Q and A from Relationships First at the Educational Service Center

The following post is a Q and A from the refections submitted to me after a workshop I hosted at the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio.  We did some really deep work on building relationships, mindful listening and implicit bias.  This is all hard work, and the questions submitted reflected the depth and thoughtfulness of participants.

How does focusing on our past help us with mindfulness?  Why is our own story important when trying to connect with others mindfully?  

Being honest about our past actions and mindsets can help to establish a baseline from which we can move forward with purpose and intention.  We ALL have habitual patterns of behavior.  Some of these behavioral patterns are healthy and life-giving for us.  Others are not.

I used two examples in the workshop.  One is the habitual pattern that I have of responding in anger when my children are reluctant to follow through on their responsibilities in the household, how in these moments I tell a “story” of how they are irresponsible or even ungrateful.  Choosing to act out of this “story” creates escalation in the situation and negativity in my relationships with them.  Without refection, I would be unaware that this pattern exists and I wouldn’t be motivated to change it.

We also all live out of implicit beliefs and biases about others.  Some of these may be based upon our past life experiences.  Some on a lack of experience.  Others may be based upon cultural messaging that operates below our conscious awareness but affects us none the less.

Another example of habitual patterns I gave in the workshop was the moment when I realized that almost all of my close relationships were with people who were very similar to myself in background, education, belief system, socioeconomic status etc.

In the workshop, we did an activity where we were asked to explore how our stories can be either a wall or a bridge connecting us to others.  My own story was a “wall” in that I hadn’t yet experienced deep, abiding relationships with many types of people.  When I realized this, I became aware of my own conditioning, in place for a variety of reasons.  In addition, I could set the intention to change my conditioning toward new, different behaviors.

Both of these examples show how reflection on our past can facilitate more mindful choices in the future.  Mindfulness, awareness and acceptance of the moment, is more than a tool to “feel better.”  It is also a tool to make new, life-giving choices for ourselves and others.

How can these activities help us when working with young children?  

Mindful listening, creating space to be reflective before speaking, and being aware of our own walls when connecting with others are all tools that transfer to working with young people.

To give an example, I recently had a situation with my six-year-old son where I had a lack mindful listening.  When I picked him up from school, his after-care teacher shared a story with me about how he didn’t get his homework done, along with the reflection that his teacher perceived him as not “wanting to do it.”  I had had a difficult day, which was followed by a puppy disaster on the way home and didn’t do a good job of hearing his side of the story.  Instead, I misheard his message to me and responded with a reprimand.  When my husband came home, he sat down with my son calmly and was able to figure out that the message I received from the after-care teacher was a misunderstanding.  Later, my son, very sweetly, asked me to sit next to him at dinner, and I, of course, apologized to him for not listening.  I felt really bad about the whole thing, and I recognized it immediately as a lack of listening because my own emotions got in the way, creating a wall.

Reflecting upon this, I realized that if I would have taken the time to practice mindful listening with him, I would have realized these things on my own and my son could have felt heard.  Conversely, I could have saved myself a lot of guilt.

This happens to all of us.  Children, with their own ways of speaking and the natural power differential that occurs between the very young and adults are actually exceptionally prone to not being heard.

Sometimes, as the adult in our children’s lives we may be the only person who does a good job of hearing them.  This is a gift equally to the young and the old.

How can I become a more trauma-sensitive tutor?  

We cannot know which students may have experienced trauma.  However, statistically, it is safe to assume that we may work with students who have faced traumatic situations.  In our session, we talked about not mirroring behaviors when children are upset and remaining calm in tense situations.  We also talked about giving space and waiting to process with a student until after tension has passed.  Lastly, we talked about the importance of self care so that we can handle stressful situations with the calm required.

In addition to these tools, there are MANY resources you can begin to explore.  Here is a link to a resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  See page five for tips for educators seeking to create trauma sensitive environments.

In addition, Susan E. Craig states in her article “The Trauma Sensitive Teacher” that, “Observing their own internal landscape helps students to discover two important aspects of attention: their internal world is full of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts competing for attention; and they can choose what to focus on.”  In this way, taking a few moments at the beginning of the session to do an internal check, take a few breaths, and then move focus to the task at hand may be helpful given the short amount of time with which you will be working with students.

Where did the research about boys come from?  

There were two articles that I used in our work together from the Educational Leadership Relationships First issue, “Unlocking Boys’ Potential” and “Helping Black and Latino Men Succeed.”

From these resources, I pulled the following quotes for discussion:

“The hidden curriculum of school “convey that ‘real boys’ are tough and emotionally stoic, independent and autonomous, keen to compete, and eager to prove themselves in feats of risk-taking and aggression.  In every school I have visited, social competition and hierarchy, bullying and maltreatment, peer policing, and the marginalization of less preferred types of boys  characterize cultures that even wonderfully committed faculty and staff cannot control.”

