Things Our Kids Say, Part 1: “I Don’t Have Any Friends”

The teachers and I often get questions about dramatic statements that kids make at home. Parents may know they’re not true; some parents may be worried and have questions about these statements.  Some of us may even buy into them for a while. Mark Twain said that every feeling, if sincere, is involuntary.  Usually these dramatic statements feel true to the kids, but that doesn’t mean that we parents should respond as if they are factually correct. Dramatic but inaccurate statements are not lies, so much as they are vented emotions or disappointed hopes/expectations.

“I have no friends” is one of those statements. Kids rarely have no friends. If they truly don’t have any friends, they will not usually state it dramatically. It will be a much more serious issue that has gone on for a while, and they will likely have internalized it. This is something serious that we (faculty and staff at TFS) watch for. We will all collaborate and likely a child will need group and individual counseling if this is truly the case. If you are worried about this, reach out to your child’s teacher or advisor, and we will work with you to figure out what’s going on.

What kids usually mean when they say “I have no friends” is that they feel lonely or unsure of their belonging.  Maybe they didn’t know who to sit with at lunch or who to play with at recess. Maybe they don’t feel like they’re being themselves at school or worried that if their friends knew their “real self,” they wouldn’t be accepted. Many times kids are prioritizing the attention of one or two people and when they don’t receive the attention or affection they want from those particular people, they feel that all is lost — even though they may have many other possibilities.

What can you say?  Usually you just need to listen and sympathize. They are venting, and you don’t need to fix the problem — in fact you cannot fix the problem. You can also focus on helping them be a good friend. Most kids struggle socially because they focus on themselves more than their friends —  a natural and understandable ego-centrism for their age. Peers will teach each other what’s acceptable and what’s not through the School of Hard Knocks, and you should help them get through it but not undercut those lessons. Or if you notice your child hyper-focused on one or two people, they may need coaching to cast their nets wider, reach out to kids who don’t have friends, or to relationships that may be healthier or more welcome.

At the end of the day, not everyone clicks naturally, friendships are messy, everyone is doing their best with what they have in the moment, and you probably only have a quarter of the story. Our teachers and I are happy to help provide context or mediate conversations if it seems constructive, but there’s no doubt that sometimes the kids will simply have to work on getting through a hard time or disappointment with grit and grace. Learning to rebound, forgive, let go, and hold your head up are all important skills (almost like muscles) to develop as they grow up.  It’s SO hard for us to sit by and watch, but with most kids, there’s little possibility of avoiding it or solving it.

Hear a phrase all the time at home? Send it to me and we’ll talk about it. If it’s a common one, I’ll add it to this blog series!

Introversion and Extroversion in the Classroom

unnamedThe faculty and I spend a lot of time discussing the needs of students, from both a broad, developmental perspective and from a personal and individual perspective.  One topic that comes up perennially is the role of introversion and extroversion in the classroom.  Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a NY Times bestseller since 2012, defines these two groups a little differently than you might have heard before, and I think it’s the best definition I’ve ever heard.

She says, an introvert is “a person who feels at their best and at their most alive when they’re in quieter, more mellow environments. And it stems from a neurobiological difference between introverts and extroverts. Literally, different nervous systems. Introverts have nervous systems that simply react more to everything that’s going on around them, and that means they feel more in their sweet spot when there’s less stuff happening. And extroverts have nervous systems that react less, which means that they don’t get to their sweet spot until there’s more stuff happening.”

Defined in terms of the external stimulation students seek, introversion and extroversion have a huge impact on what the ideal classroom environment looks like. In this interview with Mindshift at PBS, Cain discusses the impact on the classroom.  There is a lot to consider–not all introverts are shy and lots of extroverts are surprisingly shy. Some skills that introverts might prefer to avoid (class discussions or group projects) might be important skills for them to develop for a successful college and professional life, but we want to challenge them while respecting their natural inclinations.

