Agency: What Is It? Why Do We Need It?

And How Do We Cultivate It In Ourselves and Our Kids?

I feel confident when I walk down the hallway. I’m not afraid to talk to any of the kids in my grade,” reports my son after a mere two weeks in a brand new school. Perhaps it’s the contrast offering him a newfound sense of agency. In his previous school, he was ignored or judged, even bullied. Because of the criticism, he didn’t feel safe to share himself with others. As parents, it was heartbreaking. His new school has created many and multiple ways for students to get to know one another on a personal level – well before school began and in these first weeks – and they’ve done the same for the parents. There’s a curiosity and genuine interest, effort and care put into getting to know who he is and who we are as valued members of the community. Along with care and effort, there’s a shared principle that is spoken often about the need for and value of differences and learning from and enjoying the experience of getting to know other races, cultures, genders, interests, personalities, learning styles and passions.

So what is agency and why do we need it? Agency is simply “feeling in command of our lives,” write Paul Napper and Anthony Rao in “The Power of Agency.”1 When we feel agency, we feel like our roles and participation in a family, school or community can make a difference in our own and others’ lives. Our presence matters. These researchers found there was a direct link between confidence and an ability to meet challenges (which is what the Confident Parents work is all about!). Sounds simple, right? Yet, it’s far from simple since social structures, our family or work environment and our very own stories about ourselves in relation to the world can work against it.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard many educators and parents articulating feelings that suggest they do not have a sense of agency. I’ve heard individuals say they have felt overwhelmed, frightened and anxious from the many uncertainties and challenges we are facing. And interestingly, though Napper and Rao wrote their book before COVID, they cite so many of our pandemic conditions as attacking our sense of agency including:

  • increased use and reliance on technology (and less human interaction);
  • less physical movement;
  • isolation (well, yes!); and
  • rapid change that overextends our ability to adapt.

The good news is agency is learned —which means we always have the opportunity to cultivate it. If we know we are operating on fear, we have a chance to course correct. Each time we stay in the present moment (versus recounting the pains of the past), we are gaining on our ability to have control over our lives. When we accept what is (even though what is might be messy, complicated and unexpected), we begin to open ourselves to the opportunities of how we might be powerful in the now…how our current choices might impact others or change dynamics or improve – even in small ways – the health of our relationships. Better still, when we can articulate our sense of purpose, our “why” for being on the planet, we can return again and again to that core sense of meaning and belonging.

Parents or educators who feel like victims, who react as if others are out to get them and they are innocent and helpless will feel anxiety, may feel depression and despair, and certainly will not cultivate a mindset in their children or students that helps them feel like the leader of their own life. And we all have those moments or times. Since we cannot truly cultivate agency in our children without first cultivating it in ourselves, I’m sharing tips on how we can cultivate it in ourselves – or recalibrate if we’ve had it and then, lost it – along with our children:

Pause and Reflect.

Agency is only available when you slow down. It begins to appear when you pause and think about your thinking (meta-cognition). If you are too busy to stop, breathe, get quiet and listen within, you run the risk of catching others’ fears and anxieties, exacerbating your own anxiousness and reacting on impulse. By taking this all-important pause, you identify which inner and outer voices are authentic and necessary to meet the challenges of the moment. And you have the ability to access a greater wisdom to allow your best self to emerge.

Recount your Latest Stories.

Slipping into this victim/helpless mindset is an easy move during these complex times. If we have to fight for our safety, our rights, or our choices, we may slip into an us versus them mentality feeling victimized. For this reason, it’s important we check our stories – you know, the ones we tell ourselves as we go through life when our tire has a hole in it, or the package was delivered to the wrong house, or your child refuses to practice her instrument. Consider the last time you were challenged by someone. Tell that story to yourself again in writing. Now review what you wrote and consider these questions: 

  • Was there someone(s) to blame for your challenge other than you?
  • Did you feel a lack of control?
  • Did you act in any way that helped you feel better?

Reframe your Story.

If your first two answers were “yes,” it’s important you look at revising your story. How can you retell it without placing blame? Better still, how can you find empathy and compassion for the others involved in your story – or in other words, what’s their story? Surely, their story also involves challenge and perhaps, pain. Flip that second question around and ask yourself, what can you control? And if you did not act in a way that made you feel better, what can you think of that you could have done? And what can you do if it happens again? If you get in the habit of reframing or retelling your stories of challenge in this way, you will cultivate agency.

Set a Positive Goal.

This is a simple yet powerful strategy from Roger Weissberg’s Social Problem-solving curriculum. It’s not enough to tell a story in which you retain some control or power. In addition, you need to set a pro-social, positive goal. What will be a healthy goal for you and for those you are in relationship with? A goal focuses your attention and energies in the right direction and if it is aligned with your core purpose, serves as a powerful navigation system so that you can return to a place of agency even when fear takes you temporarily off-course.

Take Small Steps.

Now use that goal to guide your purpose-driven action. Even and especially small and regular action toward your healthy, pro-social goal will help you experience the fact that you do have some control and you are moving in the right direction. You don’t have to convince your body and brain of that you have influence. They are convinced because of the steps you are taking.

Equate Every Challenge with Opportunity

Those who have well-articulated their purpose and have set and are working toward positive goals aligned with their purpose can also benefit by seeing every challenge as an opportunity to build and engage a social and emotional skill. Deepening our self-awareness and exercising our self-management skills will help us stay on course and deal with the big emotions that will shift even dramatically with challenging times. Our ever-growing social awareness allows us to find the empathy and compassion for others who are suffering, in pain or may not feel a sense of agency. We may discover new ways to assist those who live in fear. Our relationship skills are frequently put to the test as we attempt to motivate students or co-create safety rules with our children. How will we listen reflectively? How will we communicate in ways that create safety and show care? And finally, how can we make choices that come from a place of wisdom versus reactivity (or responsible decision-making)?

