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


            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.


Working It Out

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

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

We can work it out.

We can work it out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harvey, what’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

Parent: “How does that make you feel?”

Harvey: “Mad!”

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

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

Parent: “How do you feel about that?”

Susan: “Mad.”

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

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

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

Susan: “Nope!”

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

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

Harvey: “I could do that.”

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

In Praise of Specificity

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

–       John Ruskin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Mister Rogers

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

Cultivating a Sense of Competence

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

asks E, my five year old son.

I don’t know, I say. Good question.

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

–          Conversation at our house last week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] Dictionary.com Retrieved April 11, 2013. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/competence?s=t

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

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

A Fork in the Road

 Dorothy and yellow brick road illustr 001

Your children are not your children

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

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

 –          Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

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

The Importance of Choice

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

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

How Do Rules and Boundaries Fit with Choices?

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

How Do Children’s Choices Fit into Family Life?

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


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

Daily Tasks

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

Spaces and Places

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

Discipline and Consequences

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

When Choice is Not an Option

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

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

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

And Self Determination Theory site, home page, Retrieved 4/4/13. http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/

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

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

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

Expanding the Circle: Teaching Children Inclusion

Expanding the Circle 2 001

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

Mahatma Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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