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Dr. Laura's Meaningful Psychological Services

Online Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness, CBIT, ERP, CBT-I, Behavior Consultation, and Treatment for Anxiety and Insomnia

Laura Van Schaick-Harman, Psy.D., BC-TMH

Blog

Blog

Understanding Your Child's Educational Experience: The Common Core and High Stakes Testing

Posted on February 5, 2014 at 8:30 PM


A few days ago, I watched a group of parents protesting the Common Core and high stakes testing outside of a local school district on the news. There were parents expressing concern and dissatisfaction with district and sate educational policies. There were children communicating frustration, confusion, and feelings of failure. This is not the only public outcry for support, help, and change in recent months. A brief online search will show you a variety of videos and written works professing similar concerns. This negative experience that students, teachers, administrators, and parents are communicating is sad and serves as a motivator for change.


 

I have spent the last several months working with families and speaking with school staff to understand the challenges related to the Common Core and state testing and to develop practical strategies for coping with these changes. I am saddened by the idea that there are capable children who feel like failures as a result of new academic requirements.


 

The following are some helpful strategies that families can utilize to understand and support their child's educational experience.

 

Help your child to discover and utilize effective coping skills. Teach your child to focus on areas of success, not failure. Encourage

them and provide support. Listen to what your child is communicating to you. Avoid "showing" them how to do the work. How you learned to complete a problem is likely very different than they are learning it today.


 

Work with, not against your child's teacher and district. The Common Core is not a district initiated change, it is a federal change. Understand the differences between the Common Core and high stakes testing. Contact your district to learn about which tests your child will be taking, when they will be taking them, and the options available for opting out or receiving accommodations.


 

Be informed. Do your research. Ask questions. Communicate any concerns with the teacher. Get clarification from the teacher about how work should be completed. Get examples.


 

It is very important for parents to be informed about their child's day-to-day educational experience. You can learn more about the Common Core by visiting these websites:

http://www.corestandards.org/

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/common_core_standards/ccsbackground.html


 

If you would like to learn more about high stakes testing, you can contact your district, or (if you are a NYS resident) visit http://www.p12.nysed.gov/assessment/


 

Remember, you can be an advocate for your child and teach them to advocate for themselves.

Helpful Strategies for Celebrating with Special Needs

Posted on December 12, 2013 at 8:35 PM


 

Celebrating holidays with family and friends can be challenging. There may be more people, sounds, visual stimuli, and expectations. Many families experience heightened stress around the holidays, especially if you have a child with special needs. Here are some strategies that may be helpful to remember when celebrating during this holiday season.


 

Be Proactive

If you are traveling by train, bus, or airplane, it is important to research certain information prior to your trip. It may be helpful to call ahead and find out wait times, what waiting areas are like, traffic conditions, possible detours, places to sit, places to eat, location of bathroom, when rest stops will be, etc. If you are travelling by car, look ahead for traffic and construction. Waiting is a difficult skill for many individuals with special needs (and for some individuals who do not have special needs too!). Some facilities (such as amusement parks and airports) may offer shorter wait times or early board times with appropriate documentation.


 

Be Prepared

Pack, pack, and pack! Pack even if you are just traveling a short distance or you are not traveling at all. Have reinforcers, toys, books, and snacks available at all times. These can be lifesavers at a holiday gathering. It is also important to bring any behavior plans, coping skills charts, token economies, and communication assistance devices. If you child engages in dangerous behavior (e.g., eloping, unsupervised cooking, fire playing, etc.), make sure to have preventative measures in place in each new setting. Your child will still need support (and maybe a little extra support) when celebrating with family and friends.


 

Explain

Decide in advance how you would like to communicate information about your child and his/her needs to friends and family. Your doctor may have brochures you can share, depending on how detailed you would like to be. It is helpful to let other individuals know what modifications may be made and how your child may respond. Many families find it helpful to work out a plan in advance for responding to challenging behavior, should it occur in the presence of new people or people your child is not with very often.


 

Have Fun

Even though the holiday season can be stressful, remember to “be” (see November’s blog). Have fun with your child. Let them know they are loved and will be safe and you are both prepared to handle challenging situations.


 

Remember, you will never be able to predict everything. Sometimes a monkey wrench is tossed into the situation. Model good coping skills when this happens. Change can be OK and growth may even occur when challenges are experienced.


 

Warm Wishes for a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season!

Halloween and Anxiety: A Good Treat or a Bad Trick?

Posted on October 17, 2013 at 9:40 PM


It's October, which means that school has been in session for a while, the leaves are changing beautiful colors, the temperature is cooling, and the holidays seem to be just around the corner. October is also a month during which many children and families (and some grown-ups too) are getting ready for Halloween. They are shopping for costumes, candy, and decorations. Many kids like to do the decorating themselves, allowing them to express independence and creativity.


