Tag Archives: visual

Executive Function – It’s not a VP luncheon!

The first time I heard the term Executive Function, I immediately envisioned the executive team where I worked attending a luncheon. Which didn’t make much sense considering I was in a conversation about Berrik.

Executive function (and self-regulation) is defined by the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard as:

…the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

This requires three key components:

  1. Working Memory
  2. Mental Flexibility
  3. Self Control

Children are not born with these skills.  They are learned, and continue to develop into early adulthood.  Many kids will pick these up through lived experiences combined with direct instruction that they will be exposed to as part of playing, school, interactions with family and friends, and just about all life experiences.  For many kids, it is relatively seamless over the developmental years.  Three and four year olds learn about turn taking and are able to grasp and apply the concept, either through learning at preschool, interactions (read: squabbles) with friends at play dates or with siblings.  As kids’ brains develop, their working memory, mental flexibility and self control, typically develop as well.  For some kids, the development of executive function isn’t quite so seamless, for a variety of different reasons.

We are working on executive function skills with Berrik all the time.  Some of the potential reasons why he hasn’t had a seamless development of these skills is likely due at least in part to receptive and expressive speech delay.  When you don’t totally understand what is being said, and you aren’t able to express yourself in those early developmental years, it’s easy to understand why a kid may not ‘intuitively’ develop these skills from play and life experiences.  It’s difficult to relate outcomes to what is going on, when  you aren’t quite sure what just happened or why.  For this reason, Berrik and I work on building his capacity with these skills.  The wonderful thing about brains and neuroplasticity is that it is possible to improve capacity in these areas, and I see the evidence in Berrik consistently.  Because of the challenges he faces with receptive and expressive speech, I assume that he will always require strategies to support his executive functioning skills.  (If I’m wrong and he catches up to his peers, then all the better, but in the mean time, he needs strategies now, so that is what we work on).

Working Memory – Berrik can be challenged to keep information in his head long enough to manipulate that information.  As a result, we work on building his capacity to do so through practice using a variety of different games and activities, as well as through modelling and practicing strategies to support this.  Things like visualization, repeating things back, taking notes or drawing pictures are all helpful.  This is something that we practice as part of all subjects (and all parts of life, actually).  It’s pretty easy to incorporate.  There is always something to ‘remember’ as we do schoolwork, so I will often help him use his strategies to keep the information in his head, and then ask questions or ask him to do something that requires him to manipulate the information in some way.  For example, if we are doing a science experiment, we will go through a few steps that we will  need to take to complete the experiment (or a portion of it).  Then I may ask him to skip a step and come back to it.  Initially we will do this using visuals, so he can physically move the skipped step and put it in the new order.  Depending on the topic (it’s easier when the material is familiar), I will have him do this only in his head, using visualization, and repeating.  As he gets good at doing this, I up the ante and add more steps, or make the manipulation more challenging.  I see this as a two-fold exercise.  First, I am helping him work his brain and develop new neural pathways.  You can read about Neuroplasticity here.  Second, I am helping him develop strategies that he can use throughout his life in the likely case that this is always a challenge for him.

Another great game for working memory is the game of ‘Memory’  (Go figure). The game is also called ‘Concentration.’   We use it with sight words (thank you Sound Connections for that idea!), and also with facts in science, social studies and we are just starting to use it in math.  In science we recently did a unit on the Earth’s water cycle.  In the Memory game, I created cards for different parts of the cycle – words on one card, pictures on the other set – and Berrik had to not only match them up, but remember where each card was as we flipped them over.  We started first with matching only, with all cards visible.  Then we moved to the actual Memory game, where all cards are face down, you flip two and find the matches.  Memory, reading practice, and learning about science all in one activity. In Math, I will use two different depictions of the same numbers (as we work with base 10 blocks), and Berrik has to identify which ones represent the same number and then match them.  I am currently building a game where the cards are addition and subtraction problems and he has to find the two that have the same answer.  The key is to make sure he is pretty strong on all the cards first, and then use them in the Memory game.  It then doubles as a working memory exercise and a review of whatever subject we are working on.  It’s quite effective, and it can be used for pretty much anything.

