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Friday, November 22, 2013

Setting Limits and Avoiding Tantrums

When parents come into my office, there is a common question that I can bet will be asked at some point: How do I set limits but also avoid a tantrum? For children with learning difficulties, this can be especially tricky because there can be an additional stress component or difficulties with expressive language, which can further complicate matters.

Clarifying the Situation:
When families are struggling with frequent meltdowns, I ask parents a few questions to clarify the situation:

  • What patterns are you noticing? 
  • Is there a particular time of day that the child has this reaction? 
  • What emotions are associated with the behavior? 
  • Is your child reacting to an unmet basic need such as sleep or hunger? 

Defining the Factors:
Once a pattern is established, consider the factors involved. 

  • If the reactions typically occur at the end of the day, what is your child trying to tell you? For example, are they tired at that point? Increased structure may improve your child's behaviors.
  • If it happens in the morning, do you find yourself so rushed that your daughter does not have time to say goodbye?
  • If tantrums occur in the afternoon, is your child exhausted from the school day? Adding a half hour of free time before starting homework can give him the break he needs.
If there is a pattern, it’s likely that there are identifiable triggers that can be addressed. Additions or changes in the routine can typically work to help to avoid predictable meltdowns. 

The Bottom Line:
Behavior is communication. When tantrums occur, ask yourself what your child is trying to tell you. 

Having trouble finding a pattern to the meltdowns? Next time I will address possible causes and solutions for tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere.

Emily Herber is a child and family therapist at the Center for Psychological Services.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The College Search: How Much Support Is Enough?

As students with learning differences and their families begin to think about post-secondary education options, two questions that are bound to come up are how much support will be needed and can the colleges of interest meet those needs.  While all colleges that receive federal funding are required to provide services for students with disabilities, the degree of support will vary widely.  While there are colleges specifically designed for students with learning differences such as Landmark College in Vermont and Beacon College in Florida, most traditional colleges will provide services that fall into three different categories: 
  1. Highly structured specific programs
  2. Coordinated special services
  3. General services
Highly Structured Specific Programs:
            Colleges with highly structured specific programs offer the highest level of services for students.  These schools will typically require a separate application process separate from the college's own application.  Learning specialists will want to review the student's psychological-education evaluation and gain a better understanding of the student's learning strengths and challenges in order to determine whether the student is an appropriate fit for the program.  Services may include academic coaching, individual scheduled time with a learning specialist, access to professional tutors, and modified courses.  These programs are typically fee-based.
Coordinated Special Services:
             In coordinated special services, students will often be expected to be greater self-advocates who have some understanding of their learning challenges and how they affect their performance.  While some individualized services may be provided, that time is usually more limited.  Professional or peer tutoring services may be provided for students.

General Services:
             Students receiving general services should be highly motivated self-advocates for their learning.  While they may still receive accommodations for testing, students will need to demonstrate proper initiative in order to get them.

            Students should work with their teachers, learning specialists and counselors to help gain an understanding of what level of support is best for them.  By examining their level of readiness for college, gaining an understanding of their learning differences and comfort level in discussing their needs, and assessing their degree of maturity, families can make sure that their children are selecting the right colleges for a successful transition.

Thanks, Kristen
Kristen Tabun
Director of College Guidance
Woodlynde School

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Best Learning Environments For Dyslexics

We've all heard the factoid that everybody has a specific learning style that suits their brain best. You may have even taken an online test to help you determine whether you are primarily visual, kinesthetic, tactile , or auditory. As with most online quizzes, the truth is more complicated than can usually be captured in a few short questions! However, knowing how you most naturally process information can be helpful not just in education, but for the whole of life. However, there are a few 'learning styles' we all share that should be taken into account in any educational environment.

1. Children progress better in an active, play-based learning environment. This may seem too obvious to state, but it's true. Boredom is the death of learning. When children are actively engaged in a task or activity, that bit of knowledge being learned - whether practical or theoretical - is more easily made concrete in the brain. Recent pedagogical studies have brought this to light with empirical research; just Google it and you'll find many pages of relevant results! Children that are primarily kinesthetic learners especially thrive on this kind of learning environment, though all learning styles benefit from it.

2. Stress is the enemy of education. Stress reduces your cerebral activity and therefore your ability to succeed at a task. When the brain interprets there being a threat or risk of some kind, it shuts down all higher functioning and focuses on responding to the stressful situation at hand through the classic fight or flight paradigm. All kinds of learning require this higher brain functioning, so keeping activities which create anxiety or duress out of the classroom environment is key. If a child is too easily stressed, then it is important to try to build up his or her confidence through short, structured learning exercises where failure is an unlikely outcome.

