The Fear of Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent children’s books on making mistakes:

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

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

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


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

Mine, Yours and Ours

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

–          Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

Model

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

Practice

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

Play ball – take turns rolling or kicking back and forth

Hide and seek – take turns hiding and seeking

Bake – take turns pouring, measuring and stirring ingredients

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do no harm

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

Reinforce

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

Remind

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

Allow

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

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

Making New Friends

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

C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

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

For Preschool and Elementary School Age Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Junior Teacher

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

Paulo Freire

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

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

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

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

  • Tell your child what you will model and why.

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

  • Model the behavior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Give all a chance to practice.

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

  • Provide feedback.

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

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

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

Back to School Butterflies

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Everyone has butterflies when they are starting something new. Just make sure you visualize them flying in formation and you’ll be fine.

–          My Dad, David Smith from a Dale Carnegie Public Speaking Course

If you are a parent, you are likely in the middle of clothing and supply shopping preparing for the first day of school. There may be more stress around the house as you switch gears from the less scheduled, slower paced summer routines to alarm clocks ringing early, morning rushes to get out of the house on time, new clothing, new teachers, homework and general exhaustion.

In addition to practical routine changes, you may have your own set of anxieties. For many, work demands increase as fiscal years end in August and begin in September. For fellow educators, we are busy attending or giving professional development courses during the month of August and preparing our classrooms and schools for the students to come. Maybe your child is moving from one school to another as mine is. Maybe it’s a major transition year from preschool to kindergarten, elementary to middle or middle to high school. Because the school community is as much a part of your whole family’s life as it is your child’s, parents naturally have their own trepidations about new teachers, principals, parents and friends.

How can parents best help deal with the back to school butterflies?

Practice routines and do dry runs in advance. If you are walking to school, try walking a day or two ahead of time without the pressure of needing to get there. Make it fun and stop by the playground and or local ice cream store on your route home. Practice your morning routine in an afternoon before you have to go through it. Try on new clothes, brush teeth, eat breakfast and see if you can make it fun working together to get all you need accomplished. Educators will be practicing routines like getting quiet or putting away supplies in desks at school. Children then know exactly what is expected of them and can go about the routine feeling competent and safe in that knowledge. Why not do the same at home to help your day run smoothly?

Give your child an opportunity to show competence. We saved the experience of E getting his own library card until he could write his full name to sign the back of the card. We wanted him to feel a sense of pride and achievement and it served as a clear goal helping him practice writing his name. He has  probably been capable of doing it all summer but I saved the chance for the day before kindergarten. We took our usual trip to the library and I announced this would be the day that he could get his library card. Finding a small way for your child to show they are capable boosts their confidence so that they are ready to tackle the challenges of a new school, grade and teacher.

Recognize and support your own anxieties. Each time I flew on an airplane this summer, the stewardess walked up to me, made direct eye contact, leaned in and clearly articulated that I must put on the oxygen mask myself before helping my son. “Okay, okay,” I thought. “I get it.” As most moms do, I tend to place my son before myself. Your own stress will impact your entire family and the climate that is felt at home. So do something about your worries. Make written lists if that helps organize your thoughts. Journal to get your feelings down on paper versus allowing those thoughts to stew inside you. Make a date with a friend to remove yourself for an hour or two from the pressures of family life. And when you are in a particularly intense moment of worry or anxiety, visualize your butterflies flying in a calm and coordinated formation.

Be aware small issues may cause big upsets. Emotions may be just below the surface ready to appear when any little issue arises. Be aware that those upsets over small things like a spilled snack are ways of releasing some of the bigger emotions that are welling up inside. Your awareness, added empathy, patience and calm will help redirect children and, indeed, all family members back to focusing on what is important.

Create extra time for quiet and rest both for your child and yourself. Days are particularly busy. Homework for some will begin to be assigned on the first day of school. Be sure and allot time for rest and quiet after school and on the weekends. You may provide an after school snack each day. Sit down with your children and just listen. They may not tell you what happened during the day if you ask a lot of questions. But if there is quiet and you simply listen, they may be more willing to offer up anecdotes from the day. Find opportunities to turn off the screens and just allow for reading or quiet play. The investment in quiet time will pay off during the busy days ahead.

Get outside and exercise. Those jitters bottled up inside don’t know where to go. Be sure and encourage children to run around outside when there is the opportunity. The fresh air and exercise will channel the release of anxieties through good fun and play.

