Want to raise kind kids? Make their world more diverse.

The Christmas season is here. As we sing songs about peace on earth, goodwill toward men, I’d like to chat about what has become a vaguely loaded subject.

Parents, pull up a chair.  Let’s talk diversity.

Your kids’ early experiences shape their view of what is normal. If their relationships center on people who look like them, talk like them, and have backgrounds similar to theirs, it will be much harder for them to relate as adults to the exceptionally diverse world that awaits.

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Our friends Kate and Hayden

It’s not news that our culture is more divided than it’s been in a very long time. We’re losing the ability to empathize with people who are different from ourselves. As our social interactions move online, our differences are magnified. The only cure – I’ll say it again – THE ONLY CURE is to build real connections with people who are different from ourselves.

Take a hard look at your social circles. What do your children see? Who are their friends? There’s a good chance your child’s world is much less diverse than the wider world around them.

I’m not judging. It’s natural for us to be drawn to people with shared experiences. We need those people. It’s not easy to expand beyond that comfort zone. Even if you want to, it can be hard to know where to start.

To get you going, here are a few tips for building more diversity into your kids’ daily lives:

1. Step outside your neighborhood. Widening your geographic circle can immediately broaden your kids’ experiences. Consider playgrounds, Mother’s Day Out programs, churches, libraries and social events in more diverse areas. Visit an accessible playground near you. Reach out to the people you meet there and look for opportunities to build new friendships.

2. Think beyond race. Diversity is not just about skin color. As the parent of a child with a disability, it’s important to me that your children experience disability as a natural part of life. Whatever your own beliefs and identity, your children need to be able to interact as equals with people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, religions, economic levels, sexual orientations, political beliefs… Think as broadly as possible about the perspectives that are missing from your kids’ world.

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Lina, Baby Margaret and me

3. Take a close look at your kids’ play. Do all their dolls or action figures look like them? What type of world are they experiencing as they play? Kids need to see themselves in their toys, but they also need differences to be normalized through play. This blog links to some fantastically diverse toy options.

4. Use books to broaden your child’s world. Research tells us that literary fiction builds empathy. The stories we read take us to new places and allow us to connect with a limitless range of characters. The books your children read from the earliest ages can shape their views. As your children grow, encourage them to explore stories outside their normal areas of interest or experience. Fill your home with books that allow your children to see the world through all kinds of eyes.

5. Talk about it. I hear white friends say things like, “Why are people making race such a big deal? I was raised to be color blind.” But let’s face it: you’re not color blind (or disability blind, etc.). Neither are your children. Those of us who are not part of a given minority group often miss the ways our language, systems, and cultural norms dehumanize and “otherize.” (This article is an excellent exploration of research on children and racial perceptions.) Talk to your kids about inequality. Call out discrimination when you see it. You don’t have to know all the answers. It’s not about creating guilt. Just acknowledging the bias and barriers others experience – and the ways we can help – can go a long way to raising children who will make the world a better place.

We live in unsettling times. Divisions are deep, and civility is waning. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Christmas song has it right: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

For the love of weird brains

My son was recently diagnosed with ADHD.

There is a lot to unpack in that sentence. I’ve tried a half-dozen times to write about this. I’ve struggled to explain how we got here, but I think the best place to start is with Corin.

3C34DC0E-1252-4DBF-A401-3CB9BC4C1169Corin is a wildly smart and imaginative kid who thrives on love and affection and wows me with insights well beyond his years. He loves being the center of attention. He excels at reading and language arts, and many academic tasks come easily. He is obsessive in his interests (currently Pokémon, heaven help me) and lives deep in his imaginary worlds. He is sensitive and a keen observer of people, and he internalizes more than he lets on.

Corin also struggles mightily with emotional regulation and executive function. Because he is so bright, he is able to maintain well enough in school to avoid being flagged as struggling. His teachers know he isn’t performing to his full potential, but he’s a good kid who expends everything he has to meet expectations. That means he has nothing left by the time the school day ends. In the safety of our home, he releases pent-up negative energy in outbursts that leave the rest of us shell-shocked and exhausted. The cracked light switch and holes in his wall testify to the escalating rage that led us to get serious about finding answers.

We’ve sought parenting advice and tried every technique in the book. We’ve worked on his diet and sleep habits, limited his screen time, encouraged more physical activity and outlets like music lessons to build confidence. We’ve diffused essential oils and showered him with love and attention. He’s in regular therapy.

The bottom line is that a kid with an untreated ADHD brain does not have the control to use the strategies he’s learning when they’re needed most. We’re still in the process of figuring all this out, but treatment is necessary to calm Corin’s brain to a place where he can learn things like emotional regulation, impulse control, and follow-through on hard tasks. He needs help regulating his body’s hyperactive response to uncomfortable environments. While home is the place we’ve most felt the impact, his functioning in school and church have also been affected.

60C5B004-DA29-41C0-8069-EADDA84ABD45Part of my struggle in how to share this story is that I want to be clear I’m not seeking validation. We know we’re doing what’s best for Corin. I am sharing this chapter of our story because I know there are other families in our shoes, and because our family has learned the value of being open and real about our experiences.

We are not ashamed of Corin’s diagnosis. His brain works differently than most kids’. We’ve talked a lot with him about how amazing “weird” brains are, and how ADHD will give him a different perspective on the world. We’ve seen his relief at knowing there is a reason he struggles. After years of attending Buddy Walks and seeing the attention Lina gets, he’s feeling pretty good about his own brand of special. He knows we’re going to do whatever it takes to get him the help he needs. We talked about this blog, and he wanted me to share his story.

I’m also not going to lie about how hard all of this has been, and likely will be for a while yet. Being mom to my two children has demanded more of me than I could possibly have imagined. I have had to dig very deep, and grow beyond what felt possible.

I am tired. But I am also grateful and hopeful.

1A048D53-57FE-4C48-99F5-8B3405DE6727I am grateful for the incredible partnership of my husband. I am grateful for our support system of family and friends. I am grateful for compassionate and informed medical professionals and therapists. And always, I am grateful for my children. They are my heart, and remarkable people in their own rights. I am lucky they are mine.

I am hopeful because I know we will navigate this just as we have every other challenge that has come our way: with hard work, honesty, courage, and the confidence that God will give us exactly what we need for today.

Well, that, and plenty of coffee.

What kind of year has it been?

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A year of kindergarten special education in one photo

I’m in a reflective mood this evening. Tomorrow is my youngest’s last day of kindergarten, and my oldest’s of third grade. I’ll spare you the cliches about time passing, but know I’m thinking them.

I’m not really sure how to feel at the end of this year. I don’t know what lens to choose.

It’s been a hard one in many ways. Lina has struggled with waxing and waning behavior issues over the course of the year. (Hello, old friends “non-compliance” and “social aggression.”) We’ve had to work exceptionally hard – much harder than I expected, after our comparatively breezy preschool experience – to get the communication we needed from Lina’s special ed team. Math has been challenging for her. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about things I have little control over.

Corin has had his struggles, too. He is a bright student who has spent this year learning about the increased accountability of letter grades and real homework assignments. We’ve worked hard to keep the responsibility of those things with him, rather than taking them on ourselves. That’s meant making peace with B grades for a kid who’s capable of straight As. He’s also still the kid who collapses when he gets home after the strain of meeting expectations all day long at school. He’s the kid who can’t function without 10-11 solid hours of sleep, and the kid who has trouble acknowledging difficult emotions and expresses them with outrageous emotional outbursts.

But… But, but, but. It’s also been a GOOD year. Lina was reading on a first-grade level by mid-way through kindergarten. She has made so many sweet friends in her class, and their families have gone to extra lengths to include her. The room mom this year was extraordinary, hosting more than one social event for all 20+ kids in her own back yard. Lina’s classroom teacher was a living example of the kindergarten teacher every kid deserves: so kind and encouraging, but gently prodding her students to grow and do their very best. Her love for those kids was evident in every interaction. Toward the end of the year, Lina triumphantly read the school’s mission statement (including the phrases  “balanced education” and “lifelong learners”) over the P.A. to the entire school during morning announcements. The staff in the room applauded when she was done.

Corin is currently reading Lord of the Rings (which, I here admit, I didn’t manage to finish until college)He has gradually pulled his grades up, entirely of his own accord. He has made new friends, explored new interests, and shown flashes of surprising maturity. His teacher had a tough class this year, with some challenging behaviors, but she handled it with tremendous skill and grace, never lowering her bar for the kindness and respect she required. She cared about her kids and was deeply committed to their learning, both in academics and in the skills they’ll need to become responsible adults. Corin has continued to develop his vivid imagination and his love of writing, and it’s clear he takes after his mama in his love of story and communication. He has built a wide circle of friends, and has bonded further with a couple very close ones.

So how do I summarize all that has come with this school year? I suppose, like so much of real life, it defies easy categorization. It was messy and hard and glorious and necessary. It was beautiful, in that the two children I love the very most successfully navigated another year of learning and growth.

I worked from home today, which meant I didn’t have to run out the door before the kids were awake. I lay beside Lina in her bed at 6 a.m. and read her stories. Corin came and snuggled in. I was tired and needing another hour of sleep. They clambered over and around me to poke and tease each other. It was silly, and chaotic, and exhausting, and beautiful.

Happy summer, friends.

New year, growing me

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I tend to be in the “a new year is just a date on the calendar and doesn’t represent an actual break with the previous 365 days” camp. I am more a trajectory kind of girl. It won’t surprise you, then, that I don’t write resolutions or set major new goals this time of year.

This is admittedly a good time to reflect, and there is nothing wrong with taking stock and marking the places we want to see change. It never hurts to focus on positive goals. I wonder, though, how often new year’s goals look like measuring ourselves against unrealistic standards, setting us up for inevitable failure. Are we really so dissatisfied with the current version of ourselves that we feel like we need to be a new person as the calendar rolls over?

Tomorrow is a new year, but here’s reality: I’ll be taking into it the same me, with all my accumulated experiences, triumphs and failures, strengths and flaws. And you know, I’m okay with that. I am thankful for the life I’ve been given and the days that have come before and that lie ahead.

I suppose when we talk about a “new me,” we’re really talking about growth. Goodness knows, I make a lot of mistakes, and there have been plenty of moments, big and small, that were painful and even regrettable. My walk with God is a process of constant grace and renewal. He gives me access to His power for transformation. I don’t have to rely on myself to make the future what I want it to be. This is where I find my peace.

We like to think, especially this time of year, that our lives are within our own control. If we set the right goals and make the right choices, if we do better, our lives will look like we want them to. My experiences have taught me that I have much less control over my life than I might wish. Stuff happens. We inevitably screw up, and even when we do the right things, life can still go wrong. If you’ve spent time with people who are truly struggling, if you know of the desperate places in the world, if you yourself have experienced heartbreak and loss, you know that sometimes, there are no good answers. We do not always have the power to fix things. My hope rests in a God who promises healing and hope, not because everything will always work out perfectly, but because He gives us what we need for today and will eventually make things right in a world where suffering is no longer part of the equation.

For today, I am deeply grateful that God promises that my life matters, and that He takes from my shoulders the weight of making that happen on my own. This is how I walk into the new year. My 40th birthday (what?!!) is just a few weeks away. There are changes ahead for our family. The biggest is that mama (that’s me) will be starting a full-time job after eight years away from the professional world. I’m going to be doing some pretty awesome stuff for an amazing organization, and I am stoked. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also nervous about the huge adjustment this will be for all of us. But growth happens in change, and I walk forward with confidence because I trust the One who guides my steps.

Happy new year, friends. May you know how much you are loved, how much you matter, and that all your days are safe with Him.

PROGRESS

The Buddy Walk is this Saturday (yay!!), so we’re busy preparing for an awesome day with our Team Lina people. I also have beach vacation pictures to process and share from last week. But all of that can wait for a minute, because I want to talk about a word that’s on my mind this week: PROGRESS.

IMG_2859Lina’s kindergarten start had some bumps. Not surprisingly for her, they were mostly her pet behavior challenges of social aggression and noncompliance. These are the behaviors Lina falls back on when she feel overwhelmed or out of control. It seems to be her way of exerting control over her environment. As her classroom teacher pointed out recently, they are also pretty directly linked to her level of tiredness. These long days are a lot for any kindergartner, and she understandably runs out of juice for focused, structured activities as her energy drains. It’s easy to forget that even routine activities require extra effort for our girl.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I requested a formal process called a functional behavioral assessment (FBA). This is a process outlined in the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the federal law governing special education. This document provides great information for parents about FBAs.

Confession: I have spent more than a little time worrying about Lina’s behavior at school and how it will impact her ability to be successful there. How can she form real friendships if the kids are afraid of being pinched or kicked or having their hair pulled any time she comes near? How can she keep up academically if she won’t participate in school exercises and activities? Will her teachers be able to see past her behavior to understand how bright and capable she is? I realized over these past weeks that even while I believed and preached about our kids’ abilities to learn and succeed in inclusive classrooms, I had to wrestle the voice of doubt that threatened to shake my confidence in my own kid.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, when I met with Lina’s IEP team and the school’s behaviorIMG_3446 consultant to kick off the FBA process. As we talked about where Lina is and the behavior we’re needing to address with the FBA, I began to realize that the team was painting a picture of major progress over the past days and weeks. The social aggression has almost disappeared. Compliance is still a challenge, but Lina suddenly fully participated without hesitation in PE class this week, which has previously been a no-go.  She has begun engaging during the daily social skills group. Her gen ed classroom teacher said she’s formed friendships with her classmates and plays happily with them on the playground. A picture began to emerge of a kid who has found her footing.

As I reflected on her progress, I knew the lesson was one I may be relearning throughout Lina’s life: Have patience and confidence. She can and will succeed.

The challenges haven’t all evaporated. I am hopeful the FBA process will help identify the key drivers for times Lina resists participation and help redirect that resistance so she can get the most from school. Once the FBA is completed, every person who works with Lina – teachers, aides, therapists – will receive student-specific training on the behavior intervention plan. The focus is on prevention and positive reinforcement, helping Lina find better ways to maintain a sense of control and communicate her needs and desires.

But whatever challenges remain, watching Lina fall in love with her new school and new friends and find her footing in the wider world – that’s the point. This is her growing and learning. It takes more time, effort and resources. It may not look like a typical kid’s process. But she will get there, in her own time and in her own way.

I was at GiGi’s Playhouse yesterday morning for the Busy Bodies group I co-lead. It’s a group for the very littlest ones with Down syndrome and their families. A mama with a IMG_3420darling baby girl was talking to us about her little one’s milestones, and I found myself sharing with her something someone told me when Lina was still very little: In the big picture, the fact that it took our kiddos longer to learn and meet their milestones won’t matter. Lina is six, and it’s irrelevant now that she didn’t walk until she was more than two-and-a-half. As an adult, it won’t matter a bit that she didn’t talk until she was at least three and took longer to potty train or do any of the other tasks she will be learning in the years ahead.

As parents of any child, we’re too often comparing our kids. How does my child stack up on smarts, athleticism, fine motor skills, reading ability, social skills? But that’s rarely constructive, and it’s especially hard on parents of kids with a learning difference or disability. That stuff isn’t going to matter all that much in the end.  It’s a lot harder to measure and compare the skills that actually build long-term success. The key is that our kids are growing and learning and making steady PROGRESS. They are becoming, in their own ways and at their own pace. Remembering that requires patience, grace and faith, for ourselves and for our kids.

Today, as we’re nearing Thanksgiving season, I am thankful for progress – my kids’, and mine.

A day at the farm

One of the favorite parts of kindergarten (at least for me!) is the fall field trip to Gentry’s Farm. This place is pretty amazing, and they are pros at moving school groups through. They’re able to accommodate huge crowds, so it’s a favorite trip for parents to join. Lina had a blast, and it was so much fun to see her interacting with friends in her class, who were especially pleased to show me they had taught her to dab. (Why didn’t I get a picture of that?!)

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Lina’s Bakery & Sweet Shoppe

We celebrated Lina’s 6th birthday on Sunday. The theme came naturally for a girl who never met a sweet she didn’t like. In fact, when I asked her what she wanted to eat at her party, she rattled off “cake and pie and ice cream…” So, we threw dietary caution to the wind and fulfilled her wish.

This was the first year I could see her really anticipating the party and presents. She knew what was coming, and the day of the party, she was ready. She was thrilled to see her family and friends, dug into the cake (literally, on a mission to excavate every morsel of frosting), tore into the packages and loved her gifts. She had a blast, and so did we.

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Now We Are Six

When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more.
When I was Five, I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

-A. A. Milne

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She is six today.

The poem is from A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. It made me cry. A lot of things make me cry lately.

There are times when I wish I could grab Lina, take her home and never leave again. Here in the safety of our cocoon, I can delight in my affectionate, smart, funny, sassy girl. She can be fully herself, and we can ignore the pressures of the world outside our door.

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Last night as a five-year-old

I cried over that poem, because for a moment, I wanted it to be possible and knew it wasn’t. My girl is growing. She is six today, but even if we both wished, she would not stay six for ever and ever. She will grow, and I cannot keep her here with me.

And I am glad. Through my little bit of heartbreak, I am glad she is growing. The dreams we have for her are much bigger than our cocoon. Soon, she will dream bigger dreams for herself. She will own more and more of this precious life she has been given. She is a kindergartner now, and that larger sphere can feel pretty scary. But an ever expanding world is where she belongs. She is making her place there. Of course there are bumps and challenges, and yes, there is hard work every step of this journey, for all of us. But we are not alone.

Every morning, God gives me courage and wisdom for the day. Every morning, He walks with both my children as they enter those big elementary school doors. He has provided us with a village of epic proportions. The teachers and aides guiding Lina, the parents and advocates paving the way, the friends listening to my fears and talking me back to reason, the extended family walking with us… They make it all possible, one step at a time.

Lina is six today. She is a gift, to me and to the wider world that awaits her. There are big things ahead. Maybe that’s A. A. Milne’s point. Six is more than five, and five more than four. Every year, she is bigger, more clever, more herself.

 

Happy birthday, Eline Katherine. Six is just a start. Go, make the world your own. We’ll be here, a little tearful, but so very proud.

Learning as we go

Lina is a few weeks into kindergarten, and a lot of friends are asking how she’s doing. The answer is… pretty well? I think? It’s actually harder for me to answer than you might expect.

I don’t get a lot of information from Lina about her days. (To be fair, I didn’t get much from Corin at this age, either.) If you ask her if she had a good day, she usually will give an enthusiastic, “Yes!” But she generally doesn’t want to talk details, and sometimes she says no when people ask if she likes school. Which seems to be more about contrariness than an actual barometer, because she seems really happy to go to school and is in a good mood when she gets home.

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We’ve had some definite transition challenges. Lina was anxious and overwhelmed with all the change, and she fell back on her standard control mechanisms: noncompliance and social aggression. The first few days saw a lot of worksheets coming home with no name at the top and scribbles rather than any attempt at completing the assignment. Then I started getting messages about hair pulling, pinching, pushing, kicking… I met with her general ed and special ed teachers the second full week of school to talk things through.

Tangent: I want to say how very, very grateful I am that we are in a school system that is committed to inclusive education. I don’t have to defend Lina’s right to be in a general education classroom, learning alongside her peers. Our county does not have segregated special education classrooms at the elementary level. Everyone in the system is committed to providing the right supports to help Lina be successful as a full-fledged member of her kindergarten class – as they should be. This is not the case for the majority of kids with disabilities, despite decades of law mandating a “free, appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” This needs to be said (shouted) as often as possible. My daughter is lucky because her parents were able to make the sacrifices we need to make to live here. I get angry every time I think about kids whose families can’t afford to live in districts like this one, and thus wrestle and fight just to give their kids the opportunity to prove they can learn in a general education classroom.

(If you have questions about why it’s best for kids with disabilities to be included in a general education classroom, PBS provides a great, simple overview. But if you’re interested in learning more, I would encourage you to dig deeper. There are decades of research showing that inclusive education benefits BOTH children with disabilities and their classmates. In fact, no study has ever shown any negative effects of correctly provided inclusive education.) /End tangent

So, I had a great meeting with Lina’s teachers. We worked together on plans to support positive behavior and to help Lina engage with learning. I came away with a lot more information about the hands-on learning opportunities Lina is getting every day and the tools they’re using to help her succeed. Her teachers are fantastic, and the passion they have for helping Lina reach her potential is obvious. The right supports are in place, and we know what the next steps are. I came away feeling much better. The work coming home has improved pretty dramatically in the last week, and we’re seeing a jump in speech development, too.

Honestly, I may be having a harder time with this transition than Lina is. Kindergarten is a whole new world. Lina’s early childhood public preschool was wonderful, and it was a blended classroom, meaning about half the kids were typically developing “peer models.” But it was still a special education class. We are both learning to navigate a much broader world this year, and I am keenly aware of how much higher the stakes are. Decisions we make in kindergarten can impact the trajectory of Lina’s educational path – no exaggeration. I am finding there is a lot I didn’t know. (For example, what’s the difference between an accommodation and a modification? If my child is getting dotted lines to trace her numbers rather than writing them freehand, which is that? How does the distinction matter?)

I am struggling to find the right balance in my level of communication with Lina’s teachers. I feel disconnected, because I have fewer opportunities to speak casually with her teachers at pick-up, and really, it’s just new and I haven’t reached my comfort level yet. How do I stay engaged without driving them crazy? How often should I expect updates?

I find my insecurity and guilt flare up in these transition times. Knowing the stakes have gone up means I’m constantly questioning whether I’m doing enough. I don’t drill Lina a lot at home. She’s tired from her long days, and frankly, I’ve got my hands full making sure everyone gets snacks and goes to the bathroom and there is something resembling a healthy dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. In my head, I know she needs time to play, just like every kid. She needs to unwind and be able to decide how to spend a little of her own time. That’s as important to her development as drilling sight words and practicing counting. I know this. Head knowledge never quite silences the fearful whisper, though; it’s the one that suggests she might fall behind because I’m not working hard enough.

IMG_4814If that all sounds gloomy, it’s really not. There is a lot of great news here. I have an awesome community of parents at my back who have been right where I am. Our Down syndrome family is remarkable. I ask, and they give me specifics about how they have learned to manage communication with their kids’ teachers and how they stay on top of daily progress. They can talk to me about accommodations and modifications and how they matter. They connect me to resources and help me find my way to what I need to know. They remind me I’m not alone.

Just like with every new step of Lina’s nearly six years (or the past 8 1/2 years of parenting, for that matter), we learn as we go. I don’t have to solve every problem right now. Today, I am learning about daily communication logs and accommodations versus modifications. Next week, it will be something else, and I’ll learn that, too. I take a deep breath, and I remember that Lina has already proven many times over how capable she is and how much she can accomplish.

And now I’ve looked at the clock and realized I’m late to go sit in the pick-up line for an hour. (See my eyes rolling.) I think today, I’ll use my time to send that update email to Lina’s teachers, and then I’ll close my eyes, breath deeply and thank God I get to do this job. Because even on the hardest days, it’s the absolute best gig there is.