Helping Children Succeed is important. A series of best practices to help child care providers, parents and family members improve the likelihood that children will become well adjusted and productive adults are shown below.

Promoting Resilience in Young Children

By Peter J. Pizzolongo and Amy Hunter

Lena, 2 years old, witnessed her father being shot in front of their home. She now lives with her aunt in a new home in a new community. She attends a family child care program.

Jonah, 4 years old, enjoys playing with his older brother, Mikkel, and his friends—the “big kids.” Sometimes, though, the older children think Jonah is annoying and don’t want to play with him. Today, Mikkel and his friends called Jonah a “stupid baby” and angrily yelled at him to go away.

Every day, young children—around the world and in the United States—experience stress or trauma. Some children are exposed to crises such as natural disasters, community violence, abuse, neglect, and separation from or death of loved ones. Many young children experience the more common stresses of harassment from a sibling, rejection by peers, or adjusting to multiple caregivers. These events can cause young children to feel vulnerable, worried, fearful, sad, frustrated, or lonely.

Parents, early childhood educators, and other adults try to keep children safe by preventing stress and trauma. This is not always possible. Adults can, however, promote resilience in young children by fostering protective factors that can buffer the negative effects of stress and trauma. Resilience helps children (and adults) “overcome adversity with courage, skills, and faith”.

Why is resilience important and what contributes to it?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as “the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” According to Edith Grotberg, a developmental psychologist, “Resilience is important because it is the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life” Developing this capacity relies on protective factors within individuals as well as in the family and community.

The longitudinal studies of researchers like Emmy Werner have reported characteristics in young children that are associated with “coping abilities under adverse conditions.” According to Werner, infants who are “active, affectionate, cuddly, good-natured, and easy to deal with” are more likely to be resilient in the face of adversity. Other researchers have noted that infants and toddlers who show resilience are “alert, easy to soothe, and able to elicit support from a nurturant family member.” Resilient preschoolers’ characteristics include the ability to be autonomous and to ask for help when needed—characteristics that are also predictive of resilience in later years.

Other studies have found additional factors to be associated with resilience in young children. For example, Breslin has studied children who seem to be adequately “adapting and surviving,” despite the negative life events and stress they experience. She has identified four characteristics that resilient children exhibit: heightened sensory awareness, high positive expectations, a clear and developing understanding of one’s strengths relating to accomplishment, and a heightened, developing sense of humor.

How can adults promote resilience?

How can early childhood educators help young children to develop the protective factors that support resilience? What can early childhood educators do to help children and families who are experiencing adversity?

Research has emphasized the importance of early childhood as a time for promoting resilience. Positive relationships and environments that support healthy cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development provide the foundation for young children to develop the resources and skills they need to cope and adapt to adversity throughout childhood and the rest of their lives.

Families and communities have a great influence on a child’s ability to be resilient. Children who demonstrate resilience come from families and communities that provide caring and support, hold high expectations, and encourage children’s participation. When adults provide responsive care to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, children learn to trust others. When children are held to high expectations by their parents or other caregivers, children begin to believe in themselves and realize that they are capable. When adults encourage children to participate in the family or classroom by giving them responsibilities and offering them choices about their environment, young children feel a sense of belonging and competence.

Grotberg notes that supporting infants’ and toddlers’ resilience development includes adults expressing their love for a child both verbally and physically, acknowledging the child’s feelings, keeping the child safe while allowing her to explore the environment, modeling confidence and optimism, and encouraging the child do things on her own (2009). To support preschoolers, adults can tell a child that he is loved, acknowledge what he can do, encourage his independence, explain the rationale for rules he is told to follow, and show the child what empathy and caring look and sound like.


Children need high-quality care, opportunities for developing and maintaining relationships, adequate nutrition, and support from families, educators, and communities. When these and other protective factors are in place, children experience positive development in all domains and have the internal adaptive resources to cope with trauma and stress they encounter.

Help Your Child Develop Self-Control

Self-control enables children to cooperate with others, to cope with frustration, and to resolve conflicts. Learn how you can help your infant and child begin to develop this skill that is necessary for success in school and healthy social development.

