Helping Kids Develop Perseverance

By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series

Helping Kids Develop PerseverancePerseverance, or the ability to hang in there and not give up in the face of adversity, is a skill that parents and educators highly value. It can be so disheartening to watch a young person give up on a task. Often it feels as if the child is not only giving up on a task but also giving up on himself or herself.

I’ve seen the power of perseverance these past three years as I’ve watched my ten-year-old daughter struggle with a disability in reading. Sometimes I don’t realize the enormous emotional struggle she goes through. I’ve caught myself thinking, “This shouldn’t be so hard” and “I can’t believe she doesn’t like to read.”

The truth is that reading is extremely hard for her, and that’s why she needs to rely on the skill of perseverance. If it were easy, well, it would be easy, and she wouldn’t have to dig deep inside for messages to tell herself—keep going and don’t give up. Of course, we as adults can set up the right conditions and offer praise and positive reinforcement, but the real work is done by my daughter when she sits down, book in hand.

Part of perseverance is having a goal and having good strategies or a plan to reach that goal. In my daughter’s case, sounding out letters, splitting up compound words, and relying on any pictures are a few strategies she has learned to help her read more effectively. But perhaps more important on the road of perseverance is the self-talk she practices:

“I can do this.”

“Keep on reading.”

It is important to remember that all children have had their own experiences with persistence leading up to the present learning situation. Depending on their experiences, some children handle perseverance with a fierce determination, becoming intensely focused on accomplishing their goals, while others are easily discouraged and display emotional outbursts, whine, complain, avoid the task at hand, or have other behavioral issues. Most children fall somewhere in between, having experienced both the benefits and woes of perseverance. In any case, children’s ability to persevere depends upon handling the behavioral and emotional fallout that comes with their individual experiences of the current learning situation.

Early on, my daughter resorted to a lot of complaining and tears. (By the way, my daughter gave me permission to write about her in this article.) Our responses as adults are vital in these moments. We should never punish, intimidate, shame, or lecture a child for struggling with a task or giving up. This is the perfect time to connect with your child through active listening: “It sounds like you’re really frustrated.”

It is also a perfect time to get children to review their strategies and perhaps make a new plan to deal with the task at hand. When my daughter really struggles at school, she asks for a break and walks the hallways for a little bit while doing some simple breathing exercises. Luckily she has had teachers who understood her need to take a break and leave the classroom. While walking, she tries to clear her head because she knows that her thoughts can get in her way. Then she will use positive self-talk: “I know I can do it; I’ve done it a hundred times before. Don’t give up.” She will eventually dig deeper into her bag of reading strategies, but she needs her time to find her own path.

It is important that adults use language that supports learning and growth and keeps the child’s dignity intact. For instance, instead of saying, “You did a good job,” use phrases such as “You really worked hard” or “I loved the way you played today.” These focus on effort instead of results, showing that the child’s effort is what is important. When introducing new or difficult tasks, avoid phrases such as “This is really easy.” Obviously reading is not easy for my daughter. Saying that it is would be a subtle but impactful message that she isn’t quite up to snuff. Instead, say, “Here’s the task. You can do it.” And be sure to add, “I’m here to help.”

Zach-Hangs-in-ThereA useful tool for helping kids persevere in the face of adversity is the Hang-In-There Rings. Help kids work their way through the four steps.

In the first ring, “Start with a goal,” kids identify what they are trying to accomplish. Make sure they state why it’s important to them. The second ring is “Make a plan.” Children should take an active role in putting together steps that will help them accomplish their goal. The third ring, “Make a new plan if you need it,” is an important step. Here, kids review and revise the strategies they have been using if things aren’t working.

Finally, “Keep trying to the end.” This last ring reminds children to finish what they started. Teach positive self-talk to help children encourage themselves during difficult times. In addition, train them to visualize themselves working through those challenges all the way to the end. Encourage children to examine how they accomplished what they set out to do, and appropriately celebrate their efforts and achievement.

While my daughter has struggled at times, we have also watched her achieve great things. She continues to progress in reading, knowing she must finish the book she has started. The gleam I see in her eyes when she advances to another reading level is spectacular. It is part of a larger self-confidence that we see growing in her as she learns over and over again: “Yes, I can do it. Yes, good things happen when I don’t give up.”

Perhaps most cool is that the habit of perseverance—and the benefits that come from it—has spread to other areas of my daughter’s life, including dance and public speaking. In the words of one of her teachers, when my daughter is speaking in front of other people, “she commands the room and exudes self-confidence.” This is a direct result of her learning to overcome the obstacles of her reading difficulties.

