Month: April 2016

The Writing Road: Write On, Write On

Those  of you who have been following Shut-Down learner for a while know that I have a bit of an obsession with kids’ writing.  It’s true.  I am endlessly fascinated by the writing samples that they generate.

When I look at a writing sample, usually I know immediately whether something is going on with the child.  Somewhat like the courts ruling on obscenity (“I know it when I see it.”), the same is true with writing.  (“ I know a problem when I see it.”)

Unfortunately, most of the standardized writing tests on the market are pretty useless to me.  I don’t find them to be particularly helpful or reliable, so I prefer to obtain what are called “informal,” or non-standardized writing samples.  For my purposes informal samples are very helpful.  They give me insight into the level of struggling.

Here’s one from young Aiden, a spunky 10 year old boy receiving no remediation who came in to see me recently.  I asked Aiden to tell me a story about something funny that happened in school.

The Game

Once I was playing on the playgrown then I heard a group of people lafing.  So I went over to the, ang sed why?

They seid because of a game.  One purson ses what’s doing.  The purson sess eating chocle. The other pusron ses whare you get . then the purson seas dogy droped it.  Then they all lafed.

Aiden’s parents were frustrated to hear something they had heard every grade, “Spelling doesn’t really matter.  He can use spell check.”

Years ago, a neurologist I held in very high regard, Dr. Martha Denkla, said to about 500 of us sitting in the audience in her down-to-earth way,  “It’s like these kids with these problems (i.e., reading, spelling and writing) are not tuned in to the language – somewhat like not having an ‘ear’ for music.”

Yep, Aiden’s playing some pretty screechy music here and he doesn’t even know it.

To him, the words as they are just fall out of his pen and somehow land on the page in whatever form they are  in and whatever combination of words  or letter order.

Going forward, to make any inroad , Aiden needs to be brought back to easier levels to  learn the “notes and the chords.”  Then he needs to put them together in little tiny phrases, leading to simple sentences, to lead to more complex sentences and the writing of a coherent paragraph..  The Aidens of the world need to be taught directly and explicitly.

It’s slow, hard work, but I don’t know any way around it.

Takeaway Point

Aiden’s 10.  There’s still time.

But as Yogi said, “It’s getting late early.”



“Parent Brain” & the Anger River

Last week we talked about the “Anger River” that resides, often unseen, beneath the “ADD Swamp. ”  Control battles, punishments and other attempts at compliance feed the river.  (See Anger River:

Homework is the great battle ground.

We “grown-ups” often have misguided notions of childhood  with tapes running through our Parent Brain as to how children “should be” and how we should act as parents.  Some of those tapes include:

“If I just yell at the kid, he’ll do what I want.”   (Good luck with that.)

“They should just listen the first time.  I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.”  (O.K., keep watching those shows from bygone eras.)

“My parents use to swat me once in a while – it worked for me.”  (Nostalgia for the good old days when swatting was a go-to parent strategy.)

The tapes go on playing endless loops in our Parent Brain.

Punishments are 99% reactive delivered in the heat of the moment.  Most of the time they (like yelling) don’t work,  yet because of Parent Brain  we persist.

If punishments are misguided, what reduces the Anger River?   Two words  –  “listening and understanding.”  (Note, I didn’t say “agreeing and complying.”)

I saw a kid recently who had the river flowing.  When I asked him about his anger he said all he wanted was for his parents to listen to him.  His perception was his parents were being unfair about certain things.  When his parents did listen (after being coached on how to keep Parent Brain out of it), even though they didn’t fully agree with him, their son felt better, at least for the moment.  He felt understood.  The river was a bit lessened.

There’s one other strategy that helps to ease the Anger River.  Take guesses.  “Look, I bet you’re angry with me because you think I am being unfair, right,” is often a good place to start.  (Most of the time kids think Parent Brain is being either overly controlling or unfair.)

Once taking a guess like the one above, you will likely get a good nod of the head and then you should ask for your child to tell you more.  For Parent Brain, the key move at this point is to not defend or explain why the kid is wrong.  JUST LISTEN.  When your child is done, say something like, “I get it.  I understand why you are angry and think it’s unfair.”

That’s it.  Who knows.  Perhaps by listening and airing the feelings some compromise solution may emerge.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

Takeaway Point

Fight the Parent Brain tapes.

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The Anger River Below the ADD Swamp

Do you know about the river that lies below the ADHD/ADD swamp?  It’s the Anger River and it lurks down below, often unseen, but detected at times by certain actions or behaviors from either child or parents.

How do we detect the Anger River?

  • Punishments have increased – (“That’s it. You’re  off your video games for the next month.”)
  • There is a lot of forgetting and last minute revelations about a test or project the next day. (Think Sunday night at 9:00 p.m.)
  • There has been increased parent monitoring of homework. Parents feel like they are the “Homework Police.”
  • Teachers will report, “If only he/she paid attention more…”
  • There is a general tone of disconnection to school work.
  • Control battles are being waged.

To show the Anger River in action, below is a near verbatim talk I had recently with a teen, Charles,   who I sensed had the Anger River lurking below the ADD Swamp.  By his own admission Charles was unmotivated and had little energy for school.  (Charles was in high level classes by the way and there were no indicators of learning disabilities or dyslexia in the assessment I did.)

After the testing I chatted with Charles.  “I have a theory, Charles,” I started, “that your brain is kind of like a car battery and that in order to take on the demands of school the battery needs to be pretty charged.  Just like a car battery, there are many things that drain it or deplete it of energy.”

