Category: Schools

Fidgets in the Classroom: Why? What? How?

By Courtney Bills and Tera Robinson

We are right in the middle of the fidget spinner craze! The debates and rants have died down a bit because school is out for summer and no one has a problem if children are paying more attention to their fidget spinner than they are to their screens. Or the fidget spinners are inside while the kids are swimming, riding bikes and playing at the park. But… School starts soon and the discussion will surely fire back up! Hopefully, this post will help give some thought and good ideas to implement and help calm the craze, especially in our classrooms.

This time, I’ve teamed up with an amazing elementary teacher with 15 years of experience in classrooms, Courtney Bills. She has used fidgets in her classroom and gets everyday practice to implement sensory strategies into her teaching as she works with students, teachers and her own children who have sensory processing difficulties. We’ve collaborated together to help students and teachers for several years and she has some great ideas to successfully implement fidgets in classrooms. Courtney is going to share HOW she implements fidgets into her classroom at the end of this article.

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links as a convenient way to find products and tools recommended.

WHY USE FIDGETS IN THE CLASSROOM? (by Tera)

A fidget is one of many tools that helps students self-regulate their attention, behavior and learning. Fidget spinner marketers have done a fabulous job in gaining the attention of the general public about something people have been doing for ages and that occupational therapists have been recommending for decades! You’ve already seen fidgets in many forms, even before the invention of the fidget spinner! Twirling hair, tapping fingers, bouncing knees, clicking pens, doodling…

Fidgets can help a person who is having difficulty paying attention, holding still, or behaving appropriately to seek out movement (vestibular), muscle (proprioceptive) and touch (tactile) sensory input that will keep them alert, attentive and maintain appropriate interactions during important daily activities. For students in a classroom, appropriate daily activities would include sitting still, paying attention, listening to the teacher, following directions, staying on task, completing work assignments and participating appropriately in classroom activities with others nearby.

Maybe you know a student or two or three… who may struggle with some of these appropriate classroom behaviors. Students with the following behaviors would benefit from using a fidget:

  • difficulty paying attention, listening and following directions
  • difficulty maintaining alertness (may exhibit “dazed” looks)
  • difficulty holding still or staying in his/her seat
  • difficulty keeping hands to her/himself and staying in his/her own space

WHAT FIDGETS WORK IN THE CLASSROOM? (by Tera)

The key to a successful classroom fidget is that it that works as a tool, not a toy. Each student will respond differently to different fidgets. I’ve seen a variety of fidgets work very successfully in classrooms, including simple fidget spinners for a student or two and fidget cubes for a few more, but the key is still that it is used as a tool, NOT a toy. Students have many other classroom tools such as pencils, crayons, scissors, paper, desks, chairs, books, computers, iPads…  Teachers teach and maintain guidelines about appropriately using these classroom tools and not allowing them to become toys. (A few examples: A pencil is for writing, not sword fighting. Scissors are for cutting paper, not hair.) Teachers should also teach and maintain guidelines for classroom fidget tools. A successful fidget tool will not be the focus of a student’s attention, but will be used in the background with the focus of attention being given to the instruction, activities and learning in the classroom. Students should be able to answer questions, participate appropriately and not disturb others in the learning taking place while using the fidget. One reminder is that novelty will always create excitement, but once it is consistently used in the classroom, the excitement wears off. So if fidgets are used consistently in the classroom, they will become old news to many students and the ones who need them will keep coming back for them.

I really love this video that explains and gives guidelines on how to use fidgets in the classroom as a tool and not a toy: Long Story Shorts – Fidgets. Teachers and parents, show this to your students so they can learn how to use a fidget effectively to help them learn!

There are a few practical considerations to take into account when choosing fidgets for the classroom:

  • Price is important in a full classroom of young students. Expect that fidgets will be lost and need to be replaced, so I try to only buy fidgets that are about $3 or less.
  • The ability to use hands for learning activities is another important factor. Fidgets requiring two hands are fine for listening and discussion, but if a student is writing, at least one hand should be free to use a pencil. You can add a clip to tie to belt loops or a pencil topper fidget to avoid dropping or losing the fidget.
  • Simple and plain is best for classroom fidgets. Remember that fidgets should NOT be the focus of a student’s attention, so entertaining factors, such as stress balls with eyes that pop out when squeezing or bright, flashing lights or any noisy fidget, should be avoided in the classroom.

