Monday, July 31, 2017

When Parents Are Bullied

Much has been written in both the academic and popular literature about bullying -- what to do if your child is bullied, how to avoid raising a child who bullies, tips for parents and teachers who encounter bullying, and more. But we recently encountered a book that looks at bullying from a different perspective, one that we previously would not have thought about in terms of bullying - when children bully their parents.

When Kids Call the Shots, by psychotherapist Sean Grover, LCSW, looks at children who might be labelled "bossy" or "difficult" or "temperamental" and considers their behavior through a different lens. Grover views these children as bullies, and the targets of their bullying behavior are their parents. Understanding how and why this behavior develops and what parents can do to change their child's behavior is the focus of Grover's book, which grew out of his more than 20 years of working with both children and adults and his own experiences as a parent.

The book examines different ways that children become bullies, focusing on the three most common kinds of bullies: the defiant bully, the anxious bully, and the manipulative bully. Grover looks at the forces that drive each of these kinds of behaviors in children and then discusses the kinds of parents who are most prone to being bullied by their children. He continues with steps families can take to put together a support team (school officials, mental health professionals, and others) and ways parents can act to stop bullying behaviors. Grover spends time discussing family crises that may trigger bullying behaviors, things like divorce, trauma, and financial hardship. 

The book has a positive approach and a hopeful message, focusing on the fact that there are reasons why children behave this way and why parents may be feeding into this behavior. And his specific guidance on how parents can improve their family dynamic is something that should be helpful for parents asking the question: "What happened to my sweet, adorable child?"

Monday, July 24, 2017

Helping Young Children Start the School Year

Starting a new school year is a big adjustment for a child at any age, but it can be particularly disorienting for very young children. Preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids are comforted by routines, and so their first time in even the best of classrooms with the most insightful and empathetic of teachers can be a challenge. Here are some ways you can start now, during summer vacation, to ensure your little one’s year gets off to a great start.

  • Start setting your child’s biological clock. Summer sleep schedules with later wake-up times can take a while to undo, and your child may launch her first day at school cranky and sleepy if you don’t plan ahead. At least a week before her first day, get her used to the new schedule by dimming the lights in her play area an hour before her school-year bedtime. Be sure to offer her toys or books instead of electronics in the hour before she goes to bed; the quality of light emitted by screens stimulates the brain and makes it tougher to drift off to sleep later. Get her ready for bed following the same routine you anticipate using during the school year (pajamas, brushing teeth, etc.). Similarly, wake her up at the same time she’ll get up on school days and take her through her anticipated school-day morning routine. Learning these steps in advance means your child has one less new procedure to learn when school begins.
  • Visit the school a few days before the first day. Narrate the trip there in an excited tone of voice so that the route will feel familiar to your child when you report to the school on the first day. If you can, pop into your child’s classroom and explore the playground. This will help your child begin to visualize what school will be like and help her to feel more at ease on the first day.
  • Familiarize your child with his new teacher by referring to her by name instead of saying “your teacher.” If you can find a picture of his teacher on the school website, print it and hang it in a prominent place so she’ll look familiar to your child on the first day. 
  • Role play circle time, lining up for lunch, and show and tell with your child so she’ll know what to expect. Play the part of the teacher and recruit stuffed animals or siblings to act as her classmates. 
  • Model a positive attitude. When you feel anxious or tired, verbalize your feelings and talk through your plan for energizing yourself and realigning your positive thinking. (“Wow, I’m feeling really worried about tomorrow’s big meeting! I guess feeling a little nervous before a big day is normal. I think I’ll listen to some music I like and imagine myself doing really well in the meeting.”) Watching you will help your child realize that these feelings are normal and give him some strategies for coping with them. 
  • Instead of asking if your child is nervous about beginning school, casually ask how your child is feeling about the new year. Resist asking whether your child feels nervous; this suggests that there is something to be nervous about! If your child is behaving normally and doesn’t give you any reason to worry, it’s best to keep worst-case scenario preparations for the initial separation under your hat. Your child will take cues from you about how to feel about the first day.
  • If your child seems anxious or you’ve had difficulty with separation in the past, choose something she can bring to school that reminds her of her family. An article of clothing or piece of inexpensive jewelry is an especially good choice because your child can touch it whenever she needs comfort during the day without having to go to her backpack. Give her a bracelet of yours or let her borrow her brother’s lucky bandana. 

