No Really, It’s That Big…

As we enter into this huge transition, into a our new US (which for some is the old US), we must view this time as a transition for emotional awareness as well. In my mind, the lack of awareness around this issue is a looming contributor to the choice that we just made as a nation. As educators and parents, we have the wherewithall to help children become accustomed to feelings as part of their bodies, others’ bodies, and the greater collective body.

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The past year has come with a heap of transition for our school. In September we began our second school year at Elm House, our program that includes children who are twelve months to three years old. There have been many tears. Children being dropped off at a new place can be challenging and full of emotion for both the children and their primary caregivers.  One of our Elm House teachers, Mage Baltes,  wrote a heartfelt and helpful piece on saying goodbye.

The idea of tears and feelings has of course come up at the beginning of the past six years in the preschool as well. And of course it comes up for each of us throughout our lives… We say goodbye to loved ones as they die. We say goodbye to those who live far away. We transition from being children to adults and we must say goodbye to our parents in a new and potentially frightening way. Or we might encounter the pain of saying a curt goodbye to those that we wish we could have loved differently.  The transitions in our worlds sometime feel painful. And unrelenting.

A preschool parent recently borrowed a book from our shelves called Tears and Tantrums by Aletha J Solter. She commented: “It was helpful in reminding me that crying, even rage, is a beneficial, inevitable release for children.” Her comment reminded me of another beautiful piece written by Mage called Connect Through Crying.

Personally, I have been trying to do more crying in my day-to-day life. A few months back I found myself cut off from my emotional self, unable to release the huge emotions that I am processing about the world (my children, other people’s children, the teachers that I care about and mentor, my impact, how to do better, be better, do more, grow more, the struggles of others, children in jail, public servants killing people, and a narcisstic misogynist running for POTUS, and now elected as POTUS- to name a few). Since, with support and love from those I trust most, I have been able to tap in to my emotions again.

This is important stuff. As adults, we are becoming more disconnected from our emotional and spiritual selves. Which makes it challenging to tap into the emotional and spiritual lives of Other.

But why is teaching children about emotions important? And is it just kind of important? Does it help just them? Does it extend into the later parts of their lives? How does it help to heal us as adults? These are some questions that I have been asking during this time.

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At our school, coaching around emotional awareness has become part and parcel of our learning processes. We say things such as, “You are feeling so sad right now. I understand. Sometimes I feel sad also.” And we will, as Mage explains in their piece, simply hold children and sit with them and honor their emotions. Afterwards we might say, “It looks like your feelings have changed. Now you feel happy!” These practices provide a process of metacognition for children- or thinking about their thinking (or feelings in this case).

Many times, we see parents out and about whose children are upset, and they are trying to help that child “get over” their emotions. I am sure all parents and educators can understand this- sometimes we want the emotion to simply go away! We want to stop feeling embarrassed by either a) our perception of how others might be viewing us at that moment (too lenient, not ‘in control’ of our kids, overly empathic, etc) OR b) our actual feelings of remorse or judgment about how our kid is ‘acting’.

Here’s what we also see and experience out in the world. Children who experience their emotions, feel connected to a parent or caregiver during that emotion, and then move past it- safely, securely, and while being loved by someone else. And I might add, with CLEAR boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not in terms of behavior.

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Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at each picture.

In the first totally understandable and reasonable situation, we have a child who is upset about something. Everybody gets upset. In this situation, this child is receiving information that leads them to believe that their emotions are not necessary. That their emotions are not worthy of time. And that their emotions are not interesting. However, when we as adults approach a child’s emotions in this way, the emotion does not simply ‘go away’. The child does not simply ‘get over’ these emotions. They are stored and reacted to within their bodies.

Zoom out more. How does this impact their relationships with others? If I can put myself in their shoes… I am receiving the information that emotions are not necessary, worthy, or interesting. If I turn that around and treat others the same way, my parents get upset with me for not caring or having empathy for others! How confusing. 

