TomTag tips and tricks

Tips and tricks when using TomTag

We know that one of the things you really appreciate about TomTag is it’s simplicity and easy of use.

That means that sometimes we forget to shout about some of the more subtle design features we included. We’ve also picked up some interesting ideas along the way from our own experience and that of our customers and we’d love to share them with you.

So, here goes!

Locked in

tag lock info

Ever noticed those ridges at the top and bottom on the reverse of each tag but never been sure what they’re for? That’s our tag lock feature!

Simply line up the back of one tag with the front of another and squeeze together, making sure that the raised ridges on the back sit inside the rectangular areas at the front as you do so. Repeat with the rest of your tags.

Particularly helpful when used with our I can do it pack my bag for school set to prevent tags flapping or moving around too much when being carried on a school bag.

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We’re here!

features website nameNeed some spare buttons or want to try a new sticker pack but can’t remember the website address? It’s right here, on the back of every tag!

No need for Google – just turn over a tag.

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Heads or tails

features button turnThe natural and obvious way to place TomTag buttons in a buttonholder/tag is with the flat, stickered side facing upwards. After all, we want to see those symbols, don’t we? What about once the task or activity shown in the symbol has been completed?

A very visual strategy can be achieved by popping out each button, turning it over and placing it back in the same space in the holder to indicate that the task has been done before moving onto the next item on the list.

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Rewards

features rewardsThink TomTag is just for making lists? Think again!

Use a tag, some blank buttons and star stickers to encourage positive behaviour or to incentivise a reluctant child. Give a star button to pop in their tag each time they display the required behaviour or complete a set task and perhaps agree a treat they will receive once their tag is full.

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Take it away

customer oct14 2You’ll already know what the small hole at the top of each tag can be used with our attachment loops to join tags together or hang individual tags in handy places.

You can make TomTag even more portable by using that small hole to attach a keyring, belt clip or lanyard to one or more tags so that they can be carried on the person. This is a really useful idea when using TomTag to promote good behaviour at home or school – handy for teachers or parents to carry with them so they can quickly show the relevant symbol or list as a reminder.

Here’s a picture one of our customers sent to us – she’s a very busy bee and likes to know she can always check what’s happening next during the day, wherever she is.

We’ve been thinking for some time about introducing lanyards with our TomTag logo – what do you think? Would this interest you?

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Over to you

What would you add to this list? Have a novel way for using TomTag? Let us know and we’ll share your ideas too.

Building a positive teaching assistant relationship

National Teaching Assistants Day recognises the valuable contribution that over 240,000 teaching assistants (TAs) make to the education and support of pupils in schools across the UK.

laptop pictures 1910Most TAs are employed to support pupils with special educational needs (SEN) either working with a child one-to-one or in a small group to reinforce what has been learned earlier from the teacher; others have more general classroom responsibilities.

I have met many TAs over the years as they have supported my son, who has autism and language impairment, during his journey through mainstream school. From this experience, these are my top tips for building a good parent/TA relationship.

Sharing information

Share information about your child’s strengths, interests, likes and dislikes with the TA as much as possible. My son loves trains and lorries so letting his TA know what inspired him helped her incorporate those interests into his writing and maths tasks. By sharing his dislike of noisy, crowded rooms she could suggest alternative, quieter activities we could use whenever he became overwhelmed in such situations.

Communication strategy

Decide how you will communicate and agree a way that works best for both of you. A weekly phone call might be sufficient for some whereas others may prefer more regular emails, texts or paper-based contact.

diary_webWhen my son was in primary school and had just one TA I found a home/school contact book to be most useful. This was used daily to share information about his activities, issues or events at home or school. Now that he is in secondary school with a number of TAs, I find regular emails to each assistant to be the most effective and efficient means of communication.

 

Understand responsibilities

Recognise that whilst the teaching assistant is supporting your child, the teacher has the responsibility for what happens in their classroom.

Qualified teachers are responsible for children’s learning so it’s important to ask the teacher and SENCO how your child’s TA is being deployed in the classroom to get the best from your child. Find out what training the TA has had to provide the support your child needs too.

If you are concerned about your child’s progress don’t blame the TA but speak directly to your child’s teacher and SENCO about your concerns.
TT thank you

Appreciation

Everyone likes to feel valued. Don’t forget to tell your TA how much you appreciate their support; a handwritten card and small gift at the end of the year is a nice token of gratitude!

Interest or obsession – a matter of perspective

The recent 175th anniversary of the issue of the Penny Black postage stamp took me back to my childhood and the joys of stamp collecting. For me this was a hobby, a pleasant way to pass the time and a special interest I could share with my dad.

