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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pre-Employment Transition Services - What Are They and Who Is Eligible?

What are MRC Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS)?
How Could They Help Your Child on an IEP?

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services
Transition Specialist

On July 22, 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into national law. The goal of the act is to help job seekers, including vulnerable populations such as individuals with disabilities, to access education, training, and support services enabling them to be successful in finding and sustaining employment.

In response to this act, Massachusetts developed a comprehensive workforce development plan involving a number of programs and partners including The Vocational Rehabilitation Program which spans across Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) and Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB). One important aspect of this plan is that MRC must spend at least 15% of its Title I budget on pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) for students ages 16 to 22 with disabilities. 

Whereas students historically did not begin involvement with MRC Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services until the age of 18 or until exiting high school, many students on IEPs are now eligible for support at the age of 16 while enrolled in high school. Given that paid employment in high school is a predictor of both college success and adult employment, the opportunity to engage with MRC VR services in high school is an exciting opportunity!

Each Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Office has contracted with local providers in order to offer services benefiting students in the following areas: Job Exploration Counseling; Workplace Readiness Training, Work-Based Learning Experiences; Counseling on Enrollment in Transition or Postsecondary Educational Programs; and Self-Advocacy/Mentoring Instruction. Often these services include activities like interest assessment, worksite tours, "soft skills" training, travel training, and paid internships.

Also, every public high school has an MRC liaison who often has office hours within the school. These liaisons are able to offer many direct services within the school setting including providing group education and attending IEP meetings when appropriate.

Transition services as part of an IEP process are designed to support students developing skills and making progress towards their postsecondary employment goals. However, educators may not be as familiar with employment trends and entry-level work skills as vocational rehabilitation specialists. The opportunity for a student to work with MRC VR counselor in conjunction with their IEP team creates a wonderful opportunity to make progress toward high school completion requirements while simultaneously preparing to become an employable adult.

To learn more about MRC and Pre-Employment Transition Services, please visit the following links:
Students with visual impairments may additionally be interested in Pre-ETS services through Mass Commission for the Blind (MCB) VR services:
About the Author:

Kelley Challen, EdM, CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She also worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. While Ms. Challen has special expertise supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities including students with complex medical needs. She is also co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mindful or Mind Full? Can You and Your Child Be More Present?

Mindfulness Activities For Caretakers and Youth

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Mindfulness is an area of psychology that continues to gain popularity in our culture and in therapeutic practice. By definition, mindfulness is the practice of being conscious or aware of our current state without judgement. That is, focusing our awareness on what is happening in this very moment related to our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. We ignore what was happening in the past and what could happen in the future by being present in this moment. While this seems like a simple concept, in our distracted world of technology and instant gratification this can be difficult to put into practice. Too often we lose sight of the present and our current experiences, as our mind races and analyzes what just happened or what could happen, giving rise to anxiety. 

Research suggests that the benefits of mindfulness include improved emotional regulation by decreasing rumination and improving attentional capabilities. There is also emerging evidence that mindfulness can decrease emotional reactivity which can have a positive impact on interpersonal relationships. Other positive benefits include improvements in sensory processing as well as sensitivity to internal stimuli. 

Below is a list of mindfulness-based activities that can get you and your child started on the journey of being more present in the moment and begin reaping the benefits of a mindfulness practice. For more information or to explore therapeutic options at NESCA that utilize mindfulness strategies please read about our therapeutic services

  • Breathing: Have the child breathe in for three seconds, hold their breath for three seconds, and then breathe out for three seconds. For younger children, the very act of focusing on this activity will ground them to the moment. For older children and teens, there might be more instruction like having the child focus on how the breath feels coming in, holding it in their lungs, and finally blowing out through their nose or mouth. 
  • Seeing the world: Ask the child to spend a minute looking around the room while being silent with the goal of finding things in the room that have never been noticed before. After one minute, the child should be asked to share the most interesting thing that they see now but have not noticed before. 
  • Feeling objects: Provide the child with an object or series of objects and ask them to spend a minute just noticing what the object feels like in their hand. Guiding them to attend to the texture, temperature, size, shape, etc. Afterwards, ask the child to share what they noticed. 
  • Listening: Ring a bell or other chime-like noise that provides a long trailing sound. Ask the child to indicate when they can no longer hear the sound. After the ringing ends, ask the child to listen to any other sound they hear for the next minute. 
  • Emotional acceptance: Young children tend to be more "in the moment" than most when it comes to emotional experience. When a child is expressing an emotion, rather than tell them “You’re okay,” validate their emotional experience and let them know it is okay to be angry, sad, etc. Then follow with asking your child how their body feels when they are in this emotional state. This process can help children to be more in touch with their bodies and begin to recognize how their emotions feel in their body to create greater emotional awareness. 

