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teenagers

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.

Appreciating and Responding to The New York Times article, For Some Teens, It’s Been a Year of Anxiety and Trips to the E.R. by Benedict Carey

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA

As an occupational therapist working almost exclusively with teenagers and young adults over the past year, the title of Benedict Carey’s article jumped out at me like a tired and worn flag, waving frantically for acknowledgement. Our teens are anxious, tired, and dealing with living through the proverbial “unprecedented times” without the developmental capabilities needed to quickly adapt in this era of remote learning, remote social interaction, and remote extracurriculars. Remote everything!

It is important for me to note that I really enjoy working with teenagers. I find myself in constant awe of their resiliency, their willingness to confront hard truths that many of us shy away from, and their ability to push forward despite having huge questions about who they truly are. All of these things are tough and require immense emotional fortitude, but this year many of these challenges feel impossible.

Carey has taken the time to gather perspectives from multiple stakeholders. He provides a platform for parents, educators, professors, therapists, pediatricians, and directors of hospital programs to explain the struggles of supporting these kids without adequate resources. Parents describe the fear of supporting their children as they struggle with mental health. Doctors discuss the frustration of having inadequate resources and support in emergency rooms around the country. Carey highlights that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the proportion of adolescent emergency admissions for mental problems, like panic and anxiety, is up 31 percent. Some of my clients add to this statistic and are navigating their own path through chaotic hospitalizations and overwhelmed support systems. Carey’s article is absolutely worth taking the time to read, if only to see the ubiquity of these issues and how they are happening all around our country. Simply put, we have a clear problem. Less clear, is the solution.

When meeting with adolescents and young adults themselves, I hear three main fears popping up week after week. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions on how to support these specific fears or feelings.

  1. “I can’t get this done, (and therefore) I am going to completely ruin my future.”

When looking at future success through a transition lens, we consider the areas of independent living, community participation, post-secondary education, and employment. In the school setting, most students’ curricula are focused solely on academic success. Sometimes, we do a poor job of teaching students about multiple intelligences or emphasizing the importance of hard work. While grades are important, they are not everything, and while standardized testing is returning to students’ schedules, they should not serve as students’ measure of self-worth. We know this, but do they? We have to teach our children that if they are hardworking, kind, and truly doing their best, the threat of “ruining their future” is much less likely than they fear. Let’s highlight the undeniably true narrative that everyone’s path can look different and still lead to success.

  1. “I’m so tired. All of the time.”

Many of my clients tell me they are not sleeping. If they are sleeping, they fall asleep late with a phone in their hand, constantly refreshing apps or trying to maintain communication with their peers. In our current remote world, the phone can feel like a lifeline. Sleep is a foundational need for mental and physical health. Students who are 15 or 16 years old often have a limited understanding of how holistic the effects of decreased sleep can be. Sleep is not their priority. Recently, I have seen parents disable the internet or have their teenagers put their phones into a lockbox from midnight until 6:00am. This new boundary is often met with anger or frustration at the beginning, but then these students start to sleep. They are better able to manage their emotions. They have more energy. They start to see the benefits despite their skepticism. If a tech break doesn’t feel quite right for your family, it is still worth opening up a conversation about the need for strong sleep hygiene and modeling a routine that promotes calming down by limiting screens before bed, which can have hugely positive effects.

  1. “This is never going to end.”

In many ways, a year feels much longer to a 17 year-old than it does to an older adult. Working at a job for four years never feels as long or as formative as the four years of high school. And objectively, a year to a 17 year-old is over five percent of their life, while it’s only two percent of 50 year old’s life. Let’s acknowledge that. Let’s verbalize the fact that teenage years are also full of milestones that have been constantly cancelled or changed to fit social distancing recommendations and safety precautions. There is a sense of loss and grief surrounding many events that these students have been looking forward to since elementary school. Encourage students to do their own research into what the next six months may look like as we start to open back up. Help them to understand the vaccine rollout and the pitfalls and successes that we have had as a nation tackling a novel disease.

Adolescent mental health is going to be an on-going challenge that we tackle as a community. As we slowly forge out of isolation, let’s center our conversations around the mental health of our teens and honestly acknowledge the unique position that they have found themselves in.

References

Carey, B. (2021, February 23). For some teens, it’s been a year of anxiety and trips to the e.r. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/23/health/coronavirus-mental-health-teens.html

Leeb, R.T., Radhakrishnan, L., Martinez, P., Njaj, R., Holland, K.M. (2020, October 27). Mental health-related emergency department visits among children aged <18 during the covid-19 pandemic. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2020:1675-1680. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6945a3

 

About the Author

Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services.  She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.

 

To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

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

 

Teens Online: Participation vs. Observation

By | NESCA Notes 2021

By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D. 
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

As we enter the beginning of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape our world. More and more, events, activities and interactions are pushed online – onto videoconferencing apps, social media and academic learning  platforms. Online social interactions are not new, and they won’t disappear anytime soon. With this, how do we, as adults, understand and navigate these oddly draining electronically-mediated gatherings, and how do we help our teens do the same?

