How Parents and Schools Can Help Children Through Difficult Transitions
An Interview with Kristen and Melissa of Success Street
Schools, and parents, are going to face one or both of two sizable problems this fall. Either they’ll have to re-integrate students into a regular classroom setting after a half-year break, or they’ll need to continue managing the communications challenges and emotional stress stemming from social isolation.
Kristen Niemczyk-Kistner and Melissa Dupree are the co-founders of Success Street, where they coach parents as well as consulting with schools on issues related to discipline and emotional wellness. For the last several months, they have been helping schools in the New York and New Jersey areas adapt to the challenges of distance learning, as well as meeting the emotional needs of children who are almost entirely stuck at home.
We interviewed these ladies about some of the challenges that parents are facing today, and we're excited to share with you some of their helpful perspectives! Enjoy!
What does Success Street do and how did you get started?
We launched Success Street, LLC in 2013.
We provide individual and group coaching services for parents and teens as well as consult with school teachers and staff. Working directly with teenagers is something we didn’t originally plan to do; it’s something we started offering because we saw a need for it once an increased number of parents began requesting someone to work directly with their teenage children.
With schools, we mostly consult on behavior challenges and help staff to compile a set of standardized interventions for certain types of issues that tend to occur on a regular basis.
With parents, it’s a mix of behavioral difficulties and helping them develop a discipline approach that works. We help them use strategies from applied behavior analysis and positive discipline to not only improve their children’s behavior, but also motivate children to want to behave better.
With teens we are noticing more of a need for direct mental health coaching, helping them identify strategies to manage anxiety, navigating peer relationships, building self-esteem and employing time management strategies.
How well do you think schools are adapting to having children learn from home? Which parts of this are schools not doing well at?
We can speak to New York and New Jersey, specifically. We would say that in this area, overall schools have adapted pretty well. Right now they’re making sure children have internet access, and are continuing to look for professional development opportunities for school staff.
Most are adopting a hybrid approach for the Fall where it’s mostly online remote learning with some in-person instruction. That’s what the plan is right now, with the understanding that many schools will most likely have to shut down temporarily and move to remote instruction only at some point during the school year. Additionally, some parents are not feeling comfortable sending their children back to school at all and so many districts are planning to offer an all-remote option for these families.
The thing is, everyone had the rug pulled out from under them and had to try to roll with the punches and adapt, so they’re still learning what works. March-June was all just learning what works. Over this time, schools have learned a lot about how to transition to remote learning. Currently, school districts in the area have reopening committees that are trying to make it a more seamless transition while also ensuring the safety of the students and staff.
The toughest part for schools is the social/emotional aspect, they’re struggling a bit there. For the initial lockdown there wasn’t much of a service implemented right away, other than sending home materials for students who were already receiving counseling services. As time progressed they implemented virtual counseling services.
There is still a need to reach more students and families with those counseling services. As a result, many districts are devoting certain times of the day just to deal with social and emotional learning, for teachers to check in with students about how they’re doing. The community is also getting involved by providing available and nearby mental health resources.
The big push now is to have this built into the schedule as a standard part of the curriculum that every student encounters, rather than only providing access to previously identified students. There’s a new recognition that everyone has mental health needs that need to be seen too.
Studies show that people with ADHD are more likely to get covid-19 because their need for stimulation drive them to go out and be around people more. What can parents do to help children fulfill their need for stimulation in a safe way?
Kristen: An effective strategy is to incorporate breaks into the daily schedule. This is something we do in the schools and I have also implemented at home with my own children. At the beginning of quarantine I sat down with my kids and asked them what they wanted to do so we could plan activities of interest as a family. Getting them involved in the planning process also helps with buy in and motivation.
They chose things like bike riding, trampolining, doing yoga videos on YouTube…a lot of physical things. So we mix in short breaks throughout the day to relax and blow off steam.
Melissa: Everyone has different mental health needs and preferences for recreational activities, so it’s important to identify those individual and underlying needs and then incorporate a variety of activities that will work for each child. That’s especially true with younger kids who require a lot of supervision and help to maintain safety while also meeting the needs of their individual activity level.
Older kids are better able to engage in physical activities on their own, and will likely want to. The older kids might want to hike or go for a bike ride by themselves. And that’s fine, but you still need to have the conversation with your children regardless of their age. It’s important to discuss the available options for physical activities and how to continue to ensure their safety and the safety of others while engaging in your chosen activity.