Keep in mind that if you are feeling particularly anxious or fearful, the people around you may increase your fear if they are feeling and experiencing it too. Anxiousness is contagious. So be sure and surround yourself with open-minded, life-giving individuals who are grounded in their sense of purpose and also taking positive steps toward their goals.

Children may have particular challenges related to agency. And those who are marginalized because of their skin color, heritage, native language (or other feature) will have even greater challenges in feeling a sense of agency. Jagers et al. write about the role of moral agency, that “people refrain from wrongdoing toward others and the proactive engagement in humane behavior.”2 Children need to learn from parents and teachers that they are capable contributors to their family, school and community and if they are angered or hurt by an injustice, they have the power to do something about it whether it involves resistance or persistence in making positive changes. Children and teens need adults who will allow for and elevate their voices. They are not just rule-followers in an adult world. But they are significant influencers and need to use their agency to create positive change. That opportunity requires parents and teachers who create those safe spaces for children to take risks in raising their voices and taking socially responsible action.

How will you discover or rediscover your sense of agency? And how will you guide your children to that gift that keeps on giving?

Further Resources:

Service learning, or community service tied to learning and reflection in the curriculum is a structured and powerful way for students to experience agency. For more on service learning, check out the Center for Service Learning Practice with many resources.

References

1. Napper, P. & Rao, A. (2019). The Power of Agency; The Seven Principles to Conquer Obstacles,  Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on your own Terms. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

2. Robert J. Jagers, Deborah Rivas-Drake & Brittney Williams (2019) Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032

In Loving Memory of Confident Parent, Roger P. Weissberg

We are committed to making life better for kids. That requires us to teach children the skills they need to listen to their hearts and spirits, to develop and sustain meaningful relationships with others and help them discover and fulfill the unique purpose they are here to serve. Time and again over his forty year career, Roger P. Weissberg articulated his purpose. And instead of sharing it as an individual calling, he championed it as a collective calling that resonated with countless other scholars, educators, parents and youth-serving professionals who joined in the common purpose of making kids’ lives better. From his early twenties on, he set about figuring out how to best improve children’s lives by writing his own social problem-solving curriculum and carefully testing it in schools as a first step. When he found through careful study that promoting children’s social and emotional skills in school could not only prevent the behaviors we want to eliminate like bullying, violence, and substance abuse, and it could promote success in relationships, in family life and directly advance academic performance today and in the future, he became committed to a lifetime of work devoted to this mission.

As co-founder of CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) he joined with like-minded others to systematically define what social and emotional learning (SEL) looks like. His leading question was “How do schools, families and communities work together to help students be successful?” In a presentation six years ago,  he said to an audience of educators in Minnesota (the place, in the past three and a half years, where he has battled pancreatic cancer)…

I have a strong feeling that it’s never too late, that it’s probably

never too early. I have a confidence that almost prenatally for 

as long as we are around and probably beyond that that (social

and emotional skills) are important capacities for us to develop.

When he questioned and defined and wrestled with what it meant to do this work in ways that change children’s lives and all those who work with them, I joined since it was my calling too. Twenty years ago, Roger took a leap of faith and hired me — the only young lady with a bachelor’s degree, some practical, in-the-trenches experience and a fiery passion among well-seasoned PhDs. Roger proceeded to invest time, energy, passionate debate and resources in me — and in so many others I worked with — to do important SEL work.  And that collaboration grew into friendship, joy and shared experiences in parenting. 

Roger was asked, well before I was a parent myself, who in this country was the most engaged with social and emotional learning and his response was clear: parents and families. He said “you can’t talk about improving schools without involving families and communities.” So I was ready when I became a parent to begin asking the question, how will I become a confident parent raising a confident kid?

In addition to my family, he was the first person to support this site, engage in critical research together around parenting and SEL along with our co-investigator and another first support, Shannon Wanless, and proceed to introduce this work to every single professional he knew who had an interest in parenting. On a very personal note, the work that gets me up in the morning and is so deeply meaningful in my life has been shaped by Roger Weissberg. But it didn’t end on a professional level, it only began. I became a better parent and family member because of his ongoing friendship and support. He demonstrated that it takes everything of a person, dedicating their whole heart and soul to their own social and emotional growth in order to truly improve children’s lives.

If confident parents are defined as individuals who devote themselves to living and growing their children’s social and emotional intelligence while growing their own then Roger Weissberg IS a model of a confident parent (for that’s a role that never dies) to not only Elizabeth and Ted but to me and to so many others who share the purpose of making kids’ lives better through social and emotional learning. I am forever grateful.

Roger’s Research on Parenting and SEL:

If you have not already read about our research together that links parents’ hopes and dreams for their children and for their own parenting with social and emotional competencies, please check the research brief or the full peer-reviewed article, Parenting for Competence and Parenting with Competence; Essential Connections between Parenting and Social and Emotional Learning.

CPCK Article in Collaboration with Roger on his first SEL Curriculum:

Stop, Think, Go! discusses the social problem-solving curriculum Roger developed and how parents can use the key lessons to teach problem-solving to their own children in family life.

Modeling Social and Emotional Learning during Illness and Death:

Roger modeled how you use social and emotional skills to heal, to deal with illness and suffering and ultimately, deal with your own death. Don’t miss his article on his experience; The Healing Power of Social and Emotional Learning.

Learn more about Social and Emotional Learning:

There’s important work to do in schools, families, and communities around social and emotional learning. Learn more about the work of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning on their website.

Establishing or Reinventing Home Routines and Responsibilities for Learning Success

Some of us are sighing relief that our children are off to school and getting a start with friends, teachers, and classes in person that they sorely missed last year with remote learning. For many of those same parents/caregivers, they are also managing the uncertainty and anxiety of sending children off to school during a pandemic while those under the age of twelve are particularly vulnerable. Others are gearing up their homes for remote learning or homeschooling as we continue to face unwanted but present dangers in-person. These caregivers are dealing with the complications of conducting work, school and family life in the same environment and the consuming role parents must play in order for learning to take place at home. But whether your situation involves daywork or homework that must be accomplished, now is the time to set up your home environment so that it’s conducive to cooperation as a family and the work involved with learning. 

