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What Can Parents Do about School Violence?

what can i do sandy hook illust 001

Because a school shooting happened this morning five minutes away from my home and I can hear the roar of helicopters over my head, I am doing what I can do… publishing an article about what we – each of us – can do to prevent these very preventable tragedies from ever occurring again. My love goes out to all of those impacted by the shooting at The Ohio State University this morning and to all those impacted by school shootings in the past. I know we can do better for our children and our communities. 

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. 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 we are physically with – 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. 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. 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. 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.

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.” 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 clearly anti-social behavior. Certainly there need to be supports for those children. 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?

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. The social worker guides the family through the support-seeking process so that the intimidation or embarrassment is reduced and the family gets the help they need.

Promote school-family-community connections. Preventing a crisis from occurring also involves connection. 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. 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 is 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 for the education of our citizenry.

I hope you will make a commitment to taking action in your own way. If you need support in doing so, please call upon me or 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
Jennifer Miller, M.Ed., Family and Educational Consultant

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.

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 School Climate Center
Our 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.

“How to Hear “Me, Me, Me” Less and Teach Young Children to Give” on NBC Parent Toolkit


How do you help young children learn about and experience the joy of giving?

Check out how the article begins…

“Look, Mama!” my five-year-old son E said peering proudly over his grocery bag teeming with – toys? “Oh!” I was confused by what I saw. It was the day of the school Christmas store in which students could buy gifts for family members at inexpensive prices. We had spent time the day prior talking about what Daddy, Grandma, and Grandpa might like for gifts. And I had placed a $10 bill in an envelope in E’s backpack to allow him to make purchases. I thought I had properly prepared him. But when his teacher sent him off shopping with a fourth grade buddy as his guide, he felt overwhelmed by the sparkling goodies before him. His buddy, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, told him, “Yeah, get some for yourself.” The freedom and excitement E must have felt having money to spend took him over and he forgot the reason he was shopping in the first place.

Children at the preschool and kindergarten age fly with grand excitement from one play activity to another. Their attention span does not last long. So preparations the day prior, as I had tried to do with my son, are not typically retained. And impulse control is still not completely developed. Which means when left to their own devices, they may not stop themselves from grabbing goodies at their fingertips. Read the full article.

“Politics at the Thanksgiving Table? Here’s How to Model Emotional Intelligence” with Pearson Education


I spoke with the talented team at Pearson Education – sponsors of the NBC Parent Toolkit – about a hot topic as we approach this U.S. holiday. What do you do when family conversations are heated or divided around politics? Here’s how it begins…


“Affirm their strong feeling –‘I can hear you feel really strongly about this, as so many of us do—but I want to focus on what brings us together this Thanksgiving. Can we talk about some issues where we have some common ground?’”


Anxious Conversations

Most families sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner this week will have more on their minds than keeping the turkey moist. This year’s presidential election has many people anxiously anticipating conversations with loved ones from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Jennifer Miller, a regular expert contributor to the Pearson-sponsored NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit, has some advice for families entering the fray.

“If you’re going to initiate a political conversation at your Thanksgiving dinner, there are some ways that you can go about it that are more constructive,” says Miller. “If you’re worried about others initiating a political conversation, there are ways you can deal with it where you maintain gratitude for the relationships without creating unneeded stress.”

While these sorts of discussions can be fraught, they also present important learning opportunities for kids. If you do it right, says Miller, “then you are modeling social and emotional intelligence in the highest form.” Read full article.


Thanks #PearsonEducation for the opportunity to contribute! Happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating! May we all experience the feelings and thoughts of gratitude this holiday season!

For more on this topic, check out the Fighting Fair Family Pledge.



Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children the Values and Actions of Inclusion


If it is his privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be inter-dependent.

