Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Reflection on Co-Counseling

Reiko and I recently took an 8-week long co-counseling workshop, which focused on the fundamental theory behind co-counseling.  Reiko's reflection (below) includes a review of some of the basic concepts that guide the practice of co-counseling; what follows is my own interpretation of what we learned and how it connects to the work of the teachers and parents who make up our community.

Firstly, I saw similarities between co-counseling sessions and our role as teachers at Tumbleweed.  Co-counselors are asked to refrain from offering advice or relating to what the "client" is sharing; they are expected to simply listen, to celebrate the client and to wholeheartedly believe that they are a beautiful and rich spirit, no matter what the client is feeing in the moment.  This positive emotional regard is perceptible, yet the counselor presents herself neutrally; there is no need to frequently offer verbal affirmation or support.  The counselor embodies this emotional regard in a way that makes her seem available and present, without overpowering the situation.  This reminded me of our goal as teachers at Tumbleweed.  We strive to maintain a warm, available presence with the children, while also giving them space to learn and explore in their own way.  We trust the children to show us exactly where they are in their process of learning, emoting, and developing.  We build trust with them so that they feel confident that we will accept them just as they are - we won't push, take control, or shut down a child, even when we feel the urge to jump in and "fix" something.  

Maintaining this presence can be challenging.  Adults tend to be averse to mess and conflict, so we must constantly remind ourselves to create space for children to work through things at their own speed.  It is equally challenging not to provide constant encouragement to someone who is sharing deeply personal struggles.  Most of us equate talking with being present - it shows we're paying attention and engaging with others.  Though it seemed odd at first, maintaining silence in a counseling session was refreshing for everyone and gave the client enough space to process in their own time.

Occasionally counselors will ask a question or provide a bit of encouragement, but these words are always carefully catered to the client's needs.  When we got a chance to practice counseling others, we discovered how tricky it can be to figure out when it is appropriate to interject with our own words; this reminded me of being in the classroom and watching everyone's signals carefully to determine whether my voice is needed, or whether I should continue to quietly observe.  It's not always clear (and sometimes you make mistakes), but eventually you learn the rhythm.  I enjoyed hearing our workshop leaders place so much value on this type of quiet presence and I often reflect on our discussions while I am in the classroom with the children. 

A large part of the workshop was dedicated to identifying our own personal struggles, thereby learning about the psychological theory behind the practice of co-counseling.  As Reiko writes,  the main focus of co-counseling is on our childhood; in class, we talked about how many of the issues we face as adults have their roots in our youth, when we may have experienced oppression, neglect, or ridicule.  There are many ways in which individuals are systematically patterned to believe that certain people or characteristics are more desirable than others, and so children gradually learn that they are "good" or "bad" at any number of things.  The intent behind co-counseling is to expose these childhood lessons for what they are:  damaging, baseless nonsense.  This is most often accomplished over the course of multiple sessions in which you speak, uninterrupted by your counselor, for a specified length of time. 

I uncovered a few things like this from my own past over the course of the workshop - patterns of communication from my parents, teachers, and friends that made me feel inadequate or unworthy as a young child and adolescent.  Some of the things that came to light were subtle, others more obvious.  In class, we discussed how insidious oppression can be because it occurs on so many levels, both public and private, and because children who are raised under oppressive circumstances don't know any differently - they believe that they are deserving of whatever they are experiencing.  It was remarkable to watch as each person in the room identified someone or something they hadn't thought of as being an oppressive force until they were asked to really reflect on it.  We so readily internalize these messages that we are not smart enough, creative enough, strong enough, etc.  Though we see others as possessing all of these qualities, we cannot overcome the doubts we have about our own worth.  

Our co-counseling discussions reignited my motivation in the classroom.  Everyday I think about how badly I want every child I know to grow up believing that they are capable, complete, wonderfully intelligent beings.  I know that the parents and teachers that make up the Tumbleweed (and greater early childhood development) community feel the same way.  This is what guides our work and what maintaining that accepting, warm presence is all about.  I am available when the children need me, but I trust them.  I trust them to be problem-solvers and creative thinkers - strong individuals who possess the capacity to achieve absolutely anything they ever set out to do.  I have the great honor of witnessing their growth and giving them all I have to offer in the way of love and support.  We might not be able to vanquish every oppressive force in a child's life, but as parents and teachers we have such a unique and powerful opportunity to help our children see the truth about themselves - that they are perfect just as they are!

Thank you to Allies: People to People for a wonderfully insightful course.  We appreciated the opportunity to enrich our perspectives and we value the positive impact you've had on our work at Tumbleweed!

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