Category Archives: Parenting Skills

The Race Car Brain

There are some children whose brains and bodies always seem to be racing. The parent may feel like they start playing with blocks with the child and then the child runs off to paint and while the parent is still putting blocks away and cleaning up paint, the child has already flipped through a few pages of five different books and is climbing the bookshelf.

Talking to them may also feel like this – they ask a question, and as you start to answer it, they ask another question, and before you can answer that one, they tell you what they had for breakfast. Parents (or teachers) may feel like they can never quite catch up.

It’s easy to fall into patterns of continuously scolding them to “stop!” or “pay attention!” It’s easy to see them as problem kids. However, they have a lot of important strengths, like curiosity, enthusiasm and energy.

Dr. Ned Hallowell* would say to these kids: “Your brain is very powerful.  Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car.  You have the power to win races and become a champion. However, you do have one problem.  You have bicycle brakes.  Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got.  So, you can’t slow down or stop when you need to.  Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track.  But not to worry… we can strengthen your brakes.”

Strengthening their Brakes

We can do several things to help them slow down and learn new skills, like a longer attention span, persistence, and impulse control:

  • Routines: having predictable schedules, where they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. Visual schedules may help.
  • Break it down: they may have a very hard time doing a big task, but find it easier if you break it down into small specific tasks. So instead of saying “clean up this mess”, say “we have four steps – the first step is to put the Legos in the basket – when you’re done with that, let me know and I’ll tell you step two.”
  • Practice sticking with a task: try setting a timer and say “we’re going to do this activity together for at least five minutes. When we give persistence muscles a workout, they get stronger.” (Before you do this, try to get a baseline of how long they typically stick to a task. If they typically can do 3 minutes, you don’t want to set a timer for fifteen… that would be too much of a stretch.)
    • Use a timer they can read and see the progress on (like an hourglass where they can see that their time is halfway up, or a kitchen timer, where they can see that the dial is halfway toward zero are both easier to understand than a digital countdown)
  • Tell them what to focus on. Instead of just saying “focus” or “pay attention” tell them exactly what to pay attention to: “I’m going to tell you the three things we need to do today, so I want you to listen till you hear all three things.” Or “right now the priority is eating breakfast – can you focus on counting each bite you take till you get to ten?”
  • Physical supports: Some children focus better in a class when they sit on a ball where their body can wiggle or they spin a fidget spinner while their brain pays attention. My child could focus better when he wore a weighted vest because the pressure gave his brain some tactile stimulation. Some children focus better if there’s some white noise or quiet background music. (It’s over-stimulating for others.) Experiment to see what helps your child.
  • De-clutter. Too much stimuli can over-activate these kids. If they’re in a room with just a few toys, they do fine. If they’re in a room full of toys and decorations, they flit from one to the next non-stop. (Read about “How Many Toys is Enough.”)
    • These kids LOVE novelty! But instead of buying more toys, I like providing new experiences outside the home – taking classes or going on field trips gives their brain the novelty it craves while still keeping a home environment that helps to settle them with familiar items to explore in depth.
    • You can also mix up existing toys without having to add new – like putting the toy dinosaurs with the blocks, or using toy cars with the paint.
  • Connect to their interests. If there’s something they have to do, but it doesn’t capture their attention, find a way to make it more engaging. For example, if they need to practice writing their letters and they are dinosaur fans, you don’t have to practice writing the words a teacher assigns – they could practice writing pachycephalosaurus.
  • Brain and body breaks: Make sure they do have plenty of opportunities to play and burn off lots of energy.
  • Spend more time outdoors. Nature can be very calming to people whose brains are always racing.

Discipline and Race Car Brains

It’s important to know that some discipline techniques that work well with other kids don’t work well with these kids. Parenting advice is not one size fits all.

Check out: 8 practical tips for parents of children with challenging behaviors. For my racecar kid, I found the book Incredible Years by Stratton had the most helpful discipline tools. I wrote several posts on discipline based on these techniques. Find links to them here.

I also find neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s writing on brain development to be very helpful. He says the “downstairs brain” is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. These take years to develop. When a child is very upset, extreme emotions block their ability to use
their upstairs brain. They “flip their lid” and regress back to the downstairs brain. When they’re in this state, you can’t reason with them, you can’t ask them to make choices, you can’t expect them to “use their words.” Learn more: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_upstairs_and_downstairs_brain.

