Monday, February 1, 2016

How Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Can Help Family Caregivers

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In my last blog I briefly mentioned Ross Greene’s work on Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (formerly Collaborative Problem Solving.)  Find out how to use CPS with your child and how this can help your family as a whole. 

What it is

 Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) means just that – working together to solve problems.  Parents can partner with their children to prioritize issues to address.  This means that parents get input from the child and the child feels part of the process.  The child can assist in identification of the problem as well as help come up with possible solutions.
                                             Developed by Ross Greene
How it works
CPS is a matter of prioritization.  Even though family caregivers may feel like there are many issues to be addressed, they can’t work on everything at once.  Issues involving safety and health, for example, running out into the street, need to be addressed first.  Steps to using CPS include:
1.       Empathy (plus reassurance)
2.      Define the Problem
3.      Invitation
A simple example (adapted from NAMI Basics-see Resources) could be when the child leaves a mess after eating. 
Step 1 Empathy:
Parent:  “Most times you do clean up and I am very grateful when you do.  I will try harder to mention those times to you.”
Step 2 Define the Problem:
Parent:  “Ok, I understand that sometimes we all forget.  My concern is that we have an ant problem in the house and I worry this will get worse.”
Step 3 Invitation:
Parent:  “What can we do to help you remember to clean up?”
Then brainstorm on possible solutions like putting up a sign, and if the child agrees, problem solved!  Together, discuss all possible solutions and why they will or won’t work. 
Why it works
Dr. Greene believes that “children will do well if they can.”  This means that your child is doing the best s/he can with the skills s/he has.  Sometimes it’s not a matter of compliance, but a skills issue.  This means that the child simply doesn’t have the skills needed yet.  Again, it is important that parents recognize that all behavior is communication and sometimes the only way children can communicate is by acting out.  The overwhelmed or nonverbal child may only be able to cry or scream or run away from a situation that is too much for him/her.  The key is to teach appropriate replacement behaviors and effective communication skills.  By involving the child in working on this together, the child will “buy into” problem solving since s/he will have a choice about what to work on and how to fix it.
CPS will help family caregivers to “pick their battles” and let the rest go until the larger issues are resolved.  For more detailed information, see the one page factsheet at
Ross Greene’s website including books “The Explosive Child” and “Lost at School”

National Alliance on Mental Illness-Basics classes for families

Remain Hopeful,


Lauren Agoratus is a parent/advocate who works for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and serves as the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices (, a national network that works to “keep families at the center of children’s healthcare” at or FB  She also serves as NJ representative supporting caregivers across the lifespan for the Caregiver Action Network (formerly National Family Caregivers Association) in a volunteer capacity at or FB

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How to See Your Child with Special Needs in a New Way

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New Year, new perspective.  Family caregivers of children with disabilities can be encouraged by “reframing” how they see their child.  Reframing “is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.”[i] 

Get a Better Understanding of Your Child 
Dr. Ross Greene, the developer of Collaborative Problem Solving (more about this in my next blog), says “children will do well if they can.”  What this means is children are doing the best they can with the skills that they have.  It is important for family caregivers to realize that all behavior is communication and sometimes the only way children can communicate is by “acting out.”  This doesn’t mean the temper tantrums seen in typically developing children.  This is a “meltdown” in which the child is so overwhelmed that they either lash out or shut down.  I know.  On occasion it took my daughter 4-5 hours just to pick up a pencil.  Not to actually do the homework, but just to get started.


Family caregivers need to recognize if their child’s behavior is a skills vs. a compliance issue.  Is it that the child won’t do something, or that they can’t?  Maladaptive behavior may be the only thing that has worked for the child in the past.  The child needs to learn appropriate replacement behaviors and skills.  It doesn’t go from “zero to sixty.”  If the child is overwhelmed in class for example, the goal may not initially to be to get him/her to sit still for an entire class.  The child can learn to ask for breaks, or if nonverbal use a picture card.  At first, reinforce the request every time.  Then work towards asking appropriately.  Remember that if the child acts out and then is removed from class, he/she learns that this allows “escape/avoidance.”  Even negative attention is reinforcing! 
Imagine what it must be like to be your child
As frustrating as it may be to deal with your child’s behavior, think about what they’re going through.  Sure, things take longer and it would be easier to do it yourself, but if anyone had those special needs it would take them longer too.  Think of how frustrating it would be if you couldn’t hear well and needed things repeated multiple times or used alternative methods of communication.  Or how hard it would be if you had poor muscle tone, just to put on a pair of socks.  Think how it would feel to walk into a store if all the lights seemed brighter, sounds seemed louder, smells seemed stronger and they all hit at once causing sensory overload.  There is a difference between “disability awareness” and “disability sensitivity.”
 Then reimagine
Just like taking a picture and placing it in a new frame, now reframe your child’s special needs.  This is especially true for children with mental health issues.  Just like physical conditions, mental illness is physiologically based.  The organ affected just happens to be the brain in which symptoms manifest as behavior.  No one would blame someone with diabetes who needed insulin.

