In Appreciation of Teachers

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A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

 —Henry Brooks Adams

Sending out my appreciation to all teachers today on Teacher Appreciation Day. If you as teachers do not hear each and every day that you are appreciated, it is not enough. We entrust nothing less than our children’s learning to you each day. Thank you for all that you do! And I want to especially send out appreciation for my first teachers, Mom and Dad (who are still teaching me).

In-between Here and There

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Long ago, but not so very long ago
The world was different, oh yes it was

Time goes by, time brings changes, you change, too
Nothing comes that you can’t handle, so on you go

–       Our Town from the Cars movie, by James Taylor[i]

These words were sung in my house yesterday by my soulful five year old, with a passion that might come from the life experience of a forty year old who has seen hard times. I thought how strange it was that he would pick the somewhat sad and reflective song from his beloved movie, Cars[ii], versus some of the more popular, upbeat songs. My husband reminded me, “This is how he’s feeling these days.” Moving from his current preschool to Kindergarten is his impending world change. Sometimes it feels as if life is one big transition. You are starting a new job or business venture. Your spouse is working on a degree. Your son is taking up the trumpet or beginning a baseball league. Your daughter is entering puberty. Transitions abound. And though sometimes the new seems exciting, the changes can also be scary, frustrating and stressful.

There is an entire line of inquiry devoted to the topic of transitions in the early childhood years for the very reason that there are so many that occur in a young child’s life. They experience both vertical transitions, like graduating from preschool and moving on to kindergarten as my son is about to do and horizontal transitions, like moving from different settings each day from home, to preschool, to the sitters, to gymnastics and back home. And so throughout childhood and adolescence, physical, psychological and environmental changes are nearly constant.

Listening seems to be one key to understanding the kind of support people need in going through a transition. Studies have found that children’s perceptions of what kind of support they need to make major or minor transitions differ significantly from adult’s perceptions.[iii] As is true with parenting in general, there is no one single best approach. However sociocultural research points to the importance of parents being involved nonetheless. I asked my own son the following and tried to listen carefully.

“How are you feeling about moving from your preschool to kindergarten in the fall?”

“I don’t want to go. I just want to stay at my school,” E responded.

And when I asked what we could do together to help make the move from one school to the next more fun and enjoyable, he said, “Nothing.” And so it’s not a simple process to ask questions and listen to the response and then do what your child suggests they need. But when facing a major transition, there are a few ways that you can offer support to those in the transition. Though the ideas for the most part are geared for children, these suggestions could apply to any age.

Raise your awareness.

First, just having a greater awareness of the fact that a transition is taking place and that it’s likely stressful on the participant will give you greater empathy for them. After five years of a whole school change initiative I was facilitating in which an elementary school moved from failing to achieving through much dedication, collaboration and hard work, the district decided to close down the school because it was an old facility. Teachers were let go and had to apply to new positions in other schools. We gave each teacher the gift of the book, Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes.[iv] It is an exceptional resource for any person struggling with a transition. In it William Bridges, the author, explains that in every transition there is a death first – a letting go of the old way of thinking, being or doing. The one in the midst of change must let go of the old in order to embrace the new. Sometimes there are no physical manifestations of the change but only internal differences as in a new understanding. In situations that are supposed to be joyful like having a baby, it’s not socially acceptable to mourn the loss of time with your partner or life before baby but nonetheless it’s a part of the transition. Being aware that there’s a mourning process taking place with your child – moving from one school to another or even leaving a beloved teacher – will give you greater empathy for what you child is experiencing.

Create a ritual or rite of passage.

Somewhere in our backyard is a pacifier lovingly placed in a box and buried in the dirt. E and I had a ceremony to say goodbye to the pacifier when it was time to move on. That experience helped E break the pacifier habit for good and in a way that emotionally supported his transition. When I quit a job that left me feeling disenchanted and depleted, I wrote down all of my frustrations and burned them up in the fireplace. Creating an event to recognize or symbolize the passing away of the old and the passageway to the new can help a person commit to a new path and let go of the old.

If your children are school age, they may be coming to the end of their school year. Why not offer some opportunity for reflection on their year? Some teachers go over the assignments and work produced throughout the year with students to see progress made but this does not happen enough in my estimation. Why not do that at home? Get out the artwork produced, homework completed and papers returned and take a look at all the learning that has taken place throughout the year. Celebrate in some small way with your family (a picnic, special dessert, trip to a favorite park?).

Embrace the in-between.

That place in-between when you’ve let go of the old but have not yet begun the new can be incredibly uncomfortable. We are anxious for the new to begin. After all, we’ve committed to letting go of the past. Sometimes we will even make choices that will escalate the change so that the uncomfortable nothingness of the in-between passes quickly. In the neutral zone, as Bridges calls it, is the optimal time for quiet reflection on what has passed and also on hopes and dreams for the future. Who do you want to become? Children could take advantage of this opportunity with a little guidance each summer since every new school year is an opportunity, a new chance. Provide opportunities for reflection by modeling your own reflection – talking aloud or to your family about your thoughts. Allow children to be reflective by asking questions that do not require answers but only their private thoughts. Allow the questions to hang in the air without expecting a response. You may be surprised as a day or week goes by and a response comes back to you when they have had the chance to really think about their desires for their next step.

Pave the way for the new.

