In honour of World Autism Level Up Month, I was delighted to be interviewed by Sharon McCarthy for Autism Journeys Podcast. We explored strategies to support behaviour, anxiety and emotional wellbeing, how to make a ‘Back to Basics’ and ‘Social Connection’ plan, the 1% improvement secret and much more.
2:15 How the work of autistic adults has helped me see that I’m a novice in autism after working in the area for 19 years
5:40 Be curious not furious – a person’s behaviour is a window into their nervous system – and what to do about it
11:00 Hidden signs of anxiety
13:00 Three step approach to anxiety management
18:00 Three core needs for wellbeing
20:00 Why the pandemic and school closures have had such a big impact on First Years in secondary school
22:00 How and why you should make a ‘Back to Basics’ plan to help young people cope with stress and anxiety
24:20 How and why you should make a ‘Social Connection’ plan
26:00 Supporting children with remote learning – environment design, sensory strategies, music for focus
31:15 Supporting young people’s psychological wellbeing by layering protective factors
34:00 How to counteract our inbuilt negativity bias
37:00 Simple ways to make the ordinary extraordinary
39:00 The 1% improvement secret
40:30 Self care as the foundation to good parenting – how and why to make a selfcare plan
42:40 Be the adult you want your children to become
Interviewer: Well, let’s explore this a bit further with psychologist, Catherine Hallissey. She joins us now from Cork in Ireland. It’s great to have you with us on the Newshour. It’s been around a year now for the people have had their first taste of lockdown if you like, and people stuck to it quite rigidly at the start. Given that we’re now a year on, I mean, can you blame people for wanting to get out and see their friends and live a little?
Catherine: You know, I think there are so many factors that are combining to contribute to many people experiencing great frustration. So, in the very early days, this was so new and there were so many terrifying scenes coming out of other countries that people, many people were able to easily buy into the restrictions. And it’s particularly because we all thought that these restrictions were for a short period.
However, now we are one year on and people’s motivation is flagging, people’s belief is flagging. And I think one of the biggest issues is that there is no end in sight. There is no “if I just hold on for one more week, one more month, one more season, and then life can return to normal”. So because there’s no end in sight, that is greatly contributing to people’s fatigue and people’s desire to re-engage with normal life to have all of their normal support structures back.
Interviewer: And that’s very understandable, but it seems like some people are flipping too far in the opposite direction. We’ve just been showing our viewers pictures of hundreds of people cramped into an underground, illegal dance party, which, you know, it’d be dangerous at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic. How do you explain this rebound in the opposite direction to be, to quite dangerous conditions?
Catherine: Well, if you look at Spring Break last year, there were similar scenes then, and it’s important to look at the age profile of people who are engaging in these activities. So for young people, for young adults and adolescents, they are not impacted by COVID in the same way. So the risk for them is lower. They’re also at a time in their lives where they are highly motivated by being together, gathering together, engaging in novel activities. So you’ve got the combination of lower risk plus higher novelty seeking, fueling a lot of this behavior on top of the fatigue, the crisis fatigue that many of us are experiencing. So on the outside, it seems crazy, but for the people in there, it appears very logical to them. They have evaluated the risk and determined that the reward outweighs that risk for them.
Interviewer: Do you think it’s unreasonable for governments to expect people to lock themselves up at home for these extended periods of time?
Catherine: I think that’s an extremely difficult question to answer. I think that there are huge unintended consequences for this. There’s a very significant mental health impact. We’ve got huge increases in anxiety and eating disorders and just ordinary loneliness. So we have to weigh everything up. And I think that the governments are using the best available science to make these decisions. However, nobody has all of the answers. They are making, I suppose, their best guess as to trying to weigh up the whole of the public health. And I don’t think it’s neither reasonable nor only reasonable. It is just their best guess as to how to keep people safe.
I think it’s much more helpful to focus on how we can engage in self care, how we can continue to have social contact while maintaining physical distance and really making sure that the public health message around how to take care of yourself, how to really take care of your mental and physical health in this time so that people can endure, so that people can sustain this effort for as long as is needed to get this under control.
Interviewer: Okay. A very difficult situation indeed, but we’re grateful to you, Catherine Hallissey for bringing us your analysis and your expertise. Thank you.
Now we’re back to a topic that won’t go away and it’s not going to go away – screen time and children. And I was just looking at some research that has happened over the last six months or so. And from a lot of countries, including our own, it looks like screen time among our younger people has doubled since lockdown began.
So we decided to get psychologist Catherine Hallissey on the line. Catherine is a child psychologist, and she’s also mother to four children, which is important, I suppose, Catherine, because it gives you the coal face experience, doesn’t it? How are you doing?
Hi there, Ray. Now, they’ll kill me if I don’t say that there’s actually five of them.
Sorry. I don’t know where I got four from. Sorry. I thought I thought it was four. Sorry, sorry. Five children. Sorry about that.
They’ll be listening back and wondering which one of them I left out!
Okay, good to talk to you again. So, this is, well, let’s get to the nub of this in that our relationship with technology has changed over the last 11 months. And what we say as parents has changed as well, because we’re gone from sort of “how do we control all this?” to saying, “well, you know, you need it”. They need it to interact with their mates. They need it to occupy, as a distraction, as a diversion. So, what do you think what’s, how do we approach all this now?
You know, I think first of all, it’s really important to say that we’ve all made decisions in this past 12 months that was really just about getting through things and surviving. So for anybody listening to this now, the most important thing is that you don’t feel guilty with anything that we say because there are some hard realities with working from home, educating children at home, and we’ve all made choices that maybe we wouldn’t make again. With that said, there are so many things that we can do as parents. And the first thing is to just really take a look at what’s going on in your house, really take a hard look and see what aspects of this are you happy with. So it’s not about demonizing screen time in any way. You’re right – screen time has brought so many benefits to all of us during lockdown, in addition to the ordinary, everyday benefits. And so it’s definitely not about demonizing screen time. It’s just taking a look at how can we be more intentional as a family in our screen time use? So how long are we all spending on devices and what type of activities we are doing on the same devices?
Yeah. See, it’s mixed messages though, isn’t it? Because now the devices are being used for education. As I said already, there’ve been used for social interaction with mates and relations, and they’re been used for what they were used before lockdown, gaming and all that sort of thing, the things that we don’t like that much as parents. Yeah. So what are we saying? Are we saying you can do that, but you can’t do that.
Well, not all screen time is created equal.
So, I do this work all the time with children in my clinic where parents may come to me and say they really want to tackle screen time use in their home. And, as a parent, your first step is always look at your own screen time, model what you want to see. So before you even talk about your children’s screen time, look at yourself, are you happy with the amount you’re using it? Are you happy with how intentional you are? Do you pick up your phone and start scrolling and suddenly 20 minutes has gone by? Well actually start there before you tackle your children’s screen time. And this is that mixed messaging that we’re giving out, we can do all the hand wringing about our children’s screen time, but really we need to look at ourselves as a family unit, what’s our family screen time like, what are the activities we’re engaging in?
And of course they need it for education. So when your children are using devices for education, make sure there aren’t any other devices in the room like phones and tablets, that can be distracting them while they’re being educated, because it’s the shifting attention that’s having a hugely negative impact on our children’s education right now. It’s so challenging to learn online. And what has happened is that whenever we’re experiencing negative emotions, our go-to is to use our phones to soothe ourselves.
What you’re saying there, I’d say parents all over the country saying, Oh yeah, that’s it exactly. So if they’re getting bored or they’re having a bit of a problem with a particular subject, or, you know, it doesn’t suit them, they go then to the comfort blanket, their technological comfort blanket, which is playing a game of Roblox or whatever they, whatever they go to.
Exactly. Or just going on Snapchat, having just a quick check who has been in touch. You know, I’m doing all of my own learning online at the moment, and I feel those same desires to just check the phone just for a second.
And just breaking in our concentration. So again, this isn’t, that screen time is bad. It’s our unintentional to use. So what I I’m asking every parent listening is to just really think about what are the digital habits I want to have myself and that I want my children to have. And then how can I get there?
Yeah. It’s difficult though, because like you say, remove, you know, other bits of technology from the room, but if your teenager is in the room, you know, supposedly doing online learning, well, then they can do whatever they want in there, because you’re not going to be standing over their shoulder. Well, you can’t, you have five children, you can’t be omnipresent there for five children. So what do you do then?
So this is where you’re having a conversation about how we use technology in our home. It’s a teenager’s job to pull away from their parents. It’s a teenager’s job. They’re driven to connect with one another. So you’ve got these competing demands. So it’s about being realistic as well. So you can start with, with saying, okay, as a family, one of our tech habits is that we don’t have any tech during meals.
And you have a sin bin in the kitchen, and everybody puts their devices in there, including mom and dad, even if they’re waiting for an email for work, you know, and put whatever devices have just for short period of time. So that’s the beginning of a digital detox. So you just decide on certain times, and then the next time you might say, “okay, so you’ve got an online class for 40 minutes here, Give me your devices here so that you can concentrate”. And actually working together and creating these rules together. Because, to be honest, we all actually need a bit of support to reign in our unintentional screen time. And then you might look at what is the time in the evening? What’s your cut-off time in the evening that you want everybody to hand up their device. And this will change and evolve as they get older, so your rules for a 17 year old are going to be very different to your rules for a seven year old. And you’re moving towards a much more collaborative approach, the older they get.
From your work, do you think there’s been a shift that’s going to be difficult to, to redress to bring it back, because, if the amount of screen time has doubled in the last 11 months, and we’re going to be out of this eventually at some stage, we’re going to have to try and halve the screen time again, to bring it back to pre-lockdown levels.
Yeah. And for some children and families, that’s going to be really easy. They’re just naturally going to start going back to their activities. And, you know, when the sports open up, the dance class, the Scouts, the martial arts, whatever it is, whenever these activities come back. So again, you’re looking at what are the replacement activities? So for some children and families, they’re going to slot right back into that life and for other children and families, it’s going to be much more problematic.
So what I’m seeing and what the research is showing is that there’s a reduction in people’s ability to concentrate, a reduction in people’s ability, you know, we’re snacking on YouTube three to five minute videos versus sitting down and watching a 90 minute movie. Even at that very basic level, it’s changed our viewing habits. So, you can start by sitting down with your teenagers and watching The Social Dilemma and having a conversation with them about how screens…
So that’s a documentary on Netflix, about how the big tech companies manipulate how we use our devices.
Yeah. And how we’re the product. Our attention is the product. So I talk to young people about, you know, you want to be in charge of yourself. You don’t want anybody else manipulating you through your phone. So, you know, you’ve got to really think about how to make that happen. And this is where the being intentional with your use of devices.
When people listen to people like you, Catherine, they want specifics don’t they, I’m looking at the screen here, “please be specific about how many hours my kid should on screening, screen time every day, I’m talking about gaming, not educational. It’s a constant source of angst in our house. We allow two hours per day for our eight and nine year old boys. That’s on top of educational, two hours a day.”
I’m always frustrated with this myself that we don’t actually have any evidence-based guidelines on the amount of time. So for every parent listening, I’d say, first thing is, what are you happy with yourself? Don’t go against your own values. If two hours is within your values, then that’s fine. But what I would suggest is that you try and be with your child as much as possible when they are gaming, you know, be part of their world, don’t have them immersed in this hyper-stimulating world that you know nothing about.
And how do you feel about, and this is what’s happening in our house now, so they’re on a phone Roblox, but they’re also, they’re playing that, but their cousin best friend is also playing it and they’re talking at the same time. So they’re getting social interaction, interaction, but they’re gaming.
Yep, and, and gaming isn’t bad, it’s just about what it displaces. So, so many children, it’s their lifeline right now. They’re connecting with cousins, they’re connecting with friends classmates, you know, so there isn’t a problem with gaming. It’s only about the length of time. It’s only about the fact that it’s so hyper-stimulating, and if you’re spending four hours gaming, then it’s going to impact your sleep that night, because it’s so hyper-stimulating. So I’d be looking at the time of day that children are using screens. You know, we know that the blue light from the screens impacts the production of melatonin, that’s what gets you on that sleepy train at night, it’s what helps you feel sleepy. So look at the time of day, look at the length of time your children are on it, the time of day, and also the type of screen use.
And make sure as well that your children are reading, you know, make sure that they’re reading, they’re reading for 20 minutes a day and make sure they’re moving their bodies for a minimum, an absolute minimum, of 20 minutes a day. We know 20 minutes a day has a positive impact on their mental health, and that’s, we’re all thinking about our children’s resilience right now. So, it’s not just about screen time, it’s actually about what it’s displacing. Is it displacing family time? Yeah. Activity probably is.
The other thing is, cause you mentioned it homeschooling there. And just, just from you, maybe words of comfort for parents now, because I was talking about the statement, they’re calling it from Micheal Martin on Saturday about the fact that all schools won’t be back before March 17th, which is another what? Seven, eight weeks, seven weeks. So what, what, what, what can you say to people from your experience working at the coalface?
So the two things that are coming up in every single interaction I’m having with parents, whether it’s in my clinical practice or inside my parenting membership are the two things people are talking about are screen time and homeschooling. Yeah. So the first thing is what we’re being asked to do, it’s not homeschooling, we’re facilitating remote learning in the middle of a pandemic possibly while also trying to work from home. So the first thing is we just need to take a breath and do what we can do.
And because of the stress that everybody is under, I’m planning a mini workshops for parents. It’s going to be about 90 minutes where I will share with you everything that I do in my own home and everything that I know from my clients about what’s working. Okay. How to set up your environment, your home environment to optimize your learning.
Can you give us a few of those things that you’ll be sharing with the people who come on? I see that you’re, you’re only charging like a nominal fee of €7. So, so can you just give us a couple of quick points?
Yeah. Normally the workshops are more expensive, but just with the way things are at the moment, I want to make it as accessible as possible. So it’s €7 and I’m going to be talking about how to set up your home, how to look at your overall schedule. For example, like I have had to problem solve loads of things with the size of the family here. And I’ve had to really rejig my own work schedule. What are the practical things you can do to get it done in the shortest amount of time? How can you optimize the learning space, even what type of music to play in the background? I’ll be sharing all of that. Just really practical things.
And if you can’t make it to this workshop, that’s okay too. I’d love to have you, but if you can’t make it, just to hear me now saying this, this will pass. Okay. These few months, it’s not going to make or break your children’s education.
Well, that’s reassuring because I think some people think it will, you know that they’re losing out.
It definitely won’t!
Well, there you go. Catherine says it won’t. She’s a mother of five. She’s a child psychologist. She is telling you now that these few months of homeschooling are not going to make or break your child. So there you go. That’s reassuring. Catherine thanks so much.
Just one second Ray, I just want people jump onto my Facebook page, Catherine Hallissey Psychologist, because that’s actually where I’m going to be putting up the details about the workshop and jump onto my email list on my website because people on the email list are going to get first dibs on places catherinehallissey.com.
Thanks Catherine. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. The Ray D’Arcy Show on RTE radio 1.
A homeschooling divide is emerging across the country according to a survey conducted by the Irish independent, which showed that some online classes run just two times a week while other pupils are tackling a full timetable. Joining me with words of advice for parents who are homeschooling is Catherine Hallissey, child psychologist, from Kinsale. Good morning to you Catherine.
Good morning Patricia.
And you’re welcome to the programme. Do some children take to remote learning like a duck to water while others simply just can’t get it at all?
That’s exactly it. There were so many factors at play as to whether your child will thrive or really struggle with this remote learning that we’re all have been forced into right now.
You’ve got personal temperament. Some children are so extrovert and they need to learn in the group and other children are really introverted and just thrive with the silence and the self paced learning at home.
So there’s some children actually benefiting from it?
There are definitely are. Many children that I was seeing in my clinic around school-related anxiety are actually thriving at home although I don’t know what way it will be when it’s time for them to go back to school. But lots of them are saying it’s great. But to be honest, the vast majority of families that I’m speaking to are really, really struggling, parents and children alike.
Yeah, we’ve had one mother contact us already to say that her eight year old daughter is becoming, is going into herself is how she’s described it – she’s missing her teacher and she’s missing her friends and being in the school environment.
Yeah. We all know that education, that the academic education, is only one part of what happens in school. We’ve got the hidden curriculum, how children interact with one another and play, and even the relationship that they have with staff, the school culture. So we’re taking away this huge part of children’s lives and then expecting them to just slot right into being able to work by themselves without their teacher explaining, being able to go to their teacher, to ask questions for clarification, and even getting that in the moment, corrective feedback that they get in school.
This is the second time for remote learning. Catherine, generally speaking, has it improved from the school point of view and what’s coming to the children at home, has that improved over the first lockdown?
There’s been a dramatic improvement. And I think it’s really important that we all acknowledge the flexibility and the adaptability that still many schools and teachers have shown, the special education support teachers are just doing phenomenal work, the SNAs are doing phenomenal work. And so many of the class teachers have stepped up. And what that shows me is that even with all of that work that schools and teachers and SNAs are doing, that the children are still struggling and families are still struggling.
Yeah. And then I suppose there are, as I mentioned, that survey from the Irish independent, some schools are offering a lot online and that’s obviously going to have an impact as well on the homeschooling, depending on how much you’re getting from the school.
It is. And, you know, whenever I do pieces like this in the media, people often contact me afterwards in a panic worried that their children are going to fall behind compared to other schools. So for any parents listening now, I would ask you just to really, really hear what I was saying: these few months aren’t going to make or break your child’s education.
Yes, of course, some children do really well and they might be getting two live classes a day or more. And another child might only be getting one social class a week, but this is just where we are. And there are so many things that you can do to teach your child right now, outside of the books. So, you know, I suppose the most important thing is just really making sure that children are getting time outside and moving their bodies as much as possible. I’m always thinking about how to protect their overall wellbeing, their psychological, mental health and your health as a family. So time outside, time together as a family that’s stress-free, making sure that the home learning doesn’t take over the entire day. You want some connection time, you want some laughs. These are things that we know that are really protective for mental health. And even if you got your kids reading for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, that would be really, really good. So, if you do nothing else, do that!
Yeah. And Elizabeth, a mom of a 10 year old little boy, he was in tears last night, the amount of work that’s coming from the school, she feels that he’s really under pressure at the moment. Yesterday he was so upset, she just told him to stop and he didn’t need to finish the work, and she’s wondering now, was that the correct thing to do?
This is exactly what I’m going to be covering in my workshop next week. I’m doing a workshop for parents, it’s low cost. I’ve kept it really accessible, it’s just €7. And talking about how to tune into whether your child is just trying it on and trying to get out of work or whether they actually really, really need a break.
Now, I would also suggest that you ask your teacher to give you an estimate of the amount of time the task should take, and then have that mentally in your head. And if your child is spending way more over and above that then it needs to be addressed. It could be that you look at how can you change the environment – educe distractions, increase concentration. It could be that you have a chat with the teacher and say, look, I’ve been tracking how long it takes, this is what’s happening, what should we do?
Yeah. And teachers are, are, you know, playing a blinder. They really are. You know, they’re interacting with parents and they will want to hear from you if your child is feeling under pressure.
That’s so important. I was a primary teacher myself, many years ago. And you get into the profession because you have this passion for helping children and families. So, I can guarantee you, your teacher, your child’s teacher will want to hear from you if there’s a problem, especially if you approach it in the form of, okay, this is what’s happening, what can I do? Because you’re acknowledging the teacher’s expertise. They’re used to how they learn in class. And we also need to remember that when they’re in the classroom, teachers differentiate the tasks. So some child might be very able and they’re given more advanced work and some other child might have skills yet to develop and they might be working on core tasks. Whereas usually what’s happening now, the information or the tasks that are coming out are set for the entire class. So you might need to negotiate that with your teacher. And really just keeping those lines of communication open rather than saying, actually we’re not doing this at all.
Okay. Talk to me now and offer advice to parents who are working from home full time as well. That can be extremely difficult to try to keep an eye on the homeschooling and trying to do their job remotely.
Very much so it’s the position I’m in myself. So, what I would suggest every family does is first thing, you’ve got to think about your priorities. So one of the most important things for the children is that you keep your job. So you’ve got to be able to do your job. You can’t do everything. So think about what are the priority tasks. So this is where you talk to the teacher and say, look, I have this amount of time, what’s the most important thing for me work to work on. And I would suggest for a primary school child, it’s reading and maths, but you can talk to your child’s teacher about that. And, we’ve really got to give ourselves a bit of grace about this.
The second thing is, see if you have any flexibility within your job. So, for example, I get up early and I do work ideally between 6:30am and 8am, and I get some work done then, and then I can devote time to getting kids ready and getting them set up with their learning and then getting back to my work. And, you know, I may do some in the evening if, if it’s time sensitive.
Yeah. It’s planning your day. And then somebody is asking about younger children, two younger, two children under two in the household, how do you stop the distractions?
Yeah. So setting up your home, I’ll be covering that in depth on Tuesday. So what I suggest you do is go and do a walk through your home and see if where are there spaces that could be converted into distraction-free spaces. So for example, I have a little corner in my bedroom and I have a small table put in there. So I have one son who’s 8, and he finds it very hard to do his maths with noise going on with five kids in the house here. So he comes and does his maths here. My young, my senior infant, she has a small table in my home office and hers takes so long, she can go in there between 8am and 9am in the morning and get her done there.
So, it’s just thinking about timing, location, and then setting the younger children with activities as well to keep them busy, a busy bag or a busy box. And just really coming up with a list of things, this is where planning and advance will really help you. If you try and do it on the fly, there’ll be tears and not just from the kids!
And as parents give yourself a break as well. You’re not, you know, none of us are Superman or superwoman.
No, this is a crisis. So what I would suggest you do is if your best friend came to with this problem, what advice would you give them? You would probably say, look, you’re doing the best you can, it’s all you can do. This is going to pass. We will all get through it and it’s not going to make or break their education. Whereas you do need to keep your job if at all possible. And you need to keep your own mental health intact and do your best around your children’s overall well-being and not this sole focus on academics.
Well done. Well done. Great advice. And how can people log on to your workshop?
So I’m offering this to my email list first, just, there’s been a huge number who have registered their interest. I’ll also put the details on my Facebook page and I actually have a post up on my Facebook page saying ‘What do you want me to cover in the workshop?’ So everyone’s putting up their questions and then I’m putting them into the workshop
And good luck with it Catherine and thank you for taking time out of your very busy day to talk to us today. Really enjoyed that. That is Catherine Hallissey, who is a child psychologist from Kinsale. If you want to get involved in that workshop, it just might be the difference between you’re panicking at the moment and the sense of mania and people thinking I can’t do it all is to give yourself a break as well. I think that is so, so important.
Nine out of ten children around the world have experienced significant disruption to their education due to Covid-19. The impact is not the same for every child, with wide variations due to poverty and gender. Some children and families are thriving due to the slower pace of life, more family time and more time for free play and exploration, which are all linked to positive mental health outcomes. However, for other children, the closures have been catastrophic.
At a basic level, the loss of structure and routine has had a huge impact on children’s psychological wellbeing. There are social impacts due to not seeing their peers and their teachers. There are wide variations in children’s access to appropriate devices and reliable internet to facilitate remote learning. Even for those who do have access to laptops and internet, many children struggle to engage with online learning.
In South Africa, the schools have remained closed for an extended period of time. For many children there, school was the one place they could access a meal. Now they are home fulltime, food may be less reliable. Unemployment has greatly increased, brining with it financial pressure. Lack of access to reliable electricity, internet and laptops further increase educational disadvantage.
While some schools have reopened in Yemen, there is significant overcrowding with poor sanitation facilities.
For many children, this marks a premature end to their education leading to child labour and, even, child marriage. Domestic violence, sexual abuse and substance abuse have also increased.
It is important to remember that teachers play a key role in safeguarding against neglect and abuse. In Somalia and Yemen, there are reports of a rise in the illegal practice of female genital mutilation as parents take advantage of the healing time afforded by school closure, without attracting the attention of teachers who would report the crime.
It is clear that teachers and schools play a significant role in children’s lives that extends far beyond education. It is essential that children get back to school sooner rather than later. For this to happen, educators need to be prioritised on the vaccine schedule. Until then, children will continue to feel the psychological impact on their social and educational development.