Learning to say ‘NO’.

This week I have been ask to think about why I find it so hard to say no…

I have not really thought about this too much before, which is probably why I keep getting myself into a mess but actually I am truly awful at saying no, I mean really, really bad at it bad at it. I have some talents but saying no is definitely not one of them. As a result I take on too much responsibility and I always seem to be doing too much. The solution is not as easy as just stopping, or starting to say no more often, I don’t even know how to slow down, never mind stop. Saying no is not something that comes naturally to me, in fact the more I think about it the more I see that it is actually something which is painfully difficult for me to do.

This morning I had my first appointment for CBT, that’s where the question came from. The doctor recommended it as a therapy after I reached crisis / burnout point back in February. Previous to that particular crisis things had been ticking along just about OK, with me keeping most of the balls in the air most of the time and most of the people happy most of the time. Then Charlie hit a phase of not sleeping through the night any more. For the 6 weeks after Christmas he managed to wake us up at some point every single night. Once awake I would lie there worrying about the million things I had to do the next day. It didn’t take long of me not sleeping before I found I could no longer keep all the balls in the air. I hit crisis point and in the end I had a meltdown at work, precisely because I had failed to say no to doing a job which I not only did not want to do but which I knew would have a negative impact on the rest of the family for days afterwards.

So here I am trying to put things back together again and figure out why it is that I get to the point that I am doing way to much and try to learn from it so that I can change my pattern of behaviour.

So far here are some of the reasons I have come up with…

Thinking Positive

I tend to think positive and I like to have a ‘Can-do’ attitude to life. I honestly believe that nothing is impossible, with prayer and hard work anything can be achieved. This is good in most situations, and has served me well over the years but unfortunately I have taken it to the extreme. My first instinct when I am asked to do anything is to think through all the possible ways that I can make it happen, I do this before I think through the consequences, or the implications. Often I have said yes in my head before I have even processed the question.

Putting others first

I often put others first, all mothers do this with their kids, but I do it with other people too. I find it really hard to make myself number one priority, I find it hard to spend money on myself but easy to spend money on friends or the kids or the house, but never me. I tend to see other people as being far more worthy of my time, effort and energy than I am.

I am a people pleaser

I love to meet other peoples needs, to do jobs for others, help others out when I can. I find it easy to empathise with other peoples situations and often end up carrying the burden for other people needlessly. I get satisfaction when I know that I have done something useful for another person.

My primary love language is ‘acts of service’. I feel loved and that my needs are being met when someone goes out of their way to do something helpful for me, and I show love most easily through helping others, its the way I connect with the world.

Guilt

When I have to say no, either when a yes would be completely impossible or I have really worked up the courage to put my foot down over something, I feel guilty afterwards, for a long time. I feel bad for the people for whom my no has had any kind of negative impact on their lives. Even if the decision is final I still try to find ways in my imagination that I can make it happen. This is exhausting and pointless but I often do it anyway.

I feel responsible

Its part of who I am, the oldest sibling, a founding trustee, a manager, a parent, a teacher, a landlady, a neighbour, a friend, a leader, a community champion. I take responsibility for so much stuff, I find it incredibly difficult to just let go, I find it really hard to “not care”

I have strong role models

I have incredible, amazing and strong women in my life as my role models. I have learnt by example that I can be a leader, that I can achieve that nothing can stand in my way. I am extremely grateful to these women, especially my mum, and Gran who have always shown incredible tenacity and strength in the face of adversity, and who lead our family by example.

But now I have to find a balance and I have to find it soon. I have to practice saying no, so I’m going to apologise to those of you who know me in real life, especially if I have to practice my new word with you, and I am sorry that for some people that will mean change. I am learning that when scripture tells us

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” it doesn’t mean that I should do all things.

Special schools for special kids?

I wanted to write this post because I have come across a few parents recently both in real life and on the internet who are in the process of deciding on a school for their special kids. I see fear in their eyes and hear it in their voices, and I know, I really know because I was there too, no so long ago. In a place where you have to make a decision with so very many unknowns, and such huge potential consequences.

There is so little known in the wider community about what special school are like on the inside, and I keep seeing that for those who don’t have children in special-Ed there seems to be a fear of these schools, at best that these school will hold our kids back or at worst an impression that they are like 19th century institutions.

