Social Emotional Retreat at Little Village Academy

Social Emotional Retreat at Little Village Academy

This year I had the pleasure to be a presenter at a wonderful program for Chicago Public School middle school students at Little Village Academy (LVA) in the primarily Latino Southwest Chicago neighborhood. The school, faculty and students face a multitude of challenges that create impediments to successful learning: gun violence, poverty, drug and alcohol use at home and in the community, and gang intimidation to name just a few. To counter these external forces, LVA just held its 4th Annual Middle School Social Emotional Retreat, bringing together resources from all over the community to help educate and support students’ Social Emotional Learning at this critical pre-teen age.

Session topics included healthy relationships, communicating with your parents, depression, violence, self-esteem, hygiene, and drug and alcohol prevention. The most moving presentation on the consequences of gang membership was presented by a self-described “undertaker” who has personally buried over 700 young people as a result of gang violence. Her presentation was as personal as it was powerful, a cautionary tale for the girls in the room as well as for the boys.

To this mix of powerful emotional and educational programming I added my participatory presentation on becoming more resilient to stress. The session highlighted the two elements we need in our lives to combat stress, a conviction in ourselves and a community of support when life gets too hard for us to handle by ourselves. Research shows that people who fall victim to the belief that everything is hopeless tend to be less creative thinkers, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. Through participatory activities students in the session learned through doing that a belief in oneself reduces stress and improves performance.

How to combat feelings of stress and hopelessness

The number one way to work through stress is to become involved in a pursuit that can better oneself from the inside. Activities such as learning to play an instrument, taking an art class or doodling in a sketchbook, reading, writing short stories, studying a subject that has always been of interest, playing a sport, achieving goals transforms a mere hobby into a passion and leads to a more engaged person, empowered by their own accomplishments.

The second component of working through stress and hopelessness is connection, to be part of a healthy community of friends, school mates, co-workers, or family members, which can be as hard for middle schoolers to accomplish as it is for adults. When anxiety begins to take over one’s thoughts and feelings, stress builds up inside and sometimes explodes in inappropriate ways. That’s why we need to learn to rely on others, people we can trust to talk to.

It can be hard to talk about feelings

Many individuals have family members who never talk about their emotions, which then is the model by which children learn to live their lives. Once individuals experience comfort in expressing anxiety to a safe and trusted person the lesson is learned for life.

What I shared with the LVA students are good lessons for anyone struggling to connect with others:

  • Know that others are not as calm and together as they seem on the outside. We are individuals isolated from each other by our own unique experiences.
  • What also binds us together are a few negatives: No one wants to be seen as someone who doesn’t know what’s going on. No one likes to be embarrassed or laughed at.
  • It can be very hurtful and confusing when our friends make fun of us. Think first before you laugh at someone else. How do you feel when someone makes fun of you?
  • So what would make a friend tell a joke at our expense? Maybe your friend is feeling embarrassed or put down and doesn’t know how to handle their emotions. How are they feeling? Did they handle their emotions appropriately?
  • Being mad, embarrassed, frustrated or even just confused is stressful. Talk to someone about your feelings.
  • Home life can make school (or work) more stressful. What if your home or apartment is too noisy or crowded for you to get to sleep at night? How are you going to feel in the morning? Tired. When you’re tired it’s harder to do your work, to concentrate and that’s stressful.
  • You see your family members with stress in their lives and, as much as they want to handle their stress better, often they are bad at controlling their emotions. Sometimes family members drink too much, use drugs or hold down more than one job and are too tired or impaired to act responsibly.

My message is that all of us need to rely on ourselves for our self-esteem, self-assurance, our ability to feel in control and be part of the world around us. But when we can’t be strong, we should be sure to have someone to rely on, to talk to, to help find the strength to be positive.

Learning by doing

From years of experience I know if I don’t engage middle schoolers’ imaginations I won’t engage their minds. Intermingled with my message of becoming engaged in creative activities and speaking to each other I involved them in rhythm-making exercises, crayon drawings to represent different types of music, and a cooperative group sculpture construction with  large wooden blocks. They were a wonderfully motivated group, all three sessions, respectful when needed and loud and chaotic when called on.

Little Village Academy has a tough job to do in a tough neighborhood, but from my perspective, LVA teachers, administrators and staff are succeeding at their mission though a combination of love, persuasion and positive role modeling. I feel very grateful to have been included in this year’s retreat.