Can there be a bright side to trauma?
First published in Mint, 4 August 14
Receiving a cancer diagnosis, losing a limb, surviving a brutal terrorist attack, outliving a child—for most of us, these events signify heart-rending loss and overwhelming grief. Even though we shirk from even imagining ourselves in such calamitous situations, life, alas, is not so benign. At some point, we will find ourselves face to face with adversity. That negative life events typically cause immeasurable strain is recognized by both laypersons and mental health professionals; in fact, after a shattering event, some people develop “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which is now a bona-fide psychological disorder. However, while some people succumb to the throes of anguish, others not only bounce back but also emerge stronger. Knowing that we may be positively transformed by trauma can help us see the other side of death, devastation and destruction. The term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. In an article in a 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Inquiry, they define it as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. Interestingly, PTG does not merely mean a return to a person’s baseline level of functioning prior to the catastrophe; rather, it involves an enhancement of the person’s life, relationships or work. In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified five domains under which PTG typically occurs. After going through a shattering crisis, some people gain a “greater appreciation of life” and reorient their priorities according to their altered goals. Others may experience enhanced quality of relationships while some may tread on new life paths. A few people become stronger as individuals, while others feel renewed spiritually. The authors are careful to point out that “growth does not necessarily signal an end to pain or suffering”. Even though they do not yet have the evidence to support their counterintuitive claim, Tedeschi and Calhoun hypothesize that less resilient people may be more inclined to experience PTG as stronger people have the resources to cope with tragedy better. So, more vulnerable people may experience growth as a result of “their struggle with trauma”. Among this set, some who were extroverted and more open to new experiences prior to the trauma, are more likely to experience PTG. Having a supportive network of people also promotes growth. As most of us quiver at the mere thought of disaster, we may think that only a handful of trauma survivors can experience PTG, possibly those with extraordinary courage. However, research indicates that trauma can favourably alter the life of the average person. In 1987, MS Herald Of Free Enterprise, a passenger and car ferry, capsized shortly after leaving a Belgian port. In what was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history, 193 passengers and crew died. For his doctoral dissertation, which he describes in his 2012 book What Doesn’t Kill Us, psychologist Stephen Joseph interviewed the survivors both right after the tragedy and three years later. Expectedly, many of them showed evidence of great psychological distress a month after the incident. But, after three years, “43% said that their view of life had changed for the better”. Even the more horrific catastrophes can serve as a catalyst for growth. In his 2012 book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity, Andrew Solomon interviews Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan who, along with his friend, perpetrated the gruesome shooting at the Columbine High School in Colorado, US, in 1999 that killed 13 people. Losing a child is unbearable, but being in Klebold’s position would make most people recoil and shudder. Yet, despite the severe shock, shame and social ostracism that Klebold endured after the tragedy, this mother feels a greater affinity to human beings. As she says: “When I hear about terrorists in the news, I think, ‘That’s somebody’s kid.’ Columbine made me feel more connected to mankind than anything else.” Closer home, a parent of a special child says in an interview that she emerged as a stronger, bolder person after coming to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis of autism. In addition to providing her daughter with all the supporting services and stimulation she requires, she chose to leave her husband in the child’s best interests, a move she would not necessarily have made if her child was typical. Further, she feels that by caring for a special child, she has become more accepting and empathetic towards people. She advises parents in a similar situation to stop feeling sorry and explore all avenues to promote the child’s development. Sagely, she urges them to also take care of their own needs and aspirations as unfulfilled parental desires are only going to impede a child’s development. Interestingly, one of the greatest testimonies to PTG was written even before the term was coined. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, first published in 1946, is a glowing tribute to humankind’s inner fortitude. Even as Frankl describes the gut-wrenching ordeals of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, he is able to discern dignity among decay and perceive beauty in bestial conditions. He writes that despite “the enforced physical and mental primitiveness” that characterized life in the camp, “it was possible for spiritual life to deepen”. He feels that as long as man has a purpose or a meaning that he attaches to life, he can withstand practically anything. While the guards stripped the prisoners bare, both literally and metaphorically, Frankl evocatively says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In his book, Frankl narrates a poignant anecdote. He was talking to a woman who was on the verge of dying in the camp. Despite knowing that death was imminent, the woman remained in good spirits. She confessed to Frankl that in her former life she had been spoiled and had not cultivated her spiritual side. Looking out of the window of her hut, she pointed to a tree, saying it was her only companion. She also admitted talking to the tree. Frankl first thought that the woman might be delirious or hallucinating. When he asked her what the tree said, she answered, “I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.”