Charles looked like I perked his interest slightly.  I wasn’t giving him the usual “try harder” or “you need to take your medication” talk, both of which he had heard many times in the past.

“Yeah, like I know your parents are going through a tough time lately and that drains your battery.  You also feel like your sister is overly demanding and ruling the house which gets you mad.  On top of it you feel loaded up with hours of work and since I tested you I see that you work very slowly and methodically, so that doubles the time you have to put in. Finally, you are angry about getting punished all of the time and feeling like your parents have you on too tight a leash.  You feel over-controlled.  So with all of that going on you basically say to yourself, ‘screw it  I am not doing it.’  Does that sound on the money?”

A pretty tight kid, who was not the most verbally forthcoming, Charles gave me a nonverbal green light with a pretty good nod of his head with a slight smile.  He even admitted to lying to his parents at times about school.  (“I just tell them I did my homework to get them off by back.  I figure I’ll deal with it later when they find out.”)

“So, you see, Charles, it’s like there is this pie chart of different variables draining your battery and increasing the Anger River that lies down there. I bet you are operating at about 15% efficiency.  That F.U. River can really do some damage.”

(Keep in mind a try and use humor where I can to get the kid to lighten up and “buy in,” hence the use of the “FU River”  with Charles.)

I know.  I know.  The questions I get all of the time – “So, what do we do about it?  How do we fix it?”

I will continue more next week (I need some time), but for now at least 70% of the “fixing” (there is no fixing), is in the understanding.

Takeaway Point

Only understanding drains the river.


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Self-Monitoring (Not really)

Flexibility of thinking and problem solving are two interacting skills impacting academic and social functioning.   Children who have difficulty with these also have trouble with “self-monitoring,” that is the ability to be aware of the correctness of your output to a given situation, question or problem.

Underneath, these skills is something that I refer to as the “Hmmm, let me think about it,” voice which emerges when questions are asked in which the answer is not readily apparent.   “How many states are there in the United States,” does not usually produce the, “Let me think about it voice,” as the answer is factual.  You either know the answer or you don’t.

Questions such as, “Why do you think ________,” require the problem solving voice to help reach a conclusion.  It’s almost impossible to answer the question without activating,  “Hmm, let me think about it.”

When a child struggles with this voice they have difficulty with tasks that involve higher order reasoning and inferencing.  Here’s a great example from a young girl, I tested recently,  Ashley, age 9..

On a reading comprehension screening utilizing a fill-in- the- blank format,  Ashley was given the following item for her to insert one word in the blank:

“You can _______________ a boat out of a piece of wood.”

Regardless of whether you think this is a good item or not (I don’t love it), the statement does require a certain amount of reflection and flexibility of thinking to arrive at the answer of “make,” or “carve” inserted in the blank.

If you are too rapid in style (as was Ashley) and perhaps an inflexible problem-solver (as was Ashley) you will likely reach a wrong conclusion (as did Ashley).

Here’s the interaction that took place almost verbatim with Ashley:

Ashely read the line and quickly stated:

You can “row” a boat  out of a piece of piece of wood.”

Even though the answer “row” made little sense, Ashley did not monitor her answer or attempt to self-correct.  She thought it was just fine.

I pushed her a bit and encouraged her to offer a different response.  In a sense my indirect pushing suggested to Ashley that she consider and problem solve with a different type of answer.

Without skipping a beat, Ashley answered, “You can “paddle” a boat out of a piece of wood,” for her alternative response.   Again, no self- correction.  No consideration.  No, “Hmm, let me think about it,” in evidence.

 Takeaway Point

The “problem solving voice,” involving reflecting and considering is a skill like many other skills. To some it comes somewhat naturally, to others they need to have it taught to them directly and practiced over time in order for the skills of problem solving, reflecting and self-monitoring to become more a part of the child’s skill repertoire.

The ADHD “Test”

Rating scales frequently are used as the “tests” to determine whether or not the child has  ADHD (as if ADHD  can be diagnosed like a broken bone).  (“Yep, it says here on these scale that your child has ADHD.”)

The fact of the matter is the vast majority of kids struggling (for various reasons) with school would have elevated spikes on scales like the Connor’s Rating Scale, one of the commonly used scales in ADHD assessment.  It would be a rare day that a child with a reading or writing disability is able to adequately pay attention in school.

There are a so many variables that contribute to compromised attention in the classroom.  Let’s look at a few of these in no particular order:   (Kid commentary follows the variable)

  • Language processing. (“I get overloaded with too much language and it makes me zone out.”)
  • Weak vocabulary knowledge (“Too many words make my head ache.”)
  • Poor fine motor skills. (“She wants me to write what?  I’m out of here and going off to explore the universe again.  First stop Jupiter. ”)
  • Weak reading skills (“These long boring stories really make me lose attention. I can’t read them.  There are a lot of stupid words on the page that I just skip over.”)
  • Spatial style preferred (“Give me more Legos!!!!”)
  • An energetic (perhaps chaotic) classroom environment. (“Hey, we’re all bouncing around in here.”)
  • Deadening worksheets (“Planet Jupiter is calling again.”)

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

My basic point is that kids can have a cluster of these variables leading them to look awfully disordered in the attention arena.  High scores (in the negative direction) on scales such as the Connors will result.

I am not suggesting that rating scales aren’t helpful.  They are very helpful and tend to offer insight into variables not easily seen during the more structured assessment.

I am just cautioning you not to think you got “the test” or “the diagnosis” based primarily on the  Connor’s, the  Vanderbilt or whatever.

Takeaway Point
There’s much more that needs to be understood beyond the rating scales.

Planet Jupiter is looking better every day.


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