Our first conversation is with Usha Dermond, EFL educator and author of the book Calm and Compassionate Children: a handbook.
In this episode, we discuss:
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
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Erin (0:05) Welcome to the Conscious Families podcast, conversations with parents, authors and educators to uplift and inspire you. This podcast is part of the Conscious Families online community which offers support and inspiration to help you awaken your child's true potential. You can visit consciousfamilies.org to find out more. I'm your host, Erin Vinacco and this month's conversation is with Usha Dermond, author of the book Calm and Compassionate Children.
Erin (0:39) Hello everyone and welcome to the very first episode of the Conscious Families podcast. Our first conversation is with Usha Dermond, author of the book Calm and Compassionate Children, a handbook for parents and teachers to help children develop empathy and integrity as they grow and mature. This wonderful book provides practical guidance as well as over 90 activities to foster children's joy, wonder, kindness and love. If you're interested in learning more about the book and exploring these practices, you can join our Calm and Compassionate parenting group starting on January 14th. You can visit conscious families.org for more information.
Usha Dermond has been an educator for over four decades and she first learned about Education for Life as a teacher at the original Living Wisdom School in Nevada City, California, where she taught for 12 years. After that she moved to Portland and soon after founded the Portland Living Wisdom School where she was the director for nearly sixteen years, during which time she wrote her book. She currently resides at Ananda Village in Northern California again where she is on the Board of Directors for Education for Life International and the Living Wisdom School.
She continues to train parents and teachers as well as teaching English at the newly-formed online Living Wisdom High School. If you're interested in learning more about Education for Life and Living Wisdom schools you can visit edforlife.org. As you may notice in this episode we sometimes refer to Education for Life as EFL. It was truly a joy to talk with Usha and learn from her experiences. I hope you too enjoy the conversation.
Erin (2:22) All right, well, I wanted to talk with you today specifically about Calm and Compassionate Children because it’s such a wonderful book and especially a wonderful guide book for parents. It has so many resources in it and so many great stories and so many great examples and it's just very accessible. So I'm kind of curious in all of your experience, at the point when you wrote the book, what was it that inspired you to sit down and write Calm and Compassionate Children?
Usha (2:51) People had kept telling me I should write because I had so much to say about Education for Life I guess. I had tried two years to write but nothing really came of it and then I started a column in a new age newspaper in Portland at the time. I would talk about spirituality and education and that really got my skills honed and that was a good beginning. Then there was a guy named Michael Lerner who is a Jewish rabbi who came to town because he’d written a book and he was publicizing the book and one of the things he said in the book, “Imagine if there were schools that…” and he described these ideal schools for spiritual education. I emailed him and said “Well in fact there is” and I told him a bit about our school and I sent him a couple of articles.
The next thing I knew, he asked me if he could publish these articles for Tikkun, which was a Jewish publication. I didn’t even know it was a national following. So I did and they prominently featured them on the back page of the whole magazine and from that I got a letter from an agent from New York, book agent, saying would I be interested in her representing me for a book. Of course I said “yes” and one thing led to another.
But that was one motivation; the other motivation was that we would have parents who would come to our school because they felt the vibration, they knew that what we had was what they wanted their children to have. But I could see that at home they weren't really supporting it; they didn't know how to create a calm and compassionate household, or mainly a calm household. So we would spend a lot of time every day with kids just getting them unwound, sort of, before they could absorb what we had to offer. So that was the other reason. I had parents in my mind that I was talking to when I wrote the book. Not that they were especially needy, in fact I felt they were especially gifted in that they saw the value of what we were doing. But I had those parents [in mind] like just as if I wanted to give them some advice or they’d ask me for some advice, so those were the two motivations.
Erin (5:28) Yeah, the book absolutely reads that way, as just like a friend, you know, giving advice to a parent you know. It doesn't feel like it's this big to-do list. It’s like I can pick it up from anywhere, you know there's so many activities in there and so many opportunities to practice. Have there been any that have been favorites over the years or one that stands out to you?
