Playing with the animals

Polly and I had about ten minutes left in our session today. She had worked so hard, keeping her brain focused, keeping the sillies in her thought bubble, and staying positive, that I gave her the choice of what she’d like to do.

“The animals!” she exclaimed, pointing up.

Do any of you remember those “Critter Counters” that Lakeshore Learning used to sell? It’s a container of rubber farm animals. There are two big and two small of each kind of animal, in each color, and my kids are in love with them.

I got out the animals and we dumped them out, and she got right to work.

“Okay,” she declared. “Come on guys, we need to get in our lines.” She narrated as she went along, and I happily listened, knowing that the presence of pretend play is anything but insignificant. So many of my kids never engaged in pretend play during “typical” developmental time – they just weren’t there yet. So it doesn’t matter how old they are now – if now’s the time, now’s the time. Let’s play.

“Where should I go?” she had a piggy ask. “Over here! Come on, you can go right behind me,” said the Mama pig.

She lined them all up in their respective groups, making sure that each line had a “Team Leader” (a grown-up animal) in the front. Animals frequently seemed to not know where to go, and other animals were very helpful in telling them which line was theirs.

The animals encountered a few problems as they lined up. “Did you just push me?!” Polly made a duck ask. “No!” the sheep replied. “I think you did,” the duck retorted. “I think you bullied me.” Then Polly looked up at me.

“Who could help?” I asked. She brought over a grown-up animal, who said, “I think it was an accident. It wasn’t bullying.”

The animals are talking to each other. They are problem-solving. This is not insignificant. This is Polly learning, and processing, and applying.

After a few more minutes of various line groupings, and discussions among the animals, I regretfully told her, Polly, we’ll need to clean up in one minute. It’s almost time for lunch.”

At first she had the animals hop or gallop back into their container. But then, she seemed to make a decision, sighed, and grabbed handfuls of them, throwing them back in.

“They’re back to normal,” Polly told me.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, curious.

“They’re just toys now. They’re not alive anymore.” She said sadly.

I was fascinated. Speechless.

Not only did Polly, a 10 and a half-year old, engage in some seriously awesome pretend play, not only did she use language and perspective-taking to have the animals talk, not only did she demonstrate an understanding of problem-solving, BUT she demonstrated an understanding of what pretend play is. Polly knew that toys can be two things – real in her head sometimes, but also, ultimately, just toys.

I think tomorrow, we’ll play some more.

It’s Time to Let Go

I was over at my beloved Some Talk of You and Me last week, writing about realizations, visualizations, and lightbulb moments that had been a long time coming.

If I was vulnerable enough to submit and publish it there, I might as well do the same here…..right…??

It’s Time to Let Go, originally posted on Some Talk of You and Me (edited and formatted by the wonderful Brandie Smith, who continuously gives my words space to be heard):

“This is a perfect example,” I told him.

“I’m fine. My mood is fine, I’m not crying, we’re having a perfectly fine morning. But I feel tight and low in my chest.”

You know how something can happen a million times, but it only clicks when it’s ready?

That’s what happened today. I was on my way to a yoga class and before going into the studio, I took out my phone to type in my thoughts before I lost them.

“Makes me think maybe the heaviness isn’t my mood, doesn’t dictate my mood. Maybe the heaviness isn’t depression. Maybe it’s just all that little kid stuff, that fight or flight, that panic, that decision to stop talking and keep it all in. Maybe I need to talk to it and nurture it.

Tell it,

“I know what you are. It’s okay. You don’t have to be here. I’m taking care of me this time around. You don’t have to hold it in. You’re free to go. I promise.”

This makes me cry.

Maybe so many of the tears are about just that—relief at finally being soothed, relief at not keeping it in, shock over how intense the feelings are that I’ve buried down for months and years and decades.”

During an appointment on Friday, we were discussing the physical feelings of the emotions.

I had been so focused on the emotions themselves—the panic, the fear, the shame, the guilt, the despair—but she had been gently encouraging me to go beyond that.

“Where do you feel it in your body?” she asked.

I quickly scanned my body, but knew exactly what I’d fine, knew what I always find:

“Pressure behind my eyes, tightness in my throat, a heavy constriction around my chest, and a pit in my stomach.”

She encouraged me to focus on the tightness in my throat.

“What happens if you focus on it, if you pay attention to it? What purpose do you think it’s serving?”

“It gets worse when I pay attention to it.” I replied.

