Raising Happy Children: What Parents and Teachers Can Do

We all want our children to be happy, but what does that mean? All too often it means finding a quick fix that will result in a smile instead of a tantrum. If we’re lucky, maybe that smile will also come with a hug. But is this really happiness? Finally getting a coveted toy, a piece of candy, a trip to Disneyland all make our children smile, but do these things make them happier people? How long does that happiness last? In my experience it’s pretty fleeting, and then more unfulfilled desires take hold.

I recently attended an early childhood conference where the keynote speaker gave a talk about happiness. I was expecting a feel-good, energy-pumping, pat-yourself-on-the-back-for-dedicating-your-lives-to-children speech that is not uncommon at these conferences in a profession that is often under-appreciated by society. Instead I learned a lot about the amazing things researchers are discovering about happiness and how we can help foster that in the children that we care for.

But aren’t children naturally happy?

No. The website Childhooddpression.com has some alarming statistics on children and depression including:

  • Preschool-age children are the fastest growing group being prescribed anti-depressants
  • 1 in 33 children and 1 in 8 adolescents suffer from depression

So what can we do? What can help make our children genuinely happy people? It turns out there are two important elements to real happiness, a sense of gratitude and the ability to experience “flow“.

Gratitude

When children learn how to be thankful for what they have, they are better able to cope with the disappointments in life. Everyone has bad days and bad experiences, but those who are able to accept the bad, but then reflect on all that is good are going to be happier people. A few people might come naturally to gratitude, but for most of us, it is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. Take the time to show children how thankful you are for all that you have. Model this positive attitude and encourage children to think and talk about the people, experiences and things in their lives that they are thankful for.

Flow

Flow is the state of mind one experiences when one is truly immersed in the process of an activity, when one looses all sense of time and is completely focused. An activity that induces flow usually requires a certain amount of concentration and effort, but is pleasurable because it uses our skills and makes us feel good about ourselves. It is an activity that we look forward to, that we hate to see end and that renews our spirit every time we recall it. Some people find their flow in running, others in completing puzzles. Everyone is different. Children might find their flow in block play, dramatic play or in exploring nature.

Here are some tips to help children find flow:

  • Make time for play– de-clutter children’s schedules so that they can have the time they need to truly loose themselves in an activity of their own choosing.
  • Reduce “screen time”– when the TV or computer is providing an experience for children, they don’t have the opportunity to discover and use their own skills and imagination.
  • Have a “Keeping Space”– if a child has lost themselves in the construction of a block tower, Lego city, fairy house or mega-puzzle, don’t make them destroy it to clean up right away. Find a way to keep that item out and available for the next play opportunity.

For more information about helping children find flow, check out this short article at education.com.

Get in the Habit of Starting the Day Right

For most families, the time between when the alarm goes off and when we get to work is the busiest, most stressful time of the day. We wake up tired and move non-stop getting kids out of bed, getting everyone dressed and fed, packing up daycare bags, school bags, work bags and herding the kids out the door with a lot of arm-waving and hollering, as if that will some get them out the door on time. It is not a happy way to start the day for anyone.

Believe it or not, there is another way! Recently I came across an article on Wrightslaw.com with tips for parents on how to get the day off to a more positive start. It is geared towards parents of school-age kids, if you can get into the habit of following these tips when your kids are small, they will become lasting habits that will help your family get through the many years of school mornings to come.

  • Plan ahead– lay out clothes and pack bags the night before, set everything by the door that needs to leave the house with you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep– parents and kids need to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep leads to health problems, focus problems and makes it harder to manage stress.
  • Moment of morning peace– parents, get up at least 15 minutes before the kids so that you can enjoy a cup of coffee and a moment of peace before the rush or the day begins.
  • Wake them with a smile– get creative about how you wake up the kids. Wake them up with fun music, kiss them awake or have a stuffed animal do the job. Try to get a smile.
  • Give them time– some kids need more time to shake off the night’s sleep. Wake kids up with plenty of time so that they don’t have to be pushed through the morning. If this means enforcing an earlier bed time, do it!
  • Talk– now that you’ve planned ahead, have relaxed a bit yourself and are less rushed, take some time to talk with your kids about what the day will bring. What are you excited to do today? Take advantage of an opportunity to make communication a habit! It will pay off as the kids get older.
  • Laugh– morning is a great time to get goofy. Sharing a laugh is a great way to start the day.
  • Eat well– breakfast is the most important part of the day. Feed your kids healthy food that will stick with them, and remember your job as role model- eat a good breakfast yourself!
  • Hug– squeeze in that hug before you part with your kids for the day. It’s a small gesture, but a little love goes a long way to get you all through the day.

