Helping Children Find Their Voices – Tips for Teachers and Tips for Parents

It was so heartening to learn from the 2,000 children, ages 6-12, who were questioned through the Highlights State of the Kid survey. They said they feel like parents and teachers really listen to them and care about what they have to say. But how do we help our children use that voice in healthy and giving ways?

Here are three simple ideas for parents…

  1. Give your children something to care about.

Kids said they want to reach out and help others when they see pain and suffering. Give them the opportunity! Service starts at home so be sure that your children are contributing to your household in developmentally appropriate ways. Then, in addition, notice what issue they are concerned about or they mention needs help. Follow up and serve together. How can your family serve the needs of a shut-in neighbor or a homeless community member? Take small steps together and build empathy by reflecting on the interaction and the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that occurred because of it.

For tips on caring for your household as a family team, check out Involving Our Kids in Household Responsibilities — At Each Age and Stage.

For tips on how to take simple actions to serve your community as a family, check out Citizen Kid or How Do We Cultivate Compassion in our Kids?

2. Start each day with a loving connection. 

This is the time of year when schedules get chaotic. We can fall into the trap of rushing our children to get ready and flying out of the house in the morning. It only takes mere minutes to focus on your child, to notice what he/she is feeling, and to share a hug or loving connection. If you do, you can leave each other knowing that you’ve done your best to prepare your child’s mind for a successful day of learning at school. And by the way, you’ll also set yourself up with a grateful mindset for your work day to come! 

Want to create a smooth morning routine that’s collaborative? Check out this video short! 

Why are hugs so important for our kids each day? Check out the research connection. Deepening Parent-Child Relationships through Loving Touch

3. Embrace what your child loves.

How do you follow your child’s curiosity? How do you follow their passions – particularly when you don’t necessarily share those passions? Listening and noticing is an important place to begin! My partner and I don’t know the first thing about fishing but when my son expressed a genuine interest, we discovered a summer camp and also, set up time throughout the year with his Grandfather to nurture that passion. Take steps into that unknown passion and you and your family can learn together by pursuing your child’s desires. 

For more, check out this article on time spent out of school entitled The Extras.

And for teachers, Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ partnered with Highlights to create this printable fact sheet: 3 Research-based Strategies for Helping your Students Find Their Voice.

Parents’ Hopes for Confident, Happy Kids are Realized through Social and Emotional Skills

New Research Supports the Essential Connections between Parenting and Social and Emotional Learning

“What are your hopes for your child?” we asked nearly one hundred parents who also happen to work in the field of social and emotional learning in schools. They responded similarly to what we’ve heard from parents around the country and indeed, the globe. Parents agree: they hope their children will be confident, empathetic, kind, happy, responsible, independent, honest and compassionate.

We also asked those same parents, “What are your hopes for yourself as a parent?” Parents said they wanted to be patient and understanding, loving and
encouraging, nurturing, fun, and supportive.

Interestingly, as we examined parents’ hopes for their children and for themselves and looked at how those ideals might relate to social and emotional skills, there was a direct alignment. We wondered – since there is a lot known by educators on how to develop children’s skills for success, could we use that broad knowledge base to translate it into the informal messy world of our family lives?

Our new research makes clear the essential connections between parenting and social and emotional learning and shows how that focus leads to parenting with competence and parenting for competence. Through our study, we learned:

  • Though language differs, parents’ hopes for children like confidence and happiness directly align with social and emotional skills, the very ones that experts and educators’ study and work hard to integrate into schools.  (See illustration above and table below.)
  • Parents also require social and emotional skills. Though not the same, parents shared similar hopes for their own roles as parents. The definitions of parents’ hopes for their own parenting map directly on to the skills educators build in teachers. For example, acting with compassion can relate directly to building responsible decision-making skills. Raising a child who is loving and can translate into parents’ developing strong relationship skills. 
  • The disparities in terminology between researchers/educators and parents could be creating unnecessary barriers for advancing knowledge and skills in parenting. What if educators talked to parents about how they are practically working on building their child’s confidence and competence, for example? Teachers, researchers, educational leaders, and others are working hard to figure out the best strategies to integrate social and emotional development in the academic curriculum. Educators’ jobs may ease if they use parent terminology, engage in dialogue on promoting children’s development,
    and share strategies to multiply their impact on the same children both care about.
  • Though parents can learn from educators who build children’s social and emotional skills, parents’ own culture and values are vital in helping inform educators. How can parents best share their social and cultural knowledge with schools?
  • Parents can learn from the extensive research and practice knowledge that has been built by educators on social and emotional learning in schools.
  • Parents are unique in that they must use responsible decision-making skills regularly to respond to their children’s changes with each age and stage and often, multiple ages within a household. 

Parents shared specific examples of challenging issues they faced from a three-year-old’s tantrums to dealing with a tween who lied, to a teenager struggling with her body weight and self-image. These challenges required parents to use social and emotional skills like self-management (patience, self-control), social awareness (empathy, understanding), and relationship skills (listening, coaching).

Simultaneously, these challenges offered a chance to build social and emotional skills in their children such as, self-awareness (identifying feelings, positive self-image), self-management (not harming self or others when angry), and responsible decision-making skills (how to repair relationship harm that’s been done through lying).

If you are a reader or follower of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, you’ve known this all along. Yet, it’s empowering to know and reinforce that there are simple, research-based ways we can all achieve our hopes and dreams with and for the children we love by focusing on nurturing their development.

More to Come!

In the coming year, we intend to bring this research to life with examples and illustrations to extend and deepen our learning together. So be sure you’ve followed the Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ site to stay posted on the latest!

