of each tool.

“I ended up doing a few images of one thing and then narrowing it down. It was very fascinating. It was a big challenge,” she said, noting, the Toolbox program already had its own images, but she wanted to update them. For example, she changed a hand tool used for sanding, which represented patience, to a seedling growing into a flower.

Asked what he hopes to see come of this project, Collin said, “I hope that it can contribute worldwide to this missing piece in children’s and families’ lives, which is a secular wisdom and knowledge of self and others.”

Toolbox Music & Coloring Book will soon be available (outside of the classroom) online at dovetaillearning.org. SD