Aruna Sankaranarayanan is director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.
Choosing a Career
Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions we take in our lives. While many children are confused when they come to the crossroads of Class XII, it is best for parents to let children make the choice for themselves while providing guidance and information. However, very often parents foist their unfulfilled aspirations on their children. Is it fair on our part to thrust upon children the dreams and aspirations that we were unable to realize? The best possible course for parents is to recognize a child’s aptitude, interests and capability and guide them accordingly. For those who have already selected their career, we can list the pros and cons so that they can judge for themselves whether they have made an intelligent choice. For the majority who haven’t, give them sensible options based on their performance at school and areas of interest.
Ajay passed his Class X exams with a below average percentage. He preferred continuing in the Commerce stream. However, his father was determined on his studying Science as he wanted his son to pursue engineering after school. The school refused admission into the Science stream due to his poor grades. Admission was sought in another school that agreed to allow him to join the Science stream. With much reluctance Ajay started attending classes at the new school. The child, miserable to say the least, after a point, refused to go to school. After a month of absence, the school took him back, with a dire warning that he should perform well or else would be asked to leave. Under such circumstances, is there any likelihood of Ajay performing well at school or even at college subsequently?
In contrast, Rohan was identified as a slow-learner in middle school. His parents realized the limits of his potential and admitted him in a school following the National Open School curriculum. Without succumbing to social pressures, these parents surveyed unconventional career options that might suit their child. As he went through high school, they taught him essential survival skills. Rohan learnt to travel by public transport alone, help with household chores, carry out simple transactions at the bank and so on. He sailed through his public exams in Class X and XII with average marks and is currently pursuing a degree in animation. His career choice does not involve the three R’s. An outstanding example of understanding parents and a happy child!
We parents need to rethink the choices we make for our wards. Taking the help of counselors, teachers and other experts in the field would be a wise decision. Rather than coercing children to follow our directions, we should allow them to consider all possibilities and select a course that they are comfortable pursuing.
(Gita Nambiar is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)
"What are your child’s strengths?" I asked, as part of our routine parental profile interview. Both parents pondered awhile, glanced at each other, turned towards me and shook their heads. I was taken aback that these parents had nothing positive to state about their eight-year old. How could parents not notice anything good in their child? The same couple rattled off a litany of negative traits when I asked them what their child’s difficulties or shortcoming were.
Our unidimensional quest for academic excellence blinds us to other talents or skills a child may possess. While art, music, dance and athletic abilities are recognized to some extent, we do not necessarily encourage children’s talents in these domains. Moreover, we do not pay heed to other strengths a child may possess. For example, a ten-year old may exhibit qualities like being empathetic, caring and patient, which also need to be recognized and nurtured. A sensitive child with good people skills can make an excellent counselor when she grows up. A child who is extremely fond of his pet dog and cares for animals deeply may be a potential veterinarian.
As parents we need to observe our children closely, for in every child there is a latent trait, quality or talent. It is more obvious in some but less discernible in others. Teachers are also in a position to identify and acknowledge these strengths in children.
Discovering and nurturing a hidden talent or skill brings immense pleasure to parent and child alike. Not to mention the confidence it instills in the child in his ability to excel in a particular field. He may not be an academic achiever, but his success in art, music, theatre or sport can do wonders in boosting self-esteem. Pursuing extracurricular talents also promotes discipline and instills focus in a child.
We must remember that our children did not ask to be born to us. It is out duty to nurture and bring out the best in our child, no matter what her weaknesses or deficits might be. Like a caring gardener who gently coaxes his plants to grow, we need to offer children warmth, sunshine and water so that they bloom in their own unique ways.
