By Danielle Tessier, Communications & Development Assistant- January 14, 2021-

It’s finally 2021. We can relish our goodbyes to a year that brought more strife and challenges than any of us bargained for. Although 2020 is over, all of the problems we’ve faced will not miraculously disappear.

With a coronavirus vaccine already in distribution across the country, we are beginning to see a light amidst the darkness that this pandemic has cast over our everyday lives. Unfortunately, a vaccine cannot eliminate political divisions and address racial inequality. This is a problem we must solve together.

Systemic racism was googled more in 2020 than in any previous year. “Black Lives Matter” was amongst “election results” and “coronavirus” in the top ten search terms of 2020. It’s evident that all of us have questions about racial justice, even our children. How do we provide answers to their questions when we still have unanswered questions ourselves?

First, strive to create an environment where everyone in the family feels comfortable asking about topics that may be controversial or even frightening. The best way to perpetuate fear and uneasiness around discussing race is not talking about it at all.

Ignoring the issue minimizes its importance and leaves children without a way to process information they hear at school or from friends. Not addressing racial issues also takes away our opportunities to learn how to celebrate and appreciate the diversity around us.

Even if children are young, they notice when those around them are feeling angry or conflicted. Framing the way we are feeling about an event or topic surrounding race in an age- appropriate way is essential to helping children develop a basic understanding of racial justice. You can’t explain the history of racism to an elementary school student, but you can help them use their compassion and emotional intelligence to understand unfairness and place themselves in someone else’s shoes.

As children grow older, their understanding of race will become more complex. Encourage your whole family to listen to the voices of people of color through art, music, and writing. This is a perfect way to instill recognition of the inherent value of narratives that aren’t our own. Regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum, the need and importance of diverse voices in culture cannot be dismissed.   

Listening to thoughts and concepts that challenge our own perspectives is the best way to cultivate an awareness of how we each play a role in molding a society that belongs to everyone. Acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and leaning into our uncertainty and discomfort surrounding race is something we should all make a point to accomplish this year.

This will allow us to have more honest and open conversations with the ones we love. It will also help us be better prepared to provide answers to the tough questions our children will inevitably ask us.

By Jessie Laughlin, LSW -January 6, 2021-

“New normal” is a phrase we’ve heard a lot of lately. Staying in for dinner, wearing masks, keeping six feet of distance, and using lots of hand sanitizer are all commonplace in our lives. While these new elements in our routines can be inconvenient, all have become part of our “new normal.”

Virtual learning is also a “new normal,” with 65 percent of households involved in online learning of some capacity, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, many students and families are struggling to adapt as easily to e-learning as they are adapting to wearing a mask every day. Academic, social, and mental health challenges can arise from virtual school, but committing to these recommendations may help while learning from home.

1. Create a Workspace. Set up a space that is calm, quiet, and feels similar to a school setting. A desk and chair are great, but if not available, try the kitchen table. If your student’s bed is the quietest place at home, make it a desk, but be watchful for napping.

2. Establish a Routine. Decide when learning hours will be and stick to it. Get up at the same time every day, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, and set up learning spaces. Check email and learning platforms daily. Predictability encourages motivation, allows fewer distractions, and eases stress.

3. Set Goals. Set measurable, realistic goals regarding schoolwork. Incentivize those goals, since a reward for work may increase motivation. Rewards may include privileges, allowance, special treats, and should always include verbal encouragement.

4. Be Flexible. Learning at home is not the same as learning at school. Tricky factors come to play in virtual learning, like guardian work hours and computer availability. Make a school work plan that fits both your family’s needs and the school’s requirements. Be careful not to compare previous functioning to COVID-era functioning.

5. Get Organized. Incorporate tools like a planner and folders for each class. Keep supplies (pencils, earbuds, paper, books, computer) nearby and within reach. Keep login information written down just in case your student forgets.

6. Practice Time Management. Teach your student to start paying attention to how long assignments take to complete. Help them plan ahead, including when they’re going to complete assignments. If you’re unsure how long an assignment will take, double the estimated time. A timer is a great tool to help students learn to keep track of time.

