behavior, education, school psychology

Stop saying they are doing it for attention.

Maybe it’s the frantic testing season here in May in public schools or maybe I’m just tired at the tail end of a very busy school year, but I am SO tired of hearing the function of a student’s behavioral errors is attention. The function of behavior is the “WHY”. Why is this child throwing materials across the room? Why is this child saying inappropriate things to peers?Why is this child refusing to follow directions? It seems like every time I sit in a meeting where we are reviewing behavior, the function of the behavior is. . . drum roll. . . ATTENTION!

I call B.S. We need to stop oversimplifying the emotional responses of children when they present themselves as “problem behavior.”

Let me preface this by saying, we all want attention. We want to be seen and heard and have that be a reflection back to us that we exist and we matter. That is part of the human condition and who better than children to ask the question, “Do you see me?” One of my favorite writers, Brené  Brown asserts that we are “hard wired for connection” as human beings. Why would this be any different for children? I think that sometimes in education, maybe because our job is inherently to lead and teach, we assume we know all and minimize the contributions and knowledge of children in our schools. So, yes, they want attention. However; that may or may not be why Johnny shoves a peer every time he lines up to leave the classroom.

I have been a school psychologist for almost ten years now, and what I have learned from working with children is the value of offering respect without conditions.

When we immediately meet a child with respect, talking to them with the level of courtesy we would a colleague, the whole game changes. We tell them, right from the start, that we see them, that they matter, and their voice will be heard no matter what. The “no matter what” part is huge. A colleague once told me she has a post it on her bathroom mirror that says, “You can’t love unconditionally when you have conditions.” I think we forget this all too often in both our personal and professional lives. You might not love all of your students, but you can certainly respect them. You can respect the fact that they did not get asked to be in the home or environment in which they live. You can meet them where they are and offer respect, no matter what. We can make generous assumptions (another B. Brown concept) and assume they didn’t show up to school that day with the intention of frustrating the living daylights out of you! Isn’t that what you expect from your supervisor?

What if we thought about how we communicate with children and flip that to how we would expect a colleague or supervisor to communicate with us. Would you feel respected by your supervisor if she pointed out your errors in front of all of your colleagues at a staff meeting? What if she corrected your behavior in the hallway in front of anyone who happen to be there? Wouldn’t you prefer if she started with a generous assumption that maybe you were dealing with something hard or you didn’t understand the expectations or procedures before she jumped to the conclusion that you were deliberately being insubordinate to get on her nerves or to, perhaps, get attention?

If it truly is all about attention, let’s tackle it by giving them ALL the attention. Notice when they walk in and comment on the design on their shirt or hair style that day. Give feedback that is helpful, and if it needs to be corrective, try to make it private and supportive. Ask yourself, what is the intention of this feedback? How would I want someone to let me know that I am not doing it right? I’m going to venture a guess that the goal is to stop the undesired behavior and increase the likelihood they will do the right thing the next time. You are tired, they are tired. No one likes to be constantly told that they are doing it wrong every day. If you are feeling exhausted, think about they must feel. And, if you can do that very thing – pause for a minute and put yourself in the mind of that child – you have already made huge strides in building connection through empathy. We get frustrated when children don’t show empathy to others, but how often are we modeling that behavior? This applies to how we treat children we work with in education and how we parent. We can set limits respectfully by simply remembering that problem behavior is often an emotional response that the child is struggling to communicate. It may be they are letting you know that the boundaries are unclear to them and they need you to be more clear with your expectations. Setting clear and consistent boundaries is paramount to a respectful relationship.

You can’t love unconditionally if you have conditions. Conditions are not the same as respectful, consistent boundaries. You will care about them no matter what they do because you know they are more than their behavior. The more intense the behaviors, the louder they are crying to be seen and heard. See them, hear them, be there for them, unconditionally.

parenting, school psychology

What School Psychologists Know about Difficult Emotions

A trend I have observed in recent years is the increase in the amount of times I make a note in my behavioral observations along the lines of: “demonstrated a low frustration tolerance”. I have also heard more and more from teachers I work with about students who refuse to try new or difficult tasks and will just sit and do nothing unless someone is sitting with them providing constant support. I can’t help but wonder if part of this trend is related to our reluctance, as millennial parents, to let our children experience frustration or other tough emotions.  Perhaps we are too quick to distract a child away from pain or difficulty and swoop in and rescue them from all the yucky feelings we hate to see our children experience.

