Jennifer Miller talks with Tricia Friedman with the Shifting Schools Podcast about the research underpinning the book “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves And Our Kids–from Toddlers To Teenagers.” We discuss:
what confidence is and what it’s not (and how that relates to promoting children’s success);
emotional contagion and what we can do to proactively set a tone in a household or in a classroom;
what to do about adults (teachers, parents) feeling and dealing with stress and anxiety while with children;
the fact that numerous educators are aware of and are using social and emotional learning strategies in the classroom but parents have no experience with intentional social and emotional skill building from their own upbringing so what’s the information gap and is there a need to up-skill?
what we can say to skeptical parents who question whether social and emotional learning takes away from academics.
Thanks Tricia for all of the classroom experience and knowledge you brought to our discussion!
And speaking of teachers…
Happy World Teacher’s Day!
We know that teachers enter the profession from a place of purpose, service and contribution. And it takes a whole mind, heart and spirit to be able to create authentic learning experiences each day. Though time with students can be life-giving, they can also be heartbreaking when our students are experiencing trauma and we feel helpless to change their circumstances or to really reach them. We cannot overstate the critical role of teachers for the children and teens we love dearly and for the future of our world. Teaching can be a pivotal force for positive change.
We are so grateful for those teachers who bring their whole selves to the education of the hearts, minds and spirits of our youth.
From one of our favorite educational philosophers, Parker Palmer, check out these incredible quotes:
“Teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see I have a chance to gain self knowledge and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject. In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self knowledge.” ― Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life
If you have a teen in your household, surely you are aware of the mental health crisis that has been rippling through this generation since the COVID-19 pandemic. In every group of teenage friends, there are surely some who are dealing with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.1 In fact, new research came out this week thanks to Making Caring Common at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. That research shows some interesting findings not only about teens and mental health but also about the interaction between teens and their caregivers. In two nationally representative U.S. surveys, they found:2
18% of teens reported suffering from anxiety while 20% of mothers and 15% of fathers reported anxiety.
15% of teens reported depression, 16% of mothers and 10% of fathers reported depression too.
Over 1/3 of teens reported one parent/caregiver dealing with anxiety or depression.
Almost 40% of teens reported being “somewhat worried” about the mental health of at least one of their parents.
Making Caring Common not only published this research but also offered substantive guidance on what we can do about it. Though they offered numerous important strategies you can check out here, one of those strategies was to engage teens in acting on their sense of purpose to serve others and give them a sense of hope. In other words, teen’s well-being is promoted and mental health challenges prevented when they have opportunities to contribute meaningfully to others’ lives through service. I cannot imagine a better example of this than Adam Avin.
Adam’s family experienced the tragic loss of their grandfather, a loving wise soul who was very involved in the Avin’s family life. The compassion that he showed Adam was something Adam became committed to sharing with other children and teens. He became a yoga instructor, learned about mindfulness and began Wuf Shanti, a nonprofit educational organization offering videos and books to children to promote health and wellness. He was nine years old.
None of this would have been possible without the loving support and guidance of his family, particularly his humble Mom Marni Becker-Avin who shepherded him through each step of the way. So the Confident Parents’ conclusion is this…
If parents who struggle with anxiety raise children who struggle with anxiety, so too parents who work at their wellness and serve others’ well-being raise children who are deeply committed to wellness and serving others’ well-being.
There’s so much more to their powerful story but I believe the most powerful words come from the author himself, now a college sophomore, whose book just released. This is a book that has a million different simple and practical and research-backed strategies for teens in being mindful to contribute to their health and wellness – written by a teen for teens.3
Here’s Adam Avin’s words on his new book,
Stress Less; Mindfulness for Teens:
My book is finally out. Wow. It’s been like 3.5 years in the making. I remember starting it during covid, when we were stuck at home with nothing to do. And I thought, let’s take all of the interviews I’ve done with industry experts and compile it all into a book. Sometimes, I didn’t understand what they were trying to say, so I wanted to make it simpler for teens, and add a bunch of different practices and journal prompts for them to try. I was watching the news and saw all the violence and suicide stats, and I wanted to help somehow, so I thought maybe teens can try these things and they’ll find at least one thing that they like that can help them learn to cope with stress and emotions, and mental health.
At the time, I was also doing a lot of public speaking, travelling to schools, speaking at summits, anywhere that I was invited. I wanted to get mental health curriculum into schools. I still do. I still believe it’s so important to have a class about resolving disputes in a healthy way. Communication is just as important to learn as calculus and chemistry. I’m actually kind of shocked, to tell you the truth, that these kind of classes haven’t become mandatory yet in our education system in this country. Anyway, once I couldn’t go around speaking anymore, I had to find another way to get the information out. And that’s when I started the book.
I’ll tell you right now that I couldn’t have done it without my mom. She helped a lot. I mean like the best organizer, sounding board, and editor EVER on the planet.
