Surviving Arsenic Hour

This is a pretty spot-on post (see Dr. Laura Markham Surviving Arsenic Hour) for us these days.  Either my husband or I swoop in to relieve the nanny at... just about dinnertime.  I'm all about adding some focused structure and thought to the time of day that hollers for peace. My 15-month-old is ready for cuddles and food, so I've taken to strapping her in the Ergo carrier while I prep.  My preschooler has questions and afternoon recaps to share, so there is constant chatter.

I usually haven't used the restroom in several hours, my husband is still dressed in his work attire, and the dog is greeting us with her normal barks and booty-wags (she is a tail-less Aussie).

Basically, it's chaos.  On a good day: happy, fun, excited chaos.  On a bad day: Pour the wine, and get ready for arsenic hour!

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Anger Management

Everyone experiences anger and frustration. How we handle it depends on how we've developed our coping strategies.  Many adults don't handle anger in a mature way, which makes it even more difficult for us to demand that our children do the same.

We want our kids to advocate for themselves, to assert themselves, and to challenge the status quo.  As we guide them through their anger at home, we help them to assert themselves positively and independently.  Give them words for their emotions, and help them regulate their own behavior.

For tips on self-soothing, see my post here.

For other regulation strategies, click here.


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The Fine Art of Distraction

My nanny and I were laughing the other day about my 15-month-old being a wiggly bag of worms on the changing table.  I mentioned that I try to distract her when I'm changing a messy diaper, in an effort to curtail her movement and keep her hands north of the mess.  I'll ask her to point to her body parts: Where's your nose?  Where's your mouth?  Where are your...teeth?, and have her name animal sounds: What does a doggy say?  How about a cow?  Can you make a monkey noise? Needless to say, at her recent pediatrician appointment, besides telling the doctor a resounding "No!" before her shots, my Roly-Poly demonstrated far more than the 3-word minimum.  With her trotting skills and language skills, I guess she is officially becoming "Walkie-Talkie #2" rather than "Roly-Poly"!

It is amazing to me how distraction can change the direction of a toddler's behavior meltdown or single-minded insistence that things go exactly. the. way. they. want.  Try these tips at home:

~When putting on your child's shoes, rather than pinning their wiggly body down with one arm, start asking them questions about where you are going.

~Make up a song about anything, add the tune of a basic "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", and serenade them through the store (Yes, I have done this...  As quietly as possible.  But it's a lot better than a tantrum!)  I have made up a song about "I wonder what we should have for dinner... oh my, that's too expensive... just one more can of this..." with a little drum action on the cart from my daughter.

~Use a toy or book to draw their attention to something else when you get the sense that they are about to head down the meltdown road.

~Keep your child well-fed and restedbut remind yourself that bad behavior is often your child just trying to understand limits and their place in the world.  Getting down on their level, making eye contact, and slowing the frantic pace of life can help them feel heard and secure in the uncertainty that surrounds their little world. 

~Keep a bottle of wine or some favorite tea bags handy for when they are sleeping like a little angel.


How do you positively redirect your child?  What tips could you add to this list?

Front-Loading and Carousel Brainstorming

Helpful Homework Tips for Writing During the writing process, there are many obstacles in a child's way. Handwriting skills may affect how easy it is to jot down ideas. Spelling and syntax difficulties may make sentences confusing.

I have many students who are unable to read their own work because it's too sloppy, words are misspelled, or sentences don't make sense.

Add to that the kids who are just unable to get started and get the words out, and the writing process becomes formidable, if not impossible.

Students can often get stuck going in the wrong direction. What can we do at home to support them?


The first step to writing is for your child to figure out what they are supposed to do. It's not as easy as it sounds. What is the teacher asking? What kind of answers are they looking for?

With homework, helping your child get started on the right track can make all the difference. I call this "front-loading" the help.

For many children, especially those with weaker executive functioning skills, this can mean the difference of spending 30 minutes doing the right assignment or 30 minutes working hard to create an incorrect finished assignment.

Many children who struggle with homework need to talk it out or draw it out first. Then, with a little help from parents, they can circle the ideas that apply to the problem, scratch out those that don't, and create a framework to connect their thoughts.

As you create a brainstorm map, be your child's recorder (or "computer", as I like to call it). Write for them, and later your child can use this map to refer to when creating an essay. At school, many teachers use "carousel brainstorming", where the students are moving around the room talking to other students. This is great for our kids who can use movement to activate learning! To replicate at home, have your child stand up and move one step around the kitchen table or counter for every idea generated.

A word of advice to those parents worried about too much "helicopter" parenting or helping with homework: Pose open-ended questions to your child.

"Why do you think this idea works well with you topic?" while still guiding them in the right direction. Let the learning process occur, but front-load the experience so they head down the right path.

Once you see they are working in the right direction, step back and let them own the process. Walk away from the table, and check back in after 5 or 10 minutes. If they are continuing to answer the question, step back. If not, give them guidance back to the assignment and the question posed by the teacher.

Remember, the goal is the learning process that occurs in creating a finished product, not necessarily the product itself. When the homework is finished, briefly talk about the steps that had to occur to get to the end result, then give a hug and a break.






Nature Inspires Wonder

We just got back from a day trip hiking the beautiful Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. I mentioned on my Facebook page how my 3-yr-old chatted the entire way up (probably because my husband and I were busy huffing and puffing with the kids on our backs!) I'm always amazed by the magnificence of nature and how it lets us just "be" with each other. My children had our undivided attention, and the family bonding and communication time was wonderful.

A walk with your child may be just the thing needed for them to open up about their behavior, for them to tell you what's going right or wrong in their day, and provides endless fodder for a toddler learning new words ("bird!" "tree... Green tree!" "Plane... Flying fast... Woosh!")

