Pride, Predictability and Play: Discussing Social-Emotional Learning During Isolation with Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe

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Pride, Predictability and Play: Discussing Social-Emotional Learning During Isolation with Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe

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At this point in the pandemic, most folks are feeling the effects of extended isolation. Spending the vast majority of time at home for months on end takes its toll, especially on kids and teenagers who are used to spending ample amounts of time with their peers. So how do we ensure that their social and emotional development continues while most children are attending school remotely?

Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe of the Sutcliffe Clinic joins us today to share her favorite methods for encouraging healthy emotional learning, which is just as vital as keeping up with an academic curriculum. Learning tools that support emotional regulation, healthy self-image, and a strong sense of empathy are best modeled and encouraged by parents first and foremost, and being home provides abundant opportunities to tune into your child’s needs, spend quality time together and play a part in their emotional development through setting positive examples. Listen in and learn specific ways to implement behavior modification and social-emotional growth that will benefit your child well into adulthood.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

Agatha Luczo: Hi, I'm Agatha Luczo, mother of four. 

[00:00:08] Dr. Greene: And I'm Alan Greene, pediatrician. 

[00:00:10] Agatha Luczo: Welcome to Bambini Furtuna's podcast, Mom Driven.  

[00:00:14] Dr. Greene: Dr. Aligned. 

[00:00:15] Agatha Luczo: Hello, Dr. Greene! We have a wonderful guest with us today, Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe. She is a developmental pediatrician and the medical director of the Sutcliffe Clinic. I just love her approach to helping children and families. And right now, during this COVID era, we need as much help as we can get. 

[00:00:33] Dr. Greene: We sure do! And Agatha, I've had the privilege of working with Dr. Sutcliffe with a number of different families. So I agree, her approach is not only warm and welcoming, but it's really powerful as well. We're in for a treat today.

[00:00:46] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Thank you so much, both of you for inviting me. I'm actually really excited to have this conversation with you today. 

[00:00:52] Agatha Luczo: Yeah. I feel like it's very timely right now. So Dr. Sutcliffe, people talk about social-emotional learning all the time and how important it is. And I really do believe that it's such an important thing to learn and instill in children, but what exactly does it include and how can we implement social-emotional learning during this time at home?

[00:01:14] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Those are great questions Agatha. You're right. Social-emotional learning is discussed all the time and it is very important. But it's good for us to clarify while we're talking about social-emotional learning really is describing the information and skills that are acquired over a lifetime to help us with; One, our relationships with people. Two, how we feel and show empathy.  Three, how we manage and cope with our emotions. Four, how we create a healthy self-image, and lastly, it actually impacts how we make healthy decisions throughout life. 

[00:01:58] Dr. Greene: Well, that's so incredibly important when we think about learning, a lot of times we think about the stuff you learn easily in zoom school, about numbers and colors and history and geography and that, but this other base of learning is huge and at least as important for success. 

[00:02:16] Dr. Trenna Sutcliff: Definitely. I sometimes think it's more important. But that's my bias. I think these skills are just really important for setting people up for happiness and success in life, whatever your definition of success is, these are really important skills to be a positive community member.

[00:02:34] And the cool thing is, is these skills start developing during infancy. They develop all through childhood. So preschool years, super important for developing social-emotional skills. Throughout school age, every year is an important milestone with social-emotional skills. And then I'll tell you that even as adults, we are still further defining and practicing and just developing these skills. And definitely during COVID, we are all put to the test and are actually practicing and optimizing our social-emotional development right now.

[00:03:12] Agatha Luczo: I feel really blessed that we have four children so close in age and they're getting their social-emotional learning through each other. But for families that just have one child or it's kids that are spread apart in age difference, how can they practice social-emotional learning and can children progress during this time?

[00:03:31] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Great questions Agatha. I know there's a lot of families coming to me right now who do have concerns that their children may not be having the opportunities to learn and practice their social- emotional skills because they are socially distancing and isolating and sheltering.

[00:03:48] Agatha Luczo: Right?

[00:03:48] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: So they're not preschool. They're not at school. There's less play dates. So parents are definitely concerned and especially if you don't have multiple siblings at home. But there are many ways that parents can support their kids during this time to further their development of social-emotional skills in their kids. And I'd say that during this time, there's an opportunity as well, though. We could really lean into this and really support our kids in really identifying what skills they have or don't have, or which ones they want to practice. Cause we're all practicing, coping and resilience and healthy choices right now. 

