Category Archives: Child Development

Gift Guide: Toys to Build Toddler Brains

photo showing toys like Duplo train, Quadro climber

Parents often ask me for recommendations for “the best toys for toddlers”. It’s a little tricky for me, given that I often advocate for owning fewer toys. But, if you’d like a few special items for a child to unwrap for their birthday, Christmas, or another holiday, here are some thoughts on how to choose the best toys. I’m going to sort them into categories based on ways to build a variety of skills and multiple intelligences. (I also recommend you check out my handout on activities and free items which also help to build their brains.)

Word Play (Linguistic / Verbal Intelligence)

We go to the library a lot! And when my son was a toddler, we went to story-time at the library every week. This means we get to “try out” hundreds of books a year for free! We only buy copies of the very best. Here are my favorites for books that toddlers love, preschool level books about inventors and makers, and books that sing. (For your adult reading enjoyment, here’s my recommendations for recommended parenting books and resources for teaching STEM to kids.)

It’s also helpful to play a lot with letters: I like magnetic letters for the refrigerator (which you can use all over the house) and duplo letters.

I also recommend a Kindle Fire tablet with Kindle FreeTime installed, which includes lots of ABC games and literacy building apps. (Here are thoughts on making screen time work for your family.)

Doing the Numbers (Logical – Mathematical Intelligence)

Everything you have more than one of is a math toy! You can count how many blocks you have, figure out whether you have more trains than balls, and so on. A few helpful specialty math tools are: a set of Duplo numbers, which you can use for counting, number recognition, while mixing them into your building tools, Unifix Cubes, and a great app called Bedtime Math. Every night at bedtime, we read a story problem and solve some math puzzles related to that story.

Putting the Pieces Together (Spatial Intelligence)

I like wooden puzzles for younger children and jigsaw puzzles for older kids. Melissa and Doug is generally a reliable brand. Babies 6 – 18 months like stacking toys and shape sorters. Toddlers love wooden train tracksto assemble and a big collection of wooden trains.

There’s tons of great building toys for older kids (I list many here in my STEM Gift Guide) but my all-time favorite is building toy to give is a basic Duplo set. For a 5 – 6 year old, choose basic Legos.

Moving & Grooving (Bodily – Kinesthetic Intelligence)

I would recommend several balls of varying sizes and textures, a Nerf style baseball bat, a Strider bike, and plenty of time to run and play indoors and out.

Rather than buying a pre-made climber that can never change configurations, I recommend a climber built of Quadro (Quadro is a fabulous combination of building toy and playground equipment! We’ve had ours for 20 years now, in near constant use.)

Playing Well With Others (Interpersonal Intelligence)

Imaginary play and telling stories with characters is one way to build interpersonal intelligence. Choose a few stuffed animals or puppets,  a collection of finger puppets to tell stories with, a toy picnic basket with fake food.

Learning about Myself and How I Feel (Intrapersonal Intelligence)

This category of intelligence isn’t about tangible stuff. It’s more about interaction and emotion coaching, and also making sure your child has time for quiet contemplation and down time.

Song and Dance Routines (Musical Intelligence)music

We have a box of miscellaneous musical instruments he can pull out anytime he wants. A few were purchased for him, but most are just items that have entered our lives over the years, like the plastic Yamaha recorder I had as a child, and the plastic Yamaha recorder I had to buy for my daughter’s class when I couldn’t find my old one… We also have a very old electric piano that’s in his room and he spends part of many “nap times” exploring the piano.

We listen to a lot of music together (one older sibling loves Broadway show tunes, one loves vintage jazz, Abuela loves classical and Spanish music) and sing songs A LOT, and enjoy circle-time songs at BC classes and library story times and hymns at church.

Fun with Flora and Fauna (Naturalistic Intelligence)

As you can guess if you’ve read other posts on my blog, we spend a lot of time outdoors. Camping, hikes, zoo trips, farmer’s markets, walks to the library and the pool. The only “tools” we use outdoors are a bucket and a shovel. (But, when we forget them, a stick and a rock can fill in as digging tools, and an empty Starbucks cup from the car makes a fine bucket.) Some day we’ll find our binoculars again, and pick up a new magnifying glass.

Expanding Horizons (Magic / Imagination / Religion / Cultures)

We have a big box of miscellaneous dress up – old Halloween costumes from his siblings, sunglasses, silly hats, etc. In all of our books and the videos we watch together, we aim for showing lots of diverse cultures and experiences, and we go to a church that talks a lot about diverse beliefs and appreciation of the sacred in all forms.

All the Pretty Colors (Artistic Skills and Appreciation)

This is the one area we have an abundance of STUFF.

One cabinet in the kitchen is over-flowing with art supplies: Model Magic clay, no-spill watercolors, pom poms, pipe cleaners, paint, paper, glitter glue, stickers, markers, crayons, beads, scissors, and so on. When he and I are in a relaxed, mellow mood, we pull these out and get to work.

I try not to do much art when I’m in a cranky mood, or when I won’t have time to deal with any mess that arises. I have to confess that I can have a hard time when he’s being really messy or “wasting” art supplies, or “messing up” art supplies – like when he dips the red-paint-covered paintbrush into the yellow paint. Because I know that about myself, I make sure that he has plenty of opportunity to do art in spaces that are designed for kids’ art and where it’s OK to make a mess. So, this year, he’s enrolled in Creative Development Lab, which is all about exploring and experimenting with art.

Child-Directed Play

In addition to buying stuff for your kid to play with, also make sure they have some time to play with you that is child-directed – where they get to decide what they want to play. Learn more about child-directed play.

If you have an older child, check out my Gift Guide to STEM Toys for Ages 3 – 6.

(Note: this post includes Amazon affiliate links. If you click through and purchase anything, I get a small referral fee. I spend any income from that on doing outreach to encourage more parents and educators to come check out what I offer here on this blog.)

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Autism Acceptance Month

AAM-logo

April is Autism Acceptance Month.

