WORK-LIFE RESONANCE

 

I recently sat in on my first Aikido class. Afterward, I was pleased to tell acquaintances that I now know how to throw a grown man to the ground. That was just silly bravado for my own amusement, however, and not at all reflective of the discipline. What you learn in Aikido, as the sensei put it, is how to help someone fall.

That concept speaks to my sense of the work I do.

Vulnerability tops nobody’s list of favorite mammalian sensations; certainly it doesn’t top my own. For me, the experience of vulnerability can evoke fight, flight, and freeze simultaneously, an anti-trifecta. So I empathize with those who are ambivalent about therapy, instinctively resistant to the deeper conversations.

My faith in the depths is firm; my compass points inward. But the “fall” into therapy has to be taken with great care and companionship, and one of the best ways to achieve that—in addition to active listening and the sensitive use of silence—is through reflective statements. Not a flurry of questions, chop-chop-chop like karate. Minimal use of questions, maximal use of restatement, summary, and gentle extrapolation, always open to correction.

This approach is beautifully described and detailed in Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing, one of the most inspiring texts of my education. MI is the Aikido of therapy! It’s rewarding to work in such an intentional way, to assist the fall—and the standing back up.

I was sitting with a traumatized tween girl on the floor in my office. Her chaotic life experiences were poignantly evoked by the careful way she organized my dollhouse, visit after visit, arranging everything just so. One particular afternoon, she was highly escalated from the car ride to the appointment; she had shared information about her trauma with her mother, and her mother had gotten angry.

My dollhouse is an eco-friendly Scandinavian wooden “chalet” that can be separated into two parts. For the first time, the girl separated them and set one part off at a distance: “This needs to be its own house.” Sometimes that’s what’s needed, I said.

She described to me the conversation in the car as she worked on one house. I continued to reflect and validate what I heard her say. After a while, I asked her permission to share a thought I had. She granted it, and I proposed that her mother may have been too upset to give her the response she needed, but that we could try again to talk all three together when things were calmer.

She reached for the “other” house, saying, “I guess this actually belongs here,” and put them back together again, making a new space of the whole. And she started, for the first time, to tell me the story of her trauma, using the dolls and furniture as props to her narration. When her mother joined us, they were calm together. The work continued, and the work began.

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Monday I had my four-year anniversary with this site! I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. 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, and best wishes.

 

DON’TS AND DON’TS

 

A significant part of working with children involves working with family systems, and in community mental health, that often means contending with inter-generational trauma. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the reality of that; I, under excellent supervision, expend a lot of mental energy trying to factor caregivers’ own personal issues into their choices with kids, adapting my message to what they can hear and take in at any given time. After all, if caregivers feel criticized, the likelihood of their support for therapy drops significantly, and change is unlikely to happen. Sometimes that means trading no change at all for painful slivers of increments. And sometimes, let me tell you, that trade becomes deeply sad and demoralizing. Like this month. Like this in-like-a-lion-and-the-lion-keeps-roaring March. I’m feeling spent by the effort of starting over every bloody session, and I just want to be mad and let it out. Indulge me?

If you are caring for a child who was born in withdrawal from drugs, abandoned, passed around, and abused in every possible way, and as a result lacks a sense of appropriateness and has a bottomless need for attention, please observe the following don’ts, in no particular order:

Don’t refuse to tuck her in because she hasn’t made her bed. Don’t deny her a birthday because you don’t like her behavior. Don’t send her to her room when she’s having a meltdown; don’t film her while she melts down further, desperate not to be rejected and alone. Don’t show the video to people and shame her. Don’t show the video to a therapist and expect sympathy for YOU, the person impassively holding your smartphone up while her struggle plays out. Don’t claim you’ve tried everything, because you haven’t if you haven’t rocked and cuddled her. Don’t expect her to act her age when that’s developmentally impossible. Don’t automatically take others’ word against hers, every time, not even teachers’; teachers see a lot, but not everything, and they aren’t always right. Don’t condemn her for craving electronics when you yourself bury your head in “Candy Crush” and other less important things when she’s trying to make eye contact with you. Don’t justify that by saying that she always wants attention. Don’t reject the games she likes to play with you. And speaking of games, don’t show mercy to other players but gloat (“Ha-ha!”) when you get her out, thinking you’re teaching her a lesson about fair play because, you say, that’s something she’s done. Don’t tell her it serves her right if she falls because she sat on a chair the wrong way. Don’t tell her she can’t have friends because she doesn’t know how to behave. Don’t tell her teachers, in front of her, that she’ll try to manipulate their sympathy. Don’t say, “We love you, but.” Don’t say you’re thinking you might not be able to keep her. Don’t say 100 no’s for every yes. Don’t miss every single chance to validate what she’s feeling, even when her therapist has explained quite clearly, with relatable examples, that validation isn’t agreement. Don’t take her to therapy, an hour a week, no matter for how many years, and expect the therapist to undo the damage of life in an unloving home. Don’t blame the therapist for failing, when the therapist is working hard to help the child feel like she matters. Don’t tell the child in your care that your life is shitty because you’re caring for her.

