By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

Can discipline be the same for different children in the same family? Not always. Is it fair to treat them differently? They won’t think so, and they’ll be playing close attention. But of course it may be, because they are different. Differences in discipline depend on age differences, differences in ability, sensitivity and temperament.

Siblings will reproach parents: “You’re always so much easier on her than you are on me.” I would advise parents to lay out their reasons openly so that differences in discipline won’t be seen as playing favorites: “Do you really think it would be fair to treat you alike? You’re three years older.”

Parents may also find that they discipline their boys and girls differently, or they may do so without realizing it. Many will naturally soften to speak to a girl, and are more likely to be tougher with a boy. Will boys see this as unfair? Probably. Parents will need to stop and consider whether their different responses to a boy and a girl really fit the child or, instead, are based on a stereotype.

Fair discipline does not necessarily mean the same discipline for all. If different children really need different kinds of discipline to be contained and to learn from it, all the children can be helped to understand and accept this.

What happens when two or more siblings are involved? When they gang up to make a ruckus that you must stop? An older child may set up a younger one to do his dirty work because he’s more likely to “get off easy.” Sometimes, parents may know that the mischief goes beyond the younger child’s abilities. Sometimes they won’t.

What should you do?

  • First of all, parents will need to get themselves under control.
  • Then, address both children together. This is their chance to learn that they’re all in it together as a family.
  • Afterward, separate each child for individual discipline, in private.
  • Finally, bring the children back together again. Remind them that they are all responsible for each other, even when only one is guilty. Then, plan for a family time – a meal, reading together, a walk, or anything else that allows everyone to feel close again.

Separation from each other has the powerful effect of getting each child to listen to the teaching that goes with discipline, and defuses the excitement of ganging up on a parent. It also makes them realize how much they want to be together, no matter how upset they’ve been with each other.

When children keep misbehaving, over and over, either they’ve not yet learned from your discipline or the motive to misbehave is stronger. It is essential to help children discover their own motivation to get along with each other and to comply with the family’s rules and expectations. Then they can begin to assume some responsibility for self-discipline.

If this doesn’t happen, siblings are likely to find it far more rewarding to gang up against parents and to goad each other to test parents’ patience and resolve. When you can, turn it back to them and make the misbehavior their problem, not yours.

Another possibility is that your response has not been consistent. If you respond on some occasions, and not on others, children are bound to keep on testing. They need to find out whether or not you’ll respond next time. If you mean business, show them by responding the same way, every time. But don’t get worked up about it. That may make the misbehavior even more exciting, and hard to resist.


  1. Make the punishment fit the crime.
  2. When you find yourself spending a lot of time disciplining your children for fights and rivalry, stop and consider how much to leave to them. They’ll be more likely to listen if they haven’t heard you nagging for a while.
  3. Balance positives with the negatives. When your children are quietly getting along or working on their own projects, surprise them with a word of praise.
  4. When problem behavior happens too often, ask the children what would help them behave. Let them plan solutions together.
  5. Don’t compare one child to another.
  6. Don’t talk about one child to the others.
  7. Don’t humiliate one child in front of the others.
  8. Discipline is best absorbed by a child when it can be done in private. But it often happens that two or more children need it at the same time. You can remind them as a group of expectations and consequences that apply to all of them, without singling anyone out.
  9. Match the discipline to the child. A parent who knows each child’s temperament, stage of development, learning style, and thresholds has a better chance. Watch her face and body movements for evidence that you are reaching her.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.


By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 4-year-old son is very active, though he can concentrate for a long time on a task and complete it well.

His teachers always tell him to sit. His aunts tell him to stop jumping.
We tell him to be careful. We encourage athletics, at which he excels, and we have him work on blocks and art.

He rises early and just keeps going. Will he be diagnosed with ADHD? How can I help him to be accepted by teachers so he isn’t always the “naughty” boy?
His pediatrician says he is normal. Teachers say he is too active.

A. When I was a boy in Texas, I never would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – it hadn’t been invented yet. But “mischievous” sure was a popular term.

What helped me stay out of trouble – when I did – was finding out what I liked to do and what I was good at. I only had one brother, but I had a busload of cousins, and I was the oldest. They looked up to me and I liked taking care of them.

When I was only a few years older than your son, my grandmother told me, “Berry, you’re so good with children.” Her encouragement helped calm me down and probably had something to do with my calling.

Let your son’s teachers know you need their help. People enjoy rising to the occasion.

You’ve got an active boy, but he’s still young. Maybe someone would diagnose him with ADHD; I can’t say without getting a glimpse of him. Some children with ADHD can concentrate for long periods on activities that interest them, especially in a quiet setting. And many 4-year-olds without ADHD are very active.

Let the teachers know that you want to help him stay out of trouble, and that both you and he want them to like him. Their acceptance will go a long way toward improving his behavior. Ask them whether the “straight and narrow” for a 4-year-old isn’t a bit wider and a lot more crooked.

Perhaps you can tell the teachers a story like the one about my grandmother – or about a person who helped you find your own talents and direction.

Ask them, “Can you help my little boy find out what is good about him? Maybe even something he is good at? Can you help him remember these things when he is being bad or feeling bad? Can you help him find his own ways of helping others? I’d so appreciate it, and so will he.”

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.


By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can I wean my 13-month-old daughter? She’s on at least three feedings a day, won’t take a bottle and isn’t interested in formula or cow’s milk. She’s also pretty skinny so I’m reluctant to withdraw without a substitute.

