Parenting in a Pandemic with Dr. Rebecca Branstetter

Sep 01, 2020

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School psychologist and conscious parenting author Dr. Rebecca Branstetter has some advice for you in today's podcast: You are not homeschooling your child. You are supporting your child with distance learning during a global pandemic. You are not working from home. You are working at your home during a global pandemic. This mindset shift (along with many others she offers in this interview) invites parents to focus on what's most important right now — connection with your kids.

Jeff: I am here in Topanga, Canyon with Dr. Rebecca Branstetter.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yes. I like the accent.

Jeff: Thank you. I've been practicing for years. You're a psychologist, a PhD, or you have a specialization in school psychology, correct?

Rebecca Branstetter: That's right.

Jeff: We're going to talk about a whole variety of different things. We're going to riff like improvisational jazz, which I know now that your husband is very interested in. We share a mutual love of Wes Montgomery, but that's not what we're here to talk about. We're here to talk about kids and parents and teachers and what the heck is going on with online learning or distance learning. When we went into quarantine or sheltering place in March, I think that this affected one billion or 1.2 billion students around the world that were all of a sudden thrust into a completely new environment for learning, for online learning. Some institutions were more ready for it than others, but many did not have a plan for this. And of course, how could they?

Jeff: We are still in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and we know that there is a relationship between uncertainty and anxiety and stress and we can talk about that. But I believe that 17 out of the 20 major K-12 school districts are still not open or planning to open or in some state of liquid disarray. We don't even know. In fact, two minutes before you walked in the door, I got a notification that Texas has now given, they're not opening their schools, too many cases. I know you're from the Bay Area, nothing going on. I have three daughters. I'm from the LA area. We're learning at home again. I think school starts tomorrow or maybe on Thursday. You have two daughters, beautiful little nuggets with bathing caps on outside. They're going to be learning at home.

Jeff: The California University system, that's a half a million people, they're adjusting and all learning online. And we are ill prepared for this. And so, we're just kind of writing the playbook as we go. And that's why I'm excited to talk with you because I think you can provide us very valuable guidance in terms of how we manage the stress and the anxiety as parents, as school administrators, as children, for dealing with the unknown. So, lots of those things to jump in and talk about, but maybe to start, could you give us a little bit of framework of who you are, what has been your life's work, what's been your life's work before COVID, what's your life's work now, and how that informs this particular moment.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yeah, lots to unpack. There are many layers to this. Look, parenting is tough under regular circumstances. Parenting in a pandemic is a whole new layer of challenge. Becoming the lead teacher of Branstetter Elementary whilst working is, we have two teachers-

Jeff: And two students.

Rebecca Branstetter: And two students.

Jeff: That's a good ratio. That's a better ratio.

Rebecca Branstetter: That's a good ratio. It has presented with many, many challenges. My background is I'm a school psychologist for the past 20 years in the Bay Area. And as a school psychologist, I am on the front lines of the intersection between children's emotion, behavior and learning skills, and how that interacts with their environment. So, when parents come to me, they often have concerns my child isn't succeeding academically or not making friends or school psychologists are tasked with looking system wide, like how can we support all students with anxiety or stress under regular circumstances and how can we do it in this moment.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, school psychologists are tasked with both prevention activities, seeing what kids need on a global sense in all of our public schools, and then also individually. So working with students individually who maybe have a higher level of care. So what's so interesting about this is I work a lot with families and kids who have additional needs. And it could look like learning needs, attention, emotional challenges, things like that. And when the pandemic hit, we realized very quickly as parents and as a community that all of our kids had additional needs in this moment. And that is because we were all under an exorbitant amount of stress, uncertainty. And we're still living in that today. Like you said, it's like building a sandcastle on the beach. I have a plan. This is my plan. And then a wave comes and knocks it out. And we're rebuilding.

Jeff: I have no castle left.

Rebecca Branstetter: And we build another one. And we're all set for returning to school, and nope, just kidding, it's distance, nope, just kidding, it's this. So it's really hard.

Jeff: It's very hard. And I suppose, I hope, well, this whole pandemic has put a microscope on the disparities, socio-economic disparities. And so, I think it's also important to call out that for underserved communities or disadvantaged communities that don't have the ability to necessarily, poor parents don't have the ability to stay at home or don't have high speed internet connection. Or sometimes there's a computer that's shared amongst the whole family. This creates a whole nother level of stress for a ton of families.

