The Hidden Halloween Treat

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THE GHOST OF A FLOWER

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

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

– Anonymous[i]

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

But how does perspective taking relate to all of those aforementioned critical life skills? When do children begin learning to take another’s perspective? And how can parents encourage the development of these skills? Perspective taking is interpreting another person’s thoughts, feelings and motivations for action (see references for more on the Theory of Mind and Relational Frame Theory). This skill uses multiple executive functions of the brain including self-regulation, empathy and cognitive flexibility (seeing a variety of solutions) making it a skill set that is now recognized as critical for school readiness and when in school, success in achieving academic goals.[ii] Researchers have been able to determine that three year-olds can begin to take another’s perspective and some are even able to detect that another may hold a false belief about an observation[iii] (For example, the teacher says there is an apple in the bag. Many children believe this but one child knows the apple is under the table.). As children begin to form relationships with peers, teachers and other care providers, they will become more adept at communicating their own needs, thoughts and feelings if they are attuned with the other person. A teacher’s facial expression may give away the anger they are feeling with an administrator.  If your child reads the expression correctly, he may choose to wait for a better moment to bring up the fact that his homework was eaten by the dog.

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

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

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

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

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

Dad: “Your three year old cousin…”

E: “I don’t like hot dogs.”

Me: “Your cool Uncle Jeremiah…”

E: “E, man, how ya doin.”

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

E: “I’ll kill you after dinner.”

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

  1. Undifferentiated perspective taking

Ages 3-6

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

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

2. Social-informational perspective taking

Ages 5-9

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

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

3. Self-reflective perspective taking

Ages 7-12

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

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

4. Third party perspective taking

Ages 10-15

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

Easy practice: This is a perfect time for a child to read biographies about other people’s lives that might interest them. Select a person together because you know something about the person’s life. Or read it yourself and talk about it with your child.

5. Societal perspective-taking

Ages 14-Adult

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

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

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

Resources:

A good article for educators on teaching perspective taking:

http://jillkuzma.wordpress.com/perspective-taking-skills/

Strong classroom activities on perspective taking:

http://www.creducation.org/resources/perception_checking/classroom_activities_on_perspective_taking.html

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[i] Klaver, B. Spooky, Scary and Fun Poems that Will Make your Hair Curl. The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/240370 on October 24, 2013.

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

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

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

Weapon Play and Villains

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In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.

– Francis Bacon

Truly wonderful the mind of a child is.

–          YODA, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

“I want to be Darth Vader when I grow up,” said E with grandeur as he strutted through the house with the confidence of a Dark Lord. For a Mom whose nickname was once “peace lady,” this statement made me shudder though I tried to contain it. Without any warning, gun play just started showing up in our son’s play repertoire. Similarly preschool teachers will report that when there is a lack of weapons in classrooms with which to play, children will create them out of cheese sticks or paintbrushes. Though a gene for a proclivity to embrace weapons has not yet been discovered, there is likely both a nature and nurture (environmental and social) explanation for children’s and particularly boys’ interest in gun play. Some claim that villains are just more interesting to children. They wear bold costumes and masks or face paint. They are the point of conflict and facilitator of drama in a story. Before having children, in my days as Director of the Center for Peace Education, my position was “I will never buy toy weapons for a child of mine.” Never say never! My son is the proud owner of three light sabers and has inherited from his Star Wars’ loving father tiny weapons galore all assigned to a wide range of action figures. So what do educators and experts say about weapon and villain play? How does it relate to keeping children safe? And practically, what are caring parents to do when it comes to play that involves the dark side?

Educators in numerous studies report that when they allow children to guide pretend play including play scripts that involve weapons and villains, children can engage in highly complex and advanced scenarios. When researchers in a laboratory preschool at the University of Maine[i] allowed children to lead the play and only guided them on adhering to safety rules, they found that the “bad guy” play that evolved was inclusive (all students, male and female) and cooperative. Children pursued stories that allowed for problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills to be practiced. Because of the excitement of the play, children engaged in these stories multiple times making slight changes to the story as they played. These studies indicate that the play that may make adults squeamish (“Are my children learning that hurting or killing is fun and okay?”), actually gives children the freedom to play out scenarios for conquering fear, demonstrating bravery, understanding death and working together with their playmates.

The opposite, however, is true as it relates to television, movies and video games in which children are passive receivers of violent or aggressive imagery. Researchers show that children adopt new and more intense violence and aggression as they see it portrayed in the media. They can be desensitized and actually traumatized by what they view and that can lead to less creativity and imaginative play. For more, read “Television: Navigating our Global Neighborhood.”

Ohio, the state in which I live, has a gun ownership rate of 32.4%[ii] and many states exceed 50% of all households so even if you do not own a gun yourself, it’s likely that your child will play in a friend’s house that will have a weapon. Make sure you have well educated your child on the issue.

The following are some practical ways parents can ensure that children are growing and developing through their imagination and pretend play, promoting values of working together and collaboration (versus violence and separation) and also, staying safe.

1. Educate on gun safety.

Children who are preschool age and up need to be educated about gun safety. Teach your child that they should assume all guns are loaded and ready to shoot. You should not scare your child with stories of children dying (in fact, programs that use scare tactics with children have been found ineffective because the child shuts down to the information when scared). Show him a picture of a real gun. Instruct him that if he would ever come across a weapon in a friend’s house, he should not touch it, leave and let an adult know that it is exposed immediately. If you are a gun owner, be certain that your gun is locked with a key in a place that is not accessible to any children. Many schools who have adopted a social and emotional learning curriculum include violence prevention education in their offerings. For more on social and emotional learning in schools and curricula available, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning 2013 Program Guide.

2.      Buy toys that look like toys.

Never purchase a toy gun or weapon that closely resembles a real one. Why risk confusion when your child could come across a real weapon in your own home or a friend’s home? Only buy weapons that are colorful, clearly look like toys and do not resemble the real thing. Let Grandma and other gift givers know your stance on this as well so that you do not end up with toys that you don’t want in your household.

