Stepping Back – Part 1

Podcast Episode 37. The challenge of stepping back and letting our children take risks and make mistakes is never easy. How to deal with this challenge is the theme of this week’s podcast where I speak to Lisa Campbell, a Speech and Language Therapist, and Milla Johnson, an Occupational Therapist. Lisa and Milla discuss why parents/carers should try to step back more to enable their children to develop the skills they will need to live independently.

The main focus of our conversation is around how to develop the daily living skills needed to live independently. These include shopping, independent travel and money skills. Milla and Lisa offer practical ideas on how to develop these skills. For shopping that can include having a categorized shopping list and thinking about what time to go shopping.

When it comes to encouraging financial independence and learning how to manage money, Lisa and Milla talk about the technology which can help as well as how to make family activities, like going to the movies, opportunities to practice both money and social skills. They also discuss ways in which to develop cooking skills, including simplifying recipes into a few easy to follow steps.

However, they warn against using every opportunity you have as a learning opportunity, instead focus on a few areas at a time. Learning independent life skills needs to be fun for young people, or they will give up because it feels like a chore. Let them see the purpose of it and try to make it as natural as possible.

Milla and Lisa also talked about the importance of letting young people know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that they can actually learn from them. It’s vital that we take a step back and allow our children to make mistakes so that they can learn to safely problem solve and come up with solutions to fix the problem. It is this skill that they will most need if they are to be truly independent of us.

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Podcast Transcript
DEBRA: Welcome to episode 37 of the Journey Skills podcast. This episode, I’m talking to Lisa who is a Speech and Language Therapist, and Miller who is an Occupational Therapist. Both of them work with 16 to 19 year old’s helping them develop independent living skills. This is the first of a two-part episode. The first part is really around daily living skills and in part two, we will talk about relationships and work. We covered quite a lot in a conversation, lots of very practical ideas about how to help our young people develop the skills they would need to live independently around shopping, travel, money and budgeting. As the title of this episode suggests, it’s really about stepping back and letting them get on with it, making mistakes and learning from them. On the one hand, I found the tips from Lisa and Milla incredibly useful but at the same time, I sat there thinking “Oh no, I haven’t done that, I haven’t done that, and I haven’t done that.” So after a bit of beating myself up, I realized it’s never too late.

And it’s also about timing. My daughter is 16 now and I can see her trying to pull away from me so in fact me stepping away will make sense and probably work. The other thing is I found that I need to constantly remind myself and it’s a point Lisa and Milla make that it’s better to pick specific areas to focus on and not try to do everything over time because if you do that it’ll become a bit overwhelming for her and for me.

It’s all about integration into daily living and thinking back this is how independent skills came to my older daughter. I didn’t explicitly think about it but there came a time when I asked her to go to the store or to sort out her own lunch, little things which when I reflect giving her the skills she needed to be independent. With my younger son, I needed to do the same only with a bit more purpose, actually building on what she can do, putting up the scaffolding, I suppose is the term that professionals we use and then over time, she’ll start to do with herself and then the scaffolding will come down. I think there are some really useful ideas in here which I found that I could actually apply. And there’s at the end for a comment from a parent about why we do need to be stepping back. Maybe like me, you will identify with what this parent said. I hope you find the tips from Milla and Lisa as useful as I did.

DEBRA: Today I am talking to Lisa Campbell and Milla Johnson. Lisa is a speech and language therapist and Milla is an occupational therapist and they’re both working at college helping our young people develop their independent skills is one of the roles that they have. Welcome, Lisa. (Thank you very much. Thanks for having us) Welcome, Milla. (Thank you very much)
DEBRA: You tell us a little bit about what you do within the college environment to help young people develop those independent skills that they need?

MILLA: So as therapists within the college, our main focus really is to try and make our students as independent as possible so that by the time that they leave us that they have the skills that they need to live as independent life as possible. It’s also about not placing limits on what we think they’re capable of achieving and it’s about having expectations that are beyond sometimes what we think might be achieved so that you don’t limit the student to what they can achieve.

