How Children Succeed: A Reflection on Adversity, Resiliency and the Hidden Power of Character

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In my job, each day I am given the opportunity to work with amazing kids. For a few short years, I have the opportunity to watch their successes and their struggles, to see them persevere against the challenges of middle school, and to see them strive to figure out who they are and where they fit in. As I watched our recent group of Grade 8 students walk across the stage at this year’s middle school leaving ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder where life’s path would take them. I have little worries about some. Even at a young age, they seem to have a resiliency and sense of purpose that assures me they will find their way. For others, I know the road will be harder, there will be more bumps and obstacles in their way, and I am left hoping that they have the grit and determination to persevere and come out the other side stronger and more self-assured.

What it is that makes some children more resilient than others? What is it that causes some to thrive and some to lose their way in life? And what can be done to foster the resiliency needed to succeed?

As I was trying to figure out the answers to these questions, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Tough speak about his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” at the Heart and Mind Conference in Vancouver. I bought his book and placed it in the pile with all the other summer reading. On a recent trip, I took it on the airplane and spent the next few days looking for any opportunity to read. What he was saying made a lot of sense and began to shed a bit of light on what is a very complex topic. Some of the key takeaways were:

Stress, Adversity, and the Teenage Brain: No surprise that studies have shown that early adversity puts stress on the brain making it harder to concentrate, sit still, follow directions and bounce back. However, while the brain and body are more susceptible to the impact of stress in early childhood, in adolescence the damage stress leaves can cause more serious and long lasting problems. When something is out of balance in the adolescent brain it is more prone to making poor or impulsive decisions. This stress or trauma comes out in two ways. It is either turned inward and manifests into fear, anxiety, sadness, insecurity, and self-destructive actions or it is turned outwards and manifests itself in behaviour. As educators, it is easy to pick out those who manifest stress in a way that is impossible not to notice. Where it gets tricky is identifying those students who survive by turning inwards.

The Role of Parents: Dozens of studies have shown that children with a secure attachment with a parent are often more socially competent and better able to manoeuvre their way through the teen years. With that said, studies have also shown that you don’t need to be a super parent. Instead, just being helpful and attentive to your child’s needs and emotions can make a dramatic difference in a child’s life. For students lacking this secure attachment, schools play an even bigger role in trying to fill these shoes.

The Brain is Malleable: Tough argues that the brain is malleable which means teens have the capacity to rethink or remake their lives in a way that young children don’t. Tough argues that to be a good teacher, you have to fundamentally believe that both intelligence and character are malleable and that children can change the way they think and act. There can be enormous growth when a child believes this too and Tough’s book is riddled with success stories that are both compelling and heart-warming.

7 Key Character Traits for Success: Smarts are not enough. If it was, Tough argues that we wouldn’t be seeing an epidemic of our smartest kids failing to thrive when faced with challenge. Instead, he argues that the key to success are the following 7 character traits which can very much be taught to children and build a foundation for resiliency:

Grit
Curiosity
Self-control
Social intelligence
Zest
Optimism
Gratitude

The Importance of Failure: As important as teaching the character traits is teaching students that failure is a crucial part of the learning process. While it is in our biological makeup to want to protect our children, what they need is some struggle, some challenge, and the opportunity to overcome even if just to prove to themselves that they can do it. In order to succeed, sometimes you first have to learn how to fail.

The Importance of Mental Contrasting: Middle school is the key age to transform pessimism into optimism but it is not enough to just teach students how to be optimistic. In contrast, students need to actively learn how to concentrate on a positive outcome while focusing on the obstacles they will need to overcome. By doing so, this creates a strong link between the future and an action plan needed to overcome the challenges most likely faced along the way.

Student Management: As educators, Tough argues that it is crucial that we look at how we approach discipline. In a school run on a compliance based system, a student’s own ability to make decisions is often suppressed. Effectively working with students requires more conversations, bigger questions, and an emphasis on really hearing and respecting student voice. Students will make mistakes and they will fail, but they need to look their choices in the eye, see where they messed up, and believe they can do better next time.

