By Diane VanCleave, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Some say, “If parenting does not feel like white knuckle time, you’re not doing it right.” Parenting has its complexities and challenges, and a parent or caretaker needs to provide age-appropriate guidance.

A child’s growth progresses through executive function efficiency. Executive function (EF) is the interconnection and coordination of brain activity skills, which is crucial to human development. Both parents and teachers need to be working toward a child’s healthy executive functioning.

The skill sets of executive function include development in clear thinking, negotiation in living with others, task accomplishment, managing emotions, self-initiation, completing goals through steps, understanding patterns in organization, gauging time, being able to switch from one task to another, and sustained attention and memory.

There is sufficient evidence that starting at birth, the precursor patterns and sequences needed for EF evolve as the cortex develops. Researchers speak of scaffolding as the necessary building block of function. Scaffolding involves integrating earlier skill sets that help in critical thinking and integrating.

Parents need to be observing and nurturing to recognize early precursors that will eventually add to academic, social, and economic success. A mastery in EF requires a child to engage in continued strengthening and practice. Without the practiced moments, parents may see meltdowns when tasks do not go effortlessly. These meltdowns can happen when children do not have the scaffolds that help them persist through failures and mistakes.

In teens, scaffolding activities scheduled by parents might look like time to listen and talk. A teen’s complex scaffolding would follow their own interests, focusing on what they want to accomplish and how they would accomplish that task themselves. In younger children, scaffolding looks like heavier reliance on direction. Scaffolding might include identifying colors or articulating a dialogue with the child on what they might do if they lose a toy or make a mistake.

With toddlers, EF develops when the caregiver provides toys or household items to explore. Sometimes the greatest learning experience for a toddler can even be the introduction of a cardboard box. Infants begin their EF skill sets with hand clapping, mimicry, and caregiver facial affirmation.

The parents/teacher/caregiver can use modeling and reflection from their own lived experience to nurture and support. In the modern age, executive functioning requires worthy exploration to help the child develop to their full potential. The parent or caregiver has a role to play in helping their child negotiate EF throughout their lives.

By Kelly McClarnon, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

Since I began working in a school setting, I’ve noticed increasing rates of mental health concerns among adolescents. It’s not just my personal experience; a quick Google search will pull multiple articles about a “mental health crisis” within this population.

There are many factors that contribute to the rise in mental health problems, but none are exclusively to blame. Some of the identified reasons are decreases in hours of sleep, decreased activity levels, and fewer face-to-face interactions. Other factors include an increase in academic and sports performance expectations, cyberbullying, higher rates of exposure to violence, barriers to mental health care, and even the chemicals in the food we eat.

Studies show that since 2010, mental health issues in adolescents have been steadily rising, and organizations such as WHO (World Health Organization) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) are researching ways to address these issues. These community mental health concerns need to be addressed on a macro level, but there are steps individuals and families can take to support their child’s mental and emotional well-being.

If your child had a broken leg, you would take them to the doctor and follow the prescribed treatment to heal the break. If a child is struggling mentally or emotionally, the first step I generally recommend to parents is to start having conversations that provide a safe and judgement-free space for their child to open up and talk about their concerns.

Restricting the number of activities your child is involved with outside the home can provide the necessary time to have important conversations regarding mental health and well-being. Children need down time to recover and relax from their day. They need to have quiet activities they enjoy at home such as drawing, reading, playing with their pets, and spending time with loved ones.

Encourage healthy technology habits by limiting screen time and monitoring online content. Overuse of technology for many reasons has contributed to rising rates of mental health problems among adolescents. This is an easy fix as long as parents stay consistent and intentional about overseeing screen time.

Encourage good sleep hygiene. Not getting enough sleep can affect a person’s mood, memory, and executive functioning. Sleep is an important factor in maintaining good mental health.

Make sure your child is eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise. Taking care of their physical health is important for promoting positive mental health.

Lastly, if you feel you’ve taken steps at home to support your child and things are not improving, start by talking with their pediatrician, who can provide referrals for counseling and/or medication management. You can also seek support from mental health professionals, like a Youth First Social Worker at your child’s school, to provide direction in getting mental health treatment.

Just as you would care for a physical illness, mental health problems should be addressed. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome.

