While school may be wrapping up, Summer is an ideal time to embark on transition assessment and services to ensure that your child’s IEP process is preparing them for learning, living, and working after their public education. The ultimate goal of transition assessment is to identify the necessary skills and services to ready a student age 13-21 for transitioning from high school to the next phase of life. To book an intake and consultation appointment, visit: www.nesca-newton.com/intake. Not sure if you need an assessment? You can schedule a one-hour parent/caregiver intake and consultation.

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working memory

Why is it so hard to develop Executive Function skills for college as a high school student?

By | NESCA Notes 2024

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services, NESCA

Students with disabilities often have challenges with executive function skills. These may include difficulties with organization, planning and prioritization, time management, task initiation, attention and effort, working memory, self-regulation, self-monitoring, and mental flexibility. Being successful as a college student often depends on using and integrating these skills. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most of the IEPs I read when working with teenage and young adult students have goals or objectives aimed at remediating executive function (EF) skills. However, many students on IEPs have these “EF” goals for years and still don’t effectively develop the skills they need to successfully manage executive functioning tasks as college students.

One of the reasons for the remaining skill gap when students matriculate to college is because high school student responsibilities are pretty radically different from college student responsibilities. While research indicates that individuals can continue developing executive function skills throughout the lifespan, this requires a very particular set of activities. Executive function skills develop through a combination of direct instruction and opportunities to practice using the learned skills with and without support. But there often are not opportunities for practicing the skills needed for college as a high school student.

Below is a list of executive function supports that exist in high school, but often disappear in college:

  • Classes are small and always taught by teachers
  • Class material is centralized in books or on the board in the classroom
  • Time is structured by the school
  • Students are told what they need to learn from homework
  • Students are reminded of assignments and due dates
  • Completed homework is checked by teachers
  • Reading is discussed in classes
  • Studying is limited to a few hours per week
  • Testing is frequent and covers small amounts of material
  • Teachers approach students who need help
  • Schools are required to find students with disabilities who need specialized instruction and accommodations
  • Parents and teachers will remind students of their responsibilities
  • Parents and teachers will help to set priorities (or simply set them for the student)
  • Parents and teachers will correct students when behavior is unexpected

In college, students may have large classes taught by other students or experts in their fields who aren’t experts on teaching. They have to use syllabi, manage their own schedules (with large swaths of unscheduled time), integrate academic materials from a wide range of sources, and self-direct long hours of reading and studying. They also have to be responsible for advocating for themselves, knowing when they need help, and knowing what they are responsible for (academically, socially, and in their dorms) and getting those things done without parent and teacher reminders. For students who have strengths with executive functioning, often the transition to college still presents a steep learning curve. But for those who have vulnerabilities in these areas, it can be critical to recognize that the gaps are large between these two learning environments, and sometimes additional support and instruction is necessary while students are taking college classes. Some students will still need to build effective academic and executive function skills, and practice and master those executive function skills, while they are in college and managing this new set of demands.

NESCA offers many services designed to help students bridge the transition from high school to college, including executive function coaching, pre-college coaching, transition planning, and neuropsychological evaluation. To learn more specifically about our coaching services, visit: https://nesca-newton.com/coaching-services/ . To schedule an appointment with one of our expert clinicians or coaches, please complete our intake at: https://nesca-newton.com/intake/ .

Reference:

Many of the bulleted items of executive function supports that exist in high school are adapted from this high school versus college comparison by King’s College: https://www.kings.edu/admissions/high_school_vs_college

 

About the Author
Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is an expert transition specialist and national speaker who has been engaged in evaluation, development, and direction of transition-focused programming for teenagers and young adults with a wide array of developmental and learning abilities since 2004. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in working with youth with autism, she enjoys working with students with a range of cognitive, learning, communication, social, emotional and/or behavioral needs.

Ms. Challen joined NESCA as Director of Transition Services in 2013. She believes that the transition to postsecondary adulthood activities such as learning, living, and working is an ongoing process–and that there is no age too early or too late to begin planning. Moreover, any transition plan should be person-centered, individualized and include steps beyond the completion of secondary school.

Through her role at NESCA, Ms. Challen provides a wide array of services including individualized transition assessment, planning, consultation, training, and program development services, as well as pre-college coaching. She is particularly skilled in providing transition assessment and consultation aimed at determining optimal timing for a student’s transition to college, technical training, adult learning, and/or employment as well as identifying and developing appropriate programs and services necessary for minimizing critical skill gaps.

