By Emily Sommers, MSW – September 3, 2019

Mindfulness, simply put, means paying attention to the present. It means taking a step back and noticing the world around you and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings.

With practice, mindfulness can help both adults and children cope with stress and anxiety, and it has been shown to have positive effects on both physical and mental health. 

Many students I work with enjoy mindfulness through journaling. However, as much as they may like to write and express themselves, many have much difficulty getting started. I truly understand that “block,” because I have experienced this before as well. 

Several years ago a colleague and I were inspired to take a journaling class taught by local journaling expert Barbara Stahura. Barbara’s love for journaling planted many seeds and inspired me to use a tool that means so much to me to this day. 

What I did not know, and was excited to learn, was that this tool could provide a certain emotional, physical, and mental release. I personally use it and continue to develop on this tool in my own practice of mindfulness. 

Journaling has become a very big part of my own self-care. I am also able to teach it to students and adults that I get to serve in the capacity of supports provided through Youth First. 

One of my favorite journaling techniques is tapping into something I will call “a non-negotiable” – gratitude. I have found so many different ways to tap into gratitude through journaling.

Within the last year, I was provided a profound and simple suggestion I want to share with you that was a game-changer in the way I look at my gratitude list today. It is the self-reflective question, “What happened today that made me smile?”

That one-liner prompt written at the top of the page with some willingness to shut off any possible distraction can provide an oasis of positivity that is the best dose of goodness one can give themselves.  

I encourage you to try this for yourself! All it really takes is some willingness, honest reflection and open-mindedness to go within yourself about what happened in the course of the day that simply made you smile. 

Sharing this technique as it was shared with me can create that “a-ha” moment for others too, and once practiced becomes even more convincing. 

I would also like to encourage a suggested technique to test just how good this business of mindfulness is and to pre-measure feelings before doing the journaling activity, or any mindfulness activity for that matter. 

List a few feelings you are experiencing. For example, your list might include, “tired, stressed, and overwhelmed.” Complete the mindfulness activity whether it is journaling or another form of mindfulness that appeals to you.

The next step is to post-measure your feelings after doing the activity. List a few feelings you are experiencing immediately afterward. 

Often there is a shift that takes place within the way one feels and many will share feeling more relaxed, calmer, and happier. The results are undeniable and very encouraging. 

Gratitude does have a contagious element to it and could be just the key to establishing that dose of mindfulness needed. Go grab a pen see what happens for you! 

By Lori Powell, LCSW – Aug. 27, 2019

When I first began working as a Youth First Social Worker at an elementary school in 2017, I noticed the children enjoyed being welcomed by a stuffed animal cat in the mornings to promote a great start to their day. I have always kept various stuffed animals in my office to encourage kids and families to feel more comfortable talking to me.  

Over the years, I have purchased stuffed animals that resemble wild and domestic cats. However, the favorite cat of the majority of the children and adults at school is a big stuffed tiger.

At times I have even been asked by students if I would allow the stuffed animal tiger to visit their classroom for the entire day.  As a result, I am not surprised by the following statement from Rose M. Barlow of the Department of Psychology at Boise State University in Idaho:  “Animals, (real or toys) can help children and adults to experience and express emotions, a feeling of unconditional support, and grounding.” 

My real pet cat Jazzy and I became registered as an animal-assisted therapy team through Pet Partners in 2018.  According to Pet Partners, there are only 180 registered cat-assisted therapy teams in the US. 

My thoughts were that Jazzy could possibly reduce anxiety and anger issues that some of the students were experiencing at the time.  First, I contacted the parents of the children that I felt would benefit from this form of intervention and gained their approval to use this technique. 

I was able to bring Jazzy to school on two occasions. The students whose parents approved the animal-assisted therapy were really excited about visiting with Jazzy and were able to discuss some difficult experiences that they had incurred throughout their lives.  

One of the rules of being a registered assisted therapy team through Pet Partners is that the animal has to be bathed prior to each visit. By making sure that the animal has been cleaned, the allergens could be reduced and not cause severe allergic reactions to the animal’s presence. Unfortunately, however, the decision was made to no longer allow Jazzy in the school setting due to individual allergy issues.

Currently, Jazzy and I attend the Paws and Tales program at Red Bank Library in Evansville every other Thursday from 4:30 pm – 5:30 pm. This program allows children to read books to Jazzy.