Self-control means being able to express and cope with strong emotions in appropriate ways—for a toddler, this may mean saying “I’m mad at you” instead of biting. Self-control also involves thinking skills, as we decide which of our impulses to act on. Developing self-control begins at birth and continues across our lives. It is a skill that is critical to children’s school success and overall healthy development. It enables children to cooperate with others, to cope with frustration, and to resolve conflicts. Young children learn these skills through interactions with others and guidance from parents and other caregivers.

Babies are born with virtually no self-control. They have little-to-no ability to control their emotional states or behavior. However, the process of developing self-control begins in a baby’s earliest months and continues across the first three years and beyond:

  • A newborn is being changed and doesn’t like it one bit—he is sobbing and screaming. His father says, “Almost done, little man. I know you don’t like this. Hang in there, I’ve just got to get your pants on.” Then the father scoops his son up and holds him until he stops crying. This baby is learning that he can count on loved ones to help him regain control when he is feeling overwhelmed.
  • A 9-month-old pulls up on a low table and grabs the television remote. He is happily pushing buttons when his mother gently removes it from his hand and puts it on a bookshelf, while saying, “The remote is not a toy, sweetie. I can’t let you play with it. But how about this instead?” She offers him a “busy box” with lots of buttons to push and doors to open. This baby is learning about appropriate behavior, how to cope with disappointment, and how to accept a substitute when his first choice is off-limits.
  • A 2-year-old wants the toy that his friend is playing with. He grabs it; when his friend begins to cry, he slaps his friend and begins to cry himself. His mother calms him and then helps him return the toy to his friend. She explains that hitting is not okay and gives him the words he needs to ask for a turn with the toy. This toddler is learning how to manage and express his strong feelings and impulses; to calm himself, and to make acceptable behavioral choices.

From Birth to 12 Months

Babies have very little self-control. They naturally act on thoughts and feelings without the ability to stop themselves. With sensitive guidance from parents and caregivers, they can begin to learn to manage their feelings and actions.

Help your child to soothe herself.

The calmer she feels, the more in control she will be. Babies have different ways of calming down. Some need lots of physical contact such as rocking or hugging; others prefer to be swaddled or put down for a minute. You teach your child to calm herself by staying calm yourself when she loses control. This helps her feel safe.

Teach acceptable behaviors.

Tell and show your child what he can do, not only what he’s not allowed to do. If he’s throwing balls around the house, give him an empty trashcan to throw them into or take him outside and show him where and how he can throw the ball. This helps him learn right from wrong and to channel his energy and interests in acceptable ways as he grows.

12 to 24 Months

Toddlers have minds of their own and strong feelings that they express with gusto. “No!” becomes a favorite word and a powerful way to assert their independence. At the same time, toddlers can become easily frustrated because there are still many things that they want to do but cannot. Routines are especially helpful now as they make children feel secure at a time when they can feel very out of control.

Give your child opportunities to choose.

Giving children, even young toddlers, opportunities to choose lets them know you trust them to make good decisions. It also helps them feel in control. Let your child make decisions about what to play, what to read, or what to have for snack (give him two healthy snacks to choose from).

Label and recognize your child’s feelings.

Letting children know their feelings are understood helps them calm down and regain control. This doesn’t mean you give in to their demand. “I know you are mad that you have to go to bed, but hitting me is not okay. You can hit this pillow; or we can read this book together instead.” Naming and recognizing his feelings helps your child learn to manage his emotions, an important skill necessary for later school success.

24 to 36 Months

Older toddlers are still unable to stop themselves from acting on their desires. Again, recognizing their feelings and suggesting other ways they can express themselves is still the best response at this age. As they grow, encourage them to think about what else they can do—throw the balls into the laundry basket instead of at the wall. The ability to substitute an acceptable action for one that is not acceptable is essential for functioning well in school.

Give your child opportunities to choose.

Present him with two acceptable options and let her choose, “Would you like to brush your teeth or put on your pajamas first?” Rather than telling her to get her rain boots, help her think it through on her own: “It is raining out. What will you need to bring to child care today so you can go on a rain-walk with your class?” If a decision is really yours, don’t offer a choice. Say, “Its bed time,” not “Are you ready to go to bed?”

Help your child learn to wait.

Waiting helps children learn self-control. And it teaches them that others have needs, too. Make the wait-time short and give your child something to do in the meantime. Also, playing with friends offers many opportunities to help your child learn to wait, to share, and to take-turns. With your guidance and lots of practice, your child will be well equipped to work out conflicts with his school pals later on.


