Fairytales and “Emotional Muscle”

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“Fairy tales show real life issues in a fantastical scenario where most often the hero triumphs…Children need to discover in a safe environment that bad things happen to everyone. Because guess what? No one in life is immune from challenges- so we need to build capacity in our children. Do we build emotional muscles so our children hang on during tough times or do we shelter our kids, protecting them, leaving them so weak they can’t handle anything requiring strength?”

(Taylor, Why Fairy Tales Are Important to Childhood, 2012)

Why Fairytales for Professional Development?

9b57d13d65c35e119135a76fd476536bI haven’t posted for quite a while, but it is not because I haven’t been thinking and writing about resilience, and Story, and the impact that substance use disorder has on young children. My journey for the past 18 months has been along the long and often dusty, desolate road of Dissertation, and it is only now, when the end glitters in the distance like sunshine on a magic crystal, that I think I can come back to this project of the heart.

I have learned so much, and am eager to start sharing some of the specific ways that fairytales resonate with the “ordinary magic” of the protective factors of resilience (as Dr. Ann Masten describes them). But first: why fairytales? What on earth do they have to do with kids living with substance use disorder and how the pickle do I expect these ancient tales of magic to help teachers???

I recently recalled for the first time in years a comment that one of my constructivist heroes, the late, great Dr. Harry Wachs, said to me when I told him that I wanted to use Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas with the adjudicated teens that I was working with: “But Stephanie: they will be able to see right through that…and tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they believe.” That set me off on a quest that resulted in using fairytales to discuss moral judgment and reasoning with these adolescents, all of whom had displayed questionable judgment, or they wouldn’t have been in residential treatment.

I believe that teachers (and all of us) are often stuck in our preconceptions of what is “right” or “appropriate” etc. and that fairytales offer a degree of separation that helps us to dig into our own prejudices, without fear of censure when we are being genuine. Social equity work of ALL kinds requires exactly this: it is a challenge to achieve that self-awareness and clarity without raising defenses.

We can all laugh at Jack being a smart aleck, and cheer when Beauty ignores her father’s edicts, or do fist pumps when Hansel and Gretel trick their parents…but when these children are in our classrooms, we call out their “challenging behaviors” without taking into consideration the context of the child’s life, or the characteristics of resilience that they are demonstrating. Hopefully, raising teacher awareness about the impact of SUD, as well as the “ordinary magic” of resilience, in a way that is playful and accessible, will help them better meet the needs of the children they work with.

Toto, We’re Not in New Brunswick Anymore: A Tale of Resilience

Holland TunnelOnce upon a few weeks ago, I was headed to the joint conference of The Association for the Study of Play, and the International Play Association of America, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. I had carefully planned my route from Pittsburgh to avoid, at all costs, the series of roads I most feared: I-95 and its wicked spawn 295, 395, 495 and 695, which slither around the East Coast like venomous snakes. As someone who dislikes heavy traffic, and has no sense of direction, the extra half hour it would take was my gift to myself…I’m all about lowering stress, especially when going to a PLAY conference, for heaven’s sakes!

I had printed out my directions since my phone GPS seems to ignore my penchant for alternative routes at times. But, as darkness began to fall, I decided that it would be a good idea to type in the hotel address, just in case. When I glanced down at my phone a few minutes later, I saw that I’d put in 3 Albany St, New Brunswick, instead of 2 Albany St., and in a rare moment of precision, I decided to correct it. My phone flashed me some message about how my route had changed, which, duh, I realized since I’d changed the address. And I drove on into the night.

I kept seeing signs for the Holland Tunnel, and New York City, and I won’t say I didn’t pay attention. But surely, I reasoned, the path to New Brunswick would veer off at some point…the cities WERE kind of close, right?

Then a skyline rose in the dark in front of me. Dang…that sure LOOKS like NYC! And as the gazillion lanes of traffic I found myself merging into inched toward the huge sign shouting “Holland Tunnel,” I began to second guess myself. How could this be right? What was I going to do? And, I HATE TUNNELS (due, I’m sure, to the same lack of spatial reasoning in my brain that contributes to my horrible sense of direction, and makes me feel like I will crash into the walls).

I took a breath. I kept driving. And as I was hurtling through the bowels of the beast, I refrained from acting on my first instinct: to scream and stop the car in abject terror. I self-regulated, using that private speech that Vygotsky said helped children scaffold their own instincts with adaptive action: “I will be fine. It’s just a tunnel. A really, really, really long tunnel. No one else seems concerned. Stopping is not a good idea. Nor is screaming and banging my head on the steering wheel. Maybe there’s a tunnel before New Brunswick….I will be fine.”

As I finally exited the tunnel, and saw a sign pointing to the Financial District, I at last admitted to myself that I was, indeed, in the only driving location that terrified me more than the 95s…New York City. Alrighty then.