 

Some homes are decorated with spider webs and pumpkins. Others are grounds for mock cemeteries with RIP stones on the lawn or have elaborate haunted houses available. Some homes have human size fake bodies covered in blood or with missing body parts stationed in front. Many people will enjoy these decorations in the spirit of Halloween. Many will not.


 

What about people who suffer from anxiety? What about children who have nightmares at the first look of a scary cartoon? What about adults with a fear of dying, getting injured in some way, or getting lost where they can't escape? How are these individuals affected?


 

People with anxiety may experience Halloween differently. We are all individuals and can tolerate different types of stimuli. Some will have nightmares (yes, even grown-ups), want to avoid certain settings (trick or treating at certain houses, parties at school, scary movies), or become fearful.


 

This is important to remember as you decide how you will celebrate. If you are a parent and your child suffers from anxiety, you know your child best. If you are an adult, you know yourself best. It is OK and healthy to decide which festive activities to participate in.


 

There are many programs designed for children that are actually very scary. Many "kid friendly" shows and movies can present concepts that may be difficult to understand such as kidnapping, death, illness, witchcraft, and ghosts. As a parent it is important to be sure that you are permitting your child to experience material that is appropriate developmentally and emotionally.


 

Now, let's not be confused with exposure treatment for anxiety. A general rule of thumb is that when we avoid something we are anxious about, it reinforces our anxiety, making it more difficult to face that situation in the future. This is true. Within the context of Halloween, however, I believe it is OK to avoid certain stimuli that are not needed for healthy development or functioning. If your child cannot attend school during the season because he/she is afraid of the parties, decorations, or costumes, it is important for him/her to attend school anyway. This would be a case when anxiety can be inadvertently reinforced if the child is permitted to stay home. A talk with the teacher may help to modify classroom stimuli to make it safer for your child to be there. Working with your child on coping skills can also help him/her feel safe in school. If your child wants to avoid scary movies, then this is OK. Let them. One does not need to be exposed to scary or horror films in order to develop appropriately. One does, however, need to be educated. See the difference?


 

And for you grown-ups out there who love horror films and Halloween parties, have fun! For those of you who want to crawl into a hole instead of watching the "however many nights of Halloween" specials on TV, then read on. It is OK that you do not like this material. We all have different tastes, interests, and levels of tolerance. Decide how you would like the next few weeks to be for you and make a plan.


 

Trick or treating is another interesting activity for people with anxiety. Think about it. You dress up in a costume, walk up to a stranger's door (or hopefully someone you know and have determined is safe to trick or treat from), knock, wait for someone to answer, say "Trick or Treat," hold open your bag or bucket, say "thank you," walk away, and repeat. Also, you have to stay with your friends and family, possibly walk a long distance in unusual clothing, and accept whatever treat has been given to you. Not such a simple process, right? Trick or treating can be a great way to practice social skills, follow a routine, and be exposed to new and unpredictable situations. However, how important a life skill is it to knock on people's doors and ask for treats? You decide.


 

Consider all of this information as you decide, either for yourself or your children, how to participate in Halloween. You can choose the specific activities to join, consumes to wear, stores to shop in, parties to attend, houses to trick or treat at, movies to watch, or candy to eat. Utilizing your power to choose is a great skill to practice for healthy development and functioning.


 

So, what is Halloween for you? A good treat or a bad trick?


 

#Halloween #Anxiety

The Day Trip for Families: Friend or Foe?

Posted on August 19, 2013 at 9:45 PM


Taking a trip to a new place with a child can be exciting and terrifying. You pick a day. You pick a place. You pick the people to join you. You pick what to bring. What you don't get to pick is your child's mood that day. You don't get to pick the prices. You don't get to pick if anyone is going to be sick or healthy that day. You don't get to pick the weather. This is all OK.


I recently took two day trips (or 1/2 day trips) to child friendly locations, an ecology center and an aquarium. There were many families at both. Both settings involved animals or other living creatures. Both settings were crowded, involved walking, were unpredictable, and included outdoor and indoor activities. Some adults have difficulty when faced with situations that have these qualities. Many children also experience a level of discomfort mixed in with excitement for traveling to a new place and seeing cool species. Now imagine a child with special needs. How is he/she feeling and dealing with the unpredictability of animals, shows, and events? How is he/she coping with being surrounded by lots of strangers, tall people, little people, strollers, wheelchairs, and animals? How is he/she managing the energy and perseverance of walking great lengths in the hot sun? The answer? It depends. There's that phrase again (in case you missed my last blog post, read through it and "it depends" will make more sense to you). A better question might be- how are mom and dad handling these factors? Are they comfortable or distressed? Are they laughing when they read a schedule wrong and missed an event, or are they yelling because their child is unable to sit for 20 minutes to wait for the next showing?


