Teachers as trauma-treatment professionals

Happy New Year to all of the teachers and school counselors out there! I hope your classes are full of bright shiny faces smiling contentedly as they work. However, my years of experience (and the data) tell me that most of you will have at least one kid in your class who’s just capable of driving you nuts before Thanksgiving.

You know the kid. The one who:

– can’t sit still, ever.

– doesn’t listen to you unless you shout.

– can’t finish a worksheet or project, even with extra time.

-clings to or actively avoids adult visitors to the room.

– freaks out during fire drills.

– won’t go in the bathroom alone, OR won’t come out.

– has a full-blown, toddler-style temper tantrum at least every other week.

– you can’t ever predict the tantrum, or the cause.

– won’t share.

-steals things.

-lies about really obvious facts.

-smells bad and/or comes to school dirty.

-manipulates and/or terrifies the other kids.

-but is really very bright.

Sound like anyone you know?

I’ve known scores of kids who fit that description. The behaviors vary from individual to individual, year to year, but they’re always angry, distracted- and smart. You know that IF you could just get underneath all that anger and bluster, you could really actually teach this kid. But getting there is so, so, so hard. Every time you think you’ve made a little progress, the kid will change things up and do some new annoying/terrifying/destructive thing. How do you teach this kid without totally loosing your own mind?

In short, it’s not easy. But teaching really tough kids is also not impossible. With the caveat that every difficult kid is different, here are a handful of ideas to try:

1. Shift your own internal dialogue about the child and his/her behavior. What I’ve described here are classic symptoms of complex trauma in early childhood. You’ll see the same things, with a few modifications, in adolescents. Simply seeing these behaviors as symptoms of a traumatic past (or present) will help you be more effective in your approach. The kid isn’t bad; he’s in pain, he’s scared, and he needs you to understand.

As a teacher, it’s certainly not up to you to make any sort of diagnosis. However, you can become more aware of the common symptoms of childhood trauma, and learn how to intervene in effective ways to help the children impacted by trauma to learn more effectively. It’s not important for you to know the details of what happened (unless it’s ongoing, in which case you need to make a child protective services report). What IS important is controlling your reactions to the behaviors you’re seeing. If the child is in foster care, there is a trauma history.

2. Set up classroom routines and keep to them. Kids who come from chaotic, violent homes and neighborhoods do not like surprises. Part of what you’re seeing is that the kid’s flight or fight defense system is stuck in the “on” position. Your job is to find ways to bring down their levels of arousal and vigilance. If you’re planning a surprise celebration, tell these kids ahead of time. Vary the day to day routine as little as possible. Write or draw the schedule for the day on the white board, every day, even if  you’re a high school teacher.

3. Minimize distractions, especially noise. Kids with trauma histories often have great difficulty screening out background sounds. Essentially, they’re always scanning the environment for danger, and hearing is a key pathway. They have a particularly hard time screening out the noise of all of the other kids in the room when you’re trying to talk. Make quiet a priority. If the noise level remains high, pull this kid(s) over to your desk and re-explain what you said, holding his/her hand and making eye contact (if it’s ok with the child, these things can also be scary, so ask first). Touch and eye contact help them focus on your voice. If you’re a male teacher, this will be easier, since the lower frequency sounds are less likely to get screened out (I learned all of this from Dr. Stephen Porges, who is brilliant – you should all read his book). Yelling, from you, is totally off-limits. Educate your colleagues about auditory hypersensitivities and help them learn to speak in less shocking tones if needed.

4. Encourage movement, especially with a beat. Kids with a variety of learning problems, as well as kids with trauma issues, will benefit from this one. Take 10-15 minute breaks throughout the day to sing, dance, and move. Songs that are highly rhythmic and use clapping or stomping to go with the words are wonderful for this purpose. Kids and adults with trauma issues are often disconnected from their bodies in many ways, which contributes to problems with attention regulation and focus. Moving and especially singing (or playing a wind instrument) helps relax critical neural circuits, lowers the heart rate, and helps broaden a sense of safety. Hand-clapping games are also good, but be sure to do some breathing in there somewhere.

