Adapting to Social Distancing (or is it Physical Distancing?), by Dr. Lauren Tobing-Puente

In Part 3 of the Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes blog series, I will focus on our adaptation to the concept of “Social Distancing.”  This term, which many of us never heard before March 2020, is so prevalent within our vocabulary, the media, and our mindset in recent months.   This term may have brought about many emotions in us: fear (“What if I can’t buy my necessities if shopping in stores is not safe?”), sadness (“I miss giving people hugs”), or frustration (“What will I do if I can’t see my friends, family, or coworkers?).  However, many of us have adapted to this concept during the past few months.  As we have discussed in the earlier posts in this series, this time of pandemic has shown how we have adapted and (hopefully) allowed us time to promote our self-care and well-being.  My hope is that adapting to distancing has allowed for new ways of interacting and skills that can be used in the future.  For kids, this may mean having more meaningful connections with family members who moved far away; for adults this may mean having new ways of working and “going” to doctors appointments, for example.

Before we go further, we need to ensure that we change our thinking about “social distancing” and consider the more appropriate term, “physical distancing.”  Social distancing implies that we are maintaining distance from our social networks, which is very much the opposite of what is needed during a time of so much stress, anxiety and new routines.  Positive social interactions are excellent coping strategies.  It is crucial to remember that humans are wired for relationships.  Even people who struggle to maintain relationships with others need relationships, despite the factors that make it difficult.

During the past few months, you likely have found yourself, or your child on a Zoom call, a Google Meets or, in our case for our practice, a Doxy.me session once, twice or several times per week.  I am so grateful for these video platforms, while not the same as being in person, it enables us to provide the visual aspect of social interactions.  Many young children are not great at speaking on the phone, but may have already learned how to Facetime with faraway family members prior to this pandemic.  That all said, you may be finding it difficult to maintain virtual social interactions for your children.  This may not be a skill that comes easily for you or your child. 

Here are some tips to help facilitate virtual social interactions for kids:

  • Especially for younger (chronologically or developmentally) children: organize and schedule virtual get-togethers for them.  Younger children are less likely to ask for them and are less able to schedule them independently.  Do this with grandparents, cousins, and other family members, and especially with classmates and other friends.
  • Remember, kids interact more physically than adults do; so, expect that their video chats will be more active, too.  They are less likely to just sit and look at their friends’/family members’ faces.  Here are some ideas for virtual activities:
    • Have them give a tour of their bedroom or their house and reciprocate
    • Hula hoop contest, dribble a basketball contest
    • Scavenger hunt (e.g. Surprise each other with a funny hat; find something that starts with the letter ___)
    • Online interactive games  (e.g, Scribbl.io, Scattegories, Hangman).  You can make some of these up as well.
  • It may help to plan activities for video chats ahead of time so they know ahead of time that they will be doing something of interest or motivating.
  • Remember that just because kids may not be talking or looking at the video screen does not mean they are not invested in the interaction.  They may enjoy having their aunt, for example, watch them draw a picture or build a Lego structure, as the aunt comments and validates their ideas.

Tips for Caregivers

  • Think about how often you socially interacted during the day pre-pandemic  (e.g., a couple of quick pleasantries in the elevator or at the front desk; morning fitness walk with a friend; lunch with a colleague).  The interactions may have been brief and routine, but meaningful.  Be sure to engage at the same frequency or more now.  It may be with different people (family member at home rather than co-worker) or in a different format (text message versus in-person) but will provide you with some drops in the proverbial cup of social interaction.
  • Virtual get-togethers: with friends, family, co-workers, etc.  Again, the visual component to video interactions is quite meaningful.  In our practice, we now hold our weekly group meetings via video, rather than by phone conference.
  • Consider your comfort level for live, in-person visits, as the pandemic eases.  With better weather these days, there are greater opportunities for outdoor activities (which the CDC says are safer).  Meeting at a park or backyard with masks while maintaining distancing guidelines is quite feasible.  With kids, consider their understanding of physical distance rules and use of masks.  

I hope these tips and strategies help to prioritize social relationships during this pandemic.  Although we are likely to be missing many of our routine social events, it is crucial to maintain our, and our children’s, relationships with friends and family.  You may find that relationships deepen and/or grow using these new tools.  And if not, they will hopefully help us cope with the pandemic until it is safe to resume regular activities again.

Stay tuned for our next blog on maximizing the benefits for time at home with your child.

