Don't get me wrong, this year I'm grateful each time I can say I've successfully completed a day. I'm truly learning the meaning of the phrase "taking it one day at a time" as that's about how far out I can plan my life. The side effects John has to his treatment seem to change from week to week. I never know how he's going to feel the next day and, as an extension, what I'm going to need to do. For example, last week he was dealing with an extremely frustrating and angry looking rash that's the result of a med they've added to his chemo cocktail, so I spent the week applying lotions, cooling packs, etc. This week the rash has somewhat lessened but now his skin is so dry that all 10 of his fingertips have split. The simplest tasks cause them to pull and tear, so I now find myself bandaging his fingers, tying his shoelaces, and buckling his seat belt. We're wondering what next week will bring.
One of my teammates at school asks me every morning how I'm doing. And every day my answer is, "I'm just tired." She finally called me on it one day. "Rachel, you always say you're tired!" To which I replied, "because these days I'm always tired." And I am. I try to keep things as normal as possible at school because that's my mental escape from all of this, but the further we get into this venture the more I'm learning that I can't keep up a wall separating school and life. There are times I've just got to admit that things aren't normal and I can't do everything all of the time. This realization came crashing down on me today when I realized two things: I can't teach and do one-on-one reading assessments back to back all day long without a break and ( I know only teachers who have ever done afternoon carpool at an elementary school will understand) I can't be inside calling numbers, outside making kids wait at their stations instead of wandering, and on the walkie-talkie getting the office to page children who should be at carpool but aren't all at the same time. And so today my emotions all came crashing down.
Fast forward to the moment when I finally arrive at home, thus putting an official end to this day. I could feel the tears welling up as I unlock the front door. Entering the house I drop my backpack by the door and head straight for the guest room (I'll not lie - it's where I've been sleeping these last 2 months while John deals with the various side effects of his treatment). I pause between the that room and the master bedroom long enough to check and make sure John's breathing as he sleeps (because yes, I'm that paranoid lately). He opens his eyes, sees me there, and starts to jump out of the bed.
"Are you ready for dinner?" he asks.
My answer: "I just want to go to bed." And I turn to do so.
He stops me again. "We can get Taco Bell if you want." I know this is him trying to reach out to me. He knows I don't want to think about cooking and is trying to help. But I don't want to get back in the car. I don't want to go anywhere else.
So, fighting back tears I mumble, "I just want to go to bed."
He tries once more. "I'll go get it for you if you want." My sweet husband who hasn't had the energy to leave the house once today is offering to go get me dinner. But all I can do is growl, "I just want to go to bed!"
My mind is spinning. How else do I have to say it? Can you not see that I'm upset? Why are you insisting on talking about a dinner you don't even want to eat because you don't have an appetite? I don't want to talk at all right now, much less about mundane things like dinner, I just want to go to bed!
And so I slid into bed and cried and cried and cried, listening to my husband trying to somehow make things right by unloading the dishwasher. Eventually I fell asleep.
2 hours later I woke up feeling dehydrated, a bit foolish, and a whole lot better. Sometimes you just need the space to have your meltdown and move on. In my attempts not to lose my temper left and right and once again become the stark raving lunatic that my teenage self was I inadvertently end up stuffing my feelings deep down instead of dealing with them face on. This is especially true when I'm trying to maintain my composure at school. Unfortunately, this only ends one of two ways. Either everyone thinks I'm fine and so they keep asking me for help with this that and the other (thus pushing my internal state even further into crazy land) or I become overwhelmed and exhausted and it shows.
This week it definitely shows. I feel angry. all. of. the. time. I'm angry when lessons don't go the way I planned because, let's face it, children are children and our children are struggling to reestablish their routines and procedures after missing 2 and a half days of school due to inclement weather. I'm angry when other adults don't tip toe around me like I think they should. I'm angry when people try to do things that I consider to be my job. I'm angry that I have to do just about everything at home. I'm angry that my husband is so tired that I feel like I never see him. I'm angry that I don't know what to do to recharge my internal batteries. I'm just ANGRY.
