Social Communication Disorder: Knowing Words and Gestures, But Not How to Use Them

Social communication disorder (SCD): it’s what we call it when children struggle with subtle nuances of communication. Children with social communication disorder may not be clear about when to respond during conversation, and when it might be better to keep quiet and listen. A child with SCD may not have a good sense of private space: how close or far to stand next to a conversation partner. SCD may also be called pragmatic language impairment or semantic pragmatic disorder. SCD is a relative newcomer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), so some specialists may not even know it as a separate disorder distinct from autism.

Social communication disorder affects a child in three different areas: social interactions, social understanding, and pragmatics. Pragmatics means using language in its proper context. A child with SCD may not understand, for instance, that we use different language and tone when speaking to a baby than when we speak to a teacher or an elderly grandparent. A child with social communication disorder might approach a grandparent and say, “Hello, Cutie-Pie. Does oo want a bottle?”

Child whispers in the ear of shocked seated elderly woman

All children want to make friends and fit in with their peers. Some children find it easy to make friends while others find it difficult. It can take time and practice to learn how to make social conversation and get along with others. If making friends with others is an ongoing challenge, however, it may be a sign of social communication disorder. The symptoms of SCD tend to appear in early childhood, for instance in preschool.

Social Communication Disorder: Symptoms

Symptoms of SCD include:

  • Issues with verbal and nonverbal communication during social interactions
  • Difficulties in adapting to the communication style of a conversation partner
  • Problems in understanding and relating to the context of a partner’s conversation
  • Difficulty in understanding things that are implied rather than explicitly stated
  • Difficulty relating stories
  • An inability to master basic social rules
  • Severe anxiety that causes the child to avoid social situations

Social Communication Disorder: Genetic Factor?

Researchers are still learning about social communication disorder, so don’t as yet have firm answers about what causes the disorder. Some studies suggest that children with social communication disorder tend to have family members with autism spectrum disorder, known communication disorders, or learning disabilities. This would suggest there may be a genetic factor in developing SCD.

Children with social communication disorder can have other disorders at the same time. They may, for example, have other speech disorders or ADHD.

Social Communication Disorder: Diagnosis

A diagnosis of social communications disorder is diagnosed by observing a child’s difficulties in learning verbal and nonverbal communication skills. During an evaluation, a speech and language professional will see if your child can:

  • Answer questions
  • Use gestures such as waving and pointing in appropriate ways
  • Take turns during play and conversations
  • Appropriately express and describe emotions
  • Stay on topic
  • Adapt language and tone to the situation or conversation partner
  • Ask appropriate questions and respond with relevant answers during conversation
  • Use different words and terms for the same thing, for instance hi, hello, hiya, hey.
  • Make friends and keep them

Until recently, many believed that social communication disorder was a facet of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ruling out autism is, in fact, part of the process of diagnosing social communication disorder. This is because there is some overlap of symptoms between the two disorders.

Social communication disorder, however, lacks the restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), interests, and activities of autism. RRBs are different from the repetition you might hear from a child with social communication disorder. Ask a child with SCD if he hung up his hat, and the child may give you a blank look and repeat, “Hat.”

This is because the child doesn’t understand that a question has been asked. The child only understand that s/he is meant to say something, but doesn’t understand what that something might be-only that it’s something about a hat.

Children with autism, on the other hand, may feel a need to eat the same foods each day; to line up their crayons in a specific order; play the same game with the same toy car daily; or engage in the same type of conversation on a specific topic. In social communication disorder, these behaviors are absent.

In the same way that SCD seems similar to autism, it is also sometimes confused with ADHD. Confusing the picture further, children with SCD may also have ADHD. But ADHD comes with attention problems. SCD does not.

If you ask the child with a social communication disorder which he prefers: chocolate or peanut butter, he might say peanut butter, even if he really prefers chocolate. He does so because he is focused on the end. He didn’t process the rest of what you said. But it’s not that the child lost focus as with ADHD. It’s that the child with SCD may think that only the end of a sentence is important.

Chocolate being dipped into peanut butter

Social communication disorder may be suspected when a child has no trouble with words, speech, or gestures but struggles to use and apply them in social situations. If you tell the child to wave, he will do so. But he may not understand that waving is connected to and indicated when greeting and parting from others.

Children with SCD may also be slow to reach language milestones or show little interest in socializing with others. SCD can make it difficult for a child to understand stories and conversations, and to bend to various social situations. These issues are very different from the general issues that come with, for instance, intellectual disabilities. Social communication disorder affects understanding of every type of communication: verbal, nonverbal, spoken, written, gestures, and sign language, too.

Social Communication Disorder: Treatment

While there is no cure for social communication disorder, there are treatments. Speech and language pathologists are trained to recognize and design treatment for communication problems like SCD. Teachers and speech-language pathologists often work together to help children better their communication skills. For those who find speech difficult, there are alternative means of communication. This can mean something as simple as holding up a picture, or as technologically complicated as using a smartphone to type out a sentence.

Preschooler with smartphone

Therapy for children with social communication disorder may be given in the child’s school setting, or at a local clinic. Schools employ speech-language pathologists who can offer therapy and coordinate these efforts with the child’s teacher. Some clinics offer therapy to children with SCD as part of early intervention programs or special education initiatives. Hospitals and medical centers may also have therapists on hand to help you find and implement a strategy that works for your child. The idea is to figure out a treatment plan that gives such children a plan: a reliable method to get them through challenges and difficult social situations.

Therapy for social communication disorder is a must, as SCD doesn’t improve without professional assistance.

A therapeutic plan for a child with SCD may include:

  • Social skills training that helps children acquire the skills to interact with others in social settings
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to minimize anxiety and deal with strong emotions
  • Medication for coexisting conditions that may worsen the child’s social communication disorder, for instance ADHD.
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Support and training for parents

SCD Action Plan

If you suspect your child is having difficulty with social skills, you’ll want to get to the bottom of things. Here are three simple steps for getting started:

  1. Watch your child and note his or her behavior. Write your observations in a notebook.
  2. Share your observations with your child’s teacher and compare notes. The teacher can help by making sure that classroom instructions are clear and by pairing your child with children who share similar interests.
  3. Ask the teacher about having your child undergo an educational evaluation. If the school agrees this is indicated, the evaluation will be free. The results of the evaluation may mean your child receives supports and services, all absolutely free.

SCD: Specialists and What They Can Do

Social communication disorder can only be diagnosed by a speech therapist. But it’s possible other specialists can rule out SCD. It helps to know what the various specialists can and cannot do for your child. It’s important to note that if you go the private route, using private specialists, you’ll have to pay for any tests administered. Here’s the breakdown of the specialists you might visit for a child who may have SCD, keeping in mind that only you know your financial and community resources and what you are able to afford:

Pediatrician: A pediatrician can help rule out medical issues as cause for your child’s behavior and advise you on your next step. Some pediatricians are also able to test for ADHD. A pediatrician can sometimes offer a referral for further testing or therapy with a speech therapist.

Learning specialist: A learning specialist can test for learning and attention issues. These are the same tests your child would receive in an evaluation provided by the school. The difference is that you would have to pay. In the case where the school decides not to test and you still feel there is a problem, you might want to go this route and hire a learning specialist to administer tests. If you don’t feel that what the school offers is adequate, and you can afford to go private, a learning specialist may be a good option.