So, if you have a racecar kid in the middle of a meltdown, you’re not going to be able to reason with them or have long discussions about the implications of their choices. They can’t pay attention to a deep discussion when they’re at their best, and especially not if they’ve flipped their lid. They’ll do better with clear rules, concrete statements of what behavior you want to see, and quick consequences for misbehavior. See more tips in the Discipline Toolbox.

Is it ADHD?

*Note: Hallowell, who coined this metaphor, specializes in ADHD, so he is using race car brain to describe the ADHD brain. I am using it more broadly.

Many toddlers or preschoolers who may seem like racecar kids may slow down as they get older and develop better brakes, so may not ever be considered ADHD. They still benefit from this early learning of skills to slow themselves down and you’ll benefit from using these tools to keep those early years a little calmer

However, many race car brain kids do get diagnosed eventually as ADHD. About 9% of children do have ADHD. Learn about criteria for an ADHD diagnosis and deciding whether to have your child assessed for ADHD, and how to access testing.

Types of Preschools

When you start looking at preschools, you discover a whole world of jargon you never knew: play-based, emergent, teacher led, benchmarks, coop, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and so on. It can be overwhelming. And to make it more confusing, different people use words differently.. two schools that both call themselves “child-led” or “play-based” may look very different in practice.

A couple big picture ideas:

Structured vs. Play-Based: A structured preschool might use group time, worksheets, and individual projects to teach particular skills. Students may be drilled in the basics, or asked to practice things over and over. All the children are expected to be engaged in the same activity at the same time – they are all working on a craft project together or it’s math time for everyone. (Think of your elementary school education – structured preschools are using similar methods moved down to a younger group).

A play-based preschool typically has multiple stations set up and allows children to move between things when they choose, spending as long as they want at an activity. The teacher moves around the room, making suggestions and observations to further the learning. (Here is a research summary about play-based learning: https://www.easternct.edu/center-for-early-childhood-education/about-us/publications-documents/science-in-support-of-play.pdf) Most play-based preschools include circle time to provide some balance between structure and free play. Learn more about play-based preschool and activity stations at a play-based preschool, and how play-based compares to academic.

Teacher-Led vs. Child-Led: A teacher-led curriculum (may also be called didactic or standards-based) means the teacher always prepares the lessons in advance (it might be their own creation or they may use a curriculum written by someone else) and sticks to it. The teacher is active, the children are passive.

A child-led curriculum (may also be called emergent or constructivist) follows the children’s interests. So, for example, the teacher may know the math concept of the week is more than/less than. But instead of teaching that in a formal scheduled way, she asks the children playing with trains whether there are more blue trains or red trains, then asks the children playing with blocks which tower has more blocks in it, and asks the child who loves dinosaurs whether they think velociraptors ate more than T-rexes or less.

Brand Name Teaching Methods

Here is my summary of the methods. You can find many more descriptions online, including helpful comparisons at https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/comparing-preschool-philosophies-montessori-waldorf-and-more and www.privateschoolreview.com/articles/180. But remember that the actual practice of a school may differ from the theory of “the brand”.

