Inauguration Apprehension: How to Help Children Express Their Feelings in Times of Change

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Inauguration Apprehension: How to Help Children Express Their Feelings in Times of Change

The inauguration of the next president of the United States can be an exciting time of possibility, change, and growth, but due to the rancorous tenor of the 2016 presidential election, tomorrow’s event may lead to feelings of anxiety, anger, and fear for some. What can you do if the children in your care are experiencing these emotions?

Consider helping children promote healthy expression of those feelings using one or more of these seven suggestions:

  1. Talk about it. An effective way to help children manage conflicting feelings and use those feelings to get stronger is to encourage them to talk through the feelings with a trusted mentor, family member, or friend. Work with the intention to help children get to the root of the issue. Maybe there’s a specific fear that they need to process. Perhaps it’s a worry that feels too big to tackle. Maybe it’s anger or sadness. Seize this teachable moment and listen carefully to what children are saying as well as what they’re not saying. Since emotions begin with thoughts, figuring out the source of children’s feelings might also be helpful. Is what they’re struggling with based on any fixed mindset thoughts or errant beliefs that could be changed?
  2. Draw it out. Sometimes children don’t have the words to express their feelings, but put a pencil, pen, marker, crayon, paint, or sidewalk chalk in their hands and watch those feelings flow. Encourage children to draw whatever they’re experiencing: thoughts, words, and actions. Ask them to tell you about their drawings and find out what they would change about those pictures if they had a magic wand. Listen without judgment. Children tend to take our lead; a calm reassurance that they are safe from a trusted adult will go a long way.
  3. Work it out. Exercise is a great way for young and old alike to release negative energy and process hard feelings. Our brains thrive on movement. As Dr. John Medina tells us in his masterpiece Brain Rules, “Physical activity is cognitive candy.” That’s sweet news! Encourage children to join you as you take a power walk, go for a bike ride, bounce around on a trampoline, or find a tree swing and go as high as you can. Exercising outdoors provides the added benefit of fresh air.
  4. Write it out. Shortly after election day, Teaching Tolerance magazine called for students to speak out and let the president-elect know what they would like to see happen. Giving advice is a fantastic empowerment strategy—the perfect antidote to those out-of-control feelings of anxiety and angst. It can also elevate empathy because it forces children to switch places with the president-elect and walk in his shoes, if only for a short while. Ask children what they would do, were they elected president, to improve their country. Encourage them to think through their hopes and dreams for the nation and launch a campaign of their own.
  5. Do something kind. Fred Rogers of the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is credited with suggesting that when bad things happen, it’s a natural response for people to become helpers. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, encourage children to find a cause they can champion or a need they can fill. The helper’s high that they will feel from their altruism can combat those uncomfortable feelings of helplessness. At my school, students thrive on helping soldiers, animals, those challenged by homelessness, and the elderly. They also love to help other kids. One of our favorite projects is knitting baby hats to help reduce the infant mortality rate in developing countries. Now is the perfect time to sign up for Kids for Peace’s Great Kindness Challenge if you haven’t already. This annual event, held during the last week of this month, kicks off January 23 and runs through January 27. Of course, kindness isn’t limited by a calendar, so encourage children to make every day kindness day.
  6. Discuss civic duties. While there won’t be another presidential election for four years, children can benefit from discussions about our right to vote and our civic responsibility to do so. Even though there were 126 million votes cast this year, that number represents only 55 percent of all eligible voters. What ideas do your young citizens have to increase that percentage and motivate voters to find their voices, show up at the polls, and exercise their civic duty to vote? Talk about other opportunities young people have to cast their ballots, like for officer positions in school organizations. If your school didn’t hold a mock presidential election, this might be a good time to do so. Consider voting on what your school would like to do for your next service-learning project.
  7. Study former presidents and their terms. Who were the popular past presidents? What made them favorites? Who were the controversial presidents? What contributed to the controversy? Might children agree that Abraham Lincoln, for example, could fall into both categories? Why or why not? Knowledge is power. Using a compare-and-contrast activity can help children work through their troubling feelings while they cultivate a renewed hope for a promising future ahead.

As always, if strong feelings persist and pose a threat to a child’s well-being, seek help from a medical professional, therapist, or counselor.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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Enter to Win Books for Building Confident Kids

Empower kids of all ages to strengthen their self-esteem and sense of purpose. One lucky reader will win all of these positive, practical, must-have resources:

To Enter: Leave a comment below telling us how you build confidence in kids.

For additional entries, leave a separate comment below for each of the following tasks that you complete:

Each comment counts as a separate entry—that’s four chances to win! Entries must be received by midnight, January 27, 2017.

The winner will be contacted via email on or around January 30, 2017, and will need to respond within 72 hours to claim his or her prize or another winner will be chosen. This giveaway is in no way affiliated with, administered, or endorsed by Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Winner must be a U.S. resident, 18 years of age or older.


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Recognizing OCD in Children

By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD

Recognizing OCD in ChildrenWhile I now know that I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a child, I certainly didn’t know it at the time. As a nine-year-old, all I knew was that fire scared me to the point of tears and that I thought I had, at different points, breast cancer, brain cancer, and scoliosis. How could I have known at such a young age that all of these fears had something in common—a treatable disorder? And how could my parents have known how crippled I often felt by these fears when I never shared them?

