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In this life we can not always do great things. But we can do small things with great love.." :) Mother Teresa

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“I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me.”
― C. S. Lewis


I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when I don't feel it. And I believe in God even when He is silent. (quote found on the wall of a concentration camp)

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What WAS Normal VS. What IS Normal and Language Comprehension

When parenting traumatized children, one thing goes out the window..... NORMAL....Whatever that is. :)
I posted yesterday about STAGES, and how our children can be 18 months old emotionally, physically 8, or 10, or older, have the street smarts of 21 and the understanding of 5.... and we have to know where they are and what age they are operating in, in order to parent them.  It is a HUGE requirement to be IN TUNE with your child in order to parent them according to where they are at any given moment.

Just as it would not be fair to expect a 2 year old to act 12. It isn't fair to expect a 12 year old with 2 year old emotions to act 12.  You MUST parent him at 2.

This sounds strange I KNOW.... It sounds like coddling, or giving in... but it VERY MUCH IS NOT! In fact, it is a requirement in order for your child to heal and move into wholeness.

It is a commonly known understanding that where ever trauma happened, many children will get STUCK at that point and be unable to move ahead, until they are parented at the age the trauma happened.
I remember very VIVIDLY, when I was in the 8th grade, a girl who was new to my school. She came at an odd time in the middle of the year, and was seated next to me.  She giggled uncontrollably, but I sensed she was more embarrassed.  She had no idea how to converse and was VERY awkward socially. She was a foster child.
In Art Class, we had to draw, and I remember her drawing. She drew about like a 3 year old.
I was no artist at all, but I remember her nervously trying to draw what the teacher asked, and it stuck with me.  This is the first time I have ever written about this.... BUT I have come to understand what may have been going on all those years ago in 8th grade and it hurts to think what happened to her.
Is she homeless? Did she make it?  She seemed so very damaged. :(  

A child who is in the midst of trauma, or has had severe trauma, has a very difficult time learning.  They may be smart.... but they cannot use the part of their brain they need to function educationally, because their emotions are over riding and dominating the thinking part of their brain.  I know this isn't very scientific, as I am not a scientist, but it is my observation and experience.

I would liken it to nearly getting into a fatal car accident and then trying to do algebra.  It AIN'T Gonna happen!  Try remembering your social security number and doctor's phone number when you are in a panic! There is a REASON they created 911.... people cannot think when they are in trauma.
Why do we expect our kids to?

Our children come to us with THEIR version of NORMAL, which is very much upheavel. They do not know what a loving family is. Many times they don't understand the concept of a family at all!  They are taking care of #1 and that is it!  They need no one, though they like the concept of a mama and daddy.... they don't understand the roles....
We PATIENTLY have to introduce them to the NEW NORMAL....
Sometimes, they will LONG for the old comfortable way things were.  It makes no sense to those who don't deal with trauma, but for a child who's brain has been trained to function in dysfunction, they can crave it, and will try to RECREATE it!
As a therapeutic parent....YOUR job is to REWIRE their little brain and write the NEW NORM on their heart.

I remember when Anna was little... we would get in the car and she would take the seat belt into her hands and yell, "WHY DON'T YOU JUST HIT ME!"  She needed the adrenalin rush that she was so used to.  Instead, I rocked her.  I sang to her and it made her MAD sometimes..... She was trying to fulfill all the familiar in a sort of odd way.  Familiar is comfortable....even if you don't like it!
That is what she was doing...Trying to make the familiar happen, because the NEW norm was very scary.
With Alli, we are having some of the same things happen.... She is working through stages of healing, but also sometimes tries to recreate chaos.  She doesn't know or understand why.   Poor baby.
It was her norm for so very long that she knew nothing else.

Today we had a great talk about words and how important they are.  She SO LACKS understanding in English.  She is SO SMART, and speaks English well.... She just doesn't understand it.
I know it sounds weird, but we went through the same thing with Sarah.

