It feels impossible these days to start a piece of writing or speech without first acknowledging the current global situation in fearful, tearful, or apocalyptic terms. As a teacher, coach, and therapist who has worked with children and families for nearly 30 years, my heart goes out to the homes, children, and families of Ukraine, your homes, children and families, and the homes, children, and families of our animal friends too. Big work and big times are for big people. We find ourselves in a community because big people need big friends and strong families. I’m very happy to be part of yours and for you to be part of mine.
Today is truly a day of rebirth. In the northern hemisphere, it’s spring with all its renewal: pastel colors, bunny rabbits, and Easter. Collectively it is a symbolic new beginning from the dark days behind us and Winter turning to Spring. And yet, as we look at the world around us there never seems to be a moment of springtime for all people and all creatures. We celebrate our freedoms with the awareness always that someone somewhere is not doing well at all. How then can we possibly enjoy it? Because we must enjoy it for them. How we can best have faith in the world, and work to improve the world is to celebrate joy for it is that that can strengthen us. Joy and presence are the medicine, please allow me to explain.
I work primarily as a teacher, therapist, and advocate for exceptional children and their families, serving the child, the family, and the larger community. This means everything from sitting with a child doing their homework and teaching skills to manage gaps in attention or ability, teaching high achieving students to breathe and reduce stress, meeting with schools to help them understand a child’s special needs, helping parents cope with meltdowns, counseling moms through career changes, financial concerns, or some of their own mental health needs, stemming from neurodiversity or not.
My first career was in the arts and I credit my art training with my ability to manage my emotions, think on my feet, come up with solutions, draw connections in research, and maintain the general wackiness that enables me to connect to my students. I came to this work in part because I am my client, well I was my client. I was a highly traumatized and misunderstood teenage runaway. I was a classic art school emo kid from the start. In a small town in the 70’s wearing a Smiths t-shirt got you accused of doing drugs and leading satanic cults. In my case, few adults looked at the more obvious. I was drowning with my ADHD, my existential despair (sad gifted kid burnout shit), my learning disabilities, and my family abuse. Few adults could see enough of the famous “potential” in me to help do more than criticize that I wasn’t reaching it. There was one notable exception, my high school humanities teacher who quite literally saved my life. Still, I never wanted to be a teacher exactly. I hated the school system the first time I went through it. I did not want to work in it when I was grown up and had a choice in the matter.
As an homage to my kind teachers, however, I did give it a shot and after a few moderately successful years as a public school teacher I transitioned to tutoring and coaching (later counseling) As it turned out nearly all of my students were twice-exceptional (high IQ plus another thing like ADHD, learning disabilities, etc) like me. What has been interesting over the years as I have gained more experience in the field, continued my training, and responded to the needs of the greater community is that now – not just special people need my help. More accurately everyone seems to be having the same struggles with executive functioning and trauma healing, and my neurodiversity and dealing with this for now 49 years has given me a bit of a leg up on how it all works.
To give you something useful other than the world sucks be happy (yes I know) and a possibly amusing or inspiring anecdote about my career path (who cares) please allow me to impart something useful from my practices (ok let’s go!)
What are executive function skills and how can I develop them? EF skills are the things that allow you to be the executive of your own life: time management, organization, concentration, emotional regulation, and working memory to name a few. EF skills are what enable you to succeed in school and in life, the lack of EF skills as an adult can impact financial management or career growth. In short, it is self-mastery and the short of it is if you are not your own master, then someone will master you. Some people have naturally good EF skills, others need to be taught or coached. People who have lower EF skills maybe someone neurodivergent, gifted, have a trauma history, and (in addition to direct coaching ) will almost always be helped by activities that promote self-regulation like sports, arts, or mind-body things like mindfulness and the polyvagal theory. EF skills can be learned and improved with effort, although some zones may be a weak area and you’ll need to work around or find compensation strategies for, eg. Working memory. For those lucky aliens who are just born knowing how to do life and those of us who have to be programmed— I mean taught- to remember to turn our homework in after it’s completed, both categories will lose executive function under stress. This is because EF skills live in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, and when the stress hormones of the amygdala start firing -it knocks out the PFC and you quite literally can’t think straight. A simple everyday example of this is when you are stressed and can’t find your keys. A child with ADHD will feel like this often, and so additional stressors worsen the condition.
So the ability to de-stress is quite literally a priority for survival because when one is stressed it knocks out the PFC (Prefrontal cortex) and the ability to organize plan ahead, etc…. Now if we put this in perspective, these years have been a touch stressful for many of us. The stress can just come from the stressful times we are in which is a sort of global trauma – the global trauma of the pandemic, and wars. Some people are more inclined to stress, some live in more stressful circumstances, and some brain types are more predisposed to higher levels of stress. No matter where you fall on the spectrum – the connection between the amount of stress collectively we have been under and the way that affects PFC and EF, makes it clear that everyone needs to work on their EF skills. And we can easily see that the ability to organize one thoughts and actions is a priority not only for your survival but also for restructuring our greater world to be more harmonious, fair, and inclusive. Now whoever thought doing and turning in one’s homework was a prerequisite to the revolution? Certainly not me when I was a teenager. Because EF weaknesses are tied to stress, the other way to develop them is through practices that reduce stress and increase dopamine: mind-body things, art things, and spiritual pursuits. If you can’t think straight- just know you’re not the only one…. Yet the ability to do so is an absolute priority to start now.