Jeff: And in a way, I mean, I think when COVID started, there was this sense of, oh, this is a great equalizer. It doesn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or race or anything. And in a way, maybe this is an opportunity that can bring us together and can unite us around a common cause. Unfortunately, at least in America, we haven't really seen that as much. In fact, we've seen a lot of the opposite, that it has shone a light or put a microscope on some of the economic disparities and some of the differences. And so, I wonder if you can address what you think are some of the top challenges for families, both parents and children, and maybe provide us with some basic tools or at least some ideas on how to tackle what's inevitably going to be a very difficult and uncertain moment.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yeah, I think first to your point about COVID has really magnified or amplified existing inequalities. And that's becoming very increasingly clear as this sort of distance learning round two is emerging. And a lot of more affluent families are like, well, great, we'll hire a private tutor to augment the curriculum, and we'll have a learning pod. Well, not everyone has that financial opportunity or social capital to pull together these kinds of things. And like you said, the internet bandwidth and things like that are, I think we're realizing that schools are very much more than just learning about academics. Some students and populations, that's where they get their food. And that's where they get their social emotional support. That's where kids with special needs get specialized instruction.

Rebecca Branstetter: I know I'm just sort of agreeing with you and identifying the problem. When we think about solutions, I think it's actually more about a mindset shift for parents. So, at least for what I'm observing, we know that anxiety is something that trickles down. When parents are stressed, our kids are stressed. No matter how good you think you are at shielding it, they pick up on your stress. And so communities were worried about where their next meal is coming from and what they're going to do about childcare. Those stressors trickle down to our kids. And so, when we think about how we can support one another and families during this, we really need to think about what is the essence of how to support parents.

Rebecca Branstetter: And I think the mindset shift, for one, is giving yourself grace as a parent. So, I want to encourage people who are like I'm homeschooling my child to think about a little bit differently. You're not homeschooling your child, even though you think you are. You are giving your child distance learning at home during a global pandemic under stress. So, I think that that mindset shift gives you permission to not do it perfectly. And really, right now, our kids don't need us to be perfect parents and teach them the difference between an isosceles and scalene triangle, and I don't remember the difference.

Jeff: Scalene.

Rebecca Branstetter: What our kids need is not for us to be perfect parents, but to be present parents. And the fact that we have all collectively been sent to our rooms to think about what we've done during this pandemic, to education, to each other, to the planet is actually an opportunity I think. To think about what is the most essential piece of parenting, what is the one thing that protects people under stress? And that one thing for all humans, and especially for children, is connection. And I use the phrase often, before this, and especially now, connection is protection.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, right now, if you can shift your lens from I am homeschooling and I'm not doing it right, or I'm failing at balancing home and work and I'm not doing either thing really well, and you as a parent might be feeling like you're falling short all the time or your fuse is short, I invite you to think about the context. I am parenting in a pandemic.

Rebecca Branstetter: One of my favorite happiness researchers, Nataly Kogan, gave this really great technique for this that I've been using. And it's when you, as a parent, beat yourself up for not doing it right, oh, gosh, I can't remember scalene triangle or my kid's not doing this worksheet and it's really easy. Or I'm not giving my full self to my work right now because I'm distracted or I can't even get through a Zoom call without my kids crawling all over me or whatever. My house is a mess. Whatever it is, whatever criticism's coming to your mind as a parent right now, add the phrase in a global pandemic to the end. My house is [inaudible 00:13:46] mess in a global pandemic. My kid is not finishing their math worksheet in a global pandemic. I am not able to give my full attention to my work in a global pandemic. It's sort of like in the fortune cookie where you add in bed to the end, only different.

Jeff: I think I prefer the latter than the former.

Rebecca Branstetter: Add in a global pandemic. So, it's about giving yourself grace. But also, it's about distilling your parenting down to the very essence of what our kids need right now. And what our kids need, it's less about academics and about making sure that they complete all of their activities to the letter. That's important, but really, what's important right now is that they feel safe, they feel connected, they feel like they belong. And those things can be done. Those things are in our control. So much is out of our control. But we can connect with our kids and that protects them from stress.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. And I suppose, like you say, this is a good moment to potentially make this realization around connection that hopefully can transcend this moment because that idea isn't only applicable to a family within a global pandemic. And this is, I think it's very hard to hold the disparity of human experiences that are happening in the world right now. There are people that are suffering on just a whole spectrum from obviously, folks that have paid the ultimate price. But people on the front lines, people losing their job, people scrambling to educate their children, all across the board.

Jeff: And it's hard and potentially not compassionate to dream about the new world story that might weave its way out of this. But at the same moment, I do believe that it is important to focus somewhat on the opportunities that exist within this collective grief that people are going through. We've seen the human spirit cohere, and we've seen humanity cohere in the past around times of great collective grief or challenge, whether that's World War II or after 9/11, and many other examples. I just read a book by Sebastian Junger called Tribe, which is just an unbelievable examination around how human beings formed community in times of adversity.

