Parenting Conversation: When You Think Your Tween/Teen is Lazy

Django groen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

As school starts around the country for many kids, there will inevitably be struggles between parents and kids to get into the swing of things regarding time management and homework and effort. One of the most common things I hear about adolescents is that they are “lazy” and I think it bears exploring before we as parents/caregivers and educators go throwing that label around. There are a lot of reasons why our kids can struggle to find motivation to get things done, and it’s important for us to recognize the emotional weight many of them are carrying after the last two-plus years of uncertainty. Navigating the social world of adolescence, identity development, physical changes in their bodies, the impact of hormones, along with the news of climate change and wars in different parts of the world, uncertainty about Covid and monkeypox and the health of the economy can leave anyone exhausted and wondering how or why to get out of bed in the morning.

Add to that the fact that some kids just process information differently, and it may be that your child isn’t avoiding doing anything, but that they’re using so much energy just to move through the day that by the time they sit down to a stack of reading and other homework to do, they’re spent. Most parents want our kids to develop the ability to manage their time and energy and fulfill their responsibilities, but does calling them lazy motivate them to do that? (The answer is no – you can shame a person in to doing something for a short period of time, but it’s not an effective way to change motivation or behavior long-term – more on that in another post soon). 

One of the first things I like to ask parents and caregivers to do before they address the idea of work ethic with their child is to spend some time with this worksheet I created. Getting really clear on where you developed your idea of what “work” looks like and why is a great starting point. It may be that as you go through this you discover many of the beliefs you hold about work are arbitrary or outdated. It may be that if you do this with your co-parent or parenting partners, you learn that you have some very different ideas. Kids with different learning styles (often called neurodivergence) can be doing a whole lot of invisible work that merits recognition. A child with ADHD who is struggling to sit still and pay attention in class is going to be expending a lot more effort than a kid whose primary learning style jives with the typical classroom setting. Expecting the same results from both of those students isn’t fair or practical.

Once you’ve spent some time with this questionnaire, sit down and talk to your child about it. What ideas have they absorbed from you about work? Where can you all begin to come to an agreement on what is important – effort, progress, results? Having a conversation about this can begin to shift how you talk about the way your child spends their time and whether or not they feel like they are being acknowledged.

As always, please comment and let me know your thoughts. If you want to dive more into this subject (and other parenting practices that will help you and your child strengthen your relationship), reach out via email and let’s set up a time to talk. kari@theselfproject.com

Thinking Critically About Work

A Two-Podcast Week!

I’ve had some really wonderful conversations with folks lately about the new book

This week, two podcast conversations aired and I’m so excited to share them with folks. The first one is Zach Beach’s Learn to Love podcast. He is all about love and the transformational aspects of it and we spent some time talking about why it’s sometimes hard to love teens, but why it’s so important. Check it out here.

The second podcast is from the Conscious Family Project, which is all about and for home schooling families. Ally and I talked about teens and motivation and we had such a great time that she invited me back for a second round to talk about teen social relationships. That one will air soon, but for now, even if you aren’t a home schooling family, you might find some good information here (plus, Ally is an absolute delight to talk to because she is so enthusiastic).

Stay tuned for some more good conversations and please, let me know if you’ve read the book and it has spurred any good talks on your end (or good questions).

Can We Talk about “Learning Loss”?

empty classroom with chalkboard in the forefront and wooden desks

Honestly, my stomach clenches when I even think that phrase. And I don’t want to position myself as some sort of expert on par with some of the folks who spoke with Meghna Chakrabarti today on NPR’s On Point but I do take exception to the wildly upsetting information that is being put out there without what I think is proper context.

The premise of today’s show on NPR was aUNICEF report titledThe State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery. 

It detailed some of the global reactions to the pandemic, including the length of time that school children were kept from their classrooms and what the effects of those measures seem to be. While it is probably indisputable that children didn’t maintain the educational momentum they would have, had the lockdown not happened, I take exception to the phrase “learning loss.”

