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PARENTS NEED RUNNING PARTNERS, TOO

PARENTS NEED RUNNING PARTNERS, TOO

Laura Sandefer

October 1, 2013

I dedicate this post to the newest Acton Academy parents.

It is that time of year. The rush of a new school year has subsided. The jolting chaos of new family schedules is settling into a groove. The stifling heat is beginning to break. I can breathe. But there is an unexpected feeling creeping into my otherwise sense of relief. It is discomfiting. I am surprised by it. It is the distinct feeling of insecurity.

What is this about? Why do I feel this way? What can I do about it? Why do I wonder if we made the right choice to come to Acton Academy? I feel like a loner in my group of friends who all have children in the neighborhood school. They ask me questions that I can’t answer about school. I miss the comfort of the old familiar path of school. Do I really want to be on a Hero’s Journey? This is hard.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, read on. This is the conversation I’ve had with myself and with numerous other Acton Academy parents. It seems to happen each October.

It may help to know that you are not alone in this experience of insecurity as an Acton parent. I can pinpoint three major themes that arise in the hearts of many new Acton Academy parents:

  1.  Insecurity about the daily learning and curriculum: “I don’t know what my child is doing at school; I don’t get to oversee any homework assignments like my friends do; I don’t see the curriculum outlined by grade level. I’m scared that he’s not learning what he’s supposed to at his age. How do I check in to see where he is? I’m scared he won’t get into a good college.”
  2. Insecurity about being off the traditional track: “My friends all question this ‘alternative’ route we are taking in our child’s education. I don’t know what to say to their questions and doubts about Acton Academy.”
  3. Insecurity about having Guides instead of Teachers: “I think my child needs more direction at school. Why don’t the Guides help her more? I want to see more work coming home. I want to be told how my child is doing. I don’t think my child is mature enough to make her own choices about work.”

This period of struggling is an important part of a Hero’s Journey. We must travel through, not around, the valleys and plateaus of deep learning, risk taking and growing.

Our children have Running Partners or Running Teams to help them on their way. We parents need a similar partnership – someone we trust who can answer questions, give encouragement, listen to frustrations.

If you would like to sign up for a Running Partner, please email me. I have gathered a small group of seasoned parents who have offered to share time over coffee – or emailing/phoning if that’s easiest – with any new parent who needs an ear or some guidance.

When you take a road less traveled, there are times of bewilderment and even a sense of loss. But we have a secret treasure at the end of our path that urges us forward: it is the knowledge and confidence that our children will find their callings and will be equipped to create meaningful lives with rich relationships for themselves and those around them. Until then, we can take advantage of having fellow travelers and guides of our own.

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A PARENTING MINDSET SHIFT TO FREE YOU

A PARENTING MINDSET SHIFT TO FREE YOU

Laura Sandefer

January 18, 2020

The mindset shift that happens at Acton Academy with the children is two-fold:

  1. Shifting from a fixed mindset (I’m just not good at math) to a growth mindset (I can learn anything, and I need to work extra hard in math.)
  2. Shifting from a victim mindset (This isn’t fair!) to a hero mindset (I can help fix this problem).

For parents, a mindset shift happens, too.

Unfortunately, our mental shifting happens slower and with more angst than our children’s. It’s simply because our thought patterns are more entrenched, often as a result of traumas in our childhoods. We’ve been working hard to survive and our brains have adjusted accordingly. Acton begins to call into question our thought processes and this feels, at a minimum, uncomfortable; and at some moments, excruciating.

But the shift does indeed happen for those who stay in the game. And it’s more freeing and exciting than anything I’ve ever imagined. It just takes time and vulnerability. As well as surrounding yourself with other parents who are willing to grow and learn, too.

The mindset shift for Acton parents has four layers that stack up to joy and confidence in your family life – even on hard days:

  1. Shifting from wishing Acton had all the bells and whistles of a traditional school to understanding there are trade-offs at every school – there is no utopia.
  2. Shifting from worrying that my child isn’t progressing fast enough and delivering the highest quality work to trusting the process at Acton Academy even when it’s messy and takes time.
  3. Shifting from stepping in as my child’s problem-solver to trusting my child to solve problems and being their #1 cheerleader.
  4. Shifting from gossiping with other parents about problems with the school to participating in helping the owners and guides by telling them and offering ideas for solutions. “We are all in this together on behalf of our children.”

