Running on Highways

 

This past weekend I joined a group of moms from Southern California to run a 205-mile relay from San Francisco to Napa, California. The promise of wine-tasting and 48 hours of family-free time was enough to get me to agree to something so crazy.  Our team name was R.I.O.T. Moms, with the acronym for “Running Is Our Therapy” a fitting description for how exercise and outdoor time can rejuvenate even the weariest of parents.

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The past couple of months have reaffirmed my own parenting journey. My husband and I sold our house in the Pacific Northwest, closed up shop on our jobs, and headed south with kids and dog in tow to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area.  The promise of good weather and time to focus on family was all we needed to make the jump to a new adventure. Throughout this transition, which included my oldest starting kindergarten, my kids have been relying on each other and my husband and I in new ways.  Amidst the uncertainty they often look to mom and dad for stability, and that trust can be both reassuring and draining.  I’ve been practicing some meditation techniques, channeling my inner calm, so when the chaos threatens to take over – one child is crying, another is telling a loud story, the dog is barking, the dinner on the stove boiling over – I can take a deep breath and keep my core calm and regulated.

 

Children feed off our nerves. A child who easily becomes dysregulated is looking for outside sources of strength to bump up against.  Sometimes, this is figurative – needing a calm presence to reflect back to them the way to cope with a situation.  And sometimes they actually ARE bumping into things – crashing into you, into their sibling, hitting walls, or tripping over their own feet – to seek some sort of barrier or boundary to the chaos coursing through them.  How we react – kneeling down, modeling deep breaths and quiet words, giving hugs and pressure squeezes when needed, reflecting their emotions with words and simple phrases – can mean continued shouting and tears, or a de-escalation of the situation.

 

Running a relay takes you on beautiful trails through the woods, winding streets coursing through quaint little towns, and hot, gravely highways with semi-trucks roaring past. I have a hard time on those highways, thinking I have little shoulder to run on, my footing irregular and my temperature rising.  The sound from the trucks can be overwhelming, moving me to frustrated tears if I let it. A dysregulated child feels the same.  Senses on overload, fear of the unknown driving action, uncertainty of how to proceed. For many of our children, being unable to get the train pieces to fit together, or an incessantly itchy tag bothering their neck, is all that is needed to get on that chaotic highway.

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I worked on my meditation techniques during those miles. The face of calm on the inside.  Ironic, since I probably looked a hot mess on the outside.  Breathing, keeping my blood pressure at a steady state.  Visualizing my end goal and the steps to get there.  Using my thoughts and words to channel chaotic emotions.  These all mirror many of the strategies we use with children to help them regulate their bodies. Self-soothing strategies are lifelong lessons we can teach, to deal with frustration, chaos, and situations outside of our control.  Check out more links below to strategies you can use at home…

Avoiding Meltdowns

Self-Soothing Strategies

Behavior Strategies

Anxiety Management

And a big “thank you” to my fellow RIOT Moms, who persevered with me!  205 miles ain’t got nothing on us!

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Homework Tips and Tricks

*Let me just say this.  I am not a big fan of lots of homework.  I think it is redundant and unnecessary for many students, and for others can completely strangle their love of learning.  I think there is a time and place for completing an assignment that couldn’t be completed during the day, or working extra on a long-term project.  But I think our education system in general has gone the wrong way with homework.  Struggling students can spend three hours a day in early elementary school tackling their homework, and their systems are already fatigued from a full day of school.  It is not unusual for the middle school students I work with to spend five hours in the evening completing homework.

That being said, I encourage parents to help their children find a balance. Encourage  quality over quantity, and keep in close communication with teachers to determine what is necessary for your child.  Good teachers understand this balance, and while they can’t change what’s required on state testing, they are usually very willing to work with a student on a bit of balance.

 

After a long school day, it can be difficult for children to sit down and tackle their homework.  Make sure they have eaten a snack and exercised outside, and then use an analogue clock or a Time Timer to allow for short bursts of homework activity.  For early elementary students, try 10-20 minute work sessions; for older students, try 20-30 minute work sessions.  (I always recommend analogue clocks rather than digital clocks to help your student understand the passing of time, rather than just a single moment in time.) The Time Timer is helpful because it shows a countdown of time in bold red, so even preschool students are aware of time passing.

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Is your child having trouble sitting in one place for homework?  Make sure they have exercised after coming home.  Then, try a wiggle cushion on their seat, let them stand at the kitchen counter, or sit on an exercise ball.  After holding it together all day at school, their little systems may be fatigued, and sitting still in one place too challenging. 

 

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Decide what the goal of the assignment is.  Posture and core strength are necessary for good handwriting.  If the focus of the assignment is good handwriting, make sure both feet are solidly on the floor, they are sitting upright, and using their non-dominant hand to hold their paper in place.

