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Family Night At The Movies – Talking With Your Teen About Inside Out And The Purpose Of Sadness

In our series, Family Night at the Movies, we recommend movies for viewing and later discussion whose message may be helpful for teenagers and their parents.
In one of our previous articles, you can read more about movies as valuable tools in addressing the emotional and social needs of teens.

Our latest choice is Inside Out, the acclaimed Pixar animation movie of 2015 directed by Pete Docter, which deals with the emotions, specifically sadness:

The film is set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with the main characters actually being her primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, who argue and compete with one another. The conflict between Joy and Sadness forms the basis of the action.

Warning: spoilers!

When her father’s new job requires that the family moved to San Francisco, Riley’s emotions are thrown into turmoil. She has torn away from her familiar, harmonious Midwestern life and forced to adjust to a new environment. In this classically stressful situation, we watch the battle of her emotions as they try to navigate these new challenges in her life.

Taking into account that the complexity of psychological processes is impossible to fully explore in a movie, Inside Out nevertheless effectively illustrates how our emotions work and how they connect to happenings in the outside world and to our cognitive processes.

Various lessons can be taken from this movie, among them that all emotions are equally important and the danger of the imperative to stay positive all the time. We have addressed these in a previous article, Come to the dark side, we have emotions. Here, we address an important third lesson – the purpose of sadness.

Purpose of Sadness – Adaptation of Loss

Emotions are specific reactions to happenings that are important to us and the purpose of each is an adaptation to the change, reconnection with important others, and ultimately the ability to move on with our lives. We are sad when we anticipate or experience the loss of someone or something valuable to us, so the particular purpose of sadness is a psychological adjustment to loss.
At the beginning of the movie, Joy, Riley’s dominant emotion, introduces the other emotions. She explains why each of them is important to Riley and points out that they all work as a team. However, when she comes to Sadness, Joy just skips it, admitting that she doesn’t really understand its purpose. So, in the face of this stressful situation, Joy prevents Sadness from acting and does not allow Riley to be sad, although that is clearly her most natural emotional reaction. She is losing her old way of life and being forced to adjust to a new one. She misses her old house, her friends, her hockey team, and also her father, who is more frequently absent because of his new job. She is struggling to adapt.

When we allow ourselves to experience certain emotions, many processes in both our mind and body work in concert to prepare us for action. The work of sadness differs in that when we are sad we feel listless and to all appearances become passive. Yet our mind is working actively to try to process the loss and reorganize our inner world in order to adapt to the new reality.

Purpose of Sadness – Relief and Connection

Another important function of sadness is its specific bodily expression. When we experience sadness without repression and let it flow freely through our body, we manifest specific facial expressions and body posture and will cry or sob.

Crying is a natural healing process. When we cry we are relieving tension and pain from our body as if the tears were melting the pain and alleviating our sadness. The release is complete with deep crying that involves sobbing since our distress is expressed through our voice and a different pattern of breathing. After a while, breathing is deeper, the body is relieved of tension and we feel much better. Reassure your children of any age; give them permission, let them know it’s okay to cry.

The specific body language associated with sadness has its social dimension, too. It is obvious to others that we are sad and they may show compassion. This is what, in the end, Joy finally recognized and came to understood to be the purpose of Sadness.

When Joy allowed Sadness to act and Riley finally expressed her sadness, her parents hugged and comforted her. In her distress, Riley’s image of “family” had collapsed and almost caused her to run away. Now the family was once again a team, reunited and reconnected.

Danger of Repressing Sadness

Sadness or any other emotion can be repressed when it is perceived as less valuable. “Being sad is for weaklings. I must be strong.” Our system of values is mainly formed through family and wider cultural influences.
Today we are witnessing a global trend which values “positive thinking”; a sort of industry of happiness to keep us smiling, optimistic, shiny and happy, which is not in accordance with our psychological makeup. Under certain circumstances, it is natural to feel fear, sadness, or anger. Every repression, denial, or compulsion to feel differently than we actually feel, leads to imbalance.

This is exactly what we learn in the movie. Since Joy doesn’t understand the purpose of Sadness and is afraid Sadness will spoil Riley’s happy life and infect her joyful memories, she multitasks in order to keep each new experience positive or funny at all costs.

The pressure to stay positive is even stronger when her mother praises Riley for staying so cheerful despite everything, implying that if both of them just keep smiling it will ease the pressure Riley’s father is going through. We’ll see later in the movie the consequences of this attitude. It is a reminder also for us parents to be careful with the messages we’re sending to our kids. You never know what kind of battle is going on in their heads and how they will interpret our words.

“Don’t feel” or “Don’t feel (certain emotion)” are frequent injunctions that repeat in the back of the minds of depressive or anxious clients going to therapy. The authors of Redecision Therapy, Goulding and Goulding, observed that when sadness is repressed, repression of joy and other pleasant emotions follows. As a consequence, a person is unable to emotionally bond with others.

That is why it is important to reassure your child of any age that feeling sad is okay. How do you do that? By understanding, allowing, and encouraging your child to feel and express sadness (and all other emotions), so cleansing can take place and the child can move forward. It is especially important to discuss later what happened and what made her/him so sad.

With teenagers, you can engage in even deeper conversations and we hope that some of the information in this article will help.

Ask your teens what they’ve learned from the movie. Did they ever feel as Riley did? What is the purpose of sadness, in their opinion? Can they identify their dominant emotion and the one they’re tending to neglect? For more about particular questions and how to lead a conversation after the movie, read here.

by Milena Ćuk,
Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

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THE SECRETS AND LEARNING CHALLENGES OF DYSLEXIA

If you have no idea what something looks like, you probably wouldn’t recognize it even if it was right there in front of you. You might not even notice it, right? But, if somehow it does attract your attention, you’d probably identify it as something you’re already familiar with, or try to explain it with what’s already known to you. We want an explanation for why things exist, even if that means inventing one!

Now, imagine – You see a “normal”, bright kid struggling with such a simple thing as reading.
How can that be?

If you have never heard of dyslexia, you might be tempted to call this kid “lazy”, “stubborn” or “not as bright as you thought they were”. You might think that the parents are being too soft and need to push the child to do better in school.

