Schedules and Sticker Charts – Success!

Educators of young children know that children love structure. Sometimes, parents are fortunate enough to know this, too. I have my sister-in-law to thank for giving me On Becoming Baby Wise when I was pregnant with Peter eight years ago (read my review here).

My first son was born with a compliant disposition, and since he didn’t have any competition in the sibling department until he was four, it was easy to build structure into his daily life by following Babywise‘s suggestions. By age three, he had been fully potty-trained for a while and was fairly independent. When Peter started preschool, the only thing I worried about was me surviving a much earlier wake-up time.

Everything changed with baby number two. I tried so hard to implement the same structure into Ian’s life as Peter’s, but there were two major stumbling blocks in the way of achieving this goal. The first is that when Ian came along, Peter didn’t just disappear; I am now a mom of two. Second, Ian is a completely different animal than his brother – strong-willed (he’ll touch the stove even when he knows it’s hot), mischievous (he’ll pull on the oven door just to find out what it does), clumsy (he’ll walk into the kitchen and fall flat on his face – right when I’m opening the oven door)– and did I mention strong-willed?

I feared Ian was developmentally delayed or somewhere low on the autistic spectrum (jury’s still out on both of these – trying to get an appointment with the only local developmental pediatrician has been harder than I imagined). Last spring, I started talking to the woman I hoped would be Ian’s teacher about his potty training issues and my worries about his behavior. She had also taught Peter and seemed alarmed to hear about Ian’s issues, but she was more than willing to advise me. To encourage Ian to be independent, as far as the potty is concerned, she told me to use incentives, rewards. As for his social behavior, she suggested structuring his day as much as possible. He had to learn to deal with interruptions in the middle of an activity he was enjoying without throwing a fit.

I was stressed over not being able to prepare him in time for the first day of school. I dreaded being in the middle of teaching my own class and getting a phone call that Ian had already messed up all three of his outfits. Or if that wasn’t the problem, he would disrupt class, push other children, fail to follow the rules, scream at the drop of a hat… he would be the nightmare student that no one wants to have. It was June. I had two months.

Fortunately, at the end of twelve months of potty training hell (read the account of the first nine months here), Ian was bowel trained the same day we solved a dietary issue – we got him on a magnesium supplement. The new issue was getting him to dress himself before leaving the bathroom. (I honestly don’t ever remember teaching Peter how to get dressed, other than how to tell his right shoe from his left – it was a total non-issue.) Obviously, it wouldn’t do for Ian take himself to the bathroom but not know how to pull his pants up again. It’s baby steps, folks, and with this child, each step seems to take about a decade.

I’d tried incentives with almost no success before, but as nothing else seemed to be working, I decided to go at it whole-heartedly. We found a school supply store and cute little incentive charts. Ian even picked out his own stickers. What I was really looking for, though, was some sort of calendar. When I subbed in the past, teachers used something like this:

PreK 4 Schedule

PreK 4 Schedule

These signs have Velcro on the back. My preschool class inherited the ones above from the kindergarten teacher who was in our room before, and we can move the components around every day. My four-year-old students actually pay attention to this schedule and depend on it to tell them about their day. I wanted to find something similar (but portable) for Ian.

Lo and behold – I found an Easy Daysies magnetic board with all sorts of optional magnetic schedule categories on the clearance table. I picked up the standard daily schedule (most of the magnets on the picture below are from this collection), as well as a set geared toward extracurricular activities like sports and dance and gymnastics – even one set that’s all about potty training.

Ian's Schedule

Ian’s Schedule

Between the school supply store and the local dollar store, I picked up a number of activities that I knew Ian would enjoy – foam alphabet puzzles, coloring books, stickers. I even filled a shoebox with scrap paper that he practices cutting. After buying all the supplies on a Saturday, I started “summer homeschool” the next Monday. I introduced Ian to songs I knew he would sing in PreK 3. I drew his attention to the new magnetic schedule. I awarded him with a sticker when he pulled his pants up by himself.

Sticker Charts! This kid has earned a bunch of rewards.

Sticker Charts! This kid has earned a bunch of rewards.

