All posts by Kario

Writer, wife, mother of two daughters. Passionate about social justice, healthcare, and education.

Why An Adolescent-Specific SEL Program?

Adolescence is a unique time in human development, not only physically but mentally. The adolescent brain is growing and changing rapidly, both “pruning” old connections and pathways to make things more efficient, and building new neural “superhighways” that will become used almost exclusively for the rest of an individual’s life. Many of us form thinking patterns and habits in our adolescent years that will either serve us well or prove hard to break as we get older. Because of this, it is very important to make sure that the way we see the world and interact with it during adolescence takes advantage of this growth and development.

Using social-emotional education techniques that encourage broad connections and integration of information can help students during adolescence. Think about the most important moments in your middle or high school education. They weren’t likely related to a particular set of data you memorized for a test (in fact, most of that information is long gone, having only been stored in your short-term memory until the quiz or test was over). The things we recall the most, that had the most impact on us, were the “a-ha” moments. They represent the times we truly understood why something worked, when we were able to make connections between two or more ideas or facts and see the patterns. Understanding patterns and formulas is not only academically rewarding because it allows us to extrapolate further and predict things, but it actually causes a release of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical), which further imprints that concept in our minds.

Adolescence is a time of neural integration, a time when we are driven to seek connections like that and begin to have a deeper and wider knowledge of the world around us. When we can draw parallels between different subjects and use our own creative thought processes to imagine still more connections, we are rewarded by feeling good. It is this phenomenon that spurs still more independent learning and creates a passion for understanding in the adolescent student.

Adolescents are also particularly socially driven – preferring to spend time with peers more than anyone else. They seek connection almost constantly and work to identify groups of individuals with whom they feel they can “belong.” These people become the single most influential force in most teens’ lives.

A good adolescent SEL program takes advantage of both the brain development and the social drive of teens through student-led exploration of diverse ideas within a community of their peers in order to reinforce the building of neural superhighways that will make rapid integration of new material and creative problem-solving easier as they reach adulthood.

Learning Doesn’t Only Happen in Class

It is really easy to get sucked in to the notion that our children’s best learning opportunities come within the four walls of a classroom or school building. We talk about strategies for educators and examine the curriculum on back-to-school night and ask questions about class size and grading, and all of those things are important, but it is important to remember that their brains don’t turn off when they leave school for the day.

Whether your child is involved in sports or music lessons, the drama club or working a few hours after school, they are learning valuable lessons and we can help them absorb those things by asking questions and expressing interest in what they are doing. Trying out for a position on the team or in the school play is a lesson in courage, not getting it is a lesson in adjusting our expectations and dealing with disappointment. Working on a particularly challenging song is a lesson in perseverance, and getting along with customers and co-workers can help develop patience and empathy. All of these things might seem obvious, but pointing them out to our kids is a way of reminding them that they can always be learning and growing, even if it isn’t in a formal setting.

One of the goals of social-emotional education is to teach kids that they can be the leader when it comes to what they learn. Finding things that interest them and pursuing mastery (and even sometimes simple survival of a situation) is just as important for their development as algebra and history. If we as parents and teachers place just as much value on the things kids are learning outside of school, we reinforce the idea of lifelong learning and let them know that grades aren’t the only goals to set your sights on.

How can you talk to your kids about the non-school things they learn every day?

Why Mindful Parenting is Important

Whether they would ever admit it or not, the way we relate to our children sets up patterns and expectations for their future relationships. As parents, we are our kids’ first testing ground for how they ought to be treated. Interacting with our kids in purposeful ways as much as we can (while allowing ourselves to make mistakes and acknowledge them in front of kids) is important for many different reasons.

We know that children watch us and learn. While we often wish they would do what we say, the fact is, they are more likely to weigh what we do against what we say our values are in order to see what they ought to do. The next time you are in a position to teach your child something, ask yourself what you’re modeling. What do we want for our kids, do we want them to find people in their lives who wield power over them or do we want them to be with people who respect them as equals? Would we rather they experience relationships as power struggles or as fertile ground for collaboration and an exchange of ideas? Do we want them to be with people who are always telling them how to do things or with those who encourage them to think for themselves, examine their own values and beliefs, and act on them?

Mindful parenting asks questions, teaches introspection, helps our kids figure out why they do what they do and how to do better without us prescribing it for them. It lets our kids know that we value them for who they are, not for how well they follow someone else’s rules. It encourages creativity, independent thinking, and sets healthy boundaries for relationships.

