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Summer Holidays; Structure Versus Freedom


As we head into the summer holidays, most kids (and teachers) are desperately looking forward to some downtime. This abrupt release from a structured routine is a welcome relief to many, but for others, it is an open ended stress pit.

If we think of freedom and structure as two ends of a spectrum, imagine where your happy place is. Do you embrace not having a plan and going with the flow? Do you impose structure to feel productive and avoid a sense of aimlessness? A bit of both? How about your child?

structure - freedom spectrum

Think about how your child responds to summer vacation–do they manage to fill their own time, or drive you nuts asking for something to do? Have you always filled their time (camps) for them?

This is a great week to sit down with your child to draw out the spectrum above and see where they think they land. In my experience, particularly with my stress management groups, the majority of kids need a bit of structure to avoid feeling stressed. This doesn’t mean every minute of the day needs to be accounted for, or that as a parent you need to decide what they do and when. Intermediates are increasingly ready to take on more of this responsibility for themselves. They might just need you to point the way.

What you can do

  • See where they land on the spectrum
  • Prompt them to think of regular daily activities they could plan to provide the right amount of structure for them
    • Daily walk
    • Reading
    • Playdates
    • Working on a personal project
    • Free time (yes some people do need to schedule this)
  • You could ask if there is an activity they need to limit in order to feel good overall (gaming, screens, excessive school work)

How to Use Failure to Build Resilience

Soccer goalie getting scored on

I was thinking about the post I wrote a few months ago on perfectionism, and how it is rooted in the fear of failure. I have seen a gradual increase in the last decade in students who are so afraid of failing, that they limit their risk taking to the point where their worlds become very small.

In this week’s blog, I am recommending a couple of short, useful articles on using failure as a resilience building tool.

Taking risks is vital in helping kids to explore new ideas, activities and relationships. In short, we learn resilience by failing well. Not all risks pan out. Failure can hurt, be embarrassing, and make kids want to retreat to a safer place. That’s normal; but as the caring adults in their lives, we need to help them process their feelings in a way that leaves them willing to try again (fail well). It also means we need to give them the rope to try things we may know will end badly. After all, think back to when you were a kid. Did you learn your biggest lessons from instant success or from messing up and trying again? How did you build your resilience? Who helped you?

Beth Arky’s articles ‘How to Help Kids Learn To Fail’ and ‘4 Ways to Help Your Teen Overcome Their Fear of Failure’ are great resources for parents looking to reframe failure as a valuable learning experience, and build their child’s resilience towards life’s challenges. They each outline a few key steps to guide kids through their feelings so that they can look at the situation for what it is; a small necessary step in a long journey.

Key Steps in Making Failure Your Child’s Ally

  • Respond to failure without judgement; judgment increases anxiety and lessens the chance that the child will see it as normal or a learning opportunity
  • Show empathy; validate their feelings
  • Share your own experience; what have you been through that is relatable? How did you feel?
  • Growth mindset; failure is our greatest teacher, and shouldn’t be avoided. Use it as a teachable moment; help your child problem solve through the situation. Look at various actions and their likely results–good and bad
  • Allow for opportunities to fail; focus on the skill building; patience, persistence and positive self talk
  • Lead by example; kids learn more from what we do than what we say, and they are always watching us

A Simple Self Talk Activity

kid chasing off negative thoughts

Earlier this year my vice principal sent me a link to the following Reddit post ‘Jeremy Lins Response to Kenyon Martin’. Basically, Kenyon Martin says some negative things about Jeremy Lin in a public interview. In the age of social media apps, publicly sharing unfiltered thoughts is all too common. Lins response, however, is far less common. Rather than being sarcastic, retaliating or even ignoring, Lin uses his social media to turn a negative into a positive.

How does this relate to kids and stress?

