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    • How to talk to your kids about the pandemic's mental toll.
      For most people, this past year has caused a lot of anxiety and stress - and children are no exception. As life begins the slow process of normalizing, it’s important to address the impact of the year on your child’s mental health. To learn more about how to approach this critical, yet sensitive, subject with kids, we sat down with Sara Anderson, LCSW, Associate Director of Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families.
      After a year of remote learning, what kind of impacts are we seeing on young children’s mental health? 
      We’re seeing several impacts. Some children have felt increased anxiety and depression because of the disruption of structure, routines and rituals, increased parental stress, worries about the pandemic and social issues, and lack of typical social-emotional experiences with peers and play.
      [Related: Reintroducing play dates in a post-pandemic world]
      How do these impacts manifest in young children’s behavior? What kind of behavior signifies that my child is anxious or stressed?
      Behaviors signaling stress vary, but typically, you’ll see changes in their appetite, sleep and toileting behavior. You might also see changes in a young children’s emotional outbursts, or an increase in their clinginess or separation anxiety. Another way that’s often missed is when a child becomes less emotive, more independent, and sends confusing messages to their caregivers about their needs and wants.
      Are there ways to mitigate some of the negative impacts this year has had on my child’s mental health? What can I do to help them at home and as they go back to school?
      The most effective way is for caregivers to be consistent and attuned to their child’s needs and emotions. Children need to know that you’ve got this, you are in charge and they can turn to you to get their needs met and help manage their feelings. Some strategies at home might include:
      ● Maintaining predictability and structure to the day
      ● Providing transitional warnings between tasks, or forecasting what is coming next (“We are going to play with the blocks and then get ready for lunch.”)
      ● Being available to help young children manage their big feelings through coregulation, helping them make sense and organize their feelings by naming them and helping them through
      [Related: Let go of your screen time guilt]
      At what point should a parent seek professional help for their child’s stress and anxiety?
      If there are changes in your child’s behavior (like the ones mentioned above) that persist over several weeks and don’t get better after using recommended strategies, parents should seek professional help. They should also seek help if children exhibit severe behaviors like head banging, hair pulling or biting and scratching atypical of their child’s age.
      Where can parents find the appropriate professional support in Chicago? What kind of mental health services are available for young children here, and in CPS?
      I’d first recommend parents to reach out to their pediatrician, but there are many options. For children 0 to 3 years, caregivers can access support through the Early Intervention system by locating a Child and Family Connection office in their area or calling 1-800-843-6154. For children older than 3, parents should reach out to their school district. For Chicago Public Schools, they can call the Office of Diverse Learner Support and Services (ODLSS) at 773-553-1800 to ask about support.
      At Erikson Institute, our Center for Children and Families works with caregivers and their children (ages 0-8) to help them understand the meaning behind their child’s behavior and how to best support them. To learn more, call 312-709-0508 for English, and 312-934-6446 for Spanish.
      Sara Anderson, LCSW, is the associate director of Erikson’s Center for Children and Families, where she trains, consults and counsels families and students on a wide range of child development issues. Sara holds a Master’s in clinical social work from the University of Chicago, and a certificate in infant mental health from Erikson Institute.

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    • Check out these fun and safe ways to get your mini chefs involved in making dinner for the whole family
      Not all kids like to cook at younger ages and that’s to be expected. It’s easy to get intimidated around hot pots and sharp knives. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some fun and safe ways to get your mini chefs involved in making dinner for the whole family!
      Meatless Monday
      We know it’s a cliché, but what better day to make a veggie-based pasta? Use a food processor to whip up an easy spinach “pesto” using fresh baby spinach, basil, nuts of your choice, and good parmesan or other aged cheese (optional). Have your kid(s) pour in the olive oil as the motor runs until the pesto is smooth. Cook pasta in a small pot according to package directions, drain (reserving about a tablespoon of the cooking water), and add pesto to the pot. Have your mini(s) stir to coat with a wooden spoon. They can also garnish the prepared bowls by sprinkling in some extra grated parmesan cheese and/or tear up more basil leaves to place on top.
      [Related: 5 tips for cooking with little kids]
      Taco Tuesday
      OK, OK, it’s another cliché, but do tacos on Tuesday ever fail? Switch things up a notch by making crispy taco bowls or cups with toppings of your choice. While you cook some ground beef (or chicken or turkey) seasoned with salt, cumin and chili powder, have your mini(s) push small flour or corn tortillas into the cups of a muffin tin lightly sprayed with olive or avocado oil. You can spoon in the cooked meat, and they can top with shredded Chihuahua, Mexican blend, or other cheese of your choice. Bake off the taco shells in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until crisp. Once cooled, serve the muffin cups with a variety of toppings: chopped tomatoes or mild salsa, diced avocado, shredded lettuce, chopped fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime — if they’re up for it.
      Meatball Wednesday
      Time to maka da meatballs! Add ground beef/pork or chicken/turkey in a large bowl. Have your kid(s) sprinkle in some seasoning (onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, oregano), and then have them squeeze in some ketchup for sweetness. Either you or they can crack an egg and add some panko, or have them tear up day-old bread for fresh breadcrumbs to add to the mix. Using clean hands, mix up the batch and everyone can take turns rolling the meat into golf ball-size balls. Pour a jar of marinara in a large, deep skillet and heat until a slow simmer forms. Gently place the mini meatballs in the mix, cover and cook until cooked through but still tender. Serve with pasta, in hoagie rolls, or by themselves with a veggie of choice.
      [Related: Ways to make learning playful and fun for kids]
      Stir-Fry Thursday
      Remember Mongolian BBQ? Bring back the '90s fave with make-your-own stir-fry bowls. Set up a station with bowls of raw, pre-chopped veggies (broccoli, mushrooms, diced red and yellow peppers, matchstick carrots, peas or edamame, etc.). Have them hand you their bowl while you add the protein (diced chicken or turkey breast or shrimp) and some pre-made stir-fry sauce (store-bought or a combo of soy sauce, hoisin or honey, and grated garlic and ginger). Heat up a little neutral or avocado oil in a wok or large skillet and cook until meat is cooked through and veggies are tender. They can finish off their bowls with any garnish of their choice (sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds, chopped peanuts or almonds), or skip this part. You can even have then pick out the veggies you’ll be using at the grocery store to help them get more excited about the meal.
      Pizza Friday
      Make an easy Detroit-style pizza using a pan! This one’s easier to handle than stretching out and dealing with fresh dough. Line a buttered, 9"’ x 11" pan with prepared pizza dough and lightly brush it with olive oil. Have your kid(s) place alternating pepperoni slices and diced cheese across the dough (Detroit-style uses buttery brick cheese, or go for combination of brick and mozzarella), making sure to place enough cheese in the corners to create those signature, caramelized edges. Bake in a 500-degree oven on the lowest rack until bubbly, and edges are dark brown, almost black — about 30-40 minutes. Be sure to let the pizza rest 10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving.
      Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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    • Sharing my traditions, and showing respect for differing customs, is something I can offer to my children.
      I often find myself pondering the cultural differences between Britain and the United States, and how to negotiate these with my kids. While I fully embrace my American citizenship, I also want my children to  know and appreciate their heritage. While it may seem like there are many similarities, it’s the little things that require consideration. 
      Language 
      Most people are aware of the language differences. Early on in my parenting journey, I decided to stick with American-purchased books, avoiding spelling confusion. That was an easy decision. But as for pronunciation…I find it hard to ensure that a zee-bra is never a zeb-ra, to the amusement of my family  and co-workers. 
      [Related: Take the time to learn how to pronounce 'difficult' names]
      Toys
      For a while, I held out against Barbie (like my sister successfully did with her daughter), and sought out traditional, European toys that I remembered from childhood. But my little ones hankered after shiny objects with robotic American accents — and I’ve found myself drawn to the innovative, modern creations  too. The verdict? If they provide some level of education or creative play, they’re considered for purchase.
      Mealtimes 
      Mealtimes, however, are more problematic. Starting with a fork in the right hand was a no-brainer, but introducing a knife caused confusion. For me, the fork should (almost always) be in the left hand, so the  knife naturally goes into the right hand. No thinking required. And where does the napkin sit? There is a  level of complexity I did not anticipate, so for now, we’re learning together at our weekly “etiquette”  lessons — a sight to behold! 
      Food 
      Food is also the subject of discussion in our house. Kid-friendly meals in England consisted of bangers and-mash, bubble and squeak, and Welsh rarebit, which all sound alien to kids born and raised in Chicago. While my eldest loves to try new foods (“these snails are delicious!”), my middle child is very  suspicious of “yukky” food with unfamiliar names. By making her my sous chef I’m hoping she’ll embrace  new recipes and flavors. 
      Holidays
      For the most part, we layer British holidays on top of the American ones observed at school. Boxing Day (December 26th) is a bonus day. Likewise, my youngsters get to double dip with British Mother’s Day (observed in March), while St. George’s Day (the English St. Patrick), St. David’s Day (their cousins are Welsh), and Hogmanay (Scottish word for "New Year") all add another dimension to our yearly calendar. 
      Bedtimes 
      When it comes to bedtime, I struggle to align with some of my local counterparts. We start our routine at an “absurdly early” hour. Although like many, I veto electronic toys in the bedroom, opting for books and soft toys that provide comfort and encourage sleep. After the long nights with our first newborn, I am unashamed of my relentless quest for "grown-ups only" evenings. And while we sometimes break our early-to-bed rule for special occasions, we try to keep a schedule even during the summer months.
      Sharing my traditions, and showing respect for differing customs, is something I can offer to my children. This is as important to me as building new traditions that embrace our changing world. In tandem, I hope these approaches will allow them to become the empathetic and respectful citizens I aspire for them to  be.
      Photo: King's Church International on Unsplash

