PAP 087: Identifying and Improving Lagging Executive Functioning Skills, with Rachel Kapp & Stephanie Pitts
Identifying & Improving Lagging Executive Function Skills
with Rachel Kapp, MA, ET/P & Stephanie Pitts, MEd, ET/P
One of the biggest struggles with ADHD is executive functioning deficits. These are skills in the areas of planning and organization, problem solving, task initiation, working memory, self-regulation, and self-awareness. Many kids with ADHD are often two to three years or more behind same-age peers in these areas. And, yet, these skills are crucial to success both at home and at school.
In this episode of the Parenting ADHD Podcast, I’m talking with educational therapists and hosts of the Learn Smarter Podcast, Rachel Kapp and Stephanie Pitts. Listen in to learn how to identify lagging executive functioning skills in your child, as well as how to improve and accommodate these deficits.
“…most of the kids coming into our practices have really intense anxiety because they’re not in control and everything is happening to them as opposed to them controlling what’s happening. By planning out their time and knowing where they have to be and when, and what their responsibilities are at a given time, we mitigate that anxiety.”
Rachel Kapp, Educational Therapist
Resources in this Episode
NOTE: Some of the resources below may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.
- Learn Smarter Webinar: How to Make Schooling at Home Work for Your Family
- Learn Smarter Podcast 79: The 4 excuses kids have for not calendaring (Executive Function Series)
- Timers: My personal favorite for kids with ADHD is the Time Timer
- Visual Cues
Brillia is the safe, impactful option to help reduce anxiety, stress, hyperactivity and irritability and to improve focus, attention and emotional regulation. Brillia stands apart from prescription pharmaceuticals, supplements and other products with a unique targeted active ingredient and proven results in an over-the-counter easy-dissolve tablet.
STEPHANIE PITTS, M.ED., ET/P & RACHEL KAPP, MA, ET/P
Game and tech guru, Stephanie Pitts grew up in Los Angeles and attended both public and private schools. Even though she went to USC, Rachel still loves and adores Steph. Steph’s dogs are EVERYTHING and you can follow their adventures at @andytucker_thedoxies on social media.
After teaching elementary school, Steph’s executive functioning skills were commandeered by a family with seven children. For 9 years, Steph made things happen for the kids and the family before moving on to educational therapy. She loves to travel, her dogs, and living by the beach.
You can learn more about Stephanie’s educational therapy practice at www.myedtherapist.com
Rachel grew up in sunny Los Angeles, California. After having a wonderful public school experience in LAUSD —yes, it exists! — Rachel went on to attend UC Berkeley. She studied abroad in Rome, Italy, which allowed her to combine a love of art and travel with nightly gelato. She found educational therapy after teaching preschool for 7 years in Los Angeles and is obsessed with helping struggling learners thrive in school. Rachel loves the path of least resistance and her absolute favorite thing is to get things done quickly (Steph tolerates this passion). When she is not working you’ll find Rachel at spin or baking.
You can learn more about Rachel’s educational therapy practice at www.kappedtherapy.com.
Thanks for joining me!
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Stephanie Pitts (00:00:03): Executive functioning affects every single thing that we do every day. And if you are weak in it, it just adds to the struggle. So knowing that your kid is not just a disrespectful kid, but this sort of thing is going to come out in all sorts of different areas and you might not even realize it.
Penny Williams (00:00:29): Welcome to the parenting ADHD podcast where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches on your host, penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD-aholic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.
Penny Williams (00:00:58): Welcome back to the parenting ADHD podcast. I am thrilled today to be talking to Stephanie Pitts and Rachel Kapp and we're going to talk about executive functioning. And these two ladies have tons of insights and experiences in this area to share with all of you in relation to both home, school, general functioning. So many parts of our kids' lives are really dependent on their executive functioning skills. Will you guys start just by introducing who you are and what you do for everyone listening?
Rachel Kapp (00:01:36): Sure. This is Rachel. I am an educational therapist with a group practice in Beverly Hills, California called Kapp Educational Therapy Group. I'm going to define educational therapy because not everybody knows about it. So as an educational therapist, we work one on one with students with different learning profiles to help them build skills and strategies to become successful, independent and autonomous learners.
Stephanie Pitts (00:02:03): And I'm Stephanie Pitts and I have a practice in Los Angeles in Redondo Beach, specifically, called My Ed Therapist. Rachel and I define it a little bit differently. So my version, even though we do the same thing, my version is teaching kids to learn how to learn and who they are as learners. Good stuff. Together we cohost Learn Smarter, the Educational Therapy Podcast, which, Penny you were on. And that podcast mission is really to expand awareness about ed therapy and the work that we do.
Rachel Kapp (00:02:40): Because not everybody has access to an educational therapist, either by location or financially or there's not a lot of hours that educational therapists can work. So the population that we get to work with is really, really small. And so by having the podcast, we are able to help bridge that gap for others.
Penny Williams (00:03:00): Which is so amazing.
Rachel Kapp (00:03:02): It is. And, to add to that, the biggest thing for us is that we can change the trajectory for so many students. Students who struggle with school, who school is hard for and don't love learning anymore. And that is really our mission, to make it easier and to reignite the love of learning again.
Penny Williams (00:03:28): And just to reignite motivation and interest. I think so many of our kids with ADHD or autism, they lose that over time when they're not able to succeed.
Rachel Kapp (00:03:40): We see it all the time.
Stephanie Pitts (00:03:41): Yeah. And if you look at it as like a lifelong gas tank, they already ran out of gas years ago. So, they're just running on fumes at this point.
Rachel Kapp (00:03:51): We see students with a learning interference, such as ADHD or autism or another learning diagnosis, work twice as hard and produce half as much, and gets the message that they're not doing enough. They're not trying enough a lot. And so it's almost healthy self-preservation to disconnect emotionally from school because they're not quote unquote "good at it." So they're going to go and put stock and put their effort into other activities, which is a normal and healthy impulse. So what we do is if a kid has already reached out once they're coming to work with us or one of our team members, we start there and honor the hard time that they've had and let them know that our job is to make it easier. So they just have to try a little bit and we can start to build that snowball of success.