When developmental changes occur, people do not leave the old behind or throw it away. The past stages are built upon and cumulative so that the ways of the infant, toddler, preschooler and beyond are always a part of who they are. If I get frustrated with my son when he has a moment of acting like he might have when he was a toddler, I have to remind myself that the toddler is still in there and a part of him. Sometimes children need reminding that what they are leaving behind is not gone forever. We can go visit a favorite teacher next year and see how she is doing. We can play that old cd from music class and relive the memories. Paving the way for the new means offering ways to stay connected to the old and then focusing on new opportunities. Unknown friends and teachers might seem scary. But going into that new environment before it’s time for school to begin can ease the transition. If it’s in your control, think about ways you can gently introduce the new. Is there a children’s book on the topic you could read and talk about together? Are there other kids you could hang out with who have experienced the new situation and could share their impressions? Any safe, “toe in the water” experiences with the new can help your child feel more comfortable.

Returning from the in-between or reflection stage of a transition ultimately “… brings us back to ourselves and involves a reintegration of our new identity with elements of our old one.… Inwardly and outwardly, one comes home,” writes Bridges. Helping children through the uncertainty and fear of the new and unknown can allow them to explore their new direction with excitement, wonder and hope.


[i] Taylor, J. (2006). Our town. On Cars Soundtrack. Los Angeles,CA: Walt Disney Records, Pixar.

[ii] Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar (Producer), & Lasseter, J., & Ranft, J. et al. (Writer, Director). (2006). Cars (Motion Picture). United States: Walt Disney Pictures.

[iii] Vogler, P., Crivello, G., & Woodhead, M. (2008). Early childhood transitions research: A review of concepts, theory and practice. The Hague, The Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

[iv] Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions; Making sense of life’s changes. (2nd. Ed.) Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.


Working It Out

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Try to see it my way, only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong

While you see it your way, there’s a chance that we may fall apart before too long.

We can work it out.

We can work it out.

–          We Can Work It Out, The Beatles[i]

If you are a parent of multiple children or watch your kids play with friends, you know that there are likely plenty of opportunities for conflicts to arise. When arguments occur, you might be called upon for help as I was earlier this week. “Mrs. Miller,” called my son’s friend Jake. “E isn’t sharing!” What do you typically do in those situations? “Take turns.” or “You need to share.” you might say. You may just solve the problem for them but then you will likely be called upon again and again to solve other issues. On the other hand you might say, “You guys need to work it out.” placing the responsibility with them. Though giving them a chance to solve their own problems, that response does not give them any new tools, guidance or support in developing their own workable solutions. It’s likely that they will not resolve the issue and either move on without resolution or not play together because of the upset. Problem solving with children takes skill and practice and help from parents.

Why not improve your own ability to skillfully guide children through a problem solving process so that when you are inevitably called upon, you can proceed with confidence? You will be teaching children skills that they can use when you are not around to problem solve for them. This can be a very complex process but it does not have to be. I’ve simplified the steps so that if you are in the midst of a play situation, you can act as a skilled facilitator and move through the process rather quickly.

Step One. Calm down. Ask both children to “breathe” and guide them to a nearby but somewhat private location to sit and talk.

Step Two. Take turns communicating the problem and their feelings. Tell the children you will take turns asking them to tell each other what happened. When one is talking, the other one must listen. Children may use feeling words but if they don’t, be sure and ask them directly what they are feeling.

Parent: “We are going to take turns talking about the problem and listening to each other. You will both get a turn to talk. Let’s begin with Harvey.”

“Harvey, what’s the matter?”

Harvey: “I just wanted to play in the clubhouse but…”

Susan interrupts: “He wouldn’t say the password!”

Parent (calmly): “Susan, I realize it’s difficult to wait but you will have your turn. Right now, Harvey is telling us the problem and you are listening. Harvey, please tell us what’s wrong.”

Harvey: “I wanted to play in the clubhouse but Susan wouldn’t let me in.”

Parent: “How does that make you feel?”

Harvey: “Mad!”

Parent: “Okay, Susan, it’s your turn. What’s the matter?”

Susan: “Everyone who wants to come into my clubhouse must say the password or else they can’t come in. It’s the rule! Harvey wouldn’t say it.”

Parent: “How do you feel about that?”

Susan: “Mad.”

Step Three. Generate ideas. Let children know that you want to hear all of their ideas and they need to be open to and listen to each other’s ideas without criticizing them.

Parent: “What ideas can you come up with to resolve this problem so that you both feel better?”

Harvey: “I could walk in without the password.”

Susan: “Nope!”

Parent: “Susan, remember we are listening to all ideas. What idea do you have?”

Susan: “Harvey and I could agree on a new password together.”

Harvey: “I could do that.”

Step Four. Try it out. If the children find an idea they can both agree to try, then let them go and try it. If they try it out and it doesn’t work, then sit back down and revisit the ideas and generate more that they think might work for both of them.

Step Five. Reflect. If they have resumed playing and seemed to have resolved the issue, ask when you are leaving, “How did it work out?” “Was the idea successful?” “Would you want to try and problem solve again?” “What would you do differently next time?” This step helps children realize that they have gone through a problem solving process and helps them think through how they have done it and how they could use it in the future. If they have learned a new skill or process through the experience, the reflection will help them internalize and remember it for future incidences.