[00:04:28] Dr. Greene: That makes so much sense. So during normal times or previous times there were some of us that just happened automatically by being in your cohort of kids and with teachers and schools and dealing with people outside your family, which is different than dealing with people inside your family. Even then being proactive made sense. But now being proactive is like an essential part of our toolkit. 

[00:04:48] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Definitely. So if you're interested, I can give you some ideas of how parents can come up with a process at home to be working on this. 

[00:04:56] Agatha Luczo: Yes please tell us! We need these answers. 

[00:04:58] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: All right. 

[00:04:59] Agatha Luczo: We need to know how to do this and how to practice at home.

[00:05:01] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Okay. Perfect. I have multiple steps that I talk about when I work with families on this topic. The first step is related to family values. And so I'm a big believer of family values and I always go back to that when I'm providing sort of counseling to families. So I always ask them to go home and really think as a family, like what do we value?

[00:05:23] And every family will have their own list. There's no right or wrong answers. But you know, some families talk about, you know, we value kindness and tolerance. Other families it's about being responsible and being accountable to the people around you. Other families, it may be about, you know, perseverance and sticking with something, even if it's hard.

[00:05:47] So I love for families to do this exercise because it helps them kind of focus on what are one or two behaviors they want their kids to practice and work on because it's overwhelming if you just try to say, "Oh, we're going to practice all of social-emotional learning.” Like there's just too much out there.

[00:06:06] So I love for families to really think about a couple of behaviors they want their family, the whole family, to practice over the next few months. And what I do is I have them actually start to think about family values first. 

[00:06:19] Agatha Luczo: I love that. 

[00:06:20] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: I next have them really start to define and describe a couple of behaviors to their children that they want to see on a regular basis. So for example, like telling your child I want you to be responsible from now on. That can mean a whole lot of things and most kids may not even know what that means. So it's actually really important to really define specifically what responsibility looks like. Giving a very specific example like responsibility might be you are responsible for logging into your zoom class on time every day, or responsibility might be you will remember to do your chore of emptying the dishwasher 

[00:07:09] Agatha Luczo: every week.

[00:07:09] Yeah and I think that's great narrowing it down and really teaching kids specifically what their responsibilities are or what that looks like to each family.

[00:07:18] Yeah. I like simplifying it. I think for parents and families right now, the more simple you can go the better. And I know that you talk about modeling behaviors. So I love that you've mentioned doing it as a whole family that everyone practices it.

[00:07:33]Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe:  Definitely.

[00:07:34] Agatha Luczo: Even the parents as well, because kids do model what the parents behave like. 

[00:07:39] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: You're exactly right Agatha.  I always tell families, kids will do 10% of what you tell them to do, and they will do 90% of what they see. So it's actually really important for parents to model the behavior they want their kids to have. And so that's why, again, like, as a family, if they're... 

[00:07:59] Agatha Luczo: Wait, I'm sorry, I'm giggling. I'm like, alright 90%. I will just sit and eat green vegetables all day long.

[00:08:05] Dr. Greene: I love it. 

[00:08:07] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: But if you don't eat green vegetables, don't expect your kids to eat them. 

[00:08:11] Dr. Greene: No, but you really [inaudible]. I remember when, when our youngest was a toddler and was brushing his teeth, it was really interesting. When he finished brushing his teeth, he would tap the toothbrush on the sink with a certain rhythm. And I thought, why does he do that every time? And then I noticed I do that, and had been doing that, for a long time. And he was copying the rhythm. 

[00:08:31] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah. Oh, funny. Yeah. That's great. So modeling's important. And that's why, again, this is a family conversation. It's not just picking one child that has, you know, and I'm going to use air quotes right now for people out there, like problem behavior. But it's the idea that this is about furthering the development of all your children and the parents as well. We all can improve and learn more. 

[00:08:55] Agatha Luczo: Yeah. And I know in past talks you've mentioned involving children in these decisions. So perhaps, maybe they'll take more responsibility of it and pride and modeling these behaviors or practicing them if they choose what behavior they want to work on and giving them the choice.

[00:09:12] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yes, there's more buy-in. It is important this is a collaborative approach. So I definitely agree and engaging them in the process. So again, like having the whole family sit down and everybody contributing like maybe one or two ideas picking like the top three behaviors that everybody wants to practice as a family, write them down, and post them in your kitchen because it's hard to remember what you're working on. Unless you have a little reminder. 

