Full PreFrontal

Ep. 147: Phyllis Fagell - No Straight Line from 6th Grade to Success

May 04, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 147
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 147: Phyllis Fagell - No Straight Line from 6th Grade to Success
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 147: Phyllis Fagell - No Straight Line from 6th Grade to Success
May 04, 2021 Season 1 Episode 147
Sucheta Kamath

Keeping up with the pace, load, and challenge of learning requires emotional and self-management skills – best described as Executive Function. However, when these skills are either delayed, under-developed, or absent it is easy to question the child’s motivations and intentions. The truth of the matter is that some kids simply need more support, scaffolding, and a greater appreciation for their differences. 

On this episode, counselor, author, Washington Post contributor, and freelance writer, Phyllis Fagell, discusses how Executive function skills are the skills that help build check-and-balance systems and backup methods that help students stay on top of their own work. When adults involved in helping and guiding children focus on becoming a non-anxious presence, the children themselves are likely to understand how to stay calm, which in turn can help them focus and feel relaxed enough to learn. 

About Phyllis Fagell
Phyllis is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist who works with kids and families in private practice, and an author and journalist. She's the author of “Middle School Matters” and a frequent contributor to the Washington Post. She also freelances for publications including Psychology Today, Working Mother, U.S. News & World Report and Your Teen, and her ideas have been shared in outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and NPR. Phyllis lives in Bethesda, MD with her husband and three children.



About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

Keeping up with the pace, load, and challenge of learning requires emotional and self-management skills – best described as Executive Function. However, when these skills are either delayed, under-developed, or absent it is easy to question the child’s motivations and intentions. The truth of the matter is that some kids simply need more support, scaffolding, and a greater appreciation for their differences. 

On this episode, counselor, author, Washington Post contributor, and freelance writer, Phyllis Fagell, discusses how Executive function skills are the skills that help build check-and-balance systems and backup methods that help students stay on top of their own work. When adults involved in helping and guiding children focus on becoming a non-anxious presence, the children themselves are likely to understand how to stay calm, which in turn can help them focus and feel relaxed enough to learn. 

About Phyllis Fagell
Phyllis is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist who works with kids and families in private practice, and an author and journalist. She's the author of “Middle School Matters” and a frequent contributor to the Washington Post. She also freelances for publications including Psychology Today, Working Mother, U.S. News & World Report and Your Teen, and her ideas have been shared in outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker and NPR. Phyllis lives in Bethesda, MD with her husband and three children.



About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we expose the mysteries of executive function. My mission is to help people understand what is that mysterious thing called prefrontal cortex. And to remind them that when it is at its best, it produces behaviors and actions that allow you to be goal persisted and which means you do not let out until you achieve your goals. And most importantly, it allows you to form the right goals that are right for you. But in addition to that prefrontal cortex allows you to connect to your future self, the self that is yet to be formed. But everything you do today feeds and shapes that future self. And how about creating conditions where your future self is grateful for what you're doing today? And with that in mind, I bring you guests that have expertise in either understanding how that part of the brain works, or they have contributed with their expertise in helping children and adults shape their prefrontal cortex. So today, our guest is Phyllis Fagell. She is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist who works with kids and families in private practice, and she is an author and a journalist as well. She is the author of a wonderful, wonderful book called Middle School Matters and a frequent contributor to Washington Post. She also freelances for publications including Psychology Today, Working Mothers, US News and World Report and Your Teen. She have brings incredible knowledge because she has hands on experience with working with children and their families. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and three children. Welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Phyllis Fagell: I'm good. Thank you for having me on.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, you know reading about you and your work got me so excited because you and I share this space in working with these Munchkins who are about to transition into a tough part of their own growth and development where they're not fully aware of what they are capable of, but they are required to perform as if they know who they are. So before we begin talking about your expertise, tell us a little bit about your own executive function. How were you as a child? And what kind of skills Did you bring to the table? What were you good at? What were you not so good at?