If problems occur during the problem solving process, what might you do? What if a child calls the other a name? What if one child won’t listen? You can only be successful if the children follow your rules, so go over the rules of the problem solving process again. Let them both know what you expect from them. Respect for themselves and respect for one another means using appropriate language and listening when it’s your turn to listen. There could be times when the conflict is so heated that it cannot be quickly resolved in the moment. Parties need to separate and have time for cool down before trying to do any problem solving.

Find opportunities to practice this skill when there’s a minor problem to give yourself the opportunity to practice problem solving facilitation. As you become more experienced, the process with children will become easier for you and more effective for all. It may take additional time while you are supervising children, time that is precious. But imagine after taking that time with your child and her playmates to facilitate problem solving, watching a future conflict in which they themselves choose to go sit down and work it out together. Now fast forward to conflicts in a marriage or in the workplace and think about how your child will be able to apply those same skills. Those thoughts may encourage you to take the time to try this process out the next time a minor conflict arises.


Dinwiddie, Sue. I want it my way! Problem-solving techniques with children two to eight.

For educators: Crowe, C. (2009). Solving thorny behavior problems; How to teachers and students can work together. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.


[i] Lennon, J., McCartney, P. (1965). We can work it out. On Day Tripper [Record]. LA: Capitol Records.

In Praise of Specificity

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The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.

–       John Ruskin 

How does praise – the expression of a favorable judgment[i]  – fit with raising a confident child? Is it good or bad? Is there such a thing as too much or too little? My mother, for example, was a child who was never told by her parents that she did anything well. And she recalls wondering what she really excelled in because she never received positive feedback. My Dad, on the other hand, claims that he heard positive feedback all of the time. “Good job” was often heard even when deep down he knew he didn’t deserve it or it wasn’t his best effort. He too recalls wondering what he really excelled in and instead had to figure it out through feedback from peers and teachers. We all have our own habits of speaking to our children that likely include a show of appreciation for them. So how do we use positive remarks to promote a kid’s sense of well-being, self-awareness and competence without taking away their intrinsic motivation and desire to learn?

First, children do need to hear appreciative statements of the ways that they contribute and how the specific actions they take demonstrate skill or kindness. The article last week on competence articulates that it’s critical in order for children to develop a sense of being capable. And children who hear that they are not approved of feel and internalize those negative statements of disapproval and can lose confidence in their abilities. But so often the use of praise and its effectiveness depends on the goal or intention behind our statement of praise. Is the goal an attempt to manipulate current or future behavior? Is a parent trying to control a sibling’s behavior by highlighting the good behavior of the other child in the family? Is a parent trying to teach something? Is a parent trying to boost a child’s self-esteem? Or is a parent trying to celebrate the success of the moment? Because praise inherently contains a judgment, individuals – even the youngest of children – tend to focus on the judgment not on its positive or negative slant.[ii] “A significant amount of research has found that intrinsic motivation does indeed decline as a result of praise,” writes Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards. Children, searching for opportunities to exert control and self determine who they are going to be typically resist and may even be discouraged by such statements as “Good job!” “Nice work” or “You’re great!”

Children can become dependent on praise to validate who they are if they receive heavy doses and no other kinds of reinforcing language. “Their self-control, initiative, creativity and sense of personal responsibility are ultimately undermined.” In addition, when children are “caught being good” and rewarded for it, they may learn that they only need to take responsibility when an adult is watching. They are not internalizing the values and learning the skills to take responsibility for themselves. Confident kids know their strengths but also have the opportunity to learn and practice social and emotional skills so that they are able to take ownership over those behaviors. So what kind of language is most effective in promoting learning, social and emotional skill development and confidence? The Power of Our Words; Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn[iii] offers some helpful guidelines and I’ve added my own take-aways for parents.

  • Use reinforcing language that is specific. “Your idea about outer space really showed careful thought.”
  • Focus on actions, not the person in general. Instead of “You are so good at soccer!”, you could say “I notice you kept control of the ball all the way down the field.”
  • Be genuine and spontaneous. “It’s great to see you riding your bike for the first time this summer!” is more effective than offering up praise to coax a child into exhibiting a particular behavior such as, “Great job riding your bike.” because you bought them a bike and want them to ride it.
  • Show through your words that you have confidence in their choices, abilities and behaviors. Never use praise to manipulate and control behavior. Instead of saying to Lucy, “See how Marcie does a nice job of putting her shoes in her cubby.”, you could say “You remembered to pick up your shoes and put them in the cubby this time. I appreciate that.” Or “I realize it didn’t happen today, but tomorrow at this time, I know you will work to remember to put your shoes in your cubby.”
  • Use “I notice…” instead of “Good job.” After Jeffrey goes to the dentist, you could say “I noticed you were very brave with the dentist this afternoon.”

Since I tend to be a rampant “Good job-er” myself, the best way for me to remember this practice is to remember to replace it with “I notice…” That language introduction will guide you toward more specific language that is focused on actions instead of a statement that forms a judgment of who a child is. When in doubt, ask yourself “Will my statement show genuine appreciation for the actions of my child?” If so, go for it. If not, you may want to reconsider and allow your child the freedom to create their own judgments of how they are doing and who they are becoming.

[iii] Denton, P. (2007). The power of our words; Teacher language that helps children learn. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

“In times of disaster…look for the caring people”

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

— Mister Rogers

Reposting this message today with words of wisdom from Mister Rogers about all of the caring people in the world. My heart goes out to all those affected by the Boston Marathon explosions including those “helpers” who are working with the injured today.

