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When the Homeymoon Period Is Over: Signs of School Refusal

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

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

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

Risky signs that your child is struggling with school:

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

Oh no. So now what?

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

For more information, please check out:

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

 

About the Author

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

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

Meet NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist Miranda Milana, Psy.D.

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Jane Hauser
Director of Marketing & Outreach

This September, NESCA welcomed a new neuropsychologist to its team. Learn more about Pediatric Neuropsychologist Miranda Milana, Psy.D., in my interview with her below.

Where did your interest in neuropsychology come from?

I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with children. I initially thought I would work with children in the medical field, but I ended up being fascinated by child psychology, which led to my focus on the clinical aspect of therapy with kids and families.

I then started to notice the importance of neuropsychological reports in schools, treatment planning, formulating diagnoses and determining the tools needed to help kids be successful. I knew I wanted to do that! I saw my fair share of unhelpful reports and wanted to take the opportunity to write truly beneficial ones.

What is your focus area in working with kids?

I really enjoy working with all kids, but have a particular intertest in early elementary-aged kids – toddlers through early elementary schoolers. I love to get to know kids whose parents, caregivers or educators are questioning whether they may have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or some kind of learning challenge. It’s exciting to start to work with a child as they are entering school and continue to watch them progress throughout their education.

Tell me about your clinical experience prior to joining NESCA.

Before coming to NESCA, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, which provided me with great exposure to a wide variety of kids and the challenges they were experiencing. My case load there exposed me to a vast range of educational and developmental concerns and presentations. Working with children aged 2 through 17 who showed a wide-ranging array of presentations really helped me to become a flexible thinker.

It was a great opportunity to work with all types of clinicians, families and children. Also, having such a diverse case load afforded me the opportunity to become part of so many teams within the hospital, including the Down Syndrome, Adoption and Teenager teams, among others. It was rewarding to be able to learn from each one of them.

What drew you to NESCA?

I wanted to continue to work in a collaborative environment, where it wasn’t just me contributing to a child’s evaluation and plan. I really wanted to learn and collaborate with a team of psychologists and other providers in a group practice, outside of the hospital setting. Being part of a child’s trajectory in school is exciting, and NESCA allows me to do just that!

What are some of the more rewarding experiences you’ve had as a pediatric neuropsychologist?

Getting kids who are closed off to share their experiences with me is very rewarding. With these kids, we have to be creative in how we approach them, get them to share and play. Having anxious, resistant children feel comfortable opening up to me in conversation or who allow themselves to be vulnerable by sharing personal information, is such a rewarding part of what I do. To know you have built that kind of trust with a child is so fulfilling.

What’s your secret sauce in building that trust with a child who is anxious or resistant?

I am kind of a kid at heart, so I use that in testing children to engage them and create a more fun environment. I take pride in getting to know a child beyond the test scores and collected data. Finding common ground and relating to them is so important. I also like to make sure they know I am part of their team that will support them as they move forward in school and in life. It’s a personal challenge to me to get the most resistant kids to engage and maybe even crack a smile during the evaluation!

 

About Miranda Milana, Psy.D.

Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).

Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.

Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.​

 

To book an evaluation with Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Milana or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

The Path Back to Fitness

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

One of the well-known impacts of the pandemic has been the loss of physical fitness in children and adolescents because of the loss of opportunities to play sports and generally move around. In addition, many children and adolescents have gained weight during this time. Maintaining a healthy weight and being physically fit offer many benefits for social-emotional development as well as academic performance. Numerous research studies link physical exercise to significant improvements in the regulation of mood and anxiety as well as attention and executive functioning.

Parents are often at a loss for how to help their child get back into good habits to lose weight, exercise regularly, or get back into a sport. Common parenting approaches, such as offering “helpful suggestions,” encouraging, nagging and bribing usually don’t work for long term—or even short term—positive change. Instead, these approaches often “back fire,” making the child feel even more ashamed or powerless—emotions that are not likely to fuel motivation to change habits.

