Great Ways Children Can Help on Thanksgiving

Gathering with family and friends each November can be a time to reflect on all the good people and things in our lives. We enjoy a sense of belonging and connectedness as we celebrate together. Young children are excited to participate and help in these festivities that bring people together—whether that includes visiting with guests and seldom-seen family or just having more time together with parents and siblings. Here are some ways to include them and let them feel the joy of helping.

Preparing Holiday Food

When my three-year-old granddaughter visits, she loves to be involved in the kitchen. She goes immediately to the bottom drawer that holds her small apron and puts it on so she can help. We get out the stepping stool for her to safely work at the counter. She especially loves to use a plastic “kid’s knife” to slice bananas for our fruit salad.

Most young children enjoy helping around food—especially when it means taste-testing! Here are a few age-appropriate tasks for children to help out in the kitchen.

  • Help set the table with flatware, napkins, plates, or glasses.
  • Rinse fruit and vegetables.
  • Tear lettuce for a salad.
  • Cube bread with a plastic or butter knife.
  • Mash potatoes with a hand masher.
  • Help measure and pour ingredients into a bowl or blender.
  • Stir food in a bowl.
  • Assemble a dish. (For instance, cut rounds of tomato, zucchini, and yellow squash. Let your child form a pattern while laying the slices in a casserole dish. Your child can also sprinkle on Italian spices and cover with foil. Bake for about 30 minutes at 375°F.)
  • Roll a piecrust. (You might give the child a small piece of dough and mini pan to work with.)

In addition, children can help with cleanup. They also usually love to help with shopping for the meal. Tell them an item or two from your list that they can help you find and put in the cart.

Preparing Decorations

Children can also help create a festive ambiance by making a centerpiece, place mats, or place cards for the table. Try one of these simple ideas this year.

Centerpieces

  • Cut a small round hole in an apple or orange. Let your child place a battery-operated candle inside. Put one or more on a platter and fill the space with gathered leaves or branches.
  • With markers, draw faces or other drawings on small pumpkins.
  • Make an “Indian corn” craft by stringing several harvest colors of large-holed plastic beads onto a few pieces of tan chenille craft wire (pipe cleaners). Tie a few strands together to make one cob.

Place Mats

  • Put a few large leaves under a piece of construction paper. Rub crayons over the paper to see the leaf shapes.
  • Help your child trace, cut, and paste orange pumpkin shapes onto a neutral-colored piece of construction paper.

Place Cards

  • Collect pine cones and lay one by each plate. Write a guest’s name on a small card and insert the card into the grooves of the pine cone.
  • Put an apple or pear by each place setting. Write each person’s name on a card. Punch a hole and attach a short loop of yarn to the card, and wrap it around the fruit stem.

Gratitude Ideas

Start a family tradition of listing things that each person is grateful for. Here are a few ways a child can help.

Pass Out Materials

Young children can help pass out paper and pens to everyone gathered and can draw or dictate their own “thankful” lists.

Make a “Thankful Tree”

Put branches in a clear vase or jar. Let your child help you cut out leaf shapes from construction paper, hole punch them, and add a piece of yarn. Let guests write what they are thankful for on a leaf and add them to the tree. This would also make a great centerpiece.

Take Pictures

You might let your child help you record the day by taking pictures of those gathered. Have the pictures printed and let your child make a poster or album of the day, or view pictures online. Also, take pictures of your child helping throughout the day, so your child can see all ways they contributed.

Service Ideas

Involving children in an act of service can help them develop an awareness of and compassion for others as well as gratitude for what they have. Here are a few ideas for how children might help someone else.

Send a Card, Drawing, or Letter

Help children write a note to distant relatives or a special friend. This thoughtful gesture by a child can help someone know that they are missed.

Support a Food Drive

Let your child select some cans or dry goods at the store or in your cupboards that you can donate to a food drive. Your child can help you count the items as you pack them to deliver to a food kitchen. You might even take your child with you to deliver the food. Point out to children that they are not only helping you. The food will help someone who is hungry.

Visit a Senior Center

Many elderly people are not near their families over the holidays and are rejuvenated at the sight of young people. You might bring a handmade card to give to someone at the senior center or practice a song beforehand that you can sing together to someone there. Let your child know how much they have helped someone who might be lonely and in need of a friendly smile.

Show Appreciation for Community Helpers

Many community helpers need to be on duty during Thanksgiving. With your child, make and take a treat to a police station, fire station, clinic, or hospital. Let your child say, “Thank you,” and show appreciation for community helpers such as police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, or veterans who help them.

Helping Children Join In and Play at Recess

I remember the anticipation of the first day of school when I was in first grade, and again as a first-grade teacher and as a mother of six. In every situation, I hoped that the school year would be rewarding socially as well as academically. Children can be more focused on their work, improve their health and mood, and bond with their classmates through an unexpected and sometimes overlooked resource—recess.

Play is an essential aspect of a child’s day. Recess is a needed break from sitting and academic rigor. Though teachers often withhold recess to certain students as a means of discipline or for catching up on work, this punitive practice usually works against the student, and subsequently the class and the teacher as well.

Children usually return from recess more relaxed, agreeable, and focused. Those who are chronically deprived of this opportunity become further stigmatized because they miss the opportunity to socialize and get needed downtime. Important social connections can be fostered during recess, as can a sense of belonging with classmates. Recess can be the glue (along with lunch or snack time!) that can hold the rest of the day together for a child. As a parent, you may wish to find alternative solutions with your child’s teacher if your child is being held in at recess.