7. Manage Distractions. Avoid learning around distractions like video games, phones, and TV. Family can also be distracting. Find a quiet place in your home so they can give schoolwork full attention.

8. Take “Brain Breaks.” Brain breaks allow our brain to process and relax from continuous learning. A child’s attention span is about two minutes per year of age. Allow “brain breaks” when their attention span decreases. A National Academy of Medicine study found that physical activity changes the structure of our brain and encourages learning and memory. Movement throughout the day may improve academic achievement, along with physical and emotional health.

9. Stay in Touch. Students are missing out on day-to-day interaction with teachers and peers. To foster those relationships, students should check in with their teachers by email and attend all virtual class sessions. Before small problems escalate, encourage your student to email their teacher about struggles. Help your student remain social with peers by setting up Zoom friend meets.

These tips and tricks aren’t difficult to implement and will work wonders if you are struggling to make e-learning work for your family. Learning should be functional and fun, no matter the setting. Even the smallest adjustments in our daily routines can ultimately make a big difference.

By Niki Walls, LSW -December 29, 2020-

Parents and guardians are always searching for answers to questions about raising children in today’s world. While developments in technology and popular culture have changed many aspects of childhood over time, one thing that has not changed is that our children need love from a caring adult more than anything.

Showing love and affection to kids can sometimes seem “easier said than done.” However, love is essential because it enables children to flourish and discover who they are. Love is a word that encompasses many different things as well. Love does not come without consistency, respect, and support.

Children thrive on consistency. They may seem like they hate rules and are resistant to many of the boundaries adults set for them, but in actuality, structure is something they are in dire need of. Consistency can come in many forms; developing routines, having the same discipline techniques as your spouse, and having consistent schedules.

Children generally do not embrace sudden change, so by creating consistency in their lives, you are likely to prevent power struggles and behavioral outbursts. Your children will come to know your expectations and follow them more thoroughly because they will know what the outcome will be if they do not.

In turn, this sets the stage for respect. By giving your kids love and consistency, you are being respectful of your children and meeting them at their level. Children are more likely to respect the adults they feel respected by.

Start with trying to understand and validate their feelings when an issue arises. Take yourself back to when you were their age and remember how this particular issue would have made you feel. The more give and take there is in the conversation, the more your child will respect you and feel open with you.

Support is another aspect that is encompassed under love as well. Children often look to someone who will recognize and praise them for their accomplishments. Do not blow off or joke around about something that they are proud of. Encourage your children’s natural

passions and interests; do not push yours on them. Be an ear if they need someone to talk to and guide them as they actively seek advice. Children generally let you know if you have overstepped your bounds; pay attention to them.

If you start with love, you are likely to naturally encompass all of the rest of the suggestions on your own. Take the time to really get to know your kid to the core, not just the surface level version of them. Learn from your past parenting mistakes and the mistakes your parents made raising you. We all have room to grow and build better parenting versions of ourselves.

By Laura Keys, LCSW- December 22, 2020 –

Let’s face it, 2020 has been a year like no other. The pandemic, racial tensions, a divisive election, raging wildfires and so much more have filled our lives with loss, chaos, and immeasurable stress.  Even the most positive and stable people have been pushed to the limit this year.

Have you noticed, however, that no matter what happens in some people’s lives, they are able to maintain a relatively positive attitude and see the silver lining in each situation? They see the opportunity in a challenging dilemma and appreciate what they have, even in the face of loss.

This ability has allowed some to keep their head above water when the waves of this year continue to crash into us.  How can all of us learn from this and see the importance of focusing on what we can appreciate rather than what is wrong?

Fortunately, a positive attitude can be developed with a little practice. The brain is a muscle, and you can strengthen your mind’s natural tendency toward optimism if you work at it.

This is not just good practice for our mental health but for our spiritual health as well. Many different faiths emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. Eckhart Toelle said, “If the only prayer you ever say is “Thank You,” that will be enough.”

Thankfulness doesn’t always come easily, but it is at those times that we need to seek out gratitude the most. 

One of the ways we can train our brain in thankfulness is keeping a gratitude journal. In one study, psychologist Jeffrey Froh at Hofstra University asked students to write in gratitude journals each day for two weeks.

