confident parents confident kids

Refreshing Home Routines for the School Year

Boy Writing Poster by Jennifer MillerIt’s Just Another Day.
Slipping Into Stockings,
Stepping Into Shoes,
Dipping In The Pockets Of Her Raincoat.
Ah, It’s Just Another Day. Du Du Du Du Du
It’s Just Another Day. Du Du Du Du Du
It’s Just Another Day.

It’s Just Another Day, Paul McCartney

“Do we really have to go back again?” my groggy, incredulous seven-year-old said on the second morning of school. I could almost hear his thoughts. “I conquered the first day and it was exhausting. How can I possibly go back and do it again?” We all feel some form of that sentiment when people and surroundings are new and we haven’t yet found our “groove.” Teachers will be busy this time of year establishing routines. And there will be a routine for just about every single aspect of your child’s school day – from the order of subjects to transition times to getting a drink of water. And these structures are critical for success. Why? For the same reason that Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg wear roughly the same clothing every day. There’s predictability, security and the freeing up of brain power to focus on more important issues.

It seems that when a student starts the year in a window seat at the back of the bus, that’s the exact seat he’ll be found sitting in on the final day of school. And this is the time when those habits begin, for better or for worse. Parents can significantly contribute to their kids’ ability to focus on learning during the school day by creating and being consistent with home routines during the week. Whether it’s morning time preparing to go to school, engaging in after-school extracurriculars, doing homework, getting dinner or going to bed, all of those occasions can run smoothly or they can take a great amount of energy and stir up stress as power struggles occur. Some planning and preparation with your children can pave the way for ease with those daily transitions and allow for mental and emotional energy to be spent engaged in learning opportunities.

Before solidifying your routine, you may want to consider how complications will impact it down the road. Consider adding several layers of clothing to your morning routine in wintertime. Or think about group or long-term projects related to homework time. Thinking about how your routines will translate to the conditions in January and also in April can help you plan successful habits now.

It’s never too late to reinvigorate your routine by giving some thought to it and working collaboratively with family members to ensure that all are clear on their respective roles and responsibilities. Here are some ideas for helping to plan those conversations so that you can emerge with a routine that works for your family.

Discuss the routine with all involved when you are not in it. Find a time when family members can talk about how the morning will go or how and when homework will get accomplished. Have a snack and make it enjoyable. Ask, “What are the tasks that need to get accomplished during that time?” “What’s working well so far?” “What seems to be a challenge?” and finally, “What are some ideas for getting through the particular tasks that pose more of a challenge?” Be sure you allow the time and space for children to give their ideas and solutions. Use their solutions as much as is possible and offer choices. For example, “Would you prefer to get your homework done right after school or after dinner?” They will be more willing to uphold a routine they had a significant role in creating.

Formalize it! Write down your decisions for the routine with the simplest language as an agenda (1. wake up etc.). What’s the order of the bedtime routine? What time do you begin? What time are lights out? Have your children do the writing or illustrate your writing.

Review your plan and expectations constructively. Go over your agenda for the routine and expectations for cooperation among all. Consider all of the challenges you have including those January and April challenges and make certain you’ve brainstormed solutions to those issues. Do you need more time? What will we do to get it? Frame all challenge dialogue in constructive terms. Don’t fall into the blaming trap! Instead of “Joseph refuses to get his teeth brushed in the morning.”, focus your comments on the problem. You might say, “Getting teeth brushed seems to pose a challenge. What can help to move that task along?”

Post it. Hang up your routine in writing whether it’s on a regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper or on poster board. Post it in an area where you can quickly refer to it during the routine.

Reinforce. Before going into that routine, reinforce the conversation you’ve had to remind your children what the plan is. For example, “We talked about getting on shoes when the timer goes off. Let’s help each other remember.” For more on using a timer (instead of nagging), read “The Magic Timer.”

Remind. In the moment, remind in constructive and calm ways. With any age, a parent can fall into their own bad habit of repeating themselves in order to get a child to complete a task. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The child becomes accustomed to the 5-10 times they are typically being told to do something so who needs to listen or move the first, second or even third time? Remind once in a highly effective manner and watch all go more smoothly. It may take a few times if it’s a change in their expectations. Bend down on their level. Make eye contact. Give your directions (one time only) such as, “Time to get shoes on.” Say it in a normal, calm tone of voice. And then, move on with your own preparations assuming the child will get their goal accomplished. Do not resort to repeating your directions. If it’s not happening after you’ve moved on with your own preparations (be sure to give enough time), then bend down again, at eye level and ask, “Do you need help with your shoes this morning? Let me know if you need support.” Then allot time if its needed to get the task accomplished.

Enlist all family members as “owners” and co-creators of the routine and then reinforce that notion each time you go through it with them. Show your confidence in your kids that they can accept responsibility for their portion of the routine as does each family member. Imagine routines that create a sense of safety and security for your children and run smoothly. This too can be your daily experience if you put in a little time and effort upfront. Beginning your day with hugs and a lack of stress from accomplishing the mundane tasks of getting ready can be a significant reward for all involved.

