Social Communication Disorder: Knowing Words and Gestures, But Not How to Use Them

Social communication disorder (SCD): it’s what we call it when children struggle with subtle nuances of communication. Children with social communication disorder may not be clear about when to respond during conversation, and when it might be better to keep quiet and listen. A child with SCD may not have a good sense of private space: how close or far to stand next to a conversation partner. SCD may also be called pragmatic language impairment or semantic pragmatic disorder. SCD is a relative newcomer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), so some specialists may not even know it as a separate disorder distinct from autism.

Social communication disorder affects a child in three different areas: social interactions, social understanding, and pragmatics. Pragmatics means using language in its proper context. A child with SCD may not understand, for instance, that we use different language and tone when speaking to a baby than when we speak to a teacher or an elderly grandparent. A child with social communication disorder might approach a grandparent and say, “Hello, Cutie-Pie. Does oo want a bottle?”

Child whispers in the ear of shocked seated elderly woman

All children want to make friends and fit in with their peers. Some children find it easy to make friends while others find it difficult. It can take time and practice to learn how to make social conversation and get along with others. If making friends with others is an ongoing challenge, however, it may be a sign of social communication disorder. The symptoms of SCD tend to appear in early childhood, for instance in preschool.

Social Communication Disorder: Symptoms

Symptoms of SCD include:

  • Issues with verbal and nonverbal communication during social interactions
  • Difficulties in adapting to the communication style of a conversation partner
  • Problems in understanding and relating to the context of a partner’s conversation
  • Difficulty in understanding things that are implied rather than explicitly stated
  • Difficulty relating stories
  • An inability to master basic social rules
  • Severe anxiety that causes the child to avoid social situations

Social Communication Disorder: Genetic Factor?

Researchers are still learning about social communication disorder, so don’t as yet have firm answers about what causes the disorder. Some studies suggest that children with social communication disorder tend to have family members with autism spectrum disorder, known communication disorders, or learning disabilities. This would suggest there may be a genetic factor in developing SCD.

Children with social communication disorder can have other disorders at the same time. They may, for example, have other speech disorders or ADHD.

Social Communication Disorder: Diagnosis

A diagnosis of social communications disorder is diagnosed by observing a child’s difficulties in learning verbal and nonverbal communication skills. During an evaluation, a speech and language professional will see if your child can:

  • Answer questions
  • Use gestures such as waving and pointing in appropriate ways
  • Take turns during play and conversations
  • Appropriately express and describe emotions
  • Stay on topic
  • Adapt language and tone to the situation or conversation partner
  • Ask appropriate questions and respond with relevant answers during conversation
  • Use different words and terms for the same thing, for instance hi, hello, hiya, hey.
  • Make friends and keep them

Until recently, many believed that social communication disorder was a facet of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Ruling out autism is, in fact, part of the process of diagnosing social communication disorder. This is because there is some overlap of symptoms between the two disorders.

Social communication disorder, however, lacks the restrictive and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), interests, and activities of autism. RRBs are different from the repetition you might hear from a child with social communication disorder. Ask a child with SCD if he hung up his hat, and the child may give you a blank look and repeat, “Hat.”

This is because the child doesn’t understand that a question has been asked. The child only understand that s/he is meant to say something, but doesn’t understand what that something might be-only that it’s something about a hat.

Children with autism, on the other hand, may feel a need to eat the same foods each day; to line up their crayons in a specific order; play the same game with the same toy car daily; or engage in the same type of conversation on a specific topic. In social communication disorder, these behaviors are absent.

In the same way that SCD seems similar to autism, it is also sometimes confused with ADHD. Confusing the picture further, children with SCD may also have ADHD. But ADHD comes with attention problems. SCD does not.

If you ask the child with a social communication disorder which he prefers: chocolate or peanut butter, he might say peanut butter, even if he really prefers chocolate. He does so because he is focused on the end. He didn’t process the rest of what you said. But it’s not that the child lost focus as with ADHD. It’s that the child with SCD may think that only the end of a sentence is important.

Chocolate being dipped into peanut butter

Social communication disorder may be suspected when a child has no trouble with words, speech, or gestures but struggles to use and apply them in social situations. If you tell the child to wave, he will do so. But he may not understand that waving is connected to and indicated when greeting and parting from others.

Children with SCD may also be slow to reach language milestones or show little interest in socializing with others. SCD can make it difficult for a child to understand stories and conversations, and to bend to various social situations. These issues are very different from the general issues that come with, for instance, intellectual disabilities. Social communication disorder affects understanding of every type of communication: verbal, nonverbal, spoken, written, gestures, and sign language, too.

Social Communication Disorder: Treatment

While there is no cure for social communication disorder, there are treatments. Speech and language pathologists are trained to recognize and design treatment for communication problems like SCD. Teachers and speech-language pathologists often work together to help children better their communication skills. For those who find speech difficult, there are alternative means of communication. This can mean something as simple as holding up a picture, or as technologically complicated as using a smartphone to type out a sentence.

Preschooler with smartphone

Therapy for children with social communication disorder may be given in the child’s school setting, or at a local clinic. Schools employ speech-language pathologists who can offer therapy and coordinate these efforts with the child’s teacher. Some clinics offer therapy to children with SCD as part of early intervention programs or special education initiatives. Hospitals and medical centers may also have therapists on hand to help you find and implement a strategy that works for your child. The idea is to figure out a treatment plan that gives such children a plan: a reliable method to get them through challenges and difficult social situations.

Therapy for social communication disorder is a must, as SCD doesn’t improve without professional assistance.

A therapeutic plan for a child with SCD may include:

  • Social skills training that helps children acquire the skills to interact with others in social settings
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to minimize anxiety and deal with strong emotions
  • Medication for coexisting conditions that may worsen the child’s social communication disorder, for instance ADHD.
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Support and training for parents

SCD Action Plan

If you suspect your child is having difficulty with social skills, you’ll want to get to the bottom of things. Here are three simple steps for getting started:

  1. Watch your child and note his or her behavior. Write your observations in a notebook.
  2. Share your observations with your child’s teacher and compare notes. The teacher can help by making sure that classroom instructions are clear and by pairing your child with children who share similar interests.
  3. Ask the teacher about having your child undergo an educational evaluation. If the school agrees this is indicated, the evaluation will be free. The results of the evaluation may mean your child receives supports and services, all absolutely free.

SCD: Specialists and What They Can Do

Social communication disorder can only be diagnosed by a speech therapist. But it’s possible other specialists can rule out SCD. It helps to know what the various specialists can and cannot do for your child. It’s important to note that if you go the private route, using private specialists, you’ll have to pay for any tests administered. Here’s the breakdown of the specialists you might visit for a child who may have SCD, keeping in mind that only you know your financial and community resources and what you are able to afford:

Pediatrician: A pediatrician can help rule out medical issues as cause for your child’s behavior and advise you on your next step. Some pediatricians are also able to test for ADHD. A pediatrician can sometimes offer a referral for further testing or therapy with a speech therapist.

Learning specialist: A learning specialist can test for learning and attention issues. These are the same tests your child would receive in an evaluation provided by the school. The difference is that you would have to pay. In the case where the school decides not to test and you still feel there is a problem, you might want to go this route and hire a learning specialist to administer tests. If you don’t feel that what the school offers is adequate, and you can afford to go private, a learning specialist may be a good option.

Psychologist: A psychologist is trained in both learning disabilities and attention issues and can rule out or diagnose a variety of learning and attention difficulties. The psychologist can also check for nonverbal learning disorder and for ADHD. While the learning specialist’s focus is specific to learning disabilities, a psychologist has a broader framework. Your child may not need that broader framework.

Speech therapist: The speech therapist is the specialist who is most qualified to diagnose social communication disorder. This is also the professional best equipped to prepare a treatment plan for your child with SCD.

SCD: What You Can Do At Home

Parents can do a lot to help children develop their social skills, feel better about themselves, and can also offer the support children need to keep trying. Here are some practical ways you can help your child:

Read and learn all you can: Read articles online, take books out of your local library, or buy books on children and social communication issues. Knowledge is power. So is understanding your child’s plight.

Watch for and note patterns: Keep a notebook handy and jot down your observations. Does your child always have difficulties in the same social situations? Do you see a pattern in your child’s behavior? What you observe can help the professionals help your child.

Practice social situations at home: Role-playing can go a long way toward training your child in appropriate behavior at parties, playdates, or just plain holiday gatherings with the family. Take turns starting and ending conversations, or greeting friends, neighbors, and relatives. Home is a safe place to try these behaviors out. It’s also fun to play-act, a great way for parent and child to bond!

Play matchmaker between your child and other possible friends: Your child has the best chance of effective communication with kids who share his or her interests. Does your child enjoy dance, art, or sports? Enroll your child in an afterschool class in whatever it is your child likes to do. There your child will be sure to meet other children who like the same things. It’s a good basis for friendship.

Try social skills building classes: Some schools offer free classes in social skills. You might be able to find a private class offered by those with training in learning difficulties who also run programs for children with social challenges.

Experiment with strategies: Don’t be afraid to try out new ways of helping your child. Seek out role-playing and other games on Pinterest, websites, and blogs.

Talk to other parents: Though every child with SCD will have unique challenges, it can help just to speak with other parents going through similar difficulties with their children. It’s comforting to network and share strategies. It’s great to have a support system and get advice on specialists or new strategies to try.

