Deck the Halls with Mental Well-Being

Managing Our Own Seasonal Stress Just Might Be the Greatest Gift of All

My son burst into tears as his friends waited at our door to play. He had fallen up our stairs and gashed his shin on the metal rims of the hall steps. I plopped on the floor to comfort him and as he turned to me, he said, “Mom, you told me to hurry.” And why? Why did he need to hurry? In my mind, I had a million tasks to accomplish including facilitating his tasks – homework, dinner and holiday preparations. I had thought it could be good for him to get outside and run around with his pals for a short time. But I was pressuring him to hurry up and why? “Quick, go examine bugs under the rocks?!” The pointlessness of my urging dawned on me. As he ran out and the door shut, I noticed the quiet in our house and really stopped for the first time that day. What was I doing?

With the holiday season upon us – no matter what holiday you are celebrating – you may be feeling similarly – fully in the throes of too much to do with too little time. And the knot in your tummy may be growing as mine has been. In a time when I want to produce joy for my family, I realize I am a lesser version of what I can be because of stress. I know I will get to this anxiety-ridden place well before the major events actually happen. And somehow I feel powerless to stop it. There’s still work to get accomplished before taking time off. There’s still the same amount of presents to buy for others (and actually, more as E’s friends and connections grow). There’s still cookies to bake, decorations to hang and packages to send.

And so I write this post to help myself as much as you, dear reader, think about and deal with the situation we find ourselves in. In the very midst of the chaos, how can we keep our calm center? And how can we recall that our state of mind and being will impact the way others experience our celebrations together? Our stress will show. And whether we like or not, it’s contagious. It spreads like a virus and others get snappy and agitated – not conducive attitudes for cooperation more less jubilation.

Whether you celebrate Hannukah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, all of the major holidays this season celebrate light in the darkness. And that’s the gift I most want to give my family and the one I think they will appreciate beyond the “stuff.” Yes, I’ll bring gifts. But more importantly, I am setting an intention to prepare myself for the experience of celebrating with family and friends. I plan to deck our halls with a feeling of peace and joy and appreciation for others and our abundance. And I know that has to begin with me. Here are a few things I plan to do that, maybe, you’ll consider for yourself.

Engage in deep breathing each day. I was in the habit of taking ten deep breaths before I launched into work each morning but my routine fell away as the season crowded my moments. So I plan to return to this practice to set a tone for my day.

Get exercise and fresh air. The routine of breathing outside and getting to the gym could easily also fall away with the season. But I know these are the activities that keep me centered, focused and feeling resilient. So I plan to make special arrangements while my son is home over the extended break so that I am sure to keep my routines sacred for the benefit of my whole family. If I cannot get to the gym, then a walk around the block will become an easy substitute.

Mentally prepare before events. My sparkling outfit is not as important as the demeanor, the tone or the mood I bring to any celebration. Whether it’s in my own home, at a friend’s house or in a restaurant, the way I engage with others matters significantly. It can mean the difference between really connecting or “phoning it in” without true interchange. There may be individuals that you celebrate with only one time a year. This is that moment, that unique opportunity to bring your focused attention to them. I will set my own intention to focus on the present before I go so that when I arrive, I am ready to fully engage with whoever comes my way. I’ll stop and take a pause before leaving the house or answering the doorbell. This small step can have a ripple effect on my own and my family’s experience of the holidays. I know this will set an example and tone for my child. I notice when I’m stressed, he’s stressed. But when I’m calm and engaging with others, he does the same.

Set goals for connection. When you go to a party, you likely anticipate who you’ll see. Sometimes that anticipation creates anxiety if you’ve had challenges with individuals in the past or if those individuals view you in ways that you do not view yourself. Those interactions can be opportunities for your own growth in social and emotional competence. Instead of dreading those who challenge you, ask yourself three important questions.

  • What can I learn from this individual who challenges me?
  • How can I begin to understand her perspective and feel compassion for her?
  • How can I bring my best self to that conversation?

I know that if I model curiosity and compassion, that will have a direct impact on how my child interacts with others. I want to leave a party feeling like I know more about the individuals that I met than I did walking into the room. And what if I also learned more about myself by attempting to relinquish worries about what I’m saying and what messages I’m communicating about my own life but focus on learning about others, finding common ground and sharing my ability to be empathetic and show care?

Say “no” when it’s too much. Instead of cramming each activity into every space of time in the few weeks left in the year, consider what might be too much. Have you accounted for quiet rest time? Have you considered how the pace will impact family members? We rarely plan our schedules for our mental well-being but particularly in this season of over-commitment, it can be worth asking, “What do we really want or need to do?” “When can we get in rest time?” and “Are there plans we need to say “no” to?