These youth did not lose brain cells or the capacity to learn during the lockdown.

Children all over the world continued to learn while they were at home. They may have learned things like how to navigate technology, whether or not online learning is something that they are adept at, and what it is like to manage social relationships when everyone in your household is at home at the same time every day. And those things are valuable, even if there isn’t a standardized test that measures them. But it is important to note that, while these kids may not have been learning the kinds of things that teachers in classrooms teach them in a structured, rigorous way (how to read, how to solve complex math problems, etc.), they haven’t missed the opportunity to ever learn those things.

We know from looking at adult literacy programs that people who are 40 or 50 or 60 can learn to read, so sounding the alarm because a group of four or five or six-year olds didn’t learn to do it in the last two years feels disingenuous. Just because your child missed out on an opportunity to learn algebra during the 2020-21 school year doesn’t mean they can’t learn it this year or next. It is important that we recognize that the timelines we are measuring kids by are altogether arbitrary. Someone in the United States decided that the majority of structured, classroom learning of particular subjects ought to be done by the time most kids are 18, after 12 or 13 years of formal schooling. Someone in the UK decided that it ought to be done by year 10 or 11 and then kids can specialize in certain subjects. Other countries have decided that eight years of school are sufficient. And the way we structure the school year in this country has more to do with historical agricultural calendars than brain science. Meaning that just because kids didn’t take pre-calculus in 10th grade doesn’t mean they are doomed to failure, that they’ve missed the window of time they could learn it, and that they have “learning loss.” The human brain is a magnificent organ that is capable of learning pretty much forever.

More offensive than these kinds of pervasive conversations, though, are the things we’ve chosen to ignore that affect a child’s ability to learn more than their not being in a classroom with peers. (Also, it’s fair to note that many intelligent folks have been home-schooled or “unschooled”).

We know that poor nutrition affects our ability to learn. So does not having our basic physiological needs met. And yet, we have tens of thousands of children in this country alone who lack a stable housing situation, food security, and a supportive, loving adult in their lives, but we don’t talk about that as if it’s a crisis.

We know that learning takes place more effectively in relationship and yet our public school system is set up to cram as many kids in a classroom as possible and deprive teachers of the resources they need to adequately build relationship with their students.

We know that the human brain wasn’t designed to take in vast amounts of disparate information all day without breaks to integrate and make meaning and build understanding, and yet we subject middle and high school kids to anywhere from five to eight different classes per day with just ten minutes in between to get from one to the other.

I could go on, and on, and on, but I won’t. My point is that when the media focuses on things like this report, they are reinforcing the notion that the lockdowns were harmful to children in a way that isn’t accurate. Many children suffered socially and emotionally during the last two years, to be certain, and I wonder how much of that is due to the expectations that we as adults continued to have of them to “keep up,” as well as the isolation from their peers. We could be talking about the things that are much more impactful and important, like figuring out how to really meet the physiological, social, and emotional needs of children all around the world as a way to create the optimal circumstances for learning, but we aren’t. Instead, we are continuing to put pressure on kids and teachers to ramp up their efforts and make up for lost time and, frankly, that is only going to cause more harm than we already have. Please, can we stop talking about “learning loss”?

Nine Days to Launch

Pre-orders are available now here and here

I am really thrilled to have this work out in the world, especially now when adolescents are living through their second year of disrupted school and social relationships. Just as they’re beginning to pull away from family of origin a little bit and develop their own, unique identity, many of them are cut off from peers and social situations that would normally do the important work of mirroring and providing opportunities to test out different ways of being. The good news is, with intention and care, parents and educators can shift how they interact with pre-teens and teens to create supportive, caring connections and help with this development.

Please share with your networks and hit me up on email or social media with your questions about parenting and/or teaching adolescents.

How Are We Making Learning Harder for Ourselves (and what can we do about it…)?

