What they need to grow: An interview with children's illustrator Julie Freel

Here is another interview with Children's Wheel of the Year illustrator, Julie Freel. This time I want to let you in on her other life, which is as an expert on the emotional development of children. Her input has also been very helpful on the writing side of the books, ensuring that the stories and dialogue are helpful to children, even as they entertain.

Welcome back to the blog, Julie.

How is the illustrating for this project going?

It's getting easier and more fun.

You work with children for your day job, right?

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I've provided services to children and families for 25 years.

Painting Shanna books Sommer Solstice 3.jpg

We always say plants need soil, water and sunlight to grow. Can you sum up what children need to grow and flourish?

Kids need safety and security to survive. To thrive, children need a reliable someone paying attention, providing care and nurture. To flourish, kids need motivational opportunities such as new experiences and ideas as well as opportunities to develop skills and talents.

What role does self-confidence play?

At a certain age, kids need challenges. Shanna and the Goddess is a story about how challenges help to build confidence. Giving children an opportunity to meet challenges helps them develop a healthy sense of self, challenges that are genuinely meaningful within the context of their lives.

The opportunity to be needed and the feeling that your contribution is valuable can develop a sense of self, if it's not above your developmental level. A five-year-old without an available parent who has to figure out how to get food for his three-year-old sister isn't being provided with a helpful challenge because it’s beyond their developmental level, causing later emotional problems. But if it is a challenge that causes you to stretch and prove your abilities, where you get the opportunity to test your real limits, it builds confidence.

Self-confidence is what underlies motivation and the ability and willingness to try things, make mistakes, learn and grow. Many people have abilities and exceptional talents but are unable to find the motivation to express them. Some people say it's laziness but I would say it has more to do with lack of self-confidence. Self-confidence makes life more fun.

What is self-regulation and why is it important to children's development?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions and behavior within the context of the expectations in our situation. It includes emotional regulation; or the ability to manage emotions, to calm oneself when upset and to adjust to changes. These skills allow us to direct our behavior towards goals despite the unpredictability of the world and flux of our own feelings. Without adequate emotional regulation, children are less capable of succeeding socially and academically. Our abilities to self regulate are largely developed before the age of three, including prenatal development. With a safe environment and responsive caregivers, children develop the capacity to calm themselves under stress. Without a safe environment, our brains develop patterns of hormonal responses that last a lifetime and take a great deal of effort to manage, impacting our abilities to be fully present to our life experiences.

Julie painting imbolc cover of beltane.JPG

Do you think self-regulation is particularly important because of the emphasis of today's society on academic success in a sedentary structure?

Self regulation is important in any society. There is a difference between being able to regulate ones’ emotions and the ability to sustain attention. A societal emphasis on academic success within a sedentary structure is not conducive to sustained attention for many children. But being able to regulate emotions is essential to social connectedness and success with any endeavor that requires sustained effort. Our abilities to self regulate directly relate essential relationship skills: to our ability to be present to our own emotional experience and that of another person.

What are some ways to help kids who struggle with self-regulation in school?

It depends on the need. It is helpful to have a calm-down place where kids can self regulate. Children benefit from learning mindfulness skills such as body awareness and yoga. Emotional intelligence skills can be taught; for example, learning to identify and name your feelings and expressing them to others calmly. These skills can be integrated into social relationship skill building. Children need to be taught how to express themselves in ways that are sensitive to others and help in problem solving their daily challenges.

Help kids talk about important issues--such as bullying, social exclusion, difficulties keeping up
academically--with each other. Normalize the need for calming down and the need to help each other calm down. Teach children how to be there for each other when someone is having a hard time.

In addition, doing projects--just getting out and doing things--is a huge predictor of future success for children. That's one reason why too much time sitting in front of video games is such a problem for children. They aren't having opportunities for building the many skills that are necessary steps toward self regulation, confidence and competence.

The book Shanna and the Goddess has a lot about children gardening. Do kids gain more from gardening than just technical skills like other chores?

Gardening helps children connect to nature and the earth, offering a source of calm and connectedness to the environment as well as to one’s family. Nature is one of the greatest sources of internal peace and satisfaction.

With so many demands today--academics, sports, foreign languages, creative enrichment opportunities for kids and then those chores--do you have any advice for parents hoping to include some sort of spirituality in their children's lives?

If it is a part of your life, spirituality will naturally be a part of your children's lives. If you want spiritually based celebrations, you have to make that choice and put it into practice for yourself and your family. Living your spirituality has to be integrated into your daily life as well as your celebrations, in order to be meaningful.

Thank you so much for your perspective on this. And happy painting!