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    • When a child has a developmental difference, a positive parent-teacher relationship is even more important.
      Photo by Natasha Hall on Unsplash
      The relationship a parent has with their child’s teacher plays a big role in their child’s academic success. When a child has a developmental difference, a positive parent-teacher relationship is even more important — as the stakes are significantly higher. To learn more about cultivating a good parent-teacher relationship, we sat down with Jennifer Rosinia, a developmental differences expert at the Erikson Institute. 
      Why is a good relationship with my child’s teacher so important?
      A good relationship between parents and teachers has been shown to improve a child’s academic achievement, social competencies and emotional wellbeing. And, as it turns out, parents and teachers benefit from a good relationship, too!
      [Related: How to advocate for your special-needs child in CPS]
      When parents have a good relationship with their child’s teacher, they develop a greater appreciation for the important role they play in their child’s education, learn more about the school’s academic programs and how they can incorporate them into their home routines. For teachers, a positive parent relationship enables them to focus more on teaching and meeting students’ needs.
      What can a parent do to foster an effective parent/teacher partnership for a child with developmental differences?
      Dr. Susan Sheridan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers three “Cs” for good relationships: communication, consistency, and collaboration.
      Communication with your child’s teacher should begin with the school year and continue throughout. Introduce yourself and let them know that you want to partner with them. Find out their preferred way of communicating, and then make sure communication is timely, and clear and open. Stay informed about what’s going on in school. Remember: The best communication in a partnership is two-way.
      Consistency might also be called “being on the same page.” An effective parent-teacher partnership sends a clear and consistent message to the child that they are working together to support their success.
      Collaboration between parents and teachers identifies and provides strategies to help your child achieve their optimal developmental and learning capacity. Share successes and concerns. Strategize ways to enhance and modify home and school environments. Collaboration means problem solving together, not blaming the other.  
      [Related: Your child received a diagnosis. Now what?]
      My child has developmental differences. What is the first step I should take to ensure they will receive the support they need in the classroom?
      Forming an effective partnership with their child’s teacher should be the first step parents take to ensure their child will receive the support they need in the classroom. If a child has significant or complex support needs, parents might also want to seek testing to identify them. Schools are required to address needs revealed through academic testing.  
      How should I approach conflicts I might have with my child’s teacher about services my child needs?
      If parents have established an effective partnership with their child’s teacher, approaching conflicts should be relatively easy. The following suggestions might be helpful:
      ● Begin by talking with your child’s teacher. Starting with, “Can you help me with this?” can sometimes reduce the risk of a misunderstanding. Ask teachers for their perspective, opinion and suggestions, and try to avoid accusations.
      ● Remind yourself to listen. If you are focused too much on what you want to say, you might miss important information that could help resolve your concern.
      ● Schedule an observation. Spending time in your child’s classroom watching and listening could give you helpful insights about your child's relationships, activities and services.
      ● Seek creative solutions together. If you and your child’s teacher have established a good relationship and partnership, you are one step closer to working together to come up with a creative solution. Do not forget to include your child if they are old enough to participate.
      ● Respect boundaries. When in conflict, it’s easy to cross boundaries. Remember to schedule time to talk. If for some reason you dislike your child’s teacher, take care not to let your child know. You don’t want to disrespect the teacher’s authority.
      ● Still stuck? Speak with the principal. The principal will serve as a neutral party. They will listen to your concerns, gather information from the teacher, and then help resolve the conflict.
      If a child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that their parents are afforded a legitimate, authentic opportunity to participate in the decision-making process for their child, and should be encouraged to be active participants in their child’s educational plan.
      What other steps should I be taking with my public school district to ensure my child is getting the care they deserve/accessing all the available resources?
      At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships. Get to know your teachers and administrative team. If you can, be active and involved: attend school board meetings, join the PTA, or spend time volunteering in your child’s classroom.
      Additionally, if your child has a developmental difference, know your rights under the law. To learn more, visiting the Illinois State Board of Education is a good place to start.
      Jennifer Rosinia is an occupational therapist and child development specialist. She is currently on faculty at the Erikson Institute as a senior instructor. She holds a master’s degree in early childhood education and a doctorate in child development from Loyola University and Erikson Institute in Chicago.