Teaching Children to Calm Themselves

By David Bornstein, March 19, 2014 12:00 pm

When Luke gets angry, he tries to remember to look at his bracelet. It reminds him of what he can do to calm himself: stop, take a deep breath, count to four, give yourself a hug and, if necessary, ask an adult for help.

Luke is 5 and he has been practicing these steps for half a year at school and at home, thanks to a program called Head Start Trauma Smart that currently serves some 3,300 children annually in 26 counties in Kansas and Missouri. “We used to have to do these steps four or five times a day,” said Connie, his grandmother (who requested that I change her grandson’s name and omit her surname). “Now we’re down to four or five times a week.”

Luke’s difficulties stem from his earliest experiences. Before and after his birth, his parents regularly used drugs. His mother was unable to attend to him and his father was sent to prison shortly after his first birthday. Now he lives with his grandparents.

Children like Luke, who experience neglect, severe stress or sudden separation at a young age can be traumatized. Without appropriate adult support, trauma can interfere with  healthy brain development, inhibiting children’s ability to make good decisions, use memory or use sequential thought processes to work through problems.

“Kids who have had significant chronic adversity become hypervigilant,” said Janine Hron, C.E.O. of the Crittenton Children’s Center, which developed the Head Start Trauma Smart program. “Their emotions overwhelm them. They have difficulty sleeping, difficulty tracking in class, they act out, and then they get kicked out of school. The numbers of people who are experiencing these traumas are really epidemic.”

As I have reported in this column, chronic childhood adversity is now understood to be far more prevalent than researchers have imagined. More than 50 percent of the children served by Head Start Trauma Smart have had three or more adverse childhood experiences. The list includes a family member incarcerated, an unexpected death in the family, depression, violence, abuse or drug use in the home, or periods of homelessness.

The education system responds bluntly to kids with these challenges. The standard arsenal of disciplinary measures — from yelling and “timeouts” to detentions and suspensions — are not just ineffective for children who have experienced traumatic stress; they make things worse. By some estimates, preschool expulsions are 13 times more common than K-12 expulsions — a finding that, given the bleak future it portends for these children (and the associated costs for society), should send alarm bells ringing across the nation.

In his Head Start class, Luke would explode into rages, screaming, pushing or hitting other children or his teachers. It inhibited his ability to learn and caused considerable distress to his classmates, teachers and grandparents.

Luke is receiving individual therapy. But he is also surrounded by caregivers who understand his needs and know how to respond when he needs help. Through the Head Start Trauma Smart model, teachers, parents and even the bus drivers and cafeteria workers who interact with children receive training in trauma.

This allows them to respond more skillfully, rather than reacting out of anger, frustration or resentment. Indeed, one of the biggest lessons for teachers and parents who undergo this training is that the very first step is learning how to calm, and care for, themselves, especially when they are overstressed.

The Head Start Trauma Smart program is still in its early stages, but the evidence is highly promising. To date, the program has produced significant gains as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an instrument for gauging the quality of classroom relationships, as well as emotional and instructional support.

And using another standard assessment tool, the Achenbach system, parents and guardians of children who are receiving individual therapy (like Luke) have reported gains in a variety of areas: kids are less anxious and emotionally reactive, and less aggressive or withdrawn; attention deficit, hyperactivity and “oppositional defiant” problems have decreased; and parents report overwhelmingly that their children are sleeping better. The scores indicate that many kids have moved out of a “clinical range of concern” on several factors to within a normal range — a sign that they are better prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

That has been Luke’s experience, too. “Before the program, Luke was constantly in trouble, either off by himself or hitting other kids,” Connie said. “Now he can sit right next to others and he doesn’t bother them. Before he had no friends because other kids were scared of him. Now he’s got three friends. He knows his address and his ABCs and colors and we’re working on counting to 20.”

Head Start Trauma Smart is based on an evidence-based trauma intervention framework known as ARC (Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency) developed by Kristine Kinniburgh and Margaret Blaustein at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass. Trauma interventions can be highly effective, but the challenge today is extending them from therapeutic settings — which are limited and expensive — into the broad systems that serve larger numbers of children.

