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What do you really want for your children? I have asked hundreds of parents that question over the years, and the answers have been consistent. What they want is for their kids to be happy, caring, independent, respectful and responsible. Parents hope their children discover their passion, their purpose and their creativity. And they worry how their children will be able to navigate the social world of their peers.
School is where many of these characteristics can be developed and nurtured. Unfortunately, we can no longer assume that our educational system is designed for the best interest of students. With implementation of recent education policy there has been less emphasis on life skills. Where do creativity, persistence, compassion and character fit in the culture of Common Core standards and high-stakes testing?
Social and emotional learning, or SEL, is the process that leads to the acquisition of specific life skills that are at the heart of a child’s academic, personal, social and civic development. It is the process through which children develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. It is never too late for a child to acquire these skills.
In a typical classroom setting, a child also requires executive functioning skills such as paying attention, following directions and exercising self-control. But certain factors can get in the way of using these skills, among them: stress, trauma, poor nutrition, limited movement and lack of adequate sleep. Parents and teachers are able to foster the development of these skills in a variety of ways.
The home-school connection. Teachers and parents must be on the same page in terms of a child’s schooling. This is not always easy, but it’s true that you and your child’s teacher both have your child’s best interest at heart. If you have a concern, contact the teacher right away. Don’t wait until things get worse. Teachers appreciate your insight regarding your child’s strengths, interests and needs. Forming a parent-teacher alliance gives an important message to your child that you expect the same respect and responsibility at school that you do at home. It also conveys that you value education. A daily report card or journal can help to ensure consistent communication.
Words matter. Use language in your praise and descriptions of your child that supports his continued effort and learning. For instance, saying “you are hard-working” praises your child for trying hard when faced with challenging tasks. On the other hand, children who are repeatedly told “you are smart” may become anxious or give up in the face of a challenge (They might think, “I’m smart. Shouldn’t I know how to do this?”). Similarly, parents can talk to their child when they see evidence of qualities they want to encourage. For example, “I could see that you were getting frustrated with your homework but you didn’t give up and worked through it. You were persistent.” Or: “I saw you were getting angry with your sister, but you walked away. That takes a lot of self-awareness and self-control.”
Catch them doing the right thing. Focusing on what our children are doing right gives them important feedback about expectations and rules—without the need for lectures. When parents lecture, children tune out. Whenever possible, parents can identify, describe and express appreciation for steps, big and small, a child takes in exhibiting her positive choices. For example, “I appreciate that you followed my direction right away without complaining. That shows respect and responsibility.” Or “I noticed that you picked up your toys without being asked. That shows initiative and thoughtfulness.”
It is critical that we teach rules when our child or teen is available for learning—which is not during a negative situation. We can unintentionally reward our children for breaking rules by reacting with extra energy and attention during outbursts and disruptions. Instead, we want to react in a neutral way to negative behavior through immediate, concrete and unemotional responses. Consequences are still given—but without elevated energy or attention.
Slow down and tune in. We are living in an increasingly fast-paced and social-media-driven world and need to be aware of the potential negative consequences. Extracurricular activities are great but need to be limited. Our children also need downtime.
Spend time outdoors, such as walking in the park or exploring nature. Playing games teaches cooperation and turn-taking. Patience can be developed through activities such as puzzles and drawing. Children have amazing capacity for creativity, but it requires some nurturing and encouragement.
Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It means being present and purposefully bringing awareness to one’s experience. It will foster better concentration, an increased sense of calmness and improved impulse control. Breathing exercises, guided meditation and yoga are examples of mindfulness activities. However, it can be as simple as having fun describing the feelings, tastes, textures and smells you experience when eating your favorite foods.
Structure works. Kids need us to provide structure as well as clear and consistent boundaries. It helps them feel safe. Lack of structure often leads to nervousness and uncertainty. Having a general routine, especially at bedtime, is important.
Eat meals together whenever possible. It is a great time for conversation and sharing information. Limit screen time (television, computer, video games, and iPads) and turn off all screens at least an hour before bed. Reading to, and with, your children can be a great way to end the day.
Chores teach responsibility and build confidence. Try to be consistent with expectations for daily responsibilities and weekly chores.
Having structure does not mean there is no flexibility. Create flexibility within your structure by giving choices. With older children, you can let them know that you expect them to spend time each day in activities that are important to you, such as exercise, free play, quiet time or reading. Let your child set up her own schedule for when she will do these things.
Michael Gilbert, Psy.D., is a school psychologist with the Syracuse City School District and founder of the non-profit It’s About Childhood & Family, Inc. He has worked in a variety of settings with children and families for the past 25 years. He lives with his wife and two daughters in DeWitt.