October is Bullying Prevention Month!

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Bullying is an epidemic; the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education released the first federal definition of bullying in 2014. Here are some key words from the definition: repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power or imbalance.


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A couple of quick blurbs…

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Recently a parent brought these snippets to our attention. They really speak to the work we do at Connect Us.

A Child’s Popularity May Depend on Understanding Others.
A new report claims that children who are tuned-in to what others want, think, Read More

Autism Awareness Month – Installment 3

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For the past two weeks, I’ve been sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned through tutoring John, a 13-year-old with High Functioning Autism.
Working with John has taught me that sometimes we just have to smile through our struggles, Read More

Autism Awareness Month – Installment 2

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Last week, I started talking about my experience tutoring John, a boy with High Functioning Autism. I explained how  I sometimes struggle to motivate him. This has taught me to meet challenges with a smile, because sometimes that’s all we can do. Essentially, getting all worked up doesn’t help the situation.

Working with John has also taught me infinite lessons about communication. For example, I’m a person who likes words. The more detailed you can be with your explanation, the better. But John does not like words… He starts doubting himself as soon as he sees the words on the page or holds the pen in his hand. So I’ve learned…

  • When communicating with people with Autism, it’s often important to get straight to the point. If I start rambling, John gets this glazed-over look in his eyes. I’ve had to learn to abbreviate my directions.
  • As I mentioned last week, John loves sports, so whenever I can put things into the context of athletics, it seems to increase his likelihood of comprehension by at least 50%.
  • It’s been so important to teach him to ask for help. I always tell him, “If you don’t understand the directions, tell me. If you’re confused, stop me.” Then I ‘ll rewind, and try to think of a different way to say things.
  • Sometimes it’s natural for us to try to conceal our emotions, or to assume that others will just be able to guess how we’re feeling. I never realized how often we do this until I started working with John. Unless I outright state what I’m feeling, he’s not going to pick up on it, and therefore, he’s not going to react the way I’d expect. I’ve learned how to be more direct about expressing my emotions.

Making these adjustments has been a challenge for me. It’s part of why I like tutoring: we have just as much to learn as we have to teach. John teaches me about people and communication every time I see him.

Come back next week for our third and final installment for Autism Awareness Month!

Autism Awareness Month – Installment 1

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Hi! My name is Stephanie P., and I’m in my final semester at CU Denver.  In 33 days, I’ll be graduating with a B.S. in Psychology. Stephanie Schiff and I collaborate on a lot of these blogs, and I also assist with some of our after-school groups. In November 2014, Stephanie interviewed me for an internship with Connect Us. My new-found connections with Connect Us led me to become a writing tutor for a child with High-Functioning Autism. Before meeting this individual (Let’s call him John), I’d never really had much interaction with anyone with Autism. For the next few blog posts, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences, as April is Autism Awareness Month.

I think one of my biggest struggles is motivating John. Let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what motivation is: it consists of three factors – the drive to do a task, to do it well, and to do it until it is finished. Throughout my few months of experience, I’ve learned that it’s common for people with Autism to have fixations, and they can have difficulty caring about things outside of their fixations. John’s obsession is with sports. He’s amazing at memorizing sports-related statistics, and even though he struggles a lot with reading comprehension, if we read a scene about a football play, for example, he can explain it back to me in perfect detail. Material that has to do with sports is the only thing that really.. clicks and sticks for him. Things beyond sports aren’t really given any sense of urgency or priority in John’s world, so sometimes he doesn’t complete the assignments I give him.. This lack of over-arching intrinsic motivation is often a little hard for me to understand;  and as I think it would for any tutor, it drives me crazy when I sit down at the table and see that the assignment I gave two weeks ago is unfinished, or was clearly done hastily,  right before I walked in the door.  But it’s also taught me a few things…

First, there are just some things we can’t control. At some point we have to let go. At some point we have to resist the urge to react negatively and just… smile: if we allow our  emotions to get out of control, or if we try to project those emotions onto the person who caused them, we’re hurting ourselves more than we’re benefiting the person we’re trying to reach. If I let myself get angry, the tutoring session becomes completely unproductive. I’ll be in my little world of anguish for at least an hour, and it won’t do any good, because after a few minutes, John no longer feels the disappointment I expressed.

