Saturday, July 14, 2007

Children and the Healing Power of Laughter

The Fiddler of Dooney
By William Butler Yeats

The Fiddler of Dooney

WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

Eventually I stopped working with seniors as I returned to school full time to become a psychologist. I had thoroughly enjoyed working in a service capacity, and my time with the elderly energized me to want to do more. Wanting to learn more about the healing power of laughter, I enrolled in a doctoral program where I soon found some very somber people. I soon learned that many psychologists are fixated on arguing the merits of a particular psychological orientation, and many in fact spend a lifetime arguing minor differences in approaches to psychotherapy that eventually swallows up their entire academic career. I was determined not to fall into this trap, and found refuge in a few very funny professors, (of which there are many) who seemed to grasp that psychology can and should have an element of playfulness, fun, and even joy.

During this early period of my academic career I took a job as a tutor in a very bad neighborhood in Chicago, hoping that I could bring some of the same approaches to working with the elderly to another difficult population. The first week there they ate me alive, but gradually I earned their trust. Many of these kids came from homes where abuse and neglect was rampant, and these repeated betrayals by people in authority had left them with very little respect for people in positions of power. As is probably the case with many teachers, the ones that misbehaved the most were immediately my favorites, and I found myself amused with their antics while also understanding i was supposed to be the one in charge. I was told to "show them whose boss" by my supervisor, who was a firm believer in the power of discipline, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to take this approach.

By the second week I had made some progress, but still had a difficult time keeping everyone focused. The kids loved to run around, chase each other, and generally be moving all the time, and I realized that to come up with some kind of effective lesson I would have to incorporate all of these things into my program. We began a "tell a funny story" exercise that was immediately a big hit. The kids would tell a story about going to the zoo or Wrigley Field, or to Navy Pier, and soon these became little history lessons where we snuck in a little learning as we were sharing stories. As we got to know each other better, even the most reticent children were now joining in on the fun, and soon the entire group was laughing and talking, and once again I witnessed the contagious power of laughter.

My supervisor was less then thrilled at my approach, as our program was part of a "No Child Left Behind" program with a strict curriculum that she felt needed to be followed. From my experiences working with these kids, it was apparent that despite any math or reading we could teach them, in their relationships with others,and in life, they were truly being left behind. Somehow in the midst of focusing on grades and progress we had forgotten we were raising human beings, some of who were in intense pain from years of abuse.

A surprising fact about psychology is that it is not in fact a psychologist's theoretical orientation or their years of experience that is the most powerful predictor of psychological growth in therapy, but instead the quality of the relationship formed between the client and the therapist. Could this same thing be true for children in a classroom? I certainly thought so, and soon I became very close to a number of my students as we continued to share our stories. Eventually the big day came for the students to take their test to determine if they complied with the standards set by "No child left Behind." My supervisor, who was responsible for three other classes besides mine, was especially worried that my class had made no progress over the three months we had been together, and let me know it on every occasion she could find.

When the results finally came back, I was surprised as anyone to see that my kids had raised their pre and post test scores higher than any of the other classes at the school. Although we had not followed the curriculum, I had constantly encouraged them, laughed with them, and made them feel like they were important to me, and building this relationship had awakened something inside of them. The famous Adlerian psychologist Rudolph Dreikurs once remarked that "children need encouragement like plants need water" and I saw firsthand how true this lesson really was. Once again I had seen how the power of laughter and encouragement could change lives, and I was now more convinced than ever that this lesson needed to be talked about even more.

Having now experienced this powerful lesson of how laughter heals a second time, I felt it was time to do some further research into who else knew this wonderful approach. One excellent article I found early on was called "Laugh, Teacher, Laugh" by Glen Walter, and this article confirmed for me what I eventually discovered many teachers already knew, that, as Walters put it, "Education is too important to be taken seriously."

Walter's article talked in detail about the chemical changes in the body that occur as a result of laughter, some of which include lower blood pressure, a boost to the endocrine and immune systems, and a release of endorphins which are the body's wonderful natural pain killers usually associated with the "runner's high" experienced by people who exercise.The following are a list of Walter's recommendations for using laughter in the classroom,

1. Share humorous events from your own experience.
2. Learn to appreciate class clowns. They are your greatest ally when it comes to laughter and can brighten even the grayest of days.
3. Obtain humorous books from your library and read them to your class.
4. Talk about funny shows or movies you have enjoyed.
5. Have your students find humorous stories and pictures in newspapers and magazines.
6. Have students write and act out a funny class story or play.
7. Laugh at your own mistakes instead of making an excuse or covering up.
8. Wear a funny hat, clown's nose, two different kinds of shoes, or colored socks to school, anything to break the routine.
9. Finally, commit yourself to developing a humorous outlook on life. Take yourself, life, and school less seriously. Laugh at the stressors of the days. Your laughter will help eliminate the dreaded tunnel vision and may even help you say, "School is too important to take seriously."

The simplicity yet brilliance of this advice has served me well, and I hope others will see it and pass it on.