So, what is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. When you have dyslexia, your brain needs more time and energy for some of the processes many would say come “naturally” or “automatically”. Matching the letters on a page with the sounds that those letters and combinations of letters make is one of those things. People who have dyslexia experience difficulties with skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words.

Who said reading was easy?

Nobody is born with the ability to read. (Obviously!) It is an activity that requires a lot from our brain, which needs to be able to focus on the letters, put them into words, then the words into sentences, and link the sentences into paragraphs so that we can read them –  and only then, understand the content of what we’re reading. So, when you see the letters D, O, G connected, your brain needs to pick up the letters, connect those letters to specific sounds and then read the word “dog” and also comprehend that the word on the paper is a symbol for a cheerful, four-legged animal that loves playing “fetch” with you.

So – reading is NOT easy, even though many think it is.

What causes dyslexia?

We’re still trying to figure out what’s actually going on in the brain. Anatomical and brain imaging studies show differences in the development and functioning of the brain in a person with dyslexia. What we know for sure is that most people with dyslexia have problems with identifying the separate speech sounds within a word. Understanding how the letters represent speech sounds seems to be the key factor in reading difficulties. What’s important to know is that this learning disability has nothing to do with how intelligent you are.

What are the risk factors for dyslexia?

People with dyslexia have, in many cases, experienced difficulties with learning to speak, difficulties with differentiating the sounds in speech, difficulties in learning letters, organizing spoken language, memorizing words, etc.
Also, the parents of dyslexic students tend to report delays in reaching common milestones of childhood, such as learning to crawl or walk or ride a bike.

What are the typical signs of dyslexia?

Depending on the age, dyslexia can be spotted through a variety of signs.
We’ll outline some of the most common ones.

PRESCHOOL

  • Difficulty learning new words
  • Difficulty guessing a word based on its description
  • Difficulty recognizing whether two words rhyme
  • Difficulty in pronunciation of familiar words
  • Difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words
  • Difficulty remembering multi-step instructions
  • Difficulty remembering the order in which things appear in a story
  • Difficulty structuring the answer about how the day went or how something happened
  • A child does not use as many words as peers do
  • A child tends to mix up words that sound familiar
  • A child tends to struggle to organize a story chronologically

GRADE SCHOOL

  • Difficulty learning letters (and writing them)
  • Difficulty differentiating similar letters both in writing and reading (like b and d)
  • Difficulty recognizing which letters produce which sound
  • Stalling while reading; guessing a word based on the first two letters
  • Difficulty isolating the middle sound of a word
  • Difficulty recognizing the spelling of a word
  • The student quickly forgets how to spell the words he reads
  • Struggles with word problems in math
  • Difficulty remembering the key elements of a story
  • The student focuses so much on the reading itself that he fails to remember and comprehend what he has read

MIDDLE SCHOOL

  • Makes a lot of spelling errors
  • Avoids all assignments that require reading
  • Takes a lot of time to finish homework that requires reading
  • Gets nervous while reading
  • The student reads at a lower academic level than they speak
  • The student tends to re-read sentences to be able to comprehend them
  • The student tends to forget what he has read
  • When reading, the student often makes pauses with “um” or filler words

There’s more to dyslexia than you’d think

Not being able to read and write at the same level as your peers can significantly affect how you see yourself. The peer group tends to mock the student who isn’t able to do things they do with ease. That is why it is extremely important to pay attention to how the student is feeling and how he sees himself.

The students with dyslexia tend to think “out of the box”. They are creative and innovative.
These are the strengths that any person working with a student with dyslexia should capitalize on.

What to do if you suspect that your child has dyslexia

  1. Consult with the experts – speech therapists and psychologists. They will do all the necessary testing to see whether the student has dyslexia.
  2. If it turns out that your student does have dyslexia, do not despair. There are many successful people who have this diagnosis. With proper treatment, you can help your child succeed in school. Just make sure you contact professionals on time.

Coaches and Tutors at Nobel Coaching and Tutoring are trained to work with a student with these difficulties (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia). Together, we map all of the areas of improvement that we can work on and help your student succeed. Contact Us!

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6 Tips to Support Self-Awareness Development in Teens

by Milena Ćuk,

Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
― Lao Tzu

Research has shown that a high self-awareness score is a crucial predictor of overall success. Acclaimed psychologist Daniel Goleman points out that self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and that mastery of emotional self-awareness is a key attribute of successful leaders

Why is self-awareness important for teens?

Who am I? What makes me special, a unique human being, different from others? What do I want from my life? Why do I feel like this? What made me react like this? These are just some of the questions adolescents ask themselves.

Answers to such questions build the foundation of a teen’s self-awareness. Practically speaking, being self-aware means we are able to understand our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, traits, and motivations and perceive how they affect our performance.

This skill develops naturally over time through experience and maturity. However, since  it is crucial in taking ownership of our lives and the direction we choose, we all need to foster it in ourselves and in our children.

There are a variety of practices and exercises to help you enhance self-awareness as you guide your child’s development, and we describe these below. Your teen doesn’t have to choose only one as they begin to discover which of these practices resonates the most with his/her unique being. Each can become a habit of daily routine, which is the best-case scenario.  And remember, it’s  good for all of us to be open to applying them in our own lives. Let’s not forget that we thrive together with our kids!

Time and space for self-reflection

We live in a busy world where speed and multitasking have become the norm. However, our brains haven’t evolved fast enough to catch up and process all the information and impressions inundating us daily. Sometimes (ideally each day) we need to slow down, pause,  be still, and be left quietly alone for self-reflection because this will ground us in reality.

This applies to your teen as well, especially after busy day or week. If your teen is more introverted, he prefers to spend time alone and you should respect his need. However, you might suggest that exploring and learning different ways to self-reflect could be beneficial for him. If your teen is more extroverted and doesn’t like being alone, you should teach him the advantages of slowing down and self-reflecting every now and then.

This could mean taking a walk outside or just sitting or lying down in your room and doing nothing. Though it may appear we’re doing nothing, we are consciously and subconsciously processing information and getting closer to our true selves.

You can simply offer a  gentle suggestion. For instance: “Honey, why don’t you go for a walk, write in your journal, or just spend some time processing this so you can figure out your true feelings and what you should do next.”

Keeping a journal

This is another form of self-reflection, but it is especially beneficial for teenagers.

