Let’s Innovate!

Let’s innovate! We need an education system that provides us with students who are innovative and creative. To be successful in the future, students need to be adaptable and flexible. They need to be great communicators, collaborators and let’s throw in that they can get along with everybody they meet! That is exactly what our division, province/state or country really needs from the education system. We need students who are globally competitive! Sound familiar?

Oh, did I forget to mention that we need all of those skills and competencies developed but let’s not really change anything. Instead of doing what is best for students, we should continue to listen to a very loud minority who complain excessively about the current system but heaven forbid, reject any sort of change. They still want letter grades, percentages, rankings, back to the basics and anything that was the norm when they went to school because you know… it worked for them. To be honest, I’m not sure it worked for them when I listen to some of their rhetoric!!!

If we want to create a system of education that engages students, prepares them for a future that we can only imagine, then don’t shackle educators with arbitrary or worse ancient and irrelevant rules. Allow education to move away from only an accountability system to an assurance model where stakeholders understand the difference between high quality learning and compliant testing. That doesn’t mean we don’t need standardized tests to maintain and check on standards but let’s look for assessments that can illustrate the competencies learned by our students and not evaluations that simply require a regurgitation of knowledge. Let’s look for ways where students can demonstrate their learning beyond a paper and pencil test because most of us, as I’ve said before, are evaluated on our performance and not simply our test taking skills. Employers have little use for employees who know their stuff but can’t apply it!

A couple of weeks ago I met with my C21 Canada Leadership Academy colleagues. We are a group of K-12 leaders from across the country focused on setting national direction so Canada doesn’t just remain good in the world but transforms to great. Each of us has examples of greatness in our own systems and when I engage with my colleagues I learn a tremendous amount. I gain multiple perspectives, I witness various strategies and I come back to my division ready to share my learning. But I also am affirmed in those visits with colleagues and from tours of their schools. I see so many examples of high quality learning and innovative practice that I also witness in our own division. Learn and affirm are required to move us away from the status quo and to shake off those naysayers who want us to go back to the “good old days.” Whether I write this as a superintendent, a dad or now a grandpa, I can’t ever imagine believing that the status quo is good enough! The education system that every child deserves moves forward, challenges what school ought to be and pushes the boundaries outward.

So just because the system worked for “them” doesn’t mean it will or can work for the students in our classrooms today. The world is too different, too complex to “do it like we’ve always done it and expect different results.” Bold leaders in government, (not those who pander to loud minorities), collaborative and forward thinking system and school leaders (not those who rule with an iron fist) and, fearless and passionate teachers (not those who make excuses) are required. Building better systems that can engage young minds and activate a love of learning intrinsically cannot ever be accomplished by doing more of the same. It is time to break the mold of what school was and create what school needs to be. Our students deserve it and our society needs it!

Spiritual Development Day- March 13, 2017

I want to provide you with my opening address from this morning but before I do, I just want to reflect briefly on the day. Maybe I’m a little bias because I’m the superintendent, but I thought today was phenomenal. Fr. Cristino hit it out of the park with his keynote and the simple message of how to ensure we pray: (1) Schedule it, (2) Make a plan, (3) Be realistic and (4) Be consistent. But what was even more impressive to me was his willingness to answer tough questions about morality, controversial issues and spirituality. Some may not have agreed with his Catholic responses but all should admire his willingness to be upfront and open about our faith. In the world of being politically correct it was refreshing just to hear the raw voice!

I attended both of his sessions but I know that throughout the day, we had tremendous presentations from our own staff and others. I’m so very proud of all our staff who were willing to present on various topics. It is never easy to present to your peers and even more taxing when it is about something as personal as faith. Well done and thank you to all who presented.

Finally, what an honor to have our new Bishop of Calgary lead our Eucharistic Celebration. I had the chance to visit with him during lunch and into the afternoon and if my first impressions are correct, Bishop McGrattan is truly a gift for our school division. I’m looking forward to getting to know him better, working with him and forging a strong relationship. We were very blessed that only two weeks into the job, he is in our school division. Big thanks to Fr. Kevin!

And now my opening address.

