- Peer to Peer Proves Best!
- Private Christian Special Education - More Affordable Than You Think
- Helping Special Education Students Become Valuable Members of our Community
- Helpful Homework Tips for Special Needs Families
- College for Students with Learning Disabilities? Of Course!
- Peer Mentors - A Key to Special Education Success
- An Inspired, Integrated Approach to Special Education
- Seven Tips to Encourage Communication in your Child with Special Needs
- Trinity's Beau Howell Makes Shot of a Lifetime
- Finally...Math Makes Sense!
- Growing your Child's Amazing Mind
- School Based Social Skills Instruction
- Individualized Therapy: The Missing Ingredient in Special Education
- Self-Contained or Mainstreamed - Perhaps a Blend of Both is Best
- Imago Dei School Invests in Your Special Needs Student's Potential
- Executive Functioning: the CEO of Your Child's Brain
- checklists, time limits and planners: supporting your child's executive functioning skills
- no more back to school blues for special needs students
When we launched the Peer Mentor program at Trinity Classical Academy to serve special needs students in our Imago Dei school (Imago Dei is Latin for “image of God”), we could not have imagined the positive ripple effect it would have on our school culture at large. This integrated program has advanced the students’ ability to connect successfully and meaningfully with their peers. Additionally, it has set a school-wide standard for loving inclusion and sacrificial service.
Educators and families may underestimate the loneliness and isolation that many students experience throughout their educational lives, particularly special education students. Peer mentor programs allow students to make meaningful connections and practice appropriate social interactions with one another as well as the students who become their mentors. Learning to relate in authentic ways, enjoying social events and outings that are set up for the enjoyment of all participants, and taking time to consider what constitutes friendship and loyalty are all benefits of a peer mentor program that includes students with special needs.
Research indicates that other support models for students with special needs are not as effective as the peer-to-peer support model. Many social skills groups have been determined ineffective or unsuccessful because social skills need to be taught in natural contexts, such as the classroom itself. Programs that rely heavily on the assistance of paraprofessionals or special education teachers have been shown to hinder independence and increase isolation because students become dependent on their teachers and have little opportunity to manage on their own and engage successfully with their peers (Barnitt, 2005).
Behind the successful relationships fostered through the Peer Mentor program at Trinity is the hard work and vision of a very talented and committed teacher. Michelle Hanson (AKA Mama Bear), a visionary special educator with a unique blend of academic, therapeutic and social thinking training and experience, oversees the Imago Dei Peer Mentor program. Becoming part of the Peer Mentor program is a high honor at Trinity and those wishing to become a mentor go through a rigorous process including a thorough application with faculty recommendations, followed by an extensive interview. Mrs. Hanson then picks those highly qualified high school students for this competitive role. Following selection, the peer mentors attend two half-day training sessions focused on the principals of social thinking and Applied Behavior Analysis. “The peer mentors have shown exceptional skill and devotion in supporting our students. It’s wonderful to see both peer mentors and Imago Dei students flourish as a result of their relationship”, says Mrs. Hanson.
Despite the variety of options for private and Christian education, private Christian special education remains quite costly and rare. Parents seeking a blend of individualized academics and therapeutic support for their student with special needs are most likely to investigate public schooling because private special education schools are perceived as being too expensive.
In a recent poll conducted by One News Now, a division of the American Family News Network, a Christian news network, 96% of respondents said that “They are convinced private schools offer a higher-quality education for their children.” It would seem from this result that while most believe that private education does offer better quality education, many Christians do not consider it because the perception is that it is too expensive.
But much has changed since the days when private schools were seen as elite institutions serving only a privileged class. Today plenty of ‘middle-class’ parents of special needs students are investigating private schools, either in response to a specific academic need or out of dissatisfaction with local government schools.
“Over 60% of our students receive financial aid,” says Elizabeth Froemming, Admissions Director at The Imago Dei School at Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita. “Many families who never thought they could afford private Christian special education have been pleasantly surprised to find out that they indeed qualify for assistance and can give their children the gift of an excellent Christian education. Through aggressive fundraising we have been able to build in significant financial support for Christian families who wish to make an Imago Dei education a reality for their child.”
Surprisingly, even some parents earning six-figure salaries discover they qualify for assistance, because schools use an aid formula that goes beyond income to include assets and special circumstances. Families with older siblings in college, for example, or heavy debts due to medical or therapy bills, school loans, or job loss, may receive help with tuition even though their salaries appear substantial.
