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Dr. Rebecca Branstetter of The Thriving School Psychologist Collective: How Extremely Busy Executives Make Time To Be Great Parents

Bedtime is another opportunity for presence and connection. Whether it’s a book, a cuddle, or listening to a guided meditation together, these moments can be a great time to bond. My family loves cuddling up and listening to stories on the Calm app together (and real talk — sometimes I doze off before they do).

a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Rebecca Branstetter. She is a school psychologist, author, and entrepreneur. She founded The Thriving School Psychologist Collective, an online community dedicated to improving mental health and learning supports for children and families. As a mother of two daughters doing distance learning and a school psychologist working with families of children with special needs, she realized early on in the pandemic that all parents needed support, right away. Her latest resource, “Peace of Mind Parenting,” is an online course that gives parents practical strategies to cope with their children’s stress (and their own!) as they navigate parenting in a pandemic.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

was born on a rainy day in October of…oh wait, maybe that’s too far back? I’ll fast forward a bit! I grew up in a family of educators. My mother was a teacher and owned a Montessori school for over 30 years. My sister is a principal. Many of my extended family members are also educators. Education and a love of learning was a part of our family culture.

In fact, I loved school and learning so much when I was little, that I actually played “school” on the weekends! We’re talking about lining up my teddy bears and giving lessons to them, helping them check out books from my personal library, and making sure they went out for recess and PE (even “Grizzle” and “Grizzlette” needed a break). As a child, I remember being shocked to learn that not everyone loved school as much as I did!

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

As a school psychologist for over 20 years, I’ve spent my career working with students who definitely do not play school on the weekends. Many of them have learning, attention, and emotional challenges that get in the way of enjoying learning. I want to give them the joy of learning that I had as a child, by helping them uncover their learning strengths and get the support they need for their challenges. I’ve built my career on the belief that with the right support, adults can inspire children to have a lifetime love of learning and feel good about themselves as learners.

When I became a parent, I felt even more compelled to ensure that every child had opportunities to thrive at home and school. Seeing my own children learn and grow made me realize on a deeper level how important the experiences we provide our children are for their social, emotional, and academic growth.

The problem was, since I was so passionate about my bigger mission to make sure all children had opportunities for growth, I fell into the overworking trap in my job as a school psychologist in the public schools. I was bringing home my work every night. I was spending every single Saturday away from my husband and young children, working.

At the same time, I was noticing my school psychologist colleagues in the public schools also overworking and on the fast track to burnout. And for us, burnout didn’t look like “phoning it in” — it looked like overworking due to a deep passion for helping.

I distinctly remember the day it all changed and I knew I needed better work/life balance.

I was packing up my work bag to go to a café one Saturday. As I was about to pull out of the driveway, I saw my two daughters with their hands and faces pressed against the window. I could hear them both banging on the glass, screaming, “Don’t go mommy!” And my heart broke. What was I doing? I loved my job working with children, but I was missing out on being with my own children.

I knew I wasn’t alone. Many of my other school psychologist colleagues who were parents as well were doing the same, out of passion for supporting the families they served. It inspired me to make a change. So, I dug into the research on burnout prevention and the science of happiness in the quest for more work/life balance.

What I learned changed my life and freed me to have a career and be present for my family.

With the tools I learned, I created an online course and community for school psychologists so I could empower other school psychologists to find better work/life balance and have maximum impact in their school communities.

After launching this course, just one year later, I found myself in the position of managing a full-time online business in addition to being a school psychologist and mom. As an “accidental solo entrepreneur” telling hundreds of folks how to set healthy boundaries, I knew I really needed to practice what I preached too! And that has been my journey ever since.

Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?

Before the pandemic, I had the “luxury” of getting focused work time. I’d get up at 6am and do one important work task before the kids got up. I’d get my girls ready for school and we’d bike together to the local elementary school (sneaking in a bit of exercise for myself!). I’d go to my office and work until school pick up. Then, I’d hide my laptop from myself in a drawer to remind myself that work was done, and it was time to focus on my family and down time. If I’m being honest, I still sneaked peeks at my inbox when they went to bed though.

Now, due to the pandemic, I’m working from home with kids while they are distance learning. This is a whole new challenge! As someone who had a hard time with work/life boundaries before, I have to be even more strategic. I have to wake up even earlier to get a few hours or so of uninterrupted work time before my daughters wake up. Since they’re in elementary school, they can’t really do distance learning independently, so once they’re up it’s constant ping-ponging between work and supporting them.

My husband and I have set up a system where the girls know which parent is available for help and we take turns “getting” to work. We’ve learned it’s far better for one parent to get 1–2 hours of focused work done each day than both of us getting 8 hours of broken focus all day. It’s still hard, because I know what I can do under optimal conditions, and I’m working in far less than optimal conditions.

Since I can’t change the situation, I have to change my mindset. Perfect work/life balance is not possible, even under regular circumstances.

I’m striving instead for alliance with my goals and presence. When I am working, my mind is on work. When I am with my kids, my mind is on my kids. Stress comes from two competing priorities. If I’m thinking about my to-do list when I’m with my kids, I get stressed. If I’m working and thinking about missing out on moments with my kids, I get stressed.

