Thursday, February 15, 2018

Processing Their Process: Trying to understand the developmental stages of grief

If only parenting was as simple as writing a beautiful (yet boring) novel, where we could decide exactly what our child will experience. Or even like a choose your own adventure, where we could have at least some control of what our child comes across. Yet it’s not, and often the hardest part of parenting is being aware of our own emotions and how they influence our actions and our children. My daughter’s kindergarten class recently experienced the loss of a classmate. This has rocked most of us as parents, in so many ways, as we try to understand what happened, help our children understand what happened, and in turn, understand how children this young developmentally process death.
In the beginning of the school year, three small cards fell out of my kindergarten daughter’s backpack. They each contained neatly drawn pictures of her and a little boy, with “I love you” written on them. Not in my daughter’s handwriting. Her line number and his line number were included, as was her lunch number. My husband and I were a bit surprise by this development so early in her school career, but decided at least she had attracted the attention of a boy who had such neat handwriting, whose drawing skills were clearly advanced beyond that of a typical five-year-old, and one who seemed to have a head for numbers (And were a bit concerned that anyone would know her lunch number, but that’s another discussion). They were friends, our daughter said, and left it at that. So we did too, not wanting to make a bigger deal of her first love letters than needed. We saw him occasionally at school events and birthday parties, and found ourselves often asking about him. He was one of the kids we were given updates on when she returned home from school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most kids get to become grandparents, right?”

“Mommy, the teachers aren’t talking about him, but the kids are. Everyone says he’s dead.” “What else do they say?” I ask, wondering what’s going on behind the teachers’ backs at school.
“Just that he’s dead. Everyone says it.” Perhaps for them, there is nothing more to say right now.

“Can babies die?”

“Will you live to be 100, Mommy?”

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

What are your core words?

My homeschool book club just finished reading Out of My Mind, which is one of my all-time favorite books, if only because I think about it every time I work with a non-verbal student.
Official Unity 144 Core Words
The book's main character has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak for years. Doctors, teachers, and psychologists continue to treat her as though she is cognitively disabled because she has no way to communicate deeper thoughts. She is in a self-contained classroom where she experiences the same lessons and routines year after year. Eventually, the right team begins to work with her, sees the spark, and proceeds to get her an augmentative alternative communication device. It changes her world, and she is able to access general education classes and even participate on her school's quiz team.

Read the book. 

For our project about the book, I gave each of them a print out of the 144 Core words available on the Unity device from PRC, and their own sheet of paper. They could either choose to use the core words provided to them by the company, or make their own sheets with core words. Once everyone was done, we had our own quiz competition, and each had to take a turn being the team member who was unable to speak except for using their core words.

I love the words they chose as their own core 
vocabulary. When they thought of the words they'd want to use on a day to day basis, and what they'd want to have easy, quick access to, they came up with words that are definitely missing from the official Unity or Words for Life pages. Words like "Thingy-thing", "blah, blah, blah", "Idea!", "bahhhh", which absolutely reflect the language of a fifth grader. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Re-creating the lessons from The Girl Who Drank The Moon

I have a few "project-based" book clubs for homeschool children. I love these book clubs. It gives me a chance to work with groups, and facilitate children building knowledge from one another. Since most of the work I do with kids is in one-on-one sessions these days, I look forward to the group dynamics. I am also continuously impressed with the deep thinking the homeschool children show during our discussions. We discuss one book for two weeks. During the first week we dive deeply into a discussion about the book, and during the second week we do a project based on the book. The projects vary from book to book, and I try to make sure each project adds to the depth of our discussion from the week before. Last year when we read The Giver we created our own Utopia. After reading A School for Good and Evil and Harry Potter, they designed their own school, and debated questions like should their school group students by particular characteristic, or allow students to mix. The groups all develop a book list themselves in the beginning of each session, so I am often reading quickly ahead of them to try to come up with a fun, meaningful project.

One of my groups chose to read The Girl Who Drank The Moon. I had never heard of the book before a group member recommended it, but I found it to be a beautiful story with many layers to discuss. The story describes a land with different communities. One community is protected and ruled by a group of self-appointed elders. The other communities are "free". Many of the events in the book come from the assumptions the two communities make about one another.

