School is at home, but you’re not homeschooling

This week I’m trying something I haven’t done in awhile: Writing blog posts about an issue we’re all dealing with right now. I’ve encouraged parents from my community to subscribe to my blog, so we can build a forum about what’s on all our minds. So my writing will be less polished than I like it to be.

James, 13 and in 7th grade, has been homeschooled for about a year now. Margot, 11 and in 5th grade, just started online school on Wednesday. (Both pseudonyms.) So my take on this strange situation might be informative to some of you, and keep in mind that my professional experience with Autism Spectrum Disorders is always in the back of my mind, no matter what. That applies to any child who might seem to lag behind maturity-wise, for any reason.

Neither of my kids is home schooled right now in the traditional sense. When I withdrew my son from private school last year, I immediately hired a teacher to home school him. So I’m not his teacher. My daughter’s school has a well-organized online program that she’s following pretty independently.

One recent wrinkle is that my son’s teacher, the great Mark Gambino, has had fever and has been teaching him by Skype for the past two days. Because he’d already established a strong routine, it’s going fine. But James has still given me a hard time about going out to the back building where he does school every day and wearing shoes.


  1. Those who need the most help resist it the most. So a parent’s job is to decide what they need to push, and what they can let slide. One thing to push: school has a consistent time and place. One thing to let slide: anything “extra.”
  2. Often, the parent who is available isn’t the one who can work well with the children. That’s absolutely the case at my house and has been since toddlerhood. But my husband’s even worse than I am! Get well soon, Mr. Gambino.
  3. My friend Jen, Director of the New Orleans Health Department, said something really important the other day: “I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that right now.” Keep in mind that your child has less bandwidth than usual right now. And s/he probably isn’t as polite as Jen when letting you know.
  4. When dealing with low bandwidth, start expectations low, and go even lower if they can’t meet them independently.
  5. Despite what you read on the Internet, this is not your chance to become a star home schooler and expose your child to all sorts of new ideas and take advantage of all the wonderful resources out there for free. Unless that’s what THEY want. That’s not going on in my house, for the record.
  6. This IS your chance to see how your child does with less stimulation in the learning environment. This situation would have convinced me to home school James much earlier than I did. You’re removing all of these overstimulating factors: locker, walking class to class, finding needed materials, remembering PE uniform and other equipment, social innuendo, the sheer length of the school day, after school activities, face-to-face interactions with multiple teachers, concerns about detention….

That’s all for now. Please comment and let me know what topics you might want more of. Comments will encourage me to continue!

Hang in there.

  1. That’s such a good question that I’m going to do some research today and write about it tomorrow. Thanks, Cate!…


Your child will learn from her mistakes, yes, but also from your response to those mistakes.

7 Lessons a Parent Learns from Potty Training

After ten years raising my children, I’m returning to work in the same spot I started: the bathroom. In my first job, any potty-related referrals trickled down to the lowest psychologist on the totem pole: me. Later, I got into the complexities of diagnosis, consultation, and intervention. Then I had my own son and daughter, and there ended my ability to keep a straight face when using the words “parent” and “expert” in the same sentence.

Potty training shouldn’t be shunted to the office newbie. It’s an important chance for a parent to take on a teaching role. And your child’s responses might teach you something in return. 

1. It’s your child’s accomplishment, not yours.

Not all children are eager to please at all times. Potty training can be the first time you have to support self-motivation over parent-pleasing or compliance. You’ll need to do this over and over when your child learns skills you expect him to carry out of the home, like manners and tidiness. Kids love to hear, “I’m so proud of you.” But, “You got this” is even more powerful, and not just because they say it on YouTube.

2. Learning is about successive approximations.

The hardest part of potty training my own kids was letting them make mistakes. A skinned knee is one thing, but poop on the rug is quite another. This year, my daughter learned to play team volleyball. The shortest player on the team, she spent the whole season getting her serve closer and closer to the net. Psychologists call these “successive approximations.” At the last game, the crowd went wild when she finally made it over. Parents feel the same way when a child becomes independent with the potty. But first, they have some approximations to clean up. Think of them as part of the process.

3. The journey is more important than the destination.

Potty training is a metaphorical journey. Your child will learn from her mistakes, yes, but also from your response to those mistakes. Do you stay calm, take a step back, and problem solve as a team? “Oops! What just happened? I turned on the tub, and you peed on the floor. Hearing water makes you have to pee!” You’ll do this again later, with household chores: “Oops! Your favorite jersey is under your bed! Maybe that’s why it didn’t make it into the washing machine!” If you focus too much on the destination, it’s all: “Why can’t you ever put your laundry where it goes?” and, “Stop peeing on the floor!”