A. The second year is a likely time for struggles over food. Many children seem to shut down, taking in the bare minimum and only what they want. So we’d hate to see you take away such a wonderful nutrition source.

What else is your daughter eating? Has she started drinking from a cup? Before you stop breast-feeding, see whether you can interest her in other approaches.

Will she take breast milk from a bottle or a cup? She may try a new food if it’s doused in breast milk – a pasty cereal, preferably with lots of protein and iron. (Ask your pediatrician to check your daughter’s height and weight to be sure her growth curve is on track. A multiple vitamin or vitamin D and iron may be in order.)

We recommend keeping these experiments low-key and relaxed. Your daughter will sense your anxiety, which may turn her off.

Without making a fuss, you should expect to introduce a new food 10 to 15 times before she even tries it. Some children’s taste buds are very sensitive, and they need a while to get used to anything new.

So don’t give up – but don’t push. Just place a small amount on her highchair. Say nothing. Any suggestion to try it is likely to backfire. You may find you can mix a favorite food with a tiny amount of a new one, gradually increasing the proportion.

Breast-feeding is important to your daughter for more than nutrition. Do you and she have special quiet times together when you’re not nursing? How else can you soothe her, and how can she soothe herself? She may become more interested in other ways of feeding if you have other times when you’re close.

At this age a child already toddling may no longer spend as long at the breast to soothe and cuddle. But breast-feeding is important in many ways. For now, your daughter must face her own ability to get away from you and from her mixed feelings of fear and excitement when she does. It is reassuring for her to come back to you and to nurse again.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.


By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Our answer to a letter about bath time fears and tears has stirred up sympathy, salutary suggestions, and speculation in readers across the country.

Q. The 3-year-old who fears baths and showers might be willing to sit in a baby bath tub and get clean or to sit in a sink. Also, he might like to have a small inflatable swimming pool brought into the house or if the family lives in a warm climate have a bath outside in the small swimming pool.

Is the child afraid of taking off his clothes? Children are so exposed to mass media today it is almost impossible to isolate the source of fear but I find that asking a child to tell you what should be changed for him/her to like doing something sometimes works.

A. What great suggestions!

If the child slipped or swallowed water or had a traumatic shampoo in the “big” bath tub, simply switching bathing to another location might help. And a smaller place to bathe like the baby bathtub, sink or blow-up pool you suggest might also be less overwhelming to a small child to whom a “grown-up” tub might seem like a vast and gaping ocean.

Introducing water and the bath slowly, in small amounts, and on the child’s terms all make sense. Best of all, we like your idea of including the child in figuring out the solution and giving him some control. This way he might be more likely to tell you what the fear is all about, including whether it all started with some scary TV show.

We wondered what kind of media exposure you thought might prompt a child to fear taking his clothes off. When children are exposed to overstimulating adult sexual behavior, they are more likely to imitate it and act it out. When children are exposed to violence that makes them worry about the safety of their own bodies, they may spend more time inspecting themselves to be sure “everything is still there.” We certainly have seen children who have been sexually abused fear taking their clothes off. They do seem to see their clothes as a kind of protection, and staying dressed as a way of fending off unwanted memories of the trauma. (Often, though, other changes in behavior and mood are present too.)

Perhaps some of our readers have seen similar behavior in children who have been traumatized by media exposure without having actually been sexually abused.

Q. I read with interest your possible explanations for why a child would suddenly develop a fear of bathing. All of your possible reasons were valid. However, may I suggest a more ominous one?

Often children who have been sexually molested develop fears of being vulnerable as one is in the bathtub. Perhaps this child should be gently questioned regarding if anyone has frightened him in any way of was he touched by someone who made him feel uncomfortable.

Hope you find the cause of the problem and hopefully it is not as serious as I suggest.

A. We couldn’t agree with you more that this possibility is one to consider, although we would caution against scaring either the parents or the child in doing so. We appreciate your recommendation that the questions be gentle, and would underscore that they must not be leading, since the resulting replies would be harder to know how to interpret. Such questioning is best conducted by a professional trained to address such issues with young children.

We agree with your emphasis on the traumatized child’s fear of feeling vulnerable, and would add to this the fear of activities that contain some reminder of the traumatic event.

The original text of our answer to the  “fear of bathing” question did close with the following paragraph which was eventually cut due to space limitations:

Children who have been sexually molested may also appear fearful at bath time. But this is not likely to appear as the only symptom. Instead, other activities involving their bodies — using the toilet, getting undressed — also often stir up fear and attempts to avoid them.

This is a possible but unlikely cause in a child who shows no other changes in behavior. There are so many more common reasons for a child this age to become afraid of the bath.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.


By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Understanding Sibling Rivalry,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

All children are hungry for their parents’ approval. As a result, parents know they can use criticism to curb unwanted behaviors, and praise to encourage others.

With siblings the dynamic of criticism and praise becomes more complex. Parents may not always realize just how seriously a child takes each criticism, each encouraging word. When other siblings become an audience, parents’ words take on even more power. Praising one child can feel like a criticism of another; similarly, criticizing one can certainly seem like praise to another.

When there is an imbalance over time – more criticism for one child, more praise for the other – the criticized child is likely to give up and behave as “bad” as everyone seems to think she is. The child who must bear the brunt of parents’ continual criticism also becomes the brunt of a sibling’s: “You’re a loser.” A sibling will rub it in, glad not to be the brunt himself.

Praise, too, can be uncomfortable for the sibling who receives it, especially if the others are around. The praised sibling’s successes then seem to come at the expense of the others. If a child such as this feels guilty, or is the target of jealousy and resentment, she might even stop trying so hard, preferring to be less special and more like the others.

