Tag Archives: education

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 1

You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.

PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.

  1. We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
  2. It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
  3. Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
  4. And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.

It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.

Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

What are We So Afraid Of?

Following a(nother) spate of mass shootings across the United States, I am feeling frustrated, impotent, and incredibly sad. I don’t want us to collectively stay trapped in this loop of grief, anger, and paralysis, and I believe we are beginning to have the kinds of conversations we need to have, but I also feel an urgency about spurring those conversations on in a way that feels proactive and hopeful. I admit to weaving back and forth between signing petitions and donating to organizations fighting gun violence and amplifying tweets from people in power whose words I think are important to sitting quietly in despair and sadness.

I have long understood that anger is rooted in fear, and when I look around, I see so many people who are swimming in those waters. We are perpetuating generational fear in so many ways and it will take a deliberate, determined effort to break that cycle. We need to start having some difficult conversations with our kids and really listening to them. We need to change the way we relate to them and focus on making sure they feel loved and safe in relationship so that when they go out in to the world they aren’t hurting people.

I was a kid who swam in the waters of fear. My parents were both fearful people and they made a lot of their biggest decisions out of fear. I learned that the world was a scary place, that unconditional love was a fairy tale, and that nothing would get done unless I did it for myself. It’s a toxic way to live and it took a lot of therapy and a few really special, loving people to show me that it’s possible to make your way through the world with a belief that people are good and loving, that I am part of something bigger.

The rhetoric that dominates our public sphere is one of fear and scarcity. It tells us that there isn’t enough for all of us, there are threats out there so we must always be on guard, the world is a dangerous place. When people begin to believe that, they buy guns to carry on their bodies at all times “just in case.” They have a physical reaction to those who look different or speak a different language than they do. And often, they attack pre-emptively. Much of this attacking takes place online, since that is a safe place to begin – writing hateful things about other people, sending threats that they won’t likely follow through on, building a coalition of like-minded individuals to help defend them.

But more and more often, it spills out in to the public sphere and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The violent anger of white supremacy is rooted in fear – fear that people of color are ‘taking over,’ fear that they will strike at some point, fear that there isn’t enough. And in some cases, like Eliot Rogers and others who kill women and transgendered people, it is the fear that they themselves aren’t enough – that they aren’t loved, that they won’t be cherished and cared for.

This culture of fear is toxic, and combating it starts at home and has to happen in our schools, as well. More than reading and writing and number-crunching, we need to teach our kids that they are loved, that they are safe, that there is enough. We do that by listening to them, by paying attention to the things that they are most afraid of and addressing those things. It is a significant shift to make, and one that requires effort and, often, a “fake it til you feel it” approach – especially if we were raised with fear, ourselves. But it is absolutely necessary if we are to interrupt the cycle of hatred and violence.

We must shift from punishment to discipline.

We must curb our strongest emotional responses so as not to lash out in anger.

We must let our kids see our full range of emotional responses, talk to them about when we feel fear, and help them understand that the things we are most afraid of will almost never come to pass. We have to give them context and let them talk to us about their fears without judging or teasing them.

The three young white men who are responsible for killing scores of innocent people in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton in the last week were, I am certain, driven by fear. Fear that they learned a long time ago, that was perpetuated and encouraged by our political rhetoric. We teach young white men that it is acceptable to express their fear as anger in a variety of ways, and unless we want to keep stoking our own fears of dating, going out in public, and speaking our truth, we have to change the way we raise our kids.

And until we do significantly change the way we raise our kids, and interrupt this culture of fear, we have no business selling guns. They are the single deadliest weapon in our country, able to take the lives of innocent people more quickly and efficiently than any other weapon available to the public, and we can’t afford to have them in the hands of people whose fear has metastasized to anger, especially those who have been taught that their anger is righteous and justified and socially acceptable.

Is it Really Procrastination?

We have all been accused of it at least once, and some people seem to be more prone to it than others. There is at least one TED talk about it, and dozens of books have been written on the subject. And then, today, an article in the New York Times about why we procrastinate and how to stop doing it.

But what if it’s not always task avoidance?

What if, sometimes, what other people see as procrastination is actually our natural process?

Have you ever had a deadline staring you down that freaked you out? Have you ever forced yourself to get to work on something only to produce something mediocre and not up to par and have to scrap it and start over? Have you ever worked on something over and over again and gotten incredibly frustrated because you knew it wasn’t your best work, but you HAVE A DEADLINE SO YOU HAVE TO KEEP AT IT?

On the flip side, have you ever waited until you were inspired or feeling in a flow state and created something with much less effort that was far superior to anything you’ve created before?

Deadlines are external things. Necessary, to be certain (at least in most cases), but they often have no relationship to our own internal learning or creative processes. There is no universal timeline that says how long it “should” take each person to craft a comprehensive report or write a novel or make a piece of art. External deadlines have an effect on our emotions, which, in turn, affect our cognitive functions. Simply put, the more worried we are about meeting that deadline, the less we are able to access the portion of our brains that solve puzzles, that work out complex ideas and synthesize ideas.

