All posts by Kario

Writer, wife, mother of two daughters. Passionate about social justice, healthcare, and education.

Tips for Parents and Educators: “The Complex Yes”

Practicing the Complex Yes

When you disagree with a friend,

a stranger, or a foe, how do you

reply but not say simply No?

For No can stop the conversation

or turn it into argument or worse –

the conversation that must go on, as a river

must, a friendship, a troubled nation.

So may we practice the repertoire

of complex yes:

Yes, and in what you say I see…

Yes, and at the same time…

Yes, and what if…?

Yes, I hear you, and how…?

Yes, and there’s an old story…

Yes, and as the old song goes…

Yes, and as a child told me once…

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

      and then I want to tell you how it is for me….

Kim Stafford

As parents and educators, when we are trying to create and maintain strong, trusting relationships with adolescents, there are times when we need to distance ourselves from our role as “teacher” or “mentor” and become simply listeners. This is where the “complex Yes” comes in, and I believe that it is the second to last line of this poem that is the most effective approach.

Yes. Yes, tell me more. I want to understand…

This approach signals to the student or child that we are not interested in convincing them of anything, diminishing the importance of their ideas or thoughts or feelings, or proving them wrong. It is a message that we are curious, that we are on equal footing, or maybe even that roles have reversed for a bit and they are invited to become our teachers, to introduce us to something we may not have considered before, to a new perspective. This is an incredibly powerful and simple way to build confidence in teens and let them practice with their own unique voice and it opens the door to a richer relationship. It isn’t easy to break ourselves of the habit to correct or guide or offer our opinion, but with practice, I think you’ll see the value of it – both for your connection with the other person and in their own growth and development.

Introducing the Idea of Internal Monologue to Adolescents

By Chris.rider81 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20601766

Generally, by the time kids hit middle school, they’re familiar with the idea of an internal monologue. They’ve probably got a short list of examples to share about the voice they hear in their head when they’re struggling or they’ve just messed up. But it can sometimes be hard to truly understand just how pervasive that voice is, how quiet, how subtle, and how much it drives our decisions every day – especially if it doesn’t seem critical. The more we become aware of the stories our brains tell us, the easier it gets over time to challenge those stories and make more informed choices.

One powerful way to illustrate this is with something most middle and high school kids have in their back pocket all day – a smart phone. If they are like my kids, they have notifications that come in almost incessantly – who has liked their latest Instagram post or responded to their Snap or tried to FaceTime them. These notifications stimulate the emotion centers in our brains and are designed to compel us to action, and if the phone isn’t on silent, the ‘ping’ makes our heart rate go up when we hear it.

I experienced this yesterday when I set my phone across the room and started a 30-minute yoga practice. I was fully engrossed as I followed the instructor on video but then I heard my phone ping from the table about 20 feet away and I was able to watch as my  mind set in to motion. Instantly, I was not paying attention to the video anymore, but wondering who was texting me. Was it my daughter who is away at college? Did she need something?

It pinged again. I wondered whether to check. Was it important? How would I feel if I interrupted my yoga practice to go check and it turned out to be SPAM? Would I have lost my momentum and give up on exercise for today?

It could also be my younger daughter. She was out for the day. What if she got in to a fender-bender or needed me to come get her?

Fortunately, I was able to divert my focus back to my yoga practice and reason that, if it were important, the next thing that would happen would be a phone call. I was amazed at how quickly my brain shifted gears and spun a story based on one little text tone and how, had I not been aware of what I was doing, I might have behaved very differently.

The consequences of either scenario were not huge, of course, but it is a terrific illustration of just how eager our brains are to respond to stimuli without many facts and conjure up a story that drives us to act immediately. If you’ve got teens in your home or your classroom consider setting up an exercise like this where you get them involved in some quiet activity such as reading or art or writing and have them keep their phone volume up. Ask them to notice what happens when they  get a notification – how do they feel in their bodies, what is the narrative that starts in their brains.

Without judgment of any kind, it is interesting for us to know how our brains work – do they default to fear like mine did, instantly assuming that one of my kids was in danger or needed me, or do they  anticipate that ping to be a notification that is positive? The more we  pay attention to the tangents our minds lead us on, the more we can give ourselves space to choose how we respond to stimuli in our environment. In the end, that text message was a friend responding to a funny anecdote I’d sent the night before, so while it was welcome, it wasn’t urgent in the least, and I’m really glad I resisted the urge to stop my yoga practice to check it out.

Building Adolescent Self-Worth: Recognizing Alternate Forms of Wealth

There is a great deal of emphasis placed on comparison and measuring up during the adolescent years, and if students are not coming from similar backgrounds with the same level of support, it can be hard to feel confident in your ability to add value. When we talk about diversity and equity in schools, we are often looking at the resources students and their families have in terms of economic wealth – is there enough food at home, enough money to afford extras like tutors and testing and uniforms and sporting activities, flexibility with regard to parents and caregivers to support students where and how they need it. These are vital questions, and if you’re a student who doesn’t have a great deal of financial security, it can feel as though you don’t have the same kinds of opportunities as other students who do.

