Tag

behavior

Is It Sensory? Or Is It Behavior?

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

As parents or other caregivers of children with special needs, we can often find ourselves confused between what is a sensory response and what is behavior. Although this is often a complex question, and one without a straightforward answer, there are some tools of the trade that OTs use to help us determine just what is going on with these children. What makes this so complex is that each child is an individual, with their own unique ways of responding to sensory stimuli, to social interactions, and when out in varied settings in their community or with family. Children may also present differently from minute to minute or day to day, depending on sleep, hunger, and fluctuations in mood. But we can often look closely for patterns that may help to guide us in finding the answers.

When working with a child who seems to be in a meltdown, one of the best things you can do is take a quick scan of the environment. Is there a loud or distracting sound in the background? Did someone touch the child unexpectedly? Is the overall environment too busy and overstimulating, such as at party or a restaurant? Sometimes just naming or removing the stimuli, if possible, is enough to help get things back under control. If you know a triggering situation might arise that provokes a meltdown, see if you can give the child a warning and a plan of where to go for comfort. “We will be having a fire drill in 10 minutes, so when it happens you can hold _____’s hand, or we can get you some headphones to cover your ears to make you more comfortable” is one example. Find something soothing from a sensory perspective to help the child settle: a quiet corner with books, some tactile play or fidgets, calming music, a tight squeeze ( but only if tolerated and given permission to do so ). If you know you are entering a highly stimulating environment, it may be best to go in for short periods, with frequent breaks built in for your child every 10 minutes or so to take a walk, use the bathroom, or get a drink.

If you do not see something sensory in your environment creating the discomfort or the meltdown, then behavior and emotions are more likely at play. You child may feel confused about a social interaction, about expectations, or what may be coming next in a transition. Your child may feel a lack of confidence or anxiety in a situation, that although may be seemingly simple and straight forward to you, may not to him or to her. An academic task may feel misunderstood, and not knowing how to start can result in a meltdown for many of our children.

When you see that the child you are caring for is beginning to ramp up, that is the best time to intervene. Once a meltdown has begun, language processing will be limited, and the child may not be reachable for a period of time in order to settle down. The best thing you can do in those moments, is to help the child to stop. I often use a stop sign to hold up in my therapy sessions, that cues the child to take a quick break from interacting with me when I see things starting to spin out of control. I limit my language, provide a calming sensory activity, then we can talk about the upset once I have the child back in my court.

Here are some things to think about and questions you might ask yourself to help guide your interactions and expectations when you, as the adult, are confused about whether this is sensory or behavior:

  1. What are the undesirable behaviors that my child observes when he or she is upset or uncomfortable? Are they different when there is sensory discomfort, in comparison to when he or she is upset with a person or a demand? Notice quality of voice, bodily tension, inability to stay still or focused, aggression, flight or an attempt to get away, shutdown or inability to interact. You may start to see patterns in behavior when you look at them in relation to a sensory event or something that is more emotionally-laden.
  2. What occurred just before this behavior appeared? Was there a sensory distraction or discomfort or was he or she upset with a person or a demand?
  3. How did the child behave during this episode?
  4. How did adults or peers interact with my child during the episode? Did it calm the child, or make him or her more agitated?
  5. List sensations that may have triggered a meltdown: tactile, auditory, visual, smell, taste, movement. Were they loud, distracting, uncomfortable? Was the child in a space that may have been too small or too large? Was the child able to get away from the uncomfortable stimuli, or did he or she feel stuck in the moment?

It will be beneficial for team members to share information and write these things down, perhaps in a format of a journal, so that the team can work together to uncover the patterns, find strategies that are successful, and provide consistency across the board. We all know consistency for these children is one of the most effective tools for learning, and although it may take some extra work up front for caregivers, the pay off on the other side is often so rewarding that it is worth the effort.

If you would like to explore this topic further with NESCA OT Julie Robinson, join us for a free webinar on this topic on September 13, 2021 at 10:30 am ET. Register in advance for this webinar at:

https://nesca-newton.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_-edHNIwkRBKnjk0gq6-bUw

 

About the Author

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

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

 

When the Worry Bug Makes You Mad: Understanding the Importance of Positive Behavior Plans for Anxious Kids

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

“Don’t Feed the Worry Bug,” by Andi Green is a wonderful book for children who are anxious or experience a lot of worrisome thoughts. The story is about a monster who constantly feeds his WorryBug, only to find that as he worries more and more, the WorryBug continues to grow until the monster is totally overwhelmed by the emotion. Eventually, he learns to control it. In my practice, I evaluate a number of children with lots of worries…but they don’t actually look worried. Instead, children may appear defiant, hyperactive and aggressive. Why do children overwhelmed with anxiety sometimes become frustrated and angry or have poor behavioral control at home and in the classroom?

