Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Every Day For Our Teens

After each MGBL or Yavneh Youth League game, my kids know that I am going to whisper in their ears, “Go say, ‘Thank you,’ to the Coach.”  They then walk over sheepishly and say, “Thank you.”  And, when I pick up carpool and bump into my child’s teacher I say to my son, “Say, ‘Thank you’ to the Morah.”   And, each Shabbat morning, when we cross the street at the crossing guard, I again say to my children under my breath, “Say, ‘Thank you’.”   And, of course, I am still one of those old-fashioned moms who makes her children write hand-written thank you notes. 

We know that being thankful  or having gratitude is “menschlach,” but research from Dr. Jeffery Froh and Dr. Giacomo Bono indicates that children who are taught to have gratitude have improved mood, mental health, life satisfaction- all especially during adolescence when their identity is taking shape.  Teens who have high levels of gratitude  have less negative emotions and depression, and more positive emotions and happiness four years later.  Feeling grateful also motivates teens to help others. 

There are ways that educators and parents can teach gratitude. Gratitude is a skill that can be fostered and strengthened.  One primary way is through Gratitude Journals.  In one study, by Dr. Froh and Dr. Bono, middle school students were asked to list five things for which they were grateful.  The other group were writing about things that were bothering them or basic daily events.  The ones with the gratitude journals felt more optimistic and even felt healthier physically.  They also reported being happier with their school experience.

Another technique is what Froh and Bono call a “gratitude visit” where students write a letter to someone to whom they are grateful whom they never properly thanked. This letter is read in person to the benefactor.   

Froh and Bono also taught the following skills to their students:
a.       Notice intentions- Don’t only notice what they did for you, but the thoughts behind the act, i.e. the times when someone noticed what you needed, remembered something you liked…
b.      Appreciate costs- Realize the time and effort that was needed to do something for you.   What did the person sacrifice to help you?
c.       Recognize the value of benefits- When others help us, it is a “gift.”

Aside from the above benefits to the children, gratitude in schools particularly, spreads to the teachers, staff and brings people together.  It creates connections between teachers and students.  That is why a “thank you” to “Morah” is always wonderful.  Children being grateful to their teachers is good for everyone all around- the children, the teachers and the school at large.  

After yesterday’s parent-teacher conferences and with the holiday of Thanksgiving approaching, I gave some thought to the gratitude that we as parents owe the teachers’ of our children. As a parent, I make sure to thank my children’s teachers for all they have done for my children, and all the hours they put into preparing for class. I may not always see eye to eye with each one of them, but I know the hours upon hours they put into their work, and the thought they put into my child’s progress. If my child comes home with a wonderful  Dvar Torah or an incredible piece of knowledge, I try to send a quick e-mail to the teacher thanking him/her.  When I think about it, I know that my parents used to do the same. I still recall a letter that my parents wrote to my high school after one Pesach, thanking them for all the knowledge we shared at the seder. That letter was hung at the school Open House for many years.  I definitely make it a point to have my children- even middle school ones who are “departmentalized”- write a  personal thank you note to each teacher at the end of the year.

How about gratitude that teachers owe parents? As a teacher, I thank the parents of my students for partnering with me, and for assisting the students at home when needed.  I thank them for communicating with me about issues or concerns they might have, or simply giving me a “heads up” that their child is having a bad day, and letting me know how I can help.   I thank them for not rushing to panic when their child comes home upset about something that happened in class, and rather reach out to me to see what can be done.  I also thank them for reinforcing a love for learning, and a serious attitude about respect and Kavod for fellow students and their teachers.

And, then there’s the gratitude that we as parents and teachers owe our children.  We need to be grateful for the days that they aren’t too challenging and make our jobs easy. But, we also have to thank them for the way they do challenge us to be better at our jobs- as parents or teachers.  And, of course, we thank them for the Nachat they give us, and the pride we feel when they internalize that which we taught them- even if they, as teenagers, will never give us the satisfaction of saying, “Thank you.”

Advisory Update:
6th Grade- Finished their organization unit by focusing on organizing backpacks, lockers and the workspace at home.
7th  Grade- Students focused on the concept of Resiliency and what skills are needed to achieve resiliency.

8th Grade- Eighth graders discussed some test taking tips.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Fear Of Failure In Our Children

Let's start this week's column with a little quiz that we give our seventh graders in Advisory.
Below you will read statements about real people. As you read each one, I want you to guess whether that person was a success (write “S” on the line) or failure (write “F”).
1. ____ Politician: Ran for political office seven times and was defeated each time.
2.____ Cartoonist: All he wanted to do was to sketch cartoons. He applied with a Kansas City newspaper. The editor said, "It’s easy to see from these sketches that you have no talent." No studio would give him a job. He ended up doing publicity work for a church in an old, dilapidated garage.
3. ____ Writer: His first children’s book was rejected by 23 publishers.
4. ____ Inventor: In the first year of marketing his new soft drink, he sold only 400 bottles.
5. ____ Actor: He went to Hollywood as an 18 year old, and after a couple of parts was unemployed for two years. As he ran out of money, he sold off his sectional couch, one section at a time, and lived on macaroni. He had no phone. His office was a phone booth at Pioneer Chicken.
6.____ Athlete: As a baseball player, he struck out more than any player in the history of baseball: 1,330 times.
7.____ Politician: Flunked the sixth grade. As a sixteen-year-old in Paris, a teacher had written on his report card, "Shows a conspicuous lack of success." He wished to become a military leader, or a great statesman. As a student, he failed three times in his exams to enter the British Military Academy.
8.____ Athlete: As a high school student, he felt so unpopular with the girls that he thought he might never be able to find a wife. That's why he took a cooking class.