Choosing the right school for any child is a tough decision, there are so many variables and unknowns, and every school and every child is different and has different needs. I admit that the idea of not sending Charlie to the same school as his sister was extremely painful for me. Last spring during a very well managed ‘transition’ we went to look at Charlie’s current school 5 times on the first 3 occasions I cried.

This wasn’t what I imagined our lives would look like, it wasn’t the dream I had of my kids being in the same school, with their wonderful little cousins, growing up together sharing experiences and teachers.

This wasn’t at all how I imagined things would turn out.

But, at some point I had to get beyond myself and my dreams and see that what was best for my kids, might not look like my dream.

There is a strong push to keep our special kids in mainstream education for as long as possible. Some children really are better off in mainstream education, in large classes, and busy lunch rooms, with lots of opportunities for interactions with lots of different people. And some schools can make inclusion work really well, others can’t and the kids suffer as a result. I’m often asked, couldn’t he cope in mainstream? I’m sure he could ‘cope’ but who wants to cope? school isn’t about coping its about living and learning and making friends and having fun.

For us, even though Charlie had enjoyed his time in mainstream nursery, I had to think long and hard about how much energy I had left in me to fight for help for him in school. How much energy did I have to be the one supporting the school and helping them to understand his needs. And so as painful as it was we took a leap into the unknown and accepted the place we had been offered in an assessment unit of a special school.

Charlie’s term dates are longer than Lillie’s, she is a little star, and on his first day, even though she wouldn’t be going back to school for a whole week, in a show of solidarity and to help him understand what was happening she got up and put her own school uniform on. We all took him and dropped him off for his first day at his new school.

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Charlie had only been there a few days when the head called, to tell me that she was “interested in Charlie’s sensory processing disorder” and that she had organised for a local specialist OT to come into the school to train the whole staff on sensory processing! I cannot even put into words how different this felt. For years we had been in a place where even the special needs coordinator would tell me that because Charlie was well behaved and compliant had no difficulties. She once said ” you will never get a diagnosis” and would tell me that sensory processing disorder is not a recognised condition, that there were no funds for additional support even for children with a diagnosis of ASD or that other children needed it more.

This school is as different as night is from day, they have taken his sensory diet and are using it enthusiastically. They bought him a mini trampoline, out of school funds, to use in the classroom. They have agreed to give him protected lunch times where they will only offer his his safe foods, and one to one support with exploring new foods at other times.

Charlie has been in the assessment unit for 6 months now, it is managed by a special school and run just like one. The have small class sizes, and helpful friendly staff. I have to say that although hard accepting a place there was one of the best decisions we have ever made. Charlie is making great progress, both academically and socially he loves the school and he has lots of friends.

A few weeks ago I was struggling with something else, and to get out of myself I decided to write to Charlie’s school to thank them for everything that they have done to help and support I am sharing this letter, because I wanted to help anyone who is considering special ed to be a little less fearful about what the future may hold.