4. Learners need to test the limits.

How do kids learn how full a bladder can get before it bursts? Accidents. I’m flashing back to a tall geyser in the check-out line at Rouses. But you know what? They were lovely about it. Remember that everyone you’ll see pushing a grocery cart has been potty trained at some point.

5. Skills can be broken into sub-skills.

Potty training draws on multiple developmental skills your child is in the process of acquiring, each child at her own pace and in her own way. As she’s learning, look beyond complex skills to their simpler building blocks. Certain sub-skills will stand out as strengths or weaknesses for your child.

  • sensory: to recognize when she has to go
  • attention: to drop one activity for another 
  • social: to motivate her to avoid accidents
  • language: if she needs direction to the potty
  • gross motor: to get from the playroom to the bathroom 
  • fine motor: to pull the pants down
  • motor coordination: to control the stream
  • persistence: to follow through from peeing to wiping to getting dressed
  • anxiety management: to cope with variations in bathrooms
  • planning ahead: to stay dry on the road

6. Readiness is important, but not always essential.

I really tried to wait for my son to be ready. But as he approached age three, diapers limited his school options. I knew I’d need several weeks with no travel or other major disruptions. So he started potty training with his motor skills still inadequate, and with absolutely no interest in big boy underwear. And he still succeeded. I’ve had to think creatively when teaching other skills — like using a house key — as his motor skills continued to develop slowly.

7. Toddlers seek conflict. Parents don’t have to deliver it.

Personality is the X-factor in toileting readiness. If your child likes to be in control, to surprise you, and to do things “her way,” toilet training will become an intense social interaction rather than a developmental milestone. Focus on her accomplishments, not your reactions: “I bet those dry pants feel great!” The same will work later with math homework: “Wow. How good does it feel to get all those math problems done before dinner?” It’s not a chance for her to test your patience, but rather to exercise her skills. As independently as possible. 

There are many “right” ways to potty train. No matter how exciting the process turns out to be, your child will learn how the two of you are going to work together in the years ahead.

Potty Training Resources:


Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi

Potty Time! by Caroline Jayne Church

Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right by Jamie Glowacki

Toilet Training Without Tantrums by John Rosemond

What was I thinking, buying my sixth grader a Smartphone?

When I was a child psychologist, people used to pay for my parenting advice. My kids now find that hilarious. I mess up, but that sad fact shouldn’t prevent me from helping others.

My sixth grader has a smartphone. There. I admitted it. And my fourth grader has already saved up enough money to buy hers at the same age her brother bought his: fifth grade. It’s only fair.

Now I feel like I have to explain how this happened. So skip the following three paragraphs if you’re a sad sack like me. Parents of those without smart phones, read on for just one of the million excuses middle school parents have for this mistake.

As James started fifth grade, I vowed to hold out. I idolized a friend who’d reluctantly bought her eighth grader a flip phone to take on his class trip. But a few months in, James, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, asked to borrow my phone to call a friend. Then another friend, and another friend. Social interaction! When the friends’ parents answered their cell phones, he politely asked to speak to the friends. Maturity! Next thing I knew, he asked to take a solo bike ride on the levee near our house. Independence!

Years before, we’d given up our landline. To encourage James’s welcome burst of social interaction, maturity, and independence, the natural next step was his own phone. Still, I hesitated. Screen addiction is a major concern among teens and adults with autism. I pictured James degenerating from a sporty tween into a flabby, pallid barnacle on our sofa. What’s more, the dangers of social media in middle school are well-documented, autistic or not. 

As I researched phones, though, the simplest alternative by far turned out to be an older generation iPhone. So in addition to a phone I’d be buying James a mini computer. On which he could Google whatever he liked. And watch You Tube.

My husband discovered the Screen Time app on the iPhone, which allows a parent to set some restrictions. Control! We went ahead with the phone. Within a month, James figured out how to get around Screen Time. Despite his real efforts to follow my limits, James’s Internet urge was so strong that I had to hide the phone when I didn’t want him to use it. Like my own parents hid the bourbon. James turned out to be a good seeker. He can’t find his pants, but he can find his phone.

