Meeting a child’s sensory needs

Our interview series on The Connected Parent closes with the topic of sensory needs. For children from hard places, sensory challenges are often a symptom of trauma. You may have observed some of these behaviors. Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) takes these unique needs into consideration with its approach. We asked Sheila Wagler-Mills, TBRI practitioner, to share guidance in this area.

Why do children from hard places often struggle with sensory stimulation?

Every child’s story is different, but there are often common themes. For instance, for children who experienced neglect growing up, their need for sensory stimulation was unmet, resulting in a deficiency that did not allow the brain to develop optimally. As a result, these children often seek sensory stimulation. In contrast, children who experienced physical abuse associate touch with a negative and often become sensory avoidant or avoidant to specific types of sensory input. Children who were hospitalized early in their life may also become sensory avoidant because of the overstimulation related to their treatment.

Learn more about sensory processing.

How can healthy attachment relationships positively affect your child’s sensory processing, and what does this look like?

Healthy relationships require trust and safety. If an environment of safety is created in early life, it creates an environment from which it is safe to explore and return. When caring for children from hard places, building that trust and safety will give your child the opportunity to work through sensory insecurities and try new things. Whether the problem is withdrawing from or over seeking sensory input, a secure place and trusting relationship will encourage a child to explore and return more freely, in order to meet their sensory needs. In research, healthy attachments are proven to correlate with improved sensory processing.

How does rocking and holding a child during early development help children with healthy sensory stimulation, processing and attachment? If this is critical, how can this need be met in older children?

Rocking and holding young children activates the vestibular and proprioceptive senses and helps them to “find” their body and its place in space. These experiences help a child to process and organize information. Vestibular deficits are strongly correlated with insecure attachment in children.

For older children, who may not want to be rocked or held, there are other ways to help them reorganize and heal the brain through appropriate vestibular and proprioceptive activation, such as jumping and swinging or the use of weighted blankets. For children of all ages, helping them to utilize appropriate environmental stimulation to meet their needs aids in developing crucial skills and even encourages healthy attachment. However, it is also important to read body cues, as too much stimulation can be counterproductive, resulting in overwhelm and emotional dysregulation.

How can caregivers use felt safety to help their kids regulate sensory needs?

In short, a child is not free to experiment or explore in the sensory world if they don’t feel safe. This is one of many reasons TBRI is trust-based at its core. It’s also important for parents to follow through on what they say they will do and to give yeses as often as possible to build felt safety in children from hard places. Children learn by experience, and healthy experience builds new neural pathways, which lead to healing.

Our clinical team offers counseling support for sensory needs, helping you discover the why behind behaviors. If your child is struggling with extensive sensory-processing challenges, we will work together to identify additional resources including occupational therapy. Connect with us through our online request form.

Parenting with TBRI

Today we turn to CCHO’s Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) expert to give us first-hand guidance on parenting. Sheila Wagler-Mills, LPCC-S, Regional Program Director for Encompass, is a TBRI Practitioner as well as a foster-and-adoptive mom. We asked her a series of questions about how to parent with TBRI.

How does compassion for self and child make a difference in parenting a child from hard places?

The key to compassion is through trust, which is often the greatest barrier for children from hard places. As parents of children from traumatic backgrounds, it’s important to recognize your child’s behavior as reflection of a need, that usually results from their trauma. It’s through being able to recognize their unique needs, understanding the why behind their behavior, and building trust that you will be able to use compassion to connect with them.

What’s one area where caregivers frequently apply the TBRI principles incorrectly?

There are three principles to TBRI: empowering, connecting, and correcting. Many times, parents see behavior first and want to go straight to correcting their child’s behavior. Again, the behavior that children with wounded hearts exhibit is most often a symptom of a need. And the need is most often motivated by fear.

Instead of attempting to discipline inappropriate behavior, caregivers can focus on healing by looking at behaviors as opportunities to discover and meet the child’s need. The challenges that children with trauma or insecure attachment have dealt with involved their whole self. TBRI attempts to address needs from a holistic view. The neural pathways in the child’s brain must be rewired by addressing needs and fears. By meeting a need, behaviors will often naturally decrease.

How can caregivers switch from the way they instinctually parent to a trauma informed/TBRI style?

It starts with mindful awareness of recognizing that parenting instincts are borne from their own experience. Parents of children with traumatic pasts must be aware of both their child’s experiences and the impact of their own histories, which may have also included brokenness. Parents must intentionally adjust their parenting instincts to meet their child’s needs. The caregiving a parent received may not be appropriate for the child they are raising.

