Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Suffering as an Art Form - Chicks, Shells and Survival

When my mother was a little girl in Northern Italy on a small family farm, she would  watch baby chicks hatch out of their eggs. She was fascinated by the cracks and the the small puncture marks that would arrive signalling the arrival of a baby chick.

There were times she would feel sorry for the chicks.  There were always the ones who would struggle deeply to get out of their shells.  So she would help them out.  She would help those baby chicks out by picking away at the shell.

I used to think about this story a lot when I was a teenager and a young adult. I guess I am still thinking about it now as a middle aged woman.

It seems that evolution and natural selection throw a series of fitness, strength and stress tests to all species to ensure survival of the fittest. These tests do not arrive when you are trained, practiced, rehearsed and ready - they happen at your edges.  You have outgrown your container, your food source, your requirements for survival.

Passing these tests, being able to successfully pull yourself out of your egg, benefits you and it benefits your species. Picking at the shell of the egg, strengthens the chick, gives her practice at pecking which she will need as she learns to feed herself. If you can pull yourself out and survive, you pass on your genes to the next crew of chicks and you help ensure a stronger gene pool.

If you are unable, you are too weak, without assistance, you die.  You do not pass on those genes.  Your genes don't make it into the next crew of chicks.

Helping a chick crack out of it's shell takes away important practice and skills a chick needs to survive.  It may alter natural selection.  On the other hand, it might save it's life.

The same dilemma plays itself out hundreds of times in our own lives. When do we step in and help our children, our friends, our co-workers or our families?  When does helping turn into enabling turn into controlling or fearfulness?

Some struggle is necessary for anything to survive.  It is billions of years of hardwiring that says, growth comes from struggle, conflict, and change. And so does death.

It is relatively easy for me to work with this razor edge relationship between suffering, life and death when I am working with a client. A client is already motivated enough to get help. I can listen to the story, work in small increments, see results, work in bigger increments, see results, setbacks, results, setbacks and then transformation.   Often, exactly in that order.

It becomes more difficult to do when someone close to me is in the suffering. I have to fight the impulse to go over and "crack the shell" myself. I want to fix the problem, in part, because it is so painful for me, to be in the presence of someone I love, who is suffering.

A few years ago, I felt a significant and very loud urging to step forward and help someone close to me.  "You need a hand.  You are struggling. I can help you."  She said yes, and so for a part of her journey, together we cracked a few of the gritty  pieces of the shell. I imagine, I hope, there is enough trust and love that the next time she feels stuck, she will once again be okay with a companion and a guide  to move through an unbearable edge.

It is an art in knowing when your assistance is enabling weakness or encouraging strength. I see the danger of families protecting their loved ones from their suffering to such a degree as to teach them weakness.  I see the danger of families unable to walk alongside their loved ones suffering, thus missing an opportunity to strengthen both their relationship and their courage.  It is all a fine line.

I don't have any answers, but I imagine, it is the work of our species to dance that razor's edge in finding ways  to strengthen and fortify the generations and generations and generations to come.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Be Still

It is evening, we are both tired from the travelling and colds that keep lingering in our lungs.

We sit outside the balcony of our unit watching a beautiful sunset.  I have a glass of wine in my hand.  

We have a magnificent view.  We are silent.

We let the sound of water breathing in and out be our voice.

I am very aware that this is a privilege most people on the planet cannot afford.  The 2/3's of the global population living on $2 a day or less, the African famines, the Syrian crisis.  There is plenty of pain to go around. 

For the moment, I am grateful that I can be here.  I can see, hear, feel and be in a magnificent space. All my senses are still able.

That is all I am going to do for the next few days. Write. Walk. Swim. Breathe. Eat. Drink.  And feel the utter gift that I have all the resources I need to be still.

Be still. 

Life Learning Vs. Good Marks

I am helping one of my nieces, Fabiana, with one of her papers.  It is a difficult and dense topic. The requirements are meticulous.  We are working sentence by sentence.

Somewhere in the middle, we take a break and skype my sister.  Many years ago, I helped my twin edit her PhD thesis. It was a difficult time in my own life, and I remember spending many a Sunday in the UBC Education building holed up in an office, escaping my own demons while immersed in my sister's paper.  I was almost always alone and so I felt the freedom of  running around barefoot in the halls in between the patches of editing.

It is funny the bits you remember.  And the bits you don't.

