I went to elementary school in Houston, Texas. As I look back at my time living there, I am still amazed by how much space there seemed to be. We used to go on long car rides and the road appeared so flat that it felt like I could see 200 miles ahead. People wore big boots, big hats, and had big personalities. In Texas, people took up space. Heck, Houstonians love wide open space so much they went ahead and built the US Space Center there. And yet, as I think back to when I was in elementary school, with all this wide-open space, somehow I was suffocating.
I was diagnosed with ADHD at six-years-old. My parents were actually relieved because they finally had a reason to point to that explained some of my behaviors. I was a unique child, always one to march to the beat of my own drum. But my uniqueness wasn’t the problem, my explosions were. My dad was a youth program director and my mom was a preschool teacher, and while they could handle having a kid with a wild spirit, they found my anger and impulsivity overwhelming. Imagine a first grader jumping on a desk to flip his teacher the bird … or overturning a chair in a fit of rage … slamming doors, pushing kids … this was me.
When I felt upset, there was an emotional explosion, which often involved breaking something or hurting someone followed by me hiding under a table or curling away in a corner. In those moments, I felt shame, loneliness, anxiety, and anger. I had no idea what to do with all of those emotions. If someone came to check on me, I would scream powerfully, “leave me alone!” while at the same time desperately hoping that they would stay with me.
When I did manage to calm, I had clear and reasonable conversations with my dad about what happened and what to do differently the next time. But then the next time would come and I couldn’t seem to do it any differently. It wasn’t until my diagnosis that my parents understood the why behind my actions. I didn’t yet have the skills needed to respond to what I was feeling and what was happening around me. And because I didn’t know how to feel, process, or regulate emotions, I simply tried to numb them all.
I was given medication to help me focus. This helped my mind stay busy with school work at school and with my Gameboy or the TV at home. With my mind so busy, I didn’t have a lot of time for feeling emotions. The only time there was a glimpse of the full me was when the medication wore off. And since I was displaying less unhealthy, distracting, abrupt, and destructive responses to difficult emotions, it was easier for a teacher to teach with me in the same room and it made it easier for students in a room with me to focus on other things … BUT, I also wasn’t learning any skills that helped me experience and regulate these difficult emotions. When I did experience them, either in huge waves at the end of a day or in spattered moments when I was no longer taking the medication, the emotions were overwhelming.
By 7th grade, I began pretending to take my medication in front of my mom only to spit it out in the bathroom or into a trash can when she wasn’t looking. In doing this, I discovered something that couldn’t be unseen. I had feelings … a whole spectrum of them. After a few days without my medication, I noticed a huge contrast in how I felt. Yes, I was less focused, but I also could feel things. Suddenly, I could talk to people at lunch. And, perhaps just as big, I actually wanted to talk to people at lunch. By 8th grade, I made the decision to stop my medication. I let the emotions surface, even though I didn’t know what to do with them.
Over time, my emotional explosions seemed to become less frequent, but they still came. In middle school, I was suspended for arguing with teachers, getting into fights, and punching lockers. In high school, while I no longer flipped furniture or hid under tables, I adopted new forms of coping. I became the class clown, slept through class, and argued with teachers to get an in-school suspension. I created a persona that I wore like armor to avoid feeling things I didn’t want to feel. And while this allowed me to make some friends, I was never able to present my full, vulnerable, and authentic self to anyone. I couldn’t stand to feel even a little bit of who that person was. It turns out that in order to feel seen, heard, and connected with people, it’s not enough to just spend time around them, you actually have to allow some of your authentic self to be shared. I didn’t, so the vast majority of the time I still felt isolated, lonely, and lost.
In college, I found my way to philosophy. It captured my interest and for the first time, I was reading books cover to cover. Not only did I read, but I started paying attention in my other classes, too. Suddenly learning was interesting. Eventually, I stumbled upon mindfulness meditation and began practicing and reading more about it. My philosophy courses helped motivate me to care about learning, while the things I was learning helped me make sense of the world around me. When I found mindfulness, I learned how to make sense of the world within me, and that changed everything.
While in graduate school for counseling, I traveled around the country to attend training on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based and values-driven therapy approach. Eventually, I understood very clearly the skills that the six-year-old-me had not been taught. While I was given medication every day to help my brain better learn, I was never taught the skills I needed to feel, process, and regulate emotions.
It was this journey that called me to work as a mindfulness-based elementary school counselor. I do some of my most effective counseling with students who have ADHD and children who present with challenging behaviors. From a child who had a difficult time with emotions, to now working with similar kiddos, here’s what I can tell you:
Elementary-aged children are capable of experiencing the same spectrum and combinations of emotions as an adult. Yet they are not mini-adults, they are children. A child is still developing the regions of the brain responsible for decision making, problem-solving, and executive functioning. And this portion of the brain is not fully developed until the mid to late twenties. This science tells us that we cannot expect children to respond in the same way adults do to their environment. They must be taught these skills.
Children are navigating dozens of new emotional and social experiences a day that require them to cognitively organize and make sense of their experience. Add in a dozen tasks and transitions, and you have a tall order for any developing brain, let alone one with a diagnosis of ADHD. When a child has ADHD, neurotransmitter activity is impaired in some functional regions of the brain. This is said to cause increased inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, along with other executive functions.
So, what skills was I missing at six-years-old? A whole lot. Without ADHD, I would have been a kiddo in the early stages of developing my emotional regulation skills. With ADHD, developing those skills on my own was a nearly impossible task.
Emotional regulation is the process of responding to, influencing, and expressing our emotions. One accessible, helpful, and well-researched framework that I use with students and families is called the RULER method, which was developed by the Yale Center For Emotional Intelligence.
RULER is an acronym that stands for:
R — Recognizing
U — Understanding
L — Labelling
E — Expressing
R — Regulating
While each step is valuable, I want to highlight the first R in this approach. If a child is experiencing an unpleasant emotion, the first step is recognizing the emotion and the physical sensations associated with it. But before children can cultivate an awareness of their physical and internal experiences, they must feel connected to someone or something that helps them feel safe, because compassionate connection is the thing we most crave when we’re lost, hurt, scared, and feeling alone. This means that our kids need adults who model healthy emotional regulation and offer judgment-free spaces for talking about emotions. It is then that a child can start their journey to emotional regulation.
When I was six years old I didn’t have lofty ideas about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just wanted to belong. Mindfulness practices helped me foster the skills I needed to graduate from undergraduate and graduate school with honors, cultivate loving relationships, and to build a life with meaning and purpose. Mindfulness offered me a pathway for learning how to belong with myself and others. And now, I spend my days connecting with our future generation to help them learn the essential skills that mindfulness builds. And how do I start my day? By sitting up with a cup of coffee in front of me, and bringing gentle awareness to notice the movement of breath throughout my body.
*** Matt Shenker is an ACT-based elementary school counselor and mindfulness teacher who lives in Richmond, VA. Matt has taught mindfulness to humans as young as three and as old as eighty-three. He offers mindfulness training to parents, childcare workers, counselors, & educators. He can be reached at [email protected] or via twitter @ShenkerMatt.
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