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.



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

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

Highlights State of the Kid Survey Announcement Today at 1:00 p.m. EST

Visit the Highlights for Children Facebook page at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time today to learn about what 2,000 U.S. children said about who they admire and respect, what they worry about, and whether they feel empowered to take action when they see an injustice.  Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be talking with Christine French Cully, Editor-In-Chief of Highlights for Children about the results. Visit And if you cannot catch the live announcement, we’ll follow-up with a link to the recorded video.

Learning is Social and Emotional.

The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released some new tools and resources this week for parents, educators and all those serving youth (more shared below). They gathered a group of distinguished scientists together to examine how learning happens. Because these top scholars claim “learning is social and emotional,” I thought I’d quickly and simply lay out what that exactly means and why that’s the case.

Learning is social and emotional because…

  • a caring relationship allows for learning. Yes, brain connectivity is strengthened through that caring relationship.
  • love and care seal in memories whereas fear paralyzes learning so that in schools where children feel unsafe with their peers or teachers, they are unable to learn.
  • children, in their daily growth and development, attempt to follow their needs to exercise social and emotional skills but require adult modeling, support, and guidance.
  • the skills that are essential for healthy relationships and personal health and well-being are social and emotional.
  • the skills that are essential for success in our 21st Century workplace are social and emotional skills. To learn more, check out the article: The Surprising Thing Google Learned about its Employees — and What It Means for Today’s Students
  • children, teens, and adults alike are working on developing these dynamic skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
  • teachers’ sense of confidence and competence contributing to their sense of well-being are directly related to implementing social and emotional learning in the classroom.
  • parents’ sense of confidence and competence contributing to their sense of well-being are directly related to implementing social and emotional learning at home.
  • the impact of both parents and educators on children’s social and emotional development is greater when both work together collaboratively.
  • there is a wider societal and public health benefit. One cost-benefit analysis of social and emotional learning in schools showed a positive return on their investment averaging $11 in long-term benefits to every $1 invested (and if you read this blog and try out the practices, it’s free!). That’s because there are positive mental health benefits for both adults and students. And in their future, it promotes higher salaries and greater labor productivity and reduces high-risk behaviors like violence and substance abuse.

You can learn more from this report. Check out:

The Evidence Base for How We Learn; Supporting Students’ Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

Check out this awesome video on “How Learning Happens”:

And I was honored to contribute to the following tool for parents. The purpose of it is for you to have a simple guide to initiate conversations as a parent with your school whether you are talking to your principal, your child’s teacher, or your parent-teacher association about social and emotional learning. The tool is:

How Learning Happens: Family and Caregiver Conversation Tool

Here’s another great tool if you are advocating for social and emotional learning with your school or community. Here are the simplified facts on how learning happens, check out this document:

How Learning Happens: Fact Suite

Finally, check out this following revealing brief:

The Brain Basis for Integrated Social, Emotional and Academic Learning

Thank you, Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development for these important resources!

Playing a Harmonious Duet: How Parents and Teachers Can Practically Connect Around our Children’s Learning

Did You Know?

Parents are more involved in their child’s education than ever before. In 2016, 89% of parents, grades K-12 attended a general parent meeting as compared to only 72% ten years ago. Additionally, 43% of parents took the next step and volunteered in school as compared to only 39% in 1996.1 Research confirms that the best predictor of a students’ academic success is parent involvement. Clearly, many parents understand that their role is critical and are increasingly becoming more involved.

Considering the importance of your role in your child’s education, why wait for a teacher to get in touch to begin the relationship? There are plenty of simple ways you can initiative and grow a partnership with your child’s teacher. The following is a proposed duet. First, you’ll find my recommendations for parents in reaching out and supporting their part of the relationship. Then after each parent tip, there’s a teacher tip – the 7 Essential Ps – along with key questions to consider and supportive tools too from Roger Weissberg, an expert and leader in the field of school-family partnerships and social and emotional learning from the guide, “Enhancing School-Family Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide.2  Check out our harmonious duet.