Speaking comes BEFORE comprehension.  Sarah spoke perfect Texan...but didn't know or understand MANY words. This made her original family think she was manipulative and rebellious and she wasn't.
In Alli's case I suspect the very same thing.... but she is older, and carries many burdens from her first families accusations.   She was declared RAD, ODD, and a number of other things....and it was assumed by some counselor that she knew exactly what she was doing because she spoke English so well.:( 
FRANKLY! There has GOT to be more professional training in this area!
If I went to Russia, and spoke Russian for 2 years, I SERIOUSLY DOUBT I could carry on a deep conversation with ANYBODY! Why do we expect this of our kids?  It is just like you hear people say, "Ah, kids are resiliant".....UGH..... KIDS HURT JUST LIKE ADULTS! They are people!

Alli and I talked today about working extra hard on vocabulary and understanding. Much of her frustrations come from not being able to say what is in her head.  The problem is SHE HAS NO LANGUAGE  IN WHICH  TO SPEAK her more complex thoughts.  FOLKS that can be frustrating!
I would equate it to the frustration of an altimer's patient who gets upset when they cannot communicate!
 She told me today that I was the first person who understood why she would get upset and say never mind.   That really makes me sad. :(
Alli is on her 3rd language, none of which have been mastered. :(
Yet to hear her speak, you wouldn't have a clue. 
I think I am going to get a fun vocabulary workbook for her and for Erika for the summer.  That way they can continue to work on English comprehension.

Alli had a really great day today and really got into celebrating Sarah's Birthday.... I was really proud of her!

I know this post was all over the place. :)  Sorry about that.


Kelly said...

My adopted daughter has a very difficult time with word retrieval. She is adopted from foster care and english is her only language, so I have had a hard time putting my finger on the root of her problem. She really doesn't understand so much of what we say or how to communicate beyond about a four year old and at times not even that. She was drug exposed and came out of neglect and abuse. Do you have any insight or advice how I can help her? She is six and did we'll in kindergarten she just has these word retrieval difficulties that we can't seem to get past.

Anonymous said...

Every time I read your posts it's like a free education. Love them.

Autumn said...

Yes, I agree! Like a free class that I WANT to study for LOL. This post was great.
"Sarah spoke perfect Texan" - hahaaha! I'll have to come visit to see how different that is from Ohioan ;)
You guys are the best!

schnitzelbank said...

Hi - I'm a German and ESL teacher, and have studied language development quite a bit. It's very interesting what you've observed and what you're describing here. Their past experiences can absolutely shape their language development now (and in the future). I don't have any specific studies or numbers in hand, but I can generalize a few things:

- There was a study that showed that children who have heard more negative statements over positive statements have a smaller vocabulary.

- Another study showed that the more television watched as a young child, the smaller the vocabulary at the ages of 3, 4, 5...

- The size of the child's vocabulary at that age (3, 4, 5...) is a huge predictor of what their vocabulary size will be in another 5, 10, 20 years. Children with small vocabularies at that age have small vocabularies when they are older, no matter what sort of interventions happened.

All of these supports a "critical period" theory, that if something isn't stimulated by a certain age, it's hard to overcome them.

So it might be safe to assume that if your child didn't have good language stimulation at an early age, they will always struggle with language comprehension and production.

For your children that are learning English as a second (or third, fourth, etc) language, there are two distinct levels of fluency. One is called "BICS" (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills), which is the class of language you need to interact in social realms, around the house, with family, etc. That takes two or three years of immersion to master. The other is called "CALP" (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), which is the higher-ordered language skills of formal learning, reading to learn, being able to reflect, etc. That takes five to seven years of immersion to master. And those year ranges are for "normal" people, that don't have other trauma or physical issues to contend with.

Children who are illiterate in their first language have a much, much harder time gaining literacy in their second language. They have no "base of reference."

Also, if the child has a different writing system or alphabet in their first language (even if they were literate), gaining literacy in English is more difficult.


One very interesting thing to me, is that you say with your kids, speaking comes before comprehension. We always say in the linguistics field, "Comprehension precedes Production." But this is not your case! I don't have a clear answer as to why your child is an enigma with this. It's possible that they are trying so, so hard to communicate and be understood, that they will speak, even if they aren't sure what it is they are saying. Perhaps there are still some things to be sorted out with making meaning (having not exactly the right words at the ready, so substituting and parroting what they have heard).

