Back to School . . . Not as UsualOct 04, 2019
Summer’s over, kids are back in school. What if this year we make it a remarkably different year for our kids—all our kids. What if we contribute to their happiness and learning every time we talk to them? How?
Research in the areas of positive education, positive psychology, and neuroscience tells us why our conversations are so important. Our brains are wired for two dominant activities. The first and primary activity of the brain is to keep us safe. Our nervous system is always scanning incoming stimuli for safety: Have I experienced this before? Will this harm me? If the answer is yes or maybe, our protect system is triggered. Stress hormones are released: Cortisol, norepinephrine, testosterone, adrenalin. The more threatening the stimulus, the greater the chemical dump as our body and brain prepare to fight, flee, freeze, or appease. Neuroscience has shown that this biochemical reaction literally inhibits development of and access to the pre-frontal lobe and neocortex. When we need it most, our creativity and critical thinking is unavailable.
The other dominant activity our brain is wired for is learning and creativity. Barbara Fredrickson, a UNC Chapel Hill Professor, has shown that learning (and thriving) takes place in the context of positive emotions, such love, interest, happiness, contentment, curiosity, empathy, compassion, and care. Her research shows that these emotions broaden and build our capacity for learning, creativity, and connection with others. These functions take place in the pre-frontal lobe and neocortex. Neuroscience tells us that an entirely different set of hormones are necessary for us to develop and access such higher order thinking centers. They are known as the love/happiness hormones: Oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These hormones help us connect to our higher order thinking capacities, long term memory, and creativity. They also give us greater access to empathy and connection with others.
If we want all children to grow, learn, and thrive, then we need to create environments that fuel the production of the happiness/love hormones. This is required for pre-frontal and neocortex neurological development and access. One of the primary ways we do this (or not) is through every day communication. For teachers and parents this is critical information; your words are more than words. They carry the power to ignite learning and growth or suppress it. This may sound like a lot of responsibility. It is. The conversations we have are triggering protect or nurturing connect (for everyone, including ourselves). We can choose to nurture connect, even in the most challenging of situations.
Two simple practices will support you in doing this: Generative questions and positive framing. Generative questions change the way people think, and they create compelling images that move us to action. For example, if a child is acting out, instead of making quick judgments and admonishing the child, you might pause first and ask yourself: What might be going on for the child that’s resulting in this behavior? This might encourage you to look at their actions in the larger context, causing you to further wonder: Are they stressed about the test? Did something happen at lunch? What might have happened at home before they arrived? These questions shift your thinking about the child. Such curiosity is a positive emotion; you yourself begin to have greater access to your pre-frontal cortex. From that place, you are more likely to respond with compassion, curiosity, and care, which in turn will have a different impact on the child. You might simply ask, with genuine curiosity, What’s going on for you today?
The second practice is positive framing: Talk about what you want instead of what you don’t want. Instead of telling kids what not to do, have a conversation about the outcomes you want and invite them to identify what they need to do to achieve that outcome. They just might surprise you with their creativity and awareness. For example, a mother was frustrated by continuous arguments with her son about driving around with friends and not letting her know where he was going. She kept demanding he let her know and he kept deflecting that he didn’t always know, and she should just trust him! Then, she learned about positive framing and generative questions. First, she asked herself: Why do I want to know where he is all the time? What is it I really want? Do I trust him? She realized what she wanted was the assurance he was safe. So that’s how she framed the next conversation. She opened with: I realize I just want to know you are safe when you’re out with your friends. I totally trust you, but I don’t fully trust a couple of your friends. What can we do so you can have your freedom and I know you’re safe? The whole conversation shifted. He shared that he didn’t want her to worry and he knew exactly which friends she was talking about. They arrived at a solution that allowed both of them to get their needs met and they did it together.
This year, make it a year where you help every child you interact with grow, learn, and thrive. Commit to having conversations worth having with them. For a free Conversation Toolkit, including a parent page on questions to ask your kids and questions to ask your children’s teachers visit www.ConversationsWorthHaving.today.
Cheri Torres is a Lead Catalyst for positive change and organization consultant with Collaborative by Design. She works with leaders in organizations and communities to enhance their ability to fuel productivity and meaningful engagement.
This article first appeared in SOFIA, September 2019.