At Acton, parents are vital partners in every way. We are not a traditional drop-off school where education is “done” to the children and the parents stay out of it except to volunteer or raise money.

Rather, we are an intimate, community of learning where the power is pushed back to the families to communicate, encourage, solve problems together and live the best life as humans changing the world.

Mindset shifts are equivalent to heavy-duty learning. Real learning is hard and we are all doing the best we can.

The following video story shared by Vijay, the founder of The Humanist Academy, an Acton Academy, in Irving, Texas is probably the best example of parents experiencing this mindset shift. I am so grateful he opened up and shared so we can all remember.

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ADVICE FROM A WISE ACTON PARENT

ADVICE FROM A WISE ACTON PARENT

Laura Sandefer

January 8, 2020

Iawaited my cappuccino with a foggy mind and heavy heart. Why is the Acton journey so hard for parents, me included? How can we build that simple, binding trust in the process so parents feel confident even when it’s hard? Why is it hard for us to trust our children and let them experience frustration and even failure and pain?

Suddenly I heard a familiar voice from my past, “Laura?” I spun around. There stood Sandy.

Seeing her was better than a jolt of caffeine. “You are just the person who can help me.” Sandy had been an Acton mom a few years back. Her daughter went through our middle school and was part of our first two years of Launchpad.

Sandy’s experience with us was the quintessential hero’s journey for a parent. She was an important intellectual helper to us then – and continued to be when her daughter left Acton before her senior year in Launchpad to pursue an independent path studying Arabic and ultimately nursing.

Sandy had been in the US Air Force and was a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Well-read and deeply curious, her feedback to us always came in the form of questions – great ones. She wanted the “why” behind our processes and decisions.

“How can we make the Acton parent journey easier?” I asked her.

In her usual quick-thinking way she answered. “Have you really, really articulated the Acton cultural expectation that kids should fail – and that failure may take a good bit of time to turn into success?” Hmmm.

Our conversation was cut short as our coffees arrived and we both had places we needed to be. I kept asking questions over email later that day. She gave me permission to share her responses. I hope you enjoy her thoughts. Moreso, I hope they lift your eyes to possibilities.

Here are Sandy’s words:

I learned so much from being an Acton parent and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. There is absolutely no question that my life would not be what it is today had I not cultivated an Acton mindset. I grew a great deal by learning to parent our daughter through her “failures” at Acton (some of these “failures” lasted years and required lots of humble learning).

Jeff was also remarkably patient with our family’s induction into the Acton mindset. In addition to my own experience, I also had the opportunity to observe how several other parents handled the sometimes bumpy waters of putting a child into such a novel learning environment.

The job of an Acton parent is complex because the current parental culture favors rescue and over-involvement. Acton is thus swimming against the tide of culture. It is one thing to cognitively assent to a strategy of supportive non-rescue of children in general but is a wholly different matter when you see your own child failing. This creates enormous pressure, confusion, and fear.

I love this quote and I think it exemplifies the difficulty Acton parents face: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

The opposing ideas are support and non-rescue (action and non-action; involvement and non-involvement).

An Acton parent’s job is to actively support the child’s growth AND actively restrain the impulse to rescue a child from failure, shame, and pain.

It actually requires a parent to have enough emotional intelligence to recognize that failure, shame, and pain are not life-threatening. When our brains perceive danger (failure, shame, and pain all feel like danger neurobiologically), everything in our brain screams: “Get the child to safety!” The problem is that safety (in this instance) most truly lies in allowing a child to experience failure so that the child can then learn to get up.