3.      Cultivate a trusting connection.

You want your child to come to you and tell you when they have a.) seen a weapon in a friend’s home, b.) experienced an adult or another child who is being unsafe or c.) been inappropriately approached (touched, yelled at, struck) by another adult or child. Many children do not tell their parents when such incidents occur because they fear a parent will react in anger or disgust. Some children do not tell because they fear that the action will be viewed as their fault. Parents unwittingly communicate they are not open to such conversations when they criticize other parents or children in front of their child. The child then thinks, “Well if they don’t approve of Jack hitting on the playground, they are really going to be mad if they hear he hit me. They may not let him be my friend anymore.” Emphasize regularly (once is not enough) that you want them to share anything that is upsetting to them with you. You will help them and not be angry. Keep criticisms about other parents and children to yourself or to conversations with your partner when your children are not around to hear.

4.      Set house rules for safe play.

Involve your child in discussing and creating rules around weapon, violence or villain play that keep all involved safe. Some households emphasize “target practice” instead of aiming at a person to avoid accidents. Others set a rule for “no body contact” or “no weapons aimed above the chest.” Make sure the rules are clear when other children are visiting so that you can allow play to evolve but reinforce safety rules when needed.

5. Do not give high emotion or energy to violent play.

Part of the attraction of violent play is the high excitement and emotion of it. Often when we parents are shocked and awed by something, children take notice and repeat the precipitating action again and again. If children are not able to create shocking reactions in adults, they will likely not be as interested in pursuing violent play. Then, their play will turn more toward working out scenarios of conquering fear and demonstrating courage in the face of danger.

6.      Share your own attitudes and values about violence.

“Nothing (good) comes from violence and nothing ever could,” goes the song, Fragile[iii] by Sting and that sums up my own philosophy. Violence only creates more violence. Share your own values about violence with your children. Make a point to raise this issue on occasion so that they hear what you think and believe. And in that moment, make sure that you create a trusting space for them to ask questions and share their own thoughts and feelings to help them to begin to cultivate their own values about violence.

I attempted my own experiment at home. With action figures strewn across the living room floor, E said “Let’s play!” to me yesterday as he often does. He assigned me to play the darkest Sith Lord, the Emperor, along with numerous other good and bad guys and he had his own set of villians. I allowed him to lead the play and as it evolved, I had the Emperor kill all of the good guys because that’s what the Emperor does and said, “Now what?” The good guys were all dead and there was no fighting to be had so “Now what?” He proceeded to resurrect all of the good guys and began playing only with the good guys – pursuing Jedi training, presenting medals to the heroes and celebrating with the Ewoks in their tree houses. He has not seen those movies but knows the stories from the large stack of Star Wars library books we come home with each week. When the bad guys successfully killed everyone, the story became a lot less interesting. Good guys needed to rise again in order to imagine coming adventures. Imaginative play was brought back to life.

When parents think about violence in the world and our precious children, it’s scary…scarier than any imaginative fright that may come up in a movie on late night television playing over the coming weeks before Halloween. There are sensible steps we can take to ensure that we are intimately connected to our children’s lives so that they trust us and communicate with us what really matters when we are not around. We can proactively educate them about safety so that they are stewards of those rules in our homes, neighborhoods and schools. And we can open the door to conversations about violence so that children can begin to formulate their own values about the forces of dark and light. So often the gift children give us is the opportunity for reflection and a reexamination of our own values and how we are living them as models in their lives.

For another good article on this topic, visit:

http://www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys/aggression05.html

For a terrific site for parents on child safety, visit:

www.SavvyParentsSafeKids.com

Also, check an outstanding book on specifically raising boys:

Gurian, M. (2006). The wonder of boys; What parents, mentors and educators can do to shape boys into exceptional men. NY: Penguin Group.

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[i] Logue, M.E., & Detour, A. (2011). You Be the Bad Guy”: A New Role for Teachers in Supporting Children’s Dramatic Play. University of Maine Early Childhood Research and Practice. Vol. 13, 1.

[ii] North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. (2001). The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) Nationwide Survey on Gun Ownership.

[iii] Sting. (1988). Fragile. Nothing Like the Sun. A & M Records.

Thank you, CASEL!

CASEL Logo

Thank you, CASEL for recognizing Confident Parents, Confident Kids blog-iversary in your national e-newsletter. We appreciate your support! For the latest information on what’s happening nationally and internationally with social and emotional learning in schools in research, policy and practice, learn more on the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning website.

Happy One Year Blog-iversary

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In recognizing this milestone of one year of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, I want to thank all of those who have contributed to making this blog a success! Thank you most especially to my editor extraordinaire, Linda Smith (known to me as Mom and an incredibly skilled and diplomatic editor) for her weekly partnership. Thank you to my husband and son for being a supportive learning laboratory. A big thank you to the individuals illustrated above who have read regularly, provided feedback and promoted the site. And thank you, reader for visiting! Here are the stats:

56 Posts

106 Countries – people from 106 countries around the world have visited the blog

112 Weekly subscribers, with some also on the Facebook fan page, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn

7,651 Views

95 Comments

Here is a review of the articles and topics covered over the past year. Check out the ones you may have missed.

Building a Positive Family Environment

Practicing Social and Emotional Skills

 

Modeling Social and Emotional Skills

Tone Tuning (Tone of voice)

Helping Children Understand Death

The Fear of Failure

Summer Reading

The Perfection of Being Imperfect

In Appreciation of Teachers

In-between Here and There   (Transitions, Change)

In Praise of Specificity (Reinforcing   language)

In Times of Disaster…Look for the Caring People

Television; Navigating our Global   Neighborhood

Television; Navigating the Content of   our Global Neighborhood

A Truly Good Morning

Wisdom from Mister Rogers – “Look for   the helpers” (in crisis)

On Edutopia (www.edutopia.org – The George Lucas Foundation)

On “What’s Hot?” Radio Show (Podcast   interview)

Boo! Common Fears and How to Help   Children Deal with Them

Catching Emotions

 

Mine, Your and Ours (Turn taking)

Back to School Butterflies (Anxiety)

Let the Games Begin (Cooperation, Communication)

Working it Out (problem solving)

Cultivating a Sense of Competence

A Fork in the Road (Choices,   Decision-making)

The Comeback Kid (I Statements)

Unconditional Love; The Prequel   (Self-compassion)

Unconditional Love and Attention

Are Questions the Answer? (Open-ended   questions)

Strategies for Teaching Self-Control

Play and a Happy Holiday to You

The Joy of Giving

Holiday Marathon (stress management)

Waiting Games (Social awareness)

Is this School about Heart and Head?

