Standardized bodies < Accepting & Celebrating Difference

 

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Hello all,

Happy summer to you all! While I have been enjoying the outdoors and time with my fast-growing littles, I have also found some opportunities to continue thinking and learning as well, which is always nice. This past week, Dr. Blair Niblett invited me to guest lecture in his M.Ed class at Trent University. I was flattered to be there and the talk brought up some great questions and conversations about my area of research, and I wanted to share some of this with you for this post.

One of the questions I have continued to think about was put forth by a student who teaches in a police foundations program. He was curious about what to do with young people who struggle with fitness activities, such as the Beep Test (a standardized running test). He mentioned that his students have increasingly been having a harder time achieving a passing grade on the test, and it was troubling for him. As a person committed to helping others get more physically active, I get it! But, I am also a huge advocate for eliminating any and all standardized tests in PE; heck, really any standardized test cross-curricularly. Asking students to perform and get results on the exact same fitness task, when they are all built so totally different and individual is absurd to me.

The tricky part and what was brought up in the class was this question; ‘so, do we just let them become overweight and inactive if we aren’t pushing them in these ways?’ What do a lack of fitness testing and a push for intuitive eating look like for this generation, and is it actually good for them? This has come up a number of times at conferences and talks that I do, so I thought I would share my answer in a few points;

1.) The obesity epidemic is sensationalized in the media (Gard, 2002), in fact, a good majority of this generation are fit and healthy. ‘Fit’ and ‘healthy’ means different things to different people, however, and I think this is where confusion and discomfort often rest. A recent article published in the European Heart Journal found that individuals who are metabolically healthy (i.e blood pressure within a healthy range, cholesterol, blood sugar, and other indicators fall within a healthy range) yet overweight are at no greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer than those who are of normal weight. What this means is that “we’re learning that a body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether that body is fat or thin,” shares Dr. Glenn Gaesser, a professor of wellness and exercise at Arizona State University.

2.) Once we get comfy with the fact that many different body sizes and shapes can be healthy, we can start to let go of our pre-conceived notions that one is not fit if they do not look like the model in the fitness magazine or do not run a specific distance on a running test. To achieve this specific ideal alienates the majority of the population, and may lead individuals towards a sedentary life, as they do not feel they will ever be able to conform to the very specific and prescribed ideals of health. Or, they might go so far the other way to achieve something their genetics do not allow, that they run into problems with eating disorders and addiction to exercise. We obviously don’t want either of these two scenarios for our young people.

3.) Tests such as the Beep Test and images of ideal, fit femininity represent the most recent version of healthism. Healthism, a term coined by Crawford (1980) is the belief that health can be achieved unproblematically through individual effort and discipline; furthermore, it represents a moral imperative to do so. In other words, in a neoliberal society, it is the job of the individual to achieve a healthy body; to fail at this is to fail yourself, and to fail the society in which you live (increased health care costs, etc.). This perspective misses an important marker of achieving good health; one’s sociodemographic status. A child who lives in an affluent neighborhood, with healthy food options that their parents can afford, and a plethora of organized sporting activities of their choosing is much more likely to achieve good health than the child of a single-parent who cannot afford healthy food, nor has the time or resources to cook that food or put their children into organized sport. This is a striking comparison when you think about it. Both of those kids may be standing on that starting line side by side, about to run the Beep Test.

So, for us educators and parents, what do we do with this information? It is important to remember that a healthy individual can look all kinds of different ways and can achieve good health in ways that are meaningful and sustainable to them. For this reason, I cannot stress the importance of giving our young people choice. If the beep test doesn’t work for you, how about a walking test, or a swimming test, climbing, X-country skiing; running while dribbling a soccer ball, whatever it is you love to do? We need to teach our young people that traveling down their own path towards good health is going to look different than the person beside them, both internally and externally.

Most importantly, let’s promote things that our children love to do to move their bodies. I think if we do this, we will speak more to this generation and we will become trusted allies on their paths towards good health and body acceptance.

