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ANXIETY

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.

 

Anxiety-based Procrastination: Tips for Getting over the Hurdle

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L
NESCA Transition Specialist & Occupational Therapist

Despite our best efforts, procrastination happens. There are many reasons that you may be putting off that large paper, important phone call or those dishes that are stacking up. You may not have the motivation, you may be tired, you may have more fun plans, or maybe it makes you feel anxious. In fact, one of the top reasons people procrastinate is anxiety. Anxiety rates have increased since the start of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and tasks that previously felt easy can now be daunting to think about. It is important to both treat yourself with kindness AND build up your toolbox so that you can tackle the day ahead. Below is a list of nine tips on getting over the procrastination hurdle when anxiety is taking over.

  1. Five minute max – For this strategy, set a five-minute timer and start the activity you have been putting off. Tell yourself that you can stop the activity after five minutes. More than likely, once you start, you will be able to keep going, but you have the option to stop after just five minutes. This strategy helps with perfectionism and all-or-none thinking that can stop you from starting your tasks.
  2. Task breakdown – Big tasks can often feel overwhelming, so breaking your big project, chore, etc., into small steps can help you get going. Tell yourself you will complete step one today and move on to step two tomorrow.
  3. Seek help – Take a step back. Do you have the skills to complete this task? Is there someone you could ask for help if needed? Do not be afraid to seek the help of others to get started!
  4. Reduce the standard – Identify one task that you would be less likely to avoid if you make it easier. For example, have you been putting off exercise because you are worried about going to the gym? Start with a 10-minute walk and build up to a longer exercise period once you are ready. This method is especially helpful to combat an all-or-none mindset.
  5. Notice negative predictions – Be aware of your thoughts and how they can impact, or even control, your actions. Are you making a negative predication about the outcome? If so, it can be helpful to go through the following questions in your mind to reframe your thinking:
    1. What is the worst outcome?
    2. What is the best outcome?
    3. What is the most realistic outcome?
    4. What might I learn if I am willing to take a risk?
  6. Recognize your strengths and challenges – If you find initiating, planning or sequencing tasks difficult when compared to your other skills, don’t misattribute procrastination to laziness or poor motivation. Mislabeling yourself as lazy can lead to further procrastination and decrease self-confidence. You may instead decide to seek extra support or tools to develop your executive function skills.
  7. Visualize – Visualize the finished product AND the feeling associated with completing the task. It is easier to start a task if you feel like you have already succeeded at it.
  8. Accomplishment journal – Keep a running list of accomplishments (even small ones) and check back in to boost your self-confidence for the tasks ahead. It is much easier to start a task when you are in a positive head space and see that you are capable of meeting your goals.
  9. Treat yourself with small rewards – Sometimes a small reward can help you get over a big scary hump. Perhaps after scheduling all of the health care appointments you have been putting off, you sit down and watch the movie you have been wanting to see.

There is no perfect strategy that works for everyone in every situation, but add these strategies to your toolbox and test them out. See if you can find just one tool to help you in those moments when anxiety is impacting your ability to get moving. You’ve got this!

 

About Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L

Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist who focuses on helping students and young adults with disabilities to build meaningful skills in order to reach their goals. She has spent the majority of her career working in a private school for students with ASD. She has also spent some time working in an inpatient mental health setting. Lyndsay uses occupation-based interventions and strategies to develop life skills, executive functioning, and emotional regulation. While completely her doctoral degree at MGH Institute of Health Professions, Lyndsay worked with the Boston Center for Independent Living to evaluate transition age services. She uses the results from her research to deliver services in a way that is most beneficial for clients. Specifically, she focuses on hands-on, occupation-based learning that is tailored the client’s goals and interests.

 

To book coaching and transition services 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.

Yoga Therapy for Children and Adolescents

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By:  Stephanie Monaghan-Blout, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As a pediatric neuropsychologist, I often recommend yoga therapy for children with anxiety, impulse control, and/or motor/coordination/sensory issues, as well as issues that alienate them from their body (e.g., eating disorders and trauma). Another group for which a body-focused therapy like yoga would be helpful is children with language challenges who are not equipped to manage the challenge of “talking” therapy.