Dear staff

I just wanted to take a minute to write and say thank you so much for everything that you are doing to help and support our son. To let you know how happy he is at your school, and how this is having such a positive impact on our family.
Before we came to this school we had become accustomed to having to fight tooth and nail for every little tiny accommodation, we were given no extra support, and even the people who were supposed to be on our side would let us down failing to turn up for important meetings, not keeping to written agreements they had made with us and not returning phone calls. We often felt that nobody listened to our concerns or took them seriously. I know many many other parents who are still in having these kinds of problems and I have to say that the staff at this school make a very refreshing change to this situation.
Each member of staff that we have met has always treated us fairly, they have done their very best to listen to our concerns and help us. The staff are relaxed and competent, friendly and helpful. They always have time to stop and talk with the kids and parents. They never come across as defensive, too busy or uncaring. The children in the school reflect this positive attitude, and our son has made great progress in many areas of his development since joining you. He has become much more confident and his ability to communicate has improved significantly. It is a joy to hear him talk about “all his friends”. He loves going into school and I know that he feels safe and happy in there and he is learning lots of new things everyday.
We are grateful for the fact that the teachers and staff treat all of the children as individuals, and that even though there are children in the school with far greater needs than our son they never dismiss my concern’s or his needs as being insignificant. This is especially important to us because his disability is kind of hidden and not obvious when you first meet him and we are regularly faced with disbelieving uncaring attitudes. We want to say thank you for the efforts you have made to both understand and accommodate his sensory processing difficulties. For the training you organised for the staff, the equipment you have provided, and the extra support you have given him with his eating.
We are grateful to Mrs K who is supporting us in finding a suitable place for our son to continue his education when his time in the assessment’ unit comes to an end. We hope that when he does eventually move on at some point in the future that he will be as happy as he is here and will receive the same high quality care and teaching, although I have to say that this school will be a very hard act for any other school to follow. We want to say how we are both thankful and relieved that Mrs K helped us to finally see an educational psychologist, after 2 years of us banging on doors and getting no answer, having the report from the educational psychologist is like having a missing puzzle piece that we have been desperate to find.
We are also grateful to Mr D, Charlie’s teacher, for the love and care he shows the kids, for all the hard work and attention he put into their education. It is a delight to see how he engages with the children and how much they love him. It is great that Charlie has such a positive male role model during his early years education.
We have found this caring attitude from the school staff extends even outside of school hours. One night we were struggling to find ways to encourage Charlie to eat in Mcdonalds. When Mrs H one of the teachers from blue group arrived in the restaurant with her family, she very graciously took time out of her family meal to sit with Charlie and encourage him. It is hard to put into words how much something like this which may seem small, actually really matters.
Please be encouraged that you are doing a very important job and in our eyes you are doing it very well. Whilst we know that this is what you are paid to do we also know that positive attitudes, love, care and understanding are things that money cannot buy. Being part of this school is a huge blessing to our son and to our whole family.
Thanks Again
Sarah, Will, Lillie and Charlie
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The endless battle of screen time

I have started trying to write this post on many occasions, and I keep getting stuck and it never gets finished, but today I am going to try again as its something that I have really been battling with over the last year, but I finally feel like the tide is turning.

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I do feel like I am making some progress,  like I am beginning to win the never ending screen time war, and have finally managed to get to a point where the kids know I’m not joking when I tell them they have reached their limit and they have to turn it off.

Over the last few weeks we have finally established some very clear limits, and although the kids think I am being mean I know it will be well worth it in the end.

For a while they fought against it and complained that they were bored, my reply was “Great that’s exactly what I wanted, now go and play with your toys, or read your books, or use your imaginations, or draw or paint or make something.”

There is just so much more to do with your life and so much more to experience.

When I was a kid there was lots of time to be bored, which meant that there was also lots of time to be creative and generally get into trouble. If we were lucky there was about 1.5 hours a day of kids TV programming and Saturday morning TV was a major treat. But if you missed it you missed it and for most of the rest of the time there wasn’t really anything on TV to entertain kids. Although I do remember watching lots of documentaries and quiz shows with my dad. I loved QED and blue planet, and I think some of my love for science was born at that time.

There were also no other electronic screens to move onto when the TV was off. No computer, no phone, no ipad and very few trips to the cinema.

I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a child with a brain that is developing now here in the 21st century when there is never ever the need to be bored. Our kids can literally be entertained 24 hours a day by a wide variety of electronic games, gadgets and screens, there is endless variety, and they are portable, in the car, in the church, in the shops there is literally nowhere where a child cannot sit and play with an electronic device.

For as long as I can remember I have been working deliberately to reduce (or more accurately to stem  the increase in) the hours that our kids spend using screens. It is super hard, I mean its like a never ending battle like shovelling snow in a blizzard and its one war that I never though I would be fighting. Over the last year since I have been reading more about sensory integration, and neuro-development it has become clear to me that no matter how hard this battle is it is one which I must keep on fighting.

Recently I met a mother who said that she had been told that because her son had autism that she should allow him to use the ipad whenever he wanted for as long as he wanted, because it was calming and a good way for him to zone out when the world became too stressful. Whilst I whole heartedly agree that this is a great reason to use an ipad, and it can be very helpful for when our kids need a distraction when things are stressful, I really couldn’t think of anything worse than completely unlimited use.

If I let my kids do this then they would literally spend all day every day attached to the device. They dont even have to come off it to eat or use the bathroom, I have even had requests from the to be able to watch films on it while they have a bath….Errm NO!

I have to say that the ipad has been a God send for us when Charlie cant cope with so much sensory input, a long noisy church service or a family meal in a restaurant, but to allow him to have unlimited use of it just seems like madness.