Once your child is out at recess, there can be other obstacles as well. Here are a few ways you can help your child or the children in your classroom.

Set the Environment
When children feel comfortable in their play environment, they are more likely to socialize and de-stress. Assess that you have adequate equipment for inclusive game playing. You might also teach or lead children in social games like tag or Duck, Duck, Goose that don’t require equipment.

Another popular idea is to designate a “friend bench” on the playground. Children can be instructed to sit there when they want to make a new friend or want to play something different. Instruct all children to periodically look over at the friend bench and include someone. Encourage children on the bench to join in when approached by another child with an invitation to play. This system can also be a signal to the teacher as to which children may need extra help joining in.

Share Your Expectations
Taking time before recess to talk about desirable playground behavior will help children know what to expect. Here are a few guidelines from Join In and Play that you might discuss and focus on in your classroom:

  1. I can listen and speak kindly.
  2. I can share and wait for my turn.
  3. I can play fair and follow the rules.
  4. I can show respect.

Brainstorm ways children might use these guidelines at recess. Talk about ways they can periodically switch positions and give others a turn, such as in four square or jump rope.

Helping Children Join In and Play at Recess

Practice Role Plays
Role play is one of the most effective ways to help children learn social behavior. You can use it to teach and practice greetings, complete with eye contact and a smile. Practice lead-in statements or questions that engage other children, such as:

  • May I play?
  • Do you want to play?
  • That looks fun. Can I join you?
  • You’re good at that!
  • Would you like me to _____?

You might also role-play problem situations, where you demonstrate the problem behavior. Examples are being bossy, calling someone a mean name, taking something a child is playing with, or leaving in the middle of a game. Ask children to identify the problem in your approach. Then discuss courteous behaviors and solutions and let children role-play those with puppets or action figures. Later, they can role-play with one another.

Let children rehearse the part of a child wanting to join in as well as a child who is already playing. This can broaden their perspective as they will at times be in both roles. Also encourage children to give another child a compliment, compromise, or be willing to do what someone else wants to do.

Be Aware of Children Who Feel Isolated or Excluded
Talk with children individually about any problem they are experiencing, how they feel, and what can be remedied. Ask children privately what they like to play and who they might enjoy playing with. Be encouraging and help build the child’s confidence. Suggest other possible activities. Role-play how children might ask a particular child to play. If a child is consistently playing alone, you might also ask another child to invite and include the child playing alone in an activity to help break the ice.

Address Problems
When there is a problem on the playground, such as children being aggressive, unwilling to share, or showing poor sportsmanship, first remember to stay calm yourself. It’s sometimes necessary to separate children and give them some time and space to cool down. This can be done kindly but firmly. Then talk to children individually about their behavior. Help them understand how that behavior impacts their ability to play with others and make friends. Give those children small assignments to invite someone to play or find something that they can share.

Encourage Initiative
Playing at recess is very informal. The equipment is generally shared and doesn’t belong to a particular child. Sometimes it’s best for a child to just jump in, like in a game of tag or on the monkey bars or swings. Children should take turns, but they should also be encouraged to be assertive and to sometimes just start playing in the vicinity of others. Help children distinguish when it’s important to ask to join in and when they might get better results by just joining other children in a friendly way.

For many children, recess is a highlight of the day. Play involves skills, though. I’ve found that learning to join in and play is a long process, so don’t expect too much at once. As the year progresses, children can improve in their use of friendly speech and ability to learn the rules of games and can learn how to share, take turns, and play fair. Children also need some freedom to be themselves and sometimes just to observe or invent their own play. Having a kind adult on the playground will help children feel safe and able to relax and enjoy themselves. Over the years as I have watched children at play, I’m heartened that they often build bonds of friendship as well as their muscles.

How to Build an EC Classroom Culture Where Children Listen

Isn’t it amazing that two-year-olds born anywhere in the world have acquired the listening skills needed to understand and speak their native languages—complete with intonation and inflection? Listening is a vital precursor to academic and social learning. As children grow, they learn to understand and interpret many different types of sounds. We can help them learn from the sounds around them, such as in nature, music, and technology. However, learning to focus on the human voice promises the greatest rewards. As children listen to us, we can teach and bond with them and keep them safe. And as they listen to peers, they learn to get along.

What does a positive listening climate look like?
The ideal teaching setting is one of positive reinforcement, where we are constantly looking for appropriate behavior that we can reward. When children demonstrate active listening, we can give sincere, intermittent praise that focuses on what we specifically like. Our positive feedback increases the likelihood of those behaviors continuing and growing stronger.

As much as 97 percent of the time, children are ignored when they are behaving appropriately! We typically give attention to inappropriate behavior six to seven times more often than appropriate behavior. This inadvertently rewards children when they are not listening to us. Because children seek our attention, they will increasingly do things that we reinforce. As we shift our focus to noticing positive behavior, we can help shape a child’s listening behavior. This creates a climate that is conducive to listening, because any behavior that is reinforced will increase. And behavior is more likely to improve with positive rather than adverse interactions.

How can we create a classroom climate where children feel motivated to listen and learn?