Answer Key
  1. Abraham Lincoln. He was defeated for legislature, defeated for speaker, defeated for nomination to Congress, defeated for Senate, defeated for nomination to Vice Presidency, defeated again for Senate. Yet he didn't give up and became the sixteenth President of the United States.
  2. Walt Disney. The old garage he worked in was in such bad shape that it had mice. One day, he sketched one of those mice. The mouse one day became famous as "Mickey Mouse."
  3. Dr. Seuss. The 24th publisher sold six million copies.
  4. Coca Cola.
  5. Michael J. Fox.
  6. Babe Ruth. He held the strike-out record and also held, for many years, the home run record.
  7. Winston Churchill. He stubbornly refused to accept defeat and became one of the greatest men of the 20th Century. Though he was rejected many times by the voters of Great Britain, he finally became the Prime Minister.
  8. Michael Jordan. He was also cut from the Varsity team his sophomore year? The cut may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Angry and embarrassed, he began to get up early each morning to practice with the Junior Varsity coach. Eventually he not only made the Varsity team, but became the most popular athlete in the world.
Many of us, if confronted with the above failures, would have simply given up. Why are some people able to fail and then pick themselves up and persist while others crumble? In Advisory, we focus with the students on the skills needed for resiliency and facing difficulties in life to answer that question.
In our Faculty Inservice a few weeks ago, we began the day by watching a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on the topic of creativity and education. (If you are interested in seeing the talk see Sir Robinson speaks of the importance of being willing to fail, and that most of our children are afraid to fail. “When they are young they are not frightened of being wrong. If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original.” In our society, we stigmatize mistakes, so children are fearful of failure.
Psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset- The New Psychology of Success, speaks of two mindsets – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. She begins her book with the story of a research study she did on how people respond to failure. Children were given a series of puzzles to do. Some children when confronted by challenge said things like, “I love a challenge!” as if they loved failure. These children “knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort...Not only weren't they discouraged by failure, they didn't even think they were failing. They thought they were learning.” These children had a “growth mindset.”
On the other hand, those with the “fixed mindset” think that human quailities are “carved in stone. You were smart or you weren't, and failure meant you weren't...If you could arrange successes and avoid failure (at all costs), you could stay smart. Struggles, mistakes, perseverance were just not part of this picture.”
To put in the laguage of a student, if you get a C on a paper, a person with a fixed mindset would say, “I feel like a reject. I'm so stupid. Why does everything always happen to me? It's unfair.” How would the fixed mindset person cope? “I wouldn't bother to put so much time and effort to do well in anything.” “Stay in bed.” “Eat chocolate.”
Someone with a growth mindset might say, “The C would tell me that I have to work a lot harder in the class, but I have the rest of the sememster to pull up my grade.” How would he/she cope? “I'd look at what was wrong on my exam, resolve to do better.” “I will speak to the teacher.”
These mindsets, says Dweck, change the meaning of failure. In a fixed mindset, failure “has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure).” So, the wonderful speller in class will be fearful of entering the spelling bee. Now I am a success. Why should I risk becoming a failure?
Dr. Dweck speaks of a study she did with seventh graders, and her results were so familiar to me, as I have experienced the same with many students. Students were asked how they would respond to academic failure. As above, those with the growth mindset said they would study harder. But, those with the fixed mindset would study less for the next test. “If I don't have the ability- why waste my time?” And, those students said they would seriously consider cheating. Additionally, instead of working to repear their failures, they try to repair their self-esteem by looking to hang out with people who are doing even worse than they are. In another study, college students who did poorly on a test were given the opportunity to look at the tests of other students. Those with the growth mindset chose to look at tests of those who did better. Those with the fixed mindset wanted to see tests of those who did even more poorly than they did, so they could feel better about themselves. People with fixed mindsets also attempt to repair their self-esteems by blaming others or making excuses.
Generally speaking, Dweck found that people with fixed mindsets had higher levels of depression, and did less to improve their situations. There were some with growth mindsets with depression as well, but the more depressed they were, the more they took action to confront their problems.
Our job as parents and educators is to raise children who “believe... their failures may still hurt, but failures don't define them.” From a young age, we encourage them to take risks by letting them know that it is okay to fail, and no matter what you will always be proud of them. Dweck stresses the importance of not praising their intelligence or talent, (a topic of a previous column!). She also speaks about how to encourage them after failure. Instead of telling them, “You're still the best and the other team didn't deserve to win,” say, “I know it's disappointing to lose, and you've worked so hard all season, but your team needs to practice their foul shots...” Sympathize, but also help him see what it takes to succeed in the future.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.
The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Advisory Update
Sixth Grade- They focused on organizational skills as they learned the P.A.C.K. Method to organizing their bookbags and lockers.

