Executive Function: Skill Building and Maintenance over the Summer

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA

With summer right around the corner, many students are thinking of warm evenings outside, days at the beach, pool or park, summer camps, and summer jobs. For parents, summer can sometimes feel like both a time of fun and a time of struggling to keep up with skills mastered and learned throughout the past school year, all while acclimating to a completely new summer routine. While some students receive summer services to keep up with important academic and executive function skills, there are absolutely ways for us to help support children and adolescents at home. Consider these three ways to incorporate executive function skill building into your child’s summer.

  1. Plan and Complete a Project – Work with your child to brainstorm a project that they would like to complete this summer. Some examples include having a lemonade stand, building a tree fort, doing a full bedroom makeover, or raising money for a cause they care about. Help your child figure out how to put together a plan to complete their goal. This will likely include a timeline complete with a comprehensive “To Do List,” a list of materials or supplies, and a list of people they may need to ask for help. The more intentional the planning of these steps is, the more a child will internalize the level of planning and prioritization that goes into accomplishing such a goal. You may need to jump in to help, but take every opportunity to defer to them and let them actively think things through before making suggestions or solving problems for them. Planning and executing a personal summer project helps to build organization, planning and prioritizing, flexible thinking, working memory, and task initiation.
  2. Organize a Family Outing – Summer can absolutely be a whirlwind, but reserve a day in the calendar for your child to plan a family outing or activity. This could be as big as a full day at the beach or as simple as a trip to lunch at their favorite restaurant. Help them think through everything that will be needed. What time will we leave? How long will it take to get there? How can you find that information? Should we check Google Maps together? How will we pay for the meal? By guiding your child through all of the steps before these activities, you help them recognize the level of planning and forethought that is necessary. For older children or adolescents, consider giving them a budget and asking them to plan a family outing independently, taking into account each family member’s preferences and schedules.
  3. Add a Weekly Task – During the school year, parents often do not have time to add chores or anything new at all to their child’s calendar. Dinners are often prepared and eaten on the fly between rehearsals, appointments, practices, and homework, and laundry gets done when someone has a free moment. Summer can be a great time of the year to add in an expectation for students who have been a bit overloaded with homework or other distractions. Consider adding a weekly task that student both need to complete and figuring out a way to remember (often a digital reminder!). One of my favorite options is to have a student cook a meal for the family one night per week. Have them set an alarm for 12pm that day, or even the day before, that prompts them to “figure out the plan for dinner.” This may look drastically different at various ages. An eight-year-old may be very proud of themselves for serving boxed macaroni and cheese (made with supervision), while a high school student may be up for trying to recreate a family recipe. The goal is not a gourmet Tuesday night meal, but practice with prior planning, sequencing, following directions, and building time management skills.

Incorporating children and adolescents into the planning, hard work, and many executive function tasks that go in to making a summer run smoothly allows them to build skills naturally. By handing down responsibility and increasing expectations bit by bit, we can allow our students to build their skills slowly and confidently. It’s important that students realize all of these many steps before they are expected to do everything on their own. Often, allowing children to feel this level of control and responsibility leads them to feel quite accomplished and proud of themselves! If you feel that facilitating this may be tricky, consider reaching out about executive function coaching, as all of these strategies can be practiced one-on-one with a coach!

 

About the Author
Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Executive Function Coaching Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com 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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Screen Time’s Impact on Child Development and How Play Can Be One Solution

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

The pandemic has made the already complex job of parenting even more challenging. With parents having to balance working from home and remote learning, many families relied on screens for learning, socialization, and entertainment. Questions about screen time and the impact on child development were already hot topics in our digital age, but the pandemic brought about new and perhaps more compelling concerns.

It is common for children of all ages to engage with digital devices. Even prior to the pandemic, approximately 80% of parents reported that their child between the ages of five and 11 interacted with a tablet or computer, and 63% used a smartphone. For children under the age of five, 48% engaged with a tablet or computer, and 55% with a smartphone (pewresearch.org, July 2020).

