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Readers’ Responses to “How do you teach your children self-control?”

Shannon illustration 001Lots of pretend play! If they pretend to be someone with self-control (like a mom in a long line at the grocery store)….they are practicing having self-control!

– Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Program of Applied Developmental Psychology, Department of Psychology in Education, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh

Heather illustration 001I make my kids save and use their own money whenever they want something that isn’t a “need.” If they don’t think it’s important enough to work and save for, then why should I work and spend MY money? I get a kick out of my kids saying they can wait till Christmas when it’s only August.

To combat eating junk food, I’ll tell them to have a healthier choice first. This helps take the focus from junk food just because we are feeling hungry.
 
– Heather, The Helpful Counselor

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Modelling!

– Kimberly Allison, Co-Owner, Table 365

 

 

Even beforeJeanne Illustration 001 I knew about it (back when our kids were in preschool) a very intuitive pediatrician spoke at our Montessori school and made a point of making your kids wait, deliberately. It seemed so counter-intuitive to me then, but I came to understand it and use it. She said NOT to immediately grant our kids’ requests but to say, “I’ll get it for you in a moment.” Then to pause, finish what we are doing, and provide the requested item or help. If kids are confident that you will get them what they need (have trust in the parent), they can wait. That was one of my first parenting lessons and it sunk in.

 I recently wrote a webpage for the school district I am working for and it was posted last week. See our SEL@Home. It includes this message about waiting!

– Jeanne Osgood, Consultant, Community Consolidated School District 181, Hinsdale, IL

The Power of Self Control

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We are the hero of our own story.

– Mary McCarthy

In the hero’s journey, an ordinary person is called through extraordinary circumstances to sacrifice a part of him or herself in order to serve the greater good. In doing so, the reward or victory is self knowledge and a demonstration of character that the hero must then use in the world from which he or she came.[i] To be a Jedi Knight in the classic story Star Wars, the means through which Luke Skywalker defeated the darkness was by learning self discipline. Yoda teaches, “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.”[ii] The modern day hero in all of us must defeat the dark forces of fear, ignorance, greed and ego. Listening to and following our truth when faced with difficult decisions requires practice and repeated trials. Temptation to stray from the hero’s path is part of the initiation. The hero typically fails in his attempts numerous times but persists in striving toward greater self control and self knowledge.

Though the conditions and circumstances differ dramatically, we are all working on our own hero’s journey. And in that process, we are all learning self control. From resisting unhealthy foods and drinks, to messaging or email checking, exercising, watching television, committing to social engagements, working, sleeping, investing ourselves in relationships or taking incremental steps toward a larger goal (home improvement, going back to school, or advocating for a cause), we have multiple opportunities daily to practice and model self discipline for our children.

We adults have problems with self control. So it no surprise that our children also need to learn to control their impulses and become self disciplined. Yet they are faced with a more challenging environment to learn this skill than we ourselves ever had to deal with growing up. The media alone competing for their attention has heightened the level of self discipline required to pursue goals. However despite the difficulty, if there is one skill to be sure and teach your child, it’s self control. Why? At the most basic level, when children are really mad, practice in impulse control will stop them from lashing out at someone through words or fists. But also for our children’s future, learning self control will help them achieve even their most challenging and meaningful goals. It enables a person to put off the temptations of the moment in order to work toward a larger cause that requires persistence and hard work. It also enables a person to be self reflective and make choices that are based upon a sense of ethics, integrity and an awareness of the impact on the greater good. The teaching of self control is character education. Pursuing higher education, being successful in a career, sustaining a marriage, raising confident children or making a contribution to the community all require setting long term goals and investing the time, energy and hard work necessary to achieve them.

In addition to those challenges however, there is an intrinsic personal motivation to learn and practice self control. That’s because all people need to feel a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence (the ABCs of motivation).[iii] Children often say in one way or another, “I can do it myself.” as early as they can communicate it. They want to exert their independence, take responsibility and demonstrate they are competent. Practice in self control will support them in achieving even their most challenging goals.

