Good Enough

Good Enough

A few weeks ago, I got the email. It was from the state of Texas and it was notifying me that STAAR scores were available for 2 of my kiddos. I knew it would be coming because I had seen several social media posts of parents applauding their own children for how well they had done:

“Only missed 1 question!”
“Perfect Score!”
“Mastery Level Scores!”

However, statistically, those students were the exception, not the rule. No one was posting about their child who scored in the “Did Not Meet Grade Level” or “Approaching Grade Level” categories.

We live in a world that quantifies and ranks. Our students are no exception. They have GPAs, Class Rank, ACT/SAT scores, STAAR, band chairs, athletic depth charts, and more. Even my elementary aged kids can tell you their reading level or Lexile level. They can tell you how many students in their class did not pass STAAR last year. They announce a valedictorian at my daughter’s middle school at the end of 8th grade. The list goes on and on.

I was sitting in Karate with my youngest a few weeks ago. As he has moved up belt levels, it has become more challenging for him. He isn’t even in first grade yet, but here is yet another ranking system to compare everyone. He is frustrated and disheartened.

In the middle of the class a few weeks ago, his instructor stopped and had everyone sit down. He turned to the long string of parents watching along the walls and threw out this line:

“Better is always good enough.”

Again:

“Better is always good enough.”

Twice. Because maybe we didn’t hear him the first time.

Such poignant words I needed to hear. I am naturally bent toward perfectionism – just ask my husband. I push myself hard and want to be at the top if there is a ranking to be had. But for many, that ranking system only reinforces that they are not good enough. That they did not pass or make all A’s or make the first string. Students (and adults) feel they could never possibly achieve enough and at some point, they quit trying. In karate, it looks like a child earning a stripe for a skill they haven’t mastered yet but have worked really hard on for the past few weeks and are improving on.

Let’s take that to a different level – Many of the students we encounter everyday have faced very real struggles or trauma in life. There will probably never be a top rank in any traditional system for many of them. But what if we, as a group, shouted from the rooftops that better is always good enough. What if we adjusted our expectations to reflect that philosophy?

Today, she actually tried and did her best on the math test and brought home a 60 – but she actually tried. Better is always good enough.

Today, he apologized after disobeying everything you said. Better is always good enough.

Today, she yelled at another student, but she didn’t get into a physical altercation with them – better is always good enough.

Today, he asked for help instead of just quitting – better is always good enough.

Too often we want our children and the students we work with to be the best. To reach the stars. To be the top. But sometimes, in reaching for the stars, we miss the small victories. The victories we need to applaud in order to keep the students in our lives more motivated and trying. We need to acknowledge that what is a victory for one student would not even be on the radar for another student. That a victory might not be a win by everyone else’s standards.

But to be successful in helping our students, our children, our peers we need to have a moment for Better Is Always Good Enough.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

In my Teen Life Support Group last semester, I had a student who seemingly did not want to be there. She refused to talk. She crossed her arms. She kept her head down. After the first week, we talked to her and said that she didn’t have to talk but needed to participate as a member of the group. She reluctantly did the activities, but still never spoke a word.

A few weeks later, another student asked about my family. I explained that my parents live in Alabama, and I don’t see them very often because of the distance. Immediately, my standoffish student spoke. “Wait, you’re from Alabama? Me too.” In that moment, we had created a connection.

Connection. It sounds so easy, right? But how often do we strive to achieve it and come up short? Sometimes, finding a commonality is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days I wonder if I have anything at all in common with the teens I’m with. Some days I wonder if they even want to connect with me at all.

In their book, The Connected Child, Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine walk through a series of connecting principals to help us as parents, teachers, youth ministers, or friends of young people who are struggling and yet seem to reject our help. In order to connect, we have to engage with students. Here are five of their strategies:

 

  1. Behavioral Matching: Reflect your student’s behavior or physical position. This increases their ability to feel safe. It’s less complicated than it seems. When my daughter wants to talk at night, I lay down next her instead of standing over her.  If my smaller child wants to play with cars on the floor, I sit on the floor as well. Find the natural comfort behavior for your teen and match it without even mentioning it.

