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jam1Summer is a time many families are looking for those fun, high interest activities to do with their kids. As a counselor, one of the biggest fears I often hear from parents is, “We want to plan fun things for Jacob, but what if it turns out bad?! What if he has a break down? What if things don’t go as planned?!”

Planning for Events
Planning for such an event is a vital step for any child so that they have some idea as to what to expect.  Often, with children with social learning challenges, executive function disabilities, communication disorders, etc. , this daunting yet highly preferred idea of going/doing something out of the house can produce higher levels of anxiety for both the child and the parent.

I was recently working with a wonderful family who was preparing to do to an all day event which was being held at a large outdoor football stadium with their son who struggles with a variety of learning challenges including social deficits, executive functioning impairments, sometimes high levels of rigidity and anxiety.  But they were going to MONSTER JAM!!  One of the most preferred topics/interests this young boy has. This was going to be his second trip to such an event, however this year the time they were scheduled to spend at the event and the amount of different activities they were going to participate in while there was greater. So if it was to be his second trip there, why do we need to do so much planning?  He should have an idea of what it will be like…right?

Why it is Important to Plan
Don’t assume this!  Don’t assume that just because a child has experienced the same (or similar) event once, it has become engrained in their brain so that the next time they are in that situation, they will just remember those “expected” behaviors for that setting.  In my experiences, although some will be able to just “remember and adapt” others will be so over stimulated by excitement, anxiety, questions, visual information, that their brain can’t process fast enough and therefore can’t retrieve from their memory “what to do when”.

Tips for the Planning Process
So whether you are getting ready to go to Monster Jam, a wedding, a day at the park, the beach, etc. here are a few tips to remember for your planning process:

  1. Visual Planning is a Great Thing: Use pictures if you have them from your last trip to that location. When looking at them, just don’t ask, “Hey, what are you doing in this picture?” You want to draw out the emotional aspect of how the person is feeling.  So you may say, “How were you feeling in this photo?  It looks like you were feeling _________”. Create a “flexible schedule” with flexible being the key word.  What this means it that this is the “proposed” schedule, but things that are out of your control may change this schedule. For younger kids, create visual schedules of what you are planning on doing.  Remember to have system where once that activity is over, they can either take it off the schedule, cross it off, etc., something to signal that event is over.
  1. Talk About a “Plan B”: Yes, the old, “What if there is a glitch and our plan A does not work out?” Talking about a possible plan B (or even C) is important. Kids need to know that we do have a plan OR that we can be flexible enough to come up with another plan when needed.  One of the hardest questions for kids to answer is “now what do I do!” Assuring them that together, you will create a plan to keep moving forward and that fun can still be had!!!
  2. Assure Kids You Will Provide Feedback to Them: We often forget that once we are in the situation or event we have planned for, it is still important to let our kids know how they are doing.  Positive feedback and assurance that you are observing and feeling an emotional response to their expected behaviors is a critical part to building a stronger episodic memory.
  3. It’s OK for You to Tell Them to “Move On”: Before getting to the event, come up with a key word to signal you are seeing them become stuck (on a thought, on a topic, etc), and they will be OK if they “move on”.  Moving on doesn’t mean totally forgetting about it.  It means being able to push it to the side for a moment, continue with the task or event, and processing the roadblock at a later time.  Some families have used the time in which they will be able to process their roadblock in more detail, e.g., “5pm”. This particular client knew that the party was over at 5pm and that was when he would be able to vent to his mother.  Some kids may need a visual cue card that has “5pm” written on it as a visual reminder to when they can talk about their roadblock they encountered. If it is a roadblock where they just can’t move on, they need to come up with a place where they can go to process with you. Do not try to process it with them in front of people or at that exact place they came running over to you with their problem. Help them to transition to another space where the processing can take place.
  1. Be Comfortable to Just Let Go: Parents – once you are there, you are there.  We can’t predict how things will turn out, even when the best planning and preparing takes place.  Try to enjoy the time you are spending with your child and be flexible enough to shift your plans/expectations where needed.  Kids have a way of surprising us!
  2. Be Ready for the Emotional “Upswing” and Then the “Downswing”: Many parents will tell me that leading up to a big event or day, their child displays behaviors they have not seen in some time. Similar behaviors may be observed following the big day.  So if your child is in a summer school program, make them aware that the big day is coming and your child may be a little more anxious or energetic than usual.  Likewise, although it is our first instinct to “ride the wave” of the great day before, monitor your expectations for the day following.  Don’t be surprised to see that emotional downswing, as now your child has to re-establish his/her emotional balance.

Taking the time to prepare, create plans and identify key words can really help decrease a child’s (and parent’s) anxiety over certain events.   Happy travels and summer planning!

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Chris, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven, holds a Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Behavioral Inventions in Autism and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist & Licensed Professional Counselor with a specialization in Autism Spectrum Disorders and social cognitive interventions. The Social Learning Center is dedicated to learning, understanding, applying and communicating effective methods of social teaching for each individual and those who support them.