Writing our thoughts down can help us explore what is going on in our minds – what we think, how we feel, what inspires or frightens us. Writing provides a sense of clarity especially for confusing and complex feelings we don’t yet understand.

For the emotionally loaded or conflicted experiences teens face as they grow, writing a journal is particularly useful since it provides a safe space for expressing their feelings, and there is a greater chance that creative solutions will emerge in the form of new decisions and actions.

If you had a diary of your own when you were young, you can share it to encourage your teen to start his own.  Journals can take many forms. Besides the classic diary, they can combine words with drawings or images if your teen is more visually inclined.

Mindfulness practices

Mindfulness practices develop full awareness in the here and now, promote non-judgmental observance and acceptance of our inner thoughts and feelings and help us release and overcome emotional pain. Watch this short movie to find out how mindfulness empowers us.

Inspired by the wisdom of the East, particularly the Buddhist tradition of meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to introduce and adapt mindfulness practices to the Western world.

Due to its proven clinical effects on stress reduction, enhancement of self-awareness, inner balance and general well-being, a variety of mindfulness techniques has been developed for application in daily life and school programs.

You can find available mindfulness programs in your area or even find some guided online sessions and practice it together with your teens.

Emotional learning

Emotional awareness, understanding why we feel a certain way and knowing how to handle these feelings is crucial to success and happiness in every aspect of our lives.

Psychotherapist Claude Steiner defines this ability as “emotional literacy”. We learn how to manage our emotions, develop empathy for other people, repair emotional damage when we’ve done something wrong, and succeed in interacting with others effectively.

The importance of emotional awareness has brought emotional learning programs into schools and hopefully your children have already had the opportunity to develop this competency. If not, look for available lectures and workshops in your community that are oriented towards developing emotional awareness and literacy, either for youth or adults. Let’s not forget that as parents, we are pivots of our children’s emotional health and emotional learning, and personal development should always be a priority.

You can also check available online programs. Here you can find more about emotional literacy and even download a full book by Claude Steiner. In one of our previous articles, we wrote about how we can enhance teen’s emotional development through the use of movies.

Learning to have an accurate self-image

Self-image in teens can often be biased or fluid and they need to learn to evaluate their own strengths and limitations objectively. Constructive feedback, both positive and negative, is essential in learning this ability, which is part of self-awareness and development in general.

Foster an atmosphere in your family where providing honest feedback is natural both for you and your children. Here you can check some of the principles to deliver effective feedback.

Try this interesting exercise along with your teens from time to time. Each of you should write down three positive and three negative aspects of yourself. These can be your personality traits, habits, abilities or physical appearance. Then share and discuss what you all wrote down, suggesting how strengths can be used and limitations overcome.

Pay attention to how realistic your teen has been in his/her estimation. Has she written positive or negative first? Did she have problems listing positive or negative qualities? These indicators, if any, will be the basis for your further interventions.

The mind-body connection

Long a tradition in Eastern cultures and advocated widely by current holistic practitioners, mind-body awareness or the ability to “listen” to your body through sensory experiences can enhance the development of full self-awareness.

Besides yoga, there are numerous practices that can help us integrate mind-body experiences.  Some are spiritual in nature while others are more physical. Free dance practices with elements of improvisation, such as 5Rhythms, Open Floor or Authentic Movement, also referred to as “moving meditation”, are good examples. All these can help us focus on our inner selves,  become rooted and more fully present.

So if your teen is more inclined to work through his thoughts and emotions  through body/movement, seek out those activities and practices that best match his channels of communication with himself.

“Know thyself” – it was inscribed at the Delphi temple. This virtue was as valued in ancient times as it is today. Let’s help our kids acquire this wisdom and prepare them to be able to lead fulfilling lives.

Need additional support in helping your teen develop self-awareness? Don’t hesitate. We can help. Schedule an appointment with our coach.

References and useful links:

  1. Self-Awareness: The Foundation of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  2. New Study Shows Nice Guys Finish First by Shari Lifland (American Management Foundation)
  3. How Mindfulness Empowers Us: An Animation Narrated by Sharon Salzberg
  4. Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with Heart by Claude Steiner (2003)
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USING MOVIES TO HELP ENHANCE YOUR TEEN’S EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT

by Milena Ćuk,

Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-training

Old civilizations had myths and stories to learn about the mysteries of life; we have movies.

Movies are an important part of youth culture and as such are recommended to parents, teachers, and counselors as valuable tools in addressing the emotional and social needs of teens. Moreover, videos and movies have proven particularly effective in working with gifted children and adolescents.

If you’d like to use movies as a bridge to talking about important life and developmental issues your teen is facing, you’ll find in this article how the strategy works, how you can guide the process, what questions you can ask, etc.  We’ll also show you how you can use the Harry Potter stories to address the emotion of fear.

Called video-therapy or cinematherapy by some authors, this strategy is similar to the more widely recognized approach known as bibliotherapy and actually, relies on its rationale and process. While reading a book or watching a movie, we initially experience identification, where we recognize similarities between ourselves and the characters in the story (in this case, a movie). Then comes catharsis, where we are touched by specific happenings in the movie and we react emotionally. Insight dawns when we realize that we’ve reacted emotionally because of a particular issue from our own life that we connected with the character or situation in the movie.

Frequently, we’re not aware of why we are so moved, and that is where talking about it later can help us gain insight and integrate this new understanding into our life experience. Reflection on the movie and conversation about it afterward can also help us explore our needs, desires, fears, inner conflicts, patterns, values, aspirations, etc. Moreover, it can help us learn new coping mechanisms which we can then apply in solving our current life challenges.

This is especially important for teens since apart from any inspiration or life lessons they might glean, certain movies can help reassure them they aren’t isolated and alone with their needs and problems.

There are two ways you can use movies to boost teens’ social and emotional development. You can ask about a movie that had a significant impact on them and you can choose a movie to watch together – one you consider to be particularly beneficial for their development.

