Category: Feelings

July 1, 2022 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

Parenting With a Big Heart: Big Heart Summer

Some families give balloons on the last day of school; in my family, we give binders. Starting a few years ago, on the last day of school, we started a family tradition of giving our kids a binder on the last day of school, full of summer challenges — activities that will motivate them to exercise their brains, hearts, and bodies through the hot summer months. 

From the beginning, my kids’ summer challenges included social and emotional challenges — fun activities that grow their hearts. Their heart activities included:  

  • Write 3 letters to friends or family
  • Make 3 new friends
  • Do 5 little things and 1 big thing to help other people and the planet
  • FaceTime or Zoom with 5 friends who are far away
  • Cook & taste foods from 5 different countries
  • Write 3 poems or songs expressing your feelings and ideas 

Working through a binder full of challenges might not be every kid’s cup of tea — but my kids love paging through their binders and looking for a new adventure, experiment, or project. They love checking things off the list that they’ve accomplished. And as a parent, I love it when they’re learning, trying new things, and growing their whole selves. 

What If Summer '22 Was a Big Heart Summer?

As we jumped into the summer of 2022, I started to wonder: What if we made this a Big Heart Summer for ALL of us and our little ones? Most parents today say that their top concern is making sure children are developing social and emotional skills — understanding themselves and others, being able to manage emotions, interacting with others, making friends, etc. What if our “summer challenges” this year were focused on heart: finding creative ways to grow big hearted kids and practice those all important skills that set us up for success in the world? 

This was how Big Heart Summer was born. It’s a creative workbook that families or caregivers can use with children this summer to spark fun, summertime learning, an exploration with our hearts that will help us use this time to understand ourselves and others just a little bit better. 

If you want, you can print this out and go through, page by page. More likely, you’ll want to pick the pages that speak to you — or adapt the ideas to your child’s needs and passions. Remember: Big Heart Summer should be fun, creative, and inspiring; it’s not homework!

In my family, this booklet is an instant hit. My youngest already made a postcard for his grandma — we just need to take it to the post office. My oldest is planning out a series of lemonade stands to raise money to help a friend who is sick. 

I hope that this can help you to grow YOUR littles’ big hearts this summer. Please share your experiences — or other great ideas you have to inspire families. 

June 13, 2022 by Dana Stewart 0 Comments

Celebrate Freedom While Introducing Your Child to Challenging Ideas This Juneteenth

With Junteenth (a.k.a. Freedom Day) approaching, parents, teachers, and caregivers have the opportunity to celebrate freedom while opening children’s eyes to some of the toughest topics in American history and society.

Juneteenth raises topics — including race, racism, slavery, segregation, and discrimination — that are hard to discuss for adults AND with  children. But these are topics worth discussing. As a mom, teacher, and school leader, I can assure you that the more you have these conversations, the easier they become. 

At two-years-old, my own daughter is still too young to understand many of the big themes Juneteenth raises like racial differences, bias, and U.S. history. She has not yet begun to develop Theory of Mind — the understanding that every individual has their own thoughts, ideas, feelings, beliefs, etc. Without this, she isn’t ready to grasp the idea that someone can believe something that is objectively false (e.g., that people with browner skin are inferior to people with whiter skin). For now, my focus is on helping her get to know many different kinds of people and teaching her words to describe and talk about people through books, music, and interactions with friends and neighbors. This way, when she IS ready to start thinking about big ideas like slavery and bigotry, she will have the words she needs to talk about these (and other) challenging topics, and she’ll know that I am open to the discussion.

When can you talk about racism with your child?

You know your child best. Typically, around age 4 or 5, children start to understand that someone can hold false beliefs about objects, people, or situations. Around this age, children also become very interested in “rules” and “fairness.” They will start to be able to play rule-based games, be very motivated to make sure everyone is following the rules, and talk about things that they perceive as “fair” or “unfair” (“Hey! They got more cookies than me!”) These are good indicators that your child is ready to start thinking about concepts like bias, discrimination, and racism. 

Do I really need to start talking to my child about racism this early?

By the age of 4, your child has likely taken note of some of the many ways that racism, discrimination, and bias influence our lives. In a yearlong study, researchers found that children as young as three, “used racial categories to identify themselves and others, to include or exclude children from activities, and to negotiate power in their own social/play networks,” (Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001). Talking about inclusion and exclusion, bias and racism will help your child start to understand the societal patterns that they see and help them recognize and call-out racism when they see it. Talking about bias and racism openly is a first step toward raising children who are not biased or racist and will help move society forward.

How do I even begin this conversation?

Before starting a conversation, it is great to find out what your child knows or thinks they know about race and/or racism. Picture books and other media can help parents to create the opportunity to bring up skin color or race. You can also look for relevant moments in your child’s real life, like a child being excluded on the playground or noticing the skin tones of dolls at the toy store. Try saying, “I noticed that most of the dolls at the store have light skin and blonde hair. What do you think about that?” Listen to their ideas without judgment and ask further questions that invite them to say more.

Your child might also raise the topic on their own. The way that you react matters. If your reaction to your child’s questions about race or skin tone sends the message that the topic is taboo, harmful, or shameful, they are less likely to ask again. Instead, think about affirming your child’s observations: “Yes! You noticed that the woman’s skin is different from yours. That’s true. People come in lots of colors. Isn’t that cool?”