Second… you’ll just have to read next week to find out. 🙂 I promise it ends on a note of triumph. 🙂

Non-Verbal Communication

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Research shows that two-thirds of human communication is nonverbal.   In a group situation, the way someone communicates non-verbally can greatly influence the behavior of others. To make this point, here are a few anecdotes from our after-school social groups:

  • Early in the session, two of the oldest boys in a group rebelled against our structure by moving away from everyone else  and ignoring the facilitators.  This behavior is unusual in our programs, as most kids comply with facilitator requests.   It was evident that these older boys were looked up to and without asking others to join them, many of the other group members began to replicate the boys’ behavior.   After we talked to the boys about their influence on the group and how their status put them in a leadership role, they stepped up to the plate and changed their behavior.   Without any prompting from us, it took no time at all for the rest of the group to follow suit.
  • A set of twins had a hard time separating–even for a minute!  It didn’t matter that they were on different teams during an activity.  They would always end up together, laughing and wrestling, forgetting they were part of different teams trying to win a game.   An outsider looking in would immediately recognize how close the boys were and how happy they made each other.  We observed that their teammates began to work around this behavior instead of reminding them to get back to the game.  Typically, if someone isn’t performing, one or more team members will call that person out.  We surmised that the joy these two exuded was so infectious, no one minded that they were doing their own thing.  In fact, when they missed groups one week, there was a noticeable shift in the group’s demeanor; they were more serious.
  • One boy would hang his head low when he didn’t like a game, and when peers tried to get him involved, he would often move away from them.  He didn’t have to say a word to communicate that he wasn’t going to have fun no matter what.  Sometimes we stopped play and talked as a group about how it affects us when teammates are unhappy and unresponsive.  Occasionally, we’d have the teams resume play without this boy.  We noticed that when this boy WAS NOT participating, competitive intensity between the teams increased.  When he returned, the game became less competitive and their sensitivity to this boy appeared to be more important than winning.   When he was clearly enjoying a game, everyone else was, too, and you could see how much everyone enjoyed being around him. 

How we are communicating nonverbally in any given moment can affect other people’s moods, attitudes and behaviors.  We encourage our groups to make a decision to have fun, regardless of the activity, by focusing on enjoying the people in the group instead of their opinions about a game.  Just a simple switch in our thoughts can result in our displaying  completely different behavior.  This small adjustment can change the way others see us, and can ignite a cycle of positive energy!

Kids Teaching Kids

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Students Helping Each Other

As many parents can attest to, sometimes getting kids to listen to us or consider our advice is an exercise in futility! As a former child yourself, you may recall thinking something along the lines of: “Whatever! My parents don’t understand! They’re too old to get it!” If you’re experiencing that sort of resistance from your kids, consider this: less may be so much more when it comes to imparting your pearls of wisdom.

If you long to minimize power struggles and improve the chances that your messages are sinking in, make sure your kids have access to a variety of young mentors/role models. Some of the best role models are kids 5-10 years older than your child. Younger kids look up to older kids. They’re cool, they don’t nag, and they’re credible, having been the same age not long ago. Mentors are especially important for only children and first-born children.

Who can you put on your ‘Role Model List’ that your child is likely to listen to and respect? Think about cousins, aunts, uncles, babysitters, coaches, your friend’s kids, neighbors. Ask for their opinions on how they’d want a particular issue to be handled if they were your child and how they might address it if they were the parent? If you like what you hear, explain that you’re looking for mentors to help your child work through problems from time to time. Tell them you want to see if your child is more receptive to problem-solving tips and suggestions when someone they look up to is initiating those conversations. The right mentor won’t need a road map–they’ll figure out what they need to do, and they’ll be flattered you asked. And you can feel good knowing that your role model’s self-confidence, communication and leadership skills will improve in the process!

So next time you’re feeling desperate to get your point across to a stubborn or defensive child, before you start lecturing or questioning, take a deep breath and go get that Role Model List. Now exhale….