 

picture of a van overloaded with bags and a mattress

I was talking with a friend today who is a therapist and she was telling me how surprised she is by the number of adult clients she has who fit the criteria for ADD. Individuals who haven’t been previously diagnosed with it, who struggle with anxiety as well. As is my wont, I wondered aloud how much of that has to do with the way we have set up society and the expectations we have of people – many of which have been exacerbated in the last two years. She stopped walking, poked me in the shoulder, snort-laughed and said, “All of it. 100%.”

We both laughed and continued walking and talking, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately – not ADD specifically, but the way we have work and school set up in direct opposition to the way the human brain is designed to learn.

Our brains aren’t supposed to be like empty vessels, primed and ready to dump vast amounts of information in, and immediately turn them in to meaningful connections. We aren’t trash-compacters, but that’s how we have set things up for ourselves in the name of “efficiency” and “productivity.”

In a workshop this week, I was speaking with parents about screen time and how we can manage it for our children so that it isn’t overwhelming or harmful. One parent lamented that her child has a hard time transitioning from screen time to other things – bedtime or naps or outside time – and that it often becomes a power struggle or fertile ground for a tantrum. Many other parents nodded their heads vigorously. This is a prime example of how we aren’t honoring our brain’s need for processing. Even when it looks like we aren’t doing anything (watching YouTube videos or TikToks or bingeing episodes of our favorite show), our brains are taking in information, and for kids, that’s a lot of stimulation. Especially for young children (under the age of ten or so), their brains are designed to be soaking up input on a vast scale, but in order to learn, they need time to integrate that information. Watching four episodes of Dora the Explorer back to back before having to dash off to school or soccer practice or bed doesn’t give them the opportunity to find context, make meaning, process the information they just stuffed in their head.

While I don’t have the same brain as a five year old, my brain needs that, too. I told the parents at the workshop that I don’t ever schedule back-to-back meetings anymore for that very reason. [I realize what an enormous privilege that is, and also, I really want more companies to normalize that as a practice] If my calendar is full of one meeting after the next all day long, the group of folks who I see at 2:30pm are going to get a shell of my former self. They will get someone who has massive decision-fatigue, whose head is buzzing with ideas and information from all of the other interactions I’ve had that day, and the things that happened in earlier meetings are likely to get shoved out of my head before I have a chance to really fully process and integrate them. If, instead, I have time in between meetings to talk to folks casually about what I learned (learning happens in relationship, after all), doodle, make notes and dig a little deeper on my own, I am much more likely to have creative ideas about how to implement things or understand how they apply to other contexts.

This is why I think middle and high schools are getting it wrong with kids on a massive scale. Asking kids to spend an eight-hour day switching from one subject to the next with only a five or ten minute break to physically move from one place to the other is not conducive to deep contextualizing. It doesn’t allow them to really sit with the history lesson they were just presented with (even if your school is one that has a “block schedule” with longer periods that happen fewer times per week) or talk to a peer about what it means that the Fibonacci sequence shows up everywhere in nature. The way we have set up schools, we have virtually guaranteed that kids won’t retain or be able to frame much of what they’re taught, at least not until they are in college where classes are spaced out in time somewhat.

My oldest daughter noticed when she went to college that if she studied until ten or eleven pm and then went to work out or take a bath and get rest the night before a test, she did much better on the test than her peers who stayed in the library until four in the morning, cramming as much as they could into their brains, and then took the test at eight am. That’s because rest allows us to daydream, it allows our minds to wander and make connections we wouldn’t otherwise make while we’re busy stuffing more data into them. Many of us know this already. The studies have been done. And yet, we continue to prioritize meeting after meeting as though that is some evidence of productivity.