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Sympathetic readers might appreciate the haunting song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” by Neko Case. Thank you, Neko Case, for your vision and your songs. // I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. 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. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly for reading.

USE WORDS.

 

So I work with kids. I work with people who work with kids. In my free time, I read books about working with kids. I don’t, however, always drink the Kool-Aid. For example…

There are few phrases I find more inherently condescending than “Use your words.” This expression, all too common in English, is intended as a prompt to children to choose prosocial ways to communicate their wants and needs. At the best of times (which is by no means all the time) I think it’s meant to be empowering, a kind of “Go, you!” coaching. Even where the aim is worthy, though, the method makes me wince.

No caregiver enjoys tantrums. Kicking, flailing, screaming, wailing—that’s misery for all concerned, including children themselves. Just as newborns feel safer when swaddled, children are significantly happier when they’re regulated, i.e., in control of themselves.

In community mental health—where so many of the kiddos we see start their lives already burdened with trauma—tantrums can be even scarier, leading to assaults and destruction of property. One little boy I know, in the midst of a recent fit, climbed to the top of a fridge to grab the butcher knife kept there and threaten his family.

When children have facility with words, not only are they better able to make themselves understood by others, but they are also better equipped to make sense of events and form lasting memories. Thus the importance of reading to and with children, and talking over events both before they take place (in preparation) and after (to create narratives).

It has been demonstrated through studies that children from variously disadvantaged backgrounds typically hear far fewer words a day than their more secure counterparts—yet another way that inequality is perpetuated, making social strata more difficult for some to climb. Literacy programs seek to work against that pernicious trend.

“Use your words” is meant to work against the trend of tantrums, storms of tears, sullen silences. Does it? I haven’t seen the evidence. I know I have a contrary, independent streak and tend to want to kick over any traces that harness me to someone else’s direction or notion of labor; but from my perspective, the expression feels more like an impatient, insensitive dictum from on high than like a loving and truly attuned and listening encouragement.

Anything can be co-opted; but think of the ease with which grown people say “Use your words” to one another, with the explicit intent of being snide. If I were still a child, I wouldn’t have the words to say how I felt about hearing that from an adult, but I know it would make me feel as though the person speaking were asserting an unwelcome and invasive authority over me. How do you know what words are my words? What does it mean that you know, when I apparently don’t?

Another way to think about it is that in saying “Use your words,” the adult is often (and often unknowingly) simply outsourcing the hard work of relating, to the person least qualified to do it. “Use your words, as I wash my hands of this.” If words themselves are the point, why not just leave it at that? Would that not suffice as a reminder? “Use words” says much better, “Remember there’s a tool at your disposal.” Adding that possessive pronoun just raises questions about what the hell is meant, and who really owns what.

From a neuroscientific perspective, a child in a tantrum state or weeping fit needs first and foremost to calm down physiologically; the brain is not capable of cool reason and logic in a heated HPA cascade. And the way to calm a child is to love that child in ways the child can feel—to be patient; to touch if touch is welcome (or required for safety) and give near and supportive space if it is not; to offer sympathy for the strong emotions, via reflective statements. Not only does this demonstrate concern, but it models the exact behavior that’s desired: the positive use of words to communicate during a difficult time. When adults use their own words in prosocial ways, children are more likely to do the same.

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Two excellent resources on working effectively with children are The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I can’t recommend them enough!

Now: I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. 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. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly 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 DEEP

Lemon 3

 

The following vignette is drawn from my time volunteering in a kindergarten.

