WOLF WEDNESDAYS: WHAT’S WITH THE CHICKEN NUGGETS?

Seven Strategies for Picky Eaters

Not many kids get excited about broccoli. Or ask to have spinach quiche at their birthday party. Or choose the crudité over potato chips.

But some kids are pickier than others when it comes to food. They only eat chicken nuggets, or mac and cheese, and maybe only a particular brand of these. They never try new foods, or avoid entire food groups. Maybe they even panic when presented with something new, or tantrum when they can’t get the food they are used to.

Complex Learners have a number of issues that can manifest in struggles with eating, falling on a continuum from picky eaters to problem eaters. As a parent, you may be concerned about your child’s health (how much nutritional value is there in Gold Fish®?), or social behaviors (how can they go to a friend’s birthday party if they melt down over the pizza and wrong kind of lemonade?).

Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP, owner of Small Steps Therapy: Speech, Language and Feeding Services, in Providence, Rhode Island, recently spoke to parents at The Wolf School and offered insight and advice for feeding your picky eater. Here’s some of the information and ideas she shared:

  • Complex Learners are more likely to have trouble eating than other kids because they experience many of the traits that trigger difficulties, including oral motor, fine motor, sensory and behavioral challenges. Understanding the variables that effect your child’s difficulties with food is a first step in approaching the problem and helps you recognize what strategies you can work on with your child and when you might need outside help.
  • Anxiety decreases appetite. If a child feels pressure or senses you are upset, his/her anxiety will create even less of a desire to eat. Breathe, stay calm and encourage your child to engage in relaxation techniques too.
  • Getting kids involved in meal preparation can help. Make food fun and let children create some of the meal in their own way. Make a face on a mini pizza. Design a fruit kabob. Give foods a cool name. If your child is imaginative, let them have at it!
  • Use positive language and feedback. Saying, “You can take another bite,” in a neutral manner, instead of asking, “Can you please just take one more bite?” keeps the power struggle and frustration out of your language. Reinforce positive behavior, like trying a new food.
  • Eat with your child so you can be a good role model. Try to have meals at the same time each day. Complex Learners do best with structure so create a mealtime routine that works for you and your family.
  • Let your child play with their food! This doesn’t mean poking at grilled chicken with a fork and saying “I hate it!” But can they touch it with their fingers, balance it on their nose, lick it, or smell it? Encourage positive behavior that moves your child closer to feeling comfortable with a food.
  • Try food chaining to expand your child’s diet by introducing new foods based on his/her preferences while changing just one small component at a time. This technique offers small changes in textures, flavors, temperature and appearance over time to a food your child likes. If it’s chicken nuggets, you can start with different shapes of the same brand, then move to different brands, then to a cutlet, and maybe to chicken you prepare. This method requires patience as your child may need to try each change up to 30 times. There are many books and articles on food chaining out there to help you get started. And you can always talk to a professional to get specific input on your child.

The chicken nuggets may be around for a while, but as time goes by you may have success introducing other foods and enjoy mealtimes as a family. Have you tried any strategies that have helped with your picky eater? Let us know!

Learn more about Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP at her website: http://www.smallstepstherapyri.com

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

 

WOLF WEDNESDAY: IS IT ANXIETY, OR IS IT ANXIETY?

3 Suggestions for Complex Learners

If your child is a Complex Learner, you have seen anxiety in action. It could look like a jittery body, a “deer in headlights” expression, crying, a full-blown tantrum, refusing to go to school, physical aches and pains, fear of crowds, procrastination, making excuses, asking the same question over and over, avoiding a task, or a complete shutdown.

Does this mean, that in addition to the other neurologically-based problems your child is struggling with, they also have an anxiety disorder?

Not necessarily. It only makes sense that children who face daily frustrations, failures, and embarrassments at school would be more likely to worry and react negatively to social and educational demands. The stress of managing complex learning differences can trigger feelings of anxiety and that often builds over time. Not all kids who are anxious develop a full-blown anxiety disorder, but research has shown that children with learning disabilities and attention issues like ADHD are at higher risk.

Understanding your child’s anxiety is not an easy matter. First, there are many kinds of anxiety disorders. The DSM-V, a manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists and other providers to categorize mental health and learning diagnoses, allocates over 50 pages just to anxiety disorders. Secondly, it is hard to know if the behaviors you’re observing are a result of an anxiety disorder, or stem from another diagnosis your child has (ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, executive function difficulties, Sensory Integration Disorder, etc.).

