Supporting Persons with Disabilities through the Holidays

A guide for parents, grandparents, and friends to use while supporting persons with disabilities through this season of celebration and change.

Note: Because this blog post was such a helpful resource for many individuals last holiday season, we wanted to share it with you again as you walk through the next few weeks of holiday festivities.

Brothers at ChristmasWhile the holidays often bring up those Hallmark memories for many of us, for some children and adults with disabilities, holidays signal an intense time of stress and distress. Often communicated with significant behavior changes, the underlying message might be “I’m overwhelmed”, “You changed my schedule”, “Why did you put a tree in our living room”, “There are too many people stuffed into this room”, or “I am on complete sensory overload”. While all of these ideas won’t work for everyone, here are some ideas for you to try to create a positive time of celebration for each family member.

1. Who needs to know? Many times extended families get together, and yet cousins or friends may not really understand the individual with the disability. It might be helpful for parents or the person with the disability to send out a quick update to family members prior to an event.  This update could include:

    •  “How Brent has grown this year”
    • “Activities and topics Brent enjoys doing or discussing”
    • “Activities and topics to avoid with Brent”
    • “Some things that Brent may really enjoy when we gather for Christmas”
    • “Some things that might be challenging for Brent at our Christmas celebration”
    • “Some gifts Brent might enjoy receiving”
    • “Some gifts to avoid”

      Christmas cookies

      Photo credit: chadmagiera

2.   “It is better to give than to receive” – and many times we think our family member with a disability should only be the recipient of gifts, and not the giver. How can that person use an area of interest or gifting to provide something for others? Would it be the gift of a dance or song? Could that individual provide the cookies for dessert? Might that person enjoy a trip to a dollar store to pick out something for each guest or family member? What about a wall decoration or a note card for each guest with a favorite picture of an animal or area of interest? Find a way for that individual to also receive the joy of giving.

3.   Prepare in advance a way your family member can participate in the holiday traditions. Be creative. Think of ways you have made the holiday meaningful and consider ways your family member with a disability may be involved. Some ideas you could try include:

Do you collect prayer requests or notes indicating things for which each family member is thankful to incorporate into the celebration? How might that family member participate? Would it be helpful to have pictures of familiar items so that the individual can point to or pick up the prayer request and hand it to the one praying?

How about singing? Could you have a colorful streamer or small rhythm instrument available so that a person without words could participate with movement?

How about programming a portion of Luke 2 on an iPad or other device so that pushing a button will allow an individual to read a portion of the Bible? Adding figures or using the manger scene on the mantel may be a way for an individual to better understand or even help move or tell the Christmas story.

Christmas scrapbook page

Create a Christmas album! Photo Credit: Dolce_Evita

4.   Use photos. Find some pictures of the celebration from last year. If it will be similar, put together a photo album or story of that event so that the individual can remember it in pictures and written words prior to attending a similar event this year.

5.   Put together a schedule of events for your party. Whether in words and/or pictures, let the person know the planned order. Some individuals enjoy crossing off or removing the individual schedule items as they are completed.

6.   Visit the room ahead of time. Many times we redecorate or rearrange rooms to fit more people. Consider setting it up a day ahead and visiting that room without people in it. Let the individual explore the changes without the added stress of people. Perhaps leave something on a chair or in a certain place so that you can “reserve a spot” for the event when you arrive. The individual will know to find that space or item to make a more comfortable entry.

Child photographer

Photo Credit: Threelfbybike

7.   Give that individual a “job” to do. Perhaps they could be the photographer, back massager, coffee or beverage server, greeter (be the first to arrive and assimilate guests more slowly – often a better choice for some persons), or card distributer. Many times, a helping role will not only use the gifts of an individual, but it gives the person a clear sense of what to do in that environment.

8.   Designate a “safe zone”. It might be helpful to show that family member a quiet and designated space in the home or building where there would be a calming and preferred activity. It might be a mini tramp, rocking chair, a favorite book, or quiet classical music in a more isolated space where one might be able to find a refuge if the senses get overloaded.


Some other posts you might like:

Christmas Gifts that Promote Child Development

Sharing the Christmas Story with Kids with Disabilities

Sharing Jesus with a Child with Down Syndrome 


photo credit: jeffsmallwood via photopin cc


Barbara J. Newman photoBarbara J. Newman is a church and school consultant at CLC Network and a special education teacher at Zeeland Christian School. She is the author of numerous books. She is a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches.

