How to Talk with Your Child About the Coronavirus

close up hands of children or Pupils At preschool Washing hands with soap under the faucet with water,copy space for text or product you. clean and Hygiene concept.

The guidelines for speaking with children about difficult topics vary by age. This is true with the coronavirus as well. With preschoolers you might narrowly focus on building healthy habits and giving reassurances about their safety. In elementary school, many children are ready for basic information and there may be a need to correct misinformation. By middle school and high school, they may be ready for conversations about how viruses move, the impact on differing communities and the importance and impact of social policy.

Parents set the emotional landscape – As a parent, how you present information about a topic goes a long way towards how your children take that information in. If you present something as “the worst thing ever,” children will take it that way rather than presenting it as “something we need to be aware of.” The aim is to calm yourself down before you speak with your children.

Get the facts – It can be helpful to start a conversation with your child by sharing a few basic facts. In this case, the new coronavirus causes a respiratory illness called COVID – 19. The major symptoms include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Most people who catch it have mild symptoms. More severe symptoms are more common for older people and people with existing health concerns.

Find out what they know – It can also be helpful to ask what they have heard or about any concerns they have. What they already know makes a good starting place. This also allows you to clear up any misunderstandings and better address their specific concerns.

Let their questions be your guide – Once you’ve started the conversation, it may be enough to let their questions be your guide to how much more information is needed. Some children may not have any questions, others may have specific questions or bigger worries. Aim to answer all of their questions honestly and in age appropriate language. Also, answer just the question asked to avoid overwhelming with information.

Provide honest reassurance – It can be helpful to share how rare this illness still is and how mild the symptoms are for most people. It may be a reassuring to share what their family, school, community and country are doing to prepare and to keep people safe.

Keep it an open topic – It can be helpful for children to know that they can always ask questions about this or any other topic. You might also check in with them every few days to see if they have heard anything new or have worries or questions.

Focus on building healthy habits – At all ages, there are a few basic things children can do to keep themselves and those around them healthy. Focusing children on what they can do can be empowering to them and help to lessen their stress.

  • Wash your hands – Teach and encourage children to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds. You might challenge them to find songs that last 20 seconds while they scrub or set a fun timer like the Children’s Countdown app. You might get them paint soap, foamy soap or soap with a toy inside. Encourage handwashing at all the regular times like after the bathroom and before eating or drinking. It may be helpful now to add handwashing as part of the routine when they arrive or leave school and other crowded places.
  • Sneeze and cough in your elbow – Teach and encourage children to sneeze and cough into their elbow. If they use a tissue, encourage them to wash their hands.
  • Avoid touching your face – Teach and encourage children to avoid touching their face. Okay, this one is tough. You might play the hands-off game (kind of like the Quiet Game except the loser touches their face first rather than makes noise) to see who can keep from touching their face the longest. Along the same lines, teach and encourage children to avoid sharing food, drinks and personal products like chapstick and makeup.

Empathy for things they miss and cancelled activities – In the next few weeks, schools may close and sporting events may be cancelled. If your child is angry or disappointed, it is often good to start your response with empathy. “I am so sorry that got cancelled, you really like going there” is a nice way to start.

Teach about impact on others – This might be a good time to highlight their impact on others. By late elementary school you might discuss how cancelling events is to keep the virus contained and how that benefits other people in the community.

Avoid news media – For children under eight years old, it may be best to avoid the news media all together. This includes internet, television and radio news. The headlines are often alarming and news stories tend to lead with dramatic details. All of this may add to a child’s sense of stress. For older children, it can be helpful to at least know what they are seeing and hearing and use that information as a starting point for further conversations.

If you are sick, stay home – This is a good reminder for anytime: When you are sick, please stay home. The coronavirus, much like other colds and the flu spread through interactions with other people.

Homework Solution #3: Organization

By fourth grade it can be helpful for a child to use a homework notebook. This is a place to jot down homework assignments, due dates and materials as needed. If your child is struggling with any of these pieces, you might ask his teacher to spot check the lists. It can also be helpful […]

Parent and pupil of preschool.

