Keep hope alive

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” So said Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago, and yet it has taken a very long time for schools to consider student engagement in a serious way.

The school system in my community has just announced that they will partner with the Gallup polling organization to measure hope, engagement and well-being in its students. They are the biggest of many school systems that are measuring well-being and putting social/emotional learning into practice. Taking a more holistic approach to student achievement isn’t just some feel good strategy. Social and emotional wellness has been found to be directly linked to student achievement and long-term success in life. The ability of a student to set goals and work toward them requires that he or she have a sense of hope – the belief that the work will lead to something good – and a feeling of being engaged in the process.

While there seems to be some hesitation on the part of some local politicians to fully embrace the idea – they don’t want to seem “silly” – the science backs it up. A 2011 study showed that students demonstrate academic gains when social emotional learning (SEL) is emphasized in school; and Daniel Goleman cites neuroscience research on how the emotional center of the brain is linked to the areas of the brain involved in cognition and learning.IMG

How do schools nurture hope and increase engagement and well-being? Developing self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills usually figure prominently in SEL goals. Achieving them entails nothing less than changing the climate of the school. SEL activities might include role-playing stressful situations such as bullying, working on anger management and teaching children the language of expressing emotions.

The president of Emotionally Intelligent Schools, Marc Bracket, uses an acronym to describe social/emotional learning: RULER. It stands for “recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating” emotion. Having the words to describe feelings, and being encouraged to express them, is a necessary step to being able to manage emotions better, and the teacher’s role is key in that process. As Daniel Goleman has said, “Teachers need to be comfortable talking about feelings.”

One of the measures on the Gallup survey being used in my district is “There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.” Whether that adult is a parent, a teacher or another mentor, the presence of someone who exhibits concern and empathy for a child is an important backstop for them, and makes it more likely that they will ask for help when they need it.  When I think back on my school years, I remember the teachers who truly cared for me as bright spots in a not-always-happy environment. Those were the teachers I really wanted to please, and I like to believe that I learned more from them than from the teachers who did not inspire me to commit to myself.hope

Holding a positive view of oneself, having a hopeful outlook and being goal-directed are all qualities that relate to resilience – the ability to adapt and bounce back from stress and adversity. Resilience doesn’t mean that you don’t have problems, but it makes you more able to see beyond them – to be happy in spite of them and to take steps to improve your situation

The American Psychological Association says that it’s not success that makes people happy; rather, it is happy people who “work toward goals, find resources they need and attract others with their energy and optimism” who become successful.

In the zone

Comfort zone, time zone, twilight zone, euro zone, green zone, in the zone? As we traverse in and out of various kinds of zones, how can we keep as balanced and true to ourselves as possible?

I just came back from a trip to three different countries in 11 days. While this trip sets no kind of record for whirlwind travel, it still demanded an expenditure of energy in both mind and body to find some kind of equilibrium each day. Stepping into another country takes me to the borders of my comfort zone, at least at first. Then I add crossing time zones, and life definitely takes on a twilight zone feel!

While the body can be helped by following good travel advice like refraining from caffeine and alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and exposing oneself to sunlight every day, how do we handle the mental stress?

I love having new experiences, seeing unfamiliar places, learning new things – but such growth doesn’t happen in my comfort zone. So I had to think about how best to navigate the challenges of meeting a lot of new people, learning my way around strange cities and communicating in places where I don’t speak the language.

On my trip, I happened to be reading Search Inside Yourself, a new book by Chade-Meng Tan about the mindfulness-based emotional intelligence curriculum he started at Google. In the book, Meng describes the emotional competencies that (according to Daniel Goleman) make up self-awareness: emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Meng, who describes himself as a shy person, discussed how he prepared for a speech to a large audience by using these competencies of self-awareness. He made his ego “small enough that my ‘self’ did not matter,” and big enough that he “felt perfectly comfortable speaking alongside” the luminaries at the event. He also kept in mind his strengths and limitations so that he could focus “on adding value where [he] could contribute most.”

I realized that by bringing mindfulness and self-awareness to my experiences on my trip, I was better able to deal with the challenges and turn them into positive events. I’m not the bravest or most out-going person in the world, but by staying present and paying attention to people and situations, I was able to increase my self-confidence and to use my strengths to my advantage. For instance, as a spouse at a dinner with people in an industry in which I do not work, sometimes I might feel inadequate or not “high-powered” enough. But by focusing on my strengths in my own field of stress management, and being mindfully engaged with each person I met, I found that I had plenty to contribute to conversations.

In a similar way, as I navigated streets and neighborhoods, I relied on my strong sense of direction, my curiosity and my desire to see everything to give me the confidence to explore on my own. But I tried to stay emotionally aware so that I would know when I needed a break in the “comfort” zone of my hotel room.

The British writer Lawrence Durrell once said, “Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.” In that spirit, I’m still tapping into Search Inside Yourself at home now. I plan to use some of the book’s tools, such as journaling and body scanning, to build even greater self-awareness. After all, we never know when the next trip outside our comfort zone will happen.