Tricky Balance

April 30, 2012 by · 10 Comments 

Lately I have had balance on my mind.  I am thinking of the difficult balance between a parent’s desire to protect a child and the child’s normal desire to be more independent.  This balance is more tricky when with an atypical child — whether due to ADD, learning disability, or Asperger Syndrome. Now add the child’s normal desire to be more independent in middle school and the significant increase in the complexity of work in middle school, and you have a situation that can become a crisis.

The challenges of sixth grade are quite significant for these children.   There is always a long and complicated research project that involves learning many new skills.  For children who have difficulty organizing time, materials and ideas, such projects can be overwhelming. Even the “typical” children are quite challenged.

For many children this situation triggers anxiety and poor coping strategies, such as denial, not asking for help, procrastination and “fibbing” about the work to be done.  Parents may find out rather late in the game that work is missing and be shocked by poor quiz grades.  Yet at this age children often bristle at the suggestion that their parents become more involved in their homework.

What is to be done?  When parents and teachers can work together respectfully and get input from the students, they can often devise systems that allow enough independence to for the students’ comfort and yet don’t leave them with so little supervision that they get way behind before they know it.  Some people refer to this as scaffolding.  You set up an arrangement in which the student has some choices but not too many.

A good learning center teacher can go over assignments with a student before she leaves school for the day so she can be sure to have the materials she needs.  Little by little she can take more responsibility for this.  For instance, she might begin to write down her own assignments and pack up her own bag, but check with the teacher before leaving school.

At home some children need their parents to go over the assignments and help them to plan their time in order to get everything done.  In time the student will be able to take responsibility for this.  This monitoring needs to be done with patience and respect.  It is important for parents to give students the benefit of the doubt when they overlook details.  Children want to succeed.  A blaming or “gotcha” attitude will lead to secrecy and deceit.  No one likes to be made to feel ashamed.

In some families the parent child relationship becomes so frayed that parents cannot be helpful in this regard.  In these situations I recommend that families who can afford it hire an organizational tutor to help teach a child the tools she needs to manage this new workload.  This protects the child from the potential shame about having her parents see her mess up and allows her to grow into independence her parents will be proud of.

Giving students more responsibility little by little means that there will be times that they miss homework assignments or get low grades on quizzes.  Unless this is a regular problem, these occurrences are learning opportunities for your child.  It could be useful to be curious about these problems and wonder how they could be avoided, but it is not useful to blame — either the student or the teachers.  Sometimes the best of students forget assignments or bomb quizzes.

 

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Photo Credit:  Kiawah Confectionery, Samantha Chapnick on Flickr

What About College?

April 25, 2012 by · 8 Comments 

I find that college planning is on many parents’ minds even before junior year in high school.  When parents receive diagnosis of a learning disability, ADHD or Asperger Syndrome, the meaning of doing well in school needs to be redefined.  It is no longer, “Just work harder.”  Now it means find out how your child learns, and work with the school to make sure he gets what he needs. Often the school and family situation gets very painful before proper services are in place.  The family is in a crisis, and parents ask questions like, “Will he be able to live on his own?”  “Will he go to college?”

For many students the answer is yes, but the path to college and eventual independence might be different for your child. As the pressure and the competition build among students and parents, it is helpful if parents can link with other families who are having to “think outside the box”  about this next step.  It is helpful to involve yourself with organizations that provide education and advocacy.  In New England one such organization is the Aspergers Association of New England (AANE).  In fact, in two weeks AANE is sponsoring a daylong conference entitled “Success After High School.”  Another such organization in New England is the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN).  They also provide education for students and parents on planning for transition out of high school.

Before they have actually faced the college application process, many parents and students assume that everyone applies and goes to a four year college.  In fact, there are as many ways to make this next step as there are people.  A colleague of mine learned when his son and friends were applying to college to ask “What will Sam be doing next year?”  rather than, “Where is Sam going to college?”  This avoided embarrassing the students who were not taking the “typical path.”

If your child will be taking the SAT or ACT, make sure that you help him or her obtain testing accommodations if possible.  The requirements have tightened up.  You will need to submit data from recent neuropsychological testing.  It is worthwhile, though, so that your child’s intelligence shows through rather than the ways he learns and tests differently from his typical peers.  You will also need this testing for your child to request accommodations in college.

When you are looking for schools, look for those that have strong academic supports for students with learning disabilities.  There is actually a Peterson’s guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADHD .  It explains about different services available in different colleges. There is a tremendous range from the schools that offer peer tutoring to anyone who asks to those with specific services for qualifying students and finally those whose whole mission is to provide higher education to students with learning disabilities.