Cultivating a Sense of Competence

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How can the sun always be on fire? Where does the fire come from?

asks E, my five year old son.

I don’t know, I say. Good question.

Papa Dave will know. He’s tall so he knows everything, asserts E.

–          Conversation at our house last week

At all ages and stages, kids admire and desire competence. Particularly as they enter the middle school years, 10-14, figuring out what they can do and what their interests are establishes the basis for their social and academic life. It can define a friend group and sometimes seals the perception of who a student is with his teachers. Is he a straight “A” student? Does she excel at electronics? Is he a skJason Band Pictureilled soccer player? My husband claims that competence in music in high school band was primarily responsible for pulling him out of the shyness of his middle school years.

One of the most incredible aspects of childhood is that a child can dream about becoming literally just about anything they want to be. Children spend much of their time listening to the adults and children around them reflect back to them who they are. This grows their self-awareness. “Look at you swim. Wow! You’re a fish!” These mirror reflections become what children begin to say about themselves. They are creating who they are. After autonomy and belonging (discussed in the last two articles), the third way people are intrinsically motivated is through a sense of competence.[i] This is not an objective fact, but more a subjective feeling that one is capable and perceived by others as capable.[ii] This motivation is a building block of development itself since children are naturally compelled to learn the ways of “being big” – tying shoes, zipping up a jacket, reciting the alphabet, adding numbers and establishing friendships.

Every kid needs to demonstrate competence. Competence means “adequacy or the possession of required skill, knowledge or qualification.”[iii] Competence is not excellence. In order to be considered competent, for example, a child does not need to be the state champion speller. They could just do well in spelling that week. Children are looking to you, as a parent or educator, to help them understand what they can feel competent in. Here are some thoughts on how you can encourage your child to feel a sense of competence.

Allow for trial and error. Encourage your child to take healthy risks and stand back as they try. If they fail, encourage them to keep practicing. Thomas Edison conducted 9,990 different experiments in order to invent the electric light. Professional baseball players at bat miss more times than they make hits. If a player is missing hits 70% of the time (making hits 30%), he’s considered a leader.

Articulate specific strengths using “I notice…” “I notice that you are carefully looking at that bowl of fruit and are able to draw what you see.” Generic statements won’t help and sometimes too much “good job”-ing can have an opposite effect. Using general praise can actually decrease a child’s intrinsic motivation and self-esteem.[iv]

Appreciate progress. Point out small steps along the way toward mastery. Don’t wait until they can write their entire name in a straight line perfectly or play a full concerto. If they have been working hard and have been able to play one line of music well, call out that first step as progress toward their goal. Not only will you be providing encouragement for them to dig into the work ahead, but also you will be teaching them about how to pursue a long range goal.

Be aware of the messages your actions send. If you step in and perfect something (a drawing, the organization of toys or the building of a block tower) that is your child’s creation, you can inadvertently send the message that what she did is not good enough. Be sure that creations of your children are solely their own creations, messy and imperfect as they may be.


What do you do if your child gets frustrated and upset when trying a new skill? Children can put tremendous pressure on themselves or feel outside pressure bearing down when they are trying to learn a new skill. That kind of pressure will work against their desire to keep trying as they feel a sense of urgency and frustration. Margaret Berry Wilson offers some helpful tips in the article “When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment”[v] and I’ve added on to her suggestions:

  • Stay calm yourself or cool yourself down if you can feel your own temperature gauge rising.
  • Comfort a child who is deeply upset. There will be no moving forward with a child who is truly distressed. Work on calming down the child first. Don’t minimize or try to talk away the upset.
  • Take a break. Get a snack. Take a walk. Change the environment to help cool the frustration.
  • Remind and redirect in a calm voice. Remind your child that it takes time and practice to master a skill. If you can, try out together some other aspect of the skill mastery other than the exact task she was working on when she got frustrated. If she cannot write the letter “R,” practice other letters she can write for a while to regain her sense of accomplishment and ability.
  • Calmly guide your child toward a solution. Ask, “Are there other ways you might try to do this?” or “How many ideas can we come up with to make another attempt?”
  • Break down the task into smaller pieces. Sometimes children try to tackle a much bigger task than they could possibly master in a reasonable timeframe. See if you can’t break down the task into smaller pieces and recognize when those smaller pieces are mastered.
  • Point out what she can do and how she came to master that skill. Parents will sometimes hear an impassioned “I can’t do it. I can’t do it!” After calming down and changing the environment, when you are ready to return to the task, tell her a story about how she mastered a skill in the past that required some practice and patience.

Helping your children cultivate a sense of competence can provide the confidence they need to pursue new goals. It can provide a context for developing friendships. And it can serve as a springboard of resilience as challenges arise and your children have experienced the practice of meeting a challenge with hard work, persistence and the sense of accomplishment that comes with mastery.

For more, check out the classic story with beautiful, updated illustrations and reinforce the idea that with hard work and determination, you can gain a sense of competence.

Piper, Watty. & Long, Loren (Illus.) (2005). The little engine that could. New York: Philomel Books.

[i] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.,+Deci+00.pdf

[ii] Wagner, F.R., & Morse, J.J. (1975). A measure of individual sense of competence. Psychological Reports, 36, 451-459.

[iii] Retrieved April 11, 2013.