To learn more about mindfulness and practice techniques, check out:
About the Author:

Dr. Amity Kulis joined NESCA in 2012 after earning her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, with a concentration in Children, Adolescents and Families (CAF). She completed post-doctoral training in pediatric neuropsychology with an emphasis on treating children with developmental, intellectual, learning and executive functioning challenges. She also has extensive training psychological (projective) testing and has conducted individual and group therapies for children of all ages. Before joining NESCA, Dr. Kulis worked in private practices, clinics, and schools, conducting comprehensive assessments on children ranging from toddlers through young adults. In addition, Dr. Kulis has had the opportunity to consult with various school systems, conducting observations of programs, and providing in-service trainings for staff. Dr. Kulis currently conducts neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for school aged children through young adulthood. She regularly participates in transition assessments (focusing on the needs of adolescents as they emerge into adulthood) and has a special interest in working with complex learners that may also struggle with emotional challenges and psychiatric conditions. In addition to administering comprehensive and data driven evaluations, Dr. Kulis regularly conducts school-based observations and participates in school meetings to help share her findings and consultation with a student’s TEAM. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Transition Planning: The Missing Link Between Special Education and Successful Adulthood

What is Transition Planning and Why Does it Matter?

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services
Transition Specialist

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) is the law that guarantees students with disabilities an equal opportunity for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). For professionals and parents supporting youth with special needs, and for the children we love, this is a powerful law. IDEA 2004 guarantees that no matter what a young person's struggles, they have the right to learn and grow and be provided with the specialized instruction necessary for their individual progress.

While many people are aware that IDEA 2004 guarantees the right to special education for academic learning, the concept of "transition services" is still catching on. In addition to requiring that public schools educate our students, IDEA 2004 mandates that special education services are designed to meet a student's unique needs and to prepare them for further education, employment and independent living. According to this influential federal law, it is not enough that students be included in learning core academics (reading, writing, math, science, history). Rather, we are mandated to ensure that students with disabilities make progress toward being able to manage learning, working, and daily living activities in their postsecondary adult lives.

In December, I was excited to see the Huffington Post (see link below) publish an article emphasizing the importance of transition services and the challenges for students both during and after public education if this part of special education is 'forgotten.' The article was written by Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader and published in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. The authors profiled two young people who participated in public special education: Kate and Peter.

Kate's educational program did not include meaningful transition services (e.g., career planning, homework activities) and was primarily driven by parent goals rather than person-centered activities. The initial outcome for Kate after special education was unemployment; after two years, her parents secured work for her using their own personal networks but not in an area of true interest or strength. Kate's father summarized, "It was my absolute goal to have her not fall off the map. It's unfortunate, she kind of has."

Peter, however, was an active participant in his Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. While career testing indicated possible aptitude in food services, Peter wanted to be a Supreme Court justice and his team supported his enrollment in community college courses utilizing his school's dual-enrollment program. With this experiential learning activity, Peter realized he was not interested in college and changed his goal, enrolling instead in vocational technical classes related to office administration. When Peter finished high school, he immediately went to work in an office and continued to full time employment as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit organization.

For so many students with disabilities, experiential learning is a critical component of their development of career, classroom, community living, and home living skills. This is best achieved when students have a collaborative IEP team and good transition services. Butrymowicz and Mader interviewed 100 parents, students, advocates and experts across the country and found that the best transition planning requires several things:

  1. An accurate and thoughtful assessment of a student's abilities and interests
  2. Clear, measurable goals related to his or her postsecondary aspirations
  3. Appropriate support and services to help them achieve their goals

NESCA has provided person-centered transition services since 2009 and this article beautifully captured what we see every day in our work. What I love about being a transition specialist is helping young people to find their voices, to figure out what they love most, and to create small successes that can ultimately build into a meaningful postsecondary adult life. While many parents and educators I work with can find team meetings challenging or stressful, this is often my favorite part of the job -- working collaboratively with the student, parents, educators, and community members to think creatively and build a unique strength-based transition plan.


Butrymowicz, S., and Mader, J. (2017). This 'Forgotten' Part of Special Education Could Lead To Better Outcomes For Students: Many former special education students struggle to find good-paying jobs, and high schools are partly to blame. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/special-education-transition_us_5a341a65e4b0ff955ad2b810 

About the Author:

Kelley Challen, EdM, CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles.  She also worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. While Ms. Challen has special expertise supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities including students with complex medical needs. She is also co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Still Time to Register: Asperger Syndrome and Adult Life - Navigating the Massachusetts Public and Private Supports and Service Systems

Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) is hosting a conference on state and federal benefits for individuals with Asperger Syndrome and related Autism profiles.

 Don't miss this great opportunity!