Mental Flexibility – This comes into play when something unpredictable or unexpected happens and Berrik needs to be able to adapt and adjust to the new situation and respond appropriately.  This is fun to work on, as it’s almost like you can see the wheels turning inside Berrik’s head as he tries to figure out how to apply old rules to new situations.  We play games and then I will switch up the rules.  This helps with working memory as well, as he now has to remember the new rules as well as apply them.  Starting simple and then scaffolding is the key.  Build on skills rather than trying to jump ahead.  For a kid who had a rough grade 1 year, confidence is something that is coming along, but still needs work.  When you develop the base skills and then build on those, you are setting up for success.  Success means confidence.  Confidence means willingness to take some risks.  Taking risks means increased learning opportunities.  It’s a process.   And when he takes some risks, we really celebrate the effort as opposed to the outcome.  Outcomes will vary throughout life – for all of us – but those of us who aren’t afraid to make the effort and take a chance will see more success in life, in my opinion.  I know this from my experience in both learning, and in people management.  It rings true over and over.

Some examples of ways to do this:  In the Snakes and Ladders game, play it the normal way and then play it where you must go up the slides and down the ladders.  Play basketball, and instead of dribbling the ball, you have to toss it up and down in the air instead (this is great for all kinds of brain and coordination work).  Or if you have enough people, only allow passing, no dribbling.  Or only shoot backwards.  Anything that changes the rules, will work.  Simon Says is another good game to play for mental flexibility, working memory AND self control.  It’s also easily adaptable for kids Berrik’s age depending on interest.  When we play, Simon will often say “kick like a ninja” or “turn into the blue power ranger” etc., as that is what Berrik is interested in.  The sillier ‘Simon’ is, the more fun Berrik has with it.  I also let him be ‘Simon’ as this is great for his planning and language skills.

Self Control – In terms of impulsiveness, Berrik is fine.  The ability to set priorities is likely behind what most 8 year olds are able to do.  We work on this every single day as we plan our days.  We will talk about what is important to get done, what we would prefer to do, and how we should set up our day to get these things accomplished.  We look at the week ahead, and the months ahead as well.  Even on individual tasks we will set priorities.  What I have found is that sometimes Berrik’s priorities will be ‘out of order’ but when I ask him to explain his rationale, he has a very rational reason (rational reason for an 8 year old!).  It occurred to me after one of his explanations that if I asked my neurotypical daughters to prioritize their day for me, I suspect theirs would be ‘out of order’ as well! Sometimes I need to be reminded that it is completely typical for kids’ priorities to not match parents.  Duh.

In the photo below, Berrik and I created this camel by looking at a photo and building it, step by step.  So much planning and prioritizing with these types of activities. And if you get it wrong, it just doesn’t work.  Berrik is actually very strong in this type of planning.  If he loses patience with the activity, I’ll just do the building and have him correct me.  I will do something wrong to let him catch me. (Full disclosure, I only ‘accidentally’ mix it up some of the time.  Often I mess it up without realizing.  This type of detailed planning is not my strength.)  Variations on the game Red Light Green Light are great for self control as well.  When we play this, I usually do bear crawls or crab walks or hopping/jumping.  When physical exertion is part of the game, it requires more concentration to listen and stay focused.

image

As you can tell, we do things here with as much efficiency as possible, with the most possible gain.  It would be overwhelming if I tried to individually teach or facilitate each area that Berrik needs to work on.  Combining activities and outcomes is not only more efficient, it’s actually more effective as it almost certain to require a multisensory approach.  Additionally, it’s more similar to real life in that you don’t ever just get to use one skill in whatever tasks you’re working on from day to day.  You need to be able to access it all, at the same time, in varying levels.  What is exciting, is that I can consistently see progress in all areas, and even though I may have been focusing more on one area than another, I will see the benefit show up in unexpected places.  That application of knowledge and skills in different contexts is really the key outcome for me.  It tells me that what we are doing is working.

If you’re looking for more information on executive function, or on child development in general, the Centre for the Developing Child at Harvard site is excellent.

Fall. Veggies. Comfort food. Easy.

For us here in Calgary, we have enjoyed an unseasonably warm November….until yesterday when we got a bit of transient snow, and now are sitting at about 2 degrees Celsius (just above freezing for those of you in the US!).  It’s chillier than we are used to thus far this season, and overcast.  Nothing better on a day like today than a good hearty soup!  Bonus if you can get your kids to eat it.  Lucky for me, my handsome boy thought it was pretty good.

Ingredients:

1 head of cauliflower

1 head of broccoli

2 large carrots

1/2 large onion

3-4 cloves of garlic

1-2 tbsp melted coconut oil

3-4 cups of bone broth or stock

OPTIONAL: old cheddar, nuts, seeds, crackers or anything else that you think would taste good sprinkled on top!

