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Testing the Limits

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

In the world of assessment, “testing the limits” means essentially bending the rules of test administration in order to see if the change in administration allows the test-taker to demonstrate their knowledge more effectively. For example, some children and adolescents respond impulsively to multiple-choice tests, picking the first choice that appears to be correct without looking at all of the choices. Standardized test administration dictates that the evaluator accepts that impulsive response and, as such, impulsivity will compromise the client’s score.

In the example above, the student was unable to demonstrate their knowledge or skills effectively on tests because of the standardized administration procedures. While it is important to generate these scores, it is also important to gain an understanding of what the student actually knows, and this is where testing the limits comes in. For the impulsive student, the evaluator would test the limits by reminding the student to slow down and look at all the choices before responding. This is non-standard test administration, and so the score is not considered valid but the results give us a great deal of information about the student’s strengths and weaknesses. There is a big difference between the student who is able to achieve the correct score when cued to slow down and the student who still answers incorrectly, even with reminders to slow down. The former student can be said to have much higher potential than the latter student. However, their ability to demonstrate their potential is hampered by impulsivity, a problem that needs to be addressed.

In the course of most neuropsychological evaluations, we are trying to understand the student’s profile of strengths and weaknesses, which often requires testing the limits. This raises the question of the value of the standardized scores. The standardized scores likely reflect the level at which the child or adolescent is functioning in the “real world.” Impulsive test-takers are almost certainly impulsive students; just as they don’t demonstrate their true potential in testing, they are not doing so in school.

Many students are able to fully demonstrate their skills and knowledge with standardized testing and don’t require “testing the limits.” However, at NESCA, we also see many highly complex students whose ability to access their potential is limited by issues of attention, executive functioning, communication, or emotional/behavioral regulation. In these cases, we routinely “test the limits” and report both standardized administration and non-standardized (“testing the limits”) scores and explain what these scores mean for the individual, what the scores tell us about daily functioning as well as untapped potential.

 

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, 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.

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

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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.

Avoiding Burn-out

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

We have hit our third calendar year of COVID. It’s season 3 of this drama series during our Junior Year of COVID. As my colleagues in front line health care discuss ways to avoid burn-out in this lengthy experience, it’s inspired me to think of ways for our kids and teens to avoid burn-out. Typically, we define burn-out as a stage of chronic and overwhelming stress in the workplace. It is the full time job of our children and teens to attend school. So what do we do to support our children who may themselves be experiencing signs of burn-out?

First, let’s understand some signs of burn-out, including:

  • A sense of fatigue or low energy to engage with school or personal activities
  • A sense of “distance” from school, which can include statements such as, “I don’t care,” or withdrawal from activities
  • Negative feelings about school or academic achievement, which can sometimes look like irritability and hatred of school
  • Doubts that school is “worth it” or a sense that what is learned in school is never applicable to real life
  • Reduced efficiency so that tasks take far longer than usual

Given the constant stress of close contact notifications, masking requirements, fears of infection, and disappointment about canceled activities (to name a few), it is not surprising that kids may feel this sense of burn-out. Let’s consider 5 tips to support children and teens with a sense of burn out:

  1. Give it a name. It might feel like a relief to recognize and label the experience for children and teens. Giving the experience the name of “burn-out” can provide some distance from the problem, rather than feeling consumed by it.
  2. Practice mindfulness. It can be easy to get caught up considering the “before-COVID” good old days. It can also be hard to imagine the uncertain future and when one might get to the other side. Practice focusing on this moment of this day. Encourage children to notice any physical signs of stress in their bodies. These moments can pass as the sensation is not permanent. Using meditation and deep breathing can help children to stay rooted in the present moment.
  3. Manage the calendar. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by due dates, projects, and additional activities. As a parent, this may mean that you will have to take over as the “gate keeper” of the calendar. Help to prioritize the necessary and eliminate what is not needed. Protect personal time carefully so that school tasks do not consume all areas of the weekend.
  4. Practice self-care. Self-care can look different for everyone – from vigorous physical activity for one teen to a day of relaxation for another. Encourage discussion about what your child might need and consider ways to change up the ordinary. For example, consider assigning a “home spa day” of relaxation or a warm bath. Consider outside activities for the active child who needs to run or exercise to feel good. Sleep, exercise, and good nutrition are critical ways to care for our bodies when facing chronic stress.
  5. Leave room for the fun. When school feels boring or challenging for children, it can be hard to motivate children and remain committed. Work with your child to identify a staff member or friend who they look forward to seeing. Consider an after-school activity that sparks joy so there is something to look forward to at the end of the day.

 

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.

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.