As the weather gets colder, I play a little game as I stand outside in the morning greeting the girls. To keep my mind off the fact that I really need a warmer winter coat, I try to figure out what beverage is in the cups of the girls trudging up the steps. Is it hot chocolate? Chamomile tea? Or is that purplish green a combo of beets and kale?
What I realize most from this little game is not that I would make a very sorry barista, but that there are little details about these girls that I don’t know. While I might know the date she gets her braces off, the name of her dog, and what she wrote her last English essay about, there are things about each girl that will remain on the peripheral to me. And it is this humbling realization that reminds me that despite the many waking hours we educators spend with these girls, they are still someone else’s daughters. We are most effective when we work in partnership with our students’ families. It is in this spirit that this installment of At the Helm focuses on research from two leading clinical psychologists about how adults can support children in developing self-regulation and problem-solving skills.
This October, Wanda and I were invited by the National Coalition of Girls Schools to join their board retreat in Los Angeles. The retreat featured a presentation by Dr. Robin Berman, a psychiatrist and associate professor at UCLA, and author of Permission to Parent: How to Raise your Child with Love and Limits.
After reading Dr. Berman’s book and hearing her speak, I was struck by how our good intentions as parents and educators can sometimes translate into the opposite impact on our children and students. Dr. Berman says that we have swung the pendulum from children being seen and not heard to being the center of the universe. In this dynamic, she says, “our good intentions have morphed into intrusion, hyper-concern, and one gigantic piece of bubble wrap. We are insulating against scrapes that haven’t yet occurred.” The philosophy of the past was about respecting your elders, but kids were scared of their parents. Today it is about respecting children, but kids are holding their parents emotionally hostage. Dr. Berman urges us to find middle ground of mutual respect and loving limits.
Last month, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author, spent three days with middle school students and faculty, and concluded her time by meeting with Hamlin parents. She talked about how we should provide endless communication to our kids that we are confident in who they are and who they will be. While we may be feeling crazy or clueless, we must have the “opposite emotion / opposite reaction” when responding to our kid’s moments of distress. We should not meet them where they are with their own irrational fears: “This test counts.” “The school you go to will determine your future.” Instead, we should reassure them and help them see the big picture: “You are a work in progress.” “I believe in you.”
Both Dr. Berman and Dr. Steiner-Adair are similar in their advice for how adults can model self-regulation and help guide children to independent problem solving. Dr. Berman points to neuroscience research that shows that if “adults can model calmness when our emotions are running high, we will teach our kids to manage their emotions.” Dr. Steiner-Adair says, our girls “want to know you are separate. You see it, but you can stay calm.”
Both experts recommend parents model self-regulation in response to their children’s distress. Next time you are met with the catastrophic thinking that starts with a small disappointment, such as an unexpected low grade or not making the desired team, and ends with them projecting their future as “barefoot, jobless, and on the street,” consider the following steps:
• Calm yourself first.
• Show empathy for the child’s struggle or feelings.
• Encourage them to problem solve.
To strengthen our students’ ability to problem solve, Hamlin uses Open Session, a student-generated problem-solving inquiry format created by Janice Toben, Founder of the Institute for SEL. We use Open Session in Toolbox and advisory as a forum for collaborative problem-solving and for strengthening in the girls a sense of self-efficacy. Read more about Open Session.
To practice the principles of Open Session at home, you might try one of these two dinner-time challenges. The first, “The Slovenly Club,” is described by Dr. Berman in her book and can be used if kids are hypercritical of their mistakes and showing perfectionist tendencies. A parent shares his/her biggest mess-up of the day. The other family members follow suit, comparing their mistakes and eventually determining the largest mistake of the day the winner. The second dinner-time challenge, suggested by Dr. Steiner-Adair, can be used if kids are relying too heavily on adults to solve their problems. Dr. Steiner-Adair suggests parents raise a problem that is going on in their adult lives – at work, home, etc. – and ask for advice how to solve it. In both these cases, the children are participating in the analysis of mistakes and problems, and as a result, they are growing a sense of self-efficacy as problem-solvers.
If you are interested in the continued exploration of encouraging self-regulation and independent problem-solving, Julie Lythcott-Haims, author and former Stanford Freshman Dean, will be presenting “How to Raise an Adult” at Convent of the Sacred Heart on Monday, December 7, 2015, from 7:30-9:00. Click here for more information.
And remember, this is a partnership. Just like only you know the peripheral details that make your daughter uniquely who she is, only you know what parenting strategies work best in your family. In preparation for the unknown crises that lie ahead, I think I’ll take a note from the girls and pour myself a warm, calming beverage for those cold mornings out on the steps. Maybe I’ll throw in some marshmallows…