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 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


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!

Bring the Holidays into Focus

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Your focus is your reality.

–          Yoda, Star Wars I, The Phantom Menace

As I entered the final stretch before Christmas, I paused, amidst my color coded lists of menu planning, decorating, present wrapping, gift creating, house cleaning and broken toy mending. I could feel my anxiety mounting to frenzy status and needed to quiet my mind. So I put on my gloves, snow boots and other winter gear and walked to the park across the street and stood and listened to the falling snow. And I thought about what I really wanted for the holiday. I am keenly aware that my son will only be six years old for Christmas once. Maybe experiencing the death of close relatives at Christmastime has heightened this awareness. Or maybe having an only child helps me realize there are no do-overs. In any case, I decided I want to be fully present this Christmas, to experience the holiday with joy and soak it all in. I want to give myself, mind and heart, to the moment and the people I love and leave behind the lists and the worries. That is, as the song says, “my grown-up Christmas wish.”

I recall a decade ago when I was engaged to be married hearing the stories from newlyweds. “The wedding day was a total blur.” Or “I can’t remember who I talked to or what was said.” And “I don’t remember the food or the taste of the cake.” I took these as cautionary tales and set my own intention to be fully focused on that important day. And I was. I remember I met my husband’s Indiana relatives for the first time. We ate a delicious chicken with a marsala sauce and had a raspberry cake with white buttercream icing.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence and founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, has written a book entitled, Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence. In it, he writes:

       Today’s children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history. That’s troubling for several reasons. For one, the social and emotional circuitry of a child’s brain learns from contact and conversation with everyone it encounters over the course of a day. These interactions mold brain circuitry; the fewer hours spent with people – and the more spent staring at a digitized screen – portends deficits.[i]

And so my gift to you this season, whether you celebrate a holiday or simply get some much needed time off of work, is to provide you with some basic ideas for setting your own intention to be fully present to your children and the other people – family and friends around you.

Organize ahead. Make your lists. For Christmas, because I maintain multiple lists, I keep a small notebook where I write down grocery lists, presents to buy and people to whom I want to send a holiday card. Use whatever organization system you are most comfortable with but do plan ahead so that when the time comes to be present, you can.

Delegate and share responsibility. You may possess a grand vision for your holiday as I always do. But you can invite other family members to share in that vision ahead of time and contribute to its successful implementation. The holidays are about giving and receiving. It’s no service to do it all and then come to the party flustered and exhausted. Inviting others, collaboratively discussing roles and responsibilities, particularly with children, can allow for ownership and involvement and create a joyful holiday in which all are actively contributing.

Use digital discipline. Our digital devices divide our attention and pull us away from the most important people in our lives who are standing directly in front of us. Despite our realization of that fact, it’s likely that the beeps, boops, and whirs of the electronic devices will woo us back. That beep may sound to alert us to a sale at a store we could care less about and yet, it focuses our attention on the store and away from those we love. It takes great discipline to put that cell phone down. Do what you have to do to maintain your own digital discipline. And set ground rules for the family. “During the days of celebration, we will only check email twice – once after lunch and once in the evening.” Stick your phone in a drawer or place it on another floor or room of your house. Wear your battery charge down. Do whatever it takes to pay focused attention to those important people who are right in front of you. Remember that your children who are three and five years old, or six and ten, will only have one holiday with this perspective at this age. It’s precious. Don’t miss it.

Make a plan for anxiety, worry and upset. Practice deep breathing when you are in the midst of holiday chaos. In my bedroom, I have a journal at the end of my bookcase with a pen sitting right next to my comfortable reading chair. The journal is solely for the purpose of allowing me to write down my worries and reflect on them. I notice if I don’t, I stew and stew on the thoughts and they take up a lot of brain space I would like to devote to other purposes. It doesn’t take long to jot down your feelings. Robert Garmston, a well-known school improvement expert, writes, “Contrary to popular belief, we do not learn from experience, only from reflecting on experience.”[ii] This method may not be right for you but find a way to get your anxiety dealt with on paper, come up with a solution or resolution to try and move on to more important things.

