By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA
In my last blog that focused on executive function tools, I delved into the benefits of using and committing to a digital calendar. The calendar is a concrete tool that can be directly taught to students using traditional methods. Less concrete, but in many ways equally useful, is this next executive function tool – the natural consequence.
When most people think of natural consequences, they think of younger children refusing to do things like eat a meal that their caregiver prepared or put on a coat when it is cold outside. If a child refuses their dinner, the natural consequence is hunger. If a child refuses to wear their coat, the natural consequence is feeling cold. These are consequences that will happen without parents or caregivers explicitly providing a consequence. When it comes to executive function mishaps, the natural consequence is often the need to independently deal with the fallout.
Many of the students I serve directly need scaffolded executive function support with direct instruction and specific opportunities for practice. I am not advocating for removing these services or throwing these students to the proverbial wolves. What I am advocating for is using mistakes or lapses in executive function skill as learning opportunities, as opposed to absolving our students from all responsibility and continuously jumping in to save the day. To demonstrate this difference, here are a few examples of ways I have seen parents successfully use natural consequences as a tool to teach executive function.
- Amber is a student who has had consistent difficulty organizing her time after school. While she attends many different afterschool activities, such as recycling club and track, she is often late to practice or misses important changes to the schedule. To help Amber, her parents set up a calendar with notifications and reminders that appear on her phone and her computer directly after school. Recently, Amber started driving lessons with the local driving school. A few weeks ago, Amber had a conversation with her mother in the morning about the fact that she would be picked up for a lesson 10 minutes after the end of the school day. Amber’s notification on her phone went off 15 minutes before the lesson, and she received a pop-up on her computer screen 30 minutes before the end of the school day. Despite these reminders, Amber hopped onto the bus at the end of the day. While this was an honest mistake, Amber was not using her tools or the time management strategies that she has been taught and is expected to use. Amber’s parents decided that as a natural consequence, Amber would need to deal with fixing her mistake. They were there to support her as she called the driving school, apologized to the instructor, and rescheduled her appointment. If she was not willing to take these steps, another natural consequence would have been a delay in getting her license. This caused some heightened anxiety for Amber, but with encouragement from her parents, she practiced the phone call out loud and looked through her calendar to see where she had availability for a make-up appointment. Amber’s parents could have easily called the driving school and fixed these problems for her; however, Amber would have missed out on an opportunity to practice problem solving.
- Another student who benefited from natural consequences is Albert. Albert’s parents hired a tutor to meet with him over Zoom twice per week to prepare for the SATs. He was expected to meet with his tutor, Barry, two times per week to start building up his skills. Unfortunately, despite frequent reminders and systems being put in place, Albert often missed or was late to these meetings as he was distracted by playing video games. When Albert’s parents started to receive charges for missed appointments from Barry’s company, they thought carefully about how to impress on Albert the importance of using his strategies and making it to his appointments. Eventually, Albert’s parents informed him that if he missed another session, he would be responsible for the late fee, as the charge was an inevitable consequence. When Albert eventually missed another session, his father drove him to the bank and helped him withdraw the money from his own savings account to pay his parents for the missed session. Unsurprisingly, this was hugely frustrating to Albert in the moment; however, his meetings with Barry became a priority and Albert quickly started making it to tutoring on time. After experiencing the natural consequence himself, Albert began to change his actions.
Both of these examples led to increased buy-in from the adolescents who were actively working on building up their executive functioning skills. As they started to participate in problem solving after they made a mistake, they were more aware of the work that their parents had typically been doing for them. Some language that can be productive includes:
- “I know it was a mistake and now we just need to figure out how to fix it. What do you think we should do?”
- “What are the next steps you need to take to solve this problem?”
- “I can tell you what I think we should do, but I would love to hear your ideas first. Where would you start?”
As adolescents forge toward young adulthood, they will inevitably make mistakes, miss appointments, arrive late, and misplace some of their belongings. If we are constantly picking up the pieces, then they are missing out on the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems and build an understanding of the consequences.
About the Author
Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
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 email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.