We are navigating strong emotions in our house as we experience Week Four of learning from home with our two boys, ages 8 and 11. We have our good days–mostly sunny days and Fridays–and we have all had moments of intense frustration. Thursdays are especially hard as we all reach fatigue and emotions run high. In this episode of The Professor and The Principal, my husband, Chris, and I talk about how we supporting our boys as the navigate strong emotions and how we are attempting, imperfectly, to use what we know about social and emotional learning to stay the course.
Welcome to The Professor and The Principal podcast with Katie and Chris Cunningham. We’re parents and educators. I’m a professor of education and former elementary school teacher. I’m also the author of a few professional books, most recently Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness.
And I’ve been in middle school teacher and administrator for two decades now. We’re also the parents of two boys, ages eight and 11.
Katie (00:21 ):
So in this episode we talk about how we’re navigating strong emotions right now and how we’re striving to support our kids as social emotional people making their way through this moment of the COVID-19 crisis. This week marks one month since we began staying home and sheltering in place. And we’ve really experienced a roller coaster of emotions. I’ve been thinking a lot about the metaphor of a see saw and it feels like when one child is feeling content and maybe even joyful like one of them comes down the stairs singing a little song; the other one is moodier. And we’ve also experienced that the same has gone for us, that when one of us is feeling kind of content with the way that things are; the other one is a little bit more disgruntled or anxious.
So we’ve been trying to take a step back and draw on what we know about social emotional learning, some basic neurology and the science of positive psychology to help our children in this moment and also to help ourselves and potentially our marriage.
We thought we would also explain what social emotional learning is for people that are not necessarily in the field. According to the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, the group is known as CASEL, social emotional learning is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. And CASEL actually has a really wonderful resource page right now for how to navigate COVID-19 according to their research and principles. But we thought that we would share how are we using their principles to make sense of what’s happening with our kids in real time right now. And all of the CASEL principals really take some effort right now. We also want to emphasize in this show that we are not clinical psychologists or social workers, but we do have some background knowledge in social emotional learning and how it relates to academic learning. And we thought it would be helpful for listeners to hear about what we’re experiencing in our home and how we’re handling it.
So there are a lot of ways to think about social emotional learning. We’re going to use CASEL’s framework because it breaks it down into five categories and we’ll go through those step-by-step. The first is self-awareness, then there’s social awareness, relationship to others, self-regulation, and finally responsible decision making.
So the first one is self-awareness. I don’t know if any other point in our lives we’ve sort of been positioned to become more self aware than at this moment, but we’re really watching our children and trying to honor the ways in which they are both struggling with self-awareness. And trying to make sense of this new reality. So our youngest son the other day, it was a gray day, it was a little bit rainy out and he just turned to me and said, “I don’t really like days like today.” And the learning he was engaged in felt harder and everything just sort of felt like one of those Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, days. We really lean on the work of Marc Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and his book called Permission to Feel. And so I just sometimes remind myself that I need to honor the feelings that our kids have and their statements like “I don’t really like days like today.”
Just honoring those feelings and giving them permission to feel whatever it is that they’re feeling. Certainly our kids are feeling some grief over some things that are lost right now. They might not always say that with words, but sometimes they do. Again, our younger son had turned to me all of a sudden one day and said, “I’m not going to go on the Town Hall field trip because that was going to be in May and I won’t see the inkblot from the town charter. “And we had this little conversation then about that– “You know, that’s right. We’re not going to be able to go on that field trip, but when this is over why don’t we go to town hall together and look for that.” So they’re missing milestone moments and it occurs to them sort of almost out of nowhere from time to time.
There’s certainly missing time with friends. They’re missing physical hugs and connection from relatives that might live far away. So they’re grieving some things that are lost as much as they’re also recognizing maybe things that are found thanks to this gift of time. Our kids are also becoming really self aware because of that gift of time about what it is they like to do with free time because they have so much of it and they’re learning how to simply be and that rather than focusing on doing. I think we’ve taken a step back to focus on being so they’re becoming more self aware about being with their dog right now, especially in moments of struggle or strong feelings. They’re learning how to be helpful. They’re learning how to be alone, how to be together, how to be quiet, how to be playful. Self-awareness—it’s happening in live time around us. And we’ll share some more strategies too around how to help children tap into that self awareness and know what to do with it.