Express gratitude daily. The holiday season is a time of high contrasts – tremendous sorrow missing loved ones that have passed on or reflecting upon our tough circumstances and then, also feeling the magic, imagination and sheer bliss of children’s experience of the traditions surrounding the holidays. It’s an emotional time. So it requires us to become more planful about our big emotions. One way to balance out our adult angst is to express gratitude with our children daily. Whether you mention your gratitude over breakfast or during the ride home from school or at bedtime, kids will benefit by actively appreciating all that they have. And you will benefit by recognizing the goodness in your life. If one of your traditions includes an advent calendar, why not offer words of gratitude with each passing day as you count down the season? It will assist you as you set a positive tone with your family.

Carving out time and space for your mental well-being may seem like another “to do” to add to the list. But consider the fact that paying attention to the tone of your family and setting an example will give you energy and motivation as you gently experience your days. The gift of your attention certainly is one of the most important for your children and your partner. You will be setting the tone for all members of your household to truly experience all of the enjoyment the season has to offer. While you are decorating your home, consider how you might also deck your halls with mental well-being this season! Happy holidays!

Published originally on Confident Parents, Confident Kids on December 13, 2016.

In Search of Purpose

New Opportunities to Help Our Teens Find Meaning

Though the answer to the question, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” continues to change – and precisely because the answer changes – we ask it throughout childhood. My four-year-old declared he wanted to be Darth Vader. My seven-year-old knew he wanted to be a Dad someday. And my now ten-year-old is an aspiring Lego Master Builder. Children dream of what they will do and more importantly, who they will become as they grow. Discovering the “why” of one’s life, the meaning behind your own unique way of being and contributing is your sense of purpose. It’s the answer to the big question – “Why am I here?” – and it evolves over a lifetime. In fact, as adults, we may grapple with our own sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. And that grappling is critical. Children and adults who wrestle to find their own answers and attempt to live in alignment with their sense of purpose tend to be happier and enjoy greater mental well-being says research.

As the numbers of U.S. tweens and teens who struggle with anxiety and depression grow, conversations about their unique potentials for contributions to the world become vital. Because the only person to know and uncover your child’s purpose is your child, listening and opening the door to reflection is more important than pointing to any answers.

Young children can begin to make the connection between life choices and sense of purpose as you reflect on your own decisions as a parent. What is meaningful to you? Why do you engage in the work or other activities you engage in? And how does that engagement relate to the larger world? How have you discovered your own sense of meaning and ways to contribute?

Perhaps the way we get in our own way in finding our own sense of purpose is by fearing the “what if.” “What if I am no good at what I aspire to?” “What if I get rejected?” “What if my interests don’t point to a money-making or practical opportunity?” Children, as they grow and become more socially aware, hold these fears too whether they are willing to voice them or not. So how do we help them not allow fears to dictate their future? How do we help them find their own authenticity?

We best assist our children in finding their purpose by placing our trust in their ability to find their own answers. We can demonstrate that confidence by reaffirming their inner knowledge each time they question it. Susie, at age eleven, asserted, “I can’t begin piano now. Everyone already knows how to play. I don’t know anything.” Yet Susie showed she had a genuine interest as she hung around the piano and watched others play longingly. We all have those moments of looking up at the mountain of learning before us. But when we follow our interests, our pulls, our curiosities – and when parents support their children in doing so – we get closer to understanding who we are and why we are who we are.

Discovering our sense of purpose begins with those interests but is further refined when we ask, “How can my unique interests benefit the world?” Then we can begin to make connections to a larger purpose finding our own place in contributing to the greater good. And when we identify how we can help contribute to something bigger, we are motivated to do whatever is necessary to make a difference. There are certainly enough issues to tackle. Our world needs every single high school graduate to find their own best way to serve.

When our emerging adult sons and daughters come to us in frustration, we can guide them to search within. You might hear, “Everyone else knows what they are going to do with their lives. I have no clue!” Or perhaps you recall uttering similar words at one point yourself. What if your parent told you that you already possessed the answers? What if they encouraged you to get quiet, to ask questions about what you love, what you care about and how you could contribute, and really listen? Then you could gain insight into the realm of your very own potentials.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley recognizes the importance of helping young people discover their sense of purpose. They’ve created the Purpose Challenge – a set of resources including guiding questions to stir deeper thinking and a scholarship fund in order to support this effort and encourage more young people to explore from within. If you are a parent of high school age children, this is well worth checking out! Here’s more on this wonderful opportunity:

About The Purpose Challenge:

An innovative and inspiring new online tool, The Purpose Challenge incorporates video content, reading materials, and brief written exercises – such as imagining your ideal life at age 40 – to help high school seniors reflect on and refine their sense of purpose. It draws on decades of research into the roots and benefits of purpose.

