How to Support a “Scattered” Child

8081866129_45189a1250_z“How can my child be so smart, yet fail every subject?” This is a common question from parents of bright children. The answer: your child is smart, but scattered. Peg Dawson, international author and presenter on executive functioning, described the impact of executive functioning in her presentation to special education staff in the Federal Way Public Schools.

Executive functions are brain-based skills that help us to be successful in monitoring and achieving goals. They include response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention, task initiation, planning/prioritization, organization, time-management, goal-oriented persistence, and metacognition. Executive functioning deficits are common in children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and in others who are neurodivese.

The impacts can have huge effects on their behaviors at school and home.

Common ASD deficits

  • Emotional reactions inconsistent with the incident

  • Difficulty being flexible when something changes

  • Struggling with sustaining attention in non-preferred situations

  • Impacts on prioritization, often seen in a child’s written expression

  • Difficulties creating and maintaining organization systems

  • Inability to self-reflect and change behavior based on these reflections

hyperactivityCommon ADHD deficits

  • Impulsive behavior, especially when the reward is immediate

  • Struggling to remember several steps to a task and implementing those steps effectively

  • Difficulty attending when the situation is not stimulating

  • Procrastinating on homework or chores

  • Struggling to plan out steps of a project

  • Inaccurately estimating how long something will take

  • Inability to persist towards a goal

How to Help

It’s our job as adults to help children develop these skills and provide opportunities for them to practice. For children with executive functioning deficits, these skills may not be learned from their surroundings; they need to be explicitly taught. Until they are developed enough to practice, adults will need to be surrogates for our kid’s executive skills.

Here are some ideas for facilitating the development of these skills:

  • Provide alternatives to highly stimulating environments. It may be hard for the child to effectively use executive skills when overstimulated.

  • Give close-ended tasks with explicit steps.

  • Shorten tasks or provide breaks

  • Make a checklist for your child first and show him how to use it; then, help your child to make his own checklist.

  • Give 3:1 positives to correctives feedback, with the positives specific to executive functioning (i.e. “Nice job leaving that cookie on the counter, I know that is not easy to do sometimes”; “You did great adjusting to our change of plans”, “I like how you made a goal and then planned out the steps to achieve it”

  • Ask your child two simple questions: “What do you have to do? When are you going to do it?” This helps facilitate the process of goal setting, planning, time management, and task initiation. Then, hold them accountable to their plan.

Want more information about how to help support your child’s executive functioning skills? Consider one of Aspiring Youth’s social skills groups, or red Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, which is an excellent book that helps explain executive skills and how to intervene.


057-aspiring-headshots-webBreea. M. Rosas, Ed.S. graduated from Central Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2013. Her undergraduate major was Psychology, with a minor in Family Studies. She completed her Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology from CWU in 2016. She is currently a school psychologist for Federal Way Public Schools. Breea has worked with Aspiring Youth as a program coordinator/facilitator for summer camps and served on the curriculum development team. Additionally, Breea has experience working with adults of varying abilities, including autism spectrum disorder, as well youth in the school setting.

Through our eyes: School

The “Through our eyes” series invites you to hear and learn from the perspectives of young adults in our community living with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, learning disabilities or other social challenges.

Asperger’s (along with other autism spectrum disorders) sometimes come in a nice little package along with ADD/HD, depression and social anxiety. And, naturally, these did impact my school life. I always struggled with focusing and developing my social skills the most.

I went to a Montessori school until I was twelve, so kids had to do hands-on education where we would sometimes scatter across the classroom to work on one math assignment, one reading assignment, one writing assignment and one “other” or elective. We wrote all of our progress on a little worksheet of what we did. Because I was so easily distracted, whether it was because someone making noise or because I was spacing out too much, I didn’t always finish my work, so sometimes I would have to stay inside during recess to finish it.

I did have friends (or at least, acquaintances) that I got along with, but because I got nervous and didn’t know how to behave around my peers, I would try to spend time with people outside my age group. I guess it was because that they were more patient around me and understood some of what I was going through in life, so I could rely on them for advice.

I hopped around from service to service trying to “alleviate” the problem, but nothing ever really worked until my college years. I was in something called the Autism Spectrum Navigation Program (ASN for short) at Bellevue College. I’m not really sure how, but having a navigation assistant and taking classes on things like self-advocacy and job hunting for people on the spectrum really helped me be more responsible about school.

School life wasn’t horrible though. Since I have a fixation on creative writing, English class was always my best subject. I was always excited when my teachers in middle and high school announced an assignment involving creative writing or using a favorite movie or game as the subject of a compare and contrast essay. I also managed to avoid hanging out with kids my age that would have obviously been a bad influence on me.

Currently, I am on course to graduate in the fall of this year with an Associates Degree in Digital Media Arts (which is basically an umbrella term for video production, video games, animation, graphic design etc.). I am really glad that despite my challenges, I have been able to make it this far. I’m really looking forward to the future outside of school.

If your student is having trouble focusing in school or building lasting friendships, consider Aspiring Youth’s programs for children and teens such as our social skills groups or individual tutoring.


