Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A "Bullying" problem

We are hearing all too frequently about children who are reaching their breaking point due to being bullied.  It is on the evening news, there was an interview this morning on the Today Show, parents are talking about it, television shows are portraying this phenomenon in their story lines, and even though this is something that has been occurring in every generation, it seems to have finally gotten out of control. This may be due to the increased access bullies have to their victims due to the internet, texting, you tube, face book, etc. but no matter what the cause, we need to ensure that our children are protected. We need to ensure they are talking to us or to another adult about any bullying that they may be privy to, in order to keep this from leaping to the extreme that is causing such distress in our children’s lives.

Bullying is something that occurs every day and can happen to anybody. It is defined as “repeated acts of violence against another by someone of higher status or stature”. Bullying can be physical, verbal, psychological, and even cyber offenses. Bullying usually occurs by an individual or group who need to build themselves up by victimizing someone else whom they perceive as different, weak, shy and reserved as or of lesser status than themselves. These bullies may act this way due to their own feelings of low self esteem, lack of self worth, or they may have been treated this way in the past and think this is appropriate. Because parents, teachers, and other appropriate adult support are not available all the time to stem these inappropriate interactions, it is important to prepare children for the possibility of these events occurring.

Harassment is even more prevalent in 2010 and recent years because of modern technology and the fact that the bullying doesn't end with the school day. Across America, in public and private schools 50 percent of students’ surveyed claim to have bullied or harassed another and 47 percent claimed they have been the victim of bullying or harassment...from nursery school up through high school. Cyber bullying is becoming more and more prevalent because it is more subtle and there are less constraints (can occur after school, and there are no adults supervising). There is a greater need for parents and caregivers to get more involved with their kids, know what and who they are talking to online, how they are being treated, how they are treating others, and how they are handling difficult situations.

There are many tips to help teach your child not to become a potential target for bullying: talk to them about the possibility of this occurring (on the playground, on the bus, when they are walking home, when they are online, etc.); encourage them to join clubs or sports so they have a “group” to spend time with and are therefore not “a loner” to be deemed a possible target; and most importantly children need to learn how to be confident in themselves, have a healthy self esteem, to believe in themselves and know that being different is ok.

This task is certainly easier said than done, but the best way to do this is teaching them by example. Parents are typically a child’s most influential role model and the one they look to for appropriate behavior up until a child reaches adolescence. Encouragement, praise, and positive feedback go a long way in teaching children to have healthy self-esteem and confidence. When children are playing sports, trying something new, are kind to a friend or sibling, follow directions, etc. we must be intentional about giving them positive feedback regarding this behavior. Not only saying "good job" or "I am so proud of you", but also explaining WHY it is good or WHY you are proud. If a child is hesitant to try something new, and they receive praise even if they didn't succeed, they will remember that and feel less hesitant the next time. Helping them to focus on the "means" to trying something new or hard even if the end result is not successful is very important in the process of growing their self-esteem and confidence. Also, teaching them to be kind and considerate to others through everyday interactions (driving in traffic, standing in line at the grocery store, holding the door open for a stranger, etc.) are also wonderful acts to teach your child how to appropriately treat others.

On the other side of the coin, we also need to be good role models to ensure our children do not become bullies themselves. If children are raised without a balance of what's good and bad, they will in turn treat others the same way. If they only receive criticism and not instruction; condescension and not caring; punishment and not teaching; laughter and not comfort; technology and not personal time; it is no wonder they grow up with the understanding that this is the way they should behave. If they see their parents judging others, saying condescending things about others to make themselves feel better, making disparaging remarks about someone else’s weaknesses or mistakes to draw a laugh, then this is how they understand they should behave as well.

