Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mindfulness and emotions

I'm taking a mindfulness course at mindfulschools.org and in one of our discussion boards, someone asked "Emotions are such a huge factor in self-regulation with young students.  How do we get them to think about their own emotions without perseverating on those negative emotions?  It's very difficult, even for me."
The way I understand it is that as we become more mindful of emotions, we are moving from being "in" it, where it's almost like the emotion is having us, to being a witness to it, where we are in a place that allows more acceptance of it -- we can almost referee the emotion. "Oh, I'm feeling anger. I'm feeling it around my stomach and in my chest. That [thing that happened] is happening over there, and my emotion is happening in here". Our role of victim shifts to a role of observer.  This been a powerful shift for me since doing this mindfulness training.
Dan Siegel writes about "top-down" versus "bottom-up" experiencing. Often, when we experience events, we have some sort of past idea about how it will go based on our experiences of similar events in the past.  Our mind (rather than our more primal amygdala/survival part of the brain) dictates the experience of the event in a split second. This is top(prefrontal cortex)-down. My mind registers the thing happening, interprets, and my body has a sensation. For instance if I see a wasp, it's not a new experience for me, especially if I'm not being mindful about it. Instead, I see the wasp, my mind reminds me of the times I've been stung, I feel fear, and this dictates my behavior (I run away or go inside). Usually, I'm running away and covering my behind, because that's where I've been stung twice!
If I'm being mindful, I can use a "bottom-up" approach to this experience of seeing the wasp. I can notice that when that fear comes up, I am able to self-regulate to calm the nervous system, the feelings, and then the mind. How do I self-regulate to support a new response to the wasp?  I notice my impulse to run. I take deep and mindful breaths. I become mindful of the fear as I notice where it resides in my body.  I am then able to choose a different action.  I might choose to simply stand there and wait and see what happens. I can remind myself that I probably won't get stung by simply standing there (creating a new top-down experience for next time!).  I can stay in the experience, experience it for the first time. Maybe the fear is there, but maybe it is just a little bit less.  Taking this more mindful approach, I become a witness to the experience, rather being victimized by it. My perception of this experience now has an opportunity to change because I am responding to the present, not the past. 
This is my understanding of mindfulness so far. I'm very new at this. But it applies to so many aspects of teaching and being. We can also help children in their bottom-up, self-regulatory process.  
Working with children can be overwhelming when their big emotions come up. Lots of things can be triggered for us adults. Helping children create that observer mindset can be hugely powerful. "You're feeling sadness. What's the like for you?" Suddenly they aren't the victim of the thing "making" them sad. They are a human having an experience. Helping them be present to their emotion, staying present and attuned to them, helps them stay with themselves. Even making eye contact and breathing with them creates a co-regulatory experience that supports a bottom-up deescalating process for them.
I'm not saying that we have to help children down regulate every time they experience an emotion. I believe children are empowered, resilient beings, and I trust their ability to handle the human experience. There is a balance. We have to learn to organize our feelings slowly. As they become more able to handle their feelings on their own, then my role can be to witness and narrate their process. "You were feeling sad and you began to play again." [Translation: Sadness didn't take over your entire day. You have power and agency even in the midst of emotion]. "She took your toy and you began to yell, but then you looked at the teacher for help" [Translation: your anger did not dictate your behavior]. "You seem really frustrated that your bike is stuck. I wonder what you'll do now?" [Translation: Your frustration is an experience alongside your physical experience of the bike being stuck, and you have choices.]. 
These may seem like simple ideas, but by narrating these experiences to children, who really are coming from a brain-stem oriented experience, it can help them to contextualize these experiences that might seem overwhelming. It can be hard to control our impulse to solve their problem and thereby solve their emotional "crisis". What do we do with our own dysregulation around standing by while the child stretches their zone of ability? As an educator, it's easy for me to envision the other side of these moments, where the child is walking through the growth opportunities. I've seen what lies on the other side - it is powerfully impactful for the child to see their situation from the outside, and from the success side of the challenge, and to witness t their power as agents of change in their own lives. 
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Email me - stephanie at beansproutsfamily dot com.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Narrators



When I sat down to write this, I typed out the title "Children need a cheerleader". But as I was writing, I realized that what I really wanted to address is the power of the narrative.

I like to think of myself as a narrator of the children's lives. Narratives have power. How we tell our story not only reflects its current meaning for us, but it re-creates an evolving interpretation as we compose our story.

