Transitions

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The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. 

– Alan Watts

From waking up to eating breakfast, playing with toys to going to school, homework time to dinner time, transitions punctuate every day. Because we are creatures of inertia (remember “a body at rest stays at rest” from science class?), these transitions can be challenging for children and stressful for parents. Have you ever watched in awe as a parent on the playground says “Time to go.” and their kids come running and they leave quickly and easily? Maybe transitions run smoothly for them because each individual in their family can quickly switch gears. However, it is more likely that the parents have set clear expectations ahead of time and, perhaps, offered practice opportunities prior to that moment.

There are numerous strategies educators use to ease transitions throughout the day. After all, instead of asking three children to change activities, they have to direct twenty to thirty children. In order to facilitate smooth movements, educators proactively teach routines, provide regular reminders and reinforcements, use quieting techniques, employ sounds and lead games to change the energy and prepare students for their next activity. These teaching techniques may sound like extra work and may not seem necessary, but actually they help children practice a fundamental brain function, one of the “executive functions” called cognitive flexibility.[i] This flexibility has been found to be a necessary pre-condition for academic achievement. These physical transitions can help children practice mental jumps as they move from thinking about their Legos construction to putting away all toys in the living room. Children need to be able to hold several thoughts in their heads and move to new thoughts and activities fairly quickly. This practice helps them exercise this ability to switch gears.

You too can become adept at transitions in your household. First, think about which transitions might need some work. When do you get aggravated, anxious or frustrated with your children? Which transitions in the day tend to be consistently challenging? Check out the strategies below and try one out to see if it can work for you.

Co-create a plan. Though you can initiate games galore to create an enjoyable transition, nothing replaces the creation of a routine plan together. If you are struggling with moving from playtime to bedtime preparations, sit down together with a big blank poster when there is not time pressure. Talk about the transition. What usually happens? What needs to be accomplished during that time? How can you plan it out so that it can go smoothly? Should you set a timer after dinner to go off when playtime is Summer and Fall 2013 391over and clean up begins? Would your children prefer a five minute warning? How will each step proceed from there – from cleaning up toys, to changing into pajamas, to brushing teeth, to the selection of bedtime books. Formalize your plan in writing – and/or with drawings. Be sure both you and your children create the poster. The more involved they are the better so that they own the process you are discussing. Refer to it and use it as a reminder before the transition begins. With some practice, you may find your transitions moving more smoothly.

Set clear expectations. When you are not rushing somewhere or transitioning to a different activity, talk about the transition that is challenging. You might even try out a family meeting to work on problem solving and gather input from all family members if the transition applies to all. Again, ask “What needs to happen when we move from breakfast to getting dressed for school?” and “How can accomplish it in a way in which we get our jobs done?” The sub-text, of course, is that we get our jobs done without Mommy nagging, cajoling, bribing, yelling, hassling or generally getting frustrated by the lack of progress.

Draw a magic bubble.  In my family, it seemed the moment we would sit down to dinner, the phone would ring. E would ask each night to bring toys to the table (to which, our consistent response was “No.”). The doorbell would buzz. And our family dinner, which was supposed to be a sacred time for connecting, would be chaotic. So we began drawing a magic bubble. Each family member walked around the table chanting a magic word of their choosing waving a wand (we used toy wands) to create the bubble before we sat down to eat. This action signified that there were to be no electronic devices at the table, no toys, just our family members present with one another sitting and enjoying food and drink together.  The magic bubble could be drawn for cleaning up toys to focus solely on that task alone or it could be drawn for the activities involved with bedtime. The key to the magic bubble is that all participate in drawing it and maintaining it. And when it is broken, the magic is broken and so too, the rules and expectations of that activity.

Use sounds. Recently, I watched a storyteller use a slide whistle to great effect with young children. She told them to raise their hands as they heard the whistle sound go up and put hands down as the sound lowered. Not only did hands go up and down, but their attention and focus went with it. Many teachers who use the Responsive Classroom approach use chimes to gain children’s attention. Find a gentle sound that can be heard above other noises but is not abrasive or loud. Some teachers use a clap pattern that children are expected to repeat. “Clap, clap – pause – clap, clap, clap” Or use the sound of your voice. “Who can hear me?” said in a moderate tone can start off the transition. Next, “Who can hear me?” in a quieter voice can begin to gather children’s attention. Finally in a whisper “Who can hear me?” can quiet a group of children. Be sure that you finish what you’ve begun. Relay your instructions for their next activity in a soft, hushed voice so that they continue to give you their focused attention.

Try the freeze game. What young child doesn’t love the freeze game? I have yet to meet one. You can use the freeze game effectively for transitions if you introduce it and have your children practice in advance. Again, find a time and space when there is no time pressure. Introduce the freeze game by asking children to play and then, freeze when you call out the word. Try not to yell “Freeze.” Model your own “inside voice.” If they have to strain to hear you, that will call their attention to you in a more productive way than yelling. They will also learn to listen to your “inside voice.”  While they are frozen, give them the next instruction. Try to break down your transition activity into the smallest steps possible so that they have clear expectations for what they should be doing and get plenty of practice. For example, “Freeze” (maintaining your quiet voice), “Get up out of your seats and quietly push your chairs in.” “Freeze.” “Walk over to the living room and gently and neatly place one toy in the bin.” “Freeze…”

Do a song or dance dress rehearsal. Inserting fun into your routines can help engage children and allow for a smoother transition. Find a song you and your children know by heart and practice the transition while singing the song. It does not need to be a song that guides what you are doing in the transition (i.e. “Now I put on my boots.”) but rather, just a song that is one they will remember and be able to sing easily. I typically can think of only the most basic songs like, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” “Jingle Bells” (my son loves this one and it doesn’t have to be in season) or “You are my Sunshine.” You may also use the rhythm of the song to guide your movements. Zip up your coat to the beat. Or you may choreograph a fairy princess dance ahead of time during which you glide across the floor while picking up toys. Children can’t help but get engaged in the fun of the transition and you just might enjoy it too!

