Processing Their Grief

If only parenting was as simple as writing a beautiful (yet boring) novel, where we could decide exactly what our child will experience. Or even like a choose your own adventure, where we could have at least some control of what our child comes across. Yet it’s not, and often the hardest part of parenting is being aware of our own emotions and how they influence our actions and our children. My daughter’s kindergarten class recently experienced the loss of a classmate. This has rocked most of us as parents, in so many ways, as we try to understand what happened, help our children understand what happened, and in turn, understand how children this young developmentally process death.

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In the beginning of the school year, three small cards fell out of my kindergarten daughter’s backpack. They each contained neatly drawn pictures of her and a little boy, with “I love you” written on them. Not in my daughter’s handwriting. Her line number and his line number were included, as was her lunch number. My husband and I were a bit surprise by this development so early in her school career, but decided at least she had attracted the attention of a boy who had such neat handwriting, whose drawing skills were clearly advanced beyond that of a typical five-year-old, and one who seemed to have a head for numbers (And were a bit concerned that anyone would know her lunch number, but that’s another discussion). They were friends, our daughter said, and left it at that. So we did too, not wanting to make a bigger deal of her first love letters than needed. We saw him occasionally at school events and birthday parties, and found ourselves often asking about him. He was one of the kids we were given updates on when she returned home from school.

We heard about when he was first absent, and our daughter was concerned. He’d missed their field trip, and we assumed he’d gotten the flu because it seemed that everyone else was getting it. She continued to be worried about him, asking if he’d be back to school each morning and then reporting that he was not in the afternoon. We assured her he’d be back soon, but this flu season was rough and a lot of kids have to miss school for full weeks.

On Monday, my husband called me as I drove home, and asked me if I’d checked my email. 
Her friend,""he almost whispered, "passed away."

I can’t begin to tell you where my head went in this situation. Utter disbelief, sadness, protectiveness, along with a million questions swirled through my head. How does this happen? By five and six we think they are invincible, or almost invincible. We’re past the point of worrying about SIDS or choking by eating a stray lego. They are sturdy, brave, and independent, and we forget just how sacred every moment of life is. Just imagining the mother’s pain leaves me unable to speak. There are no words to begin to describe such a pain, even one that I can only imagine.

And then there was the immediate situation of having to explain this to our daughter. The email from the school said that they were not going to address this in school, but instead were leaving it up to the parents to talk about with their children.

After dinner, we sat our daughter down, and when we brought up her friend, she looked hopeful for answers. “Is he coming back tomorrow?” she asked. I couldn’t finish the sentence, and so my husband stepped in and explained it to her. We braced ourselves for the worst, as this is the child who cried real tears when her doll’s legs popped off, or when we throw away old art projects, or when her playmate across the street moved away. She attaches to people, objects, and concepts, and has always had a hard time with change or transition.

“Oh,” she said. “So he’s not coming back?”

“Do you understand what it means to be dead?” I asked. She’d lived through the loss of three of my grandparents, so it was something we talk about on a certain level.

“Not really,” she said. “Can I go to bed now? Why are we down here?”

Her answer seemed to smack our grief in the face. How could we be so saddened and distraught about a boy we barely knew, when it was her playmate who was gone.

Years ago, when I was a classroom teacher, a girl in my class lost her mother. A counselor gave me a copy of a book on the developmental stages of grief to help me understand how the girl may cope with death in school. So early in my career I was surprised by what the chapter said – children of this age are so literal that they may even ask questions if the worms were going to eat the dead person’s body. Or want to know what it would be like to be buried, or what would happen to the person’s stuff. They do not yet have the full understanding of what death is, and so approach it as they may approach learning about any new concept- with any questions that come to their mind, with no concept of what may or may not be appropriate to ask.

This information helped me greatly when I talked to my daughter about my grandparents passing away, and even more when she came home from school one day and asked if we could dig up my grandparents to see what their bones looked like. That was a hard one to swallow, but I returned to that chapter to remind myself that this is a part of development.

I’m re-reading it again now, and continue to be reassured at the “textbook” nature of how my daughter is processing her friend’s death. Little comments come out randomly, from out of nowhere, and then she runs off to play, only to return later with another question. “Mommy, kids aren’t supposed to die, right?”

“Mommy, he was supposed to be a grandpa, right?”

“Most kids get to become grandparents, right?”

“Mommy, the teachers aren’t talking about him, but the kids are. Everyone says he’s dead.” “What else do they say?” I ask, wondering what’s going on behind the teachers’ backs at school.

“Just that he’s dead. Everyone says it.” Perhaps for them, there is nothing more to say right now.

“Can babies die?”