One big no-no: Don’t sneak away on the first day. Although this seems like a good idea for the child who tears up every time you take a step toward the door, resist the urge to wait until his back is turned to disappear. Such behavior can do damage to your child’s trust in you, resulting in the fear that you could vanish at any moment. Instead, assure your child that you love him, that you’re leaving him in a very safe place that you have chosen carefully, and that you will see him in four hours, then bite your lip and leave. Chances are good that you’ll have to pry him away from his new friends by pick-up time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Research Explores Pitfalls of Homework Help

One question we get a lot here at The Yellin Center is how parents and caregivers can help students grow as learners at home, during homework time, or with supplementary educational activities. We love giving parents and students strategies for building up skills at home, as long as these activities are fun and stress-free, especially during the summer. New research out of Tufts University, conducted by Dr. Melissa Orkin, Sidney May, and Dr. Maryanne Wolf, explores the ways in which parents’ helping behaviors during homework time contribute to how kids feel about their work. 

Homework time, especially for struggling readers and students with disabilities, can be a stressful time for kids and parents alike. Often, homework tasks are not differentiated to meet a student at her or his instructional level; this means that students are often sent home to do work independently that they are not yet able to do. This can lead to task avoidance (a tantrum or power struggle, for example) and negative attitudes towards learning or school. In these situations, parents naturally feel the impetus to sit with their child and help them through the task while building up their skills.

When students are given homework tasks that are too hard to complete independently, they may begin to feel incompetent at managing the academic demands. It would be natural to assume, therefore, that helping your child through the task would increase her or his feelings of competence. However, Orkin and her colleagues found that one common type of homework help, which they dubbed intrusive practices, can actually lead to feelings of helplessness. When students feel helpless in the face of academics, or that they will be unable to produce work at the level expected of them, they will often become very frustrated or have an emotional outburst during work time, seeking to avoid the task.

Intrusive homework help practices include things like checking children’s homework or correcting mistakes when reading. These types of behaviors can contribute to a product (or achievement) oriented learning environment rather than a process-oriented learning environment. Ideally, we want children to value the process of learning, not the output. Sometimes this means taking a step back during homework time and allowing mistakes to be made. Fostering a process-oriented environment also entails providing specific, effort-based praise rather than intrusive corrections during reading or writing that limit the student’s autonomy while working. It’s important for parents and teachers to endorse growth and effort rather than “prescribed standards of success.”

Taking a step back and letting your child make mistakes can be extremely difficult, but research continues to show that encouraging risk-taking while building academic skills is incredibly important for helping children develop a love of learning and a growth mindset. It may take some getting used to, but next time it’s homework time at your house, see what happens when you let mistakes happen while offering up a healthy serving of effort-based encouragement and praise.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

School's Over... No, School's About to Start...

Here in New York City, where most schools run until the end of June and do not begin again until after Labor Day,  the first part of July is a time for students and teachers to catch their breath and to bask in the prospect of weeks of summer break looming ahead. But much marketing by retailers is national in scope, and we've noticed that stores that sell school supplies are busy reaching out to families whose children return to school as early as mid-August. These ads -- for clothing, binders, electronics and the like -- are only going to increase in frequency until things hit a crescendo as summer comes to an end.

So, loathe as we are to interfere with the relaxation that comes with summer, it may be time to consider some products that can make your family's return to school less stressful and more productive. In our work with all kinds of families, we've found that some basic items tend to be the most helpful.

A large white board, mounted in a central location (kitchen wall or door, near the front entry, right by the mud room or garage) can be "command central" for busy families. Need something from the grocery? Write it on the white board. Have a project or permission slip due? Make a note on the whiteboard or actually hang it from the board with a magnetic clip. Some families use a board that is divided into days of the week. Others reserve one area for each family member. And others write on it helter-skelter with lots of colors and underlining. Whatever works for your family...

