Sensory Issues In The Classroom



I was asked to observe Marcos* in his third-grade class. His parents were facing an expulsion from school if his behaviors didn’t improve, and his teacher was overwhelmed by him. She wanted me to know that Marcos was very well loved by herself and his peers. I came into the classroom and quietly moved to the back of the room with my clipboard.

Marcos required constant redirection and engagement. Marcos defiantly refused to follow directions. In fact, even simple directions like, “Let’s stand up and stretch” prompted a collapse in his chair followed by exaggerated and agitated sounds. When he was asked to put his journal away, he refused, launching his pencil across the room and clutching his journal to his chest. When instructed to be silent, he hummed loudly and tapped his markers on his table. The teacher reminded him again to be quiet, at which point he pulled out a book from his desk and started to bang it against the desk over and over again until the teacher took the book from him. During carpet time, he hugged his knees and rocked back and forth, disturbing other children’s space and concentration. Every behavior the teacher warned me about, I saw.

However, I also saw much more. I saw a very discouraged little boy who was doing his best to succeed in a classroom that was very over-stimulating for a child with sensory issues. I saw a child that was constantly being rejected by peers. I heard from almost every child in the class during my observation, “Stop it, Marcos! Move, Marcos! Quit, Marcos!” . I saw his little face fall when he picked a snack buddy to sit with and sat so close to him that his snack buddy said, “Marcooos, move!”. I observed that every transition was hard for him, and I counted 65 transitions in two hours. With each one, he struggled. He was always initially resistant, but usually by the end of the activity, he was moving along nicely, only to be given another transition.

I saw that he asked to use the bathroom often, and he stayed gone until the teacher sent a classmate to find him. After each potty break, he experienced a small window of time when he needed no redirection. I saw that the teacher, although very nurturing, was not structured. She was so overwhelmed by him that she was very reactive with him. She was very kind and very overwhelmed. She used words and phrases to describe him like defiant, bad choices, decides, stubborn, difficult, and uncooperative.

My words to describe this same sweet little guy were discouraged, lonely, sensory- seeking, eager to please, stressed, unable to transition without support, overwhelmed, and doing the best he could with the tools he has. If we see children as having positive intentionality, then it would completely change the way we treat children.

Sensory interventions in the classroom make a huge difference for kids. Many teachers will add sensory support even without an IEP. There are many sensory tools that can be added without causing any disruption. Some examples of these are as follows:

  • Elastic bands wrapped around the legs of children’s chairs. Children can push their feet against them.
  • Seats that move: Hokkis, T-stools, exercise balls, etc.
  • Letting the child wear Chewlry: sturdy bracelets and necklaces a child can chew on.
  • Providing support during transition: “Changing activities is hard, isn’t it buddy? You can join us in a minute when you are ready.”
  • Providing an area where the child can retreat: a small pop-up tent, a bean bag, or even in a different location like the library.
  • Providing a child with extra recess time or structuring his/her recess time more.
  • Sticking different textures to the bottom of the child’s desk: felt, Velcro, and silk.
  • Providing all the children something they can hold: for example, a 6” soft ruler that all the kids can use when they sit down to make sure they have enough space between them and the child next to them. This is a great tool for standing in line as well.

If I can shift the way teachers view misbehaving children, this goes further than any list of suggestions that I can give to a teacher. A teacher naturally has more patience for a child “who can’t” rather than for a child “who won’t”.


*names and identifying information have been changed

Are Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) Necessary ?



My IEP journey started with my own child. I can remember asking for an IEP as we were going into kindergarten and being denied. I was told that the school had to experience at least 2 years of impaired cognition or behaviors in order for my son to qualify for an IEP. I remember being frustrated, shamed, and somewhat astounded. I guess 5 years of my own experience as a parent and a Ph.D. in Psychology did not qualify me to make that determination. They must have thought my child fell out of a closet with lunchbox in hand and backpack on at 5 with no history or past experiences. I remember the minimizing statements, “Every parent worries about their first child.”, “Most children do so much better than parents expect.”, and “Kindergarten is designed to be a stepping stone into elementary school.”.

Here is what you need to know about IEP’s.

Schools have a limited number of resources and manpower.

There is always someone at the IEP, typically a principal or vice principal, who will protect the school’s resources with all of his/her authority. As much as you love the school your child attends, and as much as you love his/her teacher, you need to understand this dynamic. Their goal is to use the least amount of resources and offer the least amount of accommodations as possible. This is not because they don’t care about your child. In fact, many IEP meetings are full of professionals that do care about your child, but your child is not their first priority.

Your first priority is to advocate for your child.