Students were asked to write down things they felt thankful for on a daily basis. Three weeks later the students who counted their blessings reported feeling more optimistic, more satisfied with their lives, and had more school satisfaction.

Froh explained the results this way: “It’s beyond feeling good, and beyond happiness… we found that grateful kids tend to report less physical complaints; but also in the adult literature they found that grateful people who counted blessings were more likely to exercise, more likely to report better sleep, less likely to report these physical complaints.”

Researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough also found many positive effects of keeping gratitude journals. Among the benefits were:

  • Being more likely to make progress on personal goals
  • Higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm and energy
  • Reporting having helped someone else or offered emotional support
  • Children reporting more positive attitudes toward school and their families
  • Adults with neuromuscular disease felt more optimistic about life and slept better

Twenty-one days is the time it takes to form a new habit. Now is an ideal time, as we prepare for the coming year and celebrate the holidays. It is a time to take stock of how we want our new year to unfold and it’s a time to make promises to ourselves about improvement and renewal. 

A different new year challenge than working on our outsides (gym memberships, new diets) would be to start with our insides (our hearts and minds).  A gratitude journal could be just the thing to increase our compassion, optimism, and humility.

Make this a part of your new year’s renewal. Select a special logbook that can be written in each day. At the beginning or end of the day write down five things that make you feel grateful and thankful. You may feel like drawing a picture or attaching photos that mean something special to you. In any case, write down five items each day for three weeks.

If you have trouble getting started, think about simple or even obvious things like running water, your favorite song, coffee, that it snowed (or didn’t) today, or experiencing another sunrise.

Once the list gets started it’s easy to add items. At the end of three weeks, spend some time reflecting on the material you gathered. Meet a friend for lunch or coffee, and share your gratitude.

For more information on the benefits of gratitude see http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/.

By Danielle Tessier, Communications & Development Assistant

2020 has required all of us to dig deep within ourselves to cultivate more patience and kindness. Our trips to the grocery store have become more stressful and hectic. Our work spaces have changed completely. Our interactions with others have been cut to a fraction of what they were this time last year. Conflicts have been exacerbated by months of turmoil and troubling news headlines.

Overcoming these additional challenges is hard. With the push from everyone around us to stay isolated and make difficult changes to our day-to-day lives in order to stay safe, it has become easy to fall into a negative or selfish headspace. For many of us, remembering to be kind to everyone is not at the forefront of our minds.

Because we cannot freely hug the ones we love or show an un-masked smile to someone in need of one, it is important to find new gestures that allow us to practice kindness. These gestures of kindness not only benefit the recipient- they also benefit you.

This time of year is the perfect opportunity to start practicing kindness. During the holidays, many families center their focus on giving to others. Many of these kid-friendly methods of showing kindness can continue safely despite the pandemic. Whether these traditions are deep-rooted or brand new, they will help create positive memories and bring hope and comfort to those who need it most.

  1. Write a handwritten note to someone. This act of kindness is a wonderful way to remind someone how much they matter- whether that person is an old friend or a complete stranger. Illustrations (especially from younger artists) always make notes like these just a little bit more special.
  2. Bake/decorate cookies with someone you love. What sweeter way is there to show someone you care than with cookies? If you normally make cookies with a family member you can’t see this year, leave some at their doorstep with a photo or special note. It’s a great way to keep traditions alive.
  3. Leave a kind message for passers-by. Many of us will be relaxing in our respective homes and neighborhoods during the holidays. A sign in a window or message written in chalk on a driveway or sidewalk is a colorful way to spread kindness and holiday cheer. 
  4. Determine what you really need. Looking through clothes, toys, and books to choose items to give to others in need is a wonderful way to show kindness to a family you’ve never met, no matter the season.
  5. Do what you love. Being kind to yourself is arguably just as important as being kind to others. Think of an activity you used to enjoy and purposefully make time to do it regularly. Or find a new hobby to do with someone you love.

These acts of kindness are wonderful; however, as the hustle and bustle of the holiday season fades, it is important to not allow our generosity to fade with it. Although the world continues to change before our eyes, the extraordinary value of even the smallest act of kindness remains the same.

