Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mindfulness and emotions

I'm taking a mindfulness course at 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


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.

Wrestling is good for children.

Originally published Sept 2010 Many of our parents seemed shocked when they came to pick up their children from Beansprouts and found the...