We must never underestimate the positive power of persisting and of accomplishing something that is extremely hard. I know that it has done wonders for my daughter.

Makenna, you’ve worked really hard. Congratulations!

bill-mulcahy-webWilliam Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.

Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:



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Posted in Character Education, Parenting | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Enter to win Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School!

Enter to win Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School!This giveaway is now closed. We’re giving away copies of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School to five lucky readers! The 48 practical, research-based lessons in the book teach students prosocial attitudes and behaviors to prevent bullying.

To Enter: Leave a comment below describing how you foster kindness in students. This giveaway is now closed.

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, May 19, 2017.

Each winner will be contacted via email on or around May 22, 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. Winners must be U.S. residents, 18 years of age or older.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

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Posted in Bullying Prevention & Conflict Resolution, Free Spirit News | Tagged , , | 95 Comments

Strategies for Helping At-Risk Students Succeed

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

Strategies for Helping At-Risk Students SucceedWhen you hear the term at risk, your initial inquiry might be: At risk of what? An online dictionary defines at risk as being exposed to harm, in danger of something. But in danger of what? To educators in our school system, that term is generally used to refer to a student who is in danger of not earning a high school diploma and not graduating before the age of twenty-one.

So what kind of support is available at a public school like mine to equip and empower those students who we educators deem to be at risk?

Early intervention is key. At our school, we begin to enroll students whose circumstances might put them at risk in a preschool class at the age of three to jumpstart their school careers so they can play, learn, and grow alongside their peers. As our littlest learners advance to kindergarten, any gaps detected in their ability to take on learning and show progress at a developmentally appropriate rate would call for age-appropriate interventions. Some students will benefit from pairing with a parent volunteer for help learning letters and sounds. A weekly visit from a high school math club member could help others make gains as they learn to count to 100 and to understand one-to-one correspondence. Still others will benefit from additional, more-intensive help with the reading specialist on campus.

As students continue through their formative years, educators gather assessment data so we can better understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and help individualize and differentiate instruction. Teachers meet regularly to desegregate this data, discuss students’ needs, and implement interventions that support students’ growth. Our school offers supplemental reading classes for students who need instruction in a smaller setting to help develop their reading skills and math club for those who need additional support sharpening their number sense.

We also provide small-group reading classes for students with dyslexia as well as co-taught classes, inclusion support, and small-group instruction for those students with a diagnosed learning disability. Programs for at-risk students at our school include weekly meetings with our Reading with Rover dogs to help our struggling readers, Peer Assistance & Leadership (PAL) student mentors to connect with students who need help with social skills, and Kids Hope adult mentors for weekly booster shots of connection and love. Additionally, we offer social skills classes for students with behavioral challenges and enrichment classes for students with developmental delays and disabilities. Especially important for our at-risk students is our library class, which gives them unlimited access to books at their reading level. We also encourage our students to sign up for a library card at the public library for even more literacy enrichment.

Because it’s sometimes easier to learn in a smaller setting, teachers at our school provide tutorials and homework hall before and after school for students who are struggling to master day-to-day concepts. For those students who are at risk of not mastering grade-level expectations or not passing state-mandated tests, we also offer targeted after-school tutorials with a different teacher who changes up delivery and instructional strategies to help meet the needs of all learners. And since our 21st-century learners are so comfortable using technology as a learning tool, we also intervene with resources like Read Naturally for reading help, XtraMath for math assistance, mindfulness exercises for relaxation and restoration, and GoNoodle for meaningful movement and brain boosts.

Often, a child’s social or emotional need shows up as an academic gap. Greeting students at the door with their choice of a handshake, a hug, or a high-five is a wonderful way to check their emotional barometer every day. Following this up with sensitivity circle time, sitting knee to knee and seeing eye to eye, not only helps students connect with one another in a very personal way, but also gives teachers critical information on the social or emotional needs that might be met before any significant learning is going to take place. Say Jimmy discloses that the morning has been rough because his little guinea pig died. How much math is he going to master? His teacher can offer some time in a Comfort Corner or a visit to the school counselor for help processing and navigating his big, uncomfortable feelings. And because self-regulation and empowerment are important, students are encouraged to self-refer for a counselor visit for help with those challenging feelings. For those students whose difficult emotions seem to regularly interfere with academics, school counselors can schedule a weekly appointment for individual sessions or invite students to a small-group counseling class with children who are experiencing similar life stressors or changes. Inside my counseling classroom, the Peace Room provides a quiet spot, complete with soft lighting, relaxing music, and sensory toys and fidgets, where students can unwind and de-stress.

