All parents love their children — and all parents, at times, grow frustrated with them, especially when those children are young and still developing their self-control skills. But for low-income families, the strain of limited resources and a lack of security can push emotions so much higher when a child refuses to eat his dinner or makes it difficult to leave the house on time.
A new social-emotional learning (SEL) intervention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Stephanie Jones and her research team offers a promising source of support for low-income families. With the tools Jones and her team have developed, parents can learn to manage frustration and use simple moments with their children to bolster their relationships and build important executive function skills — for themselves and their children. Even under the weight of poverty, those interactions can begin to replace intergenerational stress with happiness and stability.
What Is Intergenerational Stress?
For many adults, lasting poverty and adversity can tax executive function (EF) skills, such as self-control, planning and prioritizing, and focus, leading to heightened stress, impulsivity, and negativity. For adults with children, this challenge can be especially precarious. Over time, as Jones and researchers Rebecca Bailey and Ann Partee explain in an upcoming article in the Aspen Journal of Ideas, stressful encounters such as yelling and persistent negativity can undermine the relationships that buffer children from chronic stress. Parents may lose confidence in their ability to respond to tough parenting situations and manage children’s behaviors. Children, in turn, may learn to act with impulsivity, aggression, or withdrawal. In such a cycle, neither parent nor child is drawing on or building the essential skills of emotion regulation, reflection, and problem-solving.
A Dual-Generation Answer
While many schools are now emphasizing SEL, much of the work to build self-regulation skills starts at home — and few programs have existed to support home- and school-based learning in alignment. Jones and her research team, using the SEL curriculum they’d already developed for schools, have now created just that kind of aligned intervention, called SECURe Families — a set of workshops for parents that mirror the strategies children are learning in schools.
The workshops, piloted in 2014–2015, give parents a concrete set of tools and activities designed to help manage stress and frustration and improve relationships.
Seven Steps to Building Self-Regulation Skills
One such tool, co-developed by Rebecca Bailey, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, and Jones: A set of simple strategies parents of young children can use to build self-regulation skills at home — for themselves and for their children.
- Stop and think. Instead of yelling “no!” when your child is growing upset, overexcited, or disruptive, ask him to “stop and think”: pause, take a break, and reflect for a moment before acting.
○ Game tip: “Simon Says” can help children remember to think before acting.
- Focus, pay attention, and listen. When your child is talking to another person, remind her to stop what she’s doing, look at who is talking, and “hold on to” her ideas rather than interrupting.
○ Game tip: “I Spy” and “Name that Sound” can help children practice looking and listening carefully.
- Remember directions and follow through with daily tasks. For multistep chores such as setting the table or getting ready for school in the morning, post a list of steps in that area or make up a song to help your child remember what he has to do.
○ Game tip: “Going on a Bear Hunt” and “Going to Grandma’s House” can help children practice keeping track of and updating lists of items.
- Plan and set goals. When making plans, talk through them with your child. For example, if she wants to have a birthday party, write out list of steps (sending out invitations, buying decorations, making a cake, etc.) you both have to accomplish before the big day. Set a timeline and cross off tasks together as you both complete them.
- Practice being patient. Explain to your child what you do when you have to wait for something. Try out different strategies for the two of you when waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store, such as counting all the red things you see or singing a song.
- Manage difficult feelings. Depending on your child’s age, when he grows upset encourage him to take a deep breath, count backwards from 10 or 20, go for a walk, or write down his feelings. When you grow frustrated along with your child, practice these strategies together to help manage your own feelings.
- Deal effectively with conflicts. To help your child listen and understand other people’s perspectives, teach her to use “I messages” (such as “I feel angry when…") and “say it backs” (such as “You’re saying to me that…”). When she’s upset with someone, brainstorm compromises together. When you have your own conflict to resolve, explain your thought process. Remind your children that conflicts are normal, but that it’s important to solve them in peaceful and kind ways.
- Find out more about poverty, executive function, and SECURe through the Aspen Journal of Ideas and the Aspen Institute.
- Learn more about how poverty compromises EF skills, and how social services can help rebuild them.
- Read about the biological and social effects of neglect.
- Review a list of activities to enhance executive function in young children.
- Learn about how to help teenagers develop self-regulation skills.
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