Tagged: Reflection

Awareness as an Anxiety Antidote

When the past and the future are out of mind the present is available. That’s why our breath is such a wonderful tool. Our breath is here now. Breathing is what we do in the moment. There is consistency and certainty in our breath. While we live and breath, our breath reliably moves in and out of our lungs. Unlike the many less connected facets of our daily lives that drive uncertainty and plague us with worry, doubt and fear, we can depend on our breath for comfort. 

When we focus on our breath we are focusing on our vitality. In that way, we can use our breath to be aware of reality in real time. Because anxiety is often based on unfounded, even fantasized accounts of the past and fictionalized predictions about the future, awareness of reality in real time can counterbalance it (anxiety, that is). 

Habitual awareness can serve as an extended antidote, diminishing the worry, stress and myriad other negative impacts associate with habitual anxiety. We are each already in the habit of breathing. Broadening the habit to a focus on our breath as we breath can have immediate positive implications on our behavior and long-term positive implications on our well-being.  

Over the past couple of decades I’ve exerted considerable effort and spent loads of time exploring and practicing strategies aimed at finding calm in the eye of the storm. So much time and effort that you’d think I’ve perfected it. Yeah, right. Come to find out, while most of what I’ve learned and relearned is based on a combination of awareness and common sense, it may still be a lifelong pursuit. Even as you read this reflection you may well recognize I’m not referring to anything you don’t already know. Especially if that’s the case, you also understand that knowledge and practice often sit at distance ends of a deep divide.  

That said, in my experience (and according to every philosophy, methodology or program dealing with problem solving, crisis management or deescalation I’ve ever come across) calm continuously surfaces as the ideal posture for maximizing safety, productivity and progress during stressful events or periods of time. Calm is a catalyst to well-being. 

This exploration of calm has been based in large part on the path I tread as a husband, a parent and an educator, it’s predicated on a desire I’ve long held to relieve the feelings of worry and stress I periodically (and sometimes habitually) fall into, and it is now proving as important and opportune as ever during a time when I see and feel a great deal of anxiety swirling around me, seeming to have a deep and determined impact on an enormous swath of the children I serve and the adults I partner with in that service. 

With the world on it’s side in so many ways, I often find myself wondering if now is the ideal time for simplicity. The challenge is, simplicity isn’t easy.

Timelines and obligations are real. The sun rises and sets, and in between those two events we do have to get certain things accomplished. How much time, though, do we spend toiling in worry? How frequently do we think about and relive our regrets, fret over the lack of progress we’re making on a task or a project, or doubt our ability to meed a target date? How often do we stand by while that thinking, reliving, fretting and doubting seizes our minds and our hearts? How much time do we spend outside of ourselves, watching as we perpetuate extended cycles of worry? 

What if we used the same amount, or even a fraction of that time for a focus on awareness? Without even considering a shift in how we feel or how we behave, could a simple shift in how we watch and listen to ourselves support increased well-being? 

What if instead of perceiving ourselves from the outside, as spectators, we intentionally kept and eye on ourselves from the inside? What if we zeroed in on our thoughts and feelings by way of a straight forward, pretense-free focus on our breath, even thoughts of and feeling around worry and stress? What if we accepted and attended to those thoughts and feelings with curiosity and kindness, not asking why but rather how it feels to feel the way we feel? 

Instead of considering what we can do to feel better, what if we could be calm and aware enough to simply ask ourselves to identify details about the thoughts and feelings we have while we are having them? What if a focus on our breath could help us? What if being aware could promote genuine learning and growth? A simple (not easy) path that, with practice and dedication might have the potential for prolonged and universal application and impact. By the way, as you know, breath as mindfulness tool is a centuries old concept that has had an incredibly  meaningful impact on the history and progress of humanity, across a multitude of regions, cultures and theologies.

Dr. Judson Brewer wrote a wonderfully thoughtful and well-researched book called, “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to heal Your Mind.” In it, he points to habit loops through a reward-based learning paradigm as the basis for persistent entrenchment in anxiety. He recalls anecdotes from his research lab and clinic and puts forward simplified explanations of neuroscience to point out how we get ourselves stuck in habit loops through triggers, which catalyze behaviors and produce results that trick our brains into thinking some relief is at hand.

