What a Grateful Brain Looks Like

November 26, 2015
Thankful teen

As we approach this Thanksgiving holiday I can’t think of a better post than this one as we consider the impact of gratitude on our brain in this article by Adam Hoffman.  I hope you will enjoy what is intuitive to all of us with the benefits gratefulness, as shown in part of the research from the University of California.

The benefits of gratitude

Here is Adam’s article.

“Thank you” doesn’t just bring light to people’s faces. It also lights up different parts of the brain.

Evidence is mounting that gratitude makes a powerful impact on our bodies, including our immune and cardiovascular health. But how does gratitude work in the brain?

A team at the University of Southern California has shed light on the neural nuts and bolts of gratitude in a new study, offering insights into the complexity of this social emotion and how it relates to other cognitive processes.

holding door open“There seems to be a thread that runs through subtle acts of gratitude, such as holding a door for someone, all the way up to the big powerful stuff like when someone gives you a kidney,” says Glenn Fox, a postdoctoral researcher at USC and lead author of the study. “I designed this experiment to see what aspects of brain function are common to both these small feelings of appreciation and large feelings of gratitude.”

In their experiment—which was partially funded by a grant from the Greater Good Science Center’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project—Fox and his team planned to scan participants’ brains while they were feeling grateful to see where gratitude showed up.

But first, they had to induce gratitude. At USC’s Shoah Foundation, which houses the world’s largest collection of Holocaust testimonies, they poured over hundreds of hours of footage to identify compelling stories of survivors receiving aid from others.

“Many of the survivors talked about receiving life-saving help from other people—from being hidden by strangers during the middle of the Nazi manhunt to being given a new pair of shoes during a wintertime march,” says Fox. “And they also talked about less significant gifts, such as bread or a bed at night.”

These stories were turned into 48 brief vignettes, which the 23 experiment participants read while lying in a brain scanner. For example, one said, “A woman at the immigration agency stamps your passport so you can flee to England.” For each one, participants were asked to immerse themselves in the context of the Holocaust, imagine how they would feel if they were in the same situation, and then rate how grateful they felt—all while the fMRI machine recorded their brain activity.

Gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

The researchers found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.

“A lot of people conflate [mix] gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” says Fox. “The pattern of [brain] activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.”

In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

In further studies, Fox hopes to investigate what’s going on in the body as gratitude improves our health and well-being.

“It’s really great to see all the benefits that gratitude can have, but we are not done yet. We still need to see exactly how it works, when it works, and what are the best ways to bring it out more,” he says. “Enhancing our knowledge of gratitude pulls us closer to our own human dignity and what we can do to benefit each other.”

I hope you all have a most Happy Thanksgiving Day and weekend.  It is a great time to celebrate and enjoy family and friends.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Source: http://www.mindful.org/what-a-grateful-brain-looks-like/?utm_source=Mindful+Newsletter&utm_campaign=89e62075a9-Mindful_Weekly_Nov_24_20159_20_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d03e8c02c-89e62075a9-21634697 

Addressing Stress in Children

November 25, 2015
fearful child

Stress in children can be caused by a variety of experiences and perceptions. It could come from hearing or seeing frightening images on television or on social media or even as a result of discussions with peers at school.

Be careful little eyes what you see

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director and Master Trainer

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

We live in a world where information is shared almost instantly as it occurs, anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately the media capitalizes on the strong emotional impact of highly graphic, terrifying stories. Worse, children can get caught in the emotional crossfire of this often sensationalized information.

Stressful behavior

Children often are stressed if they are worried for their safety, if parents are emotionally or physically unavailable, if something frightening happens to them—like an accident or illness requiring medical interventions—or if they experience some kind of significant loss.

Loss can be the death of a significant person, but there can also be less obvious losses. For example, those that might affect a child are: moving from a familiar neighborhood, worrying that parents might be divorcing, having to say goodbye to a favorite teacher, or really anything that involves having to let go of something that is cherished.

When children experience significant stress, they need first and foremost to feel safe, both physically and emotionally. If the fears are about physical safety, such as worrying that terrorists will hurt them or someone they love, parents can provide reassurance by pointing out all the ways their safety is ensured. They can speak to the presence of police, firefighters, and other adults who have the job of protecting our country, our cities, our towns and all our citizens.

Helping children know they are safe emotionally can be more challenging. 

Children often are unable to recognize or identify their own feelings and may not exhibit root behavior a parent would associate with fear or stress. Parents can be unaware that children are feeling frightened or stressed because children can be very masterful about concealing those feelings, especially if in the past those feelings have been discounted or minimized.

It is very important for parents to be careful not to discount or minimize when children share or even visually look frightened or stressed. Do not say things like, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” or “You are just being silly,” or  “Just stop thinking about that – here, have a cookie and that will make you feel better,” or  “You are being too dramatic.” 