5. Incorporate explicit activities to build a “tribe” in your classroom. If the students can learn to trust each other, the whole room will be remarkably more relaxed and much more learning can happen. Avoid activities that require students to compete, replace them with activities that help the kids learn about each other and learn to care, rather than scorn, blame, or exploit each other. There are tons of resources available online for accomplishing this, just do some google research. Lou Cozolino discusses this in his book, “The Social Neuroscience of Education”, which I think all licensed educators should be required to read. It’s a quick read,  packed full of interesting ideas.

Beyond these basic steps, keep working at it. Don’t ever give up on a kid. You may be the last hope he/she has. And, of course, make referrals to mental health professionals as needed.

 

Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

On first sight, you might think that the title of this article leads to one of those four-part pictures from Sesame Street entreating you to decide “Which One of These Things Doesn’t Belong”. Actually, all three of the subjects in the title do go together, it’s just uncomfortable to confront that knowledge.

So, let’s break it down.

Self-regulation is a set of skills that stretch between the domains of cognition, emotion, and and behavior that allow adult humans to make good, prosocial, rational, decisions even under stressful conditions. This group of abilities is based on healthy brain development in the early years, which is fueled by good-enough parenting, and the meeting of the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (there is some debate about which is most damaging to forfeit, and the front runner may be the parenting). When things go right for a baby, s/he develops the capacity to regulate her own emotions, thoughts, and actions well enough to fit in socially and survive to adulthood. When things don’t go well, self-regulation may be delayed or halted in one or more domains. A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused. Other things can cause those behaviors, but quite often, self-regulation is the real culprit, especially when kid is exposed to what’s called toxic stress. Here is a recent research brief about this little combo, read it if you want more depth that a blog post can provide: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applied-developmental-perspective. It’s fascinating.

Toxic stress is different from everyday stress in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. Most people have some aggravations, annoyances, and frustrations every day. Folks with toxic stress have catastrophic, life-threatening, chaotic, terrifying stress every day, all day. Toxic stress is a nightmare for anyone trying to develop or maintain mental and physical health. There’s a mountain of evidence about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the nasty things too many of those can do to a person over time. Check out the ACE home page for the numbers: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Lastly, Baltimore (and Ferguson, and North Charleston, etc. etc.).

The (White) police have been shooting up Black folks again. That this happens isn’t news to most people. That it is continuing to happen so often and that so many local jurisdictions haven’t done anything to assess or change the systems that set up the circumstances that foster these murders is shocking. For Black and brown people living in places with a high load of toxic stress, that’s the last straw. Toxic stress is literally poisonous. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause the kidneys, heart, and lungs to overwork. Soft tissues like veins and arteries wear out early. In childhood, people exposed to too many ACEs face an uphill battle towards mastering self-regulation in all three domains. Regardless of gender or race, a person growing up amidst toxic stressors develops self-regulation later and less broadly than the same person would in a more safe and stable place. When an adult with a high toxic stress load and low levels of self-regulation is attacked, threatened, or in a hostile-seeming situation, he or she is more likely to react with violence and aggression than a person who lives somewhere safe.

This is not to say that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for damage they do while enraged. However, in places with high levels of toxic stress, no one should be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan when yet another citizen is murdered by the police. One of many reasons that the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Grey in Maryland provoked such extremely different reactions from the public was the response of the people who were perceived to be in charge. Although both cities have high levels of toxic stress, the officer who killed Scott was immediately arrested and fired from the force. In Baltimore, no arrests have been made, no announcements from the authorities have been made about suspending the officers involved, and it seems to the citizens there that no one cares. Both cases are obviously tragic and have provoked anger and grief in their respective communities.