ASKING ABOUT A MOVIE

This approach is helpful in gaining a better understanding of teens’ inner world – their self-image, current dilemmas, and general aspirations in life. Here are some examples of questions for opening a dialogue:

What is it about this movie that inspired you so much? What did you learn from the movie? These may be basic questions but the experience of listening to your teen’s responses and opinions can be enjoyable as well as instructive. That’s how I found out from my teen niece (15), a valuable assistant in writing these articles, why she’s so inspired by the movies Whiplash (2014) and Cyberbully (2011). She aspires to achieve excellence in what she is good at – the movie cautioned that this drive may sometimes come at a cost. Her second choice showed her how our activity on social networks can affect the lives of others, the pitfalls of trying to satisfy our emotional needs through the virtual world, and the importance of true friends and family support. Besides, I found out about some applications popular these days among teens that I haven’t heard of before, so I think I’m now fairly well up to speed!

In one of our previous articles, we offered practical suggestions to help parents tackle important life issues with their teens in informal, constructive ways (4 Ideas to Get Closer to Your Teen). Remember, don’t push and let the discussion take its natural course. However, if you notice that you’ve captured your teen’s attention, that he/she is thinking and is willing to continue and go deeper into the conversation, here are some aspects that you can explore:

Favorite character

Who is your favorite character? Why? Describe his/her personality and abilities. Do you find any similarities between this character and yourself? And differences? Does he/she have some traits or abilities that you would like to have, too? In which specific situations would you need these abilities? With these questions, you are opening a space to discuss your teen’s needs, troubles or aspirations and possibilities for development.

People/behaviors they don’t like

Are there some characters that you disliked? What was it about them that you didn’t like? Are there people in your circle who have similar characteristics? How do you feel when you interact with them?

Situations that provoke emotions

Was there some situation in the movie that provoked strong emotions? What was it about this situation that made you sad/angry/enlightened…? Strong emotions are always in play when we reflect on something truly important and valuable to us. If you’ve been able to get your teen to talk about it, your efforts have been successful. Use this experience wisely.

Follow-up activities

If your teen is open to role-playing, you can even use theater and improvisation techniques as follow-up activities. For instance, your teen needs more confidence in the classroom. Let him be a director and set up a scene that mirrors the real situation he wants to change. He can give roles to you, to other members of the family; even puppies, dolls, pillows, etc. Then, encourage him to imagine that he is like this chosen character, to take some of his abilities and to act, empowered, in the chosen scene. You can make variations together and have fun. Ask him how this acting made him feel and how he can apply it in a real situation. This tactic, especially when used with superheroes, has been extremely effective in the workshops for personal development that I run.

Of course, these are just examples of questions and follow-up activities for guiding a process of learning from a movie. You will use the ones appropriate for the given situation and your teen’s sensibility and readiness to participate.

CHOOSING A MOVIE: HARRY POTTER

The other way to use movies as a means of addressing the emotional needs of teens is for you yourself to select a movie which addresses particular themes or issues you consider significant for your teen’s development. Then, after watching the movie together, you can talk about it with each other, channeling the conversation to the themes most beneficial to your teen’s development.

Let’s take the example of the Harry Potter movies, as most of us are familiar with the story. With all due respect to those who value its original written form, the motion picture adaptations can serve this purpose effectively. There are plenty of themes important to teens elaborated in the story of Harry Potter: friendship, life challenges, loss, failure, danger (even encounters with evil), the school environment, relationship with authorities, competition, fighting for a greater cause, etc.

A particularly useful feature of the story lies in its exploration of the emotion of fear and more importantly, how one can handle it. This is always a timely topic, especially during adolescence with all its manifestations, such as low self-esteem, insecurity or anxiety.

Harry Potter embodies all the characteristics of the hero, one of which is his ability to plumb the deeper and darker chambers of his being and squarely confront his fear. How to find strength in difficult times when we are vulnerable is an important lesson in preparation for adulthood.

You can discuss with teens how Harry Potter and other characters reacted when faced with serious obstacles or dangerous, even evil creatures. When faced with danger, is their usual reaction more similar to Harry’s, Hermione’s, Ron’s, another character’s behavior, or some combination? Ask them to recall how fictional characters managed to handle dangerous creatures. What helped?

Of course, you should always try to connect insights from the movie to the life of your teen and how he/she can incorporate those lessons into his/her life. What is particularly useful is that the Harry Potter story offers concrete strategies for handling fear. Yes, I’m referring to the Patronus and Riddikulus charms. As the story goes, these charms can protect you from dark creatures such as Dementors and Boggarts, who are nothing more than personifications of our fears.

It is well known that a strong positive emotion, such as love, is an antidote to fear. Also, the presence of a trusted, loving person can calm the fear response. Seeking help from the spiritual realm, whatever our belief system, is invaluable, too. In a way, all these elements are contained in the Patronus charm, which works by evoking the happiest memory from one’s life and concentrating on it. Done correctly, this will create a positive force in the form of a sacred animal (totem), a spirit guardian, which will protect us from the scary Dementors. You can practice Expecto Patronum! with your teen so that each of you, using your imagination, can find a source of strength and support to help you fight the dark creatures of your life.

Similarly, the Riddikulus spell is also a beautiful metaphor for a technique that is sometimes employed in a therapeutic session – the gift of humor. Humor is a powerful tool in fighting fear. When we are anxious and tense, there’s nothing better than a good laugh to immediately ease our distress. It’s good to be able to bring out the clown in ourselves to help us see a stressful situation from a funny, absurd angle. Practice Riddikulus with your kids when appropriate or let them teach you if you forget how to do it.

The real “magic” is the strength the characters muster from the inside. This can apply to parenting as well.  We are here to boost your real “ magic” of parenting. If you need any kind of advice related to the emotional development of your teen children, you’ve come to the right place!

Sources:

  1. Greenwood, D. & Long, C. R. (2015). When Movies Matter: Emerging Adults Recall Memorable Movies. Journal of Adolescent Research, Vol. 30(5) 625–650
  2. Milne, H. J. & Reis, S. M. (2000). Using Video Therapy To Address the Social and Emotional Needs of Gifted Children. Gifted Child Today, Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp. 24 – 29
  3. Hébert, T. P. & Speirs Neumeister, K. L. (2001). Guided Viewing of Film: A Strategy for Counseling Gifted Teenagers. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 224–235.
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MATH THAT EXCITES AND MOTIVATES? YES, IT’S WITHIN YOUR REACH

Our founder has a long history of interest in mathematics. Here, he reflects on how, congruent with the Growth Mindset [1] approach to teaching, interest, and motivation awakened by teachers and parents, and not innate ability, led to his efforts and achievements. Mathematics, including statistics, is a foundational element in navigating life well and excelling in many careers. The founder details techniques parents and teachers can use to help students of all abilities activate their interest and maintain their motivation for learning mathematics. We have found that these techniques help create mathematically accomplished learners.