“Our son is thriving in Imago Dei” says the mother of a special education student. “We are grateful that The Imago Dei School has been willing to financially partner with our family to make a individualized, comprehensive education available to our son.”
Don’t assume you can’t afford private, Christian special education. When God wants to do something, like give your children an education that honors Him, He finds ways to make it happen.
Where did your high school student go in the last few weeks? To the mall with friends to see a movie? To Target to purchase socks, school supplies or other necessities? Maybe to a restaurant to grab a bite to eat with family or friends?
These are typical activities that are developmentally appropriate for most teens to participate in independently. However, many teens with developmental disabilities like autism find navigating these typical environments challenging without adult support. Community based instruction (CBI) as an integral aspect of special education provides students with modeling, support and practice to help students gain the skills and experience necessary to be independent.
The student and community benefits of this specialized style of instruction are significant. Current research suggests the following positive results from community-based instruction coupled with ongoing classroom support and guidance.
Student benefits include:
- Increased appropriate social communication
- Development of specific skills critical to the student’s individual independent functioning in the community
- Increase of ability to successfully navigate public transportation
- Development of age appropriate social skills necessary for successful community participation
- Increase in safety awareness and identification of safe community partners
- Increased positive community awareness of realistic potential of individuals with disabilities
- Increased partnership with private businesses who have cooperatively provided instructional settings appropriate for the learning needs of students with disabilities
Community engagement is critical for a well rounded special education experience. It is a vital step in building independent, courageous students who can live up to their God-given potential and become productive, valuable members of the community.
Ask any parent of a student with special needs and they will assure you that homework time is often synonymous with “pulling teeth”, “torture” and “meltdown”! For even the most resilient of parents and students, homework time can be extremely stressful, but for students with special needs, this time can become a harrowing experience ending in tears for all involved.
There are many compelling factors that can contribute to the difficulty that students with special needs face when it comes time to do homework. Many students have therapy appointments that compete for the same time and focused attention, leaving parents to have to choose between two beneficial activities. Additionally, unstructured free time after school is essential for students who work so hard to ‘hold it together’ throughout the school day, yet this free time may not be possible if a student lags behind in class and needs extra time for homework.
Some tips for a happy and healthy homework time:
- Set-up a work space specifically for your child. Your child absolutely needs a space in which to do homework, away from distractions like television sets and other technological devices. It is best that it be specifically for your child in that no one else uses that space. This way, he may leave his materials there without having to set-up from scratch each day. This also makes it possible to have all visual cues and schedules adhered to the space permanently.
- Plan for breaks ahead of time. A break activity can be as simple as a cup of chamomile tea with honey, or something more vigorous such as 5 to 10 minutes of cross-lateral exercise. The important aspect is the student can expect regular and consistent breaks throughout their homework time.
- Be positive. As difficult as it might be to help your child with special needs with homework, you need to remain positive. Take a break between the time you get home and the time you tackle homework. You and your child will both benefit from that!
It is important for parents and students to work together to help build good habits and to develop a system that works for the individual child. The results will be good homework and study habits that will help your child have good work habits as an adult.
Most of the three percent or so of high school students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities struggle so much in their high school classes that they often give up on hopes of college, setting back their job and career prospects, according to statistics compiled by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
But there are new reasons for hope for anyone with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, or other common learning challenges. A growing number of colleges, services, and technologies are helping students earn admission to, and diplomas from, colleges and universities.
Start preparing early. Many students, parents, and high school officials think struggling students should be shifted to easier classes. But starting in freshman year, anyone hoping for college should try to stick with college prep classes and avoid the temptation to retreat to lower track classes. College courses are hard. Students who have been waived from high school algebra and other tough courses likely don’t have the knowledge or skills to be admitted to four-year colleges.
- Be creative. Students who just can’t succeed in some required courses can look for substitutes. For example, those whose learning disability makes it difficult to keep up in foreign language classes can try switching to something like American Sign Language.
- Put the student in charge. Colleges don’t typically provide any special help unless students—not parents—know exactly what they need and know how to ask for it. Students have to be ready to have an adult conversation about what they need, such as note takers, extended time on assessments and assignments or special software. High school is a good time for parents to let students experience the repercussions of small failures so that they learn how to advocate for themselves.
Update the documentation on your learning disability. Students who want accommodations from their colleges must have documentation confirming the diagnosis that is generally no more than one or two years old, college officials say.
