Tips for Teachers: Why Shame and Blame Are Counterproductive

Sometimes, calling a student out in front of their peers seems unavoidable, but here are a few reasons why it’s important to resist doing it whenever possible.

  1. There are few things worse to an adolescent than being seen as inferior to their classmates. During this time of increased social awareness, teens desperately want to be regarded positively by peers. Being part of a tribe is on par with basic survival to most adolescents, and when they are shamed publicly, many find it incredibly difficult to recover from. If a trusted adult is the one doing the shaming, the likelihood of a positive relationship surviving that is very low. Most teens won’t rise to a challenge posed by an adult they don’t respect or trust, so if the goal is to help a student improve, shaming is far more damaging than productive.
  2. Strong emotions interfere with our ability to hear and listen.  The higher our emotional intensity, the less able our brains are to process language completely. When we are embarrassed, ashamed, or angry, the portion of our brains that are responsible for listening and learning are circumvented or muted. Strong emotions activate the more primitive parts of our brain and we need our prefrontal cortex in order to learn.
  3. The more self-critical we are, the more self-absorbed we are. While it’s true that most teachers are motivated by helping students become better, if we fail to acknowledge a student’s positive attributes, we are actually contributing to their isolation. Starting with a student’s strengths and encouraging them to build on those things can help them become more internally motivated to improve. When someone points out what we’ve done wrong, we tend to focus on all of the other ways in which we don’t measure up and we close down instead of forging alliances and finding support.
  4. Teens need adult-teen relationships they can trust. In order to get the most out of their classes, teens and teachers need to cooperate and collaborate, but if a teen doesn’t trust their teacher or has formed a negative opinion of them, they will be more likely to give themselves permission to check out. Often, teachers will sense this and continue to push or call out these students which ultimately ends up making things worse. If, instead, the student is enlisted as an active partner in their own learning, we can begin to make some headway.

Meeting teens where they are is incredibly important. Recognizing that they are highly susceptible to emotions – even if they don’t show it – and planning our interactions with that in mind can make working with a struggling student much more positive for everyone. Start with the positives, ask them where they struggled and could have used more support, and work together to make a plan. We need to approach students with respect and set aside our assumptions if we are to really help them get the most out of their educational experience, and they  need to be part of the process. The more they understand our wish for them to succeed, the more they will engage.

Important Elements of Developmental Relationships with Teens

I’ve combined information from three different sources for this post – The Search Institute , a study on developmental relationships, and a presentation by Education Northwest I was lucky enough to attend.

Last time, I wrote about the importance of parent/teen or teacher/teen relationships being evolutionary. Now that you know the why, here are some things to consider about what that kind of a relationship looks like.

According to The Search Institute, there are five types of relationships teens need in order to thrive. Many of these can be provided by the same people, and often these people are not the teen’s parents. These crucial elements are:

  1. Caring – who, in this teen’s life, is dependable, warm, offers encouragement, listens to the teen and helps build their confidence?
  2. Growth – who sees this teen’s potential, holds them accountable for their choices, and helps them reflect on their mistakes and define areas for improvement?
  3. Support – who guides them through systems they encounter, empowers them to find their own path, advocates for them and helps them stay on track?
  4. Shares Power – who respects this teen, includes them in important decisions, collaborates with them and gives them opportunities to lead?
  5. Expands Possibilities – who inspires this teen to dream, exposes them to new ideas, and connects them to other people who can inform and assist them?

For any of these to feel authentic, the teen must feel as though the adult truly cares for them and they must care for that adult as well. Over time, there must also be a gradual increase in the amount of responsibility, challenge, and power the teen is allowed as their confidence builds.

So, where do you begin? Ask teens if they feel as though they have relationships with people in each of these five categories. Are there areas where they simply can’t identify anyone? Can you, as their parent or teacher, help them find someone who might fill that niche?

*It is important as a parent to make sure you aren’t offended if your child doesn’t choose you as their go-to person for some of these areas. It is a vital part of their development to be able to form attachments to people other than you as they grow up and become more interdependent.