Autism Speaks is a major national non-profit which says April is Autism Awareness Month. This is a major fundraising effort for them. They talk about “lighting it up blue” to raise awareness of autism, but you’ll note that their website about the event is focused on raising funds for them. [It’s worth noting how they spend that money: 16% of their budget goes to fundraising, their executive pay is >500K per year (source), 22% of their budget goes to research.] Many autistics voice concerns that Autism Speaks has used ableist, pathology-based descriptions of autism, invoking pity as a fundraising strategy and that their research has a focus on preventing or “curing” autism. (source)

What’s the problem with pushing for a cure to autism?

“Many autistic people don’t actually want a cure

It is true that a lot of autistic people suffer. But what they suffer from is not so much being autistic as living in a society that is not friendly to autistic people.

A society that frowns upon people wearing sunglasses and earplugs indoors despite their sensory differencesA society where someone flapping their hands will be stared at and pitied, or told “quiet hands!” rather than be seen for the joy they’re exhibiting… The people who enforce these beliefs are not only telling autistic people that their very existence is wrong, but they are participating in oppression.

Moreover, the idea of curing autism isn’t as simple as it seems from the outside… Autism is a neurological difference that inherently shapes an autistic person’s identity, perspectives, dreams, and desires. As my sister put it: ‘Whenever you tell an autistic person they should be cured, you’re telling them that they shouldn’t be them.’ ” (Source)

So, instead of “lighting it up blue”, let’s instead talk about this as Autism Acceptance Month. Here’s how the Autism Self-Advocacy Network describes that.

“During Autism Acceptance Month, we focus on sharing positive, respectful, and accurate information about autism and autistic people.

Autism Acceptance Month promotes acceptance and celebration of autistic people as family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and community members making valuable contributions to our world. Autism is a natural variation of the human experience, and we can all create a world which values, includes, and celebrates all kinds of minds.

In a nutshell, Autism Acceptance Month is about treating autistic people with respect, listening to what we have to say about ourselves, and making us welcome in the world.”

Autism acceptance shouldn’t imply that being autistic is easy, or that we celebrate the very real challenges. However, it does imply we should see the strengths of autism as well, and see how simple accommodations could make a huge difference.

“I do not celebrate my inability to consistently feed myself. But I do celebrate my unusual capacity for focusing on small details – a trait which makes me a good musician, a good student, and a good gift-giver. I do not celebrate my self-injurious stims. But I do celebrate my innocuous ones – I like making the pterodactyl screech, even though people stare. I do not celebrate the fact that I can’t make eye contact well enough to succeed in a job interview. But I do celebrate the fact that I can make conversation without needing to stare at someone’s eyeballs. I do not celebrate the fact that I was viciously bullied throughout elementary, middle, and high school. But I do celebrate the fact that I’m infinitely more gentle, compassionate, and interesting than any of my bullies will ever be. I do not celebrate my deficits in auditory processing that make taking notes in class nearly impossible. But I do celebrate that my experiences as a special needs student motivate me to teach special needs kids today the self-advocacy skills that I so sorely lacked when I was their age.

Try, for a minute, to look at autism through the lens of the social model of disability. Consider that, perhaps, it’s not our style of communication and interaction that disables us, but it’s the society in which our way of being is perceived as abhorrent. Perhaps what we need is a more accessible society, one in which autistic people – including those who require high levels of support for daily living – are accepted and accommodated.” (Source)

Learn from Autistics

A common slogan of autistic advocates is “Nothing About Us Without Us“. Often autism awareness activities are designed by people who are not autistic. They may staff panels with professionals in the field or parents of autistic people, but not include a single autistic person. “While it has become standard practice to have conversations about autism and Autistic people without Autistic people, this is a practice that must change.” (From Lydia X. Z. Brown) (Also learn more about including autistic people in research into the experiences of autistics.)

For this post, I tried to primarily read the voices of #ActuallyAutistic authors. I will quote  from autistic authors, because it is important that their voices be heard as speaking their own experience. (Check out the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter, this list of Actually Autistic Blogs, GoodReads’ list of Books by Actually Autistic Authors)

Identity-First Language

I refer to autistics or autistic people, not people with autism. I say someone is autistic, rather than has autism. This is because many autistic advocates request this “identity-first language” vs. “person first language.”

“Person first language is often used to describe something negative — a deficit or disease (for example, person with cancer).
For Autistic people, autism is seen as just like any other identity marker—similar to gender, race, ethnicity, hair color, or any number of other value-neutral characteristics. We are not “people with tallness,” “people with maleness,” “people with Jewishness,” “people with gayness,” or “people with autism.”
We are Autistic people.”  – Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

“The theory behind person-first language is that it puts the person before the disability or the condition, and emphasizes the value and worth of the individual by recognizing them as a person instead of a condition. But let’s think about what we are doing… When we say ‘person with autism’, we say that it is unfortunate… we affirm that the person has value … [and that] autism is detrimental to that value…

When we say ‘Autistic person’, we recognize, affirm and validate… the value and worth of that individual as as Autistic person.” – Lydia X. Z. Brown

I speak of neurodiversity when speaking of the benefits that autistic perspectives can bring to a conversation. Neurodiverse can also be used to incorporate people with other differences in learning styles, such as ADHD.

I may refer to people without autism as neurotypical or as allistic. Allistic is a new word to me, but it was coined by Zefram in 2003, who says:

Allism is the condition of not being autistic. They are alternative brain structures, both valid, with a continuum of intermediate possibilities, just like heterosexuality and homosexuality… [there are] no connotations of normality or abnormality; they should be treated as descriptive terms on a par with “male” and “female”.

The advantage to allistic is that it’s completely value neutral. Neurotypical could be seen as meaning “normal” which would mean that neurodiverse people are “abnormal.” It is “othering” language. But I know autistics who take pride in being neurodiverse vs. “those [boring] neurotypicals”, so for now, I’ll continue using that term as well as allistic.

