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?

Three Opinions on Play dates

Wednesday I (Kathleen) wrote a post about play-dates for moms. If you missed it, you can catch up here.

Congratulations to Hollie Hart, winner of  a copy of Positive Adoption A Memoir and a ten dollar Starbucks gift card in our facebook contest.

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What do you think an encouraging play-date for Moms looks like?

Audrey:An encouraging play date for moms looks like a chance to talk and drink coffee and go on a walk. I love when I can chat and soak up some sunshine at the same time, especially since I tend to be bad about getting outside on my own. I like the occasional late night excursion, but since evenings are when my husband and I can hang out, it’s more stressful than encouraging if my weeks fill up with lots of nights out while he watches kids. I prefer play dates with one or two moms where we can talk while we let our kids play.

Kathleen: An encouraging play-date for me looks like a coffee date, lunch or sitting out on the deck with a friend/friends and being honest. I don’t do well with small talk. I am drained by it. I would rather talk with someone who is authentic and willing to empathize with me while I do the same for her. Complaining sucks the life out of play-dates. I think there is a definite divide between the state of sharing for caring and sharing to complain. I love to hear other mom’s stories and share my own. And I am sometimes prone to stop and pray.

Amerey: An encouraging play-date for Moms, is a play date that reassures Mothers that they are doing they best they can. A play date at another Moms house that shows that her house isn’t perfectly clean, or that her kids are not perfectly behaved. Also, a time were Moms can talk and be honest with each other about what they are experiencing in they’re mothering. Sometimes it is great to make something shiny, or bake something yummy just to lift your spirits.

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What do you think is the most encouraging thing a Mom friend could say to you?

Audrey:Because I personally struggle with empathy, an encouraging friend for me is one who is empathetic. When I tell her I’m having a hard day, what I need from a mom friend is not just “you’re doing a great job!” but for the gentle reminder about what my kids are probably feeling, too. It makes me look outside myself and what I’m feeling and focus on those around me instead, and that’s so much more encouraging and beneficial in the long-term than a pity party. I know the opposite is true for some moms– they need less empathy and a dose of tough love for their kids, with the reminder that it’s okay to take care of themselves. I think it depends on the person, and for me, finding an emotional opposite of sorts helps me be around people who encourage me.

It’s also important for me to be around people who share priorities with me. It doesn’t mean I can only be friends with those people, but when I’m weak and in need of encouragement or help, I trust advice and comfort more when it comes from people who share the same long-term goals and similar short-term ones.

Kathleen: I think the most encouraging thing another Mom can say to be is “Keep going. Don’t quit. You’re doing a great job!.” I have struggled for years to find my place in the body of Christ and serve with the gifts and talents that God has given me instead of being a people pleaser and latching onto whatever ministry happens to be floating by (which drains me). So, an encouraging friend is not upset if I am not following her God-sized dream and supports me while I follow mine. And she tells me so.

Amerey: The most encouraging thing a Mom friend could say to me is, “I do that too!”

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What do you think a discouraging play-date looks like?

Audrey:I’m most drained by play dates that focus on complaining. It especially makes me uncomfortable and discouraged when I’m around moms that disparage other moms or their own husbands. I don’t like being around people who encourage me to indulge in being selfish, and it can be exhausting if our priorities in life are totally different and I’m using emotional energy to keep up or not come off as judgmental just because I’m doing something in a different way. I’m not talking about small parenting decisions, mind you, but life priorities.

Second up, and I’m guilty of this too, I feel left discouraged and discontent when conversation revolves around having or obtaining the “right” material things. I’ve been noticing this more and more in myself recently and I don’t like it.

Kathleen: A discouraging play date is one that I don’t feel right at. I feel wrong. I feel as if my clothes are wrong, my calling is wrong, It’s the kind of play date when no one else in the room is like-minded and they let you know your way of thinking doesn’t match their’s and you should join them. These are the events that sent me running for the door.

I also agree with Audrey, I am not comfortable on play dates that become “bash your family” dates. I cannot stand the dates that make you feel as if you need to go to the mall and buy more, more, more because i don’t have the right material things. Play dates should be about relationships, not material things. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great creative crafting play date! These crafting dates are therapeutic if they are within my budget.

Amerey: A discouraging play date looks like a day were you are trying to encourage a mom or be encouraged and the other mother is being a negative Nancy no matter what is said or done.

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Who has been a great play-date friend and how did she accomplish it?