While social communication skills don’t ever go away for good, children with SCD can learn strategies to help them socialize and get along with others. As your child improves his social skills, this will give him the impetus to keep on aiming for better. And as long as your child is encouraged to keep on keeping on, things can only look up!

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ADHD Symptoms: ADHD or Sleep Deprivation?

ADHD symptoms can sometimes be a sign of simple sleep deprivation. That’s the upshot of the discussion at a recent conference in Paris. Psychiatric researchers presented a roundup of the data that suggests that sleep and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are linked. Some of the experts, however, remain unconvinced that such a connection exists. Instead, they say the ADHD symptoms we see in sleep-deprived children only mimic the symptoms of ADHD. What we’re really seeing, say these dissenting experts, may be a sleep disorder.

That’s important, because the upward increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD is striking. We need to know if it’s possible we’re not seeing ADHD after all, but something altogether different. If it’s not ADHD and we treat the symptoms with drugs, we may not be addressing the root cause, and may even be making things worse. Especially since some medications for ADHD, for instance, Ritalin, can make it difficult for children to sleep.

“If adults don’t get enough sleep, they’ll appear sleepy,” says Dr. Syed Naqvi, a pediatric sleep expert at UT Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and Children’s Health. “Children don’t do that. They show ADHD-like behavior instead—hyperactive or inattentive.”

Dr. Naqvi says he sees lots of children in his practice who have been diagnosed with ADHD whose behavior doesn’t respond to medication. What they really need is sleep. Once the issue of quality and duration of sleep is treated, the symptoms improve.

ADHD Symptoms from Ritalin

Naqvi has seen the occasional case where ADHD medication was the actual source of the sleep problem. In other words: these kids with ADHD symptoms didn’t actually have ADHD. They were exhibiting the symptoms of ADHD because they needed better and more sleep. And the drugs they were given for their ADHD symptoms exacerbated their sleep issues and caused them to be even more symptomatic. They needed sleep, not Ritalin.

Dr. Preston Wiles, an ADHD expert with the O’Donnell Brain Institute, agrees that the rise in the number of children taking medications for ADHD symptoms is “concerning.” Wiles says the increase in pediatric prescriptions for ADHD medications is due, in large measure, to the fact that there are so few clinicians who are qualified to render an accurate diagnosis of ADHD. Many of the “experts” prescribing these medications have little understanding of child behavior.

“Pills can be a poor substitute for taking the time to truly understand what is going on with behavior,” Dr. Wiles says.

Little Girl wearily rubbing her eyes
ADHD symptoms or just plum tuckered out?

Kars4Kids spoke with Dr. Naqvi to find out more about why children aren’t getting enough quality sleep and what parents can do to help:

Kars4Kids: What is the impact of technology, for instance, kids texting friends at night and the exposure to bright screens, on our children’s quality and quantity of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Using technology in the bed with blue light-emitting screens or socializing at that time results in increased arousal and stimulation of the brain that should actually be winding down time in preparation for sleep. Such technology use frequently results in an artificial delay in sleep, causing inadequate sleep which in turn, impacts on daytime alertness.

Kars4Kids: What can parents do to improve a child’s quantity and quality of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Parents should make sure there is a consistent routine for bedtime for the whole family with dimmer lights and a quiet environment, and allowing for age-appropriate sleep time and duration. Control the use of technology an hour before bedtime, and limit caffeine or sugary drinks intake from late in the afternoon. Younger children should go to sleep earlier, teenagers a little later.

Kars4Kids: Is it safe and/or effective to give children melatonin to help improve quantity and quality of sleep?

Dr. Syed Naqvi: Normal children do not need any sleep aid. Melatonin in small amounts may be used in select cases and is generally safe. Discuss the issue with a sleep specialist for a persistent sleep difficulty or any other need for using melatonin.

Mother showing tired boy with ADHD symptoms that it's time to go to bed
Is he exhibiting ADHD symptoms? He may just need more sleep.

Dr. Naqvi also offers a few tips to help parents figure out whether sleep disturbances may be affecting their children’s behavior:

  • Watch for signs of breathing problems, for instance snoring or short intervals where breathing is halted. If you see possible signs of breathing problems, have your child evaluated by a sleep expert.
  • Measure the duration of nighttime sleep the child is getting and monitor any daytime sleepiness.
  • Monitor your children’s school performance and seek help if things don’t improve after starting on ADHD medications.

Is Dyslexia a Gift?

Is Dyslexia a gift? Or is it a curse? Is it a learning disability or a learning difference? It all depends on whom you ask. But dyslexia sure does make it difficult to read. Dyslexia, in fact, is defined as an unexpected reading difficulty that occurs without relation to intelligence, age, motivation, or education.

How could that be a good thing? It makes it hard to read. It comes out of the blue. How can one learn anything without having the knack of fluent reading, let alone attain a high school diploma? How is someone who find it difficult to read going to get through school and get a job?

It is often said that the first three years of school are spent learning to read. After that, students read to learn. Students with dyslexia find it difficult to read, so of course they’re going to find it difficult to learn, right? On the face of it, it sure looks as though dyslexia is a curse, rather than a gift.

Gift of Dyslexia: Superior Understanding

So far, we’re talking facts. Except that there’s another set of talking points on dyslexia that appears to contradict these facts. These alternative arguments say that people with dyslexia just have a different way of learning, that of course people with dyslexia are going to fail if you teach them the way you teach more typical students. This line of thinking holds that people with dyslexia have a superior way of learning and understanding, if only you teach according to their abilities and gifts.

Judy Packhem, a reading specialist, owner and consultant at Shaping Readers explains, “Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that is characterized by problems with phonological processing skills. In layman’s terms, dyslexics have trouble with accurate and fluent word reading, spelling and decoding (sounding out words). Functional MRIs show a difference between the brains of dyslexics and non-dyslexics. Simply put, the wiring in the brain for reading processes is different. But while their reading skills are lacking, dyslexics excel in other areas.”

If you’re a parent of a child with dyslexia, by now, you’re wondering: what are these “other areas” at which people with dyslexia “excel?” According to Packhem, people with dyslexia are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, which is why some 35% of all entrepreneurs have dyslexia. Packhem recites the usual list of geniuses said to have dyslexia, including Albert Einstein, Steven Spielber, and Bill Gates on her list.

Can Kids With Dyslexia See It As A Gift?

All fine and good. But how do you help children with dyslexia to see their difficulty as a gift? Because if you fail at making them see this, they’re going to feel inferior to their peers who have no trouble whatsoever when it comes to making sense of text. From Packhem’s point of view, the relief that comes with diagnosis solves that problem. “Once diagnosed, dyslexics are often relieved to learn that there is an explanation for their reading difficulty and that they aren’t ‘dumb,’” says Packhem. “They know that having dyslexia means they need to learn in a different way. With the right treatment, dyslexics are able to learn to read. It requires intervention that is multisensory, explicit, language-based, and emotionally sound.”

As far as Packhem is concerned, the gold standard for the effective treatment of dyslexia is the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) approach. “O-G succeeds where traditional teaching does not in that it is able to create new neural pathways in the brain for reading,” says Packhem, who has a master’s degree in reading and literacy and is a certified dyslexia therapist.

But what, exactly, does it mean to “think out of the box?” What does it mean, in practical terms, to learn in a “different” way? For Arvin Vohra, founder of the Vohra Method of study, and author of Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions, and The Equation for Excellence: How to Make Your Child Excel at Math, it’s about a difference in vision, in how people with dyslexia see things. “Students with dyslexia often treat letters as three dimensional objects. Just as we consider a pen rotated to still be a pen, they often see a b and a d to be the same thing. This poses a challenge in initial stages of reading, but thanks to the work of many educational innovators, a challenge most students can overcome. But the positive benefits of dyslexia are huge! Students who have that 3 dimensional reading facility have a huge advantage in advanced math, as well as in non-academic areas like sculpture and sport,” says Vohra.

Dyslexia: Gift and Curse

Phil Weaver, of the Learning Success System, doesn’t necessarily agree. “Dyslexia is a gift and a curse. You have chosen a very controversial subject. We deal with that statement every day and know well how emotional people can get around that simple phrase.”

Weaver suggests that you can’t define dyslexia according to a single standard. “The exact definition of dyslexia is wildly disputed. So before saying dyslexia is a gift it would be good to know how the term is being used.

“Many schools and professionals will use the term ‘specific learning disability,’ instead. Sometimes this term is used to circumvent providing necessary programs and other times simply to be more descriptive. In fact, all this vagary of speech is one of the main problems in the space.

“Dyslexia can refer to phonological dyslexia, visual dyslexia, or kinesthetic dyslexia. Phonological dyslexia is a problem with language, which could be either a problem deciphering sounds or a problem with abstractions. Visual dyslexia could be a problem with the eyes which could be treated with visual therapy, or it might be Irlen syndrome*, or a difficulty with visual mental skills such as visual memory, visual discrimination, or visual closure. Kinesthetic dyslexia describes problems with directionality and proprioception. Or, to confuse things even more, any possible combination of any of those, which is actually more likely,” says Weaver.

Children With Dyslexia Need Help Not Battles

“There is a large faction that will claim that only phonological dyslexia is true dyslexia. And they get quite defensive if anyone says otherwise. All of this is ridiculous. These children need help and endless battles are fought over definitions.

