Tips for the Weary Mom

We all experience fatigue in this job they call “parenting”.

One moment I can feel on my game, the house is tidy (ish) and the kids are happy, playing, and learning as they go.  The next moment I round the corner into the kitchen and find the dog licking spilled juice off the floor, while one child pleadingly calls to me from the bathroom to help her wipe her bottom.  At times it can feel overwhelming.  I was entrusted with these little humans? To raise, to teach, to keep safe in this world.  Me?  How can I manage?

Interestingly, I sometimes feel the same way at my job.  I’ve been entrusted with helping this child?  The one who struggles to learn?  The one who has such a thin line of perseverance that the slightest misstep can push them into dysregulation and a full meltdown?  The one who has been written off by his teachers, or labeled and filed away by a relative? And yet we do it, day after day, week after week.  We parent, we teach.  Because it does make a difference.  It does matter.

There are a few strategies I’ve learned to help me with those days when I am feeling especially weary.  The days when I wonder if I have it in me.  By focusing on a few things, I can move an otherwise overwhelming interaction into a positive one.

 

  • Let your face light up when your child walks into the room.  The first thing they see when they round that corner should be you, glad to see them, happy to have them here.  It can be a mood changer.

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  • Still your hands, kneel down to eye level, and give your child your calm focus and attention.  If there is one thing I recommend to parents, it’s to kneel down in front of their child when they talk to them.  It does wonders.

  • Listen.  Really listen. Hear your child from where they are.

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  • Give a mental break.  Teach your children how to have quiet time.  Reinforce the idea of alone time with your child, where they can explore their own thoughts.  It might be five minutes at first, but build that resilience.  After lunch is usually a good time, and can give a much-needed pause to the busy day.

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  • When you come back together, center yourself on them.  Snuggle time for the fussy toddler.  Words and eye contact for the preschooler.  Use yourself as their calm center for the afternoon.

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  • Think of what their bodies need.  If the mood is sour, head outside.  No matter the weather, bundle up for a walk and go.  The fresh air and activity will be a game changer.

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  • If you’re staying in for the afternoon, feed their bodies.  Ride bikes in the garage, build forts by the couch, do sensory and physical play.  Put on some music and dance.

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Meet your child where they’re at, setting aside your adult pace to take in the world at their level.  By doing this, you are communicating at their developmental level, building language, problem-solving, and fostering exploration.  Kneel down and look into their eyes: the ones that reflect your image and that reveal their heart.  Kneel down.

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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”

 

Wait, did you say I can still use Facebook??

I mentioned that I would follow-up my post on SCREEN TIME for younger kids with some ideas and suggestions for healthy screen time for older students. To sum up my previous post, I encouraged you to keep children under 2 away from all screens, to look at decreasing or eliminating screen time for preschool and kindergarten children, and to structure limited viewing for school-age children.  Be honest with yourself about how much screen time your child is actually having every day.  The ability to play by oneself and occupy oneself with imaginative thoughts is a learned skill.  Children need practice and time to be able to form that skill.

While even my 1-year-old seems to intuitively know how to turn on, swipe and unlock an iPhone (no, I don’t let her play with it… she just has grabby little hands), that “tech knowledge” does not translate into an understanding of how an iPhone actually works.  In the “olden days” a child could figure out how to build a radio by taking apart and rebuilding the gadgets inside.  But an iPhone, computer, or television is now so complex that even programming one is difficult for the brightest high school students.

You can find support for nearly any view on the internet, but when I look at language and social skill development with my SLP lens, I’m identifying circles of communication.  A message produced, sent, and received, followed by the recipient producing and sending his own message.  Email falls into this category, as does text or instant messaging if received the correct way.  (Many of my students struggle with innuendo, sarcasm, and humor, which are often lost in an email or text, however.)

When we look at how to incorporate screen time into an older child’s life, we can first looks at PDAs and online homework.  Those two systems should be used as a backup system for a planner and binder with in-class notetaking on assignments.  Many schools use Edline of PowerSchool as online systems, or a similar system.  In my experience, teachers often forget to update their online schedules, don’t add valuable information, or are unavailable to respond to after-hours emails regarding assignments.  A middle- or high-school student needs to know how to record their own information in class, asking questions as needed while they are still face-to-face with the teacher.

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At home, having a designated place to charge and keep the cell phone can be vital for homework efficiency for a student.  I often tell my students that if they keep their phone off, Facebook logged out, and computer powered down, they will be much more efficient at completing their homework.  As a result, they will free up “down time” after the work is through to play video games or check their Facebook.  I have one student who has decreased his homework time from 6 hours every night, down to 2 hours every night by staying off the computer.  (He’ll get on at the end of his two hours if he needs to type something.) He LOVES the extra time he has for free time after his homework is finished.  It’s a win-win situation for him.

