“The facts of life are conservative.” —Margaret Thatcher
I attended a workshop for educators a few days ago in Los Angeles. The purpose of the training was to teach educators how to help students “move from defeat to empowerment.” Social-emotional learning and responsible self-governance were key aspects of what was being taught.
The problem that many of our students face nowadays, in succeeding in high-school and college arenas—especially college—is that they make poor choices that often compound any initial problems or challenges they may be experiencing. Ill-equipped to solve their own problems, they often behave in ways that only make matters worse for themselves, allowing feelings, rather than reason, to dictate their responses to trouble.
The Prescription: Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Teachers are being asked to guide students through a principled approach to problem-solving that will help students, over time, to manage themselves by using a reasoned approach to problem-solving—called dialectical behavior therapy—that involves the following habits: conscious mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. I found it ironic that, although many of the trainers fancy themselves political liberals, they were teaching methods that promote non-coercive individual choice and freedom, based upon common-sense principles.
Thoughts are things, and, rather than respond emotionally to a stimulus in your environment, it is better to learn to notice what your thoughts are and where they are trying to take you. Between stimulus and response, there is choice. Rather than react to a situation, you must stop and think first. What will happen if you respond this way or that way? Which result is better both for you and for those who care about you (who are knowledgeable in the matter at hand)? Emotions must be felt, but emotions only last for 60 to 90 seconds. Choices are to be made after the emotions have dissipated.
Faced with a situation that is uncomfortable, for which there may be no escape, the best solution is generally one of distress tolerance. Knowing that the situation will not last forever, one can choose patience as a solution, rather than acting out in a way that might bring troubling consequences. Since patience is the choice to wait, you can simply choose to wait five minutes, and then make that same choice again after the five minutes are up, and so on, until the entire situation has expired. Restraint is called for.
Reacting emotionally to situations can be the cause of problems, such as the following: unprotected sex, teen pregnancy, violent confrontation, substance abuse, etc. It is the mindfulness involved in witnessing your own feelings that allows you to take control of your responses. You must learn to regulate your emotions, to restrain your emotional self by elevating the mindful, problem-solving self.
Your solutions must be effective with people. You are not allowed to implement a solution just because it feels good. And if your solutions are not working, you are not permitted to double down on them, claiming that doing the same thing, only harder, is apt to work. If your solutions do not work with people, they are probably in need of rethinking, not forcing them on others even harder than before! You must often front-load your efforts with the amount of time needed to make things people-friendly and workable in the real world. This is what effectiveness is. Always keep in mind that efficiency is not the same thing as effectiveness, and that all lasting solutions must pass the test of true effectiveness.
Students are to be taught that blaming other people will never solve a problem. In fact, you disempower yourself by blaming others. If you admit that there is something that you can do differently to improve matters for yourself, then you become situationally powerful. Blamers are usually rewarded in their blaming behavior by other blamers, whose misery loves company and who would rather blame others than work with others to solve problems—for whatever reasons. Blamers often survive by being entitled not to problem-solve. As long as others will give them money, and not require them to solve the problems getting in the way or their making an independent living, their intransigence is rewarded by coddling relatives or government welfare. Enabling irresponsible people is immoral, since it deprives them of the ability to live a happy and productive life of freedom and independence.
The Therapeutic Rule
Now, here is a rule to follow, if a teacher’s facilitation of a student’s problem-solving efforts is to take permanent hold in the actions of students being taught these four habits of mind: The teacher may not tell a student what to do, and the teacher is also not allowed to give the student advice without the student’s permission.
Here is an example of how this works: A student leaves her seat to sharpen a pencil during an important lesson. The teacher asks, “What are you doing, Maria?” Maria replies, “Sharpening my pencil.” “What is everyone else doing?” asks the teacher. “Listening to you,” answers Maria. “What do you think you should be doing now?” “Listening?” Maria says. “Okay, good,” the teacher agrees; and Maria returns to her seat. This is an approach rooted in what is called “reality therapy.”
Here is how a problem-solving interview might run: The teacher asks, “So, Samuel, how do you want to solve this?” The student replies, “I don’t know.” The teacher asks, “Would you like to know a few solutions others have tried who have had the same problem? The student might say, “No,” in which case the teacher might ask, “Do you want to tell me about why you seem so committed to not solving the problem? What need does that behavior fulfill?” This student might need to do some thinking about what his motives are. Refusing to problem-solve is obviously not effective in the real world, so what is the reward the student gets by choosing not to problem-solve? Every behavior has a reward, or else the behavior will stop.
At the end of the training, I went up to one of the presenters and complimented her, saying, “What a great training! And it has been so hard for me to find a training that reinforces conservative values!” She was shocked and asked me to explain. “I am pretty conservative,” I said, “and I am always telling people that the only solutions that really work are those solutions freely chosen by the people who are in the best position to problem-solve. Now, who is best-positioned to solve your problems—you or someone else?” “I am,” said the presenter. “And who should get to choose the wise people being consulted to help you problem-solve—you or somebody else?” “I should get to choose.” “In fact,” I continued, “the approach you have been teaching encourages, at most, that others may guide you or facilitate your efforts at problem-solving in ways compatible with your mindset, emphasizing an approach that strives for total freedom from coercion, or even unwanted advice, correct?” “Hm-m-m-m. . . .” was her reaction. So, I decided to clarify my meaning: “Conservatives believe that problems should be solved with the most freedom possible and with the least amount of outside (or government) coercion possible. As a conservative, I am always saying to people, as did Margaret Thatcher, that the facts of life are conservative; solutions that are dictated will never work well, and will generally be overthrown at the first opportunity that the affected parties are free to do so. A solution not freely chosen might be efficient, but those affected will almost never agree that such solutions are effective in how they play out in their lives.”
A Pleasant Surprise
The presenter saw the parallel I was making between self-governance with regard to behavioral problems and self-governance on the level of politics. I commented that I have always utilized non-coercive freedom principles in my life as a private citizen, a school teacher, and a political activist. “Freedom,” I added, “is indeed therapeutic for all who are taught to exercise it responsibly, and that is why I believe that it is the correct role of schools to promote such teaching, rather than entitling students and allowing them to blame others.” The presenter replied, “You, know, I’m stunned. But what you are saying makes sense.” So, I handed her one of the pocket Constitutions I am wont to carry about, saying to her, “Hey, you’re a conservative, but just didn’t know it.” She smiled at her Constitution and then smiled at me. I still am not sure who experienced the more pleasant surprise—her, for arriving at her own conservative self-awareness; or me, because the presenter appeared open to the experience.
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