P, five years old, was normally well behaved—self-regulating, in clinical parlance. His classmate C, whom the teacher considered too young for school, might interrupt proceedings by pounding on his tiny chest and belting out a Tarzan imitation; P, sturdier and more mature, knew how to listen. He stayed “in the zone.”

On this particular day, though, something had gotten into him. At story time, sitting on the fringes, P turned his back to the teacher and kicked his shoes repeatedly against the carpet, beating a sullen tattoo. Several times I spoke to him about this. “It’s easier to concentrate when your eyes are on the teacher,” I whispered. I put a guiding hand on his shoulder. He obliged by turning his body partway toward the rest of the group but kept his eyes to the ground.

This behavior was so aberrant for P as to raise a question in my mind. But the question faded as the day progressed, each activity succeeding the one before, the writing of names and the cutting of paper with round-tipped scissors. Snack time, with its boasts and juice boxes, came and went. The declarations of one child inevitably stirred up an overlapping chorus of voices, all seeking attention. Consequently, P’s strange behavior slipped from my thoughts.

Later in the day, the teacher asked me to work one-on-one with the kids, on a color project, and I found myself across from P, at the world’s smallest work table, holding out a yellow crayon and asking him to draw a lemon.

He wouldn’t take the crayon. “I can’t,” he said. Snub-nosed with freckles, he stuck out his lip. Again, I was surprised. “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can,” I said. “You can draw all kinds of shapes. You know what a lemon looks like—it’s like a flat circle with pointy ends!” I was not persuasive. He raised his voice a little: “I caaan’t!” Hmm. “Look,” I said, “What if I draw one first, and you copy me?” (This worked sometimes with kids.) Strike three. “Noooo,” he wailed, “I caaaannnn’t!”

Because I’d come to recognize that children don’t fuss “just because,” I decided to take a more direct approach. “Are you having a bad day, P?” I asked. “No!” he said petulantly. “Oh,” I said, “really? It kind of seems to me like maybe you are. I noticed that earlier, and I’ve been wondering why.” I tried to pause a little, to give him some space. “Does your head hurt?” He continued to focus on his own middle distance. No, he didn’t have a headache. “Okay, so it’s not your head. That’s good. Does your stomach hurt?” No, his stomach didn’t hurt.

Then in a rush, his eyes grew red and filled with tears. “I miss my mom!”

I’d had a growing inkling that something like this was at work, yet I was, again, surprised—this time by the force of his anguish, so powerful, so vulnerable, yet buried all day long. Like a grown man, he might have kept it to himself.

What I’d been seeing in him were nascent coping mechanisms, based on denial. He would have made it home, and it’s possible that that would have sufficed. It’s possible that not even his mom would come to know that he’d struggled all day. Unless something particularly memorable happened, the day would be forgotten. He would grow older, taller, physically stronger, lean muscle replacing the softer flesh of early childhood. This day in kindergarten, when he so much missed his mom, might not “matter.”

It’s my belief, however, that we carry our untended pains within us. As children, we adapt coping mechanisms that shield us when we have few other means to do so, but that often prove to be maladaptive later in life. Some of us can barely confess the things that mean the most to us, that most shape our interior lives and, consequently, our relationships. We may not know how much we have to express, having taught ourselves ignorance of such things; but even knowing, we can feel helpless to act. I speak from experience.

The concept of therapy in our culture is burdened with many cliches; one such, often condescending, is the idea of “rambling” to someone about one’s childhood. How foolish and sad we are, societally, to mock our own deepest needs. It’s a powerful thing, to begin to find relief, after years, maybe decades, of denial. Everyone deserves to be nurtured as a child—however old he or she may be.

On this day, I was able to help P. I told him I was sorry he was having a hard time. I told him I could see the clock from where I was sitting, and I knew there was just an hour left to go. I told him I thought his mom was lucky to have such a loving little boy. A few more statements of that kind, and his tears cleared without falling. I asked if he thought he could draw a lemon for me. He said, “Okay!” And he did.

I’d met this boy’s mother; I knew he was cherished and provided for. He had a wonderful teacher and attended what is widely considered a fine elementary school. At its most pinched, its resources far exceed those of any number of schools in this country, as profiled by Jonathan Kozol in “Savage Inequalities.”

P had had one bad day in the time that I’d known him. And that single day’s pained emotions led him to feel a lack of self-efficacy: “I can’t do it.” The tiniest errant seeds can find quick purchase and grow deep roots.

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.