Build Healthy BELONGING

Healthy belonging is a necessary growth factor.

Belonging.  It’s a feeling… a feeling that has a powerful influence on everyone’s life.  We all know when we feel that we belong, and we all know when we don’t feel that we belong. (And “all” definitely includes young children.)

That feeling of belonging is one of the most fundamental needs that subtly, but powerfully, influences all of us … and it has always influenced us, pretty much from Day 1 of our lives. 

Healthy belonging must be nurtured.
BELONGING is a deep-rooted need that must be developed in healthy ways starting at the youngest ages.

 

The instinct to belong is as natural as breathing.  What we want and need to belong to can and does differ widely as we grow, which is a good thing and makes a lot of sense – right?!    But …

… as young ones, just starting out in the new adventures of preschool, kindergarten and first grade, discovering shared values, feelings and instincts with classmates and peers is a powerful approach to building the healthiest kind of belonging. The kind of belonging that – very long term – can help to neutralize feelings of isolation that, research has shown, are one of the deep-rooted influences that, so heartbreakingly, result – later on – in school shootings and student suicides.    

Healthy belonging can help to neutralize the negative effects of isolation.
Building healthy BELONGING is one very positive way to reduce the isolation that research confirms is part of the cause of school shooters’ motivations.

What kinds of values, feelings and instincts can young children discover that they share, so that ‘belonging’ is naturally built within the day-to-day dynamics of their class?   

Here’s the answer to that question, and it’s an answer that can enrich every teachers’ class management … making class management much, much easier:  Present groups of kids with appropriately challenging questions that evoke, that draw upon kids’ own hard-wired •empathy, kids’ own •ability to distinguish what’s fair and what’s not, and kids’ natural •instinct to ‘tell it like it is.’

When young children are provided with multiple opportunities to collaboratively discover solutions to challenges with which they’re all familiar, during times in which none of them (this is important, of course) … none of them is ever made to feel defensive – even when those familiar challenges are extremely, even exhaustingly, familiar … When young children are provided with multiple opportunities to collaboratively discover solutions they respond with solutions that invariably surprise and delight teachers. 

Healthy shared experiences build healthy belonging.
Recent brain imaging research shows that when humane instincts are activated and engaged, all associated areas of the brain connect and, with enough consistent repetition, become integrated.

Recent brain imaging research has demonstrated that when the brain contemplates and combines distinct pieces of information – for example: the ‘what, where, when, why and how’ of specific events, different areas of the brain are activated and connect. When different sensibilities and humane instincts are also activated and engaged within those same exercises, all of those areas of the brain connect and, with enough consistent repetition, become integrated. When that kind of healthy, creative and constructive brain activity is shared amongst peers, is it so difficult to appreciate how much more effective at building belonging that is as compared to passive or rote learning experiences?

When groups of children have consistent opportunities to analyze familiar challenges and problems, through a series of respectful and open-ended questions  (yes … truly open-ended questions), they readily stay engaged and interested into the next level of open-ended questions (and again emphasizing: open-ended questions) that invite them to share ideas about possible solutions. 

Typically, a class full of young children ,during these shared opportunities, is a class full of raised hands with answers and solutions that make sense to everyone.  What’s incredibly sweet to experience, as a teacher, is that the kids who have some personal familiarity with a specific challenge or problem (you know, the kids who push, who rarely share, kids who constantly use their outside voices inside, or … you name it)  … those kids actually listen and really take in their classmates’ answers and solutions.  Because, for one reason, they’re not being TALKED TO, so they remain receptive, and for another reason, it’s their peers who are talking – which is much more interesting and relatable than grown-up’s lectures and instructions. Duh.

Back to the concept of building belonging, and I’ll repeat that I’m referring to healthy belonging.  When healthy belonging is prioritized and creatively activated as the binding and strengthening influence for everything else that needs to happen in the classroom, everyone wins – including you, of course … short term, long term and even onto very long term. 

