Fernway School: Helping children with the unexpected

The fire that broke out at Fernway Elementary School on July 10 surprised Shaker Heights residents, young and old.  Anyone who has a history and connection with the school feels a sense of sadness and loss. People are sharing their thoughts, memories, and feelings about their experiences and are trying to process the unexpected.

Children often are challenged by surprising events, and need parents and sometimes professionals who can help make sense of what seems senseless. Loss of any kind, even a beloved school building, is disruptive, confusing and makes everyone feel helpless and vulnerable – raising the yet-unanswerable question, “Could someone have prevented this from happening?”

Feelings of fear and uncertainty often result from an unexpected event. “How could such a thing happen in my neighborhood?” “Why now, today?’ “Why my school?” “What if I or my friend or favorite teacher was in the building when it happened?”

Children can be comforted and reassured by adults doing their best to answer questions.  Even when there might not be specific answers, children feel understood when they have the opportunity to discuss their questions and worries. However, when an adult or older child is dismissive, it is often because they feel the same vulnerability and worry as the child. Saying to a child, “Don’t worry, that could never happen” or “That does not make sense” makes a child, as well as adult, feel misunderstood.

Reassurance and information helps children feel safe and grounded. Allowing verbalization of irrational and scary thoughts helps everyone feel safe. For adult and child alike, feeling empathic toward one another’s discomfort, and speaking kind and loving words, leads to a feeling of safety and eventually to mastery of a difficult event.

Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Schools

Discussion on the new Mr. Rogers movie

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” – the new movie about Mr. Rogers by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville – is getting great reviews and tons of press. It’s also of interest at Hanna Perkins, which has always been closely aligned with Fred Rogers’ understanding of early child development, and what children need from the adults around them.

Hanna Perkins Clinical Therapist Joanne Naegele, MA, LPCC-S, will lead a  psychoanalytic-based discussion of the movie on Sunday, July 8, from 7:30-9 p.m., at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, 2460 Fairmount Blvd., Suite 312, in Cleveland Heights.

The discussion is free and open to the public. If you’re interested, you’ll want to see the movie on your own before the discussion. Anyone interested in Mr. Rogers’ impact and legacy, or child development in general, is invited to attend.

Creating a treasure hunt to learn positional words

One morning in the EPIC classroom, Richard, a child with autism, was working with pencil and paper at his desk.

He began by drawing long, curvy lines, and then made an X in the corner of the paper. He asked “treasure?” before getting another piece of paper and repeating these actions.

I realized Richard was asking for a treasure map, so I made him one. His job was to find the treasure chest and make a trail – using a corresponding color – to the ship. He enjoyed it for a short while, then he asked for more treasure.

I thought we might play with the construction pennies set as treasure, but he didn’t follow that well. Richard kept saying “X marks” and I coached him through the rest of the sentence, “X marks the spot.”

Richard took out an X from the letter tub and I took a penny from the pile. On the spot, we created a treasure hunt

kirsten radivoyevitch

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

game to teach position words. Richard walked with me around the room and I placed the penny and the X in a spot and told him “the treasure is between the cushions” or “the treasure is under the chair.” This was not a way of hiding it from him. It was about learning the meaning of positional words. He loved this, and we played it for 20 minutes.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.


Go play! It’s the key to success in school

The old days

Finally research has vindicated the mothers of half-a-century ago who routinely opened the screen door in back and told their kids to go play – and not to bother coming back until the street lights came on or they heard the dinner bell (whichever came first).

Turns out these mothers were not being abusive and neglectful. The moms of the previous century didn’t know it, of course, but they were ensuring that their children developed a critical cognitive skill called “executive function.”

What kids did when their hours were not filled with TV, video games and electronic toys (or yoga classes, soccer games, and tiny tot gymnastics) was regulate their own activities, mostly in improvised imaginative play. They played “cops and robbers,” house,” or “school” – their own reality-based dramas. They also became the characters in fantasies involving queens and dragons, cowboys and horses, flying caped heroes and tall buildings, pirates and sinking ships.

