Category: Learning

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. 

Los materiales para la vuelta al cole más importantes de este año: Las máscaras y las habilidades para resolver problemas

Jodie's son

Mi hijo de seis años empezó el primer grado este mes en una escuela nueva, sin ninguna cara conocida a la vista. El primer día, le preguntó a su compañera de pupitre si quería que fueran amigos. Ella respondió encogiendo los hombros y diciéndole que lo pensaría.

Al día siguiente, su respuesta fue no. 

Grrr.

Mi sangre de mamá-oso hirvió cuando me contó su decisión, pero su carita pecosa permaneció relativamente tranquila y natural. No parecía enfadado: más bien estaba inseguro de qué debía hacer ahora.

A medida que nuestros hijos comienzan un nuevo año escolar, muchos de ellos de vuelta a las aulas después de una larga pausa causada por el Covid, me uno a muchos padres que están ayudando a nuestros hijos a resolver problemas sociales. 

Las preocupaciones de padres con la vuelta al cole

Un nuevo estudio realizado por Bright by Text y Big Heart World con casi 450 padres de niños de entre 2 y 8 años de edad, reveló que:

  • El 75% de los padres afirman estar preocupados por el aprendizaje socio-emocional de sus hijos. 
  • Los padres están más preocupados por el desarrollo socio-emocional que por el aprendizaje académico.
  • Sólo el 31% de los padres declaró sentirse “muy seguro” de poder ayudar a sus hijos a desarrollar sus habilidades socioemocionales. 

Con tantas cosas que están fuera de nuestro control en este momento (el 95% de los padres encuestados siguen preocupados por la posibilidad de que sus hijos se contagien de COVID), todavía hay formas de ayudar a nuestros hijos a volver a salir a la calle con confianza. 

Tres estrategias para ayudar a nuestros hijos a resolver problemas

Aquí hay tres estrategias para ayudar a tu hijo a resolver problemas sociales: 

  1. Devuelvele las preguntas. Cuando mi hijo de primer grado me preguntó qué creía que debía hacer para hacer amigos, mis otros hijos se lanzaron a hacer sugerencias. “Pasar tiempo en las barras durante el recreo”, sugirió mi hijo de tercer grado. “Allí seguro que haces amigos”. Mi hijo de cuatro años preguntó si podía ir a primer grado y ser amigo de su hermano mayor. (Qué bien, pero pues, no es posible). Le devolví la pregunta original a quien la hizo: “¿Qué crees TÚ que deberías hacer?”. Y, con sólo unos minutos de reflexión, se le ocurrieron algunas ideas geniales para hacer nuevos amigos y también para llevarse bien con la compañera no tan interesada. Por supuesto, a veces nuestros hijos necesitarán que les ayudemos a resolver problemas, pero otras veces sólo necesitan saber que creemos que ellos tienen las respuestas.
  2. Aplica la regla de “prueba 3 antes de venir a mí”. Con tres niños de edades cercanas, en mi casa hay conflictos casi constantes. Qué película ver, quién puede usar qué juguete, a qué parque vamos. En pocas palabras: los conflictos son agotadores, para los padres, para los niños e incluso para el perro de nuestra familia, que se levanta y sale de la habitación cuando hay un desacuerdo. La regla ” Prueba 3 antes de acudir a mí” anima a los niños a idear tres formas de resolver un problema por su cuenta antes de pedírselo a un adulto. Si están jugando a un juego de mesa y no están de acuerdo, la regla de “probar 3” podría ser la siguiente: negociar una regla que pueda resolver el problema, volver a empezar la partida o elegir un nuevo juego. Si todo eso falla, pueden pedirme ayuda a mí (o a otro adulto). Esto anima a los niños a resolver un problema entre ellos antes de pedir ayuda externa.
  3. Haz que el respeto sea un ingrediente de los desacuerdos. Los niños (amigos, hermanos, compañeros de clase) no siempre están de acuerdo. Y eso está bien. Pero insultar, gritar o herir físicamente a otra persona no está bien. Cuando surge un desacuerdo entre mis propios hijos o entre mi hijo y un amigo, a menudo me ayuda recordarles que en realidad se quieren, y que no tienen que estar de acuerdo, pero sí tienen que dirigirse al otro con respeto. Estas palabras son más efectivas cuando todos han tenido la oportunidad de respirar profundamente y calmarse.

Al comenzar otro año escolar marcado por la pandemia, añadamos habilidades de resolución de problemas sociales a nuestra lista de material escolar. 

Para más consejos sobre cómo ayudar a tu hijo a tener un gran corazón este año escolar, envía HEART al 274 448.