So how do we support children and adolescents in developing the positive habits that are necessary for maintaining health and fitness? The key lies in empowering the child to determine his or her own goals and establishing their “why” through discussion of why they would like to reach this goal, what they will get by achieving the goal, and, perhaps most important, how they will feel when they reach this goal. This type of motivational interviewing builds internal motivation, which beats external motivators every time in terms of creating long term change.

Once the child or adolescent is clear on what they would like to achieve and why, the next step is determining the behavior changes that will help the child achieve their outlined goal and working with the child to figure out what’s manageable so that success can be ensured. For example, one adolescent might easily commit to a 30-minute daily bike ride, whereas another might want to start with a daily 10-minute walk. Success breeds success, so it is important to set goals that are challenging but also achievable. Throughout this process, the focus is on creating a positive mindset and positive emotional state of empowerment, hopefulness, optimism, and pride.

Some children may be open to this type of process with their parents; however, most adolescents will likely not want to be involved at this level with a parent. NESCA offers health and life coaching, aimed at helping adolescents and young adults with this process. Coaching offers a structured approach to helping an adolescent or young adult define his/her own goals and motivations as well as understanding the obstacles that they have encountered in reaching those goals, which are usually limiting beliefs (e.g., “I can never stick to things.”) or faulty self-identities (e.g., “I’m not athletic.”). The coaching process works through a combination of structured activities as well as a highly supportive personal relationship. To learn more, please join us for a webinar on Thursday, September 23 at 1:00 PM ET, view a previous webinar on this topic on our website or contact Health & Life Coach Billy Demiri for a free 30-minute consultation to determine if health coaching might be helpful for your child.

 

About the Author

NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Does Scatter Matter? How to Understand Your Child Better

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

Families often come to testing with questions like these: My child is so smart, why is reading so hard for them? If she can remember the smallest conversation from three years ago, why can’t she remember the two things I sent her upstairs to get? If he can do all of the calculations, why can’t my son solve a word problem? The answer can show itself in the scatter.

Assessment measures are based on statistical conversions, where the number of points a child or teen earns is “translated” into a scaled or standard score. This helps us to understand how your child performs compared to other children their same age. Tests are largely based on the idea that scores should “hang together” – meaning that if your child is average for his or her age on one task (e.g., visual-spatial skills) then they should be average on another (e.g., verbal knowledge). And while this may be true for many people, it certainly it not true for all people. Many people have “scatter,” meaning that there is a statistical difference between their scores.

I will spare you the controversy about scatter in our field, about whether a certain degree of scatter or difference between scores means that you cannot calculate certain other scores. There is also specific knowledge of scatter needed to diagnose specific learning disabilities (e.g., if your child has high average verbal skills, how far apart do their reading scores need to be in order to fit the diagnostic criteria). While those topics are incredibly important to the field, my focus today is to build a little empathy for how scatter can matter.

There are times when this scatter can lead us to a diagnostic decision. For example, a relatively common pattern that I see is that of a very bright teenager whose cognitive and problem-solving are at least above average, while their basic focus and attention is below average. With other evidence that corroborates it, this can mean ADHD. A big difference between a child’s verbal knowledge/language skills and their ability to use their language for social purposes can suggest an Autism Spectrum Disorder. In these instances, the scatter absolutely matters. But, scatter can be meaningful to a child’s daily experience even if it’s not statistically “big enough” to warrant diagnosis.

Imagine being your child for a moment. Perhaps your child has a knack for building complex Lego sets and can spend hours assembling structures that are intricate, detailed, and involve more small pieces that my adult fingers could tolerate (let alone our feet as we step on them!). Perhaps your child’s visual-spatial skills are incredible, scoring in the high average range compared to their friends. Then you place a book in their hands and ask them to read a page aloud, where they struggle to sound out words, track their eyes smoothly across the page, or understand the meaning of anything they are saying. While you are left scratching your head as a parent, imagine the frustration and disappointment your child must feel wondering: why can I work with Legos better than anyone I know, but decoding words is torture?