A large bin or basket for every family member, lined up near the most used exit door. This can hold a backpack, gym clothes, homework folders (which should be in the backpack), and anything else that needs to leave the house with that person. Even mom and dad can find this useful as a place for keys, sunglasses, phones, etc. If you can locate the baskets near a place to plug in a long power strip, everyone can put their phones away (if you can pry them from their hands) and charge them for the upcoming day, all at the same time.

A supply closet can really help prevent last minute store runs. This can be anywhere you have a couple of extra shelves, which you can stock with packages of notebook paper, folders, glue sticks, boxes of pens and pencils, and printer paper - all bought on sale, of course.  If you have room for a pencil sharpener, manual or electric, all the better. And as the school year progresses, this is a great place to put "leftovers" -- those pieces of poster board you didn't use, the markers left over from a project, or glitter from a craft project. As the year unfolds, these items may come in handy and knowing where to find them is the key to putting them to use. Some families find a similar cabinet in the kitchen for lunch supplies is also helpful - stocked with sandwich fixings that don't need refrigeration, sandwich bread or wraps, juice boxes, packaged healthy snacks, and paper or plastic bags or reusable lunch containers.

A large, easy to read clock in the kitchen can help keep everyone on schedule during the crucial parts of the morning. Too often there are small clocks on various appliances, each off by a minute or two. When catching the school bus or commuter train requires a precise departure time, it can help to have everyone's schedule synchronized.

As you think ahead of other ways to make the transition from summertime to school time easier, don't forget to take plenty of time to read, relax, and enjoy the break from school.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 or Introduction to Child Development has spent some time learning about the history of attachment theory and its creators, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth – practically household names among those in the psychology or education fields. Like most topics in an introductory course, it’s hard to see how this 60-year-old theory, often demonstrated through fuzzy videos of a Strange Situation experiment, applies to modern day parenting and child development. A recent article in The New York Times by pediatrician Perri Klass, however, brings the relevance of attachment theory into the 21st century and discusses how pediatricians can use it to monitor the parent-child relationship. The goal, according to Dr. Klass, is for pediatricians to pay attention to how parents and babies interact at the one-year checkup, and to provide parents with strategies for developing a more secure, responsive connection to the child if warranted.

Attachment is the reciprocal bond that forms between parent and child. Evolutionarily, it keeps children safe; parents are hard-wired to want to keep an eye on the child, and the child is hard-wired to use the parent as a secure base from which to safely explore her environment. When parents are tuned into and responsive to an infant’s and growing child’s needs, that child feels safe and secure, and develops the idea that the world is a trustworthy and exciting place. When parents are having difficulty demonstrating a consistent, responsive style of parenting, the baby or young child may demonstrate an anxious, insecure attachment response. This means that the baby or child may not seek comfort from the parent, or may avoid the parent in stressful situations. This is a sign that the infant or child is experiencing more stress than would be expected based on the situation. All babies and children depend on their caregivers to regulate their levels of stress and other emotions. Therefore, when parents are not always available to respond to a young child’s needs, that young child will endure more stress and will have difficulty developing appropriate coping skills for stressful situations.

With newborns and very young children, being responsive means attending to the child’s every need, and helping them work through stressful situations by providing physical and verbal comfort. As children get older, however, finding that balance of responsiveness and allowing independence becomes trickier. The goal for any human is to eventually move farther and farther away from the parent, until they have developed the coping skills necessary to explore the world independently. Parents who tune into their children right from the start can begin to learn the cues for when it’s time to step back, and when they are still very much needed to provide comfort. As children get older, they learn, through their parents’ actions, that they can depend on their parents to be there when needed, and therefore they feel safe enough to inch further and further away.

The article in The New York Times encourages pediatricians to help parents monitor their own responses to their young children, and to offer support when an insecure attachment style is developing. Every child is resilient, and children who were insecurely attached during infancy can develop a secure attachment later on. Most importantly, parents should feel comfortable talking to their care providers, whether it’s the pediatrician or the nursery school teacher, about how to help foster that secure bond. Every relationship, but especially the early attachment bond, is a two-way street. If something is getting in the way of a parent being physically and emotionally available for their child, that parent deserves help and support. As the importance of attachment theory continues to spread, we hope that pediatricians and other professionals who work with families will be available to help parents and caregivers find that support, and to help families feel that asking for help is the first step to success.