I like plants. I always have. I enjoy the idea of growth and potential and nurturance and all the things that plants can represent for us. I’ve had plants in every home I’ve lived in; in every classroom I’ve taught in. I started a veggie garden with my most vulnerable students. I’d send those students off with propagated mint when they graduated so they could continue to see growth – in nature and in themselves.
The other day, a neighbour asked me just how many houseplants I might have and I really had no idea. So I took a quick count. 42. I have 42 houseplants and I love them all.
Recently, I’ve been noticing a leaf turning lighter and lighter and yesterday morning, I saw this brown and yellow leaf – clearly dying. I was upset. I was pretty sure I was killing it – that somehow I had neglected it or done the wrong thing – overwatered it or underwatered it or that our house just wasn’t the right place for it.
But as I inspected it more closely, I saw why the outer leaf was falling away. New growth. There’s a beautifully fragile new leaf growing up in this plant’s centre and all its precious resources are going into this growth. The outer leaf falling away is making room for the new. It’s a long-haul project, not short-term.
Growth can sometimes appear to be loss – and sometimes we do in fact lose something. But there is beauty in this process. And it’s not always something that you’ve done wrong or something you haven’t done at all. Sometimes growth is inevitable – in spite of you.
And sometimes we become of this growth simply by shifting our perspective, even just a touch.
So for many, many people, a typical pre-pandemic day might have included:
Some of us had been working a 9-to-5 office job or teaching for many, many years. Up until early last year, most of us knew the route to work by heart and could likely drive it with our eyes closed (although that’s not advised). Our kids had their breakfast preferences and we knew they needed to eat something before starting a busy day of learning and socializing at school! We knew what day staff meetings were on and could anticipate where we’d sit during our lunch hour.
My husband and I had the good fortune of working from home prior to the pandemic so a lot of those routines didn’t necessarily apply. But still, we relied heavily – either consciously or subconsciously – on the routines we did have: walking our kids to school, knowing what time our weekly staff check-ins were, and knowing the kids would be expecting me to pick them up at 2:30pm on the dot. No matter what our unique working or living contexts were, all our lives have changed dramatically since early Spring 2020 and with that has come lots of unpredictability.
Some people may have complained about their busy schedules or their routines, but these did at least provide patterns and expectations that were part of our overall mental health. Once we were in the throes of COVID-19, lots of people felt completely flooded when they lost those familiar daily routines. Instead, they found those replaced by uncertainty and a lack of structure. Stress levels spiked. As communities and individuals, to varying degrees, we’ve been tired. We’ve been confused, sad, lonely. We’ve accumulated concerns. We’ve been disconnected. We’ve reconnected, albeit in different ways. We’ve been fearful and avoidant and disoriented…and...just, “off.” I read somewhere that many of us have been experiencing – a term I like now – “cerebral congestion.”
We know through Self-Reg, and more specifically through Polyvagal Theory, that short-term stress is designed to protect us. But prolonged stress – stressors that carry on for too long or affect us too often – leads to allostatic overload. We begin to burn copious amounts of energy trying to manage and it becomes much harder to recover from that stress, therefore potentially impacting growth and development. A lack of structure and routine can exacerbate feelings of distress in some people. Our brains like what's known, what's predictable and what's within our sense of control. And we know through the science of Self-Reg that increased cortisol levels, heightened sympathetic activity paired with decreased parasympathetic activity, are all a recipe for maintaining this allostatic overload – which ultimately can lead to structural and functional changes in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The brain can save energy with habits – whether they’re in the form of routines, rituals, or schedules. And in an effort to steer clear of slipping back into our age-old self-control mindset, we’d be aiming to create flexible habits, grounded in the questions “Why?” & “Why now?” The prefrontal cortex is involved in figuring out which routines might support us and how to go about putting them into place (all that planning part of the PFC’s job) but after enough practice, the brain stores those routines in our basal ganglia – otherwise known in neuroscience as our “habit centres.” In times of great stress (like during this pandemic), we experience heightened stress reactivity and we lose efficient access to our higher-order functions – all those positive things led by the PFC – including language, empathy, reflection, planning, and regulation. So bottom line is that under a lot of stress, we don’t have much PFC function to waste, as it were. We’re already often running on fumes. Those executive functions can take a heavy hit.