At the first light, I checked my phone, which was still giving me directions to turn left, turn right. Traitor! And that’s when I noticed two things: 1) I was headed to 2 Albany St., New York NY, instead of 2 Albany St. New Brunswick, NJ; and 2) my phone was almost out of juice. I stayed calm and followed the phone’s directions and about the time I “had reached my destination,” my phone died completely. It was 9:30 at night, I was alone in New York City, with no idea about where to go, and dead tired from driving for six hours after working all day.

Time to call up my resilience fairies! I drove around the block several times, considering my options.  I would call my dear friend Bud…who was somewhere in the city! Oh, right: no phone. OK…how was I going to charge my phone? My computer! Which was in the trunk! I carefully pulled the car into a bus lane, turned it off, and leapt out, raced to the trunk, snagged my computer bag, jumped back into the driver’s seat, and in a few minutes, had plugged my phone into the USB port. Proud of my initiative, I sat there, in the bus lane. Gradually I became aware that maybe I couldn’t just sit there til my phone charged…something about the nasty looks of other drivers and a police car that seemed to be circling…

I drove slowly around the block again, and saw a parking garage. Forty dollars for an hour???? Um…no worries. I had, after all, some magic plastic in my purse that would cover the time it would take to charge my phone.  I pulled in and explained my situation to the attendant.  “New JERSEY???? How did you get here??? I don’t know how to get you back.” Then he suddenly pointed to a car about to exit: “That car’s from Jersey! Ask them! Stop them!”

I charged towards the car, waving my arms. Slowly the window rolled down, and with only a slight look of suspicion and disbelief, the driver shook his head and asked me why I didn’t use my GPS. Um. Dead. Then he shook his head again and gave me a “Turn left, turn right, veer right at the curve” series of directions that would get me back to the Holland Tunnel. As I thanked him, he smiled and said, “After that, just look for the signs for 95…that should get you somewhere close to New Brunswick and you can ask for directions again.” And off he drove.

The parking attendant refused to take any money and pointed me to the exit. Attachment, the third protective factor which along with initiative and self-regulation makes up resilience, doesn’t have to come from family or friends. The kindness of strangers, and being open to ask them, will due in a pinch. Maybe THAT’S why so many fairy tales have “magical helpers” who appear out of nowhere, right when they are needed…

I made it to the play conference late that night, having overcome a series of (relatively minor) adversities and even more committed to helping teachers develop these attributes  of resilience in young children with intention and purpose.  Whether it’s family substance use disorder, or abuse, or grief, or just being lost in a strange city, we all face dragons at some point. The powerful secret weapon of resilience helps to protect us from those dragons so we can go on to play another day!

Want to know more about resilience? Check out this blog post, or this one, or, for more in-depth information, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child and the Devereux Center for Resilient Children offer lots of information and resources!

Children of Alcoholics Week, 2016, By the Numbers

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We really don’t have time to sit around and wring our hands. The time to act is NOW.

“It only takes one caring and supportive adult to change the trajectory of a child’s life…” Doesn’t it make sense to give teachers, especially those working in childcare with the most vulnerable young children, the tools they need to maximize their interactions?

On Bats, Trauma, and Resilience

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Last week, I found a bat in my washing machine. Really.

I had thrown in some old towels after my dog’s bath a few days before and must have gotten distracted. The next time I went down to do laundry, the lid was open and the tub still filled with water, along with the towels. I shut the lid and the washing machine did its thing. After the spin cycle, I went to put the towels in the dryer, and there was this little brown bat, shivering into the towels!

Images of my last indoor bat encounter of the close kind flashed through my mind. Several decades ago, a bat flew into my bedroom one night. I screamed, yelled, waved my arms, grabbed a broom, threw dirty clothes at it, and then lay trembling in bed, cursing my bad luck and new role as sole protector of my sleeping children. Finally, after what seemed like hours, it found its way out through the window I had left open.

This time, I talked gently to my bat, and tried to figure out how to help the poor thing. I held first a box, and then a wire bird feeder inside the tub, hoping she would be able to climb it like a ladder (no, this did not work!). I opened the basement door so she could smell the fresh air. I watched as the little bat struggled to climb up the metal walls of the machine, her claws trying to grasp the holes, and then as she slid back to the wet towels. Again and again, she tried, until at last she flew out, right past the open door, and clung to a cupboard near the furnace.  I reminded her where the open door was (helpful, huh?!), put in another load of laundry, and left. When I came back a while later, the little bat was gone. I closed the outside door.

I mused about the trauma that the little bat must have experienced: suddenly being swept into a swirling tub of water and (biodegradable!)suds, clinging to the rotating tub as it vibrated and spun through the wash cycle. And yet somehow, she survived, and persistently worked her way back to home and safety. THAT is resilience!

I thought, too, about the children who come into our classrooms, still spinning from whatever ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) they’re living. Some tremble in a frightened heap, but others come in loud and thrashing and ready to claw their way their way out.