But am I? Am I really as angry as I thought I was before I had my meltdown? Or am I masking my true feelings with anger? Am I really sad that my husband has cancer? Am I really scared that, despite what the doctors and nurses are saying, things won't go well and I'll lose him? Am I worried that something, anything is wrong with me and neither one of us will be able to take care of the other? Am I upset that everyone else around me seems to have moved on with life while my world is still flipped upside down? Am I frustrated that people don't seem to understand the struggle that it is just to get out of the bed every morning? Am I anxious because I don't feel like I'm doing my job as well as I'd like to? Do I feel disconnected because I don't have the time I wish I had to spend with friends and family? Am I all of these things?
Now, you know I can't just leave things here without somehow making connections to how we deal with children in their states of upset (and this is how you know I've moved out of my emotional state and into my executive state). So here goes:
When I was upset I wasn't ready to talk or reason with John. As irrational as it may have been, all I was seeking was the release of curling up in bed and crying. Until I'd had that out I couldn't move on to problem-solving what to do about dinner. We all have moments like this. And yet, look at how we treat children when they're in this state. Every day at school I see kids flipping out, having emotional meltdowns because the world isn't going their way. And instead of giving them the space to have that moment, instead of coaching them through identifying their feelings of upset and then dealing with those feelings, we immediately jump into "squash it down" mode. You know what I mean. Really watch and listen and you'll see the following scenarios:
- Child is spinning around in the hallway, whacking her book bag into the wall repeatedly and shrieking. Adult says, "Stop that right now! That's not safe! You're going to hurt someone! You can't just spin like a top in the hallway! What should you do instead? Make a better choice!"
- Something happens in the classroom and you see a look of panic flash across the child's face. He starts yelling. Adult steps right in front of him, whereupon he hits her in his state of panic. The adult then tries to hold the child while talking to the child. "What's going on? What happened? What are you feeling? What do you want? Are you ready to be safe?" The child continues to kick and scream.
- Child is quiet. She slides over to the teacher, gulps, and asks if she can use the Safe Place. Adult either says, "you don't need the Safe Place, go sit down," or says, "every space in my classroom is a Safe Place, go sit down." Child goes to her seat but starts quietly crying and never fully participates in that day's lesson.
Why don't we allow children to have the time and space to process their upset that we so often require ourselves? When we're upset we don't want someone to get in our faces and tell us that we shouldn't be upset, that we need to stop, that we need to make a different choice, etc. When we're upset we want a moment. We've got to learn to give kids that same moment. Let's try this instead:
- Have a designated Safe Place in your room. Make sure you students know this is where they can go when their feelings are out of control (please don't say, "when you're feeling something" because we're always feeling something and this is confusing to children). Teach them ahead of time what to do when they use the Safe Place. Repeat this throughout the year - don't just assume saying it once at the beginning of the year means they got it. As they grow and change their approach to using the Safe Place will grow and change as well.
- Once you've made sure they're safe, give them space. I'm not saying you should just leave them alone and let them wallow in their upset, but do allow them to feel it. If we're not allowed to feel the angst of being upset we don't learn to trust our own feelings.
- Download calm. Depending on the child and your relationship with them you can either sit/stand in front of them so they can see you, beside them so they know you're there but don't have anyone in their face, or (with small children) behind them allowing them to rest against you and feel you breathe/your heartbeat. Take slow, deep breaths. If you feel like you're struggling to maintain your composure take care of yourself first. Think I've got this, keep breathing or something similar. Then calmly say to the child something along the lines of "You're safe. Breathe with me." Depending on the child you may be able to rest the palm of your hand on their back. You'll know your students well enough to trust your instincts.
- There are two ways I know when my students are ready to start talking (or listening): either their breathing starts to sync with mine (remember, I'm taking deep breaths to download calm) or they suddenly make eye contact. Yes, it's a sudden thing. I cannot stress this enough - if they're not making eye contact with you they're still in their state of upset. Please, please, don't try to reason with children when their still upset. It's fruitless and will only frustrate you more. Wait until that eye contact happens.
I can in no way take credit for these ideas. They come directly from the work Dr. Becky Bailey has done in developing Conscious Discipline. I'll also say, they're just a small piece of this wonderful framework that has completely transformed the lives of countless children, teachers and parents. If you want to know more please check out the website, read the main CD book or attend a workshop. You won't regret it.
And please, allow yourself and the children you work with to have the space to be upset when they need it.