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Observe don’t absorb

Thirty-four years ago when Geoff was a year old I joined him in Barnardos Toy Library service in Tallaght. It was an amazing experience for him to be able to play with a toy and see how it helped him to grow developmentally, borrow it for a time and return it when into longer was useful, and move on to the next developmental phase.

It was great for me too, as we had a room full of toys that he didn't play with, and I didn't understand then, he was not developmentally ready for most of them! It saved money and time and lots of frustration.

there is so much to learn from children with additional needs, so much to learn about regulating ourselves as well as them

The Toy Library was not just for borrowing toys, it was for education, socialising, and development. The project leader was an incredible person, she was way before her time, and her thinking was very futuristic.

A parents' support group was part of the service too, where parents met every fortnight to meet other parents, talk about different stuff besides their child with special needs, learn, and have fun.

She introduced me to the High Scope method, it is now a common model used in most playgroups, but then it was very innovative.

It challenged my lack of patience, goodness gracious, it surely did. I had to unlearn lots of patterns of behaviour that I had myself, take on this new model and use it, and guess what the results were fantastic! Limiting beliefs I had by the dozen and she helped me dissolve them one at a time!

All my basic training came from being part of that group. The toy library had one paid member of staff and the rest were volunteers. Later on, as the CE schemes became available they could add more to the service. Generally, when a child moved on out of the service to school, the parent was then asked if they wished to train and become a volunteer.

Volunteering was a giving back to the service, for all the good things that we received, and most importantly to encourage other new parents, to continue the good work.

The training was most unique just like the project leader! It took place on four Fridays in September. Those who were already volunteers joined on the last two when she held workshops educating us on those with specific needs.

She empowered us mothers who came feeling very inadequate, with essential education. Most of all she facilitated us to see how much we did know and how valuable we were first of all to ourselves, our children, our home, and our community.

During that training, I learned how to deal with issues without bringing my personality into it. A skill much needed when dealing with the inadequate special services that were out there at the time, and to be honest not much has changed.

She really taught me the power of education. To take back that power when confronted with ignorance. That was one lesson I will never ever forget.

Her teaching was done in a very gentle, empowering way. I went into that training feeling very fearful that I would not be good enough to assist at the STEP group which took place every Wednesday morning in the local health centre.

It operated like a mini playgroup. Two and a half hours ten to half twelve. I came out of that group the first day and I cried all the way home. I could not believe that children could be so neglected and unloved and forgotten about, by the family that had brought them into the world. And that they lived right on my doorstep in Dublin.

In the debriefing after the session, she told me, we had two and a half hours to make a difference, and if I could not get myself together that I was of no use to the service. That I needed to go home and have a good think about why I was volunteering and get back to her if I decided it was not for me.

there is so much to learn from children with additional needs, so much to learn about reguthere is so much to learn from children with additional needs, so much to learn about regulating ourselves as well as themlating ourselves as well as them

Well, I did what she said and I stayed with the service for six years, until I returned to college full-time, encouraged by her and with a glowing reference for my next teacher.

One of the skills taught to us was to observe. We were given an hour to observe and six weeks to complete it. We were ‘key workers’ that's what they call them now, to a specific child for six weeks to follow what he or she did for an hour.

It began starting at 10.00-10.15, write down what you see, not what you think you would like to see, that is the only way we can help this child. Be honest and truthful. Then the following week 10.15-10.30 until the hour was complete. At the end of that, we compiled the full hour and what the child was capable of doing, and what support he or she needed.

Observe, but don’t absorb. If you absorb you will burn out and become unregulated emotionally and not be able to function at home. That is not the purpose of this exercise.

I ask you, would you get that service now or any time from the education service? I don’t think so and we were volunteers!

I use that skill to this day with my clients. Observation is a seriously important skill when working one to one and with groups. Having meetings and keeping the personality out, dealing with the topic and not the person, are all very important skills too.

I had great loyalty to this organisation, it was the cornerstone in helping me understand my child with additional needs, what was best for helping him develop his potential, and what was good for me his mother, which in turn affects the family as a unit.

There was a sibling support group, the first of its kind, where my older children could attend, talk to others in the same situation, not have to talk about their brother or sister with special needs, and be acknowledged for the people they were.

Families with additional needs often have to ‘shelve’ the other children's needs in order to keep their heads above water.

My children were invited by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to the American Ambassadors' residence for a barbeque to celebrate the 4th of July. They were so delighted with all their pals from the sibling group. Imagine even their needs were met.

Every year the volunteers attended the AGM of toy library Ireland. We were treated to more education, for ourselves mainly, lunch, and a great workshop in the afternoon. Sometimes it was away from Dublin and he had an overnight stay too. We opened a saving account and saved every week, so it was all paid for by the time the AGM came around.

That project leader taught me that appreciating my talents, standing in my power, and staying open to learning, was a gift to behold. She was my ‘other mother’ in supporting me through so many challenges as Geoff navigated his way through our very inadequate education system.

Her love of empowering women rang through in everything she did. Observe don’t absorb, I will never forget that statement for as long as I live.

When I qualified she employed me to work with the parents group teaching stress management and mindfulness. A group I had joined myself as a young terrified parent not so many years previously.

She’s a well-retired lady now and one that is still very well respected by the other members of our volunteer team, who too as I did, learned the basics from being part of that little organisation.

So I leave you with this thought, education is power, observation is essential but absorption is not.

Rock on Barbara you are my idol.

his workshop is most suitable for those who are interested in learning about complementary therapies in order to help persons with learning differences to ground and stay calm.     It is open to parents, SNAs, teachers, nurses, and any professionals working with persons with additional needs.

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