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When we find ourselves in the dark.

Ashley Reservoir, Holyoke, MA

Winter Solstice has always been one of my favorite days. For one thing, it’s opposite my birthday (which is Summer Solstice).  And more importantly it’s the day we have the least amount of sunlight here in the northern hemisphere. So, we find ourselves in the dark. One more time – and so, we find ourselves in the dark. It’s easy to feel joyous when the summer sun warms our skin and nurtures our gardens. But when the warmth of the sun is but a faint memory – or is it? The sun itself is just as warm as it always is and that is a blessing. That is what allows us to enjoy winter. Winter exists and we continue to exist because the sun still shines, and warms the earth – even in the winter. So, what are you going to do with that opportunity?! Tomorrow, after a Solstice zoom dinner with some friends among as many candles as we can light, I intend to receive the long night of Solstice as a reminder to cultivate quiet reflection, to investigate the unexplored corners of my mind. It’s a natural time of year to go in – to go inside physically but also metaphorically. The quest to explore the corners of one’s mind is not always enjoyable, but I have found when I can face my own feelings of judgment and doubt there is always something I didn’t expect on the other side. Just as the sun sets on the shortest day of the year the days start getting longer again – Winter Solstice is unexpectedly a time of year when the beauty of impermanence becomes undeniable.

Winter 2013 – a time in my life when I truly learned what excavation was.

Challenging behavior: is it the kids or the grown-ups?

 I often get questions from teachers about how to handle behavior challenges in the classroom. And, sometimes I hear from parents who think their child may be the victim of unchecked implicit bias either in regards to race or special needs. Looking for data? This is an article I assign my ECE students regularly: https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/zigler/publications/Preschool%20Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_final_9_26_276766_5379_v1.pdf. I also appreciate this talk from Dr. Rosemarie Allen on suspension as an adult behavior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8nkcRMZKV4

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

I see systems as one ingredient to protecting our children against this kind of unintentional but extremely harmful teacher behavior. I recently posted the overview of a system that I used at the height of my teaching practice on the NAEYC forum and thought it would be worth sharing here, too. (The issue I was responding to was in regards to other children’s parents complaining of a child’s behavior). If you are a teacher you could use it to hold yourself and your colleagues accountable. If you are a parent you could use it to ask your child’s center staff about their policies and social-emotional child development support practices, or hold them accountable to delivering the education and care that your child deserves.

COMMUNICATION WITH PARENTS:
Parents who complain about another child:
1. Make sure to have a description of the way you and your team handle challenging behaviors and support children’s social emotional development. I always let the other parents know, “I am not allowed to talk with you about another child’s development, but let me tell you about how we handle challenging behaviors in our classroom and support children’s social emotional development, in general…” I always ended with, “when we don’t feel we have the expertise to support a child’s development whether it’s for challenging behaviors or other developmental needs we reach out to community professionals.” I also was sure to include that when challenging behaviors arise we always stay in communication with that child’s parents. It seems there is always a parent who is ready to vilify a child who is not theirs (and that child’s parents(s)). It is our job to protect our students and their families from this. *It is never the child’s responsibility to make the adults comfortable.* When challenging behaviors are presented it means that our student needs more from us or something different than we are offering.

2. Then I remind them that we will continue to be in communication with them about their own child’s development, thanking them for reaching out with concerns. 

Parent of the child who exhibits challenging behaviors: 
1. I want teachers to remember that while parents are the experts on their own child, you are the expert on classroom dynamics. So be careful not to “dump” the problem on the parents. Build partnership by telling them objectively what happened that was challenging, and remember to include anecdotes about the other times of the day when the child was successful. You’ll need to be aware of and able to communicate about the child’s strengths in the classroom and at home in order to develop strategies for coaching them towards pro-social behaviors.

