The SPED Classroom: COVID-19 Edition

As an academic, I find comfort in relying on the expertise of others. Facebook is filled with teachers, mothers, and therapists with wonderful, color-coded ideas. But, we are in crisis. I need more. I need high-level experts with a following that traverses over space and time. Right now, I’m looking to the muses:

  1. Mr. Rogers, the social-emotional muse, is famous for his tagline: look for the helpers. That’s no help for me. I live with one who is a great help to the community as a paramedic but not the most helpful co-teacher for e-learning. What is helpful is the decrease of anxiety that comes from Mr. Rogers’s habits of greeting me at the door, changing his sweater and shoes, and starting the day.
  2. Maria Montessori, the educational muse, created an entire system based on naturalistic learning.
  3. Tim Gun, the creative muse, motivates amateur designers to tap into their creativity in order to figure out how to use the unconventional materials of plant fronds and chainmail with chiffon to make a red carpet look. His tagline: make it work!

Mommy Title Mash-Up

I have written a lot about being a working mom and having a special needs child to keep it interesting. When the days all run together, and my time at home is also my time at work, I need to find ways to have more impact while doing less. Here are some ideas that help satisfy SPED goals that relate to occupational therapy (OT), speech/language therapy, and social work.

  1. Post-it Note schedules: you can get as colorful as you want. You can designate yellow for foods to eat, pink for outdoor activities, green for Daddy’s tasks, etc. The goal is for each family member to participate by writing words, phrases, or pictures of what needs to get done on a daily basis. Older kids can arrange their “sticky schedule” while grimacing through brightly colored additions parents include.
  • OT: writing/drawing, pulling off one post-it note for fine motor, rearranging post-its to cross the brain’s mid-line
  • speech: “wh-” conversations to understand what goes first? why? where does the post-it go? where should the schedule go? where should the work get done?  
  • executive functioning: organizing the day, prioritizing activities
Jacob cleaning the kitchen floor at 3!!!

2. Household chores: anything that makes my back, neck, and shoulder ache is a great new task for Jacob. At an early age, we recognized the need to keep his engine running in a productive direction. He works the products in the Swifer family like an Olympic curling champ. He also learned to put clothes in the hamper, bring it down to the washing machine and load it. Now that Jacob is older, he helps unload the dishwasher and puts his clean clothes away. Frankly, little orphan Annie had it easier. I joked I was making him earn his keep, but it turns out I have been a closet Montessori teacher. The nice thing is how all of these chores target Jacob’s IEP goals in some way or another.

  • OT: pincer grip required to empty the dishwasher or pull one sock at a time from the washer builds the hand muscles needed for writing , cross the brain’s mid-line by requiring him to reach across his body to grab the silverware, forcing kids to put things away top left to top right and then progressing down mirrors how the motor plan for their eyes for reading
  • speech: more “wh-” conversations to understand what goes first? why? plus sequencing what to do first, sweep the floor before attaching the wet wipe to mop, is needed to develop skills for reading, 
  • executive functioning: putting the silverware away categorizes the brain
  • social work: whose turn is it? how do you cope with the frustration of not being able to get your fingers and arms to do the right thing?

3. Dance! If you have read my blog before, you have come to understand that our mental health is rooted in relishing our childhoods while embarrassing our children. You have also read my growing fascination of neurobiology and how music does more “than save our mortal soul” (pause to love Don McClean’s “American Pie”). So many of our SPED kids get movement breaks in school, but we limit them to Cosmic Yoga or painstakingly slow breathing exercises. Moms, it’s time to break out the bar mitzvah videos and Electric Slide (boogie, woogie, oogie). Then, Cha-Cha Slide before you level up to the Cupid Shuffle and dare to judge your physical health to see if you can Tootsie Roll. (Reward yourself with many candies of the same name if you pull that off without pulling a muscle.)

  • OT: motor planning is key to all of these dance moves, plus they repeat giving kids a chance to practice a motor plan over and over
  • speech: a receptive speech challenge for sure, but with corresponding video or Mommy-model resources, kids are using a real life Boardmaker app. 
  • social work: modeling it is okay to look and feel silly is key for our kids who struggle with nuanced emotions like embarrassed or uncomfortable

Spark Note Summary

The COVID crisis has given us more questions than answers. My goal is to let that discomfort be okay. The beauty of everything being different and new is everything HAS to be different and new, like a “make it work”moment with Tim Gunn. E-learning is not education. Shelter in place is not an opportunity to try being a stay-at-home mom, Pinterest mom, or mom who masters the work-life balance. Shelter in place means to accept YOUR place. Continue to do the best you can, with what you have, at any given time. I’ll follow Mr. Rogers in creating the habit of sending you ways to live and learn…

A Couch Mommy’s Guide to COVID-19

Over the last 3 days, Americans were informed we would have to live like shut-ins. True to our American nature of passive-aggression (like sending mean Tweets or anonymous Facebook posts judging everyone who invades our space), we issued one last collective rebel yell and took to the stores. We spit in the face of social distancing and flooded the grocery stores like it was Thanksgiving and Target like it was Black Friday.