Curious what your EF skills look like? You can take this quiz (Link here)
Short anecdote: Why I have my clients pay me ahead of time. I had a student who had difficulty remembering to put his homework folder in his bag to take to school. We worked on and succeeded in finding out the homework, scheduling it, completing it, and even putting it in the homework folder. But the last step of putting it in his bag he would often forget and leave the folder with the completed work on the desk at home.
This stressed him out considerably. He would get quite frustrated and angry at himself as would his parents. We decided to take all the stress away and instead…. Record a singing alarm on his phone to remind him to put the folder in his bag – one before bed and one before leaving for school. He made up the song and recorded it- put it on his phone and I waited for my phone to start ringing with an angry mom wondering why she was paying me to coach her … teen … son…. to record… songs??!!!! Did I not understand how serious this all was? Exactly. But instead, I got the call that it worked. It has now been 4 straight weeks. It works precisely because the silly song makes it a game, makes it stupid, makes it fun, and just takes all the self-condemning stress and shame out of being a kid with ADHD who forgets stuff. Because when you feel bad you rarely can do anything to make your circumstances better and when you feel stressed it quite literally knocks out your ability to plan.
Good Vibes Homework Club/Good Vibes Life Club
It took me a solid two days of procrastinating to write this article. Why? I was sitting at the computer trying to think about what I could write when there is so much I want to say. Do you know what helped me finally start it? Putting on gospel music for Easter???
As a self-employed person who loves geeking out reading and writing, and feels a giant personal calling to my work, left to my own devices I could potentially not leave my house ever especially now that there is instacart. But the fact is as a person with ADHD, sometimes I am not able to regulate myself. This is why for many of us, I did not write the great American novel during the pandemic because I missed my friends. As a highly sensitive person, I need loads of time alone, I also have boatloads of work always that I do want to do. But there are also times when I can’t work – no matter how much time I have. I get frozen.
Sometimes I’ll do this thing where I have a project to do like writing a blog post, sending out all my invoices, or billing for insurance. I’ll make a pot of coffee, order a pizza and tell myself that I cannot go out until I finish it. And what happens is I can spend a whole day and still not finish it. I see this pattern with my students as well. They literally cannot start it – when they are stuck. Medication won’t help, talking about how to tackle it won’t help. When that happens there is virtually no punishment or reward internal or external that could help. I have found one thing that does, perhaps a little counterintuitively. What I tell my students to do when they are similarly stuck is “Happy first.”
This goes against the idea of coming home to do your homework and then you have the day to go play with your friends. ADHD is exhausting in fact life is exhausting sometimes. so after a day of functioning, they may not have the bandwidth— even though it makes sense- to just crank it out.… Because they can’t exacerbate the bad feeling about themselves or about you and that makes the whole thing worse. Maybe you have a kid like this- maybe you are a kid like this.
Sometimes procrastination is fatigue and sometimes fatigue does not come from working but from lack of energy. So not from expenditure out of energy – but rather the lack of energy coming in. It makes sense when you’re exhausted from being out all day, but it also makes sense when you’re exhausted from being IN all day.
You can’t get the energy to do the task from thin air – especially if it is something that you are already dreading/ fearful of/ daunted by…. The best way to solve the I don’t want to do it energy is to put the reward first- put the happiness first- go to the beach before the bookkeeping, go skateboard before the homework Sometimes the best way to get started is to get in the mood- could be talking to a friend or gain a trusted ally to do it with. I could be lighting some incense and putting on some music. But when that doesn’t work, a full change of environment and stimulus is the only thing that will work. In my case, the auto shop for an oil change and gospel music???
Still no. French cafe breakfast? Yes, why? Combination of the food, the smell of coffee, the other people, that people know and like me here because I spent 3 years here on my Master’s degree, and I’m used to coming here… For all the regular add tricks- multiple stimulations, comfort people, and familiarity/pre-existing programming. When you or your child is well and truly stuck- nothing you can do for yourself to get out of it this is the formula. Try to change the mood with something simple. If that doesn’t work/is still stuck, introduce a stimulating and comforting environment- sites- sound – smell – touch – taste – a good meal always does wonders, good company surrounded with love and appreciation, and a familiar place that has worked before.
It is perhaps a quantum physics fact- but an object in motion stays in motion. An object at rest stays at rest. This is called inertia. Inertia stays in inertia. This is partially just the laws of nature- but in our case, it is also the laws of the time. Try a simple step first, then a more multi-layered approach, then if not just go take a nap/the day off.
You can get energy from nowhere. When trapped in a low-energy vortex try to be happy first. Is your child having a meltdown unpacking her suitcase from the weekend girl scout trip? Are you having a meltdown folding and putting away the laundry? (I mean washing it SHOULD be enough.) Light a candle, put on your jams, talk to a friend, and go for a walk. There is no point beating yourself into submission, it simply will not work Joy at this particular moment is our very best survival tactic.
When you simply just cannot find the energy to do the homework, open the bills, to start chores, when you find yourself scrolling through Instagram, worried about the rising gas prices… know that you are not alone. This is not your fault. Nor is it a weakness, not at all.
I would suggest that it is at least in part a response to the stress of the time, which is considerably worse if you have pre-existing trauma or Executive Function skills weaknesses, in those moments, you must find joy and presence in being alive. Sometimes that means crying it out and smashing a few plates first perhaps, but after that clears, in the most congruent and harmonious of ways, find something that makes you feel good, or at least better.
We’ll get through these moments and the next and next and next stringer together these moments that give us strength courage and hope…
*** Please consult a qualified doctor or mental health practitioner when you need some help. The comments here are intended for information purposes only and not intended to treat or diagnose. ******