While screens are an inevitable part of 21st century life, too much screen time can have a detrimental impact on child development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than two years of age. Older children should limit their screen time to no more than one or two hours a day. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, too much screen time can be linked to:

  • Obesity
  • Irregular sleep
  • Behavioral problems
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Desensitization to violence
  • Less time for play

It has been established that excessive screen time may lead to obesity due to inactivity and increased snacking that often coincides with screen use. Using screens too close to bedtime may disrupt the body’s biological preparation for sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep and disrupting sleep schedules. Research has shown that elementary school students who spend more than two hours a day watching TV, playing video games or using a computer or smartphone are more likely to have emotional, social, and attention problems. Furthermore, increased time spent on screens results in less time available for learning and practicing skills important for academic and social development. Such skills include, but are not limited to, managing emotions and behavior, paying attention, solving problems effectively and independently, dealing with conflict, and resilience. So, what is the remedy? Limited screen time and more opportunities for play.

The benefits of play are almost limitless. Play is brain building and leads to changes in even the smallest structures. Play develops skills in planning and organization, cooperation, self-control, and communication. Often play involves trying and failing, and learning from mistakes, which enhances children’s capacity for solving problems and learning to focus attention, ultimately promoting the growth of executive functioning skills. Play also provides opportunities for learning to cope with adversity, resulting in increased resilience. There are many great blog articles on NESCA’s website offering information and tips for engaging in play and its benefits. They are written from a range of perspectives, which aids in understanding the wide-ranging value of play.

References:

https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/07/28/parenting-children-in-the-age-of-screens/

https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/119/1/182/70699/The-Importance-of-Play-in-Promoting-Healthy-Child

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

10 Facts about the Rorschach Inkblot Test

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As an evaluator, I receive a number of questions about the usefulness of the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The following “10 facts” are designed to answer some common questions and also incorporate some new and fresh scientific research findings related to the Rorschach.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a diagnostic tool that should always be incorporated within a comprehensive evaluation which includes projective or “performance-based” testing. If you are considering if your child or teen would benefit from projective testing, please refer to one of my earlier NESCA blog posts: More Than An Inkblot: Measuring Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking Skills with Projective Tests.”

  1. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a test that provides data and information about how a child or teen problem-solves situations “in the moment.”
  2. Research indicates that the Rorschach is a valid assessment tool (with validity akin to other personality measures, as well as measures of IQ).
  3. Recent fMRI studies show high levels of brain activation in brain regions associated with emotion, emotion memories, perception, attention and visual processing.
  4. After the Rorschach Inkblot Test is administered, an experienced evaluator uses an evidence-based scoring system to compare a child’s responses to a normative sample to evaluate their performance. RPAS (Rorschach Performance Assessment System) is the most evidence-based scoring system to date and has strong empirical evidence.
  5. The Rorschach evaluates and detects psychotic symptoms.
  6. The Rorschach is helpful for evaluating trauma, including dissociation and intrusive symptoms.
  7. The Rorschach assesses both trait (stable characteristics or patterns) and state (a temporary way of being) variables. For example, the Rorschach tells us about how a person is coping with everyday stressors (e.g. from bullying to family loss to lack of sleep). The Rorschach also tells us if a person has a more pervasive habit of “bottling up” emotions or behaving rashly or impulsively when overwhelmed.
  8. The Rorschach quantifies a child or teen’s strengths, such as capacity for insight and adaptability, or resiliency to stress.
  9. The Rorschach Inkblot Test is not for everyone. More research is needed about the utility of the Rorschach for individuals with expressive language communication impairments or visual-spatial processing deficits.
  10. Not every evaluator is equipped to administer and interpret the Rorschach Inkblot Test. The Rorschach is a powerful diagnostic tool when interpreted in conjunction with observation and other test results by a skilled, experienced practitioner with extensive training in Rorschach administration and interpretation.

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Transition Assessment: How to Prepare for the Team Meeting

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

Every child who receives special education services in the United States is entitled to transition services—a coordinated set of activities that will facilitate the student’s preparation for postsecondary education and/or training, competitive employment, independent living, and community participation.[1] In order to provide these services, an IEP team has to first conduct “age-appropriate transition assessment.”[2] I have written about transition assessment in previous blogs, including Transition Assessment: What is it anyway? How is it different from neuropsychological evaluation? and Vocational Assessment and Transition Planning.

