Homeschool Flashback #5 Executive Functions

Ahhh, executive functions. We love them, and when they are lacking we long for them. Children with AD/HD struggle to develop vital executive functions such as organization and planning. Students with learning disabilities and struggling learners (officially identified or not) often have some degree of executive dysfunction.

Any experienced teacher can look at a student’s notebook and tell if that student is able to organize and access the information and materials they will need. Intelligence plays a part in academic success, sure, but the organized student typically comes out on top. Executive functions help students to show what they know. If they have completed an assignment but can’t locate it the teacher has no way to assess their performance. A very bright student who forgets about an assignment or fails to complete the work even though he has the capacity to do so will be out-performed by an average student with the executive functioning skills to complete tasks accurately and on time.

Children with learning challenges work harder and longer to get results and deficits in executive functioning impact all areas of life, not just the academic realm. Consider, for example, the child who forgets he made plans with one friend and is off with another when the first friend comes calling. Or the child who struggles with time management and is chronically disorganized causing her to be late for practice again because she can’t find her mouthguard.

Some children just naturally seem to develop executive functions as they mature. Others need much more direct instruction than our modeling alone provides. In the picture above, you can see the rudiments of Josh’s attempt to develop some executive function skills. He has written out the date and the tasks he needs to accomplish each day. He put a check mark next to completed work. Josh’s system is far from sophisticated, but it reflects his burgeoning attempts to incorporate some organization into his day.

Is Josh’s method acceptable? It wouldn’t be what I would choose, but Josh is a unique individual. I had shown Josh various organizers and examples that I would use but he had to find something that worked for him. The picture shows what he came up with, and although there are many things I would do differently the idea was for Josh to find a system that worked for him.

It’s too bad executive function skills can’t just be absorbed by spending time with people who excel with them. The good news is that executive skills can be taught. It may take awhile, but they are so important that it’s worth the investment of time to help your children develop in these areas. Experts say that executive function skills continue to develop into the twenties, but don’t wait to start working on them until your child is already floundering. Help your young child to develop strategies to keep track of his possessions. Assist your older children in using calendars and organizational aids. Help your child write a list of what needs to get done for the day. When executive skills don’t come naturally, even the most primitive progress is just that – progress. 

A Mom Like You

In the last six weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at three different state homeschool conventions. At each conference I attend, I share information about learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorders, and Auditory Processing Disorders. More important than the facts I pass along are the real-life stories from my own family experiences. I share what didn’t work as well as what worked at least some of the time. I share some of the failures and frustrations as well as our hard-won achievements.

When my first two children graduated from our homeschool in 2006, we declared our school colors to be black and blue. We were the homeschool of hard knocks! Not only did my children struggle with learning, but I struggled to try to find better ways to teach them. One of the biggest benefits for those attending workshops for children with various special needs is to look around and realize they are not alone. There are others striving to teach children with challenges, and others who understand the difficulties families face when their child has to work harder than most for every small gain they accomplish.

What has always amazed me is how God has prompted me to share some of the hardest, most unimpressive movements of my life and that is what people are blessed by in my workshops. Sure, I offer lots of tips and practical strategies, but what people connect with is hearing a speaker who admits to not having it all together but never gave up trying. My son is a young adult now, and he comes to conferences with me. People look at the two of us as survivors, who dealt with a lot of learning challenges and came out intact. Now Josh can share his perspective, and give parents insight into why their children may act the way they do.

I’ve never had all the answers to the challenges my children faced. What I did have was a commitment to help them grow into the unique individuals God intended them to become, equipping them as best I could. Sometimes I was out of ideas for how to teach a given topic, and my kids still weren’t “getting it”. All I had to offer was reassurance that I would keep trying to find ways to help, and would not give up on them. I would be the knot at the end of the rope that they could hang onto. The message was: Mom doesn’t have all the answers but Mom will always be there with you, coming alongside until we figure something out.

Don’t underestimate the power of just being there for your children. You don’t need to know all the answers, but your kids need to know you haven’t given up on them. It’s in the safety of knowing your love is unwavering that your children find the courage to try again, fail or succeed, and try some more. Our children are far more than what they can or cannot do, and they each have something to offer. This overall supportive attitude has a far greater impact than the best teaching strategies in the world.