“Will you live to be 100, Mommy?”

I answer honestly, but when I try to open to a larger conversation she runs off.

I’m trying hard to walk the line between showing her my concern and my own grief, but also not pushing her to be sad about something she does not yet developmentally understand. In a few years, she may look back at this time and feel a true sadness for the situation, finally processing what happened this winter. But for now, she’s still grappling with what death means, its gravity, and permanent-ness.

More than anything, I’m aware of my own helplessness. Somehow, if she was sad I could comfort her, and then feel as though I was doing something about the situation. But it’s not about me, and I can’t push her to feel something in order to comfort myself. And it does not mean she is unfeeling or lacking empathy with her mater-of-factness, although it can appear that was from our adult lens of the world.

So I wait, listen, answer, and pray. Pray for the family, for the teacher who has a class full of 24 literal children dealing with such a confusing concept, for the community, and for the mindfulness to be aware of my own emotions and separate them from my daughter’s. 

The Importance of Play

While attending the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood International Conference in Portland, I attended session after session on play. Why it is important, how to teach it, what to teach, and how to support families in playing with their children. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was on Project Play, a research study out of Northeastern University.

In this project the researchers have been studying the different developmental stages of play with objects. They have found that how children manipulate objects during play develops in a series of stages, and that this development is clear whether or not a child has a disability. It is important, then, to support children in play where they are, and help them move to the next developmental play stage, without skipping over play stages, as children need to experience all the stages to move on. This work resonates with Stanley Greenspan’s work on DIR/Floortime, and I was fascinated to seem the similarities in the research findings.

The work also had me thinking about how we look at childhood and elementary school itself. This was my second early childhood conference of the year, and in each conference play has been honored as an essence of childhood. The field of early childhood understands the importance of play in a child’s development. But how are the rest of us doing when children move from early childhood to the middle years? We no longer honor play as an essence to healthy development, but see it as something that will give children a break from a hard day of work. Yet for many children, the play in itself may be exhausting, because play is where their real developmental work takes place.

The findings of Project Play stuck me as well, because once children enter elementary school we start talking about age appropriate play, and age appropriate toys.  Yet a child with developmental delays, who is following the developmental play trajectory, is going to miss out on steps in his development if he is forced to experience age appropriate toys and experiences. Instead, he needs developmentally appropriate play opportunities, with an adult who can carefully guide him up the developmental chain. Forcing a child to play with an age appropriate toy, or play an age appropriate game at recess, may make the child look like he is typically developing, but in fact is denying the child an opportunity to develop the missing skills. Of course, we don't want the child to stick out as different and subject them to bullying either, so we need to be mindful in how we choose to create developmental play opportunities for older children.

Object play is where children learn much of their visual-spatial processing skills, which prove to be essential when a child needs to be able to determine the beginning and ending of a word when reading, or to be able to manipulate numbers within a written math problem. Symbolic play, where items represent real-world items, like when a set of blocks becomes a fort, or a plastic doll becomes an animated person, supports children’s development of symbolic reasoning and ideas. In symbolic, dramatic joint play, we learn to accept another’s idea and add on to it in our play. We experience cognitive flexibility, and coping strategies. These are all skills that we need for healthy executive functioning skills, as well as being able to understand scientific reasoning, complex math problems, and comprehend literature.

But if we are forcing children to skip these play stages, or not giving them time to experience these play stages at all, what are we doing to their development? We can teach something that looks like dramatic play, but is it a full understanding of dramatic play that is also helping the child develop cognitive flexibility? Or is it simply that the child is following the set of play rules we put out for them, because this is how to make them look like their peers? 

Theory of Mind

The other day my three year old asked for a glass of milk. When I brought her the milk she burst into tears. "I wanted orange juice!" she cried. I groaned, and then logically tried to explain to her that she'd asked for milk. Milk! The words milk came out of your mouth- not orange juice. Why was this so hard to understand?

Then I had one of those strange moments where I suddenly realized what the problem was. "Let's play a game" I suggested. "See this toy car? I'm going to hide it right here under this pillow." Everyone in the room watched as I hid it. "OK, now, Daddy's going to leave the room." My husband looked perturbed. He was sitting quite comfortably in his chair, reading. "Up! Move! Out!" I demanded, and so he cooperated, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"OK, I explained to both my girls. "Now, we're going to hide the toy car again. Let's put it behind the couch. Now we'll bring Daddy back in." My five year old giggled at our trickiness. It seemed delightfully wrong to have hid the toy again from daddy.

"Where does Daddy think it is?" I asked, when my husband came back in. My five year old immediately pointed to the pillow, where we had originally hid it. My three year old however, ran to point behind the coach. "Daddy thinks it's here!" she announced, while her older sister groaned.