Usha (5:54) You know, I don't know about favorites because I love them all. It’s like picking your favorite child! However, I do feel that if you were just starting out you should just do whatever rings true for you and makes you enthusiastic, that's what you should do. But if you were really at a loss and you were starting, I would think that either the chapter on music or the chapter called body - body something, touch - I can’t remember the name of the chapter right this second, but the one that “touch” is in the title, because those two things are so basic. You know, the physical aspects of the human being and becoming in tune and grounded in that way and noticing, finding out, “is my child grounded physically and how can I communicate with him in a physical way?”. What can I offer them as far as food, touch, water, shower - oh water! That was another word in the title. And music because it does also act on the body. It changes your blood pressure, it changes your respiratory rate, it's very powerful. So I would say those might be two chapters to start with.
Erin (7:18) Yeah, that's interesting. Most people when they think about calmness, they think about like being still or being in meditation and you have a whole chapter - or a whole section really - of the book that's all about working with the body and even with movement. So what's the importance, what's the role of movement in calmness, how do those two things relate?
Usha (7:39) Let’s see… Well of course there's just a simple fact that when a child is nervous and hasn’t had an outlet for physical energy, then they physically have a hard time settling down and being still because their body is made to move and explore and develop It's only going to develop properly, not only muscularly and all of that, but you know I mentioned in the book the vestibular system, from spinning and swinging, those things are essential.
So already I was very aware of that with students but I also met a woman named Carla Hannaford who wrote the book Smart Moves and helped me understand even better how the movement of the body affects the brain. You know, I have a degree in teaching of reading and so I also knew that for example that children who don't crawl often have trouble learning to read and it's because they haven't - the brain hasn’t milenated the two sides from moving the right side and the left side in concert. You know the right leg, left hand together.
I was learning more and more about that and then just after I started the school and had different teachers working with the kids and I would make it a policy to visit every classroom every day and I could just see the teachers who were integrating a lot of movement into their classroom how much better the children were doing and how much easier it was for them to settle, to have receptivity. I don’t know if I answered your question, I kind of lost track of it.
Erin (9:25) No absolutely, yeah that’s really powerful. It’s just, you know, movement is so essential just in development overall but also yeah it's just meeting a basic need. We can’t expect children to be able to settle down. I mean I think that’s true for all of us, it’s hard to go from nervous, frenetic energy moving around, lots to do, to just, you know, sit and be still and be quiet.
Usha (9:49) Also Erin I know I was influenced by the work of Joseph Cornell and the Sharing Nature books, and he has - you know, which is a worldwide movement - and he has in a second book, he talks about the Flow Learning extensively. And Flow Learning is, simply put, Awaken Enthusiasm, Focus Attention, Direct Experience, Share Inspiration. And although I’d seen many forms of creating lessons before like from Madelyn Hunter and other educators, I found his so succinct and so perfect for any kind of anything, a talk, any kind of presentation much less teaching. I was very influenced by that and I could just see when you started with Awaken Enthusiasm with kids, often that’s a physical thing - playing a game or can be something really simple. You’d see the smiles come on their faces and their spines would get straight and they’d have attention, which is the first step, you know. Then the second step is helping them focus that attention so I was very influenced by that too.
Erin (11:01) Yeah, that’s a great example, thank you for that. What do you think are other common misconceptions about calmness or about compassion that people have, you know, they might see your book and think “maybe this isn't for me” because maybe they have a misunderstanding about what that means?
Usha (11:23) Yes, you know when I was giving school tours, when I was principal, sometimes parents would say “I don’t know if my child could fit in here.” And I’d say “why?” and they’d say “Well, he’s just too active, he’s not still.” It would depend on the child; sometimes they may be correct. Usually though the parents of children who were that way couldn’t recognize it, but the parents who might worry about it, you know, maybe their child was that way because they were in situations where they were asked to be and do something unnatural.
You know, it’s been such a great source of satisfaction to me to see education and the schools, public schools now - not that the teachers ever didn’t know this, but - mandated by law would be how many minutes you would spend in instruction of math and instruction of reading. They had no time left for recesses. For example, my great nephew is in a school where they have two and a half recesses a day because they understood the need that these children have for that and it's becoming more understood that you can't ask the brain to work without the body having an opportunity too, and not just the body the brain has a break during that time.