LISA: And I suppose our role is about upscaling the students as best as we can so that they can function independently and with their needs, we need to ensure that they have got these skills and techniques so that’s what our role is all about. It’s just upscaling the students with strategies to enable to function, and yes, as independently as possible.

DEBRA: What are some of the main areas that you’re working to develop those independent skills?

MILLA: So from an occupational therapy perspective, it’s very much about independent living, it’s the skills that they need to be able to do their shopping, to do their budgeting, to do their laundry, to plan their leisure, to manage their money, to manage their time, and the list goes on. It’s everything that you need to do to be able to live independently and that list is infinite.

By the time we get to college it very much is about function. It’s about functioning what they can do. So for instance, they can have a really poor memory but if they can learn to have a list on the fridge with the shopping list and like items, if you finish that they add them to the list, they can become independent to be able to do the shopping. You haven’t necessarily changed their memory, actually, but you’ve taught them the strategies to be able to live more independently, to be able to do their shopping.

LISA: And it’s even about having them the list or memo on their telephones with bullet points and then when they’re walking around the supermarket, they can tick off through their phones. It’s about making it practical in a sense as well and I suppose, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy really do go hand in hand particularly at this age group as well because it’s about -for speech therapist point of view, their functional social communication skills. And in order to go, to do the shopping, to go on travel outings, they need to be able to use their voice to be able to make request or converse with other people to put in an order at a restaurant and to have the confidence to be able to do that as well. So I think, we take for granted everything that goes into being able to communicate and being able to do these life skills so for us it’s about explicitly teaching some skills and then putting it in a practical sense as well.

MILLA: Topics are a really good example of that as well in terms of breaking it down as to what is involved in shopping. To most of us, we’d do it fairly subconsciously sure to take a list with you but for our students, it’s very much about thinking about how can they plan their meals for the week? What does it involve? Then your numeracy comes in tarp because they’re cooking their meal for four people, on the recipes only for two, so they could have doubled up the recipe all that quite the half the recipe so you’re bringing in the functional academics. Before you even got to writing the shopping list, there’s other work to be done: can they check the cabinets, do they understand the difference between best before sell by use by dates, have they got the ability to check what they’ve got so they don’t just write everything that’s on the recipe down on the list, have they got the flexible thinking of which items could be left out if they’re not essential to the recipe.

For most students, if they just go with a list that’s in any random order, they will literally go from getting a pint of milk, and one from the supermarket some frozen vegetables at the other end and then back to the fridge to get some cheese which was in the same mallows the milk was in in the first place. So it’s often about going out and being able to write down what the labels are both the aisles and getting the students to categorize where the different food items might be.

It’s also getting them to potentially use websites to find what the costs are so that before they go, they can work out what’s the best value for money. You can give them a budget – what is their budget for the meal and therefore they can’t afford the organic chicken, I need to buy the standard chicken. All sorts of skills that you can work on just within going shopping and that’s before you even got to the supermarket, before you’ve actually localize where things are, before you’ve got them to have to ask say “I can’t find something” and a lot of them say to you “Why do I need to do that? ‘Cause I can just go home without it?” But actually that has a much more implication because what happens if they’re on they hurt themselves, are they going to have the confidence to ask someone for help?, are they going to have the confidence when they get lost?, with the initiation if they get lost, will they actually ask for help? or are they just gonna sit there and wait?

It’s also about looking at the timing so for us we’re very fortunate the students can plan to catch train but they need to know which time that they’re coming back for so they need to have planned how long that they can spend at the supermarket and what time do they need to be at the teller to be checking out, to be able to catch the train back again. Then there’s also the whole element of checking the money, checking their change and then on that aspect some students find that side of things very difficult. And so money wise, we look into options of all the different credit cards and debit cards students can have that have financial limits put on them so that you can allow them to go off some shop and for some students that some much safer way of doing it rather than being very vulnerable and clearly not able to manage their money and someone not giving them correct change.