Audrey: I have a friend that’s up for play dates with the kids or play dates after bedtime and the flexibility is awesome. She’s willing to listen to me without always offering solutions, sometimes she just says, “That sounds so hard.” And that’s enough. But she also empathizes with my kids and notices things I might not and isn’t afraid to suggest things that are good even if they aren’t easy.   Number one: she asks how I’m doing and doesn’t freak out or shut down if I give an honest answer.
Kathleen: I have many great play date friends. They are the kind of friends I am not able to see for weeks or months, but when we get together, we just pick up where we left off. We share our lives. We pray for one another. We are honest with each other and tell the hard truths as well as the easy ones. We celebrate together. We cry together. We grieve together. A friend accomplishes this by being honest and self-sacrificing. As an adoptive Mom, I am careful what I share about my children from hard places. I must have a few safe friend so share with who know where I am coming from. Being part of a support group helps meet this need!
Amerey: My sister Audrey has been a great play date friend because she is helpful and honest with my struggles, she is always open with me about hers, and she has always been awesome in encouraging me that, “that’s normal!”
Please share your answers to these questions in the comments, you never know who you will minister to. Especially when you say  “me too”!

Playing out our Problems

This is a Totally Broke Tuesday post by Audrey Simmons. You can read about the series here.

Did you know you can play with your kids as therapy and totally for free? No fancy equipment required. If you have a couple toys, you have enough already.

When my twins were toddlers, they went through a phase where they did not want to be dropped off at the church nursery. One boy in particular would wail and cling, after never having an issue with it before. The nursery staff was a rotating roster of volunteer parents and grandparents so it was hard to “talk up” getting to see one consistent figure in particular.

So at home, we broke out the toys.

I got out the few mistmatched Little People we’d gotten from thrift stores (construction workers, knights, Duplo figures) and sat down with the boys before church one morning. A few weeks, I even did it the Saturday before or throughout the week. (I wish I’d remembered to do it more than just at the last minute, sometimes!) We made a nursery room outline out of blocks some mornings, sometimes we just used my legs as our room divisions. Some Little People were nursery workers, some were the boys, some were the other kids they would see in the nursery, and some were me and Adam. We’d “walk” our little family up to the “nursery door” and the Mama and Daddy figures (voiced by me) would say, “Oh, I love you! We’ll be back soon!” and the boys (again, voiced by me) would cheerfully reply, “I love you! I’ll see you soon!” and then I’d act out them playing in the room and having a snack and then being picked up again to go home. The twins loved it.

They’d insist that I do it again, and again, and then they would take over, playing out the same scene and creating variations.

Within one or two times, the boy that had been so reluctant was cheerfully walking into the nursery and confidently waving bye. His reluctance resurfaced one or two times in the next few months and we’d just pull out the toys again and play the game as a reminder.

When you have a young child, who is only partially verbal, his comprehension might surprise you sometimes. But other times, especially if there are attachment issues, an inability to express what it is that he is having a hard time with can be frustrating for everyone. He isn’t “being bad,” he’s just having a hard time. And what do you do in this situation?

(As a caveat, I can’t recommend that you force a recently-adopted child to be okay with being dropped off in a nursery. If they want mama, they should have mama.)

Maybe your kid is hitting a sibling every. single. time. he gets frustrated. Maybe you try to go to restaurants and it’s a disaster. Maybe your daughter doesn’t want to sit in the cart at the grocery store but takes off running or pulls stuff off shelves if she isn’t restrained. Maybe your son has to go with you to a wedding next month. Maybe your kids are getting ready for a field trip to the zoo and the idea of actually having a good day seems like a joke, because all you can imagine is LIONS and CHILD WHO LOVES TO CLIMB FENCES while one of them would leave, smiling, with any stranger who happened to grab a hand.

Sure, there are situations where kids are definitely just straight-up being disobedient (and some of this works for that anyway), but think for a minute about those situations I mentioned and any that sprang to mind. How many of those are situations where you know how to behave and are just assuming your child should? How many of these are situations where a child has literally no idea what to expect, no frame of reference, no preexisting base for what being “good” is when a stressed parent hisses, “Just be good.”

When I was younger, we visited family in another state and the adults decided to take us tubing down a river. I kept asking, “Tubing? What do you mean tubing?” And my cousin was so excited. “Tubing is the best!” he told me, over and over. “You’ll love it!” I was imagining literal plastic tubes, clear and futuristic, that we’d been shot through in some kind of vehicle, like a subway car. I couldn’t understand why it needed to happen near a river and why it was anything more than a subway ride. I spent two days in baffled amazement, before we got to the river tubing rental house and got…inner tubes. Inflated swimming pool rings, to sit in, while we drifted down a calm river. It was a blast but 100% different from what I’d anticipated. When we got in the car at the end of the day, I demanded, “Mom, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t like a subway?” But she hadn’t realized that my mental image was why I’d been so confused.

