Friday, February 24, 2017

Letting intuition take the lead

Two days ago, I had to make the decision to have one of my pet chickens put down. Her abdomen had filled with fluid, leaving her visibly uncomfortable with only a day or two left to live had I not intervened.

The vet let me know that we had a couple of options. Both would prolong her life (by a week or by years), and both posed their own risk.

Those who know me well, know that all of my animals, feathered and furry, are my children. And while many of you might be thinking, “it’s just a chicken!”, for me, the decision to put down Sunshine was not an easy one. Walking through these decisions, without any definitive, convincing facts to inform me of the “right” and “wrong” path, left me contemplating whether I was even capable of making a "right" choice. 

In these moments of disconnect between feeling and logic, is it okay to make decisions based solely on a gut feeling?

Brain research tells us that the intuitive brain, dictated by the right brain and the limbic system, operates much faster, more efficiently, and accurately, than the slower, rational brain. The parts of the brain that control intuition have been around since prehistoric times and aided the survival of our ancestors.

I had a friend just today tell me that he was hiking this morning and that something told him to STOP and abort the hike. Later, he heard from the rangers that mountain lions were roaming the area at that time, probably hungry after hiding from the intense rainstorms we've had the past couple of days. Listening to his gut may have saved his life, or at least one of his limbs.

It’s okay to not understand before we act. Sometimes there are things that we have to act on (or not act on) that are beyond our comprehension. Maybe our nonverbal and visceral understanding are enough.

I had a recent experience at work where I had to make a decision about "what is best for our school".  I struggled with this decision as I tried to make sense of why I felt the way I did. I wanted to be able to convince myself and others unequivocally about why this was the right decision.  Yet I found myself unable to provide a satisfactory argument.  I would get glimpses of the why when I was deep in thought or just going about my day to day tasks (in other words, when my mind was preoccupied with other things), yet I could never fully articulate my rationale. I perceived that there was a reason...but what was that reason???  Guided by intuition in a situation that would normally require hard evidence, I felt like a bad preschool director, a bad teacher, a bad person, even a complete failure at times, because I did not have a clear, verbal context for my decision.

But maybe some things can only be experienced through a different set of receptors, processors, and intuitive layers.

Maybe I'm having an experience that, just because I can’t justify in a court of law, or convince anyone else of the validity of my point, doesn’t make it any less credible or real.

Maybe my own "right and wrong" are personal and don’t conform to conventional rules of debate.

Sometimes I just have to do what I feel is right, even if what I “think” is best vacillates between multiple extremes, or is a vastly unpopular decision.

Sometimes decisions and actions must be dictated by a deeper sense of knowing.

In a recent study at Bangor University (read about it here), researchers demonstrate the brain's predisposition to appreciate poetry before the conscious mind detects what is happening. Professor Guiallume Thierry and his colleagues measured brain activity of participants and observed positive responses to poetic sentence structures even when the participants could not consciously identify the "poetic" source. 
The inspiration was undetectable by the mind and yet was very real as measured by brain scans.

So…there's a lot going on in the subtle, less attention-seeking parts of the brain.

Internal wisdom may continue to evade my understanding, but the limitations in my meta-cognition won't stop me from making gut decisions.

Children operate on the same platform that we do. I can trust their little impulses as part of this divine, yet quiet, intelligence. I don't have to correct the things they say and do because it doesn't fit into my expectations about logic and rational living.  I can trust that their internal guidance system is based on a wisdom that, at some point in prehistory, may have meant our ancestors' very survival.

I made the right decision about Sunshine. It was her time, and it was our time. I feel pretty sure about that.  Today I can accept the limitations of my thinking and just go with my gut. 

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Creating an environment rooted in respect

For those of you who don’t know me on a more personal level, I run a preschool program from my home.

One day, during preschool hours, my husband commented, “the kids all act like little adults.”

Raising Little Adults?
At first, I was stunned by his comment. On the one hand, I was worried because, when I imagine preschools that raise “little adults,” I think of private, academic-focused schools that aim to keep kids in line. These kids get a thirty-minute recess and a lot of strictly enforced quiet desk time. You know, kind of like a kid prison.

That said, I knew what my husband meant. As someone who is in no way tuned in to child development and the subtleties of raising children, he had simply observed that our group of children display mature social skills. They treat each other with kindness, adopting a selfless, community-oriented attitude that exceeds their natural levels of development.