Even if I’d told my parents or a teacher, so little was known about OCD at the time that it’s very unlikely they would have made the connection. After all, I didn’t wash my hands excessively or check to make sure the stove was off over and over again. My parents couldn’t see anything different about me while I was obsessing because any compulsions I engaged in were mental.

And I’m not so different from many kids today. We know so much more than we did thirty years ago, but if adults don’t know that some OCD symptoms are invisible, they can miss the signs. If adults are lucky, the children in their lives will simply tell them what’s going on, but they still will need to be equipped with a basic knowledge of OCD—children aren’t likely to say, “I have OCD.”

Of course, some children will have obvious compulsions, and their parents may notice the child engaging in the following:

  • Excessive hand-washing, often resulting in red, raw, or chapped hands.
  • Checking, such as making sure the oven is turned off or plugging in and unplugging a curling iron.

But some signs are less obvious:

  • Always late because the child is privately engaging in rituals.
  • Asking for reassurance: Is it my fault Grandma’s sick? What if I accidentally swear in church?
  • Taking too long to complete tasks, such as homework assignments, because they need to be done “perfectly.”

If symptoms seem to have come out of nowhere, it could be because a child has PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections), caused by the brain’s reaction to a strep infection, or PANS (pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome), caused by the brain’s reaction to other infections.

OCD is tricky for everyone, whether it affects adults or children, but it can be especially baffling—and heartbreaking—when it affects children, who can’t quite put their feelings into words. The International OCD Foundation has a site dedicated to the topic of OCD in children, and the section “What Is Different About OCD in Kids” may be particularly helpful.

Author Alison DotsonAlison Dotson was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional bad thoughts, but she now knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You can read more about Alison on her blog at alisondotson.com.


Being Me with OCD Alison is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life.


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9 Ways Schools Can Support Trans Students

By Kelly Huegel, author of GLBTQ

9 Ways Schools Can Support Trans StudentsNever have transgender issues been in the mainstream as much as they are now. When I first wrote GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens in 2003, relatively few people, even in the gay community, understood or paid much attention to transgender issues. But today, transgender issues have come out from the shadows and into our living rooms: from legislative skirmishes over bathrooms to celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner’s before-our-eyes transformation to the hit Amazon show Transparent, which depicts an aging father’s journey into life as a woman.

Because of increased awareness of what it means to be transgender, people are recognizing they are trans at younger and younger ages. And that means more and more schools are faced with the issue of how to support growing populations of trans and gender-nonconforming students.

Without a doubt, issues around gender identity can be complex, but with some practice and sensitivity, schools can do a lot to help trans and gender-nonconforming students feel safe and accepted.

1. Have zero tolerance and nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and enforce them.
Schools may have zero tolerance or inclusion policies but often fail to enforce those policies. Rogue teachers may refuse to use desired names or pronouns, or other students may bully and harass trans students. In all cases, it’s critical that administrators hold everyone at school accountable for following the policies, otherwise the policies are useless.

2. Use students’ preferred names and pronouns.
A trans student who is identified as Shawn on the birth certificate may wish to be called Shawna, and fellow students, staff, and teachers should be instructed to use the student’s preferred name along with the pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers” rather than “he,” “him,” and “his.” Students who are gender-nonconforming may not identify as male or female. In these cases, the appropriate pronouns are “they,” “them,” “their,” and “theirs.” (English teachers, I understand that the idea of using “they” as a singular pronoun may be like nails on a chalkboard, but there is some precedent. In fact, in 2016 the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as their word of the year.)

3. Make sure the dress code is inclusive of trans students.
Many school dress codes make distinctions about appropriate attire for male and female students. Trans students should be permitted to dress in accordance with the gender they identify as, and policies should accommodate gender-nonconforming students who do not identify as male or female.

4. Make gender-neutral bathrooms and locker rooms available.
This is what got the country riled up in the first place—fear that the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms would endanger women and children. In a controlled environment like a school, these fears are especially unfounded, and having gender-neutral private spaces available for trans students is an essential part of supporting them. Having gender-neutral bathrooms available also supports trans staff and teachers as well as trans parents who may visit the school.

5. Hire openly trans staff and teachers.
Give full and fair consideration to applicants for staff and teaching positions who are openly trans, gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Having staff and educators who reflect society inside and outside school walls goes a long way toward engendering a climate of openness and acceptance for all students.

6. Educate.
When it comes to complex issues, communities often learn together. Take time to discuss trans-inclusive policies at parent-teacher and community meetings and send home letters explaining the policies. For staff and educators, provide special training and/or welcome a trans person to be a guest speaker to talk about trans experiences so that employees can gain a richer understanding of the issues at play and put a human face to them.

7. Include trans people and issues in the curriculum.
A great way to normalize the subject and educate students—and educators—is to include trans people and issues in the curriculum (as well as gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and issues). For example, when studying Native Americans, include mention of two-spirit people. When assigning speech and debate topics, include the issues of transgender bathrooms, trans people in the military, or similar topics and let students explore the issues and educate one another.

