Friday, April 28, 2017

YouTube, Netflix and the New Normal

All of that practice in social engagement helps us learn to regulate our own feelings.  It helps us practice those all important social emotional skills of connecting with others.  It is the tiny small nuances of human interaction, repeated thousands and thousands of times that inform all of our body.  These small bits of information teach our brain how to get along with others, take care of our big feelings and work in collectives. 

A twelve year old girl completes her homework and heads to her room to watch her favourite YouTube channels and Netflix.  She has full use of an iPad and messages her friends, plays on different apps and settles into a show. She is a good student. She is alone in her room.

Her 14 year old brother receives tutoring and is diligent in his studies.  Once he completes his work, he goes into his own room with his phone and his laptop.  He plays games on his phone, messages his friends and plays video games.  He is alone in his room.

Dad settles in downstairs on the TV and watches primarily sports channels.

Mom settles upstairs in the master bedroom, watching her favourite shows and connecting with family and friends on Skype and social media.

Grandparents also live in the home, and they are watching TV in another room.

I am at a restaurant where a large family gather for a celebration.  One of the toddlers is sitting quietly at the table watching a cartoon on an iPad while the rest of the family is chatting and connecting with others around the table.

As I sit here staring at my computer, I know that I am also spending good amounts of time focused on a screen.  My own life sees me spending hours in some form of isolation connecting to my laptop.

So, what's wrong with this really?

We have spent millions of years surviving in tribes.  We have chemical responses that favour human connection.  When we are around people who care about us, it affects our body's ability to stay calm, digest food, breathe slower, feel relaxed, think clearly, make better decisions, and heal faster. It makes a difference on how we feel about ourselves.  It improves our ability to regulate our feelings. It provides us with practice in social engagement.

All of that practice in social engagement helps us learn to regulate our own feelings.  It helps us practice those all important social emotional skills of connecting with others.  It is the tiny small nuances of human interaction, repeated thousands and thousands of times that inform all of our body.  These small bits of information teach our brain how to get along with others, take care of our big feelings and work in collectives.

We are missing out on all the practice that are body and brains have utilized for its practice. Young brains especially need this engagement. I am not calling for an all out ban of screen time.  This is impossible.  However, we all need to get as much time as we can within our families, schools and communities, that encourage collective engagement.

We need to practice communal experiences because that is what our biology requires to practice social emotional skills.

Common experiences with other humans.

Eat a meal together, watch a movie together, play a board game together, go for a walk together, listen to a podcast or story together, cook together, color together, work together. Find some ways to include the practice of common experiences.  Our brains need this and dare I say, our hearts need it too.

Everyone in their corners watching their own thing is the new normal.  Find ways to disrupt this practice.  Over the long run, this is how we develop healthy families, communities and cultures.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What Makes You a Gaming Addict?

We are on our devices too much.  We rely on all of these distractions and pings of dopamine to get us through the day.  And everytime we do that, we are loosing an opportunity to learn how to manage our big feelings, take care of our bodies, and practice relationship building. It is too much, especially for developing brains.

Jane McGonigal is a big advocate for the value of electronic games. She has done considerable research on the benefits of electronic play and she spreads the message of these benefits through Ted Talks.

According to Jane's research,  playing Tetris can help with alleviating depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  If you play Tetris within 6 hours after having watched a traumatic event, you decrease your chances of suffering from PTSD. This has to do with Tetris or video games crowding out your visual cortex which is where PTSD forms its connections.

This is the same for depression. Electronic games provide you quick bursts of your own natural chemicals version of morphine and anti depressants.

A gameful mindset can help you look at suffering as a way to get stronger. It can help you cultivate a culture of strengths.

Communal game play can also be beneficial. Commonality of experience can increase connection.

The thing about the benefits is that they require very small inputs of gameplay.  Ten minutes a day or twenty minutes, three times a week.  That's nothing.  How many people do you know who play Tetris or first person shooter games for about an hour a week?

Games are designed to be as addictive as possible.  Social psychologists are employed by game developers in order to use our psychology and understanding of the brain in order to make it difficult to stop playing. Electronic games are not designed for 10 minutes of game play a day.  The elementary students that I work with do not play for ten minutes at a time.

Research indicates that 21 hours a week and beyond is the threshold where addictive patterns begin.  If someone is consistently playing this number of hours a week and are suddenly cut off, they will experience severe withdrawal.  They can become violent and aggressive.  I don't have to tell any parent about this phenomenon who has tried to cut their children off video games cold turkey.

How many people do you know who play some form of electronic games three hours or more a day?  I know plenty.

I do not doubt that there are benefits to electronic game play.  I know there are valuable educational apps and activities that help children in numerous ways and I have seen classrooms integrate social media and apps as powerful engaging learning tools.

