NESCA has unexpected availability for Neuropsychological Evaluations and ASD Diagnostic Clinic assessments in the Plainville, MA office in the next several weeks! Our expert pediatric neuropsychologists in Plainville specialize in children ages 18 months to 26 years, with attentional, communication, learning, or developmental differences, including those with a history or signs of ADHD, ASD, Intellectual Disability, and complex medical histories. To book an evaluation or inquire about our services in Plainville (approx.45 minutes from NESCA Newton), complete our Intake Form.

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margaret rodriguez

How the Pandemic Changed In-Person Learning

By | NESCA Notes 2024

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Among the parts of my job that I find most meaningful are the conversations I get to have with parents during intake and feedback sessions. During an intake, much of the emphasis is on history taking. Some of it isn’t very exciting; trust me, I get that it can be tedious to review information like how much your child weighed at birth, how many ear infections they had, and when they learned to walk. Yet so often the information parents are able to share about a child’s history is crucial. There’s a quote attributed to Michael Ventura that says, “Without context, a piece of information is just a dot. It floats in your brain with a lot of other dots and doesn’t mean a damn thing. Knowledge is information-in-context… connecting the dots.” The history parents share provides essential context that helps us piece together and make sense of the data we get from doing an assessment in the office.

In recent years, we’ve added questions about COVID-19 to help us understand how that experience has impacted the children and teens we work with. I regularly ask parents, “How old was your child when COVID-19 hit? What grade were they in and how long did remote learning go on? When did they return to in-person instruction?” During a recent intake with a parent, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting. A very thoughtful and perceptive mom gave me some dates and ages then paused for a moment and added, “But even though they’re back in school, I don’t think learning has ever been the same since COVID.” I asked her to tell me more, and we had a wonderfully thought-provoking conversation. As so often happens, I learned a great deal from a parent. Since that time, I’ve extended the discussion to include some of my very insightful colleagues, who have also shared their thoughts. The consensus is that “in-person learning” in 2024 doesn’t mean the same thing it did in 2019. So, what’s changed?

Yes, students are, for the most part, sitting at desks inside classrooms rather than connecting remotely from their desks (or kitchen tables or couches) at home, but what happens in the classroom and beyond is different in some important ways.

  • Technology: In speaking with parents and colleagues in different fields, I’ve repeatedly heard that pandemic-related school closures “accelerated the use of technology” and “online learning platforms” in education. There was certainly a need to use online learning platforms during the pandemic, and the extent to which schools incorporated technology speaks to ingenuity and flexibility in the face of an unexpected and incredibly challenging situation. Moreover, technology is a wonderful tool that can be used to enhance learning in many ways. That being said, many parents and colleagues have observed that schools never went back to “how information and tasks were managed pre-COVID.” That is, technology and online platforms have remained a part of the learning experience. The challenge for some students is that even within the same school system, there can be a great deal of variability between the specific platforms individual teachers use and how they make use of them. Especially for students who struggle with anxiety or executive functioning weaknesses, keeping track of and switching between different platforms and applications for different classes can be overwhelming.
  • Different Teaching Methods: One of the trends I’ve observed directly and have gotten feedback on from others has to do with how teachers provide instruction in the classroom. Compared to “the before times,” the post-pandemic years have seen a rise in independent learning, even within the context of the classroom. More often, teachers have students work independently, whether that means reading through Google slides at their desks or completing worksheets and tasks on their own. There seems to be less direct teacher-led instruction and an increased reliance on independent learning, which often incorporates use of technology, such as Chromebooks, in the classroom. While some students thrive when given the freedom and flexibility to learn on their own, many students learn best when provided with instruction using more direct, structured, and an interactive approach.
  • The Boundaries are Blurred: Working adults will relate to this phenomenon. Back before COVID-19, many of us had pretty clear boundaries separating our work lives from our personal lives. We commuted to an office or other workplace, worked for a set time period, then went home. That all changed when many non-essential employees pivoted to working from home at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Suddenly our kitchens or bedrooms were transformed from private living areas to undefined spaces that housed both our personal lives and our work lives. And our work and home lives bled into each other as we tried to fit in work when we could, especially if we were also home-schooling or caring for children all day. Though many employees are back to the office at least to some extent, the boundaries remain somewhat blurred. The same phenomenon has happened for students. There is a “24-7 connectedness” that technology enables, which has both pros and cons. Because a lot of schools still use online platforms for assigning, submitting, and grading homework, teachers can post assignments at any time. One parent described a sense of assignments popping up online “like Jenga blocks, one layered in after another.” Similarly, students can turn in assignments at any hour of the day or night. One of my colleagues has observed that this has negatively impacted sleep habits for some students. Another colleague astutely pointed out that, not only can this be overwhelming for students, but it may also be contributing to some of the burn-out many teachers are experiencing.