In addition to being a blogger, I’m a professional counselor and recovering grades 6-12 English teacher. I have none of the craft skills that ooze out of my elementary school colleagues. Plus, I love my couch! I love bingeing the Real Housewives of Wherever You Come From. I love figuring out the best place to arrange myself with the heating pad on my aging back, notebook, and laptop to complete treatment notes. I am woefully ill-prepared to spend the next few weeks, maybe months, giving my child a proper education. So, instead of planning for him, I am reaching out to the multiverse with my version of tips and tricks to help parents like me survive the COVID-cation.

Snarky, Yet Satisfying

Timon and Pumbaa were wise beyond their species as experts in DBT, the psychological theory that asserts two opposite things can both be true. In the case of our friends from the Lion King, slimy was satisfying. In my case, snarky is survival. 

  • Run errands like you are training for a marathon. Supporting local business doesn’t have to mean shopping in your locality. If the only thing we are permitted to do is shop for groceries, why not sojourn to the grocery store 50 miles away? That time in the car can be spent torturing your kids with 80’s music, which helps YOUR mood. It also kills 3 hours of the day so you can join the rest of the Facebook mommies in bragging that your kids didn’t have screen time for the whole afternoon.
  • Exhausted muscles can’t fire, so to keep anxiety away, go nuts on your kids once a day. My sister-in-law is brave. After hoarding toilet paper like the rest of America, she bought pool noodles. The kids can fight and exhaust themselves. The parents can join in and save their sanity by thwapping kids. An occupational therapist in my office teaches families how to sock wrestle. (Basically, you roll around on the floor trying to get someone’s sock off.) We pillow fight and wrestle in my house, but you get the picture. The picture is Thunderdome.
  • Dress up to sit down. I promise you nobody’s mental health is improved when spending more than 2 days in sweatpants and a 20-year old Dave Matthews Band concert shirt. (This isn’t just a clinical opinion, I’ve performed extensive self-research.) Kids love to play dress up, and you need to see what fits before you spend time purging their closet. My husband and I are celebrating our 9th anniversary during our lockdown. We had plans to escape for the night, go to a fancy dinner with foods never before tasted, and forget other people existed. Well, 1 out of 3 isn’t a good grade for an overachiever like me. So, we are planning to wear formal attire for random meals. Grilled cheese for our little lord and a one-pot Chef Amy original creation for us while family Slutzky is adorned in our finest.

Spark Note Summary

My crew and I have been surviving in different homes, in different states (physical, emotional, and mental), with 7 children amongst us.

My crew and I have decided THIS is the face of COVID-19. Winter isn’t coming…winter is here!

We have sent links to free resources and recent articles from trusted sources. We have shared funny pictures of our kids at Mom School. We have been honest about our fear and the size of our stockpiles. Most importantly, we have been taking care of each other like we have for 25 years. COVID-19 may have forced Americans inside. But, it doesn’t have to take away our communities. Stay safe. Stay sane.

 

 

A Special (Education) Back to School List

Mothers everywhere are filling carts and baskets with new binders, matching folders, 24 pre-sharpened #2 pencils (seriously, this is on our list), and a planner to help with homework that none of our kids will use. Nearly $150 later, your child is ready to go back to the routine they hate and we love. It’s pretty standard practice: one child, one class, one massive Target receipt.

But, if you are the parent of a child who has an IEP, back to school gets a little nerve racking. Special education (SPED) has a high turnover rate.  Our well-intentioned, highly qualified classroom teachers leave the profession well before their general education counterparts. And, they are just one piece of our child’s puzzle. Speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and those wonderful aides who guide our children one-on-one into general education settings change classrooms and districts leaving parents incredibly anxious about who will be on their child’s team for the next 180 days.  So, like most of our experiences with our special children, we have more work to do to get ready for school. Don’t worry, SPED parents, as your friendly neighborhood advocate, and SPED mom, I have some tips and tricks for you. 

Three More Things To Add To Your Supply List

The goal for the beginning of the school year is to create an easy transition from the lawlessness of summer to the structured days of fall. It is our job to make sure our children are seen as students, not qualifying diagnoses. 