Years ago I had a man in his 30’s come up to talk to me after I presented my workshop, “Helping the Distractible Child”. I don’t remember which conference it was, but I will forever remember what he said to me. He explained that as a child he always had difficulty paying attention, and was constantly getting in trouble as a result. He thought he was smart enough, but couldn’t sit still and had trouble completing assignments. He tried hard to comply with the demands put on him, but always felt like he was a disappointment to his parents no matter how hard he worked. “I wish I’d had a mom like you,” he said. “One who could see the strengths and work with me.”

One day all of our children will be adults. I challenge you to be that Mom, the one who never gives up on her kids no matter what. Be that Dad, who is consistently there for his children regardless of their struggles. Be that husband or wife who sticks around during the hard times. Be that person, so that one day your adult children will be able to say, “I’m so glad I had a Mom (and Dad) like you.”

Cooking and Sensory Processing

My son Josh is not a picky eater. He’s always been good about trying new foods. If Josh resists eating something the problem he has is not usually with the taste or texture of something, but the smell.

As a young adult Josh now manages most of his sensory problems with ease. He has discovered that he enjoys cooking and decided he needed to expand the number of recipes he knows how to make. I’ve taught him the basics of meal preparation, and I compiled a list of easy-to-prepare recipes that I thought Josh would enjoy making and eating. One such recipe was “Easy Lemon Chicken”. Josh would gladly consume the final, baked version of this dish. Unfortunately, and I didn’t know this about Josh, he can’t stand the smell of lemon juice.

He’s fine with lemonade, lemon-scented soaps, cleaning wipes, and lemon jello. In fact, I can’t think of anything lemony that Josh reacted negatively to as a child. This experience revealed that there is something different and acrid for him about lemon juice and it was so hard for him to smell that concentrated lemon scent that he had difficulty just measuring it out to make the recipe.

Adding to the challenge was Josh’s tendency to be impulsive, which of course is consistent with his ADHD diagnosis. With all the ingredients, even very common and frequently used ones, Josh automatically gives them a sniff before adding them to a recipe. He tells me he needs to check to make sure the smell is consistent over time and that things should smell exactly the same way each time or something seems wrong and he feels suspicious about that ingredient. In any case, sniffing food items is a well-developed habit by now, though thankfully not in public anymore.

Josh gave the lemon juice a whiff, and had an immediate nose-wrinkling response followed by thrusting his arm as far from his nose as he could extend it. Blinking incredulously, Josh proceeded to…take another whiff from the bottle of lemon juice. Why? Partly due to impulsivity and partly due to his sensory system demanding consistency over time. He had to check again just to make sure it smelled as noxious to him as it had the first time. Yep! It still smelled awful to him, but at least he knew what to expect the second time.

Predictability is comforting to the sensory-challenged. It helps to know what to expect, even if it is still an unpleasant sensation. Better the bad sensory experience you know than the unexpected sensory experience which could prove very unsettling merely by the unpredictability factor. Josh powered through the olfactory assault as he prepared the recipe, although it wasn’t as “easy” for him as the recipe name implied.

Can Dogs have ADHD?

I walked in the door after a busy day and was greeted enthusiastically by my two goldendoodles. They wiggled and wagged their tails frantically around me, my husband, my daughter, and son as if they hadn’t seen us in days. In reality, it had only been a few hours, but it’s always nice to be welcomed home by those who are always thrilled to see you. After greeting the dogs and saying hello to the cat who watched calmly from across the room, I noticed that there were bits of debris strewn on the dining room floor. Uh-oh. There were chewed up bits of paper along with other items that had been in the trash can when I left home. There was also a trail from the kitchen into the dining room, and it looked like the dogs (or at least one of them) had been pretty busy making a mess while we were gone. I put the dogs in the back yard so we could get things cleaned up without their helpful interference.