Here’s a quick checklist. You might ask yourself, have we created…

_____ well-rehearsed routines with clearly defined responsibilities?
_____ healthy sleeping, eating and hygiene habits?
_____ an organized, well-equipped and calm working environment for each family member?
_____ a plan for sharing and managing big feelings?
_____ a plan for times to connect in a caring, loving way with each/all family members?

The following is intended as a support as you think about what you need to do for your family. It’s likely you have many routines in place already. One way to make this effort manageable is to take a look at the time of day that seems most chaotic and focus on one particular routine and how you might work together with family members to improve it.

Well-rehearsed Routines with Clearly Defined Responsibilities

Whereas getting dressed by 10:00 a.m. may have been your casual summer routine, the school year requires an earlier morning with more tasks completed in a timely manner. This can be an enormous adjustment for children who have fallen into the slower-paced habits of summer. Pair this with the fact that they do not hold the same desire to get to school on time that you do and it can become a struggle fast and often. Here are my resources for setting up your routines so that each family member – even preschool age children – learn to take responsibility for their roles. Jobs get accomplished on time and your family can begin the day positively connecting with one another and setting the mood for a great day of learning! Check out these…

Morning Routine

Discussing your morning routine when you are not in the pressure of the morning time can make all the difference in preparing each family member for their roles and responsibilities. I’ve outlined a simple process for this discussion so that even young children can be prepared and ready. Imagine a cooperative and smooth morning in which all family members do what they need to do to get ready along with time for sharing love and connection. Consider the fact that your morning routine- whether it’s smooth and connecting or chaotic and stressful- may just be the most important way in which you contribute to your child’s mental state and readiness to learn. Check out this video short to help create A Smooth Morning Routine.

Healthy Sleeping, Eating and Hygiene Habits

Perhaps precisely because, as parents, it’s our responsibility to ensure that our kids get enough sleep, eat well and keep clean, those are the very issues that become power struggles. Kids know that they can wield control and so, they attempt it. There are numerous ways we can prompt a sense of responsibility and even, boost confidence in our kids as they learn to manage these critical life habits on their own. Here are some simple ideas…

Bedtime Routine

Getting enough sleep at night is vital to our ability to function and we know it’s vital for our kids to learn. Creating a consistent bedtime routine to ensure that your children get enough sleep is a significant way you can contribute to their school success! Take a look together at these sleep requirements by age to find out how many hours a night your child or teen requires. Here are some ideas for ending the day on positive note:The Opportunity of Bedtime. And if you have a “wiggle worm” who seems to gain newfound energy from your sleepy-time routine, here are some additional ideas. Check out Monkey Mind at Bedtime, Reflecting on Children’s Thinking.

Healthy Family Dinner
If you make dinner with your family a priority and spend time cooking a balanced meal, it can be unbelievably frustrating when your kids don’t want to eat or sit at the table with you. Check out this video short and actually enjoy your family dinner! Watch Creating an Enjoyable Family Dinner.

Chores and Household Responsibilities

The school year ushers in a busier schedule fitting in homework and extracurriculars and other family priorities into after school time. And it’s precisely because all of our schedules get busier that it’s important children and teens know how they can regularly take responsibility for their own possessions and contribute to your household. A consistent routine will help your child take initiative without a need for nagging. Learn more about Involving Your Children in Household Responsibilities by Age and Stage.

Hygiene

With the need to wash hands regularly, children are generally more aware of the need to clean. So build on this raised awareness. Talk about bath or shower times and when they can happen consistently. What’s your role? What’s your child’s set of responsibilities? If the shower always happens at a particular time, how will your child or teen remember? Discuss what happens if they forget so that you don’t find yourself in a habit of nagging each evening.

An Organized, Well-equipped and Calm Working Environment

Homework Routine
If you have a predictable schedule, it helps to decide on when and where your child will get his/her homework accomplished. Don’t forget how powerful and useful brain breaks can be to refresh and reset. Check out the following article for specific, simple ways to create a conducive environment. Check out Getting Set Up for Homework Success. 

Tools
Organizing school supplies and having them at the ready to help homework time run smoothly can serve as a comfort when kids have to get their work accomplished. Here are some simple ideas for creating a well-equipped work space. Check out Tools for Supporting Learning At Home.

A Plan for Sharing and Managing Big Feelings

Because we’ve all been impacted by the changes the pandemic has brought about, we are all dealing regularly with a wide range of feelings. Add to that our normal set of starting-the-school-year feelings and we have a mash-up of emotions. Though children may hold it in during the school day, they may need to let it all out when they get home. Having a safe, regular opportunity for sharing feelings offers your child a consistent place in which they can, if they choose, share what’s on their hearts and minds. For those who have remote learners or are homeschooling, daily feelings check-ins can prevent getting struck by upset emotions because there’s a time and chance to share even the hard stuff. Learn more about Daily Feelings Check-Ins.  

Whether you have a kindergartener adjusting to an exhausting new schedule or a self-conscious and private teenager, there will be mood swings at the start of the school year. In fact, any age child will have to utilize extra self-management skills as they transition from summer to school. With any major change, you can expect emotions will run high. So what’s your plan? If you’ve discussed it and each have a plan for calming down, for finding some space, and for talking about your feelings, you’ll be ready when upset reigns. Here are a couple additional helpful resources.

Big Feelings Plan
Engage your family in creating a plan for when you are really angry, frustrated or fearful. Check out the Family Emotional Safety Plan and be sure to print off the template that can guide support your plan creation.