So the next structure of the framework is social awareness. And cabin fever is a real thing. We’re living in really close proximity to one another these days. And those strong feelings, whether or not you’re self aware of them, they can bubble up and reflecting on them and even recognizing them. I mean, I know we’ll talk a little bit about mindfulness later, but I wanted to mention it here because the goal of mindfulness and having a mindfulness practice, the practice is simply being aware of the condition of your changing thoughts and feelings that we all have all the time. So mindfulness is particularly useful as a tool for self awareness and also social awareness because it allows you to recognize that it may feel as though it’s the awful, terrible, horrible, whatever that book is. I think I, well, I just hate the pessimistic frame there because it is a transitory feeling that you’re having.
You want to feel it all, but that doesn’t mean you need to identify with it. And it certainly doesn’t mean you have to describe the world as that when really it’s an inner condition, it’s temporary, it’s transitory in terms of social awareness. Having that sense of self and recognizing when you need some time apart, when there are particular things that you might need in a given moment and, and when you yourself are feeling a little bit grumpy or pessimistic and then doing something about it. There’s some powerful strategies that we’ve gotten from both the Gottman’s who are marriage therapists, which is just asking the question, “What do you need right now?” Because when you frame things around making an offer around helping someone get something that they need, it’s often a vehicle to recognizing that you might need something and that your partner or another member of your family can help.
Another really helpful thing to say, because we’re in close proximity with one another, is sometimes we make assumptions about how somebody else might be feeling the thoughts that they might be having the situation that we think they might be reacting to. And so it’s helpful to use Brené Brown’s frame—the story I’m telling myself right now is, and then following up with what you think is going on, because one of the things that I’ve certainly found is that I am terrible at mind reading and assumptions are usually wrong about what everybody else is feeling and the reactions that they’re having. And so spinning it in a nonjudgmental way, that’s about what I’m perceiving allows Katie, for instance, to say, no, that’s not at all what’s going on.
And I will say it’s incredibly helpful when you ask me, “What do you need?” because it’s signals to me, I’m having strong feelings right now. They’re coming across to you and it seems as though I need something different or I need something to change and I’m just not able to express it properly in a socially aware way. So when you ask that question, it really is a trigger question to the person hearing it that they need something and maybe the other person can help. So it’s a really lovely and important technique that we found in our house, both for one another and also the ways in which we interact with the boys when it seems as though they need something and they just aren’t able to express it quite yet. The third part of the framework that we wanted to talk about in terms of navigating strong feelings right now is relationship building.
So one of the things that I think we’re both pretty good at it, but Chris, you’re really better at it, is practicing patience. Chris jokes that if he had a super power that it would be patience and that’s pretty true. Not everybody is naturally patient, but I think it’s really one of the keys right now to building strong relationships with children in our homes. And of course in our classrooms, whether that’s a digital classroom or whether you’re with children live and in person, hopefully come the fall. But patience is really the key to the healthy relationships we’re trying to build. We’re also realizing the presence of screens all around us. Because of this e-learning experience this is even more a generation that is on screens. So we’ve realized that screens can get in the way of our relationships when we don’t acknowledge them.
So we’ve tried to vocally acknowledge the presence of screens and explaining why we’re on them. It helps one another to be more present when we’re in same room, we’re on screens, texting friends, just to have that sense of connection. We’re on screens because we have work calls or I’m teaching my students online and so I need to be on the screen sometimes, but we’ve found it really helpful to do a few things. One is physically separating screens from other areas of the house and parts of life, so when we’re at our best, we actually keep screens out of the kitchen for example because that’s a place where we congregate a lot, but we also just try to tell one another and our children, you know, I had gotten this work message and I need to go respond to it right now or I’m going to be a few minutes more than I thought that I would because my class is going to run late today online.
