ONCE UPON A TIME (PART TWO)

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What follows is (Part 2 of) a story about stories and the wisdom of a six-year-old girl, written back when I was working my first of two internships for my master’s degree. To catch up on Part 1, click here.

The day that “Sarah the Cat” laid claim to her human loneliness, I formulated a plan: she could invite one classmate each week to have lunch with us in the guidance room, which for kindergarteners holds no stigma and instead represents a treat. Sarah might gain some status among her peers, and lunch might naturally segue into companionship at recess.

The boy she chose for her first guest was shy and sweet but not the best bet for an aide-de-camp in the project, accompanied by a paraprofessional in case he felt overwhelmed. Sarah’s teacher suggested the next invitee, a girl whose confidence proved unhelpful, with a domineering quality that crowded out the native empathy she might have possessed. Our third guest seemed like a Goldilocks choice—generous, polite, just right!—but nothing came of it.

Not socially gifted myself, in vain I struggled to make small talk that would help the kids learn about each other; like an awkward matchmaker, I even asked about favorite playground games. Sarah gave me a look at one point, and I wondered if I was being too obvious. Despite my efforts on her behalf, there was no sign of a shift—she still floated through her days disconnected.

Meanwhile, Sarah and I kept our Monday morning meetings. The day before our fourth Tuesday lunch, I had brought in all her chapters, typed from my longhand transcriptions and organized in their own slim binder. My internship at the school would be ending relatively soon, and creating books with and for kids was part of the process of saying goodbye. The chapters looked impressively official, dressed up thus. Sarah asked that I reread them to her; she seemed to enjoy hearing even the hardest parts.

The next day I walked down to rendezvous with Sarah and Addie, aka Guest Number 4. We gathered lunch trays, straws, utensils, and assorted condiments, and climbed the stairs, the kindergarteners’ knees bobbing high to accommodate the rise of each step, their trays held carefully aloft. So far, so familiar—but Sarah cast me into the unknown the moment we entered the office. “Could you please get my book and wead it?” she asked, the lost r tugging my heartstrings, while Addie preceded us to the table. “You want me to read it—out loud?” I clarified, hoping I’d misunderstood. “Yes, please,” she said.

What was I going to do? I looked over at Addie, concentrating on her carton of milk, plucking her straw from its cellophane wrapper. How could I subject that curly-headed naïf so unexpectedly to a tale of unremitting loneliness? Over pizza sticks and a small heap of syrupy fruit, no less? I was not thinking fast enough and grasped at a fib. “I’m not sure I have it with me,” I said, pretending to search my backpack. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” I felt conflicted about the now-outright lie—but there it was.

She persisted, asking me in that case to say it from memory. Again, I demurred. Then came the flash, the genuine inspiration. “What if we write a new chapter today? To a different story?” One thought led to the next. “Maybe Addie can help—if she wants.”

My enthusiasm for the idea was initially unshared. “Okay,” Sarah said. “But can you bring it next time? It’s important.” It’s important. “Alright,” I said. I’d bought myself a little time, but I knew I couldn’t ignore those words. I seated myself across from the girls, pencil at the ready. First we established our new character. Who would Addie like to be? She chose readily.

“Once upon a time, Sarah the Cat and Addie the Easter Bunny…” It was lovely to see both girls giggle at that. Sarah led off from there, but Addie caught right up. As they built their story detail by detail, they looked at each other for affirmation, grinning as they dreamed up mischief.

The plot unfolded as follows: They were at a picnic but wandered away from their blanket, landing them in hot water with their parents, who followed their trail, found them, and condemned them to their rooms with no dinner. Confining myself to prompts up till then, I volunteered a last line: “What a terrible way for a picnic to end!” The girls, together, approved.

To Be Continued.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. 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.

AND THEN, NOT SO FUNNY

Horses, plants

 

The first thing she did was break my Japanese kaleidoscope—jabbed her finger through the viewing window. From the threshold of my office, she’d homed in on it, as if she’d known it would be there, on my table by the schefflera, awaiting destruction. A pixie with a tornado’s wake, she tore around my office, snatching things up and demanding “What’s this?” before casting them aside and moving on. She was ten, with a three-year-old’s lack of restraint. Her mother did not stir to intervene in any way, just sat heavily and watched me, wearing an inscrutable smile.