There are also positive ways to describe characteristics for all children.  Some examples are…
Instead of:                   vs.                                Reframing
Disabled                                                          Differently abled
Fearful                                                             Cautious
Hyperactive                                                     Full of energy
Stubborn                                                         Determined
Learning Disabilities                                      Learning Differences
Persistent                                                        Committed
Loud                                                                Exuberant
There are many ways family caregivers can have more positive interactions with their child with special needs.  “Catch them being good” means to reinforce the child when he/she is doing something you want to be repeated.  Rather than telling them “don’t” do something, tell the child what you do want them to do.  For example, instead of saying “don’t throw your clothes on the floor” say “please put your clothes in the hamper.”  Although it may be more polite to ask rather than tell your child to do something, some children interpret things literally and if parents ask if the child can do something they may simply reply no.  They’re not being defiant; the child is simply expressing a preference as he/she thought it was a choice. 
By reframing how they see their child through a more positive lens, family caregivers can better help their child with special needs. 
Ross Greene’s website
Remain Hopeful, 
Lauren Agoratus is a parent/advocate who works for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and serves as the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices (, a national network that works to “keep families at the center of children’s healthcare” at or FB  She also serves as NJ representative supporting caregivers across the lifespan for the Caregiver Action Network (formerly National Family Caregivers Association) in a volunteer capacity at or FB


Tuesday, December 22, 2015


I believe too often we underestimate children.

Let me explain.

As part of Nick's transition to a new school, it was agreed that a presentation on Prader Willi Syndrome would be offered to his entire 8th grade class. This, I believed, was important so fellow students could understand how to relate better to Nick.

The idea arose from the inclusion success we experienced last year at his previous school. If you are a reader of our blog, you may recall Nick's sixth grade teachers asking me to speak to their students about inclusion and the tremendous response that occurred once the children were enlightened.

To learn more, read here.

Nick's new school however, was not interested in allowing me to speak to their kids. In fact, parental involvement has always been vehemently discouraged in our local school district. So instead, it was suggested a PWS "expert" present the show. I decided it really didn't matter who gave the discussion, as long as the children were educated, so I agreed.

A speaker was hired and scheduled to visit the school in November. A letter was sent out to parents informing them of the upcoming assembly and providing an opportunity for those students who were not interested to opt out.

A few days before the big event, I received a call from the special ed coordinator. She informed me that the "expert" expressed deep reservations about speaking to middle school children. She feared that students at this level would not want to help. She feared that Nicholas would be bullied.

Since this was an "expert" making these statements, the coordinator canceled the speaking engagement and begged me to reconsider my request.

I used only one word to answer her:


I told her "the so-called expert" seriously underestimated these students.

I told her I knew this because I had done this before. I had spoken to teens about inclusion and experienced spectacular results. I described how last year's students became enthused about inclusion and wanted to help. I told her how several teens expressed how they were no longer afraid and appreciated learning about how to relate to children diagnosed with special needs. I told her how the experience moved students, teachers, and administrators to embrace change.

Still, she did not believe.

"Middle school children are different," she said.

"No," I argued, "They will surprise you."

She disagreed.

But since my request was written up as part of Nick's IEP, she had no choice but to comply.

She agreed to move forward but requested that SHE give the presentation. She asked to use the PWS PowerPoint slides I had presented to the staff. She asked if I would attend the assembly as her assistant, there only to answer any medical questions.

But I had no idea how well she could speak.