By Leah Lottes, LSW – December 9, 2020-

When you think about the holidays, it’s likely that you picture your whole family gathering together to celebrate. You look forward to it every year, but in 2020, many families are choosing to stay apart in an attempt to keep everyone safe and healthy. This year is different.

Many of us are upset by the challenges and changes brought on by COVID-19. This is something we’ve never experienced, so it makes sense that so many of us are struggling to adapt. If adults feel as though they don’t know how to cope, we surely can’t expect our children to build coping strategies by themselves.

So how do we adjust? First, it’s important to accept the reality of this pandemic, as recommended by therapist Kim Eisenburg, LCSW, in an article released by Sharp Health News. Allow yourself and your children to be upset, disappointed, and angry at everything that has been taken away from your family. Everyone is experiencing some type of loss, whether it’s big or small.

Sometimes it’s the little things we miss the most, such as going to school, going out to eat, going to church, and gathering with friends – all without fear of the virus. We must allow ourselves to mourn what we’ve lost before we can focus on creating new traditions.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to help your kids adjust to changes made this year, here are some ways to reframe the situation and still add a little bit of Christmas magic to your family’s holiday season.

Zoom with your extended family. If your family is tech-savvy, you can have a big family Zoom meeting. No, it’s not the same as meeting in person, but it’s a great way for everyone to feel like they are all in the same place. It’s also a great opportunity for families to share many laughs and memories together.


Check in on family and friends. Check in on those who have lost family members or friends this year. Call family members who are alone during the holidays. Send a “thinking of you” card. Bake some cookies for friends and deliver them to their front porch. Including your children in these little kind gestures will not only help those who are feeling down this holiday season, but it will also bring your children joy.


Volunteer. Whether it is donating your time, money, or resources, volunteering can be a way to help you feel good and remind you of the real reason behind giving during the holidays.

Create new traditions or modify old traditions. This could include having a family game night, starting a new TV series, or having a baking day. These are all activities that allow you to do something fun in the comfort of your home.


Make future plans. No, we don’t know what the future looks like, but we can still try to make plans for future events, gatherings, milestones, and vacations. Having something to look forward to allows us stay motivated and helps us feel hopeful.

This holiday season looks different than past holidays, but it is up to us to help those around us make the most of it. Remember, kids are resilient. We can choose to have a positive attitude and appreciate the little moments together as a family. Modeling this behavior can help build resiliency in kids and can give meaning to a wonderful holiday season, even during a pandemic.

By Nolan Miller, LSW- December 2, 2020-

Just like a lot of things these days, the upcoming holidays will be different this year. Extended family get-togethers are not safe, and our traditions might not look the same as they did in previous years. 

Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. As we get closer to the holiday season, we need to prepare for the deviations ahead and develop strategies to cope with departures from tradition.

One of the ways we can do this is to accept that there are things out of our control. When it comes to losing control, it is easy for us to start feeling stress. Accepting that this year will be different does not mean that our traditions are lost; perhaps they are just on hold.

The next way we can handle not meeting expectations this year is to practice more self-care. This is something most of us should do more often, but during the holidays self-care becomes even more essential. Giving yourself a break and doing something you enjoy or haven’t had the time to do before can be helpful. Set a time each day to walk away from your cell phone or other stressors and spend time with the loved ones around you. 

Here are some ideas for self-care during this holiday season:

  1. Read a holiday book. Whether it is a book you already have at home or a book that you have been wanting to read, use this time to slow down and escape in the pages.
  2. Take a walk or drive around the neighborhood. We can still socially distance from our neighbors while enjoying the Christmas lights around us.
  3. Watch Christmas movies with the family. Self-care does not necessarily mean “alone time.” Sometimes self-care means spending special quality time with people we love. 
  4. Do something fun or creative. Making cookies or building a gingerbread house can be something you add to your yearly holiday traditions.
  5. Reach out to other family members. Just because we can’t visit our families in person does not mean we can’t meet with them virtually. Video chat may not be the normal we are looking for, but taking time to check in on each other can help everyone feel more connected.

Another way to handle disappointment is to lower our own expectations. Positive or negative, our expectations can have a big impact on our mental health. Holidays are especially hard when our expectations are based on fond memories from years without pandemic restrictions. However, if we are able to drop our expectations and live in the moment, we may find ourselves enjoying the holidays more than we have in previous years.

