I know many parents are starting to feel nervous about remote learning for their kids this year. After struggles with the implementation of online learning, they wonder if their children will fall behind. And what about their child’s social-emotional health? These are important concerns and I want to help relieve parents of some of their anxiety. To address these questions, I turned to a woman who exudes patience with children, has had long-lasting mentorships with kids, and exudes a youthful, yet calming energy. After practicing yoga at the Whitewater center together, we sat down to explore some of the challenges that lie ahead this school year.
Hi, Kathleen! Could you begin by telling us a little bit about your background with social work and working with children?
While I have always had an inkling in my mind and impetus in my heart to work with young people, I was often unsure about what the specifics of this path would be. The influential experience working in a residential facility for children with severe mental health diagnoses during my senior year at Boston College was what first started me down the path of Social Work. A major lesson that my time there taught me was that experience is just as valuable as education in this field. Therefore, after graduating Boston College in 2011, I spent three years working different jobs that helped me gain valuable experience with diverse populations of young people in a variety of settings. Confident that Social Work was the avenue for me, I ventured up to the University of Michigan in the September 2014 and completed a 16 month program to obtain my Master’s in Social Work. Since graduating from the University Michigan, I have moved back to Charlotte where I have recently completed the requirements for my Clinical License in Social Work and am about to start my 3rd year as a the Lower School Counselor at The Fletcher School.
What is unique about The Fletcher School in Charlotte? Could you tell us a little bit about the students that go there? And what have you found to work best with them when they are struggling?
The Fletcher School is a small, private K-12 school for students with specific, diagnosed learning differences. The school focuses on keeping class sizes small so students get the individual attention needed to address their learning differences and teaching in a variety of creative, multi sensory ways to help each student learn in a way that makes them feel capable and successful.
As the Lower School (K-5) Counselor, I have the opportunity to not only meet with each grade level on a weekly basis to present Social Emotional Learning (SEL) lessons suited to their needs, but also connect with many of the students on an individual, ongoing basis. While each student is certainly unique, one common theme of struggle for many of them is self-acceptance. Many of my students come to Fletcher feeling unsuccessful based on their previous experiences in mainstream school, self-conscious of their learning difference and ostracized from their peers. These struggles can be especially potent for my older students (4th and 5th graders) who are beginning to explore and develop their own independent senses of self. Can you imagine trying to build a positive, strong self-image when you feel “stupid” compared to your friends, have been told to just “work harder” by former teachers or believe there is inherently “something wrong” with you? That is why one of my biggest focuses as Lower School Counselor at The Fletcher School is to constantly encourage my students to challenge and redefine the traditional definition of success and help them feel a sense of community and belonging they may have never felt before.
Now that you have trained as a Mindful Educator through Mindful Schools, you are teaching mindfulness in a kid-specific way. What makes it different than meditation or the ways we as adults may practice mindfulness?
When many people hear the term “mindfulness” they think of a lot of deep breathing, meditating and grounded yoga-style poses. This works great for many adults who are able to center and calm themselves with relative ease. But, I can pretty much guarantee you this would be a total disaster in with a room filled with my typical audience of 15 nine-year-olds who are not only hyped up from a ruckus recess game of Four Square but also are tired of sitting still after a morning of class! With children, mindfulness is less about a passive calm and more about an active awareness.
In my mindfulness work with students, I strive to help them see the connection between their feelings and actions and provide them with a variety of techniques to help them slow the expressway of emotional impulsivity that often leads them to say or do things that hurt themselves or others. For kids, this work can prove especially challenging because the concepts are so abstract and intangible. Therefore, I am always looking for creative ways to explain the ideas of mindfulness and neuroscience in very concrete ways. For example, when students and I are trying to process an event that may have resulted in them upsetting a friend with unkind words, I play the “Play, Stop, Rewind” game. I have the student describe the event to me as if it was a YouTube video in their mind. When they hit “Play” and start to detail their impression of the event, I listen attentively and call out “Stop” when they hit the point that the unkind words were said. Then, I direct them to hit “Rewind” and together, we go back to the point in the narrative where their feelings hit the tipping point that led to their unkind words. This method helps them see the connection between their emotions and actions as well as allows us to discuss ways they could have hit “pause” earlier in the “video” so that they didn’t lose control of their emotions and hurt someone in the process.
As many children will be at home this school year and not getting out as much to socialize, what are some of the difficulties that you predict will arise and how can parents be proactive in preventing those? What are some practical tips or exercises that parents could do with their children to build mindfulness?
One of the best things parents with young children can do at home, especially during this upcoming period of virtual learning for so many, is to help develop their child’s emotional vocabulary. Many adults take for granted the plethora of nuanced words we have to describe our emotions. Children don’t inherently know that they are feeling frustrated rather than angry or disappointed rather than sad, because those type of specific, detailed words are not yet part of their lexicon. Especially during these confusing, unpredictable times, it is incredibly important for parents to help children take ownership of their feelings by giving them the tools and vocabulary they need to name and understand their myriad of emotions.
You can find other ideas at www.mindfulschools.org – as they have some great articles and resources for parents which can be easily implemented at home outside of their formal curriculum programs.
It’s amazing the way you are a care-taker for so many in your life. And you always appear to be calm, cool, and collected… even when you were on the Wheel of Fortune show! How do you maintain your own mental health and mindfulness?
In order to protect and take care of my mental health, I work really hard to set boundaries. Sometimes this means seeing a work email in the evening but choosing not to read or answer it until the next day. Other times it means saying no to some activities in order to have time to myself, which is important for an introvert like me who works in a naturally extroverted profession. Either way, consciously setting these limits helps me feel like I am in taking care of and looking after myself.