Because it’s so amusing and demonstrates the importance of self control, here is the story of the Marshmallow Experiment originally conducted in the 1960s by researcher Walter Mischel.[iv] It was popularized in the 1990s by the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence,[v] Daniel Goleman. Researchers at Stanford University studied four year olds and their ability to resist marshmallows. One mouth-watering marshmallow was placed in front of each child and they were told that if they could wait until the researcher ran a quick errand, they could have TWO marshmallows. If they could not wait, they could eat it, or could ring a bell while the researcher was gone. The researcher would come back and they could eat the one marshmallow. Of those four year olds tested, the group divided up fairly equally into one third eating the one marshmallow immediately, one third ringing the bell for one marshmallow, and the final third waiting the full time with the reward of two plump marshmallows and a grand future. All of the children were followed through their school years into their twenties. Those who couldn’t wait were more likely to do poorly in their academics, have discipline problems and not go on to higher education. The group who waited for the two marshmallows scored an average 210 points higher on SATs versus their marshmallow-popping comrades. They had higher GPAs, went on to university education, and generally experienced greater success. If you have five minutes, enjoy watching a news story in which they recreated the experiment.

What does this really mean for me and my family? If I conduct this experiment on my child and he eats the marshmallow, is he doomed? No! Of course not. But it does mean that you need to find opportunities for your children to practice self control in everyday life so that when the big choices come around – like taking or not taking recreational drugs, getting into healthy or dysfunctional relationships or working hard to get into good colleges – you will be confident that your children are ready to make those decisions responsibly. Becoming a skilled practitioner of self control can give your children more power and control to be the hero in their own lives.

So now that you are convinced it’s a critical skill for your children to learn, how do you make sure they learn it? The best way is to give children plenty of practice. No, I’m not proposing the marshmallow experiment in your home which could lead to a full scale meltdown since you would be a parent withholding treats and not a researcher. The experts of the Responsive Classroom program write, “If we want children to get better at piano, what do we tell them? Practice! If we want them to get better at reading or math or spelling, what do we tell them? Practice! But if we want them to get better at developing self control and responsibility, then what do we tell them? Be good! The step we too often miss is practice.”[vi]

I’ve asked the question of you – how do you teach self control at home? Next week Confident Parents, Confident Kids will list a series of simple strategies and also post your responses. You can send your response to confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com and if you include a photograph of yourself, I’ll include an illustration of your picture with your response.


[i] Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen, Switzerland: Bollingen Foundation.

[ii] Lucas, G., Gilroy, H. & Takeuchi, A. (2008). Star Wars: The Clone Wars, “Lair of Grievous.” Lucasfilm Ltd.

[iii] Ryan, R. M., Lynch, M. F., Vansteenkiste, M., Deci, E. L. (2011). Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 39, 193–260.

[iv] Mischel, W., Ebbeson, B. E.,& Zeiss, A.R. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 21 (2): 204–218.

[v] Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.

[vi] Brady, K., Forton, M.B., Porter, D. (2010). Rules in school. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

How do you teach your children self control?

The purpose of the blog is not only to send out helpful strategies and ideas for parents on ways to teach social and emotional skills, it is also to promote dialogue around those issues so that parents are contributing to this important conversation. To that end, please respond to the following question. Send your response to confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com. If you attach a photo of yourself, I will post your response with an illustration of your picture. Here’s to a rich dialogue!

How do you teach your children self control?

Dinner: Delight or Disaster?

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A smiling face is half the meal.

–          Proverb

Food is inherently social. Often mealtime can be a source of great stress with children. Each family members’ unspoken goals for the meal can differ. Parents want kids to sit down with them, eat a healthy meal and not waste food. Children are excited about seeing their parents and want to play and not sit and eat. It can also be a chaotic time. Sometimes one or both parents are coming in the door from a full day of work and needing a little space to transition. Children are eager to see the parents they’ve missed and share something about their day.

Dinner together has posed a great challenge for our family. Jason and I value our time together to sit down for a meal. We know it is important to connect after our busy day of work and play. E, our son, has always had a sense that he could control his food intake and make us crazy. Add to the mix a more formal setting (sitting down at the table together) with a need for manners and dinnertime became a veritable pressure cooker.

There are specific, simple ways that you can shake up the dinner dynamic and improve the tone of mealtime to create a more positive dining experience for all. Since we began applying these strategies, our mealtimes have been better. We enjoy each other at the dinner table – which, at one point, we thought might be impossible with a small child. Try one or all of the following and see if you don’t create some positive results.