I’ll be the first one to admit that watching my children cry is The. Worst. It kills a small part of my heart every time. I actually feel the muscle cells expire. Really. It’s bad. But, what I know to be true about feelings, is that we have to feel them all. If we are going to experience joy we also have to be able to sit with our sadness. Dr. Brene Brown says it best with the following quote from The Gifts of Imperfection :

pexels-photo-130111

So in case you were wondering how a School Psychologist takes this message home, here is an illustration for you. When my daughter is melting down about something (usually something pretty minor, but to her it’s huge), I let her get upset. Sure, I could swoop in and figure out a way to move her from the feeling more quickly, but most of the time I don’t. I say something like, “I can see you are feeling really disappointed that you didn’t win this game.” or “I know it’s hard when we are doing fun things and we have to stop to go to bed.” or “I know you get frustrated when you really want to wear the purple dress, but it is in the wash so you have to choose another one.” Like I said, not major problems, easily solvable problems. Could I pull the dress out and get it to her sooner? Sure. Could I have faked my last move and let her win at Candy Land? Of course. But unfortunately for my children, I am a School Psychologist. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also experience a small amount of happiness in these moments because I really do appreciate being able to walk with her through these experiences in a safe space. Saving her from these feelings would rob her of the opportunity to learn that she has the strength to feel these difficult emotions. She can do it and I can sit with her through it and be there if she needs me.  I believe and trust that she is strong enough to endure sadness and frustration and come out the other side. One of my favorite scenes from the Pixar movie, Inside Out is when Bing Bong sits with Sadness.

sadness

I cried like a baby the first time I saw it looking at my husband saying, “You have to sit with the sadness! We all have to sit with the sadness!” What an amazing illustration of what we all must do sometimes even when it is hard and we long for distractions. It is a gift to our children when we allow them to experience sadness or frustration  in a safe space at home where we can offer support as they move through it.

Here are some simple tips to help you sit with your child through difficult feelings.

  • Always keep an even and neutral tone of voice. Be the strong supportive guide they need without getting too caught up in the feelings you are experiencing.
  • Provide feedback on what you are observing:
    • “This is hard for your right now. It looks like you are feeling very sad about this.”
  • Be available to offer support or space and follow their lead.
    • “Do you need some space?”  If they indicate they do or push away, that’s ok, just remind them, “I’m here when you are ready.” and check up every few minutes.
    • If you are noticing your child might need your presence ask for clarification: “Do you feel like you need a hug?” “Would you like for me to sit with you?” “Should we take some deep breaths to help us feel better?”

Most of the time our children move through the tough feelings much quicker than we expect. When we give them permission to feel difficult emotions, we avoid fighting against them and giving them more power. The more we can equip our kids with the strength and tools to move through it, the more efficient they become at navigating difficult situations. You are setting them up for a lifetime of resilience and strength. When they have moved on and are playing happily and independently you can take your own deep breaths and trust that you did an amazing job.

education, parenting, school psychology

The Other Side of the Table

One thing I know for sure is that being a mom makes me a better, more empathetic School Psychologist. My younger self would cringe at that assertion. That young, fresh-out-of-the-grad school-box, professional would scoff at the notion that mothers make better School Psychologists. She was ready to change the world, one IEP meeting at a time.  I wasn’t an inadequate School Psychologist before I had children, I am just better now because I have lived an experience you cannot understand until you have done it yourself.

One thing that I have started noticing is the look in a mother’s eye when we talk about a disability. I can’t help but imagine myself on that side of the table talking about one of my own sweet babies. And this is where knowing too much can hurt you.

We know that students identified as having a specific learning disability have poorer educational outcomes. This might seem obvious, but the flip side of that, from a parent’s point of view, is that they have to face that their child will struggle. Now, that’s not to say that they won’t overcome their struggle or become better people because of it, but it is certain that there will be struggle. This is one of the most difficult pills to swallow as a parent, knowing your child will struggle and there is little to nothing you can do to stop it. Not only that, allowing your child to struggle and sitting with them through it, will shape them into resilient people who learn that they can handle challenge.

That sucks.

Who wants to do that??? When our babies cry we rock them and love on them and feed them and soothe them. When our toddlers bump their knee we swoop them up and kiss it better. One of the hardest things to do as a parent is sit with your child in their discomfort and not try to fix it. I think it also might be one of the most important gifts we can offer.

