How to Navigate This Unusual Back-to-School, with Phyllis Fagell
I’m very happy to kick off the Fall slate with a conversation about this unusual back-to-school season, Phyllis Fagell, a K-8 school counselor in Washington, DC and a psychotherapist who works in private practice with children and teens. She is the author of Middle School Matters, a book that was born after her transition from working at an elementary school to a middle school. She realized there wasn’t a lot of research on middle school-aged kids so she did her own! Phyllis is also a frequent contributor to The Washington Post On Parenting section, and a columnist for the Association for Middle Level Education and PDK, International. I suggest checking out her articles as they are full of great resources.
In our conversation, we discussed the types of issues kids, parents, and teachers are facing as we re-enter the world of in-person classes. Phyllis also talked about what’s happening in regards to our children’s mental health, and shared a useful strategies for all of us to implement to set our kids up for success in this new school year.
About Phyllis Fagell
Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is a K-8 school counselor in Washington, DC and a psychotherapist who works in private practice with children and teens. She is the author of Middle School Matters, a frequent contributor to The Washington Post On Parenting section, and a columnist for the Association for Middle Level Education and PDK, International.
Things you’ll learn from this episode
- Possible issues that students will be facing during this unusual back to school season
- Challenges teachers might have coming back to school
- Obstacles parents might encounter as they send kids back to school
- How parents can work with schools and teachers this Fall to create a win-win situation for the students
- What to do when kids are feeling super unmotivated
- How to model resilience and empathy right now
- How we can support our kids who are just barely holding on
Resources mentioned for navigating this unusual back-to-school season
- Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond — and How Parents Can Help by Phyllis Fagell
- Fostering Hope, Healing, and Well-Being (article by Phyllis on El Magazine)
- Six ways to help kids transition back to school after distance learning (article by Phyllis in Washington Post):
- 4 ways parents can reframe a tween or teen’s social setbacks (article by Phyllis in CNN):
- Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers by Linda Perlstein
- The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul
- The Disintegrating Student: Struggling But Smart, Falling Apart, and How to Turn it Around by Jeannine Jannot
Special message from our sponsor
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Get more information at LindamoodBell.com/tilt.
Debbie Reber 00:00
Today’s episode is brought to you by Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers. Lindamood-Bell Learning Centers help students catch up and stay on track one to one instruction for reading comprehension and math in person or virtual. Learn more at Lindamoodbell.com/tilt.
Phyllis Fagell 00:19
More kids than you might imagine are going to come back with low motivation and that’s for a lot of reasons. Part of it is that overtaxed nervous system. Part of it is that their schedule has been so irregular and so ramping back up to a level where they can have the stamina to manage both the emotional, logistical and physical demands of a full in person day for kids who are returning to school for the first time in 18 months. That is going to be extremely difficult.
Debbie Reber 00:47
Welcome to Tilt Parenting, a podcast featuring interviews and conversations aimed at inspiring, informing and supporting parents raising differently wired kids. I’m your host Debbie Reber. I am back for a new season of the show, and I am so excited for the next few months of episodes. I have been busy reading and researching and meeting with truly phenomenal leaders in the differently wired revolution and we’re gonna get into so many important topics. You’re not gonna want to miss a single episode. Be sure to subscribe to tilt parenting podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. I’m really excited to be kicking off this fall season with my guest for this week’s episode, Phyllis Fagell. Phyllis is a K through eight school counselor in Washington DC and a psychotherapist who works in private practice with children and teens. She’s the author of Middle School Matters, a book that was born after her transition from working at an elementary school to middle school. She realized there wasn’t a lot of research on middle school aged kids so she did our own. Phyllis is also a frequent contributor to The Washington Post’s On Parenting section and a columnist for the Association for Middle Level Education and PDK International. Also, a side note, Phyllis has become a good friend over the past year and a half. And so I know on a deep level, just how much wisdom she has to share with us. After you listen to the episode, I highly recommend you check out her articles because they are full of great information. You’ll find links to some Phyllis’ most recent articles, as well as a transcript of this conversation on the show notes page at tiltparenting.com/session267. In our conversation today, we discuss what sorts of issues kids parents and teachers are facing as we re enter this strange world have in person classes. While still unfortunately in the midst of a pandemic. Phyllis also shares a lot of great strategies for all of us to implement to set our kids up for success throughout the school year. Lots of takeaways, lots of hard won wisdom, so get ready to soak in some goodness. Before I get to that, I wanted to share that beginning this week, I’m starting something called playback Fridays, when I reached out to people in my tilt together community on Facebook about who they would like to see in the podcast and what topics they’d like to hear about. I got a lot of suggestions for guests that I have already had on the show and I realized that people who’ve joined this community even in the last few years, most likely haven’t had a chance to dig into the archives and see what I’ve got there. So I’m going to do it for you. Every Friday this season I will be releasing a powerful episode from my library because seriously, there is gold in there. I’ve got episodes with The Out of Sync author Carol Kranowitz, author of The Explosive Child Dr. Ross Greene and a psychologist and 2e expert, Dr. Devon MacEachron. And I’ve got a whole series of conversations with Asher back when he was 11 and 12, where he gives powerful first person child POV to what it feels like to be a complicated, intense, a little human in a world that doesn’t quite get him. Plus, I have episodes on navigating tricky dynamics with friends and family who don’t get it transitioning to homeschool and so much more. If you’re already subscribed to the podcast, you don’t have to do anything. Just keep an eye out for new episodes on Fridays showing up in your podcast feed. And now without further ado, I am excited to officially begin the fall 21 season with this special episode about navigating school this fall with Phyllis Fagell. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Debbie Reber 04:41
Hey Phyllis, welcome to the podcast.