Children look to the adults and others around them for cues about how to think, feel, and act. This can be very useful, or it can be unhelpful and even hurtful. Parents can model appropriate coping skills and behaviors for their children in these difficult (even though they are fun) situations. Children with special needs may need some additional support. Consider calling the locations in advance and find out what accommodations they offer. These may include preferential seating or parking, use of headphones, early entry/exit, and reduced waiting times. You may want to consider bringing snacks, toys, and coping items (book, blanket, picture cards, etc.) with you for your child to use during stressful situations. If your child uses a communication device, bring it with you and allow your child to have access to it at all times. Remember, this is their voice. Listen to your child. Ask a relative, close friend, or professional to take the trip with you. This may help the child and parents feel more successful and relaxed when additional eyes, ears, and support are available. Prepare your child about the upcoming experience and let them know that there may be some unpredictability and this is OK. We can call these events "monkey wrenches." Adults-this is for you too. Sometimes life throws you a monkey wrench such as rain on the day you wanted to go to the beach or get that yard work done. The point is-change is all around us and it can be good. Part of preparing your kids for what to expect to reduce unpredictability is actually preparing them for change and monkey wrenches!


Have fun during the rest of summer (it's not over yet!) and plan a trip to take in the next few weeks. Just be sure to actually have fun and don't stress about the monkey wrenches. If you have fun, you're kids probably will too.


 

#DrLauraVSH #SpecialNeeds

Back to School: Is it REALLY Time Now to Get Ready?

Posted on July 29, 2013 at 9:50 PM


Recently I was in a bagel shop enjoying a delicious meal when I looked up and saw on the menu that they had an entire board devoted to "Back to School Savings." What? Why does a bagel shop need to have back to school savings and especially why is this even an option in July. This is an example of a huge movement in retail and other public arenas to start preparing for transitions way too early. I have been seeing back to school sales in all of the major chains and smaller stores as well for weeks. Now, you must know that I actually LOVE shopping in these sections and purchasing school and office supplies and I always have. Growing up (and I actually still do), I considered myself to be a nerd. I loved school from my very first day of preschool and was always eager to learn, and of course, get ready for my next school year. I don't remember, however, how early my parents felt the pressure needed to prepare me for a big transition between grades and even bigger--between schools. Having some anxiety myself, even for a kid who loved school, getting ready for and talking about this transition definitely heightened nervousness.


Fast forward to today, working as a psychologist and seeing so many children becoming anxious about going to school, I became so interested in the retail phenomena of back to school savings. Working with schools and families, I have learned about the work and stress that goes into planning big graduations, especially for preschoolers. While these events are important to have and it is great to celebrate accomplishments, it is still necessary to balance the excitement between one school year ending and another one beginning. There are two months (typically) between these two milestones. Parents-enjoy the summer and time off with your kids. There are plenty of books and professionals you can access to help prepare your children for the next transition when the time is right.


How do you know when the time is right? The answer is (as I learned in graduate school that this is usually the correct answer) it depends. For some children, they may be eager to start talking about and visiting their new school or anxiously awaiting at the mailbox in late August for the name of their teacher or class schedule. Other children may be more nervous (whether they are verbally communicating this to their parents or not) about beginning a new year. This may be especially true when the summer marks a transition between two levels of school (such as between preschool and Kindergarten, and Junior high and high school). It is normal to experience a certain level of anxiety about starting a new school year. After all, it is a chance to learn new things, meet new people, and challenge yourself with a new curriculum. But let it be that. And let it stop there. No need to talk repeatedly about transitioning to Kindergarten by practicing graduation songs in March. No need to purchase 6 different books to start reading them to your child in June. You know your child the best and you know what they need. Listen and pay attention to your child's words and behaviors. They are communicating to you. If you know that you have told your child they are going to Disney World two months before you are actually leaving and they can’t stop talking about it or asking you when you are leaving multiple times a day, you may have learned that they transition better when told about something new a few days prior to the change. If you child does better with slowly processing new information and upcoming changes, he/she may need to be prepared a bit earlier in slow increments.


There are some helpful ideas for preparing your child to start a new school year. Some parents have shared that reading books (and you can buy them easily at any bookstore or online) about going back to school have been helpful. Others have found it helpful (and this is one of my favorite and often recommended ideas) to have a special trip to the store with your child to choose his/her school supplies and give input into the materials that work best for them (and are required by the school). Some parents choose to bring their child to the playground of the new school and let them get used to the scenery. There are many ideas that can be used. The most important things to remember are to know your child, listen to what they are communicating to you, let them know they will be safe at school, and you will be there every step of the way to help them transition.


Some children may need a little extra support to talk about, prepare for, or make the transition to a new school year. This is ok and there is lots of support out there. I love working with children and families and helping with this transition. Call me, write me an e-mail, or visit me online and I will be happy to help. You can also post on my Facebook page. I love to hear your thoughts!


So now, go and enjoy the rest of summer with your kids.


#DrLauraVSH #BacktoSchoolAnxiety