I think the phrase you've heard, "Kids are resilient" is a bit true, and a bit false. Kids that learn a second language before the age of puberty have an easier time gaining proficiency and a minimal accent. That's true - it's biological. But it doesn't respect the fact that it's equally as frustrating to not be understood.

I encourage you to explore ESL materials for your kids, even if your kids are native speakers of English (this is for the moms that have native speakers that are still struggling with language.... it might be for those first reasons I listed here). ESL materials are scaffolded differently than other English lessons, and that might be more supportive and "rehabilitative" for your kids.

I am always willing to talk about teaching and learning language, if you want someone to bounce ideas off of! You can email me at fraujoolie. I have gmail.


schnitzelbank said...


I have some ideas to help your daughter with word retrieval. Does she sometimes have "tip of the tongue" (aka "TOT") moments, where the word just won't come to her, but she KNOWS she knows it? Or is it always just drawing a blank??

If she has this TOT moment, you can give her the first SOUND of the word. If she can think of "umbrella," you can cue her, "Oh, it starts with the Uhhhhhhhhh sound. (or Ummmmmm sound)" Don't bother trying to cue with what letter it starts with, go for the phonetic sound.

You can also give her a word that rhymes. If she can't think of the word "rope," you could say, "It rhymes with SOAP."

You can also give her semantic clues.

A category clue gives her an idea of the group/category the word belongs to. If you're trying to get her to say "cactus," you could clue her, "It's a plant that's sharp and pokey."

A background clue gives WHAT the thing does. It's function. So, if she can't think of "bucket," you could say, "It holds the water for the mop."

Another strategy is to give her a fill-in-the-blank (aka "cloze exercise"). If she can't think of "sidewalk," you can say, "At the end of the driveway, we walk along the _______." She'll have to listen to 'end,' 'driveway,' and 'walk,' to help her clue into 'sidewalk.' (*** this exercise might be a very good one, if you think she's just not processing the words you are saying, it teaches her to focus on the clue words, and you can point out to her, "What are the words that I used that gave you clues? Yes! WALK, and DRIVEWAY! and END! Good! The words in the sentence give us CLUES to the word we need!" < talking about 'how' to learn is very helpful to kids, especially kids that don't know how to learn best. This is called metacognition, by the way, if you want to read up on it).

If she can't think of the word to say, ask her if she can SEE it. Sometimes if you close your eyes, you can see the word being written. Ask her to imagine the word being written one letter at a time... can you see it?

schnitzelbank said...

More for Kelly:

At other times, where you're not searching for the right word, you can play word games. I use these all the time in the classroom, but I also play these just about everyday with my three year old, when I'm cooking dinner, when we're waiting in line somewhere, driving, etc. He LOVES it. When he gets bored of one game (or I run out of ideas), I try another.

- Rhyming games
- Antonyms: You say a word, she says the opposite. A bigger challenge would be to find more than one opposite word.
- Synonyms: You say a word, she says words with the same (or almost the same) meaning.
- Sequence: Build words on common sequences. "What day comes after Tuesday?" "Which holiday comes before Easter?" "Which meal comes after lunch?" "Which time of day comes before afternoon?"
- Fill in the Blank: Say a common short phrase, but leave out the last word. "Washer and ____!" "Jack and Jill went up the _____!" This can be a lot of fun. You can do it with poems you read, psalms, proverbs, song lyrics she knows, etc. The more advanced way to do this, is read her a favorite book, and leave a word out. For the older kids, you can even read the newspaper outloud, and leave out a word they can fill in. If you play this with a lot of your kids, they can come up with several "acceptable" answers, and they are building vocab from each other!
-Picture Describing: Use pictures (family vacation photos? magazine pictures? a book illustration?), name as many things as you see. Or make sentences. Or tell a story.
- Post It: Make labels for things in the house, maybe everything in the morning routine, or everything we used to make lunch, everything we needed to play Candyland, etc.
- Categories: you say 3 or 4 words in a category, and she guesses the category.
- Reverse Categories: you say the category, and she says 3 or 4 words that belong.
- Category Blitz: name as many items in a category in one minute.
- Same and Different: Describing the similarities and differences between two words. Like, "How are shoes and socks different? How are they the same?"

