Friday, November 29, 2013

These Are a Few of Our Favorite Things: Special Needs Wish List

Warning: This is not your typical Christmas Wish List, but if you have children with special needs, you'll understand! 

If you're as blessed as we are, you already have family and friends asking for Christmas Gift ideas for your kids! The thought honestly overwhelms me because I've adopted the "more is less" anthem in my life lately and the thought of lots more "stuff" coming into our house makes me a little hairy. For the past couple of years we've done three gifts for each child...we figure if it was enough for baby Jesus it's enough for them (plus we know they'll get spoiled by grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends!).

So, I thought I'd make a big long list of some of our FAVORITE things....most of them are therapy-related items, or items that we've found to be helpful as adaptive equipment for our girls. So if you're a parent of kids with special needs, maybe this list will help you come up with some useful gifts for Christmas! It's not your typical "holiday wish list" but if you're anything like me, you're very picky about what items come into your home....I always choose gift ideas with purpose. I'm not listing a ton of  "toys" here because we have very few toys that don't serve a purpose in our home! I know some of the items I'm listing may not sound "fun" and you probably won't want to wrap some of them up and put them under the tree for your kids or they might cry, but we all know having children with special needs is expensive, so there are some ideas listed that you might ask family members to buy when they're asking what you NEED :)

A lot of these links are amazon links because I'm an Amazon fanatic and have the Amazon Prime Membership! However, prices are always changing, so if you see an item you like do a search for it to see if you can find it cheaper somewhere else! An example of this is the radio flyer 3 seater wagon! I only paid $50 for it by finding an already awesome sale on it, using a coupon code plus a gift card and having it shipped to another city (for some reason it was cheaper that way?) and then having my brother pick it up for us! Also, when shopping online, check when items have multiple colors of the item available, often certain colors are cheaper than others depending on the stock!

Keep in mind, my children are 2-5, so most of the items are geared toward younger children! And lastly, none of these companies are paying me to say anything nice about their products, we just LOVE them! 


(We have the Signing Time Series 1 and 2 as well and love all of them, if you're going to pick a few though, the Baby Signing Time ones move a bit faster with more music to hold interest longer!)

(We have TONS of the DVDs/Books/Flashcards/Placemats from this company and I've blogged about them several times....a definite favorite!!) 


Weighted Medicine Ball

PBK Anywhere Chair
(We've used these for so many early gross motor skills during physical therapy!)

Walking Wings

Squeaker Shoes
(motivation to walk AND keeping tabs on wanders!)


Headphones for iPod



Crib Bumper Pads
(for restless sleepers or kids who bang their heads in their sleep)


Small Table
And Chairs
(we use these for everything from eating to crafts to work and play)


1. A Zoo Membership
2. A Month or Year Full of Dance/Gymnastic/whatever Classes
3. A Gas Gift Card (we spend lots of gas driving to and from therapies)
4. A Grocery Store Gift Card (some kids with special needs have special and expensive diets-like ours)
5. A babysitting coupon! Parents of kids with special needs have a harder time finding willing babysitters!
6. A Gift Certificate for a Family Photo Shoot

I hope there's something here that will be helpful! Please let me know if any of the links are broken or incorrect! 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Question and Answer Post Part 3

Here is the final part in my 3-part Question and Answer Series! It's long, as you can tell it's something I'm passionate about (as a former teacher!!). Now that the tables are turned and I sit on the other side of the IEP table, I have an entirely new perspective. Sometimes trying to merge the perspective of educator and parent are nearly impossible. I try hard to remember where the educators/therapists are coming from, but my main job is to be their MOM, which means I come from a place of serious investment, love and emotion.

Q: Would you be willing to share a bit more information on Zoya's education? Have you been through an IEP yet? 
Zoya is in her 3rd year of preschool. She started at 3 years old in a typical preschool classroom with typical peers and no additional support (in the way of an aide/attendant) for 2, and then 3 mornings a week from 9-11, and eventually moved to 9-12.  We started her VERY slowly and gradually increased her time in the classroom due to her separation anxiety and adoption-related issues. Last year and this year she's been in a Montessori preschool classroom (in the same school, but a different program). Since she has a June birthday, we decided to go for a third year of preschool this school year instead of transitioning her to kindergarten. Academically she was ready to move on to kindergarten, but emotionally we really felt she could use another year of preschool and half days! This choice turned out to be fabulous because she's had a really rough start being sick for so long with that mysterious illness and then having her tonsils/adenoids out. She still naps about every other day of the week and would never make it through a full day of school right now. The classroom she is in now is a 3 year old-kindergarten multi-age Montessori classroom. So she can stay in that classroom one more year for kindergarten, which will make the transition so much easier for her and for us. This was a big factor in our decision to send her to this program. The classroom has a (fabulous) teacher and classroom aide, and a classroom attendant that was hired to assist with Zoya's additional needs. The attendant is there for 2 out of the 3 hours that Zoya attends school. Although her main job is to assist Zoya, the attendant is able to help all of the students in the classroom, which is great because that fosters independence for Zoya!