Seventh Grade- The boys engaged in a lesson about Foul Language and the girls focused on the power and danger of Gossip. This past Thursday Rabbi Yitzy Haber spoke to the entire grade to launch our next unit in Advisory “When Life Gives You Lemons- Coping With Adversity In Life” as he shared his life story of adversity and his way of coping with humor.

Eighth Grade- Students practiced interview skills and tips as they prepare for their high school interviews and for making a good impression in life in general.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lech Lecha- See It, Say It, Do It

"Challenge by choice" and "Step outside of your comfort zone"- these are some of the themes our 7th graders lived the past few days at our Frost Valley retreat.   Each year the students leave mostly excited, yet with some worries. These "worries" may be about the physical activities, (all students choose the activity level with which they are comfortable, but some still worry), or social interactions (Will I like my room? Will I feel included?).  For some it is their first time away from home, and for some the first time not being in contact with their parents for a length of time.  Some of these concerns stem from hesitations of facing the unknown.  After the three days, all students return elated and proud of the "worries" they overcame on this trip.

As our children enter middle school, and embark on their journey towards adulthood,  they will have to face many worries and fears without us there to help.  What are some techniques that we as parents can teach them to help them overcome anxieties and fears?

In this week's Parasha, Hashem turns to Avraham and challenges him to step out of his comfort zone and go on his own journey by commanding "Lech lecha martzecha, umimoladetecha and umibeit avicha el haaretz asher arekah" "Leave your land, your birthplace and the house of your father to the land which I will show you."  It is as if Hashem is stressing with Avraham how hard it will be for him to leave that which is familiar to him and choose to challenge himself with the unknown.  How does Avraham overcome those fears?

As parents, when our children are faced with anxiety is it hard for us to resist the temptation to become "heroes" and save them from their fears.  (Assuming their fears are "normal" parts of adolescence and do not overly impact their daily living).   At some point we need to say, "This is part of life, and YOU need to go through this."  Hashem said to Avraham, "Lech lecha" - go for you.  Even though as parents it is painful for us to let go and allow you to experience life's challenges, it is good for you. It is for your self-development.

Hashem is sending him to a land that He will "show him." Even though Avraham never physically saw the Land, Hashem will help him visualize it.

And, in fact, later in the parasha, Hashem turns to Avraham and says, "Al tirah Avraham"  "Do not be afraid, Avraham."  After Avraham's answer that he does not have children, Hashem responds in 15:5,
"And He brought him outside, and said: 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, are you able to count them'; and He said to him: 'So shall your seed (children) be.'"  Again, when dealing with Avraham's fears, Hashem shows him something and helps him visualize his progeny, even though they do not yet physically exist.

I took some poetic license above, and highlighted the use of the technique of visualization in dealing with Avraham's anxieties and fears.  Research indicates that the technique of visualization is effective in reducing anxiety and even in achieving success.

On a most basic level, we know that athletes often use the technique of visualization to envision the actual swing, or shooting the basket, which often leads to success.  Their actual skill improves by "mental rehearsal." While in a Russian prison, Natan Sharansky played mental chess for nine years. Then, in 1996 he won a game against world champion chess player Garry Kasparov.

"A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting.  In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone. For instance, in his study on everyday people, Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, compared 'people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads.'  He found that a 30% muscle increase in the group who went to the gym. However, the group of participants who conducted mental exercises of the weight training increased muscle strength by almost half as much (13.5%). This average remained for 3 months following the mental training."

This research would carry over to any fearful situation or a skill or task at which one wishes to improve.  Your child is fearful of swimming? Have him imagine, visualize or mentally rehearse walking to the pool, approaching the edge etc.  Visualization has been found to enhance motivation, increase confidence and improve performance.

How does one visualize? Set a goal and imagine the future as if you have achieved your goal.  You then create a mental picture of it as if it is happening right now.  Attempt to imagine as many details as possible, and you need feel as it is happening.

Here are some steps, according to Cathy Puet Miller:

1. Internalization: See your goal in your mind's eye
2. Externalization: Imagine the situation when you've attained your goal- this time with your eyes open
3. Forecasting: This requires expanding on externalization. Play out a whole scenario in your mind. See how people behave towards you. What else is happening?
4. Emotionalization: Focus on all of the positive emotions you will have when you achieve your goal.
5. Verbalization: Picture your goals and the scenario you painted during your forecasting exercise. Say out loud what the scenario is that you see.

Dr. Sarah Radcliffe calls this visualization “positive imagination.”  She says that anxious children are experts in “negative imagination” as they always anticipate the worst.  So, if a child is afraid of making a fool of himself in front of the class when presenting his oral presentation, instead of telling him, “Oh, that won’t happen,” have him envision his successful execution of the speech, and winning top speaker.  After using this technique often enough, children can “’see’ good marks on a test, a successful sleepover, a safe flight…As the child makes these happy endings, he is simultaneously rewiring his nervous brain, laying down the circuitry for confidence and security.”

Visualization also helps students with reading comprehension, as according to Keene and Zimmerman in the book Mosaic of Thought, "Proficient readers spontaneously and purposely create mental images while and after they read. The images emerge from all five senses as well as the emotions and are anchored in a reader's prior knowledge.  Each day, our students are bombarded with the visual images of TV and video games. In contrast, most students view reading as a passive activity. But a simple technique -- visualization -- can transform students of all ages from passive to active readers; visualization can help students cross the boundary to improved comprehension.”

