Teaching Self-Awareness and Empathy

Hiding in Our Own Shell

egg-1280733__340 (1)We all hide in our shell when we are a little scared. When things seem safe and comfortable, we poke our head out and look for reasons to come out to share ourselves with the world. Children do this too, and most often with each other. When feelings are hurt or needs are not met they pop right back inside their shells. It may take some time to rebuild trust, but even the most resilient children want to come out of their shells and enjoy what a friendship offers.


 Causing Others To Hide In Their Shell

egg-1280733__340Because children are egocentric and empathy is emerging, they often do not recognize how their own behaviors influence others. They can be blind to connecting how their negative actions, such as, tattle telling, whining, being bossy, lying, or not sharing may cause others to feel uncomfortable or disinterested in being their friend. Consequently, the discomfort they provoke may cause their peers to hide back in their shell, preventing a friendship from emerging.

Pro-Social Behaviors Crack Open Our Shells


When children have an understanding of how their behaviors both positively and negatively influence others’ reactions to them, their ability to maintain a friendship is more likely to sustain.

A fun way of teaching self-awareness and empathy in young children is using the analogy “hiding in your shell.” When a negative behavior is observed, such as name calling, let the child know that this behavior causes you to feel sad and hide away in your shell. Explain your goal is to come out and help them get their needs met, but you need positive choices to help crack open your shell. So, when you hear a child compliment a friend make a point to say, “you just made us happy and come more out of our shells.”

Crack My EggBehavior Chart

Using a behavior chart that notes one’s progress with pro-social behaviors helps improve both self-awareness and empathy.

Download the FREE, “Help Me Come Out of My Shell” chart to use in your individual sessions, social skills groups or classroom.

When positive behavior is noted, place a marker on top of the next emerging chick.  Once the chart is filled up, provide a reward for their behaviors that helped others “come out of their shell. ” In social skills groups, have children provide the marker to their peers when friendship behaviors are noted.


How To Stop Power Struggling With Inflexible Children


All or nothing, inflexible, and absolute thinking patterns and behaviors are common among children with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. These children often get stuck believing their opinions are facts and then dominate conversations, convincing others they are right. Because of their rigidity, they may refuse to end discussions, refuse to engage in specific activities, or refuse to follow instructions. These interactions provoke emotionally driven disagreements. When not prepared ahead of time, it is easy to fall into the trap of arguing against their irrational thinking. Below is a useful guide to escaping the “Chinese finger trap” like interactions.s-l300

Let Go of Your Control

  1. Understand Anxiety Rules. Be aware that rigid thinking and defiance are symptoms of anxiety versus purposeful insensitivity and opposition. It is inevitable that children with anxiety will attempt to control you, others, and their environment. Although not socially appropriate, this behavior helps anxious children eliminate their feelings of helplessness, while also securing their sense of safety.
  2. Don’t React. When a child challenges you, especially if the child is being defiant, disruptive, or verbally aggressive, it can test even the most experienced parent or professional. Defending yourself against their negative behaviors only traps you in an endless power struggle. This is why it will help to remind yourself ahead of time that inflexible children are coming from a place of fear and not hate. Similar to what you would tell your children when you notice yourself getting upset, stop and take a deep breath. Imagine an invisible bubble around you and their words ricocheting off the bubble.
  3. Lean In with Validation. The sure-fire way to get out of a Chinese finger trap is to push your fingers together to release the trap’s hold. Similarly, when working with an inflexible child, the more you fight against their argument, the more resistance they will give you and the situation. Because their attempt to control their situation is coming from fear, the key for them to let down their defenses and “loosen the finger trap” is for you to lean in and provide reassurance, comfort, and empathy for their concerns.
  4. Pick Your Battles. When safety is not a concern, decide what interactions are worth addressing in the moment. Even if it means opinions differ or someone is not being included, sometimes letting go of the outcome of being right is more valuable than carrying on an endless heated debate.
  5. Teach Social Consequences. During a moment of calm and when time and privacy permit, share your genuine observations of the children’s behaviors and your concerns for how they may be perceived by others. Show a Chinese Finger Trap and explain how the children’s inflexible thinking and controlling behaviors trap others into feeling uncomfortable around them. Discuss the natural consequences and your concerns for their friendships. Teach them that when they are more flexible, the finger trap loosens and others feel more comfortable and driven to wanting to their friend.
  6. Address the Anxiety. Provide a predictable environment with visual schedules and proactive commentary of what will happen at each stage of the day. Teach and practice coping strategies to manage transitions, new experiences. and social anxiety. Always remember that anxiety is a driving force to rigidity and the key to escaping the power struggle trap.