My thoughts on video games for middle and high school kids?  If they enjoy playing in their down time, let them.  Wait, what??? For a child who is going through the tumultuous process of growing-up-with-hormones-racing and the insecurities that come with that growth, video games are often their only platform for controlling their own destiny.  There should be a few guidelines, however, that parents follow.

  1. Set a certain amount of time on screen time “down time”
  2. Encourage other “down time” in the absence of screens where your child can be alone in their thoughts
  3. Don’t forget about exercise and outside time!
  4. If your child struggles with social skills, beware of the tendency to retreat into video games.  Make sure they are involved in at least one extracurricular that encourages them to be social.

I’m actually a big fan of Facebook and other social media, especially when used well.  Studies have found that the more social a child is, the more frequently they reach out to others through social media.  For a child with limited social skills, great.  For the social child with ADD/ADHD, not so great if they haven’t completed their “to-do” list.  Sit down with your child and decide what the boundaries are.

I often recommend that parents provide a lot of structure around these outlets, at least initially.  Bullying and inappropriate contact can occur, and it is wise to be cautious of your child’s independent use of media.  Placing the family computer and the cell phones in a central place can help you keep tabs of your child’s internet surfing.  A child who can effectively navigate social media gains a confidence and expertise in social relationships needed for school and the workplace.  As parents we can teach them how to let it add value to their lives, rather than taking away from real-life experiences, friendships, and holistic health.

10 Tips for Avoiding or Decreasing the Summer Meltdown

All kids have meltdowns.   Some kids fly off the handle, and lose the ability to process anything complex (including language!) around them. Other meltdowns may appear mild to the outsider, but to mom or dad are distressing. Some kids go through phases of extreme meltdowns, followed by periods of relatively few disasters.  But all kids have them.

Where does language fit into this?

When your child is overloaded, the first thing to go are the higher cognitive processes (like language and executive functioning/problem-solving abilities).  This means that your child is going to have a much harder time understanding what you are telling them, using words to express themselves, or problem-solve to come up with a solution.  So, not only is your child tired, hungry, or on sensory overload, but they have even fewer coping strategies than pre-meltdown.

It’s a signal to reset and recharge.  Just like adults, kids get overloaded, overwhelmed, and over-tired. Dealing with stressors is natural part of life, and we can teach our children positive ways to handle them. We can also be on the lookout for times when we can avoid or decrease the meltdown, both in frequency and intensity.

Here are 10 ways to avoid or decrease these meltdowns in your child:

1) Eat healthy.  Avoid high sugar and salt in your child’s diet.  We have heard about the ups and downs that come from a sugar rush.  Be very aware of what you are having your child put in his body.  It is as powerful as medicine!

2) Run one or two errands at a time. For the sake of efficiency, I always want to try to group my errands into one big blast of shopping mayhem.  But most children under 5 can only handle about two stops before needing a break.  Many children get sensory overload from shopping malls and grocery stores.  Try and recognize their need to take a break.

3) Use positive reinforcement. When your child is doing a good job of managing a tiring situation, build them up. Let them know that you recognize their perseverance. I try to recite the mantra in my head: “Ten praises for every one criticism.”

4) Get  regular exercise.  Like food, exercise is medicine for the body.  It will help your child regulate their emotions and behavior.  It will also help them decompress.  In my neighborhood, it is common to see entire families out for a walk in the evening.  It’s a great way to de-stress for kids and for parents.

5) Establish a soothing, quiet space where your child can be alone. A calm space can be a bedroom, a special place in the backyard, or even a space in a closet.  Depending on your child’s needs, make this a serene environment by using cool colors, comforting textures, and quiet. (For your child, “quiet” might be total silence, white noise from a fan, or soothing music.)

6) Maintain a routine. Meltdowns can often be a signal that your child is getting overwhelmed by choices or uncertainty.  A regular set of expectations can provide the structure to get back on track.

7) Get enough sleep. It’s hard in the summertime to get your children to bed on time!  It’s still light outside when my daughters head to bed in the Pacific NW. Blinds and blackout curtains can help with this, and a fan for white noise (to drown out the high school students down the road!) can help your child drift off to sleep.  Again, it goes back to routine, and sleep is a large part of your daily schedule.

8) Use signs, gestures, and facial expression to communicate with your child.  When your child is on the precipice of a meltdown, it’s time to scale your language way back. Try leading your child to a quiet corner, get down to their eye level, and use as few words as possible to bring them back around.  Your eyes and smile can speak more than a thousand words, and chances are, your child will be better able to process the feeling of warmth and understanding rather than your words.

