Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Finding your voice- Or Lessons I've Learned from Isabella

I've been working with children since I was old enough to babysit. Been teaching children in some capacity for the last 23 years. So I don't want to say I've seen it all, but I will say not much surprises me. And I generally think I'm pretty good at reading kids and meeting them where they are and bonding with them from there. Or at least I thought that until this past year when a creative, loud, happy child named Isabella surprised me and taught me a new lesson that will help me now to be a better teacher- and maybe even a better person.

Let me back up- when I first began teaching Isabella, then 2 years old, about a year ago in one of my parent/child gymnastic classes, I did not see her at all as creative, loud, or happy. In fact, I saw her as timid, introverted and nervous. She hid most of the class behind her dad's legs. And her kind, supportive parents, along with her kind, well-meaning teacher would encourage her to try skills and push her to participate. But if I'm honest, she didn't really ever seem to enjoy the class in those days. But I thought she needed time- time to get to know me, time to be comfortable in the environment, and time to just watch and observe before doing.

And then we started a new Kindermusik program at my gym this past January. And Isabella and her mom joined my very first class. I could see the first day that Isabella was more comfortable. From day one she participated fully in the class. Without any pushing or encouraging. And as the weeks went on, Isabella became louder and louder in her participation. In a fantastic way! She modeled for the other kids all the imaginative play involved in that program. She was the first to vocalize and sing along. She really transformed into a leader before my very eyes. One week early on we were dancing with scarves to classical music- Isabella stood off to the side and sang "Let It Go" as loudly as she could over the music. It was glorious. And not the behavior of a timid, introverted child.

And as amazing as watching her come out of her shell in music class was, here is the part that really blew me away- as soon as she found her voice in the music class, the way she participated in the gym class also changed! She stepped out from behind her dad's legs and into the center of the circle. And she met me in the gym class with the same imaginative spirit that we used in music class. In our opening circle for example, instead of burying her head in her dad's chest when I'd ask her for her name, she began to give me a different name each week for what I should call her and she'd pretend to be that person (usually a princess). And one day during our exploration time, she said to me, "I'm Ms Angel and you are Isabella- you follow me." And she led me around equipment that a few months earlier I couldn't even get her to go near.

And here is the lesson I've learned- Isabella didn't need more time or understanding from me. She needed a change in environment. She needed to find her voice where she felt confident. And where the activities spoke to her and her strengths. She found those things in music class. And then she owned her new voice and used it to overcome whatever fears she had in the gym. Because now she tries skills. Now she participates fully. She is sometimes still nervous when trying new physical skills, but now instead of hiding and refusing to try, she just tells you that she is nervous as she is trying it anyway. And she is a joy to teach in both programs.

So my hope for all of us is that we can find a change in environment when we need it. Find a place where we feel confident. One that speaks to our strengths and draws out the very best in us. One where we can sing "Let It Go" loudly even when entirely different music is playing...

Angel Hundley is an instructor at and owner of The Little Gym franchise in Huntsville, AL.  The gym has weekly classes for 0-12 year olds in gymnastics, parent/child, dance, sports as well as music and movement.  For more stories, insights and cute baby pictures follow the gym on Facebook.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Being Real with Specific Positive Feedback

Today we’re having a staff meeting at my The Little Gym franchise location. In preparation, I asked all my staff to read a blog post on our gym website I wrote in back in 2011. I wanted to remind them of my core philosophy about teaching children before our new season starts in a week. Because I think it’s a good one. So I decided to share it with you all too…

Picture this scene- Child attempts forward roll: child climbs onto cheese mat, stands up straight with hands held high in the air, then drops to his knees, throws his shoulder down and sort of falls over himself and off the side of the mat. Resembles more of a wrestling move in a slapstick comedy than a gymnastics stunt. Cut to the instructor who says, “Good Job!”
Really?!? Good job? To that instructor I want to say, what was good about that?!?

There is an increasing amount of criticism these days for non-competitive sports leagues and the like where they don’t keep score and everyone receives a participation trophy. People worried that these practices don’t prepare kids for real life. Here’s what I think. Kids don’t need competition at a young age to prepare them for anything. But they do need, and deserve, meaningful, honest feedback. Specific feedback that is meant to highlight the behaviors that should be repeated.

At The Little Gym we call this SPF, specific positive feedback, and it is what we train our instructors to use when teaching. So if we go back to our scene above, the instructor could have said, “The way you stood up straight and held your hands high in the air was a perfect start. Let’s try it again now and this time…”

That is much more meaningful and instructive than just saying good job. And there is always something that can be said. Even if the whole skill looked a mess. Sometimes the SPF is simply, “I LOVED the enthusiasm you brought to that attempt!” If a child leaves feeling good about being enthusiastic and keeps that up, great! Better than leaving with a false sense of confidence for being told they did a great forward roll if they didn’t.

And the practice can certainly be used outside of the gym as well. I’m not saying using SPF is easy. You actually have to PAY ATTENTION closely enough to behaviors to be specific. Much easier to multi-task while watching our kids and look up occasionally and offer a “good job” as encouragement. But I challenge you to see the results if you begin to be more specific in your praise.