I had some information to relay and gather, it being our first visit, although I knew a bit from the intake report and a colleague on the Youth and Family team. The family had been receiving functional support services in their home for some time, to help with behavior management, but the FSS worker felt therapy would be appropriate as well. Danielle, the pixie, was suspicioned to have some trauma in her history. If she did, that might explain her wild energy, although she was being medicated for ADHD, as all too many kids are. The FSS worker had told me she was a sweetheart, if a handful, and would likely want to spend our time playing dolls.

At a certain point, I interrupted my intro to let Danielle know that although there weren’t a lot of rules in my office, there were a few important rules, and one of them had to do with gentleness. “I’m going to show you how I don’t like things to be handled, and how I do like them to be handled.” First, I picked up a toy and threw it on the ground. “You will not see me do that again,” I said, “and I don’t want to see it either. This is how I like things to be handled.” I picked the same toy up and set it down gently. “Can you show me the gentle way to handle things?” And she did—from that moment on, she was careful with everything she touched, and I made sure to thank her and heap praise upon her.

Danielle offered to teach me a card game in vogue called Trash. I accepted, and we arranged ourselves “crisscross applesauce” on the floor. She gave me the rules haphazardly, clarifying as she went along, as in, “Oh, and if that happens, you lose your turn.” It felt as though maybe she was just making up rules to suit her, which, if that was the case, was a) hard to follow, and b) not fun for me. So, again, I asked for what I wanted: “Could you please tell me all the rules first before we play? I’m feeling confused.” And she did! With perfect sense and order! We got on like a house afire then and played cards till the end of our session. I invited her mom to join us, but she just kept smiling and shook her head. Soon enough, our time was up, and I confirmed our next appointment for the same time next week. I was on Cloud 9: attention deficits can be hard for me, but we were off to a good start!

Then, the next week, no Danielle. I made an outreach call and got voicemail. No reply to my message, so I called again later that week, expressing concern. No reply again. I called a week later, then wrote a letter—nothing. Finally, I ran into her FSS worker and asked him to look into it. This is what he came back and told me: the mom didn’t want therapy for her daughter, or at least, not with me. “All she did was play with her,” the mom reportedly said.

Now at the risk of sounding prideful, is that all I did? Danielle and I built rapport. We engaged in behavior modification through clear communication and positive reinforcement. She got the chance to take the lead, and led beautifully, and we started in on addressing unmet needs. (The FSS worker still talks about the time the two of them played Trivial Pursuit—how Danielle didn’t even understand the questions, let alone know the answers, but appeared to be having the time of her life because someone was playing with her.) Perhaps these matters are subtle to the untrained eye. But I didn’t even merit a conversation? The funny story I told recently, about the mom who worried my voice was too calm when we booked our first appointment? That mom gave me a chance, and we got on splendidly.

My supervisor opined that the mother felt uncomfortable seeing Danielle behave like a different child; perhaps I had achieved something that she, as the parent, never had. He felt that she probably saw her daughter through a certain lens and was unwilling to have that lens so radically changed. Indeed, she might not have wanted to feel compelled to look at herself. I can’t profess to know if any of that was the case—but I can say this: I wanted to work with Danielle, and there are few things in life that upset me more than golden opportunities missed, especially when it’s not a matter of chance, but one of willful denial.

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.

AND SPEAKING OF CANDOR…

Morning walks tend to yield unexpected rewards. This morning I passed two blond boys walking together, one perhaps 10, the other more like 4, keeping pace quietly side by side. As they turned a corner, the younger one slipped his hand into his older brother’s, who accepted it. It was a candid gesture, and it was received.

“Receiving” is a big part of therapeutic practice for me; creating a space in which a person can ask and offer. When I meet clients for the first time, I emphasize the importance of my having a sense for their feelings and experience of counseling. “For example,” I say, “if I get something wrong, it’s important that I know so we can work together on setting things right.” With young children, I sometimes give them a chance to practice the possibly intimidating act of correcting me, a grownup, by making silly false statements for them to refute, which they unfailingly do.

Scanning the New York Times Magazine recently, I came across Hanya Yanagihara’s piece, “Why I’m Afraid of Therapy.” Reading it, I felt sorry that portrayals of therapy in culture continue to demonstrate an irresponsible use of privilege. It is a privilege to be trusted with a person’s history, thoughts, and feelings. I felt sorry, too, that Yanagihara seemed to want something that she nonetheless wouldn’t seek: “So what do you do, when you realize you’ve created a life in which you’re unable to let yourself be observed, and yet, equally, yearn to be seen?” That sentiment has been true for me not only in relation to therapy, but also in relation to intimacy.

Q: How does a person build trust without a foundation of it?

A: Slowly and with care.

Ego can run as rampant in therapy as in any other profession, as demonstrated by the Svengali-like character in “Love and Mercy,” who preyed upon Brian Wilson’s vulnerability. How to avoid that perversion of the vocation deserves more space than I’ll give it here and now. Briefly, though, what about aspiring to dedicate 90+ percent attention to the client, with the remaining percentage applied to self-awareness of one’s therapeutic options, moves, and motives? Process recordings help foster that kind of orientation, and as trying as they can be, they really ought to be part of any therapeutic education.

In any case, my work with children thus far has blessed me abundantly with the experience of candor. Children can learn early to hide themselves, of course; but mostly they are closer to guilelessness than the rest of us.

As my internship wrapped up this past spring, it came time to say goodbye to my clients, a process heartlessly known in the field as “termination.” My dear Luz, happily, had made such progress that she and her mother concluded they would simply end with me, rather than transferring to another clinician. When I asked her if she had any last questions for me, while she had the chance, Luz screwed up her face into her posing-a-shy-question smile. “Will you miss me?” she asked.

“Of course, I will, Luz!” I exclaimed, and told her all the different ways. The “good goodbye” is so rare in life, and such a gift. I mean, what a beautiful question to pose: Will you miss me? What, furthermore, a beautiful chance to answer.

Me and Luz

I and Luz

THEN, SHE NAMED IT

I’ve written about the Tuesday evening when my thirteen-year-old client Shona shared that she had cut with mortal intent, and a little about how I myself was feeling at the time.

This morning the sun is pouring strong through my easterly window, and a prism hanging there is scattering rainbows hither and yon. It’s more than a week into spring and still below freezing, but the sun promises warmth to come. In climatological pockets, pussy-willows have been tricked into fuzzy bloom and perhaps even the friendly spears of crocuses are pushing up from below, where the snow has cleared. It’s a good time to say a few words more about Shona.

The Wednesday morning following the Tuesday in question, I called Shona’s mom to ask how the night had gone. She sounded tired, from waking several times to check on Shona, but also calm. It had not always been so. Anger had dominated this mom’s emotions in the early days of our meeting, along with a feeling of being held hostage to her daughter’s emotional state. What her anger meant to me was that her own feelings were in need of validation as much as her daughter’s, before she could be more empathetic, and that is how we worked.

I asked how Shona was doing, and her mom said she was sleeping, that she hadn’t woken herself early for school as she usually did, and her mom was just letting her stay home to rest. We agreed that I would call Shona later to check in, and when I did, she sounded rested and happy, on her way with her mom to buy ingredients for cupcakes. They would spend the afternoon baking, an activity she enjoys. I encouraged her to call the Center if she felt the need, and hung up feeling hopeful.

The next week Shona came in smiling. She was having a good day. What’s more, she told me that in the past week, “I didn’t cut, and I didn’t feel like cutting.” I was over the moon. That she hadn’t cut and hadn’t even wanted to, and that she said so.

At that point, we were into the fifth month of our counseling relationship, and the whole time she had avoided using any words for her self-harming. As she narrated her thoughts or actions, she would let her voice trail off as she gestured toward her wrists and arms. I didn’t push, but I let her know at one point that I noticed, and at another point I suggested that it’s helpful to speak neutrally and factually about highly charged things, including self-harm. I tried to model such an approach by making unflinching reference to her painful practice. If she said, “This week I felt like…” I would reflect back, without judgment, “You felt like cutting.”

In that follow-up, post-cupcake meeting, I refrained from immediate comment on Shona’s radical use of language. We continued to talk about this and that thing having gone well in her week, and we looked forward together to her upcoming birthday and the start of high school the next year. Only toward the end of our hour did I ask, casually, “So, I noticed that you used the word ‘cutting’ today. I think that’s the first time. Can you tell me about that?” She said, “I used to try to avoid talking about it. But I remember you telling me that I should call it what it is. I caught myself about to not say it, so I said it.”

Now, I hadn’t said “should.” That’s not a word for counseling, and especially not a word to say to someone vulnerable. But it sounded like she may have added her own emphasis to the suggestion, which was fine by me. I was over the moon all over again. The strength of speaking truth! The power of relationship! I’ll have to say goodbye to Shona soon, as my internship at the Center ends, and I’m grateful beyond measure to have first heard her name her challenge. I have every faith that she, especially with her mom’s support, can conquer it.

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.