Sara Breidenbach is an intern helping with Aspiring Youth summer camps. She is also a student at Bellevue College where she will graduate with an Associates Degree in Digital Media Arts in the fall of 2016.

There’s an app for that: online resources for mental well-being and support

One of the questions I’m freqbooks-484766_1280uently asked by our young clients and their parents is, “What other resources are out there for [insert their concern here]?” I chuckle at how obvious a topic this can be, especially for our blog, but seeking out other resources can be helpful.

First and foremost: if you have any psychological concerns, of course seek out a mental health professional. If you are looking for social skills coaching, Aspiring Youth is a great resource.

What exists as easy-to-access, supplementary resources for adolescents, young adults and their parents? There are many, but let’s take a look at a few I like and, in some cases, personally use.

How to ADHD

Jessica McCabe is a Los Angeles actress who, as an adult, received a diagnosis of 23280349432_a86bbcdc28_zADHD. She researched what that means, the likely effects on her life and how to overcome it, resulting in her very engaging YouTube series: How to ADHD. She is not a clinician, nevertheless her insights are well-informed. This includes tips for living with and overcoming some of the challenges of ADHD and other diagnoses.

Autism sensory simulators

Many who have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum experience sensations very idiosyncratically: some are sensitive to touch, some to lights or sounds and, for others, smell is overwhelming. For those with more neurotypical development, these challenges are difficult to imagine. Thankfully, some wonderful online simulations can illustrate these experiences, often created by someone with an autism spectrum diagnosis. Mashable collected five great representations of these.

Apps for to-do lists

For some (and I’m squarely in this camp), doing routine tasks is a serious challenge. “I’ll do it later,” really translates to, “I fully intend on doing it, and I’ll do it when – oh! I love this song! Did you know that the composer was inspired by – wait. What was I saying?”

Different apps exist for making tasks more enjoyable, or at least memorable. Habitica (my favorite) truly gamifies to-do lists and daily tasks. In this role playing game (RPG), your character gains experience points and levels for completing tasks and takes damage for tasks left unfinished. With group challenges, quests, and bosses – plus an extremely supportive forum community– Habitica provides an opportunity for me to monitor my lists and check off items as I complete them. Oh, and it’s also free to play!

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a big deal in the psychology world. My colleagues and I use it within a variety of situations.  I checked out Headspace, and the feedback I’ve received from clients has been overwhelmingly positive. The program gently guides you in different mindfulness modules, all in 10-minute portions. While it’s a paid app (with a free trial), I think it’s worth it.

Datingrelationship-1261216_1280

I have written about this topic previously because it is so important and comes up often with adolescents and young adults.  Advice on the internet ranges from laughable to outright scary and misogynistic. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: don’t visit websites by people in the pickup artist (PUA) or seduction community. Their advice often relies on negating consent or assuming that one person is owed affection and/or a date, and your curious visit nabs them more site traffic and subsequent income.

My favorite resource in the dating domain is Dr. NerdLove, as he provides straightforward advice recognizing that girlfriends/boyfriends are not titles or prizes, but actual people with different needs and autonomy. Geek’s Dream Girl­ is another resource that offers solid, concrete advice from a woman’s perspective. While it’s no longer updated (though there are hints at its impending resurrection), the info is still there and accessible.

Hopefully, these suggestions give you a start. As I said, there are many resources out there that can be used in conjunction with social skills coaching.

What are your favorites? Feel free to comment below with your suggestions for online resources.


R BoccamazzoR. Boccamazzo, PsyD, LMHCA

Dr. Boccamazzo is a doctor of clinical psychology and social skills coach with Aspiring Youth. In addition, he is the clinical director of TakeThis.org, a national nonprofit focused on mental health and the gamer community, runs a private psychology practice in Bellevue offering individual therapy and psychological assessment to adolescents and adults, and provides parent and clinician trainings on technology in psychology. Much of his work focuses on high functioning autism, problematic technology usage, social anxiety, trauma and games. In his spare time, he enjoys acting, cooking, board games and video games.

Changing behavior: The ABCs

Understanding behaviors can be… challenging. We often hear from parents and teachers:

“She won’t stop doing it, even though I’ve asked her to stop.”

wood-cube-473703_640“It doesn’t matter what punishment I give. He still does it.”

To truly understand the behavior and how to change it, we need to know exactly what the challenging behavior looks like, what “triggers it”, and what happens after.

The ABCs of Behavior

  • The antecedent (what happens right before)

  • The behavior (what the child is actually doing)

  • The consequence (what happens immediately after)

When we understand the consequence, we often understand the function, the “why.”

There are four main functions that maintain behavior:

  • Escape. The child is doing something to escape or avoid doing an activity. Picture this: Every day, after a teacher finishes the social studies lesson, she moves on to math. The child has a melt down and is sent to the principal. Can you guess what he’s trying to avoid?