Yoga is a 4,000-year-old practice that originated in what is now known as India. The word means “yoke” or “union,” and the practice of yoga aims to quiet the mind in order to find the unity within ourselves and with the world around us. This ancient practice was developed to facilitate development and integration of the human body, mind, and breath to produce a strong and flexible body free of pain, a balanced autonomic nervous system with all physiological systems functioning optimally, and a calm, clear, and tranquil mind (1). As we make this transformation in ourselves, we hope to affect the larger world. This is done through a variety of elements, but the western world tends to focus on movement (asanas), breathwork (pranayamas), and meditation (dhyanas).

Yoga was introduced to the west in the 19th century and has become a popular form of physical fitness and injury rehabilitation. More recently, we have begun to investigate its impact on physiological function, specifically the autonomic nervous system which controls vital life functions and regulates our stress response and return to equilibrium. Research has shown that chronic activation of the stress response (“fight/flight/freeze”) is strongly associated with increased risk of cardiovascular problems and autoimmune disorders (including diabetes), as well as psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Yoga has been found to be effective in damping the stress response and allowing the body to return to equilibrium (“rest and digest”), resulting in lower heart rate and blood pressure, improved hormone regulation and gastrointestinal processes, lowered levels of anxiety, and better emotional and behavioral control. It is now included in cardiac rehabilitation programs, chronic pain programs, and psychotherapeutic treatment modalities.

Recently, I became curious with what exactly happens in yoga therapy and decided to talk with the new yoga therapist at NESCA, Danielle Sugrue, M.S. An athlete throughout high school and college, Danielle became involved with yoga about 15 years ago because she was looking for something that “would get me back into movement.” She quickly fell in love with yoga and completed her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. In the meantime, she also completed her master’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies at Salem State University. With this combination of expertise, she is able to help children and adolescents become more in touch with their bodies and find their words through movement, breathing, and relaxation.

I asked Danielle what a yoga therapy session with a child would look like. She quickly assured me that interventions with young children hold little resemblance to adult yoga classes. Danielle described her sessions with children as a playful movement exercise to learn to come to their breathing when things get challenging. If a child becomes dysregulated, she helps them tap into their senses to ground them and begin to put words on the feelings. A session may start by spreading cards with animals doing various poses out on the floor and asking the child to pick the card that looks like how s/he is feeling. Based on the cards selected, Danielle may develop a flow of postures based on those selections. The poses and concepts are taught through stories and games using mythical characters, like Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god who clears obstacles and paves the way for us to move forward in life.

The sessions for adolescents tend to take a more direct approach to the issues of concern as described by the teenager. Learning breathing techniques tends to be a key element; because of body issues, many teenage girls don’t breathe deeply (belly breathing) because it makes their stomach stick out. This kind of shallow breathing activates the stress response, making the person feel more anxious, while deep breathing “turns on” the rest and relax function. Moving freely without self-consciousness is another big challenge for teens—and developing a flow that allows them to feel themselves moving with ease but also makes them feel capable of holding a pose just a little longer than they thought they could—helps with developing self-confidence. Directly addressing mindset (self-love and self-compassion) also tends to be an important focus of work with teens and may involve activities such as a mirror challenge of looking at oneself and identifying what s/he likes about themselves.

Yoga therapy usually involves purchasing a 10-session package of once weekly meetings of an hour’s length. If you are interested in having your child work with Danielle, please contact her directly at: dsugrue@nesca-newton.com or complete an online Intake Form at: https://hipaa.jotform.com/220393954666062.

In addition to her work at NESCA, Danielle also teaches yoga at Power Yoga Evolution in North Andover. Dr. Monaghan-Blout is in the process of completing her own 200-hour yoga teacher training.

