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Tips for Parents

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Tips for Parents


Tip # 1: Homework Hassles? Don’t Blame the Child. Blame the Brain.

If you’re at the end of your rope, tired of arguing over homework and missing assignments—take a deep breath, and read on. Children, who struggle with production, are often blamed for having poor time management. At best they are labeled procrastinators. At worst they are called unmotivated and lazy. It is a situation that is fraught with pain and frustration for both students and parents.

For over 15 years, as an educator with a private practice, I’ve been helping families get past the pain, frustration, and anger, by explaining the connection between our time- management behavior and the brain. Neuroscience refers to the brain processes required for getting things done as executive functions. These processes are primarily located in the prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brain. Time management is one of those executive functions, as are being goal directed and being able to sustain focus, all of which are required to complete a task that you don’t want to do, like homework. With brain imaging we now know that the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. In fact, this part of the brain is not fully matured until the ages of 25 to 30 years old. Yes, you read that correctly.

This is critical information for parents, teachers, and students because today our schools, and society in general, expect our young people to manage their time and be goal directed as if they had an adult brain. Parents are told around middle school, and sometimes as early as 4th grade, that it is time for them to back off and stop directing the completion of homework. Authority figures tell parents that it is time for their child to grow up and learn to work independently. To complicate matters many of today’s homework assignments are projects, which require multiple executive functions to complete on time.

When I show students the facts about brain development, I ask them if their brain is ready for their parents to back off? They shake their heads, no. I enthusiastically tell them that this is really good news for them. They aren’t bad lazy people. They are just YOUNG people. I then look at the parents and tell them that this is bad news for them. They are going to have to stand close and support their children’s development of executive functioning skills—for years and years. We would never tell a child in a wheel chair, “Honey, I know that if you just worked harder, with more focus, you could get out of that chair and walk up those stairs.” Yet, we tell children with deficits in executive functioning to work harder and focus all the time! Because we can’t SEE their brain’s deficits, we blame them for being unmotivated and lazy. Please, as you face homework hassles with your child, remember—you can’t do, what you can’t do.

So, what is the poor parent to do? Educate yourself first. Here are some good titles to check out: Smart but Scattered, by Dawson and Guare, Late, Lost and Unprepared, by Cooper-Kahn, and No Mind Left Behind, by Cox. I invite you to explore my website, www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com which includes months of blogs which have tips, ideas, and stories about improving executive functions. If relations between you and your child have seriously deteriorated I recommend you use the services of an educational therapist who will work with the whole family to understand executive functioning and build a common set of strategies that will help the whole family.

Watch this column over the coming months for more tips on executive functioning for parents.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com .

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Tip # 2: The Apple May Not Fall Far From the Tree:
Not Everyone Outgrows Executive Functioning Deficits

In my last column I established that the term "executive function" refers to those processes in the brain required to get things done. They control our behavior in order to work in the present, for a goal that is in the future—think homework projects. We also established that executive functions generally improve over time as our brain ages. That said, not all brains achieve maximum executive functioning over time. I should know. I've got one of those brains with executive functioning deficits!

Why do some brains continue to struggle with executive functioning beyond the age of 30? It goes back to the brain's wiring. Executive functions are a very complex interconnected network of interacting neurons spread primarily across the front of our brain—the prefrontal cortex. Deficits in these neural networks will vary from person to person. However, genetics plays its part, which explains why my sister and I are both time-challenged. My son struggled with executive functions and my daughter didn't—genetics in action.

According to Russell Barkley, renowned ADHD researcher, ADHD is primarily a disorder of executive functioning. If a parent has ADHD then 40-54% (Barkley. 2012) of their children will also have ADHD and executive functioning challenges.

Life experiences also affect our brain. Forty-five percent of children born prematurely who experience a bleed in the brain will end up with ADHD. A person can also "acquire" deficits in executive functioning through injury to the brain. I believe it is possible that my significant deficit in working memory goes back to a serious concussion on the playground in 2nd grade. Traumatic brain injuries cause a lifetime of executive functioning challenges.

If you are frustrated with your child's executive functioning, I am going to ask you to pause and reflect on your own executive functioning. Do you struggle with getting things done on time? Are you often late? Do you procrastinate?