Dr. Lynn Hellerstein, in her book See It Say It Do It, says that along with the “see it” (visualization) should come the “say it” – say out loud a declaration of your vision and confidence, (I can swim well! I can keep my head under water! I love swimming!”  And, then that all leads to “do it.”

As parents of teens we say ‘Lech lecha” to them as they grow older. As they gain the skills to envision their goals, they are on the path to independence and resiliency.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Continuing The Chain- In Tribute To My Grandmother

 This past week, as we returned to school and real life after the chag, we educators noted that it was the first whole week of school in some time. As we all got back into the swing of things, my life was still not quite back to normal, as my mother was sitting shiva for my grandmother, a”h, who passed away on Chol HaMoed. My grandmother, Edith (Esther) Haberman, was 92 years old. Although she had been ill for many years, the sadness is still palpable. She was a Holocaust survivor who survived the war with false papers provided to her by Raoul Wallenberg, and lived as a worker in a laundry in a hotel which served as Nazi headquarters. Her miraculous survival, and her numerous brushes with death were inspirational. But, more than anything, I knew her as my Bobbi, who with her Hungarian accent and her love of life, transmitted a confidence in oneself. Whenever I was with her I felt that no one was more special, prettier, smarter and kinder than I. She knew exactly what to say to make you feel better. No matter how old I get, I will always miss her arm in mine.

As I think about my grandmother, I realize that being a child of survivors, my mother never knew her grandparents. I also think about, yibadel l'chayim, the privilege that most of our children today do have of knowing their grandparents. There is something essential in this grandparent- grandchild relationship.

In today's America, which emphasizes youth, the elderly are not particularly venerated. Rabbi Moshe Grylak, writes that in Parashat Noach we witness first hand what happens when the young have no reverence for the “older generation,” as we see the difference between the way Cham and his brothers Shem and Yefet reacted when they found Noach drunk. Cham, “saw his father was exposed, and he told his two brothers outside,” with no effort to help his father. On the other hand, “Shem and Yefet took the robe and placed it on the shoulder of each of them, and walking backward, they covered their father with their faces turned back, and they did not see their father's uncovered state.” Rabbi Grylak asserts that Shem and Yefet had “respect for the past... Through their noble conduct, they showed that if the past is disdained, there is no present and no future. They knew a man cannot start a new civilization all by himself, independent of the heritage he received from his predecessors...” This story of Noach, according to Grylak, is like what Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz wrote in Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins. “The revolt of many of the younger generation toward their parents shows a good measure of conceited contempt, but no understanding... In other words, today's rebellious youth reacts to the older generation in the same way that a culture group or 'ethnic' group reacts to a foreign, hostile one.”

We know that in Judaism, disdain for the older generation is unacceptable, as they transmit the Mesorah and tie us to our past. However, even modern day research demonstrates that there needs to be more of an effort to connect our youth with their grandparents. A 2011 study indicated that adolescents who have close relationships with their grandparents, (who do not live with them), are more likely to engage in positive social behaviors, have high school engagement, and are more prone to help others who are not friends or family members. Clearly, we need to make more effort to create these grandparent- grandchild connections. (Yes, the grandparents out there are paying me to say so!)

Why is this bond so important? There are various roles grandparents play, according to Patricia Holmes.
  1. Family Historian/Living Ancestor- They share stories about the past and important traditions. Hearing these stories provides children with a sense of their place within the family, and “contributes to family identity.”
  2. Nurturer, Mentor and Role Model- Grandparents may come by to babysit and do carpool when needed, but also can become confidantes to their grandchildren. They provide advice and serve as role models of the “good old values.”
  3. Playmate, Wizard and Hero- Often grandparents come by just to play with their grandchildren. As “wizard” they often mesmerize the children with their “tricks.” As hero, they can be there with an non-judgmental listening ear- always there to provide support. Especially in adolescence, when parent-child conflict might increase, grandparents can encourage positive development without disciplining negative behavior.

It is interesting to note that on each Shabbat, as we bless our sons, we utilize a beracha that Yaakov gave to his grandchildren, Menashe and Ephraim, not his children. When we think of Jewish continuity, this is expressed better with a beracha from grandfather to grandchild. As Rabbi Berel Wein shared, the “Talmud teachers us that if there be three consecutive generations of Torah scholars in a family then the Torah always finds an ability to make a home for itself in that family.” So, it is now up to Menashe and Ephraim to ensure the Jewish future. This is what the Mesorah is all about. Yaakov was able to bridge the “generation gap,” which was vast, as Menashe and Ephraim were raised as Egyptians. Yet “distance in time and place did not detract from their ability to bond.” When we learn Torah, we can overcome that generation gap- as we all are another link in the chain back to Har Sinai. How essential is that grandparent- grandchild link.

What if a child does not have grandparents? Research indicates that connections with the elderly in general are beneficial to the social development of children. Visits to nursing homes or even encouraging children to engage with the elderly in shul or on their block, are at times uncomfortable for children, but can provide them with essential life skills.

