Intro: Welcome to, "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents, and real educators so families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack that tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast."
LaWanda: Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." I'm your co-host, LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA. I'm here today with my co-host, Helen Westmoreland.
Helen: Hi, LaWanda
LaWanda: Hi, who is our Director of Family Engagement. This week's episode focuses on ways parents and families can work together to build their child's social and emotional skills.
Helen: That's right. We want more for our children than good grades and test scores. We want them to be good citizens, empathetic friends, good communicators and, of course, more than anything else, to be happy and healthy. According to research, all these skills are inextricably linked to academic success.
LaWanda: And while schools provide direct instruction to students in math, reading, and writing, there are many skills needed to thrive that aren't covered in the curriculum. Luckily, schools are beginning to fill in these gaps by adding social and emotional skills into lesson plans and classroom culture, but is that enough? Today we turn to Jennifer Miller to learn how families can foster these skills in their children and partner with school communities to do the same.
Helen: Jennifer Miller has 20 years of experience working with adults to help them become more effective with their children's social and emotional development. She is the author of "Confident Parents, Confident Kids," a new book that is being released on November 5th, 2019. She is also a contributing expert to "NBC Education Nation's Parent Toolkit" and has written articles for popular publications such as "The Washington Post," "The Huffington Post," "Edutopia," "Parent Magazine," and many more. Jennifer served on the Ohio Governor's writing team to develop social-emotional learning standards for grades kindergarten through third grade and most importantly, Jennifer is the mother to an 11-year-old son.
LaWanda: Jennifer, welcome to Notes from the Backpack. We're so happy to have you today.
Jennifer: Thank you. What a thrill. I am a big admirer of the National PTA and work with my own, we call it the Home School Association at my son's school. I'm a fan.
LaWanda: Awesome. Can you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and what inspired you to begin a career in social and emotional learning?
Jennifer: So I started fresh faced from college ready to go into the advertising world and I thought I'd have an adventure and go to Southern Oklahoma and volunteer my time with the Native American Boarding Home. And my assignment was dropout prevention. I had to keep these kids in school somehow and I had to promote their academic achievement. And what I realized as I learned from the students and from the school, I spent all of my time on their social and emotional development in order to promote their academic achievement and after that year I was really sold.
Fast-forward, a good 15 years of working in schools on integrating social and emotional skills into the curriculum and creating caring school communities. And I became a parent. All of a sudden I was saying, "Oh my goodness, this stuff that I'm working with teachers and principals on, I really should be doing at home." And so I started searching how do I do that and what resources are out there in order to do that? And I didn't find a whole lot. And so 3:00 AM in the morning, you know, your inspiration always comes at 3:00 AM. Mine always does, right?
LaWanda: I agree.
Helen: Mine's in the shower.
Jennifer: Oh, yeah. That's for me too, absolutely. So, 3:00 AM the "Confident Parents, Confident Kids" name comes to me and I think, "Each week what if I wrote about a way that parents could promote a social or emotional skill in family life and tie it to the research base in a very simple, practical way thinking about the messy context of family life? It certainly would enrich my family life and maybe I could help others." So fast-forward, my son who you mentioned who is 11 years old, is always my guinea pig. And really so many parents have joined in this dialogue to ask the question, how can we do this at home in our day-to-day routines and then how can we coordinate with schools. Some schools are doing this in a very focused way. Other schools are just getting onto how can we do this? But that coordination between schools and families is so important if we're truly gonna promote children's social and emotional development.
LaWanda: Can you define a social-emotional learning for our listeners so they can have, like, a sense of what does that really mean?
Jennifer: Very simply, it is coming to know ourselves better, our thoughts, our feelings, our strengths and limitations and then developing healthy positive relationships with others and in the process making good decisions along the way. So how can we do no harm? There are kills like self-awareness, like self-management, like social awareness, empathy, perspective-taking, like relationship skills, listening, communication, teamwork and then responsible decision making. How can we think about cause and effect consequences of our actions?