For more specific guidance on particular routines, be sure and check out:
Setting Up for Homework Success
The Opportunity of Bedtime


A Smooth Morning Routine

Creating an Enjoyable Family Dinner


Originally published 9-23-15.


What To Do With Those Back-To-School Butterflies

family with butterflies 001

“Everyone has butterflies when they are starting something new. Just make sure you visualize them flying in formation and you’ll be fine.”

– My Dad, David Smith from a Dale Carnegie Public Speaking Course

If you are a parent, you are likely in the middle of clothing and supply shopping preparing for the first day of school. There may be more stress around the house as you switch gears from the less scheduled, slower paced summer routines to alarm clocks ringing early, morning rushes to get out of the house on time, new clothing, new teachers, homework and general exhaustion.

In addition to practical routine changes, you may have your own set of anxieties. For many, work demands increase as fiscal years end in August and begin in September. For fellow educators, we are busy attending or giving professional development courses during the month of August and preparing our classrooms and schools for the students to come. Maybe your child is moving from one school to another as mine is. Maybe it’s a major transition year from preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle or middle to high school. Because the school community is as much a part of your whole family’s life as it is your child’s, parents naturally have their own trepidations about new teachers, principals, parents and friends.

How can parents best help deal with the back to school butterflies?

Practice routines and do dry runs in advance. If you are walking to school, try walking a day or two ahead of time without the pressure of needing to get there. Make it fun and stop by the playground and or local ice cream store on your route home. Practice your morning routine in an afternoon before you have to go through it. Try on new clothes, brush teeth, eat breakfast and see if you can make it fun working together to get all that you need to accomplished. This morning, we tried out E’s new alarm clock to practice waking up to it. Educators will be practicing routines like getting quiet or putting away supplies in desks at school. Children then know exactly what is expected of them and can go about the routine feeling competent and safe in that knowledge. Why not do the same at home to help your day run smoothly?

Give your child an opportunity to show competence. We saved the experience of E getting his own library card until he could write his full name to sign the back of the card. We wanted him to feel a sense of pride and achievement and it served as a clear goal helping him practice writing his name. He has probably been capable of doing it all summer but I saved the chance for the day before kindergarten. We took our usual trip to the library and I announced this would be the day that he could get his library card. Finding a small way for your child to show they are capable boosts their confidence so that they are ready to tackle the challenges of a new school, grade and teacher.

Recognize and support your own anxieties. Each time I flew on an airplane this summer, the stewardess walked up to me, made direct eye contact, leaned in and clearly articulated that I must put on the oxygen mask myself before helping my son. “Okay, okay,” I thought. “I get it.” As most moms do, I tend to place my son before myself. Your own stress will impact your entire family and the climate that is felt at home. So do something about your worries. Make written lists if that helps organize your thoughts. Journal to get your feelings down on paper versus allowing those thoughts to stew inside you. Make a date with a friend to remove yourself for an hour or two from the pressures of family life. And when you are in a particularly intense moment of worry or anxiety, visualize your butterflies flying in a calm and coordinated formation.

Be aware small issues may cause big upsets. Emotions may be just below the surface ready to appear when any little issue arises. Be aware that those upsets over small things like a spilled snack are ways of releasing some of the bigger emotions that are welling up inside. Your awareness, added empathy, patience and calm will help redirect children and, indeed, all family members back to focusing on what is important.

Create extra time for quiet and rest both for your child and yourself. Days are particularly busy. Homework for some will begin to be assigned on the first day of school. Be sure and allow time for rest and quiet after school and on the weekends. You may provide an after school snack each day. Sit down with your children and just listen. They may not tell you what happened during the day if you ask a lot of questions. But if there is quiet and you simply listen, they may be more willing to offer up anecdotes from the day. Find opportunities to turn off the screens and just allow for reading or quiet play. The investment in quiet time will pay off during the busy days ahead.

Get outside and exercise. Those jitters bottled up inside don’t know where to go. Be sure and encourage children to run around outside when there is the opportunity. The fresh air and exercise will channel the release of anxieties through good fun and play.

Focus on the fun. Because it’s a busy time of year, it’s easy for parents to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and forget to find ways to make back to school time fun. Take a breath and realize your children won’t ever have the opportunity to start first grade again. Make the most of it by appreciating your time together. Find family moments to have fun at dinner or during the usual routines. Turn on some music or buy a special treat for all to enjoy. Savor!

May your back to school experience be joyful for the whole family and may your butterflies fly in formation!

Favorite Back to School Picture Book (for preschool through grade 3):
9780590047012_xlgPenn, Audrey. (2007). The Kissing Hand. Tanglewood Press.
A raccoon Mom and son prepare for him to go to school. She gives him a kiss on his palm. When she’s not with him, he can place the open palm on his cheek and feel her kiss with him.

Did You Check Out Multiple Elementary Schools before Selecting One?

Home and School Partnerships Symbol by Jennifer MillerSelecting a kindergarten can be a big decision for those who are fortunate enough to have choices. Not only is it a commitment to one grade level, but your child/children and your family may want to remain in a school and district through middle school or even beyond. Private? Public? Charter? Montessori? Religious? There are a number of options. Does the school have a caring environment? Does it have a rigorous curriculum? I am collaborating with Edutopia – The George Lucas Educational Foundation – to learn from your experiences.