The families and the staff at Red Bank Library enjoy visiting with Jazzy. The children who attend the program are motivated to read a book as a way to spend time with Jazzy, who also enjoys being brushed, petted, and given treats.

Even though there are many different people who visit with Jazzy on a regular basis, she has been able to completely bond with three individuals since the Paws and Tales program was started. Jazzy shows this high comfort level by purring very loudly for these individuals.

Jazzy loves to listen to children and adults read to her during the Paws and Tales Program. She is always willing to listen regardless of the individual’s reading ability!

By Jordan Beach, LSW – August 20, 2019

The beginning of the school year is full of excitement that helps our students start out with a fire in their souls. Unfortunately, that new excitement seems to wear off quickly, which leaves parents scrambling and struggling to look for ways to keep their children engaged.

Sometimes getting a child to complete homework after school feels like a battle we have to fight every day. What can we do to help keep some of that fire we had at the beginning of the year?

A good place to start when discussing long-lasting motivation is to help your child set goals. This is also a great learning opportunity to discuss short term goals vs. long term goals. If they have a goal of making the honor roll all year that’s great but help them break that large goal down into smaller goals. They will stay more motivated with small victories working towards their larger goal.

Rewarding your children for completing undesirable tasks is a great and easy way to help motivate them to complete their work at home. The most important thing to focus on is how you word things and the tone of voice you use.

If you tell your children, “We can go to the park after you finish your homework” it sounds a lot more enticing than “We’re not going anywhere until you finish your homework.” Your children are much more likely to respond positively to a reward with a positive tone rather than a punishment with a negative tone.

Sometimes there is pushback on the idea of rewarding your children for things they are required to do. In these situations, I like to use the analogy of an adult going to work. When an adult goes to work they complete all the tasks that are expected of them in order to receive a paycheck.

School, and sometimes even extracurriculars are considered a child’s job. They put hard work, a lot of time, and effort into these things and in order to stay motivated they need to see some form of compensation for their efforts. 

It’s also important to understand what motivates an individual child. The same type of reward will not work for all children.

Some children are super competitive so creating some form of competition will be enough to motivate them. Some kids need to feel appreciated and hear words of encouragement so positive reinforcement may be enough. Other kids are going to need physical rewards in the form of treats, small toys, activities like time at the playground, or picking a movie to watch before bed.

Every child is different which means there isn’t one solution to the question of motivation. Find what works for each child and use a mixture of methods, if necessary.

The most important thing to remember is to stay positive. Try not to punish kids for not completing tasks, rather find ways to encourage them by rewarding the desired behavior. As the school year goes on and gets busier it gets easier to let schedules slide but staying consistent will help keep your family on track to a successful year.

By Lisa Cossey, LCSW – August 13, 2019

With most children already back at school for a new year, many families will find themselves in a struggle for the ages:  wants versus needs.  

Many families have difficulty finding a balance between work and play.  But what if the struggle is between your child’s academics and their extracurricular activities?

It would be hard to find a parent who would say academics aren’t important, but at times it seems academics are in direct competition with having fun.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for kids to have fun. They need active and sensory experiences to help them grow and develop.  Extracurricular activities can also be a great way to develop skills.  

But if your child’s academics are suffering or your child is upset, tearful, moody or more anxious than normal, it’s time to take a hard look at your family’s schedule. And if you’re spending more time in the car than you do in your home together as a family, it’s definitely time to step back and reassess your priorities.

What your child is doing?  Do they have one activity, or two, three, four?  How many hours a day are they away from home?  How many nights a week is your family away from home?  Is your child getting enough sleep at night?

A healthy balance is needed between school and extracurricular activities.  At this point in the year, your family will soon have a good idea of how much homework your student is going to receive daily. Evaluate what your child and family can handle.

For reference, according to Dorothy Sluss, President of the US Chapter of International Play Association, for every week of intensive activity, three weeks of less structured time and activity are needed to maintain a healthy balance for children.

If your child’s grades are not what they used to be, or if they are having more incomplete or missing work, it may be necessary to back off the wants and focus on the needs. It is ok to drop an activity due to falling grades or place a limit on how many activities your child is able to join to keep a healthy balance.  Putting academics ahead of sports, scouts, and dance is ok too.

We have a culture that encourages and supports many sports and other activities.  Encouragement is great.  The issue is when children feel pressured to commit and join.  It is ok to say no.  It is ok to put your family’s needs first.  It is ok to limit the number of activities your family is involved in.