Routines can free up our prefrontal cortex’s working space so that we have lots more space and tons more energy for focusing on new tasks, learning and social engagement. Routines can also leave more time and energy for intentional restorative practice.
So when the predictable suddenly became unpredictable last year – for my little family & for so many others – we were aware of something important: when we’re faced with new & amplified stressors, our capacity for empathy and kindness is compromised. I didn’t want to be constantly worrying; I didn’t want to snap at my kids during every transition. We quickly went about setting up some proactive routines that could help reduce known stressors and which could support a calming rhythm for each of us. We also wanted to make room for restorative practice in light of a pretty quick and dramatic increase in stress.
Examples of a few things our family has done:
Our goal isn’t to eliminate all stress; it really is to recognize and reduce unnecessary stressors and maintain available resources for facing the stress that's just simply unavoidable. We know through Self-Reg that stressors are incredibly unique to each individual and what one person finds stressful, another person might find tolerable or may be indifferent to it.
In a future post, I'll share some common stressors across the 5 domains that have affected many of us over the past year or so. Plus I'll share some of our community's examples of which routines and rituals they've found most helpful!
I often hear teachers speak about the challenges of small classrooms. Some parents also find their home area limited but they're still looking to create a sensory-friendly space or several micro-environments. Smaller spaces in classrooms, schools and homes can be more challenging to work with but they can still be set up to provide upregulating and downregulating options if they’re organized in a simple, streamlined and cohesive way. Kids do best in these space when they're explicitly taught how, when and why to use the available sensory tools. If our focus is on cultivating self-regulation, we want our children and students to learn more about themselves and what they personally need for calming down or revving up.
I created this space here a few years ago and although it's teeny tiny, I was able to include a stationary bike, some vertical sensory boards, a jumping ball, and building tools.
These types of exercise balls are a 2-for-1 and work perfectly in most spaces: they can be upregulating or downregulating, depending on needs & how they’re used.
I use pictograms absolutely everywhere because they can be so universal!! What are pictos? They're clear pictures that help people visualize simple information. Paired with simple language or on their own, pictos can be used for labels, instructions, and to represent more complex information. When in doubt, as you're communicating with your own kids or students, speak less and say more! Visuals can convey a thousand words and can help to reduce frustration created by any language or processing barriers.
In smaller spaces, it can be helpful to use vertical space because there's not usually much square footage. Here, I handmade a vertical interactive sensory board that kids can use while standing or sitting on a ball. While coordinating shoulder and arm movements in that position, kids have the opportunity to improve their strength, flexibility and dexterity all at once. Hand-eye coordination and fine motor control are also targeted with these boards as kids play with locks, beads, xylophone hammers, and gears.
We definitely made the most of every square inch of this tiny space! No corner was left strategically unused!
In our house, we call them Bubble Fidgets because the boys think they look and feel like bubble wrap! (thank goodness they don’t sound like bubble wrap though!!) These push pop fidgets are all the rage these days with kids and I totally get it! They can be so much more than just a toy! I use sensory tools with the kids I work with and, as y’all know, we have sensory baskets with lots of choices throughout our own home. We decided to start carrying our Bubble Fidgets in the arcs.solutions Sensory Shop because we understand the well-researched benefits of fidgeting and this tool fits the bill for us: it’s discreet, quiet and can be used in a million different ways!
Now, I’ve mentioned it’s quiet a few times but it’s worth repeating: I am suuuper sensitive to sounds and it would defeat the purpose if the sensory tools my kids gravitate towards the most were super triggering for me – so this is a great option for home, the classroom and even in the car!
So, what's up with all the fidgeting, anyway?
Adults fidget all the time – we bounce our legs during long meetings or tap our pens while brainstorming. We chew gum while we’re reading or drum our fingers on the steering wheel while driving. All this sensory input definitely helps us!
What are some benefits of fidgeting?
Well, I'm glad you asked! Fidgeting can:
So you can use our Bubble Fidgets to keep your hands busy but we also wanted to share a few suggestions about how to use these for interactive learning and fun!