Self-care and Family Well-being, by Dr. Jennifer Andersen

This is Part 1 of the Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Blog series. Click here for the Introduction to the series.

First, take a moment to thank yourself for clicking on this link! The past few months have placed so many new burdens on caregivers, and just as some may have subsided a bit, we are faced with additional stressors this week. Last week, Dr. Jaime’s blog addressed how families are adapting to distance learning. This second part of our blog series focuses on a few practical ways to promote well-being for the entire family. Finding even just a few minutes of the day to devote to your own wants or interests can be very challenging. Children who used to spend anywhere from 7-10 hours a day across school, extracurricular activities, and playdates, have now been spending all of those hours at home, with family. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tasks of providing education, opportunities for movement and exercise, socialization, and stimulation in the form of playtime were addressed by a much larger support network. Now, these responsibilities have largely fallen to primary caregivers, many of whom are also expected to work from home. Teachers, coaches, babysitters, service providers, or extended family members who would usually spend time with children in person have been unable to. Parents have reported high levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion. The good news is, there are some quick and simple strategies that can make this situation a bit easier on children and caregivers alike.

Self-care is, quite literally, taking care of oneself – that is, one’s body and mind. Just as we take time to eat during the day, taking time to check in with our physical and emotional state is just as important. You’ve likely heard of the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane – put yours on first so that you can be available to help your child with theirs. Much in the same way, if the adults in a household prioritize their own self-care, they will be more regulated and better equipped to help their children use these same skills. In an effort to avoid bombarding families with even more Things To Do, I’ve provided three key words that can be easily recalled during the day – an ABC” of self-care. These are by no means the only ways to engage in self-care, but a good starting point to keep things manageable. We welcome any other suggestions that you may find helpful!

  1. Awareness: Asking oneself, “What do I need right now? Does my body need to move or stretch? How long have I been working without a break? What am I feeling?”
    • Name what you are feeling and express it out loud. Modeling emotional expression for children helps them develop a wider emotional vocabulary and can also help them organize some of the confusing feelings they may be experiencing internally.
    • If you check in with yourself and answer yes to “Does my body need to move or stretch?” Fantastic! There are so many ways to build in a small movement break: walking to the kitchen to get a drink of water, standing and reaching your arms over your head, twisting from side to side. The Openfit app has a wide variety of live exercise classes throughout the day, including a few 5-minute classes consisting only of stretching. There is also a wonderful child-friendly book called Mindful Movements by Thich Nhat Hanh, featuring ten easy movements designed to bring the awareness back into the body in a fun way. Breaks that involve movement and getting outside are even better. Our bodies love getting fresh air! Kids can plan ahead with their families to make outside time into a game (e.g., “What should we look for while we’re outside today? How many birds do you see?” Caregivers can scaffold this and add visuals for children with language difficulties).
  2. Breathe, mindfully: It seems like I see the reminder “Just Breathe” all over social media, even on t-shirts or mugs available for purchase. But what does it actually mean? Research shows that taking a few deep breaths can help refocus the mind and allow us to relax. Paying attention on purpose to the physical sequence of an inhale-exhale also puts us back in touch with the body. The free version of the Calm app has a breathing exercise tab, with timed prompts to inhale and exhale. The duration of the exercise can be adjusted for as many minutes as you have (even one minute). This is another great exercise to model for kids – you can invite them to try it with you, or they can watch and “coach” you through it. Letting children take the lead and announce when it is time to breathe in and breathe out helps give them a sense of efficacy and control, in an appropriate way.
  3. Connect: With restrictions on our ability to socialize with others in person, it can be easy to neglect our social networks. Send a quick text during the day to a close friend – sharing something positive (e.g., “The kids are playing nicely together right now”) or simply sharing how you are feeling in the moment. Invite the children in your household to connect with their peers, too: “Daddy’s going to call Grandma today to say hello; which friend would you like to say hello to today?” Scheduling a video call with a babysitter or coach that your child hasn’t seen can also be a great way to maintain those relationships. Finally, connecting with new peers and instructors is another possibility. Outschool offers online classes for children, grouped by age, with subjects ranging from “Intro to Card Magic” to “Introduction to Veterinary Medicine.” Varsity Tutors also offers online classes by subject and grade level, at no charge.

Keep in mind: you are doing your best and expectations should be adjusted during times of high stress. On a final note, I have a version of “Self-Care Bingo” at home. I often check the sheet and send a text to a family member or friend when I reach “bingo” during the day. There are several self-care bingo visuals available online for those who are interested in printing out a version to use with their family.

