Monday, August 31, 2015

Gearing Up For a New Year

Many kids have already begun the school year but by the middle of next week, after all those Labor Day picnics and parties, almost everyone will be starting school.  For some of the kids, it will be their first time going to school and for others, they will be returning to school.  While this time of the year can be very exciting, it can also bring about anxiety in children.  For many of the kids I work with, this time of the year can be difficult and parents are as anxious as they are about how the new year will go and what they can do to best prepare their children for the upcoming year.  Each of us has our own thoughts and ideas about this and it is most important to figure out which of these strategies work for your child and his/her areas of need.  As I prepare my own daughter (she begins kindergarten next week) for a new school year, I will be doing some of the following with her to get her ready and excited for all this new year has to bring.  

1.  Start your school year routine with your children the week before school begins.  This includes waking up to an alarm if necessary, eating meals the way you will during the school year and getting a bed time routine worked out before those first few days of school.  This is important for all kids, but especially those who have a difficult time with transitions and changes in routines.  If it helps, find some kind of daily schedule you can hang up for your children that they can look at before leaving the house for school so they have an idea of what to expect.  You may even want to put that schedule together right before bedtime the night before so your child can feel as prepared for the next day as possible.

2.  One of the things I remember most about growing up is the annual shopping trip for a new backpack and lunchbox.  This was super exciting and always made me feel slightly less anxious for a new school year.  Allow your children to be part of the process of picking out their new backpack and lunchbox.  If they are feeling anxious about going to school, make a big deal about showing their friends whatever they pick out.  I am one of those parents who avoids getting supplies with characters (but my daughter is more into pretty designs like clouds, stars and unicorns) but if you have a child who is into Disney Princesses, Cars or any other popular character, let them get it.  It doesn't seem like it would be a big deal but it really is!  
When picking these bags out, a few tips: 
*make sure that the backpack and lunchbox are not too big for your child to carry independently.  We send our kids to school to become more independent people, but if their bags are too heavy and cumbersome they are going to rely on grownups to take care of it for them.
*if you can find a backpack that has a lunchbox that will attach to it, even better.  I am a big fan of the new big kid backpacks by Skip*Hop.  In addition to being large enough to accomodate all the things a school age child needs to carry back and forth, there is a compartment built in for the lunch box to slip right into.  
*if you have a child who has decreased trunk strength, you might want to consider a bag that has wheels on it for them.  This way they have the option of carrying or dragging their bag.

3.  School supply shopping can be a daunting project but it is a necessary one.  My daughter starts kindergarten in a public school next week and the long list of supplies is crazy.  Since she has fine motor issues (nothing major or that warrants therapy...the poor kid has a mom who is an occupational therapist and is all over her!), I want to be sure that I get her supplies that she will be able to use and that might help support some of her difficulties.  Here are some of the things we will be getting for her and I will be recommending for the children I work with:  
Crayons-for the younger kids, especially those who may have a delayed grasp, I suggest the Crayola Triangular Crayons.  It comes in a box of 16 colors and are a bit thicker than the regular sized crayons. Additionally, the triangle shape helps encourage a tripod grasp when using them.
Colored Pencils-again, I am a fan of any of the Crayola colored pencils.  For the smaller hands, their Pip-Sqeaks Colored Pencils are perfect.  As they get older and still struggle with using a proper grip, you might want to consider getting the regular sized pencils and breaking them in half. The smaller the writing instrument, the more it encourages a proper grasp.
Scissors-I have always been a fan of the Fiskars blunt-tip scissors.  They are the perfect size for those little hands.  They also have left-handed scissors which not all companies carry.  You can find them in almost all chain drug stores but their website also has a large selection and you can find the exact color for your child!
Student Planner/Assignment Books-some schools now give each student a planner at the beginning of the school year which I think is amazing.  Many of the kids I work with struggle to keep their assignments organized, often forgetting what each of their teachers has asked them to do.  As children get older, they need strategies in order to keep themselves organized and more independent for classroom success.  Go to Staples or book stores and look at their selection and figure out which would be best for your child.  There are so many to choose from and there may be something about one that is better than another for your child and his/her needs.   It's important to go over what you expect from them when using this book.  Be sure to go over this before the school year begins and maybe even copy a few pages so you can do some practice runs before they have to use it for real.  
Folders-I don't care what brand you pick out but do have some suggestions, especially as kids get older.  First of all, if you have a kid who has difficulty keeping their backpack clean and organized, get those thick folders made out of plastic.  They can take a beating as they are shoved into their bags!  Also, I would suggest getting different colored ones for each subject so they don't have to open and close each one every time they need to complete an assignment.  If you have an older kid who you need to come up with organization strategies for, you can consider getting a binder to put all of the folders in so everything is in one place.
Pencil Case-be sure to find a pencil case that is big enough to carry what your child needs, but not so big that they have a hard time finding all they need.  If you have a child who presents with difficulty with organization and other executive functioning skills, you may want to find something that has compartments so it is easy to find everything when they need them.  You don't want your kids to lose out on time to complete assignments because they are too busy digging through their pencil case.  I am a big fan of this one here by Yoobi.  It's a little larger than the typical case, but it you can definitely find what you need when you need it without a problem.  Be sure to check out all the other products on Yoobi because for each product you purchase, they will donate one to a classroom in need.  