Remind and reinforce. Whenever you are about to move into a transition, be certain to remind your children that it is coming. This is critical to pave the way for the success of any strategy you try. Also, when the transition has been made, reinforce how well it went. Be sure and recognize small steps toward a smooth transition. “I notice how you moved quickly from the dinner table to clean up. Keep up the good work.” Even if it is still a challenge, give it time. If your children reduced the time in cleaning up or didn’t hassle you as much in getting out of the door, recognize progress and effort made.

Make certain that whatever strategies you choose to employ, you are consistent. Children will be able to buzz through the routine only if it’s a process that is repeated each time. At my home in Ohio as winter drags on, it’s easy to get into bad habits of running late or nagging when routines are not going smoothly. Reinvigorate your routines by trying out one of the above ideas and see if you can add some fun and energy to your household.

For more on the morning routine, check out the previous post, “A Truly Good Morning.”

For more on the dinner routine, check out the previous post, “Dinner: Delight or Disaster?”

For more on the transition from preschool to kindergarten, check out the previous post, “In Between Here and There.”


[i] National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function. Center on the Developing Child. Harvard University.

Reader Responses to “How Do You Live a Life with Heart?”

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I demonstrate open-hearted love, compassion and empathy with my granddaughter by being really and truly present with her. I think there is no better gift of love than to role-model complete presence with another.

–       Tom Rausch *Leadership Beyond Limits, LLC* Leader and Coach to Leaders http://www.linkedin.com/in/tomrausch http://twitter.com/tcrausch

I agree with the need for complete presence. I have been building mindfulness practices into my life and my interactions with my children to try and model this. It seems like such an easy approach to life for them to pick up in the early years (4 and 7 years old).

I also spend a lot of time modeling positive intent. I want my children to assume everyone is trying their best (including themselves!), and by bringing this up everywhere I see it, …I hope to train their inner selves to see the world this way too. When we see someone doing something we might want to judge, we talk about what might be getting in the way of that person being their best selves….despite striving for this.

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

Happy Valentine’s Day!

How Do You Live a Life with Heart?

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What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I work with E to diligently write the names of each of his class members on Valentine cards to celebrate the holiday this Friday, it raises a larger question. How am I living a life with heart? And how can I encourage my son to live a life with heart? As I reflect on individuals I admire, a “life with heart” helps describe them. I notice those individuals choose integrity, have a clear sense of purpose and strive for significant contribution. They also demonstrate empathy, love and care and value service. They have a strong sense of who they are, how they can use their strengths, understand their limitations and boundaries and advocate for what they need. Self-reflection and self-expression are present. Maybe it means having the courage to face your fears. The “life with heart” may mean not running from emotions or considering some “bad” or “negative” but accepting all emotions as facilitators of self-understanding and tools for decision-making and growth.

When I did a search on “life with heart,” website after website arose focused on heart failure, illness and disease. And although heart is the name of one of our vital bodily organs, it also remains a broadly accepted symbol representing love, emotion, passion, worth, empathy and more. Together, let’s give meaning to a “life with heart.” I’d like to hear from you.

How do you live a life with heart?

How do you encourage your children to live a life with heart?

Reply by this Friday, February 14th and I’ll post your responses on Valentine’s Day. My best to you and your loved ones as you go about living your lives with heart.

The Mask of Anger

the mask of anger illust 001Anger is just anger. It isn’t good. It isn’t bad. It just is. What you do with it is what matters. It’s like anything else. You can use it to build or to destroy. You just have to make the choice.

– Jim Butcher, White Night

Yesterday, the teachers at E’s school decided to have a brief recess on the small slice of driveway in front of school in order to get out some of the cabin fever energy rampant among us all but particularly strong in kids. I was serving as lunch-recess parent volunteer. At a roaring pitch and in the faces of other children, I heard “I don’t wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” I saw a tall, red-faced child stomp away from the group of boys he had just assaulted. And a small sobbing boy I’ve never met leaned back against me for comfort and protection as I leaned in to figure out what was going on. “Why is he crying?” said one boy incredulous and embarrassed that an associate of his might cry. “It’s okay,” said a kind friend. “He didn’t mean you.” said yet another. I pointed out what good friends he had to check in on him and provide words of comfort. Then the bell rang and we were back inside.

