My Child isn't Listening: How working memory could be to blame (Part I)

Last week I got a phone call from a concerned parent. Her 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, was having trouble following directions in the classroom. Teachers were getting frustrated that Sophia wasn’t listening and able to follow the classroom routine. She was easily distracted and they had to give her directions multiple times before she would follow through.

This mom felt frustrated with the school because she knew deep down that her daughter wasn’t a bad child. She tried to prepare Sophia for school every morning by reminding her to listen to her teachers and do a good job. But every day after school the teachers reported the same problems.

When I see a child like Sophia, who isn’t able to keep up with the class, my first thought is a working memory deficit.

Children with working memory weakness usually have trouble with the following:

-Following directions

-Paying attention

-Answering questions

-Recalling details

-Having conversations

What is working memory?

Working memory is an executive functioning skill. And it’s one of the most important skills a child can have. Essentially it's the ability to  hold on to information long enough to do something with it.

The kids who are struggling with working memory are easy to spot. They’ll be the ones in the classroom who are on their own, playing with toys, while everyone else is lined up to go to the bathroom.

Here’s what typically happens with a child who has trouble with working memory.

The teacher gives a direction…. “Hang your coat up and then go sit on the rug for circle time.”

The child may hang their coat up but then forget the second direction ("go to the rug"). They might think for a second, now what am I supposed to do? But as they are glancing around they see that brand new puzzle they were playing with before recess. Instead of going to the rug they go straight to that puzzle and start playing.

In this scenario, it appears as if the child is deciding to go against the teacher’s directions and play instead of doing what they are told.

In reality, the child wasn't able to remember the expectation and then was distracted by something enticing.

Note: Preschoolers also have a hard time with impulse control, so it makes resisting the brand new puzzle that much harder.

You may also find that conversation skills are negatively affected as it can be challenging for a child to hold on to information long enough to formulate responses to a questions.

Testing your child’s working memory capabilities

 If you want to check whether your child is struggling with working memory, there are some simple tests you can try at home. The goal is to figure out how long they can hold relevant information in their mind.

In my practice, I typically start by giving directions with body parts.  Most children can follow simple commands like, “touch your head" and you can immediately evaluate their working memory. 

Then, I progress to combining two commands (e.g. “Touch your nose and then your ears”).

Next, I see if they can follow three commands (e.g. “Touch your nose, your ears and then your belly”).

Once I get a baseline of their skills then I move on to using toys, which are way more distracting.  Eventually I progress to coloring a sheet since these directions take a lot more time between the instructions and the actual follow through.

For example, if you tell a child to “color the dog blue and the horse brown” it takes a lot of time to find the crayons, color the dog, and then move on to the horse.

No one knows why working memory is adequate in some and inadequate in others. The truth it that everyone has differing strengths and weaknesses with their executive functioning skills.

Here’s the good news…

Once you figure out where a child’s skill levels are, then it’s easy to start targeted practice to improve working memory.

Interested in learning more strategies? In my next post (sign up to my mailing list here to make sure you’re first in line to get it!), I’ll share my five best tips for helping your child follow directions.

Over to you

Are you wondering if your child might have working memory issues? Leave a question in the comments below and I'll try my very best to answer it - I’d love to hear from you!

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Building Your Child's Confidence with Effective Praise

Every good parent or teacher knows the importance of giving children positive reinforcement for a job well done. Keep these 4 strategies in mind when giving children praise and inspire them to keep up the good work! 

Be Specific: 

When you give a child specific feedback you are able to highlight exactly what they did well and set clear expectations for the future. Instead of using a blanket “good job” after a child achieves an accomplishment, try making your response more detailed. For instance, “I love the way you told me that story” or “Great job answering all of those questions”.  The more specific the better!

Deliver Instantly: 

In order for praise to start shaping positive behaviors, it needs to be delivered to the child immediately. Sometimes children require continuous feedback in order to complete a challenging task. For example, if your little one has difficulty cleaning up toys try continuing to repeat the phrase (e.g.,“great job cleaning”)  until they are finished. Once a child becomes more proficient in the task, you can scale back how frequently the praise is given. 

Recognize your Child’s Efforts: 

When a child is expending significant effort to complete a task, be sure to recognize their hard work. Children often deliver subtle cues with their body language when frustration levels are rising. Are they beginning to fidget in their seat? Have their breathing patterns changed? Acknowledging this frustration could be as simple as saying, “I see this is a little difficult for you” or “Are you feeling frustrated?”.  Once a child’s feelings are out on the table you can support their efforts with, “ I see you’re working very hard” or “You’re doing a great job staying calm”. This acknowledgement is usually the extra push a child needs to persevere through a challenging task. 

Discuss the Value of the Accomplishment: 

Adults often ask children to complete activities without stating a clear purpose. We know that finishing our green beans will lead to optimal health,  but children don’t always understand the value of certain tasks. Alongside of specific praise (e.g.,“I love that you ate all of your green beans”) be sure to describe the importance of their work (e.g., “Eating green beans make our bodies healthy and strong”). 

How do you keep your child motivated to learn? Share your tips and tricks below in the comments. 