We had to learn about the publishing world, because up until then, we had self-published all of the Wuf Shanti books for the younger kids. This was our first time going through the traditional publishing route. I think we sent the book into 6-8 publishers, and each one said no. We didn’t give up though, and thankfully, Welbeck and TriggerHub, which focuses on mental health content, said yes.
That was a good day. And then we asked a few well-known athletes or celebrities to write the foreword and were turned down or ignored, LOL, but again we didn’t give up. It only takes one. And thankfully, the OMazing UD, from my home town and favorite team, said yes, because he truly cares about youth mental health. Another good day.
Mom and I, Wellbeck, TriggerHub, and UD’s team all worked so hard on the book for so long, and now the day is here.
I wish some of my relatives could still be here to witness it. I’m not sure how I’m feeling. Maybe happy, accomplished, yet relieved that we’re finally at this point, maybe kind of sad that it’s over, maybe nervous about if people will read it or like it, definitely hopeful that it helps someone. A lot of emotions happening all at once. Is this the end of something old or the beginning of something new? What will be my next big project? What will I do now?
There are some things we can do when feeling strong emotions: 1. Express them. Laugh or Cry (we are allowed to feel what we feel). I guess today I’m expressing through writing. 2. Practice Gratitude (science has proven gratitude helps us be happier). 3. Pause (breathe and focus on the present moment, not the sadness of yesterday or the anxiety of tomorrow).
Whatever I do next, I am grateful for all the experiences and all the people that have brought me to this moment and want to send a shout out to all of you. Thank you.
“I simply cannot get sick. If I’m out even for a few days, our whole household literally falls apart,” expresses Michelle, tired and exasperated with no end in sight. Michelle is an educational consultant with a husband and two kids. She makes more money than her husband so is responsible for the mortgage payment and when she’s between big contracts that’s one of only a number of worries that wakes her at 4:00 a.m. She juggles the lion’s share of the household chores – cooking, cleaning, laundry and also, volunteers regularly at her children’s school knowing how important it is for her to be involved. Michelle has aging parents who often require her attention since they have physical issues but are attempting to live independently.
Michelle’s husband Mike is an educator too and coaches a soccer team for their children’s school. Michelle and Mike used to “date” but now there is no time or opportunity. The kids are not old enough to leave on their own and the weekends are packed with responsibilities and soccer games. I ask her, “when did you feel happy last?” She struggles to respond as she winces, straining her memory. She has gained weight and is experiencing back pain and occasional migraines so the physical toll of her lifestyle is beginning to show.
She is deeply committed to being a loving parent to her two kids, spending time with them daily supporting their homework and reading to them in the evenings. Her daughter Ivy, age 6, has been slow to learn to read and fights her when it’s time to practice. She wonders if this is typical or whether there’s a more serious problem involved. The thought of a dyslexia or other mental diagnosis is more than she can deal with at the moment so she sets those ponderings away for another day. Her son Jonah, age 10, is getting bullied at school since he’s not athletic like his classmates. At home, he’s quiet and sinks into his device scrolling through TikTok videos choosing to tune out the world. She worries he won’t have friends or develop social skills. So she presses him to play soccer yet again to be social.
Michelle’s husband, Mike, is an exceptional high school teacher, one of those rare individuals who infuses passion into the subject matter and gets even jaded high school students excited about learning. He’s being asked to step up his involvement in work by joining committees, chairing his department and it seems, ultimately, he’s being groomed to take over a leadership role at the district level – away from students, away from the classroom. Michelle is torn between the pain of not spending time with her husband (dinners are often her and the kids on their own) and wanting that promotion so that they can afford a bigger house and take some of the pressure off of her work as the primary source of income.
Maybe this is the story of you or someone in your intimate circle? How does she find herself in the fog of expectations? The questions that underpin Michelle’s running, her inability to get sick, to slow down, are:
What if I am not enough as a parent and my kids fail in school and in life?
What if I am not enough at work and I lose opportunities or worse, never generate new opportunities?
What if I am not enough for my incredible husband who I love and respect?
What if I fail in all of my roles because I don’t have the strength or knowledge or whatever it takes to make it?
More than anything else, she requires courage. In fact, we require courage. The courage to live the life we’ve chosen with our full presence – not hooked on the past, not finding ways to escape, and not tied to some imagined future. And certainly not someone else’s view of a good life. But our own, here and now. Deciding to face fears of not-enoughness requires a revision of old stories – of the Pinterest-perfect home and the bright, brilliant and award-winning career, and the Instagram-worthy family. These images are never about authenticity, heart, and integrity. And they are often not about true connection with others either. They are about show. And if Michelle is putting on a show in the midst of living her daily life online or in-person, that’s a whole lotta energy she could be channeling into authenticity. She is clearly allowing others’ expectations of her to dominate her days.
Where’s the essence of the true Michelle in that? Her marriage might find a crisis since she’s not being the best part of who she is but only living who others want her to be. Her children are missing out on learning from who she truly is. If she had “it” before – before the complications of mid-life, that perfect balance between her career and life, things were different and seemed simpler. And her context has changed. It’s time for reinvention.
