Monthly Archives: June 2015

Lakeshore Stickers That Make Learning Letters and Sight Words Fun!

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So many possible activities to create!

So many possible activities to create!

Just one game for spelling, alignment of letters on the baseline, and dexterity

Just one game for spelling, alignment of letters on the baseline, and dexterity

I love these letter stickers because they are so versatile.  Children that need to develop letter recognition can use them, but older children that want to spell words and write sentences can also enjoy them. They support sorting and pattern creation, two early math concepts.  The small size and the intricacy of interlocking the letters requires children to use a pincer grasp and coordinate both hands.  What more could an occupational therapist want? I posted one activity, but there are an almost infinite number of ways to use these stickers.

Uppercase letters are the first letters that preschoolers recognize and write.  These use the Zaner-Bloser font, but it is simple to explain to children who question letter formation that a computer made these letters, and the way they write their letters by hand is slightly different.  Stickers of any type are almost always appealing to young children, and the interlocking puzzle design just happens to support good letter spacing.

Some children with visual discrimination issues or poor modulation for visual sensory input work better without a huge pile of stickers to scan and sort.  You can make target spelling words or words that begin or end with a specific sound.  You may need to turn down a corner of the paper backing for the youngest children or kids with fine motor issues.  The puzzle stickers are sticky enough that they can be removed from a page and repositioned.  Finally, the paper backing is small and slippery.  Cleaning them up is great for children that need to work on grasp and awareness of what they are holding in their hands!

Teaching Pencil Grasp Can Start with Edison Chopsticks

Cute characters and a stable grasp!

Cute characters and a stable grasp!

Playing Wok 'n Roll with Edison Chopsticks!

Playing Wok ‘n Roll with Edison Chopsticks!

I love these Edison training chopsticks.  You could eat your lunch with them, but you could also pick up little toys and game pieces.  Every preschooler that I work with that has difficulty with controlling their pencil has fun with these chopsticks.  They have no idea that my goal is to get their finger strength and coordination to the point where holding a pencil is as easy as can be.

This style is convertible, in that you can remove the loops, but you cannot rotate the finger loops for hand dominance.  That means that if you have lefties and righties in the same family, they can’t share.  You have to buy a right-handed or a left-handed one.  I have seen other training chopsticks and chopstick holders that are neutral; neither left or right-handed.  The Edison design is the cutest set I have ever seen, and provides the most stable grasp since the finger loops really insist on correct finger placement.  I think they are worth the cost and the inconvenience of not being able to share between righties and lefties.

You can create a cheap DIY training chopstick set.  You need wooden chopsticks, the paper  wrapper or another paper rectangle about the size of the wrapper, and a rubber band.  Twist the rubber band around the chopsticks tightly at the top but leave enough slack for one more twist, then take the rolled-up chopstick wrapper and insert it in between the chopsticks.  Twist the rubber band beneath the paper, and off you go.  The paper creates a fulcrum for the chopsticks.  YouTube has more than one video that will guide you along in creating this chopstick trainer.  Not as cute as the Edison chopsticks, but much cheaper, more earth-friendly, and even travel-ready.  Just bring along your rubber band to dinner and you are all set!

Using these chopsticks is so much fun that some young children think that meal times are suddenly more fun, and they might want to eat a wider variety of food as well.  Lots of preschoolers go to hibachi restaurants with their parents in my area, especially on the weekends.  They are so excited when I teach them to use these chopsticks so that they can eat like the “big kids”.  They have no idea how much fine motor development they are gaining with every bite!

Teaching Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night

No baby sleeps all night.  Not one.  Neither do adults.  Surprised? A normal sleep cycle bring us into a foggy awake stage and only then do we return to sleep.  This happens many times throughout the night, but good sleepers send themselves right back into a deeper sleep without being held, an extra feeding (excluding that magic dream feed), or a midnight sandwich run.  Developing the ability to send yourself back to sleep is learned, not acquired with time.   Babies that have learned this skill appear to stay asleep all night long.  They are actually settling themselves down repeatedly in the middle of the night, just like there rest of the family.  How babies learn to send themselves back to sleep depends on the mindset of the adults doing the teaching.