She doesn't have theory of mind yet! I realized. Of course she is upset that I didn't bring her orange juice. She still doesn't understand that we do not know the same information. She does not yet understand that my perspective is different from her perspective. If she KNOWS that the toy is hiding behind the couch, then daddy  must know that too.

We played the game a few times, and each time got the same results. The three year old had no idea that we were tricking the family member outside of the room.

Now, this is a great opportunity for getting the truth out of any situation as we know we can always ask her what is going on (until she develops theory of mind and then we'll have to resort to other lie detector test methods.) But it also explains a lot of that three-nager behavior we know so well.

It's so easy to forget that this confident little person who can speak in paragraphs, run, jump, leap, open small containers, and put on her own shoes is still not developmentally just like us. I mean, she looks like us, talks like us, and can fight with her five year old sister. She doesn't have a sign that says "I have no idea that you don't know what I'm thinking right now." But she doesn't. It's coming and pretty soon she'll understand that when she changes her mind and wants orange juice she actually has to ASK for orange juice. Or that she wants to go look at something on the other side of the store instead of just running and assuming I'll be behind her. Or when she started sobbing on the swing yesterday because her daddy wasn't pushing her high enough. She'd asked him to push her, but she hadn't high. Why was he ignoring her? It's got to be confusing to wonder why all these people aren't doing what you think they should do. While we're frustrated with her big emotional outbursts, our silly game served as an excellent reminder of the motivation behind some of her behavior. She's still figuring out the world, not just intentionally yelling at us (which is what it feels like sometimes).

This is also important to keep in mind with many of our high-functioning students with autism. They are slower to develop theory-of-mind as well, which creates conflicts for them in the classroom, as well as with peers in natural social situations. Not seeing someone else's perspective can make them targets, or put them in situations where they become easily frustrated. (Ever heard  a child say, "He's fat! Everyone knows that, why can't I say it?") This is when it's important to remember the question "Is it a can't or a won't" Is the child being intentionally mean (which is what we initially assume) or is it that he really does not see how his words hurt someone else? We can use this moment as a teaching opportunity to explain empathy, or we can punish the child, without explaining the problem, which won't help us or the child in the future.

In the meantime, while we patiently wait for my daughter to develop theory of mind, we'll keep occasionally testing her with our fun new game.

Theory of Mind

The other day my three year old asked for a glass of milk. When I brought her the milk she burst into tears. "I wanted orange juice!" she cried. I groaned, and then logically tried to explain to her that she'd asked for milk. Milk! The words milk came out of your mouth- not orange juice. Why was this so hard to understand?

Then I had one of those strange moments where I suddenly realized what the problem was. "Let's play a game" I suggested. "See this toy car? I'm going to hide it right here under this pillow." Everyone in the room watched as I hid it. "OK, now, Daddy's going to leave the room." My husband looked perturbed. He was sitting quite comfortably in his chair, reading. "Up! Move! Out!" I demanded, and so he cooperated, more out of curiosity than anything else.

"OK, I explained to both my girls. "Now, we're going to hide the toy car again. Let's put it behind the couch. Now we'll bring Daddy back in." My five year old giggled at our trickiness. It seemed delightfully wrong to have hid the toy again from daddy.

"Where does Daddy think it is?" I asked, when my husband came back in. My five year old immediately pointed to the pillow, where we had originally hid it. My three year old however, ran to point behind the coach. "Daddy thinks it's here!" she announced, while her older sister groaned.

She doesn't have theory of mind yet! I realized. Of course she is upset that I didn't bring her orange juice. She still doesn't understand that we do not know the same information. She does not yet understand that my perspective is different from her perspective. If she KNOWS that the toy is hiding behind the couch, then daddy  must know that too.

We played the game a few times, and each time got the same results. The three year old had no idea that we were tricking the family member outside of the room.

Now, this is a great opportunity for getting the truth out of any situation as we know we can always ask her what is going on (until she develops theory of mind and then we'll have to resort to other lie detector test methods.) But it also explains a lot of that three-nager behavior we know so well.

It's so easy to forget that this confident little person who can speak in paragraphs, run, jump, leap, open small containers, and put on her own shoes is still not developmentally just like us. I mean, she looks like us, talks like us, and can fight with her five year old sister. She doesn't have a sign that says "I have no idea that you don't know what I'm thinking right now." But she doesn't. It's coming and pretty soon she'll understand that when she changes her mind and wants orange juice she actually has to ASK for orange juice. Or that she wants to go look at something on the other side of the store instead of just running and assuming I'll be behind her. Or when she started sobbing on the swing yesterday because her daddy wasn't pushing her high enough. She'd asked him to push her, but she hadn't high. Why was he ignoring her? It's got to be confusing to wonder why all these people aren't doing what you think they should do. While we're frustrated with her big emotional outbursts, our silly game served as an excellent reminder of the motivation behind some of her behavior. She's still figuring out the world, not just intentionally yelling at us (which is what it feels like sometimes).