As educators, our greatest hope for all our students is that each will develop the resiliency, the grit, and the determination to overcome adversity and to find their purpose and passion in life. The reality is we know that some have a long and hard road ahead of them. With that said, I have the opportunity to see resiliency thrive on a daily basis. So many of our students, no matter where you teach, have been dealt a tough hand, yet something in them drives them forward and pushes them in a positive direction. Perhaps it is something innate inside them or perhaps, as Tough says, it is the people in their lives who have helped them up the ladder.

What I do know is that in a month new students will walk through the door and familiar faces will come back having been shaped by the summer. What I know is that we will be met with a mix of students and that, as educators, we will need to meet them all where they are at. My hope is that we can begin to look at better ways to build character and to pave a way towards a greater understanding of adversity and resiliency in the hope that more students, as Tough states, will be able to tell themselves, “I can rise above this little situation. I am okay. Tomorrow is a new day.”

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Holiday Awesomes… A Lesson in Gratitude

n663712323_744211_2285Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever said in life was thank you, that would suffice.” Gratitude is a powerful thing and the simple act of giving thanks is one of the best ways to increase happiness and joy in children and adults when practiced regularly. Studies have shown that the simple act of being grateful has the enormous capacity to increase joy, reduce stress and depression, increase optimism, and improve resiliency. The feelings we get when we are grateful also do wonders for calming our nervous system and increasing levels of dopamine that stimulate our prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where reasoning and logic take place. It’s not surprising that practicing gratitude has such a powerful impact, after all, to be grateful for at least one thing a day forces even the most pessimistic of people to take a moment to find the silver lining.

In MindUp, we introduce the concept of gratitude by passing a gratitude stone. Each student takes a moment to give thanks for something in their lives. While students sometimes start off by giving thanks for things like their toys, they quickly begin to look for other meaningful things to be grateful for such as a friend or family member, an act of kindness, or a special moment.

I also introduce a gratitude journal. In past years, students have written their gratitude of the day in their agendas or in special journals they decorated and personalized. The act of keeping a gratitude journal can profoundly change the way you see the world. In university, I went travelling for four months in Europe. I was given a journal and, for some reason, decided that I would only focus on the positive aspects of my trip. Despite bumps in the road, I religiously focused on the aspects of my day that were positive and the experiences I was grateful for. It didn’t mean I didn’t address the bumps along the way, but instead I looked for the humour and opportunity in those situations. The simple act of giving thanks and focusing on the positive shaped the way I saw the world for those four months. I looked at it through more optimistic eyes, I focused on the small aspects of life that made me happy, and I learned to be far more resilient in the face of challenges. Isn’t that what we want for our students?

awesomesEveryone handles teaching gratitude in different ways. One of the amazing teachers at my school, Ms. Kurylo, used Neil Pasricha’s   “Book of Awesome” to teach her class about the power of gratitude and the importance of seeing the many awesomes in the world. I love Pasricha’s books because he focuses on the little things we tend to miss each day: comfortable silences, finding money in your pocket, a great teacher. Ms. Kurylo had her class keep their own “Book of Awesomes” and, at the start of the year, they created their own “Awesome” bulletin board.

51ra1ifRr8L__SL500_AA300_When I saw Pasricha’s “Book of Holiday Awesome,” I decided to give awesomes a try. Reading the Christmas section of his book made me smile throughout. Yes, flipping through channels and finding your favorite Christmas special, awesome. Sitting in a room with the only lights being that of the Christmas tree, awesome. Listening to the beautiful silence that comes with a snowfall, definitely awesome. After reading a few awesomes, I had my students come up with their own. They thought of holiday or winter traditions or seasonal things that made them happy. Some took favorite holiday memories and turned them into awesomes. For example, one of my students remembered being woken by her grandfather at 2:00 a.m. to go and play in freshly fallen snow with her cousin. Because they were personal, their descriptions of their awesomes were richly sensorial and beautifully written. Just a few of my favorites were:

Watching a movie with your family on Christmas Eve while picking away at the family gingerbread house. Awesome

Feeling the fresh snow beneath my snowboard on that very first trip down the slopes. Awesome

The taste of snowflakes on your tongue. Awesome

Deciding which Christmas decoration will be the first on the tree. Awesome

It seems that at this time of the year, many of us take time to give thanks. We might give thanks for the generous gifts we receive, for the meal we share with family or friends, or simply for the many blessings we have received throughout the year. I have many holiday awesomes, but one of my favorites is hanging a special picture on my Christmas tree every year, the same picture at the top of this post. It is of my siblings and I sitting on my great uncle’s lap the year he decided, long after retiring from the post office, to be a mall Santa. He loved Christmas and being with family more than anyone else I knew. He also embodied what it really meant to be grateful. He lived each day of his life feeling blessed and, even though he has passed, hanging this picture on my tree reminds me of the person he was and the life he lived. He was awesome in every sense of the word.

This is the season to be grateful but my wish for you is that you will carry the spirit of gratitude with you long after the snow has melted and the Christmas tree has been packed away. My hope is that each day you will take the time to reflect and be grateful for some aspect of your life, however big or small. The more you look the more you will realize just how awesome this world we live in really is.

Using the Power of Stories to Introduce the Concept of Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has written a number of fantastic books on mindfulness for adults, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” While this is a great definition for adults to ponder, use this same definition with children and you will likely be met with a sea of confused stares. The way we explain mindfulness to students must be much simpler and must be built on a foundation of making connections between the concept of mindfulness and the child’s own life.

Introducing students to the concept of mindfulness, or to what it means to be mindful, has become a lot easier with picture book authors embracing the topic. Using picture books to introduce mindfulness gives students a foundation from which to make connections to their own lives and serves as a starting point for rich classroom discussions and activities. While this blog post was going to include my favourite top 5 books on mindfulness, a recent purchase bumped it up to a top 6 list.

If I were to recommend any book on the topic of mindfulness, Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda is my favourite. In this story, Monkey can’t quite figure out why Panda is always so calm and relaxed. Panda and Monkey compare their day and while their activities are the same, they do them in a very different way. While Monkey is always doing one activity while thinking of another, Panda focuses on the activity he is doing in that moment. Panda explains to Monkey that his problem is that his “monkey mind” is jumping around too much. In contrast, Panda is mindful, which he explains means his “mind” is “full” of the moment. This is a fantastic launching point for an initial introduction to what it means to be mindful.

What Does it Mean to Be Present is another favourite. It also serves as an introduction to what it means to be mindful or to be in the present moment. Students learn that being present in the moment is about listening to yourself and others, focusing on the now, being grateful, and learning from mistakes. It is also about slowing down to focus on the beauty that surrounds us each and every day. While Amazon says this book is coming soon, for now it appears it has to be purchased through the publisher “Little Pickle Press,” who also puts out one of my favourite books on the brain, Your Fantastic Elastic Brain. They also sell the wonderful poster pictured at the beginning of this post.

For younger children, Take the Time: Mindfulness for Kids is a great book to introduce the concept of mindfulness in a simple way. In this beautifully illustrated story, we follow a small child as they navigate mindfully through the world, noticing the things they feel and experience along the way.

Someday is the story of a little girl who finds herself pulled between the present moment and her dreams for the future. Throughout the book, she goes back and forth between imagining what life will be like when she is bigger, while trying to be content with where she is at in the moment. This book is beautifully illustrated and is rich with sensorial imagery. Someday reminds us that while dreaming big is wonderful, sometimes just enjoying the present moment can be equally as sweet.

The Listening Walk is a great introduction to mindful listening or how a simple walk can turn into a lesson in mindfulness. As the little girl in the story focuses on her walk, she is able to hear, see, smell, and experience things she otherwise would not. At the end of the story, the main character invites us all to take a listening walk. This story serves as a great starting point for a lesson on mindful listening, or for a listening walk of your own.