If you have concerns for your child or need further ideas on how to strike the right balance for your family, please feel free to reach out to your child’s teacher or to the Youth First School Social Worker at their school.  We are here to help.

By Krisi Mattingly, LCSW – August 6, 2019

Sleep deprivation is an epidemic in America today. Poor sleep habits have been linked to problems like depression, anxiety, ADHD, increased risk for heart disease and cancer, memory issues, compromised immune system, and weight gain. 

Students are busier than ever with more expectations and demands of their time, so sleep may not seem too high on their priority list. There is also the added lure of the internet, social media, and electronics like video games or TV.

Getting the recommended amount of sleep, however, is one of the most important things you can do for your mental and physical health.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 9 to 11 hours of sleep for grade schoolers, 8 to 10 hours for teens, and 7 to 9 hours for adults.  If your family has been struggling to get the proper quantity or quality of sleep lately, here are some tips to make sleep a priority in your household.

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Try not to deviate from this too much, even on weekends or days off.
  • Establish a routine. Try to follow the same routine each night before bed. A good one for younger children is the 3 B’s – take a bath, brush teeth and read a book. 
  • Limit screen time before bed. TV and other electronics are stimulating to the brain. The “blue light” can suppress melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Turn off all devices 1 hour before bedtime. A good solution: Set up a family overnight charging area for smartphones and tablets in an area far from the bedroom.  
  • Don’t force yourself to sleep. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something calming, then return to your bed when you feel tired. Some ideas are reading a book, writing in a journal, drawing, listening to music, or taking a warm bath.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine at least 4 hours before bed. Consuming these substances can hinder your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Avoid napping. If your child likes to come home from school and crash, try to keep them from doing this if possible. If not, limit naps to 30 minutes or less.
  • Only use your bed for sleeping. Using your bed for watching TV, using a smartphone or working will lead your body to associate your bed with these activities. If you reserve your bed solely for sleeping, your body will recognize this and hopefully fall asleep easier.
  • Exercise and eat well. Being active during the day and eating healthy are both vital to better quality sleep. However, you should avoid eating big meals and strenuous exercise 2 hours before bed.
  • Sleep in a comfortable environment. Make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature, quiet and dark. Darkness promotes sleep and healthy levels of melatonin.

If you can use as many of these suggestions as possible, you should notice big improvements in your sleep habits. If the whole family follows these guidelines, everyone will be more healthy, productive and agreeable!

By Lynn Bell, LCSW – July 30, 2019

If you are a parent of a child with a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, asthma, allergies, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, etc., your child may require specialized accommodations at school. Your child’s needs may require individual arrangements for homework, tests, attendance, and medication dispensation.

There are important documents that will help protect your child and determine how these accommodations will be carried out. The sooner the documents are completed in the school year, the better. 

The process starts by requesting a meeting in writing with the school counselor, principal or school nurse. It is best if the letter includes the date on which it is written, as this starts the “time clock” for when the school must work to ensure your child’s needs are being met. 

The letter should include your child’s diagnosis and a list of your main concerns.  Your child’s doctor or medical social worker can be a wonderful resource to help you write the letter. Reputable websites that focus on your child’s medical diagnosis can also be helpful, as they often include samples of letters and documents as a starting point.    

A commonly used document is a 504 Plan of Care.  A “504” is an outline for how the school will provide accommodations and supports to remove barriers so the student has equal access to a general education curriculum.  

For example, for students with Type 1 diabetes, the plan will distinguish which school personnel are responsible for administering or supervising blood sugar checks, drawing and administering insulin, where these tasks will be completed (nurse’s office or classroom), what supplies the student will carry with them and who will be trained on how to administer medication in case of emergency.  

As a parent, it is helpful to educate yourself about the documents best used with certain medical conditions. Two helpful resources are the ASK (About Special Kids) and Insource websites, both of which are based in Indiana and include a parent hotline:

As you develop a Plan of Care, the most important thing to remember throughout the entire process is that parents and school personnel must maintain open communication. Do not be afraid to ask questions or state your concerns.

It’s also important to monitor how well the Plan of Care is working throughout the school year and discuss whether changes need to occur.

You will always be the best advocate for your child as you work toward the best Plan of Care with the school.

By Mary Haas, MSW – July 23, 2019

Change is hard for most of us. We typically don’t welcome change fearlessly with arms wide open. Transitions are sometimes our greatest fear and can provoke anxiety, even in adults.