Safe Base
Establishing a safe base that is comforting and for your child only is a great way to offer respite when he/she is upset. Read about this simple way to help your child learn to self-soothe. Check out Home Base – Creating a Safe Haven for Calming Down.

Now is a great time to set up your routines, review responsibilities and ensure you’ve created the conditions for your child or teen to be successful. She will understand her roles and responsibilities. He’ll know how to take care of his emotions. She will feel organized and ready to deal with the homework coming her way. 

What systems do you establish to create a conductive learning environment? We are eager to learn from your ideas! Here’s to a healthy, happy, connected school year – in whatever form or  style it takes – for you and your family!

Caring Relationships Back-To-School Challenge

Last night, as our family sat around our Sunday night dinner, we talked about the ways in which we were adjusting and reacting to the big changes in our lives. This past week, my son started in a brand new school – new teachers, new students, new parents. And for our family, it felt like an earth-shaking shift. Our gravitational center was no longer in our home for learning (where it’s been as we homeschooled last year) but in a new place where much of the decision-making is far from our influence or control. 

Have you experienced a monumental shift this school year? Whether your child is shifting from preschool to kindergarten, from middle school to high school or from remote learning to in-person learning, this back-to-school season represents big changes for many if not most families. Because last school year posed hardships in differing ways for all of us, we are bringing caution to this season. We are feeling a sense of vulnerability and a lack of safety. We know that in order for learning to happen, our children first must feel safe. And then, they must feel cared for, that their presence matters, and that they bring unique and important values and strengths and contributions to the classroom community.

I cannot think of a more important focus in this back to school season than investing ourselves in cultivating safe, caring relationships. Yes, it will take courageous empathy to reach out to those who may have opposing views or hail from different cultures. However, our being present with, our paying attention to, our learning about the deepest cares we each bring to our child’s education has the potential to unite us around our students’ shared well-being. If we are present to one another and open to the strengths we can each contribute, we’ll be able to focus on the core reason that brings us together as educators, parents, and community partners — advancing our children’s learning. 

Creating safety and caring is not about one big, grand gesture. It takes many small acts of kindness and care to grow trust. It requires listening with an open mind to others. It requires being curious and looking for the best in one another. So join me. Tell me – what are you doing to create safe, caring relationships in your school community?

Already started school? It’s never too late! Comment below or you can email Jennifer Miller at confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com and be sure to place in the subject line: #caringrelationships.

Building Trust Between Parents and Educators from the Start

We learned many lessons this past year by living, educating and attempting to thrive during a global pandemic. One of those lessons was just how vital parents and caregivers are in the educational process. With remote learning, parents were the ones who attended to the schedule and made certain children got online in the right place at the right time. Parents were the ones who dealt with the wiggles, the boredom and the frustrations that occurred as children attempted to manage their bodies, hearts and minds in a restrictive, virtual environment. 

And as most schools reopen in person, parents and caregivers may feel a level of attachment, protection, and vulnerability that is new or elevated in this back to school season. After all, we’ve played a large role. We’ve been partner instructors often reflecting on the learning or working through academic struggles long after the virtual class has ended. We may feel a level of investment we’ve never yet experienced in our child’s education. 

Though the changes persist and our children and teens will be in school this Fall, we, parents and caregivers, still have a vital role to play. But it will require that we trust our partner – our child’s educators – in order to give our best. And trust takes time to build especially when we’ve been through tough times. It will take numerous small interactions in order to learn how your child’s educator communicates and what he/she prioritizes.

Check out the following one pagers. Send one into school with your child for your child’s teacher to fill out so that your family can learn more. Here’s the printable “Teacher – Get to Know You.” Go ahead and fill out the second one pager with your child on you and your family and send it in to your teacher. Here’s the printable “Family – Get to Know You. This simple exchange can get your relationship started to begin your year-long partnership. There is also a version in Spanish for families to complete as well. Here’s the printable “Spanish-Speaking Family – Get to Know You.”

Changing the Conversation – Student, Parent, Teacher Pandemic Learning Gains

“You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”

Betty Friedan

You don’t have to go searching for an article on “learning loss due to the pandemic” this back to school season. They’re everywhere. I imagine children and teens starting their first days back at school, some who haven’t been in person with friends and teachers for an entire year only to hear, “we have a steep hill to climb. We have much to catch up on!” If I’m placing myself in my teenager’s perspective, I’m thinking, “what was I doing all last year? I wish I had known I could have not worked my tail off and just had fun at home!” To our students, the learning loss conversation is demoralizing, demotivating and downright inaccurate. Here’s why…

Though even the nightly news is reporting that children’s social and emotional learning should be top of mind, somehow we haven’t connected the dots that our past year was a masters course in social and emotional skills. Naming it and being clear about those intelligence advances are just as vital to our learning conversation as whether or not they kept up their fractions scores. We learned that we are stronger than we think. We learned that one person’s personal decision can have a ripple effect on a community, a state, our country and indeed, the world. The lessons are significant and will be used and carried throughout this generation’s lifetime and I’m already excited to see what they are able to accomplish with this level of awareness and skill rehearsal. 

Perhaps you are a parent or educator who reads your state’s standards and benchmarks at each grade level in each subject area. Currently, all states in the U.S. have social and emotional skills integrated throughout the standards in a variety of subjects. Half of the states now have stand alone social and emotional learning standards just as they have language arts, science and social studies’ standards (and more are developed each year). Let’s just take a quick one page sample from the Ohio Social and Emotional Learning Standards (the state I call home). 