Teaching writing to resistant teens

I am an ESL teacher in a town where we struggle with very demotivating schools. Most of my students are reasonably well off socio-economically, but when they first come to me, they have no interest in school, reading or writing. After years of struggling as a teacher, I have found something that works. I've seen it engage many different kinds of students now, often making a huge difference in a few short months.

It's blogging. It sounds simple. Too simple in fact. But it works.

If you're a teacher or a parent or anyone concerned about teaching teens, read on and I'll tell you how I make it work. 

I spend some time in discussions beforehand to figure out an interest that each student can really pursue. You have to reserve all judgement at this point. Your goal here isn't to help students develop interests that adults believe are worthwhile, but rather to teach them writing skills and spark their passion. My students initially claim absolute boredom and disinterest with everything. It takes a while to identify interests. 

One of my students played 49 hours of video games at home last week alone. He has no interest in anything else. Okay. But he is interested in video games at least. It might be the party scene that your student is interested in or Facebook or some sort of music you don't even consider to be music. But there is something if you dig enough. 

Image by MCPearson of Wikipedia

Image by MCPearson of Wikipedia

Once you have identified topics for your students' blogs, you go on to a free site like WordPress.com. and have each student set up a blogger account. Have them title their blog something to do with their identified interest or interests. (Putting in writing what the general topic is can be crucial for the success of beginners.) And then spend class time drafting blog entries on topics within the interest. This shouldn't be left to homework or it is unlikely to happen. This is the core of what needs to happen and your students will often need help thinking of how to continue. You can have them write on paper if few computers are available and then have them type in the final draft later.

I have one student who is only interested in tennis and primarily the tennis played on TV. She writes about her practices, what tennis matches she watched on TV and what she thinks of celebrity tennis players. I am really not interested in tennis and I find writing about what was on TV to be excruciating but this student is suddenly motivated. I don't care that she is reformulating what she saw on TV. She is writing.

My students are writing at a very basic level because this is ESL, but the same can be applied to English-speaking high school students. Whether your students can write one paragraph per week or a full essay, each constitutes a "blog post." This can be adapted to any level beyond about third grade reading level.

To help students generate more complex and interesting entries, have them show you their progress and then ask specific questions. In the beginning I have to ask leading questions to get students to write the next sentence and the next and the next. If you have to ask a question for every sentence they write, you know they're struggling but if they write a sentence to answer your question and these sentences string together to make a post on a topic, then they'll make progress.

Students will have to read and write in their area of interest in order to post on their blogs. As they become more advanced and tackle topics beyond their direct experience, they will need to read other articles and cite them in their blog. These are indispensable skills in today's world. 

There will be resistance at first. You will still have to "force" students to do it as assignments in the beginning, but in my experience they quickly stopped complaining about coming to class and came in with smiles, which they had never had before. 

Most started to do assignments voluntarily and they now come up with ideas on their own. The most important thing is that their writing and language skills improved by leaps and bounds. Studies have shown that people learn not just somewhat more but many times more if the subject matter is of personal interest. This method capitalizes on that. As time goes on quality control will actually come from within the student because the blog will be public and they will be motivated to try to make it interesting. You can encourage them to post about their blog on social media and discuss it with people who share similar interests.

In a large class this could take time to set up, but it is worth every confusing organizational and discussion hour in the beginning. Once you have identified each student's interests and set up blogger accounts, you will have ready made lessons. You help students choose a topic, advise them on where to get information (this is probably the homework part to some extent) and then do the writing (primarily in class under guidance at first). 

Many students will balk even when faced with their area of interest and claim they can't think of ideas for posting. Give them a short list of things within their topic that they can choose from. Here are post ideas for some of the more common teen interests that often elude adult comprehension. 

Video games/programming: 
Review a video game (can be used many times and could be the entire blog)
Review a new computer or game console on the market
Review an operating system.
Compare and contrast any of the above

Sports: 
Write what happened at the game last weekend
Write about sports events in the media, give opinions
Compare and contrast celebrity players
Compare and contrast sport styles

Facebook or other social media:
Defend social media from one specific criticism (can be used several times for a whole list of criticisms)
Compare and contrast SM platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Quora...)
Review or discuss specific Facebook groups or Twitter hashtags
Discuss the groups or hashtags useful for various topics
Discuss an issue such as what to think about when accepting a friend request
Discuss an experience from SM such as what happened when I posted about a private moment, something controversial, something boring, something cute
What kinds of posts get the most interest from my friends

Music or pop culture:
Review specific musicians, bands, albums, songs or actors
Compare and contrast
Describe specific styles
Defend a specific style against criticisms
Write about what was recently in the media, give opinions

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.