Phyllis Fagell 04:44
Hi, Debbie. Thank you. It’s so good to be here with you of all people. Very fun for me.
Debbie Reber 04:48
Fun for me too, You are my first interview of the fall season. So it’s a really lovely way to start.
Phyllis Fagell 04:55
Well, I’m honored. Thank you.
Debbie Reber 04:56
So I know who you are and what you do in the world. I’ve already read your formal bio. So we know your credentials. But can you just take a few minutes? And give us kind of the highlights of what you do? And if you can tie into that your personal why, for the work that you do?
Phyllis Fagell 05:12
I love that question. So I am a school counselor by day and if someone asked me to choose one descriptor for what I do, that’s what I would pick, because that really is, what drives everything that I do my why is that I am hoping to turn out good people, or help turn out good people and to partner with families in order to raise whole, functional, happy, well adjusted confident kids. And I think there’s just so much that we can do if we have a plan of action and a plan of attack. And so everything that I do on the side, the writing, Middle School Matters, writing for educational organizations, or writing for parenting organ organizations, or publications, all of that is really just an extension of the work that I’m doing, both in private practice as a therapist, and in the school setting as a school counselor.
Debbie Reber 06:05
Yeah, and you do wear so many hats. I rarely meet people who are doing more work than I am, or it kind of, you know, just have so many different things going on. And you’re one of those people. So a lot of respect for you and the work that you do. You mentioned Middle School Matters. Could you just take a few minutes to tell us about that book, which I think came out in 2019.
Phyllis Fagell 06:26
It did. I can’t believe it. It was two summers ago. And I know for many of us, 2020 just didn’t actually happen. It’s this weird blip in time. So it feels like five minutes ago. But yes, the book came out about a year and a half ago. And the genesis for that book, I do work in a K through eight now. But when I started writing Middle School Matters, it was on the heels of working in a very, very large public six through eight Middle School. And I showed up all bushy tailed and bright eyed excited to work with middle schoolers, and realized it was this entirely different universe. I had been in the elementary school setting I had been in the high school setting, I thought I was going to have no problem with that middle age, tween group. And I immediately understood that this was different. This was a different species they had unique needs, they had unique challenges. It was a very distinct set of just conflicts, challenges and things that I needed to address. And so I went to the literature, I was wanting to do my homework, I wanted to see what kind of research had done been done on kids that age, what other maybe school counselors had written about the topic, and discovered that there was almost nothing out there about Middle School researchers were lumping the middle schoolers in with either younger children or older teens. And there really just wasn’t much in the market. And so my prior career before I was a school counselor is that I was a journalist, so I decided to use my skill set to create the resources that I needed to do my job better.
Debbie Reber 07:59
Yeah, and I imagine too, that the middle schoolers of today are so different from, you know, the middle schoolers even 10 years ago, you know, there was a, I used to work with Girls on the Run, which is with tweens and volunteer organization to support girls, I think eight to 12 and running their first 5k. And there was a book I read at the time called I think it was called Not Much, Just Chillin’, and it was about middle school culture, but in feels could have been a century ago at this point in terms of what’s changed for kids.
