By Amanda N. Chastain, M.A., BCBA
California State University, Sacramento Alumni
Program Director at FirstSteps for Kids, Inc.
Senior Research Associate at the University of Southern California
July 2, 2020
For Your Child
In The Covid World
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 2020 has been one for the books. We are living through a pandemic and a historical civil rights movement at the same time, and it is only July! For many people these events have led to changes that may be difficult to cope with. Changes that have required much adjusting (wearing masks, working from home, being laid off of work, home schooling our children). I have yet to meet another human who wasn’t struggling in some capacity with what is going on in our country and in the world. Even in typing that, I am in disbelief that this is actually reality.
When humans experience distress or discomfort, we have a tendency to try and escape or avoid it. Part of this means that we are also trying to avoid the difficult thoughts and emotions that correspond with the actual event, and this can get in the way of doing the things we really care about. I bet everyone reading this can think of at least one time that they did not do something meaningful because of the stories their mind was telling them and the very real fears that they were experiencing. I know I have! And guess what? Children experience distress too.
Kids Are Having A Hard Time Too
For a child in these challenging times, they might not fully understand why so much has changed, why schools have shut down, why classes are at a different time than they should be, why they cannot see their friends. Like other human beings, children might be experiencing anger, frustration, confusion, and sadness. Like other human beings, children might be getting lost in their thoughts about the “What if’s” of the future that we just don’t have the answers to. Like other human beings, children are unsure of what to do when the rules and routines they have followed no longer seem to apply. Focusing too much on these thoughts and emotions can get in the way of doing things that are important to them, too.
There Are Tools to Help
So what do we do? These difficult private experiences are part of what makes us human. We are built to create and solve problems, and we hurt where we care. AND we have tools that can help us to interact differently with these experiences while moving forward with living a meaningful life. Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT; read as the word) is composed of a set of tools used to help people interact more flexibly with difficult private events (thoughts, visual images, physical sensations, or emotions) so that they can live more meaningful lives. It is made up of six core processes which, together, promote psychological flexibility, or improving a person’s ability to be mindfully aware of their private events, contact the present moment, and live in service of their values (Hayes at al., 2006).d
The six processes which collectively promote psychological flexibility are
- Present moment awareness
- Self as context
- Committed action.
Defusion helps people to unhook from their difficult thoughts so that they can observe them with a sense of dispassionate curiosity instead of falling into a trap of continuously struggling with them.
Acceptance teaches people to be present with their difficult experiences and accept them fully, rather than trying to avoid feeling them.
Present Moment is the practice of bringing your attention to the here and now. While it can be helpful to analyze the past and plan for the future, it can also become maladaptive when it leads to loss of contact with the now at times when the now really matters. For example, if a child is so worried about what is going to happen when school starts again that it takes her focus off of her current work, leading her to fall further behind. By bringing our attention to the present moment with our values in mind, it allows for us to respond to the here and now, and keep moving forward.
Self as context is a complex one, but essentially means “flexible selfing”. For example, if a child defines herself as the smartest kid in her class, and then she struggles with Zoom learning, this might challenge her identity and create conflict. Flexible selfing involves teaching that these verbal descriptions of self are ever-changing, context dependent, and that there is a part of you (the noticing part) that can simply notice these definitions of self or others.
Values and committed action bring it all together. Values point you in the direction of what you care about and set motivation for action. Values are not tangible things. They can never be “achieved” and can always be lived. My values, for example, are education, prosocial, effective leadership, and creating a better world. These are ways that I try to live every single day. And I live these values by setting committed actions (goals) that I can achieve.
ACT is read as the word because action towards what you care about is the point of all of this. It is recommended that you start by setting a goal for one thing that you can do immediately to take action towards your values. For a child who values learning, this might look like setting a goal to ask the teacher more questions even if she believes it might be uncomfortable to admit that she doesn’t understand the material.
