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How We Praise Preschoolers Can Impact Character Development

How many times a day do you find yourself saying, “good job” to your young child? I know for me, this cliche phrase slips out numerous times a day. We all know that praise and encouragement (especially for good behavior) can be a strong motivator for children, especially around the preschool years. Preschoolers are in a stage of development where they are learning what it means to be them—self-concept.

Research is showing that the particular ways in which parents praise their children can influence, at least to some degree, how children come to understand themselves and their efforts. The key, it seems, is to help kids develop a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset” when it comes to how they think about their intelligence and ability to grow and learn. A “growth” mindset is one in which the child believes their efforts and trying new skills are what helps them learn and conquer new challenges. In contrast, some kids learn to think that their skill and intelligence are “fixed” and cannot be expanded with effort.

According to researchers, the preschool years are a key time to help kids understand this difference and how parents’ use praise may play a role. The commonly used comment, “good job” is generic praise in that it doesn’t inform the child what specifically they did well. On the other hand, “process praise” like the comment, “good job sharing with your friend” is the type of praise that helps the child understand what they did right so that they know what to focus on in the future.

In research studies, this difference in the types of  praise used by parents was predictive of children’s “motivational framework” years later. That simply means that the children had more of a mindset of growth. Process praise that emphasized the child’s effort, strategies, or actions helped the child understand that their intelligence is not fixed but they can achieve new skills by trying.

This growth mindset is all part of a larger set of “non-cognitive skills” that help kids learn and achieve. These skills, like resilience, self-control, and persistence have little to do with their innate cognitive ability. Many researchers in the last few years have begun to emphasize these skills. In his recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough explores many of these traits. He cites many research studies that illustrate the value of helping kids deal with failure and overcome it to move on with a task or class. Perhaps most importantly, he explains the difference between helping kids develop self-esteem and character,

“I think there is a real difference between developing self-esteem and developing character, and in the past few decades we’ve become confused about that. Yes, if you want to develop kids’ self-esteem, the best way to do it is to praise everything they do and make excuses for their failures.

But if you want to develop their character, you do almost the opposite: You let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else – not to make them feel lousy about themselves, but to give them the tools to succeed next time.”

What a gift we can help our kids develop! I think this message is so powerful because it can apply to so many aspects of life. In school, kids need these skills to persist in a hard class or sport. Consider later in life, when your adult child is faced with a tough job situation or even a difficult personal relationship. I can easily see how these character traits like persistence, dedication, and passion can serve them well. Even in their own personal development as a person, these traits are crucial to overcoming bad habits or staying healthy.

So the next time you’re are tempted to say, “good job” to your persistent preschooler, try pointing out how well she/he stuck with the task at hand. The language we use really can make a difference in our children’s future mindset.

Helping Your Fearful Child Feel Comfortable With EMS

We have all seen the scene at the mall. The child is put there with the mall Santa Clause or Easter Bunny and is absolutely in terror and crying their eyes out.  How can this be? Santa and the Easter Bunny are friends and would never hurt them.  Having done many Firefighter presentations at various schools, events, and EMS safety weeks, I have seen these same children have the exact same reaction to me when I put on my firefighting bunker gear. I can’t say I blame them completely. A guy in a bright red suit, a 6 foot tall bunny, and a guy in a bunch of gear with an axe in his hand and sounding like Darth Vader are not easy things to get used to.  The good news is that kids learn pretty fast that both Santa and the Easter Bunny are friends and bring them stuff they want. The bad news is that teaching them that the Firefighters are friendly as well will take some extra work.

In previous posts (Protect Your Family From Fire), we have talked about having a plan for exiting your house in case of fire.  In addition to this activity I would like to encourage you to take a trip to your local fire station, attend an EMS or Fire safety week demonstration, schedule a demonstration at your child’s school, or at the very the least look at some pictures and videos online about firefighters and their protective clothing.

Here’s a great video to watch with your kids.  It’s a little long, but they cover quite a bit about what your child needs to know about interacting with EMS personnel in the first four minutes. The last nine walks your child step-by-step through an example, from calling for help through the ambulance ride.

Teaching your children that the scary looking people moving around in the smoke are there to help and not to hide from them is a key in surviving a house fire. Having led demonstrations where the firefighter starts out in plain clothes, just talking and answering questions and gradually progresses to being in full gear, on air, and still talking as he/she has been to the children makes all the difference in the world. The children can start to understand that the person underneath all that gear is the same one that started the demonstration and that they are there to help them.