For our project day, I divided the students into two groups, and gave them each a secret job. One group was told that they lived in a community whose ancestors claimed that they should diligently protect themselves from the evil outside the community. Their community held sacred amulets that protected the world, but every 5 minutes (for the sake of the game I chose 5 minutes, in real life it would have been every year), they would have to sacrifice the amulets to the outside community. They don't know why they have to make this sacrifice, but they do it every year to keep themselves safe. Their challenge during our project was to build a wall of newspaper around their community to keep the other community out. That way,  one day they could stop giving up the amulets.

The other group was told that their goal during this project was to become friends with the first community. They were told that this first community is very strange, and although they guard the sacred amulets that protect the world, every  year (five minutes) they just dispose of one of the amulets. This puts the whole world in danger. This second community picks up the amulets to protect the world from the amulets ending up in the wrong hands. Their mission was to find some way to convince the first group to become friends, so they could get them to stop throwing the amulets away.

Both groups had the goal of protecting the amulets and keeping the amulets in their original community. But both groups were told assumptions about the other group's intentions, which impacted their actions and how they interpreted the other group's actions.

I wasn't sure what would come of it, but I was pretty sure the game would not last the whole 30 minutes I gave it. I thought the groups would figure out the mutual goal early on. I was wrong.

The groups immediately got to work. The first group picked a small corner, of the room and began creating a newspaper wall to barricade themselves in. Every five minutes the timer would go off and they'd throw out a shiny rock/amulet to the other group. The other group would pick up the rock with confusion and put it aside, while busily making craft gifts and welcome signs. This second group worked hard on trying to find a way to show they wanted to be friends.

Despite all of the second group's gifts and friendly nature, the walled-community held strong inside their tiny area. They had literally boxed themselves in, and although they were getting uncomfortable, and were constantly losing amulets, they refused to give in to the friendly overtures at their gates. A few of their members climbed over the wall and joined the other side, and one wavered from the inside, calling for peace for all. One even asked, "What happens if we don't give you the amulet?" The second group answered, "Nothing! Why are you giving them to us?"  But even after that conversation, the first group continued to hand over the amulets, and refused to trust the outside group.

There were many flaws with this lesson, and if I do it again there is a lot I would change. But it was fascinating to see how groups of people can find it hard to accept the good intentions or others, and to blindly accept historical narratives as true. Even when both groups had the same goal, and would be stronger together, they still maintained walls and beliefs that prevented themselves from winning.

When in our daily lives do we fail to see the common goals we share with another person or group because we are so intent on building our walls, or following a plan of action that does not have meaning behind it?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Importance of Play

While attending the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood International Conference in Portland, I attended session after session on play. Why it is important, how to teach it, what to teach, and how to support families in playing with their children. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was on Project Play, a research study out of Northeastern University.
In this project the researchers have been studying the different developmental stages of play with objects. They have found that how children manipulate objects during play develops in a series of stages, and that this development is clear whether or not a child has a disability. It is important, then, to support children in play where they are, and help them move to the next developmental play stage, without skipping over play stages, as children need to experience all the stages to move on. This work resonates with Stanley Greenspan’s work on DIR/Floortime, and I was fascinated to seem the similarities in the research findings.

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

Kindergarten Transition

Watching my daughter transition to kindergarten has been an eye opening experience, because for the first time I'm on the other side of the "my child looses it when she comes home" discussion. I've heard this from parents for years. I have stock replies.

"It's a long day, your child is working so hard, she needs a place where she can relax."

"Isn't it great that your child feels safe enough at home to let down with you?"

"That is exactly how you'd want it. You wouldn't want it the other way - your child losing it at school but being an angel at home."

I've said all these things, and now I've had them said to me.

On Friday evening I sat in the waiting room of my daughter's taekwondo studio with other mothers who were experiencing life in the first month of kindergarten. We shared our experiences over the last few weeks, and how we see the exhaustion in our children's face. Some had reports of behavior difficulties at school, while others are having the "I don't know who this child is" experience that my family is having.

I suppose we've come to accept this as right of passage. Your child goes to kindergarten, they suddenly have to sit still for a long time and they either don't and you get called by the teacher, or they do, and then come home and lose control of themselves.

But why have we made kindergarten so structured that our children have a difficult adjustment to it? If I'm hearing about this difficult transition from so many parents, and have heard about this for so long - why are we accepting it as a reality?

I don't want to lower academic standards, but shouldn't we be looking at some ways we can change the structure and expectations of kindergarten to make it less of a overwhelming milestone? Can we increase our down time during the day, create more student-led projects, offer more recess or outdoor activities, or just give children more general time to engage in unstructured learning?

I don't know the answer. As a parent, I see the benefits in that, but as a teacher, I'd feel like I was wasting my time. If my goal is to get to grade level by the end of the year, then I'd better get there. No moment wasted.

The thing is, my daughter's preschool day was longer than her kindergarten day. And in preschool she had a math, reading, and writing workshop. She had guided reading and learned to read. She wrote books. Her class did whole-group interactive writing. She had a word wall and she knew every word on it. She can tell you everything she learned about space, dinosaurs, and the digestive system. Her days were packed. But there was nap time, play time, and 2-3 recess periods, and lots and lots of art projects. It was somehow academic, but provided time for the kids to let down between instruction.

My family, like all the others, will get through this. Perhaps my daughter will be stronger for it (which I think is the story parents and teachers tell ourselves in this month of transition).

I work with many homeschool children, and I continue to be surprised by the amount of learning they do in such short periods of time. They aren't experiencing 20 minute mini lessons, followed by 40 minutes of work. But they are learning the same information, and producing the same work. Sure, it's one kid instead of 25, but still. Why are we still forcing the traditional method of sit and learn on our students, when we know other ways work? Are our five and six year olds really learning best from sitting quietly for 20 minutes?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Parenting Milestones

After 15 years of working in public elementary schools I finally achieved a new first.

I became a parent of a child in a public elementary school. My oldest started kindergarten this week. Now, she's been in daycare and preschool since she was 3 months old, so I was not expecting this to be anything different. On Friday she went to her full day preschool class, and on Monday she went to elementary school. She actually had a longer day at preschool, so in reality, this isn't that big a shift - right?

And yet - there is something very different about this experience. To put it in her words "Kindergarten is a big deal."

Frankly, I was surprised by myself. I'm a low key person, and have always been a fairly low-key parent. When I got a call from her in-home daycare provider letting me know that another child had bitten my two year old, my first reaction was "What did she do that made the other kid so angry?" My other daughter fell on the preschool playground last fall, busted her chin open, and didn't cry about it, so the preschool didn't think she was hurt. Turns out she needed stitches. I didn't get upset. I get it. Recess is tough. It's hard to keep up with kids. My kids are fine. I don't blame the teachers.

So who is this crazy, judgy kindergarten mom looking back at me in the mirror? I don't even know this woman who is inwardly grumbling about the class organizational system, the homework system, the way the class lines up, and the way they handle birthdays?  I don't know her, and I'd like her to go away.

We are so lucky. My daughter's kindergarten teacher is wonderful. The school follows the Responsive Classroom approach school-wide, and everything is early-childhood focused. There are toys in the room for choice time. This is a place where childhood is honored. All of those things are rare. And yet I am still catch myself being overly critical.

I think that perhaps I am secretly jealous of this young teacher and her adorable kindergarten class. Secretly I want to be setting up a kindergarten classroom, welcoming the children to their elementary school career, teaching those beginning of the year routine lessons, and building relationships with the class. I loved teaching in the beginning of the school year.

I'm like the disgruntled teenager who is so critical of the head cheerleader because secretly she wishes she had tried out for the squad, but didn't because it wasn't cool. I mean, I could totally have my own kindergarten classroom if I wanted to, I just don't want it really. I just want to think about wanting it.

Plus, I know too much. For every "criticism" I have, I can site a blog post, article, book, or research on why I'm right. But there are probably other blogs, articles, books, and research out there that argue the other way. And none of these things actually matter. It's like judging the cheerleader's red nail polish. Didn't she read that red was out this year? Come on!

I am so not this person.

So my goal is to find a balance. To not be so laid back that I don't get upset that no one thought that the blood gushing out of my daughter's chin was a problem. But not so uptight and critical that I'm labeled "that mom". (I totally already am. I know I've been red flagged already. So I'll just be that mom and not THAT mom.)

I'm going to make sure I'm there and present, but also that I accept that we are all different teachers and there is no one right way to teach.

Being critical is exhausting, and I don't have time to be tired over this!

My daughter LOVES kindergarten. Last night she said she was so lucky to have her teacher, and I agreed. Because I do. I know my daughter is in the right place for her.

Any other TeacherMoms out there who find the same surprising judgmental thoughts pop up?
I've always asked why do we judge one another so much in this profession, and this is an extension of that teacher-on-teacher judgement. Where does this come from?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Theory of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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