Jeff: And so, I'm hopeful that we can take some of these lessons and apply them not only to the current moment but hopefully to future moments.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yeah. And I think that stress not unique to times of coronavirus. This existed beforehand, anxiety and stress has been on the rise in our kids and ourselves and things like that. And this is an opportunity to take stock of what we can do about that. One of the greatest gifts I think we can give our children during this time is the ability to cope with stress. Yo and I talked about this earlier, but for better for worse, our kids are learning a lot by what they see us doing. So, when all of this started, of course, as a school psychologist, I grabbed my toolkit of things and I sat down, we had a family meeting. Here's our calming menu. And we all generated things we do when we're stressed and what helps us.

Rebecca Branstetter: And so the kids generated like I'll pet the dog or color or bounce outside on a trampoline or take three deep breaths. I pick things I do what I need to calm myself and my husband picked his and things like that. And we pre-planned this you Kind of in the moment. And as a very powerful story is, my little one, you've met, she is in kindergarten. So they're not developmentally sort of ready to sit on Zoom like an adult. It's really tough. And so, she hit her breaking point and started melting down. And I hate word sorting, it had nothing to do with the word sort, I hate word sorting, and I hate this platform. And in that moment, I said, let's go to our calming toolkit that we'd already pre-developed not in the moment. And she went through it and she saw, as you do, we got a quarantine puppy.

Jeff: We got two kitties.

Rebecca Branstetter: And she pet the puppy. So she went and she's petting the dog and she calms and comes back. And I say, "Okay, well what was going through your brain? What thoughts popped in your head when you saw that word sorting activity?" And she looks at me and she goes, "Mama, I miss my friends." It was nothing to do with distance learning, it had nothing to do with academics. She could do the word sorting activity. She was having a hard time with the emotions. So, as a parent, it was a moment where I realized that this is an opportunity to teach our kids how we deal with stress.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, if you're stressed as a parent and you can model for your kids, and I did this many times, I went to the calming menu and was like, okay, I'm going to take a walk outside right now. And they're like, okay, she's calming down. We can model for our kids how to work with stress. And a little bit of stress is actually a teachable moment on how to develop social emotional calming verbal expression. There's these social emotional learning skills. When we have our kids at home, there's an opportunity now to teach them to cope with stress.

Jeff: Yeah. And is this actually like a proper kit, like a first aid kit with adhesive tape and Hydrogen peroxide? I'm joking, but do you actually make a physical kit, you write these things down or is this sort of a mental vision?

Rebecca Branstetter: It's actually written down because kids are visual. Another activity that we're doing as we're doing round two. So kids have, and especially little ones, they have two timezones, now and not now. And they're not really thinking about later. As they get older, they can think a couple days in advance. And right now, as we're about to jump back, my kids are going back on Thursday, and by going back, I mean, going back to my kitchen table. And we did an activity that was very visual, which was, I drew a picture of a little girl and I put a thought bubble. And I said, daw to me what you think school is going to look like. If things go well, what does it look like? And I had each of my girls do it.

Rebecca Branstetter: And my little one drew a picture of herself at the kitchen table with the puppy in her lap, and no one's helping her. My other one drew a picture of herself in the bedroom with a puppy on her lap, and no one's helping her. So I know now as a parent, that's their future sketch for what distance learning is going to look like. That is not the sketch that my husband and I had in mind. First off, the puppy cannot be sitting on both of their laps. And puppy's not going to sit anyway because he's a puppy. But my point is that if you can kind of prime your kids for what's coming, what's on deck and get a sense of what they think and you can pre-plan this. So, what will you do if you get stressed out? What's on your menu? All it takes is a piece of paper, y'all. Get a piece of paper and you write down, these are the things that make me feel calm.

Rebecca Branstetter: And you'll soon discover that some things might be not compatible. My husband who you jammed about Wes Montgomery too is very musical and loves to sing as a destressor. I am someone who likes quiet peaceful moments to destress. And so because we-

Jeff: Perfectly compatible.

Rebecca Branstetter: And we're all in one small space. And I don't have an office, I do Zoom calls from my garaoffice, which is a garage office, we have to figure out ways to collaborate and problem solve together. These are developmental skills that we can harness during this time.

Jeff: Yeah. I think I've turned into a kid a little bit in terms of my maturity level to deal with some of the challenges because our whole company is working from home. And my three daughters, as I said, and my wife is also working from home. So, it's bananas. I go to work nowhere, I just work right there. But I still for me, need to put in an entire work day and I have flexibility to apportion the hours as I want to some degree. But there is a temptation especially amongst my wife and I because she knows that I'm home and not in an office and vice versa, that she's like, oh, well, can you take Lolly to dance and pick up this at the thing. And I'm like, actually, this is a work day but it's not a work day anymore.

