Saturday, 23 November 2013

Worksheets by moonlight

I love how flexible our life is and how we can do 'work' when Small feels enthusiastic, rather than to a timetable.

Tonight Small is doing his 'sleep is for the weak' routine and shortly before midnight he asked if we could get the project folder out.

The project folder is a ring binder that, every few months, I fill with print outs, crafts ideas and worksheets that I think Small might enjoy. The Nature Detectives website is great for seasonal print outs and I add ideas I have seen in books or online. I also use it to store pictures and work he has done when we change our seasonal display. It's a great way to show far away family members the things we get up to.

Tonight, at around midnight, Small asked to do a food chains worksheet we printed out from Nature Detectives. He had never done food chains before and was really proud of himself when he worked them all out. He even suggested an extra food chain and noticed that the chains seemed to start with plants and of course (most!) plants don't have mouths to eat other creatures, so I explained that plants get their energy from the sun. We finished off by drawing a food web, starting with a tree and looking at how lots of different animals can live on one tree and that one buzzard, for example, might eat several of the smaller animals. It helped him see that not everything is as linear as our initial food chains and that cutting down the tree could take food away from lots of animals, not just the ones who eat the seeds and leaves of that tree.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The perfect lesson...

It seems to me that baking is an ideal education tool.

• Maths is covered by weighing out ingredients or measuring them using fractions of a cup (often used in American recipes).

• Initiative is used when altering recipes - today our vegan chocolate cake recipe came to a standstill when we realised we had run out of cocoa powder! A quick think and we used coffee instead and added extra flour to compensate for the lack of cocoa powder.

• Science is found in all aspects of baking - combining ingredients and watching the effects they have on each other, seeing how heat changes their appearance and taste. Every step of a recipe is determined by the chemistry of the ingredients.

• Mixing cake batter, pouring, kneading and rolling out dough are good for coordination and give different sensory feedback.

• You can read recipes together with a young child and let an older child read them to you instead.

Most importantly, you get to eat cake at the end of it all!

Bug fun

A print-out from the Nature Detectives website had Small laughing today. There are lots of resources on the site and this one had lots of minibeast body parts, to be arranged and added to and allow you to create your own fictional bug.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Advent activities and introducing the concept of charity

What Christmas traditions have you started with your young family?

Last year we tried to do a seasonal activity every day during December and this year I have sewn 25 tiny stockings too. Each night, once Small is asleep, I will sneak back downstairs and place a small object or a clue in the correct stocking. I have tried to keep it flexible - if my energy levels are low it may be as simple as a packet of the mints Small loves but on a better day it could be Christmas biscuit cutters or new paintbrushes to lead us into an activity.

As well as our advent activity calendar we are carrying on another tradition we began last year. Last Christmas we had recently moved to a new part of the city so we decided that a nice way to introduce ourselves to the other families in the street would be to deliver a Christmas card to each house. Small and Big wrapped up warmly and posted the cards and we were really pleased when, over the next few days, cards came tumbling through our letterbox in return.

A new aspect that I hope will become a family tradition will be to visit a food bank. As a family we do not have a lot of money but we also know how much worse it can be - being made redundant or having benefits wrongly withdrawn is incredibly stressful at any time, but at Christmas it must be truly awful. We plan to take some food to donate, so that one less family will be worrying about feeding their family over Christmas. As well as the obvious reasons for donating, I hope it will help to show Small that Christmas is not all about him and that it does feel good to know you have helped someone, even just a little.

As always I would love to hear what you have planned :-)

Monday, 11 November 2013

Autism, respectful parenting and the Triple P course...

Every parent doubts themselves at times and for parents of children with additional needs this goes tenfold. We see other children meet their milestones while ours seem to be following their own bumpy paths. We face an often daily barrage of dirty looks, well meant advice and sometimes outright rudeness.

Choosing to seek help and a potential diagnosis for your child is an emotional decision. You are admitting that your child is different, that they aren't quite what you expected. The last thing you need is to feel as though your parenting is in question and, worse still, to be given advice that looks at your child as a naughty kid and not a good one overcoming complications.

Part of our journey through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) was to be sent on a 'Triple P Parenting Course'. We were informed that it is not compulsory and that our CAMHS worker was not concerned about our parenting. However, we got the impression that it was encouraged and that jumping through these hoops would help us be looked on favourably as we navigated the complicated referral system, so we agreed.

Now, I appreciate that we parent outside of the mainstream, but I have been really disappointed by the majority of the information given in the first weeks of this course. A few pieces have been worth some thought but the Positive Parenting moniker appears rather deceiving. It is positive with an undercurrent of arbitrary punishment and a lot of inane drivel masquerading as praise. Examples of this can be found in the handbook given out to parents.

Page 49 of the handbook states:
"Time-out is a positive strategy... the area should not have interesting things to do... Don't talk to your child or give them any attention until they have been quiet for the set time."

Please don't get me wrong. If you feel you are at risk of losing control of yourself and hitting out at your child then the sensible thing to do is to walk away. However, if you are using time out as your go-to punishment then I recommend reading books and articles by Dr. Laura Markham and Alfie Kohn (among others) who have written eloquently on the disadvantages of this technique.

The Triple P DVD shows a girl completing a jigsaw and the mother going over the top with praise - well done, clever girl, good girl, you did it, good job!

Your child knows when you are being insincere. We don't practice Unconditional Parenting (which Alfie Kohn is best known for) but we do try to limit our use of 'good job' or 'good boy' if instead we can describe what he has done or ask him if he is proud of himself.

Our overall aim is not to train our child to display certain behaviours for fear of reward or to receive a gold star. I want him to learn *why* we treat people kindly so that when I am not there to threaten punishment or tempt him with reward he will do the right thing because he is intrinsically motivated. I am not perfect, and sometimes I don't manage to keep to these principles. If I am rushed off my feet, tired, late and Small is not cooperating I should stop, take a deep breath and find out why. But yes, I have been known to offer a reward if it will get us through that tricky moment. However I know that the majority of the time we are taking a road that may not have instant results, but one that I believe is the best path to follow in the long run.

I am not trying to train a naughty child to be obedient, but raising a human being who has additional needs.

So next week I will be going armed with print outs of studies which explain why we parent the way we do. I will be politely explaining that I don't think this course is appropriate for us and that we appreciate the time spent but will be using that time to spend with Small instead.

We are very lucky that we have a community of friends who understand our methods and many who have been through this course before and also found some of it insulting and unnecessary. Some have implemented the advice, only to realise it increased their child's anxiety. Most parents do not need to be told to talk to and play with their child. We are not inadequate parents, we are families seeking help for our children.

Life is challenging enough when you are on the steep learning curve that autism brings. Perhaps the pressure to attend a parenting course could be removed for those who are not in desperate need of it and this could open up more spaces for those few families who really don't know where to start.

If you are the parent of a child on the autistic spectrum and have felt pressured to complete the Triple P course I would be very interested to hear from you.


Unschooling Definition

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

When your child hasn't read the same parenting books (forums, blogs, news articles, scribbled notes) as you...

I believe in our unschooling lifestyle. I believe that, given the opportunity, almost all children will learn to regulate their biological needs and their behaviours.

Of course, children rarely (if ever!) travel smoothly from point A to point B and often a leap forward may be followed by a step back. If there are additional needs, such as autism in Small's case, it can seem to take longer than the dreaded 'normal'.

Small appears to require less sleep than most five year olds and has always struggled to calm his body enough to fall asleep, despite me trying every trick in the book. He may never sleep 7pm-7am but recently we had a breakthrough. Rather than running laps of the house until he collapsed with exhaustion, he began to ask to go and snuggle in bed. He requested that the lights be turned off and simply cuddles up and falls asleep. I admit that I did wonder whether being on the spectrum meant that we needed to abandon our ideals of gentle parenting. I can't really imagine shutting him in his room or leaving him to scream, but at 2am the thoughts did creep in. I am glad that we trusted ourselves and most importantly trusted Small. He took more time than some children, but he can now notice when he is tired and ask to go to bed.

I believe that gentle parenting is even more important when a child has ASD or a sensory disorder. If the world is such an overwhelming place, then family should be a safe harbour in which to rest. I don't always stay calm when Small is on his third meltdown in as many hours, because his food/clothes/game isn't quite right, but I try. I hope that by modelling kindness and communication he will absorb this approach. I jumped for joy yesterday (well, I would have if I could!) when I heard a conversation between Big and Small. Small had done something to upset Big, so Big said he was going in another room to have some time on his own. Small piped up, "Let's talk about it, Dad." It is a phrase Big and I use daily to remind Small that communicating is important and it was great to hear him using it to sort out a situation.

So if you are expecting changes and they haven't yet occurred, don't lose faith! Maybe you or they need more time. Remember that how you parent now can be a factor in their whole lifetime, so a few more months of trust could pay off with a future of security and trust.