Learn More

For more on this study, visit our permanent Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ research page and check out the Research Brief or the full journal article in The School Community Journal.

Collaborators/Co-Investigators

Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology in Education, Director of the Office of Child Development, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, and Roger Weissberg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, NoVo Foundation Endowed Chair in Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Chief Knowledge Officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning collaboratively investigated this question together.

* Very special thanks to Co-Investigators Shannon Wanless and Roger Weissberg, both confident parents and confident educators and researchers who believe in this mission and worked collaboratively on this project.

How Children May Perceive Loss and Death at Various Ages and Stages

And Ways We Can Support Them…

On The Day of the Dead – or Dia de los Muertos, it seems appropriate to think about children’s understanding of one of life’s greatest mysteries at their various ages and stages.

Vrrrwow… the sound of a lightsaber comes close and pokes me in the back. I have been play-killed by my son, sometimes seen as Darth Vader, on a typical morning in our house. “You’re dead,” he says. Yet he expects me to get up and engage in another duel with him. I realize my five-year-old is attempting to understand death and conquer his anxiety through his pretend play. We have had three family members die within the past three years. All of them knew E and allowed for special times to play and connect with him at family gatherings. Though I suspect E would be wielding a weapon regardless of these experiences, I see him trying to understand but not yet grasping what it means when a person dies. In the midst of my own emotion dealing with the loss of someone I love, I notice it becomes challenging to remember that children are processing the experience of losing someone in different ways than I am and may need supports related to their level of awareness in order to cope with the loss.

As parents, we face the challenge of explaining the death in the news to our children like the recent shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue. When a death occurs in our own personal circle, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions that may include sadness, grief, guilt, fear, shock, confusion, anger, or disgust. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported.

Our instinct might be to protect our children. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. Reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it. The Day of the Dead’s beautiful tradition of gathering the family together to remember and reflect on each relative who has passed on is one from which we can learn. If you happen to be in the middle of dealing with a painful loss, then this guide may provide helpful counsel to walk you through how you might consider supporting your children.

Though all ages – infant through adolescent will feel a sense of loss, children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually.

Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which is accompanied by anxiety, worry, and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents play peek-a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide-and-seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.[i]

The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.[ii] The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note along with my own adaptations. It’s helpful to know and remember that a child of any age may show regressive behaviors when dealing with the death of a loved one.

Children’s Understanding of Death at Various Ages/Stages

0-2 Years Old

At birth to two years of age, babies can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will exist because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling. Additionally, they may feel concern for their own security when they see or sense that you are regularly upset.

3-5 Years Old

Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and become curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person or animal to return. Often children’s pretend play involves battles, illness or death, a healthy way for a child to face his fears. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. Fears may arise that have not come up prior including separation anxiety from care providers or they may begin to experience nightmares.

6-9 Years Old 

At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in understanding death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively.

9-12 Years Old

Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine-year-old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death. They may seek to avoid experiences of or discussions of death or become generally anxious while a family is grieving a loss.

12-18 Years Old

Tweens and teenagers understand that everyone dies at some point. They may feel that their death and the death of others is impending. They may worry about being seen as weak if they show their feelings. They may have a sense of conflict between wanting to become independent and their need for dependence upon adults in their life. They may engage in higher risk or impulsive behavior as a coping strategy. In addition to mood swings, they may change their peer group, isolate themselves more, and/or not perform as well in school. They may be more aggressive and could change their eating patterns.

Keep in mind that even as adults, it is the rare individual who has processed the reality of their mortality nor do any of us truly understand the nature of death. For children of any age, the unknowns of death are scary. Count on emotions to become more intense, more sporadic and behavior to potentially become unpredictable to go with it. Your efforts toward understanding your child’s feelings will go a long way toward easing children’s burdens. Be ready and open to listen when your child wants to talk. The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a relative, friend or a pet.

Things You Might Say:

  • Help her to know what you think and feel about the death to make it an acceptable topic to discuss. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.”
  • Teach empathy for others who are sad. Help him with concrete actions he can take to help. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.” Writing a letter, drawing a card or offering tissues are all small ways your child can take steps to help others in their grieving process and at the same time, help self-soothe.
  • Use feeling words as you reflect on what’s happening around you and how you are feeling. This helps normalize talk of emotions for a child (and for young children, it helps build their emotional vocabulary around loss). If this is a new experience, children will not know how to express their feelings so by articulatiing your own, you are helping them with their own self-understanding.
  • Listen and reflect back her feelings to her. “You sound sad about Uncle George. I understand. I feel that way too.”
  • Offer your perspectives on how a person lives on. Do you believe the value and qualities of the person live on through the lives they touched? What kind of legacy of character did your loved one leave? Be sure and share that. It can be another specific way a child can take action by loving music as Uncle George did, or by acting kindly to others as your dear babysitter did.
  • Especially with younger children, reassure them that others are healthy and stable and they will be taken care of. For example, death is not contagious like a cold. Others will not die because their friend died. If you can and feel it’s appropriate, tell the story of the person’s death to alleviate questions, worries or worst-case scenarios that might be imagined.
  • Do share your beliefs about death if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). Do you believe that the person’s spirit, soul or consciousness lives on? You might say “I believe that Grandpa Jim is in heaven – a good place – and though we cannot see him, we can talk to him whenever we want to and tell him we love him. I think he is listening even though he will not be able to talk to us in return.”
  • Talk about the circle of life whether its animals or plants and how the earth regenerates. Reassure that death is not a punishment but a part of the circle of life.
  • Reflect on gratitude. Death offers numerous opportunities to be grateful – grateful for the person we knew and loved and the memories we have, grateful for the values we learned from that person, grateful for our own good health, grateful for the gift of our family and friends and for the treasure of time to live the good life we have before us.

