Loving Children Who Love to Hate Starting School

*written by Audrey Simmons

 

When I was younger, our new curriculum for the year would arrive in the mail sometime in the mid to late summer and “unboxing day” was an exciting event. We’d go over every book, flipping through pages and exclaiming about our excitement. I’d marvel at how complex some of the math or science at the ends of the books seemed and my mom would have to confiscate readers that we attempted to start plowing through right there on the kitchen or living room floor. We were enthusiastic, and we were not an anomaly among homeschoolers. I know families who have started school a week or two earlier than planned just because the kids were so excited to start.

 

Some of these same kids, including us, would burn out a few weeks in and start complaining about math or writing– we weren’t saints, just kids– but that excitement sometimes made it easier to launch into our schedule and getting used to school again.

 

However, if you’re homeschooling kids on the spectrum or adopted children with attachment issues or learning challenges, you might not get that shot in the arm of enthusiasm. Maybe you home school but you and your child both silently (or loudly) dread each upcoming year.
Kids who love to hate starting school

 

Summer has been nice and you’re reluctant to start again what feels like an uphill battle, both ways, in a snow storm…just to start working, much less getting through the material itself.

 

One thing that can help is getting materials that plug in to a special interest, like a science or physics book structured around the study of cars, but where a neurotypical or attached child might immediately be excited to start, it might feel like this has backfired when working with autistic or attachment-disordered kids. That “unboxing day” might not have the same meaning for these kids.

 

Please don’t lose heart. Chances are, your child doesn’t hate the learning environment, you as a teacher, or the material– all things parents tend to interpret resistance being signs of– your child probably just has difficulty with transitions. Be consistent. Be pleasant. One of our biggest enemies, mentally, is our own expectations. If you are expecting a child to be thrilled to start, to switch to each “new book,” you’re going to both have a miserable day. If you anticipate some feet-dragging, some crying, some upset, you’ll be better prepared to handle it and not feel derailed.

 

For many kids, the transition to a new schedule is difficult, but where neurotypical or attached children may be whining and complaining six weeks in to the school year when you also want to come up with excuses for a day off, autistic children may be better motivators! They might be the kids pulling out the books, insisting on the new schedule that they’ve adjusted to, and helping you stay on track!

 

But some kids take much longer to even reach that point, if they ever do. Some kids with learning delays or oppositional disorders might rarely be enthusiastic about school as a whole. But after you’ve settled into your new schedule, resist the temptation to “change things up” unless you know for certain something isn’t working. These kids aren’t motivated by change. Be consistent in your schedule. And then start finding ways to introduce some excitement.

 

It might be themed stickers or small toys. It might be short YouTube videos. There is controversy about the health of offering food or treats as a motivator or reward, but I’ve found some success in offering a single chocolate chip or other small item for each broad task. Another thing that my kids in particular respond to is games– we can transition to a reading lesson if they know that I’ll sit and play an alphabet or word game with them, like Bananagrams or Pairs in Pears, after we finish or to aid the transition. Be willing to try this even if you feel like your child should be “too old” for such motivators!

 

 Do not lose heart! Do not grow weary of doing good. And you are doing good, giving your child(ren) a safe, attachment-fostering learning environment and presenting them with educational material. Our goals might sound like “teaching him to read” or “getting through algebra,” but ultimately your goal is to be faithful in the job you’ve been given and loving your child well. Your reward will come from God, not from your child. Take a deep breath, remember your child is not the enemy, and know that you aren’t alone.

3 Things to Improve Preschool Handwriting

The past week, I’ve had two different people ask if a child’s handwriting sample was appropriate for their age, both for children under five. Both times, the handwriting seemed either right on track or a little advanced. I don’t fault the mothers for asking– it shows good initiative that they are making sure their child isn’t falling behind, is capable of keeping up with their peers, and is advancing at a good rate skill-wise.