In my mind, scatter can mean frustration. To feel exceptionally strong and confident in one skill domain and then barely hang on in another can leave your child disappointed, angry, and self-critical. Imagine having a vocabulary and encyclopedia of facts in your mind and your hand simply cannot keep up with your thoughts as you try to take notes or write down ideas for an essay. For an adult, it can be a bit like sitting in front of your computer with too many browser windows open and programs running at once, slowing down the entire operating system to the point that you growl in frustration (anyone else?).

While it can be easy to get lost in the controversy over the technical and statistical nature of scatter, it is important that we all have some empathy for what this must feel like for your child or teen. Empathy for this experience is a critical part of building the roadmap forward: where we can use those strong skills to build up the weaker ones, to grow new and stronger neural connections, and to give ourselves a little grace and patience when those weaker muscles get challenged.

 

About the Author

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

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

Neuropsychological Evaluation Results: What, When and How to Share with Children and Teens

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

During intake and feedback meetings with families, I find the same question comes up often from parents: what do I tell my child about all of this? NESCA’s Dr. Erin Gibbons gracefully tackled how to prepare your child for their neuropsychological evaluation. After an evaluation is done, you as a parent now have more than 20 pages of historical information, test descriptions, tables, summaries, and recommendations. How do you translate that information into something a child or teen will actually understand? It does not need to be a secret code or a hidden message. Feedback about a child’s strengths and weakness can be an incredibly powerful intervention.

Let’s take a page from Carol Dweck’s work and use a growth mindset to frame the experience. A growth mindset tells us that skills can be learned and neural connections can be strengthened. I advise parents to tell children and teens that testing is a chance for a “healthy check-up” for our brain and our learning, just the same way that the pediatrician performs a yearly healthy check-up for our bodies. The same way that a doctor pays attention to how all of our systems grow and interact with each other, a neuropsychologist can see how a child or teen is growing and how parts of the brain can talk to each other. I shape the dialogue right away that this kind of evaluation can tell us how strong some of the parts of our learning are, like a super strong muscle that has been exercised and practiced with gusto. The evaluation can also tell us what muscles or parts of our learning are a little weaker and need some more “exercise.” Pulling in a growth mindset, we can set the frame that any weakness can be made stronger if we have the right types of exercise, the right amount of practice, the right coaches, and a willingness to work hard. Most children and teens are pretty savvy and can often predict what their weak muscles are (e.g., “math is so hard!”; “I can’t spell!”; or “I can’t pay attention in school and I’m always in trouble for getting out of my seat!”).

Now, back to those 20-plus pages of dense text. It’s rarely helpful for a child or teen to read each page. There are parts of the normal curve, standard scores, confidence intervals, on and on that children and teens have not even learned yet! Those scores are an incredibly important source of information for schools, pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists, and other neuropsychologists. They are not nearly as helpful when sharing information with children and teens, so do not stress about trying to translate it for kids. It is also not as helpful to have this conversation with your children when you are late for a meeting or they cannot find a soccer cleat on the way to practice. Plan your conversation for a time when your stress level is low as a parent and your child or teen is also more relaxed.

Your neuropsychologist can help you in your personal feedback meeting to identify a few important strengths to share with your child or teen – from your child’s positive attitude, to their strong decoding of new words, to their memory for things they see, to their ability to make and keep friends. With a sense of confidence about their strengths, I share what the “weaker muscle” is using language like, “I can see that word problems can be harder for you,” or “Keeping your anxious thoughts quiet when you are at school so you can concentrate on schoolwork is really hard.” Most of the time, children and teens find this validating rather than shaming – finally someone sees that their struggle is not their fault, not because their brain is wrong or bad, not because they are not trying hard enough. They just need more of the right kind of practice.