Short term belonging happens within circle time shared discovery opportunities, with kids’ genuine engagement and collaborative contributions. Long term belonging shows up when kids bring their own collaborative solutions onto the playground, into the lunch room and into different learning activities of your classroom.  Very long term belonging is what grows and takes roots over time, because that healthy belonging had a chance to get started as a formative and foundational  influence from kids’ earliest ages.

Healthy belonging requires deep roots.
Deep roots of healthy belonging need to be nurtured from the earliest school experiences.

Obviously, we shouldn’t expect significant results to stick with the snap of our fingers, or with one or two shared thinking circle times – but results do stick when young kids are consistently provided with opportunities to engage in this truly important and mutually respectful way.

The rightness of this kind of approach is validated by kids’ constructive engagement … aaaand by how much you get to learn about, and with, your young students.

Yes, there’s a learning curve – but it’s not steep, and if you’d like some support, please let us know.  That’s WHY we’re here… for you, for your students.

Listen to the podcast (EPISODE 14) of this blog on iTunes, with this link:   https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/not-your-normal-social-emotional-learning

MYTH # 2  about SEL:  Children pay too much attention to each other and not enough attention to teachers.

WELL, yes, that can be a problem, but with a gentle mindset adjustment the fact that kids pay so much attention to each other can turn into a powerful teaching aid that works to everyone’s benefit… yours and theirs.

 

Children’s early education is enriched by playing together with classmates. Each conversation, whether talking about the class pet or deciding which color block to put on top of the tower they’re building together, or who gets to be IT when they’re playing Hide N Seek helps children develop their thoughts, their language, their sense of themselves and how to best connect with others. This is a deeply important dimension of young kids’ development, and interacting with peers, with classmates, is really the only way those discoveries can be made. I mean, right?  HOW ELSE CAN IT HAPPEN?

Children, like all of us – as scientific research reveals – want and need to BELONG. As educators, we have a profound responsibility to nurture healthy belonging amongst our students. The kind of belonging that builds on the best, on the healthiest, on the most positive and most constructive of children’s shared values and perspectives.  This is not going to happen with lectures.            This is going to happen by creating consistent opportunities for kids to DISCOVER TOGETHER how much they have in common, in terms of their own honest feelings, understanding, values, and insights.

Sounds good, right?  Next question: How to make that happen?  Good question… in fact, questions are so often the answer, IF they’re the right kinds of questions, and IF they’re asked with the right mindset, within the right context.  We’ll get into all those IF’s in future podcasts, but for now, the ‘the right context’ is groups of kids pondering their answers, and responding to those right kinds of questions TOGETHER.  Gotta love those CIRCLE TIMES, eh?!!!

It’s easier than it sounds … and the healthy belonging that can be nurtured is everyone’s reward.   

On a more serious note, if healthy belonging is not nurtured in the earliest years of children’s development, is it such a mystery that feelings of isolation (not belonging), when ignored, devolve into the kind of mental torment that motivates some kids to use guns against their fellow students and against their teachers?   This is an issue we need to reverse-engineer, starting with our youngest students.

By ages 3 and 4 children are starting to identify and verbalize an ever-widening range of emotions…. By ages 5 and 6 they are, we know only too well, testing boundaries, yet they are still quite eager to please and to help out.  The commonality of the healthiest of their natural tendencies can be made more conscious amongst your group of students for everyone’s benefit, as I’ve mentioned before. 

For now, we just wanted to smash that myth that children pay too much attention to each other and not enough attention to teachers.   You CAN stop resisting that fact of life and make friends with it for the happiest and healthiest of Win-Win’s in your classroom. 

If you’re enjoying this blog, why not subscribe, then you’ll automatically receive the next Myth about Social Emotional Learning, which is:    Teachers need to be in control of children’s understanding about right and wrong.     Wouldn’t you love to see how that myth, too, can be blasted for everyone’s benefit?   Of course, and heck yes, right?  Who wouldn’t prefer to teach smarter, rather than harder?    Subscribing is super easy, so is sharing this blog with fellow teachers.  

Guns Are the Voice of Anger, Repression and Isolation

Rejection? Depression? Envy? Shame? Disrespected?