I believe that good sleep skills after those first few months of life depend on the parent’s perceived role as sleep coach.  Gradually sleeping through the night after the first 6 months is a skill, not an innate instinct.  Here is what you need to know to build those skills in the littlest learners. New parents aren’t often aware that children all the way to about age 4 have shorter sleep cycles than adults (60 minutes versus 90 for adults) and can begin to be able to shift to a day-and-night awareness late in the second month of life.  Yes, that early.  Good sleep for the smallest babies up to 12 weeks is largely a matter of respecting their need to have the womb experience replicated.  All of the 5 S’s in Happiest Baby on the Block do that really well, which is why I teach classes and provide personal consultations.  Providing the physical experiences that newborns need is essentially your job in those first couple of months.  Being able to fall asleep quickly and without hours of crying right from the start sets babies up to have good sleep habits.  It also gives parents a confidence boost and a sense that healthy sleep patterns are possible.  Teething, growth spurts, runny noses and all manner of things will happen in that first year to derail good sleep and shake that confidence.

After about 12 weeks babies’ brains are more mature, and need the social support of a routine and an adult that can “read” them well.  Sleep becomes more of a dance between habits, needs, and expectations.  You use the white noise, transition objects and shush-pat to help a baby quiet themselves down, put tired babies to sleep before they get too tired, and treat your sleep routine just like a dietary guideline for good health.  It is.  Communicating your confidence in their ability to calm and being aware of accidentally creating bad sleep habits is key.  “The Baby Whisperer” is my favorite reference for turning around bad sleep habits in a kind but firm way.  No one else does as good a job of advocating for children to be independent sleepers who do not feel abandoned.

In the terrific book “Bringing Up Bebe”, the characteristic French approach that is described is not cold and callous, but rather respectful, as parents wait to see if a whimpering baby can self-calm, and allow the baby to settle herself down much of the time.  Assistance is brief and while warm, it is understood that the baby is being taught to “do her nights”, as they say.  It certainly helps that maternity leave and good daycare in France is generous, so that parents are less stressed and fatigued.  But it is more than that.  Their culture also values developing independence in very young children throughout the day, not just around sleep training.  If your belief is that your job as a parent over time is to teach your child to NOT need you for sleeping, for feeding themselves, and for entertaining themselves, then this will seem like second nature. You will start with fostering them to settle themselves, and quickly move along with holding a spoon, playing alone, and even cooking dinner at 10.   If you believe that your job is to protect your child from every frustration that you can, then it will seem like cruelty not to go to her when she gently whimpers.  It all depends on how you see your role. For parents that decide to take this approach, they may have two hurdles here in America.  Friends and family that do not agree will erode your confidence, and our overall culture doesn’t support this attitude right now.  My family had this more traditional European approach to parenting, and many of our friends were also from this culture.  You may have to work to find a like-minded community if you want face-to-face support.  The internet can support parents who do not have direct encouragement.

One of the first considerations when thinking about how you will address infant sleep issues is to determine how you see your role, and what you believe is possible for your child.  Then you can see your path to a good nights sleep more clearly.

Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler

terrific safe scissors for little hands!

terrific safe scissors for little hands!

Lakeshore Learning sells their own brand of plastic safety scissors, and I like then so much that I wouldn’t recommend any other brand for children under 4.  Toddlers are just too curious about how scissors work and too excited to listen to safety precautions.  These scissors mean that they can develop solid hand skills earlier and without bloodshed.

Scissors are the second actual tool a child masters (eating utensils are first) and the earlier a child understands how scissors work and how to handle them, the safer they are when using them.  I wouldn’t give anyone under 2 a pair of scissors unless they impressed me with their maturity and fine motor control.  Before 2, most children do not have the requisite coordination to make snipping on paper a success.  Toddlers with older siblings immediately earn a slightly earlier-than-usual first lesson from me, as I know that older children often leave regular scissors on a table without thinking. I want them to understand correct grip, correct carrying and that using scissors is a “big kid” privilege.