As I sit across the table from another mother who is trying to understand what I am explaining about phonological processing and auditory working memory, I try not to get too lost in the weaknesses. This is her baby, and she wants to swoop him up and kiss it better. She can’t. But we can sit together in the struggle and move through it until we are ready to help her child shine his brightest with the strengths he has in spite of the struggle. I know what it feels like and I am here when she is ready.

parenting, school psychology

The Weight of This Work

Last night I was a blubbering, sobbing mess for no apparent reason. OK, obviously there was a reason, since I am a pretty reasonable person. However, my husband and I were discussing plans for our daughter’s upcoming second birthday did not warrant the puddle of uncontrollable sorrow that I melted into in the middle of our discussion.

Today I find myself feeling heavy. As I walked down the hallway of one of my schools I felt like I was being pushed down by the weight of my work.  For the past three years one of my primary assignments has been working with middle school students with emotional disabilities. These students are struggling with mental health issues that make it impossible for them to access their education without intensive therapeutic supports built into their school day.  These students’ needs are so significant that they require a specialized program and cannot attend their neighborhood school. These children are unique and they need a lot of therapy. I feel fortunate to work in a school division that offers this level of support to students who need it. But, it is heavy work.

I am also feeling the weight of my work on a grant funded project to change the way we approach school discipline. The stakes are high and the pressure is great.

The weight of being someone’s mother and of being someone’s wife is no less significant. My work shows me how fragile children’s spirits are and what happens when things go terribly wrong.  This does nothing to ease the constant worry about what might happen to my own child and what we should do to protect her and keep her safe from harm.

The weight of it all feels so heavy, sometimes.

As a working mother I put so much pressure on myself to get it all right, all the time.  Whether we stay at home or work outside the home, there is always something we probably aren’t doing “right”. Is my child eating enough? Is my child eating too much? Is my child meeting all the developmental milestones in a timely fashion? Am I doing everything I can to foster her growth and development? Am I working hard enough to continue to grow and advance my career? Can I get it all done? When’s the last time I dusted something?

I started today feeling buried under the weight of it all, it gave me a chance to pause and reflect on the pressures of my job as a psychologist and a mom. It quickly occurred to me that I am strong, that I can carry this weight but, more importantly, I do not do it alone. I am so grateful for my husband and amazing partner who seems as though he could carry our whole world on his swimmer’s shoulders. I have friends who I am watching come into their own as mothers and who are a great source of comfort, support, and advice. I have older colleagues who have paved the way and remind me that, while it is hard, it can be done.

Maybe noticing the weight of this work is just what I needed today. I feel lighter already.

education, parenting, school psychology

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.” – A. Einstein

Smart man, that Einstein.

I am a school psychologist. My job is to help identify barriers to learning and figure out how we can help kids reach their full potential. It is extremely rewarding, but it makes me very tired.  I sit in meetings. Lots of meetings. I don’t go to meetings to discuss kids who make honor roll, win academic scholarships, or ace college entrance exams. Not to say that the children we discuss won’t ever go on to do these things, typically the reason for the meeting is to discuss what is not going well. The problems. 

Did I mention that I love a challenge? I am a problem solver, a detective. Just call me Sherlock.

Sometimes, because my days are so heavy with problems, my vision gets clouded and I forget that the vast majority of kids are doing just fine. All I see, every single day, are parents and teachers who are at their wits end trying to figure out why their child just can’t learn to read or form a complete sentence or stop crying in the middle of class for no apparent reason. It is my job to know  about all of the things that can go wrong in child development. Genetic Anomalies. Neurological Deficits. Developmental Delays. Learning Disabilities.

One afternoon, during my pregnancy, I was talking to my own mother on the phone about parenting worries. I was talking in circles about all the things that could go wrong if you make one wrong choice as a parent. As she was trying to reassure me that the likelihood of something like this occurring in my baby was slim, I sighed and said, “I just know too much about all of the things that can go wrong.” My mother laughed at me and said, “Maybe you do, but she will probably turn out just fine.”

Welcome to my blog. I plan to share my parenting journey though all the “what ifs” and “but I read somewhere thats”. I think, in spite of my best efforts, we will turn out just fine.

~Elizabeth