Winter Holidays: Learning About Differences Can Lead to Common Ground

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Winter Holidays: Learning About Differences Can Lead to Common GroundWhen I was in sixth grade, my teacher had us read Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which remains to this day one of my favorites. It was one of my first experiences with literary analysis. When we got to the stanza that ends, “The darkest evening of the year,” my teacher asked, “What night do you think he’s talking about?”

I’m not sure whether any of us 11- and 12-year-olds came up with the answer—the winter solstice—ourselves, but that was the first time I really started to understand that many cultures and religions celebrate the return of the light in one way or another. And we’ve been doing it a long time. One of the earliest stories we know about is Persephone, who, according to ancient Greek myth, was the daughter of Demeter (goddess of, among other things, grain and the harvest). Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, and when he took her down to live with him, the world became dark and lifeless because of Demeter’s grief. After an arrangement between Demeter and Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the world, but she had to go to the underworld for three months each year: winter.

All of this is to say that humans have been celebrating the return of the light and anticipating the arrival of spring for at least 3,000 years, so it’s no wonder that there are a lot of different ways to do it. Helping children learn about the things different cultures do to celebrate at this time of year (and why they celebrate at this time of year) is important. The more children learn about how families are different, the more open-minded and compassionate they’ll be.

So how can we help our kids learn these things? For starters, you can do lots of reading together. Books like The Shortest Day: Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Wendy Pfeffer can help your child learn about the science behind the shortening of days and how different cultures and religions celebrate winter holidays.

But learning about these celebrations in person is even better. Step into just about any home during November through January, and it’s sure to have some holiday decorations in evidence, whether they’re for Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or one of the many other holidays celebrated at this time of year. As an adult, you may feel silly asking about holiday decorations—one feels one should know by now why there are nine candles on a menorah even though Hanukkah is only eight days long.

That’s when kids’ natural curiosity comes in. Don’t pretend you have all the answers; instead, encourage your child to ask questions (respectfully, of course) about others’ holiday traditions, where the traditions come from, and what they mean. Even if someone celebrates the same holiday(s) your family does, your child is bound to learn something interesting about this person’s family traditions.

What’s wonderful about learning about (and appreciating) the differences in cultures and religions is that doing so brings to light the similarities between your holiday traditions and other people’s. Maybe you celebrate Christmas and your neighbors celebrate Diwali, but both holidays focus on light, love, family, and generosity, among other things.

Helping your child maintain a spirit of open-mindedness and curiosity during the holiday season (no matter what the holidays look like for your family) can help pave the way for compassion, tolerance, and learning in the future—which is just about the best holiday gift you can give.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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11 Prompts to Inspire Creative Thinking in Students

11 Prompts to Inspire Creative Thinking in StudentsAs the holidays and winter break approach, keeping students engaged can get a little challenging. When kids’ attention starts to wander, pull them back in and inspire them to find new ways to see the world with these creative thinking prompts.

  1. Name five things you could do with a 100-pound watermelon.
  2. Invent a machine that would make someone’s life easier. Draw or describe it.
  3. Make a list of 10 rhyming words. Use these words to write a poem.
  4. What does it mean to be a good citizen? How could you encourage your friends and family to be good citizens?
  5. Pretend you are an elephant. Do you live in a zoo? Or in the wild in Asia or Africa? Tell about your day.
  6. Make up a silly word and tell what it means. Pretend you are adding it to the dictionary.
  7. What is one thing you could do today to make a difference in someone’s life?
  8. Your family just told you that you are getting a pet dinosaur! What will your dinosaur look like? Will he be ferocious? Will she be the size of your house? Draw a picture of your new pet.
  9. You have been elected to start your own country! Tell about it.
  10. Think of something nice to do for someone. Be more creative than just holding open a door or smiling at a new student. Write or tell about what you would do, and then come up with a plan to do it.
  11. List some things that can be recycled (plastic bottles, old newspapers). Now, list some items that aren’t recyclable (Styrofoam, lightbulbs). How could you reuse these items? Why do you think recycling is important?