This is also important to keep in mind with many of our high-functioning students with autism. They are slower to develop theory-of-mind as well, which creates conflicts for them in the classroom, as well as with peers in natural social situations. Not seeing someone else's perspective can make them targets, or put them in situations where they become easily frustrated. (Ever heard  a child say, "He's fat! Everyone knows that, why can't I say it?") This is when it's important to remember the question "Is it a can't or a won't" Is the child being intentionally mean (which is what we initially assume) or is it that he really does not see how his words hurt someone else? We can use this moment as a teaching opportunity to explain empathy, or we can punish the child, without explaining the problem, which won't help us or the child in the future.

In the meantime, while we patiently wait for my daughter to develop theory of mind, we'll keep occasionally testing her with our fun new game.

Drama Club Success!

On Friday afternoon, my daughter burst into tears as she watched us strike the set and turn the small stage back into our basement playroom. "But I want drama club to keep going!" she expressed through her tears. It's hard to be five and experience something fun ending.

But truthfully, I felt the same way. For the last two weeks I've hosted a drama club in my basement. It was just an hour a day, for two weeks, and was for a small group of early elementary school children. I designed it as a way to support children with their reading over the summer, but quickly realized just what a great opportunity it was to teach social skills as well.

I've always been a big fan of using readers' theater to support readers. In my last year as a full-time teacher the reading specialist and I started a drama club for fifth graders during their lunch time, so they could work on their reading and fluency. We were surprised by the amount of kids who joined the group. We never opened it to all of fifth grade, but kids heard about it and started showing up. Putting on shows is fun, and gives reading a purpose.

Reading scripts is a natural way to work on fluency. Kids are not always willing to re-read a passage with expression, especially if they struggled through it the first time. But when you give re-reading a purpose - like say, needing to read it like an actor would, well then, the motivation changes. Re-reading familiar text is essential when children are learning to read, and repeatedly practicing a play lets kids do this in a way that doesn't create boredom or monotony. 

When you involve kids in the planning of the play itself, you are working on their retelling and comprehension skills as well. An actor has to understand a character's emotions before he can take on the part, and so just encouraging the readers to think about how their character feels is a way to foster deeper thinking about the text. 

What's more, in order to block out the scenes, you must be able to sequence the events in order, know which character comes first, next, then, and last, and consider what a character's costume may look like. You even have to spend time thinking about the setting so that you can create the scenery. All in all, you can't put on a play if you aren't comprehending the story.

Then we get to the social skills aspect of drama club. Improv is an excellent way to work on social skills. Any improv game requires its participants to watch one another's body language, and flexibly respond to the stimulation at hand. We played games where we could only communicate with each other by using our eyes (forcing us to make eye contact), or where we needed to guess what someone was doing based off of their actions and emotions (forcing us to attend to body language). We spent a long time discussing different types of emotions, because you need to be able to identify and understand emotions in order to act them out.

What I realized during this club is that the mere act of being in a play requires a fair amount of social skills. We came up with a list of "what actors do", that included reading with fluency and expression, changing their voice to match their emotions, waiting their turn to speak, staying near the other actors and not walking away, and listening to the other actors speak so they know when it is their turn. It might just be me, but these aren't just skills actors need...

On our first session we identified our goal (to put on a great play) and used the Goal, Why, Plan, Do, Check method from the Unstuck and On Target curriculum to create a plan to stick to over the following two weeks. We referred back to this plan daily, and always stayed focused on our goal (we can't put on a great play if we're talking while someone else is practicing). 

We spent the first week selecting a play, and we read many different scripts I'd adopted from different children's books. This required the group to read new texts, and then re-read them in order to decide what they liked better. Before we voted, we created a chart of the different books so we could compare the problem and solution in each text (another essential retelling skill). Finally, the group voted on the book Peanut Butter and Cupcake. 

We spent the second week practicing our lines, painting costumes and scenery, and blocking out the play, and ended with a performance for our parents on Friday.

Like my daughter, I found myself disappointed that it was over on Friday afternoon. The ten sessions gave so many opportunities for reading and social skills practice, and I want to keep working with the great group of kids.