And as they did this, researchers are telling us now, they were developing “executive function,” the ability to self-regulate, the measurement of which turns out to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test. Kids with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Times have changed

Those were different times, of course, and there’s no going back to them. Kicking one’s kids out of the house is no longer considered good form. No one rings a dinner bell at the back door to call the children home anymore. The kids are already home, bickering over which channel to watch, perhaps, or gobbling down a quick supper so they won’t be late for t-ball practice.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift. First, we now seem to be afraid to permit our children to play unsupervised. We are worried about all the terrible things that could happen to them if we’re not watching their every move.

Second, we now feel that we have to give our child every possible opportunity to add to his repertoire of skills. How can he become a soccer star if he doesn’t join the team as soon as he can walk; how can he get into Harvard if his parents don’t very nearly bankrupt themselves buying him very expensive “educational” toys? We can’t let him waste his time “just playing,” can we?

According to experts and our own common sense, we can and should.

So, how do we reconcile today’s anxious parents and the highly structured environment with our children’s need for unstructured, self-regulated play?

What to do

Let’s start with the givens: We’re not going to cancel all his activities, and we’re not going to let him play totally unsupervised. But we can certainly limit the number of activities we sign him up for. The primary requirement for unsupervised play is uninterrupted stretches of time, and we could easily cut back on all those classes and practices in order to give our children a little more of it.

No adults allows

And while we’re not going to let our children play entirely unsupervised, we don’t need to be hovering over them, intruding into their play, either. Even the youngest children are quite capable of entertaining, even educating, themselves. We can stay nearby, assuring ourselves that we are keeping them safe, but at the same time go about our own business and not intervene, not offer solutions to problems until it becomes quite clear that such help is needed.

We can limit TV to an hour a day, tops, and start buying our children uncomplicated toys and fewer of them. We can encourage complex imaginative play by offering simple props and play ideas, but then withdraw so the children can plan their own scenarios and act them out.

Even the smallest toddler, given the opportunity, will start feeding the baby, or driving his car down the highway. Older children will become family members, characters from stories, powerful heroes, animals in the jungle, royalty – all the while devising plotlines and scene changes worthy of the most skilled dramatist.

Imagine your children along with those of your more enlightened friends enjoying whole afternoons of such brain-enriching, creative play. Then imagine your snoopy neighbor observing them and starting to brag about how her 3-year-old excels in karate, chess and ballroom dancing. You needn’t be intimidated. You can tell her that your 3-year-old, who appears to be feeding dryer lint to her teddy bear, is actually improving her “executive function.”

Your neighbor will surely be impressed. And you will be confident that your child is spending precious time at the activity that children need most and love best: playing independently and imaginatively.

 Image courtesy of Valdas Zajanckauskas/Geras via stock.xchng








Walking the 8

As is true with many children in kindergarten, Michael has difficulty controlling his impulses and urges. He is also very clear about what he likes and does not like.

When presented with a preferred activity, such as Legos, letters or drawing, Michael is able to focus for 20 minutes or more at a time. However, when presented with a non-preferred activity, he will often communicate his refusal by screaming or knocking the activity off his work area. Since these behaviors are not socially acceptable, they are also not acceptable in our ASD classroom.

At first, taking Michael to the hallway just outside of the classroom was effective in helping him manage the powerful feelings he was having. We sat together and I coached him through a variety of ways to calm himself. We would breathe together deeply, he would rub his thighs while gently rocking his body, and I would count with him or sing the ABC song backwards. (Yes, that was soothing for him!)

After a time, I would ask him if he was ready to return to the classroom. When he said yes, I would remind him that it was time for a “teacher choice“ activity and then ask “what will we do at your work space?” When he could reply “teacher choice” we would reenter the classroom and attempt the non-preferred activity again.

This calming method worked for a while, but then something changed. One day, while going through the standard calming options, Michael suddenly became overwhelmed by the impulse to pull out of my handhold, run down the hall and scurry up the stairs to the second floor. After capturing him and slowly walking hand-in-hand back down the stairs, I attempted to return his focus to the calming choices that had previously been so successful. Doing so took much more effort than it had in the past.