  1. Involve children in the planning, shopping, preparation and clean up – all aspects of the meal. Children will feel a sense of ownership over the meal and be more invested in making it a good experience. They may even take pride in contributing to the cooking and preparation. You may not have time to involve children with every aspect of every meal  but consider just having them set the table and help clear the dishes. Maybe once a week you could involve them in the cooking process. Even very small children can assist by throwing vegetables into a pot of water or washing green beans in the sink. mom son cooking together illustr 2 001Also, children can get excited by selecting recipes and providing ideas for what they want to eat. Involvement in menu planning can go a long way toward them eating and participating at mealtime. Be sure and highlight their involvement when you are sitting down to eat so that all members know and can appreciate how the meal was planned and prepared.
  2. Take a moment to connect with your child before sitting down at the table particularly if you are coming from work and haven’t seen them for a while. Sit down and ask what they are playing with or about their day prior to the more formal setting of dinner. This provides a sense of calm and connection instead of bringing chaos and stress to the table.
  3. Adjust your seating. Take a look at where each member is sitting. If you and your partner are typically seated at either ends of your table, try repositioning yourself on the side of the table opposite your child or place a child on the end instead. Children are particularly sensitive to power dynamics since they have very little control over much of what happens to them. They are looking for opportunities to exert independence and control. Moving your seat across from where they are seated might give them a sense of equality.
  4. Give thanks. You don’t need to be a religious or even spiritual family to appreciate what you have. Take a moment before eating to appreciate each other, the day you’ve had, the good food and drink before you, and the people who put time and energy into shopping for, preparing and planning the meal. This can also help children learn about and appreciate where food comes from originally and how it ends up on our tables.
  5. Focus on being together and not on how much or what is eaten. Set a timer or point out a time to children on the clock. We set it for ten minutes for our five year old. Give them the responsibility of knowing when their minimum time to sit with you is up. E likes to prove that he can stay longer than the timer and we love his presence. This gives the child a sense of control and helps prevent a power struggle over sitting at the table and eating.
  6. Let go of worries about what is eaten. Make sure that the nutrients you care about your child getting are spread out through the day. Then, let go of your worries about finishing food. Also, serve small quantities that are more likely to get eaten. If you find that there is a lot of waste from dinner, continue to reduce the amount you serve letting children know the reason is to reduce waste.
  7. Focus your conversation on the children and then, when they go to play after their time is up at the table, you can connect with your partner on adult issues. Lead off with a statement – not a question – about something you know they did that day. “I saw Mitchell on the playground today. That’s so fun that you got to see him.” If you ask, “How was your day?” first, you may get a “Fine” followed by silence. Or if you ask, “What’d you do today?” you’ll likely get the “Nothing” response. Enter into a conversation about the child’s life without putting them on the spot and see what emerges.
  8. Set clear expectations for behavior. Boundaries for what is acceptable and unacceptable should be discussed at a time when it’s not dinner. This could be an easy conversation to introduce after dinner is over and the family has moved away from the table. For example, the “yuck” word is just not allowed at the table. The cook doesn’t deserve that kind of negative feedback. If your child uses a “yuck,” “blech” or “poo-ey”-type word or sound, tell them directly that your family does not use that word. Be sure you replace their comments with appropriate language so that they have something they can say. “I don’t like this, Mom. I’m not going to eat it.” Or “May I have something else?” If you are concerned that your children have developed a bad habit of using that kind of language, don’t worry. You can introduce a new rule or routine. Just do it. Announce it is a new rule and enlist their support in moving forward. As long as you consistently reinforce it, it will soon become a part of your family’s expectations for mealtime. Other expectations might be to turn off or not bring devices (cell phones, music or gaming devices) to the table.
  9. Give reminders and reinforcements for good manners before you are seated. If you are concerned about manners – using a fork, not using fingers for example – it’s best to give a reminder to just that child before you are seated at the table with the whole family. Then, you are not correcting them in front of the full family. If you need to remind them during dinner, make it quiet, direct and gentle. They will learn through your modeling and reminders but making a big deal of it can backfire and turn into another power struggle.
  10. Prepare your children for restaurant meals and for meals with other people. On the car ride to dinner, use the time to remind and reinforce. This is not the time for nagging or scolding. Here’s how it might go: “Remember, when we are at the restaurant that we all stay seated at the table through the whole meal. Last time, you ordered from the menu yourself and I saw you make eye contact with the waiter and tell her clearly what you want. That was great. Keep it up!” Keep it short. Give one reminder and one positive reinforcement so that it makes an impression and your child remembers your comments.