  1. Kayley-Isley, L., Peterson , J, Fischer, C, and Peterson, E. Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Children and Adolescents, Psychiatry 2010; 7(8): 20-32.
  2. Nourollahimoghadam, E., Gorji, S., Ghadiri M., Therapeutic Role of Yoga in Neuropsychological Disorders., World Journal of Psychiatry 2021, October 19; 11 (10): 754-773
  3. Permission to Unplug: the Health Benefits of Yoga for Kids. https://www.healthychildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics
  4. Barkataki, Susanna. Embrace Yoga’s Roots; Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice 2020, Orlando, FLA, Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute

 

About the Author:

Formerly an adolescent and family therapist, Dr. Stephanie Monaghan-Blout is a senior clinician who joined NESCA at its inception in 2007. Dr. Monaghan-Blout specializes in the assessment of clients with complex learning and emotional issues. She is proficient in the administration of psychological (projective) tests, as well as in neuropsychological testing. Her responsibilities at NESCA also include acting as Clinical Coordinator, overseeing psycho-educational and therapeutic services. She has a particular interest in working with adopted children and their families, as well as those impacted by traumatic experiences. She is a member of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) associated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Harvard Law Clinic, and is working with that group on an interdisciplinary guide to trauma sensitive evaluations.

To book an evaluation with one of our many expert neuropsychologists and transition specialists, 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, 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.

Meet NESCA Transition Specialist & Occupational Therapist Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Jane Hauser
Director of Marketing & Outreach

NESCA is thrilled to have welcomed a new Occupational Therapist who is serving as a Transition Specialist on the Transition Services Team. Learn more about Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L, in my interview with her below.

How did you become interested in Occupational Therapy, specifically for transition-aged students?

Right after college, I worked in an assisted living center in an administrative role. I got to know the Occupational Therapist (OT) there, who was amazing at what she did. She helped people with the skills they needed to do on a daily basis. I asked to shadow her so I could learn more about the profession and what kind of skills she was teaching the residents to do. Energized by what I learned, I then became a Teaching Assistant (TA) in the CASE Collaborative’s high school program. This is where I started to learn about the needs of transition-aged students and how Occupational Therapy played a role in that area. Again, I was fortunate to learn so much from another talented OT, particularly around the importance of transition, with our students who are often underserved on that front. Moving into adulthood is so challenging, and it’s even harder when coupled with a disability. I found that the environments these students encountered every day just aren’t set up for them to succeed. I was able to help them move into adulthood and practice skills they would need to achieve their goals within these environments.

What made you realize that you wanted to work as a Transition Specialist?

I had already developed a passion for working with transition-aged students in the school setting both during my time as a TA and as an occupational therapist at The League School of Greater Boston. I loved working with the students on life skills, emotional regulation, and executive functioning. I found that I most enjoyed working with the students on hands-on, real-life learning. It seemed to be the most important and most effective way that, as an OT, I could help young adults and teens become more self-determined and thrive. They were able to see what they were able to do, and that was exciting!

Why did you join NESCA?

I loved working with students, but I wanted the opportunity to work with transition-aged youth out in the community. It’s often really difficult for this group to generalize what they learn in the school setting to the experiences they face in the community or even at home. I wanted to help them do just that.

I was thrilled to learn that NESCA offers Transition and Coaching services since I didn’t know anything like that existed outside of an academic setting. I initially joined NESCA as an Occupational Therapist; Executive Function and Real-life Skills Coach on a per diem basis during the summer of 2021. I got to take the skills our teens and young adults learn in school and tailor them to be put into place in the community in a hands-on way. We’re able to teach clients skills like grocery shopping, using the subway or Uber to get to where they need to go, making a deposit at the bank and any other skills they may need to succeed in real life. Having recently moved into a full-time Occupational Therapist; Transition Specialist position here, I look forward to doing much more of these kinds of activities!

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

The most rewarding aspect of what I do is when I actually get to see the client perform the skill(s) that they have had a hard time with and that they have been working toward for so long. Watching them accomplish their goal is so gratifying. When you see that success, it’s a wonderful feeling!

I also love that I am able to do what I do – not only within the walls of a classroom or school – but in the outside world. I always wanted my students to practice the skills that we were working on in the school environment out in the real world so I knew they would be prepared for experiences they were likely to face in their daily lives. This could be anything from placing an order at Starbucks, riding the bus or refilling a prescription. I get to do that with them here at NESCA…and so much more.

What’s your specialty area? Who do you most enjoy working with?