Play! Two years ago, my holiday post was about the virtues of play. If you want your children to develop focused attention which will aid their success in school and in any life pursuit, then give them your focused attention. Model and enjoy the benefits!

My husband just completed a leadership coaching certification program last week. He and his cohorts shared much of their own thoughts, feelings and life stories with each other. He returned and shared with me that he had the realization that every person in that program was completely amazing. They each had a life story filled with fascinating challenges and inner goals they were trying to achieve. I wonder if we really listened to each person’s life story along with their inner thoughts and feelings, if we might be able to say each person in the world is amazing.

I wish for you this holiday season to hold focused attention on those you love so that yoda on our treeyou might really see how amazing they are. As for me, I have placed our Yoda ornament on the front of our Christmas tree as a reminder that my focus is my reality.  Happy holidays.

[i] Goleman, D. (2013). Focus; The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

[ii] Garmston, R. (2005). The Presenter’s Fieldbook; A Practical Guide.  MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Citizen Kid

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What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.

Nelson Mandela

“How’s my little buddy doing?” says Butcher Keith as my son giggles and hides behind my legs. Butcher Bob upon spotting my face takes off for the deli counter to produce a slice of freshly cut Colby cheese, or as we affectionately call it, “Bob cheese” for my son to munch on as we shop. We have been going to our local Mom and Pop owned grocery store since we moved to our neighborhood and certainly since our son was born. He has grown up knowing the names and personalities of each individual who helps us with our seafood or produce or checks us out when we are ready to leave. We also know the name and aspirations of our mailman who is a writer on the side. We know the owner and wait staff of the diner we frequent, the one that produces the world’s most delicious blueberry pancakes. Going that extra step to get to know people who are a regular part of your family’s life can extend your children’s sense of connectedness to their community.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa or another winter holiday, there are lots of opportunities for promoting social awareness, connection and contribution to your community. The farther your children are able to extend their connectedness beyond your home and immediate family, the safer and more resilient they will feel knowing that they have supports wherever they go in the surrounding area. Children have the ability to contribute to the community in simple ways if given the opportunity. Children who are raised with a sense of membership, responsibility and contribution to their community have practiced active citizenry. They have a regular and supportive context for exercising social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

The people we admire most in the world are those who grew up knowing and understanding the value and importance of active citizenry. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. among other leaders for positive change started their social justice work in their own communities addressing very local problems and in the process, changed the world. To me, our core purpose for being is contribution. Giving your children small opportunities to exercise their ability to contribute will promote values that can be built upon as they grow into citizens and leaders in any community.

The following are some simple, everyday ways that you can allow your children to make community connections and feel like a significant contributor.

Start at home. How do your children contribute to your home environment and family life? Have you asked them what or how they would like to contribute? Their answer might surprise you. They observe you doing the work to keep up with running a household. Often, they know what is involved. They may be able to name ways they want to contribute. Otherwise, offer suggestions and support them the first few times they attempt to set the table for dinner or wash the dishes. They may not do the task in the exact way that you would hope but they are learning and practicing to be a significant contributor to your family life which is much more important.

Extend yourself to your neighbors. Do any of your holiday traditions include baking cookies for neighbors, caroling or shoveling a walkway? Why not include a new tradition that helps your family connect to your neighbors in some small way and involve your children in the process? You may feel you are too busy this season but maybe you could select one neighbor, perhaps an elderly person, to deliver cookies to with your children?

Get to know your community.  If you are busy buying gifts online or in stores, try and stop in some of the stores close to your neighborhood and support the local businesses. My husband created a stocking last year for me of small gifts including gift cards only from businesses in our local neighborhood and what an incredible gift that was! Get to know the names of the tellers at the bank or the baristas at the coffee shop and show your children that you have invested yourself in your home community.

