With the thinly veiled threat of snow lurking, I ventured out for an appointment I did not want to keep. My resentment was in constant conflict with the mindset I know has to prevail namely to be with what is. I repeated a quote from a friend “optimism is best revenge” and I wished the micro-cellular boxing match inside my lymphocytes would end, and end fast.
But as the elevator closed, most logical thought left me and my amygdala was driving the bus. My brain slid into the Freeway of Fear into the Land of Worry. There were no tantrums or yelling. Nope, this was subtle, as I tried to maintain some semblance of control. Clenched jaws. Little eye contact. Shoulders tensed. Two word answers. Mild complaints. All positioning me on the brink of a fight, tears, or both.
“Really? Very childish. This is not who you are.” I thought. “Big Kid. Acting out of fear.”
I’ve seen this thousands of times, mostly from the other side.
“Step off this bus and watch the traffic.”
One more pep talk and I was semi-relaxed and plugged into a playlist. I sheepishly watched the nurses eyeing me as they tried figure me out, medically and emotionally. I’ve got to work with these rock stars, so I smiled meekly and blurted out that I was afraid. “No problem, we’ve been doing this for years and we know our stuff. It will be fine and if you don’t feel fine, just tell me, hon.”
Exhale. But forehead still furled.
Later a micro-change occurs and I am growly again. Pep talk replays and I watch the veteran nurse patiently coach the grad students on how to log into the computer and tend to patients with a sense of purpose, authority and compassion. Something about watching a teacher makes me think of my students. The perfect distraction from the Land of Worry.
How many times do we see that “angry” student scowling, clenching jaw or fists, avoiding eye contact? It can be hard not to take those actions personally, but of we stop to watch and think, we can often uncover the root causes. (They’re generally nothing personal.) The outward behaviors are nearly always the manifestations of negative emotions and unmet needs. In my case, fear, worry, and anticipation of the worst.
Adults can help children by acknowledging those traits, asking or providing for information and making a plan that both establishes trust or faith and allows for some actionable steps to unfold.
So when a four-year old exhibits a pattern of grabbing objects from others and using angry words, perhaps it’s not just that she covets those items. Could she be sick? Tired? Witness to other negative behaviors in another setting that are in conflict with those positive skills she is working to develop? Responses might include:
“I see that you really wanted the book that Lisa has. What might be a way you can ask that keeps everyone and our books safe?”
“I wonder if there is something that might be bothering you and if I can help?”
With little ones, sometimes just a little one-on-one time can help assuage those negative feelings and keep them from escalating.
As the day wraps up and a third grader is packing homework, he comments that “this is stupid” more than once. Perhaps it’s been a rough day where he felt he couldn’t do his best or there was a conflict on the playground you didn’t witness. Or it could be that the math assignment feels hard – too hard for him to complete successfully, so it’s easier to berate it than to admit the worry and uncertainty it creates. Simple expressions of your confidence in his skills and effort and reassurance that you are here to guide him can be an effective strategy for minimizing the negative feelings this assignment evokes.
No matter the age of a child, having empathy for the learner, rooted in an understanding of the human need for a sense of belonging, significance and fun, helps us interpret behavior more accurately. Sure, we all have surly days or occasional poor attitudes, but when these basic needs are unmet, other behaviors surface that can be annoying, disruptive, counterproductive, or just plain mean. Understanding why these behaviors manifest in children can help establish a more positive tone for relationships and classrooms (and homes, too). Our job is to coach children to better understand their emotions, their relationships, their roles within a group. Once in place, children are far better positioned to develop a deep understanding of the academic content we are charged with teaching and becoming a productive and compassionate contributors to the world.
Those nurses had deep empathy for the learner – me the Learner of My Own Body-Mind. With genuine compassion and deep knowledge of their profession, they were able to overlook the negative appearance of fear – to both get the job done and make me feel better about being with what is. Thoughtful and masterful teachers face these types of tough challenges – often with rich payoffs when it’s faced equanimity, understanding and compassion because of their deep sense of empathy and understanding.
post script: As I walked away, the nurse paused and said in a gentle but knowing way, “I hope I did a little something to make it less scary for you… it will be easier next time.” With a grateful smile, I said, “Of course, of course you did. Thank you!”