5 Simple Steps to Surviving Winter Break

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I loved winter break as a kid, a student, and as an adult.  I love the opportunity to take some time to reset, renew, and rejuvenate before the new year begins.

This time of year offers a great opportunity to reconnect with family and friends (something I think we all need more of this year).  It also offers the ability to slow down; remembering this time of year is not about us.

Winter break is also notorious for creating conflict with children, turn off our brains, getting out of routine, and all-around can be a formula for disaster (something no one wants more of this year).

We have learned for our winter refreshment some simple steps that decrease conflict and increase the quality time (all while keeping our brains fresh and working for the coming semesters).

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  1. Set a routine: It is really easy to let our kids run amok during school breaks.  After all, it is vacation time, right?  Ture, but when you plan a vacation to Disney World or on a cruise, you have an itinerary.  Why would you not have a similar concept for your stay-cations? We have found that even the littlest routine is in place, behavior and attitude are much better all around.  Our vacation routine consists of ensuring all chores are completed, some reading is done, some time outside playing, and perhaps a craft is done before turning to any computer or television screen.  For some more tips on screen time, check out my blog Is Screen Time Your Friend or Enemy?
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2. Join a Reading Program: Words have power. Books have power. For those who follow me closely, it should come as no surprise I incorporate reading into our lives – even on vacation.  A great way to incentive this (and keep our brains working), is to join a reading program.  This is a great way to keep kids (and adults) reading year-round, but especially during school breaks.  Many local libraries have winter break challenges.  We particularly like Beanstack.  This site allows you to find local reading challenges near you (or create your own).  Many challenges have tangible rewards.

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3. Plan at least 1 outing a week: Many are averse to this for money’s sake and others are adverse to this for COVID-19 sake.  I understand both of these.  However, neither should prevent you from getting outside and enjoying the beautiful world around you.  For those concerned about money, many zoos and museums offer great deals for the year for family memberships.  For those worried about COVID-19, a hiking trail is a great way to be outside, seeing nature and enjoying the beauty around you.  Either way, getting outside your home once a week during the break prevents Cabin Fever from setting in and taking over.

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4. Give a Project: This should be something they can do in the allotted time.  Projects offer a way to feel productive and successful at the end of the break.  More importantly, if you help your child with the project, it can be a great time for bonding and making memories.  Some projects to consider for winter breaks: rearranging the room and painting it (let them choose the color and help); painting a scene or picture onto a canvas, building a new bookshelf (or re-purposing furniture).  For those with younger children, some projects might be arts and crafts, sorting through toys they no longer want, writing a comic book, or a story with illustrations. If your child plays an instrument, this is a great time to give a new song to practice and then a recital at the end of the two weeks to celebrate.

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5. Schedule Active Family Time: I love family time.  My family tries to set apart an hour a day to just be with family – no screens, no phones, no distractions.  But, that can be difficult (especially with my and my husband’s jobs).  How do we manage?  We set a specific time and put our phones on silent or away (we do have to keep them out sometimes due to the nature of work). Then, we let our son pick the activity. Often he picks games (we like games a lot in my family).  Sometimes he picks art or going for a walk or bike ride.  Then we do that.  It is our time to invest in each other.  Some of our favorite family games are Shut the Box, Speak Out, Apples to Apples, Quiddler, Phase 10, Uno, Pictureak, Boggle, Scrabble, Concept, Clue, and Sorry.

We are hoping this winter break is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  May these simple tips be as useful to you as they have been for us. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good break! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from our family to yours.

6 Steps to Building Your Family Relationships This Holiday Season

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I love the holidays.  I love the crisp air.  I love the tradition.  I love the colors.  I love the music. I love the time with my family.  I love spending hours trying to find the perfect gift.  I love the smells of great food only served during these special occasions.

But, I hate traffic.  I hate to travel.  I hate crowds.  I hate the demands of my family time.  Add in some COVID, a touch of election discussion, a dash of natural disasters, a splash of special needs, and the longer nights, and I find my exhaustion can (and sometimes does) lead to an attitude of complaining. I can lose focus on the good; I can (if I am honest), sometimes, even ignore those blessings right in front of me.

 I am so grateful for a husband who has helped me see this reality and the tips and tricks he has taught me to overcome this. I also know this is a year-round problem.  This is a lifestyle choice.  This is a daily choice.  So, here are some things my family uses to be grateful for the family and build our relationships.

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Count Your Blessings: The first step to having a gratitude attitude is to count your blessings.  As the old adage goes, name them one by one. For some tips on how to make this a daily practice, take a look at these simple steps.  Recognizing that, even though this year has been exhausting, challenging, and all around, awful for pretty much everyone, there is still so much to be grateful for. Take some time to name all the reasons you love your family; how they help; how they have grown; how far you have come toward goals.

Building Lego Airplane and Airport

Spend Quality Time with your Family: We make it a practice to spend at least an hour a night hanging with our little one.  It doesn’t always happen, but we try to make it a priority most nights.  This is the time our son picks what we do (the things that interest him).  We get down on his level.  We laugh with him. We celebrate with him.  As he has grown, this time has become more and more essential.  We often spend time cooking together or doing art together.  This is an intentional time we spend learning who he is and how amazing he is.  It is a reminder, especially on harder days, that there is so much light, love, and life to give to him and that he gives to us.