In Baltimore, people who are already tired of not mattering have been reassured that they don’t. In North Charleston, it seems that the police force has found a way to communicate to its people that they do matter. When you’re already up against a wall, the last thing you need is someone to shove you up to it harder. That’s when people, many of whom are already short on patience, break. The limbic system essentially stops asking the upper levels of the rational brain for input, and action takes over from reason.

I wish I could close this little rant with some smiley sentence about things getting better. I am glad that Science has now empirically validated how important early environments are to healthy adult development. I am grateful that interventions for schools and clinics are in the works to help stressed out kids learn to self-regulate earlier and better. I’m left wondering if any of it matters.

Revisiting the sham of culture: Public school edition

Last night in our training clinic, I watched one of our grad students conduct an intake interview with a 17 year old who was recently expelled from school. The idea of expelling kids from school makes me ill to start with, so I watched with a grumpy face. As the session unfolded, I only felt more angry and irritated. This 17 year old kid told the grad student that he was being expelled over, “a lot of little stuff” like tardies, disrespecting teachers, not doing work, etc. I’m not naive enough anymore to buy that story without checking it out with the school, but it was still disturbing. It could be true.

To complicate matters another step, this particular kid is Black, big for his age (athletic big, not fat big) and wore his hair shoulder-length and braided. He spoke very quietly, even after his great-grandmother, who is his guardian left to return to the waiting area. I could easily imagine this guy could scare the crap out of a teacher without really trying, just by being so tall and muscular. But being scared of a kid because he looks like he could tackle you with one arm doesn’t make it ok to throw him out of mainstream society.

[Didn’t you know that’s what expulsion is? Read more here: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities]

I know the U.S. government in general, and the states in particular don’t quite comprehend the problem, but it’s really pretty simple. Here’s the deal, in a simple geometry-ish proof:

1. There is a strong relationship between school failure and life failure (e.g., going to prison).

2. Some kids are at much higher risk than other kids for school failure. We know who they are. We’ve known this for decades (poor, black or brown boys, little to no adult support at home, bad neighborhoods, toxic stress, abused, neglected, and generally stressed out kids).

3. We know that when kids in #2 are given certain types of early and frequent intervention, they are much less likely to fail at school.

4. If they don’t fail at school, they have a hell of a lot better chance at staying out of prison.

5. If they don’t go to prison, they can get jobs. If they work, they pay taxes.

6. If we spend a little money now on those interventions in #3, we will have greater tax revenues in the future.

7. Investing in appropriate educational interventions for stressed out kids literally pays off.

QED, asshats in office. We need intervention for stressed out kids. We need it early. We need it often. We can not wait.

Back to the kid in my opening paragraph. I really hope he comes back. He said he would, but in my experience, it’s about 50/50 with adolescents in trouble who live with folks who aren’t their parents. Great granny looks like she’s about 80. I don’t know that she has the energy to make him get his act together. The kid seemed interested in doing things differently, but also seemed very doubtful about being able to make it happen. I fear we’ve lost this one, mostly due to this dubious expulsion. It’s way past time to stop expulsion.

Thump thump thump….here come the helicopters (parents)!

One of the great joys of being a professor in a graduate program is watching as young adults grow into creative professionals from being ex-college-students. Every fall, we welcome a group of twelve or so young people, most of whom graduated from their undergraduate programs mere months prior, to campus. Over the next two years, we do the sometimes difficult work of molding them into capable, responsible, and confident beginning therapists. When they leave after graduation, most of them go on to lead rewarding, full, and pro-social lives.

The two years between the arrival of newly-minted B.A. holders and the departure of newly-minted M.S. holders can be tough on everyone involved. Learning to be a competent therapist isn’t easy. The content material; diagnostic categories, pharmacology, neuroscience, counseling skills, theories, and techniques can be overwhelming. Learning to make meaningful connections with total strangers who have lives very different from your own can be exhausting. Developing an identity as both an adult and a professional can be the most difficult aspect of the entire process, especially for 23 year old students whose parents don’t identify as professionals.

