It’s all about Lego

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My own emotional attachment to Lego is getting a little bit out of hand. I spent a ridiculously long time working out how to create a custom designed Lego table and get endless pleasure out of sorting all the little pieces into their appropriate sections.

Of course, I can’t actually build the stuff now that Jonah has progressed to the serious box sets but I’ve loved watching his complete and utter commitment to those little blocks.

Lego is the first thing that comes out in the morning and the last thing at night. He brings it into the bath before we read some sort of Lego related bedtime book and he’s even got his own blog, Legocation.

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Maybe because in this crazy world, Lego is the one constant for Jonah. No matter where he is or what situation he is in, he can count on Lego to be the same and I guess there’s a huge amount of satisfaction when completing a box.

It’s funny because I’ve spoken to a few mums of little boys who say that in school their boys can’t sit still or focus but will literally spend hours pouring over the instructions to create some fabulous Lego set. What is it about Lego that can hold their focus for so long and how do we harness that?

I mean if any of you have actually looked in a typical Lego instruction leaflet, you will see that it requires a huge amount of concentration, certainly beyond the limits that I have. But Jonah has very little problems finding the correct pieces and fitting it all together. Sometimes he asks me for help and I offer a piece that I think will work only to have him look at me with pure horror when it’s a slightly different colour or has an extra bit sticking out.

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And it’s not just through the building of it, Lego is the start of so many imaginative roleplaying games that they can do alone or with friends. It’s a chance for them to express themselves and their emotions because if you actually listen to their dialogue, it is often full of experiences that they may have had themselves that day.

Jonah and I used to play a game called Star of the Day, based on the real Star of the Day at school. We would come up with a reason why each Lego figure wasn’t the Star before knocking them flying and then give a huge whoop for the one who was. Rather than drilling him in appropriate behaviour at school, this was a fun way of him hearing the same message without feeling like he was just being talked at.

Jonah also loves to draw Lego. For many boys, picking up a pen and paper comes slightly later so anything that encourages them to do this has got to be a good thing.

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But really what I love about Lego is how much Jonah loves it. From the original Duplo Lego through to Lego City, Ninjago, Chima, Star Wars and now the ultimate, Lego Minecraft, Lego talks to him like no other toy can. If Jonah can just maintain this passion and commitment and apply it to other areas of his life, then he will be successful in whatever he chooses to do.

I on the other hand will probably spend the next 20 years finding the stuff in places throughout my house, furniture and clothes and often stuffed in the ends of my shoes.

Kissed by fire

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My kids have great hair. I don’t mean cute kids hair or anything, I’m talking getting stopped in the street by strangers on an everyday basis kind of hair. The sort of hair that gets people talking. I’ve been told that their hair colour originates from Paris, Poland, Scotland, Ireland and Italy. Japanese tourists have stopped us in the street to pose with the kids and old ladies regularly stop to pat them on the head.

You see it’s the most gorgeous red colour you can imagine. kissed by fire even as one lady described it. I know it’s not the done thing to boast about your kids – bit vain really – but in this case I feel justified.

The thing with red hair is that it gets you noticed. For Evie, this is a great thing as it stops her from melting into the background as she naturally tends to be slightly shy and reserved. For Jonah it means that I can spot him a mile off and if there is any trouble, then there is no sneaking out of it for him.

But really the only reason I’m talking about hair is because I read an article recently about a hairdresser who specialises in cutting children’s hair with autism or sensory issues. Now I thought it was just Jonah who hated having his hair cut but it seems that a lot of children feel the same way.

The article went on to say that it was quite common to have to physically hold a child down while at the hairdressers, traumatic for all involved. But as parents, there is a lot of pressure on us to do the right thing in terms of tackling
behavioural issues. Many of us will have felt a thousand eyes burning into us when our children have a melt down. They may not say it but you can feel the ‘can’t she control that child’ just waiting to burst out.

So in a bid to do the right thing, we often do the wrong thing like restraining a child at the hairdressers because we wouldn’t want anyone to think we can’t control them. But for many children, having a tantrum or meltdown is not them being naughty, it is a clear sign for help.

Behavioural problems for children at the hairdressers is easy to understand when you think about it logically. Once a child is old enough to understand that sharp scissors are dangerous, we then just expect them to sit still while a stranger looms over them snipping away.

