• The Blessing and Curse of Comparing •

Minutes after our children are born they take a test. Widely accepted, their Apgar scores tell us, this newborn appears in good health or there is reason for concern. The score is derived from knowing moscomparingt healthy babies perform well on the Apgar, and if they falter on the Apgar, they often have problems. It’s statistics. Comparing our children to others can be critical to understanding them. But of course it’s not the whole story, it’s a quick indication of what may lie ahead.

Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree tells a gripping story of how his first-born did not fair well on the Apgar. After doctors whisked the newborn away for a battery of tests prompted by leg inflexibility, they arrived at a conclusion: a leg cramp.

When I give a standardized speech-language test (and I really try not to) I’m looking for where a student stands compared to same age peers. It gives me some data, but again, not the whole picture. It is this part of an evaluation that parents, schools and lawyers want to know about most.  How many standard deviations from the norm are they? What is the cut-off for receiving paid services?

We’re told not to compare our children too much. Our kids are on different trajectories aiming and arriving at more or less the same destination. Whether the goal is sleeping through the night or reciting a sonnet, we’re told our kids will get there in time. Most parents know when their children stumble and struggle more than their classmates. They get them evaluated, to compare them to peers more formally.

Test results are scary—who wants their child defined by a set of numbers?

Results may tell us your child needs a little support, is on an alternate path from peers or needs a different X and Y-axis to chart success. This can be a painful realization, taking months to years.

Much of the world still puts all their eggs in the test basket as the only criteria for success. If, for example you ace the admission test for Stuyvesant High School, you’re in. It’s irrelevant if you’ve performed at Carnegie Hall or are the class valedictorian.

We know tests don’t tell us the whole story, however when is comparing your child relevant? It is relevant to know the range of typical and if your child is in that range. If you don’t usually see your child among peers and have concerns, ask a teacher. They usually spend a lot more time with your child than you do. It can be a relief to know there is a slight articulation weakness as you suspected, or what is typical for a bilingual child. Test results do not solely define your child, just selected aspects of their growth.

I have a love-hate relationship with testing, mostly hate, to be honest. I am vehemently against the mountain of testing given in public schools. I had no idea conveying this to my son would result in his refusal to fill in any bubbles on a standardized test answer sheet. The proctor went straight to the dean, and while the school considered what to do, I considered homeschooling a decent option. Thankfully little fallout ensued.

I now hail loudly, ‘Do Your Best on the Stupid Test!’

Some tests are inane, some are helpful, and yes, some are necessary evils (think back to your SAT days). Giving the right one at the right time can make a world of difference. An evaluation for Speech and Language can explain frustrations and guide therapy. Results can ally fears, help families, and most importantly benefit your child. The next time your child, whether they’re 4 or 14, takes a standardized test, consider what the purpose is and how results will help them. It may well be a window into how they are learning and what they are capable of at this point in time.

• Beyond Words: Translating Gesture, Pitch, Loudness and Context •

“If you want a linguistic adventure go drinking with a Scotsman” starts one of Robin Williams’ iconic monologues. Some Scots speak English in a manner barely comprehensible to Americans, which is not all that funny, but Willliams performs in a nonsense brogue relying on gestures and emphatic stress, which is hilarious. It is how we perceive an unknown language. We rely heavily on stress, pitch, loudness and gesture to decipher meaning in our own language too. The data conveyed from sentence structure is only part of the whole communication.

Some kids do not decipher non-verbal cues with the ease most of us can. They may not get that an eye roll means frustration, or someone looking away might mean they’ve lost interest in your conversation. Operating in a variety of social circles can be extremely frustrating, as social rules change from one context to another. The eye roll might mean one thing when joking with your sibling, but quite another when directed at a teacher.   Kids are never explicitly taught non-verbal communication, because most pick it up intuitively. Teaching them to notice and translate social cues is part of pragmatic language therapy.


Watching people who speak another language is an opportunity to practice noticing. This can be on a voyage abroad, or at home watching TV. Kids get to be detectives, focusing on people talking to each other. You don’t know what they’re saying but can you tell anything about the way they are feeling or what they may be discussing? How might they know each other? What does their body language tell you? Where do you think they’re going? If you don’t understand what they are saying you can’t rely on the data passing back and forth, and are left completely with context, tone of voice, body language and the way people present themselves.

