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Connection: The Key to a W.E.L.L. Generation

Meg Hanshaw Ph.D.

Connection is the key to a W.E.L.L. generation.

connectionpicture_205021777 (1)Sounds simple doesn’t it? Just connect with kids and they’ll grow up well, empowered, as self-leaders, and able to live their legacy? It is very simple in theory, but difficult in its application. According to Dr. Brene Brown, researcher at the University of Houston, connection is the “energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment, and when they derive sustenance (support) and strength from the relationship.”1

Do you remember someone who spoke kindly to you -made you feel important, and listened to what you had to say without feeling judged? Did someone lovingly provide you with outlets to develop skills and inspire a love of learning? Did a person teach you how to be resilient in the face of challenges and mistakes and how to keep moving forward towards your goals and dreams with ease? If so, you had an experience of an empowering environment with connection. As you probably know, creating connection is easier said than done, especially when we feel threatened.

However, humans are hardwired for connection. I would consider it the pathway to love. We need it to thrive. Without it we don’t feel “good enough” in some way and will actually change ourselves to stay connected. Do you remember feeling bad after making a mistake or feeling like people were mad or disappointed if you didn’t do something their way? Did you ever feel like you needed to change in some way to make sure you were going to be accepted and liked? When our brain detects disconnection in any way, we will do whatever it takes to feel good about ourselves again. Disconnection equals pain and our brains want us to feel good so it will search for ways to do this.

Disconnection (not being accepted as you are in the moment) can happen in many ways, such as verbally (negative words), nonverbally (negative body and facial language), behaviorally (yanking, spanking, hitting, walking away, numbing out), emotionally (ignoring and ostracizing feelings), psychologically (saying one thing, doing another; playing mind games), energetically (giving off a sense that something is wrong with the person), or spiritually (disappointment in who the person is, not just their behavior). Some disconnection is inevitable – it is part of the human experience. But if it continually happens without any repair or reconnection, it can negatively impact brain development, emotional resiliency, health, happiness, and ability to create positive relationships.

Unfortunately, our society in the U.S. is in an epidemic of disconnection. There are more than 3 million referrals of child maltreatment that occur in the home each year, that’s six referrals every minute. Child Protection Services (CPS) believe that reports of child maltreatment may actually be underestimated. Non-CPS studies estimate that 1 in 7 U.S. children experience some form of child maltreatment in their lifetimes2.  From minor disconnections to major traumatic experiences, disconnections can create feelings of shame… the “fear of not being good enough”. Because of adult and educational expectations and etiquettes, these feelings get stuffed down inside and ignored. Kids learn to cover up their feelings and be and do what they are told to get connection, even if it means shutting down parts of their personalities. Do, do, do, achieve, get the goal, and perform -become the norm. How well they acheive becomes the marker of how much connection they believe they will get, and ultimately, how good they will feel about themselves (self-worth).  They covertly learn through connection or lack of, that what they DO is more important then who they ARE. These individuals may go on to have many external successes, but don’t feel like a success on the inside, struggling with parts of themselves that are scared to “mess up”, and

Acute and chronic disconnections and maltreatments affect kids in many different ways.

(1) They tend to be less resilient to challenges in life and will give up. Some of the most common causes of giving up are dealing with activities and processes that are not familiar, or seem too hard, or have not been practiced before (don’t have the needed skills). These result in painful feelings of fear and stress caused by the uncertainty that they will not be good at the task, or be guaranteed of success. Without the achievement of the task, their identity is questioned. They unconsciously believe that they will not be liked or a part of if they don’t do well. Bottom line, their worth is tied up in the outcome. Hence, the child quits rather than endure the pain of disconnection again even if disconnection may not even occur. One of the biggest epedimics we have in our country right now is the high school drop out rate. Those kids who quit school do not feel like they have the skills to make it and/or they don’t feel like they belong. High school drop-outs make about $25,000 less per year than a college graduate, and are more likely to be unemployed or in jail³. (They have more challenges and less perceived skill to deal with these feelings.)