My newest book, Silence, is a beautifully illustrated and gently written book on the power of silence. This book encourages children to stop, listen, and reflect on the experiences around them. Using the qualities of mindfulness, readers are asked to pay attention to the things normally drowned out in our busy, noisy world. This story lends to great discussions about the things we experience when we become still enough to notice.

Any of these books serves as a great starting point to begin a class discussion on mindfulness and they make an excellent addition to any school or class library. Hands-on lessons to follow shortly.

“Glitzing Up” Your Understanding of the Brain

I was recently teaching a MindUp workshop to teachers in my district. A primary teacher asked how to introduce the concept of the brain to young children, or more specifically, the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on the brain. This is a question I have been asked many times before. From an adult perspective, learning or teaching anything about the brain seems like a complex undertaking. The reality is, we don’t need to be neuroscientists to teach students about the brain or about the impact of stress, anxiety, and fear on brain function. When I teach these concepts to adults, I use the same visuals I would use with a class of middle school students or with a kindergarten class. The key is to provide students of any age with key visuals they can connect to and refer to when needed.

In addition to using Dan Siegel’s “Hand Model of the Brain,” which I wrote about in an earlier post, the most successful visual I have found to demonstrate the connection between stress and the brain is by using glitter balls. The use of glitter balls came from Susan Kaiser Greenland. I have included her video clip below. When I demonstrate how the parts of the brain function in both a calm and stressed out state, I begin by explaining that all the pieces of glitter represent the roughly 2000 bits of information our Reticular Activating System takes in each second. When the mind is calm and clear, like the unshaken glitter ball, information is able to pass successfully to the other parts of the brain. If we need to store or retrieve memories, we can access our hippocampus with greater ease. If we need to solve complex problems, make connections, or focus and pay attention, information is able to travel to our Prefrontal Cortex where learning takes place.

In contrast, when the mind is anxious or in a state of stress, the mind becomes just like the shaken glitter ball. Information is sent to our amygdala, our flight, fight, freeze center, as opposed to where it is needed to go. Like the glitter ball, the mind becomes cloudy and unfocused, information swirls around, and it is much harder for information to get where it needs to go. Can’t we all think of a time when our mind felt like the shaken glitter ball? I imagine it was hard to focus, hard to remember things, and hard to keep information straight.

When I teach students about deep breathing, we look at the glitter ball again. This time, using our breathing, we shake the glitter ball and breathe while the glitter slowly settles to the bottom. This represents the calming effect of breathing on the brain. Students as young as kindergarten can relate to the visual of the glitter ball, and I have seen the image of the glitter ball reappear in conversations and in writing. I remember one of my former kindergarten students, during a particularly tough moment, tell me his brain felt like the glitter ball. His thoughts were swirling around and he recognized he was having a hard time controlling it.

If you can’t find glitter balls, making your own is simple enough. Before I came across Kaiser Greenland’s video, I used the jar of thick oil and small beads pictured at the start of this post. You can also create a more glittery visual by using hot water, food colouring, glitter glue, glitter, and a glass jar. In a small jar, mix a couple of tablespoons of glitter glue with hot water (if water is cold, the glue won’t break down). Stir until the glue is dissolved. Add a drop of food colouring and some dry glitter and shake. For a great book that goes with this concept, try “Moody Cow Meditates.” Since the deep breathing practice (Brain Break) used in MindUP is not considered meditation, I change the book to “Moody Cow is Mindful.” In this great children’s book, Moody Cow is shown how the glitter jar represents his “moody” brain in the same way we teach the glitter jar to students. By the way, for those techies out there, Moody Cow also has his own IPad app.

Once you have used the visual of the glitter ball, I have done a number of extension activities with students. Some of these activities include:

  • Journaling about a time their own brain felt like the shaken glitter jar. What was going on? What did it feel like? How did they calm their mind?
  • Having students cover a paper circle entirely with glitter glue and then write about things that cause them stress, anxiety, or fear. The paper glitter ball can also serve as the center starting point for a web.
  • Placing just a small bit of glitter glue at the bottom of a paper circle to represent a calm mind. Have students write about things that calm their mind or complete a similar web to the one outlined above.
  • Brainstorming a class list of strategies that can calm the mind and then writing them on paper glitter balls that can be posted in the classroom for future reference. This is also a great activity once students are farther into the program and have more information to draw on.
  • Having students bring a small jar from home. Students can then create their own glitter jar that can be taken home, explained to parents, and left at home for future reference.