2. First communicate with your director or teacher support person to develop strategies to support the child with challenging behaviors. With your team identify how the behavior interferes with the child’s ability to access basic needs, relationships, and/or curriculum (all parents and teachers want these three things for students). Then meet with parents to:

  • Share what’s going well for the child
  • Share your observations of the behaviors
  • Share your thoughts on access to basic needs, relationships, and/or curriculum
  • Find out how things are going at home (do they see similar behaviors? What is going well?)
  • Describe the strategies you are trying with your team
  • Find out what strategies they are trying and/or work at home
  • Make a plan to circle back in a couple of weeks

3. If behaviors don’t reduce then you may need extra support. Let the parents know that you want to be the best teacher you can for their child but you’re not sure how to do that. You’ll need the expertise of a specialist in order to understand more about how their child learns and what their developmental needs are. Then share resources that you and your director have identified. This can be heavy for parents. Give them some time to think about it and make a plan to follow up.

CLASSROOM TIME
Addressing Challenging Behavior with the child:
1. Shadowing (when you move through the classroom with the child so that you can intervene right away if something is about to happen). While you are shadowing make it very productive by:

  • Building a positive relationship with the child – play with them when things are going great! Find out what topics they love, who is important to them, what classroom materials they enjoy, how they connect with others. Take them on special trips to the copier, to ask the director a question or to help set up snack, etc.
  • Note: what happened right before the child was triggered? What was the volume? How many children were in the space right around the child? How might the child have been feeling emotionally? Did the child make an attempt to communicate verbally before acting physically? Is there a pattern?
  • Reduce expectations – help this child more than you normally do if they will accept it to reduce the occurrences of challenging behavior. This will let the brain take a break from strengthening the neural pathways that lead to challenging behaviors. If you help them now it doesn’t mean they will always need your help.
  • Take every opportunity to slow social situations down: narrate what you see happening for all involved, validate emotions of all involved, model calmness, curiosity, and problem solving. ALL children will benefit from this, not just the child you’re shadowing.
  • Stop asking the child to check-in with someone they hurt. They may intellectually know that they aren’t supposed to behave that way but there is something that is preventing them from regulating. Unless the child genuinely expresses remorse an obligatory apology will teach the child to lie and/or compound any shame that is already built up from adult reactions to many unsuccessful interactions.  Children will not learn empathy through forced apologies (empathy development will be covered in a different post!)

2. Ask your director or teacher support person to observe you interacting with the child. Then meet with your team and your director/teacher support person to brainstorm what skills you think the child has not developed, what the barriers might be to developing these skills, and what community resources might help you understand the child’s development and needs better.

Addressing Challenging Behavior with other children:

  • We need to support a child when they’ve been hurt or harmed, or their safety has been threatened. We can support them through their emotions without requiring them to check in with the child who hurt or scared them. We can be the person that helps them access coping strategies that will help them feel better – not the other child. When we force apologies it sends the message that the person who hurt you still holds the power over your emotions – it’s as if you can’t feel better until the other child apologizes. Instead we want the hurt child to develop a sense of agency about their emotional state and to be able to take action in emotion processing and self-care regardless of what the other child is doing.
  • Also, I stress with all children that we are all learning and working on something. I give an example of something I am working on, and something they are each working on. We can appreciate that we are all working on different things. I also make a point to make a big deal (in a positive way) whenever the child with challenging behaviors does something helpful so the children may see that the child is more than “bad behavior”. 

TEACHERS
For yourself:

This can be emotionally taxing work! Make sure you have proactive self-care routines in place, like actually taking your break rather than working through it, switch out with your teammate when you’re starting to feel tired of shadowing, make sure your spiritual cup is full.

Resistance

In yoga we sometimes play with the phrase, “what you resist persists”.  The idea is that we spend a lot of effort trying to avoid discomfort by not seeing what’s in front of us, but if we pause and accept what’s in front of us then it might not be as scary as we thought and it may even teach us something about universal beauty.  This sounds like a pleasant outcome to giving up resistance  – it seems to suggest that the unpleasant thing will magically no longer persist. But in some cases this simplicity diminishes the complex and full spectrum nature of resistance.