That said, I’d like to reassure moms everywhere– handwriting is not an indicator of comprehension. Even kids with fine motor delays can be doing well in letter and number comprehension and lag in handwriting. Current research is actually finding that pushing kids to academic seat work does not improve later academic performance and may even harm it. This article from The Washington Post, in review of a book by Stephen Camarata, notes that delaying public kindergarten by a year has a positive impact on elementary education.

The answer isn’t to stop preparing kids for academics. The answer isn’t to give up handwriting, math, science, or reading. The answer is to prepare appropriately. If your child enjoys working in handwriting or school workbooks, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Go for it! If your child is dragging her feet and reluctant to sit down and work, then don’t push it. Your child isn’t “behind.” You can still encourage learning without paperwork and you can foster a love of learning without teaching them to dread school.

Introducing concepts early is a great idea, but you can do this through play and conversation and reading books– point out letters and numbers around you, count toys animals as you add them to a barn, count blocks as you stack them, group sets of Cheerios and add them before eating, talk about how many are left as you eat. And if you want to prepare your child for handwriting success, here are a few things to try:

  1. Play-Doh.
    Whether you buy it at the store or make it from scratch, spend time with Play-Doh! This is sensory play that my kids are often on their own for– I do not sit and make elaborate creations for them. They figure out how to make their own stuff after I’ve demonstrated a few basic shapes. But I will sit down with them and help them make letters. Form some ropes and shape letters freehand and help them do the same. You can also print out some play-doh mats and laminate them or put them in sheet protectors. Talk about the letters and the sounds as you make them. Let your child’s interest dictate how long you work. My personal recommendation is to always encourage/stay working for one letter past the “I’m done” point. When they say “I’m done,” or start to lose interest, verbally encourage, “Let’s do just one more,” and then do one more. You’re strengthening their attention span and retaining their trust. You’ll lose it and their interest if “one more” always means “five more.” For reference, at three and five years old, my kids can usually handle anywhere from one to ten letters at a time.
  2. Stringing Beads
    While Play-Doh works on letter recognition and hand strength, stringing beads or tracing shapes with yarn (we find ours at the Dollar Tree, $1 for five to six shapes and two strings) will help with eye-finger coordination and muscle control. This is something you can take in a bag with you to play with while waiting for appointments or sitting in church, for the cardboard shapes. Beads are a little messier and might require more supervision. If you have chunky wooden ones, you can use a dry erase marker to put numbers or letters on them and practice stringing them in order or just reading them as you string them.
  3. Mazes
    This is the only one on this list that might actually require a pencil or crayon. Find or make some simple mazes, varied depending on skill level, and start by finger-tracing the path without a writing utensil. Graduate to using a pencil or crayon. And while the market is awash with chunky “preschool” pencils, tiny fingers benefit from tiny tools to learn how to hold a pencil properly. Buy golf pencils or sharpen regular ones down to golf-pencil size to give your preschooler a small, light tool to work with as they write.

Try these things to work on handwriting and don’t stress too much about handwriting ability yet, if your preschooler is five or under. You can keep working and developing, and extreme frustration or dread might be a sign that something is off, but for the most part, developing handwriting skills at this age isn’t learning to write letters. Some kids are really eager to learn that and will thrive even with early introduction. But reluctance doesn’t necessarily mean they are behind. Right now is the time to lay a good muscle and comprehension foundation for handwriting through play and simple activities. In our household, these activities are not done in addition to seat-work handwriting for preschool every day– most of the time, these activities are handwriting for the day.

So take a deep breath. Get ready to sing the alphabet. And have some fun!

 

When Bio Kids Need a Break

This post was written by Audrey Simmons as part of the Totally Broke Tuesdays series. This month, our focus is “Adoption.” Audrey has been writing about bio kids in the midst of adoption and you can find the first two posts here and here.