When in doubt, ask “What message am I sending or what am I teaching to my child through my words and actions?” As Jim Henson said, “[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”[i]  We know that modeling is one of the most powerful teaching tools so, at mealtime be sure that you are modeling the positive behaviors you want to see.

For more, check out the following terrific resources!

David, L., & Uhrenholdt, K. (2010). The family dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, One meal at a time. NY: Hachette Book Group.

The producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David’s new mission is to help America’s overwhelmed families sit down to a Family Dinner, and she provides all the reasons, recipes and fun tools to do so.

Rosenstrach, J. (2012). Dinner: A Love Story: It all begins at the family table. NY: Harper Collins.

Part cookbook, part survival guide, Dinner: A Love Story has all of Jenny’s favorite meal ideas, suppertime tips, and cook’s secrets (read: cocktails) that help make dinner fun again.  – Everyday Food

Also, check out the article, The ABCs of the Family Dinner Table on the blog, Connecting Family and Seoul for lots of creative ideas for mealtime.


[i] Henson, J., Lithgow, J. & Muppets and Friends. (2005). It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider. NY: Hyperion Books.

A Truly Good Morning

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I love the mornings! I clap my hands every morning and say, ‘This is gonna be a great day!’

–      Dicky Fox, Jerry Maguire, 1996

Do you consider yourself a morning person? Are you someone who loves to get up bright and early and has energy and vocal cords that work by the break of daylight? I am not. The only decibel level that I would choose in the household before eight a.m. is silence with the exception of the putt, putt, beep of my coffee maker. Of course silence is just not possible in a family life with kids.

No matter whether you see yourself as a morning person or not, mornings in households with children can be chaotic. “Where are my gray pants?” asks your oldest child. “They’re in the laundry.” you respond. “Mom (add whiney tone), I can’t go to school without those pants!” There seem to be all kinds of issues that become critical in preparation for the day including producing breakfast, packing lunch, putting on appropriate clothing for the weather, and getting out of the door on time. However, there are ways to create a great start with your family each day. Borrowing from successful schools, you too can create a predictable routine in the morning that assures fun, connection and readiness for learning through a process called Morning Meeting[i] (developed by an excellent evidence-based social and emotional learning school program, Responsive Classroom). Similarly at home, it’s the routine and ritual of morning time and brief but important connections made that can pave the way for children and adults to have clear expectations about the day and carry out the responsibilities of the morning smoothly without nagging and hassle.

If you feel stressed early in the day or the household feels chaotic, here are some ideas for creating a truly good morning. First, take a moment to think about what makes that time feel out of control. Is it about time pressure? Are there arguments that occur time and again? If so, what are they? Think about those specific morning stressors as you read through the following ideas and think about how they might be addressed. In addition to preparation, the ideas to be implemented in the morning take mere minutes but can make the difference in creating a regular opportunity for a truly good morning.

Preparation

If you want to improve your morning routine, talking about it when it’s NOT morning and you are at home and not under any time pressure is essential. Decide on a morning routine in a conversation with family members. Who gets into the bathroom when? What is the progression of events? With your children doing the writing or contributing to a drawing, make a poster or a simple sign for the refrigerator of your morning routine. Break it into simple, shortly stated steps. Number the steps and use as few words as possible though talk about what each step means for each member. This should provide you the opportunity for important leading conversations like, “When it’s time to get on socks and shoes, what could help you in doing that more quickly and without upset?” “Would it help if we picked out your socks the night before and laid them with your shoes?”

This is a good time for you to evaluate your own role in the morning. What stresses you? What can you do about it? Do you need more time in the morning? Can you get up any earlier? Can you enlist your partner to help with a portion of morning preparations regularly or periodically? Do you compete for the bathroom? Do you need to talk about and adjust the adult routines to create less stress in the morning? Small adjustments can mean the difference in starting off the day better.