Psychologist: A psychologist is trained in both learning disabilities and attention issues and can rule out or diagnose a variety of learning and attention difficulties. The psychologist can also check for nonverbal learning disorder and for ADHD. While the learning specialist’s focus is specific to learning disabilities, a psychologist has a broader framework. Your child may not need that broader framework.

Speech therapist: The speech therapist is the specialist who is most qualified to diagnose social communication disorder. This is also the professional best equipped to prepare a treatment plan for your child with SCD.

SCD: What You Can Do At Home

Parents can do a lot to help children develop their social skills, feel better about themselves, and can also offer the support children need to keep trying. Here are some practical ways you can help your child:

Read and learn all you can: Read articles online, take books out of your local library, or buy books on children and social communication issues. Knowledge is power. So is understanding your child’s plight.

Watch for and note patterns: Keep a notebook handy and jot down your observations. Does your child always have difficulties in the same social situations? Do you see a pattern in your child’s behavior? What you observe can help the professionals help your child.

Practice social situations at home: Role-playing can go a long way toward training your child in appropriate behavior at parties, playdates, or just plain holiday gatherings with the family. Take turns starting and ending conversations, or greeting friends, neighbors, and relatives. Home is a safe place to try these behaviors out. It’s also fun to play-act, a great way for parent and child to bond!

Play matchmaker between your child and other possible friends: Your child has the best chance of effective communication with kids who share his or her interests. Does your child enjoy dance, art, or sports? Enroll your child in an afterschool class in whatever it is your child likes to do. There your child will be sure to meet other children who like the same things. It’s a good basis for friendship.

Try social skills building classes: Some schools offer free classes in social skills. You might be able to find a private class offered by those with training in learning difficulties who also run programs for children with social challenges.

Experiment with strategies: Don’t be afraid to try out new ways of helping your child. Seek out role-playing and other games on Pinterest, websites, and blogs.

Talk to other parents: Though every child with SCD will have unique challenges, it can help just to speak with other parents going through similar difficulties with their children. It’s comforting to network and share strategies. It’s great to have a support system and get advice on specialists or new strategies to try.

While social communication skills don’t ever go away for good, children with SCD can learn strategies to help them socialize and get along with others. As your child improves his social skills, this will give him the impetus to keep on aiming for better. And as long as your child is encouraged to keep on keeping on, things can only look up!

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How Does the Brain Learn?

How does the brain learn and truly absorb the information it receives? The brain learns through a process of Sequencing: putting information into the right order; Abstraction: making sense of that information; and Organization: using the information to form thoughts. When the brain completes these three steps of processing information, this is called Integration.

The term “integration” is a way of saying the brain has learned something. This may be input from the classroom, or input from life. A child can learn how to add and subtract in the classroom. The child can also learn through life experience that touching a hot stove can burn the skin and cause pain. No matter the source of the information, once it is input and integrated, the brain understands the information it has been fed.

How does the brain, this remarkable organ, take in the information it receives, make sense of it, and use it to create and do incredible things? And what happens when something goes wrong along the way? Is there a way to assist the brain in understanding and absorbing information?

Answering these questions begins with knowing how the brain learns, or the steps we take in processing information. The three steps of the brain’s unique learning formula (sequencing, abstraction, and organization), also provide clues where there are learning difficulties. These clues can ensure we offer children with learning problems the right kind of help.

How Does the Brain Learn: Sequencing

What kind of problems might be spotted as the child learns information? A child might, for example, have a problem with sequencing. If the child has a consistent weakness in this area, a learning difficulty or disability might be suspected. A child may have trouble learning to count, for instance. This might suggest the child has trouble sequencing numbers: putting them in order.

Confirmation that the difficulty has to do with sequencing might come when the child then has trouble learning the correct order of the letters of the alphabet, or the months of the year. When one looks at all the difficulties the child has, and sees they are about placing information into the correct order, two things become clear:

  • The child’s brain has a problem with processing information
  • The specific neurological (brain) problem is sequencing: putting information in order.

How Does the Brain Learn: Abstraction

Once the brain has the information sorted into the right sequence, it’s time to understand the meaning of the information (abstraction). Most children with learning difficulties have no serious problem with this part of learning. Abstraction is about things like understanding symbols (for example, a stop sign), or the meaning of a word (sit, eat, sleep). These are basic brain tasks. A child with a serious problem in the area of abstraction wouldn’t have a learning disability or difficulty, but an intellectual disability.

How Does the Brain Work: the brain does abstract thinking in the chemistry lab

There can, however, be minor problems with abstraction. A person who doesn’t “get” jokes, and doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, may have a problem with abstraction. A person who doesn’t understand puns or idioms may be having problems with abstraction. Call this person a “pig” and he won’t understand that the word “pig” is not just an animal, but an insult. These types of abstraction issues are exceptions to the rule.

How Does the Brain Learn: Organization

When we think of organization difficulties, it’s easy to imagine a child with a messy room. The child can never find anything. Nothing has a specific place. The child loses things, forgets to bring important items to school, mislays homework, text books, notebooks. These issues may extend to time management. The child is always late and can never turn in assignments on time.

Each of these scenarios: messy room; losing things; forgetfulness; time management issues, have to do with different pathways in the brain. Learning creates new brain pathways. When we call on these brain pathways, electrical impulses light up and activate those parts of the brain.

In some children, the wiring gets crossed or tangled. In other children, the brain pathways may be damaged. Since the circuit in the brain is interrupted, the information never gets to where it is sent, at least not in the form it was intended. Sometimes only part of the information is sent. This leads to incomplete or flawed information processing.

tangled wires

When such processing problems repeat on a regular basis and interfere with the child’s learning, it is time to think whether the child might have a learning difficulty or disability. This is where an evaluation is both necessary and helpful. A thorough evaluation can help pinpoint subtle issues in brain functioning. This can tell parents and educators where the failure is occurring within the three-step procedure of information processing.

That doesn’t mean an exact diagnosis is easy to obtain. A child who calls a fork, a “korf,” may have a problem, but it is difficult to say what the problem might be. It could be the child has a problem with sequencing, verbal output, or auditory processing. The mispronunciation may be about integrating any or all of the these processing areas into one solid whole. For this reason, the child must be assessed in all of these areas.

How Does the Brain Learn: Basic Skills

Whether the problem is sequencing, abstraction, organization, or something else, If a child’s brain has a problem processing information, the child may find it difficult to learn even basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. When neurological (brain) processing interferes with reading, for instance, the child will be said to have dyslexia. When a processing problem interferes with learning to write, we call it dysgraphia. A problem with processing numbers is called dyscalculia. These are just three examples of learning difficulties that are labeled according to the specific skill sets affected by neurological processing problems.

Learning difficulties are not limited to basic skills. Sometimes processing problems interfere with a child’s higher level skills. Higher level skills include managing time, organization, and abstract thinking. Here too, a learning difficulty is recognized according to the specific processing issue.

How Does the Brain Learn: Four Areas of Processing

A child’s processing problem may have to do with taking in information (input); or it may be about making sense of information (integration). For another child, the difficulty may be storing information and retrieving it for later use (memory). In some cases, a child may have no trouble taking in information, making sense of it, and remembering it, but can’t use this information to form words, write, draw, or gesture (output). It is in one or more of these four basic areas that children diagnosed with learning difficulties will be found to have a processing problem.

Input Output sockets

When the brain receives information, this is called input. Sometimes input is visual, or information we understand with our eyes. Sometimes input is auditory, or information we understand with our ears.