We did not choose this placement because we were dead-set on Montessori (although we agree with the foundational ideas and practices of Montessori Education). We chose the program because of the teacher. As a teacher myself, I know that the extent of success of students ALWAYS comes down to the teacher, and not so much the type of program. Zoya's teacher does a phenomenal job of differentiating instruction for ALL of her students, which is exactly what every student needs-regardless of special needs. She takes Zoya exactly where she is skill-wise and tailors her instruction to Zoya so that she continues learning and achieving. We KNOW the teacher she has is a very rare find these days. She believes in Zoya and sets the bar high for learning. She is firm and consistent, knows how to push Zoya just the right amount, and puts up with all her shenanigans. She sees Zoya as an asset to her classroom (a classroom full of learners WITHOUT special needs). She sees Zoya for the individual she is and never compares her to her peers when setting goals. She advocates for Zoya and is always 100% honest about what she thinks is best for Zoya, regardless of OUR feelings or other team members' feelings....and we really appreciate that! What more could we ask for?

With ALL that said, her IEPs thus far have been fairly straightforward and easy. We've had issues with some experiences with team members not seeing Zoya for who she is and only wanting to look at everything she CAN'T do, but for the most part, we've had really good experiences thus far. The therapist that is responsible for writing her IEP has always been very receptive to parent input and acknowledges the important role the parents should play in the team process. Her communication has been phenomenal and that has really helped prepare all of us going into IEP meetings. The real work usually happens throughout the year and in the months leading up to the IEP as we communicate what we're hoping to see in her upcoming IEP, what we think has worked and what we'd like to change. I'm not naive enough to think this will continue forever. As Zoya gets older, and especially as she transitions to school-age and the school district takes over her services, I KNOW we will have to fight really hard to get what we believe is best for her. Inclusion in preschool is a lot easier than inclusion in school-age and I'm going to have to be saying a lot of prayers when those changes start taking place.

Zoya's biggest challenges in school are, in my opinion, behavior-related. We brought a behavior specialist on board this year and she has helped to make sure responses to behaviors are consistent across the board. Some of Zoya's behavior issues stem from her early beginning of neglect. She CRAVES boundaries, to the point that she will remind you of all the rules over and over and over and ask you to say the rules out loud. She had no boundaries for the first 2 years of her life, and to her, boundaries mean safety. HOWEVER, she's constantly testing to see if every single person in her life will uphold those same boundaries. If she finds someone who doesn't have firm boundaries, or someone who lets her walk all over them, then it's all over. She is so very well behaved for us at home, and for her teacher at school for the most part, because she knows we are very consistent and firm with our boundaries. She feels very unsafe and anxious when boundaries aren't in place and her behavior escalates. A lot of her behaviors are attention seeking as well. At a young age she learned how to get noticed in a room full of orphans, and how to manipulate to get her needs met. And even though she's had all of our full attention as parents for 2.5 years, the attention-seeking behaviors still seem to be her default at times. They're also a way of checking to see if the same rules are in place. She does great when authority figures are able to establish and maintain their authority. It seems that she WANTS to be in charge and WANTS that control, but really IF that control is given to her by an adult it makes her anxiety rev up and behaviors escalate. 

The biggest challenge with Zoya and school and the IEP process has been trying to help her school team understand just how much her rough start in life affects her. I often feel a little crazy trying to explain just how affected she's been. Most people just assume she was adopted so young that they don't even consider adoption-related struggles. Until you live it, or spend a lot of time with her, it's hard to understand. This is what makes transitions difficult and what makes it difficult for us to leave her in new settings with new people who don't understand this part of Zoya. 

Q: I would be interested to hear your plans for Mila's education since she is the next in line for school and is obviously a different child than Zoya. 
We actually just had Mila's initial transition meeting. Although she doesn't turn 3 until March, they start the transition process approximately 3 months before the 3rd birthday! I've been thinking about Mila turning 3, with lots of anxiety, since her 2nd birthday!!! From birth-3 years old, children (in this state) receive in-home early intervention services. That means all of the therapists (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, developmental/behavioral therapy) come to our house for scheduled weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly appointments. It's great because our girls have always been most comfortable in their own, familiar environment. It's a consultative model, meaning that parents work alongside the therapists learning some strategies to help the children reach their goals. Once they turn 3, they typically receive those services through another provider in a preschool setting only. 