Things You Might Do:

  • Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort, and stability.
  • Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some part of the grieving process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing and help them follow through on those ideas. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
  • Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
  • Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, be sure and allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
  • Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
  • Invest in some one-on-one connecting time with your child each day during this time even if brief. You don’t need to discuss death or you can if you like. But invest some extra showering of love and attention with your child since she will need the reassurance. It can also help with our own adult grieving process if we focus on empathizing with and helping others through their sadness.
  • Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety. But be certain to offer expression opportunities without pushing them. A child will gravitate toward an expression form that feels right to them.
  • Recognize that emotions will run high and not just when you are dealing with funeral proceedings. Mourning is a process for children as well as adults and the emotions and reactions to emotions associated can strike during inconvenient times and in unexpected moments. When a child is upset, be sure you first, pause and breathe to calm yourself. Don’t attempt to react immediately. Then, reflect back the feelings you see your child attempting to express and allow her the chance to calm down and soothe.
  • Tell a teacher and school counselor. If a close friend or relative has died, be sure and let your child’s teacher know. There can be significant changes in how your child behaves at school. You’ll help the teacher better empathize, understand, and offer caring support. In addition, a school counselor can offer valuable additional emotional support for your child during the school day.

Particularly if the person who died was important in the life of your child, create a ritual that will help your child deal with the passing and help with saying goodbye. Maybe you could plant a tree in the backyard with his grandpa’s or pet’s name on a plaque or simple label beneath it. Maybe you place a valuable object of that person’s in a box and bury it in your backyard. Or give the child an object that was the person’s to hold onto in a special place to remember him. Also if your child is dealing with the death in self-destructive or aggressive ways, you may want to seek the support of a family or child counselor to help your child deal with the many difficult emotions.

Most importantly, when your family is coping with the death of a loved one, realize that your children’s understanding and experience of it will be different from your own. Seek support so that while you are emotional, you are able to receive guidance on how to support your children through their own grieving process.

For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site, www.childgrief.org.

The following are some children’s books that can help guide a conversation.

Picture books:

Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Michaelene Mundy (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child’s Guide to Good Grief (Elf-Help Books for Kids) by Victoria Ryan (Author) , R. W. Alley (Illustrator)

Grandpa Loved  by Josephine Nobisso (Author) , Maureen Hyde (Illustrator)

This is a recollection of the special times a young boy spent with his grandfather in the city, in the forest with the animals, at the beach, and with his family. Although the boy misses his beloved grandpa’s presence he feels assured that his passing has brought him to a better place and he knows that his grandpa’s love will always be with him.

I Miss You: A First Look at Death (First Look at Books) by Pat Thomas (Author) , Leslie Harker (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart by Maureen Wittbold (Author) , David Anderson (Author) , Larry Salk (Illustrator)

Mending Peter’s Heart is a book designed to help a child come to terms with the emotional issues raised by loss. In this case, it is through the loss of a beloved pet, Mishka, that Peter has to face the realities of death and dying. A sensitive neighbor comes to Peter’s aid and places the loss of Mishka into a larger understanding and compassionate framework.

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, by Bryan Mellonie with Robert Ingpen. 1983. Bantam.

Using examples of humans, trees, and sea creatures, this book explains that all living things have a lifetime with a beginning, an ending, and living in between. This simply-worded book is a good resource for explaining the life cycle to young children.

There is a video on YouTube for Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is read and illustrated and may be another helpful tool for using with children.

The Saddest Time, by Norma Simon. Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. 1992. Albert Whitman and Company.

A child experiencing the loss of a loved one is the subject of these three gentle stories. While each presents a different scenario (death by illness, accident, or old age), all of the stories address children’s sad feelings and present different coping strategies.

Samantha Jane’s Missing Smile; A Story about Coping with the Loss of a Parent by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus

The PBS Kids site lists good chapter books for tweens and teens. Check it out.

Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations on children’s books on death.


[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

[ii] Lyles, M. M. (2004). Navigating Children’s Grief: How to Help Following a Death. Children’s Grief Association.

Helping Our Children Deal with their Fears

It’s flu shot day. I have a feeling that today will go smoothly. But two years ago, it didn’t. And I notice a sense of dread creep up on me like a zombie in a haunted mansion. A few years back, E asked about whether shots would be involved with his upcoming doctor’s appointment well in advance. And when we got to the doctor’s parking lot, he started bawling and refused to get out of the car. I took deep breathes and watched the clock. An astonishing half hour later (seriously, I timed it), he finally emerged from the car to go into his appointment. After his shot that day, he seemed traumatized and it took the whole evening to recover. That next week, I took him with me when I got my flu shot at the local drug store. I let him watch and I asked a number of questions of the pharmacist who administered it. I quizzed her about all of the safety factors involved while E was listening. The next year, we talked about why flu shots are important and what can happen as a result of not getting the shot. And he, though scared, went into the appointment. This year was similar but E set out to prove how brave he truly was. Though I could tell he was nervous, he didn’t resist any step of the way. And I am proud he was able to face his fear.

Understanding fear and how it impacts our children can help us be more responsive and empathetic parents. We can learn how to raise kids who are courageous. Fears begin in infancy when babies under a year old cry when they encounter strange people or things that they do not recognize. The emotional response serves as a key biological function to help babies and children survive. A threat is detected in something or someone unknown and a baby seeks your help in those moments. Toddlers may fear loud noises, separation from parents, and large objects. Preschoolers may fear storms, the dark, monsters, supernatural or magical forces, or noises. And school-age children begin to fear issues we fear as adults such as failure, death, peer rejection, and natural disasters.