Years ago, I remember, a newer, greener teacher we had, David, said something very powerful. We were talking about why we narrate the children's lives back to them. For instance, we would notice, and say out loud, "there goes Tomas with a huge bucket! I wonder where he is taking it?" or "Sara looks like she's trying to decide what to do about Aden taking her doll". David noted that by reflecting back what we see to the children, it brings their consciousness back into what they are doing in that moment. Children move so quickly sometimes, it's easy for them to get lost in their fast-paced activity. How often are we mindlessly walking through each moment, impulsively and habitually behaving and acting? When we act on habit, we are responding to the past. But this moment, the present, the new version of the situation, might call for a different course of action, or may draw our attention to a different nuance of the situation, or might present a new opportunity. By narrating out loud what we see, the children can return to the moment and return to themselves.

Narrating also takes the adult out of the situation in a more visible way. We want children to own their experience, to own their behavior, to own the unfolding of each activity. They so easily fall back into approval-seeking from the teacher, looking to the adult for cues on what to do or what is okay. By narrating, we create the illusion that we are coming from afar. We communicate to the children that "I'm over here because you are capable and powerful and you can handle this."

That doesn't, however, mean we cannot still be their cheerleader.

"Wow, Dillon chose to help Maddie, and now look at the big block tower they've made together!" or, more directly to the child, "I noticed you decided to ask for the red marker back instead of grabbing it and that seemed to work really well for you to get it back!"

We are noting, out loud, the child's choices and consequences rather than involving ourselves in the process, which can often become intrusive and detract from the organic process between children. This allowing is deeply empowering for the child. It reveres the children's sense of agency and competency to live freely as an initiator of change. By narrating, we facilitate a narrative for the children of self-empowerment and contribution to their own sense of self.

We strive toward objectivity with our words (even though our feelings are often portrayed through our tone, posture, etc.). Things like "I'm so proud of you" or "you did a good job", while complimentary, are judgmental and highly subjective. Without going into much discussion about the "inverse power of praise" (see the work of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck for more), praise can be hugely detrimental to children. It creates a "praise junkie" mentality and sends the message that what I think about your activity matters disproportionately more than it should. What matters is what the child thinks and feels. What matters is the intrinsic experience. To have that be judged by an adult--yuck. Something so precious--the inner work--should stay sacred.

It's so tempting to want to be right there giving all the positive feedback, though. It feels good to see the kids feel good. Everyone is happy, so what's the problem?

The problem is that today's happiness is tomorrow's insecurity. "Will they like my painting if I don't do it the way I did it yesterday?" or "The teacher isn't telling me she's proud of me this time...WHY NOT?" "Am I still ok even though I'm not getting compliments?" They will begin to wait for your judgment, ahem, I mean compliment, every time they produce something, and over time, lose that internal sense of pride and intrinsic value in their work. And what's worse, they will begin to lose their sense of that inner quiet self, that small voice inside that we call intuition. The new point of reference is external validation. We want to continually bring that back inward.

It feels good to be noticed. It feels good to simply be seen. We don't need to judge to do that. We just need to BE THERE. Not on our phones. Not half listening. Not patronizing to show how much you're listening. Be. There. Take a minute. Take a few minutes. Honor the space around the child by allowing it to be whatever it is.

We can narrate. We can notice. We can comment pleasantly with a healthy degree of enthusiasm. We can be close to the child and be quiet. We can remember that just by being there as a silent yet attentive witness, we are doing a great service to the children.

---

Food for thought - so, you are taking yourself out of the equation and not trying to dictate or change the child's experience. What, then, is your role? I'd love to hear your comments.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Yes Day

There are many reasons for me to say no to children's various requests. Safety concerns, schedule and time limitations, limited supplies, limited manpower to supervise and clean up messes, generally not feeling like putting one more thing on our agenda that day. 

But if I am going to be really honest, I often say no because I have been conditioned to, in the interest of running a smooth, safe preschool program for children, assume that the worst case scenario can and will happen. If I let them dance on the table, they can and definitely will fall off and break a limb. If I let them run in the classroom, they will obviously slip and crack their head on the corner of a shelf. If I let them use the water from the handwashing station for their sand and mud play, they will definitely do this every day without regard to how cold or late or inconvenient it is to be in wet muddy clothes. 