Praise from a parent can easily be overdone. The child knows when it’s phony. Too much praise from a parent can interfere with a child’s learning to take satisfaction in his successes on his own. Yet praise can be a boost, particularly if it is fair and comes out of the blue. From a parent it is valued, but even more from a sibling.

When an older sibling can praise a younger one and say, for example, “You did such a good job. You worked and worked at it” – think how proud both will feel. A younger sibling is likely to praise his older sister with his eyes, and with imitation. Is it wise to comment on their praise and take it away from them?

If you must criticize, avoid words such as “always” and “never.” Rather than negative generalizations such as “You’re never ready on time,” focus on what’s happening now: “You’re late. We need to get going.”

Teaching Self-Criticism and Self-Praise

Be careful about using praise or criticism as a way of controlling behavior. Either one can quickly feel like a weapon to a child. Your long-term goal is not this kind of power. Instead, it is to help your child learn to face his own strengths and weaknesses, to praise and criticize himself as he learns to monitor his own behavior. Instead of saying, “Great job!” there may be a chance to ask “How do you feel about how you did?” Your smile and warm voice tell her how proud you are, but you leave your child room to find her own pride. The added benefit of this approach is that siblings are less likely to feel that your approval of this child takes away from your approval of them.

The same goes for criticism. Of course there are times when a child needs to be told very clearly that she’s made a mistake. But look for opportunities to ask her what she thinks she’s done wrong, what she thinks she could have done better. A conversation like this is best carried out when the other children aren’t around to add to her embarrassment.

Whenever possible, reserve criticism and sanctions for private times with a child. If the others ask, “How come you didn’t punish her?” a parent can answer, “That’s up to me, and it’s between your sister and me.” When the other children are present, stick to clear expectations and instructions that apply to all.

When siblings, or siblings and friends get out of control, there’s no need to single one out. Tell the whole group, “You need to settle down.” The others may protest: “But Susie started it!” Simply answer, “I’m not interested in who did it. I’m asking you all to help out.” They’ll get the message. Singling out a child for public humiliation, on the other hand, strikes terror in the hearts of children. But it won’t win you their respect. To protect themselves from it, they’re likely to turn against you.

Often, you may not know what really happened, or who started it. But when only some are guilty, all can still be helped to face their responsibility. This approach sustains a parent’s authority while encouraging the children to recognize their interdependence. They may all turn against one sibling, but over time they’ll learn to stick up for each other – an important goal for the whole family.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.


By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

A 4-year-old knows that she matters. She no longer needs her earlier defiance. She can handle her feelings with less effort now, and can more easily make her needs known. Now that she is less focused on herself, she is curious about the world. She can only understand it, though, in terms of her own experience. But she can look more deeply now, and sustain her interest for longer.

More aware of others, the 4-year-old is watchful, almost on guard, as she monitors those around her for their reactions. At 4, a child is developing the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. She can begin to see, now, her ability to affect them: “If I hit her, she won’t want to play with me. If I take her toy, she’ll scream and Mommy will blame me.”

Now a child can judge the effects of her behavior with a better understanding of its consequences, a new sense of right and wrong. With this awareness comes the dawn of a conscience. Guilty feelings are new, too. They can be a powerful motivator.

A 4-year-old has also begun to be aware of her own feelings and to pay attention to them. She has more words to describe them. As she learns to name her feelings as they well up inside her, she has a chance to think about them, what they are telling her, why she is having them, and what she can do about them. This is the beginning of an important new ability that some psychologists have called “emotional intelligence.” It is also critical to learning to handle her aggressive urges.

Now that she is beginning to be aware of her aggressive feelings, and of their consequences, the 4-year-old may be frightened of herself. Her aggressive acts carry a new cost! As she tries them out, she is fearful. She knows she’s wrong, and she expects to be punished.

At night, when her defenses are down, when she is regressing to a helpless sleep state, fears and nightmares begin to surface. “Is that a witch under my bed? Is there a monster in the closet?” In her nightmares, they may be coming after her to punish her for her “bad” behavior. Or they may be aggressive in all the ways she’d like to be but knows she shouldn’t.

Fears that are near the surface — of being “bad” and hurtful, of deserving punishment — will be called up during the day by any frightening event, even a dog barking or an ambulance’s siren. Thunder and lightning terrify a child of this age. To her it sounds like an angry scolding from someone who sees and hears all the “bad” things she’s done. At night, fears like these overwhelm her. She is aware of her ability to hurt others. She is frightened of her own fantasies of being more powerful than she really is. At this age, losing control is more frightening than ever. Conscience and being aware of other’s feelings have made it seem more dangerous.


  • During the day, look for monsters and witches under the bed and in the closet with your child. This is one way to show that you can take her worries seriously without reinforcing them.
  • At bedtime, read stories that help children understand nightmares, such as “There’s a Monster in My Closet.” You can also read stories about dreams – such as “In the Night Kitchen” – because they help children understand that dreams come from the worries and other feelings we store up during the day.
  • Show your child where the nightlight is. Shut off all the other lights and let her look around while you are still there.
  • Reassure her that you’ll be in your room while she’s in hers.
  • If she does wake up with a nightmare, go to her. Sit by her bed. Let her tell you about it. (My mother used to say that if you tell someone about your nightmare, it won’t come back. I think she was right.)


