How to Talk about School Shootings with Children by Age

 

back to schoolSchool shootings continue to be a rare occurrence. Experts report that, statistically, your child is safer from violence and death at school than they are at home or in their neighborhood. It can be difficult to keep that in mind when we hear the death tolls and now see student experiences through social media posts related to school shootings.

It is important to keep this in mind when you speak to your child about school shootings at any age. As a parent, you provide the emotional landscape. Your words, emotion and tone can provide reassurance or add a sense of panic to the conversation. It may be helpful to calm your own thinking and emotions before speaking to your child.

I tend to think that we can often still protect preschoolers and early grade schoolers from the topic entirely. You can strive to protect them from news media and other related conversations. Of course, I’d answer questions if they have them and address any news media they might see. If a preschooler asks, you might say, “yes, that did happen. It was sad. Do you have any questions about that?” and, “your school is a safe place. The teachers and director work to keep you safe while you are there.” If a young child is aware and has questions, all of the following ideas may be helpful.

As difficult as it sounds, this is a topic to bring up directly with older students. With a third grader, you might say, “a scary thing happened at a high school today. Did you hear about it?” By sixth grade, you might start with, “there was shooting at a school today.”

You might then ask what they already know, what they think about it and how they feel. Parents may be surprised by the amount of information children have. Even young students may have unlimited access to the internet or a friend with talkative older siblings who share the details. It is often helpful to ask open ended questions and really listen both to the information and the questions a child has.

It may be helpful to have a few basic sentences pulled together to share the details of what happened. For elementary school students, this might be, “a student brought a gun to his high school. A few classmates and a teacher were shot. The police arrested him.” In middle school and high school, children often already know the details. At any age, it is helpful to clear up any misunderstandings.

A goal of this is to answer all of your child’s questions in an honest, small and age appropriate way. ‘Honest’ means you can’t promise it won’t happen at their school or near their community. ‘Small’ means aim to answer just the question that was asked to avoid overwhelming them with additional information. ‘Age appropriate’ means striving to keep a sense of idealism and safety for younger students and a realistic sense of risk for older students.

It is often helpful to let your child’s questions be the guide for how much information they need. A child who needs more information about their own school’s security or about the criminal charges of a case will likely ask those questions.

At any age, while giving answers also often provide reassurance. For younger students, this would be saying, “your school is a safe place. There are a lot of people there working to keep you safe.” For an older student, this might be discussing what safety measures are in place at their school.

It can be helpful to expect and acknowledge big emotions from children. When a child is upset, angry or frustrated, empathy is often a good place to start; this might be starting with, “I know this is upsetting. I am upset too.” or, “I hear you. You are angry!” You might also validate why they feel that way, “none of this is fair.” or, “I get it, this is a huge and scary thing to think about.”

In addition to an emotional response, older students might have a strong sense of justice and solid ideas about what should be done. It is good here to listen, reflect and stay open to their thoughts and opinions. You might ask open ended questions to help them flesh out their thinking.

Being familiar with the school’s safety plans and drills helps parents in several ways. Knowing what is in place may help to calm a parent or may give the parent a place to put their effort towards bettering the policies. When parents know the drills and plans, it can support having a fuller conversation with their child. Informed parents can also better reinforce the steps of a safety drill or answer related questions.

At any age, it can be helpful to encourage a child to listen to their teacher or follow the instructions during safety drills. For older students, it may be helpful to review the run, hide and, as a last resort fight, approach which is often suggested by safety experts.

It is also helpful to let your child know that they can talk to you about this anytime. Remind them that you are always open to discussing any thoughts, concerns or questions they have. For any big event, it is normal for children to have questions over time. For this issue, it’s even more likely to be a repeated topic of conversation as there will likely be additional events moving forward.

Whether your child brings it up or not, it’s helpful to occasionally follow-up. You might ask how they are doing or if they have any new thoughts or concerns.

By middle school, it is important for parents to also talk to children about having a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach to their own safety. In most previous school shootings, another child was aware of the thought, the plan or the related actions of the shooter before it happened. In these cases a sibling, friend or classmate had a prior conversation or knew something about the plan. Very rarely was an adult aware. All students should be encouraged to share any such information immediately with an adult.

Beyond Talk

Middle school and high school students may benefit from more active ways to participate. This includes sending cards of support, fundraising, starting and signing petitions, participating in letter writing campaigns and related marches.

At any age, you might place limits on news media. It’s suggested that children under 8-years-old be protected from news media. Children 8 to 12 years old should have guided exposure only; this means watching with an adult and having discussions about what they are viewing. Older children often have more open access to the internet and seemingly constant news. It may be helpful to speak with them often about what they are seeing and be open for conversations. If older children are stressed by the news, encourage them to take a break from it.

It may be beneficial to look for any signs of stress your child may be experiencing in the weeks and months following an event. These signs include changes in appetite, sleep patterns and socialization; this can be acting out behaviors, changes in mood and lower academic motivation. If a child seems to have significant difficulty, it may be helpful to speak with a guidance counselor, school psychologist, pediatrician or an outside therapist.

Here are two related blog posts:

Teachers: How to Answer Young Children’s Questions and Concerns About Stressful Community Events

Actions to Address School Shootings

 

 

 

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In Addition to Thoughts and Prayers: Actions to Address School Shootings

Empty School Hallway

The statistics on school shootings in the United States are overwhelming. There have been 17 shootings on school grounds in 2018 alone; 8 of these being intentional and during school hours . In Florida, this week’s school shooting left 17 dead and 5 in intensive care.

I am not a safety expert, I’m a school and developmental psychologist and work in schools most days. I am also a mom and want my kids to be safe. I also respect the Second Amendment and enjoy an occasional outing to the gun range. If it helps any, I consider myself an Independent and have voted for policies and politicians from both parties.

I’ve been thinking about the answers to school shootings off and on since grad school, since Columbine. It’s exhausting that as a country we continue to argue about the causes of the problem and have yet to move toward solutions in a meaningful way.