To me, this is all about self talk. I am sure that Lins initial emotional response was not as positive as his tweet. When I shared Martin’s quote with the kids, we used our self talk chart to work out what we figured Lin might have been thinking, how he felt and predicted what he might have done. It looked like this:

Triggering incidentThought (self talk)FeelingAction
Martin’s quote“Am I racist?”, “People must think I’m such a loser”, “I should cut my hair”, “Martin is a jerk and I hate him”Embarrassed, sad, ashamed, angryLay low, lash out with extreme force over social media, humiliate him

When I shared Lins tweet with the kids, they were surprised and impressed. We talked about how he might have dealt with hurtful thoughts and feelings in order to be able to respond the way he did. Again, it goes back to being mindful; being aware of how your thoughts (in response to a situation) can really determine what you feel and do.

feeling - thinking spectrum

The kids realized that he had to challenge any initial negative thoughts (as above) and consciously choose a more positive replacement thought. He had to get himself from a place of strong feeling to a place of thinking.

So we did a second chart.

Triggering incidentThought (self talk)FeelingAction
Martin’s quote“My hair is like this because I like it that way. There is nothing racist in appreciation”, “Martin must be pretty upset about something to lash out like that. He doesn’t even know me, so it probably has nothing to do with me personally”, “He and I have something in common – maybe that’s how we can connect in a good way”Confused, proud, calm, hopeful, determinedPositive twitter response

If you come across a situation in real life or online, role playing through it with your child/class/self is a great opportunity to practice thinking about self talk. Sometimes, kids, have an easier time breaking down other people’s thinking, and that can be a gateway to better understanding and managing their own.

Mindful Moments with Headspace and JusTme

JusTme meditating with a kid

About a month ago, I was telling a friend of mine about testing out different mindfulness apps and sites with my kids. I really like the mobile Headspace app, because it is so user friendly. For my purposes with the kids, the free version is great; I can set it for a 5 minute session and that is just enough to either ease the kids into a calmer state of mind to start our sessions or to help them transition back to the rest of their day. My stress management groups seem to like it, however, it did not go over as well with my anger management group, who twitched, and mimicked the voice of the speaker and basically did not engage at all.

When I told my friend about this experience, and how these kids would really benefit from developing a small daily mindfulness practice, but I was struggling to get them to give it a go, she recommended I try ‘Mindful Moments with JusTme’.

I have noticed that most apps, sites and even the old CD’s that lead listeners through guided meditations have, from an adult perspective, very soothing voices. Soothing, yes, but rather uniform (slow, even, not quite monotone but not far off) and perhaps harder for our kids to connect with.

JusTme is a hip hop artist who specializes in leading, promoting and normalizing mindfulness practices with youth. He’s young, cool, and hasn’t moderated his voice into a nondescript, slow, mesmerizingly even toned droll, like many of us are now used to (and probably quite like). His videos are a wonderful balance, in keeping with his hip hop roots while really helping to engage the young and hard to engage. He is warm and reassuring, but also targeting youth specifically. It makes a difference.

My kids in this second group not only followed through with the short guided meditation but asked to go through a second. There was a time many, many years ago, when I was young and cool; but that time has passed. I am grateful that I have found a way to bridge the connection gap, even in this small way.

Where Do You Put Your Energy?

kid with no more energy

A few weeks ago I noticed that a lot of my students were showing signs of being very run down. There are probably many factors at play here, but it gave me the idea of having them do a bit of an energy audit. When you feel like your energy is low, it makes sense to have a look at how you are spending it – can you economize? Are you leaving our self care?

I have done this very exercise with myself a couple of times and found it a helpful check in. I have said this many times, but getting things out of our heads and onto paper makes it easier to visualize and therefore manage those things.

First, I had the kids list everything they felt they were doing in the last couple of weeks, that took energy. I had to remind them to include easily forgotten energy sucks like bathing, picking out clothes for the next day etc. I even reminded them that if they were feeling stressed, or were struggling to sleep, that was an energy expenditure. Below is a sample list.

