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.

Rules of Engagement for Families (and Teachers)

As my kids got older, I began to realize that it was going to be necessary to change the way we addressed certain issues in our home. While I still encouraged lots of discussion and offered to be present and support my teens as they worked out their own differences, it became clear to me that their unique personalities meant that they approached this in very different ways. This tended to make conversations turn in to conflict, if only because one of my daughters is someone who wants to hash things out instantly, in the moment, and stay until it’s done, while the other one prefers to walk away when emotions get high, re-center herself, and decide if it’s a fight worth having. After a few ugly scenes (complete with doors slamming and tears), we sat down to create a set of ground rules that would work for everyone, and I think they’re pretty universal, so I’ve adopted them as rules for any classroom or student gathering I’m in that has a conflict of some sort. Here they are:

  1. Everyone at the table is here because they want to be (not because they are forced to be or guilted into it). Force and guilt/shame set up a power dynamic that means the discussion is doomed to fail before it even starts.
  2. Everyone has the same rights – we are all equals and we all deserve to be heard and our perspectives respected. It doesn’t matter how old someone is or what their status in the family/classroom is. There are no trump cards if we are truly interested in working through this to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone thinks that they’re bound to be over-ruled at some point, there’s no point in engaging. And if anyone else believes that they ultimately get to decide what happens, there’s no point in them listening to the others.
  3. Even if we can’t understand someone else’s point of view or feelings, we respect their right to have it and we all agree not to belittle anyone because of it. No gaslighting. Your reaction might seem disproportionate or even absurd to me, but since I’m not living in your skin, I don’t get to tell you how you should feel and I certainly don’t get to shame you for feeling the way you feel.
  4. No name-calling, ultimatums, demands, hate speech. This one might seem patently obvious, but often when we get in to a situation that seems to be going nowhere, we resort to these tactics to ratchet up the urgency. They’re not helpful at all if what we really want is to solve the problem at hand.
  5. We all agree to work our hardest to define a common goal for this situation and work toward it. Bringing up past resentments is not okay because it derails the conversation. There may well be patterns of behavior you have noticed over time, but if you want to have a conversation about this incident or issue right now, you need to stay in this moment. No fair blaming or shaming someone for something they did in the past. Period.
  6. No eye-rolling or turning away or other negative body language. This sends the clear message that you’re not listening or you’re not interested in really understanding where the other person is coming from. If you’re not, there’s no reason for you to be here.
  7. If someone decides they can’t be part of the conversation right now for any reason, they are allowed to leave, but they agree to be part of the conversation in the near future so that bad feelings won’t fester and things won’t remain unsolved. ‘Nuff said.
  8. Everyone agrees to own their part of the issue and take responsibility for their words or actions that might have caused others pain or frustration. There are multiple sides to every conflict. Nobody is ever all right or all wrong.
  9. Blaming and shaming, labeling someone, and using words like “always” and “never” will not move us forward and should be avoided. These are all shortcuts to ending a conversation and an indication that you’re making assumptions about the other person’s character or intent. You won’t get anywhere if you use these tactics.

 

Back to School (Already?)

For many kids, next week marks the beginning of another school year, and for parents, there is often at least a fleeting thought about how to help students succeed. There is a tension between nagging/constant reminders and letting kids feel their own way forward that can be excruciating for parents and caregivers because, while we want our kids to become independent, we are loathe to see them crash and burn if they don’t yet have the tools to really take off and fly.

Last year, I wrote this post about setting goals, but in the spirit of knowing that rarely does one size fit all, here is a different approach that might work better for students who prefer to approach the world in a more concrete way.  It may even be more impactful if one or more adult is willing to go through the process along with the kids so you can all hold each other accountable.

  1. Write down your goals for the next four weeks. Keep it to two or three at the most. Make them pretty specific and concrete (I want to stop eating sugary snacks. I want to get to bed before midnight every night. I want to spend at least 30 minutes every day exercising. I want to get all of my homework done before watching any TV or spending time on social media.)
  2. Rate each goal for its level of importance, difficulty, your commitment to it, and a history with it. You can use a scale of 1-5 and ask others who know you to make sure you’re being really honest with yourself.
  3. Write down action steps for each goal. Maybe you’ll purge the pantry of all cookies or exercise at the same time every single day. Find some small way to set yourself up for success before you even begin.
  4. Tell someone else about your goals. Tell lots of people. Post it on Facebook or Instagram or put it on your Snap story. Knowing that other people know what you’re trying to do will help hold you accountable on the days when your resolve wavers.
  5. Make a weekly progress report part of the plan. If there are multiple members of the household who are doing this, set up a chart in the kitchen so everyone can post their progress, or if you’ve told a friend what you’re doing, send him or her a progress report at the end of the week. Having other people who care about you praise your efforts and reward you with congratulations is a powerful motivator.
  6. Know that it takes a long time to establish a new habit. Go easy on yourself if you slip. Practice self-compassion. Remember why you wanted to do this in the first place and remind yourself that one little slip (or one big slip) doesn’t mean you should abandon it altogether. Ask for help or look for ways to adjust your goals to make them more doable right now. Baby steps forward still represent progress. You don’t have to be making huge strides to be doing better.