No one cares about your child more than you do. In fact, if your child had a line of fans, you would be at the front of the line. Some of those fan lines start and end with the parents, especially for the most difficult kids I work with. I believe shame is one reason that parents have a hard time advocating for their children. They experience shame that their child is misbehaving and needs so much of the teacher. They experience shame every day as they open their daily report folder and see all the misbehavior for the day. Do not let shame immobilize you. Advocate anyway. With the right support, a child will not have as much misbehavior. In fact, your child’s misbehavior indicates that the school environment is outside of his/her window of tolerance.

Encourage your child’s teacher.

The teachers do not have any authority over what goes into the IEP, and some schools don’t even give the teachers a voice (even though they are always present). Most teachers that I have worked with really care about your child and agonize over their learning and behavior. They stretch their own resources to meet your child’s needs and often will accommodate without an IEP mandate. If your child has a really tough day at school, encourage the teacher. Sometimes a quick email saying, “I am so sorry. I know how hard he/she can be alone. I can’t imagine meeting the needs of a whole classroom.”

I had one teacher call me to apologize for being short with my child. The teacher was in the wrong and yelled at him for a very small infraction. My son cried. The teacher called and said, “I am so sorry I did that.” My response was, “Everyone gets to have a bad day. Thank you for loving on my kids every day.” Give the grace you want others to give you.

Don’t ever attend an IEP meeting alone.

My mom is a retired teacher and a huge advocate for my child. She has attended all but one IEP meeting with me. I will never forget that meeting. Her presence at such a vulnerable event makes me bold, articulate, and thick-skinned. Her absence stripped me of armor and left me feeling very vulnerable. I remember someone at the IEP saying to me, “The problem with you is your low expectations of him; if you expected more of him, he would do better.” I was speechless, and then I just cried. I responded in a fumbling way that was not bold or articulate. I cried most of that meeting, and the ironic thing was that things were actually going really well at school.

Hire an IEP advocate.

No matter how many IEP meetings I have attended for my own child or the children I work with, I am not an expert on IEP laws. Many parents have confidence in their own knowledge of the law and their rights, and they don’t feel the need to hire an advocate. However, if you have attended as many IEPs as I have with and without advocates, you would know how differently meetings go when there is an advocate there. All of a sudden, the fan line for your child grows by one, and this one person knows exactly what rights your child has and is determined to get those for your child. This person has not experienced any immobilizing shame.

I have had parents refuse to use even free advocates, afraid that they will make the school angry. When you have an advocate, all of a sudden the school no longer gets to guard its resources. It must figure out how to meet your child’s needs. And, yes, this might make the school very uncomfortable because its first goal of guarding its resources has now become non-primary. These meetings look and feel very differently. All of a sudden, the accommodations that the school said were impossible get added to the IEP

Some examples of these are the following:

  • This child will never miss recess; instead, she will have a quiet lunch in the library.
  • This child will not be suspended for behaviors that are non-aggressive and related to her condition such as forgetting to turn in assignments, speaking out of turn, not sitting still, etc.
  • Daily notes will be sent home to parents about all homework assignments.
  • Educational assistants will help the child organize her back pack daily.
  • The child is allowed to have snacks with her all the time.
  • The child gets to participate during her own recess block and another class’s recess block to meet her movement needs.
  • The child will have no homework sent home.

If your child is being punished for behaviors that are beyond her control or is being held to the same standards as other children without IEPs, you need an advocate.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just put my child in private school?

While there are certainly some private schools that were established specifically with at risk children in mind, most were not. The effective schools that are for kids with learning differences and behavioral issues are very expensive. If you have the money for one of those schools, then your child may receive better support. However, most families cannot afford this type of education which often compares to college tuition in cost.

Most private schools are smaller schools with fewer resources than public schools. Often the teachers in private schools are not licensed teachers. Most private schools don’t have occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, behavioral psychologists, or even school counselors. Private schools are not obligated by law to accommodate for your child. If your child is in a private school, there is almost no chance that your child will get an aid unless you hire one.

I have many times recommended that the kids I work with go to specific private schools that I believe can meet their needs. However, I don’t believe that a private education is always a better education.

My child is smart. He doesn’t need an IEP.

Learning Disability or Difference – any of various conditions that interfere with an individual’s ability to learn and so result in impaired functioning in language, reasoning, or academic skills and that are thought to be caused by difficulties in processing and integrating information. (Miriam Webster)

I have often encouraged clients to pursue IEP’s for their children and hear the above statement frequently. IEP’s can even be designed for gifted children who need support with organization, socialization, etc. My son is very, very intelligent. I believe that he will be a successful adult with a successful career. In fact, he is a bold entrepreneur. He made more money performing a 90-minute, street-side magic show at 10 years of age than I would have made babysitting an 8 hour day at 17 years of age.  Being bold, talkative, loud, and engaging sure come in handy when you are doing a magic show and do not come in handy during reading, writing and arithmetic. Having an IEP does not mean that your child is not intelligent, but it does mean that he/she needs support in a traditional learning environment.