  • Get new Releases of Information (ROI): That precious paper that allows your school team to coordinate with your private providers needs to be completed at the start of every year. All children benefit when they receive consistent messages from all adults. It takes away their superpower of “that’s not how my teacher does it” when we try to help with homework. SPED families rely on multiple experts to help our children thrive in school. But, some work outside of the educational setting. Parents need to provide schools with NEW releases every school year. You can often find these documents by navigating through the district’s website. Then, sign one release for each outside provider, including your advocate, to send to school on the first day. 
  • Create a brag book: You need to tell your new team all of the amazing things your child has learned to do when not challenged by academic goals. Climbing a wall, blowing bubbles in the water, and playing
    Jacob (circa 2017) facing sensory issues, literally head to toe, to climb a wall.
    superheroes with cousins. My son learned all of these skills over a summer break. As an advocate, I can translate these accomplishments to match his IEP goals. Climbing grew core muscles needed for posture and attentiveness. Blowing bubbles showed ability to create shapes needed for speech goals. Playing superheroes showed imaginary play skills with typical peers that checked off his social work goals for the previous years. SPED parents get trapped in a vicious cycle of highlighting deficits that keep justifying our minutes with specialists. Let’s start the year showing off what our kids can do and let the experts re-draft goals and elevate expectations to match. 
  • Re-order your day: Use the last week to mirror the demands of a school schedule and classroom expectations. In a presentation about kindergarten readiness, I give parents a simple directive, “Raise your left hand,” but mandate they wait 3 to 5 seconds before complying. The discomfort is palpable. Far from a sadistic exercise, this experience shows parents how long it takes typical children to process a request and respond properly.  Our special students may have real challenges processing information or managing the sensory expectations that come from performing tasks. But, as parents, we forget to give them the time necessary, more than the 5 seconds needed by typical peers. We tend to get overwhelmed with getting from school to…gymnastics, the grocery store, and home in order to eat, play, bathe, and get to sleep at a reasonable time before repeating. (Normally, I would create an exaggerated fictional scenario to make a point. In this case, that is Jacob’s Monday.) Start having your student independently get ready for errands and complete multistep tasks as a great back-to-school crash course. 

Spark Note Summary

A lifetime in the classroom followed by a new lifetime as an advocate means I have spent 4 decades on an academic calendar. So, this month is REALLY the start of a new year with new hope and promises to make this year the best one yet! Most of us special parents know that just means trading one set of struggles for another one. But, with fingers crossed, I’m hoping these back to school tricks will start your new year off with one less stress on your back to school list.

The Feral Children of Fortnite®

I confess. I’m a gamer. Not WAS a gamer…AM a gamer. I didn’t grow up this way (unless you include a stubborn determination to beat Mario Bros on Nintendo). In fact, it wasn’t until college that I fell deeply in love with computer games. Picture this: it’s a hot summer day in Chicago. My boyfriend, his crew, and I hit the sand beach volleyball courts of the North Shore park districts for hours. After a quick round of showers, we all gathered in an apartment lugging 90’s Apple computers, an ethernet hub, a duffel bag full of cords, and a 6-pack. That is where I was when the Bulls grabbed championship after championship, and I watched live coverage of the deaths of Princess Di and Mother Teresa. Needless to say, when families try to convince me that gaming is ruining their children, I work hard to remember I’m an objective professional. Fears of Grand Theft Auto® and Call of Duty® have come in and out of my practice without a mental note much less a blog. Fortnite® is different

Out of the Mouths of Babes…

My husband and I still sneak in some gaming time, but neither of us has ever played Fortnite®. So, I conducted some field research to learn about the basics of the game. Here is what I’ve learned from a 14-year old expert gamer and a 25-year old social gamer. Fortnite® resembles what children of the 80’s would call a Wrestlemania Battle Royal combined with the Hunger Games.

Wrestlemania’s Battle Royal

Players are randomly placed on a map with resources. These resources can be cool, high powered guns, or lame, pile of wood.As the timer signifying the outer layer of the world disappearing ticks down, the player must gather resources to survive. Resources can only fill 5 slots of a player’s cache. Concurrently, a player can erect structures or barriers while trying to kill their way to the center. Confused, yet? I’ll give you the cheat sheet: poor randomized placement on board? DEAD; poor randomized gift of starting resources? DEAD; poor strategy balancing defense and offense? DEAD. This is how our children are having fun.

Out of the Mouth of a Family Therapist

The mental health profession studies the effects of gaming constantly. But, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders, DID NOT add gaming to its latest version in 2013. Research continues investigate whether excessive video gaming has the same effect on developing brains and neurotransmitters as substance abuse (making gaming an addiction) or obsessive compulsive behaviors (making gaming an anxiety disorder. When the experts’ research comes in, therapists will know how to help families navigate this modern maladaptive behavior. Let’s not wait for them.

What Gets Lost When Your Kids Try to Win

I mentioned some basic ways a player’s game can be cut short in Fortnite®. Here is what MAY be happening to your player when that happens.

  • Self-efficacy: Sometimes used synonymously with self-esteem, self-efficacy is the belief that you are a powerful individual who can solve problems and accomplish tasks. It is also the best way to combat anxiety and depression. The random placement of player and allocation of resources work in direct opposition to healthy development of a strong sense of “I can do it!”