By fourth grade it can be helpful for a child to use a homework notebook. This is a place to jot down homework assignments, due dates and materials as needed. If your child is struggling with any of these pieces, you might ask his teacher to spot check the lists.

It can also be helpful to have a large calendar at home to organize your child’s schedule. This includes daily homework times, extracurricular activity schedules, project and test due dates and weekend plans (for fun). By fourth grade, it can be helpful to teach your child to break down projects and studying for tests in to small pieces over time. If your fourth grader has a book report, you might show them how they can read five pages for six days and then have four days left to write. If there is a big test coming up, you might note studying 20 minutes each night the last several days.

If your child still has text books (that is a sad topic for another day), it can be helpful to color code the book covers and subject notebooks and folders by topic.

Teaching organization includes their notebooks, backpack, homework space and desk at school. If your child needs support in this area you might go through their backpack together once a week to throw out trash and organize their notebooks. It may be helpful to have an extra folder in their backpack for notes from home, permission slips and fliers from school. At least occasionally you might include cleaning up their homework space as a chore or as a few minutes of their homework time. If it seems needed, you might ask their teacher or guidance counselor to help them clean out and organize their desk.

Homework Solution 1: Time

Homework Solution 2: Place

Homework Solution #2: Place

Father helping daughter to finish homework

Another common homework battle is over place. The goal is a well stocked, well lit space with a good table or desk and a comfortable something for reading.

Well stocked means having everything your child might need for homework for the year. In elementary school this might be pencils, erasers, wide lined paper, markers, crayons, colored pencils, pencil sharpener, construction paper, tape, glue and a ruler. By fourth grade add a protractor, poster board, a dictionary and thesaurus. By middle school a compass, highlighters, index cards, college lined paper and pens. At some point, depending on your child’s school this should also include access to the internet. At any grade, it may be helpful to have a list pad. Children can list their homework and check off tasks as they finish.

It may be helpful to have a table or desk that is a comfortable height for your child and provides enough table top space to spread out their work. It’s nice to also have a good beanbag or comfy reading chair nearby. For all of this, also helpful to have bright enough work lights.

It’s best to plan all of this in a space that is relatively calm and quiet. The kitchen table may not be the best place if it’s during dinner prep and a TV is often on in the room.

If they can give each other quiet and space, it can be fine for siblings to work in the same room. If not, separate rooms are also fine. My girls shared the kitchen table in grade school and often put up a science fair board as a boundary between them.

It can be helpful to also provide a place for their backpack. In our house this was a painter’s tape X in the foyer. Homework was not done until it was in the bag and on the X.

Homework Solution 1: Time

Homework Solution 3: Organization



Homework Solution #1: Time


The most common homework concerns are related to time, space and organization. I am linking three blog posts with the aim to answer each.

There isn’t a best time to do homework, just several options. The idea is to find what fits your family best for now. There are some children who just want it done. These kids might start homework during the ride home and finish the rest before doing other things. I wish these were my kids. Others need a break after school. They need to eat snack and move their bodies before tackling homework. For some families after dinner is the time. I think this is also fine as long as there is truly enough time to get it done and it’s not making bedtime later. Some families fit homework time in the morning. This seems the riskiest. Maybe if my child was an early riser, they could put their 20 minutes of reading in the morning. The drive to school might be a good time to review spelling words each day.

Whatever your decision, good to include the children in the conversation. Ask what time they think is best and why. With schedules being as busy as they are, it might not be the same time each day. A child might have different activities at different times each day. Get a calendar, add the activities, discuss the homework times and add them. The aim is to have all their activities and homework times for the week on the calendar by Sunday. This lets your child know that homework is a priority and hopefully lessens the debate about when to get started each day.

