Do As I Do

Today there was an article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times ('Teaching Peace in Elementary School') on my favorite subject, emotional intelligence: The author, Julie Scelfo, makes a smart case for the importance of teaching kids how to deal with their emotions, so that they can become self and other aware, and learn to make responsible decisions. Of course, the skeptics are immediately lining up to express concern that having teachers 'address feelings' will take time away from 'academics', which are already "starved for oxygen"...and that is the absurd problem in a nutshell. The thought that we might now have to create a special curriculum through which to teach children how to have EQ is as ridiculous as the notion that the ability to cope with anger without reaching for a weapon is less important in this world than algebra.

Here is the point that is being missed: EQ is not an end, it is a means. If teachers were trained in EQ, and they are not, (I know, because I used to impart this training to EQ starved educators through professional development workshops), everything they said and did in their classroom would be modeling emotional intelligence. By this, I do not mean to imply that teachers have no social skills...they do...and many can demonstrate them effectively when not being squeezed into test-prep all day long. That said, nowhere in the curriculum of Education degree programs, are such sacred subjects as: listening, mindful non-reactivity, or self-awareness building. How can this be inculcated in children, if it has not been inculcated in those who would lead them? 

Emotional intelligence is not an add-on. It is not a single weekend retreat for conflict resolution. It is not a luxury. It is also not a stand-alone subject. EQ needs to be the very vehicle of delivery for every single action and expression that occurs in every classroom. It is form, not content. It is what will make it safe for learners to open up to knowledge, and to one another. Emotional intelligence should be the beginning, middle and end of each and every human interaction at school; whether science, math, literature or history is being discussed. It is the oxygen in the room. It is the antidote to terrorism. It is our future.

Just Say No


It's time for parents to say no to testing.

As a parent myself, who shepherded two children through the NYC public school system, and as a clinician who treats the parents of many other such children, I can unhesitatingly assert that we are driving our children crazy at worst, at the least we are teaching them to hate learning.

There is hardly a family I know with school-aged children whose children are not on attentional medication, anti-anxiety medication, or anti-depressant medication. None of these children are enjoying school...they are all stressed out beyond belief. Not just because the classes are too large, the teachers overwhelmed and the new core curriculum unnecessarily difficult and stultifyingly boring, but because everything they are being taught to memorize, rather than think through, is in preparation for weekly tests, which will prepare them for annual tests, which will prepare them for pre-college tests. There is no learning for it's own sake. There is no joy in learning. There is no creativity in learning. Even at the supposedly highly creative specialized art schools that both of my sons attended, there was no relief from this push to turn them into parrots and monkeys.

While thought leaders like Dr. Dan Seigel (The Mindful Brain) and Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), agree that memorization does NOT teach kids to learn, and despite the fact that our youth have unlimited access to more factoids on the information highway via the phones in their pockets than any teacher -- no matter how well trained -- could ever provide, schools continue to insist that the memorization of facts still constitutes an education. It does not. We are boring our kids to death, and then drilling the love of learning out of them. Even the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan came out in favor of less testing and said that all the testing is "sucking the oxygen out of the classrooms." ( Well, a lot of the canaries are already dead and gone; they left to pursue GEDs or homeschooling, or they ended up in rehab or psych wards.

We do not simply need a little less testing, we need to stop thinking of learners as computers. They will use their computers, to correct spelling and grammar, to add and subtract numbers, to do literature reviews and to acquire current and historical data. What they need from schools. and cannot acquire through their devices, is the means to: having their natural passion and curiosity met, developing and practicing problem solving skills experientially, engaging in emotionally intelligent discourse and collaborations with adults and one another, and the capacity to make meaning of their lives and express empathy toward their planet and fellow humans. This is what the workplace will demand of them, and this is what we are NOT preparing them for. It is also what will get their attention, help them relate to one another, and lift them out of the depths of depression.

We need to make schools places of learning and growth and empowerment, not torture, stress and failure. We need to make schools no-testing zones. It is up to us as parents. We are the taxpayers and we pay the salaries. Opt out of mandated testing. Just say no.

The Pace of Our Lives (And how it can support or crush our natural rhythms)

In our American culture, we learn early that those who work quickly and finish first get the prize. This has not only been the guiding principle in the sphere of business, but in our education system as well. As a clinician, and a learning consultant who worked with the Department of Education for decades, I have long wondered whether fewer children would be in danger of being ‘left behind’ if we were not trying to get them wherever they are supposed to go in such a great hurry.