The notion of professional identity has been belabored for years in the counseling literature. How do you “be” a counselor? How, if at all, is that person different from who you are at home or with friends? How do you put on this new identity without loosing sight of your former self? Students can struggle mightily with all of these issues, and as much as faculty and supervisors want to help them, it’s a battle each person must face on his or her own.

An interesting cultural turn has recently made this struggle more difficult and less likely to resolve by the time the students leave us. Their parents are now jumping into the graduate program, sometimes at the invitation of the student, but just as often not. Comedians and pundits have talked for years about the silliness of millennial parents over parenting their children to the point of the absurd. Children are no longer left alone to explore the outdoors, even in safe neighborhoods. Parents go to high school dances. They go on graduation trips. They heckle college professors who “give” their child a B or lower.

And now they’re coming to graduate school.

I’ve heard from colleagues around the U.S. that they’re now being contacted by the parents of students about a range of issues, from admissions to internship placement to graduation requirements. Last week, I had my first experience with a parent of a graduate student interfering in the student’s educational experience. I was stunned, to say the least.

And now I’m sad, mostly for the student. The early twenties aren’t easy for most people who are making big transitions from a late adolescent stage, which is drastically extended in modern culture by the university experience, and early adulthood. At the point in their lives when young people most need to wrestle with issues related to independence, freedom (and it’s twin, responsibility), and adult identity, parents are figuratively putting their feet in the doors of development, halting or delaying the process of maturation immeasurably.

I am glad this student’s parents love him/her and are supportive of the journey of higher education. I wonder if they realize that without allowing any struggle at all on the part of the student, they are effectively retarding his/her transition into adulthood. I’m hoping that the parents will learn to allow the child to work through the difficult passages of life with much less interference in the future; I can’t imagine mom or dad calling the boss about a workplace issue, but I guess it’s very possible in the current climate.

It’s my own generation of parents that are crippling their children by eliminating rehearsal for adulthood by removing all obstacles. And it’s us who will have to live with the way we’ve so poorly tended our duties. I’m left hoping not to have to talk to the parents of my doctor before s/he will give me my pills in the old lady’s home.

It’s our mess, X’ers. We need to fix it before it ruins us all.

The proper care & handling of the highly gifted individual

One of my favorite stories about my Dear Spouse from his mother goes like this: When he was in kindergarten, the teacher expressed concern that since he rarely talked in class, often stared out the window for long periods, and didn’t always do the “work” the other kids were doing, he must be mentally challenged. Mommy knew that this was totally wrong,but instead of telling the teacher that she, herself, was the mental midget in the equation, Mommy called a psychologist friend and had her give DS an IQ test. Turns out, he’s a genius. Mommy 1, teacher 0.

More recently, the youngest child of Dear Spouse has faced his own set of challenges within our beleaguered public school system. Said child, who has just started that horror show called “middle school” is really not a fan of busy work. His philosophy is that if he can make an “A” on the test, why does he need to do a dozen problems for homework every night?

In this age of strained school budgets and high-stakes testing, gifted kids have completely been left by the wayside. Outside of a very few remaining state math and science academies, there is almost no place in the average public school corporation to nurture young smarty pants-es. You’d think with the big push for more STEM graduates, school systems would be stepping on themselves to create the best possible incubators for young geniuses to explore their minds and worlds.

Nope.

In our town, “gifted education” is determined largely by the parents lobbying the superintendent’s office for the inclusion of their young genius, and once added, the young genius is mainly treated to extra homework, not gifted- specific teaching approaches. The upshot is that the “gifted” class is full of doctor’s kids, professor’s kids, and kids of friends of the administration. Some of these students may actually be gifted, but mostly, they’re just privileged. In said “gifted” classes, the mostly White, all upper-middle class students do more homework than their less advantaged peers, and sometimes tackle more advanced subjects. In high school, they can take Advanced Placement courses which can lead to college credits for their work. This is, I fear, the norm in most U.S. school corporations, rather than a tragic aberration.