Wishing you all lots of success on your daily journeys of well-being!

Stay tuned next week for our next blog!

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Adapting to Distance Learning During COVID-19, By Dr. Jaime Marrus

This is Part 1 of the Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes Blog series. Click here for the Introduction to the series.

In a matter of mere days, maybe even hours, we learned that schools were closed, jobs became mostly remote, and life as we knew it was coming to a complete halt.  Old challenges remained unsolved or put on the back burner, new challenges arose.  We felt shock. Frustration. Anger. Sadness. Boredom. Helplessness. Pain. And more. That being said, I have witnessed a remarkable ability for people- parents and children alike- to demonstrate one of the most important skillsets and predictors of success in life.  And yet, it is not a skill that you explicitly learn in school.  That is, the ability to adapt.  I have found myself thinking about that concept and skill a lot lately, and through my professional lens as a clinical psychologist, the importance of developing this skill in children and parents.  “Adaptability” is even a subscale on a social-emotional/behavioral assessment measure that we commonly administer to  parents and teachers when we conduct psychological evaluations.  There is also a well-established research base regarding adaptability in the workplace and in business.  Needless to say, we have all done A LOT of adapting lately, probably both consciously and subconsciously.  In this blog, I will focus on adapting to distance learning and various strategies that families can use at home.

As part of a recent workshop that Dr. Jennifer, Dr. Lauren and I provided to parents regarding special education and the IEP process during the times of COVID-19, we gathered information from various local schools to gain a better understanding of how schools were adapting and implementing distance learning.  Overall, we learned that there is a lot of variability where distance learning is concerned, and even in the few weeks since our presentation, it seems that these plans and programs are continually evolving.  Some schools are having regularly occurring “Morning Meetings” via Zoom or another video platform, some have teachers and related service providers assign activities online, and for others, teachers conduct whole lessons via video.  Much of this variability is dependent on students’ age, developmental level, and school setting.  As part of our ongoing work with clients and their families in psychotherapy, we have been helping them to adapt to such approaches for their particular child. 

Adaptations to remote learning are likely to vary by family, child’s developmental level, and schools’ expectations.  On an initial more global scale (and for children who are developmentally able and ready to engage in academic work), adaptations include implementing concrete strategies such as:

  1. Creating a work space that is free from distractions, is comfortable to work at (i.e., with a chair and desk rather than on a bed), and has all the necessary work materials.
  2. Creating a schedule and daily routine to provide structure and set times for academic work and free time.
  3. Supporting organization and time management skills, including creating to-do lists, visual schedules, and calendars to track long-term assignments.
  4. Determining priorities and planning accordingly.  Don’t forget to give yourself and your child a break- you do not “need” to complete ALL tasks, assignments, and activities just because they are available.  Your safety and well-being, including your and your child’s mental health is a priority (more on that in a later post!).   

For other families and their children with special needs, work may be less academically focused, and therefore may be more challenging to adapt for home-based learning.  I have heard from many families that it is often challenging and overwhelming to comb through the lists of activities or assignments provided by schools and related services providers, and then how to adapt them based on their child’s developmental level.  Many families that I work with have children who attend specialized schools in classrooms of students with mixed developmental levels.  It is difficult and quite time-consuming for teachers to provide remote activities and assignments for each individual student or developmental level.  It is equally, if not more distressing, for parents to grapple with how their child could participate in these activities at home. An additional stressor may arise when families are expected to document progress, or “show” a child’s work or completion of activities (often the case for parents seeking reimbursement for non-public  schools).  Here are a few ideas and strategies that have been helpful for some of our families:

  1. First, consult your teachers and providers. You should not and do not have to do this alone. Reach out to your child’s teachers and ask how you might adapt an activity for his/her developmental level. Specify your concerns or what did/did not work in previous attempts. Similarly, engage them in brainstorming regarding what and how to document progress (examples may include a short video of your child completing an activity, a picture of a completed activity, or a quick written note describing what he/she worked on and how).
  2. Get the general idea. That is, your child does not likely have to complete an activity/assignment exactly how it is being presented, but rather, participate at a level that is appropriate for them.  For example, one of my clients was assigned to “go on a scavenger hunt for winter clothes,” which she would not be able to do independently, nor likely understand.  I helped her parents brainstorm the objectives behind such a task, and how we could adapt it so that she is working on similar goals.  We came up with helping her to sort laundry, feeling “cold” versus “warm” by placing her hand in the freezer versus under warm water, and looking at books and videos about “winter.”
  3. For children in NYC, ensure that your child has a Special Education Remote Learning Plan (for children with IEPs), and discuss it with teachers and providers accordingly.  A Remote Learning Plan is a live document akin to and based on a child’s IEP (see letter from NYC DOE’s Chancellor below) and the strategies that are helpful for that child.

