Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Fully Human with Full Emotions

Communication and the words we use during our day with the children at Tumbleweed, can be a rich opportunity to offer ways to connect, process feelings, and even build neural pathways. It is also an important way to hone in on what we consider the important work in early childhood in regards to supporting emotional intelligence, relationship building skills, and identity work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the words I use to describe anything to the children in my care.  I spend my days thinking and re-thinking through everything - it’s how my mind works and a powerful tool in building my skill and wisdom as a teacher. Recently I began to notice when talking to the children that at times I added a word or two to my communication which may indirectly minimize the emotion and activity of the children. I started to notice that I would say phrases like, “just”, “a little”, and other qualifying phrases when I was either describing a child’s emotional state or their behavior.

  You’re feeling a little angry”

You’re just tired”

“They gave you a little push”

When I stepped back to really analyze my intention, I realized that these small words carry a heavy weight. It also brought to mind the ideal of childism, an often systematic condition that is prejudicial and/or discriminatory towards children. I recently came across an article regarding this topic, which was so beautifully explained by Sara from Happiness Is Here blog:

You can likely see examples of childism every time you step out of the house or open up the internet. Every day, in many ways, children receive the message that they are less important, less deserving of respect, unequal, and inferior, whether we mean to send that message or not. It is so ingrained into our society the majority don’t even recognize it.”

This makes me wonder: How do our words, even our unintentional ones, make the emotions and actions children experience small and inconsequential?  How can we start to see children as fully human from birth with a full range of emotions?

The natural answer for me was returning to Magda Gerber, founder of RIE, who talks about using tools like, sportscasting what you see children doing, integrating ideas of mindfulness, being objective and non-judgmental, being an active observer vs active participant, noticing emotions and actions as I see them, and modeling my own emotions and actions honestly and truthfully. So by removing the qualifying words, it transformed my communication with the children to come from a place of truth and reflection: 

You are feeling sad.”
You are angry that your tower got knocked over.”
“They hit you! I can see that made you feel _______ (frustrated, angry, etc).”

Observing and verbally reflecting, while giving space for their unique feelings and experiences is the best way for us to support healthy, emotional intelligence.  Our goal always is to show the children in our care that, “I hear you, I see you, I accept you.” That there is no emotion that is too powerful that we cannot handle, and we will give them the best way to process and learn how this is part of their identity.

The Brain House: Building Strong Foundations for Emotional Intellegence

This past month I have read and reread the book No Drama Discipline by Dr. Dan Siegel. I was amazed by what I was reading and upon finishing the book I had two immediate thoughts: every new parent should be handed this book and any person working in the education sector in any capacity should be required to read this. This book explains how the brain develops, how it works and how to relate and support children as they learn to identify, deal with, and learn from their emotions. The book provides concrete examples and lessons so the reader has a healthier understanding of what children are facing on the inside. It shows how to connect with them, help them to feel safe and how to become proficient in teaching the most effective lessons.

It can be frustrating when it seems there is nothing you can do to get through to a child, you’ve exhausted every last consequence (positive or negative) and you resort to punishing your child and maybe even engaging  in behavior you aren’t proud of. I will be the first to say that it is hard to admit defeat with a child and it makes you feel completely powerless. It can become argument after argument with and sometimes asked myself, “Why can’t they just listen?”. After trying countless teaching practices and numerous discipline approaches it has become fairly clear to me that when emotions are high it is impossible to have clear communication. While a child is in a state where they are consumed by their feelings, their actions are emotionally driven. If we fight back with emotion it will only escalate the situation.

Mindfulness is something we talk about often and this is a great opportunity to take a step back and breathe. Practicing mindfulness with children is important so that when situations arise they are able to self soothe. In No Drama Discipline Siegel talks about the "upstairs" brain (neocortex - our thinking brain)  and "downstairs" brain (the limbic system - our feelings brain), and sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings such as fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens it is confusing for children. If they are operating from their "downstairs" and you are trying to talk to them "upstairs" they won't hear you.
Giving children ways to make sense of what's happening in their brain is so important, but this is a lot of information for them to process. I like to create stories to better help them understand. For example: I will use characters that live in a house together, some upstairs and some down. I tend to give them silly names like frightened Fred and calming Carl but maybe you can think of your own names with your child. The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. 
Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. Using similar vocabulary so they can get acquainted with it, and practicing mindfulness activities are great ways to get started.

I would love to hear of ways you may explore the brain with your child!