Truly gifted people are hard to define. It’s like porn, it’s hard to say what it is, but you know it when you see it. Back in the 1990’s, when we had rules about these things, to be placed in the gifted class, a kid had to score 2 standard deviations (about 30 points above the mean) above the average of 100. This means that only about 3% of the entire population of students should fall into that category, and that having rich and loud parents is not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the class.

I am not a fan of IQ tests, for a lot of reasons I’m not going to get into today. However, having some sort of standard aside from mommy’s letters and phone calls to get into the program seems like a better plan. Neither of the older children of Dear Spouse have had Black kids in their “gifted” classes, and certainly, no poor kids. I feel certain that there are smart Black and smart poor kids in our county, but they’re not being identified, which is tragic.

Nearly as tragic is the fact that the kids who are tagged “gifted” are not treated as such. The usual flat, old, worn-out, crappy pedagogy forced onto the masses are used with the “gifted” students, too. Lectures followed by guided practice, then independent practice, and a test, are the only teaching methods I’ve noticed at the middle school in any of the academic subjects. I’m not entirely blaming the teachers, some of them might have other, better ideas that are being squashed by the testing overlords, but that is certainly the only approach I ever see from the parent end of the scope.

Gifted people are not like the rest of us. Those folks who truly make up the 2-3% of the population whose brains are measurably more powerful than the rest of ours need different teaching, different parenting,and different job environments to truly shine. They wilt and wither under the standard teach and test models in education. They are terrible at following “because I said so” rules at home. They quit if the boss makes them go to a lot of pointless meetings.

Not all gifted adults are working for Google and riding around on hover boards or pioneering new brain surgery techniques. A shocking percentage (in my anecdotal experience) are sitting on a couch somewhere, smoking weed and working minimum wage jobs. A whole lot of them are working at slightly better-paying crappy dead-end jobs that come nowhere near challenging their prodigious intellects. It’s a sad fact that many highly gifted adults spent their k-12 careers trying to avoid extra homework, wondering why they had to do all the busywork if they could already understand the concepts, correcting the textbooks (this happened at our house this week), forgetting assignments that don’t interest them, skipping the dullest of classes, and not infrequently, dropping out. Many develop depression and/or anxiety due to the difference in how they view the world and how their family and peers view it.

If gifted kids are really lucky, they get born into families with other gifted folks. For example, Dear Spouse produced three more people as bright as he is. None of them are a breeze to parent, as is usual among the gifted. All three are completely different in temperament and personality, but all three also exhibit common giftedness-related annoying qualities to the parental units. They’re often forgetful of common sense things, like wearing a coat in the winter, don’t notice piles of laundry pooling around them (this might be a boy thing, too), can’t be bothered to do tedious repetitive homework, would rather read a novel in class than listen to a lecture they could give, and can make a hundred arguments against almost any task or chore. Luckily for them, they have parents bright enough to see through the nonsense and obstinate enough to make them do the thing anyway. And these are basically good-natured kids who have all of their basic needs met, and don’t live in an abusive or violent environment.

I’ve worked with several families over my career where this isn’t the case. Either the kid is so much smarter than the parents that s/he runs the house (which leads to anxiety because developmentally it’s wildly inappropriate) or the gifted child is so far different from the rest of the family that s/he grows up feeling disaffected and detached and lonely. Sometimes, these kids find better chosen families as adults and turn out fine. Sometimes, not so much- addiction is a problem of smart people from way back (see: Byron, Lord).

I’m not pretending to have answers to the problem of wasting the minds with the greatest promise in the service of the minds of more modest abilities. There is an entire body of literature about those things. I’m saying we need to DO  what’s in that literature to support and nurture those among us who might not fit the usual mold because they’re extraordinary and precious.