Brene Brown talks about the ways people wither under shame, pain, and failure. She then offers counterpoint for the wholehearted way to respond to shame, pain, and failure.
Here are a few things we did as a family to support our daughter’s Acton journey:

  1. We decided that quitting while failing wasn’t an option. First, build success, then evaluate the fit between Acton and her goals.
  2. I took her to counseling so she could identify her barriers with a neutral party. (She was struggling with anxiety and depression but did not know what to call her own emotional state. Thus, she was not telling me how she was really feeling.)
  3. We started decoding her experience of anxiety (and that cleared up the depression).
  4. We decoded her habit of procrastination and built habits to counter her tendency to freeze under pressure.
  5. We invested in resilience and strength-building (NOLS, MMLA, learning Arabic, full moon swims at Barton Springs, etc).
  6. We celebrated success and decoded “failure”. (She had a tendency to not celebrate success because she was always thinking about how far behind she was. Making sure she got her dopamine hit after small success helped improve her mindset).
  7. We built her capacity to tolerate being uncomfortable. (THIS IS HUGE and can save a child from folding/freezing later in life).
  8. We stopped looking at her hero’s journey as finding an optimal fit and worked on identifying things she could tolerate that others found intolerable (Arabic). Once she had Arabic, she had something that was hers that she could be proud of. Did she LOVE Arabic? No! She could, however, tolerate the discomfort of it and that gave her confidence.

My final thought is that parents are vital partners. Because of all that I learned, I would wish for other parents to benefit as I did. If there is a way to retain parents as part of the Acton culture, I see this as the highest good (though certainly not the easiest).

Thank you, dear Sandy.

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ONE EASY WAY TO COAX SOME REFLECTION TIME FROM YOUR FAMILY

ONE EASY WAY TO COAX SOME REFLECTION TIME FROM YOUR FAMILY

Laura Sandefer

December 28, 2019

We’ve witnessed in our Acton studios that reflection time is the magic key to deepen learning. It’s been one of my favorite things to remember to do at home, as well.

A holiday tradition that’s worked for us may work for you, too. During this busy time, it’s easy to overlook the importance of quietly thinking and listening to each other’s hopes and dreams. Here is my answer to that dilemma:

If you walk down our main hallway right now, you’ll see a big white board and a jar of Expo pens sitting on the floor beside it. I drew a line straight down the middle and on the left side wrote: “Looking Back – Memories of 2019.” On the right side I wrote: “Looking Forward – Hopes for 2020.” Everyone jots their memories and hopes on the board over these days leading up to New Year’s Eve. Seeing what the others write makes me think more about what I want to write. The board stays put, gets filled slowly, and stands as a reminder that time is passing so what do you want to do with your life?

You can do this without a white board. Painter’s tape down the wall and different colored sticky notes would work great, too.

We’ve done this exercise since our children were about three years old. Back then, I’d tape up photos of the year to trigger memories. Recording their hopes for the year required conversation. “What is one thing you really want to do? Is there something you want to learn?” They’d quickly think of a few things and we’d draw pictures on the board to represent their hopes. “Jump on one foot for one whole minute” is a great dream and fun to draw.

We can let time pass, just reacting to what comes our way. Or we can savor it, ponder it and look forward to what lies ahead, taking action and celebrating the moment at hand. You don’t need a master of philosophy or a grand mountain to climb. You just need to mark a busy space in your home and let the reflection arise.

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MY GRATITUDE GIFT TO YOU: 10 WAYS TO HAVE A BETTER CONVERSATION

MY GRATITUDE GIFT TO YOU: 10 WAYS TO HAVE A BETTER CONVERSATION

Laura Sandefer

November 26, 2019

Iam thankful for you, readers. Your curiosity, encouragement and growth mindset make the world better. I wish for you a cornucopia of meaningful conversations around your dinner table this season and always. It may be the only thing that really matters when we gather with others. My gratitude gift for you is sharing Celeste Headley’s “10 ways to have a better conversation.” Her Ted Talk is here if you want to listen in more detail. Enjoy your feast of learning, sharing, supporting and laughing with others.