My grandmother Esther bat Pinchas, served as the link to my ancestral past- although we wish we would have asked her more questions about her life when she could have answered. She served as nurturer, as she listened to me and stepped in whenever my parents needed support- no matter how far away we lived. She was a playmate, as I vividly recall the paper dolls she drew, the songs she sang with us and even the games she played. She was a role model and my hero, as I clearly sensed her Emunah and optimism for life no matter what challenges she faced. Like Esther of the Purim story, she had to hide her identity and was fearful for her life. And, like Esther's other name, “Hadassah” (Myrtle) she was like the myrtle leaves whose sweet fragrance can only be released when the leaves are bruised and crushed. My grandmother had a hard life, and was “bruised and crushed,” and yet that sweet fragrance prevailed. She and my grandfather taught me, by being living examples, not to give up and to always believe in the salvation of Hashem. I pray that we, the grandchildren, will provide them with the Nachat they deserve as we continue the next link in the chain with our children.


Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- - Through role playing they learned the important skills needed in group discussions. They also had the opportunity to share with each other the positive and negatives of how sixth grade is going so far.

Seventh Grade- They learned the skills of Assertive Listening in their communication skills unit.

Eighth Grade- Students discussed, “How do you choose a high school?” What elements go into their decision making? They also were able to view some of the applications on-line.   

Thursday, October 2, 2014

From Stress to Serenity

 “From Stress To Serenity- Reducing Anxiety In The Home” was the topic of our parent workshop this past Wednesday evening. Dr. Norman Blumenthal, the Director of Trauma, Relief and Bereavement Response at Ohel was the guest presenter. Thank you to all those who attended. We know that it is never easy to run out of the house as children are clamoring for your attention. Or... perhaps since it is so hectic at home, coming to workshops is one way to acquire some serenity?

Throughout the ages, parents have been seeking serenity.  Even thousands of years ago, in the time of the Tanach, our patriarch Yaakov- father to a very large family (he definitely needed a break), sought serenity. As it says in Rashi on the 2nd Pasuk in Parashat Vayeshev, 37:2,  on the words from the first pasuk "Vayeshev Yaakov b'eretz migurei aviv b'eretz Canaan" - And, Yaakov settled in the land where his father lived, the land of Canaan."  Rashi says, Bikesh Yaakov leyshev b’shalva’” “Yaakov requested to dwell in peace and tranquility- serenity.”

Yaakov sought out serenity after fleeing from Eisav all those years.  Was Yaakov successful? Unfortunately not, as Rashi ends Kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef’” “The tragedy of Yosef (and his sale) was thrust upon him.” Yaakov's family entered a new era of stress.

Likewise, as parents, this serenity in our homes is often elusive.  Even Yaakov was unable to achieve it. What is the secret? Let me first share with you some of Dr. Blumethal's ideas (in red), and then I will relay my own, as they relate to the Yamim Noraim (in blue).

Dr. Blumenthal discussed some reasons why anxiety in children is at an all-time high- higher than during World War II or the Depression. We are safer and more secure as a society and as Jews more than during any time in history. Then why are our children so anxious? Dr. Blumenthal asserted that our children are too safe. We “bubble wrap” our children so that they never experience failure or challenges, so when they need to face any difficulties they do not have the skills to cope. He gave the example of playgrounds nowadays where they have removed all high equipment, swings and anything that could possibly cause a fall. And, yet research shows that children who have small falls, have decreased fear of heights. We need to provide our children with reasonable challenges and difficulties in life.

Today's society is also full of parents who are hesitant to provide structure, rules and consequences to children. Children need structure, discipline and limits to feel secure. Dr. Blumenthal stressed that children are supposed to misbehave, and we are supposed to enforce limits.

Some other sources of anxiety for children today are the “cookie cutter” syndrome. We expect all of our children to be the same, receive the same education, and go into the same professions, without any regard for the need of every child to be unique. As parents, we need to accept our children for their talents and uniqueness and not push them to be what they weren't meant to be. And, along these lines, we often compare our children to others, which causes anxiety.

Dr. Blumenthal ended with three ideas. First, Nachat is a source of stress. Who said as parents we are entitled to Nachat from our children? Let's stop putting so much pressure, and allow them to perform for themselves. Second, living in the age of the internet, where they are exposed to information from which our parents sheltered us, creates a level of anxiety. They live in an age where they are “entitled to know,” and we need to tell them before they hear it from their peers. Additionally, as “helicopter parents” we feel we need to know everything about our children at all times. Cellphones, nannycams- we must always be connected. This creates a myth that we must always be aware of what our children are doing . We need to calm down as parents and realize that it is not realistic to know everything. Third, our children are living in “generation lockdown” with the threat of terrorism closer to home. This also creates anxiety. Dr. Blumenthal did end the evening stating that our children are strong and resilient, and they can deal with anxiety if we teach them how to cope.

In the tefilla “Unetaneh tokef” that we say on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we also yearn for a year of serenity as we say, “Mi yishalev u'mi yityasar” “who will enjoy tranquility/serenity and who will suffer?” Just like Yaakov Avinu, we also seek out “shalva” But, the tefilla itself provides us with the key to achieving that serenity “Teshuva, Tefilla, U'tzedakah” “Repentance, prayer and charity.”

