Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Tag: holding environment

A Motherless Nation

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

Yet another massacre at a high school.

Yet another breach of a membrane — the walls of a school — that is supposed to keep our children safe. Yet another horror that means inconceivable loss. Yet another reason for students, teachers, coaches, and administrators to feel unsafe, un-held, in an institution they are mandated to attend.

Yet more unraveling. Yet more stress, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, and just plain disbelief.

And more outrage. Over the years, I (like many others) have expressed my righteous anger and disdain for people who I believe are doing a bad job of running our country or are doing a bad job of being human. Throughout my life (I realize now), I have felt fundamentally “held” by a nation that I trusted, that stood for values I believe in, that I expected would always right itself because of the commitment to liberty and justice at its core.

But it is under the Trump/GOP reign, with its dismantling of agencies, laws, and norms of decency that protect us and our world from chemical, environmental, medical, emotional, and physical harm, that I cannot escape the feeling of being a motherless child.

A motherless child: a human being who lives in a nation that does not, will not, hold me with respect, care, or regard for my safety and well-being. A nation whose mother does not do her job because she is just. too. sick.

This is the nation that will not pass sensible gun laws LIKE EVERY OTHER NATION ON THE PLANET even as data show unequivocally that such laws prevent tragedies of the sort Americans are experiencing at a rate of FIVE PER MONTH. This is the nation that CUTS BACK on funding for vital social services like mental health care and food stamps, that fights raising the minimum wage, that condemns swaths of our population to ongoing poverty and neglect, that gives the freakishly wealthy a tax break, that is so “post-racial” that black male drivers are in MORTAL PERIL and Muslims are FEARED, that is “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into.”

This is the nation that African Americans and immigrants from all over the world have spent generations living in. When this nation wasn’t/isn’t actively abusing people of color (or people of some other targeted category), it simply fails to hold them. It renders them motherless. It is under the Trump/GOP reign that I as a white woman am experiencing the chronic stress of living in a country run by unrelievedly untrustworthy, unraveled, self-interested, abusive “parents.” This America has rendered me motherless, and it SUCKS.

I have written about holding environments before. I fervently believe that schools and classrooms need to be healthy holding environments, places where students and teachers and administrators are safe to grow and change and develop. Teachers are not their students’ parents, but they are their students’ developmental partners. As such, they need (in my view) to be good, consistent “holders” who safeguard learning environments that promote cognitive and emotional and relational growth.

Living through these times, I realize that nations need to be healthy holding environments, too. Nations need leaders who “hold” us all, not just through their policies and thoughtful, responsible consideration of complex realities but through their character: their integrity, their kindness, their intelligence and perspicuity, their wisdom and groundedness and perspective. Their trustworthiness. Their genuine care. (This is, frankly, why I loved and still love President Barack Obama. And First Lady Michelle Obama. They epitomize such leadership.) Nations need limits; they need to face reality; they need to promote cognitive, emotional, and relational growth; they need to stand for the highest human values; they need to encourage people to care for each other; they need to model that care.

This has not happened for African Americans and so many other members of oppressed groups in this country. It is not happening for our schoolchildren or for our teachers. It is not now happening for any of us who believe that every nation’s and every person’s highest calling is the greater good. Our nation is parentless — worse, it is motherless. Worse, it is run by a group of men (our president, the Congressional majority, the NRA, among others) who are, frankly, insane.

A holding environment that is run by insane people is UNHEALTHY FOR ALL.

Psychological Maltreatment

smiley-822365_1280Many students suffer from Psychological Maltreatment, and teachers risk reinforcing it if they don’t know the antidote.

I am such a weenie.

When I read about children who have suffered emotional abuse and/or neglect, even if I read about them in an academic article with a lot of tables and p values, I want to weep. I cannot stand the thought that people who are so dependent on adults for their well-being can be so totally betrayed by their caregivers. It just makes me hurt.

And it doesn’t end with the children. The very caregivers who are unable to contain their emotions, who cannot hold their children safely, are also terribly hurt. Chances are super-good that those parents were abused themselves and are passing the treatment on, generation after generation.

The article I just read, called “Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes,” is full of tables and p values. But it makes a very clear claim that teachers need to hear: Psychological Maltreatment (PM), or emotional abuse and neglect, is basically more highly correlated to emotional and behavioral problems than other forms of maltreatment (physical abuse and sexual abuse).