― Mahatma Gandhi

All children have to deal with and understand the paradox of separateness and connection, of individuality and belonging. In utero, babies have no sense of separation. They are physically connected to Mom through the very liquid they breathe and the cord through which they receive their food. For most children, the birth process will be the biggest stress of their young lives. They discover that they are separate beings but need their attachment to their parents in order to survive. Do you remember in the first few months of your child’s life when he was fascinated with his hands? He was grappling with his individuality and separation. Then, when children enter their first playgroups or preschool, we encourage them to share, to cooperate and to take turns with other children. They have spent most of their time as infants and toddlers figuring out their individuality only to find that they are supposed to connect to others and that there are rules (sometimes confusing since they change in various environments) that govern that involvement.

Earlier this week, I watched as my own preschooler whisked one friend off by the arm and turned to scowl at his other friends, a group he has developed friendships with throughout the school year. I pulled him aside and encouraged him to be kinder to his friends and he did so as I left the classroom. But by the end of the school day, two excluded boys were angry and hurt and the teachers had been informed. E, my son, felt bad too. And so the seeds of inclusion and exclusion are planted early. Our instincts as children may not guide us well. E, my son, was acting on the great excitement he felt from a playdate at his friend’s house playing with new toys and having new play experiences. This enchantment guided him to single out his friend neglecting the others who were regular playmates. So what’s a caring adult to do?

The book Habits of Goodness; Case Studies in the Social Curriculum[i] by Ruth Charney tells the story of a preschool teacher with a roomful of children who were also struggling with being kind to one another. She decided to reflect on what she does to encourage genuine respect while recognizing that everyone is not going to be liked equally by everyone else. She planned to model the desired behaviors and keep communication about this topic open through regular class meetings. She also decided to create the “You can’t say you can’t play.” rule to ensure that all students are welcome and included in all play. A rule like this might not work in fifth grade, for example, but in preschool, as children are learning about rules, it worked. In the fifth grade, teachers could, in addition to regular discussions about inclusion and exclusion, explore deeper topics like what it means to be an upstander, the courageous person that stands up for a child who is being bullied. In this case, this teacher decided that the needs of the classroom community were more powerful than the needs of the individual. She set a core standard and value for her classroom that kindness is a requirement which is a standard any home or classroom community could set and cultivate.

One essential question in these examples that is raised is – how do we help our children internalize the values that underlie decisions about their actions? It was easy for me to say “Be kind to your friends.” but if my child continues to exclude others when I leave the room, then he has clearly not internalized the value of kindness and inclusion. The stakes only become higher as children grow older. Studies have consistently found that a student’s sense of belonging at school contributes to greater motivation, stronger engagement in classroom activities and higher academic achievement overall.[ii] And as you might suspect, research has demonstrated the converse to be true. Students who do not feel a social connection or sense of belonging are chronically absent, disengaged and low performing. Add to the mix children’s increasing awareness as they mature of racial, ethnic, gender, learning and appearance differences and whole groups of students can become marginalized.

In examining how teachers have best been able to address this issue and ensure that students are truly learning the value of connectedness and inclusion, there are some common themes that can be practiced at home.

Create a Culture of Acceptance and Caring – Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world. Put yourself to the test. Notice when you are making judgements about another. Stop yourself and ask, “What can I learn from this person who is challenging me?” Reframe your discussion in terms of your own learning with self-awareness.

Mom Daughter inviting girl to park by Jennifer MillerUse the Language of Acceptance and Caring – Young children particularly have a difficult time making distinctions between a person and their actions and choices. A child is tempted to say “I don’t like Billy.” when Billy takes her toy. Instead help her rephrase and reframe her thoughts to say “I don’t like that Billy took my toy.” Every child makes poor choices but each child can feel like they still belong in a family, classroom or friendship circle.