My passion is working with those who are on their way to adulthood. I am definitely where I want to be with the transition-aged youth and young adults! When working with teens, you get to see them prosper and make monumental changes that can help them build a high quality of life, allowing them to be successful and happy for a greater portion of their lifespan.

I really enjoy working with a wide population of clients, including those with mental health challenges, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I especially find it rewarding to work with young adults with mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, to help manage those challenges and lead a fulfilling life.

Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, and I’m a big outdoors person. I like to spend most weekends in Vermont or New Hampshire, exploring new places to hike. I also enjoy skiing, kayaking and most other outdoor activities. I also like to read, play weekly board games and dance when I get the chance!

 

About Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L

Lyndsay Wood, OTD, OTR/L, is an occupational therapist who focuses on helping students and young adults with disabilities to build meaningful skills in order to reach their goals. She has spent the majority of her career working in a private school for students with ASD. She has also spent some time working in an inpatient mental health setting. Lyndsay uses occupation-based interventions and strategies to develop life skills, executive functioning, and emotional regulation. While completely her doctoral degree at MGH Institute of Health Professions, Lyndsay worked with the Boston Center for Independent Living to evaluate transition age services. She uses the results from her research to deliver services in a way that is most beneficial for clients. Specifically, she focuses on hands-on, occupation-based learning that is tailored the client’s goals and interests.

 

To book coaching and transition services 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.

Social Skill Concerns in a Time of Reduced Social Opportunities

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

Even in pre-pandemic times, we saw many children and adolescents where social difficulties were the primary concern. Now, almost two years into the life-altering changes brought on by COVID-19, it is rare that I see a young person whose parents do not raise social concerns. Some common concerns include:

My child does not know how to play with peers.

My child is anxious/fearful around peers.

My child avoids peers and/or would rather play alone.

My child does well with 1-2 peers but cannot handle a group.

My child does not have friends and/or does not seem to know how to make friends.

These are all important, valid concerns. Social development is critical to evaluate and understand when we look at a child’s overall functioning, and early social skills lay an important foundation for later independent functioning, fulfilling interpersonal relationships, and vocational/academic success. Concerns about social presentation (i.e., how your child “looks” or behaves socially) can have many varied causes. Sometimes the cause is clear and relatively straightforward to determine with a neuropsychological evaluation. For example, an evaluation may lead to an autism diagnosis, explaining why a child is struggling socially. Other times, the exact cause is unclear, and probably related to many different factors all coming together. For example, children with ADHD very often present with social challenges, though the path from ADHD to social problems is not always “cut and dry.”

For children coming in to testing now (and over the past 18 months), some of the biggest complicating factors are the social isolation, online learning, and reduced social opportunities related to the pandemic. This is not to say that there are no longer clear cases where a child has autism at the root of their social difficulties – there certainly are. However, for each child now, we must consider the impact that COVID has had on their specific social development. This will depend on the child’s age (and age at the onset of the pandemic), school placement and educational environment, family structure (e.g., siblings and/or other children in the home), and community policies. For example, young children who are attending daycare/private preschool may actually not have missed as much socialization time, as many daycares re-opened after only a few months of closure. This is not to minimize the disruption or extreme challenge of such closures to families; for young children, however, it is likely that their social development is not radically impacted by a few months of reduced social opportunities. In contrast, an elementary-age child may have experienced well over a year of reduced socialization, with remote learning in place for many communities until the fall of 2021.

In all cases, pre-existing and/or co-occurring areas of difficulty are extremely important in our conceptualization of why a child is struggling socially. If your child will have an evaluation soon and you have social concerns, you can prepare by thinking about:

  • What was my child like socially before COVID?
    • Did they have strong friendships? Did they have conflict or “drama” with peers often? Were they invited to playdates and/or birthday parties?
  • What was my child like emotionally before COVID?
    • Happy? Easy-going? Quiet and shy? Sensitive? Irritable?
  • What were the practical, observable things that changed from March 2020 through the present?
    • How much time did they spend doing online learning? Did someone in their family become very ill? Lose a job? How isolated were they?
  • What was my child’s response to the things that happened above?
    • Did they enjoy online learning? Were they fearful about becoming sick? Did they miss spending time with friends or family?
  • What other areas seem to be challenging for them?
    • Communicating? Reading? Managing feelings? Paying attention?