In the end, teaching your children about how firefighters dress and how they will look in all their gear will be a good experience for everyone and will deliver some valuable information for all.  And while EMS may not be Santa or a 6 foot bunny, we still might have some goodies for the kids.

I hope you have a safe summer.

Can Your Lovable Pup Help Your Child Grow Educationally?

Last month we talked about the value of a child with special needs having a service dog with them in the classroom at all times. We also talked about some of the pro’s and con’s for the child without disabilities.  But what if there was an area that your child struggled with that maybe wasn’t severe enough to require the services of a full time, highly skilled and trained animal? Can your every-day run-of-the-mill pup still be able to help your child in educational ways? In many cases….yes!!

As adults, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, just as children do! The difference is, our weaknesses are not often exposed, all day, every day, to our peers. Imagine how difficult it would be if you worked in an office, with the same people right next to you, no cubicles or dividers between you and them, and part of your job was a task that you had to perform daily, that you really struggled with…. Yet it seemed to come so easily and naturally to all those around you. How frustrating would that be? How embarrassing? Sure, you could ask for help; but that would get old, really fast…. Especially if it was something that you just ‘didn’t get’.

I know from personal experience, having struggled with learning disabilities, especially with numbers and math, how trying this can be… and what a hit my self esteem took time and time again! (I remember being a child sitting in the classroom and they were going up and down the rows, each child taking the next math problem in the book, trying to very quickly figure out which would be mine, so I could work it out before it was my turn and avoid looking foolish. This rarely worked and, being in a panicked state, quite often I miscounted and worked on the wrong problem…. And felt like an idiot anyway!)

As an adult, I have learned to kind of make light of it (I tell my clients, “Boy, I wish my talent with the dogs transferred to other areas of my life, like Math and a sense of direction!) For me, that statement always lessens the embarrassment when writing out a receipt for a client, when I cannot do the simple math to add it up in my head…. And forget about adding on the tax! But after that statement, I can grab a calculator. Tools like that aren’t always available when you’re a kid.

And let’s face it…. School is a tough place at times! Kids can be horrible…. Especially once they see a weakness in another child…. That child can suddenly become an easy target for taunting and bullying! And in that kind of atmosphere is it any wonder the child will become more insecure and not want to ask for help?

In 1999, a group in Minnesota called Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA) who specialized in providing animal-assisted-therapies in the areas of physical, occupational, speech, psychotherapies, as well as special education developed and launched a program called R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs.) The premise and purpose behind this program was to provide a safe environment where a child can sit down and read out-loud to a dog without any fear of judgment or ridicule. The immediate successes they saw encouraged the growth and popularity of this program, and the organization quickly branched out to include visits to numerous libraries, schools, and many other venues. It has helped thousands of children to improve their reading and communication skills. Here is a link to their site, which can obviously explain everything they do a bit better than I can, and they also provide a calendar of events (click on the ‘ATTEND” box on the right hand side of the screen) where you can see if they are going to be in your area…

On this site are also numerous ‘how to’ videos where they show you what you can do if you would like to become a ‘R.E.A.D. owner/handler volunteer team’ in your area. But I want to simplify it a bit and mention a few things you can do to see if your own personal dog can accomplish this task for your child at home.

I want to mention here that although the program itself is very familiar to me, the ins-and-outs of how it works were not, so this has been a wonderful learning experience for me as well! All of the tips and feedback I am going to give you are a culmination of my training skills and experiences, mixed with highlights from the many videos I have watched that came directly from this organization. As I mentioned before, I wanted to simplify this so that you can see if your dog is a good candidate to provide this service for your child, and if so, how to best accomplish this task.

So to begin with, Part One would be to see if your dog can possess the skills needed to help your child. (I recommend doing this when your child is not around. If it turns out your dog is not a good candidate for this, we do not want to raise your child’s hopes and then have them disappointed.) What are those skills? According to the ITA videos, the basic skills required are:

  • A firm “DOWN/STAY” command
  • The ability to lie still for however long you choose to hold your reading ‘sessions’ (note: If your dog is not good at staying still for an hour at a clip, do not be discouraged and think this will not work for you. Try shorter durations.) This is important because we want to set up an atmosphere of a non-judgmental space for your child. If they are embarrassed already about their reading skills, or have ever been teased because of their reading difficulties, the dog getting up and walking away may be interpreted by your sensitive child as a form of rejection.
  • A good “Touch” command. This is important because it helps your child to really feel like the dog is involved in the reading when your dog periodically ‘touches’ the page with their paw or nose. This task becomes especially valuable when your child comes to a word they are having difficulty with or do not understand. You can signal the dog to touch the page, and then say something like, “Fido is having trouble understanding what that word is. How about we look it up so we can explain it to him.” Again, this is a very non-judgmental way to help your child….. Similar to when child therapists use dolls to help children speak about difficult things without it being in the ‘first person’.
  • A not-so easily distracted dog. This kind of goes hand in hand with the solid DOWN/STAY. It is very important because again, the last thing you want is your child sitting down to read with the dog, someone walks by, and the dog gets up and leaves. Again, we do not want to risk your child feeling not-important or rejected by the dog in any way, which can happen if the dog suddenly gets up and leaves.