Contribute to your children’s school. Some schools are excellent at enlisting and putting to work parent volunteers and others are not. If you are lucky, it will be easy to offer to get involved. If your school does not involve parent volunteers regularly, then get in touch with the Parent Teacher Organization or an administrator and explore ways to contribute. Even if it’s cutting out shapes for teachers in the evening on occasion because you work full-time during the day, some contribution will model the value of involvement for your children. Schools also vary on creating service learning opportunities for students. Service learning – service opportunities linked directly to the academic curriculum – not only promotes student’s social and emotional skills, but also offers meaningful, connected learning opportunities and a constructive means for children to engage as contributors and not just passive recipients of curricula or community services.  For more on service learning in schools, visit the Service-Learning Clearinghouse.

Create a family tradition of participating in one service event during the holiday season. Most nonprofit organizations with a mission to serve the community organize some service event over the holidays. From canned food drives to singing at nursing homes to wrapping toys for those who wouldn’t have them otherwise, there are numerous ways to get involved if you choose. Create a new family tradition and participate together. It may be the most valuable gift you can give your family. If you celebrate Christmas as I do, it can help your family focus on the true meaning of gift giving and being a part of a community at holiday time.

Learn about other traditions and holidays. Because there are so many rich holidays and traditions that occur during the month of December, be sure and begin to explore those beyond your own with your children. Expand your children’s awareness of global celebrations through the beauty of holiday celebrations. You might ask, “Why are evergreen trees used in celebrating Christmas? What is the story of the lights of Chanukkah? What is the meaning and purpose of the candle holder used in Kwanzaa? What is the winter solstice?” Use the internet to do some exploration and learn. Or check out some books from the local library on other traditions.

Involve children in thinking about and creating gifts for family and friends. Guiding your children to think about the preferences and hobbies of valued individuals in your life promotes empathy and perspective-taking skills. Allow your children to consider what they might think Dad would most like as a holiday gift. Support them in making and buying gifts from ideas they generate to give them the experience and joy of giving. For more, read “The Joy of Giving.”

Use the language of purpose and contribution. Regardless of belief system or tradition, each person is fueled by a sense of purpose and feelings of belonging and contribution. But often with children this month most conversations seem to be about “getting.” With Christmas it feels like a frenzy in those last few weeks prior to the holiday of anticipation over the toys to come. You can help change that energy by talking about meaning, purpose and contribution. The winter holidays share similar meanings focusing on light in the darkness and a focus on kindness, service and giving. Share the underlying values behind your traditions. Make the ideas of contribution and giving a part of your conversations all season long.

Initiate conversations with elders about family stories and ancestory. While you are visiting with family over the holidays, initiate conversations with elders in the family to learn more about your family history and traditions of the past. In our family, my Mom has a story for every ornament on the tree and, often, they relate to family trips, history and members that have passed on. Allow people to share stories from the past and bring your children in to listen to expand their thinking and help them learn about and gain empathy and respect for a different generation.

Plan for mind-expanding travel. As you begin to make plans for the new year, consider making a priority out of travel with your children to a place that might give them an experience of another culture. You don’t have to break the bank to do it either.  In Ohio, for example, we have the chance to visit Amish Country to see how people live who choose to be “off the grid.” Think about travel experiences for your family that will not only allow for a fun get-away but also help expand your experiences of different people, cultures and traditions. Check out the great blog, Small Hands, Big World for more ideas on “teachable travel.”

You have the opportunity to infuse meaning into your holiday season even if it’s busy one. Include an emphasis on connecting with and understanding those around you in ever greater circles from immediate family to extended family to neighbors to community to broader communities and look for ways to model and involve your children in contribution to those ever expanding circles. You may just prepare your child for changing the world.

For fun videos from a highly creative young voice, check out Kid President, and here’s his inspired Christmas video message.

Holiday Family Meetings

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The way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.