“With all of that in mind,” says Weaver, “if we can just go with a basic assumption of some specific learning disability. This means that a child (or adult) has a problem with a specific learning skill, in this case reading, but is otherwise intelligent.”

Building on this idea, Weaver suggests that once we stipulate dyslexia as a difficulty with perception or mental function, we can speak about compensation, which is what people do when they have any sort of deficit. For students with dyslexia, says Weaver, compensation is often seen in the area of social skills. “Students with dyslexia may develop some amazing social skills in the interest of hiding their problem,” says Weaver, who suggests that compensation occurs with a student’s thinking skills (cognition), as well. “When we think we use our internal visual, auditory, and spatial skills. These all work together in such a way that we really don’t notice them. And we all use these skills a bit differently. When one skill is weak, the others will become stronger to compensate.”

In summary, says Weaver, there are an infinite number of ways in which the “gifts” of dyslexia display themselves. “You will hear a lot of generalizations such as ‘dyslexics are visual thinkers.’ The truth is that some dyslexics are amazing visual thinkers. Others may actually have a weakness in that area and that is the cause of their dyslexia. These generalizations all sprout from specific subjective experiences.

All Kinds of Dyslexics

“You’ll also hear many claims of dyslexics being highly intelligent. The reality is that dyslexics span the full range of intelligence. No specific gift of intelligence comes with dyslexia. There are highly intelligent dyslexics. Dyslexics of average intelligence. And there are dyslexics of low intelligence,” says Weaver.

Weaver cautions that while some students with dyslexia do develop their gifts, others never get past the issue of low self-esteem. The low self-esteem comes from feeling inferior to their neurotypical classmates, who have no trouble reading. “If they don’t get past the typical self-esteem issues caused by the disability then it is unlikely those gifts will help much. Some get past it by intentionally developing self-esteem. Others do well by constantly proving themselves.

“For dyslexics to not feel “less than” the neurotypical I think it is important for them to realize that there truly is no “neurotypical.” We all think differently. Some are easier to fit into a box and learn in the standard ways. This just means that their neurological differences are not so obvious,” says Weaver.

Concrete Example Of Dyslexia As Gift: John Crossman, CEO

For John Crossman, however, a 46-year-old man with dyslexia who is CEO of Crossman & Company, the difference is indeed obvious. “I consider dyslexia a gift in that it pushed me (without knowing it) to sharpen my skills as a public speaker. I can now write a speech in my head and deliver it without every writing down a note. I give a speech about once a month and almost never use notes.”

Weaver suggests that what Crossman sees as a gift is part and parcel of learning to cope with dyslexia. “In the context of dyslexics realizing that they have a fantastic opportunity for having very pronounced skills that they can maximize and profit from, talking about dyslexia as a gift is quite healthy. With that realization must come the acceptance that those gifts emerged from a difficulty. With that healthy acceptance, a dyslexic can strive to both maximize the gift, and work to overcome the difficulty,” says Weaver.

Referring to the plasticity of the brain, that the brain can grow connections, improve, and change, Weaver comments, “We are not forced to live with the same brain we were born with. We can change it if we want to. To what extent no one knows. But we can only start with a healthy look at where we are at any given moment.”

*Irlen syndrome is a controversial topic. Some of the studies conducted on Irlen syndrome were in some ways faulty, and it is disputed whether or not the syndrome actually exists.  For more information, see:

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/002221949002301010

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colored-overlays/study-doubts-colored-overlays-for-reading-problems-idUSTRE78K4J420110921

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/09/15/peds.2011-0314

http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4872/rr/761729

https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/irlen-syndrome/

How Does the Brain Learn?

How does the brain learn and truly absorb the information it receives? The brain learns through a process of Sequencing: putting information into the right order; Abstraction: making sense of that information; and Organization: using the information to form thoughts. When the brain completes these three steps of processing information, this is called Integration.

The term “integration” is a way of saying the brain has learned something. This may be input from the classroom, or input from life. A child can learn how to add and subtract in the classroom. The child can also learn through life experience that touching a hot stove can burn the skin and cause pain. No matter the source of the information, once it is input and integrated, the brain understands the information it has been fed.

How does the brain, this remarkable organ, take in the information it receives, make sense of it, and use it to create and do incredible things? And what happens when something goes wrong along the way? Is there a way to assist the brain in understanding and absorbing information?

Answering these questions begins with knowing how the brain learns, or the steps we take in processing information. The three steps of the brain’s unique learning formula (sequencing, abstraction, and organization), also provide clues where there are learning difficulties. These clues can ensure we offer children with learning problems the right kind of help.

How Does the Brain Learn: Sequencing

What kind of problems might be spotted as the child learns information? A child might, for example, have a problem with sequencing. If the child has a consistent weakness in this area, a learning difficulty or disability might be suspected. A child may have trouble learning to count, for instance. This might suggest the child has trouble sequencing numbers: putting them in order.

Confirmation that the difficulty has to do with sequencing might come when the child then has trouble learning the correct order of the letters of the alphabet, or the months of the year. When one looks at all the difficulties the child has, and sees they are about placing information into the correct order, two things become clear:

  • The child’s brain has a problem with processing information
  • The specific neurological (brain) problem is sequencing: putting information in order.

How Does the Brain Learn: Abstraction

Once the brain has the information sorted into the right sequence, it’s time to understand the meaning of the information (abstraction). Most children with learning difficulties have no serious problem with this part of learning. Abstraction is about things like understanding symbols (for example, a stop sign), or the meaning of a word (sit, eat, sleep). These are basic brain tasks. A child with a serious problem in the area of abstraction wouldn’t have a learning disability or difficulty, but an intellectual disability.

How Does the Brain Work: the brain does abstract thinking in the chemistry lab

There can, however, be minor problems with abstraction. A person who doesn’t “get” jokes, and doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, may have a problem with abstraction. A person who doesn’t understand puns or idioms may be having problems with abstraction. Call this person a “pig” and he won’t understand that the word “pig” is not just an animal, but an insult. These types of abstraction issues are exceptions to the rule.

How Does the Brain Learn: Organization

When we think of organization difficulties, it’s easy to imagine a child with a messy room. The child can never find anything. Nothing has a specific place. The child loses things, forgets to bring important items to school, mislays homework, text books, notebooks. These issues may extend to time management. The child is always late and can never turn in assignments on time.

Each of these scenarios: messy room; losing things; forgetfulness; time management issues, have to do with different pathways in the brain. Learning creates new brain pathways. When we call on these brain pathways, electrical impulses light up and activate those parts of the brain.

In some children, the wiring gets crossed or tangled. In other children, the brain pathways may be damaged. Since the circuit in the brain is interrupted, the information never gets to where it is sent, at least not in the form it was intended. Sometimes only part of the information is sent. This leads to incomplete or flawed information processing.

tangled wires

When such processing problems repeat on a regular basis and interfere with the child’s learning, it is time to think whether the child might have a learning difficulty or disability. This is where an evaluation is both necessary and helpful. A thorough evaluation can help pinpoint subtle issues in brain functioning. This can tell parents and educators where the failure is occurring within the three-step procedure of information processing.

That doesn’t mean an exact diagnosis is easy to obtain. A child who calls a fork, a “korf,” may have a problem, but it is difficult to say what the problem might be. It could be the child has a problem with sequencing, verbal output, or auditory processing. The mispronunciation may be about integrating any or all of the these processing areas into one solid whole. For this reason, the child must be assessed in all of these areas.

How Does the Brain Learn: Basic Skills

Whether the problem is sequencing, abstraction, organization, or something else, If a child’s brain has a problem processing information, the child may find it difficult to learn even basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. When neurological (brain) processing interferes with reading, for instance, the child will be said to have dyslexia. When a processing problem interferes with learning to write, we call it dysgraphia. A problem with processing numbers is called dyscalculia. These are just three examples of learning difficulties that are labeled according to the specific skill sets affected by neurological processing problems.

Learning difficulties are not limited to basic skills. Sometimes processing problems interfere with a child’s higher level skills. Higher level skills include managing time, organization, and abstract thinking. Here too, a learning difficulty is recognized according to the specific processing issue.

How Does the Brain Learn: Four Areas of Processing

A child’s processing problem may have to do with taking in information (input); or it may be about making sense of information (integration). For another child, the difficulty may be storing information and retrieving it for later use (memory). In some cases, a child may have no trouble taking in information, making sense of it, and remembering it, but can’t use this information to form words, write, draw, or gesture (output). It is in one or more of these four basic areas that children diagnosed with learning difficulties will be found to have a processing problem.

Input Output sockets

When the brain receives information, this is called input. Sometimes input is visual, or information we understand with our eyes. Sometimes input is auditory, or information we understand with our ears.

How Does the Brain Learn: Visual Input

A difficulty with visual input doesn’t mean, for instance someone who has a vision problem, such as near or far-sightedness. A visual input problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is seen. If the brain sees letters in reverse, for example, this might be a visual input processing problem.

Let’s say a child has trouble with the mechanics of catching a ball. In order to catch the ball, the eyes have to focus on the ball. This is called figure-ground. At the same time, the brain must be able to pinpoint the position of the ball and its path (depth perception). This helps the body understand where and when to move. Finally, the body must obey the brain’s commands, to stretch out the hands and actually catch the ball as it arrives. If the child misjudges the speed of the ball, or how far it must travel, or if the brain doesn’t issue the right commands to the arms and hands, the child may very well fail to catch the ball.