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

Discuss What it Means to be a Good Friend – What it means to be a friend and what it means to be a part of a classroom community can be a regular topic for conversation to revisit as your child grows and changes. What does it mean to you to be a good friend? How do you feel when you are excluded? How can you make new children in your school or neighborhood feel welcome? E has a new interest in Spiderman and luckily Spidey’s motto is a relevant March 2013 009one, “With great power comes great responsibility.” [iii] We talked about how he has an opportunity to act like Spiderman in his classroom and be kind to all kids who want to play with him. It’s easy to tell children what not to do (and important in establishing boundaries) but it’s equally important to think through with them what they can and should do instead.

Find and Articulate Common Ground – When your child comes home from school talking about another child’s differences, be sure you explore their common ground too. You might ask, “What are some of her interests? What does she like to play on the playground?” See if you can identify commonalities even as basic as, “She lives in our neighborhood.” or “She loves dogs too.” Focus on differences and children will see their separateness. But help children find common ground, and they will see how they relate to others who are different from them.

Notice Kindness – The teacher in the earlier example assigned partners to each student and asked them to notice when their partner was sharing or taking turns. At the end of the day, they would write out certificates for each student whose kindness was noticed. The simple certificate read, “I notice Karen shared today. Signed, Billy Goodman.” They worked on it until all students were receiving a certificate. For families, use a weekly family dinnertime to discuss what acts of kindness you witnessed other family members enacting throughout that week. Create a routine out of your noticing. Point out kindnesses when you see them and ask your children to do the same. Use “I notice” language to model observation of other people.

Consider that most children at one point or another will feel left out, excluded from the group or even bullied. Those children who are consistently left out are the ones most likely to act as bullies in the future. So even if your child tends to have many friends and not have problems with exclusion, those excluded can still impact your child’s life directly. It’s a sobering thought to realize that the students who committed the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Columbine, Colorado and other places were consistently marginalized. Promoting connectedness in the school and home community is critical now in keeping children safe. Don’t wait until your child has a problem. Begin now to encourage the values of inclusion and kindness in your family life so that your child internalizes and acts on that value.

[i] Charney, R. (1997). Habits of goodness; Case studies in the social curriculum. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
[ii] Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323-267.
[iii] Lee, S., Kirby, J., & Ditko, S. (1963). Amazing Spider-man. NY, NY: Marvel Comics, Marvel Tales # 138.

Updated from originally published version on Confident Parents, Confident Kids on March 28, 2013.

Chinese Translation – “The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning”

Five SE Skills by Jennifer Miller

It is a great honor that Xiangyan Liu (Yannie Liu) 刘湘燕 and Wenchao Li (Winnie Li) 李文超 of Angel Education, a nonprofit in Silicon Valley, Califorinia with a mission focused on social and emotional learning, sustainable development and happiness education, translated The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning article originally published in The Huffington Post into Chinese. Here’s how it begins and there’s a link to their site below to view the full article.

作者:Jennifer Miller (插图作者)


在学校的第一百天,我儿子的老师给每个孩子的照片上都多画了几笔,让他们看上去像是饱经沧桑的老年人,这些都是一年级的孩子。然后,她问孩子:“到100岁的时候,你们想变成什么样子?”我儿子这样写:“我想对孩子们友善。”我心里马上想:“是的,我也是。”这好像很简单,但真的简单吗?作为家长,我们想让孩子获得成功,但是,弄清楚这意味着什么,为达到这个目标可以做些什么的时候,我发现这个一点儿都不简单。而且,如何帮孩子获得成功,这个问题本身就值得思考。最近 NBC 家长工具包(Parent Toolkit)使用普林斯顿国际问卷研究协会(Princeton Survey Research Associates International)的问卷调查发现,接受采访的美国大多数家长都把社会交往和沟通能力,作为引导孩子学业和生活成功最重要的技能,甚至高过学习成绩。美国国内的专家也认同这个说法,大家在 CASEL 的网上也可以查看更多细节。