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    • How to decide what’s best for your child? Weigh all the factors.
      As we begin to talk about the “s” word again ("school"), you may be weighing some options for your kids coming into the fall. If you have a toddler at home, you may also be entertaining the idea of preschool to help get your little one reintroduced to the world, interacting with peers — as well as adults other than your immediate family — and just beginning to develop social skills again as we emerge from our homes.
      [Related: What to look for in a therapeutic preschool]
      While preschool is not a requirement or necessary for later success in school, experts agree it provides an environment for children to explore, play with peers, build self-confidence, and strengthen their social and emotional development, all while having fun and learning routines. If you’re ready to send them off for more of these social experiences, you’ve likely fallen into a lot of options in Chicago for early learning. One factor to also consider in your search is whether your child would be appropriate for a “standard” preschool or a “therapeutic” preschool. It's a good idea to explore some differences in choosing a preschool or a therapeutic preschool for your youngster, as there are several distinctions that separate these two early learning options.
      Ratios
      In Illinois, preschools and daycares are mandated to follow predetermined adult-to-child ratio guidelines. Most stick to these minimum recommendations, which is a great question to inquire about when doing your research! These ratios are as follows:
      • For 2-year-olds a 1:8 ratio, with a maximum group size of 16
      • For 3- to 5-year-olds, 1:10 ratio, with a maximum group size of 20
      • For children 5 and above, 1:20, with a maximum group size of 30
      In a therapeutic preschool setting, most classrooms are much smaller than the recommended maximums. Ratios are also much lower. A typical therapeutic preschool has a class size of 6-8 children, with ratios of adult support anywhere from 1:1 to 1:3.
      [Related: Preschool vs pre-k: What's the difference?]
      Therapy
      If your child receives speech, feeding, occupational, physical and/or behavioral therapy, a therapeutic preschool might be the way to go. This environment has these specialized therapists guiding interventions, providing individual therapy sessions, and helping to generalize different skills among peers. For example, a speech therapist may work individually with a child on answering questions or forming multiple word responses, and then bring the child back to the classroom to practice this new skill with their friends.
      Naps
      Here’s where therapeutic preschools may fall short. Therapeutic preschools are very therapy driven and most do not allow for a 2-hour mid-day nap, as a preschool or daycare set up would offer. If your little one is a power napper, a full day program at a therapeutic preschool may not be the best option for them.
      Diapers
      Some Early Learning programs require enrolled children to be fully toilet trained. This can be a real limitation for some families who feel their children are ready for the social and emotional benefits of preschool, but are not quite ready to spend the day in undies. At a therapeutic preschool, there are potty training programs implemented with each child, as this is a skill most are able to work on because of the low teacher to student ratios they maintain.
      Communication
      Both a preschool and a therapeutic preschool likely offer a lot of great communication options between the teachers and families. Notes going home, apps to receive updates, and face to face interactions help parents feel in touch and in the know about the day to day events with their children. However, if your child’s communication seems to be behind their age-matched peers, this can be a high frustration level for many toddlers who have a good understanding of what’s being discussed, but aren’t quite able to get their thoughts and feelings out effectively yet. A preschool classroom can be a frustrating experience when there are challenges expressing your wants and needs, or advocating for yourself. Important questions to consider: Is my child easy to understand? Can they ask for help when they need it? Are they able to speak up to advocate for themselves? Am I the only one who can understand my child? Reflecting on some of these questions may help lead you to the proper enrollment for your child.
      Enrollment
      Every child can be assessed and receive an IEP (individualized educational plan) at age three in order to have recommendations for placement at a CPS preschool. But did you know that your IEP is good for three years, and you are not required to join a CPS preschool at that time? Students in Illinois are not even required by law to attend kindergarten; however, they must be enrolled in either a home schooling program or a school district by age 6. Therefore, many families opt to pause enrollment from CPS to join a therapeutic preschool and reap the benefits of intensive therapeutic intervention, low student to teacher ratios, and engaging social and peer interactions. But don’t worry: Whether they graduate from preschool or therapeutic preschool, they can still join their peers in either a kindergarten or first grade classroom when they are ready!
      Making a Switch
      There are a handful of preschools in Chicago that enroll in the fall for the entirety of the year. Some have more strict guidelines on classroom placement based on birth date and ability level. However, many allow for enrollment throughout the school year, depending on birth date, availability and current ratios in their classrooms. Most therapeutic preschools enroll throughout the entire school year, and base these enrollments on the needs of the children and their families. So, if you are on the fence about what is most appropriate for your child, ask about enrollment commitments or cancellation fees, should you opt to enroll in a more therapeutic setting later in the year. Having this option may make enrollment in either program an easier commitment.
      Regardless of what you choose for your child, you want this early learning experience to be positive for everyone involved. Ask lots of questions, explore every option, and don’t limit yourself to only your neighborhood school. There may be a better fit for your child and their developmental needs that can get them well prepared to be independent little learners!
      Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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    • A former kindergarten teacher has ideas for injecting joy into learning in an organic way.
      As a kindergarten teacher, I always believed my top priority was to help children fall in love with learning. The joy was getting them to enjoy school, to cherish the memories they make there and embrace the challenges. I felt that if each child could come to school excited for learning, that I would be setting them up for a lifetime of success. With school buildings closed and parents juggling their own work while also managing online learning and homework, I am afraid this priority of mine is in serious jeopardy.
      How can we, as exhausted and stretched-thin parents, keep learning fun for our frustrated and burnt-out children? How can teachers and the education system maintain rigorous learning while keeping the joys of learning intact? Now, it is more essential than ever to keep learning enjoyable by engaging the whole family in learning, and prioritizing organic learning through play. What exactly does this look like? Read on for some of my favorite ways to play and learn as a family.
      Play a family game
      Think of the amount of learning, thinking, and growing that happens when your family sits down to play a game. If they’re old enough, have your children read aloud the rules and repeat them in their own words. Then, as you play, count and describe your play out loud. Take turns saying “Your turn!” and sharing materials. Not only are your young ones benefiting from intentional family time, but they will be learning social skills, strategy, reading, and comprehension skills, too.
      [Related: Reintroducing playdates in a post-pandemic world]
      Take to the kitchen
      Some of the best learning can happen with a hands-on approach in the kitchen. Have your child help you write out the grocery list: encourage them to spell words out on their own or copy the letters from current packaging. Involve your child in the recipes you create by having them read the recipe card to you. All kinds of math takes place in cooking: fractions, conversions, and counting. And don’t forget science! Have your child help you discover the purpose of baking soda, or what happens to yeast in water.
      Spread some joy
      We all know someone who could use a smile. Have your child write letters to loved ones, make a book for a neighbor, or read to a younger sibling. Addressing and mailing the letters are half the fun!
      [Related: You can make eating out with your kids actually enjoyable]
      Follow their interests
      Does your child love building? Have them invent a new way to hang the towels in the bathroom or store items in the closet. Have an artistic one? Have them paint a picture, then write a note describing the image they created. Does your child love “search and finds”? Have them find and highlight sight words in a newspaper or magazine.
      Above all, encourage your children to find their own ways to follow their curiosities. Have them ask questions about things that matter to them, and work to find the answer together. We owe it to our youngest learners to keep this journey exciting for them. Their (and our) future depends on it!

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    • Show yourself compassion because there is no perfect parent…especially during a pandemic.
      I can hardly believe it myself when I tell people that I have been a pediatric mental health therapist for 12 years now. I mean, that is over a decade of my life! I would say that I don’t know where the time went, but I do. A lot has happened since beginning my professional career. I moved to Chicago, got engaged, and landed my dream job. But what really makes time fly is having kids. Nothing in my life has made me realize just how fleeting life is more than raising children. One day they fit into the palm of your hand, and the next, they barely fit in your lap.
      There are a lot of expectations about what kind of parent I am and how I raise my kids. After all, I keep up to date on the latest research in child development and behavior. My passion is in supporting parents and teaching parents how to be connected and attuned to their children. So I talk A LOT with parents. I am often told by parents I work with, “I bet your kids are so well behaved,” or, “I bet you never yell.” (Yikes, the pressure!)
      Of course, I do have to practice what I preach, and while I try my best to be a playful, accepting, curious, and empathic mother…I am also a “good enough” mom. I am not perfect. Despite my training, my knowledge, my passion, and my love, I am here to tell you: if you only knew how I epically fail on a daily basis! Well, actually, maybe it would help. Maybe it would help you have some compassion for yourself, because I promise you there is no such thing as a perfect parent, and good enough is actually all you need (and this is backed by research!).
      [Related: This is how to travel with young kids during COVID]
      So in all my vulnerability, I will share with you my top 10 epic parenting fails during the COVID-19 pandemic:
      Becoming so frustrated and out of control with my own emotions when my 5-year-old refused to go to bed that I threatened to throw out her JoJo Siwa Bow. Feeling guilty about my (above) tantrum, giving in, and allowing my 5-year-old to stay up till 10pm watching Naked and Afraid. (This went on for a month.) Experiencing the full range of working-mom shame when my daughter named each family member’s hobby and declared, “Mommy’s hobby is work.” Begging my 5-year-old to “Just leave me alone for two minutes while I finish my Zoom call!” realizing that I actually did not mute my mic. Spacing out from exhaustion while the baby crawls on the lawn…and eats actual bunny poop. Logging in my kindergartner late to virtual school. Every. Single. Day. Witnessing her announce to her teacher, “Sorry I am always late. We like to sleep in.” Knowing pandemic guilt has turned me into a “Yes” mom, and I have a trillion stuffed animals to prove it. Thinking that brushing my kid’s teeth before dessert was OK. Hello, child’s first cavity. Being mindless while getting my children out of the car and putting my laptop on top of the car. Forgetting about my laptop. Finding my laptop smashed to bits on North Avenue. If a child therapist can’t get it right all the time, take some pressure off yourself to be perfect. After all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. We are all truly doing the best we can. And that is good enough.