The Challenge for Parents and Teachers – How to Excite and Motivate

My first recollection of being interested in mathematics comes from second grade. We had a self-paced mathematics workbook and I found myself competing against a classmate named Wally to see who would finish first. I don’t remember now who won, but I realize that, even as a second grader, that feeling of competition pushed me to try harder and do more. Reflecting back, I am guessing that I was guided by a wise teacher who knew how to get the most out of me while also keeping me out of trouble.

Parents and teachers today are challenged with exciting and motivating their students, with their varying levels of abilities and motivations, to achieve in mathematics and other subjects. Today, I find myself the coach of a math team comprised of amazing students of varying levels, all really interested and excited about mathematics, and I wonder how their learning path led them to join the math team. Psychologists tell us that, to understand this subject, we should take a step back and review motivation for cognitive tasks such as learning and, even before motivation, understand how an interest in a subject starts.

Why the focus on interest and motivations? Because it matters. While, for years, America has focused on the teachers’ capabilities and depth of knowledge in the materials they are teaching, no surprise, students’ own beliefs and motivations form a significant part of effective learning. Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset research shows that, like compound interest, differences in attitude can accumulate to significantly different accomplishments over time. This research holds true across different ability levels, cultures, and socio-economic groupings.

First, Activate Interest

Researchers, such as Paul Silva from the University of North Carolina, have been making progress on examining the science of interest, understanding what interest is, determining how topics become interesting and learning how we can cultivate interest in ourselves and those around us [2]. Interest helps the brain to focus and can drive everyone to think more clearly, focus better and achieve more in any particular area, regardless of their ability.

Paul Silva’s research details how, for a subject to be deemed interesting, it must be novel, complex, but still comprehensible. The tools to help make math interesting can take many forms, including:

  • Make mathematics relevant to the family [3]- Can you estimate how much money is needed to purchase a group of items? Which is cell phone plan right depending on how much data everyone uses? What is the effect of just a 0.2% expense charge on your retirement after compounding for 30 years?
  • Mathematics through logic puzzles and workbooks – A huge array of math and logic puzzles and workbooks is available for all levels. Browse in the library or bookstore and bring home what captures your student’s attention. These are some of the founder’s favorites: https://goo.gl/d66ji4.
  • Amazing Results, Paradoxes & Fallacies [4]- How much is $0.01 doubling each day for a month [5]? Prove that 1 = 2 [6]. And, consider this favorite of my nephew Mitchell, prove that 1+2+3+… infinity = -1/12 [7].
  • Crazy Math Challenges [8]- How many marshmallow bags would we need to fill up your brother’s room? How fast must Santa be traveling to deliver presents to all those homes within 24 hours?
  • Math using projects – This is probably the most useful form of instruction as the retention rate for hands-on learning achieved through projects is very high. Consider this example: If you built a marshmallow cannon, how fast would the marshmallows have to travel to go up two stories [9]? How high must a track’s starting point be to accomplish a 2’ diameter loop-de-loop for the racers [10]?

To make these activities novel and complex, present content from a wide variety of sources and levels to see what engages students and challenges them. For classroom teachers, this means having items at all levels available. Parents can more precisely gauge their child’s interest and abilities by trying different content at different levels.

As parents and educators, we soon find the delicate balance in keeping content comprehensible. We must encourage persistence and innovative thinking, but not frustrate the student at the same time. We can subtly monitor progress and ask our students leading questions, and help them understand the material while not taking away from their achievements. While the student may need hints to reach the right solution, the key is that the student can approach the problem on their own.

Then Maintain Motivation

“If Kids Don’t Want to Learn You Probably Can’t Make ‘em” – Jack Frymier

My wife, a very talented classroom teacher, sees her job, at the beginning of each school year, as getting to know each child, discovering what motivates them and then using that knowledge to teach them more effectively during the year. As humans, parents, and teachers, evolution has left many of us with instinctual approaches to motivation better suited for motivating physical tasks and encouraging behavioral modification, e.g. take out the garbage or you don’t get your allowance. While effective for simple tasks, this form of motivation falls short in motivating us in highly cognitive tasks such as learning. We need to take care. Pressure, unfair competition, threats, or punishments can all disrupt the learning process. Teachers and parents can accelerate the learning process by weaving in techniques such as autonomy, rewards for effort and achievement, and the delivery of more positive than negative feedback. Students respond well to our genuine interest in their learning pursuits and our reinforcement of the relevance of their study materials too [11].

James Middleton goes a bit further and details how, to maintain interest, the student must continue to see how the activity provides continued stimulation while also remaining in their control [12]. In practice, that means letting the student choose. All parents and teachers know how addictive and enticing electronic devices can be; so, for most students, all this must be accompanied by some sort of non-electronic relaxation time, where playing Call of Duty on your phone or texting friends is not an option.

A very useful tool for parents can be to utilize the Pomodoro technique and combine study time, e.g. study for the first 45 minutes of the hour, and use the remaining 15 minutes for non-electronic relaxation and explore some of the learning activities explained above. Teachers can ask students to select from these activities during these breaks from structured learning. Even though it’s the equivalent of asking your child: “would you like to take a bath or go to bed?”, it still allows them to retain control.

