How to Help Teens Find Their Passion and Do What They Love

By Rayne Lacko, coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery

How to Help Teens Find Their Passion and Do What They LoveIn an uncertain world, being uncertain of yourself can create anxiety. Feeling anxious can mean different things to different teens. It can take the form of vulnerability or shame, it may make a teen feel powerless or too sensitive, or it may manifest as worry about the future.

From the time children are very small, curious and caring adults ask: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And we often ask one another a variation of this question: “What do you do?” It seems harmless. However, during the teen years, this question is loaded, and can cause a lot of anxiety. Its answer represents a decision that will forge a young person’s post-secondary school experience, and for many teens, forms an impression of the adult life they’ll have long after high school is a distant memory.

We do well to remember that, for teens, discovering their passion—and answering the question of what they want to do as adults—can feel like a high-stakes test. (In reality, how many of us can truly say we’re following our passion and doing what we love?) But you can remind teens that discovering what they love doesn’t have to be stress-filled; it can be a lot of fun.

Anxiety Lurks in Bright Places

Often the more potential a thing holds for a teen, the more anxiety they’ll have about it. Big tests and exams? Check. Important athletic competitions? You got it. Dating? Absolutely. So it makes sense that uncovering their passion can cause a certain amount of stress.

There’s a risk involved whenever we expose a desire for accomplishment. This is especially true for teens, who developmentally are in a phase of self-discovery. That guitar propped in the corner represents last year’s love of alt rock. The too-small soccer cleats and cosplay costume half-buried in the back of the closet demonstrate how feelings can change. If a teen reveals a passion to the world and then changes their mind, they may feel anxiety if others expect them to follow through on a skill or talent that no longer interests them. Even bright possibilities—like doing well on a test or making the team—can cause anxiety.

You can use this fun free-drawing activity to invite teens to mine the secret triggers of anxiety and focus in on what they want. What interests or desires will they discover?

Comic Panel about Anxiety

Click the image to download PDF!

What Is Passion and How Can Teens Find It?

Some people know from an early age exactly what they want to do with their lives. They don’t have to question what they “should” be doing; their passion found them first. For other people, finding their passion isn’t quite so easy.

A passion can be anything a teen discovers, explores, and enjoys so much that they choose to dedicate time and attention to it. In doing so, the teen’s enthusiasm for the activity or topic continues to grow. As an adult, you might notice that you can’t get the teen’s attention—because the teen is totally absorbed in what they’re doing and, once they stop, is eager for the next time they’ll do it (Proe 2020).

What If a Teen’s Passion Isn’t Exactly a College Major?

If a teen is not strong academically, isn’t an artist, or isn’t into sports or other extracurricular activities, they might wonder what exactly is their passion. As a caring adult, keep in mind that passion frequently lies in being a part of something bigger than oneself (Berry 2020), and remind teens of this.

One of the most effective things a teen can do to turn a hobby like gaming, comic book collecting, or gameshow watching into a career is to go where people are making a living at it. By telling people about their passions and interests, they can connect with relevant groups and causes. They might volunteer at a conference or seek an internship or entry-level position at a studio, design house, or distributor. The day-to-day work they do isn’t what matters—their deep interest and enthusiasm is. And leaders of those industries can point an interested and enthusiastic teen down an appropriate learning path. Doing what they are good at makes teens six times as likely to be engaged, and more than three times as likely to be happy with their life (Rath and Harter 2014).

What If a Teen Has Several Interests?

Rarely is passion found by thinking about it, following trends, or doing what peers or parents want. Teens must take action and find their own way to what brings them joy and inspires their curiosity.

If a teen wants to determine which of several interests is worth cultivating into a passion, one powerful technique is to dedicate the very best of themselves each time they engage in the interest. This requires that they throw themselves into an activity or interest 100 percent, allowing themselves to engage and play as they did when they were little: for fun and without any concern for the outcome. This full-throttle commitment to give their all must be in pursuit of joy, of satisfying curiosity, and of feeling good. This approach will quickly weed out those interests that aren’t worth the energy and uncover a teen’s authentic strengths. By fully giving of the self, a teen can differentiate between an interest that is fun for an afternoon and a passion they wish to develop and explore again and again.

What If a Teen Doesn’t Have a Clue What They Want to Do?

One of the most common obstacles to living a passion-based life is figuring out what you’re passionate about in the first place. “We focus too much on our teens’ weaknesses, and not enough on uncovering talent or passion,” says Maitland (Berry 2020).