But anyway, so parents would be mistaking you know, an active child can still be a calm child. And there’s nothing wrong with a very active child or a child who expresses themselves a lot through the body. You know and that's a great thing if they just need the avenues to do it because traditionally our schools have been too intellectually oriented and too much about, you know, not giving the children enough freedom of movement.
I understand why sometimes when you have 30 kids from all backgrounds, giving them movement, freedom for that, results in chaos you know. It takes a very skilled teacher. I would say the difference when you’re observing kids is if the child has control, they can stop. If they're being active and running, or they have a purpose in their running, or their activity. Kids are just spontaneously spinning around or running and they can't stop when they need to or they run into somebody, that you can kind of start to distinguish the difference.
Erin (13:58) Yeah, that makes sense. So, I’d like to talk a little bit too, because you know, you’re and educator and you're an author, but you've also been a parent and this program and this podcast is directed towards parents so I’m curious, from your own experience, what what was one of your biggest challenges as a parent if you would be willing to share?
Usha (14:26) Sure, that was another motivation, a third motivation for writing the book, smaller but still there, was I wanted to help people avoid some of the mistakes I made as a parent because I was too young, I just didn’t have enough experience to know. Of course parents shouldn’t worry about those mistakes. What the child feels is your love and your intention, who you are as a person. I would say looking back, and I hate to admit this but I must, it was accepting my stepson as he was the way he was 100% and giving him unconditional love.
Now I thought I…I did love him very much, but I realized as time went on that it wasn't that unconditional. For example, one time, and this was my first dawning awakening about that, is one time we were having some kind of a family discussion to put it lightly and he said finally in complete exasperation, he wasn’t angry as much as exasperated, “I think you and Dad just want me to be the perfect little boy.” Of course he wasn’t little, he was 12 or 13 when he said that, and I thought “well yeah, why not, of course we do” and then I heard myself and I go “nobody’s perfect! You’re not perfect Usha! What are you expecting out of this child and why does he have that feeling that he has to be perfect?”
So I started monitoring a little bit better and realizing in very subtle ways that had been communicated to him and as soon as I started trying - not trying but just started having more acceptance and not thinking all the time, “well I need to teach him to do better than that.” It's more of a mental construct than it really was anything I was doing. But our relationship became closer, much closer because he could feel the difference. And we became, in addition to the parent-child relationship, in that respect and that difference and knowing that you are in that position because you're to guide the person but also there was a better friendship developed. And see he was 12 or 13 when I started making that change, so as he got older, found when he was like 18 or 19, he’d really talk to me and open up to me. I think it was because of that. I did always try to see his strengths and affirm his strengths, but still there was this subtle wanting-him-to-be-perfect.
Erin (17:13) It sounds like what you were hinting at is just your own awareness of that was sort of what started to help shift that. Not necessarily like you were saying anything particularly outwardly that you changed or did differently but just trying to bring your own awareness to that tendency maybe started to shift the energy. Yeah, and that’s what we’re trying to help guide and support parents with through the Conscious Families program. Not so much “you should do this and not this” you know it's not a list of do’s and don’ts, it’s not about that but just supporting the growth of their own awareness of, you know, what we're working with and maybe looking at things in a different way, in a different light. It can be so powerful.
Usha (17:59) And as I look back in my own life, the people who have inspired me that I still think about, like certain teachers or mentors, were people who recognized some strength I had and acknowledged that and helped me develop that, not the people who looked for what I needed to correct and worked on me with that. Although I appreciate you know those who had the balance and did both. But that's one of the things I love about Education for Life is that emphasis on working with strengths.
Erin (18:31) Yeah, I agree. I agree absolutely. What is, in your own words, how you would sort of describe Education for Life? I'm kind of curious because I'm going to be talking to, you know, a bunch of different people that are a part of Education for Life or have been EFL teachers and I'm just kind of curious how different people would describe it, maybe even how you would describe it, you know, having been a director, and you have people come and visit your school, you know, and people just are brand new and they have no idea how would you, how would you sum it up to them?