Become self-aware. Have you faced difficult experiences in your own schooling with teachers? Have you been humiliated, criticized, or yelled at many, many years ago but can’t shake those recollections? You are not alone. Reflect on your own history with teachers. Those negative memories could be holding you back from pursuing a relationship. Just recognizing those past experiences and the feelings associated with them that might make you more cautious when approaching a teacher will help you become more self-compassionate. As you lean into this challenge, you can remind yourself that these individual teachers are new to you and have your child’s best interests in mind as you do. Take small steps and become intentional about getting to know this new teacher with an open mind and heart.


1st P. Partnerships are a priority. “The key to successful partnerships is mutual support and respect.”2 How can you reach out to families now to begin a relationship realizing that it takes time to build an authentic partnership? How can you seek input about your students to bring parents’ essential family knowledge into the curriculum? If you worry about parent criticism, how can you approach your families as brand new to learn about and bring your own empathy and open mind and heart?


Introduce yourself! It’s never too late. Find out one or two insights into who your child’s teacher is. Does she love ice cream? Is he a baseball fan? Is math her specialty? Stick around at drop off time. Shake a hand and introduce yourself. Start the relationship by making in-person contact. Then, pop the following simple tool into your child’s school folder along with a simple completed sheet about your own family. You and your whole family will get the chance to learn about your child’s teacher when she sends her form back completed.


2nd. P. Plan how you will reach out and establish regular points of contact. Relationships require regular contact so how will you regularly reach out to parents? And have you given them specific ways to reach out to you?


Find common language. Educators are required to develop a language around curriculum and instruction that serves as their professional lexicon. Because they are immersed in their professional setting – school – when you talk with them, they will likely use terms you will not be familiar with. What if you were trying to get to know a new neighbor who had just moved from France or only spoke a little English? You’d work hard to understand the essence of what she was saying to try and build a relationship. If you find that your child’s teacher is speaking in another language part of the time – we’ll call it education-ese – ask clarifying questions. Seek understanding. Don’t allow language to be a barrier. Be sure and comfort yourself with the notion that you are not alone. All parents are in the same position trying to figure out the world of education so that they can best support their child’s learning. 


3rd P. Be proactive and persistent. How can you look for ways to reach out to parents through different communication channels so that all are reached (email, phone, text, website)? How can you let parents know about upcoming activities well in advance of the actual events so that as many as possible can participant? And how can you gain parent feedback on communications so that you find out when information is clear and when clarifications are needed? And how will you find out if there are any families that speak a language other than English at home? How will you be certain they are communicated with in ways that are understandable and accessible?


Share Strengths. It may so happen that we meet the teacher briefly at the beginning of the school year and our next conversation will be at a parent-teacher conference where time is short. Teachers might deep dive into problem-solving making quick use of the limited time. However, parents need to hear about our children’s strengths in school. In order to promote their social and emotional development at home and at school, we need to understand what assets we can build upon to best serve our children. So be sure and begin with strengths whenever you discuss your child’s learning. You might share, “I see he’s come a long way in reading. He’s been working hard and consistently at home.” This becomes valuable insight for his teacher and opens the door to her sharing of positive assets she observes.


4th. and 5th Ps. P. Positive! and Personalized.

“Parents enjoy receiving positive feedback about their children’s performance – as any parent who has hung homework assignments, drawings, or certificates can attest to!” How will you share positive feedback on progress made? Check out the following tool from A Teacher’s Guide and have certificates at the ready! How can you specifically recognize the attributes of an individual student? Are there rituals or routines you can create for yourself to help you notice when students’ are showing their strengths? Checklists can be helpful reminders of the kinds of social and emotional skills you are looking to recognize. Check out this list from the Search Institute.

Teachers – Why not engage students in reporting on their own progress?!


Clarify roles. Students spend the first days and weeks learning from teachers about their roles and responsibilities. Yet parents, though they are also critical, get very little guidance on what roles they can play. If this is true for you, you can define your roles and responsibilities in the following educator-approved areas (links are provided so that you can learn more about each):


6th P. Practical and Specific.