Growing Up with Ben – Life with a Sibling with a Disability

What are the unique needs and experiences of growing up with a sibling with a disability? Our friend Aubrey shares insight into growing up with Ben, her older brother with significant developmental disabilities in today’s post.

Aubrey and Ben

Aubrey and her brother, Ben

I was silent about both the struggles my family endured as well as the laughter my brother Ben brought to our lives until my first year of college. Having an older brother with severe developmental disabilities meant my life looked very different from my fellow classmates, classmates who didn’t understand disabilities first hand. I vividly remember an event where a change in routine caused a flip to switch in my brother that he couldn’t control. He was attending my sporting event with our parents, and at 6’3” and well over 200 lbs., his outburst was dangerous, intimidating, and I’m sure confusing for the many bystanders.

Boerema family photo

The Boerema family

When faced with questions from friends, I remember feeling so torn. I didn’t know how to be honest about the frustrating and sometimes scary reality of life with Ben while at the same time communicating that he was, still is, and always would be, the older brother I loved dearly and couldn’t imagine life without. Explaining the frequent ugliness of his diagnosis seemed like betrayal to a brother who I knew would feel great remorse for his uncontrollable actions a couple of hours later.

It wasn’t until I realized that I could be a voice for Ben that I opened up. Now, after a few years of discussions and reflection, I would like to offer some insight on what was helpful growing up, what would have been helpful, and what I need now, as an adult.

What Was Helpful

  • For the last 25+ years, a friend of our family has prayed for Ben every Tuesday (and still does). He called my parents often for updates, and would always call or visit on Ben’s birthday as well as send a card, usually with a gift. Knowing that someone besides a family member truly cared for Ben was and is encouraging and uplifting.
  • When I was nearing the end of high school, my church got a new youth pastor, whose wife had a sister very similar to Ben. Being able to talk about some of the hard things as well as the joys made processing easier and brought a connection different than others I had while growing up.

What Would Have Been Helpful

  • A Support group.

    A support group with peers who had similar experiences and whose feelings I could relate to would have been incredibly therapeutic. I think having a safe place to talk about my disappointments and fears that otherwise stayed secret would have decreased my feelings of being alone and different. It would have also been wonderful to share the joyful moments, that often felt small compared to some of the negatives, with others who understood.

  • Professional counseling.

    Along with a support group, it might have been helpful to go to professional counseling. I didn’t receive any until last year, and now that I’ve been able to talk through it with a counselor, I wish I could have attended earlier in life.

  • Openness.

    Openness within my family would have allowed me to process the highs and lows as well. I know my parents wanted to shield me from the difficulties as much as they could, and although I am grateful for their wisdom, I am even more grateful for the times we are now able to talk openly about the hard times. A family goes through many highs and lows together. As painful as it is to talk about the “hard stuff”, such as the wishes and dreams that are desired for the sibling yet won’t be reached, it’s important to uncover those hurts. It’s also vital to talk about the delight the sibling brings to the family, as it can be easy to overlook the gift of being blessed with a sibling with disabilities. I’ve learned more about life from Ben than from any other person.

  • Genuine Interest. 

    Something I have always wanted is the ability to know if those who asked questions were genuinely interested in knowing who Ben was as an individual. I would have felt much more comfortable talking to people about the joys and hardships if I knew they were willing to learn before judging, and love before dismissing.

All of the above are still needed and greatly appreciated. With the blessing and challenge of a sibling with disabilities comes a need for openness, honesty, and a network of support. After realizing how I can be an even greater part of Ben’s life, I have a different perspective on who I am as Ben’s little sister than I did growing up. I still have torn feelings when asked hard questions, but I understand now that I, along with my family members and those close to Ben, can be the voice he doesn’t have.

Join a Sibling Support Group

If you know of a child in the Grand Rapids (MI) area that would benefit from a sibling support group, we invite you to explore the monthly sessions offered at Family Tree Therapies (Grand Rapids, MI). You can learn more on their website.

Aubrey and BenAubrey Boerema is a fourth-year student at Calvin College, studying Therapeutic Recreation and Business Management. She loves spending time with family on her parents’ farm, and enjoys participating in equine therapy for children at Rainbow Ranch, Inc. in New Era, MI.