During my many years of leading EQ workshops for students, the number of participants diagnosed with ADHD grew disproportionately to the steady size of the workshop populations, sometimes amounting to half of all those enrolled. In addition to being diagnosed with and medicated for attention disorders, many more students now seek what is commonplace shorthand from the New York State Department of Education: a “504” accommodation plan. Those in receipt of this coveted allowance receive permission for extended time to take a timed test or complete a pile of nightly homework. The rise in need for these allowances, including in my own family, occurred when standardized testing – and teaching toward preparation for these tests – became the dominant feature of the learning experience at school. Principals were pressured to pressure their teachers, who in turn pressured students, and their parents, to make sure that learning was happening as quickly as possible. Those families that could afford tutors to help maintain this lightening speed were able to thrive – though at a cost to vital relaxation time. Those who could not keep up financially, or even emotionally, began to slip shamefully behind.

The resulting shame tracked with these students through subsequent years of schooling, where it was not uncommon for bright children to think of themselves as ‘slow’. These young learners often found themselves being given prescriptions for focusing drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, the long term effect of which will tell its story in later years and future generations. The Center for Disease Control reported earlier this year that 11% of children between 4-17 had received an ADHD diagnosis at some point, more than double the percentage from twenty years ago, and this rise is often being attributed to the way in which we are “schooling our kids.” Rather than changing this schooling, however, we are, in effect, drugging our kids in order to do well on competitive tests; something we would penalize in our Olympic athletes.

It is not surprising that in a culture that privileges productivity above all else, we have created a generation of learners who now suffer deep shame about the fact that they are too slow. But what, if anything, that achieves excellence - writing a great book, developing a great invention, making a great change in a social system - was ever done quickly? Being able to rattle off elements on the Periodic Table at top speed is not a predictor of a future Nobel Peace prize recipient, nor does quickly memorizing a list of SAT vocabulary words without error foreshadow the next William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. More importantly, being the first to solve a math problem will certainly not predict that you will be an attuned parent, or spouse, or manager. It will not predict that you will take good care of your planet, or even your body. It will assure only that you will continue to mistake speed for quality of experience, as if the first one to complete their lives…will have won.

Attempts to cover too much ground too quickly fail those learners with sensitive temperaments who seize up and slow down in situations of being judged and graded. Ironically, these are the very kind of sensitive youngsters who could become compassionate leaders. Similarly, timed rote repetition is crippling to creative thinkers who tend to resist thinking ‘inside the box,’ yet these are the very kind of entrepreneurial thinkers that our future economy will depend upon. Racing also penalizes learners who are deeper thinkers, not given to a proclivity for fast memorization; let’s not forget that Daniel Goleman, in his seminal book on emotional intelligence, stated that memorization is “the opposite of learning.” We need to begin teaching in real time, the time it really takes to transform a learner – and learning is indeed an act of transformation. It is ironic that in our attempts to right the overcorrection that was “No Child Left Behind,” our new paradigm is framed as a race to the top.

In racing, we are crushing the spirits of our youth by asking them to work all day at school, and then to hold a job each night completing homework, not to mention that many kids also need to work most of the weekend if they hope to get a promotion at the end of the year. We are turning our children into a labor force medicated into submission, and marching ever more quickly toward a toxic world in which they will likely face challenging job prospects and a fragile ecology, and they will have gained no emotional skills along the way with which to cope with any of that. With our predilection for pharmaceutical solutions, I fear that we are also teaching them that they can always take an anti-depressant if the racing depletes them, or a sleep aid to slow them down at night.

And if they can slow down long enough, they might actually notice that someone has stolen their capacity for being mindfully present to themselves and their lives, and that they better do whatever it takes to get it back. We healers, educators, and parents can help them in this effort by striving for depth and not speed. Many colleges and secondary schools (see here and here) are now asking students to study one subject or complete only one project with profound excellence, over an extended period of time; in so doing they can learn everything they need to know about achieving excellence in anything. Their teachers might even be able to slow down long enough to enjoy guiding them to this glorious and mindful knowing.

Meditation as an Act of Compassion

Like most things in our culture of “thingness,” I fear that we are quickly turning the spiritual art of meditation into a tool for “success,” otherwise known as the attainment of “things”: money, status, possessions. This Buddhist practice was never intended to boost test scores or earning potential. Quite the contrary, it was a way to ground people in the spacious present, absent the clutter of attachment to things. In Phillip Moffit’s wonderful book on Buddhism, Dancing With Life, he refers to a cartoon entitled Dali Lama’s Birthday, in which he is opening a present that proves to be an empty box, and exclaims: “Nothing. Just what I always wanted!”

