Talking ‘Bout the Brain

Sometimes something just works and feels right. And maybe there’s no evidence-based practice, but I feel it, and I notice the shift in energy and connection and action, so I run with it.

I’ve been talking about my students’ brains a lot.
I think it helps them understand.
I’ve noticed a shift.

In the past, when I’ve said things like, “Kelly, it looks like you’re not paying attention” or “Kelly, are you paying attention?” the response is usually defensive, anxiety-filled, or frustrated. “I am paying attention!” Kelly will say, even if we both know she’s not. When I’ve said, “Kelly, it looks like your brain is thinking about another thought” or “Kelly, is your brain distracting you?” more often than not, she will agree, and accept ideas to re-focus.

Really, it’s just a subtle shift. From “you” to “your brain”. But for whatever reason, it’s working. I wonder if it’s because it allows them to accept their actions from one step removed. It lets them understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t mean letting them off the hook, it doesn’t mean telling them they “can’t help it”. It just gives them a little cushioning to accept that yes, they are behaving in this way, yes, they are speaking in this way, yes, they are acting in this way, and it’s okay. It reassures them that they are not intrinsically “bad” (which is often how a lot of our special ed. kids portray themselves and name as the reason for their struggles), but their brain causes them to act in certain ways. It gives them a reason for why. And it seems to help them be more open to trying to get past whatever obstacles their brain is throwing their way. I’ve noticed a shift in their willingness to embrace their actions, and work to find strategies to bypass the obstacles.

So I say things like:
“Did your brain forget that word?”
“Looks like your brain is thinking about something else”
“Tell your brain that we’re moving on from that topic”

Remember Joey? (We still do the silly 911 script at least once during each speech/language therapy session – he now takes the “phone” from me and sometimes talks to “911” himself.)

I’ve been using the “brain” terminology with him, and he took it and ran with it. Joey used to push, giggle, or yell when he felt something. If anyone asked him why, he couldn’t identify a reason. He would say, “I’m not sure” or “I felt like it.” Now, he can often say, “Because I’m worried about _______” or “Because I’m mad about ______.” And, sometimes, even before he starts to push, giggle, or yell, he will say, “My brain is feeling worried” or “My brain is feeling disappointed.” (Do you see how huge that is for him? To identify how he’s feeling.) And that has evolved into a script, too.

He will say, “My brain is feeling disappointed” [or whatever he is feeling]
Then he says, to me, “Be like, ‘Brain? Why are you feeling disappointed?’”
So I say, “Brain? Why are you feeling disappointed?”
And he says, “Brain says, ‘Because it’s not my day to use the ipad’” [or whatever reason]
Then it’s my turn, because he’s still learning. So I say, “Hmm. I have an idea. What if we tell your brain, ‘Brain, it makes sense that you are feeling disappointed. What if we take a few deep breaths and remind your brain that you get to use the ipad tomorrow?’” [or whatever suggestion is pertinent]
Then he usually nods, and grins, and we move on.

And it’s working. For now. And when things work, I keep it going.

A weather analogy

I have said many times in my life, and probably many times on this blog, that I feel people’s feelings. I know that the highly-sensitive people out there know what I mean, know what it is like to have someone else’s emotions permeate your soul. But I also know that for the majority of people, that concept makes no sense. And for whatever reason, the other day, I found an analogy that might explain it better (and we know I love using analogies to understand things!)

So, you know when you go outside? If it’s windy out, you feel the wind. If it’s cold, you feel the cold. If it’s rainy, you get wet. You can’t NOT feel the weather. And that’s how it is for me. I’m wired to feel people’s emotions, such that I can’t not feel them, the same way that I can’t not feel the warmth from the sun on a 90 degree day.