Sometimes resistance gives us something to push off of in a helpful way – like the concrete of the pool wall when it’s time to turn around. And resisting something external and unhealthy, for example oppression, is actually required in order to change it. In this case oppression persists unless we resist. How can we use resistance to activate ourselves and/or our communities to do something different?  One answer is to investigate resistance and embrace as interdependent partners. When I say “no” to one thing, I’m saying “yes” to something else. So, when I resist, what is it I’m embracing?

I resist the temptation to stay silent – to stay the same – and simultaneously embrace taking risks though dialogue. Embrace happens in the absence of gripping. For example, I spent most of my adult life in the community where I grew up. I know that place from the inside – it’s challenges and it’s offerings. In communities I find myself a part of now I feel like a newcomer. I have felt the urge to grip – to attempt to create something familiar that fits an old context. And sometimes I do grip – It feels like dumping the pieces from two different puzzles on the table and trying to force them together. Obviously that strategy is not effective, but somehow I don’t recognize this until I have a pile of confusion in front of me. So, I’m inviting myself  – and you, if you should take me up on it – to take a step back to practice the art of embrace rather than gripping in the context of resistance. I am learning that to embrace in dialogue is like a physical embrace between two people. If we pay attention there are subtle cues that tell us that the embrace is welcome, how it should go, and when it is ending.  

Setting an intention can be a catalyst for changing our brains and our behavior, so here we go: My intention is to experience resistance and to embrace dialogue. The details – when dialogue will be welcome, how it should go, when it is ending – we’ll have to figure that part out together…

[Photo by Jesper Stechmann on Unsplash]

Isn’t that racist?

The first time I was called out for my whiteness was at the public library during a community dialogue about the film, Fruitvale Station. I wanted to crawl under my chair. I was quiet for the rest of the event and by the time it was over I promised myself I would stay awake and stay active from here on out. There was plenty of work to be done in the city where I went to kindergarten and returned to as a young adult. My community organizing style changed drastically like an amplified version of my quietness during the film discussion. Listening became primary, and I realized I could provide the resources I had access to like space, time, and permits when they were needed. I’m sure that I made mistakes along the way – some I was conscious of and others went under my radar.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

During this formative time in my racial identity development a crucial tool for me was a white affinity group. I was concerned at first about the idea of getting together with a bunch of other white people. Isn’t that racist – to intentionally exclude people of color? Wouldn’t a homogenous group be counter productive?

Still, I trusted the person who told me about the group and I was curious to meet other white activist’s. So I went. The folks who welcomed me were more experienced with racial justice work and with leadership than I was. We took turns facilitating and the beginning of each session included a breathing exercise or mediation. It was a safe place to process- to not worry so much about making a mistake in that process. By observing and receiving feedback I learned how white people might hold one another accountable. I learned about the difference between an ally and a comrade. I learned about myself and began to develop consciousness about the way my whiteness manifests in my thoughts and behavior.

I also learned the purpose of white spaces in the movement for racial justice. There were four that became clear to me:

1. I found out that – as I had that night at the public library – white people tend to freely share stories that insensitively demonstrate unconscious privilege, unintentional or not.

2. When we rely on people of color, in our personal lives and at work, to educate us about racism and oppression we add weight to a burden society has already laid on their shoulders.

3. Whiteness is something that us white folks have a hard time seeing. There’s a saying in yoga that a fish doesn’t notice water until it’s gone – and I’ll add- or named. That’s how it was for me. Whiteness was the water that I took for granted – that I had relied on someone else to point out to me. On the other hand, people of color are involved in racial identity awareness and development from birth because our society unfairly demands it from them. I, like most white people, was starting from scratch in my racial identity awareness and development as a young adult. As Ali Michael pointed out in a recent training, we wouldn’t put a student who is learning arithmetic in the same learning group as student who is learning calculus and we should treat people who are in different stages of racial identity development similarly.