The Spectrum

Autism is short for the official diagnosis: autism spectrum disorder. (Note: “many autistic people feel that the term “disorder” unnecessarily pathologizes our neurology” – source)

People often ask about an autistic person “where on the spectrum are they?” as if some sort of quantitative ranking would sum up what they need to know. In trying to describe an individual’s capabilities or challenges, in the past, you may have heard them labelled as high-functioning and low-functioning. “Be aware that many autistic people may be uncomfortable with functioning labels … The short reason is that [they are] often used to deny those deemed high-functioning from necessary services and accommodations and used to strip those deemed low-functioning of their rights.” (Source)

This comic by Rebecca Burgess offers a helpful perspective on the spectrum. She says people often think the spectrum looks like this:

a line showing a spectrum from not autistic to very autistic

But Burgess describes how this doesn’t really describe the actual experience of autism. And it can also lead to misunderstandings of a person’s skills and accommodation needs. If someone is verbal and able to conform to most of the demands of a school or work setting, they get labeled as “not that autistic”, but then if they have too many demands thrown at them and have a meltdown, then suddenly they decide you’re on the high end of the spectrum and must not be capable of anything at all.

She thinks this would be a better way to illustrate a spectrum for a particular individual.

An illustration of a circle where the "pie pieces" are labeled language, executive function, etc. and dots indicate where the person might have more strengths vs. more difficulties

This spectrum illustration better shows where that person’s strengths lie and what things might be more challenging for them.

Someone who is skilled in most of these areas, but has some challenges may be able to “pass” as neurotypical – able to blend successfully into a school or academic setting – though they may be perceived as “odd ducks.” In the past, they may have been called high-functioning, or diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Some people have limited skills in most of these areas, and have very high support needs, such as needing help with toileting  or engaging in self-harming behaviors. They were once described as low-functioning. And some people have very low skills in some areas and VERY high skills in others. They were called savants or “rain man”. They are all autistic people. With different spectrum plots, and different support needs.

When we talk about autism acceptance, we can’t just focus on one “end” of the spectrum and ignore the challenges faced by people on the other “end” of the spectrum and by their caregivers. It is essential that all people with autism and their caregivers get the supports they need based on their own individual situations.

But all autistic people, regardless of their “level of functioning” will benefit from respectful treatment which sees their strengths rather than pathologizing them as inherently flawed due to an autism diagnosis.

Co-Morbidities

Read this passage from an allistic mother of an autistic son:

I have a real beef with the notion of celebrating autism when 22% of children with autism develop epilepsy and 70% experience gastrointestinal problems. In a recent study in the Lancet, two-thirds of adults with Asperger Syndrome, now part of the autism spectrum, reported considering suicide. 35% had made specific plans or an attempt. Another study showed children with autism were three times more likely than their typically developing siblings to be bullied. Children with developmental disabilities have a substantially increased risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse.

The issues she is describing here are co-morbidities and social issues, not autism itself.

Co-morbidities are physical and mental illnesses that are much more common in autistic people than they are in the general population. Yes, these include epilepsy, gastrointestinal problems, ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. These are all illnesses that need medical attention, and having both autism and one of these conditions can make it more challenging to treat these, but these illnesses are not autism.

The fact that people with autism are more likely to be abused, more likely to be bullied, less likely to be successful in school, less likely and (perhaps as a direct result of these challenges) more likely to be suicidal are social issues. They are not due to autism, but to societal attitudes about autism.

“While it’s certainly not fun to be hated, discriminated against, and abused, as too many autistic kids and adults are, I hardly think it’s fair to blame autistics’ neurology for the ableism, ignorance, and lack of compassion showed by the neurotypicals who surround them.

…Autism doesn’t cause suicidal thoughts. Mass abuse of autistic people, on the other hand, just might. That’s why, instead of fearmongering about autism, instead of amplifying the already loud voices out there that talk about how hard it is to be autistic, and how hard it is to have an autistic child, I choose to advocate for a world in which we treat autistic people better, in which accessibility and acceptance, not compliance training and abusive ‘cures’, are the priority.” (source)

“Cures” vs. Acceptance and Accommodations

In my writing, I will not describe the increased prevalence of autism diagnoses as an “epidemic” or a “crisis”. I will not talk about “curing” autism or about a “person afflicted with autism” or “person suffering from autism.”

I will not talk about vaccines causing autism. They don’t. But, even if they did, I worry about the societal messages that lead parents to choose not to vaccinate because of their terror of having a child with autism. As one autistic, Sarah Kurchak, put it:

Someone who refuses to vaccinate their children because they’re afraid of autism has made the decision that people like me are the worst possible thing that can happen to their family, and they’re putting everyone at risk because of it.

It’s time to accept that autism is a common variation on the human experience. By current definitions, 1 in 63 people are autistic. It’s time to start thinking about how we accept this and how we help create accommodations that support autistic people with meeting their own goals.

Some autistic people may choose therapies that help them learn to look and act more like an allistic person. But not all will choose that.

“Many autism interventions focus on making autistic people look more like non-autistic people. Common therapy goals include increasing eye contact and reducing unusual movements. These aren’t priorities typically selected by autistic people ourselves. More common priorities include reducing the impact of some of the downsides associated with autism, such as anxiety and sensory hypersensitivity; learning skills needed to succeed in education and find employment; and accessing supports and accommodations to assist with daily living. There may be intolerable costs associated with a focus on achieving an appearance of normality. Eye contact may feel painfully intense and intrusive, or it may be impossible to simultaneously make eye contact with someone and understand their spoken words. Staying still may require a vast amount of attention, leaving little left for learning. Hand-flapping may be an expression of joy, or a way to regain a sense of where one’s body is in space. Those of us who have either made ourselves look more normal or achieved some of our goals are often told we have “overcome” autism. This is misleading. We have often had to confront and overcome prejudices, or put much more work into learning a skill that comes more easily to others.” (source)

So, can we relax a little bit about whether or not someone makes eye contact when they talk? Can we not worry about whether someone feels more comfortable wearing headphones in loud environments? Can we chill a little about stimming behaviors such as rocking and hand-flapping? Can we understand that “restricted interests” isn’t evil in and of itself? (Read “The Obsessive Joy of Autism” for insights into the experience of autism.)

Now, I’m not saying it’s not helpful for autistic kids to learn how to use neurotypical social skills. This will make their lives easier as it will help them to fit in better to school and work environments that are primarily geared for neurotypical people. But we describe it that way… we don’t describe it as teaching them how to be normal so they’re not such a problem at school and work.

And all the work shouldn’t be on autistic people. Allistic people should also think about meeting them halfway. What are things we can do to make those school and work environments more flexible and more accommodating for all people, both allistic and autistic?