Interest or obsession?

eddies
Eddie Stobart collection

Most people have interests and hobbies. For children with autism however the term ‘special interest’ implies more than a run of the mill hobby – usually that they have an obsession with a particular object, topic or collection.

Having interests is generally a good thing for most people but when they become obsessions then they can interfere with quality of life.

Managing special interests

Over the course of his childhood my son Tom, who is autistic, has had a range of special interests, including:

RUBY GLOOM 6 023
Train spotting!
  • Thomas the Tank Engine
  • Traffic lights
  • Eddie Stobart lorries
  • TinTin
  • Number cards
  • Flags
  • Trains

As a family we’ve always engaged with Tom’s various interests and tried to view them as his way of expressing himself. We’ve used them as a stepping stone to expand activities, encourage his learning and promote his communication skills.

However, as many parents know from experience, managing special interests before they morph into all-consuming obsessions is one of the many balancing acts of parenting a child on the spectrum.

Obsessions – good or bad?

Unlike my interest in stamp collecting, Tom’s special interests fulfil a number of specific needs for him. His current interest is trains and the positive effects of this include:

  • Gives him enjoyment and makes him feel happy.
  • Acts as a comforter and a coping mechanism. When he is overwhelmed or anxious he likes to immerse himself in thoughts about trains.
  • Allows him to connect with other people in social situations as he uses his interest in trains to start conversations.

It is when Tom is anxious that we see the difficulties that his special interests can cause.

  • It’s difficult to communicate with him as all he wants to talk about is trains.
  • Undermines his ability to learn at school as all his thinking time is taken up with thoughts about trains.
  • Isolates him from peers who do not want to talk about or listen to a monologue about trains.
  • Can affect family relationships as he only wants to participate in activities which revolve around his special interest.

Tips for managing special interests

It’s not generally realistic (or necessarily desirable) to remove the special interest. The best approach is to try to manage the special interest so that it does not take over everyday life.

These are some of the strategies we’ve tried to follow:

Set limits

clockTom can talk about or view videos and pictures of trains on the computer at certain times of the day e.g. when he gets home from school but only after finishing his homework or between certain hours at the weekend.

Make it predictable

Making sure that Tom can clearly access what he needs during these limited times or preparing him well in advance if it’s not going to be possible help to significantly reduce anxiety levels (his and mine!).

Encourage communication

notebook & pencilReduce the dependence on the special interest as a comfort when there are worries or anxieties by encouraging other means of communication. We set up a feelings book so that Tom can record any worries he has and we have a designated adult at school that he knows he can talk to about any issues that arise during the school day.

Teach conversation skills

With the help of Tom’s speech and language therapist, we’re working on developing conversation skills to support his understanding of topic management and how to read the signs that people have become bored or disinterested in his train talk!

If you’d like more information or advice about this topic, Ambitious about Autism have an informative article on managing obsessions and the National Autistic society also has some practical advice on understanding behaviour and obsessions.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your experiences of managing special interests and any tips you could share.

Make reading easier with Open Book

reading_web_clearWhen my son has science homework my heart sinks. He has autism and significant language impairment which impact on his reading comprehension abilities and vocabulary knowledge.

The science curriculum is so densely packed with subject specific words that it’s a real challenge to explain concepts simply for him. I’ve a shelf full of study guides to show for my efforts!

You’ll understand then why I was so excited when I heard about Open Book – a new tool for making texts more accessible for people with autism. The software was created as part of the EU-funded FIRST project (Flexible Interactive Reading Support Tool) – a large research study that brought together partners from across Europe and has been subject to clinical evaluation.

Open Book works by adapting documents into a format that is easier to understand. Simply type or cut and paste text into a document and use the function buttons to either replace complex words with simpler alternatives or change long sentences into a series of shorter, easier ones.

My favourite function is the ability to highlight a word and access an approriate image. Like many people with autism, my son is a visual learner learner so this is a really helpful feature. Open Book can be used with various types of text including school textbooks and children’s books.

We’re sure that once you’ve watched this video you’ll want to head over to www.openbooktool.net and try it for yourself.

10 ways to have fun with occupational therapy

Occupational Therapy Week took place last week and it prompted me to reflect on the occupational therapy (OT) my son has received over the past few years. Gulp… it’s also focused my mind on the amount of money I’ve spent on buying OT resources!

The main emphasis for my son has been Sensory Integration Therapy  to help him cope with his sensory difficulties, with activities focusing on developing gross and fine motor skills and his sensory perception (i.e. touch, body awareness, balance, auditory & visual skills).