4. Our work is different. White people work is to educate ourselves and each other, learn how to truly listen to POC’s, develop consciousness about our own implicit biases, take action to change systems, and make amends. The work of the Black community and non-Black POC is self-determined, therefore I will not attempt to describe it.

5. A recent addition to the list also comes from an Ali Michael training, which is naming whiteness is a way of decentralizing it.

Photo by youssef naddam on Unsplash

Want to give it a try, or know someone who might be curious? Check out Engage learning communities.

Tantrums

If you search “tantrums” you’ll find an endless supply of information about what they are and how to handle them. My favorite definition is from Stanford Children’s Health (stanfordchildrens.org), “Temper tantrums are a way a young child lets out strong emotions before he or she is able to express them in socially acceptable ways. A child may seem totally out of control, but these fits of rage, stomping, screaming, and throwing himself or herself to the floor are a normal part of childhood development.”

Tantrums are often an undeveloped form of emotion expression and somehow none of the advice I have found on how to handle tantrums addresses how to teach emotion processing skills. When our children present us with a tantrum they are offering us a window into their development. Emotional development is a great place to start no matter what the age of your child. Thinking about what preceded the tantrum may give you a clue as to what they might be feeling. Are they angry because you said screen time was over? Or disappointed because they could only have one cookie? Or jealous because you’re paying attention to their sibling and asked them to wait?

Photo by loly galina on Unsplash

If you have a guess about the feeling they might be having (even if a boundary you set was the trigger for that feeling) then offer it up! Refrain from sharing your opinion about whether or not this feeling or this volume is appropriate to the situation. Feelings are normal and teaching the names that you would use to express them gives your child a tool to communicate better with you next time. Also, a little validation goes a long way. Whether or not you agree about the context, certainly you can agree that some feelings are uncomfortable. Validate that! You can state your observation as a question, “Are you angry because I said that screen time is over?” and then if you got it right your child will likely show some sign of recognition. Validation sounds something like, “That’s a hard feeling,” followed by a suggested coping strategy, “would you like a hug?” or “Would you like to draw that feeling with me?”

Sometimes it’s true that they just need to finish the tantrum process and nothing you can say or do will change that. In this case you can let them know you love them and that you’ll be ready whenever they are.

It will be helpful to keep in mind that tantrums:

  • will likely increase during transitions (like completely altering your entire family’s daily routines all of a sudden because of a pandemic!)
  • can indicate that a child is trying to figure out what your boundaries are
  • often increase when a child is approaching a developmental milestone
  • could be an indicator that another area of development needs extra attention (speech, sensory integration, physical development)

Self Care for All!

My work has always involved taking care of other people in some way and it took me a few years of reaching the point of burn-out annually before I finally established some solid self-care routines. Even so I forget about them from time to time.

Every day, and especially when our brains and nervous systems are working overtime to navigate rapidly shifting challenges and circumstances self-care is preventative medicine! Intellectually we get the concept that self-care helps us care for others better. So, why is it so hard to make it happen?

I think it’s denial. Have you ever thought something like, as soon as I finish _____ then I will be ready to [insert self-care routine]. Somehow the calm just doesn’t come and we stay wrapped up in whatever keeps happening. Or it actually does calm down and you think, finally I can get a lot of work done! If you’re lucky you get focused quickly. If you’re me then by that time my thoughts are spinning and the quality of my work is suboptimal.

Last summer I had a lot of work and in a flurry of too much optimism plus low level anxiety I found myself forgetting to take a break, forgetting to go outside, running out of time to exercise. It was a cycle that could only be interrupted by trying something different. Instead of waiting to take a break until I was “finished” with a project I decided to take a break at a certain time – no matter how deep I was into a project. Something can seem like such a big deal until I walk away from it to feel my breath, to feel the sun, or the wind, or the rain. Once I unroll the yoga mat I’m in a whole new state of mind. When I return to my work I feel more creative than before I took a break and I’m able to focus in a more satisfying way.