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    • Though they're not textbook traits, social and emotional learning skills (SEL) are critical to your child’s fulfillment and success.
      Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash
      They aren’t usually learned from a textbook, but social and emotional learning skills (SEL) are still critical to your child’s fulfillment and success. To learn more about SEL and how parents support their children’s development of these skills, we talked to Amanda  Moreno, an SEL expert and associate professor at Erikson Institute.
      What is social and emotional learning when it comes to children?  What skills does it help children develop?
      There are several ways of defining SEL but in short, it covers non-academic skills that are needed to live a productive, fulfilling life connected to other people. SEL includes skills like emotional regulation, collaboration, social problem solving, kindness, and resilience.
      [RELATED: Why kids lie, and why it's okay]
      Why is SEL important? How does it benefit young children, both in the short and long term?
      SEL skills used to be referred to as “soft skills." That term is being used less, however, because it makes them sound "touchy-feely” when they are actually the foundation for academic skills. Just imagine how hard it would be to successfully engage in school, work and relationships without SEL skills. Parents usually understand that their children need both book and people smarts, but some SEL skills are less obvious than others. One example is that of a growth mindset.
      When someone with a growth mindset encounters a task that’s difficult for them, they assume that they just need to learn more and keep trying. They also recognize that everyone feels that tasks are too hard for them sometimes. In contrast, someone without a growth mindset will assume that they are incapable of completing the task, and always will be — and thus give up.
      Through SEL, parents can cultivate their child’s growth mindset by focusing more on process than outcome, and complimenting their efforts rather than static traits such as “smart.” For example, instead of waiting for your child to complete a puzzle or sand castle and then saying “good job,” you can say something like, “Wow, I notice how you keep turning the pieces in different ways,” or, “I see, when the walls of the castle cave in, you dig deeper for more wet sand to keep it in place.”
      What strategies can I use to increase my child’s SEL in everyday activities, especially now as life begins to return to normal?
      I am not someone who believes that children have dramatically lost skills in quarantine. Sure, they may be a bit rusty when it comes to interacting in larger groups (aren’t we all?), but it will just take some practice and confidence to get comfortable again. For children to regain their confidence in social interactions, they mostly need trust from their parents. Children use “social referencing” in challenging situations: If they look at you during their baseball game and you look nervous, they’ll be nervous, too. We need to find ways to manage our own anxiety and model resiliency. Doing so will help our children build their own.
      [RELATED: 10 tips to move your child from fear and anxiety to bravery]
      As my child grows, what behaviors signify developmentally on-track SEL skills?
      I love this question, because I think that due to our natural tendency to focus on the negative, it can be hard for parents to recognize growth in SEL skills. For example, we might think that after seeing gains in our child’s frustration tolerance, one big tantrum means all was lost. Instead of focusing on the tantrum, focus on the small wins. Sure, he had a tantrum, but has the amount of time between tantrums increased? Has the length of them decreased? Have certain things that used to be a trigger become easier? SEL development is not a smooth upward path, so be sure to notice the baby steps even when there are bumps in the road.
      Are there any resources in the community or classroom that I can access to help my child with SEL?
      Most schools do some form of SEL programming nowadays, and it is a good idea to find out what your child’s school is doing and get involved. Most programs have parent resources associated with them, which can help with consistent messaging across school and home. There are also many great resources online such as Zero to Three, CASEL, and Edutopia.
      Amanda Moreno, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Erikson Institute where she conducts research, designs and teaches graduate programs, and delivers professional development training on the intersection between emotions and learning.

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    • Honoring those that built the wealth of this nation is an honorable place to start the healing process.
      Juneteenth is the oldest celebrated commemoration of the enslavement of Africans in the United States. It has many names — Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day — but no other name has been used as frequently as Juneteenth. This joyous African American holiday began on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. Many Americans have never heard of, nor learned about this historical event in their school textbooks.
      I, too, was once oblivious to this day. I can’t remember when I first learned about Juneteenth, but It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 that it became significant to my family when I, among countless other Americans, began to see a shift in our country after the murder of George Floyd.
      [Related: What role should white parents play in Juneteenth?]
      Last year, in most Black households, there was a sense of reprieve from the endless supply of videos on police brutality when the interest of Juneteenth began to surface heavily online. A celebration of images expressing Black joy and honor around the country went viral. As a Chicago mother who celebrates Black history all year round, I found several virtual events scheduled during the month of June in which families could participate safely. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we were not comfortable attending any of the amazing in-person events we read about. Not to be outdone by the virus, we took our children on a driving and walking tour around the South Side and West Side of the city to learn and see the historical contributions made by Black freedom fighters then and now.
      During the tours, we stopped at Black businesses, such as Can't Believe It's Not Meat in Hyde Park for lunch. We talked about what joy our ancestors must have felt on that day. And we talked about what it must have been like for the men, women, and children who were forced into work that never provided them financial compensation, nor security in the right to stay connected to their families — something some of us are privileged to have strengthened during our months of quarantine.
      [Related: Can we build anti-racist communities?]
      Although the formal recognition of the abolishment of slavery (also known as the 13th Amendment) brought much joy to enslaved Africans at the time of its announcement back in 1865, June 19th wasn't recognized as a holiday until 1979 when it passed legislation in Texas. It's now a state holiday in 49 of the 50 states (including Illinois), but has yet to be recognized as a national holiday.
      In some areas, it is a day, a week, or a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for rejoicing, processing, and planning for the future. Some would say its growing popularity signifies a level of growth, maturity and dignity that's long overdue. The recent acknowledgment of the racial trauma inflicted on people of African descent is being displayed in cities across the country. People of all races, nationalities, and religions are now acknowledging 400+ years of legalized horror. Honoring those that built the wealth of this nation is an honorable place to start the healing process — especially in the city of Chicago.

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    • Some of the fertility advice given by professionals is shockingly wrong.
      As a fertility consultant, I get to talk with hundreds of women on their fertility journeys. Some of the advice that these women have been given by professionals is shockingly wrong. And then there’s the advice from people that have never had fertility issues, that seem to love to know the most and share their “brilliant” advice. And yes, it usually starts with you should just relax and get drunk if you want to get pregnant. (And yes, I also want to flick them in the boob.)
      Here are the top three myths about IVF that, once cleared up, will allow you to move forward with your fertility journey.
      Myth 1: A Lab is a Lab
      All labs are not created equally. There are three parts to a lab: the embryologist, the equipment, and the protocols for fertilization and growth. All three of these have a huge impact on if and how your embryo will be created and survive until the embryo transfer. And the more specialized your issues are, the more specialized the embryologist and lab must be — just like any other medical issue.
      [Related: What I went through to become a single mother by choice]
      Don’t be fooled by marketing tools such as, “Women come from Russia to go to our clinic.” That clinic was good 15 years ago…which is also the last time their equipment was updated. Another one: “Our statistics are so low because we take on the most difficult cases.” No, your statistics are low because your techniques are not effective.
      Please don’t pick clinics based on convenience or what your friend suggests. Instead, find the one that is getting you results. And yes, it probably won’t be the one that all of the international clients know about yet.
      Myth 2: IVF Is A Numbers Game
      I think I need to breathe a couple of times before I answer this. IVF is a numbers game — a great game where one person always seems to win (and that person is not you). Think about it: When a cardiologist fails, there is a dead person, a family trying to sue the doctor, and a board reviewing the choices that the doctor made. When a fertility doctor fails, the only thing that happens is that they get paid to try again.
      Worst game ever.
      This is science, and there are many things that get in the way. So when you hear that there is nothing else to do but try again since "this is a numbers game," find someone else to play with.
      [Related: Dealing with infertility? Toss the holiday cards.]
      Myth 3: There's Nothing You Can Do To Help An Egg Retrieval or Transfer
      There are many, many key things that you can do to help an egg retrieval or a transfer. Are you making eggs, but not many that are mature enough to fertilize? Are your eggs fertilized, but not growing into many embryos? Are the embryos going in and never coming out as a baby?
      For any of these issues and more, there are changes to make, such as the types and combinations of drugs, drug doses, and timing of the drugs — and then, of course, there is the lab. On top of that, there are things that you can do to naturally balance your hormones, including energy restorative practices that will allow your cells to regenerate better and more often.
      So Mama, I hope that this was helpful for you to move forward with some truths to your IVF journey. Please don’t let any of these myths keep you from reaching your family goals.