The PowerPoint presentation was my baby, my blood, sweat and tears. Would she do it justice? Did she have an ability to connect with an audience, particularly one she didn't trust.

I was worried.

When suddenly I was struck by an idea.

I realized I had a chance to enlighten not just the children but this  "nonbelieving" special ed coordinator too. I couldn't resist.

"Let's do it!" I told her.

The big day arrived. The coordinator was nervous. I told her not to worry and that she would be pleasantly surprised by the student's response. I told her that even if she changed the mind of only one student, then it would be a success, she would change the world.

Still, she did not believe.

We entered the empty auditorium where the PowerPoint projector was prepped and ready for our use. Unfortunately, however, the remote control to change the slides was missing.

Luckily, the assistant principal entered the room. I asked her if she or one of the 8th grade teachers would kindly help us to switch slides?

She laughed in my face at such an audacious request and told me that I should be grateful they were attending at all. It was clear from her tone that the teachers were NOT interested in this inclusion presentation. They were not convinced that this would work. They were resentful to be asked to participate in such a ridiculous farce.

I ignored her behavior and told the coordinator I would switch the slides.

Slowly, the students began to enter the auditorium.

They were excited and animated, speaking loudly among themselves. More and more students arrived, filling the room to it's capacity, most of them sitting directly up front. Nicholas and I were seated before the crowd.

The assistant principal stood beside us and held up her hand,

"Quiet down," she barked, "We are here today to learn more about one of our new students"

The boisterous crowd became silent.

The coordinator who was standing quietly behind the podium, began to speak.

She was nervous and spoke very softly.

In an effort to finish, she breezed through the slides too quickly

I began to worry that she was losing the audience, neglecting to pause after each slide to give the crowd a moment to reflect.

But the presentation was filled with powerful images and it appeared that folks were listening.

"Sometimes real superheroes live in the hearts of small children fighting big battles"

She finished the show in record speed and asked,

"Does anyone have any questions?"

There was complete silence.

No one moved.

The coordinator shoulder's sank, her worst fears realized, the kids, she believed, were not ready for this.

The assistant principal smiled smugly.

But I knew better.

I sprung from my chair to speak directly to the children.

"I know what you're thinking. This is scary stuff. I was scared once too. And I am Nick's mother. But right now we have an opportunity, a chance to learn all about this frightening stuff. In fact, once you ask your questions, I am sure you will find that it's not so scary after all. You will find that Nick is the BEST friend you could ever have. He will not talk behind your back. He will never say an unkind word. He will ALWAYS be happy to see you. So, please raise your hands and ask the questions you want to ask."

I looked beside me and asked Nick if he wanted to say anything to the children. He smiled and turned his head to the side, telling the kids,

"Aw Mum, I'm too shy."

That was all it took. One by one, a few hands went up.

The coordinator, using a microphone, walked over to the students and asked them to speak their questions directly into the hand piece.

"Will Nick always have this?" A brave boy asked.

"What is a seizure?" another one said.

"Where is Nick's classroom located?"

"Is he coming with us to Camp Kiev?"

And pretty soon a sea of hands shot up from the crowd, a mighty collection of boys and girls, all wanting to know more. The coordinator ran from one side of the room to the other trying to keep up with all the questions. The students were motivated and engaged, anxious to learn exactly how they could help Nicholas.

I was surprised to see a few teachers raise their hands.

The assistant principal's jaw dropped open wide as she stood speechless beside me.

Soon, we ran out of time. The bell rang to signal the end of our time together.

The coordinator announced loudly to the students that before they left, there was a sign-up sheet located up front for anyone who was interested in visiting Nicholas in his classroom.

In one collective movement, all of the students rose and headed toward the front. No one left.

Lines and lines of giggling students clogged the aisle-ways.

All of them interested in one thing,

getting to know Nick.

The response was overwhelming.

The coordinator and assistant principal scurried out of the room to rustle up more pens and paper so more children could enlist.

What was immediately noticeable, at least to me, were the smiles on the student's faces.

The kids, I believe, were inspired, hopeful to have an opportunity to make a difference and become empowered.

It was a beautiful bonding experience for the entire room of participants. The energy was electrifying.

Surprisingly, on the face of the special ed coordinator....a tear.

I thanked her for her bravery.