The smaller environment at TFS definitely creates a comfort level for our introverts to grow in that would not be possible in a large school, but it also means that they cannot hide in the back of the classroom or blend into a group.  We are always working to meet your children where they are, while pushing them to move beyond their comfort zones.  It’s an art rather than a science, but it’s a high priority for us at TFS.

Small Schools Have a BIG Influence

 

smallschool4

Humans are born needing connection. We cannot thrive without relationships and the encouragement and accountability they bring. Humans have family units and close circles of friendship. We seek community in order to learn, grow, share our joys, and be sustained in hard times. So why then do we send our young into huge institutions to sink or swim, fend for themselves, and figure things out?

Small schools are very counter-cultural in today’s society — a society where bigger is better! And bigger can be better when economy of scale matters. However, when it comes to relationships, connection, people, and emotions, bigger can be overwhelming, cold, imprecise, and ineffective.

smallschool1To be loved and not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. To be loved and known is what we all want more than anything. [Tim Keller]  What small schools lack in options, they make up for through connection and that connection allows big things to happen. In a small, healthy environment, a student can be both loved and known — an incredible environment for them to safely face the inevitable challenges, joys, and struggles of growing up.

smallschool10Imagine a school where children (even teenagers!) see all their teachers as allies.

Imagine a school where children have the same teachers for consecutive years so they truly get to know one another.

Imagine a school where the teachers know each child’s writing style so well they can spot it as soon as they read it.

Imagine a school where assignments are tailored to the personalities and passions of the group so that necessary skills can be developed in a context where the students *like* the work (even teenagers!).

smallschool2

Imagine a school where the students follow the vast majority of rules because the rules make sense to them because they’ve had a say in creating them.

All of this is possible in a small school.

When students like their teachers and feel liked by them…

smallschool9

When faculty aren’t so overwhelmed that their calling becomes their burden…

When daily work isn’t dictated by politicians in offices far away…

When everyone has to get through problems and frustrations together…

When the whole community knows each other and shares similar values…

smallschool7

When children (yes, even teenagers) feel known AND loved…

That’s when magic happens.
That’s when learning happens.
That’s when growth happens.

Small schools have a big influence.

I encourage you to explore small schools in your city, county, state — wherever you might live. And if you live in the St. Louis, St. Charles, or Franklin county areas in Missouri, I personally invite you to come explore The Fulton School, a school small by intention.

Child Development: Week 5

Adolescence, Part 2

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Montessori observed that one goal of adolescence is social independence (physical and mental independence come during the first two years).  Jean Piaget wrote about the process of growing out of egocentrism (the childhood cognitive state of not seeing multiple perspectives). The awakening from egocentrism happens in several stages, but the 12 to 18 year old is discovering and learning to live with self consciousness–being conscious of his existence.

If you imagine a child dancing around happily in a field without much worry or pressure as a metaphor for the first 12 years of childhood (the eight year old rarely questions the significance of their piano or soccer skills in the universe, or the way mom/dad dresses as a representation of their identity), self consciousness is something that washes over a young adolescent as if a curtain has dropped and he realizes he is not alone in that field… and never was.  Instead, he was on a stage.  At first, adolescents are mortified and embarrassed that people were noticing them and judging them without their knowledge.  They have to do an inventory about every possible shame to decide how to file it all away and to gauge how embarrassed they should be.  Every detail matters.  As they process their new situation, they have two choices: to hide or to perform.  Both choices have the same disadvantages; they grow exhausted and lonely.  We were not made for a life on a social stage.

As kids head into the latter half of adolescence, they need to transition from the “stage” into a community.  They will gradually find a balance between feeling like everyone is looking at them and knowing they are in a group who is largely going through the same thing.  They need to strip off the costume and the performance, and let people accept them–or not–for who they are.  Again, this is a process and everyone is on their own developmental time schedule, but this transition will largely occur by 18 years of age. As adults, we will still struggle with this now and again for sure!  Some psychologists argue that this stage is currently elongated in the USA, and many of our adolescents are not reaching the final stages as quickly as previous time periods, and other cultures.  The more we help them disable and invalidate the “stage,” the better our childrenwill accomplish the tasks of adolescence and be prepared for the tasks of young adulthood.  As they head into the last official phase of childhood, we want them to have made peace with the idea of community, understand how a variety of relationships work, and their identity within those relationships.  We want them to be as confident in their roles with others as they were tying their shoes at six or practicing their trombone at 11.