Usha (19:14) Well, you know, I could be like Webster and say:“It’s a system of education in which all aspects of a person are recognized, considered and developed.” or I could be really more airy fairy and say it’s all about expansion, this expansion of selves, expansion into your potential. Each child, each person has potential and helping unlock that potential and giving the person space and a way to expand that potential and then expand their awareness beyond their family to their community, to the entire world community, the global community, all of nature, all creatures, everything. It's about unconditional love, yes, but you know there are many many philosophies who would say that, so how are we different? I think it's recognizing the four aspects of - not just recognizing but consciously developing - the four aspects of body, feeling, will as well as intellect.
But more than anything else it’s a way to work with energy. We are all energetic beings. It's actually an energy that creates all forms. We know that now. We know that the physical world all of the atoms are actual physical content is beyond our comprehension of how miniscule it is. It's all about energy forms making everything rotate to create what we think is real, the physical world. And so if we can get behind what's physically happening and work on an energetic level it's so much more rewarding, it’s so much more helpful, it helps us see reality so much better. Yeah, I could say any of those things. But working with energy on an energy level and recognizing the value and potential of each individual, yes, any of those things would do.
Erin (21:38) As you were talking about energy, I mean we've talked before about that, how essential that is as part of Education for Life, really at the core of it, and developing that understanding of our own energy and how to work with it. Was there any experience that you had that really helped clarify that understanding of working with energy or something that kind of clicked for you as you were in - especially in those first years when you started teaching here at the Village?
Usha (22:07) My mentor talked a lot about working with energy and feeling the energy and I didn't exactly know what that meant. I did some experiments so I could see it like when I played different music the energy of children definitely changed and I could really see that. I went back to when I worked with the retarded children that I mention in one of my jobs. That's an ancient term, sorry. I should use the correct term which I can’t think of off the top of my head. Developmentally challenged person. I could see as a young person, sometimes the staff would play our favorite rock music and you can see the kids getting wilder and wilder but I hadn't really, couldn't formulate about energy, the thing about energy. I didn't know what it meant really to listen to the energy or feel the energy outside. I would try all the time to do it but didn’t know what it meant.
One day I was checking my mail in the mail room and in the background out on the lawn I could hear kids, some of them I taught, playing and shouts and all this. And the shouts were becoming... something annoyed me or bothered me and I stopped and I listened and there was nothing that they were saying that was wrong. Nobody was fighting but something seemed off. I walked outside and just at that moment somebody got knocked down and started screaming and crying and I thought “oh my gosh that's what he was talking about.” I felt the energy changing out there before that happened. It was the tenor of the sounds the kids were making. I didn't have to actually see it to feel it. Then I started being able to do it more and more and learning to intervene before it got to that point and help children to feel it inside.
One thing I remember doing in school one time is you know I had them all practicing walking across the room with a book on their head to balance. They had to learn to really get centered and get their energy calm to do it. Then one time one little guy was just really agitated and I told him he needed to calm down and he said “I’m calm, nothing’s wrong with me, I’m calm.” I said “Okay, take that book and put it on your head and walk and show me how you can do that because you did it the other day,” and he was so shocked when he put the book on his head and started walking and it fell off. So then I saw “oh, I can help kids tune into their own.” Of course we’re all learning all the time to tune into our own and stop ourselves before we go the wrong way energetically or the way that’s not helpful. So that was a point for me that I really got it.
Then later at the school in Portland, when I was the director there, I heard the exact same kind of energy happening on the playground outside my door and I walked to the office door to see what was going on and it was some older kids playing with kindergarten kids, which ostensibly was a great thing. They were kind of chasing them, this kindergarten kid but I could see that the energy was just about to go and right at that moment they caught him and then they didn't know what to do. You know because they’re raised in this culture, they're not going to hug him and give him a kiss, that's not what they see men doing. And they weren't hitting him or anything but they were aggressive, really aggressive and I opened the door and before I could get out there one of the other students, their peer, walked over there and said - “Hey guys, this doesn’t feel right.” I was astounded! I thought “Wow, this is great, this is so great.” It was so great to think of these younger generations coming in with so much awareness.