  1. Teach. First, we need to teach children what good listening looks like, using activities such as the Open Your Mind to Listening activity below.
  2. State expectations simply and directly. Be brief. Try to keep your directives to no more than 12 words or no longer than five seconds. This is as long as we can expect to keep a child’s attention. Some examples are, “Time to listen,” “Put on your listening ears,” “Look at me, please,” and “As I read the story, please listen quietly.”
  3. Be cheerful. Children will be more ready to listen when you are happy, kind, and empathetic to their needs. Even when we need to redirect behavior, we can be pleasant. Once children are on task again, remember to give a cheerful compliment.
  4. Praise children who are listening well. Rather than calling out children who aren’t paying attention, praise those who are. Other children will often notice and start listening. You might stop speaking periodically to briefly compliment children for listening. You might say, “I like the way you are looking at me,” or “Thanks for being quiet while I talk.” To encourage any behavior, it’s most effective when we give positive feedback eight times more often than negative feedback. It makes such a difference when we notice and remark on the positive things going on in the room. More than anything else, this will set a climate where children feel comfortable. They’ll enjoy listening and sharing their own thoughts.
  5. Keep listening intervals short. Young children have very short attention spans. Talk as simply and briefly as possible, using simple vocabulary and short sentences. Take breaks between instruction, rewarding children for listening. Allow children to move and stretch occasionally. Some fidgeting and sitting in different postures is age-appropriate for young children.
  6. Use novel ways to get children’s attention when starting a new activity. For example, in a normal voice say, “If you can hear me, put your finger on your nose,” or “Show me you are listening by folding your hands.” Try to change it up to make it fun.
  7. Get on children’s eye level. Make sure children look at you and can hear you before giving instructions.
  8. Ignore inconsequential behavior. Due to their lack of experience and maturity, young children will exhibit lots of inattentive behavior that’s typical for their age. It may take time to understand expected group behavior for circle time or lining up. Be patient and calm. Overlook some behaviors that aren’t totally appropriate while looking for positive things to acknowledge. Bring focus to those who are setting an example of listening and following instructions.
  9. Redirect inappropriate behavior. If a child is clearly acting out or not listening, restate your expectation in a calm way. Redirect the behavior to something appropriate. Then cheerfully acknowledge the new improved behavior.

Below is a listening activity that can help children learn specific readiness skills and see the importance of listening and having an open mind.

Activity: Open Your Mind to Listening*
Have you ever seen young children cover their ears when they don’t want to hear something? This visual demonstration contrasts closing our ears and minds with active listening.

Setup: Use a marker to draw eyes and a mouth on a quart-size glass jar. Write each of the following phrases on the side of a wood clothespin:

  • Stay quiet while someone talks.
  • Look at the person talking.
  • Think about what you hear.

For older children, you might add three more pins with the following phrases:

  • Say back what you heard.
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand.
  • Think about how the person feels.

Discussion: Show children the jar and talk about how when the lid is on the jar, no new words or ideas can come in. Explain that this is like a person who isn’t listening. Take off the lid and explain that when we take the lid off the jar, it’s like we’re opening our ears and minds to listening and hearing someone talk to us.

Demonstrate and discuss the meaning of the three (or six) listening skills written on the clothespins.

Activity: Put the lid back on the jar and ask, “Can you hear ideas when you aren’t listening?” Set the jar on the ground. Let children drop a clothespin to see if it will fall in the jar. Of course, the pins will hit the lid and will not go in. Then, take off the lid (reminding children to open up their ears and their minds) and let a child try again. When the child drops the clothespin in, read the skill written on the pin. This is the skill that the listening “jar person” is practicing.

Help the child repeat the skill to you (which requires listening). You might also prompt the child to say something like, “I show good listening when . . . I stay quiet while someone talks,” or “I can listen well when . . . I look at the person talking.”

Listening prompt: You can use the listening jar as a listening prompt after the activity is over. When you would like children to listen, ceremoniously hold up the jar and take the lid off of it. Teach children a readiness signal, such as folding their arms or putting their hands to their ears, to show that they are ready to listen.

As you set an example of listening and showing interest in children, explicitly teaching listening skills, and positively acknowledging their efforts, the learning environment of your classroom is bound to become more positive and motivating for both you and the children in your care.

For more ideas on teaching listening and communication skills, see also:
I Listen (for children ages 2–5)
Listen and Learn (for children ages 4–8)
Talk and Work It Out (for children ages 4–8)

*The Open Your Mind to Listening activity was adapted from Talk and Work It Out.

Helping Children Develop Social Skills Through Play

Play can take on myriad of forms depending on the developmental maturity and personality of the child, the setting and resources available, and the child’s group of peers. Some might assume that if children aren’t involved in an adult-planned activity that they aren’t developing or learning anything important. Yet play isn’t just a frivolous way for kids to spend time when nothing else is structured for them. It can benefit them on many levels, including physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Play can, in fact, influence a child’s overall growth as a person.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways children can mature through play:

  • Physically: Children learn dexterity and strength as they engage in outdoor play. They develop curiosity as they explore the world around them and manipulate various materials.
  • Mentally: Children learn to think critically and problem-solve as they experiment, create, construct, imagine, and probe the way things work.
  • Socially: Children are learning to communicate, negotiate, and cooperate. Higher-level social skills like friendship building, perspective taking, teamwork, and collaboration can also be developed as children mature. Almost all children love to play, and play is the perfect medium for children of diverse backgrounds and personalities to intermingle.
  • Emotionally: Children learn about fairness, trust, and caring for others through play. They learn to build confidence and creativity, and play can give them a safe outlet for balancing stress in their lives.

Looking at the stages of play can help us understand roughly where a child’s play fits on a social spectrum. These stages become more socially integrated and complex as the child matures. It’s good to remember that while these guidelines give a point of reference, children don’t necessarily move chronologically from one stage to the next and should not be compared with their peers due to individual needs, strengths, and preferences.