Of course, you might feel the wind but not be bothered by it. Like, it’s there and you notice it but it doesn’t consume you. And that’s what I work towards. Knowing that I’m wired to feel people’s emotions, but, like the wind, I can notice it and move on without letting it become the main focus of every single cell in my body. And it’s hard! If you’re outside on a day where the temperature is 3 degrees Fahrenheit, you are going to feel cold to your core. Your bones will feel cold. Try as you might, you can’t really ignore it.

But you can try. You can feel the cold yet know it will pass when you go inside. And I can feel the emotions of the loved ones around me, without letting them become my own, without letting them permanently take up residence inside.

Does this make any sense? Can anyone relate? Does anyone have another way to explain it?

Finding myself

When I put out a survey a while back, asking people to vote on what they were interested in reading about, one reader wrote, “liking yourself, being comfortable with who you are, finding a sense of self”. I have slowly been mulling that over in my brain, trying to piece together some words that make sense. This is what I’ve come up with.

I didn’t always love myself. I felt awkward and out-of-place for a lot of my childhood years. So I did what I could to try to feel normal. This included: reading teen gossip magazines, even though I didn’t like them, so I could be up on the latest celebrity news; watching TRL on Fridays, even though I couldn’t care less about music videos, so I could discuss them with peers; buying a shirt from Abercrombie and Fitch, even though I didn’t really like it that much, because that’s what everyone did. As I got older, it became: staying out late and going to a lot of parties; buying Uggs and other “trendy” clothing; pretending I liked watching football and other sports; the list goes on.

During my sophomore year in college, I hit a turning point. For various reasons, my life shifted a bit, and when that happened, some pieces fell into place. It’s funny how once a certain filter is removed, you see things differently. Once the shift happened, I realized: I didn’t like football. I didn’t like staying out late every night. I didn’t like bars. I craved my routine. I liked studying and spending my weekends studying with a friend and a coffee, and my evenings curled up on the couch, watching Grey’s Anatomy with my roommate.

So it was progress. I was realizing what made me feel good, and what made me, well, ME, but I still didn’t always do anything about it. Because honestly, I was terrified. If I showed the world who I was, what if they rejected me? Wasn’t it better to play it safe and at least know I sort of fit in? For a while my answer was yes. I knew some of what made me happy and what made me feel good, but I didn’t always act on it. I kept my mask on. I wanted to belong. And sure, I often felt happy and content. But it didn’t fill me up. It wasn’t as authentic as it could me.

When I started grad school, I started over. For the first time in years, I had a fresh start. I was feeling good, positive, and full of life. I no longer had illnesses or disorders standing in my way between me and happiness. I only had ME. I was my roadblock. So, I began grad school as my true, authentic self. I didn’t always wear makeup to class. I didn’t hide my perfectionism or anxiety. I talked to all sorts of people. I geeked out over things we were learning. I embraced awkward moments. And the result? I made friends. True, wonderful, forever friends. People liked me. They liked me for me. And the funny thing is – making friends and being liked was the easiest it had been, up until that point.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this was when I fell in love – and even more so, when a man fell in love with me. When I met Jeremy, and as we began dating, nearly four years ago, I was determined to be me. Enough was enough, I had told myself. There was no point in faking it, in hiding who I was. If he didn’t like me for me, then that was okay, it just meant he wasn’t the one for me. I raised the bar, and told myself that I would not settle. I embraced myself and so somewhere out there, was someone else who would embrace me, too.

And that someone was Jeremy.

He loves me for my quirks. He loves me for my weirdness. He loves me for my personality. He loves me for who I am. He fell in love with ME. Not a shadow version of me, not a fake version of me, but just the real, true, authentic, unique, me. I am a person who was worth falling in love with. I am a person who is worth marrying. I am the happiest, truest, most real I have been in my entire life. He has not only accepted who I am, but embraced it, hugged it, nurtured it, and encouraged it. I blossom with him. I am the luckiest.

