The other day, a few girls approached me asking for help with a conflict they were having with a couple of boys on the playground. The girls explained they had asked the two boys for a turn on the tire swing, but the boys said “No! Today it’s our turn”. The girls reported that they had tried to talk it out with the boys, but the boys had just ignored them and kept on swinging. I felt empathy for the girls’ trouble, but truth be told, I was excited to have an opportunity to coach some students to use the Beginning and Lower School steps for solving problems. Here is how we teach students to solve problems at Catlin Gabel:
- Stop and Cool Off
- Talk and Listen to Each Other – Consider both perspectives on the problem
- Brainstorm Solutions
- Pick the Best Solution - Is it safe? Is it fair?
- Make a Plan and Go for it!
Helping children to calm themselves when they are upset is the first, most important step to take before attempting to understand or to solve a problem. In the simplest terms children, or adults for the matter, don’t think logically or rationally when they are upset. When intervening we use quiet tones and words to reassure that we will help. We coach kids to take slow deep breaths and do so ourselves, knowing children will often take cues from us and match our behavior naturally. Once emotions are regulated, we’re ready to make sense of what happened.
Fortunately for me, the tire swing kids were fairly composed and we moved directly into talking and listening to each other. As it turned out, the boys had been watching the tire swing for days, waiting for these same girls to finish so they could have a turn. The girls, unaware that the boys were waiting, used the swing all recess long, several days in a row. On this day, the boys had rushed to the swing, gotten their first and felt as though they were entitled to use the swing the entire recess as the girls had done before. After hearing the boys, the girls understood and wondered why the boys hadn’t asked for a turn when the girls were using the swing. The boys explained their belief that the swing ought to belong to whomever got to it first.
The kids were able to brainstorm a few solutions, but the intervention went awry when it came time to choosing a solution that was fair to all students on the playground. The boys couldn’t get past how the girls had used the swing all recess long the day before. They had gotten their first, and didn’t that mean they were entitled to the swing all recess as the girls had done? They couldn’t integrate the idea that on any given day, many students besides the girls might want a turn on the swing. They had a hard time considering other perspectives and showing empathy for the girls. Frustrated, the boys gave up and stormed off, leaving a very pleased set of girls to the tire swing.
I don’t mind sharing a failed intervention, because it highlights the very complex set of skills that are required to solve problems: calming ourselves when we’re upset, expressing our feelings and needs, truly listening to someone else’s feelings and needs, generating multiple solutions, considering multiple perspectives when choosing a solution that is fair. When we stop to consider how much we struggle with these skills as adults, we begin to understand how challenging it can be for kids to solve problems. This failed intervention gave me good information about the skills with which those boys needed help: empathy and perspective-taking.
When there is a problem, the adult reaction is often to jump in and be the judge. We listen to both sides, make a determination and hand down the decision. We do this because it’s faster, but it doesn’t teach kids how to solve problems on their own. Helping kids to navigate this process takes time. As they learn these skills they’ll need our help less in the future. This after all, is the ultimate goal.
Have you ever heard the phrase you catch more flies with honey? Besides being a pearl of wisdom, this old adage speaks to human nature. It tells us that we get more of what we want by being kind and sweet. What if that honey wasn’t just about being kind and sweet? What if that honey was being grateful and what we wanted to gain was a greater sense of happiness?
Teaching children to be grateful for the things they have can actually make them happier. When children appreciate and are thankful for what is given to them they feel content, whole, fulfilled. These feelings then lead to greater sense of well-being and happiness. On the other hand, when children are not grateful and instead seek to have more, they often are left with a sense of longing and emptiness. They create a pattern of never feeling satiated and that there is never enough to help them feel better.
Therefore, teaching children a sense of gratitude is paramount to happiness and success. Does it go beyond teaching them to say thank you? According to parent.com the answer is yes. Parent.com gives us some great tips for teaching gratitude:
- Work gratitude into your daily conversation. "We're so lucky to have a good cat like Sam!" "Aren't the colors in the sunset amazing?" Set up a routine talking as a family for what you are thankful for. This normalizes the process of gratitude and shifts the conversation from what is wrong or what you don’t have to being thankful for all you do have.
- Have kids help. Giving children chores around the house that are suitable for their developmental level is extremely helpful for them to learn gratitude. Children can be appreciative when they realize what it takes to run a household. Simple everyday things can do the trick. Such chores as feeding the dog, transferring the clothes from the washer to the dryer, pulling weeds, or putting your plate in the dishwasher can go far in teaching this lesson.
- Find a goodwill project. This doesn’t have to be taking on a big project. It can be taking clothes to Goodwill, taking canned food to the food bank, or helping a neighbor with their yard work. Its important to talk about why you are doing it and why you are thankful for what you have.
- Encourage generosity. Giving to others is powerful. Encourage sharing what you have with others. If you do not have much, encourage sharing your time, energy, and creativity. Again, speak directly to what you are doing and why.
