Pause Saves The Day!

On the day of my daughter Lucy’s dance recital, my whole family was a wreck. Lucy woke up at 4 am and graciously woke up the rest of the household with her. Her anxiety had reached peak levels, and she bounced into our bedroom at full speed, shaking us awake with her high energy.

I tried everything I could think of to calm her and help her back sleep, but nothing was working. By 9 am, I was begging her to nap. I knew we were in trouble. I could foresee the day ahead: there’d be lots of tantrums. Every little unfulfilled request would end in tears. The dance recital was going to be a disaster.

Lucy is the kind of child who loves dancing, but she finds her weekly class “boring.”  She is consistently inconsistent in the way she treats practicing routines, and she struggles with focus. My husband and I tried an experiment this year; we kept Lucy in a class with younger children instead of moving her up a level with the rest of her classmates. The next level up was attended by mostly eight-year-olds, and I knew a six-year-old with ADHD couldn’t pretend to be eight. We wanted to see if this decision would create a more even playing field. So far, it had seemed to work.

But now, it was recital day—the big test of this experiment. Usually, Lucy loved recital day. She would come alive, ignited by the anticipation of having an audience. However, this morning, an unmistakable sense of doom permeated the house. Would Lucy have the confidence she needed to perform? Or would she cave in to her anxiety?

I continued to try to create peace for her as the day progressed. We snuggled and listened to a book on tape, ate her favorite healthy snacks, and talked about what she loved about dancing. She seemed to be doing better, but as we were preparing to leave for the performance, Lucy became absolutely frantic.

Then, I remembered a simple tool that I use with some of my ADHD clients. I retrieved a laminated copy of the simple PAUSE button pictured below, a concept developed by my good friend and colleague, David Giwerc (Founder of the ADD Coach Academy).

I handed the PAUSE button to Lucy. I explained how she needed to pause, calm her breathing, and re-connect to her prefrontal cortex, the part of her brain that regulates behavior and utilizes logical thought analyses to help her make good decisions. I told her that if she felt like she was forgetting her steps, she could hit that pause button, and she would be able to calm down and remember her routine. We practiced pausing and breathing several times before we left.

After finding my seat in the audience, I prayed. Like every parent, I wanted my child to do her best, show off her hard work, and be happy with herself. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed in front of her other classmates, the ones who had moved on to the next level. Right before she went on stage, I saw her in the wings. There she stood in her tutu, her cheeks rosy with makeup. She closed her eyes and breathed. She paused. And then she came out and danced her little heart out. She nailed the routine, down to the last plié!

The PAUSE button has worked for many ADHD children, including Lucy. It is such a powerful tool that I couldn’t help sharing it with you on my blog today. PAUSE encourages children to STOP irregular behavior and access the prefrontal cortex, allowing them to utilize their logical thought processes before acting. The power of the PAUSE is that it connects children with their prefrontal cortex and allows them to rationally observe highly charged emotional situations. By pausing, children can accomplish the following tasks:

  • Breathe and connect to their prefrontal cortexes, allowing them to use their logical thought processes.

  • Calm down and get a hold of their emotions.

  • Boss their bodies and stop any physical movement that may be causing problems.

  • Think of solutions to their upsetting problems or situations.

If you plan on using PAUSE with your child, I’d suggest creating a visual cue or code word. The PAUSE button symbol seems to be very popular with kids, and I often print them out and laminate them for younger children, who like the physicality of “pushing” the PAUSE button. Older kids may prefer a code word or phrase, such as “Please take a moment to pause.” PAUSE allowed my daughter to process what was going on, analyze her emotions, and pinpoint her best response options before jumping on stage. Like Lucy, I know your children could benefit from PAUSE!

Raising the Consistently Inconsistent Kid

One day last summer, my daughter arrived for her swim meet in great spirits, as if she could tackle anything. She danced around with her friends, red-cheeked with excitement. When her group was called, she got up on the block, adjusted her goggles, and swam faster than any other six-year-old. She was in high gear, revved with self-confidence. And most importantly, she seemed to be very present. She was her best self.

But at her next swim meet the very next day, she was not interested in racing. It was raining outside, and she decided she wanted to watch Cake Boss and eat Chinese food. After I pried her away from the TV and loaded her into the car, I sensed doom. All the way to the meet, she kept telling me that the race would be canceled. When we arrived, she did not frolic with her friends as she had the day before. Her mood was ill-tempered and stormy. When I saw her take the block, I knew she was going to hold back. She finished the race, but she didn’t make very good time. Immediately afterward, she picked a fight with one of her friends, and I had to separate them.

If you are a parent of a child with ADHD, this scene probably sounds very familiar to you. For ten years, I have worked with hundreds of frustrated parents who have relayed similar experiences. Their children are erratic and inconsistent, and they don’t know how to improve or control their children’s behavior. Like these other parents, you probably understand how hard it is to raise an unpredictable child. One day your child is brilliant and confident, and the next day, your child is a raging ball of dark emotion. You never know which version of your child will be showing up to the party. Your child’s dramatic mood swings and undesirable behavior may also be causing to you to feel a wide range of emotions: anger, shame, confusion, guilt, or hopelessness. I’m here to tell you that these feelings are very common.

Many of my clients have been in the exact same position as you are right now. One thing I often tell parents of children with ADHD is this: from now on, expect the unexpected. Accept the fact that your child is going to be a consistently inconsistent child for a very long time. Go through a grieving process, if you have to, in order to move forward. Most likely, your child’s challenging behavior will arrive at the wrong moments—when you are least equipped to handle the drama. Try to come up with some coping strategies to calm yourself down when these challenging days inevitably arise.

After you have gained this knowledge and acceptance, you can begin the change process. Most inconsistent kids want to be good, but they don’t know how to be good. Ross Greene, a leading expert in child psychology, puts it this way: “Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands.” In other words, when your child reacts explosively, your child lacks the skills needed to handle the situation. Inconsistent kids need help with building coping skills, seeing things from another’s perspective, and developing problem-solving strategies. These much-needed skills are called lagging skills.

One way you can identify your child’s lagging skills is by asking yourself the following question: “What is getting in the way of my child’s success?” Start by trying to figure out what the overall reasons are for your child’s inconsistency. Some kids freak out about timed events or tests. Some can’t handle peer pressure. Some don’t understand social boundaries. Some don’t know what to do when they make a mistake, and they fall apart and blow the rest of the race, recital, test, etc. Ross Greene’s lagging skills assessment can help you identify your child’s lagging skills.

The White Noise Experience: An Answer to Getting Work Done

In college, I could not work in the library. And I could not work in my dorm room. Baffled by the dilemma, I bounced from space to space, trying to find a place I could focus. Instead, I ended up wasting time and getting frustrated. In high school, I had achieved all academic milestones in front of the television. I had worked night after night with the TV on, which was hardly an ideal strategy. I now know that too much TV can actually hinder information retention. Still, something about having that background noise helped me focus, and I couldn’t find a good substitute for that study aide in college.

Flash forward a decade. At a conference I attended, I decided to try to multi-task and get some blog posts done during one of the lectures. I sat at the back of the room and wrote blog post after blog post. I was surprised by how easily the words flowed out of me. Alone in my quiet office, I struggled to write even one paragraph. But in the back of a lecture hall, I was on fire!

When I returned home from the conference, I took a moment to analyze why this environment increased my productivity. And I remembered that one of the greatest tools that helps ADHD folks increase their focus is to have a body double. A body double is someone who sits with ADHD students as they tackle tasks that may be difficult to complete on their own. For example, when I run on the treadmill, I run much faster when someone is running next to me because I don’t want the other gym member to think I’m lazy. That gym member acts as my body double. A body double serves as a motivator and reminder to help keep ADHD people on task and accountable. While no one was watching me write those blog posts in the back of the lecture hall, the mere bodily presence of others and their noise had the same effect on me. Perhaps, being in the back of the lecture hall created a noise body double.