Phyllis Fagell 08:31
I agree. I have a son, my oldest is 20. And my youngest is 13. He’s going into eighth grade. And I feel like I have raised kids in different generations. My oldest didn’t have a cell phone until he was in ninth grade. My youngest was playing on his father’s cell phone when he was practically you know, a toddler. And as much as I wanted to limit that cell phone use or limit the exposure, delay the exposure, it’s really, really hard to raise kids in this culture, to have friends to be connected with their peers without some kind of a device and wait to reach them. And then of course, the pandemic hit, and all bets were off the table. That was when I got that phone for my son.
Debbie Reber 09:12
Alright, and so you mentioned pandemic, we are going to be talking about back to school or this fall, this unusual fall that we’re living through. But before we get into that, I have another question for you and kind of putting you on the spot here. But I just want to actually know how you are personally doing because I know that you are in the trenches with middle schoolers, you have been a source of support for so many kids in real life through what has been one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging years and in our lifetime. And so I’m just wondering, like how are you as a guidance counselor, as someone who is working with kids?
Phyllis Fagell 09:51
Well, first of all, thank you so much for asking that question. I really appreciate that. And I think sometimes we do forget to check in with each other. And one of the ways that I’m trying to make sure that I stay steady that I am centered that I’m able to self regulate in order to help other people is by making sure that I’m connected to my friends, connected to my family connected to people who make me feel good people who are positive, because I think there’s this misconception that the solution is self care that you should go for a run, listen to music, get enough rest. All of that is important, too. I’m not discounting that. But what the research is showing is that right now, the number one most important predictor of well being, emotional well being for all of us, adults, kids, is that connectivity, that sense that we are getting nurtured from other people. So that question was so nurturing, I appreciate it.
Debbie Reber 10:47
I didn’t realize I was doing that. But I’m really happy. But it seamlessly fits in with your answer. And that you’re doing that for yourself. I yeah, I would totally agree that it’s been the thing, and I’m not doing the kind of work that you’re doing. But it is so critical. It’s also such good modeling for our kids, right?
Phyllis Fagell 11:04
Yes. And you are doing the work that I’m doing. Anyone who’s raising kids right now is vicariously experiencing all of their stressors all of their own trying to balance work and children. I don’t think there’s anybody who is immune from that stress. Anybody who has any connection whatsoever with kids? So you absolutely are in the trenches with me.
Debbie Reber 11:22
Yeah. Yeah. All right, I see your point. Well, so we are recording this, at the end of August, it’s going to be released the first week of October. So most likely, all of our kids are going to be in some form of school, whether that’s hybrid, or whether they’ve chosen to homeschool, whether they’re doing an in person. And I also recognize that a lot might change between now and when this episode comes out, but I’d love to know, what are the things that you are just thinking about? You know, or do you have some specific concerns or considerations for issues that our kids and students might face this fall, say go back to school?
Phyllis Fagell 12:02
Yes. And they kind of fall into every category imaginable. I think there are some kids whose nervous systems are just so overtaxed from being in a chronic state of stress. In some cases, it’s social, they’ve had that loneliness, that isolation. In some cases, it might be that there’s unrest at home or instability at home, or financial distress, there are all kinds of reasons that kids might not be in optimal shape right now. And I often get the question, How do I know if there’s a problem? How do I know if I should worry about my kid or my students, and I am telling everybody the same thing, just assume everybody is not okay. I don’t really expect anybody to be okay. And I think if we go in with that attitude, and that expectation that it’s okay to not be okay. And we meet our kids where they are, wherever that happens to be, maybe they never were able to attend class online, it just didn’t work for them. Maybe they attended sporadically, maybe they used to be a wonderful student, and everything kind of went to hell during virtual learning or hybrid learning, or they took a hit to their academic self concept, because they’re used to performing better. So I think we’re going to have kids who have taken a hit to their confidence, whether it’s academic or social, or both. And our job as adults who are helping them re enter is to really be reassuring, to let them know that they’re not behind that they’re not lacking in any way, I don’t know anyone who does better because someone tells them the stakes are high, or that there is something wrong with them or something missing, and focusing on their strengths. And being really vulnerable ourselves, talking about our feelings, helping them label theirs and getting them to a place where they can really breathe and say, You know what, maybe I’m not okay, but I’m going to be okay. I’m just not okay, right now. But I have a lot of support. And I have a lot of people who love me, and want to nurture me and want to help me get back in the groove.