Angry outbursts are common on the playground and in our home lives. They happen. And anger historically has been an essential reason for our survival as human beings. It is a necessary emotion in that it serves to protect us when we are threatened. But often anger expressed as aggression or suppression (pushing it back inside to boil) can be destructive to ourselves and our relationships. And typically anger is a mask that serves to cover up a myriad of other emotions residing just under the surface. Darin Dougherty, a psychiatrist and researcher claims that depression and fear often go hand in hand with angry outbursts.[i] And in addition, anger can build because of feelings of hurt, helplessness, anxiety, humiliation, shame, guilt, embarrassment or rejection. In parent-child relationships, anger can take the form of a power struggle when both lock horns on a particular issue, often small in the scheme of life but important, nonetheless. If the power struggle escalates and a child feels hurt, helpless and misunderstood, the child’s behavior can turn toward revenge.

When a revenge behavior occurs, a parent’s emotional temperature begins to boil. The child’s intention is to push your buttons. And our own children are exceedingly talented at knowing which buttons to push to gain the biggest emotional response from us. Children choose to do something in opposition to a value they know we hold dear – cleanliness, politeness, punctuality. Children can also use withdrawal and refusal to participate as a form of revenge. And sometimes, they exhibit revenge behaviors with a parent to get out frustrations that they have accrued from interactions with someone else. But because they do not feel safe with that other person, they choose someone safer – you!

Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others. (AAP)[ii]

Children are learning about their emotions and how to identify them and control them. They can use our guidance and support in teaching them ways to deal with anger that are constructive and not destructive. Whether it’s an anger management course for adults or lessons in school for children, the principles of teaching people how to recognize and manage their anger are fairly consistent. Anger is a challenging emotion for any of us to deal with constructively. These set of suggestions are intended to support you as you attempt to proactively teach your children ways to deal with anger.

1. Raise awareness of signs of building anger.

Introduce the topic of anger on an ordinary day when emotions are not particularly high. Ask, “How does your body feel when you get angry?” or “How do you know when you are really mad?” Another great way to introduce the subject is by reading When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang. Stop the book when Sophie is getting angry, notice what is happening to her physically and ask your child what happens to him.

2. Teach ways to express those strong emotions.

Practice expressing emotions physically or vocally in ways that are acceptable in your house. Maybe the garage is a good place for a child to go to let out a scream (as long as they don’t scare the neighbors!). Hitting a pillow or stomping, jumping up and down or running in circles around the yard could all be potential acceptable ways to get out that angry energy. Sometimes we skip to guiding our child to a quiet, gentle calm down process but often, children need to physically get the emotion out first. This can serve them well later in life as they deal with negative stress and get it out by running around the block, for example, as opposed to internalizing it which can create illness. Agree on what the physical expression will be. “Roar like a lion?” They’ll need to be comfortable with it and ideally, contribute to generating ideas on what they can do. Practice together. Stomp together on a number of occasions when you are both not highly emotional. That practice will help your children when their mind cannot focus because it has been taken over by their emotions. A quick reminder from you to stomp will help them recall your practice and get out their anger in a constructive manner.

3. Calm down.

You’ve begun the calm down process already by practicing a physical expression of a child’s emotions. Now help them find ways to further settle themselves. Recently a teacher told me she uses “hot chocolate breathing.” I love this idea for teaching deep hot chocolate illust 001breathing. Take a deep breath in to smell the rich aroma and blow on the hot chocolate to cool it. You might draw a picture of a cup of hot chocolate and post it near the play table as a reminder (or use my illustration). In addition, creating a sacred calm down space is helpful. Do not use this space as a “Go to your room!” command. But instead have your child participate in creating a comforting space (pillows, stuffed friend, books, crayons, paper) to choose on their own to go to when they need it. You can always remind them of it. But it is not a place of punishment. It is “base” as they say in the game of tag. A place on their own that they can feel safe and calm down. For more on this topic, check out my previous blog article entitled, “Cooling the Fire.”

4.  Identify feelings.

In preschool, children are just beginning to associate simple words – happy, sad and mad – with their feelings and resulting behaviors. In kindergarten through school age, they begin to expand their emotional vocabulary to articulate a complex of emotions if they have support through coaching and modeling from their parents and teachers. Sad just doesn’t adequately describe the feeling when a beloved pet dies. You can support your child’s expanded emotional vocabulary by regularly providing language asking if the words adequately help you understand what they are going through. “I’m guessing you feel disappointed, embarrassed and frustrated with the poor grade that you hid in the bottom of your backpack. Is that right?” Providing regular practice in identifying feelings helps advance a child’s self-awareness and lifts up the mask of anger to help reveal to herself and to you the true causes and resulting complex of emotions to help both of you deal better with any problem at hand.

5. Get needs met.

Practice in asserting needs will help a child academically and socially. Even a child who tends toward introversion and shyness in the classroom can learn to assert his needs with support. Use everyday moments to offer practice. “It looks like you are frustrated because you are struggling with that project. Can you tell me what is happening? What could you use to help you?” Also talk through school scenarios to provide language and practice for that setting. “I have heard you mention that a bigger girl has taken your ball from you on the playground and not returned it. What could you say to her to stop her?” Give your child simple, brief language and practice it. “What about saying – ‘Stop that.’ Or ‘You know what you are doing is wrong.’” That practice with simple language can provide strength and courage in a trying situation.