All of these are helpful pieces of information that you can communicate to an evaluator. This will build context for the concerns that you see now, and help us move through the web of complex possibilities that may be contributing to your child’s social challenges. Remember that it is always good to be watchful and thoughtful when your child is struggling. At the same time, keep in mind that many individuals (children, adolescents, and adults alike) will require long periods of time to rebuild their skills, stamina, strength, and sense of safety. It is still OK not to be OK quite yet.

 

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

 

How to Tame Holiday Stress

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

The holidays are supposed to bring joy, but they also bring a lot of pressure, expectations, and stress. Planning and preparing can take months, and balancing this planning with school events, holiday parties, and our every day demands can be a lot to handle. That said, there are some basic things that we can to do manage holiday stress and focus on the things that matter most, including the following:

Identify and prioritize your values. Reflect and decide ahead of time what is most important to you this holiday season. Whether it is being with family, following through with traditions, giving back to others, or something else, knowing what you care most about will help you know where to put your time and energy.

Simplify where you can. Once you know your priorities, cut out things that are not in line with these. We tend to go a bit above and beyond at the holidays, and we often find ourselves doing things just because we always have done so, not because we want to. Invest your time where it matters most. This year, I cut out holiday cards. While cute, they are time consuming and the majority likely go straight to the trash. Creating cute waste is not my priority. Sorry, grandparents – maybe next year.

Take focus off of gift giving as much as possible. Overindulgent gift giving is not only financially burdensome and time consuming, but it is also likely not in line with your intrinsic holiday values. Streamline your gift giving where able. For example, adults draw names instead of buying for everyone, set a limit for the number of gifts per person, or buy group gifts and experiences. In our house, when buying for the kids, we try to stick with: one thing you want, one thing you need, one thing to wear, and one thing to read. Sometimes we stray a bit, but it helps keep our priorities focused and manage the children’s expectations.

Communicate expectations. Tell your family or friends what they can expect from you this holiday season. This should include talking with your children about how your family will celebrate the holidays, and how it may be different from what others do. If you know you’ll be invited to three holiday dinners, or if someone may expect your visit to be longer than you desire, get ahead of it and tell them your anticipated schedule and plans.

Pick your battles. The holidays are overwhelming for everyone, including children. They may try to manage their stress by exerting control, including pushing back against holiday traditions or expectations. Before asking things of them, remind yourself of your priorities and values. If you don’t really care whether your child wears slacks versus sweatpants during Christmas dinner, don’t pick that battle.

Provide familiarity. To help manage the uncertainty and stimulation of holiday festivities, do what you can to provide children with some familiarity, such as having some preferred foods in the dinner buffet or giving them a designated break away from the chaos to play alone without the pressure to socialize.

In sum, holiday stress is a given, but identifying your holiday values and priorities will allow you to make decisions and create expectations that will help mitigate some of this stress and allow you and your family to enjoy the season.

 

About the Author

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

 

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

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.

Anxiety Reducers for Children and Teens with ASD

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Research indicates that children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are more sensitive to heightened physiological sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight” response), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, feeling “on edge” and body-based tenseness. Heightened physiological arousal is neurologically connected to sensory processing and emotional responses. This is why some children with ASD have “high startle responses” or sensitivities to specific sensations, such as touch or sounds. This is also why some children and teens with ASD are vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, particularly within social situations and settings.

There is growing research focusing on possible strategies and interventions that reduce anxiety and “buffer” the “fight or flight” response that can be activated for many children and teens with ASD.

5 Research-driven Anxiety Reducers:

Animals: Include companion or therapy animals in social groups or social outings (particularly new social events). In one study, children with ASD showed a 43% decrease in skin conductance responses during free play with peers in the presence of animals, as compared to toys (O’Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2015).

Exercise: Make a plan to engage in a “warm up” body-based activity right before a social event when anxiety levels are increasing (e.g., jumping jacks, burpees, squats). Research indicates that exercise calms the amygdala and decreases physiological arousal.