Knowing their strengths and their weaknesses, it is much easier to shape the game plan for the future. I tell children and teens that the good news is that we know what strategies can help make that weaker area even stronger. So choose your metaphor: coaches have different plays or practices, music teachers have different pieces for someone to play, artists can try out a new medium or set of supplies, or gamers practice different strategies and read tips and tricks from other gamers. By choosing a relatable experience for your child or teen in that moment, we can make the information both relevant and accessible. Your neuropsychologist can speak with you about how you as a parent can share this information with your child, or they can arrange a time to share the information directly from neuropsychologist to client. It is helpful for you to listen, too, so you can hear the language used by the neuropsychologist. Be prepared that these meetings are not very long to suit a child or teen’s attention span. Children and teens need time to process the information the same way adults do. You might expect a child to return to you a few days later with questions, or for the topic to more organically arise when your teen faces a challenge. Feedback is a unique chance for your child to feel validated, encouraged, and empowered!

 

About the Author

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

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

Looking for Answers? Ask the Right Questions.

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

Many parents have met with me concerned that, “We had a full evaluation and got a lot of scores and a diagnosis but we still don’t understand why our child has this problem and what we can do about it.” This outcome can be avoided if parents and the evaluator are both clear on why the child is being evaluated, have laid out specific questions to be answered and what kinds of recommendations are being sought. Determining the referral question(s) should be a key goal of the intake session.

During the intake meeting, the evaluator can help the parent to shape their concerns into a specific referral question that can be addressed effectively through the process of neuropsychological evaluation. The evaluator can manage parental expectations in this process so there is not disappointment with evaluation results that don’t answer the parents’ questions. For example, I’ve had parents request an evaluation because they want to know if their fifth grader will get into Harvard or their child with high-functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) will get married. These questions can’t be addressed through a neuropsychological evaluation, but they can be re-worked into answerable questions. A neuropsychological evaluation can tell us if a child’s cognitive and academic skills are in the range of students who attend the most competitive colleges. However, there are many other factors that influence the college acceptance process. In this case, the referral question might be revised into “assess the child’s potential for academic success in a rigorous academic setting.” Similarly, it is beyond the scope of a neuropsychologist to determine if anyone will get married, but through the evaluation process we can assess the child’s current social and emotional functioning and offer some predictions about their likely developmental trajectory in the social domain.

While the previous examples of referral questions are too broad or abstract, I am also often confronted with referral questions that are too narrow, such as, “Does this child have ADHD?”.  In this case, I would work with the parents to reframe the referral question to, “Why does this child appear to have difficulty paying attention in school?” This referral question recognizes the fact that there are many reasons that a child may have difficulty concentrating or appear distractible – ADHD being only one of the possibilities.

When I train neuropsychologists, I emphasize the importance of understanding “Why now?”. What is it that motivated the parent or school team to seek evaluation at this point in time as they work to frame the referral question with parents? Common reasons include: concern about how the child will manage an upcoming transition (e.g., to middle school), sudden appearance of a problem, obvious widening of the gap between a child and peers, inability to meet increased developmental demands, lack of response to interventions, change in emotional status, or deterioration in academic performance.

It is extremely helpful when parents and/or school teams prepare for the intake meeting by brainstorming what they are seeking from the evaluation, questions they hope will be answered, issues to be assessed, and specific guidance that is being requested. The evaluator can then work with the parents or school team to fashion these into a referral question that is specific and relevant to the child so that all parties are “on the same page” as they undertake the evaluation process.

 

About the Author
NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

How to Not Worry Alone: Signs Your Teen May Need More Help

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

As we reach nearly a year since children and teens in Massachusetts were sent home from school, many of us are experiencing the sadness and disappointment that comes from chronic stress. Combined with colder weather keeping us indoors and more limited daylight, it’s certainly harder for us to stay positive and upbeat. Children and teens have experienced tremendous and immeasurable loss over the last year – loss of normalcy, of freedom, of rites of passage like graduations, of competition and sport, of friendships, to name a few. Some have lost loved ones to illness and death, and others to separation and distance. They have experienced large doses of social deprivation and far less interaction with the world. And, while most children and teens will weather this storm, there are some whose resilience is very much at risk.