And so – I do love myself. I have embraced myself. I know that I love wine, but I don’t like beer. I know that I am a hardcore introvert. I know that despite being an introvert, I have wonderful friends. I know that I still wear mismatched socks. I know that four stuffed animals sit on our bed. I know that I make up words and songs as I go about my day. I know that I’d prefer reading to watching sports. I know that I prefer a few, true, forever friends, over a bunch of casual friends. I know that I love a handful of t.v. shows, but I don’t like reality t.v. I know that I love deep, intense novels, but dislike chick lit. I know that I am sensitive and often tear up. I know that I squeal when I’m outside in nature. I know that I kneel down to take pictures of snails, frogs, and worms. I know that I look up to take pictures of skies, trees, light. I know that I don’t really care about fashion, and often just reach for whatever colors feel right. I know that all of these things make me who I am. And I know that I am okay. That I am enough.

Embracing myself does not mean always being happy. Those things couldn’t possibly be synonymous. But embracing myself does mean accepting all parts of me. Working towards acceptance of where I’m at, in each moment. Having compassion for myself, in a variety of situations. Knowing that despite the external circumstances, I am at peace in my core.

The Exceptions

Trigger warning: this post references childhood sexual abuse. You decide, in this moment, if you want to read it, or not. If not – that’s okay. Because ultimately, above all, I blog for me.

—–

I can’t stop thinking about it lately. From stories in the news, kids I work with, loved ones’ past experiences, memories creeping up for people…it’s everywhere. And I won’t say more than that. Nearly every story seems to have one common thread:  Everything is about context. There are a million exceptions to the rule.

—–
“Nicole, remember how you learned about Stranger Danger? Don’t go with someone who tells you he has candy in his car, or who says he lost his dog and needs help finding it. Run and scream and go the other way.”
Nicole is 6 years old. She knows that. What she doesn’t know, and has never heard, is a rule for what to do when her violin teacher sometimes has her sit on his lap during her lesson. It doesn’t feel right and it’s uncomfortable. But he is not a Stranger. So it must be okay. Even though it feels wrong.

“Tommy, nobody except Mom and I, and your doctor, can touch your private parts.”
Ten-year-old Tommy has heard this a million times. And it’s his doctor who is touching his private parts. So, despite the fact that at age ten, he knows that the frequency and the way in which his doctor touches him is wrong, and doesn’t feel right at all, everyone says that doctors can touch him. So he doesn’t say a word.

“Phoebe, I get that you don’t want to see your dad for the weekend, but he’s your father. He has every right to see you. Just be a good girl, okay, and listen to what he says.”
And four-year-old Phoebe tries. She tries so hard to be a good girl, and to listen to what her father says, even when it involves him asking her to do things that make her cry and feel yucky. And she doesn’t tell her mom because he says not to. And she’s a good girl. She’s a good listener.

“Mommy? You know how Uncle Trevor gives me my bath when he visits and we play the splashing game and it is so fun and I love it? Well, Henry said that HIS uncle gives him a bath sometimes and he washes him to make him super duper clean, but Henry doesn’t like it because he said his uncle shouldn’t touch him down there like that. But it’s okay, right? Because Uncle Trevor washes me and I love Uncle Trevor and he is not hurting me. So it must be okay with Henry’s uncle, too. Because the rule is that uncles can help gives you baths and part of giving baths is washing down there.”
Ben’s mom  takes a deep breath. How is she supposed to explain to her five-year-old that rules come in a million shades of gray – and that the exact same situation that both he and his best friend are in, are actually totally different?

—–
I just….

There are so many shades of gray. So many exceptions to the rule. And nobody can cover them all.

All we can do is hope. And try to teach our kids to trust their core, their gut. To teach them to listen to that voice inside of them, and if that voice ever says, This is wrong, to tell someone. To tell someone other than the person who is making that voice speak. And I think that’s a concept that kids of all ages can grasp, on some level, if it’s taught in an age-appropriate, developmentally-appropriate way, and reinforced over and over again. Trust your core. Listen to that voice.

