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

 

 

 

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.

When a Child has to be FIRST or be BEST at Everything

Little brother and sister running

It’s fairly common for children to go through a phase of needing to be first or best at everything. This might be first to get out of the car, or first to touch the front door. It might be best at running fast or writing letters. This push varies widely with some way more than others, and boys often more than girls. It tends to start around four years old and hopefully subsides for most by seven or eight.

As difficult as this phase can be, it is at least partly stemming from a good place. As children grow they are gradually developing a sense of self. For two year olds, the focus is ‘who am I in this family?’ For three and four year olds, it is ‘what am I good at, what do I like?’ For four and five year olds, it’s ‘how do I rank with those around me?’ When you have a bunch of five year olds moving through a phase of ranking themselves against each other, there is bound to be some competition.

A child’s self esteem has its foundation partially in a growing sense of competence. As children learn new skills and rise to face new challenges, the outcome is a bolstered sense of self. Children often feel proud of their new skills, as they should. This pride and the language that comes with it may also increase the comparisons.

What to Do 

Start with empathy often – When children are emotional, empathy is so often the best place to start. For this, it might be “I know you are frustrated. You really wanted to be first.” This is before any coaching, limit or discipline.

Refocus on effort, fun or friendship – You might comment on how hard they are working, how much fun the game was or how they are making so many new friends.

Refocus on individual skill building and practice – If they are frustrated from being third, you might follow empathy with, “I know you like to run fast. We can practice running in the backyard.”

Avoid pointing out they are better than others – This would be saying, “I know you lost to John, but you were faster than Eric.” This heightens the focus on competition.

Avoid pointing out other strengths – This might be, “you may not be as fast as him, but you draw really well.” This is just agreeing your child is slow, and, again, it’s competitive.

Solve it – Especially between siblings, in the long run you might want to make a rule with the goal of ending the debate. Some families do odd and even days, on odd days one child goes first at everything and makes all the decisions on even days the other. Some families have bracelet days, meaning whoever is wearing the bracelet is first and makes decisions, and the bracelet is passed daily.

Highlight practice – It is good for children to realize that practice and effort are the ways to get better at just about everything. The more they practice at or learn about something the better they will be and more confident they will feel.

Give cooperative challenges – Over time it can be helpful to give cooperative challenges. Between siblings better to say, “let’s see if you can help each other get dressed before me,” so they are working together. Rather than saying, “let’s see who can get dressed first,” so they are hating each other while they get dressed. If it’s a rush to touch the door first, it is stopping them and, instead, challenging them to touch the door with their noses at the same second. There are a few books for cooperative effort ideas: Everybody Wins: 150 Non-Competitive Games for Kids by MacGregor and Everybody Wins: 393 Non-Competitive Games for Young Children by Sobel.

Focus good sportsmanship – Rather than focusing on winning and being first, focus your parenting language on being a good sport, a team player. It may be helpful to suggest language each time and help them to be a good sport for a while.

Encourage them to cheer for others, be happy for others – Being a good sport includes handling loosing in a good way. This is as small as managing when they don’t touch the front door first when running from the car. This may take lots of review. It’s saying things like “good job,” or, “wow, you were fast,” to the other child. It might be easiest to introduce this when they aren’t involved in the competition. An example of this would be cheering as a spectator at their siblings soccer game.

Encourage being nice when they are first too – Being a good sport equally includes winning well. Kids who are pressed to be first may go overboard when they beat others. This can be as little as giving a high five or saying “that was fun!”

Focus on teamwork rather than individual – It may be helpful to focus your parenting language on teamwork, cooperation and the benefits of working together. This may include referring to your family as a team. You might point out one way each day that various family members are helping or cooperating with each other. With other children, it may be helpful to remind them they are friends and to think about at least one thing they like about the other.

Teach children to compete with their own personal best – If it’s running, point out that they are faster or they ran farther than they did before. Again, helpful to focus on their effort, progress and practice.