Ms. Challen is one of the only professionals in New England who specializes in assisting families in selecting or developing programming as a steppingstone between special education and college participation and has a unique understanding of local postgraduate, pre-college, college support, college transition, postsecondary transition, and 18-22 programs. She is additionally familiar with a great number of approved high school and postsecondary special education placements for students from Massachusetts including public, collaborative, and private programs.

Ms. Challen enjoys the creative and collaborative problem-solving process necessary for successfully transitioning students with complex profiles toward independent adulthood. As such, she is regularly engaged in IEP Team Meetings, program consultations, and case management or student coaching as part of individualized post-12th grade programming. Moreover, she continually works to enhance and expand NESCA’s service offerings in order to meet the growing needs of the families, schools and communities we serve.

When appropriate, Ms. Challen has additionally provided expert witness testimony for families and school districts engaged in due process hearings or engaged in legal proceedings centering on transition assessment, services and/or programming—locally and nationally.

Nearly two decades ago, Ms. Challen began her work with youth with special needs working as a counselor for children and adolescents at Camp Good Times, a former program of Milestones Day School. She then spent several years at the Aspire Program (a Mass General for Children program; formerly YouthCare) where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. Also, she worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skill and transition programs.

Ms. Challen received her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. While training and obtaining certification as a school guidance counselor, she completed her practicum work at Boston Latin School focusing on competitive college counseling.

Ms. Challen has worked on multiple committees involved in the Massachusetts DESE IEP Improvement Project, served as a Mentor for the Transition Leadership Program at UMass Boston, participated as a member of B-SET Boston Workforce Development Task Force, been an ongoing member of the Program Committee for the Association for Autism and Neurodiversity (AANE), and is a member of the New Hampshire Transition State Community of Practice (COP).

She is also co-author of the chapter, “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social-Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation,” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism: Innovations that Enhance Independence and Learning.

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s transition specialists, please complete our online intake form

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

Pediatric-onset Multiple Sclerosis

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By: Ferne Pinard, Ph.D.
NESCA Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Although typically thought of as an “adult illness,” children and adolescents can get diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Pediatric-onset multiple sclerosis (POMS) occurs when MS is diagnosed before age 18.

Approximately 30% of POMS patients show evidence of cognitive impairment. Problems with attention, working memory, processing speed, and language (including word retrieval) are commonly reported. Poorer verbal expression/vocabulary acquisition have also been reported among patients who were diagnosed at younger ages. Overall IQ, memory, complex attention (i.e., shifting attention between competing stimuli) and visual-motor integration skills may also be impacted. These cognitive deficits as well as absences due to illness and fatigue can undermine the student’s academic performance (i.e., grades), leading to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of not being able to “keep up with” their peers academically.

However, POMS can also affect the child’s/adolescent’s social and emotional functioning. Fatigue, depression, bowel/bladder problems and physical limitations can decrease a child’s/adolescent’s interest in socializing. Heat sensitivity can limit participation in physical activities while in a warm environment, which can make them feel even more isolated. They may also feel embarrassed and have lowered self-esteem because they feel different from peers. Children/adolescents with chronic illnesses are also at an increased risk for teasing and bullying from peers. It is no surprise then that children/adolescents with MS are vulnerable to psychiatric disorders. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder occur more often in the MS population than the general population.

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable disease. Symptoms can come and go without apparent reason or warning, and no two people experience MS symptoms in exactly the same way. Some symptoms are clearly visible (like weakness, causing walking problems) or less visible (like fatigue or cognitive concerns). It is not possible to predict when symptoms will occur or what parts of the body will be affected. MS symptoms can change from week to week.