Penny Williams (00:04:39): And honoring where they are and what their struggle has been is so monumentally important because, when we don't understand it ourselves, when that's not the childhood or the school experience that we've had, then we don't get it. And we often dismiss a lot of the pain and the struggle because it's beyond what most of us would imagine.
Rachel Kapp (00:05:05): We always say that one of the unintended but beautiful side effects of educational therapy is that family and home life improve, because part of the work that we do allows parents to get the coaching that they need to help their child and it allows the child to start shifting things so that their parents can step back a little bit and let them take larger control over their time and their things and their responsibilities.
Rachel Kapp (00:05:34): So it's an unintended but beautiful side effect that we've been told over and over and over again that home life has improved as a result of the educational therapy.
Stephanie Pitts (00:05:44): Yeah. And I don't know about you Rachel, but I have clients that I have the login to some of their portals and the parents do not.
Rachel Kapp (00:05:53): Yeah. It's going to be fun to talk about portals on this episode as we dig more into executive functioning because spoiler alert, Stephanie I don't like them.
Stephanie Pitts (00:06:03): Yep.
Rachel Kapp (00:06:04): And one of the reasons we don't like them is because it makes parents crazy and not every teacher uses them in the same way. So you might have an English teacher who updates every grade, every single time there's an assignment turned in, so that teacher's always up to date today.
Rachel Kapp (00:06:24): But then you have the math teacher who doesn't update until the end of the year and you had no idea how many assignments were missing. And so, while it can be an effective tool, it's a really problematic thing when we're talking about kids who struggle with executive function.
Stephanie Pitts (00:06:38): It's unreliable. Yes.
Penny Williams (00:06:40): So unreliable. It's super, super frustrating when you're trying to help your child stay on target and on task and you log into the portal and you can see what's missing, but typically it's not named the same thing. Some teachers, they have it, but they haven't put it in and then I'm emailing all the teachers and they're telling me different things. It's just, it's never-ending.
Rachel Kapp (00:07:04): It's constant. And the kids don't like talking to you about it. You don't like talking to them or their teachers about it. And especially in this time of homeschooling, I think parents are seeing even more how problematic the online portals are.
Rachel Kapp (00:07:19): Steph and I have the luxury of getting to work intimately with a lot of different schools in our areas. And this is a pretty common feedback that I give, which is that there needs to be standardization on how you're using this and you can't allow certain teachers to use Google Classroom when everybody else is using Schoology or PowerSchool. It's not fair to have these kids make hundreds and hundreds, literally hundreds of clicks on the screen to get to the information that they need. And I don't think when each teacher is doing it, they realize what the student experience of it is. But I know because we do log into the portals of our middle school and high school kids who have online portals. And I know how frustrated I get cause I have to keep it straight.
Rachel Kapp (00:08:09): Oh right. This teacher doesn't post grades here. She posts grades here or this teacher has it on a blog but doesn't put anything on Google Classroom.
Stephanie Pitts (00:08:17): And then which period am I in? Because some of them do that too. Like, is it period one, two, three, four, and then it's like, Oh yeah, what period am I in? Oh this is the thing for this particular period.
Rachel Kapp (00:08:28): If we're going to complain, let's also complaining about the schools that have like seven or eight or nine day rotations.
Penny Williams (00:08:34): And A and B days.
Rachel Kapp (00:08:34): A and B days I don't mind as much as I mind A through G days.
Penny Williams (00:08:43): What?
Rachel Kapp (00:08:43): Oh, maybe that's an LA specific thing. I don't know. But there's schools that have A through G days and those are on a rotation themselves, so the classes rotate the rotation. And I think the purpose of that is so that every teacher can have a class with kids in the morning, like every eight or nine days. They get them fresh first thing in the morning. But it's an executive functioning nightmare. It really is for kids. So if you're an educator out there listening, simple every other Monday, the same every other Tuesday, that's great. But nine day rotation — it's a lot to handle.
Penny Williams (00:09:24): It'd be a lot for me to handle and I'm uber organized. I mean, let's be real. That's a lot for anyone to handle. We are talking of course during the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic (for people who are listening a year or two from now). You will definitely hear us talk about things like everybody's homeschooling that are very specific to our current time, but they raise a lot of challenges and it's real information for those who are listening right now as the podcast is released. And for me, what you were just talking about, my son takes two classes online already. They're in one portal. Then he has two classes that were in person that now he has to take online. One teacher's putting everything in Google Classroom, the other teacher's putting everything in Canvas, so we're juggling three different portals for four classes.
Rachel Kapp (00:10:19): Nobody ever knows their password for any of it.
Penny Williams (00:10:22): Yeah, I mean, thank goodness for saving passwords. That's all I can say. We would never be able to get to anything. And like in one of his classes that's in one portal, they have to use a software that they don't have that they're trying to access streaming through this other portal. It's just crazy for anybody.
Rachel Kapp (00:10:42): I really want to say that the teachers have done an incredible job about pivoting and there were schools here that closed on a Friday and teachers start on Monday with virtual classrooms. So teachers have been incredibly creative and resilient and have made this possible. But the lack of uniformity is so problematic because you have to be able to have all those files open in your brain at the same time. And for kids who struggle with executive functioning, and we should probably define what executive functioning is, it's really problematic. So executive functioning is the ability to plan, do, implement, organize, prioritize, initiate, manage time, remember things. And it's all in the frontal lobe of the brain. And the reason I bring that up is because the frontal lobe of the brain isn't fully developed until we're 25. And so school stuff, you're graded basically on your executive functioning skills.
Rachel Kapp (00:11:52): A lot of the time it's "did you turn in the assignment?" Lots of the students that we work with do the assignment. So there's no pure way to assess knowledge without using executive functioning skills. But a lot of school is dependent upon strong executive functioning skills. And when they're weak and you're traveling from class to class and you're trying to remember all your assignments, and depending on the portal, which is unreliable, it creates this real big developmental gap between where your students are currently and the expectations set upon them. Steph, what would you add?
