Category Archives: School

Executive Function and IEP/504 Plan Goals for Academic and Social Success

Dilemma:  School is back in session and Section 504 plans or Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) need to be developed, reviewed, or revised.  This is overwhelming.  Where to begin? My child is doing well in school on paper but is not connecting with others.  How long do I wait?  How about executive functions like organization or mental flexibility (i.e., moving from one subject or activity to another without difficulty) that are not graded but can significantly interfere with academic and social progress in grades 4 and up?

Solution: Consider the following video guide to a child’s social skills and executive function development:

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Filed under 504 Plan, ADHD, Anxiety, Asperger's, Autism, Child Development, Executive Function, IEP, Parenting, School, Social Skills

‘Tis the Season: Preparing Your Child for the Holidays

No matter the holiday traditions or customs you observe, one thing is for certain: the children will be home for a week or two beginning very soon!  No reason to panic.  After all, adults never experience any stress over the holidays so why should kids?  I tried to effectively demonstrate a tongue-in-cheek tone with that last sentence.  I was testing your electronic social skills.  Okay, back to the topic at hand.  The children will be home for a while and you are becoming anxious that tempers may begin to flare or boredom may ensue.  I offer the following general suggestions to hopefully sustain your holiday cheer throughout the school break.

  • Increase predictability at home.  This involves some scheduling, although flexibility should be allowed.  For teens who need to catch up on some sleep, there should be parameters such as “awake by noon” but no need to be so scheduled (“Be up by nine because I said so!”) that arguments are inevitable .  The more that children know what to expect, the less stress that will result when making transitions.
  • Have a portion of each day scheduled but plan the rest of the time with the child by allowing for their input.  You may need to offer a list of suggestions for them to choose from, but you should not be trying to win the contest for Entertainer of the Year.  thus, it is not your responsibility to ensure that your child is having fun all the time!  It may be useful to have a written or picture schedule for some children.  This is especially helpful when you are resting in the afternoon and your child comes to you to say, “I’m booooored!”  You can calmly refer them to the schedule and add, “I know you will figure out something fun to do from all those options, honey.”
  • Keep an eye on your own stress level as there is a trickle down effect.  As we reunite with family, all of those fun dynamics from childhood tend to surface.  Children generally have fewer demands on them during breaks which is why they tend to do better behaviorally.  If you need a break from your relatives, then don’t over schedule.  Your kids will pick up on your stress and react accordingly.
  • Remember to limit television time.  I know this sounds crazy.  After all it serves as an effective pacifier and most parents will ignore this suggestion.  However, trying to get the child away from the TV after they are allowed unlimited viewing will not likely be met with willingness from the child.  The recommendation for television viewing during the holidays is 1-2 hours each day (which includes other screen time such as computers and video games).  Some children can effectively manage more, other cannot.  Certainly, exceptions can be made for holiday movies, family videos, etc.  The general rule is to keep an eye on the time, though, because school will again be in session and the child will then have to “detox” from all the television viewing as they begin to focus on the “boring” schoolwork again.  Maybe reading a fun book in exchange for some of that TV time might keep the old brain cells fresh and sharp?
  • Whenever possible, prepare the child in advance for holiday visits.  If only someone would prepare you!  It never hurts to discuss who will be there, what will take place (as much as you can anticipate before the first family argument occurs), and how long the visit will last.  Children with sensory issues may need an escape plan that can be determined upon arriving to the party or gathering (or in advance if the location is familiar).  The child can use this “escape” for a set period of time to regulate him/herself and then must return to the gathering.  Bring a familiar item from home if your child is anxious about these visits.  Also, talk to your family members in advance and if your child is shy or anxious, remind them to let the child warm up and not force hug, kisses, etc. upon greeting the child.
  • Finally, prepare the child for transitions.  My colleague, Dr. Rick Solomon, has devised 20 Transition Tricks that he recommends for parents who have a child who cannot shift easily from one activity to another.  His general rule of thumb is to acknowledge the child’s feeling of not wanting to transition but then to begin to prepare them for what awaits.  There are a variety of strategies such as time warnings, use of humor, and bribes-but ultimately the child needs to go where we need them to or there will be a consequence.  Try to avoid these control battles whenever possible, though, and with some scheduling and preparation this will hopefully be a safe and happy holiday for everyone!  If it’s not the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” then join the club.  By keeping expectations reasonable and being able to laugh off some of the family dynamics that play themselves out across most households, this may result in the impression of a relaxing and enjoyable holiday!

Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.

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Protecting Self-Esteem Among Children and Teens

This is an area that is important regardless of a child’s developmental history, socioeconomic status, gender, or race.  As parents, we watch as our children are generally so carefree and assured, with the slightest compliments effectively reinforcing their every move.  Then we have to let them go at some point; to go away from the safety and comfort of our homes, and enter into the land of school.  We now don’t have any control over who they will meet or how they will be treated.  We must simply wait and pick up the pieces as we try and put on our best ‘poker face’ listening with angst, guilt, and anger (among other emotions) to our child recount being teased earlier that day.  I used to believe, perhaps hope, that self-esteem was not at risk until the junior high/middle school years, or what I like to call: “the years in which all kids should either hibernate or be allowed to stay home until maturity sets in.”

Unfortunately now I know better.  Self-esteem is at risk the moment a child enters preschool or daycare.  It just looks different.  Kids as young as preschool age can be heard telling each other, ‘I don’t want to be your friend,” or “I don’t like you.”  I recently listened to one of my colleagues recount how when her son was younger he came home one day and told her, “Johnny told me that he didn’t want to be my friend!”  She recalled how she bit her lip and was ready to give him a big hug as he was surely on the verge of tears.  She put her ‘poker face’ on and asked her son, “What did you say?”  Her son responded in a matter-of-face tone, “Who cares!?”

There has to be something to that response.  Some kids are simply born with a suit of armor that can repel these meaningless comments while others are devastated at the very thought of anyone not liking them.  Self-esteem begins to be chipped away each day in school whether a child is having a difficult time with math, or reading, or friendships, or basically anything that the child begins to internalize as making them ‘defective’ or ‘flawed’ in any way.  This is the same reason why the notion of a child being deemed ‘lazy’ by their teacher is ridiculous.  Kids are absolutely devastated when they cannot keep up in class, don’t answer a question correctly, take longer than their peers to complete an assignment or test…the list goes on and on…  You tell me how that is lazy.

So what is self-esteem and how can we help our kids achieve and maintain it?  My favorite definition comes from a pioneer in the field of psychology, William James.  He defined self-esteem with the following equation: Self-Esteem = Success/Pretensions (or Success divided by Pretensions).

Pretensions are viewed as goals, purposes, or aims, whereas Successes constitute the perception of the attainment of those goals.  Thus, we essentially decide in our own minds when we have achieved success based on our own expectations for that success.  When self-esteem begins to suffer is when an individual comes up short in his or her perception of reaching a particular goal, especially when the individual compares his or her achievement of a goal against the achievement of others.   So, for the child who either tells himself (or hears it from his parents) that he must get straight A’s and then gets a ‘B’ in gym class only to be outdone by one of his academic rivals, self-esteem has just taken a ‘hit.’   Whereas the child who really struggles in gym class and has lower expectations but eventually achieves a ‘B’ in the class may have a rise in self-esteem.

The bottom line, which is as important for adults as it is for kids, is that we have to have multiple ‘columns’ or ‘pillars’ of support to our self-esteem.  If we rest all of our esteem on how well we do in school and then do lousy on a test, then we are in trouble.  This is why I strongly encourage kids to pursue a variety of interests beginning in middle school even if they only end up liking a few things.  I don’t expect that they will like everything they try, but having at least a few new interests to add to the old can insulate them down the road if just one of their previous interests does not go well.

Imagine that I, a pediatric psychologist, enter a contest and win the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game.  I practice a little so that I don’t embarrass myself on the big day and then the day arrives.  I step up on the mound, try a bit of a wind up, and throw a wild pitch that sends the catcher scrambling and draws jeers from the fans.  It’s all in good fun and I laugh it off.  Why don’t I hang my head and beat myself up about this?  Why hasn’t my self-esteem suffered?  Well, for starters I am not a trained professional pitcher so why should I be expected to throw an accurate pitch from that distance?  But what if I were and I performed the same way?  Then my self-esteem might be in jeopardy because my pretensions are different.

