Categories » ‘The Zen of Working With Youth’

What It’s All About

July 4th, 2013 by

thoughtfullbb

Reposted from my other blog at CreateMotivate.com

 

Sometimes we lose sight of the big picture. Sometimes we need a slap in the head from the Universe to remind us – not of what we’re doing – but why we’re doing what we do. Our “busy-ness” comes from the what. Our fire comes from the “why”.

 

Nice Day for a Ball Game

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning in our fair city. And the championship game was on. Some of you know that, in addition to working in the education field, I have also moonlighted as a Little League baseball coach for the past four years. Four years ago, I didn’t even like baseball… but that’s another story altogether.

I coach the little guys… six and seven year-olds, fresh out of T-Ball. Our division is known as “Single A”… or, basically, the “little guys”. I’m happy with that division because, at that level, it’s not so much about winning as it is about learning basic skills and having fun. Once you get into the upper divisions,

it, sadly, becomes all about winning.

On this particular Saturday, I was watching the championship game of the AAA division (10 – 12 year-olds). It wasn’t just the league championship. It was the city championship. It was the first place team of our league (the American League) versus the first place team of our cross-town rival (the National League). One of the kids on the American League team was older brother to one of the little guys on our Single-A team, and he had helped us throughout the season with basic baseball skills, so I wanted to get out and support him in the city championship.

By the time I arrived, the game was already underway.

 

What Did You Just Call Me?

“Hey Coach!” said the man a couple of people down from me in the crowd (even after four years, I still find it a bit unnerving that grown men will call you ‘coach’ when they see you).

“Hey there…” I recognized the man’s face, but I couldn’t place it. I knew that I had met him somewhere in baseball, but couldn’t place him. I hate it when that happens.

I continued to watch the game. One of our batters came up – I recognized him. Miles. I had known him as a member of one of the opposing Single-A teams two or three years back. And, last year, I had a chance to coach him when I took on the managing duties for the league’s 9-year-old “runner up” All-Star Team (a team made up of the twelve second-best 9 year-old players). The “runner-up” (or B-Team as they were called) All Star-Team was a job that no one really wanted to take on, but I agreed to after a conversation with the league president saying that they wouldn’t get to play in any tournaments if no one agreed to coach them… and, like Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars, I was the last best hope for them to continue into the post-season.

Then it hit me… the man who had spoken to me earlier was Miles’ father. It figured that I didn’t remember him that well… the “B Team” had only spent about 3 weeks together – enough to practice and play in 2 or 3 postseason tournaments.

Between innings, Miles’ father came up to me again and provided one of those “smacks to the head” of which I spoke before.

 

A Friendly Smack In The Head From the Universe

“You know,” he started. “Miles wouldn’t be playing today if it wasn’t for you.”

“Unhh….” With conversation starters like these, I’m never sure exactly what to say.

“After last season, he was ready to quit baseball,” Miles’ dad said. “But because of your positive coaching of the All-Star Team – well, he’s back this year.”

And playing in the city championship, I thought.

At that point, it’s hard to describe what I felt. Pride. Humility. Affirmation. Significance.

And then it hit me, this is why I do what I do.

The whole point is making a difference in the lives of the children and youth that I touch.

And, honestly, I believe that making a difference is the ultimate payoff for 90% of the teachers, coaches, rec specialists… all those who work with children and youth.

But it’s so easy to forget.

Miles may not grow up to play in the major leagues (but then, again, after seeing the way he deftly handled a line drive coming at 50 mph toward his head in the bottom of the sixth, maybe he will). But that’s not the important part. Sure, no matter if his baseball career ends tomorrow or at a retirement of his jersey from the San Francisco Giants in the year2045, I’ll be proud of the small part I played in his development. The real brass tacks of the matter is that I made a difference in this kid’s life.

 

And Here’s the Real Secret of Your Universe

pushups

The killer bottom line here is that, if you work with kids, children, youth… anyone in a mentor-like capacity, you’re making that same difference with them every day you show up.