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If the focus of the assignment is language, ideas, creativity, allow for some body wiggling and poorer handwriting.  Many of my students stand, rock back and forth, and use a wiggle cushion for tactile and vestibular feedback.  I can tell they are focused and attentive when their body is moving and they are helping to regulate their engagement. As we analyze the task, brainstorm and organize ideas, and get a preliminary essay completed, the focus is on their language and the ideas they are generating.  We can go back later and clean up the handwriting during the editing phase of the writing process.

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Homework taps into the executive function skills your child is developing.  For a child who has worked hard holding it together all day at school, this can be a very challenging process.  Focus on completing a few tasks well and enjoy the time you spend with your child.  Allow them to share their work with pride, and encourage them as they progress.

What are some homework tips that have worked with your child? Please share.

Getting the Environment Right (and focusing on the positive)

 

 “He can’t sit still at school!”  “She always gets annoyed by her brother at home when they are playing!”  So often we want to focus on the problem areas, the situations where our children aren’t meeting our expectations, that we forget to look for clues in the activities and environments where they are excelling. As you work on communication skills with your child, give thought to the environments where they are thriving.

 

I work with children who can hold it together well at school, but unleashed upon the home environment, every bit of self-control seems to fly out the window.  They disobey, push their parent’s buttons, and antagonize their siblings.  Conversely, I also know children who can’t seem to focus at school on their academic work, but stay occupied and focused for an hour building a Lego set with 1000 pieces in their backyard at home.

 

You can find clues in your child’s favorite pastimes.  If they hold it together well at school, look at the structure in place within the school environment.  There is a set schedule, set rules, and announcements which are reviewed every day.  The expectations are consistent, the transitions mostly predictable, and the time for breaks and down time logical.  Some of our most difficult children need the most structure. They need overkill with repetition, transition preparation, and a review of expectations.

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If your child is falling apart at school, consider how their learning can tap into the multisensory environment they love at home.  Outside time, physical breaks, sensory reinforcement (like sitting on a wiggle cushion or having a hand-fidget), hands-on learning… all can help refocus and energize their learning.

 

What ideas can you find from the activities your child loves?  Why do they love that karate class?  How about digging in the backyard?  What makes them read for hours in the backyard hammock?  Make a list of everything you can think of that about that environment (“She loves reading fantasy, she can go at her own pace”), and include the sensory components of each (e.g. “it’s sunny and quiet, the hammock rocks back and forth,”etc.)  Then circle the elements of each activity that you could replicate for another, more challenging situation.

 

Need help?  List your child’s favorite activity and environment below, and we’ll come up with some ideas.

Kids Do Well If They Can

daydreaming at schoolBehind every challenging behavior is an unsolved problem and a lagging skill.

Every child demonstrates frustrating behaviors at times.  As they grow and develop, children challenge the world around them, sorting through their own feelings to find an individual voice.  Some children demonstrate mental overload by whining, crying, or withdrawing into themselves.  Others reveal behavior that is more outwardly-focused, such as yelling, shouting, and spitting.

Still for others, a mental switch is flipped, and being unable to process a situation takes them into a “fight or flight” response where they bolt from the situation, lash out physically, hit, punch, or kick.  The problem is, once the switch is flipped, they often don’t have the cognitive capacity to process the situation appropriately.  What’s a parent to do?

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Language processing problems, and/or anxiety often lie behind an apparent behavior outburst.  Consider the following list of skills (adapted from Ross Greene’s “Lost at School”) frequently found lagging in challenging kids:

-Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mind-set or task to another

-Difficulty persisting on challenging or tedious tasks

-Poor sense of time

-Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas simultaneously

-Difficulty maintaining focus

-Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or consequences of actions (impulsive)

-Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem

-Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words

-Difficulty understanding what is being said

-Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration so as to think rationally

-Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances

 

These skills require quick and flexible thinkingMost children with behavioral challenges already know that we want them to behave.  They also would like to behave the right way.  What’s lacking are important thinking skills that allow them to regulate their emotions, consider the outcomes of their actions, understand their feelings and those of others, and respond to changes in a plan.  Such flexible thinking skills are challenged when the demands in a situation are more than the child is able to handle adaptively.

They aren’t doing it on purpose.

The kids who are most often described as being manipulative are those least capable of pulling it off.

 

While a clear diagnosis (language processing disorder, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, etc.) is helpful in pointing us in the right direction, a child is more individual than their own diagnosis.  There are also many children who fall through the cracks in receiving a true diagnosis, meaning they don’t fully qualify for all the conditions of that disorder.  But you don’t need a diagnosis to have a problem.  You just need a problem to have a problem.

The situations which are most challenging for our children vary depending on the strength and development of their organizational and flexible thinking skills.  The challenge for parents and professionals is to break down situations where these behavior outbursts are occurring and develop strategies, in collaboration with the child, for better behaviorIt is also important to truly address lagging skills in processing and flexible thinking in order to fill the holes a in a child’s development.  Children who experience the most success with behavior modifications are those who are considered an integral part of the team, who are asked for their insight, who problem-solve with their parents and teachers, and who are asked for their opinions every step of the way.