幸运的是,我们不用在社会情感技能和学习这两方面做出一个选择。事实上,这两方面互为依赖,就像我们的头脑需要我们的心灵一样。重要的生活技能是学业取得的基础,不管我们是用平均成绩 GPA 来定义,还是标准化考试或其他评价标准。很多学校不仅把他们联系在一起,而且开设以研究为依据的课程,把社会情感学习融合到不同学科的教学中。

当学校在教同理心、积极的倾听和合作解决问题的同时,学校也在防止不健康、高危行为的发生,包括校园暴力。学术、社会、情感学习协会(CASEL) 对200多家实施以及未实施 SEL 课程的学校进行了研究。他们发现,那些重视社会情感教育学校的学生考试成绩要高出11个百分点。这是有道理的。那些实践过解决问题和负责任决策的学生,可以用批判性思维,更好的解决考试中遇到的问题。



因此,我们可以总结,家长与老师的合作能最好的提高孩子的社会情感能力(点击 NBC 家长工作包了解更多在家里提高社会情感能力的具体策略)。在 NBC 和 Pearson 合作的有关育儿状态的调查问卷中,也显示出家长对社会情感学习的关注。

不管是在家里还是在学校,或者二者之间,在这些生活技能的教学方法上,可能会有很大差异,但是不管怎么样,最重要的一步是以你和家人感到正确的方式开始。我们这里有些建议:For the full Chinese translation, click here.

Here’s how the article begins in English in The Huffington Post, Education Section:

The Power of Parenting with Social and Emotional Learning

On the one hundredth day of school, my son’s teacher morphed each first grade child’s photograph into an elderly individual with the facial lines of life experience and asked, “What do you want to be like when you are 100?” My son wrote in response, “I want to be kind to kids.” And I immediately thought, “Yes, me too.” It seems simple. But is it? As parents, we want to prepare our kids to be successful in life but figuring out what that means and what steps can be taken toward that intention each day seems anything but simple. Yet the question of what it takes to prepare kids for success is worth asking. A recent survey from NBC’s Parent Toolkit using the Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that the majority of U.S. parents interviewed ranked social and communication skills as the most important to build success for school and life even beyond academic grades. National experts would agree and offer greater detail on what those skills are.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) involves acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes and skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Fortunately we don’t have to make the choice between teaching social and emotional skills and academic performance. In fact, one relies upon the other, just as the head needs the heart. Essential life skills serve as a foundation for academic achievement whether we define it as grade point averages, results from high stakes tests or other measures of performance. And many schools are not only making that connection but also implementing research based curricula that teach social and emotional learning alongside academic content.

If you missed the article in The Huffington Post, here is the English version.


Many thanks to collaborators Roger Weissberg, Chief Knowledge Officer of The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Shannon Wanless, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh for their support and review of this article. Thanks to Bonnie Lathram and Getting Smart for publishing the article first. And thanks again for the care put into translating the article into Chinese by Xiangyan Liu (Yannie Liu) 刘湘燕 and Wenchao Li (Winnie Li) 李文超 of Angel Education.

Parent Teacher Conferences

Parent Teacher Conferences 2 Illustration by Jennifer MillerMaking the Most of Your Time Together

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

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

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

Decide ahead on your intended outcomes.
What do you want to be certain about getting out of the meeting? Be clear and honest with yourself and your partner about what you need to hear from the teacher. You might ask yourself and your partner:
– Do I want to hear about what my daughter does well?
– Do I want to hear how my daughter is struggling?
– Do I want to know what I can do as a parent to support her in her learning goals?
– Do I want to hear about my daughter in comparison to her classmates?
– Do I want to know how my daughter is getting along socially as well as academically?
– Are there problems that my daughter talks about at home that I need to seek
clarification on or learn more about?
– If my daughter is struggling with a subject, do I need to know what approaches the
teacher is taking to provide her extra support? And what approaches she recommends
for me to provide at home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Added after posting:


As a teacher, I am a little concerned about conferences this year because of all of the new standards and common core language that is now in place. I am not really sure how to explain the terminology so the parents can explicitly understand. I am looking forward to meeting my parents but NOT looking forward to explaining all of the test results and data collections that have been done since August. From the KRA, STAR, SM6, reading progress monitoring test (which are given every two weeks), to the monthly math unit test; there has been little socializing going on in my kindergarten class.
I think the first time parents will be a little overwhelmed with what takes place in a kindergarten class nowadays and I think the veteran parents will be okay because they have been introduced to this new assess/data era. They already realize and understand that the common goal is to produce college and career ready graduates by implementing Ohio new learning standards with fidelity.