Slapshot, who is 2 years old, at least knows how to act like a dog in trouble. He avoids eye contact, tucks his tail a bit, and slinks a little. He takes himself to the back door and waits to be let out, darting down the steps as soon as he can squeeze his 95 pound doggy self through the opening door. He doesn’t bark to be let in until we come and call him or he feels he has paid his penance.

Daisy, on the other hand, is just over a year old and is totally clueless as to what it means to be in the doghouse. She gives the same toothy grin when she’s getting her leash on to go for a walk as when we discover she has chewed up a shoe and scold her. If she is put outside so we can clean up after her, she eagerly heads out and looks over her shoulder to see if we are coming along to play with her.

I’m not sure, but if there is a doggy ADHD I think she may have it. Some of the signs are there. Let’s see. She’s definitely hyper, and enjoys jumping on and off my furniture. Multiple times. She persists despite correction and redirection of this behavior. This is consistent with the hyperactivity my two ADHD children displayed when they were young.

Impulsivity? In spades. I have to be on the alert when I walk her because if she sees something interesting she will take off on a moment’s notice and try to drag me along behind her. I suspect that dragging sensation she feels is the only way she even remembers I am with her.

Distractible? Daisy excels in this category as well. I have been training her in basic obedience skills, starting with the command to sit. At first, she just gave me that toothy grin while lunging for whatever treats I had to give her incentive to learn to sit. Then she would sit just long enough for her tail to hit the floor and she’d be back to the lunging. It would have been great if I had been trying to teach her to bounce her hind end on the floor, but I actually wanted her to sit and stay put for a little bit. I should probably mention that I also had this experience with my ADHD children!

At this point, Daisy can sit with Slapshot by her side providing a strong role model. He’s in it for the treats, but that’s o.k. After I give the command to sit, I give the command to stay. I step back and maintain eye contact while giving the hand signal for “stay”. Slapshot is an old pro with this command, and he sits still as a statue while never taking his gaze from me. Daisy watches me intently for about two seconds, but if there is a noise or movement nearby she has to look in that direction. She just has to, she can’t resist the urge. Again, not unlike my distractible kids. Yes, she wants the treat. But sometimes it’s not worth missing out on something else.

ADHD children have difficulty completing tasks. Once again, this is true of Daisy. What tasks could a dog have to do? How about eating her dinner? Slapshot is a big dog, and gobbles his food down as fast as his specially-designed-to-slow-him-down dish allows. Daisy, while not as large as Slapshot, is also a large dog who forgets to finish the food in the bowl right in front of her. While Slapshot greedily inhales his food, Daisy has trouble initiating and dawdles around her bowl. (Another executive function skill my children struggled with growing up – but never when it came to food!) After a minute or so, Daisy begins to eat. She is genuinely hungry, but will abandon her food for almost any competing stimuli. If she hears another dog barking outside, someone at the door, or even if I take a few steps away from her, she lifts her head and goes to where the action is – even if it means that Slapshot will try and finish her food once his is gone.

I’ve always said a label can be useful if it helps you find information and get support for what you are experiencing. I already live with three individuals with the ADHD diagnosis, so I am recognizing Daisy’s symptoms early on. Daisy is a delight, even if she still has to learn that being cute doesn’t cut it. My family members can be pretty delightful, too.

In addition to the scattered trash in my dining room, Daisy had pulled a box of dryer sheets off the shelf in my laundry room and had chewed up the box and scattered the sheets around the room. She did not ingest any, just spread them around. As we cleaned up the mess my son suddenly commented, “Hey! It smells pretty nice in here!” Immediately the other two ADHD individuals stopped what they were doing to take a moment to enjoy the fresh aroma caused by Daisy’s chewing and all agreed that the room smelled wonderful. Way to live in the moment, guys!

Slapshot and Daisy came back in the house once we had the mess cleared away. Daisy trotted up to me with her usual enthusiasm and toothy doggy grin. I bent over to pet her, and as she gazed lovingly up at me I realized that her typical doggy breath had been replaced by the lovely fabric softener scent of Clean Rain.