Debbie Reber 13:59
And so we’re modeling that message for ourselves. And we’re saying the same thing to work kids, right?
Phyllis Fagell 14:06
Yes, exactly. So if you’re noticing that you’re out of sorts, I think it’s great. If a parent can say to their child, you know, I can tell him in a really bad mood. Right now, I’m not exactly sure what’s bothering me. But I think I’m a little frustrated that my boss was upset with me for not handing in something on time. And honestly, I completely forgot to do it, my brain is just all over the place. So here’s what I’m gonna do. I think I need a little more rest. I’m going to go to sleep early. Tomorrow is a new day, I’m going to talk to my boss about that project that I forgot to address with him. And I’m going to go for a run or I’m going to call a friend, you know, modeling both that labeling of how you’re feeling and the why behind how you’re feeling so that kids don’t walk away thinking feelings are something that just happens to them that they have zero control over. And they’re victims of their feelings. We want them to have that sense of agency. I think that will be really critical socially too. I think a lot of kids are going to be more sensitive, they’re going to perceive that somebody is leaving them out when they’re not. or there might be a little bit more exclusion and mean behavior, because everybody is jockeying to find their place in that hierarchy again, after so much time apart. And so we can also model that empathy for our kids, whether our child is the one leaving others out, or they’re the ones who are getting targeted, we can remind them that no one’s at their peak, that we can give people the benefit of the doubt, we can give them the language to address some of these situations as they come up. We can use examples from our own friendships to help them sort it out. One of my favorite strategies is to ask your child to give you advice. I share a story in Middle School Matters, a mom came home, and she was talking to her middle school daughter. And she was really upset. The mom was upset because she was never invited to lunch with her colleagues. And she shared that with her daughter. And her daughter said to her, wow, have you tried asking somebody else to lunch? Or have you tried asking me if you can come along? Or have you tried thinking about just asking one of the people in your friend group, so she was giving her all of this advice. And a couple weeks later, she came home. And she said to her mom, you know, I never noticed how many kids eat alone in the cafeteria. And I was looking at these kids. And I realized they probably felt like you did at work. And so I asked one of them if they wanted to come sit with me. And you know, she’s really nice. And I think I’m going to invite her over for a sleepover. So you’re not just giving them that agency and that sense that there is a way to address or tackle these issues. You’re also building their ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, which is such a good life skill to have anyway.
Debbie Reber 16:52
Absolutely. I’m wondering about, I think about the compare and despair cycle. That was what came up for me when you’re talking about the way the kids are, and they may be more sensitive right now. And I think especially with the population that listens to this podcast, we’ve got differently wired kids, parents of differently wired kids, and these kids may already be at a deficit in terms of maybe their resiliency, their social skills might be lagging. And I think there is this perception that other people have it easier than they do, or other people are, you know, have more resilience or or what’s happened over the past year or so has impacted them more. So I’m wondering if we have glass half empty kiddos? How do we support them in reframing that thinking,
Phyllis Fagell 17:43
You know, I do that a lot in my work, because often the kids who come to see me the most are the ones who have what I call Eeyore syndrome, it’s really, really hard for them to see that the glass is half full. And to be fair, it is harder for them. They don’t have that necessarily natural reservoir of social skills to draw on. Some of the work I do with them is around very concrete ways to enter a conversation. You know, I might say, Listen for a few minutes, wait until you know what they’re talking about. And then, once you do ask a question, everyone likes to answer the question. Often they do need that kind of concrete help, it makes them feel less powerless. And that makes them feel less at the mercy of somebody else saying, Hey, why don’t you come join us? Or let me ask you a question that gives them something to do with that excess, negative energy. But the other thing that I often tell them, and this is 100%, true, I had so many students who came to see me this year, who said, I’m so awkward, I’m so uncomfortable in my own skin, I feel like I make a fool of myself, every time I interact with other kids. And I’m in a really small school. So I know these kids very, very well. And the kids who are sharing that with me were extremely successful socially. They were kids who had plenty of friends who are very well liked. And yet there was still that disconnect that you know, cognitive dissonance. And I think that is because of the pandemic in large part. So in some ways, the feeling of being other, the feeling of being excluded, that maybe differently wired kids feel all of the time, and others feel less at the time, right now that playing field might be a little bit more even than those kids imagine.