Fear is experienced differently by every person. There is no predicting what particular fears your child will have or develop. The key is to pay attention to fears and work to understand them. Modeling is a critical teacher so first, take note of your own reactions and anxiety. We can unwittingly contribute to and escalate any fear if our child reacts and we respond with anxiety. So becoming self-aware and practicing our own self-management over anxiety in those moments is fundamental to helping our child. I notice that I can hold greater patience in those times of struggle when I put my “teacher hat” on. All of a sudden, instead of being an annoyed parent, I become an intelligent and empathetic adult whose role is guidance, modeling, facilitation, and support.

We can learn a lot from a study done at Virginia Tech with expert scholars who have had a 60-75% success rate in tackling severe child phobias. I have summarized their steps here for addressing a child’s fears adding in my own perspectives and context for parents.

Promoting Resilience and Courage with Kids in the Midst of Fear

Unpack the fear. Talk through the emotions with a child in an open time when you don’t have other pressures. List out all aspects of what they are afraid of. If it’s the dark, what parts of the dark don’t they like? What do they see? What do they imagine? What’s the worst thing that could happen to them in the dark? Find out all of the aspects of what’s worrying them and be sure to discuss their worst case scenarios.

Begin with the least scary on the list of fears and become informed together. Provide education and safety information about that topic and the more interactive, the better. For example, what causes the dark? Are there more safety risks in the dark? What are they? How can you address them? Do you need night lights in the bedrooms and in the hallways? If there are issues you can research in children’s books together, that is a great process for exploring a high anxiety topic. Or else go and pick out night lights to serve as a safety measure. Involve your child in addressing the issue.

Take small steps toward facing their fear. Ask your child first with each step forward. And make it a fun. The experts at Virginia Tech made it a game with the kids with whom they worked. They did not push but stopped if children were getting upset. They “proceeded slowly through the fear hierarchy and did not move on without the children’s consent.” 1 For example, you might throw dice and take the number of steps rolled toward the chair. Or you could advance stuffed friends along with your son to see who might be brave enough to step forward.

Continue with small steps as your child consents. With each small step, your child will learn to trust working with you on his fear (because you are not pushing but allowing him to set the pace). You will offer practice in facing his fear through these small steps, inching closer to the darkness until he is ready to turn out the lights altogether.

Practice in varied settings. Even if your child has been able to face turning out the lights and has come through it triumphantly, he will better internalize the lesson if you practice in a few settings. So go to your living room, ask his readiness and perhaps take a smaller step first in the new setting by turning out one light in the room.

Return to safety. If your child struggles along the way, you can always return to safety. Turn on the lights. Talk more about safety issues such as checking to see if all of the doors are locked so no strangers could possibly get in your home. Help your child feel comfortable at each stage of the process.

Astonishingly, these researchers at Virginia Tech had a 60% rate of extinguishing debilitating phobias in merely a three-hour session doing what I’ve listed above. They claimed their success rate would increase to 90% if parents did follow up practice over time and in various settings with their child. If this method worked for serious phobias, then a process of modeling, defining, educating, taking small steps, practicing in a variety of settings and following a child’s pace can work for you and your child’s fears. Imagine the courage he will feel when he no longer gets tummy aches and sweaty palms when you turn out the light. Most importantly, the experience he has had in conquering his fears will equip him to face larger challenges down the road.

Debunking the “Toughening Up” Myth

First and foremost, we want our children to survive and thrive in what sometimes may seem like a cruel world. It is a common belief that we must toughen up our kids for what they must face in life. Sometimes that belief translates into pushing kids beyond their coping capacity. We may force them into petting a dog they are terrified of approaching because it is our belief that they have to face their problem. Indeed it does make children strong for them to face their fears but the only way they can truly conquer them is on their own terms. No amount of pushing, forcing, punishing or yelling on our part is going to help. In fact, it will do the opposite. Children may squash their fears so that they are not pushed by a parent anymore or don’t have to disappoint them again. But as a result, they might not only increase their fear but also become shameful, angry, and hurt in the process. That shame will contribute to an inability to take healthy risks which directly impacts their ability to achieve success. “Toughening up” in its many forms, whether it involves ignoring a child’s upset feelings or pushing them into his fears, places a child in crisis. And that feeling of crisis results in a fight or flight mental state. The child may become more defensive and trust you less. This method works in opposition to its intended goal.

One of the greatest challenges we face as parents are watching our children suffer whether it’s from fear or pain. We want to fix it – and quick. But because fears are about how an individual perceives the unknown, it is utterly personal. The only way for a child or any person to move through a fear and come out with confidence and bravery is for that individual to control how he faces the fear. You can play a critical role by facilitating that process and in turn, preparing a child for life’s challenges.

Happy Halloween! May you conquer your own fears and have patience as your child bravely works to conquer his own.

Resources:
Why Smart Kids Worry; And What Parent Can Do to Help by Allison Edwards, LPC

The Highly Sensitive Child; Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.

Reference

Dingfelder, Sadie F. Fighting Children’s Fears, Fast. American Psychological Association. July/August 2005, Vol. 36, No. 7.

Originally published on October 26, 2015.