Relax or Distract: Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Recent research has indicated that regular and routine engagement in PMR sessions can be a useful strategy for individuals with ASD. Distract yourself from the anxiety-producing situation for the short term (e.g., count by 3s, name three things you can see and hear in the room, repeat words from your favorite song in your head).

Plan to Take a Break: Children and teens can benefit from having a healthy “escape plan” to take a break from socially-demanding and sensory-demanding settings (e.g., a large event like a play or concert, a college lecture, an interview for a job). Research indicates that “rest breaks” during mentally demanding tasks result in increased alertness, decreased fatigue and heightened relaxation.

Social Stories: Social stories provide the opportunity to practice and prepare for stressful situations, decreasing “fight or flight” responses. Read more about examples and applications of social stories in my colleague, Dr. Erin Gibbons’ previous blog post.

 

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. Click here to learn more about NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic.

 

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.

 

When the Homeymoon Period Is Over: Signs of School Refusal

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Moira Creedon, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

As we reach the end of our second month back to school, many of us may be reaching the end of that glorious honeymoon period – the phase when kids are excited to see friends, optimistic for the school year, and reviewing material they likely already know. For some, the return did not start this rosy; the bloom is falling off the rose and kids are getting tired. You and your child are not alone in this. My goal for today’s blog is to share with you some warning signs that your child may be struggling and ways to get support before they grow to become bigger problems. The biggest problem I want to avoid: school refusal.

Have you heard this yet? – “My tummy hurts. I have to stay home.” Or, “I hate school. Please don’t make me go.” Or, “I’m not going!” Or perhaps these messages are communicated more subtly with covers over their heads in the morning, difficulty getting out the door on time, tantrums or disruptive behaviors in the mornings, missed buses, or the overwhelming frustration of homework that erupts into nightly battles. According to researcher Christopher Kearney, these are signs to pay attention to as they can evolve into what he terms “school refusal behavior.” School refusal is an umbrella term used to describe behaviors that interfere with a child being in school for their expected and scheduled time. This is a problem that can impact anywhere between 28-35% of students! While there are the more extreme cases for children or teens who are out of school for months at a time, my purpose here is to address the smaller, but more likely, problems. When we address smaller problems, we can keep them small.

Risky signs that your child is struggling with school:

  • Consistent statements of hating school, their teacher, or specific peers. A casual mention of a bad day is not cause for alarm. We all have bad days. If the statements keep coming and they get louder and stronger, then parents should pay attention.
  • The outward behaviors are getting bigger in the mornings before school or over homework. Behavior is a way for children to communicate with us how they are feeling. So, explosions over homework or tantrums in the morning that lead to tardiness are warning signs. The occasional homework meltdown or rushed morning is normal; we are all human! But, the problem is in the pattern.
  • Avoidance rears its ugly head. While some kids show on the outside that they are uncomfortable through their explosions, others communicate very clearly through their withdrawal. Some kids and teens struggle to get out of bed, are constantly tired, not completing work, falling asleep in class, or sharing every somatic complaint or symptom available on Google. If medical causes are ruled out, anxiety can be a culprit.
  • Consider the role of a major transition. According to Kearney, the riskiest time for a child to develop a pattern of school refusal is during times of significant transition – like starting kindergarten or changing schools from middle to high school. In addition to the social and emotional jump that these transitions bring, there is also a massive leap in demands for academic independence. It is very common for kids to struggle with the leap initially.

Oh no. So now what?