Thank you for reading,

L

My ‘Why?’ …

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Hello All,

This past autumn brought big change for my family and I as we left our lives in Toronto and moved to the small village of Lakefield, Ontario for me to pursue work at Lakefield College School. This year of transition and change has got me thinking about why I pursued education as a career, why I research and why I am interested in the kind of work that I do. I wanted to share this with you today. Maybe some of it will resonate with you.

One of my committee members at the University of Toronto once told me that research is always intimately connected to the individual doing the research. This really stuck with me and the work that I do with girls surrounding body perception, self-monitoring and finding joy in movement. I was a competitive gymnast for most of my adolescent and teenage life. As I reached puberty and began to develop and gain weight, I felt increasing amounts of pressure to conform to the normative body size for my sport, characterized by little body fat and a petite, yet muscular body shape. Achieving this body required me to limit my food intake and partake in drastic training and exercise habits. I will never forget my coach yelling into the change room during a snack break that he could “hear me getting fatter.” Wtf!?

These early experiences, coupled with the sharp rise in exposure to social media has really stayed with me into my adult years. Recently, it has surrounded the messiness of pregnancy, and the transformative body (and emotional) changes that come afterwards. While women experience these changes, they also tend to feel massive societal pressure to get that perfect body back, and quickly. It’s all a little bit much.

Leaving this message behind and arriving at a place of self-acceptance has not been easy for me, but I refuse to let my daughters watch their mother obsess over imperfection. So, we eat the cookies, then we eat the kale, and it’s all good that I still have a little belly, almost 2 years after giving birth. I am not going to say I don’t still struggle with these changes, but I’m trying, and that’s all a person can do.

Most importantly, and for the purpose of this blog, I find that these past experiences really help me to empathize and relate to my female students who are negotiating a lot of pressures to conform to a specific, ‘feminine’ body. Helping young people to navigate this complex world is messy work, that sometimes requires the help of a professional; but if I can instill the values of intuitive eating (a whole post on this concept later) and the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ body in the girls I work with, I will feel I have made some small difference.

It’s an ongoing job that requires the uphill battle of helping young people push back against societal norms and ideals; but this is important work for future leaders and societal influencers anyways, so, two birds. I also don’t pretend to understand how difficult it must be to get through life as a teen unscathed in the era of social media. They teach me about this.

One fact is for certain when it comes to these experiences; the body is far from neutral and biological, and we should never treat it as such; it is a complex entity, multiplicitous, and experienced within negotiations of power controlled by various structures. Who said my belly had to disappear two months after I had my children? Why is it that I felt the need to hit the treadmill 3 weeks after giving birth? and why do my students regularly mention ‘thigh gaps,’ and their ‘summer bodies’ to me in meetings and interviews? These early experiences and realizations form the foundation on which I work with young people in practice and research. I wanted to know who had the power to control messages about the body. And I wanted to help, in any small way I could, the next generation of girls to negotiate this messy terrain they find themselves travelling along.

The act of writing these experiences out is therapeutic in a way, but most importantly, it solidifies my commitment to help others negotiate messages about the body, especially in the face of the curated and perfected images that we each display to the world on our social media accounts (and we’re all guilty of this!). I can’t say I have all of the answers, but I think talking about it and changing the dialogue is a real first step; maybe even posting a picture that isn’t the most flattering but where I look happy.

We have been thinking more deeply as a staff about mindfulness recently. Taking that moment in our everyday lives to direct love and kindness not only towards others but towards ourselves. If I had one wish for our girls after constructing this post, it would be for each of them to look into the mirror and think “I am beautiful.”

Thanks for reading,

L

 

Helping our Girls Reframe Anxiety – it’s not all bad!

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Hello Fellow Educators/Parents,

As an educator and researcher, one of my primary missions is to weave theory and practice together in creative and useful ways for the classroom and to help others do the same. To this end, I have found myself immersed in ways to assist students in finding joy in their daily lives while simultaneously maintaining balance in competitive academic settings and social media landscapes that demand perfection. Whenever literature comes out that focuses on strategies to help our students tackle life’s big challenges and relocate joy (if it ever went missing), I am quick to pick it up on Amazon.