Strong school-to-home connections are critical for at-risk students and their families. Good news phone calls and handwritten notes of affirmation work wonders for establishing trust; home visits also build strong bridges and elevate empathy. A good relationship will be your lifeline when you’re calling to ask for help and/or offer your support. Sometimes, at-risk students’ needs are physical. At our Clothing Exchange, we house donations of gently used clothes, backpacks, and shoes, and we invite students to come shopping as needed, no questions asked. Maybe the student is hungry? Families at our school can apply for breakfast and lunch at a reduced cost or at no cost. We also partner with the Houston Food Bank Backpack Buddy program to send home weekly food sacks with students who might go hungry on the weekends. We regularly host food drives to help stock the pantry shelves in our community. For those families struggling financially, community partners help provide support and assistance with back-to-school supplies, wants and wishes during the holidays, and scholarship tickets at carnival time. On occasion, we’ve been gifted with donated funds so that we can pay utility bills for families who have fallen on hard times.

Students with a disability that hinders their learning might benefit from accommodations through Section 504, like sitting in close proximity to the teacher, repeating directions aloud, or being assigned a study buddy to assist with classroom routines like note-taking. Each student’s 504 plan is as unique as the child’s needs are, and is created by committee on a case-by-case basis. If a student is no longer responding to interventions and is not making progress in the general education setting, a referral for additional evaluation and assessment for special education would be warranted. After the evaluation results are in, a committee of educators and care providers would convene to decide what additional assistance, interventions, or modifications would be appropriate.

As a last resort, because it is not strongly supported by data, grade retention is an intervention option for those students who might be developmentally young and need a little more time, provided they do not have a documented disability getting in the way of their school success.

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.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Tips to Reengage Kids Who Have Checked Out for the School Year

Tips to Reengage Kids Who Have Checked Out for the School YearKeeping your students engaged during the final weeks of school can be a challenge. The Free Spirit Advisory Board members are here to share their best advice for reengaging kids who have checked out for the school year.

“Keeping kids engaged in school, especially after spring break, is a challenge, but it’s not impossible. As a mental health case manager, my focus is to empower my adolescent clients in their own choices, give them space to talk through their feelings about school, and guide them through problem solving any barriers. The last thing kids want is another adult telling them what they need to be doing; partner with them, don’t shame or punish. On the same note, I encourage students’ engagement in after-school clubs, activities, or sports they are interested in—this creates an incentive to go to school and a positive experience in the school environment, and helps them build positive relationships with peers and school staff. If that doesn’t work, keep students’ eyes on the prize and have them make goals and plans for the summer. Provide incentives when possible. Teachers: If your students have a final project or paper due in a class, allow and encourage them to pursue topics that interest them. Get your students up and moving as often as possible. As the weather gets nicer, open the windows and have impromptu lessons in the sunshine!”
—Michelle, children’s mental health case manager

“The final weeks of the school year are always a challenge. As an elementary school social worker, I have found the best way to keep students engaged is to meet their needs and still be clear about expectations. Are the kids itching to get outside? Is it possible to allow for an extra recess? When a teacher agrees to give an extra recess, it often increases student engagement. An alternative might be knowing when you can take the learning outside. Are students learning to write descriptively? Might that happen outdoors?

“Finally, it might be more than feeling restless and wanting to play. Many children will be leaving the predictable structure and routine of the school year for a summer of the unknown. Giving these children a place to process their fear and anxiety about the unknown is crucial. They need their feelings validated, and it helps them to know they aren’t isolated. Our school is in a community where poverty is masked. When I work with these children, they feel a little better when I tell them, ‘You’re not the only one, and here is how I can work with your family.’

