Maren Schmidt, M. Ed.

Maren Schmidt, M. Ed.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

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On The Road To Reading

Car seat manufacturers announced changing their installation instructions because the reading level was too difficult for over half of their customers in the United States.  How high was that reading level?  A fifth grade level.

As a young mother, I had a knot in my stomach when reading this kind of article, along with a cold fear that my children might be among those people who can’t read basic instructions.  

Today my children have graduated from college and more.  I have taught hundreds of children how to read, and confidence replaced my fears.  I know parents make a tremendous difference in their child’s success.

How can you assure that your child will be a successful reader?   

First, be aware of human development and how children learn. Enrich your child’s spoken language opportunities and target specific language skills that lead to reading success.

From birth through six years, children are in a critical period of language development, when the spoken word develops naturally.  Ninety percent of our adult spoken language is in place by the age of six.  If a child does not speak by age six, it is almost impossible for the child to acquire spoken, written or sign language beyond a two-year-old’s comprehension level. 

We don’t have to teach children how to walk or talk.  Children only need an environment that encourages walking and talking during this critical stage of development.  In normal development, a child will say his first word around twelve months and by thirty months will be talking in sentences.  When you are aware of your child’s built-in developmental abilities, you can be of invaluable assistance by making sure your child’s surroundings meet his developmental needs.

How can you assist your child in language acquisition?  

Create a quiet environment with clear and meaningful communication for the child from birth. A television blaring from every room is a huge obstacle to a child’s language development.  Clearly spoken language with lots of repetition is important.  Make sure your baby can see your face and mouth when you are speaking.  Speak “to” your child, not “at” your child.  Make the everyday language environment rich by reading stories aloud, singing, and including home activities such as age appropriate chores, crafts, and games.

By two-and-a-half years of age, language is fully developed in the child.  By age three, a child should be able to clearly speak in full sentences, with correct basic syntax (meaning words are spoken in meaningful order), and each sound in a word should be clear and intelligible.  

Unfortunately, for many children this is not the case.  Ear infections, a long illness, separation from parents, physical and environmental challenges can cause language delays.  Luckily, the critical period for language acquisition continues for another three years.  At age three analyze your child’s spoken language for areas that are weak and not fully developed.  Once you recognize areas for language development, you can begin to enrich your child’s learning in purposeful ways.

If you see speech difficulties, make sure that your child has no physical problems receiving or communicating information.  Your pediatrician should be able to help you determine if your child has poor vision, hearing loss, or weak muscle tone in the mouth and tongue.  After correcting any physical situations, you can begin to enrich you child’s language environment and target specific skills.

If your child cannot make certain sounds, sing songs two or three times a day using a word that contains that sound.  For example, if your child cannot say the “F” sound, sing the tune to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” using only the word “fish” over and over again.  Sing the word “fish” to work on the initial sound, the word “gift” for internal sound practice, and the word “off” for ending sound practice.  Make it fun and silly and in a few days you will begin to see an improvement in your child’s “f” sounds.  If your child needs work with multiple sounds, concentrate on one at a time, adding one new sound per week while reviewing the previous ones. 

To enrich the language environment, be sure that siblings, grandparents, and grandoparents, everyone, speaks to your child using normal clear speech and not “baby talk”.  Some of the mispronounced words children use are cute and funny, but don’t incorporate them into your own speech.  

A four-year-old student of mine had difficulty with the “D” and “S” sounds and would say “pie-na-thor” for dinosaur.  His siblings and parents mimicked his speech, so that he came to believe that “pie-na-thor” was the correct pronunciation.   Remember to use the correct word and no “baby-talk”.  If it’s not cute on a thirty-year-old, don’t let it be cute on a three-year-old.

Another four-year-old student of mine would use the word “me” instead of “I” and omit prepositions.  “Me go slide.” and “Me go eat” are examples of things she would say.  I knew her family didn’t use “baby talk” and when I did some investigation I found her caregiver spoke to her that way.  Fortunately, after some consultation with her family, she was using pronouns and prepositions correctly in a matter of a few months.

If your child is having difficulty with sentence structure, restate your child’s sentence in a clear and kind way.  For “Me eat” restate, “Yes, you are eating. I am eating too.” There is no need to force a child to repeat words or sentences after you.  If your child sees and hears it the right way, he or she will soon be speaking it correctly. 

In summary, to assure your child’s reading success, be aware of how children naturally develop speech.  Analyze your child’s speaking skills at age three.  Keep language rich in your home and target specific skills.  Then relax a little and let your child’s natural ability to create language do its job.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Listening To Ourselves With Compassion

When we do something that we wished we hadn’t, we rarely give ourselves the level of forgiveness and understanding that we give to others.  If we evaluate ourselves and subsequently change our behaviors due to negative emotions-- shame, embarrassment, or fear to name only a few—we are feeding self-hatred.

