Archive for Kid Takes – understanding and increasing children’s self-regulation

For Good Mental Health & Peace, Develop Positive Identity, Not Shame

It’s often said that children’s negative or challenging behaviors occur due to one of two general reasons: either the child is hoping to get something he/she wants, or is hoping to avoid something he/she doesn’t want.

Understanding human behavior at its deepest core level increases our insights into the deepest relationship dynamics within ourselves, our families, and our communities. As we increase levels of patience and compassion for children, other adults and our own selves, we broaden our collective skills sets for increasing harmony, maturity, and responsibility in our family, school, and community cultures.

The benefits to increasing psychological literacy extend way beyond childhood; specific skill sets help root children in a lifetime of peace and empowerment.

That said, I’ve observed that it is very often overlooked that when a child becomes upset, it is very often because not only is he not doing things his way, but also because at this deepest core level he is not feeling the homeostasis or balance within himself that he needs to in order to feel his best – his most safe self.

This is no small thing. Anyone who knows me knows that I view emotional safety as the overarching developmental goal of childhood. I don’t think we need empirical research to prove this assertion. Feeling safe includes being wholly accepted for who we are, what we feel, what and whom we like, and how we express who we are. Emotional safety is the essential building block of self worth, self-respect, and personal pride which make up a child’s idea of who he/she is. This counters shame development which highly factors into capacities for self-regulation.

*Let us also note that pervasive shame creates lack of self-acceptance, which when is not addressed in a healthy way through therapy – if not prevention – becomes projected onto others, resulting in unacceptance, judgment, intolerance of, and potential violence toward others. This is why psychological literacy is imperative for establishing a global culture of peace.*

Emotional safety is aligned with feeling internally balanced. A child’s lack of internal balance can occur for many reasons. In this article I will share a story about how the specific ways we relate to children impact their internal balance, emotional safety, and therefore, behavior. The story shows why a child’s external environment of relationships (a pairing or group of caregivers relating to/working with the child) needs to be balanced in order to help him/her feel safe, and if it is not, how to use a few specific steps suggested here to begin to increase that external “relationship” balance, which so greatly factors into behavioral compliance.

*Please note: In this, as in all of what I write, the words that I use are not used in judgment, but to make specific the best examples for creating healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. We all do the best we can with the skills and awareness we have at any given time. Also please note that I do not claim to be a parenting expert; I am a therapist. I specialize in relationships, and in early childhood holistic mental health and self-regulation.

Here’s the story. I was asked to consult on a common problem for many families and classrooms, in which two caregivers with very different relating styles are attempting to handle a three-year old boy whose behaviors are “off the hook”. Noncompliance, aggression, and attention-seeking behaviors are the norm on any given day, at any given time. 
The first, most apparent problem as I saw it, was that the two caregivers were relating to him in very different ways. If I could bring insight into this imbalance to both caregivers, and if they both began using the same methods of relating to the child, we’d likely have more success at helping him to feel more safe and secure in context of this “continuity of care”, meaning: he’d likely feel safer because there would be more consistency in how he was being treated and ‘handled’.

Working from the perspective, then, of emotional safety being the overarching developmental goal of childhood allows us to recognize that the safer this boy feels as himself, in his body, within his environment, the less likely he would be to act out, since his acting out is a call for an intervention to help him get what he needs: an internal sense of balance and security the adults could provide by themselves being balanced and consistent in how they relate to him – step one.

In our story, one caregiver has an inconsistent approach and inconsistent emotions she displays to the boy. She seems uncertain of what to do much of the time. During one observation, when Adam (not the child’s real name) is noncompliant she attempts to redirect him from across the room (“Adam, put the books back on the shelves, okay?”). He does not listen and in fact begins throwing books her way. The caregiver is exhausted from dealing with him, so she ignores him and begins reading a story to another child on the floor. (“He doesn’t listen anyway, so what’s the use”, she tells me.) Next, Adam is on the couch behind her dropping heavier and heavier items onto her head. Finally she yells at him out of frustration and he acts up more than before: throwing more items across the room, running, and knocking objects around.

Enter the second caregiver. She is confident, consistent, firm and warm with the children. She addresses any issues by approaching the child personally and kneeling to their level, speaking eye-to-eye with them, being sure to use non-shaming tones and words. She uses inquiry and humor, sets limits and uses role modeling to teach the skills the child has not yet developed. Her own consistent, balanced, respectful state of being and relating -, which translates into her perception, approach and management of him – is what Adam needs to feel safe; he trusts that she will continue to be balanced and safe for him. So it is easier – far easier for him to have the willingness to comply with her directives when he has this trusting relationship that makes him feel secure – read: emotionally safe.

Adam’s non-compliance, aggression and attention-seeking behaviors are lessened at the moment due to this method of engaging which this caregiver provides. But because this method is not used by the first caregiver also, Adam continues to act out in this environment overall. The adults’ methods of perception, approach, and management of children are not in synch at all, and Adam’s behaviors are, to a significant degree in this environment, the outcomes of that inconsistency.

What went on for Adam is true for many children: his negative behaviors are signaling that he is not feeling the balance in his internal world – within himself, in large part because his first caregiver does not have the skills set to be the external source of balance in how she relates to him.

Being a balanced caregiver is one of the pieces to helping him acquire this internal balance. This aspect of the child’s relationships falls under the domain of “Attachments/Relationships”, one of nine domains of health and well-being requiring balance – all prerequisites to self-regulation.

So how to understand a more systematic approach to providing the balanced attachment the Adams of the world are seeking? For starters, let’s break the lesson of this scenario down into what we may call “Engagement vs. Redirection”. We can define redirection as a simple, short statement of what you want a child to do differently. You’re basically saying, “Put the books on the shelves; it’s time to ______fill in the blank here.” Engaging a child requires more time and effort, and is a mechanism for developing a positive emotional attachment with a child based upon mutual warmth, respect, and trust. It occurs over time, and is the foundation for a healthy relationship. Once this relationship is developed, redirection can be used more successfully. (Note: inherent in this dynamic of compliance is our need to be sensitive to the different types of children’s needs, including their types of intelligence and transition needs. See here, here, and here for ideas on this subject.)

