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.

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.

 

The Power of Story (OR: Once Upon An Executive Function…)

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It’s true. I’m a children’s book snob. I was “that teacher” who ranted against the story-less drivel that was supposed to teach my first-graders phonics. If a book doesn’t touch heart, mind and soul, I pretty much don’t care if it’s got pretty pictures or is on the bestseller list or targets the “at” family like no other. Children deserve Story, with a capital S. They need Story not just to learn literacy, but to learn life.

And so of course, as I started to research young children living with substance use disorder, I went straight to children’s literature. What I have found so far ranges from ok-ish, to bleccchhhh. Now, I haven’t read these with any kids, and, who knows, children living with this disease might connect with them. However, most fell into the category of books that were written for a purpose, rather than to tell a story (or to impart information, a whole other genre). Here’s a sample bibliography from the Betty Ford Center, which is where I started my search.

This got me thinking. What kind of “real” books would touch vulnerable children’s hearts and help them to feel part of something bigger, something warm, something authentic? What kinds of books could offer them ways of building resilience as they wrestled with the here and now? I mean, isn’t that what good literature DOES?


Take the beautifully illustrated Al and Teddy, by Neil Waldman (who, in addition to being an artist and author, founded the Fred Dolan Arts Academy in the Bronx). The video clip above touches on its visual appeal, but the story, of two brothers living in a less than perfect urban world, offers insight into power: the power of art and the imagination to solve problems, the power of sibling attachment, the power of forgiveness, and…the power of change. It is a real story that touches on real pain, which, don’t kid yourself: children experience (read about the author’s childhood experience which inspired the book in “The Story Behind the Story”). Yet it does so in a way that is respectful, grounded and magical…all at once. (AND…there’s a Teacher’s Guide that has engaging and standards-based classroom activities for different ages, too!).

Soon after I discovered Al and Teddy, I ran across a wonderful resource from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making team. It is a list of 42 Books and Tips That Promote Life Skills related to Executive Function.

I will admit: I was skeptical. Was this another listing of cutesy books about focus, self-control, perspective-taking and challenges, written by some thinktank of neuroscientists and educators…rather than by authors with stories that burned to be told?

NO! It is a resource, divided by both Executive Function Life Skill and age (birth-2, 3-5, 6-8) of classic and new children’s books which have both critics’ and children’s resounding stamps of approval as great STORIES. It includes books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Making Connections), and The Snowy Day (Self-Directed Engaged Learning), The Carrot Seed (Focus) and Knuffle Bunny (Taking on Challenges). Each book is linked to a downloadable Tip Sheet which has suggestions for specific ways parents and teachers can talk with children as they read the book, and how this actively and intentionally promotes each facet of brain development. The Tip Sheets are also available in Spanish.

This resource is evidence-based. It promotes the executive function skills that are foundational to not only academic success but to social competence and resilience. It’s free (see here for a discussion of why this is so critical when looking at programs that would benefit young children living with SUD) And: it gives busy teachers and parents another reason to share great stories with children.

My amazing (adult) daughter discovered a treasure when we were shopping in December. Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal isn’t on Mind in the Making’s list, but I think it offers a lighthearted way to talk about perspective-taking with children. Take a look at the trailer, and let me know what you think! (There’s even a Teacher’s Guide to go with it!)

How do YOU use children’s literature to develop executive function skills and resilience? What books can we add to this growing list? Please comment below or join in the conversation on our page on Facebook!