7am: The Morning Rush
“Let’s go. Get out of bed. You are already ten minutes late.”
“That’s what you always say, but why aren’t you dressed yet? And where is your backpack?”
The alarm clock rings and Chaim pulls his pillow over his head to stifle the screeching noise. Mornings are Chaim’s least favorite part of the day; they always end in someone yelling. In truth, mornings are difficult for most of us, but particularly so for those who struggle with basic skills that are labeled “executive function” skills.
Executive Function Disorder
In order to recognize Executive Function Disorder, it is important to understand what executive skills are. Among the individual skills that allow people to self-regulate are:
Planning: the ability to create a roadmap to reach a goal. This also includes the ability to focus only on what is important.
Organization: the ability to keep track of multiple sets of information and materials.
Time management: the ability to understand how much time one has, and to figure out how to divide it in order to meet a goal.
Working memory: the ability to hold information in mind even while performing other tasks.
Metacognition: the ability to self-monitor and recognize when you are doing something poorly or well.
Response inhibition: the ability to think before you speak or act.
Sustained attention: the ability to attend to a situation or task in spite of distraction, fatigue or boredom.
People who suffer from Executive Function Disorder lack many of these abilities. This can lead to persistent lateness, impulsive behavior, and the inability to complete any task completely.
In the book, Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention, the authors suggest a hands-on approach when dealing with children. This step-by-step method is formulated to help children develop the skills they need to successfully finish their schoolwork and function as competent adults in the workforce:
Step 1: Describe the problem behaviors, which might be not following the morning routines on schooldays or forgetting to hand in homework assignments. Be as specific as possible when describing the problem behavior – talk about the action – not the child.
Step 2: Set a goal, which should relate directly to the problem behavior. For example, if the problem behavior is not following morning routines, then the goal should be, “Ezra will get up, say modeh ani, brush his teeth, get dressed and eat breakfast.”
Step 3: Establish a procedure or set of steps to reach the goal, which is usually done by creating a checklist. The visual information on the checklist can help reorient your child towards the task at hand.
Step 4: Supervise the child following the procedure – especially at the beginning. Some supervisory steps include: reminding the child to begin the procedure; prompting the child to continue with each step; observing the child as each step is performed; providing feedback to help improve performance and praising the child when each step is completed successfully
Step 5: Evaluate process and make changes if necessary. Once you see your child run through the procedure, you might notice the moments where he gets caught up. During this step, you can modify the procedure to prevent those breakdowns.
Step 6: Fade the supervisionwhen your child gets the hang of the procedure. This does not mean you should take away the checklist or your praise, but instead, attempt to allow the procedure to run its course without your reminders.
“We need another person to play kickball.”
“Well, we could ask Chaim.”
“Nah, he’d just say no.”
“Or, maybe he would wander off in the middle.”
“Maybe we should just play something else.”
Making it through the morning rush and the bulk of his Hebrew classes, Chaim’s class finally had morning recess. For most of the class, recess was the best time of the day, but for Chaim, recess was the most dreaded. Instead of participating in sports like the other children, Chaim wandered aimlessly around the yard. After three years, his classmates recognized that Chaim was not completely like them. While they had originally tried to get him to join in their games, now they left him alone.
In reality, Chaim’s problem came down to his inability to read non-verbal cues. Here are some instances of positive non-verbal communication:
Eye contact: Maintaining eye contact is important; however, overdoing it can be disconcerting. Use eye contact to let the person know you are paying attention to them.
Body movements and posture: The straighter you carry yourself, the more confident you seem. This will inspire confidence in others as well. In addition, closed-off body language, such as crossed arms, signals to others that you are not interested in interacting with them.
Voice: We communicate with our voices, even when we are not using words. Tone, pitch, volume, inflection, rhythm and rate are important communication elements. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words.
Facial expressions: Unlike some forms of non-verbal communication, facial expressions are universal. Relaxing your muscles into a smile will not only relax the people around you, but will subconsciously tell your mind you are happy as well.
Proper eye contact and tone of voice often are extremely important in creating life-long relationships and friendships because they are an integral part of conflict resolution. Therefore, if a person has trouble both exhibiting non-verbal communication and understanding the non-verbal signals of others, they are more likely to have trouble making and maintaining long term relationships. While this can seem insignificant for children in school, non-verbal communication is extremely important, especially when a person enters the parsha of shidduchim. Without this important aspect of communication, many young adults struggle when trying to find their bashert.
For many of us, non-verbal communication is something we pick up at a young age and continue to develop as we grow. For others like Chaim, and people who are socially awkward, distinguishing the non-verbal cues of others is quite difficult. For this reason, Dr. Jeanne Segal explains in her book The Language of Emotional Intelligenceit is very important to use perfect non-verbal skills to ease conflict and stress.
Remain relaxed and focused in tense and intense situations: If you don’t know how to stay centered and in control of yourself, you may become emotionally overwhelmed in challenging situations and give off the wrong impression.
Read non-verbal cues through role-playing. Evaluate the person you are speaking to in terms of eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, intensity, timing and pace. Modify your own behavior in accordance with how you want them to react.
Be playful in tense situations.You can avoid many confrontations and resolve differences by using humor and a playful attitude. Smiling and laughing signal to those around you that you are interested in harmony rather than discord.
“Do you want to split your sandwich with me, Chaim?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you want something different?”
“Why would I want something different? I’m fine.”
“Okay. Do you want some of my chips?”
“Your chips? Why would I want some of your chips? I have some of my own.”
“Forget it, Chaim.”