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    • Communication is important — but even with great communicators, this can be hard.
      Working to get to a place where each parent is comfortable with the other household can take years of trials and tribulations. Now, coparents with minimal conflict and an established routine have had an unforeseen wrench thrown into things: COVID-19. The underlying issue that causes conflict in split households is the worry that comes with one parent lacking control or knowledge over what occurs in the other’s household, which is why communication is important — but even with great communicators, this can be hard. As a family lawyer, I'm flagging some issues that I've seen arise during COVID-19 with split household families, and sharing advice on how to resolve these problems.
      [Related: How to co-parent during the coronavirus pandemic]
      1. Vaccinations. As vaccines become more widespread, parents may have differing views on whether the members of their household will become vaccinated — whether it be parents, relatives, and soon, children. Parents must consider the science presented, consult with the pediatrician, and discuss their concerns and values. Whether parents or children get vaccinated could impact parenting time in limited situations.
      2. Third Parties. Significant others, extended family, and caregivers are third parties that children may be in contact with. It is appropriate to ask questions to ensure they are abiding by CDC guidelines, and if genuine concern arises regarding the presence of third parties, first address it with your coparent. If the issue persists, it may be time to address the concern with a mediator, family therapist, parenting coordinator or the Court if necessary.
      3. Summer Travel. There are different reasons why travel may occur over the summer. First, if one parent lives out of state, it may be necessary for either the parent or child to travel, perhaps for extended parenting time, or simply for summer vacation. If you plan to take a trip over the summer, it is important to give notice to your coparent as soon as possible in order to avoid last minute conflict. In addition, discuss logistics such as whether you’ll be driving instead of flying, who you will be traveling with, the location where you will be staying, and what you intend to do during the travel.
      [Related: How to handle remote learning while co-parenting]
      4. Exposure. Create a game plan for what will happen if one parent or member of a household becomes exposed to COVID-19. This can include preparing for quarantine, who should be tested, and coordinating make-up parenting time. Consult with your child’s pediatrician for advice regarding quarantine procedures and testing. If in-person parenting time must cease for a quarantine period, consider how virtual parenting time can be exercised through Zoom, Facetime, or similar.
      5. Back to School. As summer plans are discussed, the next step will be the return to school in the fall — for which more and more will be an in-person setting. Parents will have to make decisions such as what district, public or private, in person, remote or hybrid. While vaccines are increasing and schools are reopening, there is still a lot unknown. Stay in the know on what schools are offering and how they are deciding to operate in the fall and keep these questions in mind, so they do not create last-minute chaos.
      Communication regarding all of these issues helps to minimize the conflict. If there is disagreement, it is likely more time and cost effective to utilize mediation or a parenting coordinator before turning to litigation, or a family therapist to learn communication skills.

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    • Educate ourselves, educate other white people, and actively work to dismantle our white supremacy culture.
      Last year, when Juneteenth was celebrated by so many major corporations for the first time, some joked that us white people would quickly turn it into another commercialized exercise of appropriation. This year, you might still be asking, what should us white folks do on Juneteenth? Here are three options: educate ourselves, educate other white people, or actively work to dismantle a part of our white supremacy culture.
      [Related: The importance of celebrating Juneteenth in Chicago]
      During the height of the pandemic and racial unrest, all the books on the New York Times best-seller list were about anti-racism and white supremacy. Hopefully, we read the books and learned that we have a long way to go, as a society but also as white people. Educating other white people is challenging as we have to leave our comfort zone and possibly offend someone. I am certainly not the best at it, too often biting my tongue when someone demonstrates their bias, or by doing the opposite and offending without educating. And too often than I'd like to admit, I'm the one that needs educating. I’m working on it, through regular participation in SEED and a local chapter of AWARE, both at our children’s school, Near North Montessori. The third option, challenging or dismantling a part of the white supremacy culture in our institutions and organizations, might seem even more daunting than confronting and educating another white person, but it does not need to be.
      [Related: How to become an anti-racist parent]
      Our children attend a private school, and I know there is hypocrisy in choosing a private school while claiming to be helping to dismantle white supremacy. I contend it is only incrementally different, if at all, to choices many white parents make since public schools mimic the segregation in our society, and many public schools are not diverse or safe for Black, indigenous, and people of color. This year, Near North Montessori has hired a new Head of School which, after an extensive search, chose Brian Corley who had previously been the Diversity Director at the school. Brian will be one of only a handful of Black Heads of School across all the private schools in the Midwest. This is good, but we can do more. Our school, despite having diversity, does not have enough Black educators. This is a dilemma for many schools, public and private. Our soon-to-be former Head has been working to fix the training options for Montessori teachers, which seems to be one of the most vexing obstacles, and HR has made shifts to address the pipeline. But they need more tools, and money is one of the primary weapons in our society.
      So, my wife and I are donating a fair amount to our children’s school to start a fund to recruit and retain Black teachers. Why is it important to have Black educators on staff? My former colleague, the late Principal Robert Croston, explained it best in an article he wrote:
      "If more White and affluent students were educated by Black men, many stereotypes about us would fall on deaf ears and more White and affluent Americans would be able to champion our plight.
      As a Black male educator, some of my favorite interactions with young people include those with non- Black students because they get to experience the love, care and intellect of someone like myself. They can rebuff the swirling stereotypes when they see and know a Black man as a principal.
      If West Pullman schools on the South Side of Chicago need Black men, then Wilmette schools on the North Shore of Chicagoland need Black male teachers even more.”
      So, this Juneteenth, ask yourself and your school’s leadership: Why aren’t there more Black teachers and administrators, if any? If the first response is, “They don’t apply,” then you might have to ask: Why don’t Black teachers apply (or stay) at your school?
      [Related: Can we build anti-racist communities?]
      The uncomfortable truth is, white people like us probably have a lot more work to do to ensure schools are welcoming, safe places for Black, indigenous, and people of color to work and thrive. Donating money is one way to dismantle white supremacy, but only if you couple it with educating yourself and other white people (I highly recommend an insightful podcast on this topic, Nice White Parents).
      This Juneteenth, celebrate by finding ways to challenge or dismantle a part of the white supremacy culture in your child’s school, be it public or private. I guarantee you it is there, and if you do not see it, you just might be an active part of it.

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    • The conversation is uncomfortable but necessary.
      Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
       
      “Mommy, why are people protesting?”
      “Well, some people did some really bad things to a man named George Floyd and people want everyone to know that Black lives matter.”
      “But mom, what about the coronavirus?! People shouldn’t be that close together!”
      “You’re right, sweetie. This is so serious that all of these people are risking their lives because they’re tired of stuff like this happening.”
      I walk off to cry in a corner.
      To say that this year has been challenging would be an understatement. Racism is part of the Black experience in America. I can recount endless personal experiences but I wanted to delay the racism conversation with my 6-year-old as long as possible to preserve her childhood. But something about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was different. The rose-colored lenses of the world suddenly cracked, and I was forced to confront it head on.
      [Related: Resources to help you talk about racism with your kids]
      I’ve purchased so many books to encourage her love of self — from the coils in her hair, to her beautiful brown skin. I’ve ensured she’s always in an inclusive and loving environment, and I’ve assumed my role as Mama Bear and will jump in to protect my little cub if necessary. Now, I have to tell her that the features I’ve spent so much time praising are the same features that may cause someone not to like her — or, even worse, harm her. I start the conversation with, “Some people won’t like you, simply because of the color of your skin.” She responds, “But my skin is beautiful! I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t like it!” She begins to cry as I take her into my arms.
      The conversation is uncomfortable but necessary. Here are some tips on how to speak with your children about racism.
      Educate yourself.
      Black History has been severely revised in America, so it is important to seek facts and understanding before beginning the discussion. Learn about the more subtle forms of racism. You may not have all the answers to their questions, but reassure your children that you will work together to be anti-racist and seek understanding.
      [Related: Can we build anti-racist communities?]
      Don’t make blanket statements.
      It may be hard for children — especially young children — to reconcile racist behaviors while having friends of other races. Be sure to soften the language and clarify that the conversation doesn’t apply to an entire race of people, but some people within that race.
      Normalize anti-racism.
      Buy diverse books and toys. Watch diverse movies. Make a point to go to restaurants and events outside of your neighborhood. Support Black businesses. Use inclusive, non-qualifying language, e.g., a movie vs a Black movie. Most importantly, call out racism everywhere: at work, in your family, and on social media. Changing the hearts and minds of people is a big step towards racial equality.
      The conversation with my daughter went well. She’s since followed up with questions and is beginning to understand bias. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unfair. It’s heartbreaking. Still, have the conversation.