Children with anxiety “on the surface” may appear angry, oppositional and defiant to adults. However, these behaviors oftentimes reflect secondary responses to an underlying cause: anxiety. Responses to anxiety can be categorized as “fight, flight or freeze.” As a classic example, if you run into a grizzly bear on a hike, your body’s natural physiological response is to fight, flee or freeze. Your anxiety about the demands of a situation send your body and brain into a state of “threat alert.” Similarly, when a child is worrying about something, is socially anxious, or is feeling nervous about their ability to handle a task, this “threat alert” system is activated and the child’s ability to make well-thought out decisions is impaired. The child may be labeled a “behavior problem” because of the impulsivity, defiance, disruptiveness or aggression (fight mode). Or the child may appear distractible, silly and immature, or avoidant of challenging tasks (flight mode). An anxious child may also show difficulties shifting gears/transitioning, problems letting go of events, or seem unmotivated or apathetic (freeze mode). It is also not uncommon for children with anxiety to have challenges demonstrating appropriate social skills, such as problems with insight into how their behaviors may affect others. They may also experience challenges reading the nonverbal and verbal cues in their environment because their brain is “soaked” with high arousal, immobilizing their capacity to apply logic to everyday situations. How do we help children manage their anxiety and the resulting behavioral challenges from that anxiety?

A neuropsychological evaluation can provide insights into your child’s behavioral challenges to determine if there may be an “underlying cause,” such as anxiety, (or other causes such as learning disabilities, depression or poor information processing) which are driving weak emotional and behavior control. Once identified, a neuropsychologist can provide guidance on the most effective interventions for a child at school and at home.

In my experience, one of the most important interventions for a child who experiences anxiety and secondary behavioral challenges is the development of a Positive Behavior Plan at school, which can then be included in a child’s IEP. However, many children with anxiety do not respond well to traditional behavioral reward systems that solely focus on increasing or decreasing behaviors (e.g. follow directions, sit calmly, keep your body safe, etc.), as these systems do not teach the child the self-regulation skills necessary for controlling emotional and behavioral responses. Instead, an effective Positive Behavior Plan for a child with anxiety includes behavioral targets or “goals” that focus on the attempt at coping strategy application. Importantly, a child with anxiety should be rewarded for trying to use a coping strategy, as it will take time, practice and reinforcement before a child develops the capacity to apply coping strategies consistently and successfully.

Sample coping strategies that a child should be taught by a special educator, counselor or other specialist include “taking deep breaths, jumping jacks, taking a break, using words to say how I feel,” or other self-regulation tools. When the goals of a Positive Behavior Plan focus on using a coping strategy before or during moments of distress rather than a plan that is tied to increasing or decreasing specific behaviors after they occur, a child builds independent capacity to appraise and react appropriately to physical and emotional responses in the classroom and the community. Children learn the signs (e.g. in their body, mind and in their environment) that the WorryBug is approaching, and feel better equipped, confident and more in control of their emotions and behaviors. For more information on how to appropriately develop Positive Behavior Plans for children with anxiety, “The Behavior Code” by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport is an excellent resource for parents and educators.

When the “WorryBug” or anxiety makes kids mad, mean and aggressive, a comprehensive and thorough neuropsychological evaluation can determine how to best tackle the anxiety “beneath the surface” through therapeutic and educational interventions. A neuropsychological evaluation can also direct the development of strategic Positive Behavior Plans that are individualized and appropriate for the child’s home and school environment.

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.

 

Mind the Gap: Why You Should Consider Summer OT and Speech Services at NESCA

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

It has been a challenging school year, with ever-changing schedules, routines, and unfortunately with a good deal of inconsistency in the provision of therapeutic services through the schools, due to the many impacts of COVID. Parents, caregivers and students have all experienced differing levels of anxiety about what progress has been and is being made, with many children experiencing some level of regression with regard to behavior, self-regulation, motor skills or language development. In anticipation of many of our children returning to school in-person in April, parents have expressed concerns that their children may be lagging behind or that they have not had ample support throughout the earlier parts of their school year to ensure they can keep up with the other children in their class. Over the months of April, May and June, we will all get to see firsthand where the gaps might arise. And then when school is over, many of us might be concerned that the gains of just a few short months will be lost again over summer. This is why those of us at NESCA perceive that the benefits of summer services will be an important part of ensuring progress and the ability to jump right back into learning – as we hope all school will be in-person again in the fall.

NESCA is available to provide summer services, as we do consistently for our weekly patients. In addition, we are offering short-term services to those children who may not qualify for them through their school systems, or for those families who would simply like to supplement what their children are receiving in-district to give them a boost before school begins again in the fall.

