Monday, 24 June 2013

Understanding Highly Sensitive Children

Our parenting theme of 2013 so far surely has to be 'authentic', being true to who we are and letting our children be who they are. We refuse to mould them into the right shaped peg to fit the holes that others create because it is easier.

HSCs are often creative and artistic
Photo: Robin Hindle
We have been in a long battle dialogue with my eldest son's primary school about highly sensitive children and their needs in the classroom. My six year old is a highly sensitive child (HSC) which is an amazing character trait to have. HSCs grow up to be the artists, the musicians, the peacemakers amongst us. They have an affinity to the natural world, to animals and living, growing things. They are conscientious (there is a reduced chance that I will spend time nagging my son to do his homework in later years) and have an innate sense of justice and right and wrong. They are creative. They are emotionally tuned into the world around them. They are intuitive. They are incredibly affectionate, caring and loving as well as wise for their years. But it also means their heads fill up quickly, especially in busy or new environments.

The first hurdle for many parents of HSCs usually involves overcoming a lack of knowledge, understanding or interest in the idea of highly sensitive people (HSP). Being highly sensitive does not mean there is something wrong. It is not an illness or a disorder, nor is it a behavioural problem.  But most HSCs have a specific instruction manual. And we all know that if you make an expensive technological purchase and try to operate it without the instruction manual you are asking for problems. Either you don't understand half of the functions so are not able to get the best out of your equipment or worst still you may even do damage to your purchase. And so it is with a HSC.

A HSC is in essence one of the 20% of children that intensely experiences the environment around them. The senses of an HSC are easily overloaded: cooking smells can be unpleasant to the keen nose of a HSC; the feel of sand on a HSC's hands can be distinctly uncomfortable; a wet sleeve can lead to a drama; loud noises can be intensely frightening; a scratchy label on a new T-shirt can be highly irritating. A highly sensitive toddler can therefore come across as an extremely fussy child, whereas in reality he genuinely experiences physical discomfort.

And physical sensory overload is just the tip of the iceberg - that sensitivity that we can actually easily see if we care to look close enough. Look below the surface of an HSC and there are pools of emotion of a depth well beyond a child's years. They feel the emotions in a room: they know when a parent is unhappy or a teacher is feeling below par; they read through the words spoken to the meaning behind them and quickly sense when the two don't match. They are good readers of people and are alarmingly capable of taking on the emotions of others around them, taking on the burden of another's problems as if they were their own. It's a lot of responsibility to take on, particularly for those so young.

The majority of HSCs are introverts (30% are not) who are often labelled as shy or fearful. HSCs scan and observe before they participate. They are more cautious about tackling the climbing frame in the playground or jumping from the bench in the gym. They are very unsure of new environments and new people. They are the toddlers clinging to their mothers' legs and refusing to play with the others at the mother and toddler group, the children screaming the new classroom down on the first day of pre-school and the children reluctant to start at primary school. They need to know it is safe before they take action. They need time to warm up to places and people. It's about self preservation and trust.

Perfectionism is also a trait of HSCs. If something they work on is not perfect in their eyes they feel like a failure. They are upset by their perceived lack of ability to complete the task to their high standards. However, to put 110% into everything you do to get it to a 'perfect' state is mentally and physically exhausting.

For a HSC a classroom can be overwhelming
Photo: Elias Minasi
Transfer all of this to the classroom and you hopefully have an idea of how a HSC feels at the end of the school day. Therefore HSCs need a lot of downtime. They are the children you often find spending long periods of time alone in their bedrooms. They need time to clear their head out after a busy day. They need a break during the school day to give everything they have experienced a place. They need quiet time.

20% of the population is highly sensitive. HSCs grow in to highly sensitive adults. It's something I know firsthand - oh did I not mention that high sensitivity is a hereditary trait? It's an inborn character.

The degrees of sensitivity are as varied as children themselves. As children grow older some sensitivities disappear, some are managed better and some sensitivities are unfortunately suppressed because they don't fit with the demands of modern society (the consequences of which are anxiety and depression and a lack of authenticity but that's a whole other blog post in the making).

However sensitivity manifests itself the first step for the parent of a HSC is usually to educate those around them. Hence this blog post. I, hand in hand with my husband, have spent the last eighteen months trying to educate my son's educators about what he needs to thrive in a busy classroom. Our attempts have fallen on deaf ears. Fortunately every other person in my son's world so far does understand. And, more importantly, they accept my son for who he is. They allow him to be authentic, and don't require him to change to fit in with them. Which is lucky, because we have another two sons who have shown signs to a lesser degree of being HSCs. And thank goodness - because the world sure is a better place with HSPs in it!

Do you know a HSC? Are you the parent of a HSC? I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences as a parent.

If anything is this blog post rings bells for you check out Elaine Aron's website for more information on the is topic, as well as a check list of HSC traits to help you determine if your child(ren) is(are) in fact HSCs.

11 July 2013: As of today I have created a Facebook group called "Happy Sensitive Kids" for anyone who is involved in raising HSCs. My goal is to create a supportive, safe place to share tips, experiences, challenges and the joys of bringing up HSCs. It's a closed group so you need to request membership but it also means that the posts can only be seen my members. 

Saturday, 22 June 2013

How To Get Your Children to Fall in Love with Reading

I read an article last week about boys falling behind girls in school and particularly when it comes to reading. I am a writer, therefore I read. I read a lot. Whilst I don't quite have the time to read like I used to pre-motherhood I still try and get through as many books as I can. If you want your kids to read, then be a role model for them, let them see you reading for pleasure. I encourage my three sons to look at books as much as possible and so far it has paid off - my sons love looking at books and it is fun to watch my eldest enthusiastically start his reading journey.

"Kids with parents who read for pleasure are six times more likely to do so themselves -- and their grades shoot up. Which is why I talk about the books I love, and ask kids about their favorites, every chance I get." Lisa Bloom (Author, 'Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture')
I was quite shocked to read that boys have a tendency to think that reading is a girl's thing and I intend to do everything in my power to make sure my three sons continue to think that reading is the most natural thing in the world and I want to keep them interested in it as a foundation for later years. Not only are their language skills enhanced, reading also provides fun moments and important relaxation for children who tend to be hopping from one extra-curriculum activity to another.

Story Time
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Books are an important part of our home. To get children looking at books the most important thing is make them accessible. We have a bookcase in our front room and the bottom two shelves are filled with books for the children. Even our 19 month old shuffles over to the bookcase, grabs himself a book, toddles over to the sofa and inelegantly hoists himself up to sit so he can thumb through his book. When he's finished he throws the book on the floor or table and returns to the bookcase for another book. (We're working on the last stage of this with him......)

My eldest two often sit with a book for a few minutes before we leave for school in the mornings and discuss the size of dinosaurs, the meaness of the look on a T-Rex's face or how fast Thomas the Tank Engine can go around Sodor.

They also each have a bookshelf in their room with English and Dutch language books, and we keep books on hand in the car to entertain them on longer journeys. They never have the excuse that they can't get to a book!

To keep children interested, you can put a basket of books under the coffee table filled with topically themed book. Gather books about summer as warmer days come to greet us, or about autumn as the leaves turn to beautiful shades of red and start tumbling to the ground, or put a basket of Christmas related books under the Christmas tree - keeping a theme going makes reading particularly relevant to the children. You can also match the book theme to projects the children are working on in school, or for pre-schoolers events or celebrations that effect them such as potty training, birthdays or an impending house or country move.

Story time also gets children buzzing about books in our house. If you make story time an event it not only provides cosy family moments to cherish, but also shows children how fun and uniting books can be. In the summertime grab a blanket and an ice cream and sit under the shade of a tree with a book and read to your kids. Last Christmastime the five of us gathered around the dining table, illuminated only by candlelight, holding our mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows and listened to papa reading "De Kleine Kerstman" (Santa's Littlest Helper). The kids loved it and were a captive audience. And we did too. And as a bonus, you show your sons that reading is not a girly activity if dad is the one doing the reading.
Use books as the basis for other activities
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Using books as the foundation for other activities is also popular in our house. My three year old and I recently sat and read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle together. Then we grabbed play dough and made the caterpillar and the food he ate through. My pre-schooler loved it. There are so many wonderful, creative websites out there that can give you ideas - one of my favourites is The Imagination Tree.

I also recently had the pleasure of reviewing Giselle Shardlow's kid's yoga book Luke's Beach Day: A Fun and Educational Kids Yoga Story and we had a lot of fun going through this book together - reading and then trying out the yoga positions. Such activity books are a great way to get kids falling in love with books.

If you are lucky enough to still have a local library then make use of it. It has a real sense of an outing for my children when we say we're going to the library to choose some books. It's a great way to build on the fleeting interests that children suddenly have. My six year old has become fascinated with dinosaurs so we took him to the library to check some books out. He loved choosing them and his library membership is free. Many libraries also have a regular story time for toddlers which is great fun for them, and makes the idea of books and reading natural from the start.

Some of our family favourites:

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Importance of the Personality of a School

I recently read an article about schooling that hit a chord with me. Well, actually it went right for my jugular. It gave advice about finding the right school for your child. Although it was specifically written to help expat families there was one particular element that jumped out at me which is also relevant wherever and however you choose to school your child. Personality. That of the school and of your child.

There's more to choosing a school than meets the eye
When we chose a school for my eldest we looked at the method of instruction, faith, location, school results and the school building and facilities. The school seemed like a good choice.

However, it turns out that it was not the right choice. It was far from the right choice. It is like my son is walking around in shoes that are a complete misfit. The shoes are not letting him walk the way he naturally walks, and they are seriously hindering his growth. It's been a painful process to get to this point where we admit defeat and need to find an alternative school for my son. But my children must be able to be who they really are, not just at home but also in school, and not forced to fit in an ill-fitting square peg. Children are not standard. They come in all shapes and sizes, all with their own instruction booklets. One method does not fit all. And I believe that any school that refuses to acknowledge that basic fact is in the wrong business.

However, the journey we have been on over the last eighteen months has not been in vain. We've learnt a lot. It's not faith, teaching methods, school policies or aesthetically pleasing school buildings that make a school the right place to be; it's a school's personality that matters. Does the school personality match the personality of your child? A scientific, rational, evidence based school is not the place for an emotionally sensitive child.

Before we enrolled in school, we didn't know what type of personality we were dealing with. It's like looking forward to a quiet dinner party with good friends and ending up sitting next to an outspoken, boorish man who chews your ear off for the duration of the party and couldn't care less about who you are and what interests you. It's not a place you want to sit for long. After attempting to make polite conversation, getting nowhere and trying a strategy of telling it like it is and still not getting any message through, it really is time to make an exit. Time to down cutlery down and abandon dinner. And so time for a change of school.

This time around the priority is whether a school's personality will fit with my son's. The rest we'll work around because without that basic fit in place it's a lost cause, and a miserable education experience for a child. Thankfully, my son is early on in his school career and he'll bounce back from this setback. And we've learned that we won't always get it right first time but I'm glad we figured out why it wasn't working and were then brave enough to make it right. Personalities matter, even when it comes to school. Important parenting lesson number 342 learnt........

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Raising Bilingual Kids in the Netherlands

Yesterday my son came home from school pulling a red suitcase on wheels behind him. The "logeerkoffer" as it's called in school. The lucky recipient of the case gets to choose a favourite book and any objects or toys related to the book and put them in the case to take back to school the next day. Then the child talks about the book, and the teacher reads a paragraph or two to the whole class.

Last time my son brought the case home he chose the Dutch version of The Gruffalo and took cuddly toys of the Gruffalo, the mouse and a snake to accompany the book.

This time he chose a book that he is constantly dipping in to and although not really a bedtime story book, asks me regularly to read it at night as he's tucked up in bed in his pyjamas. The book "My Day at the Zoo" by Terry Jennings was accompanied by a very wide assortment of stuffed toys representing animals that could perceivably be found in a zoo. His first statement whilst he filled up the case was,

"I know what "My Day at the Zoo" is in Dutch!" and when the deputy head, chatting to him in the corridor in school, asked him this morning which book he had tucked away in the case he effortlessly replied,

"Mijn Dag in de Dierentuin"

Of course, the most interesting point is that my son took an English book to his Dutch school and I was curious what the teacher would do.  When my son came home at lunchtime he said he told the class about the book and the juf had read from the page about dolphins out to the class. In English. Trying to get any further information from him has proved fruitless but he did say she didn't translate the bit she read, and some of the children in his class (group 2) can count in English. 

I realised today that raising my children to be bilingual in the Netherlands (at least with English & Dutch in any case) is a far easier job than it would be if we lived in Britain. English as a second language is very normal here - it's just that my children have a head start. 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Getting It Right The First Time

There's so much spinning around my head right now that it is hard to come up with one topic for a blog post that I can really get my teeth in to. It's hard to focus my energy and tackle one subject at a time.

Who knew parenting would be so hard? Who knew parenthood meant being the expert on so many matters without actually having the experience to back up the expert status? As my children get older I'm finding it harder to just wing it, difficult to take it day by day and hope my parenting choice was indeed the right option for my child. Because often, as it turns out, there was probably a better choice that could have been made. I hope my eldest son will not always end up being our family guinea pig; I hope we'll have done enough things right to help him be the best he can be, whatever he chooses to be.

I realise that parenting is a learning experience every single day. Parenting is the sharpest learning curve that exists. There is never a right or wrong answer when it comes to parenting. And each day that passes gives me the chance to be a better mother tomorrow. 

I also understand how being the mother of a baby was the easy part, even though it didn't feel like it at the time. The sleepless nights, the questions about feeding and worries about keeping a little bundle safe were all real. Alarmingly real. Yet looking back the challenges a newborn bring all seem manageable now. Third time around there are few doubts about your own abilities to look after and care for a newborn. 

Six years of parenting and it's still instinct and hoping
(c) Amanda van Mulligen
Making the right choices for our six year old however is a whole new ball game. There is no precedent when I make decisions about my eldest son. I don't have experience to go on. Getting it wrong with my eldest with the knowledge that at least I'll get it right for my three year old is not a path I want to go down. I want to get it right the first time around. 

I've learnt that parenting is largely about trusting my instincts. Something needs to feel right. Parenting is a judgement call every time a decision is made. There is no right or wrong. There is no one right answer that fits all children. Each child is unique. With individual needs. With different operating instructions. Each requiring something different from our parenting toolbox, which only gets better equipped with each day that goes by.  

After six years on the parenting journey I've reached a point where I have to ask myself if I actually know what I am doing. Parenting is full of firsts. Even when you've seen a first day at school before with your eldest child, there comes another first day at school.....and another. Three children, three firsts. All different. And with each first I ask myself if we've done it right, if we've made the right decision. Do we need to up our game for the next time? Can we do better? 

And the answer to that is of course we can do better. We can probably always do better - with hindsight, experience, wisdom. I'm sure we'll find we could always have done something different. But it doesn't mean we didn't do it right the first time around. We'll always do our best the first time, the second time and the third time. And I'll keep hoping that it's enough.