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    • Not a math person? There are still ways to help your child succeed.
      Most of us probably have a good idea what it takes to get our young children to love reading. Snuggling up with a favorite book at bedtime, for example, sends a clear message about the value of reading. But what about a love of math?
      For many parents, it’s not so obvious how to help young children appreciate math — especially if they don’t enjoy it themselves or feel their skills in the subject are lacking. Yet parents are a powerful influence on how children feel about math. Feelings? Yes, research is clear that children’s mindset — their beliefs about what math is and who can do math well — helps determine their math achievement. So, if you’re a parent and don’t consider yourself a math person, there are still ways you can help your child succeed.
      First, try putting aside any pressure you feel to be their math teacher, and instead, think of yourself as a math cheerleader! With that perspective, following are five strategies you can use to cheer your child on and encourage their love of math.

      Be curious
      The concept of being a “math person” — or not — is a myth. But even if you don’t identify as someone who likes or is good at math right now, you can still model curiosity about the subject. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you can ask good questions. Two great questions to ask your kids: “What do you notice?” and, “What do you see?”

      Look with a math lens
      We use lenses all the time to help us see things differently: to improve our vision, to shade our eyes from the sun, to magnify microscopic organisms and to watch a 3-D movie. In the same way, we can use a math lens to help our children see the world differently. For example, you and your child might look at how eggs in a carton are lined up in two rows of six. You might notice the patterns on a checkerboard, or the symmetry of a building, shapes in the tile floor, height of a tree, rhythm of a song, etc. By pointing these things out, it won’t take long for your child to recognize the ways math is present everywhere they look.

      Picture books, too, are a great invitation to look at the world with a math lens. Visit your public library and check out these award-winning Mathical Prize books.
      Talk about math
      You’ve got chores to do: grocery shopping, washing dishes, doing laundry, straightening up the house. These tasks all offer opportunities to help your child sort, count, make comparisons and reason spatially. The Early Math Collaborative at Erikson Institute offers many practical ideas for math at home. Remember that language and math skills develop together. Take advantage of small moments to talk about math ideas as you move through your day together — think of it as the curriculum of life!

      Play games
      Children learn best through play. Games provide children with enjoyable math practice skills while also developing their logical, strategic thinking. Simple card games such as Uno and Memory offer opportunities for matching and comparing. Path-based board games like Parcheesi or Chutes and Ladders, in which children use dice or spinners to advance spaces, develop a sense of number magnitude. Strategy games like Connect Four and Mancala require children to plan their problem-solving by thinking a step ahead. Puzzles are also great for spatial reasoning. The blog Games for Young Minds is full of game suggestions and reviews to help you plan your next family game night that encourages your child’s love of math.
      Embrace effort
      Making mistakes and trying to figure things out is part of doing math. How you respond when you or your child makes an error can send the message that math is a process and that success comes from effort. As children move through school, there’s bound to be some struggle learning math — and you may be in the position to help with homework. In these situations, pause for a moment before offering assistance. This sends the message that it’s okay for them to not understand right away. As parents, we have to develop a stronger stomach for some temporary frustration. This is how your child will learn problem solving and perseverance — both crucial skills for life that math teaches particularly well.
      Jeanine O'Nan Brownell is the mother of three children. She works at Erikson Institute’s Early Math Collaborative and partners with school districts, childcare centers, and agencies to design programs of professional learning for preK-3rd grade teachers.

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    • As my son gets older, it will be up to him to keep his body healthy. Thankfully, there are many great options in Chicago.
      When our oldest son was just three years old, we found ourselves at the University of Chicago – our son groggy from anesthesia due to a necessary endoscopy and the doctor telling us, “The pathology and blood tests all confirm celiac disease.” I was relieved because we now had an answer as to why he wasn’t growing or developing. Once we removed the gluten from his diet, that all improved, but my head was also spinning because I had no idea how to deal with this diagnosis. No more birthday cakes, pizza, donut runs on Sunday mornings. Fast forward 10 years, and that all seems like a very distant memory.
      [Related: Help kids with food allergies enjoy the holidays]
      Celiac in the city with a teen
      Now that our oldest is 13, I no longer know where he is every moment and I’m not dictating his every meal. Luckily, we live in a city with a lot of gluten-free options. With celiac disease, one has to be very careful regarding cross-contamination. At home for example, I keep separate peanut butters, butters, and cream cheeses because we don’t all eat gluten free, and if you dip the knife in one of those and then gluten crumbs get into the product, he could get very ill. About 10 milligrams of gluten is what it takes to get sick, and that is about the size of a bread crumb.
      You’re probably wondering how we ever trust a restaurant or go out to eat. With age and experience has also come his level of risk tolerance for his body. For example, many restaurants don’t have a dedicated fryer for french fries, but he’s realized that this doesn’t seem to impact him, so he is OK to eat the fries, usually. This likely isn’t best practice per his doctors, but he also has to have some “food freedom” in life.
      Our favorite gluten-free friendly restaurants in Chicago
      As a family, we love to go out to eat. Below are some restaurants that my son loves – and that I trust:
      D’Agostino’s — He loves the pizza and the restaurant even went through a celiac certification process
      Jersey Mike’s – The company uses Udi’s sub rolls and will even clean off the deli slicers before making his sandwich
      Lettuce Entertain You – Takes celiac disease very seriously and have separate menus in most of their restaurants
      Wheat’s End – A dedicated gluten-free restaurant with amazing pancakes
      Zia’s Lakeview – Dedicated gluten-free menu and he loves their octopus appetizer
      Corridor on Southport – Amazing burgers that he orders without a bun and fantastic fries
      As my son gets older, it will be up to him to keep his body healthy. He fully understands how awful he feels if he ingests gluten, but I also know he will make mistakes either intentionally or not. Thankfully, there are many great options in Chicago, and he has a great group of friends and parents that all support him.
      To learn more about gluten threshold levels for teens and others, check out the National Celiac Association's helpful graphic here.
      Photo: gluten-free doughnut at Wheat's End Cafe

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    • Trust your gut and explore what works and what doesn’t.
      Having a baby is hard, and with COVID-19 in the mix, life with a little one can feel even more complicated than before. You have fewer places to go with your baby, and limited access to family and friends to give you a break. If your baby seems to cry more than most, doesn’t seem to sleep unless in your arms, doesn’t want to eat, or pulls away from the breast or bottle, you are managing even more stress with less support. It would be great if there was a perfect way to parent, but there’s often no quick fix or easy solution.
      Remember: Each baby (and parent) is unique, and understanding yours might mean going against what the books say. It’s important to trust your gut and explore what works and what doesn’t. Following are a few ideas that we encourage in our work at Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network, which will go a long way in helping you feel more confident as a parent.
      Babies are individuals
      Isn’t it interesting that we all accept that adults differ as individuals, yet we expect babies to all act the same? Babies are individuals from the moment they’re born, and parents must figure out how to best meet their individual needs. Another way to think about it is to ask, “What fills my baby’s cup and what depletes it?” Learning what these “fill ups” are for your baby requires observation and trial and error.
      For example, some babies love to be held, while others want to move freely. “Tummy time” sessions are widely seen as a good developmental exercise for babies. But if you notice your child resists tummy time and prefers being held, use this information to make sure you “fill their cup” with cuddles before and after a session. By doing this, you are communicating to your baby that you understand their needs — an important component of trust in a parent/child relationship.
      Sleep begets sleep
      Parents might also find that their baby, particularly young infants, is fussier in the early evenings for a few hours, often starting around 5 p.m. During this time, they want to be constantly held and if you try to put them down, they cry and the cycle continues. There are many theories about why babies cry more around this time, and one thought is sensory overload. A newborn is taking in so many sights and sounds that by the evening, their little body can’t take it anymore. Another theory is that babies are overtired around these hours. Often they “cat nap” throughout the day so by the evening, they are sleep-deprived and difficult to sooth. Many parents assume keeping their baby awake will help them sleep better when actually the opposite is true. The more babies sleep throughout the day, the better they are able to fall and stay asleep.
      Take a break
      Another tip is understanding that when you feel stressed or anxious, it doesn’t automatically mean your baby will mirror your emotions. But it might mean that you have less patience and you need to find a way to take time for yourself. When overwhelmed, parents often hold babies differently or move too quickly for them. It is always OK to put your baby down in a safe place and breath for a few moments. Try saying phrases like, “I’m OK, I can do this. My baby is just trying to communicate with me.” You can also do some deep breathing and while you do, put your hand on your baby’s chest so you are both slowing down together. Notice how your baby’s breathing changes when you do this.
      Overall, it’s key to remember that babies are not one-size-fits-all. Even if you experience your baby as fussy or challenging, that does not indicate you are doing something wrong. Often as adults, when we feel safe and secure, we feel more comfortable crying or letting loose. Imagine when a loved one hugs us and we actually cry harder! The same goes for babies and as their caregiver, you can likely figure out how to sooth them best. Trust what you know about them, and remember tomorrow is a new day and there will always be room to keep exploring and building your relationship with your baby.

