Habits That Serve
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
In my last blog post, I talked about habits that I have been working on that not only make my work better, but enrich my life. I outlined how slowing down has helped me to see my students in a new light, and made me feel less frazzled in the process. In this offering, I am outlining two additonal habits that are very much tied together- controlling distractions and tolerating discomfort.
Distraction may be the issue of our time. We have constant distractions at our fingertips and marketers have figured out ways to keep pulling us away from our families, our purpose, and our work. There are multiple studies that link distraction to disease, depression and overall feelings of discontent. The children of today have grown up in a time where the electronic cure to boredom and upset is always available. This simple, but profound truth, ties distraction and discomfort together. Even if we learn techniques to control the distractions, how do we deal with the uncomfortable space that is left in its place?
Teachers regularly come to occupational therapists with the complaint that they have students who cannot pay attention. We often suggest sensory tools to help a distracted child. These tools are useful, but I believe incomplete. Do we, as adults, model being attentive? In studies of parental distraction, the more distracted a parent is, the less joy they report in the interactions with their children. There are also studies that demonstrate that parents who are constantly distracted are less verbally interactive. This is a huge concern for disabled children. The majority of disabled children have speech and language challenges. They need more verbal exchanges and practice, not less.
In schools, even without our phones, we are constantly bombarded with distractions. Classrooms are busy and therapists are part of the problem. We are often pulling children in and out of rooms and may even try to have a quick talk with an already distracted teacher. I have been guilty of this countless times; always feeling like I won’t have the chance again. We would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t agree that we are all too distracted yet, do you, like me, feel helpless with the enormity of this problem?
Again, and again, the solution to childhood challenges starts with adult modeling. Can we commit to times of the day where our phones are kept at a distance? Mealtimes are perfect times to practice presence. How about the car? Could we commit to spending time in the car speaking to our children, rather than tuning them out while they are occupied with electronics. How about the classroom? Is our phone too close to comfortably ignore? Our students need us to actually be there when we are with them. Can we practice moments of full attention in our work, even if it feels impossible at home?
Though yoga is known as a physical practice in the West, it is actually a spiritual practice, with movement only being a small part of the overall system. Even in the time of Patanjali, there were distractions. The practices in yoga were meant to clear away internal noise as a path to stillness and peace. When we move, we get an opportunity to be in our bodies and therefore in the present moment. Finding time to move, even for short periods, can train our attention muscle. Movement also means pushing past our comfortable inertia. Exercise, in any form, then helps to not only foster our attention muscle but also build our tolerance to discomfort. We can create fun movement routines, that we share with children, as a way to work on all of these beneficial habits.
Lastly, mindfulness practices help us to find the present moment, train our attention and help us to recognize our emotions. When we teach children these practices, we offer them all of these benefits and specifically we can help children to recognize uncomfortable feelings like boredom and waiting. Being uncomfortable is not something to be feared, but a feeling to be understood and faced. Besides simple breath practices we can just point out when we see a child who is having difficulty with a skill, such as needing to wait. We can show empathy by admitting that we too don’t enjoy waiting. When we communicate with children that their feelings are valid and shared, there is room for them to grow and change.
B.J. Fogg, the Stanford researcher, has found that habits are most easefully formed from small changes. Linking new small habits to our established routines creates lasting change over time. Just short, routine bouts of mindfulness, movement or just the commitment to fully listening to a child goes a very long way to helping children and adults to flourish together. In these blogs I have shared habits that I know help me but I would love to hear from you. Are you working on your own habits, while you live and work with children? Please reach out and share. I would love to hear your voice. Contact Deirdre at firstname.lastname@example.org