Tag Archives: pro-social skills

No More Tears…an Unfair Request

Kids lose it.  They cry.  And that can be a stressful thing.  Especially when you were already on your last nerve sometime yesterday.  But there’s something I hear parents say that makes me cringe a little.  It comes in many forms: “No tears,”  “Big boys don’t cry,”  or the many other variations of “Stop crying now.”  It’s understandable to a degree.  The crying is stressful.  But there are a few things we have realize. 

First, we have to understand that the message we’re sending is, “I don’t really want to know how you really feel.”  We want our kids to talk to us, to share with us.  But that’s not what we communicate to them when we respond to their limited ability to express emotions by essentially saying, “Stop showing me how you feel.”  

It’s not likely we’ll end up with teenagers who feel comfortable sharing their disappointments and hard decisions if we’ve spent a decade sending the message, “I don’t want to hear it.”   Instead, we’ll get answers like, “Fine,”  “Sure,” and “Whatever” after years of teaching apathy instead of empathy.

Secondly, the “small thing” that we believe doesn’t warrant crying, means a lot to the child.  We need to look, now and then, through the eyes of the child.  It’s easy for us to rationalize away little heart breaks as no big deal, but we have to understand what they really mean to the child.  That display of empathy goes a long way in building relationships and really getting to the root of the behavior.  It doesn’t mean we have to cry about it too, but we do need to be responsive and communicate to the child that he is understood.  For example, “Oh, Sam, that must have been pretty disappointing when your Lego tower broke!  You worked on that for a long time.”  Then, when the child knows he has been heard and validated, he’s more likely to calm down and move on from that point.  He doesn’t feel quite so driven to cry when he knows you already got the message.  When he realizes you’re on his side, he’s more likely to go along with you.  “What should we do?  Do you want to try to fix it or build something new?”  Sometimes, it’s simply being understood that will soothe the tears.

Lastly, we need to recognize that children have limited verbal abilities.  So in spite of the fact that they feel overwhelming and powerful emotions like frustration, disappointment, jealousy, and pain, they often have trouble expressing those feelings with words.  So there they are with all of the original emotions festering and then a large portion of frustration is added when they can’t aptly communicate what they’re feeling or what they need.  Crying is a natural reaction to that breaking point. 

When we empathize and talk about those feelings, we not only help the child to know he’s been understood, but we also give him the words to express those feelings later.  If we simply tell him to stop crying, he has gained no tools (other than suppression) to help him in a future situation. 

Showing empathy can go a long way in drying those tears, but sometimes crying turns to a full-scale tantrum.  In those situations, use the same techniques as above— validating and labeling emotions — but also reiterate that “I can’t fix a fit.”  Tell the child that you want to help, but don’t know how unless they use words to help you find out what they need.  Of course, talking is difficult if a child is completely out of control, in which case you may want to try some of the Tools for Tantrums first.

In any case, we need to remember to focus less on the immediate goal of ending the crying, and more on the long term goal of healthy emotional regulation.  (Here’s a great post that makes teaching emotional regulation and expression as Simple as PIE.)  We want to communicate to our children that we do want to hear what they need and how they feel.  When they feel secure in that, and as they learn to communicate more efficiently, the crying will naturally lessen. 

Top photo by yarranz.
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Filed under Article, social skills

Positive Guidance: A Well-Stocked Toolbox

toolbox 2

Imagine we’re all going into business together.  You, me, and those other cyberfriends out there.  We’re starting a fix-it shop and we’re about to open our doors.  We will handle all kinds of problems: broken windows, leaky pipes, squeaky doors….You name it, we can fix it!  We’re about to start fielding phone calls from frantic home owners with all kinds of  problems, and we need to make sure everyone has their tools ready.  So we all check out our toolboxes.  In each toolbox is one, solitary hammer.  It’s shiny and new, and handy in many different situations, but is it really enough to get us through every situation?

My husband is a pretty handy guy to have around.  He has a toolbox that is so heavy, just hefting it from it’s spot on the shelf to the worksite could lead to a series of chiropractic appointments.  He has hammers to be sure: sledge hammers, small hammers, rubber mallets.  But he also has pliers and drills and 42 thousand different types of screwdrivers.  He has a zip saw and  a chalk line and even a tool designed for shoeing horses.  And we don’t own any horses.