With this said, I preordered Lisa Damour’s new book entitled Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls and I have been devouring the lessons she shares for helping our girls overcome and harness anxiety and stress to their benefit. For this post, I would like to share some of these important and life-changing lessons and discuss how I see them being practiced in the classroom.

I will preface that I believe social-emotional learning should be taught cross-curricularly and embedded in every teacher’s instruction. To extend, I would say all schools need a plan for teaching social-emotional learning in their classrooms whenever possible. It should be deliberate, well phased-out and authentic. Young people should be able to use these strategies in their everyday lives and harness them outside of the classroom when they need them most. Damour offers up these strategies in a way that makes you feel like you are sitting with a cup of tea, having an informal conversation with a very talented and caring girlfriend. What a treat.

Damour’s book is prefaced upon the idea that, in her words, “stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good, but growing and learning – the keys to school and much of life – can’t happen any other way” (New York Times, 2018). From this perspective, the accompanying stress associated with change and growth is welcome and shows our young people that they are accomplishing something great. No need to feel stressed about being stressed from this perspective, in fact, this stress can help our girls be happy and successful!

This book is chock full of new ways to reframe stress and anxiety in our student’s lives and provides practical ways to help them see the positive and perfectly normal physiological effects of the stress response. Damour shares that the fight or flight response to common everyday stressors can actually be a good thing; it prepares our girls for a challenge or tells them when they need to remove themselves from a potentially harmful situation, like say, a party where underage drinking or drug use is taking place. They should listen to this ancient response and harness its power, rather than avoid it.

In fact, Damour warns against avoidance of stressful situations whenever possible. Though we tend to want to protect our girls from potentially anxiety-provoking situations, this is not doing them any favours. We need to give our students an opportunity to tackle stressful situations and come up with strategies to harness and utilize the stress response to their benefit. This takes practice, as most accomplishments in life do.

I see a powerful connection here between Damour’s works and the work of Dr. Broderick, and her Learning to Breathe resource. I can’t think of a more useful way to practice these data-driven perspectives than by teaching young people to ‘ride the waves’ of their emotions through mindfulness practices (see my blog “Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream’ for more on this book and strategies to try at home and in the classroom).

The most powerful lesson provided by Damour, in my opinion, is the authentic, real-world strategies she offers up to help our girls tackle tough situations; in the classroom, at home, and with their peers. Especially powerful for the classroom is the approach she takes with the student who overprepares for all school assessments; a strategy that is unsustainable and can really increase stress (the bad kind) for girls at school (many of us can picture that student in our lives now). Damour mentioned a client whom she counseled to study efficiently and not necessarily longer to achieve great results. This requires confidence in oneself that they are capable of doing the work without overpreparing and burning out. She notes that this strategy tends to be more common with boys, and may explain the confidence gap for women entering the workforce. Our girls need to believe in their skills and have confidence in their abilities to succeed, and this starts in school.

This case struck a personal note with me. To this day, I still over-prepare for every class, every presentation and every meeting. It’s ingrained in me from my school days and my intense desire to please those around me; it’s classic girl behaviour and it’s hard to let go after so many years. This was a good wake up call to commit to quality over quantity in my own professional life. I think catching this trait at a younger age could really help our overachieving girls break this habit with a little coaching.

I also loved the idea of the ‘glitter jar’ as an analogy to the teenage brain in crisis and the strategy of shaking a real one up and letting the brain calm while the glitter settles. I need my own glitter jar sometimes – so, thanks Lisa.

I am excited to take these practices and new thinking on stress and anxiety into my classroom and advising work. I have already made myself a ‘glitter jar,’ and have plans for a mini-unit focused on reframing stress for our grade 9’s. I’m giddy about it. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your expertise with us; our girls need it!

L

 

 

 

 

 

Challenging toxic masculinity in schools through deconstructing discourse

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Recent allegations of assault between boys at schools in Toronto have been widely covered in the media. You will have read about this recently if you live in Ontario.