A challenge for students and families who are participating in transition assessment for the first time, is knowing how to prepare for team meetings where transition planning and services will be discussed. When you attend a team meeting after an occupational therapy evaluation or academic evaluation, you know that you are going to be discussing what occupational therapy services or academic instruction your child may need as part of their IEP process. However, when a student has participated in transition assessment, the team will be discussing a whole variety of activities (e.g., regular and specialized instruction, related services, community experiences, linkage to adult human service agencies) that the student will need to participate in as the student is preparing for adulthood. Some transition assessment reports contain dozens of recommendations for comprehensive planning. Recommendations may include activities that you are used to discussing with your team, such as instruction and services for a current IEP period, but recommendations may also include other activities that should occur outside of school with support from a parent or community member or actions that may need to occur at a later date. To make the most of your team meeting, it is helpful to do a little bit of homework and preparation after you receive your transition assessment report.

As discussed in previous blogs, if the student is going to be part of the team meeting (which they should be), then the student should have the opportunity to discuss the assessment results with the evaluator or another trusted adult. If your school district conducted the transition assessment, ask when and how they are going to review the results with the student prior to the meeting. If you obtained an independent or private evaluation, ask if you can schedule a student feedback meeting with that evaluator prior to the student’s team meeting. Students need to be aware of the findings and the recommendations that are being made, and they need to be prepared to actively participate in discussion about the results. Whether a student supports or disagrees with recommendations from a transition assessment can have a large impact on changes that are made, or not made, to the IEP.

In addition to student preparation, all team members should be prepared to discuss the assessment recommendations in a planful and organized manner. As a parent, it is helpful to read each recommendation in the report and consider the following questions:

  • Is this a skill or activity that you can reasonably tackle at home this year or in coming years? Do you need any training or consultation to be able to support the student?
  • Is this a skill or activity that would be best supported by a community provider rather than a parent, family member, or school staff?
  • Is this a skill or piece of knowledge that the student must attain this academic year in order to make progress toward their long-term goals? Do they need specialized instruction or related services to learn the skills or gain this knowledge?
  • Is this a skill, piece of knowledge, or service that needs to be focused on at a later time, but documented somewhere so that the team does not forget the recommendation?

It can be helpful to put together an abbreviated list of the goals, objectives, or services that you know your child will need this school year based on the assessment. Alternatively, some families find it useful to create a table or grid to organize transition planning activities. Here is one possible presentation that a family might use to prepare for a team meeting.

 

  Parent Community Providers School/IEP
Education/Training ·   Tour three colleges

·   Attend summer program on college campus

·   Counseling on enrollment process for postsecondary educational programs with Pre-Employment Transition Service (Pre-ETS) provider ·   Update postsecondary goals

·   Instruction of Study Skills, including notetaking

·   Assistive technology consultation

·   Personal Finance course

·   Sexual Health Instruction

Employment ·   Create first student resume

·   Set up informational interview with family friend who works as an accountant

·   Self-advocacy counseling with Pre-ETS provider ·   Help student obtain work permit

·   Support student in applying for paid part-time work

Independent Living ·   Review family health history

·   Teach student to complete medical history paperwork

·   Prepare questions with student ahead of medical appointments

·   Assist student in opening checking account

·   Include student in home maintenance activities

·   Individual counseling

 

 

·   Instruction in tracking sleep hygiene, diet, and exercise activities

·   Assistive technology consultation for health habits

Community Engagement ·   Support student in learning to carry out personal shopping activities ·   Social skills group with insurance-based provider

·   Study for driver’s permit test with Transition to Adulthood Program (TAP) provider

·   Travel orientation with local public transit authority

·   Make referral to Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) service provider

·   Invite VR service provider to team meeting with parent & student consent

 

 

It is also helpful to consider how the information from the transition assessment can flow through the IEP document. Information learned about the student’s postsecondary goals (i.e., the student’s goals for their life after high school) must be documented in the IEP and used to guide IEP development. Portions of the assessment may also be included as key evaluation results and current performance data, may inform how the team considers various federal and state special factors such as the students need for assistive technology or more functional means of communication, may suggest linkages that are needed with state resources and adult human service agencies, and may inform other aspects of the IEP. It is important to think about each section of your child’s IEP and how the assessment results might impact the team’s discussion of that section.