Specifically, children and adolescents who experience PM are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, etc., and to engage in substance abuse than are children and adolescents who have been physically and/or sexually abused. Those who have suffered PM are as likely as children and adolescents who have been physically abused (and more likely than kids who have suffered sexual abuse) to act out in ways that harm themselves and others.

Why should teachers know about this? Because these children and adolescents, of course, are in our classrooms. It would be nice (I guess) if children who are hurting would keep their hurt at home. But very often they can’t. They bring their hurt to school.

And, in their eyes, we are potential caregivers. We are people who might be able to provide what they don’t get at home: Accurate seeing. Containment. Holding. Connection. Hope. Ironically, though, their behavior invites us to reinforce their expectations of ongoing Psychological Maltreatment. They resist, offend, disrupt, disrespect. We attack, banish, ridicule, give up. In the case of students who have internalized their pain, avoiding contact with adults (who have proven themselves to be utterly unreliable) and making themselves extremely difficult to detect, we completely overlook (read: ignore and neglect) them.

In other words, whether we like it or not, teachers are implicated in Psychological Maltreatment even if we don’t have a mean or neglectful bone in our bodies. We risk exhausting ourselves either battling and perpetuating students’ negative behaviors or tolerating them with compassion. And, given that most teachers are not parents to their students, this is INCREDIBLY hard work.

But figuring out how to read students’ suffering is essential. No child deserves to hurt that badly. If they are to develop cognitively, they also have to develop and thrive emotionally. If parents can’t provide a healthy environment, teachers must. And teachers, of course, need strong support in providing such an environment.

This is the way I manage my horror and sadness at the thought of Psychological Maltreatment: I put my hope in teachers and my energy into emotional support of teachers. Our students are future parents; any positive, healthy relationships they can have with reliable attachment figures like teachers could change the future of generations of parents and children.

I have to say it: This outcome is way more important to me than any test score could ever be.

Hold ‘Em!

hands-918774_1280In an age when teachers are discouraged from touching anybody, I want to exhort teachers to hold their students.

I don’t mean physical holding. I mean emotional holding. Teachers need to figuratively wrap their arms around their students, to create and protect the space around them, so their students can be safe to learn and grow. This kind of holding is actually essential for healthy emotional (and therefore cognitive) development.

My favorite psychoanalyst, Donald W. Winnicott, calls the space parents provide for their children’s growth the “holding environment” or the “facilitative environment.” Healthy holding environments “facilitate” growth and development. They are spaces in which children get to play and experiment safely; in which they get to “be alone in the presence of another”; in which they get to touch base with a trustworthy caretaker when things get rough; in which disruptive impingements are managed effectively; in which limits are established and maintained and “ruthless” tests of those limits are survived; in which reality is represented fairly and calmly and consistently. Healthy holding environments are good places.

In my view, classrooms need to be healthy holding environments. And teachers need to be healthy (in Winnicott’s words, “good enough”; in my words, “great enough”) holders. Not only must teachers provide an environment in which students can experience both structure and creativity, but teachers must be prepared to manage the testing and oppositional behaviors their students will inevitably enact as they come to grips with limits, reality, responsibility, and the existence and rights of others.

But classrooms should not be the only holding environments. In my view, the entire school should be a healthy holding environment. Just as children can play their parents off one another, they can play their teachers and administrators off one another. Teachers (and, whenever possible, parents) need to work together to hold students in ways that facilitate their growth.

That’s kind of obvious, I think. What’s not so obvious is the toll such holding can take on teachers. For holding can be INCREDIBLY HARD WORK. It’s exhausting and maddening to be resisted; it’s exhausting and maddening to be disobeyed; it’s exhausting and maddening to be interrupted, questioned, sassed, hated, and manipulated while all the time maintaining high academic standards and experiencing the relentless pressure to produce acceptable scores on mandated exams.

On top of all that, it can be shocking and traumatizing to encounter students whose psychic contortions have already begun: who have been abused, have witnessed abuse, are engaged in self-destructive or other-harming behaviors, are retreating from adults even as they desperately need caring containment from them. Increasingly, it seems, students come to school having seen and experienced situations that are unfathomable. If teachers and schools do not hold these students effectively, who will?

