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Getting together over the holidays can be fun and magical, but it can easily turn stressful if you have children who have sensory challenges, dietary needs, or social skill differences. They can also experience additional anxiety in large groups of people or in unfamiliar places. When our family members do not have experience raising a child with special needs--or they don't have special needs themselves--it’s easy for them to brush off the accommodations needed for everyone to enjoy these gatherings.
Growing up, my brother and I had various needs that had to be considered to make family gatherings enjoyable for us. Fried foods and dairy caused me to have extreme stomach cramps that made me double over in pain. Heavy perfumes and artificial scents from candles caused my brother to get terrible headaches and feel exhausted. We both had high anxiety that worsened with the unrealistic expectations that some of our grown-up relatives put into place at family gatherings. Some of the expectations included: sitting for long periods of time, engaging in small talk, being expected to explain why you can't eat the cheesecake for the millionth time, and lots of people invading your personal space.
As first-time parents, my husband and I have recognized that our three-year-old daughter gets overstimulated in certain situations. Too many people or unclear expectations and transitions can cause her to go into fits of crying. Too much sugar and not enough protein also causes major meltdowns and makes afternoon nap nearly impossible. She also doesn't like to be hugged or touched by unfamiliar adults. (Who does?)
Thankfully, because of my own experiences with anxiety and sensory differences as a child, as well as my background in special education, my husband and I have figured out simple ways to support our daughter so we can make the most out of family gatherings.
If you're traveling to a family member's house this holiday season, here are some tips for how you can support your child. If you are expecting a child with special needs at your house, you may want to share this post with the child's parent(s) and offer your support.
Be clear about your child's needs. When our children are young, it's important that the grown-ups in their lives advocate for what they need to enjoy family gatherings. Although it seems like something that would come as second nature for family members, it can be difficult to talk about these topics if they respond with comments like, "Oh, a little cheese never hurt anyone" or "You need to stop catering to your child all the time." These comments can make us question our parenting skills, feel like an inconvenience, and feel hesitant about speaking up.
Here are a few conversation starters you can use to reframe the conversation to elicit a positive response:
- "Hi ________ (insert family member's name). We are so excited to see you this Sunday. I wanted to reach out to let you know in advance that we will bring our own food for ______ (insert child’s name). As you know, she can't have dairy or gluten, so to make it easier for everyone, and so everyone else can eat more, we are going to bring some of her favorite dishes!"
- "Hi ________ (insert family member's name). As you know, naptime is really important for ________ (insert child's name). To make it easier for us to stay longer, it would be great if we could dedicate a quiet area in the house so we can go there if ________ (insert child's name) is feeling overwhelmed or if they are ready for a nap." Prepping for the gathering in advance can also go a long way to ensuring your child does well. Plan ahead. When we plan ahead, I always feel calmer and more able to relax and enjoy family gatherings. I can rest assured knowing that I've done my best to set my child up for success. Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Bring your own dish. If you know your child will only eat a certain brand of gluten-free macaroni and cheese, bring it instead of expecting a family member to make it.
- Pack comforts from home. Fill a bag with all the items you need for quiet time or naptime. This includes technology, such as devices to play quiet games when your child is overwhelmed, as well as their favorite music to listen to during quiet time or nap time.
- Gather your child's preferred toys. If your child has some favorite toys that will support them in enjoying the family gathering, pack them. Make it clear to other children at the gathering that these toys are special toys from home, and they are not for sharing. Head to your local dollar store to pick up some items you can share with all the children, or make a huge batch of play dough to share. If your child is not playing with their toys, leave them out of sight (and out of the minds of other children) by keeping them in a bag.
Value your child's communication preference. Can you remember being forced to sit on the laps of family members you barely knew as a child? Value your child's communication preference by printing out Communication Cards and allowing your child to choose how they want to greet their family members. Not only will you prevent a meltdown, but you'll also show your child that their voice matters.
Stick to a schedule. Create a visual schedule to support your child in knowing what's coming and when. Seeing the day laid out in a visual way can support your child in feeling more comfortable with the unknowns and see when familiar activities they enjoy (e.g., time on a device, playing with a preferred toy, or opening presents) are coming up. Try your best to stick to the schedule so they feel confident knowing what to expect. Refer to the schedule throughout the day.
Listen to your child. Although the simplest, this might be the most important tip in this blog. Always listen to your child. If they come to you and are ready to go, see if you can involve them in heading to the designated quiet area for some independent play (e.g. a game on a device, looking at books, or playing with figurines). If your child has a meltdown from being overstimulated and needs support to calm down, use these Calm Down Cards to help them deal with big feelings. We can be proactive by listening to our children and their needs. Not only will this make your child feel valued, but they will also feel safe enough to come to you in the future if they begin to notice that they aren't feeling well. You can be their safe haven.
Bring books that promote inclusivity. Gather a few books to read with your child and the other children at the gathering. These books can support children in understanding how different kids need different things to live happy and healthy lives.
When we talk about our differences, we de-stigmatize them. Here are few ideas to get started:
- Benny Doesn't Like to Be Hugged by Zetta Elliot: This gentle story teaches kids the importance of friends accepting each other for who they are.
- Noah the Narwhal: A Tale of Downs and Ups by Judith Klausner: Written by a woman living with an invisible disability, Noah the Narwhal is here to remind us (and the people who love us) that being valued and loved are just as constant as any chronic condition.
- Eating Gluten Free With Emily by Bonne J. Kruszka: Written by the mother of a child with celiac disease, who also has the disease herself, this book offers a reassuring look at celiac disease in language that a child can easily understand.
- Charlotte and the Quiet Place by Deborah Sosin: Some children are highly sensitive to sounds or may have sensory processing disorder. This book shows how Charlotte learns and practices mindful breathing on her own and experiences the beauty of silence. If you are a parent, teacher, or caretaker of a highly active or sensitive child, you need to read this book!
These suggestions will help you maximize your holiday fun while minimizing your child's discomfort and anxiety. What are some other ways you support your child and yourself during the holidays?
Resources to Support You and Your Child:
I met my first best friend in ballet class when we were both five years old. We were early readers and could devour a chapter book in just a few days—a big feat at that age! Somewhere in there, we began trading our favorite books each week, and 30 years later, she still remains one of my closest friends. And while our relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years, I know that she is always there for me, as I try to be for her.
Friendships matter. Not only do I know this from experience, there is also a strong body of research that suggests that the strength of your social network and the power of your friendships can indicate everything from your physical health to your level of happiness throughout your lifespan. Now, as a mother and a former teacher, I think about the lasting impact of friendship and how the development of our earliest friendships can define our future relationships. So how can we support our children's early friendships?
Teach Empathy: Engage with your child in authentic ways such as asking about their day, noticing when they need support, and offering examples of similar situations from your own experience (e.g., "When I was 5 I fell off my bike. It was really scary and I wanted a lot of hugs afterward."). You can also model empathy through your interactions with others. Your child will notice how you communicate with others in everyday situations and will hopefully emulate those behaviors.
Model Kind Behaviors: Kids learn best by observation and experience. Consider the everyday ways that you interact with those around you. Do you thank the cashier at your local grocery store? How do you show appreciation and interact with their teacher, the mail carrier, or a friend? Are you welcoming to new neighbors? Do you show concern for the well-being of others when they are ill or experiencing a hard time? Highlight kind behaviors and how they make you feel. Your child is always watching and will notice how you act in the small and big interactions throughout your day.
Celebrate Differences: One of the best ways to practice empathy is to learn about others and the ways that we might be different or the same. Children are naturally curious. They want to notice differences and similarities that they see and they want to make real connections with people. Support them in engaging with people in authentic ways. Make a point to read diverse children's books and to discuss them with your child. For example, "Our family has a mama, a child, and a dog. This family has a daddy and a papa. Isn't it interesting that there are so many different kinds of families?" Be honest about bias and stereotypes with your children. Here are some great ways to talk about race and social justice with your children. Help your child to notice and celebrate differences as they explore what makes them and their friends special. Help them to notice how they can have close friends who might look different from them, speak different languages, and like different things.
Engage Peers: Help your child interact positively with other children by supporting them with appropriate language.
- "Hi my name is _____. Do you want to play?"
- "Can I play with you?"
- "What are you playing? Can I join?"
- "Would you like to join me?"
Encourage them to navigate taking turns and sharing with others in age-appropriate ways. For example, try inviting your child to bring two toys to the park—one to play with and one to share. Another way to support your child in engaging with peers is to "sportscast," or verbalize events as they are happening. You might say something like, "Asha, you had the ball and now Ellie has it. You both want to play with the ball."
By providing just the facts of what is happening in an interaction between peers, you are empowering your child to learn about social situations without judgment, take ownership of their actions, and learn how to interact with their peers through experience. Learn more about the benefits of sportscasting from parent educator and author Janet Lansbury.
Bubble Space: Teach your child about the need for personal space and boundaries by using the analogy of a bubble. We all have a bubble around us and if someone gets too close, it might pop. We can notice if we need space from others and ask for it. Instead of saying, "You can't play with me," they can say "I need space please."
Feeling Words: Help your child identify and name their feelings using feeling cards. Use books to normalize emotions and provide a variety of examples of what they might look or sound like. Provide safe outlets for your child to express their feelings. You can help your child verbalize their feelings when they struggle to find the right words by saying things like, "It seems like you might feel excited about meeting a new friend" or "You seem worried about someone taking your toy at the playground." Using this type of language gives your child a chance to practice using feeling words in relation to their own experience while validating that how they feel is important.
Helping our children develop healthy and fulfilling friendships is an ongoing task, though it is one that will benefit your child well into adulthood. Hopefully, these tips help you to support your child as they progress towards friendships with greater independence.
I hear dinner is supposed to be a wonderfully restorative, peaceful time lovingly spent with family and friends discussing the day's events...unless, of course, you're the parent of young children. Then, it can feel like you're eating in the middle of a tornado. This, alas, was the case in our first experience eating a five-course meal.
We were on vacation in Ireland, and decided dinner at the hotel was the best bet after a long day of driving through the countryside. I was excited! The five courses included free meals for my three young children plus dessert at the end. I'm a fan of deals, so this was a no-brainer. Little did I know the dinner would last two long hours, which were excruciating for my two 4-year-olds and 6-year-old after a day of sitting in the car. They were very hungry, anxious, and wanted to play, which made them increasingly loud and needy. We were woefully out of place at this self-proclaimed four-star restaurant.
The one set of travel crayons and single coloring book we brought did not entertain them for long. I had to think fast to come up with some games that could get my kiddos' minds off the long wait. I didn't recognize it at the time, but these activities helped my kids become more mindful of their surroundings and alleviate some of the stress around their hunger pains and impatience.
5 Games That Engage the Senses
If you have a long wait, your child is bored with the adult conversation, or if you just want to help your child relax in a fun and interactive way, try these mindful sensing games at the dinner table.
A mindful take on the game I Spy is my go-to activity in almost any circumstance (long walks, long waits, long train rides, etc.). Have your child describe things they see in a quiet environment. Point out objects they don't typically notice and describe them. You can also have your child guess a new object they haven't noticed. Paintings on the wall, interesting or seasonal objects, and anything to do with animals usually intrigue my kids.
Okay, this one happens before any food arrives. After you've ordered, have your children imagine what the food or drink they ordered will taste like. Have them imagine the smell first. Then have them imagine having the food or drink in their mouths. Ask: is the food crunchy, smooth, bubbly, etc.? This is great for practicing adjectives and using their imagination to be mindful of how things may taste.
Have your child listen to the sounds they hear in the room. Tell them to whisper all the things they hear, making sure to take turns. Recently, we did this in a restaurant that was under construction outside—it was fun guessing all the tools the workers were using at any given time. You can also have your children close their eyes and see if they're better able to focus on specific sounds when they remove one of their senses.
My kids love drawing, and they happen to be learning about shapes at the moment. They also love drawing on restaurant napkins. Have your child get a napkin and crayon and then draw a triangle. They should breathe in as they draw one side, and then out as they draw another. Add another challenge by having them close their eyes as they draw and breathe (I should probably note that this isn't recommended when the restaurant has all cloth napkins!).
Mindful Smelling (and Tasting)
Continue the mindful journey even after the food arrives—you can play this game with appetizers as well. Have your child smell the food before they take a bite. Ask them if the food tastes like they thought it would. Does the food taste surprising?
While we've practiced all of these games in restaurants and at home, these mindful sensing activities can be perfect for upcoming Thanksgiving meals. Feel free to get the whole family involved while helping to prepare for the meal!
Check out this parent-friendly resource to read more about how to incorporate mindfulness in your home or family outings: 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children--and Ourselves--the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives.
My older child, S, went on his first flight at 7 weeks old and has since traveled extensively, on every kind of journey—from super-short flights to international ones. At first, he was the perfect little traveler, peacefully sleeping through most flights, even when it was loud, bumpy, or turbulent. While other babies were screaming during takeoff and landing, he would happily nurse or look around with curiosity. I assumed that he was just a "good traveler" and pitied parents of more challenging babies.
Then, right around six months, my wife and I decided to take him on a trip to Hawaii. Enter: Monster Baby. He screamed during takeoff and landing. He screamed any time we put him in his car seat, which was multiple times a day. We went through another challenging phase when he started walking at just under a year old—it was a struggle to keep him in his seat at all. He just wanted to run around and explore the plane!
As S got older, I started to realize that the "easy" baby or child traveler doesn't exist. Kids are always changing, growing, and developing new skills, so traveling with them is basically like pulling a wild card. One flight might be dreamy and oh-so-restful, while the next is a nightmare. We really like to travel and plan on continuing, so it was critical that we learned how to make traveling with young kids easier. Here are some of our hard-earned lessons:
Before travel day, look online to see what kinds of amenities are available at the airport. Many airports have child-friendly areas like indoor playgrounds or spaces to run around and play. If you have smaller kids, check where the nursing room or family restrooms are ahead of time—these can be great for nursing, using the bathroom, changing into pajamas pre-flight, or even just for getting organized.
Check out the different kinds of food options available and decide if you want to eat a meal or buy extra snacks at the airport, and make sure to confirm what time places close and what part of the airport they are in. In the days or weeks leading up to your trip, "practice" flying with your kids. Make a pretend airplane in your house and model all of the special activities they'll do, and how they'll need to stay in seats for playing, eating, and sleeping during the flight.
- Flight Times: Think about what time makes the most sense for your children. Do they nap best in the morning? Or sleep in the car? How do they manage when they have to sit for long periods of time? Use this information to plan your trip accordingly.
- Seats: If you are buying two seats (kids under 2 aren't required to have their own seat), a helpful trick is to reserve an aisle and a window seat in the same row, ideally in the front of the plane. This makes it much more likely that you'll end up with the whole row to yourself. Even if the middle seat gets reserved, the worst case is that the other person will end up with a window seat instead of a middle seat—a switch that makes most people happy. If this does happen, consider keeping the middle and the aisle in case of urgent bathroom needs mid-flight. Try to get seats near the front of the plane. The front of the plane is ideal as you'll feel less turbulence and your child will be less likely to feel nauseous.
- Arrive Early: Check the boarding time and give yourself an extra hour or even two to arrive at the airport. Extra time means that you can account for late shuttle buses, longer lines, hungry kids, or any unexpected circumstances without feeling added stress.
- Think Convenience: Consider what you actually need to bring and what you can pick up at your destination. When my older child was a baby we discovered that packing diapers for a week took up a lot of bag space, so we opted to bring enough for the first two days and buy more at our destination. Check with your hotel, family, or friends to see if there are available cribs, beds, or highchairs for the kids so you don't need to bring your own. Think about any regular travel destinations, such as grandma's house, where you could keep an extra car seat, toddler bed, or stroller. This way you won't need to travel with these items. When packing your suitcase, it is easier to have one larger bag to move around the airport (and check-in!) with than multiple smaller bags. If you are going to be traveling by air often with your kids, consider investing in 1-2 items to make airport travel easier. This might mean buying a sturdy travel stroller, car seat carrier, or lightweight car seat. At the moment this might seem like an unnecessary purchase, yet it can save you in time and convenience later on.