Several of my awesome teacher friends have helped me create a list of their most successful fidgets of the many that I’ve recommended in their classrooms over the past few years.

Boinks Marble Fidget

Tangle Jr.

Tangle Jr. Classics - Set of 3 Classic Tangle Jr. Fidget Toys

Stress Balls

Silicone Bracelets

Nut & Bolt Pencil Toppers

Fidget Pencil Toppers on Pencil, Set of 6 (3 Wing Nuts and 3 Nuts'n Bolts), Colors Vary

Coil Bracelets

Scrubber Sponges

Yarn

Lion Brand Yarn 545-201 Landscapes Yarn, Boardwalk

Sticky Back Velcro Tape

Model Magic Clay

Kneadable Erasers

Kneadable Eraser, 36 count tub

Elastics

Paper Clips

Binder Clips

HOW CAN FIDGETS BE USED SUCCESSFULLY IN THE CLASSROOM? (by Courtney)

Although many children can be taught in a traditional classroom without modifications, many children will find greater success with simple classroom adjustments. I have found that providing opportunities for children to discover their personal sensory needs enhances their learning, their motivation to learn, and their engagement in instruction.

I have learned a few things over the years in using fidgets and other sensory strategies in my classroom: (Although this article is specific for fidgets, all points in this section can be applied to any sensory strategy, such as seating options and brain breaks, used in the classroom.)

  • All fidgets should be taught with procedures and purpose just like turning in an assignment, sharpening pencils or lining up. You can eliminate almost all misuse of fidgets with proper training and procedures.
  • Provide more fidgets than children. Only a handful of children will “need” a fidget during carpet time, but if all children have the option, no one feels different or singled out.
  • Don’t use fidgets as a punishment for not being able to sit still or poor behavior.
  • Don’t take away fidgets for not following directions, using fidgets incorrectly, or not sitting still. Don’t misinterpret the fidget to be the cause of poor behavior, but lack of training and understanding the proper use of fidgets.
  • Most importantly, help children self-regulate and recognize when and if a particular fidget is helping him/her engage in the learning.

To help students learn how to self-regulate by using fidgets, ask questions such as:

  • How did having this fidget help you participate during carpet time?
  • Why did you choose to use this fidget to do your assignment today? Did it help you or distract you?
  • What fidget could you try next time that may help you stay focused?
  • I noticed that this fidget seemed to help you get your work done. How did it make you feel inside? Why do you think it helped you?

Fidgets are one of many sensory strategies that we use to support student success at school. Ask your occupational therapist for recommendations to meet the specific needs of your individual child or student. You may also be interested in learning about the importance of full recesses and seating options for sensory strategies to be used in combination with fidgets at school.

Every Minute of Every Recess for Every Student!

Classroom Seating Options for Students Who Struggle Sitting Still

 

Courtney Bills is a wife and mom of three awesome kids with their own individual sensory needs. She has taught in elementary classrooms for many years and is now a National Educational Consultant, with a focus on literacy instruction through C & B Reading, LLC. She works locally in Utah to help integrate an inclusion model for all students by providing necessary accommodations in the classroom for engagement and success of all learners.

 

*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy any of these products from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase them through the links on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

 

Simple Tips, Tools and Resources to Help Young Students Develop Basic Handwriting Skills

I recently collaborated with Help Me Grow Utah, a great Utah resource, to write a guest post, “3 Simple Ways to Prepare Your Kindergartener for Handwriting Success”

As a follow up to the Help Me Grow Utah post, I wanted to share some very simple tools, products and resources to help your young student develop basic foundational skills for good handwriting!

*This post contains Amazon affiliate links as a convenient way to find products and tools recommended.