Child Development: Week 4

Adolescence, Part 1

For the last three weeks I have been writing about the phases of childhood.  Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the Planes of Development) from birth until 24 years of age. Dr. Montessori said that children are creating their person the first six years, elaborating on the mind and personality from years six to 12, then creating their social identity from 12 to 18 years, and elaborating on that from 18 to 24.  She uses the language of creation verses elaboration to distinguish between the upheaval of the first six years and the relative calm of the next six; the upheaval of the adolescent phase, and the relative calm of the last phase.

3ccc65d3-f493-4b84-ba03-a182bfa75645Adolescence is a phase that perplexes us.  We don’t always feel that we know our child; sometimes they act like they don’t remember us (their family, their roots). There’s drama, withdrawal, mood swings, and frustration from a child who was likely calm and enjoyable a year or two before.  Dr. Montessori (and many other developmentalists) argue that it’s not a whole lot different than the turmoil of the first six years.  The child is growing and changing tremendously, so there are lots of hormones (the chemicals that produce change in the body).  She is creating herself in some way, which requires a separation/distancing of sorts from you.  Her highs are very high, and her lows are very low (you will never be as upset as you were at two or 13 again, but you may also never feel quite the same thrills as you did at those ages either).  Her tantrums can be similar, but she is much more articulate, and she knows you well enough by now to lash out with sophistication–right where it hurts.

But they are still kids and they need you after the drama as badly as your three-year-old did.  They are trying on various identities, figuring out who they are, but they need you to remind them who they are.  They are pushing the boundaries to test their strengths, but they still need those boundaries.  The tricky part is that the six-year-old emerged ready to dress himself and make his lunch, but the adolescent will emerge ready to have a job, live on his own, manage relationships and school, etc., which often scares us. The stronger his core sense of identity is going into adulthood, the better set he will be for the stresses and demands of relationships–both intimate and professional.

So the tumult is all worth it, if it creates the adult that he will become. YOU have to be the calm in the storm, where he finds rest and remembers who he is.

Child Development

The Montessori Method challenges educators to shape the curriculum and pedagogy around the developmental needs of each age group.  There is no universally accepted or articulated framework for psycho-social development the way there is for biological development, and frankly, I don’t know many educators or doctors who give much thought to it beyond the superficial stereotypes.

maria
Dr. Maria Montessori

But Dr. Montessori was deeply intrigued by it, as were several of her contemporaries (Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Anna Freud to name three), and they created a solid foundation in developmental psychology, although their theories never seemed to affect mainstream practices significantly.  We know a lot about teenage behavior from neurological research (they’re developing their frontal lobes) and biochemistry (for example, the chemicals of adolescence create mood swings), but why do they feel so lonely?  Why will they engage in something that we think they will mock and then mock something we think they will like?  What is the difference between an 8-year-old who wants to learn and an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to learn?

I believe that the better educators understand these tasks, the more effective our education will be.  We cannot help our students become the best version of themselves, if we don’t truly know them — and know which phases will pass.  We need to work *with* their natural drive rather than against it whenever possible.  In this day and age, with so much data and science and information, it’s shocking how dependent our entire child-rearing system is on gut and intuition.

There’s a lot of information missing still, but most schools are not addressing the information we do have.  I want to spend the next few weeks (here on this blog) discussing what the developmental stages are and how TFS addresses each of these stages in our own way.  The more we all understand our children, the better we can love and grow them.