Family Game Night

Family Fun Night: These are my favorite nights!  My husband is usually in charge of planning these nights.  And he is so good at it!  Of course, we do the family game night, but my husband doesn’t stop there.  Having the same routine can become monotonous if that is all you do all the time.  So, we build Lego as a family or spend a night reading to each other.  Around the holidays, usually the first week of December, my family loves to read The Best Christmas Pagent Ever.  But here is a list of some books we have enjoyed reading together as well. 

Community Serve Day: Sending cards to those in senior homes

Family Work Days: I have a love-hate relationship with these days.  I hate getting started and how some tasks take WAY longer than they should do to teaching and training.  I love how we accomplish things as a family, I love seeing how my family grows in communication, strength, and bonds.  We set a goal for the day. Sometimes it is getting the garage clean.  Sometimes it spring cleaning (dusting, wall cleaning, re-organizing).  Sometimes, it is a community volunteer day where we volunteer at a local organization for someone else.  We really like these events being able to do things from helping the elderly to yard work for a non-profit.  We love being able to serve together.  This opens the door to so many life conversations that get missed in the daily chaos.

Family Work Out Night: 2 mile run and Card Deck Strengthening Game Night

Family Work Outs: I know what you are thinking…“No way!  Working out is for me to have a break from my kids” or “Nope, I don’t do that.”  Although there are numerous reasons to work out for your health and wellness, there is something more rewarding when you work out together as a family.  love to long-distance run together.  I am slow…very slow compared to my family who can run 2 miles in under 17 minutes.  But, we start as a family, and when they are done, they come back and finish with me – as a family.  I love the deck of card nights.  We use a traditional deck of cards and shuffle.  Each draws a card.  The number on the card tells us how many of the activity, the suite tells us what activity (hearts are abs, diamonds are pushups, spades are squats, and clubs rotate burpees, heavy ropes, punching bags, kicks).  There is so much variety with this, and it becomes a game.  We are completely out of fun ideas or need to get out of a rut, we find a new workout on Tubi, Amazon, or Youtube.   

Family Fun Hiking Day

Family  Fun Days:  My husband and son are as manly as they come.  They love to fish, hike, dig in the sand, and play in puddles.  I am as girly as they come.  I love to read, write, and paint.  We could not be farther apart on the spectrum.  But I love these days.  My boys will take me hiking into a beautiful wood, then stop for hot chocolate and smores before hiking back.  They have taken me fishing, while I bring a book, and enjoy watching them bring home dinner.  I love it when we go to the beach and play in the water, build sandcastles, and attempt to catch fish with our hands.  But, they love me too.  So, sometimes we find the free days at the museums and aquariums and learn about history and art for a day.  Zoos are great places to go as a family and spend time out in nature able to talk with each other.   Check out next week’s blog for more ideas on how to build your family relationships on a budget.

Where Have All the Good Men Gone?

Loitering. Looting. Larceny.  The streets are full of people making awful choices.The headlines read of significant disruption.  It is scary – regardless of race, religion, political affiliation or health.

We live in a society where we wonder, where have all the good men gone, as a popular Bonnie Tyler song puts it?

We wonder how we have come to a place of violence over diplomacy, hatred over love, and narcissism over selflessness.

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It starts with our dads.  It takes a dad to teach manhood. 

Moms are great teachers of academics, compassion and mercy, but, sorry moms. There are somethings we women just cannot do as well as men. One of those things is teaching a man how to be a man. 

What our society is calling out for is for dads to be recognized for their importance and necessity. 

Before you read this and think, “I am single mom, I don’t have a choice,” or “my son’s dad walked out on us,” or “that is just not an option;” let me encourage you in is.

There are so many ways to be a father figure to the next generation that does not require biology.

There are so many ways to be a dad to those in your neighborhood, community, and churches.  All it takes is the willingness to pour into the hearts of kids and the effort of setting aside an hour a week, a call a day, showing up to the milestones.  Be a coach.  Be a mentor. Be a Big Brother.  Be a youth leader. Be willing to answer the call.

There are men who want to help. Men who want to teach and mentor; all they need is someone to ask. A group of 600 men answered a call to come to a breakfast at school. The results were astounding!

My brother and his beautiful family

One dad who has really epitomized this heart for love and mentoring is my brother, Jason Black (if you have time, check out his story of surviving two near death experiences and rising above it; you won’t be disappointed). 

Jason spent his years growing up helping take care of us (there are seven in total).  Having spent this time investing in us, we were not surprised he delayed having children.  What did surprise us was that he had four biologically and found he still had more love to give.  He then adopted two more. 

I was privileged to live with this family right after grad school for a couple of years.  I got to see firsthand the heart of this father.  He faced challenges of multiple kids, finances, and the strange looks as people saw his two children of color and one child with special needs.

Never did he let these challenges affect how much love he poured into his kids.  Each child, with different needs, are loved the same amount.  They are held to the same standard of excellence.  They are encouraged, challenged to be their best, and taught how to stand up for what is right and excellent while accepting responsibility and accountability for their actions – good or bad.

Khristian – the Strong and Confident

My nephew was adopted from the foster system at eight.  He struggled with identity, self-esteem, and accepting love – for good reason.  He had been in the system his whole life, in more than five foster homes by the time he came into our family life, and the stories he could tell you would astonish the most hard-hearted.  He had lived a hard life no child should have to live. 