Focus on the fun. Because it’s a busy time of year, it’s easy for parents to get caught up in the hussle and bussle and forget to find ways to make back to school time fun. Take a breath and realize your children won’t ever have the opportunity to start first grade again. Make the most of it by appreciating your time together. Find family moments to have fun at dinner or during the usual routines. Turn on some music or buy a special treat for all to enjoy. Savor!

May your back to school experience be joyful for the whole family and may your butterflies fly in formation.

Favorite Back to School Picture Book (for preschool through grade 3):

Penn, Audrey. (2007). The Kissing Hand. Tanglewood Press.

A raccoon Mom and son prepare for him to go to school. She gives him a kiss on his palm. When she’s not with him, he can place the open palm on his cheek and feel her kiss with him.

Summer Reading

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That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings

are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.

You belong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I was growing up, my neighborhood library held the “Super Summer Reading Program.” I so fondly recall weekly trips to the library with my Mom to pick up my stack of books and return home to swing on the porch hammock with a gripping mystery in hand. After each book read, I would carefully record the title in my log to turn in at the end of the summer for the great satisfaction of a list of 55 books conquered and a free pizza from the local pizzeria. When summer breezes blow, I yearn for books to take me away and for that time when leisure was abundant. Summertime is now a good opportunity for me to read for both pleasure and substance. There are many incredible resources for parents now though some are weighty and make us feel a bit overwhelmed by our critical role. Others though empower us with tools, strategies and great ideas and it is these that I find enjoyable reads and also, as I try out the strategies, significant contributors to my family’s happiness. My editor (the very Mom who took me to the library so many times) and I worked together to compose a summer reading list that fits these helpful descriptors.

Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be taking a summer vacation so that there is time to read, to play and enjoy all that summer has to offer. In your summer reading, do consider returning to the treasure trove of older posts on this site that may be opportunities for inspiration on how to improve your family dinner, how to support transitions in your family life, or how to help your children practice self-control and much more. Have a joyful summer and Confident Parents, Confident Kids will return in the fall with the start of the school year to bring you more opportunities for dialogue and inspiration with the hope of stirring in you greater confidence in actively promoting your children’s social and emotional competence.

For Parents

The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood by Megan Francis

This book contains ideas to help manage and enjoy the sometimes overwhelming job of parenting.

The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday by Meg Cox

This book discusses easy ways to bring ritual back into everyday life through enjoyable daily routines and also during holidays.

The Rhythm of Family; Discovering a Sense of Wonder through the Seasons by Amanda Blake Soule and Stephen Soule

This wonderful book has sections for each season of the year with ideas and projects for exploring and enjoying as a family the most that season has to offer. Don’t read it straight through but keep it on your shelf as a resource and primer as you enter each season.

The Family Dinner; Great Ways to Connect with your Kids, One Meal at a Time by Laurie David

Recipes, games and other fun ideas for connecting as a family are found in this useful book.

The Creative Family; How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections by Amanda Blake Soule

This book is loaded with fun ideas for exploring nature and using common household items to play, get creative and connect as a family.

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Last Child in the Woods; Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Children are exploring the natural world less and less with the pull of electronic media inside the household. This book not only discusses the importance of allowing children to connect with nature, but also practical ways to make it happen on a regular basis.

Sharing Nature with Children 20th Anniversary Edition by Joseph Cornell

This is a classic for nature lovers. It provides lot of outdoor games and ways to connect with your children by experiencing nature together.

A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children by Molly Dannenmaier

This book offers practical ways to create intentional garden spaces for children to explore.

15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with your Kids by Rebecca Cohen

This book offers plenty of easy ideas for outdoor activities with your children.

The Arts and Crafts Busy Book by Trish Kuffner

Arts and crafts projects to encourage creativity and self-expression in 2-6 year olds.

Parenting from the Inside Out; How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell

This book is a powerful guide to better understanding a parent’s own childhood and how those experiences shape decisions made today as a parent. Growing in self-understanding and compassion as a parent can result in a growing compassion and responsive parenting style for children.

The Mindful Child; How to Help your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder and More Compassionate by Susan Kaiser Greenland

This book provides guidance and useful activities and games for parents to teach social and emotional skills and help children develop a sense of mindfulness to deal with stress and become more present to the moment.

