Every parent wants to see their child healthy, happy and thriving in life. But what exactly does this involve when raising a child with neurodiversity?
Some might say it’s a challenging journey, others might see it as an impossible mission, but it really isn’t as complicated as you think. In fact, it is so simple that it requires only two components; understanding growth and implementing the right conditions that allow for that growth to happen.
Conditions are as diverse as there are children
We live in a time when more and more children are being identified as neurodivergent, with conditions being as diverse as there are children. Studies have shown that although severities vary from child to child, every child has strengths. Yet, we are witnessing just how much effort it takes such children to complete their education and find employment, and how difficult it can be for them to achieve their maximum potential in life. They are not at fault though.
Supporting our children in the best possible way is no easy feat, even if many professionals are involved in this process. The system also makes it challenging for many educators, who are trying their best to support children with learning differences. It is for this reason that specialists and scientists have developed fantastic learning tools and programmes that are designed to recognise both the strengths and developmental gaps in children to help them improve their cognitive capacity. Many different research-based neuroplasticity therapeutic approaches, behavioural therapy, speech and occupational therapy and many others like animal, art, play and music therapies have also become more readily available. All these methods exist to support our kids in their development. The goal is one - enabling learners to have a more positive learning experience.
Families today have access to an extended support network
It is absolutely fantastic that families today have access to an extended support network of different professionals to support their neurodiverse children. However, we often observe that the outcome is not always as effective as it could be. Sometimes we see children progress well and then reach a certain plateau in their development, or even regressing if experiencing stressful situations. Why does this happen? Why do we spend so much effort, time, resources, love and energy in helping our children thrive without being able to achieve sustainable results?
It all starts with the right ‘Health Growth’ attitude at home
Having a clear strategy for how to help our children, an appropriate support system and the correct tools in place is incredibly important. However, what is even more important, is to have the right attitude throughout the entire process! This all starts with the right “Healthy Growth” attitude at home. But what do we mean by this?
Let’s imagine our children as apple trees. As parents and educators, we often focus on the final product that we want to enjoy - the tasty apples. In the case of a child, these desired apples represent skills such as leadership, advanced learning, executive function, employability, money management, and independence. The combination of these competencies will help our dear children grow into well educated, fully satisfied and self-supporting individuals. This is absolutely fantastic!
Having said that, all of these skills, as with the fruit of an apple tree, are Advanced Elements. These skills are the results of the long process of a tree growing from a seed, and of a young adult from a baby. Throughout this development, many different factors play very important roles and can either help our seed become strong and mighty or can hinder its development and establishment. For instance, the quality of the soil the seed grows in is important. Does it contain all the necessary nutrients and minerals? Is it contaminated with heavy metals and different chemicals? Is it full of harmful parasites, bacteria and mould? The soil needs to be ready to support the seed’s initial growth. As it matures, factors like hydration, wind, and seasonal changes are important to help our young plant become resilient, without damaging it in the process.
Trees need a strong and healthy root system
To grow branches and bear fruit, a tree needs a strong and healthy root system so that it can provide its core with nourishment and support its crone. In addition, different species of trees have different maturation periods. Some can start producing fruit in their second or third year of life, while others need over ten years for their first fruit to be ready for harvest. It is better to not stimulate the production of fruit too much before the whole organism is ready. The same goes for a child. Just as you cannot expect them to run before they start sitting and then crawling, you cannot expect other skills to be established sustainably before the foundation skills are integrated and matured well enough to support your child’s future growth.
To develop their Advanced Skills Element, the Root Element must be developed first. These fundamental Essential Components include elements such as the Healthy Lifestyle of a family, an appropriate Support Network that helps resolve any possible issues and problems, balanced Nourishment, Detoxification, a good Sleep Routine, good habits and, of course, the right Attitude. Only then will the sustainable development of the Core Skills Elements, including Learning Skills, Independent Self-Care, Self-Regulation, Social Interaction and Awareness as well as Effective Communication, happen, and only after that can your child begin to discover their Advanced Skills.
Root Skills development, as the roots of a tree, is not really visible and is, therefore, often overlooked and under appreciated. However, only when all systems have been established in the right order, can our tree bear us with apples and can our children become truly balanced across all developmental levels and achieve their maximum potential in life. In this sense, a tool such as PAGS is great as it works with where the child is and with what the child needs. It looks at first gaps as opposed to last skills.
Having said that, how can you, as a parent, raise your child in a supportive and nourishing environment, providing all the factors necessary for their holistic and balanced development? What reliable tools can you use to successfully take on this challenging process?
Begin by establishing two very simple but powerful habits
Let’s start today! Begin by establishing two very simple but equally very powerful foundational habits. Commit for seven days, just one week, and record the result. You will soon notice some tangible changes in your child's performance. It is these changes that will push you to continue practicing these habits beyond those seven days, and to enjoy a life benefiting from their positive cumulative impact. But let’s get straight to the habits.
Habit number 1
As mentioned earlier, a tree requires adequate hydration. Water is the most abundant component of the human body. Physiologically, water supports many functions essential to daily life, such as thermoregulation and waste elimination. Water also serves as a carrier and a solvent for numerous metabolic reactions that are vital for a child’s growth and development.