It is important that school officials understand that because symptoms come and go without warning, accommodations need to be in place, even when symptoms seem to diminish for a time. Accommodations can include:

    • Home tutoring when students are not able to attend school
    • Excused absences and a reasonable plan to make up missed work
    • Extended time for tests/exams/projects
    • Second set of books at home
    • Preferential seating for visual, attention, or bladder/bowel issues
    • Bathroom pass/extended bathroom time
    • Portable air conditioner/fan
    • Elevator access
    • Psychotherapeutic support
    • Plan to manage fatigue:
      • Frequent/scheduled breaks
      • Modification of class schedule
      • Workload modifications

A detailed neuropsychological evaluation is essential for objectively measuring any neurocognitive deficits, tracking them over time, and informing treatment recommendations. Speech/language, audiology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy evaluations may also be warranted depending on the severity of symptoms to determine whether these services are needed. Psychologists, psychiatrists, school guidance counselors, teachers, and school administrators as well as support groups with other patients and families facing this disease should also be part of the child’s/adolescent’s care team.

 

About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Ferne Pinard, Ph.D.

Dr. Pinard provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), and psychiatric disorders as well as complex medical histories and neurological conditions. She has expertise in assessing children and adolescents with childhood cancer as well as neuro-immunological disorders, including opsoclonus-myoclonus-ataxia syndrome (“dancing eyes syndrome”), central nervous system vasculitis, Hashimoto’s encephalopathy, lupus, auto-immune encephalitis, multiple sclerosis (MS), acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), and acute transverse myelitis (ATM), and optic neuritis.

 

To book a neuropsychological evaluation with Dr. Pinard or another expert neuropsychologist at NESCA, complete NESCA’s online intake form

 

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

Understanding and Identifying Organizational Challenges

By | Nesca Notes 2023

By Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations

When clients come for neuropsychological assessment, a domain of skills that is commonly assessed is executive function. Executive function is a complex set of cognitive and self-management skills that allow for efficient, goal-oriented problem solving and task completion. These skills do not speak to how smart someone is, or whether or not they will achieve a goal. Instead, they speak to the ease with which one works toward their goal – Is their path a nice straight road from beginning to end? Or was it a zig-zagging route filled with stops and starts, redos, and confusion?

Executive function is a broad domain containing many different skills, such as planning, working memory, self-monitoring, impulse control, and organization. This last skill – organization – is one that can be commonly misunderstood. That is likely because people often focus on behavioral organization, meaning whether someone keeps their things in order. While a tidy bedroom and neat locker make it easier to find things, there are other aspects of organization that can have a much greater impact on learning, task completion, and daily functioning. From a neuropsychological standpoint, there are three aspects of organization that should be of focus, including:

  • Behavioral Organization. As noted above, this is the aspect of organization with which people are most familiar. It can be thought of as your “organization of stuff” skills. At home, this may be keeping an organized bedroom, putting things away when done, and knowing how to find things when you need them. At school, this may involve keeping a neat locker or desk, having color-coded binders for your classes, or turning in assignments once you’ve completed them. Individuals who struggle in this area may often lose their belongings, fail to turn in completed tasks, or frustrate their parents with their messy rooms.
  • Organization of Information. This is the organizational skill that is often of most focus within neuropsychological assessment. This is a cognitive aspect of organization, meaning others cannot necessarily observe when someone struggles in this area. This aspect of organization speaks to one’s ability to process information in a manner that appreciates both the details and how they integrate into a “big picture.” This skill is very important for learning, allowing you to consolidate information into memory in a manner that is connected and organized, which makes it much easier to remember and retrieve later on. Think of this as the filing cabinet of the brain. Organization of information and ideas is also important for reading comprehension as well as written expression, including prioritizing ideas and pulling them together in a cohesive manner. Individuals who struggle in this area may be overly detail-focused, missing main ideas or struggling with abstraction. They may also become easily overwhelmed by information, not knowing what is most relevant, which may result in difficulty planning, executing, and drafting writing assignments.
  • Organization of Time. A.K.A. – time management. This organizational skill requires you to both recognize the end goal while also being able to break the task into smaller steps that can be accomplished over a short or long span of time. It requires a recognition of how long each step may take and how to balance such requirements within life’s other time constraints. Individuals who struggle in this area may appear to procrastinate, though the true challenge may lay in difficulty estimating time or understanding how to break things down and create the road map from “here to there.” This is often a person who may be misunderstood as lacking motivation, given their difficulty initiating and completing tasks, though their lack of execution actually stems from difficulties organizing information and time.