“Parents are often most interested in specific information about their own child, and are very appreciative of personalized notes that demonstrate that a teacher has time and interest in addressing individual student needs.” How can you add a handwritten note to a more general letter home to specifically address a family? How can you offer specific feedback on the progress of individual students? Check out these pledges from the Teacher’s Guideone for teachers, one for students and one for parents – that clarify their roles and responsibilities specifically. Use as is or adapt for your own particular classroom culture. Also, for schools that integrate and are intentional about nurturing students’ social and emotional development, how can you use those systems and structures to involve parents (such as morning meetings, closing circles, hoping and dreaming, goal setting)?


Reflect. How did you feel about last year’s relationships with your child’s teacher? In what ways could you do more to connect this year to strengthen the partnership? Check out this brand new Family Caregiver Conversation Tool I helped create for the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development that offers seven areas on which to reflect in conversation with teachers including relationships, empathy, respect, responsibility, communication, collaboration, and persistence. Thanks, Rachel Bellows of Mind + Matter Studio and Pamela McVeagh-Lally for your collaboration on this! 


7th P. Program Monitoring.

“It’s important to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of school-family partnership efforts throughout the school year. Gathering parent input and feedback as a part of this process is essential.” To what degree do parents feel connected to what their children are learning? What are they interested in knowing? How would they prefer to be communicated with?

Producing a harmonious duet between parents and teachers takes intentionality, energy, and focus. But we know that we’ll see the pay off with our children. They’ll move smoothly and consistently from one caring support to the next. They’ll feel seen, heard, and valued and know that their vital influencers are coordinating with one another to ensure their success. I can’t think of a more powerful way to support safety in schools by promoting a connected community. I can’t imagine a more powerful way to support our children’s social, emotional, and academic success.


Want to host conversations with parents about their children’s social and emotional development in your school community? Check out the free Social and Emotional Learning Caregiver Discussion Series from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, offered in English and in Spanish.

Special thanks to Roger Weissberg for the many resources shared!


Data for 2016: McQuiggan, M. & Megra, M. (2017). Parent and family involvement in education: Results from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2016 (NCES 2017-102) [Table 2], Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Rubenstein, M.I., Patrikakou, E.N., Weissberg, R.P., & Armstrong, M.L. (1999). Enhancing School-Family Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide. Chicago, IL: The School-Family Partnership Project at The University of Illinois at Chicago through the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success.

Using the Family Peace Rose to Resolve Conflicts

“What do I do about my siblings fighting constantly?” I heard one Mom lamenting at a recent meeting. “Should I let them handle it? Should I intervene? I want to help them learn conflict management skills but I’m not sure how to respond.” Certainly, this is a common issue in family life. The reality is — fights happen. So then, how can we prepare ourselves and our children for them so that we can ensure no harm is done and our relationships strengthen and grow because of the way we respond to conflict?

This summer, I learned about a preschool that uses a Peace Rose to help build children’s skills. The application for families is easy to see. It can work for any age, preschool and up, between children or even between a parent and a child. Here’s how a Peace Rose can be used to help your children learn and practice valuable conflict management skills.

First, make a tissue paper rose. This can be an excellent rainy day project. Instructions on how to make one follow this article. (You can buy a silk rose too but there will be greater investment and concern for a rose that has been carefully constructed by your children.)

Second, make or find an unbreakable (yes, this is important!) vase. One can be constructed out of a decorated frozen concentrate juice can or empty milk carton. Or if you have a plastic vase that’s sturdy, that could do the job.  

Third, play act the process with your kids. Here’s how it might go. A parent might say:

We are fighting over a toy and I feel upset about it. I don’t want to fight. 

That parent picks up the Family Peace Rose. She might say:

When I hand it to sister Addison, what I am communicating to her is “Let’s work this out together.” 

Your children would then follow each of the following steps. Be sure and post the printable version of the steps (at the end of the article) so that they can follow along with you and after practice, use it as a guide to do on their own. Or if you have young children, play act and practice several times so that they get in the habit of the routine.

