Help for the Holidays

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

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Hi all! My name is James. I’m a new trainer at Echo and excited to be a part of Echo family. I’ve been working with children and families and practicing nonviolent communication for about 16 years now. I thought I would share some quick tips and ways to frame things that might help you connect better with those you love over the holidays.

One of the things I’ve learned from nonviolent communication is the idea of life as a practice. I invite you to practice without worrying about doing it right; just try it out and stay curious about what happens. Holidays can present us with many opportunities for practice because they can be so much fun… and also quite complicated. As well as lots of potentially triggering dynamics, there are opportunities for connection and love. What is it like to maintain who I am authentically and also look for connection during the holidays?

First I’d like to bring your attention to pace: If we’re looking to make room for new choices that move us toward connection, going slow can really help. When I go fast I do what I normally do. When I slow down I’m more likely to make a different choice.

Whenever you are able, take a breath. I’d also invite you to james-bioclose your eyes while doing it. Making time for a bit of self-regulation and centering can really help with being intentional. Perhaps you could excuse yourself to the restroom and run some water over your hands, splash water on your face, or even call a friend to vent. (But maybe you should check-in with the friend beforehand to make sure they are okay with offering this kind of support.)

Sharing space with folks we love, who maybe have very different ways of seeing the world, can be really hard… this is especially true if we think about life in the terms of right and wrong. When disagreeing it can be hard to remember the people we love are the people we love. A question I like to ask myself is:

“Do you want to be right or to connect?”

(Because we often don’t get to have both.)

Another question: “How am I telling my story?” When something happens that I don’t like (especially if I’m overwhelmed by it), I sometimes tell the story of what’s happening as if it were happening only to me. When I do this my focus is on choices made by others. Although this is a normal place to start, I’m better able to “practice”/work on myself when I shift my focus to my choices. “What can I do differently?” In the end, I’m the only one I have control over. “If I were able to do it again, without wanting anyone else to do or be different, what could I do?” Once you have an answer hold onto it and get ready to practice. Again, try to go slow (to allow for more intention) and stay curious regardless of outcome.

And what about deepening our connection with children? Here at Echo, we’re always inviting people to see behavior as communication. In practice, this looks like asking yourself, “What is the choice Jr. just made telling me?” And it also looks like, “What is my choice telling Jr.?”

When relating to children, it is also a good opportunity to practice giving the other person what you most want first. Think about how often children are told to listen… how often children are told listening is important. And how much time do adults spend listening to children? Not much.

Remember how I interact in the world tells the children around me what I value, and what to replicate. There are no interventions for children in the world that will “work” if my choices contradict them. Children learn primarily by mimicking, not by our words. They listen to our choices. If we want them to listen maybe we as adults might want to set some time aside to show we value listening.

Make time for 2-3 minutes of listening without interruption. Tell the child what you hear them saying. No fixing, problem solving or teaching. Try to do this once a day.

Redirect with, “Yes, and…” Find something to say ‘’yes” to before you ask the child to consider what is up for you. By way of example, if the child is playing in an unsafe way, first acknowledge (say “yes” to) how exciting the play is for them. Then ask them to include more safety. Tell the child they can play in lots of ways and you really want them to play in a way that’s fun for them AND we want it to be safe. When we redirect we say with our choices we value what’s up for the child and then we ask them to value what’s up for us. This allows for understanding, collaboration and connection and avoids power struggles and “either/or” dynamics.

I hope this helps.

Happy holidays!

 

Sustaining Support

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

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That teaching is stressful work is hardly news. But the extent to which teachers experience toxic stress in connection with their work is only beginning to be illuminated. Also concerning are findings that students of stressed teachers show elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggesting that stress may be contagious. The good news is that there is new research (and old wisdom) pointing toward our innate potential for healing and growth. Our own practice of self-care is a key and first step in supporting students through the stresses and traumas of their lives. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, acts of self-care are not self-indulgence but self-preservation, and such acts are necessary in the creation of an educational paradigm that honors the value and dignity of all people.

 

A recent article in The Atlantic drew together current research around the implications of high levels of teacher stress on students and schools. The article paints a clear picture of a teaching profession in which ever-shifting priorities, new initiatives, and an inattention to teachers’ own learning process contribute to what educator Mike Anderson calls, “a recipe for making people feel incompetent.” Passionate and skilled teachers are leaving the profession in large numbers. And it makes sense: the ability to experience meaning and mastery in one’s work is essential to a sense of fulfillment, an interest in further learning, and growth. We know this when it comes to our students, and it is no less true for ourselves.

As an educator, I appreciate that the article did not seek to blame high levels of teacher stress on students and their behavior, instead focusing on the current conditions within the profession and society that inhibit our ability to embody safety, stability, and authentic care for our students. To be supportive and present in the lives of our students is why most of us got into this work in the first place. We committed to meet the young people who walk through our doors precisely where they are on any given day, and guide them toward a deeper sense of meaning, agency, and efficacy.

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One of the reasons I joined Echo Parenting & Education is to support the work of creating trauma-informed schools.  We define trauma as a physical or psychological experience that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope and leaves them feeling powerless (which, as an educator, sounds all too familiar!). First and foremost, we approach our work with great empathy for teachers and how stressful the profession can be. We then dig deeper to understand how a person’s trauma history – both teacher and student – can affect experiences in the classroom. Psychiatrist and researcher Judith Herman reminds us that traumatic experiences are “normal reactions to abnormal circumstances,” so rather than labeling a person’s behavior ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, we see trauma responses as a person’s best attempt to adapt to their particular experience.

In our work with teachers we explore ways to provide safety, stability, and care for a student who has adapted to their particular context by shutting down or raging or any possible trauma responses in between. There will be no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather than prescribe a rigid course of action to address stress and trauma in the classroom, we seek to learn from teachers’ experiences and facilitate the drawing of connections between these lived experiences and the emerging knowledge about the physiology and psychology of trauma. What is needed is a paradigm shift, and thankfully one is already underway.

Critical educator and researcher, Patrick Camangian, states that, “although students often communicate their humanity in ways that seem destructive, their actions serve mostly as indicators of their own social trauma.” Camangian draws upon the theory of authentic caring developed by Angela Valenzuela. From her research, Valenzuela has distilled the essential elements of authentic care to be, “connection, unconditional love, and a comprehensive apprehending of “the other.” She contends that teachers must embody these elements, not merely understand them on an intellectual level. Authentic care, similar to authentic learning, is a process and a practice, not a product. It is not something we do to someone, but with them. Caring for our students means sustaining embodied practices of care in our own lives. It means modeling self-regulation, self-awareness, and empathy. As we say in our professional development trainings, 50% of any interaction is you!

The potential crisis of teacher stress and burnout described in The Atlantic article is, indeed, grim. Yet it is not a foregone conclusion that working in and attending school is stressful and potentially traumatizing. I’m sure that many of us have witnessed, heard about, and even facilitated spaces of  authentic care.  Through sharing information and practice, by looking toward what is working to heal teachers, students, and communities, I am optimistic that we can create more connected, stable, and meaningful environments for learning and growth.

True Resilience

Monday, October 3rd, 2016
 
 
I recently came across an article in the NY times by Paul Seghal called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience” I must admit, if it wasn’t sent to me by my boss, I am not so sure I would have read it. Not because I would have never come across it, but because “The emptiness of resilience?” What could he mean? Why would you consider resilience “empty!” I noticed my pulse rising and my overall usually calm state a bit undone. I was visibly triggered by the title of this article… But why?
 
After some thought, it came to me — resiliency is very personal to me. You see, I spent nine years in foster care and in those nine years, I witnessed and endured things I wish no one would— especially not another child. But it was resiliency that brought me through and resiliency, for me, was never empty. It was powerful, multidimensional, obscure maybe, but never empty. Even with all of this in mind, I had a new job and a boss to respond to, so I continued to read on and eventually my intense and immediate defenses subsided and I began to see Paul’s point.
 
Paul was right, resiliency can be profoundly empty when it places “all the burden of success or failure on a person’s character.” For those of us who have experienced childhood adversity or know about the science of childhood trauma, we know that it is not a lack of character that determines whether a person succeeds or fails but what happened to them and what environments they were in during critical periods of development.
 
Resiliency can also be empty when it is seen as the ability to endure adversity silently and stoically. True resiliency is all about practicing skills, such as the ability to advocate for yourself. Paul mentioned that psychologist Peter Gray saw an increase in university students seeking help and apparently having emotional crises over, “problems of everyday life” as a sign of “declining student resilience.” Hmm. Perhaps he meant declining student emotional stamina? Or emotional strength? He couldn’t have meant declining student resilience, because the very act of reaching out for support, or speaking up about things that bother you, is an expression of resilience.
 
Allow me to explain: While in care, I often spoke up about living conditions that I just didn’t think were acceptable. Now some may say that I should have been grateful that someone took me in and provided me with food to eat and a bed to sleep in. I was grateful, but being grateful didn’t mean that I should have accepted the abusive name calling one foster mom provided, or the roach infested, unsanitary, living conditions another provided. Even as a kid in foster care, I knew my value and my worth and I absolutely wasn’t willing to accept anything less. So I spoke up about what bothered me and as a result, things changed. What this did, was provide me with a sense of control over my environment, which is absolutely key to building self sufficiency and avoiding intense traumatic responses. Since foster care, I have gone on to gain a Master’s degree and now am working for Echo, the organization of my dreams.
 
So is true resiliency just about self advocacy and other skills that you can teach to any child? Absolutely not; building resiliency is a process and its foundation is what Echo’s work is all about creating – a “protective and healing relationship with a loving caregiver.” You may have wondered where my strong sense of self worth came from, where I got the courage and the know how to speak up for myself. Well believe it or not, it came from my mother, my biological mother.
 