(2) They tend to treat others with disrespect or become bullies. About 2.7 million students are bullied each year.4  People who grow up feeling not good enough and were not modeled connection, empowered behaviors, and communication techniques are more likely to have relationship struggles. (Increased divorce rate?) These students tend to be more sensative to external cues which may show up as behavioral challenges at school.

(3) They tend to have problems focusing and concentrating on learning because they tend to live in survival mode afraid of being judged. Have you ever tried to think rationally, make decisions, and learn new things when you were triggered, -in fight, flight or freeze? One must be in higher brain functioning to learn easily.

(4) They tend to feel hopeless about life, fear not being liked, and have suicidal thoughts. Sadly, 1 in 8 teens are depressed.5  Depressed people tend to not venture out and take action towards their goals. They give up more easily.

(5) They do not express their emotions appropriately or talk about their internal challenges. They feel totally isolated and alone in their disempowering feelings, like no one else feels the same as they do. They feel like they must keep up their achievement identity and expressing “negative” feelings would jeopardize this. Living with bottled up feelings and “prover” parts are exhausting.

(6) They experience chronic and toxic stress which creates negative health behaviors and addictions and increases the risk of chronic disease. Researchers have found that chronic disease is more prevalent in adults that experienced some form of maltreatment growing up. In our featured i.b.mee. My Voice Counts” student blog this month, Susannah Crawford, a college senior and i.b.mee. intern, reviews one of the most ground-breaking studies conducted on childhood disempowerment called the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study6. (Done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente.) In the study of 17,337 people, about 64% reported at least one of the seven ACEs. As the number of ACEs increased, the risk for major health problems such as the likelihood of obesity, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, depression, heart disease, and death increased exponentially. Thus, the more ACEs experienced before age eighteen, the greater the developing brain is exposed to the body’s toxic stress response, and the greater the likelihood of developmental difficulties such as higher brain capabilities like reasoning, learning, decision-making, communicating effectively, and bonding with others (connection).

It is very apparent that we are at a crucial turning point in history where we must change directions from disconnection to connection. We are in a “connection crisis” where our human race has lost connection with themselves and others trying to prove that they are someone by doing something. This is having devastating effects on the health and well-being of our children and our students.

Sadly our educational system has not yet addressed the urgency of this crisis. It is still focusing on:

(1) Competition: There is the “race to the top” for students to be the best in the national academic standards without regards to the ways-of-being this focus is covertly teaching. (little wellness, personal empowerment, self-leadership, and how to live your legacy)

(2) Tests and Grades: Many students who make A’s and B’s and feel like they are a success, are not “taking in” what they had to “DO” to make those grades. No choice, no sleep, no balance, no variety, no feeling, no “getting real”,  no intrinsic motivation, are the norms, -and why? The system is set up to convince kids that the only way to “make it” in the world is to make good grades. What the students become are their grades. Grades become their identity. Moreover, mass student testing occurs to also keep teachers accountable which undermines their own intrinsic motivation to continue teaching.

(3) Getting into the Best College: High school juniors become stressed with processes, procedures and competition to get into a good college. (Some never get past the first set of procedures.) College is supposed to ensure that they are qualified to “get” a job that pays well. Then the realities of a college education for many of the students ends up actually being a lot of debt and/or no job, or if they get a job, not making enough to live well. The statistics show that only about 25% of college grads make enough to live sustainably³.

(4) Teacher training that Emphasizes Content: It is crucial that teachers learn to deal with the vulnerabilities of the human-being. There is a lack of current empowerment, connection and trauma research infiltrating into the teacher training systems. You can’t take the human-being out of the student; they are not robots or prisoners and should not be treated as such. They are kids who are born with the intrinsic motivation to connect, learn, grow, play/have fun and contribute. Somewhere along the way, they tend to lose this focus. Our systems should emphasize the true meaning of connect, learn, grow, play and contribute. Not because they want to prove themselves better than, but because these are what makes us human and fulfilled. This develops healthy, happy, successful human-beings who feel good about themselves because they like who they are, not because of what they achieve and do. With this mindset, people achieve more easily than they could ever dream of with little to no stress.