Stephanie Pitts (00:12:32): I'm gonna add that I all of a sudden had this when you were talking about the files. There's two things I want to talk about. One is if you picture your filing cabinet and being able to do all of those things all at once. Let's imagine you have one of those tall filing cabinets, those metal ones, and all the drawers are full of files and you have only the top two drawers open. What's going to happen? It's going to fall over and then everything's going to be everywhere. So that's sort of what's going on in their brains. And the other thing is that what is not as commonly spoken about with executive functioning is that emotion is also regulated by executive functioning. And so I'm sure a lot of parents right now, especially in this time, are seeing a lot of meltdowns and dysregulation. And how do I switch from being at home and I can't see my friends and I can't interact with the teacher and I can't do all these things that they're used to. And so they have all these emotions that they're trying to, to get through.
Stephanie Pitts (00:13:42): So it's another part of it that if the emotions get in the way and they're having these meltdowns so to speak, it's much harder to plan, prioritize, and organize what you need to be doing. I think the biggest thing right now for parents that we've been telling to a lot of our clients and their parents is let's shift expectations and adjust and know that everybody's trying to do the best they can.
Rachel Kapp (00:14:11): And that schooling your child at home is not going to look the same as going to school for seven or eight hours. So, setting the expectation that they're going to do eight hours of school on your kitchen table while you're trying to work and manage, a lot of people have older parents who are self isolating and all that... You're not going to feel successful at the end of the day. So Steph and I just did a webinar last week, which was actually this week's episode of our podcast about how to make schooling at home work for your family.
Penny Williams (00:14:46): It's so hard. It's just such a difficult time in so many aspects and for everyone. There's so many parents right now who are saying, I'm just such a bad parent or, this is all my fault. I can't structure, I can't do all these things and it's everybody. We are all struggling with this and our kids are struggling exponentially. It's a totally different format for them.
Penny Williams (00:15:12): I wanted to back up for one second and just add one thing that we are definitely understanding what teachers are going through right now and not attacking teachers. I think teachers are using what they know how to use, and have had no time to prepare and to learn something new. And when school systems as a whole are not consistent, then that's really where the blame — if we should call it that — lies, there isn't a consistent mandate. And so then that affects us at the bottom, the users who were trying to use it. But I think teachers are really just using what they know and they're struggling just like the rest of us are.
Stephanie Pitts (00:15:57): They're trying to figure it out. I know teachers that are trying to figure out how to do this, how to reach the kids, how to transition these lessons into a more meaningful way. And they have all these different mandates being put on them on how, when why, and all of those things.
Rachel Kapp (00:16:16): It's shifting a lot — some schools, every two or three days, they're changing everything because they're responding to parent feedback and shifting everything because there was no plan in place for this.
Stephanie Pitts (00:16:35): I feel for the teachers, I feel for the kids, I feel for the parents, I feel for us all. It's one of those things. So I don't think that it's really looking for a place to blame, but just looking for a place of learning something, and everybody's struggling in their own way with this. But if most of the people listening are parents, this is what your kid is going through.
Penny Williams (00:17:08): And I just want to be really clear, because so often when we talk about our kids' experiences at school, it feels to teachers as though we're laying blame, right? Generally, for the most part, it's not the teacher. It's what they've been told to do or how they've been taught or the fact that they don't know anything about ADHD or autism or learning disabilities. I'm just trying to be very careful that we didn't come across as kind of blaming these poor teachers, me included. So I just wanted to backtrack and say that.
Rachel Kapp (00:17:42): If I could share a funny story about something that my mom said to me, actually. So my mom's an early elementary school teacher and she's learning all these things like Steph and I have used Zoom for years because it's one of the ways we do podcasts and team meetings and all these things. So Zoom is a very comfortable format for us. But my mom's never used it. And I said to her, "Mom, it's okay, you can learn new things and you'll figure it out." And I actually helped her a little bit, which I was having a good daughter moment. Yeah. And then my mom called me after her first or second Zoom class with her little people and she goes, "I emailed the I.T. person because I really liked that I can mute everybody and I want that for when we're in person."
Stephanie Pitts (00:18:31): So, there are good things too, and I want to put out there that Rachel and I are both teachers. So we've been on the other end of this and it's just a no-win unfortunately. And we're all just doing the best we can.
Penny Williams (00:18:51): Absolutely. Absolutely. And unfortunately the best isn't meeting expectations, I don't think for anybody anywhere, but we are still working at it. So, let's talk more then about executive functioning. I just wanted to backtrack to say that, but can we break down each of the independent parts of executive functioning and talk a little bit about them. Because as Steph said, there's even emotional that almost no one realizes is part of executive functioning — emotional regulation. Any really self-regulation is in there. I think it's really important to you over-define almost in this conversation, so that parents realize how much of their child's behavior is really linked to lagging or poor executive functioning. Let's just start with plan, plan was the first one you said.
Rachel Kapp (00:19:39): When we're talking about planning, what we're really talking about is time management and being in control of your time. So if you were a client to walk into our offices, that would be the first thing that we would do with you is make a plan for your time. There's a couple reasons we start there. The first is we can't build on other skills until we know what time they have available in their days. The second reason we start there is because kids don't realize how busy they are. They don't realize how many transitions they have throughout the day, how many different responsibilities. And when you're traveling, this is primarily for middle school and high school and college students. But when you're traveling from class to class, homework isn't due the next day and kids are just often storing all this information in their brains.
Rachel Kapp (00:20:28): And, memory is another piece of the EF puzzle, but it's also not reliable. And so we come together and kind of put all their information in one place. The way that you and I functioning adults have a calendar that tells them where to go every single day. And because kids rely on the portal, they don't understand the value of having it in until they have it in place. And it's one of the first things we do because it also mitigates anxiety. And most of the kids coming into our practices have really intense anxiety because they're not in control and everything is happening to them as opposed to them controlling what's happening. And so by planning out their time and knowing where they have to be and when, and then we add in what their responsibilities are at a given time.