There are a few questions to consider when parenting children from hard places. Why are they exhibiting this behavior? What is the need behind the behavior? What can the caregiver do to meet the need in this moment? And, what needs of the caregiver are coming to light in response to the child’s behavior?

How can parents advocate for their child or teen’s trauma/attachment/sensory needs at school/play?

Through providing education we can help our children’s teachers understand why a behavior is occurring and how to help meet their needs. We can help our children’s teachers know what they can expect from our children, such as aggressive behaviors in response to reminders of a history of abuse, or the need for fidgets and breaks to help with focus. It’s our role to protect and advocate for our children. When the parent and teacher become a team, we provide greater opportunities to help our children learn and heal.

How can a parent give their child a choice or compromise without feeling like they lost power in the situation? What does sharing power look like with an older child?

We do so by offering the child choices that are deemed appropriate by the parent or caregiver. Give the child choices, but choices that are healthy and appropriate. When parents share their power, it proves it was theirs in the first place. Sharing power allows for more yeses for the child and helps to build trust and disarm fear. Yeses and compromises also allow for practice in negotiation and giving our child a voice. It’s an important teaching tool. Shared voice facilitates the TBRI principles of connecting and empowering.

As a foster-to-adopt parent, what parenting change, based on TBRI, have you made that has had the most notable impact with your kids?

Learning about my own attachment style and needs. Parenting styles are determined by how we were parented as a child, so by understanding our attachment style, it helps us to understand what we bring to the table in our child’s care.

For foster-to-adopt parents, our children have experienced another life outside of our own, so we must also consider what they bring to the table, and how their needs will intersect with our own. Their past traumas can bring to light triggers in our own lives. The importance of understanding my own attachment history has had more of an impact on my parenting than anything else I have done. It allows me to respond to my own needs and be a better parent to all of my children—foster, adopted and biological, and to respond to their needs rather than becoming triggered by their behaviors.

What are the top three life-value scripts you use when parenting? Talk to us about the importance of the words and how you choose them.

1) Can you say that again with respect? 2) Are you asking or telling? 3) Can you use your words? Bonus: Kind hands, kind words.

Not all scripts work for each family and household, so it’s about what this particular child needs to meet their needs and doesn’t trigger them. Scripts should be short and to the point. If too many words are used, the meaning is lost, especially if the child is dysregulated, as our brains don’t function optimally when we are triggered.

What percentage of the time do you have to parent with TBRI correctly to see change?

TBRI research tells us that we must only parent effectively 30% of the time for the approach to have a positive impact. We’re all human, we make mistakes and we fail sometimes. No one will be or has had perfect parents, not even those who grew up in good, attachment-rich families. We’re all broken in some way, and we all have needs.

The good news is we all have opportunities to redo poor behavior or words. Although we can’t go back and change the timeline, by offering and/or asking for a redo, caregivers teach children how to manage mistakes and provide learning opportunities in making compassionate choices.

TBRI is full of good news—hope for connecting with a child you care so much about. Learn more about ways to parent with TBRI in the book, The Connected Parent. Our clinical team would be honored to support you as you implement these principles in your home and family life. Our next interview-style post will further highlight parental self-care—another important strategy in loving youth with trauma.

The greatest need

We recently shared a news article on the Encourage Facebook page about youth in foster care being housed at the Cuyahoga County Department of Job and Family Services. We asked Encourage Intake Coordinator Angel Sigler to share more about the critical need and how we can respond.

I hear voices crying out about the need for more foster parents in our communities. Voices saying that there are not enough homes for children in need of safety. On one level this is true, but there’s a greater need in this situation. The bigger challenge is that there are not enough foster homes with the ability to provide care for children with high-level needs—especially if that child with behavioral needs is a teenager. Not many families are willing or trained to welcome them and address their unique needs. Those are the children living in the DJFS buildings.

Here’s the greatest need: foster parents who are willing and trained to take in children with high-level behavioral issues caused by trauma and help them find their way through all the pain to find healing and a new way to manage all they have experienced.

The emotional and behavior challenges of a traumatized child do not instantly go away once you love them and give them a safe environment. It is a long process, but the end is so worth it.