Studies have shown the outdoors serves as a calming environment for children with attention difficulties, and even the most reticent adolescent will open up during a walk. Take a moment for yourself, as well, and enjoy.


Need a quick read?

20130219-161328.jpg I recently finished Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell's "The 5 Love Language of Children", focusing on loving and cherishing your child in a way they understand. So many good tips for our children! And when your child is disregulated or having difficulty processing the world around them, focusing on loving them is the first step to helping them get back on track.

The book is a pretty quick read, and is easy to pick up/put down as our schedules demand.

Next up is to convince my husband to take the online quiz and figure out what his love language is... ;)

Heart of my Heart

Ah, parenting.  Never before have I so closely examined what I am made of and questioned if it's enough.  Confidence, patience, kindness. Heart of my heart. As I reflect on the magnitude of my blessings, I sometimes am so overwhelmed that I have to put my head down and blunder on. It reminds me of running when the beauty of nature all around you is so great, that by looking up you are afraid you will stumble and fall.

My friend Taylor and I ran a nearby trail a couple of months ago. At first, due to my unfamiliarity with my surroundings, I kept my head down, my eyes focused on the ground and my feet. Jogging over rocks and roots, I knew the beauty was around me, I could sense it and breathe it in, but I could not look at it fully. I couldn't risk veering off course.

It reminded me of being a child and the warning to never look directly at the sun. Only when you decided to cheat, to glance up at it, did you have its image seared on your mind's eye for many minutes afterwards.

When I stop to look around, to breathe in my children's glory, the love of my husband, the feeling sears itself to my soul, allowing me time to put my head down an continue on, knowing I will take that image with me.

On my trail run with Taylor we forgot to breathe in. Coming down, back towards our cars, we lost sight of our feet and our focus. We both ended up sprawled across the path, first me, and then T five minutes after, our bodies crashing back to reality. Breathe in, nature demanded. Here I am. Marvel in my glory.

My parenting journey is something like a trail run.

As we dusted ourselves off, we finished our trek with an homage to the trail. A turn-around and smile, a deep breath, and a laugh at ourselves as other trail runners gave our dust cloud a wide berth.

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Tips to Quit

Convinced of the negative cognitive impact (see: attention difficulties, underdeveloped language systems, social communication difficulties, behavior challenges, limited abstract thinking...) of too much screen time? Where's a parent to start? I thought I'd follow up on my last post about Screen Time with a few practical tips for decreasing your child's screen time. I'll focus here on children up to 5th grade, with a follow-up for older students later.

(As my friend Kathleen and I joked the other day, you have a pass if you have a newborn in the house and are desperately trying to sink into a new family routine with siblings. You also have a pass if your child is sick. While nothing is better than being cuddled and read to all day, I understand you have other things to attend to! A favorite movie or show can do wonders to soothe feverish kiddos.)

As parents, we have to teach our children how to down-regulate to soothe themselves and get relaxation time. We want to end up with adults who are comfortable with their own thoughts and energy. Here are a few helpful ideas that have worked in my practice and in my own home:

If your child is 0-2 years old:

1. No screen time. Just turn it off. Put the remote controls out of sight, hide the iPad, and keep your phone in your purse. During this age range, it comes down to parent discipline. They don't need it, and they won't want it later if you start the good habits now.

If your child is 2-5:

2. Remember the power of distraction. Again, just turn it off. Keep the devices out of sight, and use the power of distraction ("Hey, let's read this good book!") to redirect attention when they start requesting (whining *cough*) for it.

3. Have other options for "down time" available. Books, books, books. The families that are most successful at this step have books, magazines, newspapers, postcards and letters available for their children in every room of the house. Also place out dolls, trains, play dishes ~ whatever their fancy for imaginative and pretend play.

4. Put on music to fill their auditory space. You can also start introducing books on tape or podcasts if they are having difficulty leaving the technology behind. This step works well for parents who need the time for themselves to accomplish something.

5. Ask them to help. I know, believe me, how much faster chores go when you can do them yourself. But a child who is helping around the house is not getting in trouble, is not complaining about being bored, and is getting positive quality time from their parents. And during this age, they like to help! Take advantage of it.

This is an important age for screen time structure. They won't complain for it very often if they aren't used to it. Go cold turkey if you can!

If your child is school-age:

6. Try the tips mentioned above. Set the structure in place, grit your teeth, and repeat the mantra that you are doing what's best for their little minds.

7. Transfer screen time to a task-specific reward, rather than a "down time" activity. After homework completion or chores, say, the reward is 20 minutes (timed on a Time Timer or analogue clock) of iPad time. "Down time" on the weekends or afternoons is time for books, free play, sports, family games, etc., that foster communication and learning. Focus on rewarding a specific task (or positive effort -timed- on homework), rather than good behavior, or the screen time becomes a bribe rather than a reward.

8. Use screen time for research time. Spend some time with your child showing them how to look things up in Wikipedia, Google, or find supporting documentation for a book report. Help them use media as a tool.

9. Model other "down time" activities (like book reading, shooting hoops, etc.) Watch your grownup shows after they go to bed. I love a good Downton Abbey episode, but even that subject matter is too adult for most kids. And the ads on t.v... don't get me started.

10. Go to the game. As one mom put it, if your child doesn't have the attention span to attend a football game, they don't have the attention span to watch it on t.v. Take them with you to the game. Or, if that's not an option, organize a gathering and let the kids play in the garage or outside with their friends while you watch.

It can be done. One family I work with has six children, some with learning challenges, and all with varying temperaments and energy levels. Screen time is just not an option in their house. The computer and iPad are used on occasion for schoolwork, but the calm and steady demeanor of their parents keep these kids learning, creating, and interacting with each other throughout the day. Oh, and did I mention that this mom homeschools? It can be done.