Expectations are resentments under construction.” (Anne Lamott)


Did you know expectations are contagious? Somehow our expectations of our children change depending on who we are with and what we think their expectations are of our child. When Grandma is over, all of a sudden it is not O.K. to throw the ball in the house or watch that PG-13 movie, even though neither of these things would be a big deal if she wasn’t visiting. Or maybe that friend is visiting with her three children who just sit and grin, and all of a sudden you are furious your children are jumping on the furniture. Why aren’t they just sitting and grinning like your friend’s kids? Don’t they understand that our expectations change for them depending on who we are with? No, they really don’t. It takes fluid social reasoning to understand these changing scenarios. Most kids don’t have these skills until they are teenagers, and some much later. When children don’t meet parents’ expectations, they experience anger or shame. It creates a rift in the relationship.

I can remember one Mother’s Day years ago that was full of unmet expectations that were constructing resentment toward my little guy. It wasn’t that his behaviors were so horrible; it was that my expectations of how he should behave on Mother’s Day were unrealistic. It was Mother’s Day; good grief, I just woke up thinking, “Today is going to be amazing!” I had the day all planned. We were going to take a long stroll around the lake, holding hands and walking calmly. We were going to point out wildlife on the way and learn something about the animals’ habitats. Then afterwards, we were going to eat lunch out, where everyone would “ooh” and “ahh” at my beautiful and well-behaved children. Why on earth I expected this in a season of our life where every day was so hard, I have no idea, but I just knew that everyone would understand how sacred this day was and behave.

Instead, this is how the day went. We chased our little guy along the entire three- mile trail. We yelled, “No! Stop! Don’t! Quit!” about 300 times. It happened to be a day when lots of deer were out. All along the trail there were small groups of people standing together pointing at the deer they saw. Each time my son saw a group of people, he ran towards them screaming and threw whatever he had in his hand at the deer. Of course the deer and crowd scattered, murmuring under their breath about “out of control children”. We should have given it up and called it a day, but we went on to have an equally disregulated lunch out. I was so angry at my little guy the whole way home. I resented the fact that he couldn’t behave just this one day. After I put the kids to bed, I had a good long cry. The day wouldn’t have been so hard if I hadn’t expected so much.

If, instead of expecting the day to go smoothly, I had expected that things would be hard, the day would have gone very differently. I still may have ended the day in tears because in the process of changing your expectations you grieve, but it would have been peaceful and without resentment. If I had expected that in all his excitement, he would be even more disregulated than usual, then I wouldn’t have planned several activities after expecting him to be good in church. It was too much for him. We have learned and grown. Now Mother’s Day is low key for us. We pick up food instead of eating out. We stay away from crowds and instead pick a movie everyone can enjoy together

Parents tell me all the time that their kids sabotage special events. This is worth a post all on its own, but I think one of the reasons parents feel this way is because their expectations of special events are so different than their expectations of a regular day. If it is Christmas, then we expect our kids to be appropriately grateful for all the thought we put into their gifts. On their birthday, we expect them to thank each person for their gifts and claim that they love every gift even if the super soaker Grandma got them is so much more fun than the board book they got from their friend.

Some parents hear this and cringe. After all, if you don’t expect anything of children, they won’t live up to their potential, right? Isn’t it true that children only behave as well as we expect them to? There are, of course, expectations that are important and set a standard of how we treat each other. But I will ask you to ask yourself some different questions: “What expectations are getting in the way of my relationship with my child? What would our relationship be like if that expectation was completely out of the picture?”

Healthy expectations are dynamic. They change based on what your child’s needs are in the moment. I expect that when my children are overly tired, overly hungry or overly stimulated they will snap at each other and at us. Snapping at each other would be addressed differently in this situation by meeting their physical needs first. If they snapped at each other at home when they were well rested and satisfied, then I would address speaking to each other with respect. Healthy expectations enhance relationships by creating appropriate boundaries without resentment and shame.

Maybe you expect an introverted child with poor social skills to be more involved in youth group or to be more socially engaging. Maybe you expect your musically gifted child to follow in your footsteps in the music industry, but all he is interested in is sports. Maybe you expect your child with learning disabilities to try harder, do better, and stay motivated with academics. Maybe he is doing the best he can just getting by. Maybe you expect your child to behave in school, but she doesn’t have the support she needs in that environment to behave. If unmet expectations fill the atmosphere of the relationship, then resentment grows. Children start to feel shame and believe that there must be something wrong with them. We cannot sacrifice our relationships with our children because of our expectations of them. As parents, we have this incredible influence over our children. They will forever carry inside of them the feeling of “being enough” or “not being enough” largely based on whether or not they met our expectations. I believe that some of the most toxic situations start with unrealistic expectations. The unhappiest families are those where parents have expectations of a child that the child cannot meet.