8. Support GLBTQ student groups.
Many schools have GLBTQ student groups (often called GSAs or gay-straight alliances). Being supportive of these groups—such as inviting them to put together special school projects for Pride month (June)—shows the whole school that these students and their allies are welcome and supported.

9. Realize trans students may be struggling at home.
Though our understanding of trans issues is increasing, gender identity is still a confusing topic for many. Lots of trans students are not fully supported by their families, and that can be extremely distressing for young people. Additionally, some students may be taking hormones as part of a physical transition process, so they may be experiencing challenging mood and physical changes. Trans students might benefit from extra support from teachers or guidance counselors. Even an extra effort to be friendly and check in with trans students can go a long way toward helping them feel welcome and accepted.

Laws and regulations regarding protections for trans students vary widely from state to state. Lambda Legal provides some excellent resources on legal and other issues surrounding transgender people. Additionally, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) offers a great deal of school-specific information.

Author Kelly HuegelKelly Huegel Madrone is a freelance writer, editor, and educator. She has worked for the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., chapter of PFLAG where she helped provide support and educational services to GLBTQ people and their families. The author of two books and more than one hundred published articles, Kelly holds a degree in secondary education. She lives in Colorado with her wife, Margaret, and daughter. Kelly welcomes readers to follow her on Twitter at @GLBTQguide or visit her website at www.evolvedanimal.com.

GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning TeensKelly is the author of GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens.


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Healthy and Appropriate Food Talk in the Classroom

By Liz Bergren

Healthy and Appropriate Food Talk in the ClassroomAt times, an elementary classroom teacher is responsible for overseeing the distribution of food in the lunchroom or classroom. More than likely, discussions around food and what kids are eating will come up in these circumstances. The words you use to describe food can be critical. In the United States, we are a society obsessed with thinness, and food is at the epicenter of our social lives. Statistically, obesity rates are at their highest in history, and Americans currently are the heaviest people in the world.

There seems to be a disconnect here: How are we obsessed with thinness yet extraordinarily overweight? Why has there been unprecedented growth of eating disorders and disordered eating in the past two decades?

One of the most important relationships we will ever have is the one we have with food. This relationship develops very early. How does what you think about food relate to what you learned about food as a child? Think about how food was discussed in your household. Were you told never to eat sugar or that certain foods are considered “junk”? Were there “good” foods and “bad” foods? Were you told that you had to eat everything on your plate before you could leave the table? Were you told that certain foods make you fat while others do not?

When working with students, it is very important to leave your opinions and personal experiences with food out of the classroom. If food conversations happen, model healthy food talk. Here are some thoughts on how to approach this sometimes sensitive subject:

  1. Food is fuel for our bodies. This is one of the most important messages to convey. Talk with children about how food works in our bodies and how certain foods can make us feel energized and alert while others can make us feel tired and sluggish. Other conversations can focus on how we need food to help us jump, run, climb, play an instrument, and so on.
  2. Avoid using scare tactics. Statements such as “If you eat this, then this will happen to you” only increase anxiety around food. My mom used to tell me that too much sugar would cause all my teeth to fall out. You can see how comments like this can increase anxiety for some young children who have a higher tendency to take these types of comments seriously. Avoid labeling food with words and phrases such as “junk,” “good,” and “bad” food. All foods can fit into a healthy diet.
  3. The key words to use are balance and moderation. Foods that most of us know aren’t healthy for us should be consumed in moderation. I used to tell my students that they can eat desserts every day as long as they know how to portion sweets. Depriving ourselves of foods that are enjoyable can lead to potential bingeing down the road.
  4. Refrain from comments about a child’s body shape and size. Complimenting a child’s outfit, accessories, or accomplishments is appropriate, but keep the focus away from physical features. I have heard adults say things to children like, “Oh, you’re so skinny. You’ll appreciate that when you’re older.” Or, “Boys need to grow up to be big and strong.” Those comments only send the message that your body should look a certain way for you to be happy.
  5. Eat with your students from time to time. This will give you a chance to model healthy eating and answer any questions that come up.
  6. Watch what you say with other adults. Try to avoid getting into conversations about dieting or body shaming with other staff or faculty. This is particularly important when you are around students. Avoid saying things like, “She’s so skinny—she’s so lucky,” “I feel fat today” (fat is not a feeling), or “I need to go on a diet.” Changing the subject to take the conversation in a different direction can be helpful in these situations.
  7. Intervene when necessary. Step in if you hear students having conversations using negative food talk or body shaming. For example, if one student tells another that the food she is eating will make her fat, remind both students that anything we eat has a nutrient that can be valuable to our bodies and that it is rude to comment on or to judge what other people are eating. Look for teachable moments to reinforce safe and healthy food and body talk.
  8. Be mindful of cultural differences around food and body shape and size. This post addresses issues identified with Western culture, which may not be relevant to all the students you work with. For example, students may be fasting for religious purposes. Or, not all cultures idealize thinness, so discussions that come up regarding being “skinny,” “fit,” or “thin” will not resonate with all students.

Liz BergrenLiz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.


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