Symbols

A puzzle piece is often used as a symbol for autism.

Back in 1963, the National Autistic Society chose a puzzle piece as a logo because autism was “puzzling.” Many people (often allistic people) still think this symbol makes sense, because autism is often puzzling to them. Some autistic people think it’s fine because neurotypical people puzzle them. Some (often allistic parents of autistic children) feel the puzzle piece is a good symbol because finding all the right supports and accommodations to help an autistic thrive is like putting together a puzzle.

But the full logo in 1963 was a puzzle piece with a crying child on it. That implied that only children have autism, and that it is a condition that they will suffer from. A lone puzzle piece can also seem isolated.

Some autistics are also troubled by the puzzle piece symbol because “The jigsaw piece also signifies that something is missing. That autistic people are not whole.” (source) “It implied that we are something to be solved or fixed… We don’t need to be fixed, or solved  there’s nothing wrong with us, and most attempts to fix us… are actively harmful.” (source)

“Some autistics dislike the symbol of a colorful puzzle piece because it appears childish. The bright primary colors and image of a “toy” most commonly associate with children identify autism as a childhood disorder.” (Source)

Here are some alternatives:

In 1999, the Autism Society adopted the puzzle piece ribbon for autism awareness.

It’s definitely an improvement – it includes many colors of puzzle pieces, interconnected with others.


logo for autistic self-advocacy networkThe Autism Self-Advocacy Network has chosen a spiraling rainbow heptagon as their symbol.

Their symbol for autism acceptance month seen at the top of this post is a seven pointed star woven from all the colors of the rainbow.


Many autism rights advocates recommend the rainbow infinity symbol, which can also be used to represent neurodiversity, to include all the colors on the spectrum. This has been called the “autistic pride” symbol.a rainbow infinity sign, used to symbolize neurodiversity

(Read more thoughts on symbols from autistic writers:  Autistic and Unapologetic, Learn from Autistics, OllibeanAutistic Alex, and Art of Autism – which is written by an allistic person, but quotes autistics)

Blue or Red?

Autism Speaks’ logo is a blue puzzle piece, and they encourage people to “light it up blue”.

“It’s a nice symbol of solidarity, really, it is, but here’s the thing: it’s blue because they operate on the outdated assumption that it’s mostly boys who are autistic. On the one hand, let’s overlook the old science, and the gender stereotype of “blue is for boys,” because the large majority of people and organizations lighting it up blue are simply trying to be supportive of the autism community.” (source)

Many autistics advocate for #redinstead in April.

Learning More about Autism Acceptance

  • ASAN has a website for Autism Acceptance Month with great resources for autistic people, parents, educators, employers, and allies.
  • Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism has a great page which includes: criteria for evaluating whether autism articles and efforts benefit, rather than harm, autistic people, where to look for good information, where to donate money if you want to support autistic people, recommended books to buy or give, and how to help boost autism acceptance materials.
  • This Wikihow article on How to Observe Autism Acceptance in April includes ideas like: research an organization before participating in their events, notice the way that organization talks about autistic people, share articles written by autistic people, share information about respecting autistic people, donate to autistic run organizations (here’s how to evaluate campaigns), and support autistic run businesses.
  • Disability in Kid Lit publishes articles / reviews on the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult books. They have recommendations for books featuring autism.
  • I’ve collected a huge list of Children’s Picture Books about Autism with reviews of lots of books for kids age 3 – 8, and lists additional books for kids age 9 – 12.

 

Do the ASQ Screening for Your Child

stick

Why do a developmental screening?

Developmental screenings are a helpful tool for making sure your child is on track with their development. They are a “snapshot” of how your child is doing at this moment. They’re helpful even if you’re pretty sure your child is on track, because they help you get ideas of where to focus your attention in the short-term to make sure they’re well rounded. They’re especially helpful if you have any concerns about your child’s development – a screening tool can either reassure you that they actually are on track, or can verify that they have some challenges that you should seek support for early on.

Developmental delays, learning disorders, and behavioral and social-emotional problems are estimated to affect 1 in every 6 children. Only 20% to 30% of these children are identified as needing help before school begins.(Source)

The ASQ

There are several great screening tools and resources for understanding child development. Today, I’ll walk you through the ASQ – the Ages & Stages Questionnaire, a free online tool, using a method that’s been proven through research with tens of thousands of parents. (Learn more about the ASQ.)

It looks at how your child is doing in five areas: communication, large motor, fine motor, social-emotional, and problem-solving. Learn more about these developmental milestones.

Doing the questionnaire likely takes 15 – 20 minutes. It’s easier to do on a laptop or desktop than on a mobile device. It’s best to do it when your child is around so you can check their skills if there is any answer you’re not sure about. And it’s best if they’re rested, fed, and relaxed so they can show you their best skills. That said, it can also be helpful if another adult is around to help you with distracting the child while you’re filling out questions and can help you figure out answers to questions you’re not sure about.

Note: Some parents choose to download the questionnaire and print it to fill in off and on over the next week, then return to the website to enter their results online so that it will do the scoring for them.

Completing the Online ASQ

Go to https://osp.uoregon.edu/home/checkDevelopment. Click on “Let’s Get Started”

On next page click continue – on next page click to agree to terms and continue, then enter date of birth. Then you’ll get a screen saying something like “For ages 25 months through 28 months – 27 month ASQ” – this is making sure you’re using the right checklist for your child’s current age.

Continue to online questionnaire. (Or download it to fill out by hand and then return to the website later.)

There will be a page where they ask about demographics – ethnicity, education and so on – they ask this because the people who are offering this survey are doing research on who uses the tool, and this is helpful to their research process. They do not do anything with this data which would violate your privacy, and you won’t get any emails from them except the results of this screening.

The next screen will be instructions – they’ll tell you that you need to try every activity with your child before marking an answer – that would be ideal, but you don’t have to… if you know your child can do something easily, it’s OK to just mark it yes. On things you’re not sure about, do have your child try it.