Top Ten Reasons for Parents to   Proactively Teach Social and Emotional Skills

How do you Teach Kids Social and   Emotional Skills?

Cooling the Fire (self-management)

The Story of Self (self-awareness)

 

Junior Teacher (Interactive modeling)

Making New Friends

Expanding the Circle: Teaching   Children Inclusion

Take the One Thing for Spring Challenge (Parent Goal Setting)

Parent Teacher Conversations

The Power of Self-control

Dinner: Delight or Disaster?

What Can I Do about Sandy Hook   Elementary ? (parents’ role in preventing school violence)

Gifts from the Heart

A Grateful State of Mind

The Heart of Family (relationship   skills)

Parent Private Investigator   (children’s emotions)

 

Please help celebrate by providing your feedback. What has helped you? What topics are you most interested in? What would you like to see on this site in the coming year? What are your greatest parenting challenges? How can Confident Parents, Confident Kids help you in meeting your own parenting goals? Place a comment on this article with your feedback or email me at confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com. Here’s to another year of dialogue and support for one of the most important jobs – parenting. Thanks again for joining me on this journey!

Tone Tuning

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Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little

Cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.

–          From the musical, Music Man (1957)

It is easy to forget that the music of our speech, our tone of voice, communicates just as much as the actual content of what is said. In fact, we may often feel that what we said has not been heard but notice that the emotion behind it causes family members to react. A gentle, monotone, “The dishwasher is broken.” is very different than a stressed, high-pitched, “The dishwasher is broken!” We offer instructions, directives and corrections to our children all day. We require their compliance to get through our routines. So how does our tone of voice affect what our children hear and how they respond? And could our awareness of our tone of voice make a difference in everyday life?

Because children are learning and developing, because they may be clumsy or make poor choices, parents may correct their children many times throughout the day. School age children are being corrected and then come home to more. That feedback and particularly how it’s delivered can build over the course of day and lead to upset, non-compliance and a child who feels like he is not valued or that something is wrong with him. It may become an unintended cycle fed by children feeling negatively about themselves, misbehaving to gain your attention or to push you to negate their bad feelings about themselves and your frustrated reaction. tone tuning misbehavior cycle 001

Children and adults sometimes don’t distinguish between critical feedback and how a person feels about them in general. Interestingly, a respected researcher on marriages, John Gottman,[i] found that the commonality in successful marriages was not how partners fought or did not fight. The key was a five to one ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. That might be a helpful lesson in talking with our children as well.

Take the Tone Test. Mark your calendar for three days that are fairly typical days in cropped sticky notesyour family’s life. Place three sticky notes on the refrigerator with the headers “calm, non-emotional,” “negative,” and “positive.” Place a check mark on one of the notes each time you have a conversation with your child in which you are asking them to do something. You may not be able to capture every time but set a goal for capturing five interactions each of the three days. If you are gaining their compliance and not seeing upsets this exercise may not be needed. But if not, then how many of your interactions when you are correcting your children are negative? Are you balancing that out with five times as many positive interactions? How can you think about those moments to try to tune your tone a bit to gain their trust and compliance?

Use gentle reminders. Instead of waiting until the inevitable disaster you can see shaping up in the living room, give a reminder while the issue is still small. You are likely not terribly upset or angry yourself (yet!). Use a calm, non-emotional voice. Walk closer so that you don’t need to raise your volume. Put your hand on your child’s shoulder gently to engage her attention. Use as few words as you can and be direct. “Jenna, go move those toys so your brother doesn’t fall.”

Listen and paraphrase. As you hear a scream in the other room, you walk in to see your two children on the floor struggling with some toys. They may both run to you with great passion and tell you how the other behaved terribly toward them. Get down on their level. This is true for any size child or teenager. If they are sitting, sit at their level. Say, “I want to really hear you both so we are going to take turns. Jake, you go first and then, I will listen to Lydia.” Listen carefully and paraphrase their feelings and their perspectives.

“What are you feeling, Jake?”

“Mad.”

“Why?”

“Because Lydia ripped my airplane out of my hands and when she did it, the blaster came off. Now it’s broken.”

“Okay. You are mad because Lydia took your airplane and the blaster broke.”

“Yeah.”

“Jake, now we need to let Lydia have a turn and listen to her. Lydia, what are you feeling?”

“So mad.”

“Why?”

“Because I was playing with the airplane first and I set it down but I wasn’t done with it. He took it and wouldn’t give it back. It’s not fair.”

“Lydia, you are so mad because you were playing with the airplane first and you weren’t done with it.”

“Lydia, what can you do to make things better?”

“He needs to give me back my airplane!”

“This is not about what Jake can do. Lydia, what can YOU do?

“I can take a turn with the airplane and then he could take a turn.”

“Jake, what could you do?

Use an approachable tone. If your child is beginning to get frustrated, calmly invite his communication. Let him see it’s safe to share with you what he is thinking and feeling. “I see you’re getting frustrated. What are you working on? How can I help? What do you think might happen if you move the puzzle piece over there?” It helps to get down to their eye contact level to make them feel more understood and in control.

Keep responses to misbehaviors brief. Your child may be baiting you for your attention and negative attention will be the payoff. If a child deliberately does something you know she is aware goes against the rules of the house, be brief in your response. Show confidence in your child’s knowledge of the right thing to do. Allow her to show you the right way. Get closer so that you do not have to raise your voice. In a calm, even tone, say, “Show me how we put away toys in this house.” Or “Show me how you should handle the dog.” Oftentimes, if we make a big deal out of a misbehavior with upset and a time out, it will feed the negative cycle of misbehavior.