Anyone who argues one side, “it’s all a gun problem,” or “it’s all about mental health,” or worse, “there are no laws that could have helped,” is closing down the discussion and the possibility of finding reasoned decisions and solutions. It is a hugely complex and grave issue that deserves solutions from every angle.

Here is a starter list of several solutions. By no means is this meant to be an exhaustive list. My hope is we are at the beginning of real change on this issue and recognize there will be so many additional avenues towards a reduction of the violence.

Hint: If you are offended by the idea that part of the answer is gun regulation, you can skip the first section. It’s an important section as I think it’s at least half of the answer but there are several other sections for you including ideas on mental health, threat assessment and target hardening.

Gun Regulation

Common Sense Gun Regulation is at least considering rigorous universal background checks, blocking purchases for people deemed mentally ill (those guilty of domestic violence, and those on the no-fly list, but that’s a different article), higher age requirements, limits on the number of bullets in a clip and a ban on automatic and semi-automatic (particularly the AR 15) weapons. If not a ban on semi-automatics, much more rigorous checks and training.

Specific to school shootings, Dr. Matt Kuhn, a school district administrator in Colorado, suggests that students expelled from high school for violent behaviors also be added to the no-buy list through 21 years old. This would also give a beneficial layer of communication between the high schools and law enforcement agencies.

We might look to other countries. In the mid 1990s, Australia’s response to mass shootings included requiring a license for every gun owner, a registration for every gun, a ban on automatic weapons, and limits on clips. They also set up a gun buy back and destroyed more than a million guns. The USNLM-NIH reports that states with high rates of gun ownership have equally high rates of gun related homicides. Fewer guns, fewer homicides. Or we could follow Switzerland’s approach with required permits, background and mental illness checks, a limit of three weapons per person. They credit their low rates of gun violence to a culture of responsibility in ownership, gun safety and well enforced laws.

These other countries have similar issues with mental illness, teenagers who play violent video games and permissive parenting yet they don’t have the number of mass shootings. The one thing that differentiates us from them is the number of guns and the loose regulations for purchase and ownership. This is a uniquely American problem and the research, the numbers, point to gun control as the main answer. Please though, read on, there are several other answers that will save lives.

To this whole section, I would add holding gun owning parents responsible if their children injure or kill others with their guns.

All this said, clear debate and solid decision making relies on good data. Since a 1996 Congressional budget amendment, the US Center for Disease Control which studies other causes of death including drowning and  car accidents have been unable to effectively study gun violence. There is hope in that Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services stated clear support for gun violence research moving forward. Fully funding this area of research would enable us to achieve better policies.

If you need direction to how to have a voice in this debate, you might consider joining a group in your area:

Mental Illness/Mental Health

While fewer than 5% of gun related homicides are committed by people diagnosed with a mental illness, the USNLM-NIH reports up to 60% of US mass shooters (not limited to schools) displayed symptoms including “acute paranoia, delusions and depression” before their crime. They continue that mental health concerns are likely higher for mass shooters than those who commit other gun violence.

Recognizing and treating mental illness in our young people takes parents who are in tune, open to evaluations and able to afford care. It is often time consumming and costly to accurately diagnose and treat conditions. It is also paying attention over the years of childhood to changes in symptoms requiring changes in treatment plans.

Often it is the school bringing a student’s mental health concerns to their parents’ attention. Most public schools have guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers. While their caseloads are heavy and their focus is supporting education, they, and teachers, are in a unique position to observe students’ mental health and related behaviors.

For this to all work, we need fully funded schools with effective student services and support programs. We need a robust health care system with insurance for all that covers an integrated approach to mental health. We also need parents who will pick up the information and effectively address it over time. This may include individual and group counseling, medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or social skills groups. Not too much to ask, right? Kidding aside, the only way for mental health services to be available for all is if we make their funding a priority.

More manageable places to start would be a month on related mental health issues and a week on threat assessment (below) built in to every 9th and 10th graders health class and similar yearly staff training. Providing related articles and workshops for parents would add consistency between settings. A yearly mental health screening for each student (a few self-report forms to fill out) each year in high school. An additional social worker per high school to coordinate related services with parents and the community. I see the school social worker as a central player in this discussion.

Dr. Peter Langman, an expert on school shootings and author of School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators and the website School Shooters.info, breaks school shooters in to three common categories. Psychotic students may have delusional disorders, and may be diagnosed with schizophrenia or similar level of mental illness. Psychopathic students may be narcissistic or have related personality disorders, they may be characterized by a lack of empathy, conscience or remorse. Traumatized students may have suffered abuse, bullying, family loss or come from a dysfunctional home. Of these categories, only psychotic students have a high likelihood of being formally diagnosed with a mental illness by high school. More likely students from all three categories would be on the radar of a school social worker.

Under the mental health umbrella is a student’s social skills and social connectedness. A word that comes up repeatedly when describing many school shooters is “loner.”  Peer status research methods are a quick, easy and inexpensive way to identify the students that other students would consider to be at-risk in this way.

Social support programs in schools, often offered by the guidance counselor or even those run by students such as We Dine Together, can reduce the number of students who feel isolated. Amy Zamboldi, a parent at Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, shared information about their Freshman FOCUS program. This program pairs each 9th grader with a trained and guidance counselor supervised 11th or 12th grader to promote academic and social success and an overall sense of community. Such programs can also help identify any student having difficulty with the transition. Researching and funding such programs is a proactive way to address related social concerns.

A very specific social skill related to reducing levels of aggression is empathy. While empathy remains an elusive skill to teach directly, we can definitely coach children on the component pieces of emotion language, understanding and perspective taking. If children are struggling in this area, parents may enroll them in social skills groups and actively coach them through related social exchange. Ideally, all of this starts long before high school.

