Social-Emotional Tools and Ideas for Parents of Different Kids

***Scroll to the bottom for my recommendations of a few excellent SEL products from Socialthinking that you can use in your homeschool!***

It has been a pressing desire of mine to find time to make this blog into something that other parents can use. Parents who may be weary from the daily grind of raising and educating their out-of-the-box or different child. I want to provide glimpses into our day-to-day in small, practical ways so that you can take from it what you want and throw away what isn’t useful to you. I want to share the tools I am learning along the way from professionals who work with our family. And of course, I also want to be a voice for others that share a similar walk and help you feel encouraged, if I am able to.

So first off, if you are visiting my page today as a battle-worn, weary parent, I would like to empathize with you for a moment. We all go through seasons in parenting (and homeschooling) where it just feels impossible. As Christians we are no strangers to dark times and periods of despair just because we’re Christians. We are human and not immune to suffering. Count it all joy, brothers! Really though, the struggle truly is where the spiritual work gets done. The difference we have as Christians in our suffering is the hope and peace that we have in Christ and the growth that can come from it, if you lean into God and allow it. Eventually, when we begin listening to the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit that beckons to us in those low pits, we are able to adjust our lenses and realign ourselves with God’s truth. A lot of times that also requires good friendships that are able to help steer our minds in the right direction. Once we are able to get our heads out of the sand we remember that we aren’t truly alone…even when it can feel like we are so terribly alone. Even if there is a lack of close relationships or people involved in your life, God understands the big picture and all of the details that many others do not see going on behind the scenes. And He is never too busy. He only asks that we make time for Him and put Him first. I think for special needs parents, the seasons of ups and downs– hills and valleys–can be quickly moving; because the burn-out is a behemoth. I carefully selected that word. Getting respite and breaks is so important and it isn’t always available.

I want to quickly throw in here that I really don’t like the term “special needs.” In my honest opinion, I just don’t think that my child’s needs are *special*. Both of my kids are special in the way that anyone’s kids are special. They are God’s unique design. I think I would prefer the term “extra-needs kids” or “different-needs kids”, but I didn’t create this terminology. The struggles that children with “special needs” live with just make their needs different and extra. They require a lot of extra help and they may require more from you and I. More patience, more resourcefulness, more brain power and out of the box thinking, more rest, more caffeine, more relying upon God. Sometimes I run out of more. If you know my family personally and you have been willing to give the more that my child needs on any occasion, I am so grateful for your support. It takes a village, doesn’t it? I also don’t believe that special needs parents are any kind of *special*! I am actually pretty average and mess things up all the time. Luckily, I know that God is filling in those gaps.

It has taken so much time for me to really come to terms with the fact that some aspects of our approach to parenting look different than other people’s. My child sometimes needs tools that don’t look like typical parenting tools. Some of them even go against what is taught in a lot of really amazing Christian parenting books. Some of them even look like bribery (and on some level they kind of are!). I am talking about consequence and rewards charts of course. It’s not outright bribery though, I don’t walk around with cash in my pocket so that my kid will obey me. It’s an intentional system that my child is a part of, understands and benefits from both in training and gratification. This is what works for him. On the whole, I have found that the books I have read have great insight to the overall big picture of what it looks like to Biblically approach parenting in a fallen state and in a fallen world. However, so many of these books are lacking in the understanding of parenting kids with neurological differences. One thing that is always addressed is how all of behavior is a heart issue. It’s tough, because on the one hand, I really do believe that. But on another hand, in some cases, there really is more. I’ve seen it on the regular. Sometimes there is also a very real neurological issue that gets glanced over in these books. I still find the main message useful and beneficial–it just leaves a part of the audience walking away without the whole picture. Does anyone else feel that way? One book I have found that speaks to the population of parents who have kids with extra challenges is “Different” by Sally and Nathan Clarkson. She also has a podcast where she discusses the book and her experience raising Nathan, with Nathan! I encourage you to check it out. I really love how she frequently referred to her kid as “out-of-the-box.” The book isn’t a how-to guide, but it is an excellent read if you want to feel validated and seen by another parent who loves the Lord. Her son also co-writes it and it’s encouraging to read things from his perspective. So often parents with different kids feel unseen among other believers. That’s a people problem, by the way, not a Jesus problem. We’re all sinners and fall short for each other in all sorts of ways. We aren’t perfect. I am very grateful for the people I have in my corner; they’re invaluable.