When we recognize our own need to be a more balanced caregiver, we can use the following “Adam” example to help us develop a personalized system for our perception, approach and management of his behavior.

1.) We approach him personally and Engage – We walk over to where the child is and get down to his level, calmly and respectfully address what he is doing, feeling, his desires, and/or what we think his body needs (to express energy, for example).

2.) We know two goals. – Our “activity goal”: to get Adam to pick up the books from the floor and put them back on the shelves, (We’re setting limits here) and our “relationship goal”: to develop a better relationship with him (i.e.: a better attachment to him). This means we obviously avoid saying anything that will put him on the defensive and not want to talk with us, like “What’s the matter (with you)? Why can’t you listen like the others?” Sometimes we unwittingly communicate with anger and frustration and this can set a child off, so even though we all know this, it’s worth repeating that it pays to be in check of how we present ourselves.

To make or improve that emotional connection, we try engaging him in a pleasant conversation about his activity, and also address how he seems to be feeling, and then set limits.

Primarily we show him that we are interested in him and that he matters. We do this  by being intentional in our approach. When I do this I kneel down, look in the child’s eyes and with patience and warmth I’ll say something like, “Hey Adam, I see you’ve been looking at some books. Which are the ones you like best?”

 The goal of using these intentional specific steps here is to help the child establish one of two different schemas –or concepts- for who he believes himself to be. The emotions of warmth related to feeling respected, interesting to someone, of being liked – these help to develop his emotional schema for his self-concept. In other words, the emotions he is feeling translate to unconscious messages of “I am of interest to this person/respected by her/worthy of being listened to. She enjoys me/likes me, so I must be of value; therefore, I must be good for her to relate to me this way.”

Think about it. What do you feel and perhaps unconsciously process in a similar adult situation? Can you imagine it for a very small child? How they come to develop self-pride or shame? I am sharing these inferences in order that the reader understand the idea of how an emotional schema for “I am liked. I am wanted. I am good.” can be developed and nurtured. I cannot overstate this importance.

So there are many things going on here within Adam’s awareness, however conscious or unconscious – and they are affecting the way he views himself by virtue of how we are viewing him. Therefore they are affecting the way he feels about himself, and us. We are showing him respect by approaching him, getting to his level, and making kind eye contact. We are not accusing him, rather we are inquiring as to what he is doing and what he likes. This makes him feel good, and puts him at ease, and this is the right track.

3.) Identify things about him. – We say, “Out of all these books, which are your three favorite? Oh, one about boats, one about trains, and one about flying in a plane! You really like things that move, don’t you?” By asking Adam to show us his favorite books we continue to create a sense in him that what he likes matters to us and this really helps him begin to feel a positive emotional connection/attachment to us. In Adam’s mind, because what he likes matters to us, he must matter to us, and this message is no small thing.

In pointing out that he likes things that move, we are further helping him to see himself through the lens of what he likes, and this helps to shape the idea – or cognitive schema – he has for who he is. He is now considering himself as someone who likes things that move. This may not seem like such a big deal to us, but to a three year old, it’s the very building up of his self-concept. He’s internalizing a more cognitive validation of who he is, and this, along with the building up of his positive emotional schema, helps him gain a clearer picture of himself as a likable, respected, interesting person in the world which makes him feel very good indeed.

4.) Go for the activity goal. – By investing time into inquiring about Adam as a person, we began to make our relationship goal. If that feels like a solid foundation –and it is likely to, especially over time, then we go for the activity (clean up) goal: “Let’s put these three books over here and bring them to circle time so we can show our friends what you like. But first, let’s get the rest of these books on the shelf.” We don’t ask him; we tell him. If he begins to melt down, we provide more choices to help him gain a sense of control: “Do you want to put the books back first, or take your books to the circle area first?” “Do you want to get the other kids together for circle when we’re finished, or should I do it?” Here we are skillfully attempting to expand that positive connection which ideally will both lead us to the next activity, and gain Adam’s compliance with returning the books to the shelves in the meantime.

So that is the goal, process, and ideal result of “engaging” a child. Redirecting a child, say, from across the room, when we do not have a warm, trusting, and in his eyes – safe relationship with him, is less likely to produce compliance, although some children comply out of fear. Threatening, manipulating, shaming, or otherwise instilling fear to get a child to do what is wanted may work in some cases, but we know it is not the foundation for a truly safe, warm and loving relationship. Do we want our kids to use those kinds of tactics on themselves or with others? Of course not, because this is where bullying can start, and other maladaptive ways of relating.

Remember that our goal is to help the child develop “right relationship” with himself – this is the prerequisite for developing healthy relationships with others. This is the prerequisite for establishing peace in the world.

As we use warmth, humor, and inquiry as a process of engagement, we teach the child to be warm, easygoing, and engaging with himself and his peers.

In addition to using engagement to develop healthy emotional bonds with our child, we need to be mindful of setting realistic limits based on realistic expectations of his age and developmental stage. We should not expect, for example, two and three year olds to sit for however many minutes of circle time, or even older children if they are bored. Recognizing each child’s unique intelligence, needs, and skills sets is key here.

The other piece is being consistent with how we handle the part when they don’t comply – our “follow-through”.

Also, we want to be present for the child and really listen to him, really see him, and we want to keep our own emotional dramas if we have them out of the equation and be consistent in our manner so the child learns to trust us. This requires our own ongoing commitment to being vulnerable to objective, kind, non judgmental self-insight.

There is much more to discuss, but these are foundational factors to “being the balance” for a child.