What have you seen with anxiety and lockdowns? Has anxiety steadily gotten worse, or did it get worse at first then subside, or what?
Anxiety with kids has always been an area that we recognize frequently, the rates of anxiety in general with children seem to be steadily increasing over time.
With lockdowns it was mixed though, and depended a lot on individual circumstances. Many families have financial anxieties because parents are laid off or furloughed. Some kids are actually under so much pressure at school that the lockdown made them feel less anxious because some of their stressful school obligations, sports and other extracurriculars, have simply disappeared.
There was definitely a lot of initial anxiety during the quarantine because people didn’t know what to expect. This subsided a bit as people had a better idea of what was happening and what we needed to do as a society to help the situation. A lot of it also comes down to how parents react and how their children pick up on that; if the parents are very anxious, the children tend to get anxious even when parents try their best to hide their own fears.
A lot of people have grown less anxious as summer started and they were able to re-acclimate into society. But it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of this is regional; here in New York and New Jersey, the pandemic was terrible early on, but it’s continuing to improve and we haven’t seen much of a resurgence yet.
What can parents do to teach a child– say, in the 8-12 age range– to start building self-discipline?
It’s important to focus on providing structure and establishing routines. Technology has taken over in a lot of households, and it’s important to be mindful of that and set limits for it.
Children often emulate their parents’ behavior. That’s why it is important for parents to demonstrate and model having self-discipline so that their children can see it.
Establishing a schedule, sometimes a visual schedule with pictures helps, especially if the child has a role in creating the schedule too so they have a sense of ownership over it.
As parents we often try to help our children solve their problems when something arises. We try to teach parents that they should be there to support their child, but not do everything for them. Be there to hold their hand and lend support, but let children problem-solve for themselves as much as possible, to build independence and problem-solving skills.
How can parents teach children to practice gratitude?
Kristen: I think it helps to establish a set time each day to practice gratitude. For our family, we do this at dinnertime; at the beginning of dinner we each share what went right that day and what we’re grateful for.
Gratitude jars and journals are both good practices; in general younger children prefer the jar and older ones like the journal. Pick a consistent time each day and be consistent in your practice. Younger children often like to draw a picture of what they’re grateful for, and put that in their gratitude jar.
Melissa: As parents we want to lead by example and practice gratitude ourselves so our children can see it. My daughter and I have gratitude journals that we have incorporated into our night-time routine. Before we read at night we take the time to write in our gratitude journals. After we complete our entries we share and discuss them together.
What are the big changes parents should watch out for when children transition from elementary to middle school? What about middle school to high school?
When transitioning from elementary school to middle school many kids are given their first smartphone. This is when they begin to navigate the world of social media. So that’s when you need to really be mindful of internet safety, as well as the potential for social media addiction or cyberbullying. This is the time when it is imperative for parents to begin setting more limits on technology and social media usage.
Outside of this year, there is a lot of physical change that occurs as well. For example, children are moving from one school to another and start to have lockers, as well as more movement from class to class within their buildings. Children’s focus on peer relationships also usually becomes bigger as they move into middle school.
For high school, it shifts a bit too. There’s still a big focus on peer relationships, but the focus on academic work gets greater and the pressure to succeed increases. This tends to be a time when children are now taking their school work more seriously and as they think about getting into college. So parents need to help kids manage that workload and should be mindful of how much is too much, while also encouraging their children to participate in school-based activities. Parents are often assisting their high-school aged children create that balance in their lives.
Middle school is typically the time when bullying occurs at the highest rates. And unfortunately technology has made that situation worse because now we have cyber-bullying so kids are being targeted even when they’re not at school, it can be 24/7. This tends to be exacerbated by kids often being given unrestricted internet access right as they transition into middle school.
Many children also experience a decrease in their self-image around middle school age, which can exacerbate issues related to bullying and social conflicts, and on the other hand, these conflicts can also impact one’s levels of self-esteem. A lot of victims of bullying have very poor self-image, and the bullying makes it worse. So we need to make sure our kids with self-esteem issues feel protected and have a safe place to turn to.
Thank you to Kristen and Melissa for spending some time with us! Check them out at success-street.org for more about the amazing work they are doing with parents.
And if you haven't checked in on your child's mental health, emotional health, and development, login to your Esteem account to continue making progress!