With Mila's birthday being in March we weren't too keen on the idea of sending her to a preschool program for 3 months at the end of the school year when the rest of the class had already established their routines and procedures. She'd go for those 3 months, and then have 3 months of summer, and then go back again in the fall and it just seemed silly to us! Zoya has a June birthday so we sent her 1 morning a week over the summer for only 1-2 hours just to get used to the teacher and classroom she'd have the next school year (since it just worked out that the teacher teaching summer school would be her teacher in the fall). With Mila's rough start medically, we're in no rush to send her off to preschool! Looking back on our decision with Zoya, I half wish we would have waited another full year to send her. Had we known then what we know now about her anxiety issues and how they'd eventually manifest themselves, we probably would have not sent her until 4 years old, but hindsight is 20/20, right? At that point we were new parents and thought we had to do everything that was suggested in order to be "good" parents. At this point we're much more comfortable in our "parent skin" and much more comfortable making confident decisions about each of our children based on their needs and strengths, EVEN if that means disagreeing with all the "professionals" (who don't know our children half as well as we know them anyways!) 

With all that said, we were offered homebound services in lieu of attending a preschool program, since her birthday falls so close to the end of the school year. These services are basically consultative in nature and occur on a monthly basis, but they'll make for a nice transition to preschool in the fall. Attending preschool in the fall is not set in stone either, but it's our plan for right now. We will definitely be taking her to outpatient physical therapy weekly outside of the home as that continues to be her area of greatest need. We may try some other outpatient therapies as well just to get her used to being with a therapist WITHOUT mom and dad, which is always a tricky transition! We'll continue the mommy and me type classes and look for some other opportunities for her to socialize with same-age peers in comfortable, non-pressure environments. Every parent knows that each of their children are different, so we don't have a "one size fits all" approach to our kids and their education. Mila is very smart and very capable and learns best with repetition, no pressure to perform, and opportunities to practice skills. Academically she demonstrates skills that show she'd be ready for preschool  in March (knows her colors, body parts, can follow 1 step directions, completes inset puzzles, is working on potty training, etc.) but emotionally we feel she could really benefit from having some extra time at home. She is so sensitive and gentle and quiet that we think having some more time to develop some confidence will be of great value to her going into a preschool setting. Now, Sofia, on the other hand, is ready yesterday (emotionally) to go to preschool and even tries to get in line with Zoya's class!  So every child is different and we have to look at what we think is best for each child, not comparing them to one another! 

We've had many discussions about what the fall will bring for both Mila and Sofia and if we do decide to send them both to preschool (Sofia won't turn 3 until September), then we have to decide if we want them to attend the same program as one another (the same program we had Zoya in for her first year), and if we choose the same program, then do we choose the same class/same days of the week, or same class/different days of the week, or same program/different classrooms/same days of the week....HA! See my head spinning???? 

I hope this post has been helpful to someone! 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Question and Answer Post Part 2 (Leeza Update)

Oops! I realized on my last post that only part of my answer to this question was published! I wanted to make sure I addressed it because my post about Leeza is one of my most commonly read posts!

Q: I just noticed today a picture of Leeza on the sidebar of your blog from a post you had written 3 years ago! I contributed to Leeza's RR fund before she was adopted. I don't know if her family still has a blog or not. Do you by any chance know if they have a blog and how she is doing? I would love to see a recent picture of Leeza. 

A: I love this question!! Thanks for asking so I can give a little update on "Leeza." If you've never read the post I wrote about "Leeza" 3 years ago, you can check it out HERE. To the reader who asked this question, I passed your email along to Mackie's family. Yes, Leeza's new name is "Mackie" and she is a total fighter and hung on just long enough for her family to find her!

Here she is with her Mama on her Gotcha Day in October of 2011. Yes, she's been home for two years!!!

She went through an extremely risky open heart surgery and came through with flying colors by the grace of God! Here she is looking for some snuggles and comfort from her mama during her recovery!

According to her mama she is quite the active little stinker (said endearingly)! Just look at the LIFE in this girl!!!! Talk about REDEMPTION!!!! WOW! 

Mackie's family adopted 2 other children at the same time they adopted Mackie and all 3 are THRIVING! You can totally tell by this picture that she's the Queen of the house, right? :) 

Having been able to follow Mackie's story since she has been home has truly touched my heart! If I didn't KNOW, I'd NEVER believe this happy little trouble maker was the same child that we observed in Zoya's orphanage. God has big plans for her life and seeing His redemption of Mackie leaves me in AWE! You can check out some more pictures on their blog HERE!