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By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – September 16, 2020 –

Hi. Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Oi.

Each one of these greetings, along with many others, is the gateway for social interaction. Social interaction with others helps create a culture of inclusion and acceptance.

According to Ferris State University, inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is recognized. 

Why is inclusion important in our schools and communities?

Heartland Community College has created the HEIP (Heartland Equity and Inclusion Project), which identified the following reasons that inclusion is important:

  1. Inclusion molds the values of the next generation of children.
    • Students see a person first and the person’s disability second.
    • Students learn to practice empathy and appreciate the value of diversity.
  2. Inclusion provides opportunities for friendships.
    • The development of friendships requires close proximity and a common experience. Keeping children together encourages both objectives.
    • Students develop a comfortable way to interact with students with disabilities.
    • Children with disabilities attend the same school as their neighborhood friends.
  3. Inclusion prepares individuals for adult life in the community.
    • Today’s classmates are tomorrow’s employers and co-workers.
    • Community life includes people of all abilities.
  4. Inclusion helps create family-like social structures outside of the home.
    • Siblings can be educated together at the same school.
    • Parents are not stretched between two or more school settings.
  5. Inclusion cultivates an enriched learning environment.
    • Additional resources (therapists, special educators, etc.) in the classroom benefit all children.
    • Diversified teaching strategies and the common use of modifications and adaptations ensure everyone can be part of the learning process.
    • Children with disabilities learn from typically developing peers who can act as role models, making them more likely to develop appropriate social and communication skills.

What is the opposite of inclusion and why is it important? Social isolation is a feeling or sense of not belonging. It is overwhelming and in many cases debilitating to a person’s functioning. When feeling isolated from others, loneliness and invisibility can consume a person’s thoughts and behaviors, causing a significant increase in self-harm or harm of others.

To decrease the negative impacts of social isolation, the Sandy Hook Promise has created a campaign to increase social interaction and inclusion among students. This campaign began after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December of 2012. Each fall, schools around the world are asked to participate in the campaign called “Start With Hello” Week. The scheduled date for this year’s “Start With Hello Week is September 21-25, 2020.

Start With Hello Week raises awareness about social isolation and educates students and the community on how to prevent it through various trainings, awareness, activities, public proclamations, media events, student contests and school awards – all provided by the Sandy Hook Promise campaign. You can find the “Start With Hello Week planning guide along with the registration submission for your school or agency to participate in this event at https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/startwithhelloweek.

Let’s all join together in this movement to show our children that everyone should be valued, to bring awareness to social isolation, and to increase empathy and inclusion all around! Just remember, it can be as simple as starting with “hello.”

By Ashley Underwood – July 1, 2020 –

As the mother of a child who will start kindergarten this fall, I can say the question “Is he ready?” has come to mind often over the past few months. The academic, social, and emotional demands are much more intensive in kindergarten than what has likely been previously experienced. Because of this, however, kindergarten is an amazing opportunity for learning and growth for your child.

What are some indicators that your child is ready for kindergarten? The Mayo Clinic identifies some common developmental milestones that can be observed when a child is ready for this leap:

  • Demonstrating curiosity in learning new things
  • Exploring new things through their senses
  • Taking turns and cooperating with peers
  • Speaking with and listening to peers and adults
  • Following instructions
  • Communicating how they’re feeling
  • Empathizing with other children
  • Controlling impulses
  • Paying attention
  • Limiting disruptive behaviors

While many of these skills emerge naturally between ages 4 and 5, there is not a set age limit. Some parents even choose to wait until age 6 to send their child to kindergarten.

What you can do to help prepare your child for kindergarten?

The National Association for the Education of Young Children provides these tips:

  • Teach responsibility. Start transferring small responsibilities over to your child, if you haven’t already. They can set out silverware at meals, put new liners in trash cans, or fold pillowcases. Any task that is meaningful to the household and achievable for the child will teach responsibility.
  • Develop and follow routines. Set up morning routines that will transfer into a school setting. Getting up around the same time every day, getting dressed, and having an early breakfast together is a great way to transition to school.
  • Read aloud to your child. Read a variety of books, read the captions under pictures in the newspaper, even share the comics. Just read together!
  • Engage them in meaningful literacy activities. Encourage your child to help you with thank you cards, shopping lists, or notes. At the store, you can point to each item on the list and have your child check it off when it’s put in the cart. At home, you can ask your child to sign their name on cards and give them their own special notebook and pen.
  • Help them develop independence at home. Encourage your child to dress themselves, take their coat on and off and hang it up, use the bathroom without assistance, wash their hands without constant reminders, and put on their own shoes. 
  • Acknowledge their feelings. Your child may express being nervous, not wanting to go or, alternately, feel very excited to start school. Take time to appreciate these feelings. You can find specific strategies to do this at youthfirstinc.org/selmaterials.

Chances are you’re already practicing many of these skills your child will need for kindergarten. Remember to keep it fun and don’t make it stressful for you or your child!

If your child’s school will require them to wear a mask, practice this at home and when you go out in public. You can find helpful advice at https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-masks.html

Additional information about kindergarten readiness from the Indiana Department of Education can be found at: https://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/earlylearning/k-readiness.pdf

By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – Dec. 17, 2019

Imagine this scenario: you have a busy and stressful day at work and at the end of the day you get in your car and drive home. The next thing you know, you are parked in your driveway. You made it home, but you don’t remember the process of getting there; the stops, the turns, the motions. You get so used to the usual route home that little thought or focus has to go into the process of driving.

This is an example of being on autopilot. Many of us often live in this state, where actions and words are said and done without thought or focus. When we function on autopilot, we are more likely to say or do things that can be harmful to others.

Why does this impact how we parent our children?

Children need their parents to be the best versions of themselves, thinking through their responses rather than reacting to them. When parents act on autopilot they are not present in the moment and are more likely to react to children impulsively than responding to them with thought.

Some examples of parent reactions might be yelling, cursing, screaming, slamming things, etc. These types of reactions can create an atmosphere of stress between children and parents, as children often feel attacked for things they do. Responding to children requires us to be aware of what is happening, what we are thinking and what we are feeling. That is difficult to do when we are on autopilot.

How can we decrease reacting and increase responding to our children?

One tool that can reduce living on autopilot and increase being more present in the moment is mindful awareness. When being mindfully aware of what is happening in the moment and what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, we are more likely to provide our children with responses rather than reactions.

This also helps model the type of behavior we want from our children. We want them to think through their choices and pick the best one before acting impulsively. The stress of everyday life can make it difficult to live in the moment though, which is why practicing mindful awareness daily is key for mastering this tool.

What are ways to practice mindful awareness?

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction practice), “mindfulness or mindful awareness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  This awareness can be practiced in a variety of daily activities including eating, showering, walking, brushing your teeth, etc.

The key to it though is rather than just going through the motions of these activities – we are paying attention to our senses (what we see, taste, feel, hear, and smell) and we are describing those things without judgments, only the facts. Mindful awareness can also be practiced through meditation, yoga, tai-chi, dance, music, and so much more.

For a more extensive list of mindfulness activities please visit https://www.rachaelkable.com/blog/50-easy-and-fun-ways-to-practice-mindfulness.