Do you ever feel like you need to just get away? Things have been crazy all day, all week, all month, and you wish you could just have a day off. Or even, an evening off. In the midst of forging connections, dealing with fallout from hurt children’s behaviors, and whatever else is going on in your life (and if you’ve adopted, finances or health might be one of those big things), you just need to run away screaming. At least, that’s what it feels like.

Your bio kids probably feel it, too. Depending on age, though, they might express it in different ways. Do they avoid the company of the family? Do they linger at events, dragging their feet when it’s time to leave church? Do they have trouble adjusting after an afternoon at a friend’s house? Do they whine about a need for privacy, for space, complain often? Are their own meltdowns reaching a level almost equal to that of those with wounded pasts?

Your bio kids might need a respite. If things are really tough, really chaotic at home, then they might benefit from a few days away with grandparents or other relatives or friends you trust. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just a special couple of days for them away. Nobody has failed. This isn’t giving up. This is just a breather. An oxygen mask, of sorts.

It can be good for bio kids to have a few days where they are getting a break in routine, some positive attention. In adoptive homes, there are sometimes periods of intense therapy/connection work where the kids who are “behaving” start to feel like they only get attention if they act up. Reshifting some focus for them can be healthy.

There will be transition on both ends. You might cringe at the level of enthusiasm they have for “escaping,” even if no one calls it that. Hold it in. This isn’t a time for lectures about family and loving and bearing burdens– chances are, they want to escape the behavior, and have trouble (as everyone does) disassociating it from the person. Let it go.

When they come home, there might be a day or so of sour attitudes and feet-dragging, and you might feel a little bitter. After all, they just got a break. You were at home, still with the screaming and door-slamming and peeing on the walls (or whatever you’re dealing with!). But coming back to “reality” is a jarring, but necessary, transition. They might equally be full of enthusiasm for discussing the days they spent apart from you, and you might (again) be tempted to be a little bitter. But this is connection! This is what you’re struggling to create with the kids who can’t see past tantrums right now.

Ask what they enjoyed or didn’t like about their days away. Connect with them. And then, gently remind them if you need to, that breaks or vacations are a chance to gather our wits and take a breath. Sour attitudes can be addressed and corrected, because even if it is difficult life, it is real life. Real life is sharing burdens, loving difficult people, and we need to focus our breaks on collecting ourselves and relaxing but not mistaking those things for what real life could be or is. It’s a difficult concept for bio kids to grasp, but it’s worth tackling and giving them occasional breaks to do so.

Why You Should Break Your Bio Kids’ Hearts

This post was written by Audrey Simmons as part of the Totally Broke Tuesdays series.

Last month, our focus was PLAY and ways to play or use home therapy for free. We’ll have more posts on that in the future, but the theme for the month of June is “Adoption.” And today, I’m going to talk about the why of adopting while your bio kids are at home, from personal experience, for those who already have bio kids. This is a different kind of Totally Broke Tuesday.

First, some disclaimers: You should not adopt for your bio kids. This is not a post encouraging you to adopt to benefit them. This is also not a post encouraging you to go out and find very traumatized children while your bio kids are little and exposing them to abuse from a child who has known issues before they can defend themselves. Just want to make sure that’s clear.

So, you’ve adopted or you’re in the process of adopting or you’re thinking about it. You should know:

Adoption will break your bio kids’ hearts. It will.

Bio kids in adoptive homes will be broken by adopting. Maybe the experience is a little different if you adopt as your youngest bio is finishing high school or leaving for college, I don’t know. But in our house, we ranged in age from five to 12 when our adoption was completed and we grew up together, in the same house with the same rules and the same parenting decisions at the same time. And we were broken by adopting. You try growing up in a household with RAD/FAS and skip being broken by it.

You should also know:

You should not waste time feeling guilty that adoption broke your bio kids’ hearts.

You shouldn’t. That guilt and that condemnation are not from Christ. I’m not telling you to go dance in the streets for joy that you watch your kids’ hearts being broken. You can be broken with them and for them. But you check that guilt and burn it like filthy rags, right now.

