Tending the Soil

Tools for Parents and Educators Navigating Uncertain Times

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Issue 1: Shared Experience

Welcome! This newsletter is intended to be the first in a series that will aim to provide thoughts, tools, and resources for navigating these uncertain times as caretakers of our most precious resource - our kids.

The target audience of this newsletter is educators and parents - not kids. What sense does that make when "it's all about our kids"? Well, because quite simply - it's not. Or at least, if it is - then it can't be. Read on...and let's take care of our kids' needs by exploring how we take care of our own.

Each issue will focus on one or two core concepts, practices, and resources. Some of these will be familiar to you and are worth being reminded of in times like this - others may be less familiar.

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Thoughts: Nurturing the Soil to Nurture the Garden

My wife is a gardener, and she taught me that unless you nurture the soil first you can't expect to sustain a healthy garden. Our kids are that garden - and we are the soil. How can we support our own social-emotional needs as adults so that we can best support the social-emotional needs of our kids? That's what this newsletter is about.

Over the last two weeks, like many of us I've been "finding my sea legs". A massive wave hit our boat, knocked us all out of it, and each of us popped our heads up to find ourselves on our own section of raft. The routine of life on the ship seemed to go down with it. Many of us have literally felt adrift within ourselves and our own homes - a raft that is familiar, in a sea that is not. The tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar can feel surreal, jarring, and unnerving.

Can you relate to this in any way? Have you seen this in your kids? The challenges of these times are not just technical and logistical. They are social and emotional as well. We've been pulled away by mandate from our every day connections with others, and we've been dumped into a sea of uncertainty - something our brains are wired to respond to by fixating on any number of possible scenarios, outcomes, and solutions. Our response to this might range from anxiety (obsessing over all these scenarios) to depression (withdrawing from engagement with any of them). The emotions we feel affect our attention and motivation - two foundational elements for accomplishing any conscious task, not the least of which is learning. This is what I mean when I use the term "social-emotional learning".

Quick Resource: Being Kinder to Yourself

We've all heard the phrase "be kind to yourself" - but we usually aren't taught that self-kindness is a skill that requires deliberate practice. So much is being demanded of us right now, we're all struggling to rise to the occasion in one way or another, and none of us will be perfect in meeting that challenge. Failing to do it all perfectly is endemic to the human experience. We are going to drop balls, we are going to fall short, we are going to let someone down - including ourselves. Below is a simple, time-tested, research-supported practice that has been shown to improve a person's capacity to exercise self-compassion. Check it out...
Being Kinder to Yourself | The Science of Happiness
The Greater Good Science Center is a clearinghouse for the latest and most powerful research in the science of well-being and pro-social behavior. Go to the following link for more about the science and practice of compassion.
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Tool 1: Self-Compassion

Self-Compassion - which is the ability to be present with (to allow a space for) our own suffering, accept it as human (which demands that it must be acceptable), and commit ourselves to doing what's within our control and capacity to care for ourselves (and not more). The actual meaning of "com-passion" is "shared suffering". It is the recognition that we are not alone in the experience of being human. Large-scale crises (9-11 in 2001, the 2008 recession, the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020) are times of immense shared suffering - which often (at least initially) bring out the best in all of us because we are forced to recognize a common vulnerability. In this case, the threat to that vulnerability has no ideology and is for the most part indiscriminate. And yet, it also demands that in a time where we most want to come together we are being asked to stay apart for the greater good. The "shared" part of our suffering is harder to feel when we can't be face-to-face, arm-in-arm with others. And so we can feel more alone and more isolated in our suffering - especially if we're cooped up at home and struggling to juggle work, kids, homeschooling, and our own self-care all under the same roof.

PRO-TIP → Unplug from the news & social media. We can get overwhelmed by everything that is going on outside of us such that we lose the space to focus on what's going on inside of us. I did this shortly after the school closure and it made a world of difference - helping me to focus on what I can control and not on what I can't.

It helps to recognize that we are not alone in our suffering - and that includes our own flaws and imperfections. We can't do it all 100% of the time. We can't. We're not wired to multi-task, to juggle multiple balls of meaning and significance that require our full attention and focus to do well. We need to be forgiving of ourselves when we fail to get it all done - or done well. We need to give ourselves permission NOT to do it all. To say "this much is being asked/expected of me, but this is as much as I can reasonably do". Ironically, this demands that we also learn to be present with others' suffering. Others may be disappointed, upset, hurt, or sad when we fail to fulfill expectations. We can be present with that too, acknowledge that experience as allowable and understandable (whether we agree with it or not), and do only what is within our control to address their suffering (without compounding our own suffering). This is the connection between compassion and self-compassion - you can't practice one without the other, because ultimately it is one practice. Compassion directed inward and compassion directed outward.