[iv] Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

[v] Wilson, M.B. (2013). When children get rattled; How to respond effectively in the moment. In Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More…; Positive Approaches to 10 Common Classroom Behaviors. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

A Fork in the Road

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Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

 –          Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

Parenting in the year 2013 is a great balancing act. We know that the fear based, authoritarian, punishment oriented, “children should be seen and not heard” style of generations past does not promote a kid with confidence. We also have a sense that later generations with the lassez-faire, allowing and permissive, “be who you want to be without boundaries” is not ideal either. We have read about the helicopter parent, overly involved in the decision making and structuring of a child’s life and recognize that it too does not promote a confident child. The “gift of confidence” as Lev Vygotsky[i], developmental psychologist put it, requires adults to provide caring support for healthy risk taking and exploration. It is the responsive parent, the one who balances input with limits, respect with responsibility, independence with inter-dependence who will support the development of confident kids ready to contribute themselves to the world. So how does choice fit in? When should children have a choice or say-so and when should limits and boundaries be set and enforced by caring parents?

The Importance of Choice

Researchers Edward Ryan and Richard Deci who defined the term intrinsic motivation have found that every human being is internally motivated by three perceptions – autonomy, belonging and competence. Last week, we discussed belonging and the value of inclusion. The need for autonomy or self-determination is also critical to a child’s sense of well-being and engagement in learning. “When self-determined, people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important and vitalizing,” write Ryan and Deci.[ii] Alfie Kohn, author of Choices for Children ; Why and How to Let Students Decide,[iii] sites numerous research studies that show significant learning occurs when teachers involve students in decision making in the classroom and give them choices about the academic curriculum. In the schools with which I worked in Toledo, Ohio, teachers learned through the Responsive Classroom approach to give students a framework in which to make academic choices. [iv]Students were involved in planning, implementation and reflection on a unit of learning. With a responsive teacher facilitating, I witnessed a classroom of students who historically struggled and often failed in other, more traditional classrooms in academic tasks but when given choices were highly engaged, motivated and successful learners. Sue Rowe, a master at this method of teaching says,

Providing students with choices in how they demonstrate their competence in any academic pursuit just makes sense. If the student chooses the how or what, they are motivated to be successful. If they are motivated to be successful, learning takes place. If learning takes place, your teaching goals are achieved.

How Do Rules and Boundaries Fit with Choices?

In order to feel a sense of autonomy, people do not need to have control over everything. They only need to feel that their opinion is valued and taken into consideration. In order for children to learn to respect adults, they themselves need to experience respect. Offering children choices sends the message that a parent trusts their ability to make good decisions even if simple, like what to wear or eat. It offers daily practice in reflecting upon and making choices and participating in the consequences or outcomes of those decisions. Parents maintain the right and need to set limits around issues of safety and in respecting oneself, respecting others and respecting property and the surrounding environment. But parenting rules and boundaries can coexist with the opportunity for the child to make choices about his/her life.

How Do Children’s Choices Fit into Family Life?

A learning family values the development of each member of the family. In this context, each person needs to exercise decision making power about what goals to pursue and ultimately, who they want to be as a person. Responsible decision making and problem solving skills are developed with authentic practice over time. Opportunities like whether or not to include another child in a play group might seem small and insignificant, but lay the foundation for the bigger decisions of life that will arrive on a tween or teen’s doorstep whether the parent likes it or not. Should I do drugs? Should I drink? Have sex? Lie to my parents? Skip school? We are all too well aware of the list of risks. “The integration of these two values, community and choice, define democracy.” and also, help us understand the role for parents. If parents allow for choices, but also guide reflection about those choices – What other ideas can you come up with? What do you think will happen when you do that? Who will be impacted by your choice and how?   – then the child has the opportunity to practice making choices in a responsible manner that considers the impact to himself and others. You might ask: “Is it worth the time and thought required to incorporate opportunities for choice in our child’s life?” Consider that feelings of helplessness and a lack of control over one’s life can lead to depression. Consider that children typically do not have choices or feel much control over many aspects of their lives and are constantly looking for opportunities to exert control. Consider that there are many issues and tasks in life that require your child’s cooperation. Consider that there will be a time when you will not be there when those scarier life risks come knocking. Then, consider the following small and practical ways you can incorporate choice into your parenting routine.


Are there any routines in your day or week that just aren’t working or could be improved upon? Maybe there are regular arguments or frustrations expressed. Maybe you aren’t able to get to school or swimming lessons on time. Identify which routine or transition in the day could be better. Sit down with your family and talk about it when you are not rushed to be somewhere or do something else. How many ideas can you come up with to help make it a better transition? Allow for the children to brainstorm ideas without your judgment. Pick some of the best ideas and think together through how it might work practically so that you are talking through the potential outcomes or consequences.

Daily Tasks

We go about our days with a hum and a rhythm of the familiar so that our busy lives can have some semblance of organization. There are a million decisions you make for your child in a day that could easily be delegated if you give a little thought to it. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Blue or black pants to wear to school? Green or red jacket for going outdoors? And with decision making power comes the responsibility to contribute to the household and family life. How could you as a parent use help in contributing? Might your child participate in loading the dishwasher or folding clean towels? Children may not do household tasks perfectly or exactly in the way you like them done, but you are offering them the opportunity to contribute and training them for future days when they will be able to significantly contribute and feel capable, competent and trusted because you’ve allowed them a role.

