How do I know if my spirited child is school-ready?

The transition to school from 4-year-old kindergarten is a big one. Starting school brings some new challenges in terms of greater expectations and independence. Fortunately, most children look forward to starting school and often thrive in this new learning environment. 

Parents of ‘spirited children’- that is, kids who experience intense emotions, are incredibly persistent (or stubborn!) and full of energy- can worry about how their child will fare when they start school. If your child is already engaging in some form of therapy (be this speech therapy, occupational therapy, or psychology) or has received a diagnosis of a developmental difference, many of the goals you are already working on will help prepare your child for school. There are however some general tips to help prepare your child for school. Do not forget that their 4-year-old kindergarten teacher has also been working hard (where possible this year!) on preparing them for school and can support you with this transition. 

School readiness is a broad term that includes several factors. Children benefit from having good social skills (such as getting along with other children and be able to assert themselves); emotional maturity (are able to manage their emotions appropriately and can follow directions from adults); language skills (can listen to others and express themselves clearly); motor skills (such as the ability to hold a pencil) and independence skills (such as managing their lunchbox, toileting etc.). Identifying which of these areas your child is likely to have more challenges with can be helpful so you can practice these skills at home. For example, you may engage in more craft activities at home, play games that involve turn taking, help them label their emotions and practice putting on their uniform or opening their lunchbox containers. Whilst kinder has been disrupted this year due to COVID-19, your child’s teachers can help guide you with activities or games to help practise and develop these skills in the home environment.

Beyond these individual areas, it can often be helpful to enrol your ‘spirited child’ into an activity that helps them to channel their endless energy in a productive way, such as swimming or martial arts. Whilst this may not be possible right now, some activities may open up in the coming months or may be able to be accessed online.

Such children will likely benefit from frequent movement breaks at school, which their teacher can facilitate by giving them special jobs (such as handing out pencils to the rest of the class). Your child might need some help in developing strategies to help them cope with tricky situations- like how they can keep themselves occupied when they must wait for something. All children benefit from having a clear routine and being given warnings of impending transitions at home and school. It also goes without saying that your child’s sleep and eating will also have a big impact on their ability to concentrate and engage in learning. 

If you have concerns about your child’s readiness for school, there is support available, including the psychologists at CCD. Some clinics also run ‘school readiness’ groups (many of which are being run online) which can be a good practice opportunity prior to commencing school.  Your intended school will also run transition sessions and can provide additional support if you anticipate that your child would benefit from this. And finally, do not stress- with the proper supports in place your ‘spirited child’ will likely thrive when they start school.

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

One question we need to ask every parent this week…..

Parents. We hear you. We are listening. We know how incredibly tough this year has been. Isolation from friends and family, kids at home 24/7 needing entertainment, food (my goodness the amount of food!), attempts to retain jobs, find new jobs, fear of ditching existing jobs that we hate because we’re scared we won’t find another one right now. REMOTE LEARNING.   And as for “it takes a village to raise a child”…..well, what village?! We can’t even see our families for a cuppa let alone get any respite or babysitting support! 

So if there’s one question we need to ask each other this week it is “R U OK????” 

And not just because some organisation decided that September 10th is good for R U OK Day to promote mental wellbeing….but because frankly, we REALLY need to check in on each other right now. 

We are all hearing words like “we’re all in this together!” but, how can we actually put these words into action? 

Credit: www.ruok.org.au

The R U OK campaign is all about reaching out to someone that you think may be doing it tough and just following these four simple steps:

  1. Ask R U OK?
  2. Listen (without judgement)
  3. Encourage action – this means not just self-care strategies, but referring them on for professional support if you are really worried about them
  4. Check in – this means a few days later follow up and see how they are feeling now. Did they take the action they said they would? Do they need further support? Is it time now to suggest professional help? 

For many people, the knowledge that someone is thinking of them is enough. For others, it takes someone asking the question for them to actually open up and talk honestly about their struggles. And for others again, the question may be the difference between serious harm or safety. 

So let’s all give it a go – because that’s what “we’re all in this together” really means. 

For more resources, check out www.ruok.org.au and look after each other, and yourselves. 

Madeline Sibbing is the Principal Psychologist at the Northern and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development. Madeline holds a Master of Educational and Developmental Psychology from Monash University. Her sixteen years of professional experience has been attained within government and independent schools in assessment, therapeutic interventions and consultation with children, adolescents, parents and teachers. She also developed primary prevention programs, mental health awareness activities and teacher training in a secondary college. Madeline spent several years working as an Educational Psychologist in London, UK, as a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society. She is a registered supervisor with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, supervising Masters of Psychology candidates and newly-registered Psychologists.

Consistently described as an engaging, down-to-earth and knowledgeable therapist, Madeline obtains enormous joy from working with children and young people… as often evidenced by the sounds of laughter and silliness emanating from her therapy room.

How to help kids cope with change

Change can be exciting and scary all at once. Whilst we know that children benefit from consistency, life throws a lot of changes our way- some we might foresee and others we may not (like the entire COVID pandemic!). Learning how to cope with change is a valuable life skill that will help your child become more resilient for what lies ahead for them in adult life. So how do we do this? 

  • When possible, give your child a warning about the impending change ahead of time. This might take the form of multiple conversations, such as about the arrival of a younger sibling or starting school. 
  • Try to keep other factors in your child’s life as consistent as you can. For example, if yourself and an ex-partner are separating, try to keep other factors such as their childcare centre/kindergarten/school the same, and maintain other routines as much as possible. 
  • Listen to your child and be willing to answer their questions. They may be repetitive- this is part of your child making sense of it all. 
  • Acknowledge and validate your child’s emotions. 
  • Do expect some regression in other areas, such as toileting or behaviour. This is completely normal and will not last forever. 
  • When possible, spend extra one-on-one time with your child in which you are fully engaged with them and following their lead. 
  • Give your child choices that achieve the same desired outcome. For example, you could ask your child whether they want cereal or toast- either way, the same desired outcome is achieved within defined parameters (breakfast being eaten). Giving children choices enhances their sense of autonomy and can reduce the feeling of everything in their lives being out of their control. 
  • Read books to your child about children going through similar experiences. You would be amazed what is out there (I have quite the collection myself!) 
  • Maintain your usual expectations and limits in other areas. Your child may push against these, hence maintaining them will reassure them that they are secure and safe. 
  • Reflect on other changes your child has become used to in the past and discuss this with them.
  • Remember that it will take some time for your child to adjust, and that is okay. 
  • Do seek professional help if you need it- that is what we are here for! 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

What is proprioception?

When I was at school, I was taught that humans have five senses: taste, sight, sound, smell, and touch. My allied health colleagues, however, would argue that we have eight senses: proprioception being one of them.

Proprioception is the awareness of the position of our muscles and joints in space. This sense allows me to close my eyes, lift my arm above my head and keep track of where my arm is positioned, all without ‘seeing’. Impressive! Thanks to muscle spindles (sensory fibres) that send information to the brain, I can form a map of my body’s position in space. 

Some other examples of proprioception include:

  • Balancing on one leg without looking down
  • Clapping your hands with your eyes closed
  • Playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’
  • Complex movements such as riding a bike.

For some children, proprioceptive dysfunction leads to difficulty maintaining attention and engagement, especially in the classroom (or remote learning!). For these kids, additional proprioceptive input can help them to regulate their bodies and, therefore, their attention. 

Signs that might indicate your child is experiencing proprioceptive issues include:

  • Always seeming heavy-footed and ‘stomping’ 
  • Balance issues or appearing clumsy
  • Lack of awareness of body, eg. leaning on or bumping into others
  • Messy handwriting
  • Preference for tight clothes such as those with tight cuffs or fabrics
  • Frequently chewing or biting

Occupational Therapists are experts in helping children understand their proprioceptive needs.  They provide strategies that help children to calm, focus and regulate. Some strategies might include:

  • Heavy work strategies, such as: 

Animal walks

Carrying a heavy item from the classroom to the office

Commando crawling

Wheelbarrow walks

  • Deep pressure activities, such as: 

Rolling a swiss ball gently on top of a child

Using a weighted blanket

Bear hugs

Wrapping a child tightly in a blanket

At the Centre for Child Development we often work alongside paediatric Occupational Therapists whose input and strategies are incredibly valuable. If you have any concerns, therefore, we recommend you consult a paediatric Occupational Therapist for many more strategies and individualised support for your child. 

Yvette Zevon is a psychologist based at The Northern Centre for Child Development, who is completing the registrar program in educational and developmental psychology. She is passionate about working with young people and families and is grateful for the daily opportunities to express her playful side.

What are fine motor skills?

Fine motor skills are the ability to make movements using the small muscles in our wrists and hands. These skills are developed and refined from birth to eight years of age. In children, fine motor skills are needed for everyday activities, such as play, school-based learning and self-care tasks.

Fine motor skills include:

  • Holding a pencil
  • Using scissors and other tools 
  • Construction with blocks such as Duplo and Lego
  • Completing puzzles
  • Brushing teeth
  • Getting dressed
  • Manipulating buttons and zips
  • Using a fork and spoon
  • Opening food wrappers and containers

As you can see, fine motor skills are super important. So, when a child has delayed fine motor skills it can impact on areas such as their opportunities for play, academic progress, and independence.

Below are some signs that your child might have fine motor difficulties. You may notice that your child: 

  • Is slow when drawing, colouring, or writing or their work is difficult to decipher
  • Has difficulty cutting smoothly along lines or curves
  • Finds it difficult to manipulate objects, such as tying shoelaces or threading
  • Tires easily when using a computer
  • Struggles to complete self-care tasks appropriate for their age independently
  • Is slow to master new fine motor tasks. 

If you have noticed some of these signs, don’t panic! The good news is that occupational therapy can help to develop your child’s fine motor skills. Your therapist is also likely to give you some fun activities to practice at home.  With this targeted support, kids can begin to develop greater independence which, let’s face it, is a win for them and a win for their parents!

Yvette Zevon is a psychologist based at The Northern Centre for Child Development, who is completing the registrar program in educational and developmental psychology. She is passionate about working with young people and families and is grateful for the daily opportunities to express her playful side.

Explaining face masks to kids

Although they are not mandatory for children aged younger than 12 years in Victoria, many families are keen for their children to wear face masks to protect them from COVID-19. Getting them to do so, however, can be a challenge, as can helping children adjust to seeing others (including their parents and carers) wearing masks when out in public. Here are a few tips to explain to kids why this is happening, and to help them get used to the idea of wearing one themselves (please keep in mind that it is inappropriate and dangerous to put a mask on a child aged 2 years or younger): 

  • Explain to your child in a developmentally appropriate way why we wear face masks- they stop germs from spreading. Try and relate this to previous discussions you may have had, such as about hand washing and social distancing. 
  • Younger kids may appreciate discussions around different ‘superheroes’ who wear masks, and that we too can be ‘superheroes’ and help keep other people safe. Some children will enjoy being given the ‘job’ of reminding other family members to put on their masks when leaving the house. 
  • Younger kids may enjoy practicing wearing face masks at home, putting them on their toys, taking ‘selfies’ and looking at themselves in the mirror. All these things help to normalise them for kids. 
  • For older children, you can talk more about this being an act of sacrifice for the greater good, and the importance of working together as a community. 
  • Letting children have some say regarding the colour or pattern of their mask (whether these be purchased or made at home) will likely make them feel as though they have some autonomy, and hence will increase the likelihood of compliance. 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

Why you should ‘fit your own mask before helping your child’…..

While interstate travel and overseas holidays are postponed for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to remind all parents of important pre-flight safety instructions:

In an emergency, parents should fit their own oxygen mask before helping their children.

This advice may go against your parental instinct; however, a child’s well-being depends on the well-being of their parents and caregivers. In the time of a global pandemic, this has never been more important. 

With Victoria in lockdown again, many parents are confronted with increased stress arising from health and safety concerns, increased demands of remote learning, balancing work obligations, greater financial strain, and lockdown fatigue. With all of these worries it is completely understandable that parents are feeling overwhelmed. These responses, while completely understandable, may make it difficult to maintain the stable, and secure “home base” your child needs during this crisis. 

What does this mean for parenting during a pandemic?

While many parents put their needs last, it is important that you take care of yourself. Parenting is an important and challenging job, that is made even more difficult by the pandemic and associated stressors. When you take care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally you can more effectively give your children what they need to thrive. When you look after your own wellbeing, you can foster resilience and be responsive and compassionate to your child’s emotional needs. Plus, you are modelling the importance of self-care so your children can learn from your example!

Self-care during the COVID-19 lockdown

Self-care is defined as the practice of taking actions to maintain or improve your own health and wellbeing, especially during periods of stress. 

Lockdown and social distancing have likely hindered common coping strategies (e.g.  visiting family and friends) therefore it is even more important that you continue practicing self-care. You may need to get creative or consider new activities to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some examples of self-care activities that may help you maintain good health and improve your well-being. 

FIVE SELF-CARE IDEAS 

  1. Physical Self-Care:  Exercise by going on a walk, eating healthily and at regular time intervals, reduce screen use before bed to improve sleep quality.  Try a youtube dance class, parkour move or jump on a bike with the kids!
  • Psychological/Emotional Self-Care: Write in a journal to help reflect on your day, complete a mindfulness exercise, practice deep breathing, re-read a favourite book or watch a movie, revisit an enjoyable hobby (e.g.  play a musical instrument), watch a funny youtube clip that makes you LOL!
  • Social Self-care: Schedule a regular phone call or facetime with a friend, check in on relatives, schedule something fun with your kids – maybe a picnic in the backyard or “The Floor is Lava” indoors on a rainy day!
  • Spiritual – Write a list of things your grateful for, go into nature (subject to lockdown restrictions), meditate, try yoga.  
  • Covid-19 specific self-care:  Limit your daily consumption of Covid-19 news media.

Remember – not only is it okay to care for yourself, it is in fact recommended as happy, balanced parents are one of the building blocks of happy, balanced kids!

Rebecca Loizou is a psychologist at the Northern and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development.  Rebecca is passionate about working with children and adolescents. She believes in working collaboratively with families, schools and other professionals in order to create strong support systems for young people.    Rebecca has experience working with a variety of clients presenting with developmental and mental health challenges. 

Tackling toilet training

Toilet training can be both an exciting and stressful time, and it can be hard to know when it’s the right time to begin! Using the steps below, parents can determine a child’s readiness and start working towards a successful toilet training experience.

Signs that your child is ready

Many children show signs of being ready for toilet training between approximately two to three years of age, but this can vary greatly between children.  It is best to focus on whether your child is showing interest in learning about the toilet and has the gross motor abilities to independently use the toilet.  These behaviours offer a better indicator of when your child is ready and increases the likelihood of a successful learning experience.

Signs of toilet training readiness can include:

  • Sitting and walking independently for short periods of time.
  • Pulling pants up and down without assistance.
  • Understanding and following simple instructions.
  • Having dry nappies for two or more hours.
  • Appearing to dislike wearing a nappy, this may be seen through attempts to pull the nappy off after use.
  • Expressing interest in the toilet, such as following people to the toilet or watching parents on the toilet. 
  • Expressing with words or gestures when or just before they are weeing or pooing in their nappy.

Selecting a Space and Time for Toilet Training

If your child is showing signs that they may be ready to start toilet training, it is important to consider the space that they will be learning in and ensure it is easily accessible. 

Strategies for making a toileting area accessible can include ensuring your child is able to access the space without parent assistance and addressing any fears your child may have about using the toilet. Some children worry about using the toilet for the first time as they are afraid of falling in! Taking extra time to understand and address worries can make a huge difference to your child’s toilet training experience.

Just as considering the space your child is learning in is important, so is selecting the time in which you begin toilet training. Starting toilet training at a time when there are no major changes coming up in your family life is important for reducing pressure on both your child and yourselves!

Preparing for Toilet Training

Before starting toilet training it can be helpful to prepare your child for using the toilet. 

Some helpful tips for preparing your child can include:

  • Teaching the child words to express the act of using the toilet, such as ‘wee’, ‘poo’, ‘potty’ or ‘toilet’. 
  • Verbalising and modelling your behaviours when going to the toilet so that the child can learn to recognise this process.  
  • Allowing your child to try sitting on the toilet or potty without going to help them become familiar with the space.
  • When changing your child’s nappy, demonstrate taking the dirty nappy to where the child will be toileting to help them understand what this is for.

Starting toilet training

When beginning toilet training it is important to go at the child’s pace. Some children may learn this skill faster or slower than others. If your child does not seem interested in the toilet or is actively resistant, it is far better to hold off on toilet training for a later time so as to avoid creating a negative association. 

Steps for starting toilet training:

  1. Establish a routine
    Dedicate specific times throughout the day for your child to sit on the toilet for a few minutes to help them become familiar with the routine of toileting. It can be helpful to choose times when the child is more likely to need the toilet, such as when they first wake up, after lunch or before bed.
  2. Reduce the use of nappies during the day
    To assist your child in learning to recognise when they need the toilet it can be helpful to use training pants, cloth nappy covers or even underwear to help them to recognise when they are wet. Many children are not night-trained until around five years of age, so it is important to continue using a nappy at night and during daytime naps until the child is ready.
  3. Dress your child in easy to take off clothing
    To promote independence when using the toilet, it is helpful to dress your child in clothes that they can easily remove themselves should they decide to use the toilet. 
  4. Provide consistent encouragement and reinforcement
    As children learning to toilet cannot always control when they can and cannot go, it is important to initially praise your child just for sitting on the toilet. As your child becomes more familiar with the toilet, gradually reduce praise for sitting and begin praising attempts and successes. 

Armed with this information you are ready to start the big and exciting process of toilet training! Remember, the goal is to make toilet training as positive and natural as possible. Remaining calm and encouraging throughout the process promotes the chances of a successful learning experience.

Laura Moresi is a psychologist completing the Educational and Developmental registrar program. Laura is passionate about working collaboratively with families and other professionals to support children and adolescents to reach their best potential. Laura has experience working with a variety of development and mental health concerns. 

Surviving remote learning and working from home

It is the ultimate parental juggling act- trying to keep your own career afloat, whilst also keeping the kids on track with their education. It is a huge ask of anyone (and hopefully a unique situation we will not encounter again in future!) What can parents do to make their lives a little easier? 

  1. Create a solid routine with your children’s input, factoring in time for outside play, quiet time, rest, and social connections (for example, video calls with friends or relatives). 
  2. If possible, have clear ‘zones’ in the house that differentiate workspaces. In small spaces, this might mean putting a tablecloth on the kitchen table during ‘work time’ or wearing a hat as a visual cue to your child that you are ‘at work’. Some parents find it helpful for their child to wear their school uniform as a cue that it is time for schoolwork. 
  3. Have a clear plan with your children regarding what times you will be free to assist them, and what they should do if they don’t know what to do (e.g. write a question in an “ask me later” workbook for older children, and creating a list of other tasks they can do in the meantime). This would include a discussion around what is an ‘urgent’ situation, and how you would prefer your child to get your attention when an ‘urgent’ situation does occur. You could support this by setting alarms, so they know when your ‘work time’ begins and ends. 
  4. If you have a partner, co-parent, or support person you share caring responsibilities with, try to ‘share the load’ as much as possible. For example, one parent might try to complete their work on weekends, or you may have ‘shifts’ where one works in the first half of the day and the other in the second half of the day. 
  5. Set up the house so that the kids have access to things you want them to be using, and not to things you do not want them to be using! This might mean packing a lunchbox as you usually would for school and packing away school-related things when the school day is over. 
  6. Be realistic in your expectations, and kind to yourself if not everything goes to plan. This was always going to be tough with ups and downs along the way. No-one is expecting you to take the place of your child’s teacher, and their teacher is there to support you through this unusual time. 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

How to make the most of therapy via telehealth

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves doing our jobs very differently (if we are lucky enough to be able to work in these uncertain times). Once upon a time I never would have foreseen myself doing ‘telehealth’- that is, delivering health services remotely via digital and telecommunication means- as a child psychologist. As it turns out, we are more adaptable than we think, and necessity has led to us all developing new skill sets. 

Part of the changing landscape is the mainstream use of telehealth appointments. Such a change can provoke some reticence, which is only natural, but I would encourage families to give it a go. For some of the families we work with its success has been a pleasant surprise, and some children even prefer telehealth to face-to-face appointments. It is also good to be able to keep some sense of ‘normality’ and routine going during such a disrupted period, as well as giving children additional support at a challenging time. 

We can work on most things via telehealth that we would do in a face-to-face appointment (aside from some assessments which are only able to be conducted face-to-face). Many parents of young children have found it helpful to utilise these restrictions as an opportunity for some parent support sessions also. 

Based on experience, here are our top three suggestions to maximise your telehealth experience: 

  1. Find a quiet, contained space for your therapy session with minimal distractions (e.g. siblings, food, TV). For younger children, we request that parents remain on hand to assist as required; for older children, consider where is best in terms of privacy. If you are unsure, consider what your usual face-to-face format is (i.e. whether you attend the session with your child or wait in the waiting room). 
  2. You may be emailed prior to the session requesting that certain materials be available, such as paper and pencils- if you can have these handy it would be greatly appreciated. 
  3. Explain to your child how it might be a little bit different speaking to someone over the computer and answer any questions they may have. There are some positives too- they can show their psychologist some of their favourite things or their pets! 

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.