Here are the typical developmental stages of play:

  • Solitary play. Young children about two to three years old often play alone without noticing or interacting with other children.
  • Onlooker play. A child may watch as others play. Some conversation may occur, but the child observes without joining in.
  • Parallel play. A child may play near another child and may use the same materials, but children are generally playing side by side without much interaction. The child is learning to share space with another child, as well as learning play skills.
  • Associative play. Several children play together. They interact, take turns, and share equipment.
  • Cooperative play. Children play together and work together toward a common goal that requires them to interact and contribute. The play may involve imagination such as role play.

Here are some suggestions to help children develop socially through play:

  • Give opportunities to mingle. You might open your home and invite school and neighborhood peers to play with your child in a setting that you can supervise. Or you might enroll your child in a preschool program, attend library readings for children, join play groups in your community or place of worship, or play regularly at a local park. Especially if your child does not have siblings close in age, these opportunities to learn from peers can help your child develop communication and social skills as well as foster friendships.
  • Teach fairness. All children want and deserve to be treated fairly. They hate to see unfairness in the world, and they have many instincts toward kindness. Praise children when they include others, share, and think of the needs of another child. When a child feels the sting of not being treated fairly, talk to the child about how that feels. Encourage children to treat others the way they want to be treated.
  • Emphasize cooperation. Taking turns and playing cooperatively can help build friendships. Emphasize the role that each person has in things going smoothly for everyone. Encourage cooperation in simple activities such as putting together a puzzle, building a block tower, or stringing beads. Teamwork gives children an opportunity to work on a common goal and learn sharing skills in the process.
  • Encourage your child’s efforts. Be an example of respect, kindness, and equity in your relationship with your child. Be encouraging and nurturing so that children feel safe to be themselves and learn through trial and error, peer influence, and your loving support.

Build a Sense of Belonging in the Early Childhood Classroom

Mr. Rogers was a strong advocate for children. In his much acclaimed and long running television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he treated children gently and warmly and made them feel that they were a part of his intimate circle of friends. Mr. Rogers understood that a sense of belonging is a basic human need and that it is vital to children’s social and emotional development. He assured children regularly, “I like you just the way you are.” Mr. Rogers addressed the following three important aspects of belonging that helped children feel like they belonged to a community of caring people and that they were an integral part of it:

  • a place to go
  • something to do
  • someone to help

With these three aspects of belonging in mind, let’s take a look at what Mr. Rogers did and how we can help children at home or in a preschool setting feel that they are needed and valued and that they have a special place in our lives.

A Place to Go
Mr. Rogers spoke to young viewers directly as individuals, built up their self-esteems, and helped them feel that his neighborhood (and theirs) was a safe place to be.

We can get to know each child in our care and find an admirable quality in them to encourage. Address children by name and compliment them consistently for their achievements and efforts. Where possible, give young children calming touch, such as a pat on the head or shoulder, a handshake, a high five, or a hug. At school, have circle times where children can talk about themselves and their backgrounds to establish a caring network. In your home, you can hang pictures of extended family and tell stories about those people. Talk regularly with these family members on the phone.

Something to Do
Mr. Rogers introduced children to community helpers, showing children that all types of people and vocations play a part in enriching our communities. He enlarged their world by touring factories and demonstrating experiments, crafts, and music. From this, children saw that they, too, could develop important skills and talents and have something important to contribute.

We can assign chores to children or let them be “helpers” for simple tasks. In a preschool setting, give children time to share about their lives and interests and to feel that they are making a contribution. Invite guest speakers, take field trips, and plan classroom experiences that teach new skills. Expose children to a wide range of community helpers and these people’s roles. Let children know that the things they are learning and doing are also useful and important to the family or class.

Someone to Help
Mr. Rogers showed respectful ways to solve problems. Children saw demonstrations of kindness and of how to get along with and help others.

Praise children for their positive efforts, kind words, and inclusive actions that you notice. Be attentive in catching them doing nice things. We can prompt, teach, demonstrate, and affirm kind and gentle conversations, interactions, and ways to solve problems. One of the greatest ways to do this is by taking a positive approach using the “three-to-one” rule of thumb. If you feel that you need to make a correction, find at least three positive things that you can say to balance the one correction. Be specific in identifying and acknowledging those admirable behaviors. Make a point to include children who need extra attention. By loving children, including them, and sincerely caring about their well-being, you are also modeling to children how to treat others with kindness.

Try the following belonging activities to demonstrate how we all need one another and that each child fits in, is valued, and has an important role to play.

Activity 1: Making Our Mark
Materials: drawing paper or poster paper, ink pad, crayons or markers

Directions: Help each child draw a simple tree with branches (or do this step yourself ahead of time). Let children press a finger to an ink pad and use their inked fingers to make marks in different spots on their trees for each person in their families they want to include. Write in the names of each person. Discuss questions like, “What does your family do to show you they love you and that you belong?” “How do you feel when you do something together with your family?”

Variation: For a classroom setting, create a poster representing your classroom circle. Have each child add a fingerprint in a circle. Help children write their names under their prints. Talk about how fingerprints are unique, just as children are, and that each child belongs in the circle of your class. Discuss questions like “What are things you like to do in class?” “What is a way you like to help our class?”