The Magic of Early Childhood Education

I had a few days in mid-July where I was able to attend an early childhood conference. I cannot say enough positive comments about this conference, because it did not just reach out to preschool teachers, or special education teachers, or education professors, or PHD students. It brought together everyone who works in early childhood - from those administrators working in the Infant and Toddler offices who are on the front line of meeting with families to assess whether or not their child may have delays or a disability - to the Speech Language, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, preschool teachers, special education preschool teachers, children's librarians, and parents. The message was clear - we are in this together, and we are looking at the whole child.

 

As I sat in session after session I began to realize how much our practices change when we get to elementary school. So much of early childhood is about what is best for the child. The session participants did not blink when a presenter suggested that it was totally OK for a child to be walking around during storytime. I heard this during MULTIPLE sessions (my own included, but other people said it as well). The ideas of meeting a child's sensory needs, supporting parents to make sure their wants and goals for their child are met, and asking "are we doing what is right for this child, not the process?" were not new ideas.

 

One session I attended (it had nothing to do with my work, but the one I'd wanted to go to was full and so I popped into the closest one), was intended for service providers completing the initial assessments for Infant and Toddler Connections. There was a very enriching discussion about the power of functional assessments and how standardized assessments are harmful for the child and family, as they don't give a full picture of the child's needs. And if we don't have a full picture of the child's needs, how do you fully help a child? (Good question friends. Let's ask that of the political decision makers who have gotten us to focus on end of year assessment data.) Or those of us doing these same process (finding children eligible for special education) in elementary school. The process somehow stops being about what's best for the child and starts to be about how to complete the legal paperwork and what accommodations a child might need to pass a standardized test.

 

In the keynote session, the presenter asked how we could possibly teach children to problem solve if we weren't encouraging open ended play, providing opportunities for exploratory skills, and honoring the importance of one on one interactions. When did problem solving stop at early childhood? When did we stop encouraging open ended exploration in favor of rote skills? Why does the importance of play stop in preschool?

 

Our children's brains don't suddenly respond differently when they enter those elementary school doors on the first day of kindergarten. Why do we act like they do?

 

There were so many moments during this conference that I wished I was in a room with elementary school teachers so that we could talk about how to take the same scientific findings and apply it to our third and fourth grade students who have trouble sitting down and learning rote skills.

DIR/Floortime

It's official - I'm DIR/Floortime certified! 

Don't know what DIR/Floortime is? Until a few years ago, I didn't either. I was sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss whether or not a child had autism, when the psychologist said - "Oh, he does, he just had DIR/Floortime when he was young."

What? What is that? I'd never heard of this intervention. How is it possible that 1) He received an intervention that worked so well that now a roomful of professionals cannot decide whether or not he has autism. 2) If this intervention is so effective, why have I not heard of it?

I immediately turned to my good friend Google, which introduced me to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, and directed me toward the certification path. The DIR stands for Developmental, Individual, Relationship. This therapy is a way to connect with children through considering their developmental needs, their individual differences, and their relationship to their environment. You connect to a child by following their lead, often through play, (or at least that is what I originally thought). While it is typically a therapy used with children with autism, it can also be used anyone.

I started reading Greenspan's work, and I took one on-line class over the summer a few years ago. I thought I understood the concept pretty well. It made sense to me, so this winter I decided to start the certification process.

The first class was short, and repeated much of the same information I'd read in Greenspan's books. I quickly enrolled in the second class, excited to get started. It was this class that allows for the basic certification. It is a pass/fail class, and when I enrolled I excitedly that it would be a simple way to get my certification. After all, I thought I had a good understanding of the therapy already.

I was wrong. So wrong. I understood the words used to describe Floortime, but I really had no idea what I was talking about - yet. This class, to be quite honest, kicked my butt.

Although I was very familiar with all of the words being used, I didn't actually know their definition through a Floortime lense. It was like being in a foreign country and thinking you understand the language, only to quickly learn you thought you asked to go to the bathroom and you were directed to the swimming pool.

From a meta-cognitive standpoint, it was a fascinating experience. The last time I struggled this much with learning something was my computer science course during college. But, being far more motivated to learn Floortime than I was HTML, I threw myself into this course. The more I realized how much I did not understood Floortime, the more I was determined to learn it, and do it well. I watched the videos my classmates presented and saw the progress kids made in the short, eight minute video clips. Then, I saw the sparks in some of the children I work with. When I started using Floortime techniques with them, I saw the shift. It was remarkable. Magic. Except not magic - science.

But to learn Floortime, I had to unlearn or at least shelve any behaviorist approaches I'd relied on before. In reflecting on my own teaching, I realized that much of what I do, much of what any of us do in the schools, is from a behaviorist model. In order to learn Floortime I had to stop myself from my previous work and start looking at children with new eyes. Behaviors or individual differences I had overlooked before because I didn't consider important, now are essential to understanding the child and how to interact. I find myself watching every child with "DIR eyes" as my mentor calls it.