Ghosts

In the past week, my family lost two Grande Dames, the likes of whom we shall never see again. They were sisters. The elder died unexpectedly, the younger faded out after a long period of debilitating illnesses. Loosing one of them would have been tough, loosing them both almost simultaneously can only be described as shocking. Their relatives joked that the younger sister was always afraid of being upstaged by the elder. so she had to go out at the same time just to have a nicer funeral- that actually might be truthful in some way.

While I was travelling to and from and around the two funerals (both in a small town down south, where my people have lived for many generations) I was struck by the feeling of being watched, followed, seen by unseen eyes. It is quite likely that this feeling was a by-product of stress (the air journey was awful, delays and changes galore) and sadness. However, I think the core of it is more opaque and dense than simple stress.

I’ve made the choice to do as many Americans before me have done; I’ve gone west (and east, and north, and south at various times) to find my fortune. I’ve left home, answered what Joe Campbell referred to as the hero’s call, packed up my knapsack, and gone. Most of the time, this feels right and as it should be. I can’t imagine how restricted and confined I’d feel if I still lived in the town where I grew up. It’s a perfectly good town, but the world is huge, and I aim to see most of it.

It’s a good thing I have the wanderlust- it’s nearly impossible to be an academic and stay put. Higher education demands mobility, at least early on in an academic career. Most professors are not-from-around-here. The idea behind that is to inhibit intellectual inbreeding, which is important when designing universities. You really don’t want all of the professors at State U to be from that state.You’d have a very limited view of life that way.

On the other hand, having all these islands of outlanders sprinkled around the country makes from some odd conglomerations of folks. College towns, and colleges inside of other towns, are often communities of outsiders and rootless wanderers. Many have come with or created families and have stayed in one place quite some time, but they’re (we’re) still not OF the place. Many times, professors pile up together like rats on a raft to make their own little rootless floating communities of chance and location.

I don’t often think of the place where I live now as a raft and myself as a rat on it, but when I go home for real, it does strike me that although I’m not around much anymore, I do still have long sucker roots that go back into the soil of that little southern town.

I am very much aware that my situation is far from unique. Black folks left the south in their hundreds after the Civil War, and again after WWII to seek better jobs up north. White folks did, too. Refugees are everywhere around the globe. People move all the time just because.

However, since this is my one life, it does strike me as a big deal that I live in one place, but am bound to another. I do not believe I’d ever live there again, nor do I want to. I’m fine where I am, and I’ll probably move a few more times to places that interest me or offer opportunities.

I am mindful of the ghosts. There are ghosts that do a fair job of haunting me every time I return to that town. Ghosts of people and events that shaped my life in a million big and small ways. Most of them are friendly and welcome. Some, of course, strike up a chorus of ache and grief for the missing of the people and times that were then and aren’t now.

When I come back here, mostly the ghosts settle down. I don’t have the stinging feeling of acute loss and memory and separation much. Ghosts do fade a bit, but they don’t ever wholly disappear. If I’m quiet for a while, I begin to feel them at the edges of my consciousness, just hanging out, reminding me that things are different now. And although that’s expected in a life of any length at all, it does pull at me from time to time and I wonder how many more ghosts are ahead, how many more I can live alongside peacefully.

I’m not entirely sure how to manage all of them, some days. That is a work in progress, one I imagine everyone has to master at some point or another. For now, I’m just trying to keep them peaceable and placated so I can get on with the present. We’ll see how that goes.

How to win at parent-teacher conferences.

Since I spent a decade of my life as an elementary school counselor, you’d think that attending parent-teacher conferences on the parent side of the table would be a cake walk. You would be wrong. Regardless of which side of the table you’re on, these things often have one tragic flaw: sometimes, someone on the teacher side has a personality that better suits him or her for work as a hermit. Or maybe an HR rep for the Spanish Inquisition (I’ve met my share of terrible parents, too, but that’s a different story).