  • Boring self care; showers, making lunches and organizing clothes and materials for the day/week, walking to school in bad weather
  • School work and homework
  • Extracurricular practices
  • Saturday School
  • Stress; peer, family, worrying about the future
  • Trying to sleep

Next, I had them draw a big circle and sort their energy expenditures into sections, creating a pie graph.

stressful pie chart

A few kids realized that they couldn’t even fit all their sections in. A few were feeling pretty good and had energy left over (sadly a small minority). I asked them to make a second pie chart redistributing their energy spending the way they would like to – even leaving a section open.

pie chart for self care

Finally, we talked about ways to try and redistribute that energy. This involved looking at strategies we have been trying to reinforce all year:

  • considering their sleep Hygiene
  • adding in mindfulness practices to help them live more in the present and less in the past and future.
  • being mindful of their self talk
  • pre-booking time to spend on enjoyable self care and energizing activities (before the energy is all spent)
  • remembering that everything is temporary

How to Use Gratitude to Combat Stress

kid giving a flower

Last week I wrote about the basics of both physical and mental self care. This week I’d like to build on that by focussing particularly on gratitude.

In order to be truly grateful, we must pause and reflect. The act of simply pausing to acknowledge is in itself valuable because it means we are living in the present. Most of the time, the kids I work with are both or either future focussed (worrying) or past focussed (replaying events, and usually not the good ones). Making a daily practice of gratitude links with the first strategy I work on with kids; learning to refocus on the small positive things as much or more than the negatives.

At this point in the year, they are used to coming in and starting our sessions by sharing one good thing that happened over the previous couple of days. Initially, a lot of kids really struggle with this, especially at the tween/teen stage of life, where from their point of view, the world can be a bleak place. The key is practice. Make it a habit.

As a group, we worked out a few different ways to work gratitude into their daily lives, based on what they enjoy and their learning styles.

For my intrapersonal learners and list makers:

  • Writing a list of small good things every day (often before bed)
  • Write a letter to someone expressing why you appreciate them

For my artists and visual learners:

  • Write down small good things on any scrap of paper as they happen, and put them in a glass jar. Take out and read when needed
  • Draw a quick doodle or something to represent small good things at least once a day. If you enjoy drawing, this has a double benefit.

For my kinesthetic learners:

  • Take a daily gratitude walk/cycle/run/tree climb; the goal is to look for beauty, however, you define it.
    • Some kids added that taking pictures would reinforce this

For my interpersonal learners:

  • Gratitude visits; spend time with people who lift you up
  • Express to those people, in person, why you appreciate them

I think the key is that kids need to start with what they already enjoy and build that practice into a regular and purposeful habit. Making positive reflection a routine can have a profound impact on the emotional filter kids use to make sense of the world. Won’t we all benefit from a world where our youth and future leaders more naturally see possibility, rather than a liability.

The Importance of Self Care for Kids

calm kid sitting cross legged

Our ability to manage stress is largely built on a foundation of strong self care habits. Taking regular care of basic physical and emotional needs contributes to our overall well being and resiliency. Recently I was given a copy of ‘Personal Resiliency’ and decided I needed to share this with my students. I like that it is set up like a checklist, and would be useful hanging in a high traffic location like the kitchen refrigerator.

While I think this may have been designed for adults, it is useful for everyone. When working with tweens and teens, however, it is important to filter the information through their lens. The annotated list below is what we collectively recreated. They represent ideals. We do not always/usually live up to all of our ideals. Our list below is meant to serve as a set of goals.

Physical Considerations

Eating Well

  • Nutritious food used as fuel
  • Not starving (to save up for a binge or for weight loss)
  • Not eating for emotional reasons

Sleep Hygiene

  • Growing bodies need more sleep 9-10 hours/night; listen to your body
    • Balance between a biological drive to stay up later and sleep in with school start times
  • Build in ‘wind down’ time for 2 hours before sleep
    • Gentle stretching, guided meditation, soft music
    • Read something light/ not disturbing
    • Avoid screens
    • Make sure you ate in advance so you are not hungry or full


  • Roughly 8 cups or equivalent/day
  • Avoid excessively drinking caffeinated beverages
  • Fresh fruit and veg can also hydrate