  • Don’t put off facing a fear. Waiting will only make the child think that there really is something to worry about.
  • Make a list with your child of all the ways she’s learned to make herself feel better when she is scared: for example, holding your hand, talking together, trying to think of something different, or of times when facing the fear has helped. These are self-comforting strategies.
  • Then, make a list of all the things that are scary about the feared object or event, and rank them from most scary to the least: for example, “I hate when the dog barks, I hate just seeing the dog _ especially when she shows her teeth, I hate seeing her dog bone in the yard when she’s not there, I even hate just thinking about her.”
  • Now your child is ready to face her fear. She can think first about the least scary aspect of the feared object or event and then practice all her self-comforting strategies. Once she can calm herself while thinking about the least frightening part of the fear, she’s ready to move on to the next. Step by step, she’ll be able to conquer her fear.

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger & Aggression: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

Early Language Matters

Early Language Matters

Early Language Matters by Louise Packness

In an undergraduate communications class I was taking at Hunter College in NYC, many years ago, we were shown videos of Washoe the chimpanzee learning American Sign Language. (ASL) I was mildly interested in attempts to determine primates’ ability to learn language. But my real focus in these videos and in this class was American Sign Language itself.

I was taken with how “expressive” I found the visual-gestural language of the Deaf community. Peoples’ facial expressions were animated. There were large and small, fast and slow gestures and body movements. Eye contact was vital. I became consumed with questions about different forms of language. Could it be that a language that was expressed visually was somehow more “honest”, more “direct”? Certainly I had experienced misuse of spoken language: twisting of phrases and words; verbal manipulation of a sort. Could ASL use by-pass abuse of speech and more easily get to the heart of an issue? I felt compelled to explore this issue. I already loved language related learning, I.e., foreign languages, the origin of language, how languages change over time – and the nitty gritty of speech sound production as well as grammar and morphology and syntax.

I went on to graduate school and became a Teacher of the Deaf. I got my answer. ASL can be used in a manipulative way just the same way a spoken language can be. A visual gestural language may look more “immediate” and “‘direct” – “honest “if you will. But ASL is a full and true language; it follows rules, has exact vocabulary, word meanings, sentences and syntax and it is entirely possible to be false and manipulative in the visual-gestural form as well as the spoken language.

In my deaf education teacher training, the question of language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children born in to a hearing world came to the forefront. How do deaf children learn language and how do they learn to think? I went to study language acquisition of both deaf and hearing children and speech language development has been my professional work for 35 years.

In general conversation, we often talk about communication and language interchangeably. They absolutely overlap; communication is a form of language and language is a part of communication, but they are not entirely the same.

Communication starts the moment a baby is born. It is about connecting emotionally with other living beings. We humans are hard-wired to make and find comfort in these connections and we are born with a set of innate emotional expressions and an instinctive understanding of other people’s emotions. We express joy, sadness, fear, disgust, interest, surprise anger, affection and more, and recognize them in others.

These early non-verbal connections are shared through vocalizations, facial expressions, and physical movements. Adults and babies engage in looking at each other, copying each other, taking turns on an emotional level – interactions known as “serve and return”. They are recognized by psychologists as important in shaping brain architecture in powerful ways, and helping to create a strong foundation for future learning. These interactions, conversations back and forth of sounds, gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice, eye-contact, posture and use of space give the young child a sense of belonging and are important to both partners.

Verbal communication, language, is also hard wired in the brain.
It is a rich, complex, adaptable system with rules; it is the way in which we combine sounds, create words and sentences in speech, signs and later writing to communicate our thoughts and understand others.

Verbal language provides us with the tools to know what we think and want, and understand others’ thoughts and wants. We need language to socialize and learn. Through both communication and language, we are able to learn new information, engage in rich pretend play, solve problems, ponder, invent, imagine new possibilities, and develop literacy.
Verbal language develops over time and follows universal, developmental milestones. Children learn at different rates, but there is a critical period in which a child must experience and develop language for it to develop fully.

None of us remember how we learned language. For the child with no interfering cognitive or physical challenges it seems that it simply happens. It is “caught” not “taught”. It is “caught” when a child is immersed in a world with caring adults who talk and interact and engage with this child. The particular language – or languages – a child masters is the one that the child experiences and has the opportunity to practice.

Language learning requires no tools or training – only these conversations.
When we say that early language matters it is the early, emotionally attuned engagement between adults and young children that matter.

When an interested adult is fully attending, talking and listening – making it easy for the young child time to start conversations; responding with interest to what the child is expressing with or without words, talking about those things the child is interested in at a level the child can understand, having conversations that go back and forth a number of times – these behaviors promote the natural development of language.

My work has been with children with special needs who have speech and language delays and disorders. For these children specialized early intervention is extremely important. The earlier the better to take advantage of a young child’s developing body and brain.

For the typically developing child, however, if language develops easily and naturally, what can interfere??

How strong children’s language skills are affected by their surroundings. Challenging environmental circumstance, such as food insecurity, poor housing, lack of health care, no access to books make a difference in the young child’s development; an adult, parent or caretaker who is not able to sustain attention or be attuned to the child makes a difference in the child’s development. When the adult is highly distracted – perhaps by troubling personal concerns or the ever-increasing interruptions caused by technology; i.e., needing to check Face Time, take a phone call, look at Instagram, check notifications, etc., the child is adversely impacted. The tremendous value of on-going conversations gets lost with many interruptions. Being aware of the factors that are challenging, we can begin to address them.

The early conversations are what matter. They say that a good conversation is like a good seesaw ride; it only happens when each partner keeps taking a turn.

