Deborah Reber is a parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author and founder of TiLT Parenting, a podcast series and online community. The TiLT Parenting Podcast is in the iTunes top 20 in Kids & Family New and Noteworthy, and regularly features high-profile parenting experts and educators, as well as insightful conversations between Debbie and her 14-year-old son Asher. Debbie’s book DIFFERENTLY WIRED: Raising an Extraordinary Child in a Conventional World, was published with Workman in June 2018.
WEG is proud to present a conversation with this inspiring thought-leader – on topics ranging from effective advocacy and educational approaches, to self-care and embracing your own neurodiversity.
The 9th Annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference is focusing attention on successfully launching differently wired kids at every major stage. We’re all excited to hear your keynote address this year. What does that term “launching” mean to you?
I think a lot about launching in terms of zooming out with our kids, because when you are in the thick of it, we can get hung up on timelines and where they are with their peers.
And what we’re really trying to do is raise a human being. So, really looking at what it takes to create kids that are self-directed and understand their strengths and weaknesses, when they are ready to pursue their own goals. As parents we can be asking ourselves at each age and stage, “What does my child need? How can I help my child build those critical executive functioning skills?”
Launching is also about letting them fail to some extent. You know, going to school without their coat or homework done and paying the price, letting them figure some stuff out on their own. Giving kids room to be uncomfortable, not doing everything for them, so they can build resilience.
As a parent, I’ve highlighted and dog-eared your book like mad. Something I wish I learned faster was to find my people, and ditch the rest. How can parents get to a place of acceptance faster?
I was talking with a group of parents and they were saying, “We need to get t-shirts made that say, ‘My son has an IEP’ so we can find each other on the playground.” You just know that people in the pick-up line are struggling with the very same things as you are, but many people keep it private.
I think a big responsibility, and something easy that we can do, is just be more open. The more we talk about neurodiversity and normalize it instead of thinking it is a bad thing, the better. Bring it out in the open. That’s a powerful action that each one of us can take. I say this in my book, you don’t have to get a megaphone and announce to everyone, but there is something to be said for being very open.
Also, we all need those people who are further down the road. I’ve been thinking about how great it would be to have a mentor program of sorts for parents of differently wired children. It could be very powerful.
I love your idea of “practicing relentless self-care.” Why is this so critically important when parenting a differently wired kid?
I hear from many people on this one - some dads, but mostly moms. I call it being selfish, and I don’t apologize. I take my time, because I cannot show up for my son if I am stressed out. My husband can tell the difference if I haven’t had been running for a few days, and sends me out the door. The more you practice self-care and you create what you need, it just becomes something you cannot do without.
For so many reasons, self-care helps to remind you of your own importance when you are doing so many things for other people. It is also modeling for our kids. You show your child that your personal needs and feelings matter. In a sense, taking some “me time” is demonstrating to your child that your life and your body are yours to take care of. It is a great way for kids to grow up, knowing they have value. If we don’t take that time, there’s really no good that can come from it. They don’t get the best of us if we are not taking that time.
For many parents who are very intentionally raising a differently wired child, I’d suggest that one of the worst aspects of the traditional education model is fear of the unknown. There are those 8 hours of the day when we’re not sure what is really going on. You ultimately chose homeschooling for your son, but for those of us with kids in the “system” – what would you suggest we do to feel more informed and connected?
I’m interested in this idea of compassionately educating people. With the school system, I think you’ve got to go in the spirit of trying to design an alliance and not have an adversarial relationship. Keep pushing for partnership and being respectful.
If you can go into a school meeting with a firm but softer voice and not be defensive, it changes the tone of the whole meeting. I know that isn’t always easy stuff to do, especially when things are not going well at school, and believe me, I have been there. But I think you’ve got try to go in with the position that your teacher has the best interests of your child a heart - start there, and then try to design a plan for your child in collaboration.
You strongly advocate for parents to find their voice and “make a ruckus when you need to.” What can parents do when they need to speak truth to power?
Just in the last year since publishing my book, I’ve realized that some people can have a knee-jerk reaction. People can feel uncomfortable when we bring attention to the challenges our kids are having, and maybe that’s because they are feeling that these systemic problems are on them to solve. And in other instances, people can shut down and just not listen because they think we’re just complaining or that what we’re talking about isn’t relevant to their own lives and families.
The more we can give people the benefit of the doubt, recognize where other people are, and have that respectful tone as opposed of going in with our fists up, the better. That can still allow us to make a ruckus but from a place of truth, knowing and compassion.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Most parents of neurodiverse kids have their own struggles, diagnosed or not. Some days, who we are can get in the way of being a great parent. How can we address our own brain wiring so we can be better parents?
I’m having a podcast just to discuss this very thing! Many parents are discovering their own neurodivergence in the process of discovering more about their child. For some people, it is really traumatic because they are connecting all these dots from their childhood that caused them pain or recalling people who mistreated them.
That same thing has happened in our own family. I think its actually great because these are the conversations, we should be happening around the dinner table. I say, make it part of everyday conversation. This is our family, this is who we are, and we’re all working on things. Try asking your child for advice, “What have you found that works?” Or share something tricky that happened to you at work, and talk about how you dealt with it.