  • Much debate over how much exercise is needed; listen to your body
  • Make a point of using all muscle groups daily
  • Pay attention to how long you are sitting; get up and move, stretch at regular intervals

Emotional/Mental Considerations

Meaningful Connections

  • Daily interactions with friends and family are linked to happiness
  • Consider that communication is mostly body language, facial expression and tone of voice, rather than the actual words we use
    • Face to face interaction is far more meaningful than texting or communicating through various social media platforms

Time Out

  • Some time each day away from obligations (homework, social drama)
  • What ‘fills your bucket’ and gives you more energy physically and emotionally?
    • Does _______ (gaming, screen time)  re-energize you, so you can deal with ____, or does it simply serve as an avoidance strategy?

Daily Mindfulness

  • Check in with/challenge your self talk
  • Are you using healthy outlets for your stress and frustration
    • Outlets that help you process your feelings, not marinate in them
    • Outlets that do not damage you or anyone else
  • Regularly be in the moment
    • Let go of past and future to enjoy the present (the weather, those around you, what you are doing right now)


  • What are your personal values?
  • Does your day to day life reflect these values?


  • Can you keep up positive changes long enough for them to become a habit?
  • On average it takes 21 days to create a habit

Once we went through the checklist and discussed what that meant for them, at this stage in their lives, I had them privately assess themselves on each category (scale of 1/never – 5/always). Based on that, they each chose 1 or 2 things to target over the next few weeks, to see if they could form or improve a habit.

How to Reduce Child Anxiety by Managing Their Perfectionism

kid annoyed with stray hair

As a teacher, I have always spen a significant part of my time chasing after late work, prompting kids to get to work and stay focused on that task. It often feels like being on a treadmill. It can feel much worse for the kids.

There are a lot of reasons why kids don’t always ‘meet their academic responsibilities’; lack of sleep, problems at home, hunger, social-emotional stressors. Today I want to encourage you to read the following article “How Perfectionism Fuels Teen Anxiety” by Katie Hurley.

The term ‘perfectionism’ brings to mind an image of the perfectionist as a highly functional, detail oriented and organized person. This is often far from reality. Most of the students I work with, who are full on or just lean towards perfectionism, come across as not motivated at all. They frequently do not hand in assignments, and certainly not on time when they do. They avoid adults who may prompt or question them. While feeling high levels of frustration and stress, they feel incompetent. Much of this is because they are focussed on the end product and getting it ‘right’ not ‘wrong’, rather than the learning process and how that will help them in the medium and long term.

The Impact of Measuring Outcomes

Really, this isn’t surprising. The Ministry of Education still uses standardized test scores to measure how successful education has been for the students and to measure the success of students themselves. It is easier to measure outcomes than measure the value that the education system is providing, so that may be why governments fall into this trap. When was the last time you heard a government spokesperson touting the merits of learning styles and the value of failure as a learning experience?

The article above deals more with teens, but as an elementary teacher, I see this as being an issue that develops at a much earlier stage of life. The earlier we can intervene, the better we can help our kids develop the skills to manage perfectionist tendencies later in life when we aren’t there with them on a daily basis.

Too busy to read another article?

  • Learning styles – talk to your kids about how they best learn the non-academic things that they enjoy (and for which they do not receive a numeric grade)
  • Self-talk; Model dealing with your own struggles and mistakes. We tend to learn best through mistakes. Messing up helps us understand situations better and ultimately makes us more empathetic and likable.
  • Feedback; when they mess up, focus on what they learned as a result, not just the ‘error’.
  • Challenge the self-talk; is what they are saying to themselves in their heads really true? Is it exaggerated? Ask them how a 79% on a math test in grade 7 will make or break them in the future.

This is a call to teachers…

  • Resist the pressure to grade everything. Your feedback is so much more meaningful.

This is a call to ‘educational officials’…

  • Stop using test scores as your primary benchmark to assess the success of children and teachers. There are so many more factors you are not using to temper the meaning of those scores. Numbers without context create a lot of highly politicized white noise.