Parkland’s shooting is the most recent reminder that we have a chronic anger problem in our country.

Anger, aided by guns, kills students and teachers in Florida.
More victims of the anger that compels violent acts against others.

Enacting sensible gun laws will be a necessary and constructive step forward for our country, but we can do more … much more.  

We want to blame the NRA and the politicians for defending what, in our minds and hearts, is indefensible.  If only legislators would pass more sensible gun laws, we want to believe that the curse of ongoing atrocities would be lifted from our country; but more is needed … much more.

Time to process

First, we need time to process the crushing incomprehensibility of yet another act of violence.  One of the most difficult pieces of ‘processing’ is forgiveness.  Scarlett Lewis, the mother of 6-year old Jesse Lewis (shot down in the Sandy Hook tragedy),  is a living example of forgiveness in action. Her message is healing and deeply important.

Without accepting the challenge of forgiveness, how can we expect life to move forward and build better tomorrows?  Watch Brené Brown’s short  explanation about the essential, yet not-so-obvious elements of true, life altering forgiveness.

Is understanding possible, or even necessary?

Is it even possible to understand the toxic mix of emotions that sometimes transform into anger … which, over time, transforms into murderous rage?   Understanding might be too much of a stretch for most of us, but that doesn’t excuse us from acknowledging  – and constructively responding to – difficult truths.

Unprocessed experiences and emotions

Mental health issues as a ‘go-to’ answer dooms us to loose and sloppy responses.  “Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice both to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness,” says American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel, and “… it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis.”

Acknowledging the role of shooters’ unprocessed experiences and emotions is a first step towards neutralizing the root causes of their explosive violence.

Disconnected individuals are dis-empowered individuals who sometimes make tragic decisions.
Guns are sometimes the tragic ‘delivery systems’ of unprocessed negative emotions.
“… he’s going to explode.”

Sheriff’s offices got at least 18 calls about the Parkland shooter over the past decade. Those calls described guns in his possession, threats and violence.  It got so bad that some teachers even went so far as to ban him from their classrooms. “Looking in his eyes, he just looked like there was a problem,” one teacher told The Washington Post.  Children need opportunities for collaborative problems solving rather than punishments or lectures.

Developmental delays are not meaningfully corrected with punishments. Expulsion, rejection, and exclusion do not help. Those responses from teachers and classmates only exacerbate problems – as we have witnessed too many times.

There are, though, constructively pre-emptive approaches, available for K-12 students that have been shown to ease the isolation, frustration and dis-empowerment resulting from warped perspectives on reality. When groups of young students consistently exercise, together, their innate reasoning  and perspective-taking skills while focusing on age-appropriate challenges, unimagined (yet hoped for) alignments and connections develop.

The TOGETHER element is essential. Absolutely essential.

Collaborative problem-solving experiences, when age-appropriately relevant, (without intrusive, judgmental, or lecture-y comments from adults) does more to ‘build belonging’ than any structured curriculum ever could.  Why?  Because, as Dr. Lilian Katz’ research has documented:

“The younger children are, the more they learn from interactive experiences, rather than passive experiences.”

Solving age-appropriate challenges in collaboration with peers builds belonging by building mutual-respect along with self respect… experiences, we can all agree, are totally lacking in school shooters’ lives.


The younger children are, the more they learn from INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCES, rather than passive experiences.
Early education must prioritize helping young children to make better, fuller, deeper and more accurate sense of their own experiences.

“Children who are generally disliked, who are aggressive and disruptive, who are unable to sustain close relationships with other children, and who cannot establish for themselves a place in the peer culture are seriously at-risk for the rest of their lives. The elements of social competence are not usually learned through instruction, or lessons, or lecturing, or preaching.

“Scolding or preaching about being ‘nice’ is the wrong content for relationships between adults and children.”                       

~ Dr. Lilian Katz


We must empower students to collaboratively solve problems and challenges.
When the natural and healthy instinct to solve challenges is consistently interrupted with lectures and pre-packaged answers, frustration mounts.