How Does the Brain Learn: Visual Input

A difficulty with visual input doesn’t mean, for instance someone who has a vision problem, such as near or far-sightedness. A visual input problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is seen. If the brain sees letters in reverse, for example, this might be a visual input processing problem.

Let’s say a child has trouble with the mechanics of catching a ball. In order to catch the ball, the eyes have to focus on the ball. This is called figure-ground. At the same time, the brain must be able to pinpoint the position of the ball and its path (depth perception). This helps the body understand where and when to move. Finally, the body must obey the brain’s commands, to stretch out the hands and actually catch the ball as it arrives. If the child misjudges the speed of the ball, or how far it must travel, or if the brain doesn’t issue the right commands to the arms and hands, the child may very well fail to catch the ball.

These are just two examples of visual processing problems. In one example, the visual processing problem leads to letter reversals. In the other example, visual processing problems quite literally lead to dropping the ball. There are many other ways we might see the effects of visual processing problems.

How Does the Brain Learn: Auditory Input

Just as a visual processing problem isn’t about being near or far-sighted, a difficulty with auditory input doesn’t mean that someone is, for example, hearing challenged. An auditory processing problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is heard. A child who has an auditory processing problem, may, for instance, be unable to understand how the words too, two, and to are not the same word. This can lead to confusion when the child hears these words in spoken sentences.

In another example of an auditory input processing problem, the child might need more time to understand what is heard. Because of this, the child misses some of what you say because the speed of your speech is too quick for his understanding. This is called an “auditory lag.”

Children can have both visual and auditory processing problems. This might make it difficult for a child to make sense of what is happening when the child receives visual and auditory information at the same time. An example of this could be the student who sees writing on a blackboard while listening to an explanation of those words.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Integration

Once input is complete, through visual and/or auditory means, it’s time for the three-step integration process. The brain must put all the information into the right order (sequencing). The brain must be able to understand how to use the information (abstraction). Last of all, the brain must take each piece of information and add it to the whole to make a complete thought. This type of organization of information is the final step in integration. It is what makes integration complete.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Memory

At this point, learning is still not complete. Will the brain hold onto the memory for tomorrow’s French test (short-term memory or working memory), or will the child remember that French phrase ten years later (long-term memory) when she visits France as an exchange student? Like abstraction, it is unlikely that your child would have a serious long-term memory disability. Such a problem would not be a learning difficulty, but rather an intellectual disability.

A short-term memory disability, on the other hand, is a real phenomenon. You see it with the child who spends hours memorizing the names of countries on a map for geography class and then forgets everything during the test the next morning. By the same token, the teacher may be very patient in the classroom, explaining how to divide fractions. But when the child pulls out her math homework that night, she cannot remember how to do the work.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Output

The final step in learning is actual using the information. This is called output. Output may be verbal, by way of spoken words or language, or motor, which is by way of muscle activity. Motor output includes drawing, writing, and pointing, for example. A child with issues in these areas might have a language disability or a motor disability.

There are two types of language we use to communicate: spontaneous language and demand language. Spontaneous language is where you begin a conversation. You’ve chosen the topic, and had time to think about what you’re going to say. Most children have no problem here.

In demand language, however, someone might ask you a question. You haven’t chosen the subject, thought about your response, or organized your thoughts. You’ve got this split-second to answer the question. For the child with a language disability, this is a tongue-tying situation. The child may ask you to repeat the question, or simply answer, “What?” or “I don’t know.” Some children will respond but the response won’t make any sense—won’t seem to relate to the question.

Child draws outline with colored pen

In motor disabilities, the child may have a problem using the large muscle groups. This is known as a gross motor disability. For other children, it’s hard to perform tasks that requires using many muscles to work together at once. This is called a fine motor disability.

A child with gross motor disabilities may always be tripping over her own feet. She might fall a lot, spill her milk, bump into things, and drop things often. The child will find it hard to learn how to swim or ride a bike.

A child with a fine motor disability may have trouble writing or speaking. The child who has trouble speaking because of a fine motor disability may find it difficult to coordinate all the parts of the mouth, tongue, throat, and face used in speech. Writing, on the other hand, requires coordinating the use of many muscles in the hand at the same time. Children with handwriting problems may write slowly, or have messy handwriting. The child may even find that the writing hand, when writing, develops a cramp.

This should be considered a very broad overview of a complicated subject. For more information, follow the links for deeper reading. If you suspect your child has an information processing problem or learning disability, it’s important to have the child evaluated.

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“I Must Have Cried 1000 Tears”

"I must have cried 1000 tears"
“I must have cried 1000 tears.”

“I must have cried 1000 tears,” wrote Amanda Coley of her two year-old son Jack’s loving interaction with Snow White at Walt Disney World, this past November. Jack, you see, has autism and doesn’t speak words. But his love for a beautiful Disney character comes through loud and clear, happily captured on video by dad Chris Coley.

Jack finds it difficult to warm up to new people and was not at all getting into the swing of things during that family trip. As it would turn out, Jack would receive his diagnosis just two weeks after the family trip to Disney World. The diagnosis likely came as no surprise to Jack’s parents. Amanda and Chris Coley have three sons and Jack is the second of the three to be diagnosed with autism.

If you’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World, you know that these amusement parks-cum-resorts hire actors to play famous Disney characters and to chat up the visitors. Jack’s brother had been trying to get the boy to interact with the other characters the entire trip but each time, Jack would pull away.

Jack wanted no part of that. Until he saw Snow White.

Then it was love at first sight.

I Must Have Cried 1000 Tears

Amanda wrote,

He was having nothing to do with any of the characters on our Disney vacation in November. You see, he has autism and is non-verbal. He is on the shy side with people he does not know. THEN… he met Snow White. I must have cried 1000 tears watching his interaction with her. He was in love.

It’s pretty amazing to see this clip. There is so much eye contact going on between Jack and “Snow White,” though one of the hallmarks of autism is the difficulty in making prolonged eye contact with others. You have to wonder what sort of magic was going on here: what made this Snow White figure so approachable? Why was it so easy for Jack to make eye contact with her, even as he shied away from the other characters.

It’s not difficult to see why this clip went viral with over  500,000 views as of this writing. Something beautiful unfolds here for the viewer, something magical in the magic kingdom of Disney. What it is, we’re not really sure. But it’s clear the clip has not lost its appeal for Jack Coley, who can watch it all day.

It calms him, and he’ll sign to his mom the word for “more” so she’ll play it for him again.

Does this one minute and fourteen seconds of blissful love and peace signify hope for all those on the autism spectrum and their families? It’s impossible to say. But it’s a good bet that Amanda Coley has raised awareness of autism and of the painful journey Jack’s parents have ahead of them in sharing this clip. Amanda’s pronouncement, “I must have cried 1000 tears,” sums it up in a nutshell.

Here’s wishing the Coley family many more moments of joy in the years to come.

Eye Focus, Getting Emotional, and Autism

Eye focus and especially eye contact is, for most people, a way of connecting with people. It shows we like the person we’re speaking with. Breaking eye contact, on the other hand, may show we’re embarrassed, lying, or feeling guilty about something. Most of us know it’s different for people with autism, who may find it difficult to maintain eye contact for long. In fact, for the layman, this is probably the hallmark symptom of autism: the inability to make eye contact.