Our occupational therapists (OTs) can work on the following areas of focus with your child:

  • self-regulation and coping skills
  • how best to transition from the quiet of home to the multiple stimuli of a classroom full of children
  • how to cope with longer hours of wearing a mask
  • how to follow social distancing requirements, when they long for a closer physical connection with their peers

We can also help to ease the anxiety some children may have about becoming sick or how NOT to feel fearful of getting back into the classroom when sensory processing issues push them to feel uneasy. Our OTs can continue work on handwriting and motor development work started throughout the school year to ensure there is no regression or to improve the speed and automaticity of written expression and legibility. We can teach organizational and executive functioning skills to encourage kids to be independent, prioritize assignments and manage their time. OTs can address self-care skills of dressing, shoe tying, feeding and hygiene, which are likely to require more independence with social distancing requirements. While it’s summer, we help build outdoor skills, such as bike riding and greater self-confidence on the playground to elicit more social connections with peers. Our OTs are providing services in-person in our Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts clinics, by teletherapy or outdoors in the community as appropriate.

Our speech therapists at NESCA can also help to continue and supplement the hard work children have been putting in throughout the school year. They can work on social pragmatics and help with the skills needed to transition from so much time alone, to being in groups with their peers once again. NESCA’s speech therapists can support children on how to:

  • initiate play
  • find shared interests
  • be flexible thinkers
  • communicate with kindness and an appropriate level of voice
  • read gestures and non-verbal communication (especially while wearing masks, which can impede the ability to properly read another person’s mood, reactions or emotions)

We can continue to work on the established goals from school, regarding both expressive and receptive communication, language articulation and language as it pertains to written communication. Our speech therapists are currently providing all services via teletherapy while we work on a transition back to in-person therapy.

If you are interested in seeking out summer services at NESCA, or any of our assessments and services, please contact NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie A. Robinson. She can be reached at jrobinson@nesca-newton.org and will conduct a phone intake with you to help you best determine your needs.

 

About the Author

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

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

 

Behavior Happens! But Does It Have To?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

Recently, I’ve written a few blogs about behavior management and meltdowns and being a behavior detective. I thought I’d end the behavior series with a blog on how to prevent meltdowns from occurring, or at least try to prevent them! Obviously, preventing meltdowns is the best option if at all possible. No one likes to be around a meltdown, and the child doesn’t like it either.

There are many different experts with their own methods and strategies, but most start with common principles. Know yourself, know your child, meet him/her where they are, know what makes them tick and what works for them, as every child is different. It’s the behavior that is unacceptable, not the child. The child is still valued and loved; the behavior isn’t.

Kids will be kids, and they will lose control. Hopefully, over time, they learn self-control and emotional regulation. But the brain’s frontal lobes which control executive function, which includes behavioral control, don’t fully develop until the child I in his or her late 20’s…so buckle up as it’s going to be a long ride! Remember a meltdown is a child’s best attempt in the moment. It is the fight, flight and fright/freeze response. Trying to prevent these from happening are good for the child and the whole family. Life isn’t perfect and meltdowns will occur, but let’s try to lessen their frequency by employing some of the following:

  • Pick your battles—What’s negotiable and what’s non-negotiable? Make sure your kids know the list of “have-to’s” or non-negotiables. Simplify rules and make them realistic to the age of your child. Don’t make a rule/consequence that you cannot be consistent with or follow through with.
  • Keep calm in the eye of the storm.
  • Catch ‘em being good and let them know you saw them behaving well.
  • Tell your child what you want him or her to do, not what you don’t want them to do. Kids do the best they can in the moment.
  • Whenever possible, limit the amount of times you say the word “No.” Leave “No” for safety concerns. Instead, give information, and acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings/opinions. Substitute a “yes” for a “no” and use fantasy talk. “Yes, I wish you could stay up late, too, but we have to get up early tomorrow.”
  • Don’t phrase things so kids can say ‘no’ if the answer “no” isn’t an option. Wording and phrasing matters. Sometimes indirect requests get better results than directives. Explain your reason for non-negotiables (even if they don’t agree or like them). Do some tasks together that are problematic for your child. Shared ownership is better than no ownership.
  • Allow choice and control whenever possible. Don’t get into power struggles you will lose.
  • Having agency and mastery helps all kids grow and learn.
  • Consistency, Structure and Predictability are providers of Stability and Simplicity that enable your child to Anticipate, which is a means to enhance independence.
  • Clear rules, expectations and consequences provide organization, safety, structure and limits while enhancing mastery, self-control and improved self-efficacy.
  • Children don’t have the same sense of time or urgency as adults do, so allow for extra time to complete tasks when possible and use timers to help them organize their time.
  • Use humor and distraction to achieve desired results.
  • Compromise, Flexibility and Negotiation done proactively can go a long way. Work with your child to solve problems before they occur. Be flexible when necessary and make a compromise. Provide your reasoning for the compromise. This is not bribing; rather this approach teaches valuable lessons in win-win solution making, negotiation, compromise, flexibility, fairness and trust. Use this approach next time, and your child will hopefully, over time, learn these valuable lessons/skills.
  • Know your child’s triggers and be prepared. Try to eliminate/lessen them if possible. If they can’t be lessened, teach your child  the necessary tools to cope with them during more calm moments.
  • Know your child’s limits regarding experiences (i.e. downtime, waiting, loosing at games, etc., sensory needs (i.e. hunger, tiredness, sensitivities, etc.) and take these and other areas into consideration. Be prepared and think ahead.

