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.

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

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

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

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

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

New Guided Meditation: Cheesecloth

I désigned this meditation when my daughters were in elementary school and struggling to process all of the interactions they had in any given day. This is a quick, five minute “reset” anyone can do in order to clear out any extra negative stuff and move on with purpose.

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.

Is Our Public School System Neglecting Half of Our Kids’ Brains?

Most people have heard about left brain/right brain science. Ideally, while the two sides of our brain are responsible for different parts of learning and activity, they work in tandem to help us make our way through the world.  But in looking at what each side of the brain is involved in, I wonder if our increase in core curriculum and standardized testing is leaving out some vital educational opportunities that will end up being detrimental to our kids.

The left brain is generally thought to be in charge of all things logical, rational and analytical. Language mostly occurs here, as does mathematical reasoning and sequential thinking. These are the things we can (and do) measure on standardized tests.

The right brain is responsible for creativity, pattern recognition, design, story, meaning and context, among other things. It is here where the concrete information we take in every day finds a home, a place to be played with and understood more fully.  But these things, as they take longer to figure out and reach across different subjects, are incredibly difficult to measure in a quick, standardized way. In order to really see whether someone has a true understanding of something, we have to see how they integrate it, use it, see it fitting in to the big picture. This kind of knowledge is much more demonstrable – it has to be shown and not recorded.

Dr. Dan Siegel writes that the main job of the adolescent brain is to integrate the two sides of the brain, to begin to piece together what a child knows of the world and has discovered in ways that build a more complex understanding of consequences and possibilities. This process takes years and years – many of them in middle and high school – of practice.  But if our schools are increasingly teaching our kids to perform on standardized tests, memorize names and dates and places, and placing a premium on following pre-established rules and formulas, we aren’t giving these adolescent brains much to work with when it comes to the “right side” of things.  In a world where our children have fewer personal interactions with their friends (spending much of their time texting each other or ‘liking’ each others’ Instagram posts), they are already at a deficit when it comes to learning about social cues like body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.  If we continue to de-emphasize creative problem solving and critical thinking, we are putting them at a further disadvantage.

As art and music classes are cut to make more time for science and math classes, as recess and physical education go the way of the dodo, we are increasingly putting all of our eggs into the left brain basket and I wonder where it will leave us. So many of the most innovative thinkers in our world who have solved incredibly difficult puzzles are not people who were thinking inside the box. They were using their right and left brain in tandem to come up with new ways to tackle persistent problems.  When kids have time and space to sit back and think about the implications of what they are learning, when they are asked open-ended questions that prompt further introspection and contemplation, they have an opportunity to use both sides of the brain and the information tends to be more important and longer-lasting.

Social-emotional learning can reinforce the activities of the right brain and help adolescents with the integration their brains are trying to achieve during this time. Because the premise of so much of the curriculum of The SELF Project is based in curiosity, it expands connections between seemingly disparate things in our brains. When we ask “why?” or “how?” questions, we are building bridges and creating a depth of knowledge that isn’t possible when we only use one side of our brain.