Often I find that students who have significant learning disabilities are also less confident and more dependent on their families.  They may need to make the shift to greater independence in smaller steps.  Some start out at a community college nearby so they can live at home.  Some might live away, but stay fairly close to home.  Some start out at a school with a great amount of structure and support for students with learning disabilities, but once they get their “sea legs” for college, they can transfer to a more challenging  school with less academic support.

A useful book about this process is Learning Outside the Lines by Mooney, Cole and Hallowell.  In this book the first two authors describe their quite checkered careers in high school and first two years of college, due to their ADHD for one and LD for the other.  They met when they both transferred to Brown University as juniors.  The second half of the book gives their very practical recommendations for managing college work when you have a disability.

All through the process it is so helpful to remember that you and your child are looking for the higher education experience that is right for him or her.  The US News and World Report ratings of schools are not all that useful in this regard, though your neighbors might be quoting the rankings.  A good fit for your child will help your child develop into the independent young adult you want to see.  Good luck!

 

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Photo credit:  dailymatador on Flickr

What If She Fails?

April 16, 2012 by · 12 Comments 

Often I meet with parents who are very worried about their children’s achievement, usually in school, but sometimes in sports as well.  These are well-meaning parents who want the best for their children.  They want them to have the best opportunities, and they want their children to have accomplishments that they can feel proud about.

Unfortunately, parents’ anxiety about achievement can backfire on them.  This is when they might show up in my office. The pressure to achieve for the sake of achieving can take the joy out of learning.  It can obscure the individuality of the child and hide his or her passion.

I am not talking about parents who expect their children to put their best effort into homework and to study for tests and quizzes.  I am also not talking about parents who practice ball handling skills with their kids and cheer them on at the soccer game.  That is your responsibility as a parent, and it teaches your child responsibility as well.

Many of the children I see live in fairly affluent communities outside of Boston.  There is quite a bit of peer pressure among parents to do the best they can for their children.  The belief is that if children are very successful that they will be truly happy.  It is difficult to resist the pressure that parents feel at the soccer field or at the PTO.  One hears, “We signed Derek up for individual coaching so that his hockey game will improve.  He has to get up at six am on Thursday to meet before school, but he knows it’s important.”  Or one might hear, “We don’t feel that the math curriculum is adequate, so Jenny is going to extra math classes twice a week.”  These are children who are doing fine in school or in sports, but their parents feel the need to “enrich” their lives with extra classes or coaching.

A few parents I know ask, “Where is the fun in this?”  If your child truly loves baseball and has talent, by all means take her to the batting cage on the weekend.  While you are there, make sure that you have fun.  If your child does not have the aptitude for sports that require good hand-eye coordination, encourage her to try out swimming or track.  Sports are very good for exercise, learning to work with a team, and having the experience of pride in accomplishment.  It is important to keep them in perspective as one part of life, though.

Some parents who are very worried about academic achievement find that their children begin to resist the pressure to do better and better.  An anxious parent can forget to praise the B’s and A’s and focus only on the C’s.  This decreases motivation and leads to resentment.  It is important to accept your child for who he is.  If he consistently achieves below the level of his ability, you should talk to people at school.  Perhaps a learning disability is becoming a factor, and the school should do some testing.  Perhaps he was able to do the work in the early grades, but interference from Attention Deficit Disorder is getting in his way in the middle grades.  When parents explore these considerations, children feel understood.

In my experience children do well when their parents can accept them for who they are and encourage them to do their best.  Children benefit from balance in their lives.  They need to go to school and do their work, play sports if they like them, hang out with friends in unstructured setting (like your family room), hang out with you, and have time for solitary pursuits like reading or crafts.  They need room to find activities they love, like music or drama.  But they need space in their lives to just hang out.  Having faith in your child’s ability to be responsible and do well communicates good will toward her and increases her self-esteem.

I would be very interested to hear others’ opinions on this topic.  Do you feel pressure from other parents to involve your children in many activities?  Do you get very anxious when your child has difficulty in a subject?  Do you think I’m off base?  Let me know.

 

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Photo credit:  Slabcity Gang on Flickr

Finding Community

April 11, 2012 by · 13 Comments 

Over the weekend I attended a large family Passover seder with about fifty people in attendance.    The seder is a dinner with a liturgy that tells the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  It got me thinking about the value of community in raising children.

Participants ranged in age from late eighties to seven years old.   The elders told a  little about the family’s origins in Poland and their travel to America, and they reminisced about seders of fifty and sixty years ago.

Two little girls shared the responsibility of reading the four questions at the beginning of the seder.  As the evening progressed everyone, including the table of teens, took turns reading from the haggadah, the  booklet that gives the order of prayers, readings, and songs.  Later we all joined in songs and the teenagers sang with great gusto and tapped on their tambourines.  At one point we all marched around the room singing “Go Down, Moses.”  These were not alienated teens, at least not at this event.

Between courses I talked to people and learned about their connections.  There were strong connections between aunts and uncles and their nieces and nephews, including  long distance visits.  An elderly couple joked that they had been “adopted” by this extended family.

There was also sadness.  All were aware that the woman who had graciously hosted  this gathering for decades was unable to now due to Alzheimer’s Disease.  Yet the next generation had prepared her recipes for us to enjoy.  Another man’s whole extended family gathered because they expected his mother’s death in a day or two.  There was a sense of knowing these losses and embracing them as part of the story of the family.  There had also been separations — one family was returning to repair a rift started over fifty years ago in the previous generation.

I might be idealizing, yet the experience got me thinking about the value of community where ever one finds it.  For some young adults in this family there were adults other than their parents to consult when they needed guidance.  There were other adults to value them when they were at odds with their parents.  As the evening wound down I observed people of the same age gathering to chat.  Perhaps they were talking about caring for aging parents;  or about the challenges of raises those spirited teens; or about their work and plans to finance college or retirement. The thing is, there were people who had similar concerns and who had known them for a long time.  The gathering expressed shared values.  Whether the young folks will take on the customs and beliefs of their elders is unknown, but they have a firm base to push off from.

Many of us exist in a variety of communities.  Some find community in a religious institution.  Others find it in the sharing while they watch their children play sports.  Some are fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood where people have decided to know each other.  Some parents of special needs children find community in advocacy groups for their children.  There they find others who understand living with a challenging child and who do not judge.

In his book, A Fine Young Man, Michael Gurian concluded that a boy needs support from within and outside his family at every stage of development.  He likened this circle of support to a clan in other cultures.  I would say that all children and parents need this support.  In our current culture it is unusual to find all the support in one community.  It takes work to find and nourish communities so that they are there for you.  Where do you and your family find community?

 

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Photo credit:  Nonie Vogue on Flickr

Creating Order for the Disorganized Child

April 4, 2012 by · 6 Comments 

Many parents talk to me with frustration about their children who strew their things throughout the house and then cannot find what they need when they need it.  Some of these children have ADHD or a learning disability that we know makes it hard for them to organize stuff.  Others are simply immature or undiagnosed.  Whatever the case, it is irritating for parents and children alike for parents to constantly remind children to put things away.

The first step is to get your attitude in shape.  If you are taking this behavior personally, you are probably quite angry about it.  “I didn’t have children to be a maid!”  Of course not.  Deal with your anger.  Accept that your child is not behaving the way you had hoped he would.  It does no good to blame yourself or your child.  When you can calm down, you will be ready to engage your child in some problem solving.

Most children need to be taught systems for keeping things organized.  Children with ADHD and learning problems have brains that find this type of activity quite difficult.  Teaching them requires more repetitions and more patience.  That said, children can be taught to take responsibility for keeping track of their things, even if they have learning disabilities.  They need patient coaching, but they can learn to be responsible.  Don’t give up and become the maid (or butler).

Now you can address the problem.  Try not to solve everything at once.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  What part of the messy chaos disrupts the family the most?  Is it the frantic looking for shoes  and homework in the morning?  Is it the dirty dishes and socks in the family room?  Choose one issue and begin.   At a calm moment start the conversation without blaming.  Blame only makes most children (or teens) feel bad and often want to argue. So describe the problem, “It’s really upsetting for you and me in the morning when you can’t find your things.  Do you have any ideas about what would help?”  Perhaps you child has ideas, but if you are just beginning this process, he or she might not.

Now you can suggest things like having a bin near the door where shoes and boots go.  Or suggest that the last step of homework is to pack the backpack and put it near the door.  If your child resists, listen to her objection and find out why.  This could help develop a solution that is more durable.  Once your child agrees to a new arrangement, you will need to cue her about it.  When she responds to the cue, make sure you praise her.  This is the best way to help a child learn a new behavior.

Good luck with initiating some routines that help your disorganized child stay a little more organized.

 

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Photo Credit:  Desiree N. Williams on Flickr