Friday, September 13, 2013

Overriding Our Negative Instinct

Under a serious threat of danger, some of us call for vicious and immediate retaliation toward the source of the threat. Recently, we have seen this scenario at an international level. During difficult times, some of us become consumed with protecting ourselves at the expense of others. For example, when the US experiences times of economic hardship or uncertainty, political campaigns are filled more with negative attacks on opponents versus highlighting the platform of the nominees. Even under minimal stress or a perceived threat, many of us become depressed or pessimistic about the eventual outcomes. We have seen how the perception of the decline of US public education has caused many to believe that things will never improve. This belief is leading to the push for alternative educational programs and feed into the mistrust that some have for our educators.

Why are we so quick to go to the dark side? As it turns out, we are hardwired to do this very thing. In our earliest form, cognitive functions were minimal, and our sensory capabilities were our means to survival. When there was a perceived threat, the body went into its emergency response system; it would flee, fight, or freeze. In psychological terms, it is referred to as negativity bias. Humans survived because of this bias toward the worst case scenario. 

Fast forward to today, where we have sophisticated cognitive functioning. We understand the human spirit and assume good intentions of others. We are generous and creative and problem solving and responsive. That is, until we sense danger, are thrown into crisis, or perceive a threat to our safety. At that moment, we revert to the sensory system and automatically go into survival mode. Like it has in our history, our negativity bias keeps us safe in dangerous and threatening situations today. 

For all of our complex and sophisticated thinking, our natural instinct remains biased toward negativity. It is why negative remarks stay with us far longer than praise. It helps us understand why we are depressed, anxious, and defensive.

We know this automatic response to "all things dark" keeps us physically safe; however, we also know that our natural instinct is a survival technique - not a problem solver. If we wish to resolve a problem, stay constructive, and use sophisticated cognitive functions, we must move beyond nature.

Our situations are messy and complex. Immediate and natural responses are likely sensory in nature and automatically biased toward the negative. Noticing this in ourselves and in others is a first important step in facing challenges. Pausing to notice our natural instincts gives our cognitive functioning the go-ahead to reconnect.

The next time you are in a very challenging situation that is not life threatening, notice the automatic responses in your body. Take a deep breath, reminding yourself that you are safe. Then, call up your generous, responsive, and better self in order to move forward. 

Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it's happening, to notice how it's affecting us and others. ~Margaret J. Wheatley

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Importance of Trust

Before diving into any educational change initiative, a solid foundation must be in place. When thinking about building resilient schools, this foundation is no less essential, especially with regard to trust.

Trust in this sense involves the relationships of all educational stakeholders. More than relationships between students and teachers alone, the relations between teachers with teachers, teachers with principals, and school personnel with the community are also important considerations. 

When high relational trust exists, people believe that everyone is competent in their roles.  For example, students believe they have effective teachers who are under the leadership of effective principals. Furthermore, within every relationship, people respect each other and rely on the involvement of every person. Relational trust is based on what people believe and on what they observe. So, not only do they believe in the competence of each other, but they also validate this belief by what they see on a regular basis.

Research on school change has shown that successful reform is linked to the level of trust in schools. For schools with low levels of trust, reform efforts have a one in seven chance of increasing student learning. With high levels of trust, schools have a 50/50 chance to see increases in learning.

We live during times that require better ways of coping and higher levels of resilience. Before we start developing plans to meet these needs, we must first build and nurture trust for all those who are involved in these efforts. the beginning place, the foundation upon which more can be built. ~Barbara Smith

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Building Resilience

Our turbulent world offers challenging situations for all of us, most especially for our children. These complex life events, from divorce and death to violence and poverty, are negatively affecting our social and emotional health. In schools, we can counteract these effects by helping students develop strong coping and problem-solving skills. In doing so, we can reduce the negative effects of the real life issues that our children face.