I felt the need to speak about these types of incidents between boys, forms of aggression and hazing, not as a means to critique particular schools, but rather, to contribute to an on-going community of inquiry into the culture of toxic masculinity that encircles this incident.

At first, I thought that there was no way I was going to touch this case. But it was this intense emotion directed at this thought that made me realize that I had to; as educators (and parents) we need to be comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations about what can go wrong when discourses surrounding what it means to be a ‘man’ start to fester out of control and culminate in horrific events such as the aforementioned. 

Deconstructing these issues are tedious and must be done oh-so-carefully. For this reason, I choose to explore this concept of toxic (hyper)masculinity through a sociological lens, centered around the concept of discourse and deconstruction as key concepts in moving beyond these cultures of hyper-masculinity in schools. I am not writing this to defend any of the actions that occurred, but I do want to shine a light on how discourse can shape actions over years, break down individuality and contribute to this subsequent herd behaviour.

So, some background and definitions to frame this conversation:

Lau and Balovec (2018) define toxic masculinity as a “set of societal expectations of how a traditional male should act, feel, and behave (OISE, 2018). This can take the form in daily life as aggression, dominance, the suppression of empathy and emotion, and homophobia.

To understand this concept of toxic masculinity on a deeper level, I will draw on the work of Michel Foucault (a super famous and respected sociologist), who shaped the concept of discourse. Discourse is a very powerful concept defined as “ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern” (Weedon, 1987, p. 108). 

What I would like to tease out of this rather complex definition is that discourse is more than ways of thinking and producing meaning; it forms one’s unconscious thoughts, and over time, shapes a culture without the individuals even knowing that it has happened. You can begin to see that the invisible power relations that circulate within a particular society get actualized in a very subtle way; a control and power invisible to the eye, but more powerful than anything we can see. This gets dangerous when the discourses that shape a particular institution are encapsulated within a toxic definition of masculinity.

Discourses and Actionable Moments in Schools 

So, here’s where theory and practice come together. Foucault says that discourse can be deconstructed, and this is precisely what we need to do in schools to diffuse these discourses of toxic masculinity; deconstruct. Put simply, deconstruction means locating the ingrained discourse, teasing it apart and breaking it down and rebuilding it into something different. We must deconstruct the discourses that contribute to toxic masculinity and hate in all of our schools, even if we think it is not an issue in the circles in which we exist. Remember, discourse is a tricky devil and hides where we least expect it. It can (and always does) circulate in such subtle ways that we can’t even feel its work, and sometimes it becomes too late to undo its damage. 

Charles Pascal (2018) urges “that notions of hyper-masculinity have become extremely normalized. We need to create a new normal and redefine what masculinity means.” In other words, we must deconstruct this term, find where it hides, and throw it out on the table for all to see. This is so hard, but I think it starts with small conversations with our students, and we must start these conversations early. It begins with knowing the language, feeling confident and comfortable using it, and coming to terms with the fact that power and discourse circulate around us no matter where we live or work.

Shifting discourse is fickle (it’s so ingrained and imbued in power dynamics that often percolate over decades or even centuries) and it will take the full participation of a community; all must be able and willing to have these conversations with young people and know how to deconstruct the concepts. Gillis (2018) argues that this begins with a community-wide conversation that deconstructs masculinity and builds it back up to be something that is inclusive and forgiving within a community of care; a conversation that stresses dignity and respect; that lets boys be who they are, and not fit within a hyper-masculine mould of what it means to a ‘man.’ Bullying is not to be tolerated and intervention must happen early with reminders of a community of care and what that looks, sounds and feels like. 

These recommendations were adapted from a succinct and impactful article by Lau and Balkovic out of OISE at the University of Toronto. I thank them for opening this dialogue in the academic world surrounding this most recent incident; sadly, one of many I am sure. I found this article tough to write, I found the content hard to think about and the solutions daunting to consider; but it is imperative and the impact on our students and children, life-changing. 