I hadn’t been looking for something new to argue about. But the genie was out of the bottle, and the phone had become yet another source of conflict. 

I should have known better. My own parents did, having bought me a 15-year-old Datsun rather than a 747 for my first car. Kids learn best when they start low and go slow. We roll over, then crawl, then walk, then run, then bike, then drive, then fly. Where is the Datsun of cell phones?

The good news is, innovators are starting to see the appeal of a middle ground between two stringed-up cans and an iPhone. Last week, I tried out Relay, which is a sort of combination walkie talkie and one-button phone. More options already exist, and more are on the way. The choice isn’t binary, as it seemed to me last year. 

If I want to, I can demote James from an iPhone to a device that’s more phone, less computer. Better, I can start my younger child with a more limited device than James’s. And face her wrath. Even better, I can encourage other parents to learn from my rookie mistakes and seek out their own Datsun phones in the first place. Cool kids be damned. 

By giving us the iPhone, technology solved a lot of little problems: getting lost, losing touch, missing out. Maybe technology can save our kids from the huge problems of screen addiction and the mental health sequelae of early smart phone use.

Relay is half-price for Amazon Prime Day, July 12-19! Click here for details.

Executive Functions


Executive Functions are those secretarial tasks your brain performs for you, and they’re developing over the course of childhood and young adulthood. So kids’ Executive Function abilities vary, and luckily they’ll improve.

The main Executive Function we use on vacations is thinking ahead. Most of the time, I estimate that James is thinking about 30 seconds ahead:

My toe hurts. Let’s go home!

While I’m liable to get bogged down thinking 30 years ahead:

James is going to have to wear velcro shoes to his office. 

James starts each day of a vacation bursting with ideas about what to do. He doesn’t take into account how many hours there are in a day, how much energy each member of the family will have, money, travel time, etc. That’s all my job.

For many kids, planning ahead requires abstract thinking abilities they don’t yet have.

Luckily, since James began to self-regulate a few years ago, he collapses as in the photo above. In the past, he’d wear himself out and then wonder:

  1. why he felt so bad
  2. when the next activity was coming

When on vacation, keep in mind that your child needs your help thinking ahead more than ever. Some examples of how this can impact a vacation day:

  • Walking past an ice cream shop and wanting it right away. You have dinner reservations in an hour.
  • Seeing a unicorn Beanie Boo in a souvenir shop that’s easily available at home and costs his entire souvenir allowance.
  • Refusing to take a 10-minute walk to see a beautiful waterfall because “I’m too tired,” then running around the hotel lobby like a maniac instead.
  • Having a fit because you “take so long” to get out of the house, as you collect items you might need over the course of the day: snacks, swimwear, sunscreen, tickets, etc.

It’s always the same, even as James ages. He’s the enthusiast, and I’m the worrier. When we work together, though, it’s a better day for both of us.

My essay for about a Disney vacation.




We’ve spent 9 of the past 12 summer vacations in the same part of the North Carolina mountains. In fact, we’re there right now.

My favorite way to keep things familiar is to bring our dog, Charlie, along. We’ve also stayed multiple years in the same rental house, eaten at the same restaurants, and visited the same attractions.

By keeping certain parts of the trip constant, we’ve been able to get James comfortable enough to accept all sorts of changes and new experiences. After three summers mulling it over and driving past, he finally tried — and loved — zip lining.

And get this: it may sound like a small thing, but it’s HUGE. We always stop for fast food on the long drive up to NC. This time, James took a break from his just-the-meat-and-the-bun-please hamburger to try my fully dressed cheeseburger.

The more we respect what James needs to keep constant, the more of those inevitable changes, disappointments, and novelties he can tolerate.

Here’s how I do it:

Planning: Repeat parts of an old vacation. Even if we go to a new place, we can stay in the same chain hotel on the way, bring the same pet, eat pizza the first night.

Packing: Comfort items, of course. But also specific types of snack or breakfast food that might be hard to find where we’re going.

Daily scheduling: There’s no need to stick to a rigid schedule just to keep things organized. The weather in the mountains is liable to scuttle any plans we make anyway. We make a list of must-do traditional activities and sprinkle the calendar with these, checking them off as we go. This way we can show James that some preferred event has already happened or is upcoming.


After: We make photo albums and reminisce to our hearts’ content. Nowadays, it’s the inconsistencies we remember fondly, not the same old stuff.

Further reading:

My essay in Ann Arbor Family about anxiety.

My essay on Brain Child about James’s long-ago fear of hand dryers.


Sensory Issues









James has a love-hate relationship with the beach. It’s a warring collection of sensory disruptions and delights:

  • wet feet / sea foam
  • wet bathing suit / the deep pressure of immersing himself
  • wet towel / warm sun
  • sand between the toes / sand castles with moats
  • sun in the eyes / sea breezes
  • rogue waves up the nose / body surfing
  • jellyfish stings / sea life

Hotel rooms are the same way. Just like waves and sand at the beach, there are things you can count on in a hotel room: bedspreads, ice bucket, closet. For highly sensitive kids, though, differences stick out:

  • Sight: lights too dim or too bright, garish carpet patterns, ceiling fans
  • Hearing: humming electricity, noisy neighbors, loud plumbing
  • Touch: scratchy sheets, mushy pillows, gritty carpet
  • Taste: it’s anyone’s guess what’s for dinner, and the water might taste different
  • Smell: Cleaners, cigarettes, pets, pool chemicals

All kids are different, and what bothers them one year might be no big deal the next. Also, many kids with sensory sensitivities can’t verbalize them. At age 12, James has just started complaining about specific discomforts. In the past, he’d have a tantrum and I’d have to guess at what was wrong.

So keep sensory issues in the back of your mind as you try to get your child comfortable in a new setting. Introduce sensory fixes when you think your child is uncomfortable:

  • sheets or towels from home to replace scratchy hotel linens
  • goggles for eyes that sting
  • sunglasses
  • extra bathing suits and towels to replace wet ones
  • pillow spray
  • slippers for scratchy carpets

When preparing, think about what might ease sensory discomfort. But keep these items under wraps. Your child might surprise you with his flexibility!

Further reading:

  • An autism-friendly beach town in South Carolina.
  • A PSA puts you in the shoes of an overwhelmed young woman with autism.


hotel bed

Behold, James and Margot after a long day of car travel.

I’d much rather tiptoe around these slumbering cuties than tame the two whiny, cantankerous monsters they’d have ended up without access to a hotel room.

When kids are in school, they follow a routine that meets most kids’ needs for sleep, food, quiet activity, and active play. Travel can turn that routine on its head.

It’s amazing how well some kids self-regulate when routines are disrupted. Some examples:

  • an infant falls asleep in a stroller or baby sling
  • a toddler stands on his head in an airport lounge
  • a tween pulls a granola bar out of her carryon bag

Other kids, among them reluctant travelers like James, need help staying regulated. When dysregulated, they’re unhappy, defiant, and impulsive. As a result, they might not accept what they need most when they most need it. The most frustrating example for me is refusing to sleep when overtired.

Advance planning is the best way to support kids’ self-regulation during travel. Work around kids’ sleep and meal schedules, and what times of day they’re most active. A typical school day is a good guide.

Travelers can’t always avoid disruption. When it happens, plan to help your child recover. Make naps seem like the day’s main event. Keep physical demands to a minimum, hoping for a zone-out in the stroller or car. If they’re up too late, it’s always best to put them to sleep early the next night, rather than to place all your hopes on sleeping late.

If your child is dysregulated, your job is to to recognize it and help him compensate. Watch out for drowsiness or fussiness, or — just as likely — wildness and lack of focus. Then, help your child to meet expectations but don’t expect his best behavior. These aren’t the times your child will try a new food, skip a meal, kiss an elderly relative, tolerate a broken iPad. Think Goldfish crackers, a well-loved movie or book, and a comfort item like a stuffed toy or blanket.

Some trips are so short, or so full of changes, that there’s not enough time for your child to self-regulate during the trip. Our best, calmest trips are at least a week long, staying in the same place the whole time. If we return to the same place the following year, James adjusts quicker and might actually try something he’d refused to try the year before.

Further reading: Jessie Hewitson on traveling to the same place every year.

Coming in June: Travel Tip Tuesdays


Notice anything special about this photo of James?

He’s not wearing socks! It’s such a rare event I had to have proof.

Travel is broadening. But it can also be so stressful that we think twice about bothering with it.

Next month, I plan to post a blog entry every Tuesday on the topic of travel with kids who might be reluctant, ambivalent, or high-maintenance travelers.

I’ll focus on four topics:

  1. Self-regulation
  2. Sensory issues
  3. Sameness
  4. Executive Functions


Please use these entries as an opportunity to share any of your own ideas in the comments.