Teachers know that a child’s state of mind when they walk through the door in the morning has a huge impact on their ability to be successful in school. These tips sound simple, but they can make a big difference.

The only addition I would make is to plead with parents to turn off the cell phone during those moments when you drop of your child in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Children need to feel loved and missed. They are not going to get that message if a parent has their phone on their ear during those moments of transition.

Why Not “Time Out”?

It wasn’t very long ago that the idea of “time out” took hold in classrooms and households across the country. It was thought of as a more effective alternative to spanking or other forms of physical punishment for disciplining children. But it seems like times are changing again and “time out” is now making the list of discipline techniques not to use. Why? What’s wrong with “time out”?

What it comes down to is understanding why we discipline children at all. I think most parents and teachers would agree that we do it to teach our children. We want to teach them how to behave in various social situations. We want to teach them our values. We want to teach them better ways to express their feelings. We want to teach them to keep safe. Our goal is for our children to learn these behaviors or expectations and internalize them, so that they will become the wonderful people we hope they will be.

Now think about the way you use time-out. Does it accomplish those teaching goals mentioned above? If you use “time out” as a threat or end consequence for negative behavior, then chances are it is not. Instead of teaching it is isolating, shaming, frustrating and/or demeaning your child. It is little more than an “in-your-face” reminder to the child that you have control over them.

So what should you do? If teaching is the purpose of discipline, then we should focus on instructive practices. We need to become behavior guides. Here are some basic steps for moving from “punisher” to “guide”.

  • Get to know each child. Now, if you are the parent, this isn’t an issue, but teachers really need to take the time to understand life from the child’s perspective. What goes on at home has a big impact on a child’s self-image, sense of security and behavior. A little one-on-one time can go a long way to prevent negative behaviors, and when they do arise, you will have a better perspective on what the root of the problem might be.
  • Pick your battles. Not every negative behavior requires your intervention. You might want to give a reminder of a more appropriate behavior choice, “make sure you give her a turn,” or “you will be hungry if you don’t eat your lunch.” But in the end, it is the choice your child makes (to share or not, to eat or not) that will create a “teachable moment” (a positive or negative play experience, hunger or a full belly).
  • Keep your emotions in check. Stay calm and keep your voice low and even. Remember that you always want to model the behavior you want to see in children. If you yell, they will yell.
  • Teach calming techniques. It’s hard to think straight when you are upset. This goes for children too. Before we can really address a behavior issue, we first we need to help children stabilize their emotions. Deep breaths, taking a walk, clenching a ball, and drawing are all great calming techniques. Different things will work for different children.
  • Teach children how to express their feelings. Once a child is calm, encourage them to talk about what happened. Focus less on events and more on feelings. Help children build their emotional vocabulary.
  • Teach children alternative ways to handle the situation. Talk about different ways the issue might have been handled and the possible, more positive end results.
  • Encourage communication. Turn the negative into a positive by talking about it. Maybe not right away, but when all those involved have calmed down and moved on, revisit the situation through a simple, positive conversation. If it’s an issue that affects many in your group, consider a class conversation. The point is to help the offending child to see the impact his/her behavior has on others in a way that is inclusive.

Teaching Young Children Magazine has an interesting article on the topic, titled “Replacing Time Out“. It really goes into detail about why time-outs can have a negative impact on young children and information on creating an encouraging classroom environment.

Tips to Ease PreK and New School Anxieties

It’s that time of year again and parents everywhere are preparing to send their kids off to begin a new school year. While some kids (and parents) are thrilled with the idea, for many the upcoming changes can be a source of anxiety.

These simple tips posted on a Baltimore, MD, ABC affiliate’s web page will help calm those anxieties and ease the transition to a new school year.

  1. Don’t ignore the worries. Help children to understand that being a little nervous is normal.
  2. Prepare your child. Talk about what they might do in their new classroom. Visit the school or program ahead of time. Meet the teacher. Read books about going to school
  3. Be understanding. Children who are feeling stress might start having accidents, not sleep well, have a hard time eating, etc. Take notice of these signs, and don’t add to the stress by punishing your child.
  4. Focus on the good. Ask your child what they are excited to do, see or try at their new school.
  5. Play it cool. While you want your child to be prepared for the upcoming changes, you don’t want to talk about it so much that you create new anxieties.

Summer Skills Series: Critical Thinking

The ability to think through problems, anticipate the results of your actions and reflect on what you have done are all critical thinking skills. While these don’t fit neatly into the categories of reading, writing and arithmetic, they are definitely important skills for success in school and in life.