Jeff: And sometimes, I have degrees of frustration with that because I'm like, what I do is not being respected, like it potentially once was, where I went to an office. So, I need to grow up and also be patient and be flexible and know that working from home is a work life integration.

Rebecca Branstetter: I would argue that there's a slight shift on what you said, which a lot of parents have the same experience and I do as well. This is a workday, like I can't come and do this thing or that thing. I would say you're not working from home, that's like a conscious choice and your kids would typically be at school if you were working from home. You are working at your home during a global pandemic whilst trying to distance learning your three daughters. So, it's a slight shift, but I think work life balance is not possible, in general, or during COVID, in particular. If there were any work life blurred boundaries before, they are magnified now because the environment doesn't change. At least when you came home from work, your brain will shift over to this is now downtime. And since we don't have that anymore, we have to be really aware.

Rebecca Branstetter: I would argue that it's not about balance, like I do this many hours of dadding and this many hours of working. It's being in alliance with your intention. My intention is to work until this amount of time and then be with my family and my brain is also with my family. And so, that perfect work life balance is a myth. It's really about work life alliance. Am I being intentional with my time and when I'm working, my brain is working, and when I am being a mom or a dad, my brain is being a mom or dad. And it's really, really challenging when you are working in your home during a global pandemic with everybody on top of each other. It's really hard.

Jeff: I do find that the world at large, your work community and your colleagues tend to provide more grace than you might even provide yourself because everyone is grappling with this. It spares no one. I'm on Zoom calls all the time where there's toddlers going through the background of the Zoom, and I'm talking to some executive, and she's like, ah, sorry. And I'm like, no big deal, that's just what's going on.

Jeff: One other question that I had that comes from my own personal experience is that distance learning, I think can work in some ways because, like my eldest daughter, it gives her the ability to almost learn at her own speed so if she would have been otherwise bored in the classroom relearning something for the ninth time that she's already learned, she can speed ahead and learn at her own speed. And I think that it's given some sort of freedom for kind of individual pacing of learning. And there's probably some other positive attributes to distance learning. And it might be to some degree here to stay because I think people's patterns and habits are changing.

Jeff: But where she has really, really struggled is in the peer to peer interaction component. Now, she's 15, and her friends are like the entire world to her. But this could also apply clearly to your youngest, who's six, and anywhere in between, because when you're a kid, a, it's partially I think just the friendship and the conviviality and camaraderie that you can only get from people that are your age, but it's also an intrinsic part of learning that we just take for granted. So, how do we infill there or can we? Is it possible for parents to solve or address that Rubik's cube of the peer to peer interaction?

Rebecca Branstetter: Yes. You bring up something that is so critical is that I think we all knew this in advance, but it's really becoming amplified that schools are so much more than academics. It's where children learn social emotional cooperation skills, all of those interpersonal skills, and especially the littles, they really learn by interacting with other peers, group work, all of those things is where our kids learn those things. And so, you're lucky enough you have siblings and they can learn from each other in some sense. But having your same age peers in your learning environment is really critical. And there's nothing really in this moment that fosters that.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, what I do with my own kids, and I do recommend, is you have to make a distinction between do your kids want to process or do they want to problem solve? So, think about it like this, processing would be, it's so, so hard that you can't see your best friend. It's so, so hard you can't see your boyfriend, I don't know if she has a boyfriend.

Jeff: Oh yeah, she does.

Rebecca Branstetter: How do we feel about, we'll go into that later. That's a separate session.

Jeff: He's a lovely, lovely boy. I'm actually very fond of him.

Rebecca Branstetter: So you're right. As a teenager, you probably remember when you were a teenager, your friends were everything. So I invite you to think about, my daughters want to process how bad this sucks. And many times that is the only thing we can do as parents is say empathy statements such as, man, it makes sense that you would feel that way. And what we know about empathy is that when you lean in with empathy, that actually sometimes is enough. If you think about, say, you would never have a bad day at work, I'm sure of it. But if you did and you came home and told your wife, man, I had a really rough day, and she went straight to problem solving. Okay, well, here's how we fix this. Here's how we can figure it out. And starts going down some sort of checklist of ways to solve your problem. That's not what you really needed in that moment probably. You probably needed her to say, wow, that's tough. Tell me what happened.

Rebecca Branstetter: And that's what we can do with our kids. My little one had her sixth birthday. And we had a party all planned and it was a duck theme, she loves ducks. She's really enjoying the chickens here on campus. She loves them. And all of her little buddies. And if you think about it, when you're six, this is it. That's so exciting.