The Power of Your Story




“You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” – Brene Brown

“Honey, can you make me a cup of coffee?” my husband asked.

I was overcome by a wave of anger, and my reaction was automatic. “I am not your mother!”, I responded. “Get your own cup of coffee.”

I was not responding to the situation. I was reacting to a wounded part of my story. My husband is the type of man who will spend 15 minutes fixing himself the perfect sandwich and then give it to the first person that walks in the room and looks hungry. He is always fixing us treats.

I was only 19 when we got married and still making sense of my own story. I can remember as a child watching my dad rattle his ice cubes, and my Mom would hop up and get him a refill of his sweet tea. I remember when I was about 9,and he turned to me and rattled his ice cubes. He did it again trying to get my attention. I wondered what on earth he was doing. Surely, he did not expect me to hop up and get him a drink, but that is exactly what he expected. A wave of anger came over me, and I said, “Don’t you ever, ever rattle your ice cubes at me!”

In making sense of my own story, I understand that the fact I had a home where I was safe enough to say that and not get smacked around was an important part of how effective I feel as a person. He never rattled his ice cubes at me again. I had been effective and could change my story, but I had to fight for it. I understand now that I don’t have to fight to be effective or to be heard.

Adults often spend much of their adulthood trying to make sense of their story. “Why am I afraid of commitment? Why do I always end up in these relationships? Why don’t I trust anyone? Why am I so controlling?” When a reaction is stronger than the situation warrants, then we are reacting to some wounded part of our story. Our children are the same way. If a part of their story says, “I am not wanted”, then they will react strongly to seemingly small redirections as though it were heavy criticism. Can you imagine what a gift it would be to help children create meaning in their story from the time they are old enough to understand their first fairy tale?

I worked with one little boy who worked double time at keeping his Mommy very busy with him. In fact, whenever she would start getting focused on one of his siblings, his needs intensified. All of a sudden, he needed help unbuckling his pants to go potty, was desperately hungry, or needed to tell her about his day. He would do this with such an urgency that it made his mom feel manipulated and controlled. She tried to give him one-on-one time, but this seemed to only intensify his need for her as soon as they rejoined the family. She felt that he was insatiable.

I asked the little guy, “Buddy, I have noticed you really feel like you need to keep your Mommy very busy with you. I wonder why you are scared when she stops being busy with you.” He responded, “When she isn’t busy with me, I am not a real boy anymore. It is like I am invisible.” Karyn Purvis, the author of The Connected Child said, “The message of neglect is that I don’t exist.” This child was reacting to the wounded part of his story. He didn’t even know his story. Once we started making sense of these wounds, his fears diminished.

Often parents spend a lot of time shielding their children from their children’s own story. Interestingly, later in life, people seek out counseling to make sense of that very story they were shielded from. Dan Siegal said, “Making sense of your own story is the best thing that you can do for your children.” I think the reason parents want to shield their children is because they are trying to protect them from the “hard” or “shaming” pieces of their story. However, shame lets down very deep roots in dark places. When these pieces are brought to light, then they can be made sense of.

Adoption is complicated. There are many complex levels of an adoptee’s story. It gets even more complicated if neglect, substance abuse, and/or physical or sexual abuse are a part of a child’s story. Parents desperately want to shield their kids from these hard pieces of their story. Some parents avoid labels and refuse the idea that adoption issues exist, instead thinking it is just a part of the child’s inherent personality.   Let me be clear. Adoption is trauma. Trauma can change the way our brains develop. Trauma has the ability to cause certain genes to express themselves.

I work with children in helping them understand their story. If they have special needs as a result of being neglected or abused, we talk about that. If they have trouble trusting their caretakers, we track this back to the pieces of their story where they were not able to trust their caretakers.   I do this even when children can’t remember. There are two types of memory, implicit and explicit. Implicit memory is the memory held that you don’t actually have words to describe. I work with many children adopted in infancy who don’t remember being hungry, and yet they struggle, feeling like there is never enough food. Did you know that hunger can be experienced in utero? Children stress about food, hoard food, and obsess about food.   They don’t know why food has such a strong hold on them.

Explicit memory is a memory you have words for such as, “I always get nervous driving around this corner because 2 years ago I had a wreck right here. “

I have worked with many children that have implicit memories about the time of the year that they were relinquished. These children struggle the most during a certain month of the year. Some people refer to these as “ traumaversaries”, also known as “anniversaries of trauma”. I have children that I see the same month every year, and then I don’t see them for the rest of the year. Most of the time, they come to me without understanding that struggling during this month is part of their story.