Teens can then inject their newly fleshed out sense of purpose in their college application essay and win up to $25,000 for college! The deadline is February 1, 2018. Learn more at

Why Purpose?

The partners in this effort including University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the John Templeton Foundation and the social impact company, Prosocial believe purpose is critically important. Research has shown that a strong sense of purpose – a commitment to something that is both personally rewarding and beneficial to others – is linked to improved health, well-being, and success. A stronger sense of purpose can make a significant difference in a young person’s life path, setting them on a course for a more successful, meaningful life.

Check out this fantastic brief video that shares more on understanding your purpose.


Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning – A New Discussion Series Free to School Communities

A Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Initiative

I was honored to partner with CASEL on this important discussion series piloted last Spring in which parents came together to discuss their hopes for their parenting and for their children and how they might align those hopes with social and emotional skill building. The pilot with a Chicago Public School community was such an incredible success motivating parent leaders to take action in their own families and in their communities. In fact, six additional Chicago Public Schools will be engaging in this dialogue in the coming year. So this past week, CASEL launched an online guide of the series so that any school community might take advantage of the chance to initiate these potentially transformative conversations.

Families are a child’s first teacher and an essential factor in the cultivation of social and emotional competencies throughout a child’s life. When schools and families work together, they can build strong connections that reinforce social-emotional skill development. In fact, research suggests that evidence-based SEL programs are more effective when they extend into the home. This discussion series was developed to support schools and community partners that wish to engage parents and caregivers in conversations about the social and emotional growth of their families. Each of these eight sessions helps caregivers become more familiar with social and emotional learning and encourages them to actively engage in their own growth while supporting their children to practice social and emotional skills. Each session lasts about 60 minutes and is scripted in both English and Spanish. It is recommended that groups be limited to no more than ten participants to ensure that each participant is able to contribute.

Check it out! Learn more in English!   Or check out the Spanish version. If you are a parent or an educator, introduce these to your school community and see if you might find like-minded others who are willing to participate. This is a concrete way to take action and really make a difference!


For this opportunity to collaborate, I am grateful to CASEL, Jo Salazar and most especially, the ongoing mentorship and friendship of Roger Weissberg.

May you and yours feel your own sense of gratitude for your families over the coming weeks! If you celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving!

Cultivating Family Gratitude Means Nurturing Family Well-Being

If you worry and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings

Count your Blessings, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, 1942

It’s true. People who think about what they are grateful for do sleep better at night. Psychologists have done research on gratefulness and found that it increases people’s health, sense of well-being and their ability to get more and better sleep at night. One study from a leading researcher on gratitude at the University of California, Davis found that thankfulness can prevent a second heart attack in patients that have already gone through that trauma.A person who experiences the benefits of being grateful is a person who has developed it as a habit of thinking.

Parenting articles often address the concerns of entitlement in our culture;the need for our children to appreciate their lives and circumstances. Many of us live in a privileged society in which our daily needs are met without worry.

When little Jackson receives a gift, his dad tells him “You need to appreciate what you have instead of asking for more…” Yet when children are getting gifts, there is a desire for more and more. They are in the mode of getting and so they perpetuate that frame of thinking. It is our responsibility to at least balance the riches with a sense of appreciation. Scolding or making a child feel bad for wanting more is confusing since adults are typically doing the gift-giving in the first place. Children won’t understand why adults are placing a limit on their wishes. And should there be a limit? Dreaming of abundance can lead to more abundance. I want my child to be a practiced “wisher and dreamer” as well as being a practiced “appreciator and contributor”.

So the question remains. How do we teach our children to truly appreciate their lives and the many gifts they already have?

The answer lies in those small habits of thinking that can be reinforced every day in your household.

Morning Modeling

You can create habits of grateful thinking in your family. Begin your day by modeling the habit of thinking that you’d like all others in your family to adopt.

Place a sticky note reminder near the coffee maker. Or buy yourself a beautiful mug that will nudge you each morning. Make a point before each member of the family goes off to school and work to look for specific ways to appreciate them. “You are taking responsibility for putting your dishes in the sink when you finish breakfast. I appreciate that.” It works for your partner too. “I saw you took out the garbage yesterday which is typically my job. I really appreciate when you notice things that need to get done and just do them.” This helps each person, including you, the appreciator, start the day feeling good.

Home Sweet Home

Appreciating your environment, your home, possessions, and neighborhood are important since that environment plays a key role in shaping your daily experience. The following idea is borrowed from the Jewish concept of a Mezuzah, typically a beautiful small vessel that contains parchment with inscribed blessings from the Torah.

