DEVELOPING IN WELL-BEING
By Dr. Kelly Moore, Scholar in Residence
LAST APRIL, I HAD THE HONOR OF FACILITATING AN all-day faculty/staff program development day at Eastside Prep focused solely on well-being and creating a culture that fosters it. Much more than a day of content delivery, we explored what it would take to really dedicate ourselves to embracing well-being in ourselves for the sake of fostering it in our students. Below is a summary of our day as well as brief descriptions of the theoretical underpinnings or “why” of the series of activities in which we engaged.
Faculty are well aware that our teens express outwardly the way many of us often feel on the inside. We know that teen anxiety and depression are ubiquitous, that teens and young adults are experiencing profoundly lower levels of empathy, trust, and connection than the generation before them, and that teenage suicide rates are at an all-time high. Individual solutions seem to be failing us—despite the rising rate of pediatric prescriptions for medication and therapy. The bottom line is that we are still seeing more and more kids distressed and unhappy than ever before. In a shell-game shuffle of responsibility, parents often blame schools, schools blame parents, and we all blame the college admissions machine! Taking a different approach to the problem, the EPS faculty spent the day weaving academic cognitive data with deeper experiences of connection than we normally afford ourselves in our busy and hurried lives.
First, borrowing from Peter Senge’s classic The Fifth Discipline, we framed our current adolescent state of crisis as a systemic problem. What if we made some simple shifts in how we view the individual in society? Senge argues that systems-thinking is comprised of many shifts to our current thinking: 1) faster is slower; 2)small changes can produce big results, but areas of high leverage are often least obvious; and 3) “The cure lies with the relationships with the very people we typically blame for the problems we are trying to solve” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline). This last point about human connection has become the focus of my own practice over the past several years.
Next, I shared the current data on loneliness and social isolation our teenagers are experiencing. Compared to other generations, today’s teens and young adults are significantly less trusting and empathetic, more lonely and socially isolated, and significantly more depressed and anxious (Way, Ali, Gilligan, and Noguera, 2019). In addition, in recent decades the number of people with zero confidants has tripled, and most adults do not belong to a local community group. Consequently, more than one-third of Americans over the age of forty-five report feeling lonely, with prevalence especially high among those under twenty-five and over sixty-five years old (Killam, 2018).
Niobe Way writes in her book Crisis of Connection, “We, in modern society, have been captive to a false story about who we are as humans. This false narrative that takes individualism as a universal truth, has contributed to many of the problems that we currently face. The new story now emerging from across the human sciences underscores our social and emotional capacities and needs.”
During our discussion, faculty agreed that the need to belong and feel connected is at the forefront of the solution. Rather than just talk about this, we experienced firsthand what it feels like to break barriers and interact with others on a more empathetic level. For our first exercise we sat in small groups with the prompt, “Tell the story of your name.” This led to us knowing each other in deeper and more intimate ways, as stories of our families arose, histories of our culture and ethnicity surfaced, and the things we like and don’t like to be called were discussed in detail. The tone of the room changed with this one simple shift in how we introduce ourselves.
After this initial ice-breaker exercise, because we often focus on fixing problems rather than the envisioning of solutions, we broke into groups to envision a way of being that would feel more holistic and would foster well-being. The prompts for this were:
- What is the world we want for our students?
- What will we need to get there?
- What gets in our way?
- What breaks your heart?
- What could be your role in ushering in this new way?
The conversations regarding these topics were rich and generative. Normally, I ask versions of these questions in most workshops I lead, and most of the answers for parents and teachers alike reflect a world where our future adults are more empathic and creative, and care for more than just their own success. And we’d also like them to solve the climate crisis, while they are at it! The obstacles are also often of a similar nature: we are too busy, we feel pressured to help students “succeed” (even though we don’t always know what that means), we are in a system that judges them in ways we don’t agree with but don’t know how to stop.
For lunch, we broke off into partners, ate and then took a “walk and talk” where we were encouraged to ask each other “genuine questions”—parsed from several writers who have studied the types of questions that lead to deeper intimacy. Some examples of these questions were: “What is the best thing that happened to you this week?” and “If you could change one thing about how you were raised, what would it be?” While initially folks were nervous about this change of protocol, they came back feeling nourished and having become more intimate with a colleague in a way that was professional but also much deeper.