Start teaching to win and lose at games and sports – Being comfortable with winning and losing at games and sports can carry over towards this push to be the first or the best. Here is a post about learning to manage that competition.

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

sad or bored little school girl

Stressful events in the life of a child can include community stressors like the D.C. sniper shootings, our country making a declaration of war or a stock market crash. These community stressors impact the child based on how much they impact the child’s parents and how much information is being shared with the child, often either through news media or overhearing conversations. There are also family stressors like a parent losing a job or parents separating. There are also child stressors such as someone being mean to them on the playground often or the child switching classes unexpectedly. This post is about how teachers can best address children’s questions and concerns about community stressors.

Because of our Northern Virginia location, the immigration changes that happened this weekend and the political changes that may continue to happen over the next few years are likely to impact many of our families in unpredictable ways. While the hope is that parents will protect their young children from the news media (preschool through third grade at least), occasionally they don’t, children overhear or sense the stress. Children may have questions or make comments at school. Here are a few guidelines to help manage when there is a community stressor. These are the same guidelines regardless of the specific stressor.

  • These topics should NOT be brought up as a discussion topic by the teacher to an individual or group of young children. This includes teachers speaking to each other about these topics when children are present.
  • If a child brings up the topic
  1. Listen fully to their comment or question.
  2. It is best to start with providing empathy.
  3. You may then:
    1. Add a comment that shows you understand them.
    2. Answer their question is a small and honest way. This means answer only the question asked, in age appropriate language and without taking sides.
    3. OR, let them know this is a good question to discuss with their mom and dad. Let them know that you will write their question or concern down and share it with their parents.
  4. Provide reassurance.
  • In the case of the immigration changes, if a child is just concerned:

“I can tell you are worried about that. Do you have any questions about what happened?”

Or, “so you heard that people got stuck at an airport? You seem worried. I think it would be a good idea to let your mom know that you are worried. We can do that together at pick up.”

  • If a child asks questions:

“You heard that this weekend and now you have questions.”

“Some grown-ups make the rules about how all grown-ups can travel. This weekend some of those rules changed and you are right, a few people were stuck at the airport. They are safe and many people are helping solve the problem.” This would be answering the question in a small and honest way without taking sides.

  • Finishing all of the above would be saying something to reassure them that their school is safe, that this is all between grown-ups who will work together to solve the confusion. Reassurance can also be that this is not about children at all.
  • However the conversation goes, be sure to jot down notes after and let parents know either at pick up or by phone.

Other Guidelines About Community Stress and Young Children

Encourage any parents to avoid all news media when their young children are present. This means no television, radio or internet when children can see or hear it. Parents should also avoid having stressful conversations about these types of issues in front of their young children.

It is helpful for parents to know that they both set the emotional landscape and are the gatekeepers to the amount of information their young children receive. The hope is that, parents can find calm and reassuring ways to speak with their children and limit the amount of information to a few basic sentences to address their concerns.

In the preschool years, community or family stress can cause changes in social behavior (level of outgoing, tantrums, testing behaviors, golden behaviors), sleep patterns, eating patterns, regression in speech and bathrooming changes. Children may have nightmares or may develop new fears, such as being scared of the dark or of dogs, when they weren’t before.

Young children need relaxed play time, time with caring and relaxed adults, typical routines and schedules, bedtime routines and time to talk as needed. Between preschool and third grade, it is most important for parents to keep nap time, bedtime routines and schedules intact. A stressed family is never better with an exhausted child.

Parents should let their children’s questions be the guide for how much information the child needs.

What to Do When Your Child Says “I Don’t Wanna Go to School”

Parent Taking Child To Pre School

At some point, most children go through a phase of not wanting to go to school. For others, that push can ebb and flo for years. My younger daughter, Claire, has always had a difficult time going back after the Winter Break. There were tears in January throughout elementary school.