Greeting

It is interesting how it is so easy to take for granted those people that mean the most to you since you see them every day. Greeting each member of the family every morning may seem basic and even ridiculous but since it can mean the difference between feeling connected or disconnected, starting off your day well or distressed, it’s worth mentioning. A simple “Good Morning.” with a hug or kiss or touch can be all you need to model for children how they should greet a person. Greeting others is not something that children know or learn automatically. In fact, have you encountered children who are unable to look you in the eye and greet you? There are children in middle and high school who still are unable to greet adults when they are addressed with a simple “Hello.” Model this practice each morning by greeting your children and your partner. It may take a little effort, but once you are in the habit, you won’t need to think about it and your family will benefit from that quick reminder each morning that all members are seen, recognized and appreciated.

Sharing

Taking a moment over the breakfast table or on the car ride to school to share hopes and expectations for the day can help calm nerves and help children become ready for the school day and learning. So many things occur while children are at school and commonly, children only relay a small fraction of what occurs. So there could be worries of which you are unaware about other children, teachers or subjects that are on their minds prior to the start of the school day. Model first by sharing your own hope for the day. “I hope we see some sunshine and can get outside at least a little while to play today and take a walk after school.” “What’s your hope for today?” And take this opportunity to let your child know what’s planned. Are there any special events? Do you know what they are going to be learning about? What’s special about today? Setting expectations can help provide a smoother transition into the learning environment at school.

Reminding

After you’ve shared hopes and expectations for the day, it’s a perfect time to remind a child about a positive behavior you want to reinforce. Maybe they have been excluding other children at school and you’ve had discussions about how to be a good friend. This is a great time to remind them of those positive behaviors that you hope they’ll practice at school. This does not include scolding or nagging and in fact, will be less effective and possibly backfire if you communicate in that kind of tone. A reminder can be kept positive by showing through your words and tone that you are confident that they can perform the expected behaviors with competence. “I know you will do all you can today to include the new student in your games on the playground.” “You’ve really been making an effort to show you are a leader by welcoming new kids in your class.”

And finally, remind your child of when you’ll see them next.  Remember the days in preschool when your child clung to you with strength and passion and tears and didn’t want you to leave. Kids all the way through the teenage years experience those healthy feelings of attachment to their parents though they learn not to show it in those ways. Let your child know when and how you’ll see them next and they’ll begin their day with the confidence of knowing that home and a trusted parent awaits at the end of their school day. And of course, no child can hear the sacred words, “I love you and I’m proud of you.” enough so use this daily parting as yet another excuse to say it. These small efforts are worth it to create a truly good morning.


[i] Kriete, R., & Bechtel, L. (2002). The morning meeting book. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

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Happy New Year!

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Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1850

Confident Parents, Confident Kids wishes you a happy new year! We are spending this holiday season with family and friends but will return next Friday and each Friday with high quality, relevant articles to support you in being the best parent you can be — teaching social and emotional skills and creating a caring family environment at home. In 2013, we hope you will join the dialogue! When you think about resolutions, goals and plans for the new year, consider setting this as a goal for your family.

More to come!

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Play and a Happy Holiday to You!

Mom (and this Blog's Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish
Mom (and this Blog’s Editor) with Author, Jennifer Miller circa 1976-ish

In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.

– Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Since Christmas is the holiday I celebrate in the coming week and toys are filling my head and attic, I thought it appropriate to focus this article on the importance of play in a child’s life. In our household, we’ve decorated the Christmas tree with ornaments that remind us of vacations, happy times, Christmases and relatives. My husband and I, in addition to wrapping up work, are busy getting gifts, baking cookies, writing cards and hosting gatherings for all of those friends, teachers and colleagues who have played a meaningful role in our lives this year. We are also busy thinking about, planning for and buying gifts for our son that will give him joy and engage his imagination. We – like many – hope for a magical Christmas in which our family feels a sense of joy in giving, in our connectedness as a family and in an appreciation of the good life that we have.

