Tuesday, December 24, 2019

December - Gratitude: It’s Healthy, Easy, and Totally Free to Give

Gratitude is a character quality that you build over time; it’s something you develop through daily, weekly, or monthly practice, just like other skills.  It is the act of showing thanks, demonstrating that you recognize the significance of someone or something in your life. Gratitude goes hand-in-hand with acts of kindness and giving back to others, whether they are people you know or strangers.  And gratitude is one of the hallmarks of being a great leader—it builds trust and connection in every kind of relationship.

It can be easy to get caught up in the busy parts of life, especially as a student, but giving back to show your gratitude brings you into the present and allows you to focus on just one thing at a time.  It is a way to be more mindful with your time and energy, and research has shown that people who actively express gratitude actually live happier and more fulfilled lives. Wow!

So what does it really mean to give gratitude, why is it good for you, and how can you do it in a meaningful way?  Some people think giving back to others means having to spend money, but that’s not true. Other people think that giving back needs to be elaborate and fancy—not true either.  Let’s explore why gratitude is important, and look at ways you can give back without having to spend any money or plan any grand gestures.

First, understand that gratitude shapes your mindset.  Approaching life with a grateful heart actually teaches you how to find peace of mind.  Because gratitude requires that you think about others before thinking about yourself, you’re not as easily distracted by your own questions, problems, of self-talk.  Instead, you are focused on someone else’s feelings and the positive influence you have by giving back to them. A positive mindset results from this positive impact, and the cycle continues as you continue to express gratitude!  This is why building habits around gratitude is so special; everyone reaps the benefits as the effects ripple outward.

It’s also important to recognize that gratitude is simple and free.  Gratitude is about your time and your energy, not your wallet.  It’s about quality. Being present in someone’s life—fully present—is just one example of demonstrating gratitude, and it’s something you can literally practice every day.  Here are 10 other ideas for expressing gratitude without ever spending a dime.  

  1. Start a gratitude journal, where you write down three things you are most grateful for in your life each day.
  2. Write thank you notes to teachers who have inspired you, even if it was a teacher you had several years ago.
  3. Write thank you notes to other people who have brought joy, comfort, or security into your life, such as a family member, clergyperson, neighbor, nurse, author, babysitter, bus driver, or counselor.
  4. Listen when someone in your family needs to talk.  Don’t feel the need to respond right away; just be there for them and listen with curiosity.
  5. Make plans with your friends in person, and ask if everyone will put their phones away so you can enjoy each other’s company without interruptions.
  6. Call your grandparents for a conversation, or visit them in person if you can.  Ask if they want to play a board game, listen to music, watch a movie, or look through old photo albums together.
  7. Forgive someone who wronged you and express gratitude for the life experience.  You don’t necessarily have to contact that person, but make the decision to be thankful that you learned something from what happened.
  8. Do some chores around the house without being asked and without expecting something in return.  This is taking initiative which is a great trait of being a respected leader! 
  9. Write a letter of appreciation to the servicemen and women in our armed forces or to the first responders in your neighborhood.
  10. Send an email or text message to say thank you to a friend who has been supportive of you in good and bad times; let them know what an important role they have in your life.

Many times, gratitude starts with kindness.  Acts of kindness are easy ways you can show appreciation in life, even among people you might not know.  This quality is at the core of volunteerism, and why so many people choose to dedicate their time to different causes.  They desire a way to influence change, to express empathy, and to bring kindness into other people’s lives. A gratitude for life begins with the choice to spread love!  Here are five ideas to demonstrate gratitude with gestures of kindness. Choose one or all of them to give back to others during your Winter Break!

  1. Visit a nursing home and offer to read, play games, or perform for residents.
  2. Volunteer at the local food pantry and help organize donations or assist shoppers with their items.
  3. Offer to help a neighbor or two with their chores, such as raking leaves, shoveling snow, or walking their dog.
  4. Entertain the young kids at a family gathering, so the adults know their children are safe and cared for.
  5. Ask a few friends to join you in picking up litter at the local park or playground.

As you think about how you will incorporate ways to give back into your life, know that gratitude is about intention. When you approach gratitude with purpose, you are being your authentic self.  Understanding why it’s important to you to show thanks in that moment is key; people will feel how genuine you are and will appreciate your openness!  Remember that when it comes to gratitude, you don’t have to do everything all at once—just take the first step. Your journey starts there.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Are We Setting our Kids Up For Success in the Workforce?