Parents and teachers may want to try some of these motivational tools:

  • Learning Gamification – Reward for progress and efforts – While sourced from the mortal enemy of learning, gaming, the techniques work just as well in incentivizing learning as they do in encouraging gaming addictions. In this case, at least, the student might find him/herself hooked on something useful [13].
  • Reward Systems that work in a student’s home – A properly designed reward structure can help bring focus to students who find it hard working for longer-term goals (e.g. ADHD/ADD). Teachers can convey home the students’ awards while parents can deliver the actual reward. These rewards can take the form of money, screen time (with limits), or even tasks performed by the teacher/parent such as doing the dishes at home or cleaning up their students’ desks.
  • Drawing practical inferences – Students can benefit from periodically linking the learned material back to real-world applications, e.g. using probability to determine if you should bother checking Google Maps for traffic on the way to school.
  • Project-Based Learning [14]- A huge subject beyond the scope of this article, it’s been shown that accomplishing learning through projects is one of the most important elements in maintaining motivation. The theory is that the project learning helps link the learning to practical inferences.
  • Demonstrate genuine interest in their learning – We need to show a genuine interest in what our students are learning. This recognition and attention will provide much-needed reinforcement for students.
  • Engage in well-matched competitive efforts – Competition is a motivator. When engaging our students in a competition, we need to make sure that both students believe that, with effort, they could succeed. This could be tiered competitions in the classroom, competitions formed through a website like chesskids.com, or even employing a system of handicaps so that the less accomplished learner can still win.
  • Engage/relate items they are already interested in – This could be as simple as labels. E.g. How many phases does it take to burn a …
  • Encouraging revision and learning from initial mistakes – This is quite simple to do at home, but a real challenge for the traditional classroom environment. Allowing students to revise their work is a significant learning and motivational tool.
  • Value/Reward/Recognize the knowledge acquisition itself – Have acknowledgments in the family or classroom for knowledge progress regardless of level. Psychologically, it is quite simple to fall into the pattern of always recognizing the most accomplished students, but implementing some tools that help force you to spread the praise can combat this tendency, and motivate the students who really need it.
  • Address anxiety surrounding tests or studying – Sometimes, anxiety due to previous failures, whether perceived or real, can interfere with future progress. Work with a teacher, coach or other professional to help with organizational abilities and study habits. Addressing anxieties and providing encouragement can go far in removing this blocker of motivation.

Summary

Teachers and parents have many available tools to activate interest and maintain motivation for learning in students. Research shows that applying just a few of these techniques regularly can result in a significant difference in student engagement and, ultimately, accumulated learning. Teachers can engage parents to educate through these tools and activities and personalize them for their children while parents can assist teachers in complementing classroom efforts. Parents and teachers must keep a constant eye on the tools they deploy, ensuring they stay positive and work well with encouraging cognitive tasks while being specific to the motivators of each student.

While these tools can be used to activate, or re-activate, a learner, regardless of level, in any subject area, the focus on math is because of its criticality for other subject learning, the long-term usefulness of education in life and careers, and the history of math in being a source of challenges. Not learning the state capitals has few long-term effects, but not knowing your multiplication tables can trip you up for life.

The astronomer Galileo Galilei observed in 1623 that “[the entire universe] is written in the language of mathematics” and that science and society are governed by mathematical principles and ideas. From counting and sets to systems theory and practice, understanding mathematics helps us, as humans, overcome our genetic programming, and function better as a society.

Postscript and Thanks to …
In writing this article, I did a little self-reflection on my own mathematics learning journey. I was lucky to have parents, teachers, and colleagues who gave me many of the above items. Here are a few key people that I could remember who helped me on that journey:

  • 2nd Grade – Ms ??? for letting me compete with Wally P. to finish that workbook first.
  • 3rd Grade – Scott S. for being a worthy, nearly unbeatable competitor in “around the world”.
  • 7th Grade – for Ms.??? for working with me 1:1, and encouraging me to compete in and study for the county math exam.
  • 9th Grade – Dr. Zalewski – For allowing me to earn my first C in math [15] and teaching me to work hard at math again. I also remember waking up in class after being hit by chalk. I guess I knew he cared and knew I could do better.
  • 10th Grade – Mr. Philips – For “bet A points”, “minus B”, and more contagious enthusiasm contained in one teacher than I thought was possible.
  • 11th Grade – Ms. Potrikus – For 3/11 day, having purple as my favorite color again and an understanding of how Newton got to inventing calculus.
  • 12th Grade – To the ‘ov people’. I took the AIME exam that year and got clobbered by all these people whose last names ended in ‘ov’ (e.g. Kasparov) from the New York City area. I began to think about how a whole culture can bring about an accomplishment.
  • High School – Dr. Swanson for encouraging my efforts at leadership on the math team. We really managed to get kids excited about math and make it a team sport.
  • The entire MAA/AIME/Mathematics Olympiad team that created the tests every year that I would get excited about. Yeah… I was that kid and still have a stack of the old tests.
  • Stevens Institute of Technology – Dr. Roger Pinkham – For introducing me to Apostle’s Calculus book, deep mathematical thinking and an appreciation for how math describes the universe. Ohh.. and to Vivek and Henry L. who showed me what real math-smart people could accomplish.

References:

  1. https://www.edutopia.org/article/growth-mindset-resources
  2. Silvia, P. J. (2005). What is interesting? Exploring the appraisal structure of interest. Emotion, 5, 89-102.
  3. http://illuminations.nctm.org/uploadedfiles/activities_home/familyguide_fulltext.pdf
  4. Some favorite paradoxes, fallacies, and amazing results:
  5. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/b/92966fc7-c54d-4405-8fa6-cbefd05bbd6f
  6. https://www.math.toronto.edu/mathnet/falseProofs/fallacies.html
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-I6XTVZXww
  8. E.g. http://www.eduplace.com/kids/mhm/brain/gr6/index.html
  9. http://community.homedepot.com/howto/DiscussionDetail/Marshmallow-Cannon-9065000000008MO
  10. This was used by the founder to teach his son calculus
  11. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/strategies-helping-students-motivate-themselves-larry-ferlazzo
  12. James A. Middleton, “A Study of Intrinsic Motivation in the Mathematics Classroom: A Personal Constructs Approach,” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 26, No. 3, pages 255-257.
  13. https://www.lynda.com/Higher-Education-tutorials/Gamification-Learning/173211-2.html
  14. https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-guide-importance
  15. This sentence initially read “..gave me my first C..”. My teacher wife corrected it. 🙂

CREATIVE IDEAS FOR HOW TO SPEND HOLIDAYS WITH YOUR FAMILY: PART 2

by Milena Ćuk, Life Coach and Integrative Art Therapist-in-Training

LET’S SING AND PERFORM!

No celebration is complete without music!

When you’re together, you can sing Christmas songs – or any other songs that you like! When everyone is present, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, it’s always interesting to spot the intergenerational differences in the songs that are selected. If you’re feeling especially bold, you can also organize a karaoke party.