It is important to note that helping make sense of a child’s story is not the same as telling the child’s story to everyone you meet. It is sad that even though they are the main character in their story, they often know less about their own story than peripheral figures like acquaintances. Discretion must be used when sharing pieces of the child’s story. Even when our kids are older, we need to ask permission before sharing their stories. It is theirs to share. There is a proverb in the Bible that says,

“Do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Proverbs 7:6b)

Our stories are our pearls. If given to the wrong person or at the wrong time, they may be trampled under people’s feet. If we share our story too many times or too soon after meeting someone, we end up feeling open and exposed. Most of the time when people come to me, it is because of “my story”. They don’t come because of my education or my professional experience. They come because somewhere along the way, they heard my wounded story, and it gave them hope.

Find Water


“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Albert Einstein

My husband repairs airplanes and really is brilliant at fixing things. If I spent 8 hours a day in the hanger expected to learn to fix airplanes, I have no doubt in my mind that I would feel stupid before long.   I would feel clumsy and awkward. I would compare myself to people like my husband who seem to know what is wrong with something just by listening to the engine from across the room. I would think there must be something wrong with my ears, my hands, and my brain because this fixing planes business is just so hard for me. Many children start feeling inadequate and stupid in school because they learn differently than other children.

My children are feeling the pressure of TCAP tests that are coming up soon. They have been well indoctrinated by their teachers that there is nothing in life more important than good scores on TCAP. One of my kids was told, “Before the middle school knows anything about you, they will have your TCAP scores.   Your TCAP scores are your first impression for the middle school. They won’t know what you look like and they won’t know your name, but they will know what your TCAP scores are.” It is no wonder that performance anxiety is becoming a huge problem in America with more children in elementary school taking psychotropic drugs for anxiety than ever before.

I think every child needs to hear the following: “You are so much more than a number on a page. This test says something about you, but it is only a very little part of who you are. It doesn’t show how much you love to learn and explore. It doesn’t show what a great leader you are. It doesn’t show how much you know about things you are interested in. It doesn’t show how quickly you make friends or what a loyal friend you are. It doesn’t reflect the joy you bring into a room when you walk into it. It doesn’t show or predict your ability to be hugely successful in life. It is not important. IT IS NOT IMPORTANT. You are so much more than the sum of your parts.”

Every child is gifted in some way. The problem is that when you decide to judge every child by his/her ability to climb a tree when some children are fish, then that child will always feel stupid.  Some of the most creative, accomplished people in history struggled with learning in a traditional setting. Today they would have been labeled as ADHD, on the spectrum, learning disabled, dyslexic, etc. George Washington could hardly spell and was thought to have dyslexia. Albert Einstein was thought to be mentally retarded by his own parents. Thomas Edison was taken out of school by his parents and homeschooled because he had what today would have been described as ADHD.

On our way home from church one day, my husband said, “You have to come and watch Jonny* teach Sunday school with me. He is amazing.” Now if you knew my husband, you would know he doesn’t express very much excitement, and where I use words like “amazing” and “fantastic”, he uses words like “ok” or “all right”. I was intrigued and went to watch him the following Sunday. My little guy, who struggles following the rules in his own Sunday school class, was truly amazing. He anticipated the children’s needs and met them consistently. He was fair and paid attention to all the kids, focusing on the ones that were acting out the most. He was patient, helpful, and gentle. He was in every sense of the word “the perfect Sunday school helper”. I was so very proud of him. He has told me for a while now that he wants to be a teacher when he grows up. I tell him he is going to be an amazing teacher because he knows how hard it is to learn, and he loves learning anyway.


We need to find bodies of water for our fish. We need to find deep pools, clear streams, and wide oceans. They need to have places where their gifts shine out and are exposed to all. If your child loves to fix things, then buy her tools and old appliances at goodwill for her to repair. If your child is great with younger kids, then volunteer to teach a Sunday school class with him as your helper. If your child loves animals, then let her take part in training a service dog or volunteering for the humane society. Just imagine being a child who struggles to learn and/or gets in trouble frequently at school. If we don’t give these fragile children a place where they can show off their skills and find purpose, then they will despair. They will lose their motivation. I have parents telling me all the time, “He just doesn’t care. Nothing motivates him.” I believe those children have just been at the bottom of the tree for too long, flopping around wondering what is wrong with them. They seem like they don’t care because they know they can’t climb that stinking tree. Find a deep, clear pool for that child, and you will see the life spark back into their day. You will see an awakening in motivation.