WHEN: Saturday, January 20, 2018, 8:15am - 4:30pm

WHAT: Asperger Syndrome and Adult Life: Navigating the Massachusetts Public and Private Supports and Service Systems. This is a full day conference for adults with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or related profiles and family members of adults and older teens with AS/related profiles. Learn about available public and private supports to help you or your family member navigate adult life in Massachusetts. You'll gain an overview of all benefit programs and have opportunities to go more in depth on a variety of topics like health insurance, housing, and employment.

HOST: AANE (Asperger/Autism Network)

COST: $90

WHERE: Crowne Plaza, Boston-Newton
320 Washington Street, Newton, MA

Space is limited and this annual conference sells out every year. Please register early to ensure you'll have a seat.

For More Information and Registration Click Here

Monday, January 8, 2018

Thinking About Autism and Neurodiversity

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

On December 2, 2017, several of NESCA's clinical staff had the honor of speaking at The Daniel W. Rosenn Annual AANE Connections Conference with Temple Grandin. Talks included:
We were pleased to be able to share our expertise with more than 500 parents, professionals, and adults with autism. Furthermore, we enjoyed the opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin speak about neurodiversity and the many contributions of neurodiverse individuals to our daily lives. As such, I wanted to share a bit about this topic with you.

Thinking About Autism and Neurodiversity

Without the particular contributions made by people on the spectrum, Temple Grandin says, “we’d still be living in caves and using our social skills to tell each other jokes by firelight.” Dr. Grandin gave an inspiring talk as the keynote speaker at the Autism/Asperger Network’s (AANE) annual conference. One of the main points of her presentation was that anyone capable of making grand and significant contributions to society has to see the world a bit differently. From Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, revolutionary advances have been made by these unique, creative -- but not always well socialized -- individuals. In her case, she had remarkable visualization skills and a unique ability to see how cattle interact with their environment, allowing her to design more humane systems for transporting them in slaughterhouses without creating additional, unnecessary stress. Dr. Grandin's drawings and sketches in the book Thinking in Pictures are truly remarkable.

John Elder Robison made a similar point in his book Switched On (2016) when he talks about his particular gifts in building electronic circuits for musicians. He describes how he could simply intuit how to build circuits to create a particular sound and how he knew immediately if some part of a complex stereo system was not working well. He came to realize that other engineers worked in a more methodical manner, which led him to wonder if his brain is wired differently. Where the neural connections that process social skills might be under-developed in his brain, he suspects he had  stronger connections between his math, sound and visual processing areas, which led to his successful career as an audio engineer for some of the country’s best rock bands – including designing flaming guitars for the band KISS.

In his book, Mr. Robison wondered if he would have traded his gifts to be more "neurotypical" -- if he had had that choice. He recounts being very lonely in middle school and high school, but ponders the relative costs and benefits, both to himself personally as well as society. As he writes: “The world is full of friendly people with no technical skills. The few of us who see into machines like others see into humans are singularly uncommon and we’re valued for that.” These are the type of people who make revolutionary advances. He asks ‘if we could make autistic children more neurotypical, should we?’ “Should we trade friends in 7th grade for designing a working spaceship at age 25?”

This is an important point for those of us who work with, live with and/or love people on the spectrum. In our desire to help them lead more “normal” lives, and avoid the pain of being different, we have to also appreciate their differences, since that difference may be the very thing that leads them to a uniquely satisfying life, and perhaps to invent the next new thing that makes all of our lives better.
To learn more about Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison and Neurodiversity, visit the following links:
About the Author:

Nancy Roosa, Psy.D. has been engaged in providing neuropsychological evaluations for children since 1997. She enjoys working with a range of children, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders, as well as children with attentional issues, executive function deficits, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, or other social, emotional or behavioral problems. Her evaluations are particularly appropriate for children with complex profiles and those whose presentations do not fit neatly into any one diagnostic box. As part of this process, Dr. Roosa is frequently engaged in school visits, IEP Team Meetings, home observations and phone consultations with collateral providers. Dr. Roosa has also consulted with several area schools, either about individual children or about programmatic concerns. She speaks to parent or school groups, upon request.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Neuropsychologist Dr. Benny Lee Joins NESCA's Expert Team


Dr. Benny Lee is a pediatric neuropsychologist who is trained in Health Psychology and has special expertise working with children, adolescents, and young adults with developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders.

Meet Benjamin Lee, Psy.D.:

On December 1, 2017, Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Benny Lee joined NESCA's clinical staff. Dr. Lee earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. He completed an American Psychological Association (APA) accredited internship at the Integrated Health Psychology Training Program, in San Pablo, CA, and then continued to his postdoctoral fellowship at the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital which he recently completed.  

At NESCA, Dr. Lee provides evaluation and treatment services to children and adolescents presenting with a range of attentional, learning, social-emotional, and developmental disabilities. His training includes the assessment of autism spectrum disorders, as well as the growing field of Health Psychology. He anticipates receiving his Massachusetts psychology license in early 2018, and currently provides services under the supervision of licensed psychologists at NESCA.  