(Gita Nambiar works as a special educator at PRAYATNA.)
Abhishek Bachchan, Scott Adams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Bill Hewlett-what do they have in common? Despite experiencing learning difficulties, they have all gone on to become high achievers. For the parent forum at PRAYATNA, Bangalore, this time, we celebrated some of our own little stars-young achievers who we had the privilege of teaching in their younger years. One child holds a record for running 400m in an interschool athletic meet and the other was selected to represent India at the Young Global Leaders’ Conference held in Washington and New York. Yet another completed her BA and is a special educator herself, helping children with learning difficulties.
These youngsters shared their experiences, growing up-the challenges at school that included difficulties copying while listening to the teacher, trying hard to stay alert in class and preparing for exams to name just a few. They also recounted the support they received from their parents, teachers and friends. Each of them emphasized the important role of friends-from copying notes for them and explaining lessons to ‘whacking’ them on their heads to stay awake in class. With maturity, they explained that teachers at school do their best to help children with difficulties and it is important to give them time so that both the teacher and child get to know and understand each other. Further, they were very appreciative of the significant people in their lives for understanding, accepting and loving them despite their difficulties. They expressed their gratitude for the untiring support they received from their parents in simplifying lessons for them, helping them focus on important points, encouraging their talents and interests and never allowing them to give up. The confidence with which these youngsters spoke to the audience was truly impressive!
We had also invited parents of some of our alumni. Their candid description of their journey with their kids through their schooling years was helpful in reassuring parents of kids currently enrolled at PRAYATNA. They outlined the difficulties their children faced in the initial years with speech, reading, spelling, writing, attention and remembering academic information. It was gratifying to hear the parents admit that their children did not require any other help when they were enrolled at PRAYATNA as their difficulties with academic skills were adequately addressed. It was in the later years that they felt a lack of support services. Consequently, one mother did a training program to understand her child’s difficulties better and to equip herself with skills required to help the child with her academics. Another sought the help of a supportive tutor who understood her child’s difficulties and helped him with his curriculum.
The parents also elucidated the process of deciding a curriculum and school for their children and applying for accommodations for board exams. While one parent chose ICSE as it allowed extra time on board exams, overlooked spelling errors, allowed substitution of math or second language with another subject, another chose it as her child required a scribe. Yet another parent opted for NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) as it offered more flexibility. Applying for accommodationswas a long-drawn process; the children had to be periodically assessed and reports sent to the boards via their schools. The parents revealed the pain-staking efforts taken by both them and their children to crack the board exams-making concise notes to tackle vast portions, studying from the exam point of view by referring to previous years’ papers, etc. However, they emphasized that the efforts were worth it as the children passed with flying colours. Subsequently, they decided on a course based on their child’s strengths and interests; in the present scenario with various options available, it was not difficult to find a course their child wanted. However, they will continue to require accommodations on exams. One parent frankly admitted that it was quite challenging to decide a course for her child as she did not have clear-cut interests and the child herself was unable to express what she would like to do; hence, they enrolled her for a distance education course.
To conclude, the parents advised that it is very crucial for the child’s well-being that the child is allowed to learn in a non-threatening environment; even in the most difficult times, it is important not to lose hope and to have faith in their child’s abilities. They also urged parents to meet their child’s school teachers regularly and to discuss the child’s difficulties with school authorities without inhibition.
While it may not be possible to predict a child’s future, this parent forum was intended to inform and reassure parents of the children enrolled presently at PRAYATNA. The guests at the session proved to us that though the road ahead may be challenging, with a sensitive and supportive environment, it is possible for children with different learning needs to become happy, confident and contented individuals and of course SUCCESSFUL!