How to Motivate our Kids

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Motivating our kids can be a struggle! We know best, and we want to get our kids to care about certain things for the good of their futures. Despite our efforts, it sometimes seems impossible to mold their priorities. After a certain point, our attempts at motivation may even backfire, resulting in a push-pull dynamic.

When our kids seem to lack intrinsic motivation, there are a few things we need make sure we recognize: first, we need to hold our kids accountable, but accountability isn’t the same as creating motivation. We need to show them that there are natural consequences for not getting things done. For example, not turning in assignments leads to poor grades, and poor grades can lead to a loss of privileges. But next, we have to grasp that consequences aren’t going to make out kids care. They don’t build intrinsic motivation. Our kids might comply in order to please us, or to avoid consequences, but that’s external motivation. It doesn’t mean that they see the bigger picture, and it doesn’t mean they are becoming self-motivated, which is ultimately the result we are looking for.

So what do we need to do? We need to understand that some kids are naturally less motivated than others. That quality is not something we can necessarily change. After we have accepted that, we need to avoid trying to motivate our kids by nagging or expressing our anxiety or feelings of helplessness. This is only a catalyst for the power struggle dynamic. Instead, think about what inspires you.

  • Reflect on what you have seen other people do-your parents, siblings, favorite teachers and other role models that helped ignite your personal desire to succeed.
  • Channel that inspiration and energy into modeling for your kids how a motivated person thinks and acts.
  • Think about the steps you take to work through inevitable periods of procrastination and inertia.
  • Instead of telling your child to do x, y, and z, explain to them the steps you take when you faced with undesirable but necessary tasks.
  • Tune into your child’s interests and goals.   What naturally motivates your child?  How can you use that to your advantage? How can you incorporate that into the things s/he isn’t naturally inclined to do? How can you further develop the passions your child already has?

Showing genuine interest will assure your child that you are on his/her team.   Now you can teach your child that in order to one day pursue what we love, we have to first do a lot of other things that we won’t always enjoy. It’s just how life works! And finally, don’t take a lack of motivation personally. All you can do is provide the tools and set the best example. The rest is up to them.


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Flexibility is of the most valuable skills you can teach your kids. What do we mean by flexibility? The first definition, according to dictionary.com, is, “capable of being bent, usually without breaking,” and the second is “…adaptable.” While “adaptable,” is a great synonym, the “without breaking” part of the first definition serves a purpose as well. Our kids need to be able to adapt to situations without breaking down.

Many kids who struggle socially are very rigid in their thinking – they only want to play their game, and can only see from their own perspective. While it’s okay for them to feel the way that they feel (“Ugh! I really don’t want to play that game!” or “I wanted to be It! I never get to be It!”), we need to show them how vital it is to be able to adapt to alternative agendas. Flexibility, cooperation, compromise… it’s all essential to forming reciprocal relationships. Dealing with disappointing and disagreeable situations is a part of life for everyone. Life is easier, and more fun, if we can accept others’ points of view with an attitude of, “Okay, this isn’t what I really want to do, but maybe we can play my game next time,” or, “Maybe there’s something I can learn from this.”

So how do we help our rigid kids to be flexible?  Here are a few ways:

  • Praise them WHENEVER they demonstrate flexibility, even if it’s in the smallest ways.  Praise is usually a great motivator and can be used to highlight the importance of flexibility.  Let them know that you’re going to make a big deal about it!
  • Announce that your family is going to play a game this week called, “The Unexpected Changes Challenge!”  Make it fun and build up excitement for it.  Say something like, “I have a great idea… This week we’re going to change some things up that you may or may not like.  Now here’s the challenge… You ready??  Every time you’re flexible and handle changes with a positive attitude, you’ll get a star (or points).  Bonus points can be received for happily agreeing to do what someone else wants to do instead of what you want to do!  At the end of the week (or after a couple days with younger kids), we’re going to add up those points and go celebrate the new, flexible you!  How many points do you think you should have to go celebrate?  What should we do to celebrate?”