And what about in that tense moment when your child has erupted or a revenge behavior has rendered you momentarily speechless and seething? How can your respond in a way that stops the behavior but also teaches constructive skills? You can model first. Take a moment for yourself to calm down. All you need say is “Mommy needs a minute.” and the fact that you are leaving the room to calm down will be clear. While calming down, think about what might be a logical consequence for her actions. They may occur naturally and all you need to do is point them out. “Because you used your sister’s toy without her permission, you’ll need to stick with your toys for awhile until she is ready to trust you’ll be respectful with her toys.” And offer ways for the child to repair any harm done. An apology could be just what is needed. However sometimes children can and do need to do more to repair the emotional damage such as helping another clean up a mess, writing an apology letter or paying more attention to the other’s needs.

Though it can get our blood boiling again, allow for a child to “save face.” Sometimes children will need to feel like they can retain some power despite the fact that they know the adult has the power in the situation. Often children will mutter under their breath in disgust or use another quick nonverbal (a “dirty” look) as the adult is talking to them, giving a logical consequence and moving on. Allow this. If you call it out, it will escalate into a greater issue. Be aware that this is just the child’s recognition that the adult is in control of the situation and they aren’t happy about it.

Simply realizing that your child’s anger is likely a mask for other emotions can allow you to have greater empathy and patience when she is pressing your buttons or unleashing rage. Help her handle the emotion first by allowing for its constructive expression, calming down and then, exploring what is really going on. What is at the heart of the issue? When you do that, you can be better equipped and more informed next time to make sure that your child’s emotional needs are met and maybe the rumble won’t need to turn into a roar.


[i] Dougherty, E. When emotional brakes fail; Depression and anger often go hand in hand. Retrieved from http://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/anger-management on 2/3/14.

[ii] American Psychological Association. What is anger? Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx# on 2/5/14.

Be True to Your School

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Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: The moment one definitely commits oneself,…all sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

–          W.N. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Yesterday I had the honor of meeting with thirty national and Ohio education and positive youth development experts to begin the process of developing standards for K-3 educators in the areas of social and emotional development, approaches to learning and physical development. The facilitator confessed, “I stand up here terrified because I know we are about to do something very important.” These standards will be used in the state of Ohio to support teachers in creating better learning environments, integrating social and emotional skills in the academic curriculum and promoting healthy habits for life. Those gathered expressed similar sentiments about their belief in the power of schools to change the world for the better. Conversely years ago, I remember working with a school community and having a conversation with a parent at a community center. Her confession was the flip side of that same coin. “I have to admit, I get sweaty palms when I even get near a school. My kids take the bus and I avoid it.” “You don’t go to parent-teacher conferences?” I asked gently. “No they aren’t required so I don’t go.” Whether positive or negative, there tend to be strong emotions associated with schools. Because we have all spent a significant amount of our childhoods in schools, we have a whole backlog of experiences that have informed our opinions and feelings. The woman who stayed away must have had some pretty negative school experiences. Regardless of whether you possess a warm glow when school is mentioned or feel like you want to run in the other direction, most parents want to support their children in being successful in their respective school environments. Showing your commitment to supporting their school experience can go a long way toward demonstrating your confidence in their abilities to succeed in school.

If you are a full-time parent or work part-time as I do, you may have the chance to volunteer during the school day to show your support. However most busy mothers and fathers have to find other ways.  How do we keep in touch with what is going on? What can you do at home to be supportive? The following are some ideas for simple ways to show your support and play a role in contributing to your child’s school success.

Commit to the basics. Get your child to bed on time consistently. You know that they have not had enough sleep if they have a difficult time getting out of bed in the morning or are tired throughout the day. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 15 million American children do not get enough sleep each night. Children at 5 years old typically require 11.1 hours and 13 year olds require 9 hours. Adolescents may need more sleep requiring 10 hours between the ages of 14-18 years.[i]  A lack of sleep prevents a child from performing well at school. It requires a commitment from your family but getting children to bed on time can be a significant contribution to their ability to learn.  Also ensuring your children have a healthy breakfast before they leave the house each morning is an easy way to contribute to a child’s health and preparedness for school. Make sure that protein is a part of whatever you serve so that your child is well fueled for learning. For great ideas on fast, healthy breakfasts that are balanced and include a dose of protein to prepare your child’s brain and body for learning, check out Table 365, a site devoted to making feeding a family easier.

Articulate your commitment (and avoid talking negatively about school). You may not like the way your child’s teacher is speaking to students. You may think an assignment is ridiculous. You may think your child gets picked on by his teacher. Yet, you also want your child to succeed in school. Talking negatively about a teacher, a principal or activities related to school can send a confusing message to a child. Particularly if criticisms are relayed with passion, your child is going to embrace your way of thinking and could translate that passionate criticism to other aspects of school. Sometimes it takes great restraint when you don’t like what is going on. But save the criticisms for times when you are with your partner alone and the children have gone to bed. And certainly if there are serious concerns to raise, engage in direct discussions with teachers and administrators. But articulate your commitment to the school, your children’s teachers and classmates as much as possible so that they too can make the commitment to being successful in that environment with those individuals. Invest in relationships with classmates’ families and with school staff and your children will be able to trust that they are in a supportive environment each day.

Support homework. Does your child have a clean, clear space that is designated for homework each night? Is it near you so that while you are cooking dinner or taking care of other children you are nearby to offer support when needed? Is there good lighting so that your child can see well? Are basic tools easily accessible (paper, pencil, pen, scissors, glue stick)? Creating a consistent space and time for your child to work on homework creates a routine that is expected. The routine promotes accountability as well. There typically is not much time in an evening to get homework accomplished. Find a time with your children’s input when tummies are full and they seem the most receptive to getting homework accomplished.