  1. Don’t multitask. Don’t be half in it. Be fully present.
  2. Don’t pontificate. That’s boring. Enter into every conversation assuming you have something to learn.
  3. Use open-ended questions. Who, what, when, where, why, how. Great examples: What was that like? How did that feel?
  4. Go with the flow. Your mind will get distracted. Thoughts and ideas will enter. Just let them go. Don’t stress. Let them pass.
  5. If you don’t know something, don’t fake it. Just say you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs. It’s not about you. No two experiences are ever the same.
  7. Don’t repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds. You don’t need to share every detail. That’s boring, too.
  9. Listen. Receive. Appreciate. Ask for more. Listen.
  10. Be brief. (See #2 and #8.)

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A BEAR, A BIRTHDAY CAKE AND A CUP OF HOT CHOCOLATE – YOUR TICKET TO INNER PEACE?

A BEAR, A BIRTHDAY CAKE AND A CUP OF HOT CHOCOLATE – YOUR TICKET TO INNER PEACE?

Laura Sandefer

November 12, 2019

As we enter the season of busy-ness, I crave the inner calm I so easily access on summer mornings when the clock doesn’t tick so fast. And not just for myself. I yearn for my children to handily retrieve their own sense of peace and with it, the ability to focus.

It was desperation that drove me to appreciate Mindful Breathing. My son started suffering from anxiety at age eleven. We used deep breathing exercises during the dark months when he would claw at his blankets and grind his teeth with a stress that seemed to swallow him whole.

His anxiety subsided, thankfully, and he is now equipped to use his breathing to slow down his heart rate and get his mind focused whenever the need arises – maybe before a speech at an Exhibition or when he’s at the free-throw line in a basketball game.

As part of our Learning to Do at Acton Academy, we’ve incorporated these simple breathing exercises into studio life. They equip young people to calm themselves and find focus – two skills that will serve them for life. One of my favorite memories comes from a quiet thirteen year old boy. After a week of leading Mindful Breathing exercises, he came to me and said, “Thank you. I’ve started doing that breathing when I’m stuck in my Khan Academy work. I used to panic. Now I breathe.”

The following three exercises are ones you can practice and share with your children:

Imagine a beautifully big birthday cake in front of you, filled with burning candles. Now breathe in deeply and blow them all out. Do this a few times.

Imagine you are a bear in a cave getting ready for hibernation. It’s time to start slowing down to get your body for the winter. Bears do this by breathing deeply and more slowly in and out of their noses. Try it. Breathe deeply in through your nose. Now let it out slowly and deeply through your nose. Do this six or so times.

Imagine you are wearing mittens and holding a cup of very hot chocolate between your hands. It’s too hot to sip right now so you have to blow on it – back and forth. Breathe in through your nose, now blow across the top of your hot chocolate. It will take five or six times to get it cool enough to drink.

As I breathe more deeply, I remember once again that Learning to Do most often leads to Learning to Be.

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WHAT DO YOU WANT?

WHAT DO YOU WANT?

Laura Sandefer

November 2, 2019

“You don’t have to be smart to go to Acton. You have to want to be smart.”
– Matteo, an Acton Academy middle school Eagle

Though merely two sentences within a long, heated Socratic discussion, Matteo’s words were flashes of gold. Everyone agreed with them. With clarity and ease, he’d pointed us to the essence of why Acton exists in a way I had never pondered.

It is about wanting. It is about desire.

Desire is longing for something not yet attained and includes a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is the fuel for curiosity – the most powerful intrinsic motivator.

But I wasn’t satisfied with my analysis of Matteo’s words. Was he really talking about just the desire to be smart?

I decided to pursue his idea further. I asked a small group of Eagles to help me out:

Why do you want to be smart?

So I can feel confident in the world.
So I can understand how things work.
So I can make hard decisions and tough choices.
So I can do the right thing.
So I can do something important with my life.
So I can solve problems that aren’t being solved yet.
So I can find my calling.

Their wanting to be smart was not about having an academic credential. It was not about pleasing parents and teachers.

These young people desire doing intelligent work that matters for this big, wonderful world.

Shakespeare wrote: “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

Acton Academy exists for the “doing” not just the “knowing.” Ultimately, there will be joy even if the journey includes suffering and sacrifice because the learning and work are purposeful. They are driven by the heart – where desire and character reside.