[00:09:41] Oh, and another thing I'd mentioned is what we're doing here is they're also using a positive parenting approach because positive parenting is about telling your kids what you want to see, not what you don't want to see. So rather than saying, stop using your video games so much, or I don't want you on the video game, or please turn off the video game. Rather than saying that tell them what you want to see. So it's about saying, I want to see more exercise or it's time to go outside and play with your sibling and run and enjoy the fresh air. Tell them what you want to see as opposed to telling them like what to stop. That's a positive parenting approach. So in this model, you're basically giving examples of what they should be doing.

[00:10:25] Agatha Luczo: I love that. I think it makes everyone more happy. 

[00:10:28] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Definitely. 

[00:10:29] Agatha Luczo: And then I mentioned earlier, I use the word pride when describing kids, but you have a practice and a tool that you share with parents called PRIDE as well. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that? 

[00:10:39] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Correct. 

[00:10:40] Agatha Luczo: Cause I love it. 

[00:10:41] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: All right. So once you decide on the behaviors, now we need to encourage them and there's a couple of ways that I do that. One is pride. A second approach is really thinking about special time with your child. A third approach is optimizing play. So we could talk about play today as well, but there's these few approaches that we can use to really increase those desirable behaviors.

[00:11:07] So as you mentioned, Agatha, pride is a really cool tool and so I do need to make sure I acknowledge that pride is a set of skills that actually comes from a wonderful therapeutic approach called Parent Child Interaction Therapy. That's an evidence-based therapy that I love to use with families when you're trying to modify behaviors or improve behaviors.

[00:11:30] So any family who's really interested in this approach, they may want to connect with a therapist who does actually use parent-child interaction therapy. But pride is a skill set that's part of that therapy and pride stands for something. So "P"" stands for praise. "R" stands for reflect so you're reflecting back what your child says, what your child does. "I" is imitate, which again, you're imitating your child's behavior. "D" describes, you're describing behavior, and then "E" can be a couple of different things. In therapy, we sometimes use it as enjoyment or enthusiasm, encouragement. It's the idea about just staying really enjoying your child, play with your child, encourage your child, and just engage with your child with enthusiasm.

[00:12:18] Agatha Luczo: Awesome. I love that. 

[00:12:20] Dr. Greene: Yeah, I do too. So I'm gonna make sure I got it right. So the "P" is for praise. "R" is reflect. "I" is to imitate. "D" is describe what you see him doing. And then the "E" is that enthusiasm or energy or encouragement that positivity that goes through the whole thing. 

[00:12:36] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: And another key point is when you praise, it's really important to use labeled praise. So I'm not sure if you've come across that term before, but labeled praise is really important. 

[00:12:46] Agatha Luczo: Can you give us an example of a labeled praise? 

[00:12:49] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Definitely. So a label praise, it's the idea that your praises are not just generic, like, so you're not just saying, "Oh! Good job!" Or, "Excellent work!" So those are lovely. However, if you want to make your praise even more powerful, you got to label and identify that specific behavior 

[00:13:07] Dr. Greene: [Inaudible]

[00:13:09] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: [Inaudible].  Dr. Greene.  So instead of just saying" Good job!", it’s, “I love that you made your bed, thank you for making your bed.” And they're like, "Yeah, I'm making my bed. I'm making my mom happy and making my dad happy. This is what I got to do". So label praise is really important. The other parts of that pride thing, it's a little complicated and sometimes it's easier to like work with a therapist to learn more about it, but I'll just give you one or two examples because I'm talking about just describing behaviors or reflecting back what they do or imitating what they do.

[00:13:43] And so to give you an example, if you see your son actually checking his day timer to make sure he shows up to the right zoom classes, you may say something like, "Johnny! Wow! I noticed you were looking at your schedule today during lunch. So you, I noticed you were trying to make sure to show up to the right zoom classes".

[00:14:00] So you're describing something and then you'd say, "Wow, that reminds me, I need to check my agenda more often. You know, I'm learning from you. This is a really good habit. Thank you for teaching me." And so you are like reflecting back, you're going to imitate, you're imitating your child. They check their day timer. You're going to check your day timer. 