Even very young children resist being told what to do, how to think, and how to behave all of the time. Children are, though, completely open to, and interested in, collaborative problem solving around challenges that matter to their own well-being.  It is an instinctive/primitive approach to real learning which, by the way, is conclusively validated by contemporary brain science.  Putting into action, which includes giving personal voice to, personal understanding is one of the most efficient approaches to building real understanding that is really used.

Neuronal connections that can save lives

Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain, located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… putting the pre-frontal cortex at a serious disadvantage for responding in the most well-reasoned and appropriate ways.

A physiological explanation for emotional responses hijacking reasoned responses.
The emotional response area of the brain (limbic system / amygdala) receives incoming signals 10 x sooner than the rational area of the brain (pre-frontal cortex).

The result, when mindfulness practices and shared-thinking opportunities are experienced on a regular basis: walls of separation and isolation are dismantled,  while connections between students’ prefrontal cortex (executive functioning) and amygdala are strengthened – due to an increase of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), the calming neurotransmitter. Emotions are still felt, but they no longer have the power to consume, because neuronal connections to constructive options have been physically built up in the ‘hard-wiring’ of the brain … something lectures are incapable of accomplishing.

“Neuroscience tells us that positive emotions are generated in the brain when students develop their own ideas.”      – Prof. James Zull

Real solutions exist, AND THEY NEED TO BE IMPLEMENTED NOW!
The feeling of belonging cannot be taught, but it CAN and must be experienced.
Young students need to directly experience being acknowledged and feeling that they belong.

Young students need to directly experience feeling included, feeling that they belong … and we need to accept our responsibility to consistently provide those types of nurturing experiences in order to neutralize the toxic build-up of anger that is so impossibly, heartbreakingly destructive.

Surprisingly Successful Approach for Students’ Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning: Blank Slate Theory vs. Innate Human Potential
Teach Smarter, Not Harder, to Increase Students’ Social Emotional Learning

Socrates and John Locke are influential philosophers separated by 2,000 years. They are also separated by very different assessments of inborn human capabilities.

When educators want to succeed at students’ mastery of numbers and the alphabet, Locke’s “Blank Slate Theory” is completely relevant and valid. But Locke’s perspective that young children lack humane instincts, valid insights, reasoning abilities, and collaborative problem solving skills evaporates when held against experience-based research and current brain science.

It’s more than obvious to anyone who lives or works with very young children, that each is born with personal likes and dislikes. Research at major universities confirms the fact that children also come into the world with the very skills and capacities necessary for successfully navigating the social-emotional challenges presented by their own personal likes and dislikes.

The theory of mind that young children acquire in preschool years provides conceptual foundation for metacognitive skills required in school.
Research shows that shared-thinking experiences create better learners. Metacognitive skills are initially developed during preschool years.

Research also shows that by age 4 – under the right circumstances – children are (1) willing and able to communicate ideas and feelings, (2) listen to peers’ ideas and feelings. They are also more than willing and able (3) to adapt what they discover about peers’ ideas and feelings to improve their own responses / interactions, for everyone’s benefit, including their own, rather than just their own benefit – without repetitive interventions from adults. 

Perspective-Taking Skill Shapes Social Emotional Success

Perspective-taking in visual form.

We’ve all got our own perspective. Each has some degree of  validity, but perhaps not the whole picture. Perspective-taking, which includes but is not limited to empathy, is the #1 skill with the greatest potential to shape the most broadly beneficial outcomes in business, politics, and religions; in other words, perspective-taking is the most significant foundation of any successful interaction. Enabling and empowering 4 and 5 year olds to connect with, and exercise, their natural born perspective-taking skills results in measurable social emotional learning and development. Established tools like play and team sports create the interactions that help young children see the world from others’ perspective and provides spontaneous opportunities to exercise and apply their ‘hard-wired’ perspective-taking skills.

Facilitated, intentional shared-thinking opportunities provide educators with an easy-to-implement format for teaching smarter, not harder by expanding beyond the happenstance of play and sports to accelerate and coalesce  social emotional learning.