Good morning! Before I begin, I want to first thank all who have been involved in today. Joann and the Division Religious Education Committee and of course Becky in the background, have put together a fabulous day of faith development. Regardless of where any of us are on our own faith journey, today has something for everyone to be able to nurture and grow in one’s faith.

I would like to say that my opening comments are my own but the truth is, like a good teacher, I borrow or steal others’ thoughts or practices and that is what I’ve done today. Credit goes to the book, “Being Catholic” from the course Catholicism which many of us are currently studying and our own Fr. Kevin.

Let me start with this passage from “Being Catholic.”

Christians are not distinguishable from others either by nationality, language, or custom. They don’t inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect. With regard to dress, food, and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in.” pg 153

If someone was to walk in to this gymnasium right now, beyond the symbols of our faith, they would not see anything different. We dress similar, look similar; we are a microcosm of the world, a multicultural community.

But we are different or should be different in our values, our priorities and our actions. As Catholics, as Christians, our values differ from many of those out there in this secular world. We are counter-cultural, just as Jesus was some 2000 years ago. And if we are true to our values, our priorities, our faith, then we should just be a little out of step with the rest of the world. Not easy to be out of step but our faith calls us to be that way.

 Unfortunately we can’t just be out of step in our words or in the silence of our homes. We need to live it outwardly and role model it in our community, to our students, and to each other. Living it, does not mean judging or condemning the person who has been seduced by this secular world but rather correcting the action. As Father Kevin said last night, we never have the right to judge but we always have a duty to correct.

Correction is difficult especially in the faith area because we often don’t really know what the Church teaches. And that is why our faith plan, “Rooted in Christ” where we follow Jesus in the weekly Gospels and days like today where we really dig in to our faith, allows us better ability to correct and not judge.

Today, people are more concerned with how they look as opposed to how they pray. They measure success with how much you get instead of how much you give. And they like rules as long as they don’t infringe on their own rights. Being people of faith, we understand it is not easy to be different. Yet, if we are not different in our words and our actions then we risk becoming numb to the indifferences in our world, to accepting the Godlessness and ultimately being consumed by secular values.

I pray that today will continue to form your faith as you journey in Holy Spirit Catholic Schools. Thank you and God Bless!



Adverse Childhood Experiences

The following blog post was printed in the Lethbridge Herald on March 8, 2017

Last week, as part of our ongoing professional learning, school and system leaders watched the documentary, “Paper Tigers.” It is a story about an alternative high school in the state of Washington and its turnaround due to a focus and understanding of brain development and the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Holy Spirit leaders have committed to learning more about brain development in order to better support all of our students.

We know that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have an impact of the development of a child. While we often believe that stress is about negative experiences, we need to understand that not all stress is bad. Positive stress, like meeting new people or starting the first day of school, is actually helpful. With adult support even some tough and stressful situations can assist children in preparing their brains and bodies for future challenges. Resiliency is developed over time through supportive adults teaching coping skills, as opposed to simply eliminating stressful situations all together.

On the other end of the spectrum of positive and tolerable stress is what is most concerning to the development of the child’s brain. Toxic stress is severe and ongoing and often caused by abuse, neglect and addiction. Research is showing that this type of stress, without any buffering from supportive adults, has impacts throughout school into adulthood.  Toxic stress is an adverse childhood experience.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are reported through the lenses of abuse, neglect and family/household challenges. A simple questionnaire of 10 questions provides an ACE score (http://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/Finding%20Your%20ACE%20Score.pdf). The long term effect of a high ACE score is staggering with increases in risks of future violence as well as negative impacts to health and opportunity. For example, a person with an ACE score of 4 or more is 7 times more likely to go to prison and 12 times more likely to attempt suicide.  Unfortunately, even in the best neighbourhoods and within the highest socioeconomic status, all children can experience toxic stress in their first 18 years of life.

There are many strategies within education to mitigate the impact of these negative experiences. Strong early learning programs with a focus on growth through play and interaction are key. Ensuring that every student has at least one significant adult in his/her school life is essential. And finally, understanding that a child’s severe misbehaviour is often due to a lack of skill and not a lack of desire, and that responding with empathy is vital. Educators and especially those in leadership positions must continue to build their knowledge on brain development to ensure that we are able to support students to develop the skills they require to become healthy, contributing and resilient adults.