Accentuate the positive. Applicants aren’t required to inform colleges of their learning difficulties, and many students keep quiet for fear of hurting their chances of admission. Federal law bans colleges from discriminating based on disability, but it doesn’t require colleges to give any special admission breaks to learning disabled students. Many admissions officers say that students who can explain a bad grade or test score, or who use their application essays to show how they’ve overcome their challenges and “developed resiliency,” improve their chances of admission.
Students in special education programs often lack the academic, social or communication skills necessary to successfully participate in school and benefit from the intentional provision of a general education peer mentor. Peer mentors can provide support for special education students in many areas, such as academics, sports and extra curricular activities, as well as helping them navigate the often challenging, less structured terrain of brunch and lunchtime. Many times a student with learning or developmental challenges could participate successfully in a general education class if they were paired with a peer mentor to assist them with understanding expectations, pacing with class activities and organizing their work. In addition to being a support for the special education student, a peer mentor can serve to support the general education teacher as well as they provide 1:1 assistance to the student with challenges.
An often-unanticipated benefit is that peer mentoring for students with physical and/or developmental challenges has been shown to benefit the social-cognitive growth of the general education peer mentor. Parents of mainstream students who urge their children to participate in peer buddy or mentoring programs may hope these experiences lead to a greater understanding of individuals who struggle with learning, communicating, or socializing, and are gratified to discover a tremendous growth in maturity and leadership. Peer mentors work closely with a population of students that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to get to know. Understanding the world through the eyes of a student that has challenges helps the peer mentor to develop a deeper sense of compassion and a broader understanding of people, while at the same time the student is developing a greater sense of competence. Often students who are struggling academically or socially, but are given an opportunity to serve as a peer mentor, will make great strides in study skills and learning, and will successfully apply the social skills they practice in the peer buddy program. This can provide opportunities for leadership and success that can be bridged into other areas of a students’ life, which makes a peer mentor program a win-win opportunity. A peer mentor program facilitates the establishment of long lasting relationships and improved academic achievement for both groups of students.
Have you ever thought about a Christian education for your special needs child? Did you know it was even possible? What would it look like?
Trinity is having great success with their Imago Dei School. Imago Dei is Latin for “in the image of God.” The faculty at the Imago Dei School (IDS) shares your passion to nurture your child’s potential. IDS students benefit from instruction in a small setting with a low student-to-teacher ratio. Educational therapy, through such proven programs as Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, the National Institute for Learning Development’s Discovery Program and Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes are instrumental parts of the IDS student’s education. These programs serve to strengthen your child’s strengths and enhance their deficits.
Students receive instruction in core academics taught by passionate educators trained in academic remediation and mediated learning strategies, as well as adaptive and social skills instruction. Additionally, Imago Dei faculty members are trained in the application of Applied Behavior Analysis as a primary structure of classroom management.
Imago Dei students are thriving, learning, growing and enjoying school. The low student-to-teacher ratio allows students to bond with their teachers and they know that their teachers are truly their most enthusiastic fans. They are loved and encouraged by all of the Trinity students who see them as peers and friends. These special students have been enthusiastically embraced by the entire Trinity family.
Through small group instruction, academic programs are tailored to each student’s individual level of achievement promoting mastery and academic growth. Specialized curriculum focuses on social thinking and helps students develop skills to communicate effectively and express themselves creatively.
There is an integration of faith and learning at Trinity and by extension, at the Imago Dei School. The Bible and God’s principles are incorporated into everything that is done. From each lesson to how students interact with one another, students develop the ability to think and respond to the blessings and challenges of life from a biblical viewpoint.
Communication is fundamental to a child’s development. It is at the heart of relationships – it’s how we get to know each other – and it’s essential for learning, play and social interaction. Most of us learn to communicate innately in childhood. But what happens if your child has difficulty learning to communicate? In addition to specialized speech therapy, there are many things a parent can do to encourage communication development.
- Sabotage: Often we do so much for our children that they don’t have the need or opportunity to communicate on their own. This is where sabotage comes in. Contrive situations where your child is forced to communicate their needs or wants with you. For example, put toys or important objects in a place where your child needs to ask for them, or give a meal with no cutlery so your child has to ask. Find ways to manipulate situations to necessitate communication.
- Give choices: Instead of making a choice for your child, give them a choice with the expectation that they will verbalize their response. For instance, if you are helping them get dressed for the day, ask them which color shirt they prefer and wait for the verbal response.
