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. http://bit.ly/2ssWEf1

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! http://bit.ly/2sDJAnf

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: goo.gl/apQK40

Planning for Summer Days

summer blogSpring is in the air! As summer approaches, schools, sports and commitments come to an end. This is often a time where families reflect on the past year, thinking about skills their children may have gained and setting goals for the summer ahead. At this time, I encourage you to keep in mind contribution and relationships when having these key conversations. Whether attending an IPP in school, or just planning out summer activities, keep in mind the following thoughts:

·       What are the life skills and academic skills we are aiming for? Perhaps your child could write letters (or even emails) this summer to an out of town cousin? Could they help budget and pay for summer treats?  Could they regularly be in charge of some basic cooking or folding laundry? 

·        Who is in my child’s life? Who are they friends with? How can we help them further these relationships?  Perhaps they can invite people from school over to play at the local park and make a trendy craft (slime is all the rage). Sometimes just playing on the front lawn/driveway can give a child a chance to connect with other neighbourhood children. When in school make sure that an IPP takes into account a focus on relationships too. Who do they play with at recess? Who do they sit beside at lunch?

 ·        How does my child have responsibility and contribution? What are responsibilities they have in our home and in their community? Perhaps your child could empty the dishwasher? Take care of the garden? Could they help mow a neighbour’s lawn? Spend an afternoon cleaning up a park they play at? When in school make sure that children have a chance to contribute to their class and school. How are they giving back?

So often we focus on skill building, and forget what a holistic version of success might look like. The key is to make sure that we keep adding in a focus on relationships and contribution too!

What are some of your ideas?



Always Learning!

big plansThis week I presented at a large provincial conference. Three days of connecting with people who also work in supporting people who are vulnerable. It was busy and loud, but in the end I was able to take away information that will help me all year. As a speaker and writer my work is isolated, and I am continually learning.

Parenting is even more complicated. The need to learn, and the issues that come up never ends! Raising little people is overwhelming, exhausting, exciting and amazing. We can’t do this in an isolated environment. It is important that we continue to learn and see what resources exist. Look around to see what information is being offered by your school, community or even the services that you are connected to.

Did you know that Big PLANS is offering free parenting sessions for preschool families? Maybe you are interested in finding out how to build up your child’s self-esteem and build relationships? You will want to make sure to attend my “Building Community Connections” on May 23rd. For more information please visit www.bigplans.org or email lnielsen@bigplans.org.

Parent Link Centres are another fantastic resource. Did you know that each centre provides free parenting and play programs to meet the unique needs of the families and communities it serves? To find a Parent Link Centre near you, visit: http://ow.ly/kX3h30b8knE

How about your local library? Did you know they offer free local events and classes on a regular basis? Visit the events section at www.calgarylibrary.ca to find out more!

Although the internet enables us to find answers on every topic imaginable, there is something meaningful about learning in person, hearing people’s stories and experiences, and then applying them to your home.

Have you found a great resource in your community? We would love to hear about it! Please send us the link or details in the comments section so we can share the information with others.