But our greatest chance of success towards building better brains and decreasing negative childhood experiences must come from society as a whole. It cannot rest solely in the educational realm. Parents, grandparents and other caregivers are key participants, but so are politicians, business and industry leaders and the general public. The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (http://www.albertafamilywellness.org/) provides some excellent user friendly videos and resources. We now have the research on brain development to make great strides in the lives of all citizens and the time is now to make it happen!

From the Desk of the Superintendent- March 2017

I want to begin my March message by sharing the incredible experience of attending the installation mass of Bishop McGrattan on Monday evening in Calgary. This was the first installation mass that I’ve attended and it was an extremely powerful event. Watching the procession of our deacons and many of our diocesan priests followed by 31 Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinal Thomas Collins was moving. Included in the ceremony was the presence of Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, who represented Pope Francis and gave greetings on behalf of the Holy Father. There were two things that made me most proud in relationship to our local First Nations peoples. The first (which is common practice in Holy Spirit) was the acknowledgement that the mass was being held on traditional Treaty 7 land. What a powerful gesture! Secondly, special guests were recognized before the mass and asked to come forward to greet Bishop McGrattan. Chief Roy Fox and his family from Kainai were among those special guests. I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Bishop McGrattan after the mass and we are looking forward to him celebrating with us at our closing mass on Spiritual Development Day on March 13th.

Installation MassSpeaking of Spiritual Development Day, what a wonderful lineup of faith learning experiences organized by our own Director of Religious Education, Joann Bartley and her committee. As members of a Catholic school division we relish in these spiritual opportunities to nurture and grow our faith. We are reminded that the strength of our separate system always rests with each of us as individuals and in our own faith commitment. It will be a great day and I’m excited to share it with our Holy Spirit community of faith.

Although February was short, it was certainly a high quality learning month for our staff. I’ve heard great feedback on this year’s Teachers’ Convention especially around the keynote presenters. Developing resiliency in our youth regardless of being in the school or at home and nurturing the creative spirit of children are both important topics. Support staff also had a great day of learning at their day. I was fortunate to travel to Montreal as part of the C21 Canada CEO Academy. We were hosted by the Lester B. Pearson School Board and I had the chance to visit schools and work with leaders from across their jurisdiction. My colleague, Director General Michael Chechile leads an excellent and innovative school division and my learning was great.  I was also invited to attend the Advisory Board on English Education and was asked to provide an Alberta perspective on a number of topics including our work around First Nations, Metis and Inuit education. But as I commented last night at our Catholic Leadership Program, part of the learning when I’m outside of our division is the affirmation of the great practices that occur in our own backyard. Visiting schools and classrooms allows me to see the many positives that honestly, are just part of our norm.

Today, we begin our Lenten Journey with Ash Wednesday services throughout our division. Over the next 40 days, we are called to embrace the three pillars of Lent: Prayer, Fasting/Abstinence and Almsgiving. Today’s Gospel (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18) reminds us to do so without contorted faces, away in silence, where only the Father sees and knows. Jesus says to his disciples, “Beware of practising your piety before people in order to be seen by them;” 

Lent is a personal journey, but it is a spiritual journey that we must all embark upon as we prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May God bless you this Lenten Season.


Learning for all staff

Yesterday morning, I addressed our support staff as they began their day of learning. It is an annual event that coincides with Teachers’ Convention and invites ALL of our support staff to come together for an opportunity to learn. You see, learning or being a learner is not owned by only the teaching profession. Learning or being a learner is owned by everyone.

Successful organizations today must be learner focused. Organizations that fail to learn, cease to exist. People who choose not to learn or whose arrogance (these are the ones who frustrate me the most) inhibits learning face a similar fate.  While they may not cease to exist like organizations, they generally become irrelevant or obsolete and unfortunately are seen as loners who don’t get along well with others. Sadly, we all have those people working in our organizations!

One of the most profound quotes that I use often when speaking about learning comes from Eric Hoffer.

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Learning causes us to grow and change. A change through learning is far more sustainable than any change caused by persuasion or by force. It creates a connection and becomes part of you (Anthony Muhammad). It is what is needed to lose our myopic views, shed our egos and gain multiple perspectives. It is what allows us to acknowledge that there might just be a different point of view or another way of doing things.