Many schools and families are familiar with transition assessment services at NESCA but do not realize that our transition specialists will consult with students, parents, and teams to plan for transition assessments, review assessments that have been conducted by other clinicians, or support the team meeting process. For more information about transition planning, consultation, and assessment services at NESCA, visit our transition services page and our transition FAQs.

[1] https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.43

[2] https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/d/300.320/b

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.

Pediatric Neuropsychologist Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., Joins NESCA

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Jane Hauser
Director of Marketing & Outreach

In today’s blog, I have the pleasure of introducing you to NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., who recently joined our team of expert clinicians.

How did you discover your interest in neuropsychology?

It was a long and winding road! I went into college, interested in a wide range of subject areas, including medicine. Eventually, I realized my area of interest was truly in psychology. I discovered that I really enjoyed neuropsychological evaluations, since they combined my interests in psychology, neuroscience, working with medical providers, educators, as well as writing and the creativity involved in making a child come alive in a report.

In graduate school, I was fortunate to learn from a number of extremely talented neuropsychologists in a variety of settings. While completing a placement at Children’s Hospital Boston, I remember hearing my very wise supervisor say that, “one year in the correct school placement is worth two years of therapy.” As I continued on with my coursework and clinical training, I repeatedly saw the truth in that statement. I witnessed the value of nuanced neuropsychological assessment in allowing students to receive accurate diagnoses and, in turn, the correct academic accommodations and interventions. I wanted to be part of that, not only to help children and teens succeed academically but to prevent the secondary effects that undiagnosed and untreated learning disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, and cognitive challenges can have on emotional health, self-esteem, and social functioning.

On the personal side, my interest in neuropsychology was sparked again when I had my own child evaluated. It was surprisingly powerful to go through the process on the parent side, and after taking some time off to have a family, I knew that I wanted to get back into neuropsychology again!

Why did you choose to come to NESCA when re-entering your professional career?

There were several reasons that I looked into NESCA and ultimately opted to join its team. I learned about NESCA while researching neuropsychologists for my child’s evaluation and was impressed with what I saw. Additionally, one of my former testing supervisors told me NESCA is among the best in the business. Having that kind of endorsement from such a trusted source provided me with great confidence being part of NESCA.

I also was really drawn in by NESCA’s emphasis on the continued growth and learning for its clinicians. It was obvious that NESCA is comprised of a highly invested and collaborative team. Every one of us has a lot to learn still, and I valued the opportunity for not just a job, but the continued learning.

NESCA also offers a great work/life balance. Having a family of my own and parents who are approaching the stage where they also require care is a lot to balance. NESCA’s emphasis on supporting its staff in balancing work and life has made it very rewarding. I’ve seen several examples of how the culture of understanding is very much active.

On a very practical level, having clear protocols for handling day-to-day Covid strategies, like masking, cleaning, etc., has been comforting. Returning to clinical work in the midst of a pandemic has been a big transition, and knowing NESCA has put in place measures for keeping staff and clients safe is tremendously important to me. Seeing the creativity and agility in the way the team here tackled the larger challenges—evaluating clients safely and in-person—during Covid was inspiring and told me a lot about the team and culture. Learning that NESCA adapted its methods of testing via the two-office model demonstrated to me that they, as a practice, they are able to roll with those kinds of challenges. That was also very reassuring.

Finally, the interview process provided me with the chance to speak with a number of NESCA’s clinical staff. I was able to get a great feel for the culture and high standards the practice has, which made me confident that this was the right fit for me.

What kinds of concerns do you evaluate or enjoy the most?

I really enjoy working with kids of varying ages, but I do have a keen interest in working with families and children who are just hitting the adolescent years. I get the opportunity to help them understand how all the, sometimes confusing, pieces fit together.