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

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

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

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

– Sue Rowe, Teacher Coach/Consultant, Certified Trainer, Responsive Classroom, Toledo Public Schools
Thanks, Valerie and Sue! It’s so helpful to hear your perspectives as teachers!

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

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

Great Privilege, Great Responsibility


In the U.S. on November 8th, we have a chance to model moral action by voting. It is a great privilege that we have a voice in choosing our leadership. It is a great responsibility that we respectfully and peacefully agree to disagree.

For more on raising civically-minded children, check out:

Citizen Kid

For more on issues related to disagreeing respectfully, check out:

The Fighting Fair Family Pledge

Working It Out

Stop, Think, Go!

Elements of a Confident Kid…Negotiation

Critical Conversations

#electionday #parenting #SEL

Monkey Mind at Bedtime, Reflecting on Children’s Thinking

monkey-mind-at-bedtime-by-jennifer-miller“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 teacher gave us a huge project we have to work on. 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 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 Rumination writes “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? If I were leaving you to go to sleep, what kind of thoughts would 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.

  1. 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. And accepting right where you with your thoughts and feelings with compassion all contribute to gaining a perspective and no longer needing 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 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 your diaphragm so that he feels that you are breathing deeply. 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.


Kumar, Sameet M. (2009). The mindful path through worry and rumination, Letting go of anxious and depressive thoughts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

For more related to bedtime, check out:

The Opportunity of Bedtime, Part One

The Opportunity of Bedtime, Part Two – Troubleshooting Challenges

This Week – Join me! Education: Next Generation – Free Online Conference

ednextgen-pinterest-postPlease join me for the Education: Next Generation Online Conference! This is a FREE global online event from Nov. 3-7, 2016, bringing together the voices of over 25 experts and thought leaders in parenting and education. The conference is hosted by Jason and Cecilia Hilkey, creators of Happily Family. You’ll get access to cutting-edge interviews full of inspirational ideas and practical tools to raise kids to be mindful, connected, compassionate, and resilient. These experts and thought leaders support parents and teachers who desire to live more creatively and joyfully with children at home and school. You will leave more aware, more empowered, and with the tools you need to help children LEAD, LEARN & LOVE!

To give you an example of the talks and their relevance to your life and work, check out the line-up for DAY ONE, this Thursday, November 3rd!

Dr. Daniel Siegel — on Mindsight and Mindfulness in Raising Successful Kids

Angela Maiers — on Liberating Genius in Kids

Robin GrilleThe School of World Peace

Jennifer Miller of Confident Parents, Confident Kids — on Fair Fighting for Kids and Families (Or how you can set boundaries for your arguments between family members so that they promote trusting relationships and do not harm one another?)

Saleema Noon and Meg HicklingWhy, When and How to Talk to Kids About Sex

And there will be five more exeptional speakers per day through Monday, November 7th. Watch as few or as many as you like – free! Register or learn more here! 

Fear — And the Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Parent

seeing-ghosts-by-jennifer-millerA Ghost Story for Parents’ Eyes Only!