When Jason and Tausha took on this opportunity to love someone more, they knew it would be a challenge (what kid isn’t).  This actually disrupted the birth order in the family making my nephew the oldest; it brought in anxiety and frustration to the house as everyone transitioned to a new normal.  They had been warned about having a child of color and the stigma, racism, and anger that would follow them around the rest of their lives. It would have been easy to quit or say no from the get-go. 

But they did not. They chose to love instead of ignoring.  They chose to accept this little guy the way he was.

Khristian is now a star athlete on the high school football team.  He was featured as an upcoming athlete to watch as he begins embarking on transitioning from childhood to adulthood and the college world.  He has grown from a shy child into a confident, loving, intelligent man.  This was possible because he was invested in by a man who was not genetically tied to him but is now tied for life through the bond of love.

Khristan and his three younger brothers

Khristian is a man who steps up in times of trouble and anxiety.  When his younger brother was bitten by a Western Diamondback Rattle Snake and spent two weeks in a hospital having multiple surgeries and treatments, Khristan stepped up at the house as a leader to his younger five siblings. While his parents took shifts at the hospital, he helped with homework, calmed nerves, and helped with all the little things that often get missed in times of great stress. He took the leadership learned from his dad and invested love where it was needed.

When I look at this family, I see exactly what our society needs.  We need more men to pour into the others. We need more Jasons who are willing to step up where there are holes in the community.  We need heroes.  We need to celebrate men and the importance of them. 

We can do better than looting in the streets.  We can do better than ignoring men.  We can do so much more than accepting the narrative women are better than men.

Let’s celebrate how much men have, and continue, to do for our children, our communities, and our nation.   Let’s spend this week leading up to #FathersDay remembering how important the family unit is.  The father unit is.  Let’s celebrate #DadsMatter, #BackLivesMatter.

Get involved. The nation has spent the past two weeks calling out for dad’s, mentors, and leaders to step up. The phone is ringing. Are you going to answer?

An easy way to celebrate dads this week is to join a youth group, coach a sports team, volunteer with a literacy program, or join Big Brothers Big Sisters. 

Don’t let genetics be what stops you from being the mentor and coach so many of our youth are hungry for.  Let me know what you did. Send me you stories and be sure to use the #dadmatter.

For more resources on how to get involved, check out Mentor, The National Mentoring Resource Center, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.  

The Power of Words: Or How to Create a More Positive and Productive Environment

“My kid has too much autonomy. I just had to calm her down from a screaming fit,” my manager told me as we have a one on one monthly meeting via Skype for Business.  “I am so tired.  A day feels like a month and a month feels like a day.  I can’t even keep track anymore.”

“I can’t wait to get back to normal when my kid can get out of my hair for once,” a friend expresses over a virtual cup of coffee.

“Can you believe the curriculum they are teaching?  Who comes up with these questions?” A post repeated on social media.

“I can’t wait for my spouse to go back to work so I can get back to routine with my child.  My spouse just gives in to any whim.  I am going backward,” said spouses across the world who are not used to 24 hours 7 days a week contact.

 Sound familiar?  Maybe you have said one of these? Thought one of these?  Posted one of these? 

If you have, you are not alone.  What do all these things have in common?  They are all complaints

MRI scans of the brain and complaining
Images of the Brain Complaining
CREDIT: How Complaining Rewires Your Brain

What Complaining Does to the Brain

According to Travis Bradberry, Co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and President at TalentSmart,  a typical person complains once per minute in a typical conversation!  This is very unhealthy because our brains are creatures of lazy habits.  When we repeat our pattern, our brain takes less work to repeat than learn. 

Think of teaching your kid to tie a shoe.  When we first begin the process there is push back, frustration, a lot of concentration.  But once it is learned, and repeated (usually multiple times a day), it becomes second nature, and the child no longer thinks about the process. 

The same is true with our words.

Images of D. Emoto's research on the power of words on water crystals.
The pictures show the observations of Dr. Emoto. The nice words of affirmation create beautiful geometric shapes while the negative words create damaging shapes.

Words Have Power

On Solomon Island giant beautiful trees sometimes need to be cut.  When this is a particularly challenging task, the locals perform a special curse. They join together and yell insults and other derogatory words at the tree, and according to local legend, the negative energy transfers to the tree which then falls within a couple days.

In his book, The Hidden Messages of Water, Dr. Masuro Emoto, reports on his studies on the effects of words on water crystals through high-speed photography and found water crystals formed beautiful geometric shapes when words of love and gratitude were spoken near the water, but destructive shapes when evil words were spoken.

If this is what happens to plants and crystals, how much more does words affect the human mind and health?

According to Stephen Parton, complaining actually KILLS YOU.

Try the Complaint Zapper

How to Move from Complaining to a Gratitude Attitude

Solomon, credited as the wisest man ever to live, said “the soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit,” (Proverbs 15:4) and “the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit,” (Proverbs 18:21).  Did you know there are over 126 passages in the Bible discussing the tongue? 

It appears, in this matter, faith and science agree.  Stop complaining!

But how do we do this?

There is a lot of research on behavior showing numerous ways to modify behavior from eating too much to not sitting down while doing school work. The same theories and practices apply to our minds. Here are three simple ideas on how to move from complaining to a gratitude attitude.

From the mouths of babes: How to use positive words

1.      Replace your focus: How many times have you watched a movie or show and fixated on the message, the scenes, the story long after it ended?  Read a book you just couldn’t put down?  Where you focus is where your brain will go.

When I was learning to drive, my mother told me, “Where your eyes look is where the car will go.”  I have learned this principle applies to my mind as well. 

