“B is for Break”

When Gabriel was in Kindergarten, we were living in Norman, Oklahoma, and he had a fantastic Special Education teacher named Mrs. Jennifer Book.  One thing Mrs. Book did with her students was teach them sign language; not the whole language, just some basics, such as the alphabet and some key words such as “more,” “stop,” “play,” “be nice,” and “thank you.”

Many of these signs really stuck with Gabriel, and he used them heavily with us.  Even though he could verbalize most of words he was signing, he would sign them while speaking them, which seemed to make him feel better; more confident that he was getting his point across, I suppose.  We didn’t mind; we were thrilled at ANY kind of communication coming from him, verbal OR nonverbal.

Signing has even helped us communicate across a long distance, at times.  For instance, Gabriel and I signed to each other while he was on stage during a choral concert back when he was in 2nd grade.  I was SO proud of him for standing up there and attempting to sing with his classmates that I signed to him the words, “I’m happy,” and he signed back, “Thank you.”  Needless to say, some of the signs have worked so well that we started using them with Noah, and then with Samuel.  To this day, we have between 10-20 different signs that we use with our boys almost daily.

But the one I have used the most, both personally and professionally, is the letter B.  Mrs. Book taught Gabriel to use this single sign with her and other teachers if he ever needed a “break.”  B is for Break.

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For some reason, I latched onto this idea (thinking it was brilliant in its simplicity) and I have both taught and used this sign hundreds of times in the past eight years – both personally and professionally.

I thought the B sign was a quiet, inconspicuous way for students to let me or the classroom teacher know if they were feeling overwhelmed and needed to excuse themselves from the classroom.  All they would have to do is catch my or the teacher’s eyes, hold this sign up close to their chest (no need to do the full on arm extension high in the air and attract other students’ attention) and then we could slowly and quietly nod our heads “yes,” and they could get up and leave the classroom.  They could go get a drink, walk around outside, literally run a lap around the building if they had too much energy (very common for kiddos with ADHD), do WHATEVER they needed to do to clear their heads, and then they could come back to class and be able to get back on task.

In the Learning Support world (well, truth be told, in the whole Education world), breaks (often called “brain breaks”) are an absolute necessity.  They should be taken freely and often, with ZERO guilt attached.

It’s the “Work Smarter Not Harder” mentality.  If you have a student diagnosed with ADHD and he tells you he studied five STRAIGHT hours for a test last night (true story), I believe the best reply to him would be, “Amazing effort!  However, let me help you with how to meet your individual learning needs in studying for your next test.  Not only did you study too long, you didn’t give yourself enough breaks.”

Our brains canNOT sustain good attention like that for that long, and especially kiddos with brain differences such as Autism or ADHD.  If you look at ANY peer-reviewed literature on attention and memory, you will see that after maybe 10-15 minutes, attention drops significantly and never recovers UNTIL you take a break and come back (see diagram).Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 5.28.44 AM

So, give yourself and your students (and your own children) breaks!  More does not always equal better! 🙂

AND, along these same lines, I recently took my own advice, and took maybe the most significant “break” of my life.  In mid-March, I made the decision to take two weeks of unpaid leave and fly home, by myself, to Oklahoma.

In a nutshell, a recent and highly coincidental chain of events led me into a “crisis of conscience….(otherwise known as a Mid-Life Crisis – so says our counselor, Paul…  And Daniel & I believe and heed every word that man says).

The main questions that hit me were….

  • Am I really a good person?  Wife?  Mother?  Daughter?  Teacher?  Friend?
  • How long should I (or anyone) allow past mistakes to define who I am?
  • How much guilt should I allow myself to feel for not doing more for my children with Autism?
  • What can I do at this point in my life to improve who I am, and in turn, the lives of those around me, particularly my family?

One of the main things that threw me into this frame of mind was the impending surgery of my beautiful mother; the woman who has been my “rock,” forever.  I hadn’t seen her in nearly two years; before that, I went four years without seeing her, as well as my sweet Dad.

Living abroad becomes a way of life, and you get used (maybe even calloused) to not talking to or seeing members of your family for months, and sometimes, years on end.

And it hit me that this is NOT OK..  Family should equal time.  If you love someone, you need to spend time with them – as much time as possible.

TIME

And with the prospect of my mother going through health issues, combined with the overwhelming guilt of not doing enough for my children, combined with Daniel and his recent, out of NOwhere diabetes diagnosis, combined with some other miscellaneous personal issues…  -It all just put me over the top.

It’s like I hit a metaphorical wall; or a large 2X4 to the side of the head – and I couldn’t just get back up, brush myself off, collect my thoughts, and move forward as I usually do.

I needed something serious.  Something more than a personal day, or even a weekend away.  AND I needed to go see my family, now.

