Category Archives: Social Emotional Learning

You’re not an egg. You’re not spaghetti sauce. You are a rock.

You don’t need to change, but you are probably going to in many ways. It’s inevitable. If there is one undeniable thing about living on planet earth, it is that everything changes. People grow up. They learn and move. Sidewalks crack. Weeds infringe on gardens. Glaciers flow and recede.

Given that, I’ve been thinking about the changes we go through and wondering if there something inside of us that is unchangeable, impermeable even. Is there something at the core of our being that defines us? Under all the learning and experiences that we use to define who we should be, is there a person we truly are and have always been?

This all came to me as I was watching a particularly talented science teacher’s lesson on observation which reminded me of a lesson I taught. Bear with me, I’m taking a jarring detour to Freshman Physical Science to explore this.

Back in the day, I taught an introduction to chemistry and physics to ninth graders. I taught in the small school at the foothills of the Cascades. Most of the kids were naturalists, though they were unaware of this. Growing up in that environment, they noticed things about the world that most people miss. They were the kind of kids who figured out the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies through wondering eyes long before they ever saw a diagram of the process. They might not have known the scientific terms for what they were experiencing but they knew the patterns, systems, and processes in nature. They knew magic was happening.

One of the topics we explored was the difference between physical and chemical change. In case you’ve been out of ninth grade for 41 years like me, I will recap. Physical changes are changes in the appearance or form of a substance but not the chemical makeup of the substance itself. For example, melting an ice cube or boiling water changes the form of water but the substance is still water. Likewise, chopping wood, shredding paper, or crushing a can results in a change in form not substance. Chemical changes are changes in the chemical structure of the substance. While chopping wood or shredding paper only result in smaller piece of wood and paper, burning them changes their substance. Baking a cake causes a chemical change in the ingredients. You might be able to tape a shredded page back together (or at least the guys on CSI can), but you are never getting the egg back in its original form.

In the lab, my student scientists would mix different substances and observe the changes. An Alka Seltzer tab dropped in water bubbled as it disintegrated. Sugar stirred into water seemingly disappeared. Salt became camouflaged when mixed with sand. I would ask them to identify the changes they observed and give supporting evidence for their assertions. As they dropped a rock in a beaker of water, I asked if the rock had changed. It was clearly still a rock, albeit wet. Drying it off, however, would return it to its original state. Had it changed? Only temporarily and not substantively. One of my naturalists would point out that the rock was smooth because of the flowing river it was likely submerged in. They would soon realize the rock was simply smaller as a result. It hadn’t actually changed into a different substance. I would ask, what about heat? Rocks can become hot, but the sun does not change a rock. It will cool off as soon as the sun goes away. It doesn’t even hold onto the heat the way that spaghetti sauce does long after the stove it turned off.

An egg on the other hand is never going back to its original form once you have heated it up. You can’t cool it off or reshape it. It is changed chemically. We might still call it an egg—hard boiled, over easy, fried, scrambled—but it is not the same thing we started with.

That happens to people too. We get scrambled by circumstances that make us question our beliefs. Other times we are whipped up by our friends to stand tall like peaks of meringue against the heat of the oven. We feel like we are underwater unable to find purchase one moment and then bask in the sun on solid ground the next. We get lit up and lifted up. We lose ourselves among the grains of sand. All of these things change us in some way. But are we eggs or are we rocks? Is fried-egg-change the default or wet-rock-change.

I believe we are rocks. I believe there is a core to us that is solid and defined. I believe we are all born inherently good, beautiful, perfect, and valuable. Things happen to us. Whether it is an earthquake that sharpens our edges or a river that smooths them out, we are still that rock. We are still that good, beautiful, perfect, valuable being.

I have sometimes felt that circumstances have changed me, even marred me indelibly, but that is not really true. I know that because things are always changing. I may be hardened at one point or tenderized at another, but I return to the center of who I am—my inner rock.

We are hard on ourselves, though. We want to change and be better people, but the truth is we are already. Your rock might have heated up, but it didn’t turn into something else. And unlike spaghetti sauce, it will cool off quickly. Your rock might be buried right now beneath the dirt. If you dig, you will find it. You are not your circumstances or your fleeting response to them. At your core, you are still that rock. Do what you need to do to unearth the rock that you are!

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

One word can change your world.

I was a big baby the last week of August. I didn’t realize it until Tuesday morning when I was putting on my gear to go for a ride at 4:45 AM.  After a week of riding in the high 40’s in tights and long sleeves (Did I mention it was AUGUST?!), I declared it too cold to ride outside. I switched to rowing, promptly overdid it, and was out of commission over Labor Day weekend.

We can make ourselves miserable,
or we can make ourselves strong.
The amount of effort is the same.
~Pema Chödrön~

Desperate for a workout and unable to row, I dug out my winter turtleneck, heavy tights, thick headband, and fingered gloves, and I headed out on the road. By the time I got to my riding partner’s house, I had a big smile on my face. It felt great to be outside in the stillness of the morning. Fresh, cold air washed over my cheeks and filled my lungs. Muscles pumping. Eyes watering. Sheer joy. My first thought was Why didn’t we ride last week? It couldn’t have been the temperature because it was even colder that morning. Even though the temperature dropped, I was not cold. Save for my cheeks and lips, I was toasty in my winter gear.

Then I thought, why didn’t I just put my turtleneck on last week and ride? The answer slapped me in the forehead. Because it was August! My idea of August is hot weather and tank tops—even at the crack of dawn. August is a death grip on summer. It is the countdown to putting the hard top on and digging out my boots and jeans. Rather than accept the unseasonably cold temperatures, I bemoaned them and gave up. Riding clears my head and heals my body, so I was not at my best that last week of August.

A simple word changed everything: September. September is fall, of which I am a huge fan. September is leaves changing, and sunny, cold mornings. September is invigorating. September is the start of school (also a big fan of that). What was disappointing in August was energizing in September. September is the harbinger of the autumnal equinox and the count down to the winter solstice. I want to grab every second on the road before it is too dark to ride even with my high beams. I want to spin those wheels every mile I can before the miles are covered in ice. September fills me with ambition. Anything is possible in September.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
~John Steinbeck~

Except for the day that thunder and lightning hit as I was getting ready, I rode every day last week. My days started with clearing out my head and muscles. I was daily reminded that my perspective and my attitude can be changed in just a day by just one word. When I am in that place of disappointment, I must remember that it is all in how I think about the world. Bemoaning things that are, though I wish they weren’t, is pointless and only punishes me. With a single word, I can change my perception and attitude and, in so doing, change my whole experience. I can go from just to yet. I can go from never to soon. I can see the world as dwindling or blossoming. I can view the world from loss or hope. If I can choose one word, it will be hope.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

We adapt…. but should we?