Keep up with what’s going on. Do you know what’s going on during the day? Often the response when we ask E what he did during the school day is “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember.” Are there mechanisms in place for keeping posted on school assignments and major themes? Some schools use weekly folders. Check those daily to find out what is expected for homework. Many schools now have an online space to communicate updates. Stay in touch that way. If those opportunities do not exist, ask teachers what they would suggest for staying in touch with the themes and content being taught. And certainly parent-teacher conferences are an important opportunity to make a connection with your child’s teacher.

Make dialogue easy and safe. Though a direct question like, “What did you do today?” may not get much of a response from a child, there are ways to get more information. Kids typically are trying to relax after school as we attempt to pump them for information about their day. Give them time to wind down. At dinner or later, start into a conversation about school concerning your thoughts, feelings and questions but do not pose them directly to your children. See if they don’t just chime in. “We used to make mailboxes around Valentine’s Day and bring Valentines for each classmate. I wonder if they do that at your school?” Casual wondering on your part may invite and make it safe for conversation to take place without your child feeling put on the spot.

Sing, read and discuss. Singing, rhyming, discussing ideas and reading with your child may seem nice but not really important. However research has actually demonstrated that it can mean the difference between school success or failure. Dr. Roger Farr, a former president of the International Reading Association and author and researcher on literacy and language goes so far as to say, “The size of a student’s vocabulary is the single best predictor of success on state tests.”[ii] Children who live in homes in which they are regularly read to, in which they sing or rhyme together, in which they discuss ideas over and above communicating logistics and other “business talk,” have twice the size of the vocabulary as their counterparts who do not have language and song rich environments at home. An expanded vocabulary allows for greater reading comprehension and the ability to learn through school texts throughout the preK-12 experience. Conversely, a study that tracked interactions between parents and infants showed that four years olds who received less interaction and reading entered preschool a full two years behind counterparts who received a high level of reading and interaction in their home life.[iii]

Seek support. You really don’t have to study trigonometry yourself. Who has the time? If your child is struggling with a particular subject, talk to her teacher. Ask for school supports or get a referral for a tutor. This help may only be needed temporarily to get through one particularly challenging unit. In addition, all families go through high stress periods of time. Maybe you are moving or a family member has been moved into hospice care? Consider asking your school if they might refer you to a child or family counselor who can help talk through those stresses with your child. Seek additional support if and when it’s needed and your child will understand that there are community resources that can help you get through some of the more challenging times.

Your commitment to supporting your child at home after school and on weekends in ways that will contribute to his success during each school day will only reinforce your child’s willingness to work hard and demonstrate his own commitment to learning.


[i] Smaldone, A., Honig, J.C. & Byrne, M.W. (2007). Sleepless in America: Inadequate Sleep and Relationships to Health and Well-being of Our Nation’s Children. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics: 119, S29-S37. Retrieved on 1/31/14 at

Boundaries

boundaries image 001Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.


Brene Brown

Boundary lines define the playing field. They outline the perimeter and if you step outside, you are, at least temporarily, out of the game. Emotional boundaries operate in the same way. They are the rules of engagement and often, they are disguised or unspoken. Our sense of emotional boundaries can be established by a combination of our culture, religion or belief system, community and our own upbringing.  As a result, it can be a tricky terrain for adults and children to navigate. Trickier still, each environment we enter and each person we encounter has a different set of boundary lines. At Karen’s house, it’s “inside voices” only. In the first grade classroom, we raise our hands before we speak. At home, no one leaves the dinner table until the last person is finished. Children need to learn how to navigate through various environments and relationships with awareness and adjust their behaviors accordingly. Becoming sensitive to boundary lines raises children’s social awareness and ability to adapt to a variety of environments and situations. They can be more adept in relationships because they have more information about how to be respectful.

I often tell E, “You are the boss of you.” He loves hearing it. And I’ve seen surprised reactions from other adults when I’ve said it. I get a look akin to, what happened to “When you are under my roof, you play by my rules?” These two principles are not in conflict. Children are the boss of their own behavioral choices. They are in charge of their body and how they use it. And with that great power comes great responsibility. Encouraging their awareness of their own control and ability to make decisions helps them exercise their self-regulatory skills. If they have regular opportunities for practice in their own boundary setting, they will be prepared to respond when faced with ethical questions or inappropriate boundary crossing with peers or adults when you are not with them. And in your household, your family’s boundary lines can become internalized and understood by all so that your child makes decisions using those lines as a consistent guide.

As kids grow older, they will most certainly be challenged by emotional boundaries with their peers. They will face questions such as, “How much is acceptable to share on Facebook or other social media? How much information do I share with others when there are serious family problems at home? When does a comment from a classmate become a serious threat to safety? What is considered cheating and how far should I go to get a good grade?” Creating opportunities to discuss and become more aware of boundary lines throughout childhood will provide that chance for practice. This practice is central to the development of emotional intelligence, or the “expression of emotion, the regulation of emotion in the self and others, and the utilization of emotional context in problem solving.”[i]

In Rules in School,[ii] one of the co-authors writes about an experiment conducted in her household when she was a child. The children in the family knew the rule of cleaning up after themselves but weren’t adhering to it. They didn’t care. It was too much trouble to take dirty dishes to the kitchen or put toys away. And so her parents decided to remove the rule. And as a result, the kids left the dirty dishes on the table and the toys in the middle of floor. No clean up. The parents remained calm over six days of the accumulating mess. The kids began to feel stressed and chaotic until they couldn’t stand it anymore and worked hard to clean up. Because they had directly experienced the consequences of the absence of the rule, they internalized the meaning and importance and from then on took the rule to heart. Though this experiment is not always possible (or tolerable for parents!), it is possible to promote ownership over rules and boundaries in a household.

