NESCA Notes 2021

Thematic Instruction in Speech-Language Therapy

By | NESCA Notes 2021 | No Comments

By Olivia Rogers, MA, CF-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist, NESCA

What exactly is a theme and why would we use them in speech therapy? A theme can be defined as the creation of various meaningful activities planned around a central topic or idea. For example, using activities that are all about the ocean, sports, or winter. Themed activities can be great for working on speech and language skills.

Here are some benefits of using thematic instruction (Hadley et al., 2018; Wallach, 2014):

  • Thematic instruction is a meaningful and motivating method of learning concepts.
  • Knowledge on different themes and categories supports a child in making connections between various concepts. It also provides the opportunity to teach and practice new skills by building on a child’s existing knowledge of the topic.
  • Teaching words linked in thematic groups allows for a deeper understanding of functions, categories, and features. Thematic instruction can improve vocabulary and increases a child’s understanding and use of synonyms and antonyms.
  • Activating prior knowledge and engaging students in prior knowledge activities increases the comprehension and retention of information. This, in turn, supports story retelling skills, as well as ability to answer “WH” questions – who, what, where, when and why.
  • Themes are relevant to a child’s real-life experiences; therefore, thematic instruction improves a child’s ability to make inferences and predictions. Children can make better inferences and predictions about situations they may encounter on a daily basis with this knowledge of various themes and categories.
  • Thematic instruction promotes generalization outside the therapy room.

Thematic instruction can result in improvements in overall language skills. Additionally, using themes can keep speech-language therapy interesting and help increase engagement. This is key, as it’s been shown that when a child receives eight more minutes of engaging therapy, there is significantly greater improvement than with regular therapy (Schmitt, 2020).

What can you do at home?

Fortunately, thematic instruction can be easily incorporated into daily life or special occasions at home – and can be adapted for any age. October is one of my favorite months as it is packed with themes. I like to dedicate the first part of October to autumn and leaves, as well as fire safety and occupations. Then it’s time to dive into all things Halloween! Here are some Halloween-themed activities you can do at home to support your child’s language development:

  • Read different Halloween stories while increasing the understanding of Halloween-associated vocabulary (e.g., pumpkin, leaves, haunt, eerie, costume, cauldron, ghost, broomstick, etc.) and Halloween lingo (e.g., “trick or treat,” “boo,” “hair-raising,” “if you dare,” “pumpkin carving,” etc. Some great books to help you with these words and phrases are:
    1. Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
    2. There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bat by Lucille Colandro
    3. Goodnight Goon by Michael Rex
  • Encourage your child to recall details and retell the stories you read. Have them:
    1. Describe the setting of the story.
    2. Tell you about one story character.
    3. Identify their favorite part of the story.
    4. Say what happened at the end of the book.
  • Encourage the use of Halloween-associated vocabulary by going on a neighborhood walk and playing I Spy with your child (e.g., “I spy something orange, that you can carve during Halloween,” or “I spy something that changes colors then falls from trees,” etc.).
  • Discuss the history of Halloween and where it originated.
    1. Make predictions regarding this upcoming Halloween and Halloweens to follow.
    2. Compare and contrast Halloween traditions over the years.
  • Create a hands-on activity (e.g., carving pumpkins, drawing a haunted house, collecting leaves for a craft, etc.) where your child/children follow directions to cooperatively complete the project. This encourages problem solving, reasoning and use of appropriate social skills.
  • Engage in a pretend play scenario about Halloween using all the information your child has learned throughout your thematic intervention.


Hadley, E. B., Dickinson, D. K., Hirsch-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). Building semantic networks: The impact of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers’ depth of word knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly.

Schmitt, M. (2020). Children’s active engagement in public school language therapy relates to greater gains. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology


About the Author

Olivia Rogers received her Master of Arts in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Maine, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders and concentrations in Childhood Development and Disability Studies.

Ms. Rogers has experience working both in the pediatric clinic setting as well as in public schools, evaluating and treating children 2-18 years of age presenting with a wide range of diagnoses (e.g., language delays and disorders, speech sound disorders, childhood apraxia of speech, autism spectrum disorder, social communication disorder, and Down syndrome). Ms. Rogers enjoys making sure therapy is fun and tailored to each client’s interests.