The most important thing to remember this year is that we are not alone. We are all in the same boat.

We might find that the holidays during a pandemic are not like they were before, but neither are we. This year has made us more resilient and has shown us strengths we did not know we had before.

By Jana Pritchett, Communications Manager -November 17, 2020-

Even though this year may be a little bit different, as Thanksgiving nears many of us are focused on holiday traditions – eating turkey and pumpkin pie, celebrating with family, and shopping on Black Friday.  However, as we gather around the table, it’s also a great time to give thanks and model an “attitude of gratitude” for the children in our midst.

Children are not born grateful.  According to author Mary Jane Ryan, Recognizing that someone has gone out of their way for you is not a natural behavior for children – it’s learned.”  If you have spent much time around toddlers, you know that they are self-centered by nature.  Studies have shown, however, that children as young as 15-18 months can begin to understand concepts that lead to gratitude.

Teaching young children to be grateful is not easy but can help them later in life.  A 2003 study at the University of California at Davis showed that grateful people report higher levels of optimism and happiness – along with lower levels of depression and stress.  Grateful kids have learned to look beyond themselves and understand that other people do things for them – wash their clothes, give them hugs, and prepare their food. 

On the other hand, according to Barbara Lewis, author of What Do You Stand For? For Kids, “Kids who aren’t taught to be grateful end up feeling entitled and perpetually disappointed.”  According to Robert Emmons, research also shows that youth who are ungrateful are more likely to abuse substances, have poor eating habits and display low academic performance.

So how can we teach our children the power of gratitude in their own lives?

  1.  Model it.  Children model their parents in every way, so remember to use “please” and “thank you” when you talk to them (“Thank you for the hug.”).  Good manners and gratitude go hand-in-hand. 
  2. Work gratitude into your daily life.  Spend some time at the dinner table listing things you are grateful for.  Keep a “gratitude journal” handy for older kids, or help younger ones write a grateful sticky note to put on the refrigerator.  Keep a thank-you note basket handy and help children write notes for gifts or acts of service. 
  3. Say no sometimes.  It seems like some days kids are asking hourly for candy, toys, or video game time. It is impossible for them to feel grateful when their every wish is granted.  Saying no sometimes makes saying yes that much sweeter.
  4. Encourage generosity.  Teach them that there are others less fortunate.  Donate a new toy, give used clothes to charity or adopt a family in need.  Emphasize that although they may have outgrown something, it may meet another child’s needs. 
  5. Find a mission project.  Once the pandemic is over, older children can volunteer or participate in mission trips.  Actively helping someone in need inspires thankfulness for your own blessings.  After seeing a hungry family while serving at a soup kitchen, a child may be more appreciative of the food at their own table.   
  6. Downplay gifts during the holidays.  Put more emphasis on celebrating and establishing traditions – making cookies, attending worship, visiting family. If you adopt a family for the holidays, shop for online gifts with your kids or have them create something handmade.  Consider putting half of your child’s gifts away after the holidays to bring out as rainy day surprises throughout the year. 

Teaching gratitude requires patience.  It doesn’t develop overnight but takes many months and years of reinforcement. You will be rewarded, however. Teaching your child to be grateful will help them enjoy making others happy and can lead to a fulfilling, optimistic life.

By Jana Pritchett, Communications Manager -November 11, 2020-

We’re entering the peak season for family traditions. Some that I recall from my childhood include enjoying the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while cooking the turkey and trimmings, sharing reasons to be thankful around the dinner table, playing board games with family after a large holiday meal, and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” after attending Christmas Eve services.

Many of our fondest memories are centered on family traditions, activities or patterns of behavior that help us bond with our families. Often these traditions are a link to past and future generations. 

As a young child, I remember my grandparents taking my family to dinner at Helen’s Restaurant on Evansville’s west side every Sunday. They often shared stories from my father’s childhood. This was precious time spent with them, creating special memories I can call up now that they’ve passed on.   

Even though today’s family looks a lot different than families of a generation or two ago, traditions are still an important part of family life and the foundation of strong family ties. This year’s traditions may look a little different due to the risk of gathering with members outside of your household, but it’s still important to fit in simple traditions that help children and teens establish a sense of belonging.   