Here are our Top 10 activity ideas using our Bubble Fidgets:
1. Simple Counting
This one’s great for our youngest learners! We rolled a dice and practiced pushing down the number of bubbles until we’d popped the entire fidget!
2. Second Language Number Recognition
Our youngest son is learning a second language at school right now so we wrote a number on each bubble in dry erase marker. I called out the number in French and he “popped” it. This helped him practice and helped me easily check which numbers he might need more practice with. (Be sure to check out our Instagram Reels to hear us practice our numbers in French!)
3. Simple Adding & Subtracting
We drew 2 playing cards and popped the number of bubbles to add up the total. For subtraction, which is what our youngest son is working on now, we drew 2 cards and popped the largest number, then unpopped the lowest number to find the difference.
4. Skip Counting
We used a dry erase marker to write numbers in sequence. We took turns calling out a sequence (counting by 2s, 4s, 5s, 10s) and the other person popped the bubbles in the sequence. Super easy and memorable visual learning!
5. Pattern Mirroring
We wanted to focus on attention, concentration, and pattern recognition for this activity. You’ll need two Bubble Fidgets for this. Partner A created a simple pattern sequence (one pop, no pop, no pop, one pop, etc.) Partner B tried to figure out the pattern and then recreate it on their Bubble Fidget.
This one is super fun and could be adapted for small groups in a classroom or for family game night! Each person gathered a few small items that might fit under the bubbles. We gathered some rocks (the boys are allllllways finding tiny rocks to bring in the house!), pompoms, wooden bees, along with a few odds and ends. A choice of items is placed under the Bubble Fidget. Partner A looked at all the items then closed their eyes. Partner B removed 1 item. Partner A opened their eyes and tried to figure out which item was removed.
7. Fine Motor Matching
Oh my goodness – this was so much fun and really emphasized hand-eye coordination, concentration, and dexterity! We used a pair of super cute play tongs, but clothespins or just using pincer grip would work perfectly for this too. We gave our little guy a bowl full of wooden bumblebees and some sensory rice. He created a hive! So much imagination!! He had to carefully place items within every single bubble to fill up the entire Bubble Fidget! He did a great job! Afterwards, we brainstormed what else he’d like to fit in the bubbles… marshmallows were his #1 choice!!
8. Alphabet Pops!
You’ll need 2 Bubble Fidgets for this fun alphabet reinforcement activity. Our youngest knows the alphabet but sometimes gets the lower case and upper case confused. This helped us practice and really reinforce those distinctions. We wrote the alphabet out in all upper case letters using dry erase marker on one Bubble Fidget and in all lower case letters on the other fidget. Partner A called out the letter and Partner B had to match up the upper and lower cases by popping both. (We practiced this one in French too!)
9. Word Families (Simple Phonetic Words)
We stayed focused on CVC words here (consonant – vowel – consonant). Partner A said a CVC word (b-a-t; c-a-t; p-a-n; etc) and Partner B sounded out the word by popping a bubble for each sound he heard. Check out our Instagram Reels to see how we extended this activity in a few ways!
Finally, just keep those hands busy! With a Bubble Fidget on your desk, in sensory baskets or in the car, kids and adults can reach for something to use if they're needing more stimulation or a way to relax!
So, along with being a pretty epic sensory tool that can come in handy in an office, classroom or on long roadtrips, these Bubble Fidgets can be awesome educational tools too! If our kids are already excited to use them because they’re trendy right now, might as well harness that motivation and have some fun while learning!
You can find our Bubble Fidgets in our shop here.
Our 5-year-old loves stuffed animals. He has them in his bed and requests them for his birthday. He's always loved cuddling with burly bears and stuffed squid and the occasional soft, spooky stuff spider. He absolutely lovvves his weighted lizard! We play together with it most mornings in sort of tug-of-war type game that offers him plenty of sensory input on his arms and hands. He sits with the lizard during online learning sessions sometimes, choosing to have it hang limply over his shoulders or nap on his lap. And maybe most of all, our son loves to cuddle with it every night while falling asleep. Its name: Blue Love, naturally.