So if a teen is experiencing difficulty uncovering their passion, they might look to their personal space for important clues. They might consider the items and decorations in this space and make a list of “passion candidates”: things they like to do, hobbies, or objects they’ve chosen for their room may spark ideas. That guitar in the corner might be grounded in a love for music; a soccer player may discover that it’s not the sport they’re passionate about, but being part of a team; a display of Lego projects may reflect an affinity for design, architecture, science, or technology—or screenwriting, travel, or even product development. Encourage teens to explore what their hearts and bodies tell them when they think about these pursuits. What makes them feel alive, enthusiastic, and energetic? What makes them feel bored? (Chang 2000).

If teens still aren’t sure, they might consider how they can contribute to their community. As mentioned earlier, being part of something bigger than oneself is, statistically, a surefire way to improve overall happiness and confidence and bring a deeper sense of purpose. Feeling as if you are a part of something bigger is another way to spark passion.

A Quick Quiz to Uncover Teens’ Interests

The leadership tools that accompany the Dream Up Now journal include a mini-quiz (see pages 17–22 in the free download) that can help teens uncover their interests. These thoughtful questions shine a light on teens’ strengths and on those interests that light them up.

Though this quiz can be helpful for self-discovery and brainstorming, keep in mind that no amount of knowledge can light the fire of passion. Action is required! Passion is sparked by engagement—by giving oneself fully to an activity.

Getting Unstuck

If teens are feeling stuck, encourage them to focus on the present moment. It’s okay not to know what they’ll be doing a few years from now. Rather than becoming stymied waiting for the perfect gig or the one thing they think they can stick with forever, taking a job (any legitimate paying position) can get them unstuck. Going to college (for anything they don’t abjectly hate) can get them unstuck. Volunteering (in any capacity for a worthy cause they believe in) can get them unstuck. Anxiety may follow; remember, it is attracted to the unfamiliarity of trying new things. However, in this way, anxiety is a positive indicator: it means the teen got out there and tried something that was scary or that they deeply valued. It means the teen prioritized the longing in their heart ahead of their worry about the outcome. Frankly, anxiety would likely follow if the teen didn’t try at all, which would further reinforce the stuck feeling. If the result of trying or not trying is anxiety either way, isn’t it better to risk earning what you truly desire?

Remind young people that it’s okay to fail. And it’s okay to if they don’t really enjoy what their friends—or you—enjoy. It’s also okay to be so-so at something, because they’re free to move on and try another thing, and another, and another.

Passion Is Sparked by Engagement

The more a teen steps up to try new things, the more they’ll learn about what matters to them, and the clearer they’ll be about the life they wish to create. Expect some fluctuation in teens’ interests; it’s not uncommon for a passion to dwindle during the teen years (due to academic and social pressure) then reignite at a later time. Put off scheduling more lessons, buying more equipment, or seeking a mentor unless a teen is fully engaged (Proe 2020).

Keeping in mind that they aren’t locked in forever, invite teens to try giving their 100 percent enthusiasm when working at their part-time job, doing homework, or practicing a musical instrument or sport—just as an experiment to see what happens. Daring to give generously of yourself is the first step to finding passion. Finding your passion can be a fun and playful exploration. Teens can release considerable anxiety by letting go of the pressure to choose one thing and stick with it forever. When a teen builds their life around something they love, this is an act of loving themselves. And nothing is more important than that relationship.

Works Cited

Berry, P. 2020. “Where’s the Passion? How to Help Your Teenager Find His Unique Talents and Skills.” ADDitude, October 9, 2020. additudemag.com/wheres-the-passion.

Chang, R. Y. 2000. The Passion Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Discovering, Developing, and Living Your Passion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Proe, J. 2022. “How to Find Your Passion in Life (And Not Just for College Admissions.” Your Teen, accessed April 19, 2022. yourteenmag.com/teenager-school/teens-high-school/how-to-find-your-passion-in-life.

Rath, T., and J. Harter. 2014. Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. New York: Gallup Press.

Rayne LackoRayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.


Dream Up NowRayne is the coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.


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How Educators Can Set Boundaries for Work-Life Balance

By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis

How Educators Can Set Boundaries for Work-Life BalanceMy mother has always worked in the banking industry. She started with opening people’s safety deposit boxes and has worked in many different positions over her career. I grew up learning the ins and outs of the corporate world at our dinner-table conversations. I try to keep these talks in mind in my work as a school counselor, because it can be easy to close ourselves in our own experience and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Especially now, as our plates have become so full, educators imagine life outside the red tape of government work and dream of the simpler green grass of other careers. We might imagine that working elsewhere would mean the absence of stress, increased value, overtime pay, and protection from unfair litigation. But we must remember that this is not always true.

