Man, a lot happens at recess. Well, probably a lot happens throughout the school day but I'm only there for drop-offs, pick-ups and recess so my view is skewed. But holy moly, it is by far the longest hour and a half I've ever experienced. And it isn't awful, not by any means. I love kids and being around them reminds me of the wonders of the world and how great everything is. Difficulty isn't what makes it seem so long, it's all that happens emotionally!
About a thousand hearts rip up and patch up during that little time span.
I've been continuing my Secret (but not so secret) Agent skills. I find that everywhere I turn there is an opportunity to stretch my empathy wings and though it isn't the norm to use empathy instead of consequences and logic in the school setting, it's certainly been working. What I'm finding is relief all the way around - for teachers as they see an upset child calm quickly and find resolution, for kids as they discover an emotional ally on the playing field, and for me because offering empathy is like giving myself a face massage, I can't help but feel relaxed by it.
(all names have been changed)
Amanda: (crying loudly and largely) "SIDNEY WON'T PLAY MAMA AND BABY WITH ME AND I WANT TO PLAY WITH HER!!!!!!!!!!"
Sidney: "Well... I... changed my mind."
Temptation: The temptation here is to use logic. "Well honey, people change their minds. You change your mind about some things right? It makes sense that someone else would change their mind too right?" The idea is that if we can convince them that it doesn't make sense to be upset then they will cease to be upset. Have you ever experienced someone trying to talk you out of your feelings? It doesn't work.
Empathy response: "Oh darn Amanda. You were really looking forward to playing with Sidney huh? Are you bummed?"
Amanda: "Yes! Because she said she would play and now she's not!"
Me: "Right. You like playing with her so much."
Sidney: "Well I just changed my mind because I started playing this and it's really fun, so then I didn't want to play that other game."
Me: "Right. You got involved in something else and changed your mind."
(This is when that magical thing happens in response to empathy. The line between the two parties dissolves and they are no longer opponents. The adult, by not responding in a further polarizing manner, paves the way for something different to happen.)
Sidney: "I know! Amanda we could play mama and baby while I am still on the swings! That's a great idea!"
I've worked the recess circuit long enough now that I know that when the kids are called to line up Octavia will start missing her mom.
Me: "Octavia they called for us to line up. Get your mittens, it's time! Let's go!"
Octavia: "I can't. I just miss my mama."
She hunkers down, slumped in her coat, legs sprawled in the sand and showing no sign of going anywhere.
Temptation: The temptation here is to repeat myself ("it's time to line up, let's go, everyone is waiting, get your mittens...") and repeat the rules ("when they call out we have to line up, that's how this works). And the official teachers have something they do that involves counting to three. I don't know what happens after three. But what I have noticed is that these things often don't work. Octavia still sits in the sand longer that anyone wants, or Octavia reluctantly gets up and shuffles and groans slowly to line and drops her mittens two thousand times and refuses to hold her partner's hand and a million other irritating acts that slow down the entire process even further.
Empathy response: "Is it that time of day where you miss your mom?"
Me: "Darn it. You just love her so much don't ya. Recess ends and you think of her and then you just feel sad huh?"
Me: "She must be pretty great."
Octavia: "Yes! Her name is Jessica and she's brown-haired!"
While we are talking I am helping Octavia to her feet and she finds her mittens and she gets in line. By this time she is skipping as she tells me all about Jessica and her brown hair and why she's so nice.
At least one day a week after recess the older kids stay in the park and do P.E. There are a couple of younger kids that yearn to be part of this group.
Evie: "Do I get to be in P.E. today????"
Me: "Nope. I don't think so."
Evie: "Why not? I turned five!"
Temptation: The temptation here is to make up some good reasons why she isn't in P.E. (even though I don't really know why) and hope that if she's armed with some reasonable explanation she will no longer be upset.
Empathy response: "I know you turned five. You're all big now, and strong, it seems like you would be a perfect match for P.E. right?"
Evie:"Yeah. I want to do that. I don't want to get in line I want to stay for P.E."
Me: "Right. You definitely aren't in the P.E. group today. But I know you want to be. You really want to be, right? It looks really fun doesn't it."
Evie: "Yeah. I can run like that."
Me: "Yes you can. Bummer, huh?"
It's counter-intuitive, in a sense, to dive into the topic of something that is forbidden to the child. It seems like it would be even torturous to discuss P.E. and how fun it looks, but I find the child receives relief by looking into the topic deeply. Evie and I discussed all the thrilling-looking aspects of P.E. and why she'd be good at those things. Our conversation gave her a place to put her feelings, an outlet for her excitement and disappointment. She got in line, and though bummed to be missing out on an activity, she soon was chattering away excitedly about all of her mad physical skills.
When we make it back to school there is the coatroom chaos of many children taking off many many layers of puffy clothing.
Octavia: "Natalie? Allison pushed me!"
Temptation: The temptation here, of course, is to find the other allegedly offending kid and sort things out.
Empathy response: (I didn't see any pushing because I wasn't looking at the two of them, but luckily I don't have to be watching in order to give empathy for the feelings someone experiences when they believe they have been pushed.) "Oh shoot! You didn't like that feeling huh?"
Octavia: "No! I didn't!"
Then, relieved of her burden, she made her way to her coat hook and got down to the business of undressing. I thought the "incident" was over but when I turned around there was Allison, one little lump of puffiness in her full-body snowsuit, with a grave look on her face.
Allison: "I didn't push Octavia."
Me: "Right. I was helping her with her feelings because she felt like she had been pushed, and that isn't a good feeling. But I was never upset with you. I understand that you didn't push her."
And she lit up with a huge smile, turned and went to her hook.
Can you imagine just how many emotional interactions a child has in a single school day? I can. And I can also imagine that most "behavior problems" are simply emotional responses to those interactions that go unaddressed and pop up later. Of course, these "behavioral problems" are typically handled, in many schools, with consequences that match the behavior, but not as often with empathy that matches the feelings behind the behavior. There just aren't enough teachers, time, or room in the program to be able to offer empathy as much as the teachers might like or as much as the children might need.
Xi's school is pretty awesome and her teachers seem tuned-in to the emotional side of their students' worlds. But it's no wonder that so many kids get home from school and literally meltdown, or blow up, at the slightest upset. After-all they have just spent a minimum of eight hours experiencing challenging emotional interactions with little outlet for their resulting feelings.
Anyway... one step at a time. One little recess heartbreak at a time.