Tag Archives: parenting

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.

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.

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.

Tips for Parents: Conflict Resolution

I’m part of a task force that includes a number of different stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and opinions and desires and fears. We are doing important work and sometimes, it is amazing to me that we are able to move forward at all, given the complexity of the issue we’re trying to untangle and the range of ideas we bring to the table. And frankly, it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have some amazing facilitators keeping us on track, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and sometimes using some pretty cool tools to help us get clarity.

One such tool that I loved seemed to me to be immediately applicable to the parent/teen relationship, if only because it helps get us to the places where we really need to talk.

We were divided in to small groups of four to do this exercise, but I think it’s doable with one parent and one child, or as an entire family unit.

The first step is to identify what the issue is: for example, curfew or social media activity.

Next, talk about where your ideas Align and where they Diverge. Make a column for each and lists underneath. No explanation is necessary at this point, it’s just a way to identify where you all agree and where the ideas are different. It may seem simple, but it can be eye-opening to truly understand where everyone’s head is, and it might be surprising to realize that you align in quite a few areas (ie. kids’ safety, kids’ social connections, etc.)

It may be that the only thing anyone agrees on is that the current status is not workable for anyone, and that’s ok. It’s a starting point, and by defining what it is that everyone thinks is going awry with this current situation, you may discover some additional insights.

When you’ve made your lists, start exploring the divergence. Look for barriers and opportunities – is there a way to honor the alignment and build a solution? Even if you can’t come to consensus about the solution, this is a great way to learn something about each other and more fully flesh out where each individual’s values and priorities lie.

Mindfulness in Real Life

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

(The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.)

THIS IS MINDFULNESS. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

Noticing the word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

 

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response

 

Was I really angry? Yes.

Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway.

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger.

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

All of this happened in the space of about 30 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop.

THIS IS MINDFULNESS.

I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others.

As someone who teaches mindfulness to parents and teens, more important than sitting in formal meditation is this ability to unpack our immediate reactions and really pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves nearly every minute of every day. That kind of mindfulness has such an enormous impact on our relationships with others, and when you’re a teenager, relationships are the most important thing in your world. With any luck, teaching teens to examine the stories they tell about their world can lead to looking at the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and it can have an effect on their self-worth. Challenging those stories that are often untrue (but convenient) is the first step to really opening up and recognizing that so much of what we think is true is simply fabricated. And it gives us the space to relax, to be, and to create what we want in that place the old story left behind.

 

Back-To-School: When Anxiety Rears its Head

The end of summer is a difficult time for many teens, especially older teens who are entering their final years of high school and anticipating the challenges that will come with that, and first year college students who may be moving away from home for the first time. So how can kids think about anxiety in a way that will help them continue to move forward in the face of fear and often overwhelming feelings? My own personal experience with anxiety might help shed some light on this all-too-common issue.

The problem with anxiety is that it is insistent. It is conniving and coy and always trying to convince me that I have to do something – or, NOT do something. Everything is fear-based with anxiety and, in my case, as soon as I started listening, it was incessantly in my ear, my brain, buzzing. But over a period of years I learned that the best thing I could do when she showed up was nothing. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever make big decisions out of fear, and it took many repetitions of this mantra and even written reminders on my laptop, my bathroom mirror, my desk to help me hear it in my head over the sound of Anxiety’s yapping.

My first instinct was to fight Anxiety, and it worked for a while, but it was so much work. I was exhausted and Anxiety just kept coming back. Everything changed when I learned that instead of combating it, I could stop, breathe, acknowledge its presence. I could listen to the frantic admonitions, the nay-saying, the fear-mongering, and let them pass right through me. I started to pretend that they were the ramblings of some sad soul on the subway. I nodded with sympathy, heard Anxiety out, and released it all. I don’t have to believe any of it. I get to understand where Anxiety is coming from and honor it and also not follow its advice. Anxiety will tell you that it wants what is best for you, that it will keep you safe, but that path keeps you small and afraid. It keeps you in the dark – isolated and lonely. True, I might be safe, but that’s not how I want to live, and I’m pretty sure, if your kids are honest with themselves, that’s not the life they want either.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT ANXIETY

It’s important to remember that Anxiety isn’t  me. Anxiety is afraid and it always will be – it is literally the only reason Anxiety exists, but it is not why I’m here. I have other reasons for being, and while Anxiety is loud and compelling and jacks up my heart rate and makes my palms sweaty and my head spin, it is possible to gradually separate myself from Anxiety. I can hear its words as though I’m underwater – muffled and distorted – I can let them pass through me and not stick.

It is also important to remember that Anxiety hates being ignored. It will come back again and again. I know this. But I also know that everything I’ve ever done that I’m proud of, that was worth it, that gave me joy, was in spite of it. Going to college. Getting married. Having a baby. Those were all things that paralyzed me, that made Anxiety stand up and say, “What do you think you’re doing? You don’t know how to do this! This is terrifying!” And I believed that some of the time, but I did those things anyway, and I don’t regret it. It is possible to move forward, step by step, with Anxiety right next to you, yammering in your ear that you couldn’t do this, sweating and heart pounding.