I work toward grounding myself in whatever I am doing in the moment. I tell myself, “I am working now” or “This is kid time.” That way, if I’m out of balance and have to spend a whole day working or tending to kids, it’s okay, because I’m in alliance with my goal to be present.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

Humans are hard-wired for connection. Children (and indeed all people!) need to feel safe, seen, and secure in the relationships with others around them. The attachment research shows that children who experience positive relationships with caregivers, marked by warm feelings and responsiveness, have healthier social and emotional development.

On the other hand, children who feel neglected or that their parents are less responsive to their needs can have challenges with feeling secure and safe. Over a prolonged period of time, feeling neglected can create difficulties with self-esteem and set a mold for insecurity in future relationships.

But before you go down a parental shame spiral for tending to work and not spending enough time with your child, remember that being present and responsive when you are with your children is what is protective. You don’t have to spend 24/7 tending to their every need to be a responsive parent. It’s about responding when they need you and proactively carving out quality time with them where you are fully present.

On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?

As a school psychologist, one question I ask children when I am working with them is what they would wish for if they had a magic wand. Some wish for material things, but more often, I hear things like, “I wish my parents would play with me more,” and “I wish my mom would shut her laptop during family movie night” or “I wish my dad didn’t work so much.”

Connection is so important, and our children see when we are out of balance. They tell us. On that fateful Saturday morning I told you about, my kids were telling me (with fists banging and tears flowing), that they needed more connection.

In less dramatic displays of attention-getting, like kids pulling on you when you’re trying to work, I think there’s an opportunity for connection. If we can reframe “attention seeking” as “connection seeking” we respond differently. So, the next time your child is barging in your room when you are on Zoom call, think of it as “connection seeking.” Take a breath, smile, and give them a hug. Let them know when you will be available to play, help, or hang out. You don’t have to drop everything. You just have to let them know you see them and that they are important too.

According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

One unexpected perk of parenting in a pandemic is that there are opportunities every day to spend quality time with my children. I created my online business to free up time to be with my family, so this is the time I can actually do it! I take “recess” with my kids when they have breaks, we do dance breaks to YouTube videos, have a nice family lunch together, and take walks around the neighborhood.

We’ve also built in family rituals, so our kids can have something to look forward to and count on. We have a “Gratitude Jar” that sits on our breakfast bar with post-its and pens, and throughout the week, we all add things we appreciate about each other. On Sundays, we have ice cream sundaes and read the notes to each other. It’s a great way to be mindful and full of gratitude all week long and re-live the moments together as a family.

Another way to build in quality time is to carve out “special time” with each of our girls, one-on-one. My husband will take one daughter and I’ll take the other and we each do an activity together. Even in the pandemic, we have found activities to do that follow their lead, their interests, and what they love to do (we have built a lot of Harry Potter Legos in this pandemic, y’all). It’s a chance for them to feel special. And it doesn’t have to be an all-day event (though those are fun too). Even a half an hour of focused time, without phones or siblings to distract, can feel really special. I often find these moments are put in the gratitude jar by my girls, so I know they feel it too.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

The biggest happiness killer is the feeling of time scarcity. And when we are under that pressure, we feel stressed. When we are stressed, we are often preoccupied and not fully present. And our kids and partners can easily sense when we are physically present but not really emotionally present. It’s not easy to be present-minded, but it’s an important goal for giving quality attention. Here’s 5 strategies I’ve found to be helpful:

Do a social media time audit to find more time.

Have you ever crunched the numbers on how long you spend on your phone looking at social media? I never really had done this before, and thought I spent an hour on social media at the most. Then the iPhone came up with a time-tracking app and I was shocked to learn that it was double that, and in some days, triple that! Yikes. If I ever think I don’t have enough time in the day, I remind myself that small moments add up, and I put away my phone in a drawer out of site so I’m not tempted to mindlessly scroll. It’s an insidious time sucker.

Build a mindfulness practice yourself.

Mindfulness, by definition, is paying attention to the present moment (and not judging it as good or bad). It doesn’t have to be sitting like a lotus flower for hours. It can be simply paying attention to what you are doing — folding laundry, washing dishes, petting the dog, eating an apple — it doesn’t matter. It all “counts” because you are flexing the “I am paying attention to this one thing” muscle in your brain.

Try a 10-minute guided meditation each day for yourself

I have a formal mindfulness practice that I have built into my already well established coffee drinking habit. Research shows when you pair a new habit with an old one, you’re more likely to do it. So, each morning, I make my coffee and then sit down with the Calm App and listen to the “daily calm” meditation. It’s only 10 minutes, but it really grounds me for the day with an intention to be mindful. When I’m more mindful, I’m more present during the day.

Build in a “shut-down” ritual for work

Our brains love patterns and are really good at noticing different contexts. That’s the reason why when you go on vacation, it’s harder to keep up with habits you do all the time, like meditating or working out — the context is different and your brain doesn’t have the same environmental cues to trigger the habit. We can use this to our advantage though, by creating the same routine or ritual for shifting from “work brain” to “family-time” brain (yes, even when working from home).