Jeff: It's the apex of the year.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yeah. So can I solve that as a parent in this moment? No. But I can lean in with empathy and say, wow, it's so, so hard. When she's, calm about that, then we can go to problem solving. So, do we want to plan it for when all this is done? Do we want a drive parade? And she says, I want a drive parade because everybody had done that. And so her kindergarten teacher, bless her heart, she was the Grand Marshal of her birthday parade. And we put out balloons and we did the best we could under the circumstances. We had all these duck balloons on this chair, and she's like the queen of all the ducks or whatever, and had all her duckies laid out. I teared up because you could see her light up that her teacher was there. You know when you're little you think your teacher just lives at school and you see them out of context, you're like, oh my gosh. And she got to see her buddies and they honked and waved and such.

Rebecca Branstetter: And so, was it as cool as the original plan? No. Was I able to solve that problem for her? No. But I was able to lean in with empathy. And with older kids, you can straight up ask them. Do you want to just process how bad this is right now or do you want to problem solve? And we may not be fully problem solving but we can do some safe social distancing bike rides or we can, one of my eldest loves Harry Potter. And she has sleep over plan that of course was canceled with her bestie. And so, after I [inaudible 00:32:30] in with empathy. If you go straight to problem solving, it's no bueno. It does not go well. Just like when you have a hard day, you want people to be like it's tough first.

Rebecca Branstetter: And once we process that, she said, well, what if we watched it together and timed it at the same time. So, that's what we did. Was that perfect? No. But she loved it because they watched it at the same time. There was like a little bit of delay so Snape said something like always and there was an echo like always and then they giggled about it. It was not the same as the sleep over, but it felt connected to her and she felt heard that that was hard and she wanted to see her friend and she still wanted to watch Harry Potter.

Jeff: So, you're stressing connection, empathy, really providing, like you said, really separating that notion from I'm homeschooling my kids to really, I'm just creating a support system of empathy and compassion inside a global pandemic. Are there other tools more specifically geared around learning that you feel like you need to infill that might be missing from a Zoom lesson? And that might be, I don't know, anything from helping your child develop a specific interest, that now there's a little bit more time so maybe we can go deeper there. And that might be art or piano or anything like that. But I'm curious more just like, is there an opportunity within this time to develop other kinds of skills that aren't necessarily being taught through school Zoom lessons?

Rebecca Branstetter: Absolutely. And I want to speak to two points. First is around structure. So now is the time to build a structure and make sure that this is what we do and this is next and then we do this. And structure is really handy for anxiety and uncertainty. It's more important to be predictable than pleasant. If it's predictable and we know this is going to happen, that can reduce yours and your kids anxiety. And at the end of the day, if it doesn't go to plan, it's an opportunity for collaboration.

Rebecca Branstetter: I noticed that you went on YouTube instead of doing your math. What's up? It's not accusatory, like how dare you, you're supposed to be 100% focused. Adults are not 100% focused, let's not put expectations on our kids that we don't even do. I certainly have deviated from my task at hand to do other things on the internet. So it's an opportunity to collaborate and problem solve. But to your point about what is learning? Learning yes on Zoom, yes academics, Yes Google Slides or whatever it is that your family [inaudible 00:35:26] they're producing for you. building that into a structured this is work time. But I want to invite anyone listening to also schedule the fun, schedule connection time.

Rebecca Branstetter: For little ones, it can be as little as 10 minutes following their lead what they want to do. I'm playing beanie boos or whatever with my little ones. They want to play hide and seek, they want to go on a scavenger hunt. We want to be in the backyard with a puppy. Even just 10 minutes of focused one on one time with your child is connection and they feel seen and heard. So it doesn't have to be a big do. But I think it is a have an opportunity to dive deeper into some other skills. I don't see them as necessarily disconnected.

Rebecca Branstetter: So for instance, I'm really surprised at what my kids can do independently now that I can observe them all day long. So, when school was in session, I would make their breakfast and make their lunch. I did all the things and when they woke up, oh, it's all done for you. One time I was on Zoom and my husband was working, and I came over and I saw my kids, they were preparing eggs. They were flipping it and doing a good job. And I was like, oh my gosh, this whole time you knew how to cook. [inaudible 00:36:38]. And so, now they kind of love cooking and one wants to be a pastry chef and one wants to be a sous chef. And they help dad with cooking.

Rebecca Branstetter: And guess what, cooking build what we call executive function skills, which is fancy schmancy term for planning, organizing and following through. And that's what kids are learning in school too. How do you plan? I have an essay, how do I plan for it? What's my topic sentence? And I'm going to follow through and I'm going to stick with it to completion. And cooking can be a math lesson, right? Look, there's fractions involved. My eldest is going into fourth, and so, we're all about the fractions. And we cut up apples and did math integrated in cooking, which is something that she liked to do. You can do out backyard science. There's all kinds of ways to integrate the concepts that they're learning into real life things you can do at home.