So, when faced with the Teacher Who Will Not Retire/Leave/Stop torturing children using my tax dollars to gorge him/herself, a few tools can be handy to have (I don’t mean bring a hammer to the meeting,  but it can be tempting).

We had such a meeting for Boy 3 yesterday. He’s a sixth grader, which is a terrible thing to be.

3 has cruised through his academic career to date mainly on his adorableness and inherit genius. When confronted about his frequent mid-day naps in first grade, he gave his teacher one of these looks: http://hero.wikia.com/wiki/File:Puss_in_Boots_Eyes.jpg

And she let him nap in class.

SO, he gets to middle school with the expectation that he can continue to charm his way along, not turn in any work, ace the tests, and be perfectly fine. We tried to warn him that middle school teachers are somewhat less susceptible to kitten eyes than elementary teachers, but we’re adults and therefore unwise in the ways of the youths.

We requested the meeting because 3 is making C/D/Fs in all of his classes, in spite of the kitten eyes and acing the tests. He apparently hasn’t turned in a homework page in weeks- he does the work, he just doesn’t turn it in. Somewhere, there is a dragon sitting on a huge pile of homework, generated but not turned in by, 1 and 3.

Anyway, his father and I turn up at the appointed hour to see what we can do about this mess. 3 does not want to repeat a grade, and he knows he won’t touch an x box until he’s 30 if he doesn’t get it together pretty fast. I had requested/demanded nicely that 3 also attend the meeting, which puzzled the evil teacher, but they fetched him anyway.

To open the meeting, one of the teachers (none of whom we’d met before) reads a list covering 2 lined pages of sins and maladroit actions of 3. 3, in his defense, sat and listened, turning very pale but not using the Eyes.

I then broke in and requested that we open the meeting by telling what 3 is doing well.

This was hard for the Evil Teacher. The other 3 easily came up with how smart he is, how friendly he is to other kids, how he can make A+ on tests, etc. Evil Teacher began with the yes buts. I detest the yes-buts. They are the heart and soul of passive-aggressive nonsense and are frequently the underlying cause of relationship problems. She starts with, “Well, now 3 is a smart boy, WHEN he decides to use it”.

I managed to supress an urge to bang either my own or Evil Teacher’s head on the desk. Instead, I summoned my Skillz and said, “You kind of backed into that one. What can you tell us that is going WELL?” Blink. Blink. One of the other teachers said something nice, and we moved on.

At this point, I pulled out paper and began making notes. When I was a counselor at a  school, I had forms for this purpose. When teachers don’t use them, I kind of know the meeting is really about shaming the child and telling the parents they suck rather than actually solving the problem. Few educators will admit this, but it’s true. Teachers, counselors, principals, etc who really want to help you will stick to a problem solving tactic and will almost always make notes.

On my improvised form, I write, “Date, Present, Identified Problems, Identified Solutions, Person Responsible, Follow Up Plan”. This is not rocket science, people. It’s very basic common sense stuff, but it really helps focus the meeting and often keeps Evil Ones from derailing the process and turning it into bitch-and-moan hour.

From here, it was a bit of an effort to corral Evil Teacher’s mission to shame 3 with her condescending remarks about both his observable behaviors (which are appropriate to discuss here) and his global self as a human (which is not). Fortunately, the other teachers are all good eggs and were able to identify very specific things 3 needs to do in order to earn better grades in their classes without condescending to him or making global inferences about him self. This was helpful.

At the end of the hour, I had a list of three problems and four solutions. Everyone in the room had some responsibility for the success of the plan (which is crucial), even though 3 himself had the lion’s share, which is appropriate because it’s his grade. When I got home, I scanned the notes into the computer and emailed them to all of the teachers and gave 3 my copy so he can keep it in his binder (it’s currently on the dining room table, but we’re making baby steps).

