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What are the ingredients of pre-traumatic growth?

Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity, and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.” —Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant 

In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning. I also believe that it is possible to experience pre-traumatic growth—that you don’t have to experience tragedy to build your resilience for whatever lies ahead.” —Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

Is it possible to grow in preparation for tragedy or other forms of adversity—that is, to strengthen the muscles around our back bones prior to needing to draw on that strength?

Or, is suffering an essential prerequisite to such growth? That is, without suffering we wouldn’t have the opportunity or motivation to learn those things.

If pre-traumatic growth is possible, what are its ingredients?

Here are a few I would put on my list:

• Recognizing that life is essentially unfair and that inevitably we will experience some of that unfairness in our own lives.

• Building a community of relationships that can offer emotional support and practical assistance in times of adversity.

• Establishing healthy eating, exercise, and other health habits to sustain our bodies and minds during inevitable difficult periods.

• Reading biographies and autobiographies to broaden our perspective regarding how others have dealt with significant life challenges.

• Gaining confidence by inventorying strengths acquired and used during previous difficulties.

• Remembering that: “This, too, shall pass.”

What would you add to this list?

Developing positive emotions and resilience

Is it possible for people to develop skills associated with emotional and social intelligence?

The answer is “yes.”

More specifically, is it possible for people to increase their positive emotions and, in turn, their resilience in the face of illness and other adversity?

The answer is also “yes.”

“[N]ew research is demonstrating that people can learn skills that help them experience more positive emotions when faced with the severe stress of a life-threatening illness,” Jane Brody reports.

“Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, developed a set of eight skills to help foster positive emotions….”

“An important goal of the training is to help people feel happy, calm and satisfied in the midst of a health crisis. Improvements in their health and longevity are a bonus. Each participant is encouraged to learn at least three of the eight skills and practice one or more each day.

The eight skills are:

■ Recognize a positive event each day.

■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.

■ Start a daily gratitude journal.

■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.

■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.

■ Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.

■ Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.

■ Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.”

I encourage you to experiment with one or more of these strategies for at least a week and to note their effects on your mood and ability to deal with adversity.

How adults can boost their resilience

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges. 

Scientists who study stress and resilience say it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time. While it’s useful to build up resilience before a big or small crisis hits, there still are active steps you can take during and after a crisis to speed your emotional recovery. —Tara Parker-Pope

Given that resilience is an “emotional muscle” that can be strengthened at any time, and given that human beings can learn important skills throughout their lives, it is enabling to know that there are practical ways to boost our resilience, such as these suggested by Parker-Pope:

Practice Optimism… Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, ‘I’ll never recover from this.’ An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, ‘This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.’

“While it sounds trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with positive people really does help. Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School and Dr. Charney’s co-author, notes that optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious. His advice: ‘Hang out with optimistic people.’”

Rewrite Your Story…. Study after study has shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. In expressive writing studies, college students taught to reframe their college struggles as a growth opportunity got better grades and were less likely to drop out. A Harvard study found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their stress better physiologically than those taught to ignore stress.

Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem and shift your focus to the next steps you should take.

Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.”

Parker-Pope concludes: “The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age — a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations — may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience, said Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “There is a naturally learnable set of behaviors that contribute to resilience….”

What specific behavior, if consistently practiced, would strengthen your resilience?

There is no substitute for resilient leadership

Resilient people are often called upon to be leaders, a responsibility that both draws upon their resilience and cultivates it for future use.

Early in my career I did not understand the importance of leadership. Schools, I thought, would improve if teachers were simply given the tools to do their work and the freedom to use them.

But then I had an opportunity to closely observe a school whose teachers and parents were frustrated and dispirited. Students performed poorly, and everyone felt hopeless about the future.

Eventually a new principal came to the school. Over the next 3 years things got better. Staff and parent morale improved, as did teaching and student learning.

That principal eventually went on to another assignment, and the school’s new principal was more like the first one. Things spiraled downwards into a hopelessness that felt more profound because of the school’s rollercoaster journey.

Later on in my professional development work I spent a great deal of time talking with teachers about teaching and learning.

I enjoyed those conversations immensely except when teachers were angry and cynical.

Without exception, I observed that those teachers were poorly led by principals or system administrators or union leaders. Or all three.

My work came to focus on principals and teacher leaders because without their skillful leadership teacher professional learning and teamwork were unlikely to occur in ways that would benefit all students in all classrooms.

School leaders to a very large degree determine:

What is your experience—is it possible to continuously improve teaching and learning without skillful leadership?

Do the best that you can…

Do the best that you can with what you have where you are right now. — poster in a high school science teacher’s classroom

That’s wonderful advice for all of us that applies in many situations.

And it’s likely an approach to life used by many resilient people.

But because resilient people are resourceful, consider these additions to it:

Do the best that you can by expanding what you know and can do through lifelong learning

With what you have, and with what you can acquire by using your learning and resourcefulness to provide additional tools to more effectively accomplish your goals

Where you are right now, and, when appropriate, by changing your physical location or your mental perspective about the place where you are.

What do you do to continuously expand the boundaries of your best self?

Inviting “big talk”

Make a life in which you are having the conversations you want to have.” — Laura Mott

Resilient people are proactive, and one of the ways they demonstrate that quality is by creating conversations that matter to them with their families and friends and in their work settings.

Think of those conversations as “big” rather than “small.”

While small talk has important purposes, large talk matters because it is far more likely to produce meaningful learning and to strengthen relationships.

During these conversations participants come to understand important things about themselves, each other, and the subject under discussion.

The world would be a better place, I believe, if such conversations were more frequently cultivated in families and the workplace.

In an earlier post I wrote that conversations for learning require:

• intentionality, 

• deep and mindful listening, 

• slowness that provides opportunities for thinking and elaboration, 

• an openness to learning based on a deep respect for the experiences and perspectives of others, and

an invitation, which may be as simple and straight forward as “please tell me more.” (Australian educator Edna Sackson explains how even difficult conversations can be improved when they begin with such invitations.)

What “requirements” would you add to my list?

Growth is optional

Dennis

A simple but profound truth: Change is mandatory.

Buddhists would say the cause is “impermanence,” and they would add that human suffering is caused by resisting it.

Scientists might say the reason is entropy, which my dictionary defines as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe.”

While change is inevitable, learning and growth are optional.

I am thinking about the kind of learning and growth that takes us to the edge of our comfort zone and a step or two beyond.

Some people seem to lean into such learning as if it is a part of their DNA.

Others may grow because a significant change in their personal or professional lives pushes them into it, even late in their careers or lives.

But for every person who steps up to the challenge of significant change there are others whose default settings seem to be denial and resistance.

Which begs the question: What are the internal or external conditions under which people stay the same or grow?

Commonly-cited reasons are “grit” or “resilience” or a “sense of efficacy” or a “growth orientation.”

But that doesn’t explain why some people have those qualities and others don’t.

What is your experience—what nudges you toward meaningful growth rather than entropy?


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