The Kids’ Own Wisdom Approach

So how do educators provide young students with the numerous advantages of perspective-taking without adding excess preparation and work to their days? 

In the next 7 blog posts about Social Emotional Learning we will describe:
  1. Why facilitation is educators’ easiest and most successful approach to developing students’ social emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
  2. Three benefits of developing learners’ self-awareness and self-trust.
  3. Brain science of self-regulation for learners’ accountability and agency.
  4. How to build belonging in the classroom, which includes both shy and challenging children.
  5. Why the communication that happens without words, is as powerful as words, and why young children need to share this understanding.
  6. How to create SEL opportunities that release neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, emotions, attention and focus.
  7. The school readiness benefits of consistently exercising young children’s critical thinking and collaborative problem-solving skills.

4-Year Olds Are Ready for SOCIAL – EMOTIONAL LEARNING

Social-Emotional Learning for 4 Year Olds Does Not Have to be Hard!
Shared-Thinking Circle Times for 4-year old’s Social-Emotional Learning
By the age of 4, kids are ready to share with peers, in circle time, how much they know and how self-sufficiently they can choose behaviors that work best for everyone!  They just need (and want) to be respectfully and appropriately challenged!
Kids also want and need to be acknowledged for what they understand, what they perceive as real, true and valid … and they need to express what they understand with their own words … with a group of peers … in neutral shared-thinking class time opportunities – facilitated by adults who, just during these times, do not have the intention to be teaching, but instead have the intention to give all of their attention.
Young Children Have a Natural Need for Quality Attention
How many times have you read or heard about children ‘just behaving this way or that for attention?’ As if their efforts to gain your attention were a negative. Turns out that the more we learn about all the elements of healthy early childhood development, the more we come to appreciate the value of honoring children’s basic instincts, such as their natural need for quality attention.
Validating Proof from History and Human Biology
After World War II, orphans living in a clean, hygienic and basically attentive facility did not thrive. In fact, almost half of infants died, despite apparently having all basic needs met. It turned out that the infants needed at least one meaningful relationship with a caring, and involved adult in order to survive, grow and thrive. Since then, we have learned that Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released in a manner directly proportional to the amount of caring attention children receive.
Quality of Teacher’s Attention Matters
It is now clearly understood that the quality of the attention children receive from their educators more often than not gives rise to repeated behaviors, as compared to ignored or unnoticed behaviors.  Sooooo … if we are giving our attention – yes, just simply our undivided attention – when kids are thinking together about positive and constructive solutions and outcomes to which they can all relate, surely it should come as no surprise that those solutions rapidly translate into behaviors by the children who – in constructive collaboration – gave voice to those solutions.
Constructive collaboration opportunities prepare children for future successes.
Young children welcome constructive collaboration opportunities.

Problem Solving is a Requirement for Children’s Real Learning!

Problem solving = real learning.
Problem solving. Discovery. Expressing ideas. Exploring. Constructing knowledge.

Young children, even very young children, need consistent opportunities to wrestle with age-appropriate challenges, conundrums, complications, obstacles, issues and “big fat botherations.”

Why?

BEWARE: Obvious answer ahead… because life is full of problems (always has been ~ always will be) and resisting them, complaining about them, or running away from them is just no way to live.

What kinds of problems do children need to solve?
Empathy cannot be forced or taught, but it can be evoked.
Does making kids share make them generous?

SHARING & INCLUDING, for starters:  Kids don’t always want to share. They don’t always want to include others, either… BUT kids do always want others to share with them, and they do always want to be included. How do we, their teachers, put those two seemingly irreconcilable opposites together?

ANSWER: We enable children to discover their own solutions by asking them the kinds of questions that get them thinking, together, in fresh ways (with fresh perspectives) about old familiar problems.

If we’re going to really succeed at supporting our students in resolving their own challenges, then we must view our role from a big-picture point of view, rather than attempting to implement immediate ‘fixes’ or behavior modifications. Kids need help with honestly exploring their own and others’ feelings about challenging situations that are oh-so-familiar.  Children need gentle *guidance (where to look, but not what to see) in order to understand that all kids in their group feel pretty much the same when it comes to sharing.   (*Guidance is best achieved with the right kinds of questions that invite kids, within peer group discussions, to safely express themselves and listen to each other, in a non-judgmental setting.)