Source: http://education.ohio.gov/getattachment/Topics/Learning-in-Ohio/Social-and-Emotional-Learning/Social-and-Emotional-Learning-Standards/K-12-SEL-Standards-Full-Final.pdf.aspx?lang=en-US

Let’s check what our children learned at home according to this sample from the Ohio State Standards. If you are reading this as a parent or an educator, see how you might respond to the following questions:

  • Did your child/student get a chance during the last year to “identify a complex range of emotions as an indicator of personal well-being?” If you followed along this blog and did the daily feelings check-ins, you gave your children a year of practice in identifying and naming emotions. 
  • Did you give your children/students a chance to look at ways different emotions impact different people in different settings? If you watched the news and reflected on it or simply discussed national and global events and its impact on people, you likely did this. Did you also “Analyze ways emotions impact the social environment?” If you discussed – or participated in – the “Black Lives Matters” movement and the impact of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others last year and how people worked to create change because of their anger, outrage and sense of injustice, then this was part of your curriculum.
  • Did you create a safe time and place to discuss emotions as a family or as a classroom? Together at home over such an expanse of time with so many crises in the world around us, there were frequently big feelings within and around us. How did you handle that with your family? How did you talk through those emotions? Did you find there was a time of day when you were all together that you felt safer to share what was going on? Yes, I believe we “recognized – along with our children – that current events had an impact on our emotions.”

Though there were losses of specific curricular goals, the gains can far outweigh the losses if we recognize them, reflect on them and build on them this year as strengths unique to this time and generation. “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience,” wrote John Dewey, educational philosopher. Our ability to identify and name those learning gains shapes our children and teens’ perspectives on the value of what they’ve learned during these uncertain times. 

Though you may be able to name more or different (and I encourage you to think deeper about what is true for you and your children/students!), here are my reflections on the learning gains for my child and his peers.

Here’s my learning gains inventory and I hope you will conduct one of your own!

Caring for Physical and Mental Health – If your child was participating in social media, watching media or part of your family’s conversation, they were getting a deeper education in the complexities of public health issues, of viruses and how they spread, how to prevent that spread and how your family’s decision-making impacted your own well-being and others. Not only that but you took specific steps to prevent the spread of the virus and protect yourself and others by mask wearing, social distancing and staying home. In addition, there were numerous national conversations about the mental health of our children and teens (not to mention caregivers and teachers) as they endured isolation, separation from friends and family and only connected with non-household members through a screen. Caregivers and educators were concerned about their students’ worries and feelings of connection and we did our best to support them through these tough circumstances.

Conflict Management – The simple truth of families at home together 24/7 created conflict. We’re human after all. And though the data is not back yet on whether more of us created greater intimacy or deepened separations during this time, surely we were faced with many conflicts and had lots of practice with managing it. Hopefully because we had great incentive to work through it since there was no avoiding family members, we learned strategies for managing it constructively. Studies have been conducted on how kids’ development was impacted by parents’ conflicts. Kids who lived in households in which parents argued but genuinely resolved the arguments were actually happier then before they experienced the argument.1 The lesson they learn is we can fight, work through it and still be close.

New Relationship Skills – How many ways can you use Zoom? We found out! We did a virtual summer camp with friends in town and across the country including camping out in the backyard together huddled around a device. What did you do to connect with your classroom, your family and your friends safely? Because of the pandemic, our son made a whole group of new friends online he grew close to and had never met in person. We discovered evidence that they were close friends when he met a few in person this summer and it seemed as if they had been together every day for the past year. We were forced to ask the question: how do we feel connected to those who we cannot be with in person and we worked to solve that difficult riddle. I’m not sure we’ll ever again take for granted a grill out, a concert or a holiday party.

Consequential Thinking – Whether the virus began in an animal and spread to a human or was developed in a laboratory or some other version or combination of the two, the interaction that took place had consequences for the entire world. And as the virus spread, we could not ignore the fact that our individual decisions could impact our neighbors, our classmates, even a stranger at the grocery store. As mandates were made (regardless of how we felt about them), we had to discuss as a family how we were going to react. Hopefully, you discussed your values, your priorities, your choices and how those choices might impact your own well-being, the well-being of those around you and the greater impact to your community. Consequential thinking is a higher order thinking skill that requires lots of rehearsal over years in order for children and teens to begin connecting cause to effect. We had that chance over again during this pandemic.

Emotional Courage – The origin of the word courage means “heart” or facing pain, danger or difficult decisions. I love the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”  We’ve had our share of fear. And yet, we persisted. I spoke virtually with countless parents, caregivers, and educators this past year who admitted they were feeling scared, overwhelmed and anxious. Yet each one of them was learning how to bring their best selves to their children and students, pushing themselves to connect and care and educate even from remote locations. We named our fears and we faced them as we led our families and classrooms and through that modeling, our children found ways to not only survive but thrive (and we need to recognize it).

Empathy and Perspective-taking – The differences in social, racial and political views in our country and throughout the world were (and are) growing at a fever pitch. Yet all of us were enduring hardship. A light shone on racial discrimination in such a disruptive way that white Americans could no longer ignore the systems that perpetuate racism. And Black Americans along with other races and cultures could not be silent or silenced. I also think of the many who were already doing critical work in this area, who dug deep inside to. find inner resources they didn’t know were there and re-doubled their efforts. We faced a divided nation knowing that neighbors and community members could view the pandemic, the economy and social justice issues in diametrically opposing ways. How did we hold that tension? For some, people we love held deeply opposing positions. How did we/do we hold that tension? Hopefully, we hold it with empathy. We are challenged to find compassion for differing others in the midst of own pain. And that’s one of the toughest challenges. Yet we learn from this generation of youth who are advocating for, accepting and celebrating all forms of identify. Though our children need practice with empathy and perspective-taking, we need that practice too and I believe our children have much to teach us.

Responsible Decision-Making with Information (and the critical role of science) – We may have felt like we’ve had information overload but the stream of information about what good science tells us we need to do to stay safe has been vital during these uncertain times in which we all play a role in fighting off a global pandemic. Sometimes, we’ve received mixed and confusing messages. The media has put out false news. And strong, loud opinions have swayed decision-making in families. Hopefully, this has resulted in a family dialogue (ongoing!) and a classroom dialogue about sources of information – what you can trust and what you cannot trust. How do children research a topic like the pandemic? What websites, what organizations, what media sources publish facts? How do we know they are facts versus opinions? In our all-access, global online community in the palm of every child world, we need regular conversations on how to critically review information and seek out trustworthy sources.