On the questionnaire, you’ll be asked 30 questions – 6 questions per category in 5 areas of child development. You’ll mark “yes” if this is something your child is definitely capable of and has done successfully multiple times. If they have done it a few times or they can sometimes do it but not always, mark “sometimes”. If they’ve never done it, mark “not yet”. The way the survey is designed, we might expect a not yet or a couple sometimes in any given category, so don’t worry if you’re seeing some.

Mark answers as accurately as you can – this screening is not about “making your child look good” – it’s about getting an accurate assessment of where they’re at.

Then there will be a few general questions, like does your child hear well, do they have vision problems. It’s OK to fill those out or to skip them.

Then it will say something like: “For ages 21 through 26 months (24 month ASQ:SE). The ASQ:SE-2 asks simple questions about your child’s behaviors. Before continuing, please read instructions…”

This second questionnaire, the ASQ-SE ,is optional. I would say: if you feel like your child has more behavioral challenges than the average child, or more big meltdowns / tantrums, or doesn’t connect to you and others like you see other children do, or there are other things that make you worry that your child may not respond like other kids do, then do this questionnaire. If not, you can choose to skip it. This questionnaire takes 5 – 10 minutes.

Enter your email address to receive results by email. (If you’d prefer not to give your email, then click to skip this step, and it will take you on to a page where you can “download your ASQ Results letter”)

Understanding Your ASQ Results

Your results will look something like this:

Results for your child BXD born on November 23, 2016
Your child’s development appears to be on schedule at this time.
On schedule Communication, Gross Motor, Fine Motor, Problem Solving, Personal-Social
Monitor None
Not on schedule None

or

Results for your child BXD born on November 23, 2016.
ASQSE Social-emotional development is in a monitor area at this time.
Overall Section You noted a concern in this section. See below for follow-up ideas.

If your child shows as being “on schedule” that’s good news. This test rarely has any “false positives.” If a developmental screening shows that a child is on track developmentally, we can be pretty reassured that all is well. You can just keep doing what you’re doing with them. Or, if there’s one developmental area where you had more “sometimes” or “not yets” then you may choose to do more activities in that area to ensure they stay well-rounded. For example, if you didn’t mark “yes” on all the large motor questions, then spend a little more time at the playground, pool, or gymnastics or dance classes so they can run, jump, kick, throw…

If your child has some things marked as “monitor” – I think of those as “grey areas”. This test can have “false negatives” where the test shows a possible problem, and it turns out that all is well.

If I see “monitor” in one area, that makes me go “hmmmm…. I wonder why.” Here are the questions I ask myself

  • Can they do similar things? The first thing I do is look back at the questions in that section and how you answered them. (The questionnaire with your answers marked will be attached to your email, or you can find it by clicking on “download your completed ASQ”.) Sometimes there were just super specific questions, for example, there’s a fine motor question of “does your child flip switches on and off” or “can your child string beads on a string” and you said no just because they happen to have not ever done this… but think, are you confident that they have enough fine motor skills that they could do something like that? If so, then there’s no reason to worry about it.
  • Is there something about that question that doesn’t apply to their experience? All standardized questionnaires have some biases or assumptions. For example, there are questions about climbing stairs, and there are children who grow up in a town with no stairs. There are questions about forks and some families tend to only eat finger foods or they use chopsticks so may not use forks at home. When the mother of one of my students was doing this questionnaire, and she showed her daughter the incomplete stick figure drawing in the illustration at the top of this post, her daughter said it showed a teacher. This may not make sense to you, but if you’d met me, it would make sense! (I have one leg and this child knew me well as her first teacher.) If the question doesn’t directly apply to your child, again ask yourself “do they know similar things?”
  • Is there a reason they might be behind in this particular area of development at this particular time? For example, if you are a bilingual or trilingual household, your child might test as “behind” in language in ONE of those languages. But if you think they have solid language skills in BOTH languages, I wouldn’t worry. If you tend to solve problems for your child whenever they get frustrated, they might be “behind” in a problem solving skill, like getting themselves dressed. Or sometimes kids are behind in large motor skills in the winter time just because we haven’t been playing outside where there’s room to run.
  • Is there a reason why they might be behind overall right now? If you’ve had any big stressors in your family recently like a move, a new baby, a death in the family, a divorce – these are all things that might have distracted your child’s learning temporarily.

If you find answers to these questions that satisfy you, it’s likely that all is well and there’s no reason to worry. It wouldn’t hurt to put some extra effort into building your child’s skills over the next two months, and then do another screening just to be sure.

If you’ve taken all of these questions into consideration, and your child still seems to be missing some skills, then definitely work on building those skills (see below) and do another screening in a few months, or seek more information now.

If your child is marked as “not on schedule” in one or more areas, you definitely want to explore it more. Ask yourself the questions above to get a clear understanding of the results, then consult with your child’s doctor, teacher, or another professional to learn more. It is possible that when you investigate more, it will turn out all is well, or there is only a very temporary delay. But it’s important to check to be sure, because if a child does have any developmental challenges, the sooner they get extra support, the better.

Resources if you’re concerned about your child’s development:

Resources to build all kids’ skills

Whether your child is on schedule, not on schedule, or in that gray area of “monitor” they will benefit from diverse learning experiences. I have lots of articles on Play and Fun Activities on this blog. Or check out:

 

Note: Easter Seals also offers the ASQ online for free: www.easterseals.com/mtffc/asq/. Theirs works just fine as an alternate, I just prefer the uoregon site listed above because Easter Seals asks for more of your private information (name, address, phone number) and will add you to their mailings.

Teaching Language is Not Just About Saying More Words

The Oto Monitor

There is a new product called Oto – “the First Monitor for Your Baby’s Healthy Brain Development”. (Learn about it at https://www.oyalabs.com/)

They’re  electronic monitors you place around your home. The website says they use AI and Natural Language Processing to tally how many words a child hears, how many engaged, back-and-forth exchanges you have with your child, and the quality of your language including the ratio of positive to negative words.

If this were an academic study that I’d been asked to participate in with my child, I would absolutely say yes, because it would be fascinating to participate and see the research results!

But I’m a little troubled by the marketing of the device. It says “These indicators are proven to be critical for their IQ and emotional development.” The implication is that this device is essential for helping you ensure your child reaches their full potential. They also say “The number of words you speak to your child daily is a core metric – the more language, the better child’s outcomes.”