Denise Durkin, M.A. Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant & Self-Regulation Specialist

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    FREE Class Series b. 8/8/16: Learn The Holistic Child’s Self-Regulation Program

    Hello Friends,

    Like everyone, I am heartbroken about the state of the world and grieve for all the violence happening. Anyone who reads this blog knows my thoughts on the importance of healthy identity development and emotional safety as the key factors leading to the development of self-regulation – the precursor to Right Relationship with oneself, and the basis for Right Relationship with others – read: No Violence.

    Because I want to help as much as I can, I am teaching The Holistic Child’s Self-Regulation Program for FREE in a six-week class beginning Monday, Aug. 8, 2016 in Philadelphia, PA. See this link for specific dates, location and time:

    Learn a Self-Regulation Program to Improve Children’s Behaviors

    Monday, Aug 8, 2016, 7:00 PM

    Chestnut Hill branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia
    8711 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill section of NW Phila., PA 19118 Philadelphia, PA

    5 Members Attending

    Got kids with challenging behavior? Come learn a holistic model for understanding and increasing children’s capacities for self-regulation. In these six classes (see schedule, below, we begin Aug. 8, 7pm) you’ll learn a 3-pronged model of the why’s and how’s for increasing children’s abilities to follow directives, manage and appropriately express …

    Check out this Meetup →

    Hope to see you there.




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      Want your child to learn self-control? First teach self-validation.

      Note, this original post was published in Attachment’s blog Aptly Said in November, 2015. Both it and this post were slightly edited from the original posting of several years ago, which I thought was definitely worth another read given the violence in Paris, San Bernadino and elsewhere in the world. Peace begins within us. Psychological literacy is so important and I hope these articles help increase it because understanding human behavior is imperative to raising insightful, compassionate children and establishing peace in the world. I will continue to make this point and work to increase psychological literacy to this end. Cheers.


      A child’s ability to form healthy self-validation is a vital goal of child development. In fact, a child’s capacity for self-validation has everything to do with the development of emotional safety — the overarching developmental goal of childhood.

      To use the word “validate” in the context of relationships, we’re referring to the process by which a person values that which she (or he) knows and feels is true and right for herself, and then acts in accordance with her inner knowing in support of her own self and her own needs.

      As we raise our children to be intimate with what they feel, sense and know, and to honor and support themselves in their knowing, we are providing them with this fundamentally valuable tool for successfully navigating their internal and external experiences throughout their life.

      This is the foundation for a child’s capacity to acquire the more complex self-regulation skills he (or she) needs to actualize his potential. It’s the very important task we have of validating his unconditional goodness, and what he feels, thinks, desires and knows — which then tells him he is “right” in the world, that his experiences are important and that his dreams are valuable.

      It’s we — the caregivers, teachers and parents — who largely determine how a child comes to validate him- or herself. Let’s keep this in mind as I describe “Sarah.”

      Sarah is 4 years old, joyful, full of life and wicked smart. I was called in to observe her and consult with her preschool teachers and parents due to her “impulsive, inattentive, non-compliant, emotional, potentially dangerous” behaviors of refusing to sit in circle time and constantly banging into objects: outside with her tricycle, and inside where she would run into and purposefully, though playfully, try to topple both other children and adults. Sarah could also be irritable and angry, displaying explosive behaviors when caregivers attempted to redirect her and minimize her complaints.

      Sarah had a typical complaint of wanting to do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. She argued that she could in fact listen while doing other things during circle time; however, the teachers wanted all the kids sitting “criss-cross apple sauce” on the floor, eyes on them. Because of her complaints, fidgeting and refusal to cooperate, Sarah was made to sit in a chair at a table removed from the group, and to color while the rest of the class conducted their weather discussions, reviewed the alphabet and learned the letter of the day.

      Although this decision to exclude Sarah from circle time appears to wrongly shame her, one of her teachers demonstrated both compassion and insight to see that this form of physical structure — sitting on the chair at the table — with an activity to calm her mind and busy her hands — coloring — in fact enabled Sarah to participate fully in their discussions and add to it with more intelligent, creative contributions than most of the other students.

      It took some prompting in this rigid classroom, but the staff learned to tweak their expectations and appropriately loosen their requirements of the children, who were then given the choice to sit for circle time or not. Sarah was no longer shamed for being different, and she experienced validation from her teachers that her way of participating in circle time was best for her.

      Her teachers’ validation of her translated into her own self-validation for speaking up about what she knew to be true for herself.

      In the play yard, we reviewed Sarah’s sensory needs that were mistakenly seen as aggressive in intention. The plowing into objects and people instead suggested she was seeking physical gross-motor input in that she displayed no anger at these times but seemed to have a lot of fun doing the plowing. It served her.

      In addition to creating safe places for Sarah to get this physical input — like jumping onto heavy mats from a not-too-high step during scheduled and play intervals throughout the day — we got her mom’s written permission for teachers to give Sarah frequent, deep-pressure hugs and squeezes as a preventative measure to the more impulsive plowing behaviors. I also made a referral for a physical therapy consult. We asked Sarah to let us know when she was feeling out of sorts and to seek the big, bear hugs that immediately calmed her, as soon as her body began to tell her that she needed them.

      Her caregivers at school and home began listening to her more — and began seeing her more clearly as a child who needed their support to speak up about her experiences and needs.

      I also recommended a nutritional consult, and as a treatment team, we began incorporating the foods into her diet — and eliminating others — that would prove to seem to balance her nervous system so that some of the impulsivity diminished.

      Additionally, we built in the time, place and space for her to enjoy more creative, stimulating activities to express herself, learn and teach us about herself: how she thinks, feels, senses and relates to herself, others and the world.

      What worked for Sarah is that we were able to see her through various lenses of her holistic health and well-being. By using protocols within the sensory, biology-physical expression, creative self-expression, nutrition and attachment-relationship lenses, we successfully learned to honor what Sarah knew to be true for herself, and we provided her with more knowledge and supports that she needed to further know and support herself.