The stress of the past few years has left many educators feeling a sense of hopelessness. But I am a firm believer that this does not have to be so. In the same way that we work to empower our students as they face obstacles, we can empower ourselves in our career. We can continue to enjoy our jobs while supporting our own work-life balance and well-being.

Setting Boundaries

So, what can we do to be mindful of our mental health so that we can outlast the negative hype about education?

Lean on others

We have amazing colleagues that become our team of support. I have no idea what I would do if I didn’t work with so many amazing people who have helped me conquer the tough times. But I also try to consciously discuss and enjoy things with my work family that don’t have to do with work. They are amazing people with amazing lives, and it’s important to remember that we are more than our positions!

In addition to surrounding yourself with other wonderful educators, it’s okay to dip outside that pool as well. I have made a habit of getting coffee at a quick and local place every morning before work. It has become a bit of self-care that I rely on to start my day, and a reminder that there is a whole other world outside of my school and its hallways. Though it may sound simple, this practice is just what I have needed to keep a better perspective and the bigger picture in sight this year.

Toxic positivity versus positive change

To not become victims of the “classroom crisis” game, educators need to learn how to operate confidently in our field. Bringing positivity to the school and keeping the school culture in check is part of this! But being a positive force of change is different than being a person who exudes toxic positivity. Here’s the difference:

Toxic positivity is the facade of using positive words to avoid fully acknowledging negative feelings or situations. Toxic positivity can leave others feeling downhearted, even if that’s not the intention.

Positive forces of change, on the other hand, acknowledge reality and choose to work through difficulties with the intention of being a changemaker and elevating others.

Positioning ourselves as positive changemakers not only helps us make our school a more enjoyable place to work, but it also puts our roles in check. While I am at work, it is part of my job to be an active agent of change in my school. When I am home, my kids or family might want to just exist with me or tell me about their experiences and ideas without my input. They may feel more autonomy if I leave that part of myself at work and let them learn on their own, and I will feel less taxed if I let go of always being the problem-solving positivity junkie!

It’s okay to go, and coming back is optional

I remember hearing an interview with a teacher who said, “If I lived my life for summers, I would be giving up eight months of my life every year.” I always try to think about this when I feel like I am just getting through each day, existing from break to break. When I get to this point, I know it is time for me to take a half- or full-day to reset at home if I can, or set boundaries on the weekends so I can really refuel.

I know it can be hard to feel free to take a day off in our line of work. But the way I see it, if we don’t want to burn out, it would be better to find a sub for a mental health day than a new hire for the remainder of the year! Our students will benefit from our renewal as well. If eventually we find that life is wearing us down despite all our efforts, it’s also okay to leave. Not because the profession pushed us out, but because we chose to.

Advocate and Appreciate!

We can continue to advocate for our education profession and point out injustices, while enjoying and committing to our work. My recently retired mom and I were comparing some things between her work and mine. The main similarity was that each person must be mindful not to feed negativity to maintain a positive work culture for all. The biggest difference? Our work with clientele.

My mom pointed out that, in her professional world, they were fighting for more clients and sales. In my professional world, we have clients coming out our ears! When she would get home from work, she would have to turn off the impulse to sell, manage, and win the domain. When I get home, I have to strive to suspend control, impact, and governance.

We bring our whole hearts with us to work, but we don’t want to leave them there. At the end of the day, we have a job to do, but we also have a life to live. Do you have any tips or advice for maintaining a positive and healthy work-life balance? Share them in the comments!

Stephanie Filio, author of Responding to Student TraumaStephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.

Responding to Student TraumaStephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.


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5 Ways to Help Kids See the Positive Side of Boredom

by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Bored

Boredom is generally defined as dissatisfaction, unhappiness, restlessness, and other negative feelings, and children often fight to escape its grip. The solution, however, is for parents and caregivers to teach children how to better define boredom. How to mindfully define it.

You see, boredom is a signal that a child needs more—more excitement, more learning, more wonder. So, when boredom hits, help children see it as an opportunity for discovery and creativity to encourage better coping. These five tips can help.

5 Ways to Help Kids See the Positive Side of Boredom

1. Embrace Boredom

Encourage children to understand that feeling bored is a typical and healthy experience, and note that boredom is an opportunity for discovery. Help children view boredom as a signal to become curious about their unique needs, desires, and interests.