Some people have the impression that people with autism are unemotional, and that this is the reason for the avoidance of eye contact in those on the spectrum. But the facts, obtained through research, show something else. There is evidence to suggest that on the contrary, people with autism feel things more intensely than others—so intensely that it overloads their senses. This is part of what is known as the Intense World Theory of Autism.

Eye Focus Moves To The Mouth

A new study from the University of Vermont seems to underscore this idea: that the world is overly intense for those with autism spectrum disorders. Researchers used eye-tracking technology along with Skype to track eye focus in children with autism during conversation. The scientists found something surprising: children with autism focus on the speaker’s eyes until the conversation turns emotional. At that point, eye focus switches to the speaker’s mouth.

This is the first time scientists have used eye-tracking technology to monitor eye movement of children with autism during conversation. Lead author of the study, Tiffany Hutchins, was surprised that no one had done this before. “We were amazed that no one had done this yet,” said Hutchins. “We found only two other studies that used eye-tracking to look at social attention during actual conversations with other people, but none with autism.

“Combining Skype with basic eye-tracking technology feels like low-hanging fruit, and it circumvents a lot of the traditional challenges that we’ve had in the field so when that catches on, I think the implications are that you can do a lot with this technology. I think being first is one of our major contributions,” said Hutchins, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UV.

The study, which was published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, could make a difference in the way speech therapists work with the approximately 1 in 68 children on the spectrum. These children must struggle daily with a variety of communication, behavioral, and social challenges. In the clip below, you can see the speaker asking a child with autism about what types of jobs people do. This is an unemotional sort of question. The child’s eyes focus on the speaker’s eyes.

When discussion switches to talking about emotions, for instance, what makes the child scared or sad, eye focus moves to the speaker’s mouth. “What you talk about really matters for children with ASD, you just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.”

Hutchins’ team also found that this shifting of the eye focus away from the eyes to the mouth was associated with more severe autism, with impairment seen in verbal skills, intellectual ability, and more limited executive function.

Asked why the eyes switch focus during an emotional turn in conversation, Hutchins suggests that experiencing emotion puts a strain on the child’s executive function, which is about the way we organize ourselves for tasks. Talking about emotions or highly emotional subjects may “place high demand on working memory, which, when a threshold is surpassed, makes rendering information from the eye region particularly difficult,” says, Hutchins.

In other words, kids on the spectrum reach a certain threshold in how much emotion they can process before it begins to affect their ability to think clearly. At that point, the child can no longer process the information coming from the speaker’s eyes. The emotion has become too overwhelming. The child has lost the ability to receive any more information from this source. So the eyes switch their focus to the next best source of information, the mouth, where the child may still be able to get some information.

Driving In A Snowstorm

Hutchins says that for kids with autism, talking about emotions is difficult and draining. “It’s like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you drive around in good weather on a familiar route, you go on automatic pilot and sometimes don’t even remember how you got somewhere. But for a child with ASD, having a conversation, especially one about emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In that situation, you are totally focused, every move is tense and effortful, and your executive function drains away. In fact, we found that decreased working memory correlated with decreased eye fixations, so as working memory decreases, then we see fewer fixations on the eyes.”

Hutchins points out that one of the reasons children with autism have a difficult time with social skills is due to this eye focus problem. The mouth is giving fewer social cues than the oh-so-expressive eyes. As a result of focusing on a speaker’s mouth, a child with autism may not get enough information about the underlying social meaning in the speaker’s words. This can cause the child with autism to respond inappropriately to a social situation.

But the whole point of this is that the child cannot look at the eyes of the speaker when things get more emotional. Eye focus on the eyes becomes impossible. It’s overwhelming. It messes up the child’s brain processes, makes it difficult to think and function.

“It’s probably a situation where the poor are getting poorer,” Hutchins says. “If I’m asking you to talk about emotions, and that makes you even less likely to look in my eyes when you really need to go there because I’m more likely to be showing other evidence of an emotion like anger with my eyebrows, you are missing even more. It’s not that there’s no emotional information in the mouth, but during dynamic conversational exchanges they are missing a number of cues that a typically developing child would not.”

This wasn’t the largest study in the word with just 19 neurotypical children and 18 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ages 6-12. But it does seem as if Hutchins and her co-author, Ashley Brien, a speech pathologist, have hit on something important. The two of them are now thinking about whether speech pathologists should change the way they work with children on the spectrum. For instance, telling a child to stay focused on the pathologist’s eyes may be a mistake.

“Some social skills programs and many treatment goals for children with autism involve trying to get them to initiate and sustain eye-contact during interaction” says Hutchins.

Brien explains that forcing eye contact may actually work against kids with autism. Insisting that the child’s eye focus remain on the eyes of the speech pathologist may be too taxing for the brain systems of kids with ASD, so they can no longer access working memory or executive function, for instance. Demanding they maintain eye contact may be as bad for the progress of these children as anxiety and stress.

Bullies: The Names They Call Us And How The Hurt Can Change Us

Bullies: The Names They Call Us And How The Hurt Can Change UsBullies were a fact of life for me growing up. I was different. I read a lot, I used big words.

So I got picked on.

This piece is my personal story.

It was bad. There was a girl who beat me up at recess and a different girl who waited for me each day after school to beat me up. I was terrified to go to school and I was terrified to come home.

Because of the bullies.

Growing up, I played sick a lot. And the truth is, I wasn’t playing. There was this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every morning of the week that was a school day. I was sick to my stomach and sick at heart.

Because of the bullies.

I remembered this when years later, during a parent teacher meeting, the teacher asked me, “Does he have a smile on his face when he leaves the house for school each morning?

“Because that’s the most important thing. More important than his school work. More important than anything.”

She was right. I was so afraid to go to school. School was the monster in the closet. School was the scariest thing in my life at that time.

Because of the bullies

Getting beaten up was bad, but not as bad as my hurt feelings, somehow. The pain of not fitting in. The pain of being made fun of, of being called ugly nicknames instead of my real name. Bucky Beaver, because of my teeth; BM, because these were my initials at that time; Miss Encyclopedia, because I used big words; and some other names I hesitate to mention here for fear of offending my readers.

Wasan Ritthawon / Shutterstock.com
We shared initials. Wasan Ritthawon / Shutterstock.com

 

 

One day, it hit me. Batman, a new concept at that time, had my very same initials. I was all ready for the name callers the next day. “BM stands for BATMAN,” I told those bullies proudly. “You better treat me good or he’s gonna beat you up!”

 

But they, the bullies, just laughed. Which took all the air out of my most temporary sails.

 

 

 

 

 

The name calling and how it shaped me is the reason this clip by Shane Koyczan resonated with me so deeply:

But back then, I didn’t think of the future. I could only think of my miserable now. My mom tried to help. She came to the school. Talked with my teacher. Named names. And the abuse continued. There was nothing anyone could do about it—could do about the bullies. I had to live with it, had to live with the bullying.

So I struggled and got poor grades and developed a complete aversion toward all schools, all classrooms. Never went to college.

Some schools weren’t so bad. And occasionally I’d do something brave like that Batman stunt, intended to change my lot and make me popular. It never worked. It would always be more fodder for their teasing.

Like the time I did some sleight of hand with a snack at camp, and made it appear as if I was eating a worm along with my graham cracker. I was convincing.

Too convincing.

And so on top of everything else, I became the girl who ate a worm, for the entire rest of camp.

Yeah. School pretty much sucked for me. So did camp. Bullies know no seasons.

That teacher who said that my son leaving for school with a smile on his face was so right. Because those experiences I had colored everything for me. I made life choices to escape having to go on to get a higher education. I turned into a recluse.