Week 1: The First Six Years of Life

Montessori2Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. In the first phase from birth to six years old (infancy/early childhood), children focus on physical independence and the core task is to create their personality.  They are developing independence from mom biologically, and from all adults in terms of fine and gross motor skills.  They want to do concrete tasks by themselves, take care of themselves, and work on skills that interest them.  The foundation of their character, a positive sense of self, will come from their achievements in physical independence.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  An eight year old does not find the same joy in zipping his own zipper as a four year old.  No one is quite as moody and contrary as the two year old who is setting her boundaries (except maybe the adolescent–we’ll address that later).  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of Birth to 6 Years.

Teasing: Control vs. Connection

Teasing is a perennial issue for children of all ages, but probably peaks in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade, at least in terms of intensity of reactions.  It can be a hard thing for a parent to hear about after school each day.

We read “Mom, They’re Teasing Me” by Michael Thompson in our parent book club last week and although I’ve read it many times, I was struck by a core truth in the book this time around.  We are all trying to balance two core needs — control and connection — in our relationships, and most interactions between kids come down to that tension.

This is not a negative “I want to rule the world” control, but rather a “I need to have some power and autonomy in my life.”  That need for empowerment does not usually encourage meaningful connection with others, and so the two are often at odds and kids have to make many decisions each day about what control to give up in order to foster connection, and what connection to give up to gain some control.

Of course, it gets very complicated because children are not born knowing how to proactively and appropriately build connection and negative connection (often articulated as attention) is better than no connection at all.  Teasing is a safe negative connection in the sense that if it doesn’t work, you can hide behind the negativity.

For the most part, kids have to figure it out on their own, but we can help them understand their motives tremendously by processing the conversations with them, asking them for others’ perspectives on the teasing, helping them own their own role in interactions, and sending them the message that you know they can do hard things, thus building up their confidence.

Of course, if you or your child ever feel overwhelmed by any negative emotions, never hesitate to enlist my help, or your child’s teachers.  Navigating social relationships will be one of the most important skills we can develop and it is well worth all of our time to nurture those skills.

Go on… Play.

I want to share with you a couple of articles about the importance of play. The first article (found here) speaks to our younger learners and how important it is for them to learn through playing.

The second article (found here) is a look at this philosophy from the other end of childhood. The article, written by two Harvard professors, talks about how most Harvard undergrads know how to work hard, but some have never learned how to play… and it shows.

 

The benefits of letting our children fail…

The New York Times ran an article last week called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” and it was the most emailed article for several days.  The author was looking at what character traits in children translate to the most successful, meaningful lives.  Self control, zest, grit, curiosity, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude are among the most important traits to be fostering in our children.  Such traits are much more important to their futures than GPA’s or standardized testing.  How do you help your children develop such traits?  One of the most important things you can do is let them fail.  Don’t protect them and save them from the many little consequences of their actions.  Don’t argue with their teachers for deadline extensions.  Don’t drive their lunch or homework up to them when they forget it.  Don’t get them in on the birthday party they weren’t invited to. Resilience, empathy, and responsibility are all going to be developed through disappointment and failure, the same way muscles are developed through heavy resistance.  So we have to let them work through those situations.  Some empathy from you? Great.  Fixing the situation? It will hurt your child in the long run.

Social conflicts

We had an interesting morning, listening to Dr. Tim Jordan discuss the social lives of children.  The biggest take-away for most of us, was probably the simple reminder that growing up and learning about relationships is hard; it was for us when we were kids and it’s hard for our kids now.  There is no way around it.  If we don’t go through it, we don’t get good at relationships. 
 
As I reflect on the talk, it strikes me that relationships are still hard. Whether I’m struggling through an issue with my husband, muddling through a misunderstanding with my extended family, or nursing feelings hurt by a friend or coworker, my conflicts look very similar to our children’s.  The primary differences are a little bit of tact and a lot more perspective.  When avoided, conflicts breed annoyance at best, and bitterness at worst.  When resolved, the conflict brings deeper understanding, intimacy, and trust with the resolution.  
 
I put all of my notes on our website for those of you who couldn’t make it.