Repentance includes the Teshuva process and the fasting. Yom Kippur is a day, according to Rabbi Berel Wein, “of serenity and inner yearning for the better part of ourselves to assert itself. One of the great lessons of Yom Kippur is that inner serenity is achievable only be a degree of separation from the worldly pursuits that press constantly upon us.” As parents too, focusing on our own internal growth is essential. Likewise, our ability to push out the rest of the world, (and the work e-mails!), and truly be present with our children is one way to achieve serenity.

Tefilla” is truly an exercise in introspection. We know that the word “l'hitpallel” “to pray” really means to “judge oneself.” The Jews of older generations would spend an hour before tefilla preparing for prayer. Pondering ones spiritual status and where one is headed is a secret to achieving serenity. As parents, taking some “me time” for self-improvement is important to becoming better Jews and better parents.

The commentary on the Machzor of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that “Tzedakah” - charity- is an expression of selflessness, empathy and compassion. It is the opposite of sin, which is the result of “selfishness, when temptation overrules sacred principles.” The ability to connect with others and realize “it's not all about me” is another path to serenity. As parents, when we have the ability to realize that every time our child does not excel, it is not necessarily a reflection of our failings. If we are honest with ourselves, much of the pressure we put on our children and on ourselves to make sure all is “perfect,” is to ensure that people do not wonder about the quality of his/her parents. Once we are able to focus on them and not what their behavior reflects about us, calm can set in.

But, as Dr. Blumenthal added, some anxiety is good for a person. Just the right amount- not too much and not too little- spurs on effort and the will to perform. So too, during the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, when we are anxious about the decree for the coming year and being forgiven, we do “perform better,” and engage in mitzvot and in our Judaism as we probably should all year long. May the positive anxiety we feel during this Yamim Noraim season lead to increased serenity all year long.

Advisory Update:

Sixth Grade- Did not have Advisory this week due to Selichot and extended Tefillot.

Seventh Grade- Focused on the basic communication skills needed for effective interactions with others. They began to learn the importance of utilizing “I messages” in discussing with others.

Eighth Grade- They discussed the plot of “Who Moved My Cheese?” as a metaphor for learning how to cope with change and difficulties in life. The message of the importance of change is a timely one for this time of year.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Helping Our Teens Navigate The Maze Of Life

Last Friday I spent the day courageously traversing a giant Corn Maze (or Maize Maze) with the 8th grade. Split into teams, it was an exercise in teambuilding and perseverance. We made it out, (okay, we exited through the entrance!), but the experience caused me to think about the imagery of the maze and what it represents in life. Particularly at this time of year, as we approach Rosh HaShana, I found meaning in the maze.

At the same time, my son and I have been engaged in a mother/son bonding experience as we have been reading the Rick Riordan series of Percy and the Olympians. Although he is already done with the series, I coincidentally am at the end of the book The Battle Of The Labyrinth. In this book, Percy Jackson needs to find his way through the labyrinth and find its creator, Daedalus who held the secret to their salvation.  The labyrinth, similar, yet different from a maze, can also be a metaphor for life and Rosh HaShana.

There is another famous maze that I recently read about in the book Who Moved My Cheese: For Teens- An A-Mazing Way To Change And Win!.  by Spencer Johnson. In this book, a parable for dealing with change, the mice and the “little people,” (named Hem and Haw), live in a maze and search the maze for “cheese”- the metaphor for what we want in life.  What is the connection between these two mazes and the labyrinth that have been appearing of late?  What message can it help us provide to our children?  

Interestingly enough, a movie called "The Maze Runner" just came out, which is based on a book from John Dashner's young adult trilogy. In the movie, the main character seeks a way out of a maze that changes daily.  I have not read the book, nor can I vouch for whether the books or the movie are appropriate for our teens, but it is interesting to note another maze geared with some message towards specifically our teens. 

A maze is an obvious metaphor for life.  As we walk along, we see a path we think we should follow, but alas it is a dead end, and we need to retrace our steps and start again.   We meet with obstacles along the way, and at times we cannot decide which way to go. Each decision we make impacts on whether we find the right path.  Sometimes our paths take us farther away from our goals. Some seem to navigate the maze easily. For others, the maze is a series of wrong turns. The frustration we feel as we make our way through the maze is particularly felt in the teenage years.  One minute the teen feels that he has it all figured out- the path is straight, and then the next moment the path is unclear and all has changed. Sometimes, for teens, the maze changes daily. 

As parents, we model for our children the way we navigate through the maze.  As  learned in Who Moved My Cheese , (originally written for adults),  there are lessons we can relay to our teens about how to overcome the frustration of the maze, when things don’t turn out the way they plan.
1.      Often our emotions cloud the way we look at things which makes the maze more complicated and challenging. Ranting and raving about injustice does not solve problems.
2.     “It’s not right” “It’s not the way things are supposed to be”- we often get stuck in what we expect to happen. Often, life is unexpected, and we need to move on on the new path with which we have been “dealt.” Are we going to move on- "vayelech" or we will get stuck "nitzvavim"? (Even the parshiot hashavua connect!)
3.     In the book, Haw says, “Things are changing around here, Hem. Maybe we need to change and do things differently.”  “Why should we change?” Hem said.  Change is difficult, but often necessary.  We often have to leave our comfort zones. And, as Haw wrote, “Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.”
4.     Fear of failure often prevents us from finding success. Optimistically envisioning success, even when frustrated, is important for finding your destination.
5.     “Who moved my cheese?” Spending time blaming others is never beneficial. Taking control is better than letting things happen.
6.     Reflect on mistakes you made in the past and use them to plan for the future.
7.     “The biggest inhibitor to change lies within yourself, and that nothing gets better until you change.”
8.     Although you may not like it at the time, change from what you expect often turns out to be a blessing.