Jeff: I think the cooking one is an excellent example. This has been happening in my family just organically without necessarily thinking about it. But like you said, you don't have fry an egg. You actually have to do that to completion and then put it on a plate and eat it. I think that there is a, I think in our modern culture, the tendency towards lack of focus, lack of being able to pay focused attention to things. And there's a million reasons why in social media and being, you're getting pinged and dinged in 10,000 different directions, and that's prohibiting our ability to have long wave thoughts or often to actually complete or finish something.

Jeff: And cooking is a great way to address that because you're not going to half bake some cookies and then just give up.

Rebecca Branstetter: Or if you do, you learn from that, and you realize, I should have read the directions or whatever it is. So it's a learning opportunity as well. And I think there's many things that, even with teenagers, you could find a connect around. And when you're in the same space, and maybe it's even a small space like an apartment and you're on top of each other and like it's very, there's a lot of togetherness. You can find these moments where you can, oh, well, maybe I'm not into Minecraft as an individual, but my 13 year old son or whatever is into Minecraft. What if you just sat down next to your son if you have one and say, how's that work, right? And just be interested in what they're interested in. And you don't have to love it. But if you, I mean, you can probably think of conjured up moments in your childhood where your parents joined you on something. It was just fun because they saw you.

Jeff: Yeah, I think that's a beautiful lovely idea to spend some concentrated, devoted time understanding what your kids are interested in, what makes them tick, what makes them passionate, even though that might not be a passion of yours at all. Like for example, for my middle daughter, she is an avid dancer. She dances four times a week, two and a half hours a day. I'm like a cow on ice or whatever. I have other strong attributes. But fleet footed dancers is not one of them. I don't know the difference between, well now I do, but hip hop and lyrical and tap and whatever, all the ballet and all the different positions and things like that.

Jeff: And then, one day, maybe two months ago, I sat down with Lolly, my middle daughter, and I asked her just to teach me about dance. And I just was absolutely focused, and I learned as much as I possibly could absorb. And two days later, my wife Skylar came to me and said, "You know, Lolly told me that you asked her all about her dance, and she was so excited that you asked her about it and that you remembered and then she quizzed you and you were able to answer some of the questions right." And then I realized, just that little bit of effort of really trying to get into her skin, which I suppose is empathy, and understand what made her passionate and tick made such a difference, and really cemented an even deeper level of connection than we already have.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yeah, that's a perfect example. And I think that sometimes when kids are under stress and certainly distance learning can trigger some of that, and there can be power plays of no, you need to and I don't want to. If you think about kids, they don't often say I feel stressed about X, Y or Z. They may show up as, their stress might show up as behavioral challenges, particularly kids with additional needs, kids who have learning or attention or emotional challenges. It could show up as yelling at you. It could show up as withdrawing to your room and slamming the door.

Rebecca Branstetter: And I think that one of the things that's been a really great empathy builder is, if you think about in those moments, my child is not giving me a hard time, my child is having a hard time. And when you think about it that way, it opens up empathy. My kid's not acting out to ruin my day. No kid wakes up and be like, how am I going to ruin dad's day, right? And so, if we can think about that, that they're having a hard time, and my point is that it loops back to your story in that connection actually builds a foundation. And it's money in the bank when you have to later withdraw some parenting wisdom upon them. You have these bonding moments, these moments of connection. They feel seen, they feel heard, you lean in with empathy. Looks like you're having a hard time right now, I get it. It makes sense that you feel that way. There's the empathy.

Rebecca Branstetter: And then you can invite some general questioning, like what's up? What are you thinking about right now? So you don't have to clamp down. In fact, they're going to rise up. But if you think about behavior as communication, so when you see behaviors you don't like as a parent, which all day long, you can think about what's going on for your kids. So, it is about connecting not only with interest but also connecting with their experience.

Jeff: Yeah. It sounds like so much of what you talk about, and you said this at the beginning is mind shift. And I suppose some people may just have a preternatural ability to be objective and witness themselves. Other people like me have had to cultivate that ability over years and years of developing a practice. For me, it's a meditation practice, I dip in and out of how assiduously I follow that practice. When I am dropped in, I do have the ability to be able to almost sit above myself and witness myself and my behaviors and be able to witness obviously my thoughts and emotions as things that I don't identify with that can come and go.

Jeff: And in order I think to have this mind shift that you're talking about, for me, at least, is very, very necessary to have some sort of practice that takes me out of the reactive and puts me more into, detached is not really the right word, but at least in more of a thoughtful, responsive place.

