Today In “The Washington Post”…

Check out the article by Pam Moore that features tips for parents from Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ author, Jennifer Miller in The Washington Post today. It also features the important work of CASEL – the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning in defining social and emotional competencies and supporting schools in integrating these core life skills. Here’s how it begins…

Schools are Teaching Kids Empathy and Self-Control. It Helps at Home Too…

“More Goldfish!” my 5-year-old demands.

I summon all my patience. “Can you try that again?”

“I’m hungry!”

I take a long blink. “Honey? Can you—”

Her face is still beet red, but her body has relaxed. She takes a deep breath, then slowly blows the air through her pursed lips. This is the “birthday cake” breathing she learned in kindergarten.

“Mom, can I please have more Goldfish?”

My daughter attends public school in Boulder, Colo., where her teacher is one of a handful of educators integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom. But the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) board recently approved a grant to fund the investigation of SEL Competencies, with the goal of creating a systemwide approach to SEL. That means more kids will be learning how to understand and manage their emotions, set goals, build healthy relationships, make good decisions and have empathy, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. Read the full article.

Thanks for the opportunity, Pam Moore!

Helping Our Children Understand and Deal with Death

Mostly it is loss which teaches us the worth of things.

–       Arthur Schopenhauer

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

As parents, we’ve had the recent challenging task of explaining the death of high school students to our children as we learned the news of yet another school shooting. When a death occurs in our own personal circle, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions – sadness, grief, guilt, fear, shock, confusion, anger, or disgust may be among them. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported.

Our instinct might be to protect our children. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. Reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it. If you happen to be in the middle of dealing with a painful loss, then this guide may provide helpful counsel to walk you through how you might consider supporting your children.

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

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

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

Children’s Understanding of Death at Various Ages/Stages

0-2 Years Old

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

3-5 Years Old

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

6-9 Years Old 

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

9-12 Years Old

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

12-18 Years Old

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

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

Things You Might Say:

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

Things You Might Do:

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

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

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

For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site,

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

Picture books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

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

YOU Have a Role in Preventing School Violence

Learn More About What Exactly You Can Do!

Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.
– Elizabeth Stone

And this is the very reason why the events of school shootings shake us all to the core. Because it is our very exposed heart that has been wounded. It’s inconceivable that innocent children’s lives have been taken in what is supposed to be a safe haven, a daily environment in which we entrust our most sacred heart. We, as parents, have the impossible job of explaining to our own children why a school shooting took place at all and somehow, why they should trust and feel safe returning to their own school the next day. The friends and family that I’ve spoken with about the occurrence have consistently said, “I have to do something. It’s not enough to be horrified and sad. I have to take action.” And so what can anyone do to make a difference – to heal a gaping wound and to prevent something like this from happening in the future? I too am eager to do something. Here are some ideas to get started.

Begin at home.

Make sure you are really connecting with your children daily. Disconnect to connect. iPhones, pads, and other devices have become vehicles for connecting with everyone except those with who we are physically present – typically our most intimate family. Because the beeps, light flashes, and constant press of these machines bring our attention back to the device, it requires great discipline to put them down, turn them off, and tune in to our children. Set a timer for yourself if you need to but give your children your full, undivided attention even if it’s only for a short time each day. And limit their screen time so that you are giving them the chance to look up and connect with you. Find out what’s going on in their heads and hearts. Laugh together. Talk and, most especially, listen well if they are scared or upset. Be patient if deep connection doesn’t happen immediately. Often we have to offer time and listening ear when they are ready to talk (not when we are). And if you’ve been disconnected, then it takes time to build trust. But that ongoing sense of trust will open up space for confiding in challenges when they arise. We know that that connection is critical in keeping our children and others safe.

Partner with your child’s teacher.

Ask if there are ways you can support your child’s teacher in building community amongst classmates. Teachers are often open to parents coming into the classroom to share experiences, read stories or give presentations on their careers. Making a personal connection with your child’s teacher will enhance communication, develop a trusting relationship and create a stronger alliance between the school and your family. Take it a step further if you are interested and able and volunteer as a teacher’s aide in the classroom regularly (weekly or monthly). Research shows that students perform better in school when parents are involved. But in addition, students are safer if parents are directly involved with the teacher and the classroom. If there’s a problem detected by either a teacher or a parent, there is already a connected relationship at the ready to communicate and coordinate supports for kids who need it.

Identify and take action on red flags.

When a child hits another child on the playground or in the classroom, that is a giant red flag. That red flag is NOT a sign to send her home, suspended. In that scenario, she’ll likely get punished at home and come back to school angrier, more hurt and ready to hurt others. Punishment only escalates the problem and does not address the root cause. That red flag is a sign that we – as educators and parents – need to get curious about that child’s life and candle of light 001unmet emotional needs. How can we understand what she’s going through? How can we offer her supports that will address her unmet needs? It is not enough to point the finger and say it’s the school’s role… and for schools, it’s not enough to say it’s the parent’s job. We all have to take responsibility. There are community organizations in every town that offer youth development supports for before and after school time. What if that child is a potential active shooter? And what if, by taking a next step from your observation that she’s hurting and hurting others, you could keep your child safe and prevent a major tragedy for the school? Small steps taken to build caring connections for children who feel marginalized and disconnected can turnaround hurt for that child and many others. For more on this critical issue, check out 50 Alternatives to Detention and Punishment.

Partner with your school.

It’s likely that your school conducts a yearly review of their crisis management plan and communicates it to parents. If they do not, then they should and you can advocate for that to take place. You should be aware of what they plan to do in an emergency including a situation like a school shooting. How you will be notified and what role you can play? That plan should be in writing. It should include a plan for communications amongst school staff but also, with families and with students. How will students be directed in an emergency? How will a tragedy be talked about with students after it has occurred? Is there a forum for conversation that is a safe, trusting space? But in addition, make sure that there are conversations and a clear plan for prevention. And in that prevention plan, there should be specific ideas on how the school is building caring relationships and safe spaces for all. Learn more about schools and research-based social and emotional learning on the CASEL website as a critical means for prevention.

Advocate for school-community supports.

What supports are there for students who need more than the school can offer? In schools, these are typically referred to as “intervention supports.” If the response you receive is “We have academic tutors for those students who are not performing academically,” then that’s not enough. What supports are there for students who need emotional and social assistance beyond what the school personnel can directly address? The students you may be thinking of are a percentage – whether large or small – of a school population who act out and demonstrate anti-social behavior. Those children require more support than what the classroom can offer. But in addition, nearly every child in a school at one point or another during their school career needs additional emotional support that a teacher likely will not be able to provide. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade and I needed to see a counselor during that time. I hadn’t needed outside supports my entire school career. But I needed it then. So considering that many children will need additional support, the following questions need to be addressed.