All I could say was, “We treat them with respect. If we treat them like babies, they’ll just act like babies.” We treat the kids the way we want them to treat each other, and this serves as the basis for building a respectful environment.

Building Courteous Environments
Children raised in high quality environments that value both them and their play often show an elevated sense of respect for one another. Their teachers model respect for each other and respect for the children, highly valuing what children bring to the table. Children are active participants in their preschool experiences and learning environments, meaning that such places make respect for oneself and others far more likely to develop.

When teachers treat playtime as a priority, recreation truly becomes the work of the child. And kids tend to take this work very seriously! It is during playtime that children open up the most to learning experiences and truly mature on a social level.

Acknowledgment and Growth
For me, the bottom line is respect. If I work at a job where I’m not taken too seriously, I treat my job as such—dismissively. But, when I’m acknowledged, considered a valuable part of the team, and treated with authentic interest, I rise to the occasion and flourish.

We offer a similar experience in our preschool. We take children’s work (their play) as seriously as they do, and they both notice and reflect such behavior.

Little adults? Maybe.

Valuable community members who are aware of their own social and physical competencies? Absolutely!

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kids make the rules here

As adults, we often bring our "agenda" to the table when we work with children: we know what is right and wrong, fair and unfair; the children have problems, we have solutions.  

I prefer to take the stance that it's more important for children to have ownership over their experience rather than have teachers depositing "wisdom" that the children follow. The more I let go of my opinions around right/wrong, the more children can attune to their inner wisdom.

With shifting group dynamics and children getting older, we find that the group as a whole is on a new part of the social/cognitive continuum. Therefore, we need to offer increasing independence as well as flexibility in the rules around social play.  As they age, they assert more intentionality when choosing playmates and activities, which leads to more exclusion.  This can leave other children feeling left out or excluded if they are not allowed to join into the play. 

A few months ago, the children made a rule that it's never okay to exclude, and that we always need to include the person who wants to join the play. They seemed to make this decision based on their desire to be included themselves.

Since then, we've gotten more lax on the enforcement of this rule. Sometimes the kids focus on projects that span thirty minutes or more, and they don't want interruptions and conflicting agendas brought in by outside parties. If they work on a block tower for fifteen minutes, planning and coordinating and problem solving, I cannot in good conscience force them to include an outsider, who missed the whole planning phase.  

Given the evolving social dynamics at play, we cannot arbitrarily enforce the existing rule, which now seems limiting and obsolete. 

So today, we revisited our inclusion rule with a role play using stuffed animals, who had the option to include or exclude friends in their play.

As the children watched the make believe scenario unfold, they seemed conflicted. Our ensuing discussion revealed that they saw the value of both options - having the choice to exclude, or being forced to include outsiders. It soon became clear that we had to think of a new option outside of this black and white, either/or thinking. 

I suggested that perhaps there is no rule, and that the teachers can help facilitate these scenarios on a case by case basis. They were very much on board with this. Some (but not all) kids offered valuable insight:
  • One of the oldest children suggested that the children try to work it out and only get a teacher if they needed help, which we as a group decided was a great strategy.  
  • Another student brought up a situation that she felt excluded and we were able to apply our new system to that. 
  • A young four year old expressed that she didn't want to be excluded and that's why she wanted to include others.  
  • Our young three year old said "one day I felt like I was including [my sister] but apparently I played with her so I included her" (which wasn't super constructive but highly relevant!). 
  • One of the twos said she loves playing with people at home and at school.  
  • An older student said it feels frustrating when people ask to play over and over again so we talked about how a teacher could help the children resolve this and make sure everyone feels heard. 
So, we will try something new - a no-rules, case-by-case solution to the social dilemma of exclusivity.  This approach feels more respectful to all parties. It will allow children who feel "excluded" to work through the accompanying feelings and explore other options (by choosing other playmates or things to do). It will help the children who want to exclude to feel less threatened as they express and perhaps resolve their concerns about why they don't want to include in that particular game.

More important than "fairness" is that children actively participate in their small community. We need rules to keep children safe (emotionally and physically) but we also want to model flexibility. We are teaching them to think, unconstrained by our agendas and our manufactured opinions about "right" and "wrong". We are choosing to step back and watch the children's awarenesses around inclusion/exclusion take root and see what arises. This feels like the best, more organic, learning rich solution available. For now.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Building trust with children

Welcome to my revamped and renewed blog! I’m excited to share some of my thoughts about parenting, early childhood education, and child development with my readers. Because my book is in the middle stages of its life, this blog will provide a pivotal space in which to learn about my research ahead of my text’s publication in a more informal manner.