Creative Thinking In a JarFor more activities and questions to turn kids’ imaginations upside down, check out Creative Thinking In a Jar®.


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8 Strategies for Dealing with Lawn Mower Parents

By Andrew Hawk

8 Strategies for Dealing with Lawn Mower ParentsHave you ever heard of a lawn mower parent? Even if you haven’t, I bet you have been around one at some point. Lawn mower parents are parents who try to eliminate any obstacles in their children’s lives that might cause their children discomfort. The term was coined to insinuate that these parents will “mow down” anyone or anything that is in their children’s way.

Lawn mower parents are not to be confused with helicopter parents, who are always “hovering.” Lawn mower parents are typically also helicopter parents, but helicopter parents are not always lawn mower parents. In my experience, lawn mower parents are much rarer than helicopter parents and are much more volatile. Helicopter parents can, in most cases, be placated by providing them with information. Lawn mower parents will go to great lengths to reach their objectives. These are the parents who call the superintendent to complain about their child getting a detention. These parents show up at their children’s sporting organization’s meetings to make sure everyone is getting a participation trophy. I once had a lawn mower parent file a complaint with my state’s department of education citing that my daily writing prompts were too distressing for her child to complete. This is the only time a parent has filed a complaint against me, and it was dropped two days later.

Here are some tips that will help you if you find yourself in the path of a lawn mower parent.

Be Transparent
Be sure you have distributed your policies, and be sure you have followed your school’s procedures. Also, document all communications. If a lawn mower parent goes over your head, you do not want that parent to be able to accuse you of any wrongdoing or negligence. Transparency and documentation will help you in these instances.

Choose Your Battles
I am in no way suggesting that you compromise your principles to avoid conflict with lawn mower parents. However, ask yourself if whatever they are asking for is worth the battle that is on the horizon. If the request relates to your discipline policy or your school’s policies, stand your ground. But, if they are only asking for an extension on their child’s assignment or an opportunity for their child to make up missing work for partial credit, I say it’s not worth the fight.

Consider Their Past Experiences
How is a lawn mower parent made? From what I have gathered over the years, I believe that many lawn mower parents feel they were somehow treated unfairly during their childhoods. A lawn mower parent is usually, in my opinion, trying to prevent his or her child from having the same negative experiences he or she had. When conflicts arise with these parents, keep in mind that you are working against the present and the past.

8 Strategies for Dealing with Lawn Mower ParentsPrepare Talking Points
It is best to make a list of talking points and stick to them during encounters with lawn mower parents. Talking points should include details relating to the student, details about school policies, motivations for policies, and (if applicable) research that supports your position. If the parent’s complaint is related to a truly gray area, reinforce why the policy was put in place. For example, in the case of whether or not participation trophies are awarded, the decision usually rests with the position of the majority of participants. Do not include in your talking points anything demeaning or any specific information about other students, and under no circumstance should you place blame on another member of your school’s staff. These topics are unprofessional and will not help you in the long run.

Try Role Reversal
A colleague of mine had trouble with a lawn mower parent when she wrote a disciplinary referral for the parent’s son for stealing out of another student’s backpack. The student received a one-day in-school suspension. When the parent and teacher met with our principal to discuss the child’s consequence, the principal opened the conversation by asking the parent, “What do you think the consequence for stealing should be?” Even if this tactic does not sway parents’ positions, it will give you an idea of their end goal.

Keep Your Cool
Lawn mower parents are quick to go over a teacher’s head, but they are not afraid to make a scene in public either. If this happens, keep a level head. Remember, you only have control over your actions. If a lawn mower parent starts shouting at you, don’t shout back—and do what you can to keep from getting emotional. Either reaction will feel like a victory to the parent. Keep in mind that parents, in these situations, are not responding to you as a person but rather to your position of authority over their children. Stick to your talking points and do not be afraid to end a meeting abruptly if necessary.