I’ve created a pdf Pandemic Learning Gains Inventory form so that you can print it off, use it, and reflect in your home or classroom on these issues with the children you love. There are spaces for students, teachers and parents to reflect since we truly and intimately experienced schooling together this past year. And what do we do with other specific subject matter content? We assess where they are and meet them there. But no one who cares about education wants to begin the school year feeling behind. And in fact, we are not. You can find the printable pdf of the Learning Gains Inventory here!

This back to school season is uniquely complex and challenging for all involved. Why not reflect and build upon the lessons gained in the last year to reinforce and seal in the valuable learning experiences that have already taken place? Wishing us all a happy, healthy return to school!

References:

1. Divecha, D. (2014). What Happens to Children When Parents Fight. Developmental Science. Retrieved on 4/27/16 at http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2014/04/30/what-happens-to-children-when-parents-fight

Composing a Song of Strength

Co-Creating a Foundation of Well-Being for this School Year

There’s a familiar scurry and hurry as we slog through the heat of August but feel the impending start of school approaching. We also are feeling a flurry or even a fury in our bellies as we enter another school year still contending with a global pandemic we were ready to wish farewell to many months ago. From minor hassles like backordered school supplies because the supply chain is disrupted to major concerns like divisions among parents, teachers and administrators on safety, justice, and health issues, we are entering this season of change with more apprehension and emotional baggage than perhaps in previous years.

Hopefully, you took the chance this summer to have fun, to connect with family and friends, and to renew your heart and spirit in light-hearted ways. Hopefully you were able to say “yes” to social engagements and breathe a sigh of relief when it felt safe in June and July. The question that is top of mind as we begin back-to-school time is “how will I enter this season united with my family and school community committed to supporting children’s — and each other’s — well-being?”

We reflected back recently to my son’s transition between preschool and kindergarten to a whole new school, new people, new routines and new expectations. For him and for our enter family, it felt like a monumental shift. We all giggled and remembered our five-year-old singing a particularly sad and soulful James Taylor song about change from the popular (at the time) “Cars” movie. “Long ago. But not so very long ago. The world was different. Oh yes, it was.” And his Dad accurately recognized that the music transcended words. That song embodied his feelings in a much more powerful way than any language might.

Music plays a major role in so many of our rituals (like holidays, graduations, weddings and funerals). Music unifies and fortifies our communities (like at the ballpark, in a Synagogue or Church or at the Olympics). Music also gives strength to movements while fighting injustice like “Give the Ballot to the Mothers” during the women’s suffrage movement and “We Shall Overcome” during the Civil Rights movement.

It’s Time for Our Anthem

Whether you are reading this as a caring and concerned parent or a caring and concerned educator, why not begin this season with intentionality, with feeling cultivating unification and strength when we so desperately need it? I learned in these past few years that song-writing a.) can be collaborative and b.) doesn’t require tremendous musical ability or writing skill. Thanks to The Lullaby Project training (more information on this incredible organization below), I learned that writing a song can be simple and take mere minutes. Here’s how it’s done and can be done in a family or a classroom or with a school leadership team or a Parent Teacher Association. We need to write our song together to enter this year united in our care for one another!

Meet! 

Bring your family, or staff team or classroom together and designate an hour devoted to this important task — writing your anthem.

Take Ten Deep Breaths Together.

Yes, you could zoom into this exercise. But we are all stressed and doing what we can to manage it. Your success as a writing team will be that much greater if you come from a more centered, grounded place. So take a moment to get your body, mind and spirit into the room.

Pose the Challenge and Write!

The challenge to each other is to write a one-page love letter to your unit — your family, your school, your classroom, your leadership team. What do you love about one another? What are your greatest strengths? What are your cares? What are your hopes and dreams for this group of people? Take some quiet moments to each write your letter. Yes, this can be done virtually on a Zoom call.

Now Read your Letters to Each Other.

If all are putting their hearts into this, this is a POWERFUL experience. Just hearing each others words of love and hope for the group, hearing the potential and the gratitude in the room is enough to bolster even the most weary. Read and listen carefully to one another. 

Reflect On and Write Down Memorable Words and Phrases

After deeply listening to one another, ask: “what did you hear that stuck with you, that moved you?” Be sure you’ve assigned a scribe to write them all down.

Hum Your Tune

Okay, I realize you may be squirming in your seat when you read this. You may not have sung outside of the shower in your life. I promise — no talent required. A brave soul needs to step up and put whatever tune comes to mind to the words or phrases you’ve written down just to get your group started. Once that person gets the humming ball rolling, it’s easier for others to join in and build upon that first melody.

Sing Together 

Sing it together. If you are fortunate enough to have someone at your table who plays an instrument and can accompany you, so much the better (but not necessary!). As you sing, notice how you feel. Notice how it unifies and fortifies you. Use this! When can you make a ritual of using your anthem — morning meeting? Dinnertime blessing? Car ride to school? Don’t leave without a plan for when you will sing this song again together.

We again face uncertainty, division and even danger as we enter this back-to-school season. We will be able to face those challenges with strength and hope if we come together in love and ignite our commitment to one another’s care and well-being. Join me and my family as we write our anthem to serve as a foundation of strength for our school year to come.

Learn More about The Lullaby Project!

This idea is lovingly borrowed and adapted from an incredible organization (thank you Shannon Wanless for introducing me to it!) called The Lullaby Project from Carnegie Hall. The Lullaby Project pairs pregnant women and new mothers and fathers with professional artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies, supporting maternal/paternal health, aiding child development and sealing the bond between parent and child. As I listened to parents who participated (and I participated in writing my own son a song – lullabies are not just for babies!), I discovered what a source of strength they were enabling each parent to express their deep love for their child. One video showed a mother in a frustrating situation in which her son would not stop crying yet she used the lullaby and felt more confident and able to calm him down. There are Lullaby Project chapters all over the United States and the world. Learn more at their site. Check out this video of Odette, a mother in New York City who wrote a song for her son Esso.