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For more information on collaborative problem-solving, check out Dr. Ross Greene “The Explosive Child”

 

Front-Loading and Carousel Brainstorming

Helpful Homework Tips for Writing

During the writing process, there are many obstacles in a child’s way. Handwriting skills may affect how easy it is to jot down ideas. Spelling and syntax difficulties may make sentences confusing.

I have many students who are unable to read their own work because it’s too sloppy, words are misspelled, or sentences don’t make sense.

Add to that the kids who are just unable to get started and get the words out, and the writing process becomes formidable, if not impossible.

Students can often get stuck going in the wrong direction. What can we do at home to support them?

 

The first step to writing is for your child to figure out what they are supposed to do. It’s not as easy as it sounds. What is the teacher asking? What kind of answers are they looking for?

With homework, helping your child get started on the right track can make all the difference. I call this “front-loading” the help.

For many children, especially those with weaker executive functioning skills, this can mean the difference of spending 30 minutes doing the right assignment or 30 minutes working hard to create an incorrect finished assignment.

Many children who struggle with homework need to talk it out or draw it out first. Then, with a little help from parents, they can circle the ideas that apply to the problem, scratch out those that don’t, and create a framework to connect their thoughts.

As you create a brainstorm map, be your child’s recorder (or “computer”, as I like to call it). Write for them, and later your child can use this map to refer to when creating an essay. At school, many teachers use “carousel brainstorming”, where the students are moving around the room talking to other students. This is great for our kids who can use movement to activate learning! To replicate at home, have your child stand up and move one step around the kitchen table or counter for every idea generated.

A word of advice to those parents worried about too much “helicopter” parenting or helping with homework: Pose open-ended questions to your child.

“Why do you think this idea works well with you topic?” while still guiding them in the right direction. Let the learning process occur, but front-load the experience so they head down the right path.

Once you see they are working in the right direction, step back and let them own the process. Walk away from the table, and check back in after 5 or 10 minutes. If they are continuing to answer the question, step back. If not, give them guidance back to the assignment and the question posed by the teacher.

Remember, the goal is the learning process that occurs in creating a finished product, not necessarily the product itself. When the homework is finished, briefly talk about the steps that had to occur to get to the end result, then give a hug and a break.

 

 

 

 

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How About Fall Meltdowns?

Wow, it’s been awhile since I posted! The steady days of summer are now gone ~ all too fast, in my opinion. Many of the kids I work with took amazing vacations with their families. Roadtrips across the states, trips to the beach or Hawaii, and even some European vacations. One of my families cashed in Dad’s/Mom’s sabbatical time and took their two teenage sons around the world. Talk about a great learning experience!
The slowdown was great for me, as well, and I spent the extra time with my girls and extended family. Ah…

And then September hit. Oh yes, my last post reflected on the summer meltdown that often occurs for our kids as we transition off a set school schedule and into more unstructured summertime. But there’s a reversal to this shift when school comes around again, and the shift can be exhausting for both kids and parents alike. I have heard from so many friends and families about the meltdowns happening after the school day. Our kids can hold it together while at school, but it’s very taxing for them! And then we then get home… boom!

A few tips from an SLP perspective:
1. Give your child lots of “down time” on the weekends in September and October. While soccer and pumpkin hunting can often fill the weekend time, it’s important that your child has sufficient time to decompress.

2. With that free time, help them schedule it. For example, make a schedule with BREAKFAST-OUTSIDE PLAY-LUNCH-READING-QUIET TIME-CHORES-DINNER so they know what to expect. They will be able to relax into the “known”, rather than the “unknown”.

3. Set aside time with each child individually. If you need to tag team with your spouse or a grandparent, do it. Arrange for each child to have some quiet alone time, reading, playing a game, or going for a walk with Mom or Dad.

4. Email/chat with your child’s teacher. (I know that you are busy, teacher friends!) But check-in, just briefly, with your child’s teacher to get a read on how things are going at school. Establish open-lines of communication from the get-go. If your child has a Resource Room teacher or case manager, leave them a message, as well.

5. Know that you’ll all get in a groove, it just takes a few weeks. Recognize that back-to-school stress often happens for Mom and Dad (speaking from personal experience here!) and it magnifies what your child is going through.

Executive Functioning ~ What’s that?

Your Child’s Conductor

Executive functioning is the new buzz word around the water cooler in psychology and neurology offices.  It’s common for disorganized children or children with ADHD to have executive functioning weaknesses.  I like to explain the term to parents as this:  Picture your child’s brain as a band or an orchestra.  There are some very good musicians in the orchestra, maybe an excellent drummer and percussion section, and a stellar trombone player.  All these players (or parts of the brain) can be very good, and they can actually sound pretty impressive when they all play together.  However, they need a conductor (the executive functioning part of the brain) to really sound their best: to be precise in their playing, to complement each other, etc.  Without a great conductor, the orchestra will just be okay.  Some kids have more trouble getting their conductor to the podium to lead the band.

Kids without a conductor have trouble getting organized for the day.  Continue reading