The very next day, I received an email from her. She thanked me for pushing her. She told me that a boy she did not know approached her in the hallway and said,

"Nice speech!"

She told me the assistant principal made a special effort to describe the energized climate at the staff meeting held shortly after the presentation. At the meeting the teachers were inspired and exuberant, anxious to discuss ways of including Nicholas into their classes.

And the number of students who signed up to come visit Nick's classroom you ask?

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Lisa Peters writes about family life at

Thursday, December 10, 2015

An Open Letter to the US Department of Education

Normally it's me who posts.  I've been silent for a couple of months.  It hasn't been a quiet couple of months though!  I did have a post ready for today but where I live there is a growing problem.  A very large one.

Our area isn't where it should be in the special education realm.  I've fought our county and our state since the adoption of my first child.  This is not OK.

Today I'm turing over my spot to a talented writer named Erin.  She is an amazing woman.  She has also been through the fires of hell over trying to get justice for her children.

But justice is fickle and as of now her whole life has been turned upside down in trying to do what is right for her children.

I'm posting the link to her blog post.  Please read it.  After you are done, share it.  Then find places on line that you can share it some more.  Sharing this blog won't make you a millionaire or grant you seven wishes, but it will let the world see that what was done wasn't right. That justice wasn't given.

Click here to get to the post 

I plan on being back next month, but in the meantime please read.  Her children's rights have been ignored for far to long.

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Amy Fields is a wife, mother, and advocate.  You can find her at Many Kinds of Families

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Holidays should be fun - not stressful!

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Many family caregivers of children with special needs struggle with trying to follow holiday traditions given the other stressors in their lives.  Here are some ways to make this time of the year easier for families.

It doesn’t need to be the same 

Family caregivers need to realize that their children can participate in holiday festivities but maybe in a different way than has been traditional.  Like school, holiday activities can be modified to accommodate the special needs of their child. 
v   If your child is on a special diet for medical reasons, find out what is being served ahead of time and bring a “safe” version so your child can still eat what everyone else is having.
v  If going to a religious service, bring a comfort item like a stuffed animal or a quiet activity like a coloring book to keep the child entertained.
v  Make sure ahead of time that the venue (if it’s somewhere you’ve never been) is physically accessible for people with disabilities
                                             Photo www.nlfolk.ccom
Ways to decrease “meltdowns” 
Many children with special needs become overwhelmed by sensory issues (sights, sounds, even smells.)  When children with disabilities get to the point of “too much”, often they act out as a way to communicate.  There are things parents can do to reduce sensory over-stimulation and avoid these behaviors. 
Ø  In a crowded event, sit or stand on the outside of the crowd to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.  Even if the child can only participate for a short time, it’s better than not at all.
Ø  If your child is sensitive to noise, bring headphones. 
Ø  If your child is overly sensitive to light, bring sunglasses. 
Ø  If possible, find a quiet corner away from the main activity so the child can calm down and rejoin later. 
Ø  Some children even get overwhelmed by opening too many gifts.  Open one or a few and save the rest to spread out over several days instead of all at once. 
Ø  Social Stories will help prepare the child about what to expect.


Most people will understand if the child with disabilities doesn’t act perfectly.  If extended family members insist on traditions such as sitting at the table, parents can take turns eating.  If grandparents or others still don’t understand, it may be necessary to make a separate visit with just the family and grandparents in a smaller group to keep things are calmer.  Family caregivers need to remember that special needs don’t go away just because it’s the holidays! 


Surviving the Holidays with your Sanity Intact (One Place for Special Needs)

Enjoying The Holiday Family Gathering With Your Special Needs Child (Delaware Family-to-Family Health Information Center)

Reduce Holiday Stress with Proper Nutrition and Health Promotion (National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability)

Social Stories

For Caregivers

10 Tips for Caregivers During the Holidays (AARP)

Caregiving and the holidays: from stress to success! (Family Caregiver Alliance)
Caregiver’s Guide for Managing the Holidays (Caregiver Alliance-Boston)
Remain Hopeful,
Lauren Agoratus is a parent/advocate who works for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and serves as the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices (, a national network that works to “keep families at the center of children’s healthcare” at or FB  She also serves as NJ representative supporting caregivers across the lifespan for the Caregiver Action Network (formerly National Family Caregivers Association) in a volunteer capacity at or FB