We are living in some of the most tumultuous times in in history. Change is inevitable but sadly growth is optional. Whether we talk about large scale corporations or school divisions or individuals, learning is required to meet the challenges we will continually face into the future. School systems in particular, can ill afford to offer learning to only teaching staff. We must create a culture where learning is for everyone and an environment where all are open to it!

The two chairs of the organizing committee, Jane Meeker (President of CUPE1825) and Michelle MacKinnon (Director of Support Services) require significant thanks for their leadership as does the entire committee for their work. There was great energy, strong camaraderie and a lot of what I love to hear the most…laughter. Well done everyone…it was a great day!

Open to learning

Sometimes it is in the simplest of conversations or actions that we learn the most. But that learning can only take place if we are truly open to it. Our opportunity to learn should be constant and not encumbered by our own decision of whether the situation we are in, or person we are talking to, is worthy of that openness. In other words, we need to park our ego and open our minds to a different perspective. .

We are challenged on two fronts to be open to learning. Our ego is the first culprit. For leaders and dare I say all educators, the ability to park their ego and be open and ready to learn is essential. Learning does not just come from the guru heard at a conference or the latest book read. Although these professional learning opportunities should always be available and accessed, learning opportunities surround us everyday. It is not just compartmentalized in a classroom or a course. It occurs in everyday conversations and interactions and often arrives in front of us from the most unlikely of candidates. Our professional colleagues certainly provide us with occasions to learn but what about parents or students, our educational assistants, bus drivers or custodians? We are surrounded with some very knowledgeable sages if we just stop and listen. Sadly, our ego (especially those of us with education degrees) prevents us sometimes from looking beyond a person’s lack of “credentials” in the educational field and we tune out! Wow…what a missed opportunity yet, realistically parking our ego should be fairly easy to overcome. Once we truly believe that all people, no matter their education or background can contribute to our learning, we’ve eliminated that barrier.

The more difficult challenge is learning when listening to an opposing viewpoint, especially one that is diabolically opposite to our own. It is interesting that we want our students to have multiple perspectives and yet we sometimes hold on to only one world view. We look for relevance within the minutia instead of finding relevance in all that we encounter. Covey’s “seek first to understand before being understood” provides us with a strategy to hear and learn. If our goal is learning, then it isn’t about ramming our opinion down another’s throat but rather gaining a different or fresh perspective. Understanding doesn’t mean you agree, it just means you understand! With all the hate in our world, can you imagine what would happen if we just gained some alternative perspectives and little more understanding?

It is important to realize that there exists a learning opportunity in every conversation we have, every person we meet and every situation we face. Open to learning must be a core competency taught in our schools. But it can only be taught in our schools if we as educators and leaders are open to it ourselves! Challenge yourself this week to be more open to learning!


From the Desk of the Superintendent- February 2017

Earlier today we finished our second round of Continuous Improvement Plan reviews. Based on feedback from our school leaders, we structured the reviews where three schools came together to share their successes and challenges around our three priorities. The sharing was incredible but it was the honesty of our leaders on their challenges that made me most proud. In a world where competition seems to be “the only way” it was collaboration and sharing that dominated the conversation.

The meetings demonstrated the importance of not being on an island or doing it on your own and showcased Holy Spirit as a school division and not a division of schools. That may seem like something so simple but many divisions have yet to realize that shift. That shift has really been forwarded by our leaders. It is not that they should stop advocating for their own school but not at the expense of another. Great leaders can see the small and big picture; they can be on a dance floor and the balcony at the same time. We are fortunate to have that type of leadership in our buildings and maybe we should share a few lessons for the larger than life leader down south!

While I’m not often political in my messages I just can’t miss the opportunity to comment a little on President Trump and on the divisive environment he has created not only in his own country but around the world. His supporters are so proud that he is doing something rather than just sitting on his hands and waiting. It doesn’t seem to matter whether his actions, “Executive Orders” are in fact legal or constitutionally sound. “You’re fired” can’t be the response to every matter of disagreement! I understand how rules can inhibit or slow what we sometimes want to do but I’m not sure any school division would benefit from a Chief Executive Officer who operated without guidelines, procedures and policy. Rules or fences (not walls) actually protect us and assist us in upholding standards to follow.