"Hey Fabiana, I remember when Zia Emi was editing my thesis, she even edited my acknowledgements!"

I had forgotten this part.

"I thought it was some of my best work, I was crying when I wrote it, and I was thinking, she is going to cry when she sees this too.  Instead, she was tapping on the backspace button and deleting all the good parts!"

Oh yeah, it was all coming back to me now.

Her acknowledgements were a wordy sentimental mash of gratitude, fatigue and overwhelm - a blend of the best and the worst of my twin's gifts.  She  has always been a superb cheerleader for the people around her - friends, family and especially her children. She is a master at celebration but she fought her griefs and disappointments with a fury.  I was her opposite, embracing my grief and disappointment with a vengeance.  I wrapped myself in a coating of it - it became my identity, while always praying somehow for that pair of 'life is great' glasses my sister always seemed to be wearing. Over the years we have been each other's teachers, embracing both sides, so that now in our middle age, we have a little bit of each other's gift.

I am worried that all of the doing and undoing of the editing with my niece might be soul depleting. At the end of one of my editing sessions with her I say, "All this editing, it's not so much about getting a good mark on your paper.  It is about getting clear with your thoughts.  The practice of learning to write well is the practice of learning to think we'll.  It helps you get your points of view across to yourself and to others.  It not only helps you write a good essay, it helps you become a better person. It is a great life practice."

So that is what I think all of our learning should like. In an ideal world, we create conditions where learning is about sharing the communicable strengths and weaknesses of a collective, where every "educational" assignment can be understood as a practical and empowering life practice and where both the collective "good" and "evil" can be exposed, examined and shifted.

What are the ways you do this in your home, your classroom, your workspace?  What are the ways you do this in public spaces?  I await your suggestions so that I can learn something from you...

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fear is Easy

Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. 

Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. Steven Pressfield
I believed, for most of my adult life, that my life partner was something that would come to me.  All I had to do was “be good”, faithful and obedient.  I just had to work hard and somebody would notice me.  At one point, a close friend, “Why are you not working at getting a partner?  If you put half the energy into finding a partner, that you have been putting in your career, you’d be married by now!”  I remember feeling slightly insulted by his words.  Old stories die hard.

Eventually, I took this to heart, and I began putting myself out in the dating world.  I put up a dating profile on several online dating sites and set aside time to “work” on meeting a partner.  I went on loads of dates.  I took everything personally. I painted every “no” as a failure and a sign of my unworthiness. It was difficult – Sometimes fun but mostly scary. It eventually got easier, and after every encounter, I learned a little bit more about myself and how to date but it never stopped being challenging. It took me a very long time to break my old belief.            

One of the things that I learned along the way was that sitting in my pit of pitifulness had some real advantages. Believing that I am unworthy or a failure gave me a good excuse not to face rejection.  

Believing that I had to be obedient and good in order to receive a relationship meant that I did not have to do the work to put myself out in the world.  I didn’t have to expose my vulnerable parts.  I could stay safe in the cocoon of ‘I am not worthy’ thus never exposing my terrifying fears to those around me.            

I am in the middle of the process of publishing my first book (working title: Hearts Guide to Crisis). There were a few times in the writing process where I became paralyzed with self doubt and overwhelmed with the rewrites and my mediocre writing.  I was listening to a number of podcasts and reading blogs on writing but I could not write. 

I woke up one morning and it was like a fog lifted and everything got crystal clear.  Writing a good book is not supposed to be easy.  The discipline of crafting and redrafting the work is all a part of the creative process. Rewrites and discipline are part of the process. 

I feel like I have spent my lifetime proving to myself that I deserve to be in "the arena" while at the same time, constantly avoiding the limelight and minimizing my skill set.  My whine that I am not good enough, that my writing is mediocre, was just an excuse to not do the hard work of doing the work.  

I know that sounds obvious, but for me, this was a lightbulb moment.  Once I understood this, I was able to focus my time on my writing and I stopped listening to the whiney voice of "I am not enough".  This was a game changer for me.

Fear is easy.  It lets you protect your vulnerability and your ugly. It lets you nurse your story that says you are are not enough.  Fear will freeze you in your victim thinking - It can paralyze you into believing that your only choice is to do nothing but feel miserable.         