Social connections and students’ mental health can also be improved through participation in extracurricular activities. In the last 25 years, Iceland has significantly reduced the rate of teenage delinquency, social stress and drug use through increased funding for all students to participate in organized sports, music, art, dance and other productive activities. Yes, they also added reasonable curfews and parenting support, but overall their approach is so simple and has been so effective. It is worth considering as a part of the answer here.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment in this case is the process of identifying, evaluating and managing threats to student’s safety in our schools. The Safe School Initiative, which is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Secret Service, is designed to guide schools and communities to improve their efforts and related outcomes.

These Departments state that identification and evaluation is much more about the facts of the case and behaviors of the student than any characteristics or traits. That often a student who poses a threat “did not threaten their targets directly,” but “did engage in pre-attack behaviors. This includes “leaking,” telling others or posting to social media, asking others for help or discussing details of the plan, or smaller threatening behaviors such as bringing ammunition to school. Other signals include a student who has difficulty coping with failures or loss, feelings of hopelessness, suicide attempts, feeling bullied or wronged by other students or the system, and access to, fascination with and prior use of weapons. With all of these behaviors, the push is for students, friends and siblings to follow a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach.

As it is an increasingly common detail reported in a school shooter’s prior behavior, I would add copycat behavior and hero worship to this list. In many recent cases, these students have posted photos and video clips of themselves in similar poses to previous shooters. They describe admiring previous shooters as their inspiration or their God. They report studying earlier incidents to copy or out do previous events. ‘See Something, Say Something.’

They also suggest that schools should build a culture of respect for diversity and differences, support student’s social and emotional needs, bolster individual trusted relationships and paths for communication between students and school staff. In addition, they support the ongoing effort to reduce bullying in our schools. The School Safety Initiative goes on to outline a plan for evaluating threats and how to best manage an active situation.

Kathy Brown, CEM and Deputy Director at Union County Emergency Management Agency, suggests school systems should have a staff member trained to monitor students’ social media looking for trends in keyword, hashtag and geotlocation searches. She feels having a designated person within each system could go a long way towards identifying students in crisis.

Currently, only a handful of states require Threat Assessment Teams be in place in our K – 12 school systems and at public colleges. Requiring this practice and related funding from the federal level seems like a no-brainer, especially as this plan was developed by two federal departments.

Target Hardening

Target hardening is strengthening the security of a school in order to protect it in the case of an attack.

A good guy with a gun would be an incredibly well trained professional who is in the school solely for safety. My children’s high school has two assigned county police officers each day. I am happy to see them there. With as much as we pay in taxes, this step should be well within affordable.

The coordinated emergency planning school systems do with community law enforcement and other emergency services is also target hardening. This includes clear plans and paths for communication, staff training, lockdown drills, evacuation and family reunification plans.

Target hardening also includes safety products such as metal detectors, electronic door access with strict rules, bullet proof interior glass and interior door locks. Sadly, it also includes bullet proof backpacks and stocked first aid kits. Again, well within affordable.

VOTE

Vote for local, state and federal leaders who support common sense gun regulation, funding safety research at the CDC, a robust health insurance market, an integrated mental health system, and fully supported public schools and afternoon programs. Contact your politicians by phone, email, mail and through social media. Share your thoughts and ideas about all of these issues.

Media Guidelines

With the copycat influence, self reported body count goals and increased hero worship of previous shooters, Mother Jones magazine suggests six ways media outlets can help lessen future attacks. These are covered in their article How the Media Inspires Mass Shooters.

Additional Issues

Not to leave them out, violent video games and permissive or detached parenting are likely pieces to this puzzle. By all means, if these seem like main issues to you, start here. It is time to do something and lessening our children’s violent video content and improving the climate of parenting will make the country a better place too. You might work for age restrictions on violent content and first person shooter games. You might support community organizations that work with families and students considered at-risk. You might join a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. On a smaller scale, you might provide volunteer hours with your child’s school or scout troop.

Everything on this list seems common sense to me. The big actions to take are likely at the intersection of gun regulation and mental health. Rather than continuing to argue the causes, it is time to take action towards solutions.

Here is a blog post on How to Talk to Children About School Shootings by Age.

Here is a blog post for teachers on How to Answer Young Children’s Questions About Stressful Community Events 

 

 

Answers to Overscheduling

Calendar and to do lists hanging on refrigerator

Parenting often involves a whole lot of scheduling. It’s your own schedule, it’s their school and activities schedule, their playdates and homework or screen time. It is a lot to juggle.

  • Get a Master Calendar – We have a desk size calendar on our dining room table and have each year since our oldest was six. It has our work schedules, school events, parties, weekend plans and vacations. For a while, it had playdates then homework hours. The kids chore chart is right beside the calendar.
  • An hour a day of downtime – If your family’s schedule always seems full, an hour of downtime a day, every day, may be the first thing to put on the calendar. Downtime for children is truly unstructured, go-play time. It is not time on screens and not full of activities that you provide. It’s a time for them to make their own plans. Ideally it’s a full hour at a time, but it’s okay to break it up when you have to.
  • Consider limits – There are so many pulls on our time. It can be helpful to at least consider limits on screen time, set times for homework (even if it varies throughout the week, at least it’s on the calendar), and have 20 minutes of reading and 20 minutes of being read to daily.

General guidelines – These are all for starters, meaning a good place to start, and then a child may be able to handle more or need to shift to less.

  • In Preschool – In the preschool years, consider only scheduling something fixed on days off. If your child is in school three days a week, maybe plan for two or three activities on the days off. For children in five full days, plan for just one other on Saturdays.
  • Starting Kindergarten – The transition to Kindergarten can be exhausting for children. It is a fast paced, academic environment with little downtime or rest. It may be helpful to lay low on other structured activities for the first month or two of Kindergarten.
  • In Elementary School – Plan for school plus two structured activities at a time. However, there are children who can handle far more and some that school is plenty. Two would men piano and soccer or boy scouts and swimming. It may be helpful to place these on Monday and Tuesday when they are more rested from the weekend, or on the weekend when the rest of the day is relaxed.
  • In Middle School – Plan for school plus three structured activities at a time. Also plan for one major activity and two minor activities at a time. Major activities would be a school sport or being a lead in a school play. These types of activities may meet four or five days a week.
  • Go for variety – For my own children, I encourage them to participate in something athletic and something musical at any given time. I’ve let them pick the instruments and sports, just encouraged them to go broad and try new things often. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children not specialize in a year round sport until at least twelve years old.