Part Two – what skills and tools do you personally need to work with the dog and your child?

  • Patience
  • A sense of humor
  • A non-perfectionist attitude (remember, we want to encourage, not discourage! So ITA recommends it is very important that you not get ‘bogged-down’ on mistakes and be careful of the way your correct them.
  • Do not be over-exuberant in introducing this concept to your child. While this may be an exciting new venture, I encourage you to first work with your dog consistently when the child is not around until you are relatively comfortable that this will succeed. Again, we do not want to raise your child’s hopes, and risk them feeling like this is their failure if the dog is not appropriate for this task.
  • A PLACE set up specifically for this task. A private room or corner can work. A place where there are no distractions such as people going by, phones ringing, TV’s on in the background, etc. In this space you can set out blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, a lamp, a bookshelf with plenty of books you will take on together…..whatever you would like that does not cause distractions, but will be a comfortable place for you, your child, and your dog to work in. Make sure this place always remains the same, and is SOLELY used for this specific task. Remember that dogs and children both respond well to familiarity and routines. If this place is only used for this purpose, your dog will always automatically know what to expect and how to behave while there.
  • Plenty of children’s books. Make sure they are appropriate to where your child’s skills are at. You do not want to use material that is too advanced, causing frustration for them. At the same time, you do not want to use books they may see as ‘babyish’. It will insult their intelligence and possibly make them feel that you think they are stupid. While you know your child is not stupid, if they have been previously made to feel that way by other kids, the last thing you want is for them to believe you think that way of them! Also, when choosing your books for them and your ‘place,’ pick numerous books about subjects and topics they are interested in. For example, start off with books about dogs.

So, you have now determined that you and your dog both have the skills needed to help your child, now it’s time for Part Three – very important – practice this consistently when your child is NOT around. Call the dog over to the ‘space’ you have created, get them into the DOWN/STAY, pull out a book, and start reading. The ITA also recommends adding a “LOOK” command to this. They state that it really helps your child to feel like the dog is very involved, and it is a simple task to teach!!

Before calling your dog over to the space, insert small treats into numerous pages of the book. Every time you get to a page with a treat in it, you say the command “LOOK!” and allow the dog to take the treat from the book. This essentially conditions your dog to expect something good to be on the page and to use his nose to ‘look’ for it every time you say the word “Look”. But again, this must be accomplished before your child joins you in this. You want your child to believe the dog is really involved…. Not that the dog is looking for a treat or reward!

Once you are sure you have done all the necessary foot-work needed to successfully accomplish this, invite your child to join you. You can say something like, “You know…. The other day I was reading out loud and I noticed that Fido seemed to really enjoy it!! I think it might be fun to see if this was a fluke, or if he really likes being read to!” or something along those lines. You know your child best, and what would peak their interest in being open to trying this. Keep the session relatively short in the beginning…. 10 or 15 minutes at most. Make it fun, be enthusiastic, laugh when the dog paws the page, you can even act surprised at how involved the dog is!! And always end the sessions on a positive note…. Such as, “WOW! You and Fido did amazing!!! I think he deserves some treats…. And you should be the one to give it to him!!” Make sure you use words like ‘teamwork’ (ie: “What a great team the two of you make!” This will be very encouraging to a child that was initially ostracized and made to feel separate or not a part of.)

And the last thing (which can also be the hardest part) once you have established this new and exciting journey with your child, try not to make this a ‘if you don’t do this, this will be the consequence’ type of thing. We want this to always remain an enjoyable thing for your child. I know firsthand when I do something I enjoy, once it becomes mandatory, I often quickly lose interest. So think about different ways to keep your child interested and engaged.  Here are a couple you might want to consider:

  • Weekly trip to the library with your child to pick out a new book she and Fido might enjoy reading together
  • To keep it light and fun, make a sign out of some of the more difficult words your child figured out and/or looked up during the week’s readings, and then plan a ‘treasure hunt’ trip to locate those items and label them with the sign your child made. Be willing to be silly with them! If the word was “Mother”, go along with it and wear the sign!
  • Find and set aside some “special treats” – for your pup and for your child that they get to enjoy together.
  • Anything that makes this a special time your child looks forward to.