Although not exactly the safe, stable relationship Echo emphasizes (she battled with a drug addiction), my relationship with my mother was certainly one filled with love. She would always tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life, so long as I worked hard for it, and I believed her. We all need someone to believe in us, to make us feel special and loved. My mother provided that for me at a crucial stage of my development and it made all the difference. It is my honor to be a part of an organization that helps parents and those who work with children foster relationships and build skills that can combat trauma and develop true, lasting resiliency.

—Michael

 

Healthy Rage and Trauma?

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

“The pain of rage is a normal and predictable response to perpetual experiences with degradation, devaluation, and domination. It is the build-up and culmination of emotions that have been blocked expression… There is a strong “relationship between voicelessness and rage. Unless rage is properly channeled, it can be all consuming, displaced, and destructive to self and others. Those who have rage are often enraged for good reasons.”

—Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy

“Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma.”

 

STOP PRESS: Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy to speak at Echo’s 2017 conference!

And yet rage brings on a rush of cortisol and other chemicals that are ultimately harmful if they are not employed merely as a short-term boost to remove you from a present danger. Should we get angry and risk our long-term health? The Buddhists would say “no”.

But what about the anger we feel at the injustices we see on a daily basis? What about the anger that arises from experiencing trauma and the resulting “degradation, devaluation and domination”? What do we do with this anger and how can we safely channel it so that it does not harm our health?

One of our nonviolent heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., knew anger, the anger that rises up:

Yet, even after several days in solitary confinement in a dark and filthy jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote his now famous letter where he talks from experience about channeling this rage into ‘nonviolent direct action’.

The RULER system developed at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, helps not only children in the classroom understand and manage their emotions, but can also help us understand how to advocate for justice without becoming consumed with a rage that Buddha so wisely deflected.

In September 1962, as King sat on the podium at the Southern Christian Leadership Convention, a white member of the Nazi party jumped on stage and hit King several times in the face. As the young man was being dragged away by security guards, King calmly told those present:

At Echo, we too are interested in changing the system, and we invite you to join us for our upcoming trainings and events:

If you want to learn more about trauma and post-traumatic growth, please sign up for the Working With Childhood Trauma training on October 11.

If you want to learn more about racial trauma, please reserve March 15 &16, 2017 to attend our annual conference, which this year will focus on social and historical trauma.

Empathy Takes Practice

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

by Co-Executive Director, Diana Ayala

Every time I hear the word empathy outside of my work environment I begin to pay close attention to that conversation. Since when did empathy become a trend? More people are talking about it; more people are being trained on empathy. Even when I called my phone company, I noticed that their representative was ‘giving me empathy’.

Only empathy is not something that you ‘do’ to another person –  it’s the ability to stay present and connected to the other person, and the ability to stay connected with another human being takes practice…empathy takes practice.

I recently attended a training for a room full of school counselors. The Echo trainer gave out a handout on empathy and asked the participants to pair up with someone else. They were instructed to take three minutes to share a challenge they’ve had during the week and for the other person to practice empathy and empathic listening. As I shared my challenge with my partner, I noticed that she immediately wanted to give me advice. Although her intentions were to be helpful, she was struggling with empathy. She kept looking at the handout where we clearly say What Empathy is Not:

Fix it “What will help is…”

Advice “I think you should…”

Interrogate “How did it happen?”

Console “It wasn’t your fault.”

Sympathize “You poor thing, I feel awful for you.”

Commiserate “He did that to you? The jerk!”

One-up “You should hear what happened to…”

The three minutes were up and I noticed my partner’s relief that it was time to switch. She spent her three minutes sharing that her challenge was to come to a training where we would be discussing being “mushy”. She didn’t think it was necessary for anyone to bring their personal feelings to work. She had voiced her opinion on the manner and co-workers would tease her about how ‘tough’ she was, and although it was done in a playful manner she didn’t like it. She told me “Don’t get me wrong, I want to be able to be more ‘friendly’, but part of me thinks that it is not necessary to do that at work.”

As she was sharing her challenge all I could think of was, “Oh man! How in the world am I going to give this woman empathy…” (notice that all of a sudden, I start to think it is something I give rather than staying connected) “…and I have to be good because I work here!” So after some quick self-empathy for the situation I found myself in, I said:

“Wow, it sounds like you came to work feeling a bit nervous about today’s training, is that true?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“It sounds like maybe you were worried that your co-workers would be talking about you during the training and maybe all you want is to feel accepted for who you are by your co-workers?”

She nodded her head with a ‘yes’ and our time was up.

When the trainers asked if anyone wanted to share back how the exercise went, she quickly raised her hand and she said:

“I felt empathy! In three minutes I was able to feel empathy from someone whom I just met!”

Of course I was relieved! But nonetheless, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to stay connected with another human being and why practice is so necessary. Why don’t you try if for yourself? How long can you listen to someone without wanting to advise, console or offer comparisons to make them feel better? Check out author Brené Brown’s very amusing take on the subject in this great video on empathy.