As a parent, this shifts my stance on talking with my sons about their work at school. My natural tendency at the end of the week is to ask them: How many points did you earn? How many Eagle Bucks do you have?

These extrinsic, academic questions are easy and okay. But, frankly, they miss the target.

There is a much more important question: What do you want?

I often forget to consider the desire in their hearts. When I focus merely on the external evidence of their daily learning, I snuff out the force that will drive them for the rest of their lives: the desire that lies in their hearts to do work that matters.

These young people exude profound confidence and inner freedom because they carry a mindset of growth. They know they can learn absolutely anything if they work at it. There is no slumped-over pessimism that comes from the burden of being labeled “smart” or “not smart.”

It’s as if they are already saying, “Open wide your doors, world. We are excited to meet you.”

Thank you, Matteo.

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ABOUT MORNINGS – A STORY SHARED BY AN ACTON PARENT

ABOUT MORNINGS – A STORY SHARED BY AN ACTON PARENT

Laura Sandefer

September 30, 2019

Sharing stories may be the best gift we can give each other. I am grateful to Erin Martin, an Acton mom, who most generously sent me this story to share with you:

It was nearing 6:30am and I found myself losing focus on the last part of my workout. My ears were straining to listen for my 10 year old daughter’s footsteps upstairs. Was she up and getting herself ready for school? Was she making her way to the piano?

Our family routine for many years has been that she completes her 30-45 minute piano practice in the mornings, before breakfast. She enjoys playing music upon waking, and like most families, our afternoons can be hectic with after-school activities, family dinners, etc. The few afternoons each week she has unscheduled, she treasures the downtime and boredom.

Lately, I found myself interrupting my own intentional practice of morning exercise to call up to her from the bottom of the stairs: “Are you up yet? Are you finished getting ready? It’s 7:05 so you need to start your piano!” This was a new dynamic fraught with frustration for both of us. We’ve tried hard to avoid unnecessary power struggles in parenting and yet, here I was, reminding, chiding, and prodding each morning like clockwork. The tension in my voice amplified by irritation in stopping my own routine.

While eating breakfast a week ago, my daughter paused, looked up at me and said kindly but firmly, “I really think you need to let me experience the natural consequences of not getting my piano practice done or not waking up on time. I really value having free time in the afternoons, and if you let me fail, I’d have the natural consequence of having to do get my piano done after school instead of relaxing.” Her words. Verbatim.

I was stunned.

But I really shouldn’t have been.

This is what several years in the Acton studio prepares our kids to do: to take responsibility for their actions, to be ruthlessly self-reflective, and control of their own destinies.

She knows how to hold herself and others accountable. She’s had experience learning how to craft peer feedback and respond to constructive criticism. While her words to me were beautifully warm-hearted but tough-minded, in the hours that followed they echoed in my ears a few different ways:

Stop rescuing me.
Let me figure it out.
I’m capable, and it’s ok if I fail.
I’d rather be angry with myself than feel scolded by you.
Some lessons are meant to be learned by experience.
I can’t grow when you’re hovering.
I need you to get out of the way.
I trust you enough to give you honest feedback.

In the week that has followed, we’ve both held true to our new agreement. Each of us is responsible for our own morning goals and responsibilities. It sounds so simple and self-evident that its almost embarrassing to say aloud! Each of us is responsible for ourselves.

How did we devolve into me chastising in the first place?! My lack of trust. As her diligence and morning habits starting sliding, I jumped in to (ineffectively) scaffold her – leading her to feel resentful and less competent. It’s was only a daily micro-interaction, but it had consequences.

This week she’s arrived at the breakfast table on time, eager to prove her discipline. Her confidence (now that her success is her own) is palpable. She doesn’t need me to cheer-lead her through her routine, and my own morning is boosted by my full attention and presence.

Will she fail sometimes? I expect so. We all have days where things don’t go right. My fear of her failing to manage her own time was hugely out of sync with the real risks and consequences. Now when she fails, she’ll gain the growth that comes from self-mastery – something she can’t do if I’m in the way.