The transformation was amazing. It’s not like he’s morphed into a different person – he hasn’t turned into a miniature version of his brother – but he’s gained patience, is able to sit at an activity for an extended period, has an expanded vocabulary, and is even – gasp! – more compliant.

Although Ian loves his sticker charts (and earns some sort of reward every time he fills one up), he loves the schedule even more. He has to check it several times a day. Even though there are many days when nothing special happens, he reads it eagerly, reciting, “Naptime, suppertime, clean up time, brush teeth time, bedtime.” He is even willing to go right to bed when the schedule dictates. Maybe you don’t think that’s miraculous, but it certainly feels that way to me.

Even Peter has gotten onto to schedule/sticker bandwagon. I picked up a whiteboard for him. Over the summer, I wrote his daily chores, and now, I have a list of his morning chores. If he completes everything on the list before we leave, he gets a sticker, which equals a dollar. If he leaves his pajamas on the floor or doesn’t make his bed, for instance, his forgoes the sticker and money.

Peter's Jobs

Peter’s Jobs

My house is a different place. It’s still messier than I’d like, and it’s certainly far from peaceful at times, but a lot of the pressure that I used to feel – to be perfect, to do it all myself, you name it – is gone. It’s only natural, you say – my kids are growing up. Yeah, that’s true. And maybe I just happened to start implementing these plans at the time when my kids were ready for them anyway. Doesn’t matter – my house is a good place to be. It’s a place where I can entrust at least one child with some responsibility and in which I’m watching the other grow into his own little personality.

And, as always, even when a mishap happens, it’s all fodder for a good story.

No Back to School Blues This Year

Two years ago, I posted a blog about the stress that surrounds the end of summer break and going back to school – and I wasn’t even the one going to school. Still, as a parent of a then-five-year-old, I was fully responsible for getting him there on time every day and felt that pressure. I don’t even remember if I had the same feeling last year – I was probably too busy to notice.

This summer, I’ve done more summery things than probably any other summer of my life, including a two-week vacation with my family. It would seem that a summer like this would stir that familiar anticipation, that early-morning-wake-up dread. But for once, I look forward to the days ahead, when I will have a set routine (even if it means a 4:15 alarm). Funny how things change.

Although I am a little anxious about what the fall will bring, with my little guy transitioning from loosely structured days with me or other family members, I’m thrilled that he’ll finally be in the classroom his brother first entered four years ago. I’ve spent much of the summer preparing my three-year-old by teaching him the songs he’ll sing in pre-school, as well as the concept that it’s not cool to walk out of the bathroom sans pants. It’s a work in progress, but he’s actually getting it. For the past month, he’s told me almost on a daily basis that he wants to go to school – and it’s not just Peter’s school anymore but Ian’s, too. And Peter, who will be entering the second grade, is excited to meet his teacher and see what friends will be in his class.

But the kids aren’t the only ones who are excited. A couple months ago, I received the call from one of their school’s administrators, asking if I would be interested in a PreK 4 assistant position. I jumped on it, probably sounding rather giddy. It was one of those pinch-myself kinds of moments. Summer break had just begun, though, so it didn’t sink in fully for a while. Every once in a while, when thinking about the upcoming year, I would have to remind myself that this year will be different. I will have an assigned parking spot. Instead of walking the kids up, they will come with me to my classroom. No more phone calls while I’m in the shower, asking if I can sub. All welcome changes.

Toward the end of July, I did have a little bit of an overwhelmed feeling, knowing that I had a couple weeks of training and pre-planning ahead of me. Before most of my teacher friends were even back, I was at school, learning how to administer and interpret the assessment we use for pre-schoolers and kindergarteners. Then this past week, while many of my friends posted pictures of their end-of-summer vacations on social media, I’ve been hard at work. I have my badge, which makes me official, and people keep welcoming me to the faculty, but I can’t help but feel like I’m still the same old volunteer-slash-substitute mom that I’ve been since 2011. I belong here, I have to remind myself. Not only do my colleagues help cement that feeling, but my delight in my position tells me it’s true. As I confided in another teacher, I’m having more fun than I feel like I should be allowed to have – and someone’s paying me for it!