Five Reasons Why You Might Encourage Your Child To Journal

By Guest Author Alexandra Eidens, Founder, Big Life Journal

Those who journal are in good company. Some of history’s greatest visionaries, including Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill, and Marie Curie, kept journals.

But aside from famous company, there are other important reasons for journaling. Studies show that keeping a journal reduces stress, improves focus and boosts mood. A 2005 study revealed that journaling about stressful events resulted in significantly better physical and mental health outcomes for participants.

 With benefits like these, it’s clear why encouraging your child to journal is key. Here are five more reasons to get started: 

1. Journaling supports academic skills.

In an age when most writing is done on computers, journaling provides access to benefits that only writing by hand provides.

By improving penmanship, the practice of journaling can directly impact academics. According to Steve Graham, a professor at Vanderbilt University, good handwriting can improve a classroom test score from the 50th to the 84th percentile. He also notes that “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.”

Researchers have also found that writing by hand helps with learning shapes and letters, and may support the development of fine motor skills in young children. For older children, the skill of organizing their thoughts and ideas is developed through journaling.

Though we might assume children are given plenty of handwriting opportunities at school, this is not always the case.

Most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary grade curriculum, but today that amounts to just over an hour a week, according to Zaner-Bloser Inc., one of the nation’s largest handwriting curriculum publishers.

– Gwendolyn Bounds, Wall Street Journal

By journaling at home, children have access to a host of academic benefits they might not otherwise encounter.

2. Keeping a journal stimulates creativity.

When it comes to starting a journal, the options are limited only by your child’s imagination. Journals can be anything they wish–from a loose collection of thoughts or drawings to recordings with a specific purpose and format.

To generate interest, define journaling as an outlet for your child’s expression. Allow them to decorate and fill their journal with anything that appeals to them. Materials like markers, colored pencils and stickers are motivating too. 

If your children have difficulty getting started, ask what they would like to journal about. Are they fans of the outdoors? A nature journal with drawings of birds or insects might pique their interest. Avid summer explorers? They might love a summer adventures journal. 

Most importantly, remember that journals are meant to encourage expression–not perfection. If parents critique or criticize the journal’s content, creativity and motivation will almost certainly diminish.

3. Keeping a journal promotes self-exploration.

Journaling is a tool for self-discovery and exploration. When children have access to journals, the seeds for personal growth and deepening self-awareness are planted.

Many journals created for children have writing prompts, questions, and engaging illustrations. Questions that prompt self-discovery might include:

  • What makes you smile?
  • What are the qualities of a good friend?
  • What is one thing you’ve always wanted to try that you haven’t yet?
  • What does a perfect day look like for you?
  • Describe yourself in 10 words.
  • Who is your hero and why?

Prompts like these allow children to reflect on their values, hopes, and beliefs. The resulting journal entries can also provide a touchstone, showing kids who they were at the time of writing and ways in which they’ve changed or grown.

4. Journaling sharpens memory.

Not only does journaling let children record memories, it actually improves their memory. Studies show that writing in a journal benefits working (short term) memory. 

Research on expressive writing at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that by writing about an experience, the experience becomes graspable. Writing down events as they happen preserves the memory, and children can better comprehend their lives.

A life worth living is a life worth recording.

– Jim Rohn, entrepreneur

While journaling cannot change the events that happen during the day, it does afford children some choice about how to remember them. Children have the freedom of what to record, and how they’d like to revisit each event. 

5. Journaling helps address big feelings.

Many children have difficulty verbalizing their emotions. Therefore, providing other outlets for expressing feelings is key.

Journals should be a safe, judgment-free zone. Children must feel secure in order to sort through their complicated (and uncomfortable) emotions like sadness, anger, and disappointment.

Before encouraging your child to journal about feelings, consider that journals are for their eyes only. Says Amanda Morin, child development writer, “If you can’t make this promise, you can’t expect your child to take on this type of journaling.”

Depending on your child’s age, a feelings journal could take different forms. A younger child might use it to identify or label their current emotion or draw a picture of how they feel. Older children could create a gratitude journal, or to reflect on an upsetting moment and view it more objectively. 

You can start by modeling journal writing yourself. When you have a difficult or challenging moment, point out that you are going to a quiet space to sit down and write. When the feelings have passed, discuss with your child how the process of journaling helped you release your feelings.

Journaling about feelings, especially for those who struggle with open communication, is a much healthier alternative to bottling them up.

Particularly during this global pandemic, we all are experiencing big feelings and may be struggling at times with how to deal with them.  A family practice of journaling can help each member name and express those emotions in a safe, healthy way. Check out the Big Life Journal to learn more about their journals with writing and drawing prompts for kids!

Guest Author Alexandra Eidens is the founder of Big Life Journal, an engaging resource to help kids develop a resilient growth mindset so they can face life’s challenges with confidence.

CPCK Note: There was an incredible synchronicity earlier this week when I was collaborating with Alexandra to publish this article and a family member reached out to me to share how much her son was enjoying working on his own “Big Life Journal.” Thank you, Alexandra! This is a wonderful resource for children and teens alike!

Free COVID-19 Time Capsule Printable – If you are interested in offering your child the opportunity to journal during the pandemic about time at home, check out this free downloadable set of pages by Natalie Long of LONG Creations.

Originally published May, 2020.

Family Car Games For Summer Road-Tripping

We’re going on a road trip, a road trip, a road trip.
We’re going on a road trip to see what we can see!