Tips for making it happen:

  • Choose self-care strategies ahead of time and tell your family what they are (your kids will learn how to do self care if you demonstrate it!)
  • Make sure you have some that you can access easily and don’t require a lot of time (breath is my favorite! looking at the sky is another one – especially during sunrise or sunset)
  • Make sure you have some that you can do with children (like belly breathing, stretching or yoga, listening to calming music or dance party, playing sports, cook or bake, expressive arts)
  • If you have someone to trade off caregiving responsibilities with make a plan about when each of you will do something that is not work-related (take a class online, read, write, meditate, therapy, organize the closet, sit down and do nothing)

Where does my body begin and end?!

Are your kiddos jumping all over your newly confined space? Their developing sensory systems are looking to feel where the body begins and ends in order to figure out how to navigate the external world.

In the words of Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Like those ancient, mummified Egyptian pharoahs, the brain spends eternity entombed in a dark, silent box…it learns what is going on in the world only indirectly via scraps of information from the light, vibrations, and chemicals that become sights, sounds, smells, and so on. Your brain must figure out the meaning of those flashes and vibrations, and its main clues are your past experiences, which it constructs as simulations within its vast network of neural connections.”

When kids crash into stuff, jump up and down, or spin around the joints, muscles, limbs in partnership with the nervous system send information to the brain about the outside world. A solid 20 minutes of this kind of activity will set your kids up for success to get engaged in less physically vigorous and/or more focused play. My friends posted a video of their children having a dance party that no doubt delighted and supported the development of their sensory systems. I love this video because many children need and seek sensory experiences like this every day. My sensory system also needs a sensory break daily (yoga, running, rolling on a yoga ball, a dance party every now and again) – I wish I were staying in with these two kiddos!

If it freaks you out to turn your couch into a gym then make sure to set up boundaries around it’s use. For example, you can tell your children, ‘We will use the couch like this for 20 minutes – I’ll set my timer. When the timer goes off we will choose a new activity.” Expect at least one of your kids to need your help transitioning to the next activity. Ask them if they will put the big cushion back or if they will help you fold the blanket (or two other real choices that help with clean up). Prepare to get them started with the next activity. For example, if it’s legos, then help them choose the first few pieces that they want to build with.

Another way to transition from big body sensory play to a more focused play is to change the music. I’ve learned from OT’s that music with a low drum beat can be settling for some children, slow melodic music could be settling for others. Notice how these types of music change your focus, too!

Chemical Reactions

Children test our patience. Not because they wish to irritate us, but because they are testing an equation to see if they get the same results each time. The equation might be something like: medium volume, whiney sound made by me six times + the presence of my parent = immediate adult attention including loud sounds coming out of my parent’s mouth. Testing equations is a part of learning that is honorable – something to encourage – but, perhaps with different variables?

Remember the baking soda and vinegar volcanos of the 80’s? I think the instructions were on the back of cereal boxes for a while. It was so satisfying to see the bubbles rise up predictably again and again. If you’re home with preschoolers or kindergarteners and you have these two ingredients then you have an opportunity to engage your small scientist in a new inquiry.

Tips for respecting resources:

  1. Use small vessels and tiny tools to keep experiments small scale
  2. Limit specific experiments to a certain quantity, and only offer it once or twice a day (if they choose to dump it all in at once and ask for more immediately they might not be ready for this activity but try again tomorrow)
  3. Use what you have! Do you have little lunch containers getting dusty in the cupboard? Extra baby spoons? They make great science tools! Did you find expired medicine with a pipette when you cleaned out the closet or use up a tincture? Clean it thoroughly and then it can become a liquids moving tool.