Here is a pdf of a questionnaire you can give your teen that will help them think about where they might want to shore up some of their adult relationships. developmental-relationship-questionnaire

 

Parent/Teacher Teen Relationships: Widening the Web

photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

They look like little adults.

They act like little adults (sometimes).

They demand to be treated like adults.

They aren’t little adults. They are teens, and it can be really confusing to decide how to interact with them from an adult perspective. We don’t want to coddle them because it’s important for them to begin solving their own problems and taking responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they don’t have the benefit of life experience or the neurodevelopmental maturity to handle complicated situations yet, so what’s a parent or teacher to do?

There is a lot of talk about independence when it comes to teens, but I’d like to challenge that concept, if I may. None of us is truly independent. Can you replace your home’s water heater on your own if it fails? Can you purchase a car without a loan from the bank or credit union? If someone close to you is struggling with a difficult life event, do you reach out in support or let them deal with it alone? I’d like to think that what we really want for ourselves and our teens is to become interdependent instead – to know that over time we have built a web of trusted people and systems that we can rely on when we need help and to whom we can offer our unique talents as well.

So what does that have to do with adult-teen relationships? It requires us, as adults, to become very strategic with regard to how we interact with teens. It means that we take the view that our relationship is a dynamic and evolving one that allows for gradual changes in the balance of power. Over time, as our students and children show us that they are more competent and confident, we can allow them to have more say in how we interact with them and how they interact with others. We can ratchet down the tangible supports and help them determine when they need to ask for help.

It also requires us to acknowledge that a healthy web of relationships includes a variety of people who support, challenge, network and care for our kids. If teens don’t have a group of adults – be they teachers, parents, mentors, extended family, a boss at work – who provide these important pieces of the web, they will look to their peers to fill the gaps.  While peers play a vital role in our teens’ lives, they don’t have the life experience or emotional stability that most adults do, so it is incumbent upon us to check in from time to time and see where our students may need shoring up.

It can be incredibly difficult to engage in this kind of relationship with teens, since they are driven to push away from adults who have historically acted as parents or were in a position of power, but it is important that we stay connected and help them determine which of the other people around them can be trusted to help them become the people they strive to be. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates the significance of teen-adult relationships with regard to healthy social-emotional development and if parents and educators can find ways to have evolutionary, progressive relationships with teens, we can have an incredible impact on their ability to navigate the world with confidence and support.

Next Time: Tips on how to build a developmental relationship with a teen

Takeaways from the National Summer Learning Conference

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At the beginning of the week, I was lucky to attend and present at a conference on summer learning and afterschool programs. It was sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association and School’s Out Washington, two organizations who are committed to increasing quality programs for young people that will help ensure equity in education. This year’s theme was “Dare to Disrupt” and was centered around the question of how to make sure that there are strong programs available to all kids who need them.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, given that I haven’t worked with either of these organizations before, but I was absolutely blown away by the work they’re doing in partnership with the other folks in the room. First and foremost, I was stunned at the energy and diversity in the room. Attendees included program administrators, non-profit organizations, public school teachers, camp counselors, curriculum development specialists and librarians from all over the country. It was so great to be in the company of so many people looking at extended learning opportunities from so many different angles.

There were conversations about program management, curriculum design, leadership, equity and accessibility, cultural competency, and child development. Workshops were led with enthusiasm and expertise and the networking and idea sharing happened in hallways, over meals, and in the exhibitors’ hall.

I left the conference feeling incredibly optimistic about the opportunities being developed and offered to kids. If we can work together to find ways to extend these amazing classes and workshops to every student who needs them, we can have a significant impact on the well-being and success of every child. Right now, kids who live in poverty and children of color are disproportionately unable to engage in enrichment classes, but there is a great deal of effort and energy going in to making that a thing of the past. And if anyone can do it, it is this group of committed adults. I am honored to have spent some time with them this week.

What if My Teen Hates Their Teacher?