As we model the above skills, when we face challenge in life, our children learn how to cope with adversity and dead ends.  Often, our ability to navigate the maze depends on our attitudes. If we treat obstacles as a natural part of life and surmountable, we can overcome. .   How will we deal with difficulties in life, and bumps in the road? Will we give up, sit down and cry? Will we cope and try again?  Will we remain optimistic? 

A labyrinth and a maze are different.  A labyrinth has only one path (unircursal) and the way in is the same as the way out.  The only choice you need to make is whether to enter or not.  We are never truly lost, but can never see where we are going.  It is a long path, even though only one path.  It is a metaphor for the journey to the center of “your most deepest self with a broadened understanding of who you are.”  

We can choose to view the maze as a labyrinth with no tricks or dead ends

The labyrinth is also a wonderful metaphor for Teshuva. The word Teshuva means to return.  A straight path to the center- returning to where we began without sin. We can return to who we really are. This path can be difficult like a maze or easier like a labyrinth, walking a path to our “spiritual centers.”  We have the map to navigate these yimei ratzon-   “Teshuva, Tefilla, U’Tzedakah.”   One might think that there is no challenge in a labyrinth, and yet it takes time to achieve our goal. Why?  We need to choose when to move closer to the center, and often we choose not to. There are things in life distracting us from the center.  But, as we know, if we wish to find our “center” it will become easier as “Haba l’taher misayin oto” (Yoma 38b)’ “He who seeks to purify himself, will receive Heavenly assistance.”   

There is also a trick to navigating through life and achieving the right path, as provided by the Mishna in Avot 3:1.  Akavya ben Mehalalel states that if we look at three things then we will not come to sin, i.e. we can reach the center of the labyrinth,  “Ma’ayin bata, u’le’an ata holech, u’lifnei mi atah atid litein din v’cheshbon”  “Know where you come from, where you are going, and in front of whom you will stand in judgment.”  During the Yamim Noraim, we ask ourselves,  “From where have we come and we are going- spiritually?”  We need to examine the path we have taken and our choices.  Most importantly, while walking the path of life, remember that we walk before G-d who sees and knows all.

Teshuva is about change- the ability to do something different this year and to overcome the fear of change of which Spencer Johnson speaks.  Often we know we must change, but we are not exactly sure what sort of change we need, A Chasidic parable talks of a man lost in the woods- similar to a maze.  A man went walking in a forest, only to find himself lost. Each time he thought he was getting somewhere, he found himself even more lost. This went on for days and days, wandering in the thick woods. Eventually, this man ran into another just like him; someone else had been wandering lost in the forest. "Hello!," said the first man, "Thank God! Now that I have found you, you can show me the way out," he said. "I don't know the way out either," said the second. "But I do know not to go the way I have come from, for that way is not the way. Now let us walk on together and find the light.

As we begin Selichot, and sit days before Rosh HaShana, I think of the words of A.J. Cronin writes in the foreword of Who Moved My Cheese?”, “Life is no straight and easy corridor along which we travel free and unhampered, but a maze of passages through which we must seek our way, lost and confused, now and again checked into a blind alley.  But always, if we have faith, a door will open for us, not perhaps one that we ourselves would ever have thought of, but one that will ultimately prove good for us.”

May this new year be one of unobstructed paths and the strength to cope when obstructions come our way.  May we merit change for the better and Teshuva to our true centers.

Advisory Update:
Sixth Grade:  Sixth graders through a creative puzzle making activity focused on forming a cohesive group and highlighting how despite their differences they can become a unit.
Seventh Grade: Through the life story of Austin Gutwein, a teenager who truly changed the world, the seventh graders considered what character traits are needed to make an impact. They highlighted that first focusing on changing oneself is often the key to changing the world- a timely message!
Eighth Grade: Students learned what S.M.A.R.T goals are, and set social, emotional, family, and spiritual goals for this year. They sent themselves an e-mail containing these goals utilizing the website which will arrive in their inbox on graduation day. They will then be able to see if they actualized their goals.  What better time to focus on goal setting than during this 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where Have The Lazy Days Of Summer Gone?

Whether you are raising your first teen or your last, when you are having one of those “teenage moments” with your child, I recommend picking up the comic strip Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. They seem to pinpoint exactly the issues at hand, and the laughter is a healthy outlet. (I often show the comics to students, and even they appreciate them!)

Clearly, Scott and Borgman have battled the “WAKE UP!” morning battle as we have at our own homes. What is it about teens that make them so difficult to wake up in the morning? It is all about sleep deprivation.