  • How do you identify students who are in need of outside assistance beyond what the school can provide?
  • Who is responsible for working with the students and families in order to seek assistance?
  • Is that staff person aware of, in communication with and able to refer students and families to adequate mental health services in the community for those that are in need of it?
  • Is there a communication system in place so that all of those involved in supporting a student can coordinate with one another?

Some of the schools with which I work have a social worker or counselor who is primarily responsible for cultivating trust between families, students and the school. They work closely with teachers to identify those students who are displaying risky behaviors and ensure that students who need more support than a classroom teacher can reasonably provide, get that support in the community. Parents confide in that person when a relative dies or a family member is admitted into rehabilitation. When supports are readily accessible, it reduces the shame factor for families. All families can become aware that it’s reasonable and in fact, necessary at times to require additional support for a student. One size does not fit all.

Promote school-family-community connections.

Preventing a crisis from occurring also involves caring connections. Families need to feel connected to the school. Students need to feel connected to the school and each other. Teachers need to feel connected to students, parents, the principal, and the larger system (district, community). Research-based positive school climate, social and emotional learning and character education initiatives all have the potential to build a sense of connectedness between all individuals in a school community if this is seen as an explicit goal. Greater communication among caring adults means that problems are identified quickly and at the start so that they can be addressed before they escalate to the point of a crisis. The profile of individuals who perpetrate school shootings is typically that of an introvert, sometimes, the victim of bullying, but often, a student that goes unnoticed. In schools with which I work, there is no child that goes unnoticed. Every person – staff and students – is greeted each morning through a Morning Meeting. Each student gets the opportunity to share something about themselves daily. This – connectedness in school communities – is the way that we turn this problem around in the long term. But it requires work and commitment on everyone’s part to make it successful and sustain the change for the benefit of all. For numerous research-based ideas on simple ways to create school-family-community connections, read Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships by Anne Henderson – an outstanding and essential guide.

Organize and mobilize parents.

I know of two committed parents (in two different states) who, through volunteerism and advocacy, have created a focus on social and emotional learning to prevent bullying and other violence in their respective districts. One such individual in Strongsville, Ohio, a member of their PTA (Parent Teacher Association), noticed that the state PTA organization was not talking about the need for social and emotional learning in schools. She developed and proposed a resolution for the Ohio PTA to focus on “maximizing student potential and achievement through positive school climate and social and emotional learning.” It now serves as a national model for other PTAs. It happened because of her persistence. She continually asked questions, enlisted experts and other parent supporters, believed in the importance of her cause and pushed the agenda forward until her voice was heard and the resolution was adopted. In my experience working with numerous policy and practice issues with school districts over the years, if a small group of parents exert their influence and assert that something is essential to the education and well-being of students that are not currently being addressed, schools and school districts have no choice but to take notice and respond. That famous quote from Margaret Mead rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Advocate for policy and practice change.

Though social and emotional learning in education has made great strides in influencing the way schools operate in the past 20-30 years, there is still much work to do. The conversations around education nationally continue to focus on the three Rs (Reading, Riting, and Rithmatic) and seem to often neglect and marginalize the other critical three Rs (Respect, Responsibility, and Resilience). That must change. The national conversation on educational essentials must include our current realities. Students need to be prepared for the global knowledge economy with creative and critical thinking skills, collaborative abilities, strong communication competencies, respect for differences, and the ability to think responsibly and ethically in their decision making. Those same students need to be self-aware and become practiced in controlling their impulses and managing their emotions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Write to your local politician, your Congressional leaders, your President and the U.S. Secretary of Education. All these individuals need to hear consistently that addressing the social and emotional development of kids and promoting connectedness in schools is not a “nice-to-have” but has become an essential element in educating our children. Learn more about how you can become an advocate through the National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development.

I hope you will make a commitment to taking action in your own way. If you need support in doing so, please call upon the following organizations to help you along the way. Though all of them are located in the United States, many of them will have resources that extend globally.

Organizational Resources

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
CASEL was founded in 1994 by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, educator/philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller Growald, and a group of distinguished researchers and practitioners. We are a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning.

NBC Parent Toolkit
The Parent Toolkit is a free online resource that aims to empower parents and caregivers with practical advice to support their child’s overall development. Learning about your child’s physical health, academic, social and emotional development creates greater empathy and understanding to help parents more deeply connect with their children.

Responsive Classroom
The Responsive Classroom approach is a widely used, research-backed approach to elementary education that increases academic achievement, decreases problem behaviors, improves social skills, and leads to more high-quality instruction.

Edutopia – The George Lucas Foundation
Edutopia is dedicated to transforming the learning process by helping educators implement the strategies below. These strategies — and the educators who implement them — are empowering students to think critically, access and analyze information, creatively problem solve, work collaboratively, and communicate with clarity and impact. Discover the resources, research, experts, and fellow Edutopia members who are changing our schools. Join us in reinventing the learning process!

National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development
The mission of this collaborative is to make social, emotional and academic development a part of the fabric of every school community.

National School Climate Center
Their goal is to promote positive and sustained school climate: a safe, supportive environment that nurtures social and emotional, ethical, and academic skills. NSCC is an organization that helps schools integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. In doing so, we enhance student performance, prevent drop outs, reduce physical violence, bullying, and develop healthy and positively engaged adults.

Educator’s for Social Responsibility
Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) works directly with educators to implement systemic practices that create safe, caring, and equitable schools so that all young people succeed in school and life, and help shape a safe, democratic and just world. Founded in 1982, ESR is a national leader in school reform and provides professional development, consultation, and educational resources to adults who teach young people in preschool through high school.

Character Education Partnership
Character Education Partnership (CEP) is a national advocate and leader for the character education movement. Based in Washington, DC, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nonsectarian coalition of organizations and individuals committed to fostering effective character education in our nation’s schools.

National Center for Learning and Citizenship
Part of the Education Commission of the States, The National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) assists education leaders to promote, support, and reward civic education and service-learning as essential components of America’s education system. The NCLC’s mission is to: 1). Identify and analyze policies and practices that support effective service-learning and civic education; 2). Disseminate analyses of best practices and policy trends; 3). Convene national, state, and local meetings; and 4). Network to share information about service-learning and civic education. The NCLC also works closely with other national, state, and local advocacy groups in order to contribute to a collective public voice in support of the civic mission of schools. The NCLC complements the mission of the Education Commission of the States with a unique level of expertise and collaboration within the fields of civic education and service-learning.