Raise your awareness of your sense of and sensitivity to boundaries. Do you feel taken advantage of by others? Do you feel someone has not respected you and your values? If so, then have you constructively shared those feelings and perspectives with the other person to articulate your own boundaries? The toughest work in becoming the parent we want to be is the work on our own emotional intelligence. Yet, we know that the modeling we do is more instructive than a thousand lectures. Take a moment to write down your own feelings of violation and ask how you’ve dealt with them. Have you communicated in a way that owns your feelings and perceptions? Have you clearly communicated your defining lines so that the other person knows the rules of interaction with you?

Involve your children in discussing, setting and understanding the rules of the household. Though we know that “because I said so” is no longer a parenting strategy that works, what takes it place? Lectures or long explanations to help children understand the meaning of a rule often fall on deaf ears. Neither strategy promotes the child’s ability to practice self-regulation. Beginning with questions can help a child consider the possibilities themselves and help you understand what their perceptions are. These questions can emerge from the goals and desires the child holds dear. For example, “I know you love your train sets. How do you think we can keep them safe when you are not playing with them?” “What if Dad walks through the living room with a snack in his hand and doesn’t look down and steps on your train?” Wait patiently for a child’s response. Allow them to do some thinking about the rules and household safety. Even if what they comment on is not exactly on target, they are thinking about it and trying to answer your questions. Talking through possible consequences can help them practice thinking ahead to the logical outcomes of an action or inaction.

Open and facilitate ongoing dialogue about where to draw boundaries lines in order to help your children understand their ever changing world. Maintaining a trusting connection with your child is critical in keeping these lines of communication open. Invite discussion about ethical dilemmas and challenging situations in a non-judgmental way without providing ready answers. “I’ve been hearing about kids sharing pictures of themselves online. What do you think about that? Where might you draw the line on what is appropriate and what is not?” Give your son or daughter a chance to think through the question. He may not respond to you in that moment. Let it hang in the air. Give him a chance to reflect and come back to you another time if needed. Raise the question and then create the safe space for a dialogue to occur.

Create safe boundary lines at home. It’s not surprising that a child that is uncomfortable with the boundary lines at home will have a much more challenging time understanding and respecting boundary lines at school or in the community. Sometimes our awareness of this is raised by watching our child struggle with school relationships. Discuss your own emotional boundaries at home. You will know when boundary lines have been crossed because family members will be upset and feel disrespected. Because boundary lines are different for each individual, defining the lines in a family means communicating about how each family member can feel respected whenever a problem occurs.

Understanding what a child is dealing with developmentally can help a parent listen and act with greater empathy. I have summarized the following developmental points related to boundaries and rules from the book, Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14[iii] by Chip Wood, an outstanding resource for understanding the typical developmental trajectory of a child.

Emotional Boundary and Rule Understanding by Age/Developmental Level:

Preschoolers –

Want to know, “Who’s the boss?” Feel safe and comfortable with consistent routines. They are working on understanding the rules. It may be enough to say, “It’s the rule” particularly if it’s part of a consistent routine.

Kindergarten and Early Elementary –

Experience a whole new level of rules and expectations so work hard to grasp the new rules. May talk about rules often. May also “tattle” on another child who is breaking the rules. In these cases, remember that a child helping to enforce a rule with another child is their way of internalizing and understanding that rule.

Middle Elementary –

Are increasingly interested in logic, natural laws and how the world works. May become interested in issues of fairness and argue for fairness and justice.

Middle School Age –

Interested in and developing an ability for deductive reasoning and mathematical problem solving. They have a strong desire to test limits and rules. “Saving face” or maintaining a sense of respect is very important. They are highly aware of their social image. Children need access to trusting adults who will discuss important and serious social issues such as drugs, alcohol, sex, disease, violence and family problems.

High School Age –

Are eager to examine greater social issues and justice and fairness. Feelings can be easily hurt. Peer influence is of great importance and can create a high level of anxiety. Young adults can grapple with cause and effect but do not have a fully established logical brain yet. They are fighting to define their own identity but also crave trusted adult connections.

Particularly when a friendship is at stake and more importantly, a child feelings of self-worth, it takes great courage to speak up and draw the boundaries necessary to maintain a healthy relationship. But with practice, your children will be ready.


[i] Mayer, J.D., & Salovey, P.  (1993). The Intelligence of Emotional Intelligence. Intelligence, 17, 433-442.

[ii] Brady, K., Forton, M.B. & Porter, D. (2010). Rules in Schools; Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom. Turners Falls, MA; Northeast Foundation for Children.

[iii] Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks; Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14 (3rd Ed.) Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Simple Ways to Honor the Value of Service and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

What would the world be like if we all held a dream for peace, equality and service? And more importantly, what if we lived that dream as a part of our day-to-day humble routines? Monday, January 20th, we honor a man we admire for his incredible character and ability to live his beliefs despite tremendous social pressure. As we learn better ways to create a supportive environment for the character development of our children, he serves as a role model. Take advantage in the coming days to learn a bit about his life with your children.