Yom Kippur + Imperfection

Rabbi Harold Kushner is the Rabbi Laureate at the synagogue my family has belonged to for my entire life. He is famous world-wide for his books, his sermons, and philosophies on life and Judaism.

On Yom Kippur, I sat in synagogue with my family, and listened with a silent congregation as he delivered what I feel to be one of the best sermons I have ever heard. I think what I like best about it was that its message could be taken to heart by anyone. Of any age, of any gender, of any religion.

Getting something out of this sermon is not dependent on your religion or your religious beliefs. But if you work with children, if you have children, if you have ever doubted yourself, if perfectionism has ever taken hold of you, if you’ve heard about the suicides last year in Newton, MA, if your heart hurts for teenagers…..read this. Its message does not have to be one of preaching religious beliefs, but rather one of self-love and acceptance.

Imperfect People are Good Enough for God

Body Shaming

These thoughts are spinning around in my head and I wish I could create an organized computer program that would efficiently extract the thoughts and put them into a coherent essay. (Maybe some day one of my students will invent such a thing…?!)

So, rather than wait for a perfect beginning that won’t come, I’m going to start in the messy middle.

—–

It’s not okay to skinny-shame someone. Or fat-shame someone. Or shame ourselves. Shame is rampant in our environment. We shame ourselves, for our pasts, for our experiences, for our choices. We shame others when we’re feeling bad about ourselves. There is so much shame around that we don’t even realize it. We don’t realize that we’re shaming whoever it is that we’re shaming.

The world is focused on losing weight. The world praises individuals who lose weight. Tabloids and magazines have headlines titled, “20 pounds lighter: how she did it!” and “5 tips for shedding those extra 5 pounds.” The focus is always on losing weight. And yes, of course, there are individuals out there who physically need to lose weight, from a health standpoint. For their organs to better operate. For their physiological system to function better so they can breathe and pump blood through their bodies and think and live. And those who are overweight are overweight for a reason. Maybe it’s lifestyle choices, maybe it’s binge-eating disorder, maybe it’s a thyroid problem, but guess what: it doesn’t matter. No matter the reason, the person doesn’t deserve shame.

There are also individuals who physically need to gain weight, from a health standpoint. For their organs to better operate. For their physiological system to function better so they can breathe and pump blood through their bodies and think and live. And those who are underweight are underweight for a reason. Maybe it’s anorexia, maybe it’s a metabolic disorder, maybe it’s due to a medication. And it also doesn’t matter.

And then there are the rest of the people. Who are physically stable. Whose organs are operating, whose physiological systems are functioning, who are breathing and living and thinking. Who don’t need to lose, or gain, any weight.

An individual who gains weight, who physically needs to gain weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body. Similarly, an individual who loses weight, who physically needs to lose weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body. And an individual who maintains her weight, who physically needs to maintain her weight, is accomplishing something healthy for her body.

We all have different needs. I know people in my life in all of those three categories. But the messages we receive, from the media, from each other, from ourselves, make us forget that. We sort ourselves into the wrong category, the category we hear so often: fat is wrong, skinny is shameful, everyone should lose weight, skinny people have no reason to ever be anything other than happy. And we lose touch with reality, with who we are, what our body is like, what our body needs.

Body image is about how we perceive ourselves. Not how others perceive us. Which is why we might not see ourselves as how others see us. Which is why, if someone talks about disliking their body, saying to them, “Omg no, you’re so skinny” or “Please, you have nothing to complain about, I weigh so much more than you” isn’t helpful. It’s not about how you see them. And it’s not about YOU! All you’re doing is invalidating their feelings, their struggles. Reinforcing the shame that they feel for themselves. Essentially, telling them, “You have no right to feel that way, you shouldn’t be allowed to have those feelings and emotions, I have no compassion for you.”