The antidote is to this paralysis is available to you. Move. Do something.  Take steps towards your dream. Focus on what you can do and table everything else.  When you hear yourself complain how the other guy has it so good, and you have it so bad, remember that's just the fear talking. Keep moving, right through your fear.  

It won't work.
I can't do this. 
I'm too old, too young, too dumb, too smart. 
I can't do this by myself. 

The list is long.  I know, because I could write another book on all the things fear tells you.

Fear is easy and very very chatty. Don't listen.

Use your energy instead, to do the work.  Everyday. Repeat.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Fear Can't Win

I am sitting across from a client. We have worked together over the last few years so I have been able to witness some significant and courageous transformations. He has been sober for over two years. Employed,  engaged in healthy habits and routines. As with all transformations, many deaths occur. He is divorced. He is working on establishing new, honest and authentic relationships with his adult children.  He is trying to do the same with his aging parents. He doesn't even look like the same person who entered my office three years ago.  He is engaging with the world in an entirely different way.

I have been a witness to his tremendous acts of courage.  How was he able to make those changes and transformations?

Healing is never a straight line.   It is an evolution, a series of small imperceptible steps repeated so often, it becomes an unconscious habit. Big steps. in moral development terms, happen in progressive baby tiny steps.   Like Lao Tse's famous quote, "A one thousand mile journey begins with one step," big achievements happen in small repeated choices.

How did this client transform his life? What brought him the courage to take the one step and how does he continue to chose healing even when it feels lonely, painful and impossible?

"I was tired of living in my small box. I figured there had to be something better than my small world of addiction and pain. I was tired of letting fear win."

That is the challenge.  Everyday.  Fear can't win. You have to get out of your small box of what you know. Whatever that might be - debt, dis ease, disrespectful relationships, safe but unfulfilling jobs - there is a place in your life that you are tolerating, that is probably slowly eating away at the quality of your life.

If you are lucky, it is the small uncomfortable nagging space that feels like the pebble stuck in your shoe. If you are resourced, courageous, and well rehearsed, you deal with the discomfort.  Most of us, though, pretend like we are fine with the pebble, ignoring it, telling ourselves  life is full of compromises and this is one of them.  Most of us will ignore it until the pain is unbearable, the pebble has gouged a hole in our heal, infected and almost ready to take out our entire foot.

Fear can't win.

The transformed client in front of  me is the global metaphor.

Success comes in small steps, repeated thousands of times. It is the behaviours, the doing that bring about our heart's desires. It is not the occasional game changing leaps or awareness nor is it the occasional significant setback that bring about transformation.  It is the boring small little daily behaviours that move us forward.

What is your fear? What is the preoccupation that keeps you up at night? What are the small steps that you are willing to take to challenge that fear?

Think about the steps you can take. Small behaviours repeated over time. That is what transformation looks like.

And from here, it looks magnificent.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Your Brain on Uncertainty

Brains love uncertainty.

What? You just finished writing a post about how brains love certainty and now you are telling me the complete opposite? Yes, I am telling you the complete opposite.  Seems our brains love a good paradox.

Brains need certainty and uncertainty.
Brains need safety as well as some stress and danger.
Brains need routine as well as unpredictability.
Brains need calm learning states and as well as chaos.

Studies found that seniors walking on cobblestones rather than smooth paved roads increased neural activity and learning.  Learning is all about stretching the brain just outside the comfort zone and pushing beyond what we know.

Social emotional learning needs uncertainty in order to develop and evolve.  Children AND adults needs lots and lots of practice at managing unpredictable, uncertain environments.  This is where things can get a little tricky.

Parents are spending a great deal of energy, paving the road for their children's life.  The right programs, the right schools, the  right teacher, the right friends and it goes on and on.  Increasingly, I see parents advocating for  their children on more and more platforms. My child needs the best learning environments, the best friends, the best after school care program, the best fitting teacher, and on and on it goes.

Sometimes parent interventions are necessary.  Most of the times, the challenges can be directed at supporting the child in managing the situation on their own.  Most of the time, challenges are good learning opportunities that are probably wrapped in some discomfort, pain and stress.  We in fact need a little pain and suffering to learn.

Don't get me wrong, your job as a parent is to advocate for your child. It is your responsibility to fight for your child's best interest. It is not your job, however to eliminate suffering or discomfort or anything other than optimal learning environments. Some stress and discomfort is important. Optimal environments are the equivalent of smooth pavement and you don't want that.