So where does she go from here? How does she find herself through the fog of fears and expectations? She can begin to find clarity, to dissipate the fog when she stops, breathes and begins to listen. Below the ping on her phone, under the leaf blower roaring down the street, beneath the din of her child’s demands, she needs to listen within. And as she does, she can ask herself one key question.
What do I most need to learn?
For each person, the answer will be different. Maybe building healthy, meaningful relationships is where she needs to focus. Perhaps setting boundaries and having tough conversations to ensure her sense of agency is intact is the hardest thing for her. The answer – your answer – is the way forward. And typically the answers – if we are honest with ourselves – are inconvenient. They don’t fit with our carefully crafted, tightly woven schedules. So it’s tempting to lie to ourselves even as we attempt to listen. That’s why the only way we can truly reinvent is with courage. The courage to trust our deepest inner guidance. The courage to realize that the obstacle is the way. The courage to accept that we will find meaning and purpose and community too if only we amplify those faint inner voices that show us the way to what we care about the most and what we need to learn in order to be the person we can be. And finally, the courage to live into that life knowing some may not understand, accept or want to connect with you when you’ve found your unique path forward.
And if there are sea changes to be made, it may mean breaking down before rebuilding. Michelle may get sick as she slows. And that sickness is an opportunity – a gift. Through that enforced rest, she can become aware of the fog and actively work to heal through it.
The developmental mindset as a way of viewing our lives is this simple and this complex. And as someone who has studied and worked with parents and caregivers for over a decade, there is a distinct advantage with the context of family life if we take the time to see it. We gain opportunities for deepening, widening and expanding our learning by virtue of the fact that our children challenge us through their development. And our partner, too, challenges us through their own development. As they change and test limits, they push us in ways we would never push ourselves. And each time, we have the chance to ask two important questions:
What are they working on or learning in their development? And how can I be supportive?
How is this an opportunity for my own learning?
When our tween, for example, becomes more self aware as they shape their identity, we may exercise our social awareness and ability to empathize and perspective take. Remember how you wanted to be the one who defined who you were when you were twelve and not accept your parents’ definition of you?
Shifting our focus requires an open mind, an open heart and an open will to follow where these questions lead us. They ask that we drop our need to control everything around us – and for mothers steering the ship – that can be an enormous ask. We fear that all will fall apart and we’ll be the ones left with the consequences picking up the pieces. But this leap of faith is necessary and why courage is the lever that enables our reinvention.
What does that reinvention really look like? Should she quit her job? What about her financial stability? Those practical pressures don’t magically go away. Reinventing from the inside out is a daily practice right where you are. Sometimes your inner wisdom will whisper that major changes are necessary. Sometimes it may not. Often, we need to stay the course and bring the courage of a fresh perspective and experience to our current life.
What I have discovered after years of intentionally asking these essential questions is that the life-giving gains for you and your entire family are well worth the risk. They offer you the opportunity to learn patience with your children — and other intimates or colleagues in your life (if you ask those questions about those relationships too) that you never knew you had. They offer you motivation and energy. And they offer you a sense of meaning and contribution. It offers you the chance to deepen your trust and intimacy with your loved ones. Because you begin to see, feel and experience the ways in which you are directly supporting your children’s learning.
It’s not about math equations… It’s about life learning. It’s the critical, essential social and emotional skills that they may or may not intentionally be taught in schools but you know are absolutely fundamental to a marriage, to a career, to raising kids, to any and all of your most precious roles in life. These are the lessons that will see them through attempted abusers, through bullying in the workplace, through miscarriages and deaths and all the stuff of life. The opportunity to bravely and confidently share who we truly are and use our best gifts, to learn from diverse perspectives and open our minds to new possibilities and others’ hearts, to co-create and collaborate through our relationships and build toward our hopes and dreams together, and make responsible decisions that contribute to our own and other’s well-being and making the world a better place around us. Those are the reasons we get up in the morning.
Do you ever have moments with your children where you look at them and feel overwhelmed simultaneously with love and panic that time is short with them at each age and stage? If we are too busy to notice the time passing, we’ll surely miss so many opportunities that exist for those life lessons to be reflected upon and experienced together. There’s no better time than now to find the courage to reinvent.
*This is part of the “Leading in Life” series co-written by Jennifer and Jason Miller. Jennifer brings her years of working with educators and families on advancing social and emotional development while Jason brings his years of experience in the corporate and health care sectors with a focus on culture change and leadership development.
Confident Parents, Confident Kids introduces a new page on our site for teens and those who parent and educate teens! Our new teen resource page includes:
A new young adult book selection with a diverse range of authors and titles, recommended by a young adult, CPCK’s summer intern Megan Fabro that includes graphic novels, contemporary fiction, classic literature and nonfiction. All are labelled with the social and emotional themes they contain.
Virtual Programs to Support Families as Educational Partners
Jennifer Miller, MEd., Founder and Author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids” has been offering educational webinars and series for a decade – all customized and specific to a school or district’s family community’s hopes and needs.