Helen: And with some of those skills we mentioned at the top of the episode that there's some research out there about their effects. And I think as parents we're sometimes put in the position of, do you want your child to be academically successful or do you want them to have all of these important social and emotional skills? Is that a true sort of binary choice? And what does the research really say about social and emotional development?
Jennifer: It is not an or, it is an and necessarily, our children bring their whole bodies to school. They are physical beings as well as emotional and social beings. So, when they get stressed out on a test, they may perform poorly if they don't have coping strategies to deal with that. But what if that teacher had an emotional curriculum where children were learning to name their feelings, to deal with that stress in the moment? What can you do? Can you take deep breaths? Can you call your attention to your body and to your paper to become more present? So there are lots of strategies that feed directly into the academic curriculum. That's one way. But another important research-based fact to remember is that our emotions seal in memory so that if we feel a caring connection with our teacher, that caring connection will also translate to the subject matter that he or she is teaching. And we will feel more connected to the subject matter and we will learn more deeply.
So, really emotional curriculum, it's often called the hidden curriculum. It's present whether we believe it to be or acknowledge it or intentional about it or not. And often when we're not intentional, we send messages that we don't wanna send. Like, joy is only acceptable on the playground, feelings cannot be felt in the classroom. They need to be repressed or squashed down. So, self-control is a good thing in the classroom. But what if we taught children more about how their feelings can be assets to them in making responsible choices on a test or with a peer when they're doing collaborative learning. So, there are lots of ways that social and emotional learning can enter into the academic curriculum.
Helen: What do you think about that notion that I think for some parents even hearing some of that or like talking about your feelings in the class and is my kid all of a sudden going to get a grade in how they're feeling in the class, right? It can be a little, I don't know, scary to think about your school teaching all these very subjective things. What do you sort of say to that and to those parents who might be a little wary of schools digging deep into this work?
Jennifer: It is a truly valid concern. The reason that as adults we are not in the habit of talking about feelings is because it is scary territory. So teachers can really use training to understand how to best utilize research-based curricular in the classroom to deal with those conversations. Certainly, assessment is an important part of that, but no, of course, we're not going to grade students on their ability to identify whether they're sad or happy. But we do know that it directly impacts academic outcomes if you focus on their social and emotional skill-building. So how can we look at the assets like they have already created really strong collaboration skills or friendship skills or listening skills? How can we talk about that and build upon that in the classroom?
LaWanda: Let's talk a little bit more about social and emotional learning. I want to know how does it look different at different stages of a child's development?
Jennifer: As babies, we watch infants begin to cry when they hear other infants in the nursery cry and we see that those are the very seedlings of empathy. And we noticed that our baby starts to mimic our smile and our facial expressions as we come up close to them. Again, catching our emotion and feeling that sense of empathy. That interaction between parents and baby begins from birth. And actually I would say prenatally and continues. So truly parents are children's first social and emotional teachers and that's why my swansong is let's educate parents about what they can do and how they can be responsive at each age and stage. So, you asked about various ages and stages. Let's say eight-year-olds. How would social and emotional skill building look with an eight-year-old? Well, an eight-year-old, will develop a whole new sense of internalizing the rules and in fact, they'll be able to be more trustworthy.
You might be able to leave them at home at that point because they've developed those self-regulation skills to say, "I know what the rules are. I can hear mom's voice in my head saying only two hours of screen time and you've got to watch your time," and you can trust that they will at least know the rules. Maybe they won't follow them, but they will know the rules and are more trustworthy in that way. So that puts them at another level of responsibility, which means they can take more responsibility at school, in the household. They can take on more independence. They can spend more time with friends and work on negotiating play with friends. As each age and stage develops, they'll develop more capacities to further develop social and emotional skills. And I will say that we developed social and emotional skills for a lifetime. It never ends. One person said to me, "My child still throws a tantrum and she's five years old. She completely loses it and cries and cries. When can I expect that to end?" And I said, "Do you ever lose control of your emotions and completely meltdown?" And she said, "Oh, right."