Thanks for reading, 

Laura 

The Importance of a Cross-Cultural Education

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Hello All,

I hope you have had a fabulous autumn season. Here in Ontario, we have already seen snow and watched the leaves fly! For this post, I want to discuss the importance of cross-cultural educational research, and ultimately, the benefits of cross-cultural perspectives in schools as a way to broaden and engage in deep and important learning about ‘the other’.

A large focus of my graduate work involved comparative research with some phenomenal academics at The Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Under the guidance of Dr. Alex Branco Fraga and his research team, POLIFES, I was able to get a glimpse into the perspectives of students in Porto Alegre and draw comparisons with Toronto youth.

I am forever grateful to my Brazilian counterparts as I was able to do important comparative research surrounding how young people in Canada and Brazil take up and embody their physical education, media and gendered experiences. In this post, I hope to illuminate some of the key findings from this cross-cultural research, and ultimately, strengthen the case for the importance of diversity when attempting to cultivate students who are true ‘global citizens.’

So, here goes. These were several significant cross-cultural findings that emerged through this comparative project. Most importantly for this post, these findings are ones that I may not have discovered about my Canadian participants without the Brailizan voice and vice versa;

  • Young people in Canada and Brazil are not so different when it comes to their internalizations about physical activity, body perception and social media. Across both countries, students reiterate neoliberal understandings of physical activity and how they should closely monitor and regulate their bodies to become good citizens. What this means is that students suggested a moral imperative to maintain a very specific, gendered body. Students often spoke about Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat as places where they learned what that body should look like. This makes sense; we all know the world has become smaller as technology continues to advance.  The students in my study showed us that images and access to a specific, ideal body are uniform across social media, whether it was in Brazil or Canada.

 

  • Canadian youth took this regulation of the body to a more confined space and they discussed ‘moderation’ as the new way in which to control your body. They communicated that one cannot be too fat or too thin and to be either would represent a major disservice to your health and, ultimately, to your ability to be a good, law-abiding citizen. I argued that this narrowed range of body acceptance was invoking a serious level of anxiety in our Canadian youth; a level of anxiety that I didn’t see with the Brazilian students.

 

  • One major difference the students illuminated for me, and this is kind of sad, was that Canadian students did not locate pleasure in their movement experiences, or with their bodies in general. For the purpose of this sociological study, pleasure was meant to show that there was an absence of joy when young people (particularly girls) spoke about what they ate, how they moved and what they looked like. Young women in Canada remained fixated on achieving a specific, gendered (and moderate) body, whereas Brazilian youth moved into conversations about embodied pleasures. They spoke about how their bodies moved in space, how good that felt, and how happy they were to have that experience. What a fascinating difference and one that really accentuates how much learning can be done when we think about the same concepts across different cultural lines. There you have it.

Recently, I made a very simple observation that got me thinking about this last point, or about how cultural diversity can create important learning opportunities when many countries exist under one roof (or in one study). It reminded me of the important lessons that I wouldn’t have been able to learn if the young people in Brazil were not part of my study. In fact, the findings of my study would not have been novel at all without their insights!

Back to the event. This experience was at an evening get together at the very culturally-diverse boarding school where I work. As I was leaving this event, I noticed several Brazilian and Mexican students relaxing in some chairs by the front doors enjoying a hot chocolate. It struck me, actually, that these 14-year-olds had the maturity and patience to sit with their friends in conversation and enjoy a hot beverage for that amount of time. To me, this was as an example of the embodied pleasures that the Brazilian students spoke in great length about in my study. These young people were experiencing a simple pleasure that appeared to be inconsequential, but was actually quite powerful, at least in my mind. I told them how cool I thought it was as I was leaving, and they just raised their mugs in a ‘cheers,’ silently. So cool.

As technology continues to refine (and define?) and young people continue to adapt, it is the research and education that joins together several (or many) cultural backgrounds that allows for transformational change that mirrors these global trends. This serves our academy and our young people in countless (tangible and intangible) ways and allows them to explore any concept through a completely different lens other than their own. How important is this for an age group that physiologically and psychologically is said to exist on their own little islands?! This opportunity would not be possible without my friends (or my student’s friends) from other parts of the world.