      Sarah learned how to validate herself by internalizing 2 concepts:

      “I am someone who needs, seeks and gets big hugs and squeezes, special play activities and the best foods to make me feel calm, balanced and safe.” She knows that these are the right things for her. And because Sarah taught her caregivers that they need to listen to her and to fully see her and learn from her, Sarah was able to internalize an aspect of her identity as a person of value in the world.
      “I am valued. What I think, feel, want, experience and express matters to others. I am worthy of being heard and seen and respected.” She needed us to validate her so that she could further validate her own self and know that she is doing the right things to keep herself in balance and feel safe.
      You can substitute just about any example of a child’s life situation here. The experiences and lessons will likely be the same: We want our child to know what it is that she (or he) knows, to honor what it is that she knows and, when old enough, to seek the supporting knowledge to inform her decisions further.

      The thing is, we need to really see our child and listen to him (or her). We cannot try to make him fit into an old ideal of how he “should” behave, act or be. We must meet him “where he’s at” and start there. Our goal is that we use and teach skills sets containing “ways of thinking and doing” to support children in being themselves throughout the trajectory of their lives.

      Children can and do fall through the cracks. If we had continued to ignore what Sarah was telling us, she may likely have developed increased shame, anger, rebellion and, over time, an attitude of “Forget you, you’re not listening to me. I’ll do what I want and feel good about it.”

      She might have someday come to validate herself in other ways that create rage, division and resentment. She very well could have tied in with peers who not only validate these emotions but — worse — use them to fuel deeper discord, judgment, intolerance, hatred, retaliation and violence.

      To some, Sarah’s classroom experiences may seem small. It may seem like the negative outcomes I postulated are a stretch to what actually happened in the classroom. I am telling you, this is so not a stretch. This is how it begins: We do not see our children, so we do not listen to our children and then we try to put them under our thumb. This is not holistic child care. This is not the way we promote secure attachment at home or at school.

      In another scenario, Sarah may have other tendencies. Perhaps instead, she withdraws — becoming depressed and later numbing out with drugs, food and dysfunctional relationships. Are those fates any less happy for her? With another who validates her anger and aggression, at least she feels like she’s accepted and belongs somewhere. In all cases, she’s only simply seeking to keep herself safe.

      Feeling balanced on the inside by people and circumstances who support her and provide balance “on the outside” do this. We do this. Our child’s emotional safety, her (or his) happiness and her success depend on us. The level of peace in the world depends on us.

      I’ve seen the outcomes of ignoring kids’ true needs before, and so have you — in the variations of the same tragic stories that we hear about in the media so often we are becoming numb to them. Do you see that this is an epidemic?

      Do you see that we can stop violence, and all that goes with it, in our children if we pay more attention to how we see them and relate to them? It is a simple concept — though a complex process that requires work and perhaps new paradigms for teaching teachers, supporting parents and addressing mental health.

      We’ve got to fully wake up and act on how this dynamic works for the sake of helping our children grow up happily, confidently and peacefully. We have no one to blame if we do not target this now.

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        Kid-friendly, Guilt-free, Vegan Chocolate Cake (& Cookie) Recipe for Balanced, Healthy Eating

        Here is my recipe for a vegan cake you make in a pan on the stove. Yes, it’s a pancake! :) When cooked, it cuts nicely into pie-shaped pieces and stores well for freezing. *See below for the cookie version.

        For children and adults sensitive to caffeine and also sugar you may want to halve the amount of chocolate and coconut sugar listed, and therefore use a little less liquid. Please note I am not a nutritionist and you should always consult with your physician and pediatrician with questions and before making changes to your family’s diet. Also, I am not an advocate of using much sugar in a standard diet but for treats this works for me and I wanted to share it with you.

        In a medium bowl combine:

        1 Cup buckwheat flour

        1 Cup flax meal (ground flax seeds)

        3/4 Cup cacao powder, or cocoa powder

        3/4 Cup coconut sugar

        1 tsp baking soda

        Mix with fork.

        Add to it:

        1 and 1/4  Cup liquid, + almond or vanilla extract. I use coconut or almond milk with a little water, and mix in 1 tsp almond extract. (Note, I think this amount of almond extract tastes really strong in the batter itself, but is really tasty once the pancake is fully cooked. You can play with this, too.)

        Combine the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and let the mixture sit for ten or so minutes. The flax meal will soak up the liquid. You can then add a bit more liquid to the batter if you’d like.

        In a large skillet with a lid, melt 2 or so TBL coconut oil. Spoon the batter into your pan and press into a round, flat-ish shape. Cook covered on low (about level 3.5 on a gas stove) for about 25-30 minutes, or until the edges begin to get a little done (even crispy) and the center is rather firmed up.  It should be cooked enough through so that you do not have to flip it.

        * I have also swirled a little peanut butter into this recipe, and, have made cookies with this recipe by adding grated or ground ginger and dropping heaping spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet (I use coconut oil) and then baking them at 350 degrees for 14 minutes. They turn out wonderfully, and taste just as good after having been frozen.

        Enjoy ~


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          A Child’s Wish


          I want to live in warmth and


          without corners or sharp edges

          with the freedom of Safety

          to surrender myself

          my     Self

          to the world.


          No coldness

          or harshness

          no unseen attempts

          at connectedness to Love,

          to Life.


          I want to live in the soft, seen

          warm world.

          in the light

          of Presence and comfort

          of wantedness

          and sharing

          of understanding and compassion


          of harmonious,


          neutral enchantment.





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            Emotional Safety is the Overarching Developmental Goal of Childhood. Here are Six Ways We Foster It.


            Personal competence and self-efficacy are the result of feeling safe, and the reverse is true as well. How can we expect children to tap into their sense of personal competence and feel like they are effective at “doing life” if they do not feel safe being themselves in their families? In their schools and communities?

            Emotional safety is the overarching developmental goal of childhood. Period. Here are six ways we foster it in children.