Zoom out even further… Into the future… We have children running around who are unable to effectively slow down, listen, and have empathy for the emotions of others (or themselves). The unprocessed emotions are acted out over and over again.

In the second situation, a child is able to process their emotions, in the moment. They know that someone is listening. They might feel gentle arms around them. They might see a face that mirrors their own emotions. They might hear words of understanding. “I hear you. I can understand why you are sad. You fell down and that hurt. Sometimes I feel that way too when I fall. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?”

In wondering about how these moments impact a child’s relationship with others, let’s think again about ourselves. When we feel rejected in our emotional capacity, are we able to reach out to others? I can think of many times that my emotional life was rejected when I was younger. My reaction was usually to run and hide. In time that led to emotional build up, intensified emotional pain, self-mutilation, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and unhealthy risk-taking. How we treat young people and their emotional lives is important, not just in the moment, but as they build their futures. As we are thinking about children who are able to process their emotions, we might think of them as beacons of hope. They will be more willing to help others, to communicate their needs, to be in the moment, and to focus on what is happening in front of them. 

If we can commit to these processes in ourselves and our children, we may look far into the future.  These children are adults. Let us envision them as our future counselors, teachers, healers, leaders, and business owners. When these leaders in our community are able to live their full emotional lives, everyone benefits. 

As we enter into this huge transition, into a our new US (which for some is the old US), we must view this time as a transition for emotional awareness as well. In my mind, the lack of awareness around this issue is a looming contributor to the choice that we just made as a nation. As educators and parents, we have the wherewithall to help children become accustomed to feelings as part of their bodies, others’ bodies, and the greater collective body. This is happening on a mirco level, with the relationships that families members have with each other. And when we teach our children to extend this knowledge to others, to treat others as a communal family, we have the opportunity to extend it to the macro level, allowing it to blossom out to more and more people. Empathy, concern, compassion, relating, forgiveness, and the offering of information are all part and parcel of this work.

When children learn how to feel, we all benefit.

Thanks for reading!    -Sarah Lu

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Matters of Opportunity… Does Opportunity Matter?

It is interesting to think about where our emphasis lies as co-learners (and by this I mean as adults who work with children, in place of the word teacher).  Does it lie in skills acquirement- physical, cognitive, etc?  Or does it lie in depth of connection?  Are we fundamentally learning, along with young children, to operate on the surfaces of reality? Or is our job to learn, alongside children, the many different layers of being alive?

 

These are some questions that I jotted down in a moment of deep frustration as we attended last year’s conference with the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children. I was reflecting on a juxtaposition that I had encountered at the conference for the previous day. The Opal School was presenting this year. They hold many workshops and a symposium at their school each year, but it was the first time that they had chosen to present a workshop at the OAEYC conference.  Because I have been to many an Opal School Symposium in years past, I decided that I would not attend their workshop at the OAEYC conference. However, I found myself in a workshop that I could not sit through, and for the first time I purposefully left a workshop halfway through.  From there, I went to the Opal School presentation. There I was satisfied with stories of children’s learning that captivated my heart, and reflections by teachers who were invested in their children, their journeys, and the poetry of their work. This difference was intriguing to me- one workshop that I could not stand to sit through, and another that captured my heart and mind.

I wrote: It seems that we have become so culturally obsessed with the fragmentation of everything in our paths, and that our job as teachers who are creative and “deep thinkers” (more on this later), is to resist fragmentation of our selves and our communities. And especially the fragmentation of the growth of our children. 

(Today I would add that it is our job as Feminisists, Progressives, and Activists…. to return our world to a balanced and loving state.)

These two moments of reflection led me to question what we are really doing as teachers. When we use the term co-learner in the field of Reggio-inspired learning, what do we mean?  If we are co-learners, then we are learning alongside children… and the implications for society are two-fold, not only afecting the children but ourselves as well:

1- If we are teaching children to live on the surfaces of reality, then we too, are being trained by ourselves to live on that surface. We are training not only our children but ourselves, to disconnect. If we are disconnected, then we do not care.