In her free time, she enjoys listening to podcasts and spending times with friends and families.


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.


To book an appointment with Olivia Rogers, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email or call 617-658-9800.


The Benefits of Working on a Vertical Surface

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

What do you mean by a vertical surface?

If you think about it, most of the activities children do day to day are completed on a horizontal surface, where toys and tools remain static, in one position. Picture a vertical surface, whether it be a wall, window, or an easel. Working in this anti-gravity position activates new muscles and makes activities more challenging for kids. Think “tummy time,” but for our elementary-aged kids.

What are the benefits of working on a vertical surface?

  • Shoulder, wrist, and elbow stability – These activities require a child to practice bigger arm movements that may not be utilized on a traditional, flat surface. These movements promote both strength and flexibility in the joints and muscles of the upper extremities.
  • Core strength & postural control – If a child is completing vertical work in standing, he or she must reach outside of their base of support, activating those core muscles. Further increase the demands of the task by having the child complete the task in kneeling or while sitting on a therapy ball. This promotes balance and use of the stomach and leg muscles. Building this solid ‘core’ foundation is extremely important so that a child can develop more controlled movements in the upper extremities.
  • Hand strength – Working against gravity requires a child to exert increased effort while building hand strength and endurance with a utensil.
  • Visual spatial awareness & crossing midline – Working on a large vertical surface means more space to cover. This requires a child to visually scan a greater distance left to right, reaching across the imaginary “midline” of our body. Crossing midline is essential for developing bilateral coordination skills.
  • Wrist extension for pencil grasp – This is a big one! Writing on a vertical surface naturally puts the wrist in extension, the ideal position for handwriting. In contrast, a flexed wrist limits finger mobility and control.
  • Proprioception & force modulation – When performing a task on a vertical surface – think stickers or drawing – the child is required to practice grading movements so that he or she can apply the right amount of pressure for success (Boitano, 2020; Drobnjak, 2015).

What pediatric population benefits from this?

All kids would benefit from participating in these kinds of activities! Working on a vertical surface work can particularly help children to further develop the essential fine, visual, and gross motor skills. Sensory integration can also be targeted, as these kinds of activities allow a child to explore and develop proprioceptive, tactile, and visual processing skills.

Activities that can be done on a vertical or slanted surface (Boitano, 2020; Drobnjak, 2015)

  • Writing
  • Drawing/coloring
  • Tracing (stencil) activities
  • Stickers
  • Painting (finger painting or with brush)
  • Magnets
  • Spray bottle activities
  • Squigz or suction cup games
  • Felt or Velcro boards
  • Chalkboard, easel, or whiteboard activities
  • Shaving cream
  • LEGO wall
  • Window or wall washing using sponge



Boitano, C. (2020, April 20). The benefits of writing and working on a vertical surface! OT Outside. Retrieved October 6, 2021 from

Drobnjak, L. (2015, June 27). Why Kids Should Work on a Vertical Surface. The Inspired Treehouse. Retrieved October 6, 2021 from


About the Author
Madelyn (Maddie) Girardi is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts with experience in both school-based and outpatient pediatric settings. Maddie received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science/Kinesiology at The College of Charleston in South Carolina and  earned her Doctorate degree in Occupational Therapy from The MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Maddie is a passionate therapist with professional interest in working with young children with neurodevelopmental disorders, fine and gross motor delays and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, 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.


Meet NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist Miranda Milana, Psy.D.

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Jane Hauser
Director of Marketing & Outreach

This September, NESCA welcomed a new neuropsychologist to its team. Learn more about Pediatric Neuropsychologist Miranda Milana, Psy.D., in my interview with her below.

Where did your interest in neuropsychology come from?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with children. I initially thought I would work with children in the medical field, but I ended up being fascinated by child psychology, which led to my focus on the clinical aspect of therapy with kids and families.