4.  A new school year can be most difficult partly because of all the new faces that a child may have to learn.  For kids who have learning, language or sensory delays, this is even more challenging.  Many of the kids I work with don't only have to worry about new teachers, but new therapists both in and out of school.  When possible, try and schedule a meet and greet with your child's new teacher and therapists prior to their first day with them.  While on these meet and greets, you can ask to take pictures for them to go back and look at leading up to their new schedule beginning.  You can also use these pictures to set up some kind of visual schedule for your child to look at the beginning of each day so they know where they will be going, who they will be seeing and what they can expect from their day.  This seems simple, but it can go a long way in setting your child up for a successful day.  

5.  It may seem crazy, but since I have a kid who is a picky eater I have to worry about her snacks and lunch for the school week.  Summer has led to bad eating habits (you know, eating ice cream for dinner or snacking on junk food during the day instead of having dedicated meal times) for us and one of my biggest concerns is will she have enough to eat during the day to ready her for brain learning all she has to do.  Packing protein filled meals is important to keep our kids from being hungry.  And since there are so many classrooms that are peanut and nut free, we have to become creative in what we pack for our kids.  When possible, take your child shopping for snacks and lunch foods.  I find that when they get to help choose them, they are more likely to eat them.  For kids with fine motor, sensory or feeding difficulties, be sure to pack foods that your child can eat independently.  Cut food into small, bite-sized pieces so they can easily take a piece with a fork or use their fingers.  If they have a hard time with using spoons, get squeezable fruit packs, applesauces or yogurts so they don't have to worry about using a spoon or asking for help.

Do you have any back to school tricks that you would like to share with my readers?  Any strategies that you have used with your sensory sensitive kid that made the transition back to school that much smoother and easier for not only your child, but your family leading up to the first day of school?  I am sure us parents and therapists have a lot of advice we can offer one another to make this anxiety producing time of the year less stressful and more enjoyable.  I love hearing from each and every one of you and hearing your helpful advice and know that when you share it with me, you are sharing it with tons of others!  I am only a click away and look forward to hearing from you!

As you all, parents, therapists and especially the kids that we love, begin this new school year, I wish you a wonderful and exciting year!  

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ready, Set, Let's Do Art!

As a pediatric occupational therapist, much of my "free" time is spent looking for new things for work.  Whether it be games, apps, activity books, etc., this is something that takes up a lot of my time.  When I find myself getting bored with the activities I am presenting to the kids I work with, I have to wonder what is going through their heads as I offer them the same sorting game or puzzle every other session.

I've written about coloring and activity books several times on my blog.  One of the reasons for that is that almost all of the kids I work with have handwriting and graphomotor goals that need to be worked on during every session.  Since this is typically something that isn't easy for them, they can find a million excuses to get out of doing them.  That right there is one of the main reasons I am constantly on the search for motivating activity books...if you find a good one, you can easily work on so many of those handwriting, coloring or drawing goals.

A couple of weeks ago, I was researching new and fun apps.  I have actually used much of this summer to take a break from using the iPad.  Maybe the reason for that was that I couldn't watch or hear the same things one more time since the kids often pick the same apps every time.  When I discovered the Lazoo Art Box app by PBS Kids, I wasted no time downloading it.  The Lazoo activity books may be my favorite ones out there.  They are totally unique and incredibly motivating for the little ones I work with.  The pictures often have a simple direction for them to follow which not only works on improving their coloring/drawing skills, but also works on expanding their creative skills.  It also works on executive functioning skills such as organization, planning and following directions.

Lazoo Art Box is one of those apps that you get a lot for what you pay.  The app has four different modes that you can choose from in the beginning:  Let's Squiggle, Let's Color, Let's Draw and Draw from Scratch.  In each of the modes, kids can complete a series of unfinished drawings by following the directions/suggestions provided.  For example, you can add squiggly wool to a family of sheep, color in balloons or draw teeth on an alligator or make hair on people.  Once you have finished your pictures using a variety of colors and stamps, you can bring your picture to life.  The kids just love watching their work come to life!  If kids would like to create a picture from scratch (or from a picture stored on your iPad), they can do that as well.  Just like the other modes, once they are done with their picture, they can bring it to life.