Social Development Research Group
For over 30 years the Social Development Research Group (SDRG) has sought to investigate and promote healthy behaviors and positive social development in youth and adults. SDRG is a recognized leader in the field of prevention research. Our efforts to understand how risk and protective factors influence development have resulted in hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed journals and led to the development of tested and effective interventions.

University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Mental Health in Schools
We are a center for policy and practice analysis. Because we know that schools are not in the mental health business, all our work approaches mental health and psychosocial concerns in ways that integrally connect such efforts with school reform and improvement. We do this by integrating health and related concerns into the broad perspective of addressing barriers to learning and promoting healthy development. We clarify the need to restructure current policy, practice, research, and training to enable development of a comprehensive and cohesive approach that is an essential and primary component at every school. We stress that without a comprehensive component for addressing barriers to learning many students cannot benefit from instructional reforms, and thus, achievement scores will not rise in the way current accountability pressures demand.

Updated from Original Publication on 11/28/16.

The Language of Love for Our Children

The coming of Valentine’s Day seems an ideal time to write about one of the greatest, most enduring loves. No, I am not writing about romantic love. This is about our love for our children and how we express it. There are moments in our lives when we feel like bursting with love for our kids – when we see their sweet faces poke out from their blankets just before going to sleep at night or when we see their faces light up at the discovery of a bug under a rock. But how do we express our love through our words? There are some ways we can become more conscious of the words we are selecting to build deeper, more trusting relationships between family members and truly express the love we feel for them. Here are my secrets (or now, not so secret!) of the language of love.

Express love every day.

As a person who has experienced multiple deaths of relatives in my life, at times I will ask, “What if this were my last day?” Have I said the things I want my family to know related to how I feel about them? Kids will always benefit by hearing a direct, sincere “I love you.” from a parent. I notice some adults wait for their children to say the phrase to them. Some are even hurt that they don’t hear it more often. Rest assured, our children feel love. But we, as adults, are responsible for modeling the articulation of our love. That’s how our children learn and feel free to express and name what they feel. A friend told me, “I was never told that I was loved as a child so it feels strange and unnatural to say it to my own. But I do. Sometimes I have to get up for it. Force myself because I know it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the kind of commitment that is required if we are to break patterns we don’t like or value from previous generations. Our children are ready and eager to hear that they are loved and in the absence of that, they create stories – untrue stories – about why they are not loved. Make sure they hear that they are.

Assure love after a conflict or misbehavior.

Children feel particularly vulnerable after they have made a poor choice or have argued with you. It’s human nature to worry that behavior can influence or even determine love. And we, as parents, put a premium on actions (since we often focus on them) so children have a hard time understanding that they can make a poor choice, you can be mad and you can still hold love for them all at once. So when a poor choice occurs, focus your words on the action not the doer of the action. You may not be able to express love in the heat of the moment (though sometimes it does help to de-escalate a conflict but only if it’s genuine and from the heart). But say it at the end of the day so that your child knows she is loved no matter what, unconditionally. Tomorrow she can make a new better choice knowing that you love her and will support her in doing so. Call it your own legacy. She will be well-equipped to love her family members unconditionally as she grows because of your example.

Listen actively.

There may be no greater demonstration of love than deep listening.

Listen with empathy to truly understand both thoughts and feelings. If your child only shares a thought but you can hear there is feeling behind it, ask. “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated about your friend. Is that what you’re feeling?” The insightful book Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds suggests that, though tempting, it’s important to keep advice out of your reflective listening.

Even the best listeners can unwittingly put ideas and suggestions into the mind of others – it can be so subtle that people don’t know they are doing it…They (those who use clean language) use only the other person’s words and questions related to those words to get results. 1

And the “results” to which the authors are referring in this case would be showing trust in your children’s ability to think through their actions and feelings to better understand themselves, the people around them and the effects of their actions. Facilitating a child’s thinking in this way can support him in internalizing thought processes that lead to responsible decision making. It also paves the way for a more trusting relationship so that if problems arise, he feels safe enough to come to you to discuss them.

Use feeling words.

We tend to be in the habit of not using feelings words. Despite all of the important work done in the field of emotional intelligence, culturally, there is still a sense that feelings are a weakness. Emotion words don’t have to signal weakness if we use them intentionally. But they do open us up and make us more vulnerable. And that is the very reason why it’s so important to share with family members how we are truly feeling. Emotional honesty allows for intimacy. As we search for the words to articulate our emotions, we are becoming more self-aware. And simultaneously modeling self-awareness for our children. We can address their hurt, anger, and frustration much more effectively if we have helped them develop a way to communicate so that they can be understood. In any upsetting situation, try and pinpoint the child’s feeling and always ask, “Is that right?”

Use similes and metaphors to help discover and define feelings.

We use metaphors so often in life, we tend to take them for granted. “She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.” “He is eating like a pig.” “This match was made in heaven.” Kids hear and attempt to figure out the metaphors adults use regularly but sometimes get confused by them. I find myself often explaining metaphors in books I read to my son. The Clean Language authors claim that metaphors can allow us access to our unconscious minds and can serve as a powerful tool for understanding how we are really feeling about a situation. For children who are just learning about metaphors, we can become more aware of the language we use and model self-awareness and emotional intelligence. For example, if I were to say “I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders today.” I might catch myself and talk a bit further to describe the feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed by how many items are on my to-do list. I’m thinking about it so much that it feels like a physical pressure. I need to do something to help ease my worries. I could make a list. Or I could sit and breathe. You want to help me?”

Recognize the good.

Notice and point out when your child is kind or takes responsibility without reminders. So often, we play the “Gotcha!” game as parents. “You forgot this.” “You left that behind.” “You made a mess here.” And because we are so busy focused on the mistakes of life, we forget ourselves to point to the good even though we all tend to forget daily tasks. “Oops, you are going to have to wear a day-old shirt because I forgot to get the laundry done last night.” is a common refrain of my own.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the good but it does take some presence of mind. We do have to pay attention to our kids not to catch them doing wrong but to catch them doing right. If kids are reinforced by recognizing their faults, they too will focus on their faults. And along with the fear of making mistakes (which often leads to more of the same), they will accumulate shame for their long list of missteps. All it takes is a simple “I notice you threw your laundry down the shoot. That’s taking responsibility. Great!” statement. If we are able to regularly find and shine a light on their strengths and the many ways they contribute to our family lives, they will grow with an identity that is confident and resilient.