Through the Head Start Trauma Smart training and mentoring programs, teachers, parents and others come to understand how trauma affects the brain and manifests itself in daily life. “Every behavior communicates a need,” said Kinniburgh, the co-developer of ARC and co-author of “Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents.” “The question is, how do we help caregivers and teachers tune in and understand the messages that kids are really sending through their behavior?” And how to do it in real-time in a classroom with two dozen children or the checkout counter at Wal-Mart?

A Trauma Smart therapist talked about feelings with a child at a school in Kansas City, Kan.Credit Tyrone Turner for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

One key is remembering that children who have experienced trauma feel profoundly unsafe. When they are acting out, their primary need is often to feel a sense of connection. Instead of yelling, “Stop!” when a child is throwing a tantrum, or making the child sit alone in the corner, teachers learn to notice and name the child’s experience. (They wear bracelets, as reminders, too.)

“The minute you say to a child: ‘I can see you are so angry. Your fists are balled up and your face is scrunched up,’ they can relax because they know they’re being attuned to,” said Avis Smith, who directs the Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for the Crittenton Children’s Center.

At that point, the teacher can validate the child’s emotions by saying, “I’d be mad too if somebody took my block,” added Suzee Schulz-Marks, a Head Start teacher who has taught for 18 years and has found the trauma smart model — a new approach for her — to be highly effective. “You can let them know it’s O.K. to have those strong feelings, and that they are not alone with them.”

Next, the teacher, or parent, can help the child find a way to shift. Together, they problem-solve. The teacher might say, “‘Maybe you can use your words and say that everybody should get a chance to play with the blocks?’” added Schulz-Marks. But the child may not be ready for that. Or: “Would you like to go to the safe spot or sit on my lap? Take some deep breaths or use the breathing star?”

Breathing stars (playful breathing aids made out of file folders) are invaluable, teachers say. So are safe spots, or “calm-down corners,” with shoeboxes filled with sunglasses, pinwheels and tactile things: nail brushes with soft bristles, bendy Gumby animals, or pieces of burlap or velvet. (Some parents create their own calm-down corners at home, as well.) The main thing is for the children to discover the tools and methods that work for them. Through this process, they learn over time that they can gain control over themselves and return to an emotional place where they can enjoy playing and genuinely benefit from learning opportunities.

“Many adults are skeptical that kids can learn to respond to themselves,” said Lauren Clithero, a therapist who delivers the program’s training sessions in mid-Missouri. “It’s a big paradigm shift in how adults think they are supposed to take care of children. We think our job is to jump in and take control, but it’s much better to give kids choices and control over themselves.”

Another common misunderstanding, said Avis Smith, is when adults say: “He’s just looking for attention. I’m not going to give it to him because it will reinforce the behavior.”

“There’s a big difference between attention-seeking behavior and children seeking connection,” she added. “Validating children’s feelings and connecting with them on a personal level is a core need.”

It’s not just something for teachers or parents to do. Any adult can play a part in helping to heal a child, or anyone else, for that matter. One of the core goals of the Head Start Trauma Smart model is to create a common context so that everyone understands the impact and extent of traumatic stress, not just on children’s lives, but also on their lives of their friends and colleagues, and perhaps on their own lives, too.

Stephanie McIntosh said the training has changed the way she looks at the world. McIntosh has been a bus driver for more than 20 years. “I deal with preschoolers,” she said. “I’m the next adult the kids see in the morning when they go to school.” Sometimes the kids get on the bus in the morning carrying heavy feelings from home, fears about school, crying, sometimes acting out.

“I used to be the kind of person who said, ‘The way it looks is the way it is.’ But I don’t look at it that way anymore,” McIntosh said. “There are things that happen to people that we don’t know about. Now, I watch the kids better, their body language. I’m not the grouchy person who yells, ‘Sit down!’ or gets angry. I give them reassurances. They always want to give me hugs before they get off the bus. It makes my work more enjoyable.”

“I use my trauma training all the time,” she added. “I use it to calm myself down better. I use it in my home atmosphere and with adults in my church setting.”

The problem that Head Start Trauma Smart is trying to address is so widespread and so essential to human well-being that it’s hard to imagine an intervention that could yield greater payback for society — if the model proves to be scalable and transportable from community to community. Those are big questions, of course, and I will be tracking this work carefully as the answers emerge.