As I was walking out, I saw some of our day students (Canadians) join their friends for that hot chocolate. The symbolism was powerful …

 

L

Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream

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Hello Fellow Parents & Educators,

It feels like the month of September just disappears every school year. As an educator (and parent), September is chock full of getting to know students, orientations, the creation of new teaching tools and strategies, and the list goes on. All exciting activities, but these times can be overwhelming not only for teachers but for the most important people; our students (and kids). This is why it is at this time of year that I like to turn to Dr. Patricia Broderick’s Learning to Breathe classroom resource. This mindfulness curriculum, aimed at cultivating emotional regulation, attention, and performance, is an amazing and powerful tool to help students negotiate stress in a more positive and productive way.

Recently, educators and researchers have become concerned about the stress that students feel about trying not to be stressed and the negative implications these thought processes can have on the developing brain. Is there anything more stressful than actively trying not to be stressed? Yeesh, the sentence alone stresses me out! Dr. Lisa Damour recently published an article in The New York Times entitled How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress, the operative word here being ‘embrace.’ Testing limits and navigating outside of one’s comfort zone can feel very uncomfortable for a young person, but this is paramount to growing and learning about oneself; it truly cannot happen any other way.

I often tell my students this, but I like to preface that at Lakefield College School, we give them many opportunities to ‘fail well’ and push outside of their comfort zones in a low-stakes (and fun) environment. In other words, feel this discomfort now and learn how to ‘ride the waves’ so that when you go into the world these feelings (formerly referred to as stress) become known as excitement, joie de vivre, and seizing one’s day. With this perspective, stress is no longer the enemy, but rather, an emotion we are welcome to embrace and cultivate to achieve great things.

I don’t believe we can just tell young people to ‘suck it up’ and learn how to have a positive view of stress all on their own. It requires a shift in thinking and perception that isn’t aligned with current socially ingrained ideas about stress. This requires practice and a refocus of the thought processes of our students (and ourselves). Enter Dr. Broderick’s mindfulness program. This book takes students through the BREATHE program that focuses on body, reflections, emotions, attention, tenderness, and habits. I like to focus on two exercises with my students for this particular purpose, the first being the ‘Great Cover Up.’ This lesson illustrates how people tend to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings and then asks them to consider behaviors they might use to block out or avoid stress.

I like to follow up with the ‘Surfing the Waves’ lesson that engages students in a mindfulness practice that pushes them into one of these uncomfortable moments (ie. they get bored). They are then asked to pay attention to the feelings that rise and fall, and ultimately guide them to understanding that they can observe the energy of these feelings without acting on them. This is so powerful and it is my hope that they use this practice when the real moments of discomfort arise, say during exam time, a big volleyball game, or a solo performance in front of the school.

This book is easy to use with detailed instructions. Include a mindfulness chime at the beginning and end of activities and you have yourself a class that students will love and appreciate (and the chime makes you look like a real mindfulness guru, even if you’re not that … like me). I divulge this latter point because you do not need to be an expert to deliver mindfulness in your classroom and I truly think it is something that all of our students need to be happy and prosperous during busy (not stressful) times. For me, it is a moment where I can actualize my goal of helping students locate embodied experiences while also disconnecting from technology. I love it.

Dr. Damour reminds us that the human stress response, in and of itself, can actually “put the brain and body in an optimal position to perform” (New York Times, September 2018). We often forget this point and give stress a bad rep for causing lifelong long health problems, when, in fact, the daily stressor of one’s life, if approached properly, can actually help us perform better. I will use my own experience as an example.

I have to admit; after 11 years of teaching at the high school and university level, I STILL get nervous when I teach my classes and give academic talks. Yep, my heart rate increases slightly when I greet my students at the door and I know that they are in my care for the next 75 minutes and that I have the special privilege to teach them something. In the past, this stress has been something I have wanted to change, as the negative societal views on stress would tell me to get it together and relax, for the sake of my health. But, the thing is, this nervousness actually makes me a better educator, and it also tells me that I am doing work that is important to me. I care, and because I care I put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable (ie. teaching new classes, revamping old ones, speaking to other academics) and I am more resilient for it. I want these same experiences for my students. The first step to actualizing this goal is convincing them that they can ride the waves of everyday stress, become resilient and achieve things they never could have imagined.