(One last note: Lest you think I blame screen time for all our society's woes, think again. I have two fabulous brother-in-laws who make a living in the video game industry. Their "technology" genius? Being able to communicate ideas clearly and effectively, energize and manage teams of people, and use social and pragmatic language skills to introduce new products. Those skills are acquired through hands-on learning, book reading, and interactions with people. Screen time can serve its place if used effectively, which I will delve into in a future post focused on our middle school and high school students.)

Screen Time... Is it really that bad?

I recently read a couple of blog articles about screen time, and it got me fired up again. As a parent of two young children, I understand reality in a chaotic household and the modern family life. But I feel very strongly that this is an area where even the most well-intentioned parents choose to turn a blind eye. The following article examines the research for young kids (under 2). What I see in my practice are things becoming habit. While it's hard to resist your toddler at age 2, it's even harder to get your middle schooler to put down the iPad or phone. We're not perfect in my own house, but I ask that you take a good look at your child's use of screen time. Here's a link to that article:Screen Time for Kids

How True Are Our Assumptions about Screen Time?

By Lisa Guernsey

Video, TV, interactive books, screen-based games: Young children today are practically bathed in this stuff as young as toddlerhood. What is the impact? As a parent who is simultaneously fascinated by and worried about the impact of electronic media on my children─and as a journalist and researcher specializing in education, technology, and social science─I have been digging for answers. Along the way I’ve come upon several research findings that overturn conventional wisdom. Here are five common parental assumptions that the research does not necessarily support.

Assumption 1: As long as the content is “educational,” it’s good for children.

What the research shows: Children don’t always learn what the program creators intend; sometimes they actually learn the opposite.

When I started the research for Screen Time, I expected to find what many of us have been brought up to believe: As long as a program is teaching the children something, as long as it seems to send positive messages, as long as it is produced by an educational station I trust—everything is fine. But I wasn’t prepared for the wide variation among programs that label themselves as “educational.” Many parents wrongly assume that their children will automatically understand what is happening on screen. But the way information is presented can support or get in the way of a child’s ability to comprehend. Simply having characters utter nice new words, for example, doesn’t mean that toddlers or preschoolers will learn what those words mean. A show that has characters pointing to and labeling objects can be a big help, but a show designed by people without a clue about the language development under way among its audience (in my book and presentations I pick on Veggie Tales and Bob the Builder) may not be building language skills at all.

One eye-opening study focused on the program Clifford the Big Red Dog. Researchers (Mares & Acosta 2008) asked whether kindergartners were grasping messages of tolerance and kindness in an episode about a three-legged dog. Although the point of the story was to show that friendship overcomes physical differences, the University of Wisconsin researchers found that children were likely to be more intolerant after watching the show. How could that be? The researchers theorize that the story’s delivery backfired. Because the bulk of the episode was focused on the dog’s physical differences (with only a few minutes at the end dedicated to all the characters joining happily together), children may have been too preoccupied with the dog’s three-leggedness to catch the moral lesson. The designers of the show didn’t seem to recognize how kindergarteners interpret, recall, and learn from what they see.

Assumption 2: The TV may be on in the background, but my children aren’t affected.

What the research shows: The TV shows in the background may be impacting your child more than you think.

Nearly 40 percent of families with children up to 4 years old have the television on most or all of the time (Rideout, Hamel, & the Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). When my daughter was 1, I remember thinking that it didn’t matter whether the television was on or not. Look, I would tell myself proudly, she barely notices. She’s not lured in the least. But once I delved into the research, I learned that even if young children don’t seem to be paying attention to it, background television can have a more negative influence than one might think.

Some of the most potent research on background TV comes from a series of experiments in a lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Schmidt et al. 2008). The lab was set up to look like a living room, with toys, a TV, a couch, a coffee table, and some magazines. Mothers brought their 1-, 2- and 3-year-old children to that room, where for 30 minutes of their visit the TV was on. For another 30 minutes, it was off. Careful observation of the children in these experiments showed a significant difference between the way children played with their toys in each condition. When the TV was on, children bopped from toy to toy, spending significantly less time with one toy than when the TV was off. Even when they weren’t looking at the TV, and most children in this study weren’t, it seemed as if something was distracting them. The background TV, whether it was the noise or the flash of images, was interfering with their play.

University of Massachusetts researchers also looked at how parents’ interactions with their children differed under TV-on and TV-off conditions. They found that when the TV was on, there was a 21 percent decrease in the amount of time that parents spent interacting with their children. And the quality of those interactions (as measured by how actively they played together) decreased too (Kirkorian et al. 2009).

Assumption 3: All media for children under age 2 is damaging.

What the research shows: If parents use media with children under 2, they should make sure that screen time leads to social interactions with their babies and toddlers, instead of replacing those interactions. Parents should avoid exposing their very young children to adult-directed programming.

In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its recommendation discouraging parents from using media with children under 24 months of age. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age 2; a few studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems; and some studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. From a “do no harm” perspective, AAP’s reliance on this research makes sense, and much of it is based on respectable peer-reviewed work in medicine and health.

But the fact is that many children under 2 do use screen media, so some researchers point to the value of paying attention to how those families select and use that media. Researchers are coming to agree: How parents approach media matters. For example, Alan Mendelsohn, a pediatrician and researcher at New York University, has shown that negative impacts typically associated with television watching can be lessened when parents talk to their babies about what they are seeing on screen (Mendelsohn 2010).

Another way of looking at young children and screens is to explore whether a child might learn from watching or playing with what is on screen. A growing number of studies show that what is on the TV or tablet (the content) can make a big difference. For example, when researchers followed up on their study that originally showed links between television viewing and attention problems, they determined that the content of the programs mattered. When they looked at children under 36 months old who had watched “educational” programming (defined in part by programs that contained no violence), the link to attention problems disappeared (Zimmerman & Christakis 2007).