3. Emotional “underload” can be just as bad as the opposite! Emotions play a key role in memory creation. And without memory, none of us would be very good at learning anything! We've all had experiences where we, for example, forget the rules of linear algebra but can remember in detail every type of cloud formation. This is probably because we couldn't care less about mathematics but fell in love with studying the water cycle in science class (it could happen!). When our emotions - excitement, fear, anger, happiness etc - are involved in an event, we are much more likely to retain that in our long-term memory. So while we wouldn't ever advocate a classroom environment of fear, the worst kind of learning environment is actually one of emotional 'underload', where we are disengaged from the learning process.

Combine these three key aspects of a good learning environment, and kids of all different types of learning styles will thrive! 

David Morgan is CEO of the Easyread System, an online course for children with reading difficulties. Easyread uses a highly visual approach to phonics that is designed specifically for children with dyslexia, auditory processing disorders, poor short-term memory, and more.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Uniquely competent, Resourceful and Whole with Learning Disabilities

Assume your child is Uniquely Competent, Resourceful and Whole. 

What would be different for you and your child if you fully embodied this outlook? Stop and think about the impact you could have if you really held this belief. As a parent you can set the emotional stage around many aspects of your child’s life, including their learning issue. The attitude you choose can have a profound and lasting influence on how you and your child deal with day-to-day challenges and longer-term attitudes around their learning disability.

Would changing your outlook around your child's learning disability help your child? Here is how to do just that!      

1.    Notice when you feel like your child is NOT Uniquely Competent, Resourceful and Whole

Catch yourself in the act of feeling bad, angry or upset about learning issues your child experiences. This can show up as an internal voice saying things like “ Why do I have a child with learning issues?” “Will he ever get this right?” “I feel so sorry for her.” It takes some practice to catch yourself listening to the “negative” thought playing in your head. If you listen closely, you will hear it. The trick is to catch the internal voice and be aware of it.

Having these thoughts is normal AND not very helpful. We all have negative internal voices but we don’t have to let them rule the day! Shifting your attitude can be as simple as replacing the “negative” thought you have with a more helpful and positive thought. This approach is like building a muscle. It hurts and doesn’t work very well at first...You must keep at it to make a difference.

2.    Review all of your child’s life – not just the hard parts.

There are many aspects to a young persons life. Are you to focused on the areas that are difficult, challenging and feel like they are not working? Shifting your focus to an area that is working can build confidence and determination. Feeling good at something builds resilience. Resilience gets stored like energy in a battery. This energy is then ready to be used for a more challenging task. Focusing on areas that are working is a resilience builder!

3.    Don't over look Unique Talents

Unique Talents are a storehouse for positivity! Engage your child’s unique talents no matter how crazy it may seem. A little girl I knew, loved to get dressed up with fancy shoes and a pretty dress for dinner and have “talk time” with her family. The parents indulged her unique talent of bringing the family together once a week. 20 years later this young woman runs a social media department for a major leading brand! She has always loved bringing people together and her parents supported the importance of her belief. Nurturing Unique Talents does make a difference!

4.    Help your children learn to be resourceful

Someone who is resourceful will reach out when they need help. Reaching out is the capacity to ask others for help or advice. A person with learning issues often has key people to reach out to that help with all kinds of things. For instance, reaching out for help to find computer programs that can aid with mathematics, writing and organization for people with learning issues. Teaching your child who to go to for help and when to go for help is a great way to be resourceful so challenges don’t become problems.

Parents help children learn how to feel good about themselves by learning to manage their own lives and feel good about the decisions they make. How the parent feels about a child’s learning issue is contagious. In order to help create strong self-esteem a parent can adopt the attitude that their child is Uniquely Competent, Resourceful and Whole just the way they are!

Tune in next time for how to teach good decision making!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Demystifying ADHD

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly referred to as ADHD, is a disorder that we are getting better at identifying and addressing as research studies and understanding of the brain improve.  But I notice time and again in my work with families that parents have difficulty understanding why it is that their child with ADHD functions as they do: why they can’t manage their belongings, get ready to leave the house on time, complete homework independently, and so on and so on.  A thorough description of the disorder and specificity in the subtype affecting their child (Inattentive Type, Hyperactive Type, Combined Type) is insufficient even when it is thorough and highly detailed. 

It is this one sentence that makes all the difference, one to which parents invariably reply, “Oh, now I get it!”

Individuals with ADHD generally function at a 30% developmental delay in areas of performance that rely on executive functions.