9) Give your child an outlet for their energy. Summer is a great time for playing in the pool, running through the sprinklers, shrieking and letting loose. Make sure your child has access daily to such freeing pursuits.

10) Prep your child ahead of time on what to expect, and recap afterwards on how they handled the situation.  You can build your child’s language around a situation.  In the heat of the moment, during a meltdown, your child may not be able to use their words to express themselves.  Helping them decompress at a later time can also help them build language scripts to problem-solve during tricky situations.  Give them some strategies on what to do during a stressful time.  For example: “I could tell you were really tired at the grocery store this morning.  You did a great job of breathing slowly and asking Mom for a snack to get through it.  I liked how you used your words ~ ‘Hey Mom, I’m feeling tired!’ ~ to tell Mom how you were feeling.”  Help them identify their emotions (frustration, anger, etc.) so they can better use language to manage the situation.

One last note…

Don’t forget, you are their model!  How you manage your meltdowns can be helpful to your child.  “Mommy needs to take a break because she is getting frustrated.” Identify your emotions verbally so that your child can learn to map language onto what they feel.

Just another day in the life…

I thought it was time for an update from the home front. I’ve written before here about when my first daughter hit the Walkie-Talkie stage.  My little Walkie-Talkie spends her playtime immersed in imaginative fairyland, complete with characters and drama.  Most naptimes have turned to “quiet time” at our house, and while she is in her room the stories really run wild.  She sings songs to her animals, talks to her dolls, creates elaborate stories to tell herself, and in general has a fine time high in her tower waiting for her prince (or mommy to come and tell her quiet time is over). I keep meaning to put a tape recorder in her room to hear exactly what she is saying, but what I can glean from my eavesdropping makes me laugh, and amazes me. Kids say the darndest things! This imaginative play has done wonders for my sanity, as I get a few moments every day to sit back and let her daydreams run wild.  I’ve written before about the power of free play, and I am even more of a believer as I raise my own kids.

Our newest addition, the “Roly-Poly”, is already five-months-old!  Her coos and gurgles have turned to bird-of-prey-style squawks, followed by big smiles and sparkling eyes to get our attention. From my “speechie” lens I’m always amazed by how quickly babies can change from day-to-day.  I’ve written before about baby signing here, and my husband and I are starting to use signs with our Roly-Poly, especially when she fusses, in an effort to show her that she can communicate a specific need or want. The circles of communication come so naturally to many babies – it makes me appreciate even more the parents who have to work extra hard for their child’s attention.  Communication is such a vital part of our lives, even from this age humans seek out and reinforce those interactions.  The Roly-Poly also likes to make those flirty eyes at 2:30am when I finally drag myself out of dreamland and stumble into her room.  That little girl know how to get her need met and keep everyone loving her to bunches.

Some of you may remember our family’s big experiment where we cancelled cable for 8 months.  It actually was a pretty easy switch, since we didn’t spend much time watching it normally.  I wanted to see if, as a family, we could stomach what I try to encourage many of my clients to do: significantly reduce our screen time. I have seen children for therapy who spend 3-4 hours every day in front of the t.v., and another couple of hours on the computer.  Seven hours in front of a screen is no good.  When we are focusing on self-soothing, increasing social communication, and exploring pretend play, screen time runs counter to what we are trying to accomplish.

I check my computer or iPad several times a day, and the iPhone has been my sanity while spending countless hours breastfeeding, so I didn’t focus on our overall “screen time”.  I’ll be the first to admit, that “window” to the outside world would be very difficult for me to totally eliminate.  Our Walkie-Talkie only uses the iPad on rare occasions, so our focus turned to the television.  We canceled the cable, caught a few shows on basic cable, but didn’t really miss the tube during our busy days.

But then the Oregon Duck football season started.  Needless to say, in order to get his sports fix, my husband asked for the cable back. We’d already gotten in a nice rhythm of not watching television, and our oldest daughter didn’t expect it as part of her day, so we turned the cable back on.  Realistically, I’d say we currently catch about 3-4 hours of grownup shows a week (mostly On-Demand, I hate commercials!), a couple of hours of sports, and my daughter watches about 1 hour per week. Her favorite shows (again, On-Demand usually) are the Super Why! super reader shows, and Angelina Ballerina. We’ve established that it is a special, irregular treat, so she doesn’t expect it every day. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that as parents we are often on our last strands of patience, and the television can be a sanity saver. Some children are very high-energy and need some forced down time. In my opinion, however, what is important is to continue to practice having your child entertain themselves, because it’s the only way they will learn to regulate their behavior, play through boredom, and explore some of their deeper cognitive capacities.

With that, I’ll leave you with this little tidbit from the Walkie-Talkie tonight: “When you go to bed, you rest your body and your hair… AND your brain!”