Don’t forget to record the moment, by making videos or taking photos. You’ll capture funny moments and laugh together for days! Teenagers will love recording video on mobile phones. However, these days, children are exposed to gadgets from such an early age that even younger children are skillful enough with cameras that they too could help with recording your event.

Another activity that you can add to singing is this: Each of you can choose a favorite song and prepare choreography. Then, you can make the decoration for the stage, adjust the lights and start your own family show! You perform one by one, cheering and laughing. This is especially good if you’re recording video of each performance.

In the end, you’ll all be dancing in your own home party! Put on your dancing shoes and turn on a disco ball, if you have one – if not, improvise!

Christmas dance

via Youtube

PICTURING YOUR FUTURE, AND YOUR PRESENT

As the last month of the year, December is an ideal time to wrap up the current year, and make some plans for the next one. Use the time around the holidays to reflect on your current situation in life, and consider your values, and desired long-term life goals.

By practicing these activities with children or showing them examples with your own behavior, we can include them in these traditions, and, at the same time, help them prepare to make plans and decisions for themselves as grown-ups.

People often make a list of New Year’s resolutions. However, here, we’ll give you some ideas of how you can present your resolutions using images. Although these suggested activities are suitable for adults and older children, you can adjust them so that they will work with younger children as well. Also, you can still do these in January, if you don’t manage to get to them in December.

  1. Holding the past and future, in your hands

Future hands

via Cynthia Emerlye

In this activity adapted from art therapy first trace the shapes of both hands on a piece of letter-sized paper. Fill the shape of your left hand with the main accomplishments, experiences or feelings that have marked this past year. It’s best to express these things in drawings and colors, but you can use words as well. When you have completed the current year, shift your focus to the shape of your right hand. Fill the empty shape with your strongest desires and goals that you will work on during the coming year.

When you are done, share your work with others. Older teenagers can be sensitive regarding their privacy issues; so, they may be reluctant to participate in this activity with you. However, you can still encourage them to do the activity alone or with their friends. Also, when it comes to sharing, everybody can choose whether and how much to share. Sometimes, we forget important and good things that we have done and this activity can show us how good it is to be reminded.

  1. Vision Board

Vision board

via Milena Ćuk

The power of the imagination has found its place in the therapeutic process as well in the strategies we employ in making our dreams come true. Instead of making a list of goals for the next year, sit for a while, relax, and get in touch with yourself.

Ask yourself what it looks like for you to feel fulfilled and happy. Imagine. Where are you? What are you doing? Who is with you? What are the most important aspects of your life you want to present through this collage – and imagine scenes as if they are already happening in the way you want. If you are making a poster for the next year, put all these scenes together with next year in mind.

A poster showing your resolutions expressed through pictures can take many forms, sizes, and shapes. Gather some magazines, brochures and other printed sources. Start looking for the pictures that represent the closest to what you have in mind. When you cut out the pictures, attach them with glue to the blank paper or poster. You can also use Pinterest or other sources on the Internet to find even more images for this activity.

Vision board

via Milena Ćuk

Sometimes, you don’t have a clear vision of what you want. If this is the case, search for the pictures that are most attractive to you. In either case, avoid ambiguous representations or negative symbols. For instance, if you want to achieve success in school, find an education-related picture that motivates you.

Make a nice, relaxing atmosphere where everybody will have the opportunity to work individually and to interact with others. After the activity is completed, you can all share and discuss what you have created. The same rule applies here – everybody can choose what and how much to share.

Did you like the ideas that we have prepared for you? Share pictures if you tried some of these! Also, inspire us with the creative activities that you enjoyed with your family!

10 PRINCIPLES TO HELP PARENTS DELIVER EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK

by Milena Cuk
Life and Assertiveness Coach
Integrative Art Psychotherapist-in-training

As parents, we have a duty to prepare our children to live independently in a world where they will interact with many different types of people. To prepare them for adulthood, we must recognize the importance of providing them feedback, both positive and negative (corrective). Positive feedback, such as giving compliments, expressing affection, and acknowledging your children’s efforts and successful performances, is important in building their confidence, in helping them learn new skills and in maintaining a close and open relationship with them. Giving constructive, negative feedback is important too, in learning new skills, in learning to respect boundaries and the needs of other people. Feedback is essential for self-improvement and for the personal growth of your children.

If you have a teenager at home, you may feel frustrated or worried when faced with certain changes in his/her behavior. The transition from childhood to adulthood is a sensitive and tempestuous period of life marked with questions of self-identity, first heartbreaks, a strong need for peer approval, exploring sexuality, etc. It is a period of discovering new aspects of reality. Sometimes, these aspects include alcohol, drugs, and rebellion against authority. These can all lead to a decreasing interest in education, and, in the worst-case scenario, risky behavior or trouble with authority figures. Parents fear adolescence. As parents, you are aware that your teen must go through the process of discovering the world of adults, but you do not want him to get lost. And often, you do not know what to tell him and how to approach his questions, in order to give him enough freedom, but, at the same time, to protect him from harm.

Luckily, there are guiding principles for providing feedback that motivates. In this article, we have gathered our experience from our coaching practice to explain these essential principles and to give parents some examples of how to use them. In our practice, we encounter common dilemmas that we hear from parents and stories of difficulties that many teens face. We have found that these principles are universal and can be applied regardless of the age of your children.

Principle 1
Be realistic

From the start, you should constantly consider the demands you make of your children, and make sure that they are realistic. Sometimes, even the best-intentioned parents are too demanding, asking that their children keep tidy rooms, the best test scores in their schools, the best results on their sports teams, and that they always do what their parents ask. Don’t forget that perfection is the enemy of good. Also, teenage rebellion against social norms and authority is normal, and a phase of their development. You should not ignore the boundaries they push, but HOW you react is important. On the other hand, some parents are overprotective or overindulgent, which causes their children, when they grow up, to have difficulties coping with life’s challenges.

The demands our children face are constantly changing, with their ages, their temperaments, their capacities, and with the changes society experiences as time progresses. Our children today face different challenges, with peers, social trends, in their schools and communities, more than we did. We should try our hardest to acknowledge this.