Safe environments guarantee your child will not get the practice they need to develop a resilient brain. Safe environments, must include opportunities for children to practice dangerous things. This is true for all of us - It is true for adults, for teens and for children. Living means we need lots of practice inhabiting uncertain, unpredictable spaces.

Life is full of uncertainty and unpredictability. The best way all to manage uncertainty and unpredictability is to have some exposure to it and to practice, practice, practice. Practice problem solving, practice managing discomfort, practice taking care of your needs, practice asking for help, practice managing stress.

And therein lies another paradox: the best way to keep children safe is to give them exposure and practice at managing challenges, discomfort and life, with all of its uncertainty and unpredictability.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Your Brain on Certainty

I am very fond of certainty. I have written about my addiction to certainty in one of my other blogs. Certainty is about the desire to know what is happening in your environment.   It is about the patterns, the people, the activities and routines that are predictable. Certainty is a good thing, in fact, it is very important brain food.

Brains need certainty. There is a benefit to being able to have significant chunks of your life predictable and steady.  It helps you to remain calm, it frees your brain to do more challenging tasks, it promotes learning and it can help develop patterns of practice beneficial for resilience and problem solving.

That's why routines help you.  They build patterns of predictability in your daily life.  It is also why we can become "creatures of habit" wearing the same patterns of clothing, eating the same types of food, doing the same types of activities.

You can use your desire for certainty to create habits that support your wellbeing.  Creating habits, automatic responses in your life that support healthy lifestyles will help you build a better brain.

Besides routines, what can you do to create more certainty in your life?

Find What's Important to You
In what areas of your life is certainty most important to you?  What causes you the greatest anxiety when it is not certain?  Name your valued areas of certainty.  Write them down.  If you find survival needs such as, "having food on the table,: "making my rent" "making sure my partner won't leave me," on your list, you are most likely dealing with significant trauma which I will talk about more in another blog. Naming your certainties will help you see what is important to you.

Make Lists
Lists help you clarify your direction and focus your energy.  Any time you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or fearful, a list can help direct the energy, and help you move into action.  This will immediately help you calm down. The bigger your feelings, the smaller the list and the more you break down the tasks.

Eat and Sleep Consistently
This simple habit has huge impact on your brain.  Eat and sleep at consistent times.  I have worked with clients who have seen enormous gains by simply focusing on this one suggestion.  If you have had a lifetime of irregular sleeping and eating patterns, this would be the one place to start that would have the greatest impact.

Create Healthy Habits
A habit is something you do on a daily basis. It is repeated so often that it becomes unconscious.  Physical activity, prayer or meditation, gratitude lists, doing something you love like playing piano or gardening - these are great examples of healthy habits. Create one healthy habit that will bring you joy in your day.

Make A Decision
You are in the process of buying and selling a home.  You have to decide between several places with different price points and benefits.  You don't know what to do .  When you are feeling immobilized as a result of some overwhelm or uncertainty, make a decision.  The decision in this case may be to consult the realtor and two other trusted family members.  The decision may be to visit the top three places and then "go with your gut".  Or the decision may be to not make a decision and decide to get more informed about the neighbourhood you want to live in.  Making a decision will help you move towards your desired goal.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Your Brain on Routines

One of my favourite sayings is "slow and steady wins the race," probably because this pretty much defines everything I do.  I don't do anything quickly.  Growing up, I struggled to keep up with my brother and sister in whatever kind of play we were currently engaged in. I always lagged behind my mom and sister in the shopping mall. Meander is my natural speed.  Turns out, I have something in common with social emotional learning.

Social Emotional learning also meanders. It requires repeated consistent patterns of behaviour. The repeated consistent patterns of behaviour that took place early in your life, from the ages of 0-6 years of age, lay the groundwork for this learning but these patterns can change. Of course, they can change for the better or for the worse, but I am going to focus on what we can do to train our brains towards joy.

Although neuroplasticity is a relatively new science, the practices and antidotes which it points to are simple, old fashioned and very low tech. 

Start with routines, especially beginnings and endings.  When we are working with a student to support challenges with anxiety, resilience, self regulation even anger management, we try to work with families and classrooms to install  short consistent routines . The important aspect is to keep it simple. 