PRO-TIP → Connect and share experience with others remotely. Everybody is "Zoom-ing" or "FaceTiming" or "Google Hangout...ing". Are you a parent with kids at home while also trying to work? Connect with other parents. Are you or a spouse struggling with the uncertainty of a job, medical coverage, aging parents or relatives? Try to find someone - even one person - to connect with. Talking about what we're experiencing helps us move through it.

These are the foundational elements of establishing healthy boundaries - the most concrete example of which is establishing and enforcing routine. When we were all asked to "shelter-in-place" - as we will be for some time - our routine was suddenly disrupted. That means the literal boundaries of space (office vs. home, classroom vs. living room) and time (our schedule) dissolved before our eyes. That blurring of boundaries allows priorities to intrude on other priorities, creating a sense of overwhelm and - you guessed it - suffering. So one practical thing we can do for ourselves (and thus model for our kids) is establish and do our best to commit to a new routine, a new schedule, a new set of boundaries that essential give us permission to say "yes" to one thing in this place and this time while saying "no" to other things. Easier said than done, I know...

PRO-TIP → Create a daily schedule and post it. Write it down: 8-9am Breakfast w/Family, 9-10am Zoom Meeting in Office, 10-11am Home School lessons in Living Room, 11-12pm Lunch w/Family, etc.. If you fail to follow it to a "T" - self-compassion! Let it guide you in establishing some semblance of boundaries, control, and certainty on the small scale of your home life.

Coming full circle: I say all this as I write this newsletter sitting under the covers in my bed. At this moment, my spatial boundaries are blurred - I'm working in a place where I am supposed to rest. Engaging my mind in a place where I am supposed to be disengaging my mind. Keeping others out while I work in a space that I'm supposed to share with a loved one. Point is, I'm not perfect at this - neither are you. I have to be forgiving of that imperfection - and committed to focusing on what I can control. In this case, my kids are having a dance party in the family room via FaceTime with other neighborhood kids and this is the only quiet room in the house. We do what we can, and give ourselves permission to do our best because nothing more can be reasonably expected of us. NOTHING MORE CAN BE REASONABLY EXPECTED OF US. As caregivers, we are often the worst perpetrators - setting higher expectations of ourselves than can be reasonably met in part because we are afraid of what will happen if we say "no".

Other Resources: Practicing Self-Compassion

Below are some resources to help you learn how to do this better. Compassion is something that has been studied scientifically, and the videos and articles below reflect that science.
Dr. Kristen Neff is one of the foremost researchers on the power and practice of self-compassion. She is the author of the book "Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself". In the video below, she describes what her research has revealed are the fundamental components of self-compassion.
Kristin Neff: The Three Components of Self-Compassion
Keeth Matheney is a high school educator, trainer, and advocate for social-emotional learning, and he emphasizes the critical importance of "check in BEFORE you dig in". The idea being that BEFORE our kids can be open to learning, we have to take time to acknowledge (and let them acknowledge) the emotional space they are in. Often the acknowledgement alone, the opportunity to say it out loud or hear someone else say it out loud, helps us move through what we're feeling so it's not blocking our access to give attention and motivation to learning.
How to Host a Check In

Closing Thoughts

We are all doing the best we can - and no more can be expected of us. I've spoken with and heard from many different people over the last two weeks - teachers, parents, kids, friends with families (and without). Everyone - everyone - is trying to figure this out. We need to give ourselves permission to be human - to be limited - and do the best we can. I just spoke with my son's daycare provider by video (my son is home right now) and she reminded me that teaching is NOT just a lesson plan, a worksheet, a video, or even a curriculum. It is everything we show our kids how to do - either intentionally or not. Give yourself permission to make a lesson out of the things you know how to do - and to learn how to do certain things better so you can model them better for your kids. That is what this newsletter is all about. See you next time!

Palo Alto High School

Josh Bloom

Teacher on Special Assignment for Social-Emotional Learning

Please feel free to contact me with feedback and requests. Let's help meet each others' needs together!