Thursday, December 5, 2013

Building Friendships and Healthy Peer Relationships

These days, it is impossible to turn on the television or read the headlines without hearing about a reference to bullying. Talk of bullying seems to have grabbed the national spotlight and is often the focus of news stories involving young people. The frequency of these stories, coupled with their lengthy coverage, often describes bullying as an “epidemic,” when in reality, about 20-30% of students nationwide in grades 6-12 reported experiencing bullying (

Nevertheless, this is still a prevalent and serious problem for many young people. Reports indicate that most bullying occurs during the middle school years, with students engaging in verbal and social types of bullying ( However, it is important to realize that there is not a single profile or type of student who “bullies.” Young people who engage in this behavior can be either well connected socially or marginalized. In addition, those who are bullied sometimes bully others. Because persistent bullying can increase feelings of isolation, rejection, depression, and anxiety, those who bully others and are bullied themselves are at the greatest risk for mental health and academic problems (

Teaching Tolerance, an organization founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1991 and dedicated to “reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children” recently published an article titled, “There are No Bullies” ( The article points out that the word “bully” is an ill-defined word that “paints the kids who are bullies as ogres or monsters.” Those who are labeled as bullies and are met with strong disciplinary approaches are often left with a fixed identity that is difficult to change:

“Bullying is a behavior, not an identity... by doing this, we’re really doing everyone a great disservice. We’re missing a golden opportunity to teach them. We need to remember that kids and teens who [bully]...are still growing up. When we help them, we’re also helping those they target - and those who might have been bullied by them in the future.”

Rather than dwelling on stories about bullying behavior and its outcomes, parents, teachers, and other adults can help prevent this behavior by teaching children about empathy and relationship choices. Experts and educators alike recommend comprehensive programming “designed to promote social and emotional competencies” as well as mentorship groups or buddy programs to help students develop relationships, navigate transitions more successfully, and teach new students about the school’s values (

Schools can prevent bullying behavior by establishing a culture of respect for all students, and rewarding individual students when they demonstrate those values in the classroom, with adults, and most importantly, with their peers. Teachers can also hold weekly classroom meetings, to focus on specific topics and problem-solve issues that arise outside of the classroom - ultimately leading to solutions and building trust and respect between students.

At home, experts recommend talking to young people about healthy relationships, behavior, and choices ( This includes talking to children and teens about their behavioral role models and the strategies they’re using in their relationships with others. Find out if these strategies are working for them, and discuss some of the long-term consequences of these choices. Rather than delivering the information as a threat, parents can encourage their student to use this information as a tool to help them take control of their choices and their future.

Empathy is also a key component to this issue. Parents, teachers, and adults can talk to students about cultivating kindness and generosity at home and in the large community. Another article from Teaching Tolerance (, titled “Kindness Isn’t Just for Elementary School” recommends that all educators begin integrating social-emotional learning into their curricula:

“Encourage students to give specific compliments to classmates during peer reviewing or presentations, write positive comments on a class blog, or conduct a kindness experiment where they can plan and carry out random acts of kindness as a homework assignment.”

This article also discusses the latest research in compassion, which shows that the brain can be trained for kindness:

In a University of Oregon study, economist Bill Harbaugh and psychologist Ulrich Mayr found that charitable generosity activated the reward center of the brain, indicating that our brains are naturally made for kindness. Furthering this research are studies on compassionate meditation such as one conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which illustrated that through repeated practice of mindful generosity, we can increase empathetic responses to others."

Ultimately, children and teens engaging in bullying behaviors need the opportunity to learn that what they put into a relationship - kindness, respect, understanding - they will receive in return from their friends and peers. Providing all young people with opportunities to experience positive social interactions and practice empathy is the key to preventing bullying behaviors. The more tools young people have to navigate their relationships with peers, the better prepared they will be to handle difficult social situations throughout their lives.

Please visit the Parents Page for a new list of Reading Recommendations related to empathy and building healthy relationships.

Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and many things to be thankful for!


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Stress and Children

Stress is the body's reaction to a physical or emotional situation that requires a person to adapt or change. Stress is a normal part of everyday life and can be positive  (birthday party, new pet, birth of a sibling) or negative (separation, rejection, parent losing a job, death of a family member). Children respond to stress differently than adults. Their responses to stress are based on what they have seen or experienced and most have limited coping skills; meaning that the smallest changes can have a very large impact on a child's feelings of safety and security. Even everyday family obligations, practices, events, and routines can create stress and tension for a young child.