One unique characteristic of online interaction is the ability to be present without being visible. In traditional social settings, to be present with the group is to be seen and, often times, noticed. Joining a Zoom or Google Meet offers one the ability to listen, watch and take the information presented without offering anything of yourself – no one has to see you, hear you, know where you are or know what you are doing. As many adults have noticed, this gives incredible freedom to the multi-taskers – listen to your meetings while getting the dishes done or the laundry folded.

For some adolescents, though, this is an opportunity to bypass many of the core tasks of social development, while still engaging with the material needed to accomplish one’s academic goals. A high schooler, acutely aware of how they are perceived and what others think of them, can sit silently, invisibly in social studies class. They can hone in on the economic impacts of World War I without the crushing anxiety of worrying about being teased or ostracized. However, that same high schooler may never have to confront the developmentally-expected challenges of venturing out of their “comfort zone” socially. They may not learn to ask someone out on a date, explore a new friendship or show up to the first meeting of a club.

How can we help our teens learn to take the best from online interactions while also pushing them to fully engage with others? There is no one, clear-cut answer – no “10 things…” or similar checklist. In any situation, we must look holistically at the teen, the context and the goals, and, from there, determine the best path forward. Sometimes, the anonymity of the online world is a welcome respite for teens looking to explore a new facet of their identity. Other times, it undercuts the core tasks of adolescence – building deep bonds with peers, taking responsibility for one’s social relationships and developing independence. Having direct, open conversations with our teens helps them understand and begin to own the challenges of the online world. If cameras are always off and microphones are always on mute, maybe it is time for a chat about participation versus observation.

 

About the Author

Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.

Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.

Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.

Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.

 

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

 

To book an appointment with Dr. Yvonne Asher, please complete our Intake Form today. For more information about NESCA, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.

 

Teenage Stress and Executive Functioning

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.

 

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

 

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

 

10 Everyday Financial Literacy Activities to Build Skills

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Kathleen Pignone, M.Ed., CRC
Transition Specialist

Financial Literacy is a much-discussed topic in the field of transition planning and life skills acquisition. Basically, we want our teenagers and young adults to have competence or knowledge in this broad area. Who is responsible for teaching this? Schools, parents, other community providers? The simple answer is all of the above.

Here are 10 quick, easy and hopefully engaging ways to support financial literacy and lots of other life skills in teenagers and young adults while juggling all of our other many parental responsibilities.

  • Plan a preferred meal or dessert and make a budget for ingredients – learn cost comparison and cooking
  • Calculate a tip in a restaurant – teach about tipping habits and budgeting; similarly schedule a haircut and pay adding tip calculation – learn multiplication and practice phone skills
  • Provide a menu of chores and determine prices for duration and frequency – help teens be seen as resources to parents by providing a menu of desired activities and a money value associated with each task
  • Help plan for a vacation – pick an activity in the destination and price it out or cost-compare flight options
  • Cost out weekly snacks – make decisions about healthy spending and healthy eating habits
  • Volunteer at school bake sale with your teen – practice making change for cash purchases while helping fundraise and give back to your school community
  • Purchase birthday card and/or birthday present – model how to budget and cost out how much for a DIY card and birthday present versus buying both from a store
  • Figure out how much it will cost to fill a gas tank – determine how far can you get on one tank of gas versus an hourly salary for entry level competitive job
  • Bus fare or uber fare comparison – great conversation about wants versus needs!
  • Play an online financial game with your teenager, such as Financial Soccer by Visa or Plan It Prom App – learn together how much it costs to attend a prom (and subsequently plan for the expenses) or play a fun game where both parents and teen can learn together

All of these activities teach saving, budgeting, financial goals, wise use of credit, cost comparison and other key executive functioning skills. Hopefully this will make spending time with your teen enjoyable and educational.

About the Author:

Kathleen Pignone, M.Ed. CRC is a deeply knowledgeable and experienced transition specialist. Prior to her tenure at NESCA, Ms. Pignone was the Career Development Director at Bay Cove Academy for 15 years, providing students with classroom and real-world employment skills training, community job placement and on the job employment-training. She has also worked at Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education and privately as a vocational rehabilitation consultant. As a certified rehabilitation counselor, Ms. Pignone brings unique expertise carrying out vocational assessment and employment planning for adolescents and young adults as well as supporting local school programs. In addition to fortifying NESCA’s premier transition assessment services, Ms. Pignone engages in person-centered planning with teens and young adults, consultation and training for parents, providers and schools, and community-based coaching services.

 

To book a transition assessment or consultation with Kathleen or one of NESCA’s expert neuropsychologists and consultants, please complete NESCA’s online intake form

 

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