And my guess is that you don’t remember that you make that difference… at least you don’t remember more than you do.

One of the earliest thought-leaders I can remember learning from in the educational field is Betsey Haas. Her tag line is “I make the difference.”

Go write that down on an index card and put it in your pocket. Or, better yet, in your shoe. Anywhere you’ll notice it. And remember that whether you know it or not, whether you get feedback on it or not, you make the difference.

Big Kid, Little Kid

October 17th, 2012 by

Here is a recent article I wrote for our after-school center’s newsletter about mixed-age groups:

One of the questions I am asked most frequently about the philosophy at our after-school program is centered around the fact that we allow age groups to mix freely during the day.  Kindergarteners can freely mingle with the 4th and 5th graders, and it’s not uncommon to see a 3rd grader playing with someone either 2 years his/her junior or senior.

Of course, there is a valid concern that younger children are at risk of being bullied by older children in a relationship where there is a “power imbalance”.  This is, of course, a possibility (as it is in any relationship – even into adulthood)… but it is a possibility of which our qualified and caring staff members are aware, and proactively seek to prohibit.  The emotional and social safety of all the children are major pillars of the work we do in our after-school program.

With that in mind, it’s important to look at the major benefits reaped through mixed-age play.  One of the major precepts of our center’s philosophy is that School-Age sites are, in the end, miniature societies, complete with their own unique patterns of relationships, values, and ethics.  Through our emphasis of the Character Counts! pillars of character (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we are creating the kind of social “fabric” in our group that helps pave the way for positive, beneficial relationships between all ages.

According to a study by South Dakota State researcher Marilyn F. Rasmussen, children who are routinely a part of mixed age groups after school consistently experience “positive social interactions…such as cooperation, nurturing, inclusion, and sharing.”   Rasmussen continues to expand on the learning of cooperation:

 

            In a mixed-age group, mutually reinforcing perceptions
come together to produce cooperation. Young children
look to older children to provide leadership, helpfulness
and empathy. Older children perceive younger children as
in need of guidance and help. A collaborative spirit
replaces the competitive tendency frequently found among
same-age mates. Cooperative actions and reactions bring
out a sense of caring in older children, and they typically
accept the responsibility of being a role model.

 

In my 20+ years of working with mixed-age afterschool groups, I have found that older children identify with roles that encourage the growth of responsible behavior; that older kids receive “hands on” experience in being the nurturer, caregiver, resident expert, and “big brother/sister”.  The younger kids benefit by having accessible role models, and learn that older friends can become allies; I’ve also seen that children who develop relationships with older kids are more confident and less susceptible to bullying as they grow.

In the end, a mixed age group more closely represents what children will find outside the gates of the school – in “real life”, if you will – and having experience and comfort in negotiating such situations can build confidence, empathy, and living skills for all involved.

Giving up the Shoulds

June 27th, 2011 by

Yes, I’ve said it again and again.  The key, not just to working with children and youth, but to life, is the art of being present.

This morning, I found out (again) just how hard that is to do in the face of “shoulds”.

You know those shoulds… children “should” act a certain way, co-workers “should” do this and not that, the daily schedule “should” be followed, parents “should” parent their kids this way (and not that)… the list goes on forever.

Fortunately today, I ran across a blog post that says it all… “Don’t Should All Over Yourself“.  Yes, the title of the blog is the “Art of Manliness”, but don’t let that put you off (if the play on words hasn’t already).  This message is for everyone.

How it came about is this: I came to work on the opening shift (6:45 a.m.) running on a touch more than four hours of sleep and two cups of French Roast.  Almost as soon as the doors were swung wide open, in walks one of our “Patience Angels” (so named because it’s a more useful framing of behavior-challenged kids: “God heard you were a patient teacher, so he sent you this patience angel to find out!”).

Almost immediately, he begins touching everything he’s not supposed to, irritating and criticizing the four or other so kids who have also arrived early, finding everything under the (7:00 a.m.) sun that there is about which to tattle, rolling over the back of the couch, sitting on furniture… well… you get the idea.