We are our own worst critic.  In effective communication we talk about the importance of giving and receiving information without criticizing, judging or blaming. The last eight columns have dealt with our communication with others. Today, let’s focus on how we talk and listen to ourselves, or our intrapersonal communication.

Our self-evaluations full of judging, criticizing and blame are expressions of unmet needs.  Remember, negative feelings are a wake-up call for us to recognize an unmeet need.

When we find ourselves in a position where we’ve done something we wished we hadn’t, we need to stop and listen to ourselves.  We need to try and understand our own observation, feelings, needs and requests, as seriously as if we were trying to understand someone we cared about deeply. 

We need to take the time to understand and connect our feelings with unmet needs, so that we can step of out the cycle of self-blame.

Once we understand the connections between our feelings and needs, the next step for our inner communication is to ask, “What need of mine was I trying to meet when I behaved in the way I regret?”

From this question we will have information vital in knowing how we can grow in a direction that will enrich our lives and the lives of others.

With the answer to this question we can act from a place of self-compassion and love that will contribute more to life than feelings of fear and guilt, shame, duty or obligation.  Remember, we always a have a choice about how we will act, how we will feel, and what we need. 

When the words I have to pop into your thinking, take the time to consider how the actions you feel you have to do connect to what you want or need. 

Acknowledge the fact that you have the power to choose what you feel you have to do, by writing:

I choose to ________ because I want ________. 

For example, instead of I have to cook dinner, write I choose to cook dinner because I want my family to be healthy.

As you think about the life-alienating chores you feel you have to do, and realize that you choose those behaviors to fulfill a need or desire, be wary of the following wants that you might uncover: the motivation or desire—for money, for approval, to escape punishment, to avoid shame or guilt, and to fulfill a sense of duty.  These wants can rob us of our joy in life, until we can connect desires to life-affirming needs.

The importance of effective intrapersonal communication I think is highlighted by this tale, of which I’ve heard several versions.

A Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson that every person has two wolves trying to live inside of him.  One wolf is full of anger, rage, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other wolf is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, truth, compassion, and faith.

 “The wolves battle inside of you to take control of your life,” the grandfather said. 

“But which one will win?” the grandson said. 

“The wolf you feed.” 

Listen to yourself compassionately.  Ask yourself questions that will help you connect your feelings with your needs. Answer honestly. Choose to feed the wolf that will bring joy into your life and the life of others. Your children will win. We all will win.

This is the last in our series on effective communication.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Receiving Information With Understanding And Compassion

Let’s talk now about listening. 

In previous columns, we’ve focused on the expression part of communicating.  As a quick review, there are two fundamental parts of effective communication:

1) Expressing one’s observations, feelings, needs and requests honestly without judging, blaming or criticizing other, and
2) Listening for understanding to other’s observations, feelings, needs and requests without judging, blaming or criticizing.

Listening is a difficult activity to do well. We have distractions that never seem to end—telephones, television, radios, personal music devices, computers, deadlines, schedules, personal agendas and the list goes on and on.

The next layer of distraction is formed by our own experiences and beliefs.  When we truly listen we have to push these distractions aside so that we can focus on the other person’s observations, feelings and needs without jumping to judge, blame or criticize. 

When we get past all these distractions we find ourselves in the present moment and can focus body, heart and spirit on our communication. 

To prepare myself to listen, I shift gears by imagining myself as a giant baseball mitt, ready and able to catch any message that comes my way.  Fastballs, hard balls, fly balls, pop-ups.  All kinds of messages, even those out of left field. 

Across the palm of the mitt I envision, stamped in gold lettering, Ask Questions.  The mitt has four words written by Sandy Koufax in black marker: observations, feelings, needs, requests. 

This picture helps me remember the four keys to effective listening.  It also helps me maintain a sense of humor when communication starts to pop.

The next step to effective listening, once the ball has been thrown, is to catch the message and wait.  Our initial response many times is to offer advice or reassure the speaker.  Marshal Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication puts it this way from a Buddhist saying: Don’t just do something, stand there.

We need to give others the time and space to fully express themselves.  But we need to stand there, open as a giant baseball mitt, even though we may be itching to offer advice, tell a story of how something even worse happened to us, lecture, make excuses for the speaker, dismiss the seriousness of the issue, give unwanted sympathy, start correcting, or questioning facts we don’t consider right.  

See? Lots of distractions to effective listening.