Feel free to comment with your ideas or goals here and I will do my best to cheer you on and help you be accountable if you want.

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.

Tips for Teachers: Why Shame and Blame Are Counterproductive

Sometimes, calling a student out in front of their peers seems unavoidable, but here are a few reasons why it’s important to resist doing it whenever possible.

  1. There are few things worse to an adolescent than being seen as inferior to their classmates. During this time of increased social awareness, teens desperately want to be regarded positively by peers. Being part of a tribe is on par with basic survival to most adolescents, and when they are shamed publicly, many find it incredibly difficult to recover from. If a trusted adult is the one doing the shaming, the likelihood of a positive relationship surviving that is very low. Most teens won’t rise to a challenge posed by an adult they don’t respect or trust, so if the goal is to help a student improve, shaming is far more damaging than productive.
  2. Strong emotions interfere with our ability to hear and listen.  The higher our emotional intensity, the less able our brains are to process language completely. When we are embarrassed, ashamed, or angry, the portion of our brains that are responsible for listening and learning are circumvented or muted. Strong emotions activate the more primitive parts of our brain and we need our prefrontal cortex in order to learn.
  3. The more self-critical we are, the more self-absorbed we are. While it’s true that most teachers are motivated by helping students become better, if we fail to acknowledge a student’s positive attributes, we are actually contributing to their isolation. Starting with a student’s strengths and encouraging them to build on those things can help them become more internally motivated to improve. When someone points out what we’ve done wrong, we tend to focus on all of the other ways in which we don’t measure up and we close down instead of forging alliances and finding support.
  4. Teens need adult-teen relationships they can trust. In order to get the most out of their classes, teens and teachers need to cooperate and collaborate, but if a teen doesn’t trust their teacher or has formed a negative opinion of them, they will be more likely to give themselves permission to check out. Often, teachers will sense this and continue to push or call out these students which ultimately ends up making things worse. If, instead, the student is enlisted as an active partner in their own learning, we can begin to make some headway.

Meeting teens where they are is incredibly important. Recognizing that they are highly susceptible to emotions – even if they don’t show it – and planning our interactions with that in mind can make working with a struggling student much more positive for everyone. Start with the positives, ask them where they struggled and could have used more support, and work together to make a plan. We need to approach students with respect and set aside our assumptions if we are to really help them get the most out of their educational experience, and they  need to be part of the process. The more they understand our wish for them to succeed, the more they will engage.

Takeaways from the National Summer Learning Conference

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At the beginning of the week, I was lucky to attend and present at a conference on summer learning and afterschool programs. It was sponsored by the National Summer Learning Association and School’s Out Washington, two organizations who are committed to increasing quality programs for young people that will help ensure equity in education. This year’s theme was “Dare to Disrupt” and was centered around the question of how to make sure that there are strong programs available to all kids who need them.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, given that I haven’t worked with either of these organizations before, but I was absolutely blown away by the work they’re doing in partnership with the other folks in the room. First and foremost, I was stunned at the energy and diversity in the room. Attendees included program administrators, non-profit organizations, public school teachers, camp counselors, curriculum development specialists and librarians from all over the country. It was so great to be in the company of so many people looking at extended learning opportunities from so many different angles.

There were conversations about program management, curriculum design, leadership, equity and accessibility, cultural competency, and child development. Workshops were led with enthusiasm and expertise and the networking and idea sharing happened in hallways, over meals, and in the exhibitors’ hall.

I left the conference feeling incredibly optimistic about the opportunities being developed and offered to kids. If we can work together to find ways to extend these amazing classes and workshops to every student who needs them, we can have a significant impact on the well-being and success of every child. Right now, kids who live in poverty and children of color are disproportionately unable to engage in enrichment classes, but there is a great deal of effort and energy going in to making that a thing of the past. And if anyone can do it, it is this group of committed adults. I am honored to have spent some time with them this week.

What if My Teen Hates Their Teacher?

Without realizing it, we all put artificial limits on our view of the world and other people, and often this happens as a result of our emotional reactions to things others say or do. There is nothing wrong with having an emotional reaction, but it is what happens next – almost automatically – that can cause us problems.