Step One. Breathe in the sweet smell. 

Ask both children to “breathe” in the beautiful sweet scent of the rose. Make sure you are in a comfortable, private location to talk.

Step Two. Take turns communicating feelings and the problem. 

Use this simple I-messages structure to ensure that your children are communicating with one another in an assertive, not aggressive way. This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and their feelings while avoiding blaming language like “you did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). 

Here’s how it might sound as you play act it out:

I feel frustrated and angry when you take my toy because I feel like you don’t care that I was playing with it. How do you feel?

I feel frustrated when you have the toy I want to play with.

Step Three. Generate ideas. Now it’s time to share ideas. How can you work it out? Can you take turns? Can you play together? Should you set a timer for the toy? Do you want to both play with something else and put that toy away?

Step Four. Try it out. If the children find an idea they can both agree to try, then let them go and try it. If they try it out and it doesn’t work, then get the rose out again and generate another idea that might work for both.

Step Five. Reflect. If they have resumed playing and seemed to have resolved the issue, to deepen the learning a parent can ask when you are cleaning up, “How did it work out?” “Was the idea successful?” “Would you want to try the Family Peace Rose again?” “What would you do differently next time?” This step helps children realize that they have gone through a problem-solving process. It helps them think through how they have done it and how they could use it in the future. If they have learned a new skill or process through the experience, the reflection will help them internalize and remember it for future instances.

Leave the Family Peace Rose in its vase in a playroom or main family room so that it can be easily accessed at any time by your children. Adopt this simple practice in your home and see how it helps family members better communicate with one another and work through problems. You might find your children working through their conflicts on their own while practicing critical skills that can last a lifetime!

Here’s the printable version of the Family Peace Rose Problem-Solving Process.

Here are simple instructions from Very Well Family on How to Make a Tissue Paper Flower.

Special thanks to Rachel Choquette Kemper and the Kennedy Heights Montessori Center for this great idea!

The Magic and Mishaps of Tweens: Understanding the Era of Social Awareness and Social Anxiety

“I had a dream that I told the girl I have a crush on that I liked her and seconds later, I watched as the whole world exploded,” my ten-almost-eleven-year-old told me as he was getting ready for bed last night. This morning, I noticed him spending time fixing his hair in the mirror, an act that, in the past, may have only occurred once a year for a big occasion like a wedding or major holiday. “I feel scared but I can’t tell you exactly why,” was another reflection he offered. Yes, for fifth graders and indeed, all the way from ages nine through fourteen as puberty begins, children are feeling a newfound sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. 

Younger children are busy with the work of figuring out who they are, what they believe, and how they can explore their environments. Their greatest learning comes from play. And their belief system – how they make sense of the world around them – is magical. Fairies are just as likely to show up at their breakfast table as their baby brother. 

As puberty begins around nine or ten, a child’s body begins the long (or short – depending upon your perspective) process of transforming into an adolescent on its way to adulthood. But the body is not the only aspect that is changing. A child’s ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world is changing too. And though a tween’s brain is beginning a major reconstruction moving from magical thinking to the more logical thinking required of their adult years, that shift will not fully occur until their early to mid-twenties. So we witness phases – or stages – of those shifts in thinking.

Research provides helpful insight. Studies have found a direct correlation between a raised social awareness and social anxiety. As one increases, so too does the other.1 Why? The answer lies in the magic and the mishaps of middle childhood.

The Magic of Social Awareness

As our tween-aged sons and daughters grow in their social awareness, they can gain:

Empathy, or working to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, a learned skill. This is an ideal time to help cultivate empathetic thoughts in your child. Notice when others are hurting and question why together. Your child is capable of engaging in more in-depth conversations now about others than ever before. This “magic” is the very foundation of their social capital, leadership abilities, and healthy relationship skills for today and for their future. Try engaging in conversations about social issues that affect your family or friends. Ask questions to prompt thinking, such as, “What do you think that homeless person on the corner is thinking and feeling?” Marvel at their growing ability to deeply consider others and widen their circle of concern.

