Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Lessons From Nellie

Lessons from Nellie!
Troubled Youth Need our Presence

We think we know what we need. We think we know what our children and youth desire. We think we know what will create healthy attachments and relationships. We think we know what will bring our students and us happiness and peace. We subconsciously limit our visions to match only what we can see in the moment. Our agendas can sabotage and stagnate our growth. We think that by fixing or healing or leaving or entering the life of another affects only him or her. We are grossly mistaken. And we know this too…when we stop and feel, and let go of our repetitive habit minds and thought processes.

We do need our habit minds for survival but they can also defer us from embracing a much larger view. A little less than a year ago, my life was turned upside down in 10 minutes as a mom and as an educator. There was not a shining “aha” moment when insight stabs you in the heart or a dramatic change of scenery or a flash of experience leaves you with an exuberant knowing of what to do next. I could not see a “gift” of hindsight foresight or even a dilapidated sideways perspective! I was stuck and felt helpless and yes, a bit bereft of solutions. Living with questions and the unknown for me breeds great stress. I feel I am not alone. Suddenly the professional development presentations I was giving to schools felt void of meaning and even fake. I was talking the talk and had even been given a course release , entering as a co-teacher in the classrooms of students who wore and breathed in adversity and poverty in ways I could never imagine.

Unexpectedly, last summer, on a rainy Monday night, our oldest son brought a U-Haul, some significant sadness, anxiety and his recently adopted puppy Nellie, (who had walked into his home a few months prior with a history of abuse and neglect) into our home. On June 24th, left alone in our basement as Andrew went to gather the rest of his belongings, Nellie frantically panted, cried and mimicked Andrew’s distress along with my feelings of deep fear of what was happening and the looming questions of what was to come. I remember one moment that night. As Nellie finally calmed down enough to lie upon the ripped corner of a worn story-filled mattress, I lay next to her and petted her like a cat. She was not pleased. With one ear turned back, she abruptly looked into my eyes and pleaded understanding. There were no thoughts or words of reassurance for her. I didn’t want her or the circumstances that had driven her and Andrew into our home.

On this night, Nellie did not feel safe or attached to anyone or anything. She was as fearful and unsure as any living being I had ever seen up close and personal. As I reflected several days later, Nellie was the temporary victim of circumstances that had left an imprint of accumulated distress, fear and anxiety in the gut of her innocent fifteen month old life. Or was she?

I believe animals have so much to teach us about children and youth. We can read the statistics about adversity and how it affects the brains, emotions and learning of students, while we observe their demeanor in our classrooms, but to deeply feel their pain is where our work begins as educators.
Now, ten and half months later, I continue to learn at a speed that paradoxically has slowed me down. Tonight, Nellie and I took our 400th plus walk interspersed with abrupt sprinting, sniffing and ingesting every spring smell, sight sound and movement around us. I am remembering… and learning …
How can I affect change in my students’ lives that enter into our schools and classrooms from environments that exhaust and harden their young minds and hearts?

1. As a teacher or mentor in my student’s life, I need to be present and patient, allowing him or her to take the lead, although my gentle grip is felt and acknowledged. When there is tugging and pulling masked in resistance, I am “felt” on the other end, listening to learn, guiding and redirecting.

2. I am learning that a loving presence means…Nellie, as well as my students know I am not going away and if I do, I will prepare, plan and teach the behaviors I desire to see, over and over and over again. Slowly but deliberately, modeling release, while explaining that changes are life’s heartbeat.

3. I am learning that Nellie’s disposition, her agitation, anxiety and challenges are of no reflection on me. My encouragement and affirmation for noticing everything she does well, trumps the anxiety that seemingly dissolves with our time together. Nellie is teaching me to become quiet, to remember how very challenging our environments can be with regard to our everyday behaviors and shifting moods. When I feel and listen to her tugs, pulls and leads, I am laying a foundation for trust and acceptance which is very different than tolerance.

When troubled children walk into our classrooms carrying in their private logic, histories, beliefs and cultures, I am always amazed at my own “learning” that each student provokes. We don’t initially need a strategy, a technique, or plan of action with children who sometimes mistrust adults and life. First we need to be present, to notice, to listen as we feel our way around the landscape of the child. When an emotional connection is felt, we can then begin to ask: How may I serve you?

“However we treat the child,
the child will treat the world.”
― Pam Leo

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