*names are changed for privacy issues

Control and Fear


Control is always about fear. As fearfulness increases, so does the need to be in control. This is true of everyone, whether he is two or eighty-four.

I was talking to a sweet Momma that I was working with in trying to help her identify the fears behind her need to be in control.

“Control is about fear,” I said.

“I disagree,” she responded. “I can think of plenty of examples where I needed to be in control, and it had nothing to do with fear.”

“I would love to hear them.”

“Well, there is a tree in our yard that is easy to climb, but very tall,” she began. “My son is not allowed to climb past the first branch because his coordination is very poor, and it is not safe.”

She then paused and said, “That wasn’t a good example.   Let me give you another one.”

After she gave me about four such examples, she sighed and said, “You are right. The more fearful I am about a situation, the more controlling I become.”

A mother who is very controlling is a mother who is very afraid.

A child who is very controlling is a child who is very afraid.

The child who tries so hard to dominate her home obsessively will ask, “What are we doing next?”, “Why are you taking this road home?”, “What are we having for a snack?”, or “What did you pack for my school lunch?”. For those of you who haven’t had a child struggling with fear, these questions seem very simple and easy to answer. However, for a child struggling with fear, the questions are incessant and dominate the mood of the home.

If we call this child controlling, then we are going to treat this child very differently than if we call this child fearful. Be very careful how you talk about your children because words have enormous power.


My child says… If I believe my child is controlling, I respond by saying…… If I believe my child is fearful, I respond by saying…….
Why are you taking this road? Take the other road! When you are old enough to drive, you can take whatever turn you want. You do not get to decide what road Mommy takes.  Buddy, you are worried when Daddy takes a different turn than usual. It makes you feel like you don’t know what is going to happen next. It is my job to keep you safe. I promise I will do that. 
What are we having for dinner, snack, etc.? – for the 100th time. I don’t know what we are having for dinner. Why does it matter? I am not a short order cook. You worry a lot about food. I think your body remembers being hungry, and you never want to be hungry again. Why don’t you pack some snacks in your backpack and carry them with you? I don’t think you will worry as much about food if you always have a snack with you.
I don’t want Daddy to help me with my bath. I want Mommy. Mommy can’t always help you with your bath. Mommy is tired. Daddy wants to spend time with you. You don’t always get what you want. Mommy has a special way of doing things that is different from Daddy. When things are different, you worry extra, don’t you, Buddy.



A child who is in control feels even more anxiety. So even though our responses are very different when we are dealing with a child we call “fearful”, the outcome doesn’t always have to change.   Just because your child is fearful doesn’t mean she gets to decide what turn you make in the car, or what to eat for supper. Too much control will make the child more fearful. However, identifying her fear and supporting her right where she needs your support will help her relinquish control.

“At Risk” children are often fearful children. Even if they don’t have explicit memories of neglect or abuse, their bodies hold implicit memories of that trauma. If children have ever been truly hungry , even in utero, then these children will struggle with wanting to control food. If children have ever been neglected, then they struggle feeling like there is never enough of anything for them. They feel like they have to fight to be seen, literally. If a sibling is in the “limelight” for whatever reason, these children feel terrified, invisible, and compelled to turn all attention back to themselves, usually through negative behavior.

When we parent out of fear, we make very bad parenting choices. We lose the ability to respond and start reacting automatically instead. The next time you find yourself needing more control of your kids, ask yourself “What am I afraid of ?”

The Power of Delight

Delight – 1. To take great pleasure, 2. Joy , 3. Something that gives great pleasure (Webster, 2011, pg. 115)

I can remember as a child entering a room where my Mom was and seeing her eyes sparkle at the mere sight of me. I remember feeling pretty darn special as a kid. There was nothing really that special about me, looking back. I was not the cutest kid or the smartest kid, but I knew I was the most loved kid. As we got older and started driving, whenever we came home, my Mom would meet us at the door clapping. She still claps when we visit her, and I am in my mid 30’s.

I started really struggling in delighting in my son when he was around 4-6, despite loving him fiercely. Looking back, I know there was no twinkle in my eye when he walked through the door, and there was certainly no clapping. There were moments of delight, but they were becoming scarcer as his behaviors became more and more difficult to handle. Children cannot attach if we are not delighting in them. Children cannot feel like they are special if they are not being delighted in. The less I delighted in him, the worse the behaviors became, and the harder it was for me to delight in him. I needed to change. I needed to be the healing agent in his life.

At first it was so very hard to delight in him. It was a full time job to catch him being good, trust me. I purposed to make the first 10 minutes of every new interaction with him sweet and nurturing, no matter how he was acting, first thing in the morning, first thing after school, etc… Transitions were so hard for him, and they still are, but to a much lesser degree. Slowly that began to change for both of us. Slowly we began to delight in each other’s presence. There are still times where I have to go back to a place of delighting with purpose, especially during stressful times. Most of the time now, delight comes naturally.

Today my son is almost 11 and is used to great delight greeting him whenever he gets in the car after school. In fact, yesterday I was on the phone when he got in the car, something I purposefully avoid, and as soon as I got off the phone, he said, “Mommy, it hurts my feelings that you didn’t acknowledge me when I got to the car. I really look forward to you being so cheerful to see me.”   He understands the importance of being acknowledged with joy and delight. He is used to it. He misses it when I get distracted, and he knows how to ask for what he needs.

Children who are not delighted in rarely act in a delightful manner. In my experience, the children who misbehave the most are the ones with the tenderest of hearts. Children want to please their parents. When they are acting in a displeasing manner, it is because they either don’t have the skills to behave differently or they understand that the bar has been set too high for them to jump over it.   For example, a child who struggles socially may not be able to successfully wait her turn unless a parent is there to help her navigate what to her is truly a difficult challenge. Another example is a child who struggles getting ready in the morning. What is seen as defiance and negativity is often a child navigating extreme sensory issues, trying her best to get ready for the day.

In all of my journey, my son has been my greatest teacher. His pain has chipped away at my rigidity, his willingness to forgive has multiplied my grace for others, his generosity has increased my giving, and his difficult behaviors have burned away my arrogance. Relationship is the greatest currency for change.

I know that as he gets older, I will have less and less control over what he does and where he goes. I also know that when he walks through the door, I am going to meet him at the door clapping, whether he is 16, 30, or 40. I have learned the power of delight. Delight does not control behaviors; delight compels them.

Making Room

Adoption Loss

“Did you know that hearts are stretchy and both of your Mommies fit in your heart?”

She shook her head somberly. I went on to explain that just like her Mommy and Daddy could stretch out their hearts for each new brother or sister who joined the family, she could stretch out her heart for her first Mommy. Everyone who is a part of you can fit into your heart.

Children under the age of 11 have a hard time thinking in gray areas. The sweet little girl mentioned above really believed that she had to choose one parent to love and the other parent to reject. She believed that it would hurt her Mommy’s feelings to be seen as one of two mommies.

This view has multiple pitfalls. This child looks in the mirror and sees that she doesn’t look like her Mommy. In rejecting her birth mother, the self-loathing begins. “I wish I didn’t have curly hair.” “I wish I had blue eyes.” “I hate my brown skin.” You see, children internalize both sets of parents, whether or not they have any explicit memories about their birth parents. The meaning they make about their birth parents is incredibly important to how they view themselves.

The messages parents send are both verbal and nonverbal. I believe what is not said is often more impactful than what is said. Your children are thinking about their birth parents. It is a big responsibility for a child to have to bring that up to you.

What If I Don’t Have Any Answers?

There is nothing more annoying than sharing something that you feel really vulnerable about with someone and having them try to “fix it”, rather than just sitting with you in that heart-broken space. You don’t have to have any answers to sit with your child in that heart-broken space. You don’t have to have any answers to cry with them and wonder out loud together what her/his birth mom or dad might have been like.

My daughter once asked me, “Can you imagine what it would have been like if you never even got to know Grandma (my Mom)?” “Can you imagine what you would have missed?” I couldn’t. I really couldn’t imagine that.

Am I Opening a Can of Worms?

Some children aren’t in a place where they are very interested in talking about their adoption. I view curiosity as a sign of regulation. Children who are in a dysregulated state are not curious. Of course, there are children who just are not interested, but I would say this makes up a small minority. Usually disinterest is a sign of insecurity or dysregulation. As a general rule, I think it is important to often invite conversations about birth parents and adoption.

What If That Is All My Child Wants To Talk About?

Occasionally, I see a child who is in a “stuck” place. They can’t stop thinking about their adoption, and they feel sadness and loss constantly. Often this started after watching an adoption-themed movie or when the child is struggling socially. Even when the child is in this “stuck” place, I recommend devoting some time with purpose to helping the child understand his/her story. Work on a lifebook together, create a timeline together, pay attention to the hurt, and it will ease.

I had one client I worked with that took her daughter to the hospital where she was born. They took a tour of the prenatal ward and went shopping for some baby clothes that her birth mom would have loved for her to have worn if she had had her as a newborn. Before this, Mom had been trying to pull her out of her sadness. As soon as she stepped into that sadness with her and devoted some time to exploring it, the sadness eased. Parents are afraid that if they step into that sadness, it will consume their child. It is just too big of a loss for a child to deal with on her/his own.