Answer any further questions honestly, but resist the temptation to turn it into a lecture. And remember, it’s always OK to say, “You know what, I want to talk about this with you, but let’s finish talking later,” if you need time to gather your own thoughts. Just be sure to circle back when you’re ready.

What are some books that can help parents who want to start the conversation?

Thankfully, there are now many fictional children’s books that feature characters of color, talk about ethnic diversity, and deal with topics around inclusion and kindness. I encourage you to add some (or many!) of these titles to your library to help your child “get to know” people who are different from them and help them think about these big ideas. In addition, there are also several non-fiction books to help young children start to think about race, racism, and skin color, and learn about related American history as well. Here are some of my favorites for 4 and 5 year olds specifically.

  • Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, and Isabel Roxas
  • These Colors are Bananas by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin
  • A Kids Book About Racism by Jelani Memory
  • Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport and Bryan Collier
  • Children of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton and Raul Colón
  • We March by Shane Evans

May 20, 2022 by Divya Chhabra 0 Comments

How Social and Emotional Learning Can Promote Children’s Health and Wellbeing

Last year, I worked with a six-year-old child struggling to pay attention in school and having difficulty making friends. Like many kids across the United States and the world, he had been in and out of school and had only inconsistently interacted with peers because of the pandemic. The inconsistency of his life and school experience was making him feel sad, lonely, and insecure. One bit of consistency in this child’s chaos was our weekly in person (masked!) visit. Each week in therapy, we played, wrote stories, and drew pictures together.

This is a small story, but it is important: Through our regular visits, this child learned how to express himself in healthy ways, how to ask for help, and how to cope with challenging situations. This very child who was having extreme difficulty interacting with others recently showed me a picture of him smiling next to his group of friends. 

What is social and emotional learning and how is it related to mental health?

The months of playing, writing, and drawing with this little boy as a child psychiatrist were addressing a mental health challenge, but our work together was rooted in the principles of social and emotional learning (SEL). SEL is a longstanding educational concept aimed at teaching children skills such as understanding perspectives, coping with stress, identifying and expressing feelings, and resolving conflicts with other people. 

The goal of social and emotional learning is  preparing our children to live fulfilling lives, maintain strong relationships with others, thrive academically and personally, and contribute to the world around them. 

Incorporating social and emotional learning into children’s early and elementary years can help  kids who may already have mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma, or prevent these challenges from developing them down the line. These skills are the building blocks for children to learn to successfully navigate difficult situations that they often inevitably face, no matter how much we try to protect our children, in the context of a complicated world. (Some children will experience challenges and need mental health support, even if they’re learning social and emotional skills; if you ever have a concern about your child’s mental wellness, please consult with your pediatrician.)

Through decades of research, we know that SEL works: One large-scale study that analyzed more than 200 studies in schools across the nation found that SEL interventions improved students’ attitudes around helping others, helped decrease conflicts in school (including violence), increased students’ ability to identify emotions, and even improved academic achievement. Another study of a program called RULER in over 60 schools found that the SEL program caused students to have less anxiety and depression, better social skills, leadership skills, academic performance, and attention, and even led to less bullying. Another study looking at almost twenty schools in Baltimore followed kids for more than 15 years and found that an SEL program lowered the risk of developing suicidal thoughts by age 19. 

Overall, the research shows that social and emotional learning, starting at a young age when the brain is most malleable, can set children up for success years later, as teenagers and  beyond.

Developing social and emotional skills is always important, but it is especially vital today, as children and caretakers across the country are reporting increased feelings of unhappiness and highlighting the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing. Several child mental health organizations declared a national mental health emergency for children in 2021. With mental health challenges on the rise for American kids, children need to develop the skills that will help them to adapt and deal with changing and stressful situations. 

Three ways to help children develop strong social and emotional skills

During especially trying and unpredictable times, it can feel scary and daunting to prepare children for problems and challenges that even adults can’t understand or predict. Incorporating social and emotional learning into children’s daily lives can help them develop skills that will support their long-term mental health. Here are three strategies that I have found to be both easily to implement and also effective with young children:

  1. Modeling and practicing identifying feelings: This is one of my favorites! Young ones are still learning to understand what emotions are, what they mean, and how to recognize emotions in themselves and others, and how to cope with different feelings. I recently worked with a young girl to create cards for each of the feelings; we used the cards to practice identifying and responding to different emotions. This body chart worksheet is great to help a child understand how they may experience feelings in their body — such as a tummy ache or clammy hands. You can also model for your child when you have a certain emotion. When YOU talk about your feelings, this helps your child understand that  all emotions are acceptable: feeling bad doesn’t mean you are bad. Say something like “When I watched that part of the movie, I felt a little sad and my throat felt tight.”
  2. Practicing problem solving: One evening, I got locked out of my office! I used the time with the child I was working with to “solve” the mystery. This empowered him while  helping me to solve the problem of the locked office door. We thought of simple but different ways to get inside the office, such as asking someone for help, looking in my purse for the key, or seeing if we could find another office to borrow. This was an untraditional therapy session, but it showed the child that problems and mistakes are normal, and that even at a young age, he had so much to offer in helping solve the problem! The same goes for solving the problems that come up between people and thinking through how to resolve interpersonal conflicts. You can incorporate problem-solving spontaneously and turn situations that may cause a change in plans as a learning opportunity. 
  3. Building empathy: Children today are growing up during times of conflict and disagreement. Research tells us that the ability to understand and take on others’ perspectives actually helps people to build resilience and can prevent mental health challenges down the line. I often let children lead the way in our play and build in opportunities to grow empathy. For example, when a child I worked with expressed frustration with her baby sister, we practiced role-playing (I was the baby and then she played the baby) and played a guessing game of what the other person was feeling. Using stuffed animals and puppets can often help young children to role-play and can help young kids express themselves more openly. Reading stories or listening to podcasts related to empathy are also helpful in modeling empathy for young children. I love the Little Kids, Big Hearts empathy episode, What is Empathy?, as well as the book lists from Big Heart World related to empathy