Place a small framed photograph of your home or picture of a favorite spot in your home and touch it each time you leave the house or enter. This recognition of your house as a blessing will help all family members cultivate a regular awareness and practice of appreciating your home.

Also, ensuring that all members of the family have responsibilities in keeping your home a safe, clean and well-organized environment is another way that all members demonstrate their appreciation of your home. It’s not enough to assign children a task. Be sure that you do it with them the first few times, modeling how you want things organized or cleaned, providing adequate tools for the job and making sure that they are capable. Allot a time for your family to do their chores together. This helps children feel a sense of contribution and togetherness and helps you avoid nagging. In many families, one person does the majority of the work and though things may get done more uniformly and in a more timely manner, it does a disservice to the others who may show greater respect and investment if they are contributing to their environment.

Dinnertime Sharing

Whether you say a prayer or grace before eating or not, this is an ideal time to find out what individuals are grateful for that day. Family dinners together are an important way to connect and typically a time to recount the events of the day. Why not include a conversation about what you are grateful for?

Lead the way and model by contributing your grateful thoughts. Particularly in the month of November, our family counts down each day to Thanksgiving by using a felt tree made by Grandma Linda with leaves that are pockets for notes of gratefulness. For those who do not have the benefit of a crafty Grandma Linda, get a branch out of your yard and place it in a stable vase. Cut leaves out of construction paper and write your grateful thoughts on the leaves and attach each day. At dinner, we discuss what we want to write as our most grateful thought for our family that day. The same idea can be used for the holiday season as a countdown. During a season of giving and much receiving on the part of little ones, it’s a real opportunity to promote appreciation on a daily basis.

Bedtime Reflection

Bedtime is a natural time for reflection and appreciation. After turning on E’s nightlight and turning off the lights, we talk quietly about the day. As we go through the events, it affords me the opportunity to let him know when I am proud of him. I point those out and name them specifically as they come up naturally with the review. “It was thoughtful of you to offer your friend a snack when he came to play with us this afternoon.” This leads naturally into discussing gratefulness which we call our “happy thoughts.” Each night we have a habit of naming the people, things or experiences from the day that we are grateful for. Thoughts of gratefulness not only put a child in a calm, positive state of mind to promote a restful night of sleep but also help children appreciate the good things in life and focus on them and not take anything for granted.

Holiday Gifts

During the holiday season, many gifts are exchanged with children typically at the center of the gift pile. Remember that in the moment of gift getting, it’s impossible to change or control children’s reactions. So practice in advance. Wrap up a cookie or bag of pretzels in a box and let your children know that you are going to practice. Remind them of the behaviors you want to see them exhibit. Advise them that they should be sure to look at the person who gave them the gift and to say thank you even if it’s something they don’t like or already have. Then, draw on that practice experience before you enter a gift-receiving situation by giving a quick reminder. Be sure to involve children in thinking about giving gifts too. It’s not enough to pick up a gift while you are at the mall.

Ask your child about Dad’s favorite things and give him or her the opportunity to brainstorm ideas for potential gifts. This will allow them to practice the values of perspective and empathy. They will feel proud and fully invested when they have thought through a gift they know a parent will truly love. Follow through and get or make one of the gift ideas from your child. This will give her the full joy of giving a gift out of love.

In addition, involve your child in giving to those who have less. It does not matter how much of the process your child understands. What matters is that you take the time to model and involve them in delivering canned goods to a local food bank or buying a present for a family that otherwise might not have much for the holiday. All of these opportunities for practice will balance out the holiday “gimmies” and teach valuable lessons in gratefulness.

As with any change in behavior or thinking, it’s the day-to-day changes that make a difference over time. So begin with one small step toward adding gratefulness into your family life and see if it makes a difference. The reward of that first step will help to motivate you toward a grateful state of mind.

Here are a few resources:

Parenting books that discuss gratefulness

Carter, C. (2011). Raising happiness; Ten simple steps for more joyful kids and happier parents. NY: Ballantine Books.

Hawn, G. & Holden, W. (2011). Ten mindful minutes. NY: Perigee.

Rubin, G. (2012). Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project,
Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. NY: Crown Archetype Publishing Group.

Childrens’ books on appreciating what you have

Berenstain, S., & Berenstain, J. (1995). The Berenstain Bears count their blessings. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Wilson, K. (2012). Bear says thanks. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Childrens’ books on appreciating who you are

McCue, L. (2011). Quiet bunny’s many colors. NY: Sterling Children’s Books.

Tillman, N. (2010). On the night you were born. NY: Feiwel & Friends.