I had seen this phenomenon work for some of my other ADHD clients as well. White noise helped them focus when nothing else worked. When I was prepping to talk about this subject on Attention Talk Radio, my co-host, Jeff Copper, said, “Oh yeah. That works for me too. I call it the white noise experience.” Now, I use Copper’s term to describe this tool I have used with my kids consistently over the last decade.

The white noise experience occurs when a person’s focus and productivity is increased by background noise. For some people, the hum of music, activity, hustle and bustle, or other background noise helps sustain their focus. Most of the students I work with are searching for the right moment, the right place, and the right mood to get work done. Driven by distractibility, they often struggle to work in study spaces in which they “should” be able to work, but they end up not being able to accomplish even basic tasks. When I suggest a non-traditional study environment with plenty of white noise to these students, they miraculously blossom.

For example, I once had a client whom we’ll call Alice. Alice was an English major, and she had difficulties getting her work done on time. By the time she came to see me, she had a month’s worth of work backlogged. She had tried all the traditional study tricks. One day, I suggested she sit in the back of a lecture hall in another department—such as calculus or chemistry—a subject that wouldn’t peak her interest. She ended up attending an engineering TA session. During one forty-five-minute session, she was able to finish two assignments, which was a huge productivity leap for her. After getting permission from the engineering department, Alice started attending TA sessions regularly, and her backlog of work quickly disappeared.

If you or your child has had similar struggles, consider using the white noise experience to help increase your focus. Try different study environments that can provide non-distracting background noise, such as coffee shops, school gyms during game time, or parks on nice days. If you find yourself too distracted in those places, try putting on some instrumental music, using a white noise machine, or plugging in a noisy fan in your bedroom or office. I know that this advice may seem counterintuitive. Most people mistakenly assume that a student or professional with ADHD should work in a quiet space without any potential distractions so they can focus wholly and completely. However, time and time again, clinical practice has shown that the ADHD brain can actually function more efficiently with white noise present. Because everyone is wired differently, this tool may not work for every person with ADHD, but I strongly urge you to test it out!

The Little Red Table

I am reading the Little House On The Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my daughter. I kept my old copies from childhood, the ones I read in fourth grade. I have kept these books for years because they were the first chapter books I read on my own. When I look at the tattered 1970’s-era covers with shockingly low prices, I remember what it felt like not to be able to read. I am dyslexic and reading did not come easily for me. 

The words swam on the page. I could not understand the powder blue phonics book my cheerful teacher brought to me each afternoon. I could not seem to spell or remember how words came together. When I was asked to read aloud, I stumbled and felt like there was a spotlight on me. The creeping dread of making mistakes and being exposed filled up my face until I was red and flushed and aching. 

I dreaded reading time. By the second grade, I had a problem: I was in the slowest reading group. Each reading group sat at a colored table. These primary colors were like banners announcing each student’s reading level. Blue was for the best readers. Yellow was for mid-level readers. And red was for the slowest readers. Even though the red table received extra attention and devotion from the teacher, I longed to move from the red group to the blue one. To me, the blue table represented a great frontier to be conquered. 

I was determined. I remember my envy of those at the blue table. But like many children with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, I was faced with both reading challenges and focusing difficulties. I often failed to hear instructions or to retain information. Additionally, I frequently drifted off into my own little world, only to tune back in to find the lesson had moved forward. 

My teacher was a lovely woman who spent time with me after school, and she seemed to know that I was paralyzed by reading aloud. She encouraged me to work hard, and over the next two years, I moved from a person who could not read to a person who could read. By third grade, we had individual desks and our reading levels were no longer color-coded. But to this day, I am proud that I was able to escape from the little red table. 

Eventually, my hard work paid off. Once I began to read, I loved it, and I read voraciously. I also learned a powerful lesson: hard work and extra help can pay off. I understand the children I coach because I once was like them.