Please write in and share your story!

  • What were your considerations when you looked at schools?
  • How many schools did you examine?
  • What was important to you when evaluating schools?
  • What tools or resources could you have used to help ease the complex process for you and your family?

We are eager to learn from you! You are welcome to leave a comment in the comment section OR email Nora Fleming, Edutopia Editor, directly to share your story. I’ll share the findings this Fall. Happy back to school days!

Easing the Back to School Transition

Morning Alarm by Jennifer Miller“I’m gonna hold onto this couch and never let go!”
– E. Miller, Age 6

It’s the morning after our summer vacation at the lake. E awoke and said he had had a nightmare. “My school became a haunted village. A ghost dragged me around the grounds. And all of my school friends were at my house playing with my favorite toys.” Though there are still a few weeks until the start of school, he is anticipating, not only the beginning but also the end of his freedom. And he worries about the unknown, faceless teacher who will rule over his days to come. Starting back to school can be an exciting time but as with any transition, it can also be fraught with worry, fear and a sense of loss. How can you best support your children as they go through this annual rite of passage?

Say goodbye to summer.
Summer days are so sweet and fleeting. Perhaps you spend precious family time laughing and enjoying one another in ways that may not occur as often during the hustle of the school year. As a family, find a way to say goodbye to summer. It could be as simple as an ice cream sundae indulgence or a campfire in the backyard. Pitch a tent or simply throw your beach blankets on the grass and stargaze. My husband proposed sharing a slideshow of seasonal photos with the grandparents. While you are savoring those last summer moments, take a moment to reflect on some of your happiest times over the last few months. When did you laugh the most? What were your favorite moments on your travels or local adventures? What animals or plants did you encounter? What activities do you want to repeat next summer?

Create rituals for the ending and beginning.
After finding a way to reflect and enjoy summer’s end together, how will you anticipate all that is positive about starting the school year? In addition to new tools including the fresh smell of a new box of crayons and razor sharp Ticonderoga twos, there are friends with whom to reconnect or perhaps new friends to be made. Haul out a few projects from last year and display them once again to remind your child of the success she has already experienced in school. Make a ritual out of getting school supplies by buying them together and then enjoying a special meal together or engaging in your child’s favorite activity as a family.

Create or recreate your routine.
Part of the annual preparations in our house for the school year is the creation of the morning routine poster. Going over your morning routine can offer great comfort to a child who has not gotten up at the crack of dawn or needed to get dressed and move quickly for months. Don’t expect that they will snap back into the routine easily. Pave the way by discussing how your morning will progress together. Find out what your children’s expectations and hopes are. Writing down your child’s routine formalizes it and helps provide a reminder to return to if there are struggles in those early days of school. Check out the short video “A Smooth Morning Routine” for more ideas about creating a smooth morning routine for your family.

Does your child walk to school? Do they take the bus? Offer a practice dry run opportunity to add a feeling of comfort and safety before the first day. Get up at school time. Get dressed and follow your route to school whether it’s walking or driving. If your children take the bus, go to their bus stop and then drive the route to school. Talk about where they might want to sit and how they could introduce themselves to other kids and the bus driver. When you arrive at the empty school yard, walk around and show your child where they will line up or meet their teacher. Then go to your favorite coffee shop or donut house and get a morning snack to add a sense of celebration. Though this practice may seem like an extra step, it will pay off when you witness your child entering the school year with more confidence.

Involve children in preparations.
Work on a calendar for your child’s room and place all of the major events in the school year on it including friends’ birthdays and days off. Engage your child in placing their name in notebooks, on pencil holders and other school tools. Prepare your child’s homework space. Talk about what tools they might need at home and get them organized and ready. Perhaps work together on making a pencil holder (using a well rinsed frozen juice can, paper, glue, stickers and markers) or decorating book covers. Create a binder for papers sent home. Parents often fall into the flurry of preparations and may just check items off the list. Think about how you can involve your child knowing that this will pave the way for them in thinking about the tools and organization they need in order to be successful this school year.

Show that you are open and willing to listen during this time of transition. Children will be more likely to share their worries. Perhaps begin a conversation with him about his experience with his last teacher and how he got to know her and like her. Ask questions about rich memories from last school year and offer the space for your child to tell you about his school experiences. If worries emerge in conversation, you, in turn, can address those through practice, involvement and reflection.

Show additional sensitivity.
Children will have heightened emotions during this transition from summer to the first months of the school year. They are adjusting to major changes in their life including new faces and new expectations. Be aware that greater upset about minor issues may indicate anxiety just below the surface. If children are unable to identify or articulate their feelings, offer feeling words and ask if they are accurate: “It sounds like you are worried. Are you worried about having a new teacher or being in a new building?”

For more ideas, check out “Back to School Butterflies.” And if your child is moving from preschool to kindergarten, do check out the article, “In Between Here and There.”
Taking steps to prepare your children through rituals, celebrations, organization, reflection and showing empathy for their situation can contribute to a sense of safety and security in the midst of change. Not only will it help create smooth transitions during each day for your family, but it will also allow your children to enter the school year with an open mind and heart to experience the joy and possibility of learning.