Using ACT to Help Children
I work with children with autism, which is a population that tends to struggle with flexibility and rule-following. The recent changes in the world have been particularly challenging for that population, and it has been a major adjustment for practitioners, parents, and the children that we serve. So, of course I said yes when one of my favorite people in the entire world, Courtney Tarbox M.S., BCBA, asked me to help write an article to promote psychological flexibility with the autism population in the current crisis.
A small army of us wrote Taking ACTion: 18 Simple Strategies for Supporting Children with Autism During the COVID-19 Pandemic for the purpose of giving people some quick ACT tools that might help their children live a meaningful life even with the extra challenges that the world has thrown at us this year. While this article was written for the audience of autism, the exercises and rationale presented in the article apply to humans with complex language (i.e., anyone who can experience a private world that can get in the way).
There is substantial research on ACT, and it has proven effective for a number of situations with various populations. It is based on research on human language and cognition within the science of human behavior. So, while the article was written for a specific population, the exercises provided can be used to promote psychological flexibility with neurotypical kids. It is important to note that if your child is seriously struggling, you are strongly encouraged to seek out professional support. This article is not a treatment for serious psychological concerns.
ACTivities for Children
Below are examples of ACT exercises and supplemental worksheets created by the amazing Erin Silverman, M.S., BCBA, to make the ACTivities easy and more fun for children to engage in. I have provided an example exercise of each core process below. It is important to remember that every child is different, so be flexible when you are teaching flexibility!
Help your child defuse or unhook from difficult thoughts or rules that use to apply but no longer do, such as following their daily schedule from the pre-Covid world, or living up to the “should do’s” or “should be’s” of before. One action that a child can take to help unhook from difficult thoughts and rules is to say that thought in a silly voice (Hayes, et al., 1999). Try it! Pick your favorite silly sounding character and say the thought in their voice. It sort of feels different after you try this, doesn’t it? You can also say the phrase in super-slow motion, super-fast motion, or just repeat it as fast as you can for about 30 seconds.
Teach your child acceptance of difficult feelings such as feeling sad that they cannot see their friends, feeling frustrated that they no longer have as much access to their teachers, or feeling scared about the dangers of Covid-19. One of my absolute favorite acceptance exercises is Hands as Thoughts (Harris 2009). In order to visualize how our challenging thoughts and feelings get in our way, have your child imagine those challenging things written on their hands (e.g., “I feel mad,” “This is so frustrating!” “I am really sad that I can’t see my best friend.”) Now ask them to place their hands in front of their face so that their eyes are covered, and tell them to go do something they enjoy (play video games, play with their siblings, read a good book). Remind them to leave their hands (their challenges) in front of their eyes. It won’t be long before they notice that they can’t actually do the things they want to with their hands covering their eyes. Ask them to move their hands down and try again. Much easier! Point out that they were now able to do it even with those fingers (difficult thoughts and emotions) present in the room with them. In fact, those hands are a part of their body and will probably always be there in some capacity. But they don’t have to be our focus and we can continue to have fun even while they are there. How cool!
Bring your child into the present moment if they are stuck worrying about the past or the future. One strategy that I teach the kids I work with to bring them back from their mental time travel is the 5-senses exercise (Harris, 2009). As with the other ACTivities, this can be done flexibly and can be adapted for your child. Start by asking your child to take a deep breath and look around the room. Have them notice 5 things in the room that they can see. Then have them close their eyes or focus on a point on the floor and notice 4 things that they can hear. Move slowly onto noticing 3 things they can smell, 2 things they can feel, and one thing they can taste. This brings their focus to stimuli in their current environment.