            1. We are infinitely patient and kind. We are firm when needed as children grow, but never not these two things. Patience and kindness show respect. When children feel respected by us, they will respect themselves and know their lovableness. This is emotional safety.

            2. We carefully choose our words so they (our words) do not equate children’s behaviors to their identity – to the goodness they feel about themselves that defines them as a person in the world. We refrain from saying things like, “Be good.” “If you’re good/bad today, you’ll get/you won’t get to have or do ____.” because even though you may referring to his behavior, when a child hears this he is actually internalizing a negative message about who he is.

            The message a child internalizes when he hears statements like this, and/or experiences negative attitudes from us because we believe this too, is that his value and essential acceptance as good enough, lovable enough, acceptable enough – depend on his behavior.  So he thinks that when he has a meltdown, hits another child, withdraws, refuses to share, (fill in the behavior here) – that he himself “is not good”.  This is not a message we want him to internalize about himself because it relays conditional acceptance by us based on his “not good enough-ness”, and this does not feel safe.

            By relating with him with total acceptance of who he is and explaining to a child that no matter what they do, feel or express, they are always “good”, we teach them that good is who they are; it is their essence, and thus their core identity.  See this article for more info on the psychological dynamics of identity development as it relates to self-regulation abilities.

            3. We have reasonable expectations for children, and for our plans of the day/week. We explain them as best we can, and keep it flexible. Our flexible attitude and manner allow children to see that life is not a straight line, mistakes are made and forgiven, and the built-in bumps in life can be managed gracefully and in good humor. They learn we are not perfect, and that it is okay that they aren’t either. They know their true worth and feel safe.

            4. We feed them real food. Feed a child simple sugars like bread, pasta, pretzels, fish crackers, pancakes, cereals, muffins, etc., and little to no green veggies, protein or good fats for a week. His behavior will likely be the outward sign of a lack of internal balance that is affecting how safe he feels in his body. Feed him nutrient dense foods like unprocessed oatmeal, fruit, veggies, fish, nuts, seeds, meats, etc., instead and watch his behavior. His body will begin to rebalance and his mood and behaviors will show improvement (sans sugar withdrawal symptoms), suggesting that he is feeling safe in his body. I recommend Dr. Bill Sears’ book to read the science behind this as well as for good meal and snack recipe ideas. Vegetarians and vegans can easily accommodate many recipes.

            5. We show children that they can Trust us. We are right there when infants and young children cry, and understand that allowing children to cry for long periods of time negatively affects their understanding of being valued, and safe.” We say goodbye to them when the sitter arrives and we have to leave; we avoid sneaking out on them.  If we say we’ll attend an event, we do that. When we are trust worthy, children feel safe.

            6. We actively support our children to be entirely who they are, to express the entirety of what they feel and think without our shaming them or attempting to stifle or otherwise change their expression. We don’t tell boys it’s not okay to cry. We don’t push “pink trends” onto girls. We see children through the many lenses of holism, ensuring we are meeting all of their needs as the unique beings they are and we teach them to see themselves through these same lenses of wholeness. There are nine such lenses as I see it. They are Attachment/Relationships; Creative Self-Expression; Cognition/Intellectual Stimulation; Biology/Physical Expression; Sensory; Nature; Nutrition; Environment; and Spirituality/Consciousness(c). These lenses are research tools for how to accurately perceive and approach our children to best help them feel safe. They make up a Venn diagram called The Wheel of Holistic Perception (c) which is one of three components comprising The Holistic Child’s Self-Regulation Program about which I provide trainings and write.

            The unconditional acceptedness children feel with us in our perceiving and relating to all aspects of their beingness supports them to be fully who they are and helps establish what I consider to be the overarching developmental goal of childhood – emotional safety.




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              How a Child’s Identity Schema is Related to Self-Regulation

              (Please Note:  This post first appeared as an article of the same name for the magazine, The Attached Family, a publication of API, Attachment Parenting International, on 9/5/13.)

              We know that when we engage children personally over time through our warm, sincere, kind and playful interest in them and their activities, we deepen our positive attachment through this attunement to and presence with them, and they are more likely to comply with our directives even if we call to them from across the room to pick up their toys. But why is this so?

              To deepen our insights into why children behave the way they do and increase our psychological literacy overall (it helps with all relationships), it’s worth looking at the underlying dynamics of attachment as they relate to the beginning stages of the most important concept a child will ever develop in her lifetime – her identity schema.

              In psychology and other fields, the term schema is used to describe a mental concept or template used to organize knowledge. Schemas are dynamic, meaning they develop actively and are self-revising. We all have unlimited schemas that we have developed over time, such as our schema for a house, for budgeting, for an ideal companion, etc.

              In this discussion, a child’s identity schema refers to her self-concept. A child’s earliest schemas are tightly-woven formative structures for her sense of self and the world at large – for her idea of who she is, how safe the world is, and how the world sees her. As I see it, this tight web of information and experiences the child begins to internalize in early life is the core origin of her identity schema.

              I am talking about a child’s first impressions about herself, about who she believes herself to be. This belief is directly related to her capacities for self-regulation as she grows up and into adulthood. For example, her ability to tolerate strong emotion, focus on and complete tasks, communicate well and engage rewardingly with others hinge on how safe and balanced she feels, which tie back to her self-concept.

              The first kind of identity schema is made up of emotional imprints, not words, since emotions are preverbal. The thinking here is that we can start to trace the beginning of a child’s identity schema at eight months in utero, when his amygdala begins sensing his mother’s hormone levels. If the mother feels safe and contented, the baby likely will, too. If his mother is in danger or under stress and her cortisol levels are high for extended periods, the baby may experience continued stress, translating to an emotional imprint of being unsafe, ergo, “I am not safe.” This is an awareness that the child won’t be able to recall consciously in later years, yet the emotions are real, and they leave impressions that affect the development of his formative sense of self.