 

Resources to consider:

 

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.

 

Becoming a Behavior Detective

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

Behavior = Communication

Behavior is everywhere you look. All behavior is adaptive and purposeful whether “appropriate or inappropriate,” “expected or unexpected,” or “regulated or not.” Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Behavior = Communication?” It is often used to help us think about behavior as a meaningful and purposeful means of communication, even when it is maladaptive.

Behavior is multifaceted and can be internally- and externally-driven. Every behavior that any one of us does can be interpreted as communicative and as having meaning. When a mom says to load the dishwasher and a child doesn’t respond, the child may not have heard her or may have actually heard the direction and chosen to ignore her. Ignoring her and not responding is actually responding – the is escaping a demand or that direction. If a child asks for a toy at the store and the parent says, “No,” and the child cries and stomps their feet in displeasure, the child is definitely expressing feelings. If the parent gives in to the tantrum and agrees to buy the toy to quiet the child down, the parent is reinforcing the inappropriate behavior/tantrum. This pattern often repeats itself, leaving parents and kids in a vicious cycle. The child learns that crying and stomping gets what he/she wants.

Becoming a Behavior Detective

In the current COVID-19/stay at home landscape, being a behavior detective could serve parents and caregivers well! Parents and children are feeling stressed and anxious, even if they don’t appear so. This is a communal feeling given the current situation, and parents may need to pick and choose their battles wisely. Otherwise, they may spend hours of each day dealing with many unpleasant moments. Being “cooped up” with each other may present an opportunity for parents to become behavior detectives to figure out what their kids are trying to communicate. If the children are older, parents may want share this with them so both parent and child become detectives together; maybe even of each other!

Conjunction, Junction, What’s the Function?

Maladaptive behavior is communicating something, and if we want to change that we need to know what the communicative function of the behavior is. By knowing the function behind the behavior (what they are trying to accomplish by the behavior), we can then think about prevention, intervention and post-intervention—thus being able to intervene at three different times before a behavior actually occurs, during the behavior or after the behavior occurs.

Communicative functions of behavior include:

  • Escape/Avoidance of a task
  • Access to something/someone desirable
  • To make a request or a comment
  • Negations/refusal
  • Self-non-interactive—communicating with ourselves or self-talk/actions
  • Attention-seeking
  • Expression of feelings
  • Expression of sensory needs

Given our current environment, it may be important to think about the communicative function of a child’s “maladaptive behaviors.” This provides a way to intervene with a hypothesis of function and consistency of prevention, intervention or response. Given parents’ own mental, emotional or psychological state, they have the option to escalate or deescalate any situation. Be honest with your kids if you are tired, stressed or overloaded; let them know that you may have less patience when appropriate. Remind them that they have a role in helping to make the house and family a kind, happy and compassionate place. Honest communication, kindness and gentleness with one another (even when we lose control) goes a long way to help during these trying times.

If you need help in being a behavior detective, NESCA is providing virtual parent coaching and consultation. Complete our online Intake Form for more information.

 

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.

 

Meltdown Analysis — Part 2

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

As discussed in last week’s blog, Meltdowns Happen, all children meltdown. Adults meltdown, too. Losing control can take many forms. It is a part of human nature unless we deliberately work on “controlling the beast” that’s lurking inside of us when our system gets taxed. When children are very young, we expect them to lose control because they are learning how to identify and express their emotions. A three-year-old who tantrums is not that uncommon; however, by the time that child is six and then 10, we want them to have developed more and more control as they mature.  But, many children don’t always develop the control that we’d like, and those diagnosed with learning differences sometimes have even more difficulty controlling their emotions.

Teaching children about their emotions, their triggers and how to manage their feelings is the backbone of improving self-awareness, stress management and social competency (3 Ss). If children can label and recognize feelings, notice how their body feels with different emotions and know how to calm themselves when stressed, the better off they will be in life. In a previous role as the program director of Aspire/MGH, we focused on these 3 Ss and utilized a volcano image with our autism spectrum disorder (ASD) participants to teach them about their stress cycle. The volcano image represented a meltdown (see below).