Education has been perhaps permanently altered by the pandemic, just as many of us have been. The changes that have occurred bring benefits and challenges that our students and teachers are still adjusting to. I don’t have answers or solutions, but I know that I’m going to be adding to the questions I ask parents about COVID-19, education, and the impact on their student. It’s still important for me to learn when a student resumed “in-person learning,” but I’m no longer going to assume that phrase means the same thing it’s always meant. Instead, I’ll be asking parents to tell me what in-person learning looks like now, because the reality is that none of us has gone back to life circa 2019. Just like all of us, our students are living in the “new normal,” and we need to understand it so that we can support them in benefiting from the opportunities it brings and in navigating the challenges it poses.

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; the greater Burlington, Vermont region; and Brooklyn, NY, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

How to Make the Holidays Less Stressful

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Are the holidays the “most magical time of the year?” Maybe, but they can also be the most stressful. In fact, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 41% of U.S. adults experience increased stress levels around the holidays, while 52% find their stress levels remain the same, and only 7% feel less stressed this time of year. A whopping 43% of American adults acknowledge that the stress that accompanies the holidays compromises their ability to enjoy them (and that number includes only the people willing to admit it!).

As an adult reading this, you may be thinking this information comes as no surprise and you’re all too aware of the stress that comes with the holidays. What you may not realize as fully is that this time of year can be stressful for children as well. While the holidays can bring excitement and fun, they can also present challenges, particularly for our kids and teens who struggle with underlying mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression) or neurodevelopmental conditions (such as Autism, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or Sensory Processing Disorder). For the next few weeks, many of us will be attempting to navigate our own holiday-related stress and manage the stress our children may feel and express in a variety of ways. So, if you’re feeling less overwhelmed with excitement and joy and instead simply overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Here are some strategies for making the holidays work for you:

Notice and recognize the impact of expectations. It all starts here. From Hallmark movies to the pictures posted by mom-fluencers on Instagram, we are bombarded with unrealistic images of what the holidays “should” look like. Social media is particularly insidious, as it tends to contribute to a sense that the everyday, real people around us (not just those celebrities in magazines) are living what we see reflected in their carefully edited and curated photos. It’s important to remind ourselves that these images don’t reflect the reality of life and that we don’t see 99% of what happens in the daily lives of those we follow on social media. We may see the images of perfectly decorated Christmas cookies but not the kitchen counters covered in flour, eggs, and frosting (or the parent yelling) in the background. We click on the beautiful photo of three kids all smiling at the camera from Santa’s lap but don’t see the 25 outtakes featuring those same children in tears, sticking out their tongues, or bolting out of the frame. Realizing this and taking a step back is key for ourselves and our children, who may also need explicit information about what they can expect (for instance, regarding the number of and type of gifts they will get based on your family’s budget versus what they envision).

Realize we also all harbor implicit ideas about what the holidays “should” look like based on our experiences growing up and the way our families did things, which we take for granted. If you’re in a relationship, you may have encountered your own hidden expectations if they ever come into conflict with those of your significant other. Even if you celebrate the same holiday(s), you may do so in very different ways. Some of you may be familiar with conversations, such as, “What do you mean your family decorates the tree Christmas Eve? Christmas trees go up as soon as we put our jack-o-lanterns in the compost on November 1st!” If you and your partner celebrate different holidays or your kids split their time between your home and that of another parent, all of this becomes much more complicated. So, talk about it openly and together. As a family, re-evaluate your expectations and traditions, and start with a blank slate. Sit down together, make your expectations explicit, then assess them together.