ADHD and Your Child: ADHD Experts Address Your Questions

"ADHD and Your Child" webinarFollowing our free “ADHD and Your Child” webinar last spring, we received a number of questions from parents and teachers alike on understanding and supporting persons with ADHD. For National ADHD Awareness Month, we wanted to revisit a number of these questions and invite you to watch the archived webinar with ADHD experts Doug Bouman, S. Psy. S. and Robert Bulten, M.D. This webinar, hosted by Christian Schools International, covers the symptoms and treatments of ADD/ADHD.

Q: Is ADHD hereditary?

Dr. Bulten: Very much so. It the second most heritable condition in the human genome.  The first is height.

Q: Are there similarities between teenage boys and ADHD?  When should we seek testing and treatment for ADHD?

Dr. Bulten: It used to be thought that ADHD in boys far outnumbered that in girls. But we’ve now realized that this is no longer true, and ADHD is common in both boys and girls. During the teen years, the hyperactive component (which is so common in younger boys) tends to become less noticeable. Testing and treatment should be looked into when the symptoms become a functional impairment.

Q: How much does a child’s diet help or hinder a child with ADHD?

Dr. Bulten: Diet does not usually have much positive or negative effect on a child with ADHD. Now and then, someone will find a particular food (e.g. dairy, gluten, dyes, etc.) that they believe helps to a degree, and then they take that out of the diet. But the return is so small that I don’t recommend that to start treatment. By the time my patients get to me, they will have tried all the non-medical options.

Young Boy PhotoQ: What are some particular gifts kids or teens with ADHD possess?

Mr. Bouman: ADHD in and of itself provides zero benefits to the student with ADHD.  For example, the gift of creativity or artistic ability and ADHD are not linked. However, just like students without ADHD, students with ADHD possess incredible gifts, strengths, and abilities.

Q: Are students with ADD/ADHD more likely highly intelligent and gifted than not?

Mr. Bouman: Students with ADHD are not more gifted and talented than those without ADHD.  ADHD impacts the entire range of abilities.  In fact, highly intelligent children with ADHD frequently experience more frustration since they are painfully aware that their performance and output is markedly below their intellectual abilities and peer performance.  How frustrating and painful for a bright student to “know” what to do, yet are unable “to do what they know”.

Q: Do you see the emotional issues, such as loss of confidence and “self prosecution” (especially in newly diagnosed teenagers) improve over time?

Mr. Bouman: Yes, for sure.  The first step is for the teenager and the significant adults (parents, school staff, etc.) to understand and accept ADHD, and how it is impacting this student’s daily functioning.  Once effective strategies and medication are in place, the student experiences authentic success (i.e. they can now “do and produce what they know”).  This frequently buoys their confidence and eliminates their self-persecution.

Q:  What is one thing you wish parents knew about ADHD?

Mr. Bouman: There is a tremendous amount of misinformation in the media, trade magazines, etc.  Parents need to know ADHD hugely impacts a student’s learning and productivity in school even though their child is not hyperactive or impulsive.  Quiet, hidden (inattentive type) ADHD is more dangerous since it is easily missed or misinterpreted as not trying or a bad attitude.  Complicating things is the remarkable inconsistency observed in a student with ADHD, sometimes called a “picket fence” up-down functioning.  Children, adolescents and adults with ADHD are frequently able to focus and sustain concentration if what they are doing is preferred, highly stimulating, high interest (think video games, legos, T.V., even reading high interest books).  The real test of an individual’s attention is when they must complete tasks that are important yet boring.  Another important parent “tip”, is to watch for limited improvement (e.g. learning, producing, grades, behavior) when individuals, student, teachers, and school support staff have honestly tried their best to overcome the problem using methods that work for most kids.

Dr. Bulten: Probably that they are not the cause of their kid’s ADHD – unless you consider the genetics. It’s not bad parenting–more discipline will not change things—it will probably make things worse.

Students learningQ: What is one thing you wish teachers knew about ADHD?

Mr. Bouman:
(1) All of what I wish parents knew (see above)

(2) Please be careful to simply and thoroughly report to parents what you notice in class and avoid saying a student has or does not have ADHD.