Now imagine that you’re two and have limited verbal skills. Or that you’re seven and have limited English skills, or limited emotional literacy (the ability to talk accurately about emotions).

And now, let’s play.

Get out whatever little people you have. Action figures, Little People, Duplos, Lego minifigs, dolls, whatever. You can even use plastic animals or plain blocks with different colors. Decide what situational behavior you want to address (grocery store? upcoming family event? restaurant? library?). Now get your kid(s).

Just say, “This is Otto. This is Mama. This is Ursula.” Establish the identities of your toys. Use your own names and whatever the kids call you. You’ve got them for a few minutes, while they’re just curious and excited that you’re playing with them (if they are dragging their feet and whining as slightly older kids, tell them they have to stick it out; if this is play therapy, treat it like therapy– some good things are not optional and a lot of times they’ll be willingly participating within minutes).

First act out what usually happens.

“Mama and Otto are going to the grocery store. We get in the car, we go vrooooom. We find a parking space and get out. Otto holds on to the cart quietly while Mama checks her list. Noooo, Otto, come back here. Hold on to the cart. When Otto runs away, Mama gets him back. This isn’t how we act in a grocery store! Oh, Otto is running away again? Now Mama must put him in the cart. Otto is throwing a fit. [Get dramatic if your kid does, haha!] Now Mama must take him to the car and leave. What a sad trip to the store! They did not get their food! Otto is sad, Mama is sad! What can they do?”

Now act out what should happen. Use the toys to show your child what a grocery store trip should look like. Maybe he’s overwhelmed by all the food choices, maybe he’s excited, maybe he knows he’s making you mad or stressed but isn’t totally sure what you want him to do differently. After all, you walk through the store and grab, what seems to him, totally random items you like to eat and put them in the cart. Same for restaurant behavior.

“Mama, Daddy, Otto, and Ursula are going to the restaurant. They wait for their last name to be called and then they sit at their table. The waitress brings silverware and we leave it alone on the table until we have food. We sit quietly and we talk, ‘How was your day today, Daddy?’ ‘What is your favorite color, Mama?’ ‘What is your favorite animal, Ursula?’ They bring the food. We eat together. Oh, Otto has to go to the bathroom! He asks, ‘Please take me to the bathroom,’ and waits for someone to hold his hand.” and etc.

If you are play-acting an event like a wedding or funeral or family gathering, something that hasn’t been an area of behavior problem in the past, just play out what will happen to develop appropriate expectations. Don’t worry about inventing “bad” behavior to play out consequences. Just model what you expect and what they can expect.

Play out these scenarios more than one time. Do them over and over again in the course of the weeks leading up to an event, or the evening or morning before a trip to the store, to the restaurant, the library, church, the mall, the DMV.

The goal of play therapy is not to have perfect children. Of course you’ll still have to deal with stuff in the moment. But the goal is to prepare a child for a new, unusual, or problematic situation and equip them with a mental framework to choose how to act instead of being ruled by an emotion. I just started play-acting this morning with my toddler daughter, who has gotten into the habit of hitting or pulling hair every time an older brother tells her “no.” She has a consequence for being rough or violent, but that doesn’t remove the frustration she feels when a taller, bigger person tells her “no” and she doesn’t like it. So we play to learn how to handle that frustration in appropriate ways. Just “be gentle” isn’t cutting it with she’s overwhelmed with toddler emotion. It’s a fun game and it’s giving her something to do instead. Plus, Mom is playing with her, so that’s just awesome.

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Are their areas of your daily life you could apply this play therapy to? What situation will you act out this week?

Soaked!

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done–
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
“To come and spoil the fun!”

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll, best known as the author of Alice in Wonderland, was also known for his silly and nonsense poetry. The opening stanzas of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” are one of my favorite examples. It’s immediately silly to almost anyone who understands the English words, or who has had the poem translated for them, because the joke is dependent on understanding basic laws of nature. The sun rises and sets. That’s daytime. The moon or stars come out and it’s dark. That’s nighttime.

If you walk on the edge of a cliff, you might slip and fall. That’s gravity. If you climb a tree too high, you might step on a branch that can’t hold your weight, and it will break. If you jump in a pool without knowing how to swim, you either stand in the shallows or you drown. If you sleep in until eleven in the morning, the sun doesn’t wait for you. If you leave a matchbox car in the driveway where the real cars usually park, it gets crushed.