In using this with your child, pick a quiet, calm moment to introduce it to him/her. You might want to start the conversation by reading a book about stress or big emotions. There are many to choose from depending upon the age of your child. You could also just begin a discussion with volcano image to help them understand what they look like and sound like when they are melting down. Discuss with your child what you think s/he looks like as s/he begins to meltdown starting at the bottom of the volcano and working all the way to the top (5) and then what s/he looks like when s/he begins to calm down and recover (moving down the right side of the volcano). If your child has not learned stress management strategies, this is a good time to practice. If your child has learned some techniques, you can also create a list of strategies that s/he can do at each step to help gain control so s/he doesn’t continue to escalate to the next stage. For instance, at a 3, you may be able to use humor to help redirect, but when s/he is at a 4 or 5, using humor may increase distress. I hope this image helps with understanding and reducing the meltdowns that are occurring every day in everyone’s home.

If you’d like assistance in creating your child’s personal meltdown plan, self-awareness plan or behavior plan, NESCA’s parent coaching services can assist you in the journey.

 

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.

 

Meltdowns Happen

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

When we think of the word meltdown, we may think of the economy or stock market, glaciers, nuclear meltdowns or even volcanoes erupting. These are all examples of things collapsing from being over-stressed, overheating, a major disruption to a system or an internal collapse. Using the word meltdown to describe people is similar. In homes across America, even as we settle into quarantine, slow down our lives and find ways to enjoy our time together, there may be more meltdowns happening that are filled with tears, screams and lots of “No, I don’t want to!” Adults and children are becoming overheated, over-stressed, and our systems are over-burdened. And when a system can no longer take it, it melts down, boils over, erupts, or crashes and burns. In these moments, it is the only way of coping – to let loose, let off of steam, erupt – or just plain melt down. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but each of us is doing the best we can to cope with a difficult environment. We’re trying to do the best we can, because our biological system is in a meltdown. We are not responding; instead we are reacting from our “downstairs” brain and not our “upstairs” brain.

A meltdown may be an explosion and look like crying, throwing things, yelling, aggressing, breaking things, etc. Or it may be more like an implosion – a withdrawal from the family, hiding, sleeping more, lethargy, etc. Both are the same in many ways biologically; the system is in fight, fright or freeze. A meltdown should be viewed as a “neurological storm.” This fight, flight or freeze response is not a child being “bad” or disrespectful, but rather is “bad behavior” that needs to be changed. Remember, it is their best attempt to cope, not a deliberate, willful, defiant act towards you. It is your child saying, “Help me – I can’t help myself! I’ve lost it!” This is not a time to teach, reason with, or win a battle. It is a fire to be put out, and you as the parent or caretaker is the firefighter. It’s a crisis to be managed, and you become your child’s “upstairs brain” or frontal lobe (even though you may want to react from your “downstairs brain,” because you may also be losing it.

Everyone wants to have a good day. Remember, when it’s going in a different direction, you are the adult. You can take a breath and even walk away (if you can) for a few seconds to compose yourself. This allows you to respond versus react. It is your job to manage the situation and take the emotional high road (often easier said than done). In these moments, it is really only about a few things.

  1. Safety and dignity
  2. Keep calm and reduce/simplify your language
  3. Keep calm and know this too shall pass
  4. Don’t get pulled off topic by all the things your child is saying or doing – this is a rabbit hole that you won’t emerge from
  5. Mention what you want to have happen, rather than what you want to stop (“Bang your pillow” instead of “Stop banging the wall”)
  6. Establish connection – right brain to right brain. Remember the mantra, “Name it to tame it.” (i.e. I know this is hard; I know you don’t want to do it; I wouldn’t want to either; or I know you don’t like it, etc.)

Resources:

https://www.drdansiegel.com/books/the_whole_brain_child/

 

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.

 

Good Ideas for Dogs are Good for People, Too

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

  • Play Every Day! — Play can promote calmness and reduce anxiety. This is true for adults and kids.
  • Play Is Learning — Reflect after play by creating and asking questions. Did you learn anything new? What surprised you? How did you feel before you played? How you feel now?
  • Walk, Walk, Walk! — Walking helps dogs stay engaged with the world and brains stimulated. Yup, works for humans, too.
  • Be Present While Walking — Go for walks with or without a dog. Feel the air blowing, smell the flowers, hear the birds singing, feel the rain on your face. Learn the bird calls, bring binoculars and look closely at the birds. Be present as you walk, laugh, sing, splash in puddles….
  • Game Play — Playing games can help satisfy natural instincts. Play old games, teach your children games you played as a child, learn new games. Any games will do – board, card, dice, movement, etc. Play skill games, games of chance or luck games, silly games, etc.
  • Feed Relationships Through Play and Exercise — Bond with each other (a child, a dog or both!) through playing or getting some exercise together. Be active together…teach new tricks, kick a ball around, play catch, take a yoga or Zumba class, watch GoNoodle as long as it’s together.
  • Be in gratitude that you are experiencing this time together to slow down and reconnect with each other. Laugh, play, sing and dance together. Love and care for each other. Enjoy each other.

