Counselor/Mom/Play Advocate

by Tim Walsh

Janine Halloran is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a mom of 2. In 2013 she founded Encourage Play after being a counselor working with children who struggle with social skills. Encourage Play provides products and resources to help children learn social skills through playful experiences. In 2015, she founded Coping Skills for Kids after seeing first-hand, the value of learning healthy coping skills early in life. Coping Skills for Kids provides digital products and resources you can download immediately to help support children as a family member or another trusted adult, like a school counselor or therapist.


How did you enter the counseling field?

My mom taught kindergarten and first grade for a long time (she doesn't like me to talk about how long she's been teaching!), so I am the child of an educator. I would go in and help her set up her classroom and she always had great teaching supplies around. I loved the atmosphere. And as a kid, I loved school! And so I thought I’d be a teacher too, but as I watched my mom and saw her correcting papers and saw all the work that she put in outside of actually teaching, I decided that I wanted to teach specific skills directly to kids in smaller groups or one-on-one. As a teenager I worked as a camp counselor, I babysat and I loved the one-on-one or small group interactions. So I became a school counselor so that I could be the person that the kids could go to and talk to.


Do you have any suggestions for ways that teachers who are in a traditional classroom can help kids feel listened to?

I always love to advocate for more school counselors because teachers have a hard enough job as it is! Having said that, teachers can do a great job just connecting with their kids and helping them feel seen, heard and understood. Great ways to do that are things like asking a question of the kids coming into your classroom. “What's your favorite season?” – something as simple as that. How do you greet your kids when they come into your room? Do you give them a handshake, a high five or a fist bump? Giving kids those chances to feel a connection with you, even if it's just for a second, makes them feel seen.


I just saw a TED Talk by Dr. Brené  Brown called The Power of Vulnerability. Can you speak to how a teacher might be able to tap into that in order to connect with his or her students?

To show you are human is okay. Some teachers feel like they might lose their authority or their power in the classroom if they’re vulnerable, but I actually I think that's the furthest thing from the truth. I always found that when working with kids, vulnerability leads to trust. I say, “Oops, I made a mistake.” If I make a mistake, I own it. I am able to say, “I'm learning from this” and to be that role model to show that's what mistakes are there for.


Another suggestion is to share a piece of yourself when you're talking to your kids. If they know a little bit more about you, it’s often a good thing. One of my favorite teachers growing up was Mrs. O’Neill. One of the first things she let us know is that she had a child our age. Immediately I felt that she understood me, because she had a daughter that was my age. That made a huge difference for me and I think it made a difference for some of my classmates as well. It told us that she understood us.


I read that early in your career failure got you down, but then you realized it was a gift. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Yes. So I suffer from perfectionism! (Laughs). That's how I like to phrase it. My sister calls me "Super type-A.” I can't just do something, I need to do it to the Nth degree. For me, when I started my businesses Coping Skills for Kids and Encourage Play, I wanted them to be perfect. I wanted every blog post to be perfect. I wanted every image to be perfect. I wanted every social media post to be perfect. I beat myself up a lot in the beginning and then I took a step back and thought, “What can I learn from my mistakes? How can I grow from this?” And it changed the entire way I look at my businesses. It was very powerful. I was able to write a book, which I never thought I was ever going to be able to do, and now I've written another one and I'm on the road to writing a third. I never would have thought to do that if I had just focused on the failures, instead of focusing on “What can I learn? How can I grow?”


Can you speak to the role that balance plays in the life of someone who works with kids?

Here's the thing. Some people think balance is a nasty word, like there is no such thing as balance. I would say it's more about self-care. The self-care piece is the piece that so many teachers, I think end up forgetting. I was reading somewhere that many people focus on work, work, work or family, family, family. But YOU are not on either one of those lists, so if you’re not careful, you’ll fall by the wayside. So being able to make sure that you take that time to do those things that you love – the things that bring you Joy – will recharge and relax you. Those things will prevent you from burning out and will enable you perform better at school and at home. Trust me, it's a hard lesson and something that I still struggle with from time to time, but it's important to be able to make sure that you are on your own list!


So true. The analogy I heard was that there's a reason why the airline tells you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping your child, right?

Yes! I think about that every time I'm on the plane! Every time they make that announcement I think of that balance!


I read on your site the report about how anxious kids are today. Can you speak a little bit about what's causing that and the role that helicopter parenting plays in that?