Another consideration is the amount of time homework takes each day. The trick is to first consider how much time it typically takes, or should typically take. If your child is focused and working, what’s the average? When my older child was in second grade it took about 20 minutes so we set the minimum at 25. This meant Monday through Thursday there was a 25 minute stretch marked on the calendar for homework or homework type tasks. If she finished early, she was welcome to study her spelling words, play academic computer games or practice recorder to finish the time. I’m easy on this one, over the years I allowed word finds, crosswords, piano practice, sudoku and the occasional MadLibs. Having a minimum amount of time to finish discourages them from rushing through. If the nights they only have a few minutes of homework, they wrap it up and go play, the push may be to rush everynight.

The 25 minutes is also a sort of maximum. If they are off task lots or arguing about homework during the 25 minutes, when the time is up homework is done. Talk to them about how it could have gone better, maybe write a note to teacher about why things aren’t finished for the night. The goal is to encourage them to focus and really work to get things done during the time. By all means, if they are working the whole time and need more, give them more.

It’s also good to consider how much time homework takes in general. I still lean on the 10 minutes per grade. Twenty minutes for a second grader and forty for a fourth grader seems to be plenty. This may vary once they hit middle and high school based on the classes they are taking. If it’s taking significantly more, maybe good to check in with your child, other parents and the teacher. It is helpful to know if your child is on task or not, if it’s just your child taking longer or others and what the teacher’s expectations for time are to begin with. Also helpful to look for patterns, are they taking longer for writing or math assignments, are they taking longer if they start later in the evening?

It may be helpful to teach your child to organize their homework time each night. This means making a checklist of tasks, including study time and pieces of longer projects. It may be helpful to start with the hard tasks first to get through them while they are fresh.

It’s beneficial for this to be a quiet, working time for the whole family. Older siblings might do their homework at the same time, younger siblings might look at books or work on puzzles. Parents might read or work.

Homework Solution 2: Place

Homework Solution 3: Organization

Providing a Foundation for Academic Success in Preschool Friendly Ways

Back to school

I am firmly in the learning through play camp when it comes to preschoolers and early academics. Done in a good way, this doesn’t mean just let them play and they’ll be ready. It means thoughtfully providing academic experiences in fun, engaging and play based ways.

Early Literacy Skills to Keep in Mind – Early literacy is focused on the experiences we can provide children to later become successful readers.

Vocabulary – There are so many ways to build a young child’s vocabulary; read aloud everyday, talk about all the things they are seeing and doing, take them on outings and highlight the new vocabulary of that place and aim to teach one new word in context every few days.

Print Motivation – This is a child’s interest in and awareness of books. Motivation can be encouraged by having books available on every level of the house and in the car, and using reading as a reward (“You can stay up late if you are reading”). You might also offer extended learning activities, if you read Blueberries for Sal then make blueberry muffins. Attending library and bookstore activities with read alouds and checking out library books also build motivation.

Print Awareness – This is the child’s understanding about how books go cover to cover, and the words go top to bottom and left to right. It is a gradual understanding of word spacing and later sentence structure. This comes from a child’s shared and independent experiences with books. Reading aloud everyday and occasionally following along with your finger is a good ways to call attention to the print. Pointing out words that match pictures in books may help. Listening and looking at books on tape together is beneficial.

Narrative Skills – Narrative skills include being able to retell a story, understand the order and be able to eventually sequence events. Answering questions about what’s been read and recalling specific details of a story is a good place to start. Occasionally discussing what happened at the beginning, middle and end of a story is helpful. Calling grandma each Monday and retelling a story about something that happened over the weekend is a good way to practice this.

Letter Knowledge – This is the child learning the shapes, names and sounds of each of the letters. It’s tempting here to go more old school academic with flashcards and worksheets, I’d still err on the side of play. Have a letter of the week and collect small objects in the house that start with that sound. Go on letter hunts in the grocery store to find as many individual letters as you can and cross them off a list, have a B shopping trip to buy bagels and butter, blueberries and beans and go home to a B lunch. Paint and sculpt the letters. Play matching games, memory and go fish with the letters.