Energetic, Impulsive, and Distractible

My daughter, Beckie, is an amazing girl. She has worked through most of her sensory processing and auditory processing difficulties. She is funny, kind, and is doing well at her part-time job teaching martial arts. Beckie also has a diagnosis of ADHD, combined type. Girls are less likely than boys to be considered hyperactive, but my Beckie has that component with a capital H. I love her energy! Even now that she is an older teen, her hyperactivity is still apparent. Beckie has learned strategies to help her focus over the years, and she knows ways to help burn up her excess energy. She teaches martial arts for several hours each week. She rides her bike or walks to neighborhood destinations. When she was younger, Beckie used to race cars from our house to the end of the block, running barefoot down the sidewalk just for the pure joy of it. At home these days she listens to music on her iPod and paces or runs through the house. Our first floor is structured in such a way that Beckie can basically run laps around it. Since we have hardwood floors, she can also get a running start and go for a nice slide across the floor. It’s kind of hard on her socks, but that energy has to be expended somehow and the sliding across the floor is relatively tame. We laugh together about the time I asked her if her hair dryer had stopped working, because she was running around the house with her hair only halfway dried. Beckie explained to me that her long hair takes several minutes to dry and she had to take a break from the monotony of drying her hair so she could move around a bit. Her attention span is short, but intense. She studies very hard, but not for hours on end. After concentrating for a period of in-depth studying, Beckie tells me her brain needs to take a break and do something different for awhile. I’m actually glad that she recognizes what she needs and finds strategies that work for her. Is she distractible with a short attention span? Yes, but she can focus and sustain her attention when needed. Is she hyperactive? Absolutely, but her extra energy is often a plus. There are times when Beckie acts impulsively. For example, she walks into a room, sees me there, and grabs me for a hug. Sometimes she will spontaneously start giving me a back rub as she is going by, and it is the best 10-second back rub I’ve ever had! True, it only lasts a few seconds before she is on her way, but I do enjoy those brief moments. Beckie faces challenges from being so energetic, impulsive, and distractible. But it’s not all bad. There’s something wonderful about Beckie’s ability to spontaneously show affection and respond with enthusiasm to so many different things. She is growing as the individual she is meant to be, without the burden of trying to completely change her natural inclinations.

Homeschool Flashback #2

The assignment was to write a story, using the words listed in the box. My children always preferred to come up with their own topics to write about, and being given a list of words was too limiting for them. My daughter clearly was not excited about this particular writing task. As do many students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), she wanted to complete the assignment quickly so she could move on to more engaging tasks. She fit as many of the words as she could into the fewest sentences possible. She didn’t find a spot for one of the words in the box, but that didn’t bother her since she wasn’t interested in writing about those words in the first place. For the record, I am not the woman who was “scared of mice.” In fact, over the years we have had a number of rodent pets including hamsters and mice. I have presided over a number of shoebox burials befitting a rodent. One time I couldn’t come up with anything nice to say about Tommy, the misanthropic finger biter, who latched on to any hand with an evil mousy grimace. We had to wear thick gloves just to feed him and then we had to shake him off our hands when we were done. He leered menacingly all the time until I finally told the children to try to avoid looking him in the eye so he wouldn’t give them nightmares. The other mice and hamsters were decent pets, and were eulogized appropriately. As for the rest of the story above, I do live with my husband and children. At the time of this brief essay, my children were still young enough to be losing baby teeth and it was an event to be celebrated when another tooth became loose and fell out. Last week, I had part of a lower molar break off. Loosing a tooth at this age is no longer exciting. In fact, it’s downright disconcerting. I called my dentist at 8:00 a.m. the morning of Christmas Eve., since I was trying to be thoughtful and not disturb him when it happened the night before. I think I woke him up. I told him what had happened, and he didn’t seem to think it was an emergency. I wasn’t convinced, since it has been many years since I last lost a tooth and I didn’t anticipate losing any more as an adult. I’ve had what’s left of the tooth repaired, and was reassured that “sometimes with age these things happen.” Sigh. This homeschool flashback could have an interesting twist if it were written today – the children and the Mom could each lose a tooth!

That’s a Wrap!