These are just two examples of visual processing problems. In one example, the visual processing problem leads to letter reversals. In the other example, visual processing problems quite literally lead to dropping the ball. There are many other ways we might see the effects of visual processing problems.

How Does the Brain Learn: Auditory Input

Just as a visual processing problem isn’t about being near or far-sighted, a difficulty with auditory input doesn’t mean that someone is, for example, hearing challenged. An auditory processing problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is heard. A child who has an auditory processing problem, may, for instance, be unable to understand how the words too, two, and to are not the same word. This can lead to confusion when the child hears these words in spoken sentences.

In another example of an auditory input processing problem, the child might need more time to understand what is heard. Because of this, the child misses some of what you say because the speed of your speech is too quick for his understanding. This is called an “auditory lag.”

Children can have both visual and auditory processing problems. This might make it difficult for a child to make sense of what is happening when the child receives visual and auditory information at the same time. An example of this could be the student who sees writing on a blackboard while listening to an explanation of those words.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Integration

Once input is complete, through visual and/or auditory means, it’s time for the three-step integration process. The brain must put all the information into the right order (sequencing). The brain must be able to understand how to use the information (abstraction). Last of all, the brain must take each piece of information and add it to the whole to make a complete thought. This type of organization of information is the final step in integration. It is what makes integration complete.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Memory

At this point, learning is still not complete. Will the brain hold onto the memory for tomorrow’s French test (short-term memory or working memory), or will the child remember that French phrase ten years later (long-term memory) when she visits France as an exchange student? Like abstraction, it is unlikely that your child would have a serious long-term memory disability. Such a problem would not be a learning difficulty, but rather an intellectual disability.

A short-term memory disability, on the other hand, is a real phenomenon. You see it with the child who spends hours memorizing the names of countries on a map for geography class and then forgets everything during the test the next morning. By the same token, the teacher may be very patient in the classroom, explaining how to divide fractions. But when the child pulls out her math homework that night, she cannot remember how to do the work.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Output

The final step in learning is actual using the information. This is called output. Output may be verbal, by way of spoken words or language, or motor, which is by way of muscle activity. Motor output includes drawing, writing, and pointing, for example. A child with issues in these areas might have a language disability or a motor disability.

There are two types of language we use to communicate: spontaneous language and demand language. Spontaneous language is where you begin a conversation. You’ve chosen the topic, and had time to think about what you’re going to say. Most children have no problem here.

In demand language, however, someone might ask you a question. You haven’t chosen the subject, thought about your response, or organized your thoughts. You’ve got this split-second to answer the question. For the child with a language disability, this is a tongue-tying situation. The child may ask you to repeat the question, or simply answer, “What?” or “I don’t know.” Some children will respond but the response won’t make any sense—won’t seem to relate to the question.

Child draws outline with colored pen

In motor disabilities, the child may have a problem using the large muscle groups. This is known as a gross motor disability. For other children, it’s hard to perform tasks that requires using many muscles to work together at once. This is called a fine motor disability.

A child with gross motor disabilities may always be tripping over her own feet. She might fall a lot, spill her milk, bump into things, and drop things often. The child will find it hard to learn how to swim or ride a bike.

A child with a fine motor disability may have trouble writing or speaking. The child who has trouble speaking because of a fine motor disability may find it difficult to coordinate all the parts of the mouth, tongue, throat, and face used in speech. Writing, on the other hand, requires coordinating the use of many muscles in the hand at the same time. Children with handwriting problems may write slowly, or have messy handwriting. The child may even find that the writing hand, when writing, develops a cramp.

This should be considered a very broad overview of a complicated subject. For more information, follow the links for deeper reading. If you suspect your child has an information processing problem or learning disability, it’s important to have the child evaluated.

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Manage ADHD by Developing Skills

You can’t manage ADHD with drugs alone. Anyone who has ever parented one of the 6 million children in the United States age 4-17 diagnosed with the condition knows that. But with school now back in session, frustrated parents and their children may be asking what more can be done to manage ADHD and its symptoms. Because taking drugs isn’t enough, and may not even be the right way to go.

ADHD is complicated. It makes learning difficult. That’s why children with ADHD need a great deal of support from their parents, teachers, and school counselors. A school counselor, in particular, can play a special role in helping students with ADHD by serving as an intermediary between parents and teachers.

With so many children experiencing ADHD, it becomes crucial to offer them some sort of support system that goes beyond purchasing a prescription and hoping for the best. Here, school counselors can fulfill an important function, by serving as the pipeline for communication between parents and teachers. School counselors can also be an important resource for all those who work with children with ADHD, both in and out of the classroom. While most children are diagnosed with the combined form of ADHD, the presentation of symptoms can change over time. The school counselor can offer strategies to cope with changing behaviors as these changes arise.

In order to manage ADHD, however, it is important to gain an understanding of the skills a student with ADHD must develop. The aim of any therapies for ADHD must have, as their ultimate goal, improved impulse control, time management, and the ability to focus or concentrate on tasks. If students fail to develop these critical skills, they will remain in perpetual frustration, become worn out from trying so hard, develop poor self-esteem, and suffer from acute embarrassment, as well.

One practical way to help students with ADHD develop these skills is to provide them with a dependable structure. A student who struggles with forgetfulness, for instance, should be made to do homework at the same time every day. Over time, the student internalizes that homework is always done at 4 PM, so that when 4 PM rolls around, the student knows just what to do and never forgets. A student who tends to forgetfulness can also be instructed to store his schoolbooks in one designated space. Since the item is always placed in the same spot, there will never be a time when the child cannot find the item. These are meaningful methods for developing time management and organizational skills to really address and manage ADHD.

But let’s say there is to be a school field trip at 4 PM on a certain date. That can throw the student with ADHD for a loop, since 4 PM is homework time. The student should be prepared well in advance of any such changes in schedule or routine. Talking about how and when the child will get dressed, do homework, and eat on that day is going to be a necessary conversation that may have to be reviewed several times over several days or weeks. Students with ADHD need lots of help and much spatience in learning to organize their time.

As for developing a student’s powers of concentration and focus, ADHD expert Dr. Edward Hallowell believes Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expertthat staying focused for shorter periods of time is the right way to go. “Kids with ADHD must learn to manage large projects. Break down large topics or tasks into small, manageable bits. For example, a book report might be subdivided into eight steps, or a science project outlined in a dozen doable steps. This helps the child with ADHD not feel overwhelmed.”

Strategies to Manage ADHD

These coping tips and tricks help students manage ADHD symptoms by teaching them strategies that have been proven to work, based on evidence. Such strategies are called evidence-based interventions (EBIs). An example of an EBI would be helping the parents of the student with ADHD to develop and put into place a system of organization to assist the student in carrying out more homework assignments and chores and getting them done on time. Parents might use calendars, charts, notebook or computer, and class syllabi to make it work.

Anil Chacko, a professor for Counseling@NYU’s online master’s in school counseling program from NYU Steinhardt, describes some strategies that school counselors can use when working with students who have ADHD. “School counselors should utilize methods that support students’ time management, planning, and organization,” Chacko says, citing the work of Joshua Langberg at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Howard Abikoff at New York University’s (NYU) School of Medicine, leading scholars in the field of ADHD in children and adolescents. “I would also encourage school counselors to work directly with parents to create a school-home note system to support cross-setting changes.”

Dr. Langberg developed and published the successful Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS) intervention. HOPS is about teaching kids to use physical organization tools, for instance book bags, binders, and lockers, and homework management tools such as writing down assignments and recording them accurately, entering test dates on a calendar, and in general, planning things out.

Dr. Abikoff researches interventions and training in children with ADHD, for instance Organizational Skills Training (OST). OST targets specific organizational skills goals. Here is a description of the OST program from program’s creators:

OST is a 20-session, twice-weekly, clinic-based program, which focused on building organizational skills in four areas:

  • Tracking Assignments: Teaching students a system for consistently recording assignments and due dates in a specially designed planner.
  • Managing Materials: Providing students with methods for storing and organizing their papers and materials through the use of an accordion binder system, materials checklists included in their planner, systems for organizing their desks, and by developing prominently visible checklists for backpacks and other tools for material transfer, as well as other related strategies.
  • Time Management: Helping students become more aware of their use of time and how to plan ahead to structure their time effectively through the use of an afternoon scheduling component in their planners; helping students improve their time estimation skills and their awareness of how much time they need to complete tasks; teaching students to work efficiently by minimizing distractions in their work spaces.
  • Task Planning: Showing students how to break larger projects and goals into steps and create schedules for task completion through the use of task-planning pages in their planners.

OST students are taught that each OTMP (organization, time management, and planning) problem area is the result of a brain “glitch.” Each glitch is depicted as a naughty character who likes to watch children make mistakes due to organizational problems. This concept helps motivate the students and makes the program “lighthearted and fun.” The concept of glitches is also meant to make the issues encountered by students with ADHD less personal. Kids come to understand that it’s not they who fail, but the symptoms of ADHD getting in the way of their academic and social success.

Each organizational skill is taught using the same basic method:

1) The new skill is discussed, defined, and explained. A rationale is given for the importance of the skill. The child hears about the settings in which the skill might be used.

2) The skill is demonstrated

3) The skill is practiced by the child under the guidance of an instructor and feedback is given. The skill is practiced many times. The student is taught to identify situations in which the skill should be used.