Without realizing it, we all put artificial limits on our view of the world and other people, and often this happens as a result of our emotional reactions to things others say or do. There is nothing wrong with having an emotional reaction, but it is what happens next – almost automatically – that can cause us problems.

When someone does or says something we don’t like, our brains quickly move from “I don’t like what she said or how she said it” to “I don’t like her,” which becomes, “I shouldn’t have to listen to her.” And then, because our brains like a complete puzzle instead of one with missing pieces, we set about justifying it by making a case that this person is ignorant or mean, thereby condemning all other interactions with them.

In terms of our kids, this can happen with respect to teachers in an instant. But in order to continually grow and learn, we have to expose ourselves to new ideas and new people. Just because we don’t connect with someone else on a personal level doesn’t mean they don’t have something to teach us. We don’t have to like them to listen to their ideas and see how they do things differently than we do, especially if we are going to have to sit in a classroom listening to them for months on end.

Often, students quickly come to conclusions about which teachers they like and don’t like, and those decisions have a great deal of bearing on whether or not they are willing to listen to what that teacher has to say. Helping students understand that whether or not we like someone personally is not necessarily correlated to how much they have to teach us is a valuable lesson that will serve them well as adults.

Thinking critically about the subjects or ideas that someone else puts forth regardless of how you feel about them on an emotional level is important because it can help us to consider different perspectives more objectively. It also keeps us from putting forth our own ideas in a way that feels like a personal attack. We all know that when we feel attacked or judged, we are less likely to share our own thoughts, and discussions can become more about winning or losing than an exchange of ideas.

Rather than letting distaste for one particular teacher become an excuse to disengage in a class, can you encourage your student to set aside their emotions in an effort to determine what they can learn from them?

 

Teaching Teens to Breathe

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This is so true. In fact, in my house, telling someone to calm down almost always has the opposite effect.

So what works?

Breathing. To be certain, I would never substitute a suggestion to breathe for a suggestion to ‘calm down.’ The message is the same – that the other person’s stress is making me uncomfortable and I need them to stop. What I’m saying is that if, in calm times, we can teach our kids to use their breath to calm themselves, they may remember that technique in the heat of emotion and choose to use it themselves.

There are numerous studies that show that breathing in specific ways calms both our physiological response to stress and the racing of our minds. Just type “breathing relaxation” into your computer’s search engine and you will find citations galore.

It sounds silly to ‘teach’ our kids how to breathe, but there are particular methods that work best for stress reduction. Here are a few:

  1. Abdominal Breathing – Many of us don’t realize that we tend to breathe with our lungs. Poor posture can keep us from breathing as deeply as we can and you can easily demonstrate this by slouching in a chair and paying attention to your breath. Your stomach might move a little bit, but when you straighten your spine, you can see how much more your abdomen and lungs expand. You can literally take a deeper breath when standing, lying down on your back, or sitting up straight.
  2. Slow, Deep Breaths – We all know that when we’re stressed, our heart rate increases and we take quicker breaths. But many people don’t know that if we consciously take slower, deeper breaths, we can actually decrease our heart rate and help calm ourselves. You can teach your teen to count to three or five slowly (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two…) as they inhale and expand their abdomen and then hold that breath for a beat or two with their lungs full. Then count to three or five slowly as they exhale and wait a beat or two before inhaling again. During the pauses between breaths, they can hear and feel their heartbeat and after a few cycles, it should slow down significantly.
  3. Visualizing a clear mind with the breath cycles – As I exhale slowly, I like to imagine my mind’s thoughts draining out slowly. Generally, when I’m anxious or stressed, my thoughts race and spiral out of control. When I start breathing to relax myself, I pretend that my mind is a bathtub full of water (thoughts). Exhaling slowly has the effect of pulling the plug and letting all of the thoughts drain out and empty my mind for a moment or two. Often, I find that when I do this, the muscles in my face and neck relax and I almost instantly feel better.