September 21, 2021 by Jodie Fishman, MPH, MCHES 0 Comments

This Year’s Hottest Back-to-School Supplies: Masks and Problem-Solving Skills

Jodie's son
Jodie's 6-year-old, heading to first grade

My six-year-old started first grade this month at a brand-new school, not a familiar face in sight. On the first day, he asked his next desk neighbor if she wanted to be friends. She responded with a shrug and said she’d think about it.

The next day, her answer was no. 

Grrr.

My mama-bear blood boiled when he told me her verdict, but his little freckled face remained relatively calm and matter-of-fact. He didn’t seem angry. Mostly, he seemed unsure of what to do next.

As our kids begin a new school year, many back in the classroom after a long Covid-induced hiatus, I join many parents across the country (and around the world) who are pitching in to help our kids figure out social problem-solving. 

Parents' Back-to-School Worries

A new study of nearly 450 parents of kids ages 2-8, conducted via text message by Bright by Text and Big Heart World, found that:

  • 75% of parents reported concern about their child’s social-emotional learning. 
  • Parents are more concerned about social-emotional development than academic learning.
  • Only 31% of parents reported feeling “very confident” in helping their child build social-emotional skills. 

With so much out of our control right now (95% of parents surveyed remain concerned about their child catching COVID), there are still ways we can help our kids get back out there confidently. 

Three Strategies to Help Our Kids Solve Problems

Here are three strategies for helping your child solve social problems: 

  1. Bounce questions back. When my first grader asked what I thought he should do to make friends, my other kids jumped in with suggestions. “Hang out at the monkey bars during recess,” suggested my third grader. “You’ll definitely make friends there.” My four-year-old asked if he could move up to 1st grade and be his big brother’s friend. (Sweet, but not possible.) I bounced the original question back to its asker: “What do YOU think you should do?” And, with just a few minutes of thought, he came up with some great ideas for making new friends and also getting along with the not-so-interested classmate. Of course, sometimes our kids will need us to help problem-solve — but other times they just need to know that we believe they have the answers.
  2. Use the “try 3 before coming to me” rule. With three kids close in age, there are near-constant conflicts in my house. Which movie to watch, who gets to use which toy, what playground we go to. Simply put: conflicts are exhausting — for the parents, for the kids, and even for our family’s dog who gets up and leaves the room when a disagreement rumbles through! The “Try 3 before coming to me” rule encourages kids to come up with three ways to solve a problem on their own before asking a grown-up. If they’re playing a board game and disagree, the “try 3” rule might look like: negotiate on a rule that may solve the problem, start the game over, or pick a new game. If all of that fails, then they can ask me (or another grown-up) for help. This encourages kids to solve a problem amongst themselves first before asking for outside help.
  3. Make respect an ingredient in disagreements. Kids (friends, siblings, classmates) don’t always agree. And that’s okay. But calling people names, yelling, or physically hurting someone else are not okay. When a disagreement comes up between my own kids or my child and a friend, it often helps to remind them that they actually like each other — and that they don’t have to agree, but they do have to approach each other respectfully. These words sink in the most when everyone has had a chance to take some deep breaths and calm down.

As we begin yet another pandemic school year, let’s all add social problem-solving skills to our school supply list. 

For more tips on helping your child grow a big heart this school year, text HEART to 274 448.

May 2, 2021 by Julia Levy 0 Comments

Learning Music Can Grow Your Kid’s Mind AND Heart

Even before babies are born, they are listening to the sounds that surround them and learning music, and by the time they are three years old, their brains have made a thousand, trillion connections, says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, the chairman of the Peabody Preparatory’s Early Childhood Music department at Johns Hopkins University. 

“Music does, almost without a doubt, improve cognitive functions — it makes you smarter,” Eric said. “But the bottom line for me is that music just makes us human, makes us the artful, beautiful people we are.”  

Eric said being exposed to music and music education in the early years is a powerful tool that can build multiple parts of the brain, all at once. It can help children to develop fine motor skills; memory; problem solving skills; math and literacy skills. It can also boost social and emotional skills, including perseverance, self-esteem, and relationships with other people. 

Dr. Rasmussen teaching music to a group of young children.
"But the bottom line for me is that music just makes us human, makes us the artful, beautiful people we are."
Eric Rasmussen

For parents, caregivers, and early childhood educators, the good news is that “learning music” doesn’t mean teaching children to count and name the musical notes. Formal instruction like that, Eric said, “gives the brain information and completely bypasses the ear.” Instead, parents, caregivers, and educators should foster “musical interactions” with children that use the ear (and the whole body) to promote meaningful learning. 