2. Spur Wonder

Support creativity and imagination in children. Help them find wonder and curiosity with statements like “Think about what you want to do” or “How can you use your imagination to create some fun?”

3. Be Patient

Many children are used to adults scheduling their time, so expect the shift from boredom to self-started decision-making to take some practice. Try not to solve a child’s boredom. Instead, let the moment linger and offer empathetic phrases like “I know you will find something to do” or “It’s hard when you don’t know what to do next.”

4. Model Problem-Solving Behavior

Let children see you experiencing boredom, and show them how you move from a moment of passivity to activity. Allow them to hear you express emotions like “Gee, I feel bored today,” followed by solutions such as “I think I’m going to read a book.”

5. Praise Effort

Learning how to use boredom as a starting point for deeper enjoyment is a skill set that requires trial and error and plenty of practice. So be sure to praise children for trying, for efforts that work, and also for ones that fall flat. Remind children that using time for self-reflection is a wonderful thing.

Everyone experiences boredom at times. Helping children learn to cope, and move from boredom to activity, is an important social and emotional skill.

Adapted from Sometimes When I’m Bored by Deborah Serani, Psy.D., copyright © 2022. Free Spirit Publishing, Minneapolis, MN; 800-735-7323; freespirit.com. All rights reserved.

Deborah SeraniDeborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.

Deborah is the author of the Sometimes When collection.

Sometimes When I'm Sad  Sometimes When I'm Mad  Sometimes When I'm Bored book cover


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Download and Use These Freebies for Educators

We’re kicking off Teacher Appreciation Week with free downloads, webinars, and PLC/Book Study Guides. Teachers, thank you for everything you do!

In addition to all the valuable content you’ll find on our blog, we have a number of freebies at freespirit.com. Here’s a sampling.

Download and Use These Freebies for Educators

Reproducible Forms

Accommodations and Modifications for Executive Dysfunction

From Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom by Emily Kircher-Morris, MA., M.Ed., LPC, this reproducible form helps educators determine organizational, instructional, environmental, behavioral, and evaluative accommodations for students struggling with specific executive function skills.

Student Strengths and Preferences

To help students in middle school and high school identify their strengths and preferences, use this reproducible form from Inspiring Student Empowerment by Patti Drapeau. This type of information empowers students to make effective decisions about their learning.

Webinars

Big Conversations with Young Children: Discussing Questions, Worries, Fears
Presented by Dr. Lauren Starnes, Chief Academic Officer of Goddard Schools

In working with young children, we inevitably encounter unexpected—and hard-to-answer—questions. This webinar addresses the big adult questions children often ask, questions that may cause us to pause, silence the child, or deflect the concern. The session guides you to be prepared to answer difficult questions respectfully and in ways that are developmentally appropriate with even the youngest children. We explore how to respond to big topics such as miscarriage, domestic terror events, the death of a classmate, and other equally sensitive or unsettling issues. Viewers come away from this presentation with strategies to guide them the moment a question is raised and in following up with children and families.

Watch the webinar recording and earn CEUs.

How Educators Can Respond to Students Experiencing Trauma
Presented by Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., school counselor and author

The word trauma used to apply to a relatively small sector of students. Not so anymore. All students faced multiple traumas in 2020 and 2021 and will continue to face them. In this webinar, school counselor Stephanie Filio, M.Ed. gives an overview of how students experience trauma at four levels: self/home, school, community, and country/world.

Educators can play a powerful role in providing coping mechanisms for students to help them process and endure our often-chaotic world. Viewers will learn about activities and resources that can assist them in responding to today’s traumas and help them to prepare for the next crisis.

Watch the webinar recording and earn CEUs.

Looking for more webinars? Check out our archive at freespirit.com/webinar.

PLC/Book Study Guides

Inspiring Student Empowerment is a practical, comprehensive guide to help educators go beyond student engagement and differentiation to achieve student empowerment. Grab the PLC/Book Study Guide here.

Bright, Complex Kids is a guide for understanding the complex characteristics and social and emotional needs of gifted kids. Grab the PLC/Book Study Guide here.

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Self-Care Tips for Early Childhood Educators

By Molly Breen

Self-Care Tips for Early Childhood EducatorsAs we walk this leg on the winding path of pandemic shifts, hopefully toward a more health-filled and balanced future, I know that I am experiencing serious fatigue. And not just the “If we can make it to (fill in the blank holiday), I’ll have time to recharge!”-type of fatigue that has come in waves over my twenty-plus years in the field.