I worry that the parents who purchase this device would then become anxious, feel guilty when they weren’t talking, and become overly focused on talking and talking and talking to their child. This onslaught of words would be exhausting for me to produce as a parent and exhausting for a child to hear and may totally miss the point of how children most effectively learn language.

Bronson and Merryman (source) say “For years, the advice has been that the way to kick-start a child’s language learning was to simply expose kids to massive amounts of language. However, as we explain in our book NurtureShock, the newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Let’s look more at what we know about language learning.

Can there be too little language in a child’s world?

capture

There are definitely “linguistically poor” households, and this can absolutely lead to significant “vocabulary gaps.” In general, children from households with lower income and lower family education know fewer words. (source of chart above) Some examples from research:

  • A child in a low income home will hear an average of 616 words in an hour, a child in an average professional home will hear 2153. (source)
  • In one year, children from poor families hear 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear 4,000,000.  (source)
  • By age four, middle and upper class children hear 15 million more words than in working-class families, and 30 million more than in families on welfare. (source)
  • By second grade, a middle income child will know ~6020 words. A low income child will know ~4168. (source)
  • By 18 months, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency. (source)
  • 5-year-old children of lower SES score two years behind on language tests. (source)
  • When 18 month olds were shown two objects, then one was named aloud, higher SES toddlers could identify the right object in 750 milliseconds, lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond. That slower mental processing speed means they have a harder time keeping up with teacher’s words. (source)

Not only are there fewer words spoken in a lower income household, the discussions that do happen are likely to be focused on daily life, such as what to eat, work schedule, and other practical topics. They are less likely to have wide-ranging discussions around the dinner table on a variety of topics. The parents may also work multiple jobs, which means less opportunity for reading bedtime stories. This may lead to the same words being used a lot, and fewer novel words that broaden the child’s vocabulary.

Also, in single parent households or homes where one partner is away at work, it may be more likely that the television is on in the background much of the time, which leads to less engagement and conversation between parent and child. (Source)

A child who understands fewer words and has slower processing speed  when they begin school will not just start behind – they’ll stay behind. As the teacher talks and some kids understand all the words and all the concepts, and some kids can’t even understand the words used, they get lost before reaching the concepts. (source for graph below)

capture 2

So yes, if there are too few words being used in a child’s environment, that child can be word poor. And yes, that will create academic challenges. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is to just talk a lot more…

What Is Responsive Language?

Imagine two scenes.

  • A toddler is sitting and poking at her cheerios and poking at her spoon so it rattles on the table. The parent, wanting to be sure the child is receiving mental stimulation, talks about their day: “As soon as you’re done with your breakfast, we’re going to put your new red shoes on and we’re going to go for a walk, and maybe we’ll see some butterflies again. Remember, the last time we went to the bakery to buy bread and we saw two blue butterflies?” The child keeps poking at her food as the parent talks. “I’m going to get a book now – we can read it together.”
  • As the toddler pokes, she looks up at the parent for their reaction. The parent sits with the child and says “you’re poking your cheerios with your finger. You pushed them all into a big pile on that side of your dish.” As the parent speaks, they point at the big pile. The child pushes a few more cheerios into the pile. “Now there are five more cheerios in the pile.” Then the child pats the spoon. “You’re using your hand to pat the spoon. The spoon makes a fun noise, doesn’t it?” The parent pats the spoon and says “It’s going rattle, rattle.” The toddler rattles the spoon some more, parent says “rattle, rattle” again. Then the child holds up the spoon to show it to the parent. “You picked up the spoon – can you use it to pick up some cheerios?”

In the first example, the parent’s voice is mostly background noise for the child whose attention is focused on the cereal and the spoon. There is also the chance of “criss-cross labeling” where if every time the child touches the spoon, the parent happens to talk about butterflies, the child could get confused about whether the thing they’re touching is called butterfly.

In the second example, the parent closely observed the child’s actions and where the child’s attention was focused, then talked about that. This gives the child the words for what they are experiencing in the moment with all their senses. This builds a much stronger connection between the words and their meaning. When you talk about a spoon later, the child can remember this moment and remember what the spoon felt like in their hand and the noise it made on the table.

To some parents, it may seem like talking about cheerios and a spoon is boring. They may feel like they need to jazz up the child’s learning with talking about bigger ideas. But slowing down to your toddler’s pace and tuning in to what they are in the process of exploring offers a meaningful connection for their learning.

There are three characteristics of responsive language: it’s prompt (happens within seconds of the child’s behavior, it’s contingent (related to the behavior) and it’s appropriate (parent responds in a positive and meaningful way). (source)

So, if a child showed a parent a ball, the parent would quickly respond, “Oh, you have a  ball in your hand!” If the child said “ba”, the parent would say “Ball. Yes, it’s a green ball.”

Does responsive language increase learning?

  • One study showed that when parents were more responsive, their children would reach all these milestones sooner: imitating parent’s words, first words, speaking 50 words, combining words to make a “sentence” and talking about the past.
  • A parenting style that includes parental warmth, high expectations and clear routines is associated not just with language ability but also better memory and higher achievement. When parents use a lot of negative strategies, their children have more limited language skills. (Source)
  • Children who hear more child-directed speech – not just overheard speech – process language faster and learn words more quickly. (source)

Here is a summary of other research:

In the second year, when infants begin to understand and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies… the diversity of infants’ communications… and the timing of language milestones… Infants of high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) … achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers… Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers of high-responsive fathers… fathers’ responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted toddlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across time… (source – includes citations for all studies)

How can you use responsive language?