Ask some questions, such as:

  • What does each family member, kids included, envision the holidays will look like? This might be general and abstract (maybe Mom wants to ensure there’s downtime for rest and relaxation) or concrete (maybe the kids want to go ice skating over winter break, and Dad wants to make sure the family goes to midnight mass on Christmas Eve). How will you make this work both logistically and in terms of balancing different needs?
  • What traditions do you automatically take part in, and do they work for your family at this particular moment in time? Although traditions are important and meaningful, blind and rigid adherence to rituals and routines that don’t work for us don’t benefit anyone. We often take part in traditions without questioning whether they add to our lives or why we started doing them in the first place.

Once you’ve had these discussions, consider that you don’t have to “do” the holidays the same way ever single year. There’s no rule that says every holiday season has to look the same. Do you always go take photos with Santa at the mall even though your kids inevitably resist the idea, become anxious and overwhelmed, and you end up frustrated? Open up to the possibility of forgoing that tradition even if it’s just for the time being. Do you make an elaborate holiday dinner each year but aren’t up to it this year? Consider finding an alternative for now that takes the stress off of you and still aligns with your priorities. If what’s important to you is enjoying a meal with your family, maybe you can still do that while letting go of the need to do it all yourself.

Modify your expectations and make accommodations for your children given their unique personalities and potential challenges. This might mean forgoing busy and crowded events, such as parties, for children and teens who struggle with anxiety in social settings or become easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Or maybe you still attend, but you have a pre-established plan for leaving by a certain time and/or managing distress that may arise. These days, many public spaces that host events (e.g., museums, theaters) hold modified sensory-friendly versions of events at specified times. For many children, building in predictable routines, and previewing special plans or changes to their usual schedules can be very helpful. For kids or adolescents with significant “picky” eating or Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), you might consider hosting a holiday dinner at your house so you have control over the menu or bringing food you know your child will eat if you’re visiting others. Many kids with ADHD will need movement breaks, so think ahead about how you’ll work those in depending on your plans. It helps to think ahead and have a flexible plan for meeting your kids’ needs in different scenarios.

Now for the twist. Remember that APA study I quoted at the start of this blog? Well, even though so many people reported significant stress, it also found that 69% of adults feel the stress of the holidays is “worth it,” and many endorse positive outcomes related to the holidays, including an increased sense of togetherness. No matter what or how you celebrate, the holidays can be a wonderful and meaningful time of the year, and the odds of finding joy, connection, and calm will be higher if you take a step back and figure out how to make the holidays fit into your life and work for your family.

References:
https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/11/holiday-season-stress

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and the greater Burlington, Vermont region, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Questionnaires, Rating Scales, and Checklists, Oh My!

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Before I had children, I knew parenting would bring with it new demands. If you’d asked me what tasks I imagined would take a lot of my time and energy as a parent, I would have listed things like feeding hungry little mouths, washing adorable clothes, driving kids to and from school and activities, dealing with bath time, and reading stories at bedtime. What I would never have guessed is how much time and mental effort I would spend filling out paperwork. From the moment a child enters a parent’s life—regardless of what process brings them together as a family—it seems like there are unending forms to complete. As a parent of three children, I cannot begin to calculate how many hours I’ve spent filling out forms for doctors, daycares, schools, camps, babysitters, and extracurriculars. It’s a lot.

Perhaps that’s why I sometimes notice a very relatable subtle sigh when I hand parents forms to complete as part of their children’s neuropsychological evaluation. I get it, and I never want to add to a parent’s already overwhelming list of tasks to complete. Nevertheless, carefully selected questionnaires are an important part of a thorough neuropsychological assessment. Here are a few of the reasons why.