LISA: I think from a practical point of view, what parents and families can be doing is if you’re trying to teach the skill of shopping, it’s important, initially with some element of scaffolding and support to identify with your son or daughter, what meals you want them to buy or make a list of item and let them actually identify the kitchen what their needs are and in the cup in the fridge what’s there and then actually let them go to the supermarket and initially talk them through where the aisles are, what’s in every aisle, do some role play with them, get them to practice asking for help when you’re still there and then as their confidence builds, allow them to actually go and make these purchases for themselves and I think you’d be surprised as adults there are so many things that we probably do subconsciously when we are out shopping for ingredients I mean I know for myself, I’m aware that if I’m in the milk aisle that the milk that’s gonna be most in date last the longer is gonna be at the back of the fridge cabinet so instead of taking the milk at the front, I’ll take the milk from the back and that’s the same with the cheese or any perishable goods.

So it’s about teaching the students or your sons or daughters that, that technique can be really effective and exactly like Milla said: give your son or daughter a debit card if they’re having trouble managing their money and that’s preventing them from actually having the confidence to go to the supermarket and make purchases. Let’s alleviate that for them. Get them a debit card.

MILLA: That’s also thinking about what time of day are you going to the supermarket. Don’t send them to the supermarket if communication skills or money skills are something they struggle with. Don’t send them to supermarket at 5 o’clock in the evening when everyone’s there and there’s a queue for 20 people trying to get them to hurry up. But it’s also looking at a lot of our students will automatically go to the self-service because they don’t have to talk to anybody. And so it depends on what specific skills you’re trying to work on and if it is about being able to communicate and then it’s actually about encouraging them to pick the check-out aisle that’s quarter where some things got time to give them enough time then they can actually check their change.

LISA: That’s also just realizing these students and working out what is gonna be the best benefit for them because if they don’t want to have to communicate and verbally have a conversation with someone, let them use the self-checkout because they are being independent, they’re able to go to the supermarket, purchase their items, make the payment and then leave. And that’s been a successful experience for them. Their confidence is build up at the checkout. So it’s about letting them do whatever is best for them to sort out the barriers are taken away.

There’s other things, if we talk about like once you’ve done the shopping and we think about meal times, meal times around the home are absolutely superb opportunities for families to be supporting conversation skills. It’s excellent eye for cooking. You can cook together, talk about the ingredients that are going in there, that’s when you can bring in elements of healthy eating and you can also talk about use buy and sell by dates and ensure that the items that you’re putting in the recipe are the correct items being used and that you’re measuring things up. Around the meal time, just conversation, talk about what’s been happening in the news. Meal times are nice opportunity for conversation.

MILLA: And from an OT perspective, obviously there’s the first clear element of actually helping make a meal. Confidence boosting of being able to make a simple meal by themselves for the family is absolutely enormous. It’s looking at – are they able to follow the instructions or do we actually just need to simplify it done? Because a lot of instructions in cookbooks are very wordy and actually if you cut it down to the actual essential words is often you can shrink it down remarkably so just breaking it down to four or five simple step recipe rather than five pages of lengthy instructions. It’s also then looking you know the different approaches. Only you will know what works for your son or daughter that is it that you do most of the recipe and they finished it off so they get the sense of finishing and achieving at the end or do they start it off and you finish it off. There are all sorts of different ways that only you will know which way but actually it’s trial and error because for some things working from the bottom upward and for other things working from the top down and for some students they need to learn from something having not worked, that’s how they learn and for others that sense of failure is too big and actually is too demoralizing and therefore they don’t want to participate in things in which case you need to do it.

In short, success by always doing the end that finishing it off and getting the praise for something finished. So it’s about thinking what is it does my son or daughter is building up, do they need to become more aware of what their limits are in order for us to be able to help them because sometimes they think they’ve got no problems with certain things and you actually need them to see that there’s a bit of a problem and able to enable them to work on it.

LISA: I think to throw in to that as well, it’s really important for these young people to see that it is fine to make errors in everything that we do. I mean, I’m a terrible cook but it isn’t stopping me and actually if you’re showing these young people that all of us can make mistakes with ingredients, sometimes you put in the salt instead of sugar or anything like that, it isn’t the end of world when that happens and that you can just laugh about these mistakes and you just need to start again or make a best with what you’ve got.

