Thriving in Variable Conditions, and Increasing our Capacity to Cope

Two bicycles ride on a street through heavy rain, the rider obscured by a green umbrella

The principle of increasing our tolerance windows doesn’t just relate to uncomfortable weather! It also encompasses our capacity to notice, name, and validate (without judgment!) our feelings and emotions, including all of our Big Feelings. All emotions are teachers, and feelings are neither good nor bad- they simply are.  Our objective is to increase our awareness and acceptance of our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones (wetness or coldness due to rain, sadness, anger, frustration, or other natural and normal human emotions and experiences). The foundation of social-emotional development for children begins with self-regulation tools and useful strategies to create healthy and adaptive patterns for life. 

We want children to recognize their own physical and emotional states, particularly the ability to recognize when they are dysregulated and be able to responsively move towards a state of whole-brain and whole-self integration. For example, at Treehouse Learning, we support children now to use breathing or mindfulness techniques to move through anxiety, drink water or do the Brain Gym “Hook Ups” when experiencing anger or upset and put names and words to Big Feelings (the “name it to tame it” approach). 

Why is resilience to a variety of emotional states so critical? Our culture doesn’t exactly put forth excellent models of hanging out with uncomfortable feelings! Adults also grow up needing coping mechanisms, and many of us develop patterns using less helpful or skillful ways of coping with physical, emotional, or mental distress. Perhaps self-medicating or numbing out with sugar, alcohol, carbs, or other substances? Perhaps endlessly scrolling on our smartphone devices (and it is no accident that apps and social media are designed for perpetual dopamine hits to keep people scrolling as long as possible)? Perhaps storming the capitol or engaging in violence when confronted with ideas that create discomfort? Our capacity to thrive is inextricably linked to our capacity to accept, respond, and adapt to challenges in positive and helpful ways.

The Gardener vs Carpenter Model

Creativity and innovation emerge out of variability and unpredictability. In her work on child development, researcher Alison Gopnik uses the metaphor of gardeners and carpenters to discuss approaches to parenting. Our culture is heavily oriented to the “carpenter” approach where we attempt to control an environment and conditions and follow a streamlined/optimized process with the expectation of predictable results or outcomes. The logic goes that if we follow a blueprint of ABC, we should reasonably expect a result of XYZ. Our education system, especially standardized testing, is largely built upon this approach. 

In contrast, the “gardener” approach recognizes the opportunity to create an environment and ecosystem for each plant to thrive and flourish under variable (and even stressful) conditions. Trees that are grown in indoor greenhouse environments often fail to develop strong root systems that allow them to withstand the variability of outdoor conditions, like storms, heavy winds, or drought conditions. So too do children who are consistently rescued or sheltered from uncomfortable conditions, feelings, ideas, or thoughts.

We want our children to thrive and flourish in all sorts of physical and psychological conditions, not only because that is representative of the way the world works, but because variability also leads to exploration, discovery, curiosity, and innovation. While children thrive on predictable and consistent routines, it is also not our goal to control all conditions and environments that lead to distress in a child. 

In our education systems, our emphasis on measuring outcomes is often based on developmentally-inappropriate assumptions that all children should develop at the same pace and that there is uniformity of cognitive, social-emotional, or physical development of a child based on chronological age. In the model of the “Gardener” approach, we more easily recognize that children are much like individual seeds that learn and grow at their own pace, and our role is to support learning environments that see and meet the individual learner where they are.

Playful learning experiences in early childhood with time for discovery, exploration, and childhood wonder all support cognitive flexibility and innovative thinking. What if we designed learning environments and school systems with the intention of cultivating a holistically beneficial ecosystem where all learners could be supported to learn via their own strengths and at their one pace? While predictability and consistency have a place in healthy child development, so do variability and challenges.

Rather, children need the opportunities to develop flexibility and resilience to cope with adversity, stress, and variability. When we give children the opportunity to experience physical or mental discomfort, take a risk, or fail, we provide them the priceless opportunity to grow stronger roots by developing productive and useful patterns that will support them for life.

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