December 6, 2010

To Evaluate or Not To Evaluate

To have a child evaluated or not? That is often the question at this time of year, when it may become apparent that a child's test and report card grades are not reflecting his/her intelligence, ability or potential. The child doesn't seem to be grasping material, or s/he doesn't seem to stay focused on information long enough to absorb it. Alternatively, the child may do the work only to lose it or forget to hand it in on time.

Sometimes, there is a clear explanation, especially if this is not a typical scenario for the child. Perhaps the adjustment to a new grade or school is taking more time than anticipated. Or, perhaps an event or a difficult transition at home is the reason. Children's grades can decline when a parent is laid off, deployed in the military, or first separated from a spouse, for example. Often, though, lower than expected school performance is a pattern that has surfaced previously. Some parents have heard the same concerns from teachers before. Others find that despite numerous discussions -- both calm and heated -- with their children, the puzzling results don't change, or at least not in any lasting way. The right strategy to address the problem seems elusive.

So, the question arises: Should the child be evaluated? The biggest reservation parents seem to have is that their child will be labelled. Does s/he have a learning disability, an attention difficulty or a processing weakness? It's certainly hard to consider that one's child may have to deal with something beyond the parent's ability to change or fix.

Yet, consider the "side effects" of not getting an evaluation and of not identifying a problem that does exist. The child will be labelled, alternatively as "lazy," "dumb," or "rude." The child is then faced with adults' blame and frustration on an ongoing basis. Motivation and self-esteen can plummet. For the child, the information that s/he may have a learning disability, for example, can be a tremendous relief. It's not that s/he is stupid; adults can recognize that the child IS trying to learn.

Most importantly, the child, parent and teacher now have a basis for successful strategies and interventions. For the first time, the strategies will be targeting the underlying cause. As a result, they will have a real chance of making an impact.

October 18, 2010

Easing Parent-Child Homework Conflict

It's that time of year. School is in full swing, as are homework assignments, projects and tests. As pressure increases, conflicts between parents and children can intensify too. In this entry, I'd like to offer one strategy to deal with this challenge: Consider your child's working style. Will the idea of "getting it over with" motivate your child? Perhaps getting the "worst done first" will convince him/her to tackle the hardest assignment early in the process.

For some students, however, this approach will only increase the child's tendency to avoid homework. If you notice that the most difficult part of homework for your child is getting started, have him/her start with the task that is easiest to approach. This will be the assignment that the child is least likely to avoid. Once the process gets going, it can be much easier to ride the momentum started by a simple worksheet, for example.

Keep in mind that your approach may not work best for your child's studying style. You may prefer to tackle the "worst first," while your child may have trouble getting started and may need to start with the least stressful task. Help you child figure out what works for him/her.

Another question to have your child consider when doing homework is: What do I feel like I could do best right now? Is it a task involving problem solving like math or science? Is it reading a book or writing an essay? Or, perhaps they feel up to memorizing information from a social studies/history class. These tasks all require different types of thinking and varying degrees of focus. Help your child tune into where s/he feels most able to be productive at a given moment in time. Otherwise, it's easy to waste time and get frustrated attempting a task that one "should" do, but doesn't necessarily have the available energy to do.

According to an article that appeared in the Science Times (9/8/10) called “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits,” Benedict Carey writes: "In recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a few simple techniques can reliably improve what matters most: how much a student learns from studying. For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing." So, when studying for a test, one should vary how and where the material is learned. I've known students to sing facts as they learn them. Some like to walk around while they think or say information aloud.

Finally, if students are becoming anxious about tests or grades, show them how little one grade matters in the course of time. It can even be a fun way to demonstrate the concept of averages. If you have nine grades ranging from 76 - 82 with an average or 79 (C+), even a failing grade of 60 will only change the average by 2 points to 77 (still a C+)! It helps to keep the big picture in perspective - for both your child and yourself.

July 18, 2010

To Get Angry or Not To Get Angry (Part Two)

Let's look at additional instances when anger will not be sufficient to improve a child's behavior. If a child is having difficulty making a change, despite motivation to do so, a parent may feel helpless to make an impact. This frustration can lead to anger. The child may respond to this anger by becoming increasingly self-critical in a way that lowers self-worth. The focus should remain the behavior, not the child's sense of being a valued person.

There can be multiple reasons why a child may have difficulty changing behavior. Anxiety, for example, can lead a child to engage in habits or have reactions that seem irrational. Children who have certain learning disabilities may lack specific skills and behave inappropriately in social situations. Others with attention deficit issues may have good intentions but lack the impulse control to avoid behaviors that are problematic.

In these cases, and others like them, a parent's anger will be unlikely to improve the situation. In fact, children may eventually lose motivation to work on the behavior if they feel that, despite their efforts, the parent continues to be angry. Understanding a child's difficulties, in these situations, enables the parent to feel more empathy and patience.

If a child cannot meet our expectations, it's important to re-examine the expectations. Sometimes, they be can recast as goals to work toward rather than expected, immediate outcomes. Working with your child to help him/her meet these goals can both increase motivation and enhance the parent-child relationship.

To Get Angry or Not To Get Angry (Part One)

One of the prime triggers of parental guilt or self-doubt is anger. We may wonder if we become angry too quickly or too vehemently. We may question whether we should have more patience or whether we should express anger at all. We may wonder how we become so angry, particularly if we realize that our children have "pushed our buttons."

Certainly, if physical, verbal or emotional abuse accompanies anger, professional intervention is needed. In this entry, I will address anger that does not fall into this category. For all of us, there are times when our frustration outweighs our patience. We're human. Here's the good news: Not all anger is bad for our children. In fact, there are times that a parent's controlled expression of anger or displeasure teaches something valuable.

Let's look at some examples. When young children repeatedly grab things, push or hit others, a parent's anger may show children that they've crossed a line. Calmly explaining that these behaviors are not acceptable is a great approach if these behaviors are new, or if a young child is in a new stage of development. But, if no change follows, expressing anger in a firm tone of voice lets children know that their action causes a reaction. Saying "no hitting" with an angry look accomplishes this as well.

Conveying anger differs significantly from exploding with rage; screaming signal a loss of parental self-control. I'm a firm believer in apologizing to children as a way to model handling mistakes. If you lose control of your anger often, seek help.

There are times when anger, while inevitable, may be neither helpful nor instructive. Anger is typically ineffective when we want our kids to do something like clean a room or spend time on homework. Even if our frustration is justified and follows repeated requests, our child is unlikely to be motivated to increase cooperation in the future in the face of our anger alone. In these situations, the preferred strategy is to intervene early before our frustration spills over. After a first or second request is ignored, the parent can calmly set a limit, such as no computer time until the room is cleaned. Our anger often follows instances when we are trying too hard to be patient and give too many chances, Inadverntently, we create too many opportunities for our own frustration to build.

May 4, 2010

Tweens and Cyberbullying

While parents of high-school students may bemoan the amount of time that their teens spend texting or on sites like Facebook, parents of middle schoolers may be even more concerned. The cyberbullying that is happening to tweens can have a frightening impact on their mental health. An emotionally devastating event that can barely be handled by a stable 16 year-old may be enough to overwhelm a 12 year-old who lacks the same level of coping skills.

Peers at this age, too, are more likely to pile on and echo destructive comments online. One of my 8th grade clients recently explained two new phenomena. The first, sending a text bomb, can jam someone's phone for hours with a repetitive message than can be sent thousands of times. I don't think that this is what parents had in mind when they purchased an "unlimited" plan.

The second is even more troubling. On a social-networking site called Formspring, members ask and answer questions about one another. This site allows anyone to post comments about anyone else anonymously. Yes, unlike Facebook, this site allows kids to literally hit and run with no need to identify themselves. For those of us who remember "slam books," this takes the humiliation to a new level. Parents of young children, tweens and young teens might want to cut and paste this link to a recent CNN video to see what's being done by one middle school principal:

Parents who are first buying their pre-teen child a cellphone may want to make the purchase contingent on the child's acceptance that the parent may periodically check texts. At the very least, take a look at these sites and "friend" your tween or teen on Facebook.

March 1, 2010

The Emotionally Sensitive Child - Raising "Intense" Children (Part Four)

The final overexcitability discussed by Dabrowski was the emotional. He felt that this one was central; it is often the one noticed first. These are the children who are extremely sensitive, have intense emotions, form strong attachments and may be intensely empathic. Others often see them as "overreacting." The challenges here arise because the intensity of emotions can be problematic. These children can be susceptible to "meltdowns," emotional extremes, anxiety, guilt and feelings of inadequacy. They take things hard and can become lonely or depressed. They can have trouble adjusting to change and have a need for security.

Our role as teachers with intensely emotional kids is crucial to their ability to develop a sense of emotional well-being. We can help them learn how to calm themselves when they become upset. Rather than just telling them to Calm Down, we can help them discover what works for them. We can teach them - once we understand it a bit ourselves - what seems to set them off and how to cope. What are their warning signs? Do they get a certain feeling in their stomach or do they start talking faster? Are they more likely to get upset on Sunday nights? They can learn coping strategies like exercise, listening to music, going outside to play or read, or just talking about what's on their minds. Even using simple strategies like these can show children that they have the ability to make an impact on their own emotional states.

The hardest thing for parents when their children have these "overreactions" is to resist the temptation to just tell them to stop feeling what they are feeling. Obviously, you probably want to leave a public place if your child is having a meltdown. And, of course, the goal is for the child to develop the capacity for more self-control. But, it takes time and skill building for this to happen. It doesn't work to tell them to just ignore something that upsets them or to suggest that they just not let it bother them. They would if they could, for the most part. They can't. They feel how they feel. The question is what to do with those feelings. The more someone tries to talk them out of what they feel, the more tightly they will hold onto the feeling. We need to accept their feelings, even when we think they are being melodramatic. That doesn't mean we agree with the logic, but rather that we listen and empathize. We try to understand why they feel the way they do. Only then can we help them gain a sense of calm. Eventually, they become better at understanding their own emotional reactions too. Through interactions with us, they also learn to calm themselves. It's easy to share their intense delight and rejoice in their joy. But, that same validation is needed when the feelings are less positive.

A final strategy to keep in mind when parenting intensely emotional children is to help them develop ways to prevent stress. Don't overschedule, learn your limits (and theirs), and take time for fun and relaxation. Silliness is a great antidote to intensity - as long as the timing is right.

February 21, 2010

The Dreamers and The Daydreamers - Raising "Intense" Children (Part Three)

For the dreamers, daydreamers and poets among our children, the world of the imagination is their area of intensity. A child with the overexcitability called the imaginational will be extremely creative, have a good sense of humor, a strong ability to visualize and love fantasy.

The challenge arises when what is happening in their imaginations pulls them away from what is going on externally. The story that they are writing in their minds is probably much more compelling than the parent asking something of them. These kids may be distractible and have trouble staying tuned in during class unless they are engaged and interested. They may meet the criteria for the inattentive type of attention deficit disorder. Finishing schoolwork or completing tasks can be a problem when children's own ideas send them off on tangents. Their imaginations can also lead them to visualize worst case scenarios, so that they may become anxious about things that are unlikely to happen. These are the kids who may interpret a headache as a brain tumor.

With young kids, it's important to make sure that they can distinguish reality from fantasy when they get to the age when their peers are doing so. To help them cope with schoolwork that might not be engaging their imagination, you can help them develop strategies that make it more interesting when possible. For example, one student made up a song to remember the capitals of the South American countries. Another asked her teacher if she could write a fictional story with her vocabulary words. For those who are artistically gifted, it's important to give them time to indulge their inspirations. Let them go to sleep five minutes later if they really "need" to write down an idea for a story. A digital voice recorder can be helpful for them to use to keep track of all their ideas. Empathize with the difficulty of having to put their imaginings aside to have a conversation about the day's schedule or memorize information that they find uninteresting. The more patient and empathic you can be (and perfection isn't the goal. We all have our limits!), the more understood your child will feel, and the more cooperative s/he will be in the long run.

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February 14, 2010

Raising "Intense" Children (Part Two)

It can be particularly challenging to respond to children who seem to be "oversensitive." In fact, another type of overexcitability discussed by Dabrowski is the sensual. This refers to a heightened experience of sensual pleasure or displeasure coming from the five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. These kids may feel uncomfortable with various sensory input like the noise in the gym, the smell in the cafeteria, the lights at Chuckie Cheese. Yet, they may also have an increased appreciated for the beauty of language, art and music. These are the children who can have issues with sensory integration and hate switching from shorts and T-shirts to long pants, socks and jackets when the seasons change. They may have difficulty tolerating the feeling of being uncomfortable more than most kids do and develop behaviors to avoid these sensations. If we can understand these behaviors as an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable rather than an attempt to be defiant, it can make life with these kids much easier.

The strategies for these kids begin when they are young. For example, rather than forcing them into a party where the stimulation is too much for them, we let them take their time to warm up slowly. Again, this is when the advice of others, especially those without experience with intensely sensitive kids, may be particularly useless. They’ll say things like: “You’re coddling him, you’re giving in.” What you’re actually doing is teaching him ways to cope with the way he is so that he can become more flexible as he gets older. When these kids are young, we can try to help create a comfortable environment for them. We can learn what they need to feel less overwhelmed. As they get older, we teach them about themselves so that they can eventually meet their own needs. For example, after a day at school, it might be as simple as reminding the child to listen to some quiet music or go outside on the swing for a little while. Eventually, they learn what they need to avoid feeling so overwhelmed by all the sensual input that they experience so deeply.