[00:14:21] Agatha Luczo: And they feel really happy that they're teaching us something and influencing...

[00:14:24] Dr. Greene: Oh Yeah!

[00:14:25] Agatha Luczo: Definitely!

[00:14:25]Dr. Greene:  Well I know they Sometimes call us on it. I remember when my kids were young, this is not exactly on the positive end, but I really wanted them to get in the habit of putting seatbelts on right away every time that in the car.

[00:14:37] So I told them if they ever caught me putting the car in gear without a seatbelt on, they'd get $5. And every now and then I would let them catch me on purpose so that they would be paying attention to it and do it. And were just so happy that they were teaching me to wear my seatbelt.

[00:14:52] Agatha Luczo: That's awesome!

[00:14:52] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah, giving them pride, empowering them. And you were modeling Dr. Greene. 

[00:14:57] Agatha Luczo: Exactly. All of them. Love that. 

[00:14:59] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: All right, so that's pride. I mentioned a couple of other tools. Another one is special time. And so this is the idea of spending one-on-one time with your kids. Again, special time is a term that we use a lot in parent-child interaction therapy when we're working with young kids. But it is also just in general, a term that we should as parents always be thinking about. And so special time is one-on-one time where we're really in the moment and paying attention to our kids, which is so important these days, because we're so distracted by devices. All of us. 

[00:15:36] So it doesn't have to be huge amounts of time. It could be as short as 10 or 15 minutes, but I would say the way to make it powerful is to make it consistent and predictable. Kids, the thing that they want most is attention from their parents above anything else. And so if they know that they're going to get consistent, predictable, like that 15 minutes of golden time when we are fully attending to them and not distracted by our phone and our emails.

[00:16:08] They just love that. And it's amazing how much change you can make in their behavior if they know that they have this predictability with you. But my thing is when you're doing special time with your kids, it's a great time to then again, praise and reflect. That's the time when you can comment and say, you know, I noticed that you did this today. I noticed, and again, it's all the positives. I noticed, like, you know, you were very kind with your sibling today and used really polite, gentle words with them at the lunch table. And again, if you can label the praise and really give specific examples, super powerful. But I really think that having that special time is important to schedule into all of our busy schedules.

[00:16:55] Agatha Luczo: Yeah. 

[00:16:55] Dr. Greene: Yeah. I love that. And for kids of all ages 

[00:16:57] Agatha Luczo: Yeah yeah!  For the kids all ages. I know that, you know, with our oldest, she will sometimes say I need our special time.

[00:17:03] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah.

[00:17:03]Agatha Luczo:  Or one-on-one time. And so... 

[00:17:05] Dr. Greene: And this also really underlines why that focusing on just one behavior at a time that you want to model and teach, because you kept saying, I noticed this, I noticed that, and as parents is sometimes hard to notice something, unless we know what we're looking to notice. And if we're working on responsibility this couple of weeks, then I'm going to notice responsible behavior more, and the kid will be able to focus on it more. So it's great all the way around. 

[00:17:29] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: You got it. That's exactly right. Again, as parents, we're so busy that you can't remember everything, but if you know, I’ve got to find one example today when my child was responsible, you'll look for and find that one example, as soon as you’ve got it, you're like “checkmark” and then that way, when you have your 15 minutes together that evening, you can bring it up. 

[00:17:47] Agatha Luczo: I love this. I mean, it really simplifies and just makes it more clear for parents. And it doesn't feel overwhelming. I love your method. 

[00:17:54] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah. And so both of you had mentioned that special time is great, no matter the age of your child and you're so right.

[00:18:01] Like when it's a teenager, special time is just being there. Actually just being present when they're watching their TV show or if they're binge watching something on Netflix, or if they're like, you know, just doing their own thing, just being present is special time with a teenager. That's awesome. With the younger kids, it might be more around play.

[00:18:23] So I was going to share with you a little bit about the importance of play.

[00:18:27] Dr. Greene: Great, please. 

[00:18:28] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: So play and in particular, pretend play in young kids, has an extremely important role in the social-emotional development of kids, as well as executive functioning skills and regulation skills. So how I'm going to explain this to you is I want to give you an example of what it would look like.

[00:18:46] Dr. Greene: Good.

[00:18:47] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: So I'm going to give you an example of maybe a five-year-old. Maybe like a preschool or early kindergarten child, and they're playing with their sibling and let's just say, they're playing fireman. So one is dressed up as a fireman. The other person is in a house or they have their cat stuck in a tree and they need to call the fireman.