We are on our devices too much.  We rely on all of these distractions and pings of dopamine to get us through the day.  And everytime we do that, we are loosing an opportunity to learn how to manage our big feelings, take care of our bodies, and practice relationship building. It is too much, especially for developing brains.

My plea is that we need to get off these devices.  Even 20 hours of game play a week, which is what McGonigal recommends we keep our time down to in order to avoid an addiction, is a huge amount of time.  That's 1080 hours a year!  What can you do with 1080 hours a year?  Learn a language, play, knit a couple of afghans, take an engine apart, read a pile of books, practice meditation, volunteer, play a sport, become a magician - I mean, it's a lot of time.

We all will benefit from limiting our time off our electronic devices.  Perhaps we can all think about taking two hours out of our day with no electronic devices as a counterbalance to all that electronic time.

Friday, April 21, 2017

What's It Like to Be You?

Beliefs are not an intellectual construct, they are an emotional one. Our feelings are always connected to our body - they are embedded not just in our brain or in our cognitive memories, they are embedded in the cells of our body, in our gut, and in our joints. The question, "What's it like to be you?" allows us to get to the feelings that are deeply attached to our beliefs.

Our conflicts are a kind of prayer. Charles Eisenstein

I am working with a group of grade 7 students. We are working on a a forum theatre style performance.  I have a group of about 18 students who have volunteered to be a part of the performance. I start with different theatre games and activities designed to build trust, personal reflection and community.  This part is easy.  I have done one version of this or another for so many years now, it feels as familiar as a row of knitting while watching junk tv.

The next part is always a little tricky, because it is unknown.  I am not quite sure what will come next.  Forum theatre is a participatory theatre developed by Agusto Boal, a Brazilian politician and activist.  A scene is performed twice.  The second time the scene is performed, actors are invited to call, "stop" and take the place of one of the actors and find a way to change the outcome of the scene. The idea is to invite both the actors and the audience to "rehearse" cultural transformation. It is a way to help communities tackle oppression in a way that encourages active engagement.  I wanted to use forum theatre to help students explore their own despair and hopefulness.

I had listened to one of my favourite thinkers, Charles Eisenstein.  In one of his podcasts, he talks about challenging beliefs. Specifically he says, You cannot change someone's belief with facts.  Facts won't change a person's values because there is so much history, experience and feeling attached to a belief.   Instead, he suggests we ask the question, "What is it like being you?"

I start the forum theatre with this question.  Once we complete the initial trust building and group work, the students all choose to create scenes about family.  Every scene the students create show parents as angry, disinterested or uncaring.  In some ways this is not unusual. Children or adolescents will often play out scenes that show themselves as powerless or victims. We all do this because we are hardwired to remember the times we have been harmed.

I then asked the students to create scenes exploring the parents.  What was it like to be the single mom who was too busy to listen to her child's concerns?  What was it like to be the father who shamed his son for his poor school marks? What brought them to the moment captured in their scenes?

Students then created scenes depicting the parent's lives as children. In some way, every scene demonstrates the 'parent' as a chid receiving some version of the disregard from their parents.  During the performance, students came forward, inevitably taking on the role of the parents, attempting to change their experience of being heard.  The majority of students who came up to try to make a change, chose the scenes where the parents were still children.

Beliefs are not an intellectual construct, they are an emotional one. Our feelings are always connected to our body - they are embedded not just in our brain or in our cognitive memories, they are embedded in the cells of our body, in our gut, and in our joints. The question, "What's it like to be you?" allows us to get to the feelings that are deeply attached to our beliefs.

The forum theatre project is a small effort to try to unpack our pain by looking past the experience of disrespect.  We can do that by rehearsing different solutions not in an effort to fix things but in an effort to understand the other. It does not get any easier as we grow older. I am convinced that a big part of our ability to work through our differences comes by connecting to our bodies, our experiences and our feelings.

On my wish list - creating public spaces - that help us work with differences not just through words, but through play, movement, rehearsal, feelings and getting a better grasp at what follows, "What's it like to be you."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

When Does Care Become Harm?

The mother in front of me works two jobs.  She is the sole caregiver for her two young boys.  Both of her jobs provide a substantial income.  She works very hard.

Both of her boys are struggling with some of their social emotional skills, but they are excelling in their academics. Mom has both boys engaged in their passions.  One plays hockey at a high level and the other is enrolled in soccer, math tutoring and music lessons.  Mom helps both boys with their homework, and electronic time is limited to after all their work is complete.

Mom's children are her number one priority. A good amount of time and resources goes to her children. Mom's response to her priorities is, "As long as my children are happy and as long as they are doing well in school, I'm happy."

So what's wrong with this picture?

Both boys receive enormous resources from mom - time, money, and care. In exchange, very little is expected of them.  Their household responsibilities are minimal - dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and dirty dishes in the sink.