- Insist on thank-you notes. For little ones, this can be you writing the note and they drawing a picture or signing their name. For older kids, carve out time for them to do this and make it personal. They should address it to the person and specifically thank them for the item they received. Teaching children to write thank you notes of gifts can be a powerful lesson.
- Practice saying no. Children who never hear the word “no,” never learn to have self-discipline. If children are granted all their heart desires they will have a hard time appreciating what they have as they learn to expect the next toy, cookie, or video game.
“I can’t do it.”
“It’s too hard.”
We hear these statements from children throughout the day. It’s not only a comment about the difficult task at hand, it is actually an opportunity to teach children about resiliency, how to take on challenges, how to make mistakes, and how to have a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset and teaching children how to solve problems leads to greater success and future ability to solve problems.
Carol Dweck of Stanford University asserts that teaching children that intelligence is not a “fixed” state helps them understand that through effort they can grow and become successful. This gives them a sense of control in their world. Intelligence is not something that you are just born with and you are lucky or not in the brain department. Instead, working to teach children to adopt a growth mindset will help them be more successful and more resilient. A growth mindset asserts that intelligence is not solely innate and that you can increase your capacity, “build your brain”, by working to learn new things. It encourages taking on new challenges in spite of potential failure. The state of mind promotes flexibility and engagement. A fixed mindset teaches children to care about being “smart” or “not smart.” This mindset inhibits learning and discourages taking learning risks, because if you can’t do something right away, the child equates it to not being smart. It’s not safe to try something that might be difficult.
What we know as adults is that no one becomes successful without work, risk, and failure. Making mistakes is a part of life and teaching children this is a powerful lesson. It is essential to teach children that life is full of challenges and indeed it is important how we tackle these challenges and how we bounce back from hardship. The message becomes practice makes better not practice makes perfect. Look for progress, not perfection.
Steps to fostering a growth mindset in children:
- Praise the process and effort, not the product. Say to children, “Wow, you worked really hard on that project” as opposed to “your project looks great.”
- Create and model a culture of making mistakes and learning from them.
- Help children identify when they have a fixed mindset and move them to a growth mindset.
- Model resilience and problem solving.
- Give children the opportunity to solve their own problems.
A man's mistakes are his portals of discovery. - James Joyce
Recently several teachers and myself attended a wonderful conference in San Francisco called Learning and the Brain. This particular brain conference focused on social-emotional learning and what we know about the brain. Self-regulation, cultivating happiness, and attention were large pieces of interest.
The process of cultivating happiness in children isn’t as elusive as once thought. What we know is that people who are happy have four key elements. These are having a growth mindset, a sense of gratitude, living in and embracing a culture of kindness, and having self-discipline.
Although, many people would agree these are wonderful traits to have in a social context what I find most intriguing is their impact on brain development. Children’s brains have great plasticity. Their brains are changing and growing and are very malleable at this young age. David Walsh says, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” Simply speaking, the repeated connections we make create long lasting effects in brain development. If we help children’s neurons fire with these four elements in mind, their brains are going to create a tendency to do be this way as they age.
Mental health professionals have known for years about this phenomenon but have never given it such specificity. We know that when a brain is traumatized it “rewires” itself. Part of trauma work is getting the brain to wire itself back into a more calm state of existence. People who have experienced trauma are more hyper-vigilant and have a higher sensitivity to environmental stimulus. We know that people who have long histories of depression have a tendency to think depressively and we work to rewrite the cognitive tapes they tell themselves. With enough practice the depressed individual can think more positively.
Therefore, the link can be made that the four elements of having a growth mindset, feeling gratitude, embracing a culture of kindness, and having self-discipline can greatly effect brain development. Having these neurons firing together and making connections can make a more functional and hopefully happier adult. Stay tuned for more details about each of the four elements in the coming Crier J
Personal Resiliency Builders
Environmental Protective Factors
From the Winter 2011-12 Caller
What is resiliency?
Is resiliency an innate trait?
What we can do as a community to help children recover from hardships?
Kristin, how do you teach Middle Schoolers about resiliency?
Kate, do we have that kind of training in Upper School?
Is resiliency connected with bullying and victimhood?
Do you see kids building confidence when they learn how to cope?
Can resiliency be confused with just letting kids fail?
What do we do well as a school to build resiliency in our students?
So if they feel successful, it becomes easier to carry on.
Does the focus on resiliency tie into overprotectiveness?
Tis the Season
- Avoid the curse of the “Perfect Holiday.” As one parent recently told me, “I would love to have a Martha Stewart Christmas tree, but I know that’s not going to happen so I am just letting it go.” Nothing is ever perfect and we can’t expect the holidays to be any different. Just know that there will be ups and downs and that some plans will work out and others will not. Notice the simple things. I just had a very excited second grader stop me in the fir grove to show me his wiggly tooth. We sat for a couple minutes and talked about how losing teeth is so much fun!