Cultivate deeper understanding.

Because so often our greatest challenges with our kids stem directly from their developmental struggles to learn what they know they need to, learning about children’s development deepens our understanding of them. We gain empathy for their challenges. We recognize their mistakes as an important part of their learning process. We work harder to support their learning. And we gain more patience along the way. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children (not available in any store) is learning about their development. Check out the free resource, NBC Parent Toolkit to begin the process!

Do no harm.

Adults use any number of words, phrases and expressions that children don’t understand. Even in adolescence, though kids may “try on” sarcasm, they still do not truly understanding the intention since the words are the opposite of the feeling behind the words. Speaking directly, cleanly and clearly can be an aspiration we can all work toward. Try to eliminate language that shuts others down like “Shut up.” by asking how it makes a child feel when it’s said to him. In addition, children sometimes retaliate in a parent-child argument with hurtful words like “I hate you.” Try not to take those statements to heart. Though they are intended to wound in the moment, they are coming from a feeling of a lack of control. If you meet that lack of control with you own lack of control by getting upset, it will only escalate the situation. Better to walk away and take time to cool down. In calmer moments, discuss how those words are painful and how you could rephrase in order to express upset without harming. You might ask, “Could you say instead, ‘I hate what you did. I hate what you are doing.’?” Also, I’ve heard adults say that in moments of anger and upset, they have “joked” about not loving a child or loving another more or wishing a child hadn’t been born. Those kinds of remarks can stay with a child for a lifetime. Better to walk away or simply stop talking so that you don’t regret your words later.

Maybe all love is complicated and simple at the same time. This certainly is true for the love we have for our children. We feel so deeply for them that we want them to have the best of everything in life. Yet they have their own minds, personalities, desires and purposes along with the need to express who they are in their own unique way. Often the toughest, most important job of a parent is stepping back and letting children think and act in ways in which they can learn for themselves. And knowing that, we will always be right there to love them.

Happy Valentine’s Day! heart pic 001



1 Sullivan, W. & Rees, J. (2008). Clean Language. Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Global Collaboration — The 2018 Winter Olympic Games

Did you know?

…that the Olympics are thought to have begun three thousand years ago in Greece in the valley of Olympia. The first games only involved a single day and a running race. It was thought that the games were originally created to honor the Greek God Zeus, the king of all the gods they worshipped. One thousand years later, there was no interest and the games stopped for a time. Then, in the late 1800s, archeologists excavated Olympia and found evidence of the games. There was renewed interest and the modern era of the Olympic games began. Through wars, famine and political unrest, the games continued with new countries and new events added as it evolved over the years.

The Olympic Games are an incredible model of global cooperation. Despite intense conflicts over the types of events, rules for games, allowing women to compete (in 1900), countries warring, boycotts and protests, and more recently, rules about athlete integrity (versus performance-enhancing drug use), the International Olympic Committee has maintained its commitment to their bigger picture mission of “building a better world through sport.” They have had to patiently and tirelessly work through each one of the problems holding to their oath to maintain the Olympic spirit of global cooperation. There’s much in our families we can learn from the model of the Olympics. Here are just a few:

  1. A Flame Lights the Way

Rituals and traditions are powerful expressions of a commitment to celebrating particular values. The original flame to begin the games is lit still at the very origin of the games in Greece, recognizing and honoring its past. The torch is passed from individual to individual representing country after country to light the fire at the site of the event. The fire represents the agreement of global cooperation that we will play together and learn from one another. It also represents that spirit of excellence in each athlete of expressing their talents and skills on a world stage for all to witness and appreciate. How do you express excellence in family life and when can you light a flame to symbolize that spirit of hard work and cooperation?

2. Striving for a Personal Best

Though each country competes against others, there is a unique emphasis on achieving your own personal best. Each athlete takes responsibility for his or her own preparation and works incredibly hard to perform at the top of her game. Teammates support one another. And countries support one another. There seems a sense that this world stage offers a connection between all those who are striving for excellence in their particular sport. How can each family member work toward and support one another in striving for their personal best?

3. Learning about the Community We’re Visiting

We respect each other when we show curiosity to learn about one another. And we respect the community we are in by learning about it. Each time the Olympic Games are held, they are hosted by a different town and country. And each time, there is much to learn about the host. This 23rd Olympic Winter Games will be hosted by Pyeongchang, South Korea. Here’s a little bit about the host community.

Pyeongchang, pronounced “pyuhng-chahng,” is a county in Gangwon Province, South Korea. It’s located eighty miles east of the country’s capital, Seoul and sixty miles south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing North Korea and South Korea. Considering its latitude, it’s the Earth’s coldest location. They experience lots of snowfall in the wintertime. They plan to host 3,894 athletes and 35,000 spectators. The country is known for Odaesan National Park, with trails crisscrossing the Taebaek Mountains. The park is also home to several Buddhist temples, including Woljeongsa Temple, with its nine-story octagonal pagoda.

For the games schedule, check out this link.

4. Resilience Is the Common Trait of Champions

When you learn about the individuals who compete in the Olympic Games, over and again, their theme is resilience. There are countless stories of poverty, severe injuries, chronic illnesses and disabilities, family tragedies and more which the Olympic contenders and medalists have endured. Yet they believed in themselves and in the dream of doing something bigger. And through their conviction, they worked harder than most to achieve their dreams. These many champions can be an ongoing source of inspiration and motivation for any of us. What are your family stories of resilience? How can you tell them to one another as a wellspring of inspiration when you need it most?

To learn more, check out:

5 Incredible Olympic Stories That Will Inspire You To Never Give Up

Olympic Stories/Inspirational Stories/Greatest Olympians

For a timeline on the history of the games, check out,

And try out your own indoor family Olympics! Here are a few ideas…

Involve your kids in creating your own set of household-appropriate Olympic games. Maybe you create a ball roll across the room 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 you are limited to a particular room or safe zone. Light a candle or make a tissue paper flame torch to kick off your games and do a finale in which they have to do each game in a row.

We’ll be watching the opening ceremonies with another family. We’re getting out our world map and the kids will pinpoint the countries on the map as they’re introduced.

However you choose to engage, remember that each time the Olympic Games take place, they represent peace and cooperation in our world. And that’s certainly something to celebrate!