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This book is a meditation on time spent experiencing the ocean and all that the beach in summertime has to offer including reflections on marital and parent-child relationships.

Have a relaxing, enjoyable summer!

Let the Games Begin!

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If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative.

–          Author Unknown

A few weeks ago, a reader wrote in that she was hoping to find resources for quick social skills games that she could teach her kids to play. Thanks Shannon for the inspiration for this article. As the weather grows warmer and there is more opportunity to play outside, there will be more opportunities for playing games with other children. In our area, there is no shortage of opportunities to participate in organized competitive sports from soccer to gymnastics to baseball. But as you think about introducing games to your friends and neighbors, consider introducing cooperative games. In addition to teaching valuable skills in working together, they can also build trust, deepen friendships and add lots of laughter and fun to your summer play.

My favorite book on cooperative games is Adventures in Peacemaking; A Conflict Resolution Activity Guide for School-Age Programs[i]. Each page contains one 15-20 minute simple cooperative game with the age appropriate level listed. Skill categories for the games include cooperation, communication, expressing feelings, appreciating diversity and conflict resolution. Some require materials you likely have around the house but many require no materials at all. I’ve written out some of my favorite games below. Also included are ways to reflect on the game. You certainly do not need to guide a reflection each time the game is played but if you do it at least once, it gives your children and their friends the benefit of thinking through their experience and offers opportunities for greater and deeper learning.

Balloon Bop[ii] – All should stand in a circle with chairs and all obstructions behind them. Participants need to link arms (holding hands is another alternative). A balloon (not helium) is passed into the circle and participants need to keep it up and inside the circle for as long as possible without unlinking arms or letting it touch the ground.

Telephone – Do you remember the old game? You could call it “Cell phone” to contemporize this classic communication game. Stand in a circle without obstructions in front of you. You can begin the message. Here are some potential starters. “Five fabulous friends are frolicking in the field.” Or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers for Porky Pig” Or make up your own! Pass it around with a whisper to the person next to you. Have the last person say what they heard aloud. It’s ideal if you can go quickly and try it a couple of times. Then you are able to see if listening and communication improves with practice and focus. Reflect on the activity: What was the message at the beginning? What did each of you hear? What did you notice about the message as it’s passed along? Do you think you could improve if you tried again? What would you do differently?

Rainstorm[iii] – Stand in a circle without tables or chairs in front. Tell the group that you are going to begin a motion and expect that they will not do the motion until it comes around to their turn in the circle. Give them an example by clapping your hands and the person next to you passing on the clapping motion to the next and the next. They must continue that motion until it is changed and comes around to them again from the person next to them. When you do this series of motions together, it sounds like you create an indoor rainstorm (though let them guess after you’ve done it, what sounds you’ve made together). Lead with the following motions:

  1. Softly rub your hands together back and forth palms facing one another;
  2. Snap your fingers moving back and forth from one hand to the other;
  3. Pat your thighs one at a time from one thigh to the other;
  4. Stomp your feet loudly from one foot to the other;
  5. Reverse the moves by going back to patting your thighs, then, snapping your fingers, to softly rubbing your hands;
  6. Finally hold both hands up, palms out in silence.

Reflect by asking: What did we create together? What did it sound like?

Big Wind Blows[iv] – Sit in chairs in a circle. You will start by saying, “The big wind blows for all those…who wear contacts or eye glasses, or who are going in to third grade or who live on our street.” Each person will add their own commonality. Explain that all individuals who share that common trait need to get up and move to a different seat (and it cannot be the seat directly to the right or left of them). One chair is removed so that one person ends up without a seat in the middle. That person is the next one to call out, “The big wind blows for ….” It’s fun after playing it a few rounds for the facilitator to call out a commonality that everyone shares so that all are forced to move.  Reflect by asking: What did you like about this game? What did you find out you had in common with others? Did you learn something new about your friends? (Listed as “A Warm Wind Blows” in The Morning Meeting Book)

Commercials – Write out value words like “friendship” or “teamwork” or things found in nature like lakes or ladybugs on separate strips of paper. Put the strips of paper in a hat. Sit in a circle and have one person select a word out of the hat. The group should work together to create a commercial for television to advertise the value or natural phenomenon. Have them develop and rehearse it before showing it to you and any another other adults you can round up for the audience. It’s an even better and more exciting game if you video tape their performances! My Dad led this game in our backyard with the neighborhood kids when I was young and I still remember our commercials for telephones and rainbows and have the video to show my son.