      Nancy Mork-Bakker, LCSW, is the Director of Erikson Institute’s Fussy Baby Network (FBN). Linda Horwitz, MSEd, is FBN’s Outreach Coordinator and Infant Family Specialist. FBN offers telephone support, virtual visits, and weekly virtual drop-in groups. There is no fee for services during the pandemic. Families can call 1-888-431-2229 or email fussybaby@erikson.edu.
      Photo by Kevin Liang

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    • For families returning to school for the first time in more than a year, emotions run high.
      When Mayor Lightfoot announced that CPS children would have the option of returning in person, I went into a slight panic. It felt incredibly different from when CPS announced that the 2020-2021 school year would begin virtually, since the pandemic was still raging and a second wave was expected in the fall. But this announcement? It brought forth a sense of panic.
      We’d adjusted to virtual learning since it quickly became our new normal, and accepted that our first-grader, Amara (pictured), may not go back to in-person this school year. Our youngest daughter returned to full-time daycare back in September, which made virtual learning easier with only one child to supervise. 
      [Related: Anxious about the upcoming school year? Here's how to ease your child's fears — and yours.]
      Through virtual learning, we discovered that Amara would push every technology limit available. One of our first instances was during the first month of school when her teacher emailed us explaining that Amara mistakenly deleted some pages from her assignment. My husband and I knew that it was not a mistake. Later, she started changing the teacher’s directions. For example, if the assignment stated, “In your math book, complete pages 5, 6, and 7 and then write two sentences explaining why Jim received more apples than Johnny,” she would change it to read, “In your math book, complete pages 5 and 6,” to finish her work sooner. We ended up adjusting her screen time settings to be extensive, but also realized early on that she may do better within the structure of the physical classroom. 
      Her first day back was incredible and her mental health improved almost immediately. Simply being in the school building seemed to elicit a positive reaction and a sense of normalcy. She met her teacher in person for the first time and saw a few friends from last year. She played on the playground during recess and had school lunch — all things we previously took for granted. It’s still very different; the children are spaced out in the classroom, proper mask-wearing is enforced, there are no before/after school activities, and of course, children only attend two days per week with a large virtual component. 
      [Related: Reintroducing play dates in a post-pandemic world]
      The best part has been the mornings she attends in person. Getting ready for school those two days a week feels so close to the before times and gives me a glimpse of hope that we will eventually return. She looks forward to those those two days and always has an extra pep in her step. I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe, in-person return to school in the fall.

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    • Given the challenges for mothers and all caregivers in this pandemic, will it be any different this year?
      Mother's Day is such a loaded holiday for lots of reasons — often tied to traditions set in place to honor our own mothers. But like it did in 2020, this Mother’s Day isn’t “normal.” Will it be any different this year? Or is it something that you're looking forward to because it's predictable? Given the challenges and victories for mothers and all caregivers who continue to prevail in this pandemic, I believe it’s a perfect time to expose and disrupt the status quo. 
      Starting with Mother’s Day. Do you know its origin?
      It started as an anti-war movement in the 1850s. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe — composer of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" — issued a widely read "Mother's Day Proclamation" calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace. Ultimately, in 1914 Anna Jarvis was successful in her campaign to have the day dedicated to appreciating your own mother when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday. 
      [Related: Mother's Day ideas for Chicago moms]
      Unfortunately, Jarvis lost her second battle which was to keep the holiday out of the hands of consumerism. Speaking of which, how much do you think we spend on Mother’s Day? Made up mostly of greeting cards, flowers, and social outings, Americans spent $26.7 billion dollars on Mother’s day in 2020. Does the 7% spending increase (in the throes of a pandemic) from 2019 and the 45% increase from 2010 translate to a mothers' increased fulfillment and satisfaction in the day? 
      Well, that is for each individual mother to decide. 
      Let’s look at it another way that might spark your interest. Just as you are the author and director of your pleasure in all spheres of your life (wink, wink), so too are you ultimately responsible for your own “MOM-GASM!” I may be stretching it a bit with the metaphor, but the possibility for a day where everything from time with yourself to experiences with others brings you delight.
      [Related: To the mom missing her dad on Father's Day]
      The sky's the limit, but the key is to make it your own. Map out your day, and if you want it a certain way, you have to ask for it — your family cannot read your mind. While lovely to receive gifts and acknowledgment, one day won’t refuel you from a year of incredible stress and increased hours of unpaid labor. But you deserve to design a lovely day. 
      As women, we are generally great at caring for others, but not so adept with mothering ourselves. Empower yourself this Mother’s Day to disrupt old paradigms that do not serve you, and create a vision or intention for yourself. It’s not selfish, nor does it take away from the day to communicate your wishes and set the tone. 
      While hardly exhaustive, I offer a few ideas to get your started:
      • Do some research on May day/Mother’s day in different cultures.
      • Create your own “ritual” or devotion for the day that you may carry forward.
      • Inventory all the ways you have mothered yourself and others during a deadly pandemic.
      • Ask for a vision or wishes from your family for the year ahead.
      • Carve out a minimum of an hour, but hopefully more, of alone time.
      • Keep it real and remember it has been an incredible year, and you can feel all of your feelings on this day and beyond.
      Cheers to you, Mother.
       

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    • How to talk with young children about race and racism
      As centuries of racial injustice continue to be illuminated, parents likely have lots of questions about how to talk with their young children about race and racism, and how to raise an anti-racist child. To answer some of these questions, Dr. Angela Searcy, a child development expert from Erikson Institute, shared her insights.
      When do children begin to notice race? 
      Dr. Searcy: Research confirms infants as young as 3 months prefer to look at faces similar to their own. By preschool, they begin to use information about race to make decisions about playmates.
      At what age should parents start talking to their children about race? 
      Dr. Searcy: Start talking about race as soon as your baby begins to recognize faces. Babies that don’t have exposure to people from a variety of races have a hard time noticing facial features of people from races other than their own.
      Not talking about race directly and explicitly leaves your child unaware of how you feel about different races. It will also create uncertainty about what your child knows about race and any racial bias they may have unintentionally internalized about their own race or others.
      What are some helpful conversation prompts for tackling this topic?
      Dr. Searcy: Reading books that show a variety of races is a good way to start. Point out the different races in children’s books and ask your child questions. When it comes to topics of racial injustice, parents already know what words their child understands and what examples will resonate with them. So try something like: “This reminds me of your favorite superhero. How can we ensure people of all races have equal justice?” or, “Would your favorite character think that was fair?”
      [Related: How to become an anti-racist parent]
      What behaviors can I expect to see from my young child as they start noticing differences?
      Dr. Searcy: Noticing differences is an important part of learning. Children will start reacting to differences in infancy and talking about them as soon as they can speak. If they have a negative reaction, respond with positivity and words of acceptance like, “Our differences are what make us all special.” Then follow up to understand why they might be feeling that way.
      If you respond by telling them you are colorblind, it can be very confusing. It asks children to ignore salient parts of another person’s identity and sends a message that something is wrong with having color if it must be “unseen.” Imagine the message that sends to a child of color who must have parts of their identity ignored and unseen.
      What are some helpful resources or activities that I can use to teach my child about race?
      Dr. Searcy: A few of my favorite activities include:
      ● Use M&Ms to show children how different colors are still the same inside
      ● Make a knot with a string to demonstrate how it will take time and many people to untie the knot of racism
      ● Give your child books with characters with a variety of races and ethnicities and have them look in the mirror and compare characteristics
      As far as resources, I’ve listed many on my website. A couple of my favorites are: How can I have a Positive Racial Identity? I’m White! and Woke Kindergarten.
      Dr. Angela Searcy holds a M.S. degree in early childhood development, with a specialization in infant studies, from the Erikson Institute and a EdD in education. She is an author of the book Push Past It! A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors and nationally recognized speaker, and currently serves as an adjunct professor at Erikson teaching Culture.