Phyllis Fagell: That is a really great question. And I often do share with my students that I struggled actually quite a bit with executive functioning skills. I think I actually still struggle with executive functioning skills, in part because I never really honed those strategies that we need and that make life a lot easier when you're an adult. So I think it's really important that kids learn them early. But back when I was a kid, oh my goodness, I was in speech therapy all the time. I was. I was I am very, very grateful to speech therapists. They have worked with my own kids. But back in the day, I would collect many, many, many folders with stickers on them because I did the you know, the 1980s group speech therapy sessions in public schools that everybody did until I had my list taken care of. And I also had, I really had no sense of where I was in space. I don't To this day, I just am one of those people who can easily walk into a wall I have no sense of direction. And I am I kind of living in my head and it works in many ways because I found the right career for myself, but I am very grateful that I found the right career because it easily could have gone in another direction.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow, you know two things about that. One is thank you for being so bold and honest with our audience and listeners, I think it's so reassuring to hear your story because look at you, you are exactly, you probably are extremely empathic, and you're able to understand your children's struggles that you work with. But secondly, and maybe you can comment a little bit, but what this being in your head prevents you from being outside. And you navigated that space. Beautiful, but that's what you and I working with when kids can do it. So what was that? Like? What did you mean by being in your head all the time?

Phyllis Fagell: You know, I think I was extremely invested in the subjects that I cared about, and the projects that I wanted to complete and that I wanted to excel at. But the minute something was challenging for me, I would panic, I would have a really huge stress reaction, I would blow off the homework, I would sometimes skip school to avoid a test because I was so anxious about it. And I think that my lack of any kind of a plan to tackle this, the topics that were harder for me actually created a situation where where I was very avoidant.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow. So did people in your life recognize that? Or did you ever get blamed for not trying hard? Or did they really understand that this was a ability not emerged yet?

Phyllis Fagell: I think I was a confusing student to interpret for teachers and probably for my parents, I think it took them a while to realize what I was capable of accomplishing. Because I was so uneven. And you know, today, we might say something like twice exceptional, or have a different term. But back then, I was just extremely imbalanced in my strength in my pattern of strengths and weaknesses. And if something was hard for me, I really wasn't as interested in it. And as I got older, and figured out better systems for tackling the hardest subjects, that's when I realized I actually liked some of those topics that I thought I didn't like, it was that stress reaction that prevented me from being able to really dive in.

Sucheta Kamath: So that gives us a great bridge to talk about now what you do for your children and families and the educational context. So let's begin by kind of defining executive function in the context of learning and schooling. How would you explain that?

Phyllis Fagell: So I work in a K-8. And what's fascinating to me is to watch kids development over the years and to watch kids reaction to moments when they would need to rely on their executive functioning skills and find that they're lacking. And it could just be that they have to pack up their materials, because it's time to go out to recess. And you can see that a child has almost a panicky reaction that they might not finish it in time. Or they don't know the order in which to do it. You know, the classic story of the kindergartener who gets frustrated because they keep trying to put their jacket on after they've put their backpack on. Yeah. So you know, you were along the way we're trying to teach these kids the steps that they need to have in an incremental way, so that by the time they get to the end of middle school, they're independent learners, they know how to self advocate, they can keep a planner, maybe they not only know how to keep a planner, but they have devised a system that works well for themselves. And so when I talk about what skills I want middle schoolers to emerge with one of the biggest and most important ones, particularly since we know that kids don't have the ability to anticipate how today's work will impact their future products until about age 15 at the earliest. But want to make sure that they have enough check and balance systems and backup methods to ensure that they are able to stay on top of their work. And we can see right now with the pandemic with hybrid learning, with kids who have 17 tabs open so that they can do their work virtually, and then maybe transition to doing it in person, it is so much more demanding on kid. Plus all the emails that they're trying to kids don't even really eat. Like even today, I asked your assistant to resend the zoom link because I get so many emails. And they can easily get buried at the bottom of a pile. So you can imagine I'm an adult. And I have some experience with this at this point for a child who is just learning how to use email in the first place. And now remember, their brains are getting bathed in stress hormones because of everything going on, which certainly doesn't make it easier for them to feel like they're on top of things.

