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Dr. Sheri's Blog


Tips and Tricks for Dealing with Mental Inflexibility

Posted on May 7, 2015 at 1:50 AM Comments comments (289)
In my last blog post I wrote about the concept of mental flexibility, how it relates to executive function (EF), and gave some ideas for strategies you might use when working (or living) with someone who is not very flexible (mentally speaking).

Today I'd like to share my top three tips for a peaceful co-existence with your mentally inflexible student, child, spouse, friend, co-worker, boss, or parent. Please keep in mind that these tips come from my own personal experience, so they may or may not apply in your position. As with everything you read on the Internet - read with care, use what makes sense for you, ignore the rest!

Three Tips for Dealing with Mental Inflexibility

1. The more inflexible the person you are dealing with, the more flexible you must be.
Or, as Yoda might say, "Inflexible he is. Very flexible you must be." The biggest problems occur when a parent (or teacher, or boss) is dealing with someone who has EF deficits that are typified by inflexibility and that parent (teacher, boss, etc.) expects things to be done their way, no questions asked, no exceptions granted. This can be really tough for parents (personal experience here) who have set standards that may need to be put aside (just for awhile). For example, we have always insisted that our boys come to the dinner table properly dressed in a shirt with sleeves (no bare chests and no tank tops). After our son experienced his traumatic brain injury (TBI), we had many, many arguments (which escalated abruptly) about him wanting to wear a tank top to dinner. In retrospect, we had much bigger issues to deal with. We needed to be flexible in some of our demands, with the knowledge that we could always work on the tank top issue at a later date.

2. Keep in mind that anything you say will can, and will, be held against you
I was speaking with an educator recently who shared a story about a young lady with TBI who had been told that she could get a work permit once she attended school every day for a month. The young lady (let's call her Sally), excited to start work, attended every day for a month and then approached her teacher about the work permit. The teacher, aware of other issues in Sally's life that predicated a change in plans, explained to Sally that she would sign the work permit in a week or so, after she had a chance to meet with her transition worker. Sally responded by pointing out that she had come to school for the month, as directed. The teacher explained her reasoning again. Sally (in a significantly louder voice) repeated that she had done what she had been told to do. This went on for a few more minutes, with Sally becoming more angry and unreasonable as the conversation escalated. Finally, Sally said a few inappropriate words, threw a stack of papers on the floor, and stalked out of the classroom. In analyzing this situation, the problem started when the educator told Sally that she would sign the work permit if she attended school every day for a month. As this is a very specific time period, Sally fully expected that she would get her work permit once she kept her part of the bargain. When the teacher couldn't do what she had said she would do - even for very valid reasons - Sally felt as though she had been lied to. Sally's inflexibility in thinking resulted in a situation that quickly escalated out of control. The teacher may have avoided the unpleasant situation by originally stating that she was concerned about Sally's attendance and that they would discuss the work permit again once Sally had attended school regularly for a month. They could have then discussed the work permit and, if nothing else needed to be done, the teacher could have given Sally her permit. However, if there were other considerations, those could have been dealt with at that time.

3. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone who is mentally inflexible is the gift of reflection
Often people who are mentally inflexible will jump to a conclusion, or make a decision, without thinking through all angles, or considering all factors. When this happens, it can be very difficult for them to even consider the possibility that there might be other alternatives. In these situations, it can be helpful to reflect back on what they've decided, "OK, so you've decided that you are going to tell your boss that you're tired of having to clean the back room each Friday." Make sure that you reflect what they have said, and that you are using a respectful, approachable tone (beware of sarcasm as it will close down the conversation pretty quickly, and possibly quite unpleasantly). You might ask the person to imagine what will happen if they go with that idea (this might be a good time to talk about intended and unintended consequences). Then ask if you might help with thinking of some other ideas that could work as well. I've used the line, "That might be the best idea, but what if we try and think of three other ideas that could also work?" I've found that writing the ideas down can help in keeping things straight. A whiteboard is great for this, and can be a fun alternative to paper and pencil.

I know that it can be a challenge to remain calm and focused when you are trying to help someone else become more flexible in their thinking. What I've learned to do is to be as flexible as possible myself in as many situations as I can. I have to ask myself often, "Is this my hill to die on?" If the answer is no, then I have to let it go. Believe me, there are some situations that are not negotiable (wearing a seat belt in the car, for instance), but because those situations are few and far between, I've found that compliance is much more consistent (and less painful).

The good news is that the use of great strategies, like those you'll find in FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, can help a person become more mentally flexible. The strategies shared in the book can minimize conflict and maximize effectiveness, when working or living with someone who struggles in the area of executive functioning. Next week, check back for some strategies for dealing with someone who tends to be overly emotional. Until then, stay flexible!

Help Me!! I'm Surrounded by Chaos!!