Because Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man not only of strong beliefs and powerful words, but also of meaningful action, one way to honor his legacy is by cultivating a I help other by...sense of service and contribution in your home life. Encourage helping behaviors. Use the language of service with your children. For example, we placed this statement, “I help by…” in our kitchen. Even the youngest child can search for ways that he or she can contribute if given the chance and guidance. Regular, simple and accessible ways to help at home can plant the seeds early in life of a heart and mind that understands the value of service.

If you want to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, I’ve listed some of the books that come highly recommended for each age level including adults.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. by Jean Marzollo

Appropriate for ages 4-8 years old

(2006) NY, NY: Scholastic Books.

DK Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr.  by Amy Pastan

Appropriate for ages 5-12 years old

(2004) NY, NY: DK Publishing.

…If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Ellen Levine and Beth Peck

Appropriate for 7-12 year olds

(1994) Scholastic Books

A Time to Break the Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King Jr., for Students by Martin Luther King, Jr. with an introduction by Walter Dean Meyers

Appropriate for young adults

(2013) Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties by Harris Wofford

Appropriate for adults only

(1980) Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

This is an older book but a highly worthwhile read. It was a great honor to work for Senator Wofford at the Corporation for National and Community Service in the early nineties. He wrote this book not from the sidelines but as a key player in the nonviolence movement and one of the senior leaders under President Kennedy who helped found the Peace Corps.  Powerful!

* Art is by my son, E. Miller

Critical Conversations

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The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.  

–  John F. Kennedy

When E was between the ages of two and three, he adopted the very developmentally appropriate habit of running away from me. He thought it was hilarious. I thought it was downright dangerous. The first few times it happened, I envisioned a similar scenario by the road or a steep staircase in which he would take off running on his wobbly, not yet confident feet.  When I moved toward him with an impassioned “Stop! Don’t go there!” he moved in the direction I was moving – toward the dreaded danger – not away from it. After a fall down our staircase (it’s a miracle kids survive these ordeals!), I reflected on how I needed to change what I was doing. After all, it was a critical moment and I was not responding in a way that changed his behavior. And so I stopped and thought about how I could change my behavior in order to change his.

Skip ahead to your tween-age eighth grade daughter whose best friend has been trying to get her to cheat on math tests. Your daughter is crying about not wanting to lose her best friend and also not get in trouble at school and while you comfort her, you try and figure out the right thing to say.

Fast forward one more time to your fifteen year old son who has been repeatedly threatened by a group of other boys walking home from school. Though it’s been going on for some time, this is the first time you are hearing about it and you fear for his safety.

Whether we are communicating with a preschooler, a fifth grader or a teenager, it helps to think through how to have an open dialogue when those important moments strike. The New York Times Bestselling book, Crucial Conversations; Tools for Talking when Stakes are High[i] gives significant insight into how to think about and handle those conversations to move toward collaborative problem solving even when the moment turns intensely heated. The authors (Patterson et al., 2002) of Crucial Conversations claim that the people they’ve observed that are effective at opening up dialogue in those critical moments are those who create a safe space to share personal visions and contribute to shared meaning. In that space, they make it possible to “solve the problem and build relationships.”

The writers describe dialogue as “a pool of shared meaning.” Those who are effective in high stakes conversations contribute to the pool of shared meaning and open it for pool of shared meaning venn diagram 001others versus typical fight or flight responses like using aggressive language, trying to cram one’s own agenda into a conversation or employing the “silent treatment.”  I’ve taken some of the book’s most important steps for “crucial conversations” and added my own developmental spin for parents who are talking to children. In addition to the steps below, the book is well worth reading for any critical conversations in your life.  The skills involved are not some magical blend of personality and temperament. They are indeed learnable skills. Try the following the next time you are in a critical conversation.

Pause a moment and calm down. Your emotions, whether you are aware of it or not, will be mirrored in your child so take a moment to breathe before proceeding. That short centering pause could mean the difference in your child listening or shutting down.

Move to eye level. For most of us with children, that means sitting or kneeling down at a child’s level. In the case of a teenage son, that might mean sitting so that his taller presence is more on level with your own.

Be direct.  With little ones (toddler through early elementary), use as few words as possible. In the example of a toddler running away, back up to create space for him to run forward instead of away.  You might get down on her level and say, “Danger. Follow me.” Beckon to follow and move away from the street or staircase. (Don’t turn it into a chasing game which only fuels the fun and excitement of that developmental desire for independence and boundary testing.)

“Start with the heart.” (Patterson et al., 2002) Voice your genuine concerns in the situation. “You know I want to make sure you are safe but I also know it’s important to you that you have the independence of walking home with your friends from school.” Own your role in the situation since you are the only one you can control. “I know at times I seem overprotective but my goal is just to work with you so that both of us feel you are proceeding safely.”

Articulate “mutual purpose.” (Patterson et al., 2002) Your daughter is focused on her friendship and the fear of losing it. You are focused on her academic performance and integrity. But finding and articulating your mutual purpose will help you find a common ground from which you can seek solutions together. In this case, your mutual purpose could be to help her sustain friendships and be successful in school while playing by school rules. Patterson et al. (2002) write that those skilled in facilitating dialogue do not see “either/ors” but find an “and” in any situation. Explain that she does not have to choose between friendship or integrity. But how can she find a way to maintain both?