- Create conversation: Use a dry-erase white board each day to draw a picture of a particular activity you have done or something interesting that’s happened in your family. Each time you leave the house remind your child by showing them the picture. When you are out, try to get your child to tell people about the activity. Or, if people come to the house, ask them to take the board to them and explain what happened.
- Sing along: Songs and nursery rhymes are great for learning new words in a fun way.
- Level up: Playing and talking are easier if you can see each other. Sit so you are at the same level.
- Keep talking: While self-talk like “Now we are buckling you in the car seat so we can go to the store” is common parental practice, parents can take this practice to higher levels to advance language development by intentionally narrating their child’s activities.
- Lastly, have fun! The best motivator for a child to listen and contribute is to provide a stimulating and fun environment!
Beau did it.
After 15 almosts in 10 games played, Trinity Classical Academy Knights freshman Beau Howell scored a basket in the biggest basketball game in school history.
It ended up being the final points of the Knights’ 77-52 victory on Saturday against Desert Chapel High of Palm Springs in the CIF-Southern Section Division VI championship game at Godinez High in Santa Ana.
There were lumps in throats and tears in eyes — not just for the basket by the boy with autism, but for the spontaneous gesture that led to the score.
“We saw him come on the court and everyone giving him a standing ovation, and he probably hadn’t scored in his life,” said Desert Chapel senior and the school’s all-time leading scorer Taner Alvarez. “Why not let him score in the biggest game of his life?”
Alvarez said he, nor anyone of his teammates knew that Beau has autism. But with 42 seconds left, after Beau missed two previous consecutive shots, Desert called a timeout. Alvarez took the ball after the timeout, and immediately handed it to Beau, who was credited with the first steal of his career. Alvarez pointed to the basket and the Trinity section of the bleachers chanted his name.
Beau shot and missed.
He shot again.
Alvarez pointed for him to take a few steps closer to the basket and with 19 seconds left in the game, Beau Howell scored the final points of the biggest win in Trinity basketball history. The Trinity section made the biggest noise of the game. Desert Chapel player Kaleb Whan broke out the biggest smile and clapped.
Beau’s teammates gave him a giant hug.
By Cary Osborne
Assistant Managing Editor
March 8, 2014
For junior high and high school students with developmental and learning disabilities, math class can present a significant challenge. Grade level math may be out of reach, and even if the student is prepared for grade level instruction, the pacing and delivery in a regular education classroom may prevent strong learning. The Imago Dei School at Trinity Classical Academy presents an innovative, engaging, and personalized learning opportunity to help bridge the achievement gap that distances students with special needs from their regular education classmates.
The self-paced, academic program delivers differentiated instruction and targeted skills practice in a fun and interactive way. Utilizing direct instruction, hands on independent practice, math games and consumer math models as a way of reinforcing concepts, students look forward to being stimulated in multiple modalities to make learning invigorating and fun. For direct instruction, the teacher employs a core curriculum designed to improve mathematical performance by explicitly teaching the concepts, skills, and content needed to successfully learn and understand mathematics. It is a student-paced, mastery-based curriculum that is suitable for students with moderate to significant discrepancy to grade level. High school students with math skills from basic multiplication through high school geometry are taught in one classroom with three instructors. Students become successful in applying what they have learned to different life situations because they have a deepened understanding of how numbers work together.
Of course the instruction can only be as high quality as the instructor, and Trinity’s Tim Smith is a teacher of unique quality. As a seasoned math teacher with a Master’s in Education with over 25 years of experience, a certification in educational therapy through the National Institute of Learning Development, and over 25 years of high school basketball coaching experience, Coach Smith brings an uncommon blend of knowledge, experience, passion and tenderness to the classroom. Coach Smith’s students know he is fully invested in their success, and they are willing to courageously take academic risks with him by their side. “It is truly a blessing to see our students thrive in mathematics as a class and as individuals. Each student is reaching their potential through differentiated lessons ranging from multiplication through high school geometry. Students love the use of stations to incorporate manipulatives that stress life skills such as money management. “It is a joy to watch students have fun with math!” says Coach Smith, Imago Dei high school math and science teacher.
Although the brain is a very complex organ we are learning more and more about how the brain functions and what we can do to assist our children to learn well. Let’s discuss just a few important skills and methods that are used to train the brain.