These are just a few examples of executive functioning deficits. In the book, Smart but Scattered, by Dawson and Guare, there is a very useful executive functioning questionnaire for parents that you can use to assess your own strengths and weaknesses.

If the apple didn't far from the tree, I want to encourage you to learn strategies to support your own brain with time management so you will be able to better help your child. When I teach my course on executive functioning, I require at least one parent to attend the sessions with the child. I love it when I can have both parents. I do this, in part, because typically at least one other adult in the family has the same set of problems. Helping a whole family understand their brains and time, and how to use effective tools and strategies, can make a world of difference in family dynamics. If you (or your spouse) are struggling like your child, I recommend you look for an educational therapist who can help the whole family with executive functioning. It can be life changing.

Watch this column over the coming months for more tips on executive functioning for parents.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.

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Tip # 3: That Doesn't Work for Me!
Resistant Child and Executive Functioning

"I know what my son needs to do to get his work done, but he is so resistant to help. We have tried planners, lists, colored binder organizing, and he is still not turning in work on time. He won't follow through. We just fight about homework."

Those comments are typical of parents who ask me to help their families with executive functioning challenges.

Most people approach teaching executive functioning skills by starting with strategies. It seems like the logical thing to do. They approach the child with well meaning advice. "Do this. Do that. It works for me. It'll work for you." The first problem with this approach is that it doesn't address the issue of resistance. It reminds me of the old adage, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink."

My first task when working with teens and their families is to get past the resistance, which can be very strong. When I meet with them I don't even mention time management and getting things done for at least two hours. Why? Because I have found that the key to get past the resistance is to depersonalize the conflicts by placing the emphasis on first developing an understanding about the brain and its affect upon our behavior.

You see the resistance is born out of defensiveness. When you have challenges with production - getting things done and meeting the expectations of others and yourself - you have an issue that touches your very core. Your integrity is constantly questioned, as people can't count on you to meet basic expectations. You let others down. You let yourself down. It is painful. So you defend yourself, often putting up walls, blocking help. The child with executive functioning challenges doesn't know why they have this problem so they assume that they are bad people, lazy, unmotivated, etc. Alas, parents and teachers often make the same erroneous conclusion. The end result can be a child (or adult) who puts up some strong walls to keep away help because they don't think that they can be helped.

Helping a resistant adolescent understand their brain and executive functions is the place to begin. One of my clients read Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager's Guide to Executive Functions (Kulman 2011) aloud to her 15-year-old son. She said that he was relieved to find out what was the source of his challenges. It got through his resistance and opened him up to be willing to take the course I offer families.

Which brings me to the next point. Part of a teen's makeup often seems to be resistance to doing anything their parent suggests. It can be very hard to help your own child. It is completely unfair but often true. So, while you may be willing and even able to help your child, you might do well to find a third party to teach the whole family together so that the child isn't singled out. This is where it can be helpful to seek out a trained educational therapist to help with getting through the resistance before teaching the strategies. The whole family will benefit.

Watch this column over the coming months for more tips on executive functioning for parents.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.

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Tip #4: The Forgetful Child

The mother of a delightful, creative, and rather hyper 6th grader, blurted out in frustration, "Why can't he ever remember to brush his hair? Every morning I have to send him back upstairs to brush his hair. He brushes his teeth. Why can't he remember to brush his hair?"

I turned to her son and asked, "Where do you keep your hairbrush?"

"In the drawer."

"Well," I replied, "that explains it. You just broke the first rule of time." I could see the light bulbs go on in all of their faces. Now they understood the source of the problem. Next we had to solve the issue using what I call in the Sklar Process™—the first truth of time—out of sight out of mind.

The time challenged tend to be visual thinkers who have deficits in executive functioning. Specifically they often struggle with working memory, goal directed persistence, and sustaining focus. These are all traits that can make it difficult to create new habits.

I explained to this family that for years I had been unsuccessful remembering to floss my teeth daily. Just recently, I realized that my floss was kept in a drawer—out of sight and thus out of mind! Once I moved the floss to sit right next to the toothpaste, I have suddenly become remarkably consistent with flossing my teeth. I'm creating a new habit by piggybacking on an old established habit—brushing my teeth before I go to bed.

To solve this family's hair brushing issue I suggested the hairbrush be kept directly next to his toothbrush or toothpaste. Having the brush in plain sight as he brushes his teeth will increase the odds of his remembering a task that doesn't have a lot of importance to this 11-year-old male.