At the end of the day, we all want our kids to experience the beauty in the world, to bask in the joys of exploration, to stand back up when they fall, and to follow their big hearts. And in order to do that, we must nurture both their physical and emotional wellbeing. As a child psychiatrist and former teacher, I have seen SEL change the lives of children from all walks of life, in the clinic, at school, or in the home. 

February 9, 2022 by Jennifer Mañón 0 Comments

Five Authentic Ways To Celebrate Valentine’s Day With Young Children

How do we proclaim our love for one another? 

On February 14, the pressure is on to figure that out — and for some people (young and old), this can be stressful. How do I put what I feel into words? How do I find the perfect gift to symbolize my complex feelings? What’s a meaningful way to show my feelings? 

As we consider how Valentine’s Day can feel for adults, many parents and educators wonder how we might recalibrate this holiday for young children. After all, love is an important feeling; we want to help our children identify love and show love to family and friends — but we want to teach about love in a way that can support children’s developing social and emotional skills. 

Leading up to Valentine’s Day, store shelves are lined with every possible pink and red heart-shaped candy, plus boxes of pre-made cards where parents can fill in each name from the class list. Leaving the very valid health concerns to a separate listicle, many parents and educators wonder: What’s the point and what’s the effect of the candy and canned message approach to Valentine’s Day? Most children certainly love to receive sweet treats, but do they actually show (and build) love and companionship? 

Valentine's Day
Love and Kindness Happens in the Every Day

As an early childhood teacher and mother, my focus has been capturing authentic expressions of love and recognizing the moments when these neural pathways are forging, rather than focusing on one day on the calendar when we’re supposed to celebrate love. 

It is often in the day-to-day that authentic expressions of love occur: When we’re reading together, helping our friends on the playground, sharing something we learned over lunch. 

So how do we highlight loving interactions and create more opportunities for them that foster social emotional growth in a meaningful way — on Valentine’s Day and on the other 364 days of the calendar? 

Five Authentic Ways to Celebrate Love that Teach Social and Emotional Skills to Young Children

Here are five ideas I’ve used as a mother and a teacher, which can be carried out by families as well as in a classroom setting:


Caring moments are around us all the time. The key is to notice them and say them aloud. Think of yourself as the narrator of a child’s loving moments and be on the lookout for everyday expressions of love. Verbalizing and reflecting back acts of love increases our awareness of them as they occur as well as how they feel. 

If you want to take your narration to the next level, you can create your own “love story” together. This can be a book very simply made by binding a few pieces of paper together by stapling or perhaps using a hole puncher and yarn. The title could be ‘I love you’ or whatever suits the author and recipient! Let’s imagine it is a book from a mother to her 3-year-old son: “Mommy loves you” (title page), “I love when you give me hugs” (page 1), “I love reading with you” (page 2), “I love holding your hand” (page 3). You can give this little book to a child and perhaps they would like to add some color to the pages with you! (This is totally optional; your child’s contributions should be natural and unforced.) They can have this book to read any time as a reminder of your love. In classrooms, teachers can help facilitate creating love stories! 

A simple question such as, “Who do you love?” can be just the right prompt to invite children to think about their love for parents, pets, siblings, trees, etc. Teachers can write students’ words onto the pages of the book and children can be invited to add their own illustrations.


Many children enjoy drawing and will often draw pictures saying “This is for Mama” or “This is for my Nanna.” Dedicate a table for these authentic love notes by setting out envelopes, paper (doily paper can be fun!), stamps, stickers, crayons, or anything else you might have on hand! Allowing materials to be varied as opposed to Valentine’s themed will allow richer artistic expression and more organic creations. A caregiver or teacher can sit with the children and offer language to go along with their work, such as “You are really thinking about mommy when drawing that picture. Mommy loves you so much!” or “I noticed you are using blue on your drawing for Papa, would you like to give it to him in an envelope?” or “You are putting so many stamps on Mama’s paper. You must love her so much!” 


Part of creating the neural pathways for social-emotional development is through thinking about and recognizing feelings. This cognitive-emotional wiring is fostered by thinking about feelings as they are happening as well as reflecting on them afterward. 

One way to “wire up” for social and emotional development is by creating a feelings board.  Use whatever materials you have on hand: a large piece of cardboard, felt, or fabric can be the backdrop. Create a simple face drawing of each emotion: happy, sad, angry, tired, frustrated/grumpy, surprised. Cut them out and place each one along the top of the board and draw columns for each one. Give each child a way to sign up for the emotion they are feeling at any given moment. Perhaps this is done by having a cutout of each child’s name or by using a small photo of them and then using tape or a magnet if it is a magnet board, or by using felt names that will stick to fabric/felt boards. As children engage with selecting their emotions, grown-ups can offer language. Perhaps Sandra receives a hug from a friend and then proceeds to sign up under the “happy” face. Sandra’s teacher can  increase her awareness by describing that event: “Sandra, when you got a hug from your friend, that made you feel happy.” Another example could be that Sandra’s block structure gets knocked down and then she goes and puts her name under the “angry” face. Her teacher can reflect back: “You are feeling angry about the block structure falling. I wonder what we could do about it to help you feel okay again?”