Prior to starting his graduate studies, Dr. Lee worked at a therapeutic preschool for under-resourced children in Oakland, CA. In graduate school, his therapeutic work included the treatment and assessment of children, adolescents, and adults. He specialized in autism assessment while at Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research, which included specific training in the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2). 

Dr. Lee is passionate in his work as both an assessment clinician, and also as a therapist. His evaluations and treatment are tailored to each individual, and he approaches all his work in a supportive and kind manner.  

Additionally, Dr. Lee has specialized training in the growing field of Health Psychology, which uses evidence-based practices to encourage behavior change that can improve a person’s health. This can range from managing anxiety or depression symptoms to supporting the behavioral/psychological aspects of chronic medical conditions. He was particularly drawn to health psychology during his doctoral internship year, when he saw significant improvements in his client’s health outcomes after brief interventions using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and related psychological interventions.

Dr. Lee and his wife live locally, and are proud parents of two children. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Understanding Motivation in Children and Teenagers, and Where We Went Wrong

By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist
Director of New Hampshire Operations

As parents and teachers, we hear, and say, these things all the time:

“Why doesn’t he just do it?”

“How many times do I have to ask you?”

“Why don’t you care about your work?”

“She just doesn't have the drive.”

Be it schoolwork, chores, or social events, some kids seemingly just aren’t motivated to do things. We punish. We nag. We fight. But even with all of this, sometimes things do not change.

It is easy to become frustrated, but in this state of frustration, we often forget to ask ourselves why finding motivation is so difficult for the child.

There are two types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is an internal desire or drive to do something based strictly on the resulting feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment. Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards, such as money, good grades, stickers, toys, or other things. Intrinsic motivation has long-lasting effects, while behavior based on extrinsic motivation is fleeting.

Some children seem to develop intrinsic motivation naturally. For other children, we attempt to gain compliance or task completion through extrinsic motivation – behavioral charts, rewards, punishments, etc. Sometimes this works in the short term, but as soon as the rewards or punishments are gone, so is the behavior. Other times, even extrinsic motivation seems absent and behavior still does not change, no matter how big the reward or punishment.

Frustration ensues and we often find ourselves feeling or saying the above things – the child does not have the motivation, therefore the work or task does not get done. But where does this leave us? The adults are defeated, the child feels blamed, and the situation worsens.

So where’d we go wrong?

Our understanding of motivation is often backwards – motivation exists, therefore successful behavior occurs. This is wrong. We are not born inherently knowing how to motivate ourselves. We learn it through successful experiences in the world. So, what really happens is: successful behavior occurs, therefore motivation develops.

Lesson #1: Motivation is the effect, not the cause.
In reversing the relationship, we can now ask ourselves: “What is causing the lack of motivation?” If we are able to identify and address the underlying challenges, the child can begin to experience the successes that are necessary for motivation to develop over time. Further, in accepting that motivation is learned through experience and not inherent, we accept that the term “intrinsic” is somewhat misleading.

Lesson #2: Intrinsic motivation is not naturally intrinsic – it becomes intrinsic after feelings of success are internalized.

By identifying and addressing skills deficits, we can help children to experience more successes and increase their willingness and ability to “try harder.” Academic deficits, attention problems, anxiety, low self-esteem, social challenges, executive function weaknesses, among other things, can all interfere with motivation. Challenges in any one of these areas can, and will, interfere with motivation. As such, motivation is not a single thing. It is a complex skill that can only develop once other, more basic, skills have developed.

Lesson #3: Motivation is not one thing – it is the coordination of many skills.

Now viewing motivation as something that is learned over time as other, more basic, skills develop and a child experiences successes in life, we are better able to develop a plan for how to intervene.

Take home message: All children and teens can be motivated – it is our job to teach them how.

When motivation seems absent or fleeting, we must become detectives, working to figure out what underlying challenges or deficits are present. This may be aided through conversations with the child’s teachers or other support providers. Other times, a comprehensive evaluation may be necessary in order to specifically identify the child’s strengths and challenges, as well as receive individualized recommendations for how to address their needs.

Dr. Currie will be offering a free webinar about motivation and self-regulation this Spring. Stay tuned for sign-up information. 

About the Author:

Dr. Angela Currie conducts neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments out of NESCA’s Londonderry, NH and Newton, MA offices, seeing individuals with a wide range of concerns. She enjoys working with stressed-out children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors that may be lending to their stress, including assessment of possible underlying learning challenges (such as dyslexia or nonverbal learning disability), attentional deficit, or executive function weakness. She also often conducts evaluations with children confronting more primary emotional and anxiety-related challenges, such as generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or depression. Dr. Currie particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.