Meanwhile, mom is exhausted.  She is 50 pounds overweight and has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure.  Although her doctor has requested some significant lifestyle changes that include a clean diet and daily exercise, she has not been able to implement the changes. She has not yet sorted out her feelings of abandonment and betrayal brought on by the death of her marriage.

This isn't a post about single parents.  I have seen the same imbalances take place in affluent two parent homes.

Children need love and connection, and they also need practice in contributing to a larger community.  That is one way social emotional skills get rehearsed.  Completing homework is great but it should not be the only requirement.  Children need to practice taking care of others.  If the flow of goods always moves in one direction, both parties become imbalanced.

Family resources - love, time and money - need to move back and forth. If the flow of resources is always set on give, you are likely taking care of your own fears.  The last thing you want is for your children to think that this radical imbalance is normal.  It is not normal.  Every ecosystem is designed to work in balance. When something is out of balance, a healthy ecosystem will work to correct the imbalance.

Teach all the relationships in your life to practice balance.  You are a vital part of your ecosystem.  You do not want your care to harm others.

Suggestions On Where To Start:
1. Publicly celebrate your birthdays.  Give your children some money ($10.00 is fine) and get them to buy you a gift or pamper you in some way.  Expect reciprocity. Expect your children to celebrate you.
2. Every member of the family should have responsibilities according to their capacity.  Give everyone daily and weekly tasks that are more than just taking care of personal needs.
3. Your body is a priority.  Do everything you can to take care of your body.  Children need to see adults in the daily practice of self care.
4. Acknowledge the contributions made towards helping the community.
5. Have family meetings that explore the question, "What can we do to take care of our home and each other?"  Make a plan, assign tasks and then get back to evaluate how it all went.
6. Get help and support.  Take time to explore the fear that resides in your unwillingness to allow your children the responsibility and practice of contributing to the home.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Label Is Not a Solution

Schools are looking for ways to best serve a diverse group of students.

One of the ways students qualify for additional support is through having students tested and designated.  This child has a learning disability.  This child is on the autism spectrum.  This child has Attention Deficit Disorder.  Each designation provides some additional supports for the child - more time for tests, modified programs, additional resource support, additional adult support in the classroom.  It all depends.

All these labels and designations are designed to match the support with the need.  It is about finding a way to maximize success. It's not perfect, but it definitely helps.

It is important families and schools learn and appreciate a child's challenges.

It makes no sense to teach a student who struggles with ADD and expect them to process all the instructions while sitting in a chair and holding a pencil.

It makes no sense to teach a student challenged by sensory overload in a classroom filled with colors, light and clutter.

The challenge, is not to confuse the person with the label. Or worse, minimize the learning opportunities for a child because of their learning profile. Of course my bias around this has everything to do with social emotional learning.

No matter what label a child is given,  it is not a solution.  It is the starting point.  It is information we use to match the teaching practice with the learning profile.

Children with autism still need to practice self regulation.

Students with ADD still need to train their brain's to delay gratification.

Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome still need to work on patience.

Children with autism or learning disabilities or attention disorders are not immune from social emotional pitfalls - they can be spoiled, risk averse, practice unkind, disrespectful or selfish behavior.  Just like any child in a classroom, designated children need social emotional practice. In my opinion, more practice, not less.  It may be in smaller increments, the expectations match the learning profile, but we practice it nevertheless.

"Oh she's on the Spectrum"

"My son is highly anxious".

This is not the end of the sentence, it is the beginning of one.  It means we give the child even more practice with their social emotional skills not less.  It means we meet them where they are at, and then move them forward. It means we hold them accountable for their feelings and actions, in whatever way they are able to understand and appreciate.

A label is not a solution.  It should never be used to excuse bad behavior or minimize social emotional learning.

If we do not do the hard work of laying down the groundwork of repeated social emotional practice, we run the risk of handicapping the student even further. And that is not a good thing.  Not for the teacher, not for the parent and especially not for the child.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Your Brain on Loneliness - How Do You Fix Lonely?

I am talking to a group of university undergrad students via Skype.  The topic is neuroplasticity and learning. During the Q and A, a student asks about loneliness.

"What can you do to combat the feeling of loneliness?"

"Is loneliness in your DNA?"

I thought about her questions for a long time after the session, and although I answered part of it, I feel like there is more I want to say.

All your feelings are important.  Your body carefully conserved every feeling you have because at one time during our time on this planet, it helped us survive.  The body makes no distinction between a 'good' or 'bad' feeling. Every feeling is information and at some point in our evolutionary lifespan, it contributed to our survival.