Who knew that learning to play effectively would be so difficult? I had no idea when I started this process, and yet now I have a whole new understanding of just how powerful peek-a-boo is.

Now that I'm more comfortable with Floortime, I hope to be writing about it more, and hopefully I can explain it here. More importantly, I am ridiculously excited to be officially allowed to practice it. My struggle this winter and spring paid off.

The Great Fidget Debate

I gave up Facebook for awhile, and was surprised to see a great debate raging across my page when I logged back on this morning. This time it was not about Trump, immigration, or even sports - but fidgets. As the fidget companies are starting to market to more parents than teachers and occupational therapists, more and more kids are bringing them to school...  and driving their teachers crazy. I saw some posts about the need to ban them from schools because they have become so distracting.

I think we are all missing something here.

Fidgets absolutely have a place in school, and you can ban the current popular items, but students will always find something to fidget with if they are so inclined. Shoe laces, pencils, picking at their finger nails, their neighbor's hair. Fidgety fingers will move with or without a designated fidget.

BUT, giving a child a fidget should be purposeful. The idea behind one is that it will help a child concentrate, or help them stay regulated so that they are available for learning. If they are distracting a child then they probably are not doing their job.

So why use a fidget? I am a constant fidget-er myself. I mindlessly grab a paperclip before the start of any meeting, and then fidget it with it under the table. I've snapped pen tops on accident after too much fidgeting, or dropped my rings. The subtle movements help me concentrate on what is going on around me. Many kids (but not all) are like this. If they are constantly seeking tactile or proprioceptive (movement) input, fidgets can be a good way to give them this stimulation while letting them maintain focus in the classroom. If they are told not to fidget they will sit there just thinking about not fidgeting (or about what they'll do on the playground) instead of attending to our lesson.

Sometimes we need to use a fidget as a replacement behavior. A child may do something that is slightly self-harming like mindlessly pulling out his eye lashes, picking at a scab, or pulling off her fingernails. Or something that is disruptive to the classroom environment like pulling at a string on the classroom rug, mindlessly unscrewing his desk, or constantly touching the teacher's materials during a lesson. A fidget will give them the sensory need they are seeking, but in a safer or more socially acceptable way.

I hear a lot of "kids need to learn to not touch things instead of us pandering to their needs." OK, yes, we want our kids to grow up, have a job, and show socially acceptable behavior at that job. But many adults fidget in a socially acceptable way, and that is what we can teach our kids to do.

Once I started student teaching in college and had control over the behavior of 25 little people in front of me, I was suddenly driven crazy by all of the adult fidgeting that took place around me in my college classes. Pen clicking, shoe wiggling, paper shuffling, doodling...  I suddenly felt sorry for my professors who had to teach through it instead of doing what I would have done in my classroom - taking away the fidget object or just firmly telling someone to stop. But I had not even noticed the fidgeting before I started teaching. Look around your office and you'll notice all sorts of fidgeting behavior people have taken on in order to help themselves stay regulated and accomplish their tasks. How many people twist their rings while they talk to you? Run their hands through their hair? Play with their keys?

Everyone has different needs, and not ever child needs a fidget even if it is the newest fad. Part of being a teacher is carefully observing the child and recognizing what he or she will need to perform best in the classroom. Sometimes that is not a fidget, but having access to sitting in a different location, having some independent calming moments throughout the day, or even having a chance to watch glitter fall inside a sensory bottle so the child can stay regulated. Fidgets are not a one-size fits all item.

Teaching How to Use a Fidget:
If fidgets are in our classroom we must teach our children how to use them. Just as we would teach our children how to respectfully use the computer, our classroom books, or how to line up quietly, we need to show them how to and how not to use a fidget.

1. Show them the fidget and explain its purpose. "Some kids learn best when their fingers are busy. It helps them concentrate on what the teacher is saying and the work they need to do. I thought you might want to try it too, so I have this for you to try to see if it works."

2. Explicitly show them how to use it. "This tube has a ball in it.  You can push the ball back and forth while you listen to me talk. It needs to stay in your lap. You can keep your hands in your lap while you use this so no one else sees it. Isn't that cool? It's a secret between you and me. If you are using it the right way, no one else will even know. Make sure you keep your eyes on me even when you are using it. Show me how you can do that." Have the child show you exactly how she will use it.