Let’s start at the beginning! How does the brain learn? First there has to be information put into the system; we call this input. The more data that goes in via our senses, the more info we have to use!
Skill number one: Focusing, Perceiving
Teach your child the word “focus.” Focus means to pay particular attention. Use the word “focus” when you want your child to truly listen to you explain something or to watch you demonstrate a new skill – like how to break open an egg!
Limit screen watching (television, phones, tablets, video games etc.) to no more than an hour a day. “Screen watching” is typically passive, even when playing games. Instead help children focus on more engaging activities that teach new information or activities.
Skill number two: Labeling. Without a name for something, we can’t think about it!
Talk a lot! By the time children enter first grade, they should have a vocabulary of 10,000-20,000 words. To develop this extensive language bank requires that they hear these words from early on. It is important for parents to actually talk a lot about a lot of topics. Screen watching will not build extensive vocabularies, but being read to with a variety of books will!
Five a Day!
Not only should we eat five servings of vegetables each day, children between the ages of two and six should learn five new words each day! Keep this going throughout the elementary years and ask your third grader, for example, what new words he learned at school. Use dictionaries to challenge and inspire vocabulary development and make learning new words a part of your family culture.
These are just two of many input exercises that a parent can do in everyday family life to ensure that critically important perception skills are developed. This will help your child learn how to learn, not just what to learn and will support your child’s learning at school as well as help them be ready to conquer any challenge that life may throw their way.
Never being asked over for a “playdate,” being picked on or bullied on the playground, acting inappropriately in the classroom, or sitting alone on a Friday night as a teenager are all scenes a parent of a child with social difficulties are likely to face. In order to build gratifying peer relationships, it is vital that children learn and have the opportunity to practice the social skills considered appropriate by society. Some find this more difficult than others because of learning or other cognitive challenges that limit their chances to socialize. It is important to teach children to conduct themselves in ways that allow them to develop healthy relationships with others.
For students that struggle in this area, acquiring successful social thinking does not happen overnight. The ability to think socially is developed through instruction, practice and reinforcement. Some of the most important aspects of socializing that individuals may initially have difficulty grasping include turn-taking during conversations, maintaining eye contact, being polite, repairing misunderstandings, finding a topic that is of mutual interest, understanding others’ perspective, managing anger and distinguishing social cues. These subtleties, however, are not impossible for individuals to learn.
As most children grow older, they interact more and more with people in situations where direct supervision by parents is not possible. Drawing from what they have learned at home and school about socializing, children make friends within their peer group and soon learn more about socializing, hopefully refining their social skills as they grow and mature. These friendships are important for all children to develop, because friends serve central functions for children that parents do not, and they play a crucial role in shaping children’s social skills and their sense of identity.
Laying the foundation for socialization can occur by teaching these skills at school through a well-developed social thinking program. Through the use of modeling, role-play, reinforcement and other specially designed techniques, a child or adolescent can learn to make and keep friends, deal with conflict, manage anger, and lead a satisfying life. These skills can develop and flourish in small group instruction in a safe environment. A close relationship between parents and school community is of key importance to ensure generalization of the skills described above, thus ensuring the best life for your child.
Special education is specially designed instruction for students with exceptional learning needs. Unfortunately, the services and programs typically available to students via the traditional special education model do little to identify underlying learning problems and address them to produce permanent change. The answer to this problem, the ‘missing ingredient’, is to offer individualized educational therapy to students in special education.
A comprehensive special education program will employ the specific educational therapy methodologies necessary to serve students effectively. For example, Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment (FIE) is an educational therapy curriculum designed to enhance the cognitive functions necessary for academic learning and achievement. The fundamental assumption of the program, based on the theory and research pioneered by Professor Reuven Feuerstein (since the 1950s), is that intelligence is dynamic and modifiable, not static or fixed. Thus, the program seeks to correct deficiencies in fundamental thinking skills, provide students with the concepts, skills, strategies, operations, and techniques necessary to function as independent learners, and to diagnose and to help students learn how to learn.
Another proven methodology, NILD educational therapy, helps students strengthen their areas of deficit so they are no longer handicapped by them. Teaching students how to learn allows students the eventual freedom of succeeding on their own as independent learners. During two 80 minute weekly sessions an educational therapist fosters a student’s journey to independent thinking and learning by individualizing intervention:
•focusing specifically on students’ areas of difficulty and dealing with challenges as they arise during the actual learning process
•maintaining the intensity of focus needed to help the student work through difficulties
•developing the trust needed to free the student to accept and work on difficult areas
The cognitive strategies learned in both programs are intended to be bridged to academic school subjects and life skills. Much of the value of the programs comes from the mediational role of the trained teacher or therapist. Deficiencies in a student’s cognitive development can be corrected at any time by providing mediated learning experiences by well-trained teachers/therapists in combination with specially created materials designed to facilitate permanent cognitive change.