And I think a lot of the time with these students that we’re working with, it is about showing the real-life situations and then it is fine, we all make mistakes and we all learn from our mistakes and it’s about doing things in an environment in which it’s a safe place to make mistakes because that’s how we all learn as well. And it’s the same if we go back to when you’re doing travel, I’m sure everyone listening has got on the wrong bus or the wrong train or fallen asleep or forgotten to get off. We need to allow our students to make some mistakes like that to get on the wrong train so that they can then learn to safely problem-solve. So whether that’s you catching a train with them and not prompting them necessarily to get off at that stop, wait and see what they do and if they don’t get off, “Okay instead of being here, you might be at the next station, you then just need to catch the train back”. And actually, we learn by making mistakes so you we need to ensure that the students are okay with that.

MILLA: And also thinking about what is it that you as a family do everyday. You can work on any of the skills that your son or daughter needs through any activity that is that you do. For simple thing a virtual kid loves watching movies, is looking up timings of movies, you can work all hugely on the time concept of “What time do they..” because movie houses have ten different screens with different films starting at different times. It can be really confusing but that’s a great thing to be able to sit down and work through which movie they’re going to go to, what time and then what’s the length of the movie, what time do they need to be collected, you know, this element of being able to sit and watch the trailer together so being able to talk through it so they have a better understanding of what it is that they’re watching. You can watch the trailer beforehand.

LISA: I think that’s probably one of the best thing for students with language needs is to be able to watch a trailer before you actually go to the movie itself and talk about what that movie’s going to be about so they’ve actually got some context, they know about the characters beforehand, they know what the kind of plot it is and and they can already start making predictions and inferences because actually once if they go straight into that movie, it can be very overwhelming, there’s so many characters, movies do move really quickly and it does really benefit them being able to- like if you’re watching movies at home, we have to stop, talk about it, start it again, but if your’re at the cinema, that’s a little bit harder to do, so you watch the movie trailer beforehand, see the movie and actually debrief them on the way home in the car or when you get back in the evening around the dinner table actually talk about that movie, you might even need to watch the trailer again just to recap because we want these young people to then be able to converse with their friends and other family members and siblings about what they’ve seen because lots of people love going to movies and it is great conversation. Stars a great topic to have anywhere.

MILLA: And so was still on the movie thing, you know, there are opportunities why don’t you get them to phone the movie house to book the tickets. And if they make a dog breakfast stiff bark doing the booking doesn’t really matter, but giving them those opportunities to be able to in a safe environment because they’re never going to see the man on the end of the telephone so it’s a safe way to be able to have a conversation, to be able to phone up and book tickets.

LISA: And I suppose, if they’re not wanting to make that telephone call, you can book for movies online now so that is the way the world’s going in, it is a lot more online, it’s less face to face interactions which does have its positives and its negatives but for students with communication difficulties, it is an excellent opportunity. They can still make the purchase that they want. You can’t go too wrong with it. So you buy four tickets instead of two. As a parent, you can call up and you can rectify that situation or put a cancellation on the card if needed or it’s a great opportunity to explain that we’ve made an error, this is how to teach them about having to make a refund or how making a complaint if needed. All of these experiences are learning experience that then equip them to become more independent adults.

MILLA: Or take two friends they can take with them [Laughs] to make it to a more of a social event. But it’s also getting them to think about what is it in terms of when they’re there, this food options is there; are they going to go eat up afterwards? do they want popcorn? do they want to drink? what are the cost of those? what budget have they got? So it’s all those elements because it often happens with children without challenges that, you know, they just expect mom and dad to pay for everything.

Our students really need to be explicitly taught about those elements and things that doesn’t just come naturally, they don’t just suddenly work out. “Well, I’ve only got five pounds pocket money, I can’t afford to do it.” because often though, go with their five pounds thinking that that’s more than enough money to be able to get themselves drink and popcorn and it’s not. So, it’s about getting them to plan beforehand; could they take a drink and just buy popcorn or..

LISA: Or could they share? I mean, I know the size of these popcorns. One large popcorn can probably feed about 3 people.