Maybe most important, Anxiety is quiet when you’re busy – when you’re doing your thing. Because you’re calling it on its BS. You’re proving it wrong. You’re showing it that you CAN do this, that you WON’T mess it up, that you are capable of going out there and living your fullest life. That’s also why it’s loudest before bed and right when you wake up – because you’re chilling and not out doing, but if you can work on silencing it (or acknowledging, listening, and dismissing) at those times, it gets much easier.

KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER

*Know who you are. Know what you want. Know what you’re willing to do to get there. Anxiety doesn’t like clarity. The more clear you are, the less Anxiety will pipe up.

*All you have to do is the next right thing. When Anxiety is chatting away in your ear, it’s tempting to believe that you have to have it all figured out, that you have to have a plan. But, to be honest, there is never a point in your life where you have to have it all figured out. When you’re dealing with anxiety, the best thing to do is take the next step forward. And the next. And the next.

*Bonus points for noticing the things that feel right, that make you smile. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Anxiety. If you get immersed in school and you start to enjoy yourself, do yourself a favor and take a moment to chalk one up for you and rub it in Anxiety’s face. You’ve got this.

*More bonus points for patting yourself on the back every time you go to class, talk to someone, join an exercise group, get out of bed. Those are monumental acts when Anxiety is riding shotgun.

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

What is Non-Violent Communication and Why Does it Matter?

Bhuston at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of the foundations of The SELF Project’s parent and student curriculum is non-violent communication. For people who haven’t encountered this term before, it can seem a bit strange, but it is an important piece of understanding how to have strong, mutually respectful, healthy, compassionate relationships.

So what is it?

The term itself was coined by Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist, whose life’s work revolved around the notion of compassionate connection and individual needs. He believed that if we could distill our communication with others down to which of our needs we were trying to get met, we could then begin to find strategies to meet those needs in concert with others rather than at odds with them.

Non-violent communication does not involve guilt or shame, power or control tactics, or manipulation. It is a way of communicating where each individual is sincerely interested in the needs of the other and validates their right to have those needs. It also involves taking personal responsibility for one’s feelings, actions, and sometimes, coming to terms with the fact that your needs cannot or won’t be met.

Why does it matter?

As teachers and parents, we generally assume a level of power and authority that can lead us to set up communication patterns with children that are rooted in violent communication (that is, shame/blame, power/control, manipulation). And while those tactics might work to keep things peaceful for a while, they aren’t long-term strategies for creating trusting relationships.

Threats of punishment, taking away privileges as a punishment, tit-for-tat rhetoric or behavior, and “because I said so” are all examples of this kind of violent communication. They might be effective at squashing behaviors short-term, but they won’t foster relationship or ultimately teach the child skills that will serve them as adults.

Non-violent communication is also about really understanding where someone else is coming from. Because it involves being really curious about what someone’s behaviors or rhetoric is trying to say about what needs they have that aren’t being met, it fosters compassion. I often use the phrases “hurt people hurt people” and “where there is bad behavior, there is pain.” Both of those are reflective of the notion that we express ourselves negatively when we need something we aren’t getting. Using non-violent communication techniques can help parents and teachers begin to understand what is at the root of certain behaviors or relationship dynamics.

We have all had at least one ‘a-ha’ moment when our assumptions about why a kid was acting out were proven to be horribly wrong. I once knew a mom whose (pre-verbal) toddler was throwing a massive tantrum and she got increasingly frustrated and angry as she tried nearly everything to calm him down – food, drink, cuddling, shushing, threatening. He was arching his back and pulling at his overalls and causing quite the scene. It was only when she finally laid him down to check his diaper that she realized he had somehow slipped a fork down inside his overalls and the tines were stabbing him in the genitals. No wonder he was screaming!

These techniques, when used by parents and teachers, are also a good way to teach kids how to get curious about their own feelings and motivations. So often, we react to pain or frustration in less than desirable ways without even really thinking about it, but the earlier we can learn to identify what is behind those strong feelings, the better. We will be able to express ourselves to people without them becoming defensive or angry and are more likely to get our needs met in the end. It’s an important life skill to have.

Think about how much easier your life might be if your co-worker or boss was able to come to you and say, “I am feeling really anxious right now because I need this report to be absolutely perfect. I know you’re on a deadline, but would you consider helping me by proofreading it?” That is non-violent communication. Unfortunately, there aren’t many adults who talk to others that way – especially when they’re stressed and anxious. What would it be like if more people did? The agitated person in line behind you, the police officer who is worried you pose a threat, your mother-in-law…. Don’t we want our kids to have this skill, too?

It also teaches us how to negotiate by helping find common ground. Because we all have needs, if both the adult and the adolescent can get really clear on what those needs are, they can also begin to work out whether the strategies each person has been using to meet those needs are at odds. If they are, there’s a chance to get creative and work together to find a solution that works for everyone.

The more we can find ways to work together to get all our needs met, the fewer stand-offs we’ll have. The fewer kids will get kicked out of class or their house. 

Questions? Please comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you want to know about NVC more in depth, check out any of the books by Marshall Rosenberg.