“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Curriculum Snapshot:Mindfulness and Body Image for T(w)eens

Many adolescents struggle with body image issues, and while there is a spectrum that has eating disorders and self-loathing at one end and mild frustration at the other, this is a great opportunity to introduce some self-awareness.

I encourage students to engage in three things that can help them come to terms with how they feel about their own changing bodies and take back control. While these steps are by no means a substitute for counseling, if an individual is struggling with eating disorders or other self-harm behaviors, they can help students understand the foundations of the complicated emotions they have with regard to their own self-image in tandem with professional help.

The first step is to ask “why.” Anytime we hear the voice in our own head that says, “I’m too fat/short/hippy/undeveloped,” it’s important to ask where that idea comes from. Many kids can stand in front of a mirror and point out specific areas they don’t like – hips, boobs, underdeveloped muscles, big feet, ears that protrude a little more than someone else’s, hair color, etc. But going one step beyond that to inquire as to why these bits of ourselves are considered undesirable is important. Do any of these things prevent us from doing the things we truly want to do? Are they keeping us from accomplishing our most important goals? Are any of these things truly a problem for us?

If the answer is no (and I ask the kids to answer only to themselves; there is no need to utter a word out loud during any of these exercises), then it will take practice to remind ourselves that we can spend less time and energy worrying about them. Often, at this point, it becomes clear that media and social messages are giving them the impression that they are not good enough and it is important for them to decide how much they want to be beholden to these external ideals.

If the answer is yes, the next step is to gather information.  In this case, I find it helpful to put something to paper. If a student has self-identified that they are overweight and it is keeping them from doing the things that they really want to do, I encourage them to keep a food diary. Again, this is something they need not share with anyone else. This is about information-gathering. Often, when they monitor what they are eating for a few days, patterns begin to show up. It is incredibly important during this stage to reinforce self-compassion and lack of judgment. If they descend into beating themselves up for noting that they have eaten a cupcake every day for the last three days, shame creeps in and can derail any forward progress. That is one reason it is important for them to know that they don’t have to show their food diary to anyone else. This is a scientific endeavor that requires that they be honest with themselves and not harsh judges. This is incredibly difficult for many kids, and often, it takes several stops and starts before they will do it. The voices in our heads are so strong and so often present that most of us don’t stop to recognize them for what they are.

The third step is to ask, “what am I willing to do with this information?” If the student is clear on what they want to change and why, they now have a choice to make about their behavior. If they need help, they can seek out a trusted adult who can support them with resources and encouragement. Utilizing their connections to people who care about them is an important part of this step, and it is incredibly empowering. This step, too, often involves many stops and starts and can take years to develop. It is important to note, though, that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve self-awareness, not to improve one’s body. Once we can teach kids to recognize their own biases against themselves and understand why they have these particular negative views, they can begin to decide whether or not they want to hold those views any more.

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.

Teens & Social Media: What’s a Parent to Do?

FullSizeRenderLast week, the Pew Research Center released their most recent findings on teens and social media use. Much of it may not be a surprise to parents and educators, but it does give some important information about what kids are doing.

Some key notes in the report include:

  • 92% of teens ages 13-17 report going online daily
  • 24% of teens report that they are online “almost constantly”
  • Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat remain the most popular sites for kids
  • 71% of teens are using multiple social media sites
  • texting is a big part of most teens’ lives, with the average teen sending and receiving more than 30 texts per day

All of this is to say that online communications are a huge part of American teenagers’ lives. Most of us probably knew that already. And many of us have heard horror stories about the destructive ways kids can use social media, so what can we do about it?

First of all, we need to recognize that this phenomenon isn’t going away. Perhaps you can remember sitting on the floor of your bedroom as a teenager, the phone cord stretched down the hall so you can close your door, talking to your friends for hours until your parents yelled at you to do your homework or hang up so someone else could use the phone. Humans are social creatures and teenagers have an even greater need than most for social connection outside their family. It is not surprising that they are taking full advantage of social media to explore relationships.

But, we can help our kids learn how to communicate positively and with intention by discovering a little bit more about how and why they use the social media platforms they use.  We can have conversations with them about purpose and values and being mindful about their online interactions and The SELF Project is here to help with that.