Three of those programs have been particularly popular.
Check out the following programs and see if there’s one that might be ideal for your school or district community in promoting family-school partnerships around student well-being and development.
Last week, we began taking a look at how the first six weeks of school can set the tone for the school year and how families can play a role in that transition. We examined bringing our open minds and hearts to school events, looking to make genuine connections with others in our school community, modeling introductions to others to practice with our children, spying and articulating the discovery of treasures, or inner strengths, in our children that are emerging and the treasures of the school as well through the teaching staff or many other individuals who are a key part of the school community.
This week, we’ll take a look at next steps for setting the tone for the school year. Some learning takes place at school but there is plenty of learning that will need to take place at home whether formally through homework and studying or informally through reflections on our school days. In these early weeks, perhaps the intensity of the work is low (and you know it will rise in the weeks to come). This offers us some space to ensure that you and your family are not only physically prepared for the work to come, but you’re building connections as a family to the learning to help inspire and motivate your child in engaging in the work ahead.
Create Conducive Learning Spaces
Take a little time with each child to figure out where they will consistently work each day during homework time. You may or may not have an ideal spot but here are some considerations as you think about designating a homework and learning space. That space will:
be quiet during homework time (eliminate noise distractions);
contain adequate supplies nearby (pencils, notebooks, outlet for laptop plug-in);
have a clean, cleared off hard surface;
be near enough to parent/caregiver that your child can ask questions and gain support when needed; and
offer adequate task lighting.
Note this does not have to be an all-the-time dedicated space (a dining table works just fine, for example!)
Reflect on the Coming School Year as a Family
Instead of diving head first into all of the many tasks of the school year, take a moment to lift up and talk about the hopes and dreams of your child and of your family for the school year ahead. Write them down! Use them as an anchor. Find out what your child’s focus is. Maybe they are very interested in making new friends, joining an extracurricular or proving they can achieve academically? Your awareness of those hopes will help you support them throughout the school year.
Ask Big Questions Together
All exploration begins with big questions. And learning, after all, is a big exploration expedition. So take a look as a family together at what your child/children will be studying over the coming year. What subjects are they taking? What big questions can you ask together that may be explored over the year? My son who is a sophomore this year is taking U.S. History. We are so curious as a family to see how this will be taught and where they’ll begin the story. We have lots of questions to lead our family’s exploration and learn from our son’s curriculum. The mystery involved with genuine curiosity is a motivator like no other. You can’t wait to turn the page to find out more! So lead off your year with those big questions (and leave judgments behind) and savor taking steps toward uncovering and discovering the mysteries behind your child’s learning.
Find Opportunities to Play
As adults, we can focus solely on the work to be done very quickly (because often there’s a full load on our plate and then some). But if our children are to become lifelong learners, then there’s important value in seeking the joy in learning and also, in finding the play opportunities and the fun so that their creative, innovative side can have some space.
The weather right now (where we are anyway, I know some are struggling with difficult weather!) is beautiful. Take advantage and head to the park after school to get out some energy and enjoy! In the dead of winter, that won’t be as possible or likely. Gather classmates together or whole families to enjoy a Fall outing together and get to know one another better. Accomplish both your hopes of making deeper connections with others and seeking fun, play and enjoyment.
Examine your Routines and Make a Plan Together!
Here’s a quick checklist. You might ask yourself, have we created…
_____ well-rehearsed routines with clearly defined responsibilities?
_____ healthy sleeping, eating and hygiene habits?
_____ an organized, well-equipped and calm working environment for each family member?
_____ a plan for sharing and managing big feelings?
_____ a plan for times to connect in a caring, loving way with each/all family members?
There is never a more ideal time than right now to set an optimistic tone for the school year ahead! Your family’s discussions about the treasures you are finding in your school community and in your children, the hopes you have for the year, the big questions you want to ask about what our children are learning and the play and connection with others will all set a tone of joy in learning. As a lifelong educator, when you boil it down to its essences, this is what it’s all about. Not drudgery. Not a chore to get through. But a family expedition into the unknown with buried treasure to be discovered. May you find that kind of magic this school year!
It’s with trepidation, excitement, sadness, longing, anticipation, worry and even joy that we enter together into the back to school season as a family. Saying goodbye to extended time together and serious summer fun, laid back schedules and adventures and exploration can all feel like a sad ending. Re-entering the schedule can feel like an onerous chore to some and to others, a relief. Seeing long-time friends and familiar faces can invite or renew our sense of care and belonging with our school community or it can usher in stress about safety, judgment and exclusion. Our children may be hoping to build new friendships or nervously considering the teachers and coaches who will impact their lives. No matter our focus, the back to school season seems to incite big feelings in all of us.
And there are rituals that welcome us and pave the way for transition into the learning year. Whether you connect with other parents at pick up or drop off time, attend a welcome back event or parents’ curriculum night, it’s not just your child who goes back to school. The whole family will play a key role in learning.
