All posts by Kario

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

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

 

Simple Gratitude Practice for Kids

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I created these cards for my daughters when they were ten and eight. My oldest was struggling with anxiety at bedtime and cried every morning when I woke her up for school, desperately searching for some reason I ought to let her stay home. I hated to see her start and end every day like that and, honestly, it was wearing on me, too. After thinking about ways she could re-frame her day to inject some positive energy, I came up with this system.

I made each of them a ring with six beads in alternating colors.  There are three questions to ask before they get out of bed in the morning and three to ask right before they fall asleep. The idea is to slide the first bead to the side as they ask the first question, and slide the second bead as they come up with an answer. The morning questions are:

1. What can I expect from today?
2. What can I do to make today great?
3. What can I do for myself today?

The goal of the first question is to get some idea of what the day holds (a spelling test, a visit from Gram, school and then basketball practice, etc.). The second question offers them an opportunity to understand that they have the power to make it a good day, and the third helps to ensure that there is something they can look forward to that incorporates self-care.

The evening questions are:

1. What made me happy today?
2. How did I help someone else today?
3. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

At the end of the day, I want them to look back and focus on the parts that they enjoyed, the places where they chose to make a difference for someone else, and have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

I started out by sitting with them as they asked and answered each question, gently guiding positive responses, and gradually weaned them off of having me there.  My oldest was happy to do it on her own, realizing that sometimes she wanted to keep her answers private, and my youngest prefers to have an audience. I designed the rings with their favorite colors and my youngest, who is a very tactile kid, really enjoys sliding them back and forth as she goes through the exercise. My other daughter, who is the kind of person that loves little treasures, slept for a year with the ring underneath her pillow as a talisman.

While I didn’t make myself a ring, I have found the simple practice of asking myself these questions to bookend my day is a powerful reminder of where to place my energy and how to ground myself every morning and every evening in what is most important to me.