Answers

  • Have a mission statement – When signing up for something, at least consider why you are enrolling and what you hope you or your child gets out of it.
  • Have the child help decide on activities – By about six or seven years old, I’d ask and take their answers in to account. For sure, when they start in the school band, they should pick the instrument. When they register for high school classes, they should have at least half the say if not more.
  • Also fine to have a few givens – In my house, everyone learns to swim. The option may be different in your house. Maybe it’s foreign language classes to be able to communicate with extended family. It is okay to decide some of this for them as well.
  • Make family time a priority – It may be helpful to put this on the calendar as well. Goals might include whole family time, doing something all together at least once a week. Couples time, a date night (even if it’s at home in front of the TV) at least twice a month. Individual pairs in the family, at least once a month.
  • Resist judging them at every turn – Children aren’t supposed to be good at anything. If they join the swim team, focus on enjoying the meets and asking questions to learn about their experience. Focus on their effort and process more than outcomes.

Ways to Encourage Listening and Following Directions

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So much of parents’ frustration stems from children not listening or following directions. Like any other social skill, this is something that can be encouraged and taught.

  • Model – When you are in conversation with your children, or when they are asking you questions, it’s helpful to really listen. This may be putting down your book or your phone. This may be giving more eye contact and providing more conversation back. Really listen yourself.
  • Have their attention first – Before you speak, it is helpful to have their attention first. This might be saying their name, touching their arm, getting on their level, or making eye contact. Like, how teachers might flick the lights or ring a bell.
  • Engage and reflectively listen – This is active listening. In conversation, it’s reflecting back the things you hear. “Wow, that must have hurt your feelings.” It’s occasionally summarizing or checking in for understanding. “You really got it,” or, “that seems like it would be confusing. Were you confused?” It might be just adding words for punctuation, “horrible!” This may also be asking for more detail or asking a question to encourage them to continue. All of this requires that you keep up.
  • Encourage real conversation – So often, we spend our time telling children where to go and what to do. We tend to be really boring. If you want kids to listen more, you might need to vary your conversation and talk about more interesting things. You might engage them in conversation about their favorite activities. You might ask about their friendships or collections. You might open conversations to bigger topics like politics and religion (in age appropriate, non-lecturing, ways).
  • Provide an answer either way – When children ask a question or make a comment, it is good to give a response as best you can.
  • Read aloud everyday – Listening to stories encourages children to listen in general. You might occasionally ask them about the stories they hear. You might encourage them to tell their own stories or consider if a character had made a different decision. Books on tape, CDs and Audibles all count to build listening skills.
  • Avoid repeating yourself – When you are asking your child to do something, avoid repeating yourself. The idea is the more you repeat, “put on your shoes,” you are teaching them to tune you out. Here is a blog post about how to not repeat yourself.
  • Give positive directions – This is saying, “walking feet,” or, “slow down,” rather than, “no running,” or, “don’t run.” This is saying, “ask for a turn,” or, “wait for a turn,” rather than, “no grabbing,” or, “don’t grab.” Here is a blog post about positive directions.
  • Give a direction with just a word or two – When you can, this might be, “bed,” or, “sit here,” or, “quiet.”
  • Give a visual cue with the direction – This can be as simple as a point in the right direction, or as much as drawing them a picture of the thing you are asking them to do. This can add emphasis to the direction or give a visual reminder when you draw a picture.
  • Cook, bake, make craft kits or model cars together – Highlight the importance in each of following the directions. Helpful to have a written list, discuss it before and check directions off as you go.
  • Read about it
    • Listen and Learn by Meiners
    • Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen by Binkow
    • Listen Buddy by Lester
    • Lacey Walker Non-Stop Talker
    • Worst Day of My Life Ever by Cook
  • Play listening games
    • What Animal? What Sport? – You pick one, and they ask questions to figure it out.
    • 20 Questions – You pick a person, place or thing, and they ask yes/no questions to figure it out.
    • Simon Says – You give lots of directions starting with “Simon says…,” that they follow. You surprise them with a direction that leaves out the “Simon says…,” and they should really listen and not follow it.
    • Freeze Dance – Music plays, and when you turn it off, they freeze like a statue.
    • Animal Dance – Music plays, and you call out what animal to move like.
    • Robot – You are the programmer, and they are the robot. You give one specific direction at a time to move them through an activity.
    • Crazy Directions – At the playground, you might say to a 4 year old, “run to the bridge, jump across the bridge, touch the red tricycle and crawl back.” You can repeat this and then say “ready, go!” and see if they can keep it in working order. If not, prompt them along, and you might try fewer directions the next time. If they can, maybe give an additional direction the next time.
  • Play listening board games
    • “Hullabaloo” by Cranium (audio not DVD version)
    • “Guess Who?” by Hasbro
    • “Noodleboro Pizza Palace Listening game”
    • “Mystery Garden” by Ravensburger
    • “Look Who’s Listening” board game
    • “6 Speaking and Listening Board Games”
    • For any board game, you might read the directions (at least the highlights) together before you play.  Refer back to them as needed while you play, and talk about the importance of following the directions.

All About Time-Outs: Reservations and Guidelines

Waiting

First a disclaimer – I didn’t use time-outs with my own children. The preschool that I work at reserves time-outs only for when all else fails. As a formal approach, they haven’t used this in at least the last two years.

Not positive discipline – Time-outs are not considered positive discipline. It’s not included in most positive discipline books. If you are comparing it to positive discipline techniques, it’s most like logical negative consequences. The difference is, you aren’t supposed to marry time-outs with all the other techniques. When you use it, in the moment, it stands alone. Logical negative consequences are often used in conjunction with other techniques including empathy, positive intent and choices.