Directions:

Chop up veggies and arrange on a cookie sheet.  Drizzle with oil. I prefer to drizzle with 1-2 tbsp melted coconut oil, but you can use olive oil or any other oil of your choosing. Put these in the oven to roast at 400 F (I used convection roast on my oven).  Roast them until they are just this side of overcooked.  This really intensifies the flavor, in my opinion.  (Garlic and onion were in a different pan, but can certainly be put all in the same pan).

When veggies are roasted, put them all into your blender.  I use Blendtec…. Vitamix is essentially the same.  Alternatively you can use an immersion blender if you’re lucky enough to have one.  It’s on my Christmas list this year!  Add about 3-4 cups of stock (or bone broth), homemade if you have it. Commercial stock is fine too.  We recently roasted an organic chicken so I boiled the bones for bone broth and saved.  So good for your stomach, particularly if you have any issues with leaky gut (like my son).  You will likely need more liquid than this, but I like my soup thick so I start here and add more liquid until it’s the desired consistency.

My Blendtec has a ‘hot’ blend feature, which is perfect for this!  My veggies are hot from the oven, but the broth is not, so this helps get soup up to a good ‘eating’ temperature.

If you want a chunkier texture, stop blending before it gets smooth.  I prefer it to be smooth as silk, so I blend and add liquid until it’s like thin pudding!  Mmmmm.

The end result is a creamy, pumpkin-colored, rich flavored soup that warms the body and the soul.  Would highly recommend experimenting with veggies such as sweet potato, peppers, parsnips or potatoes, and other additions such as pesto, hot peppers or even peanut butter.

I added some extra old cheddar to the soup in chunks because I love the gooey bites of melted cheese, but you could certainly use grated cheese of any kind, or skip the dairy and sprinkle roasted nuts, sunflower seeds, pepitas or anything else that would add a bit of crunch and some fall flavor.  Enjoy!

Homeschool Math (aka baking muffins)

After my earlier post with the muffin recipe, Berrik and I set off to make the muffins.  It turned into a major math lesson, with Berrik none the wiser about doing school work!  Here’s some of what we did:

img_6755

Preheating the oven.  In Math this morning Berrik was learning about number placement on ‘decimal’ street, including 100s, 10s, and 1s.  We used that learning to preheat the oven to 350F.  Simple stuff, but nice reinforcement of what we were doing earlier.

img_6773

Preparing the pan.  I asked Berrik to estimate how much coconut oil he would need in order to grease all 12 muffin holes, and then had him spoon the amount he though he would need into the little glass bowl.  When he was done greasing the pan, he realized he had overestimated the amount and said he would use less next time.  We talked about whether he thought he had used 1/2 the amount of coconut oil, or less than that.

img_6757

Measuring the ingredients.  The bananas allowed for a review of simple addition and subtraction.  We did both, which I think is so good to promote understanding that addition is just the opposite of subtraction.  This was easy for him, but always a good review.  After I quizzed him on a couple, he was then supplying the equations and answering them himself.

img_6760img_6763

img_6765img_6766img_6768img_6767

The rest of the ingredients.  Talking about the difference between 1/2 cup and 1 cup and physically being able to see that 1 cup is double the amount of 1/2 cup is a great way to promote understanding of fractions.  Measured with teaspoons as well, and then estimated the right amount of cinnamon.  More addition and subtraction with the eggs, but generally decided that learning how to crack the egg was more important than the math.  Egg cracking is a life skill.  Everyone should know how to crack an egg.  🙂

img_6774\

Chocolate chips:  Berrik identified the pattern he wanted to use and wrote it on a sheet of paper to help him remember it.  Then he followed through and created the pattern 3 times.  I had him figure out how many times the pattern would repeat before he started, and while it took him a little bit to figure it out, he was able to get the answer.   When he finished he confirmed that his pattern repeat guess was correct (and sounded pretty surprised that it was correct, which was funny).  He also informed me that he would eat the 5 and 4 chocolate chip muffins and McKenna and Avi were welcome to the 3 & 2 chocolate chip muffins.  Definitely my kid!img_6775

We put the muffins in the oven and set the timer.  I made him read to figure out which button said ‘kitchen timer’ and then punch in the amount of time.  His concept of time isn’t great, but he thought that 25 minutes seemed like a perfect amount of time to play outside to ‘get a good appetite for eating muffins’.  I’d love to spend some time inside his brain.  It’s so funny and busy in there.

And finally once the muffins were baked, we discussed more math using word problems. If Berrik ate 2 and mom ate 1, how many would be left for McKenna and Avi?  What if McKenna and Avi each had 1, how many would be left when Dad gets home for dinner?  If Berrik ate all the 4 & 5 chocolate chip muffins, how many would he have eaten?  I had to repeat these a few times (processing word problems is a real challenge for Berrik), but we used the muffins as manipulatives and he was able to figure out the answers.