 

ENCOURAGE THE USE OF SMALL TOOLS

The use of small tools will require the small muscles of the hand to develop important fine motor skills for handwriting. You already have perfect items in your house right now: toothpicks, beads, string, pipe cleaners, tweezers, tongs, sticks, chalk, Legos, small game pieces, clothespins, paint brushes, etc. Get these out for play time to help develop fundamental fine motor skills!

Smaller is better! Stay away from thick or chunky writing tools for your young students. Buy the regular-sized pencils, crayons and thin markers. (Remember this when buying school supplies also.) In fact, save some money! Broken crayons and short pencils are ideal to encourage a proper pencil grasp.

Add a stylus to screens to encourage better fine motor skill development than just using fingers. 

Below are examples and links to some of the small tools I use to help young students develop handwriting skills!

Crayola Chalk

Chameleon Tails Pipe Cleaners

Chameleon Tails Pipe Cleaners/Chenille Stems 12 Inch x 6mm 100-Piece, Assorted Colors

Games with Small Pieces (Hi Ho Cherry-O)

Boogie Board eWriter

Boogie Board Jot 8.5 LCD eWriter, Blue (J32220001)

Stylus Pen

 

 

ENCOURAGE AN IDEAL PENCIL GRASP


Encourage a tripod pencil grasp. Thumb, pointer and middle finger should pinch the pencil while ring and pinkie fingers are tucked into the palm.

“Let the pencil breathe!” Allow thumb, pointer and middle fingers to form an circle while the finger tips hold the pencil. If fingers or thumb are wrapped against the pencil, it is difficult for fingers to move effortlessly without getting tired.

 

 

ENCOURAGE FORMING LETTERS FROM THE TOP

Reinforce starting each capital and lowercase letter at the top with the exception of lowercase d and e (which start in the middle). Handwriting becomes more automatic when letters have a consistent starting point. Eventually, we want students to be thinking about the thoughts they are writing, not on how to write the letters.

 

I love using handwritingpractice.net to create free worksheets with correct starting points. (I recommend using the print letters with the starting point dots. I don’t recommend using the arrows from this website.)

 

Handwriting Without Tears letter formation charts are what I use to help children remember how to form their letters. (The letter formation from this program encourages more fluid letter strokes over the letter formation arrows in the previous website mentioned.)

 

You can also use Handwriting Without Tears workbooks specifically for your child’s grade level. It’s always convenient to have a workbook for them to follow. I love these products.

Happy handwriting!

 

You can read my full article with tips for handwriting here on Help Me Grow Utah’s blog: 3 Simple Ways to Prepare Your Kindergartener for Handwriting Success

Help Me Grow Utah is a great Utah-based resource to help answer any parenting and child development questions a parent or provider has by providing information and community referrals. You can contact them at no cost by dialing 211 and asking for Help Me Grow.

 

*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy any of these products from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase them through the links on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

Every Minute of Every Recess for Every Student!

Recess is a critical part of every student’s day! As an occupational therapist who has treated children with sensory processing and other special needs in outpatient clinics, schools and as a mom of children whose favorite part of the school day is recess, I will always advocate for every minute of every recess for every student! I’ve shared my professional opinion of the importance of recess for all children with many parents, teachers and administrators. Recess that includes physical activity, unstructured play and socialization with peers improves student behavior, attention and academic performance, as well as the more commonly known physical benefits.

Several years ago, the local schools in my community began cutting recess time to give more time to academics. Although my children did not attend these schools, I felt passionate about raising concern about this trend. At this same time, I was treating many children with sensory processing or sensory integration disorders who had high needs for vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (muscle and joint) input who were also losing recess time through school policies to give more classroom instruction time or as a result of poor behavior or academic performance in the classroom. These children struggled even more in every aspect of their day when their recess time was cut. If only the school staff understood that increased movement and physical activity would improve their behavior, attention and learning while in the classroom! And also understand that student behavior, attention and learning suffers when recess time is cut for any reason!