Compassion, or taking action from empathetic thoughts and feelings to provide help or support to another, or simply put: acting on empathy. When your child expresses genuine concern for that homeless person on the corner, what will you do about it? And more importantly, how can you brainstorm with them what they can do about it? Perhaps begin by taking a look at other youth who are serving their communities, raising their voices as advocates, or simply helping out where help is needed. Use your screen time together to look for inspirational models! I love this example at Pitt River Middle School. Check it out! 

Deeper connections with you, with friends, with teachers, with extended family. If you thought that no deeper intimacy was possible than that of your newborn baby snuggling up to your side, try discussing the meaning of life with a ten-year-old. Tens, elevens, and beyond are capable of far deeper insights into the human condition. They are curious about the world yet have not fully erected their emotional security walls from being rejected time and again (as later adolescents and adults have). They are open to thinking big and your exploration with them will open your own eyes to new ways of seeing and perceiving the possibilities. Middle school children, though they are weighed down frequently by the anxiety of their newfound social awareness, are also purveyors of hope if we only create the safe space for questioning and dialogue. If we can show we are receptive to their big ideas and big questions, our intimacy will deepen. And similarly, children can create stronger friendships and relationships with grandparents, with caregivers, and teachers through their ability to understand how others think and feel.

Deeper learning at home and at school with the asset of social awareness. Research confirms the conditions necessary for deep learning to occur. Positive relationships in which students collaborate with teachers and with one another is essential.2 And the emotions that are generated from a commitment to caring relationships – like love, belonging, curiosity, awe, and concern – are necessary for learning to take place.3 Children, though they are attempting to think more rationally, don’t lose their ability to believe in magic and think creatively. In fact, this ability to innovate paired with social awareness can be a powerful force for making a difference in others’ lives. Check out the video Ten Kids Who Changed the World and be inspired by our children’s awesome potential! 

Mishaps with Social Anxiety

As our tween’s social awareness increases, their social anxiety increases which can create:

Clumsiness in the spotlight. This could be a phenomenon you’ve experienced with your ten, eleven, twelve, or thirteen-year-old. To understand what they are going through, picture yourself going out on a theater stage with a spotlight lighting up just you as you look out on hundreds of people you know, people whose opinions really matter to you. Yes – your parents, your boss, your boss’ boss, your in-laws – the gang is all there watching every move you make. Does just the thought of it make you shrink a bit? Are you visualizing running off the stage, driving home, and burying yourself under your bed covers? If so, then you are experiencing empathy for your middle school child. Their new ability to experiment with and try to make predictions about other’s thought and feelings (note: those words are chosen because it takes a whole lot of practice to become skilled at accurately predicting others’ thoughts and feelings. We are not born mind readers!) make them feel self-conscious. And when you have a heightened sense that others are scrutinizing you, you make mistakes. You blunder. Go ahead and add a giant growth spurt and a surge of male and female hormones to the mix. Your child might be clumsy and painfully aware that he’s clumsy. 

What can you do? Oh, how they need Moms, Dads, teachers, mentors, grandparents, and others to reassure them that these changes are normal…that they are truly brave, strong, kind, creative, smart, and resilient! They are old enough to learn about their own development so learn together what changes they are undergoing.

Snap-back measuring tape phenomenon. While tweens are feeling increasingly sensitive to the perceived or real judgments of their peers, they are simultaneously attempting to mimic their peers and exert their independence from you. They want to pledge allegiance to the cool kids but when rejection strikes in any form, they snap back to you as quickly as a measuring tape falls back into its original state curled up inside its case. If we are caught unaware, this extending out and pushing away can hurt us. “Mom, no more hugging me when I come out of school and can you just wait in the car?” might be the kind of message we hear after a decade of hugging and eagerly waiting for their sweet face. And the snapping back can hurt us. Tweens can become highly emotional, need us desperately, and resort to behaviors that seem much younger than their actual age. Yet, this is a normal, healthy aspect of their development.