Managing ADHD Impulses in the Classroom

class-1459570__340Impulsivity is a common symptom of ADHD. The sudden urge to do or say something, coupled with the difficulty of regulating behaviors and emotions make children with ADHD more likely to be labeled and treated as troublemakers.

Noted behaviors in the classroom setting are blurting inappropriate comments, making noises, being goofy, not completing work, getting into other’s space, arguing, threatening, and grabbing. These are common behavioral thoughts most children have, although children with ADHD struggle with stopping these thoughts, thinking of the consequences before following through with their behavioral urges, and using adaptive coping skills.

In an effort to decrease the disruptions and consequential frustration, below is a list of classroom interventions that will be of help when implemented consistently.



  1. Re-evaluate Your Expectations: Expect impulses to happen in children with ADHD. Note the children are not being purposeful or malicious, but reacting to their body’s reflexes.
  2. Be Neutral: Respond in a non-reactive manner in an effort to decrease one’s shame and defensiveness, which may later be observed in defiant behaviors.
  3. Use Visual Reminders: Proactively discuss with the children the classroom rules and natural consequences. Post visual reminders of the expectations on the child’s desk, the classroom wall, on homework assignments, or tests. When impulsive behaviors are observed, without using your words, point to the symbol that indicates the need to STOP, breathe, and think about making a prideful choice.
  4. Acknowledge Impulse Control: Build children’s self-awareness and confidence, by narrating your observations of their behavioral control. For example, “I notice Jenny is sitting calmly in her chair while we wait for the directions. This makes me happy.”
  5. Use a Visual Schedule: Posting the day’s schedule on the board helps provide children a sense of control because they are aware of the day’s expectation.
  6. Permit Activity Breaks: Uncomfortable feelings and urges in everyone are easily decreased when we engage in an action. The physical movement messages to our brain that we are safe and have control. So, even if the impulse is to hit someone, the simple act of just standing up and down or stretching your arms will help eliminate the negative urges. This is often why a common suggestion when others are upset is to go for a walk. The movement helps water down the frustration.
  7. Model Self-Control: When you are frustrated or upset, narrate your feelings and self-care strategies and then simultaneously do it. For example, “I am feeling upset that I can’t find my book. I have the urge to throw my pencil, but I know that is not a safe choice. I am going to sit down and take a deep breath so I can think clearly.”
  8. original-2048366-1Practice Relaxation: When minds and bodies are relaxed, children are more likely to use reason and logic and think through the consequences before engaging in non-prideful behaviors. Start the day or before each transition with breathing exercises or meditations. This will help settle high energy and impulses.



Self-Care From My Office Desk

When not attending meetings or providing groups and individual sessions, I live at my desk. Throughout the year, I am able to spend hours at a time completing paperwork, sending emails, playing on social media, and creating resources for TPT. Because I had become a pro at engaging in sedentary work habits, it was becoming easier for me to pack on pounds and feel down. In an effort to prevent this and keep up with my work, last year I found two game-changing office essentials that I now refuse to go without- a desk bike and a light box.


I start my workday at 6:00 in the morning and my office lacks any natural light. I can substitute losing these important rays, by turning on my light box for 45 minutes every morning. While I catch up on emails, I place my feet in the bike pedals and burn away the calories. I have noted a significant improvement in my mood. Gone are the days that I feel guilty for not getting off my butt! I absolutely still benefit from getting up and going on walks, but these office essentials help me to feel good about myself when I need to finish important work.


Building Bridges with Parents of Disruptive Children

Reach out to parents early on to share your interest and good intentions of working together. After speaking to a parent in person or over the phone, an online partnership might be a good next step. To promote parent reception and eliminate defensiveness, consider scheduled weekly or biweekly emails:

Bridge Building 101

building bridge

Review specific goal(s). Keep the email focused on the specific goal that is being worked on. This will help eliminate child blame and focus on strategies that are working or need tweaking. For example, instead of “I am emailing you about David’s anger problem,” try “I am emailing you today regarding our goal of anger management.”

Use language that demonstrates partnership, such as “us, we, our, let’s.” Although this may show a looseness of boundaries,  we want parents to understand we are equally invested in their child’s goals and progress; and this avoids blaming statements.  A helpful example of positive language is, “let’s  work on helping David with coping skills this week.”

Invite parent expertise. A newbie mistake is assuming parents are at fault for their child’s behaviors. Regularly ask the parent/s for their advice. Ask what has worked for their child before, what is working for the child at home, and what reasonable suggestions the school could try to help their child’s behavior. This will not only provide strategies you may not have considered before but helps to improve the parent’s feeling of value and connection.