If you want to read more on the Olympics, here are a few recommended children’s books:

A Kid’s Guide to 2018 Winter Games by Jack L. Roberts and Michael Owens

What Are the Summer Olympics? by Gail Herman

Preventing Our Children’s “Me Too”

What Can Parents Do to Prevent Harassment and Abuse

The “Me Too” movement got my mental wheels churning, as it has for so many. I began wondering, “What can we, as parents, do to prevent our own children’s ‘Me too’?” I recalled when a former uncle cornered me when I was a small, shy child. I remember feeling trapped, in danger, and freezing in my fright. My Mom immediately swooped in to prevent an abusive event. She got between him and me and told him in no uncertain terms that he was being inappropriate and to stop it now. I was too young to know what to do. I am so grateful to my Mom for intervening. And I think her modeling the courage to shut down an attempt at abuse helped stove up my courage for future events.

Particularly if we have been through harassment and felt that pain and vulnerability, we may fear for our kids. But unless we turn that fear into constructive action, it will not assist us in empowering them with the knowledge and skills to keep them safe. Because harassment or abuse can often go unreported, it’s impossible to truly understand the scope of the problem. But there are some facts we can know and understand.

  • 82% of all juvenile victims (reported to authorities) are female.1
  • An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, e.g., family friends, babysitters, child care providers,
  • About 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are family members.1
  • Only about 10% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child.1
  • Not all perpetrators are adults—an estimated 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18.3
  • There has been a decline in child physical and sexual abuse since the 1990s, as reported to National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) but it remains a problem.4

We certainly can play the role of strong advocates as my Mom did for me to prevent abuse. Thoroughly checking references on babysitters and doing our own gut checks on care providers are a few ways we can take charge of the situation. But it’s just as important to empower our children. There are numerous ways we can prepare our kids so that when we are not there to intervene, they know how to act and react to stay safe. Let’s look at how we can prepare our children.

Ways to Teach Our Children to Stay Safe

Teach and Reinforce the Words “Stop” and “No” as Sacred.
Though this may seem obvious, adults often will keep tickling or pushing a child on a swing even after an earnest “No” or “Stop” has been uttered. It’s a critical habit change we need to make if we are to model and reinforce that “No” should be respected. Voices need not get louder. Crying need not ensue. Use a family dinner time to discuss the issue. Create a new policy. And help remind one another that between siblings, between parent and child, among friends in the neighborhood, when the words “No” or “Stop” are used, they are to be respected.

With young children, draw a stop sign together. Hold out your hand when you say “Stop!” Practice stopping with the traffic light game and when the red light is called, be certain that all words, sounds and actions freeze.

Do Gut Checks.
Since children are learning about their feelings and developing a language to express them, they may more readily be able to identify physical signs of discomfort first. Their tummy may feel nauseous. Practice doing gut checks. If you see an image in the media that is disturbing, ask how their tummy feels. Make the connection between that icky feeling not only as a sign of discomfort but as a sign of danger and to get out of the situation. If children are taught to trust that feeling, they will become more likely to leave a high-risk circumstance.

Trust your Feelings.
Yes, if you have Star Wars fans in your household as I do in mine, invoke Obi-Wan’s wise saying! Practicing using feeling words in your family will help your child become comfortable with articulating his/her emotions. This is an important asset for multiple reasons but in this case, your child needs to not only identify that she/he is uncomfortable and scared but also, that she can trust those feelings enough to act on them and possibly disappoint or anger the adult or older individual who is attempting to exert power over her.

Find the Closest Caring Ally.
In an abusive circumstance or any situation in which your child is in danger, they require a caring ally. If five-year-old Addison gets lost at the grocery store, she needs to know that she can find a store clerk or a caring Mom to help guide her to safety and find her family. That same principle is true for abusive situations. Children need to learn to “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers wisely advised. Abuse usually takes place when two are alone together. Though a perpetrator can and often does rationalize his behavior, there is also a clear sense that it’s not acceptable to others. So if your child knows to find a trusted, caring adult to help, they can remove themselves from the dangerous situation. This teaching is in opposition to the old “stranger danger” counsel kids used to be taught. Instead, work on finding a helper. Can you find a helper when you are at the store together? Ask your child, “Who would you go to?” Talk about it with your child when you encounter another lost child, witness a fire, or see any kind of dangerous situation. If you feel scared, look for a helper! If the person you are with is scaring you, look for a helper!

Promote Assertive Communication Skills.
Yes, being assertive is a learned skill. Kids need to be able to not only articulate their hurt, anger or fear but also, tie that feeling to what they know and can articulate is acceptable and unacceptable to them. As with any skill, kids require practice. So as your young child develops the ability to say what she’s feeling, ask, “Okay, so you’re feeling hurt. What do you need to tell others to protect yourself or what action do you need to take to help yourself?”

Then, when our kids do assert themselves, we need to listen and take them seriously. It can be tempting to dismiss a child’s upset because there’s not time for it or we think they are exaggerating. But rest assured, children are upset for a reason. They need to learn to trust their own feelings and that has to come first from our trust in their feelings. So be certain, if you are tempted to shut them down and move on, that you stop yourself and really listen.

Also, offer practice when you are out in public. Instead of talking for your child, allow her to order off the menu for herself or ask the cashier a question. If there’s a problem with her teacher, coach her with some ideas so that she can approach her teacher herself. These small opportunities will offer her valuable practice in talking with adults in a way in which she can assert her boundaries and needs.

Keep an Open Dialogue about Physical, Sexual Development and Talk about Physical Boundaries.
Though we tend to shy away from the conversation, it’s critical to keep an ongoing dialogue and educational agenda related to your child’s physical and sexual development and health. It’s as important as learning to brush teeth and bath regularly. In preschool years beginning around age three, you can start to talk about body parts using their proper scientific names. You can also begin discussing which parts are okay for others to touch. Bathing suit areas are off limits to anyone but your doctor. Teach that others touching you is only okay in areas other than bathing suit areas if you want it. If you feel uncomfortable, say “no.” I teach my son, “You are the boss of your own body!” There are a number of children’s books that can assist you with these conversations. See my favorites list below.

Keeping a discussion open about your child’s developing body and sexuality is important so that your child a.) knows the facts and understands what changes are taking place emotionally and physically, b.) can relate to other children appropriately understanding the boundaries they need to respect, and c.) creates a trusting connection for parent and child so that if there are ever questions or problems, he will be much more likely to come and talk to you.

