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Sunday, October 28, 2018

How We Can Support Every Student's Gifts and Challenges (interview)

Christine Fonseca is a critically-acclaimed author of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. 

In Letting Go: A Girl’s Guide to Breaking Free of Stress and Anxiety, she helps young women reach their full potential through mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-compassion. 

One of your areas of expertise is working with gifted kids. In an earlier interview, Danielle Ancin of The Niroga Institute mentioned that 
“although many funding agencies use the term ‘at risk,’ I have learned that the label itself can be hurtful and may get in the way of us seeing each individual’s strengths, needs, challenges, and goals.” 
Do you have any similar concerns about kids who are/aren’t labeled as ‘gifted’?

I have mixed feelings over labeling students in general, including with the gifted label. Although the “gifted” label is problematic in general – there is a bit of an elitist tone and a great deal of mythology around the label – the label does alert others to the idea that this particular group of humans is someone different from the “norm,” which is true. Gifted individuals have unique thinking, personalities and emotional development when compared to others. 

That said, identifying giftedness is highly inconsistent in the US and often relies on performance data – something highly subject to the negative impacts of poverty, trauma and other factors. We significantly under-identify children of color or children who also have learning difficulties and other needs when ascribing the giftedness label. For those reasons, the label (and the services sometimes attached to the label) serves to further marginalize some groups of children. 

None of this is okay. Much work needs to be done regarding understanding giftedness and what supports gifted children need in order to access their potential.  

But this conversation goes deeper than the labels. Really it is about changing how we work with children in general. 

Humans do not fit conveniently into labels and boxes. We are incredibly diverse in thinking and experience. And yet, within our shared humanity, we have many common goals – to be seen and heard, to be loved and respected, to share and give. 

When we can find ways to stop categorizing students and instead and meet them where they are academically and from a social-emotional lens, when we can practice deep levels of empathy and compassion, that is when we can truly connect with, inspire, and support ALL children in whatever way they need.

There’s been a lot of discussion in mindfulness circles recently about the potential risks of certain practices for adults or kids who’ve experienced trauma. Do you have any thoughts on when it’s appropriate to work through difficult thoughts and emotions on our own, and when it might be preferable to consult with a therapist or spiritual advisor?

Trauma is definitely something to be aware of when working with others. If you or those with whom you work are trauma impacted, it is important to be aware of the significant impact trauma may have and be prepared to consult with trained professionals. 

As a rule of thumb, I distinguish it this way – It is fine to work through symptoms of emotional upheaval and overload individually. For example, you can learn to manage your personal anxiety/fear responses as well as your personal biological symptoms of anxiety and panic. All of this can be accomplished without having to delve into the specific trauma or root causes of the anxiety and/or maladaptive behaviors. You are merely building your coping strategies and changing your personal relationship with fear and anxiety. 

However, when it is necessary to go deeper and confront the trauma itself, or other deep-seated root cause concerns, a partnership with trained mental health or spiritual providers is the best practice. The trained professional can act as both guide and protector, helping you to face and release the impact of the trauma without re-traumatizing your mind and body. 

As a survivor of abuse and trauma, you’ve stated that, 
“I know firsthand how stories can heal. Other people's stories gave me hope and understanding when I had none. And now, my words have the capacity to do the same for others.” 
In your opinion, how can fictional stories help us to develop empathy and self-compassion? 

Aw, yes – the power of storytelling! Our brains are highly social. We are hard-wired to remember and process stories at a deep level. Through all forms of storytelling, we can learn about other experiences and voices, we can look at things that may be too difficult to look at otherwise. We can experience feelings, perspectives, and specific events we may not otherwise be able to experience. 

This has to do with the collective experience of being human, and what Jung called the collective unconscious. Jung believed that all members of a specific species share collective ideas, instincts and archetypes that shape our unconscious thoughts. Joseph Campbell’s idea of a “hero’s journey” is born from this idea and forms the foundation of all story within the 3000+ year history of man. 

Stories, especially fictional stories, provide a type of filter that enables us to examine our own life and experiences. This distance helps us develop empathy and compassion (for others and ourselves). As we experience the heroic journey of another, we begin to see it in ourselves. This, in turn, enables us to see it in the lives of others as our collective unconscious is triggered and we see the commonality between shared experiences. 

Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. And in doing that you save the world.” This is one of the fundamental ways I see stories as being so healing and necessary!

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

I love the construct of “mindful teaching.” To me, it means being fully and completely present with the students you serve. 

It is the complete awareness and intentional presence during all parts of the interaction with the student. 

More, it is the acceptance of the student and the relationship in the moment – the lack of judgment regarding the “learning” and placing oneself as the teacher into the role of service. 

It is during these moments of mindful teaching when there is a communion of minds and the teaching/learning dynamic takes on a much deeper meaning than what is often found between student and teacher.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

I believe in living a highly mindful life. My personal practice reflects this in varied ways as I embrace living a life with full intention and awareness. 

What does this actually mean for me? Here are some of the practices I incorporate into my life many times weekly:
  • 30 – 60-min meditation to align myself with my faith and release the trappings of my very busy brain
  • 15-min daily guided meditation in the morning to set my intentions for the day
  • Gratitude practice many times/weekly to grow an abundant mindset
  • Daily journaling to explore my thoughts and catch the various trappings in action

Additionally, I examine my level of intentional awareness and presence any time I feel like I am over-thinking and ruminating, or whenever I feel like I’ve lost balance/awareness.

I do all of these things as a way to “live deliberately” (as Thoreau would call it), to ensure a life with intention and purpose. I believe I am here to live an enlightened life – that when I do this, I give permission for others to also live enlightened lives as well. 

This is my purpose – to live authentically, deliberately and as enlightened as I can be at the moment. My mindfulness practice enables me to get ever-closer to this goal.


related posts:

7 Ways Our Thoughts Deceive Us (sample activity from Letting Go: A Girl's Guide to Breaking Free of Stress and Anxiety)