As adults, we understand that this person is trained and is not just going to snip our ear off or anything, but how can a child have that trust yet? Anything that causes fear has to be dealt with in small, baby steps. I’m all for ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ but overexposure in a child is, I believe, a harmful thing.

But the reality is, as a society, we often don’t have the time to ease children gently through life and while most can just get on with it, there are a few that will struggle and a small, irrational fear will multiply leading to emotional and possibly even physical problems.

Many of these stressful situations can be made so much easier for all involved if we can just shed the British stiff upper lip thing. Not every child can ‘just get on with it’ and if you can learn to not give two hoots about what people think and give your child as much time as they need, many of these issues will cease to be.

So back to the hair thing. Jonah’s first trip to the hairdressers was actually ok, the second wasn’t! So really
I thought what is the point of handing over £10, having a dodgy haircut, an emotional child and walking away dripping in sweat. I surely could a better job myself?

So a quick stop off in Boots and I purchased a pair of proper hair cutting scissors. But of course that didn’t get round the issue of Jonah now not liking getting his hair being cut. So the answer was simple. I’ll do it while he is asleep.

Now many people looked slightly shocked when I told them but honestly, he’s such a heavy sleeper that I managed to do quite a good job of it. The only funny point was going into nursery and all the teachers commenting on his lovely new hair cut. I had to tell them that Jonah was oblivious to the whole thing so probably best not to make too much of it but secretly I was pretty chuffed with my efforts.

Now at the grand old age of six, Jonah actually chooses to go to the hairdressers. Go figure! He actually quite enjoys the whole process and as long as the hairdresser doesn’t get rid of
his beloved curls, he is a model client.

But of course I’ve still got the scissors and I’ve had to explain a few times why my ‘layers’ are not as even as they should be. So far I’ve resisted cutting in a fringe but you never know what happens when boredom takes hold!

Before I change my mind…

OK, so I going to write this blog really quickly before I change my mind. I’m going to write a book. There I’ve said it, it’s out there, I’ve got to do it.

Call it an early New Year’s resolution. Now, I’m a writer so this shouldn’t be too scary, but it is. I’ve written thousands of words and on hundreds of different subjects but the audience has always been quite forgiving.

The book I’m proposing has a readership who will quite literally chuck away all my hard work if it’s not up to scratch. If they don’t like it, there will be no gentle encouragement, no excuses for not finishing it and no well done for trying. They will just shout ‘It’s poo’ in my face if I don’t get it right.

Yep you’ve guessed it, I’m going to write a children’s book. But a book that kids like Jonah can really relate to and learn from. We actually have one at home but it’s used as more of a punishment for when Jonah has been unkind. he words are there, the lesson is clear but it’s not very fun.

Interestingly, I’ve just read and article in which acclaimed author Julia Donaldson says that even ‘naughty’ children love to be given a part in a reading group acting out the characters. Now I don’t know if I can do this but wouldn’t it be great to have a kid’s book that can really help with teaching about behaviour in a fun way. It’s not the whole answer but it’s a great place to start for parents who are dealing with challenging children.

I’ve actually already given it a bit of a shot, although Jonah takes all the creative credit – I just wrote it down on paper. his is our first go at children’s literature. What do you think?

The Adventures of Nappy Man by Jonah Miller, age 5
Nappy Man flew off to an island and then he saw a criminal called Destroyer Nappy.

Then a fight happened and then Nappy Man shooted nappies at him and then Destroyer Nappy saw a nappy was on his head.

He said: “Grrrr why is there a nappy on my head, was it Nappy Man?”

And then Nappy Man shooted bombs at Destroyer Nappy and then the criminal got captured by the police.

And then Nappy Man shooted nappies everywhere on people and then he said: “Yay I got the criminal Destroyer Nappy.”

Everybody said: “More nappies,” so he shooted everywhere even Ancient Egypt and home.”
THE END

To read the further adventures of Nappy Man, and other stories, as yet unnamed, why not follow me?

The Honey Monster

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It’s a bit ironic really that I’ve written a blog called the Marmite Kid about Jonah, my son, considering his idiosyncratic relationship with food.

We’ve moved on from telling people that he’s a fussy eater to saying that he has special dietary requirements because we tend to find that shuts them up a bit more.

I find that people have a weird thing about food and kids. Having a healthy appetite and eating everything and anything in sight is seen as a mark of achievement. Parents of fussy eaters can be made to feel that they are somehow failing if their child won’t wolf down whatever is put out in front of them.