I then started to notice the importance of neuropsychological reports in schools, treatment planning, formulating diagnoses and determining the tools needed to help kids be successful. I knew I wanted to do that! I saw my fair share of unhelpful reports and wanted to take the opportunity to write truly beneficial ones.

What is your focus area in working with kids?

I really enjoy working with all kids, but have a particular intertest in early elementary-aged kids – toddlers through early elementary schoolers. I love to get to know kids whose parents, caregivers or educators are questioning whether they may have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or some kind of learning challenge. It’s exciting to start to work with a child as they are entering school and continue to watch them progress throughout their education.

Tell me about your clinical experience prior to joining NESCA.

Before coming to NESCA, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, which provided me with great exposure to a wide variety of kids and the challenges they were experiencing. My case load there exposed me to a vast range of educational and developmental concerns and presentations. Working with children aged 2 through 17 who showed a wide-ranging array of presentations really helped me to become a flexible thinker.

It was a great opportunity to work with all types of clinicians, families and children. Also, having such a diverse case load afforded me the opportunity to become part of so many teams within the hospital, including the Down Syndrome, Adoption and Teenager teams, among others. It was rewarding to be able to learn from each one of them.

What drew you to NESCA?

I wanted to continue to work in a collaborative environment, where it wasn’t just me contributing to a child’s evaluation and plan. I really wanted to learn and collaborate with a team of psychologists and other providers in a group practice, outside of the hospital setting. Being part of a child’s trajectory in school is exciting, and NESCA allows me to do just that!

What are some of the more rewarding experiences you’ve had as a pediatric neuropsychologist?

Getting kids who are closed off to share their experiences with me is very rewarding. With these kids, we have to be creative in how we approach them, get them to share and play. Having anxious, resistant children feel comfortable opening up to me in conversation or who allow themselves to be vulnerable by sharing personal information, is such a rewarding part of what I do. To know you have built that kind of trust with a child is so fulfilling.

What’s your secret sauce in building that trust with a child who is anxious or resistant?

I am kind of a kid at heart, so I use that in testing children to engage them and create a more fun environment. I take pride in getting to know a child beyond the test scores and collected data. Finding common ground and relating to them is so important. I also like to make sure they know I am part of their team that will support them as they move forward in school and in life. It’s a personal challenge to me to get the most resistant kids to engage and maybe even crack a smile during the evaluation!


About Miranda Milana, Psy.D.

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​


To book an evaluation with Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Milana 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.

Interest Inventories

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

In the last Transition Thursday blog, Kelley Challen, Director of Transition Services at NESCA, discussed vocational assessments and aptitude testing. As Kelley stated, vocational assessments should be the start of the career exploration process, not the end. When most people think of vocational assessment, interest inventories and surveys are the first things that may come to mind. While each inventory asks and reports information differently, inventories generally ask individuals to rank how much they like the concept of a job or activity. Individuals are not supposed to consider whether they can do a task (such as in aptitude testing or skill inventories), but if completing the task seems enjoyable or of interest. Results are frequently displayed as occupational themes that help individuals have a starting point on a wide variety of jobs that may be worth exploring. The most well-known of which is based on the work of John Holland. Holland Codes are used as the basis of many well-known interest inventories (including the O*NET Interest Profiler). Other inventories that utilize different occupational themes may also loosely relate to Holland Codes. Thus, the information from multiple inventories may provide clarification of a person’s interest. As many of the shorter inventories have a limited number of activities per career cluster, it can be helpful to take more than one inventory to establish areas of interest. If a person has the same code (or sets of codes) in multiple inventories, it further indicates strong areas of interest. Frequently, however, results may indicate a different career code, indicating many areas of interest and the need for broader career exploration in order to develop a better sense of their working selves.

Most inventories indicate a career code of a person’s top 3 career clusters, e.g., RIC. What does that mean? It means that the individual identified that they would likely most enjoy careers that include interests in the Realistic, Investigative, and Conventual career themes. Examples of such jobs could include dental laboratory technicians, RV service technicians, computer support specialists, electricians, model makers, and many others ( The types of work and preferences for the different themes include:

Realistic – Individuals interested in this area like to work with things, use tools and machines and prefer physical, outdoors, and mechanical work.  They are doers and often described as persistent and practical.  They prefer a structured work environment.  Workers with high realistic interest are found in construction and skilled trades, production and manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, hospitality and recreation, food service, and natural resources.

Investigative – Individuals interested in this area like to work with ideas and data and prefer figuring out problems mentally.  They are thinkers and often described as curious, intellectual, and independent.  They favor jobs that require abstract thinking, research, and analysis.  Workers with high investigative interest are found in the life and physical sciences, health and behavioral sciences, applied technologies, academics, research and development, mathematics, and engineering.

Artistic – Individuals inter5ested in this area like to work with forms, designs, and patterns and prefer creative and self-expressive work.  Artistic individuals are creators and often described as imaginative and original.  They favor flexible and less predictable work environments.  Workers with high artistic interest are found in design, applied arts, architecture, culinary arts, performing arts, fine arts, education, communication and media, and fashion.

Social – Individuals interested in this area usually like to work with people and prefer helping, teaching, and healing work.  Social individuals are helpers and often described as supportive, understanding, patient, and generous.  They favor jobs that require listening, comforting, serving others, and advising.  Workers with high social interest are found in education, health and human services, recreation and fitness, safety and service, and religious vocations.

Enterprising – Individuals interested in this area alike to work with start-up ideas and new projects and prefer leading.  Enterprising individuals are persuaders and often described as confident, ambitious, and energetic.  They generally favor jobs that involve selling and achieving set goals.  Workers with high enterprising interest are often found in business and administration, marketing, finance and insurance, sales, regional planning, and law.

Conventional – Individuals interested in this area usually like to work with set procedures, data, and details and prefer clerical and computational work.  Conventional individuals are organizers and often described as organized, efficient, and careful.  They generally favor jobs that involve routine work with numbers, machines, and computers to meet required goals.  Workers with high conventional interest are found in accounting, banking, office work, and computer applications.

Definitions provided by/taken from the PICS-3 Administrator’s Guide 2020[i].

Knowing the types of careers which may be of interest is just the first step. An individual’s preferred work setting can make the difference in a person’s success. Having a preferred setting is also likely to increase work satisfaction. A great way to take an extensive and potentially overwhelming list of career options is to determine the most critical factors for that person. These aspects can be explored through informal conversations and worksheets or even more formal assessment measures. Basics, such as whether a person wants to spend most of their time standing or sitting, being inside or outside, or having a consistent schedule, can help the individual more easily decide which career options are worth a deeper look. From there, options, such as beginning salary, needed education and training, and career outlook, are important to consider. Research, including finding videos showing a typical day and tasks, informational interviewing, job shadowing, and internships, helps provide individuals with an extensive understanding of their career choices and determine the skills they need to build to meet their vocational goals. Be sure to check out the next Transition Thursday blog in our vocational assessment and career exploration series as it will go into more detail about these later career exploration activities.

[i] Picture Interest Career Survey-Third Edition.  Administrator’s Guide Robert P. Brady, EdD.  Published 2020 by JUST Publishing, Inc.


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.


Myth Busters: Bilingualism and Language Delays in Young Children

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Bilingual and multilingual children are often diagnosed with both language disorders and autism spectrum disorders later in development than monolingual children. There are a variety of reasons for later diagnosis, such as disparities in service access or structural inequities in society which limit diagnostic or treatment services for bilingual and multilingual families as well as disparities in the availability of providers and experts capable of diagnosing communication disabilities and language delays in bilingual and multilingual children. Another main factor I often see in practice as a neuropsychologist is a “myth” related to language development in bilingual/multilingual children. The myth is that “bilingualism or multilingualism causes language delay.” This is not accurate and not concordant with the scientific research. This is not accurate and not concordant with the scientific research. If a parent, educator, pediatrician, or therapist raises concern about a bilingual or multilingual child’s language development, do not delay an evaluation to consider the presence of a language delay, communication disability, autism spectrum disorder, or a neurological or cognitive disability. It is likewise critical to not delay access to helpful interventions for language development (e.g., speech/language therapy, early literacy/phonics interventions, social skills/play interventions). Early detection of language delays improves outcomes for monolingual and bilingual/multilingual children.