Cusimano, M. (2001). You are my I love you. NY: Philomel.

Children’s book on appreciating nature

Yolen, J. (1987). Owl moon. NY: Scholastic.

Originally published on Medium on December 15, 2015.

A New Children’s Book Series

For Promoting Social and Emotional Skills in the Home or Classroom

Mandy is having a tough day because each friend or relative she meets can’t play. But the narrator of this story asks good questions of Mandy to learn more. It turns out her friend got in trouble and wasn’t allowed to play. Another friend got sick and similarly, her Mom had a headache. As Mandy is prompted to consider the perspectives of others, she begins to shift how she views her situation. Instead of feeling sad about herself and what she didn’t get to do, she feels empathy for the struggles of others.

This forms the basis of one of the stories in the new book series, “Grit Up.” The children’s books in this series directly address many of our hopes and aspirations for our children. They help us take steps toward achieving those hopes by aligning them with research-based social and emotional skills.

In our day-to-day parenting with our kids, we may not see how we are engaged in promoting life skills. Yet during even the most mundane tasks, like getting out of the door on time in the morning or getting homework accomplished each evening, there lies the chance for us to model and practice social and emotional skills.

We hope our children will have a positive, hopeful outlook on life. And when we express our gratitude for our lives and for each family member, we bolster their self-awareness. We also may help reframe our child’s thinking when he is working on a challenging math problem and begins to say he can’t do it. Our conviction that he can do it helps reinvent his negative self-talk so that he believes in his ability to work hard.

We hope our children will act with love and care toward others. And when we encourage siblings to be kind to one another or we offer a helping hand in our community with compassion, we offer authentic practice in empathy and teach our children social awareness.

We hope our children will manage their emotions, particularly the intense ones. And when we encourage calming down before making decisions or we take time out to reflect on our feelings with our children, we are promoting their self-management skills.

We hope our children will have loving, healthy relationships with friends and family. When we assert our love for them and we show how to disagree in ways that do not harm verbally or physically but help us stay connected, then we directly promote their relationship skills.

Finally, we hope our children will be responsible. We may even fear the days when they’ll be tempted by their peers to engage in unsafe activities. But when we address poor choices with reflection, when we talk about how their actions result in harm, and when we guide them to fix whatever it is they’ve broken – whether its feelings or property – we teach responsible decision-making. Instead of worrying about our children’s choices, we give them ample practice in thinking through a variety of small decisions so that when that “someday” comes for the big decisions on their own, they’ll be prepared.

I was delighted to be introduced to this book series designed for children 6-10 years-old entitled The Grit Up Series that can be used by parents or classroom teachers that teaches these core skills in a kid-friendly manner. Throughout the series, the main character, Mandy, encounters some typical experiences like anticipating a sleepover at a friend’s house or attempting a science fair project that just isn’t turning out as she hoped. A simple conversation unfolds between a narrator and Mandy offering her the chance to reflect on her feelings and her reactions to those feelings creating important lessons through common, everyday issues. Though it’s titled “Grit Up,” this series not only deals with self-management skills, but covers all five social and emotional competencies. I love the accompanying simple illustrations which bear a resemblance to the ones on this site!

Author, Abbie Kelley is a pediatric mental health therapist in Chicago, IL who offers a wide range of specialized treatments to serve children and families. Abbie created the Grit Up series as after realizing the need for simple, affordable and accessible resources on social and emotional learning.

There are eight books in the series covering each of the social and emotional skills including:

  • Grit Up; Helping Children Cope with Challenges
  • Emotion Commotion; Helping Children Calm their Intense Emotions
  • Gratitude Attitude; Helping Children Express Gratitude and Appreciation
  • Screech Speech; Helping Children Change Negative Self-Talk
  • Inner Celebration; Helping Children Feel Proud of their Accomplishments
  • Empathy; Helping Children Understand Other’s People’s Perspective
  • Head and Heart; Helping Children Develop Assertive and Respectful Communication
  • Care to Repair; Helping Children Take Responsibility for Hurtful Actions

Each of the books comes with discussion guides and can be used by classroom teachers or parents. Thanks for sharing these as a great resource for schools and parents, Abbie! Check them out here!

Further Reading:

For more on the power of story and using stories in your parenting, check out:

A Storied Childhood; The Role of Stories in Children’s Social and Emotional Development

Making the Most of Parent-Teacher Conferences

Are your parent-teacher conferences coming up as mine are? With limited time, how we can forge a trusting relationship as we support our children’s learning?