We're always working on it. And the wonderful, wonderful thing is that if we try to understand our child's development and meet them where they are in their social and emotional learning, we develop our own social and emotional learning in the process. So it really is reciprocal.
Helen: I know Jennifer, that you've talked to probably thousands at this point of parents out there about their kids' social and emotional development. And I'm guessing that a lot of those conversations probably came from the place of like what's not working. Could you tell us a little bit about what you see as sort of the common, maybe misunderstandings that parents have about their kid's development or, like, patterns that they get into with their kids?
Jennifer: Ah, the pitfalls?
Jennifer: So yeah, that's a good question. I like that one. I think one of the pitfalls can be perfectionism. We have such high hopes for our children and their performance. We want them to succeed in school. We want them to succeed in sports or in music or whatever extracurricular endeavor they engage in. And so, we put our eyes on the end products, the grades or the soccer goals and because our eyeballs are on those outcomes, we miss this great opportunity to focus on the process and the process itself then can lack joy. Part of it is that our attention is not there. Our children may be less motivated to work hard because the eye is on the product and not on the hard work and persistence and time and effort that it takes to reach any kind of valuable goal.
We often, because we hold these high standards, we want our children to button it all up and show, like, preschoolers need to get their shoes on and tie them just right and get out the door on time. And our children at various ages and stages are learning, whether it's day-to-day tasks or they're learning how to be a good friend or they're learning how to be a strong teammate or a good student. So, focusing on learning and the inevitable mistakes that come with learning are key and rewarding the process. In other words, recognizing the process, noticing. "I see you're putting a lot of hard work in and I see that you fell and got back up. I love that. That shows determination and you're not gonna give up. And that's what will make you successful in life."
LaWanda: I love the title of your new book, "Confident Parents, Confident Kids." Because a lot of times we may be confident in our careers or as people in general, but we're scared to death as parents. I can only speak for myself, but I think that other people feel the same way because you're afraid I don't want to mess up this kid for the rest of his life by doing this one thing that may mess him up. So, can you talk to us about what parents can learn from your book?
Jennifer: Boy, that's a big question. Yes, I will. "Confident Parents, Confident Kids," becoming confident as a parent sounds like a monumental goal, as you alluded to just now. It does. And so how do you gain confidence as a parent? You gain confidence by really learning about your child's development, understanding what they're learning at each age and stage, and then becoming responsive because development requires that roller coaster ride emotionally. And so children are gonna have to deal with rejection and pain and hurt. And as a parent seeing a child fearful or suffering, it may be the worst thing in the world. And so how do we deal with our big feelings, the anxiety or the anger and frustration? And then how do we coach our children and help them learn to understand their feelings can be assets in their lives? Their feelings can be a source of key information from the deepest part of themselves that they need to listen to and pay attention to and not shove down or tough out. So, really confidence is about, "How do we learn about our big feelings and family life and become more confident around ourselves and our children?"
LaWanda: Do you consider yourself a confident parent?
Jennifer: I will say that I do. Not all the time, but...
Helen: You're human like the rest of us.
Jennifer: ...the confidence comes from humility. In other words, I know that I can learn anything with time and effort and I also know that every day I am learning about how to be a better parent. So ,that's why I'm a confident parent because I am constantly engaged in figuring out how I can be a better parent. And so I feel like I've got this trusting relationship that I've developed with my child and he knows that I'm gonna fail and make mistakes and that's part of the deal and that I know he's gonna make mistakes and fail and that's part of his deal and we're still in this trusting relationship because of it.
LaWanda: I love it. Thank you.
Helen: I want to touch on something I know you talk about in the book a little bit and that is modeling. I think that word is sometimes used a lot. We're role models, We're modeling things. What does that mean in your world and what does it mean when it comes to social and emotional development?
Jennifer: I think modeling is the way that we are our children's social and emotional teachers first. We have an argument with the neighbor. Our child is playing beside us and they're always listening. We may think they're heavily engaged in play, but they've got one ear toward us.