Also important is how parents manage media use in daily routines and interact with their children before, during, and after they watch and play (the context). The needs of the child have some bearing here too. Even at the same age, children can be very different developmentally. A verbally precocious 21-month-old may be able to learn some words directly from a video while another 21-month-old may not, as was shown in a 2005 study on Teletubbies (Grela, Krcmar & Lin 2004). That study, it should be noted, was conducted in a laboratory and designed to look specifically at whether babies could pick up the meaning of a word when it was connected to a particular object labeled by speakers on screen. As shown in other studies, the way words are used in children’s programming is an important factor in determining whether children will learn them. And a vast collection of findings from other studies makes clear that learning language (not just learning words) is dependent on social interactions between people.

By synthesizing the studies on children’s health, learning, and media interactions, I’ve concluded that we as parents could do the most good for our children by focusing on the three C’s—content, context, and the individual child.

Assumption 4: Scary movies and TV shows just go over children’s heads.

What the research shows: Scary programs influence children’s sleep and more.

In my interviews and conversations with parents, I have come across a fair proportion who don’t worry about showing their preschoolers movies or TV shows that were made for older children and adults. Their children, they say, don’t seem to be bothered by moments of aggression or distressing scenes. And surely they are too young to really understand what they are seeing anyway.

But research on the content of TV and video programs watched by young children suggests that parents may want to pay more attention to what appears on their TV set or tablet after all. A growing number of studies are finding links between children’s cognitive development and “adult-directed television” (think C.S.I., the evening news, or even PG-rated movies that have scary scenes). A study at Georgetown University, for example, gathered data on family media habits and tracked children’s growth over several years (Barr et al. 2010). It found that children who performed poorly on cognitive tests at age 4 were the same children who were put in front of adult-directed TV when they were 1 year old. Poor scores also were linked to the watching of these programs at age 4. One theory is that when watching adult-directed TV, children’s minds are in fact quite busy trying to figure out what is going on, but the scenes and characters are appearing faster than they can fully understand and mentally process given how little background knowledge they have to draw upon.

Research (Garrison & Christakis 2012) reported in the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics highlights another reason to pay attention to content: sleep schedules. Anyone with a young child understands how critical sleep can be—especially for parental sanity—so it’s worth examining whether exposure to violent content could interfere with bedtime and naptime. Using data from a randomized controlled trial with 565 families in Seattle, researchers Michelle Garrison and Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington examined the impact of a parent-support program intended to help moms and dads choose age-appropriate and nonviolent media for their 3- to 5-year-olds.

The program worked. Sleep problems declined for children of parents assigned to receive the support (coaching and educational materials) compared to those who didn’t. And the support was most effective for families that initially reported watching higher levels of violent media than other participating families. In other words, the mechanism for reducing sleep problems was the reduction in exposure to violent TV.

Assumption 5: E-books are distracting to young children.

What the research shows: It’s all about how they are used.

It’s true that many e-books for children come with so many bells and whistles that children merely click around on the screen without paying much attention to the storyline. It’s also true that some research has uncovered parents’ tendencies to focus on the technology (telling their kids when and where to click) and not the story when reading an e-book with their children. This is leading children to recall very little about what was read. In a small study conducted at Temple University, for example, “behavioral directives went through the roof” while reading comprehension sunk (Parish-Morris, Collins, & Hirsh-Pasek 2006).

But after reading these studies carefully, it becomes clear that at least two factors are at play: the design of the e-books and the behavior of the parents. Tackle these issues, and electronic books could be no different or better than printed books. Some e-book companies, for example, are designing picture e-books to favor highlighted text and engaging storylines over distracting playthings. As e-books become less of a novelty, parents may also become less inclined to order their children around on how to use them. A more positive approach to e-books, however, will require parents and educators to stress the importance of content, context, and the individual child (the Three C’s) in choosing media for our children.

Note: Technology changes quickly. Use the research-based NAEYC/Fred Rogers Center position statement on “Technology and Interactive Media in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8” for guidance on when and how to use technology with young children in ways that will help, not harm.


Barr, R., A. Lauricella, E. Zack, & S. Calvert. 2010. Infant and Early Childhood Exposure to Adult-Directed and Child-Directed Television Programming: Relations with Cognitive Skills at Age Four. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 56 (1): 20-48.

Council on Communication and Media. 2011. Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years. Policy statement. Pediatrics 128 (5).

Garrison, M., & D. Christakis. 2012. The Impact of a Healthy Media Use Intervention on Sleep in Preschool Children. Pediatrics 130 (3): 492-99.

Grela, B.G., M. Krcmar, & Y.J. Lin. 2004, May 18. Can Television Help Toddlers Acquire New Words?

Kirkorian, H.L., T.A. Pempek, L.A., Murphy, M.E., Schmidt, & D.R. Anderson. 2009. The Impact of Background Television on Parent-Child Interaction. Child Development 80 (5): 1350-59.

Mares, M.L., & E. Acosta. 2008. Be Kind to Three-legged Dogs: Children’s Literal Interpretations of TV’s Moral Lessons. Media Psychology 11 (3): 377-99.

Mendelsohn, A.L., C.A. Brockmeyer, B.P. Dreyer, A.H. Fierman, S. Berkule-Silberman, & S. Tomopoulos. 2010. Do Verbal Interactions with Infants during Electronic Media Exposure Mitigate Adverse Impacts on Their Language Development as Toddlers? Infant and Child Development 19: 577-93.

Parish-Morris, J., M.F. Collins, & K. Hirsh-Pasek. 2006. Electronic Books: Boon or Bust for Interactive Reading? Paper presented at Boston University Conference on Language Development, November 3.