Talk about What Love, Partnership and Being in a Healthy Relationship Means. Do you discuss what it takes to work at and grow a committed relationship? Do you talk about what love means to you? Ironically, in the logistics of our days, we miss out on discussing some of the most important parts of our lives with our kids. They need to learn what love means to you. They need to learn about what a healthy relationship is. To jumpstart your conversation, talk about and take the Family Fighting Fair Pledge to set healthy boundaries for your arguments. Also, check out how parents can promote Healthy Relationships.

Question your Family Power Dynamics! How is power shared in your family? Are there times when one individual dominates over another? Is communication aggressive, passive-aggressive or assertive? Your child is learning about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of power through your family dynamic. If you are not certain, ask yourself if there are times you feel powerless? And do you think there are times your child feels powerless? How can you learn about new strategies to share power in your family. Hint: there are thousands of ideas for empowering your children with skills in this blog. Here are a couple of articles to get started: Responsible Decision-making and 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention and Punishment.

Be Open to Questioning Authority and Explain Reasons Behind Your Boundaries.
Though as a parent, you need to set clear boundaries for your children, it’s also important to recognize that children will question the rules. And as they do, they begin to better formulate their sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. You want them to be able to say “No” to an abusive adult so when they say “No” to you, though it can be frustrating, it’s important for children to learn the reasoning behind your “No.” “We set this rule because there is a major safety risk for you. Here’s why…”

There are a number of steps we can take to act as strong advocates for our children. We can:

– do our own gut checks and trust it when our icky feeling arises to tell us a person feels unsafe;
– do our due diligence calling on references and getting to know all caregivers to ensure they can be trusted;
– don’t hesitate to intervene or say “no” to social events or obligations when we feel our child is unsafe;
– never leave a child alone with other children or adults that feel unsafe; and
– channel any anger or fear we have from past experiences into constructive action while having self-compassion for our hurts from the past.

As we work on the multiple ways of preventing our children’s “Me Too,” we also need to remember that our own fear while preparing them can work against our hopes and goals of prevention. Fear, after all, can be paralyzing. And we want to build skills and empower our children to speak up and take action toward safety. So become self-aware. Take some deep breaths and prepare yourself for calm if you need to prior to practices or conversations. Use this as an opportunity to face and overcome your fears by giving your child the skills you may not have had at your disposal. Or if it’s too challenging for you and you are too fearful to advance your child’s learning in a particular area, enlist a trusted partner to regularly engage in these conversations. Focus on the areas of preparation where you’ll feel confident you can help prepare your child to keep safe!

A child who is knowledgeable, who can assert herself and her needs, who has open communication with her parents and doesn’t feel she needs to hide her feelings and experiences is far less likely to be taken advantage of and less vulnerable. Confident parents have a critical role in responding to their own “Me Too”s by investing in their children’s emotional well-being and keeping all safe!


Resources for Healthy Physical and Sexual Development Education:

For Adults in Preparation for Discussing with Kids:

Talk Sex Today; What Kids Need to Know and How Adults Can Teach Them by Saleema Noon and Meg Hickling (2016).

Preschool Age:

Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies by Robie H. Harris (2011).

Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz (2005).

It’s Not the Stork; A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris (2006).

School Age – 7 years old and up:

It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (2014).

10 years old and up:

It’s Perfectly Normal. Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (2014).



1.“Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics,” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.

2. “Child Maltreatment 2012,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau.

3. Kilpatrick, D., R. Acierno, B. Saunders, H. Resnick, C. Best, and P. Schnurr, “National Survey of Adolescents,” Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina, National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1998.

4. The U.S. Department of Justice. Raising Awareness about Sexual Abuse. Facts and Statistics,

Helping Kids Deal with the Stress of the Test!

”Mom, everything seems to speed up around me, get louder in my head, and I can’t take my test. I feel scared.” This is how my ten-year-old son described his anxiety during test taking time. But though I know he has felt those feelings in the past, this is the first time he’s been able to articulate it.

In fact, anxiety is experienced differently by every person. Some may get headaches, some tummy aches. Some may feel hot, sweaty or like they are going to faint. But whatever the physical symptoms, frequently they can be accompanied by a host of fears. Yes, the stress of performing well is one of those fears but those worries may lead to a number of others like, “Will everyone make fun of me when I fail?” “Will I learn that I actually don’t have the smarts to do it?” and “Why can’t I think? My head feels like it’s about to explode. What’s wrong with me?”

There is no predicting what particular worries your child will have or develop. But testing time can be a common time of anxiety for parents, teachers and students alike. In fact, because there are pressures on teachers to prepare students for tests, students can pick up on their teacher’s anxiety and feel even more worried experiencing the emotional contagion to which we are all susceptible. So it’s worth looking at ourselves from a bird’s eye view and asking, “How do I talk and act when it’s test-taking preparation time?”

Modeling is a critical teacher so first, take note of your own reactions and anxiety. We can unwittingly contribute to and escalate any fear if we respond to our child’s responsibilities with anxiety. So becoming self-aware and practicing our own self-management over anxiety in those moments is fundamental to helping our children.

If you notice your own worries building, stop and take some deep breaths before responding to your child. I notice that I can hold greater patience in those times of struggle when I put on my “teacher hat,” and, as parents, aren’t we all teachers? All of a sudden, instead of being an annoyed parent, I become an intelligent and empathetic adult whose role is guidance, modeling, facilitation, and support. There are many ways you play a support role, as a parent or an educator, to help your children through this high-pressure time.

In the days before the test…

Get organized.

Be sure you have sharpened pencils (several), erasers and a high protein snack (if allowed) along with a water bottle ready for test-taking day. Your child may want to select her outfit to wear ahead planning for comfort and ease.


If your child’s teachers have given study guides or there are other materials to review, set up a schedule of a time block each day that can be dedicated to studying. Ensure that extra time is allotted (do you need to begin a couple weeks in advance?) in order to well-cover the materials. Give your child a choice (which will help with motivation). You might ask, “When after school, do you feel like studying – right after school or before or after dinner?” Also to help with motivation, work on your own paperwork alongside your child as s/he studies to give the feeling that we are in this together.

Connect Physical Symptoms with Stress.

Because the many possible physical symptoms that accompany anxiety can worsen a child’s worries (“Why do I feel so awful? What’s wrong with me?”), it helps to talk about potential signs. You may want to share how your body feels when you are really worried and ask, “How does your body feel?” If your child cannot answer the question, that’s okay. Just your exploration of possible signs of stress in the body may help your child identify it as stress when it arises the next time.

Learn and practice deep breathing.