Activity 2: “Who Does This Belong To?” Circle Game
Directions: Have children sit in a circle. Ask each child to take off a shoe and put it in the center of the circle. Choose a child to go to the center and hold up a shoe. Help the child ask, “Who does this belong to?” The child who owns the shoe will say, “It’s mine,” or, “That shoe belongs to me.” Then ask the group, “Who does the shoe belong to?” Children can answer together, “The shoe belongs to (name the child).”

The child in the center returns the shoe to the child it belongs to. That child can put on the shoe and continue the game by going to the center.

Discussion: Talk about belonging using the shoes as an example. Explain that things that belong to us are helpful and important to us. Tell children why they are important to you. As a family or class, you belong together because you like each other, you want to be together, and you help one another. Discuss how doing things together and helping one another can help us feel that we belong.

Activity 3: Which Things Belong Together?
Preparation: Gather items such as those in the following table. You may use the actual item, a toy version, or pictures. Note: Gather items that belong together based on the purpose of the items, not on how they look.

Build a Sense of Belonging in the Early Childhood Classroom

Directions: Put two or three items from the same category on the table along with one item that doesn’t fit. Ask, “Which things belong together?” Or prompt students by asking, “Which of these help us to (name category)?”

Discussion: Ask questions like, “Why do these things belong together?” “What do these items help us do?” Explain that although we are all different in some ways, we can do things together, work together, and help each other.

Social Stories: An Individualized Learning Tool

A friend once asked me for advice regarding her two-year-old child. She was concerned about her daughter’s biting and tantrums, so I offered to help her write a social story for her daughter. Social stories are useful behavioral tools for teachers, counselors, and parents when working with any young child, and they have particular benefits for children who struggle with communication and social skills.

True social stories—as defined and developed by Carol Gray, an author and consultant to students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)—must include specific clinical criteria. But the stories themselves are short and simply worded, and your own stories can be patterned after these principles. Basically, a social story explains to a child behaviors or skills that can be useful in a social setting. Desired actions and outcomes are laid out in a logical step-by-step process. Through frequent readings of the story, a child can become more prepared for similar social interactions, routines, and situations.

To begin, you will want to observe the current behavior of the child, considering the factors that may be influencing the behavior. Young children are often limited in their ability to communicate, express emotions, and understand social expectations, and may not acquire new behavioral skills spontaneously. That is why a clearly written social story that is easy for a young child to comprehend can be such a useful tool in learning about social expectations.

One of the first tips I gave my friend was to write her story from her child’s perspective—in the first person. This is an essential element of a good social story. By hearing the word I, a child can easily identify with, remember, and retain the instructional phrases.

A good introduction will start at the child’s current developmental level. Lay out the beginning situation or problem. My friend’s story might have started: “Sometimes I play with other children. If I don’t get my way, I may feel angry.”

In the body of the story, write almost every sentence as a positive, affirming statement. Some people suggest that you first discuss the undesired behavior, and then the desired behavior afterward. It is my preference to avoid writing about negative behavior altogether. In my mind, it can give the undesired behavior too much attention. My rule of thumb is to use only positive statements unless the problem behavior can hurt someone or damage property. My friend’s story was one of those times, so we may have included a directive like, “I won’t bite or hit people.” We could then follow up with a simple explanation, such as, “Those things hurt. They won’t solve my problem.”

Throughout the rest of your little book, you will want to give instruction on the target skill. My friend’s story could talk about ways to calm down and feel in control again. The length and level of detail in your story will depend primarily on the child’s comprehension level, but always strive for an organized, succinct telling. Four types of sentences will typically be used in any social story:

  • Descriptive statements objectively describe the setting or situation. My books in the Learning to Get Along series—which use many concepts of the social story—actually incorporate few descriptive statements. I prefer brevity, relying on good illustrations to fill out the setting. You will typically want to have one statement and illustration for each page. An example from my friend’s story could be, “Sometimes I play with other children.”
  • Perspective statements include the feelings, thoughts, and opinions of the people in the story, such as, “I may feel angry.”
  • Directive statements are instructional. These statements are really the reason for the story. They tell the child what the desired behavior looks like. For example, “I can take deep breaths to help me calm down.”
  • Affirmative statements might reinforce things the child is already doing well, or they might encourage the child to try a new behavior. A child will identify with and be receptive to a story that is upbeat and empowering. End your story with an affirmation, such as, “When I talk about my problem, I may feel better.”

As mentioned earlier, it is recommended that your text be enriched with colorful, engaging illustrations that will add life to your script and make comprehension easier. Because young children are concrete thinkers, illustrations can help explain and solidify the message, as well as increase retention. When I write a handmade, individualized story, I like to use pictures from children’s magazines and workbooks, along with hand drawings. You might also use clip art that you find online. Each of the four statement types above can be enhanced with illustrations. Visual cues can help describe the setting; show the perspective and emotions of the characters through facial and body expressions; help directives appear more realistic and desirable; and affirm and reinforce the message.

Once the story is written, the fun part is to present it to the child. Plan to read the personalized story to the child in a calm setting. Reread it frequently—even daily, at first, to help the child become familiar with the concepts. Then the story can be used as a reference when a problem situation arises.

One of the central features of a social story is that it is tailored for a particular child. While my Learning to Get Along books are for general use and don’t use specifics like a child’s name, your own story can include specific names, pictures, and personal touches that the child recognizes. For instance, for a handmade social story I wrote on “Friends and Strangers,” I collected random pictures of people from magazines as well as photographs of the child’s family and friends to illustrate the book and to use for a sorting activity afterward. In another instance, I personalized a story called “Everything in Its Place” by cutting out pictures of toys, clothes, and items that the child owned. The book pages had drawers, boxes, and doors that opened to hold the items to be put away.