Show “mutual respect.” (Patterson et al., 2002) Children will retreat and not be open to a conversation in which they feel a sense of blame from you. “YOU didn’t do your homework! We need to talk about this.” And your child shuts down. And it may take a while before you can reasonably revisit the conversation and get anywhere with it. If you see your child is not listening or backing away, they are likely not feeling respected. Address it directly. “I trust your good judgment. I know you are a good student as evidenced by all of your hard work in the past year. I just want to help you through a difficult situation. I think if we work together, we can come up with a solution that you’ll be happy with.”

Offer the “contrasting” view. (Patterson et al., 2002) Sometimes you need to say what is not true or not your purpose in order to allay any fears on the part of your child. Often in challenging, emotionally charged situations, our minds create a more inflated story than is the actual reality. In fact, teenagers are known for this trait. Saying what the situation is not will help eliminate those worries. “I’m not saying that your friendship is not important. I absolutely know it is. I like Cynthia. But I think she will still be your friend and may even respect you more if you make a choice that is good for you and her.”

Return to “safety.” (Patterson et al., 2002) If at any point during your important conversation, you see you are losing your audience – your child is losing focus, looking away or getting defensive -, focus solely on safety. They are feeling a lack of respect. They are feeling misunderstand or blamed and are pulling out of the “pool of shared meaning.” Quickly create safety by articulating their competence, autonomy and belonging – their ability and track record of making good choices. “When you were faced with a backlog of homework last year, I know that was so hard for you. But you took the challenge head on, worked hard and got through it. I know you can do it because you have already shown you can.”

Critical conversations are a tough challenge for everyone. But take just one of these practices and try to use it. Replay it in your head. And bring it forth when you have a chance. Try it out on your spouse. Maybe there is a lower risk situation in which you can get some practice. As you do, the strategies will feel right and more natural to you so that you will be able to regularly use these skills in critical moments. Being a skilled dialogue facilitator can mean the difference in successful problem solving at work and at home. And aren’t these the moments that help define and model character for your child?


[i] Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations; Tools for talking when stakes are high. NY: McGraw-Hill.

“If…,” A Video Game that Teaches Social and Emotional Skills

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Confident Parents, Confident Kids author Jennifer Miller has written the first blog article for a brand new video game being developed by gaming pioneer Trip Hawkins (founder of Electronic Arts) and Chief Learning Officer and Co-founder Jessica Berlinski formerly of GameDesk and Character Counts. Slated for launching in late January, this game entitled “If…” will teach social and emotional skills through cat and dog avatars. Children will be encouraged to practice the skills their characters are learning such as deep breathing when they are frustrated or angry. Check out the full article, “The Time Has Come for If…” about this new adventure series.

New Year’s Reflections

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We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.

–          John Dewey

January is always a time in which my family and I reflect on the past year and dream about our hopes for the future. We try and step back and look at the big picture before diving into our specific plans or organizing projects. Why not make it a time for you to reflect specifically on your role as a parent? Sometimes it helps me to have specific questions to lead my thinking. The following series provides an opportunity to guide yourself through a thought process in order to reflect on the past and look toward the future.

What gives you the greatest sense of meaning in your life (this does not have to be parenting!)?

When you think of the person who has made the strongest positive impact on your life, why do you believe he or she has had such a powerful influence?

Who do you admire (living, dead, celebrity or a real presence in your life)? What qualities do they possess? What values do they live?

What are your personal gifts and talents? What do you do best?

When do you feel the greatest sense of satisfaction with your life?

What gives you joy?

How are you continuing to learn and develop yourself? In what areas do you want to learn and grow? Where do you seek support and access opportunities for learning?

What kind of person do you want to be?

What drains your energy the most?

What challenges you the most – in life? In parenting?

What supports do you have or could you consider putting in place that might help you with those challenges?

What are your greatest strengths as a parent?  What do you do really well with/for your children/family?

How are you connecting with your partner? Do you feel you have quality time together? What kind of time do you most enjoy spending with him/her? How can you make that time happen in the coming year?

How are you connecting with your children? Do you feel you have quality time together? What kind of time do you most enjoy spending with them? How can you devote that kind of time in the coming year?

What positive experiences in your own childhood shaped you as a parent?

What experiences in your own childhood are you trying not to repeat as a parent? These are values, strategies or ways of being that you do not want for your children and are purposely trying not to replicate.

Are any of your experiences from childhood serving as a barrier to you being the best you can be as a parent? If so, what are some ways you can deal with them to support yourself and allow for new strategies to take the place of old ones?

How do you define your purpose as an individual? How does your purpose fit with your role as a parent?

How do you incorporate your gifts, talents, joys and sense of meaning into your daily life? How do you incorporate them into your role as a parent? Are there additional ways you could bring those aspects of who you are into your parenting?

How are you modeling and teaching your values as a family to your children?

Considering your reflections on the questions above, which most compels you to action? How would you most like to improve? Set one goal for the new year that is measurable, specific and achievable. Ask, “How will I know that I have accomplished my goal at the end of the coming year?” In addition, make sure you have identified how the implementation of your goal will be supported by your family members and through your daily routines.

I look forward to another year of learning and growing together through our dialogue on parenting and children’s social and emotional development. Happy New Year!

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