 

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.

 

Acupuncture for the Treatment of Specific Conditions

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Meghan Meade, L.Ac, MAOM, MS PREP, CYT

Licensed Acupuncturist, NESCA

A Primer on Acupuncture

While the insertion of needles into the skin to provoke a healing response is a hallmark characteristic of acupuncture, the practice actually involves the potential use of a number of other tools and techniques, including cupping, magnets and other non-insertive tools, and moxibustion, the topical application of a heated herbal substance designed to improve circulation and reduce inflammation.

Chinese medicine approaches healing by seeking to restore balance in the body; in so doing, it evaluates the patient as a complex and ever-changing ecosystem, a composite of multiple interrelated and mutually interdependent systems. Though a patient may be seeking relief from anxiety, for example, acupuncture addresses the issue within the context of a wider landscape, as there are often other symptoms and imbalances accompanying a primary imbalance. To that end, treatments will, of course, take into account a patient’s reported symptoms, but they are rarely the main driver of an acupuncturist’s treatment decisions. Acupuncturists additionally rely on observation of patients’ mannerisms, the sound and qualities of their voices, how they carry themselves and perhaps most importantly – the use of palpation techniques to elicit feedback from the body that guide treatment decisions. What an acupuncturist feels in a patient’s pulse or palpates on a patient’s abdomen or acupuncture channels is immensely influential to the diagnostic and treatment processes.

Implicit in this process is the notion that despite the fact that a patient may be seeking relief from a particular condition, that patient is not the same person he is today as he was yesterday, nor the same as he will be tomorrow. The treatment aims to address the nuances of a patient’s presentation within the present moment, guided by the knowledge of the patient’s health history and health objectives for the future.

Put into a biological context, we humans are continually and necessarily affected by our innate biochemistry as well as by our surroundings – both our mental-emotional and physical environments. Chinese medicine does not reduce a condition down to its primary symptoms, but rather considers all symptoms that are overtly or seemingly less-directly related. If the immune system is affected by a virus, for example, because of its cross-talk with the nervous and endocrine systems, all systems will be influenced in some way, shape or form. Though the rest of this article will discuss the ways in which acupuncture can impact specific conditions that commonly affect the pediatric population, it is predicated on this concept of mutual inter-relatedness and interdependence of the body’s systems.

Acupuncture’s Impact on Mental and Emotional Conditions

The incidence of anxiety, depression and behavior disorders has increased markedly in recent years, with data from the CDC indicating that anxiety and depression incidence among children aged 6-17 has grown from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011-2012. Currently, incidence rates among children aged 3-17 are 7.4% for behavior problems; 7.1% for anxiety; and 3.2% for depression. These afflictions do not occur in isolation and often accompany each other, as 73.8% of children aged 3-17 with diagnosed depression also have anxiety and 47.2% also have behavior problems.

Though we should keep in mind that enhanced awareness of these conditions among children as well as improved assessment and detection in recent years may paint a more dire picture of afflictions that have never in actuality been absent from the pediatric population, the data do represent a critical need to help children in their formative and impressionable years feel more at ease in their bodies as they navigate growth and development.

A dysregulation of the stress response is characteristic of chronic depression, anxiety and behavior disorders. The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis is responsible in part for regulating the body’s response to stress, whether that stress be mental, emotional or physical. When stress becomes chronic, the ability of the HPA axis to allow for functional communication between the brain and body to keep a person feeling safe and calm becomes impaired, resulting in altered activity of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Cortisol is of particular interest in this context, as it not only plays a significant role in the stress response but also modulates immune system activity. When cortisol is elevated due to chronic stress, the body ultimately becomes resistant to it, and the immune system is not kept in check, resulting in a proliferation of inflammation. Acupuncture has demonstrated the capacity to modulate HPA axis function to alleviate stress-related symptoms by restoring the body’s responsiveness to cortisol so that its roles in nervous and immune system function can be maintained appropriately. Dysregulated HPA axis function has been implicated in a number of allergic conditions, such as asthma and dermatitis; somatic conditions, such as Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; psychiatric conditions such as PTSD and depression; and numerous immune and autoimmune diseases, underscoring the importance of maintaining proper function of the HPA axis.