Spaces and Places

Allow your child to feel ownership over their own space. Allow them to contribute to decorating their room or arranging it in a way that is appealing to them. Do you have a place where they can post their art or other school productions? Do they have a reading spot in the house that is theirs? They do not need to take over your household with their toys in every room but their own sacred spaces are important. In many families, homework can become a battle as kids would rather watch television, run around outside or play a video game – anything other than doing their homework. Talk about homework time with your child. How can you work together to make it better? How can you create an environment that helps her accomplish homework in a reasonable amount of time so that she can do other things she enjoys? Is there a space that is quiet and conducive to getting the work accomplished and that might be easily accessible to you so that you can help when needed? Are there special tools that could be allocated just for her homework space? Invite your child to help design a desirable space to work in. When you discuss times for homework, figure out together when homework fits into your schedule and how much time is really needed to accomplish all of it. What is slowing her down or does she need extra help? How can you get that help? The more you involve her in working through the problem in advance, the smoother the process will go each evening after school.

Discipline and Consequences

This idea may cause an uncontrollable whince as you think about choice, discipline and consequences. Often we think that the logical consequences of a situation in which a child has made a poor choice need to come from a parent and be well-thought through and “fit the crime.” We fear we will lose control of the situation and lose the obedience of our child if we allow for any discussion or choice when it comes to discipline. However, “Who is being responsible? Obviously it is the adult; so what happens when the adult is not around? Children do not learn to be responsible for their own behavior,” writes Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline.[v] When your child makes a poor choice, talk through ideas for consequences. Throughout childhood and teen years, children are still developing their logical thinking skills. Talk through what consequences they feel would be just and related to their poor choices. A sincere apology? Repairing a broken object? Giving of their time and energy to a project or place where they made the poor choice? Your child could surprise you with their sense of responsibility and follow through on their own ideas of making reparation for their actions.

When Choice is Not an Option

Finally, there are times when choice is just not an option. Julie has to take the medicine the doctor prescribed. Brendan must hold your hand in the parking lot. Marianne cannot run outside without a coat. There are safety or health issues involved or other people are affected adversely and no choice can be offered. These situations can require a lot of patience since often children do not understand the importance of circumstances. Realize that your own emotion in the situation can create and exacerbate a power struggle. The more upset you get trying to convince your child to do something, often times, the stronger their resistance. Try and put yourself in their shoes. Breathe and work on patience. Call upon your partner parent if they are able to remain calm and you are not. Your child is more likely to cooperate if you have patience with them and coach them through the process.

[i] Mahn, H., John-Steiner, V. (2002). The gift of confidence: A Vygotskian view of emotions. In Learning for Life in the Twenty-first Century: Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education. Eds. Wells, G. & Claxton, G., Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

[ii] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

And Self Determination Theory site, home page, Retrieved 4/4/13.

[iii] Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children; Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, September.

[iv] Denton, P. (2005). Learning through academic choice. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[v] Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. New York: Ballantine Books.

Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children Inclusion

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

Mahatma Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

Create a Culture of Acceptance and Caring – Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world.

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Charney, R. (1997). Habits of goodness; Case studies in the social curriculum. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[ii] Osterman, K.F. (2000). Students’ need for belonging in the school community. Review of Educational Research, 70, 323-267.

[iii] Lee, S., Kirby, J., & Ditko, S. (1963). Amazing Spider-man. NY, NY: Marvel Comics, Marvel Tales # 138.

Take the One Thing for Spring Challenge

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It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in the movement there is life, and in change there is power.

– Alan Cohen

How are you going to teach your children social and emotional skills? How can you, the responsive, reflective, continuously improving parent, incorporate one new strategy to support your children’s learning and development? Trying to do the best for our kids can feel overwhelming. We may ask, “Where do I start?”

This Spring in this season of rebirth, Confident Parents, Confident Kids issues a challenge. The following are twenty-five ideas for teaching, modeling, practicing and reinforcing critical skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making and relationship skills at home. You have the opportunity to pick one and make it happen consistently in the months of March, April and May. Make yourself accountable by posting a reminder note in your calendar or on your refrigerator. Tell your partner and a friend. If you want to make a change or improvement in your life, it helps to have support. If you know others are aware of your goal, you’ll not only have their reinforcement but also their watchful eyes to ensure you are focused in your pursuit. Try one challenge for the next three months and then write in and tell us about it. As you watch emerging buds on the trees and the green of Spring appear, create some new life in your own family by trying one of these ideas. Share your story and I’ll share it with our readership!
Happy Spring!


1. Write or verbally share real or imagined stories of your child and include positive attributes of his/her personality and character. For more, read Story of Self.
2. Use “I notice …” statements with your child and point out specific strengths that she demonstrates.
3. Expand your family’s feelings vocabulary. Brainstorm together as many feelings as you can think of and write them down. Then when discussing a problem or upset, pull out the list and use it to pinpoint your feelings.
4. After an upsetting situation, work with your child to help him or her identify and articulate his/her own feelings. For more, read Parent Private Investigator.
5. Renew yourself for you and your family. Prioritize 15-20 minutes of quiet solitude per day for reflection. Become more self-aware through this daily mindfulness experience.


