Milkshake and All That...

Posted by Rachel Herron on 10/23/2020 7:00:00 AM

If this year has not been strange enough, last month things got even stranger at the Herron/Clark household. Our year-old cat, Milkshake, tore a hole in our screen door, caught a chipmunk and promptly chased a squirrel up a 90-foot tree. I learned a lot about kitty nature that week and also made some unusual student connections.

Cat in Tree The first thing I learned is that cat claws are built for climbing up. They are physically shaped like a hook to grip a tree, but they are curved the wrong way for climbing down. When a cat “figures out” how to come back down, it is rarely head first. When I was trying to process how my cat was going to learn a task that would hopefully save her life, without a teacher in an unfamiliar and new (maybe scary) environment, I started thinking about how our students are learning right now. Some of our students are at home, trying to adapt to a two-dimensional platform during a school day that is different from anything they have ever known. If they are at school, all of the rules have changed. Masks are required to keep students safe, but the safety of being able to see a facial expression or the lip movements connected with words could possibly cause unrest for a student who relied on them. Students are not allowed to be close to each other or touch one another. They are sitting with the same students for contact tracing. All of the safety precautions are in place for a reason, but learning a new skill while you are still trying to figure out how to manage the new external factors can be problematic for some of our students. Almost like being up a tree, swaying at 90-feet, being able to see the people you love but not access them.

The second thing I learned is when situations get tough or scary cats have an instinct to move to higher ground. This is an instinctual coping strategy. As much as I wanted Milkshake to come down the tree when she was at 30 feet, 60 feet, 75 feet, she was doing what her body was telling her to do. Climb up to safety. Our students have instinctual coping strategies they utilize in times of unrest too. Fight or flight, acting up in order not to feel they can’t do something other students can do, fleeing classrooms when they are not comfortable or being the “bad one” instead of the “incapable one” are all examples of this.

The third thing is no matter how much help I provided my cat...we put food at the bottom of the tree, called to her day and night, hired a tree trimmer with a 65 foot bucket and a tree climber who risked his life to climb the additional 25 feet.. outside factors are going to override if coping strategies are not in place. Students who are taught coping strategies have a better chance when they are in a heightened emotional (or physical) place of using that strategy if they have been practicing it before the moment of truth. Daily practice of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) gives each student a backpack of options they can take with them on a daily basis. Preparing kids with skills to face the worst can help when bumps appear in the road.

As for Milkshake...when facing an unfamiliar environment, a skill that had not been taught and a stranger trying to lure her the opposite way her instinct directed her...she jumped - 90 Feet to the ground.

The remarkable thing about cats is they have a better chance of surviving a high fall than a shorter fall due to science mixed with a mathematical equation I won’t take a stab at (see my article What is 6x7?) and terminal velocity. Be sure to check this science out in the video How Do Cats Survive High Falls?

Our students are also resilient. As long as we pay attention, teach coping strategies on a daily basis and form relationships, we can help prepare our students for the worst case scenario. You can locate hundreds of strategies to help fill the backpack through Goalbook. If you need help finding them, I am happy to help.

Milkshake not only survived to tell her tale (TAIL), but did so without a single broken bone. Her scraped-up lip was the only outward scar, although she still wistfully stares at the tree, shuddering slightly when she hears the crows.

Safe Cat


Rachel Herron

Rachel Herron, SDI Facilitator