There are boys and girls completing their individualized therapy programs at residential treatment centers, including CCHO, waiting for a place to go. These hurting youth came into residential care because their compounding losses made them unable to adapt and function well in a foster family home. They’ve spent an average of six to nine months working their programs, participating in therapy, and now they are ready to try their new skills in a family setting. With few foster families willing or able to help them acclimate back into a family unit and the greater community, these children wait in limbo and begin to lose hope that a family will ever want them.

My heart hurts for these precious kids.

We need families to say yes to opening their hearts and homes to teenagers even if those teens are angry, struggling with drug issues, or facing mental-health concerns. If we don’t help these youth find their way out of the pain—which often looks like anger and self-medication—they will become adults with no support system, no healing, and ultimately no hope. That is heartbreaking. And the cycle often repeats with their children.

The system is only as broken as you and I allow it to be. Is reform needed? Sure. Do we want children living in the DJFS building? Certainly not. But what choice does the county have until more families respond?

Here’s my invitation. Lean in to fully hear my heart.

Will you step up and fight alongside and for these kids? Not like cheerleaders on the sidelines, but in the field getting dirty with them? They really need you—stable, caring adults—to help them find themselves in the midst of the chaos.

Patience, flexibility and a willingness to learn TBRI skills. When foster parents implement this posture and these tools and welcome kids with high-level behavioral needs into their homes, that’s when we’ll see the miracles begin to happen. Our promise at Encourage: we commit to coming with you every step of the journey—training, coaching, empowering and celebrating.

Learn more about becoming a foster parent today.

Growing faith in a pandemic

Today’s blog post comes from Jessie Berry, clinical supervisor at Encourage. She shares a powerful story of fostering through faith. See how God is at work in a young man’s life as well as his bio family because of a loving, praying foster family.

As I have stepped into my new role as clinical supervisor, I have had the opportunity to meet most of our Encourage foster parents. Each foster family has their own unique strengths which they use daily to care for children in their healing journey.

I have gotten to work closely with the Kirkbrides, one of our newer foster families. John and Cheryl had a young man placed with them not long after they were licensed. Bobby* arrived the week before everything shut down due to COVID-19.

Once placed with the Kirkbrides, Bobby adjusted well despite the pandemic and all the changes associated with it. The couple supported him during the transition and immediately began to prioritize both his faith journey and his relationship with his biological family.

Bobby’s faith journey began before being placed in the Kirkbride’s home. While living in his hometown, a bus would come around the neighborhood each week and take the children to a program at the local church. Bobby’s foster mother, Cheryl, reports that the seed of his faith and understanding of who Jesus is definitely started there.

Due to the Kirkbride’s church not holding in-person services during the crisis, Bobby began watching church with them online on Sunday mornings. He would ask them many questions and was very interested in learning how the church service worked. Bobby also enjoyed memorizing Bible verses, and Cheryl would hear him proudly reciting them to his mom during their phone calls. Bobby’s bio mother was very receptive to this and encouraged him to do so. During the past few months, he has read through the Old Testament with his foster parents and is looking forward to reading the New Testament next.

Bobby informed John and Cheryl that he was very interested in being baptized. He recently met with the children’s minister and is preparing for his baptism. His foster parents have assisted him in completing a baptism study. Bobby shared a desire to have his biological parents attend the baptism, and the Kirkbrides have fully supported this. They plan on scheduling his baptism once his parents are allowed to attend/have out-of-agency visits.

The Kirkbrides expressed that Bobby has also developed an interest in listening to Christian music, his favorite band being MercyMe. Cheryl has seen Bobby dancing to “Happy Dance,” “Shake,” and “Grace Got You.” One day he listened to “Grace Got You” over 25 times while playing with Legos. She’s also heard him belting “Waymaker” while in the shower, and he loves wearing the “Waymaker” shirt his foster parents ordered for him. The Kirkbrides feel music has helped Bobby heal and connect deeper to his faith.

John and Cheryl pray for and with Bobby each night, requesting that God give him faith like David. Encourage is very thankful for all the Kirkbrides do, selflessly taking on a foster placement during the COVID-19 pandemic and working hard to ensure that Bobby sees his worth in Christ.

*Name changed for privacy.

The biggest joy

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Clinical Supervisor Jessie Berry, MSSA, LISW-S. Jessie provides therapeutic support as a staff member and she is also a foster mom with her local foster care agency.

The biggest joy my husband and I have experienced as foster parents has been getting the opportunity to show the kiddos their worth in Christ. When we got placement of our two little boys, they had never been introduced to the Lord. This seems to often be the case with our foster youth. One of the greatest responsibilities we have faced as foster parents has been raising them in a Godly household, teaching them the power of prayer, and fostering their relationship with the Lord.