– Anthony Robbins

Have you ever worked for an organization in which you called your work colleagues friends or “family”? I have had that great fortune several times and in those cases, I have always looked forward to staff meetings. It was a time to check in with everyone and hear about the good work they were doing. The thought of meetings for some has a strong negative connotation since most of us have sat through boring, lecture-loaded gatherings that seem to drone on and not accomplish much. However, the idea of family meetings represents quite the opposite.  A family meeting can take place in a short amount of time, contribute to your feelings of connectedness, introduce new energy and create the opportunity for sincere dialogue.

At our home, December consists of professional travel, family gatherings, Christmas decorating, gift buying and creating, friend and work parties, school activities, volunteering and end of year work and school deadlines. This year, it also included a sick kid to kick off the season. No matter which holiday you celebrate, December typically contains a flurry of activities. Amidst all these extras, it may be harder to fit in dinner together as a family or time when you are all together without busy agendas. A family meeting may feel like you are adding one more thing to the list but I suggest it may save time preventing arguments, confusion, frustration and miscommunication as you go about following through on your many responsibilities this season.

A well-run family meeting can

  • Promote a sense of family connectedness
  • Provide opportunity for effective communication
  • Allot time and energy to problem solving as a family
  • Help each member work together as a team
  • Ensure that each person is seen, heard and feels like a valued contributor
  • Provide valuable practice in social and emotional skills such as listening, cooperation and problem solving.

Numerous parenting experts have recommended family meetings. One of my favorites, Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline writes about being aware that it will take children some time to get onto this new routine. They may need to be taught some skills in the beginning in order to be able to fully participate. She recommends not trying this with children four years old or younger since they will likely not have the attention span or skills to fully participate. If you have older and younger children, you may want to try a meeting with the older family members after the little ones have gone to bed.

I’ve created my own simplified agenda that you may try for your family. Allow approximately twenty minutes. Because the idea is to create fun, promote connection and ensure each person feels they are contributing, work on creating a relaxed and easy atmosphere. Have snacks ready. Or plan to include it in your pizza night. Try the following.

1. Gathering – Get everyone into the meeting space by doing a quick gathering that allows for fun and connection and designate that the meeting is beginning. You might try

    • Producing a funny face – each create a different funny face
    • Singing a favorite song together
    • Making up complimentary nicknames for each other and greet one another using them
    • Sharing high fives and fist bumps with each person
    • Making up a secret family-only handshake, cheer, song or pledge of allegiance

2. Sharing Appreciation – What is one thing each person is grateful for?

3. Problem Solving  – This will require some practice. Use the first meeting as a teaching opportunity. Use easy, low risk problems in those first meetings to allow time for developing skills and understanding the process. Make sure that the problems can be resolved collaboratively. If a problem is suggested for the meeting that involves a hard and fast rule (safety issue?), then this is not the appropriate forum for it.

For the first meeting, you’ll want to ask each person to think about a problem that the family might be able to address together. You may need to offer the first several problems to provide a model for the rest. Practice brainstorming solutions so that all members understand how to brainstorm. Remember the rules of brainstorming? Creativity is encouraged. Piggybacking on other ideas is good. No judgment or criticisms allowed. All ideas should be voiced. This first time, pick an easy problem.

“We are getting lots of solicitors at the door (political requests, donation requests, sales). How should we deal with them?”

Allow each person to give his or her ideas. Be sure and write all the ideas down (and you can trade the recorder role each meeting). Review the ideas and see what you can all agree upon. And decide who, when and how you’ll try the solution out. You can revisit how it’s going in your next meeting. This often also allows for conversations about your values as a family. How will you represent your values through your decisions for action in your problem solving?

For future meetings, ask the family to be thinking about problems that they would like to address in the meeting. They can put their problem idea on a sticky note for the refrigerator or any general message pile you have in your household. This allows for each member to contribute and helps bring new ideas to each meeting.

4. News and Announcements – What’s happening for each person in the coming week? What is one thing that is consuming his or her thoughts? How can we support them?