I thought some more, and then added,

“I think….it’s about fight or flight. It’s the panic, the wanting to fight. I’m a talker and a problem-solver. I like to find solutions right away. But there were no solutions, nothing I could do, or nothing I perceived I could do, so I think the tightness is the words trying to get out—but there are no words. So, it’s some sort of being trapped by silence.”

She suggested I tune into that feeling. I used one of my visualizations—the sparkly white light that clears away murkiness, and tried to clear it away from my throat.

And promptly started crying.

“I have no idea why I’m crying,” I said.

A few moments later, I added,

“It makes me feel young. I mean. I don’t know how to explain it. Um…so, when I imagined the white light coming into clear it away, it felt soothing, like the light was comforting the tightness, telling it that it was free to go, that the light would help, that the tightness didn’t need to hold the burden of solving all of these problems.

And that makes me feel like I would’ve as a little kid.

If I had talked about things, and allowed myself to be soothed and comforted. But, I usually didn’t.

Because, well, bodies didn’t contain emotions for me. Someone else’s feelings just moved right through their body and into mine, and I was maybe even more hypersensitive than I am today. And I had no idea what it was, I was just a little kid, all I knew was that I felt so much all of the time and it made it hard to breathe.

And if I told someone I was sad or upset or having a hard time, I felt their empathy, and it’s good that they felt empathy, because it meant they cared, but then I felt it in addition to my own feelings, and it was too much and hurt even worse than if I hadn’t said anything in the first place.

And so, consciously or subconsciously, probably subconsciously, I decided to stop sharing, to stop reaching out. And I just feel sad about that.

I see the little kids that I work with and I can’t even bear to imagine that one of them would just decide to hold everything in from then on, because they viewed that as the only possible option.”

I paused and took a breath.

“Wow,” she said. “It sounds like maybe you’re grieving. Feeling sadness and grief for the silence you felt you had to undertake.”

So, I sat outside the studio and I typed those thoughts into my phone, and I talked to the tightness in my throat like I would to one of my students, and I told it,

It’s okay. You can go. I’ve got this. I’m taking care of me. You don’t have to stay. I know what you are. You are panic and fear and wanting to scream and wanting to run and silence. I know. You can go. It’s okay. I promise.

And slowly, tentatively, it left.

And slowly, tentatively, I allowed it to go.

Winning materials

[Ed. note: While these are both affiliate links (meaning if you purchase them from Amazon, using this link – I will receive a very tiny referral fee), this is not a sponsored post. Just sharing some truly wonderful materials!]

As I’m sure nearly every single one of you SLPs can agree with, when a child is motivated by a game, a book, or any sort of material, sessions are infinitely more successful and productive.

So far this year, the two most popular (and most frequently asked for by kids) products have been:

Tell Tale (<–click on link)


Tell Tale is a game created by Blue Orange, the company who also makes Spot It. There are probably 50 or so cards, and each card is double-sided with two random pictures. A princess, a moon, a pig, a city, a hospital, etc. We play it as a story-telling game. Each player gets 5 (or however many) cards, and one person chooses one of her cards to start the story (e.g., Once upon a time, there was a princess named Jen). The next person chooses any of their cards to add on to the story (e.g., She had a pet pig named Snorty). We go on and on until all cards are done.

There are endless ways to play this game, and endless targets. I use it for articulation, fluency (clear speech, using speech strategies), story-telling, grammar (past tense, future tense), turn-taking (even if you have a great card, it’s not your turn yet), flexibility (hmm, that wasn’t what you wanted to happen in the story, but we are working as a team and he had a different thought in his brain), and the list goes and on and on. (We have also played where one person has to create a story with their five cards; where we put random cards out and then create a story and retell it; we have written out the narrative that we’ve told using story elements; etc.)

The kids are obsessed. I can pretty much motivate them to do anything throughout the period as long as we leave 5-10 minutes for a quick game of Tell Tale at the end of class.

I can’t even stress it enough – this is a MUST HAVE in your bag of tricks, and for such a cheap price, you will not regret it.

The Froggy Books (<–each word is a separate link)


When you work with little ones who beg to be read to (and who have reading and language disabilities, so you will happily indulge them in being read to), you are constantly on the lookout for books.