It’s the 30% part that they get. 

Oh, so my 12 year old actually functions like he is eight?,” says a mother. 

“Yes,” I reply. 

“That makes so much sense,” she says, her husband nodding away beside her. 

Now the conversation can really take off:

Me: “So, would you expect an 8-year-old to complete his homework without reminders and guidance?”

Parent: “No, I wouldn’t.”

Me: “Would you expect him to remember to brush his teeth, put his clothes in the hamper, and get his backpack ready for school on his own?”

Parent: “No way.”

And so it goes, through the conversation about cleaning his room, getting ready for school in the morning, leaving his belongings all over the place, remembering to do chores.

ADHD is a disorder of inhibition and self-regulation seen in deficits in executive functioning that cause impairments in an individual’s ability to perform at an age-appropriate level.  One might think of the executive functions as the use of self-directed actions to choose goals and then select, enact, and sustain actions across time in furtherance of those goals.  Individuals with ADHD cannot demonstrate the expected level of skill in selecting goals and then behaving in the manner needed to attain those goals.  Their thinking is predominantly (and at young ages even exclusively) of the now, rather than the later and so working toward a goal (in the future) is quite difficult. 

An understanding of the 30% developmental delay enables adults who work with the youngster to think of his or her chronological age (e.g., 15 years) as well as the ever important executive age (e.g., 10).  In doing so it is easier to set and support expectations that are appropriate to the student’s current ability (as opposed to expectations based predominately on age-based norms).

By its nature, ADHD is a performance disorder, not a problem in the acquisition of knowledge.  The individual’s intelligence is intact as is her knowledge base; she understands what to do.  The problem lays in performance, despite knowing what to do, she cannot do it. 

We must thus think about interventions like this:
  •  What structures does this child need to succeed?
  •  How much guidance must be inherent in those structures?
  •  How do we motivate this particular child?

Those interventions then need to be modified at the point of performance such as the classroom or during the completion of homework, not later.  And appropriate changes in expectations must be made and sustained.

Remember, if your child is operating at a 30% delay in executive functioning, he or she is unable to self-regulate at an age-appropriate level.  Expecting him to is setting him up for frustration and failure.  It’s setting yourself up for the same.  
  • What expectations have you been putting on your child that he is not ready to fulfill?  
  • How have you been reacting when she has failed to meet them?  
  • How is he telling you he feels when he fails to live up to your expectations?
If you would like to learn more about executive functions and practical ways to address their development in the home and classroom, there are many books available for resource. Two that I often recommend to parents in my practice is:  Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parent's Guide Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning by Joyce Cooper-Kahn & Laurie Deitzel or Smart but Scattered, by Peg Dawson.

Thanks, Jennifer
Jennifer Jackson Holden, Psy.D.
Clinical and Educational Psychologist
Center for Psychological Services
Paoli, Pennsylvania

610-647-6406, ext 3

Saturday, November 2, 2013

7 Free Activities that Develop Abstract Thinking and Critical Reasoning

In middle school, there is often a shift from concrete to abstract ways of thinking.  This new expectation of higher order language skills and conceptual reasoning can be challenging for many students.  Consequently, many young learners need to practice this skill and strengthen this cognitive processing area.  You can help by doing some simple activities.

7 Activities You Can Do at Home
  • Watch commercials on television or look at advertisements in magazines and discuss the hidden messages or inferences.
  • Model abstract thinking by thinking aloud.
  • Ask your children to help plan an event or activity.  Also have them help you plan meals and create a grocery list.
  • Create sorting and organizational activities.  Ask your children how they would like to organize their clothing, toys and school materials. Then help them purchase the needed the products (such as cubbies, clear bins, shelving, binders) and make it happen.
  • Play the following Main Idea and Detail Game.  Think of a main idea such as transportation.  Communicate details - one at a time - such as car, plane, rollerblades… and see who can come up with the main idea first. 
  • Have fun trying to solve riddles.  Here is a site you can try: http://www.rinkworks.com/brainfood/p/riddles1.shtml
  • Look at jokes on the internet and discuss what makes them funny.  Check out this site: http://www.squiglysplayhouse.com/JokesAndRiddles/Jokes.html   Jokes often use words that have double meanings.  Make a list of words that have double meanings and see if you can create your own joke book.
Free Sample Activities
If you would rather use a workbook that strengthens these skills, come get free sample pages and activities from the workbook:  Abstracting Thinking and Multiple Meanings: Developing Higher Order Language and Mental Flexibility Through Critical Thinking and Visualization.  Go to the middle of the page for a direct download:  

Cheers, Erica