If I focus on negative, my tongue is negative.  If I focus on what is wrong with the world, my tongue reflects that. But, when I focus on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– anything excellent or praiseworthy—my entire world changes from all things against me to peaceful, strong and enduring.

2.      Replace your behavior: It is easy to say think about good things and entirely different to actually do it. One way I have replaced my tendency to complain is (as trite as it sounds) is to count my blessings. 

In our family discussions of the day, for every bad thing we say, we must say three positive things for the day.  If I had a bad day at work, I am now forced to think of blessings (that car that let me in before the light changed, my son getting his school work done early, lunch at the table with my hubby).  Suddenly, what seemed like the worst day has transformed into a really good day.   

3.      Practice. A great way to do this is by keeping a journal.  There are a lot of calendars and planners that actually have recording your blessings as part of planning for the day; our favorite one this daily planner.

I enjoy doing this as part of my daily meditation when I work out.  Using that last little bit at the end of a work out (when endorphins are naturally high) to focus on good, re-sets my brain. 

4.      Accountability:  We are only as strong as the team we have around us.  The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study on accountability and found that you have a 65% chance of completing a goal if you commit to someone. And if you have a specific accountability appointment with a person you’ve committed, you will increase your chance of success by up to 95%.

Share your desire to change focus with your spouse, friends, and family.  Then ask them to hold you accountable to this. 

May family around the Liberty Bell in Disney World.
What I am most grateful for: my family who can spending time together.

It is easy, especially in quarantine, to focus on the negative.  It is easy to want to vent this to your spouse, friends, the world.  But, I caution too much of this will physically and emotionally destroy. 

I encourage you to make shifting your focus from negative to positive a priority. Ask for an accountability partner in this.  And remember, this is a daily discipline.  This will not become second nature until you make it a discipline.  Like all disciplines, it grows with you and molds to where you are and what you do.

Let me know how this works for you.  What is working for you?  What strategies have you used?  What did not work?  I love hearing from you. 

Silent Butler

Frustrated parent at work, home, teleworking, homeschooling at the same time.  Arms on head looking frustrated.
Frustrated parent at work – teleworker -home

Most of the world has been operating within the realm of the same four walls for the majority of the year.  Those in America have been at this at least a month, some longer. 

Day after day I hear the same exhausted frustrations of parents: “My kids are driving me crazy!  I keep repeating myself.  I feel like all I do is nag!”

Well, you are not alone.  We all get there (even in the best of circumstances).  The question is do we stay there or do we something to fix it?

For my family, we do something to fix it. 

Let me introduce you to one of our best friends and colleagues – Silent Butler.

Male servant preparing a bath at luxury hotel
Butler preparing a bath

Before you freak on the price tag, this friend has given his services for FREE.  This is so simple it will shock you.

How many of you have asked your kid to clean their room, only to find it hasn’t been completed or everything has been shoved under the bed/in the closet/crammed into drawers?

Out of exasperation, you now beginning the powerplay of taking things away, the battle of either teaching to clean (or, be honest) doing it yourself. By the end of the day, everyone is tired, you don’t want to be around each other and you just feel defeated?

Enter Silent Butler.

Man sneaking a peak behind white shutters
Man sneaking a peak behind white shutters

Instead of going through that battle, hold your child accountable.  An easy way to do that is a large plastic laundry basket (we use this one).

When your child says the room is clean.  OK.  Great.  Go play.

Then take the basket, and fill it with all things left on the floor, under the bed, in the closet, out away incorrectly.  (NOTE: You must have taught the proper way to clean a room and what Silent Butler prior is to implementing Silent Butler).

All those toys, books, TABLETS, video games, etc., that they claim to love so much, but do not treat as though they do, are now in the possession of Silent Butler.

But don’t worry, this is not forever!

When your child does something good, unexpected, helpful, you just ring the bell for Silent Butler.  Things like helping a sibling with homework without being asked, picking up the dog poo or doing the dishes, (for those on the spectrum) having a good playdate or losing a game without a single reminder of good sportsmanship all can trigger Silent Butler. 

The important thing is that it matches where your child is (age, mental ability) and it cannot be a chore already assigned as part of their daily routine.

When you ring that bell, Silent Butler rolls out once again.  Only this time, instead of taking, our Butler is giving.  The child can take one toy out of the basket. They have earned it back.

TWIST * TWIST * TWIST

Girls at desk looking at notebook helping with homework
Girls help each other with homework

For those with siblings, this becomes particularly effective.  There are no rules on whose toys are picked when Silent Butler rewards.

This means if Suzy left her tablet on the floor in her room when she was told to put it away, and Johnny earned a Silent Butler reward, Johnny can pick Suzy’s tablet. 

What does this teach?

I know you are wondering why use this method?  It seems sneaky and rude.  Well, that is true.  But so is the world. 

As parents, we are tasked with raising children into quality adults who contribute to society in positive ways and are aware that the world is not rainbows and butterflies.

This teaches so much:

1.       Responsibility: Whose tablet?  Whose responsibility?  Whose homework?  Whose responsibility?  When you shirk your responsibilities, someone else will swoop in and fix it AND get the credit. Silent Butler begins as Positive Punishment/Negative Reinforcer.