I want to share some good resources to help advocate for every minute of every recess for every student. Share this with other parents, teachers, administrators and policy makers so best practices for our children’s recesses are put into practice at every school in every classroom for every student!

A new document, Strategies for Recess in Schools, from the CDC and SHAPE America, was recently released in January 2017 with evidence-based recommendations given from experts about recess! The document references 41 other research studies and documents on the importance and benefits of recess. The website also includes links for a Recess Toolkit with ideas and resources for parents and schools to advocate and plan for successful recesses at their school and in their communities.

BENEFITS OF RECESS (pg 4)

  • Increased physical activity
  • Improved memory, attention and concentration
  • Improved on-task behavior in the classroom
  • Reduced disruptive behavior in the classroom
  • Improved social and emotional development

RECOMMENDED GUIDELINES FOR RECESS (pg. 5)

  • Recess time and physical education time should be separate and should not be used to replace each other.
  • Schools and students should be provided with adequate spaces, facilities, equipment, and supplies for recess.
  • Spaces and facilities for recess should meet or exceed recommended safety standards.
  • Recess time should not be taken away for disciplinary reasons or academic performance in the classroom.
  • Required physical activity during recess should not be used as punishment.
  • Recess time should be scheduled before lunch.
  • Staff members who lead or supervise recess should be provided with ongoing professional development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also issued a policy statement in January 2013 on The Crucial Role of Recess in School with 47 reference documents.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” (pg. 1)

“Ironically, minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development but also cognitive performance.” (pg. 4)

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR RECESS: (pg. 4) 

  • Recess is a necessary break in the day and should be considered a child’s personal time. It should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.
  • Cognitive processing and academic performance depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work. The frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress.
  • Recess is a complement to, but not a replacement for physical education.
  • Recess serves as a counterbalance to sedentary time and contributes to the AAP’s recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day.
  • Recess should be safe and well supervised.
  • Peer interactions during recess are a unique complement to the classroom and build skills for a foundation for healthy development.

Any questions? Now go and play!

 

 

Classroom Seating Options for Students Who Struggle Sitting Still

School is almost here and teachers are working hard in classrooms to prepare and organize for the students coming back from summer vacation. After my 15 years of time as a pediatric occupational therapist working with parents, teachers and administrators, I believe that you could walk into any classroom and hear teachers asking students to sit still multiple times a day.

All children need movement and learn by interacting with their world through all of their sensory systems, including their vestibular system that processes movement and their proprioceptive system that processes input from actively using their muscles and joints. Each of us have different movement needs and thresholds, so some need or can only tolerate very small amounts of movement, while others have high needs and high thresholds for movement. Some children come from homes with environments that offer many opportunities for movement while some come from very sedentary home environments. Teachers will find a variety of these students in their classrooms and don’t have control over how a child’s neurological system processes sensory information nor what their home environment offers their sensory system to meet their sensory needs. But, teachers must still teach all these students with different needs!

The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder reports on their website that, “In a study of children born between July 1995 and September 1997 in the New Haven, CT area 16% of 7 to 11 year olds had symptoms of SPD-SOR (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). That is the same as 1 in 6 children. An earlier study in younger children (Ahn et al., 2004) found a prevalence of 5%, which is 1 in 20 children.” Yes, with this prevalence, children with sensory processing or sensory integration disorders are in every school and every classroom.

I’ve collaborated over the past several years with parents and teachers to help address the needs of these wiggly students. I’d like to share the seating options that teachers are using to help students regulate their sensory systems and prepare to learn. When you initially present these options, remember that the novelty is exciting for students. Let them try it several times and watch how they react. For all students, the novelty will wear off. Some may never use them again in the year. For those who do use it, you may see it helping. Use these as tools in your toolbox, none of which are a magic wand to fix all concerns. You can always set boundaries and expectations around appropriate use, but keep in mind the purpose of these ideas is to allow students to try to self-regulate their sensory system to prepare for learning. Please remember that these are options to try a few times to see what or what combination works along with other sensory strategies.

I’ve linked some of the products we’ve trialed, but there are other options to research! I’d love to hear if you find other good products!

 

EXERCISE BALLS

Bounce, roll back and forth and activate muscles not used by sitting in a regular school chair (vestibular and proprioceptive input)! Exercise balls are easy to find and you can buy them fairly cheap. You don’t need to buy the highest quality. Yes, exercise balls will become victims of pencil stabbings, so find some good prices. I’ve found some for as cheap as $8-12 at places such as Ross, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon. Be sure to look at height recommendations because small children will not be able to sit on too large of a ball independently. We’ve found that very young students or students with poor core strength or balance aren’t able to stay balanced all day without falling off the exercise balls or the wobble chairs below.

 

WOBBLE CHAIRS

Wobble chairs allow a student to move slightly while having a little more stability than an exercise ball. I first saw these in a classroom that had Hokki stools at the student computers. We assigned a wiggly student to sit on the Hokki stool throughout the day, which allowed him to follow classroom rules to not tip his seat back or get out of his chair during work time. Amazon also sells Hokki stools in two heights: 15″ Hokki stool, 18″ Hokki stool. The next year, we found these Kore chairs that were cheaper and they’ve been great for many students. Here is a link to buy single 14″ Kore wobble chairs from amazon.com. Amazon also sells the 14″ Kore wobble chairs in a set of 3 for a cheaper individual price. We’ve ordered taller Kore wobble chairs for taller students, although at 5’2″ with short legs, I fit most comfortably on the 14″ stool. Here is an Amazon link to the 18.7″ Kore wobble chairs for teens.

 

 

DISC CUSHIONS

The disc cushions are inflated with air and allow a student to slightly move while sitting, rocking and wiggling in a regular school chair. Students who are concerned with being different can use these without standing out. We bought an Isokinetic brand on amazon.com.

 

 

 

ROCKING CHAIRS

We tried a wobble chair with a student with some slight motor difficulties with balance and core strength, but after multiple falls off the wobble chair, we realized we needed another option. We ordered this rocking school chair just for him. He used it the rest of the year without any falls, but was still able to get the movement he needed. We are ordering more of these, especially for the younger students who struggle staying on the exercise balls or wobble chairs without falling. This student also preferred to have a disc cushion on his rocking chair! (Remember that you need to trial the options to see what works!) We bought a Zuma rocker brand. The cheapest price I found to buy more just recently was at worthingtondirect.com

 

RESISTANCE BANDS FOR FEET

We bought the green medium-resistance Thera-Band on amazon.com to tie around chairs and desks for students to kick while they are sitting. We ended up wrapping the resistance band around the desk legs closest to the chair. Stacking chairs was difficult when the resistance band was around the chair legs and then the band would get lost, so this option seemed to be the best. Some students kick, some rest and swing their feet back and forth, and others pull with their hands while kicking with their feet. The resistance against active movement gives the students proprioceptive feedback (input into muscles and joints) that might otherwise be sought out with hitting, pushing or kicking other objects or students. I recently found some similar resistance band, CanDo brand, that was a bit cheaper on schoolspecialty.com.

 

POSITIONING AT DIFFERENT LEVELS

Some teachers got really excited and even rearranged their classrooms to rotate through different seating levels like this. (Notice that wobble chairs are still an option in this classroom also.) The desk legs were adjusted to allow for different heights for sitting on the floor or sitting in a seat. (I didn’t even realize this was possible with the desk legs until after I saw this classroom!) Remember that there is no equipment or expense involved to allow a student to stand at their desk or lay on their tummy to work. Many teachers have small couches, beanbags and pillows to allow this.

 

 

SECLUDED AREAS

Some children need an escape from the multi-sensory environment of a school classroom. Offer quiet corners, under a teacher’s desk or behind a bookshelf or filing cabinet. One teacher told me about a student who created her own secluded area with a few chairs blocking her off from the classroom while she sat on the floor in the corner. She then hung jackets over the backs of the chairs to help block out the extra sensory input that was too difficult to process before returning to her desk.