Sucheta Kamath: So one thing you're describing here, and I have a first hand experience having done this for 20 years is this what begins slowly, or unveils itself doesn't look harmful. It's a kid who puts I'll give you a quick story my I used to do carpool with my kids. We're in kindergarten, and we used to send lunch from home. This was a private school. And so the family, the mom used to drop her son off. And then she would, one day she comes in and she sees me pack lunch with real stainless steel spoon and fork. And she saw me put put it in the little lunch bag. And then off they went. And she said, You send real, he doesn't throw it away. And I couldn't understand what she meant. I said, No, I told him Don't throw it away. And she said, I for last, and this was in September, when she discovered that, so school in Georgia, so it's at the school already had been in session for five weeks. And she said, My son, after he finishes lunch, he literally does this upside down, he empties the entire bag, and its content in into the trash. And so what happens is he, if there's a plastic container in which the food was, it's gone, if there's a spoon and fork that was real, it's gone. And this was a tiniest little indication of that adaptive flexibility, you know, you only empty if it's all trash, you don't empty if it's not trash, you know, she was shocked that my son was able to do this, do that in kindergarten while her son wasn't. And, and, of course, it started with very tiny, not even a concern for her. But when she saw somebody was able to do, she was surprised that her son was similarly the kid who you said, puts the the backpack and then tries to put a coat. It's such a great, simple illustration of a breakdown in sequencing. But that simple thing is not that simple. It becomes a complex breakdown in organizing planning, conceptualizing steps. So what are your suggestions for like without causing any panic? What should people do when they encounter these early on tiny breakdowns in systematically approaching goal oriented persistence?

Phyllis Fagell: You know, if you have a child who is challenged in those executive functioning skills, which most kids are, but to different degrees, as you just illustrated, I think it's important first, as a parent to understand that it doesn't mean their child is lazy. That is a misconception that parents frequently have, you know, why can't they just do their homework, I have yet to meet a child who doesn't want to do well, you know, he doesn't want to execute and not feel stressed as they're going through these skills of daily living. And some kids simply need more scaffolding and more support and more chunking of assignments than others. And the best gift we can give kids is to help them create those systems to help them create those patterns and reminders, even if that means you're writing it on the mirror, or you are having them pack up their backpack the night before. So they are not going upstairs and then downstairs in a way that doesn't make any sense because they came downstairs before they put on their pants. And then they went back upstairs to brush their teeth. And then they got back downstairs again and realize the backpack is upstairs classic kid who also probably leaves last week's banana in his backpack, and needs a parent who's going to help him go through it, throw out the trash, put the papers in the folders, because what we don't want is a kid who can't complete the work or understand the content because of those organizational problems.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I really like I love that I think two points that you're talking about. One is demonstrate illustrate that with might require you to model it or be patient as you show. Because a lot of times I think people are so verbal, they are talking and telling. And they're not showing an executive function. Exactly. Executing is all about doing and doing needs to be experienced. So I love that. And the second thing, you are also encouraging people to think about patients, because that, you know, it doesn't lead into a skill. And I love that comment. You know, Ross Greene says that kids will would do if they could, yeah, that they're not that means they can't. Exactly.

Phyllis Fagell: And kids get frustrated too. It's extremely frustrating to get to school and realize the homework you did isn't in your backpack, it's still sitting on the dining room table. They want to get that homework into their backpack, and they may need some support with that. Now I also believe that once they can do it on their own once they demonstrate that they can do a particular sequence in that in those steps. We do want to take a step back and let them continue to do it on their own. The stakes are pretty low. If they make an error if they forget something. I love Jessica Leahy's Gift of Failure, you know, and she talks a lot about not bringing the sports equipment or the lunch to school, letting them learn from those experiences.

Sucheta Kamath: Fabulous. Yeah, I love love that as well. The gift of failures, I think. So tell us a little bit about some of the approaches as we think about somebody who is not demonstrating competence, but we know they have potential, do you have any specific tools you use to understand how to distinguish or delineate the two that you are fully capable of, but you are not skilled yet? How do you understand that?

Phyllis Fagell: I love that description. I'm not sure I've ever thought about it in those terms, exactly. But it's really beautiful, because it allows us then to focus on the child's strengths. And I have yet to meet a child who does better because they think the stakes are high, or does better, because we are just pummeling them with unrealistic expectations, or just focusing on their weaknesses. And so even a child who's super disorganized, they may have some other strengths that they can tap into, to help them with the organizational deficit. So say, you have a third grader who's absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs, you might be able to get the teacher to organize homework around dinosaurs, or do something that speaks to their interests and helps them get more engaged in those steps that tend to be pretty boring. Similarly, a lot of kids, their issue isn't even necessarily the executive functioning, it's the frustration. So let's say they're doing a packet. And they get to a problem that they can't solve, and they are anxious, and they want to do well, and they throw it across the room, or they refuse to continue. A strategy we might give them would be to circle the one just circle the ones you don't know and keep going. And at the end, I will help you or the teacher will help you just to keep them in the game.