We have designed a survey that digs a little deeper in to the “whys” and “hows” of social media use. Once armed with that information, school staff and parents can meet with Kari to decipher it and talk about ways to help teens use these powerful tools to enhance their lives.  Contact us today at kari@theselfproject.com to get this conversation started at your teen’s school.

It’s Playtime!

play

Check out this TED Radio Hour podcast if you are interested in the importance of play in our lives. There are so many great nuggets of wisdom in the show that I immediately clicked over to TED.com to listen to Stuart Brown’s talk and learned even more.

Some of my favorite new insights:

  • play is not simply practice for adulthood. When animals are kept from playing as babies, they still grow up to be capable hunters, but they don’t display the qualities of resilience that animals who were allowed free play do.
  • play opens up the frontal lobe of our brains and allows information from all over the brain to synthesize. This likely leads to much more creative problem-solving
  • play is very helpful in creating empathy. Although we don’t often feel empathy for strangers, if we are put in a situation of having to collaborate with them on a game, scientists have discovered that we display as much empathy for them as we would for a friend.
  • play has a biological function for humans, much like sleep and dreams do, and it is important throughout our lives, not just when we’re kids.

How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Kids Become Healthy Adults

color spectrum

As parents and teachers, we are often uncomfortable when kids display strong emotions, with the exception of joy. For some reason, we generally love it when kids are joyful and happy. But when they are overwhelmingly angry or frustrated or sad, our first response is usually to tell them to tamp it down or talk them out of it.

“It’s not that bad.”

“Don’t cry.”

“Why are you getting so upset about something like that?”

Much of the time, especially with middle and high school aged girls, we dismiss their outbursts with an eye roll and label it drama. Boys are allowed to show anger or frustration and happiness, but almost never given an opportunity to cry. As the adults charged with helping these kids navigate the tricky waters of adolescence, these responses couldn’t be more harmful. Sending the message that there is only a small range of acceptable emotional responses to life events does not set them up to be healthy adults.

Healthy adults express a full range of emotions. Healthy adults have learned to accept their feelings and modulate their responses. Effective adults use their feelings to gauge their connection to something and often propel themselves forward into important work.

Unfortunately, emotions occur along a spectrum, like color. Purple bleeds into blue bleeds into green bleeds into yellow, etc. When you turn the light off, you can’t see any color at all. Our eyes (unless you’re color blind) are designed to see ranges of color; we can’t just block out everything but purple. In the same way, closing the door on what we consider to be “negative” emotions such as sadness or anger means that we are also shutting out happiness and excitement. It is impossible to selectively remove one or two feelings and still keep the capacity for others. Instead of sending our children the message that certain emotional responses are wrong or bad, it is important for us to teach them how to open the door to the entire range of human emotion. The more they realize that emotions are not to be feared or avoided, the better they will be able to handle them and use them to become more resilient.

It is often difficult for parents to watch their kids struggle with emotional pain and not be able to fix it. In the short run, it is much simpler to ask them to not share their pain with us, but we then risk losing the opportunity to be a safe haven for them to express sadness or fear. As school staff, it is often frustrating to hear about disagreements, especially when they are the same ones that happen year after year, but labeling them “drama” sends the message that only certain kinds of emotions are acceptable and it prevents us from seizing the learning moments that we are presented with.

Because middle and high school kids are so inundated with emotion, this is the perfect time to make a concerted effort to teach them to understand, identify, accept and positively act on those strong impulses. If we choose, instead, to look away or minimize, we won’t succeed in tamping down the feelings, but we will send the message that the feelings themselves or wrong or that we as adults cannot be trusted to share them with.

Is Our Public School System Neglecting Half of Our Kids’ Brains?

Most people have heard about left brain/right brain science. Ideally, while the two sides of our brain are responsible for different parts of learning and activity, they work in tandem to help us make our way through the world.  But in looking at what each side of the brain is involved in, I wonder if our increase in core curriculum and standardized testing is leaving out some vital educational opportunities that will end up being detrimental to our kids.

The left brain is generally thought to be in charge of all things logical, rational and analytical. Language mostly occurs here, as does mathematical reasoning and sequential thinking. These are the things we can (and do) measure on standardized tests.