Responsive Classroom, an evidence-based social and emotional learning curriculum in schools, offers teachers professional guidance on the first six weeks of school and how they can seize that timeframe to set the tone for the school year in a number of ways.1 But how can we support that transition at home? An intentional approach can help us as parents and caregivers consider the ways in which we can create conducive routines at home and a caring space to support and maximize the hard work of learning that will take place in the context of our family lives.
Let’s take a look at these opportunities that exist in family life to return to school together preparing ourselves mentally, socially and emotionally to offer and receive learning throughout the school year.
Getting to Know your School Community At the very heart of learning is connection. We know safe, caring relationships are necessary in order to bring out the best in our students. The fresh school year – whether you are beginning in a new school and everyone is unfamiliar or you are returning to a school you know well – offers a chance to create valuable connections with others. We need not be reminded that our in-person ability to connect cannot be taken for granted. Though often schools are placed in the role of organizing and reaching out to families, there is an opportunity for each and every caregiver to initiate relationships knowing how critical they are to the learning agenda. So our agenda in doing the best we can as caring parents is not only just to show up (though that is a critical first step!) but also, to consider how we show up. Bringing our warm and open heart and our willingness and effort to make caring connections will alter our presence so that we walk away having planted seeds for new, deeper or more extended relationships.
With our Children: This is the moment when our children are most nervous about their social standing. Will I make friends? Will friends be in my classes? If not, how will I manage and will I need to meet other classmates? Will I have someone to sit with at lunch? Will there be an awkward time at recess or after school when I have to wait alone? Though they must have awkward moments and encounters in order to learn social skills, our modeling can go a long way to help them.
So 1. Be aware that when you are introducing yourself and your child to others, they are watching and learning; and 2. Offer practice in meeting new people. With young children, practice introductions between stuffed friends or action figures. Have your child try it! With older children when you encounter new families at events, include your child in the adult introductions. Reflect on them when you get in the car or move away. What made that easy? How could you do that when you encounter a new classmate? Do you recall their names? If not, how can we remember them the next time? With teens, we need to be a little subtler in our efforts since they will sniff out our eagerness to “teach” and lean away. Instead engage your teen’s empathy for others who are new to the class. You might say, “Do you remember how you felt when you were new? What was that like for you? And was there anyone who helped you feel more welcome? What did they do?”
Sharing Your Gifts/Learning about Others If every individual – student, educator and caregiver – were fully and deeply engaged in contributing the best of their inner gifts to the mission of learning, what would our schools look like, feel like? How would they be different? As we enter this school year, you might ask yourself, how are you sharing your gifts with your student and with the school community? What might that look like? How can you take one small step forward in doing that? And how can we learn about the gifts others bring? What knowledge, skills or experience do they bring professionally? What are they committed to personally? How can we find out more so that we value those we are in community with?
CPCK recently collaborated with educational leaders from Windsor Public Schools in Windsor, CT who shared this wonderful way in which they give fathers in their district the opportunity to share their best gifts at school for the benefit of all in a program called Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students).
With our Children: Can your child name their strengths? Are they able to identify what is unique and special about themselves? This is the time when teachers will offer connection activities for students to get to know one another but our students are also working on coming to know themselves. This is the ever-evolving skill of self awareness. You can help with this by asking those key questions your child might consider. It’s common for children to be complimented on their looks (“you look beautiful!”) or their athletic performance (“you were great on the soccer field”) but those are not the only ways we hope our child will define themselves. We hope they see their inner strengths like wit, curiosity, creativity, compassion, honesty, bravery, kindness and more. Discover together what these are and how they might shape your child’s sense of identity by story-telling, perhaps reflecting on your summer at dinnertime, and pointing to specific instances of those valued traits.
Discovering School Treasures Every school has treasures. Whether its incredible teachers with passion interest areas to share, maker spaces or places that inspire creativity, or peers that hold the potential to become best best friends, our children have a lot to explore and discover. We can participate and enjoy the discovery process by keeping the dialogue alive about what discoveries are being made. And surely when we attend school events, we can return with much to report about our own discoveries. Keeping a gratitude agenda at dinnertime or whenever your family is together can help keep the exchange of school treasures alive throughout the back to school season.
With our Children: Listening with empathy and reflection can make all the difference in elevating or amplifying treasures that might go unnoticed. As your child is quickly rattling off the events or people encounters of the day, you might reflect back to them what you heard and add in how you see them as potential treasures. “Your teacher greeted you at the door today? I am delighted to hear how glad she was to see you!”
As an educator, the school year feels like a time when we hit the ground running. You may be feeling this sense too. But in reality, the transition from summer to school year doesn’t happen overnight. It is indeed a season in which there’s plenty of time to plant the seeds that will be watered and grown over the coming year. So there’s more we can do but for now, these are plenty to focus on. In part two, we’ll take a look at creating conducive learning spaces at home, sharing hopes and dreams, asking big questions, finding opportunities to play and co-creating rules and routines.
We hope you bask in the glow of these first few days and weeks of school as you appreciate the discovery of treasures in your child, in your school community, and in yourself. May it be a safe, healthy and happy year of learning for all!