…no school can work well for children if parents and teachers do not act in partnership on behalf of the children’s best interests. Parents have every right to understand what is happening to their children at school, and teachers have the responsibility to share that information without prejudicial judgment…. Such communication, which can only be in a child’s interest, is not possible without mutual trust between parent and teacher.
– Dorothy H. Cohen

Parent-teacher conferences are upon us. Though we go into them with great hope for a productive dialogue about how our child is doing in school, sometimes we come away feeling like we didn’t get the information we wanted or don’t know exactly what our next steps should be. Perhaps later we begin to worry about his learning challenges but missed the opportunity to ask more about it. The conference for my son next week is scheduled for ten minutes in length. That’s enough time for a check-in only. So I know that I am going to need to be in communication with his teacher at other times if I am really going to understand how I can support his learning goals. With so little time together, it helps to enter the conversation in the right frame of mind. And also coming with a plan and questions at the ready can assist you in ensuring you are satisfied with the interchange.

Teachers have these brief meetings scheduled with 15-20+ parents, a short amount of time to communicate with a lot of people. Because of time and demands, the teacher may not come to the conversation with an understanding about your feelings and how you might receive their information. They have business to take care of. Hopefully, your teacher views this as a chance to further your relationship and show care for your child but sometimes, the pressure of a variety of goals overshadows a focus on the relationship. All you can control is your participation in the dialogue, so why not think a bit about it ahead of time and bring your best? The following is intended to support you as you prepare and enter into those conversations to get the most out of them.

Decide ahead on your intended outcomes.

What do you want to be certain about getting out of the meeting? Be clear and honest with yourself and your partner about what you need to hear from the teacher. You might ask yourself and your partner:- Do I want to hear about what my daughter does well?

– Do I want to hear about what my daughter does well?
– Do I want to hear how my daughter is struggling?
– Do I want to know what I can do as a parent to support her in her learning goals?
– Do I want to hear about my daughter in comparison to her classmates?
– Do I want to know how my daughter is getting along socially as well as academically?
– Are there problems that my daughter talks about at home that I need to seek
clarification on or learn more about?
– If my daughter is struggling with a subject, do I need to know what approaches the
teacher is taking to provide her extra support? And what approaches she recommends
for me to provide at home?

Take care of your own needs.
After asking yourself honestly what you want out of the conversation, you may anticipate that you’ll feel upset if your teacher says nothing about your daughter’s strengths and abilities. Some teachers enter a meeting in a problem-solving frame of mind and dive right into challenges and difficulties making it sound like that is their focus. It may also give the impression that in general, your daughter is struggling when in reality, she might be doing well in all areas but one. So take the initiative. “I’d like to hear about what strengths and abilities you see my daughter brings to her work.”

Assume the best intentions.
It can be difficult to leave behind biases we may have from our child coming home from school and complaining about the “torture” their teacher put them through that day. Try to set aside concerns you or your child may have about the teacher’s performance. After all, the goal of the meeting should be a partnership in supporting your child’s learning. And it’s likely that the teacher will be focused on learning goals too. Bring an open mind and the intention to actively listen to the teacher. Leave any critical baggage behind and enter the conversation with an intention to form an alliance with the teacher to support your child.

Be wise about learning goals.
Though many individuals will desire or expect a child to make an “A” grade or meet or exceed expectations in every subject or on every project, that’s not realistic nor is it wise. If deep learning is truly a value for you and your child, then set your expectations accordingly. Learning means working toward a standard but not always meeting or exceeding. In fact, if deep learning is taking place, then your child will be progressing toward his learning goal in a steady way but perhaps not making perfect grades. Your expectations of mistakes, failures, and difficulties along the way as part of the learning process will help you manage your own emotions about performance and also your child’s.

Find out your role.
Whether or not the teacher communicates it, it’s important to find out what his expectations are for you as a parent in supporting your child’s learning. Don’t make assumptions that you or he hold the same expectations. Ask, “What are your expectations for me as a parent in supporting my child’s learning?”

Ask for learning expectation clarification.
If the teacher talks to you about an area that requires more hard work from your child to make improvements, be sure you are clear about the goals, the steps to get there and expected outcomes from the teacher. You might ask,”What are the specific indicators my child is working toward?” Perhaps, for example, your child needs to improve her reading performance. In order to support her, you need specifics. Is the problem speed? Is it comprehension? Does she need work on vowel sounds? Then, you can ask, “What specifically do you suggest I do to help her reach her goal?” And, “How will I know when she reaches it?”

Printer-Friendly Version of Questions for Parent Teacher Conferences
Pick one or two of these questions as top priority for you to ask. You will likely not have time for anymore. If there are serious learning challenges or serious social issues such as, bullying, then be sure and use your time to set up a follow meeting to devote the time to this important discussion.