It’s ideal if your meeting can lead into a fun activity for the family but it’s not necessary. Just this short time of connecting can be a helpful wellspring of connection for a busy family. Try out a weekly family meeting during this holiday season. If it’s successful and you see the benefits, continue it monthly or even weekly in the new year. Particularly during the holiday season, amidst many extra commitments and responsibilities, a weekly connection in the context of a family meeting could ensure that your holiday is cooperative and joyful.


For more on facilitating problem solving with children, check out “Working It Out.”

A Story of Thanksgiving

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As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

–    John Fitzgerald Kennedy

When I started to think about Thanksgiving and gratefulness this year, a memory flashed through my mind that I couldn’t and didn’t want to shake. It was the early 1990’s and I was a shiny college graduate who had moved out of her Ohio hometown for the first time to southern Oklahoma. I had signed up as a full-time AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer with the promise of adventure and finding a way to meaningfully contribute to a community that was brand new to me but with a long and complex history. Probably because I was still a kid myself, I opted to work on a project for young people but not just any group of young people. My great grandmother had been a Navajo Indian, though you may never guess it from my pale, freckled skin and blue eyes. Her cultural heritage was shameful to the family during her lifetime and so not much is known about her including her last name. For that reason, I am unable to trace her history. But in an effort to connect with that part of me, I went to work with a Native American boarding home led by the Chickasaw/Choctaw Nation.

My sheltered private school existence was quickly shattered after learning about the children’s lives that included parents and siblings who were either in prison or addicted to some substance or just simply could not afford an extra mouth at the dinner table. These children attended the city schools and were by some considered unloved criminals and gangsters. They were children who were dealing with abusive adults and children as they tried desperately to make it through school and life in a dorm with two hundred other children of all ages. That Fall, one child attempted suicide and another ran for his life across the long institutional lawn attempting to escape. My job description read “dropout prevention” though I hadn’t the first clue about what those kids were dealing with and how I might help them see the importance of academics despite the intense set of adult problems they faced. I had an inspired boss at our small nonprofit who encouraged me to put together donated clothing and take them over as costumes for the children to play with. I mentioned to the kids I’d come over one evening and bring the costumes and we could try them on together. Each day, I was bombarded by reminders of the commitment I’d made to come back in the evening. “Remember, you said!” “You’re going to come, right?” I didn’t realize that this was the first test to see if I would follow through or disappoint them as most adults had.

The promised evening, I grabbed my black trash bag filled with random clothes, hats, glasses and other strange accessories along with my favorite “Best of Aretha Franklin” CD and drove in my borrowed, old, rusty “hoopty” (as the kids called it) Cadillac to the boarding home. Girls and boys alike tried on crazy outfits over their own clothing and pranced down the stark, fluorescent lit hallway of the dorm as if it were Fashion Week. We sang, “Stop, in the name of love…” with great passion together. Their faces, often so sad, lit up pink with joy and gratefulness. They beamed appreciation. I heard laughter echo through those stark halls. They gave me the joy of meaning and contribution and allowed me to exercise understanding, empathy and compassion. That night and many other moments in the year that followed spurred me to reconsider the traditional career path I thought I was going to follow. I think about that moment because I have so much that I often take for granted. The problems of their lives seemed to be locked in a faraway place and that burden was lifted for one night to allow for pure joy and the true experience of childhood. As I lead my life of abundance today in a house with a reliable car, plentiful food and water supply and a family that loves me and is not a victim of its circumstances, it helps me realize how truly thankful I am.

My husband and I have agreed that an awareness of our abundance and sincere appreciation for the goodness in our lives is a way of thinking and being that we seek to embody as a family. Indeed, I am thankful for you, reader, allowing me the space to initiate a dialogue about how we can be even more caring and connected and appreciative in our families.