I really enjoy working with kids who may be deemed as “complicated,” where things may have previously been overlooked. Maybe things were going fine for them until they hit a wall academically. Perhaps they got to middle school or high school or even college and began to wonder why things seemed to be falling apart for them. I enjoy the challenge of working with kids who are experiencing executive function deficits, social communication issues, kids whose disability or disabilities are not as straightforward. I like to tease apart whether there are executive function (EF) issues, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or sensory integration challenges…or perhaps explore whether it could be something else altogether. Is a child’s rigidity due to anxiety, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), cognitive issues or a combination of overlapping challenges? I love teasing all of these things apart. I also work with children whose families have concerns about potential language-based learning disabilities (LBLD), communication issues and challenges with social pragmatics.

It’s incredibly rewarding when you are able to help families understand answers to these kinds of questions that they may have been grappling with for a long time.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D. 

Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with often complex presentations. She particularly enjoys working with individuals who have concerns about attention and executive functioning, language-based learning disorders, and those with overlapping cognitive and social/emotional difficulties.

Prior to joining NESCA, Dr. Rodriguez worked in private practice, where she completed assessments with high-functioning students presenting with complex cognitive profiles whose areas of weakness may have gone previously undiagnosed. Dr. Rodriguez’s experience also includes pre- and post-doctoral training in the Learning Disability Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Neurodevelopmental Center at MassGeneral for Children/North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Rodriguez has spent significant time working with students in academic settings, including k-12 public and charter school systems and private academic programs, such as the Threshold Program at Lesley University.

Dr. Rodriguez earned her Psy.D. from William James College in 2012, where her coursework and practicum training focused on clinical work with children and adolescents and on assessment. Her doctoral thesis centered on cultural issues related to evaluation.

To book a neuropsychological evaluation with Dr. Rodriguez or another expert neuropsychologist at NESCA, 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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Risk Factors & Warning Signs of Substance Use

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

It is estimated that approximately one third of adults in the United States have met criteria for an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives, while approximately 10% have met criteria for another substance use disorder. While these numbers are staggering, what is even more astonishing is the fact that consuming substances before the age of 14 increases the likelihood of abusing substances later in life by 400%. In fact, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that 9 out of 10 individuals who abuse substances began using these substances before the age of 18. So, what are the risk factors and early signs to watch out for? What can you do to help?

Risk Factors:

  • Family history—if you have a family history of addiction, it is important to talk about this with your children just as you would have a conversation about a family history of cancer, diabetes, or any other mental illness. Determine when and how to approach this conversation by talking with your pediatrician.
  • Comorbid diagnoses—having an existing mental health diagnosis (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety) increases the chances that one will use and abuse substances later in life. Many individuals start using substances as a method of self-medicating if their mental health symptoms are not well managed.
  • Exposure—having easy access to substances, being exposed to peer groups or family members who use substances, or being exposed to media messages encouraging substance use can also increase the risk of substance use and abuse.
  • Additional risk factors include poor coping skills, academic failure, chaotic home or peer environments, as well as impulsivity and risk taking behaviors.

Warning Signs to Watch for:

  • Unexplained and/or extreme mood swings
  • Dilated pupils/bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite
  • Change in sleep patterns or levels of fatigue
  • Changes in friends
  • Loss of interest in previously preferred hobbies
  • Being secretive about friends and activities
  • Withdrawing from family members and loved ones
  • Not respecting curfew or breaking other house rules
  • Running away from home or sneaking out
  • Stealing or having unexplained amounts of money
  • Increased absences from school
  • Decline in grades
  • Increase in behavioral problems

How to Help:

  • Start the conversation when it is appropriate. Talking to your pre-teen or teen about the effects of substances and alcohol/drug laws is essential in keeping the lines of communication open. Ask them first about their level understanding and what they have already learned or heard about.
  • Increase coping skills—having appropriate communication skills, positive social-emotional connections, strong self-esteem, and confidence in dealing with peer pressure are all extremely beneficial in helping children and teens navigate adolescence. If your child struggles in one or more of these areas, it is important to target these vulnerabilities early on through the appropriate therapeutic supports (i.e., psychotherapy, social skills groups, school counseling, occupational therapy, executive function coaching).
  • If you are concerned your child is using substances, you may contact their pediatrician or find support through SAMHSA’s national helpline (call 1-800-662-HELP or text HELP4U to 435748 to receive information on local treatment facilities, support groups, and local community organizations).

References:

Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(8):757–766. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Grant BF, Saha TD, Ruan WJ, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Drug Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions–III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(1):39–47. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2132

 

About the Author

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.​

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Miranda Milana, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Testing the Limits

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

In the world of assessment, “testing the limits” means essentially bending the rules of test administration in order to see if the change in administration allows the test-taker to demonstrate their knowledge more effectively. For example, some children and adolescents respond impulsively to multiple-choice tests, picking the first choice that appears to be correct without looking at all of the choices. Standardized test administration dictates that the evaluator accepts that impulsive response and, as such, impulsivity will compromise the client’s score.

In the example above, the student was unable to demonstrate their knowledge or skills effectively on tests because of the standardized administration procedures. While it is important to generate these scores, it is also important to gain an understanding of what the student actually knows, and this is where testing the limits comes in. For the impulsive student, the evaluator would test the limits by reminding the student to slow down and look at all the choices before responding. This is non-standard test administration, and so the score is not considered valid but the results give us a great deal of information about the student’s strengths and weaknesses. There is a big difference between the student who is able to achieve the correct score when cued to slow down and the student who still answers incorrectly, even with reminders to slow down. The former student can be said to have much higher potential than the latter student. However, their ability to demonstrate their potential is hampered by impulsivity, a problem that needs to be addressed.

In the course of most neuropsychological evaluations, we are trying to understand the student’s profile of strengths and weaknesses, which often requires testing the limits. This raises the question of the value of the standardized scores. The standardized scores likely reflect the level at which the child or adolescent is functioning in the “real world.” Impulsive test-takers are almost certainly impulsive students; just as they don’t demonstrate their true potential in testing, they are not doing so in school.

Many students are able to fully demonstrate their skills and knowledge with standardized testing and don’t require “testing the limits.” However, at NESCA, we also see many highly complex students whose ability to access their potential is limited by issues of attention, executive functioning, communication, or emotional/behavioral regulation. In these cases, we routinely “test the limits” and report both standardized administration and non-standardized (“testing the limits”) scores and explain what these scores mean for the individual, what the scores tell us about daily functioning as well as untapped potential.

 

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, 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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

My child is nonverbal. Should I still get a neuropsychological evaluation?

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Erin Gibbons, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

The short answer to this question is YES. As a neuropsychologist, I enjoy evaluating students who have complex profiles, including intellectual/developmental disabilities, genetic conditions, and medical complexities. In many cases, these students have been deemed “untestable” and have never had a comprehensive evaluation.

This is problematic for two major reasons.

  • First, we cannot understand a student’s potential if we have no data or assessments available. Following from this, it is very hard to develop realistic and measurable goals without using the student’s innate potential to guide those goals.
  • Second, lack of testing causes practical and logistical problems later in the student’s life. As a child approaches adulthood at 18, it is necessary to have documentation of their cognitive and adaptive skills as well as diagnoses in order to seek adult services. More specifically, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) requires documentation of intellectual disabilities prior to age 18.

Having assessed thousands of children and adolescents over the years, I’ve learned that I can ALWAYS gather important information from a neuropsychological evaluation. I have evaluated students who are nonverbal, students with severe intellectual disabilities, students with limited to no motor abilities, students with vision and hearing impairments, students with severely challenging behaviors…. In every case, a neuropsychological evaluation has been meaningful and useful in terms of A) understanding the student’s capabilities, and B) developing educational and treatment goals.

It is important to understand that a neuropsychological evaluation with a more developmentally complex student will look different than an evaluation with a neurotypical student. There are standardized tests that I will not be able to administer based on the student’s language skills, motor abilities, and academic knowledge. Some students can only tolerate 20 or 30 minutes of testing at a time, so the evaluation is broken into 9 or 10 sessions. Some students provide their responses using a communication device. Some students need to be supported by a behavior therapist to help them maintain a safe body.

In some cases, students cannot engage in any standardized tests due to multiple disabilities. However, I still have them come into my office at least once so that I can meet them in person and gather information about their communication skills, social interest, and activity levels. I will then spend time observing the student at their educational program, interviewing school-based staff, and gathering information from the student’s caregivers about their skills at home. With all of these data points, I can then provide a thorough set of recommendations for school-, community-, and home-based goals – even though I might not have “valid” standard scores.