I read an “ah-ha” statistic the other day from one of my favorite experts on youth leadership, Tim Elmore. He states that Generation Z is the most educated generation of all times but they lack overall experience Here is an interesting statistic he reported, 53% of Baby Boomers had a job when they were in high school, 48% of Gen Xers had jobs when they were teenagers, 30% of the Millennials had previous work experience in high school but only 19% of Generation Z ages 15-18 has had a part time job, this is 1 in every 5 teenagers. One may think this is just the changing of our world and this is not a problem in the sense that kids absolutely have to have a job. The problem lies in that some of these kids are going into the workforce at 22 years old and are not having any type of work experience at all or the skill set on how to sustain a job . Many parents are bypassing asking or requiring their teenagers to get a job and instead are having them focus on their academics or extracurricular activities. There is a rise in major decisions by parents to just “give” their children money without incentives like doing chores or other responsibilities. We are hearing more parents say, “Your school is your full time job.” In a world now where kids are overextended and lead busy lifestyles, it also becomes difficult to have time for a job or even find one that will work around their busy schedules.
Part time jobs are just as much on learning how to work, as much as learning the value of money. It becomes a challenge when kids have no work experience until the age of 22 and they enter the workforce as an adult. Sometimes the habits are formed that they are entitled to receive money without working for it. Something good happens when your exchange your talent, time, energy for a paycheck. It teaches good stewardship of money and not just an entitlement of money being given to you. Having no experience in the workforce may cause a problem of artificial maturity amongst this generation. We are seeing maturity in the sense of education and knowledge, but a deficit of maturity in ability to problem solve, establishing relationships and work ethic due to not having experience in a job.
So what do we do with this generation who may not have the time to work a part time job or the parents who are wanting them to focus on school and activities rather than work? Here are some other alternatives to get that work experience under their belt during the busy teenage years .
  1. Summer or Holiday Time Jobs- many kids have summers and long holiday breaks where they can get a short term job. Holiday season is a time that many businesses hire extra employees and these jobs can be temporary. Also great summer jobs that are attractive to this generation are lifeguards, retail, green houses, farm hands, local recreational organizations such as YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, health and fitness studios.
  2. School/ Extracurricular Activity Job Opportunities- Several schools have programs for office and administrative assistants in their central offices. Some of these positions do offer compensation. Also, check with your child’s extra curricular activity. In my business, owner of local dance studios, I have a student assistant training program that works around students activity schedules. They start at a volunteer level and have the opportunity to be paid employees when reaching their high school year. Many of the school extracurricular activities may also have these opportunities.
  3. Odd Jobs- In our digital, social, mobile busy world there are more job opportunities than ever. These jobs can be one and done jobs such as pet walker, babysitter, housecleaner, drivers for elderly, ect. Also there are some legitimate online jobs that are conducive to teenagers where they can earn extra money and gain valuable work experience such as writing, tutoring and social postings for companies. It is our job as leaders of this next generation to equip them with the necessary tools to succeed. It is so optimistic knowing that these Gen Zers are trending to be the most educated and purposeful generation of all time. Now we need to equip them to be able to hold a job in the workforce so they can make a living. Tracey Wozny/ Executive Director and Founder Taking Shape

Friday, May 24, 2019

Teenage Stress and Anxiety- How Do We Help?

