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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Parents: Make Bedtime a Social-Emotional Moment with Your Kids

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Education consultant Jennifer Miller has launched a wonderful, valuable new blog site for parents, Confident Parents, Confident Kids that I think merits the attention of anyone working in social, emotional and character development who wants a place to send parents for ideas and advice and dialogue.

As she says, "The purpose of the blog is to help parents actively support their kids' social-emotional development. Parents can get inspired and gain simple, practical ideas for teaching children skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making at home. Readers will be encouraged to participate and share ideas, challenges, and questions in this community of engaged parents."

I asked Jennifer to provide some advice on two questions that are important to teachers and parents, one a "big" question and the other, one of those everyday moments that can have great significance in creating a more emotionally intelligent household.

In asking Jennifer the following question, I was hoping to provide something for teachers who want to engage parents in valuing social-emotional learning in their children.

Maurice Elias: What is the biggest challenge in getting parents to take seriously the need to attend to the social-emotional and character development of their kids, especially compared to academics?

Jennifer Miller: Attending to the development of their children's characters feeds the soul in a way that sheer academics cannot. I think most parents realize it is the core of their role. But the responsibilities of the role, the how and what of cultivating children's social and emotional development are sometimes confusing, often unclear. Two-plus-two in the world of mathematics always equals four but there are not black and white answers in the social and emotional world. Attending to those areas challenges the very person they are and the way that they live. It involves self-examination and reflection. It involves actively working to improve themselves as human beings -- the way they treat others, the attitude and tone they set in their own homes, the way they engage in their communities, and the way they manage their relationships with their most intimate others, their partners and children. It is the hero's journey.

For our multi-tasking, results-oriented, always on call society, stopping to think, reflect, feel, and process how they are handling emotions and the trials of the day to day is tougher than ever. But they can bet their children watch their every move and learn from them. The rewards, though small at first, slow and incremental, result in nothing short of finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Where's that manual anyhow? That's why parents need access to high-quality supports to make their hero's journey possible.

What is your best tip for parents to think about before saying good night to their kids, across the age span, preschool through high school? Is there a SEL moment to be taken advantage of?

Bedtime is a daily opportunity for parents to deepen their connection with their children and cultivate habits of calming down, reflecting and being grateful. First, reading together before bedtime is not solely for young children. Even young adults, though they may not readily admit it, benefit from reading with parents. Reading stories helps children calm down, offers the opportunity for connection between the two of them, and promotes language development skills. Taking the time to get cozy and read a story to them that their child has chosen or has interest in promotes connection through the parents' devoted attention and shared interest. For young adults, reading a chapter of a high interest book together can lead to conversations about the story and new connections that might not have been made otherwise. It may have the added benefit of cultivating a love of reading for a lifetime of enrichment and enjoyment. In addition, bedtime is a natural time for reflection. The story can create a sense of calm that can lead to a discussion about the events of the day.

My son and I talk through all of the major events of the day after the business of getting on pajamas and brushing teeth is taken care of. "I was sad when Grammy and Papa left today" he said last night. It gives me the opportunity to talk with him about issues that might be bothering him. It also affords me the opportunity to let him know when I am proud of him. I point those out and name them specifically as they come up naturally with the review of the day. "It was thoughtful of you to offer your friend a snack when he came to play with us this afternoon." It leads naturally into gratefulness, which we call our "happy thoughts." Each night, we have a habit of naming the people, things or experiences from the day that we are grateful for. Thoughts of gratefulness not only put a child in a calm, positive state of mind to promote a restful night of sleep but also, help children appreciate the good things in life and focus on, and not take for granted, those good things. And of course, this is the sacred time when "I love you." are the words that need to be heard by all children no matter what transpired during the day.

As a final thought, adding to Jennifer's, I would include having older siblings read to younger ones at bedtime is yet another a way to spread the SECD benefits within your family.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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