Louise Packness,
Speech-Language Pathologist, M.A. CCC-SLP

Books and Resources for Early Language Matters

American Speech-Language Hearing Association: articles and books. Including:
– Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development
– How Does your Child Hear and Talk?
– Apel, Ken & Masterson, Julie, J. Beyond Baby Talk: From Sounds to Sentences – A Parents Complete Guide to Language Development, 2001

Early Years Foundation Stage, (EYFS) Statutory Framework- GOV.UK
2021 Development Matters in the Early Years.

Eliot, Lise, What’s Going On in There? : Bantam Book, 1999

Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making: Harper-Collins, 2010

The Hanen Centre Publications. Helping You Help Children Communicate.
– Manolson, Ayala, It Takes Two To Talk: The Hanen Early Language Program ,1992
– Parent Tips
– “Tuning In” to others: How Young Children Develop Theory of Mind

Lahey, Margaret. Language Disorders and Language Development: Macmillan Publishers, 1998

Lund, Nancy & Duchan, Judith. Assessing Children’s Language in Naturalistic Contexts: Prentice-Hall, 1988

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NYAEC)
– Reinforcing Language Skills for Our Youngest Learners by Claudine Hannon
– 12 Ways to Support Language Development for Infants and Toddlers by Julia Luckenbill
– Big Questions for Young Minds, Extending Children’s Thinking. 2017

Princeton Baby Lab. A Research Group in the Dept. of Psychology at Princeton studies how children learn, and how their incredible ability to learn support their development. 2022 babylab@princeton.edu

Pruett, Kyle,D: Me, Myself and I: Goddard Press, 1999

Ratey, John,J. A User’s Guide to the Brain, Vintage Books, 2001 : 253-335.

Rossetti, Louis,M: Communication Intervention, Singular Publishing, 1996

Siegel, Daniel J,& Hartzell, Mary. Parenting from the Inside Out: Penguin Group 2003

Presence and Perspective


Presence and Perspective By Murielle DiBiase, M.D.

In the chaos of the world we are living in today I find the challenge that rises to the top of my heap across settings and interactions with others of all ages is to be present and consider the perspectives of others. We are so inundated with the stressors of everyday living complicated with all of the Covid chaos that it’s a true challenge to stay in the moment and even consider the perspectives of others.

In my work in the field of Early Care and Education, I have many opportunities to engage with families, children, professional colleagues, teachers, and a wide variety of support staff involved as educators in this phenomenal field. We know that parents/family are children’s first “teachers”. Everyone involved in the classroom dynamics has an impact on the foundation of learning for each child in their care. We are all “cognitive coaches”, incidentally as well as intentionally, for every child we connect with, even for those we come to know in utero. It’s simply amazing to consider that the first 3 years of our lives are known to be the time in our lives that we will learn at an extraordinary pace like no other time in our entire lives. This, to me, magnifies the importance of intentionally being present as much as we possibly can across settings and ages for all to truly benefit from the interaction.

As I engage in the work of coaching educators to elevate the quality of their engagement with children, there are frequent conversations about taking a child’s perspective in the moment given any number of daily situations we encounter. As adults, we often make unintentional assumptions about children’s perspectives… “When you push your chair away from the table, you’re telling me you’re all done with snack.” (said to an 18 month old) I had to wonder if that was so or was this child merely experimenting with cause and effect given the moment… Just as unintentionally, we often forget that young children are just beginning to understand their world and are learning things like self-regulation. They are truly novices at social engagement and are new to the concept of emotions. They learn what they are living with no regard to “right or wrong” ideations at such a young age. Understanding a young child’s perspective is key to quality engagement. The more we learn, the more we are able to support learning for our youngest human beings.

This is all food for thought, which might shift our perspectives a bit. We don’t know what we don’t know and we do the best we can with what we do know at any given time in our lives. Thank goodness we have a lifetime to learn and grow and there are so many opportunities for us to do so! Learning is a work in progress, not an aim for perfection…

Favorite Resources:

Ted Talks : Jun Li, Fred Rogers (Google these individuals for more resources)

Brazelton Touchpoints Center
Connection Parenting, Pam Leo (Google her for more resources to her credit)

Creative Connections LLC
Murielle S. DiBiase, M.Ed.
PO Box 15
Palermo, Maine 04354

Polyvagel Theory

Eye Contact with baby

Polyvagel Theory By Mark Rains, Ph.D.

How can parents help soothe stress in infants and build their capacity for attachment, self-regulation, social engagement, and resilience? Of all the many ways to understand this, one article that transforms how we look at relationships and stress response systems is “Neuroception” by Stephen Porges1. Published in Zero to Three in 2004, it remains timely; applicable to current problems with traumatic or “toxic” stress, childhood protective factors, and prenatal substance exposure, as well as classic infant mental health challenges with temperament, attachment, parenting, etc. It also introduces concepts of personal and social stress management that support coping with the psychosocial and professional challenges of COVID care.

Neuroception involves how the brain senses safety or threat through (primarily) visual, auditory, and tactile cues in the social environment and organizes responding. A complementary article by Porges, also in Zero to Three [1993], focuses on Interoception2, a “sixth sense” response to internal physiological cues. Both social and internal inputs are linked via the vagus nerve to multiple response systems. The multiple roles of this nerve and its contribution to Social Engagement Systems of parents and infants are elaborated within a Polyvagal Theory of stress response3.