When faced with changing schools, our child can share these same fears. Even though change is inevitably a part of our lives, it is rarely easy.

When transferring schools and changing educational environments, our children face not only new school buildings but also new faces, new routines, and many new adjustments. As parents, we need to do our best to combat their fears and anxieties to help make their transition as smooth as possible.

Make sure changing schools is the most appropriate option. If other options are available, weigh all of the choices and be sure this is the best thing to do for your child.  

Communication is important, because it is what connects us to our nervous child as they tackle this big life change. Talking to your child early and often throughout the transition will help make each step less scary and confusing.

As parents, it is important to remember that we are changing our child’s whole environment, disrupting their friendships and relationships, and taking away their familiar place of learning.

Because of these major life changes, it is crucial to include your child in the open discussion process. If possible, let your child be part of the decision-making process regarding which school they will attend or when the transition will take place. The more decisions they can be part of, the more they will feel in control of the situation.

Validate your child’s feelings about changing schools, including all of the things they are sad about leaving behind and all of the things they are anxious about going into. Show them that you are standing alongside them and support them the whole way. Communicating, validating, and nurturing this change can make all the difference in their emotional transition.

Making time to get to know the new teachers and staff ahead of the move to the new school can be an added support for both you and your child. This can be a chance for you to discuss any concerns or questions you may have regarding the school.

This is also the time to for them to get to know your child and to talk about your student’s needs to the people who will care for them throughout each day.

Another great way for your child to get involved in their new school is to join extracurricular activities. If your child is old enough they can try to join athletic teams such as soccer, basketball or perhaps other types of activities such as the debate or drama club.  

Getting involved will help your child connect with other peers that share the same interests. This can create friendships and help your child develop a sense of belonging to the school.

As a parent you can get involved by joining the PTA and attending school meetings. Become friends with other parents and plan play dates if your children are young.

Together with these tips and objectives, you can ease your child’s transition into a change of hope and a bright new beginning at a new school.

Yes, changing schools can be scary, but it can also be a wonderful new beginning in a child’s life.

By Aisha Givens, LCSW – July 16, 2019

Blended families or stepfamilies are more common than ever. These families form when two partners make a life together with children from previous relationships. When families blend, it is rarely a smooth or easy process.

These new families often form after a death, divorce, or separation of the birth parents. The transition to a new family unit can be very confusing and uncomfortable for children.

Children may feel they must choose between loving their original family or loving their new blended family. They may feel they will hurt someone’s feelings if they love someone new. They may be worried about how their relationships with their natural parents will change or how their relationships with their new parent and siblings will evolve.

Blending families creates a new dynamic, one where every person must find their role. Trying to replicate your first family can set you all up for confusion and disappointment. Instead, embrace your new family with the respect it deserves and allow for change and new growth.

The following are ways to build a stronger blended family and help children heal from the grief, disappointment, and resentment that can result from the loss or separation of their biological parents:

  • Positive Reinforcement – Give encouragement and praise to children often. Find ways to make them feel appreciated and valued.
  • Love – Give them positive attention and show them they are loved every day.
  • Safety and Security – The children may have had at least one family fall apart or one parent leave or die, so they need to feel very safe and secure in this new family.
  • Expectations and Boundaries – Talk to your new partner about parenting styles before your family blends. It’s best for the new parent to ease into a role of authority, but it is very important that both parents agree on how to parent all of the children before situations arise.
  • Patience – Children deal with a wide range of feelings during the transition into a new family. It is important to remember that any new bad behaviors may be a result of their confusing emotions. Love and patience are necessary.
  • Communication – Give children your undivided attention as often as possible. Prompt them to talk about their feelings and let them know they can be honest with you. Open communication with your children can be the best thing for all of you.
  • New Experiences – Create new memories as you experience new activities together. Take family trips, go on picnics, have game nights, paint together. Find things to do that you will all enjoy and make new, happy memories for the children. Take photos of your new blended family to hang in your home.
  • Family Meetings – As you are all adjusting to the new family unit, it is a great idea to hold regular family meetings and let each person speak their truth without being judged. This can be a time to talk about rules, feelings, events, or absolutely anything.
  • Respect – It is impossible to force all family members to like one another, but you can insist that everyone respect each other.
  • Limit Expectations – You may feel that you give a lot of time, energy, love, and attention to your partner’s children and get very little in return immediately. Think of it as an investment that will yield a great return one day.