Phonics – This is being able to put the individual sounds together to make words, pull individual sounds out of words, recognize beginning, ending and eventually middle sounds of words and later learn the common patterns of sound blends. It is helpful to play rhyming games, have listening challenges and sing nursery rhymes. It can be helpful to read aloud books that have basic rhyming patterns such as Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose books.

READ ALOUD EVERYDAY – The Department of Education cites reading aloud as the most important activity to build the knowledge and interest for children to become successful readers. There are many ways to enjoy reading aloud with young children and with children as they get older. The main idea is to start on day one and continue to build the love of books and reading together as long as they will listen. For younger children just enjoying books together, looking at and talking about the pictures, making up stories, finding details in pictures all count as time with books. For older children you might alternate who reads, read their homework aloud or read separately and have book club talks.

Early Math Language to Keep in Mind – There are four areas of math language that can be built in to all the play and activities you are doing in the regular flow of the day. This language builds the foundation for understanding basic math concepts.

Numbers and Counting – Count napkins when you set the table and apples as you put them in the bag at the grocery store. Count often and challenge children to gradually count larger groups of things. Estimation language is a piece of this. Once children are versed at basic counting, estimating how many cookies in a jar or marbles in a bag helps with later math skills.

Position – Position language includes in, on, over, under, near, far, above, below, next to, in front of and behind. You might hide toys and give clues to finding them using this language. You might build an obstacle course and narrate or have people narrate themselves moving through. You might play Simon Says or Follow the Leader using this language.

Measurement – Measurement language is talking about how big or small, short or tall, heavy or light things are. For younger children this might be sequencing big, bigger, biggest. For older children this might be measuring things in inches or feet and then comparing.

Amount – Amount includes some, more, a little, a lot, more than and less than language. This also includes actual amounts like a quarter cup, half cup and whole cup. Baking and cooking activities are an easy way to build in actual amount.

Motor Skills to Keep in Mind – There are many fine motor and gross motor skills that are important for later academics, particularly for handwriting which is important across academic areas.

Pincer grasp and in-hand manipulation are important for eventual pencil grip and pencil pressure. Pincer grasp is practiced by putting pennies in a bank, using tweezers to move cotton balls and putting together puzzles with gradually smaller pieces. In-hand manipulation is practiced playing with small manipulatives including duplos and legos, bristle blocks, Lincoln logs and tinker toys.

Bilateral integration is important for eventual coordination for handwriting. Bilateral integration is using both sides of your body and in this case both hands in a coordinated way. For using your whole body this includes crawling, skipping, and swimming. For your hands this includes most craft activities such as lacing and sewing cards, weaving looms and latch-hook rugs. Midline activities and crossing midline activities include songs with clapping and simple motions like The Wheels on the Bus and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. This also includes popping bubbles and throwing or rolling and catching balls on one side of your body and the other.

Offer a wide range of art supplies – There is a different pencil grip and pressure to using thick and thin markers, different crayons, pens, pencils, dot art, roller art and pebble and ball crayons. The wider range of experience the better. Once they are comfortable provide a wide range of writing activities. This includes scratch paper, invisible books, dot to dots and mazes.

Offer in range of postures – Think of the different postures for art and writing at a table versus on the floor, or in a bean bag versus at an easel, or laying on your back with paper taped to the underside of a table. All of this benefits handwriting.

Providing Children a Sense of Community


I am aging myself here, I was a child in the 1970s. We knocked on doors to ask friends to play, rode bikes unsupervised and stayed out until the street lights came on. Starting in Kindergarten I walked to elementary school with other kids from my street. As a tween, I earned money babysitting and mowing lawns for neighbors. Beyond the neighborhood, I grew up in a small town that had one high school, a yearly Summer Ice Cream Social and 4th of July fireworks. It felt like my parents knew everyone in town. There was a strong sense of community.