Sucheta Kamath: No, I love that. I think the emotional management is such a precursor for building skills. And a lot of times there's no emotional competence to even there's no landscape of equanimity. There's forget equanimity that sounds too high level, even like openness to for things being not so easy, you know, and I think early on too much energy spent in compelling teacher kids to demonstrate same level of interest and engagement for all content. And that's just not possible. So I love that you're talking about this individualizing. Tell us a little bit more about where do you think educators and parents get it wrong? Or when they see frustration, and they respond with more lecturing or more encouragement to persist. But that's not the problem. The problem is not continue to do more. So when I mean, suddenly, something will be unveiled, right?

Phyllis Fagell: Yes, I think of that, you know, particularly with middle schoolers, as kids are entering their tweens and teens, I'm a huge fan of problem solving together, to sit down and say, Alright, this is clearly causing you some issues, you're spending a lot of time, about two hours more than the teacher says it should take to do this assignment, you're clearly frustrated, you're not getting enough sleep, which is heightening that frustration. So what can we do to make this better for you, it could be that they need to have a quieter space to work, they need headphones, it could be that they need the right materials, it could be that they need to do a check in with the teacher everyday before they leave to ensure they understand the directions or that they are clear on what the parameters of the assignment are or that they've chunked it out. And they're not trying to do it all at the last minute, it could be that they need their parent to quiz them or to help them come up with some kind of an organizational plan at home. But to really be very strategic about how you help them and to strip these interactions of the emotions. This should not be about emotions, it should be the same thing as if you were teaching your kid how to put gas in a car. They are learning how to tie their shoes, or they are learning how to put the toast in the toaster. It's the same thing. These are just practical skills we want them to pick up and nobody is going to pick up skills, if they feel like somebody is yelling at them. If somebody is really stressed if somebody is worried that this might mean that you will not be successful in life, you know, we don't want to be over inflating the importance of hitting certain milestones at a specific time, everybody is going to proceed at their own pace. And as long as kids are progressing and learning, that is what we're aiming for.

Sucheta Kamath: So what I'm hearing is really valuable in and how I see is there is an expectation of collaboration, that you know, we we are going to problem solve together which is such a wonderful way so rather than you are going to not do this, now already yours that you said not only you're failing to meet expectations, but it's becoming a problem for us. So I think that can be so adversarial. Tell us, when you talk about, you know, there's a lot of emphasis you have that's kind of interlinked with characters character building, which is how to become an encouraging empathic partner with your children or with your students. You talk about, you know, prioritize compassion. Keep it real role modeling. Can you walk us through some of these things that you have identified? And why do you? Why have you found those to be of great value? I mean, I kind of guess. But I would love to everybody to hear that.

Phyllis Fagell: You know, I think to kids, they look at their parent. And it looks like their life was a straight line from sixth grade to success, that they never hit any bumps in the road. And we as parents, we can forget all of those detours we took along the way the wrong turns. But I think it's important to share them with kids, because that will bolster their frustration threshold, there'll be more likely to persist, if they expect that it won't be easy. If they expect that it won't be linear, and that things won't necessarily come easy to them. I've actually found over the years that the students who struggle more when they're young, they don't expect things to come easy to them. And they tend to be more persistent, they tend to be able to persevere through frustration, more than another child who is used to everything happening like that for them. So there are some benefits to those early struggles as well.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so interesting. And I would love to hear about your experience. But I found that children, because you and I work with people who have been identified with some sort of disability or difficulties, then they come to see a specialist, right. But I found that if children early on before coming to me, had some exposure or experience of working with a therapist, such as a speech pathologist for their articulation, or they were dyslexic there, they also have dyslexia, and they have worked with reading specialists. And then they come to do executive function, work, they are so much more open than these highly smart, but struggling ADHD kids who have never needed any help. And suddenly boom, in ninth grade, they land up in my office, they're frustrated, they're angry, they also have a adversarial relationship to help, because they feel I've been made to. Is that something you've seen?

Phyllis Fagell: Yes. And that's why I think that parents when they want their kids to get help, sometimes it's better to contact the school on the down low, and ask the teacher to reach out to your child as opposed to, you know, really reminding your child over and over again, did you ask the teacher for help? Did you go in You said you were going to go in in the morning, you can set the expectation, I would like you to talk to your teacher by Thursday, but then let it go and give them a chance to execute on their own. And if they can't execute on their own, ask the teacher to check in with them. And you mentioned that adversarial piece I don't think parents should ever fight with kids over homework, that is something that they can pump back to the school and get the school support with particularly now during the pandemic, when kids are going through a really hard time we want home to be a peaceful place.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I was so surprised to read about the I don't want to say expulsion but but disciplinary actions for not turning in homework or zoom for not following zoom protocol. With so many kids were getting in trouble. Infractionary actions were taken in public school. I'm reading about a we don't get to know about the private schools protocol. But I think that to me is exactly opposite of what you're saying, you know, lead with your compassion, I think, assuming that kids are being obnoxious, you know? Oh, yeah, I think it's such a new thing for them. They don't know what's right or good.