Helen: Any child who's all of a sudden started a new cuss word at home, we know that as parents.
Jennifer: You know where it came from? You know exactly where that came from. Yeah, so for better or worse, right? We're modeling. Maybe you argue with the neighbor and then you work it out or you come back the next day and you take them a flower and you make up with them and you make things better and your child says, "Oh, I can fight with people, but I can make it okay in the end." Or you fight with your neighbor and decide you're not gonna talk to them for months and your child says, "Okay, there are some people that I have to shut out of my life." So we are constantly, again, for better or for worse, sending messages about how our children respond to their feelings and how our children respond to others. Are we going to be perfect all the time? Oh, my goodness, no, there's no way. But if we become more thoughtful and reflective about it, then we can begin to enter into a conversation as a family about, "Well, when I was feeling guilty, I went to the kitchen and I looked for sugar and maybe I should have actually talked to you about it instead." So, we can actually have those conversations in family life, be more reflective about our reactions to our feelings and learn together.
LaWanda: I want to put you on the spot a little bit. I hope you're okay with that? We talked to a couple of PTA parents and parents in general and we told them that we were talking to a social-emotional expert and they throw out some scenarios. Can I throw out...
Jennifer: Oh, I love it. Yes. Go. Go. Go. I love it.
LaWanda: Great. So, I'm gonna give you some real-life challenges that we received and we're gonna ask for your advice. Cool?
LaWanda: All right. So, here's the first one. "My 10-year-old son has started calling people stupid, including strangers. We don't use that language at home. So we think he's picking it up from school. What should we do?"
Jennifer: That's a common problem. We all of a sudden start hearing language that we've never heard before and the culprit, sometimes it's school, sometimes it's in the neighborhood or community, sometimes it's online. It's hard to know where that language came from. It doesn't really matter. The fact is he's starting to label someone stupid. The parent clearly doesn't like it. I think that often we want to respond with a lecture style. Like, "Now, now you need to not be calling him stupid," right?
Helen: I've sat through a few of those lectures.
Jennifer: Right? Yeah. Like that's our parenting tendency. So, what happens when you do the lecture?
LaWanda: You tune out. Yeah, I'm bored to death.
Jennifer: Exactly. That might not be our best teaching strategy, right? So, there are a couple of ways you could deal with it. One is to look for a situation where someone else is saying that someone's stupid. Now, that could be a common situation, not your child, but someone else in the world is calling someone else stupid and you take that moment to say, "Now, how do you think that other person is feeling right now?" So, you reflect on the impact of the words or any kind of labeling that happens in your life. You take that moment, that example, to ask your child, "What does that do to that person's heart when you say that they're stupid? Have you ever been called stupid before? How did you feel when that occurred?" You really bring it home.
I have a great activity on my site where you just simply draw a heart with your child and you have your child call the heart names and each time the child calls a name like stupid, you would rip the heart and it's a heartbreaking exercise, but it's very powerful.
Jennifer: But then you say, "Okay, will you please help repair this heart? Tell this heart some loving things. You're big. You're red. You're powerful. You're lovely." As the child compliments the heart, you tape it back together. And then you say, "What do you notice about that heart?" Well, there are still rips and tears that are visible, but the heart is back together and it really shows the power of our words that they do leave scars on our heart. I think it's a really powerful way to show children how their small, minor little comments can have a major impact on other children.
LaWanda: Oh, that sounds like a very impactful activity. I'm gonna use that.
Jennifer: I want to hear about it.
Helen: Jennifer, I've got another scenario for you, "My daughter, who's now 12 has always been a little bit of a complainer and we may have let it slide too long. So, now pretty much anything we do as a family she thinks is awful or boring and we're just not sure how to address it as a family and that's even when she chooses the things we're gonna do. So, she's just become a bit of a complainer, a Negative Nancy. How should we work with her to be more kind of gracious and positive?