    The final straw…

    This randomness also feeds the “It’s not fair” button vital to moral development.Children playing Fortnite® cannot be talked out of their honest assessment that falling off the shrinking map after the game placed them on a board with no good resources making fighting to stay alive harder than peers is unfair. They are right! It is unfair. But, providing more examples of how the world (fictional or real) is designed against them sends the message that tweens and teens are powerless.

  • Empathy: Despite the amount of hits on Google, Empathy Deficit Disorder, is not a real, psychological condition. Empathy is a learned skill. It is developed over time organically, as the brain branches out, and behaviorally, as you increase your social interactions. (This would be a great transition to a rant about social media or acceptable amount of screen time for children, but that’s for a different blog.) What makes Fortnite® dangerous, is it’s design that attributes tremendous amount of value to everything..and nothing. Let me explain. A player starts the game with some level of advantage or disadvantage of location and resource randomly. There is no skill or strategy, no concrete or intrinsic value, from the moment the game starts. Trying to win means determining how to blend building defensive structures while attacking other players. The immediacy of conjuring a wall or detachment of killing an opponent make it impossible to build value into using those methods to win.
  • Emotional regulation: Do you know why you can’t explain to your child why to accept the loss that came in 4 minutes when they lasted 4 hours in the game yesterday? You are talking to a feral animal. Yes, they know nobody is really dead. Their brains, however, do not develop the ability to put things into perspective until they are in their college years. (Talk about unfair!) Their brains are being fed stimuli from the game that trigger survival responses. “Hurry or you will die!” is the message of the game. Are you surprised when your sweet little boy or girl cannot interact like a human after gaming? Their brains are still on high alert! You may be offering to cook dinner, but their primal brain is thinking you ARE dinner. When Katniss won the first Hunger Games, she got to live in a fancy house away from the poor village. That wasn’t because she was a winner. It’s because even in fictional worlds, survivalists aren’t expected to return to normal life.

Spark Note Summary

The treatment plan for Pervasive Fortnite® Personality Disorder (not a real psychological disorder…unless my colleagues use it for future research), is ironically what makes the game so dangerous, TIME MANAGEMENT. Help your tween and teen transition back into the real world by giving them tasks that are designed to be routine and control breathing. Chores like setting the table, activities like jigsaw puzzles, or completing their reading minutes for school will bring the humanity back to your home.

Parenting Inside Out: Raising a Child on the Spectrum

North Shore Moms. Working Moms of the North Shore. Mommy Needs Vodka. My Facebook feed is a mini-map of my top priority, surviving motherhood. It’s hard for everyone. We question every decision we make starting from the first labor pain! Natural labor or C-section? Breastfeed or bottle feed? Stay-at-home or working mom? We face all of those life-changing decisions before we even see our precious baby’s face.

My favorite pastime is now my only exercise.

So, we put up human bumpers to give us comfort that our parenting decisions won’t send our kids to the gutter. Our mothers, our friends, pediatricians, and the entire parenting section of  Barnes and Noble give us peace of mind that we are not alone in our parenting paranoia. There is a comfort in our mommy networks; we are all following the same path. Until, of course, your child catapults you to a whole different kind of path.

Turning Things Inside Out

Going UP the slide. Autism or silliness? Neither. It’s Jacob!

First, he stopped saying, “Bless you,” after we sneezed. Then, he flicked lights in every room and stared at the ceiling. I didn’t need to compare Jacob to his peers to notice he wasn’t a typical two-year-old. The diagnosis of autism wasn’t a shock. But, since there are countless shades of the autism spectrum, the shock comes from a constant bombardment of experts, and those with expertise, getting it all wrong. You know who gets it right most often? The dynamic duo of Mommy and Jacob! Jacob has always had an incredible, creative way of combating the overwhelming sensory noises and challenges expressing himself. It just took me some time and education to translate those skills. The trick: balancing the world inside and outside.

The Pull Inside

Many autistic kids spend their lives in their own world in fierce opposition to our drive to drag them out. (Insert anecdote about Jacob’s lack of interest in being born in direct contradiction to my need to evict his 8 lb., 4 oz stubborn body.)  It turns out that Jacob’s insistence on crawling under a table or in my lap was his way of coping with a stressor from the outside world. My job wasn’t to drag him into, what he perceived to be, a dangerous place. I learned that I just needed a passport into his world to assure him he would be safe, so he could grab my hand, and join my excitement into our shared world.

But choosing which world is safe, the inside or outside, is not easy or consistent. Parents with autistic children tend to sequester ourselves in our homes because there is a tremendous amount of emotional pain when we give in to our natural tendencies to compare our children to the others. Jacob and I love the playground! But, it’s hard to maintain focus on his shining, smiling face when he is only swinging for hours to get his sensory needs met. It’s also hard not to wince when there is a toddler baby-splaining the design of the playground to his parent when your four year old has yet to tell you his favorite color.

There is also an autistic insider’s secret world of experts with strange language and letters after their names. Suddenly, a typical kid’s demand for cookies is an autistic child’s goal of “manding for a specific item” that must be graphed and documented. (Truth be known: the autistic kid is always going to get the cookie because they have impressed you by asking for “cookies in the blue box” when the speech goal is still trying to use 3-word sentences.) Sadly, the secret language of autism and ABA therapy, added to the specialized school staff and rules governing an IEP make you feel like YOU, the most intimate warrior for your child, is the outsider. It’s hard, but it is precisely in those moments when you have to use your Tiger Mom roar to get through to those on the outside.

Giving the Outsiders Inside Information

It doesn’t take long to remember that, diagnosis or not, you are the expert on your child. It does, however, take a long time and an unrivaled well of emotional strength, to make sure that message is received. You spend hours cycling from angry tears to irate emails trying to get the world to see YOUR child. On good days, I joke that at least I have a reason for my son’s behavior where other moms just roll their eyes and blame their child’s poor decisions on paternal DNA.

Jacob’s memories are in movies and music.

Now, I challenge everyone’s conclusion that my son’s behaviors are “because he is autistic.” The common autistic behavior of scripting, medically defined as echolalia, was a great example of a teachable moment for Team Jacob. Singing during nap time got Jacob kicked out of his preschool. The outside experts in early childhood became concerned that Jacob’s inability to stay quiet while peers napped was a consequence of his autism requiring a level of care the facility did not feel they could offer. I confess: I deferred to their outside expertise. Then, I listened to the songs and movies my son was scripting. They were all about Jacob’s thoughts and feelings! When he wasn’t singing songs like “Happy and You Know It,” he was changing the lyrics (of “Down By the Bay”) to “If you ever see a Jake, eating some cake.” A typical kid may have been babbling aloud about being happy at a recent birthday party. My son sings about it!

Spark Notes Summary

You know how they say you become a new person every 7 years because you  shed a layer of skin? We look the same on the outside, but we have grown immeasurably on the inside. Jacob is only 6 years old (I’m an overachiever), but  I’m a new mom. I’m Jacob’s mom. Yes, Jacob is autistic. He is also a huge fan of Blaze and the Monster Machines, can identify each planet by picture, and enjoys a dance party with his mother every day after camp. If you want to know anything else about my autistic son, ask me. I’m the expert.

Why Does It Still Feel Like High School?

Based on a high level of interest and comments on social media, this is the first of a THREE PART series of articles on bullying.

For years, I thought it was just me.

My fellow teachers and I would gripe to each other that we felt the faculty ACTED like the kids we taught.

Gossip? Check

Body shaming? Check

Bullying? CHECK

Forbes recently published an article which shared the research from the Workplace Bullying Institute, 75% of workers are the subject of bullying in the workplace. One of the reasons bullying in the workplace occurs is because the office is physically and socially designed the same way our schools are.

Schools Teach Offices How to Judge Others

  • Location, location, location: School tracks, advanced placement or remedial, is a well-known example of institutional bullying. Kids’  labels on their schedules and transcripts easily translate to “dumb” or “gifted”. But, as someone who has walked the halls of dozens of schools, there is also geographical bullying. Special ed classrooms are most often clustered at the end of a wing on the bottom floor while the AP classes enjoy the natural light and open windows of the top floor. Anyone think offices are different? Who doesn’t mentally decorate the CORNER office or the one on the top floor, the offices synonymous with power and status?
  • Darwin Did It: Strength, agility, and strategy help predict who wins in a fist fight. Friendliness and sensitivity seem to predict who loses that fight. Not according to Social Darwinian researchers who concluded that personality traits of bullies were adaptive skills of survival just as much as physicality. Researchers gave children identified as bullies, students involved in three or more referrals for name calling, aggression, or defiance, the Eysenck Personality Inventory — Junior. Results showed that bullies had pro-social traits like friendliness and sensitivity. Not a surprise when you consider that bullies are only successful if there are bystanders to cheer them on. Bullies were also measured as passive aggressive, dependent, and “histrionic”. (Histrionic on this personality inventory is defined by suggestible or easily influenced by others.) Climbing up the corporate ladder calls upon the skill set of the bully.

Spark Note Summary

The reason there is bullying at work is because your offices are designed the same way your schools are. Bullying is not “boys will be boys” that have a slug fest or “girls will be girls” that tease and exclude. It is literally a social construct. Schools and offices are designed to feed into our natural instincts to compete for survival. The good news is trite but true: knowledge is power. You can take a mental ride in a Dolorian, armed with the information gained here, and choose a new, better way to navigate the halls of life. The best way to survive and be the fittest, is always to live the lessons you have learned.

Learn How to Scrawl: A Book Review

Click here to read reviews on Amazon!

Welcome to the first book review from Lessons Learned! From time to time, we need a brain break, a way to escape the facts of our life by exploring fiction. Books can be a great way to learn some lessons while relaxing. My first recommendation is Scrawl by Mark Shulman. Before you raise your eyebrows, or close the blog, let me prove how a book marketed to tweens and teens has a few lessons for all of us to learn.

From Cover to Cover

As we read the first line in the novel, we read the first journal entry of Tod’s detention journal: “Think about a pair of glasses for a second.” 230 pages later, Tod’s journal ends with an exchange between himself and the guidance counselor who has been reading and commenting in his journal for the 5 weeks he was in detention: ” ‘Was that all that kept us from getting kicked out of school?’ And you smiled back at me. ‘Yes.’ ” What we learned between the first and last pages, is how we all judge without knowing, watch without seeing, and speak without listening.

  • Who? The book is formatted as a journal written by Tod, a bully, who is serving detention under the supervision of Mrs. Woodrow, a guidance counselor. But, the more you read, the more you question what you know about bullies. For example, Tod explains his environment to Mrs. Woodrow by explaining, “Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers” (8). He also plays euchre at lunch with his friends. Euchre, not poker. And, helps his blind lab partner. Questioning your facts on bullies, yet?
  • What? Punishment. The journal is a punishment for getting caught. (You don’t learn what he got caught doing until the near-last page…and I’m not spoiling that for you.) Tod’s friends are outside completing their more typical, juvenile delinquent punishment of picking up trash under the supervision of the head custodian. But, who hasn’t inflicted punishments upon themselves? True story: my mother accidentally ran a red light. (It was one of those that is only for a small strip mall.) When I pointed this out to her, she literally pulled HERSELF over! This is not a serious example, but it is a serious issue. Instead of listening to me, listen to Tod: “The more important you treat yourself, the more you’re worth” (41).
  • When? Let me be a typical therapist, here, and answer a question with a question: Which events in your life mark the difference between then and now? There are the usual markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. Traditionally, developmental psychologist have stopped there. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. We see Tod accidentally enter the spelling bee only to come in second when a teacher cheats, and we question what we know about bullies. We admire the large statue created by Luz, and we question what we know about the goth/artist. How long does it take, how old do we have to be, for stereotypes to be broken? Changed?
  • Where? The longer you read Scrawl, the more it reminds me of a house of mirrors where each turn reveals a different, exaggerated version of yourself and surprises you each time. You realize that Tod is more complex than the school bully. You see what he is like at home, a not-surprisingly poor house where he wears layers of clothes to sleep in order to combat the lack of insulation in his “bedroom.” Tod surprises us in the auditorium as he becomes a reluctant accomplice in creating the costumes for the original play written by the stereotypical school freak. In detention, Tod writes much more than is required and is more honest than is expected.  reflection.
  • Why? It is surprising that, as a therapist, I loathe this question word. After reading Scrawl, are we supposed to long for after school specials? Do the readers labeled as bullies feel vindicated? Do we donate more to the Salvation Army in case a ne’er-do-gooder needs to help a friend? Sure, why not. Or, maybe we just needed some perspective on how far we have come. Or, maybe we just needed a way to talk to our children about how to treat others.

…And How?

How do you take the lessons learned from Scrawl and use them to make yourself stronger? First, let go of the memories of high school that have flooded you for 238 pages. Second, make an impromptu book club with your kids (ages 10 and up are fine) to discuss how they feel about the characters and if anything is similar in their lives. Third, it’s never to late to start a journal. It is infinitely more healthy to get any thought or feeling out than to “suck it up.” Last, start now to be who you want to be regardless of who you were then or who others think you are now. Like scrawling, life can be messy, unconventional, and unpredictable. Enjoy!

LeVar Burton, Accidental Therapist Extraordinaire

Click here to bask in the nostalgia of the theme song!
Before the costume designers of Star Trek: The Next Generation chose an 80s banana clip for a futuristic visor, LaVar Burton was the host of Reading Rainbow. Each episode had a theme similar to ones that my son has in his pre-K class…space, animals, transportation, etc. Books were read to us by famous celebrities like Kermit the Frog. LeVar Burton took us on “field trips” to a fire house or farm. But, the best part of each episode was at the very end. A child just like me, a cute, book-loving precocious child, would tell us all about a favorite book. These were heartfelt testimonials that always ended with the phrase, “But, you don’t have to take my word for it.” No? But, I do! You love books…I love books! We are virtual book club buddies!

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy is a real, accepted modality for treatment of some mental health issues. It started with the turn of the century when soldiers were given medical books to learn about their injuries. In the 1960s, bibliotherapy became an official modality under the American Library Association, and psychotherapists mainstreamed the practice as an additional tool during more traditional therapeutic treatment. As Lessons Learned begins adding an occasional book review, it is important to understand the mental health benefits of reading.