One of may favorite work memories is a child to whom I offered a pair of these scissors and tried to help him put his fingers into the handles.  He resisted me, and with a combination of derision and fear, uttered “Dane-ge-wous!!”.  Apparently he had heard about scissors from someone else! This version will prevent you from shrieking and grabbing a scissor away from a child just as he is really learning how to cut.

Lakeshore’s own brand of safety scissor will break easily if a child tries to twist the blades apart.  Luckily they are very affordable, and I generally encourage parents to buy a few at a time in the same color when shopping.  They will not cut skin, hair or clothing, but they will pinch fingers. Of course, if your child tries to stab someone in the face they will cause injury.  Just because they are not going to cut a child doesn’t mean that they cannot be used as an intentional weapon or create some accident.  Supervision is essential, and not just for injury prevention.  I always bring 2 scissors with me so that a child can see me demonstrate cutting without having to rip a pair out of his hands.  You know that the toddler commandments include “If I am holding it, it is mine” .  If I have only one pair of scissors, toddlers are so intent to retrieve that pair that they cannot watch my demonstration.

Combine these great scissors with the high-quality paper and creative designs of the Kumon cutting books (see earlier post) and you have hours of fun and solid preschool skill development!

Infant Separation Anxiety and Sleeping Through the Night

Between 6 and 12 months of age, babies learn a lot.  One important thing that they learn is that they are separate from their parents.  They can cling during the day when you put them down to go to the bathroom, but they can really scream at night when you start the bedtime rituals or when they wake up and you are not there.  Actually, you can celebrate this new mental milestone;  learning that they are separate from you is a good thing.  Dealing with their initial fears and all that crying can be tough. Here are some ways to support babies and save your sanity as well:

During the day:

  • Use peek-a-boo to practice imaginary separation.  Sounds silly, but at this age, they think you really are leaving when you go under a receiving blanket.  They don’t have a firm grasp of the concept of object permanence yet.
  • Use Patience Stretching from The Happiest Toddler on the Block.  Smile warmly, say “I will be right back” in a pleasant voice, and step out of the room for a few seconds.  Come back and engage with your baby again.  Next time, make it 10 seconds, and so on.  Build that ability to know that you do leave but you always return.
  • Be the kind of parent that always does what she says.  Plan to go to the park?  Deliver on that.  Promise a cookie?  Always get them that cookie, and be someone that can always be counted on.  Babies in this stage can remember the overarching sense of consistency you provide.
  • Respond to separation crying with warmth, but there can be no trace of anxiety or upset tones in your voice or your body language.  This is the time to deliver an Oscar-winning performance because young infants listen to your tone and all the non-verbal information even more than your words.  If you have a lot of anxiety about going back to work, or if you have issues with loss and separation that are coming up, speak to a trusted friend or a professional.  Parenting can often bring out your feelings that you thought were dealt with a long time ago.
  • Don’t Sneak Away.  Why?  You want to send the message that you can be counted on to return, and you need to do the firm, positive reassuring goodbye in order to send that message.  Without it, all you have is the emotional consolation when you return.  Think about the whole experience from your child’s perspective, and you will see why sneaking away only increases the anxiety and teaches the child to watch your departures like a hawk.