When someone does or says something we don’t like, our brains quickly move from “I don’t like what she said or how she said it” to “I don’t like her,” which becomes, “I shouldn’t have to listen to her.” And then, because our brains like a complete puzzle instead of one with missing pieces, we set about justifying it by making a case that this person is ignorant or mean, thereby condemning all other interactions with them.

In terms of our kids, this can happen with respect to teachers in an instant. But in order to continually grow and learn, we have to expose ourselves to new ideas and new people. Just because we don’t connect with someone else on a personal level doesn’t mean they don’t have something to teach us. We don’t have to like them to listen to their ideas and see how they do things differently than we do, especially if we are going to have to sit in a classroom listening to them for months on end.

Often, students quickly come to conclusions about which teachers they like and don’t like, and those decisions have a great deal of bearing on whether or not they are willing to listen to what that teacher has to say. Helping students understand that whether or not we like someone personally is not necessarily correlated to how much they have to teach us is a valuable lesson that will serve them well as adults.

Thinking critically about the subjects or ideas that someone else puts forth regardless of how you feel about them on an emotional level is important because it can help us to consider different perspectives more objectively. It also keeps us from putting forth our own ideas in a way that feels like a personal attack. We all know that when we feel attacked or judged, we are less likely to share our own thoughts, and discussions can become more about winning or losing than an exchange of ideas.

Rather than letting distaste for one particular teacher become an excuse to disengage in a class, can you encourage your student to set aside their emotions in an effort to determine what they can learn from them?

 

When the Transition to School is Anything But Smooth

Some kids seem to make the transition from summer break to the routine of school days without much of a hitch (well, beyond the longing to sleep in every day and have a more relaxed schedule). Others have a hard time settling back in every year, sometimes no matter what their summer has been like. If you have a student who struggles with routine changes, here are some ideas to help them start off the school year without as much angst and frustration.

  1. Acknowledge the situation without blaming or shaming. Kids who are built this way already know they’re different. Maybe they see friends or siblings who don’t have anxiety or struggle with the first few weeks of school. It’s important for them to know that, while it causes them some challenges, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. It’s also important for them to know that it’s ok to feel the way they feel and ask for help if they need it. Sometimes when you’re agitated, the more you try to hide it, the worse you feel. Let your student know you’ll support them through this time.
  2. Remind them that it won’t last forever. Generally, once we get used to a new routine, we become comfortable with it fairly quickly. While it can feel like it takes forever to get into that rhythm, they know from past school years that they will eventually get there.
  3. Encourage your child to identify their most important values. This can be a tricky one because sometimes it feels a little disconnected to their anxiety, but often our anxieties are related to what we think other people want from us or expect us to be. If we can hone in on what we want from ourselves, we often feel better about how we make our way through our day. For example, if your child values courage and hard work, they might decide to do one thing every day to exhibit those values. They could introduce themselves to one new person every day, and challenge themselves to spend 15 minutes more re-checking their homework or doing an extra credit problem. Having those guiding principles to help ground them can go a long way toward relieving some of the angst about a new school year.
  4. Find a physical outlet or soothing practice. Some kids burn off that extra frustration by shooting baskets or skateboarding or going for a run. Other kids prefer to wind down by listening to music alone, playing an instrument, drawing or relaxing in the bath. If they can set aside some portion of every day for the first week of school to indulge in something that helps them release the physical tension they feel, it can make a big difference.
  5. Try guided meditation. I created this quick meditation for my daughter when she was struggling with a transition a few years ago. She says that whenever she comes up against a big milestone or growth period, she closes her eyes and uses it to help remind her that growth and change are necessary and difficult. If you think your child would like it, have them sit in a quiet, comfortable position with their eyes closed while you read the following to them:

Picture yourself as a snail. Your shell can be any color you want and when you look next to you, you see a different, bigger shell. Take a minute to create that bigger shell in your mind’s eye. What colors does it have? What is its shape? Is it smooth or spiky? Long and lean or tall and round? Don’t tell me. Just picture it in your mind. Now take a moment to feel what it feels like to be in your current, small shell. It’s a little too tight and restrictive, isn’t it? I want you to take a deep breath in and when you let that breath all the way out, your old shell is just going to pop right off your back and roll to the side. When it does, I want you to look at it and silently thank it for protecting you all this time. Be grateful for all it was for you and let it know that it was important, but that you don’t need it anymore. Now, before you turn your attention to the new shell, I want you to focus on how great it feels to be out of the old one. It’s a little scary because you’re pretty vulnerable, but you’re safe for now. Just take some deep, deep breaths and stretch your self out into this new, open space with each exhale. When you’re ready, slip into your new beautiful shell and feel the cool, smooth inside that was made just for you. Take a moment to wiggle around in it and orient yourself. Feel how it’s not too heavy for your back and it feels expansive and comfortable. When you are ready, thank the new shell for being there and open your eyes.