Here are important key facts about language delay and bilingual/multilingual children which can be helpful for parents, educators, therapists, and other professionals:

  • While there are some differences in bilingual and multilingual language development from monolingual development in the brain, those differences do not produce speech delays.
  • Bilingual/multilingual children and monolingual children develop expressive language skills and reach early speech and language milestones at similar times in early development. For example, single-word vocabulary size of bilingual/multilingual children is equitable to vocabulary size of monolingual children.
  • Language regression (a “red flag” for autism spectrum disorders) occurs regardless of language status and is not dependent on a child’s monolingual or multilingual abilities.
  • There is much scientific research indicating that bilingualism/multilingualism enhances social communication skills (including children with autism spectrum disorders). Likewise, bilingualism/multilingualism does not in itself produce or explain social communication challenges for children.

Additional Resources

If you want to learn more about bilingualism and language delay, Dr. Brenda Gorman, Associate Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Elmhurst College, and Dr. Alejandro Brice, Professor in the Department of Education at the University of Florida at St. Petersburg offer an informative YouTube video for parents and clinicians regarding bilingualism, “late talkers,” and language delay:

This scientific article is also a helpful resource for parents and professionals: “Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says” (Byers-Heinlein and Lew-Williams, 2013):


About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, 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, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.


What’s the Big Deal about a Pencil Grip?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Jessica Hanna MS, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist, NESCA

With kids back in school, drawings, coloring pages, and written work will make their way from the classroom to backpacks and eventually to the fridge for everyone to admire.

From infancy to adulthood, we all hit many milestones in life. Some milestones stand out more than others, but the little ones are no less important. The ability to hold a writing tool is a milestone that moves through various stages from infancy through adulthood. If you get the chance to view and capture each stage along a child’s development, it’s genuinely fascinating!

So, what’s the big deal about the stages involved in holding a writing tool, such as a crayon, marker, or pencil? These stages are the foundation for developing the tiny muscles and arches of the human hand, creating strength and endurance during a writing/drawing activity, and developing stability to manipulate the writing tool to use it the intended way. As humans, we all move through these stages at one point. The progression through each stage is not uniform or standard. The ultimate goal is to reach the ability to hold a writing tool with a functional grasp pattern that promotes adequate speed, accuracy, and legibility without it being the cause of pain or fatigue.

For many kids, achieving fine motor precision and the skill for written output is challenging. However, as NESCA Occupational Therapist Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, reminds us in her recent post, “Handwriting vs. Typing: Where do we draw the line?,” handwriting is still a valuable life tool.

So, what does the progression of pencil grasp development actually look like?

Primitive Stages – Observed between 12 and 36 months. The art of drawing and coloring is often the first exposure and gateway to children learning how to hold a writing tool. There is all the freedom, no pressure of writing, and no right and wrong to their drawing.

  • Radial Cross Palmer Grasp (Fig a.) – Full arm and shoulder movement is used to move the writing tool. The writing tool is positioned across the palm of the hand, held with a fisted hand, and the forearm is fully pronated with elbow winged high out to the side.
  • Palmer Supinate Grasp (Fig b.) – Full arm and shoulder movement is used to move the writing tool. The writing tool is positioned across the palm of the hand, held with a fisted hand, with slight flexion of the wrist, and the elbow slightly lowered out to the side.
  • Digital Pronate Grasp (Fig c.) – Full arm and shoulder movement used to move the writing tool. Arm and wrist are floating in the air, and only the index finger extends along the writing tool toward the tip.

Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990)

Children will begin to shift between the various pencil grips as their shoulder and arm muscles become stronger and steadier.

Immature grasp or transitional grip phase – This grip has been observed as young as 2.7 years of age through 6.6 years of age as stated through research (Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990)).

  • Static Tripod grasp (Fig g.) – The child will use their forearm and wrist movements only keeping fingers stationery and wrists slightly bent. Movement of the hand can be observed as not graceful. The thumb, index and middle finger will work together as the shaft of the pencil is stabilized by the 4th finger.

Ann-Sofie Selin (2003)

Mature grips – There is so much talk about what looks right and what looks wrong. Traditional pencil grips have evolved through time. There have been four pencil grips now classified as a mature grasp pattern. All mature grips use precise finger movement to manipulate a writing tool while keeping the forearm stabilized.

  • Dynamic Tripod Grip (Fig 1) – Previously known as the golden standard of all grips, where the thumb, index, and middle finger function together, while the pencil shaft rests on the middle finger.
  • Dynamic Quadrupod Grip (Fig 2) –The thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers function together while the pencil shaft rests on the ring finger.
  • Lateral Tripod Grip (Fig 3) – The pencil shaft is stabilized by the inner (lateral) side of the thumb and index finger while resting on the middle finger.
  • Lateral Quadrupod Grip (Fig 4) – The pencil shaft is stabilized by the inner (lateral) side of the thumb, index, and middle finger while resting on the ring finger.

Koziatek SM, Powell NJ (2003)

Pencil grips are generally believed to affect handwriting, and awkward pencil grips become the most commonly assumed cause as to why that is (Ann-Sofie Selin, 2003). However, the production of untidy or illegible handwriting does not always correlate to an unusual pencil grip. The most efficient pencil grip for a child is the one that will help them write with speed and legibility, without pain for an extended period of time.

When should a parent, caregiver or educator be concerned?

  • There is pain and excessive pressure on the writing tool by holding on too tight
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Writing speed is compromised
  • Complaint of hand fatigue during writing and coloring activities
  • Holding the pencil with a primitive grasp (e.g., full fist) after 4 years of age
  • White knuckles or hyperextended joints in fingers holding a writing tool
  • Visible flexed wrist and forearm lifted off the writing surface
  • Inability to choose a clear hand preference between ages 4 and 6 years of age
  • Complete avoidance of all drawing or writing activities

If you are concerned about your child’s pencil grip and/or handwriting, an Occupational Therapist can work with you to identify challenging areas and determine next steps. Let us know if we can help support your child.


Koziatek SM, Powell NJ. Pencil grips, legibility, and speed of fourth-graders’ writing in cursive. Am J Occup Ther. 2003 May-Jun;57(3):284-8.

Schneck, CM, and Henderson (1990) Descriptive analysis of the developmental progression of grip position for pencil and crayon control in nondysfunctional children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 44, (10) 893 – 900

Ann-Sofie Selin (2003). Pencil Grip: A Descriptive Model and Four Empirical Studies. Åbo Akademi University Press.


About the Author

Jessica Hanna has over 10 years of pediatric OT experience in conducting assessments and providing treatment of children and adolescents with a broad range of challenges and disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorders, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, executive function deficits and developmental disorders of motor function. Prior to joining NESCA, Jessica trained and worked in a variety of settings, including inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, private practice, schools and homes. She has served on interdisciplinary treatment teams and worked closely with schools, medical staff and other service providers in coordinating care. In addition, Jessica provided occupational therapy services at Perkins School for the Blind and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital pediatric inpatient unit, where she conducted comprehensive evaluations and interventions for children with a broad range of presentations.


To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, 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.


The Power of a List

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

For so many children, adolescents, and young adults, I find myself recommending something that seems too simple to be of much use – a list. The power of lists has been identified and described in depth by several experts, such as Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto – an excellent read). These books often discuss efficiency in the workplace, health and safety practices, and maintaining consistency in products or services. As adults, these are the things we often care about – ensuring that we are efficient, consistent, and getting things done.

In my practice, I recommend lists for different reasons. I recommend lists to teach executive functioning skills, such as planning, task initiation, organization, and task monitoring. Lists are also incredibly helpful for children who struggle to hold on to information. These children often miss information that is stated aloud, such as a parent giving directions or a teacher explaining instructions. Their brains often struggle to “keep up” with the pace of information presented in the world. Having the information written down in an organized manner, such a list, can help them access the information without time constraints.

Here is a quick example:

On a typical weekday morning, parents alternate checking on their 8-year-old as he gets ready for school. They give reminders of all the things left to do – “Brush your teeth!” “Get dressed!” “Put your homework in your backpack!” Time before the bus becomes shorter and shorter, as does everyone’s patience. Parents think, “We do the same things every single morning! Why is it so hard for him to remember?” Child thinks, “Why can’t they just leave me alone!” Voice volumes increase, tone shifts, and before anyone knows it or means to, there is a shouting match as the bus is pulling up.

Of course, a list won’t stop hurt feelings or eliminate frustration. However, if the child’s “morning routine” is posted somewhere easy to see, he may need far fewer reminders from his parents of all the tasks he has left to do. Frustration may be reduced, and the child can feel successful completing tasks with greater independence.

A list may be steps in a routine, as illustrated above. A list could also be of materials the child needs for baseball practice, the chores that should be done each week, or the limits and expectations around “screen time.” I often spend time with parents discussing the contents of a list, where the list should be placed, and the format it might take. For example, do you want checkboxes next to each item? Do you want the steps to be numbered? Maybe you love arts and crafts, and you want to laminate the list and have Velcro tabs with a “checkmark” that can be placed next to each completed task. The format and purpose vary, but lists are infinitely useful.

For many children, practice using lists is not only helping them to build skills in the moment, but is excellent practice for later life. Developing comfort with the tools and strategies that work best for you is an invaluable aspect of raising our children to become independent adults who can achieve their goals.


About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.


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.


To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email or call 617-658-9800.


Vocational Assessment and Transition Planning

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist, NESCA

Transition planning is a complex process centered around helping students, typically who receive special education services, to set goals for their postsecondary adult lives and to engage in learning, services, and experiences that will help them to ultimately reach those goals. Assessment is a critical aspect of this process, both as a means for collecting baseline information about the student and measuring progress throughout the planning process. While transition planning focuses on outcomes in several key areas (e.g., further education and training, employment, independent living, community engagement, adult service involvement), many families who seek transition assessment and planning help are specifically concerned about employment. What can my child do? What career path is best for my daughter? Will my son be able to support himself? For these families, vocational assessment is a critical piece of the transition planning process. Yet, many families do not have a good understanding of what a vocational evaluation includes and the types of results and recommendations that can come from such evaluation.

Vocational assessment has a relatively simple definition. It is the process of gathering information about a student’s interests, abilities, and aptitudes as they relate to the student’s work potential.[i] However, there is not one universal test or process used to collect this information. In fact, any of the following types of tests might be part of vocational assessment:

  • Record review
  • Informal interview with the student
  • Informal interview with parents, teachers, or other professionals who know the student well
  • Observation of student in current familiar environments
  • Interest inventories (informal or formal)
  • Learning style inventories
  • Self-reported skill, ability and achievement inventories
  • Work preference and motivation assessments
  • Work-related behavior inventories
  • Employability/Life skills assessment
  • Formal aptitude assessment
  • Situational assessment of a student in a controlled work environment
  • Work samples
  • Functional assessment of simulated or real job tasks

Importantly, most students do not need to participate in all of the above types of assessments. In fact, a lot of the best information comes from the first few informal steps of the process, record review (which often includes rich data about a student’s cognitive skills, sensory and motor skills, perceptual skills, and learning style) and interviews with the student and adults familiar with the student. Ultimately, the purpose of vocational assessment is to develop a profile of the student’s interests, skills, and aptitudes and formulate measurable short- and long-term career goals. However, it is important to remember that participation in vocational assessment typically does not, and should not, result in identification of one specific career to pursue. That’s not how any of the tests, or the overall process, is designed. Instead, results of vocational assessment will suggest a variety of careers or career families that a student may be interested in exploring more in depth. It is an important starting point of career exploration, especially for students who are unsure about their career goals. Results can also be helpful for identifying where there is alignment in a student’s aptitudes and interests or where more exposure and instruction may be needed to support a student’s career development. The information that comes out of vocational assessment is an invaluable part of comprehensive transition assessment and planning for students with and without disabilities.

For more information about vocation assessment and transition assessment at NESCA, visit our transition services page and our transition FAQs.

Also, stay tuned for more blogs about vocational assessment this fall as my colleague Tabitha Monahan and I will be specifically breaking down some of the above types of testing in greater detail.

[i] Instructional Materials Laboratory. (1998).  Vocational assessment for students with special needs. Columbia, MO: Author.


About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. Ms. Challen also provides expert witness testimony in legal proceedings related to special education. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.


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, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

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.


The Safe and Sound Protocol: Increase Self-regulation and Decrease Sound Sensitivity

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Julie Robinson, OT
Director of Clinical Services; Occupational Therapist, NESCA

NESCA is excited to announce that we now offer our clients the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)—a therapeutic listening program, designed to increase self-regulation and decrease sensitivity to sound. This new service is provided through our occupational therapy (OT) department and is facilitated by either Julie Robinson or Maddie Girardi, both of whom have been trained and certified in its administration. The process begins with an initial phone intake with Julie, who will help you determine if the program is a good fit for you as an adult, or your child. For new patients, we always initiate the program in the office for two to three visits. After this point, (if it seems feasible), you can transition to a home program. If not, we can continue through direct office visits until the program has been completed. In addition, we can offer the program as part of an existing OT treatment protocol.

Who is SSP appropriate for?

SSP is appropriate for anyone over two years of age through adulthood, who has the capacity to listen to music with over-the-ear headphones. It is ideal for patients on the autism spectrum, or individuals with sound sensitivity, sensory processing disorders, or difficulty with self-regulation. It can be used to facilitate more frequent calm and settled states of arousal for those under stress, or who have experienced trauma. It has been also observed to improve sleep and even feeding patterns in some of our clients who have difficulty in those areas. We have seen this carry over into improved behavioral control, independence, and focus in completing daily routines and academic work, as well as more availability for social interactions.

What if my child cannot tolerate wearing headphones?

Your OT will work with you to find an appropriate pair. In our experience, most children can learn to wear headphones with a bit of gentle coaxing and positive reinforcement. Sometimes we need to start with music, outside of the listening program, that a child is already interested in. Other times, we can start right in with the program and, bit by bit, build up increased tolerance.

What type of music is played in the program?

All programs are offered with both children’s music (common tunes from TV or movies, such as Disney programming) as well as adult-oriented songs (pop music or classical music).

NESCA offers two programs, each described below:

  • SSP CORE—This is the basic listening program, appropriate for most patients who are program, and what most individuals are ready to start with. This program has been used since 2017 as a mechanism to reduce stress and auditory sensitivity. It consists of a five-hour long listening protocol, that can be done ideally across five one-hour or 10 half-hour sessions, depending on tolerance levels. For some of our clients who cannot tolerate it as easily, listening sessions can be even shorter in duration. For clients who tolerate it well, and would be compliant, it can also be delivered as a home program after initial set-up through a clinician. It presents music that has been acoustically modified based on a specific algorithm that triggers physiological states of safety and trust. Calming the physiological state helps to promote social engagement and self-regulation, and further therapy can be enhanced or even accelerated. It has music with high frequency sounds gradually filtered in, allowing for slow and steady desensitization to auditory stimuli. It is suited for those who are accustomed to listening to music with headphones, those with subtle sound sensitivities, or those with general difficulties with self-regulation.
  • SSP CONNECT—SSP CONNECT is intended to be used as a less demanding introduction and foundation to the SSP CORE program, specifically for those who are not yet used to headphones, or who do not tolerate filtered sounds well. There is a classical music playlist—one for adults and another for children. It can be used for individuals who are highly sound sensitive, or very young listeners without high frequency filtering to get them ready for the CORE program. It also has five hours of listening time and is intended for use before the SSP CORE program, therefore resulting in a total of 10 hours of active listening time. The SSP CONNECT program should yield a sense of safety with the listening process and expectancy of what is to come next. It is important for the therapist and client to establish a strong rapport, with since there is a good deal of support from the clinician.

If you are interested in talking with a clinician who can determine if this would be a good fit for you or your child, please contact Julie Robinson, OT, Director of Clinical Services, at:


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.