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.

Community-Based Skills Coaching: What is it? Is it the right intervention for my child?

By | NESCA Notes 2017

By Kathleen Pignone, M.Ed., CRC

Transition Specialist

What is Community-Based Skills Coaching?

Community-Based Skills Coaching is an individualized service delivered by seasoned professionals to support the needs of transition-aged youth and young adults. It is an intensive 1:1 coaching model provided in the young person’s community. It can include any area of need and is tailored to the young person’s age and stage of development.

Community-Based Skills Coaching is empowering to the young person because the coach meets them where they are at emotionally, socially and developmentally. It allows the individual to learn practical living skills across multiple real-life environments. The first step in Community-Based Skills Coaching is an evaluation period where the young person works with the coach to identify strengths and areas for improvement. Through a collaborative process, the coach and young person tailor each session to allow for direct in-vivo teaching. This can include, but is not limited to, independent living skills, career planning and work readiness skills, financial literacy skills, travel skills, social pragmatic skills and self-advocacy skills.

Coaches meet with individuals in their home communities in order to determine how to best problem solve around any barriers or obstacles that the young person may encounter. It allows for the individual to develop and generalize learned and new skills across settings and in real-time. With frequent opportunities to practice skills in authentic environments, the individual begins to develop a level of confidence and automaticity that can only be learned outside of a classroom or office.

Many transition-aged young adults are at a developmental stage of individuating away from parental support. Community-Based Skills Coaching provides an experienced and trained adult to serve as a coach and mentor in order to guide the young person. This coach becomes an important “expert” and a qualified and trusted team member who can support the individual through the lengthy process of transitioning from high school to post-secondary adult life including learning, working, daily living, and community-based leisure activities.

How do I know if this is the right support for my teen, young adult, or myself?

Coaches work with young people aged 12-26 with varying skill levels. Coaches most often work with transition-aged youth who have a diagnosed learning, emotional, and/or developmental disability and transition related skill development needs. However, our coaches are also experienced in working with young people who are struggling with forward progress unrelated to a specific learning or medical diagnosis. Coaching utilizes a strength-based approach and supports youth and young adults to learn about themselves while experiencing life outside of school and home.

The student or young adult drives the process by choosing an area of interest and need. The coach provides guidance and immediate feedback and support to practice and improve upon skill areas. The coach builds rapport with the individual and is able to re-frame and teach in the moment. An inquiry based approach is used to allow the young person autonomy over the mastery of the skill. The coaching can occur weekly or more often, if necessary. Feedback to parents and designated team members typically occurs on a weekly or monthly basis, often beginning with student input.

To learn more about our Community Coaching at NESCA, please feel free to contact Kathleen Pignone, M.Ed., CRC at (617) 658-9800 or email at kpignone@nesca-newton.com

Who provides coaching at NESCA?

Kathleen Pigone, M.Ed., CRC, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her role as a Transition Specialist at NESCA. She received her undergraduate degree in Sociology from Boston College and her master of education in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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 supervised the Career Development Program, developed individualized transition plans for students, created innovative programming for tracking and assessing long-term employability and career success for students. She also trained staff in the areas of career development and transition services.

Ms. Pignone joined NESCA in March 2016, bringing her unique expertise supporting vocational assessment and employment planning for adolescents and young adults as well as local school programs. In addition to supporting 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 skills coaching.

Dina Karlon, M.A., is a seasoned counselor specialized in transition issues. She has worked in public schools as a guidance counselor, GED program coordinator, career center coordinator, vocational assessment specialist, and school counselor. At NESCA, She offers community-based skills coaching services in New Hampshire as well as postsecondary planning consultation to students and families throughout New England.

In addition to her work at NESCA, Ms. Karlon is a Program Specialist for the New Hampshire Department of Education, specializing in development of employability skills and job readiness skills for at risk youth. She has recent experience as a Rehabilitation Counselor for New Hampshire Voc Rehab, working with students and adults with a range of developmental, learning, and social-emotional disabilities and helping to guide and coach them through transitions toward independence in both college and the working world. Prior to that, Ms. Karlon worked for more than two decades as a school counselor in local high schools.

She has provided transition services including personal, career, and college counseling to hundreds of students and their families and has also worked as an adjunct professor at Nashua Community College teaching both traditional and online classes for nearly 20 years. Ms. Karlon brings extensive experience supporting clients with career and college planning and she is able to shift fluidly with clients along their paths in each of these domains.

Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L, is Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatrics and occupational therapy in the developing world. For the past five years her work has primarily been split between children and adolescents with ASD and related profiles in the United States, and marginalized youth in Tanzania, East Africa.

Dr. 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.

Dr. Bellenis works as a school-based occupational therapist for the city of Salem Public Schools and believes that individual sensory needs, and visual motor skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming. She is joining NESCA in order to offer community-based skills coaching services as well as social skills coaching to students and young adults.

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is Director of Transition Services at NESCA and oversees Community-Based Skills Coaching as well as transition assessment, planning, consultation, case management, program development, college supports, trainings, and professional development offerings.

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. Initially trained as a school guidance counselor, she completed her practicum work at Boston Latin School focusing on competitive college counseling. She began facilitating social, life, and career skill development programs for transition-aged youth in 2004.

Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Challen founded an array of programs for teens and young adults at MGH Aspire, and spent time as Program Director of the Northeast Arc’s Spotlight Program, where she often collaborated with schools to develop in-district social skill and transition programming. She is also co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social-Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personal Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism.

While Ms. Challen has special expertise in working with students with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles, she provides transition assessment, consultation, planning, and programming support for individuals with a wide range of learning and developmental needs.