Additionally, while our culture reveres “work” and willpower, they can be misunderstood. Our minds are working all the time whether other people can see it or not. So going for a walk or organizing that spice drawer alphabetically can actually be in service to the ultimate project we are working on, if only because it allows our subconscious to be kicking away beneath the surface, making connections and playing with ideas. It may look like procrastination to other people, but often when we can give ourselves the space to do other things, we produce more amazing outcomes than if we had tapped in to willpower to work hours and hours every day and exhausted ourselves creating things we ended up having to revise.

For me, the important thing is to remember that I don’t have to justify my seeming inaction to anyone else. I’ve experienced enough cycles of work and subconscious processing in my life to trust it. I like to think about it as a growth cycle. I planted a seed and gave it what it needed – even though it looks like nothing is happening up above, at some point, all the work that happened down below culminates in a shoot poking up from the ground. It seems miraculous because the actual effort wasn’t witnessed, but it was really just the way I work best. The more pressure I put on myself to “look” like I’m working, the more frustrated I get with less than optimal results. Forcing the process only makes me unhappy and tired.

To be sure, we are all guilty of task avoidance from time to time. But maybe the next time you’re being hard on a student or your child or yourself because you assume they’re procrastinating, you can ask whether your conscious self is actually just not quite ready to produce work. It doesn’t mean there isn’t work happening below the surface, and when inspiration strikes, you might be surprised at the pace and easy flow that happens.

In a Perfect World

You might assume that I think it is impossible to divorce a student’s social-emotional health from their education. You would be right. Just like our left brain and our right brain are not isolated from each other, we cannot expect our kids to operate in a vacuum at school – absorbing information and making calculations like a computer. Their environment and mindset and overall emotional maturity play a huge role in how they learn and process information and whether they integrate it effectively or not.

Here are a few key social-emotional skills adolescents need to develop in order to become active participants in their education, but they can’t do that without a lot of support from parents and teachers.

  • identify and demonstrate their personal values – It isn’t enough to “know” what your values are. Teens and tweens need to find the courage to live their values. For example, if Marcus values his health, then over time it will become important for him to make choices based on that belief despite what others around him are doing.
  • self-manage attention and focus – There is a difference between using technology as a tool to further your goals and letting technology do the work for you or distract you from doing your work. The more parents and educators can teach adolescents about how to use technology mindfully and purposefully, the more they can understand how it affects their time management.
  • positive outlook/growth mindset – All too often, we treat individual assignments and activities as though they are important in and of themselves, as opposed to recognizing that they are steps along the way. As students begin to see each task they are asked to do as relating to the bigger picture, they can be more open to learning from their mistakes. Understanding that we have something to learn from every situation and using that information in our pursuit of a larger goal is key to giving us the courage to keep trying.
  • personalized priorities – Every student has a different threshold for frustration and prolonged studying. Every student learns in a slightly different way. The earlier they are encouraged to prioritize based on what they know about themselves, the more likely teens are to create effective time-management strategies. Some kids do best when they get the “hard” tasks out of the way first, and others do great if they take short breaks every 30 minutes or so to stare out the window.
  • stare out the window – This sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but it has been shown that when we take time to ruminate or daydream, our brains are making connections that they don’t make when we are reading or being lectured to. Letting our brains play with information and reorganize it in different ways helps us find deeper meaning and integrate abstract concepts – something the adolescent brain is learning how to do if we can just give it the opportunity.
  • engage in creative activities – This is related to the previous skill and can take on many different forms, depending on the individual. When teens and tweens are encouraged to create, they are engaging different parts of their brain and often lighting up the pleasure centers, which floods the brain with chemicals that actually help us imprint memories better. A range of experiences and emotions when we are adolescents means that we are more capable of making better decisions as adults.
  • connect to others in a variety of ways – The stronger a teen’s relationships are, the more likely he or she is to feel as though they can risk living their values and attack challenges. Adolescents who are encouraged to both draw on their social connections for support and provide empathic support to others are more resilient and creative and grounded.

How do you think schools and parents can support adolescents in developing these skills?

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

It is really easy to get sucked in to the notion that our children’s best learning opportunities come within the four walls of a classroom or school building. We talk about strategies for educators and examine the curriculum on back-to-school night and ask questions about class size and grading, and all of those things are important, but it is important to remember that their brains don’t turn off when they leave school for the day.

Whether your child is involved in sports or music lessons, the drama club or working a few hours after school, they are learning valuable lessons and we can help them absorb those things by asking questions and expressing interest in what they are doing. Trying out for a position on the team or in the school play is a lesson in courage, not getting it is a lesson in adjusting our expectations and dealing with disappointment. Working on a particularly challenging song is a lesson in perseverance, and getting along with customers and co-workers can help develop patience and empathy. All of these things might seem obvious, but pointing them out to our kids is a way of reminding them that they can always be learning and growing, even if it isn’t in a formal setting.

One of the goals of social-emotional education is to teach kids that they can be the leader when it comes to what they learn. Finding things that interest them and pursuing mastery (and even sometimes simple survival of a situation) is just as important for their development as algebra and history. If we as parents and teachers place just as much value on the things kids are learning outside of school, we reinforce the idea of lifelong learning and let them know that grades aren’t the only goals to set your sights on.

How can you talk to your kids about the non-school things they learn every day?

“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.

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