Today, I am still mostly a recluse. When I do come out for some reason or other, I am always shocked at being warmly received. I expect to be disliked. I’m surprise when anyone laughs at my jokes.

The funny thing is, today I am actually popular, if social media is any indication (which it may not be at all, actually). I can’t keep up with friend requests. Today, the number of friends I have on Facebook stands at 1750 and I am constantly receiving new requests (many of which I reject because it’s just too overwhelming).

Sometimes I wonder if it would be different today. Are bullies dealt with more effectively today? I really don’t know. I only know that our awareness of bullying is much greater than in the past. Is there really anything anyone can do about bullies?

I remain unconvinced.

Bullies Don’t Care About Your Advice

Take for instance, this advice on What to Do if You’re Bullied section from the government website stopbullying.gov:

  • Look at the kid bullying you and tell him or her to stop in a calm, clear voice. You can also try to laugh it off. This works best if joking is easy for you. It could catch the kid bullying you off guard.
  • If speaking up seems too hard or not safe, walk away and stay away. Don’t fight back. Find an adult to stop the bullying on the spot.

These are all things I tried to do when I was bullied. None of these tactics worked for me.

Tell them to stop in a clear voice? They, the bullies, would say, “Who’s gonna stop me? You and who else?”

Laugh it off? The bullies would say, “You think it’s funny? How about this? Is this funny?” and they’d punch me. “How about that? Is that funny?” and they’d punch me somewhere else.

Walk away? The bullies would chase me down and trap me somewhere and beat me up. They, the bullies, were always faster and stronger than I.

As for enlisting the help of an adult, well, bullies don’t bully when adults are around. They make sure of that. Should an adult appear, all bullying stops right then and there. To be resumed later. When the coast is clear.

Now I like to think that we grow from our experiences, even bad ones. Our experiences shape us in all sorts of ways, some of them bad, like my aversion to school, but some of them good, like the way I developed empathy for new kids, immigrant kids, and took them under my wing. Like my writing, which developed as a way for me to express pent up emotion, and fit in well with my addiction to reading, which fit in well with me being a recluse and hiding away from life (and bullies).

I thought of all this last night when I watched this amazing TED clip of Monica Lewinsky who received a standing ovation for detailing her public humiliation and emphasizing the need to have online compassion to prevent cyberbullying:

The bullying I suffered made me a more compassionate person, for sure. But it cut deeply into my soul. It hurt.

I think there must be a better way for children to learn compassion. And maybe it does indeed begin with our online behavior.

Body Language Lessons: 4 Most Misread Toddler Signals

Body Language Lessons: 4 Most Misread Toddler Signals
Body language could fill in the gaps between what your toddler says and what you actually understand. That is if you understood his body language any better than you understand his attempts at speech. Beyond “NO,” that is—everyone knows what that means.

Okay, sure. You understand your child’s speech better than most. But you sure do spend a lot of time guessing and guessing again, what it is your child wants. And your toddler spends a lot of time acting out his frustration. Because dang it’s frustrating! He knows what he wants—why don’t YOU?

By the age of two years, most children have about 200 words at their disposal. That sounds like a decent amount of vocabulary until you consider that they only use about 50 of those words on a regular basis. When those 50 words fail to cover a given situation, you stare desperately at your child, trying to read his body language, trying head off the meltdown you just know is coming if you can’t figure it out.

It’s not easy for either of you. Unlike your toddler, however, you can read words. Which means you can read this article and learn about four common toddler body language signals you think you understand and what they actually mean. Learning how to interpret these four major body language signals is going to help ease your child’s frustration as much as it eases your own, leaving your home a calmer, more peaceful space for everyone.

Toddler Body Language Lesson #1

Crossed Arms

The scenario: You bought your child this funny windup toy. You wind it up and it’s going across the room. You’re sure your child is going to love this thing. But he just stands there with his arms folded across his chest.

You think: “Ugh. He doesn’t like it. And I was so sure he would!”

What it actually means: “This toy makes me nervous. It moves and makes noise. I’m not used to that.”

The crossed arms body language shows you your child feels uneasy about this unfamiliar toy. He doesn’t know how to say, “I am uncomfortable being so close to this scary toy.”

Since he doesn’t know how to say this with words, he uses body language instead. He crosses his arms over his chest to shield himself and create distance.

How to handle it: Your toddler may just need some time to get familiar with the idea of this new toy. Don’t push it, but instead, leave him alone for now and let him play with something else. Later on, once he’s forgotten about the toy and it’s no longer a threat, you can sit down and play with it yourself, without saying anything. Let him see that you are comfortable with this toy, that you don’t feel threatened by it. You see the toy as fun and interesting.

Signaling your casual response to this toy through your own body language,  may help your child overcome his worry and fear. Once he sees you’re not afraid, his natural curiosity will kick in and allow him to explore this new plaything. In the end, it may be that all he needed was a bit of distance, time, and encouragement to enjoy the lovely gift you bought him.

Toddler Body Language Lesson #2

Pulls Shirt Over Head

The scenario: Your college roommate comes to stay with you for the weekend. You can’t wait to show off your little girl. But the minute she sees your old roomie, your child pulls her shirt up over her head.

You think: “She doesn’t want to see my old friend. Her body language shows she’s taken an automatic dislike to her.”

What it actually means: “I don’t want this new smiling person to see me.”

How to handle it: This is a confusing situation for your toddler. Here is a new person she’s never met, smiling at her as if she knows her. It’s overwhelming.

You can defuse the situation by giving your child her space and making light of her behavior. “You don’t want to say ‘hi’ right now? That’s okay. Maybe you’ll say ‘hi’ later on.”

It’s important not to put a label on your child’s behavior, even as a way to make your friend feel better. For instance, you don’t want to say, “She’s just being shy. She’ll come around.”

That would be putting ideas into your child’s head when all she might need is some time to sort out her thoughts and get comfortable with the idea of this new person you like so much.

What you can do is let your child see you and your roomie enjoying each others’ company as you play catch-up. Let your daughter see the two of you rehashing old times and laughing. She’s watching your body language, too. Eventually, she’ll come around when her curiosity gets the better of her, and when that happens, don’t make a fuss over her, but just act naturally glad to have her there with the two of you.

Toddler Body Language Lesson #3

Avoids Eye Contact

The scenario: You’re in the kitchen preparing supper, and your toddler is in the next room playing. You become aware that he’s a little too quiet. Suspicious, you come into the room to check on him but he won’t meet your eyes.

You think: “Uh oh, that body language sure does look sneaky! What is he trying to hide from me?”

What it actually means:  “I did something wrong. I feel so bad about it, Mommy.”

How to handle it: Your child isn’t being sneaky, he’s experiencing remorse, shame. He did something he wishes he hadn’t. He is developing a conscience, and that’s a good thing.

It’s natural for you to wonder what it is he did but you don’t want to make a big deal of it. He feels bad enough already. It may have been something pretty innocent. Perhaps he fed the dog his peas under the table. He knows he shouldn’t do that, but really, it’s not the end of the world, from your standpoint.

What you want to do is show him your unconditional love. If you know what he did, you can say it in words, remind him it’s a no-no, and tell him not to do it next time around. If you have no clue what he did, you can simply say, “I know that something happened and I want you to know that I love you even so.”