Foreign commercials work super well, as the music, action and voice give huge clues to what’s going on. Commercials have to get their message across quickly and visually.

My favorite method for demonstrating how much is conveyed without using words is to make up a gibberish language and use inflection, eye contact, and gesture to impart meaning. I did this when my kids were kindergarteners. There were only 2 recognizable words we could produce, ‘hockey puck’ and only once per utterance. The more serious and earnest we were the sillier it became. We were laughing in no time, with as much abandon as we do now when seeing videos of Robin Williams.

• The Adolescent Brain: Buy Time and Reframe •

Gazing at my pudgy boys rolling around the sandbox, stubbornly innocent as 2 year-olds are, I flashed forward to my future: these toddlers are going to be teenagers. They will become hulking young men who grunt in response to queries, and leave their pungent gym clothes on the floor.

I grew up with an older brother. I know what the boy teenager is like. I endured glass eyeballs in my soup, and buckets of water tumbling unexpectedly on my head. One day I slammed my bedroom door shut, to find a life-size nude photo of Henry Kissinger staring at me (this landed me on the therapists couch for a few years). Now I was soon to have 2 of these beasts living with me! If my brother was any indication, it was not going to be pretty. I informed my husband I’d be moving out when our boys got to that stage.

Now, they are at that stage. My older son asks me what I mean by a seemingly innocuous statement, such as “carrots are usually orange” with the aggression of a charging rhino. Later he curls up on the couch like a Yorkshire Terrier to reminisce about family reunions. The emotional pendulum swings wide with little to push it.

IMG_2945I picked up The Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg to enlighten me. Maybe science could tell me something. Dr. Steinberg is a distinguished professor at Temple University. He is an expert on neuroscience as it relates to the developing adolescent.

Steinberg likens adolescence to ‘driving a car with a very sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes.’ Neurologically, he explains, adolescents are experiencing the world in high contrast, sweet is sweeter, embarrassment is mortifying, break-up is tragedy. It’s no surprise, he says, that music from our adolescence still evokes a visceral response.

In teenage years ‘. . . ordinary events trigger extraordinary emotions’, and yet these strong emotions are not checked by a sensitive brake pedal as well.

Steinberg explains, adolescents often don’t have the ability to contextualize, plan and then respond before emotional floods overwhelm them.

What can we do about this? The book offers strategies for adolescents and coping with them, two of which I found useful for any age child. Best of all, they are speech-language related. I call them Buy Time and Reframe.

Buy Time—use reasoning

Intuitively parents do this all the time. For example, when your toddler gets apoplectic after being told she can’t take her slide on the plane as a travel toy, most parents try a little logic, ‘It won’t fit.’ If that fails, we distract them. If we can get them to focus on something else, they calm down. As kids get older they learn to inhibit initial reactions. This is why when someone leaves too many dirty dishes in the sink, I don’t fall to the floor screaming and stamping my feet. Well, only in the rarest of occasions. I’ve learned how to quell the wave of emotion. A bit.

For teens, when the tidal wave of emotion begins, they can start to learn how to distract themselves. I suggest my boys run through the names of all the characters in Lord of the Rings (none of which I can pronounce), or name the planets in order from the sun. Buying time doesn’t solve a problem, but gives reasoning a chance to step in. Buying time to give peace a chance, can be taught from an early age. As Cookie Monster says on Sesame Street, ‘When me on the brink, need to just calm down. Me need to stop and think.’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PnbKL3wuH4&noredirect=1

boys in hoodiesWhat does this have to do with Language? Inhibiting reactionary responses in order to assess and plan is language related. Language helps us reason ‘If …… then….’ Language is a tool for reasoning. Being able to stay the course and inhibit responses to distractions is part of what’s known as Executive Function (EF refers to a cluster of abilities, which allow us to work towards a goal, persist, and be flexible with changes along the way)

Reframing requests (marketing is everything)

Steinberg notes adolescents are more responsive to potential rewards and less sensitive to potential losses. Offering a positive reward will likely get you farther than threatening the loss of money, screen time or another valued entity.

Framing a request, such as ‘Vacuum your room, put your clothes away, and you can play video games for an hour!’ works way better than, ‘If you don’t vacuum your room and put your clothes away, there will be no video games tonight!’ Frankly I’m truly terrible at framing things positively, but it is more effective and makes you look a whole lot better too.