Phyllis Fagell: Right, exactly. And even behaviorally, so we have a hybrid program, and there are kids who are really wiggly. But then if you take a step back and ask why are they wiggly? Well, they're not doing sports, PE can't be the same. They have masking tape around this small area where they have to sit and can't move. So if a child is lying on their stomach over across a chair with their hands on one side, on the floor, and their feet on the other, but they're kind of paying attention and they're not bothering anybody, we need to give kids that leeway to learn whatever way will make sense for them right now, these are really unusual times.

Sucheta Kamath: It was a clever hack. I don't know if you heard about it, but it kid in England, I think it was a middle schooler who kind of changed his name, you know how you can rename in zoom and says, dot dot dots still loading. And so put a still image. And I think it took a teacher a while to figure out that. 

Phyllis Fagell: That's really clever. That's a smart kid. I actually I had, you know, along the same lines, I had a zoom group with a bunch of second and third graders and they all changed their screen name to my name. So it was just a sea of Phyllis Fagell's which and then I couldn't figure out who I was calling on. But it was funny. And I think, you know, the more we can lighten the mood, the more we can use humor to reach kids, the more they're going to engage in the learning I had an editor recently say in a tweet or my I was saying in a tweet, when is my child going to be interested in learning again for learning sake. And then she said, as I scream into the universe, and I responded and said, I don't think it's that they're not interested in learning, I think it's that they are really feeling flat, because there's not a lot to look forward to. And it's so it just all transfers, if you're not excited about other areas of your life, it leaks into school and in vice versa. So we want to be looking for ways to really tap into kids interests, to do whatever we can to make sure they're engaged in the learning and that they're part of it. One of the best ways to do that is to have them teach their classmates, to have them teach you to ask them a lot of questions to show curiosity in their, whatever they're working on.

Sucheta Kamath: I really put your thumb on this, that I think every article I'm reading every article I'm thinking of writing is about engagement. And engagement is viewed as the kids are failing. And I really don't like it, I feel it is fundamental job of teachers and educators to create an engaging environment where learning is fostered because somebody is invoking great sense of curiosity and mystery in learning. Yes. And, you know, I mean, you know, every mystery movie, we watch what the reason we are roped in is because there's something to be discovered. And, and so if somebody is lost interest is because you have taken away what is whatever it was to be discovered, it's gone, or it's too boring, the path to the exploration is laden with something that's blocking that sense of discovery. I also was thinking about this that, you know, I just did as a professional development for professionals about stress and its impact on your own executive function before, let alone people you're helping. And I feel that these times difficult times is calling for creativity on educators part. But if you are burnt out, and if you're feeling exhausted or spend, you're less likely to troubleshoot? Do you find that? What are you noticing about the educators you're dealing with? 

Phyllis Fagell: Oh, my gosh, we're all exhausted. We're really tired. And we all are a little foggy on what day of the week it is. And we all are feeling like we're dropping some balls, and that there are emails getting buried that somehow never get uncovered, excavated, and I don't remember that being the case. For me pre pandemic, I feel like my on top of it, I felt a lot more on top of it. And I think that this is speaks to that whole idea of the impact of stress on executive functioning. It's why I think it's so hard right now to delineate between where an anxiety issue ends, and an attentional issue begins. So hard to tell the difference, even in pre pandemic times. But right now, how on earth are we going to be accurately diagnosing anyone? We really can't? Because they're so intertwined?

Sucheta Kamath: Yes. And everybody's going to look impaired? Or look like they have gotten worse, which is not how anybody wants to see the numbers or functioning. Right. Exactly.

Phyllis Fagell: Yes.