And I forgot.  I forgot to be present.  I forgot my taoist training to “observe and feel without judgement”.  I forgot to look inward and find something I could give up- nothing new can be created without giving something up.

It was 4:00 p.m. before I realized that what I forgot to give up was the “shoulds”.  How this child “should” behave.  How smooth a day “should” begin.  Only by giving up those “shoulds” can I be present, look deeper, and understand the all-too-human, all-too-insecure boy before me that is seeking attention, approval, and an outlet for his naturally intense behaviors.

And by giving up these “shoulds” (even 9 hours later!), I can finally see the angel that was sent to me.

Restarting the Conversation

August 31st, 2009 by

Over the summer, we let the ball drop.

We have spent the past three (really? has it been three?) years working with the kids in our afterschool program in the context of the Josephson Institute’s CHARACTER COUNTS program.   At times using curriculum from the Instititute, and most of the time crafting our own relatable curriculum around the six pillars (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we’ve spent a fair amount of time engaging the children in the meaning and import of these abstract ideas.cc-bnr-6pillar

Then, for some reason… call it laziness, failure to plan, summer overwhelm, whatever… we stopped talking about the pillars this past summer.  And guess what?  The ideas and behaviors that had become a daily “given” at the site (older kids helping younger, sharing, and a sense of community) simply fell out of existence.

The beautiful thing is, now that the school year is underway, and we’re back to a more normalized (ritualized) schedule, the pillars have once again become part of the conversation.  We opened with our first “Word of the Week” (WOW) and we chose the one word that sums up what it is we’re up to as a group:  COMMUNITY.

Lo, and behold- as if a magic switch were flipped, the kids are back in the swing of things.

Or, I should say, the kids are back in the conversation.

Not a casual, one-on-one conversation, but the conversation.

The conversation is made up of all the hundreds (if not thousands) of smaller daily words, actions, and conversations between the teachers and kids (and the teachers and teachers and the kids and kids as well).

I once took a course that tantalizingly held out the maxim that “the only way to transform an organization, is to raise the level of the conversation.”  When we talk with kids and keep them in THE CONVERSATION, we keep our community in existence.  Instead of looking to find ways to make children “behave”, perhaps we should be looking for ways to raise the conversation.

It’s All About Who You Are Being

December 26th, 2008 by

Really, it all comes down to this.  It is the basis of every workshop I do; it is the basis of how I relate to my own staff; it is the stuff of how I, in my best moments, relate to the kids in my care.

The sum total of your effect in the world comes down to who you are being, moment to moment.

The most powerful thing you can sometimes be is present. 

Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly aware of how much time we, as teachers, as youth workers, as people, are not present to what is happening around us.  Most of the time we are caught inside our own heads, mulling about what just happened or worrying/daydreaming about what is going to happen.  Either way, that prevents us from actually being present to the now, robbing us of the ability to enjoy what is happening and preventing us from being attentive to the needs of the children and staff around us.

In his book, Beginning Mindfulness, author and Zen master Andrew Weiss suggests a technique he calls the “Mindfulness Bell”.  Basically, a bell with a distinct and pleasing sound is rung at various times during the day.  When the bell rings, the agreement is that all within earshot will stop, quiet themselves, and just become present to what is happening in their worlds, both external and internal for a moment.

For the new year I propose a challenge on two levels.  The first level is this: Install a mindfulness bell at your place of work, and enroll the staff that work there in the possibilities of once-a-day mindfulness.  If you can’t enroll them in the idea of being present, then you might try to enroll them in stopping for the bell as just a game.

For those who would like an additional challenge and work in a school or after-school center or program, here is the far greater challenge, with the far greater reward:  not only enroll your staff in playing the mindfulness bell game, but enrolling the children (who have a far less difficult time being present to life) in the mindfulness game.

Good luck, and please let me know how the experience works for you and your workplace.