Tag Archives: educators

Can We Stop Telling Kids We Want to Teach Them to “Manage” Their Emotions?

Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”

Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’ 

Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.

To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.

It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us. 

Building Trust: Process Improvement Style

Whether you’re an educator or parent of adolescents (or both), you know that teaching kids this age is much different than teaching younger kids. As kids mature, they want more say in how things are decided, what the rules are, and how to determine where the boundaries lie. If we shut them out of the process, we risk them shutting us out of their decision-making, too.

Helping kids this age develop the skills to be productive, happy, fully functioning adults is part of our job, and including them in the conversations about rules and systems is messy but vital. So when you notice that something isn’t working (curfew or classroom norms or family routines), it can be helpful to embark on some process improvement work.

Process Improvement

Each of these steps requires that all parties engage in a certain way in order to come to a better outcome. Everyone is an equal partner in this process, so building consensus is vital.

Understand/Assess requires everyone to lead with curiosity and a willingness to listen. It’s important to define what isn’t currently working and remind folks that just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean they’re to blame – it’s the process or system under scrutiny right now – not the individuals.

Recommend requires permission. Is everyone in agreement or ready to move forward with new ideas? Are there some folks who need to talk or listen more?

Test/Revise requires curiosity and a willingness to collaborate. This doesn’t have to be the final iteration – just an honest attempt to make things better. If everyone agrees to disagree with ideas instead of people, this will go more smoothly.

Agree/Plan requires honesty and dialogue. Where are the areas of alignment (what worked ok for everyone)? Where are the areas of divergence? Everyone involved should feel as though their ideas are equally important and their voices equally valid. Capitalize on the agreements to build a plan.

Communicate/Implement requires effort and careful listening. Does everyone understand the ground rules? Does everyone know what to expect as the new system is put in place? Does everyone have a role to play in setting things in motion?

Listen/Examine requires curiosity and honesty. If something isn’t working or anyone is feeling resentful or unheard, it’s important to know that. Are there unintended consequences of the new system?

If kids know that we’re willing to look closely at our rules and norms and engage them in a process of making things work better for everyone, they’re more likely to open up and feel empowered. Adolescents need to be reminded of their importance and the impact they can have in the systems that serve them as well as their responsibilities. Giving them opportunities to practice being part of the solution can often help diminish the amount of complaining and defiance they engage in and it helps them develop the skills they’ll need to work with others as they move farther and farther out in to the world. Adolescents are also often much more creative in their thinking than adults who have been entrenched in systems for years and it’s beneficial to us as parents and educators to be exposed to their ideas.

I’d love to hear how folks implement these ideas to change the way they do things with teenagers and get some feedback on how it worked.

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

Why the “Social” Part of Social Media is So Important for Adolescents

Smartphones_back

As parents and educators, we often hear (and engage in) complaints about teens and social media. What we don’t often talk about is what drives their behavior, but if we are to have meaningful conversations with students about social media use, it helps to understand it.

One key point to remember is that, as human beings, we are neurobiologically wired for connection. Our brains are designed to reward us for being part of a social network and alert us that something is wrong if we are feeling isolated. Without connection to others, we suffer. This phenomenon is especially pronounced during our adolescent years which accounts for the extraordinary drive to find others with whom we belong.

I remember my parents’ frustration at the endless hours I spent on the phone every evening, the 10-foot cord stretched down the hallway so I could tuck myself away in my room with the door shut and talk to friends. Like most teens, I craved connection. The 8 hours a day I spent with friends at school wasn’t enough. Today’s teens are the same, but they have different technologies available to them than we did.

There are so many examples in the media of the ways adolescents use social media to harass each other, but we don’t often look at the ways they use it to make each others’ lives better. FaceTime has become a great way for students to help each other with homework or work on group projects. Individual Instagram accounts have allowed teens to see a different side of their peers – learning about other interests they have outside of school. Social media as a whole enables students who live in geographically distant areas to connect around common passions or struggles and can lead to some pretty amazing activism.

Overall, it seems that adolescents haven’t changed that much over the years, but the tools they use to engage socially have. The key as parents and educators is for us to acknowledge that teens will always find ways to create and maintain strong social networks and use our wisdom and influence to help them understand how to use those tools in a way that builds them up and flexes their social-emotional muscles. Asking lots of open-ended questions about how and why they use certain social media platforms can help adults learn what kind of connection is most important to an individual student, and it can give them some insight and self-awareness. It isn’t uncommon for teens to start doing something because their peers are doing it, but if we can encourage them to reflect on whether it is filling a need, they are more likely to make good choices about how and when to repeat that behavior.

Removing an adolescent’s ability to engage with their peers by taking their phone away or blocking Internet access doesn’t eliminate the drive to connect, and it can harm your relationship. Helping teens find ways to maintain productive, healthy social connections, both in person and virtually, by acknowledging their need to bond with others and enabling it whenever possible will go a long way toward building trust.