[00:19:09] So the whole thing is, as they're going through this pretend play like one child calls the other child and says, "Fireman, fireman, come to my house. You need to come save us"!   And the fireman comes and they start to do whatever they need to do. They need to put up the ladder, they need to get up the hose.

[00:19:25] So right away that child who's the fireman is thinking “How does that family feel? That family is scared? I'm going to help them. I have an important role!” Then that child is trying to think about the steps that they need to take to help that other child. I need to first get this. I need to first get that.

[00:19:43] And then I'm going to do this and they're going into all these steps. If one of the children decides to come out of role and says, "Eh! I'm not going to play anymore." Or messes up the script and says, "Eh, forget this. I'm going to go shopping now. The other child will catch them and say, "No, no, no control."

[00:20:01] They're not going to say control your impulses. But what they'd say is like, "Oh, no no no! Come back to the play. We're following a different script." And then the other child is like, sort of forced to stop and think about, 'Oh yeah, yeah. I'm disappointing my friend. I need to follow the script. There was a certain set of rules.'

[00:20:20] Basically what I'm saying is when kids play they're always practicing how to control their impulses, how to regulate, how to take turns. What is the other child expecting from me? What is the social expectations in this interaction? And I can go on with like a hundred examples of how kids are actually practicing, role-playing, understanding reciprocity, understanding relationships when they engage in play. 

[00:20:50] Dr. Greene: In some ways, play is kids' work. It's one of the most important things that they do. And it's not just human kids. I mean, mammals everywhere, the young play a lot and learn a lot.

[00:21:00] Agatha Luczo: Yeah. There's so much in the power of play. 

[00:21:03] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: And so parents, I would say when you're at home right now with your kids, making sure that we carve out time for play is really important. If we make sure we carve out time for like piano lessons or, you know, doing extra math on, you know, on our computers or making sure that we're doing our homework and those things are all important as well. But I just want to let parents know that carving a time for play is really important.

[00:21:34] Agatha Luczo: Yeah. And you can also, through play with your child, if you want to teach something -- I think you can teach it through playing with them. 

[00:21:41] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah, for sure. 

[00:21:42] Dr. Greene: So it sounded to me like in some ways the pandemic is shutting off some avenues for social-emotional learning, but in other ways, by giving us more time with parents and kids, it might be actually increasing opportunities for social-emotional learning as well if we capitalize on that. 

[00:22:00] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Definitely!  This is an opportunity where we can really strengthen the relationships between parents and kids. We're with each other constantly these days, 

[00:22:09] Agatha Luczo: There's a silver lining in all of this. 

[00:22:11] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: Yeah. So it's about parents so they can care of themselves so that they can also be in the right mindset so that when they carve out the special time, and again, that's why I talk about carving out special time, because we're all so busy and we have a lot in our mind, but it's really important to each day, carve out that, you know, even those few minutes of special time where we're not distracted by other things and really focus on our relationships.

[00:22:37] Agatha Luczo: That's really important. This was really an empowering conversation with you, Dr. Sutcliffe. Thank you so much for your time. So I think that for today, our takeaways for our listeners would be: One, values and picking a behavior to practice at home and picking up the value together as a family. Our second takeaway is social-emotional learning is more important now than ever before. And three, remembering our tools that you've empowered us with today. Pride, which stands for praise, reflection, imitate, describe, and encourage or enjoyment and positive parenting. And the other tool is the importance of play and modeling good behavior. 

[00:23:23] Dr. Greene: Wonderful!  There's a lot of good stuff in here, but this is really encouraging and practical. And I'm so glad we've had this discussion. 

[00:23:30] Agatha Luczo: So am I.

[00:23:31] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: I've really enjoyed it as well. 

[00:23:32] Agatha Luczo: Dr. Sutcliffe, it was so great having you on as our guest. And I can't wait to do this again with you. 

[00:23:38] Dr. Trenna Sutcliffe: I look forward to it. 

[00:23:39] Dr. Greene: Indeed. 

[00:23:42] Agatha Luczo: Thank you everyone for joining us today. And please join us next time and please rate, review and share Mom Driven. Dr. Aligned. 

[00:23:50] Dr. Greene: Until next time. Be well.

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