Now we find Buddhist mindfulness training being implemented in schools and businesses with the intention not so much to simplify, clarify, and purify our human longings into a comfortable state of being with what is, but to turn practitioners into people who will be able to do and achieve all that is not. This was not the intention behind Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal effort to bring mindfulness into medicine as a non-pharmacologic form of healing and stress reduction, which has now become an industry of quick-fix anxiety reduction; a kind of 12-step program for those of us addicted to busyness as a form of distraction from our pain.

As David DeSteno posits in his recent NYTimes article entitled, The Morality of Meditation, although the benefits of mindfulness to mind, heart, and body are now well researched, it is cognitively dissonant indeed to harness these benefits for the purposes of advancing that which we, as a nation, are in recovery from: over- attainment of personal gain. DeSteno, a psychologist, personally led a study that demonstrated evidence of people achieving greater levels of compassion as a result of regular meditation practice. His hope in sharing this data, was to highlight this as not a side benefit of meditation to us individually, and as a society, but as the main event. As a clinician and coach, I regularly invite my clients into a practice of deep awareness of self and other; when they sit with me, when they are quietly alone, and when they are interacting with wider humanity.

This deep awareness of inter-relationality is also known as “emotional intelligence.” EQ is something that needs to be mindfully and broadly filtered into the raising of children both at home and in the schools, not so that the next generation will be focused enough to have the highest standardized test scores or salaries ever, but as a way to ensure their well-being across the lifespan, and the well-being of the planet that we share with the people with whom we are interdependent. Taking the time to deeply notice our world, and the state of the people we share it with, is our best last hope for the species.

Another Vote for the Art of Listening

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Last week, Lee Gutkind wrote a beautiful piece for the Times on How To Listen. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, as I have been teaching this skill — a skill that is not taught or even modeled well in most schools, or most families — for several decades. I also directed a documentary film about it (Listening With Their Eyes), and continue to practice it much of the day each week in private narrative therapy and coaching sessions.

I am a far more dynamic clinician than the one depicted by the author in the article, but I share with him an ardent commitment to paying close attention to the stories of my clients. I call myself a narratologist, and like the ‘interviewers’ referenced in the piece, it is my job to help people articulate their own stories and to attend to them utterly by reflecting back what I’ve heard, and asking the right questions to help elicit more. It is indeed an active process, one that requires all five senses, if not six or seven, as Dr. Daniel Seigel, a leading interpersonal neurobiologist, suggests.

Like the nonfiction writers that Gutkind also refers to, a narratologist is listening to the story that is told and the story that is left out: many of my clients claim to remember little or nothing of their childhoods. And, even when ‘the facts’ are shared, they are often filtered through the inherited opinions of others, or overlaid with the gloss of spin or the opacity of trauma. There are often tangential stories, which turn out not  to be so tangential... because everything is being filtered through and languaged by the same teller. And, as the writer asserts, if you keep your eye and ear on the primary narrative — ‘the story of them,’ as they hold it — you will keep returning to the source of historical learnings, as well as potential transformations.

Listening actively is all about asking the right questions, and knowing when to simply listen. But it is sensing the ‘inner POV’ to which Gutkind alludes that separates those of us who simply witness from those of us who can truly instantiate the experience of another. Knowing someone is about taking the time to learn the moments of their existence; as they say, ‘God is in the details.’ This kind of mindful attention is not only the stuff of good interviews, it is the stuff of good relationships.

New Support for the Importance of Healthy Narratives

Recently there was a piece in the NYTimes (The Stories That Bind Us), about the importance of families having a ‘narrative’; not just any narrative, but a narrative of resilience. To us narratologists, this is not new news. For decades I worked with young people, (through my former non-profit, Find Your Voice) to provide them with an outlet for articulating and revising their narratives, for this very reason. As humans, we are story-telling creatures. While current meditation practices advise us to simply breathe and ‘let go of the stories’ in our minds, in truth, we are not separable from our stories. Conversely, we are also not stuck with our negative narratives. We get into trouble is when we continually re-tell ourselves the same negative stories about ourselves, our families, or the world. What turns a negative story into a positive one, is not the changing of any of the facts of history, but the way in which we acknowledge and hold these facts, and the ways in which we envision and then create the potential future that can grow out of them.

It is the paradigm shift that was codified by Narrative Therapy founders Michael White and David Epston, and the simple act of dramaturgy that is effected every time a good editor sits with a writer, playwright or filmmaker and asks: what is the story here? Where are the patterns, the inconsistencies, the resolutions? How can we tell it, be affirmed in it, and also re-vise it...go beyond it? In my practice as a Narrative Coach, I do just that with client stories. My practice is dedicated to the facilitation of this healthy revision, whether in individual or group sessions, at clinics, schools, offices or families. We are dedicated to the belief that we have lived our stories, but we are also more than our stories...before we can know what we want, and how to achieve it, we must know who we’ve been.