Erin (26:06) Yeah, that’s so powerful. Both, you know, developing that in ourselves as adults, as parents, as teachers to start to just be aware of how much information there is about what's happening. You know, often we wait until something happens and then we try to react to that and it's hard, you know. I mean, we can do that, we can work with things in that way but to try to tune in in a different way to the energy and work with it before it goes in that direction. And then also yeah to give children those experiences that they can become aware of that. It’s so interesting when you said that, like, how often we think “I'm calm, I’m fine, everything’s fine” and we don't realize what calmness really feels like. We don’t practice that necessarily, that awareness. Do you have any go-to techniques or activities that really helped you personally to like keep that calmness, because you have at the end of your book that section on, you know, being the calm and compassionate adult and really cultivating that in ourselves as a key to helping children and so I'm just curious what really helped you, especially when you were parenting, directing, teaching, doing all these different things, how did you keep yourself centered?
Usha (27:23) I think there are a couple answers to that. The first one would be my belief in a higher power and divine love, and that God is love. There is deep wisdom in the universe that I can tune into, and stopping when I was threatened, and threatened is not too strong a word if you’ve ever been a school director and a parent comes in angry. Parents of course are going to get angry if they feel their child is slighted and anything that’s happened is not just. That reliance, and that faith, and that belief that was very helpful. And knowing also that I had mentors and wiser people that I could go to for advice if I needed it. So that I think was the most important thing and the friendship with the teachers I was working with and the great relationship and mutual support was the second. And then the third thing I think that helped me a lot was when I got into Conscious Discipline, Becky Bailey’s work, and practiced what she suggested, her very first principle is calmness. She didn’t call it calmness. What did she call it? It starts with c...
Erin (28:47) Composure.
Usha (28:48) Composure! Thank you so much. Composure, the most important thing before the adult does anything is to have your own composure. And one of the things she suggested when you’re getting angry, you’re getting tested one too many times and you feel it coming is to take that deep breath and say, to mentally think, “I can handle it, I can handle it” and to release this need to be able to control the outcome and realize that if you just stand in your center and believe in divine love and offer that, even if you're having to place a strong limit on a child that staying composed and believing “I can handle it” because there is a greater resource in the universe than just myself to help. Those things all help me.
Erin (29:38) Yeah, that’s super powerful, thank you for that. Okay my last question, something that I want to hopefully ask all my interview participants, is what does being a conscious family mean to you?
Usha (29:54) I think, of course, the first thing or all the principles we've already talked about in this interview today of recognizing the individuality and the potential of your child and their dignity as a being and giving unconditional love, recognizing strengths. All those things are being conscious parent and family.
But you know I really feel for a conscious family you have to go a step beyond mutually respectful nurturing family interactions to “how do we interact with the world?” I saw such wonderful examples in my school of some parents who, if another child was misbehaving or being hurtful, the difference in families that looked at that child with compassion. “Why is he hurting, why is he doing it this way, what's happening in his family?”, and parents who would just want you to control that behavior and stop it right now. That awareness of “we have to extend our unconditional love and compassion beyond our own family.”
A lot of people have that ideal and they are happy to go work at the soup kitchen and they're happy to donate to a cause but when it comes to the personal interactions, even with your own family where people can be hurtful or neglectful or whatever, you know, that's where children learn their compassion and consciousness from, is our examples in that way. So a conscious family looks beyond their own unit to share that consciousness that they’re developing.
Erin (31:45) So beautiful, thank you so much Usha, this was such a treat for me…
Usha (31:51) Thank you, Erin, for your interest and your commitment to this wonderful, wonderful way of working with families.
Erin (32:04) We hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you'd like to find out more about the Conscious Families program or anything discussed in today's episode you can visit consciousfamilies.org You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram for more inspiration. We hope you'll stay connected and join us next month for another conscious conversation.