 

On Thrive Global… 4 Ways to Talk with your Kids about their Celebrity Influencers

You-Tubers, E-Gamers, Reality-TV Stars and Athletes

Check out the latest Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ post on Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global. It begins…

“Adam just caught the most gigantic bass, Mom,” my son exclaims as if Adam is a neighbor, a school friend, or at the very least, someone I know. But I quickly realize my eleven-year-old son is referring to one of his favorite “YouTubers.” Adam and others like him are creeping more and more into my son’s conversation and I recognize he’s learning new terminology, visiting new places, and encountering a host of new experiences. For this reason, I am eager to get to know Adam, understand the reason for my son’s enthusiasm, and explore what he is teaching through his videos.

My son is not alone. A large number of U.S. children have told Highlights in their 2018 State of the Kid survey that celebrities are a key and growing influencer in their lives. Yes, parents remain the top influencer and second and importantly, teachers also capture children’s admiration. But increasingly our children also look to the personalities on their screens for role modeling. Whether it’s an e-gamer (playing competitive video games) or a reality television show star or a professional athlete, fifteen percent of children ages 6-12 report that they admire and respect celebrities. In addition to noting that those role models are caring and kind, they said they were generous, helped others, were smart, and knowledgeable. Read the full article.

Promoting Children’s Perspective-taking and Empathy through Halloween

The pirate, construction worker, fireman, train conductor, doctor, ghost and Dark Lord Vader have all made guest appearances in our house over the past weeks in hot anticipation of Halloween. Though fear may abound with kids worrying about spooky specters and parents worrying about nut allergies, cavities, and street safety, there is more to the Halloween experience than just candy and frights. Children are encouraged to be someone or something else for one night a year. They are not only permitted but emboldened to become a character from their imaginings. Halloween gives them a chance to think and feel from another perspective. The skill of perspective-taking is one that has been found to assist in problem-solving, communication, multi-cultural understanding, empathy, and academic performance.

But how does perspective-taking relate to all of those aforementioned critical life skills? When do children begin learning to take another’s perspective? And how can parents encourage the development of these skills? Perspective-taking involves interpreting another person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations for action (see references for more on the Theory of Mind and Relational Frame Theory). This skill uses multiple executive functions of the brain including self-regulation, empathy, and cognitive flexibility (seeing a variety of solutions) making it a skill set that is now recognized as critical for school readiness and when in school, success in achieving academic goals.1

Researchers have been able to determine that three-year-olds can begin to take another’s perspective and some are even able to detect that another may hold a false belief about an observation.2 For example, the teacher says there is an apple in the bag. Many children believe this but one child might know the apple is under the table. As children begin to form relationships with peers, teachers and other care providers, they will become more adept at communicating their own needs, thoughts and feelings if they are attuned with the other person. A teacher’s facial expression may give away the anger they are feeling with an administrator.  If your child reads the expression correctly, he may choose to wait for a better moment to bring up the fact that his homework was eaten by the dog.

So how can parents encourage and support their children in understanding another person’s perspective? I’ve included some general simple ideas first and then, added more specific ideas related to children’s stages of development.

One easy way to promote perspective-taking skills is to ask open-ended questions to prompt thinking. Extend the learning by using perspective-taking as a “Guess what…” game at dinnertime or on a car trip when your family is together. Parents I work with have had success with doing this by engaging their family in fun and productive conversation. Each person has the opportunity to guess what another was feeling or thinking at some point that day. It may be an opportunity to reflect and laugh about more stressful moments in the day. For example, “I could see that Dad was angry when I grabbed his newspaper this morning.” The person who is being commented on has to say whether or not the feeling the family member guessed is accurate and if not, what they actually were feeling. Over your macaroni and cheese, watch with great satisfaction as your children become more adept at articulating your perspectives and their own with practice.

I tried a second variation of this game at my own dinner table and found we laughed and enjoyed the fun of it. This one was “If ___ came to dinner, he would say _______.” We inserted famous people and family members and our six-year-old came up with remarkable responses and he instigated using the various voice intonations of those people. Here’s a brief sampling of our conversation:

Me: “Your teacher, Mrs. Art is here for dinner. What does she say?”

E: “This is a nice dinner.” (read in a sweet, high-pitched voice)

Dad: “Your three-year-old cousin…”

E: “I don’t like hot dogs.”

Me: “Your cool Uncle Jeremiah…”

E: “E, man, how ya doin.”

Me: “Emperor Palpatine, Ruler of the Dark Side…”

E: “I’ll kill you after dinner.”

Of course, children have differing abilities to take others’ perspectives as they develop. Primary school age children will not be ready for multi-cultural diplomacy at the United Nations’ mediation table just yet but plant the seeds and they will get there. The following are Robert Selman’s five stages of perspective-taking with my own practical suggestions for how you can support your children’s development through the years.3

  1. Undifferentiated perspective taking

Ages 3-6

Children have a sense of their own thoughts and feelings and the fact that their actions cause others to react but sometimes may confuse others’ thoughts and feelings with their own.

Easy practice: Look for chances to identify different kinds of emotions when interacting with others. “Look at that woman’s expression in the store. Her face says to me she’s frustrated.” The posters with multiple facial expressions are great for expanding a feelings vocabulary. Check out this one. My son’s favorite is “lovestruck!”

2. Social-informational perspective taking

Ages 5-9

Children understand that different perspectives may mean that people have access to different information than they have.

Easy practice: When you are reading books with your child, stop when you find a belief, perspective, motivation or course of action that would differ from what your daughter would choose. Talk about the character’s perspective and motivation and from where it may have originated.

3. Self-reflective perspective taking

Ages 7-12

Children can view others’ perspectives by interpreting others’ thoughts and feelings and recognize that other people can do the same.