Done with Judaic Studies classes, Chaim’s class headed down to the lunchroom to enjoy their bagged lunches. After recess, lunchtime was Chaim’s second worst part of the day. Lunch required finding a person to sit with and chat with, two activities Chaim was sorely lacking in.
What makes some kids more popular than others? How do you know if your child is playing alone at recess? Should you get involved or should you let your child figure it out on his or her own? These are questions that come up for most parents and there are no simple answers. However, before we answer whether you should get involved, let’s discuss whether children really need friends as they develop.
In an article in The New York Times, Lawrence Kutner explains, “People assume that a child with many friends has better social skills and is more emotionally mature than a child with few, and that having no friends is a sign of a serious problem.” We often think that if our children are not the center of a large group of friends this means they are not well adjusted, but Kutner clarifies, “studies of how and why children develop friendships at different ages show that these assumptions are often false. The child who has one or two friends might be more socially skilled than the child who has many friends. The child who, for a brief period, has no friends might be perfectly healthy and socially adept.”
Research has shown what is important is not the number of friends children have, but rather the quality of the friendships they share. Simply counting your child’s friends is not an indicator of how well or maladjusted your child is. Take a look at your child’s stage of development, the nature of his friendships, any long-term pattern of getting along with other children.
If you see your child is spending a lot of time alone, this might be a sign they just need a few moments to calm down and recharge emotionally after a long day at school. Seeking out time alone is not always a signal that your child doesn’t have friends or lacks the skills to make them. One way to tell if a child is having difficulty in this area is to watch him as he tries to become part of group, either in a playground or in shul. Children who are having trouble making friends will call attention to themselves and be disruptive to the group, whereas children who easily make friends will be more subtle and sensitive to other children’s needs.
Of course, there are many different levels of maturity among children and therefore it is hard to determine what is problematic. To that end, here is a list of warning signs of poor social development for middle school children:
· A lack of consistency in friendships · No friends · Unable to set limits with friendships and therefore cannot identify his own likes and dislikes · Unable to coordinate his own play dates; parents still required to set them up · Poor eye contact · Poor hygiene · Disinterest in extracurricular activities that had once been appealing · Severe unhappiness when returning home from school
Here are some suggestions for helping your school age child acclimate to the social environment:
Provide a variety of social activities. There are so many social opportunities that are available to children – shul groups, baseball leagues, art classes, play dates, park outings and many more. Giving your child the opportunity to explore his social behavior in these different contexts will help him expand his social repertoire.
Initiate and practice pro-social behavior at home. Even if you are not a social skills coach, you have the ability to help your child understand proper social behavior. Talk about the ways that you greet people, how you can guess what they are feeling based on their facial expressions, and ways to initiate conversations. The more aware your child is of social behavior, the more likely he will be to practice it.
Social skills group. There are social skills groups run by professionals who can help teenagers master appropriate behavior and interactions. While at first, these groups might be intimidating to children who are socially awkward, with time they provide a community of people who help each other learn and grow.
Reward proper personal hygiene. Hygiene is an easy “social skill” to help your child master because it is concrete rather than abstract. Create a chart with your child with all of different elements of personal hygiene (teeth-brushing, showering, nail clipping, deodorant, hair-combing). Then, set goals and assign rewards. While he might not be aware of his lack of grooming, his peers will certainly notice the change.
Help her find children with similar interests. If your daughter loves art or music, consider signing her up for an after school activity where she can meet other children who share her interests. This will create a common ground and help your daughter bond with her peers.
Do not “go back to school” yourself.As painful as it is to watch your child struggle, if you step in to smooth over socially awkward moments, your son will not learn how to do this himself. Therefore, unless the situation is painful or dangerous, keep out of it. Feel free to talk about it with your son before and after, but getting involved at the moment will only stunt his social progress.
6:30pm: Dinner Time
“Please pass the string beans, Chaim.”
“The string beans, Mommy?”
“Yes, the string beans.”
“Okay, and give me the chicken.”
“Chaim, remember to say ‘please’ before you ask for something.”
“Right, Mommy, please give me the chicken.”
Chaim’s Bubby and Zaidy were coming for dinner and Chaim was never sure how to act at the table with his grandparents. He knew that he was supposed to treat them with respect, but he was not sure what that meant exactly. And, sitting still at the table and making sure not to make a mess with his food was always a challenge. Even though he loved them, Chaim dreaded when his grandparents came to dinner.
Today, we live in a society that often glorifies youth. Because of this, it is often hard for our children to understand the inherent importance of ancestry and family. It is up to you as a parent to teach your children how to respect their elders. What better place to start than with their grandparents?
The most important rule when trying to instill your children with respect for their elders: treat your children with respect.
Stay calm. Just as you cannot make cars move by simply honking your horn, you will not be able to get children to respect their elders by raising your voice. Rather, speak respectfully to those around you and your children will learn to do the same.
Respect privacy. If you want your children to have respect for others’ property and space, teach them by example. Encourage knocking on doors and do not eavesdrop on their conversations. This will help them do the same for others.
Admit when you are wrong.Don’t be afraid to say,”I was wrong” or “I’m sorry.” It will teach your children the value of humility.
“Chaim, don’t forget to say kriyas shema.”
“And if you need something, come and get me or Mommy, but only if you need something.”
“You had a long day, didn’t you, Chaim?”
“Yes, Tatti. I love you. Good night.”
Finally, Chaim has a chance to rest! When you go through any child’s schedule, it is exhausting to realize the amount of social effort that goes into a typical day. While there is no easy solution, if you can pinpoint where the issues lie, there are possible solutions. After all, as it says in Koheles, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.”Rifka Schonfeld
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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