 

WEIGHTED LAP PADS, BLANKETS OR BACKPACKS


Laying a weighted lap pad or a backpack across the student’s legs provides deep pressure input, which tends to be calming. You may find certain students that want to wear their backpack while sitting at their desk. They may be seeking this calming input into their shoulders. If it’s too difficult to sit in a chair while wearing it on their back, give them the option to wear it on their shoulders frontwards.

One student preferred to either wear his backpack or lay the heavier weighted blanket across his lap while sitting. Another young elementary student had a hard time keeping his hands to himself or from taboo play inside his trousers, but with a weighted lap pad, these behaviors decreased significantly.

We used our local Comfort Weighted Blankets company for the weighted lap pads and blankets. I love having a local company that uses the softest fabric in our own choices.

 

SPINNING OFFICE CHAIRS

I know, I know… What teacher would really allow this? But, I’m only writing about my crazy sensory processing OT ideas if they’ve successfully been implemented in a teacher’s classroom. So, I promise that it has really worked!

Some children have very high movement needs and spinning is a highly intense type of vestibular input (movement) that meets vestibular needs faster than less intense movement. So, one option is to allow a student to spin in the office chair. Teachers most likely have a spinning office chair at their desk that isn’t always being used. Students that don’t have high movement needs will NOT want to spin in the chair or they will only be able to do so for a very short period of time.

The teacher who let a student spin in an office chair while fidgeting with paper clips found that the student participated more appropriately in the classroom, so allowed this everyday as much as he needed. The other students didn’t complain because they realized that they weren’t distracted by the student’s inappropriate behavior when sitting at his student desk and chair. Everyone functioned better! Some older students who let their teacher know they need a break and with prior approval, go into another room to spin in an office chair until their sensory system is ready to return to class and behave appropriately.

 

NOT JUST FOR KIDS!

Finally, you’ll realize that not just students want a variety of options for seating! I, personally, always prefer a wobble chair or exercise ball. This adult school employee realized that her back pain improved drastically by sitting on a disc cushion and wobble chair (after trialing some other expensive office chairs).

Thank you to all the great teachers and parents who have been willing to try out my crazy sensory OT ideas, then given honest feedback about how they’ve worked! I hope this will give you some ideas to brainstorm for your wiggly students! Teachers, I hope this is helpful and that your school will support these accommodations. Parents, this may be just what you need to take to your child’s teacher for support in the classroom. Talk with a pediatric occupational therapist for individualized guidance. Please share your experiences and any other ideas and products that are working for your students!

 

UPDATE: After ordering large quantities of this type of equipment at my school, the school secretary has told me that she prefers ordering from Amazon because of her familiarity with the ordering process, the lower shipping prices and the shorter shipping time. (Sometimes shipping prices can be so high that the order still costs more, even with a lower sales price.) I’ve added Amazon links if you also have these same concerns.

*Since writing this post, I have become part of the Amazon Affiliate Program. If you choose to buy any of these products on Amazon, I’d appreciate if you used the links through my website to help support the work I do at Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

First Grade

December 16, 2015

When was the last time you were in first grade? Lucky for me, I was there just yesterday. I’m 37 years young and still get to go to first grade. I’m also lucky enough to get the chance to just watch those bundles of energy… all kinds of energy… attention-seeking energy, excited energy, working-really-hard-to-please-your-teacher energy, frightened energy, running energy, please-come-be-my-friend energy, shy energy, I-hope-I’m-doing-this-right energy, creative energy, yelling energy, I’m-trying-to-be-so-good-but-it’s-oh-so-hard energy, wiggly energy…  Those are just a few I saw yesterday and when I go back tomorrow, I can add to that list. 

I’ve worked with children and adults with special needs in a variety of settings as an occupational therapist for almost 15 years now. My heart has always been drawn to those that are misunderstood and don’t quite fit in. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to working with children with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and other difficulties that aren’t always understood at first glance.  