Being kind and understanding and positive will encourage your child to be truthful with you. He sees you’re not angry. That will make him feel confident that he can tell you all sorts of things and you’ll still love him no matter what.

Toddler Body Language Lesson #3

Pushes You/Runs Away From You

The scenario: You walk over to your toddler daughter to play with her but she pushes you away or runs away from you.

You think: “Wow. She used to drive me crazy, clinging to me. Now she can’t seem to get far enough away from me.”

What it actually means:  “I’m a  big girl! I can play by myself.”

Your daughter is becoming independent. Her body language is signaling to you that for her, the world is no longer this big scary place, but a place that is interesting, and cool, and fun to explore. She still loves and needs you, but feels secure enough to check things out on her own. Her moving away or even pushing you is a good sign, a healthy one, that shows she is growing and developing right on schedule.

How to handle it: Remember that it’s not about you—it’s not personal. Know that she still needs you for many things and loves you very much. Try not to interfere with her activities. If she wants to watch ants carrying a big twig, or chase a butterfly, give her the space to do so on her own. Unless she’s doing something unsafe, like trying to pick up a broken piece of glass, let her learn about the world on  her own, at her own pace. But be on standby for when your child is tired or in need of reassurance. That’s when she’ll call, “Mommy, Mommy!” and run into your waiting arms for comfort and love.

Lists, Lists, Can We Talk Lists? The Art That Strengthens Memory

Lists are an organized person’s best friend. The act of setting down in writing what you need to buy at the store, or get done in your home, helps you cement these tasks in your mind. That means that even if you then forget to bring your list with you, you’re going to remember that you wrote “chocolate milk” on your list, when perusing the dairy aisle.

But lists aren’t just for moms. I found that out by accident. Or rather, my kids figured it out and had to explain it to me.

So lists. I’m big on them. Big on writing lists to manage tasks in my large family home. Even with many of my children grown and heading up households of their own, I still resort to making lists on a regular basis.

I make all kinds of lists. I make shopping lists and to-do lists, of course, but I have also been known to type out the menu for a holiday meal and stick it on the fridge. It helps me remember to serve all the courses I’ve slaved over preparing!

So back to the list revelation inspired by my children. There I was, doing my Passover-cleaning. The closest thing that describes cleaning for Passover in the orthodox Jewish home is “Spring-cleaning” but it’s so much more intense than that, and it’s all got to be done before the prescribed time. You need help from every able-bodied family member to make it work. So of course, I enlisted the help of my children. Even a very young child can help clean, given age-appropriate tasks (washing toys in the bathtub, for instance, is great fun and a big help).

But at a certain age, kids balk. It’s not that my kids weren’t willing to help. Jewish schools usually go into Spring break a bit early so teachers and students can do their part to make the holiday happen. But kids rightly deserve a bit of fun during their break. And just when they thought they were done with their tasks, I’d think up another age-appropriate chore to assign.

Finally, my kids had a brainstorm. “Write a list. Put everything you want us to do on a list and we’ll do it. All of it”

So I did it. I made lists for them. It took a little bit of time and forethought, but once their tasks were all laid out there in black and white, things went a lot smoother in my home.

There was no arguing. No exasperation when going from one task to the next. There was a list. It had a beginning and an end—it was finite. The kids had only to go from top to bottom to be done.

The kids themselves discussed which sibling would do which task, and they seemed to enjoy crossing items off the list. It went so well that we did it every day of Passover cleaning. It went even further than that: my kids actually requested me to write up a list for their weekly Friday chores, too.

Can We Talk Lists?

So now that we talked about lists can we talk lists?

The thing is, the lists I created for my kids were more like tutorials than lists. Rather than simply say “clean your room” the list might begin with, “Sweep cobwebs from ceiling,” go on with, “Dust all pictures,” and finish up with, “wash floor.”

In essence, I was reminding my children of the order in which a room is to be cleaned. Gravity is a thing, I would have said to them if they hadn’t tuned me out one hundred times before. Dust falls. Clean from top to bottom.

But they’d stopped listening with their hearing ears. The list, on the other hand, didn’t preach or judge. It was just words on a sheet of paper. Words to tick off with the satisfying swipe of a pencil.

Meantime, I had a hunch my kids were absorbing the how-to, the general gist of how to clean, just by reading the items and going through the motions, each week. Plus, they were learning a lesson in organization. They would grow up to be list-writers and list-followers, organized adults like their mom.

And that would take things to a whole ‘nother level.

Because making a list is quite different than following one.

If you want to understand this, think back to when you were a student. Remember taking notes in class? The reason you did that, instead of just listening to the teacher, is because writing notes makes something happen in your head. Your brain is analyzing what you’ve heard, choosing the important parts, and writing them down. You’re filtering ideas: separating in your mind what is necessary to remember and then cementing it into your Long-Term Memory (LTM) through the act of writing it down.

It’s very different than sitting and passively listening to a lecture. Later, you might return home and want to tell your family what you learned, but your brain only remembers the most random data. It’s so much easier to give over what you’ve heard in a lecture or a class when you’ve written notes.

In fact, scientists researched this and found that most college students remember about 40 percent of the material heard in a lecture. Now note-taking does not increase memory—the students who took notes also remembered just 40 percent of the lecture. The difference lies in what was remembered.  The students who took notes remembered a higher number of key facts, whereas the students who only listened remembered random data that didn’t necessarily hold together very well.

Something happens when we write notes, and even before we write them. We have only a short amount of time to filter what we hear before we write it down. It is this filtering process that cements the key information in our minds, it’s what our brains do before we write and not so much the writing that makes that information stick. It is this that helps us recollect what is important, somewhere down the line.

The same is true of writing lists. As we write out a list, we are thinking out what it is we want to write and what order we’ll put them in when we set these thoughts down in writing. Later on, seeing the list and what we’ve written triggers a memory of what it is we’ve already decided to do.

In note-taking and in list-making we use the spatial part of our brain to make meaningful marks on paper, and we use the verbal part of our brain to come up with the words to write. We use all this to heighten the part of the brain that is memory. By enlisting different parts of the brain, we strengthen and reinforce the circuitry of our memory.

In fact, as we write notes or a list, we are also using the visual brain as we visualize what we write. To our brain, it’s as if we’ve actually done those things we’ve listed, or at least reviewed them. When it comes time to carrying out those tasks, we do them better because we’ve already visualized them, seen them in our mind’s eye.

Obviously, if you write a list for your child, your child won’t get all those benefits. He won’t be using his brain to filter information for later retrieval. He isn’t using the spatial part of his brain to write the words.  But he is learning that lists, and list-making are important for setting about tasks in a calm and organized way. He is learning to be a list-maker and a note-taker. He knows it works to write things down and cross them out, point by point.

What you want to do at some point, is encourage your child to create his own to-do lists, based on the lists you’ve created for him. Maybe you’ll find the opportunity because you’re very busy and don’t have time to make a list for him at that moment. Maybe you can just say, “You know, I’ve written so many lists of tasks for you over the years, I bet you can write one on your own!”

Make it a goal. Praise his efforts. If he feels he’s done a good job, you may not even need to ask the next time around. In teaching your child the art of list-making, you are setting him up with a very important life skill—one he will always need and benefit from in the many years to come.

Helping my Child Find a Ramp to Reading

Helping my Child Find a Ramp to Reading
Julya (Jules) Johnson with her son (courtesy)

When I was a kid, I loved to read! You’d often find me snuggled into a chair with Sweet Valley High, Goosebumps, or the Baby-sitters Club. I knew my kids would be the same!