With both kids and dogs, there is no such thing as a ‘cookie-cutter’ way to learn! Each kid learns and responds differently… So if you have some additional ideas for us to try, please add them to the comments below!! We’d love to hear your ideas!

Should Your Child Take The New Fidget Toy Out For A Spin?

Fidget toys called Spinners have become a huge fad for kids. They all seem to love them. Meanwhile, most teachers and parents seem to hate them. In fact, Spinners are being banned in many schools. Some kids are crushed and some parents are furious. Where do you stand? Let’s take a look at Spinners and fidget toys in general and see if we can figure out this issue.

Old school types usually say, “Why are kids being allowed to bring toys to school these days? Why can’t they just sit still?” Here’s the thing – kids have always needed to fidget. They have been tapping pencils, wiggling their feet, chewing their nails, drawing on notebooks and countless other things since formal schooling began. Some of this behavior is expected by teachers, and they know how to manage it in their classrooms. But for some kids, movement is imperative.

Kids who have learning disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum, or have other challenges really DO need to move. It’s not that they are being disruptive, it’s just the way they are wired. Some schools today are getting rid of recess and PE, leaving these kids even less opportunity to be physically active during their day. This leaves kids with even more need to fidget.

Enter the fidget toy. A true fidget is not really a toy but more of a therapeutic tool. The first one I ever saw was an elastic band that was tied across the legs of a desk or a chair and the student could bounce their legs on the band. Some fidgets are much less physically active – putty has been gaining ground in classrooms lately. Rubik’s Cube is a classic example of a fidget for the hands, but it can be loud and distracting to the other students. Fidgets don’t all have to have a solution or an endpoint. Putty can be sculpted into something, but it can also be simply manipulated for the sensory input. In a classroom with an inclusive population, where some kids have special needs and some are “typical” as the term goes, can you allow some students to have these items and say no to the others? This creates even more issues in a classroom.

Enter the Spinner. They come in many colors and materials, and some even light up. They are very well named – they spin. That’s all they do. Some have one circle, others have three, and you can move the spinning bearing to change the motion and the sensation.

All people are drawn to spinning items, this is why there is a now a job called sign spinner, why children have played with spinning tops all throughout history and why pinwheels and whirligigs have been popular since they were invented in China in 400 BC (yes, I did my research). People on the autism spectrum are especially drawn to spinning items, so I could see Spinners calming a tantrum (I work with special needs kids and know first hand that tantrums don’t only happen to toddlers). But in reality they are just being used to show off the latest color or model and taunt the kids who don’t have them. They are also being used as weapons, to poke or spin on someone else’s skin. Eventually they will end up being thrown at someone. They do sort of look like Ninja stars, and many manufacturers have Ninja Star Spinners so clearly I am not the only one who made the connection – and some of those types look very sharp!

To see what all the hype is about I played with one. The key word is PLAYED – it is certainly a toy. If you change the heavy part to one of the outer rings it does have an interesting weighed effect, but I really only see the benefits for kids with special needs and/or sensory issues. I think Spinners would be useful for kids who stim, not necessarily for kids who fidget. You can find a good Spinner for that here.

Self-stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming and self-stimulation, is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, but most prevalent in people with autism spectrum disorders. It is considered a way in which autistic people calm and stimulate themselves. Another theory is that stimming is a way to relieve anxiety, and other emotions. Common stimming behaviors (sometimes called stims) include  repeating noises or words and spinning objects.  …Wikipedia

A compromise might be to establish rules for when, where and how Spinners may be used. Parents and/or teachers could brainstorm some rules as well as consequences. Maybe they can be used at recess but not in the classroom, or maybe if the class finishes the day’s lesson plan early they would be given some time at the end of class to bring out their Spinners, which might even encourage better classroom behavior. Perhaps they could be attached to the underside of desks so they can be spun out of sight.

While doing research I also found some Youtube videos that teach Spinner tricks which might get the kids up and active trying to balance, toss and catch the toy. There are also instructions for making your own Spinners, so break out the craft supplies and turn off the video games!

Video: How to Introduce Your Child to Sleeping in a Bed

In this brief video, NHS Health Visitor, Sara, discusses how to approach moving your young child from a cot (*crib) to a bed and gives some tips for success.