Naturally some activities and resources have proved more successful than others so we thought it would be helpful to select our TOP 10 to share with you.

1. HUG & TUG

hug and tug

This simple exercise can calm anxiety, increase concentration and help develop fine motor skills. Just needs two hands and can be done at any time!

Visit the Handle Institute page for details of the exercise.

 2. SCOOTER BOARD

At his last school my son cut quite a dash scooting along the corridor propelled by his arms! Great for building up shoulder stability and core strength.

Sensory Direct have some reasonably priced boards.

3. ANIMAL ACTION CARDS

card exercise  1

Make a set of cards showing different animal walks then take it in turns to choose a card and complete the exercise shown on it. Try dog walks, bunny hops, kangaroo jumps, crab walks – whatever takes your fancy. Great for building upper body strength and a sense of humour!

This is a good activity to do with siblings and as a rainy day or birthday party game.

Stuck for ideas? Pop over to the blog Pinning With Purpose for some good tips on how to make your own animal exercise cards.

4. TIME SHOCK

time shock puzzle

Have you got a steady hand? This frantic beat-the-clock game is great for developing fine motor skills and also uses visual memory.

The aim of the game is to place the shapes in the matching slot before the time runs out. Need nerves of steel though and can get competitive!

5. POP-UP TUNNEL

play tunnel

Crawling helps develop shoulder stability which is important for writing skills. This simple item also offers hours of fun playing peek-a-boo which encourages eye contact.

IKEA, Tesco, ELC and the like all have similar versions.

6. PUTTY

Great for developing hand muscle strength. You could even try making your own putty.

Fledglings have are some lovely reasonably-priced Rainbow Putty which comes in a variety of different colours and is colour-coded to indicate the level of resistance.

7. HIDDEN TREASURE

sensory bean box

Fill a tub with rice or another pulse and hide small objects such as toy cars, figurines or sweets. Great to develop fine motor skills and another fun party game.

8. SWING

cuddle swing

Swinging is good for vestibular movement. My son particularly liked this cuddle swing.

They can be expensive to buy so here’s some tips on how to make your own cuddle swing and there’s even some ideas for versions that don’t need attaching to the ceiling.

9. CRAFT ACTIVITY

There are plenty of options here – we chose to make our own dominoe game using card, craft foam, marker pens and stickers.

There were lots of opportunities to practice fine motor skills with all that cutting, sticking and drawing and we all enjoyed playing the finished result.

10. CHEWY TUBE

chewy aid

Our bright red T-shaped Chewy Tube saved many a shirt cuff and tie being shredded! Very resilient and helps develop chewing skills as well as reducing anxiety. Fledglings and Rosy & Bo  both have a good range of oral motor aids to choose from.

 

Find out more about what occupational therapsits do and how occupational therapy can hep by visiting the British Association of Occupatinal Therapists website www.cot.co.uk

The joy of jigsaws – 5 great benefits

With winter now well and truly on it’s way, we’re going to be spending a lot more time indoors.

What can you do to keep the kids entertained without the whole day turning into a tech fest? Simple…..

Getting started on the underground

Just choose something that’s fun, makes kids think and gives them a tangible reward at the end of their endeavours. You probably already have one of these boredom busters lurking somewhere in the house! On a recent wet weekend when helping my autistic son complete a 500 piece puzzle of the London Underground map, we re-discovered the joy of jigsaws.

The joy of jigsaws – 5 great benefits

1. COMMITMENT

Doing a jigsaw puzzle uses a number of cognitive skills including reasoning and problem solving. Even the simplest puzzle requires planning and thinking about where and how the pieces fit together which leads to a commitment to solving the problem and completing the task.

2. CONCENTRATION

When working on a jigsaw puzzle we’re using memory, critical thinking and usually a lot of patience! We need to remember the shape of pieces we’ve already tried, use strategies for sorting pieces into similar types, shapes or colours and keep trying until we find exactly where every piece fits. That all requires a great deal of concentration.

3. COORDINATION

Picking up pieces and having to slot them together without breaking up the rest of the puzzle can be a complex task. Puzzles require intricate coordination of hand and eye movements and can also help improve children’s understanding of colours and shapes.

Picking up the pieces

4. CONVERSATION

The subject of the puzzle can spark conversation around the topic. A number or alphabet puzzle can reinforce learning about letters and numbers. My son is very keen on all forms of transport so the Underground puzzle prompted him to talk about related topics.