2.       Teamwork/Family building: Working in a family is the first practice of teamwork.  We are teaching children what it means to be on the team by showing them responsibility falls on everyone.  When we reward good extra behavior, it acts as a positive reinforcer that modifies the negative behavior.  Silent Butler is now a Negative Punishment/Positive Reinforcer.

3.       Integrity: What is done when no one is watching will be seen.  What is done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  All secrets come out.  That is why integrity is so important.  It is who you are when no one is watching (or you think no one is watching) that ultimately defines your character. 

4.       Accountability: Teaching accountability starts with parents.  I have said this before practice what you preach. You must hold yourself accountable to follow through, kind words, and tones, working as a team.  Once this is done, Silent Butler teaches that all kids are held accountable for their actions all the time.  Silent Butler is ALWAYS in play.  Both the good and the bad.

Before and after: messy room to clean room and ready to play
Before and after Silent Butler – now it only takes 20 minutes to clean a room not a day.

This is a simple idea that when put into practice can help SAVE MONEY on those reinforcers, help create a POSITIVE and HARMONIOUS environ for everyone in the house, and ultimately, help create HONEST, RESPONSIBLE adults to help create positive change in the world.

I encourage you test this out in your own homes.  Give it a couple weeks.  Track your progress and setbacks (there will be setbacks as with all changes).  And let me know how this works for you.  Don’t be afraid to share this blog with others you think might benefit from the simple induction of my friend Silent Butler. 

You have this. You are good parent.  You are a good teacher.  You are a good coach.  You are good leader. 

***Disclaimer: I did not come up with this idea AT ALL.  I was raised with this. The credit all goes to my parents who successfully raised 7 children and numerous “family friends” with to the sum of all six entrepreneurs, a lawyer, two opera singers, (one lawyer waiting taking his first bar), over fifteen degrees, all are fully employed, and the creation of two non-profits. 

Celebrate the Extraordinary: Moving into a New Normal

Neon Sign - Think About Things Differently
Neon Sign – Think About Things Differently

The phrase “Getting back to normal,” has been used a lot lately as we start to look forward to the end of #quaratine and #socialdistancing.  We can’t wait to sit next to that annoying coworker, drive a car, get coffee with a friend. 

As a parent in the special needs community, I hear a lot of people wishing for their child to be “normal.”  If only they could play ball with their boy or go to a dance recital with their little girl.  So many times, they start sentences with “If only…” or “I wish…”

We live in a generation where everything is instant.  We compare ourselves, our children, and our lives to the fake world broadcast on social media.  We use social media as a tool to measure “normal.” 

But we do a disservice to ourselves, our children, our communities when we use this measurement.  No one is normal.

I’ll say it again – NO ONE IS NORMAL.

Your spouse is not normal.  Your child is not normal.  You are not normal. 

Those who think you are normal – HAVE NOT MET YOU.

What #socialdistancing is teaching us is patience.  Patience with our family.  Patience with our community.  Patience with our governments.  #Socialdistancing is teaching us the value of time.  Time with family.  Time for self-growth.  Time for laughter.  Time for love.  #Socialdistancing is teaching us who we are – at our core when no one else is watching.  We are learning who we are without the world telling us who we should be.

So, instead of wishing for normal, why don’t we celebrate the EXTRAORDINARY and look forward to what can be an amazing new normal.

The four youngest in the family: May look the same, but very different personalities.

1.       Different Children with Different Needs: I have said it before, and will say it again.  Our children are different from any other child – even siblings.  What makes this world so special is the differences.  Different, by definition, means NOT normal.  Let’s celebrate these differences and not a world of cookie-cutter sameness. That world lacks depth, color, and beauty. That world will also never truly come to pass.  It is about time we realized and embraced that. 

Spencer overcomes his fear of heights!

2.       Overcoming challenges: We all have challenges in life. Every one of us has overcome something – sickness, depression, addiction, self-esteem.  That is a HUGE accomplishment.  We should celebrate that not dwell on the past of “normal” where we lived in those things.  Every kid has challenges – whether they are on the spectrum, have a special need, or are labeled “normal” or “neuro-typical” by the world.  Every kid is beautiful.   We should celebrate the bravery of facing those challenges.  Celebrate the hard work that goes into overcoming challenges.  Celebrate the stronger, more compassionate, more confident individual who comes out on the other side of those challenges.

Daddy son time - investing in the future. The men walk on a pathway through the woods in Gettysburg, PA.
Daddy son time – investing in the future. The men walk on a pathway through the woods in Gettysburg, PA.

3.       Craft a new normal: As the discussion of how to “return to normal” after #socialdistancing and #quarantine start, I encourage you to stop.  Stop thinking about returning.  Start thinking about the future.  Why would we want to return to world measured in likes, memes, and insincerity?  We have been offered an amazing opportunity to do radical change in our personal lives, our community, and the world.  Let us craft a new normal.  A normal of Love.  A normal of Compassion.  A normal of Encouragement.  Let us stop measuring normal and start celebrating the uniqueness, bravery and beautiful creature that is the individual in the mirror, sitting next to us, across from us, or passing by.

I know it is easy to crave “normal.”  We want to have a routine, to have a semblance of balance, to want what we know.  But humans have NEVER been called to accept the status quo.  We have never been called to be complacent.  We are mechanisms of change. 

Family of four walk the street
Family of four walk the street

We have been offered an unprecedented opportunity to cultivate incredible change for good. It is our responsibility to let go of the “old normal” and embrace the “new normal.”  Let us re-prioritize our life to honor this opportunity.  Celebrate the gift that has been so lavishly poured out upon us – time with family, getting back to basics, being real with each other and ourselves.  As we move forward to “new normal,”” I pray we keep this in mind and look forward to the incredible change for good in how we treat each other and ourselves.