I believe that one of the causes is the over-structuring of a child life. Parents mean well, but they over-schedule, especially for young kids. Cheerleading three times a week for a seven-year-old? Is that too much? Maybe that's a lot for a little one. Being able to make sure that a kid has unstructured time is important, because unstructured play is a natural stress reliever for kids. There is a place for structured activities. My kids do structured activities, but I also try to make sure they have down time because that's their time to recharge and relax and distress. Kids need time to just be, without having to do any homework or having to worry about getting some place while having dinner in the car. The one thing that I would say to parents who are struggling with the helicopter thing, is that it’s okay to drop an activity. It’s okay to say no to things. It’s okay to have an afternoon where all you do is just play a board game with your kid. That’s cool.


How important is recess in school?

There's a school in Texas that’s actually is experimenting with recess 4 times a day for kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade and they found that even though they had to take away 30 minutes of academic time to make room for that much recess, it resulted in kids being more focused during the academic time they had. I love this emphasis and refocus on the importance of play and how we need to schedule it.


Do you have any tips for teachers for scheduling that unstructured, yet supervised play?

For teachers who are in districts that are not there yet, in terms of scheduling play, you can bring the play to the classroom. You can take 15 minutes and have a dance break, be silly together as a class, play word games like Would You Rather? or doMad Libs with the class. There are many different ways to infuse fun and playfulness into the day. Anything can be playful if you do it in a playful manner. You just have to bring a playful spirit to the classroom.


Many studies show kids are more anxious than ever. Any tips for teachers dealing with anxious kids?

Edutopia.org is this great resource for teachers and other school personnel and educators. They have a lot of great resources and best practices. They do a lot of videos.  I've used their videos for creating a Calm Down Corner, Deescalation Spaces, Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning and more. They have a lot of videos on topics that are important to teachers and what they’re doing is very evidence-based. I love Edutopia.org.


I also love GoNoodle.com. There you can have a school-based account or a home-based account and there are lots of movement activities, relaxation exercises, calming strategies, ideas for indoor recess breaks lots and lots of videos you can do with your entire class. We were speaking earlier about being playful and GoNoodle is a good resource to add play into the classroom.


Do you have any calm down strategies that teachers could use for an escalating student?

I actually love to start by teaching kids to take deep breaths. You can start your day with a calm breath. This is  such a valuable skill to give kids – especially kids who tend to escalate quickly. Because one of the first things that happens when a kid starts to escalate, is that their body enters the Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, and what comes with that is shallow breathing. You want to interrupt that with deep belly breaths. But you can’t teach that in the middle of a crisis! You want to teach your kids how to do it while the class is calm.I suggest teaching it to the entire class. I tell them, “Pretend your belly is a balloon. Now breathe in and expand your belly like a balloon. Now breathe out and shrink your belly like a balloon.” I call it taking a balloon breath. And by teaching them that language, so to speak, when they are escalating, I can say, “Okay let's take a balloon breath together” and they know exactly what I'm talking about and it helps them in the moment. I also suggest having a Calm Down Corner in a classroom, a place where kids know they can go and chill out for a few minutes, take a few deep breaths or play with some clay and then return to the class. There’s lots of different ways to do it and lots of different resources teachers can use to implement a Calm Down Corner. I know it's been very successful for teachers who have tried it.


Do you have any other tips for teaching Balloon Breathing?

Yes. One of the things that I found is that kids don't know how to take a deep breath and in the past when I would try to teach them how to, they would end up hyperventilating. That’s not good! So something I started using with kids is deep breathing with shape tracing. So they take a deep breath in while tracing the shape of a triangle with their finger and it teaches them to take full breaths. So we breathe in for a count of three (as they trace on side), hold the breath for a count of three (while they trace the second side) and then exhale for a count of  three (while they trace the third side). Tracing gives them structure and keeps them from rushing through.

Example of the resources available at www.copingskillsforkids.com.

We have a video course for professionals called Create Coping Skills Champions which is for teachers, counselors, or anyone working with kids in an educational setting. Then then we have one called Create Coping Skills Champions at Home and that's for families grandparents, aunts and uncles who have kids in their families who could use some coping skills. The courses are similar, but what you do with kids at school is different than what you can do with kids at home.


Thanks for all the awesome suggestions and for joining us, Janine!

It was great. Thanks for having me!

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