The relationship between teenagers and their parents, and perhaps more accurately, teenagers and the rest of the entire world, has always been contentious. As young people move through their teenage years they are changing dramatically physically and emotionally. While hormones are raging and bodies are morphing, teens also struggle to assert their independence and sort to their identity. They begin to recognize the realities of life and often get caught between their attachment to family and relationships with friends. In our STAR Leadership program, over the past few months, we've been focusing on positive self-image and living a life of excellence. Throughout conversations with our teens aged 13-18, several interesting, and sometimes troubling subjects have come to the forefront. Many teens comment on how much stress and anxiety they have in their life along with their close friends as well. They have often brought up the subject of anxiety, depression and even deep depression. As an educator and leader of this age group, it prompted me to dive deeper into the “why” of this phenomenon. What I found validated my concerns. In a Blue Cross Blue Shield Health of America Report for 2018, there was a reported 47% increase in diagnosed anxiety and depression in ages from 17-24 from 2013 to 2018. From ages 12-17, there was a 63% increase in diagnosed anxiety and depression, (47% for boys, 65% for girls). I was even more alarmed at stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reported a 77% increase in suicides in the age group 10-18 in the period from 2008-2018. Why? I was further troubled after having discussions with my own students, dance students who I have had for over 10 years in my program. These are high academic achievers, huge leaders in their schools and community. They were eager to talk about the issue and wanted someone to listen, perhaps because I wasn't a parent. To paraphrase a common response, these students often said “Many kids in our schools are depressed and have anxiety. It is very common, and kids of this generation are more depressed than you think.” "Wow", I thought. It was stunning and more than a bit concerning to hear this from young people.. Upon asking the reasons, the teens had a seemingly endless list. I broke the list down into three general categories.
  1. Today's teens are spread too thin. Teenagers have over-committed schedules with not enough time to concentrate on one thing. There can be self-generated pressure to fill and exceed through these busy schedules.
  2. There's a fear of not meeting expectations. Many teenagers in the group had brought up the pressure of not living up to expectations of parents, other adults and their peers. This amounts to the classic fear of failure and they mentioned over and over again how they were afraid to disappoint the people they are close to. .
  3. Pressures of social media to have the “perfect” life. Alright, so this was new, at least to me, and to be fair, I hadn't given it much thought from their perspective. It prompted me to dive even deeper, doing further research. I found a report from Jamison Monroe, CEO and founder of Newport Academy. It validates teens are intelligent, tech-savvy and have many positive assets as a generation of a social, digital and mobile world. However, social media is a primary source of anxiety and pressure for adolescents. Teens become particularly depressed when they compare their lives unfavorably to the people they follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not just neighbors and schoolmates or what we would call “peers”, but any and everyone on social media. Those are unreasonable expectations.
Monroe's report discussed how scientists have also found correlations between teen smartphone use and depression. It demonstrates how excessive use of technology damages relationships, education, and extracurricular activities. It also reaches other reasonable conclusions:

  • Many teens experience some degree of academic pressure. In addition, an uncertain economy and tough competition for college and graduate school make that pressure even worse.
  • Teens, of course, typically experience their first romantic relationships in high school or college. While this is an essential part of teen development, teen relationships can also be emotionally challenging.
  • Today’s teens have fewer coping skills. Parents try to shield them from experiencing failure and disappointment. That means they often have fewer opportunities to build resilience. They frequently don't know how to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Thus, they don’t learn how to cope with challenges.
  • The adolescent brain is still growing. Hence, teens have an immature prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-regulation. Many decisions they seem to make are not real decisions they have made at all. They have a limited ability to exert control over their impulses. Consequently, this leads to teenage risk behaviors, such as substance abuse and unsafe sexual choices.
  • Today’s adolescents spend so much time on screens that they don’t get outside enough. This subjects them to “nature deficit disorder” a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”. Because teens and children are spending less time outdoors, they experience a wide range of behavioral and mental health problems.
It was becoming apparent to me that while today's teens have the challenges of the past generations, they are less capable of coping. They also have the additional challenges of social media that has not been a factor previously. Add in school shootings, heightened ecological fears, increased political uncertainty, social injustice, and other factors, and I was getting a clearer and clearer picture.
Today's teenagers are under more pressure than ever and are less equipped to handle those pressures. The result? Frequently high anxiety and deep depression.
So, what can we do as parents, educators, and people of previous generations to combat this rise of depression in our teens? What should we be doing to help them through this critical period of their lives? I was able to break it down into three critical components.

