In my fourth year of teaching first grade, I experienced a profound “aha” moment. It was the beginning of the year, and I was teaching my students a new routine, one that - once school was up and running - would take about 5-7 minutes from start to finish. But on that first day it took 35 minutes. I was incredibly frustrated at the end of the lesson, doubting my skill as a teacher and wondering if this group of children would ever be as capable as the class the year before. But then it hit me: It was their first time learning this routine, and to expect proficiency on day 1 was unrealistic. I entered day 2 with different expectations, and the lesson took 20 minutes. By day 7 we were down to 5-7 minutes.
I have been thinking about that moment a lot lately. We have experienced an enormous amount of transition in the last five and a half months. Yet somehow, I keep expecting myself to master each new routine the very first time it comes around. It happened again just this week, as we started Distance Learning - not to mention an entirely new school year. I felt my stress level rising and my patience dipping but wasn’t sure why. Then I remembered that beginnings are hard, and I instantly exhaled.
I don’t know what the next 10 months hold, but I feel confident that one thing we can expect is a lot of transitions. And I’ve noticed how my ability to manage any given transition directly impacts how my children manage those transitions. I feel frantic and frazzled? They are unsettled. I project confidence? They feel centered. Of course it is so: kids are wired to observe and absorb. They are always watching us, they are always learning from us. They take their cues on the tachlis like wearing masks over their nose from what Daniel and I demonstrate, but they also modulate their mood in accordance with our own regulation. So learning how to do transitions well feels incredibly important right now, both for our own sanity and for our children’s wellbeing (and I want to also add the caveat that sometimes we can be calm and confident and our children still have the meltdown - that doesn’t mean we did anything wrong; it just means that life can be hard for everyone).
Here’s a pandemic silver lining: we have the ability to teach our children a supremely valuable lifelong lesson about managing transitions with resilience. But I do wonder: how do we help our children regulate, demonstrate resilience, and navigate that transition when we are feeling bumped out ourselves? If we put on a cheery face about a piece of the transition we don’t like, are we being fake or Pollyanna-ish? And how do we let our children know we are upset about things without making them feel upset as well?
A basic tenet of Conscious Discipline is “adults first, children second” - we tend to think of classroom management or school discipline as something we do to children or for children, but the truth is that the program first addresses adult regulation, knowing that we must care for ourselves before we can care for children. I think there are a few steps that are crucial for us, as the grown ups, to take so that we can teach our children to manage this situation with grace and resilience.
First, acknowledge your own feelings. I am grieving that my older children are starting school on Zoom. This is not about the program, as I feel such awe for our staff who created an incredible Distance Learning curriculum, and this is not a statement on safety or health or my personal feelings about Governor Newsom’s order. I simply am so very sad that this is our reality, even if it’s a relatively fortunate one. I love the first weeks of school, the excitement the first graders feel going to the second floor, the joy the sixth graders take in decorating their lockers, the sound of shoes squeaking on the newly waxed floors. So I name it. I might share it with another adult. The more I acknowledge it, the less it gnaws at my heart. And if my children bring it up, I acknowledge their feelings (“yes, this isn’t how you wanted school to be this year. I know it’s hard”), but I don’t project my feelings onto them.
Second, model resilience for your children. Many of us say that we want our kids to be resilient. But we are also uncomfortable when they are upset or hurt. The truth is though, it is sitting in that discomfort and that upset, and learning they can manage those feelings, that builds their resilience muscles. It’s knowing they went through a hard or a sad thing and they came out the other side. It’s not that hard things become easier - it’s that we become more confident in our ability to get through the difficult moments without dissolving. You can model resilience by sharing disappointments that are appropriate for them to hear. Karen Young writes, “Bringing them into your emotional world at appropriate times will help them to see that sadness, stuckness, disappointment are all very normal human experiences. When experiences are normalized, there will be a safety and security that will open the way for them to explore what those experiences mean for them, and experiment with ways to respond.”
And finally, let them know that you believe fiercely in their ability to cope. Whether it’s disappointment about their pod assignment, upset over the zoom schedule, fear of separation from you at ECC drop off, or wishing reality were different, your ability to project confidence in their ability to manage these frustrations and disappointments and upsets are key. Whether your child is 2 or 14, your opinion matters deeply; if you believe they have it in them to deal with the stumbles along the way, they will believe this too. And learning to be resilient now will impact their ability to be resilient again and again.
Lately I’ve been listening a lot to The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) and have been playing one song on repeat: "Our children are watching us; They put their trust in us; They're gonna be like us." Those sentiments are always true. But the words feel electric in this moment. We are all living through something historic. We are being asked to do the impossible, and that impossible keeps changing. It’s one transition after another with almost no rope to keep us afloat. And through all of it - the angst, the fear, the transition, the joy, the laughter - our children’s eyes and ears are glued to our reactions. Their ability to cope right now will be guided by our ability to cope, and the lessons they learn will impact how they manage change when they grow older and experience more challenges in their lives. And to do this, we must take care of ourselves -- I promise if we do, your routines will become as normalized as my first graders’ routines, so long ago.
Dr. Erica Rothblum is the Head of School at Pressman Academy