MOLLY LORI, MIDDLE SCHOOL SPANISH TEACHER, SAID, “I GOT TO TALK WITH BRIAN HUTCHESON (DIRECTOR OF FINE & PERFORMING ARTS), SOMEONE WHO I NEVER GET A CHANCE TO SEE. WE SPENT THE WHOLE TIME TALKING ABOUT WHAT WE WANTED TO BE WHEN WE WERE KIDS. IT WAS A FASCINATING CONVERSATION.”
After a morning of deep understanding of where we are as a culture and a taste of what it could feel like to be in deeper connection, we dove into some solutions for increasing our belonging, care, and connection. The first was through deepening our own ability to receive care and seeing the field of care and connection in which we already live. Each of us was asked to recall caring figures who have supported us, seen us, and wanted what was best for us. We took a few moments to steep in this care and feel for ourselves how it changes our physiology and sense of aloneness in the world. Secondly, we talked about spending more time creating what John Paul Lederach (American Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame) calls critical yeast. He claims that often what is missing in trying to create change is focusing too much on the critical mass and not enough on critical yeast, which is defined as finding “which people, if brought together would have a capacity to generate change and allow it to grow exponentially?”
Finally, we spent the majority of the afternoon learning about the role of emotions when working with students, parents and each other. Emotions are an integral part of the human experience that have the ability to inhibit or facilitate learning. When emotions are highly charged, cognitive functioning is greatly lowered; but when emotions are positive and activated in an optimal way, learning becomes powerful. As Adele LaFrance, a mentor of mine, frequently says, “Emotions are like an elevator, and logic is on the ground floor.” To access logic and cognition, we have to be at a balanced point in our emotional body. We know this is difficult for teens and pre-teens who are often riddled with the ups and downs of hormones, anxieties, and insecurities. Too often we adults see these emotions as “getting in the way” and are often quick to dismiss them—assuming, of course, that ignoring them will get rid of them. However, what we now know is that when we can attune to someone else’s experience, or empathize, then we can help regulate those emotions much more effectively. What is tricky, of course, and an issue tied to our individualistic culture, is that often we are taught that we need to teach children how to self-regulate. While this is true to some extent and a worthy long-term goal, it overlooks the fundamental cannon of emotion regulation—we are wired to rely on a ‘safe other’ to become calmed. In simpler terms, our emotions have been designed for co-regulation; therefore, we can get far more “bang for our buck” by learning to stop and validate emotions—no matter how illogical they may seem.
For the rest of the afternoon, we practiced the highly effective technique of emotion coaching—a technique many parents will recognize from our all-parent workshops. The gist of emotion coaching is to find three reasons why an emotion presented by a loved one, student, or colleague “makes sense.” Before we attempt to help, problem solve or dismiss, we articulate those three reasons. For example, rather than discounting a student’s disappointment with a 93% on her recent test, we might say, “I can understand why you would be disappointed with a 93% because you really worked hard on preparing for that test; you thought you had earned a higher grade; and because doing well in school really matters to you.” Only after validation can we approach problem solving or giving support. By practicing variations of this technique, we discovered that, while it may seem straight-forward, emotion coaching is much more difficult than meets the eye, especially when we don’t agree with the emotion or rationale being expressed.
I was delighted when, a few weeks after our Program Development Day, I found myself in a meeting with my son and his two college counselors, and was able to witness firsthand the power of emotion coaching. When my son stated something that needed disputing (I can no longer remember what it was), his beloved college counselor responded, “I can understand why you would feel that way because…because…and because…” I’m sure it took a little effort and a bit more time to validate something that wasn’t quite correct, but in the end, it made all the difference.
In reflection at the end of our day, we felt lucky to belong to a community that takes well-being seriously enough to spend a whole day developing ourselves as recipients of a rich and inclusive community, as well as architects of one we want to create for future generations.
Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, March 21, 2006
The Crisis of Connection: Roots, Consequences, and Solutions Hardcover, August 21, 2018. Niobe Way (Editor), Alisha Ali (Editor), Carol Gilligan (Editor), Pedro Noguera (Editor)
Kasley Killam (2018) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/to-combat-loneliness-promote-social-health1/