When I was in high school, we lived in a house my dad built. He was not a contractor, or a plumber, or an electrician. He was a creative guy with an indomitable spirit and a bookshelf full of advice. He had a grand scheme for wiring the house for maximum efficiency. Midway down the stairs to the garage, there was a box with at least four switches intended to control the entry way, upstairs, and downstairs lights. Most worked. I could never find the switch to the garage stairs. Eventually, I tired of light switch roulette. I would open the door, stand on the top stair, and wait for my eyes to adapt to the darkness. Of course, I could not see in the dark fully, but I was able to see well enough to navigate the stairs, avoiding the discarded boxes of textbooks, and locate the second switch inside the garage. While the darkness was not welcomed, once I adjusted to it, the return of light was a shock. I suppose we could have fixed the switch. I adapted.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances,
as water molds itself to the pitcher.
– Chinese Proverb

It’s quite extraordinary if you think about what the human body can adapt to. The Chukchi and Inuit peoples can endure arctic temperatures below -50 F. The Tibetan and Andean peoples can breathe—even exert themselves—at altitudes more than 13,000 ft. The Sea Nomads of Thailand can dive 100 ft or more unassisted for minutes (Illardo & Nielson, 2018). Our ability to adapt comes in handy when you are forced to survive extreme conditions.

More profound is the ability of the human spirit to adapt to survive.  In the last two years, we have all, adults and children alike, had to adapt. We’ve found new ways to do things to ensure our survival. That may sound melodramatic, but it’s true. We have embraced video calls when we cannot be with loved ones or colleagues. We figured out how to teach and learn when the only thing connecting us was waves of electromagnetic energy. We’ve worn masks for hours on end just for the joy of being six feet away from another live being. We’ve replaced the bear hug with knuckle knocks and elbow taps. We have also become patently aware of the importance of our social emotional wellbeing.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.
The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
– George Bernard Shaw

I think we have always known about it on some level even if we haven’t read the research. Imagine signing onto a Zoom meeting and being greeted by name, perhaps even being asked how you are doing. That small act is a powerful message that you belong. You matter. That feeling cascades and you share that sense of belonging with others. Perhaps you know someone who melted down from the isolation of the pandemic. You may have empathized with their despair and helped them to regain perspective. Your social awareness may have been the life raft they needed. Maybe you were melting down yourself and, recognized your increasing stress was physically and emotionally debilitating, you turned on your self-management skills and committed to working out every day before work. You might have had to flex your relationships muscle as you found yourself trying to work from home with the added stress of a partner and children.

In this unpredictable situation, we will have to continue to adapt to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. There are things that could easily fade away if we do not appreciate their impact and focus our effort on maintaining them. For example, it would be easy to slip back into efficient routines and forego the effort it takes to maintain social emotional wellbeing. So, I say, let’s adapt to that. Let’s adapt to communicating a sense of belonging in our classrooms, communities, and homes. Let’s adapt to empathy and seeking to understand each other. Let’s adapt to acknowledging that our reactions reflect our own story and experiences, taking a breath, and listening with compassion. Let’s communicate our needs and boundaries in a healthy way and respect the needs and boundaries of others. Let’s adapt to all of that as if our very survival depends on it. Instead of walking down the stairs in the dark, day after day, let’s fix the light switch.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Ilardo, M., & Nielsen, R. (2018). Human adaptation to extreme environmental conditions. Current opinion in genetics & development53, 77–82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gde.2018.07.003

How a trip to the eye doctor helped me see the world less clearly

After more than a year of constant virtual meetings, my eyes are shot—bloodshot. For fear I was doing permanent damage, I made an appointment with my ophthalmologist. As part of the exam, he placed some dye in my eyes and shined a bright light directly at them. Suddenly, I could see every blood vessel in my eye.  It was so shocking, I jerked my head and nearly knocked him over. He told me that those blood vessels are always visible but that our minds block them out. They would be a constant distraction otherwise.  It would be like looking at the world through a forest of branches.

What is more amazing, than blocking out all of those capillaries, is the fact that your mind fills in the black lines of the vessels to make the picture whole in our minds.

I know that we have an amazing capacity to block out sensory stimuli. It’s the reason I say things like, “When did they build that apartment complex?”, and my husband says things like “I just told you that!”  (If you don’t believe me, take this awareness test: https://youtu.be/Ahg6qcgoay4).

It makes evolutionary sense if you think about it. Can you imagine being constantly aware of every molecule of shifting air as it hits your body, every flash of light crossing your vision, and every soundwave bouncing off your eardrum? It would be overwhelming. It would be impossible to think of anything else. We filter out a tremendous amount of stimuli so that we can attend to other information. The new apartment building is much less important than the stoplight, pedestrians, and oncoming traffic.

But do we all pay attention to the same sensory information? I think not. We filter information through our lived experiences, cultural and familial expectations and norms, and religious or spiritual beliefs. Without thinking, information is taken in at rates determined not just by how well we see, smell, or hear, but whether or not we drank our coffee, had an argument with our partner, got to workout, had car trouble, gained or lost a pound, have a work deadline looming…. all the things that color our mood, and interfere with or focus our attention. And yet, if I asked you to describe the world, you could. You would describe the world as you know it. Because you experience it firsthand through your senses, you see it as real and true.

According to Stephen Burnett, “Every organism inhabits a world that is the sum total of all the information being received and processed by that organism’s nervous system.”1 For example, the giraffe and  the rock python inhabit the same area, but they live worlds apart. Like every other organism, we live in different worlds because we perceive the world differently. The world of humans is even more vast when technology is present because it can bring the entire world to us.  For the rabbits in my backyard, the world is about an acre of land where they must brave the King (my husband who loves his lawn) and his two four-legged, sharped-toothed beasts (my puppies who want to play with them) just to feed their families. Our oasis is their gauntlet. For humans, we not only experience the space we physically live in, but we experience the whole world filtered both through our interests and choices and through the filter of what others think we should see, feel, and pay attention to.

Part of the challenge of being human is that we believe our experiences. We trust what we see and our interpretation of it. We don’t notice the branches obscuring our view or that our mind has elegantly filled in the missing information with what aligns with our expectations and prior experience. 

That makes it very hard to understand each other sometimes. When you describe a world so different from my experience, I might think that you must be wrong. For if you are not wrong, then how can I be right. After all, I have my experience as proof that I am right.

Is this duality the truth of the world or the myth of it? Can some things be both right and wrong? Is the world really black or white? If it is good for me, does that negate that it is bad for you? A weed to me, might be a flower to you. One person sees a guerilla, another person sees a freedom fighter.

Whether we are talking about our families, local communities, or the world, honoring the different and valid ways we experience the world is critical. How can we better understand each other? How can we truly see the different worlds we inhabit together? How can we let someone else’s experience fill in those blind spots in our eyes, especially when it would be far easier to let your mind fill them in with only your world view?

Listen with compassion and a desire to understand rather than convince.

See with new eyes and question your perspective.

Smell the flowers, even if you think they are weeds.

Feel what it must be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Break bread together (or kitfo, souvlaki, kimchi, goi cuon, biryani….) and learn the history of the dishes.

Open your eyes and relax your focus. You might be surprised what becomes clear.

1 (Burnett, S. (2011) Perceptual Worlds and Sensory Ecology. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):75, https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/perceptual-worlds-and-sensory-ecology-22141730/).