3. Explicitly show them what will happen if they do not use it correctly. "Sometimes we all forget how to use things the right way. If I see the tube out of your lap I will take it away. If you are showing it to another child, I will take it away. If you are looking at the tube and not me, I will take it away."

4. Practice taking it away. "If I need to take it away from you I am not going to say anything. I am only going to look at you and put my hand out. Then you will give me the fidget. I will give it back to you later, when I think you are ready for it. Let's practice that." Have the child act out using it the wrong way and having you put your hand out so the child can give it to you. Do this multiple times so the child understands exactly what will happen when she does not use it correctly.

5. Don't hesitate to take it away (and give it back). When you first let the child use the fidget make sure you follow through on your boundaries. The minute it goes out of the child's lap, put your hand out and have the child give it to you. This way the child knows you were serious. A few minutes later, wordlessly give the fidget back to the child and let him try again.

6. Keep checking in with the child. Make sure you call on the child, or ask for group responses like thumbs up to see if the child is still attending to the lesson with the fidget. If he is not, take it away and let him try again another time.

What about when the whole class complains that they don't have one?

Ah, yes, the "- but that's not fair argument". I think there are a few ways to handle this. I've had classrooms where I just had a fidget basket out so that anyone could get what they need. I did the fidget introduction with the whole class and expected everyone to follow by the rules. It took a lot of practicing how to use and put away the fidgets, but also worked very, very well for maintaining classroom focus during lessons.

At other times I've done a quick lecture on understanding differences. "I went to college and studied how to help children learn. I know that everyone learns differently, and so I carefully watch each of you to see what will help you. At some point during the year I will do something differently for each of you than I will for anyone else."

Another teacher told me recently that during the first week of school she would show the class that she only had 4 band aids. "So, if you get a cut on your finger, I can't give you a band aid because that's not enough for the whole class. It wouldn't be fair to give  you a band aid for your cut and not share the band aids with everyone else." Inevitably a child says, "But that's not fair! They don't all need band aids! Only the kid with the cut needs one!" Which then prompts a great discussion on fairness.

You don't have to buy a fancy fidget!

My all-time favorite fidgets are not ones that I've spent money on. A strip of velcro under the desk often works magic for some children. The child can rub his hand back and forth on the velcro while working - and no one even knows they are doing it.

Is a child picking off their name tag? Put some packing tape under their desk and tell them to pick off the masking tape and not their name tag. Again, no one will even know what they are picking at, their needs are being met, and their name tag remains in tact.

Putting velcro on a craft stick that can be carried around in a pocket is also a simple feature to help with fidgeting behavior on the move. I've also put glitter glue on a craft stick, knowing that the child will most likely pick off the glue. That's fine, but it keeps their hands busy in the hallway and off of friends or the wall.

Ask a child to untangle your headphones. This is also a task that is mostly mindless, keeps their hands engaged, and lets them focus on the lesson. Plus, they think they are helping you. One year I had a basket of "jobs" that I'd keep for moments I needed them. Any tangled headphone, coins that needed to be sorted, or pencils that needed to be sharpened (with a silent sharpener) went in there. Since these are jobs more than fidgets I would check in with the child more frequently to make sure she was still attending to the lesson.

Think about natural fidgets. If you are OK with a child playing with his shoe laces (if he is still listening) then that is fine. It is the same as the fidget, and as long as he is still attending to your lesson, then the child just independently met his own needs. Our long term goal for our children is for them to be independent, and if a child can find a way to appropriately self-regulate then let's not stand in the way of that by forcing them to depend on a fidget when a more natural item would work just as well.

Teacher Reflection
A lot of the fidget debate comes down to looking at ourselves as teachers. I often find that I am more distracted by a child's fidgeting than the children around the child are. I have to check and ask myself "Is this about me or the kid?" If something drives me absolutely crazy then I need to work with the child to find a balance. What is the kid seeking through their fidgeting? How can I help them achieve that without also driving me (or others) crazy? Sometimes we can just ask the child. "I really don't like it when you play with my pointer during the lesson, but I notice you are always touching things. Maybe touching things helps you think. Hmmmm...  is there something else we can find that you can touch so that you are not touching my things?"
Sometimes when we give up a little bit of control we get more of what we want than we had before.

2017 Yes I Can Awards

I'm currently sitting in my Boston hotel room, looking out at my view of the Prudential building, and trying to wrap my head around everything I took in today at the Council for Exceptional Children conference in Boston. I often leave conferences with a long list of topics I want to blog about, and sometimes never find time to get to those posts down. Hopefully there will be many more posts about the conference to come.

This afternoon I sat in a dark, windowless auditorium watching the rehearsal for the CEC's Yes, I Can Awards. Despite the dreary setting, I found myself moved to tears numerous times by the unbelievable successes these young adults have had. I had read many of their applications, but even so I was not prepared to be so moved by meeting them and their families in person.