Be creative and have fun writing your stories. Your child will likely treasure a unique story and ask for it to be read again and again. Maybe that’s because a social story is not only a great learning tool, but it provides a unique opportunity to encourage, motivate, bond, and build trust with the children in your life.

Helping Children Grow Strong

Children, though young and small, have within them everything they need to grow to adulthood. As children learn to love and appreciate their amazing bodies, they will likely find motivation to develop healthy habits for building and maintaining wellness. Some of these key habits are eating healthy foods, especially those from plants; drinking clean water; moving and exercising in the fresh air and sunshine; and getting plenty of sleep. Establishing patterns of good eating, exercise, and sleep requires self-discipline, which will aid children in building strong muscles and bones, making friends, learning well, and feeling a greater sense of control over their lives.

Here are some important, common-sense principles that children can begin to incorporate into their routines now. At the end of this post, there is an activity to do with kids to help reinforce these healthy concepts.

Healthy Eating
Establish regular mealtimes. Dinnertime is typically a great opportunity for the family to gather and bond through eating, relaxing, and talking together. Regular meals and snacks also help children learn to recognize their hunger signals to avoid overeating and the mood swings that can come with erratic eating patterns. You might choose to make healthy snacks easily accessible but limit snacking on junk food.

Choose healthy foods. Encourage children to include a fruit or vegetable with every meal and snack for a daily average of five servings of fruits and vegetables. Also, serve plenty of satiating foods like whole, unprocessed grains (rice, oats, and pasta) and non-starchy vegetables high in fiber (greens, squash, broccoli). Beans and lentils (legumes) are another healthy food group that is high in protein and fiber.

The Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, using recent scientific studies, recommends that lunch and dinner plates consist of these four food groups: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. The current 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines say, “On average, current dietary patterns are too low in vegetables, fruit, whole grains . . . and too high in refined grains, saturated fat [meat, dairy, eggs], added sugars, and sodium.” The foods, then, that we are encouraged to limit or avoid are those high in saturated fat and cholesterol (which are found almost exclusively in meat, eggs, and dairy), as well as foods containing salt and added sugars.

Encourage your fussy eater. Try to serve a variety of foods, including those that you know your child will enjoy. Don’t force a child to eat, and don’t offer other choices if a food is refused. Give a child several opportunities to try a new food because it often takes several attempts for a palate to adjust to something new. Act neutrally when your child doesn’t eat a food, but give praise for trying something new. Serve children small portions, and let them ask for more if they are still hungry. Don’t require them to finish everything on a plate. Find ways other than food to convey praise and rewards. Eating habits are developed over time and through example and consistency.

Exercise and Movement
Spend time with your child outdoors. Not only is exercise invigorating, but fresh air and sunshine are also important physically. Exposure to sunlight helps the body produce important chemicals and vitamins like nitric oxide and vitamin D. Sunshine and being outdoors are also mood enhancers, especially when your child also spends time with you. Children need about 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Consider family activities such as biking, hiking, skating, or visiting a park, zoo, or pool. Household chores, such as washing a car, weeding a garden, housecleaning, and yard work, are also ways to get physical activity while accomplishing a task together. You might also consider gifts that emphasize physical activity or participating in community sports, where feasible.

A Good Night’s Sleep
Children need more sleep than adults. Ten to twelve hours is the average sleep requirement for children ages four to eight. Plan an appropriate bedtime together based on when your child needs to get up. Help your child develop a comforting nightly ritual that might include brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, reading a story together, and reviewing the highlights of the day. Bedtime may be when your child is willing to talk and share with you if the process isn’t too rushed. Tuck your child into bed, perhaps with a favorite toy, book, or nightlight. Children will settle in and fall asleep more quickly if they feel safe and secure. If a child gets up after that, limit attention and conversation so it isn’t too rewarding (or too punishing) for them to be up after their bedtime.

A Balanced Child
Proper nourishment, movement, and sleep can give children the energy they need to accomplish what they want to do. Their confidence will also increase as they become more aware of their own unique bodies and abilities. Besides a growing body, children have growing minds, consciences, and personalities. Each of these aspects can be enhanced by a healthy, disciplined body. All children, no matter their physical strengths or limitations, can benefit from healthy physical, mental, emotional, and social habits. You play a key role in helping your child grow strong in every way!

Consider the following activity to help your children build appreciation for their bodies.

“Our Healthy Habits” Poster
Materials: copy paper, construction paper, and poster paper for each child; crayons and markers; magazines; glue sticks; scissors

Directions: Help children learn about healthy habits by connecting each habit to an element of nature: earth, water, sun, air, and moon. First ask children to draw pictures of the five elements on construction paper and cut them out. Print a copy of the sentences below for each child and have them cut out each sentence onto a separate strip. Then have children attach the sentences and elements to their poster. Lastly, have them draw or attach pictures of children eating, sleeping, and playing.

Variation: Put children into groups of five and let each child in the group be responsible for one habit and element.

I eat plants that come from the EARTH.
I drink pure WATER.
I feel warm and happy when I play in the SUN.
I like to breathe fresh AIR and run like the wind.
The MOON ‘keeps a light on’ while I sleep.