Reinforce positive behaviors but do not shower praise. It is important to articulate when you have noticed a specific choice or set of behaviors that you want to encourage. Maybe you have been working with your child on taking responsibility for taking his plate into the kitchen at the end of a meal. When he remembers to do it, say, “I notice you remembered to take your plate in to the kitchen tonight. Glad to see it.” For more on ways to be specific versus the typical “Good job” that we so often hear, check out “In Praise of Specificity.”

And what if you have lost it? What if you are angry and can’t maintain a calm tone of voice? Model calming down strategies by using them yourself. It is the most powerful teaching tool for your children to watch you do what you need to do to calm yourself before interacting with them. Say, “Mommy is mad. I need a minute.” Walk away. Have a place in the house that you can sit alone to breathe for a moment. It may need to be close by if you have very young children that you can’t leave unsupervised. Have a strategy in mind ahead of time since you know, sooner or later, it will happen. Place your baby in the “Pack N’Play” where he’ll be safe for a few minutes and go sit in your bedroom. Breathe, calm down and formulate a plan before you return. Even a few minutes can restore blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps you think rationally in those situations. You will be able to return and act as the better version of yourself.

Avoid sarcasm when you can. The expert educators at Responsive Classroom argue that sarcasm has no place in the classroom. I would say it has no role in speaking with children of any age in general. Even teenagers, though they may use it, have a difficult time understanding it. The reason it has no place is because the song of sarcasm, the tone that is communicated, is light and funny in direct conflict with the weighty message which is typically denegrating, shaming and the opposite of the intended meaning. Though we slip into it easily and it is a part of our cultural language, sarcasm is dishonest and does not model or teach children language that we want them to use.

I notice that when I turn on classical or jazz music softly in the house, there is a different energy that permeates. My partner will comment on it as he notices the difference. Thinking of your voice as the soundtrack of your family life, what do you want to serve as the backdrop your daily routines? Becoming more aware of your tone can help you make small adjustments to add calm sounds to your communications. All members of the family can benefit from your efforts.


[i] Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1994). What makes marriage work? It’s how you resolve conflict that matters most. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 10/1/13. http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200910/what-makes-marriage-work

Helping Children Understand Death

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

–       Arthur Schopenhauer

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

Our local Mom’s club asked me some important and relevant questions related to children’s awareness of death and how a parent can best support a child. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on it for myself and research and share ideas. When a death occurs, there is typically a flurry of activities whether it’s preparing for the travel to a funeral, calling loved ones or making arrangements. In addition, you are experiencing your own complex of emotions. Often there is not the time or the ability to consider what children might be thinking and feeling in the situation and how they may need to be supported. Our instinct might be to protect them. Book a sitter and don’t take them to the funeral might be our quick reaction as we are taking care of details. So reading, reflecting and considering how we might support our children when we are not in the midst of a crisis can better help formulate a plan so that when we face those difficult situations, we have already thought through how we might handle it.

Children begin to gain an awareness of death between the ages of 3-5 depending upon their life events and exposure. Similar to any developmental milestone, awareness arises around the same age but differently for each child depending upon their maturation process. In the first stage of awareness, they do not have a sense of the permanence of death. They begin to understand that someone is gone and can also understand that the biological processes have stopped but there may be a sense that they will return eventually. Children have a natural interest and curiosity about death which is accompanied by anxiety, worry and confusion. Why? Part of being human is dealing with mortality and the fact that change is constant. Children begin working on that understanding very early in life. Children begin to grapple with separation when left with a babysitter or going to preschool but they also engage in games to assert their own control and work on understanding mortality. Parents automatically play peek a-boo with a baby convincing them that even though they disappear for a moment, they will return. Games like freeze tag and hide and seek allow children to “play dead” or practice separation in order to help deal with some of their confusion and worry in a fun way.[i]

The Children’s Grief Association provides a detailed, helpful guide to understanding death from a developmental perspective.[ii] The following are some of the developmental awareness milestones they note. A child of any age may show regressive behaviors when dealing with the death of a loved one. At birth to two years of age, they can feel the emotions of their caregiver and sense the absence of a person but cannot understand that the person will not be returning. Because of an infant’s mirror neurons (the way our emotions are hard-wired), the feelings of loss will be there because of their experience of the feelings of those around them. But infants will not understand why they are feeling the way they are feeling.

Between three and five years of age, children will begin to understand and be curious about death. They will still not understand the permanence of death and will expect that person to return. Because this is the magical thinking stage, children may imagine thoughts that are worse than the reality and fear that another will die. They may become interested in pretend play that involves killing or death.

At six to nine years of age, children generally understand that death is final and they will not see the person again. A child of this age may be interested in death caused by sickness or an accident. A child may think that death is punishment or that he is the cause of a person’s death in his life. The child may have anxiety about who will take care of him if the caretaker dies. Also, he will think of important milestones whether it’s holidays or a graduation without that person who has passed. Reactions could include acting as if the death did not happen, social withdrawal, concentration difficulties including declining grades, being overly protective of loved ones and/or acting out aggressively. Between the ages of nine and twelve, in addition to the reactions and understandings of a six to nine year old, children may have a heightened awareness of death and worry that others may die. Children at this age understand the finality and are forming their understanding of spiritual concepts. Children may worry that they were the cause of the death. They may be particularly curious and anxious about the physical aspects of an illness or death.

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

The following ideas are ways to help children deal with their loss and help them feel supported during the death of a loved one whether it is a parent, a grandparent or a pet.