Being broken is an uncomfortable experience. But you know what else brokenness does? It opens a door to be drawn to Christ. And if you are seeking Him, leaning on Him, crying out to Him– modeling that for your children– you can  talk them through taking their own broken hearts to Christ. The Psalms are full of this. Psalm 51:17 says,

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.”

And Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Sure, your children didn’t sin by adopting or being broken by adoption. But that brokenness stems from an awareness of sinful nature and living out the consequences of sin. That brokenness doesn’t have to be an evil thing. Brokenness can be an uncomfortable, live-altering thing, but if the alternative is a comfortable heart, a socially on-track life, all the right toys, money for a good college, and an obliviousness to the suffering of others, you might “good life” your kid straight to hell. (To be clear, I’m not saying that kids who didn’t grow up in adoptive homes can’t find Christ, so don’t think that.)

I’m saying if we’re feeling hopeless and guilty about our children being broken, we might not have the right priorities.

Are you thinking about their high school years and college opportunities? Or are you thinking about eternity? And i’m saying this as a kid who was broken. I cannot tell you what my life would have been like had we not adopted, because it’s all theory, but I do like to remind my dad that I was on the fast-track for self-gratification and self-obsession. But I can tell you that the ways in which adoption broke me have already been used for good. It has drawn me closer to Christ. I do not cry often. I struggle with empathy. I imagine those things would both be worse if I was not broken.

At 12 years old, I lived in an orphanage for a frigid November month. I cannot walk in a stiff winter breeze with the hint of snow in the air without remembering a dozen faces we left behind and praying for them. My heart still aches and I wish I knew how they were doing. I think of them by name.

At 16 years old, I watched a movie clip in youth group of a father abandoning his family, and I missed the entire discussion that followed because I was in the back of the room bent double in my chair, sobbing. When someone got me a cup of water and I thought I’d calmed down enough to talk forty-five minutes later, all I could give for explanation was the thought that had been running through my head non-stop: Someone abandoned my sister.

At 23 years old, I was in the hospital with newborn twins and I cried when the nurse brought them back from a test. She assured me they were fine and I nodded. I wasn’t upset about my boys. I was upset because I got to hold them and nobody had been there to hold my brother when he was in the hospital, premature and fighting for his life.

When a brother broke something that belonged to me and then screamed and yelled and struggled through not knowing how to regulate his own responses or manage his own brokenness or recognize his own sin, a family member asked me, “How do you keep forgiving him?” I gave the answer I fall on because it’s the only rock beneath my feet: “I have to, because I do to Christ what he does to me, and I can’t help but see that I’m just as awful.”

I have examined knifed couches, I have tumbled down stairs with my hands in a brother’s hair and his teeth on my arm, I have listened to awful stories about being a neglected toddler, I have beat my fists on a carpet floor in frustration, I have sought solace in all the wrong things, I have dealt with secondary trauma and PTSD, I have waited on firefighters to put out a forest fire a brother started right next to our house, I have wanted to kill them, I have been afraid I’d be killed, I have had my bikes destroyed, my Easter candy stolen, I have driven to a field trip with someone screaming and kicking the entire way there, I have chewed out a friend for referring to her as my “half-sister,” I have wondered at the ugly mystery of children being abandoned, I have seen sugar-hangovers from FAS, I’ve lost entire days to tantrums, I know the safe-holds they teach people who work with at-risk youth.

I have seen miracles in changed hearts, I have waited across an ocean, I have watched literal dreams come actually true, I have seen a child brave the front yard, learn how to ride a bike, learn how to say “I’m sorry” and mean it, I have taught a boy to read, I have set up a tent and a laptop for an outside movie night, I have prayed for a preteen just processing what happened to him as a child, I’ve learned to be an advocate, I have been given a real hug from a child who had to be taught how to hug, I have seen real smiles, heard real laughter.