You could do all of the right things and the children may still reject the new parents and resent your new family, but if you are consistent and genuine it will allow the children to know you are sincere.

By Jenna Kruse, MSW – July 9, 2019

Technology has become a large part of our society; we depend on it to learn, inform, and connect with others daily. However, it can have negative effects as well.         

Most of us probably know a young child who watches YouTube regularly. How often do we stop to watch and closely monitor what is on the screen?

A growing trend with children on YouTube is the fascination of watching other children play with toys. There is a countless supply of these videos, such as, “Surprise Eggs” and “Finger Family” which each have hundreds of thousands of views.

YouTube also added an auto play feature which allows similar videos to stream one after the other, continuously. Kids are then exposed far beyond their initial search and are soon plagued by this technology.

Parents across the country can attest to the fighting and tantrums thrown when the tablets, phones, or iPads are taken away from the children because they are so entranced by the videos.

Social media is another black hole, typically for older children. Teens can be subjected to cyber bullying, stranger danger, identity theft, phishing, and sexual exploitation.

Apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, Whisper, Twitter, and YouTube can all be dangerous for teens if used incorrectly. Many teens have several accounts, some of which include “ghost accounts” which are used to hide from their parents.

Children are being sexualized by photos of celebrities and are taught that appearance is what matters most. Pressure is put on both girls and boys to look a certain way and “likes” and “follows” become addictive for young teen brains. Children can feel they need to post sexy photos and say extreme things just for more attention.

Now that we know some of the problems with technology, let’s try to avoid them. We need to help and support our children by closely monitoring what they are doing online.

This can include having clear rules for children regarding social media, checking the web browser regularly, activating privacy settings and parental controls on devices, and installing anti-virus hardware on your computer.

Talking openly to your children is the best way to ensure that they know the harms of the internet and social media. These may be uncomfortable topics, but they are very important for their safety. It is much better to have these conversations before a situation occurs rather than after.

There are many safety apps which help parents monitor and control their children’s online usage. These apps include but are not limited to, Netnanny, Mammabear, SafeKidsPro, Social Shield, WebWatcher, MyMobileWatchDog, Teensafe, and Phonesheriff. Each app is unique in what it helps control, so find the one that will work best for your family.

By Tyler Patchin, LSW – July 2, 2019

Being a male in a female-dominated field such as social work has its pros and cons, but in my opinion, the pros drastically outweigh the cons.

It was easy for me to choose such a demanding profession, but the lack of males in the social work program in college was truly shocking. I assumed, just like many other fields, that there would be some sort of balance between males and females. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the undergraduate program males weren’t prevalent, and there were even fewer once I got to the graduate program.

So why is there such a shortage of males in the social work field?

I think the answer is simple. Males are conditioned from a very young age to “act like a man” or told things like, “Suck it up. Don’t cry.”

These little phrases have more impact than people sometimes realize. Phrases like “man up” tell young boys that they have to act a certain way to obtain the things they want most in their lives. Boys look up to their parents, especially their father, and many of the fathers they look up to are the ones telling them who they should or should not be.

Unfortunately, there is a stigma against males who talk about their feelings or show emotion. Guys who show their emotions are sometimes viewed as weak or lesser, all because they are in touch with their feelings.

Yes, older generations had it worse. But the fact that it is 2019 and there is still an issue with males showing their feelings is concerning. I think being a male in such a female-led field shows young men that it is okay to talk about their feelings, it’s okay to feel sad sometimes, it’s okay to know how to express feelings to others. Not only does it positively impact the males on my caseload, but I also believe it leaves a lasting impression on the females as well.

Since there are more girls on my caseload, I would like to think having a male’s perspective helps them just as much as it does the boys. Many of them want to understand why a certain situation would happen the way it did and enjoy hearing a male’s point of view on the topic. It also shows young women that males can, in fact, be trusted people in their lives. Luckily I have had few, if any, students reluctant to talk to a male about their feelings, but that may not always be the case.

Unfortunately today, so many children are raised without a father figure in their lives, and that leaves a sour taste for many I have had the privilege of working with. Continuing to be a support person for the students in need and letting them know that I will be there unconditionally is something I take great pride in.I wholeheartedly believe that if there were more males in the school social work field, we could continue to break down the stigma against guys being open about their feelings.