(5) Negative Discipline and Punishment: Education still believes that a negative, punitive, and disempowering discipline system is the only way to keep kids under control and to ensure a system of educated kids. How many students drop out of school each year?  -Thousands. How many kids really like school? Not many, just ask them. They just don’t know any other way. Who likes to go somewhere they don’t like?

(6) Shutting down Emotions: The societal norm of not allowing others to see your vulnerabilities (to feel and share real internal challenges and emotions) makes everyone scared to share and connect. What humans really want is to know that we all have similar struggles. We all have the same feelings. This always comes as a relief for those who learn this. They don’t have to expend the energy of having to hide anymore. This is exhausting and plays a toll on the immune system, which in turns increases the risk for disease.

Overall, the American school philosophy is diligently pushing more academic work and stricter discipline, testing, and academic policies in hopes to win the race. As a result, they have unknowingly created a robotic student mindset of more, better, different which produces chronic stress because students are not allowing and accepting themselves as the vulnerable human-beings they all are. Education occurs in a proving, stressed-out, unhealthy, un-balanced culture, teaching our kids that it is better to be a “human-doing” rather than a healthy human-being.  Students feel like they need to “do better” all the time. In reality, we are losing the race.

As Dr. Brene Brown said in her TedTalk7, “We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, medicated cohort in history.”  No wonder by the time students finish high school, many think the world is a scary, hard, stressed-out place to be. It doesn’t have to be. Our students can succeed with “ease” but our educational processes do not teach “ease”…they better hurry.

The American education philosophers and game-changers must continue to have conversations about these challenges and help redefine success and health as a process of personal empowerment through connection with self and others. We want students to experience school as a healthy springboard for their intrinsic desires and process of learning, exploring the world, and contributing their gifts and talents.  It is time to give our students another message about themselves, their life, and their purpose.

Although, the connection crises may seem bleak, there are connection and empowerment practices, programs, teachers, and schools out there moving in the right direction.  I.b.mee.’s objective is to continue researching, collecting, and reporting about them, serving as the central hub of Empowerment Education. I.b.mee. Institute is currently developing an Empowerment Education Certification that will serve as the criteria to help end the connection crisis and ensure that our next generation is a W.E.L.L. generation.

Teachers shouldn’t wait another day to learn about how to help students be able to move into a calm, clear, and confident state. In our Teacher Empowerment Coaching program, we have already trained teachers in the Empowerment Coaching Model and the results for the children have been incredibly positive. As teachers understand how kids brains are hard-wired for connection and what kids really need to thrive, teachers will know how to structure and teach in an empowerment classroom, and how to positively handle students when they don’t want to listen, learn or get along with others. This will not only change a child’s life, but begin to decrease the teacher’s own stress too, creating a W.E.L.L. environment for both the student and teacher! Corrie Hill-Price, one of our trained Empowerment Teachers, describes wonderfully, in our i.b.mee. “My Voice Counts” teacher blog, an example of connecting with one of her kindergarten students in a public school.

It is vitally important that all adults learn to connect with themselves and our children especially when they make mistakes. All humans, especially kids are worthy of love and belonging…ALWAYS, even when they act out, mess up a new skill, or behave in less favorable ways. It is possible to turn challenging behavior into teachable moments that kids hear and understand. We must do this with acceptance and validation in our words, behaviors and nonverbal communication. If we want kids to be empowered and feel successful, and I believe we all do, then it is time to show them they are lovable, capable, and worthy no matter what. It is time to create processes and systems that result in healthy ways of being, innovation in motion, cooperation, respect, acceptance, and fun and positive ways to learn.

Connection is the key.

Enjoy and Be W.E.L.L.

Meg Hanshaw Ph.D. -i.b.mee. Founder and President of the Board


1 https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/162578.Bren_Brown

2 http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/index.html

3 http://www.mdrc.org/publication/building-better-programs-disconnected-youth

4 http://bullyingstatistics.org

5 http://kidshealth.org

6 http://acestudy.org/home

7 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o