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

How a Box of Rocks Made Me Smarter—and Calmer

When we were at the beach, I noticed a stack of rocks on an old log. I have seen towers like these before, but I never really thought about them beyond noticing the inexplicably calming sense that I get from staring at them.  I find rock formations, natural or manmade, relaxing. I must not be the only one because, on the road out of Dingle, there was an Irish farmer who was charging to photograph the cairns on his property. I happily paid and I was not the only one.

In the space I had at the ocean over break, without the tether of my cell phones, laptop, or iPad, it occurred me that there must be something deeper than casual boredom turned art happening here. Clearly stacking rocks is an echo of some vestigial gene we are carrying around, like the one that makes an appendix. It is the gene that spurned Stonehenge, Easter Island, and the Inukshuk.  It goes beyond the pedestrian pursuits of creating buildings or carving historical monuments. It is much more visceral than that.

Though out of character for me, I decided to forego the research phase this time. OK, the truth is that I started the research phase and learned many reasons why you should not stack rocks in nature. Google it before you create your next granite tower. Though the biologist in me had a pang or two of guilt, I was still too curious to stop. Instead, I turned inward and did a little self-excavation. I got some rocks from my front yard and I created a rock sculpture garden on my desk.  For a week, I have been alternately toppling over and restacking rocks. While I still have no clue what draws me to do it, I am learning so much from the act.

My Stone Stress Seismograph 

There are different levels of stress. The more stress I have, the more desensitized I get to it. As a result, I accept a baseline of stress as normal. I may even see this baseline as not being stressed at all. Five towers of precariously stacked rocks next to my keyboard act like a mood seismograph. I cannot pretend when the evidence is toppling over in front of my eyes. When I get stressed and intense, I pound my keyboard and crash around my desk. There is a point at which the hammering knocks the stones over. Instead of letting that cause more stress, I am leaning into it. In the last week, I have learned to take a breath and figure out what I am feeling in the moment. What is causing me to pound the keyboard. The more awareness I bring to my feelings, the more sensitive I become to small shifts in my stone seismograph.

Wisdom of Intuition

Stacking rocks takes a completely blank mind. It is an act of intuition. I really can think of nothing else in that moment. There is a place of balance for each stone. If I am thinking about an upcoming meeting, I will not be able to sense where that spot of perfect balance is. I cannot reason the stone into place. I cannot calculate the stone into place. I must feel the stones. In the absence of the running dialog and strategic thinking, the placement of the stones is clear.

More Than One Path

When a tower topples, I have the inclination to remember exactly how it was and how I did it the last time.  As if that were not only the perfect way but the right way. Routines, though tedious, are also efficient and effective strategies for many things. However, in rock stacking, recreating is pointless. Accepting that the new formation will be satisfying allows for the possibility that it will be much more than that.

Persistence Point

There is always a way to stack a stone and being frustrated makes it much harder to find the way. I have found that the more frustrated I get with trying to “get it exactly right” prevents me from reaching that wordless place where my actions are guided by intuition and sensation rather than judgment and expectation, perceived or actual. In that place of silence, new ways to stack the stones appear that meet the goal.

Creativity Jumpstart

A state of wordlessness makes a space for creativity.  I cannot write when my head is filled with noise. Reaching that wordless place where my attention is focused on finding the sweet spot on a misshapen stone opens a door to a place filled with connections, new ideas, and beautiful words.

So, it turns out a box of rocks made me smarter and calmer this week. Give it a try. Stack some rocks. Rake some sand. Meditate. Do yoga. Stare at a sunrise. You might learn something about yourself.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

It’s Never About The Furniture

Some time ago, dear friends of mine retired and moved from Washington to Texas. I am terrible at goodbyes. That should be evident by the fact that this blog has been sitting half-written for nearly a year. I had intended to write it the morning after their going away party. I started to, but the words got stuck in my heart on the way to my head and so my fingertips just sat on the keyboard, wordless. I still miss them – my friends, not my words. I think that the sheer volume of transitions over the last year have sort of dislodged the blockage in my heart, though. My head is full, and my fingertips are ready.


Their going away party was a small affair of our closest friends. With more than a decade of shared celebrations and sorrows, we are very open and comfortable. So, it was not a surprise when they had a spirited marital debate on the disposition of an old desk that had, apparently, not made it onto the truck yet. I can’t recall who wanted to summarily dispose of the desk and who wanted to drag it half-way across the country. Therefore, I won’t choose sides. (However, to be completely transparent, I tend to root for my own team out of general loyalty to the sisterhood.) At any rate, the desk discussion billowed up like a cumulus cloud soaring off the Sound and hitting the Cascades. The marital debate began to look like a storm. To prevent the drops from turning into a flood, someone, possibly me, pointed out that it wasn’t about the desk. I should mention that these are two of the most loving, nurturing people I know. As a couple, they are the gold standard in relationships. They share a beautiful love that touches everyone they meet. Let’s be honest, though, moving could cause even Mother Theresa or Gandhi to consider abandoning their commitments to peace and love. Goodbyes are stressful. Transitions are nerve-racking. And it is never about the furniture.

So, what is it that would cause us to dig our heels in and risk relationships to protect our pride? It is about what we cannot face. It is about our feelings—deep, irrational, inexplicable, often contradictory, feelings. It is about what we cannot communicate because the truth is lodged in our hearts. But it is never about the furniture.


More than ever, this last year has been a seemingly endless stream of endings and beginnings. From outright changes to minor pivots, we have transitioned hundreds of times from what we have always done to what we are able to do now or what we must do now. It feels like none of that is what we want to do, though. To me, all of these changes are tiny goodbyes. Not all are bad. Some I even take in stride, avoiding suffering through the acceptance of what is and cannot be changed. Other things are like wearing someone else’s clothing. I am grateful that I have something to wear, but it doesn’t fit quite right. I feel awkward and annoyed. Wearing a mask fits in this category.


There are also small things that throw me off my game completely— my ‘desks’. They cause me inwardly (and outwardly if I know that you love me and will forgive my ridiculousness) to pitch a fit like a three-year-old. Take last night, I realized that I left my second Hydroflask at work. Yes. The second one. I now have two sitting on my desk. It is the weekend. I like to drink water from my Hydroflask when I workout. I was mentally pitching a fit (because not even someone who loves me should have to put up with that ridiculousness). The truth is, though, it’s not really about the Hydroflask. I have many, many water bottles. It’s not about the water bottle. Forgetting the water bottle is about feeling always a little off balance these days. Despite having years on the job, it is about feeling a little less competent in this new environment where I have to consider things I have never had to consider before— masks; social distancing; temperature checks; two stage clustered, stratified random sampling (don’t ask). I can handle all of that. I don’t want to have to handle all that. It is missing my team and kids, and communicating in all 3 dimensions. It is wondering how this has changed us all and what those changes mean for the future. It is not about a water bottle.