As the messages are sent our way, they may come fast and hard, curved or wild.  No matter what others say we need to stay open and listen for what the speaker is truly 1) observing, 2) feeling, 3) needing) and 4) requesting.  Keep in mind what’s stamped and autographed on your mitt.

During effective listening the only communications you can send are questions to try to clarify your understanding of the speaker’s observations, feelings, needs and requests. 

For example:  Jimmy comes in and yells, “I’m so stupid!”

Time to mentally say STOP! and become the open baseball mitt.  Ask questions to get more information. 

“Jimmy, why would you say that?”

“Because, Dad, I left my bike outside last night and now it is gone.”

At this point our tendency as parents is to jump in and fix the problem (or the ten other things I mentioned earlier) instead of asking questions based on Jimmy’s observations, feelings, needs and requests.

“So, Jimmy, you’re feeling (you’re guessing here-guilty, overwhelmed, upset) that your bike is not where you left it?”

“Yeah, I just feel so stupid that I left it out and somebody stole it.”

Here, we need to keep asking questions until Jimmy makes a request, or we can ask, “How can I help?”

“So you think you couldn’t have left it someplace else, Jimmy?”

“Maybe I left it over at Tom’s.  I’ll call and see.  Thanks, Dad.”

By asking a few questions, and not saying things like, ‘Jimmy you’re not stupid”, or flying off the handle when we think the bike is stolen, Jimmy feels listened to and tries to solve his own problem.

Instead of trying to be Mr. or Ms. Fixit in your relationships, try being a catcher who can only ask questions regarding observations, feelings, needs and requests.

Listening with understanding and compassion is at the heart of our relationships. 

Just don’t do something—stand there.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learning To Request What You Need

At the heart of our relationships is the need for effective communication. Our objective is to build a relationship based on honesty and empathy. The two basic components of effective communication consists of two skills:

1) Expressing observations, feelings and needs honestly while withholding blame and criticism.
2) Receiving information from others without hearing blame or criticism, while asking questions to understand the other person’s observations, feelings and needs.

Our next step in effective communication is to request what we need in order to enrich our lives. 

We can use the following sentence to help us separate feeling from opinion and then connect feelings to a need:

I feel (emotion) because I need or want (spiritual or physical need).

With this clarity of feelings and need, we are ready to request what we need.

How we make the request is vital.  Requests to others are more likely to be accurately received when sent in clear positive language.  We wouldn’t dream of going into a restaurant and telling the waitress, I don’t want a hamburger, and expect to get the spinach salad we want.  Much less expect the waitress to bring us a spinach salad without us uttering a word.

Unfortunately, we expect many of our requests to be understood without directly making a request, or our requests to others are framed in don’t statements. Don’t forget.  Don’t be late.  Don’t touch.  Don’t statements tell others what we don’t want instead of what we do want.  Why do we use don’t statements?  Because we lack inner clarity about what we really want. 

Perhaps making clear requests seems selfish to us.  Many of us were raised to be happy with what we were given and not to ask for any thing else.

Or perhaps we’ve never taken the time to truly consider what situation, items or cooperation we need in order to fill our needs and desires.

Vague requests probably can’t be accommodated by others and also contribute to self-confusion.  If we want to eat and only say, I’m hungry, we may or may not end up with something to eat and could be surprised with what we do end up with.

If we can express ourselves clearly using our feelings and needs with the request, we are more likely to obtain what we want.  For example, saying, “I’m hungry.  I need to eat soon.  I think I’d like to make a peanut butter sandwich,” will probably get you what you want more than just saying, “I’m hungry”. In addition, you’ll have a clear idea and avoid self-confusion.

Oftentimes we are unaware of what we are requesting, like those times when we stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open.  We’re hungry or bored, but we don’t know what we want.

Request or demand?  A request can sound more like a demand when we don’t express our feelings and needs along with the request.  “I want a peanut butter sandwich,” may come across as a tantrum waiting to happen. 

When another person hears a demand from us, the usual response is to either give in, or to rebel.  How can we tell if a communication has been framed as a request or a demand?

When the speaker’s request is not complied with we need to observe the speaker’s behavior.  With a demand the speaker may try to criticize, judge, blame, or lay a guilt trip on us.  For example watch for statements from the speaker such as these: You never listen to me. You are a terrible mother.  I’ll get sick if I don’t eat.  You don’t love me.  Sound familiar?

With a request a speaker will show understanding with the receiver’s needs.   Using our peanut butter sandwich example, if the response was “Dinner is in 15 minutes. Can you wait to eat?” what responses might we expect, from a demanding person and a requesting person?