These are basic rules about the natural, physical world that most people can’t remember not knowing. Do you remember when you learned that gravity worked? Most of us go through the process as babies and toddlers, gaining information by experience and a correctly working grasp of cause and effect.

Unfortunately, for a lot of children with RAD, FAS, or on the autism spectrum, they have only a patchwork understanding of these laws. If they aren’t understood, some kids will make up their own rules in the mental absence. This means a child who is living, walking around, and playing in a world with foundational lies about what will happen to him in the physical world.

If you have a baby or a toddler, your baby is working on learning and understanding these things! And most babies will learn without any formal instruction or therapy if they aren’t dealing with brain or neurological issues.

You know you have a kid who doesn’t have a developed grasp of natural laws if you hear them say things like, “I won’t fall off this cliff [that I’m leaning over precariously], I’m not stupid.” He says this because he has assumed that, rather than gravity being a force outside of him, that he can control some element of the physical world. Of course he knows not to fall. That would be dumb. But all the variables that make other humans naturally cautious around cliffs (loose rocks or moss to slip on, other people walking by, stiff winds, etc.) are unavailable to this child. It’s like living in a world where a kind of precise mental algebra is required with a kid who still thinks he can make 2+2=5 if he just wants it enough.

So, what do you do? What do you do with this kid?

You make him play.

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Water play is a great way to start. As an added bonus, if you’ve got a daredevil who doesn’t yet know how to swim, it can be a lot less stressful than going to the pool (although I highly recommend giving kids a chance to learn to swim, from you or someone else).

If you have a little kid or toddler, just bowls of water and cups and spoons on the back deck or in the yard are a great idea. Strip down to a diaper or put them in a bathing suit, expect them to get soaked, and let them go to town. Demonstrate pouring and scooping water.

A slightly older kid is ready for something more advanced. Try making boats out of paper (here’s just one, you can find lots more) and floating them in a bin or the bathtub. If your child ends up a little frustrated at a poorly made boat, talk through it if he’ll let you without resistance, drop it if he’s getting too upset. Either way, that solid wall of frustration he’s hitting (even if he says stuff like, “This is dumb, I hate this,”) is not you failing to educate or entertain, it’s the wall of natural laws and he will have to encounter those, often with frustration, to learn that they are beyond his manipulation or control.

You can do sink or float experiments with a bin or bowl of water and random household items. Use a piece of paper to keep track of what sinks and what floats if you want. Most kids who do this will get really excited by the first thing that surprises them, and then they will want to put everything in. Let them try! Exclude stuff that would be ruined by water unless it’s something you feel like you can replace– even a small paper thing being ruined is a good learning experience. Spoons sink, wood floats, what about spoons with a wooden handle? Keep going for as long as your kids are interested. You might be surprised at what they assume will float or sink– don’t mock them or tease them about it right now. This is true mental process coming to the surface and it will shut down if they feel like it’s making them vulnerable.

If you have an even older kid, wash the car! Scrub the sides of your house! Even if you don’t have a hose, toting buckets of water or bowls of water back and forth between the sink and the outside for washing something will be good. Mixing soap, scrubbing, and rinsing are exposing your kid to scientific processes of muscle and chemical composition that are teaching him something solid about the world around them, about forces he cannot change or redirect. Buckets of water are heavy and the only solution to one that is too heavy is to dump some of the water out.

Repeated exposure to processes and experiences like this are laying new foundational work in the brain. It will need to be repeated if you have a child with neurological issues or delays. This path has to be walked so often that, by use, it begins to take over and replace the old paths of understanding. And if you don’t have a child with delays or issues, this kind of play still stimulates and encourages a kind of mental work and creativity that will spill over into their understanding and other play.

So, grab some towels or catch a sunny day, turn on some faucets, and get ready to get soaked!

P.S. Just as an FYI, I’m not a personal fan of sensory projects. I hate being wet, for one thing. I’m not the biggest fan of being dirty. But you don’t have to be a parent that loves these things to still do them and engage in them for your kids! If this isn’t your favorite thing, don’t skip it because it’s not your thing– try it once in a while to see what your kid thinks! And just be okay with not liking it much, just like you do about taking them to get shots or making dinner. You already do necessary things without loving the activity, because you love your kids and know that it’s good for them!

Take a Hike, Kid!