Thanks for reading and below is the bibliographic information for Learning to Breathe. 

Broderick, P. (2013). Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention and Performance. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA.

A Strengths-based Approach to Teaching/Parenting

 

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My ‘zest-ful’ gal

Back to school time is upon us and that means back to our busy lives, sweater weather (best), fall colours and lots of thinking about the school year ahead and the intentional ways we want to guide our children and students through the next school year.

At Lakefield College School we have adopted a ‘strengths-based approach’ to our work with students. Strengths-based guru, Dr. Lea Waters, visited us last week to workshop with staff and deliver a parenting seminar for our community. What I appreciated most about this day was Dr. Waters translations of theory into practice. She had a lot of great curricular and parenting advice that one could actually use in everyday life. As you might guess, I got inspired by this method and wanted to share some of what I learned from Dr. Waters with you, whether you are a parent or teacher.

What is a ‘strengths-based’ approach? The premise behind the strengths-based approach is that reducing ill-being does not translate to well-being in an individual. Dr. Waters explained that if we were to stop here, we would end up with children in a ‘neutral’ state, where one is not in a negative state of ill-being, but is also not necessarily thriving and happy in their daily lives. Not what we want. We want our kids and students to feel like badass contributors to their communities, because, they are, for all different kinds of reasons. Enter the strengths-based approach.

A strengths-based approach allows us to abandon the socially-ingrained concept that we must focus on our weaknesses to improve as individuals. Dr. Waters explained, we must only focus on our weaknesses if they are inhibiting us from being happy or productive. Otherwise, this approach gives us permission to leave our weaknesses alone as they are never going to become our strengths. With this rationale, we now have more space in our lives to strengthen our positive qualities, as these are the parts of ourselves we can make even better.

So, in practice, we first need to see strengths. You can begin this process by completing a VIA character strength test, perusing the top 5, and reflecting with your students, children, family – a lovely, warm and fuzzy exercise all in itself. Other suggestions include keeping a diary, ‘spotting’ others strengths (in a movie, a favourite actor, etc).

I especially love this idea of ‘spotting,’ and have already put it into practice with my daughter. Yesterday she was pretty upset when she thought her little sister was about to fall down the stairs. Don’t worry, I was there and Nora could see I was there, so the concern was slightly unfounded. Nonetheless, she was yelling at the top of her lungs about it. Instead of asking her to lower her voice inside and leaving it at that, I took the opportunity to spot this display of care (a VIA character strength) and let Nora know she was a really great big sister for worrying about Margot. I plan on doing this ‘spotting’ exercise with my students, not necessarily so they can spot their own strengths (this is a great start in self-reflection on its own), but also so they can locate and verbalize those strengths in the people around them. A beautiful contribution to a community of care.

From here, you would continue to build upon these strengths, leaving a focus on weakness in the rear view. I have to admit, we have fumbled around with this language  when approaching conversations about ‘dialing up’ or ‘dialing down’ a strength. For example, my daugther is, how should I say … full of ‘zest.’ This zest also comes along with persistence. She has an opinion and she will tell you very adamantly if she doesn’t like something. Nora’s ‘zest-y’ persistence is one of the best parts of who she is. She is full of life and fun and people are drawn to her because of this. Her perseverance and persistence will serve her well when she tackles big tasks later in life. I’m proud of this. But sometimes, Nora’s 3 year old self needs to ‘dial down’ her zest and persistence in certain situations, say at circle time or when she doesn’t want to get in the car but we need to go. Turning the conversation from one of discipline to one about learning how to channel this zest can be challenging, especially, when like, we need to go. But, we’re trying, and I am going to try with my students as well.

Let me know if you have any experience with this approach, I would love to hear it!

Happy back to school!

Laura