2- Likewise, if we are teaching and learning in this way, children do not care.

Think about those outcomes…

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Vea Vecchi, one of Reggio Emilia’s great thinkers and atelieristas, offers the following:

Each discipline- or rather language- is made up of rationality, imagination, emotion, and aesthetics. Cultures which rigidly separate these qualities and processes of thinking inevitably tend to subtract part of the processes from the various disciplines or languages. They recognize the rational part of an engineer, the imaginative part of an architect, the cognitive part of a mathematician, the expressive part of an artist and so on, in simple categories.

In this act of fragmentation and exclusion of some of the processes which, I repeat, belong to our species’ way of thinking and constitute a biological inheritance that is probably ancestral, cultural resources are effectively diminished and there is a consequent impoverishment in the overall quality of concepts and thinking.

Rationality without feeling and emptahy, like imagination without cognition and rationality, build up partial, incomplete human knowledge. 

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At the conference I also noticed the apparent difference in the quality of the minds and thoughts of the educators who were present.  The threads ran deep and wide.

I am struck by the general carelessness of many educators’ approaches to young children and the work that we do. Or perhaps it is the lack of time that we allow for reflection, so that all of our time is spent trying to get somewhere, and then where are we? Are we so rushed that we cannot slow down to express, question, become?  

How much of carelessness is the result of not being cared for? I had a conversation about these matters with a friend recently and she brought up the idea that some of us are “deep thinkers”. Some of us are poetic. Some of us are musical. Some of us are… fill in the blanks. Which leaves the assumption that, well, some of us are not. This is a comforting thought, if you are one of those “deep thinkers”.  But as I was speaking with her I questioned this. What if it’s just a matter of opportunity? What if that line of thinking (some have got it, some don’t) is a systemic way of maintaining the status quo- of maintaining this patriarchal, animus-oriented collective pysche? What if we as a world, have so much unlocked potential, that to experience it might be world-changing?

I mean, at the risk of sounding too optimistic, what if it’s about opportunity?

I see teachers who, when posed with the idea that a young child may have “rights”, roll their eyes. I gather that these people have never felt that same respect as a child or as an adult, and that perhaps the poetic voice inside them has never been given any length of rope. 

Children have the right to play, to explore, and to learn by doing. They have the right to become deep thinkers… no quotes.

Children need what we rarely give them in school – time for Messing About. – John Holt
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Have we lived in a time before when Art equated to life? It is happening now inside certain educational philosophies, inside certain communities. I am hopeful that this is the way the world is turning. The education of people is so much bigger than lines on paper or the unfortunately fragmented thinking that happens in so many schools.

The atelier, that creative mind-set or the phycial studio, is a small fraction of our classroom. AND, our whole classroom is the atelier, is the studio, is that frame of mind. We are works in progress, as is our world. Play teaches us that we have choice, opportunity.

The atelier is a small fraction of our world. AND, our whole world is the atelier, is that mind-set, is the studio. Children, people, need choice, need opportunity, to play, to think, to Mess About. Many children do not have this opportunity. Much of our thinking becomes fragmented early on in life. Let’s think about who that helps.

We have great power as teachers, parents, caregivers- to learn alongside with children about our individual voices, our collective voice, and our right to become poets.

Perhaps with this lens, we can feel fulfilled again as a collective. Perhaps we can breathe through the fear of not having enough. Perhaps we can gain the opportunity that we all deserve- to be free, to play, to create, and to be whole.

Journals from the Atelier

My life as an artist and creative thinker, feeler, mover… has greatly influenced the way that I view the process of working with young children, their families, and other educators. I do not work with children in the classroom as an atelierista. Yet still I claim the identity of Atelierista because of my roots in the arts. My strength lies in connection, creation, and collaboration- my internal atelier.

These journals are a series of reflective writing pieces on our profession, interviews with early childhood educators, and my work with the teachers at Tulip Tree Preschool and Elm House. Enjoy!