Brains love behaviour.  What you do, is what your brain learns. I will work with a student to come up with five tasks that they will complete every morning. The tasks are simple; make the bed, make my breakfast and put the dishes in the dishwasher, review my day planner and check my backpack, walk to school.  The routine is written out and communicated to parents. For adults this may look exactly the same or it may include a 10 minute meditation or 10 minute workout, and if there are young children in the home, it may include child care responsibilities.

Your brain loves repetition. What you repeat is what your brain learns. In order for learning to take place, the behaviour needs to be repeated as consistently as possible.  The repetition is a key component for the practice to take place. The tasks should be short, no longer than 10 minutes.  The routine should be achievable.  The more overwhelmed or stressed the person feels, the smaller the task needs to be.

Reinforce the behaviour by acknowledging the achievement.  Notice the success, say it out loud, tell someone.  Give yourself a pat on the back, listen to your favourite song.  Something small, but consciously be aware of your achievement and focus on that.

That's it! Do not underestimate the value of the small repeated behaviours. This is how our brain evolved and this is how you can make incremental and lasting changes to your social emotion brain.

Components of Good Routines:
1. Keep it simple.  No more than 5 tasks.
2. Encourage independence.  Make the tasks simple enough for you to follow.
3. The routine must be repeatable.
4. Reinforce the learning by celebrating the success.
5. Evaluate, tweak and repeat.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Danger of "You Triggered Me"

I am an avid eavesdropper.   I love taking transit to work and hearing all of the conversations, observing different body positions, leaning in to see what people are reading, or watching on their phones.

In my office, the door closed, I hear the banter of the group of intermediate students playing directly underneath from where I sit.  I hear the swearing, the intimidation as well as the screams of delight, joy and engagement.

School hallways have their own micro cultures.  I will sometimes walk in specific parts of the school observing the body language and the language, paying special attention to students who have, for whatever reason, hit the radar of "the feelings teacher."

Certain language comes in and out of fashion.  Last year "rager" was all the rage.  The word generally referred to someone what was out of control angry or out of control disregulated.  More boys than girls used the term. It is still in use although less so, at least in the classrooms.

The phrase, "You triggered me" is now widely used by elementary aged children.  It is used by children to refer to behaviour that is disrespectful, unkind or hurtful as in, "You didn't give me a turn on the iPad! You triggered me!"  It can also be used to manipulate a child to get something from them as in, "You are not giving me the answers to your work! You triggered me!"

A trigger is any thought, memory, action or encounter that creates a negative response or feeling. Triggers are personal.  What triggers one person may have absolutely no effect on another.  If you tell me I have crazy hair that won't trigger me but for someone else, that may send them over the edge. Triggers originate early in your life, usually between the ages of 0-3. They are linked to an old survival response.  You believe you are under threat so you store that memory as a trauma response.  Anything that brings up the trauma response then becomes your trigger.  There is evidence that some of those trigger responses get passed on in your DNA.  That means the trauma responses of your mom and dad may also become your triggers.

It becomes your life work to discover the origins of your triggers and move from a survival response to a thrive response.  Even if the trigger does not start with you, your job is to train your brain away from the trauma response.   No one else can do that for you. It is not the work of the world around you to fix it for you.  Evolution does not work that way. Biology does not work that way.

Children are following in the footsteps of the culture and the adults in power around them. We are doing our children a disservice by providing a culture of entitlement that rewards children for their inabilities.  I have heard both parents and teachers reinforce this idea. "This child is the reason my classroom is unmanageable." "This teacher is the reason my child is unmanageable."

Parents, children, teachers behave badly.  We all do.  We are human.  Regardless, this idea that it is somehow everyone else's job around us to ensure we feel good or get what we want, is lethal.

Instead of "You trigger me" what we need to practice is accountability.  That means, I take responsibility for my trigger, and I work it out.  I work it out by addressing the person who said something unkind or 'triggered me'.  I work it out by taking care of my feelings.  And I work it out by getting help around addressing the root of the trauma response so that the next time I get triggered, I will have an opportunity to react and even heal the original trauma.

I will say it again, it is our personal life work.  And it is our collective life work. It is a spiritual practice and an evolutionary practice as well. My triggers. My responsibility.

My desire is that my future eavesdropping adventures will include more samples of self advocacy and less samples of "You triggered me."