Re-set During #Socialdistancing

Man laying down on steps of building during daylight hours
Man laying down on steps of building

Before #socialdistancing exercise, eating right, and balance seemed much easier.  Motivation was easy – people see you.  Who wants to look like a louse in public? 

But as #socialdistancing extends, the leggings, carbs and time in front of the TV are preferable to almost anything else.  No one wants to look at the scale.

For kids with sensory needs, this is even more important as the sensory input of a workout resets the chemistry in the brain.  This helps with focus, self-control, and skill development.

Countless studies show exercise is critical to health.  But there is a developing field of study in how exercise actually helps impact the neuron pathways in the brain.  ABA, Occupational Therapists, even parents, can attest to the importance of a regular sensory workout program (SWP) in helping children with special needs, indeed all children, with coping, focus, and development.

How does one do this in the home?  When we can’t leave?

Here are some things that work for us.

Hanging out in the sensory room playing on the ropes, rock wall and rings.
Hanging out in the sensory room

Sensory Room

A sensory room is designed to help someone regulate their brain using external sensory input.  That is technical speak for “help re-center yourself.”  Sensory rooms have been shown to have calming effects, help improve focus, increase socialization, and help with all sorts of development (both neurological and physical.

We discovered this importance when our son was about five.  He needed a place to get all his wiggles out, calm down, and enjoy himself. 

Our room is the garage.  In this room, we have an art table, a basketball hoop, rock wall, ropes, and a punching bag. 

This room is a place where we presently do out occupational therapy, but when it is not used for therapy, it is also a “fort” (which every kid needs).  A sensory room grows with the child.  This room is the “hang out” place for playdates, it is the escape from parents when angry place, and a place for a great work out for parents place as well.

Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program
Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program

Sensory Workout

No one likes working out.  Even those who say they do – don’t.  They like the after-effects. 

That is true for our kiddos too.  Working out is hard.  But a necessity of life.

A sensory work out is not that different than a regular work out. I do recommend getting with your occupational therapist before starting one, as each work out is different depending on the person.

Usually, a workout will consist of some combination of proprioceptive (deep pressure to joints and calming/organizing), vestibular (excites, usually circulatory and rhythmic), touch, smell, breathing, and auditory input.  It does not usually go longer than 30 minutes and can be done easily at home or at school.

We have been known to do wall push-ups and squats in grocery stores, joint pressure at restaurants and them parks, and always have some sort of audio and smell for calming wherever we go.  We like citrus oils for focus before school ad lavender oils for calming after.

Sensory Tent
Sensory Tent

Sensory rest

Just as every fitness instructor will say a warm-up and cool down are important for every workout, sensory rest is just as essential for every person.

A 2018 study showed an average adult (18+ years old) spends over 11 hours a day looking at a screen.  That is 45.83% of the 24-hour day.  If you a lot for 8 hours of sleep (which we don’t usually get), that is 68.75% of our day in front of a screen!   Is it any wonder we need a reset?

In our house, we each have space and activity that works for us.

My husband goes on long runs and he and I will do a kickboxing or boxing workout on the punching bag at least once a week (sometimes more).

My son and I like to do yoga together.  The meditation and combination of proprioceptive and vestibular input are super calming.  I prefer something like YogaShred where he prefers the stories of Cosmic Kids Yoga.

We also both love heavy blankets! 

My son also has a tent in his room he often withdraws to where he reads, draws, plays with Lego. 

Workout gear

I know it is hard to feel settled during #socialdistancing.  It is hard during regularly scheduled programming as well.  Try and find some ways this week to help re-set.  Re-center. Refresh.  Let me know what  works for you and your kiddos or if you want some more ideas on how to use what you already have in your home to make a sensory diet.

Is Screen Time Your Friend or Enemy?

There is something special about cuddling on the couch, snacking on popcorn and watching a new release (or an old favorite).  Bonding over a laugh or squeezing tight during a scary scene.  Priceless. 

And yet, there seems to be a yin to the yang. 

Behavior changes when we sit in front of a screen too long.  Studies have shown too much screen time increases obesity, decreases the quality of sleep. My son seems to regress with each half-hour of TV.  His attitude reflects what he watches.  And, unfortunately, even educational shows like Wild Kratz displays negative behavior.

So, in a homeschool world, how do you balance the screen time? 

Here is the good and bad of screen time. 

animation-cartoon-cartoon-character-disney-mickey-mouse-piano-light

The Good

Children learn a lot from the screen.  There is a great documentary, Life Animated, which follows a child on the spectrum who learns to speak by watching Disney movies. (Our personal experience reflects this method works).

There are numerous benefits to screentime.  Children learn about social norms and cues.  Film and television provide authentic and varied language that many would not pick up in a peer relationship.  And most importantly, for children on the spectrum who think and see in pictures, television and film give a visual context.

The Bad

Unfortunately, there are lots of negative results of screen time.  We copy what we see and hear.  Kids learn and pick up so many things from the screen about dating, relationships between boys and girls, how to speak to parents and when to exercise independence.  Often, this is done in a way causing harm to the cognition of the child.