So, if you are like me, and you find yourself reacting passionately or actually pitching a fit, give yourself some grace. Ask yourself if it is really about the object or situation before you. If it is not, try to unblock your heart so that your feelings can reach your mind and mouth. Start a journal. Share your feelings with someone who loves you and will forgive any ridiculousness just because it is not ridiculous to you. Keeping those feelings bottled up and unexamined won’t make them go away. We are all in this together. It is never about the furniture.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

I need a heartbeat.

Like most people working from home, I have spent the last 13 weeks video conferencing. My vibrant, three-dimensional world has been reduced to grainy images intermittently stilted by poor bandwidth, virtual backgrounds signaling our desire for sandy beaches and mountain retreats, and a grid of flattened faces. To be clear, I am grateful for all of that. Without it, the isolation would have been unbearable for me. I am sure I would have, in turn, made it unbearable for my husband and daughter. Still, there has been something missing. Something I craved. Something more elemental than mere virtual communication. It took a puppy, a bike ride, and a march to help me see that what was missing was my heartbeat. 

Two months ago, we brought home our new puppy, Delta. She was still in that phase where she slept about 18 hours a day. True to the breed, our little Boxer is a snuggler. She wants to be cuddled up tight to a warm body. She doesn’t much care who it is, either. When she was tiny, she fit on a pillow on my lap under my desk. She slept peacefully for hours as I worked. As she grew, she started to fall asleep sitting upright. It looked uncomfortable, and my instincts told me to gently push her into the lying position. Boxers are a willful breed. Even as young as she was, I could tell Delta was all Boxer in this regard. She resisted, insisting that she fall asleep sitting up with her head on my chest. It was awkward, but the truth was I loved it. It reminded me of my daughter as a baby, who also insisted on falling asleep on my chest. I realized they were falling asleep on my heartbeat. And that is what I had been missing – being in a room full of heartbeats. I longed to be in a room with the special heartbeats in my life- my family and friends, my team and co-workers, the children and staff in our schools. I missed all of those heartbeats.  

A month ago, the early morning light starting peeking through at 5 am. Though still cold, I needed to get back on the road. My best friend, not the dawn enthusiast that I am, pumped up her tires and raised her heartbeat too with only the slightest groan. I cannot describe the utter joy of leg pumping and blood pounding, I get from a fast, hard ride with my best friend. I can feel my heartbeat in the freedom of a cold wind in my face and the silence of the morning shared with someone who gets it, gets me. Heartbeats who have shared births, deaths and marriages, wins and losses, triumphs and failures, and more than a few scars – those are the best heartbeats. 

Last week, I went to a Black Lives Matter march in our community, and I was surrounded by heartbeats. I was with other staff who I saw every day, though I had not been physically near in 3 months. Actually, I was seeing far less of them at the event because our faces were covered by masks and our bodies cocooned in rain gear. Even obscured, I could feel their heartbeats. I was in a crowd of people who vibrated with hope, love, and commitment. I could feel my soul fill with the heartbeats. I was overjoyed to be standing with colleagues who I respect and admire because they feed my heartbeat. I am fortunate to work for someone who gets the importance of a heartbeat and the simple, but generous and powerful, gift of bringing heartbeats together to eat and share. 

To be clear, I want everyone to be safe. COVID-19 is a horrible disease. We need to stop the spread. We should all be covering our faces, washing our hands, and maintaining social distancing. It may be annoying to do all that, but it is so worth it to feel the heartbeats in your life. Put a mask on. Sit ten feet apart across a fire pit. Go for a walk two arms lengths apart. Put out 3 tables instead of one for dinner. Shout if you have to do that to be heard. But laugh and cry because you need to do that too. Delta is not wrong. We all need to feel the heartbeats in our lives.  

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

What every kid needs to learn before you give them tuition or luggage.

My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break.  I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough.  Vindication? No, too dramatic.  Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated.  Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe.  Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.

Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent.  I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!”  As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom.   For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult.  When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane.  I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal.  She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart).  She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem.  As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.

These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.

Banking and Money:  We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud.   As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.

Work:  There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent.  She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school.  Her first couple of jobs had big challenges.  She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms.  From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something other than money that pays off big dividends on your future.

Rights:  She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson.  She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself.  We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right.  Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.

Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young.  Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this.  But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger.  We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept from others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”.  We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice.  Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem.  Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.

Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences.  Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back.  We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.

Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules.  We talked about safety rules. Though we never felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger.  She loved her phone.  We only had to take it away one time.

Social Media:   I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make.  I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did.  We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.

Grocery Shopping:  This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating.  We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping.  As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner.  She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels.  For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.

Cooking:  We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late.  It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook.  Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!

Laundry:  Need I say more?

Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill.  I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works.  Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.

I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.

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Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

Take the Day Off, America!

IMG_0922 (1)According to a US Travel Association Study released in August, Americans left 768 million (Yes, million!) vacation days on the table last year.  They found that 55% of Americans did not use all of their vacation days last year (https://www.ustravel.org/press/study-record-768-million-us-vacation-days-went-unused-18-opportunity-cost-billions).  That is mind boggling. I am not proud of this fact, but I have to admit that I am among those who did not use all my vacation days last year. In fact, I think the only years that I did were the years that I needed them to work on my doctorate. Don’t get me wrong, I take time off.  Since my daughter came along, we planned a lot of my vacation time around her schedule- her breaks from school and her sporting events. But even if I add in family vacation time, I still don’t take all that I am afforded. When I am on vacation, I still sneak a peak at email or bring that report I need to read or write. Apparently, I am not alone.

Sadly, this epiphany led me to more research, which should not be a surprise to anyone who reads my blog regularly.  Now, I am really concerned, particularly in light of the research on the impact of taking or not taking vacation, as the case may be.  Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, in her Psychology Today article You Really Do Need a Vacation, lays out some compelling reasons to take vacation (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/201807/you-really-do-need-vacation):

  • Women who go six or more years without vacation increase the likelihood of developing heart disease by a factor of 8.  It is even worse for men whose chance of a heart attack is increased by a factor of 32 when they fail to take a yearly vacation.
  • Vacation, if you can leave your work behind, reduces stress. Though temporary, this leads to better reaction times and increased ability to be present to what is happening. Less stress means less stress-related illnesses and injuries as well.
  • Vacation has a tremendous impact on overall productivity.  A mere 10 hours of vacation leads to an increase of 8% in job productivity.
  • Vacation increases employee loyalty, job satisfaction and creativity.  So, taking vacation benefits your employer as well.

By the way, I should say that as I write this, I am having the best vacation ever.  Am I in Hawaii? If you know me at all, you know that would be a no. Iceland?  More likely, but no. My daughter is home from college. My husband is home recuperating from his second knee replacement. We are on week two of family and friends time, and Adventure Days. My daughter picked a tour of the best coffee shops for writing in Seattle as the theme for our Adventure Days. We have toured cafes in Fremont, Wallingford, Ballard, Green Lake, and Capitol Hill in search of inspiration. We have worked on our blogs and had endless conversation. We have had family game nights and movie nights. I started a new batch of Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been awesome! I have not done any work. I should say that I love my work. Anyone, who has heard me speak about my work, knows that I am ridiculously enthusiastic about educational data and research.  My brain is a very active place. Where challenges are concerned, I am a hunter by nature. It is not easy to turn that off. But I know that  Dr. Degges-White is correct about vacation. I feel so energized.  I can feel the batteries recharging that will power the rest of this year.