Creativity is where innovation comes from, but if we don’t give ourselves time to daydream and contextualize, we can’t be creative. Letting your child watch one episode of Dora and then asking them to draw a picture of what they watched or build a Lego representation or simply tell us about it – all of it; the colors, what struck them the most, what made them laugh or worry, how it compares to other episodes – provides their brains space to make meaning of it, to learn from it in a much more holistic way. And, because learning happens in the context of relationship, it means the impact of that one show will be much bigger. The bonus is that they won’t need to “relieve” their nervous system of the sensory overload of bingeing four episodes in a row by throwing a tantrum. This works with older kids, too. Encouraging them to talk to us about the video game they love or the YouTube account they follow can help build a deeper understanding of what’s exciting about it, where their own passions lie, and place it firmly within the realm of the human.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of all of this is that it builds relationship. Taking time to talk with others about the things we’re experiencing – especially our kids – normalizes these kinds of conversations and allows us to see life through different perspectives that add dimension to our lives. And honoring the way our brains were designed to absorb new information means that we are more likely to be able to pay attention to the next thing that comes along and be in the habit of thinking about it more deeply.

I am beginning to believe that people who struggle with ADD are often fighting against the systems that expect us to be able to rapidly switch between tasks without contextualizing them, and for good reason. There is a way in which we’ve socialized ourselves from a very young age to believe that multi-tasking is a good thing (and that it is even possible) and that we should be able to absorb vast quantities of information in any given day. We don’t teach children to focus and we don’t set up systems to enable focus, but we growl in frustration when they can’t. What if a person’s tendency to switch their locus of attention mid-stream is the brain’s attempt to protect itself from sensory overload? There is no doubt that the world in which I grew up was much less overwhelming than the world in which kids are growing up now. I am lucky enough to be able to put systems into place that help me avoid being bombarded with too much input that I can’t process, but most people aren’t.  As parents, how can we create some of this for our kids? As employers, how can we do this for the people we work with?

Shame Rebel Podcast Interview

 

I had such a wonderful time talking with Katie for her new podcast, Shame Rebel, where she explores different ways we carry and inflict shame on each other people. We talked about relationship, parenting, teaching, and how to stop shaming yourself. Check out all of the episodes and stay tuned for more news about the book that’s forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield for parents and educators of teens.

SEL and Online Learning: Some Tips

Online school is hard for everyone in one way or another. Parents, teachers, administrators and students all find aspects of online learning they struggle with. While this is something I put together for an SEL conference, it also applies to all online education spaces if we have any hope of making learning meaningful for students right now.

  1. Know Your Students – get to know who they are, how they identify, what the barriers and challenges are that they face with regard to online learning. If this is the only thing you do, it will be important.
  2. Engage Students – Create opportunities for students to be part of the learning process. The more our students are empowered to be the architects of their own learning spaces, the more they will learn and the more they teach their peers. Be willing to acknowledge the unique perspectives and talents every student has that can enrich the learning environment for everyone.
  3. Vary Access Points – Make sure you aren’t just catering to students who are comfortable with online school. Provide links to videos, models they can hold in their hands, music and other forms of information they can engage with. Even students can be surprised at what sparks their interest and understanding.
  4. Use Social Media – this can feel a little concerning; creating relationship with students outside of the school learning platforms, and I get it. But students learn best from folks they’re in relationship with, so even if you just create an Instagram account where you post memes that are relevant to what you’re teaching, it’s a way to connect with students where they are already spending time.
  5. Prioritize Relationship – I know we all have specific things we want students to learn about, but remember, students learn best in the context of relationship. Make sure you’re giving them lots of opportunities to connect with you and others – smaller groups or 1:1 time with a peer or giving them tasks that will spur creativity and bonding outside of the subject matter.
  6. Know What’s Important – and express it to students. Competition and assessment are not important when it comes to SEL. This is about creating connections for students and helping them understand how to know themselves and find their tribe. You can’t challenge them to do that, you have to empower them to do it.
  7. Share Power – Make sure you communicate clearly to students how they can share their ideas and contribute. This can mean thoroughly explaining the “raise hand” feature on an online meeting platform or letting them know that feedback can be anonymous or submitted “offline” if they feel intimidated by sharing in the larger group. Build in time for feedback about which lessons and ideas resonate and which fall flat as well as generating thoughts about what would work better. Do it every session. Convince your students that they are part of the process and help them feel confident sharing their ideas.