Feelings Felt Board

The “golden rule” has evolved and now it is more powerful to treat others as they wish to be treated. That means we need to become more aware of other people’s preferences and what feels good to them. Most children are keen to hone this skill! They often make observations about their peers such as which belongings are theirs (shoes, jackets, water bottles, stuffies, etc.!), recognizing the parents and family members of friends, and noticing what classmates like and do not like. Teachers and parents can use “narration” to highlight when we see children make connections with peers.

For Example: Tanya hears Holly say she is thirsty. Tanya gets Holly’s water bottle (having observed which one is hers) and brings it to her.  Teacher says: “Tanya, you heard that Holly was thirsty and brought her water over to her! It looks like Holly is really drinking that water!”

For Example: A child trips and falls down. His sister comes over and begins to rub his back gently. The parent can highlight this by saying something like “Suzie, you noticed that Nigel fell. Did you come to check on him? I wonder if Nigel is OK? Suzie you are really taking care of Nigel and giving him a gentle rub on his back.” 

Parents and educators can prompt peers to interact with each other by creating opportunities for working together, share, and show their feelings. Here are two prompts to get you started — but many other activities would work, too:  

  • Valentine’s colors with Playdough. Make red colored playdough and offer it with red, pink, and white pipe cleaner, cut down to about half the length. Perhaps offer some small plates or cupcake liners for children to set their creations in. Children will often work with playdough and then offer it to someone (a caregiver or parent). Remind children that they can offer playdough creations to their peers as well. For example, a teacher or parent can say: “Luis, thank you so much for this yummy (playdough) cake. I wonder if Mica would like a piece. Shall we ask her?” This can spark connections between children and also show how we ask first what the other person would like.
  • “Taking care of others” idea-share. Sit with children and think about the feelings of others. Choose a question such as “What can we do when someone feels sad?” or “What makes someone feel happy?” Write children’s responses to these questions on a presentation board with sketches for visuals to go along with each idea. This is a helpful way to hear a range of ideas about what influences the emotions of our peers and offers children ideas about what they can do to interact. Keep the board handy for reference and to continue adding more ideas!

We all need to remember this one all year long, and especially around Valentine’s Day! Some might feel that this is a selfish idea, however, if we remember to take care of ourselves we will increase our capacity to care for others. How can we teach this idea starting at a young age? Much of it starts with noticing what our children respond to and how we can nurture their emotional wellbeing. Here are a few ideas for how to teach self love:

  • Nurture autonomy.Give children space to spend time independently playing and exploring without interruption. Valuing the importance of this solo time is a way of showing children that they can be their own loving companion! When children are very young, this time might be quite brief. Parents/teachers should be prepared to engage with them again when they are ready.
  • Create cozy places. Create a cozy place where children can go when they would like some solo space. This is a place for children to go of their own choosing! The Cozy Space can be designed to engage the senses in a calming way, which could include sensory bottles, squishies, scented items, visuals of nature and soft pillows to make it comfortable!
  • Day-to-day self-love. Describe how children are caring for themselves when they are eating healthy food. Bathrooming and bathing are also important ways we take care of ourselves which are pivotal at this time in children’s lives. We can cheer children on by saying things such as: “You are really taking care of your body by washing with soap!” Even nap time and night time sleep are ways they take care of their growing bodies, allowing themselves to rejuvenate for more play and learning later!

Valentine’s Day can certainly serve as a catapult to refresh and renew our intentions around love. As a teacher, I have noticed how children embrace the chance to show care for each other when creating these opportunities in the classroom. 

Children also help us to see love and remind us that it is all around us. When my daughter was 3 years old, one day she gently put her pointer finger right between my eyes on what can be referred to as the 3rd eye and said, “love lives here mommy” — love lives in our eyes, our voices and is in our hands to pass along!

February 4, 2022 by Dana Stewart 0 Comments

We Need to Talk About Race With Our Kids. Here’s How You Can Start. 

As a long-time educator and new mom of color, the subject of race in early childhood education is one that I’ve wrestled with for years. I’ve been asked by many students in my (predominantly white) preschool about my skin color, my dreadlocked hair, or the shape of my lips. These questions used to make me incredibly uncomfortable. 

It’s time for me — and for all of us — to move past the discomfort. Why? We need to talk about race with our children. 

Racial disparities are baked into all aspects of our society and our children’s amazing little brains are hardwired to look for — and make sense of — patterns in the world around them. Even if parents don’t consciously or unconsciously express race-based bias, children are like little computers, collecting data, adding it up, and drawing their own conclusions about what they see. 

Our Kids Are Spotting Patterns, Crunching Data, and Drawing Conclusions

Children are noticing, for the first time, trends that their grown-ups often take for granted, like the fact that people of color tend to work in certain jobs and live in certain areas. Children notice that the main characters in the books available to them are more likely to be animals (27% of books published in 2018) or white humans (50%) than people of color (source). They also notice the language we commonly use that tends to associate positive things with whiteness and negative things with blackness. Research tells us that children do make the connection between these ideas and the people around them (Katz, 2003; Tatum,1997).