Lonely can be painful.  It is the experience of feeling discontent or sad at the lack of human connection.  It has nothing to do with the number of people who surround you.  You can feel lonely in the care of a newborn child. You can feel lonely in a room full of crowded family and you can feel lonely in a room all by yourself.

Back when we lived in tribes, our survival depended on community.  Not having the connection of a community was dangerous.  Being on the outs with your tribe could cost you your life.

It is no wonder we do what we can to avoid our modern experience of lonely. Our cells have millions of years of practice equating lonely with death.

If you are living a good life,  lonely is normal.  People you love die.  People you love hurt you.  You feel misunderstood.  You are in a community or situation where you feel out of place.  You don't see your reflection in the people around you.

Lonely is temporary.  It will move with you through the ebbs and flows of living.  There will be times when your life will be full of connection and human contact.  There will be times the flow of community will be easy and effortless.  And there will be times when it will be work and full of effort, often at times when you don't have the energy or resources available to you. Some of my greatest moments of loneliness have been the hours in a darkened room, unable to move without excruciating pain, during my years struggling with undiagnosed fibromyalgia.

Lonely can also be a sign of transformation. In my energy medicine practice, when a client expresses feelings of deep and painful loneliness it can be a signal of an impending transformation. That deep sense of disconnect with your outside world may be early signs of your awareness that something needs to change.  Something big.

Like maybe your realize a family 'norm' is no longer okay with you.
Or you have evolved out out of your tribe.
Or the balance of power in your marriage needs rearranging.
Or the way you have taught your children to treat you now needs an overhaul.
Or maybe you realize you have been spending money on stuff in order to cover up your feelings of 'not good enough'.

Lonely can be a powerful sign that transformation wants to push its way forward.  Don't be too quick to judge your loneliness as a sign that your life is crappy or that you lack community.  Both things might be true, but there is much more to your lonely.

My invitation to you is to stay lonely and explore the information. You might be in the throes of a healing, a rebirth and an answer to prayer.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Too Tired to Succeed - Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?

I am in the classroom, teaching Kindergarten and grade one students.  I am talking about feelings.

Our moments of "unkind" and "mean" happen most when we are depleted. If you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired; if you are frustrated, hurt or worried, chances are good, you will be unkind to someone. I am in 12 different classes this month, so I am hearing myself repeat this lesson often.

It is the end of the school day and I have just had a session with a student.  I have been working with her and her siblings for the last few years, so I am familiar with her story.  By the end of my time with her, I am worried. I am overwhelmed by the story this small being spills in my room.  It is too big. I can't fix it. I can't figure out a plan of action. It is hard just to be present and listen.  I am overwhelmed by the pain and the complexity of the case.

I go and talk to her very wise and compassionate teacher. The teacher pauses to look at me, "Are you okay? You look tired, grey, not yourself."

It isn't until she mirrors back my fatigue that I recognize it myself.

My past weekend was busy organizing a cultural event and I did not get a chance to recover.  My working days had a few sudden turns of crisis that disrupted the day's plans. By the middle of the week, I am already depleted. It isn't until the teacher makes the comment that I realize how much it has affected me.

I am teaching this stuff to little people, repeating the mantra over and over, HALT if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Yet, there I was, emotionally exhausted, but I could not SEE it until someone pointed it out to me.

I go on a long run, and I can easily accommodate my need for recovery.  I make sure the rest of my day is slow, that I stretch and hydrate and keep my muscles warm.

Yet, I still forget to do the same, when I have stretched my emotional muscles. It is vital that I do this. It is vital that all caregivers - teachers, parents, counselors, nurses, prison guards and more - rest and restore when their emotional muscles are depleted. 

Failure to do so puts us at risk of dishing out unkind, mean, even traumatic words, thoughts and deeds to those who depend on our care. Failure to do so means we might be asking the vulnerable people we serve the task of taking care of our own fatigue by being "nice" to us, or "loving" us.  In many subtle ways, we can require our clients, patients, children and students, the responsibility of taking care of our feelings.

Who takes care of the caregivers?  Who makes sure, that the people charged with the well being of others, are resourced?  A big part of the answer lies with us, the caregivers. We must practice our own self care and it has to be a priority.  This can be difficult with so many competing needs coming at you at the same time.  And it is sometimes hard to notice.  Here I am teaching the material and I still didn't catch it in myself!

When you are taking care of others, you need to take care of yourself first.  The greater the power imbalance, the more important it is that you make this a priority. The best thing you can do for the people in your care, is to take care of yourself first.

Here is a minimal checklist:

Are you fed and hydrated?
Are you well rested?
Are you clean?
Are you dressed?
Have you moved, or done some physical activity?
Have you spent some time outside?
Have you received loving touch, loving eye contact, loving connection?
Have you talked to someone who you trust?
Have you heard the sound of your own voice?
Do you need some time to be alone and gather your thoughts?