Studies as recent as this one from 2016, have found that early behavioral therapy (HOPS, OST, and the like), begun before any other interventions, such as medication, had “four fewer rules violations an hour at school than the medication-first group.” That’s not to say that behavioral therapy takes the place of medication. Medication has proven benefits for children with ADHD. What we should take away from the research is that 1) We shouldn’t begin with medication and 2) Teaching children to develop their OTMP skills even before they reach school age, can really make a difference. In terms of cost, by the way, behavior-first therapy is estimated to cost an annual $700 less per year when compared to medication-first treatment.

Strategies for Teachers

Besides using EBIs like OST and HOPS in their work with children, school counselors can also train teachers to support children who are coping with ADHD in the classroom. A school counselor might, for instance, suggest the teacher give out points or tokens for good behavior. Here are some other practical tips from the National Resource Center (NRC) on ADHD:

For the easily distracted student (predominantly inattentive)

  • Seat the student close to the teacher’s desk and away from distractions such as windows or school corridors
  • Split long assignments into smaller segments
  • Offer more breaks during class time

For the students that fidgets and squirms (predominantly hyperactive/impulsive)

  • Seat the student where the fidgeting and squirming will be least likely to disturb classmates, for instance along the side of the classroom
  • Offer opportunities throughout the day that allow the fidgety student to move, for instance, handing out work sheets.

More Tips to Manage ADHD

Scott Ertl, M.Ed., was an elementary school counselor for 18 years before he became the CEO of BouncyBands, a device to help fidgety students cope in the classroom. Here are Ertl’s top 5 tips for helping students with ADHD succeed in the classroom:

1) The child or teacher, depending on the child’s maturity, should clean out the child’s desk every Friday afternoon so the week starts off as organized and prepared as possible.

2) Allow movement. Let the child earn the ability to deliver a book to the media center, a note to the front office, or a message to a teacher when their work is completed correctly. Bouncy Bands, yoga balls, and standing desks in class are also great ways to allow movement throughout the day. Kids need appropriate ways to release their extra energy without distracting others.

3) Set them up for success. Give them advance notice that you are going to call on them to answer a question in class so they are ready. This works much better than catching them off task as a way to shame them into paying attention.

4) Have specific goals on their desk to accomplish, like: Check over my work when completed, Make sure all of my homework is written down before leaving class, and Raise my hand to ask for help when unsure of what to do in class.

5) Communicate. Give specific feedback during the day when these goals are being accomplished to recognize their improvements. Use them as model in class to encourage other students to improve those behaviors as well.

Teachers who must manage ADHD in the classroom may also want to try using sentences that suggest an order of action, for instance, “First read all the questions, then answer them,” or, “First put your crayons away, then take out your geography book.” In addition, enlisting a student’s help can increase self-worth and help refocus the child’s energy. Teachers and parents should always watch for good behavior and give praise whenever and wherever it happens!

How Can Parents Manage ADHD?

Here are some things parents can do at home to help their children who struggle with ADHD:

  • Use a system to acknowledge and reward good behavior, for instance, a chart with stickers
  • Stick to a home routine with as little deviation as possible (e.g. homework, dinner, bedtime, and etc., are at the same time each day)
  • Create written to-do lists for chores so that the child can cross things off the list as they are done
  • Practice at home, OTMP strategies learned at therapy sessions

Professor Chacko encourages parents to educate themselves. If you have a child with ADHD, seek out information on behavior parent training programs in your area. Some consider these programs to be the most important and most effective means to manage ADHD behaviors both in and out of the classroom. Parents, along with teachers and school counselors, should also be aware that ADHD often coexists (see: Comorbidity and ADHD: It’s Not Just About ADHD) with learning disabilities and difficulties. “The challenges these children face may be more than just ‘ADHD,’” says Chacko.

What do you do at home to help support your child with ADHD?

It’s August! Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month

Children’s Eye Health and Safety Month takes place in August. That’s when children have either filed back into the classroom or are in the thick of getting ready to do so. It’s a good time to think about their eyes, which are important learning tools.

During the first three years of school, children are learning to read. After that, they’re reading to learn. In other words: children are always using their eyes to learn.

Since learning is so very visual, the smart thing to do is to bring your child to an eye professional for regular eye examinations. This is the best way to ensure your child’s vision health. And when you ensure your child’s visual health, you’re doing a great deal to ensure your child’s academic success.

little girl trying on glasses

Sometimes, in fact, children are assumed to have learning disabilities when what they really have are vision problems. Regular eye exams followed by treatment for any problems that may crop up, avoid such mishaps. That’s important because if a child is trying hard in school and not succeeding, this can affect the child’s self-esteem, making the child feel stupid: incapable of doing the work.

If you’re bringing your child for yearly eye exams, you’re doing right by your child. But it’s important to note that eye problems can develop between yearly appointments. For that reason, it’s important to be on the lookout for behaviors and signs that indicate a child may be experiencing some sort of vision problem. If you note any of the following signs and behaviors, schedule an appointment with an eye professional.

Eye Appearance:

  • Eyes not lining up properly—one eye turns in or out.
  • Eyelids are red, crusty, or swollen
  • Eyes are red or watery

Behavior:

  • Rubbing eyes all the time
  • Covers or closes an eye
  • Tilts head to side or pushes head forward, especially when watching television
  • Holds book too close or too far away
  • Blinking often
  • Becomes cranky when forced to do reading or other close work
  • Squints or frowns
  • Disinterest in reading or viewing distant objects
  • Eyes tend to wander

Your Child Says:

  • “My eyes itch”
  • “My eyes are burning”
  • “My eyes are on fire”
  • “My eyes feel scratchy like something’s in them”
  • “I can’t see that very well”

After Close Work

  • “My head hurts”
  • “I feel dizzy”
  • “I feel sick in my stomach, nauseated”
  • “Everything’s all blurry”
  • “I’m seeing two of everything”

Eye Injury

Parents should also know what to do in case of an eye injury:

Scratched eye—a lightly scratched cornea tends to heal beautifully, with no complications, but a deep cut means you need to see a doctor right away. Your child will almost certainly need surgery.

Dust or sand in eyes—have the child blink repeatedly. If this doesn’t help, try washing the eye with a commercial eye-wash.

Chemical burn—should chemicals splash into your child’s eye, flush the eye with running water for 15 minutes and call the doctor to get advice.

Cut eyelid—cuts to the eyelid should be stitched by an eye doctor.

Blood in eye—blood in the eye means a trip to the emergency room.

Black eye—black eyes generally need no treatment at all.

Preventing Eye Injuries

  • Staircases should have gates at top and bottom to protect very young children from falls
  • Staircases should have handrails
  • Household products containing dangerous chemicals should be locked away out of children’s reach
  • Knives and other kitchen utensils along with work tools should be out of reach of children
  • Children should wear sunglasses that have impact-resistant lenses and block 100 percent of UV rays when out of doors
  • Children should view this month’s eclipse with solar-filtered eclipse glasses or by way of a special solar viewer

Eye Tips for High School and College Students

Students facing exams means eyes that are constantly challenged. Added to not getting nearly enough sleep, long hours of study and staring intently at a computer screen makes for tired, strained eyes. The student may notice his eyes feel dry, achy, or scratchy.

Using computers for hours on end tires the eyes because the user doesn’t blink as much as he would just reading a book. Blinking less often means reduced lubrication in the eyes, making them feel uncomfortably dry, tired, and scratchy. This is often referred to as “dry eye.” Some people develop dry eye not from being studious, but as a result of not producing enough tears to keep the eyes healthy and make them feel comfortable. The symptoms are the same: eyes that sting, burn, or feel scratchy.

Dry eyes tend to be more sensitive. That means that exposure to wind or smoke can cause the eyes to tear profusely. The good news is that whether your dry eyes are caused by study or by not having enough natural tears, an over-the-counter eye artificial tears preparation or lubricant should help.

20-20-20 Rule

Another eye problem in the making is staring at one thing for hours, namely, the computer. The eyes were not made for such lengthy focus on a single object. Solve this problem by taping a note to your screen reminding you to blink and look away from the computer toward something in the distance. Keep in mind the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes you’re on the computer, look at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This gives your eyes a nice break and helps them rest up.

Prolonged Contact Lens Use

Every contact lens wearer is warned not to leave the lenses in overnight. What most teens fail to realize is that studying for 18 or more hours straight while wearing contacts is about the same as sleeping in them. The older hydrogen lenses in particular, are a danger when worn for long periods since they don’t let oxygen through to the eye, when air is crucial to eye health.

Without enough oxygen, the cornea can become inflamed. This can lead to blurry vision. In the worst scenario, prolonged contact use can lead to eye infections and even corneal ulcers that can permanently damage the vision.

Some students, of course, fall asleep over their books while wearing contacts. The solution? Switch off and put on regular eyeglasses every few hours during lengthy study periods. If you’re the kind of kid who falls asleep whenever and wherever you are, you may want to purchase contact lenses made from silicon hydrogen, a material with increased oxygen permeability. This can at least reduce your risk of eye injury and discomfort.

New glasses!

 

Could your child have a vision problem masquerading as a learning disability?

Has your child seen an eye professional this year?

How did you know your child had a vision problem?

How do you get your child to wear his sunglasses?

