By Dr. Sherri Singer, Psy.D., Attention, Behavior, Processing & Learning Expert
For Parents who have been through too many learning support programs for their child with little or no success:
I meet so many parents who are sad and tired because they have tried everything for their child including learning program after program and tutor after tutor, and have not gotten to the success level they want to reach. While no one thing can be the absolute cure, since children like everyone else are multi-dimensional, there are things that can be happening to make any academic based learning program not do as well as it could. Working on math, reading, spelling, study skills or any other straight academic program in a smaller group than a classroom or a one on one situation does not take into account the following problems that many kids deal with. If they have these problems, the one on one or small group will not create a different learning pathway than the large classroom does and only takes these problems along for the ride. Even more important is the fact that if the child with problems is learning to be comfortable in only a 1 on 1 situation or a small group, their skills at being able to function in a larger classroom, which will be imperative in their future education, will suffer and they may continue to have the same problems. We are training them now for what they need to do later. Getting them used to a temporary fix that will hurt them later, will do nothing to help them in the long term. I focus on changing the following to help them be able to navigate any academics and any learning environment with less frustration and more success, so they get used to what they will need to do later on. These are not generally trained in academic based support.
1.) Processing Speed. Processing speed is the ability to quickly perform cognitive tasks. The faster a child’s processing speed is, the more completely they will be able to perform the task without getting lost. Many forms of help try to slow information down to accommodate the child’s speed. Since the world does not usually slow down for us, I prefer to work on speeding up the child. Since this is not an academic task, but rather a foundation skill, many programs can miss this.
2.) Multi-tasking/Simultaneous Processing. This is the ability to handle more than one task at a time. Many of the kids I meet lean on one skill more than another. Many times, this can be described through school reports as the child being a "visual learner" or "auditory learner" just to name a few. The usual way these kids are dealt with is to change the position they sit in, in the classroom or to focus the work toward their way of "learning". Again, the adult world does not often have the ability to change how things are presented as evidenced by the many adults I have helped who cannot keep up at work, so my choice is to help the child train at handling multiple processing skills at the same time. My thought is if they can handle multiple inputs at once, they can be more successful, less stressed and forever drop the label of what kind of learner they are.
3.) Short Term Auditory Memory/Sequential Processing. This is the ability to do things in order step by step. Can’t tell you how many parents I have seen who tell me that they tell their child to do several things and the child gets to the first or second thing and then either gets lost and has to be asked again or just goes and does something else. It can look like defiance or ignoring, which can get parents angry, but if the child is having this problem, it isn’t about defiance or ignoring, but instead, about a weak skill. Strengthening this skill can mean a world of difference for the child’s ability to do everything asked without getting lost along the way.
4.) Distraction tolerance. This is a term I have developed as a way to describe training that helps a child learn to ignore distractions. We are in an educational world of larger class sizes than ever before. For those kids and even with kids who are in smaller classes, at times, noise can throw brain timing off and create lots of frustration. Training to ignore that noise can mean a world of difference to the child’s success level. Again, the usual route for this in most programs, is to try to control the outside world and stop the noise or frustration. That is simply not possible to do and certainly you cannot control all environments your child will be exposed to throughout life. Training the child to live within the noise and work through it and get beyond it, is the true way to help the child.
5.) Behavioral Interference. Many programs deal with only learning or processing. This area is where I feel I have so much more to offer to families, because in addition to all those other things mentioned, I also specialize in stopping behavior while working on processing and learning at the same time. With the behavior interference gone, the learning and processing work can go much further and be very successful. Much behavior I have witnessed in my 26 years of helping kids and families is caused by frustration. No child ever wants to do poorly or be defiant. When a child feels something isn’t working right for him or her, he or she becomes frustrated and annoyed, showing all kinds of different responses. Some are cryers, some become anxious, some act out, some get super angry. All of those are an unnecessary distraction from normal life and happiness. Some parents I have met think very incorrectly that the child is just a "bad child" or there is something internally wrong. I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify and maybe kids I have not met have other issues, but for those I have met over 26 years, and I have met so many, frustration, based on faulty brain timing and processing issues, is the main issue with behavior being the response to it. The problem is that when you work only on learning or academics, and you don't focus on that brain timing or behavior at the same time, you are doing nothing to deal with helping the behavior problems/habits and you are not lightening the child’s load. I know how to do both for 30 years.
6.) Frustration Tolerance. Kids get frustrated. We all do. The response to it is really important. If we respond to a child’s frustration by making work less time or less difficult, how does that help the child later on when the work is more difficult or heavier? Again, the adult world does not make those contrived changes that the educational one sometimes does. So should we be working hard to change the work and walk on eggshells to stop the frustration from happening, or do we train the child how to work through the frustration and find a better way to cope with it while staying on track? I opt for choice 2. You may say it is not possible to do this, however, I have done it with lots of kids along the way. Is it easy? Not for every child. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Can it be done even with the kids who are expert at it? Absolutely. To be able to see a child calmly handle a mistake without running away from it, avoiding it, getting upset or complaining is priceless. At least that is what the parents tell me. It isn’t rocket science. Just guiding the child through and doing it enough times and letting it become rote.
Too many times, we get worried about a child’s frustration because it makes us uncomfortable and we want to soothe the child. While that is a normal parental response, and we feel cruel if we don't try to help, it makes the frustration response more profitable than the child learning healthier ways to cope and move beyond the emotional response to keep working independently. I train the healthier ways to cope and then we do it and do it and do it and do it until it becomes daily normal life and natural habit. Once parents get past the initial taking it on and staying calm and relaxed, the rest falls into place.
7.) Working memory. This is the ability to keep information in memory while doing other things. It is somewhat dependent on other things I have mentioned like processing speed and multi-tasking. If processing speed is not fast enough, holding things in working memory can be very tough and ultimately end in failure and frustration. If working memory is poor, trying to teach academic subjects 1 on 1 will be just as difficult and without staying power as in a large classroom. The memory skills must be trained to see a different result. Trained is not about talk therapy, but instead about repetitive practice and exercise.
Many parents I have worked with have gone from program to program, desperately searching for the one that works. The problem that many parents I have met all have in common is that they are all looking in the academic/subject based realm. If the underlying, foundation processing skills are suffering, programs that don’t train those are going to continue to have the same outcome. Please do not misunderstand me. I do not have any problem with academic based instruction via tutor or learning program. Those are good things to do. It’s the timing of them that is a problem. Processing skills and brain timing must be operating correctly first, prior to academic help. Once processing skills and brain timing are doing well, those kids will need to have academic and tutoring help and catch up to finish the process. These kids who are not processing information well, are so overwhelmed that they cannot begin to focus on the academics, so after fixing the skills and helping the child learn to cope, time with a tutor and or academic based learning program is a good direction. The order is not a choice though. If a child goes through tutoring or a academic learning program or help and does fine, then you know that the child’s problem probably does not involve anything deeper, but if you are a parent who has been through too many programs, too many tutors, too many meds and too much struggle and nothing is changing or you are seeing minor movement, you are probably looking at some processing or brain timing problems and those will need to be worked with first to see any changes.
Remember, though, the behavior will not just go away if you do the foundation work. Those behavior habits are there to protect the child-defense mechanisms. The habits will continue to exist until you take them on and I highly recommend you do that with supervision of someone who knows how to help you respond correctly. Any other response could create a worse problem and we don’t want to go there. I am excited to offer parents all of it in one place.
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