Tips for play-based learning:

  1. Teach your child how to use the tools and then let them take it from there.
  2. Before handing your child the tools ask them to predict what they think will happen and write it down for them (or ask them to draw or act out their prediction)
  3. Revisit the prediction. Record what actually happened: write down their words, and/or ask them to draw or act it out.
  4. Only introduce two variables at the beginning: just baking soda, vinegar, and same size, same shaped vessel. Over time (maybe next week or in a few days after the novelty wears off) you can change the variables, but only change one at a time. For example, switch baking soda for flour or salt. Make sure the ask for your child’s prediction and record it each time you change a variable. Make sure to use kid-safe materials 🙂
  5. This investigation of liquids and powders can last months if you take it slow and make record-keeping an essential part of the process.
  6. If you like to bake invite your children to join you. Now that they know a lot more about the properties of the ingredients you can start to explore the science of baking! Look for a recipe for Depression Cake which uses baking soda and vinegar to rise.

Home School 2.0

Raid the trash and recycle bins for building materials! It is guaranteed to provide novelty and inspire innovation in play. Plan to spend some time together sorting and choosing the most interesting or the sturdiest or the most beautiful or the most whatever you and your children choose for limitations. There are many executive functions that come online for these tasks. I used to have three ramps that were salvaged from a broken toy that I would offer alongside cardboard, tape, and a bowl of golf balls someone gave me. Depending on the age of the children I might challenge them to make a design before getting started. Transforming a two dimensional plan into a three dimensional structure is a sophisticated process.

And this is really important: Try to refrain from taking over the design or building process – learning through play is about testing theories and being allowed to figure out which ones prove themselves to be true and which ones are a flop. Stay nearby and see if you can figure out what theory your child or children are testing by watching quietly. Example: “Does the ball go faster if the top of the ramp is this high or that high?” Snap a photo when your children are deeply engaged in their work. If they seem to be losing steam or giving up then it’s a great time to join in. Maybe it’s time to revisit the design? Maybe it’s time to revisit the recycle bin for reinforcement? Play and experiment together.

Let us know how it goes!

Mind the Synaptic Gap

If you want to talk about changing your brain or behavior then there are some tiny, magical spaces in your brain that must be part of the conversation. The synaptic gap is the place between neurons where the information from one neuron is passed to the next through an electrical impulse. Say I’ve got a simple bad habit, like forgetting that I put rice on the stove so that it burns to the bottom of the pot every time. That’s a repeating pattern of neural synapses firing called a neural pathway. Once a neural pathway is established it gets stronger and stronger…which makes it easier and easier for me to keep repeating the same response to starting the rice on the stove, which is to completely distract myself with other tasks. If I truly wish to change this pattern I need to change the neural pathway that leads to me getting distracted after the rice is going. I need to make a choice that will help me do something different next time. The specific solution I choose (perhaps using a timer, buying a rice cooker, or staying in the kitchen) doesn’t really matter as long as it’s logistically possible. The challenges are remembering to do something different and then actually doing it. 

Forgetting to tend to rice on the stove is a non-emotional, simple pattern to work with. I can change this easily and in fact I did years ago. It gets more complex when emotions and social identity are part of the pattern I want to change. This work takes self-patience and commitment – especially when we open ourselves up to our unconscious biases and their expressed autopilot behaviors.

When I want to change a behavior or thought pattern, I find inspiration in focusing on that space between the neurons- the synaptic gap. There is so much potential in those tiny spaces if we remember that they exist. If you are considering a New Year’s Resolution this year I invite you to “mind the synaptic gap”. Sometimes we think that just by declaring we are going to change our behavior that it will magically happen. For example, I can’t help but notice that every January the gym and yoga classes are full of people who wish to start a new fitness routine. But, slowly the ease of reverting to long established neural pathways and patterns sets in and by February we’re all back to last year’s routines. The magic in making change is not simply in making a declaration. The magic becomes powerful when we engage with the space between. Can you create and nurture a new neural pathway in order to make the change you’re hoping for? How will you mind your synaptic gaps in 2020?

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