Bringing Student "Voice" Into Education

On Friday, March 22, 2013, The Washington Post published an article about the "The Independent Project," a youth-driven initiative whose mission is to help students design their own schools. For some readers, it may seem that this movement is merely a direct result of the utter failure of schools designed by adults, and that the primacy of the student’s desire to get rid of grades and testing is merely a direct result of the utter failure of a movement that has left far too many students, and most of their teachers, way behind. Not only are we falling behind in attendance and graduation rates, but also in passion; in the desire of young people to participate fully in this thing that we have come to call "becoming educated.”  For me, this Project is a result of all of these failures, and of much, much more.

The guiding principle of the Project is to give students a "voice."  This will not only provide a means of including them, it will become the actual means of educating them. Most of what young people now engage in at school, once they can decode letters and numbers, is a process of disciplining and challenging their minds. Sadly, much too much of this is still done through the primitive act of memorization. In contrast, higher order brain activity is a process that advances creative problem solving, and relies on coherent communication.

Young minds should be as heavily engaged in acquiring self-knowledge, and other-knowledge, as in acquiring knowledge of the natural and abstract worlds of science and math. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the literacy of being able to read others and to respond appropriately; in short, it is about communication…it is about voice.  The specific spirit inside each student has a specific voice, and that voice grows and is strengthened by the opportunity to exercise it in discourse and inquiry, which is the true meaning of being liberally educated. The outcome of this will be that when young people have an opportunity to develop strong voices, they will become strong leaders - of themselves, and of one another. How poetic, then, that the groundswell for this right-minded approach to educational reform comes from those who will tolerate being voiceless no more.

To watch The Independent Project in action, view the video below on students designing their own school:

Testing and Competition

In the New York Times Magazine article Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman tout the benefits of stress and competition for developing young minds.  They argue that brain science and genetics can help us better understand how stress impacts the “Worriers” and the “Warriors”, and why some perform better than others in high stress situations, ultimately concluding that academic competition is beneficial for both.

Although it is certainly the well-researched case that people respond to stress differently, I’m not sure the authors have applied their ample findings to answering the right question. In fact, using stress management findings to help kids better tolerate academic testing flies in the face of every wise and humane thing that has ever been learned from the Emotional Intelligence and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movements.  We did not come to be a “Prozac Nation,” in a globally warming world, because unbridled competition was a positive thing.

We are at a moment in history where the future of the planet, and us as a species, is dependent upon mutuality, coexistence, and the creativity and compassion to think about old challenges in new ways. As a clinician and narratologist having led Emotional Intelligence trainings in schools for many decades, I can say without hesitation that the effort to prepare students to score highly on tests runs counter to everything good that might come from having them spend the first twenty years of their lives in classrooms. Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain asserts that: asking students to simply memorize and repeat material is actually teaching them how not to learn. When students are led to make discoveries with passion and compassion, and given experiential opportunities to put these discoveries into practice, there is simply no need for testing. They are eager to implement, and even further explore, what they’ve noticed. When they can share this excitement with their peers, as colleagues and fellow travelers, they care not who might achieve the highest scores because they have all “scored.” 

Whatever brain science has come to show about those of us with largely ‘warrior’ minds and those of us with largely ‘worrier’ minds – and I’m sure there is ample evidence toward these genetically and environmentally driven propensities – the goal should not be to become a species that can embrace its own stress in some race toward “testable and comparative achievement,” but to become a species bent on envisioning and then creating a world community in which we learn and share together, and are more likely to innovate social good corporations than test-prep machines; and far more likely to enjoy the process. If there is anything to the theory of evolution, and I for one believe there is, let’s hope that we have evolved beyond a series of exams indicate that a mind has been well-shaped for good citizenship because of it’s ability to decipher factors and spell arcane words.  My own two creative and curious children stopped enjoying school after “standardized testing” entered their lives, just as many of their friends – now sporting migraines and ulcers – did. The body does not lie. This is not a way to educate, no matter how adept we may become at “managing” the stress of this wrong-minded thinking.