Joanne said...

I also live with this every day. Our 11 and 12 year old had to learn a second language when they were 5 and 6 and at times, especially the 11 year old, have great difficulty expressing emotions and complex ideas. It is VERY frustrating for them. My clue that they are struggling is when they increase their volume.:) Both are often complimented by friends and family on how well they speak both languages. Their response is usually, "No, I don't." I started them with writing a journal about 2 years ago. Writing thoughts and emotions at their own pace and in their own words has really helped with the frustration. At first they mixed both languages, spelling phonetically, but have gradually begun to apply grammar and spelling rules as they learn them. They often ask me to read what they write after they've gone to bed, things they want to say but are not yet ready or able to discuss.

Anonymous said...

Our Russian daughter came home at age 4 after six months with her original adoptive family. She went through all the developmental phases, she just did them more quickly. When she first came home, her chronological age was 4, her physical development was about 24 months, emotionally she was a baby who walked around putting everything in her mouth. We took her back to the bottle feeding stage to teach her how to snuggle. Now she's been home 18 months. She is 5 and 1/2, but only chronologically; emotionally, she just went through the typical defiance of the "terrible twos." Simultaneously, she stopped asking for her "snuggle bottle" as frequently. Intellectually, she is advanced. Her FAS diagnosis hasn't stopped her from learning to read or to memorize scripture.

Thank you for sharing your insights. I love reading your posts.

:)De said...

Wow! I feel like I just participated in a really great workshop. Such good info, everyone.

Christie M said...

Thank you for your comments. :) I have a good friend who is also a Julie. She is a Speech Language Pathologist too.
We talk all the time, and she is a big fan of Linda Mood Bell's methods.

What we have found is that our kids are English First Language Second Language. Meaning, they aren't learning a second language. They actually RAPIDLY forget their first language and can no longer THINK in their language.... at the same time, they are learning their NEW First language. We call it that, because they no longer have a language to fall back on.
Remember the child who was sent back to Russia? He had been in the U.S. for 6 months. This is EXACTLY about the time many disruptions take place or start to take place, because the child gets so frustrated. They have higher thinking skills without the language to express them. This equals FRUSTRATION.... and just as a baby cannot communicate what they want and so they cry or throw a fit, that is what happens to the child....
I read a really great article by a girl who came to the U.S. from China, I believe. She said she thought she was losing her mind. She was terrified, because she didn't know what was going on and she couldn't understand how to tell anybody.

I have read that if you double your child's age from when they arrived in your country....that is most likely when proficiency will come.

For Alli, she came at 9. BUT... her learning has been interrupted with trauma on top of it. She is very smart, and my guess is by the time she is ready for college, that is when she will be proficient.

The studies you mentioned about TV watching and young children's vocabulary are interesting.
They are observations to pay attention to.
Our son, who is a high school teacher now, began life being declared brain dead. LOL
At 5 his IQ was 68. At 10 he could not read. He was going to every intervention the school had to offer.
He couldn't learn in the way they were teaching him. We figured out a back door, so to speak, and today, he has a large vocabulary, graduated from a great University and is a teacher.

Milena said...

It's incredible how much I learn from your posts! Thank you! I always read these insightful posts exra thouroughly, and I have even bought the two BCLC-books, though I haven't had time to read them yet - hosting is tiring....

Just a curious question from a person interested in languages; what language more than Russian and English did/do Alli speak?

Christie M said...

She spoke a dialect that was only in her tiny village. I read on the internet, it is close to Bulgarian.
She said a few words were like Russian, but not very many. She had to learn Russian at 7, then English at 9. She has forgotten both other languages.

schnitzelbank said...

This "re-learning English as a first language" is quite interesting. If you are dealing with a child with a younger emotional age (than physical age), I imagine you would see some language development issues that straddle both their emotional age and their physical age. So the intervention strategies you'll use would have to be a balance between that emotional and physical age.