And as for the soccer league that doesn’t keep score and yet gives all players a trophy, I think that does kind of send the wrong message. At least as far as a child who is an incredible soccer player and yet gets the same reward and recognition as a child who barely knows a game is going on most of the time. But I do believe every child on the team deserves a reward and recognition. But a reward specific to an actual skill each child possesses and exhibited during the season. How much more powerful and meaningful would that trophy be then? And honestly, the trophies could all look exactly the same. Just be presented for different reasons. Maybe a child gets a trophy for being super fast. No one has to point out he ran so fast he overtook the ball and never stopped. Might not have kicked a ball once, but he ran like the wind! So maybe when he is old enough for competitive sports, he remembers his trophy for being fast and chooses track. And maybe he wins State. And then the Olympics. Instead of thinking he had a soccer trophy, so he must be good at soccer, and therefore joins a soccer team and is just mediocre…

So let’s make kids feel like winners by pointing out actual winning skills in them regardless of the score. And oh, by the way, I love the way you read all the way to the end of my blog…

My somewhat awkward, creative, life loving child. She may not grow up to be a professional dancer, but she will grow up to be remarkable.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

You are not that special...

I've learned an important lesson this week. I am not that special. And even as a child, I wasn't that special either.

Teaching Parent/Child classes for the last 8 years, the question I am most often asked by parents is some variation of "is it normal...?"
Is it ok... Do you think I should be worried about... My child does___, do other children do that?

And not once has a parent been hoping I would say, "Wow! That is unique! I've never seen that before!" That would not be a comforting answer to a parent trying to figure out if their kid is ok.
As parents, we can all see the wonderfully unique gifts our children have. We don't need reassurances that our children are special. But sometimes, we do need reassurances that they are not. We want to hear that our children our normal- that the behavior is not that strange...

And you know what? Without fail in the hundreds and hundreds of times I've had a variation of this conversation with a parent, I've always been able to reassure them that yes, their child is ok. Sometimes I have to say honestly that the behavior is not typical. But I've never had to say the behavior was unheard of... and that is all the parent needs to hear to feel less scared. Another child has gone through this. Another parent has dealt with this too. They are not that special.

I would wager that no one in the history of parenting has ever worried a child is too normal. No one stresses when a child hits all the developmental milestones on time and falls in the 50% on growth charts. We take comfort in our children being like everyone else even as we celebrate and encourage them to be different.

As grown-ups though there are no charts to gauge our averageness by and tell us where we fall compared to everyone else. We don't have casual conversations where we can ask others if our behaviors, thoughts or feelings are normal. And so we start to imagine that we must be the only person on the planet who feels or acts the way we do.

But this week I've heard from a quite a few people in response to my openness on this blog about issues I've dealt with, and I've learned another person has felt what I have. A lot of other persons actually. And I am less scared for hearing it. I am not that special. And you dear reader, you are not that special either...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The gift of authenticty...

A friend told me recently she has never been happy in her whole life. And while that might sound heartbreaking, it was honestly one of the most beautiful, hopeful interactions I've had in a long while. 

We were not in a bar commiserating as old friends. In fact, we're barely more than acquaintances. And yet we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded lobby talking authentically about our real selves. The beautiful part. And she was sharing not out of despondency or to complain; she was sharing about taking control of her future by owning her past story. The hopeful part. 

It's all too rare in life to have genuine, life affirming interactions with good friends. Not because we don't care about one another, but because life is moving fast. And we're all busy trying to be so many things to so many people in so many settings. So experiencing moments when all pretense is gone, and core emotional truths are open and vulnerable is a gift. And so to have one with a casual friend on a random day in the middle of a crowded room was an especially unexpected gift. One that I will now treasure. And one that reminds me to be open and hopeful for more of these interactions- not guarded and cynical of sharing my true self for fear of being real. 

And this casual friend is on a journey of being real. One that I find attractive. In fact, since I own a small business, I sort of have a rule not to "friend" my customers or staff on Facebook. If they friend me, of course I accept, and I'm genuinely happy to do so, but I've always felt that given our real world relationship, I don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable like they have to be my friend and not just my customer or employee. (Although I do genuinely like and think of all my customers and staff as friends.)

 Anyway, this woman on her journey of understanding her self and becoming real was so compelling to me even before this recent conversation, that I broke my own rule and requested to be friends with her almost a year ago. Actually what I just realized when I checked when we became friends, was that I reached out to her that way exactly the month I went to a training about leadership being a spiritual practice. The month I learned that doing the hard work examining self and working through the emotional barriers we all have is necessary to be more fully present to the people we serve. And the month I wrote my blog about my journey to becoming whole. Which is a revelation to me. In my mind, I had thought I had only been Facebook Friends with her for a few months. But it makes sense now that of course that was when I reached out to know her more.

Because you see, until that recent conversation, I did not know any specifics of her journey. But through interacting with her on a regular basis over the last 7 years, I could see/can see that she is becoming whole too. I could see that she was being genuine and authentic, or trying to be. And it made her beautiful and compelling. And then once we were friends on Facebook, I found that she says the most outrageous and honest things- most of the time with profanity involved. And it is like a breath of fresh air whenever I read her posts. Really profane fresh air... 

And so I write this to affirm for her that I see her beauty and am hopeful that she will one day find happiness. And I write this to remind all of us- that having the courage to be authentic, and sharing part of our real selves with casual friends on random days in the middle of crowded rooms can be life affirming in the most beautiful, hopeful way...