Behavior modification tool – Time-outs fall into another category of addressing behaviors. It is a behavior modification tool. This category includes rewards systems, token economies, behavior charts and 1-2-3 Magic. Several of the time-out guidelines below, I learned in a Behavior Modification course in grad school.

A position against – In No-Drama Discipline, Seigel and Bryson point out that discipline moments should be focused on teaching and connecting with a child. They report that often when parents use time-out it’s focused on punishing and disconnecting with a child. Their position is that the appropriate use of time-out includes “brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from and interaction used as a part of a thought-out parenting strategy (with) positive feedback and connection with a parent” which can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in practice, they see time-out more often used in an inappropriate way, which means it is “frequent, prolonged and done as a punishment (with) parental anger and frustration.” This misses out on the empathy and problem solving of positive discipline and can register to the child as rejection.

Maybe ineffective – There are studies on both sides of this. Some suggest it can be an effective tool, and others suggest parents using time-outs are treading water at best or making things worse. Here are guidelines to use it in a more effective way.

Guidelines

Time-out is meant to be a simple, consistent way to address behavior. It is an attention withdraw technique, meaning the consequence for the behavior is the withdraw of attention.

Define a spot – Before you get started, it is helpful to define a time-out spot in your house. This might be the bottom step of a stair case or an empty foyer. While it’s fine to have a time-out chair, you may have the added difficulty of the child sliding off the chair or pushing the chair around. The discipline isn’t sitting on a spot, it’s the withdraw of attention. Others caution against using the child’s bed or bedroom for time-outs. Some argue their bedroom is their space in the house and should have a positive connotation. Also, you want them to want to sleep in their bed. Some say it’s not the best place because their toys are there, and they’d enjoy playing during the time-out. I also get it when parents say, “our house is small,” or, “the bedroom is the only place we can contain him/her.” I’d suggest picking a boring spot. If the family lives in the kitchen, then the spot should not be there.

Target a behavior – Time-out works best to lessen a behavior, by targeting that behavior. This means you are using time-out only and consistently for that behavior. Parents who use it, tend to use it widely. They randomly apply it – pull the dog’s tail, time-out, hit your sister, time-out, spit on the floor, time-out. When randomly applied, it doesn’t tend to lessen any of the behaviors. Targeting means you pick one behavior, (maybe the worst or most persistent behavior) and you narrowly and consistently apply a time-out. You might decide hitting has gotten out of hand for this child so you decide, “we are going to use time-out for hitting, and only for hitting.” When hitting happens, there is a time-out. Not a threat of time-out or a countdown of behaviors towards a time-out, but hitting is followed by a time-out every time.

Three through ten years old – The books say three to ten years old. There’s a bullet point below on time-outs with younger children. I also tend to think the upper end is seven or eight years old. By ten years old, many children are thankful you are withdrawing attention.

One to two minutes per year and starting on the low end – With a four year old this means four to eight minutes per time-out. I’d start at the four minute mark, because when the timer dings, they need to be in the time-out spot and relatively quiet to get out. If not, if they are running around or screaming, you might set it for another minute. This can add up.

A timer not your watch – A timer is objective. Everyone can see it so there’s less debate. If it’s your watch, a child may worry that you will leave them there longer. If you are angry, you might. Your watch also drags you in to more debates. You end up having to say, “two more minutes,” and, “not time yet.” A timer, you can just point to.

Ten word rule – As a parent you are limited to ten words. This might be, “that hurt, time-out. Sit. Sit. No more, go play.” This means you don’t lecture on the way there or have big discussions immediately following. Time-outs are based on the withdraw of attention to curb behavior. All this talk is a lot of attention on the heels of the withdraw of attention which defeats your purpose. You shouldn’t have to explain why they are there, they are only there for one behavior. And, while you need to coach the wanted behaviors, (below) it’s best to do that out of the moment.

Little parental emotion – In the same direction, a big emotional response is giving attention. Yelling, glaring, stomping around give the behavior that power. In the moment, time-outs are meant to be a calm follow through for behavior. It’s meant to be cut and dry.

If your child won’t stay – You might increase your physical presence. They won’t stay in the foyer, stand just outside the foyer with your back to them. They won’t sit on a stair, sit just behind them, hands gently on their shoulders. That’s about it. If you find yourself wrestling with a child to keep them in time-out, it is not working for you. They have your full attention.

Preconference – This is an important piece, and it’s when you really lose two-year-olds. The preconference is explaining all this to your child just before you start using time-outs to address a behavior. You might call a family meeting and explain, “hitting has gotten out of hand in our house. We are going to use time-outs for hitting. Here is where you sit. Here is the timer, and this is how long it lasts. When the timer dings, if you stayed here and are relatively quiet, you can get out.” Say all this to a two year old and they’ve forgotten by the next day.

As an informal approach – Several parents have said, “we do time-outs, but it’s not all this.” It’s more, “you need a break. Go take a time-out.” or, “go to your room. When you are calm, you can rejoin us.” I think taking a break to calm down, for the child to collect themselves is often a good thing to do. If you are using time-outs to lessen a behavior, I wouldn’t also call this time-out. You might also teach the other ways to calm.

Younger children – You lose most two year olds with the preconference. They are often, not good at staying put for the follow through. I think it can be fine to occasionally fall back on the guidelines if a limit is needed. If a young two year old bites your arm, I think fine to say, “ouch, that hurts!” set them down and walk away for a minute as a consequence. Remember the time limits, the ten word rule and little emotion. If you need better ideas for introducing positive discipline with young children, read The Discipline Book by Sears and Sears.

Time-in – I like time-ins. This is a period of time, maybe a minute per year of life, that you give empathy, connect and coach the wanted behavior. If your four year old just grabbed a toy, you might have them sit with you and say “I know it is frustrating to wait for a turn,” and then coach ways to ask, role play asking, give a puppet show to model or draw a picture of it going well together. It is good to remember to coach the wanted behavior out of the moment as well.