I wish you all the best as you continue to adapt to the continued evolution of distance learning.  Feel free to share some of your own tips as well.   Stay tuned next week for our next blog.

References/Resources:

Helpful Links for COVID-19 from NYC DOE: https://www.schools.nyc.gov/learn-at-home/activities-for-students/diverse-learning-for-special-populations/helpful-links-for-covid-19  

Letter from Chancellor Carranza to Parents of Students with Disabilities:

https://www.schools.nyc.gov/learn-at-home/chancellor-s-message-for-families/message-to-parents-of-children-with-disabilities

Introduction to Blog Series: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, by Dr. Lauren Tobing-Puente

During the more than two months of this COVID-19 pandemic (including, NY stay-at-home orders, “social distancing,” and remote learning), Dr. Jaime, Dr. Jennifer and I have spent much time discussing and reflecting about what families, including special needs families, need most, and how we can best support them.  We have smoothly transitioned to telepsychology for ongoing and new clients, and for evaluations, as appropriate.  I have increased the frequency of the free support group for parents of children with ASD.  We have offered several virtual webinars for parents on topics related to parenting during this pandemic.

We continue this mission to support families with a series of blogs ripe with strategies and information for families as this time of uncertainty and “new norms” continues to evolve and pose challenges.  Hence, the title of the series is: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (a reference to the great David Bowie song), as we continue to be faced with changes during this time.  This series will include:

Part 1: Adapting to Distance Learning During COVID-19

Part 2: Self-care and Family Well-being

Part 3: Safely Maintaining Relationships: Physically, Not Socially, Distancing

We hope you enjoy these blogs and find that they are useful in some ways.  If you have additional ideas for topics, please let us know.

Collaboration is the key to growth: How to facilitate the school-home-therapeutic relationship. By Jaime Marrus, PhD

Collaboration is crucial when working clinically with children in any setting to ensure generalization and carryover of skills to their everyday routines.  That is, the transference of skills across different environments.  One standard method to promote this is having parents actively involved in a child’s psychotherapy, whether that be through parent-child sessions, separate parent meetings with the clinician, or, ideally, both.  I always note that although our office has a waiting room, it is rarely ever used!  Parents are almost always involved in their child’s sessions in some way, and this provides them with the opportunity to learn strategies from the clinician’s modeling as well as more overt conversation to promote carryover to the home setting. 

Similarly, we need to ensure collaboration with the school team.  I often find myself encouraging and supporting parents in initiating more and more communication with their child’s teacher and school team.  Depending on the school setting (e.g., public, private, general education, special education), the teacher(s) and related service providers have various ways of communicating with families (e.g., communication notebooks; team meetings; phone calls).  Depending on the developmental level of the child, their own understanding of communication between their parents and teachers may have an impact on their behavior and functioning.  For example, knowing that their teacher is going to tell their parents about a really wonderful job they did on a project or a kindness they showed a classmate will likely lead to feelings of pride, validation, and excitement (and increase the likelihood of their demonstrating this positive behavior again).  Similarly, awareness of open communication between their parents and teachers when a challenging or perceived “negative” situation or behavior occurs may lead to a variety of feelings for a child as well.  In both cases, it is highly important for children to know and feel that all relevant parties are on the same page. 

It is ESPECIALLY important for children with developmental differences that parents, teachers, and clinicians are on that same page.  In her article, “Working resourcefully with parents of children who have severe disorders of relating and communicating,” Dr. Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok wrote, “… how parents understand their child’s problem—is crucial to the eventual outcome.”  I would like to expand upon this notion to include the school team (and other providers)— that is, how EVERYONE in the child’s life understands the child’s challenge is an important factor to progress and outcome; so for children, who spend most of their time in school, it is essential for all parties—parents, teachers, providers—to be on the same page in terms of their understanding of a child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Dr. Shamoon-Shanok stated, “Frequent discussions, with every person learning and swapping ideas and support, are a cornerstone of [a] careful, intensive, and synthesizing approach,” which will only serve to promote progress for the child, and, just as importantly, comfort for the family.  It is a particular challenge for children with difficulties with forming relationships with others (e.g., children with autism spectrum disorder) to understand varying methodologies by their various supports and caregivers; we must decrease the fragmentation that may occur for these children and families.