Things You Might Say

  • Help them to know what you think and feel about the death. You may say, “We are sad that we are not going to see Grandpa Jim again. We loved him and we will really miss him.”
  • Teach empathy for others who are sad. “I see you are noticing that your older brother is sad. Why don’t you pat him and tell him you are sorry he is so unhappy.”
  • Listen and reflect back their feelings to them. “You sound sad about Uncle George. I understand. I feel that way too.”
  • Do share your beliefs if they are positive (and don’t share if they are not positive and will make the child worry). “I believe that Grandpa Jim is in heaven – a good place – and though we cannot see him, we can talk to him whenever we want to and tell him we love him. I think he is listening even though he will not be able to talk to us in return.”

Things You Might Do

  • Do maintain your usual routines as much as possible. Routines give children a sense of safety, comfort and stability.
  • Do include your child in the mourning process. They do not have to participate in every step with you. But allow them to participate in some of the process with you so that they have the advantage of the supports that a ceremony or ritual brings. For children six or older, ask how they might want to remember the person or express sorrow for their passing. Allow them some choices in how they mourn the loss.
  • Allow children to regress. If they are showing behaviors that you haven’t seen since toddler days, keep in mind that this is normal. Empathize and allow them comforts of their earlier developmental days – stuffed animals, blankets, toys.
  • Encourage children to play and have fun. If they choose to engage in play related to death, allow it such as a funeral for a doll. Pretend play can be a constructive way for a child to gain control over her anxiety.
  • Do make sure that the child has a photograph of the person or pet that is their own to keep. When they are sad and missing the person or pet, have them talk to the photograph.
  • Drawing, doing artwork and writing in a journal or diary can also be a good way to express feelings and deal with sadness and anxiety.

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

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

For more helpful information, check out the Children’s Grief Education Association’s site, www.childgrief.org.

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

Picture books:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] Children’s and Adolescents’ Understanding of Death. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. http://www.deathreference.com. Retrieved on 9-19-13.

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

The Fear of Failure

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It may be that the most important mastery we achieve early on is not the mastery of a particular skill or particular piece of knowledge, but rather the mastery of the patience and persistence that learning requires, along with the ability to expect and accept mistakes and the feelings of disappointment they may bring.

–          Fred Rogers in Life’s Journeys According to Fred Rogers

“Mama, I didn’t have such a good day yesterday,” E says as he puts on his clothes to prepare for another day of school. “I cut out the tree when I should have colored it first.” Now with tears welling up in his eyes, he continues, “And I laughed while I was waiting in line and the teacher said the next time I did it, he would send a note home to you. Will you be really mad if he sends a note home?”

School requires the learning of rules and expectations. At some point, it will challenge every child. From a failing test to talking in class when they should be listening, children will have moments of feeling a sense of failure. It becomes a challenge as a parent when you are not in the situation and must rely on your child to relay the details of a circumstance. There will be times when you feel a teacher or administrator has acted unjustly toward your child. There will be times when you know for certain that your child was in the wrong, or that your child is not telling you the full truth about what happened at school. In addition, children who are not able to do the work of school – maybe they are struggling with reading or math – will also invariably struggle with motivation. Who wants to get out of bed each morning and go to school when they will be met with challenges that feel insurmountable?

In order to avoid failure, children may throw frustration tantrums or act like clowns to mask their fears. They may procrastinate or not do their work at all. They may attempt to fade away in a classroom and avoid engagement. Children may want to get everything perfect the first time. They may have a strong sense of competition with their peers. They may feel they are faced with unreasonable expectations.[i] Or they could simply have particular difficulties with a subject area and not know how to proceed.

Ironically, in a place that is meant to support growth and learning, often the message schools send out to children is that they must be doing “A” level work. Even when teachers emphasize that mistakes are okay, our culture and the culture of school can reinforce the pressure of getting it right every time. When is there an opportunity for mistakes to occur? How do children learn to take healthy risks? How do they learn to fail so that they can have the major revelations that only come from moving from confusion and misunderstanding to full and deep understanding? What can you do to support their school success?

Coaching and supporting your child about responding to mistakes or less than stellar performances can offer invaluable practice in seizing the learning opportunity. Through that practice, she will build the resiliency to deal with the greater life challenges down the road.

The biggest, most important thing you can do is to consistently build and reinforce a trusting connection between you and your children. With full school days and extracurricular activities, your time together becomes very limited. When you do have time with your child, look for opportunities to really connect with her. Sit at her level or even below her level to help her feel more in control since teachers often tower over their students most of the day. Listen or offer to read a story while having an after school snack. Don’t push hard on questions related to what happened at school but instead show your child that you are open to listening when they are ready to talk. Spend time with your child in which you turn off your cell phone and allow him to engage you in conversation or play. Then when challenging situations arise at school, he will be more willing to tell you what is going on and allow you to help.

In schools, building trusting relationships between teachers and students, among students and among other staff in the school community is the path toward developing the confidence necessary to take healthy risks and sometimes fail in order to achieve. Assume that everyone – your child, his teacher, the principal – has the best intentions. Begin from a place of trust instead of approaching teachers as if they must prove to you they are worthy of your child’s respect. When you face problems such as when your child tells you a story in which it sounds as if the teacher acted unfairly, you can respond in a way that supports your trust in your child and also your trust in the best intentions of the teacher. “I hear that you were very upset when the teacher said he was giving you a warning. It takes time and lots of practice to learn the rules and routines of school. I understand that you are learning and he does too. That’s why he did not take action but just helped you remember through his warning, what you are supposed to be doing while you line up.”

Have and show confidence in all children’s abilities to learn. He may not understand a math equation that you are grappling to remember as you attempt to support his homework efforts. Reassure him that it is completely normal to struggle when learning something new. You may even help by setting small goals to recognize as he achieves them. “You finished the first step. Great! That will naturally lead into the second step.” Take breaks. Get some fresh air. Have a snack or set a timer. Use concrete learning materials like an abacus or counting bears, tangible representations of what he is trying to learn that he can return to over and again (teacher supply stores are great for these kinds of manipulatives). Help him persist in a way that is tolerable – perhaps, even enjoyable – to help him see that he has the ability to get through even the most difficult challenges.