“Good luck, everyone!”
—Meg, school social worker

“I encourage good behavior by giving the kids a few minutes to use GoNoodle (music and dancing website) if they complete the goal for the day. I keep track of positive and negative behaviors using Class Dojo, and give students a reward for the most positive points earned during a class period. I try to write more engaging or hands-on lessons at the end of the year.”
—Gina, music teacher

“I have found that my end-of-year student engagement strategies vary by grade level. For early elementary students, I start calling them by their future grade level (second graders when they are still first graders). For older elementary students, I have a reader share-out update every morning in which students share updates about what they read the night before (personal reading, news, or homework). In middle school, activity tends to be the attention grabber, so I try to have unique activities throughout the week that I use as breaks in our routine. (I am known to use ideas from Classroom Warm-Ups In a Jar® from Free Spirit Publishing.) Though important at all levels, I have found that it is more of a challenge at the high school level to maintain systems, routines, and high behavioral expectations. I revisit those as necessary. I also allow time for students to have short discussions about upcoming matters concerning them (graduation, college, prom, summer jobs, etc.). It alleviates outside stressors and allows students to then focus on the content work.”
—Gail, district quality compensation program coordinator/teacher

“At our agency, we like to keep our clients engaged in school during the last few weeks by encouraging them to attend school daily to earn an incentive gift card, pizza parties, and games. Another motivator is to make education fun and exciting by using group activities and assignments. Lastly, keeping parents involved is essential to a student finishing the year strong—encouraging parents to come on field trips, assist in the classroom, and help with homework assignments.”
—Bianca, clinical supervisor

“Now is a great time of year to encourage students to reflect on themselves, their learning, and their futures. I often spend time during the last month of school having my high schoolers reflect on their year. One of their favorite activities is writing letters or advice columns to next year’s students. The key is to show that it’s still learning time. As soon as the teacher is ready for summer, so are the kids!”
—Angela, AP English literature teacher/curriculum coach

“What I do to keep kids engaged as the school year is winding down is discuss their larger life goals. I try to help them focus on what they really want out of their lives. Then, I relate those goals back to the choices they are making today that can either take them one step closer to their goals or one step further away.”
—Wanda, guidance counselor

“What we do to keep kids engaged in learning is try to reduce wait times. We also pay attention to the children’s interests.”
—Jeni, director of an early learning center

“I teach seniors, and many of them have already checked out the last few weeks of school, so I find topics that are interesting to them to read about and discuss. If we are working on something they think is interesting, they will participate. I usually find an article that we read together or a cool podcast that we listen to together and discuss, then allow students to work together on questions.”
—Dana, high school English teacher

“Summer is on every student’s mind this time of year, so why not turn this thinking into planning! Have students lay out their desired summer experience on paper using art, poetry, or prose. Explore how finishing the school year strong will lead to less stress and more earned freedom during the summer. Next, practice (or teach) backward goal planning. Ask students to envision themselves the last two weeks of school, one month out, and this week—what does success in those moments look, feel, and sound like? What habits must they practice in order to achieve success? Keep a copy of students’ plans and use them for check-ins throughout the final academic quarter.”
—Tia, LICSW, president, School Social Work Association, Washington, DC

“I recently did a Breakout EDU lesson and was amazed at how engaged the students were as they ‘broke out’ of high school! I knew they would have fun, but was pleasantly shocked at the end of the activity when the students had retained most of the information that was in each puzzle. (They didn’t even understand how they knew so much!) I will definitely be incorporating more games and brain teasers into my lessons.”
—Stephanie, school counselor

Setting SMART Goals WorksheetBonus! Download a free printable SMART goals worksheet to help students set goals for summer.

The Free Spirit Advisory Board of Educators is a group of professionals who provide feedback that helps make Free Spirit books be even more beneficial for kids, teens, and the adults who care about them. Interested in becoming a member? Recruitment is ongoing! For more information about the benefits and responsibilities of membership, download our Free Spirit Advisory Board flyer and our Free Spirit Advisory Board application.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Free Spirit News, Teaching Strategies | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Low-Cost Summer Activities for Kids

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

Low-Cost Summer Activities for KidsAs we slide into summertime, we might have visions of extended family vacations to explore new places, overnight adventures at summer camp, and day-long outings to a water park or theme park. Those classic activities are lots of fun, but families also need to find low-cost and no-cost ways to while away the many summer hours. Here are a few ideas.

Visit the local library.
One of our favorite things to do when our children were younger was to go to story time at the library. It typically included not only the introduction to a new author and book but also a craft activity and a snack for the kids. It was, in fact, the highlight of our week. Bookstores also host read-aloud events, so check out their schedules and mark your calendar. Many of them have a children’s area where kids can sit and read, or play with stuffed animals or train sets.