From the age they reach puberty until age 22 teens need about 9 hours of sleep. Teens actually need more sleep than younger children- contrary to what one might think. According to a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health only 8% of teens get the sleep they need and the rest of teens live with chronic sleep deprivation during the school year. Dr. Mary Carskadon, director of chronobiology and sleep research, at E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, found that half of the teens in her study were so exhausted in the morning that they showed the same characteristics who have the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Dr. Carskadon's research focuses on the interrelation between the circadian timing system and the sleep/wake system patterns of children and adolescents. Her research suspects that the delay in bedtime and later wake- up times may be produced by the brain development- the adolescent biology.

How does this lack of sleep affect our teens? This sleep deprivation puts teens at risk for depression, obesity and threatens their academic performance and their safety. Dr. Carskadon states that teens who lack sleep are walking around in a “gray cloud.” She continues with the image that since our teens are not “filling up their tank” at night they are starting their days with an empty tank. “It affects both their mood and their ability to think and their ability to perform and react appropriately. So, we have kids out there who struggle to stay awake when driving, who could do better at sports if they could react more quickly, who are feeling blue and having trouble getting along with adults in their environment, and also who are struggling to learn in the classroom.”

There are much higher rates of depression among teens than ever before. The lack of sleep most definitely affects mood and the ability to regulate mood. In the 2008 National Sleep Foundation study they surveyed 1600 adolescents. More than 56% said they felt “stressed out” or “anxious” or “hopeless about the future.” Less sleep correlated with higher levels of depression- a vicious cycle as lack of sleep affects mood, and depression leads to problems falling asleep.

Likewise, being tired adds to procrastination and time management problems, which in another vicious cycle leads to staying up even later to do work. The overscheduling of extracurriculars can also contribute to later sleep times.

Why have these sleep patterns gotten worse? Common sense indicates that teens have so much more available at night to distract them- computers, phones etc. all in their bedrooms. Additionally, culturally, there is little focus on the importance of sleep. In Health curricula we see units on nutrition, exercise, safety, but nothing on sleep.

What can we do for our sleep deprived teens? Even with teens, limit-setting around bedtime makes an impact, asserts Dr. Carskadon, Consistency as much as possible all week is helpful. Often teens do something called “binge sleeping” over the weekend. It does replenish our “empty sleep tanks, “ but it has a negative impact as it “gives the brain a different message of when it is nighttime.” On weekends, they may be telling their brains that night is midnight and morning is 11 am. However, on Monday, the brain is still in that mode, when they should be getting back on schedule. It is difficult to have a significantly different sleep schedule on weekends. (This is another benefit of going to Minyan even on weekends!)

All technology should be off at least an hour before bedtime. Electronic screens actually emit “blue light' which sends a signal to the brain to suppress melatonin, which prevents us from feeling sleepy. Aside from that, if the anxiety often created by social media can prevent falling asleep- i.e. a friend posting something distressful. Many parents have the practice of collecting all cellphones, iPods etc. at a certain time of night, and charging them in the parents' bedroom or a central location, so sleep is possible without hearing constant texts being received. Dimming lights all around the house also helps prepare our bodies towards sleep. Additionally, simply educating our teens about the importance of sleep can make a difference.

The research on teens and sleep has led to a growing discussion about start times for school in the teenage years. I have often wondered how it impacts Tefilla in the morning for teens. This thought most definitely argues for more engaged Tefilla with more singing and davening aloud.

The good news is that out teens' new found love of sleeping during the day does allow us adults to finally earn our Shabbat naps. As we know, Shabbat is the acronym for “shayna b'Shabbat taanug” “sleep on Shabbat is a pleasure.” Just a reminder, though, of what I wrote in a column a few years ago, “Those of us who are parents of teens have waited years for our children to be independent enough so we can leave them to their own activities and take a well-deserved afternoon rest. However, half- Shabbos reminds us that our teens still need us on Shabbat, as Dr. David Pelcovitz has stressed. It's never too late to start spending quality time Shabbat afternoon. Many 'half-Shabbos' teens have indicated that if their parents were around, they would not text on Shabbat.” So, after nap time, is quality time, as it says in the Shabbat night zemer “Ma Yedidut”

Your walk be slow;
Call the Sabbath a delight.
Sleeping is praiseworthy
when for restoring the soul.
Therefore my soul for you[i.e., the Sabbath] is longing,
to be content [on it] in love.
Fenced in like roses;
on it shall son and daughter rest

Notice it calls for son and daughter to rest as well! May this school year be one of restful and restorative sleep, and alert, soulful days.

Advisory Update: (Each week I will be providing you with a brief synopsis of what we covered in Advisory class this past week). 

Sixth Grade- Our sixth graders have begun Advisory- a social/emotional class they have twice a week. This week's lessons focused on relaying what the goals of Advisory are and getting to know their group members and Advisors. Sixth Grade Advisory focuses on helping students succeed in middle school through academic, social and emotional skills through its theme, “Do You Want To Succeed In Middle School? Here's How...”

Seventh Grade- Seventh graders have been introduced to the theme of 7th Grade Advisory “Prepare Yourself to Change the World.” Lessons have highlighted how even teens can make an impact on the world around them, and how we plan to do so in Advisory this year.

Eighth Grade- Eighth graders began the year viewing interviews of graduates highlighting the challenges and excitement of 8th grade. Students have been introduced to the theme of 8th Grade Advisory “Preparing for Life After Yavneh.”