Rebecca Branstetter: I think you hit on actually one of the most practical things parents can do in this pandemic. When we think about our kids behavior or them stressed, we think about what can we do for our kids and what can we teach them. But really, if you can cultivate your own parental pause button, which is your kid is doing something that you don't like or they are not following through on a task that you think they can do, they're not finishing their work or they're having a hard time, if you can use a mindful practice right before you react, like you said that detachment, it's cultivating your inner pause button.

Rebecca Branstetter: And the one practice that has been one of my fan favorites actually blends all of these things. It cultivates pause and it leans into empathy as well. And I call it the one for me, one for you breath. So if there's a parenting moment in which everybody is stressed, you take a deep breath and that one's for you. You first. One for me.

Jeff: Put your oxygen mask on first.

Rebecca Branstetter: And then one for you, you are having a hard time. One million for me, one for, no, one for me, one for you. And there's something even just one breath can give you enough pause before you react because one of the things that is so fascinating, and I've written a couple books on conscious parenting, in the conscious parenting literature, it talks about how we have these sort of default networks of how we were parented. And so, if you were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment in which when you made a mistake or acted out, your parents leaned in with empathy, understanding and compassion, that's going to be your default network. And maybe you weren't. Maybe your parents leaned in with guilt or shame or blame or clamping down. And that's just the way you were raised.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, as a conscious parent, that mindfulness gives you a moment to take a different decision. Do I want to lean in with empathy or do I want to say, oh my god, you should know better. It's not that hard, just do your word sort. If you have that mental pause button, and I think a mindfulness practice can cultivate that awareness so that you can pause before responding, you can be so much more intentional. I think the beautiful thing about the conscious parenting world is that you then are giving your child the gift of being self-compassionate one day. Your words become their inner monologue.

Rebecca Branstetter: So if you are blaming and shaming, and I'm not saying this is bad parenting, and under stress, we are more likely to go to that default mode. I have certainly had moments where I'm helicoptering above myself being like, what am I saying? Why am I doing this? I know better. But stress has hijacked my frontal lobe. And without mindfulness, I can't get back to that calm place to parent. I think that's a real gift we can give our kids as well, which is cultivating that pause button so that we can respond in a way that is consistent with how we want to parent.

Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with you. One last question or two because you've had a full day. If there is any job more stressful than just being a parent right now, it's probably being a teacher. And like we talked about it earlier in our discussion, there's very little playbook for what's going on. And teachers have had to adapt to a whole variety of technological systems. But really more than that, just like their own stress and their own challenges. I've seen some teachers just, I mean, these people are heroes. They're just making herculean efforts to keep their students engaged and keep them learning in the most difficult of circumstances.

Jeff: So, I know you work a lot with teachers. So I would ask you a question kind of from two angles. What is your advice to teachers, and then, what is your advice to parents in their interaction with teachers?

Rebecca Branstetter: Yes, for teachers, I think that it's also relaxing their standards to a level appropriate for a global pandemic. It's having that self-compassion that they're doing the best they can under the circumstances and using the tools that they have. I think that teachers, one of the thing that's so challenging for teachers is the thing they love most about teaching is that child interaction that in some ways is really hard to do over Zoom.

Rebecca Branstetter: I think that teachers can focus on their bigger why right now. Their job is to make students feel connected, seen. And even if they don't get to the content, if they can do what my daughter's kindergarten teacher did, which is that parade, was so special to her. Shout out to my daughter's fourth grade teacher, Miss Wenzel. She did special Zoom calls with my daughter because she didn't feel comfortable going to office hours. She had scavenger hunts in their own house for all these things. She connected with my daughter, they both are Harry Potter freaks. They both love Harry Potter. They connected and bonded over that.

Rebecca Branstetter: And so, on their special Zoom call, she was like, show me your Harry Potter Legos that you built. And you could see my daughter light up. And so, it folds into the next thing, which is what parents can do. And that is support and communicate appreciation. At the very beginning, send an email saying, look, I know this is not what you signed up for, I know this is so hard. If you need anything, let me know, I don't know what I could do but I'm here, and I really, really appreciate what you're doing.

Rebecca Branstetter: And then periodically if your child gives positive feedback or your teacher goes the extra mile, like I emailed the principal when my daughter's teacher did something extra, and I said just so you know, your teachers are amazing. And just think about how that would feel as a teacher, like you are working your butt off and our society is putting all of these added expectations on you that are not always realistic in this moment. And you're getting a lot of judgment about how you're doing it. If you as a parent can see and empathize with teachers and give them positive praise and collaborate with them. Man, that makes a huge difference. It really makes teacher's day. And principals too, by the way.