This is the first time I remember, since I started working at 14, that my boss explicitly said turn off your phone, put an out of office on your email, and be with your family.  Probably most bosses I have had meant that, or assumed I would do that, but none have said it explicitly.  That made me wonder if I have been explicit with my team.  I sure will be in the future. What do you say, America!? Isn’t it time you took a couple days off? You owe it to yourself and your employer to be healthier and more productive. Taking your vacation might just be the best way to do that.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

 

Birds of a Feather

My mother’s psychics says, everyone essentially wants 

the same thing a everyone else, 

a sense of belonging, a coming home. 

– Ada Limon 

I don’t think you have to be psychic to know that everyone wants to feel like they belong.  There is certainly a body of research to support the importance of having a sense of belonging. Sadly, if you watch the news, you can see the tragic consequences that result when people feel that they do not belong.  I have been very fortunate to have worked on a project for the last few years around the social emotional learning of children and teens.  Sense of belonging features prominently in those metrics.  Not surprisingly, sense of belonging impacts learning.

As a teenager I moved three times in five years to radically different environments. I moved from a small Catholic school to suburban public middle school in Washington State, to an enormous public suburban high school in Georgia, to a small rural high school in Washington State. The communities I moved between were radically different. That may have contributed to my feeling like an outsider. One day I was attending morning mass in my navy and grey uniform in a highly structured and calm learning environment. The next day I was in my “after –school” clothes moving hourly through a noisy, crowded hall to a new class.  Going from the Pacific Northwest to Georgia was even more jarring. Everything about me was different. I spoke with an accent.  I dressed differently. I had a different understanding of what it meant to be a girl.  In each of these settings, what was acceptable to adults and my peers was radically different.  In the first two moves, I deeply wanted to belong. Frankly, I changed myself to belong. In the final move, I gave up changing myself and decided I was who I was. I would rather be alone than pretend to be someone else.

Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging   

have the courage to be imperfect.  

 -Brene Brown 

In my 15 year-old mind, I thought those were the only two options: morph yourself to belong in a new community or choose not to belong at all. What I did not know at the time was that I actually created the conditions for a true sense of belonging by being my true self.  The truth was that morphing myself to fit their styles, ideals, and habits of others did not give me a sense of belonging. It made me socially acceptable which is not the same thing as being accepted or belonging. Social acceptance and popularity can be detrimental to one’s sense of belonging because they require one to conform to the standards of a group in order to belong. This may mean denying your authentic self in order to feel accepted by the group.  It means giving up parts of yourself in exchange for being accepted.  That does not give you a sense of belonging.

Our sense of belonging can never be greater  

than our level of self-acceptance.  

-Brene Brown 

My college-aged daughter wrote a blog on sense of belonging recently.  I realized how differently she conceptualizes it than I did at her age.  Though I certainly would not want to imply that her experience is the experience of all young adults, it does give me some hope that we are making inroads in social-emotional learning leading to a healthier sense of self and of relationships.

It’s also about trusting deeply within yourself that not only

do you belong right where you are, but also that you belong there

as your purest and most authentic self. 

To me a sense of belonging is to feel so at peace

and at home within ourselves that we can trust

there is a place for us in this world and at every step along our journey. 

-Shannan foodfearsfitness.wordpress.com  

 

As I read her words, I reflected on those times when I had a deep sense of belonging.  The fact is that I have been blessed to feel a sense of belonging in many facets of my life. I belong to a pack of friends who understand what it means to be a woman raising a family while working in a leadership role. I belong to a writing group that feeds my creativity. I belong to a community on social media that inspires and encourages. I belong to a spiritual community. I belong to a sisterhood. I belong in my family.  My daughter reminded me of the beauty and gift that is a sense of belonging.

  • I belong when I am able to be myself and be unconditionally accepted.
  • I belong when I am able to be vulnerable.
  • I belong when what we share deeply is greater than any difference.
  • I belong when I can be challenged in my thinking without being challenged for thinking.
  • I belong when we choose the greater good for each other.

Find your posse, pack, band, crew, pride, squad, tribe, family, club, circle, or flock.  There is one out there just for you, the true you. Whatever you do, stop trying to fit yourself in. Find the place you fit.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Appreciation Equation (You might want to sit down. Turns out, it’s exponential.)

Thursday night I got the game ball. It felt so great!  In my dubious athletic career, I never got the game ball.  I have thrown a game ball. I have caught a game ball- once, in the back of the head.  I have dribbled a game ball, shot a game ball, even caught a game ball (once, right in the nose).  As a coach, I have even given the game ball. I have never been given the game ball, until last Thursday night.  I was given it in appreciation of my work which is about as far from athletic as you can get: data analysis, assessment and research.  I felt truly honored to be recognized for my work. Of course, the first thing I did was send a picture of the ball to my husband and daughter who are my biggest cheerleaders.

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My sly cell phone pic of the game ball for my family.

They were so excited for me.  Then I remembered the 14 letters my daughter gave me for my birthday! I remembered that one was entitled “Open when you are a data badass”.  If there was ever a good reason to open that letter, this was it. I could not wait to get home to read it.  Well, I can tell you that I was definitely feeling that letter. Here is what it said (used with permission of the author):

“So, I don’t know when you’ll be reading this, but I can almost guarantee that I’ve already called you and asked you how to use Excel or had some number-y struggle at school.  Not only are you a data badass at work but it turns out you’re a data badass at my university too:). It has always made me laugh and smile the way you get so excited about data at your work.  I hope whatever you did today to be a data badass made you excited, and even made the Superintendent tell you that you’re a Rockstar!  Give me a call and tell me about your data badass-ness today!”

My first thought was “I think my kid might be psychic.”  Then, I just took a moment to soaked that letter  up.  It made me feel very special. She knows I love my work. Clearly, she shares my joy when I come bouncing home with some great story about analyzing data. I have about the nerdiest job that there is, and she gets just as excited as I do, not because she cares about data, because she knows and cares about me. She appreciates me- especially when I help with her “number-y struggles”.

Train your people so well that they could work anywhere.

Treat your people so well that they won’t want to.

-Branson

I started to wonder why appreciation or gratitude can evoke such powerful emotions.  Of course, that led to research. This will not be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  I came upon The Science of Gratitude by Summer Allen (University of California Berkley, May 2018). I learned that I am not the only person wondering how gratitude benefits people, and why both giving and receiving it feels so great.  There is now a field of gratitude research which, though in its infancy, gave Dr. Allen fodder for 72 compelling pages on the subject.  (I should note that there is some debate on the relationship between appreciation and gratitude in the research. I am lumping them together as more research is needed.) In addition to citing studies of improved health outcomes for people who practice gratitude, I was struck by research that suggested “practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit (Summers, p. 17).”  Gratitude begets altruism.  Think about that. Expressing gratitude makes you feel better in and of itself, and it makes you feel even better when you do something that benefits someone else. It is like an avalanche of gratitude.  It’s an exponential equation. I express gratitude. I feel great. I do something nice for someone else as a result. I feel even better, and the person I help feels appreciated. So, they feel gratitude. If they do something nice for someone else, they will feel great! It will be completely out of control. People will be grateful for other people with no expectation of reward, and yet, they will feel rewarded.