Editor’s Note: Video Highlights

  • child-moving-to-a-bedThere are no hard-and-fast rules for when to move your baby from a cot (*crib) to a bed – do it when it feels comfortable for your child and for you
  • From 18 months, you might find that your child is too big for a cot or is trying to climb out – that’s the time to move them into a bed
  • For some children, moving from a cot to a bed is really exciting and they accept it really well
  • For other children, they might feel a bit stressed about the change – so you might need to choose a calm time in their life
    • Challenging times for moving from a cot to a bed can be if you’re moving house, if you’ve gone back to work or if your child is not feeling well
  • You may need to move your child to a bed if you have another baby on the way – if so, do it about six to eight weeks before your new baby is born, to help keep your child from being unsettled with too much change
  • Once sleeping in a bed, your child might get up in the night and wander around, so be sure to childproof their room
    • Put a stair gate across the door
    • Check their room for any electrical appliances or wires they could trip over, any small toys or objects they can get hold of or any cord blinds that they could get tangled in
    • You might also want to put barrier next to the bed or put cushions on the floor in case they fall out
  • If your child doesn’t like the bed initially and they want to protest, just stay calm, reassure them, give them a cuddle, but put them back in the bed
    • You might find that you have to do it a few times, but if you’re consistent, they’ll soon get used to being in the bed
  • When your child has slept in the bed, or had some naps in the bed, praise them because it can make a big difference to their confidence and they’ll feel much more willing to sleep in the bed if you praise them for what they’ve done

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.


When and How to Treat a Fever: a Pediatrician’s Perspective

I have posted in the past about fever and many of the myths surrounding it (Kids Will Get Sick: 5 Facts a Pediatrician Wants You To Know).  In this post I would like to deal with the causes, nature of fever, benefits of fever, and some “treatments”.  It is one of the most common reasons people bring their children to the Emergency room and probably among the least significant reasons for doing so.

Fever is a symptom of an illness such as cough, runny nose, headache, and many others and, except for the discomfort of the associated symptoms (chills, achiness, drowsiness, etc.) fever, in and of itself, does not need to be treated.  As far as what is the definition of fever, it depends on the age of your child or infant. Just about any fever in an infant less than 3 months of age is considered to be significant for the purpose of evaluation.  As your baby/child gets older the level of fever at which the concern rises does so with the height of the fever and the associated symptoms.  Beyond the immediate newborn period (up to age 3 months) fever (or better termed higher than normal body temperature) is generally considered to be over 100.4 to 100.5 Fahrenheit.

Fever is part of the immune reaction that your body goes through to identify the offending agent and muster the resources to fight off that agent.  Some studies have shown that the presence of fever helps your body fight off the disease in a more rapid and efficient way.  As such, it is easy to see that in fighting off an illness, the reduction of that fever for its own sake is not necessarily the best thing to do.  As I mentioned in my last post about fever, if your child is very uncomfortable due to the presence of fever, it certainly is reasonable to give a medicine such as Tylenol or Advil, but not just because the fever is there.

In an effort to reduce fever by worried parents many methods have been tried; such as placing a child in a cold bath or sponging with cold water, even to go as far as placing ice packs in supposedly strategic places.  This would seem logical at first blush but in fact, human beings have a very good method of warming a cold body, and that is shivering, wherein the muscles go into a hypermetabolic state producing heat by metabolic processes.  It is possible to place someone with a fever in a cold bath and have him or her come out with a higher temperature than before the bath.  So the reasonable approach to comfortably lower a fever is to undress a child with fever but not enough to stimulate chills or shivering, place your child in a warm (skin temperature) bath of only a few inches of water and sponge off your child frequently allowing for natural evaporative processes to cool the skin.  Offer your child plenty of cool fluids that will do some cooling from within as well as keeping him/her well hydrated- fever will cause extra fluid loss through sweating and the hypermetabolic state.  Do not wrap your child in blankets just to “sweat the fever out” as doing this may also inadvertently raise fever, and increase fluid loss and discomfort- certainly covering the child enough to relieve chills and shivering is appropriate for comfort.

In trying to determine whether someone who runs a lower than “normal” natural body temperature is running a fever, just use the reading you get with the thermometer as the difference between a normal temperature and one that “runs low” is very small and would not be significant medically.  Furthermore body temperatures vary throughout the 24 hour day in the same person- so when that “normally low” body temperature was taken becomes important.

So you can almost expect fever to accompany any illness of an infectious nature whether mild or severe.  Keep calm, it is not the fever that is important, but the appearance, behavior and the presence of certain other symptoms that your Doctor with be most interested in when you call his office.

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