Here are a couple of great books that list cooperative games.

Correa-Connolly, Melissa (2004). 99 Activities and Greetings. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Lattanzi Roser, Susan (2009). Energizers; 88 Quick Movement Activities that Refresh and Refocus, K-6. Turner Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

There are a number of sites that provide a variety of cooperative games with short descriptions for easy implementation. Check them out:

National Association for the Education of the Young Child, Games

Responsive Classroom, Games for Younger Students

Learning for Life Games

Mr. Gym Cooperative Games

Ultimate Camp Resource, Cooperative Games

Peace First, Digital Activity Center

Team Building Cooperative Games on Pinterest

Creative Kids at Home, Cooperative Games


[i] Kriedler, W.J., & Furlong, L. (1995). Adventures in peacemaking; A conflict resolution activity guide for school-age programs. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

[ii] Freeman-Loftis, B. (2010). Cooperative games for younger students. Responsive Classroom, http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/blog/cooperative-games-younger-students.

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

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

The Perfection of Being Imperfect

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We come to love not by finding a perfect person but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.

–          Sam Keen

As my gift to you, myself and all Mothers for the celebration of Mother’s Day, I am sharing an excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Anna Quindlen’s little book with a big message, Being Perfect.[i] She so well articulates the lesson I need to learn. My standards for myself are so high and I place those expectations on all aspects of my life particularly as a Mom, adding strain and stress that I know I and the others around me could live better without. I know many of you share my struggle because so many of my closest friends and most favorite parents share these high standards. On Mother’s Day I hope that you and your loved ones recognize all of your unique qualities perfect in their imperfections, that make you such an important person in their lives.

From Anna Quindlen’s Being Perfect

…You will convince yourself that you will be a better parent than your parents

and their parents have been. But being a good parent is not generational,

it is deeply personal, and it all comes down to this: If you can bring to your

children the self that you truly are, as opposed to some amalgam of manners

and mannerisms, expectations and fears that you have acquired as a carapace

along the way, you will be able to teach them by example not to be terrorized

by the narrow and parsimonious expectations of the world, a world that often

likes to color within the lines when a spray of paint, a scribble of crayon, would

be much more satisfying.

            For the sake of those children, you must look backward instead of

ahead, to remember yourself from your own childhood days, when you were

younger and rougher and wilder, more scrawl than straight line. Remember all

of yourself, the flaws as well as the many strengths. Pursuing perfection makes

you unforgiving of the faults of others. As Carl Jung once said, “If people can be

educated to see the lowly sides of their own natures, it may be hoped that they

will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less

hypocrisy and a little more tolerance towards oneself can only have good results

in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows

the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”

            Most of the time when we’re giving people advice we suggest that

they take up something or other: the challenge of the future, the work of a

new century. But I don’t really know what the challenge of the future will be,

and I’m still working on the work of a new century. I’m more comfortable

advising people to give up. Give up the nonsensical and punishing quest for

perfection that dogs too many of us through too much of our lives. It is a

quest that causes us to doubt and denigrate ourselves, our true selves, our

quirks and foibles and great heroic leaps into the unknown. Much of what

we were at five or six is what we wind up wishing we could be at fifty or sixty.

And that’s bad enough.

            But this is worse: Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere.

A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset.

A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have

lost someone you loved, or failed at something at which you badly wanted to

succeed.

            And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look

for some core to sustain you. And if you have been perfect all your life and have

managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your

community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole

where that core ought to be.

            I don’t want anyone I know to take that terrible chance. And the only

way to avoid it is to listen to that small voice inside you that tells you to make

mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian, to go another way. George Eliot wrote,

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” It is never too early,

either. Take it from someone who has left the backpack full of bricks far

behind, and every day feels like a feather.

It’s been quite a while since I have felt light as a feather. But when I bring the bubbles out of the garage for the first of the season, put away my link-to-the-e-world phone, and release the bubbles from their liquid, I begin to bring that feeling back. May you find your way back to your free-flying child-like self that allows you to be perfect in your imperfections. Happy Mother’s Day.

For more on self-compassion, check out: “Unconditional Love; The Prequel”


[i] Quindlen, A. (2005). Being perfect. NY: Random House.

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.

 

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