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HOW CAN A PARENT KEEP THE SPARK OF CURIOSITY ALIVE?

HOW CAN A PARENT KEEP THE SPARK OF CURIOSITY ALIVE?

Laura Sandefer

September 25, 2019

The romance of starting a new school year is fizzling.

We’ve been here before. Reality is settling in and we’re remembering how rugged the road ahead is for heroes on a learning journey. It’s already making us a little tired and we’ve started dreading the days when all we can muster is: “How was your day?” and “Did you learn anything new?”

How can we do this better? How can we keep that spark of excitement about learning alive when life gets hard? Is there a way to connect more deeply with our children that supports them on their journeys? A way that brings us joy, too?

It’s taken me a long time, but I have finally, finally, learned that asking questions is far more powerful than delivering answers – not just in our learning studios at Acton Academy, but in my life at home.

But it’s tough to come up with good questions when you’re under the stress of all that comes with children and “school.” So here’s a cheat sheet for those days. I hope you feel the sparks of curiosity getting stoked each time you have the opportunity to ask:

When did you feel most challenged today?
Do you want me to just listen, to give advice or to help?
What is one step you could take toward your goal?
What strategies could you use to move forward?
What story are you telling yourself about this situation?
Has something like this ever happened to you before? If so, how did you handle it?
What can you learn from this?
How did you participate in this?
What might be the other side of the story?
What part of the Hero’s Journey is this?
What tools or resources do you have to deal with this?
What are the consequences of your actions?
Can you see an opportunity in this crisis?
Can you give me an example?
What would you advise someone in your situation?

I thank Shannon Falkenstein, my friend and founder of Acton Academy El Salvador, for sharing this list and reminding me to trust the Socratic process.

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TWO BIG ROCKS AT ACTON ACADEMY: PE AND ART

TWO BIG ROCKS AT ACTON ACADEMY: PE AND ART

Laura Sandefer

September 17, 2019

Last week I sat with the Eagles with an empty glass vessel, a pile of sand, 20 small rocks and two big rocks. My story went like this: The glass vessel represents our lives – a vessel of time. Each of us has the same amount of time in a day – how we fill it determines the kind of daily life and, hence, life we have.

Scooping the sand in the vessel, I shared that it represents all the little things we do every day that aren’t important. Scrolling through Instagram is a big scoop of sand. I then tossed in the small rocks – the things we do that are more important than the sand but that don’t have severe negative consequences if we don’t do them. Brushing my dogs is a small rock for me.

Now it was time to put in the two big rocks.

Oh, whoops.

There was no room left in the vessel for the two things that are urgent and important -the things we do that can improve or destroy the quality of our living. For me, family dinnertime is a big rock.

I poured out the sand and rocks and started over.

This time, I put the two big rocks in first; then the small rocks; and with a little jiggling, the same amount of sand poured right over the whole pile. My vessel contained it all.

Like magic, when we know our focus and our big “to do” of the day, everything else falls into place.

I held up the two rocks and shared a surprising fact about the Acton Academy learning design.

We have two big rocks that go in first. They aren’t math and reading; or science and writing.

They are P.E. and Art. (As an aside, our elementary studio voted that P.E. stands for “Physical Eagles.”)

Building a strong body and a curious, creative mind are the big rocks that make all the other learning happen in a deeper way.

With these two rocks, we gain conditioning to persevere when things get hard. We learn to breathe deeply to recover under stress. We learn what it means to focus and concentrate. We learn that failing happens and it takes work to improve. We learn how connected our body is to our mind. We gain courage and imagination. We experience the truth that being uncomfortable is necessary if you want to grow and get better. We learn to use our voices to share our ideas. We become problem-solvers and curious questioners.

How can you do math if you aren’t conditioned to focus or if you feel weak, without stamina or grit?

Our two big rocks make us strong, curious and creative, first. We then become open to working hard to learn and grow. Life is just better when you’re strong and creative as a baseline.

What’s your big rock today?

(This short video is the source of this little exercise.)

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