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Messages to Take Back to School and Beyond

New beginnings are exciting! They become exciting to us because they offer the promise of hope, the anticipation of change in our lives, and the prospect that our dreams will indeed come true! Squire Rushnell, When God Winks on New Beginnings

Indeed, there is a buzzing energy reverberating in the homes of school-aged children just about this time of year. Whether your child is embarking on the wonder and magical days of kindergarten or they are a senior in high school entering the “last first day” of a year of countless “lasts,” the beginning of the school year is full of hopes and dreams as well as the to-be-expected sensations of jitters and butterflies in the belly.

With fall on the horizon, familiar back-to-school tips are emerging on the Internet from myriad organizations. One of the most popular tips, of course, is the importance of establishing routines at home before the start of school by making sure there are laminated lists of bedtime and morning rituals to be checked off by the children, offering them a sense of agency and mastery. I thought I would share a few thoughts for parents to reflect upon, ways to communicate to their school-aged children not just at the beginning of this school year but throughout the year.

As a psychologist working with school-age children morning, noon, and night (yes that’s right, school is not over when you have over 270 boarding students who live at the school), there are some messages that I find myself repeating in some form or another throughout the year. I find that these messages help children of all ages. Please feel free to adapt the language in a way that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Mistakes are a natural and necessary part of learning.
  • Give yourself permission to excel in some areas and struggle in others. Remember that your strengths are there to help your weaknesses out.
  • Perfection is just simply overrated. Consider being unapologetically you, which is by far the best version of yourself, imperfections and all.
  • Whether in class or on the athletic field, don’t compare yourself to others; evaluate your own strengths, growth, and achievements in relation to yourself. You will grow much more this way, and achieve your goals with greater success.
  • Surround yourself with school friends that support you. Like oil and water, sometimes we don’t always mix well with some schoolmates. Be courteous to them, of course, but move on.
  • Be gentle and kind to yourself, because you will have tough moments in class, at recess, or on dorm. When you are gentle and kind to yourself you move through tough times more smoothly. A byproduct of this approach is that you will also be more understanding and compassionate toward others.
  • Ask yourself daily: Who do I want to be and how do I want to behave today? Set an intention at the beginning of each day and notice how things flow.
  • Remember to take a few moments in the day to take some deep breaths. Those little pauses can nourish your body and your mind.
  • Welcome anxiety when it comes to visit your belly or your head before an exam or when the teacher calls on you. Instead of running away from the sensations of anxiety, invite it like a guest and chat with it for a bit. Anxiety is a normal experience and one that can come and go if you just befriend it.
  • Balance is a key ingredient to healthy living. Make sure that you have a good mix of school, work, play, and laughter in your day.

And parents, consider trying some of these practices too! These are lifelong practices that can serve us far beyond our school years.

Westtown Spring
Summer Skill Building with Your Child

With summer on the horizon, it is a great time for parents, guardians, and caregivers to think about the social-emotional skills that they would like to foster in their child. To begin your thinking, here are a few ideas, skills, and strategies that we use in Westtown’s Lower School.

  • Unstructured, unguided, and unplugged free play time: Providing children with the time to play without electronics is critical for fostering imagination, problem-solving, and resilience. Children today have access to a plethora of immediately gratifying, hyper-stimulating forms of entertainment such as on-demand television shows, video games, cell phones, iPads, etc. While this form of entertainment can be fun and enjoyable, it takes away from time that can be spent fostering skills such as focus, exploration, engagement, and problem-solving without the stimulation of the device. These skills are critical for success in school. As the summer approaches, think about how you can carve out time every day for your child to have unstructured, unguided, and unplugged free time. This may become one of their favorite times of day (and yours!).
  • Problem-Solving Skills: What an important skill this is! When teaching children to solve a problem on their own, there are a sequence of steps that you can explicitly teach them:

Step 1: Identify the problem“Can you tell me exactly what the problem is?”
This can be the most difficult step, as children tend to see problems from only their point of view. Parents can help by asking questions about the situation, what was happening before the problem happened, and who else is involved. This guided thought process can help the child to narrow the problem down to something that is specific enough to solve.

Step 2: Brainstorm all the possible solutions – “What are all the ways that you could respond?” In this step, help your child think of all the possible solutions to the problem – even the unrealistic or silly ones. This is a critical step, as it helps your child to think flexibly and generate ideas.

Step 3: Think about the outcome of each – “What will happen if you chose this one?” In this step, ask your child to picture what will happen if they chose each option. This step fosters forethought, which is necessary for planning, impulse control, and other life-long executive function skills. Cross out each solution that will not have the desired or optimal outcome as you go.

Step 4: Make your choice – “Which solution will you try?” Have your child select the option that is best from the list, and ask them to explain why they chose it.

Step 5: Try it – “Give it a try and let’s see how it goes.” After your child follows through on the option, talk with them to see how the events played out. Would they have made that same choice again? If not, would they have made a different choice? This step fosters self-reflection, and again, forethought for problems that have yet to arise.