Originally published August 7, 2014.

In-Between – Transitioning from One School or Grade to Another

tight rope walker illust 001Long ago, but not so very long ago
The world was different, oh yes it was
Time goes by, time brings changes, you change, too
Nothing comes that you can’t handle, so on you go

Our Town from the Cars movie, by James Taylor[i]

These words were sung in my house yesterday by my soulful five-year-old, with a passion that might come from the life experience of a forty-year-old who has seen hard times. I thought how strange it was that he would pick the somewhat sad and reflective song from his beloved movie, Cars[ii], versus some of the more popular, upbeat songs. My husband reminded me, “This is how he’s feeling these days.” Moving from his current preschool to Kindergarten is his impending world change. Sometimes it feels as if life is one big transition. You are starting a new job or business venture. Your spouse is working on a degree. Your son is taking up the trumpet or beginning a baseball league. Your daughter is entering puberty. Transitions abound. And though sometimes the new seems exciting, the changes can also be scary, frustrating and stressful.

There is an entire line of inquiry devoted to the topic of transitions in the early childhood years for the very reason that there are so many that occur in a young child’s life. They experience both vertical transitions, like graduating from preschool and moving on to kindergarten as my son is about to do and horizontal transitions, like moving from different settings each day from home, to preschool, to the sitters, to gymnastics and back home. And so throughout childhood and adolescence, physical, psychological and environmental changes are nearly constant.

Listening seems to be one key to understanding the kind of support people need in going through a transition. Studies have found that children’s perceptions of what kind of support they need to make major or minor transitions differ significantly from adult’s perceptions.[iii] As is true with parenting in general, there is no one single best approach. However sociocultural research points to the importance of parents being involved nonetheless. I asked my own son the following and tried to listen carefully.

“How are you feeling about moving from your preschool to kindergarten in the fall?”
“I don’t want to go. I just want to stay at my school,” E responded.

And when I asked what we could do together to help make the move from one school to the next more fun and enjoyable, he said, “Nothing.” And so it’s not a simple process to ask questions and listen to the response and then do what your child suggests they need. But when facing a major transition, there are a few ways that you can offer support to those in the transition. Though the ideas, for the most part, are geared for children, these suggestions could apply to any age.

Raise your awareness.
First, just having a greater awareness of the fact that a transition is taking place and that it’s likely stressful on the participants will give you greater empathy for them. After five years of a whole school change initiative I was facilitating in which an elementary school moved from failing to achieving through much dedication, collaboration, and hard work, the district decided to close down the school because it was an old facility. Teachers were let go and had to apply to new positions in other schools. We gave each teacher the gift of the book, Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes.[iv] It is an exceptional resource for any person struggling with a transition. In it William Bridges, the author, explains that in every transition there is a death first – a letting go of the old way of thinking, being or doing. The one in the midst of change must let go of the old in order to embrace the new. Sometimes there are no physical manifestations of the change but only internal differences as in a new understanding. In situations that are supposed to be joyful like having a baby, it’s not socially acceptable to mourn the loss of time with your partner or life before baby but nonetheless, it’s a part of the transition. Being aware that there’s a mourning process taking place with your child – moving from one school to another or even leaving a beloved teacher – will give you greater empathy for what you child is experiencing.

Create a ritual or rite of passage.
Somewhere in our backyard is a pacifier lovingly placed in a box and buried in the dirt. E and I had a ceremony to say goodbye to the pacifier when it was time to move on. That experience helped E break the pacifier habit for good and in a way that emotionally supported his transition. When I quit a job that left me feeling disenchanted and depleted, I wrote down all of my frustrations and burned them up in the fireplace. Creating an event to recognize or symbolize the passing away of the old and the passageway to the new can help a person commit to a new path and let go of the old.

If your children are school age, they may be anticipating the beginning of their school year. Why not offer some opportunity for reflection on their past school year? Some teachers go over the assignments and work produced throughout the year with students to see progress made but this does not happen enough in my estimation. Why not do that at home? Get out the artwork produced, homework completed and papers returned and take a look at all the learning that has taken place throughout the year. Then involve your child in recycling papers you don’t want to keep while saying goodbye to last school year and clearing space for the new year. Then you’ll be ready to celebrate – in whatever small way you choose – the school year’s start with your family.

Embrace the in-between.
That place in-between when you’ve let go of the old but have not yet begun the new can be incredibly uncomfortable. We are anxious for the new to begin. After all, we’ve committed to letting go of the past. Sometimes we will even make choices that will escalate the change so that the uncomfortable nothingness of the in-between passes quickly. In the neutral zone, as Bridges calls it, is the optimal time for quiet reflection on what has passed and also on hopes and dreams for the future. Who do you want to become? Children could take advantage of this opportunity with a little guidance each summer since every new school year is an opportunity, a new chance. Provide opportunities for reflection by modeling your own reflection – talking aloud or to your family about your thoughts. Allow children to be reflective by asking questions that do not require answers but only their private thoughts. “Hmmm – what are your hopes for third grade?” Allow the questions to hang in the air without expecting a response. You may be surprised as a day or week goes by and a response comes back to you when they have had the chance to really think about their desires for their next step.