Our sweet new arcs Sensory Shop now carries Weighted Animals designed by Quebec company fdmt. This is an exciting venture for me, as I’ve long used fdmt’s weighted animals in my classroom! This trusted brand started the unique Manimo line in 2002 - the exact year I started teaching. The most popular animal has always been the frog and we used a few of those in both my Grade 3/4 classrooms. The weighted lizard was popular in my smaller classroom where I taught students with early childhood trauma and/or attachment challenges. The extra sensory input - the additional weight - can really work to soothe the nervous system and help kids (and adults) feel better oriented and grounded. On those emotionally-charged and demanding days, we all felt better snuggling up on the couch or in the class rocking chair with a Manimo.
Currently in the arcs Sensory Shop, we carry weighted lizards in three different colours: green, blue or silver. Each lizard is 2kg (or approximately 4.4lbs) and can be used wrapped around the shoulders, on top of knees, on someone's back, or on their chest. Frogs are also available in the same colours: green, blue or silver. As the heaviest and most popular Manimo weighted animal, frogs each weigh 2.5kg (or approximately 5.5lbs) and can be enjoyed atop knees or on the trunk (chest or back). Finally, weighted snakes are incredibly cute in those same three colour options and come in two different weights: 1kg (approximately 2.2lbs) or 1.5kg (approximately 3.3lbs). Placed on the shoulders around the neck, I personally love the snake's weight and soothing effect.
So, how does it work? What exactly is so cool about weighted animals, besides being so stinkin’ cute?
Manimo recommends using these weighted animals 15-20 minutes at a time for a optimal effect that can last for 1-2 hours after use.
Do you use a weighted blanket? We've had some people ask how a weighted animal compares to a weighted blanket. To be honest, we love both and use both. The idea behind the two items are the same and sensory input and effects might be similar. The animals can easily be carried and used just about anywhere: in the car, at daycare, in an office, or a waiting room. Blankets can be incredibly soothing at nighttime. However, animals can be used at any time of day or night. Finally, using a weighted animal is not as hot or cumbersome as using a weighted blanket or vest.
I'm usually the one offering recommendations to the families I work with. I suggest routines and schedules and physical activities and games. I suggest organizational strategies and ways to build relationships and reinforce attachment.
So I was happily caught off guard (and so, sooo excited) when one of the sweet families I work with introduced me to ThinkFun's Rush Hour a few years ago! They told me they thought it'd be right up my alley and they were absolutely right!
Basically, the cars are all in a traffic jam gridlock and the player must strategically plan a way for the red car to get out. There are 40 cards that incrementally increase in challenge - a great way to scaffold and build a child's capacity and skills! Without a time limit, there is no additional stress from the pressure to find solutions quickly so all the child's cognitive energy can go into creative problem-solving. Being able to build on past experience and slowly encounter more demanding tasks are perfect for kids to:
All of these things are involved in building healthy, adaptive and sustainable self-regulation skills!
And that's probably the thing I love the absolute most about using ThinkFun Rush Hour with students and kids: there is so much room for sequential learning, practice, perseverance, and true growth! (...also, full disclosure: I lovvve playing too and I even like to up the challenge by timing myself...)
Do you find yourself as a parent or teacher struggling with your child's frequent tantrums or defiance? Do you (or others) consider your kid aggressive or oppositional? In the midst of sleep deprivation or yet another meltdown, it can be far too easy to focus on a child's behavior without pausing to consider what may be fuelling it. Underneath the surface of those tantrums and aggression, your child is likely experiencing a huge range of emotions that are frequently bubbling up (and out!). By understanding the brain-body connection, we can better interpret what our child's behavior is truly communicating - whether it's sadness, loneliness, frustration, sensory issues, fear, jealousy, a learning challenge, or anything else!
Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase “flipping your lid.” What does that mean?!
Under some stressful circumstances,
the prefrontal cortex or “lid”
is no longer able to manage the limbic system’s arousal.
What does that mean?
The prefrontal cortex is no longer dominant, or in charge.
Memory, organization, impulse control, attention, and emotion regulation
are affected (and impaired) to varying degrees.
The limbic system - or our stress responses - takes the lead.
What's the result?
Dr. Stuart Shanker created the Self-Reg framework for learning self-regulation. I work with the organization - The MEHRIT Centre in Canada - both as a consultant and teaching assistant. Self-Reg encourages parents and teachers to become “stress detectives” by digging deeper than the challenging behaviors we may see on the surface. We can examine the environment, the social and prosocial demands, and each child’s innate biological needs. Dr. Shanker reminds us: “See a child differently, you see a different child.”