The right brain is responsible for creativity, pattern recognition, design, story, meaning and context, among other things. It is here where the concrete information we take in every day finds a home, a place to be played with and understood more fully.  But these things, as they take longer to figure out and reach across different subjects, are incredibly difficult to measure in a quick, standardized way. In order to really see whether someone has a true understanding of something, we have to see how they integrate it, use it, see it fitting in to the big picture. This kind of knowledge is much more demonstrable – it has to be shown and not recorded.

Dr. Dan Siegel writes that the main job of the adolescent brain is to integrate the two sides of the brain, to begin to piece together what a child knows of the world and has discovered in ways that build a more complex understanding of consequences and possibilities. This process takes years and years – many of them in middle and high school – of practice.  But if our schools are increasingly teaching our kids to perform on standardized tests, memorize names and dates and places, and placing a premium on following pre-established rules and formulas, we aren’t giving these adolescent brains much to work with when it comes to the “right side” of things.  In a world where our children have fewer personal interactions with their friends (spending much of their time texting each other or ‘liking’ each others’ Instagram posts), they are already at a deficit when it comes to learning about social cues like body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.  If we continue to de-emphasize creative problem solving and critical thinking, we are putting them at a further disadvantage.

As art and music classes are cut to make more time for science and math classes, as recess and physical education go the way of the dodo, we are increasingly putting all of our eggs into the left brain basket and I wonder where it will leave us. So many of the most innovative thinkers in our world who have solved incredibly difficult puzzles are not people who were thinking inside the box. They were using their right and left brain in tandem to come up with new ways to tackle persistent problems.  When kids have time and space to sit back and think about the implications of what they are learning, when they are asked open-ended questions that prompt further introspection and contemplation, they have an opportunity to use both sides of the brain and the information tends to be more important and longer-lasting.

Social-emotional learning can reinforce the activities of the right brain and help adolescents with the integration their brains are trying to achieve during this time. Because the premise of so much of the curriculum of The SELF Project is based in curiosity, it expands connections between seemingly disparate things in our brains. When we ask “why?” or “how?” questions, we are building bridges and creating a depth of knowledge that isn’t possible when we only use one side of our brain.

A Tip to Add Some Sibling Love to Your House

As the Chief Positivity Officer in our household, I’m always looking for ways to re-frame my kids’ day. When you’re surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight, and often when my daughters come home from a full day of competition and stress, they take it out on each other. They are quick to bicker, find fault with each other, and say things that they probably regret.

Like most households, we have a chalkboard hanging in the kitchen. A few months ago, I decided to commandeer it for a new experiment. What if I set up a place for anyone in the house to anonymously write something nice about another member of the family? I wrote everyone’s names at the top with the beginning of a sentence like this:

 

EVE          LOLA         MOM        DAD

is so awesome because

 

 

I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve’s name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, “Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend.” Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person, so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn’t suppress the smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn’t expect an instant sea-change. I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling “Dad” and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up. This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast. She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, and walked away chuckling.

On Saturday night, my husband and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don’t want their parents in earshot for. When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board. It read, “Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general).” What was so staggering is that it was in Eve’s handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family. Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they’re already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn’t often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling. Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

Why is Mindful Parenting Important?

Mindfulness is all the rage these days, having inspired a magazine, at least one NFL coach, some school districts, and much more.  But why is mindful parenting something you should think about?

In my experience, mindfulness in parenting has benefits for the whole family, and, I suspect, our larger community as well. It results in a calmer household, less escalation and power struggles, and fewer misunderstandings.

I once heard Gloria Steinem say, “Our children will never know that they have anything to say unless someone listens to them.” She is right, and our children want to be heard, but if the person they are speaking to has their eyes diverted to a pan of noodles on the stove or the glow of a laptop or a smart phone, they aren’t really being heard, even if we think every word has penetrated our brains.

When our children are intent on sharing something with us – especially as tweens and teens – it is in our best interest to really pay attention because if we don’t, one of two things can happen: they give up trying, or they ratchet up the emotion a notch.

Every time our children attempt to tell us how they’re feeling, we are presented with an opportunity to connect with them and try to understand them better. Making eye contact, shutting the laptop and taking a moment to listen without judging or jumping to conclusions sends the message that what they are saying is important, that we value their time and willingness to come to us. Even when it is something that feels trivial to us as adults, it is vital to let our kids know that we acknowledge their concerns.