Pave the way for the new.
When developmental changes occur, people do not leave the old behind or throw it away. The past stages are built upon and cumulative so that the ways of the infant, toddler, preschooler and beyond are always a part of who they are. If I get frustrated with my son when he has a moment of acting like he might have when he was a toddler, I have to remind myself that the toddler is still in there and a part of him. Sometimes children need reminding that what they are leaving behind is not gone forever. We can go visit a favorite teacher next year and see how she is doing. We can play that old cd from music class and relive the memories. Paving the way for the new means offering ways to stay connected to the old and then focusing on new opportunities. Unknown friends and teachers might seem scary. But going into that new environment before it’s time for school to begin can ease the transition. If it’s in your control, think about ways you can gently introduce the new. Is there a children’s book on the topic you could read and talk about together? Are there other kids you could hang out with who have experienced the new situation and could share their impressions? Any safe, “toe in the water” experiences with the new can help your child feel more comfortable.

Returning from the in-between or reflection stage of a transition ultimately “… brings us back to ourselves and involves a reintegration of our new identity with elements of our old one.… Inwardly and outwardly, one comes home,” writes Bridges. Helping children through the uncertainty and fear of the new and unknown can allow them to explore their new direction with excitement, wonder and hope.


[i] Taylor, J. (2006). Our town. On Cars Soundtrack. Los Angeles,CA: Walt Disney Records, Pixar.
[ii] Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar (Producer), & Lasseter, J., & Ranft, J. et al. (Writer, Director). (2006). Cars (Motion Picture). United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
[iii] Vogler, P., Crivello, G., & Woodhead, M. (2008). Early childhood transitions research: A review of concepts, theory and practice. The Hague, The Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.
[iv] Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions; Making sense of life’s changes. (2nd. Ed.) Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.


Originally posted on May 2, 2013.

Home Base – Creating a Safe Haven for Calming Down

confident parents confident kids

Jack's Base by Jennifer Miller“I call base!” my son would say at any place and any time in the days when he was first introduced to the game of tag. If he wanted to end the tickling or stop the chasing, he would claim a piece of furniture, staircase banister or corner of the room as his safe haven. No one could touch him there. And he relished the power and security of his base. I considered that as I recently heard from friends with multiple siblings who would experience an emotional game of tag during times when children were overtired or hungry or otherwise on edge. “Tag! You’re it!” was the sub-text as one upset child passed her mood to the other. Unfortunately unlike tag, the upset was not only passed on but also retained by the tagger and often grew stronger among all members of the family.

When emotions are high, wouldn’t…

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How Do We Cultivate Compassion in our Kids?

Mom Daughter inviting girl to park by Jennifer MillerHow do we, as parents, help our kids experience and develop compassion? It’s a concern of mine as I look around me and notice my family’s eyes glued to screens and those activities encroaching on my child’s attention. And when he looks up, is he so busy with summer camp, friends or other extracurriculars that he can only focus on his own needs? But then I recalled my son engaging in a small act of compassion without my prompting and I had reason for hope. It cued me into ways to foster compassion in our children.

I recalled it was morning circle time at preschool. Parents and kids were gathered on the floor to listen and participate. We typically sang a song together and the teacher shared announcements. My son’s friend, Tony was itching to tell my son E something. He squirmed in his seat. A few times, he caught himself starting a conversation and then would clamp his hand down on his mouth turning back to face his teacher. He knew he should be listening. I noticed E was aware of his eagerness too.

After circle time, E turned to Tony and asked, “What do you want to tell me?” Tony started and stopped numerous times struggling to find the words. You could see by his wide-eyed expression that this was incredibly important to him. E remained patient while Tony stuttered as his classmates hurried around him heading to the various play stations to start the day. Finally, Tony told E that his Dad couldn’t stay for the morning circle. Last evening, his Dad had fallen in the basement and it had resulted in a bad headache that morning. I watched as E listened so intently to a story that took far longer than a preschooler’s typical attention span. I hung back and noticed E making eye contact and waiting while Tony got out his full story. After, E asked, “Did the fall hurt?” He waited again patiently for Tony’s response and then asked, “Do you think he’s going to be okay today?” Tony assured himself as much as he assured E that yes, his Dad was going to be okay. And I watched as the two of them ran off to the sand table to play, Tony now smiling.

The word compassion means “to suffer together.” Though empathy is related – understanding the thoughts and feelings of another – compassion takes those feelings a step further with the desire to act on those feelings to provide help or support. Sometimes that help or support requires great effort and grand gestures although more often, it involves patience, understanding, listening and being there for a person who is clearly in pain. To truly show compassion is difficult. First, it requires noticing what’s going with others – their thoughts and feelings. So the first step toward compassion is empathy, which alone is tough to master. But then, after we work to feel others’ emotions, we must allow ourselves to “hang in there” with them to help them through whatever it is they are going through.

