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 ūüôā 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 ūüôā )¬†

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 ūüôā 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.¬†

a great parenting resource: No-Drama Discipline

Several years ago, as Miranda was growing out of the baby stage and as Matt and I began preparing to embark on our journey to become adoptive parents, we started reading and researching more about parenting. Interestingly enough, it was the resources aimed specifically toward helping adoptive parents raise their children that we found most compelling. Those books rely heavily on the latest research about child development, neuroscience, and the ways in which children learn, particularly with regards to the skills necessary for the ability to develop successful relationships.

One of the tenets of the philosophy we have embraced is that the purpose of disciplining children is to teach them – not to punish them – and within that context, nurturing our relationships with our kiddos is of paramount importance. I just finished¬†reading No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, a book that subscribes to that same philosophy, and¬†I found it to be an incredibly encouraging read with a number of examples that offered timely application¬†for our family.

Siegel and Bryson describe how many of us default to punitive discipline¬†strategies that our children experience as pain or rejection, and they discuss the ways in which our children’s brains respond to those disciplinary strategies – primarily by shutting down their higher brain functions (which are the areas that enable them to learn) and instead staying locked into more primitive, reactive areas of the brain. However, we as parents can instead choose strategies that focus on setting healthy boundaries while also respecting and nurturing our children.

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Our children’s brains are still developing, so, as we give them practice using their higher brain functions, they’re¬†learning the very process of how to use those functions¬†and even structurally building their brain in a way that predisposes them to be able to calm themselves, exercise self-control,¬†think rationally, and have empathy in the future. Hebb’s axiom tells us that “neurons that fire together wire together” – in essence, as neurons respond together to various experiences, the connections between those neurons grow, making it easier for them to respond together in the future (p 42-43). When our kids experience a problem, we can train them to calm down and be thoughtful about potential solutions, and then their brains will be wired in such a way to encourage them to default to those modes in the future.

If we focus on connecting with our children¬†and making sure that they – and we – are in a good place to address any issues that arise, we’ll be cultivating our relationships with our children and¬†we’ll be¬†much more effective in teaching them. I remember it feeling like a revelation to me when, during one of the CCEF courses I took, the instructor discussed the ideal that the driving force behind our approaching anyone about an issue we see with their behavior should be¬†their¬†good – it shouldn’t be about getting something off your own chest or making you feel better, but about whether it’s actually in that person’s best interest for you to discuss the issue with them. It’s interesting to me that many of us who are Christians embrace that idea when it comes to our interactions with other adults but feel perfectly comfortable expressing immediate frustration or displeasure with our children. I want to be treating my children with at least as much care as I treat the adults in my world, though.

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Of course, children are not adults and need to be treated appropriately. No Drama Discipline encourages us as parents to “chase the why.” Behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum but¬†is the outflow of what exists inside of a person, in their heart. Our children may not be able to express to us why they’re acting in a particular way, but¬†we need to dig deeper and seek to understand the reason for the child’s behavior, because if we address only the behavior, we’re going to miss out on anything deeper going on with our children at the heart level.

And children need their parents to establish and maintain consistent structure. Our end goal, though, should not be to obtain mere obedience. We want to help our children gain insight into themselves, grow in their ability to be empathetic and thoughtful, and develop the capacity to participate in healthy relationships. In this book, Siegel and Bryson offer numerous strategies (and examples) to help parents do just that.

Matt and I are finding it both encouraging and transformative.

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The other day, one of my girls was getting out a plethora of art supplies to work on a project, and she carelessly knocked¬†my beloved water bottle onto the floor (twice), thereby breaking its straw. I ignored my immediate impulse, which was to yell at her and perhaps impose some arbitrary restriction on the art supplies, and instead I just asked her to pick it up. Later, when both of us were calmer, I asked her to come talk with me, and I showed her where it was broken. She offered to fix it for me and immediately attempted (unsuccessfully) to repair it. When I told her I was sad that she’d broken it and I couldn’t use it, she offered a genuine apology and went to her cabinet to get me a cup of hers that I could use until my straw could be fixed or replaced. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that smoothly – but I’m confident that I wouldn’t have gotten a heartfelt apology or creative attempts to repair the situation if I’d yelled at her and tried to force her to say she was sorry in the moment.

I’m hopeful that Matt and I will be able to live out, more and more, parenting strategies that build relationship with our kids and encourage thoughtfulness and¬†growth in them. And I’d definitely recommend the book No Drama Discipline to any other parents out there!