- Take a big deep breath. Taking time to relax and breathe can be invaluable for reducing your stress. The effect that deep breathing and muscle relaxation has on your body can not be disputed. Take time for that hot bath, vegging out in front of the television, taking a nice long walk, or listening to your favorite music. Not only will this help you cope with stress but it provides a great model for your children to learn to cope with stress. If you have a 2nd grader, talk to them about their Emotional Tool Bag or as one student calls it her “Cope Kit.”
- Do something as a family that is all about having fun and not about getting anything DONE. Go to Mt. Hood and have a snowball fight or go sledding for the day. Head to the Oregon Zoo or drive around and look at Christmas lights. Make sure the family knows the only goal is to have fun, not to get something done, buy one more present, or attend one more social engagement.
Dr. Kathy Masarie spoke at a Catlin Gabel parent community meeting in November 2011 about the courage it takes to foster resiliency in children, and how parents can model autheticity, honesty, and self-care. Click on the audio file below to hear her presentation (1 hour, 21 minutes).
A parent recently came to talk to me about how she has moved through a wonderful journey of worrying about her child who has ADHD to feeling that in many ways it is a blessing. It is my belief that parents go through a series of steps when they learn their child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). In the beginning, parents may feel a sense of denial or panic. Some parents may feel alone or become amazing information seekers. Either way there is often an initial struggle while coming to terms with what the diagnosis means.
October 16-22 is ADHD Awareness week. Although medical and mental health professional know lots about the disorder, many families dealing with ADHD feel that they are alone. With proper education and networking with others this no longer has to be the case.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder limits children’s ability to filter out irrelevant input, focus, organize, prioritize, delay gratification, think before they act, or perform other so-called executive functions that most of us perform automatically.” It speaks to reason that many children exhibit this form of distractibility. However, ADHD causes distress and impairs the child’s ability to function and learn academically. The symptoms of ADHD are excessive, pervasive, and persistent. Although many of us are distracted from time to time, living with ADHD can be quite overwhelming.
What we know about ADHD is that it does not discriminate and affects people of all ages, races, genders, intellectual ability, and socio-economic backgrounds. The CDC reports that in 2011, 9.5% of children in the United States had been diagnosed with ADHD. Diagnosing ADHD is a complex process that should not be entered into lightly. It requires looking at variety of symptoms that cause impairment in major life areas and have persisted for a minimum of six months. A good diagnosis relies on variety of tools that might include observations across a variety of contexts, the implementation of screening tools, and ruling out other issues that might appear like ADHD such as Sensory Integration Disorder.
Treatment for ADHD is a continuum from least restrictive to most. Often times, the first round of treatment is taking an inventory of what behavioral strategies can be employed and educating the child on ADHD and strategies for coping with the deficit. Changes to the environment or adding tools to the child’s repertoire might also be helpful. Using a collaborative process and taking stock of what works for the child and what doesn’t work is a good strategy. If these approaches are not making enough difference a behavioral plan might be created to help the child be successful. External rewards can be given to help motivate the child and help them use the tools being coached. An additional approach can be medications helping stimulate the executive functioning portion of the brain. The most typical and successful form of treatment is a combination of these methods.
ADHD Awareness Week is an opportunity to reduce stigma and to learn the facts about the disorder and how it affects the community. Log onto www.adhdawarenessweek.org for more information.
According to Izzy Kalman and Brooks Gibbs, both professionals dedicated to eradicating bullying from our schools, the concept of freedom of speech is the solution to verbal bullying. We have all heard of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” In fact, freedom of speech is the “constitutional version of the sticks and stones principal,” according to Gibbs and Kalman.
The psychological concept that people’s words cannot and should not hurt us is a wonderful principal that teaches children that they can choose not to allow words to affect them negatively and diminish their sense of worth. In fact, this skill is essential in teaching children how to be resilient. Just because another child says something mean to them does not mean they have to feel badly about it or take it as a reflection of their own self-image.
Too often children are given the message from society that they should be hurt by other’s words. As a result, all slander becomes a deep emotional wound. What we want children to learn is that they are amazing and strong in their own right and no one can take that away from them. This social skill will aid them in becoming emotionally healthy adults who can bounce back from hardship and not allow others to dictate how they feel about themselves.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule and freedom of speech is no different. Freedom of speech does not protect words people use that can cause objective harm. It is illegal to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater because this can cause people to panic and trample each other. Freedom of speech also does not protect against threats of violence. No one is allowed to threaten physical harm.
The intervention for verbal bullying is paradoxical. For example, if a child responds to hurtful words by trying to get that person to stop and deny their freedom of speech, the aggressor may want to do it more. Instead, if the child understands that their aggressor has the right to say whatever they want AND s/he has the right to not be hurt by it, soon the aggressor becomes bored and runs out of things to say. This skill can be taught and modeled and children can learn not to be victims to verbal bullying. This is what we teach at school.
By Zalika Gardner '90 and Herb Jahncke
From the Winter 2010-11 Caller
See 16-minute video below for more