LIVINGSTON, NJ — Livingston parents recently learned ways to develop confidence and self-esteem in their children thanks to a special workshop led by Dr. Blair Rosenthal, Director of Elementary Special Education, and Dr. Emily Sortino, Director of Secondary Special Education for Livingston Public Schools (LPS).

Working off the belief that self-esteem is predicated upon feeling prepared to handle situations and being able to cope with undesirable circumstances, the duo offered strategies to help children to self-advocate; to prevent children from becoming anxious; to help children to understand others’ perspectives; and to diffuse a situation in which a child is upset.

“Our job is to show our children how to fix things, not to always fix things for them,” said Rosenthal, who noted that the main purpose of the workshop was to have an open dialog about children being stressed out.

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Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Block applauded Rosenthal and Sortino for “presenting a valuable program on this important issue,” stating that the ability to manage difficult situations in a positive way “can help children become more successful as adults.”

“We know that parents play a vital role in helping to build confidence and self-esteem in their children,” he said. “We hope that by partnering with parents to help children strengthen these qualities, we will enhance our students' capacity to respond productively to mistakes and mishaps so that negative situations are more likely to lead to moments of growth.”

Block also explained that it’s important for students to “experience challenge and even failure from time to time in order to learn how to manage obstacles both in school and at home.”

“Adversity is a natural part of life, and we do a disservice to our children if we always shield them from these formative experiences,” said Block. “Strong self-esteem and confidence are important traits that help students to be more resilient in the face of adversity.” 

This was a central theme of the workshop, which left attendees feeling more prepared when it comes to managing their child’s self-esteem.

By attending the event, residents said they hoped to get some ideas about fostering confidence and independence in their children.

“The best takeaways were the questions and answers, during which the instructors provided the language and examples of what you would say to your child when they face actual school challenges and social challenges,” said local mother Julie Ruckel Kumar.

Among the standout methods described during the workshop was the “worst-case-scenario” approach, as one attendee said that it’s good for parents to realize that “the worst-case scenario isn’t the end of the world” and for them to “have a strategy to calm down our children and then to be able to reason with them so they won’t be self-critical.”

According to the instructors, navigating the dialog helps children put things in perspective.

If a child is anxious about not performing well on a test, for instance, a parent can ask the child what the worst outcome will be. If the child responds that the teacher might think he or she is a bad student or that his or her parents will be angry about a bad grade, the parents should reassure the child that it’s okay to do badly on a test and encourage him or her to study more or differently next time.

“We only learn through mistakes,” said Rosenthal. “We need to engage in self-reflection to figure out how to fix mistakes.”

Parents were encouraged to help their children take the fear out of failure by discussing what went wrong, helping them come up with a plan to fix it and preparing them for potentially upsetting situations.

Another major topic of discussion was social media and the effects that it can have on a child.

The instructors noted that social and emotional learning are currently receiving a great deal of attention in schools because they are profoundly important.

In a social media-dominated society, stress levels among children are increasing due to applications like Instagram and other sites that tend to cause artificial expectations, they said.

“It’s important to explain to children that images aren’t always real,” said Sortino, suggesting that parents to show their children online photos of celebrities without makeup. “Concrete images of things not being real help them understand that they don’t have to live up to them.”

Rosenthal also spoke about how learning things in real time—such as a child finding out via social media that he or she was not invited to a certain party or event—creates a feeling of being left out.

“Social and emotional learning entails slowly infusing problem-solving skills into regular academics,” said Rosenthal, noting that teaching life skills such as empathy helps children to understand the feelings and perspectives of others.

In order to demonstrate the five competencies of soft skills—including social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making and relationship skills—Rosenthal and Sortino used the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) pie chart.

They also advised parents that it’s possible for them to do too much for their kids and urged parents to allow their children to do some things on their own. They stated that even something as simple as ordering for themselves at a restaurant or making their own bed will allow their children to build confidence and be independence.

Rosenthal encouraged the parents to be mindful of little learning opportunities, and Sortino reminded them that self-advocating—such as asking a teacher for help or resolving an interpersonal issues—is essential in life.

The instructors also spoke about how it can be helpful for parents to remove themselves from highly emotional situations until the child calms down and to help their children understand how they are feeling.

The workshop also touched upon how to help children develop self-advocacy skills and how to teach them to acknowledge when they’re wrong while also accepting that it’s okay to be wrong.

Other tips they shared on building confidence included the following:

  • Love, accept, support and care for your child;
  • Help your child set realistic goals and praise her/his efforts;
  • Give your child choices because learning to be decisive is powerful;
  • Assign chores to help build a sense of responsibility;
  • Model good behavior and healthy habits;
  • Support their interests; and
  • Give them attention and time.

In addition to learning about some of the ways that children express themselves and why, attendees were advised that children are also prone to adopting their parents’ issues as well. According to Rosenthal, even seemingly innocent statements like “I feel fat” can make an impression on a child.

Allowing kids to experience their feelings and validating their emotions enables them to work through them, the instructors said. They reassured the audience that it is okay for parents to express their own emotions so that their children can learn to accept that everyone experiences different emotions.

During the presentation, Rosenthal spoke briefly about Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent allocation of $6 million toward training at least one teacher in each New Jersey school district to recognize mental health issues in students. She shared that the overall goal of this initiative is to combat the pervasive mental health crisis and prevent suicide.