Quite often, individuals with organizational challenges do not struggle in all three of the above areas. A child may appear fastidiously organized, with an impeccably organized room and diligent notes; however, they may be relying on this excessive behavioral organization as a means for compensating for hidden challenges with informational organization. They may not know what is most important, so they study excessively for tests or over-include information in their essays. To the observer, they look astute; however, they are cognitively over-extending themselves. As already noted, organizational challenges may also present as the “unmotivated” student, as long-standing difficulty knowing how to break down tasks and manage time may have resulted in helplessness. This is why neuropsychological assessment is often an important tool for understanding and supporting these students – as the underlying challenges may not be behaviorally observable. Positively, executive function skills can be taught to address any of the above concerns, but interventions will always be most effective when the areas of need are clear.

 

About the Author

Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.

 

To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call (603) 818-8526.

Paying Proper Attention to Inattention

By | NESCA Notes 2022

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

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

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

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

 

About the Author

Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with often complex presentations. She particularly enjoys working with individuals who have concerns about attention and executive functioning, language-based learning disorders, and those with overlapping cognitive and social/emotional difficulties.

Prior to joining NESCA, Dr. Rodriguez worked in private practice, where she completed assessments with high-functioning students presenting with complex cognitive profiles whose areas of weakness may have gone previously undiagnosed. Dr. Rodriguez’s experience also includes pre- and post-doctoral training in the Learning Disability Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Neurodevelopmental Center at MassGeneral for Children/North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Rodriguez has spent significant time working with students in academic settings, including k-12 public and charter school systems and private academic programs, such as the Threshold Program at Lesley University.

Dr. Rodriguez earned her Psy.D. from William James College in 2012, where her coursework and practicum training focused on clinical work with children and adolescents and on assessment. Her doctoral thesis centered on cultural issues related to evaluation.

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

 

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

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

Music and the Mind – Musicianship Impacting Executive Functions

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Zachary Cottrell, Psy.D., LMHC

Pediatric Neuropsychology Fellow, NESCA

At NESCA, we work with many children with ADHD and issues with executive functions. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of interventions that can be used to aid executive function development, such as martial arts, aerobics, yoga, mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, another option to keep in mind is learning a musical instrument. Most children are naturally drawn to music, and recent research suggests that musical training can positively influence the development of executive functions.

In 2014, Dr. Nadine Gaab at Boston Children’s Hospital found that adult musicians had stronger working memory, greater cognitive flexibility and verbal fluency than non-musicians. Child musicians showed better verbal fluency and faster processing speed than non-musicians. fMRI scans showed that child musicians have more activation in the frontal regions of the brain – the home of executive functions – than non-musicians. Dr. Gaab’s study concludes that children who study music have stronger executive function skills and that studying music may build those skills. For the full details and results of the study, a link is provided below.

In another 2014 study, Dr. James Hudziak at the University of Vermont found that playing a musical instrument was associated with more rapid cortical thickness maturation within the areas of motor planning and coordination, visuo-spatial ability, and emotion and impulse regulation, the latter being correlated with increased executive functions. For the full details and results of the study, a link is provided below.

So, what do these studies really show us? Basically, learning a musical instrument can improve and strengthen our executive functions, such as planning and organizing, working memory, processing speed, task management and initiation as a whole. Musical performance requires a high level of active engagement, which leads to less off-task behaviors. While engaging in music, the individual is more likely to be practicing such skills as attending, inhibiting and shifting. Additionally, musical training involves significant demands on working memory for processing auditory, visual and tactile cues simultaneously. Working memory is required for learning any complex activity, such as understanding language. There are plenty of research studies that show correlating executive skills in musicians and bilinguals.

In my experience as a therapist and when teaching music, these skills are highly translatable to other forms of learning. Music is not only rewarding and fun, but is also effective in developing and improving executive functions. Below are some links for further reading and exploration.

 

 

Book:

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel J. Levitin

Articles:

Investigating the impact of a musical intervention on preschool children’s executive function (Bowmer, et al., 2018)

References:

Behavioral and neural correlates of executive functioning in musicians and non-musicians (Dr. Nadine Gaad, et al., 2014)

Cortical thickness maturation and duration of music training: health-promoting activities shape brain development (Dr. James Hudziak, et al., 2014)

 

About the Author: 

Formerly a therapist, Dr. Cottrell has extensive experience working with children, adolescents and emerging adults as a therapist, behavioral health consultant and evaluator in community, college, private practice and hospital settings. At NESCA, he provides thorough and in-depth neuropsychological evaluations to support youth to not only develop, but also to maximize, their potential. Dr. Cottrell is a graduate of William James College, participating in the Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology Program. Dr. Cottrell also has 25 years of experience with the guitar, performing and teaching music. 