Easy practice: Guide your children through a conflict situation by asking them, after cooling down, to tell what they are thinking and feeling and then, asking them to interpret what the other person is thinking and feeling.

4. Third party perspective-taking

Ages 10-15

Children are able to mentally step outside of their own thoughts and feelings and another person’s and see a situation from a third person, impartial perspective.

Easy practice: This is a perfect time for a child to read biographies about other people’s lives that might interest them. Select a person together because you know something about the person’s life. Or read it yourself and talk about it with your child.

5. Societal perspective-taking

Ages 14-Adult

Begin to see that the third party perspective can be influenced by larger systems and societal values.

Easy practice: Offer opportunities to learn and experience other cultures reflecting on differing perspectives and values. Visit churches, synagogues or other places of worship outside of your belief system. Volunteer in a nursing home or homeless shelter. When you hear your children are interested in another culture, government or belief system, explore the opportunity through books, volunteerism, festivals, travel and other mind-expanding experiences.

Halloween is a holiday that helps us explore our fears in a safe way. It allows us to think about our mortality and our belief systems while having fun. In addition, it gives us permission to be and think differently. Take advantage of this great opportunity to practice perspective-taking with your children. Have a safe, happy Halloween!

 


  1. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu

2.  Heagle, A.I., & Rehfeldt, R.A. (2006). Teaching Perspective-Taking Skills to Typically Developing Children through Derived Relational Responding. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention. 3 (1) 1-34.

3. Selman, R.L. (1975). Level of social perspective taking and the development of empathy in children: Speculations from a social-cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Moral Education. 5 (1) 35-43.

Originally published on Oct. 24, 2013.

Spooky and Skill-Building Halloween Party Cooperative Games

Planning a Classroom Party or a Friend Party at Home?

Perhaps you volunteer in your child’s classroom as I do and are helping plan the annual Halloween party. Maybe you are a teacher looking for ways to both entertain, celebrate, and build skills on the holiday. Or you could be planning a costume party for family and friends. Whatever your role or goal, the following ideas are sure to make your little ghouls or goblins laugh with delight as they collaborate with their peers, approach scary characters in an entertaining way and build social and emotional skills. Check out these games appropriate for eight-years-old and up!

Witches’ and Wizards’ Charades

Materials: Index cards, marker

Gather in a circle of students. Have index cards prepared with the magical illusions listed below, one per card. Bring in a stick or better yet, a wand for casting spells. Explain the rules of the game. One person is the witch or wizard and they get to select a card from the pile. They also hold the wand and cast the spell. The students seated directly to their immediate left and right will serve as their team. They read the card together and whisper a plan for acting out the illusion. No talking aloud or sounds can be made just acting. They continue to act out the illusion while the rest of the group guesses what they are doing. The person to guess correctly first is the next wizard or witch.

For the index cards, here are the magical illusions to be acted out: levitation, or a floating person or object; invisibility, person or object disappears; grower taller; shrinking; growing longer hair; changing from a person to a toad; flying on a broomstick; making it light and then, dark; making limbs disappear; disappearing in one part of the room, reappearing in another, charming a snake.

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Social awareness, Active listening, Collaboration, Negotiation, Problem-solving, Nonverbal communication

Cooperative Ghost Story Telling

Gather in a circle of students. The leader establishes the rules to get the game started. Let the group know that each person will have a turn to contribute one sentence to the ghost story. Pass around a talking stick and let participants know that only the one who possesses the stick may talk. The others must listen carefully in order to build upon the story. The leader can begin with the classic line, “It was a dark, stormy night and…” This requires no setup and no materials. Kids will delight in the creativity and imagination involved. This is also a wonderful transition game that can be used on the spur-of-the-moment when waiting for a next class or activity.

Social and Emotional Skill Practiced: Collaboration, Creative Thinking, Active Listening

Who Done It?

Materials: Accessory props like glasses, scarf, gloves, headband, costume jewelry

Gather around in a circle. Place accessory props just outside the circle like glasses, headband, bracelet, sweater, and scarf. Explain the rules of the game. All students will put their heads down, with arms over their heads, and eyes closed. Tell students that it’s the honor system and will be more fun if everyone keeps eyes closed. The leader will tap one student on the shoulder who will steal a bag of Halloween candy off of the teacher’s desk and hide it in the room. That person will then return to the circle changing one item on their person grabbing an item from the pile of props. Then students will all open eyes and see if they can identify who stole the teacher’s candy!

An alternative, perhaps slightly more challenging version, would be for the student to – instead of adding a prop – change seated positions in the circle and see who notices who has switched seats. This requires a bigger circle with space in-between each student so that the thief could sit anywhere upon returning to the circle.

Social and Emotional Skill Practiced: Collaboration, Social Awareness (Close Observation)

Monster Back Story

Materials: Monster masks, or construction paper, glue, markers and large popsicle sticks (to create monster masks)

Gather around in a circle. Hold monster masks up to your face. You can either create them together as a craft or ask children to bring any mask they might have in from home to share. The leader can introduce one monster at a time. “This is Dracula. He’s a vampire who survives by sucking peoples’ blood. But he wasn’t always as he is today…” Then go around the circle and ask each child to provide a detail from his childhood explaining why he came to be the person he is today.

Be sure to offer the “pass” option if a child cannot think of an addition to the back story.

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Collaboration, Empathy, Perspective-taking

Robbery Report

This one was created for Classroom Conflict Resolution Training for Elementary Schools in San Francisco, California and reprinted in the A Year of Student’s Creative Response to Conflict curriculum. It has been used effectively in classrooms. Children love it!