Teach your child to engage in flexible selfing with regards to the roles and identity of self and others. All for One and One for All exercise (Adapted from Dixon & Paliliunas, 2017) is a fun game for kids to practice seeing that a single thing can have many different roles, even though it never changes its true form. Have your child select an item in the room. For example, they might select a bucket. Then set a timer and ask your child to come up with as many different uses for that item as possible (e.g., something to fill with water when you need to carry water, a drum when you want to play music, something to stand on when you need to get a high up item, a hat when you’re feeling silly, a place to store toys when you need to clean your room, etc.). The worksheet provided in our article has some follow up questions attached that walk your child through a conversation about how they might be able to be lots of different things as different situations arise, just like the bucket, encouraging flexible selfing. This can be applied to the child’s roles as well as the roles of others in their world (teachers, parents, siblings).
Help your child get in tune with their values, and link everything back to that. It’s All Strung Together is a wonderful values exercise that Courtney Tarbox came up with for her own children during the pandemic. It asks children to place a paper circle with their name on it at one end of a string. Next to their name, they place other paper circles, each with thoughts about fun and challenging parts of staying home and practicing social distancing. On the other side of the string, opposite to their name, the children place paper circles with their values / reasons why it is important for them to stay at home and practice social distancing. These values should be unique to the child so that they can truly see that staying home is in service of something that they truly care about (e.g., keeping grandma safe, helping people get back to school sooner, etc.). It may be challenging, but this should be based on your child’s values, and not on the things that you think your child should value. In other words, they should come up with their own values. A detailed description of this exercise can be found inside of our article.
Help your child commit to taking ACTion. In order to put it all together and take ACTion, our team provided a worksheet that walks your child through their struggles, challenges, values, things they can do when these challenges come up, and committed actions that the can take to live a life of meaning and purpose. Check out the attached worksheet titled My ACTion Plan!
Psychological flexibility through ACT is a practice and not something that can be achieved. For me and many other ACT researchers and trainers that I know, ACT is a way of life. It is also important to note that the goal is not to stop having the difficult thoughts and feelings, but rather to be with them and interact with them more flexibly so that they no longer get in the way of doing what is important to you. I am excited for anyone who is ready to begin this journey for yourself or for the people you serve. I have provided resources below for those of you who are interested to get started!
Citation for our article (click the link to check it out!)
Tarbox, C., Silverman, E. A., Chastain, A. N., Little, A., Bermudez, T. L., & Tarbox, J. (2020, April 30). Taking ACTion: 18 Simple Strategies for Supporting Children with Autism During the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/96whj
Dixon, M.R. & Paliliunas, D. (2017). AIM: A behavior analytic curriculum for social-emotional development in children. Shawnee Scientific Press.
Hayes, S. C., Stosah, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple. California: New Harbinger Publications.
ACT therapists in Sacramento
Resources for Children:
Get out of your mind and into your life for teens: A guide to living an extraordinary life by Anne Bailey, Joseph Ciarrochi, and Louise Hayes
The Happiness Trap (the illustrated version) by Russ Harris
Resources for Adults:
Doing What Matters in Times of Stress World Health Organization 2020
A Liberated Mind by Steve Hayes
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life By Steve Hayes and Smith Spencer
ACT Made Simple (2nd edition) by Russ Harris
The Big Book of ACT Metaphors by Jill Stoddard & Niloofar Afari
AIM (Accept. Identify. Move.): A Behavior Analytic Curriculum for Social-Emotional Development in Children by Mark Dixon and Dana Paliliunas
About The Author
Amanda Chastain, M.A., BCBA proudly completed her undergraduate work and Master’s degree at California State University, Sacramento, where she studied verbal behavior. She received her clinical experience for her BCBA from H.O.P.E. Consulting, LLC in Fair Oaks, California. In 2019, Ms. Chastain joined the ABA lab at the University of Southern California, where she now serves as a Senior Research Associate focusing on research in Acceptance and Commitment Training. She also works as a Program Director at FirstSteps for Kids, where she provides early intervention support for children with developmental disabilities and actively participates as a member of the research team, helping to expand ACT literature into the autism population. Her primary areas of interest are Acceptance and Commitment Training, human language and cognition, rule-governed behavior, motivation, and private events.