Involve Your Principal
Some teachers are hesitant to go to their principals for fear of appearing inadequate in some way. Most principals are accomplished in the art of diplomacy. Assisting teachers with situations such as meetings with lawn mower parents is precisely why principals are principals.

Stand Your Ground
Lawn mower parents will go further than your typical parent to try to persuade teachers to bend rules and policies. Compromising is recommended if it is possible. However, rules, policies, and procedures must be enforced consistently to be fair to all students. If you are going to make an exception for a lawn mower parent, you must ask yourself if you would be willing to make the same exception for all students. If the answer is “no,” you must stand your ground. Dealing with challenging parents is part of being a teacher. Teachers must not make exceptions to their principles to avoid conflicts with parents.

Andrew HawkAndrew Hawk has worked in public education for 16 years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past five years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Indiana University East in Richmond, Indiana. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University, and in 2016, he completed a second master’s degree in educational leadership, also from WGU. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.


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Maybe the Cowardly Lion Was Right

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

Maybe the Cowardly Lion Was RightI’m afraid of heights. I don’t know why, but that’s the nature of phobias. They’re not necessarily rooted in experience or even logic. In cases like this, fear is hardwired into us—that fight-or-flight response that literally helped our ancestors survive. Big, hairy animal headed toward you? It might make a nice feast for forty of your closest friends. Big, hairy animal with sharp teeth and claws headed toward you? It’s probably time to run back to the ole cave.

In my case, my fear of heights helps me avoid, say, the very edge of a cliff when I’m on a hike. If I get too close, my heart starts to pound and my stomach fills with what feels like a pack of very excited weasels. After all, I could slip on the gravel there and fall to my death. I’m better off enjoying the view from a yard or so back.

But there are times when this sort of fear isn’t practical. Sometimes I have to do things that involve heights, like travel on airplanes. Chances are, your child has worries and fears that by turns keep her safe and keep her from doing things she has to do. So how can you help her listen to those fears when she needs to and overcome them when she has to?

As with pretty much everything else in parenting, it’s essential to keep the lines of communication open. If you observe your child refusing to do something, ask him if he’s scared. If he’s not sure, remind him how “scared” feels in his body: a fluttery tummy, faster breathing, maybe even an urge to run. If he is feeling scared—no matter what he’s scared of—it’s important to validate his feelings. Cutting off the conversation with “There’s nothing to be afraid of” or “You’re a big boy now” will do nothing to calm his fears but will instead add shame to the emotions he’s feeling.

Next, try to drill down to what exactly it is your child is afraid of. The first day of kindergarten can be scary, but it’s a big, nebulous thing. Is your child worried her teacher will be mean? She won’t have any friends? She won’t learn anything?

Maybe the Cowardly Lion Was RightOnce you are able to figure out what exactly your child is afraid of, you can start addressing it. And part of that means exposure. To go back to my fear of heights example, I recently observed to a friend how strange it was that, despite my fear of heights, ski lifts have never bothered me. He replied, “Well, you’re used to them.” Specifically, I grew up skiing and rode ski lifts several times a day for several days a year. If you can expose children to something gradually, you may be able to help their fear diminish and perhaps disappear altogether.

For example, if you discover that your child’s fear of the first day of kindergarten is in fact a fear that his teacher will be mean, try contacting his teacher before the school year starts and asking the teacher if you can set up a meeting for them to get to know each other. This will help your child realize (in a safe environment with you present) that his teacher isn’t mean after all.

It’s important to understand that there are some fears one never gets rid of (such as public speaking, bridges, or swimming). The object in this case is not necessarily to help your child get rid of the fear but to help her diminish it to the point where she can act despite it.

Similarly, there are fears one never should get rid of, such as fear of sharp or hot things. These fears need to stick around so they can help protect you. In this case, it’s important to teach children safety precautions (never touch the stove; always hold scissors by the handle) that can help them channel that fear into self-protection.