At bedtime:

  • Use all the techniques as needed from above, plus:
  • Use your bedtime routine and stick to it for reassurance.  This is not the time to change it up, even if your child pushes away the favorite book and the lovey.  Routines give children in a growth phase reassurance that some things in life will be familiar.  Crying when the bedtime ritual begins can be their way of saying that they anticipate the separation, and your routine will comfort them.  You may add to the routine as they grow, but the essential routine should stay the same for consistency at a time in the day when they are vulnerable.
  • Consider varying the person who does that routine, so that your baby feels safe and secure with more than one person.  That may mean expressing milk so that another person can do the bedtime feeding.  Think of the benefits for your baby in having many people to feel reassured by, not just one. So much more support  and a sense that the world is safe even if they are not with that one person.  Again, some parents really like being the only person a child can be comforted by.  It makes them feel special in a way they are not feeling in their adult life.  That may be something to think about, because parenting will bring up those kinds of issues.  It can put a spotlight on a marriage or on job satisfaction in a way that other events do not.
  • Look at other stressors contributing to crying.  New things like learning to digest solids (make lunch the heaviest meal of the day), teething, recent travel or new caregivers, and growth spurts disrupt sleep and make babies clingy and fussy.  Even learning how to stand in a crib can seem so exciting until you need someone to help you get down again!

Separation issues come up again later in infancy and toddlerhood, so this first period of anxiety, handled well, sets the tone for your parenting through the years.  Imagine that soon this baby will go off to school by herself!  Prepare her, and prepare yourself to give her roots and wings.

Prevent Pacifier Addiction With A Focus on Building Self-Calming Without Plastic

Parents of newborns are concerned that pacifier use will lead to pacifier “addiction” in later infancy and toddlerhood.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Pacifier addicts are made, not born.  Parents should not feel guilty about the difficulty they encounter with pacifier weaning, since no one explains what pacifiers do for babies and how to prevent accidental addiction in an older infant.  It starts out as a natural way to soothe a newborn.  No one intends for things to get out of hand. Happiest Baby on the Block even includes sucking as one of the 5 techniques that make up the calming reflex response for newborns.  Pacifiers can be a way to incorporate the calming action of sucking, but then as a child gets older, he should be developing more mature coping methods as well.  Here is what you need to know:

Why pacifiers work so well for younger babies:

  • the need to suck is something your baby was born with.  Fetal ultrasounds show them sucking their thumbs.  Developmental reflexes support sucking at birth.  The shape of the newborn jaw and tongue make it easier for newborns to get a secure and strong seal.  A newborn has more ability to interpret sensory information from the mouth than the eyes or hands, but no ability to keep their fingers in their mouth to suck until 2-3 months of age.
  • this biological need to suck helps them learn to nurse right away, and can calm them quickly in the first 6 months of life.  The ability to self-calm is a learned skill, and develops over the first years.  Babies begin learning to calm themselves down in the first 12 months of life.  If we teach them.

The slide down the slippery slope to pacifier addiction can be prevented:

  • after 6 months, babies still using pacifiers have no biological need to suck, but have the ability to remember their routine.  It can now be a habitual need, not a physical one.
  • some babies aren’t so easy to calm after swaddling and swinging have ended.   Using white noise, a blanket swaddle with the arms out/swaddle garments that have the arms free, and plenty of opportunities for cuddling, rocking, nursing or bottle feeding help the transition for sleep.
  • building early communication skills and responding quickly and effectively to frustration and fatigue in older infants can minimize or prevent the use of pacifiers to calm them during the day.  Start Patience Stretching and the Fast Food Rule (from The Happiest Toddler on the Block) as soon as possible.  See my blog posts on these techniques How To Get Your Toddler To Wait For Anything (Hint: They hear “Wait” as “No”)Taming Toddler Tantrums Using Sympathetic Reframing.
  • families that haven’t established effective sleep routines can run for the pacifier to end bedtime fussiness, rather than taking a wide-angle look at the way they manage naps and bedtime.  Creating a firm but flexible sleep routine isn’t easy.  Step 1 is accepting that building calmness throughout the day (by crafting a daily eating and playing schedule that supports good sleep) is like investing money in the bank for retirement.  It seems a long, long way off until the time arrives when you need the cash.  This may mean that the working parent plays energetically with the baby in the morning or only plays quietly at night.
  • all caregivers, including daycare and nannies, have to be on-board with your exact routines.  No routine at all can be better for a baby than one routine with parents, one with the daycare, and one when grandma watches him on Saturdays.  Imagine if you went to sleep with music playing on Mondays, left Jimmy Fallon on for Thursdays, and had it quiet but the lights are on for Fridays.  Very disorganizing.  This is not easy to coordinate, and many families default to the pacifier to tie it all together.
  • changing the attachment from a pacifier to a “lovey”, which is a transition object that the child can hold and cuddle, is often very helpful.   Switching to thumb-sucking has been shown to be a potential issue for dental malformation. Holding a lovey has not.  This lovey could be a small toy, a tiny blanket, etc.
  • the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pacifier use until 12 months to prevent SIDS.  If you follow that plan, you need a strong plan to get rid of the pacifier from an older, stronger willed and wiser baby.  It makes complete sense for safety, but parents need to know that it will take longer and be harder to eliminate the pacifier as the child gets older.
  • children who have spirited temperaments, and families that have difficulty creating and establishing routines, often struggle to successfully change any familiar pattern of behavior.  The pacifier can seem like the only sure fix for a child that gets upset easily or has to deal with a lot of unpredictability in their day.  The problem with running to the next idea too quickly is that some children are going to need a few days or even a week for any strategy to become familiar enough to tolerate.  Until then, you can’t clearly see what is going to work or not work.  My favorite book that gives practical advice on creating sleep routines for the strongest-willed babies  is “The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems”.  If you have an older child with a pacifier addiction, check out  Weaning the Pacifier From An Older Child for ideas targeted to getting rid of a pacifier once an addiction has set in.

The most important life skill your baby will learn in the first few years may not be walking or talking.  It may be the ability to calm himself down in times of change and frustration.  Thoughtful planning and execution of a plan can avoid pacifier addiction but also build a skill he will use for the rest of his life.

Take Notes with a Paper Notebook, But Only if You Can Write Quickly

Research in Psychological Science last spring and in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that writing notes by hand requires the listener to synthesize a lecture more effectively than laptop note-taking.  Three studies showed that testing immediately after a lecture and even a week later still saw improved retention of conceptual information when students wrote notes rather than used a laptop during a lecture. No differences were noted in factual retention.  Evaluation of the  actual notes revealed that laptop users were more likely to record the lecture verbatim, even when they were instructed to take notes selectively.  They concluded that there was a subconscious tendency to transcribe a spoken lecture when keyboarding.  Students who used paper were more likely to process, reframe and synthesize the lecture during class.

Before you run out and by a tablet with a stylus (BTW, my new Microsoft Surface 3 and it’s pen is amazing for this purpose), you might want to think about how we used to do it old school.  It is very difficult to take notes quickly while mentally synthesizing the lecture.  You have to have two skills:  fast, readable handwriting and the ability to process information and reframe it in words that are meaningful to the listener.  Teachers do a much better job at instructing children to think critically and synthesize information than they do at teaching them to write legibly and quickly.  This research suggests that they have to teach both skills.  To paraphrase the movie “Jaws”, you are gonna need a bigger boat (of skills).  Teachers need to teach cursive writing.

The fastest method of handwriting is to combine the easy cursive letters and connections such as “he”, “el”, “ff” and “er” with print letters that substitute for tricky cursive connections such as “s” and “bb”.   There are more examples, but you get the general idea.  Anyone who is fluent in writing both styles will soon blend combinations into their own pattern of faster writing.  A child who has had poor handwriting instruction, or whose teachers see no reason to use cursive, will never have the skills to write in this manner.  Children who only print will soon realize that using printing alone is slower than keyboarding.  That child will grab a laptop as soon as possible and take down every word. They have not been given a choice.

It is interesting that the researchers didn’t mention the level of legibility of note-taker’s handwriting.  It may not matter as much as the experience of critical thinking and recording thoughts on paper. That would be an interesting study.  The benefits of the process of reframing and recording synthesized material is a message to parents and teachers to reconsider the power of the pen and the pencil.