I’d love to hear if any of these tools made a difference for your child as they begin the new school year.

Building Family Connections: Who is Teaching Whom?

Many parents of teens that I meet have one common complaint – their child doesn’t seem interested in talking to them anymore. While it is a perfectly normal developmental behavior, it can seem quite shocking when your t(w)een becomes more and more isolated; spending time in their room listening to music, SnapChatting friends, or watching YouTube videos. I remember very well the abrupt shift from hanging out in the kitchen chatting with my kids while I made dinner (or even having them help) to them disappearing only to come out to eat, help clean the kitchen, and vanish again.

It’s also normal for kids to become less talkative, especially about important things, or to actively discourage conversation, and while it is common, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t worry parents from time to time. Even if you aren’t the kind of parent who wishes to know every last detail of your child’s inner life, you might still long for some sort of connection that doesn’t involve bribing them to hang out with the family. One thing that I have seen work wonders is asking your child to show you something that is important to them.

  • Maybe you have an athletic child and you are confused about the rules of lacrosse or ultimate frisbee.
  • Perhaps you’d like to know what it is about the music they listen to that is so compelling (especially if it just hurts your ears).
  • If your child really loves their art class or a book series or a particular TV show or YouTuber (yes, that’s a word), there’s a perfect entree into conversation.

Adolescents are used to feeling incompetent. They spend their days in classrooms and on practice fields being told what to do and how to do it. Often, when they get home, parents and older siblings give them more instruction and/or point out how they’re doing something wrong or they could improve. All of those messages can get really tiring, so it’s no wonder they retreat to activities and places where they feel accomplished or at least where they can relax.

As a parent, one of the most powerful things you can do is send the message that you’d like them to teach you something. Let your adolescent be the expert on whatever it is they love most and ask them to spend some time explaining it to you or showing you how they do it or waxing poetic about why it’s so freaking awesome. It won’t kill you to take an hour to learn how to play Pokemon Go or toss the lacrosse ball around in the backyard. You may not come to love the latest single by Drake or Beyonce, but you might come away understanding what it is about it that your child loves. And the more important piece of this exercise is that you will have let your t(w)een feel smart or strong or interesting. Especially if it turns out that they are waaaaay better than you at playing guitar or ice skating. And the next time you need to know what SnapChat is or how to use the new version of iMovie, you know you have an eager instructor in the house. If you let your child know that you value their interests and skills, they are more likely to come hang out with you from time to time. Try it and let me know what happens in the comments.

 

Why An Adolescent-Specific SEL Program?

Adolescence is a unique time in human development, not only physically but mentally. The adolescent brain is growing and changing rapidly, both “pruning” old connections and pathways to make things more efficient, and building new neural “superhighways” that will become used almost exclusively for the rest of an individual’s life. Many of us form thinking patterns and habits in our adolescent years that will either serve us well or prove hard to break as we get older. Because of this, it is very important to make sure that the way we see the world and interact with it during adolescence takes advantage of this growth and development.

Using social-emotional education techniques that encourage broad connections and integration of information can help students during adolescence. Think about the most important moments in your middle or high school education. They weren’t likely related to a particular set of data you memorized for a test (in fact, most of that information is long gone, having only been stored in your short-term memory until the quiz or test was over). The things we recall the most, that had the most impact on us, were the “a-ha” moments. They represent the times we truly understood why something worked, when we were able to make connections between two or more ideas or facts and see the patterns. Understanding patterns and formulas is not only academically rewarding because it allows us to extrapolate further and predict things, but it actually causes a release of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical), which further imprints that concept in our minds.

Adolescence is a time of neural integration, a time when we are driven to seek connections like that and begin to have a deeper and wider knowledge of the world around us. When we can draw parallels between different subjects and use our own creative thought processes to imagine still more connections, we are rewarded by feeling good. It is this phenomenon that spurs still more independent learning and creates a passion for understanding in the adolescent student.

Adolescents are also particularly socially driven – preferring to spend time with peers more than anyone else. They seek connection almost constantly and work to identify groups of individuals with whom they feel they can “belong.” These people become the single most influential force in most teens’ lives.

A good adolescent SEL program takes advantage of both the brain development and the social drive of teens through student-led exploration of diverse ideas within a community of their peers in order to reinforce the building of neural superhighways that will make rapid integration of new material and creative problem-solving easier as they reach adulthood.