Rideout, V., E. Hamel, & the Kaiser Family Foundation. 2006. The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.

Schmidt, M.E., T.A. Pempek, H.L. Kirkorian, A.F. Lund, & D.R. Anderson, 2008. The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Development 79 (4): 1137-1151.

Zimmerman, F.J., & D.A. Christakis. 2007. Associations Between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems. Pediatrics 120 (5): 986-92.

Lisa Guernsey is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media—from Baby Videos to Educational Software—

Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012).

The Education Dilemma

It's that time of year (already!) to figure out your child's school plan for next year. On the home front, I've already signed up my preschooler for next year's preschool class! Enrollment has started for public school kindergarten, private school classes are already filling up, and we haven't even made it through half the school year this year. Whew! Deciding where and how your child will be educated is a tough decision, and if you have a child with special needs it requires even more research and review on a parent's part. Parents should view their role as case manager of their child's education. Here's more from a Simple Mom post about making the decision The decision you make this year doesn't have to be the decision for the rest of their schooling. Look ahead at the coming years until the next transition. If they are in preschool, consider early elementary school options. Learning expectations shift drastically in 4th grade, so that may be the time to make a new decision. Middle school is a whole 'nother circus, and high school it's own adventure.

Be sure to look at the academic and learning picture for your child. But also focus on their social-emotional development. More than anything, a healthy dose of self-confidence can go a long way in the learning process. Determination and perseverance are built from a child's sense of self-worth.

The A says "ah", the A says "ah"...

This post first appeared on Kids Communicate in early 2010.  Lately, I've been fielding questions at my daughter's preschool about early literacy awareness, and I thought I'd share some ideas here. 

...Every letter makes a sound, the A says "ah"!

One of my favorite topics to talk about with families is early literacy.  When a child first learns to sound out words and discovers the meaning behind the printed letters on a page, a whole new world opens up for them.  There are several components of literacy that a child must learn, including phonological awareness, which is an understanding that letters make sounds and we combine those sounds in various ways to make meaningful words.

Most of you probably read to your children several times a day.  Those reading and snuggling times can be very precious pauses in our otherwise busy lives.  As a child begins to link letters and sounds, I encourage parents to focus on the sounds letters make, rather than the letter names.  Most children in kindergarten enjoy using their whole bodies to learn.  If your 4- , 5-, or 6-year-old is working on associating sounds and letters, try these activities at home:

~Place large foam letters on the ground, maybe 4 or 5 at a time (you can also just draw letters on paper.)  Play some music, and when the music stops, shout out a letter sound (e.g. "Mmm!") and your child can run and stand on the letter (M).  Start with some of the easier letters (B, D, M, T, S, etc.) leaving those tricky ones (vowels, X, Y) for later in the game. Slowly add new letters to the mix.  *To up the ante (and have your child demonstrate mastery) let them be the boss.  When the music is off, they have to shout out the sound of the letter.

~Vowels are some of the trickiest letter sounds to learn.  Make giant (A, E, I, O, U) letters on pieces of printer paper.  Tape them to the wall, turn off the lights, and use a flashlight to "spotlight" the letters.  Have your child shout out the sound of the highlighted letter.  Then try to think of a word that starts with that sound.  FYI: In my experience, E ("eh") is the hardest vowel to master because it has a very neutral position in the mouth!

~Mold your body into a letter shape as you say the sound.  Mold play-doh into a letter shape as you say the sound.  Mold your brother into a letter shape as you say the sound.  Mold the dog... you get the idea.

~Using a "Zoophonics" approach, choose a letter (B), pretend to be an animal (Bear) who says the sound ("Buh!")  You can even give the animal a name ("Betty the Bear says Buh!") and act it out.  (Check out Zoophonics website for actual program:

As your child begins to link sounds and letters to "decode" a 3-letter word (C-A-T), they will be ready to tackle some basic reading books.  The Bob Books are great early readers, but they can be kind of boring if read more than once (think black and white stick figures.)  The National Reading Panel recommends reading a book out loud 3 to 9 times to achieve mastery of new words.  With this in mind, my favorite early readers are the "Animal Antics" books by Nora Gaydos.  They will definitely keep even the most active child engaged in reading for the entire story.

For some more tips and book reviews before you head to the library or bookstore, check out:

I'm interested to hear from parents out there.  What are some of your kids' favorite early readers?

Upcoming seminar on Anxiety in Kids ~ Portland area

Anxiety - What a Parent Can Do

Shauna Signorini

   Shauna Signorini is the trainer and director for Involve

   Families; the state trainer for NAMI Basics, a course for
   caregivers of children with mental health issues; and
   trained in Tier 2 Collaborative Problem-Solving through    
   Think:Kids.  Shauna has developed and nationally
   presented curricula on trauma, advocacy and self-care.
  Join us for this free workshop on strategies to help
  children with anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis for kids and often occurs with other conditions. Anxiety can be paralyzing for the child and frustrating for the parents. Learn about anxiety,
practical ideas to reduce it and how to lessen its impact on the family.

Wednesday, Feb. 27

6:30 - 8 p.m.

Providence Portland Medical Center
Cancer Center Amphitheater
4805 NE Glisan St., Portland
Register at Click on "online class catalog" and search by class name for "Swindells Speaker Event - Anxiety."
To register by phone, call 541-387-5720 or toll free at 800-833-8899 ext 52429.
Spanish registration and interpretation services are available;
please call 503-574-6595 before Feb. 13.
This workshop is free of charge thanks to the generosity of our donors.
For a certificate of attendance, there is a $25 fee.

Preparing for College and the Workplace

Part of my role as a Speech-Language Pathologist is to prepare my students for life AFTER school.  For those children with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, this includes preparing for college and for the workplace.  The employment rate for these students is 55%, which is lower than those with intellectual disabilities.  As our kids start high school, the question of "What's next?" is always at the back of our minds.