Just trying to verbalize it so that the other people in your life know why you’re on the screen and around how long you’ll be till you can be physically present and wholly present in terms of your head and your heart with other people. This hasn’t been a period I think where despite navigating really strong feelings, we’ve really made intentional time for things to do together. It’s very easy for us to get into our own screen silos. But we’ve been really intentional about family games and we think about what are the games that we want to play that are going to be a time commitment and what are the games that we can play kind of quickly just as like a little boost of relationship building. Do you want to talk a little about some of those games?
Well we were huge fans of Settlers of Catan. We love Exploding Kittens and Bears versus Babies. We’ve gotten very into a game called One Night Werewolf, which is sort of like the old camp game Mafia where you know somebody is the werewolf and you have to figure out after a few rounds who it is and vote. We’ve made time a lot for family walks in the neighborhood to try to say hello to strangers from a socially appropriate six feet away and in general really trying to be very intentional. I’ve even asked my son, you know he should ask me anytime that he sees me on my phone, “Dad, what are you doing on your phone?” Cause sometimes I do need to check email or do things for work, but even having that as a reminder has been really helpful to be present and not to get sucked into whatever it is that’s going on on the screen.
I definitely found myself in the last couple of weeks getting sucked into Facebook and Twitter rabbit holes and the days that I, I actually made a decision this weekend that on Saturday was going to be a screen free day and it was one of the best days that I’ve had through this experience because I just was more fully present wholeheartedly with each of you all and it’s not always possible, but we are actually going to try a screen free challenge day as a family where none of us are on screens for the day. I think it’s going to turn out to be our best day. I just have this prediction. In terms of relationship building, we’re also really mindful about trying to use this moment to deepen trust with our boys. One of the keys to the childhood roots of adult happiness is that kids have this feeling that they have some locus of control and that this is a moment where because there aren’t sports and extracurriculars where their schedule is not as fine nightly carved out that they can be empowered to have some locus of control.
Even an environment that’s really limited. So we live in the woods and it’s been the first time that the two boys have actually biked to the woods on their own and we meet up with them at a set location in the woods. They’re eight and 11 and because there are no cars on the street and very few people out, it’s been a moment to present this possibility and it’s been a really great way to deepen trust that they know that they’re trusted to go together and that they can trust that we’re going to meet them there that has been really powerful. So you might think about within the confines of your own home and what that means in terms of where you live and the constraints that you’re under—what is it that kids can have control over at this moment? Can they have control over the books that they’re reading or the flow of their day or even little things like what to have for lunch? We have definitely backed off of the idea that they have to get dressed in the morning. I think that most days our younger son changes for the day at dinner time. He’s like, oh, it’s dinner I should probably get out of my pajamas. It gives him some locus of control, which is especially important right now.
So the next part of the framework is self regulation or self management and it is worthwhile pausing for a second here to talk a little neurology. So all of those things are really geared through the limbic system, which is one of the oldest parts of our brain. It’s back in our brainstem and structures like the amygdala for instance, which will hijack our attention. That’s where our most animalistic instincts come from because these are the parts of us that evolutionarily keep us from danger. They are faster than any sort of cognition. They make us act. They’re connected to our nervous system more directly than our prefrontal cortex. It’s the reason why you can burn yourself and your hand moves away from the hot stove before you even realize consciously that you’re in danger. And so it’s our body’s natural reaction to any sort of danger.
Anything that we perceive as a threat or stressful situation is either fight, flight, or freeze. Often you hear about fight or flight, but often freeze is one of the things that people do that they’ll sort of hide in plain sight or they will sometimes, even with body language, people will put something in front of them or close the front of their chest. It’s the natural reaction to danger and fight. Flight or freeze is the term used to describe how people either choose to confront or run away from threatening situations and when the strong emotions rear their head, this is often what we see our boys doing. Our younger son, mostly a flight, he’s eight and a lot of times when he’s feeling those strong emotions, he will try to leave the room. He’ll try to go outside or he’ll try to go up to his room. Our older son has more fight or freeze tendencies. We can see his body get tense. His patterned speech actually becomes much calmer, but it’s calm because he’s really trying to constrain himself and hold back those emotions. This happens particularly if he feels flooded by workload responsibilities, which tend to happen on Mondays when he looks down at the list of things he’s supposed to do for the week and gets a little bit overloaded.
