CLEAR-EYED AND COURAGEOUS

lost-and-found-bathing-suit-9

The end of any year, but especially this one, can feel elegiac to many. For me there is no better answer within reach, to the litany of sorrows I could name, than to offer tribute to those who’ve inspired me in the past twelve months—thankfully also a long list. Here are just two.

My first tribute is to a mother of my acquaintance. A little over a dozen years ago, she contrived an ingenious way to save some of her income from her abusive partner, so that she could escape to a women’s shelter with their infant daughter. In the process, she lost a best friend because the friend feared retaliation for any show of support to her. The experience of trauma persisted for a decade, as the man haunted her life, until at last he died of an overdose. Now, never having found time to care for herself, she makes the effort to support her daughter’s ongoing grief over losing her father, whom she had barely known, whose death meant something very different to her.

My second tribute is to a girl of my acquaintance. A daughter in a different family, she recognized her stepfather’s instability long before her mother did and looked up the signs and symptoms of abuse to educate her mother in what was happening to them. She persuaded her mother to divorce the man who would, before they left, harass and molest the girl whose clear vision saw the truth, whose courageous spirit spoke out to make change. This girl-becoming-a-woman now wants to study the brain, maybe work in child development or forensic psychology. She wants to understand things. She wants to make sense of the world.

Certainly there were dozens of men and boys this year who moved and delighted me (including one eight-year-old I know who stated recently that he is now “obsessed with Canada”; the liberal-minded among you can probably guess why). Then there are those (men, women, and algorithms) who miss the mortal glory that surrounds them, profoundly confused by marketed images: made up, airbrushed, photoshopped, contrived, assessed, judged, “had,” bought, and/or sold to the highest or nearest bidder. After the year the world has had, after the year my country has had, after the slurs we’ve all been suffered to hear uttered by persons of influence, I feel inclined to celebrate the real beauty of the women and girls whom I’m proud to have met: their strength and grace of character; their intelligence and the light they carry, kindling within every cell, every smile, every look of comprehension, every gesture of warm and real humanity.

To them and to you, Happy New Year.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.

 

DOWN WITH TOUGH LOVE

The high windows were blank rectangles of daylight as the gym teacher handed down tough love. Nothing extraordinary had happened: A dimpled kindergartner had let his high spirits run free, during a non-running game. He then slipped on the smooth gym floor, fell, and banged his elbow, bringing said game to a halt—and him to tears.

He had broken a rule. No matter that he was in pain and possibly a kind of mild shock; rule-breaking was what counted to this teacher, who seemed to think the boy had gotten his just deserts. His words were chiseled like a commandment on a stone tablet. You know the small graves in cemeteries, the kind that tug at your heart? A stone tablet like that. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have no sympathy for you.” Mortal words, to my ears.

When I say the student might’ve been in shock, I mean the physical jarring when a body makes impact and the existential betrayal we feel when the world unexpectedly hurts us. For adults, the cause and effect might have been clear in this case, making the hurt smart less than it did for that boy; but children have less experience of physical laws and probabilities than do we adults. To run from sheer exuberance is to feel a great trust in life, if only in the moment; for many if not all of us, there is nothing reasonable about a fall.

I’m reminded of a scene in a drug treatment facility. It’s process group, a daily meeting that is minimally moderated by a counselor, and is a time and place for peers in the program to air their personal challenges, as well as any grievances with each other. One young man rubbed other group members the wrong way; he had a tendency to urge them to open up and share more of themselves. The week prior things had ignited when an older man forcefully asserted his right to process things in his own way, and essentially told the young man to “cut the therapy shit.” But it became clear—to me, at least—that he wasn’t really trying to play therapist, so much as trying to make the group feel safer to him. The more the other men shared, the more he could.

So, one week later: the young man was sitting in a different seat, and seemed to be buried deep within himself. He was set to graduate, which can be an anxious time. Was he ready for it—for life? The subject of childhood came up, raised by one of the women, and he told a story about a game he played with his mom when she was in the kitchen, wherein he’d mischievously steal scraps of food and she’d lovingly scold him not to eat before dinner. Then his stepfather came in and, oblivious to their play, laid down the law. The young man broke down in the telling, sobbing two decades’ worth. “He beat the fun out of me,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel joy.” Even while he was crying, his jaw was clenching, muscles working, trying to hold back the tears.

I’m not meaning to equate the first scenario with the second—a one-time incident of punitive dispassion with what would become ongoing abuse—but not because small moments don’t matter in big ways. Small moments matter enormously. They are cellular; they constitute us.

 

 

* I’ll try to address the subject of compassionate discipline in a future post. Among the good and relevant books there are to consult, I can recommend The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen.

WHETHER YOUR SHOES ARE TIGHT OR LOOSE

For a little over a year, I’ve been aware of, and making use of, a mindfulness technique put forth by Dr. Nirbhay Singh and colleagues. It’s officially called the (unwieldy but descriptive) “Meditation on the Soles of the Feet” and was designed for use with a developmentally challenged, aggressive adult in a community living environment.

It’s a protocol well suited for such a client because the directions are quite simple, and the practice itself doesn’t require a lot of patience. For those same reasons, I think it appropriate for most everyone. I have personally employed it on occasion, shared it with inmates, and taught it to several kids, whose responses have been notable and encouraging. More about that in future.

The basic directions for this protocol can be found here. And, for purposes of illustration, below is a graduate student demonstration of the technique, in which Student A (“Sarah”) is meant to be eight years old, and Student B is meant to be her school counselor. There are several things I like about the video (the decor not being among them—please, someone, deal with the blinds!).

