Life is to be Lived Now
I STUDIED THEO’S FACE, HIS BROW FURROWED WITH PENT-UP RAGE, AND KNEW HE WAS POISED ON THE PRECIPICE OF A CATACLYSMIC MELTDOWN.
“Life is to be lived now, not in the past, and lived in the future only as a present challenge.”
-Dr. Nicholas Hobbs, Re-ED Principle #1
Theo and the Almost Cataclysmic Meltdown
Theo*, a 12-year-old PEP student, was prone to angry outbursts. This volatile tendency had a habit of showing itself when Theo was feeling frustrated about schoolwork, which is why I wasn’t surprised when he stood up in the middle of state testing one afternoon, knocked his chair over and loudly declared that the test was “Bull S%@#!” I studied Theo’s face, his brow furrowed with pent-up rage, and knew he was poised on the precipice of a cataclysmic meltdown. The students and staff held their breath and braced themselves.
But then something magical happened. The teacher-counselor, who had previously forged a strong relationship with Theo, slowly approached him, making eye contact. She gently touched his shoulder and with a self-assured but gentle voice, asked him to take a walk with her. He shrugged and said, “yeah, okay,” before walking out of the classroom with her.
I’ve seen this type of interaction many times in my 18 years at Positive Education Program and recognize it as an exquisite use of Dr. Nicholas Hobbs’ Re-Education approach to working with troubled children – and more specifically, the practice of Re-ED’s first principle: Life is to be lived now.
Why Theo’s Story is Everyone’s Story Right Now
Before I go into more detail about Re-ED and why Theo’s experience was diffused by a teacher-counselor practicing its first principle, I want to note how similar we all are to Theo, especially now. Today, as we live through a global pandemic, we are all under tremendous stress.
We are seeing people get sick, we are seeing people die and we are wondering if we — or our loved ones — will be next. Just as Theo had come perilously close to his capacity to cope during state testing all those years ago, we too, may be finding ourselves coming close to our own limits some days.
It is important to recognize the similarity between our emotional experiences and Theo’s because Re-ED is not just for our kids. It is for us, too.
Re-ED’s First Principle: Life is to be Lived Now
One of the things that is so appealing about the Re-ED principles is that they are applicable at any time to anyone’s life. They are simple, yet profound and allow for flexibility depending on the situation. Re-ED’s first principle, for instance, is relevant both to Theo’s story and to our own as we cope with today’s myriad uncertainties.
Hobbs’ first tenet challenges us to exist purely in the moment. We do not have control over what happened in the past or what could happen in the future. We do, however, have control over what happens in this very moment. “Being present” can be regulating and calming.
Tuning in to the Rhythms of Life
Practicing Re-ED’s first principle is therapeutic in another way, as well. When we increase our ability to fully attend to the present, we become more attuned to the rhythms of life. There are natural rhythms that surround us and when you stay connected to the present, it’s easy to discover them. The thumping of your heartbeat, the humming of a refrigerator, and the tingling of wind chimes are all examples. These rhythms are a calming presence as they are predictable and constant.
The Rhythm of Relationships
Most relevant to our work at PEP are the rhythms that are present in our relationships, which have the potential to be rewarding, restorative, and healing. When we face life’s challenges, we often count on relationships to pull us through. Loving spouses, supportive parents, and caring friends provide predictable responses. That predictability has a certain rhythm that can calm our distressed systems.
For a child at PEP, the teacher-counselor is often one of the few relationships that is consistently present to help navigate life’s difficulties. There are hundreds of distinct moments throughout the day that define the rhythm of our relationships. When you’re tuned in, you’re prepared to meet the ever-changing needs of the kids with whom you work.
In Theo’s case, the teacher-counselor who approached him wasn’t actually magic, though it almost seemed that way. She knew exactly what to do because she had been present, in the moment. She had been watching the rhythm of his interactions from the moment he stepped in the classroom. His normal upbeat greeting had seemed perfunctory that afternoon. Later, as the test wore on, she’d seen him bouncing his leg up and down. She’d seen him start chewing on his pencil, and she’d heard his frustrated sigh. She had a fine-tuned understanding of his needs because she was there with him.
She also understood, based on her relationship with him and the rhythm of their typical interactions, the best way to approach him in that exact moment.
Everything Always Comes Back to Re-ED
When you work with kids who have behavioral challenges and mental health issues, it’s easy to become flustered sometimes. Imagining the situation with Theo makes it easy to appreciate this reality. In a moment like that, you may not remember the nuances of the article you read last week on best-practices for 12-year-olds with ADHD. However, it’s likely that you will be able to call upon the brilliant simplicity of the Re-ED principles. “Life is to be lived now” is something you can remember and be in that moment with the child.
That’s not to say the latest research and best practices aren’t an important part of our work at PEP. More to the point, Re-ED, despite advancements in mental health and education theories since it was first described in the early 1960s, was a harbinger of future best-practices. When you look at the tenets of trauma-informed care, restorative justice, and whole child learning, for example, Re-ED is there. And that beautiful, sophisticated simplicity is comforting and manageable in these challenging times.
*Name and minor details changed to safeguard privacy.