Basically, polyvagal theory refers to (1-6):

  1. the general variety of inputs and outputs of the ventral (front) and dorsal (back) branches of the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (ANS),
  2. the involvement of the ventral branch of the vagus in communicating (receiving and expressing) cues of safety and threat within interactions in the Social Engagement (i.e. Safe to Friend 4) System.
    In conditions of safety, the ventral vagus regulates the ups and downs of:
  3. mobilization without fear for action (waking, food gathering, defense, etc) by inhibiting and disinhibiting the sympathetic arousal branch of the ANS, especially heart function, and
  4. immobilization without fear for physical maintenance (sleeping, digesting, lactation, intimacy, illness recovery, etc.) by dorsal branch of the vagus and release of oxytocin.
    In conditions of significant or life-threatening stress:
  5. mobilization with anger/fear leading to dominance of ventral vagus by sympathetic arousal and limbic system overriding cortex (“losing your head”), i.e. Fight/Flight systems OR
  6. immobilization with fear involving physical shutdown by dorsal branch of vagus nerve, i.e. Freeze/Faint systems, going into shock, loss of blood pressure, etc.

In other words, with safety the parasympathetic ventral vagus nerve regulates both the sympathetic ANS and the parasympathetic dorsal vagus, as it balances waking and sleeping, gathering food and digesting it, engaging socially and withdrawing for reflection, energetic sexual activity and safe intimacy, child protection and lactation, etc. When this homeostatic balance is overwhelmed and sympathetic ANS or dorsal vagus is unregulated, an individual is vulnerable to physical and/or mental health problems.

Health and resilience involve accurate sensitivity to threat cues and flexibility in response. Problems result when persons see threat in safe situations and miss threat in stressful situations and/or when their mobilization or immobilization with anger or fear is chronic and less flexible. Polyvagal theory adds another lens to viewing current problems in self- and social-regulation: the importance of safety, the role of social engagement system in communicating and managing safety, and dysregulation that follows lack of safety.

The Social Engagement System develops within the attachment relationship between infant and parent and continues through adult interactions. Social engagement involves muscles of face and head, available in infancy, before development of extremities.

Following are some of the highlights:

Social Engagement

with Safety

(higher vagal tone, more flexibility)
• Make eye contact
• Display contingent facial expressions
• Vocalize with appealing inflection and rhythm
• Modulate middle-ear muscles to distinguish human voice more efficiently
• Problem solve
• Safe Touch, Massage
• All the above contribute to Attachment and to Soothing stress before it becomes toxic


with Danger

(lower vagal tone, less variability)
• Eyelids droop
• Positive facial expressions dwindle
• Voice loses inflection
• Awareness of human voice is less acute
• Sensitivity to others’ social engagement behaviors decreases
• Chest (crisis) breathing

Porges (2004)

There is a YouTube video that depicts the role of social engagement system in soothing stress and relationship development https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=zcz2Towvf8A. Spoiler alert: It portrays a father attempting to comfort the cries of his infant daughter. Their facial expressions mirror as he becomes stressed and she continues to fuss. He contacts her mother by cellphone where she is shopping in a grocery store and mother tries a variety of attempts to connect with and entertain her daughter via the cellphone screen, unsuccessfully. A grandmotherly figure in the grocery store appears to wonder, “What is going on here? How ridiculous to think technology could replace human interaction.” Nothing works.

The father then picks up his daughter with safe touch, brings her up to make eye contact with his safe face; all of which soothes her upset and catches her interest, and they eventually calm and connect. Its poignancy brings tears to mother’s eyes, perhaps gratified to see father and daughter’s capacity to join her in parenting. Both father and daughter were able to utilize their social engagement systems. Although it’s not clear that the producers of the video clip were thinking beyond “Technology will never replace love”, it seemed to me to illustrate social engagement well.

Polyvagal theory adds another lens to viewing current problems in self- and social-regulation. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measurable biomarker of flexibility in ventral vagal regulation of heart function. Heart rate rises and falls with respiration. I won’t attempt to go into detail about this, beyond noting that it is one of the ways of studying the tone (high or low flexibility) of the ventral vagus in a variety of physical and mental health problems. Porges (2004) proposes that faulty neuroception (ability to switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies) may contribute to autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Infants may learn defensive behaviors with frightened or frightening caregivers, which may then be ineffective or costly within safe environments.

For example, in infants exposed prenatally to substances and experiencing withdrawal symptoms as neonates, sympathetic arousal may be dominant, resulting in difficulty with parasympathetic functions of eating and sleeping and being comforted.5 Caregiving within the Eat, Sleep, Console program6assists in regaining sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, supported by medication to manage sympathetic arousal. Massage has been helpful in vagal tone of premature infants, enabling better weight gain. 7

The social interaction and communication challenges associated with autism spectrum difficulties8 are another area of research on polyvagal theory where intervention increases eye contact, vocalization, and anxiety; sensitivity to stimulation, etc. It doesn’t cure autism, but addresses some of the challenges, which might lead to a vicious cycle of withdrawal, behavioral difficulties, etc.

Turning to the parental role in the social engagement system involves parents being able to regulate their own emotional state and sense of safety, in order to be a safe partner interacting with their child. After ensuring that the child’s “alert system” is not hyper- (“wired”) or hypo- (“tired”) aroused and that the child’s “alarm system” is not activated by internal (interoception) or psychosocial (neuroception) threats, a parent can communicate safety within the parent-child social engagement relationship by providing nonverbal (right brain) relationship cues and utilizing developmentally appropriate language (left brain).9 Synchrony in the parent and child social engagement systems supports resilience. As the child develops beyond infancy, neuroception of safety is needed for verbal communication or executive functioning to be successful. Infant mental health interventions can model and provide safe social engagement by therapists to support safe parent and child interaction.