When evaluating your educational options, consider a school that is going to invest in your child’s potential by offering your student educational therapy designed to meet his or her unique needs.
What is the most effective and beneficial classroom for a student with developmental and learning disabilities? Parents, teachers and administrators have passionate and varying opinions based on research and personal experience. Modern education has shifted its directive on the educational placement of students with exceptionalities over the years, often leaving parents and educators confused in the wake.
Different exceptionalities have different learning and instructional needs. It is important to keep in mind that students are not only learning, but they are rapidly developing over their 12 years in school. This includes physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Finally, whatever the academic placement, the environment should be a safe haven where students can take academic risks and acquire and practice skills necessary to integrate successfully in the community.
Trying to accommodate the disparate needs of a varying student population can prove to be a challenge. For example, children with learning disabilities may benefit from intensive and specialized instruction to address specific difficulties which can best be delivered outside of a normal classroom. A pull out program of individualized educational therapy, specific to a student’s cognitive deficits, would likely be the most supportive placement. However, children who are developmentally delayed, have autism, or who lack expected social skills may benefit from the modeling that takes place in a general education classroom. At the same time instruction such as an intentional social thinking program can have dramatic benefits for these children, but such a program would not typically be delivered in the general education classroom.
It would seem that the two-way street, one lane withdrawing students from general education classes for intensive pull out programs and the other integrating students from special education classes would be able to address the various needs. Defenders of special education classrooms argue that they allow for intensive and specific instruction while allowing opportunities for the special education student to gain independence and have typical behaviors modeled for them.
In order for students with developmental and learning disabilities to flourish, they need the academic and social support of an educational environment that is small and individualized. These students benefit not only from a modified academic structure, but from the opportunity to change the way they think and learn through intensive 1:1 educational therapy. These students can thrive if given the opportunity to experience intensive support as well as a general education environment when appropriate.
The Imago Dei School at Trinity is a unique place for students with special needs. Named Imago Dei (Latin for “in the image of God”) for the belief that these students ARE made in God’s image, IDS is a Christian school who cares about them – heart, soul and mind, and believes in their potential.
Imago Dei School (IDS) students in the upper school (junior high and high school levels) continue on the learning curve in reading and math because research has shown that students with developmental disabilities have emerging academic skills that can continue to be built upon after elementary school.
Intentional, individualized language arts and math programs meet students at their level of challenge to facilitate continued growth. All academics are taught with a classical methodology through a Christian worldview.
Embedded in our daily schedule is an intentional social thinking curriculum that focuses on the application of social skills in real life situations. Additionally, we believe in cognitive modifiability (the brain’s ability to change) so individualized educational therapy is distinctive of the IDS student’s education.
IDS students benefit from being a part of the vibrant Trinity student culture, currently joining their general education peers in cheer, golf, flag football, and basketball. Students mainstream for electives and PE, as well as academics when it’s beneficial to them. IDS students are embraced by their friends and community as people uniquely designed by God for a wonderful purpose.
Trinity and the Imago Dei School seek to serve students with developmental and learning disabilities not because we have to, but because we care about them, and believe we can affect change in their potential.
A number of years ago, most parents and teachers of students with ADHD didn’t have a clue that a child’s academic success was contingent upon strong executive skills. “What? Executive skills? My child is only seven years old!”
However, today’s tuned-in parents and educators realize that deficits in critical cognitive skills known as executive functions (EF) are slower to mature in many children with ADHD. This delayed maturation can have negative impacts across the school and home settings.
Executive functions are the essential self-regulating skills that we use everyday to accomplish just about anything. Kids rely on their executive functions for everything from taking a shower, to packing a backpack, and choosing priorities. About eight years ago, researchers made a startling discovery: the brains of students with ADHD mature approximately three years more slowly than their peers. This helps explain why their executive skills are delayed. Two years later, scientists found that the part of the brain that enables students to work on “boring tasks” such as schoolwork has a reduced number of dopamine receptors and transporters. More simply stated, the reduced levels of brain chemistry in this key area explains why students can play video games for hours, but struggle to complete their schoolwork or homework in a timely manner.