For example, if I wake up in the middle of the night feeling panicked about the uncertainly of a busy week ahead I might start making mental plans or checking emails. While planning and checking emails may give me a moment of relief and distraction from the worry, those behaviors are also likely to open the floodgates of stress and trip the signal wire for a worry habit loop. Dr. Brewer might map it like this:

Trigger: Middle of the night panic

Behavior: Planning/checking emails

Result: Temporary relief from immediate worry/perpetuation of extended stressfulness and possible trigger for additional feelings of panic

Alternatively, I could focus on my breathing (consistent and comforting) and turn into the  feelings of panic with awareness, curiosity and kindness, asking my mind, my heart and my body to describe what they’re feeling. I could live in the moment, accepting the situation, exploring what’s happening, allowing myself to spend time with with the panicky feelings, and providing my brain with some important data about how I process stressful situations.

I may not magically feel relieved from the panic and be able to quickly go back to sleep, but in theory, this alternative behavior could help me find pathways to breaking worry habit loops, not necessarily because I’m searching for those pathways, but simply because I’m developing a deepened understanding of myself and my capacities. Again, not easy but simple. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the mindfulness standard “Wherever you go, there you are, reminds us that while being aware (specifically through the practice of mindfulness) is challenging work, it is worthwhile and growth-producing in that, “it literally allows us to see more clearly, and therefore come to understand more deeply, that which we were out of touch with or unwilling to look at (p.8).”

We are living through waves of trauma. If you, your kids or anyone around you are experiencing negative impacts from situational or extended anxiety, an intentional and dedicated focus on awareness through mindful breathing could be a step in the right direction. None of us wants to suffer. We are better for ourselves, the kids we serve and the adults we serve with when we’re clear-headed and calm. Face the challenges, celebrate the triumphs and approach stumbles and roadblocks with forgiveness and loving kindness, for yourself and others. 

It’s a journey for us all. One step at a time, with intentionality and togetherness we are strong. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

…and take.

We’ve been giving for while now. Parents and educators, we’ve spent the last couple of years pouring ourselves into finding ways to provide safe spaces within which our kids can learn and grow. We’re happy to do it and we will continue. Still, it’s hard…something we don’t always admit or take into account. 

We’ve tried with all our might to provide our kids with consistency and routine. We’ve found ways to let them be kids during a time that we didn’t see coming and often struggle to understand. We’ve seen the world shift in unthinkable ways. We’ve all been washed over by waves of trauma. Still, we continue to employ every ounce of our energy on behalf of a joyful and balanced childhood for our children. 

Through cavernous ebbs and unrestrained flows, we’ve realized that there has always been good to find, and with that realization we continue to find it. We’ve faced challenges with courage and grace, and we’ve celebrate triumphs with delight. I have no doubt that we will carry in this way. Our children are in good hands. I believe that with our love, guidance and support they will endure and become a generation of resilience like no other. 

Ironically, in this season of giving, I would suggest it’s now time to take.

Parents and educators, take a breath. Take a moment to relax. The work will be there when we return to school in the new year. 

Take self-care seriously. Start that routine you’ve been meaning to start. Get into a habit. Exercise each day. Take a walk. Take time to prepare healthy food and eat with meals with your friends and family. Take the liberty to eat some meals by yourself if you’d like. Enjoy every bite. Take trips to places you love. Take a nap. Take a step out of your door when the sun is shining, just to feel the warmth on your face.

These days can be wild and fast. A break is a blessing. Whatever urge pulls you to linger in hurried thoughts, whatever sense tries to trick you into sleepless nights, whatever confusion attempts to distract you, deny it. Deny it all. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to twist, turn and toil again very soon. For now, take what you know you need. Take what you know will help you continue to be strong in the coming days, weeks and months. 

Just like we give tirelessly for the kids we serve, take for them now. It will benefit them as much as it will you. It will allow you to regenerate into your best self. It’s time for balance. In the great give and take of this extraordinary ride, it’s time to take.

Thanks for reading…in it tougether for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

When It’s Just You And Me I Feel Like I Won Something

The end of the year and the holiday season can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. There’s so much to do, we’re exhausted, and let’s face it parents, guardians and educators…we have really high expectations of ourselves (sometime unrealistically high). I know a way to help relieve some of the stress of the end of the year, holiday season emotional rollercoaster. The challenge is, in order for it to work, you have to actually do it. 

Cast your mind to something that brings you joy. Imagine you’re in a place where you experience peace and balance. No matter what struggles persist in any given moment, we all have memories of good things. 

Is it making pancakes with your kids on a snowy Sunday morning? Is it a walk with your dog on a lazy afternoon? Is it the first sip of an excellent cup of coffee as you prepare to start the day? 

