May 19, 2024
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Help Children Who Need Structure Enjoy the Coming Days Off

Successful Yom Tov days need more than just a perfect menu. This year, Rosh Hashanah comes right after school starts, which means there will be constant fluctuations in schedule and routines.

For some children, the lack of structure this time of year that transitions into the highly structured environment of school can be disorienting. Depending on the age and the child, this can lead to moodiness, anger or emotional outbursts. “Children generally want to behave and please people, so if they’re not behaving, adults should look deeper for an underlying issue,” said Bibi Pavel, a Teaneck-based occupational therapist with over 18 years of experience in pediatrics. “For many children with sensory processing disorder (SPD), predictability is vital, so this time of year can be extremely difficult for them.” Pavel, owner of Bolsters and Balls Occupational Therapy offered some recommendations to help all children, especially those with SPD, operate successfully. SPD is explained as a condition in which people are sensitive to, or misinterpret, information through their senses from the environment.

“It is important to allow kids to anticipate the many schedule changes that occur this time of year,” said Pavel. Many parents acknowledge the different levels of difficulty encountered this time of year. Getting up on time, getting dressed, packing lunches and backpacks, catching a bus or being ready for carpool—all these events take time to adapt into a daily schedule.

Make kids a schedule.

“Making a visual association when possible is also important,” said Pavel. Books can help children understand what is happening, so sitting down to read a book to a child that focuses on the potential challenges can also assist in transitioning successfully. “The Berenstain Bears have a book for everything,” Pavel joked. Other visual cues include a picture-based schedule where they can get feedback by putting a sticker on the part of the day completed, giving them helpful picture-based prompts to work through the days to come.

Have a discussion about the coming days.

For days that go totally off schedule, even just a verbal conversation that lets children know what to anticipate the next day or two can help them begin to process the changes. It is important to preempt problems with changes by helping children anticipate what is changing and what is coming. A parent can tell the child, “Tomorrow we’re not going to school. It’s a special day. We’ll wear nice clothes, see our Shabbos friends etc.” Keep things exciting for them, and make it a special kind of difference, not something they’ll resent. Parents can use role playing and modeling as tools too. If your child thrives on the structure of a school day and there’s no school the next day, make a schedule so they feel the comfort of knowing what’s next, or if they’re up to it, let them have a part in making the schedule. It is very empowering for them to be a part of the planning.

Empower children and give them responsibility.

For children who have difficulty regulating themselves, a job can give them purpose and help them stay on task. Whether a family has extra help around the house or not, each child should learn to take care of age- and ability-appropriate tasks. “Even without a reward system, kids feel good when they help out,” said Pavel, “and if helping is part of their structure, it not only helps regulate them, but also does not become a punishment when you do ask.” She also explained that jobs around the house that they can do successfully help with a child’s self-esteem as well as their sense of community, even if that community is the family.

Add a special element to enhance the coming days.

If the thought of the unstructured long mornings of Rosh Hashanah overwhelm your child, and by extension you, try getting something special and unique to tie into the coming days. Buy a new game that can be used to occupy the time or a new fidget toy, but Pavel recommends avoiding using clothing as a treat, since oftentimes children with sensory processing issues are overly sensitive to clothing, seams and materials.

Pavel adds that these recommendations are of course at the discretion of parents, and what they think will be best for their child. “Children, whether they have sensory issues or not, are such individuals, it is hard to give a blanket statement for what will work across the board,” said Pavel. While she still encourages communication and setting clear expectations, if a parent feels too much discussion will increase their child’s anxiety, then they need to decide how much or how little to discuss the changes. However the parents decide to address the constant flux of vacation, school, chag, school and all the other curveballs that may come into play, Pavel stresses the importance of staying on a schedule whenever possible. “Try to keep to as many scheduled appointments and maintain their sensory diet as much as possible,” said Pavel. It keeps their improvements on track as well as giving predictability to the days. “Consistency and security ground kids, especially children with sensory processing disorders,” said Pavel.

By Jenny Gans

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