When a person is being critical of their body, the last thing they want to hear is more criticism. Of anyone. They want to hear compassion. They want to hear, “I understand. I get it. I’ve felt that way. I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m here. What do you need from me? How can I support you?” Because ultimately it’s about the underlying feelings. The fear, the shame, the disgust, the anxiety, the sadness. Whatever it is, for whatever reason it’s there. The more you continue focusing on their body, and shaming them (even if you don’t realize you’re doing it, even if you’re well-meaning), the more it reinforces the negative beliefs they have.

Also? Skinny does not equal happy. Fat does not equal depressed. Feelings, in general, happen independent of one’s body. And if they are happening because of one’s body, that’s a distortion.

And also: if you have been shaming yourself, or others, and are only now realizing it, you get to NOT use this as an excuse for further shame. Don’t let this spiral into, I’ve been shaming others, oh gosh I’m an awful friend, I am an awful person…...

[Edited to add: Moving away from shame does not mean that you can never dislike your body. It means that you feel the dislike, you acknowledge it, but you move on without shaming yourself for those feelings and for having those feelings. It doesn't mean always loving yourself or always feeling confident and beautiful. It means being compassionate towards yourself, with whatever it is that you're feeling.]

Feel compassion for yourself, and push the shame away.

Please. You deserve it. We deserve it.

The silly 911 script

I’ve written before about scripting, how it’s safe and comforting to our kids, how it’s often a way for us to get “in” to their brain and form a connection, how scripting can be so positive and we should utilize it. (And as a side note, I thought of another real-life example of scripting. When my favorite yoga teacher ends a class, she always, ALWAYS ends it with, “Drink water, be good to yourself.” And it’s a routine and I love when she says it, and if she didn’t, I would feel unsettled)

There’s a script/routine that I do at least once a day with one of my kiddos, Joey [not his real name]. Joey has high anxiety and often feels as though a problem is an emergency, and will react as such. For example, in the past, his anxiety combined with his impulsivity would lead Joey to push a child if he lost a game, call a peer stupid if Joey wasn’t picked to go first, or just get stuck ruminating if he wrote his name messily. Joey has learned all about the problem scale and though in a moment of calm he can understand and identify what’s an emergency and what’s a glitch, and what’s in between, he has a hard time accessing that in the moment.

When I teach the Problem Scale, to any of my kids, I often say that since a number 5 is an emergency type problem, if there’s a problem for which we don’t need to call 911, it’s probably not an emergency (e.g., though your pencil falling on the ground might feel like an emergency, we don’t need 911 to help with it, so we don’t need to react as though it’s an emergency). Joey latched onto this almost as a security blanket, and for whatever reason, it clicked in his brain.

So when a problem arises, like he spills water on his worksheet, he often turns to me and mimics dialing on a phone and says, “Do it, boop boop boop.”

And I hold out my palm like a phone and I pretend to dial and the noise I make for the pretend numbers is, “Boop boop boop.”

I hold up my “phone” to my ear and I say, “Hello, 911? Yes, we have an emergency. Joey spilled water on his sheet. Oh. Really? Hmm. Okay. Thanks. Bye.”

Then I “hang up” and tell Joey, “911 said it’s just a glitch and they don’t need to come.”

And Joey laughs and laughs and then moves right on. Calm. Comforted. Reassured.

We have done this countless times. For not winning a contest, for tearing a corner of his paper by accident, for not getting to have speech one day if there’s an assembly, for losing a game. The script is always the exact same, and it brings Joey comfort. For whatever reason. The reason doesn’t matter.

So yesterday when there was an assembly and a something happened that Joey perceived as upsetting and problematic, he tugged on my sleeve and I knelt down and he mimicked dialing, so we whispered the script to each other – and he was fine. He rocked that assembly and not only was I psyched that the script worked, but I was proud. He sought it out, he used self-advocacy, he knew what he needed and what he needed was reassurance, and this is how he got it. And that is no small accomplishment.