 

  1. Playful Engagement: Be playful in your conversations. We adults often want to get to the point, address the problem, and fix it. But they often need us to break the ice. We do that by showing that we can have fun. When my teen doesn’t want to do something they deem embarrassing, I do it first. If they are frustrated, say “Whoa? I didn’t know you were the boss!” Let them know they are safe even in disagreements. You can have a deeper conversation once there is more connection.

 

  1. Create Eye ContactWe live in a world where students don’t look at each other. They look at screens. But the eyes are powerful.  Look your students in the eyes and they will know they are cared for. As parents, how often do we yell down the hall or up the stairs. How would things change if we spent more time looking in our teenagers’ eyes?

 

  1. Share Healthy Touch: Give a hug. Pat them on the back. Hold their hand. Play with their hair. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask permission. Students often want to know you care, and you don’t have to use words to show up.

 

  1. Be aware of your tone of voiceAre you loud? Are you frustrated? Are you talking quickly or slowly? Do you even know? You can start and end a conversation just by using your tone. You also can be authoritative without being demeaning or unkind.

 

Connecting through engagement is hard, but as Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.”

My student from Alabama? After she learned we were from the same place, everything shifted. That tiny connection was all it took to help make our group safe for her. She was able to talk through some significant things happening at her home all because of connection.  

A week after group ended, the interventionist stopped me in the hall.  She raved about how this girl was totally different than she was 8 weeks before. What a powerful lesson about the potential power that can be unleashed with just a little connection!

 

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

ACEs

ACEs

ACE –

Does that mean anything to you? For some it might conjure up the lyrics of an old George Straight song that says, “You’ve got to have an ace in the hole.” For others it brings images of poker games and winning hands. For others, names of all-star professional baseball pitchers. For others, the experience of serving in tennis and never getting a volley back. Maybe for you, it’s the terminology for someone who is always seemingly ahead – “He’s holding all the aces.”

But how many of you saw ACE and thought about difficult childhood experiences? I’m guessing not very many of you. This past week I had the opportunity to sit in a training which discussed trauma informed care. As part of that discussion, the ACEs were mentioned.

So, what are the ACEs?

ACEs in this context stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. These are experiences that occur before the age of 18 that have a dramatic impact on how we live, function, and make decisions as an adult. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study began in the mid-1990s and continued through 2015 and has consistently shown the impact of childhood experiences on adult functioning. Let’s take a minute to look at what was studied and the major findings.

The ACE Study looked at the occurrence of 10 major childhood experiences, which are typically divided into 3 main categories.

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

 

What It Said 

According to the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common. So common that almost 2/3 of participants reported at least one ACE, and more than 20% reported three or more ACEs. – Pause for a minute – that is statistically the majority of people that you meet every day. That is 1 in 5 who have had multiple significant experiences – most of which we don’t like to talk about.

So what does that mean? Per the CDC, as the number of ACEs increases, so does likelihood of the risk for the following:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Depression
  • Health-related quality of life
  • Illicit drug use
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Poor work performance
  • Financial stress
  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Early initiation of smoking
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Risk for sexual violence
  • Poor academic achievement

 

It covers it all – health problems, increased risky behaviors and a decreased life potential. It also leads to an increase likelihood of premature death.

Look at the list above again and let’s talk about students – especially high school students. Often, we as parents, youth workers, teachers, and Teen Life Facilitators spend a great deal of time talking about poor grades, teenage pregnancy, suicide attempts, self-injury behaviors, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol use/abuse. But do we stop to take the time to think about what experiences might have contributed to these decisions? When we are feeling frustrated, do we see the behavior as defiance or a coping skill?

So now that we know what the ACEs are and what the research shows, what in the world do we do?

Build relationships.

According to Dr. Karyn Purvis, “The child with a history of loss, trauma, or abuse has no hope of healing without a nurturing relationship.” The presence of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships can greatly increase resiliency among children and youth who have experienced multiple ACEs.

Are you willing to look past the hard choices, to look past the mistakes, in order to see the experiences that have impacted the students in our lives? And when you do, are you willing to stick it out to connect and empower youth to overcome?