The parent relays a robbery report and children must remember the details of the report by listening to it. Say it once and see what they can remember. Then, read it a second and perhaps, third time and see if they’re listening improves.

Parent: “Please listen carefully as I have to go to the hospital right away. I just called the police from the gas station on the corner. Wait here and report the robbery to them. I was walking into Johnson’s Convenience Store and this guy came running out and almost knocked me over. He was carrying a white bag and it looked like he had a gun in his left hand. He was wearing a Levi jacket with the sleeves cut out and a green and blue plaid shirt and blue jeans with a hole in the right knee. He had skinny legs and a big stomach. He wore wire-rim glasses and high top red Converse tennis shoes. He was bald and had a brown mustache and was six and a half feet tall, probably in his mid-thirties.” 1

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Active Listening

Mummy Wrap

Materials: One roll of toilet paper per three kids.

Divide kids into teams of three. Each team gets a roll of toilet paper. One child is the designated mummy and the other two are mummy creators/wrappers. Give the teams time to wrap up one team member by working together encircling the mummy with toilet paper leaving holes for breathing and seeing and hearing, of course! Teams can be challenged to wrap the mummy in such a way that he is able to walk while keeping on the costume. See if the completed mummy can walk across the room without unraveling.

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Collaboration, Problem-Solving

Swamp Monster

Material: long rope, Halloween music (and music player)

Leader shares the rules of the game. Leader lays down rope winding it around the room representing a safe bridge while Halloween music plays (think: “Monster Mash” and “Ghostbusters”). Students link arms and follow one another in a line along the rope. Students must keep both feet on the rope while moving forward to the beat. If a student is struggling, she or he needs to ask his teammates on either side for help. Then, the surrounding students can provide strength and support to help them stay on the rope. If a foot goes off the rope onto the floor (a.k.a. the swamp), the swamp monster “eats that student” and they have to sit out while the others try to stay on. Eliminate down to the last team of three students linked and clap for that last team of three who remained strong.

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Collaboration, Asking for help when needed

Enjoy engaging in one or more of these games with your family, friends, or students. Happy Halloween!

References:

1. Nia-Azariah, K., Kern-Crotty, F., & Gomer Bangel, L. (1992). A Year of Students Response to Conflict: 35 Experiential Workshops for the Classroom. Cincinnati, OH: Center for Peace Education.

Originally published on CPCK on October 26, 2017.

#Halloween #Parenting #SEL

Preparing Children to Stand Up for Themselves and Others

It seems impossible to get through voluntary playground duty without witnessing a child running with tears streaming down his or her face at recess time. This day was typical with one glaring exception. Walking up alongside the teary-eyed child, I spotted an upstander taking action. A second-grade girl was beginning to cry in a group of other girls. I watched her back up ready to run when another girl swooped in, locked arms, and walked her away. She saw an act of injustice and she swiftly and simply took action. And I’m guessing that the girl who was being picked on felt differently about her experience because of it.

Indeed, in a recently released survey by Highlights for Children of 2,000 U.S. children, ages 6-12, most said they would take action when they witnessed something hurtful happening.1 Most younger children would ask an adult for help, and a number of older children would try to stop the injustice on their own. 

It seems the desire to help is present in our children. We are raising compassionate kids; kids who notice others, feel their pain and want to do something to alleviate it. So the question then becomes, how can we offer them support in what they can say and do to act as skilled change-makers?

The recess drama that unfolded may have been a one-time incident. But if it actually was one of a series of increasingly harmful attacks by another or a group, then those actions could be considered bullying. You might wonder how much your child could make a difference in that kind of power-over situation. But did you know that more than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied? 2 That’s a powerful peer intervention.

In addition, we, as caring parents, want to be certain our children are ready if they encounter mean words and actions. We want to know they can respond in ways that are confident, constructive, and draw a clear line against abuse. 

The following are some ideas for helping your child understand what she or he can say and do when under attack or witnessing another needing help. 

Ask and Listen.

Have you talked with your child about how peers treat one another at school during their free time? Did you know that more than one in five children (20.8%) report experiencing bullying at some point?3 In a study of U.S. students, grades 3-12, fewer than half told a parent about the fact that they were bullied.4 The reasons a child might not tell a parent are varied including blaming her/himself for the bullying, fear of punishment or judgment, and also, fear that the parent will go after the bully and that might make matters worse for the child. Assure your child that you are a safe person to talk with. You won’t judge your child or her friends but want to understand and help her stay safe. Also, it’s important to look for signs. If your child has repeated tummy aches and doesn’t want to go to school, ask if there are troubles they want to avoid. If your child seems depressed and you are unsure why then spend time hanging out together and just listening. Your demonstration of openness and trust may raise the subject that might otherwise remain a secret.

Explore Options Together.

What can your child do or say if he witnesses cruelty to another classmate? Talk about potential options by asking, “What could you do to stop the action without harming anyone?” Could he go over to the child who is being picked on and show he’s a friend? Could he walk that child away with him as I watched the girl at recess successfully do? Could he help guide her to an adult? What if your child is attacked? Practice some simple statements he can use. “Stop! You know you are wrong.” could be one. 

In the case of cyberbullying, you can encourage your child to take steps to stop the attacks. Learn together how to block a “friend” or “follower.” If you are unsure, each social media outlet has its own method. Research it together and if you cannot figure it out, contact a friend or help support to figure it out with you.

