How Heavy is Your Backpack? An Exercise in Empathy For School Age Kids

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The end of the school year can be tough. As parents, we feel like we’re crawling to the finish line. We’re so close, but there’s still so much to be done before we close the books on another year. For kids, it can be a bit of a mixed bag of emotions.

They look forward to summer. More time for fun and less work to be done. Long summer days that fade to night. Swim-soaked hair and watermelon dripping down chins. They long for summer long before summer arrives, it seems, but they also feel sad or nervous about the end of the year. It’s hard to say goodbye to a teacher and a class full of friends.

The other day at school pickup I noticed a lot of tired faces. They’ve worked hard all year and they’re tired. They’re ready for a break. He cheated! You cheated! That’s not the rule! I don’t want to play! The little arguments feel big and important. Hard moments seem to crop up at every turn.

When the complaints roll in, it can be tempting to blame the other child. Believe me, I understand. I know the feeling – the child retells the story and you just want to jump into the past and fix the problem for them! You clench your fists because you just can’t imagine that kids argued so passionately about kickball… again.

You might even caution your child to just stay away from the kid who keeps calling him a cheater. Just stay away. Avoid the child – avoid the problem.

As hard as it can be, I try to focus on empathy when these stories come home. First, I listen to my child. I empathize and provide compassion. I let my child talk it out. Later, I revisit the situation and talk about empathy for others.

“The heavy backpack” is an empathy project I’ve been doing with kids for years. It helps them think about how others feel and learn the art of perspective taking. It’s simple but powerful.

How heavy is your backpack?

We all carry emotions with us. For kids, it can be useful to think about the image of carrying an invisible backpack stuffed with our feelings. Many kids tend to be “stuffers” by nature. It’s hard to talk about feelings, and many kids don’t have a well-developed feelings vocabulary. They stuff their feelings until they explode.

Kids can identify with the process of stuffing a backpack. When it’s light, you hardly notice it’s even there. When it gets too full, it’s hard to lift. When it’s so full that you can’t possibly fit one more thing in it, you can’t even push it from place to place.

When kids stuff their feelings, it’s like shoving them into a backpack. At first, it might feel only a little bit heavier than usual. Over time, the weight of the backpack drags them down.

They struggle to concentrate. They feel overwhelmed, anxious or even depressed. They might cry, yell or have a complete meltdown. The feelings, once stuffed safely inside the invisible backpack, suddenly become too big too carry and they spill out – everywhere.

The only way to cope with them is to work through them, but I find that many kids don’t have that opportunity. Often, they are told to “move on” or “get over it”. What they internalize is this: Your feelings don’t matter. This isn’t important.

Their feelings are important, though, and the only way to help them work through those big emotions is to empty that backpack, one feeling at a time.

Unpack the backpack.

What am I getting at? Why should we talk about invisible backpacks? Talking about those backpacks we all carry (but don’t always acknowledge) helps kids develop empathy for others. When they recognize what they carry in their own backpacks, they can begin to think what other people might carry in theirs. Instead of reacting quickly when something goes awry, they can think about how the other person might be feeling and make a positive choice.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Place an empty backpack on your child’s back and ask him how it feels. Ask him if he can jump up and down with it on.
  • Explain the invisible backpack. Talk about times when you stuff your own feelings and what that feels like.
  • Get some wooden blocks or other heavy objects and explain that these will represent the feelings we stuff.
  • Pick up a block, assign a feeling to it (ex: I felt super frustrated when I got stuck in traffic and was late to my meeting, I’m worried about a friend who isn’t feeling well, etc.) and place the block in the backpack. Do a few more and toss them in.
  • Ask your child to think of things that weigh him down – stuff that happens that he tries not to think about but still make him feel mad, worried or any other feeling (Ex: I didn’t know my spelling words, sometime said I cheated in soccer, I couldn’t sit with my friends at lunch). Have him add his blocks to the backpack.
  • Ask your child to try to think about feelings that might weigh his friends down. Talk about those things and add some blocks to the backpack.
  • Have your child try on the backpack full of blocks. Ask him how it feels now that it’s stuffed. Ask if he can jump up and down.
  • Explain that this is how people feel when they carry around big emotions. This is why we don’t always make the best choices and sometimes we overreact or say things we wish we didn’t.
  • Ask your child what he can do to be a helper if it seems like a friend might have a heavy backpack. How can he get help if his own backpack gets too heavy?

Talk about empathy.

A few weeks ago I asked 21 first grade students if they knew the meaning of empathy. Only two kids raised their hands. One of them was my son.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of empathy of kindness, but I often find that kids don’t actually know what empathy means. If they don’t understand it, how can they practice it?

