Practicing strength by being vulnerable
Maintaining connection while feeling big emotions is something that we work hard on and practice a lot at this school. We want children to experience discomfort so they can practice being vulnerable and taking chances. When placing their idea into the world, like Bella did when she asked “are you still my friend?, the children trust that it will be met with care and compassion. I see our school values alive in this story when Bella shuts down because of big emotions and the response from her community.
The teachers invited the children to vote for the flavor they wanted to serve at a community gathering: strawberry or blueberry. As the children voted one at a time, the berry with more votes started getting cheers from its supporters. It was clear to Caroline that she needed to pause the voting and forecast for the children so they didn’t inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings. She saw a real opportunity to invite them to practice empathy. She offered them a chance to consider, in a way that makes sense to our youngest learners, the gap between our intentions and our impact.
Caroline asked, “When you cheer, how do you think it might feel for your friends who chose the other flavor?” She also wanted them to share coping strategies and said, “If your flavor isn’t chosen, what do you think you might tell your brain?” The children with a little more practice thinking about their thinking – and thinking about their feelings – offered a few possibilities like, “I could say, ‘maybe next time’ or, ‘It’s OK, I like that flavor too.’” It seemed as though they were primed for the excitement (and disappointment) that comes with voting.
The end result was a landslide for strawberry. When Caroline announced it was the flavor with the most votes, despite her gentle reminders many of the children impulsively cheered. Meanwhile, Bella had a very different response. She jumped up from the meeting, and ran away to a cozy spot where she buried herself under a few pillows. Perhaps the uncomfortable feeling of disappointment snuck up on her, or perhaps the cheering of her friends sparked feelings of hurt and sadness.
Caroline stood up and walked across the room to Bella. She reached out her hand and said, “Oh Bella, you’re feeling disappointed. It felt hard when friends started cheering. Let’s go back to the community to let everyone know what happened and see how they might help. We care about you. Let us care for you and your disappointed feelings.”
Bella then took Caroline’s hand and returned to the group. The children cared for Bella by listening with great interest as she shared that she was feeling sad because she loves blueberry muffins. Caroline asked, “How can we help our friend who is feeling sad and disappointed?” Without hesitation, the children’s care and love for Bella overflowed. Bella’s brave heart, her strength in being vulnerable, inspires all of us to lean into discomfort and uncertainty a little more.
What are the conditions needed for Bella to bring her whole self — her hopes, ideas and gifts as well as her fears, doubts and mistakes — to school each day? This story highlights the role of trust and time, listening and relationships. We strive to create space to talk about frustration, disappointment, sadness and misunderstanding because we expect each member of our community to bring all of their emotions, not just the ones which feel good or comfortable.
And this story illustrates how being uncomfortable is necessary for courageous action. When Bella ran away from the meeting because of her big feelings, she could’ve stayed at the cozy spot under the pillows and done nothing. Instead, she chose to lean into the discomfort by returning to her community and speaking her truth. As a result, she uncovered the joy that comes with being brave and taking a chance, knowing that she can do hard things and, ultimately, that she belongs.
Being human means having hard feelings and doing hard things. Bella showed us all that it’s OK to feel sad and disappointed, and she gave us another chance to practice listening and understanding. As teachers, we have an intention to create brave spaces where each child, just like Bella, knows they have a voice, where they feel safe to share their ideas, where they grow their courage muscle by taking chances and making mistakes, and where they can feel unconditional support from and connection with their community.