Regular readers, fear not – I’m still writing. I’m not about to give up on that dream. But now I’m able to help support my family in a way that freelancing didn’t allow, and my kids and I will be at the same place every day (although in different classrooms). I’ve die-cut, laminated, copied, stapled, cut, sorted, and painted my way through a number of projects this week, and while it sometimes felt like the room would never be finished, I’m proud of the results. I’m working with an amazing teacher, and since I subbed a lot in PreK 3 last year, I know eight of our ten kids already.

PreK 4 collage

I’m sure there are days ahead when I will be tired and irritable. There will be kids who grate on my frayed nerves. There will be days and weeks that never seem to end. I’m not deluded about what’s to come. Even so, I am very excited. So much so that I don’t have back to school blues at all. Instead, I feel like I do when a much-anticipated vacation is just around the corner. In fact, I feel much like I did over twenty years ago, when I was a girl attending this very school.

The night before the first day back will likely be a sleepless one. I’m just the kind of person who gets too excited to succumb to unconsciousness. So if you see me Tuesday, I’ll likely be carrying matching grey baggage under my eyes. But don’t worry, this is exactly the kind of thing I don’t mind losing sleep over.

To-Done!

If you read my post last week, you know that I had great hopes for this week. My to-do list needed to get a lot shorter, and guess what? I am happy to report that my first full week of summer break has been a success.

On Sunday, I finally finished Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, the last book of which I’d been waiting for read for four years. I have to say, whatever my complaints about Paolini’s style in his early books, the last one more than made up for it. The only problem, of course, was that I was sad to be finished.

Reading Dilemma

With my recreational reading done, I plunged into work on Monday. And I even involved the kids. They sat at their table and had work time while I cleaned the kitchen. I have to tell you this because a day during which I clean an entire room (actually more than that because I cleaned the laundry room and one bathroom, too) is a day for the record books. (Please tell me I’m not crazy to be proud of this.)

I also spent my younger son’s entire naptime working on my biggest freelance project, a memoir that I’ve been working on for a year now. Thank goodness my client isn’t in a hurry. Although she still has some copy to turn in to me, my hope was to finish arranging and editing the material she’s given me so far and return it to her by the end of the week. I must have spent anywhere from three to six hours on this project every day this week, and although Microsoft Word had me practically pulling my hair out by the end, I did finally get a draft to her. (I would give details, but just know it had to do with pagination – if I try to be any more specific, I’ll most likely be reduced to gibberish and &%*!@ in order to keep this a family friendly blog.)

With one project out of the way (at least until that client gets back with me), I have one last freelance project (a much simpler one) to finish before our family vacation. I understand that I will come home from our vacation with work still to do, but my clients will have that time to decide what changes they would like for me to make, and I will only have to worry about finishing touches.

And then I will be done. As of this week, I am no longer offering my freelance writing services. And it’s not just Word that’s made me fed up enough to quit. Although I won’t go into details now, I am going to join the work force again soon, and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that I can make myself and my loved ones very miserable if my plate is too full. So while I will be glad to help friends with blogs or editing projects that don’t have critical deadlines, I am no longer pursuing freelance work.

It’s a relief, actually. Anyone who is self-employed understands the pressures of finding enough work to pay the bills. Last summer, I was able to land enough steady projects to earn a paycheck while I wasn’t substitute teaching, but it meant that when I was at home with my kids, we weren’t able to do much fun stuff; I was stuck at my computer working very hard for very little monetary compensation. This summer, I will be able to spend more time with them, and the time that I do spend at the computer will mostly be writing my own fiction.

Speaking of my fiction, now that I have one freelance project behind me, I have time to concentrate on editing last year’s NaNoWriMo book. I am determined to get my two free copies from CreateSpace. Beta readers, I will be reaching out to you sometime in July, so get ready!

Lastly, while I am reducing the stresses in my life, one of them will be this blog. No, I’m not quitting! Believe me, I still have a lot to say, but I won’t be pushing myself to reach my own personal deadline (which is once a week) anymore. Many weeks, I get to Sunday and panic because I don’t know what to write about. Or I have a lot to say but am too brain dead to arrange much of a coherent thought.