Debbie Reber 19:19
Hmm, interesting. I want to talk about what teachers and parents are experiencing too, but just just stick with kids a little bit more. What about, and I’m just curious how you support kids who have really lost their motivation. You know, this is something again, that these kids struggle with on a good day. And then after the year that they’ve been through, I think going back to school, and it’s likely not going to still feel quote unquote, normal. And they may just be kind of done with it. So do you have thoughts on how we can support kids who are just really feeling they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing anymore?
Phyllis Fagell 19:54
You know, so there’s going to be a broad spectrum of kids feeling about coming back to school. But I think more kids than you might imagine are going to come back with low motivation. And that’s for a lot of reasons. Part of it is that overtaxed Nervous System, part of it is that they their schedule has been so irregular and so ramping back up to a level where they can have the stamina to manage both the emotional, logistical and physical demands have a full in person day for kids who are returning to school for the first time in 18 months, that is going to be extremely difficult. On the very practical side, I think parents can help by making sure that their kids start having as regular a schedule as possible, and ramp back up slowly. So you can’t do anything about in person school. But you can decide that maybe you’ll do the rec baseball instead of the travel baseball, or maybe you’ll only do one activity at a time right now and add something else later. And I think we have to help kids set reasonable and attainable expectations. Kids really expect things to be easier than they are. And they may not really understand why they suddenly have brain fog. And we know that kids with lung COVID. By the way, there are a whole lot of kids with lung COVID, who are having a tremendously difficult time staying organized. One of my strategies, one of the strategies, I want to try this file that I haven’t done as much in the past, but that I just talked about with the author, Annie Murphy, Paul, she has a great new book out, called the extended mind. And she talks about how we can help kids deal with the fact that they’re not 100% right now, whether they’re emotionally distracted, or just their stamina is down. And so she talks about this concept of cognitive offloading, which I think will be incredibly helpful right now helping kids get the information that they need to use to be able to remember out of their head and onto paper, whether it’s post it notes, calendar, I spoke to Janine giugno, who also does organizational work with kids. And she takes it a step further, in addition to having that calendar, which she thinks kids often will just neglect or ignore. She also uses a daily sheet where she draws a line down the middle, and the left is the stuff that they have to do that day. But throughout the day, she has the kids she works with write down things that as they come up on the right side for tomorrow, or for the next day, so that they can keep this running tab. And if there’s anything that doesn’t get finished on the left, it gets added to the right. But helping kids get it out of their head frees up some of that room in their brain to focus on those complex social interactions, to focus on absorbing the information in the class. Some kids when they’re anxious, have approach behavior, they can’t even get started until they talk to the teacher and they clarify the directions. And they feel confident they’re going to do it right. That’s how their anxiety manifests. Other kids are completely avoided. They never get started. They asked to go to the bathroom and they wander the halls for 90% of the class come back in time for class to end they have no idea what’s going on. And all of that just exacerbates this stress. So the more we can put in place as systems to support them when they are not at their peak. When they’re not able to manage that cognitive load the way that they normally do. I think the more it will help them and normalize that for them. Let them know, we don’t expect you to hold it in your head because guess what I can’t either. My kids know I can’t remember anything these days. I drove my daughter to the airport today. She started college a couple weeks ago. And I was sending her to meet a friend first and we’re on the way to the airport and I take the wrong exit Not once but twice, to an airport I go to all of the time. We’re just not quite as focused. There is a lot going on.
Debbie Reber 23:37
There is a lot going on. And so I believe as you were explaining the different Jeannine Jannot’s approach that was that in your Washington Post article? That was Yeah, because I took notes from that. And listeners, I’ll have a link to that in the show notes. It was super helpful, especially for kids with executive function challenges anyway, and getting organized. And those are great strategies for all of us, not just our kids, right?
Phyllis Fagell 24:03
Absolutely. And I think the kids who have executive functioning challenges and know that about themselves actually might fare better on the return to school because they already have strategies in place. Whereas kids who’ve never had to struggle, or who have been away from school for a year and a half and are coming back and the difficulty level has ramped up or maybe they’re transitioning from elementary to middle and they suddenly go from one homeroom to seven different teachers. And there’s just so many moving parts to keep track of, they may suddenly need that kind of support in a way that they didn’t in the past. And so in the sense I think kids who are differently wired and have had to spend a tremendous amount of time working on the strategies that work for them may be at an advantage.
