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  • Writer's pictureKelly Priest

Start With Yourself

Social workers and others in relationship-based helping professions are familiar with the idea of “use of self” – using one’s own experiences and personality to enhance the therapeutic or learning process for the benefit of the person you are working with. In professional development with teachers and other professionals, and in my work with parents, I return again and again to the idea of authentic use of self in guiding kids’ social learning.

This can include fairly concrete matters like avoiding the use of “therapy voice,” which puts distance between adults and students and makes many students feel like manipulated, condescended-to subjects. Rita Pierson said bluntly in her TED talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When we hide behind a professional persona, we may protect ourselves from some emotional risks, but we deprive children and teens of their need to know us so they can begin to trust us, maybe like us, and learn from us.

Another example is physical use of self. Sometimes after a student leaves, I’ll try on a “stim” of theirs – running my hands over the bumpy office carpet or unfocusing my eyes to see the dust sparkling in a ray of sun. It probably doesn’t do the same thing for my sensory-motor system as it does for theirs, but sometimes it’s informative.

What I really mean by “authentic use of self” though, is reflecting on and speaking about our own social learning, and using this as a basis for understanding and contextualizing a child’s social learning challenges. Social Thinking® founder Michelle Winner often says that we are all evolving social learners. Sounds about right, and yet when it gets down to actually naming our specific social challenges, people tend to protect those tender spots.

The hardest pushback I ever got on implementing SEL curriculum was from some teachers I’d asked to fill out a SEL curriculum map for teaching flexible thinking. I asked them, in the first column, to jot down an example of one of their own (or their team’s) flexible thinking “stretches” that they might consider sharing with students, and further down, one or two examples of some flexible thinking stretches they had observed in their classrooms. For their own part, I wanted to make sure they weren’t choosing anything too major or personal that would come back to haunt them, but also something students might recognize as real. I included in the request a couple of my own personal examples of flexible thinking stretches to model “just right” authentic use of self.

Most of the early elementary teachers were used to joining students by using themselves as examples, and most of them quickly turned in maps with examples of flexible thinking stretches like, “Getting bogged down and stalled in group decision-making instead of ‘turning the page.’” Or, “Coming up with good modifications to plans when stressed out by too many sudden changes to the daily schedule.”

But teachers who perhaps had been feeling more exposed and vulnerable had a much harder time. In one grade, where the teachers had been dealing with an especially critical, boundary-pushing group of parents all year, there were a lot of questions about my request. Also, about half of the middle school teachers flat-out rebelled! These teachers returned their curriculum maps with that portion blank, some complained to their administrator and questioned whether it was mandatory, and a few grumbled and glared at me for the rest of the school year! These were teachers who had participated actively in a great deal of professional development on SEL, who wanted social learning curricula for their students, and were willing to devote a good deal of instructional time to it. But this was a bridge too far.

Some people would have learned from this how to be more politic and sensitive when managing large groups of people. I did not, but I did find a valuable takeaway in understanding a bit more about the inverse relationship between feeling vulnerable and exposed to criticism, and willingness to reflect on and share our social learning “stretches.” I realized that if it’s hard for us to name our social learning stretches when we’re feeling vulnerable or criticized, it makes sense that kids who are getting a lot of heat from adults and peers for their social mistakes will be guarded too.

In fact, most of us are primed for some degree of shame around our social learning anyway, because so much of our learning comes from our social mistakes and the negative consequences we experience, or that we cause others to experience, or both. It’s not like our school subjects, where we have discussions or lectures, visuals, materials to read, worksheets to help familiarize us with concepts, or small group projects to try on our social learning with before we have to demonstrate mastery. No, we generally have to plunge in, and social experience and wisdom are what we get right after we needed it. Tolerating the discomfort of naming and accepting our social learning challenges is a developing skill, at any age or stage of life.

The End of History Illusion

Another barrier to naming our social learning stretches for the sake of authentic use of self is a quirk most of us have in our perception of ourselves, and by extension, I believe, our social selves. Daniel Gilbert co-authored a study at Harvard called, “The End of History Illusion.” They found that, “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. People regard the present as the moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

When the researchers asked people to estimate how much they thought they had changed in the last ten years, people thought they had changed and learned a great deal. When they asked them to estimate how much they would change in the next ten years, people of all ages consistently thought they wouldn’t change or grow much more.

But in these passing years, we all go through random life experiences and learn from them, as well as learning socially from the experiences that tend to cluster around different developmental stages of life. We learn from going to college or entering the workforce, dealing with bureaucracy, managing relationships with a spouse and in-laws, managing social interactions with our children’s classmates’ parents. We learn social lessons from divorce (ours or other people’s) and death (just others’, probably). Along the whole lifespan, we learn new ways of understanding other people and ourselves, new ways of conceiving of social problems and responding to them along the way. How could it be otherwise?

Yet we tend to default to thinking of our own social skills as fixed, internal character traits, with a dollop of shame around any “imperfections,” so when we turn our gaze to these children and their lagging social development, it’s often with an overly critical eye from our high but wobbly little perch. Partly as a countermeasure, I intentionally disclose some aspects of my own social learning to my students and their parents.

I might talk about a real social mistake I’ve made in a social learning group and ask the kids to help me sort out how big it is on a scale from one to five. We might discuss how to fix it or work around it in the future. Or I might point out some area where I’m pretty confident that I’ve improved, or casually mention something I’ve been working on and am still. I encourage parents and colleagues to do the same.

As many years as I’ve been doing this, I’ve never felt that it has cost me credibility or authority. Several years ago, I mentioned to a group of students that I was “still learning” (magical phrase) how to be more flexible and change or scrap the group plan when it just didn’t fit with the group’s mood or energy level. It was a little bit of a risk, due to one student’s tendency to be negative and blunt in their comments on others’ behavior. But I still remember how it felt when they all agreed that yes, I used to have a harder time with that, but then commended me on how much I had worked on it and learned in the second half of the year!

I’ve also shared with students at various times that I’m working on speaking in shorter sentences even when I’m tired and tend to ramble, remembering to slow down and take breaks during the group even if we’re on a roll, and consistently following through on my commitments to having all the materials we need for an activity organized and ready to use. I also share with my students that the planning and organization parts of that last one are extra challenging for me because of my ADHD.

The purpose of this authentic use of self is not to pretend that everyone struggles with social learning in the same ways my students do. There’s nothing wrong with struggling; we all have to do it to grow. And there’s nothing wrong with social learning, or having social learning challenges or disabilities. The purpose is to authentically and openly share some of our common, lifelong social learning processes. This gives a child’s specific, often frustrating or painful social struggles some context, perspective, and above all, humanity. Adults need to clearly and consistently model and articulate self-awareness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset regarding our own ongoing social development long before we expect children to demonstrate these qualities themselves.

When I hear that a child won’t take responsibility or apologize for their mistakes, or open up to getting help with their social challenges, I know we have yet to make it safe enough for them to do so, and so we must start with ourselves.

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