Check out Jennifer Miller’s three top tips for easing back to school stress for both parents and the kids they love as part of the Equip Our Kids Back to School Campaign. Note the second tip is a super simple key ingredient, a new perspective on a foundational skill. But you may just discover that if you coach your child on this one, it can make all the difference in dealing with very normal new school year butterflies.
Remember that back to school time is not a day but truly a season. Our children may use their best self management skills on day one but by day two or three be exhausted, hangry and emotional fried by the end of a school day. Practice these tips with them this weekend before the pressure is on. Try them together a few times! And they’ll be ready to face all the newness that the start of school brings with hope and excitement.
Here’s to a healthy, safe and happy school year filled with the joy of learning for the whole family (confident parents too!)!
Thank you for writing in, Henry Killingsworth of Schofields, Australia about your son starting kindergarten soon and your thoughts about proactively beginning new sleep routines now in preparation for supporting his transition. It’s true that along with our other preparations, this particular one – new healthy sleep routines – can go a long way toward supporting our children’s transition back to school with a schedule that can be very different from our summertime schedule. With this in mind, here are some supports for you if you are dealing with a young child whose imagination and energy may be running on high when they need to be winding down for sleep.
“I just can’t go to sleep!” E said summoning me well after our nightly bedtime ritual had taken place. When I guided him back to bed, he layed down and flopped his feet up in the air with his body in a constant wiggle. Since I observed his physical restlessness first, I gently guided him to get in his “cozy position,” as we tend to call it – ready to go to sleep. But as I talked with him, I realized, it was his mind that was far more active than his body. So I simply asked, “What are you thinking about?” His response was uttered with frustration. “Simon told me that Sarah doesn’t like me. My favorite train broke and I don’t know how to fix it. The toy catalogue came in the mail. I want the Batman…monkey, monkey, swimming pool, monkey.” Okay, that may not be an exact quote but you get the idea. He began with conversational sentences and moved quickly into words and phrases following his runaway train of thought. And I could tell he was viewing his thoughts as a “monkey on his back,” an annoyance that he couldn’t tame or calm.
Bedtime can be a difficult time of day for children of all ages. It may be one of the quietest, most reflective times in their day. For some, it’s the first time they will have the chance to process all of the many activities and social interactions they’ve had. And so often, thoughts turn to problems that they are trying to work out or upsets that occurred. The feelings that accompany rumination – like worry, anxiety and frustration – may be compounded by a discomfort or fear of being alone, separated from parents, and being in the dark. In order to unpack his feelings and move toward getting to sleep, I asked him, “Can you tell me what you are frustrated about?” His response surprised me and shed light on how I could help him. “Everyone else (read: ‘everybody in the world except me’) can go to sleep just like that. They can get calm. I can’t!” Helping your child understand and deal with his monkey mind at bedtime can help him and your entire family. Instead of feeling helpless, he can find ways to “sit in the driver’s seat of his train of thoughts.”
Children can be guided to think about their thinking (in scientific terms, metacognition) and facilitate their own reflection and letting go process to self-soothe into sleep with some practice and guidance from you. Dr. Sameet Kumar in his book, The Mindful Path through Worry and Ruminationwrites “Change begins with observation.” And from the words of John Dewey, the educational theorist, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” And so as you try and assist your child, you want to help him observe his own ways of thinking and guide reflection on them in order to support him in changing his thoughts and preparing for a good night’s sleep. Interestingly, my child’s frustrations with his own thinking were putting his brain into flight, flight or freeze mode – his danger signal activated. There will be no going to sleep when your primal brain or survival mode has taken over. So if your child is consistently restless at bedtime, it may be worth finding out what they are thinking. Are they frustrated with their thoughts? Here are some ways you might go about it.
Find out your child’s thoughts.
My own child’s thoughts were a big messy jumble in his head with no continuity. The more he wrestled with that big jumble, the more frustrated he became with his inability to sort them out. So ask your child, “What thoughts keep coming up? What are your worries?When I leave you to go to sleep, what kind of thoughts come into your head?” You may hear a similar spilling out of many disparate thoughts. That’s okay and important in order for your child to begin to process and unravel the jumble.
Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine.
Help untangle the mess of thoughts that creates a monkey mind at bedtime. Whatever you do at bedtime whether its reading a book, saying a prayer or singing a lullaby, include reflections from the day. There are two simple but key components to this reflection.
Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?
2. Then, turn to gratitude. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and well-being. And grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Describe your child’s thoughts as ocean waves.
In order to help my child think about his thinking, we discussed the ocean waves. I asked him to pretend he was standing in the ocean up to his middle and the waves were coming. “What happens if you fight the waves?” I asked. He easily responded, “It’s hard. I can’t stay up and I’m pushing and falling over.” He was so frustrated with his thoughts that he was fighting them like the waves. And he understood this as a nine-year-old. “What happens when you ride the waves?” I asked. And the response is obvious. You go with the flow. You accept your thoughts for what they are. You don’t try to beat them back but accept them and gently move with them. Going with the waves offers your child a physical example of self-compassion. If your child does not have positive associations with ocean waves (maybe he fears them?), then use another analogy like fighting a train versus riding the train.