  1. Create awareness and a framework to cope. Talking with family members, your team or faculty, and teens themselves to let them know this is a rising issue. Help them understand how to set structure around the feelings they are experiencing. (I developed a leadership curriculum program I use with my teens called Taking Shape STAR Leadership program where we discuss several current issues that teens face such as positive self image, bullying, ect).
  2. Set up guidelines and limits to social media usage. A CNN study of 13-year-olds and their relationship with social media found that participants who checked Instagram or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37% more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day. Those who checked more than 100 times a day were 47% more distressed on average. The more checking, the more stress. I have a no cell phone policy at our studio. Teens come in and check phones in a basket on arrival and pick up at end of the day. This allows them to establish better personal relationships and talk among friends, problem solve and have fun!
  3. Limit overextended schedules, taking time for mindfulness and reflection. Have kids take an audit of all of their schedule. What do they really “love” to do and what are they doing that can be taken off their plates. My students now yearn for “yoga” class where they can get their mind off the grid. There's been an interesting trend in “mindfulness” classes in the school system in the past 3 years. This is telling us kids need to slow down.
I feel it is our purpose as leaders of this generation to find ways to establish these relationships with our teens. They don’t need information from us, they can get this in seconds on their devices. What they need is caring, listening ears, the experience of generations that have “been there, done that” to help them strengthen values of resilience, discipline, and building relationships.
We also need something too. We need to understand that things are in fact, different for this generation of teens. They grew up differently. They have almost unlimited access to technology and are more connected than ever. They are exposed to more real dangers in their young lives.
I have always felt these kids are worth the effort. It's why I've made them such a significant part of my daily life and career. If we can better understand these teens, we can better help them. That is a goal worth pursuing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Our WHY - The Origins of Taking Shape

This story begins in tiny rural Missouri, off the beaten path, at Shapes Dance and Acro Studio—the studio where I’ve been the owner and director for over 25 years.  It’s where I’ve proudly taught dance, tumbling, acrobatics, and more to thousands of kids and teens!  It’s also where I developed a passion for teaching my students how to achieve their ambitions through experiences, opportunities, discipline, and strength of character.

In this small-town community, a typical high school senior class sends less than 40% of its graduates to college.  Many settle for less than their full potential because they haven’t known anything different in their lives; they simply stay in their comfort zones.  And so it became my personal mission to positively impact our students at SDA so that they would not fall into this statistic.  With that in mind, I began teaching the fundamentals of what is now Taking Shape’s STAR Leadership curriculum, offering class discussions about topics like being kind, building resilience, having a great work ethic, and living a life of gratitude. 

Over time, our students evolved into true leaders at their schools and in the community, proving themselves stronger and smarter than they ever thought before.  I’m humbled to say that with this mindset shift, 90% of our students go on to college after high school.  And I’ve now seen the evidence that our efforts to change young lives are working!

After seeing these successful results, I began to think bigger.  I founded Taking Shape with the intent to create a global servant leadership movement reaching people Here in our local communities, Near in our surrounding cities and states, and Far across the globe.  The STAR Leadership curriculum became its own stand-alone program for SDA and also available to other dance studios.  The Here and Near programs grew to include our outreach in and around the Kansas City area.  And the Far program took off after my first trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2015.

That year I shadowed a friend during her mission camp.  I wanted to learn and soak in every lesson of global service and leadership possible!  On a side trip home one day, we stopped at LePhare Orphanage, where I met a young man named Davidson with an infectious smile.  He spoke English pretty well, and he told me more about the orphans (there were 23) and the faith and hope they all had as a “family.”  His father, Jean Dieuregard, was the pastor of the orphanage.

Davidson took me on a tour of the house, which took my breath away.  When we went up the stairs, it took us to the roof.  The roof, it turned out, was where the orphans slept, because there was not enough room or enough beds downstairs, and of course, it was hot.  At that moment I felt a huge tug on my heart from God that said I could and should do something to help.  I immediately began an action plan when I got home to Missouri.

My brother, a general contractor, drew up construction plans.  We hired a team of all-Haitian workers, and after many trials and tribulations during the two-year process, I’m ecstatic to report that LePhare Orphanage finally has a proper roof.  It also now has an additional seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, and a balcony.  But there is more to be done to serve LePhare.  Taking Shape’s next goal is to provide the children with an education, and so we are building a school!

Through our Far program and missionary work, I know we will reach this goal.  100% of our proceeds are going toward the school, and with our missionaries’ efforts we will continue to positively impact these young lives with this opportunity for an education.

I would have never guessed, 25 years ago, that becoming a studio owner in rural Missouri would lead me down this path of servant leadership.  But now I can see an impact far greater than my biggest dreams.  Taking Shape has truly formed my “why” in life; I hope it can do the same for you!