Guiding Dreams: 6 Activities to Help Young Children Set and Achieve Goals

I was recently introduced to a study by Walter Mischel that was conducted at Stanford in the 1960s. In a controlled environment, children ages four through six were given a treat such as a marshmallow. They were told that they could eat it immediately or choose to wait in the room (for up to twenty minutes) until the researcher returned, at which time they would be given a reward of two marshmallows.

Some children were able to delay gratification by resisting a present desire in exchange for achieving and receiving something better in the future. Self-control is a vital, learned skill that can be a valuable asset in attaining goals. In fact, a correlation was found between children’s level of self-discipline in the study and their abilities and attributes years later in areas such as academic success, IQ, social functioning, and even body mass index.

Another interesting aspect of the study applies to goals. Children were introduced to various mental devices that could strengthen their self-control and help them achieve their goal.

For instance, children were encouraged to close their eyes or cover the treat. Some were encouraged to imagine the food as if it had a frame around it and consider it an inedible picture. These various strategies, which influenced children’s perception of the task, demonstrate the importance of visualization and clear mental focus in imagining and reaching one’s goals.

With these concepts in mind, here are a few tips for helping your child dream big and look purposefully toward the future.

1. Talk About Dreams
Talk with children about what is important to them and what they would like to be able to do and become. Goal setting is most effective when children are involved. Discuss the internal and external rewards of reaching a goal.

ACTIVITY #1
Use a few of the following conversation starters to begin a discussion with your child about aspirations:

  • Tell me about something you are good at.
  • What did you do to become good at it?
  • How long did it take?
  • What is something you would like to be better at?
  • Why is this goal important to you?

ACTIVITY #2
Try your own version of the marshmallow experiment to assess your child’s current level of self-control. Then, talk about the child’s dreams and how self-regulation and effort might help your child meet a chosen goal.

ACTIVITY #3
Ask your child to choose a goal and mentally picture it as already accomplished. Help your child draw or cut out and paste a picture of the completed goal. Label the goal with a title. Discuss what the goal might look, sound, and feel like when it is reached. Write the child’s narrative of the dream or goal on the back of the picture.

2. Make Plans
Once the child has a clear goal in mind, listen and talk about strategies for achieving the goal. Discuss small, manageable steps, and then make a plan together to implement them. Talk about resources that are available as well as people who might be willing to assist the child. You may wish to set a time frame together and a deadline for when the goal might be completed. This is for motivation and accountability. If the deadline is not met, help the child understand that obstacles are part of the process. Adjust plans and expectations with the child to avoid discouragement.

ACTIVITY #4
Using the child’s picture from Activity #3 as a reference, make a chart on a separate paper that lists up to five steps or micro-goals for achieving the goal. For each step, write a completion date and draw several boxes that can be checked as progress is made. The child could also draw simple pictures to help imagine and remember the micro-goals. Help the child imagine and visualize each step as if performing it. Then, ask the child to verbalize the entire plan.

3. Encourage Effort and Progress
A variation of the marshmallow test was later conducted. In this experiment, an adult came into the room with the child and offered to return with a treat in the next few minutes. In some cases, the adult did return with a treat. In others, the adult broke the promise to return with a treat. Then, the original marshmallow experiment was performed with all the children. In the group where the adult delivered on the promise of a treat in the first part of the experiment, the children did a better job of waiting for two marshmallows.

This second study points to the significant influence of parents and teachers who are consistent and reliable. When we demonstrate that we can be trusted, we have an increased ability to encourage and direct children toward positive outcomes.

ACTIVITY #5
Using the goal chart in Activity #4, talk about the rewards for completion of the goal. Offer the child stickers to place on the chart as goals are met. Give lots of sincere “warm fuzzies” on a consistent basis. As children see and hear positive feedback about themselves and their good choices, they become motivated to internalize the skills.

4. Celebrate Accomplishments!
Children will be excited when they reach their goals, and they will want to share that enthusiasm with you and others. Praise and acknowledgment will solidify the importance of the accomplishment in their minds and spur them to future achievement. (This type of positive feedback is not to be confused with bribery, which is offered when a child is noncompliant.)

Children are also motivated by rewards for progress. When achievement does not appear to be within a child’s control, we can wisely reward effort and encourage keeping a positive outlook, which are within the child’s power and our influence.

ACTIVITY #6
Celebrate the child’s success by ceremoniously awarding the predetermined reward, which could be a small item or game, a special trip or activity, a special treat or dessert, an outing with a friend, or anything that is rewarding to the child, when the goal is met. You might also include an achievement certificate, balloons, a slideshow or picture of the child, or a Skype call to share with other relatives. At any time and for any reason, you could also surprise your child with an “Unbirthday” party to let the child know of your unconditional support.

Setting and achieving goals involves more than just following a formula of steps and charts. To a large degree, children’s growth and progress is influenced by their own perception of themselves in relation to their goals. We have an unrivaled role in nurturing and shaping internal traits like attitude, self-concept, confidence, and self-control as we help guide children toward their dreams.

Helping Your Child Adjust to All-Day Kindergarten

Has your child started all-day kindergarten this fall? Most children this age, whether or not they have attended preschool, are transitioning to new challenges such as a more demanding schedule, new classwork, making new friends, and developing confidence. Let’s take a look at how you might bolster your child in four important ways: physically, academically, socially, and emotionally.

1. Physical: Establish routines
On school mornings, make sure your child has plenty of time to get ready and to eat breakfast without being too rushed. You may want to post a picture checklist to help your child remember the routine.