Talk about rumination – the endless hamster wheel.
Find out if there are particular thoughts that keep coming up with no resolution. We all experience the hamster wheel. And we often hold the misconception that if we continue to worry those same worries, somehow it will prevent something bad from happening. We think all of our vigilance will contribute to our safety. But in fact, the wheel continues without doing anything but consuming our mind and deepening our anxiety. So how do you hop off the wheel? Thinking about your thinking – coming into awareness of your thoughts – is a critical first step. Becoming present through breathing can bring your focus to the moment. Assist your child in accepting right where they are with their thoughts and feelings with compassion. Then they’ll no longer need the wheel. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Find your cozy position.
This is the place that if you didn’t move a muscle, you could be comfortable falling asleep. But before you do, you may need to get out the wiggles first. Stand up together and do an all over shake as hard as you can. Then sink into the bed and see if you feel calmer. Or guide a relaxation process that promotes body awareness and mindfulness like the following. Lie down side by side on the floor or on the child’s bed, backs to the floor. Close your eyes and ask your child to close his as well. Using a gentle voice, ask your child to pretend there is a tennis ball at the base of his feet. Ask him to try and grab the ball with his whole foot including his toes with all his might. Ask him to hold it for a few seconds. Then, let the ball go. Now ask him to pretend the ball is between his ankles. Squeeze the imaginary ball as hard as possible for a few seconds and then, let it go. Try this all the way up the body including at his knees, on his tummy, between his arms and his side, in his hands, at his neck and at the back of his head where it touches the floor. Each time squeeze for a few seconds and then release. This will guide a child to notice each part of his body, focus on that part and send relaxation to that part of the body letting the tension go.
Breathe deeply together.
We all have experienced the awareness of our slowed rhythmic breathing that occurs right before we fall asleep. Begin that kind of breathing with your child. Lay right next to him. You can even place his hand on yours or his own diaphragm or heart so that he feels that deep breathing. You can also emphasize the sound of your deep breathing so that he mimics and follows you. Use this right before you say “Good night.” I notice that the deep breathing we do before I leave his room adds to my own sense of calm in the evenings and it’s a welcome release. Take some time with your child to guide him through this process.
Our sleep is an essential prerequisite for our health and well-being during the day. Educators know that there is no more important way a parent can support learning in school than to help get children to bed on time and assist them in going to sleep. Even if you are diligent about bedtimes, your child still may be lacking the needed rest because of worrisome thoughts keeping him up. Your reflections and practice will offer invaluable skills for calming his mind, releasing tensions and going to sleep.
How Our Children’s Questioning Can Lead Them to Developing their Ethical Thinking Skills
It just started happening seemingly out of the blue. “Why can’t I watch PG-13 rated movies? I know kids in my class who do.” “Why do I always have to go upstairs for bed at 7:00? The neighbors all get to stay up later.” And then what seems like minutes later, I hear “Why do we always only read one book? Why can’t we read two?” This rash of questioning our family practices and routines collided, as often challenges do, with my own set issues – work deadlines, literal pains in my neck, volunteer dates and a general stacking up of life pressures – leaving me with little patience for these questions. But as I thumbed through my handy child developmental milestones book (Yardsticks 1) as I often do to help extend my patience level, I noted my son (again) is right on schedule. Eight going on nine years of age, he seems to be awakening as happens so many times in a child’s development – to new ideas and differences between him and his peers. He’s beginning to notice injustices and inequalities on an individual, personal level. The questions have the same essential focus: “Why does the guy next to me get privileges that you, Mom, say I can’t have?”
As I take a step back, breathe and reflect, I realize that this is the foundation of developing moral thinking. He needs to begin to question his own differences from his very personal social encounters in order to think more broadly, in the future, about inequities in the community and world. So my quick response, with the undercurrent of annoyance, was to explain why we do things differently than other families. But after I stepped away and reflected on these series of questions, I decided to follow up with my son to talk further about how it’s critical that he continues to ask those questions even if it makes me temporarily uncomfortable.
Children need to understand the context and the why behind the rules — even at my son’s tender age of eight. Ruth Charney, author of Habits of Goodness asks these essential questions:
When we reward right answers and pass over (or scold) wrong ones, are we encouraging divergent thinking or reinforcing right-answer thinking? When we make all the choices and impose unquestioned rules, do we give opportunity to learn self-control or make decisions? And when our rules are broken, do we accomplish our goals more effectively by doling out punishments or by working on problem-solving that fosters child responsibility? 2
– Ruth Charney, “Habits of Goodness”
It remains a critical job for parents to teach children the rules of the household and why they are important. Being a part of a family means that there are guidelines that keep everyone safe and cared for. All members must contribute by following those guidelines. But questioning is important. Understanding the rules and the reasons for them begins the ethical thought process for children. So it’s worth taking the time to talk through and help your child understand the thinking behind the rules.