While grief and anxiety are emotions foster parents frequently experience as reunification nears, the knowledge that Jesus is now in their hearts, whether they are at your house or in their biological home, gives a much needed sense of peace and comfort. What could be more powerful and reassuring than that?

Encourage families are fostering through faith. They are responding to a ministry that God has called them to. Their heart is for each child to experience their worth in Christ. For more information about fostering with Encourage, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at or 330.462.1118.

View more stories of blessings from Encourage staff and foster families.

Change of plans

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Home Study Supervisor Emily Engman, LSW. Emily sees the faithfulness and compassion of our foster families. Even in the midst of uncertainty, they have willingly changed their plans and followed Jesus.

During the course of COVID-19, we have seen many Encourage foster families step it up to take care of children in need in our communities! One of our families opened their home to care for a sibling of one of their current foster children. Another one of our families opened their home to take care of 7-year-old and 9-year-old sisters who were no longer able to stay with their current foster family.

Neither of these families had planned on having additional children in their home a few months ago, but, when the need was there, they showed up. We are so grateful for our foster families and all the work they do to help foster children.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” -Proverbs 16:9, ESV

We have a heart for keeping siblings together and we are so grateful for our foster families who help make this possible. Learn more about our ministry focus and connect with Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist, at or 330.462.1118 with any questions.

Major milestone

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Clinical Supervisor Jessie Berry, MSSA, LISW-S. Through her therapeutic role, she connects with children as they vulnerably and bravely share their stories.

One of the greatest blessings I have experienced so far during my time with Encourage is the strength of our foster youth. Although it is very difficult for many, a big part of the healing journey for our foster youth is being able to be open and honest about their past. Trauma work may occur early on in therapeutic process, however, most kiddos take an extended period of time to feel safe enough and ready to share their deepest, darkest secrets.

This week I had a foster youth finally feel safe enough to share much of her past trauma, disclosing things that she has been holding in for many years. She was very proud of herself as she hit this major milestone in her treatment. Just as parents have to heal and work their case plan, our youth have to heal and accomplish their goals so when reunification occurs, the family unit as a whole is as healthy and resilient as it can be.

“Shame gets unspeakable power only if it’s unspeakable. Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.” -Ann Voskamp

If you have a story or blessing to share, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at or 330.462.1118.

Noticing each moment

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’ll be sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Enjoy these reflections from foster parents Alisha and Matt Everhart. Each moment matters for connecting and building comfort as they care for children in need of safety and love. Each moment matters as they prepare their own hearts to serve well.

When the call comes.
That moment the phone rings and you know it’s your agency worker. You weren’t expecting the call and when you answer they tell you they have a possible placement and ask if we are interested. The info is usually very limited, and yet, this call has so much meaning and emotions with it. Excitement for what could be. Sorrow that a child is entering the system. Nervous about what will happen if we say yes. Countless questions. How will they act? Will we bond with them or will they hate us? What will they look like? What is their true story? Wondering what they have been through…

Then the children come.
Usually just with the clothes they are wearing. Sometimes not matching, often not fitting properly or fitting the current weather. Some with a coat and others not. Your first few hours are usually spent getting them cleaned up if needed, fed, change of clothes. Trying to help them feel comfortable in a stranger’s home. Then the first few days generally include sleepless nights as we all adjust, a shopping trip to get the necessities, clothes and shoes. What a moment this can be. Some have never had new clothes or had a say in choosing what they wear. It also means shopping for school supplies again and again as we’ve had to buy supplies for all of our foster children.

Then there are birthdays and holidays.
Our first placement came to us on a Friday night and the youngest of the siblings had a birthday just two days later. Talk about rushing to celebrate her so she would know her birthday is a special day indeed. And then her older sister had a birthday within a month. Talk about lots of changes.

Eventually we all get into a routine and things settle down some but adjustments continue.

Meeting a kiddo and the kiddo meeting us causes me to have butterflies. We’re sure they do as well. Wouldn’t you if one minute you are with your family and the next you are told you’re going to stay with another family who is coming to get them right now? You try to make the house perfect and their room inviting. You try not to ask too many questions, and yet you wonder inside. Should we give them a hug or shake a hand? How did they sleep? Did they have a bed? Are they afraid of the dark?

So many unknowns and navigating in those first weeks together.

If you have a story to share, or if you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at or 330.462.1118.