I think we’ve seen these patterns in them, but we’ve had more heightened awareness in being with them 24 hours a day now. So we are striving to support them to have some of what’s known as emotional agility first. That means having compassion for themselves and others and as Chris talked about, getting curious about themselves. Saying things like, why am I experiencing a feeling and what does that tell me about what I value? We’re trying to help them not get stuck in those feelings though, that it’s okay to honor them and have permission to feel them, but you don’t want to get stuck in them. One because it’s sort of erodes any joy that you might be experiencing because you were flooded by that emotion. And also it does start to erode relationships, right? Social awareness and relationship to others gets eroded if you get stuck in those feelings.
So we think about things like the flip side of our younger son saying, “I don’t like days like today” is acknowledging it, hearing him out, but helping him get that around and say, “Okay, well there are a lot of things we can’t do today that maybe you would’ve wanted to do, but what is it a great day for?” And doing some collaborative thinking together that it’s a great day for baking brownies or counting coins in your penguin bank or watching a family movie. I find that I especially sort of get into suggestion mode as a mom to help them flip those feelings. And then I have to learn, Oh, back away from giving suggestions and then let it be.
One of the things there that’s important to recognize is because the limbic system is pre-verbal, sometimes they literally cannot think. They’re too emotional to be able to process what they’re thinking. One of the silliest things to ask a kid who’s been emotional and reacts is “What were you thinking?” Because from a neurological perspective, they literally were not, their prefrontal cortex was shut down by their amygdala and they could not respond in that moment.
So our kids are on week four of e-learning and it’s shifted from things that they already knew that were review to things that are now new content or new skills. And increasingly there are going to be moments of frustration because of that. Anytime we’re learning something new for the first time, it is frustrational. Nobody knows how to swim butterfly or shoot a three pointer or even ride a bike the first time they try. The same is true of any kind of learning, but we had a really great moment this week where our younger son felt himself getting frustrated. Something was hard in his learning and rather than flee the room, which is sort of his patterned behavior and response to that, he turned to me and said, “Please leave the room. I need to work on this alone right now.” And he might not have said it in the greatest tone, but it was a major step forward in terms of recognizing and getting curious about himself and realizing I don’t have to take flight right now. I can express my needs in a different way. That really was progress in self awareness and self regulation that he could be upset and frustrated but not after storm out of the room. And that he was starting to realize I can use my voice to ask for what I need. Another strategy for him is leaving the room for a moment with some self-awareness and coming back when he’s ready, but not doing it in this flurry of emotion.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got I heard at a Learning and The Brain Conference, but it was a psychologist who was talking about dealing with strong emotions and his formula was very simple. It was “blank it out”. So that could be play it out, run it out, jump it out, laugh it out. For adults in particular, go work out, right? I mean, hard physical activity often is a really wonderful thing in those moments and you may not want to do it, but it ends up being such a wonderful reset in those moments. And so even for kids taking movement breaks, going and getting it out and even giving them that formula “blank it out” is a great way to hit reset on the way that they’re feeling.
I think because our boys have access to the trampoline now 24 hours a day, they tend to bounce it out as sort of their primary strategy right now. But even a mini trampoline somewhere would be a great thing to have. Just to “blank it out”. It is a really helpful strategy and even to tell yourself when you feel yourself getting keyed up, whether it’s with your children or your loved ones to realize what is it I need to do to “blank it out.”
So the last pillar is around responsible decision making. And a lot of that really dovetails with making good choices around self care. Right now I think sleep is something that is enormously important and something that is very, very difficult to prioritize, but connection is as well. So it’s difficult, right, to decide whether or not to stay up with friends on a zoom call or go to sleep right now, but it’s important to make sure that you’re moving, whether that’s guided movement. There are a trillion videos that you can watch on YouTube, but then also spontaneous movement going for walks or runs more moving in any way that you can. Even little movement breaks over the course of the day. I have spoken before, it is a wonderful time to get into a meditation practice because all of the paid apps, there’s Headspace, there’s Calm. My favorite by far is Sam Harris’s Waking Up app.