Debbie Reber 24:46
Yeah, and I appreciate the reminder about ramping up slowly. This is something I’ve been talking about with my community for a long time is that you know, don’t get focused on learning loss, prioritize mental well being and I can also see, especially when it comes to executive function, these areas of lagging skills that now if our kids are going back we’re going to, we are going to want to catch up like, Okay, it’s time to really buckle down now and, and start working on the independence or the time management or the planning an assignment kind of thing. So just putting on the brakes a little bit is just such a good reminder that we can’t try to tackle all of those things at once.
Phyllis Fagell 25:27
And actually, if you have a kid who’s nervous system is over stressed then trying to make up for lost time or trying to double down on the work so that they quote unquote catch up, is actually going to backfire. They’re going to feel less competent, their work might take a hit, and they might see their grades slide. And that could actually hurt their motivation. We want to be doing what we can to set kids up for success. And part of setting them up for success is meeting them exactly where they are. And where more often than not, they’re going to meet with success right now.
Debbie Reber 26:01
Yes, amen to that.
Debbie Reber 26:05
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Debbie Reber 26:56
So let’s talk a little bit more about parents then. So we just talked about slowing down and backing off a little bit. And prioritizing mental health. What else would you want parents and caregivers listening to this to kind of really be bearing in mind this fall?
Phyllis Fagell 27:12
I think we need to be doing a lot of validating of where our kids are. And I haven’t explained validating doesn’t mean that you approve of their behavior or that you agree with how they feel if they tell you that somebody absolutely hates them. And you don’t validate them, you might say No, they don’t, they really like you otherwise, why would they have invited you over for a sleepover. And then you’re going to end up in this power struggle where their kid will say, but that was six months ago, mom, and they haven’t talked to me in six months, or whatever they might say to prove to you that that person doesn’t actually like them. And what we want to be doing instead is saying, Wow, that must feel pretty horrible. To feel like your friend doesn’t like you anymore. I wonder, I wonder what you could do to help you maybe feel more comfortable at school or feel more comfortable socially, and try to shift them into more of a problem solving mindset as opposed to that negative mindset. Because the reality is, kids are getting left behind by friends All the time. It’s part of the growth that happens, especially in middle school, only two thirds of friendships stay consistent from fall to spring of the first year of Middle School. That means everybody is getting rejected at some point during those years. And so I would remind them that it’s again, not personal, normalize it for them. Tell them, ask them to think about a time where maybe they rejected a friend not because they didn’t like them. But because they outgrew them. Maybe they were at different maturity levels or had starkly different interests. So helping them take a more balanced outlook and be problem solving oriented. Same if they say their teacher hates them, you know, let’s talk about that. That’s a terrible feeling. Let’s see what we can do to help you have a better relationship with that teacher. Because if you don’t validate if you don’t allow them to feel the feelings, then they will never calm down enough to actually be able to operate from their prefrontal cortex and do that problem solving. You just won’t get anywhere you’ll be stuck, you’ll only prolong the conflict.
Debbie Reber 29:12
Yeah, and I think these are things that will always happen in our lives. You know, as adult middle age women, we experienced rejection, we experienced social awkwardness or feeling like people don’t like us or all of those things. So I think you’re right, we want to minimize the pain. And so we don’t often make the space for kids to really experience the feeling and know that they can actually survive that feeling.
Phyllis Fagell 29:35
And so you asked what adults can do. You can actually be authentic with your kids about when it’s happening to you and show them not only that it feels bad and it’s normal for it to feel bad but also you can put one foot in front of the other and you’re going to be okay. Because I think that at any point we want our kids to have hope and optimism to see the glass is half full. That is such a huge part of resilience. But right now it’s going to be even harder to get them into that place. And so anything we can do to let them see us work through these challenging moments that of course we all have. And we all still struggle with our various things. Whether we’re people pleasers, or we can’t accept that somebody doesn’t like us, or a relationship is over. Those are really challenging, hard things to deal with as adults. The beautiful thing, though, is that if we can teach a kid how to do that, when they’re young, we now have created a human who’s able to manage that discomfort and sit with it and not do something stupid, like spread a rumor, or post something they regret, or lash out in anger for the rest of their lives.
Debbie Reber 30:39
Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll keep this in the episode. But as you’re saying that I’m like, and that would make the bachelor franchise much less interesting. Just putting that out there.