Principle 2
Show positive attention

In our coaching practice, we see so often that parents are too busy in their lives to spend enough quality time with their children. At the same time, they still demand that their child “become somebody and something one day.” In their frustration, they focus their communication with their children solely on criticizing their “bad” behavior. Sometimes, parents’ fears about their children’s bad behavior are self-fulfilling. The child, receiving ever-increasing amounts of criticism, reacts with even more “inappropriate” behavior in a quest to seek attention from the parents (“look at me!”) even if all he will get is negative attention, in the form of criticism and punishment. Sometimes, they see negative attention as better than no attention at all.

Children need to be loved and accepted by their parents. It is important to show them a “daily dose” of smiles, warm eye contact, and physical contact, such as touches and hugs. Children need their parents to listen to them and take an interest in their lives. Children need compliments and praise too. In our busy lives, feelings of love and affection between family members often go unspoken. “I love you”, “I am so happy to have you as my daughter/son”, “I like you the way you are”, “I believe in you!” – are strong messages that build the foundation of your child’s stability, self-confidence, and trust. These messages need to be heard over and over.

Principle 3
Praise honestly

When you praise your children, focus on the positive, and be honest. Remember the old saying that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” You can always find something good and beautiful in another person, whether this relates to that person’s appearance, a certain behavior they exhibit or an accomplishment they achieved.
Be specific when offering praise.

Consider these examples: “Oh, I really like the colors you picked for your outfit. They’re so creative!”; “Good job preparing a dinner without even being asked!”; “Good point” – for the opinion they’ve just expressed. “I really liked how you cleaned your room!”; “I really liked the way you helped your younger brother; I am proud of you.”
Offer praise not only for a good performance but also the effort your child has invested. Encourage the journey, not just the destination. “You worked really hard on that paper.”; “You’re doing great, just keep moving!”; “You are almost there!”; “You will make it!”

Even though it’s important to be specific when praising behavior, don’t forget to praise your child’s personality and their positive traits. This praise will strengthen your child’s self-confidence and encourage a healthy self-image. For example: “You are a wonderful person!”; “You are so smart!”; “You are beautiful!”; “You are very capable!”; “You are so kind!”

Principle 4
Offer compliments, but make sure they’re genuine and sincere

Compliments need to come from your heart. They have to be genuine and offered sincerely. If not, they lose their power.

Unrealistic compliments can harm your children. They can lead to unattainable goals and distort their self-image. It’s best to avoid messages like: “You are the smartest boy ever!”; or “You are the most beautiful girl in the world!”

Principle 5
When providing negative feedback, never criticize a child’s personality

Messages like these never help. They are always harmful: “You jerk”; “You are crazy”; “You are bad”; “You are so clumsy”; “You are a liar!”, etc. Negative feedback should be designed so that it promotes change and improvement. If you label your child as a bad person, he may begin to think that this is a permanent condition. Offering feedback like this does not help your child learn what he needs to change in order to better himself.

Principle 6
Negative feedback: Focus on the behavior

Constructive feedback should always serve as a call for changing some concrete behavior.

“It bothers me when you are late.”
“Your music is too loud. Please, turn down the volume.”
“Please, go back to the dinner table and push your chair in.”

We should point out what concrete behavior bothers us, and make it clear how it is unacceptable.
Avoid unrealistic comments like: “You are always late”; “You never do your homework on time”; “You never do what I ask of you”, etc.

Principle 7
Deliver praise publicly; deliver constructive feedback privately

When giving corrective feedback to children, regardless of age, you should catch them alone. Most people feel humiliated when they are criticized in front of others. Negative feedback should not make somebody feel guilty or ashamed. Instead, this feedback should help your child become aware of his own behavior, correct it and learn.

Principle 8
Don’t take it personally

Parents sometimes feel offended or upset, when one of their ground rules is broken, or if inappropriate behavior is repeated, or can cause harm. This happens even more frequently with teens when they exhibit their rebellious or risky behavior. Parents sometimes see teens’ behavior as reckless and disrespectful, and something that needs to be punished. And this is sometimes true. However, this behavior can occur for several reasons, such as strong inner conflicts and pain, insecurity or peer pressure.

In these cases, it is important to keep communication open in order to understand what is going on in your teen’s head and heart. Always remember to stay calm and consistent in your discussions with your child.

Principle 9
Different forms of corrective feedback

What is the best way to provide corrective feedback? This depends on many factors. Delivering corrective feedback is a skill that you can practice. The most important thing to remember is that you follow the principles stated above. Here are examples of corrective feedback offered correctly:

“We know that you don’t like bringing the garbage out and would rather do something else, but we’ve made a deal, and we need you to take it outside.”
“I feel angry and frustrated when the bathroom is not cleaned after you bathe, even after you promised to do it. We have a rule that everybody cleans up after them and I would like it to be respected. I always try to do what I promise and I would appreciate if you do the same. What do you think?”
“Gosh, you were really good during the game. You were so focused, fast, and catching the ball really well. It seemed, though, at the end that you were out of breath. Maybe you should focus more on practicing breathing and endurance? What do you think?”
“When you don’t come home when you said would and you don’t call us, I get worried that you’re in trouble. Please, don’t let it happen again, OK?”
“You know how proud daddy and I are of you. You are a smart girl who’s always done so well in school; so, we find these lower grades surprising. Is there something going on that’s bothering you, and keeping you from studying? What’s going on, honey?”
“You know that this behavior is unacceptable (for instance, your son took money from your wallet without asking). Since you were little, we’ve taught you about honesty. What happened this time?” In general, it is good to keep the conversation open to hearing your child’s side of the story and to understand why your child broke the rule. For instance: “What made you do this?”; “Do you have some thoughts to share with us?”; “Help us understand.”

As parents, it is easier to evaluate your rules or determine appropriate consequences when you understand the entire situation.

Principle 10
Balance negative feedback with positive feedback

Do you give more positive feedback or negative feedback? Delivering more positive feedback is recommended by the experts. Positive feedback is more powerful, and it helps build healthy relationships.

In the end, don’t forget to praise yourself – for everything you do for your children. You also deserve praise for your efforts in working on your parenting skills. That’s why you’re here, right?

If you have trouble communicating with your child and you don’t know what to do, don’t hesitate to call us today!