              In the early months and years of a young child, negative experiences such as poverty, lack of physical or emotional nourishment, and other hardships may validate and reinforce his negative identity schema. This may translate to impressions such as, “People don’t care what I have to say, what I like, what I want. I can’t have what I need. What’s wrong with me? I’m not good. I’m not enough.” He may feel both emotionally unsafe and internally imbalanced.

              In contrast, when an infant’s needs are taken care of in loving, compassionate and timely ways, he begins to internalize a positive identity schema. The positive emotions he feels by way of his caregivers knowing and meeting his needs relay these truths to him: “My needs are met. I am taken care of. I am valued. The world is safe. I am lovable. I am good.” The implications for a child’s personality, expectations, happiness, social successes and more, based on this initial schema development, are staggering.

              As he begins to understand words, he also begins to internalize the second kind of identity schema – the cognitive schema for who he is. As he toddles about, the child learns more about himself through labels and the meaning that other people intentionally teach him, such as, “I am a boy. I am a brother. I am a good buttoner. I like painting.” Let’s remember that that he acquires both emotional and cognitive schemas by either assuming them or by being directly taught them. Therefore, it is our very important job to be mindful of what identity schemas we teach and children internalize.

              The choice of attitudes, words, and statements his parents, caregivers, and teachers use with him directly or indirectly affect the messages he internalizes. In a best case scenario, he feels, “I am enough. Life loves me. I am free to be who I am, as I am. I am absolutely cherished.” Once a child feels both safe and balanced, he is capable of self-regulation. And when he is feeling both safe and balanced in his body and in the world – feeling seen, understood, respected, and taken care of – he is much, much more likely to take directives from his caregivers and to decrease behavioral challenges.

              But nobody’s perfect, and we all do what we can based on the skills and awareness we have at any given time. Increasing our psychological literacy can help us make the most insightful and caring choices as we consider our children’s innermost needs and how to meet them.

              Since our goal is to raise our children to be in “right relationship” with themselves as the prerequisite to being in right relationship with others and the world, focusing on their earliest schema development, particularly their identity schema, puts them on the right track for all kinds of successes over the course of their childhood and adult life.


              To read full article with comments in The Attached Family Magazine see here.



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                Applying The Total Load Principle for Increasing Children’s Self-Regulation

                Understanding and applying the Total Load Principle helps to shore up our methods of better relating to and raising our children through our perception, approach, and management of them. Here is a definition for the term total load from a medical dictionary as it relates to health which parallels the holistic health needs that inform a child’s self-regulation abilities:

                total load: n, the sum of factors that influence an individual’s life and health, including food, chemicals, microbes, psychological factors, and other elements. Any one of these factors would not normally cause illness, but the cumulative effect of these agents may overload the functioning in an individual. – From Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (c) 2005, by Wayne Jonas, M.D., Department of Family Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, MD, U.S.A.

                There are many factors that need to be considered for a child to be fully self-regulated. It’s helpful when we look through several lenses to discern what might be going on for a child when he’s exhibiting “challenging” behaviors. In my practice over time I’ve come to observe nine lenses which I use to clarify where there is an imbalance to be made right for a child. I like this system because it is holistic in nature, and even though it’s a universal framework to use with all children, I can still individualize a treatment protocol for each individual child.

                (Please note: To the above definition I would suggest that any one factor may or may not normally or immediately cause imbalance leading to behavioral challenges for a child and agree with the main principle that cumulative effects may overload the functioning, read: capacity to maintain behavioral control/homeostasis.)

                These nine lenses are also nine domains of health and well-being. They are: Attachment/Relationships; Creative Self-Expression; Cognition/Intellectual Stimulation; Nutrition; Nature; Environment; Sensory; Biological/Physical Expression; and Spirituality/Consciousness.

                Personally, I think of spirituality as personal for everyone who chooses to consider it a factor in their life. I also consider spirituality something that knows no religions and all religions which unites us all in our ability to experience awareness of our connectedness to all of life. It may be said to be our level of Consciousness. I feel good about keeping it in this configuration because it speaks to holism, and to what I feel is greatly missing in our children’s lives.

                There is a Venn diagram containing these lenses which I call The Wheel of Holistic Perception and you can access it here on the home page. It’s a good visual to put up in your kitchen or classroom as a reminder to see your child through these lenses of holism. (I address more about all that “fits” into each category ongoingly; some experiences and functions are obvious; others are not so obvious.) We can think about the lenses making up our Total Load Principle (and other principles) as ways to perceive a child, and the various strategies we use as the ways to approach and manage them. It’s all about “perception and approach”; everything distills down to these two actions, which comprise, in fact, a solid way to understand and compassionately manage children, as well as ourselves.

                The Principle of Total Load has two components related to time. The first is that we use this Principle to observe what is going on for a child in the here and now. The second is that we use the Total Load Principle to consider what has been happening over time that affects a child’s states of imbalance that we’re now witnessing.

                In thinking about this second time aspect of Total Load related to children’s imbalances, we need to consider all that might have led up to a child having a meltdown (or – insert other challenging behavior here) on a particular day. It could be x years of unwittingly overly controlling caregivers; it could be building anger and frustration at a peer; it could be the accident a parent or other loved one had that the child has been so worried about. It could be lots of things we’re not seeing. It’s up to us to be great communicators and sleuths.

                The best practice is to incorporate the awareness and wisdom of another very related Principle – that of Generational Influences. Between our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations and our own, we’ve undergone many changes in the ways different systems operate: everything from food production and intake, to educational and child-rearing philosophies, to media and technology, to that which affects air and water quality, and many, many more such changes. It is imperative for us to remember that small changes over time add up. Good and bad, productive and non productive, healthy and toxic, healing and damaging. There are cumulative changes which create toxic outcomes, and we need to take off the blinders now about this fact. There is so much to consider and this occurs across systems such as the ones we’ve mentioned. What may not have outwardly damaged our elders has been passed on to us and to our children, affecting the health of one’s whole being – everything that makes up our mental health. We need to remember that the Principle of Total Load is related to imbalances due to often overlooked, accumulated changes which occur culturally (within our families, communities, and/or within the larger Western culture) over time.