Time is generally short, but you should be able to manage a moment here and there for quite reflection. Our thoughts do guide our feelings, and our feelings do guide our actions. Rather than slowing you down or hindering progress toward your goals, stopping every now and again can steady your pace, enhance your resolve and bring you closer to achievement. When you do stop, do it with purpose. 

Have you found that moment of joy? Can you envision that peaceful, balanced place? Bring yourself there. Feel how it feels. Let yourself sink into it. Set a timer if you think you might get lost. It really only takes a moment. 

A moment of feeling positive emotion, connecting yourself with something meaningful, and engaging in mindfulness can fuel an extended burst of energy. Periodic moments of this type of mindfulness can generate consistent productivity and increase well-being. 

For example, last night our 7-year-old and I decided to take a trip to the skating rink Campus Martius. The two of us spent that day together. We started by making breakfast, we went for a walk, we baked a cake (which took most of the afternoon) and finally we drove downtown for an ice skating adventure. 

As tired as we were from a jam packed day, he was so enthusiastic about going downtown. I thought he was being fueled by the excited vision of gliding around the rink immersed in the glowing, downtown holiday energy. I think I thought wrong. 

As we pulled out of the driveway and headed off together he said, “Daddy?”

I said, “Ya, Buddy?”

Then he exploded my heart by telling me, “When it’s just you and me I feel like I won something.”

Even though you weren’t there you can imagine how that landed? Joy, peace and balance. A wonderful feeling. A moment of overwhelming emotion. A feeling you can’t exactly describe, and at the same time one you understand with an uncanny depth. One you wish you could hold onto forever. Euphoric. 

I was elated. I replied, “Me too, Bud. I defiantly won the prize of being your dad.”

To which he added, “…and I won the prize of being your kid.”

Aah.

There’s one. It’s a gift he gave me. I can recall that moment and feel uplifted whenever I’d like. Uplifted by generating the feeling of spending meaningful time with loved ones, celebrating togetherness, focusing on the heart rather than the mind, and on the who rather than the what or the where. I own that feeling. It’s mine to call on.

Through the triumphs and the challenges of daily life in a fast paced world we each own some such moments. Hold on to them. Write them down if you have to. Keep and recall them periodically. You don’t have to be feeing down, stressed or overwhelmed to enlist a mindful moment, either. Remembering that which brings us joy, peace and balance is a good practice no matter how we’re feeling. You can use it to lift you out of a funk or to keep you moving along when you’re light on your feet. 

Stay connected to the best parts of the journey and you will stay connected to what truly matters. Memories are only memories because they were initiated in the past. In fact, if you allow them to, they can stay with you in the present, through the emotions they generate. 

Feel and allow yourself to connect with your feelings. Use memories of positive emotion to drive continue positive emotion and well-being. If you try and fail, forgive yourself and try again. Give yourself grace during this time and throughout the year. You, and those around you, will be better off for it.

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Don’t Yuck Someone Else’s Yum

We were sitting at the dinner table the other day when a dish was served that was beyond the ability for our pickier eaters to understand. I don’t remember if there were onions on a burger or tomatoes on a slice of pizza. Regardless, our 7-year-old was digging in with a huge smile on his face. Yum, yum, yum.

After a few bites he turned to one of his big brothers and offered a taste. The offer he was met with a wrinkled up face and a reply laden with pure disgust. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

The little guy quickly fired back with, “Don’t yuck someone else yum.”

I stopped in my tracks. 

“Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” I love it. 

This time it applied to food, but that’s not the foundation of the message. I found out later that he learned if from his incredible first grade teacher. It means just what you think it means. 

We all have different tastes, we all have different views of the world, and while there are some universal joys we experience, we are each unique. We are all always well served when we recognize, support, encourage and celebrate one another. When our minds and hearts are open, our connections are genuine. When our connections are genuine, we are strong. 

So, don’t yuck someone else’s yum. Instead, lift them up, let them know you value them even if you don’t agree or understand. Build collective strength for the benefit and wellbeing of both of you. Strong, happy people perpetuate strong, happy communities…and that benefits everyone.

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

The Beauty of Weeds

A few days ago our 12-year-woke up and got dressed, only to discovered that his pant legs seemed a bit shorter than they were the day before. He walked out of his bedroom, looked up at me and said, “Dad, I think I grew last night while I was sleeping.”

He pointed to his ankles and added, “See?”

I did see. I agreed, “Wow, buddy…nice work.”