Talk about empathy with your kids. Discuss what it means and how they can be empathic friends. We can’t just expect kids to understand and practice empathy without first providing information and guidance. When we take the time to teach, they grow into empathic and compassionate citizens.

The next time your child comes home full of big feelings about the events of the day, get out the backpack and blocks and rely on empathy to help him work through his feelings.

For more great strategies to teach empathy and help kids work through their feelings, please check out THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

10 Strategies to Help Your Anxious Child in the Moment

 

Childhood anxiety is tricky business. There are a lot of misconceptions, and often times it either goes unchecked or becomes a blame game. Parents get blamed. Kids get blamed. Even teachers and schools get blamed.

Here’s the deal: Anxiety has a genetic component. Some kids are more anxious than others, but they don’t necessarily have an anxiety disorder. Others do. “Bad parenting” doesn’t cause anxiety. Kids don’t create their own anxiety. Circumstances can trigger anxious feelings, but they don’t cause anxiety. Blaming holds little value when it comes to helping kids with anxiety.

Uncovering the worries and unpacking the feelings are different than blaming. In helping kids understand their triggers, we empower them to use adaptive coping strategies when they confront those triggers.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes kids (of all ages) have huge, anxiety-based meltdowns and it’s really difficult to know what to do in the moment. Sometimes they yell and scream and tell you to go away, even though they secretly want you to stay. This isn’t a test. Anxiety is overwhelming and kids have a tendency to say the opposite of what they mean when they’re overwhelmed with emotion.

So what can parents do when kids are in meltdown mode and talking doesn’t even feel like a possibility? The strategies below are some favorites as identified by many kids in my office over the years. Note: All kids are different and not every strategy will appeal to every kid. Try a few to figure out how to help calm your child when she needs you the most.

mindful-walk-nature

Bear hug.

Sounds simple, right? The problem is that sometimes kids scream things like, “go away!” or “leave me alone!” or “I’m FINE!” when they’re overwhelmed by anxiety, and this causes parents to back away.

I’ve had many kids sit on my couch and say that what they really want (even when they say otherwise) is a big bear hug from mom or dad. The combination of pressure and loving embrace helps release some of the tension contributing to the anxious feelings and provides a safe space to release those emotions.

Read old favorites.

Think twice before you start donating old picture books. Just because your child can read chapter books doesn’t mean she’s ready to move away from the old favorites that brought her joy in her earlier days.

Reading old favorite stories helps kids tap into memories of early childhood – this feels calming and soothing for many. Reading to your child can help your child focus on breathing and listening and staying present in the moment – all good ways to reduce anxious feelings.

Whisper talk.

When kids experience overwhelming anxiety, all of their senses are heightened. Everything seems loud, bright and just too much. If they run away and slam the door or cover their ears and yell it’s because they want to block it all out.

Whispering, not necessarily about the triggers, can help soothe your child. Remember back when your whispered to your baby? Big kids also feel soothed by a calming voice. Whisper about the clouds in the sky or the butterfly out the window. Whisper about ice cream cones on a summer day. Whispering a favorites list can be a great calming strategy.

Blow bubbles!

Blowing bubbles isn’t just for little kids. The combination of getting outside into nature, fresh air and deep breathing (required for bubble blowing) are known antidotes to anxious feelings. Get outside an blow bubbles when you’re anxious – no matter your age!

Color together.

Kids tell me over and over again that what they really want when they’re feeling intense anxiety is for parents to stay with them while they calm down. Coloring together is a great way to soothe those intense emotions while spending time together. Those adult coloring books are popular for a reason – get some!

Bubble bath.

Pour your child a nice warm bath with plenty of bubbles, turn on some relaxing music in the background and let the stress and anxiety melt away.

Create a cozy spot.

I always encourage parents of anxious kids to have a designated stress free zone in the house. Stock it with favorite books, coloring books and other supplies, stress balls, soft pillows and blankets, journals and any other relaxing activities that appeal to your child.

Take a mindful walk.

Mindfulness + nature + exercise = decreased anxiety. It’s a simple equation. Don’t spend the time talking about anxiety and stress. Notice the green grass, the fluffy white clouds and the flowers just in bloom. Trust me.

Walk down memory lane.

Sometimes big kids need to be reminded that they’re still those little kids who always sat on your lap and asked for one more story…just taller and more knowledgable. Get out the family photos and walk down memory lane together. Talk about favorite days, favorite trips and favorite memories.

Check out.