  • Classic Montessori: The teacher sets up learning centers around the room, with “self-correcting” materials (e.g. a puzzle where the child can tell if they’ve done it right or wrong and thus can work to fix it themselves if it’s wrong.) Children work independently at their own pace, and are in a multi-age classroom.
    • Note: Montessori schools can range in quality and in how tightly they adhere to Montessori methods. The word Montessori is not tightly controlled, and anyone can use it, no matter what teaching methods they use. Some schools use it because it’s a known brand name that “sells” well, but the classroom experience may only have a very loose connection to Montessori practices.
  • Rudolf Steiner/ Waldorf – Nurturing, predictable structure and routines. Natural materials, with time outdoors, baking bread, working with wool, wood, and wax materials, no plastic. Lots of imagination and oral story-telling, but no electronic media (families are discouraged from having any screen time at home). Reading is not taught until age 7. Learn more www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoW0pCIG-FM and www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmAX5adCl0 and www.movementforchildhood.com/uploads/2/1/6/7/21671438/heardaboutwaldorf.pdf
    Note: Waldorf requires all teachers and schools to be certified, so there’s much more consistency between schools with the Waldorf name.
  • Reggio Emilia. Child-led investigations. Project-based: when the children come up with an idea for a project, the class focuses for a few weeks on it, finding out together what they need to know to make it happen (including pre-reading and math.) They document projects with photos and journals. www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVv5ZL9nlgs
  • Nature-based or “forest kindergartens“. Common in northern Europe, they are newer to the States. There are several available on the Eastside of Seattle (My son attended Tiny Treks). Children spend most, or all of their time outdoors (yes, even in the winter). Child-led, play-based, emergent curriculum where teachers respond to children’s interests, rolling in math and science where it fits logically, often doing story-time, snack, and circle outdoors. To learn more, search for “forest kindergarten” on YouTube or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBoXaQKoWL0
  • Academic preschools. There are preschools that have an academic focus that are taught in developmentally appropriate ways. But there are also schools which drill rote facts into children. That may mean the children will in fact learn to read words younger than they might otherwise have done, but this doesn’t appear to give them a long-term advantage. An occasional worksheet is a good experience for kids as preparation for future school experiences, but a worksheet-based curriculum is not appropriate for a 3 year old. (Read more: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2016/01/07/academic-preschools/)
  • Cooperative preschools. Most  are balanced programs with time split between play-based learning at learning centers (e.g. dress-up area, block area, art, sensory), circle time (includes story time, literacy skills, and concepts like days, seasons, colors, etc.) and outdoor or big motor play. There is a professional teacher who plans the curriculum and leads structured activities. What distinguishes co-ops is parent involvement. For a 3 year old, they might attend preschool three mornings a week. On some of those days, the parent drops off. On one morning, the parent stays and works in the classroom with the children. This means there is a very high adult to student ratio. Co-op isn’t the best answer for a parent who needs child care so they can work or do other activities. However, for parents who have the time available, many report that they enjoy the time spent in the classroom, and like knowing more about what their child does at preschool and who the other children are in the class. Parents also have the opportunity to build friendships with other parents. Note: Cooperative preschools tend to be much lower cost than other options.
  • Head Start. For families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level (i.e. less than $25,000 in 2013). Provides preschool for child, but also: medical, dental and mental health screenings, meals for the children, and support for the parents. Fact sheet: http://wsa.iescentral.com/fileLibrary/file_71.pdf. To register for Head Start: http://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/family/for-families/Inside%20Head%20Start/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions%20%28FAQs%29/HowdoIapplyfo.htm

When considering which method you prefer, it’s worth keeping in mind what we know about brain development (see this post): Children learn best through hands-on experiences with tangible materials, through interaction with engaged human beings, and in environments where they feel safe and happy.

Taking the Negativity out of Conflict

Last month, we had a guest speaker at my church – Tim Dawes, an author, consultant and TEDx speaker – who offered a powerful approach to conflict based in compassion and respect.

Drop-Shift-Give

When you find yourself in a conflict you can’t see a way out of:

  1. Drop whatever approach is putting you at odds. (Arguing, accusing, making threats, trying to change their mind or change their behavior.)
  2. Shift your focus to the other person’s perspective. What is their experience / how are they feeling?
  3. Give – Acknowledge what they want, validate their experience. You really need to accept and respect that this is their experience. (Note, this is not necessarily saying that they’re “right”, just acknowledging their view.)

This creates a connection between you and the other person. After you do these three steps, it is as if you have set a place at the table for their needs. Then you can bring your needs to the table and can sit down and have a real conversation about how to move forward. You may see new options you didn’t see before, and may be able to quickly negotiate solutions that work for both of you.

If you are feeling wronged or hurt, it can be hard to let go of arguing. If you’re a parent, it’s hard to let go of teaching and correcting. If you have strong opinions, it can be hard to let go of trying to convince someone you’re right and they’re wrong. But arguing, correcting and convincing can prolong an argument.

Examples

My oldest child resisted putting toys away. It was an on-going conflict where I battled him again and again. At one point, I dropped my usual tactics for a moment and asked him to explain things from his perspective. He said that when all the toys were put away, the house looked like a place where no one was allowed to have fun. I acknowledged that this was his truth. Then we sat down and negotiated some compromises we could both live with.

My youngest got into a battle at school today. He was upset at getting tagged out in gaga ball. When someone else tried to get him to calm down by saying “it’s just a game”, that upset him more. Rather than try to convince him that he should relax and that a game is not worth getting upset over, I dropped that approach and shifted to curiosity – asking him to explain his perspective. He shared that games are really important to him, whether that’s gaga ball or video games or a board game, and he doesn’t like that people trivialize them all the time. Spending some time talking about his thoughts on this and validating them “brought him to the table” to where we could have a conversation about how he could have reacted differently today.