Drinking enough clean water is a very important factor for brain performance and behaviour. Research suggests that insufficient hydration is associated with poorer short-term memory in children. Some studies link children’s water intake to immediate benefits for memory and visual attention. Others show that increasing water intake can significantly improve cognitive flexibility in children. Encouraging our children to drink enough water is vital. For children under 8 years of age, at least 4-6 glasses of water is recommended, while for older children, a minimum of 6-8 glasses is required. If your child plays sports or is very active, they will need more water. However, we all know that, although simple, drinking more water is not an easy task to achieve, so try the following practical tips:
- Be a good example for your child and drink water throughout the day while making plenty of positive comments about hydration.
- Infuse water with fresh fruit, berries or aromatic herbs, like mint and thyme, to add flavour. Then, ask your child to guess the flavour! This will make drinking water an enjoyable and educational experience.
- Introduce a portable water bottle with one of your child’s favourite characters or pictures. This should encourage them to drink water when outside of the house.
- Mark lines and corresponding times on the water bottle to show your child how much they should drink by a certain hour of the day.
- Demonstrate the importance of hydration by showing a flower or plant that has not been watered on time starting to look dry and lifeless.
It is important to note that any soft drinks should be avoided and access to fruit juices should be limited as well. Make sure that your child drinks WATER!
Habit number 2
The next ”cognitive enhancement solution” that we recommend is a healthy breakfast. Numerous scientific studies have researched the effect of breakfast consumption on learning in children and adolescents and have demonstrated that breakfast improves cognitive function, academic performance and on-task behaviour in class. However, what exactly do we mean by “healthy breakfast”?
By this we mean a low sugar and nutrient rich meal that will provide your child with adequate nourishment until lunch. Breakfast should keep the blood sugar level stable, which then directly impacts your child’s level of concentration and emotional stability. Breakfast should contain:
- Complex carbohydrates, which are an important source of energy for the brain
- Protein, which helps kids maintain their levels of energy and “fullness” through the morning
- Smart or “good” fat, which provides further energy and prevents sugar cravings.
Ideally, breakfast should be savoury to avoid simple sugars that give your child a sugar rush and makes them moody, irritable, emotionally explosive and low focused. For example, for breakfast you can offer scrambled eggs with pre-chopped vegetables of different colours, savoury or low sugar oat porridge topped with coconut oil, nuts and berries or home-made low sugar granola from buckwheat, nuts and fruit, zucchini pancakes with nut butter… There are so many great and simple options!
As a parent you might not find it as easy to arrange a healthy breakfast though due to time restrictions in the morning, behaviour issues of a child or a variety of other reasons - all of which is very understandable - so here are some practical tips that may help you to start implementing the above suggestion immediately:
- Plan ahead, have a menu planner for the week.
- Prepare as much as possible in the evening of the day before. For example, you can soak oats in water overnight and just bring them to a boil the next morning. Wash berries, fruit, and vegetables in the evening. Set the table for breakfast in the evening.
- Prepare granola together with your child during the weekend or holiday and store in a nice jar.
- Provide your child with different choices. For example, 3 types of nuts, seeds and fruits, that they can choose from when “customising” their own special homemade granola.
- Do not introduce new ingredients in the morning and only use products that your child already knows.
- Be a role model for your child. Eat the same food together in the morning and establish a positive association between what you and your child want to achieve or do together and the food you’re eating. For instance, eggs help you get stronger so that you can better play football or dance.
A little creativity can improve morning routine
With a little creativity, we can find a way of improving the morning routine of every child. Of course this requires patience and motivation, but it is absolutely possible. Try out these simple techniques for yourself and admire the positive impact that simply eating a healthy meal in the morning and of being hydrated during the day will have on your child’s behaviour and performance. So, how are we so sure of the results?
The answer is simple. At Puzzle Tree Academy we help parents integrate such fundamental habits into their busy family life. We have seen first hand the results of having the support and network of other parents and professionals, and how this can achieve results in the easiest and most effective way.
Likewise, PAGS assessment, profiling and goal setting is a powerful tool that helps parents and professionals stay on track of their child's achievement and develop a multidisciplinary support network for the development of strong and sustainable Core Skills elements. This is because PAGS is based on psychosocial analysis and cognitive theories of development and is designed to help educators and parents tailor, support and monitor the learning and social communication processes of each child in an individualised way.
When you integrate a nourishing foundational environment at home, the developmental journey of your child becomes sustainable and development will follow.
About The Authors:
Olga Pavlova is an open-minded, positive and dedicated mother of four unique and inspiring individuals. One child is on the Autistic Spectrum (previously nonverbal, with a global developmental delay, dyspraxia, disturbed sleeping patterns) and another with spiky neurodevelopment profile. Along with her colleague Dr Irina Schurov, Nutritional Neuroscientist, Therapist & Autism Coachco-founded a non-profit association in Switzerland: STARS - Swiss Team for Autism Resources and Solutions.
Olga is passionate about helping families and individuals who affected by Autism and similar neurological and developmental challenges in the UK and across Europe. She has over 15 years of personal and professional experience and expertise in the field of Autism, ADHD and special educational needs.
Dr Irina Schurov is a Nutritional Neuroscientist with a PhD from Cambridge University (UK), Certified Nutritional Therapist (IINH) and over 20 years’ experience in science and health-providing services. She is also a mother of two children and very much appreciate all challenges that parents experience while raising happy and balanced kids. She created and founded LiveRight, an initiative to help individuals with nutrition and wellbeing strategies.
Her focus is especially on children with ASD and related neurological conditions by addressing the connection between gut and brain; and by detoxifying, nourishing, and resetting a whole-body biochemical balance.
Find out more about Olga and Irina and their work at www.puzzletreeacademy.com