Plant a garden.
A wonderful way to keep your children engaged in the great outdoors while adding a little fresh produce to your nightly meals is to plant, tend, and harvest a garden. Encourage your children to research plants that might thrive in your soil, your climate, and your summertime weather conditions. Okra, for example, grows really well in our clay soil in the south. If you want to plant a vegetable or fruit that won’t do well in your soil, consider container gardening. Working hard to water and weed those plants can be an excellent source of self-esteem and pride for a child, with the added benefit of soaking up some vitamin D from the sun. Don’t forget the sunscreen!

Host a Bike Olympics event.
When our daughter was turning six, she asked for a bike birthday party, so we asked all of her friends to bring over their bikes and held a Bike Olympics in our cul-de-sac. It was great fun to watch those little cyclists—some with trikes, others with training wheels, and still others on their two-wheelers—as they wove in and out of the cones and raced to the finish lines. We set up several different courses and then encouraged the kids to set up their own challenge. Each child went home with a bike horn, some bandages, and a heart full of happiness!

Launch water balloons.
One of the best purchases we ever made was a water balloon launcher. Not only can you use it to launch water balloons into the yard for the children to try to catch, but you could also get creative and build something like a pirate ship in the backyard or park and let your little warriors shoot balloons at the bad guys. It’ll be fun target practice, for sure, and you’ll be amazed at the groans and giggles as kids take aim and fire. Have lots of balloon ammunition available, because kids will come back to this activity over and over again.

Create a time capsule.
This is a favorite end-of-the-school-year activity for the classroom, but have your children ever created a time capsule for the family? If they were going to bury one to be dug up some time in the future, what would they want to say about life in 2017? What is their family up to? What are they dreaming about? What do they hope for? What do they struggle with? What do they do well? What can they get better at? What are the artifacts they’d like to bury and preserve to share with the future? Have children collect, create, and curate their items, then decorate the box that they’re going to bury.

Research your family’s genealogy.
Summertime is the perfect time to do research, so why not encourage your children to figure out what your family crest or coat of arms looks like. If they can’t find one, encourage them to make one. What does your family stand for? What symbol would kids put on a banner to represent the family name? This might also be a good time to research your ancestry and figure out exactly where your ancestors came from, then encourage your children to draw a family tree. How are they similar to their ancestors? How are they different?

Schedule movie nights.
It’s no secret that going to the movies can be an expensive outing, so why not bring the movies to the house? Dollar rentals make it fairly affordable to host a movie night. Put on pj’s, pop some popcorn, make a fort out of blankets if you want to, and enjoy some family togetherness while you’re whisked away with a fantasy, comedy, or musical. Invite the kids’ friends, cousins, or neighbors to join you. For a fun twist, take the movie outside to re-create the drive-in experience using a projector and a white screen or sheet, and enjoy some fresh air while you’re watching. Our little village shows movies once a month throughout the summer in the amphitheater in the park. See if your town might offer something like that, too.

Spend time at the park.
Play is the brain’s favorite way to learn, so why not keep the learning alive at your local park. Our city park has a playground, a sandbox area, a walking trail, basketball courts, volleyball nets, a splashpad, even a community swimming pool. Yours might have some or all of these or other fun amenities. Watch for special events like art in the park, petting zoos, or jazz nights. Our parks and recreation committee hosts a myriad of events to keep children and families engaged and entertained all summer long.

Attend community education classes.
Community education classes can be an affordable way to keep the learning alive during the summer. Kids can take classes alone, or you may do something together as a family. Learn to knit or crochet, play the ukulele, or paint or draw. Take an acting class. Or try cooking. There are even classes for the yoga enthusiast. Many high school sports teams also host camps; learning from a teenager can be a nonintimidating way to pick up skills in a new sport like basketball, tennis, volleyball, baseball, or ultimate Frisbee. Need financial assistance? Many community education programs have scholarships available.

Look for ways to serve.
A therapeutic way to de-stress is to focus on helping others. How might your children engage with community partners to serve this summer? Do kids have a skill, like playing the piano, that they could share at a retirement center? Can they do chores around the house to earn a little extra money, then shop for some canned goods to help restock local pantry shelves? Can they help a neighbor put out the trash or bring in dumpsters off of the curb? Are there leaves to rake, weeds to pull, or flowers to plant? Can they care for the pet of a neighbor who is away on vacation? Can they offer to bring in that neighbor’s mail? Can they create cheerful get-well cards to deliver to their local pharmacy, hospital, or emergency clinic? Ask children what they’d like to do to help make someone’s summertime better.

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.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.

FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2017 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Counselor's Corner, Parenting | Tagged , , | Leave a comment