Over the next few days, my co-teacher noticed that another of the children in the class was also wanting to run in the hallway. After discussing possible solutions, she used rubber tape to make a large figure 8 on the floor just outside of our classroom. Not only did “walking the 8” became another calming choice for our students, it became the most frequent choice. “How many times will we walk the 8?” is now a standard question in the hallway.

kirsten radivoyevitch

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Another classmate has found the 8 helpful as well. Sometimes the two children walk the 8 together, silently, hand in hand. Michael is comforted by the

rhythmic walking, the repetitive, defined pathway, and the fact that an empathetic classmate or teacher remains by his side, holding little his hand the entire time.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.


A formula for a perfect kids’ summer

Warm, sunny days! Aren’t they great after having been cooped up all winter? Everyone is so ready for fresh air and freedom.

And freedom is what we grandmothers wish for your young children during spring and summer.

Yes, we know we must be concerned for their safety and we understand that the work week continues for most parents. But please, we implore you, try to provide some sense of freedom and independence for them this summer.

Take advantage of this time – when some routines change and nature beckons – to make this all-too-short season a time of growth and happiness.

The rules

At the start of the outdoor play season, think about the ground rules that are appropriate for your children now; they can do so much more than they did last year. Decide how to set the limits that will allow a young child to realize how much he has grown, how competent he is becoming.

Figure out the boundaries that will allow you to be comfortable without having to be constantly on guard. “You can ride your trike as far as Mrs. Smith’s house, then turn around and come back.” How exciting is that for the 3-year-old who couldn’t even ride the trike last year?

And for the 5-year-old: “You can walk around the block to your friend’s house; just call me when you get there.” She will feel as adventurous as if she had gone to the moon.

Even the toddler will feel like a big boy when you get him out of the stroller and give him a paper bag to fill with his discoveries as you walk slowly to the vacant lot down the street.

Using the things he picks up to make a collage, or sorting them into an egg carton when you return home, extends the sense of discovery even further.

The freedom

When you go to the playground, don’t stop your children from challenging themselves in new ways. Children need to try new and harder things – climbing higher, jumping further, pumping their legs to make the swing go without Mommy or Daddy always pushing them.

If at all possible, provide a safe, enclosed place in your yard where your children can play without your constant supervision. Sure, you’ll check on them from time to time, but the main idea is to let them make up their own activities and allow lots of time for their play.

Ideally, this is a place where they can make a mess with water, dirt, sand and weeds to mix into a mud pie.

Ideally, there is some place where they can pretend they are in a hideaway or fort or ship. Use your own imagination to provide the basics, but allow plenty of leeway for them to use their imaginations—you won’t believe what they come up with.

Anything with water: Help Daddy wash the car, run through the sprinkler, “paint” the side of the house or a wall with a bucket of water and a real paint brush. And how about bubbles? They can provide hours of experimentation using kitchen utensils. Visit Bubblesphere to find a recipe for the best bubble mixture and for ideas of items to use to make different kinds.

The props

Anything you can do to help your children experience nature will help them grow in appreciation of our wonderful world.

Planting a garden, putting up a bird feeder, walking in the woods at a nature center, feeding the ducks at a duck pond, or going to a spot where they can see and experience our Great Lake: these are all experiences that will enrich them now and throughout their lives.

One last thing: try to remember what made summers wonderful for you when you were little. Maybe you can’t remember back to toddler and preschool age, but go back as far as you can.

When you recall the whole family riding bikes together to get ice cream on long summer evenings; when you experience again the thrill of climbing what you thought was a huge tree; when you remember how you and your best friend spent hours under the back porch making pretend meals in battered old pots and pans, you’ll realize what opportunities you should provide for your children so their summer will be one of pleasure, discovery and satisfying growth.

Image courtesy of Chris Roll/FreeDigitalPhotos.net






Understanding students’ behavior as communication

The Situation: While coloring, Sara turned to Elena and said, “I guess you don’t know what color dogs are, because you colored them purple.”

Elena was crestfallen. “My mommy told me I can use any color I want,” said Elena.

“Well, I guess its OK at your house, but we use dog colors at my house,” commented Sara.

Miss Toth was standing nearby and heard the interchange. As she approached the girls, she noticed that Elena stopped coloring and was tearful. “Elena you look like you had your feelings hurt,” she said.

“Sara hurt my feelings and said I was stupid!” whined Elena.

“I did not!” argued Sara.

Miss Toth spoke with Sara privately. She knew that admonishing Sara would not solve anything. Instead, she wondered out loud, “I heard what you said to Elena and you did not sound like the kind Sara I know. Is there something on your mind today? Did someone else hurt your feelings?”

