At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, Gabi Garcia decided to give herself a year to turn her side job of writing books for kids that talked about "soft skills" like expressing gratitude, showing kindness and self-regulating emotions into a full-time job.
"I wanted to give myself the time and space to dedicate the brain energy to that," she says.
Garcia, 46, had spent 20 years in public education as a teacher, school counselor and special education counselor. She had begun writing books about these skills, but "the first couple of books I did were done after my daughter was in bed," she says. "That's not the most creative time of day."
She has written four books in English, and three of them have a Spanish version, too. "Mateo Finds His Wow" is about a little boy who is bored on a rainy day and has to find things to do to fill his time and be grateful for. "Listening to My Body" shows us all the emotions our body feels and how to manage those. "Listening With My Heart" is about a little girl who has a tough day that includes falling on the stage during a school play and how she has to give herself a break from all the negative thoughts. "I Can Do Hard Things" is a collection of affirmations that shows all kinds of different kids doing everything from playing the piano to skateboarding.
RELATED: Austinite creates game to build social-emotional intelligence
Garcia sees these books "as an extension of my counseling work," she says. She doesn't think kids will naturally find them, but maybe a schoolteacher or counselor or parent will pick them up and read the books to them. The books are all on Amazon.com or on GabiGarciaBooks.com. On her website, she also has an accompanying activity guide for each book.
She sees the books as addressing "the core of what it means to be a person."
It might be different than what is taught in schools, though. "What's happening in schools is so much focus around grades and numbers that these young kids begin to internalize their self-worth as being attached to scores on a test or grades on a report card," she says. "They need to be successful not just at passing the test but successful human beings out in the world."
That means teaching soft skills like kindness and compassion, positive self-talk and gratitude. "These are the skills that help kids grow up to be not just productive citizens but people who are of value," Garcia says.
RELATED: Former Austin High student writes bill to give kids skills that made difference for her
Garcia has seen schools giving more time and attention to social-emotional learning, "but at the same time the pressure on kids to perform on the test has increased so much," she says. "I remember young kids being really stressed out about the test; it's a big emphasis on their school day and school life. It's really sad and unfortunate."
Bringing these books to a Spanish-speaking audience was important to Garcia, who came to the United States when she was 6 and didn't speak any English. "One of the reasons I went back to school to be a counselor was because I wanted to serve kids who are underserved. Very few had access to a Spanish-speaking counselor. I didn't want language to be a barrier to counseling."
Garcia says, "I know how hard it is to find resources for these students."
Garcia sees the difference these books have made for her own daughter, who is 6. She is learning self-regulation and how to deal with emotions that are intense.
They keep coming back to the practices in the books. "What's going on and what are we feeling in our body?"
"Often, I think, 'What if I had been exposed to this knowledge at that age?'" Garcia says.
RELATED: App teaches mindfulness in the classroom