Playing catch wards off attention-seeking behaviour

By Amber Nasrulla on September 12, 2013
The video starts with a young girl in ponytails asking her dad repeatedly to colour with her. The father puts his newspaper down with a sigh, glances at her handiwork and barks at her to “stay in the lines”. Minutes later, he’s hijacked most of her crayons and is colouring on his own terms, oblivious to her disappointment.

Although the vignette is an exaggerated situation, it’s familiar territory for me. Inattentive parent: check. Child desperate for attention: check.

My husband and I are attending a 10-week workshop run by the University of California at Irvine in conjunction with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. The course, called CUIDAR – which means “to take care of” in Spanish – adopted its curriculum from the Community Parent Education program (COPE) for parents whose children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Psychologist Charles Cunningham, a professor in the departmnet of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., developed COPE in the 1990s.

COPE entered the U.S. during a National Institute of Mental Health study in early 2001; subsequently Cunningham taught facilitators at institutions in Southern California, New York State and Florida. It’s since gone global and Cunningham has trained educators in Sweden and Norway.

Why take a course?

My husband and I signed up for the early intervention course because we want to be calmer parents. He travels frequently for work and, when he returns, our son acts like a Dalmatian at a fire drill. In a 1,200-sq-ft condo with two home offices, this isn’t very comfortable.

Like us, many parents were barely keeping their head above water: some needed help with discipline; others wanted to prep their kids for kindergarten; some had extremely shy kids; and some had children with ADHD.

One of COPE’s goals is to have parents develop strategies that encourage positive behaviour, and to think of all the different situations in which to apply them (getting ready for school or negotiating with siblings, for example).

The facilitator, typically an early childhood educator or licensed clinician, doesn’t give lectures. Parents watch videos of fabricated situations, then break into groups to talk about what went wrong between parent and child, the consequences of the interactions and, based on their personal experiences, derive solutions. In the vignette described earlier, the father should have complimented his daughter’s colouring skills. He could have asked her to select a crayon and made suggestions on which section of the page to colour. By showing interest in his daughter’s activity (and letting her take the lead), the father showed he valued and loved her.

Applying the strategy

This technique has worked well in my family. When my husband returns from a trip, he spends 15 minutes of dedicated time with our five-year-old racing trucks down the hallway. Then our son hops away content to read or do puzzles in his play area. Occasionally he emerges to show us a drawing but he doesn’t cling and whine all night. It’s kind of miraculous.

Our facilitator, Hazel Benavides, also discussed modeling the life skills we want our children to possess. In other words, we can’t expect them to stop shouting unless we consistently speak gently. She said it was important to catch our kids being good (behaviours that get attention and recognition tend to repeat) and she reminded us of the importance of eye contact and touch when communicating, because communication patterns we develop with our preschoolers are the ones they’ll likely carry into adolescence (when the stresses of high school hit).

Chrysty Hodson, a medical assistant in Huntington Beach, Calif., is a foster parent to three boys ages eight, six and five, and a three-year-old girl, all with ADHD. CUIDAR changed the way she communicates with them. “I really thought I was good at giving each kid individual attention, but I was wrong,” she says. “When I started getting down to their level and letting them direct the play, they just beamed.” For Chrysty, that was the best part of the whole class.

Us too.

Long-distance parenting classes

Following six years of published clinical trials, an adapted version of COPE called “Strongest Families” is available in select health districts in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. The 10-week course delivers care longdistance, via telephone and the Internet. Parents work online with a les son manual and DVDs and have weekly calls with a trained coach at their convenience. There’s no charge but your health authority must contract the program from the Strongest Families Institute, a not-for-profit that sells services, materials and training.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

By Amber Nasrulla| September 12, 2013

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