These kinds of messages minimize children’s feelings and make it hard for them to talk about those feelings and the beliefs associated with them.  If they don’t have ways to talk about feelings and thoughts, these can stay trapped inside, often becoming more exaggerated because they aren’t able to share and process them in emotionally healthy ways.

By being able to share feelings and thoughts freely, without fear of ridicule or criticism, children can work through those feelings and thoughts and can regain a sense of safety, helping to reduce their stress.

Take your child’s fears seriously

Children need adults to take their fears seriously and to give them opportunities to talk about what is frightening to them and why. Then parents can give children information to provide specific ways their safety is being protected.

Basically, children need to receive the following messages: I am loved and cherished by my family. My family will embrace my fears without criticizing or shaming me. You will believe me when I say I’m scared or upset, even if what I think or feel does not make sense to you. The point is that it makes sense to me!

In order to appreciate and accept what children are thinking, feeling or believing, you need to spend time listening and attending. Additionally, if you can provide some reassurance and encouragement to them so they can recognize the protective elements in their world,  your children are less likely to be overwhelmed by fearful thoughts, feelings and beliefs that create  stress in their inner worlds.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Do you have memories of being stressed or afraid as a child? If so, to what extent did your parents nurture you, comfort you, listen and then reassure you? If not, how did their responses make you feel? Sometimes by remembering our own childhood experiences, we can become clear about what our own children need.
  2. How aware are you of your first responses when your children say or show they are stressed or feeling afraid? Are those responses accepting, caring, and compassionate?
  3. How aware are you of moments when you might think that a child is overreacting or only needs to be reassured but not really heard when feeling stressed or afraid? How can you change those responses to ones that show appreciation for feelings and beliefs?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

A Million Chances:  Parenting Lessons Learned and Shared

November 24, 2015

A number of years ago, Lakeside had the privilege of launching regional parenting centers.  The Center for Parenting Education, lead by Director Audrey Krisbergh, and Assistant Director Deb Cohen, has been operating very successfully for 18 years.  We are so proud of all the great work done by The Center. They have served thousands of parents with a variety of wonderful programs. But beyond programs, they have nurtured and supported the parents they served. Most recently, they have produced on-line programs, available through their web site, to further serve parents.

The Center for Parenting Education

ManyThe Center for Parenting Education, Abington, PA parents benefited from one of their most popular venues called the News and Views. These were well-written articles regarding some of the most asked-about parenting issues published by the parenting educators who volunteered in the Center.

Most recently, The Center for Parenting Education published a book of compilations of their News and Views articles entitled A Million Chances:  Parenting Lessons Learned and Shared.  I think this publication can be a huge help to parents—sort of a one-a-day kind of reading that will keep parents informed and thinking about the many issues they face while raising their children.

Here is the link to A Million Changes if you wish to purchase it:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1495802973/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1495802973&linkCode=as2&tag=centeforparen-20&linkId=AQOUESSSI6SYZ7K6.

This compilation is the result of much effort and joy for The Center. I am so pleased they took the time to publish their book and made it available to parents all over the country.

I urge parents to go to the link and consider purchasing the book. 

The book is filled with helpful principles for emotionally healthy parenting.  It is an easy read that any parent will benefit from. I congratulate The Center for Parenting Education for all they have achieved and am personally very excited for this publication designed to help our parents in a very practical way.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Could We Have a Revolution in the Lives of Teachers and Students?

November 19, 2015
Felicia Whitney’s bulletin board at Robert Morris School

One of Lakeside’s very impactful programs is our Institute for Family Professionals in Philadelphia.  This program has trained over 5000 professionals in a variety of courses related to the needs of children and families. We have also had the privilege of training many of the staff within the Philadelphia School District.  We are so pleased that this article written by Rebecca Pepper Sinkler was recently published by SafeKidsStories about our impact in Philadelphia Schools and the lives of both students and teachers.

Conventional disciplines of shaming and punishment are the last thing these children need

“We have prisons and classrooms filled with traumatized people. Unknowingly I have been a part of that.”

This disclosure did not come in the safe anonymity of the confessional booth but in a professional development course. How often do we hear a confession of this honesty and magnitude? What precipitated it? What if anything will it change?

boy waiting for disciplineThe comment came from a school psychologist in a course last June on how trauma affects children and what educators — teachers, counselors, school nurses, principals — can do to heal the impact of violence, neglect , extreme poverty or loss on these kids’ lives and learning.

“I was expecting that I would witness emotional moments,” said a visitor to the class, Elly Porter-Webb. “After all the course was about trauma, but what I wasn’t expecting was the depth of connection among the participants [about 20]. What I saw was a room full of people who cared for each other and about each other’s classrooms and kids. They had bonded through telling their stories of working with children in pain, and sharing stories of their own distressing experiences in the classroom and in their personal lives.”