                In our quest to understand and increase a child’s capacity for self-regulation, it’s helpful to use a perceptual format which the Total Load Principle and The Wheel of Holistic Perception provide, since factors in one or more domains of health and well being could arguably account for a lack or absence of this hugely important developmental skill. The Total Load Principle suggests that we assess what may be going on for a child in each of these domains, ensuring the highest degree of our success in helping them, and of the child’s success in feeling his happiest, most fulfilled, well adjusted, and competent self.

                Said another way, when a child’s domains of health and well being are sufficiently identified and addressed, he is feeling balanced within himself, and he is feeling safe. He is experiencing what he needs to in order to feel calm, to think clearly, relate well with others, and to stay focused appropriately for his developmental stage and age. When all caregivers work together to identify and serve all of these needs of the child, we strengthen the factors making up the “total load” for him, thereby strengthening his sense of self-competency and self-confidence in his world.



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                  The Ways We Help or Hinder a Child’s Development of Self-Regulation

                  Within a period of two weeks I observed two very different styles of nurturing from two different caregivers in different schools.  Both teachers are wonderfully kind and caring, wanting only the best for their students. And, like every caregiver -like all of us- they do the best they can with the skills and awareness they have at the time. That said, the outcomes the teachers’ actions had on their tantruming students had very different results, and I wanted to write about my observations in light of seeing how different forms of the help we provide produce different outcomes…

                  The tantrums of both children had different dynamics for which I recommended different strategies. The first observation looked like this:

                  Miss Leslie teaches five year olds.  My client, “David” was having trouble with transitions, and had meltdowns during these times and then difficulty self-regulating. He’d get so upset he couldn’t even make decisions.

                  The trouble for David and his teachers was that when it came time for nap, he screamed and screamed, refusing to sleep. His teachers had no true sense as to why this was happening. We looked more closely at the transition time before nap. There certainly was a lot going on in a short period of time. It looks like this: Recess, then hang up jackets, wash hands, set up cot for nap, set up for lunch, eat, clean up, settle into cots for nap. That’s the routine. (I don’t like that the kids don’t have time to sit upright after eating for proper digestion but that’s a different story.) Although David seemed to be calm up until it was time to set up cots, my sense was that his anxiety level was ramping up at warp speed during that period. His meltdowns seemed to occur because of the extreme over-stimulation he felt at some point in this time period. It was too much for him to do all these activities in the manner of the class schedule.

                  Even though David’s teachers wanted to encourage responsibility by having the kids do as much for themselves as possible, what benefitted David and ultimately solved the problem was asking them to reduce their expectations of David and build in more supports for him during this tricky time. What Leslie ended up doing differently had a wonderful outcome: she simply made David’s cot up for him, which involved getting it from the stack of cots, setting it down in his spot and setting his sheet and pillow on it. It took less than a minute. She realized she didn’t have to view it as giving in, or as babying him. She rightly viewed it as supporting him and nurturing him in this way. She also provided more physical nurturance to David during transition periods in general by putting her hand on his shoulder, or reassuringly rubbing his arm  kindly, while being “present” with him for a few moments. Specifically, her setting up his cot helped so much that David immediately began transitioning and napping with no meltdowns.

                  This simple change David’s teacher made allowed David to experience success in the transitions, to feel a sense of control within these transitions, and to therefore feel good about himself as someone who is competent. Every child senses if they are competent in something or not; Leslie’s wise support helped David experience and strengthen his “I am competent” schema, which is no small thing, especially for a preschooler developing foundational identity constructs.

                  The second scenario I observed involved a teacher who was so over the moon about a three and a half year old who tantrumed in her classroom that she unwittingly “saved” him from natural outcomes. By not using appropriate strategies in a timely manner she impeded “Jake’s” abilities to experience problems and learn to solve them.

                  Miss Jan is a wonderful teacher; she is extremely caring and is a loving presence in her classroom. What I respectfully showed her was how she had become enmeshed with this little boy; that is, she was actually too involved with him emotionally to see that some of her behaviors were adding to the problem of his acting out. She wanted to help him feel better, but by giving him too much of the wrong kind of attention for negative behaviors, and at the wrong times – i.e.: feeding into his tantrums – her overall goal of helping him backfired.  So in this case we agreed that she would jump in less and let the second teacher in the classroom get more involved with Jake during the times when he acted out. Both teachers would be sure to use the strategies I recommended consistently, multiple times per day, every day, to include not feeding into or “giving” too much of oneself to the point that Jake manipulated the staff. Please note: this is not to say that I recommended withholding warm feelings or that I asked Jan to be something other than the caring teacher she is. It is to say that I asked her to begin to see the situation differently, and to see these new approaches to managing Jake as an even better way to love him. I essentially asked her to reformulate her methods of caring for him, without compromising the depth of her fondness for him. For example, we agreed that Jan would continued to warmly nurture Jake with hugs but only during appropriate times, i.e.: when there was a transition in activities; during play time; in the hopefully rare occasion that he got hurt physically from say, a bump or bruise; and always to reinforce when he was displaying positive behaviors.

                  These changes caused Jake to act out even more initially, and this was to be expected. Over time, both teachers kept the balance between co-teaching and intervening without feeding into negative behaviors. They and Jake’s parents used all the strategies consistently. Jake developed more “self-and-other”, and “actions-and-results” awareness, and benefitted from the appropriate, external balance he experienced from his teachers (and parents). The benefits were noted as more stable moods, less attempts to manipulate adults’ emotions, and more compliance. Eventually his tantrums began to decrease and he was not asked to leave the school.

                  Both stories have happy endings. For both boys, this translated to more behavioral successes which resulted from increased feelings of control and self-competence. These feelings and experiences, in turn, inform their social-emotional trajectory and give continued confidence to new activities and ways of relating.










