Friday, September 21, 2012

The Art of Language, By Jaimmie Stugard

The thought manifests as the word.

The word manifests as the deed.

The deed develops into habit.

And the habit hardens into character.

- Buddhist wisdom

It may be hard to imagine, but in my younger days, I was known for my blunt remarks and my crude sense of humor. I spoke my mind without censoring myself and the results were often amusing and sometimes embarrassing. Eventually, I began to realize that a hasty remark could be very damaging, while a carefully timed and placed word could have a profoundly positive impact. Later, when I began working with children, the art of language began to reveal itself to me.
There is a great focus on language and the development of speech in the LifeWays training. It was there that I learned that when one speaks, the vocal cords of the listener vibrate at the same frequency. This physiological imitation lays the foundation for infants' speech development. Since young children learn through imitation, LifeWays caregivers strive to be worthy of imitation in our speech, our gestures, even our thoughts.

LifeWays fosters language development through singing, storytelling, puppetry and nursery rhymes. Since children learn through repetition as well as imitation, I sing the same seasonal songs for months at a time and there are many songs and verses that we use every day of the year. While a few are just plain silly fun, many of them are more like our blessing - a reverent and practical expression of gratitude, joy, necessity, and life.

Earth who gives to us this food.

Sun who makes it ripe and good.

Sun above, and Earth below.

To you our loving thanks we show.

At nap, I tell a seasonal story *by heart.* I tell the same story, word for word, day after day, for weeks and weeks. Telling stories this way allows the children to live into the tale. The youngest children drink in the sounds and words as their language prepares to blossom. While the older, more experienced children illustrate the tale in their drowsy mind's eye.
It is during our stories and songs that I pay most careful attention to my speech. During common daily activities, it is easy to slip into a muddled Midwestern accent, or to lose awareness of the tone of my voice. At story time, I have opportunity to focus on enunciating and speaking in a pure, gentle tone. It still surprises me how difficult it is to pronounce each and every consonant and vowel properly (especially when reading certain Dr. Seuss tales).

The LifeWays training also introduced me to the practice of right speech. Right speech is an aspect of Buddhist meditative practice. "It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will." Idle chatter and lies are to be avoided. In working with children, I include unnecessarily verbose instructions, lecturing and otherwise carrying on in the *idle chatter* category. Conversations with children can be very insightful and beneficial, particularly when I am listening more than speaking.

It is obvious that children imitate our speech patterns, our tone of voice and the quality of our language. I even have trouble telling my dad's voice from my brother's on the telephone. And there are plenty of times that parent's inquire about the Miss Jaimmie-isms in their child's vocabulary. (Yes, I do ask them not to dash indoors and I help them when their sleeves are confuffled). While few of us have perfected right speech, we can continue to strive. And that striving is, in itself, worth imitating.

Table Manners, By Jane Danner Sustar

       Otto has a cat. He told us about it at lunch today. “It used to belong to a neighbor but the neighbor does not want him anymore so now the cat belongs to our house. He is our cat because we feed him any way and he has blue stripes and his name is Lucky and we found a rabbit in the corner of the garden but it really stunk so maybe Lucky killed it but it’s head was missing but not the brains the brains were spread all over the grass but it did not have a head anymore, just the brains. It was really gross!” I let the story go on a little too long. I always do. My mouth was probably hanging open. I remember thinking during the brains bit, “Thank goodness I don’t eat gluten!” Today is noodle day.  Rice looks a little less like brains than noodles. During Otto’s monologue Orion kept on chiming in; “My cat!” and then “Our cat”, “But my cat”.  Otto was not going to let him get a word in edgewise but it was a good way for me to cut off the more graphic description of the brains; “Otto, Orion would like to tell us about his cat.” (Please, please, please! No more stories about cat kill!) Orion dropped his eyes and said softly, “We don’t have a cat*.” I heaved a sigh of relief. No cat=no cat kill. I am not always so lucky. I am still struggling with how to direct the fine art of table conversation when I am too shocked to speak.
      We are pretty good at saying, “please” and “thank you”. We are working on waiting to be served. Some children still grab the food the minute we sit down and I have to remind them that we wait to be served. Today Eli caught Miss Jane sneaking a chocolate chip out of the granola bowl! Example still speaks louder than words, I guess. Orion wanted to know why I was impolite. I had to explain how even I need to wait to be served and when I grab things out of the bowl it is impolite. Ah! The bitter taste of humble pie.
     Natalie is a firm believer in napkins. She likes her hands clean and is the first to get a napkin if someone spills. She loves to help and would spend her meals running back and forth to the napkin basket if I did not occasionally make her sit down and actually eat something. She helps us all stay presentable at the table.
We are the fastest table at Lifeways so very often we are waiting for the other tables to gather themselves for lunch. Leo likes to teach us songs he knows. Sometimes they are songs he has learned and reworded. Sometimes they are appropriate for the table and sometimes they are not. I always have to encourage him to speak up so that the whole table can hear. I have to encourage Otto to speak more softly so that the whole room doesn’t hear.
     Gus likes to finish with eating quickly and get on to more interesting things. I think he and Liviah would forego sitting down for a meal completely. It has been challenging for them to sit through a meal but I think they have started to enjoy it. Erica has the greatest expressions. Her face the first time she realized that she would have to hold hands with an almost complete stranger was beautiful! She did it! Especially when she saw Natalie and Isabel practically lying flat across the table to “close the circle”! It is all about including everyone and making a circle of hands is such an amazing thing, even the children recognize the importance of it.
     The lunch table is a small snap shot of what the children learn throughout the whole day. It is so important to learn the simple tricks of how to get along, how to respect each other’s spaces and ears. How to share a conversation, how to have a conversation! It is hard work! Even I forget the basics sometimes.
My partner, Mark, came home last week citing a study he had heard about on NPR. A professor had given four year olds a cookie. He told them they could eat the cookie whenever they wanted but if they waited to eat the cookie for ten minutes, he would give them a second cookie. It was part of a larger study which then tracked the children into adulthood. The children who waited for the second cookie had a much greater success rate in their entire lives than those who ate the cookie immediately. I. of course, thought of our little guys waiting patiently to be served. It is comforting to think that not only are they learning good social skills. It makes sense that they learning basic skills that can help them throughout their entire lives.   