On the Plane
- Boarding: My family always takes advantage of early family boarding—we are able to get on the flight when it is pretty empty to stow our stuff, get organized, and set the kids up with toys/games/entertainment without having to worry about immediately taking off. Once you get to your seats, stay in them. Letting the kids up to walk the aisle or play around will only make it harder for them to stay in their seats later on.
- Pack a Plane Bag: Pack a bag just for the plane with an easy-to-access change of clothes (for everyone, including extra shirts for adults!), snacks (more than you think you need), a water bottle, a small blanket, and a variety of activities.
- Activities: Decide if you are going to use a device ahead of time, and then preload it with age-appropriate games, movies, and activities. Sometimes there are seat-back movie options—although these are becoming less available across all the airlines and often the options aren't ideal for all age levels. Consider bringing a variety of new (small) toys or games and wrapping each individually. Bring them out one at a time throughout the flight—the unwrapping (especially for younger kids) will provide entertainment on its own! Try to break the flight up by engaging your child in movies/devices, meals/snacks, and then toys/games. Add in a nap or bedtime routine for a later or nighttime flight to see if they can get some sleep on the flight.
Traveling with kids doesn't need to be stressful! The best advice I've gotten (and try my best to live by) is to let go of your normal expectations when traveling. If watching a movie and eating a special treat on the plane while opening a small gift every 30 minutes is going to make everyone's travel day easier and more enjoyable, I'm all in. I like to think of traveling as a special treat, so normal rules don't apply—we do what we need to make it through in one piece, and hopefully, have a great time on the way there!
The leaves are changing color and the air is getting colder. After living in a temperate climate without discernible seasons for the past 10 years, it turns out summer isn't my favorite season after all—it's fall! There are so many opportunities to explore and marvel at nature during this time of year. Here is a roundup of my favorite fall science activities to get you and your kids excited and engaged.
Preschool and Kindergarten
Apple Slice Science: All you need for this simple activity can be found in your kitchen. Your child will love learning all about how to keep an apple from turning brown in this kid-friendly experiment.
Stained Glass Leaves: This autumn science project focuses on leaves—while incorporating art and creativity! Using items you likely have around the house, your child will discover what happens when wax melts. The melted wax creates beautiful hanging decorations.
Changing Leaf Relief: Head to the local craft store for a few items like modeling clay, then help your child put on their lab coats as they become a leaf scientist. After collecting fallen leaves, your child will learn about the changing colors of the season in this science experiment.
Make a Changing Seasons Collage: After going on a nature walk to collect materials, your budding naturalist will get lots of cutting and pasting practice as they learn all about collages in this science-focused art project.
First and Second Grade
Capture Fall Leaves in Stained Glass: In this activity, your child will collect leaf specimens and practice their plant identification skills as they learn about different kinds of trees. Then, they'll bring their experiment indoors to find out what happens when they heat the wax to "capture" their leaves. Finally, they'll love writing down their findings in a science notebook or displaying their leaves in your house.
Make a Weather Wall: Do you have a budding meteorologist on your hands? This fun science activity will have your child taking daily weather notes as they practice identifying and predicting daily weather patterns. This is the perfect project to incorporate into your morning routine.
Candy Corn Science: Are you still finding leftover Halloween candy around the house? Use this experiment to learn all about what happens when you try to dissolve candy using different kinds of liquids! This is the perfect project for your scientist to practice creating and testing hypotheses.
Autumn Sketchbook: This is a creative activity that provides your child with all the tools they need to observe the natural world. They'll design their own sketchbook and use it on nature walks, or even to collect specimens from the backyard!
I hope you are enjoying fall as much as I am, and hopefully, these science activities inspire your child to learn about the changing of the seasons in a hands-on way.