For all of the families who think that a neuropsychological evaluation cannot be done with their child for one reason or another, I urge you to reconsider your perception of the purpose of an evaluation. In these cases, the emphasis of the evaluation is not on test scores, but on developing a better understanding of the student’s strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, the evaluation should be used as a reference to guide treatment goals to help the student achieve the highest level of independence of which they are capable based on their potential.

 

About the Author

Erin Gibbons, Ph.D. is a pediatric neuropsychologist with expertise in neurodevelopmental and neuropsychological assessment of infants,

children, and adolescents presenting with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. She has a particular interest in assessing students with complex medical histories and/or neurological impairments, including those who are cognitively delayed, nonverbal, or physically disabled. Dr. Gibbons joined NESCA in 2011 after completing a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. She particularly enjoys working with young children, especially those who are transitioning from Early Intervention into preschool. Having been trained in administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), Dr. Gibbons has experience diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in children aged 12 months and above.

 

If you are interested in booking an appointment for the ASD Diagnostic Clinic or an evaluation with a NESCA neuropsychologist/clinician, please fill out and submit 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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Changing Habits to Become a More Effective Student

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS
Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

In 1989, Stephen Covey wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and it continues to be a book that is still relevant today, used by many Fortune 500 companies. He was a change-agent, a best-selling author, educator, and business leader, and through his down-to-earth approach, he created a wave of change. He helped people think about “being good” and create habits from the human race’s best instincts. He was named one of the 25 most influential people by TIME magazine in 1996 and authored numerous books that highlight his “inside out” approach to change. He thought who you are and how you view the world is at the core of how you engage with the world. This is such a simple view yet so powerful and one that holds much truth. He thought change started internally and by developing those 7 habits was the way to create a world that functioned better and in more of an us/we mentality versus a me/my mentality. He developed programs, led workshops and inspired change in children and adults. There are curriculums that have been developed for use with children through young adults in schools and colleges. These programs created individual change as well as cultural and system change.

His work has been changing the world one person at a time through his books and his programs for years. He believed that organizational behavior was individualized behavior. His 7 habits of being are about taking responsibility for oneself and through this creating a community of mutual goals, trust and more. In schools, the programs include developing behavioral change through the development of new habits and 5 core paradigms. The five paradigms are:

  1. Everyone can be a leader; NOT Leadership is for the few;
  2. Everyone has genius; NOT A few people are gifted;
  3. Change starts with me; NOT To improve schools the system needs to change first;
  4. Educators empower students to lead their own learning; NOT Educators control and direct student learning; and
  5. Develop the whole person; NOT Focus solely on academic achievement.

These paradigm shifts guide administrators and educators to see and think differently about how they see their role, student potential and the school culture. It allows all students whether they have disabilities or not to be valued, included and take ownership for themselves and each other, and change the culture of the class and school. The 7 habits of highly effective people are:

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is as important as academics, if not more important. Many schools have goals related to SEL, and the vision statements of many districts reflect that. Most vision statements express something like, “We prepare students to be life-long learners who contribute to a global world and demonstrate respect and acceptance for the diversity of our humanity.” How do they bring their vision to life and practice it day in and day out in through their policies, conversations, classrooms and schools? There are many different tools, programs, curriculums and approaches that address SEL and help schools meet their visions and prepare students to be contributing and caring members of society. Stephen Covey’s 7 habits are an example of one of these approaches. Think about how you, as a parent or caregiver, can embrace and reinforce these 7 habits at home as they can help family members thrive individually as well as within the family unit.

 

References:

Covey, Stephen. R. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people; 30th anniversary edition. N.Y., N.Y. Simon & Schuster.

Covey, Stephen. R. (2022). The 7 habits of highly effective families Creating a nurturing family in a turbulent world. N.Y., N.Y. St. Martins Publishing Group.

Covey, Sean (2014). The 7 Habits of highly effective teens. N.Y., N.Y. Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S (2008). The 7 Habits of happy kids. N.Y., N.Y.  Simon & Schuster.