I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes, often attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” For me, flying, hiking, and skiing are all more important than my fear of heights. So, I do them anyway.

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.


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Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional Learning to Snack Time in Your Early Childhood Classroom

By Molly Breen

Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional LearningSharing food and conversation go hand in hand: As humans we are, in some ways, hardwired to do these things together. In hunter-gatherer clans, extended families and communities would assemble to share food and, presumably, conversation as a matter of survival. Developmental psychologists have long emphasized the importance of family meal time for healthy child development. Why? Research suggests that eating together as a family can have lifelong health benefits including better prosocial behaviors (manners), which may result in less aggressive or antisocial behavior and better overall well-being and physical health.

In the scope of our own preschool “clans,” snack and mealtimes can be just another of the many transitions throughout the day, or they can be opportunities to extend learning.

I am not a proponent of scheduling every moment of the day as “teachable.” That would pull us out of being truly present and responsive to the lived experience of teaching and learning. And, quite frankly, it’s not always practical to teach through every transition. But I cannot think of a better time to connect in conversation than during the age-old practice of sharing food.

In my setting, we have a tradition of sharing childhood stories (both the children and teachers) with one another during snack and mealtimes as well as a shared framework of “table talk.” We set up the expectations for table talk at the beginning of the year together. These are simple and include: No potty talk; Don’t yuck someone else’s yum (no insulting others’ food choices); Take a turn to talk (don’t talk over someone else). Our childhood stories have a social-emotional learning/character-building theme and can be truly factual or just inspired by real events.

Here are a few suggestions for seamlessly incorporating some extended social-emotional learning into your snack or mealtime.

Food for Thought: How to Bring Social-Emotional LearningForgiveness
Tell a story about a time you made a mistake and worried about telling the truth and getting into trouble. Let the resolution of the story be about forgiveness. Use the book Forgive and Let Go as a guide to your own storytelling.

Ask students: Have you ever forgiven someone for something? What did they do? How did it feel to let them know that everything was okay? Have you ever been forgiven? How did that feel?

Draw examples from the school experience and ask kids what they would do. How could they forgive someone for making a mistake or causing hurt?

Resilience
Tell a story about learning a new skill and the practice it took to get better. Emphasize the route of persistence through practice and encouragement. Who helped you? Use the book Bounce Back as a storytelling guide.

Follow up by discussing some examples of skills that children acquire in your setting that they may not have when they begin.

Ask students: What are “words of encouragement”? When do we use these at school?

Bravery
Tell a personal story about going somewhere new or doing something unfamiliar as an act of courage—maybe visiting another country for the first time or standing up to someone who is bullying. What questions went through your mind as you anticipated the new experience? How did you find the courage to do something challenging? Use the book Have Courage as a storytelling guide.

Talk through the beginning of school for your students. What were some things that kids were feeling worried about? How did they know to use courage and be brave?

Ask students: Do you have examples of bravery or courage that you have witnessed in other children?

Part of this table talk tradition can be developing emotional language beyond the basics of mad, sad, happy, glad, and so on. When we partner our real-life experiences with new emotional language, it provides a better context for understanding. We took photos of our students with a wide array of facial expressions and mounted them on the wall near our lunch table. When we did our storytelling at snack and lunch times, we would refer to the wall of expressions to figure out how a feeling might look to an observer. This, in partnership with our more expressive language, provided another layer of understanding and recognition for the wide range of possibilities in our emotional life and learning. If you run out of emotional descriptive terms, you can use a feelings wheel to help you and your learners develop your emotional vocabulary.

Like all things in teaching and learning, the attitudes we share with our students are contagious and create deeper connections with our school communities in both intended and unintended ways. For me, the incredible bonus is always that I become a better person in the process, and that feels pretty outstanding.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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Posted in Early Childhood, Social & Emotional Learning | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment