NESCA Notes 2021

When Gaming Is No Longer A Game

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist and Therapist

Many parents are wrestling with how much time their children are engaging with screens, and finding themselves wondering how much is too much. Children who experience difficulty related to symptoms of ADHD are especially drawn to the stimulation of screens. And children with ADHD tend to require frequent and immediate rewards, making them especially drawn to screen-time activities. While a specific cause for ADHD has not been identified, there is some consensus that a shortage of dopamine could be to blame. Dopamine not only plays a role in how we feel pleasure, it is also significant in the uniquely human ability to think and plan.

Part of the allure of gaming – and social media – is that each new level reached and each new “like,” instantly releases a small dose of dopamine directly into the brain’s reward center. If you have ever had to fight with your child to get off technology, this is likely why. A deficit in dopamine is easily fed by screen-time activities, leading children to want more. This has led to a demand for content, resulting in tens of millions of dollars having been made by YouTubers whose entire platform is gaming, and children love watching them. They are entertaining, and kids learn tips for improving their own gaming.

Children worship gaming YouTubers, and many strive to be one someday. It is challenging for parents to keep up with the content their children are accessing largely because YouTube has created an algorithm in the system that suggests what to watch next based on frequent views or recent searches. YouTube’s recommendation system is specifically engineered to maximize watch time and often “up next” videos play automatically. In fact, this feature is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site, indicating that children, and others, are consistently and reliably exploring recommended “up next” content. It is important for parents to do their research and know who their children are watching and following on YouTube, as they may be drawn into content that could be highly influential and contrary to family values. While many YouTubers are harmless, there are those who include brief, perhaps undetectable messages (e.g., PewDiePie) that influence what shows up next. Children are curious, and YouTube’s goal is to keep them engaged, which can turn into the perfect storm.

YouTube consists of a business model that rewards provocative videos with large sums of money. They strive to attract viewers by leading them down paths meant to keep people engaged. While much of the content may seem innocuous, there are reasons to be cautious as things aren’t always as innocent as they seem. Provocative content creates intrigue. It piques interest and may be especially attractive to older children and adolescents. As individuals strive to create the next viral video, putting forth extreme beliefs and violent content may be their pathway to becoming a celebrity. For these reasons, and as technology becomes increasingly embedded in children’s lives, it is important for parents to do their research and stay informed.

Some helpful resources include:


About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Hess recently graduated from Rivier University with a PsyD in Counseling and School Psychology. Previously, she earned an M.A. from Antioch New England in Applied Psychology. She also worked as an elementary school counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before embarking on her doctorate. During her doctorate, she did her pre-doctoral internship with RIT in Rochester, N.Y. where she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma. Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18, their families and young adults. She also trained part-time with a pediatric neuropsychologist conducting neuropsychological evaluations.


To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.


Developing S-M-A-R-T Goals in 2021

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC
NESCA Transition Specialist/Counselor

Happy New Year! Now two weeks into 2021, maybe it’s time to revisit those New Year Resolutions.  French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” This is true for resolutions, just as it is for any goal. How can we help our young people change their wishes, visions and dreams into goals? We teach them (and maybe ourselves while we’re at it) how to plan. One of my favorite strategies for both teaching and reaching goals is by creating SMART Goals. What is a Smart Goal?

Specific – The goal should be specific. I’ll increase the distance I run is vague. Will you increase the distance by 20 feet, 2 miles? Are you planning for a marathon? Instead, let’s take a look at step 2, making it measurable.

Measurable – There’s a good chance that if your goal is not specific enough, it will be hard to measure if you have succeeded in that goal. So, let’s make our exercise goal both specific and measurable. I’ll increase the distance I run from 1 mile to 3.2 miles (5k).

Attainable – Attainable is the hard one for many students who are still building awareness of their strengths and challenges. Let’s say a person who has never run wants to run in the Boston Marathon. This is likely not an attainable goal, even if it is specific and measurable. Couch to 5k training exists; I have not seen the couch to marathon training program. Having measurable steps also helps break down the goal into smaller pieces, which will be further discussed later.

Relevant – If I am trying to increase my social circle and group leisure skills, running is unlikely to get me there. However, if, like many people, we’re trying to improve our health in 2021 (or take off some of those quarantine pounds), increasing the distance we run certainly will get us there. Many young adults may need to bounce ideas off someone to ensure the goal is relevant to the area at hand.

Time-bound – Attainable and time-based work tightly together. If you do not give yourself a deadline, the goal may still be there come December 2021. Humans work best with deadlines. We need the motivation to complete a plan, and often motivation needs a sense of urgency.

Okay, so what does our SMART goal look like for increased health and wellness? I will increase the distance I run from 1 mile to 3.2 miles (5k) in ¼ mile increments by June 30, 2021.

We have all the pieces. It is specific, and we know precisely what the end goal will be and how we will get there. It’s measurable; there is something we can check off as complete, like a to-do list. It’s attainable and seems realistic. We are not trying to run the Boston Marathon course after only running a mile. We will start as a beginner runner and work towards a 5k, and we are not trying to do it tomorrow with no steps in between. It’s relevant; we are working on bettering our health in 2021. And it is time-based. We want to meet our goal by the end of June.

Now that we’ve refreshed our minds on SMART goals, how do we build these skills in transition-aged youth? Ask them. Ask your child, your students, your clients what they want for themselves in education, employment and independent living. We already have the starting points. We have their vision. We have the IEP TEAM’s goals and objectives.

The youth may have a far-reaching (and maybe seemingly unattainable) goal. Help them break that big goal down into smaller parts and work backward. Do they want to be an engineer? Engineers need a college degree. What does the student need to do to graduate college? They need to get into college. How do they get into college? They need to apply and graduate from high school. What do they need to do to graduate high school? They need to pass their science class. That seems like a reasonable starting place, and it is still related to the vision. What might a SMART goal look like for that student? I will receive a passing grade on my final exam by answering the end of chapter questions each week and asking for clarification from my teacher for any questions I got wrong by the end of the spring semester.

But how do we support them when they aren’t making progress? Many people have a hard time adjusting once they have made a plan. Whenever we set a goal, we need to look at our progress periodically. We need to check that the goal is still attainable by the deadline we gave ourselves. Are we making progress? If we are still running only a mile and it’s March, what adjustments do we need to make? Suppose a student is not finding answering the end of chapter questions helpful in confirming their knowledge of the material. What changes can they make to increase their understanding of the material? Maybe the student asks the teacher if they can work one-on-one twice a week to increase understanding? Frustration, when the plan doesn’t work, makes many give up on the goal. Learning how to adapt is just as essential as learning how to make a goal.

A person who has practiced SMART goals is a person who will have an increased understanding of the objectives and smaller steps they need to reach their vision. They will have more confidence in their abilities and more awareness of their challenges. A person who has goal-setting skills is a person who has control of their own life. What are your SMART goals for 2021?


About the Author

Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, is an experienced transition evaluator and vocational counselor. While she is well-versed in supporting a wide range of transition-aged youth, she is especially passionate and knowledgeable in helping clients and their families navigate the complex systems of adult services and benefits as well as medical and mental health systems. She is further adept in working individually with students of all abilities to empower self-advocacy and goal achievement.


To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s expert transition specialists or neuropsychologists, please complete our online intake form


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.


The Intention to Thrive

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Ann Helmus, Ph.D.
NESCA Founder/Director

As I reflect on the year that we have all come through, my overwhelming emotion (aside from exhaustion) is pride in the NESCA team for working together in an extraordinary manner under incredibly challenging circumstances. Just before closing the doors at NESCA in mid-March, I wrote to all staff:

NESCA is going to not only survive through this pandemic but we are going to thrive as an organization and show leadership in the special education community. The needs of our clients have not gone away; in fact, they are likely increasing.  School systems are scrambling to meet their obligations for students with special needs. We will continue to do the work we have always done, albeit in a somewhat modified fashion. 

Each of the NESCA staff—clinical and administrative—immediately rose to the occasion to help me realize this vision for navigating the pandemic. We increased the frequency our blog posts and introduced regular webinars, gearing them towards the needs of parents facing the challenges of the pandemic and increased our social media following from 4,000 to more than 40,000 by offering supportive and helpful content. NESCA clinicians offered multiple, free online support groups for parents and professionals related to topics they were now experiencing due to COVID-19. We acknowledged and addressed the unprecedented COVID-19-related concerns and challenges professionals and educators who support those with autism were experiencing through our free Autism Educator Hangouts.

After a great deal of research and discussion about how to conduct evaluations in a manner that ensured the safety of staff and clients while producing valid results, we settled on our “two office model,” renovating our space with plexiglass panes so that clients and clinicians would be able to work together in separate but adjoining offices. We collaborated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), The Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) and the Massachusetts Urban Project, Inc., providing information about assessments and other services during the pandemic.

NESCA grew by adding new staff and service offerings this past year. We welcomed Dr. Moira Creedon to our pediatric neuropsychology staff. Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, and Becki Lauzon, M.A., CRC, both joined NESCA’s Transition Services team. Julie Robinson, OT, joined NESCA in September with three occupational therapists to offer insurance-based, sensory-motor therapy. Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, also joined at that time to offer insurance-based speech/language and feeding therapy at NESCA. These staff have been incredibly innovative in their use of teletherapy to continue providing services to clients remotely.  And, they and their clients have experienced some surprising benefits stemming from the delivery of services via telehealth. 2020 also saw the introduction of NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic, helping families to diagnose children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as early as possible so they may gain access to critically important interventions.

Over the last decade, NESCA has had a strong commitment to international work, seeing clients for evaluation and consultation in the NESCA offices as well as abroad. With travel severely limited by the pandemic, we have instituted teletherapy for international work and are pleased to continue to assist  families abroad. NESCA was honored to be a Gold Sponsor for the annual SENIA conference (Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) that was held virtually. I was pleased to present about the differences between testing and assessment with professionals from schools all over Asia.

In the midst of the global pandemic, we continued to do the work that we have always done. We continued to support each other and became even more closely bonded as a team. We contributed to the community. No matter how challenging it has been, we are motivated by the knowledge that children with special needs and their parents need our support now more than ever.


About the Author: 

NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.

Teletherapy at NESCA – Benefits and How It Works

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Julie Robinson, OT

Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

Now that the second  COVID-19 surge is upon us, many families are again opting to receive occupational, speech-language and feeding therapy services through teletherapy. While COVID-19 is interrupting so many things in our lives, it does not have to interrupt important therapy services. Our clinicians at NESCA encourage teletherapy as a powerful tool to impact progress for your children and foster a smooth family dynamic.

It’s important to note that teletherapy IS covered by insurance, so just because you cannot or may not want to come into the office to be seen in-person, you do not need to put your services on hold.

While some people may not think teletherapy packs the same punch as in-person therapy, we’ve seen some unexpected and valuable benefits stem from this shift in how we deliver services remotely.

Some of the benefits of teletherapy that we’ve observed are:

  • There’s less travel time and more efficiency of service delivery with teletherapy. There’s also more flexibility and scheduling convenience for both the parents and clinicians. We see so many families trying to juggle the responsibilities of remote learning, working from home and managing the needs of multiple kids. Teletherapy can offer the supports that are necessary in an easily accessible way to help families establish consistent and organized routines.
  • Teletherapy allows parents to be more involved in sessions with their child, also allowing the opportunity for clinicians to educate them about activities that can be done at home to facilitate progress. On top of the child receiving therapy, parents get 1:1 real-time training and consultation with a clinician. If parents cannot be involved in sessions, sitters, nannies and other caretakers can participate.
  • For parents who feel that their child is struggling with their experience in school since COVID-19, teletherapy can also be a way to supplement IEP services. Teletherapy as a modality provides more individualized attention to goals that have been established or can fill in gaps in services you feel your child may not be accessing as easily.
  • Clinicians are able to see your children at home—in their natural environment—and to even see some of the daily challenges experienced at home, right in the moment. This allows us to actively problem solve with parents around behavioral challenges and the difficulty their children are having in staying focused during remote learning. Via teletherapy, we can model responses and approaches right in the midst of real-life situations as they are unfolding.
  • Teletherapy allows our occupational therapists to do a virtual house tour with you to suggest modifications or accommodations to your physical environment/space to support sensory needs or motor development with items and areas you already have. Building a home program with our guidance helps to reinforce the work we do with them.
  • In all teletherapy sessions, the child must be present for at least a brief period. But in moments where a child is not able to stay engaged in the process, the clinician is able to stay in the session to provide parent consultation and problem solve.
  • When appropriate and agreed upon by all parties, your clinician can engage other children in the household into teletherapy sessions to incorporate social teaching and positive sibling interactions, as well as structured activity for the family unit.
  • Teletherapy has been a huge plus for our feeding therapists and their clients, as we can work with children in their own kitchens and with food that is typically available and prepared. We can also see how a child behaves throughout the mealtime process in their natural environment as they interact with family members. Therapists report that some of their feeding therapy clients have made more progress via virtual sessions than in their in-clinic sessions.
  • Because teletherapy gives occupational therapists a window into the home setting, we can work with our clients on self-care and hygiene tasks, support learning of chores and other daily household activities in a more natural setting to them.

How a teletherapy session works

Teletherapy is a little different than just showing up for a session in the office and does require some advanced preparation for both the client and the clinician.

  • Initially, your clinician will talk with you to gather information about your home environment, the setting for remote work, and what tools or equipment you may have around at home to incorporate into your sessions.
  • Each week, your clinician will send you an email with a list of items to get ready for your virtual visit, possibly a specific schedule or plan for the session, if needed. This will include a link to access your teletherapy session.
  • In most cases, parents need to be present to facilitate the process, or at the very least accessible to assist with any technology glitches that may arise during the session. We encourage participation from caregivers to ensure that they are educated about our goals as well as the things that can be done at home throughout the week to encourage progress.
  • We try to keep therapy sessions as play-based as possible, often engaging with visual supports or other tools that may help your child to focus and have fun.
  • There may be times when your child is overloaded with remote learning, before our session even begins, or there may be distracting factors in the household at any given moment that can limit their focus on therapeutic tasks. Therapists are able to maintain a flexible approach to end a session early, to give the child a break and talk to a caregiver instead, or to provide parent consultation instead of direct therapy activity. All are benefits to the child and family unit.

To learn more about NESCA’s new clinical therapy services, watch this video interview between NESCA’s Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, and Julie Robinson, OT, who oversees the new clinical therapy offerings.

About the Author

Julie Robinson is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician. The work Julie does is integral to human development, wellness and a solid family unit. She particularly enjoys supporting families through the process of adoption and in working with children who are victims of trauma. Julie has extensive experience working with children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or who have learning or emotional disabilities. She provides services that address Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and self-regulation challenges, as well as development of motor and executive functioning skills.

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services or other clinical therapies, please fill out our online Intake Form, email or call 617-658-9800.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.


Approaching 2021 with Ease and Grace

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

I think we are all relieved that 2020 is behind us. All of us experienced a “mental health crisis” of some level of anxiety, depression and fear since March, 2020. As the pandemic spread across our globe, ravaged our lives, took loved ones from us, created economic upheaval, food insecurity and amplified the technological discrepancies that existed within our communities, we adapted and survived…we had to. And the Black Lives Matter movement gained strength also because it had to. From the crisis came opportunity.

Hopefully we learned something about ourselves and each other both across the globe and within our small circles. Now we know the unfathomable and unexpected can and does happen, and it upends our lives like we never expected. What we once thought was important doesn’t seem as important any more. Hopefully, as the months passed in 2020, we settled into the “new normal” and began to develop rhythms and beliefs that sustained us and fed our souls. Let’s hope that we developed a sense of what is truly important and can approach 2021 with new-found hope, resiliency, ease and grace. Approach 2021 by cultivating and remembering the bright spots of this past year, the surprises or treasures of 2020. They may help you think more clearly about 2021.

At the start of a new year, many people make New Year’s resolutions that are long-term goals. Some people manage to keep their resolutions while others aren’t able to sustain the motivation and commitment. Given this past year, it may be difficult to think about resolutions or even conceptualize what the future will look like. Even with vaccines on the horizon, our brains are not ready for long-term planning as our futures may still be a bit unclear. We can hope for a “return to normal,” but what will that “normal” look like?

There is still an uncertainty of what the future holds, so my thinking is to keep it simple. As we start 2021, remember what’s important. If you chose to make New Year’s resolutions, keep them manageable and small. Hopefully what you learned in 2020 can guide your thinking in 2021. Some everyday ideas might be to be kind and gentle with oneself and others. Don’t sweat the small stuff; most of it is small stuff. Smile and laugh every day. Promise yourself to go outside every day and breathe fresh air, be amazed at the glistening snow, the warmth of the sun, the flight of a bird. Take a walk. Three times a day, focus on your breath for at least three minutes. Before going to sleep, think of something to be thankful and grateful for. 2021 can be a year of hope, wonder and faith in a “newer normal” that will emerge, where each of us is responsible for creating a better day, world and a normal that may be even better than the normal of the past.

To everyone, peace, good health and Happy New Year!


About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.


To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.