So the next morning, I talked to my Admin, and they could all clearly see that I was drowning.  There were no questions or second-guesses on their part; just love and support.  And I will never be able to thank them enough for allowing me the opportunity to take this break.

12 hours later, I was kissing my husband and my children Goodbye, and I was on a plane – with ZERO guilt attached.

When taking breaks, it’s important to do something that you enjoy, or something that relaxes you – and for some reason, on this break, I needed to DRIVE.  (I’ve no doubt that living in Saudi had something to do with that….. ;-) AND, I knew that as much as I needed to be with family, I would also need some time alone.  So I built two, very long road trips into this break.  I knew that driving alone would help relax me and clear my mind – so I flew into Chicago, rented myself an SUV, and first drove two hours over to Wisconsin to visit Daniel’s family.

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I cannot describe what amazing soul food it was to see them again (as the last time I saw them was at Daniel’s grandmother’s funeral in March 2015).  Daniel’s family IS my family (after 19 years together, understandably so…) and even though I wasn’t in Wisconsin long, I can’t express how wonderful it was to spend some time with them – and we also worked out ways and plans to keep in closer contact in the future.

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Then, high on Starbucks, I hopped in the car and drove 13 hours to Oklahoma, happily blasting the stereo (in a way I can’t with kids in the car), and alternating between the 70s, 80s, and 90s Sirius radio stations (which would otherwise drive Daniel crazy), while absolutely soaking up the beauty of my homeland.

And I realized, while driving, that I couldn’t even remember the last time I was totally and completely ALONE.

Part of the benefits of taking a break is having time to clear your head; creating some empty space that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and then allowing it to fill up with whatever thoughts are necessary to help you heal.

And it wasn’t until I got away and on my own that I realized how I am truly, never alone.  (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing…) but when you need to think, I mean, REALLY think and reflect, alone is good.  And the amount of solitude I experienced during this two-week break (even with spending a good amount of the time with my family) was more than I have experienced in, well, at least 19 years.

I had 10 days in Oklahoma, and I soaked it up like a sponge.  I had time.  I reconnected with my parents, my grandparents, my uncle, my childhood home, my childhood best friend, my high school, my university town, and my hometown in general.  I also changed my diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and made the life-long decision to fill my body and mind with nothing but pure, healthy substances.  To date, I have lost 22 pounds, and am still losing.

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And in the end, this break was the best thing I could have ever done for myself.  It did exactly what I needed it to do.

I established an inner peace that had not been there before, and found some tentative answers to the questions I had posed to myself before the break:

Am I really a good person?  Wife?  Mother?  Daughter?  Teacher?  Friend?

  • Yes, I am.  Am I perfect?  NO.  Far from it.  But in spite of all my past mistakes, my heart was, and still IS, in the right place.  My mission as a person is to help others, do no harm, and live by the golden rule.  As long as this remains true, I will believe I am a good person. 

How long should I (or anyone) allow past mistakes to define who I am?

  • This is done.  If I (or anyone) is truly sorry for their past mistakes and have taken every step  necessary to change and move forward in a good and positive way, I will not feel any further guilt for those mistakes – and in no way do they define who I am.

How much guilt should I allow myself to feel for not doing more for my children with Autism?

  • None, but I need help with this one.  As long as my husband, our counselor and I set realistic expectations for what needs to be done for our children and I do those things to the very best of my ability, I will feel zero guilt.

What can I do at this point in my life to improve who I am, and in turn, the lives of those around me, particularly my family?

  • A million things – but it all goes back to time. 

Dedicate time to improving myself, and spend time (quality time) with the ones I love..  Following Paul’s advice, Daniel and I have vastly improved our marriage and the closeness with our children by almost becoming scripted with the time we spend together (which has felt a bit unnatural, but can’t argue with it because it’s working..).  Daniel & I now spend as much time as we can together at school, and when we get home, we try to set a purpose and a goal for the time we spend together as a family (i.e. playing board games, improving reading, role playing to practice social skills, etc.).  And we have started to carefully schedule our weekends to ensure that we make time to keep in closer contact with our family back home.

  • Second, but no less important than time, is feeling and expressing gratitude.

I found that leaving my immediate surroundings and taking a break also helped me appreciate what I have – and not take anything for granted.  For instance, I never knew how badly I could miss Daniel & our boys.  This was the longest I had ever been away from any of them.  Absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder.

And by extension, this break created more gratitude in me than I ever believed possible.  Gratitude for absolutely everything: food, shelter, air conditioning (especially in Saudi!), my health, my husband, (my husband’s health…), my children, (my children’s health), my desk, the computer I’m typing this on, you get the point… Paul has also been driving this point home with both of us lately; he always talks about how people focus so much on what they don’t have vs. what they DO have, and he’s absolutely right.

So take breaks.  Make time for what’s important.  And be grateful for everything (and everyone) you have.

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