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Road to Self Advocacy Is Not Paved With Kindness

Years ago when I was training for a marathon, I was participating in an 18 mile training run.  It was a hot morning and the route was full of hills.  Near the end of the run, we hit a stretch void of shade.  Everyone in the group is starting to melt a little and the pace is starting to slow. I am covered in salty sweat and I am just trying to finish the training run.  When we finish, one of runners sighs and says, "It's not pretty, but it's success."

Since then, I have used his words of wisdom often.  Making any changes, even positive ones, can be painful. Success is often mucky, uncomfortable and ugly.

When I worked as a vice principal, a big chunk of my job was managing student discipline. A student would be sent to my office for punching a student during class.  Inevitably I would investigate only to discover the recipient of the punch had repeatedly harassed the student who finally pushed back.

I am teaching a group of grade 5 students.  We are making a list of all the ways we can take care of our big feelings. One of the suggestions the students come up with is yelling.  So I ask,
"When might it be okay to yell in order to manage a big feeling?"

"It's okay to yell, if somebody has been bugging you for a long time, and they don't listen to you and they still keep bugging you."

"It's okay to yell, if you are in trouble and you need help."

"It's okay to yell, if you need to stand up for yourself or when you need to help somebody else who is in trouble."

And I say,"Yes, that's right."

Working things out sometimes gets messy. Teaching the people around you to treat you with kindness sometimes requires you to be unkind. If you are finding yourself always yelling in order to connect with someone or get your point across, its a problem, but getting loud, hot and ugly is sometimes the right thing to do.  In my view, it is part of the learning required to stay present in conflict. It is why any form of "conflict resolution" can be both transformative and dangerous.

Learning to show up in your own life means sometimes doing the ugly thing. The road to self advocacy is not always paved with kindness. In a world increasingly polarized by dualities - you are either right or wrong, good or evil, right wing or left wing - it is our responsibility to provide practice and language that help children understand the messy, grey, middle of living.

Let's be honest with all of the messy middle.  Let's provide children and adults for that matter (Unions, management, and government could all learn a thing or two from grade 5 students) curriculum that addresses real life communication and self advocacy practices.  It won't be pretty but it will be successful.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Combatting Addiction With Curiosity and Community

The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection. Joahan Hari

There is a classic study done on rats. They were in a sterile environment, and they were given the choice of either water or water mixed with cocaine. By the end of the study all of the mice became addicted to the cocaine.

This study informed drug interventions and policy until another study posited that there might be other factors at play. The new study placed the rats in a fertile environment called Rat Park. Rat Park was full of interesting things to rats: wheels, mazes, and other rats. At the end of the study, rats chose the water/cocaine 60% less often, and most importantly none of the rats became addicted.
The use of electronics via gaming, social media, communications is insidious. A 2010 study showed that children between the age of 8-18 spent, on average, 7 hours and 38 minutes a day on electronic devices. Although this included television watching, since 2010, children are watching less TV and a whole lot more Youtube and social media. A study of University students showed that students only focused on material for a maximum of six minutes at a time before changing their attention. The biggest distraction was Facebook. Studies on online gaming addictions indicate playing anything over 21 hours of online games a week is the addiction tipping point. That's only three hours of gaming a day and I know a significant number elementary school students topping that number easily!

How can we apply the success of Rat Park to inform teaching and learning practices in the Age of Digital Distraction? What are the conditions required to frame schools so that they appear more like the fertile environment where children naturally choose to self-regulate
social media use? 

Electronic game playing, social media and watching Youtube, all play into our evolutionary desire for reward. Those small pings of dopamine that accompany the pings on our phones that announce a text, a Facebook comment or success at an electronic game continuously shift the chemical composition in our bodies, We can easily become addicted to those small little pings of dopamine that reward our behaviour for looking at all of these distractions.
Our environment plays a role in the choices we make. This seems obvious, but when we think about social media and children we seem to put this fact aside.

Work output and results increase significantly when students eliminate all distractions and focused on one activity at a time. Creativity requires long hours of focused time; two to three hour windows of single focus.

What would it look like if we could create environments that allowed children and adolescence an opportunity to practice the slow burn required for creative output?

Part of the solution is certainly about providing practice with communication, connection and learning that does not require an electronic device. Part of the answer is to create elements of curriculum and school life where students are required to engage in ways outside of distraction culture.