Parallel to the experience of parents, providers of healthcare and social services experience both vulnerability and opportunities for resilience, managing exposure to stress, utilizing professional coping strategies, practicing personal self-care, and experiencing organizational support. In particular, social engagement through teamwork and mutual support can help maintain resilience and reduce feelings of unmanageable threat. Unfortunately, this has been limited during COVID, in which distancing and masking undermine social engagement opportunities. When such social connection is not available, individual practices can help ‘jump start’ vagal tone through a variety of portals to the ventral vagus nerve. These include:

  1. Confident (diaphragmatic) “belly-button-breathing” (e.g. four count inhalation and six count exhalation), which is an alternative to crisis (chest, up-and-down) breathing.
  2. Massage, safe touch, which renews vagal tone.
  3. Vocalization (e.g. singing, chanting), which can engage the cranial nerve regulating the trachea and, together with diaphragmatic breathing, stimulate the ventral vagus nerve.
  4. Auditory stimulation which renews the balance in sensitivity to voice frequencies that can be dysregulated after exposure to danger frequencies, e.g. with soothing music in the range of voice frequencies (e.g. classical stringed instruments) or specially programmed music (Safe and Sound Protocol10) to stimulate middle ear functioning and flexibility.

Using such vagal stimulation strategies to achieve or renew a parasympathetic state of Safe to Friend provides a foundation for confidence and other cognitive coping strategies. This is built into a series of “Resilience Stretches”, which help recover from, manage, and prepare for psychosocial stress; like physical stretches prepare for physical activity.11

Research into these areas is still at early stages in many respects, at promising to evidence-based levels. As polyvagal theory has gained popularity12 , interpreters (myself included) may stray from science or evidence base, promoting short cuts to social engagement with oxytocin, vagus nerve stimulation, quick fixes, etc. I recommend sticking close to the source and staying up to date with the evidence base.

Take Home / Take to Work points:

  • In addition to Fight/Flight and Freeze/Faint responses to
  • Adverse Experiences, there is a Safe To Friend system of social engagement to manage stress with resilience.
  • This system is ready to begin from birth and is developed within safe, stable, supportive attachment interactions and relationships.
  • Vulnerabilities in the Social Engagement System may contribute to a variety of physical and psychosocial health problems.
  • There are multiple portals to renew safety at a personal level of neuroception and interoception and at a social level of protective factors for parents and professionals
  • With professional/personal/organizational resources, Infant mental health specialists can bring their own social engagement systems to safe, healing, growthful, interactions with parents and children.
  • Ongoing research will contribute to better understanding of the potential and limits of the preceding points

  1.  Porges, SW. (2004) Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety.  Zero to Three, 24:5,19-24.  (Downloadable from www.stephenporges.com )
  2.  Porges, SW. (1993) The Infant’s Sixth Sense: Consciousness and Regulation of Bodily Processes. Zero to Three 14(2), 12-16. (Downloadable from www.stephenporges.com )
  3.  Porges SW (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York: WW Norton.
  4.  There are a variety of abbreviations for describing the Social Engagement System in contrast to “Fight/Flight, Freeze/Faint” systems, e.g. Tend and Befriend, Rest and Refresh, Friend, etc.  I am proposing “Safe to Friend” as a psychophysiological state, which an individual may reach through social interaction or personal activities.
  5.  Jansson, LM, DiPiero, JA, Elko, A and Velez, M. (2010) Infant Autonomic Functioning and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Drug Alcohol Depend. 109(1-3): 198-204.
  6.  Grisham, L. et al. Eat, Sleep, Console Approach: A Family-Centered Model for the Treatment of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Adv Neonatal Care. 19(2):138-144.
  7.  Field, T. (2019). Pediatric Massage Therapy Research: A Narrative Review. Children (Basel), 6(6): 78.
  8.  Porges SW, Bazhenova OV, Bal E, Carlson N, Sorokin Y, Heilman KJ, Cook KH, Lewis GF. (2014). Reducing Auditory Hypersensitivities in Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Preliminary Findings Evaluating the Listening Project Protocol. Frontiers in Pediatrics. Doi:10.3389/fped.2014.00080
  9.  Rains, M. Contact mainerains@gmail.com for handout. Brief video illustrating Brain in Palm of Hand    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evikiqovSVw
  10. https://integratedlistening.com/ssp-safe-sound-protocol/
  11.  Rains, M. 2022. “Resilience Stretches” Contact mainerains@gmail.com for copy.
  12.  Porges SW & Dana D (2018).  Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. New York: WW Norton.
  13.  See also a wide variety of YouTube videos featuring Stephen Porges.

Social Emotional Learning

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health

Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL), what is it? Why is this so important for growth and development within a child’s life, and why are schools, communities embracing this now as our world continues to go through changes. Some changes are known, and some are unknown as COVID continues to be present. I wanted to start off my writing with this poem that I feel captures SEL very well.

I am going to address the definition of SEL, the importance of SEL, myths of SEL, along with the impact of SEL for children and long-term effects of SEL and social development. Then I will finish with providing tools that can be useful in cross over into the classroom.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL): The set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors involved in understanding and managing emotions, setting positive goals, feeling empathy for others, engaging in relationships, and solving problems. Through SEL both students and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage their emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, reciprocate empathy for others, and make thoughtful decisions. These are crucial life skills.

There are 5 components of SEL which are, social- awareness, self-awareness, emotional management, responsible decision making and relationship skills that students need to succeed in every area and stage of their lives.