With a demand, we might expect a criticizing, blaming or judging response, in an effort to manipulate us into compliance.  With a request, we might hear two basic responses:  Yes, I can wait, or, no, I need to eat something as soon as possible.
Help your children learn the difference between a demand and a request so they can make requests to improve their lives, and yours.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

When Needs Are Not Fulfilled

Effective communication is at the heart of strong relationships.  Our parenting and teaching work with children is dependent on vital relationships and communications. 

Effective communication is based on two essential skills: 

1) The ability to express honestly how we are, and
2) The ability to understand from others how we are, all without giving or hearing blame or criticism.

Honest expression about who we are occurs when we connect our feelings with our needs and choices for our behavior.  Understanding from others how they perceive us requires that we seek to discover what they are observing, feeling, needing and requesting from us. 

What happens when needs are not met?  Communication can come into conflict when needs are unfulfilled.  Unmet needs can lead to feelings that we consider negative--anger, confusion, disappointment, frustration, hopelessness, irritation, sadness, loneliness, embarrassment, to name only a few. 

We should use negative feelings as a wake-up call to understand that our needs are not being met.  Using the following phrase can help us connect feelings to needs, allowing us to move forward in a way that embraces life instead of being bogged down in life-alienating emotions:

I feel (negative emotion) because I need or want (spiritual or physical need).

Use these lists of feelings and emotions to answer your wake up call.

Negative Feelings

For a list of feelings, positive and negative, see Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, pages 44-45.

Spiritual and Physical Needs


Emotional safety

            To choose dreams, goals and values
            Create self worth
            Create meaning
            Create an authentic person
            Create personal integrity

Physical Needs
Protection from danger
Sexual expression
Fully understanding what we need makes the next step in our communication easier-asking for what we need to enrich life.   Requesting what we need not only enriches our own life, but also adds value to all life on this planet.  In the big picture, requesting what we need is not a selfish act; our requests to improve our lives improve the world. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Connecting Needs To Feelings

A critical aspect of effective communication is learning how to express our needs.

In our efforts to communicate effectively with others, we need to learn how to observe behavior, without evaluating, to figure out an individual’s needs. 

For effective communication, we need to differentiate between feelings and thoughts. 

We need to be aware of how using I feel statements may be expressing an opinion and not true feelings. 

The next step in effective communication is to connect feelings to personal needs.  

Two kinds of needs. Humans have two types of fundamental needs-physical and spiritual.  The basic survival needs of food, clothing, shelter and protection are evident to most of us.  Other physical needs include air, water, exercise, movement, disease control, sleep and rest, sexual expression, and touch of other living beings.

Spiritual needs are more extensive and, unlike physical needs, are difficult at times to determine if they are being met.  Being able to connect feelings to spiritual needs, though, becomes vital to both communication and opportunities for personal growth and freedom.

Humans have basic spiritual needs for beauty, harmony, inspiration, order and peace.  Some spiritual needs combine with physical needs.  These needs include activity, exploration, orientation, order, becoming, belonging, repetition, precision, exactness, communication and imagination.

Needs create feelings and behaviors. The combination of these needs create tendencies for behavior and include as well as define other specific needs, such as acceptance and appreciation. 

All of us share requirements to be involved in activities that meet our physical or spiritual needs.  For example, our spiritual need to belong to our place and time, our families, and our communities appears in our choices of dreams, goals and values. The need to belong affects our decisions about food, clothing, housing, marriage partners and on and on.  The need to belong also encompasses our needs for acceptance, appreciation, celebration, consideration, emotional safety, honesty, love, respect, trust, understanding, friendship and more.  

We could look at each of these needs, activity, exploration, orientation, order, becoming, belonging, repetition, precision, exactness, communication and imagination,  and consider how each need drives our behavior.  Taking the time to examine our personal connections between needs and behavior can help clarify the relationship between feelings and needs. 

Feelings are need driven as well.  As we learn to communicate and accept our emotions, while understanding that our feelings are linked to our needs, we become emotionally responsible. 

Once we connect our needs with our feelings, behaviors and actions, we start to take responsibility for our intentions and actions.  We will also realize that we are not responsible for others’ feelings.   We may even experience anger as we no longer want to base our choices on avoiding someone’s disappointment.

The end stage of emotional responsibility is emotional liberation, where we accept full responsibility for our personal emotions but not the feelings of others.  We understand that we cannot meet our own needs at the expense of others. 

Practice connecting needs with feelings and behavior by using this sentence:

I am (emotion) because I need or want (spiritual or physical need); therefore I choose to do (behavior). 

Two examples:

I am happy because I need harmony; therefore I choose to take a walk everyday. 

I feel frustrated because I want to have more time to exercise; therefore, I choose to wake up an hour early every day.

To create powerful communication, connect feelings with needs and choices for behavior.