The young boy I discussed earlier comes to mind.  As a psychologist, my reaction to my wild pitch can safely be “who cares?”  There are plenty of other things I do well and my pretensions for throwing the ball well were low.  As a result, not achieving success was okay.  This is exactly why we need to have multiple pillars of support.  If my entire self-concept is tied up in how knowledgeable and helpful I am as a psychologist, and a child comes to see me that I can’t seem to get through to, then I might beat myself up and question my competence.  However, if I go home to my family that night and watch as my daughter runs to greet me and play with me, I am reminded that there is more to me and my self-concept than what I do at work.  Adults as much as kids run into this problem and it gets them into big trouble.  The workaholic father, for example, who is so angry with his family every night because he can never truly be successful at work due to his extremely high pretensions.  His goals are too lofty and as a result he cannot find happiness in other areas…work is his only pillar of esteem and he has little energy left for much else.  Kids need to be reminded multiple times each day of their lives to find successes in what they do and increase the chances of that by doing a variety of different things.  A bad day at school is only devastating when the pretensions of how school should go are set too high.

Often what I worry about with the kids I treat is that they have suffered too many losses of esteem and don’t like the feeling anymore.  As a result, they fall into the cycle of avoidance.  Indeed, in their minds they think: With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure no humiliation.

So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator is our success: thus…

Self-Esteem = Success/Pretensions.  Self-esteem is ultimately increased by increasing our successes in life while also decreasing our pretensions.  I would strongly encourage all of us to keep our pretensions realistic and not depend on too much success in any one particular area of our lives.  The more we spread it out, the safer we are or the more intact our self-esteem remains.  Keep your options varied and open and don’t lose sight of what you are good at, even when you have a bad day and one of your columns of support happens to collapse on that particular day.

Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.

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Social Skills Part I: ‘Impressions’ and Being ‘Out and About’


This is the first in an ongoing series I will be presenting on Social Skills.  I spend a significant portion of my clinical practice working with children and teens on social skills.  Many parents are curious about my approach and philosophy on teaching social skills, so I thought I would begin posting my thoughts on the matter (in no specific order).  I will being by discussing ‘impressions’ and the initial need to be seen and not heard.

I often discuss social interactions as similar to advertising impressions.  For example, when businesses buy billboard advertising on the side of highways, they often first collect statistics on how many “impressions” their billboard location has on a particular day.  The advertisers want to know specifically how many individuals will see their advertisement over the course of a day, week, month, or year.

Individuals with social skills difficulties often become dejected and suffer a loss of self-esteem when they make one or perhaps even a handful of attempts at engaging others in a social interaction and these attempts are unsuccessful.  I am often able to use my advertising analogy with my clients who will begin to understand that not every person who drives by the Pepsi billboard on the highway is going to purchase that particular product.

When the available options for friendships is smaller such as in an elementary school, certainly the stakes are higher and each impression that is made must count.  However, I often coach my high school-age clients that they cannot expect to sit in their basement playing video games every weekend and then come into my office wondering why they are not more popular in school.  We often discuss the ‘content and process’ approach to social interactions which can be loosely applied to various junior high school and high school activities.

For example, I may work with individuals who have little interest in sports especially when it comes to participating in them.  However, anyone who has attended high school is well aware of the fact that, especially during the fall and early winter months, the place to be is the local high school football game on Friday night.  When it comes to “impressions” such as those found in advertising, being seen even if not heard is a basic starting block for my clients.

I have to remind these individuals to relax initially and just be there rather than try to initiate interactions with others or practice social skills techniques they may have learned by reading a book or from a counseling session or group.  I am generally opposed to social skills techniques being ‘taught’ because the nature of individuals with social difficulties is to study and memorize something in a rote fashion or linear manner and social interactions are far from rote or linear.  More on that topic in a future posting…

Indeed, although these individuals would love nothing more than to reduce social interactions down into a mathematical formula where there is a very specific path that must be followed in order to reach the appropriate or correct outcome, social interactions are generally not linear or rote, and are instead fluid and contain millions of variables and exponents that might be comparable to the mathematical variable of (Pi).  Thus, I want my clients to begin their experimentation into the social world by making impressions.  In order to do this, they must be out and about.

Dr. Mark Bowers is a Licensed Pediatric Psychologist and Autism/Anxiety expert at the Ann Arbor Center for Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Learn more about his Social Skills groups here.

© 2009 Mark Bowers, Ph.D.

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Filed under ADHD, Anxiety, Asperger's, Autism, PDD-NOS, School, Social Skills

Power School: Friend or Foe?

For those parents with a child attending a school with the Power School program, my opinion is mixed in terms of how ‘helpful’ it actually is.