Rachel Kapp (00:21:22): So for example, if they have an English paper due, we go and put that down. And these are really simple things that might be obvious to you or me and it is obvious to us, but our population that we work with has no understanding of why it's critically important for their success to maintain that system.
Stephanie Pitts (00:21:42): And I'm going to say also, when you're going with planning, it goes hand in hand with the time management. If you don't know how long things are going to take you, how do you plan for them? It's that everything is going to be forever.
Penny Williams (00:22:00): For my son, everything takes forever.
Rachel Kapp (00:22:06): Kids don't have gauge. And it's interesting because for some kids it takes "forever," like your son. Or for some kids, they think it's going to take two seconds. So it's like one extreme or the other. Part of the work we do is in creating a true understanding of how long things take you and how long they should take.
Penny Williams (00:22:24): Let's talk for a second about kids who feel like we are somehow saying they aren't capable if you ask them to use a planner or a calendar or alerts. I talk to my son in particular about this all the time. "Look, I have this calendar on my phone. Look at all these reminders I have. I put everything in there, and I have good executive functioning and I'm using it by using this calendar." But, for him, he feels like he should be able to do that. In his mind, he's just not grasping that the majority of people are doing this. We're using these tools. That's how we're succeeding.
Stephanie Pitts (00:23:07): I think that there's two parts to it though. I think that they think that because they feel like they should, that's one part. But I think also they think that it takes more time to do, to put it in the planner and do all of that. And so when everything else is so much effort and takes so much time, especially for your son who everything takes forever, how much more time is there to give to put it in there, not realizing that down the line it will be helpful. And the thing about most kids with ADHD and autism is they don't feel time the way other people feel time. And one of the things is you kind of know — for us we have 50 minute sessions and I can feel when it's about time, I don't even need to look at the clock because I can feel time. But most of our kids, I'll say to them, "We'll do this and then we're done."
Stephanie Pitts (00:24:04): And they'll go, "We're done already?" Or, "That took forever." They don't have a good grasp. So using things like timers and visual cues is so important and we don't teach them to do all of these things all at once. You have to start somewhere with one thing.
Rachel Kapp (00:24:28): We get the pushback on the calendaring and planning for time with every client. We even did an episode like the top four reasons students don't want to use the planner, and how we respond to it in a client session. The piece of the puzzle that I want to address is what you just said Penny , which was the expectation that he should be able to do it. Well, memory is unreliable. The analogy that I use is ... Steph's like the queen of analogies, so I'm adaptting her analogy a little bit.
Rachel Kapp (00:25:00): But the analogy that I use is that the part of the brain that you're really over relying on by not using a planner is your memory. And if you imagine, a water bottle only have so much capacity. And what happens if you left it under the sink and you just let the water going? The water would all fall out. Right? And the thing that's falling out when kids don't have a planner is which homework assignment is due when, if there's a test and truly, the things that fall out of that water bottle are the things they're being tested on. So I just did a session this week and it's a weird thing because it's the first thing we do with a lot of students and there's no trust established yet, right? So we're just saying that I understand you don't necessarily see the whole value of it.
Rachel Kapp (00:25:49): I've given you all the analogies. You're able to speak the analogies back to me and show me that you do understand at least conceptually why this is important. But you don't want to do it yet. So what I'm asking of you is just to trust the process and trust that I'm the expert in this scenario. It really helps, Penny, that we're not mom and dad and we can get by in that way — I know you don't want to do it, we're going to do it anyway. You're going to see that once we've built this system we're going to maintain it. And maintenance is so much easier than building out a calendar. It is a lot of upfront work to build a calendar. It can take us a couple of sessions and kids don't see the value in it immediately. But eventually everybody comes over to our side.
Rachel Kapp (00:26:37): They're not anxious about all this stuff. And, in fact, one of my clients said to me yesterday, he's like, "I really actually thought I had more missing assignments," because we had gone through his portal to see and he's like, "I was totally overwhelmed by how many I thought I had." By taking stock and actually looking it, it creates a sense of power over things that they felt powerless about prior. You gotta be able to speak kid language and validate them and also say, "Every client has said this to me and you're not the only one. Feel free to ask me every question about why we should do this and I'll give you the answer." But I don't mind pushback at all. And I know that Steph doesn't mind it either, because if someone came to me and was like, "change your whole system and how you do things," I wouldn't want to do it either because I'm comfortable. So we're really used to that particular pushback on the calendaring system.
Stephanie Pitts (00:27:39): Yeah. I want to just add, one of the analogies that I use with the older kids is that they all have iPhones. And I say to them, "What happens?" Just going back to memory, "What happens if you have all of your apps open at the same time?" And they'll say one of two things: they'll say it'll slow down or it'll drain the battery. And when I then frame it, "That's your brain right now. And you are using all of this energy and brain memory, battery life for something that's so silly ever remembering, 'Oh, I need to do page 39 through 42,' rather than doing it with something that you'd love to do because you still have to remember, 'Oh yeah, I want to go ride my skateboard later.' It's choosing for you what you're going to remember, what you're not, imagine what apps that might close." And just like Rachel was saying, I think they understand a little bit more when I say that to them.
Penny Williams (00:28:37): Yeah. And their brain is what their brain is. We're not talking about a neurotypical brain here and expecting the same memory function and working memory and planning and all of this. So, when you talk about the water bottle overflowing, the memory having too much in it, that water bottle might have been a little smaller to begin with than the other students'. And so it's more taxing than it would be for a typical student because we're talking about different neurology and we have to be able to understand where our kids are and define expectations accordingly. And our kids, especially middle and high school, they're looking at their peers and thinking that they should be able to do everything in the same way, in the same time. They're already hard on themselves for not meeting those expectations.
Stephanie Pitts (00:29:36): Yeah, and kids with ADHD are typically three years behind their peers as far as functioning. So that's not their chronological age, but their capabilities at that moment. If you're dealing with a 15 year old who is struggling, really, they're 12. Remember back to 12 years old, what should we be asking them to do? And if it's not developmentally appropriate for them at this moment to be able to handle and do all the things we're asking them to do. So it's really unfair.