Practice deep breathing together. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anxiety is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it. This is a coping strategy that can be used anywhere at anytime and particularly, on the day of the test!

Brainstorm and practice other coping strategies.

Though breathing will be their best bet in returning to calm, here are a few additional coping strategies that can be paired with breathing while sitting taking a test.

  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus on your heartbeat. See if you can begin to slow it down.
  • Tighten and release your muscles.
  • Tighten and release your pencil grip.
  • Plant both of your feet firmly on the floor and imagine them on solid ground.
  • Raise your hand and ask the teacher if you can walk out in the hallway for fresh air or to get a drink of water.
  • Imagine your most calm, serene place (Ask your child where they might want to travel to in their head?).

Don’t worry that your child won’t be focused on the test while trying a coping strategy since their anxiety will prevent them from taking the test anyway. One or some of these could help them to return to the test sooner. Be sure once you talk about these, you try them out! Make it a game. Sit at your kitchen or dining room table and introduce each of these. If you have several children, try it out as a family. Find out which one your child is comfortable with and encourage using it.

Talk through emotions.

Talk through your child’s feelings in an open time slot when you don’t have other pressures. List out all aspects of what they are afraid of. If it’s taking a test, what parts of the taking of a test don’t they like? The time pressure? The silence and focus required? The challenging questions? The fear of failure? What’s the worst thing that could happen to them? Find out all of the aspects of what’s worrying them and be sure to discuss their worst case scenarios. Just acknowledging their worries can bring to light unlikely scenarios they are ruminating on and help them feel understood.

Promote a “Can Do” attitude.

Your attitude about testing will certainly impact your child whether you are considering it will or not. Be sure that you are noticing the positive. Tell stories of your child’s ability to work hard and be resilient in the midst of challenges. Show your confidence that she can learn anything she needs to with time, practice and effort.

The night before…

Your child may be tempted to cram more studies in the evening prior to the big test. And a review after school of the materials could be a big help. However, having a healthy dinner and getting to bed on time should be a high priority that evening. Set the scene for a restful night’s sleep by lowering lighting and turning off screens (at least one hour before bedtime). Perhaps take a bath or read a book to help prepare for sleep. Getting a full night’s rest prior to the test is one way to ensure your son or daughter will be ready to give his or her best.

The morning of…

Stick with your consistent morning routine so there are no surprises or power struggles. If you don’t have a consistent routine or feel that it’s a stressful time typically, then part of your own preparation can be working on creating a family responsibility plan so that you begin starting days ready for learning. Check out this short “Smooth Morning Routine” video to learn how.

Focus on giving your child a high protein, low sugar breakfast (oatmeal, cheese stick, low sugar cereal, peanut butter?) since the protein will provide an even source of energy throughout the morning versus the highs and quick lows of sugar. See if you can incorporate a little bit of exercise that morning whether it means a walk to school, a stretch together, or a jog up and down the driveway. When you get your body moving, you get your brain moving and your child will feel more ready to face the challenges ahead.

Most importantly, be sure to say goodbye with love, a big hug, and words of confidence that she can do it!


For related articles, check out:

Halloran, J. (2017). Raising Kids Who Can Cope with Tough Times. Confident Parents, Confident Kids.

Miller, J.S. (2015). Elements of a Confident Kids…Coping Skills. Confident Parents, Confident Kids.

Dealing with Young Children’s Big Feelings!

Join me today (free) in the Preschool Mindfulness Summit! What do you do when your toddler or preschooler melts down in the Target checkout line? I share specific examples of how parents can help young children deal with their big feelings in ways that build social and emotional skills – while cultivating them in yourself as a parent or educator. Don’t miss this wonderful conference. Listen in from the comfort of your home or office free. 

Preschool Mindfulness Summit Next Week!

Our children are dealing with increasing pressures at younger ages – to perform academically, in sports, and in the arts. While we know they will encounter stress, we can offer them tools to deal constructively with anxiety on their own when it arises. Offering practice in mindfulness in simple ways both at school and at home just makes sense.
Mindfulness requires practice and can involve multiple strategies. We, as educators and parents, can offer that invaluable practice to help children develop resilience. I’m honored to be speaking about “Raising Confident Children” among twenty-five experts and authors on this important topic.

Please join me FREE next week, January 22nd-26th, for the online Preschool Mindfulness Summit with speakers like Dr. Daniel Seigel, Dr. Richard Hanson, and many others. I am excited to listen to interviews on the topics of “Resilient – How to Create a Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness,” “Mindful Parenting of Preschool Children,” and “Discovering Our Mindful Superpowers” among many others.

Watch these interviews from the comfort of your own home or office and learn strategies you can use right away!

Helen Maffini is the host of the 2018 Preschool Mindfulness Summit. She is a doctoral researcher, author, and educator. Helen is the creator of the MindBEpreschool curriculum used in schools across Asia. She is co-author of the book Developing Children’s Emotional Intelligence and creator of the course Thriving Kids.

REGISTER for this FREE Online Interview Series!



Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message for Us Today

When we think of the civil rights movement or we consider our current circumstances, we may think of a country divided. But Martin Luther King Jr.’s message and the vision that galvanized so many to act bravely in the face of fear, consisted of values that any person in any corner of the world can aspire to. They are values that, when lived, have the potential to unify. So when you are talking with your children today about why we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., be sure and include those values that he articulated and modeled and that so many were able to demonstrate through their actions. Think about small ways in which you might demonstrate those values in your day-to-day life. If you do so, you will be honoring the memory of all those throughout time whose lives and livelihoods were threatened and despite that, made choices that aligned with the best of who we can be.

Martin Luther King Jr. valued:

Equality. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We can share with our children the value of equality. Though there are differences among every one of us, there are more aspects of who we are that unite us. Every person has the right and responsibility to express who she or he truly is.

Ask: How can you demonstrate equality in family life? How can you help children understand equality not as sameness but as appreciation and respect for all? How can you teach your children inclusion?

Small Actions: Work on observing your own informal talk around your home. Are you expressing critical judgements about others? If so, children learn that judging others is acceptable. How can you begin to notice your language? And when you do, how can you incorporate the language of acceptance of differences, perspective-taking and compassion? When others challenge you, search for ways to learn more about yourself, others, and the experience. For more, check out the article, “Expanding the Circle, Teaching Children the Values and Actions of Inclusion.”