“What trauma does is steal from people the ability to feel safe and navigate relationships successfully,” said Chris Blodgett, who directs the Clear Trauma Center at Washington State University and is the principal researcher for the Spokane Safe Start program, which is similar to Head Start Trauma Smart. “Three- or 4-year-old children who have been exposed to trauma are at much greater risk of lacking the biological foundations or the behavior skills that will allow them to succeed in school and in life. The trauma keeps stealing their opportunities moment by moment and day by day.”

“If we can strengthen the sense of safety and the relationships around children, it creates a foundation for the natural process of development to get back on track,” he added. “We’re built to succeed as human beings. If that normal process gets disrupted, we need to do anything we can do to put it back on track.”

For Connie, the impact has been direct: “Before, I was always the bad guy. Whenever I made Luke sit quietly by himself, he said, ‘Grandma, I hate you.’ Now I know that’s not what was needed. And he’s also able to step back and look. He even says, ‘Thank you, Grandma,’ and gives me a hug after he calms down. He’s a very intelligent person if he can get past the anger.”

Tips on Helping A Child Build Relationships

Through relationships, children discover who they are and learn to understand others. Learn how you as a parent or child care provider can help infants and young children develop strong relationships with the people in their lives.

Relationship-building describes the process of establishing emotional connections with others, starting from birth, which are based on trust and intimacy. Through relationships, children discover who they are and learn to understand others. When young children experience people helping, understanding, and enjoying them, they approach the world with openness and enthusiasm, and they grow to be responsive and caring people.

Babies are born with a drive to relate to and connect with others, and they continue to develop the social skills necessary to form strong, healthy relationships throughout their lives:

  • A newborn gazes at her mother’s face as she breastfeeds. She recognizes her mother as the special, loving person who is always there for her, and calms down almost immediately when her mother picks her up and holds her close. This baby is learning that she is loved and that she can trust others to care for her and treat her well.
  • A 6-month-old laughs and laughs as his parent or caregiver holds a napkin over their face, and then drops it to say, “Peek-a-boo!” Whenever they try to put the napkin back on the table, the baby says, “eh, eh, eh” to let them know he wants them to hold up that silly napkin again. This baby is learning that he can connect with a person through a fun activity like this one. He is discovering that spending time together is satisfying and pleasurable.
  • A 20-month-old wants to cut his own fruit for snack. His parent or caregiver says no. He stamps his feet and sobs. His parent or caregiver tells him they have an idea: They give him a dull butter knife and guides his hand to help him cut some melon. This toddler is learning that his interests and needs are important and what it feels like to be understood by another person.
  • A 2 ½-year-old sees someone fall down and begin crying. She runs over and starts to rub his back, like she’s seen her mommy or care giver do. This toddler is learning how to empathize with, or understand, another’s feelings and experiences.

Below are some ideas for parents and child care providers for nurturing relationship-building skills in infants and young children.

Allow for Unstructured, Uninterrupted Time With The Child Each Day

Let the child be the leader in deciding what to play. Don’t multi-task during this special playtime—just be there with the child. She will feel loved and special with your full attention. When you have to turn to other tasks, you can stay connected with the child by talking with her or having her help with the tasks, giving her “jobs” she can handle. With the child, you can narrate what you’re doing and offer her interesting, related objects to keep her connected to you—like giving her a wooden spoon to play with while you’re getting ready for meal or snack time.

Let The Child Know You’re Interested in His Activities

Show a sincere interest in a child—whatever he is doing. Your attention is what he desires and is thrilled to receive. You can show your interest by commenting on or describing what he is doing: “You are using so many beautiful colors to make that drawing.” Or, get involved by following his lead. If he is putting blocks in a container, see if he’ll take turns with you, or if you can build something together. This will help him learn about the value and joy of back and forth play which is an important aspect of all good relationships.

Encourage Children to Express Their Feelings in Age-Appropriate Ways

Forming positive, healthy and successful relationships depends on the ability to show feelings appropriately and to recognize the feelings of others. Teach children acceptable ways to vent anger, like drawing an angry picture, running in the yard, or tossing a pillow on the floor. Label your own feelings, “I am happy because you helped me clean up,” or, “I am sad that your Grandma had to go home.” It is important for children to know that you have feelings too, but that there are ways to cope with them so you can feel better.