  • First and foremost, keep calm. It is far easier to keep small problems small when we have a clear-headed approach. Pull in anxiety management techniques like deep breathing, sleep, and exercise to support your own anxiety as a parent.
  • Reach out to your child’s teacher or school psychologist. Let them know your child is struggling with homework or coming to school. This is a great chance to gather information on what is going on in your child’s day and put your child on their teacher’s radar. This is critical as the only effective approach to remedy a problem with school refusal is a team approach.
  • Talk to your child honestly about what is going on. This has to include a chance for kids to talk about what might be happening to make them feel stressed or why they dislike school. Don’t shortcut this step. If your child has trouble explaining what is going on (which can be especially true for younger kids), try this approach: you and your child are both going to be detectives to learn together what is making school feel hard. We can’t solve a problem until we understand it. By joining with your child in gathering information, you are demonstrating great empathy and validating that their feelings are real.
  • Be careful of your language and conversation about school. It can be tempting to go too far in validating a child to give the message that the assignment really is stupid or their teacher really is unreasonable and mean. It’s best to stick to the feeling (“that must feel so frustrating”) without reinforcing negative messages about school.
  • Hold the line. As you gather more information, it is really important to maintain the message that it is your child’s job to go to school. It might feel conflicting to both validate the feelings of hating school and give the message to attend school. It might feel something like this: It’s either “I love and support my child OR I’m going to force them to go to school even when it’s hard.” Let’s change that OR to AND. Reframe the thought to: “I love and support my child AND they have to go to school AND they can do hard things.”

For more information, please check out:

Kearney, C.A. (2007). Getting your child to say “yes” to school: A guide for parents of youth with school refusal behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

About the Author

Dr. Creedon has expertise in evaluating children and teens with a variety of presenting issues. She is interested in uncovering an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses to best formulate a plan for intervention and success. With experiences providing therapy and assessments, Dr. Creedon bridges the gap between testing data and therapeutic services to develop a clear roadmap for change and deeper of understanding of individual needs.

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, 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.

Helping Students Transition Back to School

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

Back in June, I wrote a blog about dealing with uncertainty at the end of the school year. Now, two months later, families are focused on the transition back to school, and a level of uncertainty still remains. Many children are re-entering full in-person learning for the first time in over a year and a half. We are also facing the reality that our overall community health is not as improved as we hoped it would be by now. There is debate about how to appropriately re-enter school, and this stress is likely palpable for many children and teens. As a community, we are grieving the continued loss of “normalcy,” with no clear idea of when that will be recovered.

How do we help children, and their adults, transition back to school during such a time? Some of the basic strategies are similar to those that we do to help them cope with the end of the school year. This includes watching for signs that your child may be struggling (e.g., difficulty sleeping) and talking about their feelings related to starting school in an open and validating manner. In addition, here are some strategies for helping to ease the upcoming transition to school:

  • Start to work into your schoolyear daily routine within the last week or two of summer. This includes bedtimes and wakeup times.
  • Create a morning and evening routine checklist or schedule. Use visual prompts for young children. For example, a morning checklist may include: Wake Up, Get Dressed, Eat Breakfast, Brush Teeth, Pack Bag (listing words or pictures of what to pack), and Departure Time. Practice this checklist for a couple days ahead of school starting to help you child get into the routine and understand how long each task will take.
  • Preview your child’s schoolyear to the extent possible. This may include reviewing their class schedule, looking at their teacher’s profile or picture on the school website, going to a back-to-school event at their school, etc.
  • Help your child set some goals for the upcoming year, trying to create intrinsic goals (e.g., build confidence with reading; make a new friend; ask questions more; etc.), rather than extrinsic (e.g., get straight As).
  • For children who were full remote last year and whose schools have mask mandate, practice wearing a mask at home for increasing durations of time.
  • Avoid scheduling extra activities during the first two weeks of school, such as weekend trips or appointments, allowing for a more relaxed transition.
  • Particularly for elementary age children, email your child’s teacher ahead of the year starting in order to briefly introduce yourself and your child. If you child has specialized needs, concisely highlight key things that the teacher should be aware of heading into the year.
  • For children who will be using a locker for the first time, have them practice opening a combination lock at home before the year starts.
  • For families feeling dissatisfaction regarding your school’s COVID-related mandates or plan, work to keep this conflict or stress away from your child.

Understood.org has a range of tools to help children transition back to school, including a Back to School Update for teachers, Backpack Checklists, Back-to-School Worksheet, Introduction Letter templates, and a Self-Awareness Worksheet, among others. Consider the above tips and resources and determine which are most appropriate for your child and their current skill set and feelings regarding the return to school. With the right tools in place, children and families can feel more confident entering the school year.

 

About the Author:

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

 

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

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.