And yet, on some level, anxiety is anxiety is anxiety. Unless strategies and supports are put in place, the behaviors it causes and the barriers it creates will continue. Here are 3 suggestions to address anxiety for Complex Learners:

  • Getting help for your child’s learning and attention issues is the first step. The right match of school and social environments go a long way. Putting movement in place, sensory supports, curriculum that addresses your child’s particular learning issues and style – all this will help alleviate stressors that can cause anxiety.
  • There are many resources available that offer strategies for managing anxiety. From mindfulness and breathing to workbooks and self-talk. Here are a few links to get started, but there’s many more. Search the web, peruse the bookstore, and try things out. Children will respond differently to different strategies and it may take time to find what works for your child.
  • Anxiety is part of the package when you have a Complex Learner, so getting a therapist involved if your child continues to struggle is important – not only for their current functioning but for life down the road. When left untreated, childhood anxiety has a significant chance of leading to anxiety in adulthood.

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

 

 

WOLF WEDNESDAYS: ORGANIZING THE UNORGANIZED

Three Things to Keep in Mind

It’s January, and yes, all the holiday decorations and New Year’s glitter is gone, but in its place, there’s a marketing ploy at hand.

Get organized.

Storage bins of every size, color coded files and boxes, cleaners and vacuums and new sheets are all on sale. Magazines promise an organized life in 5 simple steps. Getting organized is probably one of the top resolutions for the new year, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a New York Times bestseller for advice and how-to books.

Clearly organization is a goal most people strive for. Some of us are good at it, others not so much. But children with complex learning issues have organizational challenges that are neurologically based and go beyond quick fixes. They struggle with the executive function skills that help people plan, focus, remember instructions and handle multiple tasks successfully. They are truly at an organizational disadvantage.

This can look and feel like a fiasco. Messy (often disastrous) bedrooms, misplaced clothes, homework half-done or not done at all, lost sneakers, late to school or appointments, forgotten permission slips, and more. And if you are also struggling to get into the organizational zone, finding the structure, systems and time to pull it together for yourself and your child can be difficult and frustrating. So, while trying to organize the unorganized, here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • There’s a lot of information and advice out there about helping kids with executive function challenges. Sarah Ward S., CCC/SLP is nationally known expert who speaks at conferences across the country – check out her website at http://efpractice.com/. The ADDitude website has an entire section on Organization Help for ADHD Kids that could be applicable for any Complex Learner with executive function difficulties. Our previous blog post, Helping Complex Learners Manage Routine, may also be helpful. But whatever you read, remember – you know your child best. What works for one person may not work for another, depending on temperament, age and co-existing diagnoses. Finding what resonates with you and your child may take a bit of time and research.
  • Sometimes you will think, my kid is just lazy, or my child is just manipulating me. These are ordinary feelings and reactions we all have as parents. Try to remember your child has neurological underpinnings that effect his/her behavior. This isn’t an excuse – there are strategies your child can learn and systems you can put in place to help. But it will take time. Patience and understanding will go a long way when working on solutions to organizational problems. And remember this is an ongoing issue – as new skills and behaviors are expected of your child, he/she will need to learn new strategies.
  • There’s no place like home – and it’s your home. If you are super organized and your child is not, declare your spaces (the kitchen, the living room, an office) that you insist on keeping organized, but give more leeway with your child’s bedroom or a playroom. If you yourself have trouble organizing, give yourself a break! If the dishes aren’t done when a neighbor stops by, it’s ok. If you buy recyclable bags for grocery shopping but always forget to bring them, don’t worry. Prioritize the things you really need to get organized for yourself and work on them over time in the same way you are working with your child on his/her organizational goals.

Perfection is impossible, so in 2017, I suggest we strive for progress. And if a few storage bins or shelves will help, go ahead and get them now. I think they’re still on sale!
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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Time for YOU!

It’s time for our Wolf Wednesday blog post and the final Holiday Tip! This is the one that everybody tells you about, and you read about in all the magazine and blogs, and you know you should do it, but somehow it always falls to the bottom of your list.

But you have to do this!!

That’s right. Find time to do something for yourself. Something that makes you feel renewed, calm, energized, or even excited. It could be anything – but it has to be just for you. A mud bath, grooving with a Tibetan Singing Bowl, binge watching The Sopranos, cucumbers on your eyelids, a kickboxing class, the New York Time’s crossword puzzle, making pickles, mystery novels, decoupage, knitting, ice fishing, meditation, bowling with friends…who cares?!

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as 1) there’s no kids, and 2) you feel better afterwards.

As a parent of a Complex Learner your job is rewarding and amazing but also pretty taxing. You know the drill, put the oxygen mask on yourself first! If you are less stressed your kids are less stressed.

It really is true. So, give a little time to yourself during this busy season – and see the benefits pass on to your Complex Learners as well!

Happy holidays!

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

 

Move It!