  1. Simply put, parents are the experts on their children. No doubt about it, a parent (or primary caregiver) knows a child better than just about anyone else could. Parents are uniquely qualified to provide invaluable information about their children and are a tremendous resource.
  2. Parents have more data points. During an evaluation, I typically spend about five hours with a child over the course of two testing sessions. It’s a limited glimpse into mere hours out of years of a child’s life. Parents are typically positioned to observe their children much more frequently and on many more occasions. I may see a child at their best or on a particularly bad day, and I don’t want to rely on my observations alone. Having information from many points in time, and from different settings, is incredibly useful and helps capture a more complete picture of a child.
  3. I want and need to know what happens outside the testing office. By design, the testing environment is deliberately developed to be a quiet space as free of distractions as possible to maximize a child’s ability to focus and participate in formal testing. It’s a highly structured situation and a one-on-one interaction. Life outside the office is…well, quite different. I want to get a sense of what happens during the hectic morning rush to get out the door, on the playground and the soccer field, and at the family dinner table.
  4. On a related note, people present differently in different settings, and having data helps us make sense of this. Many parents can relate to the concept of “restraint collapse.” Essentially, kids often work hard to keep it together in the academic setting throughout the day and “fall apart” when they come home after a long day of school. Similarly, children are often on the “best behavior” in public settings and with adults other than their parents. For this reason, I often don’t get to see this important aspect of things, so I rely on parent reports.
  5. Some things simply cannot be readily assessed using standardized testing measures in an office environment. Two skill sets that fall into this category are executive functions and social skills. Executive functions, which include skills like working memory, are not easily captured through tests in the somewhat artificial environment of an office. To assess working memory, we rely on tasks such as asking a child to recall strings of numbers. In the real world, working memory applies to more complex tasks, such as following multi-step instructions in a busy classroom or home setting. A child may do well remembering single digit numbers, but this doesn’t always translate to being able to remember and complete a series of directions in the “real world.” Similarly, interacting with one adult in a highly structured environment doesn’t allow a glimpse into a child’s social skills within the more complex, unstructured situations they face day to day.

In short, neuropsychologists rely on information from parents to gain a clear and complete picture of a child and to provide answers to the questions that bring a family to us. One of the ways we obtain this information is through questionnaires, symptom rating scales, and checklists. So, parents, thank you, for taking the time to give us your unique and invaluable perspective. We couldn’t do our jobs without it or without you.

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

How Can a Neuropsychological Evaluation Help?

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Recently I met with a family seeking a neuropsychological evaluation for their daughter. After talking about their reasons for pursuing testing, the parents asked me, “So…do you think this will help? Is this type of testing what our child needs?” It’s an important question and one I’m sure many families wonder about but don’t always ask. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can be of tremendous value, but the process requires time and energy as well as a financial investment, so it makes sense to consider this question carefully.

Though it may be surprising to hear this coming from a neuropsychologist, the answer to the question of whether to have a child evaluated is not always clear-cut. For instance, parents sometimes wonder if there is practical benefit to seeking testing when a child or adolescent already has a diagnosis but there are questions about its accuracy. Consider the following scenario as an example. A child with issues regulating attention and with weaknesses in social skills has a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Her therapist has raised the question of whether a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) might better explain the issues the child is facing. Inattention can be present in both ADHD and ASD, and both conditions can result in social difficulties. Especially if a child is already receiving appropriate services, does the diagnostic label matter, and is it worth pursuing formal assessment?

There are valid arguments to be made in favor of seeking an evaluation in this type of situation and valid arguments to support choosing not to invest in an assessment.  In such a scenario, I would encourage a family to consider the following questions:

  • Will diagnostic clarification address unanswered questions that previous diagnoses have not fully addressed?

Sometimes an established diagnosis partially explains a child’s issues but there are lingering questions about other aspects of a child’s presentation. If a different or additional diagnosis could fill in the gaps, it may be worth assessing.

  • Could testing help identify your child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses?

Especially when an existing diagnosis has been made without testing (for instance by a therapist or physician), there may be important aspects of a child’s neuropsychological profile that have not yet been identified. For instance, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder share certain key features, but they also differ in significant ways. A diagnosis alone cannot capture the nuances of an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses, while a full neuropsychological evaluation can more fully describe a child on an individual level.

  • Will understanding the root of the problem help guide recommendations?