For me, part of the solution is also about consciously and repeatedly bringing about the practice of physically engaging with others. Nothing does it better than play and movement. Some of the most powerful work I do is when I just play with students. When, for whatever reason, trust is lost in a classroom, I abandon my intended lesson plan, and I play. All of my small group self-regulation sessions with children incorporate high and low energy games where children practice modulating big and small feelings.

Find ways, big and small, but most importantly repeated, that bring connection, curiosity and engagement. Schools and homes will benefit with conscious efforts to embed this in their family and educational cultures.  I think there is enough research now that demonstrates we can combat addiction with curiosity and community.

Johann Hari: Chasing the Scream
Michael Kuhar: The Addicted Brain
Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us BetterSuperbetter
Kaiser Foundation Study

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Point One - Feelings Matter

It is the last hour of school before school is dismissed for spring break.  I am going around to the classrooms checking in on students but I am preempted by a variety of activities.  The grade 7 classes are positively gleeful, completing art projects and eating a variety of the mandatory carbs.  I head over to the grade 4/5 class to check on some students.  The teacher eyes me as I walk to the back.  A group of students are excitedly presenting something to the rest of the class but i am not sure what is going on quite yet.

"Ms. G listen to this!"  The teacher waves me in.  The students see me and give me a hero's welcome -  Something I no longer take for granted having done a stint as a high school vice principal.  Their rousing applause and genuine happiness to see me felt great.

The four students standing in front of the class repeat their presentation for my benefit.  I realize the four students standing in front of their peers have been elected by their peers for different student council positions. They are presenting their plan of action to the class.  Point one is the implementing of a "feelings box."  Students who are struggling with big feeling can put their concerns in the box and at the end of the week, the class will read the notes and find ways to problem solve and work with the concern.There were some other points about writing and performing a class play and some field trip that the teacher was agreeing to implement.

Maybe it's because I am tired and coming down with a cold, or maybe its because it has been an incredibly hard week but I am touched by point one's feeling box.  I am fighting back some tears for no particular reason.

I note that 3 out of 4 of the students elected for class council have been in my office for one reason or another.

I do not get the opportunity to notice or observe progress, or impact or success, but this small peak into the classroom did that for me. The feelings box was point number one!  These 10, 11 year olds are talking about feelings and including it inside their classroom culture!  And for the last hour before Spring Break that feels like progress.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Power of More Than One

I am once again staring out at miserable rain and snow.  It is March.  Spring is just around the corner. Outside my window there are big fat flakes hitting the sidewalk.  I start yelling at my husband, "No!  I don't want thissss!" Yelling it out loud makes me feel better.

I am in my running gear ready to head out. Today's training schedule announces hill training.  The last thing I want to do is go out in the cold, dark, big fat snowflake outside night.  It was a long day at work and what I really feel like doing is putting on my baggy flannel pyjamas and curling on the couch.

But I can't do that.  I have other people counting on me.  They are expecting me to be there and so I complain a bit and yell a bit more at my husband but I head out the door.  "This is crazy, this is stupid," I keep say, but still I go.  I grab my headlight and flash light, gear up my water pack and arrive at the Running Room.

I find my running buddy and we are both shaking our heads in unison.  What are we thinking? The usual crowd of runners who arrive for the Wednesday training runs do not show up.  There is less than a third of the regulars in the room.

But still we head out, we alter the route a bit and we meander up to the training spot, we do our hills and we head back to the store. We end our run with high fives and encouragement, and I notice that all of us have grins on our faces that were not present at the start of the run.

There have been a few more of those difficult runs this year as a result of our unusual winter weather pattern.  On my own, I would have never stepped out the door, but because others were relying on my small piece of energy to encourage them, I knew that staying home was not an option.  On my own, I would not have gathered the stories of challenge and triumph that now inform all parts of my life.

At the end of every one of those runs, I always feel better.  It is not just the endorphins from the running that are kicking in.  It is the practice of entering a task that feels impossible or mighty difficult and coming out on the other end, alive and excited.  Every difficult run I finish gives my body an amazing story of success.

I am not just training my lungs and muscles, I am training my courage, my perseverance and my self confidence.  Every time I finish a difficult run, I successfully squash the chatter in my head that tries to keep me "safe." I learn that I can do difficult things.  This confidence does not end on the hill training. It transfers into all areas of my life.