When Having a Suicide Prevention Protocol isn’t Enough

wooded area with footpath to a small stone temple

A friend who is a middle-school educator and the parent of two adolescents shared with me this morning that she learned about a student her son’s age who took his own life last week. As expected, it has shaken her and caused her to examine how to respond, both as a teacher and as a parent. She said that the school district has deployed its suicide prevention protocol and, while she is grateful there is one in place, she told me that it feels “mechanistic.” It is definitely important for schools to have a set of tasks and supports available in the event that a tragedy like this happens, but the truth is, it isn’t enough, and without those protocols being grounded in secure relationships that already exist between staff and students and families, it will always feel like a checklist instead of a true, heartfelt response.

We can’t hope to deploy these resources and talking points after the fact in any effective way if we haven’t put in the effort to create strong relationships before something painful happens. Even if we as adults are sincere in our offer to be available for students and families who are grieving and frightened and angry, if we haven’t established – through a pattern of behavior they can trust – a connection before, it is unlikely that those who are in the most pain will feel comfortable coming to us. And if we haven’t processed our own grief and pain, or at least identified them, we will appear to be unsympathetic or simply going through the motions.

My friend noted that, over the years, this particular student had been noticed by many different teachers who wanted to find a way to help him. All too often, protocols and standard practices serve to prevent us from creating caring relationships with students who could use our support. Whether it is a culture that encourages school staff to see certain things as their purview (education and behavior management inside the school setting or hours) and assign others to families (deeper emotional and adjustment issues), or one that encourages them to be hands off for fear of liability, those things stand in the way of building truly supportive connections with students. It may be that class sizes prevent teachers from being able to connect with all of their students or a lack of resources means that there isn’t a skilled, trained staff member who could build a relationship with a student and their family. Whatever the barriers are, if we aren’t working to be in relationship with our students and their families or caregivers, when something like this happens, we won’t be able to provide the kind of support that is most profound and meaningful, even with a list of well-researched actions and scripts in our back pocket.

We know that students learn best when they feel as though they are in connected relationships with their teachers. We also know that they learn best when they are supported at home. Having a suicide prevention protocol might look good from the outside, but if we aren’t using it in the context of foundational relationships with students and families who believe that they can trust us and speak honestly about their struggles, it doesn’t amount to much. It is up to us to do the hard work of creating connections between teachers and students and families so that when there is a tragedy, we can rely on our relationships to hold us all as we grieve.

Going Deeper with Non-Violent Communication

Many parents and educators will have some familiarity with the idea of Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and many will not. It is something that I have drawn on to create both parent and youth curricula through The SELF Project, and I believe it’s an important concept to explore in regards to relationship and community-building. If you’re interested, I recommend checking out The Center for Nonviolent Communication‘s website where they offer basic training, information, and opportunities to connect with others exploring this work. For now, though, I’ll simply include their definition of NVC here:

Nonviolent Communication, (NVC), is based on the principles of nonviolence– the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture.

NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that all actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs. People who practice NVC have found greater authenticity in their communication, Increased understanding, deepening connection and conflict resolution.

The NVC community is active in over 65 countries around the globe.

The most basic rule of NVC asks that we try to focus our interactions around conflict and disagreement on our needs, rather than the tactics we’re using to get those needs met. Meaning, that you and I might be arguing about a political idea but what lies beneath our opposite positions is that we both want to feel safe and taken care of by our society. If we can peel back the layers of conversation so that we are able to acknowledge that we actually both want the same thing, the idea is that we can begin to connect on a more human level and expand our ability to have compassion for each other. But sometimes, that concept is trickier than others and here is why I think that happens:

Even if you and I both have the same basic need (ie. feeling safe and heard), it is important to recognize that what that looks like for each of us may be very different. You might feel safest if I don’t challenge you or disagree with you, while I might only feel safe if I am allowed to challenge your ideas or disagree with you. This generally happens in situations where one person has more power or agency than the other – say, in a classroom or a home where the disagreement is between a teen and their parental figure. If there is a power imbalance, it is important to address that before we can expect an honest conversation to happen.

