"I MERELY TOOK THE ENERGY IT TAKES TO POUT AND WROTE SOME BLUES." - DUKE ELLINGTON
Fortunately, there is a growing interest amongst educators, parent bloggers, and wellness educators on how parents or caretakers directly involved with children can make these vital lessons on managing emotions fun, engaging, and confidence boosting.
A former graduate student of mine, Alison Abrams (MSW  NYU; M.A., Ed.M., Teachers College, Columbia University), a special education teacher and soon to be social work clinician, has a passionate interest in the use of social media resources in teaching emotional resilience to children. Her whimsical website: Emotional Resilience for Children gathers a diverse set of resources, ranging from mindfulness to breath work, to equip children with a diverse toolkit to manage their emotions. We spoke about what aims she hoped to help address with her social media project.
Mathew: You are a former special education teacher, what types of problems did you come across in the classroom with kids managing their emotions?
Abrams: Very often frustrations occurred in classroom because of a lack of communication, because someone didn’t understand the message or couldn’t express himself or herself as they would have liked. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is a reason for misbehavior. While there is a time and a place for behavioral consequences, there’s also a lot of value in taking the time to figure out where the breakdown occurred and what the needs are.
I often observed teachers blaming parents, parents blaming teachers, and students getting caught in the middle. Kids pick up on such inconsistencies. When teachers and parents are on the same page, in a positive and supportive way, the kids know it. Putting kids in the middle isn’t going to solve any problems.
Mathew: Can you comment on what were some parent patterns that made the problems worse vs. parents who “got it” and helped in a constructive way?
Abrams: Many parents, well-intentioned and loving as they were, didn’t understand that self-regulation does not come naturally to some kids, and consequently, they have to learn how to do it, much as they have to learn how to read or tie their shoes. Without these skills in place, kids are going to have a hard time in the school environment in which they are under quite a bit of pressure to perform – academically and socially, in front of teachers and peers. No one likes to be humiliated, and kids are no different. Generally, children do not want to others to be angry or frustrated with them; they would much rather be recognized in positive ways, and given the chance to “do good,” they will.
Many parents were unknowingly inconsistent – in responses, in routines, in expectations, in follow-through – which generally made the problem worse for kids. While not everything is predictable, planning can make things more consistent. Blaming the children (obviously) also made the problem worse.
I know parents who had huge family calendars posted on the fridge – and individualized routines for each of their kids to follow. They held their kids accountable for doing what they had to do, made a point of knowing where they needed help, and also where they could be given more room to exercise their independence. Really importantly, they caught their kids “doing good.”
Parents who “got it” and helped the children in a constructive way were active participants in the collaborative process of change. They were consistent in their responses to and communication with their children. They developed very positive relationships with teachers, administrators, doctors, mental health professionals, and even peers’ parents – and worked really hard to make sure all adults (as well as their children) were on the same page as far as planning, expectations, follow-up, etc.
Parents who “got it” realized that sometimes there’s an underlying problem (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety, autism, sensory processing issues) that generates dysregulation, and that must be checked out.
Parents who “got it” understood that their children learned differently, and that they (the parents) too needed to change in an effort to help their kids.
Parents who “got it” also realized that self-regulation takes time to learn for some kids – it’s a process, like anything else. As with any transformative process, whatever change is happening within the child is going to affect the family.
Mathew: You are a clinician now. Has your view of the educational system changed?
Abrams: In a perfect world, teacher training in mindfulness, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skill-building should be required – when you think about it, these skills are just as important (if not more) than learning how to read and write.
Kids are sponges for this kind of stuff in the younger years – not just about what feelings mean, but about how to identify them, feel them, express them, share them, and manage them appropriately. When they’re immersed in this kind of social-emotional learning at such young ages, it becomes part of them.
Teachers have to be given the permission, regardless of what grade they teach, to integrate this kind of learning into their curriculum from the very beginning. Again, this stuff is just as important (if not more) than academics – and it’ll serve everyone well in the future.
Mathew: What if parents are not good at the skills listed on your website? How can they work on this and help their kids?
Abrams: I really believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way, but if parents are not good at the skills listed on the website, they can,
1. Think about doing some self-work: What role have you played in your child’s behavior? What family stressors exist? What can you do to change or ease them? How are YOUR emotional regulation skills? How can you model more effectively for your child?
2. Get to know your child’s triggers and behavioral patterns.
3. Talk with other parents about what they do and what community resources they have – a little compassion and empathy goes a long way.
The quandaries of life are unpredictable. The support we give to children to begin the journey of developing a healthy, resilient relationship to their emotional life is a gift - and a lasting one.
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