Too often in American culture, we celebrate the celebrity and choice of stars and then complain about why our children act like them.  We relish the drama and excitement of the racy, poor decision filled scenes; discuss and glorify them when they are not on. We wonder why our ten-year-old girls want to wear short-shorts and our boys want to curse up a storm.

HELP

So how do we find balance in the crazy that is homeschool?  When our education is turning to the screen?  Our free time is playing on a screen?  Our family time is sitting in front of a screen?  Here are three steps we use in our home that seem to work for us:

  1. Use it as a reward. There is no reason a screen has to be on in every room for every person every day.  Ensure school work, chores, playing outside, and being creative are completed prior to any screen time. 
  2. Limitation.  Limit what they watch, when they watch, how long they watch.  Limitations are good in all aspects of life – from what we eat to what we watch.  We do not let any screens in our kiddos bedroom and use Google Chrome Cast which is mirrored from our phones to ensure we know what is watched and when it is over.
  3. Model.  Practice what you preach.  If your rule is to finish work, exercise, reading, and creativity first, but your child never sees you do that – you are asking for trouble.  What rules you put in place for the screen should be reflected in your own actions.  Other than numerous benefits of opening up time for productivity, this allows you to show your child there is so much more to this wonderful life than the big (or little handheld) screen in front of them. 

Screen time can be a wonderful tool and entertainment resource.  However, it can also be the bane of your existence.  May we all find balance in the world of homeschool and homework in this strange and ever-developing global situation.

child-hiking-black-jacket-with-hood

Key to Unlocking the Mystery

Your life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change.

Jim Rohn

When people learn that, especially those with special needs children, I am immediately asked what we did to help him? Was it the medication? Was it diet? Was it therapy?  The answer is teamwork.

It is a process, like all parenting.  No one expects their five-year-old to do laundry.  No one expects their sixteen-year-old to sign a loan.  It is a process of teaching and learning on both sides of the parenting aisle. 

Track Changes

It is really easy to share about the rough days in the lives of special needs.  But all that does is focus on the negative and does not act toward a solution.  Maybe it is the researcher in me, or maybe it is my determination to understand the why, or maybe it is my sheer stubbornness, but I was determined to not let my child use his diagnosis as a crutch.  And I was not going to let the world do that either.

But, when your kid cannot talk at age five, you might think this is not possible.  I am can confidently say it does not have to be.

The first thing I am always told is that is way too much work. And if you approach it like that, you may find it is. But I did not. In total, once I had a system, it took about 15 minutes a day…and the data was AMAZING!

Here is how it was done and some lessons we learned:

STEP ONE: Get Everyone on Board

This is probably the hardest step.  When you think about it, you leave your kids in the hands of others sometimes up to 40 hours a week.  This could be a teacher, an aide, a therapist, a Sunday School teacher, or a babysitter.  Everyone is different and so what is considered bad behavior for one may be tolerable or expected behavior to another. It is essential to get everyone on the same page.

We developed an easy light system, much like a street light, that could be used in all locations.  Because it could be used in all locations, our son knew what was expected from him at all times.

The Color System

There are four colors and the frequency of use changes with age and need.  When we started at age five, our son had the opportunity to earn 15 blues a day.  We believe in grace – no one has a perfect day every day.  To that end, we always allow a place for imperfection.  When he was younger, our son could earn 10 blues and greens and still earn whatever incentive he was working for. Now, there are certain actions that automatically mean he loses his incentive but he also has fewer chances to earn things. We break the day up by activity now not by the hour.

Before we get too far, let me explain what an incentive is and is not. 

An incentive is NOT a bribe.  A bribe is a reward given in extreme frustration to a child misbehaving.  An incentive is a reward given in a contract.  I will do an entire blog on this next, but for now, this should get you where you need to go.

Breaking up the day by activity and time helps understand what topics and times of day may need more or less attention

Here are the colors:

Blue: This is beyond what you would expect from a child – excellent behaviors, no reminders, best kid you ever met. This would be an A+ student.

Green: Exactly what you would expect from a child.  Nothing too bad and nothing too good. This would be a B/A student.

Yellow: Walking a dangerous path.  Perhaps you need to give some warnings.  Perhaps there is an attitude creeping into the child’s tone.  This is your warning.  This would be C student.

Red: Game over! This behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  This is an F student.

The color system is easy to explain to other adults and is easy to teach to your child.  

Seeing at glance improvement over time helps bring scope and value to the progress made

How do you keep track during those times you are not with your kids?

We used a grid system of school subject, time of day and days of the week.  We found this was easy for the provider or teacher to be able to communicate to us how the day went without having to write a book.

On the back of our weekly grid was any comments the aide, teacher, or babysitter wanted to provide with why they chose that color or any specific good or bad behavior of which we needed to be aware.

I then kept all of these in a three-ring binder divided by school year.  Once a month I would count up the blues, greens, yellows, and reds and have a clear indication of which direction my child was going.  This also helped when speaking with occupational, speech and ABA therapists to help see what times of days and what subject’s in school were more problem areas and where we could spend less time and focus.

STEP TWO: Track A-B-C Behavior

A-B-C behavior is your lifesaver! This data tells you so much about your child from what they like or dislike to how they may be physically feeling to how smart they are.

What is it?  Antecedent, behavior, consequence.  I will spend more time on this is a future blog on ABA therapy, but here is what you need to know to get started. 

I used a chart of date and time with A-B-C.

This helped me track where trouble times of the day may be (like right before bed or end of the week due to exhaustion) or certain activities which may be frustrating to my kiddo (like math and homework at the end of the day). 