Children are already feeling uncomfortable with the concept of being bullied and tend to not feel comfortable telling someone what is going on until they have reached a breaking point and many times it is too late to help them. By making this a common household conversation and something they are prepared for and feel they have someone to talk to, we can stop this growing tragedy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

4 DIR®/Floortime Tips

1--  Following a child’s lead does not necessarily mean follow the child wherever they go, but rather follow the intent behind their actions. From there you can challenge, expand, or simply try to clarify the idea in order to not only stretch the interaction but also make it more meaningful. For example, if a child seems to place no value on any one toy or activity and simply "grazes" through activities, dropping one and picking up another; try to make a game of this. When they drop one toy, say "ok now let's try to find our next one" with high affect which will encourage them to acknowledge your presence and eventually the child will begin to "look forward" to "finding" the next treasure with you: adding meaning to the once before meaningless process.

2--  DIR®/Floortime is more a frame of mind rather than a period of time when you try to engage with you child.  DIR®/Floortime is taking advantage of any situations/interactions in order to relate and communicate. This can happen while eating lunch, riding in the car, watching television, playing in the bathtub, etc. Your interactions with your child should always be intentional, helping them seek out future interactions and want to be engaged with you. For example, while eating lunch, instead of just sitting there silently or trying to force a conversation, become playful with the food using high affect in your voice and facial expressions, encouraging them to join you in the play. Don't worry about proper manners (unless you want to incorporate this playfully) or getting messy, just have fun. Soon your child will look forward to those mealtimes and interacting with you, seeking further engagement.  

3--  No matter what your situation is, the reality is: "your child is most likely not at risk of not being able to read, write, or do math; your child is at risk for not being able to interact or communicate their thoughts and ideas".  A good example of that happened when I first got started. I was building a train track with a child and a lot of our emphasis was on the train track itself. I got feedback that the child was not at risk of not knowing how to build a train track, but rather knowing how to play with a friend. With that, I started to push back on some of his ideas, proposed alternative ideas, and sometimes was purposefully confused about an idea so that he needed to clarify. In the end our game became all about our interaction rather than the train track.

4--  Hesitation, big affect, and unpredictability (without being overwhelming) are three great strategies for changing the interaction from a game to the people involved. For example, I was coaching a friend playing UNO with a child and the child was slumped over with all of his attention on the cards.  In order to change this situation from being all about the game to more about the interactions I asked my friend to hesitate more, increase his affect, and become a little more unpredictable when laying down a card.  Immediately the child sat up more and his attention was focused on my friend rather than his cards. They went on to play for half an hour laughing together, playfully teasing each other, and most importantly never losing the interaction between them.

When properly incorporating DIR®/Floortime into one's life, you will see it is not just a set time of day where you focus intently on Floortime strategies that is the most effective; it is incorporating these strategies into your child's life through as many interactions as possible. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Just Another Sensory Experience

By Dave Nelson
Executive Director
The Community School

Part of every individual’s profile is his or her “sensory reactivity.”  How do we react to sensory input, and how does this affect our ability to connect and interact with the world?  The myriad ways in which sensory input comes into play is striking, but often overlooked.  Here are just a few examples from recent encounters with students at school:

• Long Pants.  Some people simply don’t like the feeling of long pants on their skin.  Their particular tactile reactivity may make the experience of long pants uncomfortable.  In addition, the waistband or a belt might feel uncomfortable at the waist.  So wearing shorts might not be so bad in Georgia, but imagine how one’s life might be affected by having to spend energy avoiding situations in which long pants are required.  (On the flip side, I actually know a boy who never wears shorts because he doesn’t like the feeling of the air on his legs.)

• Fluorescent Lights.  Some people are very sensitive to the flickering of a fluorescent light.  Most of us are bothered by a light that is burning out, but many are also affected by a well functioning fluorescent bulb.  An individual’s visual sensitivity may be such that simply being in a room lit with this kind of bulb can be unsettling or uncomfortable.  Imagine how many fluorescent bulbs we encounter every day.

• Ambient Noise.  Some people have a hard time filtering out background noise; their auditory discrimination systems struggle to identify “important” and “unimportant” noise, and they can’t easily focus on the right sounds.  Imagine if the dog barking outside was just as prominent in your hearing as the person standing right next to you.  Imagine if every time you heard a vacuum down the hall you became alert and nervous.