Dr. Cottrell recently completed a 2 year APA internship placement at North Shore Medical Center (Salem, Mass.) where he was immersed in the world of neuropsychological, personality, psychological and educational testing at the Neuropsychological Assessment Center at MassGeneral for Children. While there, Dr. Cottrell’s work predominantly involved providing evaluation and consultation to children, adolescents and adults with ADHD, ASD, learning disabilities and other neurocognitive developmental and behavioral concerns in addition to providing psychological evaluations to adult patients considering bariatric surgical procedures.

 

To book an evaluation with Zachary Cottrell one of our 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.

What is Working Memory and How Can We Address It?

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Nancy Roosa, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Melanie is a sweet, hard-working 11-year-old girl whose parents brought her to NESCA for an evaluation to try to understand why she was struggling in school. Melanie was a cheerful, vivacious girl who seemed intelligent, curious and articulate. But she was barely getting by in fifth grade, putting in hours on homework every night on assignments her teachers thought should take 30 minutes. Her parents were concerned about how she was going to manage middle school next year.

During the evaluation, Melanie did quite well on most tests. Her intelligence measured in the “Above Average” range, and her academic skills were solid. She worked hard and even did well on a test of sustained attention. So, it was clear she did not have a classic case of attentional dysregulation.

Upon further analysis, a few striking results emerged. Melanie had a good ability to remember information or work on structured tasks, but got confused on multistep tasks. One important result: she was able to remember and repeat back long strings of digits when repeating them verbatim, but she really struggled when she had to repeat them in reverse. The mental manipulations involved flummoxed her.

This is working memory: the ability to hold multiple bits of information in memory banks while there is another, distracting bit of information processing going on. Working memory is the “working” part of memory, as it holds information long enough for us to use it or store it away in longer-term memory banks. Analogies can be made to computer storage, where current information is held while processing occurs; or a mental chalkboard, where we jot down our ideas while working out a problem. For some children, like Melanie, that computer storage or chalkboard space is quite limited, causing difficulty with many aspects of learning. As a first grader, Melanie easily learned the sounds of letters, but it was harder for her to remember and apply that knowledge while reading words. Similarly, she easily learned math facts, but got stymied on multistep math problems. Finally, she had trouble with multistep directions. When her parents or teachers told her three things to do, her response was typically, “Wait, what?”.

Melanie’s parents were right to be concerned about middle school, since this is when students are presented with more complex assignments, such as lengthy reading and writing assignments, PowerPoint presentations and many other multistep projects, which were going to be hard for her.

Working memory deficits are related to other cognitive processes. Children with attentional regulation deficits or learning disabilities often – but not always – have working memory deficits. However, every child is unique, with an individual set of strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, a comprehensive and well-done evaluation is essential to clarify a child’s specific profile – a vital first step in crafting an appropriate plan for support and treatment.

Now that we identified Melanie’s difficulties as primarily due to working memory deficits, how do we help her?

My recommendations centered first on the types of accommodations Melanie would need in school to manage an uptick in demands.

  • Any complex or multistep assignment needed to be presented in writing so Melanie can refer back to the directions. She should be shown completed models and provided with scoring rubrics.
  • Melanie might need support from a learning specialist to manage complex tasks, by dividing them into component parts, then completing each part and integrating the whole.
  • Melanie should not be expected to take notes while simultaneously listening to a teacher’s instruction. She should be provided with notes or given an outline of the teacher’s talk that she could fill in.
  • Melanie’s pace of work was slow, given the need to frequently check back and remind herself what she was doing. Therefore, teachers should consider giving her shorter homework assignments that focus on quality not quantity, and extra time to complete tests and assignments.

We also discussed the strategies that Melanie would need to learn to compensate for working memory deficits. She was already using some important strategies, likely based on coaching from some talented teachers in her past. She knew she needed to write things down to remember them, so she had become good at creating outlines before she started writing and drawing pictures of math problems. However, as assignments got longer, Melanie was going to need additional strategies. For example, for lengthy reading assignments, Melanie might need to jot down sticky notes on pages or develop an ongoing “story board” to keep track of main character descriptions or plot points.