Smooth, calm morning – I understand their not wanting to go to school upset alone can be enough to knockout off the feeling of a smooth, calm morning. They may lose it, but you need to stay calm. Be the rock. If you need ideas to meet this goal, you might read Screamfree Parenting by Runkel or Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Markham.

Matter of fact empathy – When your child is upset, it is best to start there. Matter of fact empathy mean acknowledge the emotion, then continue with the routine. On a difficult morning this might be, “I know you are upset, you don’t want to go,” as you help put on their shoes, and, “I hear you want to stay home. I like staying home with you too,” as you walk them in. You are recognizing emotions and moving forward. Avoid starting with denial or reasoning. Denial would be “You like school. This shouldn’t be so hard.” Reasoning is “All of your friends are there, you’ll have fun at school.” Denial and reasoning are fuel for the argument.

Focus on the routine – It may be helpful to refocus on the routine. Talk to your child about the time available, steps that need to be done and the order. It may be helpful to make a chart together to keep track of the morning. Within each step, it’s often good to offer choices or challenges. When it’s time to get dressed, they might get dressed on the bed or the floor. A challenge might be racing you to get dressed. Here’s a blog post focused on improving your morning routine. If it is truly difficult to get through the morning, you might also start 15 minutes earlier to give everyone a chance to relax.

Note any patterns – By day two, the second year of Claire’s January blues, I was ready. Maybe it’s worse in September in your house. Maybe Mondays each week are hardest. Most things are easier when you see them coming. Knowing the pattern can help you plan.

Speak with their teacher – Whenever there’s a school related difficulty, it’s good to check in with the teacher. The teacher may be able to point to something specific happening at school, or may let you know everything seems fine once child is there. Either way, it’s helpful information. You might also ask the teacher for help. This might include setting up a specific way for your child to start school each day. Coming into a known situation (everyday the first thing will be this) may be easier than not knowing day-to-day. This might be giving your child a morning buddy; a friend to be together with for first transition activities and classwork.

Speak with your child – Occasionally and out of the moment, ask them what’s going on in the mornings before school. Ask what they are thinking about. Ask if there’s anything they are happy about, worried about, excited about or scared about at school. One question here and there, in a relaxed tone, at a calm time may be helpful.

Organize one-on-one playdates with a variety of kids from the class – Playdates give kids a chance to get to know their classmates. The more positive social connections they have with classmates; the more they might want to go to school.

Carpool – So this might be more time consumming than the initial push to avoid school, but your child may be more willing to go if they arrive with a friend. If your child is a bus rider this may mean having a bus stop buddy or asking the bus driver to help with seating friends together.

Alternate who manages the morning or drop off – It may be easier for a child to move through the morning with or separate from one parent than another, or from a sitter or grandparent versus a parent (if that’s available, even short term).

Things to bring – Not everyday, but occasionally, it may be helpful to have something for your child to take to or deliver to school. This might be something small to show his teachers or friends, a note he wrote or drew to someone, a snack to share with the class or a thing you need delivered to the office or guidance counselor.

Open talk time – As children move into late elementary school, keeping communication open is so important. Open talk time is an easy way to work towards that goal. This allows time for the child to vent and be heard, and for you both to work through things in a calm exchange.

Address any known causes – If there are academic concerns, revisit your homework plans, find new ways to practice the needed skills or hire a tutor. If it’s a social concern, meet with the guidance counselor, coach your child on ways to manage or follow up with the teacher. On either front, continue to monitor and follow up with interventions as needed. Do what’s needed to support your child in the area of concern.

Read related storybooks – For younger children, these books could be I Love You All Day Long, Llama Llama Misses Mama, The Kissing Hand or DW’s Guide to Preschool. For older children, Sophie’s Squash Go to School, The Brand New Kid or Sometimes I Worry Too Much but Now I Know How to Stop.

Read related parenting books – If it becomes a longer term or bigger issue, helpful parenting books include Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety, or School Refusal by Eisen and Engler or When Children Refuse School by Kearney and Albano.

There are also therapists who work with children around anxiety issues and school refusal.