Sara was silent and thought, “Does my teacher know what happened this morning?”

“Sara, I wonder what would make you unkind to your friend Elena? Sometimes people are unkind to someone they like, because someone else was unkind to them. Did that happen to you?” prompted Miss Toth. Sara froze. “My big sister said I was stupid because I didn’t know the name of my street. Now I know it so I’m not stupid anymore.” Miss Toth talked with Sara about her sister’s unkind words and her hurt feelings, saying “I’m so sorry your sister hurt your feelings, but it won’t help you feel better to hurt someone else. You are a very smart girl who can be proud of what you know and what you learn.” Miss Toth’s empathy helped Sara understand why she was unkind to Elena, and find a way to repair the situation.

The Lesson: What looks like bad behavior often is an expression of some deeper feeling. Miss Toth knew Sara as a kind girl and used that knowledge to help Sara know herself better. In an attempt to ease her own hurt, Sara had made someone else feel as she felt—little and stupid. We want to make things right when a child is unkind by admonishing or reprimanding, but those responses only result in greater hurt. By being kind in the face of unkindness, Miss Toth helped Sara know and express her feelings, resulting in a step toward mastery.

When we find meaning in behavior, the behavior makes sense. With that understanding we can figure out the best solution to promote learning and progressive development. For example, we can help Sara find relief by using words to express her feelings, and then help her make things right with Elena.

In her comments to Elena, Sara took the position of the seemingly stronger person, her sister, and then repeated her sister’s behavior. This is a typical, human response for children and adults alike. Miss Toth knew this dynamic with young children and was able to help Sara feel understood. Then Sara could manage her feelings and be a kind girl again. It is so helpful to Sara that she is learning about her emotional life at a young age and in a safe place.

Learning Points:

  • When children cannot find the right words, they tell us their thoughts and feelings through their behavior.
  • Behavior almost always has meaning. Inappropriate behavior can mean that children are struggling with feelings: sad, mad, jealous, worried or scared.
  • Children and adults can work together to figure out the meaning of behavior.
  • Young children often have trouble answering questions like:  “What’s wrong?” or “Why are you upset?” or “Why are you crying?” They may not always know how to connect a feeling to its cause. So they respond better to questions like: “How are you feeling about what happened? or “How can I help you?” or “You look very upset.”
  • Children who are not behaving appropriately might be scared or worried about something.
  • Children who seem angry might really be scared, worried or sad about something.
  • Children who behave inappropriately to get adult attention might need attention.
  • Children calm down faster and behave better when they are helped by calm, understanding, loving adults.
  • Think about times in your life when you were upset and needed help from someone; what helped you?

Excitement vs. Fun

In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun.

A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is to be avoided at all costs.

Excitement, however, can also refer to agitation, over-stimulation and loss of control – the opposite of calm.

Parents, observing their over-excited children running around in circles – coming close to knocking over the birthday cake, Christmas tree or each other – exhort them to stop and calm down. These moments are definitely not fun – especially when a child, in addition to the cake or the tree, suffers some damage.

The term fun can also refer to activities that are not necessarily exciting. Reading a book, even a quiet one like Goodnight Moon, for example, can be fun but not exciting. Reading one of those books with all the built-in computerized quacks and sirens, on the other hand, can be exciting but not much fun after the novelty has worn off.

Clarification and perspective

We find that clarification of the difference between fun and excitement can help assess which activities are and aren’t helpful to our children in the process of growing up; which activities bring pleasure and mastery and which activities lead to distress and loss of control.

This clarification seems particularly helpful to address during times of celebration, holidays and birthdays, when the media and family customs tend to promote excitement as if it were fun, when it isn’t always.

Is it really fun to be bombarded with advertisements and floor-to-ceiling rows of toys – the majority of which you are told you can’t have?

Is it really fun to have your home invaded by dozens of children you don’t know very well who want to play with your most precious belongings and eat up all that beautiful cake, including the part with your name on it, and then smash with a stick that lovely piñata your mom bought for you only yesterday?

Is it really fun to put on a costume with a mask you can’t see out of and walk up and down the streets with terrifying-looking creatures who shove you out of the way if you can’t say “trick or treat” fast enough?