MILLA: Also it’s also getting them to think of there are different ways of paying because often the deals and the discounts are really challenging. Quite challenging for some lass to understand but if you’ve got language impairment on top of that, understanding what’s meant by 3 for 1, what’s meant by 50% off– all those sort of money concepts of things are really hard for them to understand. And again, it’s the same with shopping, we often have the challenge with the meal deal on sandwiches but I don’t want the drink. Yes, but if you buy the drink, it’s cheaper. Despite using any opportunity that you do as a learning opportunity but I would also recommend just picking one or two items or something. Don’t try and kill yourselves with thinking you have to make everything total learning all the time. If it’s in the kitchen and it’s following the recipes, the difficulty, you can get them to do that, you can do the rest of it, just get them to do that first of most because if you get them to do the whole activity, they often disengage because it’s too long. If it’s about making phone calls to do things, they can also phone up to make doctor’s appointment, they could phone a friend to ask if they want to come out for lunch. So depending on what your son or daughter’s difficulties are, I’d really encourage you to just pick one or two things at a time to focus on because otherwise I think they sometimes perceive everything is being work all the time and no downtime and they do need downtime as well as work time.

LISA: I think that’s it. Learning to communicate, learning independent life skills, it needs to be fun, it needs to be practical, they need to see the purpose of it. So, do make it as natural as possible. So try and incorporate teaching these skills as naturally as possible as you can into your day to day life. As a parent, you might need to say, “Look I’m really busy doing something else, do you mind having a go?” Rather than saying “This is your job to do”. Try and play it off a bit more natural that you might be a bit busy doing some other things, would they mind giving it a go and keep in mind, you might need to practice or role play it together first or even write down a little script for them to have to say so it doesn’t alleviate some of the anxiety that might be surrounding making that phone call.

MILLA: And going back to the shopping that we talked about earlier, for the first few times you go shopping with them and then how about one time say “I need to pop into such and such to get something else, do you mind starting the shop and I’ll come and join you?” And gradually stepping back from the amount of input that you give.

And I think, we’re all, as therapists as well as parents, are all guilty of wrapping our young people uncomfortable because we’re too worried about taking risks and as Lisa mentioned earlier, it’s learning from those risks and often our young people are way more skilled than we actually necessarily give them credit for. So, sometimes it is just going back to that analogy of scaffolding and thinking about building the scaffolding, it’s not there to stay. Scaffolding needs to come down and it slowly reveals what’s behind the scaffolding and so it’s really encouraging you as parents to just slowly, step by step, just take a little bit back and let them take that risk, let them catch that train, and it’s terrifying at first time you let them walk to the corner shop with no one with them but at some point, everyone’s have to let their child out to walk to corner shop and everyone’s just as terrified doing it but really I think sometimes, you’d really surprised with some sort of how much they’re actually capable of doing if you just step back.

Because we all step in very quickly and Lisa’s example of the train was a good one. They would come in to the station, you want get off that. You automatically pick up your handbag. Just the nature of just picking up the handbag indicates to them that you must be getting off the train so therefore this is the stop. Whereas if you just sat there, would they initiate getting off the train and until you know, confidently that I just sat there and the last 3 times we’ve got the train, I just sat there, they’ve got out at the right stop. I know that they know which is the right stop. It really is taking that scaffolding back, step by step to reveal their true capabilities behind it. And then, there will be times when you find things behind it. And then, there will be times when you find things behind it, well they’re independent in it and you do need to step in and then those are the areas that you then to focus on and work.

LISA: You lineally identify those areas. Once you’ve stepped back and being an observer. And that’s what I think what we need to instill confidence in our parents to actually let them have a go. And I remember being said to me by a parent several years ago, “The thing that makes me allow them to take the risk is what will they do when I’m not here and if I’m not here, can I truly say that I’ve given them the opportunity to be as independent as possible?”

DEBRA: So at the end of part one, my key takeaways? Pick an area to work on, don’t try and do too much at once. Let them make mistakes along the way in a safe place with you nearby and finally step back whenever you can. In my case, it’s breaking a lifetime habit but I’m serious and I want my daughter live independently without me so I need to learn to step back.

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