 

 

 

Teaching Kids How to Take Another’s Perspective

Conflict on the playground. Two kids fighting over a toy shovel in the sandboxPerspective taking is very limited in young children. Like, how two-year-olds close their eyes to hide when playing hide and seek. The thought is, ‘if they can’t see themselves, you can’t see them.’ Three-year-olds stand in front of you and don’t realize you can’t see through them. Even four years olds get confused when you don’t already know things they think about or dream about.

Perspective taking and emotion understanding are foundation pieces of a developing sense of empathy. Being able to understand how another is feeling starts with understanding that the other exists separately, and then that they see and later think and feel differently.

By grade school, the hope is children have a basic understanding of others’ views, thoughts and emotions as separate from their own and important.

Ways to Teach

Other’s View – As a way to introduce differences in perspective taking, you might have each person stand on a different side of a statue or play structure and describe or draw what they see. You might also read and discuss Seven Blind Mice by Young. In this story, seven blind mice meet an elephant, and each mouse assumes it is something different based on the part of the elephant they can feel.

View of Artwork – You could visit an art museum and discuss how a painting makes each of you feel, or what a sculpture makes each of you think about. You might discuss how your perceptions might differ based on individual experiences.

Responses to Music – You could listen together and discuss the way it makes you each feel and why. You might talk about similarities and differences in what the lyrics mean to each of you.

Recognize Emotions – It can be helpful to label and discuss emotions often. This includes your’s, their’s and other’s emotions. When appropriate, you might discuss differences in emotional responses, both what the emotions are and different ways people express emotions.

Encourage Role Play – When children pretend to be a doctor, teacher, police officer, grandma or puppy they are stepping into another’s role. Encourage them to tell their story, to think about how they would feel in a situation or what they would do and why.

Ask Questions to Find Out More – This might be encouraging your child to ask a tour guide a question at a museum or to ask a friend a question about his new puppy. Let your child know that asking others questions is a good way to find out more about all kinds of things. In our social skills groups, we take turns having one child sit in a chair to answer questions about a favorite toy, activity or pet. Others sitting on the floor take turns asking questions to learn more.

Play Can You Imagine – After a birthday party you might ask, “can you imagine if you were the only girl at that party? How would it be different?” About school, “can you imagine being the youngest kid in all your classes?” or, “can you imagine being a new kid in the middle of the school year? It might be tough to make new friends when everyone else already knows each other.” or, “can you imagine how hard it might be if you still had difficulty with reading?” The point is to put your child in a place to think about the challenges others face. There are countless options here.

Story Books – There are several children’s storybooks that may be helpful in the discussions about perspective taking, other’s emotions and impact on others.

  • How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath – A nice way to introduce impact on others and how behaviors shape feelings.
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornson – A good introduction to viewing other’s emotions.
  • What if Everybody Did That by Javernick – A light way to look at the impact of negative behaviors.
  • Everyone by Neal – How we all share similar emotions.
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel – How “perspective shapes what we see.”
  • Seven Blind Mice by Young – An introduction to perspective taking.

Conflicts in Story Books – Many children’s storybooks contain some type of conflict. When characters are in conflict you might discuss how the various characters view the conflict, why they view it the way they do, and how they might be feeling about it.

Freezing, Comparing and Coaching through Conflicts – After a bit of practice in storybooks, you might freeze your children in or follow conflict moments to discuss how each viewed the conflict, why they had their view, and how each was feeling during. This works best when emotions aren’t too high or later, once everyone is calm.

Discuss Other’s Efforts, Progress and Struggles – This includes pointing out a soccer teammate’s hard work, a classmate’s study habits or a friend’s working through their own conflict. This isn’t meant as pressure on your child, just a comment that they aren’t alone in the process.

Acknowledge Their Reasons in Conflict with You – This may be the most difficult on the list; it can be helpful to occasionally acknowledge their point of view during disagreements. This reflective listening tends to validate their side, let them know you are listening. This might be, “I hear you really want that. All of your friends have one and  it seems like you feel left out.” or, “you really don’t like what I just said. I get that it is upsetting. You want it the other way.” You might use this to check in by asking, “am I understanding this correctly?” You might also ask them to identify or rephrase your point.

Talk through Your Own Conflicts and Point Out the Various Sides – When your children see you in conflict, it can be helpful to step back and explain the various sides. Model looking at the problem from various perspectives and including that information in how you solve the problem.

 

 

Ways to Encourage Early Writing

Preschool Kids Education

Before they are writing

There are lots of ways to encourage the skills that support writing from long before they are writing letters and words.

Fine motor activities – Starting in the first year, you can give activities that practice the pincer grasp and exercize the fingers. This is picking up small food like Cheerios or raisins. Later it is using tweezers, putting coins in a piggy bank, dress me dolls and playing with small manipulatives like bristles blocks and legos. This is making small balls with playdough and folding paper for planes and oragami.

Gross motor activities – This includes crawling, climbing, swimming, ball games, frisbee and gymnastics. This is anything that encourages the strength, flexibility and coordination of their arms and hands.

Lots of art supplies early and often – The goal is to encouarge a wide range of art supplies early and often. There is a different pencil grip and pencil pressure using thin markers, thick markers, crayons, pencils, dot art, roller art and paintbrushes. Spray bottles and hole punches build hand strength.

Writing props in play – If children are playing store, give them long paper for shopping lists and a notepad for writing reciepts. If they are playing office, give them a calendar for meetings and a legal pads for taking notes.

A writing supply drawer – By three and a half or four years old, it can be helpful to have a writing supply drawer or box separate from your other art supplies. This might have list paper, notebook paper, staitionary, pens and pencils.

Other writing activities – In preschool this includes maze books, dot-to-dot books, Color Wonder, stencils and scratch paper. In elementary school this includes tracing paper, spirograph, and invisible ink books.

Encourage new positions – When they are coloring with crayons, you can encourage them to color sitting at a table, laying on the floor, standing at an easel, or under the table with the paper taped to the underside. Each position gives a new view on arm and hand position, pencil grip and pencil pressure.

Once they are writing

Once they are writing letters and words, the goal is to encourage writing often.

Give them jobs – There are several fun jobs that encourage writing. The ‘list maker’ writes all the shopping and activity lists. The ‘navigator’ draws maps or traces the route on an actual map for car trips. The ‘historian’ keeps a journal of family activities. The ‘mail carrier’ writes postcards to grandparents weekly.

Notebooks, journals and diaries – Especially over the summer months, it can be helpful to encourage writing daily. This might be easiest with a dated journal or diary. It may also be helpful to keep a writing notebook and pencil in the car.

Writing prompts – For young children, this might be having them draw a picture and then tell or write a story to go with it. As they are older, this might be giving them a starting story line or topic and encouraging them to write the rest.

Book making activities – You can make a book with a few pages of paper, a pencil, crayons and a stapler.

For more writing and other academic supplies, visit: Lakeshore, Kaplan, Discount School Supplies and Community Playthings

 

 

 

Ways to Encourage Confidence in the Classroom from Home

Teacher with children in kindergarten

Build a broad base of knowledge – When the teacher talks about a new topic in class, it’s helpful if your child has a fund of related knowledge. There are several ways to build this.

  • Focus on building your child’s vocabulary – A child’s vocabulary scores are often reflective of their overall cognitive scores. A rich vocabulary supports confidence in the classroom and reading comprehension.
  • Lots of outings – Everywhere you take your child, you are exposing them to new vocabulary and information. While museums, art galleries and nature walks are great, the beach, pumpkin patches and sports outings also count. Be sure you are answering questions and talking to your child about all they are seeing and doing at each.
  • Read aloud everyday – Aside from being cited as the single most important factor in building successful readers, reading aloud builds a child’s vocabulary and broadens their base of knowledge.

Play school – You might play school at home and encourage your child to be the teacher. During this game they can teach you about any topics they are learning in school.

Playdates with classmates – The more they know and are comfortable with classmates, the more likely they are to be comfortable speaking in front of them. It can be helpful to arrange playdates with a wide range of children from their classes.

Challenges in play – If your child is building a tower, you might challenge them to build it taller or think of two new ways to build the base. When children have a lot of practice at taking on challenges in play, they are more likely to do the same in the classroom. When the teacher says, “who can do this problem on the board?” they are a little more likely to raise their hand and try.

Encourage risk taking in moderation – Children have to take risks to learn to ride a bike. It can be a risk to stand up in front of the class and speak. Encouraging a healthy level of risk taking in play and in life can help them feel confident to participate in class. This might be jumping off something at the park that’s a little higher than the last time or holding just one hand not two for balance.

Ask about school – It can be helpful to shake up the questions you ask after school. If everyday you ask, “how was your day?” Kids tend to give the easy answer, “fine.” There are hundreds of other questions you could ask. Here are a few related to participation and confidence:

  • “Was there anything really hard to do today?” and, “how did you figure it out?”
  • “What did you learn about in science class today?” and, “did you already know anything about that or was it all new?”
  • “Did you have to work in groups today?” and, “how did it go?”
  • “Did you raise your hand and answer any questions today?”

School skills in real life – If your second grader is learning how to count money, carry cash and let them be your banker. Let them count the money to and from cashiers. For a seventh grader learning to calculate percentages, have them figure out the tip at restaurants.

Teach flexible thinking – Flexible thinking includes teaching kids to brainstorm ideas or solutions and think about the range of related outcomes. This might be encouraging children to come up with a plan B when their first plan doesn’t work. You might practice plan A vs. plan B for small issues often. You can also teach flexible thinking by playing games like Gobblet, Connect Four and Labrynith which require players to make new strategies often.

Encourage persistence – When a child is stuck, you might give a bit of empathy and ask them questions or give them hints to help them move forward. You might help them break the task down into smaller pieces. I’d also highlight the benefits of practice and that the more they try, the more likely they are to solve and the easier it may seem the next time.

Focus praise on effort, process and progress more than outcomes – When a child gets a good grade, it can be helpful to focus your language on how much they studied and how hard they worked. When they win a race, focus on how often they practiced and how much they’ve improved their time.

Are we together too much?

happy child girl with a kite running on meadow in summer

Tips for Creating Space in a Family

“I feel like I am disciplining my children way more often than my mother had to discipline me.” I hear this often. It may be that we, as families, are just together too much. Or, at least together way more than we were with our families growing up.

Aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. Summers and weekends we were outside, playing in the neighborhood, and riding bikes to the park at six years old with lots of other neighborhood kids. There were long days when my mom would say, just after breakfast, “go find someone to play with,” which meant, “go knock on neighbors doors until you find something to do.” We’d be out until lunch and then often out again until dinner. When I was inside, my mother was often busy with cleaning house, cooking or grad school. She was rarely playing with me.

I am not saying to put your kids outside for the day after breakfast, and let them fend for themselves at 6 years old. I get it doesn’t work that way anymore. If your kid were out there, they’d be out there alone and likely CPS would take issue. And, it’s good to play with your kids.

I am saying our kids are underfoot, they are indoors and often stuck with siblings for much longer stretches. They have constant supervision until much later ages. This shift means more discipline and more sibling conflicts. It means more pressure to provide structured activities and classes. It means arranging more playdates.