I am aiming for well adjusted, articulate teenagers who help old people cross the street, but will consider it all a success if they can handle their emotional swings, wake up before noon and put their used gym clothes in the hamper.

• How Executive Function therapy Helps Get Dinner on the Table •

At 3pm I start to think about dinner. Usually I imagine sitting at the cozy French restaurant down the street with Prosecco in hand, fiddling with a garlicky appetizer. By 3:05 the fantasy disappears like the last madeleine on a cookie plate, and I’m back. Orthodontist appointments, after-school activities, phone calls, you all know the drill. Dinner becomes one of 4 meals in our family repertoire, my inner foodie is too embarrassed to elaborate.

DSCN4330 copyAs my children struggle to plan, and get everything done in the 5 hours between returning home and bed, it occurred to me they could learn these skills while cooking for my husband and me. Anyone who’s put dinner on the table (from scratch) a few nights a week knows what I’m talking about. It’s so natural to turn the oven on before placing the chicken in the roasting pan, you don’t think you are planning ahead. But you are.

Executive function (EF) refers to a cluster of abilities, which allow us to work towards a goal, persist, and be flexible with changes along the way. (These qualities do not fully mature in us until we are in our young 20’s, so cut your kids some slack). For many it’s not easy. We get distracted, have a limited sense of time, are discouraged by variations along the way, or lack materials necessary to achieve our goals.

SAMSUNGEF directly impacts performance in school. It requires, working memory, inhibition, planning, attention, and monitoring. The good news is, children unknowingly work on these abilities everyday. And as a parent you can provide opportunities to encourage this thinking.

If I want to get fancy about it, cooking is essentially a ‘therapeutic activity for executive function,’ but for us parents the incentive is two-fold: create ways for the kids to get confident of new abilities and, get them to make us dinner! Why is cooking a perfect activity to practice EF? Timing is essential, you may not always have the right ingredients, and it helps to be flexible when your rice is soggy or you mistake salt for sugar.

From preschool through high school, your kids can cook. The effort you put in pays off in time saved and delicious (sometimes unusual) meals. Toddlers can break eggs, fill muffin tins, and gather ingredients. Older kids can get a proper meal on the table.

IMG_2819bIn my effort to get my boys cooking, I put a few cookbooks on the kitchen table asking them to pick a recipe. Having a photo of the completed dish is essential, as they need to have the end product visualized before they plan.

Never mind that Son #1 picked Spring Vegetables with Pea Shoots, while snowflakes twirled in the updraft out our window. Son #2 picked Mexican Chocolate Mousse, Butterscotch Sundaes and Boston Cream Pie. Fire up the oven, this sounds like my kind of meal!

This is how EF plays a role in cooking:

These steps are all part of Planning

  • Reading the recipe and gathering food. Writing an ingredient list for items we do not have. This involves checking fridge and cabinets, and getting to know what’s in the kitchen.
  • Buying the food. If your kids are too young you will do this, but if they can go to a friend’s house alone, they can buy groceries. Warning: the first time they go shopping they will get something wrong. Count on it. That’s ok. EF involves flexibility. Use the dried mint instead of fresh or the margarine instead of butter.
  • Read the recipe again. This will help familiarize your kids with the method/plan.

Now you’re ready to —

  • Start cooking! The method tells you what you need to do first, it gets kids into the habit of sequencing activities, pacing themselves, and understanding which activities take longest and how to work around them. This involves,

Working Memory— recalling what you’ve done and what is left to do. Referring to the recipe when needed.

Attention— for example noting when scrambled eggs are cooked, butter is melted etc.

Inhibition—trying not to eat all the chocolate chips before they go into the batter. Please.

Monitoring —is the water boiling? If so it means the pasta is ready to dunk.

Is it faster to cook by yourself? YES . . . at first . . . however your kids will enjoy the food more and be incredibly proud. It goes faster the 2nd 3rd and 4th time, until you can be at your computer buying strappy sandals and your children will pop in to ask, ‘do we have any balsamic to deglaze the pan?’ This hasn’t happened to me yet, but I live in hope.

In the meantime be ok with eggshells in the frittata, flour on the floor.

Beyond the EF benefits, cooking is a skill your kids may use their whole lives. Why not give them one more reason to be appreciated and help your family roll along its merry way.