The evidence strongly suggests that there are increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal ideation in children and teens. Some changes in your child or teen since the “good old days” pre-pandemic are expected, just as ebbs and flows in our mood throughout the day or week are. So how is one to know when the situation is going from “normal adjustment” to the completely abnormal pandemic to a more dire and urgent need for help?  Here are few signs to keep alert to:

  • If you see your child withdrawing from activities they enjoy – even those around the house – pay attention. This might mean that a teen has stopped showing interest in baking projects, in connecting with friends over gaming, in watching movies with the family, etc. The shift from limited social interactions to total isolation is important.
  • If you see your child persistently struggling with daily living activities that used to be somewhat easy, keep a close eye on sleep and hygiene. Depressed children and teens tend to sleep much more or even much less than their peers with a sense of being tired and lethargic. Be alert for newer changes in hygiene and bathing that may have not been an issue before.
  • If you are noticing a persistent low or sad mood, pay attention to how your child talks about the future. A sense of hopelessness or difficulty articulating anything they look forward to about the future (for a family trip, for a chance to see a friend again, for a new season of a favorite show) is a sign that emotional health is precarious.
  • If you notice behavioral outbursts that happen more often and seem to grow more intense, your child or teen may be showing the irritability and anger that is common in depression in children and teens.
  • If your child had signs of anxiety or depression before the pandemic, the increased stress is likely to hit harder.

If a child or teen’s low mood seems to be persistent (around all the time) and pervasive (no matter what they are doing), it’s time to reach out for help. If you have noticed these struggles, who do you call?

  • Start with your child’s pediatrician. Many clinics have social workers on staff who can help to locate service agencies in your area. You can call and request a list of referral agencies or therapists. It may also help to ensure that there are not physical illnesses that are underlying the emotional problem.
  • Contact your child’s school. It’s worthwhile to check out how your child’s teacher perceives their engagement with school since a decline in academic functioning and even motivation to do any school work can be an important sign of a problem. Contact the guidance counselor, school psychologist, or social worker to ask for support. If the staff are unable to arrange therapy at school, they can provide names of therapists in the community.
  • Contact your insurance company either by calling or reviewing information on their website. Most providers are using telehealth platforms to interact with clients. Insurance companies regularly contact providers who are paneled to take insurance to see if they are accepting new patients for telehealth.
  • Ask friends or family for any providers they may have worked with in the past.

Asking for help for your struggling child or teen is a brave and powerful message. It shows your child that you do not ever need to worry alone.

 

For additional resources, please see:

The American Psychological Association at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/06/covid-suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/young-adults.html

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

 

About the Author

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

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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

The Intention to Thrive

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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

As I reflect on the year that we have all come through, my overwhelming emotion (aside from exhaustion) is pride in the NESCA team for working together in an extraordinary manner under incredibly challenging circumstances. Just before closing the doors at NESCA in mid-March, I wrote to all staff:

NESCA is going to not only survive through this pandemic but we are going to thrive as an organization and show leadership in the special education community. The needs of our clients have not gone away; in fact, they are likely increasing.  School systems are scrambling to meet their obligations for students with special needs. We will continue to do the work we have always done, albeit in a somewhat modified fashion. 

Each of the NESCA staff—clinical and administrative—immediately rose to the occasion to help me realize this vision for navigating the pandemic. We increased the frequency our blog posts and introduced regular webinars, gearing them towards the needs of parents facing the challenges of the pandemic and increased our social media following from 4,000 to more than 40,000 by offering supportive and helpful content. NESCA clinicians offered multiple, free online support groups for parents and professionals related to topics they were now experiencing due to COVID-19. We acknowledged and addressed the unprecedented COVID-19-related concerns and challenges professionals and educators who support those with autism were experiencing through our free Autism Educator Hangouts.