Adults can become quite adept at shutting down those feelings since, through experience, they know it’s going to be painful. Often we feel we have enough pain of our own. So we feel we are unable to take on another’s. Yet the deepest intimacies and connections are formed through our allowance of that kind of compassion. Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says our brains are hard-wired for helping others so that in order to become compassionate, we simply have to notice that another is suffering. He told a story in his TED Talk about seeing a man shirtless and on the ground in the subway. He noticed multitudes of people just walking over him not really noticing him. Daniel bent down to check on him and when he did, suddenly, a dozen others noticed. They found he was starving and had passed out. So in mere minutes, that man was sipping orange juice, holding a hot dog and being revived through the nourishment of strangers. It all started with noticing.

Recently, my friend and collaborator, Shannon Wanless, a developmental psychologist said so eloquently, “It is those small everyday moments that define the parent that we are.” So true. And with that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how we might cultivate compassion with our family members.

Notice hurt or suffering. Because of our automatic tendency to avoid pain, we have to actively work to notice other’s pain. Otherwise, our default may kick in and we may not see what or who is right in front of us. As we notice and comment to our children on other’s pain, we build awareness in our children. My son has always been fascinated by ambulances. But as we know, there is a painful back story to every siren’s call. So I talk about that with my son each time one passes by us. And we think about those individuals, family members and the emergency medical team with the person and hope they will be okay.

Model and practice listening skills. As Steven Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” E did that for his friend Tony in preschool and helped him return to his play and learning. We all can use practice in our busy lives. Some listening skills to practice are

  • Active listening is listening to fully understand what the person is saying, both thoughts and feelings. Wait until the person is clearly finished. A response could be a simple “Yes!” or “Uh-huh.” or “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
  • Providing wait time is particularly important with children but can also be important with adults. We get anxious with our own needs and thoughts and jump in
    before the speaker can complete his thought. Providing wait time can allow for deeper thinking and better responses particularly when you ask questions of others. What you may perceive as awkward silence may actually provide the space for the speaker to formulate her thoughts and come back to you with a well-considered response.
  • Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But this step is an important way to teach children how to listen for comprehension. It forces the listeners to step up their game as they are going to be “on the spot” to communicate back what you have said.
  • Seeking clarification is something that we, as adults, may do naturally. Particularly if we are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, we seek clarification on details so that we are certain we understand. Practice seeking clarification with your child and reinforce when they are able to do it on their own. Mom, for example, might say to Dad: “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning. What happened?”
  • Questioning or commenting with empathy takes practice. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own opinions or experiences, you focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. Avoid using “I” in your response. An example might be, my son said, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait.” As a parent, I might be tempted to respond with, “I built a bird house when I was in school.” which focuses back on me. Instead you might say, “Okay. Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some but to children, it is a major challenge and requires experience. Your modeling will make a difference in their own comfort with this style of communication.

Demonstrate care. Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world.

Use caring conversation tools. Some schools teach children to use a hand signal – thumb pointed to self and pinky finger pointed outward – to offer a “Me too!” while someone is sharing an experience. This allows for connection without interruption. Also practice identifying the feeling in any thoughts shared. For example, “How do you think that made Dad feel today when his boss called him into his office?” And also, distinguish between a person and her choices. A child is tempted to say “I don’t like Billy.” when Billy takes her toy. Instead help her rephrase and reframe her thoughts to say “I don’t like that Billy took my toy.” Every child makes poor choices but each child can feel like they still belong in a family, classroom or friendship circle.

Encourage cross-age kindness and connection. Whether you have siblings or neighbors of various ages, there is an opportunity to create relationships with children who are different – going through different developmental milestones and experiencing different friendships and curricula during the school day. This becomes great practice for acceptance and inclusion. Do not allow siblings or children in a neighborhood group to be marginalized. Encourage your child to be the one to reach out and include the child who is being left out. With siblings, encourage older siblings to care for younger ones and involve them in play at the level they are able.

Discuss what it means to be a good friend. What it means to be a friend can be a regular topic for conversation to revisit as your child grows and changes. What does it mean to you to be a good friend? How do you feel when you are excluded? How can you make new children in your school or neighborhood feel welcome? It’s easy to tell children what not to do (and important in establishing boundaries) but it’s equally important to think through with them what they can and should do instead.

As I reflected on cultivating compassion, I realized, as a parent, I have to lead the way. I have to take those everyday moments to notice the ambulance and the people inside it, to notice the neighbor who is struggling to bring in her garbage can and the friend whose face is wrinkled with worries. My simple intention to do this – to notice – will make all of the difference in raising a compassionate child.

Picture Books on Compassion:

Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
A brother loves his sister who has exceptional needs just because.

Rabbit’s Gift by George Shannon
Woodland animals pass on to each other a turnip left as an anonymous gift.

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Williams
Two young Afghani girls in a refugee camp share one pair of sandals.

The Can Man by Laura E. Williams
A young boy wants to earn money for a skateboard by collecting cans but changes his mind after seeing a homeless man also collecting cans.

Young Adult Fiction:

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Born with a facial deformity, a fifth-grade boy deals with trying to be ordinary while the kids around him act either kind and brave or horribly and mean.