  1. What do you see as our child’s greatest assets/strengths in the classroom?
    2. What subjects is he doing well in? In those areas in which he is meeting or exceeding standards, why do you suspect he is doing well?
    3. What do you see as his greatest challenges?
    4. In what areas is he not meeting his academic goals? Why do you suspect he is not meeting them yet?
    5. What steps are you taking to help him move forward?
    6. What steps can we take at home to help him move forward? What do we, as parents, need to do? What does he need to do at home?
    7. If the goal is long-term, are there shorter benchmarks or milestones along the way that we can recognize to help encourage his ongoing efforts?
    8. Do classmates typically get along and care for one another? How is safety and bullying addressed in your classroom? Are there ways that I can help support school safety at home?
    9. Is there anything else we can do to support your efforts?
    10. If we have questions going forward, how best should we communicate with you? Do you prefer email, phone calls? What days and times are best?

Additionally, if you have not helped in the classroom yet and have the flexibility to do so, you may want to ask if your teacher might have a role for you. Even stapling and collating worksheets gets you in the classroom and shows your child that you are supportive of her schooling and her teacher’s efforts.

Follow up.
If after the conversation, you may begin to generate new worries or questions about how to support your child, so get back in touch. Teachers are busy people but do appreciate short communications if your intention is to clarify understanding and do what you can, in alignment with the teacher’s efforts, to support learning.
We know from research that parents’ involvement in a child’s school can largely predict their academic success.1 Take advantage of this post as a way to reflect and prepare for your upcoming meeting. See the printer-friendly version of the quick questions above and take them with you to make sure you are covering all of the issues that are important to you. Ensure that you are not only showing up but engaged in meaningful conversations with your child’s teacher as a partner in learning.

Check out the additional resources for Parents on Edutopia, The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s site, entitled “Parent Leadership Education Resources.”



As a teacher, I am a little concerned about conferences this year because of all of the new standards and common core language that is now in place. I am not really sure how to explain the terminology so the parents can explicitly understand. I am looking forward to meeting my parents but NOT looking forward to explaining all of the test results and data collections that have been done since August. From the KRA, STAR, SM6, reading progress monitoring test (which are given every two weeks), to the monthly math unit test; there has been little socializing going on in my kindergarten class.

I think the first time parents will be a little overwhelmed with what takes place in a kindergarten class nowadays and I think the veteran parents will be okay because they have been introduced to this new assess/data era. They already realize and understand that the common goal is to produce college and career ready graduates by implementing Ohio new learning standards with fidelity.

I still conduct my conferences by letting the parents tell me how they think the year is going, how they think their child is doing and how they think I am doing as the teacher. I am a firm believer in having the parents take control of the conference. This way, they lead and I follow. They like to feel like they are included in some their child’s classroom education. I always revisit their hopes and dreams that are posted and ask them if we need to change or add anything and most of the time, I have to send another copy home because they always make changes.

– Valerie Robison, Kindergarten Teacher, Toledo Public Schools, Toledo, Ohio

As a teacher, my confidence regarding parent teacher conferences grew with experience. As a first year teacher, I had no idea what I was supposed to share or do. I was probably more nervous than the parents. Each year my confidence grew and I felt confident that I knew each of my students inside and out and would be able to share my insight and thoughts with the parents. I also made sure that I had already connected with each parent, so this was not our first meeting. My hope for parent-teacher conference was to look at the growth each student had made and set goals for the upcoming quarter. I tried very hard to keep the focus on the parents’ child and did not want to spend time comparing the student to peers or siblings. My hope was that parents would see and celebrate their child’s progress and dreams.

First and foremost .. the most important thing a parent can do is”show up” for the conference. Even for the “good” student … nothing shows interest in your child’s education more than showing up for school events and conferences with the teacher. Once there, my hope was that they expressed interest in what we were doing in class and the growth their child was making more so than what their grades were. For example, a student who gets all “A’s”– Is it because the work was not challenging or did their child work really hard to earn those “A’s”? On the flip side, if the student has “D’s” and “F’s”, is it because the work was too challenging and accommodations and modifications need to be made or is it because the student was not doing the work? I always wanted to know the meaning behind the grades and hoped that I could educate my parents on that too.

– Sue Rowe, Teacher Coach/Consultant, Certified Trainer, Responsive Classroom, Toledo Public Schools

Thanks, Valerie and Sue! It’s so helpful to hear your perspectives as teachers!

For further reading on dealing with challenging parent-teacher conversations, check out CPCK’s article, “Parent Teacher Conversations.”

1. Henderson, A.T., & Berla, N. (1994). A New Generation of Evidence; The Family is Critical to Student Achievement. National Committee for Citizens in Education.