NESCA’s clinic director compares a child’s observable difficulties to the “tip of an iceberg.” There are inevitably hidden underlying factors, and discerning these can be important in determining how to address the issues that are visible on the surface. For example, problems with social interactions can arise from deficits in social communication (e.g., difficulty interpreting facial expressions), as seen in Autism. Alternatively, a child with ADHD may encounter social challenges because they have trouble paying attention to relevant social cues or because impulsivity leads them to behave inappropriately. Someone with social phobia may have few relationships because their anxiety drives them to avoid social interactions. Effective intervention in each of these cases requires a nuanced approach that targets not just the surface issue but the factors underlying it.

  • Will establishing a particular diagnosis open up opportunities for additional support and resources that may be important?

In some cases, there are specific resources that are available to individuals with particular diagnoses. For instance, in Massachusetts, individuals with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder or Intellectual Disability may be eligible to receive services through the Department of Developmental Services. If qualifying for such services could be beneficial, diagnostic clarification may be important.

More broadly, the internet and social media have allowed people with shared diagnoses to connect in new ways. The opportunity to connect with others experiencing similar difficulties can be invaluable, and online communities can provide a sense of support, educational information, and practical resources for children and parents alike.

The answers to these questions and to the bigger question of whether to seek neuropsychological evaluation will be different for different families. There are many factors to weigh in making the decision to seek testing. If you are considering an assessment for your child and need additional information to make an informed decision, answers to frequently asked questions about neuropsychological evaluation can be found on NESCA’s website.

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez 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, Londonderry, New Hampshire, and staff in greater Burlington, Vermont, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Paying Proper Attention to Inattention

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

One of the most common referral questions I see in my work as a neuropsychologist is, “Does my child have ADHD?” When a child has trouble focusing, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is one of the first things that comes to mind, and for good reason. However, ADHD is only one potential underlying cause of inattention. In fact, there are many cases in which attentional difficulties are present as part of another underlying issue. Some of these include:

  1. Anxiety—On a physiological level, anxiety involves activation of the “fight or flight” response. This adaptive process is designed to alter attention in order to prioritize survival. When the brain senses a threat, it tunes out everything else so it can focus on dealing with the danger at hand. This is extremely useful when the threat is something like a wild animal chasing you. In that case, you need to momentarily shift all of your attention to survival. It’s the worst possible time to be distracted by anything that could divert your attention from escaping a dangerous situation. But when students are anxious, especially for extended periods of time, the same process can make it difficult to focus on day-to-day tasks, including learning.
  2. Learning Disorder—Students who lack the academic skills to engage with the curriculum can appear to be simply not paying attention. If a student’s reading skills, for instance, are several grade levels below expectations, they won’t be able to actively engage with written assignments or materials in class.
  3. Communication Disorder—Deficits in receptive and/or expressive language often manifest in ways that mimic inattention. If a child cannot grasp what is being communicated, they will have significant difficulty following verbal instructions, answering questions, and retaining important information. This can easily be misinterpreted as a sign of an attentional issue when, in reality, the underlying problem has to do with communication.
  4. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)—Many individuals on the Autism spectrum tend to be more attuned and focused on internal experiences (e.g., their own thoughts and specific interests) than to the external environment. As a result, they can miss important information, ranging from social cues to expectations communicated at home or within the classroom.
  5. Other neurocognitive disorders—Weaknesses in other cognitive functions, particularly those we refer to as “cognitive proficiency” skills (e.g., processing speed) and executive functions (e.g., working memory, organization) can also result in apparent inattention. Students who cannot process information quickly are sometimes unable to keep up with the pace of instruction, which causes a diminished ability to comprehend and retain information. Similarly, students who cannot hold information in working memory or organize ideas and concepts can demonstrate reduced comprehension.

There is a range of other issues that can contribute to children or adolescents appearing inattentive. Some of these include trauma, absence seizures, hearing impairments, thought disorders and/or hallucinations, and Tourette’s Syndrome. It is important to thoroughly evaluate the potential causes of inattention and to consider an individual’s full history and presentation.  Because different underlying issues will necessitate different treatment approaches, getting to the root of the issue can be tremendously important.

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

 

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez 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, 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.