 

***For More Information about The CDC ACE Study can be found here and here. More information about the ACEs in general can be found here. More information about Dr. Karyn Purvis and her Trust Based Relational Intervention can be found here.

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Director. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.
Can I Say That Here?

Can I Say That Here?

I was recently leading a support group with 7th grade students. During one of our introduction activities, a girl started to share — and then paused.  She thought for a moment, and then said, “My answer is from The Bible.  Can I talk about that here?”

This is the constant question of students around us – students who live in an unsafe world – Is it okay to say what I feel here? Or the deeper version – Is this a safe place?

I opened it up to the group, and the consensus from the seven other students in the room was that she could share and not be picked on or made fun of in our circle, despite many of the others in the room having vastly different beliefs.

Seventh graders don’t typically ask if a group is safe unless they have spent time in spaces that aren’t.

Whether its mean girls, cyberbullying, or slut shaming; whether in families, in homes, or in social media fights about politics – our students are all too exposed.  They need safe spaces.

A safe space, by definition, is a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.

We can help create legitimately safe spaces with our students by implementing a few simple ideas:

  1. Set Norms. In all of our groups, our students walk through a process to set norms, or behavioral expectations, before ever being asked to open up and share. Norms provide member led guidelines for what behavior and attitudes are appropriate for the space. It’s the same at home – one of our norms is “you can say whatever you want as long as you say it with respect.”
  2. Don’t Assume. It’s easy to group people together, or to make assumptions about how someone is feeling. It’s much harder to ask clarifying questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “I heard you saying _____. Is that correct?”
  3. Listen more than you talk. Students (and adults) do not want to share when no one is listening or when they feel like they are competing with someone or something else.
  4. Be shock proof. In order for a space to be safe, students need to be able to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. If they think you can’t handle it, they won’t share.

 

In a world of constant exposure to the threat of “fails” going viral or intimate details being shared publicly, our kids need safe spaces.   More than ever, they need a place away from the videos, the snaps, and the cloud-connected threats of exposure.

They desperately need safe places. You can create those. And you can make the difference. Help make that space for others.

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Manager. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.
Markers

Markers

I was recently in Oklahoma City to train a group of youth ministers.  With some extra time, I made a stop at the Murrah Federal Building Bombing Memorial and Museum. What caught my eye more than anything else were the two gates erected at either end of the memorial. The first reads 9:01, the minute before the bomb exploded. The second reads 9:03. The explanation marker says it was designed to represent all of the time before the explosion and then the moment healing begins.

Pause for a minute and let it sink in – a gate dedicated to the moment healing began.

Scripture tells about the Israelites erecting stones to remember the crossing of the Jordan. Therapists create memory boxes with clients experiencing grief. People have sentimental key rings or stuffed animals or pieces of jewelry, such as wedding rings, to commemorate major life events.

We call these markers.

Tragic events themselves become markers of pain and loss, forever etched in our memory.  For those of us old enough, we remember exactly what we were doing September 11, 2001.  But for those of us who insist life won’t end in tragedy, it becomes imperative to plant the stones that claim healing.

The impact of a conversation that creates a turn. The tears that finally come when we are allowed to feel our true feelings. The first kind word in a long time. Finally finding a safe space.

What markers will we plant when we decide that our loss will not have the last word?

Unfortunately, creating markers does not always come naturally for me. It was not something I was taught when growing up and have had to learn to navigate on my own. And I have found that, without markers, it is easy to forget.

And yet, despite missing some, the markers I have deeply matter. They remind me of shifts in my life that dramatically changed me. From my wedding day, to the day my girls were adopted, to the people who prayed over me and my child after we heard the doctor say the word “epilepsy.” They are days of change, but more importantly, they are times when healing began.

What are the 9:03 gates in your life? The moment healing began after life took an unexpected turn? Are you pointing out to others the events that may be markers for them when you see it? Are you teaching your children and the youth you interact with to erect markers that help them remember?

Because sometimes children, youth and adults alike all need to know and remember the exact time healing began.

Beth Nichols is Teen Life’s Program Manager. With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, her perspective is invaluable.