Porter-Webb, a student in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and Lorene Cary’s teaching assistant, visited the workshop to observe and report on new approaches to working with students’ life experience, had added an extra layer of challenge to learning in a traditional classroom.

The course was given by the Institute for Family Professionals (IFP), an organization based in Philadelphia that, since 2003, has provided training for professionals who work with children and families. Using recent research on brain theory and the effects of childhood trauma, IFP provides researched and proven best practices on topics such as trauma, anger, and discipline. Diane Wagenhals, founder of IFP, says that she has seen “revolutionary conversions” on the part of teachers who realize that the conventional disciplines of shaming and punishment are the last thing these children need.

Best practices, Porter-Webb learned, included simple ideas like rearranging classrooms to soothe anxious kids, using sensory techniques to calm a student, teaching children, even very young ones, that their own outward behavior was only the tip of the iceberg of their pain, and having children pin symbols of their worst experiences and fears on a “trauma tree.”

Porter-Webb reports that the sensory techniques taught in this six-week workshop included applying a cool, wet paper towel to the forehead of an upset child, or providing stuffed animals to hold, squeeze, punch or cuddle. Hugs were permitted, too. “I hug every student at the entrance of school every day now. One hug can calm them for the whole day,” said Cheryl Nesmith, a Southwark teacher. “Sometimes no one had hugged that child when they were born,” she said.

As to the iceberg lesson, Felicia Whitney, who works with third, fourth and fifth grade students, scanned the laminated image of an iceberg provided in the workshop and posted it on the bulletin board outside her classroom. Students were taught that the iceberg analogy represents, “there is more to me than meets the ‘I’ (iceberg),” so it was an opportunity to say “everyone sees me as the tip of the iceberg,” but really I am so much more. I’m loving and genuine, and charming, or “I get sad when I get around other people”. Children began to observe the experiences hidden beneath their own iceberg’s surface. “From that point on the students felt validated, more confident.” And other people looked at her students differently, Porter-Webb reported. Understanding the experience beneath a breakdown helps not only the teacher, but the child, who may be as bewildered and threatened by his or her own tantrum as the adult in charge.

Using the example of the course leaders, Susannah Spanton and Cathleen Watkins, two very positive and affirming women, the participants learned it was safe to share their own classroom shortcomings.

“I was the best teacher,” recalled Sherry McBride, a teacher since 1974. “In parochial school, I was really good at my craft, really confident about my practice. Ten years ago I transitioned to being a “positive support coordinator” in public school, but I didn’t realize till then that I didn’t have the tools to deal with trauma. I thought it was about giving consistency, consequences. But that didn’t work here. People around me said ‘It is what it is,’ and I was not comfortable with that. This course has been a blessing. I feel so well informed now. I am not labelling so much as listening.

“My kids can even verbalize simplified brain theory,” she continues, pointing at the back of her head first, showing how her students say “I know I’m here, and I need to be here,” pointing to her forehead.

Ruth Norris, who teaches second graders, uses a “trauma tree” for kids to tell their own stories, kids displaced from homes, shifted between one parent to another, devastated by the death of their mother, hit by a car. Patricia Hendrick- Emore, teacher at Philadelphia Academy North , summed it up: “I’m in awe of the resilience of the students. It’s amazing they come to school every day. Lots of people couldn’t live a day in the life of these kids.”

Some might say the same for these teachers, who concede that they can become dismayed by what they encounter. But all praised what they called the “tool kits” they took back to their classes. Ruth Garcia, an elementary school psychologist, saw an immediate impact when she changed her cold-feeling office with its three desks, filing cabinets and glaring overhead lights, to a place of warmth and safety for children. Classical music, bean-bag chairs and a scent of vanilla calmed kids, and allowed her to reach them.

Relating this experience draws a communal hum of acknowledgement among the workshop participants, people who have until now felt isolated in their own inability to cope with children in pain.

Best practices indeed. Practices that shun harsh “consequences” — from punishment to prisons — in favor of self-knowledge, safety, and love. The capacity to change their own work is what most of the attendants took away. As Michelle Messer, the psychologist quoted at the beginning of this article put it, “We owe the universe a debt and this class is the currency to repay that.”

A tool kit for our teachers

It is so important that we provide the right tool kits for our teachers so they will be able to be much more effective in caring for the personal and academic needs of their students.  Better informed teachers makes for better managed classrooms and students who can learn and be more successful.  I do hope we can replicate this training for more and more schools in our country.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Source: https://medium.com/safe-kids-stories/could-we-have-a-revolution-in-the-lives-of-teachers-and-students-53504d2dea42

Recognizing Stress in Children 

November 18, 2015

The horrific attacks in Paris could rekindle the sense of terror most of us felt on 9/11—feelings of helplessness, overwhelming stress and fear for ourselves, our children, families and communities. With news stories and images from France circulating through so many sources on social media, our children may be exposed to information and pictures that can sharply raise their levels of anxiety and stress.

Continue Reading…