  • Michael C. Reichert, “Unlocking Boys Potential”

Boys dependence on a relational connection to engage learning was the inescapable conclusion from our survey.  As we wrote, ‘Relationship is the very medium through which successful teaching and learning is performed with boys.’…  Even my research partner and I, veterans of boys education, were surprised… All of us who work in schools, steeped in cultural stereotypes of boys as what we might call ‘arelational’- not interested in relaitonships- had trouble knowing what we really should know.”

  • Michael C. Reichert, “Unlocking Boys Potential”

[Boys] are vulnerable to relationship ruptures, but boys are also unwilling or unable to initiate relationship repairs.”

  • Michael C. Reichert, “Unlocking Boys Potential”

Why was it important to do so many group-based activities?  

Because relationship happens in community, we have to practice it in community.  Our communications with others are the roots of our relationships.  Whenever you are focusing on changing conditioning, it is important to practice a skill over and over through active engagement.

How can we encourage mindfulness in children?  

Children are often more open to mindfulness practice than adults because they aren’t yet as inhibited and self-conscious.  However, the language that we use may be different.  Many of the elementary school teachers with whom I work use videos catering to children in order to engage in mindfulness practice.  Here is a four-minute video featuring children created by Julie and Josh Salzman about using the breathe when emotion becomes overwhelming.

In addition, there are a number of good children’s books that might be helpful.  Here is a link to more on books that are developmentally appropriate for kids.  Lastly, here are some fun practices from Mind Body Green for teaching kids mindfulness.

Craig states, “Observing their own internal landscape helps students to discover two important aspects of attention: their internal world is full of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts competing for attention; and they can choose what to focus on.”   What are the internal components on which we should focus?  Is this decision personal or social?  

As a first step, cultivating the general awareness that we have rich inner worlds that affect us profoundly every moment of our day is s step toward becoming more mindful of where our attention goes.  From there, the practice of cultivating the ability to harness our attention toward a specific stimuli (in the inner or outer world) is incredibly situation dependent.

In the context of education, we want children to be focusing on learning.  This is sometimes possible and sometimes not.  Being aware of this as a teacher is important, but we can also empower our kids to know that they have power to focus their awareness on the things that are important to them.  Our goal as teachers is to make sure that the learning the kids are doing is important to them, and to also give them the tools and awareness to see that they have the ability to focus on that which is important.

On a personal practice level, in some mindfulness practice, such as focused attention, the goal is to come back to the breath over and over in order to cultivate the ability to have a singular focus and let other stimuli float through.  In other mindfulness practice, such as open-monitoring, the goal is to give all stimuli, good and bad, equal attention and simply be present with all of it.

That being said, in daily life, the question “what is called for right now, in this moment?”  Can be a guiding force to make decisions about where our awareness should be focused.  This takes practice.  Mindfulness can help create the “space” to make these decisions more fruitful.

How can I teach resiliency?

One powerful tool we discussed in our session was “not yet.”  For example, “You can’t read this word yet, but let’s keep trying.”

You might add something like, “I remember when you struggled with _________.  How did you get better then?”

After listening you might add, “Can we use some of those same strategies in this situation?  What might that look like?”

Both of my children have had difficulty maintaining focus and have struggled as beginning readers and writers.  The approach I take with my youngest is much different than the approach I took with my now sixteen-year-old because of what I know about resilience and grit.

As an example, I just sat down with my six-year-old to do homework the other night.  It began with him crying because he wanted to be out playing (who can blame him?).

He started his work, but it was very sloppy.  A strategy I used with him was that we both picked out the “best” letter on the page.  I asked him what he did to make it so much better than the others.  After we talk about it and identified specific strategies, then I encouraged him to use those same strategies as he continued writing.  I praised him whenever he used the skills we talked about.  After each letter, he looked at me proudly, and then even began erasing the ones that didn’t look the way he wanted.  When he was finished, I had him take his paper to his father and tell him about the strategies he used and show him the ones at the beginning and the ones at the end so that he could reflect on how much he improved with effort.

Are there counselor you would recommend to continue doing some of this work?  

In the Columbus area, I would recommend Michael O’Malley, Janice George and Michelle Risser.

How do I remember to use what I have learned?  

Setting intentions and reflecting upon intentions are very powerful.  Determine goals for yourself, write them down as commitments, and at the end of each day, reflect on your successes and areas for growth, trying to build on each as you go.

Having someone to hold you accountable can be helpful as well.  Share with someone else that you have these goals.  Ask them to do a “check in” with you in the future to see how things are going.

Also, keep in mind that habit is more powerful than motivation.  Make the thing you want to accomplish a habit by making a little space for it in your life daily.  Eventually, it just becomes part of what you do, and then you don’t need to become motivated.

How can I get others interested in these topics?  

Incorporate the topic in your own life.  Your changes in attitude, action and behavior will facilitate a self-understanding and also create a platform from which you can speak on a personal level to others who are curious.

_________________

Questions?  Comments? Reflections?  Please feel free to participate on the blog or email me directly from the “Connect with me” tab.

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