Rebecca Branstetter: Look, no one goes to the principal and be like, everything is going fabulous. I just wanted to tell you. Ever. We all as humans really benefit from validation and people noticing that we're trying really hard and that we're doing our very best. And if they may not see right now the impact they're having on our kids in a positive way, but if you do as a parent, like when my girl lit up because she got to show her Harry Potter castle or when my other one lit up because she got to see her teacher in a parade, I wanted to share that with him because they didn't get to see that. They don't get that positive, warm, fuzzy stuff that they get in the classroom. It's disconnected. So as a parent, I think we owe it to teachers to really go the extra mile, to let them know we appreciate what they're doing.

Jeff: That's a beautiful thought. I'm going to make a note of that personally, because I can be very negligent in that regard of expressing my appreciation to my children's teachers, just because I'm busy and not thinking about it. But I think I'm changing now just because of you.

Rebecca Branstetter: Thank you. You can do some sort of emotional trigger. When you get a district email about some district thing, after you delete that, there's your cue to do a nice email to your teacher. That's a one for a trade off, right? So it can be a cue that when you get some sort of reminder, an anchor, some sort of district email, that's a cue to reach out to your teachers and give them a little extra.

Jeff: And a positive association instead of just more spam in my inbox. Okay. A personal question to round out our discussion. So you're a mom, you're a spouse, a partner, you're an entrepreneur, you're an author, you're psychologist. You've got a lot going on. Your work is now, your work has always been important, potentially now more prescient than ever before. So how are you managing? I know you don't believe in work life balance per se, work life integration or however you want to frame it. But how are you being able to manage the moment of being present in all of these different realms and also having your work be more socially important than maybe you even ever imagined it would be?

Rebecca Branstetter: I think it's a really important question, and I'm going to go on record that school psychologists are how doctors make the worst patients. School psychologists, and I have a community, a course in community for school psychologists called the thriving school psychologists collective. And it's built on the premise that school psychologists are actually quite high prone to burnout. And there's not enough of us. So, the course is built around, give yourself the oxygen mask so you can give to others and things like that.

Rebecca Branstetter: And in that work, which is so important to me, I'm actually keeping myself accountable because I need to walk the walk and talk the talk too. I can't tell all of my school psychologist students like you really should take time for you and then I don't for myself. So first off, they keep me honest. But second of, I have a meditation that since the pandemic, actually one of my school psychologists gave it to me, a meditation that I do each morning for grounding. And it's this, what is one thing I want to do today, one thing, I have a million things I want to do, I'll go on record there. But what is the most important thing, one task that I need to get done today. And that task actually could be around my family. I really need to sit down and get on the rug with the girls and do a puzzle. It's one thing that's my priority for the day.

Rebecca Branstetter: The second piece of the meditation is what is one thing I will let go of? And this one is the hard one because I really enjoy knocking out things on a to do list. There's something really satisfying about post it gal after I'm done with it, there's something very sensory satisfying about crumbling it up that I've done it. So I inherently very much of a doer and I like to do things. And so, I always have to figure out what am I going to let go of today because I can't do it all. And it turns out being a mom and being a distance learning teacher and a school psychologist are three different jobs that I can't do 100%.

Rebecca Branstetter: And so, for me, the let go is the really, really important part of it. I'm going to let go of my crazy inbox. I'm going to let go of the fact that I'm not going to be able to get to X, Y or Z today. The problem is being a helping professional as a school psychologist, if there's teachers out there too, is burnout doesn't always look like disengagement or I'm phoning it in. Burnout can actually look like overworking. I love this so much and I'm gonna go go, go, go go. So it's one thing that's a priority for the day, one thing to let go of, and then the one gratitude that I have. And I start my day with that. And this is a mental activity I do I'm still lounging around is I run through that in my head because I know that when you start your day with gratitude instead of with your phone of what's the latest thing that is happening that is bad, your brain is primed after you see something positive to scan for more positive.

Rebecca Branstetter: So, for me, it's this push and pull between information is not transformation. I know I should do more self-care, and I know we should do all the things I teach my school psychologist, some parents and families and teachers to do. But it's really about how do you build it into your day so that it's, for me, anyway, it's routinized. This is a thing that I'm always doing each morning. And so, it's about kind of being intentional. I think also giving myself grace when I don't follow the plan. And that's hard, and it's hard for a lot of families out there who like to do things really well. And in this moment in time, it's almost impossible to do everything well, to be a parent and a teacher and a homeschooler and an entrepreneur, whatever it is that you're doing in your life. So, it is definitely what we call a spiraling curriculum. You learn it and then you learn it again, and again and again and again and again and again. And you just keep learning.

Jeff: I suppose wisdom is being able to listen to your own advice.

Rebecca Branstetter: Yes.

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