Once the family brought this information to Melanie’s educational team, they were able to meet and establish important accommodations, including time to work with a learning specialist several times weekly. The team also agreed to continue to monitor her ability to manage future challenges.

Beyond accommodating working memory deficits, there is ongoing research into programs that could actually improve an individual’s working memory. The hope is that by targeted practice, one could strengthen one’s working memory the way we strengthen muscles by working out at the gym. Despite a great deal of research, the preponderance of evidence does not indicate that these kinds of training programs are effective in improving working memory, except on the specific tasks used in the training program itself. At NESCA, we remain optimistic that further research and refinements will eventually yield more promising treatments.

Finally, one of the most important outcomes of the evaluation was a feedback session with Melanie herself, where I explained her learning profile to her in age-appropriate terms. My goal was to help her appreciate her many strengths and understand that her learning challenge was relatively small and specific. She might have to work harder in certain ways, but would be able to be successful in school and life.

At NESCA, we find that when a child is old enough to process this information about their profile, it is vital to provide it. We find that many children, even teenagers and young adults, tend to be black-and-white thinkers. When they struggle in school in any way, they conclude they are “stupid.” It is obviously vital to prevent this kind of global, negative self-concept from developing. Rather, we hope to give the child the self-awareness and confidence to develop and use compensatory strategies, no matter the area of weakness. We need Melanie and children like her to be confident enough to ask a teacher, college professor or even a job supervisor to provide written instructions to a task or go over directions more than once. Our goal is to arm her with enough self-awareness and confidence that she can go into any new situation, as a student or adult, and be successful while not letting her challenges define or limit her.

 

About the Author: 
Roosa

Dr. Roosa has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems. Her evaluations are particularly appropriate for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box. As part of this process, Dr. Roosa is frequently engaged in school visits, IEP Team Meetings, home observations and phone consultations with collateral providers. Dr. Roosa has also consulted with several area schools, either about individual children or about programmatic concerns. She speaks to parent or school groups, upon request.

 

 

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.

What is executive functioning? – Part 2 – How can adolescents develop these important skills?

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Alissa Talamo, PhD
Clinical Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Cody is a 17-year-old young man participating in 11th grade. He is a talented runner with a good sense of humor and he has achieved mostly Bs in his college preparatory and advanced college preparatory high school classes. However, Cody’s mother describes him as the kind of kid whose “head would fall off if it was not attached.” Cody has an English tutor who has helped him to organize his thoughts and writing throughout high school. He seems to run out of time with everything—homework, tests, showers, video games—unless his parents and teachers provide him with several reminders. He also has trouble starting and finishing tasks, even things that are important to him. For example, he wanted to apply for a job at Market Basket. His mother has emailed him the online application link three times, but he still had not completed it after two months. Cody wants to go to college and is hoping to be recruited by a men’s cross country team. So, his parents took him to see a neuropsychologist to see if he could qualify for extra time on the SAT. They had heard the term executive functioning and knew that this was an area where Cody struggled, but they did not realize how significant his challenges were until the neuropsychologist shared his test results. Cody and his parents were grateful to have a better understanding of Cody’s learning strengths and challenges and also to learn that executive functioning skills can be remediated throughout the lifespan.

What is executive functioning?

Part 1 of this blog defined executive functioning as the “conductor” of all cognitive skills and identified three main components:

  • Working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind),
  • Inhibitory control (inhibiting impulsivity, to pause and think before reacting),
  • Cognitive flexibility (the ability to adjust to changing demands).

Part 2 of this blog post highlights activities suggested to enhance the development of executive functioning and self-regulation skills during adolescence (taken from developingchild.harvard.edu booklet titled “Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.”). The full guide is available for download and describes many additional activities and games that provide ways for adults to support various aspects of executive functioning and self-regulation in adolescents (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2014). While neuropsychological evaluation can be extremely important for understanding an adolescent’s executive functioning profile and planning for postsecondary education, there are a number of activities that young people can work on at home in order to build their executive functioning skills.