I have a friend who used to blog weekly, and she made the announcement earlier this year that she will now only post when she feels inspired to do so. At the time, I was saddened because I loved reading her blogs, but I could certainly understand – and I kept her idea in the back of my mind. To remove another stress that I put on myself sounded like bliss. I told myself that if I ever went back to work, changing from a weekly blog post to a “when I’m inspired to write” blog post would be the way to go.

Don’t worry. Even if you don’t hear from me next week, I still have plenty to say. I’ll likely update my book list sometime soon, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about NaNoWriMo 2015. But when you don’t hear from me, know that I’m enjoying my family or a good book… and, as always, striving make more of my to-do list items to-done.

Is May the New December?

I’ve noticed a pattern over the past several years, especially since I started substitute teaching: the school year speeds up exponentially after spring break. It’s like a race to the end of the year, to fit in all the end-of-year projects and parties and field trips. Everyone, especially the children, can feel that summer break is fast approaching, and life takes on a frenetic pace.

Maybe that’s why I’ve heard more than one person complain that May is the new December, as if December is a bad month. I quietly took issue with this notion. My favorite time of year is Advent, preparing for the birth of the Christ child. I love the Christmas music, Christmas shopping, wrapping Christmas presents at night while watching Christmas movies, doing the Advent calendar with my kids, and – yes – my seasonal socks. Yet for many people it’s a nightmare of obligations and deadlines and buying presents for people they don’t really like. I get it – December can be stressful. Not to mention that if you’re in college, you have exams, while all you can think about is the long break that’s so close you can almost touch it. I can certainly commiserate because I was a December college graduate. And that year, while I thought it would be such a relief to finally be done with school forever-and-ever-amen, I found myself immersed in not only editing but also typesetting the second volume of Fiction Fix when our previous typesetter bailed. People were counting on me, and I wasn’t able to enjoy December – or even being done with college – like I’d expected.

Maybe this is how my friends feel this month.

For me this year, May is more than teacher’s gifts and good-byes and summer planning. I took the Florida Teacher Certification Examination this past Monday, which meant cramming for almost two weeks. As soon as I got through with that, I took on the end-of-year books for my first grader’s class. These books hold the kids’ projects from August through the end of the year – over 20 pages of 12×18 construction paper – but what I didn’t realize was that about half of these projects still had to be glued to the paper before the books could be assembled. Another mom and I thought we could knock it out on Tuesday, only to find out we were in way over our heads. I’ve taken pages home every night, still have five or six to go, and need to finish by Tuesday.

First Grade Book-in-Progress

So my May has been busy. I’ve put off the usual things that fill up my to-do list, things that are still waiting for my attention, and I can feel them getting ready to pile back on. Like two freelance projects that I hope to finish in the next month, before our family vacation. Like a friend’s novel that I’ve been slowly beta reading since January. Like my own fiction projects, which I blogged about as recently as last week.

But I’ve been living with a kind of giddy feeling, anticipating the (temporary, at least) cessation of certain obligations. This weekend alone, three culminated: yesterday was my son’s last baseball game of the season; this morning was the last Sunday school class I have to teach until September; and this afternoon was my community chorale’s last concert of our spring season. Not to mention that this week will be the last meeting of my third-year Education for Ministry group (which means I’m almost finished with the 1000+-page history book we’ve been discussing since last fall). After Memorial Day weekend, my son has a partial week of school, and then first grade will be over.

What this means is that, even though we have school for a few more days, when we’re home for the evening, we’re home. I’ll have time to cook and actually enjoy supper. By the end of the month, I won’t have to wake up at 4:30 for a blessed two-and-a-half months. This doesn’t mean that I’m just going to sit around and twiddle my thumbs all summer – the kids and I will be plenty busy – but it does mean that I will be able to stop and breathe for a minute.

I love summers because I get a break. I’m grateful for this because so many parents aren’t able to have the time off with their kids. But if I’m not careful, I can allow myself to dread the end of summer break. I have to remind myself that I always love the beginning of a new school year, and I have ever since I was a kid. This year, my little guy will start preschool, so it’s going to be even more exciting. As my kids grow, everything seems to speed up, and I have to be careful not to stress too much over all the activities and responsibilities that go with being a mom-slash-chauffeur. What I do, I do for them and for us as a family. School and tutoring and daily chores are part of our life, but if we begin to allow the fun stuff – the baseball and the play dates and the trips to the park – become obligations instead of fun, it will be time to reassess. I don’t ever want to let a particular month turn into a time of dread, and I hope everyone else embroiled in the busyness of these times will do the same.

