Category Archives: The Zen of Working With Youth

Giving up the Shoulds

Yes, I’ve said it again and again.  The key, not just to working with children and youth, but to life, is the art of being present.

This morning, I found out (again) just how hard that is to do in the face of “shoulds”.

You know those shoulds… children “should” act a certain way, co-workers “should” do this and not that, the daily schedule “should” be followed, parents “should” parent their kids this way (and not that)… the list goes on forever.

Fortunately today, I ran across a blog post that says it all… “Don’t Should All Over Yourself“.  Yes, the title of the blog is the “Art of Manliness”, but don’t let that put you off (if the play on words hasn’t already).  This message is for everyone.

How it came about is this: I came to work on the opening shift (6:45 a.m.) running on a touch more than four hours of sleep and two cups of French Roast.  Almost as soon as the doors were swung wide open, in walks one of our “Patience Angels” (so named because it’s a more useful framing of behavior-challenged kids: “God heard you were a patient teacher, so he sent you this patience angel to find out!”).

Almost immediately, he begins touching everything he’s not supposed to, irritating and criticizing the four or other so kids who have also arrived early, finding everything under the (7:00 a.m.) sun that there is about which to tattle, rolling over the back of the couch, sitting on furniture… well… you get the idea.

And I forgot.  I forgot to be present.  I forgot my taoist training to “observe and feel without judgement”.  I forgot to look inward and find something I could give upnothing new can be created without giving something up.

It was 4:00 p.m. before I realized that what I forgot to give up was the “shoulds”.  How this child “should” behave.  How smooth a day “should” begin.  Only by giving up those “shoulds” can I be present, look deeper, and understand the all-too-human, all-too-insecure boy before me that is seeking attention, approval, and an outlet for his naturally intense behaviors.

And by giving up these “shoulds” (even 9 hours later!), I can finally see the angel that was sent to me.

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Restarting the Conversation

Over the summer, we let the ball drop.

We have spent the past three (really? has it been three?) years working with the kids in our afterschool program in the context of the Josephson Institute’s CHARACTER COUNTS program.   At times using curriculum from the Instititute, and most of the time crafting our own relatable curriculum around the six pillars (Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship), we’ve spent a fair amount of time engaging the children in the meaning and import of these abstract ideas.cc-bnr-6pillar

Then, for some reason… call it laziness, failure to plan, summer overwhelm, whatever… we stopped talking about the pillars this past summer.  And guess what?  The ideas and behaviors that had become a daily “given” at the site (older kids helping younger, sharing, and a sense of community) simply fell out of existence.

The beautiful thing is, now that the school year is underway, and we’re back to a more normalized (ritualized) schedule, the pillars have once again become part of the conversation.  We opened with our first “Word of the Week” (WOW) and we chose the one word that sums up what it is we’re up to as a group:  COMMUNITY.

Lo, and behold- as if a magic switch were flipped, the kids are back in the swing of things.

Or, I should say, the kids are back in the conversation.

Not a casual, one-on-one conversation, but the conversation.

The conversation is made up of all the hundreds (if not thousands) of smaller daily words, actions, and conversations between the teachers and kids (and the teachers and teachers and the kids and kids as well).

I once took a course that tantalizingly held out the maxim that “the only way to transform an organization, is to raise the level of the conversation.”  When we talk with kids and keep them in THE CONVERSATION, we keep our community in existence.  Instead of looking to find ways to make children “behave”, perhaps we should be looking for ways to raise the conversation.

It’s All About Who You Are Being

Really, it all comes down to this.  It is the basis of every workshop I do; it is the basis of how I relate to my own staff; it is the stuff of how I, in my best moments, relate to the kids in my care.

The sum total of your effect in the world comes down to who you are being, moment to moment.

The most powerful thing you can sometimes be is present. 

Over the past year, I’ve become increasingly aware of how much time we, as teachers, as youth workers, as people, are not present to what is happening around us.  Most of the time we are caught inside our own heads, mulling about what just happened or worrying/daydreaming about what is going to happen.  Either way, that prevents us from actually being present to the now, robbing us of the ability to enjoy what is happening and preventing us from being attentive to the needs of the children and staff around us.

In his book, Beginning Mindfulness, author and Zen master Andrew Weiss suggests a technique he calls the “Mindfulness Bell”.  Basically, a bell with a distinct and pleasing sound is rung at various times during the day.  When the bell rings, the agreement is that all within earshot will stop, quiet themselves, and just become present to what is happening in their worlds, both external and internal for a moment.

For the new year I propose a challenge on two levels.  The first level is this: Install a mindfulness bell at your place of work, and enroll the staff that work there in the possibilities of once-a-day mindfulness.  If you can’t enroll them in the idea of being present, then you might try to enroll them in stopping for the bell as just a game.

For those who would like an additional challenge and work in a school or after-school center or program, here is the far greater challenge, with the far greater reward:  not only enroll your staff in playing the mindfulness bell game, but enrolling the children (who have a far less difficult time being present to life) in the mindfulness game.

Good luck, and please let me know how the experience works for you and your workplace.