Our Autumn display

Our Autumn display is being added to regularly, some things suggested by me and some that Small came up with.

We made an Autumn banner which prompted a discussion on the peculiarities of the English language.

The clay and twig hedgehog is there too, along with a felt gnome I made for Small several years ago.

We did some leaf rubbings and were sent a lovely little apple lady from the owner of the My Little Atelier boxes.

Small made a felt campfire and a toadstool house using felt and a cardboard tube - surely the most widely used craft material in most homes!

When we were painting recently Small decided to create an Autumn tree picture and has since recreated it by sewing leaves and red felt 'apples' onto a felt tree.

What have you done this Autumn?

Alternatives to sleep training

Living Outside the Box
17 October
It can be hard when you feel pressured to have your baby sleeping through the night, but you do not have to leave your baby to cry. Here are a few alternative things to try:

● Feed on demand. Baby may be just hungry or thirsty. Breastfeeding is also a great comfort for your little one and can help them feel safe in your arms. If you bottle feed then take the opportunity to have a quiet cuddle and look into the sleepy eyes of your baby.

● Co sleep - either read up on safe cosleeping and bring baby into bed, or push their cot up against your bed so you can cuddle and comfort baby without feeling too pressed for space. Cosleeping has been shown to be very safe, but may not be suitable for you if any adult in the bed smokes or is sleeping abnormally deeply, perhaps due to alcohol or medication. Memory foam mattresses are not recommended as they can make it hard for baby to lift their head or roll over and try to keep pillows and quilts away from baby too. An infant sleeping bag can be good to keep your little one warm without needing a duvet over them.

● Remember that at six months old your baby has spent more time in the womb than outside it and they are still adjusting. The tiredness can feel overwhelming but it is a short period in the scheme of things.

● You will not look back at this time and regret giving your baby an extra cuddle. You might look back and regret withholding the cuddle.

● Ask for help. If you have family or friends nearby then there will usually be someone willing to cuddle your baby while you have a nap.

● If you don't have other children to watch then sleep when baby sleeps. We are told this when we have a newborn but it doesn't have to stop at 6 months or 1 year.
● If you have a 'high needs' baby, don't despair. Small cried a lot despite our best efforts to comfort him, and it can feel as though you cannot help your baby, but it has been shown that crying in arms is less harmful than a baby crying alone. Even though they are still upset, your baby knows you are present.

● If implementing a gentle routine will reassure you then try the 'No Cry Sleep Solution' by Elizabeth Pantley and read articles by Dr William Sears or Pinky McKay.

● Remember that 'sleeping through the night' is usually accepted to mean 'sleeping for five hours solid', not sleeping 7pm to 7am!

Journey into disability

How many of my readers are disabled parents?

Adjusting to any life changing event can be a journey, with mountains, valleys and plateaus. I feel that on my journey as a parent with a disability I have reached a rather peaceful plateau.

When I first used a wheelchair I looked at it as something to only be used in the worst moments of desperation, to be avoided if at all possible. It appeared to be a restriction, a limit imposed on me as well as the rest of the family.

Over time I have come to view my wheelchairs as my ticket to freedom. With my manual chair I can make myself a cup of tea or tidy up even when my legs won't hold me. I can once again do some of the shopping myself and browsing around a shop is very freeing. My electric wheelchair gives me the independence to take Small to the park or to nip out for a loaf of bread, without needing Big to chaperone us!

Last week I met with an Occupational Therapist, who watched me in my home and suggested some hand rails and seating to make the house a little safer and more accessible. A few years ago I would have resisted, not wanting to admit that I needed equipment that I would associate with my grandparents! These days I can see that saving a bit of energy and pain by using a wheelchair or a hand rail means I have more in reserve to do enjoyable things. It seems so obvious but it took a while to gain the acceptance I needed.

Each step on this journey makes me a more able woman, wife and mother.

Not Back to School Picnic

Our Not Back to School picnic illustrated why we love home educating so much and showed the diversity of the home educating community.

Families arrived, parents set out picnic blankets and food, while the children played at climbing trees, building dens, parachute games, football, hide and seek and taking photographs of each other.

The youngest there were babies, the eldest approaching the end of their primary school years.

Some families were at the start of their home educating journey, some have been doing it for years.

Some children had never set foot in a school setting, others started school then were withdrawn after several years.

Some families unschool, some follow a curriculum.

We all sat under the trees in the park and watched our children play together.