Tackling a jigsaw together is also a great social activity and gives the chance to talk and spend time together. Keeping a puzzle on the go in the living room or kitchen is a great idea and the whole family can do a little bit whenever they fancy. Especially good for keeping the channels of communication open with teenagers!

5. COMPLETION

jigsaw 3
Finished – well almost!

Solving a jigsaw puzzle gives a real sense of satisfaction. You will have practised goal-setting and patience as well as a number of different problem-solving strategies. Your brain will have had a fantastic work-out so it deserves to celebrate! It’s just a shame our puzzle had a few pieces missing. Still, another valuable lesson learnt – life doesn’t always fall neatly into place!

 

TOP TIP: Charity shops and car boot sales are both fantastic places to look for good value jigsaws. Return them to a charity shop for someone else to enjoy once you’re finished and the charity benefits again too.

Improving handwriting skills – without even lifting a pen!

The ability to write legibly remains an important skill even in this keyboard-driven era.

For children with dyspraxia, difficulties with handwriting can cause significant problems at school. As part of our focus on Dyspraxia Awareness Week we look at ways of developing children’s handwriting without the need to lift a pen!

Must haves for legible handwriting

A balancing act

To develop a legible, fluent and fast handwriting style, children need to have good gross and fine motor control as well as good hand-to-eye coordination.

Handwriting requires a steady shoulder and for the wrist and elbow to move in just the right way.

The development of good posture and balance are important.

How to develop gross motor skills

Swinging
Good grip!

Gross motor skills are the controlled movements in our whole body or limbs ie arms and legs. Activities such as dance, football, cycling and gripping climbing frames can all help develop gross motor control. Try these exercises too:

  • Skywriting – ‘write’ letters and words as large as you can in the air as if you’re holding a giant pen or pencil
  • Animal walks – develop shoulder stability by pretending to walk like an animal e.g. a crab. Makes for a great party game!
  • Jumping jacks – to improve core strength

How to develop fine motor skills

Fine motor skills are the smaller movements our bodies make, usually of the hands and fingers. Activities to improve fine motor control include:-

  • Bead threading
  • Making patterns using peg boards
  • Using chopsticks or tweezers to pick up small objects – the Operation game is great for this!
  • Bursting bubble wrap – who doesn’t love doing that?!
  • Using a squirt gun to ‘shoot’ water
  • Jenga
  • Hug and Tug

What’s Hug and Tug?

Hug & Tug is an exercise that’s particularly recommended to strengthen muscle tone in the fingers. Great for warming up the fingers before starting to write and can also help as a calming exercise.

  1. Start with interlocking your index fingers. Squeeze and pull – one relaxes as the other pulls.
  2. Repeat 3 or 4 times.
  3. Unhook your index fingers and interlock your middle fingers. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
  4. Continue with all fingers, including thumbs.

Visit the HANDLE Institute page for variations on the exercise.

Most importantly, remember to make the activities as playful as possible. Kids learn best when they’re having fun!

Hop over to the National Handwriting Association for lots more information and helpful advice.

Dyspraxia Awareness Week

Dyspraxia awareness week logo

Dyspraxia Awareness Week

12th – 18th October 2014

 

Organised by the Dyspraxia Foundation this nationwide campaign aims to raise awareness of dyspraxia and this year has a particular focus on the emotional impact the condition has on teenagers and young adults.

What is dyspraxia?

Sometimes referred to as the ‘clumsy’ syndrome, dyspraxia is a neurological condition that affects coordination and spatial awareness. It comonly also causes difficulties with planning or organising and is known to affect speech and thought. Dyspraxia often occurs alongside other conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.

Common features of the condition include:-

  • falling over frequently
  • difficulty walking up and downstairs
  • poor short term memory e.g. unable to remember or follow instructions
  • difficulties with dressing and fastening clothes
  • difficulties with running, jumping, catching/kicking balls
  • illegible handwriting
  • poor organisation skills

What can I do to help my child with dyspraxia?

Sensory integration therapy

Sensory integration therapy involves using equipment to help the child to take in sensory information such as touch, deep pressure, movement experiences and visual information. This sensory information helps improve spatial awareness and coordination.

Practice fine motor activities

Activities to improve fine motor skills will also help with handwriting and self care skills.

Encourage exercise and make it fun

Set up a mini assault course using simple household items – cushions to jump over, a long stick for a finish line, bean bags for throwing, etc. Try to include lots of running, jumping and throwing activities. Time them and challenge them to beat their personal best!