He laughed, bounced up and down a bit and headed to his closet to find some pants that fit. It’s fun to grow, and this kid is growing like a weed.

While growing is fun for kids, it reminds adults that time flies. When we blink, we run the risk of missing some of it. The challenge is that there’s so much to do and there never seems to be enough time. 

Additionally, much of what we do is done so that we can provide for our kids. The most important thing is that our kids know they’re loved, but they do also need food, clothes, a roof over their heads, and much more. Some of the things they need require us to be away from them some of the time.

We’ve all experienced the missing of moments.

Perspective. 

Growing like a weed is good because it means our kids are healthy. It’s also challenging, because it also shows us there’s nothing we can, or should try to do to slow this train down. 

This week I was standing with a partner at school, looking out the window where a kindergarten students was running around the field collecting dandelions. At a certain point in the spring the Berg front lawn is covered with dandelions. We’ve chosen not to use chemicals for a weed-free yard (no judgment, just a personal choice). 

Each year as I watch every other patch of grass in the neighborhood grown lush and green, I lament that ours is speckled with yellow. I do everything I can to keep it short enough to minimize the reality of a weed-speckled yard. In the end, there’s no escaping it, and there’s no hiding it.

Looking out that window, my partner commented, “Aren’t dandelions amazing?”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

She said, “Well, look at how much joy they bring. They’re the first bouquet our children gather, and because they come early, they’re the first opportunity for bees to get pollen.”

She smiled and continue watching the student pick and arrange. The child had an enormous smile on her face and a look of determination and pride in her eyes. My partner went on, “I don’t understand whey some people worry about dandelions so much. So what if they’re weeds, they’re still amazing!” It didn’t take much for me see the point. I smiled with a newfound appreciation for weeds. 

Perspective. 

Parents and educators, it’s ok to feel nostalgic and even sad as we watch our kids grow, with the realization that in some ways they’re growing away from us. We love them and we want to keep them near. However, their growth is the point. It’s the endgame and the mission of every step along the way. 

Thinking of the joy that dandelions bring to the child gathering her first bouquet gave me pause. It brought me to a place where I could celebrate our 12-year-old’s pant legs getting shorter. It had me seeing through a “glass half-full” lens, thrilled that he’s healthy and excited about the journey he’s on…remembering that everything I do is aimed at his wellbeing, achievement and independence. 

I don’t think it will ever be easy, but when I shift that lens and consider the wonder of my kids flourishing, even and especially when I realize it means they will eventually no longer be kids, I feel happy. 

Two years into a pandemic and ten weeks into a school year where we’re successfully providing our children the opportunity to be learning at school with their teachers and friends, we can take a deep breath, be present in each moment, and celebrate the hard work we’re putting in. Our aim is true and we’re getting it right…for them. 

Weeds and all, congratulations on steadfastly focusing on the kids…whatever it takes. The next time you have to order new pants or new shoes because your child grew our of them overnight, consider feeling joyful and patting yourself on the back. Consider letting it remind you that you’re doing great!

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Relaxation Time

This week I had the opportunity to spend some time as a guest teacher in music and art classes. I’m not a music teacher or an art teacher, but I do appreciate both disciplines, and both music and art play significant roles in my life. So I enlisted my experience with and knowledge of each, and I thought about how the creative arts bring joy and balance into my life as I prepared to teach.

When I was a child my parents enrolled me in piano lessons. I never became a virtuoso, but I gained enough understanding to be able to connect with the keys in a way that produces sound some might consider music. Occasionally I sit at the piano, produce that sound and find myself entering into and enjoying a state of mind research around well-being would identify as a “flow.” It’s a state of mind that can engender pathways to focus and calm.

In each music class I spent some time playing the piano as the kids rested. I asked them to aim at letting the music guide their thinking. I wasn’t sure how it would go. It went well. It especially went well with our youngest learners. Kindergarten and first grade students in each class allowed themselves to dive deep into the activity. The room became still and calm each time I facilitated this process. They seemed to have an aptitude for mindfulness. Moreover, they seemed to have an interest in it.

The day after my short tenure as a music teacher I received a note that described an extension of the meditation activity. A parent wrote to her child’s teacher and the teacher forwarded the note to me. She wrote that her first grader came home from school talking about having “relaxation time” in music class. She went on to share that they recreated the activity before bedtime with some music and guidance on relaxation. According to her report, the child said, “This feels nice, we should do this every night.”

I believe we all should do this every night, or during each day if it fits in better. The fact is, everyone can benefit from mindfulness as a part of a consisted self care focus. 

