The Challenge of Learning Lapses and Missing Memory
It might be the half-completed morning routine.
The favorite book your child could read yesterday, but not today.
The restaurant dinner, "ruined" by a licked plate and a handful of mashed potatoes — table manners that were fine at home, but suddenly absent now.
As we begin to understand that the brain is always connected to behaviors, and that when we are parenting a child with brain-based differences they have behavioral symptoms, what was confusing and frustrating for us starts to finally make more sense. The pieces begin to fall into place around where they might struggle with cognitive skills like executive functioning, abstract thinking, sensory integration and processing pace, and from there we learn how we need to parent differently. But as is the case with all of these brain tasks, there are the obvious ones that our kids struggle with and then some that are not-so-obvious to us, but nonetheless cause our child to struggle on a daily basis.
Learning and memory is one such category of skills.
The ability to learn a concept, rule, or fact — and then remember that item and refer to it in the future — is one of the things daily life requires of us. It is essential to navigating our world. We are required to remember routines, routes, names, schedules, math facts, the sounds certain letters make so we can read, rules in different settings, so on and so forth. The amount of information that we are expected to remember, starting at a very young age, is enormous. So, it should come as no surprise when our children find themselves overwhelmed and “always in trouble” when this kind of recall is expected of them, too, without the recognition that perhaps they do not have the skills to master these memory tasks to the extent expected.
Accept the need to re-teach your child many more times than you ever anticipated.
Neuroscience research shows us that when an individual has a brain that works differently, for any number of reasons, their ability to learn and remember is significantly impacted. We may notice this with our child in school, and in their difficulty learning new concepts, but there are other ways it shows up that we need to recognize. This helps us understand that these lapses are about skill, not will, and from there we can provide accommodations to help our children thrive.
Poor (very poor) short-term memory:
Poor memory with our child can look like an inability to successfully carry out more than single-step directions, even at an age where it would be reasonable to expect them to carry out 2-5 steps in succession. If you give your child a single step or instruction, it is likely that they can hold that direction in their head and do what you’ve asked. If you give them two steps, then they have to work to hold both steps in their head, and also carry out the task. It sounds so simple, but it trips up these kids all the time.
When our child has poor memory, this can look like forgetting the most routine, daily expectations. For example: Maybe the morning schedule in your home never changes, but your child cannot make their way through the steps without constant prompting. Every day is a battle, because they’re not doing what is required of them and you are sure they should have it down by now. This inability is about skill, not will. They require much more support for a longer period of time (think months, sometimes even years) to be able to independently carry out these expected tasks.
Poor memory may also look like forgetting the names of individuals they “should” know by now. I remember being embarrassed when my child would ask our longtime neighbors, “What’s your name?” Or “Who are you?” — because they were people we’ve known for years. She should know them by now. I came to realize that this reflects just how poor her memory is, and that helping the neighbors understand this part of her disability was a more productive place to put my energy.
On and Off Days
Understanding our child has inconsistent performance, meaning they have “on” and “off” days, is essential to our being able to accommodate them successfully. If we cannot learn to accept this about our child, it is the quickest path to burnout as a parent. When they have an “on” day, we are filled with relief that they’re finally “getting it” or “behaving appropriately,” and then when they have an “off” day following this, we’re plunged into frustration and what I call the “behavioral lens pit.” Instead of seeing this “off” day as a symptom of their disability, we see it as “they did it yesterday…they just don’t want to do it today.” Recognizing the “off” day as just that, and remaining flexible so you can accommodate them accordingly, is essential.
Being Able to “Talk the Talk,” but Not “Walk the Walk”
Have you ever experienced a time when your child says one thing, but then goes and does another? When viewed through a behavioral lens, this looks like intentional defiance. You can easily default to the belief that they knew what the expectation or plan was, because they talked to you as though they had complete understanding of what was being discussed. What if their ability to take this information, remember it, and then apply it is so poor that they can’t go and do the very thing you discussed with them, without additional supports? This is extremely common for kids with brain-based differences.
Difficulty Learning from Past Experiences
Our children with neurobehavioral differences have a difficult time holding onto “life lessons learned” in order to apply them to future decision-making. This lagging skill, combined with impulse control issues and an inability to see what’s coming next (a + b = c), both executive functioning skills, results in major challenges when it comes to learning from past experiences and/or traditional approaches to discipline. This is exactly why threat of future consequences tends not to work with these kids. They cannot remember what happened in the previous situation and cannot remember the threat of consequences that resulted, so they are unable to take that forward and apply it to future decision-making.
Cannot Apply Information from One Setting to Another
One of the most baffling learning and memory skills deficits is when our child learns the rules in one setting, but cannot take this information and apply it to a similar setting. For example, say you have clear expectations on how your child behaves at the dinner table in your home. You’ve worked on reinforcing this expectation and your child does well in meeting the expectations, most of the time. You then go to a restaurant or the grandparents’ house for dinner and your child behaves as if they have never learned their dinner table manners. What does this look like from a behavioral lens? It looks like intentionally disrespectful and rude behavior. What if your child cannot take the dinner manners learned at home and apply them to this new setting (grandparents’ dinner table)? This is a common dilemma with kids who have brains that work differently. They need to be retaught information in many ways, due to having difficulty generalizing, seeing the larger context, and making (to us) “obvious” links.
So, what can we, as parents, do to support a child with these lagging cognitive skills? There are endless opportunities for creative accommodations, based on how your unique child’s brain works and the specific environment in which they’re struggling. Here are a few accommodation ideas, specific to learning and memory, to help get you started:
Accept the need to re-teach your child many more times than you ever anticipated (yes, even the most routine and simple tasks).
Provide visual reminders of steps related to a routine or expectation.
Give one step at a time.
Accept that your child has "on" and "off" days.
Anticipate where they may need reminders, and then provide them.
Stop fighting against your child’s inability to “get it,” accept that this is a lagging skill (not will) and that frequent re-teaching is a necessary accommodation.
Take a step back and think about where your child might be missing “obvious” information related to rules and expectations, particularly those taught in one setting that need to carry over to another.
Accept that learning basic information/life skills may take much longer than anticipated.
Help your child make links around causation (what led to what) in your circling back with them, with an understanding that these, too, need to be re-taught many times.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.