I have two kids, one, Evie, who will eat pretty much anything (except porridge and bananas) and one who won’t, Jonah. So therefore, how can my parenting be judged?

Personally, I pay very little attention to it. As a former dancer, I was surrounded by people watching what they put in their mouth, but after five years of teaching dance at the Rhodes Farm Clinic, a unit for young people suffering from eating disorders, I understand that sometimes you should not put so much emphasis on food.

The best thing about Jonah’s diet is the reaction it causes in other people. We recently went to a McDonald’s party and the host was dumbstruck that all Jonah requested was a bottle of water. No milkshake, no chips, no burger, no nuggets, just his usual lunch, which of course I brought with.

In fact, meal times with Jonah is pretty straightforward. For breakfast he has a big bowl of porridge with honey. For lunch, honey sandwiches on brown bread (no crust), a fruit stick, crackers, custard creams, pom bears, yogurt and a bottle of water. Dinner is a bit more adventurous with a sausage (skin off), beanz, cucumber or even pizza.

Snacks are fine as he likes apples and strawberries and I never leave the house without a bag of crackers or brioche. Although he is partial to a little bit of milk chocolate, what he won’t do is consume the crap that most kids have on a daily basis. Offer him sweets and he’ll simply say, “No, thank you.”

Consequently, he is actually very healthy (according to the doctors), his teeth are shiny white (according to the dentist). So it is only other people’s strange reactions that we have to deal with.

The other day, Evie said to me: “Mum I feel sorry when people offer Jonah a sweet because they just don’t understand why he doesn’t want it.”

Jonah’s relationship with food is very likely to be based around control and him feeling scared and out of control if he is given something new to try. The child development doctor we saw said that you can try showing the child the same food up to 15 times before they are likely to accept it but in her opinion this approach didn’t even work with her own children.

So what is the answer I asked her: “When Jonah is older and is at his girlfriend’s house and her dad says eat up your greens, the chances are he just will,” she said.

But one of the things she did ask Jonah was if he had been on a plane. And the reason being was because for fussy eaters, parents often stop exposing them to new situations because they are worried about if they will eat anything.

This is totally understandable but shouldn’t stop your child from enjoying all that life has to offer. This summer we went to California for a month and carted around with us four boxes of porridge, six packs of crackers, custard creams, pom bears, fruit sticks and a whole load of honey!

Little did we know you can buy most of the items in California. And we also discovered another brand of porridge that passes muster. Life is full of surprises.

Battle ready

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One of the strange side effects of having a child with behavioural difficulties is that you enter a bizarre new world. A world in which few people even speak the same language as you. But this is a world where you must be prepared for battle even when you are not entirely sure who the enemy is.

In our case, after a term of Jonah starting school, we were forced to learn a whole new vocabulary of words, most of them completely alien to our ears. Certainly in the four years our daughter Evie had been at school, we had never come across any of them.

The odd thing is that everyone speaks to you like you actually know what they are talking about. I guess they are so used to it that they forget that for most parents, this will be the first time they have ever heard these terms and names, let alone understand what they actually mean.

As a journalist, I’m pretty used to quickly digesting new information but it still took me a while to grasp all the abbreviations and figure out what was relevant to us. Fortunately I did my research and met up with other mums who had been in similar situations. But if English is not your first language or you haven’t the skills or resources to get help, this difficult situation is made much worse.

So here is my little guide to some of the key words that you should know if your child is having difficulties at school. Although the UK education system likes to put a label on everything, don’t Let them freak you out. Your child is still your child. No label will ever define him or her and the reality for many children is that with love, patience and maturity, the label that they were given at five will be a thing long forgotten by the time they are 15.

SEN or Special Educational Needs
This is a wide reaching name for a child who is displaying traits that will affect their ability to learn in school. It can include physical needs or impairments through to obvious education difficulties such as problems with reading or writing. It can also include children who are incredibly shy and unable to make friends through to those that have difficulty in moderating their anger. Although it is likely that your child will display many of these emotions throughout the day, it is those that display this behaviour at school who will be classed as having SEN.

SENCO or special Educational Needs Co-ordinator
This person is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school’s SEN (above) policy. If you are worried about your child, a SENCO is good first port of call after the child’s teacher. The SENCO’s role is to co-ordinate with the child’s teacher, parents and any other professionals who are involved with them. Top tip: In my experience, the SENCO will be juggling a million different things so make sure you are note taking in all meetings and be proactive about following things up.

IEP or Individual Education Plan
This is a plan or programme designed for children with SEN to help them to get the most out of their education and moderate their behaviour. It is very target driven and will help inform the teachers and others working with the child of specific goals and how these will be reached. The great thing about an IEP is that you can really track progress. So if your child has had a bad week you can look at the IEP and remember the overall progress the child has made rather than obsessing over a bad few days.

It also monitors the effectiveness of teaching and provision in school to really get to grips about what is working and what is not. Top tip: he IEP is fantastic because you meet with your child’s teacher and the SENCO regularly. Also, if the school has promised you a certain provision, for example, a room where the child can go if he/she is feeling overwhelmed, then you can make sure that it will happen if it is included on the IEP. You can also bring up other stuff that you feel relevant for your child. EG Jonah developed many anxieties that the school were unaware of so this gave us all the chance to discuss the support he needed to feel better in himself.

School Action or SA
This is used when there is evidence that a child is not making progress at school and there is a need for action to be taken. However, it will only involve those within the school and can include the involvement of extra teachers or different learning materials. Your child may be placed on School Action if there is emotional and behavioural difficulties or they have made very little progress in their learning.

School Action Plus or A+
This is used where SA has not been able to help the child make adequate progress. At SA+ the school will seek external advice from the LEA’s support services, the local Health Authority or from Social Services. For example, this may be advice from a speech and language therapist or Specialist Advisory Services. SA+ may also include some one-to-one support sessions with the SENCO. Top tip: Getting outside help is possible but you will be at the end of a very long waiting list. We were advised to apply to outside agencies as early as possible. You can always cancel the appointment if no longer necessary.

CAMHS or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services
This is a specialist NHS services offering assessment and treatment when children and young people have emotional, behavioural or mental health difficulties. Children and young people and their families can be referred to CAMHS if the youngsters are finding it hard to cope with family life, school or the wider world. ypes of problems CAMHS can help with include violent or angry behaviour, depression, eating difficulties, low self-esteem, anxiety, obsessions or compulsions, sleep problems, self-harming and the effects of abuse or traumatic events. op ip: Although the school can refer you to CAMHS, the process is speeded up if you go via your doctors. However, CAMHS are very busy so don’t skimp on the detail even if you are not sure that your child really fits under this organisation. We found that CAMHS were a terrific advocate for us as a family and offered us as parents lots of support when we didn’t always feel we got it from the school.

Child development specialist
This is someone who works with children, their parents and schools in assessing a child’s developmental needs, deficiencies, and goals. Specialists are highly knowledgeable and can quickly and easily tell you what is normal. Top tip: We were referred to an NHS doctor who was a lifesaver. I made a list and talked her through every aspect of Jonah’s behaviour and what I found was that she was able to completely put my mind at rest. Jonah displayed normal behaviour for a five year old boy, even when that behaviour was not always desirable. The best bit was when she said that we have a lovely, healthy boy p who actually was mentally ahead in many of the little tests she
set him.

Karate Kid

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When I first mentioned that I was going to try out Jonah at Karate, people looked at me slightly horrified.

To be honest, the thought of paying someone to teach him to ‘fight’ didn’t sound like the sanest thing in the world to do. But as I watched him fly across the sofa for the thousandth time that day shouting “hiwaah”, I knew that at least he had an aptitude for it.

So on the first day of Karate class we spent a long time prepping Jonah, telling him what to expect, what was appropriate behavior and what format the class would take. Naturally, I was very excited to find out how it went. What we didn’t factor in was the fact that Jonah is a stickler for detail and not having the full outfit meant there was no way he was going to try it.

So, cut to the following week, after I managed to blag an outfit, and off we go. Now, when you talk about Karate or any martial arts, one of the benefits is instilling discipline, and that was the huge draw for me to get Jonah along.

What I didn’t know is that Jonah’s Karate teacher is probably the strictest teacher in the world. At one point he made a six year old drop and do press ups for a small indiscretion… but that kid jumped up with a huge grin on his face.

So I looked at Jonah and thought, clearly this was either going to make or break him. Luckily he loves it, and what it is also teaching him apart from the physical benefits is a huge sense of achievement and self worth.

Jonah told me the other day that he can’t control himself at school. Jonah’s teachers and support staff are doing a fantastic job of helping Jonah to understand his emotions and where he is on the ‘anger scale’. School has implemented some fantastic strategies. He is learning to recognise on a scale of 1-10 how angry he is feeling and he is working on ways to quickly and safely bring himself back down to a calm state.

But this possibly has left him feeling a little bit out of control of his own emotions. It was only when I pointed out that in fact he has amazing control at school while doing Karate because as soon as the teacher tells them to stop, they freeze in their tracks.

Anyone who has a child with emotional or behavioural difficulties will know that as the parent, you can spend a long time focussing in on that. What Jonah’s Karate has shown me is that, by focussing on something completely different, you can make a positive behavioural change while your child has fun and learns valuable life skills.

Daily Mail headline

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We’ve all seen those Mail Online headlines, you know, after you’ve read and refreshed the celebrity section for the tenth time that day and you finally move to skim the news section.

Five year old boy gets excluded! Nursery bans toddler! That sort of thing. Terrible parents you think to yourself. How on earth could it come to that?

Well, let me tell you. It sort of did happen to me, although exclusion was replaced by softer words such as ‘half-day timetable’.

Starting ‘big’ school is not always easy for every child. Some cry for their mums, some are overwhelmed or some like Jonah have fears that they simply can’t express. Unfortunately for Jonah those fears manifest themselves in ways that simply can’t be tolerated at school.

Every reasonable adult would agree that hitting, kicking, pushing or just general fighting can’t happen at school. Although many appreciate that kids do fight at home with siblings or friends, this behavior is just not manageable in school.

So there we were, 10 days in and I was ‘frog marched’ in to the classroom to be told that Jonah got into a fight with Year 2 boys (the scrawny reception kid he is he was never going to win that one), and a decision was taken that he must now be on a half-day timetable.

Now to say I was shocked is a bit of an understatement. I thought I was going in for a quick teacher chat, not an ambush.

Me against four members of staff hardly seemed fair and they had time to prepare whereas I was simply picking up my kid from school with no prior warning.

Now, I’m not saying it was the wrong decision to make but the ramifications for our family were pretty huge. In one respect, we were lucky. As freelancers we can work wherever we like so we were able to shuttle to and from school six times in one day!

But as freelancers, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. I was also concerned that simply removing him from the situation was not going to address any of the problems. And being told that time would help is just too risky a strategy for me. Plus the feeling that school could not cope with Jonah was a huge concern.

Little did I know at the time but this was the start of entering a whole new and strange world of Special Education Needs (SEN). It was also time to be one of those pushy parents that I’ve always slightly loathed. Because the reality is if your child is not fitting into the system then they need help and that’s not always readily available.

One year on and I’ve learned more than I thought possible about child development. We’ve had in depth discussions with specialists who have told us that in their view schools just can’t cope with young boys who mature later than girls.

We’ve had speech and language assessments which Jonah passed with flying colours, although he was described as giving ‘odd’ answers. One such as his wanting to know how long the session would take, and using our first names when asked who he lived with – all perfectly reasonable if he wasn’t a five year old.

We’ve had sessions with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS ) where our amazing support worker probably helped us more than she did Jonah, and I’ve learned lots about the way an average primary school operates.

But above all I’ve learned that everywhere you look, there are kids that will potentially slip though the net.

Bright, inquisitive minds that could one day find the cure to cancer are in danger of being turned off learning if their schools and family are not working together properly.

Jonah is luckier than some. We his parents are reasonably intelligent, articulate and are gathering as much information as possible to steer him through school.

Communication is key and with the introduction of his home/school book we can support his teachers with the behavioural work he is doing in the class and playground. So one ‘cross face’ in his book means no iphone game time at home.

But what about all those kids whose parents don’t speak great English, or those who haven’t the confidence to speak to the teachers? How many ‘naughty boys’ are just those that need to be taught in a slightly different way?

Having a ‘difficult’/ ‘spirited’ child is a lottery. I’ve met people who have had four easy kids only to have number five turn their lives upside down and people who have put off having more children after not being able to cope with the first.

But the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is don’t pay too much notice to the good stuff schools say about your child and don’t beat yourself up about the bad stuff.

Your family knows more about your child than any school ever will, and parents, above all, are the crucial factor in shaping your child’s future.