The world in an incredibly busy place. The stressors are real and the challenges are…well, really quite challenging. When we take the time to be present and calm, when we dedicate ourselves to a positive mindset, when we focus and deeply engage, we reflect, process and heal with increased efficiency and productivity. 

Individually and collectively, when take deep breaths and allow ourselves to live in each moment, we build capacity for a genuine focus on what truly matters…ourselves and one another. When we teach this critical life skill to our children, we enhance their futures and the future of our world. 

Slow down, breath deep, we got this. 

Thanks for reading…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Breathe. All We Have Is Now. Relax. UR OK.

Breathe. All we have is now. Relax. UR OK.

This is the message on one of the many sculptures along the path of “The Walk of Art” sculpture park (“Art Rapids”) in our lovely downtown Elk Rapids – about five minutes from the farm. If you’re a northern Michigan enthusiast and you haven’t been to the sculpture park, I recommend you put it on the itinerary for an upcoming trip. It’s wonderful. 

One of the features of the park are these intermittent offshoots of roadsigns, with messages of hope, love and inspiration. One is a stop sign that reads, “Start” instead of “Stop.”

Another is a “One Way” sign that’s not rectangular but heart-shaped, indicating that the only way is love.

Still another articulates the foundational message of this post. 

Breathe. All we have is now. Relax. UR OK.

I like the message, and given that I’ve always viewed life as a journey, I like that it’s being broadcast from a road sign in this case.

Another important feature of the park (at least during our visit a few weekends ago) was an overwhelming multitude of what I’ve come to learn are called Oak Leafrolllers. 

Oak Leafrollers are the tiny green worms that hang by threads of silk from oak trees. During this particular trip to the park it was as if we were transported into an Oak Leafroller obstacle coarse. They were everywhere.

The more we focused on the little tree climbing critters the more they seemed to multiply. We realized that they were on our clothes and in our hair. As we walked on we felt them on our arms and worried that they were getting into our ears and mouths. Phantom tickles and itches overtook us.

We began to duck and run. Then we rolled and crawled through the pathways of the woods like highly skilled military operatives. Finally, we ran faster then ever before, bobbing and weaving as we went. Occasionally one of us would grab another, sometimes dropping to the ground, frantically wiping and patting the other clean from these great green silk monsters before scrambling to our feet to flee some more. 

Some of us were laughing with such uncontrolled enthusiasm that tears were streaming down our faces (that was primarily me and Lorelei – some proud parenting moments), while others had streaming tears as a result of the deep, genuine and unabashed fear-based crying they had succumb to in the face of this newfound tiny-worm terror (the kids were getting pretty excited about the sheer volume of leafrollers – the woods were dense with them). It was pretty close to utter chaos by the time we reached the car.

What’s worse, the leafrollers had sent battalions of their kinsmen to cover our car while we were fighting for dear life to avoid them on the forest battlefield. 

We had to expertly navigate our way into the vehicle without letting them overtake us (of heaven forbid, get inside). The danger persisted. Some hung on for dear life as we drove away. We promised the kids that the wind would blow the rest off. It didn’t. We watched through the windows in terror as the strongest and most persistent among them clung on, taunting us the entire way to the farm. 

In the end we survived the vicious attack of completely harmless, tiny little bugs to whom we were not doubt the most menacing, hideous and gigantic creatures imaginable…but only by the skin of our teeth.

Later, I looked them up on the internet. Turns out, collectively, they’re described as a nuisance. Curious. Really they’re just trying to eat some oak leaves, build cocoons, and morph miraculously into moths. 

I wondered if maybe we were actually the collective nuance in this particular situation. You know, because we ran around screaming at them, swatting them with sticks, swiping them around, ripping them from their silk lifelines and violently disrupting their beautiful, natural course with unfettered  rage. Just a wonder I had. 

It made me think about perspective. As parents and educators we often find ourselves in situations that are frustrating, and even unsettling. The Great Berg Oak Leafroller Battle of 2021 reminded me that thoughtful, compassionate reflection can serve us, and those around us well. 

When we take the time and make the effort to relax into the moments of our lives, whether or not we understand them immediately, we seem more likely to be able to enlist our capacity for calm, and as a result, we seem more likely to navigate the ebbs and the flows with strength and empathy. 

Whether we’re being attached by tiny floating worms or facing the bumpy road of child raising, calm hearts and minds tend to win the day, for all involved.