Dr. Bulten: Again, that they are not the cause of the student’s ADHD. “Carrot and stick” discipline will not change anything.

Q: What are a few practical strategies a teacher can use in the classroom to support a student with ADHD?

Mr. Bouman: Move the student close to the teacher. Having the student in close physical proximity to the teacher affords closer monitoring of the student and increased accountability.  Teachers can cue the student that important directions are coming their way (e.g. “students the next two instructions are really important” – sometimes referred to as “verbal highlighting”).  Close proximity also allows ongoing accountability with high frequency feedback (e.g. “do this first row of math computations and then check back with me”).

Students with ADHD need understanding and empathy from their teacher; their teacher needs to recognize that they are fighting upstream against a roadblock that their peers are not.  Teachers can create a “prosthetic classroom” by externalizing (making visible and permanent) instructions, requirements, rules, and steps (e.g. use of post-it-notes, lists, pictures).

Q: What is one thing you wish kids/teens knew about ADHD?

Mr. Bouman: Kids really like the truth about how ADHD is negatively impacting the use of their gifts.  Many students have conjured up something far worse (e.g. “I’m stupid”, “I’m dumb”) than ADHD.  Kids need to understand ADHD is not their fault any more than it is their fault for having brown eyes. Kids need to know there are effective interventions that can ‘even the playing field’ for them. They need to know that things will get better and there is great hope for the future.

Dr. Bulten: I wish kids with ADHD knew they were not lazy. As I interview adults with ADHD and ask them what one comment they remember their parents and teachers said was, “If you would only try harder. You have so much potential and you just don’t apply yourself.” If we could measure “effort”, especially in young kids, we’d find they are trying harder than other kids and the results are poorer. As they get older, they start to give up and they stop trying altogether.

Q: What are some practical strategies persons with ADHD can use to accomplish tasks in their daily life?

Mr. Bouman: First, make sure any prescribed medication is at optimal levels.  Students and adults with ADHD are ideally completing a one or two page symptom reduction form each time they meet with their physician.  Other strategies include:

(1) Writing down your top three non-negotiables for taking good care of yourself.

(2) Enlisting accountability supports – a trusted friend or life coach.

(3) Use technology as a work-around.

Q: Do you have any recommended books or websites to learn more about ADHD?

Mr. Bouman: The best organization with incredible resources is CHADD – Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyeractivity Disorder.

The best book for adults is Reaching for a New Potential: A Life Guide for Adults with ADD From a Fellow Traveler by Oren Mason.  Also check out Dr. Mason’s blog, Attentionality.

At CLC Network, we daily evaluate and create plans for struggling students based on their strengths and areas of need. Learn more about our perspective in this video and visit our website to learn more.

And of course, Dr. Bulten at Behavioral Medicine Clinic does an incredible job monitoring and supporting patients.

 Doug Bouman photoDoug Bouman, S. Psy. S. is the director of evaluation services at CLC Network (Christian Learning Center) in Grand Rapids, MI, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Master’s Social Worker. He is a graduate of Calvin College and Central Michigan University.



Dr. Bulten photoRobert Bulten, M.D. previously practiced general pediatrics for 12 years and has been practicing behavioral medicine (including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and mood disorders) for the past 30 years. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and the University of Michigan Medical School.

“Time Out” for Empathetic Development

I know a few grown-ups who, when confronted about their hurtful behavior, offer this as their apology.  “I’m sorry that you misunderstood what I said (or did)”.  Hmm…I have always wondered why they believe their inability to take personal responsibility for their actions along with their lack of empathy is a real apology.

Grumpy boyDuring my graduate years in college, I worked at a residential treatment center for adolescent boys and girls that used a very rigid behavioral approach to therapy.  There was a complex token economy and level system and very clear guidelines for when and how to use the behavioral strategy of “time out”.

I remember clearly a 12 year old boy named David who had severe anger and who frequently exploded with both physical and verbal outbursts.  After an outburst he would be given the required and necessary “time out” period.  Upon completion, I would ask him if he was sorry.  He would always answer that he was (but under his breath he would add the phrase, “sorry I got caught”).

David’s version of the “Golden Rule” was similar to that of many of the other residents: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”  That was the “ah ha” moment for me.

