Using Validation to Help Regulate Emotions

This post by Sara Caitlyn Deal was originally posted on Southeast Psych’s blog

Head to Head

Have you ever said something mean when you were angry that you later regretted? Or sent an email when you were really upset that later you wished was never sent? We have all done these things but communicating when overwhelmed with emotion does not usually work well. Validation, the recognition and acceptance of another person’s internal experience as being valid, can help emotionally sensitive people manage their emotions effectively. So, why is validation important?


Communicates acceptance- it is human nature to want to belong, being accepted and acknowledging the value of yourself and others is very calming

Helps a person know when they are on the right track- feedback from others that your thoughts and feelings are normal and make sense lets you know you are understood

Helps regulate emotions- knowing that you are understood reduces feelings of being left out or not fitting in. Validation helps to soothe people that are emotionally upset.

Builds an identity- Validation is a reflection of your values, beliefs, and patterns and helps others better understand your personality.

Builds relationships- Feelings of connection are expressed when someone is validated which helps to build and strengthen relationships.

Increases understanding and forms effective communication styles- Everyone sees, thinks, and hears things differently; two people can look at the same picture and interpret it in completely opposite ways. Validation is a way of understanding others viewpoints.

Shows others they are important- communicates to others that they are important and you care about their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Validation is a simple concept to understand, but can be difficult to apply in practice. However, if you care about someone who is emotionally sensitive, validation is one of the most important and effective skills you can learn. Similar, if you are an emotionally unstable person, learning to validate yourself will help you manage your own emotions. For more information on validation and how to use validation check out the DBT website or blog.

Image: Southeast Psych

Memory, Social Cognition, and Predicting the Future


A recent article in Harvard Magazine reports on the research of psychology professor, Daniel Schater, who is delving into  memory, social cognition and how the mind imagines the future.

From the article:

During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.”

In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past.

Of course, this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the brain utilize its resource of past experiences to anticipate the future and to imagine possibilities? Schater and colleagues began to wonder if these processes applied to social cognition and how individuals might predict other people’s behaviors.

They developed and implemented an experiment to determine what parts of the brains were activated when participants were tasked with thinking about how a person might behave in a variety of different situations.

Again, from the article:

The researchers concluded that memory and social cognition therefore work in concert when individuals hypothesize about the future behavior of others. The brain regions responsible for forming “personality models” and assigning them identities are intrinsically linked to the memory/imagination systems that simulate the past and future.

While it is too premature to draw any conclusions about possible implications for education and learning environments, it is worth noting that students, who are deeply embedded in dynamic and sometimes quite challenging social situations, are employing a number of cognitive functions throughout their day. When considering the complexity of the mental processes being utilized, it is no wonder that so many students find the kind of schooling that focuses primarily on fact memorization to be mind numbingly boring.

Perhaps this vein of research can lead to a better understanding of empathy and what types of experiences might build up students’ brains with the sorts of memories that help them better predict and imagine the future they want for themselves.

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Storytelling’s Impact on Empathy (and the Architecture of the Brain)

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 9.00.18 AMPaul Zak, who TED Talks describes as, “a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics,” shares his thoughts and insights on the power of storytelling to affect change in the architecture of the brain in the below video — a collaboration between him, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, and animator Henrique Barone for the Future of Storytelling conference.

He opens with a powerful story that will pull at your heart strings, and uses these emotions as a gateway to reveal the complex workings of the moral and ethical brain. He concludes from his research that stories, with the right narrative arc, have a powerful impact on the brain, and the actions and behaviors that follow.

The implications for education in the design of learning environments and experiences cannot be understated. While we often put skills at the center of learning, what if we put people at the core — students’ well being and the stories that matter to them?

For more information about the collaborators of this video, check out:

  1. Paul Zak’s research.
  2. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” website.
  3. Animator Henrique Barone’s website.
  4. The “Future of Storytelling” conference.
Image Source: ScreenShot from above video

Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.


Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

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Transforming Batch and Queue

4782496500_273a4c7d29_bKim Carter, the Executive Director of our parent organization, Q.E.D. Foundation, was recently interviewed by the the good folks over at KQED’s Mindshift blog for a piece on competency-based learning.

As a leading expert in the field, she had a number of insights into both the benefits of competency-based learning and critiques of the traditional “batch and queue” model.  Among the many valuable ideas embedded in the the article, we found one of particular importance for working with a neuro-diverse student body. The author, Katrina Schwartz, writes,

If a student gets 50 percent in a class in a traditional school, she fails and has to repeat the course or grade level until she scores higher, even if the score means that she understood half the material. Forcing her to repeat everything is inefficient and puts the student at a disadvantage for the rest of her academic career. In competency-based classrooms, students relearn and demonstrate competencies in only the areas that challenge them before moving forward.