Often Charlie wakes up and literally the first words out of his mouth are “I haven’t had any screen time yet, can I have the ipad now?” I have heard lots of “it’s not fair” and “we are the only kids who cant have…” But they are slowly accepting the rules and things are changing some mornings now Charlie even wakes up and asks for toys.

When they get home from school they know that they can have only one hour on their choice of screen, and there are rules about having homework done first and no screens during meal times.

I was taking a call from my manager when they arrived home tonight and I was so proud of them when no one asked for a screen and this is how I found them when I finished the call. Their cousin was visiting and Lillie had even managed to offer to help her with her reading homework.

Honestly my heart nearly burst…

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Back to work

It is so easy to do too much and expect too much of ourselves. Let me confess I often fall head first into this trap.

I have very high expectations of myself, and it is easy, way to easy to push myself so hard that I don’t even know when to stop.

I constantly juggle work, home, kids, church, school, business, finance, neighbours, special needs support groups, charity work, meetings, cleaning, shopping the list goes on and on. I often feel like I have somehow managed to get myself onto a treadmill that can’t be slowed down. I feel like I just have to keep going because if I don’t then… I don’t even know what will happen.

Its important to keep things real, and part of that is acknowledging when things are too much.

Since the summer I have known that I was burnt out and needed a break, but because of the crisis at work, everyone was putting in 110% and it just wasn’t fair or realistic for me to take annual leave. So every day, and for far more days than I should have, I would turn up and keep trying to give my best and to keep up, and every day I was less effective and more overwhelmed.

Until suddenly it was all just a mess.

Why am I sharing this? well because I know I am not the only one who does this, who feels responsible for everything, who takes on too much, who has forgotten how to say “No”. It happens too easily, we take on things one at a time and the world sells us the lie that we can have it all, we can do it all, we can be all things to all men.

That we are supermums who can do the impossible.

Its not true…

I am learning (the hard way) to set boundaries, to know when enough is enough and to stand my ground.

I have had 2 weeks at home, trying to get my head together. I have rearranged my furniture because that always makes me feel better, and I have taken some time to enjoy small things like decorating the tree with the kids, and sharing a meal with our neighbours, and watching a few episodes of Miranda.

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This week I have gone back to work with a clearer mind, and more realistic expectations of myself, I have moved my desk to a quieter and more brightly lit location where I am hoping it will be easier to work, and I have reduced my hours so that I have one guaranteed full day at home every week.

I have to remind myself that it is important to look after me as well. I can’t be a good mother and wife and employee and everything else if I am limping along half exhausted. So once again I am going to give myself a fresh start and attempt to do less.

Moving the furniture

I love it when you meet another person who understands, I mean really gets it, because they have lived it, or are still living it. The kind of person who only needs to look at you and you know without words that they have been there and that they really, really understand.

This morning she was there, the only one other parent I ever see when dropping Charlie off at school. I don’t know why their child is in the assessment unit with Charlie, but I imagine that our boys share many of  the same difficulties.  Most of the other families have opted to accept the offer of free home to school transport which comes with special education. We declined it because we felt that he was so young and also that it made his day unnecessarily long. Besides the times for drop off and pick up were difficult as we had to take Lillie to her school at the same time.

Because Charlie is in the assessment unit, we take him into the school through a separate entrance, although we see the mainstream kids and their families they use a different way in and out. So its just us and Sean’s parents who sometimes meet if we happen to arrive at the same time, which we did today.

While we were waiting to hand our boys over Charlie’s teacher Mr D came out and  informed us of the new building project, an extension which is to be built over the half term break to make the classrooms bigger. He said that they had already begun moving the furniture in the classrooms, and so instead of focusing on  teaching the children academic stuff this week they would be focusing on helping them to cope with the change and remain calm and happy.

I love this guy, I love that he knows in advance that moving the furniture without notice is not something that you can just do. I love that his priority is helping the kids to remain calm and be able to cope with the change well. I told him that that was great, as far as we were concerned that our priorities were the same, that the kids manage well and are helped to stay calm and happy throughout the change, they can learn about rocket science another day.

Sean’s Mum looked at me, our eyes met so quickly and we exchanged the smile, you know, the one that carries more meaning than a thousand words.

And right then I knew that I was with someone who gets it.