Another component of the body’s response to stress involves the autonomic nervous system, comprised of two branches – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Where the sympathetic branch of the nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response that alerts us to and helps us remove ourselves from danger, the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system represents the ‘rest and digest’ state, which we’re biologically designed to occupy the majority of the time. Dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system is thought to underlie a number of prevalent mental, developmental and behavioral disorders, such as depression and anxiety, ADHD, and autism. Acupuncture has been shown to activate and modulate the function of brain regions involved with the autonomic nervous system through a number of mechanisms, including increasing concentrations of endogenous opioids, regulating the function of amino acids, such as GABA and glutamate, and enhancing the activity of neurotrophins, such as nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

While depression and anxiety are highly heterogeneous in their presentations, and are driven by numerous mechanisms in the central and peripheral nervous systems, increases in inflammation are thought to play a correlational – if not at least partly causative – role in their development. Depression and anxiety have been associated with elevated levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Interleukin 6 (IL-6) and Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), all of which have been shown to be reduced through acupuncture.

Acupuncture and ADHD

ADHD, as defined by the DSM-IV, has a prevalence of 5.9% – 7.1% among children. Characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, ADHD is commonly treated pharmacologically with stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate. While little is known about the long term effects of stimulant medication in this population, and short-to intermediate-term effects include anxiety, depression, weight loss and insomnia, 12% – 64% of parents of children with ADHD have sought out complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies, including acupuncture. In a study of children aged 7-18 diagnosed with ADHD, twice weekly acupuncture treatments for six weeks demonstrated improved attention and memory function among children not taking medication. Another study explored the potential for acupuncture to improve school performance among children aged 7-16; following a series of 10 acupuncture sessions over the course of eight weeks, study subjects showed significant improvements across all three school subjects: math, social studies and Turkish language. Aside from the capacity of acupuncture to improve the stress response through modulation of the HPA axis and autonomic nervous system, acupuncture’s effects on attention and memory and on learning and perception are thought to be mediated in part by its regulation of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, respectively.

Acupuncture and Autism

With prevalence reports ranging from as low as 1 in 500 to as high as 1 in 50, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication and interaction, language and behavior. Standard treatment of ASD includes pharmacological therapy and behavioral/educational therapy, though reports from a wide sampling of children with ASD indicate that approximately 88% had utilized CAM therapies to address symptoms such as hyperactivity, inattention, poor sleep and digestive issues. In a study of boys with autism, a treatment regimen of five daily acupuncture sessions over the course of eight weeks demonstrated improvements in speech, self-care and cognition. Significant increases in glucose uptake were shown within the intervention group (vs. control), with improved glucose metabolism in areas of the brain involved in visual, auditory and attentional functioning being thought to underlie the improvements seen in language, attention and cognition. An analysis of 13 studies on acupuncture for autism indicated that the most effective treatment regimen entailed 12 sessions within four weeks, each using a minimum of four acupuncture points, and went on to associate individual acupuncture points with specific effects, from improved language comprehension to enhanced self-care abilities. A meta-analysis of 27 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture in combination with behavioral and educational interventions (BEI) was more effective than BEI in improving symptoms as determined by a number of evaluation scales (CARS, ABC1, ATEC), suggesting the potential for acupuncture to yield an additive positive effect when utilized with standard of care therapy.

Ultimately, though research supports the use of acupuncture for specific conditions among children and adolescents, it is important to remember that the approach of an acupuncturist is generally not solely protocol-driven as it would be in a research setting. While research findings can and certainly do inform treatment decisions, acupuncturists also rely to a great extent on what is observed and felt during the treatment – they listen to patients’ reported symptoms and experiences, observe how patients speak and carry themselves, palpate acupuncture channels and reflex areas, and feel the pulse to determine imbalances in the body. In this way, Western and Eastern science and medicine are invited to work together to treat imbalances in an informed, patient-centric, holistic way.

References

Almaali, H. M. M. A., Gelewkhan, A., & Mahdi, Z. A. A. (2017, November 11). Analysis of Evidence-Based Autism Symptoms Enhancement by Acupuncture. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2005290117301395.

Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health. (2019, April 19). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.

Duivis, H. E., Vogelzangs, N., Kupper, N., Jonge, P. de, & Penninx, B. W. J. H. (2013, February 8). Differential association of somatic and cognitive symptoms of depression and anxiety with inflammation: Findings from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453013000073.

Hong, S.-S., & Cho, S.-H. (2015, November 22). Treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with acupuncture: A randomized controlled trial. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1876382015300585.

Lee, B., Kim, S.-N., Park, H.-J., & Lee, H. (2014, April 1). Research advances in treatment of neurological and psychological diseases by acupuncture at the Acupuncture Meridian Science Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213422014000237.

Lee, B., Lee, J., Cheon, J.-H., Sung, H.-K., Cho, S.-H., & Chang, G. T. (2018, January 11). The Efficacy and Safety of Acupuncture for the Treatment of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29552077.

Li, Q.-Q., Shi, G.-X., Xu, Q., Wang, J., Liu, C.-Z., & Wang, L.-P. (2013). Acupuncture effect and central autonomic regulation. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3677642/.