DO NOT encourage your child to fight back with words or fists. And do not model a verbal attack inadvertently by criticizing the attacker. A hurtful retort (referencing character, calling names) could escalate the conflict and put your child in immediate danger. Hold back on your own comments even if they are flying through your mind and keep your child safe. If your child is in physical danger, contact school authorities right away. Coaching him to fight back will be leading him into harm’s way – by the hand of the attacker AND in getting caught and reprimanded by the school.

If your child has been dangerously threatened with severe harm, do not follow these steps. Instead, call the school and involve the child’s teacher, the school psychologist, the vice principal – someone at the school level who will take it seriously and pursue the issue immediately. All schools by law are supposed to have an anti-bullying policy in which they have a clear procedure for dealing with it. Severe harm can be identified if there is a weapon or threat of a weapon involved, if hate has been voiced (racism, homophobia), serious bodily harm has already occurred or been threatened, sexual abuse or threat of, or illegal acts are involved such as, robbery, destruction of property, or bribery.

Secure a Safety Buddy.

Does your child have a pal he’s hung out with and counted on for years? If so, build on that friendship by assigning each other the roles of safety buddy. Even if there are new friendships built in the current school year, initiate a playdate with one and talk about the critical role of a safety buddy. These friends can look out for each other. If they see the other being picked on, they can immediately join forces, tell the offender to stop, and walk off together. If they see that the situation is physically dangerous or threatening, they can go find the closest caring adult to enlist their support. 

Stop Rumors from Spreading and Stop Name-Calling.

Do you recall how hard it was not to stand in agreement when rumors were spread as a child or when other children were harshly judged? Your child can walk away with your encouragement that it will truly make a difference. Emphasize that stopping rumors is showing leadership. Your child can help put an end to untrue stories spreading. 

It’s also easy to call others names when all your peers seem to be doing the same. But for the child who has been labeled, those names can hurt and stay with the person. Use the following activity entitled – “Our Hearts” – Teaching Kids about Name-Calling – to help your child understand the impact those words have on others.

Reach Out to New or Marginalized Students.

Also, encourage your child to reach out to new and seemingly different classmates. Is someone new this year? Make introductions when you are at pick-up time and drop-off so that you have the chance to model what that looks and feels like for your child. At home, role-play introductions and encourage your child to show interest and care. Find common ground with others and express curiosity for those who might have different skin colors, belief systems, or appearances. For more ideas on other ways to teach your child to be inclusive of others, check out Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children the Values and Actions of Inclusion.

Practice Assertive Communication. 

Asserting needs with a peer or a teacher or standing up to bullying behaviors is challenging. Practice being assertive by role-playing among family members and offering short and simple language your child can use. “I don’t want to do that.” or “You know that’s not right.” You can also offer simple chances to practice everyday speaking in public, for example, encourage your child to order for himself at restaurants. Or help him practice spending money by purchasing his own toy and talking through the transaction with the cashier with your support. At home when communicating between family members, use I-messages to constructively share upsets. “I feel frustrated when you talk over me because what I have to say is important.” This will offer valuable modeling and practice in dealing with conflicts.

Create Reflective Opportunities to Cultivate Empathy and Compassion. 

Find ways to demonstrate empathy and compassion for others. Families can offer service to others in simple ways like writing letters to senior home residents or making meals for house-bound neighbors. Build upon your children’s natural ability to be reflective and consider other’s perspectives. When you reach out to help someone, reflect on how the experience feels and how your child thinks the person benefitting experiences the help. And when another child acts in harmful ways, in addition to preparing your child to get out of harm’s way, reflect on why that child might be angry or hurt. Their actions are indeed wrong but there’s always a hurting child behind the actions. Help your child find compassion for those individuals too.

It’s National Bullying Prevention Month so it’s an ideal time to consider these important issues. Our children have told us that they have the building blocks for kindness and compassion. Now, it’s our turn to prepare and support them with the words and actions that will turn their positive intent into change-making actions.

 

References:

Highlights for Children. (2018) 2018 Highlights State of the Kid Survey. Highlights for Children.

Hawkins, D.L., & Pepler, D.J. (2001). Naturalistic observations of peer interventions in bullying. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017064.pdf

Limber, S. P., Olweus, D., & Wang, W. (2012). What we are learning about bullying: trends in bullying over 5 years. Paper presented at the meeting of the International Bullying Prevention Association. Kansas City, MO.

#StateoftheKid #NationalBullyingPreventionMonth

Happy World Teachers’ Day!

Did you know that many U.S. kids say they admire and respect their teachers?

The Highlights State of the Kid Survey heard from 2,000 U.S. children, ages 6-12. Many said their teachers serve as role models for them because they are caring, kind, and loving. What a compliment to the educational community! Thank you, teachers, for building safe school communities by investing in caring relationships with our children. Research confirms that those caring relationships lead to learning outcomes! Check out these awesome quotes from kids. Teachers, we appreciate you!

Who Do Kids Admire? What Do They Worry About? And What Superpower Would They Choose?

It has been my great joy and honor to partner with Highlights for Children this week to launch the results of their 2018 State of the Kid Survey. This year, they polled 2,000 U.S. children, ages 6-12, and asked questions like “What do you worry about?” “What do you like about yourself?” and “Who do you admire?” We have learned a great deal from listening to children and discussing what might be the takeaways for kids’ top influencers – parents and teachers.

Don’t miss these video shorts of kids answering these questions. My favorite is when they are asked, “What super-power would you choose?” And then, check out my conversation with Highlights Editor-In-Chief Christine French Cully, a genuine advocate for the importance of listening to children’s voices, about what we can learn from children.




For more videos, takeaways, and other helpful insights on the survey results, check out the Highlights for Children State of the Kid site.

@HighlightsforChildren #StateoftheKid

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