As a scholar and an educator, if I had to distill my “mission statement” into one idea, I would emphasize my belief that, in order to be the best that we can be for our children, we must first build and maintain a strong foundation in the adult–child relationship. No element of child development is as significant as the parent/guardian–child relationship, while other adult–child relationships are also imperative.

This first article offers an introduction to building, maintaining, and, if necessary, repairing the adult–child relationship.

Building Relationships With Children

Everything in childhood development boils down to our relationships with children. Altogether, in such affiliations, the adult’s role is to offer an unyielding presence and support that the child can rely upon, an essential element for healthy maturation.

Often, when I talk to parents about behavioral challenges they face with their kids at home, I find that the child’s trust in the adult has deteriorated for one reason or another. The love is constant but faith is simply lacking. Frequently, despite having the best intentions at heart, parents unintentionally send messages that convey a lack of trustworthiness. 

In particular, adults can undermine their credibility with children when they:
  • Tell a child they are leaving in one minute and then they don’t actually do so
  • Make promises in order to bribe a child into doing something but then don’t follow through in hopes that the child will forget
  • Threaten to take away a privilege if the child exhibits certain behavior (after which the child acts out the prohibited behavior and yet is still allowed the revoked privilege)
  • Make an absolute statement but then cave in when the child whines or begs
  • Make a rule but don’t enforce or follow up on it

Losing a Child’s Trust

Children perceive such small inconsistencies and interpolate them into how they interpret their relationships with adults. Children tend to take what their parents and other grown-ups say at face value. The problem isn’t that they overtly stop trusting adults—the problem, the big problem, is subtler than this: children no longer view their parent/guardian as reliable due to this lack of consistency in their behavior, ultimately losing their respect for the adult’s authority. Children’s loss of trust toward the parent/guardian can be indicated by the following behaviors:
  • Frequent testing of rules, limits, and/or boundaries
  • Pushing, nagging, and badgering (because the children don’t believe that adults will follow through with promised punishments)
  • Repeatedly doing things that they have been asked not to
  • Attention- and validation-seeking behaviors (because children want to be sure that they are loved—when everything else is questionable, such as during the maturation process, why wouldn’t a parents’ love be equally uncertain?)
  • Ignoring the parent (because the parent will give up or lose it and yell eventually—such a point is actually indicative of when the child feels that he or she has finally received the adult’s attention)

All of these symptoms look like a child exhibiting “bad” behavior. However, such actions actually mean much more—after all, if the parent just followed through on the little things that they, consciously or unconsciously, let slide, the child’s sense of trust would have grown rather than dwindled. 

And with that trust would come the child’s responsiveness, sense of mutual respect, awareness of unconditional parental love, and a loss of the need to test the relationship’s integrity. Luckily, all of these developments are still possible—as the adult in the relationship, you can take charge and lead the two of you to a stronger foundation.

Rebuilding Trust With a Child

Once a child has begun exhibiting symptoms that show s/he has lost faith in an adult, it is essential to work to consciously rebuild this trust.

Some small steps can go a long way in strengthening this relationship, including:
  • Saying what you mean and meaning what you say
  • Not confusing choices with directives. Note the difference between questions such as “can we leave now?” or “are you ready to come to dinner?” and statements like “it’s time to go” or “it’s time to come to the dinner table.” The former suggests possibility while the latter implies concreteness.
  • Follow through with everything you say and, if you can’t, explain as much. Don’t just hope that the child forgets a promise of punishment or reward.
  • Pay attention to the small ways in which you let things slide. If you tell a child that they can’t play with your keys but then get distracted and hand them over, your child will notice the discrepancy. You might be surprised at how small incidents like this can inform a child’s understanding of your relationship dynamic. Try to pay attention to such details—after all, if a kid can do it, so can you!

Trust is considered one of the most meaningful aspects of all interpersonal relationships. However, this element is especially important in dynamics built between children and adults. If you notice that you have lost a child’s trust, ensure that you make every effort to rebuild it. After all, you have the upper hand as a grown-up. Plus, you have enormous influence over your combined future.

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