If we belittle their emotions, either by not paying full attention or by laughing it off, we have effectively told them that their perceptions are not real, that there is something wrong with the way they feel or see things. If your child is embarrassed or ashamed of having come to you because of your reaction, they won’t likely try again for a while unless they are absolutely certain you will see things their way. If they believe that their feelings are valid and you just aren’t “getting it,” they will talk louder, exaggerate, or act out in an attempt to get you to see things the way they do. Both scenarios make your life as a parent more challenging.

Once your child has your attention and you are truly listening to what they have to say, you can focus on their facial expressions and tone of voice to discern even more about the situation. Listening without forming your own opinion or letting emotion take over lets you ask questions to help clarify details. Some of my favorite mindful parent questions are:

  • do you just need to vent or is there something I can do to help? (This one is especially helpful for me, because then I know if my role is just to listen quietly or begin thinking about ways to help my child manage the situation.)
  • why do you think this happened? (This gets their brain to switch from emotional response to trying to see the issue as something they can learn from.)
  • what is the worst part of this for you? (This question is vital to understanding what exactly they are afraid of. I am often surprised by the answers my kids give.)

When we parent mindfully, we are more careful not to judge our children or blame them or say things we wish we could take back. We can begin to let our adolescents know that we trust them to deal with challenging situations and that their burgeoning independence will not be squashed if they come to us needing help or advice. And we can model calm problem-solving techniques for them instead of jumping right to shaming and blaming and talk of punishment.

It is not often convenient to take the time to fully focus on your child when they come to you with a problem (or when you overhear something or sense that they have had a rotten day), but the more you do, the more they will believe that what is important to them is important to you and you will forge a deeper, more trusting relationship with your child. You may even see that they are willing to put down their phones when you come into the room to talk to them.

Increasing Evidence that Social-Emotional Education is Important

"Cerebral lobes" by derivative work of this - Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cerebral_lobes.png#mediaviewer/File:Cerebral_lobes.png
“Cerebral lobes” by derivative work of this – Gutenberg Encyclopedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This article explores ways to think about re-structuring our educational system to more fully support educators and students in a world that has changed immensely since the beginning of the public school system. We are living in a much different world and the way we approach education hasn’t kept up.

“…society must decide what it wants to be: interconnected individuals responsible to a community or a world filled with “consumers,” dependent on products, services and authority figures.” John Abbott, 21st Century Learning Initiative

Much of the disaffection with the school system stems from a pervasive feeling that the intense focus on formal academics has inadvertently neglected the rest of a child’s personality and humanity. While employers, psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly noted that social and emotional skills like empathy are some of the most important ones for success, many schools still lag in developing effective programs to nurture those soft skills.” Katrina Schwartz

Enter social-emotional education. With the newest revelations in brain development research, it is possible to more purposefully approach education in ways that are meaningful to our kids. Scientists like Dr. Dan Siegel believe that adolescence is a crucial time in brain development that offers the potential for us to impact lifelong patterns of thought and behavior by emphasizing certain neurological pathways. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in a human brain until around age 24, there is a lot of opportunity to shape it positively during the teen years. (The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that integrates emotion and behavior, brain and body, and ultimately is responsible for how we choose to act, especially in the most stressful situations.) One way to strengthen the prefrontal cortex is through mindfulness.

The double-whammy of adolescence is that, not only is the prefrontal cortex undeveloped, but the emotion centers of the brain are overactive during these years. This is why kids ages 10-20 can be so emotionally volatile and do things that we as adults cannot begin to understand. Using mindfulness to interrupt the sudden swells of emotion has been shown to be effective in stress management for individuals and reducing incidents of relational aggression in school communities.

The beautiful thing about these techniques lies in the malleability of the brain itself. The more you practice something, the easier it gets. Giving kids the tools to implement mindfulness as their brains are developing means that those responses will be more automatic as they age and are likely to ultimately reduce anxiety and aggression in their adult lives as well.

Unfortunately, many teachers are overwhelmed with the tasks they are already expected to do in any given day, and carving out time for one more set of lessons can feel impossible.  That is where The SELF Project comes in. If you know a school or other organization whose kids could stand to benefit from some research-based, dynamic workshops using mindfulness, contact kari@theselfproject.com

 

Happier Kids, Stronger Connections