After a great deal of research and discussion about how to conduct evaluations in a manner that ensured the safety of staff and clients while producing valid results, we settled on our “two office model,” renovating our space with plexiglass panes so that clients and clinicians would be able to work together in separate but adjoining offices. We collaborated with Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), The Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) and the Massachusetts Urban Project, Inc., providing information about assessments and other services during the pandemic.

NESCA grew by adding new staff and service offerings this past year. We welcomed Dr. Moira Creedon to our pediatric neuropsychology staff. Tabitha Monahan, M.A., CRC, and Becki Lauzon, M.A., CRC, both joined NESCA’s Transition Services team. Julie Robinson, OT, joined NESCA in September with three occupational therapists to offer insurance-based, sensory-motor therapy. Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP, also joined at that time to offer insurance-based speech/language and feeding therapy at NESCA. These staff have been incredibly innovative in their use of teletherapy to continue providing services to clients remotely.  And, they and their clients have experienced some surprising benefits stemming from the delivery of services via telehealth. 2020 also saw the introduction of NESCA’s ASD Diagnostic Clinic, helping families to diagnose children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as early as possible so they may gain access to critically important interventions.

Over the last decade, NESCA has had a strong commitment to international work, seeing clients for evaluation and consultation in the NESCA offices as well as abroad. With travel severely limited by the pandemic, we have instituted teletherapy for international work and are pleased to continue to assist  families abroad. NESCA was honored to be a Gold Sponsor for the annual SENIA conference (Special Education Network & Inclusion Association) that was held virtually. I was pleased to present about the differences between testing and assessment with professionals from schools all over Asia.

In the midst of the global pandemic, we continued to do the work that we have always done. We continued to support each other and became even more closely bonded as a team. We contributed to the community. No matter how challenging it has been, we are motivated by the knowledge that children with special needs and their parents need our support now more than ever.

 

About the Author: 

NESCA Founder/Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist who has been practicing for almost 20 years. In 1996, she jointly founded the  Children’s Evaluation Center (CEC) in Newton, Massachusetts, serving as co-director there for almost ten years. During that time, CEC emerged as a leading regional center for the diagnosis and remediation of both learning disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In September of 2007, Dr. Helmus established NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), a client and family-centered group of seasoned neuropsychologists and allied staff, many of whom she trained, striving to create and refine innovative clinical protocols and dedicated to setting new standards of care in the field.

Dr. Helmus specializes in the evaluation of children with learning disabilities, attention and executive function deficits and primary neurological disorders. In addition to assessing children, she also provides consultation and training to both public and private school systems. She frequently makes presentations to groups of parents, particularly on the topics of non-verbal learning disability and executive functioning.

To book an evaluation with Dr. Helmus, NESCA Founder and Director, or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists or therapists, complete NESCA’s online intake form

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, as well as Londonderry, New Hampshire. NESCA serves clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

Good Night, Sleep Tight: What if I Can’t Sleep Right?

By | NESCA Notes 2020

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

The American Psychological Association recently issued a press release about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our dreaming. Not surprisingly, the information in four published articles indicates that people are having more anxious dreams now. This seems obvious given the emotional toll and high levels of stress as everyone juggles work, virtual school, health and safety, and family needs in a pandemic. We have an overflowing plate of stress on our hands with distant notions of when this stress will end. While these articles describe the anxious dreaming and sleep of adults, it’s not a stretch to consider that children and teens may have disrupted sleep right now. Their plates are overflowing, too, as they manage virtual and hybrid learning, confusing social demands, less movement and exercise than usual, and less contact with both adults and kids.