Denise Witmer offers five reasons to observe family traditions on About.com – Parenting Teens:

  1. Family traditions create good feelings and special moments. They create positive emotions and memories that will last a lifetime. It’s always a sweet moment when an older child remembers a wonderful time shared when they were younger.
  2. Family traditions give every member of the family a stronger sense of belonging. Time spent together strengthens the bonds between family members.
  3. Family traditions help your child or teen with his/her identity. When teens are trying to figure out who they are, it helps to know that they belong. Teens need encouragement to be a part of something bigger when they’re searching and defining their sense of self.
  4. Family traditions help parents impart life skills and family values to their children. Spending more time together helps parents and grandparents model these family values and provides more opportunities to talk about serious issues. Having fun together helps keep the conversation light and encourages kids to open up.
  5. Family traditions offer your child or teen a sense of security. Teens, especially, face some difficult issues in today’s world. Knowing they are secure and have a family to turn to is a powerful tool to use when confronting negative peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, college and career choices, etc. 

Even as your child grows older, family traditions are still important.  Find a way to carry out the rituals that help define your family. Often teens will insist on sticking with tradition even when you find it difficult to fit these moments into your routine.

My grown children, ages 29 and 25, still insist on finding the hidden pickle in the tree to see who will open the first gift on Christmas Eve. As they leave the family nest and everything in their world seems to be changing, busy young adults stay connected through family traditions.

If your existing traditions don’t seem to have the same appeal, create new ones. Do what works for your family. Cooking dinner together, taking a hike at a local park, driving through the countryside to see Christmas lights, or even eating a special food one night a week will create memories that your children will pass on to their own families and remember for a lifetime. 

By Laura Keys, Vice President of Social Work & Programs -November 3, 2020-

Well, here we are – still in the midst of a pandemic, mostly back in school, mostly back at work, but not quite back to normal.

Most Hoosier children returned to school by Labor Day. Some schools have had to close intermittently because of staff and students testing positive for COVID-19, but all of them are trying very hard to stay open.

It’s no question that students benefit from in-person learning. Schools also recognize that some students do not have the support and consistency in food, nurturing, and shelter at home. Youth First partners with over 90 schools across the state of Indiana, and I am here to tell you, educators are focusing on two things right now: 1) making the most of the days school buildings are open, and 2) engaging with and checking on the students who aren’t showing up.

Educators are teaching at a rapid pace, and the worry over potential school building closures is taking its toll on teachers, students, and parents. It’s also affecting student achievement. School personnel know only too well about the “summer slide,” that time when students are out for a couple months and not being challenged with the rigor of steady schoolwork.

Well, the pandemic has essentially doubled the “summer slide.” From March to August 2020, there was not a structured rigor of academics that kept our students fresh and ready to learn. I’ve heard from countless parents and teachers that students who were making A’s and B’s are now making C’s and sometimes D’s. Most students did not return to school ready to learn.

One may assume I’m mentioning this decline to recommend applying extra pressure on students in order to meet the academic standards that were lost over the past few months. Shouldn’t we push them to do just a little more so that they don’t continue to lose language arts and math skills?

No, quite the opposite! At the beginning of the school closures in March, we stressed that parents should give themselves some grace while trying to juggle at-home learning along with many other stressors. We need to extend the same grace to students right now.

The toll that this pandemic has taken on children’s mental health has been well-documented. Separation from friends and family, disruption in routine, and the fact that there is no clear end in sight all impact the mental wellness of students.

Those pressures, combined with the doubled “summer slide,” should give us a pretty clear indication of why students may be behind. Take it from a mother and a mental health professional, your kids will catch up. Students will gain ground once the ground beneath them is steadier.

Although schoolwork is important, it is not the most important thing. Caring, nurturing environments for kids are the most important thing right now. In my opinion, children need to be allowed to skip some beats on schoolwork and teachers need to be allowed to let them. We really need to take care of everyone right now, not put more pressure on them.

Kids are resilient and capable, and as long as they feel loved at the end of the day, especially with some extra grace sprinkled in there, they will turn out just fine.