Comprehension and learning life’s lessons

In my Uncle B’s eulogy, the story was told of a discussion that Uncle B had with a fellow cancer patient in hospital. This other patient, who was a millionaire, said that he hoped to become a billionaire before he died. Uncle B said to him that his wealth was his faith, his wife and his beautiful family.

I was gobsmacked that anyone could want more money as a last achievement; surely everyone has been exposed to enough proverbs, books and movies that highlight the emptiness of money and the value of relationships. Then, I remembered reading the book ‘Herbert & Harry’ to my sons.

Herbert and Harry were brothers who found a treasure box while fishing together one day. Herbert ran off with the treasure, developed paranoia and lived alone in a fort protecting his treasure. Harry went back to his house on the top of the hill and raised a family of his own. At the end of the book, Harry can be seen in good health reading stories to his grandchildren and Herbert can be seen neither happy nor healthy keeping guard from the top of his fort.

After reading the book, I asked my eldest son Jeremy, which brother he would prefer to be and without hesitation he said Harry. I asked Damian who he would prefer to be and without hesitation he said Herbert.

Damian has always loved treasure, for a long time ‘gold’ was his favourite colour. He would collect stones from gardens and call them diamonds or gems. Damian also loves money. He gets very excited when people give him money for his birthday and he delights in putting it straight into his money-box. Once, when I explained that a friend felt bad because he wanted to give us money for something we had done for him Damian said “That will never happen to me because when I grow up I’ll be rich and people will be asking me for money!”

Damian’s teacher (Mrs L) told me recently that she was ‘blown away’ by Damian’s reading comprehension; meaning that he not only read the words well but he also understood what he was reading. Mrs L gave me a checklist of questions to ask before, during and after reading to extend his comprehension even further.

It occurred to me that with his improved reading comprehension, developed since starting school, Damian may now have a different understanding of the book about Herbert and Harry. I decided to videotape Damian reading the story (my boys love to be videotaped) and I explained that I would be asking him questions while he read it.

Mostly, I asked Damian how each character was feeling at different stages during the book and why*. It became clear to Damian that Herbert was in fact not happy at all and with that knowledge he said, without hesitation, that he would prefer to be Harry. Phew! Message imparted. I’ll be damned if I raise a ‘Mr Scrooge’.

You can watch Jeremy read ‘Herbert and Harry’ (with comprehension questions) here**.


* The featured image for this post includes the full checklist of comprehension questions.

** Jeremy’s recording was more entertaining than Damian’s because the battery ran out during Damian’s recording and he lost momentum. However, if you want to listen to Damian read the book then you can click here.

Herbert Harry plus checklist

Damian and ‘The Disappointment Dragon’

Several days ago, my son had a bad day. It’s not unusual to be greeted by Damian with “This is the worst day of my life.” Damian is a dramatic boy, which can be helpful because he expresses his feelings very clearly. By the end of the day, when the pressure of performance at school starts to build up (pressure to sit still, keep quiet, listen and do, organise and transition and accept the unexpected), Damian is at his most vulnerable. When Damian is at his most vulnerable it isn’t hard for seemingly little things to upset him.

That particular day, we got off to a bad start. Ironically, we were early to school (it doesn’t happen very often). In fact, we were early enough that my boys had time to play before the first school bell rang. Jeremy’s friend P was kicking a football with his dad and a few other children so Jeremy and Damian joined them.

I was relieved when Damian got a couple of touches of the ball, it’s a trigger for a meltdown when that doesn’t happen (attending Auskick presents many challenging situations) but when the bell rang Damian’s bottom lip had dropped and he looked dejected. He hadn’t kicked a goal. Everyone else had kicked a goal except him, the fact that he was 18 months younger than everyone else did not matter to him.

On finding out why Damian was upset P’s mum (N) thoughtfully insisted that the boys give the ball to Damian for him to kick a goal and Damian was momentarily happy again until one of the boys told him it didn’t count because the game had ended. N and I tried to fix it by telling him that we saw his kick and it was definitely a goal but I guess the opinions of parents start to matter less as they get older because it was no consolation for him. It’s always a worry when Damian starts the day upset.

All the children piled out of the classroom at the end of the school day, I was used to Damian being last one out due to the amount of time it takes him to organise and pack his school bag but that day I was called into the classroom for a discussion. Damian was sitting down on the floor next to some cushions, holding onto some damp tissues, bottom lip out and eyes cast down. Mrs L (his teacher) said “It’s only been the last 15 minutes, he’s OK”.

Mrs L went on to explain that they had decided to do a craft activity in the library (something they didn’t normally do) and it involved making mini-beasts (invertebrates like insects and spiders) with cardboard and other accessories. Damian loves mini-beasts and he was really pleased with his exceptionally hairy spider.

When they got back to the classroom Mrs L said they were going to display the mini-beasts in the classroom. Mrs L was so pleased with their work that she said to some children “Wow, I might even keep them up for the whole year!” Of course, Damian overheard and was instantly devastated. Damian loved his spider so much that he wanted to take his hairy scary spider home with him.

Mrs L did not want to make an exception ‘then and there’ for Damian, which was probably a good idea for the long term because if she allowed him to take it home straight away, then he might always expect that, which might cause further problems down the track. It took me back to a couple of years ago when Damian would become upset from time-to-time in kindergarten when he wanted to take his paintings home straight away but they had to be left to dry overnight. However, it always remained a challenge for him.

With all the children now gone, Mrs L openly negotiated an earlier time for Damian to take his mini-beast home. Mrs L asked Damian “What do you think would be a reasonable amount of time to have the work displayed for?” and Damian said in a resolute and unimpressed way “1 day!”

Mrs L finally accepted a negotiated time of 1 week. I told Damian to thank Mrs L for negotiating a shorter time but Damian chose to ignore me. However, I believe that he heard and hopefully he registered that Mrs L had considered his feelings and that she had compromised her position with that in mind.

The first thing that I said to Damian when informed of his disappointment was to say “How about we go home and make some bugs with our craft stuff at home?” Fortunately, we didn’t have any extracurricular activities planned for that afternoon (we often do) so I could afford the time to sit down with him and help him. The offer didn’t seem to help his mood straight away.

Mrs L began attaching Damian’s spider to a string ready to hang with everyone else’s work while I was there and she asked Damian where he wanted to put it. If Mrs L had of asked simply “Where would you like to put it?” I’m sure he would have said “In my school bag!” but fortunately Mrs L anticipated that potential response and gave him a choice of hanging it from either end of the line of mini-beasts.

Damian chose the end furtherest from Mrs L’s desk and Mrs L said “I’m glad you chose that end because it might scare me if it is too close to my desk”. I looked at Damian and his expression changed a little, I could see he was reconsidering the position. I smiled and said “You want to put it near Mrs L desk now don’t you!” He laughed and so while Mrs L hung it near her desk she pretended to be worried (in a humorous way) that she was going to bump into it whenever she passed it.

As we left the classroom, Damian started thinking about what kind of bugs he wanted to make at home but he was still upset. When we passed one of Damian’s classmates who waved goodbye to him, Damian said goodbye in a glum voice without making eye contact. I said “You should use a friendly voice because your friend might think you are upset at him” but Damian said “He knows why I’m upset!”.

He was right; all Damian’s classmates had seen him get upset. In fact, Mrs L had said to me (in front of Damian, for Damian’s benefit) that he had some good caring friends including one who had suggested that his spider hang next to his bug and the mini-beasts could play together. Although, I’m guessing Damian’s spider would have eaten his bug in reality.

At home, after spending some time making stick insects, centipedes and scorpions with pipe cleaners and googly eyes, Damian’s mood improved dramatically especially when I mentioned that he could take them for ‘show and tell’ at school the next day.

Well, the next day came and Damian helped me pack his craft bugs into boxes to take to school. Jeremy was unwell (nothing too serious) so Damian had my undivided attention and was in a happy mood. To make my day even brighter, after dropping Damian off at school, I received a book I had ordered a week earlier called ‘The Disappointment Dragon’.*

I’m hoping that like it’s sister book ‘The Panicosaurus’ that Damian loves it because the more times we read about and discuss emotional challenges and strategies for coping with them (when he is in a good mood), the greater Damian’s ability to understand and manage his feelings of disappointment so that they don’t take him to the ‘Valley of Despair’.

I have also used images from the book (not copied in this post to avoid copyright issues) and used similar terminology, to make a summary/checklist/ tool for my boys to read anytime they like. I have copied the text below**:

Go away Disappointment DragonHow can I banish the Disappointment Dragon Go away Panicosaurus What would the Smartosaurus doGo to sleep big Red Beast   How can I tame the Red Beast

Tonight, 2 days later, without prompting, Damian chose all 3 books ‘The Disappointment Dragon’, ‘The Panicosaurus’ and ‘The Red Beast’ to read before bed. Something good has got to come from that 🙂


*I don’t agree with the phrase “The only disability in life is a bad attitude” briefly referred to in ‘The Disappointment Dragon’ for political reasons but otherwise I mostly found the book to be exceptionally useful and entertaining.

**Another book in the series that I don’t love as much but still find useful is ‘The Red Beast’. I have also used terminology from that book in the tool that I constructed for my boys (above) for consistency. The emotion level thermometers, which I refer to in the checklist/tool above, can be constructed pretty easily (search for images on the internet to give you an idea) but I use one provided in a resource that I have called The C.A.T -kit (by Tony Attwood).



My son lied and I loved it

“There is no such thing as monsters”. I guess that is where it all started. Somewhere along the line, “There’s no such thing as…” extended to magic and therefore fairies. And then Jeremy lost his first baby tooth. How do you explain to a child that doesn’t believe in monsters and fairies that tooth fairies exist?

It took some explaining until he was moderately convinced, but it didn’t last long. One day Jeremy told us he didn’t think the tooth fairy was real and he insisted that we confirm it. Over and over again he kept asking us. My husband and I had a difference of opinion on how we should manage Jeremy’s constant questioning. I felt bad about the idea of lying and I could see he needed more definitive answers, while my husband wanted to preserve the magic of childhood (both valid approaches).

Our combined anxiety finally got the better of my husband so he relented and allowed me to answer him honestly. Jeremy’s anxiety abated with an unequivocal answer and logical explanations but soon his mood turned to one of devastation. He was sad that he knew the truth and angry at me for telling him. He said “I wish I could stop knowing it”. It was a lose/lose situation.

We had decided to keep up the tooth fairy exercise for his younger brother’s (Damian’s) sake, something that Jeremy appreciated. One day, Jeremy told me he wanted to write a letter to the tooth fairy to thank the fairy for taking all his teeth. I said “But I thought you didn’t believe in fairies?” He said he knew that the tooth fairy was me but he still wanted to write the letter to me as ‘the tooth fairy’ and leave it under his pillow.

So in the middle of the night I took the note and replaced it with a one from the tooth fairy saying “You’re welcome, from the tooth fairy”. Upon the notes discovery, Jeremy grinned from ear to ear, he hadn’t expected me to play along with it to that extent.

Over the last week or so, a few of Damian’s teeth have started to wobble. We are all a bit excited for him because he has been waiting for so long to receive that much sought after gold coin. However, this morning over breakfast he asked the question “Mum, do you believe in the tooth fairy?” I froze. I knew it would just be a ‘white lie’ but he asked me with such innocent, trusting eyes and his question caught me by surprise.

One of my sisters, who has studied and worked in human resources, once told me that if someone asks you a question that you don’t want to answer, ask them why they want to know. So I said to Damian “Why did you ask me that?” It bought me some time while I tried to figure out a way to confirm the existence of the tooth fairy without lying. Then Jeremy chimes in with “Mum does believe in the tooth fairy! She told me that!” I nodded my head in agreement and fiercely avoided eye contact.

Damian then went on to explain that he doesn’t believe that fairies have a magic wand and gave his version of how he thought tooth fairies took care of the teeth, which involved a convoluted plot including other types of fairies. I must say it was very cute to hear my son, who plays Minecraft on his iPad and hates being called cute (or gorgeous, or angel or beautiful etc.) talk about the role of ‘wishing fairies’ in the whole process. Jeremy had knowingly and intentionally preserved Damian’s innocence for just a bit longer.

Later, I gave Jeremy a big hug and explained that I was so pleased that he understood my limitations and Damian’s needs and found a solution. I reiterated what I have told him many times that he is such a thoughtful, caring boy. He smiled, pleased with himself and hugged me back.

My boys love this song about Minecraft and because it makes me laugh, I’d thought I’d share it with you. It’s called ‘Don’t Mine at Night’ (click here).

Hands down

One little girl was hunched over trying to maintain a cross-legged seated position while holding up her arm with the other, the effort was exhausting but the answer to her question would be worth the effort for her.

The children were seated in a semi-circle around an external presenter an arrangement that took a great deal of organisation in itself. It was the annual mini-beast incursion for Grade 1s; a show-and-tell of invertebrates to help consolidate their learning.

At the beginning of the session they were given strict instructions to stay quiet so as not to scare the animals and to save their questions until the end of the session so that they had time to meet all the creatures in tanks and cages in front of them. They were prompted to pretend to ‘zip’ closed their lips and ‘switch on’ their ‘hearing ears’.

But that didn’t stop several of the children from attempting to ask questions, their expressions reflecting the urgency of their need for explanations and followed by intense disappointment at being asked to put their hands down. Their teacher would bend down beside some of the more insistent questioners and whisper quietly in their ears that they could not have their question answered until the end so they must lower their hands.

The presenter was trained in the art of performing for children; she projected her speech clearly and loudly although a little too fast, as though pressed for time. She maintained perfect eye contact with the children with a permanent wide friendly smile and memorized the more vocal children’s names very quickly to get their attention. She echoed key phrases and words and got the children to join in with the easy answers that she had prepped them for.

At the end of the day, when I went to collect Damian, several children who have taken a liking to me (over the course of the last year or so) ran straight up to me and began telling me all about the amazing animals they had seen at the incursion. I laughed and said to them “Have you forgotten that I was there!?” but I should have said nothing and ‘oohed and aahed’ instead because their faces looked a little disappointed that they were unable to dazzle me with their stories.

Although the incursion was a roaring success in terms of a visual and tactile experience, the learning approach was completely directed. They had gotten to touch many of the animals in turn, each child had a carefully posed for a photo with an animal chosen by the presenter and they had learnt some common words and facts about the animals but at the end of the session but there had been no time for questions or comments, not even one.

All those questions and comments remained unasked and unsaid. How did those children feel about that? Would their questions have extended their learning? Had they learned something that day about asking questions generally (they were of lowest priority in this case). Or had they completely forgotten about them?

Damian was one of the children with lots of questions; clearly he takes after me. Unfortunately, I have developed a touch of shame about asking questions over time because I am a compulsive asker and answerer of questions. There have been many times I have sat upon my hands during workshops to try to prevent myself from taking up more than my fair share of the facilitator’s time. Precious time, time that has been crafted to the minute to impart all the information necessary to tick all the boxes.

So I pose a couple of questions to you: How balanced should we be between ‘hands down’ approaches to teaching and ‘hands up’ approaches to teaching? Does asking questions and commenting take up too much of valuable teaching time or are we missing opportunities for learning that are just as valuable?


I remember being surprised one day when reading that some people may have regrets about their life being too ordinary. It hadn’t occurred to me that ordinary could be a drawback. I always thought that having an average job, an average house and average children with an average amount of friends (and an average amount of problems because it’s not all roses) would be an ideal thing*. I didn’t ever aspire to be ordinary but I guess I assumed that my life would be.

My family is certainly ordinary in some ways. We have an average house, in an average suburb with an average car. We have a trampoline, a couple of bikes and a basketball ring in our backyard. My children go to a public school and are enrolled in extracurricular activities like football, swimming and they have play dates. I am an average stay-at-home primary caregiver who cleans the house, cooks average meals of an evening and helps out at school. We play, work and laugh together but we also argue and make mistakes like families do.

But in other ways we are less ordinary or more extraordinary. My sons and I experience more sensory processing challenges and social-communication challenges, which lead to us being confused, overwhelmed and underwhelmed more easily than others. We experience greater than average amounts of anxiety and sometimes behave more intensely when under pressure by either crying, yelling or becoming withdrawn. It’s actually pretty typical to react like that when under pressure but often we are under pressure in circumstances that other people are not, so those reactions may (falsely) seem misplaced. We fiddle, wriggle and become distracted more regularly than others and we are very concerned about the well-being of other people when we see them upset because we know how it feels.

My sons and I are academic high achievers. My children need to be extended in class, they want to answer all the questions and help all the other kids in the class to understand. They are never short of receiving praise from people and I haven’t wanted to teach them too much about boasting yet because I’d like them to bask in the glory of success for a few years yet. At their age, they can get away with it. We are prone to perfectionism and love routine. School works for us; it is the ideal environment when our peers treat us well (and my boys have been treated well). My sons and I are quirky and make quirky observations, we say and do things that others wouldn’t normally say and do and most of the time it’s meaningful, interesting and/or amusing.

I love my extraordinary life including the ordinary bits and I wouldn’t change it for the world. We all have a bit of extraordinary in our lives, you’ve just got to know where to look for it.

I thought I’d leave you with a few gems, straight from the mouths of my boys, when they were younger:


On occupations:

Jeremy told me one day that when he grows up he is going to be a Doctor on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays he will be a Fireman, on Saturdays an Astronaut and Sundays a Policeman. I asked “Aren’t you going to have any days off work?” and he said “Of course mum, I’ll have holidays!” “What about weekends?” I added. He said thoughtfully “No I won’t have weekends off because I really want to be an Astronaut and a Policeman as well”.

One day Jeremy asked his dad how balloons were made and his dad attempted an explanation but Jeremy wanted more detail, so he asked: “What kind of shape? (is the rubber moulded into)”. His dad replied “A round shape”. Jeremy asked “What about a square shape?” His dad stated “No, you can’t get square shaped balloons!” Jeremy asked “Why not?” and his dad (momentarily stumped) said “You just can’t!” Jeremy was very unimpressed with his dad’s answer and stated emphatically “Well, when I grow up I want to be a balloon maker and make square balloons!”

On the topic of balloons:

Andrew came home from a university open day with two identical blue balloons, one for Jeremy and one for Damian so there would be no arguments. They were filled with helium and the boys were fascinated that they were floating on the end of strings. First thing Jeremy says is “Can I have the highest one?”

On the topic of behaviour:

One day, when I was feeling a little frustrated, I said to Jeremy “If you grizzle and groan when I take you places I won’t want to take you anywhere again”. Jeremy responded with “OK I won’t. I will grizzle but I won’t groan.”

On the topic of anxiety:

One night Jeremy asked me “Can you come in with me because I am afraid of the dark?” I said “I thought you weren’t afraid of the dark”. Jeremy explained further “But I keep thinking there are ‘baddies’ (there)”. I said the first thing that came into my mind “Well, think of ‘goodies’”. Jeremy said “But that makes me think of goodies fighting baddies”. I said “Well think of rainbows then” and Jeremy replied “But that makes me think of baddies sliding down rainbows.”


On mathematics:

Jeremy commented on how dark it was one morning and I explained that it was because the daylight hours are getting shorter the further we get from summer. Jeremy said “The longest day is December the 21oneth and the shortest day is June the 21oneth” I was impressed (and expressed that) but I also corrected him to say 21st instead of 21oneth and Damian adds “it’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th. They are called ‘ordinal’ numbers!” Turns out they taught that earlier in the week, in Prep school.

On humour:

As I was getting out of the car one day (managing several bags) I said to myself out loud “Oh no, where is my handbag?” I quickly remembered that I shouldn’t alarm my children and added “Don’t worry, it will be here somewhere.” Jeremy said unimpressed “It’s on your shoulder.” I laughed out loud and Damian then asked (with a grin on his face): “Where is my hair?” I laughed and said “On your head”. Then Damian said “Where are my glasses?” I replied “On your face!” Then Jeremy joined in and they continued making similar jokes for a few minutes until we had to go.

On anxiety**:

The bedtime conversation with Damian went like this: Me: “I love you just the way you are!” Damian: “No you don’t” (probably feeling a bit uncomfortable with my declaration) Me: “Yes I do, I love you just the way you are!” Damian: “I don’t” Me: “What do you want to be?” Damian: “A grownup!” Me: “Why do you want to be a grown up?” Damian: “So I don’t have to go to Kinder” Me: “Well then you will have a job when you are grownup. What job will you have?” Damian: “I can’t remember.” Me (not wanting to make him more anxious): “Don’t worry you will learn about what job you want to do at school” Damian: “What I grow up I won’t be able to be scared of the dark anymore!” Me: “Grownups can still be scared of things. I am scared of spiders.” Damian: “What is Daddy scared of?” I couldn’t think of anything straight away so I said jokingly: “Daddy is scared of mummy.” Damian laughed (he understood the joke).