Moving onto the actual tools and what we’re using in this season of our life, I want to share with you our puzzle piece system, because maybe it will help you or inspire an idea for you. This idea came from the wonderful behavioral specialist we work with. At the root of many approaches to behavior modification you will find that consequence/reward piece woven in. If you have a child on the spectrum or with other developmental delays, this may be a regular part of your day to day life already. I actually recently read half of a really good parenting book that talked about how parents are taking the wrong approach when they attempt to control behavior with consequences and rewards. Honestly, I really like this book as it’s filled with a lot of useful encouragement, hard truths and Biblical wisdom; but in this area I knew the author was speaking from inexperience with kids on the spectrum. That’s okay. Sometimes I get deeply frustrated when my child won’t do tasks without reward. Don’t get me wrong, he does do tasks without reward at times and we celebrate that. But he often doesn’t and when I read these books I have to remind myself that it isn’t because I am not addressing matters of the heart or that God isn’t working in my child’s heart. If you can relate to that I want to encourage you! Don’t be so hard on yourself. It is just different and your child’s development in social-emotional areas is just different. They will get there! I work on addressing matters of both my own heart and my children’s’ hearts diligently and I pray for us all diligently. I am sure you do as well! So we have to remember to trust that God will do the work that only He can do. In addition to all of that, we do use consequence and rewards programs.

The puzzle piece system isn’t rocket science and you may have already used something similar at some point in your parenting. It can be used for any big behavior goal that your child is working towards that you’d like to reward.

We have been doing Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy (under the guidance of a therapist and behavioral specialist) to help our son with OCD compulsions. We use rewards and distractions to help him fight those compulsive urges. The idea is that a big part of getting an anxious child to agree to combat their compulsions in the first place is through motivating them with something that they really want or to turn it into a fun game. It’s also a good idea to focus on motivating them by reminding them of why they don’t want to let OCD grow and all of the fun things they can do when they’ve conquered their compulsions! Video games are my son’s favorite thing so we often tie them into his rewards and distractions. Whatever your child is really into can be what you use. For our reward system we have printed out a picture of a Fortnite image, laminated it and cut it into an 8 piece puzzle. Each piece is worth $1. He works on one OCD challenge each week. Each day that he successfully completes the challenge, he earns one puzzle piece. In our case, when he completes the puzzle, he earns $8 in V-Bucks in Fortnite. This has been working really well. Our child has been steam rolling through challenges. Though with OCD, a lot of times as you crush some compulsions, new ones pop up. It’s like whack-a-mole. The rules, boundaries and goals have to be clear-cut and the parent has to stay in charge as the encouraging coach.

I would advise researching ERP more before jumping into this process and if at all possible work with an experienced therapist for your child. If you are struggling with your child’s OCD and you don’t have access to a good counselor, I would like to point you in the direction of Natasha Daniels. She has a YouTube channel with excellent content and also a Facebook Group for parents where she frequently shares content and chimes in. She even has courses for parents looking to coach their children through OCD. Natasha Daniels was the first step for us while we waited for therapy and she was a huge help!

Another resource I wanted to share with you that has been pretty helpful this year is from a Social Emotional Learning company called Socialthinking. I purchased their products from their Superflex and Social Detective Curriculum this year and we tried it out. Here is what I will tell you, unless you are running a classroom of special needs kids or are very innovative and creative in your own homeschool, I would skip buying the actual Superflex curriculum book. It has a lot of projects and activities that are only geared towards groups and a public school environment.

However, what was excellent and very useful was the storybook: “Superflex Takes On Rock Brain and the Team of the Unthinkables.” In this story your child will meet Superflex, a superhero whose super power is his ability to use flexible thinking in social situations. The Unthinkables are a host of characters that are causing trouble in different scenarios. Each Unthinkable is known for their specific troublesome trait. For example, Rock Brain makes people get stuck on their plans and ideas, Glassman makes people have huge, upset reactions and One Sided Sid gets people to only talk about themselves. There are more story books in this series that I intend to get and the books alone are enough to introduce these ideas to your child in a gentle way. There is also an excellent Bingo game that you can purchase along with it and it has multiple themes to use where the Unthinkables show up.

We also used the book from Socialthinking called, “You Are a Social Detective”. This one was great for just reading on the couch with the kids and opening up discussion for problem-solving in different social situations. It introduces some great terminology to remind your child of certain expected behaviors. For example, they introduce kids to the idea of Body in the Group and Brain in the Group which just teaches kids, in a broken down way, how to demonstrate that their body and their brain are both present and involved in a group activity. It teaches how doing these things gives others positive feelings about our presence in the group. The book also gives kids opportunities to look for clues in different social situations, and use what they’ve learned to make a smart guess about what is going on.

I have really enjoyed using these resources and my kids especially liked the books. My youngest child loved the Bingo game as well. Ironically, my out-of-the-box kiddo didn’t love it as much and would rarely play it with me because, “He knew what I was trying to do.” Laugh…out…Loud. Hey, this mama tried! Sometimes my best laid plans go over like a fart in church.

One last thing I would like to remind you of, is to not forget using the tools that you need to be sustained! I just came out of a dark season and as I pulled my head out of the sand, I realized that I hadn’t been feeding my soul and my mind properly. Whatever you can do to get into God’s word and be encouraged, make time for that. For me, instead of getting up and scrolling through the news and social media, I’ve started listening to podcasts with my coffee. Just light, easy ones that speak into my tired mama heart before I start a homeschool day with my kids. The Read Aloud Revival has been so refreshing, as well as Off the Bench with Heidi St. John.

That is all I have for you today. Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope this was helpful and you were encouraged. I pray you will be strengthened and supported in your walk as you raise up your children.

Be well,