ADHD & Social Skills

By | NESCA Notes 2022

By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

When most of us hear the term “ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder),” we think of the little boy who can’t sit still at his desk or the girl gazing out the window lost in her own thoughts during class. While difficulties with hyperactivity and/or attention are core features of ADHD–embedded directly in the diagnostic label–there are often co-occurring features that are less obvious. Moreover, even the central aspects of ADHD can have far-reaching impacts beyond the classroom. One of the most frequently misunderstood and overlooked facets of ADHD is its potential impact on social functioning.

In clinical practice, parents of children with ADHD are often confused by the unexpected and indirect ways that attentional and executive functioning deficits can affect social functioning. They sometimes wonder if their children have an additional challenge, such as autism spectrum disorder. Most often, that’s not the case. Rather, it’s more likely that one or more of the following is at play:

  • Kids with ADHD can have difficulty selectively attending to relevant social cues
    • Imagine looking through a camera with a broken zoom lens. At first everything is in frame at once; it’s too much information. Then you try to zoom in, but when you do, sometimes the lens focuses on unimportant things (like the random details in the background), leaving out what’s most relevant (like the person you’re trying to capture in your photo). Children with ADHD have difficulty figuring out what details to focus on and struggle to effectively “zoom in” on those elements. In social settings, which are often unstructured, kids with ADHD are even more prone to “zoom in” on unimportant things and miss the more salient information. They can also become easily distracted and fail to register important information in the moment. To others, this can come across as lack of interest (for instance, the child who seems not to be listening or is distracted by sounds, sights, or other sensory information in the moment). It can also lead children with ADHD to overlook contextual cues about what’s expected in a given social setting, which can lead to inappropriate behavior.
  • Children with ADHD often struggle with nuance, making inferences, and reading between the lines
    • Social situations are much more complex than we often realize. Successfully navigating social interactions requires paying attention, not just to surface level information but to the often subtle, implied meaning embedded in things like figures of speech, tone of voice, and body language. For many with ADHD, it’s already a challenge to maintain focus at the surface level; the task of trying to simultaneously attend to and interpret subtext is too much. Individuals with ADHD may focus on what another person says (the content of their speech) but fail to notice the eye roll or sarcastic tone of voice that goes along with it.
  • Impulsivity can lead to social faux pas
    • Impulsivity is a central feature of ADHD in many cases. In social settings, difficulty inhibiting impulses can take many forms. For some, it may simply present as rapid-fire speech, leaving little room for others to respond in conversation. It can also look like interrupting, cutting others in line, or expressing ideas and opinions in a way that can be hurtful or seem rude. Especially in younger children, impulsive behavior can lead to difficulty sharing, physical aggression towards others, and trouble with turn taking. Children who have more difficulty slowing down and inhibiting impulses are more likely to inadvertently offend others or to engage in behavior that their peers may view as odd or inappropriate; in turn, this can lead to trouble developing and sustaining friendships and other positive relationships.
  • Hyperactivity makes participating appropriately in some social settings difficult
    • There are some social contexts in which an abundance of energy is a very good thing. For this reason, many ADHD kids can excel in activities like sports, into which they can channel their high energy. But other social situations demand a different set of skills. For kids with hyperactivity as part of their ADHD, sitting still and maintaining quiet can be a challenge. They may struggle with activities like going to the library, watching a movie in a theater, attending church or religious ceremonies, or sitting at the table in order to have family dinner.

The good news is that there are ways to manage these social challenges. If your child with ADHD has difficulty with any aspects of social functioning, it may help to seek out social skills training with a therapist or through a structured social skills training program. Interventions often include a combination of explicit instruction, modeling, role playing, and feedback. Parents can also help by implementing simple, consistent ground rules for behavior and providing gentle but clear reminders as needed. Additionally, parents can facilitate play dates with peers, during which the parents take an active role in helping children utilize social skills and engage with each other appropriately.

Finally, though ADHD can present challenges in the social domain, kids with ADHD often possess many strengths that can help actually them succeed socially. Children with ADHD can be highly engaging, curious, energetic, creative, and open-minded. When these strengths are reinforced, kids with ADHD can often utilize them to create fun, rewarding social interactions and to develop rich, dynamic relationships.

 

About the Author

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.

Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children.  She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.

To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez 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, 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.