The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t approach every job with the same tool.  Just as you can’t use a hammer for every household problem, you can’t approach every behavior challenge with the same technique.  It’s like trying to get a screw to go in by hitting it with a hammer.  So often you hear people say, “But it worked with ‘this child’ or in ‘this situation’, why doesn’t it work now?”  Or you find people responding to every undesired behavior with a time out.  Consistent….sure.  Effective…not necessarily.

Positive Guidance Techniques

Here is a quick run down of the positive guidance techniques I teach as part of the Children’s Center’s training.  Many will be familiar, some will require some more discussion.  (Of course, those discussions will be linked back to this page.)   The objective is to get familiar with the different methods, learn how to use them and when to use them, and then implement them in your own situations.  As you begin to approach behavior with a well-stocked toolbox, you’ll find those challenges a bit easier to handle.  Here are the tools you should have at your disposal.  Sometimes you’ll use one tool, sometimes the other, and often a combination of tools.

Encouragement– Specific encouragement, recognizing progress, not just accomplishment.

Positive Reinforcement Call attention to the desired behavior and ignore the undesired behavior.

Modeling As an adult, you are always a model for children, whether intentional or not.  Explicitly model desired behavior, particularly social skills.

Ignoring Behavior– Particularly if the behavior is simply annoying or an attention-getting device, ignore it.

Validate and Reflect Feelings– The emotion is OK even when the behavior is not.

Peer Feedback– Encourage other children who have been affected by the behavior to describe how they feel.

Adult Feedback– Describe the child’s behavior and its consequences for others, particularly when the actual victim can’t or won’t speak for himself.

Natural Consequences These are consequences that naturally happen as a result of the child’s choice.  Example: If he chooses not to wear a coat, he will get cold.  You must decide whether the natural consequence is appropriate to allow to happen, but without intervention, it will happen on its own.

Problem Solving– Involve the children in the problem-solving process, coaching them through rather than doing it for them.

Humor– Great for de-escalating the situation.

Choices Help children realize what appropriate choices they can select from.  Also clarify which behaviors are not acceptible choices, offering alternatives.

Speak Positively – Describe What You Want – Phrase directions without using “No” and “Don’t” whenever possible.  Give children a clear picture of what to do instead of just what not to do.

Gentle Reminders– Gently coach children through challenging situations.

Logical ConsequencesConsequence is related to the behavior.  For example, if the child dumps out the puzzles, he needs to pick them up.

Disengage- Particularly good response to arguing.  Simply stop feeding the argument.  My favorite line is, “I love you too much to argue,” from Love and Logic, I believe.

Redirection- Replace the negative behavior with a similar, acceptable behavior.  Example: Instead of climbing furniture, the child is redirected to the outdoor playground equipment.

Positive Time Out – Other Alternatives to the Traditional Time Out Instead of focusing on punishment, focus on helping the child regain self-control.

Physical Restraint – This is the most extreme, but is sometimes necessary to prevent harm to the child or to others.

As I mentioned, there are a few of these that need a post all their own for further explanation.  Stay tuned, and I will link them back to this page as well.

Top photo by thiagofest.


Filed under Article, social skills

Teaching Social Skills: “Can I Play”


I am a firm believer that social skills should be taught directly, and then implemented and brought into habit through play and experience.  During the very first weeks, I introduce the tools for entering play and taking turns.  These are key areas of social conflict when you get a group of new preschoolers together!

I like to use puppets to teach social skills. (I got these from Oriental Trading.  They’re a great value, but I did have to trim up their hair when they arrived.)  Now don’t be intimidated by puppets.  I’m no puppeteer, despite countless hours of watching Mr. Rogers’ Land of Make-Believe, and almost every Jim Henson production known to man as a child.  You’d think I’d be a natural!  I usually just narrate what the puppets are doing rather than trying to be a ventriloquist (because I would fail miserably).  Just having the puppets act out the social situation helps make the hypothetical story become concrete.  Visualizing a scenario and then doing social problem solving on top of that just requires too much abstract thinking for most preschoolers.  So if you’re a regular Shari Lewis, knock yourself out, but for the rest of us mere mortals, narrating is just fine!