  • Attention. Some kids do things so they can get attention from their peers or adults. A girl consistently makes inappropriate jokes and her classmates laugh, reinforcing her behavior. What can be less obvious is when the attention is negative. After one joke, the teacher asks her to step in the hall so they can talk. Despite being punished, she’s still getting attention for her behavior.

  • 2105532204_3eacd04af5_zTangible. Things obtained can also maintain behavior. This could be a physical object or a preferred activity. A 13-year-old boy argues with his mom and is sent to his room after dinner for the rest of the evening, where he plays video games. Normally after dinner is electronic-free family time. He is inadvertently being rewarded for his behavior.

  • Self-stimulatory. This can be the most difficult function to address. It’s when a child likes the sensory or stimulatory sensation the behavior provides. A boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is constantly getting out of his seat during teacher instruction. Regardless of the punishment, getting up and moving around provides a stimulatory reinforcer.

 So what can we do?

Once we understand why the child is doing the behavior, we can better understand what to do to change it. Recognize though that it’s not always straightforward. Sometimes multiple functions of the behavior make looking at the antecedent vital.

8081866129_45189a1250_zIf a child has a melt down before each math lesson and is sent to the principal, the antecedent might tell us that he is escaping math. But the child also likes the one-on-one attention he gets from the principal. Now there are two functions of the behavior.

The goal is to let the child have his or her needs met in a positive way. One possible option might be that the child does 8 out of 12 math problems and then gets to spend 10 minutes with the teacher, eventually increasing the math problems and having the attention switch from the principal to the teacher.

So next time you’re struggling to change the behavior of your kid, think about the ABCs and get creative about ways to have your children’s needs met when they’re doing the appropriate behaviors.


Breea M. Rosas, B.A., Ed. S. Candidate

Breea graduated from Central Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2013. Her undergraduate major was Psychology, with a minor in Family Studies. She completed the coursework for an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology in Spring 2015, with an anticipated graduation date of Spring 2016 upon the completion of an internship with the Franklin Pierce School District. Professionally, Breea has worked with Aspiring Youth as a lead facilitator for summer camp and served on the curriculum development team. Additionally, Breea has experience working with adults of varying abilities, including autism spectrum disorder, as well youth in the school setting. She is interested in social emotional learning, educational implications of social/emotional and behavioral disorders, supporting youth with behavioral disorders, and the trajectory of students with disabilities post-high school. In her spare time, she likes to read, particularly historical fiction and non-fiction, bake, and spend time with her family.

Photo credits: Child screaming; Girl in class

Increase activity. Increase achievement.

hyperactivityMany of the kids we know and love show signs of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

We often see this interfering with their school performance. A study recently published in Clinical Neuropsychology supported the idea that children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have better cognitive performance when they’re allowed to engage in physical activity.

What the study found:

The researchers compared a small group of typically developing 10 to 17-year-olds with a group who had ADHD (both inattentive and combined symptoms). Participants were required to engage in a cognitive performance task, and the intensity and frequency of their movements were measured while they performed the task. Basically, they found that the kids with ADHD engaged in more intense movements when they got the answer to the cognitive task correct, compared to the typically developing group.

What does this mean?

I know what you’re thinking: “Hyperactive kids do better when they’re active? No way!” But what the researchers actually found was that children who have ADHD — not only combined-typed but also inattentive-type — engage in more intense movement when answering questions. The researchers believe kids with ADHD actually do better when they engage in movement to self-regulate their alertness. Allowing them to move can help improve cognitive performance.

How to advocate in school:

Kids with ADHD need to move! Even if there aren’t signs of hyperactivity, it’s apparent that even inattentive kids give their best performance when they’re allowed to engage in a physical activity. Present this idea next time you are in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 meeting. Advocate for some possible accommodations for your kid, such as:

  • Allowing the student an alternative to sitting in a chair:

    • Using a wiggle seat

    • Swapping out a chair for a Bosu ball9320845849_4ea7da5a4a_z

    • Standing and using an easel

  • Letting the student take breaks throughout the day:

    • Walk the track

    • Run a teacher errand

    • Help deliver papers in the office

Ensure these accommodations are in place during state testing, class work and assessment time. Remember: these accommodations could be available to your child, but that does not mean he or she HAS to use them. Maybe the team decides walking the track is an option, but he or she would rather deliver papers to classes.

Do what works for your child’s needs so that those cognitive juices are flowing!


Breea M. Rosas, B.A., Ed. S. Candidate

Breea graduated from Central Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in 2013. Her undergraduate major was Psychology, with a minor in Family Studies. She completed the coursework for an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology in Spring 2015, with an anticipated graduation date of Spring 2016 upon the completion of an internship with the Franklin Pierce School District. Professionally, Breea has worked with Aspiring Youth as a lead facilitator for summer camp and served on the curriculum development team. Additionally, Breea has experience working with adults of varying abilities, including autism spectrum disorder, as well youth in the school setting. She is interested in social emotional learning, educational implications of social/emotional and behavioral disorders, supporting youth with behavioral disorders, and the trajectory of students with disabilities post-high school. In her spare time, she likes to read, particularly historical fiction and non-fiction, bake, and spend time with her family.