No, this fatigue is of a different sort. It has been compounding over the past two years without pause; instead of waves that ebb and flow, with time to recover in between, this fatigue is determined to flatten me with its fortitude and insistent tempo. I often wonder: Are we on the brink of losing valuable and dedicated providers to burnout?

Historically, early childhood educator burnout rates have been high. This is most often due to low pay for the emotionally and physically intense work of caring for young children, often without benefits like health care, paid time off, and support for continuing education. But especially now, when many folks in the field can make a similar income working in retail (but with benefits!) and avoid the complicating features of pandemic teaching and learning, there is a real risk of a diminished workforce—in more ways than one. And it’s worse for educators of color who are paid even less than white educators.

There is a pathology to our career choices, according to research. Especially for those who choose to go into “helping professions” like teaching. In general, folks who choose helping professions have experienced some compound trauma or childhood trauma themselves. Our life experiences—good and bad—shape our skills, interests, worldviews, and biases. It stands to reason, then, that a child who did more caretaking of their parent (parentification), for example, would have an increased capacity for empathy and a greater resilience for working in emotionally charged environments. Another example from the report cites loss, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, as a motivator to choose a helping career. These early-life traumas contribute to a person’s cumulative narrative and to their ability to cope in the current stress-filled climate of the world and of our work. With or without additional pandemic stress, early childhood educators experience transfer of trauma from working with children and families who have a variety of needs and emotional wounds. But there is a way to balance the effects of these stressors and help prevent burnout.

Building awareness around what we are experiencing is an important first step in establishing routines for self-care and well-being that combat burnout and support our mental health. What’s that saying? We can’t manage what we don’t measure? While it is wonderful when our administrators and program leaders provide time for reflection and professional growth, the truth is that we alone are responsible for managing (and measuring) our well-being.

You can start by reflecting on this question: Why do I/did I choose to work in early child care and education? You can respond to this question in writing or reflect on it internally. For me, it’s something I think about often. And I keep retooling my response over time. This helps me gain clarity around my intentions and how I show up for the work.

Next, establish some self-care micro-practices based on what you like and what you need. That’s right, micro-practices. Even though self-care often sounds like a major effort, you can embed small acts of self-nurturing into your daily routines. For example, carve out “do nothing” moments throughout the day. Give yourself permission to stare out the window, let your mind wander, and do nothing for a minute or so during your break time, prep time, or while kids are resting.

Practice some mantras or positive self-talk for reassurance throughout the day:

  • “I don’t have all the answers, but I have everything I need.”
  • “Showing up as exactly who I am is enough.”
  • “I am constantly learning and growing.”

These little phrases can actually change your neurobiology and help you feel more supported, calm, and grounded.

Get outside! Even just a little bit of fresh air each day makes a big positive impact on mental health. If you don’t go outside with your program or with your students (although hopefully this is not the case!), pop outside for some deep breaths and a good stretch. This stimulates the nervous system, activating the vagus nerve to signal the brain that you are safe.

Drink water throughout the day to stay hydrated. It’s easy to go hours without drinking anything when we are busy in the classroom and maybe even avoiding a bathroom break. But staying hydrated is a basic way to nurture physical well-being. Think of each sip as an act of self-love.

If you have capacity to incorporate some bigger practices, think about finding a licensed therapist for regular sessions. With the help of a professional, you can heal from past trauma, better understand the present, and open yourself up to deeper self-love and acceptance. Consider integrating regular walks or other low-impact exercise into your weekly routine. This is less about “working out” in the physical sense, and more about self-care and time to work out emotional stressors. Another worthy practice is meditation or daily mindfulness. You can start with just a few minutes, guided or not, and build over time. Consider using an app like Insight Timer to help you develop a practice.

All these suggestions begin with just one change: just one kind word to yourself, just one sip of water, just one deep breath. Making many sweeping changes all at once seldom has the staying power of incorporating incremental change. Remember: you are worthy of self-care, of reflection, of positive self-talk and nurturing.

If we are coming to the work of early childhood education with little in our personal “well” of well-being, how can we possibly provide nurturing support for the children with whom we work? And you don’t have to go at it alone! Invite a colleague to join you on your walks or advocate to your program director for systemic changes that support self-care. Why not? If this pandemic time has taught us anything, it is that we are connected in more ways than we realize and that we really do need one another for support, resources, and well-being. And, in the spirit of early learning, if we can model growth, resilience, curiosity, persistence, and other glorious character traits, we are teaching so much more than the planned curriculum.

Hang in there, dear teachers. We need you!

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., 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 and 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.


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)© 2022 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The views expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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