Compelling research focusing on both adults and children shows that when we strengthen our emotional awareness and deepen our social skills, we can reduce anxiety and depression. When anxiety and depression are reduced, we are more effective at work, in school, and in life.  
As we build our social and emotional skills and strategies, we are able to persevere, to problem-solve, and to negotiate. We build resilience.
We are resilient when we
  • understand our own emotions, and with this understanding, we can control them.
  • have impulse control, meaning that we first think before we act.
  • are realistically optimistic, and we know that things will get better.
  • are flexible in thinking, and we see options and alternatives when faced with problems.
  • believe in our ability to make it through challenging situations.
  • have empathy for others who are handling their own life difficulties.
  • know when and how to reach out for help.
Building resilience should be a priority for all involved in educational endeavors. Resilient schools have more effective teachers and administrators. Resilient students are happier, more hopeful, and open to learning. By building resilience, we increase our ability to cope with and to thrive in the complex lives we are living, both in and out of school.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Social Emotional Health Is a Global Issue

A recent international summit established educational standards of equity and quality with a focus on early childhood for schools around the world. Most notably, this global consensus honored the cross cutting nature of education, from promoting literacy to teaching physical well-being. More than achieving basic mathematical skills and attaining other content area knowledge, this international panel charged schools with helping children deal with real-life issues of poverty, war, violence, and disabilities, among many other realities. Our children must be taught resilience in order to thrive in a turbulent world.

The key to resilience is being socially and emotionally healthy; it is the basis of all successful human endeavors. By acknowledging this on an international level, we are now reminded that the educational process must also emphasize social and emotional literacy. This acknowledgement also reminds us that without having self-awareness, relationship skills, and other important components of social emotional health, our children will be unable to navigate through our current environment.

Beyond geographic borders, socioeconomic status, and any other demographic and man-made check boxes, this international summit has highlighted the moral imperative for all of us to tend to the social and emotional health of our children- it is needed now more than ever.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Need for Recognition

Our efforts to improve public education have created a focus on results and a reliance on technology.  We now use sophisticated ways to track learning; our students’ scores on national, state, and local assessments are warehoused in systems that follow them through their educational experience.  Cutting edge technology helps us deliver a national curriculum, evaluate our effectiveness, and prepare students for the 21st century. We use a variety of data as evidence of our progress.

However well-intentioned these reform efforts, they have resulted in unintended consequences. As our attention shifted to results and technology, we lost focus on the only critical components of education: our young people and their educators. They have become invisible. If our efforts are to be successful, we must begin at a personal and individual level. We must recognize our students and teachers.

In this sense recognition does not refer to praise or reward for some behavior. Recognition is instead seeing the value of another person, acknowledging that person as "one of us."  When we are recognized, we see ourselves as a valued part of a collective action. Without this recognition, we find it difficult to see ourselves as part of a greater whole. 

In order to move forward, we must recognize those for whom these extraordinary reform efforts are designed to serve.  Moving students and their teachers to the forefront of any and all educational initiatives is the only way.

We must say to them in actions and in words, “I see you.”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Social Emotional Health Creates Readiness for the Core

When a new initiative is being introduced into a system, most of the efforts focus on planning, training, implementation, and evaluation. The Common Core, an initiative on a level never before seen in educational reform efforts, shares this focus. For several years we have anticipated the implementation with curriculum development and educator training. We are making progress toward meeting the technology capacity needed in every school. Lately, the discussion is moving toward the assessments based on the Core.

What is often missing in the design of reform efforts is readiness. Despite the capacity needed on so many levels for the successful implementation of the Core, readiness is a critical first step.

Readiness goes beyond the capacity building, and instead refers to the school climate and group norms that must be in place before the implementation occurs. The climate must be a safe and positive environment conducive to learning. The development of norms among educators is just as vital as those developed within individual classrooms with students.

The Core requires deep levels of discourse and collaboration that can only occur when there is a sufficient level of trust among students, between students and teachers, and among educators in a school building.

By tending to the social and emotional health of our school buildings now, we will create and strengthen both our school climates and our relationships. In doing so, we will have achieved a readiness necessary for successful implementation of the Core.

"Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success." ~Henry Ford

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Social Emotional Health at the Core of the Common Core

While the push for academic content standards continues at a constant rate and with a looming launch date, the social emotional health of our children must be at the forefront of this initiative in order for the implementation of the Common Core to be successful and to make the  greatest difference.

The Common Core standards assume a level of social skill ability that cannot be ignored. Before the Core is in our classrooms, we must first be sure that our students are ready for this substantive change on an emotional and social level.

Some educators are overwhelmed at the thought of having students perform at the high level required of them by the Common Core. One way to shift perspectives to a proactive stance is to tend to social emotional needs now and make it a part of every moment in the classroom.

Teaching students to become better decision makers, increase their self-awareness, and develop strong and healthy relationships will help them in all aspects of their lives, including their initiation to and success with the Common Core.