It’s Halloween time, the moment for the spookiest of stories. This mystery is not gory. Indeed it is the most fearsome kind of story because, in it, there are subtle, slow burning embers that have the potential to suddenly erupt into flames among our beloved characters…

Janie, a laughter-comes-easy lover of books and animals, had confronted specters over her forty-plus years of life and by far, being a parent gave her the deepest shake right down to her very core. But in order to unravel the mystery in her mid-life, we need start at her beginning. She grew up in a ghost town, or that’s what it felt like in the heart of the Ohio cornfields. There were only five houses in Shenandoah – two were occupied by elderly couples who kept to themselves, one was deserted completely save the rats and one had another farming family in it with a girl Janie’s age named Mercury Jones.

Fortunately, Mercury was just the right constellation of traits for best friend material. Named by her father Wade, who would have preferred to be an astronaut and live amongst the stars than work the fields as he had been forced to do since boyhood, Mercury was gregarious, fearless and perpetually game for any adventure.

Janie’s family was predictable. Her mother and father both seemed to breathe hard work. While her father was tending the crops, Janie’s mother was baking or doing laundry while patiently taking care of her baby brother. Life at home was boring and Janie found herself wandering over to Mercury’s every chance she could find. The moment Janie stepped up the cracked cement porch stairs of the Jones’ house, she could feel the excitement in the air enter her body and make her tummy twinge. There would be music playing with a hip-shaking beat. Mercury’s Mom would be singing while doing any number of surprising activities that had nothing to do with hard work and responsibility. Whether it was painting a mural of flying cats on the walls or building a mini Eiffel Tower replica, Mercury’s Mom never failed to fascinate.

Janie and Mercury would create wild fantasy worlds of their own in which they were glorious leaders of kingdoms with fantastical creatures. They would be so engrossed that they often would lose track of the time and even the fact that their bellies were empty. That is, they would lose track until they would startle with the sound of the screen door banging shut signaling Wade’s return from the fields.

Janie would race to get her things and attempt to leave quickly through the side door at the urging of Mercury and her Mom. At times, she was able to make a quick escape. But when she did, she felt shameful like she was a coward shrinking away while leaving the sheep vulnerable to the wolf. When she couldn’t escape, which happened more often than not, she witnessed a drunken Wade, angry and out-of-control. He would find reasons to yell, hit and hurl household any-old-things. His aim wasn’t too great – sometimes they would hit a wall and sink to the floor as his body, at times, would too. But the worst times, they hit Mercury, her Mom, and Janie.

Janie decided she couldn’t tell her parents ever. Besides making a pinky swear with Mercury that she wouldn’t tell, she just knew they wouldn’t understand and they might not let her return. And she had to go back – for Mercury. Janie felt as if each time she encountered wild Wade, she grew a new layer of protective scar tissue over her skin and the callouses only grew thicker and thicker.

The years went by and Janie had the good fortune to go off to college in the nearest big city. Janie eye-balled each new person in her life assessing whether they met the safety criteria. Do they have the potential to be wild? If so, she made a quick exit. But despite her caution, she made many new friends and still talked on the phone every Sunday with Mercury. Mercury did not have the same good fortune and had to stay home to take care of her Mom who had become disabled from injuries over the years.

The summer after graduation, Janie had planned to return home to see if she might coax Mercury to share an apartment in the city with her. She knew she’d have a better chance convincing her if she made her plea in person. She went out with her group of college friends the night before she left town and that’s when she met Jim. Jim was kind. That was the best way to describe him. He sauntered up to Janie at the pub with a wide warm smile and had question after question for her wanting to know who she was, what she did and what she loved. Instead of leaving the next day, Janie hung around hoping to hear from Jim. And she did. Days turned into months turned into years and Jim became her constant companion. When they married, Mercury was at her side with tears in her eyes. Janie had all she could possibly hope for in a partner. He allowed Janie time to lift away the callouses carefully and expose her hopes and dreams, her beauty, her shame and her fears. And when they married, she knew they would protect each other from the dangers of life.