Bullies, By Mary O'Connell

     Once upon a time, my eldest son, Kyle, went to a new school for first grade. We had just switched from the large public school to a small Catholic school, so naturally I assumed that all the children there would get along beautifully (you know, those good moral values and all that Holy Spirit flowing around….)  Imagine my surprise when Kyle came home every day complaining about a boy who was making his life miserable. “Sean pushes me,” “Sean yells too loud,” “Sean won’t let me use the slide,” and finally, “I’m afraid of Sean.”
     Who was this Sean kid, bullying my beautiful boy?!  And why was this behavior tolerated by the teacher? I wondered.  I pictured a big brute of a kid, pushing kids down and stealing their lunch money. Finally after a couple of weeks of my son complaining, I approached the teacher, Mrs. Knoll, after school. I told her that Kyle was being terrorized by Sean. She smiled a slightly amused, benevolent smile as she pointed Sean out to me. My tall-for-his-age son towered over this boy who was the smallest kid in the class. The image that came to mind was of a Great Dane fearful of a Chihuahua. She explained that Sean was a very exuberant and nice little boy, and her observation was that he really liked Kyle a lot. She told me that Sean was learning the correct way to approach Kyle to ask him to play, and that her best advice for Kyle was to tell Sean if he needed some space.
     It was not the response I had been looking for, but seemed a very thoughtful observation, so I did just as she recommended. I told Kyle that Sean wanted to be his friend yet sometimes was a little too excited, and Kyle should feel free to tell him to tone it down; if it became too much, he should ask Mrs. Knoll for help.  Soon, I began to hear glorious stories of Kyle’s adventures with Sean, and their friendship continued all the way through 8th grade.  Sean became one of my favorite kids to have around… thoughtful, articulate, and funny. It still makes me smile to think that I had thought of him as a bully. Boy, did I have that wrong!
Kyle, Sean and Sean's twin sister, Caroline at their 8th grade graduation.
     The Social Arts…not necessarily a realm of black and white, that’s for sure.  This weekend the Journal Sentinel ran an article in the Business Section about a hot new trend -- businesses that teach kids how to deal with bullies. (Apparently, karate is an important element.) Parents are increasingly concerned about bullies, and schools are implementing Zero Tolerance policies for bullying. This concern is, of course, a good thing. Too many of us have memories of being terrorized by other kids at school and no adult seemed to care or be able to stop it.
     My question is: What about the “bully?”  Could he simply be a nice little kid like Sean who is working on how to approach a friend to play? Is it possible the two-year-old biter is not necessarily a violent child, but one who is simply going through an age-appropriate stage of learning to deal with frustration without all the necessary language skills?  Perhaps the 5-year-old girl who excludes her friend from play is learning how to manage her emerging social skills and her sometimes overwhelming feelings.
     At LifeWays, a large portion of our caregivers’ time is spent helping children through these stages of learning how to live with other human beings. Children don’t come out of the womb magically knowing how to share, play, negotiate, and use their words to get what they want. The process of helping little ones learn these skills involves a lot of modeling, some coaching, some stepping back and letting children struggle a bit, and always observing to see what the challenges are and how best to help the children negotiate the sometimes rocky terrain of the social arts.
     I’m forever grateful that somehow, all those years ago, I was able to see the picture Mrs. Knoll was painting for me of Sean. In many ways, that lesson is one that has really helped me in my work with children: it’s important to look beneath the surface of every child’s behavior struggles to get to know the remarkable person inside.