1. Be mindful and present with your children for a pre-determined time slot each day. Find fifteen minutes to immerse yourself in play. For more, read Play and a Happy Holiday to You.
2. Use a constructive strategy consistently for dealing with anger when upset with your children or spouse. (i.e. Go for a walk; Go to a safe, quiet space; Breathe or listen to calming music).
3. When you need access to more patience in a frustrating situation with your children, take time to breath out loud in front of them.
4. Be proactive about your child’s fears. Pick one fear and work on easing their worries this month by seeking out children’s books that deal with the topic in a constructive way (Learn more about sharks and the purpose they serve in the ocean for example.) and read them with him/her. For more, read Boo! Common Fears and How to Help Children Deal with Them.
5. Practice waiting with patience with your children when the natural opportunity arises and it makes sense. Begin with a short waiting period (one minute? five minutes?) and then work on extending the time. For more, read Strategies for Teaching Self-Control.

Social Awareness

  1. Practice respecting others’ ideas. If you choose this as a goal, make a point of thoroughly listening to others’ ideas and asking clarifying questions or making empathetic comments in response. Save any critical comments for a later time (and use the three-to-one rule, three strengths to one area for improvement).
  2. In a disagreement, work on articulating the other person’s perspective before sharing your own.
  3. Stop yourself before you criticize a group of people. Do not pass stereotypes on to the next generation. Find something empathetic to say instead.
  4. Identify someone in your close circle (family, friends, neighbors) with whom you often disagree. Each time you know you are going to encounter that person, think about their perspective. As you hold more empathetic thoughts, you are more likely to improve your relationship.
  5. Find one service opportunity in your school, community or immediate neighborhood. Is there an elderly person who can’t leave the house? Bring a bowl of soup and good conversation and include your child in that process.

Responsible Decision Making

1. Find opportunities to allow your child choices. Give them full decision making power in an area you feel comfortable. Talk over consequences of choices including the impact to other people and give them valuable practice in reviewing the outcomes and making responsible choices.
2. Practice creative idea generation. When faced with any kind of problem, don’t skip to a solution right away. Ask your child, “What else could we do to address this?” Try to come up with a number of creative ideas before pursuing one.
3. When reading with your children, discuss decision making. Ask “Why did the main character make that choice? What happened as a result? And what would have happened if he had chosen a different path?”
4. Before you make a decision for yourself, talk about why you should or should not do something and allow your children hear you work through the potential outcomes and consequences.
5. Use more open-ended questions with your family. Allow the questions to help explore new paths of thinking and see where they lead. For more, read Are Questions the Answer?

Relationship Skills

1. Practice good listening skills. With your children, act out what poor listening looks like. Laugh and have fun with it. Then show what good listening skills look like. Make a pact to try out these skills each night at dinner.
2. Use paraphrasing (summarizing what a person says) when someone is upset to ensure that you truly understand what they are thinking and/or feeling. And teach your children how to paraphrase as a useful listening tool.
3. Disconnect to connect. Make a commitment to the family being together (you determine how much and when) – for dinner or before bedtime to enjoy one another without electronic distractions.
4. Add “I love you no matter what happens.” to your routine when speaking to family members before bedtime on days when there are disagreements or problems. For more, read Unconditional Love and Attention.
5. Begin using “I” Statements as a regular way of communicating with family members. Teach your children how to use them for effective communication when problems arise. For more, read The Comeback Kid.

Parent-Teacher Conversations


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Productive collaborations between family and school, therefore,

will demand that parents and teachers recognize the critical importance

              of each other’s participation in the life of the child. 

–          Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

Teachers gain plenty of experience over time having difficult conversations about students with parents. However if you are parent, you may only experience difficult conversations with teachers a few times in your children’s educational careers. It’s conceivable that your child may come home with issues or concerns that merit your initiation of a conversation with a teacher. With only your child’s words to inform you, you need more information and the help of her teacher to really understand the problem. “Will I sound like I am accusing the teacher or another student or parent?” “Will the teacher penalize my daughter or like her less because of our conversation?” and “Will my discussion with the teacher lead to tensions between our family and that teacher and possibly other teachers in the future?” These are all valid questions that are raised in the minds of parents before they proceed with a conversation. Last weekend as I attended a once a year lunch date with my college friends, mothers of children from preschool through high school, this common dilemma was a feature of our conversation.

The next day, I asked my Mother, a retired high school English teacher what she might say about this topic. Her response was, “I can tell you what not to do. Don’t stand in the front entrance of the school and yell, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ ” This parent was calling out for my Mom, angry that his son was accused of plagiarism. So teachers have all kinds of experiences with conversations with parents which may not always be positive. Whether or not you believe your son’s retelling of the event, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to engage the teacher as a partner.  Your approach with the teacher could impact your child’s experience of his teacher and of school itself so taking a well-considered approach is important.

Imagine the following scenario. Your child is in seventh grade. He tends to not discuss much about what happens at school but has been fairly happy so far in the school year. You have been reasonably satisfied with the school and with his teacher. One day he comes home and says, “My teacher said I was looking on another student’s paper. But I wasn’t. And now she’s given me a failing grade when I should have gotten an A.” You spend some time talking with your son trying to find out more. He is adamant that he did not cheat on the test. The natural next step might be to have a conversation with his teacher.  But how does an emotionally intelligent parent handle that kind of difficult conversation?

Considerations before the Conversation

Could your child have a conversation with the teacher first to attempt to resolve the issue? Is this an appropriate issue for you as a parent to raise with the teacher? How old is your child and can they first be coached by you to approach the teacher him or herself? High schoolers are definitely old enough to advocate for themselves and middle schoolers, depending upon the maturity of the child, could be able to as well. A parent will more likely need to get involved at the early childhood through fifth grade levels. If old enough, a best first step is to allow the child to try and work the problem out directly with the teacher in a constructive way. If you decide to coach him to act as his own advocate first, in the imagined scenario, here’s what you might say.