Simplify things

Opt for loose fit clothing that’s easy to take on and off. Look out for elastic waists on trousers and skirts, velcro fastenings on shoes and coats and jumpers rather than cardigans with fiddly buttons.

Easy belts have velcro closing belts in a variety of colours and sizes for children and adults.

Lock Laces elastic shoelaces can replace normal shoe laces on any shoes or trainers and come in lots of exciting colours!

Use checklists, daily diaries and visual supports such as TomTag to make day to day organisation easier and more predictable.

Where can I go for more information?

Dyspraxia Foundation – become a member of the foundation (£25 for 12 month membership) to access a host of information sheets and gain access to your local group.

Dyspraxia UK – can help with finding a specialist occupational therapist in your area who will be able to assess, diagnose and devise individualised therapy plans.

When is a child old enough to walk to school alone?

Most of us parents will remember walking to primary school on our own at some point but it’s an increasingly rare sight these days.

Practice the journet

There are actually no laws or official guidelines around age or distance of walking to school so it’s down to each of us to decide when our children are ready.

As well as the obvious health benefits, walking to school can help build independence, responsibility, safety awareness and social skills.

The biggest fears amongst parents about letting their children walk to school alone are of traffic and stranger danger. The Living Streets campaign tries to help parents understand the reality of these risks and explains that by protecting children from them they could be unwittingly harming their long-term health and well-being in other ways.

This Living Streets and Parentline Plus Walk to School report states that “Giving children the opportunity to walk to school not only reduces the risk of obesity but helps them develop independence and teaches them important life skills such as road safety and route finding”.

Start small

Build up to walking all the way by accompanying your child most of the way and letting them go the last bit by themselves. Gradually start making that last bit longer whilst they (and you!) gain in confidence until they’re doing it all themselves.

Safety in numbers

Try pairing up with other parents and taking it in turns to walk with the children to school first and then build up to the children walking together without any of you.

Road safety

Use this transition time to give reminders and tips about crossing roads and traffic awareness. If you always make the decision when it’s safe to cross, your children won’t learn what to look for to make safe decisions themselves. Talking through likely scenarios will help build their confidence to know what to do when they’re on their own. Do you know your green cross code?

Stranger safety

Agree an easily remembered code word or phrase to use in the event that someone else has to pick up or meet your children. Tell them to ask for this code word if anyone approaches them offering a lift, whether it’s someone they know or not.

October is International Walk to School Month

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Fine motor skills

Fumbling in my purse for loose change today, I’m reminded how important fine motor skills are for daily life.

What are ‘fine motor skills’?

Fine motor skills are the small muscle movements in the body. They enable activities such as writing, grasping small objects and fastening clothes. Children who have a weakness in fine motor skills struggle to develop strong muscles in their fingers, hands and wrists. They may also have poor eye-hand coordination.

Why are fine motor skills important?

Problems with fine motor skills can have a detrimental effect on education and impact on life in general. For example, the ability to hold a fork and eat, write legibly and complete personal self care tasks such as washing and dressing all depend on the coordination of small actions.

My own son still struggles with pen & paper tasks, his ability to tie shoe laces remains a work in progress, not to mention the hours of frustration spent battling with fiddly zips!

What can I do if my child needs help?

There are lots of inexpensive resources and ideas to help strengthen fine motor skills.

Drawing, colouring and craft activities can all help build these skills in a fun, informal way.

We’re lucky to have Star Tree Studio nearby who host a range of craft and creative classes (as well as art & craft birthday parties) where kids can ‘play-create-learn’ without messing up the house! Check out your local free papers and family magazines to find something similar in your area.

The imagination tree has a great blog post ’40 fine motor skills activities’

OT Mom Learning Activities has some useful suggestions for fine motor activities for older kids

Make it fun

Kids learn best when they don’t realise they’re learning! For example, we always recommend that children are involved with putting together their own TomTag ready to use. As well as helping them to understand their own routine it is a very tactile and fun activity that can help strengthen fine motor skills. Peeling off and sticking stickers onto buttons requires hand-eye coordination and pincher grip – both important for writing. Hand and finger muscles come into play too when clicking buttons into tags and removing them.

Zip it up!

Getting hold of a zipper to fasten up a jacket, bag or pencil case can be incredibly difficult for children with fine motor difficulties. We’ve now got funky zip pulls to help with those fiddly zips!

We’re giving them away free right now to anyone who recommends TomTag to a friend who then places an order.

We’d also recommend Zipz by MERU – colourful, ergonomically designed zip pulls which are also great for glove wearers: skiers, bikers, winter & outdoor activities lovers.