  • Pacing: Shakespeare wrote in poetry, iambic pentameter, for his audience to get caught up in the music of his words. Before you twitch into a mess of
    Click here to hear modern day iambic pentameter.
    horrible memories of school, it may help to understand that iambic pentameter is exactly the same cadence as the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Prose also has an intentional rhythm. Short, choppy fragments mirror the mood of the character. Endlessly long sentences (see anything Faulkner wrote) drone you into a lull; “what did I just read in those two pages that were three sentences long?” Mental health practices of mindfulness and meditation help suffers of anxiety and PTSD, for example, use careful control of breath as a self-healing tool. Being whisked away into an author’s linguistic pacing can have the same benefits. 
  • Guided imagery: All of my students will tell you I have a hard and fast rule about movie adaptations of books. I refuse to watch a movie in which I’ve read the book. I refuse to read the book if I’ve seen the movie. Case in point: I’ve seen all 8 Harry Potter movies without cracking the spine on any of the 7 novels on which they are based. My snobbery is based on protecting myself from dashed expectations. As I read any book, I imagine what the characters look like, how they speak, how they dress, etc. I like to use my internal CAD programming to design their homes and neighborhoods. Getting lost in the story is why reading a book with Fabio on the cover can be more healing than one with Dr. Phil on the cover. One of the most preeminent medical facilities, the Cleveland Clinic, has concluded: “Imagery can stimulate changes in bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory patterns. It can help you tab inner strengths to find hope, courage and other qualities that can help you cope with a variety of conditions.”
  • Empathy: One of the major impacts of bibliotherapy is to see yourself, including your challenges, in a character. It is also extremely cathartic reading how someone just like you works on fighting mental illness without stigma or despite of it. This process, forming a bond with a character that reminds you of yourself, builds empathy. It also allows you to have empathy, not sympathy or pity, for yourself. Now that you are starting down the path of empathy for yourself, you have made the most difficult step in self-care: appreciating who you are without apology. Not sure what the difference is between empathy and sympathy? Watch this remarkable animated short.Spark Note Summary

Bibliotherapists are most often English majors with a depth of knowledge about “who” and “what”. Therapists are most often psychology majors with a depth of knowledge about “how” and “why”. As a woman with a bachelor degree in English Education and a master’s degree in psychology, I am your unicorn. As this blog takes on an occasional book review, have some faith in the magic of some more of the lessons I have learned.

Take Your Time, Don’t Waste Your Time

My father just got remarried. My anniversary is approaching. I’ve received three emails in the last two days about new clients for couples counseling. And, the cover of my last professional magazine was about marital counseling.

“Marriage, that blessed arrangement, a dream within a dream..”

Message received: it’s time to talk about marriage.

My husband’s aunt and uncle were high school sweethearts, but my husband and I didn’t get married until our 30’s. Our family seems to prove the statistics in Gallup’s analysis of the last census: When Gen Xers (see: me) were aged 18-30 years old (see also: no longer me),  32% were married. Our parents’ generation saw 40% still pledging till death they do part. And, the numbers of matrimonial bliss drop to 20% for the millennials currently aged 18 to 30.

There are a plethora of cliches and metaphors to try to get others to understand marriage. Science minds nod when you say “opposites attract”. Spiritual minds smile in agreement when you introduce the ying to your yang. When and why you chose marriage is not important. To some extent, neither is who you married. As a family counselor for almost a decade, the secret to a lasting marriage is all about time.

It’s All About Time Management

Not the real John Gottman, but the “real” grand poohbah.

In grad school, I bought thousands of dollars of textbooks that got me through the licensing exam before being boxed up and shipped to another counseling student for pennies on the dollar. The only book that I keep coming back to is one I bought at Barnes and Noble, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. John Gottman is the grand poohbah of couples counseling. His Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (of Marriage) are the common mistakes couples make when fighting, the mistakes that allow Gottman to predict with 90% accuracy couples that will remain together or split up. The only behaviors I can predict with the same 90% accuracy are my own. But, I have my own true-isms to add to the field of couples counseling:

  • Explain OR emote: This is not the time to practice what you have learned from me about dialectical behavior theory. It is a neurological miracle to be able to speak eloquently about your feelings while you are having them. Why? Fun fact #1: the area of the brain that processes emotions is as far away from the area of the brain that uses language without leaving your head. Fun fact #2: most people do not naturally possess a high emotional IQ to identify and discern the cornucopia of feelings in the human experience. Fun fact #3: anger, the most primal and present of emotions during a fight, is an alarm emotion.
Fun fact 1 + fun fact 2 + fun fact 3….it doesn’t add up

Anger lets you know that someone or something has breached an emotional, psychological, or physical boundary that you set up for your protection. No matter how you try, it simply does not add up to explain how you feel during a fight.