Jennifer: Our culture right now is perpetuating Negative Nancy thinking. If you think about just turning on the news, it can be really difficult to hear all the things that are going on in the world. And so I encourage parents to think about their daily dose of negativity versus positivity and how that impacts their parenting. Are you getting negative messages from the media at school, in the pickup line, and if you are, then how do you balance that out in family life? One way to balance that out is by adopting a regular gratitude practice, and it doesn't have to be a big ordeal. And in fact, everything I talk about needs to be small and practical and doable. Is there a time when we're together as a family, maybe while we're eating cereal in the morning or doing dinner or bedtime at night when we can stew a bit around about what we're grateful for in our lives.
What that does is it promotes more of the same. Our children become and get in the habit of grateful thinking. So often they're making wish list for the next birthday. They're thinking about what they can watch online or play online. There's a lot of this promotion of the me, me, me kind of thinking, so if you adopt some kind of daily or weekly gratitude practice where you're just having a conversation about what your children are grateful for in their lives and what you're grateful for, of course, the modeling is really important, it begins to generate that kind of conversation and regular thinking about gratitude in life.
Helen: I don't have a middle schooler or even upper elementary student yet. But it is, I think, easy as a parent to sort of feel like there might be a little something going on and then it builds over time and then all of a sudden you've got this massive problem on your hands. Just because you haven't necessarily intervened earlier. But that really resonates that you can do these little things at any time.
Jennifer: Yeah. Great.
LaWanda: So I have one more, one more example. Are you okay with that?
Jennifer: I am good with that.
LaWanda: Okay. "My six-year-old son won't stop interrupting in class. The teacher has reported he averages about 10 interruptions in a single morning meeting. How can help him develop self-control to wait his turn?"
Jennifer: I would ask what's his goal in this situation.
LaWanda: Because I'm thinking he's six. I have a six-year-old, they want to get it out. Their minds are going a mile a minute and they're just something that she says sparked something, so they just want to get it out.
Jennifer: Excitement, passion...
LaWanda: Yeah, totally.
Jennifer: ...for what's going on and maybe some hyperactivity baked into that. Maybe he's really needing the teacher's attention and so he's looking for excuses to gain attention as well. What I would encourage are we helping the parents who're gonna help the child learn skills at home and then translate that into school?
Jennifer: Okay. What I would advise the parent to do is work on practicing ways to appropriately ask for help or ask for attention. So you can practice this at home and this can allay many arguments in family life when you're talking on the phone or you're talking to your partner and your child's like, "Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom." Right? "Mom."
So, the same with school life. How can you teach them or practice healthy, acceptable ways to ask for attention? This is a prime example of a great way to coordinate with the teacher. So, could you chat with the teacher briefly and say, "I really want to work on this at home in simple ways. What would you prefer he do? Would you want him to raise his hand? Do you want me to limit it to two-hand raises?" If so, then take that home, practice it at a family dinner, have everyone try it out. "Okay, tonight we're gonna talk about our favorite animals and everybody's gonna get a turn to talk about our favorite animals. But we can only jump in two times and it can only be when we raise our hand." So, you just practice at the dinner table and everybody gets to take a turn and you do it a couple times and then you shoot off an email to the teacher and say, "How's he doing? How's our boy doing? Is it going better?"
But that's a great example of how some real simple communication between parent and teacher and then parent doing just a little bit at home can really make a difference in classroom life. I have evidence to back this up. I have worked with parents on these kinds of skills at home and teachers will call out of the blue and say, "What did you do? Things have turned around." So, it really does work.
LaWanda: I love it. I think that's a great example and another thing I will do at home.
Helen: I know. Well, it's funny, I was just with college friends and all their kids this past weekend and there was a three-year-old who said, "Excuse me," anytime he interrupted and both Dion and I were pretty floored. We were like, "Look at this like little, little tiny being who can't...he's, like, still in diapers almost, but just, "Excuse me. Excuse me." It was great.
Jennifer: Aw, I bet he does that at home. That's lovely.