Posted on April 27, 2015 at 4:52 PM Comments comments (56)

Do you work with a student, have a child, or live with someone who is disorganized, inflexible, impulsive, and who struggles with planning and problem solving?  Did you know that these traits fall into a category of skills called executive functions? Your student, child, or significant other may find it difficult to achieve in school, follow through with responsibilities at home, and/or interact appropriately in work and community settings – not because of a lack of effort or desire to do well but due to a lack of executive function (EF) skills.

One easy way to remember some of the major components of executive function is to think of the acronym FLIPP: Flexibility, Leveled emotionality, Impulse control, Planning/organizing, and Problem solving (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015):
·      Flexibility:  The ability to change your mind and make changes to your plans as needed.
·      Leveled Emotionality:  The ability to emotionally self-regulate and avoid extensive mood swings
·      Impulse Control:  The ability to control your impulses, such as waiting to speak when called upon.
·      Planning/Organizing:  The ability to make plans and keep track of time and materials so that work is finished on time.
·      Problem Solving:  The ability to know when there is a problem that needs to be solved, generate solutions, select one, and evaluate the outcome.

Executive function deficits can negatively impact success at school, home, the community, and work.  Although many educators associate deficits in EF skills with students on the autism spectrum, the reality is that many young people struggle with executive functioning. In fact, it is accurate to say that all young people are learning EF as these skills are not fully developed until people are well into their twenties. In addition, several clinical conditions, such as attention deficit disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, intellectual disability, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social communication disorder, specific learning disability, Tourette syndrome, and traumatic brain injury are often understood to include a component of EF deficits. Furthermore, individuals with diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia may also exhibit deficits in the area of executive function.

The bottom line is that many of the individuals with whom we interact on a daily basis may lack fully developed executive function skills. The good news is that there are some very easy-to-use strategies that can go a long way toward minimizing conflict and maximizing success in dealing with someone who struggles with EF. Tune in tomorrow for ideas to help with mental flexibility.

Going Even Deeper Down Under

Posted on February 12, 2015 at 5:10 AM Comments comments (54)

Well, I'm in Darwin for the night, after flying on a single engine plane in and out of a very small town in the Australian bush. I've spent two days there in the school, flying back each evening to a larger town (large, as in, over 100 residents). I hardly slept the night before my first flight, but I soon found that I'm not frightened and, in fact, the views are amazing!

My new school is small (around 25 students, K-7th grade) and in a community sheltered by an amazing escarpment, with picturesque waterfalls and rough-hewn walls. The town is made up of one extended family, which causes some problems with the students at school who bring their arguments and disagreements with them.
The students at this school speak English quite well (in fact, they are very adept at producing some very common English swear words), and their literacy skills are a little bit higher than what I experienced last week. However, their behavior is unbelievable. They kick, hit, bite, throw things at each other, scream, yell, and call each other names. They do not hesitate in the least if there is an adult around (a kindergarten student actually hit the substitute teacher this afternoon). Getting them to sit, focus, and work is exhausting!
Luckily, this community has been blessed with an amazing principal, who could be working at Stanford University, but who has, instead, chosen to spend the last years before retirement in making a difference in these children's lives. She has taught in Australia, Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. She is Montessori trained and is open to trying new techniques to help the students learn. She and her husband, a retired chemist, live in a small flat attached to the school. She has only been there six months, but her influence is already being felt. She expects a lot out of the students, and, for the most part, they do what she asks. I'm enjoying working with her immensely; although she has such a wealth of experience, she is still incredibly humble and willing to learn and try new things.

Tomorrow morning I'm back in my charter plan and off to my little town to spend another day supporting the students and educators there. However, tonight I'm enjoying a comfy hotel room, having thoroughly appreciated a nice salad and glass of wine, while waiting for all my clothing to run through the laundry facilities in the hotel. It's amazing how little things take on so much more meaning when one experiences live with so much less!
As the Aussies say, "Cheers and G'day!"

Buffalo and horses on the way out of town

The school and school children on the approach to the airstrip

Implementation of School-Wide PBIS

Posted on June 30, 2014 at 4:52 PM Comments comments (33)
School-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) is a systems change effort that focuses on improving school climate through the implementation of evidence-based practices in the area of behavior.

SWPBIS is characterized by six defining characteristics:
  • It is preventive in nature
  • It is designed to have an instructional orientation
  • There is a focus on cultural responsiveness
  • Behavior is viewed as function-based
  • There is a systems implementation focus
  • It is evidence-based (and evidence-based practices are used)

When SWPBIS is implemented in a school, with fidelity, one should be able to observe the following features:
  • over 80% of the student can state the expectations and give behavioral examples because the expectations have been taught, practiced, and acknowledged
  • positive adult-to-student interactions exceed negative interactions
  • the foundation for addressing problem behavior is function-based
  • data- and team-based action planning and implementation are apparent
  • there is active participation by site and district administrators
  • all students are provided with a full continuum of behavior support (not just students in special education)

Schools and districts that are interested in implementing SWPBIS need to understand that efforts to change the culture of a school will require true commitment and time. Sending teachers to a one-day inservice on behavior, or having a consultant come in and do a one-day training on behavior, will not result in sustainable change. It is important to understand implementation science and use this knowledge in designing professional learning experiences that will result in true systems change.

When training schools in SWPBIS, we focus on the following eight implementation steps:
  1. Development of an implementation team
  2. Development of a brief, positively stated, statement of behavioral purpose
  3. Identification of 3-5 positive school-wide behavioral expectations
  4. Development of procedures for teaching the school-wide expectations
  5. Development of procedures for teaching classroom-wide expectations
  6. Development of a continuum of procedures for encouraging and strengthening student use of school-wide behavioral expectations
  7. Development of a continuum of procedures for discouraging student behavioral violations
  8. Development of data-based procedures for monitoring the implementation of SWPBIS

Over the summer I plan on spending more time blogging on each of these eight steps.

If you are interested in receiving training in PBIS for your school or district, please contact me at [email protected]
You can get more information about PBIS at the following sites:

The Top 10 Reasons Why Schools Should Implement PBIS

Posted on June 6, 2014 at 5:03 PM Comments comments (141)
Next week I'm going to be working with the California Technical Assistance Center on PBIS to support a group of PBIS trainers in San Bernardino County. This dynamic and dedicated group of individuals are committed to bringing PBIS training to schools throughout San Bernardino County. I'm excited and honored to work with the group and thrilled to see more schools implementing PBIS. As the 2013-14 school year winds down, I thought I'd share my thoughts on why schools should implement PBIS. So, here are my Top Ten Reasons Why Schools Should Implement PBIS:
10. All kids deserve to attend a school at which they feel accepted and appreciated.
9. Discipline systems based on punishment do not change behavior, they simply make kids more determined not to get caught.
8. Discipline systems that focus on punishment actually reinforce negative behaviors because the students have to engage in the behavior before anything happens to them. Thus, any social reinforcement they will receive for the behavior has already occurred prior to the punishment. It's a classic case of "too little too late."
7. Students who behave appropriately should be recognized for their positive behavior.
6. For some students, the only positive environment in their lives is the school.
5. Relationships are the most powerful weapon we have in the war against bullying, suicide, drop-outs, etc. Children need to feel connected to at least one adult, and often that one adult is someone at the school.
4. A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is the most efficient and effective way of preventing problems - behaviorally, socially, and academically.
3. Teachers and other staff members who work at PBIS schools report less stress and more enjoyment in coming to work.
2. It isn't that difficult to make school fun, and the rewards are immeasurable.
1. It's just the right thing to do! Really!

Exclusionary practices such as suspension and expulsion do not change behavior and serve to further alienate students who already feel as though they are not part of the system. We need to spend our time, energy, and resources developing positive school cultures that encourage pro-social behavior, discourage anti-social behavior, and reduce bullying, truancy, and drop-outs. 

To learn more about PBIS, and find out how you can receive training in PBIS, check out the following websites:

Please feel free to contact me if you'd like more information about PBIS, or if you'd like to learn more about how your school can become a PBIS school.

Building Positive School Climate Part III

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 11:56 PM Comments comments (18)
In my last two blogs I've reviewed the first two guiding principles included in the USDE document, Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline (2014). If you haven't had a chance to check out my first two blogs on the first two guiding principles, please do so. Today I'm trying something different (yet again). I've recorded a short video which can be viewed by clicking below. If you are viewing from an educational facility that blocks YouTube, click HERE.

Exciting News for February!

During the month of February, Carol Burmeister and I will be collaborating on a series on executive function. Did you know that many students suffer from executive function (EF) deficits? Did you know that poor planning skills, ineffective problem solving skills, a lack of flexibility, poor impulse control, and a tendency toward emotional outbursts can all be symptoms of poor executive functioning? Each week during the month of February, Carol and I will be sharing information about executive function and readers will have the opportunity to download a how-to guide for one evidence-based, highly effective strategy for working with individuals with EF deficits following each blog post. These strategies are ones that will be included in our book, FLIPP the Switch: Powerful Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function Skills, which will be published by AAPC in summer of 2014. However, readers of this blog will not have to wait until next summer to experience the benefit of implementing these strategies. Beginning next Friday, one strategy will be highlighted each week and complete instructions and templates will be made available in PDF format.

Building Positive School Climate, Part II

Posted on January 24, 2014 at 10:22 PM Comments comments (67)
I'm trying something new for my blog today. I'm going to focus on the second of the three guiding principles that are included in the USDE resource guide and I've developed a Prezi with audio to do so. Please click on the link, press the "play" button on the bottom left of the presentation screen, turn up your speakers, and then let me know how you like the format.
Have a great day!