Only, they weren’t.

My eldest, my 4th grade son, has severe dyslexia. After many years of reading therapy and interventions, he can read—but it’s slow and labored. It’s certainly not fun. It’s HARD. In fact, he’s been known to yell out in frustration, “I wish reading were never invented!”

Yet, he loves stories. When I read to him, his eyes light up and he absorbs every single word. When I get to the end of a chapter, he says “More, more, more!” and I read until my voice cracks. It’s heartbreaking to my momma heart because I know he has a desire to consume these beautiful and fascinating books independently!

Here’s the thing about dyslexia—it’s an UNEXPECTED struggle with reading. Kids who have dyslexia have average to even superior IQ levels. They can fully comprehend text at grade level or above when they hear it. Every sign points to the fact that they should be able to read easily, but it doesn’t happen that way.

We discovered our ramp to reading—audiobooks.

Watching my son struggle was heartbreaking, but my perspective completely changed after reading The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, by Ben Foss. Ben is also severely dyslexic, like my son.  In his book, Ben says, “The key to my happiness occurred when I stopped trying to change my brain and started changing the context around me. Focusing on eye-reading overlooks the real goals of education, which are learning, independent thinking, and mastering the ability to make new connections in the world of ideas.”

Ben is a big believer in assistive technology, specifically what he has coined as “ear-reading” otherwise known as audiobooks.  Since that day, I’ve come to fully embrace assistive technology, and how it does help to level the playing field for my son! He does stay up all night reading now—ear-reading the fabulous books brought to him by the volunteer readers of Learning Ally, a national non-profit that serves people with print disabilities.

An audiobook can serve as a ramp to reading for children with dyslexia. (courtesy)
An audiobook can serve as a ramp to reading for children with dyslexia. (courtesy)

Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t “given up” on eye-reading. He still gets his tutoring and still practices, but we have found this fabulous ramp into the world of literature! We’ve embraced his dyslexia, and we are forever thankful. He gets so excited knowing he can easily read what his friends read now, and he stays up late reading books—just like I did as a child!

Audiobooks aren’t only good for self-confidence. Here are three additional ways I’ve discovered that audiobooks help children who struggle to read:

1) Access to Vocabulary

A 1998 study found that children’s books contain 50 percent more rare words than conversations between college-educated adults! Children who don’t read as often are missing out on all of that wonderful vocabulary. That will show up as a deficit once they reach high school and beyond, whether on SAT tests or in college application essays.

2) Boosting Comprehension Skills

It’s often said that those who read live 1,000 different lives, and it’s true! Books take you into a whole other world, where you can learn about different cultures, times and backgrounds. All of this helps children boost their comprehension.

3) Demonstrating Proper Fluency

Whether children are reading along in a paperback book or use the VOICEtext feature (where text is highlighted in sync with the audio), proper fluency and intonation is demonstrated by human-narrated audiobooks. That repeated exposure greatly helps in the long run.

Jules Johnson's son has found his ramp to reading! (courtesy)
Jules Johnson’s son has found his ramp to reading! (courtesy)

Keep in mind, many kids who struggle to read may have a notion that they “hate reading,” so some may resist any form of reading (even audiobooks) at first.  However, many kids get hooked after trying several different audiobooks of different genres. They have to find what they like. Play around with the audio reading speed and onscreen text options. With technology today, the options are endless!

Music: What Every Parent Ought to Know

Music: What Every Parent Ought To KnowYou already knew that music could calm an infant, and help him drop off to sleep. It’s why you instinctively hummed to your child, if not Brahm’s Lullaby, then perhaps a nameless soft melody, you invented on the spot. All you know is that it worked: it put your baby to sleep.

And that’s good enough for you.

But did you know that babies hear and respond to music even before they are born? Researchers in Barcelona, Spain, piped music into the womb and witnessed babies bopping and grooving in utero as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy.

Now, that’s powerful.

Beyond babyhood, the power of music to enrich your child’s life is indisputable. Rhymes like Hickory Dickory Dock, and Pease Porridge, teach infants and toddlers to enjoy the sounds and rhythms of notes and words. These rhyming songs are a crucial part of teaching children pre-literacy skills. Mother Goose teaches children how to make sense of text, and that the sounds of words and music can be pleasing to the eyes and ears.

Also, like the lullaby of the earliest days of a child’s life (and before birth!), at some point, a child realizes that music can be a refuge, a restorative: something that makes you feel good. Teens use music to soothe adolescent turmoil, or express the pent up feelings they have about love and life in general. At some point, music becomes the background to everything we do and we have different types of music for different occasions.

Introducing Your Child To Music

Just as exercise tones the body and builds muscles, music builds memory. It has been proven that intensive music training of at least 15 months, changes the structure of the brain (in a good way!). Music improves auditory and motor skills, and increases vocabulary leading to better reading skills. Music helps children retain what they learn. But the greatest benefits of this sort of music training are seen when training is begun before the age of seven.

What can you do to make sure your child gets all the benefits of music? Make sure you actively introduce your child to music and music expression. Try singing that breakfast is ready instead of announcing it. Play classical music, jazz, or rock, as you do your housework to ensure your child is exposed to the building blocks of music. Take time to sing nursery rhymes to your baby. Encourage your child to sing and make music, even if it involves loud rhythmic banging of a toddler’s spoon on a highchair tray (or potlids!).

Prevent Attention Difficulties

Researchers have found that music helps us learn to pay attention, to stay focused. Using imaging scans, scientists from Stanford University found that when people listen to symphonies, they anticipate upcoming music passages. Their brains knows how to interpret and process music as chunks of information with meaning. The brain knows how to segment what it is hearing and how to put it into context. Music can keep us engaged over a lengthy period of time, teaching us (and our children, of course!) how to focus.

Music FMRI

Keeps Them Off Those Screens

If you are a parent in the 21st Century, you know the frustration of trying to pry children away from the various screens associated with current technology. Computers, tablets, phones, and notebooks: they are perched in front of them 24/7. But give your child music lessons and watch your child engage in producing music instead of sitting in front of a screen. Hear, hear (literally) for the constructive hobby that changes your child from a screen-zombie to a wannabe musical prodigy.

Aesthetics

Part of the pleasure of parenting involves teaching children a sense of color and design, and showing them the joys of the arts, whether it is visual arts, music, or theater. Each of these lead to the other. But music is the only art appreciated in the womb, and arguably a child’s first exposure to the aesthetic beauty of our world. We are lucky to have music. This is something children should understand and appreciate.

Math and Even Logic!

Music is based on mathematics and logical correlations: the eight notes of an octave, the rhythms and tempo of a piece of music. Music even has question and answer phrases. Music teaches children about patterns and the application of logic. Listening to music or playing music is soothing and even cathartic, because it follows logical patterns and wholly engages the mind.

Einstein said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. . . I get most joy in life out of music.”

Of his famous father, Hans Einstein said, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

Einstein’s sister Maja described the way her brother would play piano and then suddenly rise up from the piano bench announcing, “There, now I’ve got it!”

Music clearly helped Einstein find a way forward with his research.

Instills Confidence

Learning a piece of music, or even finally nailing down a difficult passage, builds a child’s confidence and makes him feel better about himself and his abilities. You get that through hard work and practice. And the feeling is grand.