Social arts: Thoughts on guiding children towards healthy, positive relationships, By Tamara Treviranus

Happy Fall everyone!  This time of year brings the gradual change of seasons as well as change to our family here at LifeWays.  We have wished many children well on their next step of heading off to school and have welcomed many new families to our suite.    This time of year can bring excitement, anticipation, fear, and stress for the whole family.  New relationships are forming amongst the children here at LifeWays and therefore it seems an opportune time to discuss the social arts.
The Social Arts, and all that entails is a HUGE topic!  In a nutshell, the Social Arts refers to how we work to get along with each other.  In a child’s world, this may include learning to share toys or loved ones, learning how to be inclusive in play, speaking kindly to one another, respecting one another’s space, using words to problem solve rather than our hands (hitting).  In the adult world, this may include…all of the same things!  Navigating relationships is a lifelong process.  The saying goes, “All I ever really needed to know I learned in kindergarten”.  Yet today (please pardon my cynicism here) it appears that many adults have not yet been introduced to these basic social skills.  Comprehensive and thoughtful guidance for children in the social arts is one of the most important gifts of learning we can impart.
To illustrate working with the social arts with very young children, please consider the following scenarios:
Scenario #1
 A little girl named Molly delights in getting a reaction out of her friend Patrick by snatching his favorite toy. Patrick responds by asking for it back only to be met with a smirk while Molly tosses it out of reach over the fence.  He then angrily pushes her down.  Molly, full of hurt, tearfully seeks out the comfort of her caregiver.
Scenario #2
 Three boys, Dominic, Samuel, and Joshua are playing in the sandbox.  Samuel and Dominic are happily digging a hole to the bottom of the sandbox.  Joshua is sitting on the edge of the hole causing sand to fall back in whereby slowing the progress of operation “getting to China”.  Samuel and Dominic repeatedly ask Joshua to move.  He continues to test by kicking dirt back in.  Finally they yell at him and say he can’t play.  Insulted, Joshua comes to his teacher to “tell” he has not been allowed to play. (And ALL children at LifeWays know the mantra “everyone is allowed to play.”)
     Or maybe there is a situation where some of the children are simply being exclusive and mean. There might be a child who is still drawn to playing with a classmate even though he treats her poorly. Maybe there is a child inclined to hit without the slightest provocation. How does the caregiver handle these situations? Can we practice a restorative justice model of child guidance as opposed to a more punitive approach? What would this look like? A strictly punitive approach may be to institute only a time out or remove a toy from play.  However this has not given the children the chance to learn a more acceptable way of behaving. It has only shown them that what happened caused punishment. To offer a child a chance to help rebuild what was knocked down, offer a hand to get up from being knocked down, fetch an ice pack for an injured friend are all examples of showing children how to be good friends.
      It is difficult as a caregiver to see children treat each other poorly, but with consistent modeling of kind behavior, it is beautiful to see when friends who have previously had conflicts are able to use words to state their feelings and ask their friends for what they need. It is very helpful to be part of a program that honors relationship-based care and the time and space to provide thoughtful observation.  Because we consistently spend time with the children we care for, we can see their patterns and the effects of group dynamics on their behavior.  Imagine if, in the previously mentioned scenarios, we only saw a child being pushed down or told he could not play, without witnessing what led to that response.  
     These situations are of course “small beans” in the spectrum of what parents and teachers face when caring for children. Later, in grade school and high school a strictly punitive approach takes the form of a series of a rigidly laid out discipline plan that may end in expulsion.  In contrast a high school that practices a restorative justice model will likely have the two parties talk it out, find a solution together and write a contract that speaks to the needs and concerns of all involved. Perhaps if we educate the littlest ones in the social arts, this will plant a seed that may be tended throughout the years to give our children the skills, self esteem, and self knowledge that will serve them as they grow.

To The Table We Go, by Monica Stone

Whether it be with family, friends, or loved ones, there is nothing quite as wonderful as sharing a meal. It is a time when we can decompress after a busy day, engage in lively discussion, exchange ideas, or simply enjoy being in one another’s presence all while delighting in refreshment. As we gather around the table each day at LifeWays, hands graciously joined in blessing, I see the importance that mealtime holds for our children. It is around the table where stories are told about trips to the zoo, catching moths in the forest, going fishing, or visiting grandma’s and grandpa’s house. Engaged in such conversation allows for a child to practice listening intently to their friends while waiting to share their own views and experiences. One learns to sit calmly and patiently in their chair as food is carefully passed to each plate and milk is poured in each cup. A child learns expressions of gratitude and polite requests in the oh so magic words of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. When seated together around the table, children may even be more apt to try new foods as they observe others heartily eating everything on their plate. Food indeed is a powerful social force, and the skills that are learned and shared during mealtime are plentiful! While joined at the table we not only nourish our bodies, we nourish our compassion, our love, and our connection to one another. It is a moment when we can take interest in one another and truly open our hearts.

                                                                                                Happy autumn,
                                                                                                Miss Monica