Conquering the Canopy Walk: a Metaphor

The canopy walk at Sacha Lodge, Ecuador

I don’t do heights. I don’t much like snakes, mosquitoes or heat and humidity either. How then, did I find myself 94 feet above the jungle, walking 940 feet between three strong metal towers on a swaying bridge? By climbing fourteen flights of steps in 98゚heat with 90+% humidity.

A better question might be why, or even how? The answer speaks to educators. Our trip facilitator knows me well and he knew the situation. He’s helped me overcome my limits before, though perhaps never so dramatically. We talked about the canopy walk before I even left the safety of my home. He knew how to help me choose to go.

He said, “You can do it, I know you can, and I’ll help. Just take your time – we won’t rush you. And you won’t want to miss it.” He made me believe in myself enough to overcome deep-seated fears because I believed him. I could, he’d help, I could take my time, and I’d be sorry if I skipped it.

It’s worth noting that when we kayaked the Lake Country of Italy with him two years earlier and I chose not to take a clumsy funicular up to a frightening height, he didn’t push me. Instead we had a wonderful paddle. So if he said this wasn’t to be missed, I wouldn’t miss it.

And I had additional support to see me through. Our kayaking buddy Ada, with whom we’d taken two other trips, had seen my bypass the funicular and knew I wanted to do this terrifying climb. She promised to walk with me. I would not face this scary challenge alone.

So I climbed. At halfway up I questioned my sanity, but I kept going. When we finally reached the top of the first tower, the view of the jungle’s canopy was breathtaking. The drop to the ground below looked gentler than it must have been, and I finally caught my breath. Dripping in sweat, cursing the heat and humidity, I did take the time to do a 360゚view. My husband had patiently climbed right behind me, but at the top I lost him to his camera. While he clicked away, taking pictures I knew we’d both be glad to have, I headed out on the walkway toward the middle tower, determined to complete the walk before I lost my nerve.

The first half felt fairly stable, and I found myself looking ahead and around rather than down. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I stopped briefly at the middle tower, winded and dripping with sweat. I need to finish this, I thought, and I can do it.

Sadly the second 450’ swayed far more. Whimpering, I practiced self-talk. I wanted to quit but knew that the closest path to the safety of the ground was straight ahead. Happily my friend Ada walked back to join me. I kept my eyes on the back of her neck and hung on to the coarse rope cable to gain an illusion of control. My legs were trembling when we reached the far tower, but I had done it – I had completed the dreaded canopy walk and was alive to tell about it!

Now I just had to make my way down 14 more flights of stairs. Since everyone else was captivated by the view, I worked my way down slowly. I wanted to kiss the ground when I reached it, as I had after my son talked me into riding Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, but the mud seemed unappealing. Finally the others  joined me and we hiked back to the lodge though the jungle. Dehydration and fatigue sapped my energy, yet I was triumphant! I had just done something I’d been sure I couldn’t do. I could have been faster, more graceful, less noisy in my whimpering, but I’d done it nonetheless. And now, when I face new challenges, I will be a bit more confident because of this triumph.

Next month I’m going to model a semi-transparent dress in a runway show. I’ve had garments I’ve designed on the runway before, but I’ve never had to model them myself, and this garment is particularly problematic.  But I will remind myself that I completed the canopy walk, and that will see me through.

Why write about this in a teaching blog? Because sometimes our students feel as apprehensive as I did. We may not understand why, but we need to recognize their fears and help them conquer those fears. Those who don’t share my acrophobia may never really understand how hard this walk was for me, but they can help me succeed by acknowledging my true feelings and showing me how to overcome them. We need to tell our students, “You can do this. I’ll help you. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.”

And in collaborative, constructivist classrooms, we need to encourage their classmates to support them the way Ada supported me. I am reminded of a presentation in our American Lit class by a student who struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When he stood up to speak, he started biting his arm. Quietly the other members of his group stood up, surrounded him, and nodded encouragingly. He was able to present his part of their material. With their support, he triumphed. Far less dramatic situations happen in classrooms every day, and teachers and classmates can make a difference. Students who overcome their fears and do something they thought they couldn’t become empowered to tackle additional challenges. It’s up to us teachers to help that happen.

More “Good News about Bad Behavior”

We recently had the opportunity to hear Katherine Reynolds Lewis, the author of The Good News about Bad Behavior, speak in person. I’d raved about her book in an earlier blog post, but I need to rave about her once again. She addressed the refrain from my friends still in the classroom that students just are different, and she proposed meaningful solutions.