What are some antecedents?  Transitions, change in routine, a difficult task (anything from buttoning clothes to multiplying fractions – wherever your kid is) can all be antecedents.  This is what occurs prior to the behavior you are seeing.  This is super helpful when communicating with other adults, especially babysitters, so they can know how better to help your kiddo,

Behavior is simply that – what behavior did your child exhibit?  Was he eloping? Was he hurting himself or others?  Was he not doing work (avoiding what was requested of him)?  What action took place?

Consequence is essential.  This goes hand in hand with incentives.  The key to a good consequence is that it is known in advance and is followed through on consistently.  CONSISTENTLY.  If this is not consistent, everything is lost!

For adults, we know if we steal, we go to jail. This is a law.  This is not just a law on books, it is common law – do not steal or you go to jail.  You know the consequence in advance.  If you steal one time, you go to jail (when the system works correctly).  When you steal again, you go to jail.  The rules do not change and the consequences do not change.  We, as humans, respond best to consistency.  It is essential the consequences are communicated to the child, the caregiver, and your partner and you are on the same page.  If your kid can get away with task avoidance with Dad and not Mom, this will not work. 

Tracking this information is essential to not only understand your child and what makes them tick but helps you as a parent teach self-control, responsibility, and rule of law (which every society everywhere has some form).  This also, over time, makes your life parenting much easier.  No more repeating yourself.  No more fighting with your kiddo.  This allows them to start feeling independent.

Grid of time and date, next colum initials of who saw behavior, Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence are the next three columns
Seeing what is the antecedent helps to discover how to help solve problems we cannot see.

STEP THREE: Track What You Eat

This may sound a bit absurd, but believe me, it is more helpful than a pedestrian visit.  When we started tracking what our kiddo ate, we could see and anticipate behavior.

My mom used to make the most incredible cakes for our birthdays…all our eight birthdays a year.  And every time one of us kid had a birthday, my mom would get sick.  It took forever for the doctors to figure out what was happening until they tracked the ingredients she used in the frosting of the cake.  She was allergic, but did not know it.  Tracking the daily helped the doctors (and my mom) to figure out the problem.

We decided to not wait for a doctor to tell us to do this.  We just started to do it.  What we discovered changed our lives.

When our son eats dairy, any dairy, within 24 hours to the minute, he is having behavior problems.  This was essential information when he could not speak.  But it also helps us now that he can.  Our son is not allergic to dairy, but he cannot physically process it.  This leads to stomach aches and headaches which leads to less focus, patience, and acceptance in situations that may otherwise be easy to handle for him. 

How did we discover this?  We tracked his meals.  Every day for two years.  We saw the trend at six months, but did a full two-year study for certainty.  And because data is indispensable.  This essential data has come in handy when talking to his therapists, pediatrician, allergist, and teachers.  It has also helped create a much more calm home environment. 

This is super easy now with apps for food tracking (just google a play store app for a diet and millions pop up). 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

STEP FOUR: Pray

Many of you know I am Christian.  I think God played (and continues to play) a large role in the success of my family.  From the day my son came into my life, I have prayed for him.  I have prayed for healing.  I have prayed he has control over his emotions.  I have prayed he has a heart for obedience and compassion for others. 

Most of these things a child on the spectrum, especially those that cannot express themselves, have trouble with.  There were days our son would hit, kick, scream and bite because he could not tell us his stomach hurt or that he did not like the texture of a food.  Simple things to those with the gift of language. 

It can be, often is, and has been over-whelming. 

But I have learned specific prayers get specific answers.  Within a year of praying my son could speak in complete sentences.  Though we still have spitting and kicking outbursts, the frequency of these has decreased dramatically – from constant throughout the day to maybe once to twice a month in four years.

Though I know not all follow my God, I highly recommend prayer or mediation of some kind.  I have found it to not only calm me but has allowed me to approach problems from outside of them not stuck in the middle of them.

                What we Have Learned

Data is key to understanding your child, especially if they are non-verbal.  It can be easier than you think with grids and check-boxes.  It takes less time than you think with apps and only 10 to 15 minutes a day.  It brings more peace, calm, and happiness to your child because you understand them more, but also to your home.

Do not feel over-whelmed.  Do what you can do and let the rest fall by the way-side.  Not every kid is the same and not every kid will respond the same way.  I do highly recommend, above all else, consistency in your home with both praise and consequences. 

Your life does not get better by chance. It gets better by change.Jim Rohn

When people learn that, especially those with special needs children, I am immediately asked what we did to help him? Was it the medication? Was it diet? Was it therapy?  The answer is teamwork.

It is a process, like all parenting.  No one expects their five-year-old to do laundry.  No one expects their sixteen-year-old to sign a loan.  It is a process of teaching and learning on both sides of the parenting aisle. 

No Showers and Bad Dreams

There is a scene in Patch Adams when Robin Williams portraying Patch Adams character is helping an in-patient go to the bathroom.  The patient had an illogical fear of invisible squirrels that prevent the patient from leaving his bed to use the bathroom.  Adams plays into the fear and helps “fight off” the squirrels so his roommate can finally relieve himself.

This is an excellent example of life with children.

Our son has been bathing himself for years.  About age eight there was a time he would not go into the shower – hygiene been damned.  When he asked him why, he was adamant a shark was going to attack him.  

Continue reading “No Showers and Bad Dreams”