5 Ways Parents and Caregivers Can Encourage Brain-Boosting Musical Interactions:

Eric shared five ways parents and caregivers can create brain-boosting “musical interactions” with their children:

  1. Sing to your baby without words“Turn diapering into a song: ‘Doop-a-doop-a-doop-ba-doopity-doop,’” Eric advised. He said he encourages parents to talk in “Motherese,” a sing-song voice that is naturally musical, and to take away the words to create “songs” to share with babies throughout the day. 
  2. Sing to your toddler without words“The brain can’t do music and words at the same time,” Eric explained. “You have two competing things going on.” He said most children are better able to focus on the musical elements of songs without the words. So pick your favorite song and sing it without the lyrics to your child. 
  3. Turn conversations into musical interactions. Turn your regular conversations with your child into musical interactions by focusing on patterns. When you point at a bird flying in the sky and say, “bird, bird, bird,” it’s almost like a song, Eric said: “It’s like feeding your child a little, tiny snippet of a melody.”
  4. Play music and sing to your child. Depending on the type of learner you have, listening to instrumental music or music with words might help them focus and learn more! So, turn on the music and play together to learn about music itself, and, later, the meaning of the lyrics.
  5. Get out your scarves and shakers to encourage your child to move to the music. “Movement may be more fundamental to music education than everything else put together,” Eric said. “Music gives rise to the understanding of rhythm, and rhythm is more fundamental to music than melody. Every melody has rhythm but not all songs have melody. What gives rise to understanding of rhythm is movement.” 

Play the music from Noggin’s Big Heart Beats Album!

May 2, 2021 by Noelle Yoo 0 Comments

How Journaling Can Foster Community During Times of Stress and Uncertainty

As a third grade teacher at an independent school in Boston, I knew that my school was doing all it could to prepare teachers for the 2020-21 school year. But in the summer of 2020, I was constantly feeling stress, anxiety, and frustration. After being remote for several months, I wondered: Will I feel safe going back into our school building? Is it possible to build a community over Zoom? How will we make sure everyone will follow the health and safety guidelines? What about all the kids in schools that won’t be able to reopen? 

The beginning of the school year always marks an exciting new journey for students, and I wanted to create the same enthusiasm for the new school year that I always had. I didn’t want to bring my negative emotions into my time with the children. I needed to be there for them so that they could feel a sense of normalcy. Now, I laugh that I thought hiding my emotions would help create normalcy.

There was nothing normal about this year.

In the same way that vulnerability in a time of unpredictability is scary and uncomfortable for adults, I quickly learned that the children in my classroom were experiencing those same feelings of worry, fear, and concern. 

What makes children and adults different is that children don’t have the same tools as adults do to process emotions. 

The physical distance we had to keep, not being able to see each other’s faces through masks, and the rigidity and time-consuming nature of the health and safety rules while instituting an important level of safety were obstacles for community building.

Journaling together was one way that my students and I combatted the stress of the year and built community in our third grade classroom, against the odds.

Every day, my co-teacher and I set aside 15-20 minutes to play calming music, sit with our journals, and write with the kids. 

The purpose of this time was empowering students with strategies for calming their bodies and minds, and showing them how a journal can be used as a mode for expression and reflection. As I wrote, I used a document camera to project my own journal.  One day I created a comic strip about what I did over the weekend and the next I wrote a poem about how I miss seeing my grandparents. There were no rules. Want to write a poem? Awesome. Want to draw a picture? Amazing. Need to take the day to just think? Great choice. 

How we set up this space for children has been an important element of its success. The factors that have made this time engaging and meaningful are that the children are encouraged to use real life and prompts to inspire their authoring; they are free to create with or without a set structure; the time is passion-oriented and student-directed with teacher support (Bruyère & Pendergrass, 2020). 

We closed out our journaling time with a share-circle. Sharing was always optional. Some kids chose to share every day. It took other kids time, watching their peers share for weeks before wanting to share. Share-circles offer children an opportunity to build confidence in their writing, reading and even speaking abilities when sharing orally. They help to establish a sense of community and offer the chance to share important home-school connections as well as learn new things about their peers, developing deeper, more authentic relationships with classmates (Routman 2004; Hall 2014).

This year, the transformation and healing that journaling and share-circles brought to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a community, was empowering. In a time and space that can feel so isolating and uncertain, this became a daily moment of community and unity.

Here are a few steps that you can try to encourage journaling in your classroom or home:

  1. Find two journals or make your own (fold and staple several pieces of paper together). If you’d like, spend a day decorating and designing your journal with your child(ren) with whatever materials you have available.
  2. Find a calm space you can write (or draw) together with your child(ren). 
  3. Consistency is important. Set up a consistent time to sit down for 15 minutes and write together. It can be daily, weekly, before bed, at breakfast — whatever works for you. 
  4. Offer a few minutes at the end to share with each other. Keep it optional and communicate expectations for feedback. It can be helpful at the beginning to model what it looks and sounds like to share something personal. 
  5. Keep it open and have fun!