Dr. Tara Yosso developed something she calls the Cultural Wealth Model as she thought about helping students who historically don’t have access to post-secondary education. It is a way for students to re-frame their thoughts about the strengths they can draw on as they apply for jobs or college and it’s a powerful acknowledgment that there are many skills and abilities that have nothing to do with money that are incredibly valuable nonetheless.

I first learned about this model last weekend when I attended a conference on social-emotional learning and equity and I believe that this has the potential to impact all students and encourage them to think about the things they may take for granted that they can instead use as assets. I’m currently designing a lesson wherein students can make their own “alternative wealth maps,” even adding other categories beyond the ones Dr. Yosso talks about. I practiced by making my own and I’ve included it below as an example. The double arrows indicate the areas that work together to amplify wealth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this model and how you might apply it to remind adolescents that they have a lot to offer to their communities.

Mindfulness in Real Life

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

(The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.)

THIS IS MINDFULNESS. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

Noticing the word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

 

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response

 

Was I really angry? Yes.

Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway.

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger.

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

All of this happened in the space of about 30 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop.

THIS IS MINDFULNESS.

I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others.

As someone who teaches mindfulness to parents and teens, more important than sitting in formal meditation is this ability to unpack our immediate reactions and really pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves nearly every minute of every day. That kind of mindfulness has such an enormous impact on our relationships with others, and when you’re a teenager, relationships are the most important thing in your world. With any luck, teaching teens to examine the stories they tell about their world can lead to looking at the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and it can have an effect on their self-worth. Challenging those stories that are often untrue (but convenient) is the first step to really opening up and recognizing that so much of what we think is true is simply fabricated. And it gives us the space to relax, to be, and to create what we want in that place the old story left behind.

 

Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

How Our Brains Reinforce Our Biases

By Department of Radiology, Uppsala University Hospital. Uploaded by Mikael Häggström. [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Brain researchers talk about two systems of thought in our brains – one that reacts quickly and intuitively and the other that is more complicated and methodical. The busier we are, the more we rely on the first one to make our decisions for us. Unfortunately, even though that system makes fairly good choices sometimes, the more we rely on it, the stronger it gets. Also unfortunately, because that system takes a lot less energy and time, we default to it more readily.  And over time, this decision-making system is self-reinforcing; meaning that it learns and uses past experiences to inform split-second decisions in the moment.

Not engaging the second system to reflect and use our inquisitive powers to make decisions can significantly affect our world view and the way we absorb information and ultimately reinforce the biases we have.  Because our brains and our culture haven’t evolved to take the time to challenge assumptions and really dive in to complex questions, it takes practice to overcome our knee-jerk reactions. But even more than that, the reason we can make those instant judgments is because of associations we’ve learned to make.

Our brains largely remember things based on how they relate to other things. That’s why we have to work so hard to memorize random dates and names, but if we put them to music or create some system around them that makes more sense, we can more easily lodge them in our memory banks. But sometimes those associations are simply manufactured, and this can be terribly harmful from time to time.

If you grew up in a family that taught you to associate people with a certain skin color with danger, when you’re in a hurry or otherwise engaged, you’ll fall back on those biases and  make choices based on them. Even if you “know better” or have friends of color, you’re more likely to make snap judgments based on associations you have. It takes real effort to examine the narratives that drive our behavior and interrupt those associations that are not valid.

If your knee-jerk reactions are rooted in fear or discomfort, the way our brains work, those thoughts have more weight than other thoughts, which means it takes more effort over time to dismantle them. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance and, in fact, we are often considered “efficient” when we don’t take a long time to make decisions. As I said, often, those choices are perfectly fine and even beneficial, but when they involve relationships with other people about whom we may have biases, it is important to slow down and really pull apart where we might be making thought errors. The more we can do this with adolescents, the more comfortable they get with it and the more likely they are to be able to challenge their thinking errors over time – with respect to themselves and others.

One important exercise teachers can do with students to illustrate this phenomenon is to set up some common, everyday decision points and have students share what their first reaction would be and what it’s based on. Write those down and see if there are patterns. Are some of the choices based in fear or risk-avoidance? Where can students challenge those assumptions? Given an ample bit of time to access their reflective brain, would they make a different choice? It’s true that often our instincts guide us in beneficial ways, but there are times when it’s more in our best interest to stop and question whether those choices are rooted in things that aren’t accurate.

Next time: how our unconscious biases affect the way we see ourselves.

When Mindfulness is Better Taken Out of the Mind

Sometimes, it seems ironic to me that my mindfulness practice is so much about not getting caught up in my thoughts and stories. Especially when I am feeling intense emotions, I know that the best thing I can do is NOT engage with my rational mind.