Sucheta Kamath: So can you talk a little bit about the concept of transitioning, so I describe transitions in four ways, you know, you're transitioning from work to work. So there's a cognitive transition effect of transition, because a task positive to test positive, then you have task positive to test negative. So from after you finish work, you're transitioning to less work, and the other way around, or from leisure to leisure, you know, but when it comes to that's, that's more specific to the work that we're doing. But what do you think about transitions that are a little bit more global, so transitioning from element elementary to middle school or middle school to high school, or transitioning from art to science, transitioning from playground, to back to work? they all require this, refocus, focus, and then also acknowledge the task demands. And so many kids struggle with that, whether they have executive dysfunction or not. What How do you understand that? And how do you fit it in the context of developing skills?

Phyllis Fagell: So I will add even another category, which would be transitioning after a school vacation, or running after summer.

Sucheta Kamath: January transition? Yes, yes.

Phyllis Fagell: And I would, I'm expecting that when kids come back to school full time, I'm currently in a hybrid program, that that will be another kind of transition, transitioning socially to interacting with out masks after socializing with masks. That's going to be another transition. I think we have to appreciate and understand that transitions can be very stressful for kids, even without the executive functioning challenges. A lot of kids if they're absorbed in what they're doing, if they're enjoying an activity Maybe it's play time and they have to go back to worksheet, they may struggle to let one activity go and transition to the next. And that's one of the more common things that a teacher will come and talk to me about a given observation today of a child who has a really hard time going from work to play. So if she is paying attention to a lesson, and it's time to go to recess, the teacher has learned to give her a couple of minute warning so that she can start packing up before everyone else. And I was watching her today, and she took a good extra three or four minutes to pack up, she was standing up, she was looking around, you could see the stress on her face as she was trying to make sure she was doing it, according to the time limits. But even after she had done it, even after she was done, she had a bunch of questions for the teacher, she was saying things like, Is it okay, if my water bottle is a little wet? On the outside? before I put it back in my backpack? Or is it okay, if I didn't finish this worksheet entirely? Should I put it in my cubby? Or should I leave it on my desk if I didn't finish it. And what was interesting to me watching her is that this was there are other kids in the exact same situation, but it just wasn't bothering them. And so there is that emotional element. And I don't know if she was worried about holding up the class, if she was worried about letting down the teacher if this was a holdover from some other issues she had had when she was younger, that had just created a little bit of a traumatic reaction to transitions. But again, it goes back to that chunking and scaffolding and figuring out what you need to do. So one of the things that I had noticed the teacher was doing is saying things like, Okay, everybody one minute, and I could see the anxious look on her face. Wow. So I said to the teacher, you might want to try avoiding using numbers, I think it's heightening her stress, you know, just keep it a little bit lighter. And that makes a difference. And also, one of the things she did that I really liked is she had taken a list of steps that she had taped to her desk, of what she needed to do on one side. And on the other side, she had a list of relaxation strategies to like, take a few deep breaths. So we you know, I'm, I'm a school counselor, I'm a therapist, and you cannot fully separate the emotional from those executive functioning skills. One can cause issues with the other, and it can go both ways.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes. And, you know, I think what's so telling in that situation is this is such a highly engaged and motivated kids, she wants to do well. But she's already anticipating a challenge of not doing all that she's learning that learning itself requires so much practice, you know, like, follow your strategies for anxiety, follow your protocol to get ready to leave or come back or whatever it is, right?

Phyllis Fagell: Yes. And it was getting in her way socially, because if she is in the middle of trying to pack up and two other kids are playing an imagination game that she would enjoy, and they invite her to join. But she can't get out of that other headspace that she's occupying, where she's really working on getting organized, she's gonna miss the opportunity to play with her friends.

Sucheta Kamath: You kind of explained the kind of students or clients you may be seeing, what what is this pandemic unveiled for you and in your practice that you were not seeing before?

Phyllis Fagell: I think more than ever, it's clear to me that we need to make sure we're incorporating movement. Kids need to play they need to have fun. And the more severe the circumstances in the outside world, the more they're experiencing loss, grief, missed milestones, the more we need to do to focus on those joyful parts of their day, as opposed to doubling down and worrying about you know, quote, unquote, learning loss. I actually think the more we double down on that learning loss, and I hate those words, because what loss of what everybody is in the same boat. But the more we focus on that, the more stressed they get, and the less able they are to get excited about learning to get engaged in learning.

Sucheta Kamath: I really like that I think I'm more I heard a neuro psychologist the other day, I described this as a movement snack. Let's take a movement snack.

Phyllis Fagell: I like that.