What I love the most about the Lazoo Art Box app is that it combines three of my favorite activity books (sadly, they are not easily available these days) into one great app. Because I am one of those crazy people who likes to collect things she likes, I happen to be lucky enough to have a couple of each of these activity books in my possession.  I only wish I had thought to photocopy the pages before it became impossible to find.  One of the things I have been doing is looking through the books and finding pictures that match with some of the pictures offered on the iPad app.  This allows the kids to practice and learn what is expected from them before using something more permanent.  It depends on each child, their age and their skill set, but sometimes I will "erase" what they have done on the iPad if I find that they aren't doing their best work.  Let me be clear about one thing:  best work doesn't mean a child has to do things perfectly.  It means that they are focusing, paying attention and following the directions that were given to them.  I am all for fostering creativity, but for some of my kids if not encouraged to remain on task, they will not complete it properly.

I am going to do something a little different with the end of my post this time.  Instead of talking about all the therapeutic benefits, I am going to introduce you to one of my little friends.  Meet Mack.  He is a super star.  We have been working together for about 13 months now.  When I first started working with him, he had such significant sensory processing difficulties that I couldn't even begin to work on figuring out his fine motor delays.  We could easily spend a full 45-minute session in the cuddle swing and it still wouldn't be enough.  I'm still recovering from our first session when I put him on a therapy ball and he screamed so loudly and jumped off the ball so quickly that I wasn't quite sure where he had gone.  He initially refused to participate in all table top activities, especially any that involved coloring, drawing or handwriting.  Within two sessions, Mack was calmer and more relaxed.  He is a sensory seeker, craving a tremendous amount of proprioceptive and vestibular input in order to organize his body for most tasks.  A year later, the amount of  input he requires varies but is definitely not what he needed last year.  He is more independent in all tasks presented to him and will actually ask for us to do graphomotor activities that he used avoid at all costs.

Last week, I decided to pull out the Lazoo Art Box app and one of my old Let's Color activity books.  I searched through the book to find an image that was also available on the iPad so we could start with coloring on the iPad and bring it to life first and then have Mack color in the same picture using crayons.  Since Mack is such a smart guy, I decided to make it a little more tricky for him and make him color the balloons in the same color on both the iPad and his coloring page.  It's a great way to generalize the skills that we are working on in a fun and motivating way.  Mack LOVED it and for the first time, actually asked if he could take his work home and show it off to everyone.  His mother later reported that he showed it to EVERYONE he met....his doorman, his dad, his sister and his baby sitter to name a few!  This is a really big deal and proved to me that Mack is beginning to not only enjoy these kinds of activities but has the confidence in himself to know that he can be successful with them.

A couple of things I did with Mack that you can do with your kids to work towards his/her occupational therapy goals are:
Start with a Strengthening Activity-before beginning most graphomotor activities, I like to warm up those small muscles of the hand by doing some kind of strengthening activity.  Some of my favorites are Discovery Putty, poptubes or Lego activities.  Always have a couple of options and let the kids choose which one they want to do.  
Use a Stylus-when appropriate, I always have my kids use a stylus when using the iPad.  This allows us to work on improving grasping skills when using writing instruments.  I typically use one of these three stylus':  Paper Mate's 2 in 1 Stylus pen, the crayon stylus by iCreate or the Retro Mini Stylus Pen by Kikkerland.  Choose whichever one your child feels most comfortable with.
Work on an Incline-for many of the kids I work with, working on an inclined surface helps with success with graphomotor tasks.  It puts their wrist in an optimal position and also can work on increasing upper body strength.
Use Broken Crayons or Short Markers- especially for the younger kids on my caseload, I recommend using small crayons or short markers.  The smaller writing instruments encourage a more appropriate grasp.  Crayola makes a box of triangular crayons that I find to be particularly good.  They also make PipSqueak markers (both think and thick) which my kids really love too.  For kids who have significantly decreased grasp strength, starting with markers because they don't require as much pressure and they can have more success without getting as frustrated.  As their grasp strength improves, start introducing crayons or colored pencils.

As we approach a new school year, I know many of the families I work with are asking what they can do to get their children prepared for the upcoming school year.  If you want to start off slowly and in a fun way, I highly recommend the Lazoo Art Box app by PBS Kids.  This is a great app to have on your iPad as you head off to your final summer vacations.  It can keep your kids occupied on long car rides or when you are going out to dinner.

What are some of your favorite activities to give to families or use with your kids to get them thinking about school and doing work?  I would love to hear from you all and I am sure all us parents would be grateful for some new ideas to try with our own kids.  I am always a click away and love hearing from you all!