I appreciated learning this new tool for approaching conflict and look forward to exploring it more.

Understanding Procrastination

Whether your child puts off their chores, or your partner never quite gets around to the the “honey-do” list, or you’re frustrated at your own tendency to get lost in not-so-important tasks instead of doing the important-but-not-fun tasks, this article in the New York Times offers great insight: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html.

When we procrastinate, we know we’re doing it to avoid something, and we know it’s not a good idea, but we do it anyway. Why? It’s not a time management or organizational issue – it’s an emotion regulation issue. Certain tasks inspire negative moods for us: anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment or other challenging emotions.

When we procrastinate, we are prioritizing short term pleasant mood over longer term issues. And the more we put off one task, the more negative feelings get wrapped around it as we add in self-blame and increased stress. And then we’re even more inclined to seek out a different activity to get relief, putting it off even longer. It becomes a vicious cycle, and can lead to long-term chronic stress and low life satisfaction.

So, once you understand the emotional aspects of task avoidance, how do you get past them? The NY Times article phrases these in ways to overcome your own tendency to procrastinate. That’s the first bullet point in each pair. The second one in each pair is how you might translate this when addressing your child’s procrastination.

  • Self-forgiveness – instead of beating yourself up for procrastinating, forgive yourself… that may make it easier to do the task the next time around.
  • Compassion: “Hey, this time you procrastinated a lot, but I know it was just because you were really frustrated about X. Next time, I bet it will go better.”
  • Cultivate curiosity – Pay attention to how you’re feeling and wonder why you feel that way.
  • Help them be curious: “How are you feeling right now? What do those feelings remind you of? Is there some way we could help you feel better while doing this task?”
  • Consider the next action as a mere possibility “If I WERE going to do this, even though I’m not, what would I do first?” Try it out… often if you get started without pressuring yourself, the motivation will follow.
  • Help them imagine “if your teddy bear needed to do this thing, where would they start? Could you show them the first step?”
  • Make temptations more inconvenient. If you procrastinate by grabbing your phone and checking social media, try putting the phone across the room. If you stall by tidying up, keep things tidy or move to a different space to work. If you take a lot of snack breaks, don’t work near the kitchen, or have less interesting snacks.
  • Whatever tends to distract them from their task, can you put it out of sight?
  • Make the thing you’re avoiding as easy as possible to do. Pack your gym bag in advance and keep it in the car.
  • Make the thing your child is avoiding easier or more enjoyable. Watch a movie together while they fold laundry or listen to music together as they clean their room. Put their homework out with their snack and encourage them to finish it quickly so they can move on to other things.

It is easy to view procrastination as a character flaw that can’t be overcome or blame it on “I just need to be more organized.” But perhaps acknowledging that you’re avoiding the task because of negative feelings the task brings up may help you get to the root issue and move past that procrastination.

To learn more, check out the original article in the NY Times!

Becoming the Parent you Want to Be

Often as parents we find ourselves making things up as we go along – we think about what we want our kids to do right now, then take actions that give us quick results in the moment. Those actions may or may not be in alignment with our long term goals or visions of yourself as a parent – I’m sure we’ve all had moments of thinking “I can’t believe I just said/did that!!”

One step you can take toward becoming the parent you want to be is to define – in writing – what that means. This can begin with a process of brainstorming your goals and values, maybe even writing a vision and a mission statement. Then as you find yourself muddling through your parenting days, you can occasionally take time to reflect – am I on course toward my goals? What could I do to course correct a bit? You don’t have to be perfect every day if you’re remembering to check in from time to time to make sure you’re still pointed in the right general direction.

Picture1

Brainstorming the Basics

Here are some questions to ask yourself to discover what’s important to you.

  • What are your family’s strengths? What do you do best?
  • What are the most important values you want to pass on to your child?
    • What is the place of education in your family? What value do you place on work?
    • What are your family’s attitudes toward money?
    • How do you view religion/spirituality, and what part does that play in your daily life?
    • How important is it to you to help other people or participate in your community?
  • How would you like to relate to one another?
  • When do you feel most connected to one another?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What makes you fulfilled –brings you satisfaction, leaves you with a sense of completeness?