Sucheta Kamath: Don't you love that? And I said, Yes. Let me replace all my unhealthy snacks with movements. That's what I'm going to do. But yeah, I think I think more than ever that, you know, rigidity and and can you imagine, when have we interacted at this whole pandemic reminds me of Flat Stanley, you remember the book series? Yes, you know, and he was mailing himself in an envelope, like you have suddenly reduced into, you know, uni dimensional or two dimensional, like flat, there is no effect. There is no body dimensionality, there is no experiential dimensionality, like I can see a room, but it's flat, you know, and that changes your perceptive skills so deeply and profoundly.

Phyllis Fagell: And I actually in addition to play, and levity, and humor and trying to help them sustain their optimism, I think we need to be focusing on the relationship. These caring adults, we know that such a key part of resilience. And that's tricky when you have exhausted educators who are trying to balance a lot of things going on in their own lives, including fear if they're not vaccinated or concerned about older family members they haven't seen, so everybody has a lot going on. But we as the adults, even if we are stressed, we have to fake it, because they are going to catch whatever they're seeing exhibited on our faces or in our bodies. And so we have to do whatever we can to be a non anxious presence, because that will help them stay calm. And that will help them focus and feel relaxed enough to learn.

Sucheta Kamath: What is your go to anchoring process, the presencing if we can describe it that way, or witnessing what you do when you're in the midst of being with somebody who is early coming undone.

Phyllis Fagell: Some of it depends on the kid. And what's happening. One of my favorite strategies is to play catch and have them count as we throw the ball back and forth, because it turns on the prefrontal cortex because they have to retrieve language we're counting, it's relationship building, it's fun. And a lot of kids get really competitive and want to see how many times they can toss it back and forth. Sometimes I'll add a second ball to make it more challenging. Once in a while, I'll even add a third ball. And we'll really get three balls going, I'll change the scene. So I might take them outside. Today, I took a kid on a walk,

Sucheta Kamath: oh, love that.

Phyllis Fagell: I don't ever try to solve a problem. If they are out of control. The first thing I will say is, I can see you're upset, I'm sorry, you're upset. I know it feels really bad. I don't must feel really bad to feel out of control. Just start with that empathy. And they can relax when nobody feels good when they're losing control. So helping them and I always ask for permission, can I help you? Can I help you feel better? no judgment, you know, words like I'm wondering if I might help you. How do you feel about that? Or I'm curious about why. You know, I'm curious about what happened right before you got this upset, because I can see that it all over your face. You're having a really hard time. And I'm sorry.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that, Phyllis. And I think that that's so missing, I think people and particularly in my talk about stress, one of the things I was talking about how hurry is exactly a counterproductive for compassion. And you know, in a hurry, you cannot be compassionate because by compared to be compassionate, you need to be fully presencing other people's misery as it unfolds without trying to intercept and people, parents, teachers, everybody is in a hurry, because there are so many pressures they're feeling. So what you did, for example, you've created academic goals as a secondary and just getting your ankle back as a primary goal. And that can be hard. If you don't have practice.

Phyllis Fagell: Yes. And right now, because kids are missing touch so much, I think we can't, we can't discount how significant that is to kids, whether they're middle school, or third grade, second grade, all of them really miss a lot of them play like puppies, older kids, like huddled over phones or read texts together. They're just holding hands hugging. And so I like to help activate their parasympathetic nervous system, I might have them give themselves a hug, take the thumb in one hand and sit under the thumb of the other, but anything to help them with their feet on the floor. You know, just ground them in the moment help them feel present. A lot of kids can't and don't want to meditate or do deep breathing, particularly if they have a history of trauma, that it's hard for them to sit with their thoughts. So you have to know the child that you're interacting with. And hopefully you have a pre existing relationship because that is the key to all of this. If a child trusts you and you have a pre existing relationship and they know you care, and that you don't judge them and that you want to help them, they will tolerate even several mistakes along the way in trying to help them solve that problem.

Sucheta Kamath: So how does all this translate into your personal life? I understand you have three kids. Yes. How old are they and how are they experiencing endemic and ongoing pandemic, if I may say so.