We know that children are busy gathering this data and using it to help them understand the world. So, it is not surprising that children as young as 3 years old can express race-based bias. 

A recent study that aimed to revisit the historic Doll Test from the 1940s found that preschool children, regardless of race, still exhibit “a great deal of bias” in how they play with racially diverse dolls. 

“Numerous studies show that three- to five-year-olds not only categorize people by race, but express bias based on race (Aboud, 2008; Hirschfeld, 2008; Katz, 2003; Patterson & Bigler, 2006). In a yearlong study, Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) found that three- to five-year-olds in a racially and ethnically diverse day care center used racial categories to identify themselves and others, to include or exclude children from activities, and to negotiate power in their own social/play networks,” Dr. Erin Winkler, an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote.

In other words, children can develop race-based bias by living in a racially biased society. 

So yes, we have to talk about race. If we don’t, we allow assumptions and biases to persist.

When we assume that young children are “colorblind” or that they are too young to talk about such an important topic, we leave children to draw their own conclusions to explain the patterns that they see in the world. Silencing the conversation doesn’t make the questions go away. 

By talking openly about race, you will let your child know that they can come to YOU with questions, and then you have an opportunity to change the narrative. 

Where to Begin?

We all know it might not be easy to begin this conversation with the kids in your life, no matter your race and regardless of whether you’re a parent or an educator. So where can you start? Here are four ideas:

  1. Prepare yourself. When you talk about skin with your child, use simple language. Think ahead about words you could use to describe skin tone: dark brown, medium brown, sandy brown, tan, peach, peachy pink are all good descriptors of skin color. 
  2. Books are a great way to start the conversation. Select books that your child will enjoy that also feature diverse characters. As you’re reading, comment on how your child is the same as and different from the characters in the book. Bonus points if you select a book that features a main character of color who overcomes adversity!
  3. Create opportunities for your child to interact with children of different races and ethnicities. Try to visit playgrounds in new neighborhoods or visit restaurants to taste new foods. Interactions with people who are different from him or her will help them learn to see the humanity in everyone. We all are different AND the same.
  4. If your child asks you why a person’s skin is a particular shade, you can take the opportunity to talk about melanin — everyone has it and the more you have, the darker your skin is. Melanin helps to protect skin from the sun.
Talking About Race Can Become as Easy as Talking About Other Differences that Make People Unique

As an educator, implementing these strategies helped me feel more confident in addressing children’s questions in an age-appropriate way and enabled me to respond to their inquiries with questions of my own that pushed their thinking and understanding. In fact, their curiosity often led to an emergent curriculum on the subject. I found that the more we talked about race, the easier it became. 

Talking about the hair texture, skin tone, and facial features of different people can be as normal and as easy as talking about differences in gender, height, occupation, skills, and anything else that makes people unique. 

Tackling this tricky conversation is one way to help move society in a new direction. 

If you’re still nervous, don’t worry! Your child will not mind if you fumble a bit with your words. The important thing is to open the door to conversation. You might even learn some new things, together.

January 10, 2022 by Dana Stewart 0 Comments

COVID’s Impact on Social and Emotional Learning — And How We Can Help Kids Thrive

Dana and Georgia
The author walking with her daughter

As an early childhood educator and mother of a young child, I am acutely aware of the challenges educators and families have faced over the last 22 months. 

My daughter was born about a month before we all went into lockdown in March 2020. As we near her second birthday, it’s hard to believe distancing, face masks, separation from friends and family, and uncertainty have been the norm for her entire life. 

It’s unfathomable to think that more than more than 167,000 (roughly 1 in 450) U.S. children have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to the virus (source). 

As parents and educators, we need to consider the impact this “new normal” is having on our individual children and on society as a whole, especially since we know how important the first three years of life are in children’s development (source). And we need to think about what we can do to support young children, even as they face today’s challenges. 

COVID’s Impact on Children’s Social and Emotional Learning

There’s been a lot written about “learning loss” in the older grades (source) (source), but there’s also a growing body of reports and research assessing the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental wellness and social-emotional learning. 

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy released a youth mental health advisory. He wrote: “Supporting the mental health of children and youth will require a whole-of-society effort to address longstanding challenges, strengthen the resilience of young people, support their families and communities, and mitigate the pandemic’s mental health impacts.” 

A recent study from Columbia University and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that that babies born in the first year of the pandemic, between March and December 2020 scored slightly lower on the Ages & Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) at 6 months of age than children born before the pandemic began. 

“We were surprised to find absolutely no signal suggesting that exposure to COVID while in utero was linked to neurodevelopmental deficits. Rather, being in the womb of a mother experiencing the pandemic was associated with slightly lower scores in areas such as motor and social skills, though not in others, such as communication or problem-solving skills. The results suggest that the huge amount of stress felt by pregnant mothers during these unprecedented times may have played a role,” said Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and lead investigator of the study.

Dr. Dumitriu said these small shifts — at a population level — could have a “significant public health impact.” 

Another recent article indicates that mask wearing by adults and children may impact children’s social and emotional development as masks can impair our ability to recognize others’ emotions. This is particularly difficult for preschoolers who are just learning this complex skill. 

Despite our best efforts at transitioning our rich classrooms to “virtual learning environments,” enrollment is down across the country (source). 

Some families chose to delay their children’s first school experience while others pulled their children out of programs when distance learning options weren’t working well for them. Those who are currently enrolled certainly missed a good part of the school experience through the height of the pandemic. 