Answering those questions may be the insight you need to get started.

Figure out what the endpoint looks like

Another approach is “Begin at the end” – think ahead 15 years. What is your vision for:

  • What is your child like as a person?
    • What skills have you nurtured in them: Curiosity? Confidence? Compassion? Determination?
    • What are your child’s core values? (see above)
    • If your child is “successful”, what does that look like?
  • What are the relationships amongst members of your family like?
  • How would you like your child to describe what it was like to grow up with you as a parent?

Creating a Vision Statement

What is a vision statement?

  • It describes what your ideal family life would look like and what you want your family to be someday.
  • It provides inspiration for what you hope to achieve in five, ten, or more years;
  • It functions as the “north star” – helps you understand how your work every day ultimately contributes towards accomplishing over the long term; and,
  • An effective vision statement is inspiring, yet short and simple enough that you could repeat it out loud from memory

Some sample visions from organizations are: “To improve the health and well-being of each person we serve.” (a hospital)  “To inspire students to create a better world.” (a school) “We believe that strong families begin at home and building strong families creates thriving, healthy communities.” (a family support organization)  “To be a vibrant and welcoming community, feeding the human spirit, lighting a. beacon for love and justice.” (a church.)

Write your parenting vision statement. (Try several approaches until you find the one that sings to you.)

Creating a Mission Statement

A Mission statement focuses on a shorter time frame (1 – 3 years). There are lots of possible formats. One format answers three questions

  • WHAT you will do – what specific actions will you take?
  • HOW you will do it – what will be the quality of your actions (this is where you can articulate your values for how you want to interact with your family)
  • WHY – what results or benefits you will see when you look at your kids / your family in a few years?

Here are some sample missions, from the web… I don’t endorse any in particular, they’re just examples.

We are a family who believes that relationships matter most! We value spending time together. We hold each member of our family accountable for responsible behavior. We support each other in our individual pursuits of personal and professional interests. We cheer each other on. We laugh whenever possible. We hold our marital relationship as a top priority because this relationship serves as the foundation of our family. www.everythingmom.com/dynamics/the-family-vision-statement-a-solution-for-challenging-decisions.html

Our home will be a place where are family, friends, and guests find joy, comfort, peace and happiness. We will seek to create a clean and orderly environment that is livable and comfortable. We will exercise wisdom in what we choose to eat, read, see, and do at home. We want to teach our children to love learn, laugh, and to work and develop their unique talents. www.happyfamilyhappylife.com/examples-of-a-family-mission-statement/

Our family mission: To always be kind, respectful, and supportive of each other, To be honest and open with each other, To keep a spiritual feeling in the home, To love each other unconditionally, To be responsible to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life, To make this house a place we want to come home to. [also from happy family… cited above]

I choose to raise children who are respectful and believe they are worthy of respect. I choose to raise children who are confident and who know themselves enough to be true to the song in their hearts. I choose to raise children who are kind and caring and see kindness and caring in the world as well. I choose to raise children who are honest and value the power of truth. [in the post, the author gives concrete examples of how their parenting will reflect this mission http://lusaorganics.typepad.com/clean/2011/12/a-peaceful-parenting-mission-statement.html]

Implementing Your Vision & Mission

Write your Vision & Mission down, and post it where you can see it.

Review it on a regular basis and see how you’re doing.

Narrowing the Vision – Action Gap: when the theory of what kind of parent we wish we were meets the reality of how we respond to our child when we’re tired and they’re challenging, it can be easy to get discouraged. Be gentle with yourself – don’t beat yourself up for your mistakes, just use it to help you remember your goals. Ask yourself what you could do differently the next day to move in that direction.

Revise your mission as needed to in order to reflect new values, hopes, and dreams.

More Resources:

On this blog:

  • Here is a free printable worksheet for developing a mission/vision statement.
  • Read about Parenting Style: Authoritarian, Permissive, Balanced and Uninvolved are ways to describe the intersection between how high the demands are that you place on your child, and how responsive your rules are to their individual needs and goals. Are you your child’s Boss? their Friend? A Friendly Boss?
  • Read about Connecting Your Child with their Cultural Identity. What traditions and values will you bring in from your cultural background?
  • Think about what rituals you will incorporate – how will you celebrate holidays? What about the tooth fairy? Bedtime routines? It’s often the little things that define our families.

Elsewhere: