Helping a Child Who Needs a Bit More…

For families with kids who struggle with executive function and attention, anxiety, OCD and other difficulties under the neurodiverse umbrella, parents tasked with helping their kids accomplish school work, homework, chores and other expectations can feel like they’re up against a great challenge. Simply because, it’s a great challenge for the child and they need extra help. And your job is to find out how to provide that, which is something you may have never had to do before. That can feel like a lot of pressure. We want to help our kids but sometimes don’t feel equipped. I believe God puts people in our life to speak into our lives and help us find the answers we need when we come up short.

Finding the answer to making our day to day life manageable and improving our flow as a family, has been a slowly evolving process, but we’re making great strides. It took a lot of research, reaching out to professionals for advice, then praying and mulling over advice with friends, asking people in my circle how they did it, how they do it, what worked and what failed. And then, internalizing all of that and sitting down to decide what to throw away and what to keep to make it work for our specific situation. Here’s what our challenge was and what we came up with. And yes, it is working.

The challenges:

My child was, on a daily basis, feeling and acting unmotivated, combative, anxious about each day and refusing school work (even fun games). Everything was a battle, even the things that didn’t feel like they should be. I will be honest and say that the changes we implemented did not make all of that disappear. However, it did improve the situation and give my husband and I some clear guidelines to work within and the kids now have clear expectations and goals to work towards every day. My youngest child, who is quite neurotypical, does not necessarily need our guidelines to be as specific as they are and he doesn’t really need rewards to motivate him as much, but it’s still been beneficial to him nonetheless. As a whole, making clear cut rules and schedules has helped us all be on the same page, remain accountable and find a flow.

I admit, there are plenty of days where I wish we didn’t have to be so confined to a schedule. Some days I feel like I just want to be able to be spontaneous and say yes to things that I know will turn our schedule on it’s ear; and some days we do choose to do that, but most days we don’t.  Because we all know we’re better off when we are sticking to the plan. Well, actually, my husband and I know that. My son doesn’t. He thinks that he would like to fly by the seat of his pants but at this time in his development he just cannot without having a very difficult time. That doesn’t have to be your approach, of course. It’s just ours because my husband and I get burnt out quickly when things get chaotic and we really have to be willing to sign up for managing that. We like to schedule our spontaneity!

So, getting back to the point, here is what we finally came up with to help our family succeed:

The Command Center! I know, it looks intense, right?
I found these clip art images from under the special needs section. Some downloads are free and some you need a subscription for. I used sticky magnet sheets to make this magnet board.

A family If/Then chart. You make a list of non-negotiable expectations for your family. Then under each rule/expectation, you list the consequence for breaking that rule. And you enforce it calmly and matter of factly, but relentlessly for every time the rule is broken.

Each time out is 5 minutes, but it is longer if they still aren’t cooled down and ready to apologize.

The first couple of days that we did this my son pushed back intensely and threw massive fits. It was hard to enforce because I could tell he was experiencing meltdowns from being overwhelmed by the change, but we stuck it out and within two days the meltdowns stopped and he understood the new rules. At the same time as implementing these new family rules I also put out the daily schedule and screen time reward chart. Maybe I should have done it bit by bit but my son hates change, so I felt like doing all of the change at once would be better for him than dragging out the process of changes and meltdowns week after week. I felt like it would create unnecessary anxiety because he would stress about what else would be changing, when is the next shoe going to drop? So we went in full gusto and got it over with.

The daily schedule broke down our day in chunks beginning with waking up and ending with bedtime. Some days were different than others so we have a different schedule put out on the bulletin board for different days. Our dining room wall is pretty much a command center.

We have different schedules for weekdays, weekends, sports days, etc. On weekends we are more relaxed but still have a schedule.

The rewards chart tracked their expectations and chores in sections that they could check off throughout the day to earn minutes toward screentime. We blocked out a time in the day to cash in on the screentime earned.

How it all went down:

The first two days felt like bootcamp. On the morning of the first day, 2 hours into implementing the new system, the pest control guy actually showed up and I was in the middle of helping my son through a meltdown. If you’ve done that before then you know that it can sound very loud, scary and sometimes like your hurting your child, when you’re just trying to prevent your child from hurting himself or you. So to have someone in your home that does not know your situation at all, well it is a little nerve wracking. Our dining room table was tipped over on its side and the chairs were lined up against the wall and the house was trashed. I’d tipped the table over to prevent my son from running around it while I was chasing him in order to put him in a time out.

Normally, I would be mortified that someone was in my house during all of this, but that day I had decided to let that part of me die. I let the man in and told him to help himself around the house and to not mind us as “we were just working on something.” Lol! When he went to leave 30 minutes later, I felt incredibly seen and validated when he handed me my paperwork and said, “I hope this is okay to ask, but is your son on the spectrum?” When I told him yes he said, “I thought so. I worked with kids on the spectrum for 8 years and I just wanted to let you know you’re doing a good job with him and to keep doing what you’re doing.” I literally felt like God sent an angel in a pest control uniform to reassure me that morning. Because there were definitely times I was wondering if what I was doing was somehow hurting my son because he was struggling so much and in so much distress. 

But he was right. It has been maybe two months since day 1 and making these changes and sticking with it has helped him. He still has autistic symptoms that cause him to struggle of course, but the certainty of what is expected of him every single day has helped him push through anxiety and the lack of motivation that was too much for him to move past before. He is in control of the outcome of his day and each day he gets a new start and learns from the day before. The meltdowns still happen but it’s usually not due to our rules, it’s due to other things like fatigue, hunger and the uncertainties and pressures of life outside of our daily schedule. At home, he knows exactly what is expected of him and in that he gets some rest from the confusing world.

He now does his school work on most days and if he is combative, he usually turns it around in less than half the time he used to (5, 10 or 15 minutes instead of an hour). There are occassional days that he will choose to go on strike but instead of getting mad I know I can just enforce the consequence and he will learn from it. And he does. He apologizes for things and listens to warnings more quickly. I’d like to be clear, I do still get mad. I am human! He pushes my buttons and frustrates me, there is no doubt about that. But now that I have a plan and know how to proceed, I am usually able to remind myself to keep my anger in check. I can remind myself that I don’t *need* to get mad or yell because I’ve found something that works much better. This has been worth the effort.

If you feel like this would help your kids but you want more details or have questions, please contact me and I can share the files of the charts we’ve made with you and explain how we follow it more specifically. If all of this looks crazy to you, I get that too! This is just what we do to survive and thrive in our home and it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s important to me to share what works for us in case it could be helpful to someone else who is lost and overwhelmed. There have been many who have helped me along the way ❤