  • Encourage independent play – By three years old, a child should be able to occupy their own time for about 20 minutes. By five years old maybe 45 minutes to an hour. If your child isn’t able to do this, they may need more practice. During the summers in preschool and elementary school, my girls had 30 minutes each day to go to any room in the house to play alone. Some days one was the playroom the other in the living room, other days each others’ bedrooms. It wasn’t that they were in trouble, it was a time for everyone to have a bit of space. For older children, this might be having an independent reading time each day in the summer. Here is a blog post with lots of helpful ideas to encourage independent play.
  • Think downtime daily – Downtime is truly unstructured and relaxed time. This can be when they are busy with independent play. It can be time playing with siblings or time to just look out the window or hang out with the dog. It’s not time on screens and it’s not time directed by you. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like children to have at least an hour of downtime a day at three through ten years old.
  • Have more long term projects – To encourage downtime and independent play as children are a little older, it may be helpful to have a few long term projects available. This might be a large jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table, model kits, building sets they are allowed to leave out, latch hook rugs or big fuzzy posters to color.
  • Get them outside often – There is so much more space outside. The playground, the park, a walk in the neighborhood, the field behind your house, county parks, the woods. I get you are going to trail along at least for a while. There is so much benefit to spending time outside and in nature. A good parenting book is Last Child in the Woods by Louv.
  • Take them to the playground and plan to sit on a bench for some of the time – Once they are able to manage the playground equipment, it is fine to take stretches to sit on a bench and watch from a distance rather than follow them around the playground. Yes, it’s good to play with them, but it’s also good to give them some space.
  • The backyard – When they are young, this might be sitting out in the backyard with a good book while they play nearby. As they are older and you feel comfortable, this is letting them outside on their own.
  • Plan playdates then strive for less supervision – So this one may backfire. Invite a friend over and you may need to supervise more. The hope is you find a few friends who get along very well with your child for one-on-one playdates and schedule them more often. Here is a blog post all about playdates.
  • Give them a chance to work things out on their own – When children have conflicts with friends at any age, it is good to let them try to work it out. Even toddlers might surprise you with their ability to give a turn or help another child. It’s helpful to keep an eye on things, and if it starts to go south, you can intervene. Under three years old you are likely making the decisions and walking them through ways to solve. As they get older, it’s helpful to gradually do less. This might be helping them brainstorm solutions or giving a few suggestions. The goal is to support them learning to work it out on their own and they can’t do that if you continue to solve things for them. Give them some room.
  • Give siblings a break from each other – This might be the daily play times listed above. You could have each invite a playdate over and then play with their friends on separate levels of the house. It might be having individual outings with each parent regularly. You might have them work on homework in separate rooms.
  • Give privacy when they ask – At some point, most children close the door when they use the bathroom or sleep, and ask that they bathe separate from siblings. The idea is to plan to give them privacy when they ask for it. As long as you feel they are safe and old enough, step out.
  • Their bedroom is their space in the house – This includes letting them pick the paint and the decoration as young as you can tolerate. As they are in middle school or high school, this might be letting them keep their room how they’d like to keep it. You can insist on a deep clean once a month, and in between maybe just close the door.
  • Good to have some boundaries for your own privacy – When they are little, privacy is often unheard of, they follow you in the bathroom and basically sit on top of you on the couch. It is fine to teach them about personal space and request it as needed.
  • Still set smart limits on screen time – I get that handing them a screen, your phone or a tablet is an easy way to buy you some time, but it comes at a cost. If you do this often or for long stretches, their time on screens may skyrocket. Here is a link to four articles that outline the current screen time limits offered by the AAP.
  • Have hobbies and other interests – It’s healthy for everyone in the family to have outside interests. If you’ve lost your time for that, finding it again will give everyone a bit of space.

Things to Consider When Giving Your Child a Cellphone

Group Of Young Children Hanging Out In Playground

How and when to give a child a cell phone of their own is a big decision for parents. The bulk of research suggests that the less screen time children have the better. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests having a family plan with set limits on screen use. Giving them a cell phone is putting a screen, often with a camera and the internet, in their pocket. Setting limits becomes that much more challenging.

I’ve met three-year-olds who have their own phones and tablets. That ownership seems young by any standards. In the United States about 10% of children have their own phone by five years old, and 65% by ten to twelve years old. As a mom, I wanted my children to be able to call home without having to ask permission when they started riding with other families often and spending the night away from home. This made sense to me at 12 years old, around 7th grade. Whenever you decide, here are a few things to consider:

  • Start with a limited phone – Our girls each started with a talk and text phone only for the first two years.
  • The phone belongs to the parent – We made this really clear from the beginning. We own the phone and are sharing it with them. It was understood that we’d check on their phone use, their calls and their texting once in a while. It isn’t an invasion of privacy if it’s part of the plan.
  • Only connect with people you know in real life – This rule applied to talk, text and chat in the beginning. It applies to Facebook and Snapchat now. It doesn’t apply to Twitter and Instagram, but we had a talk to make that decision as a family.
  • Talk directly about inappropriate talk, texts and pictures – If they are old enough to have a cellphone, they are old enough to have these conversations. Make your expectations and limits clear.
  • Good to get permission to add apps or have accounts – It’s helpful to be clear about what apps and accounts they may have, and the need for having permission before they add new ones.
  • Smart to have apps and accounts where they do – You don’t have to be connected to them directly (don’t have to be their friend or follower), but it’s smart to know how each works and what’s available there. I was mildly surprised by what’s available on Instagram.
  • Healthy to set daily screen free times and places – In our house this is all mealtimes, school hours and homework time unless it is specifically required.
  • Set a daily time to turn off – In our house this is 9:00pm on week nights and 11:30pm on weekends and vacations.
  • Safe to hold onto the NOT in their bedrooms rule – When families first started having desk top computers, a common rule was to not have the computer in a child’s room. For safety and for healthy sleep, this rule remains a good one for all screens.
  • Fine for child to be responsible for part or all of this – Some families decide to have their child pay for some or all of their phone service. Other families add weekly chores in exchange for the phone.
  • Either way, discuss staying within data limits and plan if they go over – It is helpful that everyone knows what the limits are, how to stay in and what happens (or who pays) if anyone goes over.
  • Of course, important to consider the individual child – This includes how well they follow rules, meet expectations, how responsible they are with belongings and how much difficulty they’re having managing peer pressure and social conflicts.

 

 

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