Acknowledge That Your Child’s Life Did Not Begin With Adoption

“She looks just like you,” the woman at the park said. My heart swelled with pride as I met my daughter’s eyes and smiled. Then we both noticed that she was looking at my niece, not at my daughter, when she said that. My heart jumped. Of course, she wasn’t talking about my daughter. My heart sees her as completely mine. It took my brain a minute to catch up. We are different ethnicities, and we look nothing alike physically. We moved on, but the moment was captured by her, and it needed to be addressed. We talked about it later, privately. I brought it up. If I feel sadness that others don’t see us and make an immediate connection, then I know she does also.   If we don’t discuss these moments with our kids, then they have to deal with that sadness all alone.

Listen To Adult Adoptees

“I don’t like the book you recommended that I read. The author is just one of those people who is always going to see the world as half-empty,” said the dad I was talking to about a book written by an adult adoptee. The book is complicated, yes, but adoption is complicated. The memoir is also full of grief, redemption, hope, and loss. Black Hands White Hands: A View From the Crib by Jaiya John is one of my favorite memoirs. I recommend that parents who have adopted really take the time to listen to adult adoptees. Sit down over a cup of coffee and ask them what they needed that they didn’t get. Join adoption groups with adult adoptees making up a good percentage of the group and listen without getting defensive.   You will start to see themes of loss. You will start to look at your child as someone with a history and a past that has nothing to do with you. You will be encouraged that your children will always be yours.

Searching Beyond Consequences

First let’s define the different types of consequences

Natural Consequences – those that happen naturally as the result of a behavior or a lack of executing a behavior. Examples of natural consequences are forgetting to feed the fish and the fish dies, not brushing your teeth and getting cavities, or being a bad sport and not getting invited to participate the next time.

Imposed Consequences – are those that caretakers impose as a result of a behavior or lack of executing a desired behavior. Examples of imposed consequences are not doing homework – therefore missing recess, not cleaning your room – therefore no TV time, or hitting your sister- therefore being sent to your room.

Children who are not from “hard places” can tolerate and even learn from imposed and natural consequences. Children who are from “hard places” often cannot tolerate the stress of imposed consequences and even need immense support while experiencing an unavoidable natural consequence. When a child is experiencing stress or anxiety, he or she cannot learn. Consequences for children from “hard places” cause them to experience so much stress that it triggers their alarm system.

Once the alarm system is triggered, a person has very limited options and is automatically responding. A consequence that is meant to teach the child a new behavior all of a sudden triggers the child to fight, freeze or flee. He or she is no longer learning. If we want to be effective, then we need to approach discipline differently.

Consequences also create incredible stress for parents. I have had parents come in groaning that they need a spreadsheet to keep track of the consequences they have given their child. I have been in that place as a parent.

Can we change behaviors without consequences? Absolutely, but the focus has to shift to spending a greater amount of time connecting with your child rather than correcting your child. This means connecting even through the effects of natural consequences.

For example, one common mistake I made over and over again was to punish my child after he had already been punished for an infraction at school. He would come home and spend time in his room, doing chores, or writing apology notes. The consequences were not harsh, and by normal parenting standards I was doing the right thing. However, for my child it was not the right thing.

I can remember him getting off the school bus with his little jaw tense in preparation of me opening his folder with teacher notes inside. He anticipated the consequences and worst of all my displeasure and the feeling that he could not be successful in school. Before I even opened his folder, the lies would start pouring out of his mouth because of him feeling pressured and full of anxiety.

After being professionally trained in TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention)*, I realized that he had no advocates in his life. Because of the parental pressures to make him behave, the stance I took with him most of the time was adversarial. The biggest changes started to happen when I decided to advocate for him, no matter what his behavior was like, and remove the consequences.

A year later, he was still getting in trouble and was being sent to the office multiple times a day. The change that started to occur is that he began to trust that when I came to school, it was to protect him, to advocate for him and to encourage him. Instead of tensing his jaw and defending himself aggressively, he would burst into tears. One vivid memory I have is when I was called to come into the school to talk to him. I don’t remember what he had done, but I remember his little face was buried in the sofa as the counselor was telling him that he was being disrespectful for not looking at her. I asked her to leave us alone for a few moments. He climbed in my lap, put his hands on each side of my face, and with tears running down his face he said, “Mommy you are the only one that knows I am good for lots of things; everyone else thinks I am just good for trouble.” That is what being your child’s advocate creates, a connection that starts to change behaviors.

Today, almost 4 years since starting to shift the way we parented, my son is thriving. He needed an advocate more than he needed more consequences. I stopped opening those teacher folders, and he started telling me the truth. I would hold him and tell him I was so sorry he had such a hard day. This year he has not been in the office at all, not once. These changes did not happen overnight.

*Trust-Based Relational Intervention was created by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross, authors of The Connected Child.