Stress in children often manifests in an overt, physical manner, and includes some of the following behaviors:
  • crying
  • sweaty palms
  • running away
  • aggressive or defensive outbursts
  • rocking or self-comforting
  • headaches
  • stomachaches 
  • stuttering
  • nervous fine motor behaviors: hair twirling or pulling, chewing and sucking, biting of skin or fingernails
  • toileting accidents 
  • sleep disturbances (nightmares, 
  • decreased appetite (or other noticeable changes in eating habits)
  • depression or avoidance
  • excessive worrying
  • hyper-vigilance
  • clingy behavior or persistant concern about "what comes next"
  • regressive behaviors (those of an earlier developmental stage)

Below is a worksheet for children which helps them identify stress in their own body. 

It is important to recognize that children will exhibit many of these signs at different points in their lives, as a natural response to home or school situations, and life events. However, persistent signs of stress, which are disrupting a child's academic progress or significantly affecting a child's health or home environment should be addressed by a professional. 

What parents, teachers, and adults can do:
  • help children identify their feelings and respond to stress in healthy ways
  • provide a safe and secure environment
  • be selective about your child's media exposure (news, television, internet)
  • encourage expression of concerns, worries, and fears
  • allow opportunities to make choices and have some control around decision-making
  • encourage physical activity
  • be aware of situations and events that are stressful to your child
  • help children identify coping strategies (ask for help, walk away, etc.)
  • teach children relaxation techniques (count backwards, play with play dough, imagine your favorite place in your mind)
  • practice positive self-talk ("I can do this")
  • recognize signs of unresolved or continuing stress (on-going nightmares, new occurrence of bedwetting, etc.)
  • keep children informed of necessary and anticipated changes
  • seek professional help or advice when signs of stress do not decrease or disappear 

I highly recommend Feelings Charts for children, which show faces with a variety of feelings. These are very useful for helping children identify their emotions. I have included two different types of Feelings Charts as a downloadable attachments to this post. The Simple Feelings Chart is from the Conscious Discipline website, which has a number of great resources for parents and teachers. 

I have also posted a fun activity in the Parents section of my website, which gives step-by-step directions for making your own stress ball! This activity is great for all ages, K-12 (young children will require parent assistance). Stress balls can be decorated in a lot of fun ways!

Please contact me if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for Counseling at Natomas Charter School.

Thank you!


Sunday, September 1, 2013


As we begin the new school year, students can have a difficult time transitioning to a new school, or starting a new routine (such as Kindergarten). Younger students can feel overwhelmed with the new structure, academic expectations, and interacting with new peers. Younger students can also have difficulty leaving parents at drop-off time, especially after spending the summer months at home. 

To address this transition, I began the school year reading one of my favorite books to the Transitional Kindergarten and Kindergarten classes. 

"The Kissing Hand" is a wonderful story about a young raccoon named Chester, who is ambivalent about his first day of school:

"I don't want to go to school," he told his mother. "I want to stay home with you. I want to play with my friends. And play with my toys. And read my books. And swing on my swing. Please may I stay home with you?" Mrs. Raccoon took Chester by the hand and nuzzled him on the ear. "Sometimes we all have to do things we don't want to do," she told him gently. "Even if they seem strange and scary at first. But you will love school once you start."

Chester's mother teaches him a secret way to carry her love with him to school. She gives him a kiss in his hand, which he can carry with him wherever he goes, and will never wash away. Whenever Chester is lonely, he is reminded of the kissing hand, which provides comfort and reassurance.

The "Kissing Hand" can be incorporated into your own routine, or used as a way to help ease transitions to school on more difficult days. 

Other Transitional objects can be helpful for students, such as a small stuffed animal (tucked into their backpack), a note with a message, a small smooth stone, or a piece of soft fabric. Transitional objects are items which provide emotional comfort and help encourage the transition to independence. Utilizing a transitional object is a healthy way to cope with stress and is supported by child development professionals. This recent article from the American Academy of Pediatric's webpage  provides some ideas for making the first few weeks of school easier, and includes transitional objects on their list of suggestions.

I found this article from the New York Times about comfort and transitional objects very interesting (Perri Klass, M.D., March 2013). "A Firm Grasp on Comfort" discusses the role of transitional objects in the development of our children: 

"Indeed, Dr. Howard suggested that as many as 25 percent of young women going to college take along something identifiable as a childhood transitional object. The young adult going off to college, with or without stuffed animals or scraps of a favorite old blanket, should be a reminder that the challenges of separation - and the consolations and complexities of attachment - are not developmentally confined to the first years of life."

"The familiar image of the small child and the transitional object, generally sweet and mildly humorous, occasionally frantic and even desperate, reminds us that learning to negotiate, and even enjoy, partings and reunions is part of the whole assignment, for parents and children."

Please contact me if you have any questions related to this post or would like to know more about Counseling at Natomas Charter School. 

I look forward to working with students and families this year!