(KushalTalgeri is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA)
Performing Under Pressure
(First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 30 June 14)
Ratan is elated as he finally got an interview call from his dream company. He was sorely disappointed a couple of years earlier when he was bypassed by this company during campus recruitment. At last, he has got a chance to enter its hallowed portals. He is fairly confident of impressing them with his credentials. He is performing well on his current job at another reputed company and has made a number of impressive presentations. In college, he was in the top 1% of his graduating class besides being a quizzer. On the day on the interview, he strides in confidently wearing a full-sleeved collared shirt and tie. But the moment the interviewer starts questioning him, Ratan’s mind freezes. He is unable to articulate clearly what his current job entails. Within seconds, he is fumbling for words and knows that his chances are doomed.
Sadly, Ratan’s poor performance is not indicative of his potential. In fact, he is just the type of candidate the company is looking to hire. Psychologist Sian Beilock who has studied the phenomenon extensively, defines ‘choking’ as “sub-optimal performance” under high pressure. When a person who is capable of performing at a higher level and has done so in the past, plummets in a stressful situation, he has fallen prey to choking. And while it can happen to any of us, we would like to minimize the chances of its occurring.
Beilock recommends that we not only practice for a high-stakes event, but that we also practice under stressful conditions similar to the actual event. So, instead of simply anticipating the interviewer’s questions, Ratan could have asked his friend to fire a volley of questions like a formal interview where he has to answer crisply, without hemming and hawing. By practicing under simulated stress, Ratan would have been more prepared to face the barrage of questions. If you have to give a speech on stage, it is better to practice in front of an audience at home than to simply recite it to yourself. The closer the practice conditions are to the real event, the less likely you are to choke. This is one reason why schools and colleges have mock exams before the actual Boards.
Further, it helps to anticipate potential stumbling blocks and plan how you would circumvent them so that you do not trip up during the actual event. In fact, Olympic swimming legend Micahel Phelps used to prepare to face any eventuality. An article in the The Telegraph in 2012 describes how Phelps trained, almost foreseeing every conceivable calamity. He used to even practice swimming blindfolded by darkening his goggles with a black marker pen. This way, he attuned his kinesthetic awareness of every stroke and had to feel the wall as opposed to seeing it. He says in the article, “It’s weird, sure, but we want to be ready for literally anything…” And Phelps penchant for planning for every rainy day paid rich dividends during the Beijing Olympics. During the 200m butterfly final, his goggles began filling up with water, impairing his vision. But Phelps didn’t have reason to choke as he had practiced swimming in the dark and went on it win the gold and setting a new world record.
Another technique used by Phelps and long advocated by sports psychologists is visualization where an athlete imagines a positive outcome during a high-stakes event. In fact, researchers have found that this technique can be used to quell queasiness during public speaking, an event that provokes butterflies in many people. In a study published in Communication Education, Joe Ayers and Theodore Hopf found students who had visualized themselves making a cogent speech reported lower levels of anxiety compared to those who had done this exercise.
Many people, even those who are otherwise confident, are stymied by talking in public. However, if you have choked while addressing a gathering, do not despair. Confidence, like most other traits, can be cultivated and you might be humbled to hear of the story of a young Indian lawyer who ran out of the courtroom while arguing his first case. Recounting this traumatic experience, the lawyer later wrote, “I stood up, but my heart sank into my boots. My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask.” This very lawyer then went on to become a master orator who inspired and mobilized millions of Indians as Mahatma Gandhi.
Finally, you must remember that you don’t have to quell your anxiety entirely. As the famous Yerkes-Dodson law states, performance actually increases with arousal up to a point. So some amount of nervousness before an exam, debate or job interview may work in your favour, as long as you don’t cross the threshold to drown in your worries.
(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Senses and Sensibilities
Psycho-educational assessment reports often mention statements such as ‘The child is a visual learner’ or ‘The child is an auditory learner’; however, these statements are rarely supported with what they imply or how they may be translated into teaching practices. Consequently, they are interpreted to mean that this child would benefit if he is taught using visual or auditory media as the case may be; however, research has shown that though children may differ in their abilities in different modalities, teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his individual achievement. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, explains why this may be the case.
(Kushal Talgeri is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA)
Retrieved on 21 April 2012
Stars of PRAYATNA