Give all of you

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’ll be sharing a new series–”Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Enjoy these words of wisdom from foster mom Amber Buchwalter. She and her husband Phil became foster parents for the first time in 2019. We love having them in the Encourage family.

Fostering is caring for children as if they were your own and not worrying about the possibility of them ever leaving your home, yet still being prepared in the heart for that day to happen, should it. There is no cookie-cutter recipe. It’s not for those who want to do the minimal and still graduate. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

I’ve learned that basic needs and consistency take much effort. I am constantly troubleshooting how to get a toddler to sleep at night and trying to figure out how a five-year-old does or doesn’t think 🙂

I’ve learned so much about patience. Everything slows way down with kids—especially getting them ready to go outside with shoes, coats, gloves, etc. What a process! However, each day is new, and God has supplied me with the strength to get up and do it all again. God also allows me to give them grace when they have off days and aren’t the kind boys that we know they are. There are ups and downs, there are really fabulous days, and there are days when I crumble. I’ve learned to walk away and do breathing exercises that I acquired from my preschooler’s Head Start program. Sometimes I just pray and collect myself.

I’ve learned that we all are human. Little kids develop quickly up to age two, and then they start gaining independence and learning how to really test / push / try to do stuff on their own without permission. I’ve learned not to be a drill sergeant and yet not be too relaxed because then they don’t take me seriously.

I’ve learned from fostering that husbands and wives go through very separate issues with feelings of guilt, blaming each other, feeling stuck, not feeling like we are in the same boat, not knowing how to talk to each other about parenting choices, or even undercutting each other’s authority. Asking questions and talking to my husband about these concerns and how we can accomplish parenting together has really helped us unify our thoughts and direct our energies in the same direction. Whew!

I’ve learned that I love-love-love being a mom, and these kids need-need-need stability, consistency, love, physical touch, and yes, the basics. But if you only give basic needs, you hold back. You have to give all of you because they notice. The sleepless nights, the whining, the attitudes, the hardest days will always be worth it when I put my all into it. Seeing the boys’ progress and development change because we provided a stable atmosphere is mind blowing. I’ve seen connection points throughout this last year. I’ve gotten hugs I didn’t think would happen. I’ve even gotten a kiss on the forehead. I’ve received love letters from my older boy that are still taped to my door where he put them. I have seen so many improvements and developmental milestones in one year, and it’s so exciting! Especially the tenderhearted moment when I led my five-year-old in a prayer to accept Jesus in his life.

I’ve learned that fostering has drawn me closer to God. In my weakest moments, I’m asking / calling / begging for help. I have treasured the networking of experienced foster parents and staff from Encourage. They have been a lifeline when I need advice or have questions. Meeting new foster parents with kids has opened up my world of friends and taught me valuable lessons I will never forget.

I’ve learned that messy toy-filled rooms don’t bother me anymore. Picking up toys with the boys is a way of connecting with them. I look around our home and see how the boys have rerouted our routine and we are part of theirs. They have food, toys, clothes and little friends that we will get to see again after this virus ends. I see healthy children who have learned to sleep in. They know they are safe, loved, liked and accepted. They know that their feelings matter and that they can run to us whenever they want.

If you have a story or blessing to share, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at or 330.462.1118.

Grace for birth parents

How we think about and care for birth families is an important piece of our work in foster care. There are some who would say that the relationship with birth parents is one of the hardest parts of being a foster parent. We struggle with the pain they have caused. We hurt watching the foster kiddos in our homes navigate these sensitive relationships. We have a hard time imagining being in the biological parent’s shoes. We often don’t know the words to say when interacting.

Sometimes it’s awkward and we don’t feel loving towards them.

And that’s okay to admit.

In foster care, we aim for reunification when possible. As Christians in foster care, we seek to live out gospel-centered lives. We believe in healing for our foster kiddos from the trauma they’ve experienced. We hope for healing from addiction and other paths that have captured birth parents.

We pray for our foster youth. We can equally pray for their biological families. And we can listen to their stories and ask God to make us teachable and open towards opportunities to show His grace.

Here’s one birth mom’s story of redemption from addiction, her gratitude for the foster family who took care of her son while in recovery, and her beautiful faith in God who sustains her.

For over six years, Ashley was caught in the cycle of addiction. Her son was removed from her care and placed into foster care because of it. After two years in the system, Ashley and her son were reunified, and she is now a passionate advocate for foster care.

Listen to the podcast from The Forgotten Initiative.