On identity:

Damian loves the ‘Going on a bear hunt’ song, so I looked up versions of that song on YouTube for him to listen to. I saw the image for one and said “You’ll like this one!” Damian said indignantly “Don’t tell me what I like, I know what I like!”

*Average in Australia or other Westernized country.

**We have done a lot of work to demystify the dark and help manage Damian’s anxiety about night times (involving Social StoriesTM with matching props to keep under the bed, story books and even a board game). When Damian and Jeremy are particularly vulnerable I will lie next to them for a few minutes. Most of the establishment of routines for bedtimes was done along time ago (refer here and here).

There’s no challenge here!

“I’m leaving. There’s no challenge here.” My colleague shook his head in disbelief after easily convincing me (three times in a row) that a more senior colleague was getting all manner of instalments in his newly renovated office including a big screen TV and a bar fridge for his beer. My job was to manage the boardrooms near his office and perks like that weren’t inconceivable to me. That’s the problem, nothing is inconceivable to me; I’ll believe just about anything.

I don’t feel comfortable telling stories to others that aren’t true so I guess it doesn’t intuitively occur to me, at any particular time, that others have a lot of fun with it. My son Jeremy has two best friends D & S who tell stories prolifically. I can only assume it’s typical for their age and Jeremy, like me, believes every word of it. I’ve gotten used to asking “Who told you that?” and stating “I think they were telling you stories”.

One day, I overheard Jeremy’s friend D telling him how he went fishing with his Uncles. During that conversation, D also mentioned in passing that he had a boat licence. I’m embarrassed to say that I believed him. I pictured D being one of those kids that has camped since he was born under the wing of his commando Uncles who taught him how to survive in the bush. I temporarily forgot that some privileges are age-dependent and 7 yrs of age is way too young to get a boat license. D thought it was hilarious that I believed him. Pretty soon D will be saying “There’s no challenge here”.

Most of the time, I don’t consider ‘telling stories’ as harsh as some forms of lying. Telling stories are almost in the same class as ‘white lies’ in that they are a more mild form of lying (if done without intent to harm). Telling stories is so common in Australian culture that casual phrases such as “Are you serious?” “No way!” “Really?” “Are you kidding?” are regularly used in everyday conversation in response to being told something interesting. In fact, I’ve noticed that I use “Are you serious?” so much that my son Damian has recently taken to adding “I’m serious!” to the end of his sentences when telling me something exciting.

When I was Jeremy’s age I recall a classmate recounting to a group of us the terrible tragedy of the death of her younger sibling who had drowned after being strangled by the slimy weeds in the local lake. My reaction must have been extreme (concern, anxiety or horror, I can’t remember which) because she looked at me disgustedly and spat out “Rachel, it’s just a joke”. Most people laugh with me when I get fooled but sometimes people can be cruel and laugh at me or imply that I am stupid.

The strange thing is that I’m a gullible sceptic. I’m sceptical about ‘pyramid schemes’, complementary and alternative medicine, psychics and anything claimed by salespeople or promised by politicians. If I ever receive a ‘You have won’ envelope in the mail or by email, it immediately goes in the trash, unopened. That’s not to say I haven’t been scammed.

Twice I lost a small amount of money on purchases, once over the internet (even though I used PayPal) and the other through a known (not known to me then) fraudulent cars salesperson. However (in contrast to those rare occasions) friends, family and colleagues will often have the upper hand with me. Why would I doubt what someone I trust has to say?!

Fortunately, most of my experiences of being gullible, although sometimes embarrassing, have been amusing such that while I despise the word ‘stupid’, I am fond of the word ‘gullible’. I associate being gullible with qualities such as trust and belief, not a lack of intelligence or general knowledge.

I’m almost 40, I’ve seen and read about many things in my time, things you could hardly believe that have happened (like how the hell did Tony Abbott get into power). Although, something may be very unlikely to occur, on a small-scale such as everyday human activities (there are about seven billion of us, all of us different) to an arguably infinite-scale such as the Universe, I believe that very unlikely things could still happen and I don’t see why they couldn’t happen to you.