Students with HFA/AS don't need vocational training in the traditional sense.  Rather, they should be supported in their strengths (e.g. art and video game creation) and supported in their areas of weakness (e.g. conflict management, executive functioning skills, social discourse).  That being said, it's important that they learn work-management skills in order to be successful in future jobs.  There are some basic skills for success that we can support, both as parents and professionals.

To begin with, explore work and volunteer experiences during high school.  If your child has a fondness for animals, look into shelter work.  If your child loves books, the library provides endless volunteer opportunities stocking shelves and assisting with reading programs. If your child has a knack for computers, reach out to the high school computer lab teacher and ask if your child can help load new programs, troubleshoot problems, and assist those students who need extra help.  Besides the hands-on training that these volunteer experiences provide, your child will be learning many executive functioning skills: how to prioritize, time management (showing up for work on time), asking questions and communicating with bosses, responding to criticism or strict guidelines, following rules, and in general operating within the constraints that come with many employment situations.

It is also important that we support our students in extracurricular activities.  Like the work situations previously described, extracurricular activities allow our children to capitalize on their strengths and address some areas of weakness.  Joining chess club for your chess whiz, for example, allows your child to feel successful in an area of strength, while also pursuing friendships and relationships with peers.

As we progress through therapy, I have frequent conversations with my students about college, the work world, their dreams and goals for the future, and the different skills they will need to get there.  The same goal-setting and reality-checking can be applied at home.  Students with HFA/AS are often unrealistic about the future and the steps needed to achieve certain goals or dreams.  Focus on helping and supporting your child.  We aren't trying to "change" them, but rather give them an understanding of their diagnosis and the best way to live successfully with their neurological differences. 

In high school, we begin to pull away some of the special accommodations, or at least encourage the student to begin addressing what they need to be successful.  After school, the world won't compensate for them, so it's important that they learn how to ask for what they need.  Self-advocacy becomes a crucial skill to be learned.  Your student can participate in their IEP or teacher meetings, and role playing at home strengthens their awareness of what their needs might be. For example, before their college entrance exam (like the SAT), role play what the setting is going to feel like, what their emotions might be, and how they might know the answers to the questions but the environment could be distracting.  Set up a plan to address some of these distractions or feelings, and problem-solve how they are going to handle the rest.

If you'd like to read more, there are many online resources (, as well as books (try "The Parent's Guide to College for Students on the Autism Spectrum" or "Preparing for College: An Online Tutorial") to help you help your child navigate this next phase of their life. 

Once your child is in college, the journey isn't over.  The dropout rate for our kids is 40%, so these conversations and check-ins need to continue to happen.  It sounds like a lot of parenting, I know it sometimes seems exhausting, and at some point you'd like to just step back and let them fly.  But I know from experience that you are some of the most steadfast parents around.  Your kids grow up quickly in some areas, but slowly in other areas, so make sure you don't send them off too soon.  The world will continue to be a better place for the contributions your children make to their school, workplace, and community.  And your role in making that happen is more important than ever.

How About Fall Meltdowns?

Wow, it's been awhile since I posted! The steady days of summer are now gone ~ all too fast, in my opinion. Many of the kids I work with took amazing vacations with their families. Roadtrips across the states, trips to the beach or Hawaii, and even some European vacations. One of my families cashed in Dad's/Mom's sabbatical time and took their two teenage sons around the world. Talk about a great learning experience!The slowdown was great for me, as well, and I spent the extra time with my girls and extended family. Ah...

And then September hit. Oh yes, my last post reflected on the summer meltdown that often occurs for our kids as we transition off a set school schedule and into more unstructured summertime. But there's a reversal to this shift when school comes around again, and the shift can be exhausting for both kids and parents alike. I have heard from so many friends and families about the meltdowns happening after the school day. Our kids can hold it together while at school, but it's very taxing for them! And then we then get home... boom!

A few tips from an SLP perspective: 1. Give your child lots of "down time" on the weekends in September and October. While soccer and pumpkin hunting can often fill the weekend time, it's important that your child has sufficient time to decompress.

2. With that free time, help them schedule it. For example, make a schedule with BREAKFAST-OUTSIDE PLAY-LUNCH-READING-QUIET TIME-CHORES-DINNER so they know what to expect. They will be able to relax into the "known", rather than the "unknown".

3. Set aside time with each child individually. If you need to tag team with your spouse or a grandparent, do it. Arrange for each child to have some quiet alone time, reading, playing a game, or going for a walk with Mom or Dad.

4. Email/chat with your child's teacher. (I know that you are busy, teacher friends!) But check-in, just briefly, with your child's teacher to get a read on how things are going at school. Establish open-lines of communication from the get-go. If your child has a Resource Room teacher or case manager, leave them a message, as well.

5. Know that you'll all get in a groove, it just takes a few weeks. Recognize that back-to-school stress often happens for Mom and Dad (speaking from personal experience here!) and it magnifies what your child is going through.

10 Tips for Avoiding or Decreasing the Summer Meltdown

All kids have meltdowns.   Some kids fly off the handle, and lose the ability to process anything complex (including language!) around them. Other meltdowns may appear mild to the outsider, but to mom or dad are distressing. Some kids go through phases of extreme meltdowns, followed by periods of relatively few disasters.  But all kids have them.

Where does language fit into this?

When your child is overloaded, the first thing to go are the higher cognitive processes (like language and executive functioning/problem-solving abilities).  This means that your child is going to have a much harder time understanding what you are telling them, using words to express themselves, or problem-solve to come up with a solution.  So, not only is your child tired, hungry, or on sensory overload, but they have even fewer coping strategies than pre-meltdown.