In understanding how moral development emerges in our children, Carol Gilligan proposed three stages she called “The Stages of an Ethic of Care.” 3 They are:
1.Preconventional or Selfish
Every person necessarily begins with a survival perspective focused only on themselves. This worldview from infancy through nine years old (varies in timeframe as all developmental milestones do) assists young children in focusing on secure relationships with caregivers and establishing their own supports for survival so that they can open their minds to other possibilities later in life. And that focus on a secure attachment will allow children to form healthy relationships and give them the confidence to explore school and the world beyond home. In this worldview, rules are given by authorities, not questioned but obeyed and taken literally. If they are disobeyed, there is punishment. But if a person remains stuck in this survivalist worldview, it limits their growth and ability to demonstrate care for themselves and others. It also significantly limits thinking about complexities or making decisions that take responsibility for one’s role in a larger community. Moving out of this phase (as my son seems to be), there is a questioning of authority. This is necessary to move from a sense of selfishness and survival to responsibility.
2. Conventional or Social
In this phase of moral development, caring for others takes primacy. A core sense of responsibility is established, an awareness of others around the individual and the impact they have on those others. In this stage, self sacrifice is good. Individuals may care for others while ignoring their own needs. They may even do harm to themselves (perhaps inadvertently) in an effort to help others. This tends to be a feminine trait though it can be seen in both genders. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development – “Ethics of Justice” – which served as a precursor to Carol Gilligan’s, offered some helpful perspectives on this stage from a more masculine perspective.4 His theories were criticized because his research studies only involved male subjects and were largely based on artificial (fictitious) situations. But we can learn about justice thinking from his work. In his Conventional Stage, relationships become important for the individual. They act in good and compliant ways in order to receive approval from others. The individual becomes aware of the rules of the wider society and obeys them to avoid guilt and act out of obligation. Moving out of this phase into the final phase, the individual moves from goodness or the perception of goodness to truth, from responsibility in order to gain approval or attention from others to an internalized compass for not hurting self or others in concert with or despite societal rules.
3. Post Conventional or Principled
Kohlberg and Gilligan agree that most people never evolve their worldview to this place though this is the final stage. In this stage, the person’s thinking evolves to valuing nonviolence so that he or she makes decisions, however complex the situation, relative to doing no harm to themselves or others. Though this kind of thinking and the actions that follow is a rarity in our world, it certainly is a level to pursue and promote with our children. As with all stages of development, individuals can dip into former stages depending upon the circumstances. The previous stages are always a part of a person. The development that occurs in an individual becomes a raised awareness in which they predominantly view the world in that way. Do we want to raise children who will obey rules without question? I certainly don’t. If a regime like Hitler’s came into power, I need to know that my son would be prepared to be civilly disobedient, to question authority and to make choices that preserve the rights of himself and others.
Here are some ideas for prompting courageous ethical thinking in our children.
Have patience with questioning realizing its important purpose.
When your child is questioning your household rules, pause and recall that this is the necessary questioning that leads to moral thinking. Talk through the whys of family routines and practices and involve your children in thoughtful reflection. If there are not logical reasons for rules or practices, work on recreating them to align with the current context.
Promote moral thinking by encouraging care and consideration for others.
When you have the chance to help a neighbor or a friend who is ill or suffering, be sure and involve your child in thinking about and acting upon that care.
When kids say mean words or act meanly, in addition to acknowledging your own child’s hurt feelings (first) and helping them respond in ways that maintain their dignity and others, express compassion for those who are perpetrating hurt. We are all connected in a school and neighborhood community. Our hurt impacts one another. That is not to excuse any hurtful action but only to acknowledge that there is a cycle of hurting that we see taking place. So that compassion for those who are hurting and are unable to control themselves in hurting others helps stop that cycle of harm.
Help your child to question authority.
First, how can you become okay with your child questioning your own authority? That can be an emotional button-pusher. So inserting a pause, taking a beat when questioning happens can make a huge difference in your ability to step back and hold space for questioning. Though sometimes the answer will be “No.”, you can always explain the reasons behind why it’s an important response further helping develop your child’s consequential thinking.
Offer your child the chance to see complexities.
Give your child practice with responsible decision making by allowing them to make choices that they alone can make. And they will get the chance to experience whatever consequences follow. Facilitate their thinking by asking open-ended questions, not hurrying in to “fix” what’s wrong, but using your best self-control to allow your children to think for themselves. We live in highly complex times. This era of parenting involves an entire global community through the digital world that was simply not a part of the parenting experience in previous generations. We, as parents, require new ways of parenting that are reflective and thoughtful and help facilitate deeper thoughtfulness in our kids.
With instant information, connection and communication at our children’s fingertips, the skills required of responsible decision-making could not be more important. These skills offer them the chance to build and sustain healthy relationships which serve as a cornerstone for their sense of well-being. It’s well worth our intentionality and our own self regulation as our children question it all to pursue those questions and their impacts on ourselves and others together.
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