Back to School (Not So) Blues

Stress

Stress (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

My son went back to school on Tuesday, and I actually allowed my worries about getting back into the school routine to taint my last few days of summer break with unease. I wasn’t walking around in a funk, but I certainly did stress some. Part of that could be remembering the meltdown I had the day before Peter went back to school last year. And then there are all the questions. Can I get everything done in the mornings? How will my younger son behave without the distraction of his elder brother? Will my house ever be clean again? When will I read and write? Instead of looking forward to autumn, which is my favorite season, I focused on the little things that get under my skin.

I guess the problem is that my summer was just too good. I really enjoyed the freedom afforded me this year. I don’t remember a time when I’ve ever been so productive, as far as writing goes. I wanted to publish my latest story on Smashwords (I have another story, “Stranded,” published there already), and I did finish editing it right on schedule. But I decided to try my hand with the children’s literary magazine market instead. This is a new venture for me – and a new way to get rejected. Still, I figured it’s worth a shot. Maybe the story will end up on Smashwords anyway, just not as soon as planned. I also wrote blog content weeks in advance, something that I’ve missed this week. Plus, I loved the slightly later bedtime for everyone in the house. I found a nice rhythm of getting laundry done, cleaning the house, and cooking the majority of our meals from scratch. With things going so smoothly, the looming prospect of shaking everything up was daunting. “Disciplined” should be my middle name because I almost always have a plan for everything and generally stick to it. My problem is that when things don’t go as planned, I’m liable to have a conniption.

What I discovered this week, however, is that it’s kind of like what they say about riding a bike. And I haven’t even fallen off yet, which is a plus. Peter and I went to visit his kindergarten classroom on Monday, and I was immediately swept up by the school bug that made me want to volunteer and substitute teach there to begin with. It’s like Disney World for elementary school (and if there’s anything I love, it’s Disney). After only two days back on the get-up-at-4:30-and-out-of-the-house-before-7:00 schedule, I wondered why I was so worried. Yes, I have less time to clean the house, less time to relax, less time to write because, during the school year, when I’m either substituting or spending my days at my parents’ business. But since I’ve been at work every day, I’ve gotten to see my parents more, and work hasn’t piled up like it did over the summer, when I only came in a few hours every week. My younger son’s nap time has adjusted about two hours earlier, so my productivity during his nap is simply at a different time and station. I carry my laptop with me everywhere, typing and researching in my spare moments. And it’s working.

I wish I could say it will always be smooth sailing, but there have already been days when I’ve gone to bed with too much left to do. If I have a new goal, it’s not to stress out too much about it. And another nice perk is that the guys (well, my husband and five-year-old – not so much the toddler) are pitching in, too. The things that I often did myself over the summer, like cleaning and cooking, are shared responsibilities now. Why in the world do I have to be supermom? I can adjust, if only I’m willing to be flexible, and if I can just let go of my usual I’ll-do-it-myself attitude and allow myself to be satisfied with things that aren’t one hundred percent my way, I’ll make it through just fine.

There Are Worse Things Than Being Late

Peace00

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Every morning when I take my son to school, I have to remind myself that, aside from heavier traffic during rush hour, I have to leave earlier than I would any other time of day because someone is going to get in a hurry and cause a car accident. It’s why I eventually quit using the interstate, even though it would be, otherwise, the fastest way to travel. And for the person who causes the wreck, was it really worth it to take whatever risk caused the accident? Not only is the answer “no” for that person, but it often negatively effects others, too. This was a terrible lesson my family learned twenty-four years ago when my grandmother (a passenger) was the victim of a driver’s impatience.

This is not a blog that I’m going to fill with excuses for running late. Actually, it’s not even about being late but more about the things, such as tardiness, that push us over the edge and cause us (and others) to be miserable. My problem is that I am dependable to a fault. In fact, my grandmother used to say that “if Sarah said she’d be here by noon, it must be noon because Sarah’s here.”

Of course, “used to” is the operative phrase. One child slowed me down a little; two make me feel like I’m slogging through a pool of Jell-O. I’ll think, Finally, I’m going to leave early, and then the baby needs a diaper change, or his big brother forgets to brush his teeth. For someone who plans everything, sleeping through my alarm can put me into a self-directed rage, which is exactly what happened over the summer. As I went ballistic, scaring both of my children and my husband, I had somewhat of an out-of-body experience, wondering what was wrong with me. Why did I allow being a few minutes late to stress me so severely? If you quit freaking out, you’ll have time to do everything you need to do, I berated myself.

I was worried because I was going to be late for my baby’s doctor’s appointment. I just knew that it would be the one day they would take him on time, and our lateness would annoy the staff, or worse, we would get passed over and have to wait, thus making my other son late for his pre-k orientation. After my initial blow-up, everything else seemed to go wrong that day. If I’d calmed down, would my attitude have made me less panicky, less of a wreck? I can’t help but believe that was a big part of it.

I understand there are important deadlines. There are flights, appointments, meetings, and any number of other things for which we are responsible, yet getting in a frenzy and acting while distracted causes more harm than good. I am proud of myself that I’ve let go slightly. (Baby steps!) While I stressed out if I didn’t leave my house by 7:10 a few months ago, I’ve come to a sort of peace with leaving closer to 7:25. If my son is late, at least he arrives safely and with a much nicer mother.

I am particularly mindful of the added stresses this time of year. I absolutely love Christmas and don’t want worries about Christmas cards and shopping and baking to rob me (and, by extension, my family) of the joy of the season. My day job, however, is busiest this time of year. One of the services my parents’ business offers is Christmas cards, and the trend seems to be that, either a customer will get a date in her head about when she has to send her cards and be an absolute monster if the order isn’t ready by then, or (more commonly) an absolute slew of people will wait to place their orders until the week before Christmas and wonder why we’re so busy. My mother received an e-mail a couple weeks ago, in which the customer said he needed a proof of his card as quickly as possible because Christmas was swiftly approaching. Really? We had no idea. It’s not like we had any other customers’ orders to fill. If he got his cards the first week of December instead of the last week of November, were all the people on his Christmas list going to send him nasty-grams?

Seeing my mother’s frustration with that customer made me consider how I act when I don’t get my own way. Most of my busy-ness is of my own choosing. I decide to take on projects that occupy my free time, so I need to be a big girl and not complain. One of my self-imposed deadlines is for this blog. I feel like I need to write something every week, and if I don’t have it ready to go by Saturday or sooner, those little fingers of tension start scratching. But you know what? Not the first person has e-mailed to chastise me for being late. And I had high hopes of baking a different cookie every night this week, even though I also worked late and had two parties and extra shopping to do. So you know what? I only made two batches of cookies. Oh well. I’m not going to let undershooting my own expectations ruin my week.

With a son in pre-school, I cannot ignore what happened in Connecticut yesterday. I was shocked by the reality that such a horrific act of mass violence could just as easily have happened at his school, where I volunteer and bring my baby to visit. Of course, it also could have happened at a church, a mall (like the one in Oregon), a park, a restaurant, or any number of public places. But the point is, tragedies are tragedies (no matter the cause) because no one expects them. If a mother knew she would never see her child again, would she lose her temper over something trivial? I’m sorry to say that I roll my eyes and give my son the silent treatment too often, when I should take the time to be patient and slow to anger.

Instead of living on autopilot, what I can do (when I have little to no control over what others around me do) is live with intention. I can decide not to stress out, not to let everyday things drive me to distraction. I can decide to watch out for myself as well as others because their lives are precious, too. Most importantly, I can act in a way that will model for my children how to be good citizens.

When I’m disappointed that I’m not the successful, published author I would like to be, I need to remember that even if I were, that wouldn’t keep someone I love from dying suddenly. When I’m stressed over my son not learning his letters quickly enough, I need to remember that academic smarts won’t help him make good choices in life. And when I’m stressed from running late and think that my world is going to fall apart because things aren’t going my way, I need to remember that hurrying can cause more trouble than being late to begin with.