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

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.

Mindfulness Practices Change Brains for the BETTER

Mindfulness practice creates positive brain changes that influence the quality of behavior and emotions.
Mindfulness meditation re-routs counter-productive reactivity.

Source: How Mindfulness Meditation Permanently Changes Your Brain | Big Think

Mindfulness practice creates positive brain changes that influence the quality of behavior and emotions.
The amygdala, without the benefit of consistent mindfulness practice, dominates the pre-frontal cortex.

Mindfulness meditation nurtures the brain by decoupling regions that have tended to function together… and generally not very helpfully, except when being chased by tigers and bears, oh my!

Mindfulness meditation, regularly practiced for a just a few minutes a day, creates new neural connections and changes how different regions of the physical brain relate to one another… most specifically the amygdala (the center for fear, anger, and ‘knee jerk’ emotional reactions) and the pre-frontal cortex (the center for logic, reason, executive function responses).

Teachers don’t have to figure it out on their own

There are so many quality resources for bringing mindfulness into the classroom – even for very young students. Consider Thich Nhat Hanh’s many clean and concise offerings.

Mindfulness meditation decouples amygdala (fear+anger) from pre-frontal cortex (exec. function). Everyone benefits.
Mindfulness, regularly brought into young children’s classrooms improves brain function and emotional well being.
quality resources for bringing mindfulness into the classroom
Gentle resources are abundantly available for everyone’s benefit in and out of the classroom.

Although the KIDS’ OWN WISDOM approach does not, specifically, teach mindfulness, there are many parallels in approach and benefits:

  • Providing opportunities to increase students’ awareness of their own (and others’) inner and outer experiences.
  • Recognizing that thoughts are not set in stone – that other options are available, based on free will and best judgment.
  • Engaging in peer group discussions for collaboratively re-evaluating situations and responses, which often, spontaneously, results in impulse control.
  • Increased internal freedom to consciously choose actions and responses over unconscious reactivity.

Regular practice, with either or both approaches, provides measurable short and long term benefits. In other words, Mindfulness practices and Kids’ Own Wisdom shared-thinking experiences are highly compatible and complementary practices for supporting young children’s well-rounded social, emotional and cognitive development.

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.

 

Talking Straight to Children

Healthy brain development for well rounded social emotional interactions.
By Lilian Katz, November 2013

imageNot long ago I went to my physician for my annual check up. You all know what that’s like—not exactly fun!

I must have been about the 12th woman he had seen by that afternoon. As he entered the room, he said to me: “Well, Mrs. Katz, do you get a chance to get out of the house sometimes?” Not exactly the question or comment I was expecting! I calmly pointed out that I had just returned yesterday from Washington, DC, and last week from Houston and the week before that from Northern Ireland, and so forth!!!

The incident made me think that probably all occupations that involve human interactions develop clichés or standardized and routine phrases to be used during the day for regular tasks, and that these come with the job. I was reminded of that by one of my grandsons who worked for a while at his local supermarket and complained that he said maybe 1,000 times per day “Did you find everything you wanted?” and told me that by the 20th time, he really didn’t care!!

As I visit and observe teachers of young children in many different kinds of programs around the country, I am always dismayed by how frequently they move around the classroom and say to children things such as “Awesome,” “Good Job,” “Keep going…”, “That’s going well…”, and so forth.

Other clichés that come with the job are directions given to children such as “You need to sit still,” “You need to turn around,” “You need to listen,” and so forth. But children’s needs are not relevant in these kinds of situations; the teacher is trying to convey his or her wish that the child behave in a certain way. It would be more honest and meaningful, as well as realistic and clear, to say something such as “Please sit still” or “Please turn around” and then move on with the really important content of the moment.

It worries me that so few teacher-child contacts are continuous interactions. Recent evidence suggests that such meaningful continuous contingent interactions from very early in life throughout the first five or six years stimulate very important neurological development that must be accomplished by roughly about the age of 6.

So, as teachers of young children, let’s take occasional opportunities to remind ourselves that the children need informative feedback with real meaning—not every five minutes, but as appropriate occasions arise, in contexts that can provoke continuous exchanges called conversations. Sometimes a participant in a conversation just nods or smiles as the sequence continues. But it is clear to all participants what the others mean. Engaging in such intentional interactions may mean that we have to keep the total amount of interaction lower to enable more real and informative responses rather than clichés.

So let’s keep in mind that frequent and empty phrases may just be a risk of our profession that we should watch out for.

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