The Froggy books, by Jonathan London, are fantastic. They have that repetition and rhythmic sound about them as I read them, and they are also a wonderful balance between predictable (Froggy’s mom always yells, “Frrrooooogggggyyy!!”) and surprising. They hold kids’ attention and the illustrations are interesting enough that even kids who can’t read can practice telling or re-telling the story from the pictures alone. My 8-year-olds loved these books so much that I just ordered three more. We work on story elements, retelling, inferencing, answering WH questions, predicting, and good old reading aloud.

Again – a must, at least one of them!

What are your gold-star materials these days? What motivates your kids at all costs?


I  said this the other day:

I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

And I did.

Here are the three main tools in my toolkit lately that always help:

1. Move
Sometimes this means moving locations. Walking out of my apartment to go sit by the reservoir. Going to a coffee shop. Usually a change of location and scenery makes a huge difference and abates some of the heaviness I had been feeling.

Sometime this means physical movement, like going for a walk, going to the gym, or going to yoga. During this type of movement, I usually feel “it” moving through me. As I move my body, however vigorously or gently suits that moment, I’m moving it out. Moving the heaviness around, dislodging it from where it had taken root. More often than not, the tears or panic stop once I move – and this is something I have to re-learn each time. This morning I kept trying to wait it out. I said to myself, I’ll leave the apartment once I feel calmer, I’ll go to the gym once I’m not teary. But after a while I decided to just go – and by the time I got downstairs and into my car I was already a bit calmer. Just move. Now.

2. Visualize
I used to hate the idea of visualization, and that’s because I thought visualization was only “imagine yourself on the beach listening to the waves.” And while that type of visualization certainly has its time and place for me, it doesn’t do it all, and I needed more than that. I have since learned way more about this idea, and visualization has quickly become a go-to.

I usually visualize “it” moving. “It” can be panic, anxiety, memories, fear, whatever it is for you, or for me. Lately “it” has been a general heaviness that holds itself in my chest, in my throat, or in my head. It feels like a dark murky thick smoggy cloud. I like to envision a white, sparkly light coming in as I breathe in, swirling around, and clearing out the murky darkness as I breathe out. To those of you reading this and rolling your eyes: This works.

The other visualization I’ve done stems from something I read in an amazing neuroscience book [this is an affiliate link]. This chapter of the book discussed chronic pain and how visualization can help decrease the pain. And, I’ve used those ideas before, when I get a headache – I imagine the pain center in my brain, and I imagine a barrier around it, so that any pain signals my head tries to send are blocked and don’t reach the pain center. This works. I have practiced it so much that it now decreases the pain of a headache fairly quickly.

Anyway, I decided I could probably use the same principle around my heart, for those times that I’m feeling too much of my own feelings and all of everyone else’s feelings. So I imagine a barrier around my heart – not shutting myself off from the world, but protecting my heart when it needs a break.

3. Grounding
I could give you a zillion grounding tools (i.e. tools that help you stay present, focused on the moment), and there are another zillion out there on the internet. The ones that work for me best lately:

Mantras. I like mantras a lot, and I don’t like affirmations a lot. Mantras seem to be more relevant to me in the moment, whereas affirmations just…don’t work for me. [Side note: does anyone else feel like there’s a difference between the two?] For me, a mantra is a grounding statement, often what someone else would tell me in that moment, or what I would tell someone else, and ultimately, what I am aiming to trust and believe in that moment.

Sometimes my mantras are on post-it notes (there’s about 8 of them in my moleskin notebook right now) or in my pocket (the day of my wedding I texted my dear friend a picture of the post-it note in my purse that read, I am worthy) or just in my head. One that works in a moment of hypersensitivity: “Those are not my feelings. I don’t have to feel them.” Another one that works in a moment of panic: “I am breathing through this moment. I am breathing through this feeling.” They have become comforting statements that bring me focus and relief.

I also find narrating what I’m doing to be very calming. If I find myself starting to get spinny in my brain while I’m driving, I focus on what’s going on: I am in the car. I am driving home.

The one specific visualization that I do love, seems to fit better into this “grounding” category for me. It was an exercise I once learned in a therapy session, and the idea was to find a calming, safe place that could be thought about in such great detail that it would eventually be neurologically strengthened in my brain as calming, the minute that I pictured it. The place that has been consistently safe and calming for me is a specific location at my summer job. So after formally talking about the place in great detail (5 senses), it has been so strengthened in my brain that in a moment of overwhelm or panic or heaviness, I fairly automatically start thinking, I am on the back porch. I am rocking in the chair. I see the sunlight, streaming through the trees. I see the green grass, I see the blue skies. I hear the crickets, I hear the birds.