Between moving childhood indoors, having daily screen time, more supervision until older ages, the rise of scheduled activities and a shift away from tweens working for others, it is more difficult to provide children this sense of community. Here are a few helpful ideas:

Join a local Moms Club and plan neighborhood playdates – Repeat play with the same children gives them a chance to build friendships. Having neighborhood friends adds to a sense of community. Even better, at least occasionally plan to meet friends at the neighborhood playground.

When your children are young, just getting to know other families with children similar ages can be a lifesaver. It’s helpful to know others share your joys and struggles of parenting and family. It can also be a great way to find and share babysitters, set up co-ops and get to know other community resources.

Get to know and help neighbors – An easy and direct way to build a sense of community is to get to know your neighbors. This means starting up conversations when you walk your dog or check the mailbox. This may mean exchanging holiday cards, shoveling someone’s snowy driveway, taking in their mail or offering to help when there is an illness or new baby.

Attend neighborhood celebrations – An easy and often child friendly way to build a sense of community is to attend neighborhood celebrations. In our current neighborhood this is a Fourth of July street picnic and a Halloween block party.

Attend events and volunteer at church, library and other community events – Each organization is a piece of an overall sense of community. These events and efforts allow you to model connecting to and working well with others. As a parent, you may not know which experience will hold meaning for your child. The idea is to offer a wide variety, highlight the enjoyment or importance and hope this shapes in the long run.

Especially attend and volunteer at school events – Your child’s school provides them a specific community with a whole new set of caregivers (get to know them) and child oriented activities. The more you can work at and enjoy school activities together, the better. Not only does this build a sense of cohesive support and community, it may bolster academic motivation and long term outcomes.

Participate in local clean-ups – Working with others and taking physical care of the community is a great way to feel connected. Community or street clean-ups may be organized by your local park, church, school or neighborhood. This may also be a facility work day. Each year our preschool does a Big Dig. This is a day the families work together on planting flowers, mulching and other lawn care at the school.

Encourage your child to join scouts – Both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts provide and challenge children to participate in groups and later individual service projects. Brownies and boy scouts may take fieldtrips to local venues. Older scouts may organize events to benefit the community directly.

Highlight the Work of Others – For younger children you might sing These are the People in Your Neighborhood from Sesame Street (version 2 or version 3) and highlight the roles each plays. For older children you might discuss the roles, responsibilities and impact of others in the community.

Really Explore Your Community – It can be refreshing to step back and take a look at all that is available for families in your community. This includes museums, county parks, recreation centers, hiking trails, art and dance facilities and venues, sports teams and festivals. If you are in the Northern Virginia area here is a post with staycation ideas.

Encourage Children to Make Maps – Children’s sense of community may grow from thinking about their surroundings in a new way. Spatial reasoning and symbol association skills benefit from making and reading maps. With preschool age children, you might map their playgrounds, the grocery store or their house. As children get older they can map their neighborhood and their larger community.

Volunteer Together – Volunteering with your children can be a valuable way to build a larger sense of community and recognize the needs of others. As a family we rung the bell for the Salvation Army several years. Through their middle school, we served dinner at the local Catholic Charities kitchen. In high school, they’ve participated with a food pantry. These experiences gave my children a new view on connecting with others in the community. Here is an article about family volunteer opportunities in the Northern VA area.

Give Together – Once a year you might participate in a toy drive or a gently used coat donation program. You might adopt a child or family to support through a local shelter or church program. It’s helpful to have your children participate in the process and make them aware of these community connections.




Encouraging Children’s Empathy

Adorable girl comforting her little sister after she fell off her bike at summer park. Child getting hurt while riding a bicycle.

Empathy is the understanding of or sensitivity to others feelings and experiences. It is a developing trait across childhood and can greatly vary between children based on age, predisposition and experiences. There are several ways parents can coach the component pieces of emotion language and perspective taking.

Coach Emotion Language – Children being able to identify emotions in facial expressions, social context and in themselves is a strong foundation for empathy towards others. Here are several ways to coach emotions.