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words recommends three steps for parents and caregivers to expand a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Tune In by paying attention to what your child is focused on
  2. Talk More with your child using lots of descriptive words
  3. Take Turns with your child by engaging in his or her conversation. (source)

Additional recommendations:

  • The Hanen Centre says that step 1 is OWL: “Observe Wait Listen. The parent needs to give the child the opportunity to take that first turn, so that the parent has something to respond to.”  (Learn more about OWL – Observe, Wait, Listen.)
  • Their next step is follow the child’s lead: imitate what the child says, interpret (what the child would say if they had the words), comment (giving the child words to describe what they are doing) or join in child-directed play. (Learn more.)
  • Use parentese – that sing song higher voice parents use to talk to babies.
  • Use motion – point to things as you talk about them, touch them, shake them. All this helps the child focus their attention while you label the objects.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about (what they are doing or are paying attention to in the moment). Don’t change topics quickly.
  • Don’t interrupt their attempts to communicate with you. Wait for them to get their thought out. Look at their face to show you are listening.
  • Children also benefit from hearing lots of different people speak – at different pitches, tempos, and with different accents and facial expressions. So take them out in the world, so they have an opportunity to interact with diverse people.
  • Reading to your child is also a huge influence on language learning. Learn about how to read to a child and lots of other literacy topics.

Don’t feel like you have to talk all the time

For brain development in general, children need three things: novelty (new experiences), repetition (the chance to explore something over and over to learn about it in depth from all angles), and down time (restful periods without lots of input when they can process all that they’ve seen and heard). This is true of language too.

Children need new words, they need to hear the same ones over and over in different contexts, and they also need quiet time for their inner thoughts to unfold. It is fine to have long periods of silence at home too. Even if you choose to have an Oto monitor listening in.

Learn more about responsive language:

Child-Directed Play: Floortime

floortime

Child-directed play is an intentional practice where you sit and play with a child, allowing them to guide the play, as  you follow along. The Greenspan Floortime approach describes this as:

  • Follow your child’s lead, i.e. enter the child’s world and join in their emotional flow;
  • Challenge her to be creative and spontaneous; and
  • Expand the action and interaction to include all or most of her senses and motor skills as well as different emotions

Floortime was created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan for children on the autism spectrum and those with developmental delays. It can also be used with typically developing children. It is helpful for any parent or caregiver who wants new ways to interact and have fun with a child, wants to feel more engaged with and connected to a child, and wants to know how best to interact with a child to foster communication skills, social-emotional development and cognitive learning.

How Floortime works:

Set the Stage

  • Find a time when you can focus on play, when you and your child are both well-rested and fed.
  • Be present – set aside your mobile devices and other distractions, relax, and stay focused on the interaction.
  • Gather items that interest your child and have them available, but not so many that it’s overwhelming.
  • Your position is important. Be in front of them – that’s better for connecting than it is to be side by side or for you to be behind them. Get down to their level – typically on the floor. Your physical nearness, affectionate touch, and eye contact help them to stay engaged.

Follow their Lead

  • Let them choose the activity. Offer toys that they love. It doesn’t matter what you play, it matters how you play.
  • Join in their play. Match their level of play – if they’re low key, you are too. If they’re very energetic, match that (without escalating up to wild.)
  • Don’t feel like you have to teach them. Just let them explore and discover. Copy the way that they play. If they signal that they want your help doing something, then help them, but don’t just jump in and do things they haven’t asked for.
  • Measuring intent. Watch their gaze, expressions and body language. Where is their attention? Let them know it’s OK to take initiative and start an activity.
  • If they are motivated, don’t change the activity. It’s OK to do the same thing over and over again.
  • Be playful! Find joy in your interaction. Their current interest may not be inherently interesting to you. But tune into how it gives them joy.
  • Look for the gleam in their eye. That’s a great sign that it’s working.

If it’s not working: Are you trying to control the play too much – do you need to step back? Are you being too passive and aimlessly following them around – how can you join them in interactive play? (Learn more about following their lead.)

Narration

If you feel tempted to ask a lot of questions, or do a lot of teaching, or you’re just over-talking, try observing silently, or responding to their play with simple reactions “uh oh!”, “what’s that?”, “hurray”.

If you want to talk, try narrating what they are doing. “You’re putting the toys in the basket. You noticed there’s only one toy left on the floor. Whoa, you dumped all the toys back on the floor so you can do it again!”

This narration tells them that you’re paying attention and that what they’re doing is important to you. You’re also building their language skills by giving them words to describe the things they do.

Use Emotional Expression and Responses to Engage

  • Expression – Use your eyes, facial expression, tone of voice and body language to connect and communicate. Your emotions (especially anticipation, surprise, and delight) help to attract their attention and keep them engaged. When you pair your words with emotional expression, it gives your child a better understanding of both the words and the emotions.
  • Observation and Response – Can you read their emotional cues? Do your expressions engage them more? If so, keep it up. If they’re seeming overwhelmed by you, back down a little – you’re following their lead.

Circles of communication

When Floortime is working well, it’s like a game of volleyball or ping pong. You know your child’s interests, so you “serve” by offering a toy. They “bounce back” to you by taking the toy. You talk to them about the toy. This back and forth interaction is where all the magic learning takes place. A young toddler, or a child with autism or delays, may only be able to go back and forth a few times before disconnecting. The older they are and the more play experience they have, the better they’ll get at this. The goal of Floortime is to build persistence – more of these circles of connection.

Once it’s working well, you settle into a flow of play – Floortime calls this “getting it cooking.”

If it’s not working: Are you waiting long enough for them to respond? Are they overwhelmed – are you talking too much or moving too fast? Are you following their interests and joining them where they are? (Watch for any expression, sound, or gesture that might invite you into their play.)

Stretch the Play

Once you’re “cooking” – you’re connected and have a nice back-and-forth pattern established, then you can work to take their play up a level.

Expand the play by adding in some new toy or new aspect of play, or offering some choices. For example, if they’ve been using blocks to make a stable for their toy horses, you can put a “roof” on one of the “stalls.” If they’ve served you the toy pizza over and over, ask for a drink to go with it. If you were playing peek a boo, drop the scarf and pretend to have a hard time finding it.

Expand just enough, but not too much. Your goal is sustained engagement – we want to keep out back-and-forth exchange going as long as we can. So, if your new extension keeps them engaged, and you’ve got that gleam, keep it up. If you lose their attention, back up a little.

If it’s not working: Some parents try to intervene too much. Some are too passive and don’t help child stretch.  Try to find the balance between following their lead and challenging them to interact, communicate, and think.

