Recognizing the Importance of our Children on National Child Day, Nov. 20th, 2017

IMG_1470I am writing this message to you as an educator, advocate, and mother of young children. I feel privileged to work alongside so many brilliant and passionate Early Childhood Educators. I have spent many years advocating for more resources for vulnerable youth and families living in poverty. Five years ago, I was assigned the task of starting a committee in Calgary to celebrate National Child Day. I was a new mother then as well and I am almost embarrassed to tell you how little I knew about Early Childhood Education. The committee work connected me to a network of individuals and agencies that not only had the knowledge and research but were leveraging it to create change in their communities. After so many years of social work and advocacy, I realized I was missing the most critical opportunity to shape the emotional, social and physical development of a child and the adult they will become. I learned through this network that it is critical for parents, teachers, communities, and governments to invest in very young children to maximize their future well-being.

Since then I have read many articles and studies that support this statement, yet Early Childhood Education and Educators can still be undervalued. More awareness is still needed to challenge misunderstandings around the skill, education and personal assets required to teach our youngest learners. More advocacy is needed to ensure that we have the resources for play as a critical developer of language, social skills, and emotional well being. We need more champions of children’s rights, who understand how crucial the first 2000 days of a child’s life are for development. This work with your community has created a champion in me and I carry these messages everywhere I go.

NCD-PhotoI would like to ask you to join me in celebrating a day that recognizes the importance of children and their development. National Child Day is celebrated annually in Canada on November 20th in recognition of our country’s commitment to upholding the rights of children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines 54 articles that provide us with a solid roadmap of what is needed to raise healthy and happy children and youth. The 2017 theme is a child’s RIGHT TO BE SAFE!

Supporting children’s rights is a key factor in improving their quality of life. It reaffirms our hard work and commitment to helping children reach their potential and advocating for change, throughout the year. Despite our abundant resources, many children in Alberta face poverty, bullying, discrimination, poor mental health outcomes and abuse. A community that promotes and invests in healthy childhood development, free from these adversities, raises healthier and more engaged citizens.

When children experience safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, they develop the strength necessary to cope with significant stressors or challenges. When they are placed in unsafe environments, children are at risk for toxic stress, hindered brain development, and negative physical and mental health outcomes later in life.

At the core of respecting a child’s right to safety is their voice being heard, believed, and valued in their community. Fostering a safe community involves creating positive relationships with caring peers and adults. We respect a child’s right to safety by being approachable; listening to, and believing their concerns; and advocating for safe spaces for them to learn, grow and play.

I encourage you to celebrate the day, wear blue and join the social media campaign. Mark your calendar for Wednesday, November 15th. A free National Child Day Panel will be held at the Alberta Children’s Hospital from 10:30 am – 12:30pm. Click HERE to view the poster for more information and to register.

Please visit for booklists, toolkits, and more information on the events happening near you.

Melanie McIntosh



Halloween - JackolanternsGetting ready to trick-or-treat?  Candy, treats, parties, parades, costumes, masks, makeup…it all sounds like lots and LOTS of fun, but for the sensory sensitive child, it may feel like a challenge.   If your child has some difficulty with sensory processing (the interpretation and response to sight, sound, touch, taste, and perception of movement and position) Halloween may actually feel really scary and overwhelming.

You know your child best!  Taking the time to prepare in advance will help your child to enjoy these festivities so much more. Allow your child to make as many choices as he or she can with regards to costumes, makeup, parties and other activities that he/she would most like to participate in. Try to keep things simple for them and for you too!  By planning and discussing everything ahead of time, your child will feel better prepared, more comfortable and in control, and hopefully calmer too.

It may also be important to talk to your child in advance about some calming tools/strategies that he or she can use, or a calm quiet place that you can enjoy together along the route when one of you needs a break from the fun and excitement!

Here are some more tips to consider:

If you would like to: Consider these activity tips:
Help your child know what to expect. Read a book, create a story, or role play. Many Halloween traditions clash with established rules, like taking candy from strangers. To help your child understand what Halloween is—and is not—review your values and establish rules and boundaries.
Have your child wear a costume. Remember that “pretend” does not necessarily involve elaborate costuming. For example, a simple green shirt may suffice to indicate a turtle. Be sure costumes aren’t too scratchy, tight, slippery, or stiff. Test your child’s comfort when walking, reaching, and sitting.
Take your child trick or treating. Trick or treating is not mandatory: Meaningful participation in Halloween festivities could include helping to roast pumpkin seeds or picking apples. Often, children enjoy handing out candy as much as receiving it.

Practice the sequence of walking to the door, saying “trick or treat,” putting the treat in the bag, and saying “thank you.” If possible, go only to homes of family and friends to keep the comfort level high. Skip homes with flashing lights, loud noises, and scary decorations.

Have your child participate in a party. At Halloween parties, some children enjoy wet or sticky textures like pumpkin filling and skinless grapes, whereas these make others feel uncomfortable and even nauseous. Instead of carving a pumpkin, decorate a jack o’ lantern with stickers and markers. A child who won’t enjoy bobbing for apples can put the apples in a bucket. Consider planning an event at home with a few friends.
Help your child avoid a meltdown. Limit the duration and number of people and activities. Know when to stop or disengage from the festivities by recognizing sensory overload—fatigue, hyperexcitability, crying, combativeness, etc.—and then go to a quieter, smaller space.

Tip chart modified from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) website article Enjoying Halloween with Sensory Challenges, 2011. To view a PDF printable version of the original chart please visit HERE.

Have a fun and happy Halloween!

Susanne Williams, BScOT (c)

A Child’s Job is to Learn and Play

iStock_11560023_XLARGE.jpgOctober is Occupational Therapy (OT) month! For those families who are new to OT this school year, you might be wondering what OT is all about.

A young child’s occupation is to learn and to play. An OT can help a child to develop skills to succeed in this occupation. There are several areas that the OT on your child’s team may address, depending on his or her unique skills and needs. Aside from supporting the development of your child’s fine and gross motor skills, and promoting independence in everyday self-help activities, OTs can help children learn to understand and regulate their emotions and their sensory needs.

OTs are often called upon to offer advice and problem-solving strategies when a child is acting out or melting down at home or at school. This brings me to one of my favourite books, The Whole-Brain Child written by Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. (Did I mention that OTs tend to be serious brain nerds??) This book offers a practical approach and some valuable strategies that foster healthy brain development, leading to calmer happier children and families. By understanding some of the basics about how the brain works, we can better understand and respond more effectively to tough situations and build stronger relationships with our children.

Dr. Siegel describes the “upstairs brain”, the part of the brain which makes decisions and balances emotions, as being under construction until the mid-twenties. In young children especially, emotions tend to rule over logic. It is no wonder that preschoolers have tantrums!

During a tantrum/meltdown, the “downstairs brain” takes over. The “downstairs brain” is more primitive. it is responsible for things like breathing and blinking, for fight and flight reactions and for strong emotions like anger and fear. Dr. Siegel explains that techniques such as timeouts or negotiating are not effective when a child’s “downstairs brain” is fully on and the “upstairs brain” is essentially off! Instead, at times of high stress for a child, he suggests that adults instead try connecting with soothing hugs and calming words. Only later, when the child returns to a calm state, will he or she be better able to listen and talk about what happened.

Here are two other whole-brain strategies to try with your child:

  1. Name it to tame it – Telling stories to calm big emotions. We all feel better after sharing a scary or painful experience with someone. Helping a child to use their left brain to “name” their fears and emotions helps them to understand or “tame” them.
  2. Move it or lose it – Moving the body to avoid losing the mind. Movement is a powerful tool for the brain! If your child resists getting dressed, say “let’s do 5 jumping jacks together, and then we’ll put your pants on.”

The Whole-Brain Child – 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind written by Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PHD. (2011)

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BIG LIT Reviews

A Review – Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity – Steve Silberman


I was instantly captured by the subject matter of this book, especially given Oliver Sacks’ ‘roll-out-the-carpet” forward that begs clear attention. My interest and pure enjoyment in working with children exhibiting characteristics of autism and/or diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has grown both in depth and in breadth over the years. Reading through this book was a little like following breadcrumbs back through a thickly wooded forest, with only thin streams of brilliance that seem to shed light and truth on the situation.  In 1999, when I saw my first kindergarten-aged child, who had been recently diagnosed with autism, the resources available to advise these fragile families were scant.  Sharing resources with colleagues, attending professional development across North America and experimenting with successful vs. failing methods were the streams of ‘brilliance’ that flooded my path as a speech-language pathologist trudging through the thickly wooded autism forest. Autism is still seen to be a burgeoning area of knowledge.  For those of us who work daily amidst this body of knowledge, books like Neurotribes, keep our intrigue at a high intensity. The perspectives explored within the 480-odd pages move along a timeline starting in the late 18th century where Silberman highlights the life of Henry Cavendish. Cavendish was a natural philosopher or scientist who was purposefully solitary and abrasively rigid. It is through several ancestral characters, that Silberman helps the reader to believe that Autism has existed for hundreds of years in an undiagnosed state. Also, through his text, Silberman slowly begins to expose the extraordinarily rich nature of Autism to those readers who may have only ever experienced negative or limiting views of its symptomology at one extreme end of the continuum. His extensive research into the work of Hans Asperger sends the reader away from any adverse slant on autism, over to the opposite end of the continuum.  At this end of the continuum, the eccentricities, compulsions for data-proven fact and high levels of organization are the greatest of strengths. The author encourages his readers to cultivate an appreciation for the diversity of all neural processes such as learning, thoughts, feelings, actions, and socialization. When the final pages of the book surfaced, I felt enlightened, extremely positive and I was filled with new intentions about how to better fulfill my role as a purveyor of information to the families I work with. Here is a quote from the book, provided by a blogger Silberman cited by the name of MOM-NOS:

Dear Autism;

You do not have my son, I do.