For these kids, it is also really important to provide opportunities for creative outlets and activities like art or drama. They need time and space to pursue their passions. Just as it’s important not to remove recess from kids who have the psychomotor overexcitability (OE), don’t remove an activity about which these kids are passionate as a consequence. Their art, music or drama truly is a pursuit that is vital to who they are.

The third OE is the intellectual. This is the one most associated with the traditional definition of giftedness. It refers to the strong need to seek knowledge and truth, to analyze and synthesize information. These kids are intensely curious. They may be keen observers, avid readers and they may love theory, thinking about thinking, or thinking about moral issues. They are very independent of thought, which can lead them to be non-conforming. They love new information and love to ask questions. The challenge is that they can be critical and impatient with those less quick than themselves. We need to help them develop understanding and empathy for those who they see as less bright.

Another challenge can arise from the child’s need for answers. That can get them in trouble when the questions look like disrespect. Again, this is a time where we can help the child see how their intent may be misperceived. Explain to your daughter or son that others may feel that they are coming across as critical even if their intent is just to correct a factual mistake.

One strategy with intensely curious kids is to show them how to investigate their interests themselves. It’s also important to help kids learn about actions they can take to address some of the moral and social injustices that are upsetting to them. This may involve volunteering or working for a particular organization that addresses a cause that your child is especially passionate about. Taking action can help combat their feelings that nothing can be done about moral wrongs.

February 7, 2010

Raising "Intense" Children (Part One)

As early as 1970, a Polish psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski coined the term “overexcitability.” Overexcitability basically means supersensitivity, a higher than average capacity for experiencing both internal and external stimuli, based on a higher than average responsiveness of the nervous system. Reactions tend to be over and above average in intensity, duration and frequency. What’s important to note is that this tendency isn’t a result of something we’ve done as parents. It’s in a child's wiring! I think parents often feel judged or blamed by people who look at them as the source of our kids’ intensity. They may even be well-meaning friends and family members who assume that if only parents didn’t tolerate this type of sensitivity or overexcitability, their kids would just stop it. Perhaps parents believe this as well. Remember, this type of intensity can be in children’s wiring and part of their temperament.

There are several forms of overexcitability, and each one needs parenting strategies that aren’t always in the typical childrearing books. Five particular styles have been identified. I will be discussing each separately in the blog entries this month. Your kids probably fit the description for more than one. I’m summarizing here from the work of Sharon Lind from the organization called SENG – Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. These overexcitabilities can apply to gifted kids, but I believe that they characterize other children as well.

The first overexcitability (OE) is called psychomotor. Psychomotor is related to activity level, energy level, and the need for movement. Sometimes these kids may be impulsive or have nervous habits. They may move or even talk in an intense way. If they are feeling tense, they may talk a lot or talk very quickly. It’s like being verbally hyperactive. These kids may enjoy being so active – physically or verbally –but others may find them overwhelming. They may also fit the characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Here are some strategies for parenting kids like these: Make sure you provide time for non-structured activities. These are kids whose time should not be completely programmed. I actually think that down-time is important for all our kids. Build physical activities and movement into their lives. Help them channel their verbal and physical activities into ones that aren’t distracting to others. For example, singing in the middle of class isn’t usually a good idea unless the class is music. Some teachers might understand the need for a bathroom break is more about the need to move around than a real need to use the bathroom. Hopefully, they can be flexible. Traditional school can be particularly hard for kids when there’s no break involved, no recess. For kids like these, it is really important to protect any down-time that may exist during the day. As with many of the OEs, kids with psychomotor OE may benefit from learning relaxation techniques like deep breathing or yoga.

It’s also really important to help them learn about how their behavior may affect others. Again, this is true of some of the other OEs as well. What do I mean by “help them learn about how their behavior may affect others.” I’ll give you an example for the psychomotor kids. They may get so excited about something or have a strong immediate need to do something and may then interrupt impulsively, without really noticing what is going on around them. It’s important to go beyond telling them not to interrupt. We need to let them know that first of all, we recognize that they didn’t necessarily mean to be rude. They probably weren’t aware of the fact that their interruption can give the person speaking the impression that the child has no interest in what the other person is saying. It may be just the opposite – they may be so excited about something they want to say in response that they can’t wait. Kids like these need help from us to slowly learn how they may be perceived, because it is often very different from how they perceive themselves or from what their intentions may be.

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