It's a signal to reset and recharge.  Just like adults, kids get overloaded, overwhelmed, and over-tired. Dealing with stressors is natural part of life, and we can teach our children positive ways to handle them. We can also be on the lookout for times when we can avoid or decrease the meltdown, both in frequency and intensity.

Here are 10 ways to avoid or decrease these meltdowns in your child:

1) Eat healthy.  Avoid high sugar and salt in your child's diet.  We have heard about the ups and downs that come from a sugar rush.  Be very aware of what you are having your child put in his body.  It is as powerful as medicine!

2) Run one or two errands at a time. For the sake of efficiency, I always want to try to group my errands into one big blast of shopping mayhem.  But most children under 5 can only handle about two stops before needing a break.  Many children get sensory overload from shopping malls and grocery stores.  Try and recognize their need to take a break.

3) Use positive reinforcement. When your child is doing a good job of managing a tiring situation, build them up. Let them know that you recognize their perseverance. I try to recite the mantra in my head: "Ten praises for every one criticism."

4) Get  regular exercise.  Like food, exercise is medicine for the body.  It will help your child regulate their emotions and behavior.  It will also help them decompress.  In my neighborhood, it is common to see entire families out for a walk in the evening.  It's a great way to de-stress for kids and for parents.

5) Establish a soothing, quiet space where your child can be alone. A calm space can be a bedroom, a special place in the backyard, or even a space in a closet.  Depending on your child's needs, make this a serene environment by using cool colors, comforting textures, and quiet. (For your child, "quiet" might be total silence, white noise from a fan, or soothing music.)

6) Maintain a routine. Meltdowns can often be a signal that your child is getting overwhelmed by choices or uncertainty.  A regular set of expectations can provide the structure to get back on track.

7) Get enough sleep. It's hard in the summertime to get your children to bed on time!  It's still light outside when my daughters head to bed in the Pacific NW. Blinds and blackout curtains can help with this, and a fan for white noise (to drown out the high school students down the road!) can help your child drift off to sleep.  Again, it goes back to routine, and sleep is a large part of your daily schedule.

8) Use signs, gestures, and facial expression to communicate with your child.  When your child is on the precipice of a meltdown, it's time to scale your language way back. Try leading your child to a quiet corner, get down to their eye level, and use as few words as possible to bring them back around.  Your eyes and smile can speak more than a thousand words, and chances are, your child will be better able to process the feeling of warmth and understanding rather than your words.

9) Give your child an outlet for their energy. Summer is a great time for playing in the pool, running through the sprinklers, shrieking and letting loose. Make sure your child has access daily to such freeing pursuits.

10) Prep your child ahead of time on what to expect, and recap afterwards on how they handled the situation.  You can build your child's language around a situation.  In the heat of the moment, during a meltdown, your child may not be able to use their words to express themselves.  Helping them decompress at a later time can also help them build language scripts to problem-solve during tricky situations.  Give them some strategies on what to do during a stressful time.  For example: "I could tell you were really tired at the grocery store this morning.  You did a great job of breathing slowly and asking Mom for a snack to get through it.  I liked how you used your words ~ 'Hey Mom, I'm feeling tired!' ~ to tell Mom how you were feeling."  Help them identify their emotions (frustration, anger, etc.) so they can better use language to manage the situation.

One last note...

Don't forget, you are their model!  How you manage your meltdowns can be helpful to your child.  "Mommy needs to take a break because she is getting frustrated." Identify your emotions verbally so that your child can learn to map language onto what they feel.

Ack! They've been out of school for two weeks! Now what do I do?

Or so it goes... as parents realize that school-age children are home to stay during the summer. My advice? Schedule, structure, schedule and more structure! Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing like a spur-of-the-moment "Hey, let's go to the park!" to make summer feel like the vacation it should be.


Kids thrive off knowing what to expect, and what is expected of them. As members of your household, there are expectations of them: to do chores, to take care of their toys, to treat others nicely. Having some structure will allow them to achieve these things. But what about free time? What about play? What about the lazy days of summer you write about?

Drumroll, please....

Those can be scheduled, too!

All it takes it a piece of paper and a pencil, and voila!, you have yourself a daily schedule. BREAKFAST - CHORES - LIBRARY - PARK - LUNCH - PLAY TIME - DINNER - CLEANUP - BATHandBED


You can get fancy with it! Laminate your schedule, with velcro-backed removable cards. That way, each day can change as your plans change... allowing for flexibility, spontaneity, and Let's go to the park! moments.

Summertime, and when to take a break...

After a couple of conversations with the parents of a now-9th-grader (get ready high school!), it was decided that he should take a break from services for the summer and tackle summer on his own. Many of the students I serve have received therapy services for most of their childhood.  Some are on-again, off-again services.  Some students have transitioned from early intervention services to specific intensive services within the fields of occupational therapy, psychology, speech-language pathology... you name it, these kids (and families!) have sacrificed many hours to intervention. As a parent, how do you know if it's time to take a break?  Some summer backsliding occurs for almost all kids, regardless of their outside support.  But there are also areas of positive growth ~ from exploring during free play, to reading books of their choice, to helping out at summer camp.

It's hard to do as a parent of a special-needs child.  To say "buh-bye" to the support for a few months and let your child have a break.  But honestly, it's sometimes the best thing for both your child and the professionals in their care.  Having a break allows for all to reinvigorate for the fall.  It allows your child to just "be", to not focus on "what's wrong", but on "what can we do today?"


You know your child the best.  I try to challenge my students.  I try to push them just a little bit harder than their other teachers or parents might push them.  I try to increase their resiliency bit by bit throughout the year. And I love seeing their confidence and perseverance grow as a result.  But just like adults, children need to work towards something.  Knowing that hard work will be rewarded with a vacation at the end of the summer.  Knowing that they have two weeks off to just play. Whatever it is, make sure you help your child work towards that "break".  A time without focusing on therapy appointments. You need it, too!

