Empowering your Struggling Child

Empowering your Struggling Child

Our Story

About a year ago, my husband and I were faced with what we thought to be a heart-breaking parenting decision. I attended a regularly scheduled parent teacher conference for my little PreK-3 boy, expecting to hear good news. I knew that my son was socializing well and making new friends. I was in awe of all the new concepts he was learning and understanding. I felt that his skills were growing every day. I knew that there were areas for improvement, but at his age, I didn’t think they were a matter of urgent concern. Sure, he didn’t write his name yet and seemed to have some difficulty gripping pencils and crayons, but it’s not like he would be signing forms any time soon.

When his teachers and the school administration broke the news that they thought it would be in his best interest to repeat the year and seek the assistance of an occupational therapist, it felt like a giant black cloud floated over my head and exploded with thunder, rainstorms and a bucket of mom-guilt. How could I not notice that he was struggling so much? As a trained Special Education teacher, I should have seen this coming. This and all the “should haves” ate me up for weeks as we worked through our decision.

I felt sad for my child, who had already made close connections with his friends. After all he had been through in his three young years, I didn’t want to put him through any more discomfort or sadness. This brave boy, born a preemie at just 30 weeks, had spent his first 3 months in the hospital, survived 2 open heart surgeries before age 2 and had endured speech therapy, physical therapy and countless doctor and specialist appointments to be at the point he was at. I couldn’t be prouder of my strong, smart, friendly and sweet warrior. But we wanted to do whatever was best for him, we just had to figure out what that was first. We wanted to advocate for our child.

My husband and I agreed that we would get him the occupational therapy services to help strengthen his fine motor skills. But we struggled over the decision to have him repeat the grade. True, he was a summer baby and a preemie, so if we went by his adjusted age he would be in a younger class anyway. But we worried about damaging his self-esteem, separating him from his first friends, who he cherished so much and ruining his school experience forever. In the end we decided it was the best for him to repeat the year and with great cooperation from his school we came up with a plan to make the transition as smooth and painless as possible. He immediately began attending sessions with his new group in the mornings and did afternoon sessions with his old group, so he could spend time with his friends. At the start of the new school year he remained with his new group. 

Although this was not as smooth as we envisioned, it turned out to be the best decision. Instead of hurting his self esteem it helped him. He felt more confident in his ability to engage in the activities of the class. He felt successful and proud of himself! Since he was already small for his age and only a month older than some of the other kids in the class, he didn’t feel out of place at all in the new group.

Weekly occupational therapy sessions helped him to improve his fine motor skills significantly and he now traces letters, shapes and even draws some free hand all on his own. One year later he’s doing great, but we’re still keeping a close eye on his development and trying to be pro-active about making sure we give him all the tools and resources he needs to be successful.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my friend Tiffany Zakka, the Founder of Kidnetics and a Licensed, South Florida, Occupational Therapist with 12 years of extensive experience. I shared my son’s story, and she shared about her work with struggling learners. I was fascinated by her thoughts on why so many kids are having difficulties in school nowadays and her out of the box solutions. I enlisted her to meet with my son for an initial evaluation. In our session at a local park she made my son feel at ease. Through playing with him and observing his movements, she was able to identify some areas that might still be causing him frustration in everyday activities. He will begin doing sessions with her in addition to his current in-school occupational therapy. I can’t wait to see what we’ll all accomplish together.

Tiffany’s insight on the struggles of kids in traditional school environments in 2018 was so compelling that I asked her to share on ispeakmom.com, as food for thought for all moms! 

Interview with Tiffany Zakka, Founder of Kidnetics

Tiffany, some of us aren't even sure what occupational therapy involves. Could you clarify for us:

Many parents, teachers, and professionals don’t truly understand what occupational therapy is, or how it can help a child.  So, when the word comes up from a teacher or a doctor referral your mind starts racing in all different directions asking WHY? What’s wrong with my child? What am I doing wrong as a parent?

Occupational therapy dives into the physical, emotional and sensory aspects of our lives. It understands the interplay between all three and that if one of the areas is out of sync, it can create overwhelm, frustration, anxiety and lack of participation in everyday activities. The behavior your child is displaying may just be a voice asking for help.

Why are so many kids nowadays struggling in the traditional classroom environment?:

While the format of school has more or less remained the same for many years, our way of life has changed. We rely a lot more on technology in our modern way of living, and children generally get much less exercise and opportunities to move and grow as they did years ago. From infancy, children need to crawl, jump and run without restrictions.

Nowadays, children spend large portions of their days in car-seats, carriages, jump-aroos, bouncers and playpens. Some kids may have started off in the NICU and their bodies and sensory systems have been impacted in a way that affects their development and the way their body moves.

We are born with reflexes and when those reflexes don’t integrate in the way they should, it is reflected later in a child’s behavior, emotional balance and learning. The sensory connections must compensate when the demands of the environment become complicated or harder than the child’s body can manage. This means that their body has to work harder, and their movements might be less efficient. Coordination and timing might also be affected. Many times, these kids become shut down and struggling learners.

On signs to look for:

Pay attention if a child has a hard time self-soothing, regulating their emotions and finding learning difficult. Some struggling children may avoid playing sports and dislike new experiences. They may seem stressed or have high anxiety. Many of the students I work with can’t function without a tutor to grasp concepts, they don’t always understand directions, or need them to be repeated multiple times. In these cases, parents tend to rush to solve issues for their children instead of allowing them to make and learn from mistakes. These children benefit from movement that strengthens and builds their foundation and sensory skills.

 The children I work with are shutting down. They don’t have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan – used for children with a specific diagnosis) but are still having challenges in the classroom and school environment. They are the ones who sit in the back of the class, don’t participate and ultimately get missed. These are the students who benefit the most, from what I offer.

If any of the bullets below sound familiar, you may want to reach out for an evaluation:

·        my child can’t seem to sit still no matter how many times I tell him/her to “sit still”

·        my child constantly hits and bumps into others, falls and trips a lot

·        my child avoids doing classwork, he/she is easily distracted

·        my child is very shy, sits in the back of the class and doesn’t participate

·        my child avoids participating in p.e. or recreational sports

·        my child has high anxiety and has difficult time regulating emotions

·        my child enjoys web games/apps more than doing physical activities

On how her approach differs from traditional occupational therapy:

The Kidnetics approach evaluates the whole child, delving into their behavior to better understand how they experience their inner and outer world. The end goal is to improve their self-esteem by empowering them with the tools they need to get through stressful situations.

The therapy itself works to strengthen their bodies and minds through slow, methodical movements that combine yoga postures, primitive reflexes, sensory based movement and animal moves (strength-based body weight exercises) that flow together, with a focus on the core.

The sessions are fun, engaging and meet the child at their level. We build on their strengths without labels or ceilings.  An important factor is the inclusive nature, supporting parents and teachers as well, giving the child the best chance to thrive.

At the end of the day it’s not about being smart, or how well your child plays a structured sport. It’s about your child being strong to the core, harnessing their confidence and building solid foundations for continued growth and success in their lives.

I know I’m not the only parent to find myself in this scenario with my child. I felt it was really important to share my story about my son and this insight from my friend Tiffany to help others. Services like occupational therapy only help to strengthen your child, they don’t hurt. If you’re a frustrated parent and see your child reflected in the signs mentioned above, be sure to contact Tiffany for an evaluation.

Get in touch with Tiffany at:



Insta: @kidneticsfitkids


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© Nicola Rios Nogales and ispeakmom.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Rios Nogales and ispeakmom.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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