Tag 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

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 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