So as we continue together, if you can…breathe. All we have is now, and if you are able…relax. UR OK.

Thank you for reaching…in it together for the kids!

Live. Love. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Shadowy Movement And Sound

Today I’m writing from the farm. The farm is about four hours north of Detroit. Lorelei and I took the kids up to see if we could get a glimpse of some colors starting to change and to lake some long, slow, deep breaths after another stretch filled with busy weekdays. The colors are starting to change but not quite popping, and the long slow breaths are as easy as every to take on the farm. 

During the past three or four trips to the farm we’ve been hearing what sounds like a relative large animal bounding about in the woods behind the farmhouse. We walk the trail system a couple times each day. The woods are dense, and until today, I haven’t been able to catch a proper glimpse of the creature that seems to be squatting on our property (or maybe we’re squatting on his). From the sounds and the shadowy movements I have been able to hear and see, I’m guessing it’s a big deer. My goal has been to get eyes squarely on the big guy…maybe even a recognizable picture or two. 

This morning I went out with our 10-year-old. We heard him…and then, for the first time, we saw him. He was far away and all but hidden by some thick brush, but we saw him. 

Upon hearing us coming he leapt in a zigzag motion, through the woods and away. He leapt amazingly high and turned with incredible precision. So much so, that when the kid reported back to his siblings he told them we saw gazelle. What good fortune for us. I don’t suppose there are many gazelle sightings in northern Michigan. A fun story, though.  

Regardless, after dozens of nature walks, over a period of multiple visits, with a singular goal in mind, we were able to move the needle forward on our goal. Our quest continues. This injection of energy is just what we needed to keep the momentum going, the mystery and excitement tangible, and the possibility alive. It wasn’t today and it may not be during our next visit to the farm, but we’re confident that eventually we will meet up with our bouncy, shadowy friend – hopefully from a distance, but meet up nonetheless. 

Through this experience I’m reminded of what it is to learn, for myself, for the many adult partners with whom I collaborate each day, and for the wonderful kids we serve. As we come to understand ourselves and one another, sparks of knowing swirl in our minds alongside the sparks of excitement that swirl in our hearts. 

I’m getting to know the woods at the farm. Through exploration and focused interest, I’ve come to realize that a friend seems to be living there. I’m excited to meet that friend and working to do so with intentionality. It’s the same feeling I get when I discover a pathway to learning, whether it’s my own pathway or a pathway the comes to light around the learning of another. As an educator and a parent, the hint of a pathway can propel me forward with the magical anticipation of possibility…as I believe it can for any growth minded person. 

Once we’re set in motion, visions and goals can unfold. When we know that something is possible, we can shift from imagination to eventuality. One of the challenges we face with eventuality it that it can be waiting around the corner or it can surface three years from now. Either way, with patience, persistence, knowledge and faith, we can traverse any learning pathway we set out upon. 

Sometimes we see shadowy movements along the way, sometimes we get glimpses of outcomes, and sometimes we find ourselves staring at crossroads marking the end of one journey and the beginning of another. In any case, it is our job to hold true to course, bobbing and weaving with the ebbs and flows, and putting one foot in front fo the other for ourselves and the children we serve. 

Each In Our Own Way (An Equity-Based Reflection On Helping Our Children Connect With, Appreciate And Love Those Who Look, Think, And Act In Vastly Different Ways From Them)

*The names I’m using in this reflection are not the actual names of any children involved. I’m using alternate names to protect privacy. 

Confusion, Worry And Fear

A few weeks into the new school year our youngest child, a six-year-old starting first grade, came home from school with a troubled mind. I could see that he was deep in thought. As we went about our typical after school routine he presented as worried and distracted. 

Before long he asked if he could speak with me alone. We went outside together, where he began to reluctantly unfold a story of two children at his school with special needs. As he told me about the kids, tears formed in his eyes.

First he told me about being scared. In his words, he said that Brandon was aggressive on the playground. He told me that he sees Brandon approaching kids and insisting on playing with them in ways that frightened him. 

He said that Brandon gets physical with kids; that he uses his hands and his body in ways that make him nervous and uncomfortable; that Brandon communicates in ways that are different from how the typically functioning kids he’s used to playing with communicate, and that he’s worried about having to confront the potential eventuality of Brandon approaching him on the playground. In his way, he asked for permission to not have to engage with Brandon as school.

Knowing our child, I could see the internal struggle that this ask, and this need presented for him. He’s an empathic, compassionate person. I could see him wishing he didn’t feel this way, feeling bad about himself, and feeling bad for Brandon. 