Shoes and socks.  Lots of people have various kinds of discomfort around shoes and socks.  Some would rather go barefoot; others never want to be barefoot.  Some prefer loose, unrestrictive shoes with no support; others want a tight, “bound up” feeling.  At school, we ask students to wear sneakers for PE, hiking shoes for Thursdays, and shoes of some kind when going out in public.  What some of us take for granted, others find to be burdensome.

The list of sensory irregularities I could describe is lengthy, but I mainly wanted to give you an idea of how many things our students deal with every day, just as part of the simple process of negotiating the physical world.  I often liken the experience of living with sensory challenges to the idea of going to work while having a bad cold.  One can get through it ok, but it takes a lot of concentration and doesn’t often feel very good.  It’s a lot harder to find the “zone” of motivation that we all rely on to plow through our responsibilities. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Not responsible "Parenthood"

It is really frustrating to watch television shows that are trying to portray a "current" real-life event and misrepresent it. They don't recognize the massive responsibility they carry with the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of their story lines when they have such a large following of their show. Many people watch these shows and it is their only reference with which to understand the facts.

When shows don't do their due diligence by relaying accurate research and information, they are steering their audiences in the wrong direction. Granted, it is also irresponsible for the general public to take these shows at their word as fact, but mass media has taken on that role whether we like it or not.

The prime time drama "Parenthood" is one of my favorite shows and I love that they attempt to stay current and tackle difficult real-life topics, but was sorely disappointed in their drastic misrepresentation of Asperger syndrome. The story line I am referring to is about a family who has a son with a recent diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. They have hired a private ABA therapist who comes to their home and works with their son on his homework, eye contact, social skills, etc. He receives stickers as rewards/incentives for "appropriate behavior".  Up until last week’s episode, they have done a fairly good job of portraying an accurate time line of progress seen using ABA therapy (although of course not the same caliber seen with Floortime Therapy, but I am known to be bias).

The error seen in last week’s show followed a frustrated father who feels like the progress in therapy is not moving fast enough and he feels very upset that his son has no interest in sharing his life with him and also shows little interest in his dad's life. After many failed attempts at trying to talk to his son and being rejected, the dad insists on starting a new tradition of a weekly father/son dinner.

The disappointing scene occurs in the car driving to the first father/son dinner. The father tries several unsuccessful attempts to get his son to put down his handheld video game and talk to him. He tries to ask him about his day, tell him what happened in his own life, he tries talking about topics that usually were of interest to his son and got continuously upset by his son's lack of interest in interacting with him. Eventually the father hit his hands on the steering wheel and angrily announced how much it upset him and how it hurt his feelings that his son didn't care about getting to know him better. The son sat silently for a few seconds (here it comes), looked at his own reflection in the window, lowered and turned off his video game, looked at his father and asked him a complex insightful question referring back to a conversation from earlier in the day. While this was a nice father/son feel good moment, it portrays this child with Asperger syndrome as having a choice in his level of interaction/engagement abilities. As if in all previous interactions, he has made a conscious choice not to the audience the impression that these children can interact appropriately, they just CHOOSE not to.

If this were truly the case, than why doesn't this happen more often? Why can't we just tell these kids they are hurting our feelings and we really want them to talk to us and have an interest in our lives? Because this is not a realistic expectation, that’s why. Children with Autism and Asperger syndrome are NOT merely choosing not to interact or relate....they lack the ability to do so on their own (the differences in each child diagnosed vary greatly). Through intense play and engaging therapeutic interactions they can learn, but it is not a choice. If this is how society is taught to view this spectrum of disorders, than it is no wonder that children with Autism and their parents are looked at with contempt and sometimes disgust when: there is a loud "meltdown" in public (why can't that parent control their child?); when a child cannot sustain eye contact or focus within a group (they will grow out of it); when a child is aggressive towards other children (that child just needs more discipline); or when a child is acting out (that child must not get enough attention at home). No! These children are acting this way because they have not acquired the developmental ability to interact socially and communicate appropriately in the manner that you and I did; these are developmental skills they have to learn through play and intentional interactions with others. This is not a switch that will magically be turned on one day nor is it a choice; and until mass media takes the responsibility to portray this accurately, the general public will continue to look at these children and parents with apprehension and judgment.