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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Raising a "Normal" Child - Learning to be Successful

My previous post introduced you to my family's horrifying discovery that we are not perfect. As parents, we made mistakes in the education and social upbringing of our son.Once strong willed, he was now fraught with anxiety issues and had difficulties engaging in social activities at school. The next phase of our lives involved acceptance, communication, and better expectations.

Anxiety can be frustrating
My son and I started having afternoon "conversations" where he would tell me about his day from going to school to coming home. At first he did not want to tell me about his "bad days" because he didn't want me to be mad. But, since I got called or emailed practically every day about his behavior, he learned he couldn't hide "bad days" from me. I also taught him, by being calm and nonjudgmental, that I accepted he would have "bad days," but this did not make him a "bad person." He had a hard time articulating his feelings, and many times his answers to questions were "I don't know." So we worked on finding the right words to describe various moments of his day.

Through these conversations, I discovered that he had difficulty with perspective thinking, the ability to "guess" how others see you, and managing your words and body language to affect how others see you. He didn't always understand why he got in trouble, because he didn't know that something he did could be upsetting to someone else. At first, his response to conflicts were "I didn't do it." We were able to graduate to "All I said was..." "It was an accident when my ball hit her..." or "I didn't like it when...so I did this..."  And the goal was to get to "I think he got upset because he thought..."

Another skill he needed help on was organization. A little rant here - since kindergarten he has had on his report card "Demonstrates effective organizational skills." Now, not once have I seen any indication that "organizational skills" was ever taught in the classroom until fourth grade, when he was handed an agenda book with no clear instructions on what to do with it. When you are disorganized, you lose supplies needed to complete tasks, homework, and directions to complete projects. Disorganization causes you to lose time finding those lost items. It causes you to become the weak link in any group activity.

Perspective thinking and organization are two skills that can be difficult to learn if you do not have high executive functioning. But they are skills that schools expect you to know as soon as you enter first grade. And if the school won't take the time to teach your child, it's up to you to learn about executive functioning skills and how to help your child learn them.

Executive Function

To get technical, executive functions are a set of mental skills that your brain works through to achieve desired outcomes. When someone has problems with executive function, common diagnoses are used to account for his or her deficient skills: ADD/ADHD, autism, depression, learning disabilities, degenerative diseases, or brain injuries. After constant conversations with teachers, his councilor, and a child psychologist, I came to my own conclusion - the school system expected him to have skills that he was never fully taught.

When I put him in day care, the constant "getting in trouble" created a heavy weight in his psyche that caused him to be afraid of adults, and the other kids who caused the adults to scold him. His ability to relate to ANYONE degraded, and from this experience was born the monster of Anxiety. It was this monster that caused him to fall behind in learning executive function skills.

It was supposed to be in these formative toddler years that he should have learned to initiate activities on his own, but he was too afraid that the activities he chose would get him in trouble. He should have learned how to act appropriately in a group, but he felt that all the members of his group were waiting for a chance to get him in trouble. He should have learned how to ask for help, and follow simple two- or three-step directions. But how could he ask for help from the adults who scolded him all the time, and when they asked him to do something he would be so afraid of doing it wrong he just wouldn't do it at all.

Now, at the time, I did not realize this was the root of his anxiety. It wasn't until he was eight years old that I was finally able to piece together the possible cause of his "bad behavior." I had to learn about child psychology, cognitive theory, behavior problems, the causes for them, and the methods by which to "unlearn" these harmful behaviors.
copyright Bill Watterson

Bad Behavior

Little Suzie is a kindergartner who doesn't like to share, gets bossy with classmates when in a group, and pushes other kids when she gets angry instead of "using her words." Does any of this sound familiar? If it doesn't sound like your child, it most likely sounds like a classmate your child has told you about. These are all "bad behaviors" that are disruptive in the classroom and can lead to loss of friends, poor participation, and hightened agressive behavior. But is she an only child? Is there something going on in her life that you don't know about? Did someone even teach her to "use her words?"

In today's "common core" classroom, teaching social and organizational skills no longer have a place in the teacher's program. Kindergarten is supposed to be where children learn these valuable skills, but instead they are learning to read, write, and count to 100 while understanding the concepts of adding and subtracting. They are not taught useful "feeling" words to use with their peers, or how how to ask for help when trying to solve a conflict (as opposed to "tattling"). They aren't taught to think about how the other person feels. When children don't get along, teachers immediately intervene, rather than letting them work it out on their own (unless it starts to get physical), probably because the disruption gets in the way of curriculum learning.

When kindergartners are not taught "to behave," the behaviors tend to follow the child through the rest of elementary school. If the child isn't given every opportunity to learn how to behave in an appropriate manner by fifth grade, it will be even more difficult (but not impossible) to teach them the skills needed to function through middle school and high school.

Teaching the Skills

If your child is not doing well in school, doesn't focus on school work, complains of not having friends, and gets aggressive when feeling threatened, your child may need help to improve executive functioning skills:
image courtesy of khunaspix
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  • time management
  • change focus when needed
  • organize tasks and assignments
  • remember spoken or written details
  • use appropriate words and gestures to communicate
  • use past experience in learning new things
Two books that I found most helpful in teaching me to teach my son these important skills are Thinking About You, Thinking About Me, by Michelle Garcia Winner, and The Executive Functioning Workbook for Teens, by Sharon A. Hansen. Although the second book is designed for teens, it can be modified for helping older elementary-aged kids.

A Word About Disabilities

I do not subscribe to the idea that ADD and ADHD does not exist. But I do vehemently agree that it is the most over-diagnosed "disability" in our school system today. High functioning autism may also be one of the most MIS-diagnosed "disability." And giftedness is possibly the least understood "disability" of all. Anxiety and depression are "disabilities." Learning "disabilities" like Executive Function Disorder, Dyslexia, and Auditory Processing Disorder are also very debilitating barriers to achieving academic success. But why do I put disability in quotes? Because I have worked with people with severe disabilities, and the most important thing they have taught me is that they have the ABILITY to have a successful, fulfilling life. And if they can do it, anyone labeled with a "disability" has that ability as well.

What I want to do is avoid those labels as much as possible, by addressing the ways we can help all children succeed at learning. Every child is capable of learning, the differences are in the manner in which they learn and the time it takes them to learn a skill. The more you get to know the true nature of your own child, the easier it will be to help you discover the method that they can use to learn a skill. The first step is getting your child to open up to you and use the language skills he has to tell you how he is feeling. Sit down with your child, start a conversation, and ask her in the most sincerest way possible: "How was your day?"

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