Here are some examples of activities suggested for adolescents:

  • Goal setting, planning and monitoring
    • Help the adolescent identify short and long-term goals and think about what has to be done to achieve them.
    • Help adolescents be mindful of interruptions (particularly from electronic communication such as email and cell phones).
  • Activities
    • Sports — The focused attention and skill development inherent in competitive sports improve the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ actions, make quick decisions, and respond flexibly.
    • Yoga and meditation — Activities that support a state of mindfulness may help teens develop sustained attention, reduce stress, and promote less reactive, more reflective decision-making and behavior.
    • Strategy games and logic puzzles — Classic games like chess exercise aspects of working memory, planning, and attention.
  • Study skills
    • Break a project down into manageable pieces.
    • Identify reasonable plans (with timelines) for completing each piece.
    • Self-monitor while working
    • When you don’t understand, what might be the problem? Do you know what the directions are? Is there someone you can ask for help?
    • Think about what was learned from an assignment that was not completed well. Was this due to a lack of information, a need to improve certain skills, bad time management, etc.?
    • Keep a calendar of project deadlines and steps needed to complete along the way
    • Identify ways to reduce distractions (e.g., turn off electronics, find a quiet room).

Are you concerned your adolescent’s trouble with getting organized, starting tasks, or keeping his/her emotions in check could be related to executive functioning issues?

There are many things you can do to get the answers you need to best help your adolescent. The most comprehensive way to assess a child’s executive functioning difficulties and determine a cause is a neuropsychological evaluation. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation is made up of a set of tests, questionnaires, interviews, and observations that a clinician will use to gain a good understanding of a young person’s strengths and weaknesses, along with learning how the individual processes information and completes tasks. At NESCA, we offer comprehensive evaluations that can look for potential learning disabilities, attentional difficulties, and other challenges that can negatively impact a child’s executive functioning development. In addition, a NESCA evaluation will include explicit recommendations to address challenges that have been identified.

Also, if you want to learn strategies for helping a teenager or young adult develop executive functioning skills, read Part 1 of this blog!

About the Author:
Talamo

With NESCA since its inception in 2007,  Dr. Talamo had previously practiced for many years as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist before completing postdoctoral re-training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s Evaluation Center. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Dr. Talamo earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. She has given a number of presentations, most recently on “How to Recognize a Struggling Reader,” “Supporting Students with Working Memory Limitations,” (with Bonnie Singer, Ph.D., CCC-SLP of Architects for Learning ), and “Executive Function in Elementary and Middle School StudentsDr. Talamo specializes in working with children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, attentional disorders and emotional issues. She is also interested in working with highly gifted children.

 

 

 

To book a neuropsychological evaluation or consultation  with Dr. Talamo or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate that you would like to see “Dr. Talamo” in the referral line.

 

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, 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.

What is executive functioning? How do I help my child develop these important skills? – Part 1

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Alissa Talamo, PhD
Clinical Neuropsychologist, NESCA

Alexis is a 5-year-old girl midway through kindergarten. She is well-liked, social, and has a strong vocabulary for her age. But her kindergarten teacher has noticed that Alexis has some difficulties in the classroom. Alexis raises her hand often during circle time, but when she is called on she  usually freezes or contributes something unrelated to the class discussion. Alexis also frustrates easily. When her first attempt at an art project doesn’t look like the example, she will throw it away or ask to do something else. And when she is given a multi-step direction to put her work away and get on her coat to go outside, she usually stops working but doesn’t move until she sees what her peers are doing, then she will follow along. Alexis’ parents have always noticed similar challenges at home such as giving up on difficult activities, forgetting where she has left her toys, and freezing when given too many choices or directions. But until her kindergarten teacher mentioned these classroom challenges, and they took her to see a neuropsychologist to better understand her classroom struggles, they did not realize that there was a name for her difficulties: Alexis is struggling with executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning can be considered the “conductor” of all cognitive skills. Research has shown that executive function and self-regulation skills are critical for learning and development and help a person manage life tasks of all types.  While humans are not born with executive function skills, we are born with the potential to develop them. Moreover, studies show that we can continue developing the skills throughout our lifespans.

Executive function and self-regulation skills include three key components:

  • Working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind),
  • Inhibitory control (inhibiting impulsivity, to pause and think before reacting),
  • Cognitive flexibility (the ability to adjust to changing demands).

While neuropsychological evaluation can be a critical step in learning about a child’s executive functioning skills and gaining recommendations for helping to remediate executive functioning challenges, there are a number of activities that parents can initiate to develop executive functioning skills at home.