Psychologists Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg have provided us with some of the building blocks necessary for understanding that there are clear stages for acquiring empathy and moral development.  Social psychologists believe that although children are born with a capacity for empathy, they must learn to become empathetic.

How can we help children learn to become empathetic? 

Using “time out” followed by developmentally appropriate processing can be very effective.  Before allowing our students and children to re-enter an activity from a “time out”, ask the following questions:

  • Why did I ask you to take a “time out”?
  • What did you think was happening?
  • How do you think you would feel if it happened to you?
  • How would you want that person to respond to you? (Ah ha…the golden rule!)
  • What will you do differently next time?

Saying “I’m sorry” is more than just a formality

As our children grow, we need to model and directly teach them how to apologize. Children in the early stages of social and moral development have not yet internalized the value of seeking and wanting forgiveness.  That of course, requires having empathy and an understanding of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  Therefore, such values eventually have to become seamlessly spontaneous and sincere.

For example, Erin’s teacher tells her:

“Tyrone is crying. Paint is splashed all over his picture. You must tell him that you’re sorry.”

Although Erin may have participated in a brief “time out”, if she is forced to say she’s “sorry” without understanding why or how it relates to Tyrone’s feelings, she may have difficulty learning empathic behavior. Apologizing just so she can return to an activity might teach her that others’ feelings don’t really matter. Instead, the teacher may need to encourage Erin’s participation in the process by asking:

“How do you think Tyrone is feeling? What might you do to help him?”

Teaching Children to meaningfully apologizeTry the following 3 step process to help your children get started with a meaningful apology.  Ask them to:

  1. Say “I’m sorry for…..(be specific about the behavior)”
  2. Describe how it impacted their friend (or neighbor, etc.)
  3. Tell how they will behave differently in the future

Grampa and the Golden Rule

The other day I was babysitting my 4 year old granddaughter, the one who is the most strong willed and oppositional of all 5 of my grandchildren.  I intervened several times during the day with brief “time outs” because she was not following the house rules or because she was having trouble sharing with her sister and cousins.  After the “time outs” in the morning, we talked about what Jesus would say about the golden rule and about treating others.  After the “time outs” that occurred later in the day, the processing became relatively brief.  “I know Grampy, I didn’t follow the Golden Rule!”  I’m still smiling as I think about her growing realization that Grampy thought this was such a big deal!

Works Cited

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. By Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, EdD, and Ellen Booth Church

How to nurture this important gateway to a social and emotional growth
Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Matthew 7:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Life Space Interview (LSI) – Behavior Advisor

photo credit: sokabs via photopin cc


Jeff Ashby PhotoJeff Ashby is a School Psychologist at CLC Network where he integrates his  intensive training in the fundamentals of cognitive behavioral psychology with his Christian faith.  He endeavors to help parents and professionals develop compassion in their understanding of the many challenges that students with special needs face throughout their lives. 

Graduation Among Friends

Kloosterman family

Jonathan enjoyed celebrating his graduation surrounded by family and friends.

“If you had told me 20 years ago that my son would graduate from high school, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Bob Kloosterman shakes his head in amazement.  His son, Jonathan, graduated from South Christian High School (Grand Rapids, MI) this past spring.

“When we enrolled Jonathan at Dutton Christian School (Caledonia, MI) all those years ago, we didn’t know what to expect.  It was all so new,” he recalls.

“But we saw almost immediately that we didn’t have to worry.  Someone was going to watch out for him.  And his teachers have done a really wonderful job.”

For most students with disabilities, graduation is a very big deal.  And for someone as social as Jonathan, it was extra meaningful to walk across the stage with his classmates.  South Christian offers a certificate of completion, which serves to verify that students have completed goals within an alternative track of study throughout high school.

“I really liked walking down the aisle at graduation with my friends and getting my diploma,” shares Jonathan.  “But I was a little nervous.”

“He was nervous about the graduation ceremony, but the person before or after him helped make sure it went smoothly.  That’s the kind of thing that’s really special to me,” admits Bob.

“When I was that age, my generation was not always so accepting and nice to kids with disabilities.  But I can’t remember anything negative from his entire school experience.”

Congratulations to Jonathan and his peers on their graduation and best wishes on their next steps in life!

Elizabeth Dombrowski photoElizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the advancement director at CLC Network.