From the time we can form words, we use them to make sense of our world by creating stories about what we see and hear and feel. We make assumptions and connect dots and come to conclusions that may or may not be accurate but as long as they fit our view of the world, we rarely challenge them. And over time, those stories become habitual and we launch in to them without even taking a moment to realize that’s what we’re doing.

Mindfulness is about taking a moment. It’s about recognizing that the stories are just that. And it’s hard to do, which is why I use my body to interrupt my mind when I’m feeling scared or sad or angry or frustrated. I like to imagine that these intense emotions trigger a severing of my body from my brain so that I can really direct my attention to my physical being and ignore what my mind is telling me is happening.

When I am “in my body,” I use this opportunity to ask questions:

Where am I feeling this emotion? Is there a burning in my gut? A tightness in my face or jaw? What are my hands doing? How am I breathing? How am I moving?

What happens if I breathe in to the place where I’m feeling the most intensity? Can I close my eyes and imagine the intake of breath sending warmth to a specific area? Can I relax it or slow it down? What does that feel like?

Once I’ve really tuned in to my body and maybe calmed down the physical reaction, then I can turn my attention to my thoughts. Because I’m not in the throes of the emotional reaction anymore, I can be more objective about what’s happening in my head. I can stand aside a bit and witness the story without being caught up in it, and at this point, I can assess whether it’s real or if I’m filling in blanks without having all the information.

It seems a little odd to call this “mindfulness” when I start out by completely divorcing myself from my mind’s reaction, but this is the best way I’ve found to make sure I can keep from getting immersed in the story when I’m in the midst of a fiery emotion.

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.

Why Even Adults Need Social Emotional Education

So much of the rhetoric I see on social media and even in news commentary these days leads me to believe that we’ve done ourselves a great disservice by not including SEL in our formal school systems before now. One of the most important indicators of mental health and acuity is the ability to think beyond black and white and, if debates around gun violence and sexual harassment, homelessness and social programs are any indication, we are a nation of people who struggle with that skill on many levels.

Many of my friends and peers grew up in households where authority was King; where parents were in control of everything until the kids turned 18 and left. Others grew up in homes with one parent who struggled to manage things by themselves and often gave up, leaving kids to their own devices. Many in both of these scenarios grew up without a notion of unconditional love – there was a sense that if one didn’t toe the line (or got caught), the punishment went beyond being grounded to losing their parents’ love and affection.

If I don’t hold everything together, things will fall apart.

When I first became a parent (and for years afterward), this was my mantra. And on one level, it makes perfect sense. Except that it assumes that the world revolves around me and it puts an awful lot of pressure on me to make everything perfect all the time. The truth is that most things hold themselves together just fine much of the time, and even if they do fall to pieces, it’s not necessarily my fault. And yet, I know so many parents who feel this way – that they have to do everything “Right” in order for life to be ok. I watched my father embody this mantra every single day of his life, believing that if he just did things the way they were supposed to be done, life would go smoothly. The flip side of this is that when things went sideways, he was certain there was some answer out there that he just hadn’t discovered yet, so he had to keep trying. It kept him from learning from his mistakes and improving on his techniques over time because he was sure there was just something amazing right around the corner. It also kept him doubting himself and feeling like a failure because he hadn’t found it yet.

He also struggled with giving his children unconditional love. He taught us that he would love us and shower us with praise if we didn’t screw up. And when we did make mistakes (just like we are designed to), he withheld his affection to show us how disappointed he was in us. In that way, we learned that love was a commodity, not a certainty. We learned either/or instead of both/and.

What we learn from social-emotional education is how to step beyond questions of Right and Wrong, Success and Failure, Reward and Punishment. One of the hallmarks of adult brain development is integration, the ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas or feelings simultaneously. That means that I can be tremendously hurt by something one of my kids did or said and express love and care for them at the same time. I can explain to them why their behavior was inappropriate and out of bounds and acknowledge that the reason they acted that way was because they were in pain. I can express empathy for their struggle and impose boundaries on them simultaneously.

Most of our public conversations center around ideas of Right and Wrong. Our political system is divided in to two opposing parties whose representatives stand for seemingly incongruent ideals. Our popular culture is peppered with sayings like “you’re either with us or against us.” These messages are reinforced in headlines that tell us what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, in the way we talk about pro- and anti- (gun, vaccines, abortion, death penalty), and in our schools’ Zero Tolerance policies around bullying and hate speech. Instead of taking up the mantle of helping our young people learn how to integrate, we are showing them how to further entrench themselves in black and white thinking. I am encouraged that there are more schools whose culture is beginning to embrace social-emotional learning and restorative justice practices and I hope it continues at a record pace. And I think it’s well past time that the adults in this country spend more time and energy learning these things, too, if only so that we can lead by example for our kids.