Promote an “I can” belief. If your child is uttering in frustration, “I can’t.” Be sure and respond with a confident, “I know you can. It just may take more time and I’ll help.” “If you are willing to spend the time, almost anyone can learn anything,” relays veteran high school English teacher Linda Smith.

Point out your own mistakes. Remember being a child and assuming all adults were perfect and knew everything even though you watched them make mistakes? Pointing out your own mistakes to your child will not encourage him to make mistakes. However, it will encourage him to be more self-forgiving when he makes them. It will teach him that mistakes are made by everyone. It will teach him that they are okay and even a necessary part of life.

Check your own responses. If you are getting emotional – angry, frustrated, upset – by your child’s poor choice or lack of progress, take a step back. Ask yourself why. Are you disappointed in your child and know they can do better? Are you worried it’s a reflection of your parenting? Are you concerned about what teachers or friends might think about your child or your family? Understanding the roots of your own frustration will help you deal with your emotion to work through your own disappointment. Working toward a constructive response with your child may help you feel better about the situation and about how your child is able to make amends.

Offer life lines. Practice asking for help. “The sign of a smart person is knowing how and when to ask for help,” I often say to E. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength and self-awareness. Point out friends at school who might be some assistance to your daughter when she struggles with her homework. Encourage her to talk with the teacher after class and ask for some pointers on study skills. Point out Grandpa’s excellent mathematical abilities and get him involved. It’s comforting for a child to know that there are multiple people who will support him when she needs it.

Teach your children that what matters is not the mistake itself but how they respond to it. Rarely is there only one chance to do something. If your child causes harm, help them think through ways to repair that harm. Do a kindness for the person affected. Write a heart-felt note. Contribute your energies to a service. Ask for a second chance. Ask for forgiveness. If he gets a poor grade on an assignment, tell him to ask his teacher for extra help. Guiding your child in thinking about how to make a situation better through their thoughtful action not only helps them make reparation but teaches them how to constructively respond in a way that nurtures and strengthens relationships and promotes learning. If a child has the opportunity to make reparation, regret, guilt or grudges do not factor into their feelings. Instead, they take control by contributing to the healing in whatever form it may take.

School offers children invaluable practice tests for the tests of life. Mothers and fathers have made plenty of their own mistakes. But often what they have learned helped them later in life. It is not the failure itself that is critical but our response to failure that determines whether a person has the persistence of character to achieve greatness.

Excellent children’s books on making mistakes:

Hobbie, H. (2004). The New Friend (Toot and Puddle). Boston, MA: Little, Brown Books for Readers.

Pett, M. & Rubenstein, G. (2011). The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.

Viorst, J. (1972). Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. New York


[i] Albert, L. (2003). Cooperative discipline. Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.

Mine, Yours and Ours

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“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

–          Buddha

No child enters their preschool or even early elementary school years having perfected the art of sharing. As parents, we are eternally frustrated by the “this is mine” syndrome. Particularly if siblings are closer in age and have toys that are of mutual attraction, Moms can feel like they are saying, “You need to share!” multiple times throughout the day. You may have had an idyllic vision as you conceived child number two or three and thought, “When we have the next one, our children will play together and entertain one another and we’ll need to be less involved.” Only to find that you are intervening every few minutes as fights erupt. “This is mine, not yours! Moooooom, Becky’s not sharing!!!” This fighting over stuff can continue throughout the childhood years.

We want our children to be socially accepted, have friends, have a strong relationship with their siblings and act generously toward others. However, children in early pre- and school years are coming from a perspective developmentally that can, in the case of sharing, work in direct conflict with adult desires. A child is trying to assert his independence and control over his own life. In play, children are innately in touch with what skills and abilities they are working to develop. They might be mastering fine or gross motor skills. They may be coming to a greater understanding of adult interactions through toy interactions. They may be grasping rules and routines by imposing their own vision upon the “stuff” with which they are playing. Interrupting the implementation of a child’s creative vision can generate the same reaction that an artist might have when she is in the midst of executing a painting. Anger, frustration, confusion and disorientation all might emerge. And for smaller playmates or siblings, the result can be lashing out physically (biting, hitting) because they have not mastered control of their emotions and how to express them. In the book, It’s OK Not to Share, the author, Heather Schumaker, emphasizes the role of turn taking. “Keeping a toy when another child wants it is not the mark of a selfish child, but simply a busy one. Protect your child’s right to play and teach her to say, “I’m not done yet.” Schumaker suggests that adults do not have to give up a tool when they are in the middle of using it and neither should a child.

Many homes with siblings have communal toys. They accumulate over time and it seems a waste to purchase duplicates or similar toys. However, we do live in a culture in which individuals own stuff. Things are not communal for the most part. So in addition to communal toys, it is important that children have their own toy(s) that are theirs and theirs alone. There will invariably be more conflicts in households in which all toys are shared and oftentimes, less opportunity to practice altruistic sharing (a child taking the initiative himself to share) and turn taking. Children can have their own special toy that is only theirs (quality – does your child view it as special? – not quantity matters here). If they do not want to share it, then maybe they have a place they can keep it that is not on display to tantalize a younger sibling.

The rules and routines you promote around toys in your house can unwittingly contribute to conflicts. Children tend to hoard their toys when they fear they will be taken away by an adult or another child. But if they feel like their play is protected, they have the chance to be generous in their sharing habits particularly if they are taught the skills of turn taking and practice them. If a child is allowed to use a particular coveted toy until they are finished, they may move on quickly or could take entire day to play with a particular item. As children become experienced with the routine of being allowed to use their toy until they are finished and then to pass it on after they have used it, they begin to move about play without worry about holding onto their stuff. They may even get to experience joy and pride in the sharing of a toy that means a lot to them.

You can teach the skill of taking turns and allowing a child to make the choice to share when they are finished with a toy. After all, there will be times when you are not watching and you want to your child to know how to handle themselves appropriately with other children and work through those “This is mine.” moments. The following are some ideas for teaching turn taking at home to ensure your children are prepared.