This is a busy time of year and there are many activities I greatly enjoy. Some of my holiday preparations are harder to fit into my schedule. Wrapping gifts is the one thing that I tend to put off. There are a couple of reasons for my gift wrapping procrastination. First of all, I need a cleared surface to work on in order to adequately wrap presents. I need to be able to spread out a bit so I can access and measure the paper, get to the scissors, and use the tape. Individuals with ADHD tend to see all flat, empty surface space as a good spot to dump their possessions. Finding an unoccupied area to use for wrapping is not likely to happen on the first perusal of my home. Then, once I manage to get a nice area cleared off it’s a race to see if I can use it before my husband, son, or daughter spot the flat, empty surface and cover it again. Another reason I put off wrapping gifts until I can’t avoid it any longer is the tendency of my inattentive family members to somehow notice what I don’t want them to see. How is it that they can step over a laundry basket that needs taken upstairs and not even notice it, but if I inadvertently leave something unhidden they spot it immediately? It’s one of those mysteries of life. I’ve made a great discovery, though, and it will work for birthdays and any other gift wrapping occasion. If I put a movie on for them to watch, I can wrap all the gifts while my family members are mere feet away! Amazing. Those who cannot sit still and pay attention during our homeschool day can actually hyper-focus on a movie. They become so engrossed in what they are watching that I think I could wear a tutu and stand on my head and they wouldn’t notice. As long as I am the least bit surreptitious I can position myself behind my kids and get all my gifts wrapped while we watch a movie together. This strategy would probably work with a good t.v. show, too. I’ve found that many individuals with ADHD become as engrossed in the commercials as the show itself, so you can continue wrapping away until you are finished. I tend to wrap a lot of gifts at one sitting, because once I have a work space and my children are occupied I take advantage of it. Now if only they needed as much sleep as I do, I’d be all set to tackle whatever comes my way!

Homeschool Flashback #1

This was an assignment Josh did for a homeschool writing class. In addition to the ADHD, auditory processing, and sensory processing issues, Josh struggled with social nuances. Some of Josh’s struggles he understood and could identify. Other symptoms left all of us baffled, even Josh. I’m glad that even at this young age Josh knew he was smart and strong, so some of my truth messages were getting through to him in the midst of his challenges. It’s interesting to me that “I know karate” made the positives and the negatives list. Knowing karate was good for Josh, in that it provided an outlet for his excess energy and helped him develop coordination and self defense skills. It also allowed him to be part of a group sport, but one that was individualized so he could progress at his own pace. Knowing karate was a negative for Josh, because as soon as other kids found out he was training in martial arts they asked if he was a black belt and then wanted to take him on. Josh was never aggressive, so demonstrating his karate skills outside of class was not appealing to him. One of the first things most boys do in social settings is talk about their favorite sports teams and the sports they participate in. Josh was more interested in drawing and creating things than in sports, so he didn’t have much to talk about other than that he knew karate. This led to the inevitable challenges to prove his skills, which Josh did only when he absolutely had to for self defense. Even then, he ended the confrontation as soon as he could. This homeschool flashback provides a snapshot of a young boy’s emerging self perception. Teaching him at home gave me the opportunity to help him develop a balanced view of himself, which is revealed by this writing assignment as he recognizes some of his strengths despite huge challenges. By the time Josh reached adulthood, he had a mental list of positive and negative things about himself that was accurate and realistic.