Respect A Child’s Feelings

This teaches a child to trust her instincts. It can also help her work through powerful or difficult feelings and allow her to move on. Knowing you respect her feelings teaches the child empathy and respect for others, which are important elements in any relationship. Accepting her feelings, without minimizing them or making fun, also increases the chances that she will share more with you later as she continues to grow.

Play Games that Explore Feelings

Use puppets to act out a young child’s typical frustrations or fears, like having to share toys with a playmate, adjusting to a new baby, or separating from loved ones. Make drawings or hats for different emotions, and talk about pictures in books that communicate feelings. Also, watch what the child “tells” you during his play—it can be a window into his inner thoughts and feelings. For example, if a child dresses up in mommy clothes and acts out leaving her teddy bear in another room or somewhere else, she may be wondering about separations. You can help her think through these big ideas and feelings by playing along and perhaps reminding her that, while Teddy misses his mama, he knows his mama always comes back.

Provide Opportunities for A Child to Develop Relationships With Peers

Children need practice in order to learn to share, take turns, resolve conflict, and feel the joy of friendship. Playing together gives children all of this. At this age, being present during play time is important as children often need help learning and practicing their new friendship skills. And it’s a good rule of thumb to keep play time short for little ones—45 minutes-to-an-hour is about right for most toddlers. For older children, you can use their playtime with peers to nurture relationship-building skills by:

  • Suggesting, when appropriate, that children turn to peers for assistance or to get answers to their questions: “You are wondering how to get the little doll to sit in the high chair? Why don’t you ask Jeremy? I just saw him feeding her a few minutes ago.”
  • Asking children to imagine how their behavior might affect others: “I see that you told Greta that she can’t play ball with you. How do you think that made her feel?”
  • Encouraging children to work in groups or as teams, when appropriate: “Sam and DeShawn, could you please put the cars away? Then you can help me get your snack ready.”
  • Helping children to see others’ points of view, which encourages empathy: “Casey is feeling sad because his mom had to go.”

Limit TV and Other “Screen Time”

Television takes time away from parents and children hanging out together—and time away from children playing, solving problems, interacting, and actively learning about the world around them. When a child does watch, you can enhance the experience by talking with the child about the show—what she thought it was about, which characters she liked and disliked, how it made her feel. You can also act out the story as she understood it, use puppets to tell the story, or make up your own story together.


Teaching Problem-Solving Skills to Young Kids

Problem-solving skills helps kids become more independent and excel academically. Check out these techniques to teach young children at home or pre-school.

As small children explore their world, they naturally engage in problem-solving processes. “What happens if I …” or “I wonder if I can …”

This exploration allows them to understand their world better, as well as to develop independence, self-concept, and executive skills. As an adult, you can facilitate the development of these abilities in engaging and meaningful ways.

Executive Functioning

The executive functioning skills are all those competencies that have essentially made humankind what we are — the abilities to plan and organize, to acquire and use our memories to make decisions, and to analyze and solve problems rationally. These are the core lessons learned through the problem-solving process, and the skills that help kids achieve success inside and outside the classroom.

The Problem-Solving Process

For kids, the problem-solving process is greatly simplified, of course. It can be broken down into five straightforward steps, such as:

  1. Uh oh! There’s a problem!
  2. Let’s stay calm.
  3. What can we do?
  4. Let’s try!
  5. Did that work? If the answer is ‘no,’ go back to step 3.

While every process is some version of these steps, problem-solving will look different for a child at each level of development. When children are about eight months old, they start looking for reactions to their movements, learning cause and effect. When they reach one year of age, babies can make simple choices — like which toy to play with — and can imitate the adults around them in order to solve problems. Once toddlers are two years old, they can use their memory to solve problems that they’ve successfully tackled in the past or that they have seen others solve. From here, the human capacity to problem-solve continues to develop up until a person reaches 25 years old.

And as these problem-solving skills develop, the child (or adolescent) will be better able to resolve social conflict, work out tough math problems, manage her own life with less adult intervention, and become more confident.

Problem-Solving at Home, Pre School or School

Are you ready to start? Here’s what you can do to encourage those budding executive functioning skills in a child:

Step back.