Daniel Goleman’s TED Talk on compassion:

Using Strange Calm

Strange Calm by Jennifer Miller“Our Mom wasn’t like other Moms.” a twenty-something daughter of my mentor recalled. “As kids, when we were doing something crazy, she wouldn’t yell. She would get so quiet.”
“And she moved really slowly.” added the thirty-something sister. “We called it her strange calm.”
“And I guess it worked because we were weirded out by it but we stopped what we were doing and just watched her.”

I listened to this conversation years ago before I became a parent but have recently realized the power of its application in family life. Do you notice that musical pieces that include a moment of silence have the greatest emotional impact? You stop and notice the silence. And the energy of the piece changes. The lack of sound calls attention through sheer contrast. Teachers in schools apply this principle and talk at a whisper when it’s getting too loud. “Those who can hear my voice, clap once. Those who can hear my voice, clap twice.” And on a much larger scale, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi used their own form of calmness as social nonviolent protest. And it changed the tone of the conflict. It was impossible to ignore. Escalation of the emotional drama either by yelling, punishing or getting upset is expected by kids. But what if you sat down in the middle of it, shut your eyes and became quiet?

Strange calm is an easy technique to use at home as well in times of great chaos or even when kids are misbehaving. There are numerous benefits to this strategy. At the very least, you will not contribute to the emotional upheaval. It gives you the chance to breathe, restore your mental facilities and think about the situation at hand before acting. You will be more capable of a constructive response – the one you might hope for and plan for in calmer times – because of the chance to pause and reflect. And additionally, you are modeling self-management and self-discipline in a challenging moment. This is particularly impactful modeling for children who struggle with impulse control.

When discussing a family emotional safety plan at a recent workshop, one parent said, “I would love to be able to leave the room to calm down when I am upset and my kids are acting out but I’m afraid they’ll hurt one another. I don’t feel like I can leave.” When siblings are fighting, it may enrage a parent standing nearby but leaving to calm down may not be practical. So why not calm down right where you are?

Another parent carried around post-it notes and pen and wrote down her frustrations when the volume and upset escalated with her kids. “My daughter stopped and wanted to know what I was doing.” And that’s the idea. It stops her disturbing action. She has the opportunity to pause and find out what’s going on with Mom. Her daughter is learning that there are a number of ways to cope with stressful moments that do not involve contributing to and escalating the conflict.

Like anything worthwhile, moderation is best. Use this technique too often and it becomes expected and perhaps ignored. But use it when the chaos is escalating along with your last nerves and you may feel a renewed sense of power and control as you change the tone of your environment.

* Thanks for the inspiration, Ginny Blankenship, Anna and Margaret Lang!

Originally posted May 1, 2015.

Directing Kids’ Energies When Indoors in the Summer

Alliance building by Jennifer MillerRainy Day? Here are some ideas to get the wiggles out!

Though there are many more opportunities to exert energy outdoors this time of year through swimming, biking and hiking, there are also those rainy days or the days in which the sweltering heat and humidity drive everyone indoors. Screens are a constant temptation. And kids and parents might be mesmerized by video games or movies as the daylight hours pass. But kids require daily movement and time to play and use their imaginations. On days such as these, kids may need a little help with ideas of what to do. After all, the screens provide high stimulation and all the direction they need to be entertained. When they leave them behind, they could wind up feeling like their toys and household pale in comparison to the action they viewed. And sometimes kids’ need to get out the wiggles leads them to misbehaviors and us to irritation. Whether it’s throwing their bodies around in ways which are destructive to your indoor furnishings or jumping on you, kids can use help in finding constructive outlets for their energy so that they don’t resort to behaviors that will be a problem for you and your family.

Our family created a poster with all of our collective ideas for non-screen playtime around the house. Our son visits that poster from time to time to view his own ideas to stimulate his thinking when he’s looking for something to do. He included doing puzzles, lego-building, piano playing and more. But sometimes, he needs my help with ideas.

If it’s rainy or too humid and buggy outside to play or you’ve already had your outdoor fun but the wiggles continue, you need indoor solutions. Here are my ideas for ways to get them moving!

Hard Floor Spin-Off
See how many times your child can spin on his or her bottom on the hardwood floor. Keep track and try to beat your own scores. Parents may get dizzy just watching but for many kids, this is pure fun.

Dance Party
Turn on some music and dance it out. Give your kids the chance to pick or select their favorites. To extend the activity, they could decorate the dance room with their own handmade disco ball or confetti but it’s not necessary. Just dance!

Keep It Off the Ground
Regardless of the age of the child, it amazes me at the interest in a single balloon. Blow up an average balloon and challenge your kids to keep it off the ground. This winter, we added that if anyone misses the balloon and it touches the ground, he or she has to take a lap around the house.

Hide the Object
Find an object that your child agrees he’d like to seek and find. Then, take turns hiding it in all corners of the house. You can use “cold, warm and hot” as indicators of how close he is to finding it.

Indoor Olympics (with safety rules first)
If your kids are familiar with the Olympics, involve them in creating their own set of household-appropriate Olympic games. Maybe you do a ball roll or a long jump and measure it. Perhaps kids create a pillow obstacle course. Maybe they see how many push ups they can do. Demonstrate one Olympic challenge you create and then, challenge them to create their own. Use a timer and encourage them to beat their own time. Do set safety rules before they begin such as, balls stay on the ground or the basement is the only place where games can take place. Do a finale in which they have to do each game in a row.

