The Science of Kindness
Social-emotional skills are vitally important to the health and well-being of our children, but for decades they’ve been labelled “soft skills” and all but ignored in most classrooms. This despite the fact that any teachers worth their salt will tell you that how a student feels dramatically affects his/her ability to learn.
Happily, neuroscience is finally providing scientific proof that students who are anxious, fearful, hungry or angry are unable to learn well – literally. This is because negative emotions provoke the fright-flight-freeze response in the lower part of the brain, and shutdown higher cognitive functions. But don’t take my word for it, watch this simple, two-minute video explaining how it works by a pioneer in the field of neuroscience, Dr. Daniel Siegel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
The other exciting development in neuroscience has to do with the brain’s plasticity, meaning its ability to change in response to experiences and training. Dr. Richard Davidson (the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison) does a superb job of explaining neuroplasticity in this presentation entitled, “Well-being Is a Skill.” However, it all boils down to four scientific discoveries:
- The Brain Changes and Shapes Itself in Response to Experiences
Even though the brain is malleable and responds to training, most of us are simply reacting to the world around us. It’s important to realize that we can teach and give our children opportunities to practice healthy responses to adversity. A challenge then becomes a chance to learn rather than something to be feared and avoided.
- Genes are Dynamic
How our genes regulate and express themselves is dynamic. Davidson suggests we think of genes as having volume controls. The extent to which a gene’s volume is turned up or down, or even on or off, can be affected by experience.
- Bi-directional Highways Exist Between Body and Mind
The brain and body are interconnected and impact each other. Davidson calls these connections “bi-directional highways,” and the health of one directly affects the health of the other. It should come as no surprise then that people who are physically healthy tend to feel better emotionally and mentally. Likewise, we are discovering that by consciously directing our thoughts and feelings, we can affect our physical health.
- Innate Goodness
Human beings are born innately good. This means that even a six-month old baby, given a choice between a kind, warm hearted experience and one that is aggressive and selfish, will always choose kindness. It is interesting to note that Davidson compares this innate propensity for kindness to our inborn capacity for language. In order for children to develop language they must be immersed in and have plenty of opportunities to practice their language skills. The same is true for empathy, kindness and compassion. Children need to be part of a compassionate community that will nurture and encourage them to practice and strengthen their social-emotional skills to become kind and caring adults.
If you are like me, much of what I just explained seems obvious. It makes sense because it is what “feels” right, and is what we as parents, teachers, mentors and friends have seen and experienced with our own children. The fact that science is finally able to support what we know intuitively is just icing on the cake. However, it is icing that has the potential to make a huge difference in what and how our children are taught.
Those of you who have met me or read one of my books know how passionate I am about this subject. I believe that the health and well-being of the planet and our species depend on raising our kids to be creative, outside the box thinkers. They need to see and appreciate the value of differences, be willing to roll up their sleeves and collaborate, and see mistakes as opportunities to learn. Most important of all they need to get to know their own hearts and minds, to understand that the inevitable kerfuffles and snafus of life are just part of being human. – Jena Ball
To learn more about me and my work visit: http://notperfecthatclub.com
Becoming a character in a book you’ve written is a bit like discovering an alter ego. It starts with how you dress and speak, but quickly becomes another way of seeing and being in the world. At this point, I don’t just change into Ms. Jenaia’s baggy overalls, work boots and floppy green hat, I step into her personality – adopting her outgoing, upbeat attitude and commitment to making the world a better place for canines and kids.
For those who haven’t met her, Ms. Jenaia is one of the main characters in all the CritterKin books. A former teacher turned dog trainer, she makes her living teaching people and their dogs how to communicate. She is a champion of those who are misunderstood or a little bit different, determined to discover what is really going on beneath a dog’s unruly behavior or a child’s unexplained tears. She likes nothing more than a challenge, and works with good-natured tenacity on projects like helping people overcome their fear of pit bulls, finding new homes for abandoned dogs, and teaching teamwork and self-confidence by starting flyball teams. To say that Ms. Jenaia is a character is an understatement, but over time I have discovered that she is the expression of the best and brightest parts of me.
Visiting classrooms as Ms. Jenaia means ignoring all the negative, judgmental voices in my head – the ones with bad breath and raspy smokers’ coughs who tell me I am too loud, too hyper, too silly and worst of all too full of myself to be taken seriously. “What makes you think you’re so special?” a familiar voice whispers as I accept an author reading. “Stop fooling yourself and get a real job.”