I can’t say this enough: We need to work together to take back childhood. If kids are under more stress today, we all have to own our role in it. Skip the soccer practice (the team will survive). Take a season off (your kid will still be an athlete). Take a break from the community musical (he can go back to it next time). You get the point.

Childhood is in crisis because kids are expected to do too much every single day. Check out. Bring back free play and downtime and family time. Take back childhood.

For more on helping kids cope with stress and anxiety, get your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

 

Image: Pexels

Common Core Stress? Advocate, don’t argue

Rileytracing

I admit it:  I was in hysterics when I read the answer that dad provided for the math question on the second grade test.  The question was not a good one – I think we can agree on that.  The fallout, of course, is yet another argument about the role the Common Core Standards play in these scenarios.

The Common Core Standards are just that – a set of standards.  There is not a “Common Core Curriculum”.  However, school districts across the country are in a big transition phase as they seek out the best curriculum to help our children thrive and meet the standards.  The math that my daughter comes home with in her backpack each week is not necessarily the same as the math homework of a first grade student in New York.  Long story short:  The district calls the shots on the curriculum.

In some districts, kids are thriving.  Katie Sluiter works in a school district seeing great results.  But others are struggling.  That’s not to say that one district is better than another, but implementation has not been smooth  in every district.

So now we have one group of people yelling out, “Don’t blame the Common Core!” and a second group of people screaming, “Common Core math (or fill in the blank) is insane!”  And somewhere in between is a sea of confused and slightly stressed out parents trying to make sense of the changes.

My personal views on the matter are immaterial.  The fact is that parents do seem to be under stress as the changes occur, as do children when the intensity of the work becomes too much to bear.  It’s natural to want something (or someone) to blame, but the truth is that finding a scapegoat won’t actually help the second grade boy with the needlessly complicated math problem.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating:  Stress is contagious.  Change is HARD and can potentially trigger stress, but we need to cope with our own stress so that it doesn’t trickle down to our children.  Our kids watch us.  They take their cues from us.  If, each time we sort through the homework, we become inflamed over math problems or reading logs that appear time consuming and headache inducing, we send a very negative message to our kids.  You might think you’re empathizing, but what you’re saying is this:  This is too hard for you.  You’re not capable.  This will stress you out.  This will give you a headache.  This is wrong.

Is that how you want your kids to approach learning?  Do you want them to feel defeated before they’ve even had a chance to try?  Of course not.  You just don’t want added stress, and that is understandable.  Surely you know me well enough to know that I think homework grounded in busywork holds little to no value, but my daughter doesn’t know that I feel that way.  She knows that I support her learning, and advocate for her when stress creeps in.

So what can parents do?  How can parents help their children through these transitions without piling on additional stress?  Two words:  Support and advocate.

Advocate:

I am the first to admit that I scratch my head at some of the math problems that come home and the reading log made me want to run for the hills.  But you know what?  My daughter rocks those math problems!  She feels confident and capable and she’s learning to look at a problem from more than one angle.  That will help her later on in life.  And while the reading log is intense and the boxes are too small for first grade handwriting, the questions on the log are good.  It’s full of thinking questions.  And I want my daughter to think.

When she broke down into tears at the sight of one more thing to fill out, I emailed the teacher.  Within an hour, the new plan was for me to ask her the questions and fill in the log on her behalf.  Advocacy works.  When writing spelling words over and over and over again triggered stress in my otherwise free spirited child, I asked the teacher if she could type the words instead.  Done.  Advocacy works.

The bottom line is that young children are generally pleasers by nature and won’t advocate for their needs for fear of disappointing a teacher or parent.  Also?  It’s just a lot to ask of an elementary school child.  If stress related to your child’s learning is overwhelming (stomachaches, headaches, excessive tears, behavioral changes, etc.), it’s up to you to communicate with the teacher and work out a new plan.  All kids are different.  They have different strengths and weaknesses, and cope with stress in different ways.  Advocate for your child to find the best learning style and the stress will decrease.

Support:

Homework isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is – my daughter just completed a long-term project in four days because it was an animal report and she just couldn’t wait to learn about the colossal squid.  But often it’s more of the same…because the point of homework is to support the learning (or so they say).  It can be frustrating for parents when kids dig in their heels and fight homework.  Believe me, I get it.  Instead of fighting back, we have to support them.

Empathize with your child.  Talk about your own homework as a kid.  Find ways to make it fun.  Plan obstacle course breaks every 10 minutes.  Throw in a dance party.  Take the assignment and make it into a game show.  And before you tell me that you don’t need extra work on your plate just to get the homework done, arguing is extra work.  And it leaves everybody feeling miserable.

Be there for your child.  Arguing with your child or imposing consequences for unfinished work only increases the negativity.  Just be supportive.

Get involved:

I recently attended a meeting at my daughter’s school.  It was an evening meeting scheduled to help parents understand changes to the curriculum as the school implements the Common Core Standards.  In a fairly good sized elementary school, only a handful of parents showed up.  Yes, it can be difficult to arrange childcare or tweak schedules to get to meetings at school, but it’s important to get involved.

Sitting back and listening to the chatter will not increase your understanding of the changes happening in your child’s school.  You have to get involved.  Volunteer when you can.  Schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher to express your concerns and problem-solve together.  Make the choice to be informed.

Cope with stress:

Teach your child to cope with stress.  Relaxation breathing and guided imagery are incredible tools for young children.  Talk about how you manage your own stress.  Try family yoga or make family exercise a priority to help relieve pent up stress (a hike is fun, healthy, and has the added benefit of fresh air/nature – very relaxing).

Childhood stress is serious.  It affects mental health, physical health, learning, and social/emotional well-being.  Be mindful of your own stress level so that you don’t project it to your child, and keep an eye on your child’s stress level so that you know when to intervene.

We can sit back and complain about the changes to education, or we can think locally and do something about it.  We have to put our kids first as the changes roll out, and the best way to do that is to be involved in your child’s education and support your child along the way.

 

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The Homework Hassle

I don’t mean to date myself here, but I truly don’t remember homework in Kindergarten.

 

I remember some cool projects.  I remember those little picture books that I made by the dozen each day.  I remember dressing up and playing pretend.  I remember playing outside.  A lot.  I remember the music room.  I remember writing my name.

 

And I remember the naps.  Yes, in my Kindergarten class, there were rugs for napping and we all took a break for a little bit.

 

Imagine that?  A morning of fun filled activities, some learning, a lot of outside play, and…a nap?

 

Those were the days.

 

Kindergarten is a much different learning experience today.  Yes, it varies depending on the school.  But the push for accelerated learning has taken some of the fun, and a lot of the unstructured and outside playtime, out of Kindergarten.

 

My daughter comes home with a homework packet each Monday.  The goal is to complete one assignment per day and turn it in on Friday.  Sure, the assignments are fairly quick.  And yes, we scored a teacher who is super mellow on the homework front and asks for a picture of a “family activity” for one assignment each week.

 

But my daughter is in school for 4 hours and 20 minutes a day, five days a week.  She’s working on fine motor skills.  She’s practicing numbers and learning some math.  She’s learning sight words and working on reading.

 

She’s doing a lot of hard work each day.  She’s exhausted when she comes home.  She needs time to just relax and listen to stories before we head out for some afternoon playtime.

 

But her relaxation time is cut short by the need to complete the assignment for the day.

 

I get it.  A little practice at home reinforces what was learned during the day.  It makes sense.  But…doesn’t listening to the latest adventures of Cam Jansen while picking out sight words on the page reinforce her learning?  Isn’t a trip to the library considered an educational experience?  Can we count cars and sort fallen leaves to address math skills?  Or maybe even bake some pumpkin muffins instead?

Please stop by Mommy Moment this week to join the discussion about homework.

Unnecessary Stresses

The dark circles under my eyes reveal the stress that I try so hard to conceal during the daylight hours.

 

Sadly, no amount of concealer can erase night after night of lost sleep.

 

I wish I could blame teething, nighttime fears, or bedwetting.  But this time, it’s all me.

 

By day I am bright eyed and energized, but when darkness falls the stress creeps in.

 

By night, the worries expand in size and prevent uninterrupted sleep.

 

The to-do list multiplies by the second.

 

The inbox suddenly overflows with messages left unanswered.

 

The dread of my husband’s very long summer away weighs heavily on my mind.  Not because I can’t do it alone.  I most certainly can.  But right now, I just don’t want to.

 

I read until my eyes tire.

 

I label my worries to get them out and think in gratitude as I drift off.

 

But inevitably, 4am arrives and I wake with a start.

 

Did I ever RSVP to that evite?

 

Did I pick up the medicine from sweet girl’s preschool?

 

Did I get that present in the mail?  Because that, I will hear about.  That has to be on time…

 

Do I have enough milk for one more day?

 

Should I tell the kids today?  Is it time to prepare them for a summer without Daddy?

 

Have I been a good enough mother this week?

 

Have I been a good enough wife?

 

Just like that, 4 becomes 6 and the kids will soon rise.  I take a few deep breaths and close my eyes for just a few moments more…

 

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