My Brain Won’t Let Me 

Next he told me about Marvin. He told me that Marvin is in his class. He said he could see that Marvin needs friends but doesn’t have any. He told me he’s not scared of Marvin because Marvin doesn’t behave in ways that frighten him, but in ways that demonstrate his struggles with communication and socialization. He told me that he thinks he could be the friend Marvin needs, but that whenever he thinks about becoming Marvin’s friend, his brain won’t let him. 

No two children are the same. That said, most children’s unique qualities don’t overtly differentiate them from the group. At least not in the eyes their peers. Most children, regardless of gender, learning style, energy level, interests, developmental readiness, capacity for age-appropriate communication, and lived experiences don’t stand out in ways that make them unapproachable. Brandon and Marvin are both visibly unique from most other kids. 

As parents, guardians and educators, we can tune in to subtle and explicit differences between children. Children, with their concrete, relatively inexperienced world views, tend to be less adept at identifying subtle differences, and they tend to be hyper aware of explicit ones. 

To no fault of their own, children tend to notice when other children behave in ways that appear “out of the ordinary,” and because they don’t have the knowledge or experience to process why a peer would look and sound so different, they can easily fall into worry and even fear around socializing with kids who they identify as acutely different.

Our child’s description of the struggle he’s experiencing around wanting, and attempting to support a friend with special needs (“my brain won’t let me”), tells us a lot about a critical and persistent social emotional challenge felt by all of children.

We know that, like our child, both Brandon and Marvin need to experience genuine friendships. We know that developing genuine friendships with people who present as different from us, whether vastly or subtly, is mutually beneficial. 

We also know that diminishing classroom, school and community cultures can quickly and easily (while often unknowingly and inadvertently) be built around kids who’s communication and behavior are outside of the norm. This is an incredibly important point for parents, guardians and educators to be aware of as we work hard to listen to and guide our children around challenges that surface at school. 

When children come home with negative reports and concerns about their peers, we can help them focus on an “each in our own way” lens by exploring context with them. We can remind them that each person views the world in a unique way, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced, and that our abilities and world-views tend to guide our thoughts, feelings and actions. 

We can teach them that we’re all learning all the time, and that generally, people want to do good things and be nice. When our friends aren’t being their best selves it can often be because they don’t know how, or because they’re hurting. Sometimes it’s challenging, but patience, understanding and kindness can help.

Positive classroom, school and community cultures can lift kids up and build bridges to health and achievement, while negative classroom, school and community cultures, pointedly focused on the expressions and actions of a particular child, can deteriorate that child’s self image, limit their potential, and engrain increased worry and fear in others. 

Fortunately, as parents, guardians and educators, we have the power to perpetuate change in this area, to build paradigms of understanding around diversity, to help our children uncover the inherent foundations of compassion that exist within each of them, to drive equity, and in doing so, to enhance their lives and the world in which we all live.

Not Answers…Opportunities

When we teach our children to embrace diversity, to move toward rather than away from that which is different and/or unknown to them, to be reflective in their processing of communication and interactions with others, to consider multiple perspectives, to seek understanding (even through worry and fear), and to pull from kindness where frustration persists, we give them opportunities to expand their horizons. 

When we guide children through problem solving in any area we provide them with safe, supportive spaces to grapple with specific challenges.  When we give children safe, supportive spaces to grapple with specific challenges we provide them with experiences that can support the development of their ability to grapple with other challenges. 

Children become better problem solvers when they have our permission to work on solving the problems that are in front of them. Along with that permission, they benefit from our support, our love and our guidance.

A Solid Foundation For A Lifelong Journey

Our child continues to tell me that he’s nervous around Brandon and that he still hasn’t approached Marvin or become his friend. He also continues to tell me that he thinks he can be the friend that Marvin needs. 

The other day he told me that he thinks the first step will be introducing himself. He said, “We’ve never even met…maybe if we met we would become friends.”  He’s outlined multiple pathways to officially meeting Marvin, from asking his teacher to introduce them to approaching him on the playground. He continues to grapple and I continue to support. 

I don’t have the answers. While I hope they do, they may never become friends. I nudge but I don’t push. I listen and I affirm the reality of swirling emotions. I don’t know how to ease the intensity of those emotions or impart a sense of comfort around this or any of the multitude of difficult childhood challenges. 

I do know that every child is living a life in which developing skills of compassion, along with the skills needed to communicate, collaborate, and otherwise engage with one another, is a potential pathway to increased joy and balance for them and for those who they meet along the way. 