For all of these mantras and narrations, I find pairing it with my breath crucial. I don’t really know how to explain this in writing, but basically, I breathe in for one piece of it, and breathe out for the other part, so it has some sort of rhythm to it. For example: Inhale for the entire length of I am breathing through this moment and then exhale for the length of I am breathing through this feeling. Does that make sense?

And there you have it. My current set of tools. As I’ve said, I really find that in a hard moment, it’s equally hard to remember to use these tools. Generally because I initially think, That’s not going to work. That’s not going to make this feeling better. But they always do. Not always right away, and not always fully, but they always help. And the more I practice them during less intense moments, the more automatic they become during hard moments.

I would really, really, love to know: do any of these tools work for you? What are your go-to tools and strategies these days? Please share with us – anonymous is always an option.

Acceptance, people, tools

I was talking with someone today about how sometimes our brains tell us things that in hindsight we laugh about. We think, Wow, I can’t believe I ever entertained that thought!  For example: at the beginning of every school year I have a brief moment where I think, Crap. What if I just forget how to be an SLP? What if the kids walk into my office and I have no idea how to help them? This person had a similar experience, where today she thought, What if I walk into my class tonight and just can’t teach, what if I just forget how? We laughed about both of those thoughts, but in the moments they grab at us and we see them as hard truths, rather than just thoughts.

That got me thinking about similar moments- have you ever had a really awful moment or day, or maybe during a panic attack, or a crying spell, and you just think, What if this never ends? What if I cannot move through this? What if this does break me? [I just know in my heart that nearly every person has had this moment at least once – am I right?]

I rely on three things in those moments:

  1. Acceptance. I have found that the number one thing I can do to make those moments worse is to panic and fight them.


The more I entertain thoughts of, I can’t do this, I’m freaking out/panicking/hysterical/upset, this will break me, I am broken, I can’t move through this, it will never end, the harder it is.

A tiny space of calm is found within the storm when acceptance is embraced. I am having a really hard time right now. Oh. Okay. Yes. This is what’s happening. This is where I am. Okay. I’m fully here.

2. People. Not all people. And not most people. But the people who Get It, or who Get Me, and will love me through it, who will remind me, This will not break you, who will be present with me wherever I am. Those very few people are the lily pads leading me across the lake.

3. Tools. I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

There are so many, good, concrete, realistic strategies out there. Some, we teach our kids each day at school or at home. Some, we learn ourselves. I think we all know that tools are more than just “take a deep breath” which my ukele-playing, beyond-insightful kiddo will tell you “doesn’t work” and “makes it worse!!!!” And you know what? Sometimes she’s right. So often the go-to advice is, “take a deep breath.” But really, a deep breath doesn’t always help. In the moment, it doesn’t initially matter how deep the breath is, it matters where it comes from. An attempt at a deep breath that involves a shallow breath where the shoulders raising up high is going to physically feel awful. But a breath from your stomach, where you put your hand on your stomach and try to breathe into it – that breath is going to feel good. And it will gradually deepen on its own.


So – while I ponder a post about my own tools that I’ve gathered and discovered over the years, I welcome any and all thoughts: What works for you during a hard time? Are there certain thoughts that grip you in terror but later you laugh about? Have you ever tried to accept where you’re at, however hard that may be?

Bio Poems

I was out sick yesterday, and another therapist worked with many of my therapy groups. She did a fun, creative, describing activity, called “Bio Poems” – and reading them warmed my heart so much that I just had to share. These are all done by 6-8th graders, all with language and learning disabilities. They did a few pre-writing steps with writing templates and prompts for each line, but otherwise? These are their own ideas, their own words, with nothing changed (except names!). I laughed, teared up, and had my heart melted as I read these – it’s such a powerful experience to see how these incredible kids view themselves, and what their inner workings are like. I hope you enjoy.

Who is creative, kind, and smart
Who enjoys Max Ride, math, YouTube,One Direction, tv, iPad, iPhone, pools beaches
Who is able to flexible thumbs, swim really fast, sing, act, dance
Who feels joyful playing on my iPad and happy reading my book
Who wonders what will happen next
Who fears when my mom is mad and the dark
Who cares about family, friends,cats school, books, stuff animals, necklace
Who dreams of being a famous vet/mom and meeting 1D

Who is Smart , Talkitive , Sweet
Who enjoys Playing sports , Playing with Sibilings , Drawing and
Who is able to play soccer , Draw and Color
Who feels happy when I play with my brother
Who wonders what is out there in space
Who fears Thunderstorms
Who cares about Faimly and pets
Who dreams of About being a baker or a cook

Who is cool, kind, smart
Who enjoys video games
Who is able to beat video games easily
Who feels lazy when playing with friends
Who wonders how we got here
Who fears the end of the world
Who cares about the world of nature
Who dreams of being really cool

Nice, fun, pretty
Who enjoys playing Minecraft
Who is able to do gymnastics
Who feels happy when I play Minecraft
Who fears big scary sharks
Who care about my family and friends
Who dreams of flying in the sky

Who is athletic, creative, nice
Who enjoys six flags, friends, drawing
Who is able to watch movies, go to school, play basketball
Who feels happy, loving, funny
Who wonders what I’m going to do when I grow up
Who fears spiders, reading in front of people, the dark
Who care about friends and family and animals
Who dreams to have a great rest of my life!

Who is happy, kind, creative
Who enjoys tennis, yoga, baking
Who is able to biking, swimming, yoga
Who feels nervous, happy, shy
Who wonders what I am going to do as a future job
Who fears presenting in front of the class
Who cares about family, friends
Who dreams of to be famous some day

Inside a hard time

[Editor’s note: I feel compelled to preface this by telling you how vulnerable I feel in posting this. I realize that vulnerability comes from fear of being met with shame. Being shut down, being quieted, being negatively talked about. But, I will write it anyway. Because I channel that feeling that I have when I read a blog post that deeply resonates with me, that makes me think, “Wow, someone else really gets it. Someone else was brave enough to write about it.” And I hope that maybe I can evoke that feeling in just one person. And should that be the case – should one person feel grateful, relief, companionship, then the vulnerability was worth it.

I have written and re-written this post many times, ever since my wonderful dad suggested that I write. During many versions, I added in something at the end to the effect of, “But I am okay! Don’t worry about me! I’m fine!” Which speaks to my fear of worrying others, of wanting to do everything I can to keep those in my life calm and happy. But I am gently putting those fears aside. And writing what’s real.]

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Not if they are wounds that were never processed. Events from a month ago, a year ago, two decades ago, can and will still affect you.

Events and memories that you had buried deep within you, taped up, and topped with a sparkly pink bow, will not be fooled, and will still find their way to the surface, claw their way out, and demand to be acknowledged and processed. Gates will be broken down, dams will be breached, and it will rush at you, over you, through you, just as a flood does. Five weeks later, you will still be waiting for the waters to abate.

Old habits and behaviors will rear their heads. You will initially welcome them back without a second thought. You will initially forget to question them.

You will initially try to fight it. You’ll think things like, I shouldn’t be feeling this way or What is wrong with me? and I’ve been fine for so long, I should still be fine.

Your chest will constantly feel constricted. So will your head and stomach, but it’s in your chest where you’ll notice it at all times.

You will sleep, a lot. You will have little energy. You will throw your energy into work, and collapse after. Weekends will be hard.

You will inwardly laugh when one of your students says, “You are just so happy! Are you ever NOT happy?” and you will respond honestly but simply, and say, “Sometimes I am happy, but sometimes I am mad or sad, too.”

You will remind yourself to eat, despite a lack of appetite.

You will go to new types of appointments and cry. You will cry a lot. You will realize your voice is flat. You will talk about events and memories. When she asks you if you want to process x, y, or z, you will laugh, and tell her, “No. So I guess we should.” You will realize that these appointments, this new methodology, might be the key to your lock.

You will start to have a few minutes, an hour, maybe even part of a day here and there when the tight compression in your chest lifts. When you notice that you can breathe. When you haven’t cried. When your voice is a little more sing-songy. When you can think about people and places and memories without waves of nausea and dread.

And then those moments will end.

You will feel a true acceptance of where you are, of what’s happening. You will understand that it was kind of inevitable. You’ll get that while it might not have happened this year, it would’ve happened eventually. You will trust that it can’t last forever. Eventually the waters will subside. Eventually the floods will stop.

And so you will just keep going, minute by minute, day by day.

Because there’s no other option.

And you remind yourself of your beloved poem that you post every solstice, and you take to heart the words:

So do not lose heart
when vision dims.
Journey forth
as best you can-
bloom when you are able,
rest when you must,
keep faith,
keep always
towards the light

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