For one thing, it was extemporaneous. Without rehearsal, Student B had to adjust and respond to whatever Student A said, lending verisimilitude to the project. “Sarah” brought her own set of feelings, reasons, and metaphors to the situation; her counselor was more likely to succeed with her by incorporating them.

Something else I appreciate here is that, while clearly looking, and mostly sounding, like a young woman in her twenties, Student A struck upon something that many, many kids feel in situations that end up landing them in hot water: “I just wanted him/her/them to listen to me.” Often these are kids who aren’t feeling heard at home, for whatever reason. A sensitive counselor helps in large part by doing good listening, at least partly meeting that need.

A special note: in this video, the counselor suggests enlisting the classroom teacher to remind “Sarah” of the mindfulness skill she’s learning. This kind of collaboration can work beautifully or fail utterly, depending largely on the teacher’s approach. Expressed kindly and privately, a helpful reminder can serve its purpose—but children resent it, as do we grownups, when some bit of privileged information seems to be used against us, especially publicly. That being said…

* This demonstration is rather free-form and doesn’t follow the full protocol contained in the authors’ manual, which was unknown and hence unavailable to these students. It may still have some merit. Video used with permission.

ENERGY SHIFT

I’d like, on this site, to relay research that excites me and ideas that have me in thrall; but I’d also like to include, from the beginning, the voices of others: researchers themselves; former students who have memories of experiencing mindfulness in the classroom, as well as those who wish they’d had the chance; other persons in the helping profession who share this passion; and educators, who have a unique opportunity to connect with large numbers of kids.

To that end, if you feel you have more than a comment’s worth to say on the subject, let me know so that we can work out an interview or guest post. Also, if there are specific issues or questions you’d like to see explored, you are welcome to email me at presentmomentlearning@gmail.com.

Starting the conversation, here’s a brief Q and A* with Jenna Howard, who is lead teacher in the Choices Program at Lebanon Elementary School in Lebanon, Maine. Jenna works with students who experience behavioral and emotional challenges at school. As a flowering of her own spiritual path, Jenna sought ways to improve the experience of her students and in August 2013 attended a weekend workshop on mindfulness in educational settings, at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, NY.

Q: First of all, how do you, Jenna, define mindfulness?

A: I define mindfulness as being aware of everything in the present moment. I know some people don’t like to use the word “aware” with mindfulness, but that’s the best way I can describe it.

Q: Can you offer a synopsis of the workshop you attended?

A: It was led by a variety of people, including psychologists, teachers, administrators, and professors and several people who are well known in the mindfulness education / social and emotional learning fields: Daniel Rechtschaffen, Linda Lantieri, and Dan Siegel.

There were different lectures, mini-workshops, and breakout sessions to choose from throughout the weekend. Topics covered included: what mindfulness is and looks like; implementing mindfulness in schools; practices and programs that support social and emotional learning; mindfulness practice with at-risk youth; and using evidence from neurobiology to support the practice of mindfulness.

Q: What did you find most helpful and inspiring?

A: I found it most helpful to learn about different practices that work in other educational settings. It was also important to me to gain more knowledge about the science behind mindfulness, so that other people can understand it better from a scientific, factual perspective. I enjoyed learning about mindfulness work and its results with at-risk youth, and was able to connect it to my students.

Q: I often see the recommendation that those who want to teach or share mindfulness, practice it themselves. I’m guessing you may have heard something like that at Omega.

A: Yes, there was a definite mention of the importance of practicing personal mindfulness. They felt that in order for the students to buy into it, it had to be something that the teacher believed in or practiced regularly. Almost like a ripple effect. Something was said to the effect of, if anything, personal mindfulness practice would help the student climate because modeling and the energy that is put off by the teacher greatly affects the classroom environment. So in a way, start with yourself and build slowly into them.

Q: Can you offer a sense for what an average day in your classroom is like without mindfulness activities?

A: As a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom for students with behavioral and emotional challenges, an average day can be very stressful. Every day is different, depending on the circumstances and what emotional states the students are in. We encounter many behavioral / emotional “meltdowns” that can include aggressiveness. We teach a lot of social skills and academics, depending on what individual kids need most.

Q: Please share one or more examples of ways you have used principles of mindfulness in the classroom.

A: Twice a day, we incorporate an activity called Quiet Time. During this time, the lights are shut off and relaxing music is played. Students can choose to sit in a bean bag and relax or draw to get themselves centered. The students are aware that this activity is meant to help them refocus, calm their bodies and minds, and bring the energy of the room to a neutral place. They are aware that these activities help them perform and focus on their academic and social tasks throughout the day.

Also, we teach students different mindfulness practices to use when they are experiencing, or before an increase in, anxiety and aggression, in order to get them to develop their own coping skills in highly stressful situations.

Q: Dealing with anxiety and aggression! Can you give an example of that?

A: We show them how to take deep breaths properly and tell them to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles” ten times. It’s very simple but can work very well as they focus on their breathing and how it affects the way they feel.

Q: What do you notice in your students during and after the use of mindfulness-based activities?

A: We notice a change in the energy of the classroom. The energy of the students and classroom becomes calmer, more peaceful, more focused and productive. The students’ energy and anxiety levels often go to a more neutral place, rather than really high or really low.

Q: Have you had direct feedback about it from the students?

A: Students give feedback through their actions and with their words. Some students have said that they like it because it calms them down and the quiet helps them relax.

Q: What advice would you give to other teachers who might like to pursue this?

A: Start out small and at a slow pace. See what works and what doesn’t work. Adjust different activities to the needs of the students.

Q: What are your “next steps,” if any?

A: I’d like to learn more about more activities that worked for students who have similar challenges as my students. It would also be nice to touch base with other educators who are incorporating this work into their classrooms.

 

*This interview was lightly edited, with Jenna’s approval.