Talented and Gifted

Can my child be in a Talented and Gifted program if he’s on an IEP?

Interestingly, I have fielded this question from several of my families the past year. Many children who need specialized instruction or assistance in one area also need accelerated or advanced curriculum in another area. An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) does not exclude a child from a Talented and Gifted program (called TAG here in Oregon, or GATE in California.)

As a speech-language pathologist, I spend most of my time focused on a child’s areas of need. His weakest skills in language and processing, his delayed articulation, or his poor executive functioning. I measure progress with data and reports from parents and teachers. I pore over discrepancies in test scores and reports from other professionals to try to determine precisely where the child is struggling. Parents often hop on board this process, providing me with wonderful detail about the interactions where their child’s social skills failed that day, which essay problems on the science test were giving their child the most difficulty, and what neighbors witnessed the behavioral meltdown outside as the child refused to get in the car. With many of the students, their ability to perseverate on a topic, or, as one teacher put it: “drone on and on and on about the same thing…” is often an area we focus on to increase conversational flexibility and theory of mind skills.

And yet…

Sometimes I will just listen to my students and marvel at their areas of STRENGTH. Oh-my-goodness, these are some of the brightest children I’ve come across. Whether it’s listing all the U.S. presidents (and their wives and children!) in order, detailing the process of spontaneous combustion and where it occurs in the universe, or creating an imaginary world full of characters, these students have gifts that need to be celebrated. And, in the case of some students, their gifts make them exceptional when compared to their peers, even in the academic setting. When I look to the future and try to predict what my students will be doing when they graduate and enter the “real world”, I see them in jobs capitalizing on these skills that they have. Which is why, yes, it is entirely appropriate for a student who needs accommodations and specialized instruction to also have opportunities for deeper study and research. It also reminds us as parents and educators that a child’s strengths should be celebrated… everyday, every chance that we get.

Learning more than one language…

Over half of the children I work with have a cultural background different than my own. Their parents moved here for a job or education opportunity and have since settled down to raise a family here. Many of these families speak another language at home, or speak another language when they visit their relatives in their country of origin. I often field the question: “If my child is struggling to read or write, is it a bad idea to have them learn another language?”

We live in a language diverse world. Unlike previous assumptions that the majority of Americans are monolingual, we actually have more exposure to other languages than we might think. Besides studying other languages in high school or studying abroad in college, our work and life experiences are often ripe with linguistic diversity. Take my husband, for example. Work requirements have him traveling to parts of Asia and the UK, hosting work colleagues with limited English here in the U.S., and routinely participating in telephone conferences where workers must rise above the language barrier to communicate. Take a look at this NY Times article about Americans and their multilingualism.

Coming from California, I wondered about the homogeneity of Oregon. I thought it unlikely that my children would have a multicultural and diverse group of friends growing up. My first stop at the preschool library time showed me otherwise, however. Mothers toted their little munchkins in, speaking rapidly in other languages. It was instantly clear that many cultures and languages were represented, and the diversity made for a festive and enriching story time. The librarian was well-versed in using those differences to her advantage, with book selections, song choices, and posters appealing to all. My work experience with older children has been just as diverse. As families open up their homes to me, I am able to catch a glimpse of their family life that is different from my own.

We try and use these differences in our discussions around social studies and history texts. Recently, a student and I discussed stereotypes and the cultural differences she sees at her middle school. The upper-middle class experience at her private school differs for students depending on their cultural and socioeconomic background. Some families are pooling all their resources together to send their child to private school. Education takes on a whole new meaning when your entire family is counting on you. Still other students just coast by, depending on their family’s experience and focus at home. My student was able to use her life experience to expand her perspective-taking in writing assignments. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is often difficult for students who struggle with language disorders, but thinking about her experiences and how they related to other students’ experiences was helpful.

Back to the topic at hand, it would be a travesty for a child to not be exposed to the native language of their parents, their grandparents, or their ancestors. Research has shown that even children with language disorders can learn another language. The learning that can happen as a result of this exposure can be important for a child’s education and their identity. Like all people, it may be harder for some children to “pick up” another language. I work with one student diagnosed with a language disorder which significantly affects his ability to understand and use language like his peers. A high schooler now, this student can understand his grandparents and parents when they speak in their native language, but unlike his brother, he has been unable to learn to speak the language. He uses English, instead, but luckily it hasn’t stopped him from having an excellent relationship with his cousins and grandparents who still live in another country. I have other students who struggle with grammar in both their home language and English, but not exposing them to their home language is unrealistic and unnecessary.

I often recommend that families use whatever language at home comes most naturally to them. Even if it’s not English, parents will be best able to convey abstract ideas, tell stories with rich language, and use grammatically-correct sentences in their primary language. We can build a child’s skills from that solid language foundation.

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