During this pandemic, we have embraced the glory of road trips. We’ve driven to interesting places near and far – farther than we ever imagined driving versus flying in order to discover beautiful sights and differing vistas. Today we are packing and preparing for our next family adventure on the road with our 13-year-old. And yes, he’ll have plenty of time on his device. However on a day-long (in our case, several days long) journey, we create fun breaks from social media or gaming to give his weary eyes a break and his brain and heart a chance to focus on live, in-person connection and interacting as a family. We’ll use some of the following that seem more teen-appropriate while others may suit your needs with younger children.

You may typically venture out on a number of small road trips during the summer months taking advantage of the freedom and warm weather. Or like us, your family vacation has involved more driving and less flying. It’s tempting to hand a child an iPad and allow the video games and programs to fill the idle time. Then I think back to my own road trips as a child, sometimes thirteen hours in a non-air-conditioned car, and of course, with no handy portable device to fill my time. I recall being happily consumed with my crayons and a sketch pad. I filled every single page with drawings of sand castles, mermaids and sea creatures anticipating our vacation at the beach. But now, my son, who is so used to easily accessible entertainment and high level of stimulation, seems to require more than just that trusty old sketch pad. But engage him with a family game, and he is delighted to play. If packing and getting out of the house is a stressful time, these silly, playful games help reconnect you as a family and set the tone that you are leaving the stress behind and on your way to more good times together.

The following car games can offer ways to connect as a family and build cooperative skills all the while enjoying your time together. It can set a collaborative tone preparing all family members for a positive adventure together.

Cooperative Storytelling

One person begins a story with a main character and a setting. Start with a few juicy details – “One day a giant sea turtle named Freddy sauntered down the isle of a grocery store looking for his favorite potato chips…” and then pass off the story to the next person to fill in what comes next. Offer a few sentences and then continue to pass the story along with each family member contributing key details to move your adventure forward. In my experience, the stories that emerge from these games are a joy and delight with surprises around every corner! Our family loves this game!

Where in the World Guessing Game

“Where in the world is E?” we ask and E begins to describe his surroundings. He picks any city, community or habitat in the world and offers details about the attributes of his environment without naming it and we have to guess the place.

Creature Guessing Game

Similarly, one person thinks of a creature. All of the guessers ask questions of the individual with a creature in mind. “Is it small, medium or large? Does it live in the forest? Does it eat plants or animals?” When you have enough details, guess the creature. Go around and give each person the chance to think of an animal.

Name the Face

See if you can express an emotion with only your facial expression. (This could be tricky for drivers!) Think of the emotion and perform the facial expression of that emotion. See if others can guess what you are feeling.

More, More!

Select a category such as ice cream flavors, popular songs or amusement park rides. Call out as many different kinds as you can until you’ve exhausted your list of ideas. This offers practice in brainstorming, a valuable skill used in coming up with solutions to a problem.

Cell Phone

Do you remember the old game Telephone? Think of a sentence. Start simple and make them more challenging as you go. Whisper it into the ear of another family member. Each person whispers to the next person exactly what they heard whispered in their ear. Have the last person say what they heard aloud. It’s ideal if you can go quickly and try it a couple of times. Then you are able to see if listening and communication improves with practice and focus.

You Write the Songs

Pick out a family favorite song – one that everyone knows. Now select a favorite animal (your pet?), place (your school?) or person (your best friend?). Change the words of the song to describe or tell the story of that creature or place. Make sure all family members have the chance to contribute. Practice and sing it with gusto!

Radio Story

Turn on the radio. Listen to the first station that plays. Is it a song or a commercial. Now cooperatively tell the background story of the song or commercial. How was the song written? Why was the product developed (if a commercial)? What story does it really tell? Make it imaginative, the crazier, the better. None of it should be based on real facts. Each family member can add details to your radio backstory.

Social Dilemmas

Tweens and teens are often fascinated with social dilemmas since they are dealing with more complex social issues regularly. This may interest that age group. One person offers a social problem such as a friend wants to get on the highway with her friends and drive out of town without telling anyone. What do you do? Or an animal is about to get run over by a car in the road at the same time your toddler brother is running down the street. What do you do? These can offer interesting ethical considerations and turn into involving conversations. The trick for parents is to remain in open-minded dialogue mode, offering ideas and not criticizing.

Try out these road trip games or create your own and watch the time fly past as you laugh and creatively, cooperatively play with your family. Happy adventures!

IMG_1321

Resource:

Our Grandma Linda sent us a gift this Spring that we’ve started to use at our Sunday night family dinners entitled And Then, Story Starters, 20 Imaginative Beginnings. It’s a book-size deck of cards, each with its own riveting story starter. These prompts offer rich details from which to build and could be of great use if you want to try the cooperative storytelling and would like help in getting started.

We also like to use Story Cubes to help us initiate storytelling.

This is a CPCK favorite article originally published in May, 2017.

Coming Soon! Mindful Parenting Summit

Support Children’s Growing Minds, Hearts and Spirits with Strategies Backed by Research

Want to build your mindfulness knowledge and skill? Attend our FREE Mindful Parenting Summit on July 26-29, 2021, where parenting experts of different age groups share their insights into mindfulness and its benefits for children. It’s FREE!


Interviews start at 8am EST each day and will be posted for 24 hours. So grateful to Helen Maffini for organizing this event at a time when we could all use a mindfulness boost! I will discuss with her how this moment of transition and change can be an ideal time in which to reexamine your core family values, how your priorities may have shifted, and how you can align your deepest values and priorities with the decisions you are making and how you engage or reengage with family, friends and your community.

Join our FREE summit and learn: 

• Mindfulness activities that children will enjoy and benefit from

• What science says about mindfulness

• Why research supports mindfulness practice for teachers, parents, and children

• How mindfulness can be introduced to children from preschool up to their teenage years

• Tips and strategies to create a calm, caring classroom or home

• How to increase your own mindfulness

• And more

SIGN UP FREE!

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