So, how do we do this?  How do we create and nurture the family-school-clinician relationship?  I acknowledge this is no simple task, as it is often wrought with logistical challenges.  However, here are some ideas for parents to consider:

  1. Provide consent for collaboration.  Giving your consent for a clinician to contact the child’s teacher will allow for the first step in this process.  To facilitate clinician-school contact, it is always helpful to send an e-mail to both parties indicating your consent (along with signing any necessary authorization forms) as well as an idea of what you hope to achieve by making this connection.  Schools are often more open to such collaboration when such communication gets off on the right foot and they understand that the clinician is seeking their impressions and observations of the child, with the understanding that the child spends so much of his/her time in school.  (maybe sounds better?)
  2. Consider who would be the right person for this job. Is it the teacher? The school social worker? Guidance counselor? Psychologist on staff? Director/Principal?  Who is the person that will be best able to provide an understanding of your child’s functioning at school as well as take in and apply recommendations and strategies posed by an outside clinician?
  3. Schedule a school observation for the clinician.  School observations do not have to be limited to an evaluation process.  It is often very helpful for clinicians to observe a child in their school setting (again, where they spend the majority of their time) in order to inform their treatment plan.  Similarly, it can be helpful for the school team to learn successful strategies and ideas from the outside clinician to apply to their interactions with the child in school.  I was recently conducting a school observation for an ongoing client when, in the middle of conversing with the child’s speech-language pathologist, the child appeared to notice my presence and initiated eye contact and big smiles in my direction.  She looked back at what she was doing, and then referenced me in the same way again. The teachers were so impressed by this connection between us—one that they reportedly had not experienced with the child themselves.  Their witness to this moment provides a great jumping off point for me to begin speaking with them about what they may be able to learn from and apply from my style to the child in school.
  4. Ask whether the clinician can be included on pertinent emails between the school and parents.
  5. Include regular consultation meetings (via telephone and/or confidential video conferencing) between clinician and school.

Reference: Shahmoon-Shanok, R. (1997). Giving back future’s promise: Working resourcefully with parents of children who have severe disorders of relating and communicating. In Greenspan, G.I, Kalmanson, B., Shahmoon-Shanok, R., Wieder, S., Williamson, G.G., & Anzalone, M. (Eds.). Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families (37-48). Washington, D.C.: Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families.

“Why Doesn’t My Child Follow the Rules?” by Jennifer Andersen, PsyD

Families often seek help because they are concerned about their children’s behaviors.  As psychologists, we are frequently asked questions such as:

  • What should I do when my child is disruptive in his/her classroom?
  • Why does my child have trouble sharing?
  • How can I get my child to stop screaming at a restaurant?

In the above situations, these behaviors are often presumed to be “oppositional” or “defiant” in nature, and as a result, the children are described using these terms. In fact, many parents say that doctors or teachers have mentioned the possibility of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and they ask if this diagnosis applies to their child’s behavior.  It is common for adults to feel frustrated when a child does not comply with their requests, or when efforts to change a child’s behavior seem unsuccessful: “I’ve tried yelling, taking away toys, using rewards, even crying… Why don’t they listen?!  Why don’t they follow the rules?!

These seemingly desperate questions are actually a large part of the solution. The moment we really begin to examine why the behavior might be happening, we become curious about a child’s experiences instead of acting punitive or blaming.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that uncooperative behavior is often an outward display of internal distress. In her blog, psychologist Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., urges us to pay attention to a child’s emotional and physiological experiences when they display defiant behaviors:

“We need to become investigators as to the range of individual differences that contribute to children’s emotional vulnerability, and help them construct new meanings from the sensations they experience leading to the challenging behaviors.”

This opens the door to so many possibilities to explore! So, let’s become investigators…the behavior is probably not happening because your child gets pleasure out of annoying you or because “they just don’t want to follow the rules.” There are probably several other whys if we look a little closer.

