Schooling from the Bottom Up

This week I decided to take a different approach to teaching Kylah. We’ve been moving forward working on fine and gross motor skills plus basic nursery school skills and facts. This week we plunged head first into a thematic unit on transportation. I knew she could identify many vehicles, but I wanted to move into the area of classification and sorting of those vehicles (and add a whole lot more). I wanted to give her more opportunities to make choices and find correct answers instead of being completely spoon fed.

She balked at the change the first day, which I was expecting. She gets frustrated if she flips over an un-matching card in a matching game, if the puzzle piece doesn’t fit the first time, if her answer/choice isn’t right the first time, if she runs into a “wall” while trying to solve a maze, drops a needed block on the floor, touches anything with the wrong texture, has anything sudden or unexpected happen within her sight or hearing, etc, etc, etc… (And by frustrated, I mean anything from balking and refusing to continue to screaming and hurting herself.)

I’ve been wanting to push her a bit more because I’ve been sensing that she is ready, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for the mental and emotional battle that comes with any deviation from her perception of routine. After putting it off for too long, I finally decided to go for it.

An adopted child comes home with gaps that adoptive parents need to identify and fill to the best of their ability. Those gaps may be emotional in nature. I’ve spent hours holding my adopted children rocking and cuddling them like babies far beyond the “normal” age because they NEED it. I have “worn” my kids on my back with a wrap and held them when they are much too big because it comforts and calms them. And it brings peace to their world. The gaps my be mental. I’ve had to go back and teach a 6 year old how to hold a pencil, how to use words instead of grunts, how to look at books, and play with toys. The gaps could even be physical. Our girl came home not knowing how to eat solid food. Her tongue muscles still struggle to push food toward her teeth and mealtime is a battle.

As I was preparing for her arrival, I expected her to be a couple of years behind. What we discovered is that she had the skills of an 18 month old in some areas and emotionally she seemed even younger. In three short months, she has jumped from nursery school to preschool in many ways. She had advanced beyond some of the simplest games and is hungry for more. Since we homeschool, it was easy to assess, change, and move forward.

So this week, the first day was hard. Really hard. We spent hours snuggling on her bed through bouts of crying and screaming. But the rest of the week, it was as if the door to understanding opened and she was running through it. I really can’t explain it any other way. Has she moved up to grade level suddenly? No, but she is taking great strides in that direction. The orphanage workers left us with little hope that she would ever advance in learning or speech. They had given up on her. Their advice to us was to “just keep her happy” so she won’t have an emotional breakdown. (And believe me, those are NOT pretty.) They definitely discouraged us from pushing her to do anything.

Here are a few pictures of our week. Notice tangrams didn’t get thrown on the floor, the hands touching sand, the willingness to use glue, and several completed projects. It took us time to build up to some of these. It may be a small accomplishment to others, but these are huge successes at our house.

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Hard work? Absolutely. And, some days are still really hard. She can be needy, she can be cranky, she can be picky, she can be restless. Just like any other kid. She is also amazing, funny, growing, learning, loving, kind, and best of all, she is ours! And, we are so glad she is.

~ Regina

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Language or Communication

Have you ever stopped to think how babies learn? Most of us don’t think about it. I’ve always loved watching my kids learn, but I never realized how much future learning, and especially communication, was based on human interaction in infancy.

We play with babies, talk to them, sing to them, and one day, they respond back to us. Early responses may be as simple as maintaining eye contact or following an object with their eyes. Then there are the giggles. Who doesn’t love this stage? You hold a toy above a child and make ridiculous sounds as you bring the toy ever closer. You do this over and over again and your sweet child begins to anticipate the action and… responds. Then comes the day when your child mimics you. You play peek-a-boo or patty cake. You sing songs with motions and… kids respond. Long before words are spoken, communication skills are inputed into your child’s brain.

What happens if a child never experiences (or has a chemical imbalance that doesn’t register) these loving, playful, important first steps in communication? They can still learn to talk. They can speak words, but they become severely handicapped in actual communication. They don’t know appropriate responses to questions, emotions, and outside stimuli. Often these kids are labeled as emotionally unstable and uncooperative. They are awkward in social settings. They grow up to be the adult that others label as unsociable, weird, or “just not right.”

Most people think the biggest challenge in international adoption comes because your child speaks a different language. Oh, if that were the case, life in my house would be a breeze. Actually, this is one of the easiest challenges to overcome, not the hardest. New words and vocabulary…that comes naturally as you talk and live with your child. But communication…that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame.

