When Charlotte was about two years old, I made the mistake of driving my mini van through a car wash. The giant red scrub brushes right at her eye level, the rushing soap and water covering the car, and the powerful suck of the giant vacuum dryers were all too much for her nervous system to handle. I learned after one horrific meltdown to save that errand for a kid-free day.
The car wash experience created fear and dread for her. For weeks she asked me if we were going to the car wash every single time we began the process of getting into the car. (No. no. No mommy guilt here. None at all. Let’s proceed.) At the time we were attending an Early Start morning program and working with a behavior therapist and occupational therapist. At one of our home visits the behavior therapist recommended a picture schedule to help Charlotte visualize what her day might look like.
I was not opposed at all to this idea. I had plenty of teacher training where I had learned that kids need predictable routines to feel safe in their environment. For Charlotte, she needed to know whether the car wash (or any other out-of-the-norm event) was happening anywhere in her day in order to feel regulated and comfortable. So, for several weeks, I snapped pictures with my phone of many of the places we visited on a regular basis. Initially thinking that this project was going to be overwhelming and time-consuming, I was sadly mistaken that our “busy lives” were pretty limited to grocery stores, therapy, school, and the homes of close friends and family.
When Christmas cards began arriving in the mail, I began to keep a collection. Most of our family and friends have pictures with their smiling faces, oftentimes within their homes or with their pets. Pulling a picture out of a friend or relative and showing Charlotte prior to the interaction made a world a difference in how she responded socially.
I printed out the pictures, organized them on a large board and it eventually became routine to discuss the day’s events and outings and plan our time and even behavior expectations around it. For example, if Charlotte was currently challenged with behavior at a particular location, I could post a clip art picture of Dora or Max and Ruby on her board to let her know that she could watch those shows as a reward for appropriate behavior at the grocery store, school, therapy center, etc.
When the term “good behavior” became a bit too loose, we attached goals to each location and talked about them early in the day and again before we began the activity. For example, Charlotte struggles putting forth consistent effort at her therapy sessions. She also interrupts the brief but important conversation between myself and the therapist after each session. Our goals for therapy center became simple but effective: Try your best. Listen to your therapist. Don’t interrupt.
Charlotte has a very sharp visual memory, so once she saw the words in print, she had them memorized. She would often tell them back to me as she hugged me good-bye to enter the therapy room. It’s even more effective as she’s beginning to learn (or teach herself) to read.
So our board (pictured above) sits in our main family room and is updated weekly. I have recently added post-it notes with planned-in-advance Paleo dinners. This seems to break down resistance in the form of whining/complaining at the dinner hour and putting a stop to the endless question of What’s for Dinner? CrossFit-style garage workouts for mom and dad are posted on the board so the kids know they’re welcome to join us for family exercise after the heavy weights and equipment are put away.
Somehow the week seems to flow into more of a rhythm when the kids know what is happening, what they’re going to eat, and what is expected of them. Our parenting style seems to be more about preparing our kids to be their best selves in their everyday lives. The board helps them prepare themselves for what lies ahead while practicing self-regulating tools at the same time. In addition, it helps us manage any negative behavior patterns that may come with a change in routine or schedule by talking together about the change and any expectations around it.
In all honesty, it does take preparation, consistency, and effort. It works well for the needs of our family, and I don’t mind planning our week’s meals and activities ahead of time. As a teacher, I planned and prepped lessons for my third graders so it seems to regulate me as well. We’ve never been big fans of surprises and spontaneity, and we’re okay with that. We’ve embraced this lifestyle and try to focus on the benefits of better health for all of us, rather than how much work it is.
Our modern-day society challenges us to meet the needs of our kids and ourselves right up to the dinner hour. This tool helps us bridge the gap between the hectic schedule we must lead to get it all done and the time we need to slow down, share healthy meals, and enjoy each other as a family.