Penny Williams (00:30:03): And then we have asynchronous development, too. We have kids who are advanced in some areas and way behind in other areas. And, I think as humans, we tend to focus on those advanced areas. And then we're wondering why other things are behind and thinking that maybe it's an unmotivated or lazy kid when really it's completely possible to be on average, advanced, and way below average in different areas, all at the same time and all in one kid. We really have to focus on the specific developmental aspect or skill that we're talking about. Parents need to sit down and really break that out. Where's my kid at, and in this aspect, so we can really be very tailored to the individual kid that we have.
Rachel Kapp (00:31:07): The luxury of the work that we get to do is that we get to work one on one and really specifically tailor what we do for that particular child sitting in front of us. And then we also have the other responsibility, which is the parent coaching piece of what happens organically when we're working with a family and of holding space for the family's concerns and frustrations, but also honoring — especially when the client has been with us for awhile — the growth and progress that actually has taken place. Because when you're in a period of crisis, which oftentimes these families are coming to us feeling in crisis, you're looking for deficits and you're looking to strengthen deficits. Once kids start to make tremendous strides and improvement through the educational therapy, there's still a deficit-focused mindset because parents can't help it. They're in fight or flight and they're in crisis and they can't help it.
Rachel Kapp (00:32:01): So it's our responsibility to also give them the bigger picture of, yes, this is what we're talking about right now, but don't you agree it's so much less concerning than the things that we were talking about six months ago and holding that space of like, "look at the progress that's actually taking place," because we as people have a hard time even acknowledging the progress in ourselves. So we sometimes rely on other people to mirror our reality back to us, so we can actually see. Steph and I do it for each other — we're coming up on a hundred episodes of the podcast and we haven't given ourselves a pat on the back for that yet. And that's the same thing that's happening in these relationships with parents and children, and kids with themselves as well.
Penny Williams (00:32:47): Yeah. And I think we don't look at the big picture as much when there's tiny little incremental improvements or changes. Like when our kids grow up and they're teenagers and we're like, "Oh my gosh, they were just little," or people haven't seen them in a long time and they can't believe how much they've grown. And you feel like, really? But it's because we're seeing it every day. Seeing that big picture to be able to engage with, "yes, we've had some good improvement, we've had some good changes." Over time, it's hard when you're down in the muck of it.
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Penny Williams (00:34:48): Let's talk about task initiation because I know that's a huge one for ADHD especially.
Stephanie Pitts (00:34:54): So glad you called it task initiation and not procrastination. It's much more positive. Task initiation is getting ready to start something when not only when you want to do it, but also when you don't want to do it. And it's very hard for these kids to get started on something when either they know it's going to take a long time or it's the most miserable thing on the planet to them in that moment. So this is where oftentimes kids get labeled lazy or procrastinators, which are real trigger words for Rach and I, because it's really not about that when you don't know when to start or how to start, that's really what task initiation is asking. And if you're not sure what the prompt is and how to break it down or how to create a study plan or any of these things, then the kids are just sort of flailing around and not yet know what to do. So that's really what task initiation is about.
Rachel Kapp (00:36:05): So the other thing that I'll add, just to piggyback onto what Steph said, is lazy is a word we hear a lot and it is a huge trigger word for both of us. We come from a fundamental place where we believe that all students want to please. They want to please their teachers. They want to please their parents, they want to please siblings. Everybody wants everybody around them to feel good about them. So when we hear that word lazy, it's just, it's discontinuous between what we actually believe. When a kid isn't performing the way that you expect them to or the way their intelligence implies that they quote unquote, "should be able to," it's our responsibility as the adults not to set blame and say, "well, this is a personality flaw," but to figure out what is difficult about these assignments that causes them to avoid it and what's difficult that we can't see?
Penny Williams (00:37:04): Yep, for us, I remember when I first learned about executive functioning and task initiation, as soon as I got there, I went, Whoa, whoa, this is what's happening. Never in my wildest dreams did I think about the fact that you could sit down with a worksheet and verbal instructions and not know where to start. Not know what to do, not be able to do it. I never imagined some of the roadblocks or hurdles that our kids deal with as far as task initiation. So it's really, really vital as parents that we're thinking outside of ourselves, we're really thinking creatively about what could possibly be troublesome here. And then also asking our kids "What are you struggling with?"
Stephanie Pitts (00:37:56): And it's exhausting for them. So remembering that part two is they just might not have any gas left for this...
Rachel Kapp (00:38:03): And they might not know why it's hard and they're looking to you to figure it out because they may be little and one of the biggest executive functioning challenges academically that really emerges are kids who really dislike writing. And it gets even more interesting when the parent is a writer by trade. I've had that happen a couple of times in my practice. We're in LA, we have a lot of people who write and because they don't understand or see all the different types of brain functioning and executive functioning that has to go into producing a single sentence. And so when we get to work with this population who struggles with executive functioning, I can almost guarantee they're not going to like writing and reading, usually because it's so demanding on the systems that are specifically impacted by their medical diagnosis or learning difference.
Penny Williams (00:39:00): Yeah, it's tough to think of things and recognize that something might be different for somebody else. If you're neurotypical and you go to school and you grow up and you're succeeding, you're meeting expectations. We make the assumption that everybody can do that. And then when somebody doesn't, it's because they don't want to which could be further from the truth.
Rachel Kapp (00:39:15): Right. And it gets even more complicated when you have a bright kid and you have the kid sitting in front of you and they know they're bright and they're not performing. It gets even more complicated. And the emotional toll is really significant.
Stephanie Pitts (00:39:37): It really is. And, if you think about it as an adult, we aren't all good at everything all the time. And knowing yourself, what is hard and what you don't like to do or what just feels like a lot of effort, trying to put that into perspective for what your kid is going through, because there's a lot of ways around a lot of things at this point, right? There's typing instead of handwriting, if that's really hard, things like that. For me, just putting it out there, writing is actually very hard for me and it takes me a lot longer to do things than it takes Rachel, and we see side by side, things that I do for our podcasts and whatnot are things that it's the opposite for her. It's something like trying to figure out how these things need to get done. Whereas for me it's very intuitive. So I know that when I'm writing something and I'm talking to these kids about, "yeah, I get it, this is really hard, but let's break it down."