A common cause of internal distress is an overabundance of sensory input. Think about commuting home from work on a crowded train in the summer – you’re hot, tired, hungry, and likely have a low tolerance for people who are standing close to you (sounds, smells of others will make many folks feel annoyed or even outright angry at their fellow commuters). Most adults, thanks to their brain having fully developed its prefrontal cortex, are able to inhibit angry or aggressive impulses in this situation. But children, especially those with neurodevelopmental delays, are not as well equipped to handle these environmental stressors, as they are likely to be overly sensitive to such stimuli. Sharon Heller, Ph.D., writes eloquently about this sensory imbalance in her book, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight.  While some children seem over-reactive to sensory input, there are also those for whom the opposite is true –those who need a higher amount of movement in order to stay regulated. These “under-reactive” children frequently get out of their chairs, run down hallways, or may look to “jump” from the second or third step at the bottom of a staircase. Whether a child shows more over- or under- reactivity, their unmet sensory needs can lead to dysregulation, which often in turn leads to “not following the rules.”

Behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often interpreted as being “oppositional” or “defiant” in nature rather than understood from the perspective of their developmental and individual differences.  For example, disruptions to normal routines can be triggering for children with ASD. When things don’t go as planned or expected in the environment, this can lead to increased anxiety, which often presents as irritability or as a full-on meltdown. Further, one of the hallmark symptoms of ASD is difficulty reading social cues. That means a child can’t always tell when their behavior is bothering someone else. Children with ASD typically need more help tuning into the social world around them, and they can miss the nuances that their peers pick up on. They are not annoying others just for their own entertainment or to receive attention, as is often presumed in the case of diagnoses of ODD.

Social communication difficulties play a large role in “defiant” behavior as well. A child with ASD or with a language delay may not have the expressive vocabulary needed to properly convey their feelings. Thus, hiding under a desk or trying to leave the room may be the best way a child knows how to say “I don’t understand what you’re asking me to do” or “I need to take a break.”  For example, I recently evaluated a child who repeatedly said, “No blocks!” when I presented him with a task.  On the surface, this phrase sounds oppositional, but given his very limited expressive language level (primarily consisted of requests and refusals), he was unable to explain what he needed (e.g., adults decreasing their level of language; a movement break) or what he was feeling (e.g., overwhelmed; distracted).

So, while we often may find ourselves asking, “Why isn’t this child following directions?” it is best to consider what the child’s needs are in that moment.  A child’s behavior is an attempt to communicate something, and we as the adults have the responsibility to uncover what our children are trying to say. The times when parents ask, “Why isn’t my child listening?” are crucial opportunities for attunement and co-regulation. Children feel just as frustrated as adults if their needs are unmet or if demands are too high. They may be asking the very same thing, “Why aren’t (the adults) listening to me?” Understanding a child’s behavior from this perspective, and learning how to meet them where they are at developmentally, can help caregivers and providers to respond in an appropriate, strength-based manner that promotes a child’s development.

Let’s all continue to be investigators and strive to understand children’s internal experiences and developmental differences to promote their development!

Parenting Practices: Back to School: How to Support Our Kids

By Dr. Jaime Marrus

I thought it would only be appropriate for this month’s installment of the Parenting Practices series to highlight strategies to support our kids as they transition to a new school year.  The end of summer brings about many feelings in all of us.   Especially during the last few weeks of August, I personally start to feel a push-pull sense of ambivalence… The measured excitement of waiting for some new things (e.g., schedule) to begin, combined with the longing for continued summer vacation and relaxing vibes.

It is natural for children to feel similarly, with the potential added stress (depending on how your child responds to transitions) of thinking about new teachers, new routines, new classmates, new classrooms, and maybe even a new school.  They may worry about having friends in their class, getting a lot of homework, higher expectations of a new grade, and whether or not their teacher will feel like a good fit for them. 

Below is a list of ways to support children through the August to September (and October…) transition, with ideas for both informal and formal supports.

1. Establish a healthy routine prior to the first day/week of school.

This may seem tough because we all want to squeeze the last bit of summer out of August by staying out all day in the nice weather, seeing family and friends more often than you might be able to during the school year, and naturally, letting our children stay up later and wake up whenever they want.  It is important to begin reestablishing routines at least one week before the start of school.  This includes regular bedtimes and wake-ups (that are as close to a “school year” routines as possible), healthy meals, and likely more limited screen time than is the case during the summer.

2. Attune to and validate your child’s emotions.

As discussed above, emotions may run high in anticipation of the transition from summer to school.  Let your child know that however he/she feels is “okay.”  Some validating statements include:  “I understand you are a little nervous about meeting your new teacher.”  “I remember feeling worried about the beginning of the year, too.” “I know you’re wondering which of your friends will be in your class again this year.”