But all of those are not only free but all of the special highest level features as well and it’s really wonderful. As I said before, mindfulness and meditation is not something that you should do for health reasons. I mean there are lots of health benefits. There’s lots of research that I can’t cite here off the top of my head, but that’s not the reason that you meditate. Meditation is a practice of being aware of the present moment and really being aware of the thoughts and feelings that come in and out and that’s part of this self awareness and self recognition. It’s part of the social awareness as well and so making the decision to really prioritize wellbeing and taking care of yourself can really also include those things. Breathing is also a wonderful thing to fold in. It’s something else that I wanted to practice with the boys very intentionally here is using breath work as a means of self regulation and changing your mood. There’s the guy, Wim Hof, who is a pretty phenomenal person and definitely worth Googling. But his guided breath can definitely change your physical state. There’s also the BreathWrk app which provides you with different states that you could get in and guided breathing exercises that you could do and we’ll link to both of those in the show notes.
And it’s hard to be perfect at responsible decision making at any moment, but it is especially hard right now. And we’ve also had to rethink some boundaries we traditionally set around responsible decision making for the kids and empower them a little bit. So it may have been a parenting fail or it may have been a pro move, but after the first week the kids asked if they could watch shows all day one day and we’d never let that happen before. And so we were like, yeah, you know what, you can watch shows all day. And so our eight year old watched Naruto, which is a like a Netflix kids show. Not for kids, but it is, it is a Netflix anime show. It’s an anime show. He watched it for 11 hours, almost straight and we stood by our promise that you can watch it all day and he felt wrecked.
It was like he had had like a drunk night out. He was so wrecked when he got to the dinner table that they haven’t asked ever since “Can I watch shows all day?” Because I think he learned, somewhat the hard way, that it wasn’t the most responsible thing for his body or his mind to do that day. And now he doesn’t want to do that anymore. So I don’t know if it was a parenting fail or a pro move, but kids also have to learn, through their experiences in this, both intentional and unintentional, how to be responsible decision makers. We’re also learning that Mondays and Thursdays are our most emotional days around here. Mondays, I think because the total freedom of the weekends is over and that there’s some structure to Mondays and by Thursdays we all tend to hit some fatigue. So on those days I’m learning it’s going to require more patience and understanding and compassion to understand the emotional toll of all of this. It’s also really helped us a lot across all of our ages to have our hands busy, which makes our minds busy. So I know my “blank it out” sometimes is bake it out or cook it out. Making art has also been a great way to release creativity off screen.
So some final practical tips that we’re learning as we go. Writing out the daily schedule each day with checkboxes and allowing kids to order what they do when possible gives them that locus of control. It provides them with some agency in terms of the way that their day unfolds and can be really helpful. It also is helpful they don’t feel flooded with emotions of all of the things that they need to do or really surprised that there are other things that they need to do if they can see the list. Building in breaks for movement and breaks for food, family meals are really worth prioritizing at this point. Naming those feelings that you’re having, particularly strong feelings and giving kids strategies for how to get unstuck at a time when they’re not feeling strong emotions, right? Cause nobody wants to be told to take deep breaths when they’re really frustrated.
That’s probably the worst thing that you could do. So it’s intentionally building in and practicing. How can you take calming breaths at moments so that it’s a tool in your toolkit. We also know this is a wonderful time to connect with family and friends digitally. Yes, but it’s one of the things I was zooming with some college friends and we were remarking why haven’t we been doing this before? We don’t live in the same parts of the country. We’re actually more in touch now than we had been previously. And finally using reading and using art using things that are not screen-based as recovery strategies, when those strong emotions well up has proven really powerful. So thanks for listening to The Professor and The Principal podcast. Links and other show notes can be found at Katie’s website at www.katieegancunningham.com
And we’d love to hear from you and answer your questions COVID-19-related or just parenting- or teaching-related questions. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for listening.