Matthew 21:44 says, “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

I have fallen on Christ through parents bearing good fruit in their faithfulness, I have seen the Gospel lived out, and I have been broken until I can only fall on Him again with the words, “I need You, I need You, I need You.”

Yes, adoption might break your bio kids’ hearts. But maybe you should let it.

If you have a kid you can’t take anywhere

Do you have kids that you feel like you can’t take anywhere? You have to go some places, like the grocery store or church or the bank, but you dread it. Other optional places, things you enjoyed before you had or adopted That Kid, like the library and restaurants and shopping, you just skip altogether.

Maybe you were expecting it, maybe you knew you were adopting an older kid who might have issues. Maybe it took you by surprise, this strange, hyper child. You just know that once, you were an adult who breezed through errands and now that you have That Kid, you’ve become That Mom– the one whose mouth is set in a grim line, fighting back tears or anger, while this little human that you are responsible for literally sprints away from you to grab fruit out of the produce bins. You can’t leave. You’ve left twice this week already. You have no food at home.

Once, you could meet a friend for coffee but now you drink your coffee cold, in the car, if it hasn’t spilled yet, because the entire restaurant trip was a game of How Many Times Can I Stand on the Seat and Yell About Things I Can See. The one time you went to the library, all the books from an entire shelf were dumped on the floor and he dropped to the ground to scream when you told him he had to whisper.

Clearly, your best option is to have everything you can delivered to the house and give up on friendship until you can drop the kid off at his freshman dorm. Maybe you even have Those Kids instead of just one.

There are many ways to address behavioral problems and today we’re talking about addressing those through play. Whether your child is four or eight, bio or adopted, expectations can heighten frustration for both parent and child. If you have a child who is purposefully and actively being disobedient, that’s another issue– but a kid with sensory issues or traumatic past might honestly have no idea how to go to the grocery store. Last week, I talked about using little toys to work through this with younger kids, but an activity with a wider age range is role play!

For ten minutes today, your bookshelf is the library. Your dinner table, a fancy restaurant. Your dinner prep, a grocery store of cabinets. Your story time, a church pew. You pick the setting. You direct the kids. You clearly and simply narrate what is happening and enforce rules, here at home when redirection or correction isn’t disruptive to others or pointless to an overwhelmed child. Include all your kids and let them model behavior for each other!

Make it fun! Get bags for “library books” and pretend to scan your cards. Make someone the librarian. Use shopping bags for groceries, make a dinner menu for your restaurant and hire a kid or husband as a waiter.

Then stick to the rules. Whisper at your pretend library, stay seated until everyone is finished with dinner, walk with groceries and only pick up items when instructed to.

It’s a game but it’s teaching expectations. It’s working through issues intentionally, rather than waiting until you’re in the moment and helpless. Then, when issues do arise in public, That Kid can be reminded, “Remember, we practiced this. I know this place smells weird to you, but let’s just pretend we’re playing that same game again.”

Playing through situations will feel silly, but the chance for practice and verbal instruction together might open the doorway for conversation that reveal some of the actual motivations behind a child’s behavior. We were just talking here on Sunday about practicing handshakes for church and discussing why our older boys might be reluctant, at church, to shake hands or say hello to others. Adam and I each had theories, but then our oldest just looked at Adam and said, “I don’t shake their hands because I don’t know their names.”

An offered hand at church has led to him squealing, hiding, clinging to our legs, or staring blankly. And he wasn’t being bad– we had no idea that he was trying his best to follow our rules about strangers! People he didn’t know were trying to grab a part of his body and his parents were just standing there– no wonder he had been freaking out! We got a chance to explain the difference between a stranger talking to him or grabbing him, and greeting an adult properly with mom or dad standing next to him. We’ll be practicing handshakes this week, too!

Is there anything you feel like your kids would benefit from “practice” in?