Model

Find a time for both partners or a parent and an older sibling to model taking turns. You could do it during a daily activity like dinner using the ketchup. Point to yourself and say, “My turn.” Point to the other and say, “Daddy, it’s your turn.” You could roll a ball back and forth. In our household, we rotate putting E to bed so one night, Daddy is on point and the following, Mommy. E is keenly aware of this rotation. Find multiple opportunities to model turn taking in different contexts. You may even model the frustration of needing to give something away and talking yourself through it. “Mommy wants to hang on to this cool ball but I know it will come back to me so I’ll roll it to Dad. This game is more fun when I can share the ball.”

Practice

You can give your children practice with many of the typical games they might play at home. Just be sure and articulate whose turn it is to make the practice of turn taking obvious to the child. Also, be aware that smaller children may be so focused on the present moment that when they give away their toy (even if they are going to get it back), it may seem like they are giving it away forever. Be sure that your practice includes quick turns and reminders for smaller children that the toy will come back to them. Some games include:

Play ball – take turns rolling or kicking back and forth

Hide and seek – take turns hiding and seeking

Bake – take turns pouring, measuring and stirring ingredients

Play hopscotch – take turns hopping down the numbers in chalk on your driveway or sidewalk

Run through the sprinkler – take turns running through the sprinkler in warmer weather

Play School – take turns acting as the teacher and the student alternatively

Set up a bike obstacle course – create an obstacle course with cones or sticks or rocks or outdoor toys and allow children to take turns riding their bikes around the objects one at a time

Make music – turn on music and take turns playing a favorite instrument

*Play board games (for school age only) – Board games like match games, Candyland or Chutes and Ladders can be a good way to practice turn taking with school-age children. For some preschoolers however, they can result in frustration because they are not quite ready for the rules and structure that are required with a board game so use your best judgment.

Do no harm

Bottom line, it is never okay for one child to physically hurt another child. Though it may be unjust when a child snatches a toy away, physically lashing out is not acceptable. An adult has the opportunity to step in and ask for a cool down period. Setting up a cool down safe space in the house is ideal. It may just be a soft chair or pillow with a stuffed friend designated for making a child feel better (never to be used as a punishment). Use that cool down space as a place children can self-select (sometimes with a helpful reminder from a parent) to help them calm down before working through a problem. This offers a child a chance to develop the critical skill of self-soothing. For more on this, see “Cooling the Fire.”

Reinforce

Look for opportunities to reinforce that children are learning to take turns. You might say, “I notice that Jordan took a turn with the piano and then stepped aside to let Addison take a turn. I am glad to see it.”

Remind

If your children are about to enter a situation in which you know they typically fight over toys, give them a reminder. “Tony, remember to take turns with your sister if she wants to play with your toys while I make dinner.”

Allow

Step back and allow your children to work out the turn taking between the two of them. If you’ve modeled and practiced the skills, they need plenty of opportunities without adult intervention to give them the chance to practice it on their own. Sometimes we step in too quickly and miss that chance. Be sure to step back and allow your children to work on it. It may not be perfect right away. But it will be satisfying when you see them working out how to play together in a constructive way.

Promoting skills in turn taking and the value of sharing in your family life can provide a sense of freedom from coveting stuff and allow for both creative play involving the tools of the trade and strengthening the relationship between siblings through parent-modeled and practiced and child-initiated sharing.

Making New Friends

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Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.

C.S. Lewis

Whether your child is starting the year in a brand new school or returning to a school community, there is an opportunity to make connections with new friends. Friendships at school add to a child’s comfort and enjoyment. Research studies confirm that friendships can contribute to a student’s academic performance. Studies have concluded that for both elementary and middle school students, those that have significant friendships at school have a higher motivation for working toward social and academic goals.[i] And in the preschool years, helping children learn to play with one another is part of the core curriculum. On those dark, early mornings when it is tough to get going, children of all ages can be motivated and inspired by thinking about the friends they will see each day.

Ohio Early Language and Literacy Conference
Ohio Early Language and Literacy Conference

In August, two teachers and I presented to a group of early childhood educators ways to create a caring community in the classroom particularly during those first weeks of school. In the schools that prioritize social and emotional learning, teachers are busy finding entertaining ways for children to learn each other’s names and make connections that will grow throughout the year. If you are an educator, check out The First Six Weeks of School to learn about ways to do this. But more typically, teachers are focused on learning the students names themselves on day one and then quickly moving on to reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. I asked my son, a very social child who easily engages other children in play, after his first week of kindergarten whether he knew any names of children in his class. He did not. Do not count on teachers having the time to make connections between children. Often, they are going to have to do that on their own.

Though you have little control over what happens during the school day, there are ways that you can support your child in opening the door to friendships. Here are some ideas to try out.

For Preschool and Elementary School Age Children

Model.  Find chances in the grocery store or at the bank during regular weekly activities in which your child accompanies you to model introductions to people. You may go to the same store each week but do you know the names of the employees that assist you? Introduce yourself and your child.

“Hi. I come in here weekly and you’ve helped me many times. What is your name? It’s nice to meet you. This is my daughter, Amanda. She is a big help on shopping trips.”

You may take the opportunity on the car ride home to reflect on the introduction. You might ask, “What did you notice that I said to the woman at the store? Are there some kids at school you might be able to introduce yourself to in a similar way?”

Practice at home. For younger children, get out three or four of your daughter’s stuffed friends and have them join you for snack after school.  Start by making your own introduction of one to another. Then, have your daughter do the rest of the introductions. “Sealy meet Wayne, the bunny. You both like playing legos with Amanda.” Share one commonality. My son loves this game and looks for opportunities to introduce puppets, trains, cars and other friends that have not yet met.

For older children like middle schoolers, you can involve them in introductions by play acting with them and engaging them in fun. Talk about how it can feel awkward to introduce yourself. Maybe share a story of a time you felt awkward or silly but made an introduction anyway and were glad you did. Show them how you did it. “I just walked up and said ‘I see you are reading that great book. I read it last summer and loved it. I’m Amanda.’”