Beeswax and Scrabble

This afternoon has been one of discovery for both Small and me.

Having watched me play Scrabble online Small asked if we could play scrabble together, so I bought a Junior Scrabble set on eBay after nearly fainting at the price of board games. We helped each other by suggesting words and Small was thrilled to beat me!

A new activity for both of us was making candles from sheets of beeswax. While visiting family last week I stumbled across a shop selling waldorf-style materials and I took the opportunity to buy a few bits and pieces... I justified that I was saving money on postage fees so it was worth some spur of the moment shopping!

I had suggested making candles a few days ago but Small often resists trying new activities so I simply sat down and made a candle myself. Curiosity overcame him so he had a go himself and was proud of his creation. For a lad who finds new activities rather daunting it was wonderful to see him so pleased with his efforts.

No cook playdough

No cook playdough -

● 1 cup plain flour
● 1 cup cornflour
(Alternatively omit the plain flour and use 2 cups cornflour for a silky texture)
● 1 cup salt
● 1 cup water or enough to form dough
● Food colouring

Mix together the flour and salt with enough water to form a firm dough.

Separate into bowls, one for each colour you want to make.

Add food colouring and knead until smooth. If the dough is sticky or feels grainy, sprinkle some cornflour over it and knead well.

Unschooling housework?!

We don't insist on Small helping with housework, but we do explain that it is helpful when we all work together to keep our house nice to live in.

Sometimes I will ask if Small can help me with something and he will refuse, in which case I try not to force the issue.

Sometimes he is very helpful - in the last few days he helped me cook dinner, laid the table, took his dishes into the kitchen, helped me clean the bathroom, helped me put away clean laundry and put dirty laundry into baskets.

He may not do any housework for a week now, but that's OK. When he does help, he does it because he wants to and not because I have forced him.

Work in progress

To those who read pages about home education but are just lacking the belief in themselves to step into a new lifestyle... Take it from me, you are able to educate your child!

You are not replacing your role of 'parent' with one of 'teacher'. Life just carries on as it always has - your helpless baby developed into the child they have become. They will continue to flourish with you as facilitator.

But before you go any further, realise that it will not all be rainbows and unicorns. I remember trudging across the city in the rain, spending two hours on several buses to reach a home ed group and thinking, 'If Small went to school, I could be at home with a cup of tea right now.' You will have moments of thinking you must be crazy. Moments of doubt, wondering whether you do 'enough'.

And I'm afraid that embarking on a life of home education and respectful parenting doesn't mean that harmony will always reign in your home. There will be times you look back on the day and kick yourself for how you handled it. For us, today was less than perfect. We did some housework and crafts but in the evening we were all tired and under the weather. Small shouted at Big, Big shouted at Small, I shouted at both... In my short experience, this is par for the course. Parenting brings doubts and guilt enough anyway, without the added pressure of stepping away from the norm.

Get yourself online and find other families who HE and/or who try to parent similarly to you. They will remind you, when your confidence is wobbling, that you are doing fine. Then when they wobble, you can return the favour.

I love the autonomous life we lead and would recommend it to anyone who is curious. Just don't expect to click your fingers and everything to fall into place. It's all a work in progress.

Why schools are failing our children

"Schools are still organised on factory lines - ringing bells, separate facilities, separate subjects. We still educate children by batches, as of the most important thing about them is date of manufacture."

If you have never seen or heard this talk by Sir Ken Robinson, take ten minutes out of your day and watch it. He explains clearly and bluntly why the school system sets so many children up to fail.

Change of approach

The language we use to describe our children affects the way we think about them. If you describe your child as difficult, manipulative or similar adjectives, you are unwittingly affecting the way you view them.

If an adult figured out a plan to achieve a goal, you might call them determined. If a friend gets upset because something has gone wrong in her life you would comfort her, not ignore her because she is being manipulative and needs to 'learn'.

It can be hard to keep your cool when your child is having a meltdown over something seemingly minor, but to them it is important. If we can remember that, perhaps we can be more compassionate and choose less negative language to describe their behaviour.

Some of the characteristics of your child that make parenting hard work may be useful in years to come, when we hope they will choose a path in life, resist peer pressure and be true to their emotions. They just haven't learned to fine tune their reactions yet. It is not our job to train the determination or emotion out of them, but to model more appropriate ways to express those emotions.

Try switching from 'tantrum' to 'meltdown', or 'manipulative' to 'determined'. No-one is perfect and every parent has days where they know they could have handled things better, but a new approach might just help.