After school, spend some time together. Children may appreciate a snack, a chance to relax, and a listening ear. Keep basic supplies like scissors, crayons, and pencils in an accessible place for working on school assignments. Allow plenty of downtime, too, so your child can unwind and get some exercise outdoors.

In the evenings, family dinners are an important part of your child’s day. Regular routines at bedtime will also help reduce stress. You might help your child lay out the next day’s clothes so mornings are less stressful. Take time to read to your child and to talk together. Schedule eleven or twelve hours of sleep for a child this age.

2. Academic: Give support and encouragement
You can informally help your child learn basic skills like numbers, alphabet recognition, and colors. Children can work on fine motor skills by writing their names and drawing simple shapes. Explain and describe everyday happenings with your child and encourage questions to boost vocabulary and oral communication skills. Learning at home can be fun, natural, and low key. As a family, you might plan regular visits to parks, libraries, museums, and community cultural arts events to widen your child’s awareness. Children are generally inquisitive and enthusiastic learners and can take cues from things that you are passionate about.

Support your child by attending school functions and keeping communication open with the teacher. Give lots of praise for effort, as well as completed assignments and accomplishments.

Free Download: Joining In Games

3. Socially: Help your child learn social expectations
Talk with your child about the behaviors that are expected during a typical school day. You might even act out scenarios with your child to teach concepts like sharing and joining in.

(Bonus! Download “joining-in” games and role plays  from Join In and Play to help you with this.)

Encourage following directions and listening when the teacher or others are speaking.

Teach empathy. Help children recognize and identify emotions in themselves and others. Coach them to be mindful of how others might be feeling, and how your child might demonstrate respect and caring.

Play with your child for a few minutes each day. Besides building athletic and problem-solving skills, your child can learn the concepts of fairness and sportsmanship, creativity, and communication skills.

You might nurture your child’s friendships by arranging playdates with other children in the class or neighborhood.

Visit the classroom to observe your child in this new setting and work with the teacher if you have any concerns.

4. Emotional: Help your child feel valued, confident, and ready to learn
Encourage and help your child build confidence with your attention, positive feedback, and affirmations. Let your child know that you value spending time together. You might give your child a memento to connect to you, such as a small family photo in a pencil box, a note in a lunchbox, or a small token such as a pebble or felt heart to put in a pocket as a reminder of your support and caring.

Kindergarten can be an exciting new adventure. You now have the assistance of a teacher and a classroom of children to help teach your child. Even so, you are still your child’s primary teacher, and your devotion to your child’s all-around growth is needed and appreciated. You can help supply the ballast and stability, so that your son or daughter can feel free to explore, learn, and grow.

Why Character Education Is Important for Young Children

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“Character is like a tree and reputation is like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” —Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln is one of my all-time heroes. I respect his deeply rooted character, and that he didn’t sway or compromise his principles. According to Lincoln’s own observation, character is the real thing—it is the essence of who we are. His metaphor of a tree reminds us that teaching our children time-honored principles can help them stay grounded and rooted so that they can stand tall and live with integrity when winds of challenge blow. Others are also positively affected when children offer fruits of kindness, responsibility, and respect.

Character is an aggregate of all our traits and includes all of our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Our children’s character is molded by their decisions and affects every aspect of their current and future life. As parents and teachers, we’re responsible for their upbringing, and we play a vital role in helping children develop their full potential. With the many varied messages children see in the media and in their associations, we can’t expect them to merely observe and adopt the character traits and maturity that we’d like them to develop. A consistent and thorough teaching of ethical behavior is critical to shaping character. Here are some reasons why:

FeelConfident detail copyright FreeSpirit Publishng

1. Character development is the basis for personal growth. As children practice skills that promote character development, they build a reservoir of strength that they can draw on throughout their lives. Self-esteem, confidence, courage, resilience, integrity, and forgiveness are examples of traits that can sustain children at home, at school, and in the community.

2. Character development is the foundation for lifelong learning. Schools that teach character education report increased academic performance and attendance. They also report decreases in disciplinary problems. Children appreciate the safe environment that occurs when their peers are also learning about respect, honesty, and compassion. Teachers also find it easier to teach when children are learning to exhibit habits of patience, diligence, and self-control in the classroom.

3. Character is the bedrock that solid relationships are built on. Our children will be happier, more caring, more forgiving, and more responsible as they are taught to think about the needs of others.

Share and Take Turns copyright Free Spirit Publishing

Cooperation, tolerance, and teamwork are examples of social skills that can be experienced firsthand when children are given the tools and opportunities. Schools and homes are ideal settings for children to practice communicating, sharing, and getting along. Speaking of how relationships and character are intertwined, Woodrow Wilson said, “If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself.”

4. Character shapes us as neighbors and citizens. Our character is a holistic language we daily communicate to others. We constantly affect one another. Beyond our homes and schools, our children’s character will also affect all of us in the workplace and in our communities as they grow to be our employees, neighbors, and leaders. When young people have not been taught principles of character that can anchor them, and if they don’t feel strong ties to faith, family, or community that nurture them, they may feel adrift and hopeless. They may not be attuned to the consequences of their actions, or to the needs of others. Delinquency, gangs, and violence are sadly visible in our culture and are a reminder that we have an awesome responsibility to exhibit strong character ourselves as we raise and influence the next generation.

Developing a respectful and responsible character is a skill every child needs in order to thrive, find fulfillment, and be an influence for good in society. On the importance of character education to prepare children for learning and for life, Dr. Kevin Ryan (founder of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility) emphatically stated, “Character education is not one more thing to add to your plate. It is the plate!”