All of this missed schooling is reflected in increased behavioral challenges reported by parents and parents’ increased worries about their children’s social and emotional development and well-being (source). 

“The year that they were out of school was a year that they didn’t have the opportunities for developing the social skills that normally happen during their period of development,” Dr. Tami Benton told NPR recently. “And you’re sort of catching up on all of that under extraordinary circumstances.” (source). 

This is as true for preschool children as it is for those in K-12 schools.

Dana teaching, long before COVID-19, masks, and distancing.
How Can We Support Social and Emotional Learning for the Children of COVID?

There is still much to learn about the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on early social and emotional learning (source). The question is: What can we do to help support our children, especially our youngest children who have lived most (or all) of their lives during this disrupted time? 

Here are 5 suggestions from a long-time educator and mom of a toddler: 

  • Focus on Feelings: Help children clearly express their feelings by using specific language when supporting child-to-child interactions. Exaggerate your facial expressions if you are wearing a mask.
  • Acknowledge ALL the Stress: We all feel stress, whether we’re preschoolers, parents, teachers, or administrators. It’s fine to explain in age-appropriate language to your child that grown-ups get stressed out, too. And a little grace goes a long way! 
  • Calm Down: Practice and model strategies like deep breathing. Create a cozy space in your classroom or home that a child can choose to visit if they need a break.
  • Adjust Expectations: Assume that each child is doing his or her best at any given moment. If a system isn’t working for a student, adjust the system rather than expecting the child to conform.
  • Practice Peer Interactions: Learning to make friends, share, and solve problems with friends is important, but what feels “safe” is different for all families and keeps changing as the pandemic evolves. Find what works best for your child. As Dr. Kavita Tahilani explained, parents can find smaller, less intense ways for children to practice peer interactions. This may mean one-on-one playdates outside or virtual playdates using a common material like playdough.

With our focused, thoughtful attention to social emotional learning and the mental health of children and parents, the children in our care will be able to move past this time with resilience and strength.


November 16, 2021 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

G-G-Grateful: Una Canción de Gratitud Hecha por Ti


¿Por qué te sientes agradecido/a TÚ?

Es posible que los niños pequeños aún no comprendan que todos tienen sus propios pensamientos y sentimientos, pero los padres, cuidadores y profesores pueden enseñarles a preocuparse por los demás y a sentirse agradecidos. A los 2-3 años, los niños suelen sentirse agradecidos por cosas específicas (¡como una mascota o su juguete preferido!), pero al cumplir los 4 años ya son capaces de sentirse agradecidos por conceptos más abstractos (¡como el amor y la libertad!) (fuente). Los niños pueden practicar decir “Gracias” y conectar la palabra con el sentimiento de gratitud a medida que crecen.

Este sentimiento de gratitud es importante, pero no sólo el Día de Acción de Gracias sino durante la vida: estudios de investigación demuestran que este sentimiento de agradecimiento hace que las personas sean más felices (fuente) y estén más saludables (fuente).

Así pues, ¿cómo podemos criar a un/a niño/a agradecido/a? Hablen sobre la gratitud, hagan que ser agradecido sea un hábito en su familia ¡y conviértase usted en un modelo a seguir! La investigación confirma que los padres que muestran gratitud tienen hijos más agradecidos en sus actos (fuente).

Su propia canción original sobre la gratitud

Con el Día de Acción de Gracias a la vuelta de la esquina y la gratitud como máxima, nuestro amigo, el talentoso compositor y cantante Royer Bockus, ha creado una original Canción de Gratitud, “G-G-Grateful” para invitar a los padres, cuidadores, niños y educadores de Gran Corazón a crear su PROPIA canción original sobre la gratitud. 

Se trata de una plantilla que pueden usar para crear su propia canción familiar de agradecimiento. Esto le ayudará a usted a ser un modelo de gratitud a la vez que ayudará a su pequeño/a a entender cómo ser agradecido/a.

Estos son los tres pasos:


Escuchen la canción juntos.

Esta es la versión con letra: 

Esta es la versión instrumental sin letra:

Piensen en las cosas por las que usted y su niño/a están agradecidos. Pueden ser personas (¡como la Abuela!), lugares (¡como nuestra pared para trepar en el parque!), ideas (como la libertad y el amor) o sus comidas, animales, flores o libros favoritos, etc. 

Es una fantástica oportunidad de ayudar a los niños a entender qué es la “gratitud” y “ser agradecido”. Son palabras cargadas de significado que pueden ser demasiado abstractas para la comprensión de los niños pequeños. No pasa nada: ¡se trata de enseñar y aprender!

Por turnos, compartan uno con el otro lo que a cada uno les hace sentirse agradecidos. 

¡Ahora toca convertir los “gracias” en una canción!

Escuchen la música en su versión instrumental mientras crean su propia canción juntos.

Crear su propia versión de “G-G-Grateful” es suficiente para incentivar la gratitud, pero si desea que la canción esté presente en su mesa de Acción de Gracias, puede invitar a cada miembro de la familia a añadir una frase a la letra.

Compartan su versión de “G-G-Grateful” en las redes sociales con la etiqueta #bigheartworld! ¡Estamos ansiosos por escuchar lo que usted y su familia han creado.

November 16, 2021 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

G-G-Grateful: A Do-It-Yourself Thankfulness Song


What are YOU thankful for? 