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                    Ensure Congruence with this Coin Flip Exercise and Help Children Develop Self-Regulation

                    By ensuring and honoring “Internal-External Congruence” with your child, you really help place her on a fast track to self-esteem and self-regulation.

                    What I mean by this kind of congruence is when we communicate and act in ways that accurately (congruently) reflect what it is we truly feel, sense, think, and want to do. It’s interesting to consider how often we actually do this. When we make a decision, are we sure it is our decision? That we are making it for ourselves and not for another? When we answer a question about how we ar feeling, are we expressing the truth? Yes, there are times when we need to use discernment and not disclose certain things, either to keep something private or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, etc. I’m referring to other unhealthy examples when a person’s feelings, thoughts, needs and desires are discounted, minimized, or ignored. (And as this relates to children – not when we are attempting to steer them away from bad habits or decisions.)

                    Inherent in this practice of Internal-External Congruence is the degree of self-respect with which we honor ourselves, or not. Are we robotically answering with words and actions we think someone will want to hear us say and do, thereby sweeping our own wants and needs under the rug? Someone who has done this since childhood may likely not be in touch with what he is feeling at all by the tme he reaches adolescence. How happy will this child be throughout life if this continues? What quality of relationships will he have if he remains passive and inattentive to his own feelings, thoughts, needs and desires?

                    Obviously this is a huge piece related to self-esteem and how we correctly foster it in raising our children. We very much want them to be skilled in asserting themselves in life, but they first have to know how it is they actually feel and what it is they actually want. We can be sure to not make those assumptions and related decisions for them (in the right contexts), and, we can help them get in touch with what’s going on inside of themselves.

                    A simple coin flip exercise I’m about to share will help your older preschool or school-age child get in touch with the subtleties of her emotions, wants, and thoughts, and also get her connected to her intuition – her sense of what she knows to be true for her – or not; her sense of what is right or wrong; of whether to trust or not trust; of whether to act or not act, etc. Therefore, congruence – speaking and acting in accordance to how one really feels, thinks, and senses – is greatly related to self-regulation. A child who knows and trusts how she feels, and then acts on this inner knowing, is respecting herself. She is validating herself. This is no small thing, as it sets the stage for further self-trust and leaps in self-confidence, self-respect, and self-competence – all vital skills for self-regulation.

                    When your child is unsure of how she feels about something – say, whether she should invite a classmate to her birthday party who has bullied her and some of her friends in the past but who also has shown appropriate social skills and kindness at times, pull out a coin.  Have your child “assign” to “heads” the decision to invite the classmate to the birthday party, and “assign” to “tails” the decision to not invite the classmate to this party. Have your child flip the coin and when it lands, ask her to describe how she feels about the “decision” the coin has made for her. Does she feel relieved? Glad? Sorry? Confused?

                    There is no judgment in expressing the truth of what one feels and acting upon it, even if it does not seem like the “politically correct” response at the time. In these types of cases when we fear that others may view our decisions as socially awkward, rude, or unkind, there are graceful ways of handling it, and we get more comfortable doing this the more it happens – and I think it’s good when it happens.

                    In our example, your child may have any type of feeling and decision and it’s your job to honor them, keeping your feelings out of it. It might be that she’ll benefit from you helping her to come up with what to say to either explain why the classmate wasn’t invited, or for how to invite them to the party.  If she happened to feel like she wants to give her classmate a chance, you might sit down and think of a “script” for her to use to talk with her classmate about the expectations she has for them at the party. An example might be, “I’d love for the whole group to get along and have fun, like the times when you’ve been kind to me and my friends. Though there have been times you haven’t been and I was really hurt. Let’s talk about how to to be sure everyone’s nice to each other and has a good time.” This added step increases self-regulation skills, too, because it maps out ideas and skills for thinking about non judgment, kindness, compassion, self-respect, putting oneself in another’s shoes, steps to building friendships, solving problems, and trying again.

                    Please note, that although it may seem odd to hear someone state what seems obvious, and to suggest such simple scripts to share with children, I’m afraid it’s actually because we’ve stopped paying attention to the “obvious” that we have so many children with challenging behaviors to begin with. For anyone who’s not used to these suggestions, please read and consider this with fresh eyes. Then try it, and see what happens, and write us with your stories!

                    The coin flip trick is a simple exercise which when used regularly can help your child gain insight into, and respect for her internal experiences. Your encouraging guidance for her to act on her level of “knowing” what feels right for her will greatly increase both her sense of safety with you, and her own personal empowerment. In time, she’ll internalize this process without the use of the coin, increasing her skill set for validating herself. She’ll also likely lead others to use the same process of self-validation.

                    I’ve worked with all ages, including preschoolers and find the language in our example works well with 4 and 5 year olds, and can easily be adapted and simplified with 2 and a half and three year olds. It’s also helpful to use age-appropriate toys for playing out scenarios and lessons. The best are those that the children really like which might be personified, like toy cars, dolls, and puppets. The idea is to get the concepts across in language they’ll understand. I don’t think we can underestimate how much even young babies and toddlers can understand conceptually, and especially through our attunement to them. It’s a learning curve and skill set for all of us to continually develop in sensing what works for each age group we are caring for (and of course age doesn’t necessarily denote typical cognitive or social-emotional congruence). The overarching goal is to make our responses and the activity be about how the child’s emotions matter, that we honor what they are feeling and intuiting, and that they should pay attention to what their emotions and intuition tell them. We practice nonverbal honoring by holding a child, validating them by being present with them, and not ‘shushing’ them when they cry or are angry, etc.

                    These steps build the way for the more developed cognitive strategies for increasing self-regulation we use as the kids grow up. As caregivers we are always paving the way nonverbally and verbally. It’s all happening all the time.

                    Note: this post was edited; it was originally published as “Congruence and Self-Esteem” on Oct. 9, 2009 on my previous blog.




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