How can we help these kids build the same kind of protective resilience that my little bat displayed? Research tells us that there are three main protective factors for resilience: attachment, initiative and self-regulation. Could my little resilient bat have come to teach me more about these?

With Little Bat #1, who was, truth be told, probably also a bit traumatized,  I pretty much blew it. Forget attachment: no way my yelling and fierceness could have been perceived as anything THAT bat could trust or want to be around! Initiative? Absolutely not: swiping a broom at him to shove him out the window took away any ideas he might have had about how to get out (like…maybe the same way he came in???). As for self-regulation: I don’t know much about bats’ emotions, but that bat’s swooping and squeaking and diving from ceiling to floor as I tried to regulate it right out of my life didn’t seem much under his control to me!

Of course, my calmness helped with the attachment in last week’s Little Bat #2. A soft voice, and kind demeanor makes any of us feel less threatened, which is a pre-requisite for healthy attachments.

I also respected the little bat’s initiative: OK…so I thought my idea about offering her the wire suet cage was kind of brilliant since bats use their claws to climb BUT when she didn’t grab onto the idea, I let it go, too. And because I did, she figured it out herself.

Although I’m sure she was scared, of both her ride through the spin cycle and the giantess hovering around her, Little Bat #2 demonstrated remarkable self-regulation. Without a lot of flapping or fluttering, she flew to a place where she could get warmer and drier and groom and collect her wits. And when SHE was ready, she went about her business. I gave her the space to put the SELF back into self-regulation (here’s a great blog on the topic if you want to read more).

Thank you, Little Bat, for reminding me that resilience, whether for bats or young children, can emerge from what researcher Ann Masten calls “Ordinary Magic.” This is the magic that our children need and want most of all as they move from adversity to happily ever aftering.

(Little Bat print courtesy of  New York Public Library Digital Collection, a great collection that is in the public domain!)

Sometimes, “There’s A Lot of Witches…”

 

In my search for classroom strategies that can support young children living with substance use disorder (a.k.a. alcoholism/addiction), one of my “forever heroes,”  Vivian Gussin Paley, has risen like a sparkle of fairy dust above the dark clouds of this national public health crisis. Research is bearing out the power of her story- and play-based methods (check out this article from Ageliki Nicolopoulou and her colleagues for some compelling data). And, unlike many alternative curricula that focus on social and emotional learning and resilience, Paley’s model does not require expensive materials and pre-packaged training modules. Instead, pencils, markers, paper, a stage marked by masking tape, and a classroom rich with children’s literature and play opportunities are all that is required.

For years, I have used Vivian Paley’s storytelling/storyacting/storyplay pedagogy in my own classrooms, with magical results. Not only did the children’s stories help to build strong literacy skills; they also became the tapestry of our classroom community, where ideas were explored, conflicts resolved, and compassion developed.

The video above highlights this magic, in the words of some of the children who participated in a pilot project in the Boston Public Schools. Have a (deep) listen. If you are interested in learning more about this amazing project, check out their weebly, Boston Listens, for more videos and resources.

And keep coming back here as well, as I explore different aspects of this child-centered pedagogy! It offers treasures for all children, and, perhaps, a unicorn’s ride to resilience and executive functions for those who are the most vulnerable.

 

Does everybody get a happy ending?

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I love fairy tales. I always have and I always will. But although I wrote my master’s thesis on fairy tales and children’s social and moral development, I never expected to stand on the brink of my dissertation, wondering about the essential question that fairy tales ask: who gets the happy ending?

One of my delights in the past year has been the discovery of Once Upon a Time, the hit TV series. I don’t have cable, but on the recommendation of a friend, I started to watch the show on Netflix while I rode my exercise bike (no spoiler alerts, please: I’m only up to Season 4!). As classic fairy tale heroes and villains dance between the Enchanted Forest and the present-day in ever-surprising plot twists, the issue of whether only heroes get to happily ever after dominates.

This seems relevant to me, as I continue to learn about the impact of substance use disorder (SUD, also known as alcoholism/addiction) on very young children. These children may come into their preschool classrooms looking more like fierce dragons and raging beasts than kind and courageous heroes. While the family disease affects children in many different ways, it can often result in challenging behaviors, including aggression, lack of trust in adults, and self-regulation and attention difficulties.

Statistically, we know that young children with challenging behaviors are expelled from preschool at a higher rate than older students: up to three times as often as their K-12 brothers and sisters!  How’s that for putting the villain’s mask on a four year old at risk for mental and physical health issues, including SUD, as an adult?

What would happen if early childhood teachers began to use the magic of neuroscience to develop the resilience and heart that every hero possesses…in all children? The battle between good and evil may play out in fairy tales, and even on the world stage, but in the preschool classroom, there is plenty of room for a host of good guys.

Here’s to a commitment to doing our best to ensure that every child has a shot at the happy ending s/he so richly deserves.