In the News…

Check out the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s (CASEL) newsletter for an interview with CPCK’s Author, Jennifer Miller! CASEL promotes the integration of social and emotional learning – the most critical skills for our children to develop – into preschool through high school by advancing research, policy, and practice. It’s an honor to collaborate with an organization that is changing the conversation in education to ensure that all schools are intentionally preparing children with the competencies they’ll need for success today and in their future! Thanks, CASEL!

Here’s a snapshot…

What the Experts Are Saying…
Jennifer Miller, an expert on families and social and emotional learning, is the author of a popular blog, Confident Parents, Confident Kids and a longtime CASEL collaborator. She first discovered the power of SEL when working on dropout prevention as a VISTA volunteer many years ago. Ten years ago, when she became a parent, she discovered the lack of research-based advice about SEL for parents. That inspired her to start her blog, which now has 22,500 subscribers and 40,000 views per year from 152 countries. Here she shares practical advice for communicating with parents, families, and caregivers.

On the importance of parent SEL.

The great challenge for parents is how to manage your own emotions. Parenting is so deeply personal. The very nature of child development will raise a parent’s own volcano of emotions. For instance, toddlers go through a stage when they are hitting, but knowing that doesn’t always help a parent who remembers being hit as a child and wants to nurse his or her own wounds. Parents need to unpack what they’re feeling. I tell them, “You’re going to get emotional. Let’s plan for it so you’re ready.” Our Caregivers Guide (upcoming from CASEL) has an Emotional Safety Plan. It might mean saying, “Mommy needs five minutes.” Then close your eyes, calm down, breathe, reflect and come up with a plan to re-enter the situation.

We all plan for fires, even though only one in four of us ever experiences them. But we don’t plan for emotional fires even if every single parent has them.

On 5 things teachers can do.
You don’t have to do a big parent engagement initiative. Many small things build the trusting relationships that are at the heart of this work. Hang out at pick-up time, make conversation, send home pictures of students learning. All of these say, “I care. I connect.” Click here for the full interview and check out the rest of the newsletter to learn about social and emotional learning updates around the globe! 

Can You Figure Out These Illusions?

Here’s my trick and treat for you!

Oh, how I love a good illusion! It’s a reminder that first impressions are sometimes deceiving and often tell only a fraction of an image’s – or a person’s, for that matter – story! I saved the spookiest for last. Try and examine these on your own. Then, share them with your children. Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Halloween Party Cooperative Games for Home or Classroom

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

Monster Back Story

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

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

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

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

Witches’ and Wizards’ Charades

Materials: Index cards, marker

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

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

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

Cooperative Ghost Story Telling

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

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

Who Done It?

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

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

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

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

Robbery Report

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

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

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

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Active Listening

Mummy Wrap

Materials: One roll of toilet paper per three kids.

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

Social and Emotional Skills Practiced: Collaboration, Problem-Solving

Swamp Monster

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

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

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

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


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

#Halloween #Parenting #SEL

The Hidden Treat of Halloween; Practicing Perspective-Taking


“You’re what?” asked the common or garden spook
Of a stranger at midnight’s hour.
And the shade replied with a graceful glide,
“Why, I’m the ghost of a flower.”

“The ghost of a flower?” said the old-time spook;
“That’s a brand-new one on me;
I never supposed a flower had a ghost,
Though I’ve seen the shade of a tree.”

– Anonymous[i]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a brief sampling of our conversation:

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

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

Dad: “Your three-year-old cousin…”

E: “I don’t like hot dogs.” (with a whine)

Me: “Your cool Uncle Jeremiah…”

E: “E, man, how ya doin.” (in a jazzy, deep tone)

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

E: “I’ll kill you after dinner.”

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

  1. Undifferentiated perspective-taking

Ages 3-6

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

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

2. Social-informational perspective-taking

Ages 5-9

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

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

3. Self-reflective perspective-taking

Ages 7-12

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

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

4. Third party perspective-taking

Ages 10-15

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

Easy practice: This is a perfect time for a child to read biographies about other people’s lives that might interest them. Select a person together because you know something about the person’s life. Or read it yourself and talk about it with your child. My son, now ten, is a fan of the “I Survived” book series. Each book follows an individual boy through a historic tragedy he survives.

5. Societal perspective-taking

Ages 14-Adult

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

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

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

#SEL #parenting #Halloween


A good article for educators on teaching perspective taking:

Strong classroom activities on perspective taking:


[i] Klaver, B. Spooky, Scary and Fun Poems that Will Make your Hair Curl. The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from on October 24, 2013.

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

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

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

 Originally published on Confident Parents, Confident Kids in October, 2013.
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