If your child is forgetful, use the first rule of time, out of sight out of mind. Problem-solve your issue by keeping the object, or the task, in sight so there is a visual reminder.

Educational therapists can help your family solve problems around many issues caused by deficits in executive functioning.

Watch this column over the coming months for more tips on executive functioning for parents.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com

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Tip #5: Make Time VIsible to Help the Time-Challenged Child

Families are often referred to me because their child is struggling in school and the cause has boiled down to poor time management, an executive function. Poor time management is rooted in the fundamental problem with time itself. It is invisible. Time is an abstract concept that we cannot see or touch.

This invisible abstract nature of time is a serious problem for a time-challenged brain. This brain, like mine, has no internal awareness of the passage of time. I have no idea if minutes or hours have passed. I have gone on vacation and lost days, thinking it was Tuesday when it was really Thursday.

To complicate things further we often feel like time has a variable speed. Sometimes it seems to go fast, like when we are having fun. And other times it seems to go slowly, like when we are waiting in the car for someone to come out of the grocery store.

For children or adolescents, abstract time is real problem. They often believe that homework is going to take up ALL of their time which prompts procrastination and a "play now" attitude that pushes homework into the evening hours with increased fatigue, missed bedtimes, and shortened tempers all around.

The simplest strategy to make time concrete and visible for your child is to place analog clocks, old-fashioned face clocks, in all those places where they get lost in time. Examples are in front of computers, next to the TV, in the shower, bathrooms, where they eat breakfast, and where they do homework. I recommend small alarm or travel clocks because unlike wall clocks, these little clocks can be placed directly in the line of sight.

I ask my families to use analog clocks versus digital clocks because an analog clock gives us a picture of the spatial aspect of time. You can actually "see" the passage of time. You see the past—how long have I been doing this math? And you can see the future—how long before I need to get ready for soccer?. One caveat is to be sure that your child can read an analog clock. Many young people including some young adults have grown up relying only on digital clocks.

I consider the analog clock positioned in multiple places around the home to be critical support for those with a time-challenged brain. Having analog clocks all around my home is key to my productivity. Help your family focus on time by using analog clocks.

Watch this blog over the coming months for more parent tips to help your child with executive functioning.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award-winning book:
Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com

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Tip #6: See the Future to Meet Deadlines

As a parent you are probably familiar with this delaying tactic, your child comes home with a project from school and he or she says something like, "I've got lots of time. It's not due for a month." You urge them to start right away and your message is not well received. At best you end up being accused of nagging.

Part of the problem lies in the brain. First, with the time-challenged brain—one with a deficit in the executive function of time management—it is critical to make time concrete and visible. To do this I recommend students and families use monthly calendars where they can be easily seen. A monthly calendar not only shows the present date and a list of commitments, it also gives you a picture of the future. The picture of the future space of time — the time between when a project is assigned and when it is due — is critical when it comes to meeting a deadline.

Today many people maintain electronic calendars and while I am a big fan and user of technology, electronic-based calendars have a few of serious limitations. For starters they are usually "out of sight" on a device, only accessible after multiple clicks. In families it is often one parent who manages the family electronic calendar. This means that he or she is the only one who knows what is going on or what is coming up in the future, which makes them the default "executive functioning machine" for the whole family. This is a role that gets really tiring. The other problem is that the view of the future is limited to the screen size so it can be hard to get a clear quick picture of an expanse of time.

For these reasons I recommend using old-fashioned paper calendars. You need ones that have enough space for each day to write down necessary information. A family calendar needs to be where it can be easily seen, not on the back of a door that is always opened or a spot most people just walk past. Encourage your children to add events to the family calendar. In fact I always want my older students to post calendars in their room — perhaps a printout of three months — so they can see the space of time over a quarter to help them manage the requirements of multiple classes. You might also encourage your student to cross off each day to bring home the visual point that the deadline is getting closer. There are free downloadable calendars and planners at donnayoung.org. If you download a calendar to go into a binder, be sure to print it off on card stock so that it will last a whole month without ripping out its holes.

Learning to depend on the view of a month is a critical part of improving executive functioning. Trained educational therapists will be able to help the whole family develop effective strategies to meet project deadlines.