#learningbydoing is still trending in our house….

#learningbydoing

This is a hashtag that is trending in our house these days.  I have been doing so much reading about multisensory learning, and in particular have been focusing a lot of kinesthetic and visual learning with Berrik as those two styles of learning seem to be most effective for him (and conversely, are considerably more fun than sitting at a desk and listening to someone speak).  It’s certainly not rocket science in my mind.  In the real world, everything we experience impacts more than one of our senses at the same time.  Seems logical that we might be better at applying our learning if we learn things using more than one sense…  Literature supports this, by the way.  It’s not just me thinking this.  🙂

Sound Connections, the phenomenal Language & Literacy program that we are doing with Berrik, is multisensory at all times.  We ‘use our whole team’ (eyes, mouth, hands/body) for every activity.  Animals jump across lily pads while we learn syllables or we bounce balls, every letter sound has a physical gesture to go with it, as well as a story and a character to which the physical gesture is associated. When we are printing we describe what we are doing and say out loud the sounds we are printing. Sounding out words using ‘onset rime’ is a mini sticks hockey game.  It’s fun.  It’s engaging.  And most importantly, Berrik is learning and is happy doing it.

In my reading, I came across this article called 10 Essential Strategies for Teaching Boys Effectively.  Very useful strategies, many of which I use with Berrik all the time.  But the strategies weren’t what really struck me.  It was the stat that 70% of learning-disabled students nationwide are boys.  Is it just me, or does that stat beg the questions: Are boys actually learning disabled? Or do they just learn differently and our school systems are not set up for the ways in that they learn?  <insert dramatic sigh here>

Frequently, as I reflect on where we have been with Berrik and where we are going, I get emotional about how lucky I am that I have the opportunity to be home with Berrik, to teach him the way he learns, to watch him gain confidence and feel ‘smart,’ and at the same time spend more time with my girls, who need me at least as much as Berrik does, but just in different ways.

I am learning how to incorporate learning into everything we are doing.  We spend very little time sitting at the table doing ‘work’ (although we have to do it from time to time), and a lot of time playing ‘games’ or just noticing the world around us.  We are a busy family and Berrik needs to hear, see and do things more than once, in different contexts, to really internalize the learning, so we don’t waste much time. I am slowly getting better at being creative with incorporating lessons into everything.  Berrik has noticed this and recently said to me in a very serious, grave voice: “Mom, you make everything about learning.  I need to be more vigilant.”  I wouldn’t trade this time with him for anything.  He is a laugh a minute.

 

There are times when I feel frustrated by the negative comments that people make in reference to Berrik (or ‘kids like Berrik’).  Often it’s not even really intended to be negative… but yet it feels offensive.  (I know, I know, I have a bit of mama bear syndrome, and I may be somewhat hypersensitive – having your child assume they are bad or stupid because of what others have said or how others have reacted to them can do that to a mom!)  Berrik sometimes struggles in social situations.  It’s common in kids with attention issues and learning disabilities.  He can be immature for his age at times.  We have friends  who I can ‘feel’ judging him.  If I can feel it, so can he.  That’s hard to manage.   Luckily we have many, many friends who see Berrik for the sensitive, sweet, funny little boy that he is.  We continue to surround ourselves with those people, so that Berrik can see his own gifts reflected in the support and love of those who know how great he is.  The world is a tough place.  I know this.  I know he will need to learn how to manage negativity.  But he’s seven, and darn it, I’m going to do what I can to make sure he grows up confident with a positive self-image.

This brings me to another resource I came across that I love.  As a family, and with the support and encouragement of our family doctor, we have chosen not to use medication to control symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity in Berrik.  He has improved tremendously with other interventions such as diet, supplements, and changing the way we look at learning.  I’m not anti-medication.  But like any parent, we are doing what we feel is best for our son at this moment.  It’s working fine.  Is it easy?  Nope.  But is any parenting?  And would medication be easier?  Nope.  It’s all hard.  I feel like ADHD medication is like vaccines and breastfeeding. So many strong and judgmental opinions on both sides of the issues.  I support parental choice in these matters.  And I super duper do NOT care if you agree with me.  🙂  But I digress….  The resource I mentioned at the beginning of this rather long-winded paragraph is a chapter excerpt called  Strategies to Empower, Not Control, Kids Labelled ADD/ADHD.  This is similar to my feeling that we need not make kids fit the ‘system’ but rather should allow the system to fit the kids.  If kids can’t learn how we teach, then we should teach how they learn.  Etcetera.