She didn’t hesitate in bringing baby number one, Jessie or baby number two, Jeremy into the world. Why should she? They both had decent paying jobs, a nicer home than her own growing up and a loving partnership that was the envy of most. It wasn’t until Jessie and Jeremy became school-age that she started to notice a problem. They went to a school only blocks away from their home with many friends living close enough to walk to their houses. But when Jessie began getting invitations to have playdates at other’s homes, Janie said “No.” “She has too much homework to do.” “We have family plans.” and “She’s worn out from the week.” were just a few of the go-to excuses Janie would offer. Jessie accepted it while she was too young to really understand. But as she grew, she began to fight back. “Mom! It’s not fair! How am I supposed to have friends if I can’t ever go to their houses? Mimi’s having an overnight and I haven’t even been allowed to go for a little while after school.” Jessie would storm off and Jeremy began to take her cue and get upset about his own experience of injustice. Jim typically defended Janie in front of the kids. But when both kids cornered Jim when Janie was off on an errand run expressing their disgust with their Mom’s flat “No.” every time an invitation was extended, he too began to worry that there was a problem.

Jim asked Janie before going to bed that night, “Why aren’t you letting them go?” “Jim, It’s this world.” Janie would say. “You watch the news. It’s just too dangerous.” Jim gently responded, “What are you so afraid of?” Janie couldn’t provide a better answer beyond the fact that she was trying to be a good mother and look out for her children. She felt like Jim was beginning to take their side when she most needed his support. Power struggles became daily occurrences with both kids and it felt like they were finding ways to pick fights. Jim became irritable too with the undercurrent of disagreements steadily running through the household.

One day, a thought popped into Jim’s head and he blurted out the question before considering its impact. “Are you not letting the kids go to other’s houses because of the Jones family?” Jim knew the whole story of Janie’s involvement with Mercury and Wade and as he uttered the words he also knew, he was right but it might hurt Janie to hear it. And as he suspected, Janie was furious for Jim suggesting that it might even relate to something from so long ago. “Why couldn’t he see she was just trying to be a good parent?” But the very next day, the Mom of one of Jeremy’s classmates, the one who had always reminded her of Mercury – not by her looks but by her wildly joyful energy – approached her in the parking lot with yet another invitation. “My son just loves Jeremy. We’d like to have him over after school for a snack and some baseball in our backyard.” Janie gave her usual excuse in her most generous tone. But as she got in her car, she froze unable to move. It hit her like a ton of any-old-things Wade had slung in her direction. She had a ghost that was haunting her. And that ghost was standing between her and her family. Somehow it had begun to chisel away at their relationships, separate them by anger and fear. Janie, still frozen, examined her hands on the steering wheel. Was she becoming a ghost herself? Was she disappearing? Were those callouses so thick that she couldn’t break through to her very soul which had always valued friendship, creativity, love and laughter above all else.

“Mom, are we ever going to leave this parking lot?” Jeremy said startling Janie out of her reverie. As Janie drove, she played back in her mind all of the moments that she had said “No.” to her children’s friends and their families. She began to view herself differently. There had been an apparition manipulating her thoughts and terrifying her into submission. The shade had been so real, so present, it had compelled her to make decisions based on what? Fear or thin air? What was she really afraid of? She hadn’t allowed herself before to play out the scene of her fears but she knew the only way to get rid of her haunt was to confront it. While alone on her own cracked cement porch stairs, she imagined Jessie and Jeremy meeting Wade after he’d spent a long day in the cornfields and she cried every tear she had inside of her. When at last not one more drop would come, she stood up and yelled out into the Fall air – “Go away, ghost! I want myself back! My kids need their Mom!”

Janie ran back into the house and dialed up Jeremy’s friend’s Mom quickly while she was feeling courageous. The woman who answered even sounded like her dear friend, Mercury as she expressed her gratitude that Jeremy would be coming over. Janie would not disappear. She would not allow her past to force a shadow on her present and future. With each “Yes.”, she returned to the parent and the person she recognized as true. pumpkin-by-jennifer-miller

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