3. Prepare for and review the logistics.

Some children may feel stressed about the transition because it is difficult for them to picture or get a sense of what the changes may be like.  If your child is going to a new school, it is often helpful (if possible) to take your child on a tour before the first day.  Sometimes teachers may even be open to saying a quick “hello” if they are available- reach out to them!  If getting inside the school is not possible, even driving by and walking around the outside can go a long way in easing your child’s nerves.  Show him/her where he will arrive (and how- by bus? Will you be dropping off?) and where he/she can expect to go at the end of the day.  You can also check out the school’s website for pictures and information.  For some children, creating a social story (to be read on their own, and/or with you) including short sentences and visuals about the new routine is very helpful.   It’s fun to include pictures of the child outside the school building or with his/her backpack and school supplies.  You can also include a “countdown calendar” to the first day, and cross of each day that goes by. 

4. Do your best to ensure carryover from one provider or therapist to the next (if applicable).

If your child will be transitioning between therapists, think about reaching out to your child’s previous provider (e.g., speech therapist, occupational therapist, etc.) to ask if they can think of two or three “tips” to pass on to the next therapist about working with your child.  (This is also an idea to keep in your back pocket and ask for prior to the end of the school year next June).

5. Reach out to teachers and providers regarding your child’s IEP.

For children receiving supports at school via their IEP, it is a good idea to call and/or send an e-mail to the teachers and support staff to ensure your child’s services will be provided as mandated.  Do not hesitate to follow-up on this throughout the first few weeks of school.  It is very helpful to let your child’s team know that you are interested in connecting and collaborating with them.

Best wishes to you and your children for a smooth and successful start to the new school year!

Parenting Practices: Validating Feelings

By: Dr. Jaime Marrus

Welcome back to the Parenting Practices blog series on Supporting Children’s Emotional Development! We hope you found last month’s tips helpful (https://drtobingpuente.com/2019/04/15/supporting-childrens-emotional-development-starts-with-accepting-their-feelings/) and have gotten a chance to take notice and practice “accepting” your child’s feelings.

This month’s focus is on validation.

All people seek validation from others in a number of ways.  We may wear an outfit that we know our partner loves in hopes of a compliment or a loving gaze. At work, we often want to ensure that the boss knows of our particular contributions to a project and enjoy receiving accolades. Children may seek validation through obtaining “good grades” and being praised for them, or telling their friends about a really cool new toy they have.  What is often missed by parents, however, is the idea of validating our children’s feelings (rather than “good” behaviors or concrete results).

For some perspective, think about a time you may have felt upset or scared and shared those feelings with someone close to you (a friend, partner, colleague, etc.), and may have received one of the following possible responses:

  • You: I’ve been having this same argument with my husband for a week… I am so upset, I don’t know what to do!
  • Response 1: Maybe you can try a different approach with him?
  • Response 2: That is frustrating. I would be upset too.
  • You: I am just so nervous about this deadline at work.
  • Response 1: Oh, don’t worry about it! I’m sure it will be fine!
  • Response 2: Yeah, deadlines are nerve-racking, that’s tough.

While there may not necessarily be anything “wrong” with Response 1 in both examples, you may have noticed that Response 2, although not providing you with any solution or reassurance, just feels better; it feels like you were being heard.  That feeling is a feeling of validation.  It’s that person communicating: “You have a right to feel that way. If it happened to me, I probably would feel the same way.”  For some of you, you may have felt like Response 1 felt INvalidating.

We want to do this same thing with our children. We want to accept their feelings and then send the message conveying, “Hey that’s ok to feel that way, I get it!”  This is important for overall emotional development and mental health.  Acknowledgement of children’s feelings is an important step in supporting them to move through the feeling in order to work towards a solution to whatever may be causing it.  Children will feel worthy and dignified in their experiences, which leads to positive outcomes such as healthy self-esteem and self-efficacy skills.

As I continued to comb through my bookshelf this month, I came across this example from Dr. Daniel Siegel’s and Mary Hartzell’s Parenting from the Inside Out:

A child comes in from playing outside and excitedly shows his mother some beetles he has collected in an open jar.  He says, “Look, Mommy, look what I found, aren’t they pretty?” All the mother sees is the possibility of bugs getting loose in the house and responds, “Get those out of here right now…”  Although at first consideration, this example does not even have to do with emotions and feelings, it is important to see how the child’s emotional experience was missed by the mother.  He likely felt quite excited and “good” about his discovery, and clearly wanted to share it with his mother.  Instead, the mother communicated a message more likely to be associated with “wrongdoing,” thus missing the meaningful emotional connection that could have given value to this experience.