Write Brain

It’s poetic! On January 31st I gave a talk on Healing Trauma through Narrative Reconstruction at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, where analysts are deeply engaged in learning new ways of effectively healing trauma. In my talk, I outlined 30 years of my field data on the power of healing and transforming lives through writing exercises that I developed for an emotional literacy intervention, and later integrated into clinical practice. The key thesis of the talk was that when we write, we enter an altered state. This state is akin to that which was once achieved through hypnosis, and now through EMDR. And that in this state, and from this writing brain, we can also retrieve memories long forgotten or repressed and, with proper guidance, make coherent sense of them andweave them into a newly strengthened and more coherent self-narrative. Two days later the Education section of the Sunday’s Times featured an article on a new initiative that works to heal Veteran trauma through writing! In it, Veteran testimonials attest to the findings that I shared. The Editor of The Journal of Military Experience stated that: “Traumatic memories are fragmented...not always in order...if you can put those emotions and the traumatic events in a narrative that makes sense to makes the trauma tangible. If it’s tangible, it’s malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.” How uncannily it echoes the closing quote of my talk from psychologist and linguist, Ken Wilbur: 

We need to give careful attention to the text we call the self, before it can become transparent. In therapy, or any work that engages closely with text, we need to work toward the knowing that our personal history…is mutable.

Martin goes on to say: “We write to bear witness.” This mirrors a quote with which I opened my talk: “We write to discover what we know.” This was a quote from a playwriting teacher I’d had years ago, as I was beginning to develop ‘healing dialogues’ with people across the lifespan, inviting them to view a photographic trigger and then do a free-write in response. This writing was then shaped into an outline for a two character play, through which the writer could work out unresolved conflicts and discover forgotten meanings and events.


One member of the Veteran’s Project highlights the benefits of this approach, asserting that it was indeed healing to: “Step away from the war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.” Another said he’d had trouble ‘talking about his experience, but had no trouble writing about it’. This is not news to me! I have been helping people of all ages reconstruct their narratives for decades, through my non-profit, Find Your Voice. The results were so powerful, and so consistently transformative, that I now use writing in every individual therapy session that I conduct as well. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword! And, like all potent tools, it needs to be handled with care. People with particularly traumatic narratives need accompaniment and guidance and containment in their voicing, well beyond that which a writing teacher alone could offer. Once they have articulated, reframed and shared their core trauma story, they can continue the writing practice safely on their own. Also, untrained workshop leaders can become traumatized by upsetting material themselves, and may not be able to endure or contain the transmission of content and feelings involved in the sharing. For these very reasons, in my own new project...The Voicing Project, I plan to bring my combined dramaturgical and clinical training to the enterprise of helping people voice toward healing, while also training other clinicians and coaches to do so as well. It seems to be the write time to launch it!

The Fourth "R": Reflections on Sandy Hook

What occurred inside that devastated school building in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012 is a direct result of what does not often enough occur inside of school buildings: the study of emotional intelligence. Although this boy was apparently somewhere on the autism spectrum — which is itself a social skill deficit — and ended up being pulled out as a child and schooled all alone at home for a time, all children need intense social skill training. As one later classmate said of him about his experience during high school, “No one took the time to find out why he was the way he was.”

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While schools can’t know what goes on in a child’s home, they certainly can endeavor to get to know what goes on inside the child’s head…and heart. They may not be privy to the reasons for a family to feature the collection of guns and rifles, and value shooting as a sport, but they can be privy to what comes into their building. As Dr. Dan Siegel says in The Mindful Brain, along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, reflection needs to be cultivated as the fourth ‘R’ — reflection on self, others and the world around us; in other words, the cultivation of attuned and pro-social behavior. Students must be taught to do it, and teachers must be taught to guide them; social skills are as vital to the survival of our society as the decoding of letters and numbers…maybe more so. How tragically ironic that a relationship-oriented principal and a dedicated psychologist went down with all the other beautiful and innocent lives on the ship of disaster that was sunk by an emotionally illiterate high school graduate, one who had quietly morphed into a sociopath due to something that was neglected decades ago and continues to be neglected in many schools all across this country. We need to be training all educators to inculcate emotional literacy in their students; that is, the ability to read and communicate with one another, which in turn enhances empathy for one another. Daniel Goleman echoes this in his book, Emotional Intelligence:

Educators, long disturbed by school children’s lagging scores in math and reading, are realizing there is a different and more alarming deficiency: emotional illiteracy.  And while laudable efforts are being made to raise academic standards, this new and troubling deficiency is not being addressed in the standard school curriculum.

This can’t be a special assembly held twice a year. It needs to be part of a daily curriculum; that students are led through an exploration of their inner lives, written and orally, and are helped to respect and understand that of their classmates. We owe that to the precious children who lost their futures, to the families whose lives have been shattered by this senseless event, and to the young witnesses who will struggle to find meaning in this for the rest of their days.

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