As we were leaving, Evil Teacher said, “It’s always nice to meet parents who care”. This is one of the most toxic things teachers can ever believe about parents. It’s charged with all sorts of race/class/gender judgments and indicates a very low opinion of humans in general.

I was so proud of myself for not throttling her, I can’t even tell you how much.

3 and I had a nice chat on the way home from study tables (he’s now staying after school 3 days a week until he’s on honor roll). He didn’t say it in so many words, but I think he was very grateful that the meeting was about things he can actually fix and not about shaming him for who he is. When I think about the damage done every day around the world by teachers like the Evil One, I get serious heartburn. Let’s focus on some solutions, people. There is a right way to handle these conferences.

Explaining empathetic attunement in India

As some of you may know, I’m preparing to take a group of my graduate students to India next week for a two-week whirlwind tour of the northern parts of the country. One of many highlights of the trip is a two-day conference at NK college in Mumbai. I’m the keynote speaker, and of course, my topic is play therapy.

I get to talk about play therapy a lot. Usually, I’m talking to professionals or grad students who already have a pretty decent idea of what play therapy might be. At this conference, I get to introduce the idea of play therapy to about 150 college students (mostly psychology majors), professors, and professionals who have probably never heard of play therapy, AND who live in a very different cultural context from the one I inhabit.

To call this a bit of a challenge is a serious understatement.

I’ve been working on my outline and slides for months now, and I’m not satisfied with them yet. I’ve got the usual suspects lined up: Virginia Axline’s 8 principles, the basic attending skills in play therapy, how to set limits, some brain stuff. But I don’t yet think I’ve captured the IT that makes play therapy such a powerful modality for working with kids.

When I think about what the IT, the driving force of play therapy, is I get lost for words (which is not a common occurrence, trust me). What can I call the magic that happens in the space between the child and the play therapist? You know, that feeling of being invited into the inner world of the child’s imagination and thoughts, being in sync, attuned, congruent, aligned? This, in my opinion, is what makes therapy tick. I find it to operate most powerfully when I’m helping my client access his or her creative, affective brain, getting out of the rigid, verbal, linear left brain and into the visual, contextual right brain. I’ve just never found a perfect English word to describe it, and now I have to find a way to describe this to a group of people for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language.

When I teach beginning counselors here in the United States, I often use Judith Jordan’s idea of mutual empathy to explain the “it” of therapy. Mutual empathy differs from one-way empathy in therapy in its bi-directionality. In most ways of working, therapists are trained to use empathy to enter the world of the client. In mutual empathy, the therapist feels the clients feelings with him or her, and helps the client to understand that their feelings impact the therapist as well; that their feelings matter to the therapist. I believe that this process occurs naturally in engaged play and expressive arts therapy. Left brain-to-left brain contact, which science now tells us helps grow and repair relational neural pathways, may be the “it” I’m raving about today.

But how to explain that to 150 Indian students and scholars? In an hour?

I’m still working on it. However, I have found a word in Urdu (a cousin of the language of old Persia which is widely spoken in northern India, also the language of some of the greatest poets who ever lived) that might help: manoos. It seems to be a little different from our word empathy, and from the Hindi word for empathy, which means the same as the English. Manoos seems (I say “seems” because I’m definitely not a linguist nor do I speak Urdu) to impy a feeling of care and warmth for another person or an animal such that it/they are no longer a stranger and there is a mutual affection and understanding between yourself and the other.

Maybe manoos isn’t the answer to explaining the empathetic attunement therapists must use, but I’m going to move ahead with it for now. Maybe manoos will at least start a conversation about how inadequate language can be in the face of felt experiences? I’m going to keep wrestling with this, and hoping for a flash of enlightenment.

Rumi, one of many brilliant poets who wrote in Persian, a cousin to Urdu, wrote:

I closed my mouth and spoke to you in a hundred silent ways.”

Maybe that’s the definition of tuning in?