Young children may not yet understand that everyone has their own thoughts and feelings, but parents, caregivers, and teachers can help them learn to care about others and to feel thankful. By 2-3 years old, children can be thankful for specific things (like a pet or a favorite toy) and by about 4 years old, children can feel grateful for more abstract things (like love and liberty) (source). Children can practice saying, “Thank you” and learn to connect those words with the feeling of gratitude as they grow.

All of this gratefulness is important — not just on Thanksgiving but in life: research shows that feeling grateful actually makes people happy (source) and healthy (source).

So, how can you raise a thankful child? Talk about gratitude, make thankfulness a habit in your family, and be a gratitude role model! Research shows that  parents who show gratitude have children who act more grateful (source).

Make Your Own "Thank You" Song

With Thanksgiving approaching and thankfulness top of mind, our friend, the amazingly talented composer and singer Royer Bockus created an original Thanksgiving Song, “G-G-Grateful,” to prompt Big Hearted parents, caregivers, children, and educators to create their OWN original songs about gratefulness. 

It’s like a template for you to use to create your own family thankfulness song. This will help you model your thankfulness while also helping your little one explore gratitude.

Follow These 3 Steps

Listen to the song together:

Here’s the version with lyrics. Notice how Royer names and sounds out the things she’s grateful for as she sings!

Here’s the audio with no lyrics:

Brainstorm what you and your child are thankful for. It could be people (like Grandma!), places (like “our” rock in the park!), ideas (like freedom and love) or favorite foods, pets, flowers, books, etc. 

This is a great chance to help children understand what “gratitude” and “thankfulness” are. These are big words that might be a bit too abstract for younger toddlers to understand. It’s OK: this is a moment for teaching and learning!

Take turns, sharing what makes each of you thankful.

Now it’s time to turn your “thank yous” into a song!

Play the music without words in the background as you create your own song together.

Just creating your own version of “G-G-Grateful” is enough to build gratitude — but if you want to bring the song to your family’s Thanksgiving table and each add a line, please feel free!

Share your version of G-G-Grateful on social media and tag #bigheartworld! We want to hear what you and your little one create.

August 5, 2021 by Donna Housman, Ed.D 0 Comments

Parent-Teacher Relationships: The Key to Back-to-School Success

Children are heading to school this fall, many for the very first time. Although the pandemic was an emotional rollercoaster for children and families, there is a silver lining: parents and teachers developed a more solid understanding of the importance of strong parent-teacher relationships and communication, a realization that can boost learning and development as we transition out of the pandemic.

Children thrive when parents and teachers have strong relationships.
Housman Emotions Board

As students head to schools and classrooms, social and emotional learning is parents’ top concern. Six in ten parents say they are worried about their children’s social and emotional development, about double the percentage of parents who said academic learning is their top worry, according to a new study released this summer (read the full New America report or coverage from Big Heart World). 

When young children go to school, parents’ responsibility for ensuring their early education and development doesn’t get passed off to the teacher. Parents know what happened over the last year and a half; they know where their children struggled and excelled, both academically and emotionally, and these insights must be shared with educators. Likewise, educators and parents/caregivers must work together over time to forge home-school connections that will support children’s learning to address children’s needs, both academic and social-emotional.

Over my 30 years in education, research, and child psychology, I have seen the powerful impact strong parent-teacher relationships have on children.

Take conflict resolution, for example. During my time as a leader of a Boston-based early childhood center, I saw my fair share of frustrated parents and children. Three year olds running from dad, dad becoming angry about his son’s lack of emotional regulation: all parents can relate and empathize.  

However, I also saw the effectiveness of parent-teacher relationships when mediating high intensity situations. I’ve seen parents, educators, and students working through big emotions — calming their bodies, preparing for open dialogue about emotions, sharing feelings, and finding solutions. 

When teachers and parents communicate about what is going on with their child/student, and identify ways to respond, model, and guide, it provides a consistency of messaging and shared expectations. The result: The child feels safe, secure, more in control, with a sense of pride and confidence. Plus, parents and teachers feel a lot better, too.

Ways parents and educators can work together to build strong relationships to help students:
New School Year, New Emotions

Children will bring big emotions to classrooms. For those who have never been to school before, fear and separation anxiety are to be expected. Children may have heightened anxiety about socializing after a year of staying home or being told to interact at a distance. For some, there may be a sense of over-excitement to see friends again.

While these are natural, left unsupported, these emotions can create disruptions within the child, between children, and throughout the classroom. 

As teachers address students’ academic needs, it’s important for parents to help children to identify, understand, and regulate emotions. This provides brain space for other activities such as focusing, problem solving, creative thinking and active listening. 

Parents can get the ball rolling by building on what they have observed over the last year and a half with their children and sharing what they have seen and learned about their children– what makes them most nervous, what helps them calm down, what sparks their curiosity, etc.

These are the critically important conversations that pave the way for an open dialogue between parents and teachers about children’s emotions. 

Consider YOUR Child and His/Her Needs

As we know, starting school is always filled with BIG emotions but this year is uncharted territory for many children and families. Therefore, parents should spend extra time reflecting on their children and their unique needs. 

Consider your child’s school experience before the pandemic and how they’re feeling about going back to school or to school for the first time. Consider the feelings your child experienced during the pandemic and experiences that might have shaped your child’s mindset or skills going into the school year. 