Yesterday, Kathleen blogged about a mother’s need to get outside. Spring is rolling in here and Totally Broke Tuesday is also about nature. Hopefully, it’s getting sunny and warm where you are, too! Enjoy this post about how to engage with nature for little to no money and read through to the end for details about a book giveaway!

One of the things that you can do with nearly any age and on a limited budget is take a nature walk. If you have a printer and paper, or twenty-five cents to print something at the library, you can print the one we used on our walk today. If you don’t have a library to use or a printer, just make a list on the back of an envelope or receipt! You don’t need fancy paper or notebooks to get outside and look around.

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Getting outside and walking can stimulate brain activity and creativity, as well as engaging the physical benefits of stretching and moving. Hiking or walking on uneven terrain promotes development of balance and coordination without expensive therapy equipment.

One of the great things about heading outside specifically for a nature walk is that it makes the area around you immediately more interesting. You don’t have to travel far or even get in the car. If you have a small yard, maybe you’ll have more of a nature crawl! If you live in the city, don’t discount the wonder of city plants and weeds. If it’s growing or moving, take time to look at it! An old landscape or path or environment has the potential to feel new and exciting.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own childhood experiences in nature and the fact that they don’t automatically transmute to my children. Is there anything you consider a staple of your childhood that you haven’t exposed your kids to? There are dozens of little things, little pieces of knowledge, little experiences, that I don’t think to mention or describe. Today for us, it was finding onion grass growing wild by the Rail Trail we walked on near our home.

“Look, guys, onion grass. It smells like onions.”

“Ew,” chorused my kids, who don’t share my love of cooked onions.

But a second later, the questions started: “What is onion grass? Is it onion? Can you eat it? Do you cook it?”

“You chew on it,” I told them. “It tastes like onion. I used to chew it until my stomach hurt. I didn’t want my stomach to hurt, but I loved the taste of onion grass.”

“You chew it,” T said dubiously, looking at the piece in his hand. “Do you eat it? Why?”

They all came home with pieces of onion grass in their backpacks.

Don’t neglect to share experience. If you’ve never experienced nature in this way, then experience it for the first time with your kids. In The Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock, the author writes,

“In nature-study any teacher can with honor say, ‘I do not know’; for perhaps the question asked is as yet unanswered by the great scientists. But she should not let her lack of knowledge be a wet blanket thrown over her pupils’ interest. She should say frankly, ‘I do not know; let us see if we cannot together find out this mysterious thing. Maybe no one knows it as yet, and I wonder if you will discover it before I do.'”

Preschoolers love the thrill of searching for something. Even if they drag their feet at first, encourage them to keep looking and find what you can. Take water bottles or cups of water with you and stay hydrated and keep hunting. I didn’t think we’d find acorns or spider webs today along the trail, and we found both!

Print or write down some things to hunt for if your kids are little. Even my two-year-old was excited to search for clouds and sticks and leaves. Hunting for those things made every leaf and stick suddenly exciting and worthy of attention.

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If you have older kids or a limited area in which to hunt or walk, introduce another kind of challenge. Find five, or ten, or twenty, plants or bugs or bridges or rocks you don’t know the names of and look them up online. Take pictures and check field guides at the library. Maybe the sidewalk is overgrown with weird, viney weeds– have you ever stooped to look at them? To study the tiny ants that use that weed for shade? The veins in the weed’s stalk? What is that weed called? What is the tree it’s creeping alongside?

If you are parenting a child with attachment issues, being out in the bigness of nature examining the small and large life around him is a wonderful thing for body and mind. Even if he forgets by next Tuesday what the name of the plant he looked up was, the natural world is becoming less foreign to him. The effort is good for his brain and his body and it’s shaping a connection to a healthy place to destress or unwind. If you have little or big kids and a limited budget, this is an education that gives your kids confidence and a sense of place in their world.

Outside, we meet both challenge (a hot day, the bigness of the world) and solace (the care of God’s creation and His care for us in it). And it doesn’t have to be expensive or far from home!

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Finally, today, we’re doing a giveaway of Kathleen Guire’s book Positive Adoption.

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To enter to win a copy, all you need to do is comment on this blog post with your name and email address (you don’t need to leave it in the comment, just be sure to provide it in the comment author info) and answer the question: What is your favorite memory of being outside? Is it taking walks by yourself? Running through a sprinkler when you were five? Cookouts before a football game?

A winner’s name will be randomly drawn old-school from a hat or bag at 3pm Tuesday (today!). The winner will be mentioned in a comment and contacted via email for shipping details.

That’s all! Now go outside!