In relationships that have been challenging or have established a dynamic where one person routinely sublimates their own needs or desires in order to keep peace (ie. feel safe), NVC may not be an option until there is significant repair of the relationship. If I have been told more than once that my needs are frivolous or imagined, it might be unrealistic to expect me to be honest with you about what I think I need in this situation, and if I can’t be honest, NVC won’t work.

Often, attempting to focus on what the other person needs can bring up some difficult emotions and thoughts, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. If it does, it’s a great opportunity to explore the relationship dynamic and look for a power imbalance, whether or not you generally feel safe with that person, and if there is mutual positive regard (ie. you trust each other and think the best of the other person’s intentions). It can take many conversations over a long period of time to establish a relationship dynamic that allows for non-violent communication techniques. It isn’t something you can simply flip on and have it work. Often, the work starts with us and our willingness to get really clear on our own needs and what they look like. For example, we may say we need to feel respected, but we also should be able to describe what that would look and feel like to us – does that mean you don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking? That you don’t try to explain away my needs or ideas as frivolous or over-reacting? That you are able to mirror back to me what I just said so that I know you were actively listening? It turns out that often, our idea of being heard or respected or safe is very very different from what other people think it is.

I do think it is important that educators and parents practice NVC with adolescents, both as a way to strengthen relationship and also to model it for them. I also know that it takes practice and intent and a willingness to spend some time looking at how we’ve managed those relationships in the past and what our needs are before we dive headlong in to challenging conversations.

What I hope students develop and strengthen after working with the self project curriculum

It may feel like it’s a bit late for me to be telling you about my goals for this work now, but better late than never, right? It turns out that there are a lot of ideas about the outcomes of SEL and what they ought to look like, but I suspect my thoughts deviate slightly from the norm. I am really not interested in behavior management or assimilation or “grading” students on their “performance” or demonstration of the identified goals of SEL. Because this work is really rooted in relationship, and because human beings learn best in community and thrive in social contexts, my hopes for individual students are much less “measurable” but no less important.

  1. I hope that this curriculum/this work helps students develop resilience, meaning that they are able to experience adversity in many different realms (work, school, personal relationships, life circumstances) and know that they have support, where to find it, and how to ask for it and receive it.
  2. I want students to develop the ability to form trusting relationships with others, know when it is safe to be vulnerable (and with whom), and know how and when to ask for help and support. Cultivating a network of people with the ability and willingness to offer help that is meaningful and substantial without any expectations is a key part of building resilience.
  3. This curriculum was designed to help students identify, strengthen, and claim their individual strengths in a way that feels natural and purposeful.
  4. Students who work through this curriculum will be able to meet challenges of all kinds with courage. That doesn’t mean they don’t have fear or the occasional doubts about themselves, but it does mean that they know they can ask for help if they need it, and that the outcome of being challenged is learning.
  5. I hope that students who engage in this work will learn to create and maintain healthy boundaries that allow them to be challenged, but not disrespected or harmed, and signal to themselves and the wider community that they have enough self-love to demand that they are treated with respect and reverence.
  6. I want this work to expand the capacity of young people to experience joy.
  7. Because this work is done in community, it should give students both opportunities to feel supported in community and know that they are vital to their community because of their unique voice.
  8. This work should also help ground students in a solid notion of who they are as an individual at their core, even as they grow and change.

Adults who take on the task of doing this work with students should keep these goals in mind and identify for themselves what it means to support students without co-opting their ideas and feelings for a different agenda, and understand that this work’s importance lies in creating a culture of interdependence, of community, of fostering a space where we can have conversations about difficult subjects without needing to come to a tidy conclusion.

Please reach out to me with questions about any of this. It is more vital now than ever that we begin to dig in to this work with adolescents.