If the temperatures continue to make outdoor play difficult, you need to keep things moving inside! As you know, movement is important for all kids, but it’s even more critical for Complex Learners, helping with sensory regulation, mood, focus and organization. During the break from school and the regular routine, you’ll need to schedule more movement in during the day to meet your child’s needs.

Here’s a list of activities you can use to keep things moving:

  • Dance party! Crank up the tunes and get off the couch.
  • Find a yoga CD or program for stretching, strengthening and serenity.
  • Use tape to create hopscotch on a hard floor.
  • Play games using your body: leapfrog, wheelbarrow races, crab walks and donkey walks.
  • Consider getting a mini trampoline for indoor use.
  • Tickle fights, wrestling matches and tug of war will get things moving
  • Clean out the basement and have your child carry things up and down the stairs (put the music on and keep it fun!).
  • Have a pillow fight.
  • Play Twister.
  • Put on an old aerobic CD and feel the burn.
  • Create an indoor obstacle course or scavenger hunt.
  • Use an exercise ball to move all around, especially hanging over it upside down.

You must have others! Let us know how you get things moving when it’s cold outside!

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

On the Road, Again

It wouldn’t be the holidays without visiting family. And for some of us, the visits can be lengthy. From a half-hour ride and an all-day visit, to a six-hour car ride staying several days, to plane travel with a week in-between, travel is inevitable.

Most children love the idea of travel, but in reality, the patience and flexibility required can be extremely challenging, particularly at the holidays when emotions are heightened, and resources like sleep and healthy eating can be low. And if your child is a Complex Learner who already struggles with changes in plans, long waits, and managing new environments, taking a trip to visit family can present a multitude of problems.

But don’t despair! Here’s a few ideas for making holiday travel less about the stress and more about the enjoyable memories you hope to create:

  • Break down the trip into increments that will make sense to your child to provide him/her with structure. These steps can be written out or drawn. You can also use a Social Story™ that provides expectations, social skills and behavioral standards about any part of the trip. Here’s a link to a Social Story™ about taking a road trip.
  • Power up before you leave. Go to a park or engage in physical play inside before you get in the car. If it’s been a long trip, Google playgrounds in the area as you get close and schedule in some exercise before you descend on Grandma’s.
  • Put a special travel bag or box together before you go. Do this with your child so they’ll get excited and be sure to include favorite comfort items (a blanket or stuffed animal), fidgets and other sensory supports, toys and games that can be played in the car, and healthy snacks for the trip.
  • Dress comfortably in soft clothes and bring ear plugs, headphones, sunglasses and anything else that will prevent problems related to sensory issues.

Any seasoned travelers out there? What are your tips for traveling with Complex Learners during the holidays?

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Screen Time

During the holidays, we can pretty much count on the fact that our kids will want to spend more time in front of the screen. Whether it’s TV or an iPad, Xbox or a computer, kids are drawn to the screen for entertainment, information and to just “veg out.”

But trying to understand how much screen time is okay for our children is like trying to understand what foods are beneficial or harmful. Coffee, olive oil, avocados, wine, corn, sugar, red meat, soy – will it kill you or cure you? It seems to change all the time.

There are innumerable articles blaming the overuse of screen time for everything from anxiety to childhood obesity. But there are just as many that indicate things aren’t really that bad, and screen time actually has benefits for learning and building skills.  As usual, the opinions (and evidence) get murkier when it comes to Complex Learners. Trying to discern the right amount of time or the approach to take is difficult and right now there aren’t definitive answers.

My advice – don’t look to the scientists right now – put on your parent hat and go with what you know about your child. What happens after a movie marathon? Do video games get your child revved up or relaxed? Are there behavioral differences after an hour on the iPad? You are the primary observer and have the knowledge. Set boundaries accordingly and explain to your child why they make sense.

And here are a few things folks seem to be in agreement about that might help:

  • No screen time in bed, and cut off screen time about half an hour before bedtime, depending on your child’s needs.
  • Kids will learn more about social skills face-to-face than on videos or movies so make sure you make time for playdates, outings and family time.
  • Exercise is a must for Complex Learners so don’t add screen time at the sacrifice of movement.
  • Get involved! Watch a movie together. Ask about their video game or play it if you dare! Use this time as a way to be together when you can, but also as a way to see what your child is doing and interested in.

What do you think about screen time during the holidays?

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Gift Giving 101

As the saying goes, it’s better to give than receive. But not all kids would agree! Just as you want to instill a sense of giving back at this time of year, it’s also important to teach your children how to give to those close to them.

This helps your child understand that they have a role in the family. It helps build more independence and responsibility over time. And your child practices perspective taking, trying to understand what someone else would like and what is important to others.

There are many ways to get your child involved. Here’s a few:

  • Have kids help wrap or decorate gift tags. But don’t expect perfection! Let their creative side reign. Who cares if the bow doesn’t match or the card is shedding glitter! Enjoy it and they will too.
  • Have kids make homemade cards and gifts. Use easy crafts and keep the list manageable.
  • Create a checklist of people your child wants to give gifts to (and maybe encourage one or two that were forgotten!). Go to a dollar store and let your child pick out the gift for each person and then check them off the list. If they can help wrap the gifts, great, but if not, let them write their name or decorate the gift tag so they know who gets each present.
  • As your child gets older, have them use their own money (allowance or birthday money) to buy for some people on their list. This gives them a sense of responsibility and pride.
  • Remind your child of some of the rules of gift giving – don’t tell the recipients what the gift is before they open it, don’t announce what the gift costs, say “you’re welcome” or talk about why the gift was chosen for this person, and don’t expect a gift in return – giving is a selfless act and it’s ok to give without getting something back.
  • If your child has spent time, creative energy and possibly his/her own money on a gift, make sure there is time for recipients to give enough attention to opening the gift. Their attention, praise and gratitude will go a long way in reinforcing that it truly is better to give than receive!

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Gift Getting 101

We’ve all gotten those gifts. The turkey salt shakers, the book you already read, the sweater circa 1970, the slippers that look like farm animals, the bright blue cordial glasses you’ll never use, the mini-donut maker when you’ve given up sugar.

The thing about getting a gift is that it’s not as straightforward as it seems. At times, we need to demonstrate excitement when we aren’t that excited in order not to hurt someone’s feelings. There’s other skills involved as well, like taking turns, saying thank you, paying attention to one gift before ripping into the next, watching other people open their gifts, not saying things like, “I really don’t need more dish towels.”

Imagine how hard all this is for a child who has trouble with attention, reading social cues, perspective taking and impulse control. Opening holiday gifts will go more smoothly if you put a few strategies in place and teach your Complex Learner some of the unspoken rules.

  • Explain to your child that everyone gets gifts they may not like but it’s important not to hurt the “givers” feelings. Role play what to do and say when your child gets a gift they either don’t care about, or don’t like very much.
  • If you can, arrange the order of presents from less interesting to most interesting so your child doesn’t open the first gift and get so involved with it he/she doesn’t want to open anything else.
  • Teach your child the way your family open gifts at different gatherings or times. Does everyone take turns at Grandmas, do kids go first all at once at your house, or is someone in charge of handing gifts out? Letting your child in on the “structure” of gift giving will help them understand what happens when and how he/she should behave.
  • If your child gets restless while other people open gifts give them a job like gathering all the wrapping paper in a trash bag or finding a present for the next person.
  • If opening gifts is a noisy affair at your house, you may want to let your child open a gift or two and then go to a quieter space to play or watch a movie.

Watch from year to year how your child manages getting gifts as his/her abilities and focus may change. You will learn where there’s potential for problems and what works well and be able to apply what you’ve learned the next time.

What have you learned that might work for other kids?

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

 

Sweet Dreams

You have heard this before. From doctors and therapists and articles in waiting room magazines. From mattress salesmen and your mother. It’s the cure all and the game changer.

That’s right – sleep!

And everything you’ve heard goes double for children with learning and attention issues. Sleep effects mood, organization, memory and attention – areas that Complex Learners already find challenging.

Therefore, it’s worth repeating at the holidays – sleep is key. Of course, there will be parties and activities that push bedtime back for the night, but as much as possible, try to stay with your regular sleep schedule. This is important for Complex Learners who will be facing increased sensory stimulation, excitement and changes in routines. If children are rested they have more resiliency to handle disappointments or situations that don’t go as planned. And with all the change in routine, having a bedtime schedule stay the same will actually feel comforting and safe to your child (despite the protests!).

Here’s a few general strategies you probably know, but keep them in mind during this busy time of year:

  • Exercise, exercise, exercise! Yes, you want to wear kids out so they will sleep – but more than that, children with sensory issues need that “heavy work” of movement to get their nervous systems regulated. If you see your child is restless at certain times of day, that may be a good time to introduce movement.
  • Unplug before bedtime. No screen time, watching television or even reading in bed. All these things may cause arousal, not sleep.
  • Use soothing sounds, music, and light. Experiment with different calming supports until you find ones that work for your child.
  • Weighted blankets can be helpful for some children. Lighter or warmer pajamas, different pillows and room temperature can make a difference as well.

And don’t forget about you! There’s a lot you are juggling, a million things to get done, and you’re going to need rest as much as anyone! So, my advice this holiday season? Get your sleep!

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.