Is it really fun to be at a party with 40 other adults and children where so many things are going on that you can’t make sense of anything and you end up racing some other child up and down the stairs over and over until you slip, fall down, and end up with a bleeding lip?

And what if, in the midst of one of these “fun” activities, you lose control in your over-excitement, hit somebody and get yelled at? How much fun is that?

Stimulation and agitation

Excitement is a physical/emotional state that occurs in response to stimulation.

Some call excitement an impulse. It can be pleasurable when the degree of stimulation is manageable. But it stops being fun when the stimulation becomes bigger than a person can manage – that is, when the excited impulse takes over and propels a person into doing something he or she wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

On the adult level, as an example, a person can sincerely regret a sexual escapade, remarking, “I don’t know what came over me – it was just so exciting!” Similarly, a child might say, if he could find the words, “I really didn’t mean to bite him! We were just having fun wrestling and it happened.”

You’ve already learned to spot the signs that your child is getting over-stimulated. His voice raises both in pitch and volume, his eyes narrow and his teeth clench with aggression. Or if he is the victim of some other overexcited child, his eyes widen with fear and approaching tears.

You feel the need to jump in and stop the running, the wrestling, the tickling, before the loud laughter turns to loud sobs.

You can hear your mother’s words from your own childhood coming out of your mouth: “Now, just stop before someone gets hurt!” But part of you may want to squelch that impulse because you don’t want to spoil the “fun.”

Go with your first reaction and stop the escalation of excitement before it takes over and the “fun” ends in Band-Aids or broken table lamps or worse.

Your child may even protest that he and his friends were just playing, that no one will get hurt. But he in fact is not enjoying this scary excitement and will quickly accept a substitute activity that you suggest.

Providing a sense of control

Your child will enjoy holiday and other special celebrations the most when he feels sufficiently in control of his experiences. You can help in this by providing ways to be an active participant in as many parts of the celebration as possible. He can help make the decorations and set the table for the guests. He can be told ahead of time exactly what will happen and when (no surprises) and be allowed to make choices where possible.

You can protect him from becoming over-stimulated by pacing the activities and choosing ones appropriate to his age level.

Have fun having fun together.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Mad Feelings bullying prevention program featured on News 19 Cleveland

On March 7, Hanna Perkins Center’s “My Mad Feelings” bullying prevention curriculum was featured on Cleveland 19 News. The story, by reporter Sia Nyorkor, featured a “Shaker’s First Class” preschool class at Onaway Elementary School, where the curriculum is being taught. Shaker Schools is in its second year of a partnership with Hanna Perkins to present the curriclum to its preschool students.

Here’s the story:

Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Collaborating with a student to change a behavior

Michael (not his real name) is a 5-year old boy who has autism. He loves playing outside. During school recess each day he smiles as he digs for worms in the dirt, shovels and sifts in the sandbox, and gleefully rides on the swings. Our school playground has areas that are both open to the elements and covered by a roof, allowing outdoor play regardless of weather.

As the temperatures began to get colder, Michael was quite willing to put on his coat, but he adamantly refused to keep his head covered with a hat or a hood. This was becoming a point of struggle at home, and his mother expressed concern about it. She also wasn’t sure what we might do to keep Michael’s head covered during recess.

I was intent on working with Michael’s mother to solve this problem because we both know how important outside time is for Michael’s his ability to focus during the day. Making a visual aid seemed to be the right first step.

Searching Google, I found the two photos I needed: one of a boy wearing his winter hat and hood, and one of the same boy without his head covered. I copied the images, side by side, into a Word document. Below the first photo, I wrote “YES playground” and below the second I wrote “NO playground.”

The next day, when the struggle first presented itself, I showed the page to Michael and we read it together, while noting the difference in the pictures. Then I pointed to Michael and asked, “Yes playground or no playground?” He replied, “Yes playground.”

I pointed to the photo of the boy wearing his hood and said “Hat on.” Michael took his hat out of his cubby and handed it to me. I put it on his head and we enjoyed a full recess period outdoors, playing in the snow.

kirsten radivoyevitch

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Michael’s mother was happy to hear how well this had worked, and she took a photo of the page so that she could reference it as needed when not at school.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.