Tailoring to the Individual Child

Some children have sensory preferences – they really respond to sounds or to touch or to movement. Some children are easily overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation – sound or touch or smell might be too intense for them. Children may also prefer different speed of interaction – some like things to move slowly, some like fast moving play. This worksheet may be helpful if you feel like there are sensory or timing issues involved.

Benefits of Floortime

Some parents wonder – if I’m just playing the same simple game over and over, is my child actually learning anything? According to Autism Speaks, the back and forth play of Floortime “builds the foundation for shared attention, engagement and problem solving. Parents and therapists help the child maintain focus to sharpen interactions and abstract, logical thinking.” They also note these key aims: self-regulation, engagement in relationships, communication skills, and emotional learning.

Learn more

Learn more about tips for Floortime sessions, and see videos of parents and caregivers demonstrating these skills:

Teaching Math Skills

Let’s talk about math…

When we talk about which skills kids need to succeed in school or in the work world, reading and math are always at the top of the list of “most important things to know about.”

If you ask parents what they do to teach their kids to read, they will say: we do bedtime stories every night, we go to the library, we practice reading signs, menus, and labels – they have a whole list of ideas. If you ask them what they do to teach their child math, many parents draw a blank or they protest that they don’t know how to teach math, and they’re counting on preschool and school to do that.

Can we instead think about easy ways to incorporate math into everyday interactions and play just as easily as we do reading? I(‘m not talking math drills and flash cards and pushing academics here! I’m talking about playing with numbers like we “play” with words and stories.)

Here are some opportunities and resources (click on the links to learn more):

Hands-On Activities to Teach Core Math Skills

  • Counting / Number Sense
    • You can count almost anything – how many blocks in your tower, how many goldfish crackers on your plate, how many books do we get at the library
    • You can ask: who has more? Divide objects into two piles – which is bigger?
    • Set the table – each person gets one plate, one spoon, five berries, etc.
    • Count money – it’s trickier to get the different values of different coins.
  • Representation – recognizing that the numeral 5 and the word five can be used as symbols to represent how many physical objects you have
    • Play with magnetic numbers, puzzle pieces shaped like numbers, make numbers with play-dough, draw numbers in the sand,
    • Do connect the dot puzzles, do physical games where they have to jump from the paper numbered one to two to three
    • Make number cards with the numeral and word written on them. When you count physical objects, have them find the card the shows the total.
  • Shapes and Spatial Relationships
    • Play with shape sorters, puzzles, nesting cups, blocks, building toys. Make crafts.
    • Talk about (and play games with) positional words: under, next to, between…
  • Measurement
    • Cook together, using a recipe.
    • Compare things: line up in order by size.
    • Measure with standard units (8 inches) and non-standard (12 paper clips long)
  • Patterns
    • Help them notice sequence: first we do X, then Y. After ____, we always _____.
    • Sort laundry and pair the socks. Separate M&M’s by color, then make a pattern.
    • Build patterns: red bead, yellow bead, red…  Clap rhythm patterns.

For lots more hands-on ideas, just search pinterest for preschool math activities! Or go to http://articles.extension.org/pages/25598/young-childrens-developing-math-skills

Sing Counting Songs and Read Counting Books

  • Math Songs. Counting songs like 5 Little Monkeys jumping on a bed, or 10 Little Indians, or 5 Little Ducks are all great teaching tools, especially if you have props. A bath-time game with 5 rubber ducks can teach one-to-one correspondence plus the concept of zero (no little ducks came back…) You can find a huge collection of math songs for all ages at www.songsforteaching.com/numberscounting.htm

Turn (almost) any conversation into a math conversation: Check out the blog http://talkingmathwithkids.com/ It has examples of math concepts into conversations with kids in an engaging way. More ideas: https://bstockus.wordpress.com/talking-math-with-kids/ and http://prek-math-te.stanford.edu/overview/math-thinking-conversations.

Bedtime Math: Every night, before or after the bedtime story, add in a math story problem.

You could make up your own. They could be based on your day (“Today at dinner, there were 8 slices of pizza. You ate two, and I ate three. How many did Dad eat?”). They could be based on the book you just read. (“The Cat in the Hat is holding a book, an umbrella and a fish bowl. How many things is that?” “How many pieces of fruit did the Very Hungry Caterpillar eat?”

Or, you can download the Bedtime Math app (it’s free!) or buy a Bedtime Math book if you prefer a screen free option. They offer a new kid-friendly story problem every day, with questions appropriate for three different levels of math skills, for kids age 3 – 9.

Sports are a fabulous way to practice math skills. For younger kids, keep the score simple – one basket equals one point. For older kids, make the scoring more challenging: “if you can sink the sock in the laundry basket from here, it’s 1 point, but if you can do it from this line, it’s 3 points.” When watching sports in person or on TV, have your child keep a written score tally.

Restaurant Games: When waiting for your food, try these games. Hide 2 – 5 sugar packets behind your menu. Lift the menu to briefly show them the items, put it back down, and ask how many they saw. Tap on the table 1 – 6 times, and have them set out that many packets. “There are four blackberry jams, two strawberries, and a marmalade – how many total?”

Board games are my favorite math skill builder. They’re so much fun that kids don’t notice their learning math. Research shows that the more board games that a kid played and the more different settings he played games in, the better his performance in four math tasks.

Let them see you using math. Point out to your child when you use math – to calculate a tip, compare the cost of two items, figure out how long it will take to drive somewhere, or to help them decide what to buy with their allowance. (For a discussion of financial literacy for kids and how to handle allowance: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/02/09/financial-literacy/)

What Not to Do:

  • Don’t feel like you need to get flash cards, math apps and workbooks and drill basic math facts over and over. Let math be fun at home, not a terrible bore.
  • Don’t try to push kids along faster – push them deeper – rather than moving on to the next step on the math skills checklist as fast as you can, make sure you’ve really explored each step in depth first. For example, some parents want to toddler to count to 20, so they push them fast. It takes a long time for a toddler to really truly understand the difference between one and more than one. And then to understand the difference between one and two, and more than two. Let them stay there till they really get it, and then they’ll be able to master more complicated ideas in the future. But rush this one, and everything is confusing from there on out!

My other blog, Inventors Of Tomorrow, is about teaching STEM skills to kids. I have more details there. Start with the post on developmental stages of math learning.