Part 1 of this blog post highlights activities suggested to enhance the development of executive functioning and self-regulation skills from infancy through age 12 (taken from developingchild.harvard.edu booklet titled “Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence.”). The full guide is available for download and describes many additional activities and games that provide ways for adults to support various aspects of executive functioning and self-regulation in children (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2014).

Here are some examples of activities suggested for children of different ages.

Ages 6-18 months old

  • Peekaboo —this activity exercises working memory, challenging the baby to remember who is hiding, and also introduces basic self-control skills as the baby waits for the adult to be revealed.
  • Pat-a-Cake — Predictable rhymes that end with a stimulating yet expected surprise. Infants exercise working memory, becoming familiar with the rhyme and anticipating a surprise.
  • Songs or chants with simple hand motions help develop working memory and language. Infants can learn to copy the movements to a song and, with practice, will remember the sequence (e.g., Eensy Weensy Spider; Open, Shut Them).

Ages 18-36 months old

  • Older toddlers can enjoy simple imitation games (e.g., Follow the Leader) which can help develop working memory as well as attention and inhibition.
  • Song games with many movements are also fun (The Hokey Pokey; Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes). These require children to attend to the song’s words and hold them in working memory, using the song to guide their actions.

Ages 3-5 years old

  • Encourage children to tell you stories while you write them down. Also, have the children act out stories they have written. The story provides a structure that guides children’s actions and requires them to attend to the story, while inhibiting their impulse to create a new plot.
  • Play matching and sorting activities that promote cognitive flexibility. Children can first sort or match by one rule (such as by color), and then immediately be asked to switch to a new rule (such as by shape).

Ages 5-7 years old

  • Games that require players to remember the location of particular cards are great at exercising working memory (e.g., Concentration).
  • Games in which the child can match playing cards, either by suit or number, are also good to help strengthen cognitive flexibility (e.g., Crazy Eights, Uno).
  • Games that require attention and quick responses help children practice attention and inhibition (e.g., for younger children – Red Light, Green Light or Duck, Duck, Goose; for older children – Simon Says, Mother May I?).

Ages 7-12 years old

  • Games that require monitoring and fast responses are great for challenging attention and quick decision-making in children at this age (e.g., Spit)
  • Physical activities/games help develop a child’s ability to hold complicated rules and strategies in mind, monitor their own and others’ actions, make quick decisions and respond flexibly.
  • Brain teasers (e.g., Sudoku, Rubik’s Cube) require children to be mentally flexible and consider spatial information.

Are you concerned your child’s trouble keeping his/her emotions in check, answering questions in vague or off-topic ways, managing their belongings, or forgetting what comes next could be related to executive functioning issues?

There are many things you can do to get the answers you need to best help your child. The most comprehensive way to assess a child’s executive functioning difficulties and determine a cause is a neuropsychological evaluation. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation is made up of a set of tests, questionnaires, interviews, and observations that a clinician will use to gain a good understanding of a child’s strengths and weaknesses, along with learning how a child processes information and completes tasks. At NESCA, we offer comprehensive evaluations that can look for potential learning disabilities, attentional difficulties, and other challenges that can negatively impact a child’s executive functioning development. In addition, a NESCA evaluation will include explicit recommendations to address challenges that have been identified.

Also, if you want to learn strategies for helping a teenager or young adult develop executive functioning skills, stay tuned for next week’s edition of NESCA Notes!

About the Author:
Talamo

With NESCA since its inception in 2007,  Dr. Talamo had previously practiced for many years as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist before completing postdoctoral re-training in pediatric neuropsychology at the Children’s Evaluation Center. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Columbia University, Dr. Talamo earned her doctorate in clinical health psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. She has given a number of presentations, most recently on “How to Recognize a Struggling Reader,” “Supporting Students with Working Memory Limitations,” (with Bonnie Singer, Ph.D., CCC-SLP of Architects for Learning ), and “Executive Function in Elementary and Middle School StudentsDr. Talamo specializes in working with children and adolescents with language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, attentional disorders and emotional issues. She is also interested in working with highly gifted children.

 

 

 

To book a neuropsychological evaluation or consultation  with Dr. Talamo or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate that you would like to see “Dr. Talamo” in the referral line.

 

 

Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, 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.