Fidget Spinners: Help or Hindrance

Fidget spinners have been wildly popular since they burst on the scene in December 2016. Touted as a way to alleviate anxiety and the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, spinners have also created not a little controversy. Teachers have had to ban them from the classroom, since the toys tend to distract, well, anyone who isn’t using one. And that would include the teachers.

Imagine a classroom filled with kids turning these things around in their hands all day long, and you begin to get a picture of what today’s classroom looks like. Unless the teacher should intervene to ban the toys. How do you teach students to conjugate French verbs or draw an isosceles triangle while 30 of them are spinning their fidget spinners?

In case you live in a cave, and have no idea what a fidget spinner might be, these handheld devices are like small propellers attached to ball-bearings. The user rotates the toy between the fingers to make it spin. The vibrations of the ever-cycling fidget spinner provide a sensory experience. The sensations help relieve sensory overload, enabling the user to regain focus, for instance in the classroom.

Fidget spinner marketing may describe the toys as aids for those with learning disabilities like ADHD, or as a device that can free up the mind to reach its fullest potential. Scientists and experts remain unimpressed. Marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar is concerned with children developing a dependency on spinners. “The goal is to have a mindful and participatory experience in life situations. If a student is focusing on the fidget spinner the pupil is not engaged in the moment with the full sensory experience.

“Fidget Spinners are good for a beginning, but ideally children would be encouraged not to depend on them for the long process and to taper off with mindfulness practice and being present and participating. This takes practice,” says Bahar.

Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, disagrees. “Fidget spinners are intended to help children with ADHD and Sensory Integration Disorder focus their attention. Squeezing a golf ball-sized Nerf ball or spinning a spinner helps distract the jittery, impulsive child from acting out of turn in the classroom.

“For example, if the impulsive child quickly calls out answers to the teacher’s questions before giving his classmates a chance to raise their hands, he can try spinning a fidget spinner to serve as a helpful reminder to ‘Stop, spin, raise your hand, and wait for the teacher to call your name.'”

There are, on the other hand, other toys that provide sensory stimulation without causing so much disruption. Fidget cubes, for instance are quiet and don’t draw the eye like a spinner. These dice-shaped objects fit in the palm of the hand and have various interactive doodads on the sides, for example dials and push buttons. Users simply press, click, or dial, to release pent up nervous energy. The cubes have a modest following among executives, who like to fiddle with the cubes during dull conference call meetings or while stuck in traffic jams.

Teachers might prefer their students use fidget cubes. But the fidget spinner is the runaway bestseller. It’s a fad, a trend, and the irony is that what is supposed to help kids focus, is distracting the heck out of everyone else. Especially those who must confront a classroom full of fidget spinning students each day. Dr. Wendy Hirsch Weiner, a principal and social studies teacher at a small school with an outsized population of students with ADHD finds fidget spinners make learning impossible. “Several of our students came to school with the spinners last semester and we as teachers all found that the students became very focused on the spinners and were not able to concentrate on anything else. The spinners would drop from their hands and the students would spend time finding them on the floor. Several of the kids had light-up spinners, which became even more of a stimulant and increased the hyperactivity of our already distracted students. Our school will be banning spinners this coming fall.”

Dr. John Mayer, a leading expert on kids and families and the author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance In Life, says it even stronger. “Horrible, horrible, horrible!

“First, even if they have some therapeutic benefit, a diversion device like this, takes the person away from developing ‘compensation techniques’ that are necessary for the long-term control of their condition and better functioning.

“Second, by allowing spinners in the classroom and other settings such as activities, clubs, church, what effect do these have on the remainder of the kids??

“Third, in that same respect, these spinners have disastrous effects on classroom discipline and order.”

Asked what parents should do to help their children with special needs, Mayer says, “Work with them to overcome their lack of focus in ways that are socially appropriate and build life-long skills, such as taking more time to read the material; have them make notes in the margins of books; help them to memorize material; and work with them using flash-cards and learning drills rather than toys and gimmicks.”

The fidget spinner may be the bane of every teacher’s existence, but the toys have accomplished something positive. There’s more awareness of attention deficit. There’s more awareness of the need of some children (and adults) for extra sensory stimulation as a result of the fidget spinner’s popularity.

There are some parents of children with disabilities who praise the fidget spinner to the skies. Children and adults with autism engage in repetitive behaviors to relieve sensory overload. This is called “stimming.”

Chewing on chewelry, or handling items like Koosh balls or even something as simple as a rubber ice cube tray, can help those with autism self-treat and calm their sensory overload. The fidget spinner is just the latest iteration of an old-school group of toys for this purpose. But children with autism who are mainstreamed may depend on such sensory toys to relieve the stress that builds up during the school day. It may, in fact, not be possible for the child with autism to be mainstreamed without that crutch. For such a child, stimming with a fidget spinner tends to level the playing field and make the child with autism feel less different, less stand-out, and more cool; more like her neurotypical classmates.

That’s why banning the fidget spinner can seem almost cruel. Some educators and therapists see the fidget spinners as tools rather than toys. These experts believe that fidget spinners can enhance classroom performance if accepted as part of classroom culture. In this sense, fidget spinners would be considered part and parcel of a student’s learning strategy.

Most teachers believe, however, that the spinner is thought of as a toy, used like a toy, and an annoying toy at that.

Research suggests that children with ADHD who are allowed to move around the classroom may do better at tasks that involve the working memory. This is the type of memory that is used to process new information. Another study found that children with ADHD do better in their schoolwork after exercising. “Ensuring that children, with or without special needs, have opportunities to move, stretch, and release energy throughout the school day is critical to managing anxiety, boosting focus, and helping children manage their impulses. Building in extra recess time, ensuring that kids are encouraged to move and play during breaks and recess (as opposed to habitually losing time as a punishment), and implementing curriculum that teaches stress management skills such as meditation and mindfulness are excellent ways to help students cope with restlessness and improve focus,” says Stephanie O’Leary, Psy.D., a clinical child neuropsychologist, expert in child behavior, and author of Parenting in the Real World.

Fidget Spinners Too New For Research

While no studies have specifically targeted fidget spinners—they’re too new—at least one study suggests that fidget spinners can improve the academic performance in children with ADHD. The aforementioned study found that children with ADHD who receive sensory intervention therapy sessions were better able to focus and learn without distraction in a noisy classroom environment. The therapy sessions for the students in this study included brushing the skin both lightly and deeply, swinging on swings, and working with an exercise ball.

The research does suggest that both movement and sensory stimulation improve academic performance in children with ADHD. These same studies would also appear to suggest, however, that a child who uses a fidget spinner outside of the classroom for a long enough time may also receive the full benefit from fiddling with a spinner. If your child’s teacher bans spinners from the classroom, this may be the way to go: have your child use his spinner outside the classroom at every opportunity and then see if his classroom performance improves.

Using a spinner in the hours outside of school would also solve the problem of creating a distraction for neurotypical students and teachers. Not to mention that fidget spinners are arguably dangerous. Some fidget spinners have been found to contain unacceptable levels of lead and/or mercury. Some children have choked on the small parts of broken spinners. One child had to have a piece of a spinner removed from his finger under general anesthesia. And the spinners aren’t sturdy. They break all too easily, increasing the danger to children from choking on small parts.

Experts suggest that parents read and follow age labels on fidget spinners and only purchase them at reputable toy shops. The better shops only stock toys that have undergone U.S. testing. Fidget spinners that light up should have a locked in battery. After purchase, look over the toy at least daily, keeping an eye out for broken parts that can serve as choking hazards. If the spinner breaks, replace it with a new one, following the same guidelines.

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Science is Sheepish: Spirituality Makes Us Healthier, Happier People

All along, the majority position of Psychiatry has been that Psychiatry has nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Religious beliefs and practices have long been thought to have a pathological basis, and psychiatrists over a century have understood them in this light. Religion was considered as a symptom of mental illness. Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud linked religion with neurosis. DSM3 portrayed religion negatively by suggesting that religious and spiritual experiences are examples of psychopathology. But recent research reports strongly suggest that to many patients, religion and spirituality are resources that help them to cope with the stresses in life, including those of their illness. Many psychiatrists now believe that religion and spirituality are important in the life of their patients.

The above is the introduction to a study published in 2008 on the subject of Spirituality and Mental Health. The semi-apologetic nature of this lead in to a rigorous scientific study underscores the irony of scientists encountering the spirit and religion as therapeutic and beneficial to their patients.

Here is the thing: science doesn’t like to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. Science likes to acknowledge nice, hard, provable facts. Which is why it may be an irksome thing for scientists to acknowledge the absolute fact that spirituality and religion can have a positive impact on health, both physical and mental.

And so, when forced to acknowledge the benefits of belief, they, the scientists, must remain detached and apologetic, explaining that while religion is a crock, if it helps their patients, it’s no skin off their teeth. But for the rest of us, those of us who are regular people, we are quite happy to acknowledge that striving to be spiritual people makes us better. We don’t care who says we’re being silly or imagining things. We believe what we believe.

And it makes us well. Makes us better people.

Yes. Everyone knows, for instance, that 12 step programs help people get sober. One of the reasons these programs work is that acknowledging a Higher Power is at the core of all of these programs, beginning with the mother of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous. That is what really sets apart 12-step programs from other types of substance abuse treatments and makes them work.

And this can be proven. In a study of teens aged 14-18, for instance, increased spirituality concurrent with receiving treatment for substance abuse was found to improve the likelihood that the participants would achieve abstinence, increase positive social behaviors, and lessen narcissistic behavior. One-third of the teens in this particular study entered this program for substance abuse as self-declared agnostics or atheists. Two-thirds of them were subsequently discharged claiming a spiritual identity.

What about mental health, quality of life, happiness? There too, it can be proven that having a spiritual side makes everything better. Scientists studied 320 children and found that strong spiritual beliefs were a strong predictor of greater happiness. In fact, the researchers found that it was possible to attribute up to 27% of the difference in happiness levels to spirituality.

But here’s a study that will really make your head spin: scientists found that people with a family history of deep spiritual ties were at a lower risk for depression. The reason? They had a relatively thicker cortex, the region of the brain found to be thinner in those with depression. In other words, if your mom believes in God (and maybe your grandmother before her), you’re less likely to become depressed. A family history of spirituality actually changes the physical contours of the brain! Mind-blowing (well, let’s hope not!).

By Patric Hagmann et.al. [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe in. It’s all good from the standpoint of your mental health. Dan Cohen, an assistant teaching professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri says that’s because it’s more about spirituality acting as a personality trait. In the study he authored, no matter what faith the participants: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, the more spiritual they were, the better their mental health. The more spiritual participants had lower levels of neuroticism and tended to be more outgoing.

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. “Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.

Cohen thinks that being a spiritual person aids mental health by reducing self-centeredness and by helping people see they are a part of a much larger whole. Forgiveness is also part of the dynamic, as it is a central theme for all the major religions. Being able to forgive means being able to let go of blame and recrimination after an accident or during serious illness.

With all of this evidence that having a spiritual life is healthy, there’s a tendency to sneer at the religious, to see them as immature or even a bit weird. Those who embrace spirituality, however, couldn’t care less what others think. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, spoke about her spiritual life in a 2012 interview with Marie Claire, “In the South it’s very normal. It would be weird for me to go to sleep without praying,” said Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central, expressed the belief that, “When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.

Could it be Gaffigan longs to return to that time when no one cared what you believed as long as you didn’t foist it on others? It’s not difficult to empathize. No one likes to have a belief foisted on them.

Oprah Winfrey said it well in a talk she gave at Stanford University on spiritual practice, “I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe, or what to call it,” said Winfrey. “But there is no full life, no fulfilled or meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit.”

Rabbi Avi Davidowitz is Camp Rabbi at TheZone, Oorah’s summer camp facility. Oorah, of course, is a Kars4Kids affiliate charity, with the latter funding many of Oorah’s programs. At TheZone, Rabbi  D., as he is known to the campers, sees daily evidence of the power of spirituality and the interplay between religious development and personal growth.

Spirituality: Elisheva E.

One day, Rabbi D. was approached by a girl at the beginning of his lesson. She asked if she could tell her personal story to the assembled campers and Rabbi D., of course, gave his consent. “We were spellbound as Elisheva E. spoke about her reading disability and how she pined to pray the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the Silent Benediction just once in her life. This young girl said it took her 45 minutes to say shmoneh esrei. She wanted to stop when almost all the other campers had already gone on to their activities, but her camper partner, Alana L. who also struggles with reading from the prayer book, stood there next to her as if she too were still praying, and with this friendship and encouragement, Elisheva kept going until she finished.”

The two of them stayed at it until they both were able to read through the entire prayer.  Rabbi D. remarked that, “They spoke to us about never giving up: if we keep trying, Hashem (God) will help us out.”

This aptly illustrates the power of belief and spirituality: the idea that a difficulty can be conquered if you believe in God and if you try hard enough. It also shows how belief in God led to empathy between two individuals, both struggling with difficulties, one in the past, one in the present.

Spirituality: The Donation

Another striking Oorah story that shows how belief helps children strive to be better comes from Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, who served as Director of TheZone for many years.  “A girl just back from a camp outing walked over to me, telling me that she had to speak with me. She became emotional and said, ‘I just won some money in a raffle and I want to give back to Oorah knowing how much you do for my family.'”

Rabbi Krawiec was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to take her money, at the same time, he didn’t want to take away her right to a good deed, either, and that is what made him accept her modest donation of $15

As Rabbi Krawiec put it, “It was only $15 but it was the best $15 donation I ever received.”

Here a child has learned the value of charity, a central belief of Judaism. Her spiritual development has led her to the concept of paying it forward and helping others. As a result, the girl is growing up to be a kind person—someone who will surely be an asset to any community lucky enough to include her as a future adult!

Spirituality: Delayed Gratification

Belief in the tenets of religion can also teach us about self-control and delaying gratification for a higher purpose. Aryeh, a TeenZone division head at TheZone, kept in touch with one camper calling him just after the Rosh Hashana holiday to see how he was doing. As it turns out, the boy was not doing well at all.

He’d wanted to observe the holiday with orthodox rigor, but could not stop himself from using his mobile phone, a no-no for the orthodox. The camper begged Aryeh to help him come up with a plan so he wouldn’t repeat the error on the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday, when phones are similarly off-limits for the very religious.

The boy intuited that his phone was coming between him and his relationship to the Divine. The phone was not in the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance when we look back over the year past, to see where and when we failed to stop ourselves from doing things we wanted to do in the moment, instead of pushing to come closer to God. After discussing with Aryeh various ways he might keep himself from using the phone on the holiday, he got a brainstorm idea: he’d mail his phone to Aryeh!

Well, this plan certainly worked. Aryeh’s phone rang right after the holiday, and the boy’s voice was filled with joy. He’d done it. Observed Yom Kippur from start to finish, as it was meant to be observed. He’d felt nothing but holiness all that day.

Is it any wonder that the following summer, on the very last day of camp at TheZone, as the buses were already beginning to leave, that the boy went over to Aryeh and asked him to remind him to mail his phone to him for safe-keeping over the Rosh Hashana holiday?

Here was a boy who had learned that contrary to everything he’d always thought, it is quite possible to delay gratification, to patiently endure whatever trials and tribulations come our way, and come out all the stronger for it! Here was a boy who had learned that being a believing Jew on Rosh Hashanah meant putting away the phone and looking into his own heart instead of a screen.

The scientists may not like it, but there it is: being in touch with our spiritual side makes us better, healthier people, kids or adults.

And that’s a fact.

It makes us strive to achieve the seemingly unachievable and well, it makes us happier, too

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Bullying And Its Flipside: Parenting The Bully

Bullying victim Daniel Fitzpatrick, a thirteen-year-old boy, was in the news last week after taking his own life. Daniel tried and failed to get help but ultimately the system failed him. That’s not what this blog piece is about.

This piece is the flipside of that one.

This piece is about parenting a bully. A sort of We Need to Talk About Kevin, writ large, complete with advice. That was a book and movie that was compelling because it felt so true (it wasn’t) and because Kevin was truly horrible. We felt for his mother.

But we also understood why she stood alone.

Bullying stories, you see, tend to feature the victims and their parents. You’ll see the sad victim, read a father’s Facebook post, and somewhere near the end of the story, encounter a photo of the grieving family, minus one member. It make sense. From the writer’s standpoint, at least. It’s what the people want.

People are goodhearted. They like to cry, to empathize. And what could possibly drive empathy more than a bullying victim?

But the parents of a bully? They too, are deserving of empathy, but somehow, no one really believes that deep down. You always look at a bully and wonder what kind of parent produced that monster. There’s a judgment that somehow it’s GOT to be your fault.

It’s pretty hard to get past that knee-jerk reaction.

Not to mention, in seeking help for the child who engages in bullying, there’s this feeling of betrayal. You feel you’re trash-talking your own child. All of which makes it difficult for parents of bullies to go and get caring help for the awful problem.

That is why you will continue to see stories like Daniel Fitzpatrick’s story and less like this one. Bullying isn’t even close to being past tense. It’s going to keep happening, and as long as it does, there will be other victims, other suicides, to feed public curiosity, the desire to feel and empathize, and yes: cry.

But rather than help the parents of the bullies help their children to STOP being bullies, we will continue to focus on the damage to the victims.

Yes. They deserve our empathy and compassion. But you can’t help a suicide.

An active bully on the other hand. Well, there is something to work with.

If that sounds cruel, take a step back and think about it: if you want to stop bullying and make sure there are no more Daniel Fitzpatricks, you need to address the root cause. You need to put a stop to the bully.

Owning Up: Accepting Your Child’s Role

That begins with recognizing the bully. We think of someone big, with a swagger. Someone stronger than all the others, thus  able to command and overpower.

But that isn’t necessarily how it works. Anyone can be a bully. Including your (sweet, delicate) child. Even though your first reaction as a parent is denial: Not my child.

Know this: helping your child to be healthy and whole begins with looking at the canvas and seeing what you have.

Listen to the accusations of bullying and investigate. If true, your child needs help. Your child needs to know you love him no matter what. Your child needs these things to be whole, healthy, and productive.

Shoving the matter of bullying under the rug, on the other hand, will not make it go away, but will only make it fester. Taking the matter in hand and owning the truth, is the road to recovery and health, and a better future for all involved (no more Daniel Fitzpatricks).

Profile Of A Bully

Let’s begin with the profile of the bully. Children who bully are more likely to have experienced academic failure, depression, violence, and crime. The bullying is a reaction to the child’s situation, the environment in which he finds himself. He has a need to gain control over his situation. He does this by dominating a peer.