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with attention? Any tricks you've found successful? Share your story in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

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Teaching Your Child to Control Impulsive Behavior

Impulse control is the ability for children to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves so they are able to learn new skills. Impulsivity can often lead to children having difficulties following teacher directions, sharing with peers and taking turns in conversation. Being able to control such impulses is an executive functioning skill that can be strengthened over time, so try incorporating these 4 activities into an every day practice!

Hand Squeeze: 

When children catch a glimpse of a toy they want, they often can’t help but immediately grab it off the table. To help children resist this urge, I encourage them to squeeze their hands together before I introduce an exciting new toy. Constant reminders of “squeeze those hands!” help children resist the impulse of grabbing the toy. You could also use a fidget toy like a squeeze ball, but I love the hand squeeze technique since they will always have this at their disposal. 

Take Control of Technology: 

Games on tablets or phones can sometimes exacerbate a child’s impulsivity with constant temptations of icons to tap, drag and push. To help children manage these urges, I hold the game in front of them and help them practice listening to directions. I always employ the “Hand Squeeze” technique so that they are able to self-regulate as they wait for a turn. For young children an app such as "Peekaboo Barn" works perfectly because they can hear an animal inside the barn and then have to wait for two to three seconds before opening the doors. As the child becomes better at controlling his or her impulses you can gradually increase the wait time for longer increments.  For older children you can use an app such as “My PlayHome” and give children specific directions for more sophisticated commands (e.g. “Open the refrigerator and take out the pizza”). 

Impulse Re-Do: 

Every child has moments where they act impulsively (think: running out of the room because they are thirsty). You can capitalize on these moments as a teaching opportunity by helping a child replay them with an appropriate reaction and response. If a child runs out of the room for some water, I take the child’s hand and lead them back to the table. We then sit down and replay the situation again. I’ll often lead the child through the situation (e.g. “If we need water, first we raise our hand and then we ask the teacher”), and then I help them practice the appropriate reaction. Teaching these “Stop and Think” moments will help a child learn to regulate impulses more consistently.

Practice Taking One: 

Helping children “Take one” is another game to help practice managing the urge to grab as many toys as their little hands can hold. This works great with toys that have lots of small parts such as blocks,  puzzles or small food items such as blueberries or popcorn.  Initially I give constant reminders to “Take one” before each turn and then fade these reminders as a child becomes less impulsive. Be sure to give lots of positive praise “I love how you’re only taking one at a time”. 

Is your child having challenges with controlling his/her impulses? I’d love you to share any tips or tricks you use in the comments section below!

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with impulsive behavior? Which methods have you found most useful to help your child with his or her impulses? Let me know in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

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Top 5 Signs your Child Needs a Speech Therapist

Have concerns that your child might not be meeting developmental milestones? Here are the top 5 signs that you might need a speech and language evaluation.  

No one Understands your Child

Often times, parents learn to speak their child’s language and can understand most of what they are trying to communicate. The true test is whether or not your friends and family understand your little one. Making speech sound errors is a typical developmental process that begins to subside as children develop appropriate musculature and coordination in their lips, tongues and jaw. By 3 years of age, an unfamiliar listener should be able to understand 75% of what your child has to say. 

Uses a lot of Nonverbal Communication

It’s normal for a baby to use gestures, such as pointing or crying in order to communicate a desire or tell you they need something. However, by 2 years of age this habit should decrease significantly and be replaced by the use of words and short phrases. If your toddler is frequently using nonverbal communication such as pointing, crying or grabbing, encourage them to use their words to get what they want. 

Difficulty Answering Questions

By 1 to 2 years of age, children begin understanding and answering simple questions. For instance, if you ask “Where’s the ball?” they can retrieve or point to it.  They also begin answering “Yes/No” questions with a head shake/nod. As a child continues to learn, they begin answering more complex questions and are able to formulate more sophisticated responses. If a child has language difficulties, they will often repeat words of a question back to you as a strategy to compensate. For example, if you ask, “Where did Daddy go?” a child might respond “Daddy go”. Try giving a choice of two options to help support comprehension (e.g., “Is he inside or outside?”).

Limited Vocabulary

A child’s vocabulary grows as they have repeated exposure to a variety of words. Children typically understand a greater number of words than they are able to say. By three, they should have a vocabulary of at least 500 words. Children with vocabulary difficulties frequently use very general language to communicate. For example, they might say, “I want it” or “that thing” instead of using the item’s specific name.

Not Putting Words into Sentences

As a child’s vocabulary grows, they begin stringing words into more complex phrases and sentences. Children usually begin combining words into short phrases around 24 months of age or after they have a vocabulary of at least 35 to 50 words. Sometimes children are able to put sentences together, but they are not using appropriate grammatical endings or are confusing certain verb tenses. Difficulty formulating complex sentences may be an indication that a child needs a speech and language assessment. 

If you recognize any of these red flags in your child’s development,  it’s always better to err on the side of caution. The earlier a child starts receiving appropriate treatment, the faster their communication skills can grow.  

Click here for more information on Speech and Language Development.

Over to you...

Does your nonverbal child with autism struggle with attention? Any tricks you've found successful? Share your story in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

I send out blogs like this regularly, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to child learning, speech and language development and the use of technology to help children’s communication.

Sign up here and get my free video series, “Communication Crash Course,” which will help you learn the basics for helping your child with autism start communicating. Plus, you’ll always be updated first when I release new content!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Loved this post? Then use the icons below to tweet it, share it on Facebook and send it to your friends via email.