When we first met Hanissa, the girl was determined to communicate. We spoke two very different languages, but her fierce desire to make us understand was evident. She would point, chattering away in Amharic as if she had no doubt that we would understand. When we didn’t, she would take our hand and lead us to an object and explain once again. She constantly asked, “What’s it?” What is it? She wanted to know the name of everything she saw.

When we met Kylah, there was no conversation. She was locked up behind heavy walls and she didn’t have a clue how to tear them down. We started pointing to objects around us and in books and she would repeat. She had great repetition skills, great sight recognition. She spoke words, but she seldom communicated.

Almost 3 months have passed since we walked into that little coffee shop at our hotel in China and saw each other for the first time. Three months. In some ways, I can’t believe it has only been three months. So much has happened. She has learned so much. About two weeks ago, she started grabbing our hand trying to tell us something. Those moments make me heart leap for joy. Then there are most days when we say, “Goodnight Kylah,” and her response is, “Goodnight Kylah” simply because she knows how to repeat but not communicate.

Through games like peek-a-boo and children’s songs, she learning that there are expected responses. And, we are beginning to see little cracks of light as comprehension seeps in. Still there are many days when I look at her and wonder what it must be like to be trapped in silence unable to share your needs, hurts, desires, or emotions. I do see progress, though, and it often comes in the most unexpected ways.

Soon after we arrived home, we discovered that Kylah had very little fine motor skills. Holding a pencil or crayon was frustrating. Drawing a circle was laborious and any other shape was out of the question.

Here is a sample of her art work from a little over a month ago. She refused to draw without my hand covering hers on the pencil. Trust me, I helped a lot with this drawing.

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Here is a sample from a few weeks ago. She started drawing circles, then suns, and then flowers. Then she added faces. We’ve been focusing on emotions and feelings. Notice that her sun is crying.

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The day she drew that sun, something amazing happened. She gained the ability to tell a story. She started communicating. And she drew, and drew, and drew. Each picture more detailed and telling something of her thoughts. She began adding details like teeth, hair, and ears.

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She began to mimic the emotions she was drawing and saying the appropriate words like happy, sad, mad.

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My favorite picture of the day was the one below. She was able to communicate that this was Kylah riding on Daddy’s shoulders. (Something that had happened a short time earlier at the zoo. She loved it so much that she now begs David to do this constantly now and even gives her dolls shoulder rides.) Communication is happening.

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I also love the following picture. It was Kylah’s favorite. She was so proud of this heart and wanted to show everyone her beautiful drawing (she brought it to me at least 10 times in 10 minutes and she still finds it and shows it to me). Without any prompting, without any help, she drew it. A month earlier she struggled to make any closed object. Not only did she draw it, but she wanted to share it with me using words and pictures. Communication.

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And the drawings continue.

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I know there is still so much locked up in that mind of hers, but the key is turning. There are cracks in the walls. Little by little we are learning to share our thoughts and feelings with one another. It is truly an amazing journey.

~ Regina

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All Together

Rachel came home for spring break. Yay! We were able to work on wedding plans and she got to meet her newest sister, Kylah. It was a crazy, busy week and we didn’t get to do much together as a family. BUT…we were together for a short while and that was enough.

We took a few pictures together and laughed…a lot! May is coming too quickly and we won’t have too many more moments like this one. But turns in the road can lead to beauty, too.

Oldest to youngest…

Rachel, Torie, Charis, Alia, Hanissa, and Kylah

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Shortest to tallest…

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Oh, wait! Rachel is taller??

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Amazing what a pair of heels can do.

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My amazing girls!

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Hail, hail, the gangs all here!

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Tomorrow, Rachel will fly back to school. I’m thankful for this little moment we had together. Thankful for the beautiful family God has given me. Thankful that He is continually at work in each of our lives, individually and as a family.

I hope you take time today and just enjoy the family, the blessings God has given you.

~ Regina

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Two Months

Two months. 8 weeks. 60 days. 1,450 hours. It seems like such a short time, but for you…

You’ve started a new life complete with strange faces, strange language, strange food, and strange customs.

Two months ago we walked into the lobby of a hotel and saw you face to face for the first time. Your eyes told me that you were nervous and afraid, but you smiled anyway. We noticed you often wore a sad, sort of wondering look. We’d catch you staring at us when you thought we weren’t looking. Oh, the thoughts that must have flooded your mind.

Those first days, I wanted to you to understand that it was ok to be scared. It was ok to be confused. It was ok to cry and even get mad over all the new in your life. I wanted you to know that the pain and sadness would lessen in time. We couldn’t make you understand, so we held you. We read to you. We taught you songs. And little by little you began to respond.