Include positive behaviors and progress towards goals. Similar to children, parents need to feel encouraged and supported. Parents need to hear their children are moving in a positive direction and although there may be a temporary regression, reminders of the steps made forward are necessary to sustain hope. Although this may be a challenge, it will be a critical piece of gaining parent investment.

When sharing updates that include negative behaviors, avoid language that shows judgment or criticism. Simply state the facts. Instead of  “David lost control again and rudely threw his pencil. He can’t seem to control his anger,” try, “David struggled with impulse control today and threw his pencil.” Sticking to facts prevents emotional and finger-pointing responses.

Avoid reviewing the negative consequences to their child’s behaviors, such as “the teacher and the classmates are tired of his behavior.”  This will only promote shame and resistance. Instead, focus on the positive consequences that include the both of you working together. For example, “I plan to review coping skills with David this week. I will send home a list of the skills he prefers to practice at home.”

Offer help.  Even the best of parents feel helpless and inadequate. Instead of imposing recommendations, when appropriate, gently offer solutions. For example, “If you are interested, I have found some useful tips that may work at home, I would be happy to email you.” Other suggestions that help support the parent include collaborating with the student’s outside therapist and providing updates as needed.

Lastly, although parents can have a negative influence at times, we do not want to take for granted the positive influences they have on your student’s success. These emails may seem like a chore at first, but once you create a trusting connection with a parent, the fewer details need to be provided and most importantly, the alliance built aids in improved behaviors. Finally, when writing your email, always put yourself in the parent’s shoes and ask yourself, what would I want to read if this was my child?

Download the FREE editable behavioral progress note from Mental Fills.

Fidgeting in the Classroom


fidget kid

Fidgeting in a child with Anxiety or ADHD can result from excess energy or hyperactivity. It can serve as a release of tension and nervousness resulting from the student being confined to their desk. Although fidgeting can be interpreted misbehavior, defiance, or as something the child can control, the reality is that fidgeting is often an automatic response, so much so that the child can even be mostly unaware that he/she is fidgeting.

Fidgeting can serve to increase a child’s ability to fight boredom and improve attention and concentration.

However, fidgeting behavior, such as leg bouncing, foot tapping, repeatedly changing sitting positions, rocking a chair back and forth, and/or rearranging objects inside and outside of one’s desk is disruptive to the classroom setting.

Fidgeting Solutions

Helpful strategies to address hyperactivity that meet both the needs of the classroom and the child with restless energy are listed below.


  • Allow students to stand by their desk for a designated period of time.
  • Have an empty desk in the classroom available for the child (preferably on either side of the room to minimize distraction) so they can move from one desktop to another.
  • Provide movement breaks every five to ten minutes.
  • Encourage the use of silent objects to dance between one’s hands and fingers, such as stress balls, squish balls, erasers, or rubber bands.
  • Replace classroom chairs with exercise balls or use elastic bands on the feet of the chair.
  • Assign the child classroom chores that involve heavy lifting, such as sorting books, taking the trash can outside, or stacking chairs.
  •  Practice deep breathing exercises and mindfulness breaks.
  •  Use recess as an opportunity to release energy. Never remove recess as a form of discipline.

How to Burn a Bridge with a Parent


It was Back to School Night for parents a few weeks ago and I introduced myself to my son’s new school counselor. Following our greeting exchange, I politely asked in private how my son was doing. The 6’4 twenty-something counselor immediately pulled his body away, avoided eye contact, and said with force, “I can’t talk about that because of confidentiality.” His defensiveness to my innocent question caught me off guard.

After ignoring my impulse to walk away from his intimidating presence, I asked him to clarify what he was talking about. Specifically, because the treatment goal is just improving social skills. The counselor blurted some scripted speech about needing to protect my son’s privacy and wanting to preserve rapport with him. He was unapologetic and appeared apathetic to my curiosity.

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell him I was frustrated and that no one at the school had ever talked to me in his tone, he acquiesced and gave me some general updates about my son. At that point, all rapport with me was destroyed and I was emotionally checked out of the conversation. My detachment from our interaction prevented him from hearing any useful tips and strategies that would make his job less challenging this school year.


Bridge Burning 101:

  1. Dismiss a parent’s question about how their child is doing.
  2. Use confidentiality as an excuse to not engage.
  3. Use body language that shows you are in control and disinterested.
  4. Use a memorized script to answer questions.
  5. Invalidate a parent’s feelings.
  6. Be inconsistent with what you say and do.
  7. Neglect to ask a parent for their input and see the value of their collaboration.
  8. Permit interruptions and give divided attention to others.