Rachel Kapp (00:40:53): Steph, you texted me, it must have been a month or six weeks ago, and you were with a client and you're like, "can you just confirm that I don't like writing?"
Stephanie Pitts (00:41:02): Oh yeah. A kid did not believe me. A kid thought that I was making it up, that I was like actually a good writer and I was just trying to make them feel better. And I said to them, "I swear to you." I texted Rachel and all I wrote was "do I like writing?" And I showed the kid. She wrote, "no, absolutely not." And I said, "see, you could see that I didn't say anything else to her. She has no idea why I'm asking."
Rachel Kapp (00:41:31): I will say you're a good writer Steph. It just takes more effort for you than it does for me. And in exploring the mechanics of how to post the podcast or things that really require research, I want no part of that. So luckily, we're in this partnership where we each know our roles very defined. We know what we're responsible for.
Penny Williams (00:41:51): Yeah. And we can use that with our kids. I need to look at what are their strengths, what are their needs, where are they struggling? And use that information to help them and use tools to work around, like you were saying, voice-to-text. We need to really understand how many steps there are in a task — and writing is a big one, especially when you think about dysgraphia, your brain is not only working on what do I want to say and holding it in working memory, but it's also working on writing it and all of that muscle coordination. The example that I give a lot is if our child has the chore of taking out the trash. For us, taking out the trash is one instruction, right?
Penny Williams (00:42:45): It's one task. But really, in a brain that struggles with planning and sequencing and organization and working memory, it's so much more than that. You have to go and get the trash, you have to pull the can out of wherever it lives. You have to pull the bag out, you have to pick up whatever fell out, you have to tie it, you have to take it out to wherever your trash goes out to. And then —and here's where most kids lose it on this task, especially mine — you have to come back and you have to get a new bag and put it in the can and put the can away again. That's what we're talking about when we say "take out the trash." And so that's just one really simple example that as parents we have to think about what really are the minute pieces of this task that I'm asking them to do? Let's talk about emotions.
Rachel Kapp (00:43:44): So the emotional journey that the learners that we are honored to get to work with in our practices, it is something that we have to talk about. It depends on the age. If you have a kid before adolescence and puberty, their emotions around school can be a little tamer if, for lack of a better word, they're not as intense. And once a kid goes through puberty, they've had struggles in school for a while, let's say they're in seventh grade. Well, now they've had seven years of school where they haven't quote unquote "been good at it." They do check out emotionally. After that point in the kid's development is where we get a lot of parents saying there's lack of motivation. They're lazy, they don't care. They're just not willing to try. And it's really looked at as a character flaw.
Rachel Kapp (00:44:43): And so when we come into the picture, we have the added benefit of having worked with so many families that are experiencing this exact day and we're the only ones reframing everything like we're doing in this conversation. I'm sure there are people listening who we've shifted their thinking on something as a result of our conversation about executive functioning, but we get to shift the narrative that these kids have been hearing about themselves, that they feel about themselves. Oftentimes they feel stupid, even though they know they're smart, but because the way we measure smart in this country, is all about executive functioning. And then we have the emotional immaturity that comes as a result of having weaker executive functioning. And so they don't necessarily have the language around it and they're looking at their peers who appear to be thriving or an older sibling who's extremely high functioning and comparing themselves.
Rachel Kapp (00:45:42): And we all know comparison is the death of self esteem. Right? And so it's a huge component of what we deal with in our sessions because we have to honor the feelings and the resistance or we're never going to have progress.
Stephanie Pitts (00:45:58): Yeah. And if you look at home life, the emotional dysregulation that you're seeing is a struggle with not only task initiation like we talked about, but task switching. It takes a lot of executive functioning to go from doing one thing to the next thing. Let's say your teenager is playing video games and you say, "now you need to put that down because you need to go do your math homework," switching from that task and to an undesirable task, no less, and one that's very hard, the dysregulation happens where you might see a kid start talking back or start throwing a tantrum or saying they're not going to do anything.
Stephanie Pitts (00:46:47): And really it's a culmination of all the things that their brain is trying to keep straight at once. And when anybody gets overloaded, what happens? You fall apart. I go back to my example of a gas tank... what ends up happening is they use all that emotional gas they have and then, in order to pull themselves back together to get going and start and do the thing that's hard, it becomes almost impossible. Executive functioning affects every single thing that we do every day. If you are weak in it, it just adds to the struggle. So know that your kid is not just a disrespectful kid, but this sort of thing is going to come out in all sorts of different areas and you might not even realize it.
Rachel Kapp (00:47:52): I'll give an example from a kid that I was working with, the same one who was missing lots of assignments but less than he thought — all the assignments that he was missing were assignments where he had to annotate. So let's talk about why annotation is so difficult. First of all, they're reading and they're deep and they're trying to both simultaneously decode and understand the text in front of them. And then you have to add on the element of, "now I need to mark up the page with literary devices or character development or the things that my teacher wants me to look for." Well, now the demands on the brain are so significant and each time you stop reading to annotate, you have to build up the muscle again to get back into the text. And where are you in the text?
Rachel Kapp (00:48:40): Where are you and what was happening in this story? Again, there's so much information that kids have to hold onto in an assignment like that it was no surprise to me that those were the assignments that he was missing. And as we were gathering up all the information of missing assignments, — which most of the students we work with initially had missing assignments, it's one of the reasons they're coming — I was explaining that this is so typical, you're so typical. I'm constantly saying to him, "you're so typical" because for the students that I work with, he was so classic in the type of assignments he was avoiding versus the type of assignments he was turning in. And I think it was the first time he had ever heard that he was quote unquote "normal."
Rachel Kapp (00:49:26): I didn't use that word. I just kept saying typical and he's like, "I'm not typical. My brother doesn't do this. My sister doesn't...." I'm like, "Oh, of the population that I see every day, you're like, so, so classic." It provides some relief that I can explain to him why these are the assignments that he avoids.