  • Coping Skills: When emotions are high, it is hard to engage the thinking part of your brain. As a result, many actions and reactions can be unexpected because they are driven by emotion. Supporting your child in developing a habit of stopping to take a breath before acting can be very effective. We often use a breathing technique at Westtown known as the 5-4-7. The 5-4-7 is a structured breathing exercise. You begin by breathing in for a count of 5, then hold your breath for a count of 4, and finally exhale for a count of 7. Repeat as needed!

Social-emotional skills help our children navigate everyday life and the more we can partner at home and in school to develop these skills the better. Have fun with it and enjoy the summer months!

Empower Your Child, Empower Yourself

As parents, we are hardwired to want the best life experiences for our children. We know that life will present challenges and it is our role to help them thoughtfully respond to and even learn to embrace these situations. Social Emotional Learning (SEL), also known as Emotional Intelligence (EI), is an invaluable skill that, when developed and nurtured, empowers children and adults to respond to life experiences in a healthy and well-adjusted manner. SEL skills contribute not only to your child’s academic success but also to their future work and life happiness.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is made up of five competencies including: self awareness, emotional and behavioral management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible and ethical decision making.  

So how do we translate this to our everyday life?  What do these competencies or skills look like and how do we teach them to our children? Let me provide some real-life examples of SEL skills, how they show up in our adult life, and ways to nurture these skills in our children.  

  • Empathy: When you are able to listen and be compassionate towards your colleague who is upset at work. Empathy is also at the root of amazing customer service. Empathy can be developed and nurtured in your children in an abundance of ways. One of the clearest pathways to nurturing empathy is through service. Whether it is through volunteer work at a homeless shelter, a visit to an elderly neighbor, reading a book together that teaches empathy, or using Design Thinking in the classroom or at home. Remember to follow up with conversations about these experiences with your children. Guide them in articulating their experiences and the feelings that emerged.


I Am Because We Are

Living on the six hundred acres that comprises Westtown School’s  campus is an absolute gift. I have the privilege of walking through myriad paths and trails on the campus each and every day. It is during these walks that I do my deepest thinking, ponderings, and wonderings about most any aspect of life. The other day I set out my walk with a rather simple question: What does the world need right now?  My question was  prompted both by the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the recent —though long-standing— battle against racism in our country.  For the first ten minutes or so, my brain rambled and came up with a number of “heady” responses, none of which informed my gut that it was an “aha” moment or a meaningful revelation of any sort. So I decided to shut down my “monkey brain,” as many meditation teachers call our active noise-making noggins, and focused my attention on the winding path beneath my feet. When I choose to quiet my mind,  it is not uncommon for songs to pop up out of nowhere. My childhood memories are filled with music and song as I come from a very musical ancestry; my maternal aunts and uncles were the Cuban version of the VonTrapp family in The Sound of Music. I began to hum a tune that my mother would harmonize to when I was a child. My mother, Antonia, had this uncanny ability to harmonize to anything that possessed a melody and so her voice echoed in my ear:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No not just for some but for everyone.”

-Words by H. David and Music by Bacarach in 1965


Say Yes to Change with Radical Acceptance

In March of 2000, I was in Washington, D.C. and overheard a colleague speaking about a Buddhist psychologist named Tara Brach who would be speaking that evening at an after-dinner event. Instantly hooked by the Buddhist-psychologist combo, I decided to attend. Within minutes, I was mesmerized by this small, soft-spoken, gentle woman whose quiet, melodic voice and light green compassionate eyes immediately sent me into a highly relaxed state. In her talk on radical acceptance, she spoke about the idea of moving towards what upsets us rather than moving away from it (with the use of denial, distraction, or otherwise). In fact, she recommended a most revolutionary idea which came to her as she was speaking to us (talk about being present in the moment and how creativity springs forth). Dr. Brach instructed us: “Invite your fear to tea.” I have practiced this approach and have taught this to so many patients over the years and it is a game changer! You may wonder, How can I apply this to our current situation?  The script can sound something like:  “Hello, Coronavirus, would you like to come to my porch and discuss some items over tea?  Perhaps we can chat about what’s been going on in the world. Where you are going with this, because I am scared, disoriented, sad, and weary and after all, I do have a life to get back to.o, scratch that, reset…I have to accept you are here and that I need to make some adjustments and changes in my life, so that I can then see a new way forward with possibilities that can ground me and center me back into life again.”


The Power of Perception

We humans are meaning-making machines and it is ultimately our perception (or what our mind chooses to see) that informs the story we tell ourselves and others about what is happening and what it means. As a graduate student of psychology, perception was an area of study that I did not fully appreciate and simply experienced as a topic to review and file away. Thirty years later, I believe that perception is everything and that it is one of the most powerful tools that human beings possess. Perception determines and drives our approach, attitude, and actions in any given situation. The current global pandemic we are facing —and our varying responses to it— is a testament to the power of perception and how it impacts our experience, our behaviors, and the choices we make moment to moment. Even though our perceptions are informed and shaped by our personal life experiences, we humans have the capacity and the freedom to choose what we see, what we hear, and how we feel. These become the threads that weave the story that we tell.


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