What I am saying is, 90% of the time I say no, it comes from my own fear and not necessarily on reality.  There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus that is overactive or imbalanced in some people (like me), where, in the interest of self-preservation, will automatically interject a "no" without a thought process to support it. I have learned that I have to outsmart this part of my limbic system when I find myself saying "no" too often. 

It becomes tricky here at Beansprouts because the children feel really comfortable asking for things from the teachers. Today, for instance, they asked for chalk to stomp on. I repeated back, unsure whether I heard them right. "You want pieces of chalk to smash with your feet?" "Yes," said the spokesperson of the group, "we need you to get us some sidewalk chalk for stomping".  Since it was a yes day, I gave them all one piece of chalk...with the instruction "only one piece each"... which I TOTALLY regret because, well, in my mind I was thinking they were wasting chalk. Despite my best efforts, I had managed to insert a little "no" into my "yes". Looking back, I see that letting them stomp all of the chalk would not have been a waste of supplies at all. How is drawing with chalk any more valuable than stomping and smashing chalk?  It was a blast for them, and the collective energy around this chalk stomping was surreal. Saying yes to chalk allowed an activity that offered a social experience more valuable than what I could have been able to manufacture myself.

(Side note: a little while later, someone asked to draw a hopscotch game on the patio, so luckily we still had some unstomped chalk!)

Today's Yes day started at the morning art table. We were using felt-tipped markers on paper towels and paper. We discovered that applying water (ahem, or my coffee) with our fingertips diffused the color and turned the paper towel into art that could transfer to the white paper underneath it. The kids asked for more water as their little dishes ran low, and my cingulate gyrus presented me with a beautifully frightening image of an art table that runneth over with marker tinted water, down to the floor, kids slipping, sopping wet clothes. But I said Yes, because this was my commitment to myself and our school today. And they did end up pouring bowls full of water onto their drawings (see our Instagram post). 

But guess what? Even though they were, as a group, at that table for thirty minutes or more with unlimited water refills, I did not find one drop of water on the floor, and rarely had to clean up any water from the table. Again, if I had limited them to one container of water, it would have limited their interest, limited their time at the table, limited their ability to bring this project to its full fruition. I would have stunted their creative expression and artistic development.

Not every day can be a "say yes to everything" day like today. But for today, Yes was my priority. Yes to the child who asked to free climb from the picnic table to the side of the climbing structure. Yes to the kid who asked to have snack 45 minutes early. Yes to all of the kids who raised their hands at story time to share something that ended up being the same thing they shared from the page before. Yes to the kid visually checking in with me to see if it was okay that she was stomping in puddles. Yes to the child who "needed" to change their pants because there was a smudge of dirt on the pocket. Yes to the friend who asked to make several off-topic announcements throughout the portion of circle time that I really wanted to talk about our quality of self-care. Why not? 

In the grand scheme of themes, saying no to these things makes my life more convenient, but in what ways does it rob them? What if that child sharing at circle time is the one memory she takes from today? Or what if the child who asked to change his pants was really trying to alleviate a scratchy seam, but because that was more than he could verbalize, he asked instead to change his pants because of this little smudge of dirt? Maybe my impulsivity toward "no" comes from seeing only a small slice of reality.


Every time I implement a "yes" day, I benefit.  Ultimately, it is for the children. I want to reset and reboot and remind them of how much freedom and independence and trust and respect we give them. But what I get in return is priceless. I get to overcome my own fears and anxieties, my worst-case-scenario thinking that limits our collective opportunity. I get to unpack and inspect my real motives for saying "no". What a gift to be in this profession, where everything I do gets reflected back to me in a way that lends itself to personal growth. 

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Power of Pretend Play


A few years ago I got a master's degree in human development. My first thesis, before my epic hard drive crash where I lost all of my data and changed topics altogether, was on the power of pretend play. Specifically, it was a discussion of animal pretend play, and how when children take on animal personas, they get to explore these parts of themselves that they don't feel safe exploring in their own personal reality. 

I had a child who never participated in circle time - until he discovered that he could be a kangaroo. Slowly, he began participating at circle time, first with small movements of his kangaroo paws, then with verbal participation as if from a kangaroo, and eventually, the child opened up as himself in front of the group. Another child witnessed domestic abuse, and for the next several days, she pretended she was a cat, narrating her story from the cats perspective in the context of pretend play rather than from her own very real, human, traumatic experience. 

I read a snippet from a book this morning about how children discover their ethical prosocial selves in play. 

I've been thinking about this all day.

