Please join us in welcoming Ms. Jenn to the team at VVA! We are thrilled to have her join us and provide the much anticipated role of Health & Wellness Support for our students and staff. Jenn has a unique and valuable perspective; we are excited to have her energy, her experience, and her zest for helping children and families. We always throw a curveball at our new staff by asking them to introduce themselves through a blog post. Well, Jenn came right back with this wonderful tidbit to read, offering us a glimpse into her family life and also teaching (and life!) perspective. Thank you, Jenn! And to everyone - enjoy the read!
One of my favourite things to do with my children is sky gaze. We like to do this during the day when there are clouds, and in the night when there are stars. This activity sparks conversations full of questions (some of which I have to answer, “Let me get back to you on that one!”). It allows me to really see and hear my children’s viewpoint on many things and appreciate the wonder they have through their eyes and understanding of topics. Putting myself into their mindset is not only intriguing, but also grounding.
We lay on the raft at the cottage, which is sitting on the sandbar, and look up at the big white clouds contrasting a blue sky.
“Oh my goodness! I see a dragon with a long tail,” exclaims my son.
“Oh my! Where?” I reply.
“Right there! You can see his eyes and teeth and a tongue sticking out!”. He points to it and giggles. My daughter, excitedly says, “Oh, yes! I see it too!”
I stare at the exact same spot and struggle to see this dragon. Instead, I see something entirely different (the shape of a dog with big ears).
“Hmm, I am trying to see this dragon! In the meantime, give it a name guys! What are we going to call him?” As they discuss back and forth what this dragon’s name will be, I am hunting in that area to see what they are seeing. I tilt my head back ever so slightly, so that my viewpoint is just a bit larger, open my eyes a bit wider, and let my perspective shift. Finally, things slowly start to come into focus, and I simultaneously can see the dog and something else emerging. My depth of view had been too focused before, and I now see a very detailed and interesting looking dragon! Instant connection! Dopamine hit to the brain!
“Ohhhhhhhhh! Yes! I see him now! That is so cool! What is his name?”
“We decided to call him Smokey because he looks like white smoke!”. The conversation then lends itself to many questions I ask about Smokey (What kind of dragon is he? Does he have special powers? How old do you think he is?). Lots of laughs and giggles ensue as I am drawn into the minds of a seven and nine year old….
The tide is starting to come in now and it rocks the raft back and forth as it starts to float (my favorite!). “Smokey” starts to change shape as a small plane overhead cuts through the clouds. We say goodbye to Smokey. My daughter exclaims, “Now, I see a fairy with wings holding a wand!” And just like that, we are onto the next thing, which I have the task at finding again, and they will soon have the challenge of finding what I see…...
The ability of changing one’s perspective, being open to seeing and appreciating someone elses’ point of view, and switching one’s thinking/attention about a situation due to a change in rules or demands is known as, “Cognitive Flexibility”. Flexibility is a daily life skill that allows us to function competently in our world with others since we are social beings. Effective problem solving, emotional regulation, and creativity are all rooted in this vital skill. We need it to survive in our ever changing world as we must adapt to new situations.
Cognitive flexibility serves as part of a set of mental processes (known as “Executive Functioning”) which are necessary for the control of our behaviour, impulses, attention, planning, and our attainment of goals. It is a skill that varies across our lifespan and is extremely important in our wellness and in our ability to learn.
As a photographer, as well, while wearing one of my many hats, flexibility is important. I have to make decisions on which lenses to apply to a scene. Do I want to narrowly focus in on a particular person/object I find interesting? Or do I want to expand my view and be open to other things that may enhance the photo and allow everything to all be in focus at once? Am I open to shifting my attention to something else? Do I use a fixed focal length (“prime lens”) which requires me to move around and snap at various angles, but also pre-determines the amount that stays in view? Or do I want to use a zoom lens that allows for a variety of shots with different magnifications both narrow and wide, but may encourage me to stay at only one vantage point? Being open to seeing the beauty in all these options and not getting “stuck” on familiarity or habit, constantly sparks my creativity, influences my decisions, and thus challenges my cognitive flexibility artistically.
Whether an adult like myself with a self admitted, “Type A” personality, or a small child who views things naturally from a self-focused perspective, strengthening one’s cognitive flexibility can be introduced early in school and practiced throughout life. I see it as a welcoming challenge to my own behavioural habits. I strive to support students in developing this skill to experience success both inside and outside of the classroom. One book I LOVE to read which resonates with small children and is an empowering lesson on perspective is, “Pete the Cat and his Magic Sunglasses”. Check it out if you are not familiar!
How do we make ourselves aware of the importance of this skill and intentionally practice it in our daily life? It certainly comes easier to some than it does to others. For myself, I am driven to connecting with people. I am a ‘people person’. I love the variety of personalities people have and the diverse strengths and challenges that make us who we are. I love learning and try to learn something new every day from someone and try to intentionally challenge myself to see things from other points of view.
However, what do we do with students who do not have this curiosity or interest and find it difficult to manage frustrations or their emotions because they are “stuck” cognitively and do not have these skills? When supporting children who are struggling, I often get down physically on their level/vantage point. I ask myself metaphorically, “What lens does this person have on right now? Do they have another lens in their bag or is it very limited? Do I have the same lens that I can try on and appreciate their view and feelings in this moment? Can I lend them my lens and show them another way to view this problem that might be helpful?”. A child’s perspective changes when they know there are other ways to view things. Solutions to problems become visible and attainable. This also drives confidence and independence.
The one thing I think I have figured out in my life is that if I approach EVERY interaction with genuine interest and curiosity, and root it in EMPATHY, being cognitively flexible is easy. I think empathy is the magic key to it all. “It allows us to see with the eyes of another, listen with the ears of another, and have feeling with the heart of another”- Alfred Adler. If we can teach this before anything else and ensure that we have empathy for others and ourselves, this opens the doors to learning. One could argue that empathy is the highest form of knowledge.
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