Much of her presentation focused on parenting, but the principles she espoused speak to educators as well. Ms. Lewis asserts that kids are fundamentally different, so we need whole different sets of tools in our toolbox. Kids’ behavior is often problematic because we have a “crisis of self-regulation in kids today.” According to a National Institute for Mental Health longitudinal study, 1 in 2 will have a behavioral disorder or substance addiction by 18. Nearly a third have an anxiety diagnosis. 19% have behavioral disorders like ADHD or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. 14% have a mood disorder and 11 % substance abuse problem. Some of these issues overlap. According to the Center for Disease Control, in the last 10 years, the suicide rate for children 10-14 has doubled, and it has gone up 41% for kids 15-19. These stats are frightening and explain disruptive behaviors in the classroom.

Three big changes in society that have helped cause this shift:

  1. Disappearance of childhood play [which inevitably leads to self-regulation]
  2. Growth of social media and technology – turns our focus externally, which is strongly correlated with depression
  3. “Childhood has become about performance and achievement and not about contribution.” But contribution gives people a sense of where they belong and how they matter.

All that felt very depressing when she shared it at a Glenbard Parent Series talk in February. But it helps explain why a lot of the tools we’re used to may not work and may even be counterproductive. Neuroscience tells us that the carrot-and-stick approach does not work, for example. I was profoundly excited about her talk, though, because she offered research-based tools that do work.  

Her three keys to help kids learn to self-regulate are:

  1. Connection between the adult and child
  2. Communication with kids about their behavior to build their self-regulatory ability: problem-solving, critical thinking, social and emotional management
  3. Capability-building

If we build connections with kids, we can help them self-regulate. Our physical presence can help kids calm down and eliminate symptoms of anxiety. A calm physical touch also can help kids get back into self-regulation. In the classroom [where touching has its own risks], we might give young children something to hug, offer just a light touch on the shoulder to older students. When we empathize and kids feel understood, they can calm down and self-regulate. Our modeling good self-regulation in our behavior helps, too.

How we communicate also matters. Reynolds urges that we “shift from goal of getting them to do what we want to getting them to do what’s needed in the situation to build those skills that will help them thrive in that moment and in life generally.” For example, when a student is distraught, we need to send the message that strong emotions are okay instead of dismissing or ignoring them. Then the student is more able to be effective in addressing the issue. We can encourage students about what they’re doing and the effort they’re putting in. We can reframe language to state the same issue positively; for example, she suggests that instead of telling kids at a swimming pool not to run, ask them to walk. We might give information about what we see instead of telling our students what to do. She suggested that a parent might say, “I see a Lego model on the floor right where people need to walk” because the kid will then realize it needs to be moved. We can ask more questions and be less directive. We can help students learn to plan and think ahead: executive function skills that allow our kids to make plans and to organize big projects are a stronger predictor of success in life than IQ, so we should help them anticipate what they need to do. When things go wrong, we should ask them to come up with plan. Reynolds insists that it’s important to give kids chances to rise to responsibility, a hallmark of a student-centered constructivist classroom. We need to allow kids to fail and get back up again. We need to teach them to recognize their own progress on a continuum.

Lewis talked about Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset: “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work —brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”[1] When we praise our kids for outcome and focus on the results of their actions, they can develop a fixed mindset [on how smart they are, for instance]. But if we focus on their progress, they can see themselves as having potential and being more capable.

Reynolds agrees that kids still need to have consequences, but we want them to learn from those consequences. She suggests four tests to be sure that consequences are learning opportunities:

  • Related to the child’s actions
  • Reasonable in scope
  • Respectful of the child and us
  • Revealed in advance

She also offers meaningful steps for negotiating agreements:

  • Share concern neutrally, not in blaming way
  • Invite kids’ perspective
  • Invite some solutions
  • Agree on a solution both of you think is going to work and the consequences if it doesn’t
  • Let the agreement play out

So my apologies to my colleagues for not having been more sympathetic and agreeable when their descriptions of student behavior sounded like whining to me. The bad news is that kids really have changed in ways that make it harder for them and for their parents and teachers. As adults, we need to change how we help them address their behavior. But the good news is that Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers concrete suggestions about how to do that.

P.S. The book goes into far more detail – definitely worth reading!


[1] Dweck, 2015