 

*NESCA’s has a new email subscriber service for its blog, follow.it. We trialed the platform and officially migrated to their services.*

For those who are already subscribed to our blog, you don’t have to do anything to continue to receive our blog. We’re just letting you know that the look may be different, but the expert content from NESCA’s clinicians remains the same! If you would like to subscribe or suggest others subscribe to our blog, please visit: https://nesca-newton.com/nesca-notes/. Happy reading!

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Transition Planning: The Important Difference Between Postsecondary Goals and Annual Goals

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

One of the most important aspects of transition planning for students with individual education programs (IEPs)—and for every student—is development of postsecondary goals. These goals are often described synonymously as the student’s postsecondary vision: the outcomes that the student and their IEP team expects the student to achieve after exiting public education. Legally, every IEP in the country needs to include explicit postsecondary goals in the areas of education or training, employment, and independent living, when appropriate. In Massachusetts, students need to have goals for Independent Living as well as Community Engagement. Because this topic is so important, I previously wrote a blog describing the importance of measurable postsecondary goals including a formula for writing such goals.

But, two years later, I am still finding that this is a misunderstood aspect of the IEP process, particularly here in Massachusetts. This is in some ways because our state IEP was not designed with transition planning or student-centered planning at the foundation. Currently, when you read an IEP from Massachusetts, there is only one section of the IEP used for describing the Vision Statement for the student. For students under the age of 14, this section is typically used to describe what the parents and team hope and dream for the student over the next 1-to-5-year period. But then, no later than when the student turns 14, we use the same section of the IEP to write out the student’s vision statement for after high school, and that statement legally needs to reflect the student’s preferences and interests and the student’s desired outcomes (i.e., postsecondary goals) for adult independent living and community engagement, work, and learning or training environments. For reference, this is the language currently in the Massachusetts IEP.

This shift is confusing! Parents are used to coming to IEP meetings ready to share their visions for their children, and students are often unprepared to share their goals for life after high school. But this shift is also absolutely critical for ensuring that students receive appropriate transition services. This is because every student on an IEP is legally entitled to participate in a coordinated set of activities that promotes their movement toward their postsecondary goals (i.e., their vision). These activities can include instruction, related services, community experiences, development of employment and post-school living objectives, and acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation.[1] The only way a student can receive appropriate transition services, and an appropriately calibrated and coordinated set of transition activities, is if we clearly identify and define appropriate postsecondary (i.e., post-high school) goals for the student. And, these need to be listed out at the start of the IEP. In Massachusetts, these need to be listed in the vision statement.

Nevertheless, once we have done the important work of defining the student’s postsecondary goals or vision (which always involves transition assessment), then we have more important work to do. We have to make sure that the IEP that is developed includes necessary annual IEP goals, and related services, that will effectively support the student in making progress toward their postsecondary goals. We need to carefully crosswalk between each of the postsecondary goals set for the student and the annual goals we are developing. It is vital to make sure that there is at least one annual goal (or objective/benchmark within an annual goal) that addresses each of the student’s measurable postsecondary goals. We are very good at making sure that each of the services a student receives relates to the annual goals a student is working on. But we rarely pay attention to whether each of the student’s measurable postsecondary goals (i.e., each of the goals listed in the student’s vision statements) is supported by an annual goal. Annual goals for transition-aged students need to be determined from two sources: the student’s disability-related needs AND the student’s measurable postsecondary goals. Annual goals and coursework for a student with autism and language-based issues should be different depending on whether the student intends to be an artist or a veterinarian technician. Goals should be different for a student who intends to be a licensed driver and a student who intends to use door-to-door van transportation. In all cases, the team needs to annually discuss what skills the student needs to build this year in order to be able to attain their postsecondary goals in the future. The team needs to make sure that each postsecondary goal that the student has is supported by the student’s annual goals. If this is not explicitly discussed at the team meeting, we are not effectively planning for the student—and we are not effectively supporting students in being able to plan for themselves.

For more information about postsecondary goals and annual IEP goals in Massachusetts, check out Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2013-1: Postsecondary Goals and Annual IEP Goals in the Transition Planning Process from MA DESE: http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/advisories/13_1ta.html

 

[1] https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.43

 

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 info@nesca-newton.com, call 617-658-9800 or complete our online Intake Form.