For more information on mindful parenting techniques, check out or information here or email kari@theselfproject.com to ask about forming a group in your area. Stay tuned for The SELF Project for Parents coming out in book format soon.

Tackling Tough Situations

We all bump up against situations that we find challenging to handle in our lives, but if we’re busy going in many different directions with competing priorities, it can sometimes be hard to slow down and process them without simply reacting in anger or frustration. Other times, we are tempted to shove those feelings aside and try not to think about it, but if it is something that is really bugging us, generally those issues will come back until we deal with them.  I’ve created a quick worksheet for kids to complete when they have a few minutes that can help them put their frustrations into context and alleviate some of the struggle. Click on the link below to access it.

Tackling Tough Situations

The first two boxes are a place to state what’s going on and are designed to bring some self-awareness to the issue by identifying the emotion behind the challenge. Then, as you move through the flow chart, you can make some choices about how to deal with the situation which gives you a sense of control and reminds you that you are in charge of how you respond to things that aren’t going the way you wanted them to. In the end, the user makes a conscious effort to either accept what has happened and move on or get help changing the situation for the better. I’d love to know when people use this tool and get feedback on how it works for them. Please comment if you want to!

I'm happy to share this flowchart widely. Please remember that was created by and for The SELF Project and, as such, it is copyrighted and should be given credit for its creation.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Strip the Labels

By the time our kids become adolescents, we as parents have often formed some pretty rigid ideas about who they are. Even if we think we are letting them explore some of the different ways to interact with the world, we often don’t give them as much freedom to interact with us at home. We make assumptions based on who we “know” they are (the oldest is the ‘clever, crafty’ one and the youngest kid is the ‘kamikaze who doesn’t look before he leaps’) and often react without thinking from that place.

But what if we take a step back and challenge those ideas a little bit? We might be  sending a message of tolerance and curiosity about our children instead of boxing them in to a place where they might not be happy existing. Here are four questions to ask yourself the next time you jump to conclusions about your tween’s motives:

  1. What assumption am I making right now about my child and is it true? At this point, it’s easy for our brains to start listing off all of the supporting evidence for our assumptions. “Of course he’s the kamikaze! Look how many broken bones he’s had. Remember the time he moved all his furniture around and broke the bookcase?”
  2. Are there other instances I can think of that counteract or mitigate this label I’ve given my kid? Could it be that he is really athletic and determined to give 110% in sports and that accounts for the broken bones? Are there times when he has done things that seem risky and pulled them off brilliantly? Can I think of times when he has been appropriately cautious? 
  3. What is my gut reaction to the assumption I make about this child? Am I disgusted because he is nothing like me? Am I frightened because that’s exactly how I was as a kid and it eventually got me into trouble? What is my emotional response down deep and could it have something to do with how I treat this child when he makes a mistake?
  4. What would happen if I let go of that label and tried to see my kid as a person with many different attributes and abilities? How would he respond if I let go of this particular label and didn’t see him only through that lens? How might my reaction to him be different the next time he comes to me with a problem? Would our interaction be more satisfying if I simply remained curious about why he makes the choices he makes instead of condemning him for things I don’t really know? 

Building Family Connections: Altruism Exercise

Often, as our kids grow up, we as parents become concerned about everyone pulling their weight. We think about chores and allowance, we might teach our kids to fold or wash their own laundry or take out the trash. Most parents agree that teaching our kids that they have some responsibility to the family is important. There are a variety of ways to think about chores and how to reward kids for doing them, but what about teaching them to perform small acts of altruism, too?

One way to do this is to encourage this kind of behavior within the family. Write down each family member’s name on a scrap of paper and put it in a bowl or hat. Once a week, maybe at dinner on Sunday for example, everyone pulls out one piece of paper, making sure that they don’t draw their own name. They will have one week to do something kind for that person. You can choose whether or not to keep these acts secret, but some examples include:

  • clearing someone else’s dishes from the dinner table
  • folding a load of laundry that isn’t yours
  • making a cup of tea for someone just they way they like it
  • offering to walk the dog when it isn’t your turn because you can see that the person whose turn it is is really busy
  • letting someone else have the shower first without arguing

You can be as creative as you like. Along with the obvious benefit of knowing that someone will do something nice for you at least once this week, this activity has the added benefit of focusing everyone’s attention on those around them. You find yourself asking, “What could I do to help _____________ the most today?” You begin to really notice how the other members of your family are doing and what they might need. And it can be really fun to get caught doing something nice for someone. You never know, they might draw your name next week.