Here’s the thing. It’s not that I think I’m special, it’s that I know I am unique. There’s a big difference. Special implies a hierarchy of entitlement. Unique simply acknowledges that I have a piece of our collective puzzle that no one else can provide. If that’s the case, then why waste time comparing, judging, testing and competing? Why not help each person find, develop and apply his/her unique abilities to the world’s problems? Why not teach our children that learning, like life, is an iterative process, and to be fearless in the face of failure? In fact, why call errors, experiments gone awry and unexpected outcomes failures at all? No experience in life is a failure unless we fail to learn and grow from it.
Click Image to Watch Video of Ms, Jenaia Visiting with Kids Around the World
But back to Ms. Jenaia. Each and every time I step into Ms. Jenaia’s personality and clothes for a visit with kids; every time I shout, “helllloooo,” teach them to draw a dog, or ask them to share what makes them wonderfully imperfect , I am committing an act of courage, hope and defiance.
Courage because it takes guts to drop the polite, professional roles we’re taught to adopt in order to be “acceptable,” and dare to be creative, goofy and spontaneous.
Hope because I believe that the solutions to many of the world’s problems lie in our willingness to be more creative, goofy and spontaneous – to get out from behind our podiums to learn with and from our kids.
And defiance because I am daring to question the status quo. My little book, The Not Perfect Hat Club may seem like just a charming, entertaining read, but make no mistake about it. The messages in the book – no one is perfect; your job is not to pass tests, but discover what makes you unique; winning is about more than crossing the finish line first – run counter to what is being taught and experienced in most schools today. Standardized tests and curriculums that require all kids to learn the same things in the same way on the same schedule instill fear and intolerance. In an era when 65% of the jobs our children will hold have not yet been invented, and employers are looking to hire young people who are creative, adaptable, innovative and collaborative, doesn’t this seem a little ridiculous?
Courage, hope and defiance. I think about these words more and more each day – as I pull Ms. Jenaia’s overalls out of the closet to dress for a reading; as I eavesdrop on three frustrated teachers at Starbucks who say they’re so busy testing they don’t have time to teach; and as I put on what I fondly refer to as my “Clark Kent duds” to interview for one of those “real” jobs. I wonder how my prospective employers would react if they knew who they were really interviewing – if I suddenly leapt to my feet, ran to a telephone booth and emerged wearing Ms Jenaia’s signature floppy hat and carrying poop bags. Would they still frown over my resume, call me “dear,” and tell me I’m a little over qualified for the position they have open?
The funny thing is, I’m all but positive something like this is going to happen soon. Not the presto chango thing with the telephone booth, but the discovery of my alter ego and her like-minded counterparts in schools and classrooms around the world. On the surface of things we may look mild-mannered and unassuming. We may speak softly and do our best to cope with the increasing demands on our time, but when it comes to our kids we are fearless. Look for us in staff meetings and at parent-teacher nights, in virtual classrooms, Edcamps and global read alouds. Find and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and professional forums. We’ll be the ones who can’t contain our passion for teaching and new ideas, the ones urging and empowering our kids to leap tall buildings with a single bound, because we believe anything is possible with courage, hope and a little bit of defiance.
Copyright 2016 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.
Every Author’s Dream
This Wednesday, September 23rd I had the good fortune to be invited to share my new book, The Not Perfect Hat Club, with the 600+ students at Pine Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, NC plus an additional 15 classes from five countries around the world.
I read, fielded questions, signed books and had held some Not Perfect Hat Club drawing and discussion sessions with 2nd. 3rd and 4th. graders. The kids knocked my socks off with their honesty, insights and creativity, proving yet again that given the chance they’ll shine.
But the most wonderful moment of all occurred almost 24 hours after my visit. It arrived via Twitter and was posted by the grandmother of the little boy in the picture above. “Mason fell asleep last night with his treasured signed book!” said Amy Riggs. The book he is holding close to his heart is the The Not Perfect Hat Club.
There’s no greater compliment for a writer than the love of a child, and in this case it was doubly sweet because I had met and chatted with Mason during my visit to Pine Valley. It was also a reminder that the message I am sharing in The Not Perfect Hat Club is one that children respond to and need to hear.
I hope you will all read The Not Perfect Hat Club and share its message with your family and friends. Let’s help raise a generation of kids who understand that there is no such thing as perfect, but each and every one of us has something special to share with the world.
Read and excerpt and get a copy here: http://bit.ly/1KEA54Q