We love the Hand/Brain model created by Dr. Siegel. It's an easy-to-grasp visual that's used by many respected scientists and child psychologists nowadays. I use it all the time with students, teachers and parents alike because it's so easy to make sense of! This video below - Why Do We Lose Control of Our Emotions - sums up the "flipping your lid" idea pretty well, with a focus on what happens to your child’s brain and body while under excessive stress. It's well worth a watch, either on your own or alongside your child to see what rich conversations might arise.
Wanna know how I decide when it’s time to reread some of my go-to professional books? When the post-it notes start to curl up & the pages get worn out from use, I usually reread sections or even the entire book to gauge if the research is still accurate or outdated, to determine if the key concepts still align with my personal and professional experience over the past 20 years, and to just plain jog my memory.
Hold On to Your Kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers was written by clinical psychologist Gordon Neufeld & physician Dr. Gabor Maté back in 2004. This one’s all about attachment & how parents can restore strong parent-child bonds that may have changed over time. Neufeld's writing was some of the first practical attachment work I referenced in my early years of teaching and his in-person trainings I attended waaay back then would be just as relevant and compelling today!
I enjoy this book so much that I have my own *old, worn-out, dog-eared* personal copy and then three additional copies that I regularly lend out to parents or educators when I'm consulting. Feedback is often similar: the book is spot-on about the importance of strong, enriching attachment experiences and there are so many easy-to-apply ideas that really resonate with teachers and parents alike!
Here are my main takeaways from just recently rereading Hold on to Your Kids - takeaways always noted in highlighted text and on dozens upon dozens of post-its. These five still ring true today some 15 years after my first read-through!
1 - ”Children do not experience our intentions[...]. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior.” We can support our children to receive our unconditional love through the safety and connection of our relationship with them.
2 - Attachment can be both a shield & a sword - huh? What does that mean? We become +more+ vulnerable to those we’re attached to (what they say & do matters... a lot!) & our children become -less- vulnerable in relationship to others because they can be certain and rest in the safe and secure relationship we've worked so intentionally to create with them.
3 - "Make sure that the child does not need to work to get his needs met for contact and closeness to find his bearings, to orient. Children need to have their attachment needs satiated; only then can a shift of energy occur toward individuation, the process of becoming a truly individual person." When a child’s attachment needs are freely met - with no strings attached - they don’t need to spend energy on trying to earn approval or seek connection. That means there’s +more+ energy available for free exploration, , curiosity, independence, and learning!
4 - "We liberate our children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it." I've broken this dense chunk of text down for you into bite-size pieces:
By offering +more+ contact and connection than the child actually needs, the child is better able to let go & become truly independent.
5 - Down to the cellular level, humans cannot be in both defensive mode & growth mode at the exact same time. One mode will always take priority.
Have any of y’all read this book? If so, what do you think? Feel free to share a comment about your thoughts on the book or any questions you might have to clarify one of my favorite takeaways.
Where does the name arcs.solutions come from?
When I first started this educational consulting business, I exclusively worked on referrals that came through word of mouth.
A call from a school who had heard from a family who...
A call from a mom who had heard from a friend that...
A text from a neighbour who heard that I could...
Up until now, I have always had a chance to personally describe what I do when initially meeting parents, a community organization or a school. I thought I'd take the time to add it here too on the website in case anyone's curious about the nature of arcs.solutions, my business name and its focus.
arcs = a r c s are four key elements that I know best; what I've studied, specialized in and remain committed to, both in research and in practice.
a = attachment
r = relationships (parent-child; between siblings; student-teacher; admin-teachers)
c = co-regulation
s = self-regulation
When we first started, we chose the name to be bilingual - both for English and French families and communities. Through dynamic problem-solving, we collaboratively define challenging situations and implement a variety of evidence-informed solutions. When something doesn't work as well as we intended, we collaborate again, learn more, and most importantly, try again. In working with humans - young and old alike - nothing is stagnant. That is the dynamic nature of growth and, as it turns out, consulting too! And it's definitely what I love the most about my job!!