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Leadership is not about power, position or authority and organizations (or countries) need to incorporate loose/tight structures and have a balance of top down and bottom up decision making. There are times when I do wish I could make more decisions unilaterally or speed up a process but in the end, our success as a school division comes from we not me. This always hits home for me when I get a chance to share our Holy Spirit story to outside divisions and to external stakeholders. They seem quite amazed at the culture we have developed without any fancy visuals or illustrious documents. We just do what we need to do and constantly look to improve.

As we enter into the second half of the school year, I want to again extend my gratitude to all those in our system who continually push to make our vision come alive ensuring that within this Christ-centered environment, students are cherished and achieve their potential! Have a wonderful Family Day long weekend and enjoy your learning at your upcoming conventions and conferences.

Connecting the Dots

The following blog was published in the Lethbridge Herald on January 25, 2017.

I recently came across a visual from Marzano Research that illustrated the differences between the old factory model of schooling and the new paradigm we are striving for in education in Alberta.

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The old mentality had us simply collecting dots, placing high importance on content and compliance. Granted, for many years the factory model of schooling worked well, producing a compliant workforce that was well equipped with the basic skills needed to meet the job market of the time. Today, however, both the job market and the workforce are far more dynamic. As a result, schooling needs to be more than just collecting dots, but rather connecting the dots.

So, what does connecting the dots mean for our students? The new economy, whether it be local, provincial, national or international, requires that our students to be able to innovate. They need to be active in their learning, collaborative in their approaches, flexible and adaptable. Instead of consuming or replicating knowledge, which received high marks in the old system, students prepared for the future need to be able to produce and create. They need to be able to take content from one area and relate it to another.  They need to ensure that their learning is based on commitment to and not compliance of.

Connecting the dots doesn’t mean that content is less important and does not imply a decrease in rigour. Rigour still needs to be maintained but a focus on relevance needs to be added. The learning of content cannot remain isolated. Instead it must become integrated and connected to real life. This may be uncomfortable for those of us who have already experienced “old school” learning, where specific subjects were offered in distinct blocks of time. However, when you really view learning in everyday life, you realize it is not isolated into separate units – it is fluid. Current efforts to link subjects through cross-disciplinary approaches simply make good sense to what we know about learning today.

Unfortunately, one of the difficulties in making that shift is that many of our assessments are structured for the old school model. It is easy to measure achievement in reading, writing and arithmetic, but simple assessments are unable to ascertain proficiency in competencies like creativity or collaboration. “Book smart” is only a fraction of what a student needs leaving school to be successful in this changing world. If we desire to truly connect the dots then alternative assessments, like performance assessments, must also be utilized. These types of assessments increase our ability to distinguish between what a student knows and what a student can do with what s/he knows.

This last statement is what business and industry leaders from across the country are looking for in high school graduates. Students must complete high school and, ultimately, post-secondary with an ability to adapt and innovate. They must be able to shift from simply collecting the dots to connecting them.

From the Desk of the Superintendent- January 2017

Wow…January 2017! I’m having a hard time realizing that it is already the month of January (almost mid school year) and we are now in 2017. We are 17 years into the 21st century. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing in the year 2000? I was in Taber at the time, principal of St. Patrick School and as a Catholic community we celebrated the Great Jubilee and opened holy doors.

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That was seventeen years ago; How things have changed and yet also stayed the same. As you begin this new year, I would ask that you reflect on your life since the year 2000. What has changed or stayed the same for you and how will you continue to grow this year in your faith, as a person, with your family and in your job?

One change that will be impacting our system and the entire Diocese of Calgary is the announcement of Bishop Henry’s retirement. Bishop William McGrattan from Peterborough will be installed in the Diocese on February 27th. I have worked closely with Bishop Henry since I began my senior administration career in 2001. Throughout that time, we’ve not always agreed on everything and I’m sure I’ve frustrated him once or twice. But what I am proud to say is that we had an authentic relationship. It is so unfortunate that he has been misquoted and misrepresented by many, including his own and yet he always remained resilient, faithful and committed to Catholic Education. I’m very grateful for his enduring support, especially during a time in my life when my career in Catholic Education wasn’t very pleasant for myself or my family. I would ask that you pray for Bishop Henry as he transitions to retirement.