  • Set an expiration date: You cannot go back twenty years in a fight that started twenty minutes ago.  Yes, there are ongoing unresolved issues in marriage. No, they don’t need to be rolled into every disagreement. Today’s fight is happening because of today’s circumstances. There are some days when getting ice for a glass of water will trigger my startle reflex causing me to launch a full attack on my husband. I have known my husband for 20 years; the startle reflex is not breaking news. He may laugh, duck, or (justifiably) hurl a counter-assault my way.  It all depends on how full our buckets are the moment the fuse has been lit. Giving an accurate chronology of each time my husband has surprised my unconscious in the last 20 years is time consuming and as ridiculous as it sounds. However, focusing on the context of the current quarrel may give you insight and traction on tackling the larger issue.
  • Nice to meet you, again and again:You don’t stop growing up when you are growing old. For those of you who choose to parent, please understand that parenting puts you into stasis. Your world revolves around being a parent, a distant second cousin twice removed from the individual who took vows. A journalist documented this worst-kept secret in the book, All Joy and No Fun; it’s my favorite “homework” to assign  to couples because it freely discusses the not-so-fabulous world of parenting most of us are afraid to admit. A poll conducted by Pew Research in 2014 revealed that 54% of children under the age of 18 were living a traditional home, one with heterosexual birth parents. My unofficial research tells me that these children grew up in homes where the parents stopped learning about themselves and their partners. Who you were when you took vows is not the person you become as you live your life, 585,600 minutes a year. If you don’t share the new you with your old partner, you lose the chance to have a lifelong connection.
  • Spark Note Summary

    Maybe the secret to a marriage that lasts a lifetime is to live in all times. You need to cherish the past shared experiences that have kept you together, hope that the future will keep getting better and brighter because of your relationship, and choose your partner every day.

    A Reason, A Season, Or A Lifetime

    I have a crew. We have been a dance crew, a tailgate crew, a movie crew…you name it, we have banded together to laugh and cry for the past 22 years. But, we didn’t start that way. "Hey! I'm not just a fair-weather friend. IWe met in college. (Go Cats!) To bore you with the backgrounds would sound like a logic puzzle: 2 of the crew were from NJ, all but one of the crew were roommates at one time, 2 of the crew majored in theater, 2 spent a year abroad in France, blah, blah, blah. We spent four years getting to know each other. At any given time, some were closer to me than others. The magic happened when the cocoon college years were over; that’s where the work began.

    It should not come as a surprise that psychologists have studied the art of making friends. It should also not be surprising that their tips for making friends are eerily similar to dating tips. Like most topics, my take on friendships is a mixture of common sense and humorous practical tips.

    First, There is a Reason

    Mommy friends are a hot commodity. Once you become a parent, you develop an incredible need to find out if YOU are normal, THEY are normal, or LIFE will ever be normal again. The same can be true when you are starting a new job, moving to a new town, or starting a new hobby. Transition is the best chance to start a new friendship. Just be careful not to fall into a few pitfalls:

    • Self-deprecation will never make it out of a friendship’s honeymoon phase. Healthy adults celebrate themselves and their accomplishments,

      fishing-for-compliments
      Fishing for compliments

      like rewards for surviving the teenage and twenty-nothing years of “ooops”. You are not looking for a cheerleader; you are looking for more a teammate.

    • Strangers don’t know where you’ve been or what it took to get where you are now. (Thank goodness!) New meetings with new friends act like a snapshot of this version of you. This is your chance to become the version of you that has been exiled to “what if world.”

    Then, It Has Been a Season

    After the reason becomes less urgent, you have accepted your role as a mistake-making, best-intentioned parent…or employee….or neighbor, the NEED for friends also becomes less urgent. You need to decide who you want to know better. You need to ask yourself if there can be more connection with your new friend than the context of your initial meeting. It’s also ok if your new friend becomes a new memory.

    • No more first date rules. You need courage if you want your new buddy to become a real friend. Religion, politics, past relationships…all topics are on the table. When we were younger, our views swung between the ones in line with our parents and those in complete, rebellious opposition. pile-of-shoesThe gift of cultivating friendships as an adult comes from living in the Big Gray World. Your ability to be close to someone with different views is a sign that you have a tremendous capability for empathy. After all, you have had more time than your younger self to wear more shoes…

    With Enough Time, Friends Last a Lifetime

    I have nothing fancy or funny to say about the depths of love I feel from my crew. It took time. Time together AND time apart. Those days, months, and years let you know if the friends you have made can be responsible with the most precious thing you have to offer…yourself. You cannot measure your friendships in secrets kept or capers completed. Frankly, it is not even important how often you see each other or talk on the phone. You have earned lifelong friends when the time apart has no effect on whatever time you steal together.

    Spark Note Summary

    Part of life’s roller coaster is choosing who is best to join you on the ride. As you change, you need to find new friends and reconnect with old friends. Accepting that is okay for friends to come and go gives you permission to have fun by meeting new friends. There is always a reason to grow your support network that will carry you through a rough season and become part of the family that you rely on for your lifetime.