The more kids learn and experience how much they genuinely share feelings and understanding, related to a variety of situations, the less alone/shy/isolated they’ll feel, and the stronger will be their sense of belonging to, and being part of, the group. Sharing is easier in that kind of environment. And if not sharing, then shared understanding about why “it’s just too hard to share that last cookie with someone else.” 

Sharing isn't always possible
Sharing isn’t always possible, but understanding each other is a big help.
Communication is key for real problem solving to occur.
Communication is key to problem solving for children.
Collaboration is an essential problem solving tool.

 

Challenging Behaviors in Early Childhood Environments

Challenging behaviors are readily adjusted when kids have opportunities to think together.

Young children, even by age 4, generally have strong reactions to always being told what to do … especially when it comes to their feelings and their interactions with others. Their strong reactions often show up as challenging behavior, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.

From Challenging to Cooperating

The key to successfully creating more cooperation in early childhood environments is to provide young learners with multiple opportunities to discover how much they have in common with peers. This very practical approach is NOT achieved with lectures, books or videos … at least not nearly as effectively as it is achieved with peer group discussions.

We were never blank slates!
"The mind at birth is a blank slate." NOT !!!
According to the old-fashioned way of thinking, children need to be taught EVERYTHING, because they’re ‘blank slates’ at birth.

When children are treated as blank slates, most of them automatically resist.  It’s almost as if they’re wired to resist … but is that such a terrible thing?  Well, sure, it can be, when resistance turns into challenging behavior. But resistance can be interpreted as a signal that children have a solid sense of who they are and how “things” should be. Rather than treating children like blank slates who need to be taught everything, especially when it comes to their behavior, wise educators use relevant peer group discussions as one powerful key to successful turnarounds in their students’ behavior.

Five easy keys to designing successful peer group discussions
  1. Make sure discussions never, ever isolate or point to specific individuals.
  2. Use visual examples of the topic around which you want your students to discover solutions, (Google IMAGES is a great resource for pictures of: pushing, not sharing, pulling cat’s tail, street safety issues, whispering in front of others etc., etc.) but …
  3. … do NOT start discussions about specific behaviors – even though you’re showing a picture of that behavior.  Instead, start discussion with broad where, what, who or how’s the kids will easily succeed at identifying and describing. (Neutral successes are important at this point.)
  4. After a few of those kinds of questions, then everyone is ready to “unpack” what’s going on in the picture you’ve shown them… just be sure the questions are open-ended and non-leading!  If ever the questions you ask are not open-ended, then be quick to follow with, “Why is that your answer?” or “Will you tell us why you think that?”
  5. Paraphrase kids’ answers. Of course, that doesn’t mean ‘parrot’ their answers. It means saying, in your own words, what you think each child said for the purpose of making sure you really understood. (Other benefits of this 5th key: Fully acknowledges each student’s contribution to the discussion.  Keeps you really, reeeeeally listening. Because they’ll be especially interested in how you paraphrase their thoughts, when you add vocabulary-enriching synonyms for their most commonly used words they’ll be paying LOTS of attention.)
Challenging behaviors are readily adjusted when kids have opportunities to think together.
Young children are surprisingly capable of adjusting their own behavior once we STOP telling them what to do …
We all want to belong, and – actually – we all pretty much do… we just need to discover that fact together.

When you get right down to it, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences that separate us. For instance, none of us likes to be interrupted or pushed. None of us really likes to fight or interact with people who don’t consider fairness a value to live by… but …

… trying to reasonably and logically explain that to young kids, who function mostly out of the emotional part of their brains, is rarely – if ever – productive.

The good news is: getting groups of kids engaged in discussions around subjects that really matter to them, with questions that communicate respect for their intelligence and collaborative problem solving abilities …. well, that’s a horse of a different color !!!