  • Use I messages – I messages are a productive way to label and share your emotions. They are also considered a foundation step of positive discipline. I messages label your emotions and explain why you feel that way while putting blame on the behavior or thing that happened rather than the child. Let’s say a child runs through the living room, and knocks over and breaks your lamp. An I message might be, “I am angry, my lamp is broken,” “I am upset, people are running in the house,” or, “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The blame is passive (my lamp is broken) or global (no one is listening, people are running). This avoids blaming the child, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp. You never listen.”
  • Give empathy – Empathy is validating your child’s emotions and why they feel that way. Often this can happen in the moment, and it’s also fine to provide this following an emotional exchange when all is calm. Empathy sounds like, “wow, you are angry. You didn’t like that game,” or, “I know you are upset, it’s so hard to be left out.”
  • Talk about others’ emotions – Discuss the sad baby you hear crying in the grocery store or the angry child who was having a fit at the playground. Label emotions, talk about things that make them feel that way or what others could do to help.
  • Be sure to include causes and consequences of emotions – At least occasionally in these conversations, discuss what came before the emotion or what happened as a result.
  • Read about emotions – There are so many good children’s books on emotions. There is a list on my blog at
  • Tell your own stories with emotional content – If you are at all creative, tell your own stories with emotional content. When our girls were little, we told a lot of Amy and Catie stories. Amy was remarkably like our daughter Alicen, and Catie just like our daughter Claire. If Alicen and Claire had an upset at the swingset, that night Amy and Katie would have a similar upset at the sandbox. Your stories should all provide examples of positive ways to manage and express emotions and ways to calm.
  • Ask hypotheticals – As children are four and five years old, you can ask hypotheticals related to their own experiences. If your child gets angry over sharing toys, you might ask, “what would you do if you really wanted to play with a particular car, and your friend was using it and kept saying ‘no’ to giving a turn?” If needed, help brainstorm good choices and discuss possible outcomes.
  • Role play emotions – Go back and reenact emotional situations. If it was an upset with another child, take turns being each child involved and think of ways it could have gone better.
  • Give puppet shows – Most kids love a puppet show. Again, it’s good to make these about familiar exchanges.
  • Play emotion charades – Play charades, just be sure to include emotions as a category.
  • Make emotion faces in the mirror and to each other – Talk about how we know someone is angry, excited, sad or happy.
  • Make an emotions poster – Divide a poster board into 6 squares labeled happy, sad, excited, mad, surprised and scared. Provide assorted magazines, then help children cut out and paste emotion faces and things that make them feel each way. You might write in each box additional things that make them feel that way or any other thoughts they have about that emotion.
  • Listen to and discuss emotional music – Listen together to sad, exciting or happy music. Then, talk about what each song makes them think of and how it makes them feel.
  • Paint emotion pictures – You might paint emotion posters while you listen to the emotional music.
  • Sing emotion songs – We sing “When You’re Happy and You Know It” and include movements like clapping for happy, stomping feet for mad and crying for sad.
  • Learn more – For more ideas, you can read Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner Strength in Children by Lantieri or Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children by Blaine.

(Again) Provide Empathy for Their Emotions – The more they are hearing the labels for their own emotions, the more likely they are able to apply this language to others. Empathy is often a good place to start in a discipline exchange or when helping them learn to manage social conflicts. Just acknowledging emotions as they are, lets the child know that you hear and understand them. Remember, it’s often empathy before the discipline or empathy before the fix.

Coach Perspective Taking – Perspective taking is being able to see a situation from another child’s point of view. This is limited in the preschool years. Young children are often still so egocentric in their view, it is hard to step out and consider another’s experience. You might introduce this when you and the child are disagreeing or feel differently about the same topic. At bedtime, maybe talk about how you are happy and looking forward to sleep and they are annoyed and wanting to put off sleep. You might point out differing feelings or opinion as part of addressing when they are in conflict with another child.

Children’s Books – Reading and discussing books can be a great way to teach social skills.