What's cool, though, is if their emotional age is younger, they are at an advantage for language learning. Honestly, they may be developing psychologically right in that pocket that is ideal for language learning (language explodes between the ages of 1-5), so if your kid is in that range psychologically/emotionally, you are in a good spot for building language.

@Mike and Christie, what you describe with your son is incredible. What was the "back door" you used to help him learn?

Thank you, I've loved reading everything here. You'd be most welcome in the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) community. It would be so cool to have you on a conference panel, sharing your experiences.

schnitzelbank said...

I forgot to add:

Your enigma of "Production Without Comprehension," I think, is being driven by the imbalance of psychological/emotional age to physical age.

Christie M said...

I'm going to post my answer in a blog post for you. :)

r. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diana said...

My kids are the same way. They've been home 4 years now and are both still in ESL. My older son can read now, but comprehension is still a big struggle as is verbal expression. Writing is still almost non-existant...about a 4-5 year old level...which is also the emotional level and point in which some of the biggest traumas in his life happened. He's making progress, but it is slow. We are working on a lot of vocab and writing and sequencing activities this summer. All my kids have to do homework for at least 1-2 hours every day.

What you say about trauma affecting learning is SOOO true. We are seeing this even with my normal bio daughter. She is a 4.0 student, but still REALLY struggles with basic math and phonics. We decided to get her a bunch of practice/review books to work on this summer to try to help her fill in the gaps she's missing. ALL of them are 2nd and 3rd grade level (mostly 3rd.) It shouldn't be a big surprise that this is where the gaps were, but I confess that it still made me stinking mad and sad to have the physical reminders and realization that this is the level she missed because of trauma.

We were caught in a NASTY fraud triangle that delayed our adoption for over a year during her 2nd grade year between 1st and second grade. That was an incredibly dark and ugly and stressful time for our family! She then had a brand new teacher who was very cute and good to the kids, but let her slip through the cracks academically. After all, my daughter was well behaved and quiet in class and didn't demand attention. Unfortunately, therefore she also didn't get it!

Then we adopted the boys during the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade. When we came home, we tried putting all the kids in a charter school, which was a dismal failure, and then 6 weeks later moved them back to public school. She ended up with the WORST TEACHER EVER...an inept teacher who yelled at the kids in front of everyone and refused to help my daughter or answer question. Plus, stuff at home was completely out of control and insane!! We knew she was stressed and her grades dropped markedly. We thought it was because of the boys and the HUGE amount of stress and chaos they brought to our family was the big driving force.

Unfortunately, it wasn't...not by a long shot. We learned during the last week of school when she came home with a very swollen ankle that some kid had literally tried to break with his bare hands that he had been physically and verbally abusing her all year long AND the teacher knew about it and did nothing about it. So, our poor girl NEVER got a break from the crazy, not even at school. We had no idea!

Oh, yah...mama was a mad hornet when I found out about it. Unfortunately, it was too late in the year to gather enough documentation and evidence to get the teacher fired and the principal had already checked out because he was retiring. Sadly, she's still teaching at that same school and the kids and parents still hate her. That's also one of my biggest regrets in life, too!

In a nutshell, 3rd grade was a total wash for my daughter. She learned precious little that year and retained even less. She was too busy trying to survive! It's taken my daughter many years to recover emotionally enough from that experience to get to the point that she can even think about going back and filling in the gaps. Meanwhile, she's struggled through the last several years of school because she missed the foundation the new stuff is based on. And even now, we're all still triggered by it. The good news is that we have much better coping tools now than we did back then.

Jo's Corner said...

I have SO much to say about this subject, but I am not able. Most importantly, I have SO much to say about your blog and how you Parent your beautiful Daughters! Alot of the things I read here just really apply to my self! And, it's good and helpful. How I wish I had lived with a parent like you! Keep doing what you're doing!

On a side note, when my niece, Jenny was about 3.5 or 4 years old, I remember her saying this: "I know what I want to say inside my head, but I can't get it to come out of my mouth!" :D Loved that little girl!! Now she's 31 years old, but will always be my "Little Girl"!

Thank You, so much, for sharing the journey to Healing you are doing with your sweet girls!
Hugs from MN. ~ Jo

Christie M said...

Thank you Jo. :)

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