We recommend taking this quiz, developed by the Housman Institute and Big Heart World, to answer questions about your child’s social and emotional development at this moment and to get a list of your child’s unique needs and a personalized toolkit you can use to support your child’s social and emotional development. 

Keep Channels of Communication Open Between Parents and Teachers

Less than half of parents say they’re comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although these conversations can be hard, they are important to support children’s growth.

Once parents have thought through their child’s unique strengths and needs, they’ll be more ready to open a conversation with their child’s new teacher. 

Talk to the teacher at the start of the year and make it your practice to keep the conversation going as the year proceeds. 

Communicating early and often will give teachers and parents the information they need to support children through this transition and promote their healthy growth and learning. 

Parents, over the last year — maybe without even knowing it —  have been prepping or building the communication tools to build strong working relationships with their child’s teacher. Now it is time to put parents’ vast knowledge to use to support their children’s healthy transition and school year success. 

August 3, 2021 by Jane Park 0 Comments

Parenting With a Big Heart: Growing Empathy

Jane Park as a Child

When I was around five years old, I remember cuddling and watching TV with my Mom on our beige-colored pleather sofa. We stumbled on a special about children living in hunger and I distinctly remember the look on my Mom’s face: sadness, pain. Her eyes swelled up and she reached over to grab a tissue. I asked her why she was crying and she said in Korean, “This makes me feel so sad. No kid should be hungry.” She picked up the phone and made a call to donate money to an organization serving families facing food insecurity.

Looking back, I realize the hurt she felt when she saw those images probably was related to her own struggles growing up during the Korean war and being a first-generation immigrant to the United States from Korea. I often observed my Mom being open and vulnerable about her feelings — whether it was her joyful laughter that could light up a whole room, the look of exhaustion after a long day of work, or her sadness from things happening around her, which even included over-the-top, sad scenes from her favorite Korean soap operas that often made her burst into tears. (If any of you have ever watched a Korean drama, you know what I mean!)

The word that comes to mind when I think of her greatest strength is empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions, and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. 

Growing Into An Empathetic Mother
Jane Park & daughter

When I became pregnant with my daughter, I knew empathy was one of the most important traits and skills I wanted to pass along to her. I also knew that developing empathy would begin with the kind of environment I created at home and the actions I modeled in our everyday life. In a wonderful new book published by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewskin, When You Wonder, You’re Learning, they write: “To become loving and caring people, kids first have to know that they’re worthy of love and care themselves.”

One of the greatest ways we can show that our children are worthy of love and care is by meeting them where they are, sharing in things they seem curious about, and letting them know that their feelings—all their feelings—matter (here’s a great feelings song to sing together).

Yet, this pandemic has stretched us all — our patience, our energy, our resources, our everything! During the times when I felt like things were falling apart, I felt an even greater need to show my kids that “Mommy has it all together.” One afternoon, about three months into the pandemic, my daughter broke down in tears about how hard it was to not see her friends, not having met some of her teachers in person, and having to sit in front of a computer all day. She said, “You wouldn’t understand because you always seem happy and strong.” 

Wow, that hit me hard because while that couldn’t have been further from truth, it must have been what I projected to her. As we know, children take cues from their parents so in that moment, I check my own emotions by taking some time to breathe.

I then asked her to hold my hand and take some deep breaths with me — to help both of us calm down. After our last exhale, I admitted to her that I also have hard moments and she responded, “You do, too?” Suddenly, the heaviness that I noticed in her eyes, her shoulders, and her heart seemed a bit lighter. She was curious to know more and I shared that I struggle too, I feel sad, I feel so, so tired sometimes and talked about some of the things I do to feel better and unstuck in those moments. 

We both agreed that we couldn’t wait for the pandemic to be OVER, but I reminded her that we’ve gone through hard things before, and I know we will get through this together too. The conversation ended with her giving me a hug saying, “I know we will. Okay, can you leave my room now? I have to go back to class.” In that moment when she needed empathy from me, she showed empathy back to me. But it started with her feeling safe to express all her feelings first and all she wanted to know was that she wasn’t alone.

Being Actively Empathetic for Our Kids

Parents today have a different kind of pressure that I don’t think our parents had when we were growing up — there were no Facebook or Instagram feeds showing photo-after-photo of “perfect” families with perfectly groomed hair and outfits, and immaculate living rooms. But I realize that our children don’t expect or want a super-parent, they want to know that we are human too — with our share of feelings, struggles, and mistakes. 

Every parent’s situation is unique but making whatever moment we have count by being present to talk about these feelings with our children — in age-appropriate ways — can help them feel more compassionate towards others and towards themselves. Here are four questions and conversation starters that were helpful to us:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • What are you curious about? What would you like to learn more about?
  • I wonder what it must feel like to be (name an animal, person from different life experience, etc.)
  • Let’s imagine we’re…

Reading books together (check out this Big Heart World book list) can also open up a world of opportunities to learn about others’ perspectives and experiences.

Making the Most of a Hard Time

I’ve been trying to take photos of my kids and our family wearing our masks—at home and out and about—because one day, we’ll look back and remember how we got through a global pandemic, by trying our best, together. As hard and long as our days might be, my hope is that the struggles we face—all in our own ways—are building our children’s sense of empathy towards others going through hard times and sparking creative ways to show care and kindness.  

As my hero Fred Rogers said perfectly, “From the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” For me, it started with simple moments like cuddling on a pleather sofa watching TV and hearing someone else’s story with my Mom.

Jane Park & KIds