There are small ways you can model and make a habit out of gratefulness each day of your busy family lives. Adopt just one small habit of gratefulness and watch as your children begin thinking in a new way. Not only does it help reframe the “gimmy” thinking, but it also gives you an ongoing language of appreciation. Particularly when schedules are tight and conversations are quick and few, interactions can become terse and even biting. You are likely to feel less connected to one another because of a sheer lack of time to connect. Add appreciative comments and thinking to the mix and you may find that connection is possible even in brief spurts of interaction during the busy holiday season.

Add grateful thoughts to the morning routine. When you wake up, greet each other with something you appreciate about the other or about the day to come. “E, I am so glad I have the chance to visit your school at lunchtime today. Your school creates such a welcoming environment for parents.”

Go around the table at dinnertime. You don’t have to have any religious affiliation to say what you appreciate before you eat. Even if it’s a simple, “We appreciate this good food.” Going around the table will allow each person to contribute something they are thankful for that day. It may also enrich and change the tone of your dinner conversation.

Make grateful thinking a part of your bedtime routine. We’ve called them “happy thoughts” since E was born but the content is the same. “What are you thankful for from your day?” E said one night, “I’m thankful for my brain. I wish I could give it a hug.” It’s a reflective way to close the day and prepare for a good night of sleep.

Add appreciation to communicating feedback. We often provide feedback to children and to spouses in daily life. “You forgot to pick up your dirty socks.” “I need you to come home from work on time for dinner.” Consider working on your own delivery of feedback. Can you begin with an appreciative comment? “I notice you often remember and have been taking responsibility but today, you forgot. So go pick up your dirty socks.” “I see you’ve been working overtime at work. I appreciate how hard you work. Could we talk about dinnertime and how we might make some adjustments?”

Make time to get away. Interestingly enough, human nature often requires that we remove ourselves from our current circumstances in order to truly appreciate them. You don’t need to get on an airplane or leave the city. Just get out for an hour for a cup of coffee and time for yourself. I notice the minute I leave I begin thinking appreciative thoughts about my home and family. If you do not, then practice. You can retrain your thinking so that you are sticking to those positive thoughts which will contribute to your health, sense of well-being and relationship with others. Venting, including self-venting does not. If you need to get it out, write it in a journal and then move on to your appreciative thoughts.

Involve kids in thank you note writing. Be sure that when you receive gifts from friends or relatives, you not only write a note but involve your child in the process. If they are pre-writing age, have them do what they can – a drawing or stickers or a thumbprint – can show their participation.

Write down grateful thoughts. Take some time with your children throughout the holiday season to write down your grateful thoughts. Place them in a spot that is October 2012 025precious and can be revisited by your kids. Starting off a season of both giving and getting with appreciative thoughts helps children get in a generous frame of mind. Thanks to “Mema Linda,” we are counting the days until Thanksgiving again this year with a grateful thought each day.

Involve your children in service. There is an abundance of opportunities over the next few months (and always, if you look!) for involvement in community service. Schools and nonprofits run canned food drives for those who need it. Instead of quickly emptying your pantry of unwanted canned goods and dropping off a bag while your children are at school, make an event out of it. Take your children to the store. Have them pick out non-perishable food goods for the drive. Deliver with them. Allow them the chance to feel the value and joy of contributing to their community.

Begin gift giving plans with a conversation about what your children appreciate about each recipient. Allow your children to think about what makes people in your lives unique and special. Talk aloud with them about how those unique qualities could give you gift ideas. Plant seeds for perspective taking and empathy so that your gift giving this year may take on a whole new level of meaning.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving and/or the start of Hanukkah – or the coming week is just a typical one for you – adding appreciation to your life and particularly your conversations with your family can help you enjoy life more and connect with one another.

If you are a business professional or educator and interested in positive organizational change, there are methods of using appreciation in the workplace to infuse of a sense of connectedness and well-being.  To learn about these strategies called “Appreciative Inquiry,” check out the following resources.

For Education:

Search Institute (Child Development Assets and Strengths-based programming)

For Business and Nonprofit Organizations:

Appreciative Inquiry Commons

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