So, we want to validate our children’s experiences, as well as their emotions.  In this way, we send a message of acknowledgement, acceptance, and understanding.  Validation can take many forms, including reflection, normalization, empathic responses (i.e., “I’ve had that happen to me too.”).  Below are examples of some validating parent responses:

  • Child: This homework is so hard! I hate my teacher for giving this to us.
  • Parent: Hmm, yes, it is tough to get through it tonight.
  • Child: My friend was so mean at recess today.
  • Parent: It sounds like you’re still upset about it, I’m sorry that happened.

Try to start thinking about the language you use to respond to your child when he/she is expressing an experience or a feeling.

Stay tuned for the next post in the Parenting Practices series!

Reference:

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003) Parenting From the Inside Out. New York, NY: Penguin Group (USA) Inc:


Supporting Children’s Emotional Development… Starts With Accepting Their Feelings

By Dr. Jaime Marrus

Recently, many parents that I work with (either independently or in conjunction with working with their children), have asked me for “parenting strategies.” My first instinct is to reassure them: “You are wonderful parents!” (as this undoubtedly applies to the families with whom I currently work). First and foremost, my goal is to empower them to feel confident in their own techniques and relationships with their children. They often smile and look a bit embarrassed, and say something like, “Well, thank you, but… maybe there are strategies to help me be better.” I am so touched to be in a position in which parents turn to me (not yet a parent myself) in these moments to glean information and suggestions to promote more effective interactions in their own homes.

So, I have taken some time to reflect on more concrete “strategies” and conceptualizations to impart upon parents, and began combing through my dusty bookshelf that I should remember to consult with more regularly.

While there are a seemingly infinite number of wonderful resources that I could “assign” parents to read, I view it as my job to scour these resources myself in order to share the “take home (literally) points” with clients– “THP’s,” as an old professor of mine called them.

In the rest of this post and those that follow in the coming months in this Parenting Practices series, I will provide you with some bullet-point strategies to consider and practice in your own home. You can find resources at the end for further reading.

This month’s strategy: Accept your children’s feelings!

Ideally, everyone (including and especially children) wants their feelings to be recognized and heard.  However, as a parent you may find yourself, now that you think about it, “denying” your child’s feelings from time to time.  The renowned book, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, include some great examples.  The authors, Faber and Mazlish discuss how natural it is for us to respond to something as straightforward as “Mom, I’m hot, I want to take off my sweater.” with “It’s cold in here, keep it on.” The same tendency is often true for emotional expressions.  For example, “I hate the new baby!” is likely (and even understandably) met with “No, you don’t! Don’t say such a thing, that’s not nice, you don’t mean it.”  But, let’s think about what we are really communicating here with such responses. The broader message that is likely unintentionally communicated may be a denial of the possibility that children just may have different feelings from us, the adults. So, the first step to accepting our children’s feelings is to accept them as they are- and that they may be (or are even likely to be) different from our own.


To practice this technique, take some time to consider how you can respond to your child in an accepting way in the following scenarios (as you may encounter them in the not-so-distant future). I included examples of some accepting parent responses:

1.         Child: I hate school!  I am terrible at math.

           Parent: Wow, you are feeling terribly about math and school right now.  I wonder why.

2.         Child: My big sister is the meanest in the whole world!

            Parent: Wow, she is so mean?  What happened?

3.         Child: (crying, tantruming) I don’t want to leave the playground!

            Parent: Yes, I know how hard it is to leave the (slide, swings, friends, etc).

Take some time to recognize opportunities to accept your child’s feelings, rather than (likely accidentally) deny them. This is a great first step in attuning to your child and setting yourself up for additional techniques to build emotional connections and understanding in your child.

Stay tuned for next month’s post in the Parenting Practices series on validation

References:

Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2012) How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York, NY: Scribner


Free Parent Workshop: Transitioning to Kindergarten 4/10/2019

We are pleased to announce that Dr. Lauren and Dr. Jaime will be presenting their annual FREE parent workshop on Ensuring a Successful Transition to Kindergarten on April 10, 2019. Please forward to any parents of children of children with special needs who are navigating the “Turning Five” process and preparing for kindergarten starting September 2019. RSVP to: jmarrus@drtobingpuente.com