What can you do? You can adopt the mantra, “it’s not personal, it’s development.” Being aware and being ready helps extend your patience. You can remind yourself that it really isn’t about your connection to one another but about your tween’s growth and learning. Remind yourself of those times when you pulled away or ran back home when you were a similar age. Find empathy and offer compassion for all that they are managing.

Awkward attraction. This may be an understatement when describing what it feels like to see your friends and peers in a whole new light. These people are not just playmates, they are teachers. They possess all of the social capital and cultural wisdom of the young person community. Connection and belonging to peers is not just a nice-to-have, it’s necessary to survive in school. Yet, peers can smell desperation. So middle schoolers know they must hide if they can, their vulnerabilities, including crushes. They may just feel like their world is blowing up if they confess their attraction. So they feel the heat of the magnetizing pull to their peers while they push away and attempt to appear cool! 

What can you do? Normalize it. Otherwise, it’s easy for your child to feel like the only one who’s experiencing all of the social awkwardness. Share your best embarrassing stories. Share your social blunders. Laugh but also, share your empathy for what they are going through acknowledging that it’s an important step in figuring out how to have healthy relationships. Also, be sure and share what healthy relationships look like and feel like so they have a model from which to work.

Tribal survival. This may describe our children’s need and also, account for the sensitivities of our tweens. At times, we may wonder, “why did my daughter lose sleep over a simple disagreement with a friend? They’ll surely make up tomorrow.” Though we realize the sky is not really falling, the emotions felt by our middle schoolers are real and not over-dramatized. As our children gain an awareness of the larger world beyond our home and their school, they also begin to realize that they will continue to reach for independence. And as they push you away to become more self-sufficient, they know they are going to need their friends more and more as a necessary support. This is their tribe. And figuring out the rules of the tribe and how they can fit in is a critical job of middle childhood.

What can you do? Accept his/her feelings. Don’t roll eyes, minimize, or otherwise show that your tweens feelings aren’t real. The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Use more feelings words to build your emerging teen’s feelings’ vocabulary. At times, it’s a wild mash-up of emotions. “Seems like you are frustrated, hurt, and worried. Is that right?” Build your child’s emotional intelligence and they’ll feel more competent to ride the waves of their new insights with style and grace!


Benson, P. L. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.

Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B, Taylor, R.D., Weissberg, R.P., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, Jan/Feb 2011, 82(1), 405–432.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., et al. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Featured In “Youth Connections” Magazine… Guiding Children with Tools for Success —

Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning

This article was written as part of a larger statewide awareness and educational campaign in Montana focused on parenting with social and emotional learning entitled “Parenting Montana” through the leadership of Montana State University’s Center for Health and Safety Culture. It begins…

“What was that noise?” I asked my ten-year-old son. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and I had all heard the heavy clunk, thud, thud, clunk that seemed to make its way from the second story all the way down to the basement. “We were throwing clothes down the laundry shoot. But then, we threw a toy.” explained my son. “See if you can find it in the basement,” I replied.

When my son and his younger cousin sheepishly appeared with a wooden dollhouse bed in their hands, the headboard was in one hand, the rest in the other, clearly broken. “Oh, that’s no problem,” said his kind Grandma. The younger cousin and my son were squirming, clearly uncomfortable.

“Thanks, Grammy,” I said. I know she would have been comfortable with simply throwing it in the trash, but this was an opportunity to teach responsible decision-making skills. My son had made a poor decision. And he’s likely to make many more in his young developing years. After all, mistakes are a critical part of learning. But I could guide him to fix what he had broken. And that fixing extended to relationships and feelings as well as an object.

My goal was to prompt his careful consideration rather than tell him what to do. So, E and I walked out of the room to a private space, and I asked, “How do you think you can make up for this?” He said he would apologize to Grammy. And he offered, “Papa can fix anything.” So, we went together to ask if E’s Grandpa might work with him to show him how to fix the toy bed. I suspect Grandpa enjoyed showing E how to properly sand down the wood, apply the glue, and clamp it together. These are the roots of responsibility. This is what it takes to parent in an intentional way that develops social and emotional skills within children.