These techniques can be taught to younger children as well. In fact, the earlier our kids learn how to calm themselves when they are feeling angry or upset, the more practiced they will be at it when they hit the turbulent adolescent years.

Adolescents: The Discipline Dilemma

Whether you’re a parent or an educator, the question of how to effectively discipline an adolescent can be tricky. Because these students are becoming more independent and our ultimate goal for them is to be able to make good decisions for themselves, it is important to set up a system of discipline that enables them to learn from their mistakes.

That is much easier said than done. Many of our traditional methods of discipline  weigh more on the side of punishment than on they do on learning. As a parent, I have felt that sting of fear and anger that leads me to lay down a consequence that has a lot less to do with compassionate connection and gaining insight and than with retribution. While that is natural, it is also incredibly counterproductive.

The reason this kind of discipline is doomed to disaster  has to do with the way the adolescent brain works under the influence of all those hormones.  Once kids hit the t(w)een years, they experience:

  • increased emotional responses (both number and intensity)
  • less dopamine (feel-good hormone) secretion
  • more feelings of isolation and separation from others

The more isolated and less happy we feel, the less we are willing to engage with others, which leads us to feel  more isolated and more unhappy. It is a vicious cycle. And research shows that a brain saturated in emotion is less able to engage in the thought processes that lead to meaningful learning.

What this means is that if we catch our kids making a poor choice and immediately respond with strong emotion, we are only adding to the storm of fear or anger that they are feeling, and we are almost ensuring that they won’t be able to listen to us or learn from this mistake. Lashing out with shame, fear tactics, controlling behavior or even emotional withdrawal feels natural but can often turn a situation from a learning opportunity into what feels like a personal attack.

Now what? 

You can’t talk your t(w)een out of feeling whatever they’re feeling (angry, scared, frustrated, sad), but you can acknowledge your emotions and let them subside in order to access your rational thought processes. (This is hard, no doubt about it – especially if there is yelling and door-slamming or words designed to hurt you. It’s important not to take your adolescent’s words or actions personally, even if they are aimed squarely at you.) Often, talking about how you feel is a way to help your student access their emotional vocabulary, too, and it creates connection between you.

You can ask lots of questions. Curiosity is the basis for learning, after all, and it may be that you both have something to learn from this situation. (Don’t be surprised if you ask why they made the choice they did and the answer you get is, ‘I don’t know.’ Often they don’t know. Move on. Ask about what they’re feeling. What they thought or hoped would happen when they made that choice.)  If it’s not possible to have a thoughtful conversation in the moment, agree to separate for a bit and try later when emotions aren’t so high.

Do your best to separate the act from the person. This kid lied. This kid is not a liar. Labelling people by their behavior doesn’t offer room for learning or redemption. It puts them in a box that is really hard to emerge from.

Be clear about your needs and values. Do you need to know that this kid is safe? Do you need to know that other kids in your classroom/household are safe? Do you need to feel safe? Do you need to be able to trust this child? Is one of your highest values honesty? Compassion? Health?

Listen. When your student is ready to talk, let them. Talking can often help them diffuse strong emotions, understand irrational thinking, and create a feeling of bonding. Problem-solving together means they are availing themselves of your adult wisdom and it gives you insight into how you can best help your child begin to make better choices.

The more we can engage our adolescents in discipline, the better chance they have of learning from their mistakes, and the more connected they feel to us. Punishment creates separation and many t(w)tens already feel misunderstood and vilified. Talking to them about how they feel when they’ve messed up shows them that we are willing to be part of the solution, and that we expect them to be part of it, too.

Setting the Stage for a New School Year

For many kids and parents, it can be an enormous challenge to head back to school in the fall. (If you missed it, check out this post about the emotional transition back to the school routine). If you’re the parent of a middle or high school student, this transition can be more overwhelming given the increased independence your student is expected to develop (or have). The move from parental involvement to letting kids manage their own time and homework load can be hard for students and parents alike. Knowing when to back off and let kids learn from their own mistakes and when to step in and set strict guidelines for phone and tablet use is tricky, to say the least.