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Dad and Author, Jennifer Miller, Christmas 1980-ish

A good part of my child’s happiness is centered around play. Play is the vehicle through which some of the most fundamental developmental leaps of learning take place. It is the central vocation of childhood. And toys are the tools of the trade. In some developing countries where toys are not readily available, children play with the tools of the household imitating the adults around them to learn how things work. While I cook on the real stove, Ethan bakes a batch of cookies in his play kitchen set. Development, moving from one level of thinking and ability to the next, takes place when a child is in a window of time in which he/she is ready (developmentalist Lev Vygotsky called it the zone of proximal development). Play moves a child toward those next steps when they are ready. And interaction between a child playing with a more competent adult or older child can help facilitate those developmental jumps.

When does a child stop playing? When does play stop enhancing a person’s development? It doesn’t ever have to stop. Teenagers engage in play with video games, puzzles, board games, novels and social fantasies. As adults, though we have less opportunity for play, we do engage in creative endeavors that often times are the most fulfilling because they come from our intrinsic desires to express ourselves.

So my holiday wish for you is that you take time to play. Get down on the floor or if you have back troubles like my husband, sit in your comfy chair. Play can take place anywhere with many toys or none at all. You could be on a bus, a train or an airplane and if you’ve brought your imagination along, the sky is the limit. Here are some easy ways to engage in play this season.

Just do it. Get down on the floor and play. Engage in the interests of your child and see where it takes you. Build a new track system for a train. Rearrange a dollhouse. Build a fort of pillows.

Take a mental trip. Read a book together or if you feel particularly creative, close your eyes with your child, decide on a destination (the beach, Grandma’s House or Outer Space?) and describe your incredible journey to get there and what and who you encounter when you get there. Include details of the experience from your five senses and you will help transport you and your child.

Build a story. Look back at photo albums from former trips and vacations. Make up a story together set in your favorite location.

Buy toys that engage the imagination. Costumes are a terrific way for a child to engage in pretend play. You can likely find some dress-up clothes in your closet. But toy stores also sell a variety of occupational dress-up clothes (chef, police officer, fire person, postal worker, train conductor, princess). Any play sets that involve characters (people, animals, trains, cars, fairies) engage the imagination. Toys that are household tools like blenders, screwdrivers and vacuums are ways that children can play grown-up. For young adults, games, chemistry sets and art supplies can be both fun and engaging.

Reap the benefits of one of the greatest gifts your children can give – attention and presence in the moment. Children naturally have the gift of mindfulness, being aware of what’s going on at the moment it is happening. They learn in time from the adult world to multi-task and become distracted and scattered. But inherent in children is the ability to focus on something they are truly interested in through their creativity and imagination. Take advantage of that gift and experience a sense of timelessness, of “flow.” Turn over rocks in the garden and see what’s there.

I try to “walk the talk” so after I wrote the draft of this article, I played with my son for an hour before it was time to make dinner. I let him lead and cars zoomed off cliffs. The big yoga ball came out for some crazy rolling. Tickling ensued and Daddy joined in. I laughed until my belly ached. So that is my wish for you this holiday. Play! May your belly ache with laughter!

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What Can I Do about Sandy Hook Elementary School?

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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 Sandy Hook Elementary School have shaken 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. We can see now that that connection is critical in keeping them 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.

Partner with your school. It’s likely that your school is reviewing their crisis management plan and communicating it to parents. If they aren’t, then they should be 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 Sandy Hook. 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 the 5-10% 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?

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.

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 Arne Duncan, the Secretary of U.S. 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.

Of course, sending positive thoughts or prayers to the families affected by this tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary is something we all can do. 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., Educational Consultant

Confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com

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.

http://casel.org/

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.

http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/

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!

http://www.edutopia.org/blogs/beat/social-emotional-learning

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.

http://www.schoolclimate.org/

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.

http://esrnational.org/

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.

http://www.character.org/

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.

http://www.ecs.org/html/projectspartners/nclc/nclc_main.htm

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.

http://www.sdrg.org/

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.

http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/
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Wisdom from Mister Rogers – “Look for the Helpers”

mister rogers pic

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

— Mister Rogers

Thanks Bzz for a Cause and Jill Smith for sharing this!
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Sending my love to families in Newtown, Connecticut

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It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.

– Aristotle Onassis

My heart goes out to all in Newtown, Connecticut and particularly the families effected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I am sending out my candle of light to you in this time of darkness. No words can adequately express the collective sorrow for your loss.
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