Have an attitude of gratitude.

-Hinckley

What if we intentionally practiced gratitude?  What if we intentionally taught our children to practice gratitude?  Practicing the skill of identifying the people and things we are grateful for, and then acting on that gratitude, has lasting positive physical and emotional effects individually and collectively.  I am sure of it. The research backs it up.

I propose an experiment that I am going to call Passing the Game Ball. I would like you to join me in it and then share your experience by leaving a comment.

  1. For one week, make a list every day of at least 5 things you are grateful for.
  2. Each day, express your gratitude directly to one person you come in contact with. Look them in the eye, give them a smile, and say it loud and proud: “You deserve the game ball! Thanks for…..” (Or write a personal note if that is more your style.)
  3. See if expressing gratitude for someone else feels just as great as receiving gratitude.
  4. See if expressing gratitude makes you want to do it more.

I bet we could start an avalanche! I’ll start. I am so grateful for all of the people who read my blog and take the time to share their experiences and perspectives. You have enriched my life.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

 

Copyright

The monsters under the bed are in your head.

I remember when my daughter finally got too big for the sink.  She was lean and long, and came into this world with her tiny muscles flexed.  Her mighty legs foreshadowed her inner strength.  We knew it was time when she pressed her toes against the far edge of the tub, flexed her miniature quads and glutes, and shot forward to grab the bananas off the counter.  After months of straining to reach the bright yellow torpedoes, she found success.  The mischievous grin that spread across her face warned us of things to come.

It was time to transition her to the ‘big girl’ tub.   As most babies do, she preferred the security of tight spaces.  Her father was a pro at swaddling from the start, wrapping her up tightly in a plush blanket.  He would joke, as he hugged her tiny body against his chest, that he made a baby burrito.  The vast white tub was scary for her.  Her arms and legs pinwheeled wildly the first time we set her in the warm water, much of which was on the floor before we were done.

Trying desperately to avoid lasting trauma, we filled the tub with toys.   I kept my eyes peeled for distractions whenever I went to the store.  I remember finding a Dora the Explorer bathtub doll that would swim when it got wet.  My daughter was a devotee of Dora’s adventures and could be heard each morning shouting “Backpack! Backpack!” I thought the purchase was evidence of brilliant parenting.  Dora’s first voyage in the tub was an unprecedented success. All other toys were immediately relegated to the foot, as my daughter splashed about with her new friend.

My victory over her tub aversion was short-lived, though. We were awakened in the middle of the night by our daughter’s terrified screams. I rushed across the hall and lifted her out of her crib, checking for broken bones and cuts as I held her close and rocked. Through her sobs, I made out the word monster. I told her there were no monsters. Turning on the lights, I opened the closet doors but she would not be consoled.  ‘Monster! Monster!’, she cried pointing toward the hallway.  I rocked her as I walked toward the hall. She clung to me like a spider monkey facing a puma.  She wore herself out crying and fell asleep on my shoulder, her wet cheek blanketing my neck.

I was standing in the hall trying to figure out what had scared her so, when I heard it.  It whirred at first, then a cold, sharp tapping. Whirr, tap, tap, tap.  I followed the noise to the bathroom where I found Dora on her side, legs and arms outstretched. The censors had somehow been tripped and the doll had started swimming in the empty tub. I tried to explain there were no monsters. She certainly was too young to understand what was making the noise.  She was convinced it was a monster. Of course, I knew the circuit was just wet. Once she had the monster story in her head, she just wouldn’t believe anything else. And so, we vanquished every monster until she was old enough to understand. In this case, not wanting to ruin her beloved Dora, I set my daughter back in bed and quietly took the toy to the garage.

While you are probably too old to think that there are monsters under your bed, the truth is we all have monsters. Mostly, they are in your head.  They are the worries about what could happen, the what-ifs and why-nots. They are the painful rehashing of past events.  They are the fears you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much evidence to the contrary you have. They are the false, self-limiting beliefs you hold.  They are old voices telling old lies.  Just as we have courage and compassion when helping children to see that the monsters are in their heads, we can have that same courage and compassion in confronting our own monsters. We can decide to live in the present and not waste it worrying about a fictional future.  We can let go of a past that we cannot change.  We can look at the evidence that our fears are unfounded.  We can recognize that a negative voice in our head is never our own voice and it is never truthful.  Isn’t it time to turn on the lights, look under the bed, and put the monsters in the garage?

I selected his picture of my daughter’s second birthday. She is clinging to her aunt after meeting the large (and I thought loveable) rodent who tried to wish her a Happy Birthday. It took about 2 hours to convince her that he wasn’t a monster.  Eventually she even shook his hand.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Kindergarten- Where we all belong.

I started my day in kindergarten yesterday.  Every day that I get to be in a kindergarten is a great day.  First of all, they are adorable. Right there, you are guaranteed to start your day with a smile.  They bounce and bop down the halls, happy as clams that it is Friday morning and the school day has started. Everything is a fresh adventure.  That kind of joy is contagious. It’s winter so they look a little like turtles with their fat backpacks, all bundled up, heads peeking out of their parka hoods. Brightly colored sneakers and rain boots with ducks and frogs fidget in a line outside the classroom door- itching to get in.  They are a hive of activity storing their gear in cubbies, high-fiving and knuckle-knocking their buddies like it’s been months and not 16 hours since they last checked in. They help each other without being asked and without judgment. They accept help gratefully.  They cannot wait to share- share their space, share their pencils, share their expertise in tying shoes, and share their ideas and opinions (I got quite an earful on the topic of pet ownership).  A friend is picked to help with an errand.  Hugs are given to someone who looks sad.  They take each other by the hand unabashedly. They don’t seem to notice their differences. They are a community and it is clear they all belong.

This visit made me think about when it is that we start, as humans, to wonder if we belong. How is it that we start to feel like we don’t belong in a place or with a group of people?  Maybe it starts when we begin to notice how we are different from each other.  I like to play in the woods and get dirty. You like to read. I like to play basketball. You like to sing. You are quiet. I am loud.  Maybe it is when we start to hear from adults that those differences have a value. She’s such a tomboy. He can’t throw a baseball.  He has a beautiful voice. You’re always such a mess with dirt all over your jeans.  Her painting is beautiful.  You are so talented. Well, there are other things you are good at I am sure.  Maybe it is when we start to identify with those values. I am good at this. I am not good at that. Whatever the process, we look for a place we think we belong.  We look for a place that feels right- where we feel right.  We look for our people, our posse, our pack.  It feels good to belong.  I think that is the natural order of things.