I know that we serve children well when we drive cultures of acceptance in our classrooms, school and communities, and aid our children in understanding that they can and should love and embrace others, even those who behave in ways that confuse and worry them. 

When we help them see that the personalities, inherent capacities and lived experiences of those around them contribute to their thoughts, feelings and actions, we help them put behavior into context and better manage their  interactions and relationships.

As with all challenging journeys, the complex pathways of supporting our children’s positive progress and well-being are long and winding, they’re sometimes shrouded in mist, and they’re often confusing. I would suggest that an “each in our own way” lens is solid foundation for achieving healthy outcomes, for them and for us.

Some Strategies For Coping With Anxiety

This is a uniquely challenging time. We’ve been engaged in a new type of uncertainty for a while now. Information comes in waves, and often in pieces. Parents, guardians and educators have been charged with putting those pieces together day by day and moment by moment…and to our credit, we’ve done so in ways that have kept our kids safe and balanced. It has not been easy task.

If you’re like me you have good moments and not so good moments. Some of the questions we have to ask ourselves have no “right” answers and some of the directions we have to go in have really winding roads, with hazards that are shrouded in mist until they’re directly in front of us. 

If you’re like me you’ve been able to celebrate some wonderful successes over the days, the weeks, and the years…and you also stumble, fumble, crash hard into walls and find yourself filled with worry at times. Our kids are everything. Keeping them safe, healthy and learning is priority number one.

For us, and for our kids, these strange days come along with increased levels of stress. Anxiety is real and it’s present at varying degrees among adults and children alike. As we walk this path together, I would suggest that staying mindful of the presence of anxiety in ourselves and in the kids we serve is one way to perpetuate the safety, health and learning.

I came across this TED Talk the other night. It focuses on coping with anxiety. This is the link: How to cope with anxiety (Olivia Remes) 

The message may resonate with you or it may not. I understand that while we are all living through a pandemic, we’re each living experiences that are unique to us. Whether or not you identify with Remes’ message, I believe the strategies she outlines can provide fodder for reflection, and possibly some tools to help as you work to find joy and balance in these uncertain days, for you and for your kids.

Do It Badly

It’s easy to get stuck under the weight of these intense challenges. We want so badly to do things the “right” way for our selves and for our kids. We want, and we need to get it “right” so intensely that sometimes it’s difficult to put one foot in front of the other. When that happens, we can try to remember that taking action, even if we get it “wrong” at first, can be better than staying in a rut. Remes suggests that one way to mitigate the anxiety of any moment is to plow forward. Take action. When you set yourself in motion you can give yourself momentum. One foot in front of the other. If you can muster the strength, get started and adjust along the way.

Forgive Yourself

No one is perfect. As we struggle with the challenges associated with really tough times and uncomfortable feelings, we experience ebbs and flows. In order to make it through the ebbs and into the flows we’ve got to treat ourselves with kindness. When you stumble, fumble, crash into walls and worry, shake it off as quickly as possible. Show yourself the grace that’s needed to keep moving forward. Don’t dwell in the past. Don’t dwell in any moment. If you can practice forgiving yourself for the missteps, you may find that the positive steps forward come with greater ease and efficiency.

Find Meaning by Helping Others

While self-care is critically important for our well-being, it can also be important to take breaks from a focus on ourselves in order to find, and truly experience meaning, especially when high levels of stress turn that focus to the negative, which can be frequently during uniquely challenging times. We can find strength in the compassionate work we’re doing for our kids and for one another. When we lift one another up and hone in on spreading joy with kindness and intentionality, we tend to feel enhanced positive emotion, which has the power to mitigate some of the harmful, anxiety producing impacts of the layers of trauma that exist within and all around us. 

In many ways, we’re living through the same “storm,” however, we’re each doing so in “boats” that are unique to our specific experiences. These strategies may be easier for some to enact and more difficult for others. You may find them connected to your world view and you may not. My hope is that, whatever you’re experiencing and however your responding those experiences, Remes’ suggestions can bring you some pause for reflection, some confront in the “storm,” and some ability to work through the particular challenges you’re facing, on behalf of yourself, each other and the kids we serve. 

Don’t forget that you’re surrounded by people who care. There is strength in community. As you reflect on your daily practice and on your progress, remember that we are always stronger together. Turn to those around you for support, practice projecting grace in every direction along the way, and stay in motion. The truth is, we’re doing incredible things…and we got this!