In the context of play, I see children acting out important themes that come up often in their lives - themes of conflict, empowerment, misbehavior, disobedience, cooperation, helping, not helping, including others, being included, intimacy, separation, enemies and friendship, death and rebirth, having superpowers beyond measure, and being stripped of those superpowers. It's a bold thing to, in the context of make believe play, tell your pretend mom that you're not going to come home that day. Or to realize that one of your pretend family members have died and you must now avenge their death (although 99% of the time, the dead family member "wakes up" within a couple of minutes). Now imagine - just imagine - that you're a younger kid in the group, admiring the older kids from afar because you can't quite keep up with their games and dialogues and unspoken rules - and then suddenly, they let you be "the baby" in your game, and you now have access to this group of kids you have been longing to play with for weeks or months. Gaining entry into a coveted social group is a priceless experience afforded often in pretend play scenarios. Almost every game needs a one of the more submissive characters, and the younger kids are almost always willing to take on those roles - the baby sister, the baby brother, the pet dog, the bunny (doesn't every game have a bunny?).

By experiencing all of these themes in real life (because their play IS their real life, in that moment), they experience, the safest way, the consequences of various parts of themselves - including their ethical and moral selves.  They witness responses from the other children, and learn about behavior and taking others' perspectives and thinking for and as a group, rather than for their isolated selves.

And we see children taking breaks from the group play, to play alone and process and assimilate all of this. And to spend time in solitude, to nurture another part of their selves.

And in this way, children create their own learning environment in a profound, meaningful way. The teachers? We just set the stage. The kids are taking on the lead roles here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine's Day

We had a wonderful family visiting this morning to tour our preschool.

It seemed like for the duration of this tour, things were spilling, falling, crashing. At one point, a child accentuated this theme when she had the wonderful and creative and powerful idea of jumping off the bench onto the large magna-tile structure she had built. She looked like godzilla landing on a relatively tiny skyscraper. It was amazing, and totally captured the pattern of the morning. The mom that was here noted, "there must be a full moon or something". And yet while it all appeared to be in chaos, when you looked at the children's faces, or watched their reactions to the baskets of blocks getting knocked over, or the marker block upturning and markers rolling everywhere - they were totally at ease. And this made me feel at ease.

However, when the touring family left, I felt like we were going to need a little reset. Like, come on, the rest of the day can't possibly go on like this or I'll be going crazy cleaning up little messes everywhere.

So I told myself, at circle time, even though I have a million things planned bc of the holiday, it must be a venue for centering and grounding ourselves.

We started circle time in the usual manner. Songs and such. Then we continued the passing out of Valentines, which we did differently this year. Instead of the usual "drop the card in each mailbox" method, the children were carrying their tote bags and personally exchanged Valentines. This brief but powerful interpersonal exchange was so beautiful to witness. The smiles, the eye contact, the seeking out of the person they were trying to hand off a card to, the excitement, the spontaneous hugs and kids telling each other "Happy Valentines Day". I have to admit, it was one of the most special Valentines Day circles that I can remember.

This sense of validation, of personal attunement and connection, being seen, being valued, being thought about. I really think this was so special to the children. Not only is this special to the children, but it is an innate need and necessary part of healthy development. And this is a group of children that really seems to get some of these deeper more subtle aspects of human interchange.  I mean, they are still preschoolers, testing boundaries and what not, but they function at a high level - while they don't always act on it, they have an emotional and social literacy that seems to me to be very advanced.

My favorite part of circle lasted about 2.5 seconds. I was about to hand the children my Valentines. My very impersonal, plastic, just bought at Target two days ago, Valentines. Plastic heart-shaped glasses and stencil rulers. I even opened the packages right at circle time as I was explaining to the kids how I would pass them out. It was a poorly planned gift to say the least. But here comes my favorite part. I told them that after each of them got to choose the color of their gifts, I would then tell them something I loved about them. And I saw their faces light up. They were thrilled to hear this! And it reminded me that not only are they special to me, but I am special to them.

Yesterday, I asked each child at circle if I could be their Valentine or if they could be my Valentine. They all agreed enthusiastically except for one resistant child, who came around by the end of circle when she realized that you aren't limited to one Valentine. As one of our circle time love songs go, "Love is something if you give it away - you end up having more."

Happy Valentine's Day!

Mindfulness and emotions

I'm taking a mindfulness course at mindfulschools.org and in one of our discussion boards, someone asked "Emotions are such a huge...