But wouldn’t it be great if we never asked ourselves, “Is this where I belong?”   Wouldn’t it be great if we never wondered, “Is this place for me?”  You see, as soon as we do that, we limit ourselves.  We take ourselves out of the game.  We buy the artificial “goodness” and “badness” of our individual characteristics.  We miss out on the opportunity to learn new things- things we might actually like doing and even have a talent for doing. We miss out on meeting new people. We miss the chance to find out that those differences, which we think divide us, really enrich us. We miss out on the very real possibility that we have more in common than we think. We miss out on the high-fiving, knuckle-knocking, hand-holding joy that comes from knowing what every kindergartener knows – we all deserve to belong.

Maybe instead of worrying whether or not we belong, we should be thinking about how we can make others feel like they do.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Fear Brain and Reigniting the Curious Mind

We don’t give much thought to our brain. I don’t anyway. I take it for granted most of the time.  If you think about it, that 3 pounds of fat, protein and water (according to National Geographic ) is a truly miraculous organ. It spawned the Sistene Chapel, the International Space Station, the Gamma Knife, War and Peace, Swan Lake, Bethoven’s Fifth, the Hadron Collider and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The list is wondrously endless. I even read recently that some of the brains at Batelle Labs developed an implant that made it possible for a paralyzed person to pick up a spoon merely by thinking it.

Of course, those are rare and exceptional examples of the brain’s potential when provided with an environment conducive to learning, creating, and innovating. Not every brain lives in those types of environments, and the brain is ultimately a survival organ. Centuries of real and imagined danger have honed its ability to recognize and respond to novel stimuli and threats. If you think about early settlers in the Americas for example, it makes perfect sense.  A frontiersman, let’s call him Bob, mesmerized by purple mountain majesties, who couldn’t spot the grizzly racing down the slopes early enough to take defensive measures, probably ended up as the bear’s picnic lunch. While the bear was finishing Bob off, his more fear-alert neighbor was running off with his girlfriend to the nearest Justice of the Peace and subsequently consummating the union to pass on his fear alerting genes to the next generation.  Mission critical to the brain is the preservation of the body and much of that happens subconsciously.  You only have to touch a hot stove once. You don’t have to walk around saying, “Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t touch hot stoves.”

While encountering bears is an unlikely threat nowadays (although my first high school lockdown was due to a bear wandering around behind the gym- more about that later), the truth is that children do encounter threats to their safety and it is easy to misinterpret a child’s behavior because we are unaware that an unconscious threat response is happening. I know.  I have, regrettably, made that mistake more than once in my career.  A couple of decades ago, when we were blissfully ignorant of the sheer magnitude of homeless children, I made that mistake and it has stayed with me as a painful reminder that I cannot know what motivates another person’s behavior.  He was new and that alone made him standout.  I knew how hard that was having moved around as a child, so I tried to connect with him.  He always seemed to be looking over my left shoulder like that was as far as he could stand to make eye contact with me. I was suspicious.  My dad always told me that looking someone in the eye was a sign of honesty and respect.  So that was my lens.  It didn’t occur to me that there could be another reason.  His answers were monosyllabic and curt.  He fidgeted like he was itching to get away from me.  He kept bouncing his backpack on his shoulder as we talked- not rapidly but periodically like he was checking to see if it was still there. After a few minutes, I gave up trying to talk to him.  He stomped away without a word.  He was disheveled and dirty.  It made me wonder if he didn’t care. Again, my lens came through, my dad always told me that you should dress nicely because it looks like you care about yourself and, if you care, others will. “If you dress like a bum, people will treat you like one,” he’d say.   It didn’t occur to me that the condition of his clothes wasn’t his choice.  I met him again, under even less jubilant conditions, a couple of days later when he was brought to my office for verbally attacking his teacher.  When I was working on my Master’s degree, one of my professors, a wise and experienced administrator, once told me that every behavior has a positive intention even if I can’t see it.  It was hard seeing the positive intention in his actions that day. It took some time, but eventually he meted out the information. It was like he was testing our trustworthiness with every morsel. The teacher had told him he had to leave his backpack in his locker. It was a common rule back then. That seemed reasonable to me, again through my lens.  He had valuable things in his backpack.  We have locks for the lockers, I told him. He didn’t trust the locks. That seemed silly but I didn’t say that outright.  And then we got to the real issue.  Everything he owned in the world was in that backpack.  My lens shattered. I let that sink in. He was homeless.  I think he was the first kid who had ever said that to me. Everything he owned was in his backpack.  Chaos and uncertainty ruled his life.  What was he going to do, explain to the teacher, in front of the other kids, that he was homeless?  I could not imagine the burden of that for a young man.  Of course he was angry, who wouldn’t be?  Of course he attacked, he believed he was in danger of losing everything.    In the end, we figured out a way for him to feel safe about his backpack. He taught me indelibly to ask first.

So, what does this have to do with the brain?  Everything, it turns out.  Whether we flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger (real or imagined), the brain takes over to protect the body.  In the classroom, students may appear that they can’t learn or won’t learn when in fact they may be reacting subconsciously to perceived threats or to stimuli that reminds the brain of a past threat. Every child starts out curious. Every child wants to learn. They soak up the sights and sounds and taste and feel of a world that is new to them.  They want to know how and why. Why is the sky pink tonight and not blue? Where does rain come from?  How do fish breathe?  Where do babies come from? Or my child’s personal favorite, what’s that smell like (usually asked at the most inopportune moments)?  If you are a child, who merely by luck is born into a family with educated parents with financial resources, you will probably hear things like “what a great question”, “let’s look that up” or “I’ve always wondered that too”.  You might even hear an actual answer to the question.  You go to school confident that you ask good questions worthy of adult consideration. You learn that adults think you are smart enough to find or understand the answer. But what if you are born to parents who are not educated or who don’t have financial resources?  What If you are homeless and survival is the most important thing?  You might hear “enough with the questions”, “I have no idea” or “don’t bother me right now”.  Exhausted people in survival mode are not always able to regulate their emotions.  You internalize your parent’s emotions.  You make those emotions mean something about you.  You might feel like you have irritated, angered or offended your parent.  You learn not to ask questions. You learn questions upset adults. You learn questions are dangerous.

These two children will look very different in the classroom. One will look engaged, ask questions, make eye contact and offer answers. The other will appear disinterested, not ask questions or offer answers. It is easy to mistake their learned response for not caring about school or for being less intelligent when, in fact, that is not true. This is why trauma informed practices and social emotional learning are so important in school.  If we want all children to learn, we have to understand their behavior.  We have to help them develop the social emotional skills needed to both keep them safe and help them learn, like growth mindset, grit, social awareness, self-management, and sense of belonging. We have to reignite their curious mind.  None of that will happen overnight.  It takes consistent, intentional behavior by influential, caring adults.  It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. It happens in classrooms everyday across this country.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we believe they can learn.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we think their questions are valid and worth our time.  Through our actions, we can reignite the curious mind. Through our actions, we can quiet the fear brain and make room for the learning brain to grow.  If you are wondering just how to do that, ask yourself “What would I say right now if I were talking to my child?”