What Kids Can Do When Worries Attack

kid putting worries into a box

Most of my students report that the one time of day when their stress is highest is when they are trying to get to sleep. As we let go, our minds become vulnerable to wandering thoughts. Relaxing into sleep (or trying to) means we are not focused on other specific tasks and our brains are at liberty to try and sort out all the stuff we may not have had time to – or chosen not to throughout the day.

I have blogged before about different online apps to help guide kids into a restful sleep (calm.com, headspace etc), but not all kids (or adults) can handle having a device next to their bed, or even in their bedrooms. After all, there have been a number of studies that recommend avoiding screens (and the blue light they project) for a couple of hours before bedtime.

So What Then?

A simple visualization I do with my students may help. It involves imagining putting each specific worry into a container and putting it away. Here are the basics:

  • Have your child  take a few deep slow breaths, stretching and releasing muscle groups
    • They can start with their toes and gradually work up their body
  • They need to visualize some kind of box/containment device
    • The more details they can visualize about the box, the better
      • Size
      • Colour
      • Type of lock
      • Texture
      • Inside versus outside
      • Distinctive markings
  • They need to name each thing that worries them and visualize themselves putting it in their container
  • They need to imagine securing the container
    • Chains
    • Lock
    • Hidden somewhere

The idea is that they are giving themselves psychological permission to put the worries on hold until morning. At that point, they can imagine opening the box, or not. I would suggest that if they do visualize releasing the lock, that they only let one worry out at a time.

The best time to manage a situation is when we are well rested. Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to even basic functioning, and if our stresses are interfering with this, we are entering a really non-productive cycle which ultimately increases the amount of stress overall.

A reader wrote in a few weeks ago describing how her child has an actual physical worry box. She takes the visualization one step further. I love this strategy because it takes something theoretical/non-tangible and makes it concrete. It is generally easier to manage things that are concrete, especially for young people.

How Kids can Work Through Their Worries

monster holding a kid

At this point in the school year my grade eight students are filling out their course selections for high school, for the first time. Many of them are really excited and would be happy to jump ship right now. Others, however, start to become preoccupied with the scary ‘what ifs’ that come with any new situation.

One of my colleagues, Alex Derry, has a great strategy she uses with her grade six students. When she told me about it, I decided to try it out on my 8’s. She has been kind enough to let me share it here.

She has her kids write down what they are worried about. They then write down their worst feared outcome, followed by their best imagined outcome, realistic or not. Once the worst is down on paper, it is easier to look at it objectively. Fears that live in our brains roll around like snowballs, getting bigger and bigger, feeding off of our emotions. Once they are expelled onto paper, they lose some of their emotional charge, or rather we are able to move away from a purely emotional state to a more logical thinking state. It becomes easier to see how the worst outcome is quite unlikely. The kids can help each other articulate why the worst case scenario is not logical. Similarly, the best possible outcome is also usually unlikely, but then the kids know that already.

The final step is to help them come up with a most or at least more likely middle ground end result. I like spectrums, so I get them to draw it out.

Break it down

Worry: ‘I won’t have any friends in high school’

Worst Possible

Everyone will have me and will be alone for the rest of my life.

More Likely

I will make friends again and it might take a bit of time.

Best Possible

I will become the most popular person in school and my life will be perfect.

Having them break down a rationale for each scenario will help them internalize the logic rather than the irrational fear.

Worst Possible

People won’t hate me for no reason. Lots of us are in the same situation and are as scared as I am.

More Likely

I have moved schools before and this is how it worked. I survived and found my place then, and I will again.

Best Possible

Popularity is subjective. Having a smaller group who make me feel supported is what will really help.

I love strategies that force our darker thoughts; our ‘what ifs’ into the light. Once they are out of our heads, they can no longer feed on our emotional vulnerability. Forced into words on a paper, they lose some of their power and are much easier to tame with logic. Thank you Alex.