I will make sure he is never defined by his autism alone, and I will help him to recognize that, although his autism makes some things incredibly challenging, it also brings with it remarkable gifts.  I will make sure that we work on his challenges.  I will make sure that we celebrate his gifts.

This is only the beginning, MOM-NOS.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone, who wishes to know more about the diverse group of learners that we build communities with.

Written by Carmen Souster, BA, B.ED., MSLP, S-LP(C), R.SLP(C)


Summer is Here!

As Iblog last of spring sit down to write this last blog before summer break, it seems like the month of June is overwhelming to so many families! Graduations, end of year celebrations, final days of sports, P.A.T.’S, final exams, field trips, meetings and so much more! Whew it is a lot!

Kids are checked out, parents are done with lunches, and teachers are counting down the days. So, be kind to yourself. We will get there! Summer days will come, and with that there will days filled with sun, bugs, laughter, boredom and fun. Looking for simple ideas of how to fill summer days? Check out the issue of the Big PLANS in print May/June’s Newsletter that included tips about imaginative play and summer safety.

Parents also need to be kind to themselves about high expectations of what the summer will look like! Currently I have visions of long walks and quality conversations with my teen girls. The reality is that I will probably spend most of my time getting them off their devices and wondering why they can’t seem to make their beds, or clean up breakfast dishes! Real life still happens in summer too. There are responsibilities, chores and work to be done!

However, in summer we are often given a few more moments of relaxation. Enjoy watching your children play and get dirty. Celebrate the long warm days when everyone goes to bed too late because the neighbourhood is filled with people. Appreciate the moments when relationships lead, and burdens ease. Along your adventures over the summer, watch for the natural opportunities for community building. Chat with a neighbour who you don’t know, invite kids over from school, or host a BBQ with families who don’t know each other. Remember that the family that you so enjoyed camping next to – that is community too!

If you are in search of some new favourite summer local activities to do this summer – check out this link of 100 fun things to do in Calgary!

Chat with you again in the fall… and wave at your neighbours for me! – Cara


A Search for Friends! Who is in your child’s life?

blog 12Recently in one of my training seminars, I had a mom share that her son currently had no friends. There is such heartbreak in sharing such a statement! I felt for this mom, and so we took a moment to take a snap-shot of who was in her son’s life. We started by reviewing the concept that social connections include a variety of types of relationships. Frequently, support teams and families focus only on “friends” but it is important to remember that there can be all types of influences that lead to a sense of belonging! Together we took a look at the following possible connections for her son:

Family relationships which include parents, siblings and extended family. Family matters!

Customer relationships are people we pay for services and are an important connection, such as our child’s teacher, child care provider, doctor, babysitter and any support staff.

Membership relationships exist in places we regularly attend based on the role we have. I often say that this is where your name is written down somewhere. School, 4-H Club, swimming lessons, hockey, dance, church or Brownies might be examples.

Community relationships are the people we connect to as we journey – our neighbours, the kids on our school bus, and the other families in soccer.

Friend relationships develop with people whom we have met repeatedly due to roles in life, but now we are connected to them because they care about us and are interested in our life. This type of relationship takes time. It does not come easily for some children (and some adults too). Part of this dynamic is also supporting your child to be a good friend in return.

In turned out that this mom’s son did have lots of positive connections and relationships in his life. They were going to try and celebrate that, while still supporting him to connect with more peers his own age. Watching your child experience loneliness is heartbreaking. Don’t give up. Slow down and look around at the people who surround them and simply start there. Celebrate what is already working. Remember, the community is everywhere!


Do with… not for!

blog 11How do we stop doing things for our children that they can do for themselves? I have been receiving some great questions lately about supporting independence– so let’s look into this area further.

It is often hard to slow down and allow children to do things for themselves. We live in fast times, and it is cleaner, faster and way easier to just take over. (Let’s be honest, there is nothing more painful than watching a child SLOWLY zip up their coat).

Often times when I am visiting schools, I see volunteers or assistants doing things for children that they can actually do for themselves. Sometimes support teams feel like they are “really helping” when they finish the art work, do the tasks, or even answer on behalf of a child. Unfortunately, long term this actually does more harm than good. It erodes self-esteem and skills, and creates a dependence that is not helpful for anyone. We need to give children the space and time to experience and complete tasks.

To be clear, when a child needs help – we should be assisting them. There are lots of areas that children genuinely need a parent or staff to assist them! The concern is when the child could do the task, and parents or support teams take over without realizing the consequences. We need to get out of the way to help children succeed.

Wait! What about at home? Parents need to be kind to themselves. Families are not always going to be able to support children to do everything on their own! I encourage you to aim for 1 out of every 5 opportunities at home! If you back off, and allow your child to complete tasks independently about 1/5 of the time that is a great start! It is never going to be all the time.

Start off by thinking about ONE thing you do for your child that they can actually do for themselves? Brushing their hair? Making lunches? Cleaning up toys? Feeding a pet? Then, work hard to give them the space and time to complete this task independently. Doing with… not for!

Also, check out a previous issue of the Big PLANS in Print newsletter for more information and a list of age-appropriate chores: