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Therapy 101: How to Find a Therapist

In the Therapy 101 series, we’re covering the basics of what you should know before going to see a therapist. This post looks at finding a new therapist and the nine factors to consider when deciding to commit.

Finding a therapist can feel like online dating. It usually begins with a search- therapists near me, counselors near me, therapy for depression, best counseling group. You scroll through bright, happy websites full of professional photos of well-lit, smiling people. They all say pretty much the same thing. You’re stuck and I can help you. They have lots of buzzwords. Change. Transform. Holistic. Wellness. Some list a fee or insurance networks they accept. Many don’t. It can seem like there’s no real difference between them. But there is, and it’s not something you can see from a website. It’s their personality.

After all the effort you’ve put into finding a therapist, it’s tempting to pick the first one who calls you back. But it’s worth it to find someone who really gets you. Studies of the effectiveness of therapy show that it’s the relationship you have with your therapist that’s the biggest predictor of change in your life. It’s not the methods- results show that the therapy method doesn’t matter so much even though they seem so different.

Treat the first session like a date- it’ll probably be a bit awkward and you don’t really know each other but you’re trying to see if it’s a good fit and trying to make a positive first impression while being authentic about your experiences and struggles.

Many therapists offer a free initial consultation so you’re not dropping a hundred dollars on someone you don’t want to see again. But many don’t offer a free first session or do a free consultation on the phone only, so you may have to make a bit of an investment in finding the right person.

Here are nine signs you’ve found a good therapist:

*note: many of these signs reference California legal and ethical standards for therapists with a state license and may not apply in other states.

  1. They’re above board from the start. Your therapist should go over things like fees, cancellation policies, confidentiality, mandated reported requirements, and other boilerplate details with you. If they don’t mention any of these things, that’s a sign they’re uncomfortable talking about difficult topics, but it also indicates that they either don’t know the law or are purposely ignoring it. Not a good trait in a therapist.
  2. They can explain the process of therapy to you. Every therapist does therapy a bit differently, but the time you spend in therapy generally has a beginning, middle, and end. If the professional therapist can’t tell you what to expect in therapy, watch out! They might not know what they are doing or they might want to bring you in with no defined end so you’re in therapy for years (and paying every week!).
  3. They listen to you. After the required details are taken care of, the therapist should ask you why you’re coming to therapy. Depending on the therapist’s methods and the nature of your problems, they might ask about your childhood, your relationships, your sleep habits, or even your current thoughts and feelings. No matter how they direct the conversation, you should expect to spend a good amount of time talking about yourself and your experience. Stay away from the therapist who hears “I’m depressed” and doesn’t ask more- it shows they don’t really care about your side or how your personal history has shaped the current issue.
  4. You feel heard. Some therapists listen but you’re not quite sure they’ve really understood what you were saying. It’s a good sign when your therapist reflects back what they heard you say and asks if they’ve got it right. That shows they’re actually trying to get your perspective accurately and are willing to ask for clarification.
  5. They ask about your end goals. There are a few ways they might ask about this. Phrases like “if the problem was gone, what would be different” and “how would you like things to be with your spouse” are indicators that your therapist is looking for specific, measurable goals so they know when you’re heading for the end phase of therapy.
  6. You feel comfortable in the room. Therapy takes a while. You should be comfortable on the furniture, feel safe parking your car or taking transit to the office. This may seem like a small thing, but if you don’t feel like you can relax in the room, it’ll be easier for you to skip sessions later when it’s hard to get out the door.
  7. You like the look of your therapist. It can seem shallow to judge someone by their appearance, but it’s actually pretty important. If you feel attracted to them, you might not be completely honest about the weird parts of your past. If they seem too young, too old, or too close to your own age, you might not feel able to trust their judgment. Some people need to see an older therapist who reminds them of their grandparent. Couples may prefer to see a married therapist. Teens often like therapists who are either younger adults or older adults- not someone parent aged. A person who has experienced sexual assault may want to see someone completely different in race and gender from their attacker.
  8. The therapy style seems like a match. If you’re more analytical, look for a therapist who can explain your anxiety in a more technical way. If you’re a creative type, steer clear of the technical therapist and look for someone who will do process art, dance therapy, or music therapy with you. A good therapist can be both- they’ll mirror the way you talk and match their style to your personality and way of thinking.
  9. You’re comfortable with the fee. Most people aren’t comfortable talking about money, especially when it comes to admitting that something is too expensive. If you really feel like this is someone you could work well with, ask about sliding scale fees or suggest a fee you feel comfortable with as long as it’s similar to the current fee structure. It’s no fun for anyone to have a mass of unpaid bills collecting.

If they’ve got all these factors, you’ve found a match! Just remember, first sessions are often like first dates, and if you can afford it, give a maybe therapist a few sessions to get to know you before making a final decision. Of course, a red flag therapist shouldn’t get a second session- get out of there right away if you feel uncomfortable or if they’re clearly doing illegal or unethical things.

When is Medicating Your Child a Good Idea?

It’s hard to know when medication is the right step for you and your child. This guide will walk you through the main issues to consider.

Mental health is a delicate balance of the holy trinity- biological, psychological, and social factors. Medication acts primarily on the biological side.

If only it were that simple. Mental health medication is still highly stigmatized. I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories of the kid who was put on something that turned him into a blank zombie. Sure, he wasn’t bouncing off the walls anymore, but he also lost his personality.

On the other side, maybe you’ve seen the kid whose parents chose to give her only natural medicine for her ADHD. She’s completely unable to focus in class and she’s falling farther and farther behind grade level each year.

Or maybe you know a kid whose medication is helping him get through seventh grade. For the first time, he’s able to be present and participate in class. Too bad it couldn’t have happened earlier. His parents have been trying different meds and combinations since kindergarten. Between the nasty side effects and ineffective dosages, he’s been held back already, and he’s missed a lot of school.

Here are some guidelines I use when suggesting that medication might be the next step in mental health care:

  1. You’ve tried therapy. Therapy can be great. As a therapist, it’s my go-to solution. But therapy should show progress after a few months of consistent sessions with a person your kid has a good relationship with. This is why it’s important to set concrete goals with tangible benchmarks- so you’ll know if there’s change.
  2. Your child is not able to perform normal tasks of daily life without assistance at a level compared to other children of the same age. They should be able to follow a string of logical instructions- for example, asking your child to finish their bath, brush their teeth, change into pajamas, and then come tell you they’re done so you can read a story. If you need to remind your child of their tasks every few minutes, there’s a problem.
  3. They’re falling behind in school. This is the most important reason I recommend medication. Being held back affects a child’s self-esteem, their peer group, their reputation, and their sense of self-efficacy. It’s one of the most damaging and devastating experiences at that age. Many of my adult clients who have been held back listed it as a pivotal event, even as young as kindergarten.
  4. They are isolated from friends. Kids who have dramatic outbursts from ADHD, bipolar, psychosis, and other disorders tend to attract labels, and not very nice ones. This keeps them from normal social activities with peers and may make them a target for bullying- or turn them into a bully if loneliness shifts to anger.
  5. They recognize there’s a problem and want a solution. Lots of kids I’ve talked to over the years have told me they want to be able to sit down and concentrate on their work but they just can’t. This is the big difference between the class clown’s acting out and the disruptions from a mental disorder. Most children don’t want to interrupt, do poorly, or fail classes. When there’s a problem, they know.

Medication isn’t all-or-nothing. It’s possible to give your child a dosage that will take them through the school day and wear off in the evening. Many kids take medication holidays when school isn’t in session. Some kids need the additional help so they are able to try therapy and are able to stop the medication once things are under control.

But advice from the internet can only be vague. I don’t know your child or your situation. The best way to find out how medication could work for your family is to talk to someone in person.

The first person I always suggest is your pediatrician because they know your child and they know about normal child development. Doctors aren’t as well trained in mental health as a therapist or psychologist, but they can diagnose and prescribe psychiatric medication. You can ask during your child’s routine appointments, and this is usually covered by insurance.

The next person to talk to is your school’s psychologist, if your child qualifies for services through a 504 or IEP. These services are usually free through the district. Although the school psychologist won’t prescribe medication, they can assess your child, describe the diagnosis, and discuss the possibility of medicating.

The last person I recommend is a psychiatrist. This is because most communities have very few psychiatrists, so it can take months to get an initial appointment, if you can get one at all and aren’t placed on a waiting list. When you get there, the psychiatrist likely doesn’t know you or your child, so you have to explain the history of the problem. And if there are any issues with the dosage or side effects, it can be a while before you can get in for a follow up appointment.

You can talk to your regular therapist about medication too. Therapists in California are trained in psychopharmacology- knowledge of medications for mental health issues. But therapists can’t prescribe medication or even suggest medication. They’re available for you to talk about your thoughts or feelings about medicating your child, and they can help you find local referrals for doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

Christian Counseling: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between Christian counseling and… regular counseling? Is there one? Can someone who isn’t Christian see a Christian therapist?

We’re going to try to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about Christian counseling in this post. Have a question that wasn’t covered here? Leave a comment or send us a message over on the contact page!

What do you have to do to become a Christian counselor?

Christian counseling does not have a regulated description, so a Christian counselor could be a counselor who is a Christian, or it could be a counselor with additional training in Bible and theology in addition to their therapy skills and training. I got my therapy degree from seminary because I believe that theological training is important. I wanted to have in-depth knowledge of Christian beliefs before I advertised myself as a Christian counselor.

Not all Christian counselors have this kind of training. In fact, many churches hire ‘counselors’ who are just kind, empathetic people with no counseling experience or even a degree in therapy. Practitioners in the state of California should have a MFT, PCC, or MSW designation to show they’ve completed a master’s level degree and have training in how to do therapy. Licensed professionals will have L in front of their credential- LMFT, LPCC, or LCSW. Both licensed and prelicensed therapists are capable of providing good therapy, but a prelicensed therapist will be working under the supervision of a licensed clinician.

What about people who aren’t Christian?

Every therapist is able to do appropriate therapy whether you’re Christian or not. We’ll ask you about your religious beliefs during the intake at your first session. If you indicate that you’re not Christian, we’ll use the best possible empirically proven methods to help you meet your mental health goals. If you say you are Christian, we’ll ask you if you want to integrate religious or theological discussion into your sessions using empirically proven methods. You can always change your mind later.

Your therapist should never evangelize to you in session or pressure you about your religious or spiritual beliefs. In fact, that’s against the law. You can file a consumer complaint to the Board of Behavioral Sciences if you think your therapist is doing something illegal or unethical in your sessions.

What is Mental Health?

How do you define mental health? We use the biopsychosocial method to define mental health with our clients.

It’s important to develop a working definition of mental health because that’s the language we use when we decide that what we’re experiencing has slipped from mental health to mental illness. Defining mental health also lets us set a benchmark to know when therapy is done.

Here at Makarios, I believe in planning for the end from the first session. To do that, I use the biopsychosocial model for mental health. Just like it sounds, the biopsychosocial model has three parts: your physical biology, your internal psychology, and your external social community. You need to have all three parts in balance to be mentally healthy. Let’s break it down.

Your biology is your physical health, the genes you got from your parents, any physical disabilities you have, the food you use to fuel your body, the drugs you choose to use or avoid, and details like your height and weight.

Your psychology is your self esteem, the way you think about the world, your social skills, your ability to cope with stress, the way you are in relationships with others, tendency toward optimism or pessimism, and your memories.

Your social community is your family, friends, and neighbors. It’s choosing to join a church, synagogue, or mosque. It’s the people you meet taking a painting or welding class for fun on the weekend. It’s any people you interact with in person or online.

Here’s how therapists use this information. When you first come to a session, your therapist will ask you about yourself, your family, maybe a bit about what you do, and your habits. It’s not just small talk- they’re trying to assess for how your biopsychosocial system is functioning.

Let’s say you come in to your first therapy session because you’ve been experiencing symptoms of anxiety and you’d like to go back to the way things were before the symptoms started. Here’s what your therapist would probably ask about:

  • What changed in your life around the time your anxiety symptoms started?
    • Did you start a new medication or start drinking more caffeine (biological)?
    • Did you have an experience that was more stressful than usual or did you go through something traumatic (psychological)?
    • Did you just begin or end a relationship, job, or hobby (social)?
  • What have you tried so far to deal with the anxiety and how has it worked?
    • Did you self-medicate with “downers” like alcohol or marijuana?
    • Have you tried pop-psychology methods like mindfulness, meditation, going gluten free, or tapping?
    • Have you tried therapy before? What methods did you like or not like?
  • Do you have other people in your life you feel comfortable talking to about what you’re experiencing?
    • Some people isolate themselves when they aren’t feeling well
    • It’s important to identify people in your life you can talk to, or to find those people if you don’t have anyone you can trust

I used anxiety as an example because it can come from any one of a number of causes. You could have a chemical imbalance (biological) from substance use, poor eating habits, or genetic predisposition. Or it could come from psychological factors such as a change in the way you think about yourself and others, experiencing a new trauma or being reminded of a past trauma. Anxiety can also stem from social changes like a major loss, an identity shift from job transitions, or a relational rejection.

This is important because where your anxiety comes from shapes how we’ll treat it in session. Anxiety following the death of your favorite grandmother is very different from anxiety that comes from stress or from an overactive brain.

Most people experience stress-related anxiety. That’s why anxiety disorders are more common in people who are going to school or who have high pressure jobs. Stress is a psychological symptom, so the treatment will focus on realigning your psychology through reframing your thoughts. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most popular methods because it has been empirically proven to work for most people, and if you’re using insurance to cover the cost of therapy, it’s one of the methods your insurance provider will pay for.

If you have a genetic predisposition toward anxiety, you likely have an imbalance in your brain chemistry. Medication can adjust the levels of neurotransmitters so you have normal brain functioning. People with biological anxiety can also experience anxiety from psychological stress and social factors, so you may need to combine meds with therapy for the best results.

The examples about anxiety are intended to illustrate how therapists use the biopsychosocial model of mental health to evaluate new clients. These examples are not intended to diagnose anxiety or any other mental disorder, and are not intended to suggest a course of treatment. See a qualified mental health professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Parenting Online

In the modern day, your children are growing up with phones, video games, and the internet. As the parent, you’re responsible for teaching them appropriate use. Here’s our guide for how to set boundaries at every age.

There’s a whole lot of information out there about violence and video games. Some say that gaming is responsible for most of the youth violence out there. Others say that violence and video games are unrelated- plenty of people play video games and never hurt anyone else. And everyone seems to blame the parents for either allowing too much screen time or being overly restrictive.

As the parent, you need to set limits around all of your child’s activities. When it comes to video games and unsupervised screen time, it is especially important to create house rules that scale down as your child ages and matures. Having a decisive policy also helps your child by giving a reason for the rule. Children aren’t born with internal senses of moderation and control. External rules give them structure until they develop their own internal sense of what is appropriate. As they mature and show signs of taking on responsibility and modeling appropriate behavior, parents relax the external rules, trusting the internal locus of control to start taking over.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “more is caught than taught,” and this also applies to screen time. When a parent brings a child into the therapy room for gaming addiction or for spending an inappropriate amount of time online, I always ask the parent about their own habits first. If you are glued to your phone, a young child or teen who is trying to be more adult will likely model after you. If you are able to let your phone go, model reading books, and have real world hobbies, your child is more likely to have similar behavior.

Very Young Children

Infants and toddlers love screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics previously recommended no screens at all for children under two, but has recently relaxed the guidelines to say that 18 months is okay. Children at this age should have very limited, totally supervised screen time limited to video chat with parents or other relatives, educational television shows like Sesame Street, or videos of animated children’s songs. Parent interaction is important, so sing along and clap with the song, repeat key words or phrases for your child, and make screen time a two person activity.

Preschoolers

From three to five, children should have no more than one hour a day of screen time. Electronics should be limited to certain rooms of the house like the play room or the family room, and they should not be allowed to have devices at meals or in bed. Children in this age group are highly conscious of fairness, and parents can help model good habits by not bringing phones or devices to meal times.

Elementary Age

Most modern elementary schools involve children using laptops or tablets during the school day. They are learning how to use cloud drives to collaborate with others, programming simple games, typing with a keyboard, and playing topical games. Some elementary schools give students a tablet to take home to complete their homework.

This is the age where some of your child’s friends may have smartphones or a tablet. If you haven’t given your child their own phone yet, expect them to start asking. Decide with your partner when you want your children to have phones. Before you give your child their own phone, make sure you have the phone password protected with an additional, separate password for parent controls and the phone’s wallet so your child can’t purchase new apps or in-app extras. Some phones have the ability to display a separate home screen for children. Know your phone and its child proofing capabilities. Set rules for appropriate use, consequences for not following the rules, and behaviors or grades the child needs to maintain in order to keep the phone. If you do not plan on allowing your child to have a phone until later, be able to explain your reasoning.

Video games for this age group are typically rated C (early childhood) or E (everyone 6 and over). Older elementary children may also find appropriate games under E10+ (for ages 10 and up). The ratings may also include content information that explains the reasoning behind the rating. These include “mild lyrics,” “fantasy violence,” “simulated gambling” and others. These content descriptions are more important than the rating. Decide with your partner what you will allow your child to see or hear. Some parents may be okay with mild profanity but not violence, or blood but not nudity. If either of the parents plays higher rated video games, keep them out of the child’s access and limit playing those games while the child is near.

Junior High

At this age, preteens and teens typically have a strong identity with their social group. Puberty leads to budding sexuality, and teens do not always consider how their social media use may have consequences for the future. Most children at this age have a phone or non-phone device. If you are planning to wait until high school or driving age to give your child a phone, be prepared to explain your reasoning firmly, but also be aware that your child will probably still use social media through school computers and friends’ phones. Some children have told me that when they were not given a phone from home or had a phone taken away, another friend would “lose” their phone, get a new phone, and give the “lost” phone away for use as a wifi-only device.

Parents need to adjust the elementary school aged rules to allow for developing individuality while still keeping an eye on use. Talk with your child about appropriate posts, cyber bullying, and nudity. It is critical to make sure your child knows that any distribution of nude photos is a criminal act, even among minors. Having or sending nude photos counts as child pornography possession and distribution, and can lead to charges, even for the one who took the picture.

Here are signs that your child is being bullied online:

  • withdrawing from family life or reluctance to participate in school activities
  • displaying unusual sadness after using the internet
  • secretive about online activity or unusually protective of the device
  • nervous about getting notifications
  • unwilling to use the device even for schoolwork
  • change in grades, mood, activity level

You can help by being aware of your child’s online activity, keeping the lines of communication open, and protecting your child by blocking the bully and reporting the bullying where appropriate. If you discover that your child is the bully, set limits on online activity and have a discussion of the real world effects of online harassment. Many children have a sense that the online world is somehow different or separate from the real world. It’s easier to say mean things online than in person.

Your child may want to participate in creating online content through a blog or a video channel. These can be great creative outlets for your teen as well as a way to interact with others. Know the content of the channel and ask to follow them. Offering to help by holding the camera or taking pictures is a great way to monitor the content without being too intrusive. Operating a blog or channel also invites severe criticism. People are not always kind on the internet. Following the blog allows you to look at negative comments together. There are several videos from content creators that discuss dealing with harsh negative criticism from strangers.

Video games for this age group include the T (teen 13+) category in addition to the previous categories of E and E10+. T is a broad rating category for teens 13-17, so not all T games will be appropriate for a 13 year old. Again, use the content information guide to determine which T games are okay for younger teens and which will have to wait. Make sure your consoles and cloud accounts are password protected so teens are not able to purchase or download new games without your knowledge. Don’t share accounts with your teen if you play Mature or Adults Only games.

High School

As your older teen is preparing to go off to college and become a legal adult, your job as the parent is to give them increasing responsibility for their own choices and consequences. Overprotectiveness at this age does not help them develop an internal locus of control. They will make poor decisions at this age, but they need to be ready for adulthood where they will be making most or all of their decisions unsupervised.

From freshman year to senior year, older teens should be increasingly allowed to manage their own screen time, homework/play balance, online presence, and phone. You should be stepping in to manage them less and less. They should also be expected to take increasing responsibility for their consequences. This is another good time to remind your teen about the legal consequences of taking nude photos and sending them.

While your child should be able to manage their own phone and internet use at this age, here are three warning signs that you need to step in:

  1. They are unable to turn away from the internet to do any school work or get appropriate sleep
  2. They are identifying with bad groups online such as racist hate groups, suicide pact groups, or significantly older adults
  3. They are using their online presence to bully or harass others

Model good phone and internet behavior to your teen as well as a healthy balance of outdoor activity and screen time. Keep the lines of communication open as much as you can so your teen feels comfortable talking to you about issues they experience online or at school.

IEP 102: At the IEP

Confused by your rights as a parent when it comes to IEPs and assessments? This series will guide you through the process.

Disclaimer!

Every school does their IEP meetings differently, so this won’t exactly apply to every situation out there. You’ll have to modify this information to suit your unique needs. But if you’re already involved in the IEP process, you’re probably pretty good at dealing with modifications.

A quick note: I’m based in California. I’ve worked in schools in the Silicon Valley area and in the Monterey Bay and have experience with their systems. The information here will probably be most helpful to parents in the area, pretty helpful to parents in other parts of California, and only somewhat useful to parents in other states. Why? Because every state has their own ed code. Also, I am not a lawyer, and my experience with California IEPs is not meant to replace legal advice. My interpretations of the law should not be taken as absolute truth.

Okay, that’s the boilerplate out of the way. This text will appear at the top of every post in the IEP series, so on future posts, you can just scroll past because you’ve already read our disclaimer!

At the IEP

IEP meetings tend to be difficult for parents, teachers, and administration. It can be a long process to get the district to approve an IEP meeting in the first place, and that tension can carry over. For the teachers, having one student (or several) who need extra services that they are not receiving is similarly frustrating.

With emotions potentially running high and your child’s educational future at stake, here are seven tips to make sure the IEP meeting goes well.

  1. Keep copies of all documentation. The school will always keep copies for you in the child’s cum file, but they are not always accessible to you during off hours and over school breaks. Some schools keep them on site and others keep them at the district office. You should have your own copies of everything. Ideally, you should get all the information before the meeting so you can go over it yourself. Bring any outside documentation you have too- and a copy for the school.
  2. Avoid charged language. No matter how stressful things get in the room, don’t let anger or disappointment color your tone or words. Unfortunately, some parents get labeled by school staff as being overly emotional or difficult to work with. The teachers and staff go into those meetings already discounting those parents.
  3. Stick to facts. You have all the reports and assessments to back you up. Whatever you say will sound stronger if you reference the documentation. Printed emails, SST and 504 paperwork, and historical evidence from past years are also great ways to demonstrate need.
  4. Focus on the need. If your child needs a one-on-one aide, keep the conversation focused there. You can use the present level of educational performance report, the school psychologist’s assessment, communication with the teacher, or administrative reports to demonstrate that the accommodation will meet your child’s needs.
  5. Be willing to try. If there is disagreement on the best service for your child, suggest trying one service for a period of time and agree to meet again later to see how that service is working for your child. Make sure you’re getting updates regularly.
  6. Set tangible, measurable benchmarks to evaluate success. This is how you can demonstrate that the services are working (or not working). Use the assessments to guide the benchmarks. If scores are low, the accommodations should support a rise in scores. If disruptive outbursts are the problem, accommodations should help the number of outbursts per week decrease.
  7. Schedule a time to decompress after. Once you’re alone in your car, say what you really think of the teacher who “tried everything” but clearly didn’t try anything you suggested. Practice self care with a coffee and pastry before you go home. Go to a nice trail and have a hike. Whatever helps you process the meeting best.

Remember, you don’t have to be there alone. You have the right to bring a friend, translator, outside expert, or partner to the meeting. You also don’t have to accept the IEP right away. You can take it home to consider it first. You can also accept parts but not all of the IEP. You can also reject the IEP entirely. Make sure that your signature of attendance can’t be used as a signature of acceptance. You can write “proof of attendance only” across or immediately under your signature so it can’t be cropped out. If the meeting went particularly poorly, ask for another meeting. You can ask for a meeting as often as you’d like.

Choosing a Therapy Dollhouse

Dollhouses are excellent additions to a play therapy room. But a therapy dollhouse is different from one a parent would buy. Here are six things to consider when buying a dollhouse for use in child therapy.

Play therapists agree that a dollhouse is one of the essential items in assessment and treatment. Why? Because much of a child’s life takes place at home, and a dollhouse allows them to express their feelings and worries about home nonverbally. Multigenerational, multiethnic dolls allow the child to tell you about their home life, family, and routines in a nonthreatening way.

Not all dollhouses are suited to therapy. The best dollhouse is modular, meaning you can restructure the number and location of rooms to match the child’s home. But those are not very common and certainly not cheap. I’ve made a list below of things to look for and accessories to get.

Look for:

  1. Neutral colors. Many dollhouses come in bright pinks and purples, which can turn many kids away. The best dollhouses for therapy are either plain finished wood or a mix of colors that invite girls and boys to play.
  2. Empty rooms without decorations on the walls. Let the child use furniture to indicate the layout of the house that is most similar to their own at home.
  3. At least two stories. The upper and lower floors can represent separate levels of an apartment complex or multiple levels of a home.
  4. No external walls. Many dollhouses have a front door and an external wall on one side. This blocks the therapist’s view of what the child is doing. You should be able to see every room as the child is playing.
  5. Wood construction. Plastic gets brittle with time and use. Wood tends to last longer and hold up better to play. Wood also tends to be the material of choice for open frame and modular dollhouses, so it would probably be easier to find.
  6. Portable. While you may not be carrying it around, it should be easy enough for a child to turn around and for you to lift up onto a table. Heavier materials are sturdier, but you also need to be able to access it when you want to.

Accessories:

  1. People! Make sure to get a variety of skin colors, hair colors, ages, and genders. This can be a good tool to find out who lives with the child, who are close, who fight, and how the family is structured.
  2. Furniture. You’ll need everything people usually have in their homes. These allow you to code the rooms as kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, etc.
  3. Pets. Optional, but many children have or want pets. Sand tray pets work well too if you don’t want to buy separate dollhouse and sand tray animals. Many kids have nontraditional pets like farm animals or reptiles.

Mindfulness through Handlettering

Combine mindfulness with beautiful brush script lettering in this easy exercise to boost memory, brain function, and awareness.

It’s no secret. Handlettering and mindfulness have both been popular for a while now.

We know that being mindful of the present moment is good for us because it helps us engage intentionally in life. Mindfulness requires attentive, intentional focus on the here and now.

I recently took a handlettering class. Creating beautiful scripts with just a brush pen is hard, harder than I expected. After all, it’s just cursive. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. Boy, was I surprised.

Apparently, if you want to create something that looks good, it takes effort and focus. Then it hit me. Focus is the central part of both handlettering and mindfulness. Why not combine the two?

For this exercise, you’ll need three things: a brush pen (I use a Tombow calligraphy pen), some paper (regular is best), and a quote or saying that you want to meditate on.

First, warm up by writing a few words, getting used to the pen and how much pressure you need to make the lines as thick and thin as you want. There are plenty of tutorials on getting started with Tombow pens if you’ve never used one before- it’s pretty easy to start!

Next, write out your entire quote or saying. It can take a while if you’re working carefully. When you make a mistake, notice it without judgment and continue writing. Most likely, your first attempt isn’t perfect or ready for Instagram. That’s where the meditation comes it. Write it again. And again.

Set yourself a timer for this exercise. Meditating on a phrase for as little as ten minutes can be helpful. I usually work for about twenty minutes because my hands don’t like to hold the pen for too long. You can work for as much or as little time as you need, but whatever you do, let yourself finish without necessarily making everything perfect.

An added benefit of this practice is that you’ll likely memorize the quotes you work on. Memorization is good for your mind, and it’s something we don’t do as much in the modern day where our phones save all our contacts and we can look up anything we forget.

This practice helps you develop focus on the here and now through mindful meditation on the process of creating brush script art. It also helps strengthen your mind as you memorize quotes. And once you get the hang of using the pens, you have beautiful art to hang on your walls or post online!

IEP 101: Getting to the IEP

Confused by your rights as a parent when it comes to IEPs and assessments? This series will guide you through the process.

Disclaimer!

Every school does their IEP meetings differently, so this won’t exactly apply to every situation out there. You’ll have to modify this information to suit your unique needs. But if you’re already involved in the IEP process, you’re probably pretty good at dealing with modifications.

A quick note: I am based in California. I’ve worked in schools in the Silicon Valley area and the Monterey Bay and have experience with their systems. The information here will probably be most helpful to parents in the area, pretty helpful to parents in other parts of California, and only somewhat useful to parents in other states. Why? Because every state has their own ed code. Also, I am not a lawyer and my experience with California IEPs is not meant to replace legal advice. My interpretations of the law should not be taken as absolute truth.

Okay, that’s the boilerplate out of the way. This text will appear at the top of every post in the IEP series, so on future posts, you can just scroll past because you’ve already read our disclaimer!

Getting to the IEP

There are a few different ways your child might be referred to an IEP meeting. The schools are supposed to be the ones who find that a child needs additional accommodations in order to get an education. But let’s be real. The district has a few thousand students, each school administration has a few hundred, and each teacher has about thirty. It’s possible your child might fall through the cracks or be misdiagnosed as “trouble” or “aggressive” or “just shy.” Some disabilities are obvious, but many are not apparent to someone who doesn’t know your child.

Notice my language. I said disability on purpose. During an IEP it’s important to stress your child’s deficiencies and needs. This seems backwards because most of us approach parenting from a strengths-based orientation that focuses on the child’s abilities. The IEP is a time where you need to focus on the areas where your child needs support. You need to demonstrate that they are falling behind, not meeting benchmarks, or unable to keep up.

So how do you request an IEP? Each “special education local plan area” creates its own policy. Your school should be able to get you a copy of your policy, but many schools will refer you to the district office. Most schools are fairly cooperative, but some will try to keep you from the information. If your school is difficult at this stage, that’s a sign you might need a lawyer at some point during the process.

For bilingual children, it is important to note that the assessment should be conducted in their “native language,” so be specific and accurate on school forms where it asks about the student’s other languages spoken at home and their level of fluency. The assessor should use “the language and form most likely to yield accurate information on what the pupil knows and can do.”

After your child is referred for assessment, the school has 15 days to give you the proposed assessment plan. The plan should be in your preferred language using terminology you can understand. It will explain all the assessments that will be used. If you do not consent to the assessment, the school has the right to assess anyway, though they are not able to implement an IEP without your consent.

You should be called into a meeting within 60 days of signing the consent for the assessment (sometimes called the evaluation). The school will assess the student and use those findings to inform the IEP meeting goals. Some districts will accept information from an outside assessment, but many will not.

The ed code states that the student will only be moved to special education when they are unable to work in general education. If you know your child needs special education, this process can be slow and frustrating while your child falls farther and farther behind with insufficient accommodations in the general classroom. If you think your child needs additional help but could stay in the general education system, it can seem like the school is funneling students straight into special education without fully exploring the general education classroom options.

Look out for IEP 102: At the IEP here!

Kinetic Sand

Kinetic sand is a great addition to any play therapy room. We use it in every phase from assessment to saying goodbye.

Kinetic sand is one of my favorite things to have in a play therapy room. It’s so much more versatile than regular play sand and is easier to clean up. It sticks to itself (and sometimes your hands) but not to surfaces or sand toys. Store bought kinetic sand is made of regular sand mixed with silicone oil to get the unique texture.

You can also make your own kinetic sand for use in the office or at home with sand, cornstarch, dish soap, and water. Other recipes call for vegetable oil and plain flour, and I would recommend this recipe for therapeutic use because of potential problems with cornstarch and dish soap. Dried out kinetic sand can be refreshed with soapy water.

Kinetic sand tips:

  1. Don’t buy or make sand with glitter unless you’re prepared to have a glittery room… and clothes… and hands
  2. Because it sticks to itself but not other surfaces, you can clean up spills easily by gathering a packed ball of sand and running it over the spill.
  3. Make sure to get a container that’s large enough to hold all the sand plus plenty of room for playing.
  4. Get lots of toys! Play therapy works best when there are options to choose from!