Looking back at December, I was in turkey heaven, enjoying six Christmas dinners at schools. What a wonderful tradition in many of our schools. Holy Spirit was well represented at the Palix  Foundation presentation where we spent a day learning more about the core story on brain development and adverse childhood experiences. This information was presented to the Board of Trustees at their regular meeting and a challenge to share whenever and wherever possible was made. All of the videos are now available to watch on our own YouTube channel.

In January, I start my future plans meetings with all of our system and school leaders. I’ve asked the same three questions for the last number of years:

  1. What are your 1, 3, 5 year plans and what position would you like to hold when you retire?
  2. If transferred, which three schools would be your preference?
  3. Who are three current school leaders you would like to work with?

I’m always humbled by the honesty of our leaders in these confidential conversations. It demonstrates tremendous trust which allows me to assist all of our leaders on their career paths. Developing more leaders not more followers has to be the primary goal of any leader. Now that I’ve reached that magical 55 years of age and realistically have about 3 1/2 years remaining, it is imperative to put all the right pieces in place to ensure that Holy Spirit continues to grow once I decide to retire. While I schedule these meetings for leaders, I welcome the opportunity for any staff to come in and chat about their future plans with me.

As I close off this latest installment of From the Desk of the Superintendent, I just want to provide best wishes for 2017. May God bless you and your family with great hope, good health and much happiness.

Teaching Grit

As an individual who grew up in a highly athletic environment, grit and/or mental toughness were almost natural byproducts. You played and worked hard, you didn’t quit and you earned what you deserved.

gritI can’t ever recall just showing up and automatically winning a prize! But I also recognize that the attributes of grit and mental toughness were taught to me, in most instances, positively. There were many adults in my life that instilled those qualities and I’m grateful.

I would like to say that I’ve been forever grateful, but the truth is that it is just been in my later years that I’ve come to understand the importance of grit/mental toughness. My revelation certainly comes from my own learning but sadly I have become more aware from the increase in mental health issues that populate our schools. Grit is not well established in the millennial generation or many of the students entering our schools today. Simon Sinek speaks to this issue in his interview On Millennials in the Work Place. While everyone would benefit from listening to this 15 minute clip, I would suggest that it is a must for every parent, educator and corporate/industry leader.

It is not easy being a parent in today’s society and I certainly wasn’t a perfect parent. I’m hoping that from what I’ve learned I’ll be a far better grandparent. But I know there are some helpful hints to teaching grit and developing stronger and more resilient children. Here are some for you to ponder:

  1. Don’t jump in and save your child when it is not life threatening. Snowplow parents (clearing away all of the issues) or helicopter parents (hovering around all the time) do nothing to develop grit.
  2. Provide children with age appropriate responsibility and expectations. Chores are not mean, child slave labor is! Homework or class projects are their responsibility not yours!  High expectations with support should be the norm.
  3. Every child is unique and will learn at different rates. Don’t put undo stress on your children when they don’t meet arbitrary milestones.
  4. Children need to learn to deal with stress. Protect them from toxic stress and assist them to work through tolerable stress. Know the difference and respond appropriately.
  5. Remember learning is about making mistakes, readjusting and then retrying. Mistakes are part of the learning process.
  6. Reward and reinforce hard work and effort. Focus on improvement not just the end result. Role model a growth mindset to your children.
  7. Become a learner yourself. There are some great resources out there on brain development which will assist in developing strong and resilient children. Check out the resources available through the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative.
  8. Watch your language! “Just suck it up” or “Be a man” are not necessarily your best strategies for developing resilient kids. As an aside, please watch this short trailer from The Mask You Live In.
  9. Spend quality time with your child. They need help in developing human relationships without electronics. Relationships are more than just “likes” on social media.
  10. Let your kids live their own life, your childhood dreams are over. Don’t live your dreams through them…please!

My list contains 10 but there are many more. The challenge however is to share them and to help each other in growing communities full of strong and resilient children.