“‘Batch and queue’ is horribly inefficient and destroys kids’ concept of self,” Carter said. “It’s like manufacturing, where you put everything through the same system and compare it to standards at the end. If it doesn’t match, put it through again.”

How often do students experience failure not as a stepping stone toward success, but as a road block to progress? Far too often, in our opinion. Too many students find themselves branded and labeled by a system not designed for unique strengths, affinities, and, ultimately, individuals. This lack of personalization, by proxy, communicates to the students that they are of value when they fit into the system, and not necessarily when they do not.

A competency-based model ensures that students are recognized for their growth while encouraging their involvement, contributions, and unique insights. It gives students a platform for employing their strengths toward achieving their goals / the standards.

This sort of empowerment transcends the walls of the school building and prepares the students for achieving success in life beyond graduation.

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Brief Review of L. Todd Rose’s “Square Peg”

“Behavior isn’t something someone ‘has.’ Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.”

L. Todd Rose, from his book, Square Peg

6301560117_fa8f4c16b9_bFor students with learning differences schools can be (and often are) incredibly trying places. Imagine being a kid who wants to do well — motivated, eager to please, and enjoys interacting with other students — but struggles with attention and working memory. Rather than reep the joys of learning, the student finds herself labeled, removed from her classmates and made to do the things she struggles with for a significant portion of the day. Other subjects, like PE, Art, the Humanities, are sidelined, even though they may be areas of strength for her. Her resulting behavioral expression of the dissonance between her and her learning environment is seen as misbehavior and disciplinary actions follow.

At the end of a day, month, year, or decade, what has she concluded about her “smarts” or her potential as a student? More importantly, what is her assessment of her value as a human? What does she see when she looks at herself through the lens of a school experience that focused, almost solely, on her deficits?

w_2115_smallerL. Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Project Variability, offers a glimpse of a similar experience in his part-memoir part-neuro-education book, Square Peg. His story goes something like this:

  • Classic case of boy with ADHD
  • Struggles in school — discipline, academics, friends
  • Suspended, fails, becomes wholly disenfranchised
  • Drops out
  • Works minimum wage job to support wife and baby
  • Ends up on the faculty at Harvard (after a lot of hard work)

In the telling of this incredible journey, he shares insights from his experiences and from research into the needs, challenges, and value of the “Square Pegs” in our lives. The anecdotally academic weaving together of personal tales and studies from the field of neuro-education (he teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard Graduate School of Education) creates numerous access points for a compelling narrative arc as well as enlightening examples of applied theory. In short, it is a book that is hard to put down.

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8While he maintains a child’s sense of wonder and fascination about his own turnaround throughout the book, he also plays the role of scholar, unpacking the theories and ideas that became leverage points for capitalizing on his strengths and accommodating for his challenges. In the prologue he suggests the field of complex systems offers the best possible explanation for his story, and by proxy, the story of many others. He describes his application of complex systems as such:

To put it simply, the study of complex systems looks at how different parts of a system influence each other collectively to produce various outcomes. Nowadays, scientists have been holding up this lens to a range of traditional disciplines, from physics to biology–and, most recently, in centers like the one in which I work: Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program–to the study of human learning. As this effort matures, it is offering a radically new and useful way for parents and teachers to understand the often bewildering behavior of children in their charge.

Throughout the book he uses complex systems and neuroscience to flesh out four ideas to help us be “much more understanding and effective parent(s) and teacher(s)” for the square pegs in our lives. But in reality, the ideas apply to myriad human systems. They are:

  1. Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving the world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.
  2. Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.
  3. Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.
  4. Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Taken together, these four ideas create a mosaic of factors playing into students’ lives, influencing and affecting their choices, decisions, and behavioral outcomes. They demonstrate that the only silver bullet is in not accepting there there is a silver bullet. No juggernaut exists for all people in all situations. Rather, we must be champions of the individual, unwavering advocates for the well being of each child, and Loraxes who speak for the square pegs.

We highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and clinicians working with square, triangular, and / or round pegs. Not only will you glimpse what the world may look like through their eyes, you will learn a bit about yourself, the science of learning, and, ultimately, the anecdotal and neurological value of caring.

Photo Credit: Mario Inoportuno via Compfight cc
Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion

Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.


  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

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