Climbing Rhyming Game
Start at the bottom of the stairway. Kids can pick any word (such as dog) or phrase (such as dog food) and then, they move up a step. Each time they climb, they need to add a rhyming word (such as fog) or phrase (fog mood). They stay on the step until they can come up with one. Try it a few times and see if they can get all the way up.

Lively Clue (for several kids)
Dress up a stuffed friend with a costume and accessories. Pretend he has perpetrated an innocuous crime, like littering in the park. If you can give him a name and a back story, it will stir kids’ imagination and they’ll have more fun with it. Now all but one hides the criminal in a remote part of the house. Those who know where he is have to provide clues to help the “detective” who does not know how to find him. If they can add to his story and embellish his character through their clues, so much the better.

Family Back Massage
Be certain to demonstrate first and set boundaries before trying. Show kids the acceptable area on a person’s back and shoulders that they can massage. Show on each child’s back how to be very gentle or apply a little more pressure. When finished, do the “Tennis Ball Tighten and Release” exercise which helps with calming bodies down. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then let it go. Try this at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time tighten those muscles for a few seconds and then fully release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.

Follow the Leader Tai Chi Style
Have you ever watched individuals doing Tai Chi in the park? Practitioners move every muscle in their body but slowly, fluidly and with control. The movement tends to flow and not stop. Challenge your kids to do the game follow the leader with this slow, ongoing movement. It can be very difficult so they may need to take breaks but see if they can move through the entire house in this way.

Alphabet/Word/Phrase Treasure Hunt
This can be great practice for kids who are learning letters, words or phrases. Write each letter of the alphabet (or word or phrase) on single index cards, one per card. Tape a letter or word card to an object that begins with that letter. For example, the “P” card gets taped to the piano. Place the cards all over the house. You can make the placement of the cards easy or hard to find depending upon what kind of challenge you anticipate will be enjoyable for your child. Give your child a full alphabet as a reference throughout the game (if finding letters) and also a gift bag to collect the cards. Now hunt! Each time your child finds a card, in order to “claim the prize,” (a.k.a. put it in his gift bag) he must name the letter (or word). If he cannot, no problem. Look and sing through his alphabet reference and find it together or sound out the word.

For Tweens/Teens:
Family Organization
You may not be able to motivate your kids to organize their toys and other possessions on their own. But initiate the activity as a team, work with them, and they may enjoy the process and get moving too. Have bins and labels at the ready. Talk about separating out unused toys and donating them to a local resource center, day care or Goodwill.

Music Video Dance Routine
Can you mimic the dances that are performed in favorite music videos? Look up some videos that you know and dance along! Teens will be sweaty in no time! Better yet, produce your own. Plan out the setting, costumes and script. Then, ready, set, action. Perhaps debut the new music video after dinner for the whole family to watch.

Jumping Jack Challenge
Have your teen select a favorite high energy tune and see how many jumping jacks she can do in a row. Work up to doing it throughout the entire song.
The cold winter months can be a time when families laugh, play and connect with one another without many of the distractions that come with the warmer months. Thinking about a few ways to get your family moving can create a more positive environment in your household. Kids will get their physical needs met and you can enjoy that extra time together.

Summer offers a great number of opportunities to get exercise and play outdoors. But when time inside is required, kids may be challenged with getting their energy out in ways that keep all people – and your furniture! – safe. Try out these and other ideas and see if you can’t offer them some constructive ways to get their wiggles out!


For more ideas, you can likely find the following resource at your local library:

What the Fun?! 427 Simple Ways to Have Fantastic Family Fun by Donna Bozzo41s8MUmk0bL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

Stop, Think, Go! Summer Problem-Solving

Learn the following simple steps of the traffic light model and practice problem-solving with your kids as a game this summer. And try out the rap that goes with it! Then, gently remind and use it each time siblings or friends get into a conflict. It can empower kids with the skills to work through their own relationship issues in constructive ways. Traffic Light by Jennifer Miller“He messed with my stuff while I was gone. My Lego set is broken. Moooooooom!” cries Zachary about his brother. Sibling rivalry is a common family problem. Mom could fix it. “Go help your brother fix his Lego set.” Or she could help her children learn valuable skills in problem-solving. These opportunities for practicing critical life skills happen daily if you look for them. Collaborative problem solving is not one skill alone but requires a whole host of skills including self-control and stress management, self-awareness of both thoughts and feelings, perspective-taking and empathy, listening and effectively communicating, goal setting, anticipating consequences and evaluating actions.

Roger Weissberg, one of the top leaders in the field and Chief Knowledge Officer for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and my mentor, ongoing collaborator and friend agreed to share the Traffic Light model that he and his colleagues created at Yale University with the New Haven Public Schools. The Social Development Project affected the lives of countless children, a district drawing from one of the lowest-income communities in the country. Students learned, practiced and used these skills in role playing and real life settings over and again making the development of these social skills a part of the culture and expectations of that school system. Read full article.


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