Power School is a web-based student information system which recognizes the importance of connecting home with school.  Power School gives parents and students access to real-time information.

One website description states: According to “recent survey results”, parents use the web to become more involved in their children’s progress.  With Power School’s easy-to-use tools, parents can access secure student information online including: grades, assignment descriptions, school information, attendance and much more.

Each family receives a log-in and password to access their student’s progress and information at their convenience.

Sounds good in theory, right?  With only one or two parent-teacher conferences each year, having fast and frequent access to your child’s grades is a welcome option.  And while we worry about how much access to information our children have online, we are quick to log in and ‘see’ how things are progressing in the classroom.  After all, our kids usually answer the “How was your day?” question with “Fine.” and “Do you have any homework?” with “No.”  What’s the harm in checking in to see what is really happening at school?

I completely understand the intended purpose of Power School and think that it provides a valuable tool to many families.  However, I also see a variety of problems with the system.

  • Depending on your child, you may be more likely to check Power School (PS) on a consistent basis.  Indeed, kids who want their parents to back off and not check PS so much are often the same kids who behave in a manner that drives their parents to check in so much.  For example, a bright middle school student has difficulties organizing his work and often misses assignments or forgets to hand in his work.  As a result, his teachers enter zeros into various columns of PS and his current grade is listed as a “D” or “F.”  Logging in and seeing this grade and “missed assignment” in red ink is not going to get mom or dad to stop checking anytime soon.
  • In fact, Power School actually reinforces a parent to check when the information is negative such as missed work.  Parents who log in to see that all work is handed in and the child’s grades are A’s and B’s is less likely to see a need to consistently check.
  • Power School generally turns parents into an anxious mess.  The system has its flaws, especially the fact that timing issues can often cause a reaction about a missed assignment that your child may have handed in between the time you logged in and the time the assignment was added into the system.  This way, when you are confronting your child about the missed work, he or she is trying to convince you that it has been handed in, and you can’t trust this.  Some teachers are quicker than others when it comes to updating work completed.

I acknowledge that Power School can be an effective tool, especially if you need to review attendance and tardy history.  Further, there may be isolated moments of grade or homework completion confusion that can be easily clarified with a quick log in.

For families dealing with a child who is having difficulties with planning, organization, and assignment/homework completion I suggest considering the following:

For Middle School Children:

Establish a Homework Schedule-The child knowing when homework will be completed each day is helpful.  Allowing a fun activity to serve as a reward upon completion makes the hard work worthwhile.  Setting a block of time each night based on general amount of homework prevents the child from rushing.  For example, you set a one hour block for homework each night because your child generally has 30 minutes of work.  If your child finishes work quickly, they can read a book or review their homework until the hour is over.  This way, they understand there is no rush to complete work…the fun activity will have to wait regardless.

Don’t Hover Over Your Child During Homework-This is called ‘helicopter parenting.’  This is the same reason why many of the new generation of college students’ parents are calling professors on campus to complain about their child’s grades or the unfairness of a test.  Where does your child’s problem-solving and independence come from when you are always there to micromanage, review, check, correct, and battle with teachers?  If I had called my parents to complain about a bad test grade, their response would have been “work harder!’ not “Give me that teacher’s number, I’m gonna give them a piece of my mind!”

If You Must Check your Child’s Work-Be sure to note the correct items first.  Too often, we zone in on the errors and don’t focus on what the child is doing well.  Keep their confidence up whenever possible, especially during this age!

For High School Children:

Encourage Your Child to Check Power School on his/her own and then also establish a time you will log on (preferably with them) to review progress.  This way, your child knows when assignments must be turned in and can coordinate with teachers to have the information updated on Power School prior to parental review (another important step on the road to independence-advocating for oneself and problem-solving with adults other than parents!).  I usually recommend parents review Power School every other Wednesday of the month.  Weekends need to be enjoyable and logging on to potentially see bad news is a bad idea.  The middle of the week gives the child enough time in the beginning of the week to catch up and enough time at the end of the week to make up work.

Back Off! If your child does not have any learning difficulties or associated concerns that would require more support and intervention, then your best approach is to let your child handle school difficulties on their own while you focus on responsibilities and rules of the home such as curfew, cell phone/electronics use, etc.  If after a decent period of time (i.e., one quarter), your child continues to struggle in school then a professional consult may be warranted to rule out learning or emotional contributions to the sustained difficulties in school.

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