Social Skills

If you want your child to learn team work, try putting him in a choir or a youth symphony. Working together is the only way to sound great. Sounding good means matching sound and matching sound is a great equalizer. Singing or playing at just the same volume and tempo is an amazing exercise in learning to get along with others.

Don’t Push It

Does your child hate his music lessons? Don’t push it. You want him to appreciate and enjoy music. Try a different teacher, a different instrument, or perhaps, skip the lessons and buy season tickets to the symphony and make it a parent/child weekly activity.

There are so many ways to bring music into a child’s life, all of them worthy and good. Be thankful for the gift that is music, and expose your child to this gift as often as you can. It can only enrich both your lives and minds, for the long term.

The Reading Connection: Promoting Literacy One Book at a Time

The Reading Connection: Promoting Literacy One Book At a Time“Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that The Reading Connection has been awarded a $350 small grant from Kars4Kids! Your mission to improve the lives of at-risk children by promoting literacy is beautiful, and we are honored to have a small part in making your programs possible.”

That was the note our Director of Public Relations, Wendy Kirwan, sent to the wonderful people at The Reading Connection (TRC), an organization dedicated to opening up the world of books to children. Nothing could be closer to our own mission at Kars4Kids of giving kids a helping hand to get ahead. Kars4Kids was happy to do its part to ensure kids have books to read.

TRC sends volunteers into shelters and community centers to read to at-risk children. The organization also sends children books to their homes, free of charge, to make sure that kids have real books to feel, see, and read, a critical facet of developing literacy skills. But the organization doesn’t stop there: TRC also gives workshops to families to teach parents how to foster a love of reading in their children. Family support workers are trained by TRC to teach families the importance of reading and to guide them in getting their children up to scratch on their reading.

Kars4Kids spoke to Judy Hijikata, Director of Communications at TRC, to find out more about the work of TRC, and to see what parents might do at home to help their children fall in love with the printed word.

A TRC volunteer reads aloud to spellbound children.
A TRC volunteer reads aloud to spellbound children.

Kars4Kids: Tell us a bit about the history and mission of The Reading Connection. Who was your founder? How did The Reading Connection get started?

Judy Hijikata: The Reading Connection (TRC) was founded in 1989 by three Arlington, VA, elementary school reading teachers. They noticed that they were seeing kids with different needs in their classrooms, and realized the kids were living at a newly opened nearby shelter.  The teachers began going to the shelter, on a volunteer basis, to spend time reading with the kids and giving them books. That very impulse—the importance of reading aloud with kids, and the power of offering that to kids under stress—has always been the heart of our program. One of the three teachers, Beth Reese, became TRC’s first executive director.

Here’s our mission statement:

The Reading Connection is dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk children and families by helping them create and sustain literacy-rich environments and motivation for reading.  This mission is accomplished by

– Volunteers who read aloud to children at shelters and community centers,
– Donations that provide children with free, new books to keep,
– Workshops that help parents encourage reading and literacy development and
– Training for family support workers who promote the importance of reading. Mother and Son

Kars4Kids: Tell us a bit about how TRC has evolved from its early days. I know you once worked closely with social services agencies to identify at-risk families who might benefit from what The Reading Connection offers. Is that still your focus? What constitutes an at-risk family?

Judy Hijikata: When we first began, in shelters, the families were in housing crisis. Now our largest programs are not in shelters but in affordable apartments, where the families are not in the same degree of housing insecurity. Rather they must meet income requirements to live in the affordable units, and for many, English is not the parents’ first language. For a variety of reasons, the children are at-risk for not reading on grade level by third grade, which is, as your readers might know, a predictor for high school graduation.

Kars4Kids: There’s lots of evidence that pre-literacy skills begin at home, even from birth. At what point in the child’s development does TRC get involved?

Judy Hijikata: Some Book Club moms order books while they are expecting! We love to see this because we know these moms understand the importance of sharing books with their kids from birth, and even before!

Kars4Kids: Tell us about TRC’s Read-Aloud program. How does this work? In how many places do you operate this program? How often does the program run? Must an adult accompany the child?

Judy Hijikata: The Read-Aloud program currently operates in 13 sites, which are either shelters or affordable apartment complexes. The children participating in the Read-Alouds are generally 4 to 11 years old. Each week, a team of volunteers comes in the early evening to spend an hour with the kids reading books on a selected theme; having conversations; doing a theme-related activity and helping the kids choose a free, new book to take with them. There are around 250 volunteers who help in this program, which runs in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia, Washington, DC, and Montgomery County, MD.

At a TRC Mother's Day event, a volunteer reads, "Are You My Mother?"
At a TRC Mother’s Day event, a volunteer reads, “Are You My Mother?” to toddlers.

Kars4Kids: It’s awesome that the children get a choice of books—and we love that there’s a Margaret Wise Brown book on your toddler and preschoolers book list. How do you choose the books you offer? How often do you update your reading list How often do the children in the book club receive books by mail?

Judy Hijikata: Letting kids choose their books is a very important motivational factor, as you can imagine. Books are purchased for the Book Club (as opposed to books for the Read-Aloud, which come from community donations) and selected by knowledgeable TRC staffers with years of experience helping kids choose books in retail and library settings. In addition to years of experience, we are guided by industry reviews and by criteria we’ve developed. You’ll notice that approximately 1/3 of the books on the Book Club book list are bilingual English/Spanish.  Many of the client families speak Spanish as their first language, and it is very important to provide moms and dads with books they feel comfortable reading.

The wish list on the website is updated every six months. The Book Club booklist is new each month. Kids in the Book Club receive books once a month. In each book order is an order form which they can use to order books for the next month’s mailing. Also included in the package are hints for parents on ways they can use the books they’ve ordered for conversation starters and/or skills development.

Book Club families are registered in the Book Club by the family support workers and home visiting staff of social service agencies. Kids registered range from newborn to 5 years of age.  Siblings (from prenatal to 18) can also receive books through the Book Club.

Promoting Literacy: A Generational Thing

Kars4Kids: With just six permanent staff members, you must have a large pool of volunteers to handle the enormous amount of work you do: workshops, the Read-Aloud program, processing book orders and mailing out the books. How many volunteers are helping out at TRC? Where do you find your volunteers?

Judy Hijikata: TRC employs 4 full-time employees and 4 part-time employees. You’re right, we could not do it without our large and dedicated volunteer corps, which numbers nearly 300. The majority of these (250) are Read-Aloud volunteers, but we also benefit from the time and dedication of folks who help pack up the Book Club packages, lead Reading Family Workshops and help out in the office.

TRC's early days. Volunteers processing order forms in the 1990's.

Kars4Kids: Does TRC envision expanding its services beyond the DC, Virginia, Maryland tri-state area?  

Judy Hijikata: We do plan to expand over the next few years, but will stay within the DC metro area. Our Maryland presence is new—our Read-Aloud program opened there in 2014. In 2016, we plan to expand again in Montgomery County, MD, with another Read-Aloud site in March, followed by a new Book Club partner in June 2016. In 2017, we plan to expand further in Fairfax County, VA, with both the Read-Aloud and Book Club program. And every Book Club and Read-Aloud partner also receives Reading Families Workshops.

Kars4Kids: If you could give parents—not just parents of at-risk children, but all parents—just one piece of advice on fostering literacy skills in their children, what would it be?

Judy Hijikata: This is our mantra, first articulated in the 1985 study, Becoming a Nation of Readers.  (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED253865.pdf): “The most important thing you can do to set your child up for future success in school is to read aloud to him or her.”

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