The brains of toddlers and many preschoolers aren’t ready to organize their thoughts and move through this kind of high-order thinking. Cause and effect experiences are a great start for this age group. Some age-appropriate activities that often create cause/effect experiences for toddlers include:

  • playing with blocks
  • digging and playing with sand (especially at a beach near a body of water)
  • water play
  • exploring outdoors and interacting with nature

Preschoolers can also develop these skills through the activities mentioned above. Help them add more thinking to their play by creating challenges:

  • Can you build a block wall strong enough to stand up to a rolling tennis ball?
  • How do you make a sand castle?
  • Can you figure out a way to make a boat that will float from these recycled materials?
  • If we wanted to find bugs or other creatures in the yard, where should we look?

Encourage older preschoolers and young school-age children to use their past experiences and knowledge about the world to think through a problem or challenge step by step, or predict what will happen when you lay out the steps for an experiment. Help to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking skills following these simple steps:

  1. Go to your local library and check out books on science experiments or cookbooks for children.
  2. Invite your child to choose an experiment or recipe that looks interesting.
  3. Encourage your child to write down their prediction for what will happen during this experiment.
  4. Help your child follow the steps outlined for the experiment or recipe.
  5. Invite your child to draw a picture of the end result. Talk about it. Was the prediction correct? Why or why not? Encourage your child to verbalize the steps of the experiment.

Following a step-by-step format and encouraging your child to make predictions and then reflect on the process step-by-step is a great way to help children to slow down, think about what they are doing and learn to organize their thoughts. Doing this through science or cooking experiments makes it fun and exciting for your child.

For more great activity ideas, check out World of Wonder’s Terrific Topics for ages 3-6.

Managing Behavior During Competitive Games

In general, I’m not a fan of competitive games for young children. Research shows these games often lead to more aggressive behaviors in free play situations. But playing “everybody wins” games all the time may not be the solution either. Some children do need an opportunity to let their competitive spirit shine and for many, learning to lose gracefully is an acquired skill.

A recent game of musical chairs in a local preschool classroom had 3 children crying because they didn’t get to a chair in time and several instances of kids getting knocked out of the chair they had started to sit in as a bigger or more aggressive child jumped to claim it. My first reaction was that perhaps the game should be changed to an “everybody wins” format, but a game like musical chairs can provide a great “teachable moment” for important social skills. Skills children will need as they enter elementary school.

Here are some tips:

  • Give children the opportunity to participate in or opt out of the game. Make sure that those who opt out can engage in an activity they enjoy (coloring, dancing to the music, watching the game, etc.)
  • Make sure all of those who want to participate understand that losing is a part of the game. If you are not willing to sit out when it is your turn to do so, then you should choose a different activity. Ask for a verbal agreement from each child.
  • Review the rules of the game.
  • Give children clear guidelines about what they should do with their bodies. For example, keep your hands off of others, keep your body off of others, walking feet, etc.
  • Have a specific place or activity for children while they are “out” of the game. This could be a line of tape to stand on, a chair to sit in while they watch the rest of the game, or another quiet activity to engage in.
  • When the game is finished, gather everyone together and talk about the experience. What did you like about the game? What didn’t you like? What could we each do to make the experience even better next time?

If you’d rather avoid the competitive games all together, check out the ideas in this previous blog entry: Everybody Wins: A Fresh Take on Preschool Games

Fight Childhood Obesity: Get Preschoolers Moving!

Obesity is a major public health issue in the United States. Even among very young children, obesity rates are alarmingly high. While preschool teachers and caregivers have little control over family health habits, you have a lot of control over the amount of physical activity your children participate in throughout the day.

A recent study called the Children’s Activity and Movement in Preschools Study (CHAMPS) looked at 24 preschools in South Carolina and found that children engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity for only 3.4 percent of the school day. Preschoolers are known for having boundless energy. Why are they so inactive in preschool?

Researchers found that children were quite active during the part fo the school day that they spent outdoors. Open spaces and equipment like balls, wheeled vehicles and climbers encouraged this activity. Unfortunately, the amount of outdoor time was very limited compared to indoor time. When indoors, children spent most their time in large group activities, transitioning, snacking, napping or working with manipulatives, all activities that require very little physical movement.

What can preschools and child care programs do?

  • Spend more time outdoors
  • Think about the arrangement of our indoor spaces (more open spaces, indoor climbers, balls or other equipment to encourage activity)
  • Plan more music and movement activities during large group time
  • Get creative with learning activities that encourage whole body movement

For great activity ideas that teach classroom concepts out on the playground check out Playground Play available as a booklet or PDF download.

And, of course, all of World of Wonder‘s early childhood curriculum materials include fun learning activities that get young children moving!