Parents and educators see the effects of delayed executive functioning skills in their children and students. Problems with the “brain’s CEO” contribute to numerous challenges: difficulty initiating and finishing assignments, remembering homework assignments, organization of materials and information, difficulty memorizing facts, writing essays or reports, or working complex math problems. Further difficulties are manifested in being on time, controlling emotions, responding to social cues accurately, juggling many things at one time, and planning for the future.
But there is good news! Specialists have developed ways to encourage skills that don’t come naturally to a child with poor executive functioning. Students are taught a combination of clear strategies and alternative learning methods that complement their existing strengths.
Next month we will look at some of the tools we can teach students and parents to help them tackle schoolwork, as well as other responsibilities that take strong executive function skills.
Last we month we explored the negative effects that delayed executive functioning skills can cause in a student’s life. Problems with the “brain’s CEO” contribute to numerous challenges: difficulty initiating and finishing assignments, remembering homework assignments, organizing materials and information, controlling emotions, juggling many things simultaneously and planning for the future. But there is hope! There are tools we can teach students—and parents—to help them tackle school work as well as other responsibilities that take strong executive function skills.
Make A Checklist
The steps necessary for completing a task often aren’t obvious to students with executive dysfunction, and defining them clearly ahead of time makes a task less daunting and more achievable.
You can make a checklist for nearly anything, including how to get out of the house on time each morning—often a daily struggle for kids with executive functioning challenges. Some parents say posting a checklist of the morning routine can be a sanity saver: make your bed, get dressed, have breakfast, grab your lunch, get your backpack. Completing as many tasks the night before can aid in a successful morning. Preparing lunch and laying out clothes the evening before can prevent a lot of drama the next morning. Parents are encouraged to allow their child to check tasks off the list as they are completed. Many families write directly on a bedroom or bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker and allow the child to wipe it off as they complete tasks.
Set Time Limits
When making a checklist, many educational specialists also recommend assigning a time limit for each task. Teach your child how long a project will take, and use a timer as a visual support to assist them with staying on track. I also recommend planning time for sensory and movement breaks during homework.
Utilize A Planner
In the same way making a list is an important strategy in organizing tasks, educational specialists highlight the cardinal importance of using a planner at school. Although this may seem obvious, it won’t be obvious to a child who is overwhelmed by—or uninterested in—organization and planning. This is unfortunate because student’s who struggle with executive functioning often have poor working memory, which means it is hard for them to remember things like homework assignments. Using a cell phone or tablet may be an age appropriate substitution for a traditional school planner.
Just hearing the words, “back to school” can incite trepidation in the hearts and minds of special needs parents and children. The joy and anticipation inspired by returning to school is often overshadowed by anxiety and fear. There is nothing simple about the transition from vacation to school, but there are several ways to reduce anxiety and increase optimism for the new school year. Establishing a team approach including parents, students and educators is important.
In the Imago Dei School at Trinity Classical Academy we partner with our families to build a bridge between summer and the beginning of a new school year that allows our students to arrive on the first day with a firmly established feeling of familiarity.
Get to know some other students in the classroom. The summer is a perfect time to take advantage of informal gatherings with future classmates and peers. Our grammar school teachers in Imago Dei host a variety of supervised activities over the summer for students to get acquainted with each other in a non stressful, fun atmosphere. For older students, like our high school Imago Dei students, teachers schedule weekly outings, inviting special ed students along with their general education peers. Bowling is always a favorite and provides opportunities for supervised socialization in a neutral, fun setting. An added benefit of these summer connections is that they provide students with something to talk to their peers about at lunch and brunch once school begins.
Meet the teachers and visit the classroom. Whether this is at a summer gathering or a meeting on campus, meeting the teacher ahead of time will go a long way toward easing a student’s anxiety. Ask each teacher for permission to take their photo. Print out the pictures for your child with the teacher’s name visible on the photo. Frequently look at the pictures with your child, identifying the teachers name, and sharing any cool facts you learned about that individual.
Establish the school year routine. Will your home require new routines and expectations once school starts? Will bedtime be earlier? Will electronics be limited? Will grooming standards change? Establish your new routine, post it on a visual schedule in the home, and begin the new routine at least two weeks before school starts.
By becoming familiar with new faces, places and routines your child will be confident and comfortable with the new school year expectations.