Phyllis Fagell 30:48
So let me let me, let me talk about the bachelor for a second, please. So the bachelor is actually in my book. And I’ll tell you why. My kids, my two older kids, they were in middle school when I was writing, Middle School Matters. And they would watch the voucher all of the time in the living room. And I was so tempted to turn it off. And to say, you can’t watch that it’s I mean, it’s totally inappropriate in so many different ways. But it also creates this unrealistic, horrible image of what true love is, and what relationships should be like, and what reciprocity and generosity and that build up, you know that you start with handholding before you get married, all of that. And so, I bought that instinct, and instead, I would be lurking somewhat nearby when they were watching. And I would yell judgmental things at the TV. That was kind of how I handled it, I’d be like, come on, are you kidding me? That is so not okay. And my kids would laugh. And my son in particular would joke and he would say, What do you mean, that’s true love, you know, egging me on. And what I realized was that the bachelor was this amazing way to have these conversations about my values, what matters to me, the kind of relationship I want for them, which is why sometimes the tough stuff, and the bad examples are opportunities to have conversations and to help your kids become stronger, more self aware, as much as those good positive ones are.
Debbie Reber 32:23
Yeah. Excellent. Well, thank you for going there with me. So let’s briefly touch upon teachers, so and you work in a school. So we’ve talked about what kids are likely going to be thinking about are experiencing, and parents and how are teachers during this time? What are you noticing? And also maybe as part of that? How can we as parents and caregivers work in support of each other?
Phyllis Fagell 32:51
I think that’s a great question. Because relationships have been damaged in so many different ways. So many connections have been frayed, between colleagues, between administrators and teachers, between parents and schools. There’s a lot of distrust, particularly from families whose kids were virtual the entire time, and they did not want that to be the case. And I think remembering on the parents side, remembering that teachers are not the ones who made that decision. Yet teachers have been the ones who have taken the brunt of the criticism as wanting to you know, work in their jammies or somehow wanting to opt out of school, whereas every teacher, I know, really disliked teaching virtually, they were unable to make the kinds of connections with kids that they want to make. These are people who went into this field because they like kids, and they want to be with kids. So it was really not ideal for them. So a lot of teachers I think, struggled with depression and all of the same stressors everyone else was dealing with during the pandemic, and now they’re coming back and there’s this unsteadiness in many parts of the country where they’re not sure if their colleagues who are their friends are still their friends, just like the kids feel. Maybe they had a bad interaction with an administrator along the way. And so they feel uncomfortable about that. Maybe they wonder if the parents think that they’re lazy, or are angry at them. So I think the teachers and the parents can repair the relationship the same way we talk about helping kids which is by nurturing one another, by being reassuring by setting those reasonable expectations by showing appreciation and making sure everyone feels seen and nurtured and valued. And then it’s going to take a long time, I think to repair that damage. I say this as a mother whose kids were virtual too. It’s just something that was a really hard stretch of time for everybody. And coming back to normal is going to be that same ramping up processes that is for the kids.
Debbie Reber 34:53
I just want to give out lots of hugs, which is probably not the best thing. So perhaps I will be baking but I definitely Want to set that tone at the beginning of the school year, because I do think it’s so important to really show compassion for each other. And I and I love just the reminder of us as the parents and caregivers kind of leading with that.
Phyllis Fagell 35:14
And I think teachers can do a lot to repair the relationship with parents, whether that has to do with really close communication being reassuring about how their child is doing, offering parent education, or opportunities to meet administrators or to come see the classroom if that’s something that’s possible. One of the other ways that there was that disconnection even in schools that were in person, a lot of times parents weren’t allowed in as volunteers in the way they had been in the past. And when you don’t know what’s going on, when you don’t feel connected, and parents feel less connected to one another, that also can heighten that sense of isolation. So I think parents can help teachers, it doesn’t necessarily follow as make as much sense as it does in my head right now. But to connect with one another, for parents to make a point of whether they do book clubs, talk about issues, have opportunities to normalize, that everybody’s kid is not doing so great, or that, or maybe everybody’s kid is making progress. And at the same pace, because kids are going to bounce back faster than adults. One of the things I love about kids and that I often reassure parents about is that no matter how awful your kid is doing, no matter where they are, they can recover remarkably quickly. So it can seem like hopeless, and then they make one friend who makes them feel pretty good in the cafeteria, or the teacher tells them that they did a really great job on an assignment, or sets them up to look good in front of their peers, and they’re on cloud nine. And meanwhile, they may have spent seven hours on cloud nine while we’re walking around our house or our place of employment, feeling completely dejected, and sure that our kid is miserable, and like in a heap crying. So we have to remember that our kids are really strong, even the ones who don’t have as much experience with bouncing back or who may see the glass is half empty. All kids are going to struggle right now. But I do think that they are going to make that incremental progress. And make sure that we as the adults are not looking for anything more than incremental progress. Progress is progress.