Penny Williams (00:49:49): Yeah, I think that's great because I think a lot of times they don't know or they don't realize they're avoiding. My own son is the King of all Kings of Avoidance. Everything is automatically avoid it if I don't know what to expect, I avoid it if I don't know if this is going to go well or not well. If it's writing, forget it. If it's math, forget it and anything else, he doesn't go to the movies because when he was younger it was too overwhelming and he just will not try again. He is holding onto that — "if something happens once, it's going to be like that forever for me." It's really tough for a lot of the kids that we're talking about here.
Penny Williams (00:50:28): They really stopped trying because they feel like it's always going to have the same outcome or the same amount of pain — if a paper took three days once, it's always going to take three days, even if it's only two sentences this time. That's really hard to break down and work through. But if we can just coach them into trying things again or doing a little bit of it, then they can start to experience that, "Oh, this could go differently, this could go better. Or I'm a different person now, five years later, so maybe I can do this better than I used to." I challenged my son with a timer sometimes. The biggest one that we did was around the time it takes for him to empty the dishwasher and put the dishes away, which is his chore.
Penny Williams (00:51:20): For years he would fight with me for 30 or 45 minutes about how it was going to take the rest of the day. He was not going to get to do anything. And one day I just had had it and I'm like, "you could have emptied that dishwasher seven times over by now and nothing has been done yet and I'm exhausted and over it." So, I got a timer out and I said, "this takes you five minutes." I would tell him that all the time and he never believed me. He never wavered on believing that it only took five minutes because it felt like so much longer to him. And so I said to him, "Whatever you don't have done in five minutes, I'll do it, I'll finish it. And he was ecstatic, right? Because he's thinking, "I'm not going to have to do any of this because it takes way longer than that." He was done in 4 minutes and 56 seconds and was astonished... Astonished.
Penny Williams (00:52:06): It's things like that where we can really help. With schoolwork, maybe, homework or work they're doing online right now, telling them, "well, this is about how long we expect it should take. Let's set a timer. You can take a break or you can... whatever accommodation we want to give... when that time is over." And then we tend to get a little more agreement in doing the task or at least attempting the task when we set those sort of caveats and we're helping them with those pieces that are so uncomfortable.
Rachel Kapp (00:52:53): It's a larger conversation about rigidity versus flexibility. And when we have a client in our practice who is rigid, we have to go so small to get big wins. Because they don't have the perspective to understand why doing something differently would be beneficial to them. You have to coach them through to get buy-in. Sometimes we have to motivate with outside factors, and we're big believers in extrinsic motivation because when once they go through that transition to puberty, like if they've struggled in school, usually that's when we lose intrinsic motivation as well. I had a kid who was really struggling with executive functioning. He was in the eighth grade and I was trying to help him switch to a one to one binder, to putting all his supplies in one binder.
Rachel Kapp (00:53:48): So he only had one decision to make, which was take my binder. He didn't have to decide on each individual folder to bring home that day because that's really difficult for kids who struggle with executive functioning. But he was so resistant and he was so rigid and he was getting tears in his eyes. He was getting really mad and I said, "look, we can do an experiment. Let's do this for two weeks," which was two or three or four sessions for us, and we put a date on the calendar and I said, "if after this amount of time you're still really hating this, we will come up with something else, but regardless, if you stick with this for two weeks, we're going to get ice cream." And he got big eyes and couldn't believe that we were going to leave my office for something together.
Rachel Kapp (00:54:34): And I'm like, "yeah, I'm going to, treat you to ice cream."And just because you're trying to be flexible, you're really uncomfortable. And what I'm asking is a big ask and if you don't like it, we'll switch after two weeks." Guess what? Never switched. We did go get the ice cream, but he kept with his system because it was just about getting him to try it.
Penny Williams (00:54:53): He needed to experience that it was going to work. And you were really honoring who he was and where he was. By giving him that extrinsic motivation, we're not bribing them to do something, we're honoring that it takes more to get them to get over those hurdles. The inflexibility or catastrophizing, thinking something's going to take too long, whatever it is, it's not that we're bribing them to do something that they should be doing, it's that we are honoring what they need from us. And you really were honoring how big of a win that was for him. You were making a big deal out of something —for a lot of people it was too much, it was too big of a deal for something., but for him it was a big deal and you were really honoring that for him.
Stephanie Pitts (00:55:23): And I love that language because I remind parents all the time when they say, I"I don't want to bribe my kid. This is not what I want to get into. I'm not giving money for grades" or whatever, which I never asked parents to do. Rachel and I are not grade motivated. But what I do remind them is when you go to work, do you work for free? And the parents almost stop in their tracks like, "Oh, I mean, yeah, we love what we do, but we do get something for it." So remembering that is important. That's just how our society is. So it's not about bribing, it's about honoring. And I love that.
Penny Williams (00:56:26): Yeah. Yeah. And we expect kids to do school because it's been mandated, right? This is what you're supposed to do. You're going to do it. And a lot of kids need more explanation, more reasons why, and something that is connective for them in that reason. Oftentimes we don't really have it. I have found myself during a lot of school refusal and school avoidance saying, "Well, it's the law and they're going to come after me if you don't go to school," because what else did I have, in those moments? I will say that was not a good parenting moment. Not proud of it, but I'm human. And when you're super desperate, things come out that you probably shouldn't say and you recognize later. But, being human in front of our kids is so incredibly valuable too and apologizing for our mistakes.
Penny Williams (00:57:22): We don't have a lot of reasoning for kids of why they're going to school every day, why they're learning these different concepts in math. And especially for kids with autism spectrum disorder. They really need those answers and it's sometimes really hard to come up with them. And just that understanding again from the parent's perspective, understanding that they need a reason and how can we try to fulfill that need — that's really important. It really is. We only have a couple of minutes left before we're going to hit the one hour mark. I had a feeling that this episode would be long because we enjoy talking to each other for one, but you guys are so full of great wisdom and there's so much to talk about. I think the last big piece of executive functioning that we haven't yet talked about would be prioritizing and sequencing and maybe even chunking, breaking things down into smaller pieces.