All this to say: It can be exhausting and maddening and shocking and traumatizing to be constantly adjusting and learning, seeing and feeling, growing and developing.

That’s true for students (which is why teachers need to be great-enough holders). And it’s true for teachers (which is why teachers need to be held, too).

What, then, would a school that is a true holding environment for teachers look like: What do teachers need to feel seen, supported, contained, safe, empowered? How can the development of students and teachers and administrators be facilitated simultaneously in schools? How can each of these constituencies be held caringly as they struggle to grow and learn? Where would parents fit in?

As I continue to grow and learn and take risks as a parent, teacher, therapist, and entrepreneur, I have become convinced that everyone needs to be held by someone at least some of the time. This is no weakness. It is a developmental necessity.


Pineapple-22What can classrooms and BDSM have in common? Safe words!

I was recently talking to some teachers and students about emotions in the classroom. The teachers and the students wanted to talk about ways to manage difficult conversations in class, particularly conversations that trigger or offend one or more participants. Examples came up: when a white person uses the “n-word”; when someone states a homophobic belief; when someone reveals hurtful cultural ignorance.

The beauty of having this conversation with teachers AND students was that we could hear from both sides. Some teachers expressed their intense discomfort at being squeezed between a feeling of offense — “I can’t believe you just said that!” — and a desire to protect the offender — “If I call you out, I’ll shame you — and I don’t want to do that.” Students shared their experience of feeling unsafe when teachers let these uncomfortable moments pass. When they feel unsafe, even for a moment, these students confirmed, their long-term response is to shut down, which makes learning very difficult and, of course, can reinforce all-too-familiar shame in them.

We talked about the importance of laying ground rules for all conversations at the beginning of the school year. We talked about the importance of maintaining a safe place for all students to express themselves, what I call “holding” or “containing,” and what I consider to be the teacher’s job. (It’s nice when the students in a class cooperate with keeping the classroom a safe place, but it’s when this cooperation breaks down that the intense discomfort floods in and teachers have to step up.) We talked about teachers as developmental partners and the good possibility that at least one student will “act out” in class, making it essential for the teacher to set a limit that the student might resist but that all students need. And we talked about “safe words.”

“Safe words,” I discovered, are words used in the BDSM world, in Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism enactments. While I don’t want to compare teaching with BDSM scenarios, I do want to share the value of using “safe words” in classroom conversations that could get scary for the participants.

One “safe word” that a teacher came up with was “pineapple” — a word that probably wouldn’t be used in class conversations so would stand out if anyone uttered it. The idea is that, if anyone in a class said “pineapple,” all conversation would stop and care would be taken to ensure everyone’s safety. This care could involve a few seconds of silence; it could involve a description, stripped of bias and judgment, of what just happened; it could involve psychoeducation about the possible effects of certain words or acts on others; it could require some disclosure from the teacher: “This just happened, and I’m not sure what to do about it”; it could involve individual writing: “Please write down words that describe how you’re feeling right now”; “Please write down what you would like to have happen right now.”

In short, “pineapple” would break the classroom frame. It would stop the regular performing that makes up a day in the life of a classroom and ask everyone to pay attention to each other and the impact, intentional or not, of their words and behaviors. “Pineapple” would invite the teacher and students to peer at the innards of their learning, which would give them a chance to adjust their process so the surface learning could continue.

A normal response at this point might be something like “Good LORD!!! Why would any teacher let discussions get to the point where a safe word would be necessary?!?”

One answer is that some teachers are comfortable with “disrupting” students’ safe, often unquestioned assumptions about the world. These teachers might argue that discomfort in the classroom is a useful sign that students are actually learning something, that they’re integrating new ideas and changing their world views, their thoughts, their behaviors.

Another answer is that teachers have no actual control over when or how a classroom environment might become unsafe for one or more students. The occurrence of bullying in schools and on-line between classmates testifies to this fact. A bedrock reality of classrooms is that relationships and emotions happen there, whether anyone likes it or not. Teachers who are unprepared for eruptions of emotion, whether in the guise of an offensive comment or in a student’s withdrawal from all class participation, handicap themselves. And they curtail their students’ education.

What role might a pineapple have to play in your classroom?