Helen: You talked about teachers and I think one thing our listeners are also really interested in is not just the things they can do at home to promote some of these skills, but what they might be looking for in the classroom or in their school too. What are some things that schools are doing who are kind of leading the way in social emotional development with their kids. What are some look-fors for parents?
Jennifer: Parents can immediately look at whether there is a priority placed on getting to know them as a parent and also getting to know their child. Is the teacher prioritizing that developing a trusting, caring relationship with your child in the classroom, with you as a parent, and with other teachers as well? A teacher that is really working to create those caring relationships will be more responsive to children's social and emotional needs. So, that would be the first thing. I would also look to the schools that are doing social and emotional learning exceedingly well. When they approach a math lesson for example, they don't only look at an academic goal, they also set a social or emotional goal for that lesson.
In other words, "We're gonna work on fractions today and we're gonna set a goal for our fraction learning for the next 45 minutes. And we are also gonna set a goal for our collaboration around fractions. And our goal specifically is going to be on listening. How can you listen well and understand what your classmates are doing so that everybody gets a chance to speak?" So, schools that are doing this really well, integrate those social and emotional skills throughout the day and they look at ages and stages so that they are doing age-appropriate skill-building and integrating it into their curriculum. And there are lots of great examples.
LaWanda: I think that we have exhausted you with all our questions. But we're really, really excited about the work that you've been doing and also this great book to share with parents about becoming confident parents in that making confident kids. So we're really, really happy that you were able to join us today, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you both so much. I really appreciate it.
LaWanda: I do have one last question for you. If there is one thing parents should take away from today's conversation, something that they can start applying right now, what would that one thing be?
Jennifer: I would say that parents can start right away acknowledging, naming, asking children about their feelings in family life. It seems obvious but we often don't talk about feelings. Feelings tend to be seen as a weakness and we're just not in the habit of naming our feelings. Children don't develop a sophisticated feelings vocabulary because we're not in the habit of talking about it. So, in my book I have just a list of feelings that you can hang up on the refrigerator as a reminder. But when you see your child with a furrowed brow asked them, "You look worried. Is that right? What's going on?" And just begin to underscore the feelings and don't assume that you know, but do some guessing and play games at dinner."What do you think dad's feeling when we ask him how is your day at work?" Because that is really going to help children develop their own self awareness and their ability to self manage. Self-control comes from being able to name your feelings and assert your feelings and seek understanding from others. So, it seems obvious, but it is a really practical right away, get started, easy way to build emotional skills in family life.
LaWanda: Thank you, Jennifer. Are there any resources available for parents that you suggest? You know we talked about that 3:00 AM, doing your research. Where can they go?
Jennifer: Confidentparentsconfidentkids.org has loads of free tools, parenting tools. It has cooperative games. You can play with birthday parties or classrooms with kids and they're labeled by social and emotional skill that they build and they're really simple and fun to use. They're book recommendations by age and stage. How can you use children's books to talk about social and emotional skill-building? There are tons of resources and they're all free. So, check out confidentparentsconfidentkids.org and "Confident Parents, Confident Kids" book is available now on pre-order and will be available in hard copy on November 5th, 2019 in all regular book outlets.
LaWanda: Awesome. And then what about you? What about your social media handles?
Jennifer: Follow me on the Confident Parents, Confident Kids site. I also have a Facebook page, Confident Parents, Confident Kids, and I'm on all social media. If you can't find me on Confident Parents, Confident Kids sometimes they use my name, Jennifer S. Miller. I'm everywhere.
LaWanda: Great. We'll definitely do that.
Helen: Thanks again, Jennifer, for coming and speaking with all of us today.
Jennifer: Thank you. What a treat. I just so appreciate the important work that you do with families and schools across the nation. So, thank you so much.
Helen: Thank you. And to everyone listening, thank you for joining us today. Please keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social media. We hope you tune in next time.
Outro: Thank you for tuning in to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." Be sure to follow us on social media at National PTA and online at pta.org/backpacknotes.