Stephanie Pitts (00:58:23): A couple of little tricks that we use is starting every day with listing what homework is assigned. And a lot of kids like to do what is easy and short and they start there and our philosophy is to do the opposite. You have more energy and you're going to be able to get through it easier if you start with the hard things and end with the easy things. Sometimes with clients we'll take a subject and say, "you're going to do the homework in this order every day by subject" because it's their most hated subject. They're always going to have math homework and they don't want to do it. So we start with math homework always, which is very hard with the task initiation.
Stephanie Pitts (00:59:16): But if you can get through that hurdle, it becomes very effective. So prioritizing and chunking. Things like creating a study plan and things like creating artificial due dates or working with your teacher or you as a parent or whomever to say, this needs to be done by this day. This needs to be done by this day. And when we break it down for them and teach them that that's the strategy that's going to help them longterm, all of a sudden they see that the task isn't that overwhelming and isn't as hard that they thought it was going to be.
Rachel Kapp (00:59:53): Yeah. The thing that I'll also add to that conversation is that oftentimes kids will come to our sessions and they have a little plan about what they're going to do with their time with us, especially if they've been with us awhile. So they know the calendar is so important because every day that they meet with us maintaining their calendar in their system.
Rachel Kapp (01:00:23): Steph was talking about like little tricks, like an artificial due date. And that's something that we really advocate for a study plan and we advocate to trick themselves into thinking that the test is actually going to happen the day before the test is due to happen. And then they have a bonus day of studying if their study plan didn't work out the way that they thought it was going to, which it often doesn't because things pop up. But that's why having a calendar is so important, because we can put the study plan on the calendar and we can shift things on the calendar as well and we can be flexible within it. Teaching them how to unpack these assignments that feel overwhelming, oftentimes an essay will feel really overwhelming and it is overwhelming, iIt's not totally clear what the prompt is asking.
Rachel Kapp (01:01:11): Sometimes there's not even a question in the prompts, right? It's just a lot of sentences and they're looking at this and they're like, "I don't even know where to begin." We've done so many episodes on how to break down a prompt and turn it into questions that are answerable. How do we flip the writing model that you don't always have to know what thesis to get started. That's a huge stop gap. And we teach it like we teach in writing as if it should be linear , but the introduction is supposed to tell you what you're going to talk about. And oftentimes the kids that we work with don't know what they're going to talk about yet. And so they just sit and they stare at the blank page.
Rachel Kapp (01:01:49): And so understanding these little ways of manipulating assignments in a way to make it workable. That's a lot of what we talk about on the podcast, how to shift things so that it can actually happen in your home. And that's the work that we do — the way we really get buy in from middle school and high school students, it's like we tell them our job is to make school easier, faster, more effective, and for you to have more free time.
Penny Williams (01:02:20): And when we address these struggles in a meaningful way, an effective way, then we do make it easier, we do give them more time for free time. And a lot of times the expectation is that they just have to work harder and longer, and that's not fair. It's not fair for a student to spend two hours on an assignment that the teacher meant for it to be 15 minutes. That's punishing for a disability. It's not okay. And changing the conversation around that has been something that's come up several times for us and my son's life as a student. And it can be difficult. But again, it's really about shifting your understanding and your focus. If a student struggles with executive functioning, they're not getting things written down and turned in without being prompted. Prompting them to turn in an assignment is not making them incapable to succeed when they're an adult.
Penny Williams (01:03:20): And, and that's been said to me before, "I don't give my students reminders. They're of the age they have to learn to be accountable for themselves." Okay, well for your neurotypical kids, that's correct, potentially. But it's not correct for my kid, it's not going to work that way for my kid. Giving up some of those ideas that we ourselves are so inflexible about. So often we're inflexible, but we get upset that our kids are inflexible. We want flexibility from them to meet our inflexibility and it just doesn't work that way. And when you think about it, you're like, well of course. When we really meet kids where they are and really honor who they are and what they need, and throw out all of those traditional expectations, then they succeed. Then they're able to have tools that help them with the executive functioning struggles.
Penny Williams (01:04:14): And any other struggle that they're having, and we're opening the door and giving an opportunity for them to have successes. And then as we talked about, when they start to have some successes, they start to feel like they can actually succeed, instead of giving up, which is so crucial. That's probably one of my biggest upsets about my son and his years in school is that he really has no confidence that he can achieve, that he can be good at school, or that he could even be fair at school. And that's really tough because I know, if it was formatted differently and if he was more understood in those environments, he could have succeeded. And so, that's our job as a parent. We do as much as we can to help. We're not always successful at that, but we're giving our kids as much of their own strategies and encouraging them to advocate for themselves. It's something we haven't talked about, but it's so, so important. And in the material that we have been talking about in this conversation, they have to learn to ask.
Rachel Kapp (01:05:20): The self-advocacy piece is a part of educational therapy that we didn't get into, which is also self-understanding and demystifying their own learning profiles so that they can understand themselves in the larger context. It's what I was telling you about that student who was missing all those annotated assignments. He didn't understand the why behind it, but if you can understand the why, you can start to make shifts and it cannot just be this huge failure. No, there's something about the way that my brain works that that I need to make adjustments on these assignments because I know I don't like these assignments.
Stephanie Pitts (01:05:55): Yeah, and it goes back to my definition of who they are as learners. That's what we do.
Penny Williams (01:06:01): Such valuable information, ladies and we always have a lovely conversation that I think is so useful for our audiences. For everybody listening, you can go to parentingADHDandautism.com/087 for episode 87 you will get show notes, links to any resources that we talked about here, as well as ways to connect with both Stephanie and Rachel in their businesses, their podcast, all of that good stuff. I certainly encourage you to connect with them and their work and learn more. It's just so valuable. So with that, I just want to thank you again, ladies for being here and sharing your time. I will see everyone on the next episode.
Rachel Kapp (01:06:54): Thank you so much.
Stephanie Pitts (01:06:55): Thank you.
Penny Williams (01:06:59): Thanks for joining me on the Parenting ADHD Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and mama retreats at parenting, ADHD, and autism.com.
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