Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

A Different Kind of School Day: How is My Engine Running?

I realize I have yet to do a blog post outlining what we’re doing in our homeschooling this school year, but we have been plugging along at it 🙂 Yesterday we did something different, though, for part of our school day. I’d had in the back of my mind for a long time – months – that I needed to do a craft with my big kids that I’d seen Karyn Purvis using in one of the TBRI DVDs we’ve watched.

I mentioned in my last post that, since my weekend away in Chicago at the Refresh Conference, we’ve been seeing a good amount of dysregulation here at our house. For those not familiar with the term, I thought that Paris Goodyear-Brown gave a good definition at the conference – she defined dysregulation as “an abnormality or impairment in one’s ability to adjust, organize, or control.”

Academics are important, yes, but I was reminded in a breakout session that Cindy Lee hosted at the conference that 2 of our main goals for our children should be: (1) for them to be able to be who God created them to be; and (2) for them to reach a place of secure attachment (being comfortable in their own skin, being able to give care, being able to receive care, and being able to negotiate their needs). It really needs to be of primary importance for me to help my kids work toward those goals (and of course, work we do in moving toward those goals will also help to provide a firm foundation for academic learning!). And so, yesterday, we devoted several hours to that.

All four of my kiddos and I made “How is my Engine Running?” meters.

  • Blue is for “too slow” – when I’m feeling lethargic, tired, or sad.
  • Green is for “just right” – I feel content and calm; my state of alertness is perfect for the activity I’m doing right now.
  • Yellow is for “speeding up” – when I feel agitated or restless.
  • Red is for “too fast” – I have very big feelings, my lid is totally flipped, and my actions may feel out of control and are probably inappropriate for the situation.

We used a railroad track to demonstrate what it looks like for a train engine to be in each of these states and as a catalyst for discussing what it looks like for us to be in these states.

Then we hung up our meters in the living room in a place in which they would be easily accessible to us throughout our days at home.

(We left a spot for Matt to hang his after he gets a chance to make one, too 🙂 ) 

All of the kids loved running over all afternoon and adjusting their meters. The littles (2 and 4) are still picking up on the idea, but the bigs (age 7) are all over it. They are noticing when their own meters are edging off of “green” and when their siblings’ are – and when mine is beginning to creep toward yellow, as well!

Paying attention to your own emotional state is such a huge part of being able to address it and eventually to self-regulate. I’m particularly interested in helping my kids notice when they are drifting into that “yellow” area – some of my kiddos can seem to go straight from green through the tiniest of tiny yellow slivers, directly to red, and that’s not ideal. Both they and I need to do a better job of noticing when they start to enter into yellow territory, and having these meters has helped us be more cognizant of that.

Karyn Purvis talked a lot about the process of child development and how babies, when they’re born, rely almost entirely on external regulation. They require assistance in meeting all of their basic needs – hunger, temperature control, cleanliness, etc. As children grow, they enter a phase of co-regulation, in which they begin to participate in the process of getting their needs met, but they still require assistance from others, generally parents. And as these children mature even more, they are increasingly able to self-regulate, to meet their own needs and calm themselves. If our kids are having trouble self-regulating, we can help them learn those skills by assisting them with co-regulating.

After we made our “How is my Engine Running” meters, we talked about some strategies for co-regulating and self-regulation. None of these are revolutionary, but they are all strategies that I need to do a better job of practicing when my kids are actually calm so that they are more willing and able to do them when they are dysregulated.

I’ve found that my children are highly resistant to taking a deep breath when they’re really upset. We all know it would help, but they’re so upset they won’t do it. Sometimes, if their lids aren’t completely flipped, if I just start breathing deeply, their bodies will follow, almost unconsciously – but that’s not an entirely frequent occurrence 🙂 But this week something serendipitous happened. Miranda asked if we could buy flowers at Aldi, and they weren’t very expensive, so I said that she could pick out a bouquet of roses. And now? Now when someone is having a hard time, I say, “Would you like to smell my flowers with me?” And the child invariably says yes! Deep breath in; deep breath out. “Smell another flower!” Deep breath in; deep breath out. And…calm.

We also read some of this book.

We talked about what mindfulness is (the book defines it in an accessible-for-kids way as “paying attention to everything right now or as it happens”). And we practiced some of its exercises. We practiced doing the Sharkfin. We practiced mindful breathing. We practiced mindful noticing our feelings. And we practiced doing a body scan.

(Some of us had a bit more of a handle on the recommended posture for the body scan than others!)

We’re working on building our capacities for paying attention to ourselves, our feelings, and our bodies. And we’re working on developing more strategies for helping ourselves get to that “just right” state in which we’d so often like to live.

It was a good day. I’m glad we took the time to make this initial investment of time in growing in these areas, and we’ll continue to nurture these skills as we move forward!

Note: For more information about the ideas behind the “How is my Engine Running?” concepts, feel free to check out this basic info from The Alert Program and/or this information from The Zones of Regulation

Homeschooling: It’s Not All (or Mostly) About Academics

Today’s post is a follow up to yesterday’s post with our mid-year update on our homeschooling year. At least in our house, homeschoooling is not all – or even mostly – about academics. We’ve found that the opportunities to address and build character are plentiful – generally more plentiful than we’d like. More than we want them to learn academics, we want them to grow as people.

This morning was no different. One of my girls needed to do a math lesson. The actual work of the math lesson would take her less than 5 minutes. However, from the time we got started on it until the time it was done, an hour and 15 minutes elapsed. Most of that was taken up with addressing issues of personal growth, in particular emotional growth.

A big thing we’re working on with our girls is emotional development. Specifically, we’d like them to be able to identify and self-report their emotions, and we’d like them to have healthy ways to self-regulate when they are dysregulated – when their more negative emotions are feeling overwhelming. We’ve found that the movie Inside Out is a great tool for us in that endeavor.

Today the daughter with whom I was working on this particular task drew two pictures for me as we were working through this situation. This was the first.

Here, Sadness is in charge of the control panel, and she’s giving a speech. Anger is throwing bricks to build a wall to keep Joy away, even though she is still in the control center. Joy is calling to Sadness to help her, but Sadness wants to listen to Anger, so she is saying, “Joy, stop talking!”

As my child and I talked through the situation, she told me she was ready to draw a new picture, and this is what she drew.

Now Joy has broken down the wall, about which Anger is not happy. Joy is running back to the control panel, telling everyone else, “Get out of my way!” Sadness is letting her take over again.

After that picture, we were ready to have another conversation about tackling her math work. When we’d first started the morning, she’d asked if she could have one minute to play a game of tic-tac-toe with her sister before she did math, and we’d made an agreement that that was fine, but she then needed to start math right away. However, once the game was over, she wanted to cut out their game and glue it onto another paper before doing math, and I’d said she needed to honor her agreement and get started on math, but she could cut it out as soon as she was done. That was what aroused some strong emotions and prompted our opportunity for pursuing some growth.

In our conversation after we had worked through some of those emotions, I told her I realized it was important to her to cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and I wanted to help her get to a place where she could do that. It was important to me, though, that we get started on math, since that was what our agreement had been. Perhaps we could make a compromise, though – she could do half of her math exercise right away, then cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and then finish her math. She countered with a proposal that she do only a quarter of it, but I showed her what the math exercise was and how quickly she’d be able to do it, and she agreed to do a full half.

Then it took less than five minutes for her to do half her math exercise, cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and then finish her math work.

And this mama was exhausted and told the big girls they could have a Wii bowling break before lunch, and we’d do more school after lunch!