Musser, E. D., Backs, R. W., Schmitt, C. F., Ablow, J. C., Measelle, J. R., & Nigg, J. T. (2011, August). Emotion regulation via the autonomic nervous system in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3112468/.

Wong, V. C.-N., Sun, J.-G., & Yeung, D. W.-C. (2014, December 19). Randomized control trial of using tongue acupuncture in autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095754814000064.

 

About the Author

Meghan Meade is a licensed acupuncturist practicing part-time at NESCA.

Having suffered from anxiety, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances and exercise-induced repetitive stress injuries throughout her adolescence and twenties, Meghan first sought out acupuncture as a last ditch effort to salvage some semblance of health and sanity during a particularly stressful period in her life. It worked. Remarkably well. So palpable was the influence of acupuncture on her well being that she was compelled to leave a career in advertising to study Chinese medicine so that she could help others benefit from its effects.

Meghan earned her masters degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the New England School of Acupuncture at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) and a masters degree in Pain Research, Education and Policy from Tufts University Medical School. She is licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Medicine and is a Diplomate of Oriental Medicine, certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

In her clinical practice, Meghan integrates both Eastern and Western perspectives to provide treatments unique to each patient’s needs and endeavors to empower patients to move forward on their paths to not just feeling good, but feeling like their true selves. In addition to her work as a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, Meghan serves as adjunct faculty at MCPHS and is a certified yoga teacher.

 

To learn even more about Meghan and acupuncture, visit her alternate web site or read her blog: https://meghanmeadeacu.com/Meghan is practicing at NESCA during the following hours. Appointments at NESCA can be booked by reaching out to me directly at meghan@meghanmeadeacu.com.

Monday: 10am – 6pm

Thursday: 9am – 7pm

 

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.

Teenage Stress and Executive Functioning

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

It is increasingly clear to educators, parents, clinicians and the like that teens are experiencing high levels of stress. Why? There are, of course, many reasons stemming from family, social, historical, and systemic “forces” that impact a teen’s personal day-to-day experience.

As an evaluator, I am very aware of one “force” affecting our teens: the “mis-match” between what teens are expected to do and what their executive function skills can handle. I recently participated in a panel discussion along with professionals from Summit Education Group, Engaging Minds and Beyond BookSmart to discuss this “mis-match,” a large contributing factor to student stress. Here are a few important “take-aways” from the discussion:

First, what is executive functioning?  Executive functioning skills are a “family” of skills that operate in a “top-down” process, controlling and regulating brain regions associated with attention, impulse control, emotion regulation and meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking.” A helpful analogy is that executive function skills are the CEO or the “boss” in the brain that monitors, plans, organizes and makes decisions. Here is a useful diagram from ADD Vantages describing executive function skills.

This depicted “family” of executive function skills develops throughout our development. A six year-old is not expected to plan multi-step assignments and check for errors when they write. A six year-old is expected to begin controlling impulses (e.g. waiting their turn in a game) and respond to adult prompts to organize belongings. As a child grows, their brain develops, and executive function skills expand.

However, higher-level metacognition and executive function skills do not simply “magically appear in the brain” or develop “in a vacuum.” Akin to learning a subject, such as math or science, children and teens need to learn executive function skills through teaching, modeling, observing and doing.

We know that teens face a number of responsibilities, particularly in high school – whether that be studying for exams, working on projects, participating in extra-curricular activities, participating in community-run volunteer opportunities, considering academic options post-high school, following their family’s weekly schedule, manage their social media page – and all while getting enough sleep, eating three meals a day and having self-care or “me time.” That adds up to a lot of expectations and demands. Some may posit that these are higher expectations for teens than in decades prior. Yet, what we know is that all teens are unique and develop executive function skills at different speeds. It is therefore logical to expect that many teens will become stressed…stressed because there is a “mis-match” between their daily expectations and the executive function skills that are required to carry out and manage those activities.

As an evaluator, I have worked with a number of teens who experience this “mis-match.” They haven’t yet learned the tools and strategies needed to manage their academic, social and personal responsibilities, and this contributes to low self-confidence, academic underperformance, limited independence, depression and worries about the future. They not only need support and teaching to grow executive function skills to study, work and live more efficiently now and in the future, they also need this “mis-match” and the stress it produces identified and acknowledged by the adults around them.

This “mis-match” can be identified by parents, teachers and/or through a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, which is oftentimes critical for determining a teen’s unique learning strengths and challenges. This “mis-match” is also sometimes identified by teens themselves – who are often highly aware of their own needs and simultaneously aware of difficulties that are impacting their vision and goals. As educators, clinicians and professionals who work with stressed teens, we have a responsibility to recognize when executive function “mis-matches” may be a source of stress and support our teens in developing an individualized, collaborative action plan.

 

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.