Here are a few good children’s books about empathy:

  • How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath
  • I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Verde and Reynolds
  • You, Me and Empathy by Sanders
  • Empathy: I Know How You Feel by George
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen

Here are a few good children’s books that introduce perspective taking:

  • Voices in the Park by Browne
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel
  • 7 Blind Mice by Young
  • You Are (Not) Small by Kang

Schedule Playdates with Younger Children – Occasionally playing with a younger child can bring out caring and empathy from an older child. You might label emotions when they happen. You might suggest the older child help the younger child with tasks or teach them how to do something. You might highlight how considerate or helpful your older child was after the playdate.

Provide Other Oriented Consequences – In discipline or when supporting social exchanges, it can be helpful to include other oriented consequences. This is pointing out a child’s impact on others. “Look at your friend. He is sad. Grabbing that toy made him sad.” or “She doesn’t like that. Hitting hurts her.” The idea is to let your child know their behavior had an impact on the others while avoiding direct blame language. This basically means to highlight their behavior and avoid using the word “you.”

Provide Do-Overs – When it seems appropriate, it may be helpful to allow the child a do-over, a chance to improve their behavior or make a better choice instead of always giving a consequence. The do-over allows the child to really consider alternatives ways to change outcomes.

Highlight Deeds as Personal Traits – I’ve written often about using descriptive praise. When you are praising a child’s behavior, academics or athletics it can be helpful to describe the behavior and label. This may be “You handed a block. That was helpful.” Or “You wrote five sentences. That’s a lot of work!” There is new research to suggest it is helpful to occasionally highlight their trait rather than give a straight label. This would be “You handed a block. You are being helpful,” or “You are a helpful person.” And “You wrote five sentences. You are a hard worker!” Highlighting the trait may give the child more personal ownership. It may be more likely they carry that self descriptor with them to influence future behaviors. They may be more likely to think of themselves as a helper or a hard worker. When it comes to encouraging empathy, it would be commenting often about how kind, considerate, thoughtful or friendly they are.

Fine Motor Play Ideas with Preschoolers

Portrait of little girl painting, summer outdoor

Pincer Grasp

  • Pennies in a piggy bank
  • Tweezers to move cotton balls between bowls
  • Eye droppers to move water between bowls (or painting with colored water)
  • Moving toothpicks between bowls or play Pick Up Sticks
  • Golf tee games
  • Small pieces of food for snack
  • Original Colorforms and stickers
  • Sand art (spread glue and then add pinches of sand)
  • Knob puzzles

In Hand Manipulation

  • Small manipulatives – duplos, legos, bristle blocks, lincoln logs, tinker toys, ello,  unifix cubes, magnatiles
  • Dress me dolls – zippers, buttons, snaps, laces
  • Dressing dolls
  • Nuts and bolts
  • Peg boards
  • Tongs to move pompoms between bowls
  • Toothpick and marshmellow sculptures or play doh and small thing (sequence, toothpicks, pipecleaners) sculptures
  • Marbles
  • Rolling dice game
  • Jacks
  • Play doh with play doh tools and scissors
  • Pipe cleaners
  • String beads or beads on pipe cleaners
  • Weaving paper activities or weaving looms
  • Lacing cards
  • Mosaics with glue (tissue or construction paper pieces, tiles, pompoms, sequence)
  • Paperclips
  • Puzzles
  • Paint with cars (roll in paint and on paper)
  • Light Bright and Operation games

Pencil Grip and Pressure

  • Wide range of writing tools – pencils, pens, crayons (pebble crayons, ball crayons, rainbow crayons), thin markers, thick markers, dot art, roller art, paint brushes, Qtip painting, toothbrush painting, water paints, paint things (rocks, leaves, shells)
  • Wide range of writing activities – invisible ink books, color wonder, spirograph, dot to dots, maze books, stencils (Lakeshore has good ones), scratch paper

Hand Strength

  • Clay and model magic
  • Hole punches
  • Scissors
  • Spray bottles
  • Clothes pins on things or to hang things


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




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, 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 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