If you want to learn more about:

Social Emotional Learning
– Check out Panorama Ed’s work: https://blog.panoramaed.com/
– Check out the Committee for Children’work:  https://www.cfchildren.org/

The Fear Brain – Read The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/   Mobbs, D et al, 2015)

How class and race influence the classroom – Read: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Lareau, 2011) https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271425/unequal-childhoods

Trauma Informed Practices
– Check our Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/trauma-informed-practices-benefit-all-students
– Read: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success  http://www.k12.wa.us/CompassionateSchools/HeartofLearning.aspx

I chose these pictures because they remind me of the curious mind of the child. This was my daughter’s 5th grade Invention Convention project. She designed and made a cover to keep tennis shoes laces clean, dry and knotted.  I think she is brilliant. The greater truth is that, by the luck of the draw, she was born into a home where education is important, her parents have the time and resources to help her, and every time she asked a question (millions of questions actually – just ask her third grade teachers who had to give her a daily limit) she was encouraged to find the answer.  All of that helped her develop a curious mind. Every kid deserves that opportunity.

Invention Convention 2

Invention Convention 3

Invention Convention 1

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The downfalls of multi-tasking – or, as my Daddy would say, “Half-assing”

This morning I PR’ed (Personal Record) on the Erg, or as I like to call it the “Magical Sliding Instrument of Pain”.  I rowed 5881 meters in 30 minutes and my split broke the dreaded 2:30 by just seconds.  Now, for all you flat-abbed, bicep-bulging, custom-calved whippersnappers out there chuckling at my sub-sub-sub-lightning speed, keep in mind I am 53 years old and 40% of my spine is being held together by 3 V-clips and a dead guys bone putty (God rest your soul and I thank you, sincerely).  I have had terrible workouts for the last two weeks.  I was embarrassed to hit save on my times, though I am the only one who ever checks the memory.  At first, I blamed it on my Christmas holiday nose dive into chocolate in all of its wonderful symphony of forms.  Then I blamed it on distraction as my mind has been preoccupied by a very exciting data visualization I am developing. For those of you who fell asleep in the middle of that sentence, yes- I said exciting, dare I say, thrilling data visualization.  Trust me. It is revolutionary.  I expect oohs and aahs commensurate with the Rockets’ Red Glare finale on the Fourth of July on Lake Union when I finish.  But I digress. Then I blamed it on stress.  There are many changes happening at home and at work. Finally, I blamed it on the block I have been having on a piece I am writing. But then this morning, as I was hammering out the meters to rousing beats of Ugly Lights, Gone and Restless, in the shadow of Mount Rainier on the glassy surface of Lake Washington (OK that part was in my imagination. I was in the spare bedroom.), I realized that I wasn’t plugged into an audiobook. I wasn’t taking advantage of this extra 30 minutes in my life to listen to a book and learn, or think about why the data wasn’t aggregating correctly, or prioritize the top 10 things I had to get done today.  I was just rowing. Empty-headed. Focused on nothing more that my breath, the pull of my arms on the bar, the force of my legs against the footrest, the slide of seat.  I was flying and my head was empty.  That is a blissful thing for someone like me who is always thinking.  That thirty minutes to be solely, viscerally engaged is indescribable.  It is a hard reset, refreshing and cleansing.

Somewhere along the line, I bought the whole “multi-tasking” snake oil. I even tried to do it for a very long time, decades really. I convinced myself that I could do it.  The truth is that I could get a lot done but none of it was really my best work.  My best work came when I was focused on doing one task very well.  Ironically, it was also more efficient.  It turns out, according to Earl Miller of MIT, that when we try to multi-task, we are really just shifting back and forth between each task (http://fortune.com/2016/12/07/why-you-shouldnt-multitask/ ).  Starting and stopping does not allow us to think deeply or creatively.  It feels like we are doing two things at once because often the two things we are trying to do are using the same parts of our brain like talking and emailing. So, the switching back and forth seems fluid. It seems like we are doing them at the same time.  Yet, we are, in fact, starting and stopping repeatedly.  If you have ever tried to listen to a recording in a series of segments, you know that you have to back the recording up to remember where you were and what was being said every time you restart it. It is hard to follow a recording in stops and starts.  Your brain does that too as you shift between tasks.  So, there I was, to my amazement, on track to break 5900 meters when I started calculating in my head how many meters that would be in 5 minutes.  You wouldn’t think doing division in my head would effect the motions of my arms and legs, but that is exactly what happened.  As I turned my focus from my breath and body to my beloved math, my rate dropped precipitously.  (I should make a graph of that. It would be a work of art.  I would call it, “The Inverse Relationship Between Rowing Pace and Math Computational Practice”.)  So it wasn’t stress or chocolate that was to blame for my substandard times these past two weeks.  It was distraction.  Trying to learn from an audiobook or make a list for my day, shifted my focus and, since working out and critical thinking aren’t related, the shift was anything but seamless.  Shifting my focus back to my breath and the workout changed everything. As a bonus, it turns out that the reset I got from unplugging for that 30 minutes not only resulted in a Personal Record but it had an amazing impact on my day.  I solved a complex problem I have been working on and created something I am truly proud of.  Brain science was in its infancy, possibly even pre-natal,  in my youth. Apparently though, my dad knew something instinctively that Earl Miller has since scientifically validated.  My dad was a little less scientific and a little more poetic. Whether you call it multi-tasking or half-assing, you’re better off if you do one thing at a time and give it your full and undivided attention.

 

If I hadn’t done that one math problem, I could have broke 5900 meters. There is always tomorrow…

erg

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

What the Best Coaches Know

Despite sitting at one of those back-bending cafeteria tables, I found myself completed enthralled listening to a coach talk about his athletes this week.  He spoke with such heart about the journey the team took together to win the state championship. He talked about each athlete’s strengths and contributions to the team.  He talked about the absolute commitment that these fierce young women made to each other and to their goal. I was reminded of the power, that we all have, to make a lasting impact on other people’s lives.  We just need to remember what the best coaches know.

The best coaches (and I would argue the best leaders, the best bosses, the best teachers and the best parents) know that people will do anything for love- love for the team, love for the game, love for each other. Athletes will get up at the crack of dawn. They will practice for hours on end. They will fail more often than they succeed and yet not give up.  They will smile even when it hurts. They will lift each other up and dust each other off.  They will test their physical and emotional limits knowing there is a wall of strength behind them. The best coaches know everyone counts and everyone contributes.  The best coaches know that every single person plays a role.  The best coaches know that believing is seeing. The best coaches know that the sweetest victories are the ones hard-fought by athletes who refuse to surrender.  The best coaches know that everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The best coaches know that you only grow when you are challenged. The best coaches know that steel is made with fire and diamonds under pressure, but both need to be polished.

I took this photograph last fall. I had been watching a flock of Great Blue Heron nesting on the Everett waterfront through the summer. The fledglings were grown and learning to hunt in the tide off shore.  The older bird in front seemed to be showing the younger ones what to do, just like a good coach.

birds

Fishing Lessons
(1/125 sec., f/6.3, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.