Ask about lunchtime and recess. There are very few free moments during the school day when children choose what they can do and with whom they can do it but lunch and recess are those times. It can be so difficult to find someone to sit with at lunch when looking out at a sea of unfamiliar faces. Talk about this and what your child might do. Model simple language that he can use. “Can I sit with you?” is all it takes – that and a lot of courage – to sit down with a new group of students and have lunch. Talking about it with you and helping your child see that everyone has those feelings of awkwardness at one point or another may give him the courage needed to take that first step.

Provide reinforcing comments and withhold judgment. As your child tells you about attempts to make new friends, reinforce what she is doing. “I notice you introduced yourself today. That kind of bravery is going to pay off, just wait and see.” It may take a number of tries to make a connection that lasts beyond the lunch period. Also, it’s tempting to ask about and judge the kids with whom she is connecting. You may know the parents or have seen the potential friends through school interactions.  We know that peers can be a significant influence on our child and we want it to be a positive one. However because it can feel so challenging to make connections and kids are still trying to figure out in which group they belong, allow them some space to take healthy risks and try out new friendships.

Students begin with the advantage of a core common interest – school. If your child initiates a conversation, that may be all that is needed to forge a friendship. Have those discussions, model, practice and reinforce their courageous efforts as they make attempts. These small supports you provide can go a long way toward helping your child find confidence and support at school.

For further information on peer relationships and its impact on school engagement:

Ryan, A., Wentzel, K., Baker, S., Brown, B., Davidson, H. & LaFontana, K. Peer Relationships. Updated on Dec 23, 2009. http://www.education.com/reference/article/peer-relationships/


[i] DuBois, D. L., Felner, R. D., Brand, S., Adan, A. M., & Evans, E. G. (1992). A prospective study of life stress, social support, and adaptation in early adolescence. Child Development, 63,542-557.

Harter, S. (1996). Teacher and classmate influences on scholastic motivation, self-esteem, and level of voice in adolescents. In J. Juvonen & K. R. Wentzel (Eds.), Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment (pp. 11-42). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wentzel, K. R. (1994). Relations of social goal pursuit to social acceptance, classroom behavior, and perceived social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 173-182.

Junior Teacher

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The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who
is him/herself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while
being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process
in which all grow.

Paulo Freire

The beginning of the school year presents an opportunity to get a fresh start with rules and routines in family life while children are learning expected behaviors at school. Excitement and energy for the year to come may be at an all-time high. Your child may be “playing school” at home trying out his or her best teacher performances. Use this opportunity to engage your child as a teacher of behaviors you want her to practice.

First, identify a behavior you know your child is still learning to master. Is he working on being less impulsive? Does she get frustrated quickly when trying to do a project? Your son, for example, might have trouble listening when another is talking. Engage him in playing the role of a teacher for fun, connection and with the goal of helping him learn a bit about listening.

Grab a stuffed friend such as, my son E’s Betsy bear to be the student and/or you could take the student role. Let him know that in order for Betsy to be successful in school, she needs to be able to learn to listen well to the teacher, and also to other students who are talking. If you have the chance, dress up your son or daughter to look like a teacher. If you are so inspired, dress up the bear too to look like a student. The more fun and engaged in pretend play you are, the more dramatic and memorable the lesson.

Interactive Modeling by Margaret Berry Wilson, an excellent book for teachers, lays out seven very simple steps for modeling positive behaviors. Modeling can be one of the most powerful teaching tools parents can utilize particularly if you are involving your child throughout the modeling process. I have slightly augmented these to fit with a parent’s pretend play at home with their children but the essence remains. You can tell your child, “I’ll start the lesson and then you teach your bear.”

  • Tell your child what you will model and why.

In your most dramatic teacher voice, say, “Today, we will learn about how to listen well. I’m going to show you how I listen well. Watch me and see what you notice.”

  • Model the behavior.

Ask your son to tell you about his favorite toy or character. Model each aspect of listening well including leaning in, uncrossing arms, setting hands on your lap or at your side and using direct eye contact and an interested expression while he’s talking.

  • Ask your son or daughter what he/she noticed.

“What did you notice I did?” Ask both your son and his bear to ensure that you are keeping up the pretend play.

  • Ask your child to model the behavior for his student.

“Now, it’s your turn to be the teacher. You can show Betsy bear how it looks to listen well. What can you tell her about what she needs to do to listen well? What should Betsy talk to you about so you can show her good listening skills?”

  • Have “student” offer what you/she noticed.

Discuss what you noticed he did well. Give the bear a chance to tell what she noticed too. “I noticed E made direct eye contact with Betsy. He leaned in to her and was quiet and interested.”

  • Give all a chance to practice.

Now let the bear through you tell a story to your son and allow him to listen again. Then, switch roles and let him listen to the bear. You can include yourself in the listening and talking practice as well.

  • Provide feedback.

Reinforce the learning by going over all of the positive steps you noticed your son or the bear (you!) took to demonstrate good listening skills. Be sure and point out all of the nonverbal cues you see.

Imagine trying to teach good listening skills to your child by either telling him about it or by nagging him each time he is not listening. Though these strategies are much more common and take less time and forethought, they are far less effective.

This new beginning, the start of school, can be a renewal for family life too if you are intentional about it. Seize the opportunity. Once the “lesson” has taken place, it’s easier to point to the lesson when you see your child is going down a challenging path. “Remember when we taught Betsy about listening skills. What did you teach her? Do you remember how it looks to listen well? Show me.” These reminders throughout the year can be quick and offer opportunities for ongoing practice. When your child does show you his best listening skills (or another skill on which you’ve worked), be sure you notice and point it out. “I notice that you were leaning in while I was talking and making direct eye contact. You remembered exactly what it takes to be a good listener.” Those small and specific reinforcements will offer valuable coaching feedback to your child. You are giving them positive attention and pointing out the ways they are listening well so that they can replicate those actions again. This cycle of modeling, coaching, practicing and a creating a supportive environment through reinforcement will help children internalize the skill so that they will become better listeners not only when you and Betsy bear are watching, but at school and in the community when they are on their own.

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