Contacts in a Spoon

I consider myself to be a pretty good problem solver. I think things through, consider various angles, and make my decision based on the known facts at the time. I no longer wear contact lenses, but when I did I had a case to store them in. If I was on a trip and forgot my contact case, I would buy another case and probably pick up some contact solution since if I forgot one I’d likely have forgotten the other. When arriving at a hotel late at night when most stores are closed, upon realizing my omission, I would have been stumped as to how to store my contacts. Then I probably would have wasted a few minutes mentally berating myself for forgetting such an important item. Finally, I would conclude that I needed to head out again in search of a Wal-Mart that was open 24 hours in order to buy my needed supplies. Eventually I would come up with a solution, but not without feeling stressed and frustrated. This type of experience is very different for my outside-the-box thinking family members. In fact, they so often forget things that they take the forgetting in stride. They look for the simplest solution, and don’t sweat the fact that they don’t have exactly what is called for in the situation. With contacts, this has led to some interesting situations. Once my daughter and my husband both remembered their contact cases, but not exactly where they had set them down. In the morning, both complained that they couldn’t see very well once they put their contacts in, and suddenly realized they had inadvertently switched lenses with each other. Another time, after a late arrival at the hotel and a carry-out dinner consumed in the room, I was cleaning up and throwing out trash. Just as I was about to toss out a pair of plastic spoons, I noticed they were aligned in a way my family doesn’t typically take time to do. A closer look revealed that the spoon bowls had a liquid in them, and each contained a contact lens. My husband (who has ADHD) had forgotten his contact case, but when he discovered he had left it behind he just looked around for something handy and usable. Recruiting the two plastic spoons into a duty they were not designed for but suited his purpose, he popped his lenses and contact solution into the spoons and carefully set them aside. I guess his problem solving worked great, with the only real issue being the danger of his uninformed wife on a cleaning fit tossing them into the trash. In the end his creative thinking solved his dilemma, took little time, and caused him no stress. Makes it kind of hard to claim that my more traditional methods are better than the atypical ways of my family.

Nature Books and The Leaf Blower Noise

At this time of year in Ohio we are seeing the leaves change color and fall to the ground. Our outdoor walks provide us with crunchy leaf textures to trample and there is a different “fall” smell in the air around us. A leisurely stroll down the block will show us fallen acorns, black walnuts, and other tree products eagerly gathered by squirrels as they dart to and fro on the ground and along tree branches. We have a squirrel living in the ornamental pear tree in our front yard, and I like to pick up loose acorns and other such treats when I take the dog for a walk and then place the nuts in the nooks and along branches for “our” squirrel to enjoy. When my children were younger we took lots of nature walks, and I gave each of them a bag for collecting pretty leaves from different trees. We used tree identification books to figure out the names of the trees we saw, and we preserved a leaf from each different tree in a nature notebook. After pressing the leaves in a book, we glued them to a page where we listed all the information about what kind of tree it came from, where we found it, and the date we collected it. It was fun to read the book throughout the year and review if the leaf was simple or compound, when we had collected it, and more. Over the years, our collection increased and it was a challenge to see if we could find a new specimen that wasn’t yet represented in our nature book.
Those times spent in nature are some of my favorite homeschooling memories for this time of year. My son, Josh, gave me another fall memory that is equally imprinted in my mind. With his AD/HD, auditory processing, and sensory issues, Josh often said or did unexpected things. His impulsivity gave him a tendency to do whatever came into his head, with the result that I often found myself trying to figure out what was going on with Josh based on what I was seeing and hearing. Our special needs children do what comes naturally to them, and often don’t realize that not everyone experiences things the way they do. In this instance, Josh starting making weird vocal sounds as he played. I went into my analysis mode as I observed him. Is he stimming? Has he developed a vocal tic? Is he trying to calm and organize? Alert himself? Keep others at bay? Provide sound effects for what he is playing with? Can he stop making the sound if I ask him to? The speech therapist in me tuned in to see if the sounds Josh was making could be considered vocal abuse and could physically harm his voice. As I observed Josh, he seemed content. He could stop on request, but returned to making the sounds a minute later. It was not vocally abusive and his pitch and volume were within acceptable ranges for his “normal” voice. In the back of my mind, I recognized something vaguely familiar about the sounds Josh was producing. Then it hit me and seemed so obvious that I almost laughed at not recognizing it sooner. Josh was reproducing the noise of a leaf blower! Once I realized it, I became aware that somewhere in the neighborhood a leaf blower was in use. It was faint and distant and I had not even registered it. But Josh had an uncanny ability to imitate noises and he heard things that most people don’t notice. He did a pretty accurate leaf blower noise. He also made airplane and vacuum cleaner noises, but I recognized them right off the bat. The leaf blower noise took me awhile, but whenever I hear one in use I still smile and think of little Josh’s noise imitation talent.