This is a collaborative relationship between students and adults as they acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage their emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, reciprocate empathy for others, and make thoughtful decisions which are the core concepts of CASEL, (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning). This requires teaching, and providing supports that can be utilized by educators, administrators, social workers, or anyone who is a part of a student’s life.

SEL focuses on the interconnectedness of school, family, and community to create environments that emphasize safe, trusting relationships and intentional curricula and instruction. SEL can build on issues around inequality and inspire young people and adults to have a voice and share their thoughts and feelings in continuing to foster healthy, thriving and equitable communities.

We all need authentic relationships that are trust worthy and build confidence in students to try new things, encourage open sharing of ideas, and to be themselves with their peers. This gives them permission to be who they are and feel that they matter.

Solid relationships are important for learning, as well as to provide healthy outlets for students to express negative emotions and feelings. The past 20 months living with COVID-19, we have all had feelings of depression, anxiety and restlessness triggered by COVID-19.

An understanding of SEL will help with building external relationships, though the most important relationship any student will develop at any point in their lives is the one they have with themselves.

SEL builds relationships using five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies, defined by CASEL.

These competencies are as follows: Self-awareness, social-awareness, relationship skills, self-management, and responsible decision-making. These can be used for any situations a school or community may be going through.

Self-Awareness: The ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose. Such as: • Integrating personal and social identities • Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets • Identifying one’s emotions • Demonstrating honesty and integrity • Linking feelings, values, and thoughts • Examining prejudices and biases • Experiencing self-efficacy • Having a growth mindset • Developing interests and a sense of purpose.

Social-Awareness: The ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, & contexts. This includes the capacities to feel compassion for others, understand broader historical and social norms for behavior in different settings, and recognize family, school, and community resources and supports. Such as: • Taking others’ perspectives • Recognizing strengths in others • Demonstrating empathy and compassion • Showing concern for the feelings of others • Understanding and expressing gratitude • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities • Understanding the influences of organizations/systems on behavior

Relationship-skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. This includes the capacities to communicate clearly, listen actively, cooperate, work collaboratively to problem solve and negotiate conflict constructively, navigate settings with differing social and cultural demands and opportunities, provide leadership, and seek or offer help when needed. Such as: • Communicating effectively • Developing positive relationships • Demonstrating cultural competency • Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving • Resolving conflicts constructively • Resisting negative social pressure • Showing leadership in groups • Seeking or offering support and help when needed • Standing up for the rights of other.

Self-Management: The ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacities to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation & agency to accomplish personal/collective goals. Such as: • Managing one’s emotions • Identifying and using stress-management strategies • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation • Setting personal and collective goals • Using planning and organizational skills • Showing the courage to take initiative • Demonstrating personal and collective agency.

Responsible-Decision Making: The ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This includes the capacities to consider ethical standards and safety concerns, and to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions for personal, social, and collective well-being. Such as: • Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness • Identifying solutions for personal and social problems • Learning to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, facts • Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions • Recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside & outside of school • Reflecting on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being • Evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impact. www.casel.or/what-is-SEL

There are also benefits to social emotional learning in the classroom which includes improvement in school and classroom climate, increases student motivation for learning, teaches problem-solving skills, helps student set and meet goals, and reduces behavioral issues in the classroom. These skills teach study skills and habits, along with opening the door to discuss more about mental health needs, and moving past thinking, “what is wrong with you”, to “what happened to you”. There are many more benefits to SEL and classroom climate.

An important skill that SEL teaches and encourages is empathy, (understanding what another person is feeling), as this builds on conscious decision making and if students can have a sense and understanding of other’s feelings and emotions, then negative responses can decrease, and positive response increase. This builds in having more of a compassionate, kind, school environment. The more that empathy can be present and modeled, the more children will see and begin to also choose these approaches. Being able to understand and show empathy, can help in decreasing acting out behaviors, and build on developing and growing a conscience for all children. There is research noted that the impact of social-emotional learning runs deep. SEL is shown to increase academic achievement and positive social interactions, and decrease negative outcomes later in life. These competencies help individuals throughout their lives. This study found that teaching social emotional learning to kindergarteners leads to students being less likely to live in public housing, receive public assistance, or to be involved in criminal justice system according to Child Trends.

SEL teaches young students how to cope with everyday disappointments as well as deep cuts of trauma. “Students can better respond to the effects of trauma by developing social-emotional competencies. The brain’s neuroplasticity makes it possible for repeated experiences to shape the brain and even reverse the effects of chronic stress,” says Susan Ward-Roncalli, a Social-Emotional Learning Facilitator for the Division of Instruction with the Los Angeles Unified School District. For our most at-risk students, who live in poverty and/or who may witness or experience traumatic experiences, SEL is an extraordinary tool for repairing the damage and for building lifetime coping skills.

There are many tools available for all grades to address social emotional learning and here are some websites that maybe helpful in building your library of social emotional learning tools.





Sel4Me | Registration & Login This is a great resource if you are teaching SEL in the class as there are options for every grade and videos to accompany the lesson.

What is nice about social emotional learning is that you can design a curriculum based on the needs of the classroom culture and build on each learning point. Taking each core competency and developing activities for each one will help children develop those skills and continue reinforcing from each grade to the next. It is encouraged to assess the culture of the classroom and structure your activities to address this culture and focus on building from these skills in developing new ones for your students.

Social Emotional Learning can be fun and rewarding as students are embracing their strengths, similarities and differences in building the best version of themselves, and we are all a part of this and can continue to be for a very long time.

Julia Macek, LCSW
Behavioral Health Specialist
Aroostook County Action Program