So to help give children a script for entering play or taking turns, I pull out two of my puppets.  I give one a ball to hold on to, and then narrate something like this:

“Sarah and Sally are good friends.  They get to play together all the time and have so much fun.  One day Sally noticed Sarah playing with a ball.  It looked really fun to play with that ball, so…(nice pause to get their wheels turning)..Sally just ran right up and grabbed the ball away from Sarah! (Gasp!)  Wow!  How do you think Sarah felt about that?  Was that the right way?  What could Sally do instead?”  (Usually, someone suggests they take turns.)  “Right!  You know, Sally could say, ‘Can I play with you?’ And then they could play together! (Show puppets tossing ball back and forth.)  Let me hear you say, ‘Can I play with you?’ (Have them say it a few times, just to get the phrase down.)  Now they’re both having fun, playing together!”

Then either on the same day, or the next day, I have the same puppets in a similar scenario.  This time Sarah is playing with something that only one person can play with at a time.  I’ve used a small dollar-store video game, just because I had one on hand.  You might also use a toy car or dress up item.  Either we’ve just had the previous lesson, or I remind them of it.  I point out that this time, they can’t play together because only one person can use the item at a time.  “What can they do?”  Someone will suggest they take turns.  I point out that a great way to ask someone to take turns is to say, “Can I play with that when you’re all done?”  I have the children repeat it again to get the phrase down.  I really like this phrase, because the “when you’re all done” part lets both children know that taking turns doesn’t mean the first person’s turn is immediately over.  It’s less threatening for the first player and reminds the second player to be patient. 

In implementing it in the classroom, if the children need help, I may ask the first player how much more time they need to be done.  They usually come up with a reasonable amount and I set a timer.  Almost always they relinquish the item without a problem because they had some control over when their turn would be over.

Once you’ve taught these phrases directly, you can coach the children, reminding them to use them in their own play, and reinforcing them when you hear them use them on their own.  Remember that it is not your job to keep your classroom free of conflict.  No one gains social skills that way.  It is your job to help the children appropriately deal with conflict!  Give them the skills, be there to coach or intervene if the situation becomes too heated, and help them learn to ultimately solve social problems on their own!

For more on social conflict, check out Verbalizing Emotions.

For more welcome week activities, click here.

Photo courtesy crazed2ins.


Filed under language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, procedure/organization, social skills

Swords, Capes, and Laser Beams – The Power of Superhero Play

(Find instructions for superhero capes here.)

dscn0678Superhero play is a theme that appears to enter into the imaginative play of every child at one time or another.  In fact, researchers French and Pena (1991) have found that the theme of superhero play has greatly increased since the advent of television, specifically for children in the early childhood years.  Other researchers hypothesize that boys in particular have a natural inclination toward “weapon play” that may be genetically tied to the Y chromosome.  Whether hero play is brought on by media influences or genetic inclinations, there are many ways children can benefit from this type of play with the proper guidance.

Benefits of Dramatic Play.  In general, dramatic play benefits preschoolers socially.  A child’s propensity toward pretend play has been show to correlate with several positive social measures.  As children negotiate roles and rules, they are building strong cooperative skills.  Additionally, as they take on the viewpoint of another character, their ability to empathize increases. 

Along with social skills,  dramatic play has strong benefits for language development.  The more complex the play becomes, the more children tend to use elaborate the language as well.  As children add representative or symbolic aspects to their play, they are laying the groundwork for the symbolic nature of language, and of reading in particular. 

Superpowers.  In addition to the benefits of dramatic play, hero play has some added benefits.  Young children have many opportunities to feel powerless.  On a daily basis they are threatened by fears, challenged by potty training, and dominated by adult rules.  Hero play gives them a sense of power and control that they often feel they lack.  On the flip side, it helps them to recognize and reinforce the positive nature of self-control and power as they make gains in these areas.

The active nature of hero play is a natural catalyst for motor development.  With proper guidance and a safe area, children will zoom, zip, and fly as they get great exercise and build physical skills.

With its inherent good vs. bad theme, hero play provides a window into a child’s moral awareness and growth.  The narratives that children create may mirror their own moral dilemmas, or give opportunities for discussing hypothetical problems.  It is also an opportunity to discuss the heroic aspect of helping.  When my own son began his fascination with superheroes, he asked why Spider-man wanted to be Spider-man.  Without a better answer, I simply told him that Spider-man wanted to help people.  I didn’t even realize the impact of the answer until I noticed that my son had become more than eager to be a hero and a helper.  If we needed someone to help pick up, we simply cried for Spider-man, declaring the state of emergency that we found ourselves in, and he was on the job!