Debbie Reber 37:23
Great reminder, let me ask you one last question. And then if there’s anything else you want to add, please do so. But are there any other things that we can do right now to kind of bolster our kids, especially kids who were really struggling with mental health? I think a lot of us have been like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And now that light seems to be getting a little dimmer. So if we’ve got kids who we feel are kind of barely holding on, are there things that we can do to help see them through this?
Phyllis Fagell 37:49
Yes. And actually, as you were saying that about the light at the end of the tunnel, I was thinking about this comedian, who did this little video and he was poking fun at the fact that we are not where we thought we would be. And one of the lines in this monologue that he gave was, looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It may be oncoming traffic, who knows? Pretty much yeah, so I do think that that’s part of this, but humor is so helpful. I watched that video because I’m doing that for myself. I rejiggered my entire twitter feed so that everything that shows up first is a comedian. So even if they are doing something that relates to something terrible happening in the world, and there’s plenty of that they’re helping me reframe it or see it in a different lens is just being really mindful of what information our kids are taking in how things are being messaged looking for the humor in these moments. I was talking to an administrator recently, who was up against a brick wall with something that he wanted to do that he felt was important for kids. And he said, You know, I said to him, you, you really should, he loves to fish, I said you should go fishing. He goes in my mind. I’m fishing right now in my head. And I said, well, you’re fishing in the Bermuda Triangle, but you’re fishing, that’s good. And I think that’s when we can do for one another something we can do for our kids is just help lighten the mood, even if that means having a weekly family movie night where you choose something really funny to watch, but making sure that we are letting them know that we can be both despairing and laughing at the same time that those two states can coexist. It is both and because we are going to be in this for a long time. I wrote an article recently for an educational publication and I read it because it just came out. And I had talked about now that we’re in the aftermath of the pandemic. I hope I didn’t personally Jinx all of us when I wrote that. Because I wrote it in the spring thinking we were going to be in the aftermath and now if I were rewriting it, I would say during the pandemic because that is what it is now it is teaching kids What they need, what resources they need, what strategies they have to use in order to learn, play, socialize and thrive during a pandemic? That is where we are.
Debbie Reber 40:09
Yes, we watch a lot of Saturday Night Live skits on YouTube. That is our little. I love that laugh breaks when we need them. Thank you for that. So before we say goodbye, is there anything that we didn’t touch upon any last thoughts that you want to share?
Phyllis Fagell 40:26
Well, you know, I would just remind the parents to to set reasonable and attainable expectations for themselves and for what they think constitutes being a good parent right now. Because in the same way that kids need to ramp up slowly, so do we, and we are not going to do well, if we’re suddenly doing 5000 carpools, and supervising sleepovers with six kids every weekend, there is that pressure that the kids feel, and that we feel to make up for lost time to make sure that they’re practicing their social skills and catching up academically. And I just want to remind everyone that it’s okay to take it slow, they will get there, they’re actually going to get there faster if we do it in a way that’s slow. And that allows for that time to catch up to where they are emotionally and physically right now.
Debbie Reber 41:15
So good, so good. And Phyllis, where can people connect with you and learn more about your work?
Phyllis Fagell 41:21
I have a website, phyllisfagell.com. That’s where most of my articles are. I’m most active on Twitter, it seems to be the only social media site that I understand. And that’s @pfagell.
Debbie Reber 41:34
You’re really good on Twitter. I just want to say like I am not that is my least savvy, social media tool. But when I go on Twitter, I always go to see what you’ve posted. Because you’re really good at it. So well done.
Phyllis Fagell 41:48
It’s more fun during the school year when I’m quoting what kids do and say, Yeah,
Debbie Reber 41:52
Yes. I love your insights. It’s so great.
Phyllis Fagell 41:55
That’s that humor piece. That’s how I keep myself whole. I have to focus on the positive, funny stuff. keeps me going.
Debbie Reber 42:03
That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing all of this. I’m going to just say good luck to you as you go back into school and into the unknown. And I feel almost jealous of the kids that get to come into your office or slip notes on your door and have that interaction with you because I would have loved to have had someone in my corner like you when I was ready.
Phyllis Fagell 42:24
Thank you. Well, thank you for all of the work you’re doing to support parents because the kids only do as well as the adults in their lives do.
Debbie Reber 42:33
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