Madame Ruggles

Kids will have so many different teachers throughout their young academic years – all with different teaching styles, different ways they relate to each child, some in their first years of teaching, some growing close to retirement, some good, and some bad. But we’ve all heard the stories about the one teacher that made a difference, and they may not have even known it.

If you have a kid with learning differences, the teacher can really matter. They can single-handedly change how a kid feels about school. They can give your unique learner a chance to believe in themselves, which will help them build confidence and the drive to keep trying. It’s really just having someone in their court, so to speak, that’s willing to push through the tough times to prove there are brighter days ahead.

Keep in mind, there are years when the teacher may not be a good fit or even may be a disaster. I remember those years too. I remember the teachers who did not get me, but it was the few who did who made all the difference. Here’s a bird-eye view of my journey as I look back.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was in French 5. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. As a dyslexic, I could never remember to put accents in the right place and my spelling was – well pretty bad. This was the 1990’s, and I was told that despite my good grades that if I opted out of foreign languages, I would not get into the college of my choice. How could one French class keep me from my dream school? I thought I was doomed. I may not have been a great speller, but by the time I got to high school, I had learned not to give up! I went to my teacher, Madame Ruggles, and told her – I had to get a B – according to my college counselor.

Without batting an eye, Madame Ruggles began to meet with me every day during school. She knew I was trying so hard, but my results did not turn out the way I had hoped. I still have dreams that I fail every test and do not get that B because it was such an uphill battle.

I had this sense that she was pulling for me. Madame, like so many language teachers, insisted we speak “en Français”. That was all right with me because it was the writing that I found so difficult. So over time, I was able to show what I knew by speaking the answers as opposed to writing them. It was a struggle, but I got my B – and then promptly dropped French in college. I struggled partly to be like everyone else. I think Madame knew I was in fact not like everyone else. And she seemed to convey in a few words that this too would pass and that in life I would be able to use my talents not my weaknesses.

I recently found out that Madame Ruggles passed away. After retirements, she had moved to my town. So all this time, if I had only known, I could have gone to visit her. If I had, I would have said, “Madame, merci”.

Parents are often frustrated by many of the negative academic experiences their child has, and I completely understand. But remember, it is the few teachers who really believe in us – who help the unique learner like me reach our destination, and those are the one that will be remembered forever.

The Giant Paddington Bear

My first real coaching experience was at age 13 with my cousin Aiden (not his real name). I was his nanny that summer. Aiden was 5 years old. His parents taught at a prestigious boarding school every day during the summer, and I was tasked with being his guardian. Despite my age, I felt like his protector rather than his playmate. I shepherded Aiden all over Surrey, England.

Aiden was bright, intuitive, and the largest 5-year-old on record. Because of his size and his hyperactivity, he created a kind of tilt-a-whirl effect wherever he went. When he bumped a shelf at a small shop, it would cause seismic shifts. When he completed an energetic canon ball into a pool, it created havoc with other swimmers. And when he played a little too enthusiastically, it upset other children. I wanted Aiden to be successful and not to be constantly in trouble. He was fun and had a great sense of humor.

But when he played, his impulsive behavior often got in the way. In addition, Aiden could not really control his body in the post office or in line at the bank. He needed to move at all times, and the compulsion presented a problem in certain settings.

When we visited London, Aiden saw a giant Paddington bear. And somehow I knew he would do anything for that bear. So I created my first reward program. I made a chart on poster board and placed it above his bed in the palatial Victorian mansion that housed the school. In order to win the bear, Aiden had to engage in specific behaviors for a set amount of time. We talked through these desired behaviors and rehearsed them. I even developed cues to remind him of his goals while we were out.

Aiden quickly began to flourish. He was eager for the check marks on the chart, willing to listen, and motivated to do better each time we went out. We discussed his progress daily while eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and fantasizing about the giant Paddington bear in London.

By the end of the summer, Aiden had earned that bear, and I had learned my first important coaching lesson: reward programs can change behavior. I am happy to report that Aiden is now a flourishing and successful young man.

 

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