It’s hard not to intervene — we all want to help struggling kids! In fact, a little frustration (though not too much) can be good motivation for working something out. And the only way to build independence and confidence is to give the child a chance on their own.

Keep it open-ended.

When you are brainstorming solutions to a potential problem, avoid yes-or-no questions. Instead, ask “What do you think about that?” or “What could happen if we did this?”

Try to keep your activities open-ended as well. For example, give the child materials to build, but don’t tell them what they should be building. For a younger child, give them access to a water table with a variety of old containers and objects that both float and sink. You can also give the toddler toys that react to them or that have buttons, zippers, and twists so they can learn the consequences of their actions.

Make it real.

Kids of all ages learn best when the lesson is meaningful to them. When the toddler’s ball rolls out of reach, use it as an opportunity to problem-solve a little. If the child has trouble sharing with friends, role-play a situation in which two friends have the same difficulty and allow the child to help them work it out.


The Boston Children’s Museum has a wonderful free STEM resource for young kids that encourages observing, asking questions, and exploring the world around them.


Problem-solving isn’t composed entirely of victorious moments. There are going to be some rough patches as you find that productive level of frustration that makes minds grow.

Explore alternatives to language.

Verbalizing a problem can sometimes be more frustrating for young children whose language skills are less well-developed. Take time to calm the child down, and help them find alternative ways to explain what they are trying to say. For example, have them draw a picture of what they are having difficulty with.

Alternatively, choose a hands-on task, such as a puzzle or a building project, and ask the child to narrate what is happening. Encourage them to contribute to the “story” of solving the puzzle.

Step in strategically.

Read cues, and as you see frustration build, learn to step in before it really escalates. Some frustration is okay — if you never had any problems, you wouldn’t learn how to solve them! But escalated frustration can lead to aggression, tantrums, or poor self-esteem, making a child a less independent problem-solver in the future. Knowing that they can count on a little support from you, though, is comforting and instills confidence that — one way or another — a problem can be solved.

Guide them toward a solution.

Offer enough support. If the child seems stuck, don’t rush in to fix it. Empathize (“Wow, that seems tricky!”) and offer some choices, as in, “Do you think moving the bookcase would work, or should we try to reach under?” The child will still have to think about the options and choose one, learning that they have some control over the situation.

Teaching kids how to solve problems from a young age leads to the development of essential skills like critical thinking and grit. And, of course, understanding that it’s fine to experiment and stumble as you find your way are all part of the learning process.


REPORT on “N.E.A.R.” — Neuroscience, Epigenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Resilience

This report from the Foundation for Healthy Generations presents breaking news from the people of Washington State, viewed through the lens of a bundle of science that is being called “N.E.A.R.”: Neuroscience, Epigenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resilience. (Fall 2014)

Report: N.E.A.R. Science



DOCUMENTARY, “Paper Tigers” — Paper Tigers captures the pain, the danger, the beauty, and the hopes of struggling teens—and the teachers armed with new science and fresh approaches that are changing their lives for the better. (2015)

Paper Tigers Documentary



REPORT: No School Alone: How community risks and assets contribute to school and youth success (March, 2015)

Christopher Blodgett, Ph.D. Washington State University

Report prepared for the Washington State Office of Financial Management in response to the Legislature’s directions in Substitute House Bill 2739

In this report, we test if the levels of the challenges resulting from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in a community’s adult population contribute to current conditions of disruption in children that make ACEs a multigenerational problem.

  No School Alone_ How community risks and assets contribute to school and youth success.pdf



KEYNOTE ADDRESS: N.E.A.R. Science & WA State Resilience Findings

Laura Porter explores Washington state data related to NEAR science & new Resilience factor findings. (Nov 2014)

NEAR Science is a cluster of science that stands for Neuroscience, Epigenetics, ACEs, and Resilience. This cluster gives a fuller picture of the experiences over a life time and over generations.

Pediatricians Screen Parents for ACEs to Improve Health of Babies

It turns out that just 14 questions about the childhood experiences of the parents provide information critical to the health of their baby. The answers can help determine not only if the child will succeed in school, but when the child becomes an adult, whether she or he is likely to suffer chronic disease, mental illness, become violent or a victim of violence.