A Hero’s Mentor.  While there are many benefits to hero play, it is clear that there are some caveats to consider.  It is important to limit aggressive behavior.  Set ground rules such as, “You can’t make anyone feel hurt or afraid.”  You may need to suggest that all participants play on the “same side” and fight imaginary bad guys.  This is particularly useful for younger children who often believe they will become what they pretend.  They will not want to play a bad guy, because they may believe they will become a bad guy.  Likewise, they will not want to be put in “jail” because they feel as though they will truly be locked up.  Being in a defeated position makes them truly feel threatened.  Avoid these problems by keeping everyone on the good side, and assigning the bad roles to imaginary or inanimate objects.  Clarify the difference between real and pretend, particularly with regards to safety concerns.  Make certain that the children realize that jumping off a tall ledge will not make them fly, but that a swift kick to their friend will certainly cause real pain.

Take advantage of the expressed desire for power and control by emphasizing opportunities for children to make their own choices (red cup or blue cup?) or to master self-help skills like going to the bathroom, getting dressed independently, and cleaning up after one’s self.  Exchange nagging over daily chores for the awe and amazement at the heroic feats.

Monitor closely the type of media that influences your children’s hero play.  Many comic book, movie, and cartoon heroes are intended for older audiences.  They often have an emphasis on violence over morals and are stereotypical in their presentation of what makes a hero.  Explain the difference between real heroes and pretend heroes, without belittling the excitement and fun of being a pretend hero.  Take the opportunity to discuss real heroes with your hero-oriented children.  Point out a variety of heroes like firefighters on the news or neighbors who serve others and explain to your children that these are real heroes because they help real people. 

My own hero-oriented boys were staying with an aunt and uncle, when their uncle was called out for a search and rescue assignment.  As he was leaving, their aunt explained that some people needed help and he was going to try to help rescue them.  My boys’ eyes widened as the realization struck them.  Their uncle was a hero!  The next time they stayed with the same couple, their uncle was called by his parents to come help them with a flat tire.  Those boys still mention that Uncle Matt is a hero because he helps people.  What a great model for these heroes in training!

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Verbalizing Emotions



Photo courtesy of hyperorbit.


During the preschool years, children are bombarded with very strong emotions, yet their developing language skills often limit their capacity to express those feelings.  In such situations, it’s much easier to act than to speak.  What results are the tantrums, the hitting, the biting, and other behaviors, which too frequently typify the preschool years. As adults, we can help reduce these undesirable behaviors by giving children the tools to express their emotions verbally.  Here are a few examples:


·         Label emotions.  Label your child’s, your own, and those you come across in stories.   Go beyond “mad” and use more descriptive words, such as frustrated or disappointed.  This gives your child the vocabulary to express emotion verbally.  Additionally, research has shown that the very act of labeling (and thereby validating) a child’s emotions provides comfort. 

·          “I’m so frustrated with this computer right now.” 

·          “I’m sorry you’re feeling so disappointed about not getting that today.” 

·          “How do you think the three little pigs felt when they heard the wolf at their door?” 


·         Help them verbalize their needs. Preschoolers commonly act out when a need or desire has been frustrated.  Frustrated needs could be the need to be independent on a new skill, the need for an object that they can’t obtain or that has been taken away, or the basic needs such as sleep and food.  

·         “You look like you’re upset about something.  Tell me about it.”  “What do you think we could do about it?” 

·         “I can help you when you can use words to tell me what you need.” 

·         “I can understand you when you use a calm, polite voice.  Then I can know how to help you.” 



·         Guide them through social conflicts.  When children fight over toys or get upset about something that was said or done, we can verbally coach them through those situations. 

·          “How do you think it made her feel when you ___?”  

·         “How did it make you feel when he ____?”   “Maybe he didn’t even know that would make you sad.  Can you tell him that and ask him nicely not to do it again” 

·         “Instead of taking the doll, you could ask her if you can use it when she’s done.” 

·         “What would be a polite way to ask him to move?”


Helping children to verbalize their emotions doesn’t always give immediate end to an emotional crisis, but it does build the foundation for children to find more peaceful ways to address their frustration in the future.  When adults validate children’s emotions and provide them with an open dialogue, it not only helps children to develop that ability to verbalize their feelings themselves, but also shows them empathy and assures them that they are understood and loved.  That comfort alone can go a long way in soothing the occasional storms of the preschool years!


For more on Positive Guidance, click here!


See also: Tools for Tantrums, Pro-Social Development, Language & Literacy



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