We consistently observe that children love attention, but have we ever analyzed what’s underneath that obvious fact?Since the answer is in this brief article’s title, I’ll say no more on that. I will, though, emphasize the need to analyze the quality of our attention on children.
When our attention is complete and undivided, how do we imagine the impact will be on children’s feelings of being valued?If the answer to that question doesn’t come straightaway, can you reference your own childhood, and the quality of attention you received, to gain insight?
For uncountable reasons, attention on others cannot always be pure and undivided, but moments (yes, just moments) – every day – can and do have deeply nourishing impact … especially when those moments have nothing to do with situations that require corrections which, unfortunately, are the most common times our attention is undivided. Let’s see if we can stretch our pure and undivided attention ‘windows’ to include neutral, happy and constructive moments.
A few more important elements: words aren’t necessary. In fact, they’re sometimes a distraction, with their labeling and ‘boxing’ effects.Just be consistent and uncomplicated, then notice the effects over time.
Parkland’s shooting is the most recent reminder that we have a chronic anger problem in our country.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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.
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!
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.
How do we prepare students, even very young students, to constructively engage with the world they’re growing into? As educators, we must activate and exercise students’ thinking skills many times every day. Not, of course, in overly serious ways, because children must be allowed to develop at a natural pace through the stages of childhood.
Exercising Thinking Skills Can Be Fun and Relevant
Fortunately, there are ways to exercise children’s thinking skills in ways that directly improve their own day-to-day lives.
With the right kinds of questions (and zero lecturing), young children’s thinking skills can be exercised, so those skills naturally become stronger. Questions can and should be about familiar topics – like, how to: √ treat animals, √ play fairly, √ get someone’s attention. The right kinds of questions (non-leading and open-ended) will draw upon children’s hardwired honesty, common sense, and ability to empathize.
By the time students are in middle school they have become much less likely to ask questions around everyday elements of their lives. Why? Too embarrassing to appear ‘dumb.’ No problem. We, as their educators, can present topics of discussion for the entire class, with directives on how to discover the most trustworthy answers. (DIRECT BENEFITS: Everyone saves “face,” while gaining the benefits of what they need to learn.)
How do we get students thinking about the ramifications of their online communications, without lecturing? Peer group discussions with, again, non-leading and open-ended questions helps to bring issues “into the light,” without putting anyone on the defensive. When students consistently receive opportunities to think together, they will come to conclusions, and even solutions, that work for everyone. Can you think of a better way to prepare them for developing the sophisticated problem-solving skills they’ll need as adults?