By Jennifer Bouchie, MSW, LSW, Youth First Inc.

Goal setting is important at all stages of our lives. Whether we are talking about our kids or ourselves, knowing how to set obtainable goals is key to finding fulfillment.

The struggle with goal setting is that sometimes we see the big picture but have a hard time visualizing all the small steps it takes to get to the desired outcome. So how do we set realistic goals?

One of the most popular acronyms for goal setting is SMART goals. This stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Once you have a big picture goal, setting up steps in a SMART goal system helps you break it down into bite-sized pieces. This helps make the goal more obtainable and helps you see success along the way.

First, clearly define a specific goal. Write it down or put it on a dream board. Be sure to remind yourself frequently of what you are trying to accomplish. If your goal is to save money, identify how much you need to save each pay period to reach your final savings goal. It’s also important to know why you’re setting a goal. Are you saving for a vacation or a down payment on a house? This can help you determine what savings amount is reasonable for you. 

Second, be sure the goal is measurable. If you’re keeping the same goal of improving your budget, this is easy to measure. You will be able to tell each pay period if you were able to stick to your goal of moving over the desired amount into savings.

Third, you need to make sure the goals are achievable. If you’re like me, when you set goals you want to reach them as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the best way to reach your desired outcome. If you make your goals unobtainable, you set yourself up for failure, which can result in giving up on the goal altogether.

Fourth, are your goals realistic? Maybe the issue is not that you can’t save the money, but maybe you’re asking too much of yourself too quickly. It’s okay to reevaluate and change your savings timeframe. If you decide to put less money back each pay period, you will still reach your savings goal even if it takes more time than anticipated. Being realistic is crucial.

Fifth, be sure your goals are timely. If you have a big picture goal, make sure not to lose sight of the baby steps that are going to get you there.

As humans, we are always trying to grow and learn. These skills can be used for adult tasks such as budgeting but also for tasks with our kids such as improving grades, learning to play an instrument, or developing athletic skills. Setting SMART goals is a great way to move yourself forward to achieve your dreams!

By Diane Walton, MSW, LSW, Youth First Inc.

Family meal times are such a valuable experience, with a wide variety of benefits for both children and parents. More shared meals together correlate to greater benefits seen; however, children will benefit from as little as three family meals each week. Shared meals promote healthier eating habits, better grades, and a decrease in rates of depression, substance abuse, and early teenage pregnancy.

Teens who have fewer than three family meals per week are at higher risk of using marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco. Today, only about 30 percent of families have regular family mealtimes. Imagine the benefits we would see if we made family mealtimes a priority three or four times each week!

As a working mom with active children, I understand that planning family meals can feel overwhelming, especially when we have school, sports, and work commitments scheduled throughout the week. Eating together as a family can work with outside commitments and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult. A simple plan and easy recipes can make family meals doable, fun, and something to look forward to.

Ask your children to pick their favorite meals and add these items to the grocery list. They should choose an entrée, side, and vegetable for their meal. It can be as simple as chicken nuggets, green beans, and applesauce for dinner. Another easy option is “breakfast for supper,” which includes fried eggs, toast, sausage or bacon and fruit. 

Worried because not all members of the family are present on any given evening?  Think outside the box! If it is a challenge to have dinner with the whole family throughout the week, try regular breakfasts on Saturday or brunch every Sunday. Keep in mind that if at least one parent and one child are at home for mealtime, it can be a family meal.

Conversation is an important aspect of family mealtimes. The goal is to be warm and engaging, saving criticisms and deep conversations for another time. Use open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered with one word such as “yes,” “no,” or “fine.”

Have fun with silly questions such as, “What is the one superpower you would love to have and why?” Mix in questions that give a little insight into your child’s day like, “Tell me about the best thing that happened to you today” or “What was something that happened today that made you sad or frustrated?” 

Parents also benefit from regular family meals. Fathers who are present at meal times have a lower stress index, exhibit greater self-esteem, and are less likely to describe depressive symptoms. Family meals also allow parents to monitor their children’s moods, behavior, and activities in a relaxed, screen-free environment.

Check out the Family Dinner Project at, which is a great FREE resource featuring easy recipes, games, and conversation starters to help bring your family back to the table.