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    • How to help kids get reacquainted after a year off
      It’s been over a year since we retreated into our homes “for a couple of weeks”, to wait for the virus to pass. Weeks led to months, the new year rolled around… and we’re only now thinking of re-entering the world. So, as parents, how do we reintroduce play dates for our kids?
      Research
      First order of business is to take stock of the current conditions and guidance in your area. Be mindful that just because restrictions might have lifted, there may be reasons why others are reticent about getting together. Proceed with sensitivity and respect.
      Discuss
      Ask your child if they would like to meet up with friends. Try not to bring in your own anxieties but listen. They may well be excited to get out again, or they may be nervous. Let them know that what they’re feeling is ok, and that you’ll be there with them.
      Intros
      Start with a virtual intro, to (re)build familiarity with friends. Encourage sharing of masks over Zoom, so they can recognize buddies when they meet up in person. My daughter loves to show-off her new kitty look.
      [Related: Nurturing your child's mental health in the pandemic's aftermath]
      Practice
      Most children are practiced at wearing their masks now they’re back at school (at least part of the time), but they can be reluctant to keep them on. We’ve found jersey ones to be soft and tolerable, while disposable ones are apparently “stink.” A practice run can be helpful.
      Venue
      Pick an outdoor venue, so you can relax a little. Playgrounds are obviously fun, but fraught with challenges; all those touchable surfaces and potential crowds. Try picking somewhere a little less obvious and limit the stress.
      Props
      Expecting children to pick up where they left off in March 2020 is unrealistic. Making friends is an art that children learn as they grow. Understand that they’re out of practice and may need you to facilitate. Bringing along a game — a soccer ball or drone — can jump-start activities.
      Limit
      Having a time limit sets expectations, prevents boredom, and makes it easy to leave without awkwardness. Keep first play dates short and set your kids up for success. You can build up to longer later.
      Follow-up
      Have your child send a note or text a picture. I like the Photoshop Express app since I can use an image snapped while out, and the kids can have fun personalizing with stickers. This helps pave the way for an ongoing friendship.

      Review
      Ask your child if they enjoyed themselves. What did they like best? What was challenging? Then see what you can address. Perhaps another time of day would work better? Decide together what actionable things you can do to make the next occasion fun for all.
      Repeat
      Whether the play date was successful or not, don’t leave it too long before organizing another. If your little one is timid, or needs to enhance their play skills, then it’s important to get out there again. If necessary, find an activity that involves you too, and ease youngsters into the new social scene.
      It can be daunting for any of us to start meeting up again in-person. We’re following the numbers and reading the reports, feeling optimistic one minute and doubtful the next...then layer on some rusty social skills and think how it feels to be a child. By talking and doing some prep work, then following some simple steps, this can be a more successful experience for our kids, and even an enjoyable experience for us grown-ups, too.

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    • How do we balance the now with the pace of the past year?
      As vaccines roll out by the thousands, the days are getting longer, and hope feels more tangible than ever. But how do we balance it with the pace of the past year?
      For a lot of families and couples, the pandemic's slow down period has been a blessing in disguise. This is not to say that it hasn’t been difficult in a million weird and unexpected ways. It has. However, not having to go to playdates, attend birthday parties, and uber children to multiple afterschool activities has allowed for more time together. For my family, we now have a standing Friday night pizza and movie date which we all really look forward to. So how will we remember to just relax and play when the world quickly plays catch-up?
      Don’t think of this as making up for lost time
      Time was not lost; it was slowed down. There is no need to go full speed. List the activities that each member of your family would like to do and only commit to one to two at a time. Same goes for summer camp: Keep in mind that kiddos are used to having down time, so we don’t want to overwhelm them by booking every week. Just because we can, doesn’t mean that it's the best option for our family.
      Keep at least two days/nights free of activities
      Preferably one weekend morning so that you can sleep in (if all the stars align). It is also nice to wake up and not have to run off to something. I find that on Saturday morning, my children are excited for the weekend and looking forward to playing and using their imagination for the things that they wish they could have done while in school. This also leaves room for spontaneity.
      Take turns
      Historically, my husband and I felt that we had to both attend birthday parties because it was a social event for us, but in the end we would be exhausted. One idea we’ve had since is to take turns with parties and activities. We also take turns working out, cooking, and cleaning.
      [Related: Self-care during COVID: Creating your own pandemic slowdown] 
      Make time for yourself
      Pick something that brings you joy, and do it! For me, it was to take a pilates teacher training course so that I can learn and do something new. Another thing my partner and I do is that if I have plans to work out on a Saturday, then we make a plan for him to work out on Sunday. If you make time for yourself, you are more likely to help others make time for themselves as well.
      Be aware of the new social anxiety
      I am finding with myself and a lot of my clients that there is a sense of feeling awkward in social situations. Questioning the conversations when you get home and thinking that you talked too much are normal. We haven’t been socializing the way that we were used to. It might take time to find our groove and make new friends as adults, and this is a good reminder that our kiddos might struggle with this also. Ease back into life with one activity at a time and don’t forget that "No" is still an acceptable answer.

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    • With possible snow still on the horizon, we’ve got you covered with these warm and comforting, kid-friendly meals.
      Photo by Flora Westbrook

      Winter ain’t over just yet! With possible snow still on the horizon, we’ve got you covered with these warm and comforting, kid-friendly meals you can easily make in the slow cooker. Dressing them up with some fresh herbs, bright citrus and other toppers, though, will help keep your sight on Spring (and please the adults in the room).
      [Related: Make this easy London broil recipe for your family]
      Chicken Enchiladas
      Place 1 pound (or more) boneless chicken thighs in the slow cooker with a generous sprinkling of cumin, chili powder, garlic powder and onion powder, plus a pinch of salt and a 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (drained). Cook for 8 hours on low. Shred using two forks, stuff into tortillas, and bake them off with a bunch of cheese on top.
      Dress it up: Chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, and pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) for crunch.

      Cheeseburger Soup
      Place 1 pound ground beef (brown first, if possible), celery-carrots-onion mirepoix mix, garlic powder, 3 cups chicken broth or stock, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 1/2 cups milk, 4 cups cubed potatoes, and 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 hours.
      Dress it up: Halved cherry tomatoes, baby spinach leaves, cooked chopped bacon or bacon bits for smokiness, and homemade croutons (toss day-old bread pieces with olive oil and dried herbs and bake in a 350ºF toaster oven for 15 minutes or so) for crunch.
      Mac n’ Cheese
      Place 1 pound uncooked, rinsed elbow pasta, 2 1/2 cups whole milk, 3 cups shredded cheddar or extra cheddar cheese, 4 ounces American (or other melty cheese) cheese, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dry mustard powder in the slow cooker. Top with 1/2 a stick of cubed, unsalted butter and cook on low for 8 hours.
      Dress it up: Steamed broccoli, grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, torn basil leaves, balsamic glaze (made by microwaving balsamic vinegar on 30% power in the microwave for 2 minutes), and a touch of panko breadcrumbs for crunch.
      Build-Your-Own Ramen
      Place 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced yellow onion, a few garlic cloves, 4 cups chicken broth, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a touch of rice vinegar, a package of sliced mushrooms, and some minced ginger (or ground ginger) in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours. Remove chicken and add ramen noodles (from a few packages, discarding the chemical-laden seasoning) or Udon noodles. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes while you shred the chicken.
      Dress it up: Soft- or hard-boiled egg, baby spinach leaves, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds, thinly sliced scallions, chopped fresh cilantro, Sriracha sauce or sliced jalapenos, peanuts (or almonds or cashews) for crunch.

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