According to the NBC State of Parenting Survey, parents said they most want to promote their children’s social and communication skills even above getting good grades or understanding technology. Parents recognize that their children need to learn to collaborate if they are to tackle class projects or survive and thrive in the modern workplace. Parents realize that children have to learn to manage the feelings they experience whether its anxiety, anger, or frustration in order to achieve their goals. And parents are also keenly aware that their children will only be successful in relationships with others if they can think and feel with empathy for others and make compassionate choices with consequences in mind. All of these are critical social and emotional skills.

In fact, nationwide, schools are increasingly making these skills a top priority. They are using evidence-based curricula at each grade level, pre-K through college, to teach self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2016). Though referred to, at times, as “soft skills,” these can be the toughest – as in, helping kids build resilience, manage stress positively, and add to their inner strength – and also, the most critical, giving our children the tools they need to be successful in their academics today and workplaces and family lives in their future.

Research shows that this focus will yield higher academic performance. A meta-analysis, conducted by Joseph Durlak and Roger Weissberg (et al, 2011), of 213 studies showed that students who had social and emotional learning as a part of their academic curriculum scored 11% higher on high stakes achievement tests than those who did not.3

We, as parents, know that this is just as much our job as it is our school’s responsibility. The good news is that learning about what our children are working on at each age and stage can offer us empathy. Through that newfound understanding, we can discover teachable moments that support their growth each step of the way. The article lists specific examples of ways parents can build social and emotional skills at various ages and stages, so see full online article for all of the helpful tips!

Special thanks to “Papa” Phillip Miller for allowing the use of his story and photograph!

Getting to Know You — For Parents and Teachers

Here’s are Two Simple Tools to Help You Get to Know Your Teachers or Parents!

Maybe your children have started back-to-school and if they have not yet, it’s likely you are in the process of getting ready. Either way, over the coming weeks, families and schools will be focused on relationships. Introductions will be made. Students will meet teachers. Students will meet and greet one another. And hopefully, parents will also get the chance to meet their children’s teachers. These relationships are not just a “nicety.” They serve as the firm foundation on which students build their learning over the coming year. They add to our sense of safety and care.

Research shows clearly that students whose parents are involved in supporting learning at home and are engaged in their school community have more consistent attendance, better social skills, and higher grade point averages and test scores than those children without involved parents.1 Indeed the best predictor of students’ academic achievement is parental involvement.

Trusting relationships – which are essential to learning – are not built with one greeting although that can be a great beginning. They require multiple interactions and connections. They also require an individual or personal connection. Yet teachers and families are busy. So how can we make those essential connections at the beginning of the school year and build upon them throughout the coming months?

With that question in mind, I put together a few easy-to-use handouts. The first is for families to share with their teacher.

Why not be the one who reaches out first to learn about your teacher? Certainly, we, as parents, are curious, excited, or even nervous about who our child’s teacher is and how he or she will conduct classes. Here’s a great start. Place this in your child’s return-to-school folder or hand it to your child’s new teacher at drop-off time. Parents – here it is in a printable format! 

Parents, why not include one about your family with all of your strengths and information completed when you ask them to fill out one for you? Teachers and Educators, you likely already have a plan to introduce yourself to parents. But why not help them get to know you a little better in this easy way? In particular, this handout gives you the chance to highlight your top strength so that parents have the chance to appreciate you and the gifts you bring to your classroom from the very start! Teachers – here is a printable version especially for you to use! 

These can become the building blocks of a caring school community. Even if these tools aren’t right for you, how will get to know your child’s teacher this year? Here’s to learning about and understanding the individual strengths of teachers, students, and parents to establish caring relationships for a productive and joyful year of learning!


Henderson, A.T., Mapp, K.L., Johnson, V.R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. NY: The New York Press.


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