A bully can be of any family background, gender, race, income level, or religion. In spite of the differences, children who engage in bullying tend to share one or more of these traits:

  • Tends to blame others for his/her behavior, tries to avoid accepting responsibility
  • Doesn’t understand how others feel, doesn’t make the attempt to understand, and feels little or no compassion for others
  • Has been a victim of bullying
  • Has poor social skills, is awkward
  • Wants to be in control all the time
  • Is depressed, feels anxious or frustrated
  • Seeks to find acceptance with a crowd that engages in bullying

Bullying: How Is It Done?

Bullying isn’t about fighting over who gets the plastic shovel in the sandbox. Bullying is about actively seeking to gain control over others, to dominate them. Bullying behavior, whether physical, verbal, emotional, virtual (think email, texts, and social media bullying), or sexual, is about creating an imbalance of power between the bully and the focus of his behavior, the victim.

Bullying

Language Gap: Separating The Child From His Behavior

When you discuss bullying with your child, make sure to use appropriate language. Instead of calling a child a “bully” speak of a “child who uses bullying behavior.” This lets the child know that above all, he is a child, your child, with a wide-open future. It is not carved in stone that having once bullied, the child will be and always will be, a bully. Language can help separate the child from the behavior he needs to change.

Bullying Consequences And Positive Reinforcement

A child who bullies needs to experience meaningful consequences for bullying behavior, and incentives for changing that behavior. Know what is important to your child. Take it away for bullying behavior. Praise him to the skies when he behaves as he should.

Bullying: What To Do?

So let’s say your child exhibits some of the traits of bullying, or parents or school officials have approached you about your child’s behavior, which sounds like bullying. What should you do? For one thing, be assured that bullying is a behavior that is learned. A child can “unlearn” this behavior and replace it with other behaviors: behaviors that are pleasing and good!

Have A Conversation

The journey begins by speaking with your child, and teaching him the right way to handle his feelings and dealings with others. Talk to your child about what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard from others. Ask your child what he thinks about that. He may not know he is bullying others. He may think he’s “just playing around” and “having fun.”

Explain what bullying is and how it makes people feel (both bully and victim). Tell him about Daniel Fitzpatrick. A child may need to be told which behaviors are appropriate and which are not.

See if you can find out why your child is bullying others without making your child feel you’ve judged him. Explore how your child would feel if the situation were reversed. “If someone did that to you, how would you feel?”

Ask your child if there is someone bullying him or if his friends are asking him to bully others. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator.

Determine The Cause: Bullying By Disability Or Intention?

Some children with disabilities engage in behavior that looks like bullying. These children may have limited social skills, or they may have behavioral or emotional disorders that cause them to behave in inappropriate ways in social situations. This behavior may be mistaken for bullying by others.

It is important to note that whether the behavior is intentional bullying, or connected to the child’s disability, it must still be addressed. If the child’s behavior is due to a disability, it can be a good idea to include bullying prevention as a goal in the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Examine And Reexamine

Bullying can be unlearned and replaced with positive behavior, but it won’t happen easily or overnight. Parents must understand that the road ahead is long and that it will take a lot of work to make real changes. Parent and child must have an ongoing conversation to talk about situations, how they were handled, and how the reaction and behavior can be improved. Feelings will need to be talked about. The situation will need to be assessed and reassessed and goals identified and worked toward.

Raise Awareness Of Feelings

Children who bully others have a problem: they have little awareness of others’ feelings. That is why children who engage in bullying need to be shown active examples of kindness, respect, and compassion for others. Show your child the smile you put on a neighbor’s face when you did a kindness for him. Ask him how he thinks your neighbor felt.

Ask your child how he feels when someone insults him or does him a kindness. The idea is to grow your child’s awareness of his own feelings and those of others, too. Explain to your child that everyone has feelings and that feelings are important no matter who experiences them.

Express Firm Expectations

Your child needs to know that you will not tolerate bullying for any reason at all. Bullying is never okay. Full stop.

If you find your child has engaged in bullying behavior take immediate action, for instance, taking away a privilege (example: staying up late to watch a show) or an activity (example: going to a baseball game) that is important to your child. Be firm and don’t go back on your decision or allow yourself to be persuaded to change the consequence, once you’ve laid it out. You are the parent. You are in charge.

Tell your child what will happen if he engages in bullying behavior in the future. Be clear about it. Don’t say: “I will take something away from you,” but rather, “I will cancel the delivery of your new laptop,” And then carry through!

Be A Model

In addition to showing your child examples of kindness, show your child how to resolve conflicts without fighting or bullying. Show your child how to deal with feelings like anger, frustration, or anxiety. As your child catches on and imitates your behavior, offer praise and rewards.

Play Games

Play games together and show your child that it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Show empathy when he loses, encourage him as he wins. Encourage HIM to do the same for you.

Engage in role play to practice how to handle various situations with friends. Take turns playing the parts so he can put himself in both bully’s and victim’s places. This can help illustrate for your child what it means to be hurt.

Be Patient

Sometimes it will feel like one step forward, and two steps back. Remind yourself that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It will take lots of time and work to make real changes that stick. Try to catch your child in the act of doing good. Then praise him.

Remain loving and supportive, even when he fails. He needs you in his corner in order to improve and be the best he can be. Speak to his teachers and get help for yourself if you can, from a support group or a professional. You’ve got a hard road to haul, and there will unfortunately be little understanding for you from others, unless you reach out and speak out, on a regular basis.

It doesn’t seem fair or nice to say it, but it’s a victim’s world. The only thing you can do is dig in your heels for the long term and keep on keeping on.

No matter what.

This is How Much Sleep Kids Need to Be Healthy

How much sleep do kids need to be at their best? It’s a question parents struggle with when their children beg to sleep just a little longer on school days. Letting them sleep in means letting them be tardy for school. But letting them sleep in means healthier, happier kids, more able to take in their lessons.

On weekends and in summer, on the other hand, how long kids sleep is far less of a problem. School’s not in session, so kids can sleep ’til the cows come home, and it won’t make a lick of a difference. For this reason, summer comes to many parents as a big relief. Kids can stay up late and wake up late and there’s no need to fuss or freak out.

Of course, parents often think to themselves during the school year, if kids would only go to bed on time, they’d wake up on time. Except science tells us it’s not like that at all. The American Medical Association (AMA) has found that puberty comes with a natural shift in circadian rhythm that cause kids go to sleep later and wake up later. Which is why the AMA has recommended school start times begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

In addition to actively pushing middle and high schools across the U.S. to have later start times, the AMA is encouraging doctors to educate parents and teachers about the importance of sleep for good mental and physical health. By now, scientists know exactly how much sleep kids need to be healthy. They also know the impact on kids of not getting enough sleep. “Sleep deprivation is a growing public health issue affecting our nation’s adolescents, putting them at risk for mental, physical and emotional distress and disorders,” said AMA Board Member William E. Kobler, M.D.

“Scientific evidence strongly suggests that allowing adolescents more time for sleep at the appropriate hours results in improvements in health, academic performance, behavior, and general well-being. We believe delaying school start times will help ensure middle and high school students get enough sleep, and that it will improve the overall mental and physical health of our nation’s young people,” says Kobler.

How Much Sleep Should Teens Get?

How much sleep kids need is an issue that is now front and center, since just 32% of American teens are getting, on average, the bare minimum of 8 hours of sleep on school nights. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) just issued consensus guidelines on how much sleep kids need, according to age. AASM says “teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.”

It’s Official!

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has released, for the first time, official consensus recommendations for the amount of sleep needed to promote best health in children and teenagers and to avoid the health risks of insufficient sleep:
 
 
• Infants four to 12 months should sleep 12 to 16 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Children one to two years of age should sleep 11 to 14 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Children three to five years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Children six to 12 years of age should sleep nine to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep eight to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.

“Sleep is essential for a healthy life, and it is important to promote healthy sleep habits in early childhood,” said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, Pediatric Consensus Panel moderator and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “It is especially important as children reach adolescence to continue to ensure that teens are able to get sufficient sleep.”

So you’ve got fewer than half of all American teenagers getting the minimum amount of sleep they need to be healthy and do well in school. And we know that teens need to go to bed later and wake up later according to their natural biological sleep cycles. At the same time, some 10% of all U.S. high schools have start times of 7:30 a.m. or even earlier.

Why the early start times, if kids need more sleep, and later sleep and wake times? Schools are trying to cram in extra classes for things like sports and extracurricular activities. There just aren’t enough hours in the school day to get them all in.

Meantime, research shows that not getting enough sleep affects health, academic performance, and behavior. Lack of sleep results in poor memory and mood disorders. Teens who sleep fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night, are more likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression.

As for health, sleep deprivation can bring on high blood pressure, metabolic conditions like diabetes, and a weakened immune system. Researchers have also found a connection between body mass index (BMI) and sleep. It seems those who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to be underweight, overweight, or even obese.

Schools may struggle (as parents have struggled all these years) with finding enough hours in the school day to serve students all they want to give them, now that the AMA is pushing for later start times. But in the end, it looks like something’s got to give, and that something has got to be the schools. “While implementing a delayed school start time can be an emotional and potentially stressful issue for school districts, families, and members of the community, the health benefits for adolescents far outweigh any potential negative consequences,” said Dr. Kobler.