Successful learning communities do the same thing.  They challenge everyone in the room to move past their comfort zones.  They expand the vision of what is possible. I teach in 38 different classrooms over the course of the year.  Classrooms that support risks, curiosity and safety are palpable entities.  So are classrooms that discourage the very same attributes. After so many years in classrooms, I can see, feel, smell and hear the energy of 'safe risk taking.' The experience is contagious!

Me With My Posse!
Being accountable to a group is a huge motivator in helping us do difficult things. For me, there is some kind of magic that comes from the shared synergy of trusting communities.  One plus one does not equal two.  When two are more are gathered, one plus one equals millions. The energy moves exponentially when communities work together to support risks.

How can we as parents, teachers, community members, and administrators encourage our school and living spaces to bring about the synergy of millions? How can we bring this learning into teacher education programs? Teacher Unions? Politics?

I am so grateful I have a gaggle of women (the occasional guy graces my pace group) who provide me with the weekly practice of training my whole being to live more fiercely and courageously.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Can We Teach Children to be Happy?

I am at a school meeting attended by a classroom teacher, a resource teacher, a school administrator, a  support worker and myself as a school counsellor.

We are talking about how to better support a student who is struggling with anxiety and anxious behaviour.  Any test or performance brings significant belly aches, headaches and paralysis.  The student is overwhelmed when doing her homework despite the fact she is easily capable of completing it.

The resource teacher is debriefing everyone on her communication with the family.  Understandably, the mother is worried about the behaviour of her child and is seeking ways to support her.  Mom's strategy is to talk to her daughter's teacher and minimize the stressors.

"I just want my child to be happy. When my kids are happy, I am happy."

I hear this everywhere. And I say it myself.  I wish and pray for the safety and the happiness of all my loved ones.  When my loved ones are well, I am well.

There is a problem with this wish and prayer for happiness.

Happiness requires a skill set that is acquired from a great deal of practice. Our brains have evolved over millions of years.  Stress and adaptation provided early humans with the tools needed to survive. Most of us think that happiness is the absence of stressors and uncomfortableness. The way we teach our brains to be "happy" alas, is all about adding stressors and uncomfortableness. The stress needs to be just slightly above our reach, not overwhelming and large.  It has to be manageable.  Too much stress leads to overwhelm or trauma and shuts down our capacity to learn and take care of ourselves.

What we don't talk about is the fact that too little stress leads to the same thing - we shut down our capacity to learn and take care of ourselves. The more we solve our problems, the more we train our brains to take care of our own needs, the more likely we will be to feel happy.

Our brains and bodies need countless experiences of stress and uncomfortableness that gets managed through our own resources. If an adult or a child has a low tolerance for stress or discomfort, it means they require more practice at being uncomfortable and successfully managing their discomfort.

When we ask all the people around our children to minimize stressors, we are guaranteeing our children will not get the practice they need to feel well.

When we give the message that feeling good is more important than taking care of your discomforts, we are guaranteeing our children will not get the practice the need to feel well.

There are a number of significant cultural norms that prevented children and adults the practice of managing their discomforts - less face to face interactions, less unstructured play and an increase in electronic media.  All of these cultural norms impact the very parts of our brain that are required to practice resilience, critical thinking, delayed gratification and social interactions.

Yes, you can teach children to be happy, but it is by doing the exact opposite of what you think you need to do.  Love is important.  Care is important.  But it is not enough.  Children must practice getting uncomfortable, failing and practicing some more.  The best way to teach your child happiness, is to provide plenty of practice at being uncomfortable, and accountable for their own experiences.

Here are simple suggestions that can help you train your brain for happiness:

1.  Share Home Responsibilities: Every member of the family should have daily responsibilities.  It might be picking up toys, making the bed, washing dishes, or cleaning toilets, washing windows and family vehicles.  Notice my suggestions are all about manual labour, because we know that manual labour helps us calm down.  Home responsibilities should not receive monetary payment.

2. Share Your Mealtimes: Our bodies are used to sharing meals in collectives.  Sit down,  eliminate all electronic distractions and be present.  Model curiosity, eye contact and focused listening.

3. Model Resilience: What you think and what you do is what you teach.  Children learn moral behaviour through their feelings and their body.  If they see and feel the adults around them manage their feelings and worries in a positive way, they will learn to do the same.

4.  Designate Electronic Free Time: Decide as a family to designate an hour of each day avoiding all electronic media.

5. Move: Walk, bike, swim, play, move.