Autism and Employment

A recent article from the Child Mind Institute:

Autism and Employment

Young adults everywhere on the spectrum struggle to enter the work world

After working part-time her first two years of college, Debbie D. ramped up to full time along with her coursework the last two. But this admirable juggling feat left her so frazzled she would forget to eat, brush her hair or fill up her car's tank—"I ran out of gas on the highway more than a few times." So she couldn't wait to graduate in 2007, thinking that once she was able to focus on her career, life would get easier. She was wrong.

At 22, "I was in the midst of moving into my first apartment," recalls Debbie, "learning how to pay my own bills, becoming familiar with a new routine outside of the structure of school, and learning what being a professional meant." Her transition into adult life continued to challenge her executive function skills—things like planning, time management and multitasking. Meanwhile, her promotion to shift supervisor at the same human services company that had employed her throughout college exacerbated the social and sensory difficulties associated with her autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Four years after receiving her diploma, she says, "I'm still trying to learn the ropes."

Despite her struggles, Debbie is beating some very dismal odds among the young ASD population on all points of the spectrum. Caregivers and self-advocates have long had grave concerns about what the future holds for the "great wave" of children and teens diagnosed with ASD, half a million and counting, who will be aging out of the educational and support system provided by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) over the next decade. They and their parents face the great uncertainty of adult services, post-secondary education  and employment opportunities.

Their fears have been confirmed by a just-released study, the largest and most definitive to date, examining how autistics do after they transition out of high school. The study shows that two years after graduation, half of ASD young adults have no paid job experience, technical education or college. Nearly seven years out, the numbers improve but remain bleak, with one out of three having had no paid work or post-secondary education. That's a higher percentage shut out of the work world than for other disabilities, including the mentally disabled, with heightened risk of poorer outcomes for those from lower-income families and those with greater functional impairment.

Continue reading at link below:

Reading with Boys

Check out this link to a blog post at Beautiful Feet Books. The author writes about the importance of reading with your boys.  It's another reminder about the importance of time spent letting your imagination run wild ~ away from t.v., video games, and screen time.  I know I harp on screen time, and I get that technology serves its purpose.  But one of the problems with t.v. and video games is that the scenes, characters, and problem-solving are provided for the viewer.  Instead of creating a scene from "Robin Hood" in your head, that unfolds as the story develops, the screen places that scene (boom!) in front of you and leaves little room for cognitive exploration.

There is a widening gap in school achievement between boys and girls.  Interestingly, the gap is pretty much nonexistent for homeschooling families, where creativity and physical exploration for active boys might be more the norm. Anyway, all my pulpit-thumping about t.v. aside, the post is a great reflection on learning with boys.  It also links to the original article titled "How to Talk to Little Boys" ~ another interesting read.

Baby Sign ~ Can you tell what I'm saying with my hands?

The baby signing has started again in this house.   

At six-months-old, my little Roly Poly is starting on solids, which means plenty of practice opportunities for "more" and "eat". We use "more", "eat", "finished" or "all done", and "bottle", at least to start. For most kids "more" goes naturally with "yum!" and "mmm!", so it is an easy first sign to lead the way to language. (Check out this old post about Baby Signing and what I recommend.)


Mealtimes are wonderful periods during the day to reinforce some basic signs.  The child is strapped into a chair, focused on getting fed, and the parents are usually sitting next to them at eye level.  There is a positive reward (food) for every good attempt.  There's no "perfect age" to start baby signs, but I started at about 6-months with both my daughters. (I think that up until 6-months most parents are just trying to get into a rhythm with their child, engage and open/close circles of communication, and embrace coos, gurgles, and squawks. Oh, and get some sleep. And change diapers. And try to sleep.)

Baby signing doesn't necessarily mean your child will be talking by age two, and most kids will leave their signs behind as they start to acquire words. (Click here for speech and language milestones for reference.) However, if your child does end up being a late talker or have language delays, giving them an avenue for communication can only help them down the road.


Signing for older babies and toddlers is more than a way to communicate needs and wants.  As your child signs, they are learning the fundamentals of language ~ that we use words to express ourselves, that we receive messages from others and interpret them. Just today a friend mentioned that her son was requesting "more" with sign rather than screaming for more food. (This is a good thing, because 1) he is realizing how to specify exactly what he needs, and 2) parents have been known to go bat-crazy when screaming is the main method of communication.) Regardless of when he learns to speak the word "more", he has learned to be very specific and deliberate in his communication.

Although she is very verbal, I can still prompt my almost-three-year-old from across the room to say "thank you" or "please" to someone; it's like our own secret code without Mom needing to shout "Don't forget to say thank you!" The signs can still serve as a reinforcer as we build language. (Click here for more language expansion strategies.)


As the Roly-Poly learns to eat, and in-between drools on her bib and gurgles to her sister, I will try to reinforce the positive communication I am seeking.  She will sometimes lift her hands like she wants to sign "more", but she doesn't yet have the dexterity to coordinate the movement every time.  When she does, though, I am quick to reinforce with a spoonful of food, and a corresponding "more!" or "yum".  As she gets better, I can mirror her movement, close to my face so my mouth and words are in her line of sight, too. In a perfect situation, at a perfect time, this is what works.  (Then there are those "other" times: when the Walkie Talkie is telling a story, the dog is barking, the Roly Poly is spitting all the food back on my face... and I'm shoveling food into her little mouth without much more than a "Yum!" in exchange for her "Phlllbbbpt!!" raspberry of food back at me.)


I'm curious: Did you use baby sign with your children?  Did it "work"?  Let me know your thoughts...