One way to help your student develop some self-awareness around how distractions may or may not be affecting their academic performance is to have them track their time.  I think that starting this exercise with a definition of their own personal goals and values is important, so you could encourage them to either jot down some answers to this on their own or, if they are willing, sit with them and talk about their answers.

  1. What are my goals for this school year? They can be anything from getting a certain GPA to becoming more proficient in a foreign language to really mastering algebra. These can also include athletic or other extracurricular goals, but it is important to ensure that there are some academic goals on this list.
  2. What are my longer-term goals? These can vary from getting into a good high school to finishing high school with a few college acceptance letters. They may also include graduate school plans or ideas about what kind of career your student wants, although it is vital to remember that 5 or 10 year goals need to be flexible because there is no way to anticipate what might happen.
  3. What are my most closely held values? Often, once we get started listing our values, it can be hard to stop. If that is the case here, let your student write as many down as they want to and then choose the top three for purposes of this exercise. Examples might be persistence, courage, excellence, family, hard work, community.
  4. How am I spending my time? Does it reflect my values and goals? This is where the rubber meets the road. Over the first two to three weeks of school, have your student simply track how they spend their time. Certainly, as they do this, it will be extremely difficult for them (and maybe you, too) to not judge or criticize, but do your best to resist the temptation to do so. Simply looking at how much time they spend playing video games, texting friends, watching TV, practicing piano, doing homework, speaking French, etc. offers them a window into whether or not they are actively choosing to engage in pursuits that further their goals. If they are spending far more time in recreational activities than they are working on their goals, have them spend some time reflecting on what that means. Does it mean the goals aren’t all that important, after all? Or are they simply doing these things out of habit? Where can they shore up their efforts to really live their values and move toward their goals? Or do they need to change the goals? 

This exercise is good for all of us to do once or twice a year. We can so easily get sidetracked by unexpected events or transitions or simply fall back into old habits that it benefits us all to check in with ourselves every once in a while and make sure that we are living our values. And maybe if our adolescents see us doing this, they will come to understand its importance.

When the Transition to School is Anything But Smooth

Some kids seem to make the transition from summer break to the routine of school days without much of a hitch (well, beyond the longing to sleep in every day and have a more relaxed schedule). Others have a hard time settling back in every year, sometimes no matter what their summer has been like. If you have a student who struggles with routine changes, here are some ideas to help them start off the school year without as much angst and frustration.

  1. Acknowledge the situation without blaming or shaming. Kids who are built this way already know they’re different. Maybe they see friends or siblings who don’t have anxiety or struggle with the first few weeks of school. It’s important for them to know that, while it causes them some challenges, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. It’s also important for them to know that it’s ok to feel the way they feel and ask for help if they need it. Sometimes when you’re agitated, the more you try to hide it, the worse you feel. Let your student know you’ll support them through this time.
  2. Remind them that it won’t last forever. Generally, once we get used to a new routine, we become comfortable with it fairly quickly. While it can feel like it takes forever to get into that rhythm, they know from past school years that they will eventually get there.
  3. Encourage your child to identify their most important values. This can be a tricky one because sometimes it feels a little disconnected to their anxiety, but often our anxieties are related to what we think other people want from us or expect us to be. If we can hone in on what we want from ourselves, we often feel better about how we make our way through our day. For example, if your child values courage and hard work, they might decide to do one thing every day to exhibit those values. They could introduce themselves to one new person every day, and challenge themselves to spend 15 minutes more re-checking their homework or doing an extra credit problem. Having those guiding principles to help ground them can go a long way toward relieving some of the angst about a new school year.
  4. Find a physical outlet or soothing practice. Some kids burn off that extra frustration by shooting baskets or skateboarding or going for a run. Other kids prefer to wind down by listening to music alone, playing an instrument, drawing or relaxing in the bath. If they can set aside some portion of every day for the first week of school to indulge in something that helps them release the physical tension they feel, it can make a big difference.
  5. Try guided meditation. I created this quick meditation for my daughter when she was struggling with a transition a few years ago. She says that whenever she comes up against a big milestone or growth period, she closes her eyes and uses it to help remind her that growth and change are necessary and difficult. If you think your child would like it, have them sit in a quiet, comfortable position with their eyes closed while you read the following to them:

Picture yourself as a snail. Your shell can be any color you want and when you look next to you, you see a different, bigger shell. Take a minute to create that bigger shell in your mind’s eye. What colors does it have? What is its shape? Is it smooth or spiky? Long and lean or tall and round? Don’t tell me. Just picture it in your mind. Now take a moment to feel what it feels like to be in your current, small shell. It’s a little too tight and restrictive, isn’t it? I want you to take a deep breath in and when you let that breath all the way out, your old shell is just going to pop right off your back and roll to the side. When it does, I want you to look at it and silently thank it for protecting you all this time. Be grateful for all it was for you and let it know that it was important, but that you don’t need it anymore. Now, before you turn your attention to the new shell, I want you to focus on how great it feels to be out of the old one. It’s a little scary because you’re pretty vulnerable, but you’re safe for now. Just take some deep, deep breaths and stretch your self out into this new, open space with each exhale. When you’re ready, slip into your new beautiful shell and feel the cool, smooth inside that was made just for you. Take a moment to wiggle around in it and orient yourself. Feel how it’s not too heavy for your back and it feels expansive and comfortable. When you are ready, thank the new shell for being there and open your eyes.

I’d love to hear if any of these tools made a difference for your child as they begin the new school year.

Building Family Connections: Who is Teaching Whom?

Many parents of teens that I meet have one common complaint – their child doesn’t seem interested in talking to them anymore. While it is a perfectly normal developmental behavior, it can seem quite shocking when your t(w)een becomes more and more isolated; spending time in their room listening to music, SnapChatting friends, or watching YouTube videos. I remember very well the abrupt shift from hanging out in the kitchen chatting with my kids while I made dinner (or even having them help) to them disappearing only to come out to eat, help clean the kitchen, and vanish again.

It’s also normal for kids to become less talkative, especially about important things, or to actively discourage conversation, and while it is common, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t worry parents from time to time. Even if you aren’t the kind of parent who wishes to know every last detail of your child’s inner life, you might still long for some sort of connection that doesn’t involve bribing them to hang out with the family. One thing that I have seen work wonders is asking your child to show you something that is important to them.

  • Maybe you have an athletic child and you are confused about the rules of lacrosse or ultimate frisbee.
  • Perhaps you’d like to know what it is about the music they listen to that is so compelling (especially if it just hurts your ears).
  • If your child really loves their art class or a book series or a particular TV show or YouTuber (yes, that’s a word), there’s a perfect entree into conversation.

Adolescents are used to feeling incompetent. They spend their days in classrooms and on practice fields being told what to do and how to do it. Often, when they get home, parents and older siblings give them more instruction and/or point out how they’re doing something wrong or they could improve. All of those messages can get really tiring, so it’s no wonder they retreat to activities and places where they feel accomplished or at least where they can relax.

As a parent, one of the most powerful things you can do is send the message that you’d like them to teach you something. Let your adolescent be the expert on whatever it is they love most and ask them to spend some time explaining it to you or showing you how they do it or waxing poetic about why it’s so freaking awesome. It won’t kill you to take an hour to learn how to play Pokemon Go or toss the lacrosse ball around in the backyard. You may not come to love the latest single by Drake or Beyonce, but you might come away understanding what it is about it that your child loves. And the more important piece of this exercise is that you will have let your t(w)een feel smart or strong or interesting. Especially if it turns out that they are waaaaay better than you at playing guitar or ice skating. And the next time you need to know what SnapChat is or how to use the new version of iMovie, you know you have an eager instructor in the house. If you let your child know that you value their interests and skills, they are more likely to come hang out with you from time to time. Try it and let me know what happens in the comments.