Coach your child not to accuse the teacher or get into a power struggle by expressing his view as right when he knows she holds the opposite view. A child is typically tempted to say,

Mrs. Smith, you think I cheated but you’re wrong, I didn’t. I don’t deserve that zero you gave me.”

Coach your child to avoid placing blame. Instead, he might say,

Mrs. Smith, I know you are convinced I cheated on the exam. I want to prove to you that I did not. Can you think of any way that I might be able to show you that I did not or make up for what happened? I am willing to re-take the exam. I am willing to do extra work so that I might not get a zero for the test.

Wouldn’t it be so nice if a problem like this was all neatly resolved through that one conversation? It certainly could be. But as we know, these situations can extend into the need for further intervention. If you decide that your child has adequately and constructively approached the teacher with an offer to make reparation but the teacher has denied the offer and your child is still highly upset and feels an injustice has been done, then here are the next steps you might consider.

Get yourself into the right frame of mind.

Assume the best intentions on the teacher’s part. Assume competence and caring. Assume that the teacher is trying to do what is fair and, also, teach lessons about habits of learning. I personally have never encountered a teacher who went into the profession without the noblest intentions to help children learn (I know they must exist but I have not yet met one in my career). But of course, teachers are human and make mistakes like all of us. If you are upset or emotional about the situation, first do some journaling, walking or other means of getting out some of your frustrations. Try not to go into the conversation highly charged and emotional if possible. If you do, you are SIGNIFICANTLY less likely to be successful.  James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center writes,

       Children in home-school conflict situations often receive a

               double message from their parents: “The school is the hope

               for your future, listen, be good and learn” and “the school is

               your enemy. . . .” Children who receive the “school is the

               enemy” message often go after the enemy–act up, undermine

               the teacher, undermine the school program, or otherwise exer-

               cise their veto power.”[i]

This is not in the interest the child. He is not mature enough to understand constructive ways to deal with the conflicting messages he is receiving.

Ask yourself: What are your desired outcomes for the conversation? Think about it. If you raise this issue, are there a number of outcomes that might be acceptable to you? Involve your son in thinking through what solutions might be acceptable to him. If there is only one solution that is acceptable and you do not believe that the teacher will either a.) understand or b.) accept that solution, then it sounds like it is not worth having the conversation unless you are only planning to focus on the future. In other words, “What can he do in the future to avoid this problem from happening again?”

Initiating the Conversation. Whether you call or email to set up a conversation, let the teacher know that you would like to discuss your child in general and specifically the problem at hand. Be sure to find the time to go in person. Email and phone conversations seem easier but real resolutions in which all parties feel better can best be reached in person.

Mrs. Smith, I would like to meet with you to discuss how Benjamin is doing in your class. I would like to partner with you and be sure I am supporting your efforts at home. I would also like to talk about the most recent test he took to understand the situation better. Please let me know when we can have that in person conversation.”

The Conversation Itself. Think about a time when you received constructive, helpful feedback from your husband, boss or friend. You want to take a similar approach in this conversation. Begin with the positive strengths of the school year and the teacher’s influence on your child. What do you like about her or what he is learning? Ask for her expertise in how you might support his learning at home. Then, ask about the problem at hand.

Mrs. Smith, I notice that my son has really moved forward in his math understanding and comfort level and I know that is due to your good work and encouragement. I wanted to ask in general if there are ways I can support his learning in my role at home. I also wanted to ask about the recent test he took. Can you tell me from your perspective what happened? After she describes what happened, you might say, “I hear that you experienced the situation in this way (paraphrase what she said so that she is certain you have heard and understood her). My son is upset and feels unjustly accused. Is there a way that he could make up the test or prove to you that he knows the content?”

When you leave the conversation, be sure and thank the teacher for her time and care with your son. Be sure and go through the conversation with your son. If agreements have been made, you then need to supervise your son carefully to ensure that he follows through with those agreements. It may be the case that because of school rules there is no way that a student can make reparation or improve a grade. Your child may have to learn that the zero is the consequence for his actions. Help your child to accept the rules of the school that his teacher is following. Discuss what he can do to avoid the problem the next time. You will not only be working in partnership on his behalf with the school, but also teaching him the valuable lessons of accepting consequences and learning from mistakes.

Follow up on the Conversation. Because you want to continue a good and growing relationship with your child’s teacher, follow up. After your son has followed through on making up the test, for example, check back in with her in a few weeks just to see if reparation has been made and things are going well. This is an easy step to skip. He seems fine. Life goes on. But you want to maintain the relationship with the teacher and let her know that you will continue to be a partner with her. This is what you might do in another valued collegial relationship. So demonstrate the same kind of respect with his teacher. If you focus on your partnership with the teacher as an important investment in your child’s future success and not on the problem of the moment, you will make better choices about how to approach the teacher even when difficult situations occur.


Parent Leaders in Education: Resource Round-Up by Edutopia

Effective Home-School Communication by JoBeth Allen, Harvard Family Research Project

The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet by Sara Mosle, The New York Times

[i] James P. Comer (20th century), U.S. psychiatrist and author. School Power, ch. 2 (1980).

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