In short, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to demonstrate the impact of stress on brain function. No matter how old or young your students, the glitter ball teaches the basics of what students need to know. I also promise you that whether you teach adults, middle schoolers, or kindergarteners, the enthusiastic response is the same. For those students that want to learn more, which some do, you also don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes questions are the best segue into demonstrating that teachers are learners too. While I feel I have a good understanding of the brain science behind MindUp or mindfulness education, a recent visit to a couple of middle school classrooms in my school left me with questions I couldn’t answer with “complete” confidence. One student insightfully asked whether a photographic memory was an indicator of an overdeveloped hippocampus. Another told me that the reason our flight, fight, freeze mechanism doesn’t always pick the best option is that it is so primitive it does not have the capacity to factor in modern dangers. You don’t need all the answers and, when in doubt, Google!

Teaching the Brain

Everything is better with a great book and teaching students about the brain is no different. Books on the brain for students can be few and far between, with most information found between the pages of dense non-fiction material. With that said, I have two favorites that I use with students all the way from kindergarten up to grade 8.

“A Walk in the Rain with a Brain,” by Edward Hallowell, is a great book for younger students. The main message of the book is that “each brain finds its own special way.” The story begins with Lucy, the main character, walking in the rain when she finds a brain sitting in a puddle. The brain asks for her help in finding his way home and, on their walk, Lucy expresses her  belief that she isn’t very smart. Fred, the brain, explains that everyone is smart but just in their own unique ways. He also argues that everyone just thinks and learns a little bit differently. The notion that everyone has unique strengths, and that everyone thinks and learns differently, is a commonly held belief amongst educators. Helping students to discover and utilize their own strengths, while at the same time providing strategies and structures to improve learning is crucial to the positive emotional well-being of children. This book provided the opportunity for students to take what they knew about the brain, and what they knew about themselves, to create their own cartoon brain. Each student spent time brainstorming a list of strengths they had. Students then had fun imagining what their cartoon brain might look like. In the end, each brain was an accurate representation of the child and the visual depictions were a general match too.

My other favorite book is “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain,” which is published by Little Pickle Press. You can download an activity guide from their site. I love this book for so many reasons. First, it does a fantastic job of introducing the parts of the brain we focus on in MindUp. Second, it explains to children, in a simple way, how we are all born with a brain that is flexible and can be shaped by the things we do each day. To improve our own fantastic elastic brains, the author suggests we try simple strategies such as taking risks, learning a new skill, solving problems, and even making mistakes and learning from them. This book can lend to rich discussion whether in a Kindergarten class or in a middle school class. Little Pickle Press also recently came out with a fantastic ipad app to support their book. It does cost a little money to download, but it allows your students or child to participate in the reading of the story. It also includes a wealth of fun activities, games, and journal prompts to stretch your own fantastic elastic brain.

With students, I have used this book in a variety of ways. I have had them work in groups to brainstorm specific examples of the various ways to stretch their brain. We have also displayed these “fantastic elastic ways,” in the classroom for future reference. For younger children, I have challenged them to find examples, in the books we were reading, of ways others were stretching their brain. Each time a student discovered an example, they would say the word “snap,” to represent the snapping of an elastic band. Students also made plasticine models of their own brain that demonstrated the unique strengths and skills of each child. The lesson plan for this activity can be found on the Kids Relaxation Website. For a high school example of a plasticine model of the brain, check out Newton High School’s blog, for a very cool look at their high school psychology project on the brain. This is a perfect example of the creativity of teachers and the ability to take an idea and stretch it to meet the needs of your own “fantastic elastic” students. More lessons on this book to come…