Hope. He said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” It’s incredibly easy to complain about our life circumstances. But if we view ourselves as individuals with choices who can learn from our mistakes, we begin to take responsibility for our actions. And we can work on forgiving those who have hurt us. We can reflect on and evaluate our mistakes so that they become our curriculum. And with that learning mindset, we have hope. Because there’s always a chance to grow wiser and make better decisions. We want our children too to learn that there’s always a second chance. There’s always room to grow and give our best. And there’s always an opportunity to contribute who we are to better the world around us.

Ask: When we approach a problem with our children, do we show hope (or do we show a resignation or feel they might let us down)? How can we incorporate expressions of hope? How can we increase encouraging words and our show of confidence that each family member can make positive choices?

Small Actions: Your reactions to your children’s problems model how they will learn to deal with problems so it’s worth reflecting on those reactions. Consider one time you had a problem with your child. For example, perhaps she got frustrated with her math homework and refused to do it. Think about how you reacted. Now re-imagine that same scenario with you expressing and demonstrating hope. Think through exactly what you might say instead. For example, “I hear you are frustrated. But I know you are capable of doing it and more. It just may take some time and focus.”

Character. He said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Character is the true expression of an individual, their integrity. It means knowing and expressing who we are – self-awareness – which requires regular reflection. It also means regularly examining ways we can fine-tune who we are and how we express to benefit ourselves and others. So morality or ethics is a critical part of the equation. We only pursue the ways in which our lives can contribute to the deepening of our individual expression and measure that in terms of how it also contributes to the growth and development of others and the environment.

Ask: What are ways in which we promote the character of our children in our family life? How do we encourage responsibility? How do we offer choices to give our children practice with thinking about consequences? How do we guide our children to consider others’ perspectives in any given problem? How do we offer a model of empathy and compassion by expressing others’ viewpoints ourselves?

Small Actions: Though children may experience an inner voice, they do yet have an understanding of their inner moral compass and how it may steer them. In addition, that sense of ethics is constantly changing in all of us – being informed by our environment and by learning from past challenges. So consider how often you guide reflection with your children. Do you ask them questions about their thinking? Do you ask them about their choices and the impact on themselves and others? Those reflections will help promote a child’s thinking skills so that they learn to go through those mental processes on their own when faced with difficult decisions. Find ways to practice reflective thinking with them and those experiences will significantly contribute to their ability to handle problems at home, at school and in the future lives.

Peace. He said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” We still live in a world in which many believe that violence can teach, that violence can solve problems. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that it’s impossible to use violence to end violence. Instead peace must be the vehicle for establishing peace. So many of us have inner turmoil we are actively managing day to day. As we work on dealing with our own pain and suffering, we make regular choices about how we cope and process those feelings. If we stuff them down and allow them to build and finally explode, then we are putting our loved ones in danger. Instead, we can set boundaries for fighting in family life such as, “We will never use violence or physical harm of any kind in our arguments.” And we can plan for our upset emotions ahead of time so that we never risk hurting family members. We can find ways to express and let go of our hurt in safe, constructive ways over time.

Ask: How can promote peace in my family life? How can my words become more empowering and less accusatory? How can my tone of voice become one of inspiration, not condemnation? And how can my smallest actions particularly when angry show that I value peace as the vehicle for promoting peace in the world?

Small Actions: The best way each of us can promote peace in the world is by starting in our family lives by not harming those we love through words or actions. Becoming planful about how we manage our emotions can save us from ever regretting our reactions in heated moments. Please visit the Family Emotional Safety Plan to download a simple template you can use for yourself and to start a conversation with family members on this critical issue. In addition, take the Fighting Fair Family Pledge which articulates clear boundaries for arguing while maintaining respect for others.

Service. He said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” and “Everyone can be great because anyone can serve.” The theme of service – of doing for others – is a core value for all of our greatest moral leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. We have an epidemic in the U.S. of depressed teenagers who could not be so if they knew how their unique qualities could significantly contribute to the world around them. Giving offers us a sense of purpose.

Ask: How do we develop a service mindset among each of our family members? Do we promote and cultivate a culture of kindness, help, and support in our family life? How could we do more to appreciate others and offer regular gratitude for the abundance in our lives? How could we, as adults, model noticing needs and offering care for others?

Small Actions: Notice and appreciate kindness when you see it happen around your home. “You took care of cleaning up your mess and I didn’t have to ask you. That’s taking responsibility and I see you doing that.” Point out kindness when you see it in the world. “Did you notice that woman help that older gentleman through the door at the grocery? How kind of her to notice he needed help.” Do it enough and you will begin to hear your child finding examples of kindness for herself. Read more about how parents can serve in their roles by acting as family servant leaders. And also, learn more about how you can guide your teenage daughter or son to considering how they might find their own sense of purpose.

Love. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

He said, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

He said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
So if the only vehicle for peace is by acting out of peace and love, then forgiveness is core to our task. And our job as parents becomes to equip our children to learn to forgive. They will encounter pain despite our best efforts. But we will give them the tools of resilience, of strength if we offer them guidance on the process of healing and forgiving those who have hurt us.

Ask: How do we forgive in our household? Do we find ways to make reparation for harms done? And do we find words and actions that show we are asking for forgiveness? And are we able to grant pardon when someone harms our feelings? Are there new ways we can go about including forgiveness as an expression of love in our family life?

Small Actions: Consider how you model owning your role and responsibility in any family problem. How do you articulate your area of responsibility? When you do, it opens the doors for others to take responsibility for their roles and it knocks down the wall of “me versus you.” Find times to have honest conversations without judging your children’s actions. Allow them to tell you their problems while you listen with compassion. They will come to you with bigger problems down the line if you offer this kind of small support in day-to-day situations. Consider how you handle hurts whether your own or your child’s. How can you model the language of forgiveness? How can you guide your child to think through actions they might take to make up for harm they have caused? For more ideas, check out my article on “Second Chances – Teaching Children Forgiveness” on the NBC Parent Toolkit.

Of course, love is at the heart of it all. Though outwardly, some may choose to hurt or exclude others, we can be certain that inside, they too feel pain and are convinced they are not loved yet require love desperately to soothe their wounds. Children can acquire their own pain not just by yelling or spanking parents but also, by parents ignoring their needs – whether physical or emotional. Show your love through your attention. Put down devices. Turn off the television. Take their hopes seriously. Take their fears seriously. Really listen to what they are telling you. That is the small, slow but powerful way you can best teach your children to love.

Thank you, Martin Luther King Jr. and all those nameless individuals who have demonstrated their values through their daily courageous actions. May we all attempt that show of strength. I am sharing two of Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible speeches that could be shared as a family today as we remember and apply those teachings to our present context.

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