Helping Kids Combat Their Inner Critic

We all have an inner monologue, and sometimes it can be quite nasty – especially if we have just said or done something we wish we could take back. Teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to this kind of self-talk, especially since they are also hearing criticism (both constructive and harsh) from many different corners of their lives. When the adults around you are concerned with helping you grow up safe and strong and smart, they can feel as though it’s their job to point out how you can improve yourself. Often, this translates into self-criticism when they’re alone and it can be destructive if they don’t know how to handle it.

Here are three ways adolescents can learn to mitigate some of the constant chatter going on in their heads.

1. Practice radical acts of self-kindness – Ask your child/student how they would talk to a trusted friend who makes a mistake. Often, we are much more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves, but it is important to extend ourselves the same kindnesses we offer to others. Would you berate or belittle a friend who messed up or would you remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes and that things will be okay? Sometimes it feels strange to talk to ourselves in a comforting way, but I am a strong believer in the “fake it ’til you feel it” school of habit-forming.

2. Remember, you’re only human – Avril Lavigne sings a song called “Everybody Hurts,” and while it is about a sad breakup, there are a few lines that resonate with me every time I hear them.

Everybody hurts somedays
It’s okay to be afraid
Everybody hurts, everybody screams
Everybody feels this way, it’s ok

Even if you feel like the only person who has ever screwed up like this, you’re not. And it pays to remind ourselves that we will never be perfect and that we aren’t alone. Your child is special and unique, but not inhuman. Nobody’s perfect.

3. Call that inner voice out when it’s bullying you – It may seem trivial, but when you notice that your inner critic is shaming and blaming you, it’s important to notice. Stop for a beat and say to yourself, Dang! I’m really beating myself up right now! Often, that is enough to interrupt the lecture you’re giving yourself and pull you out of that place where you’re cowering in your own mind so that you can begin to stand up for yourself.

Self-kindness is important to learn at any age, but especially during the adolescent years when the brain is incredibly receptive to emotional onslaughts and when it can build resilient neural pathways. The earlier we can all recognize our tendency to be hard on ourselves and shift those thinking patterns, the better.

Question: What’s More Important…

standing up for my principles, or being nice?

I had a teen ask me this question and I thought it was particularly astute. In the age of social media, we are all free to offer our opinions on any subject any time. Whether it’s responding to a friend’s Facebook or Instagram post or a news item that we come across, in many cases, letting people know what we think is as simple as a few keystrokes.

Unfortunately, things tend to be pretty polarized on social media. We have become accustomed to a certain number of characters that we will pay attention to before we get bored, and most important issues are framed in terms of Right and Wrong, Agree or Disagree. There is very little room for nuance and gray area and, often, it is the most supportive and the least supportive comments that get all the glory.

So if you feel strongly about a particular issue – whether it be dress codes or same-sex marriage, leaving your pet in a hot car during the day or premarital sex, it can be really tempting to add your two cents. My answer to this teen was to stop a minute and assess the motivation behind the response. Often, we get caught up in the swell of emotion that comes from reading about something we either strongly agree or disagree with and we don’t take the time to think about why we think it’s important to share our thoughts.

*If you are responding because you want to tell someone else their opinion is wrong (and set it up against your beliefs which are “right,”) commenting might not be the best thing to do.

*If you are making a point to exclude an entire group of people based on some belief they hold or lifestyle they lead that you disagree with, you aren’t really standing up for your principles, you’re bashing someone else’s. I know there’s a fine line between those two things, but it’s a line nonetheless. [One way to think about it is to say that you’re throwing a party, but you extend the invitation in a public place and say that anyone who identifies as transgendered is NOT invited because you don’t support that lifestyle. That’s not standing up for your beliefs because you started it. You’re free to have that opinion, but since it wasn’t challenged, you’re carefully couching your disrespect for others by claiming it is standing up for yourself.]

*If you are standing up for someone or a group of people that don’t have a voice or whose beliefs haven’t been represented in the conversation, it may well be a worthwhile response. I say this with caution because often people who post things online are only interested in hearing the comments that support their own side of things. Before hitting ‘enter,’ you might want to assess what it is you hope to achieve with your comment. If you simply want to go on record saying you support another opinion, that’s fine. If you’re hoping to change minds or make other people feel bad or rile others up, you’re not standing up for your beliefs, you’re picking a fight.