Pick one thing you will do at a certain time of day that will be your transition activity. It should be something you DO alongside something you think. For example, take a walk around the block, and when you walk in your front door, say “I am transitioning from work to home.” Or, take a shower and when you shut off the water, say, “I am shutting off my work brain now.”

When done repeatedly, your brain will start to recognize this pattern and it will get easier and easier to turn off your work brain so you can be more present with your family and children (and get a little “me time” to recharge too).

Enjoy a nighttime bedtime ritual with your children

Bedtime is another opportunity for presence and connection. Whether it’s a book, a cuddle, or listening to a guided meditation together, these moments can be a great time to bond. My family loves cuddling up and listening to stories on the Calm app together (and real talk — sometimes I doze off before they do).

If you have older kids or teenagers who don’t necessarily want to read stories or cuddle up with you, you could invite them to think of an activity they’d like to do at the end of the day to unwind and connect, even for just 10 minutes — a cup of tea and a chat? Read next to each other on a comfy sofa? A walk around the block with you and your family dog? Join in on a favorite show they like to watch? Play a video game they love? It doesn’t matter, so long as your child chooses the activity and you are present with them to enjoy it together.

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

No child needs a perfect parent. They need a present parent. It’s easy to not feel like a good parent when you snap at them or say something harsh. We’ve all done it. And I think that modeling our imperfections and showing self-compassion in these moments is a “double down gift” — when we are gentler and patient with ourselves and our faults, our kids can learn how to do the same.

I make a habit of apologizing to my children when I lose my cool or snap at them. When I’m calm again, I explain what I was thinking and feeling and what I could do next time instead. Then, the next time I’m in a similar situation, I will say aloud, “I am starting to feel angry, so I am going to take a deep breath with one hand over my heart and one over my belly to calm down.” I model it for them.

The funny thing is, I have never explicitly sat down with them and “taught” them how to pause to reboot like that, but they now do it! I remember a while back, we were on vacation in a cabin and the girls were getting agitated and bickering with each other (cabin fever, I guess?) But before I could intervene, they both decided to sit in front of the fireplace, crossed their legs, and took deep breaths together. They hopped up and were back to playing. It was a beautiful thing!

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

I think the best way to inspire our children to dream big is to lead by example. I remember at the beginning of the year, I created a vision board full of pictures of my big dreams and goals for my business and personal life.

The girls got inspired and made their own! My little one put down “invent a jet pack and touch the clouds” and drew herself flying. She added a pet duck on there too, just because ducks are cute. My older daughter printed up pictures of 6 or 7 career possibilities, including creating a YouTube channel for teaching art, being a vet, and a Kidz Bop kid. Why not? In this day and age, you don’t actually have to have one career for your whole life. I loved it.

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?

I would love to say that I feel like I’m masterfully straddling career and family every day! Some days, yes, and some days, I have to hold myself in self-compassion when the best laid plans go awry.

I can say that in the traditional sense, I have found “success” because I have a career and business that honestly does not even feel like work. I have two wonderful daughters and a fabulous husband (and two exceptionally furry husky pups) that give me so much joy. The success in my business and career allows a mental freedom for me to be creative in my work and enjoy my family.

But I actually feel like success for me is something else, and it’s something I work on daily. I think success is being present and happy in wherever I am right now. Even if I have a hideous day full of stress, if I can be present in that experience and bounce back with gratitude for the learning opportunities that stressful day provided, then I’m growing as a person. I don’t want to fall victim to the “arrival fallacy” where happiness lies in the future when X, Y, or Z has happened. Success to me is basking in the joy of “what is” and not thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

I love the Greater Good Science Center magazine and resources. They turn research on the science of happiness and positive psychology into things I can do TODAY to boost my wellbeing. When I am in a good headspace, I’m a better parent for sure.

I also love Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s books on conscious parenting. Once I read them, I never looked at parenting from the same vantage point again. It was a game changer for me, and really explained why certain behaviors from my children were really triggering for me (and how to respond differently!). It was mind blowing that just by changing my awareness and mindset of my parenting, my relationship with my children changed for the better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have always loved the phrase, “Bloom Where You are Planted.” It’s so easy to think that happiness lies elsewhere, that you’ll be happier under different circumstances.

But happiness is all around us if we look for it…even in a global pandemic. Just the other day, I was trying to finish up the last chapter of my new book, and my daughters barged in the living room where I was working and started playing an original song on our (untuned) piano about our new puppy. I could have been annoyed that I don’t have a quiet space to work. Instead, I joined them and soaked up their joyful spirit. They returned to their schoolwork a few minutes later and I happily returned to my work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Oooh, this is a “kid in a candy shop” kind of question for me!

I have always believed that kids thrive when the adults around them thrive.

I would love to equip school psychologists with the resources they need to support kids and families. With the nationwide shortage of school psychologists, their caseloads are nearly triple the recommended ratio of 1:500, currently hovering around 1:1400. With that reality, they can only do so much, and it’s a missed opportunity. School psychologists are skilled at collaborating with teachers, parents, and other professionals so we can all work together to help kids thrive. I’d love to give them the time and resoures to do just that.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!