Watch this blog over the coming months for more parent tips to help your child with executive functioning.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award-winning book:
Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com

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Tip #7: The Importance of Analog Watches

If the brain has executive functioning deficits it lacks an internal sense of the passing of time. The best way to get around the problem is to be able to "see" the passage of time by using an "old-fashioned" analog timepiece. That's one with a round face with numerals and lines representing 12 hours. In a previous TipI talked about the important difference between analog and digital clocks .

In this Tip I want to focus on watches.

Today a huge number of people don't wear watches. When asked why, they say they don't need one because they have a… cell phone. Yes, you can check the time on a cell phone but where do you keep it? It is usually in a pocket, or in a purse, or in a backpack, where it is out of sight and out of mind thus making time out of sight and out of mind too.

My adult son refused to wear watch because he had a cell phone. Every Christmas and birthday I had offered to buy him a watch. No, he didn't need one. Then, last fall I got an email with the subject line: Felt like a 14-year-old. He wrote that in class that day a professor had yelled at him for taking out his cell phone in class to check the time. He provided the link to the watch he wanted me to get him. With "one click" shopping this mother was happy to send the watch. That was the moment in time when I knew he finally had an adult executive functioning system. Hallelujah!

Before you run out and buy watches for your family, and you, remember these points:

  • Buy analog watches not digital watches.
  • Don't pick out and buy a watch for someone else because watches are a very personal fashion statement.
  • Adolescents especially have strong opinions about what makes a "cool" watch. They won't wear it if they don't like it.
  • Is the dial large enough to easily read?
  • Is it comfortable to wear for long periods of time?
  • Can your child read an analog clock? Teach them if they can't or have your educational therapist teach them.

One of my life's goals is to make wearing watches a symbol of ultimate coolness. Get your time-challenged child a watch and perhaps one for you too. Everyone's executive functioning will improve.

Watch this column over the coming months for more tips for parents on executive functioning.

Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to DO—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.

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Tip #8: Seven Steps for Homework Planning

Having a "plan" before you start your homework is a skill all students need to develop. Once you have made time visible by using clocks, watches, and calendars, it is time to make the homework plan visible. Your job is to help your child develop the habit of creating a to-do list, so you are NOT the one to write the list for them. They need to do it for themselves.

For some reason it is more fun to write on a whiteboard than it is on a piece of paper. So I recommend students use a small tablet-sized whiteboard for their daily to-do planning. Here are seven steps to help your child develop the executive functioning skill of planning ahead:

    1. Develop the homework planning habit by linking it to an existing habit, like getting a snack when he or she gets home from school.
    2. Keep the little white board in sight where the child will see it when he or she gets home, perhaps on the counter right next to the after-school snack space.
    3. Have them write down each subject they have homework in. Include an estimate of how long that they think it will take to complete it. With an analog clock in sight they can make a game of seeing how close they come to meeting their estimate.
    4. Be sure they check their monthly calendar to include any projects that need to be worked on.
    5. Have them write down their fun "reward" activity that they will do AFTER their homework is done.
    6. As they complete each homework task they can cross it off or erase it.
    7. Put the homework in the binder and backpack to get it back to school.

If your child has chores or responsibilities to do after school they should also write those down to be completed prior to the reward activity.

Prioritizing which homework assignment to do first will vary. Some people like to start with something that is easy to do so they have the satisfaction of completing something which makes it is easier to get started on the harder homework. Others like to tackle the hardest one first. Freedom to choose can be a very important motivator for some students.

Remember it takes YEARS to develop our brain's executive skills. Be patient and supportive. It takes modeling, training, and reminding at the beginning of this process but it CAN be done. Developing this planning habit of work before play will pay off big in the long run. It is a crucial life skill.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools or Executive Functioning Success. Learn more at www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.

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Tip #9: Homework Meltdowns, the Brain, and the Space of Time

Is your child overbooked? When I work with families one of the first things we do is to have everyone at the table draw a mind map of all the activities that take up time, and space, in their week. First they draw a little picture of themselves in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Around that image I have them draw little icons for what they do in a week. For a child those activities might include: hours in school, sports, scouts, lessons, clubs, tutors, religious activities, chores, friends, personal activities, and homework. Once we have this picture, we figure out how much time is required for each of these activities during the week. For instance, soccer practice, including transportation time and getting dressed, can take up to two hours+. Most players have practice two or more times a week and there may be additional hours for games or tournaments.