This morning when I woke, I saw a Facebook post of a beautiful, full-of-love video by Emilie Parker’s mom, Alissa Parker. The video is called Evil Did Not Win. Emilie Parker was a first grader at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on a fateful day in December 2012. I remember driving to school to pick up my own first grader as I heard the news of the shooting and I burst into sobs. I could not drive and pulled to the side of the road, sobbing for another 5 minutes. Later in the day, I learned that close family friends were involved in this tragedy. Emilie’s family still carries the unbelievable pain from that day when Emilie didn’t return home to them. I’m in awe of Alissa and Robbie’s strength, determination, faith and love through this tragedy. I love and respect these friends and would have anticipated this kind of strength and love from them by who I’ve known them to be. I pray that I might one day have the brave faith and determination they show.

I never knew Emilie, but I imagine Emilie having the creative, working-really-hard-to-please-you, energy. I see her getting lost in a blissful imagination of her own. I picture that no adult could do anything but love this little blonde, beautiful first grader.

There is another side to the Sandy Hook story that is the most difficult to talk about, that we don’t want to talk about because we don’t want it glorified and we simply don’t have answers to the questions. I 100% agree with this. But, when I go back to first grade tomorrow, I can’t help thinking about another once-upon-a-time first grader named Adam. He was the precursor of the Adam that became the horrific part of the Sandy Hook story. Because when I see the energies of those 6-year-olds, I have to believe that he had some of those same energies I saw in first grade yesterday. And I have to believe and have faith there was another option than the outcome at Sandy Hook Elementary. What turned that energy is my question? While this question may never be answered and I am not presuming to know the answer, I do believe this is an important question to discuss for all children’s futures.

This little first grade class I was in yesterday has gained the attention of the entire school. There are a few boys in that class that are already infamously known by teachers, administrators and students. Their energy is not the appreciated kind of energy in a first grade class, and their energy can hold an entire classroom and school hostage. How can this be at just 6 years old?

I wonder about first-grade Adam in his classroom, in his house, on the playground, going to tumbling class… When he showed that unappreciated kind of energy, what was the reaction of those around him? What kind of attention did he get with that energy? And from that attention, what did he learn about himself as a 6-year-old boy that eventually grew into a horrific mass murderer?

As I watch those harder-to-manage first graders, I see them searching franticly for some kind of reassurance from their peers and especially the adults. Many times it is attention, sometimes it’s the assurance that they have a sense of control over anything, other times it’s to know they will be safe, sometimes it’s acceptance.

The majority of children know how to gain attention, control, safety and acceptance because they learn well from the environment they’ve been living in. They’ve learned how to use the energy they have to feel this way. But what about the ones who haven’t?

Did Adam learn that to get attention, it had to be a bigger and bigger act to receive attention? Did he learn that the most immediate and quickest attention was when he broke the rules or hurt someone? Did he learn that the only two ways for him to feel safe was to run away or aggressively attack whatever felt unsafe? And had he learned that he really wasn’t ever accepted by any peers or authority figures for anything he did?

As I’ve worked with children with unappreciated energy for over a decade, I am reminded every day that there are no easy or perfect solutions—absolutely none. If you happen to know one of these children, you intimately know the constant, never-ending struggle. But, hopefully, you truly love this child without end and are willing to continue this struggle every day. Please never lose hope and never give up in your search to help this child feel loved with secure boundaries. Please come back the day after you’ve “given up” on this child, to keep searching and keep loving. Because this search and this fight will most likely change daily and give you more and different answers to find than the previous day. You may physically, mentally and emotionally scream and pull your hair out. Do that, and come back, knowing your hoarse voice will heal and your hair will grow back or you can start wearing a new hairstyle with less hair. 🙂

My plea to you, parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents, friends, is that you will make this first grader or any other aged-child, to feel just as attended to, in control, safe and accepted as Emilie felt by her loving parents and caregivers. I believe that we can make just as much difference with the struggling first graders as we can with Congress passing gun laws for the entire nation. There are many, many small and big solutions along the way that will make a great impact, but none of them are successful without seeing the child with love and compassion. Please persevere in memory of those 20 beautiful first graders and in the memory of an innocent, first-grade Adam.