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We’ve had two months of learning about one another and growing more and more into the shape of a family. Experiencing so many firsts together: ice-cream, grass, snow fall, zoo animals, school. We still have so much to learn, so much to untangle.

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But, there is progress, everyday. As more layers unravel, we see your confidence growing. Communication, not just with words but feelings is getting easier for you. Every day, we thank God that we get to know you, love you, and raise you. We pray for wisdom and understanding to help you as you embrace your future and your past.
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Today, I’m simply thankful. Thankful for you and the beauty you have brought into our lives.

~ Regina

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Being Held

We started the week with a trip to the park. There is nothing quite like seeing the wonder of the world through a child’s eyes. For Kylah, everything is new. That makes everything either wonderful or terrifying. Thankfully the park fell into the wonderful category. The ducks and geese had her mesmerized. We’ve been reading books about ducks and geese and she was absolutely delighted to see them swimming in the lake.

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Remember the girl who cried when she touched grass or trees? Now she is running around in the backyard with Hanissa. She is cautiously following me around as I prep the garden for spring, rake pine needles, and pick up pinecones. She will touch sticks or blades of grass if I hand it to her, but we are just happy that she enjoys being outside a bit more.

She has gone from blank stares during school to pointing out objects by name. Watching her trace lines and complete simple mazes makes me smile. She is beginning to prefer books over any other item in the house.

Two weeks ago, we couldn’t let her walk into another room alone. She’d get upset or destroy items because of her curiosity. Now, there isn’t panic when she leaves our side for a moment. And usually, when she disappears, she has taking herself to the bathroom. (Another huge accomplishment!)

This week we made a trip to the doctor. After I figured out that her appointment was listed under her Chinese name, we walked into a little room with the nurse. There’s something about a table and a stethoscope that seem to transcend language and cultural barriers. And this visit did not fall into the same category as the park. Yes, she was terrified. And, that poor nurse. I’m sure she is still nursing the bruises on her shins. Who knew that a blood pressure cuff could cause such agony. Though there were tears (and a few minutes of kicking and screaming), Kylah allowed me to comfort her. We spent much of the day snuggled up together looking at books and just being together.

When families bring young children into their homes via adoption, they are encouraged to carry their children close for long periods of time. Usually this is done with wraps and front packs. Until H got too heavy, this was one of the best tools in parenting toolbox to comfort or calm her when anxiety hit.

Kylah came home too big to carry for long periods. I still pick her up and hold her and carry her at times, but we’ve been trying to get to the point where being held by us is a comfort even when we are sitting. Its a work in progress.

Kids with an institutionalized background struggle with the need for a parent and don’t really understand the purpose of the people they call Mom and Dad. This is one of the reasons adoptive parents seem so overprotective of their kids those first few months and years home. It is hard to teach a 6 year old that two people are going to meet their needs. Two people are responsible to love, discipline, train, and help whenever it is needed when there have been so many who have carried out this role, often with no emotional connection at all. These kids have learned to fend for themselves via manipulation, crying, affection (withheld or freely offered), distancing themselves from feeling, from connecting, with anyone.

They can throw themselves into the arms of anyone, a stranger, a family friend, a sibling and be seem to have an instant bond with that person especially if it allows them to disconnect with their adoptive parents. It doesn’t make sense to us. But it is one of the most repeated scenarios in adoptive homes. They feel a strong need to be in control. And while being a part of a family fills a void, it also makes them feel vulnerable. They expect the adults in their life to abandon them, to neglect them, and maybe even to abuse them. By keeping themselves distant, they protect themselves from harm…or so they think.

The more frequently another person meets my daughter’s needs the more likely she is to not turn to me when she has a need. So yes, we are protective of her. It is hard when her sisters or our friends just want to help. Our priority is teaching K about family right now. And we rejoice over even the smallest amount of time she seeks comfort or help from us.

I am amazed at the lessons I learn daily from adoption. How many times have I rejected my Heavenly Father and thrown myself in the direction of other people (or projects) because they give me the illusion of control for a short time? How often has my Father let me experience something frightening or painful so that I can learn that He is the One who will meet my needs? How often has my fear been replaced with faith because I call out to Him, desperate, after trying to live life on my own terms? And all the while, He is there trying to teach me what it means to be loved by Him, to be His child, to know Him as Father. I am still learning to be held by God when everything around me is crashing in. I am learning to trust Him more.

As I look back over the last week, there were many learning moments that thrilled me. But, the trip to the doctor, may have been the biggest leap forward we’ve taken since arriving home. I am thankful for the moments my girl spent this week just being held. I look forward to moments when trust is stronger than her fear as she begins to understand what it means to be family.

~ Regina

A few pictures from this past week.

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