Now it's time to create a second picture of the week— a picture that shows the space of time you have available to do things in a week. For this activity you need a form that has seven columns, one for each day of the week. Each column is divided into 30-minute blocks, from getting up to going to bed. Using your first mind map, you now block out all of your committed time, the times you don't have any choice over, excluding at this point homework. What you want to develop is a visual image of the "empty space" in your week or the open space when your student can do homework.

Looking down at the empty or open spaces in a week can be a real eye opener for both parents and students. In our striving to be the best possible parents with the best possible well-rounded child, it is very easy to overbook a child, and the whole family, until the stress boils over with frustration when homework isn't getting done. Take a look at the space of your child's week, and yours. Are you all booked solid with no downtime?

If children have executive functioning challenges, and/or learning challenges, it is very difficult for these children to be motivated to squeeze their depleted energy into focus on homework. Due to packed days their brain is literally drained of the ability to focus, persevere, and sustain emotional control—hence the meltdowns. Remember, you can't do it all. You have to make choices. I remember one mother of a burned out and highly resistant fourth grader looking at the picture of her daughter's week and commenting that next fall they wouldn't schedule so many activities. By our fifth meeting they announced that the daughter was dropping her 7 AM flute class because she didn't really like the flute. She still had afternoon piano.

If your overbooked child is struggling and having a negative effect on everyone around them, an educational therapist can help with teaching time management skills to the whole family. Many educational therapists are trained to teach time management. It can be life changing to get a picture of just where your time goes in a week so you can plan for a balanced life—not a crazy and overbooked life—a life that has time to complete quality homework without meltdowns.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success, the core of The Sklar Process.™ Learn more at: www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.

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Tip #10: A Great "To-Do" Tool

Tip # 10: A Great "To-Do" Tool
One of the best tools to support executive functions is a white board. I'm not talking about one kept away on a wall where people don't walk past it very often. I'm not talking about a small one on the front of the refrigerator. I'm talking about a bigger board, about 2.5' x 3,' that is attached to a collapsible three-legged stand. Picture one being used by a presenter at a meeting and you have got the idea.

My daughter taught me to use the portable white board as a time tool. It was always in our dining room where I taught my private reading students. Each weekend she would take it over, creating a list of what she needed to accomplish to meet the demands of her college-prep high school. She would list each subject along with the time circle (described below) to represent the estimated amount of time each task would take. She would always be sure to write down something fun to do too. That helped to motivate her to do the work. As she worked through her list she would wander into the dining room and erase tasks or time circles to show her progress. It was great for me because with the board in the dining room I never had asked her if she was doing her homework. I could "see" her doing it!

When I work with families I recommend a board that can be used by the whole family to help everyone get things done. It works because it is kept in sight where everyone walks past it often. It folds up when you have company.

Here's how to use this great tool:

      1. Give every family member their own section of the board, perhaps even their own color.
      2. In their section they list what they both need and want to do on that day or weekend.
      3. They estimate the space of time they are going to spend on each task. Visually represent that space of time with small circles that mirror the face of an analog clock. If it will take a full hour, darken in the whole circle. If it is going to take 15 minutes, then darken in one-fourth of the circle. For example: if an event is going to take 2 1/2 hours, you would draw two circles completely filled in, followed by a circle filled in halfway.
      4. As tasks are completed they get crossed off. This helps everyone "see" what other family members need to do. It also allows parents to monitor the status of homework completion without constant nagging. Give praise as work gets done. If it isn't getting done, don't go to the "yelling" mode with threats etc. Instead, take a deep breath, pause, and approach your child like this: "I was just walking past the white board and I noticed you haven't started your homework. Is there anything I can do to help you get started?" Task initiation, or getting started, is an executive function skill that many children and adults struggle with.

Oh, and this dry erase board is NOT the parent's list for the child or other family members. While you might be able to negotiate adding to their list, the child should be writing and checking off his or her own list. This is how independent time-management skills develop.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marydee Sklar is an educator and learning coach in Portland, Oregon and author of the award winning book: Seeing What I Need to Do—Visual Tools for Executive Functioning Success, the core of The Sklar Process.™ Learn more at: http://www.ExecutiveFunctioningSuccess.com.