The Yes, I Can Awards go to students with disabilities who have made remarkable gains in a given area, whether it is academics, community involvement, self-advocacy, arts, or technology. I've been on this committee for a few years, and am thrilled to finally be able to make it to the conference to watch the awards be announced in person. It turns out that reading their applications just did not do the students justice. I hope my own girls will be as motivated, poised, and confident when they are in high school and college as these students are. Despite everything else going on in their lives, these high school and college students have found a way to not only overcome their disabilities, but also to organize volunteer opportunities, start community groups, and raise money.

Perhaps what moved me the most was talking with their parents. It was like talking to any parent of a high school student. These parents were full of pride as they shared their child's accomplishments, and their child's hopes for the future. Yet these parents have an additional reason to be proud - their children are not just making remarkable gains in school or their community, but they fought long and hard to overcome their disabilities. My eyes teared up as I heard parents share how some of the children were in self-contained classes with teachers and administrators who told them they would never go to college or do anything with their life. Yet here they were - heading off to college, making remarkable grades, participating in sports and art, and breaking through the low expectations of those around them.

I found myself thinking about all of the young children I work with, whose parents are scared of the future, and unsure of what steps to take to help their child be successful. I wish I could take each of the parents I work with and introduce them to the parents of the Yes, I Can award recipients. The hard work, dedication, and relentless advocacy for the best education for their child worked. Two of the students on stage were far more poised and confident than I would have been on stage, despite having a disability that impacts their social interactions with others. It was incredible to see them shine with confidence up there.

If you are here at the convention, I guarantee you should not miss tomorrow morning's award ceremony.



 

What is Play Based Tutoring?

This was originally posted (with fun, beautiful pictures) on my blog.

The best way to describe what I do in my private business is "play-based tutoring". I hesitate to use the word tutoring because that conjures images of sitting in a library going over homework problems, and that's far from what we're doing. But it's also the best word I have right now to label my work.

Why is play-based tutoring important?

So many of the essential skills children need for school can be taught in isolation, through a drill and skill method. I've done this with many children, and I know it's effective for teaching that isolated skill. Yet children then learn that skill in isolation, and while they are learning that skill they are not working on any other essential developmental milestone. Those moments of learning often feel like work to the child, and create a gap between fun and school. 

Play-based learning allows children to learn a skill within the context of a broader context. This encourages meaningful generalization of the skill, as the child can understand where it fits in meaningfully within the broader context.

Play-based learning also encourages the development of the whole child. Essential skills like motor planning and visual-spatial thinking are embedded into the sessions. Those Facebook posts from Occupational Therapists about why our kids can't sit still? Play-based tutoring addresses that problem by teaching through problem solving and exploring.

The concepts behind Play-Based Tutoring isn't new. Much of my work is based off of Stanley Greenspan's DIR Floortime model. I'm currently taking classes on this model and have become a bit obsessed. Whenever I use the methods I see such great results. I'm becoming a convert to how essential motor planning along with the development of strong visual-spatial thinking is to our children's process. So many difficulties can be addressed if we encourage more movement, play, and problem solving.

The Process:

In this work, I talk with parents about where their child's development is, and what skills they'd like their child to develop. One aspect about my work that is different than work in schools is building the partnership and reliance on the parents. In schools we teachers are often are the experts, and the parents tend to play an outside role. In my work, the parents are the expert on their child. They know their child better than anyone else. 

Once the parent and I have set goals for the child, I start getting creative. How can I build on the child's interests and strengths to move up the child's development and foster new skills? The goals could be anything from maintaining joint attention and engaging in two-way communication, to increasing sight words and reading strategies, or developing skills to regulate emotions.

For many of my clients I use book kits. I take one book and through the book develop fun activities that encourage the child's new skills. We use physical objects like plastic animals or toy cars to act out the story, play additional games and sing songs that correspond with the story. Everything is connected and highly engaging, and while it looks like play, it is specifically designed to work on the child's targeted skills. 

For other children, I've taken other interests and worked to intertwine those interests with what we'd like them to learn. Academic skills are embedded into fun, engaging activities like building with legos, dominoes, playing games, or making origami creations. Legos are great for learning math concepts, and I've written simple books that give the directions for building with legos or folding an origami creation. 

I'm finding it hard to fully describe what I do, and the importance of it, but I often leave clients houses excited about their development, and I find myself constantly thinking about how to incorporate more play to further engage them and increase their abilities. I love what I do, and I love helping parents see easy ways to incorporate meaningful play into their daily lives.