Phyllis Fagell: So my youngest is 12. And he's in seventh grade. And then I have a high school senior and a college freshmen. And so they've, they're, they're experiencing this. It's really there's no escaping. I don't know too many people who have been able to avoid this pandemic entirely. They've been learning virtually for the most part, they just started going a couple days a week recently to school, but it's essentially been a year of no school, and no sports. And for a 12 year old boy, it's been a huge, huge setback. setback. Yeah. And I'm, you know, I'm like you, I'm already thinking about what is it we need to do to help these kids regain their footing on the other side, you know, what is it we need to do to get them socializing, they're gonna, they're going to be awkward, they already are awkward. And I had a sixth grader say, I can't wait till the pandemic is over. Because the masks make me feel so awkward. And an eighth grader said, I've got some bad news for you. You're going to still feel awkward, but I think they feel more sensitive, more awkward, I think it's really hard to speak up in a zoom class, you feel more in the spotlight. And so they're less likely to contribute in the class discussion. So we're going to have to really do what we can to preserve their confidence to rebuild their capacity for risk taking to ensure that they feel cared for that they're having fun, all of those things are going to be far more important than whether or not we get them to the next Lexile in reading, you know,

Sucheta Kamath: I completely could not agree more. I'll give you a funny example. This morning. My mom who is 78 lives with us. And she's incredible human being but she's going through some knee pain, and she might need a knee replacement. So we I took her this morning to the orthopedic surgeons office. And I literally have not been to a doctor's office building in in a year or six months. Anyway, I went so this was a I had been to she had another surgery six months ago. That's when I had gone to the surgical side and this and I went in and the front desk lady said turn right and you'll see elevators I kid you not Phyllis, I went there, I could not find elevators, because these elevators were painted blue. And they look like they look like the service elevators. So I went there, I stood in front and I literally felt I have no skills. Like I have forgotten how to socialize with elevators around and a security guard saw me walk and come back and he says What are you looking for I said, hospital or the medical building as a medical building is an M said I'm looking for the elevators. He says it's right there. So in next to these two buildings, they were to like red, you know, Thing and Thing that you put a key and activate. underneath there, there was a button that you could press, but it wasn't typical. I had lost my marbles I could not find. And I have great executive function I thought and then I saw. So as an adult, I am finding myself out of my league to find an elevator medical building. I didn't even know what kids must experience who don't have a lot of repertoire of experiences, right?

Phyllis Fagell: Definitely.

Sucheta Kamath: So well as we and you you have shed some shed light on so many issues that we should be thinking about. But I like this recommendation to prioritize that relationship building and really kind of let other learning take a backseat because if they feel they belong, if they feel they are cared for, they can learn like to me learning is not a problem. It's not learning loss is lost opportunity to learn with the community in which learning happens. So as we end tell us, what are your What are you reading these days? Where are you finding your joy? What's your source of inspiration these days?

Phyllis Fagell: So I actually have been reading some of my parenting writer friends books, several of them have come out with books recently. One of them is called Thrivers. And it's about raising kids who thrive rather than strive by Dr. Michele Borba that's coming out in two days. And I have I did a Q&A with her that will be in the Washington Post tomorrow. Lovely on the topic of resilience, which I think is so key right now. So that was a really helpful conversation to have in the book was great. And the other book that I'm reading is by Jessica Lahey, who is the author of Gift of Failure, and she has a new book out as well called the Addiction Inoculation. And it's about raising kids who are resistant to substance abuse and other forms of dependence. And so that's been a fascinating read as well and she's super honest about her own personal history and she taught in a facility for kids who were struggling with it. And you can learn a lot about her experiences trying to reach kids who were in crisis and actually try to teach them when they were in crisis.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow, well, thank you for these recommendations, both of them are going to be going on my list. I don't have a vacation coming up. There's no vacation, which is that. But I really appreciate these recommendations. Phyllis, it's been pure joy talking with you and learning about your approach, your compassionate heart that bring some so much hope to these struggling students. And again, I use the word struggling very cautiously because I don't know a single learner who's not struggling learning, by definition is to struggle with new learn new content, new ways of thinking. And lastly, I will say I, one of the things I found hope in your approach to talking about this complex matters was there's this idea that acceptance is at the heart of it, you're you're encouraging all of us to stay connected with the reality and not create these grand hopes of becoming something when you can be really be however you are. So I really appreciate that.

Phyllis Fagell: Yes, because if we focus on what we want them to be as opposed to who they are, then we end up missing the gifts that they do have. And that's a missed opportunity and all kids have gifts.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you for being here. Thank you everyone for tuning in. Once again, to this episode of Full PreFrontal, we look forward to staying engaged, connected, keep sending your emails. We love to hear from you and share this episode. I'm sure you know, some amazing parents as well as educators who are always looking for some gifts of wisdom. So thank you, Phyllis, for being here. And have a wonderful time. We'll see you again hopefully.

Phyllis Fagell: Thank you very much.