We cannot underestimate the importance of sleep to our system. Sleep is when our body restores itself, builds important immune functions and consolidates memories and learning. When children do not get enough sleep, we can see a whole host of problems, including issues with attention, concentration, learning, irritability, poor emotion regulation and risky behaviors in addition to the physical health outcomes.

What do we do to help our kids and teens get more and better sleep? It’s time to get sleep hygiene back on track. It’s possible to do even if the pandemic has caused the norm to drastically shift. Here are some tips for promoting sleep for children and teens:

Establish a consistent schedule. I cannot emphasize this one enough. Establish consistent times for settling down for bed and waking up that are the same every day of the week. Try to stick to this schedule whether your child is having an in-person learning day or remote, whether it is a weekend or weekday. This can be tricky with teenagers who tend to sleep in on weekend days. Try to stick within an hour, if possible, to get your body on a more consistent schedule. Avoid naps during the day if you can, even if there has been a rough night of sleep (or limit naps to less than 30 minutes). Daytime napping can interrupt night sleep patterns.

Develop a routine to settle for bed. Children and teens need to settle down for bed gradually. We can’t go from wide awake to peaceful slumber in a few moments. Limit screen time 30 minutes before bed as the light that is given off by televisions, phones or other devices confuses our systems and causes delays in releasing melatonin (the magic sleep hormone). Choose the same relaxing activity each night. Children and teens can read (or listen to a story read aloud by a parent), listen to an audiobook, color in special coloring book, listen to music or a podcast, or take a warm bath or shower. Include your child or teen in conversations about what relaxing activity to try before bed. Keep the same activity for several weeks before trying other ones. The brain does not want variety when you are trying to settle for bed, or it can become more alert in the face of a novel activity. The routine promotes relaxation.

Schedule talk time. Children and teens tend to think about their day as they are laying down. This can lead to “just one more thing” that kids have to tell us or one more question. They can also anticipate what is happening next, which can lead to an increase in anxiety. Schedule a “talk time” with your child or teen to discuss the day and think ahead to tomorrow. Do this at least 30 minutes before bedtime (ideally closer to dinnertime) to avoid a lengthy conversation that can activate anxiety. Use this time to validate feelings and model problem-solving about any issues coming up.

Provide comfort after dreams. We can expect that everyone may wake up at some point after an anxiety dream. If we can predict it, it can make it feel less overwhelming. Teach children and teens what to do when they wake up feeling anxious, including seeking the support of their parent for the very upsetting ones. Offer comfort and a tuck back into bed. Encourage your child to talk about how to resolve the frightening dream in a way that is silly, funny or triumphant to shift the focus away from what felt upsetting. Have a scary dream about a monster? Imagine him having to perform a ballet while balancing hot sauce on his head. Have an anxiety dream about a teacher yelling at you for forgetting your homework? Imagine turning it in and your teacher leading the rest of class in a celebratory song. You can also encourage children or teens to think of their favorite movie or book, and ask them to close their eyes and replay the movie or book to refocus the mind.

Practice breathing. To soothe our overactive anxiety systems, practice taking deep breaths. Imagine your breath filling up the back of your lungs and visualize the air going through your body. Practice circle breathing where air comes in one nostril and out the other (of course it comes in and goes out both!).  With younger kids, a little modeling helps. You can also encourage kids and teens to tense different parts of their body, hold for a count of 10, and then release to feel more relaxed.

Reach out for help. If your child or teen has persistent trouble with sleep, contact your pediatrician. It may be time for a more thorough evaluation to rule out sleep disorders, medical causes or behavioral patterns that signal a bigger sleep problem.

 

For more information, please check out these resources:

American Psychological Association (APA) press release related to dreaming:  https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/09/upsetting-dreams-covid-19

Fantastic APA resource on sleep: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/07/ce-corner-sleep

What To Do When You Dread Your Bed: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Sleep (2008) by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.

 

About the Author: 

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

 

If you are interested in booking an evaluation with Dr. Creedon or another NESCA neuropsychologist, please fill out and submit our online intake form

 

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