So many people have gone through life thinking they just didn’t fit in, or they were the “weirdos.” They were misunderstood because of their neurodivergence. I think now there can be some fun ownership that can be really empowering to say, “Yes that tie has to perfectly straight or I’m just not going to wear it!” As an adult, knowing who you are and owning it can be a great lesson for your child. Being able to say, “There’s a reason I am this way, there is nothing wrong with it, and I’m just going to go all in.”
You state in your book that the traditional educational model in the U.S. is a broken system that was “initially designed to teach compliant, neurotypical students who learn in a very specific way.” It seems that the number of children who are outside that mold is rapidly increasing, and yet our education systems change at a glacial pace. Are you seeing any trends in education that give you some hope?
Generally speaking, there seems to be more understanding and a desire to meet the needs of unique learners. The nonviolent communication model and whole child approach really serve differently wired students well because they respect every individual for who they are.
We are starting to see more schools where kids can have a more individualized approach, where they are not being held up to some identical standard, but rather they can access the learning through their strengths. That is certainly the direction where differently wired kids thrive, so it would be great if all schools could do more of that.
As parents, we need to de-tangle ourselves from feeling that our job is to fit our differently wired child into a traditional education model, to not make noise and just somehow push them through.
And even if you are in a traditional school system, parents can think about how to build in more learning through supplemental activities that really play on their child’s strengths. We can help keep that love of learning alive and they can discover who they are, even if we are in a system that doesn’t naturally do that.
Through your popular podcast series, you’ve interviewed so many experts. Can you share any people who remain on your ‘bucket list’ for interviews?
When I launched TiLT Parenting in 2016, I had a dream list of guests, and I’ve been really fortunate to have interviewed most of them, but there are always a few I’m working on. Andrew Solomon (author of Far From the Tree) and I have been trading emails for a year now, and he was once actually scheduled and then couldn’t make it, so he’s high on my list. I’d love to have Carol Dwek on to talk about mindsets, and I would love to have Susan Kane on to talk about introverts. And I’d love to talk with Brene Brown at some point!
Silver Spring, Maryland, October 4, 2018- The Siena School held its annual Siena Celebration on October 3rd, 2018 at the Silver Spring Civic Center in Maryland. Each year, the Siena community comes together to celebrate school achievements and to recognize important contributions to both Siena and the wider field of dyslexia education.
Annually, one individual or organization is awarded The Siena Cypress Leadership Award for significant and lasting contributions to the education of children and young adults with learning differences. Siena awarded this year’s Cypress Leadership Award to the Weinfeld Education Group, who have assisted thousands of families in the Special Education process and school locating services. They have authored numerous articles and 10 books including Take Control of Dyslexia & Other Reading Difficulties, and Smart Kids with Learning Difficulties, Second Edition (both which featured The Siena School). They are also hosting the 9th Annual Diamonds in the Rough Conference in April of 2019, which educates Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. parents and professionals about the needs of students with special needs and introduces them to the myriad of outstanding special needs providers in this area.
Erik Heyer, founder of The Siena School, presented the Weinfeld Education Group with the Cypress Leadership Award. Heyer said that, “Rich Weinfeld is one of the top experts locally and nationally on students who learn differently. He is a tireless and tenacious advocate for quality educational programs for all students.” Heyer shared that Weinfeld was one of the first persons he met with to determine what type of school was needed in the area. “Rich was supremely optimistic. He was an absolute cheerleader.”
Rich Weinfeld accepted the Cypress Leadership Award on behalf of the Weinfeld Educational Group. Addressing the crowd, Weinfeld stressed he shares the award with associate director Jennifer Engel Fisher and WEG's extended team of advocates, and recalled with fondness those early meetings to conceptualize “a school for smart kids that learn differently.” In closing, Weinfeld said, “WEG’s mission is to have each child reach their unique potential, and we cannot achieve that mission without outstanding schools. Siena does things the right way. "It’s never about filling seats or getting enough kids in, but getting the right kids in who they can really help.”
Key supporters Ellen O’Neill, Dan Griffin, and Henry Allen were also honored for their contributions to The Siena School. O’Neill, a former Siena parent and Executive Director of the Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center, provides professional development opportunities tailor-made to Siena’s faculty and mission; she also serves on the board of The Siena School Scholarship Fund. Griffin, a former Siena parent and DMV area psychologist, has been a great supporter and consultant for Siena for many years. Allen, Pulitzer Prize winner for Criticism of Photography in the year 2000 and writer at The Washington Post, visits Siena each year to talk with students about writing and poetry.
About The Siena School
The Siena School in Silver Spring, Maryland serves bright, college-bound students with language-based learning differences, such as dyslexia. Siena’s staff and board of advisors include distinguished national, state and local education leaders and professionals. The school was established in 2006 and serves students in grades 4–12. Siena’s program is designed for students with mild to moderate learning needs who are experiencing a discrepancy between their academic achievement and intellectual abilities in one or more areas such as reading, writing, oral expression or math. Siena delivers an individualized educational program featuring small class sizes, research-based instructional methodologies, a highly trained staff and an educational environment specifically designed to meet the unique needs of our students, with a specific emphasis on the arts. For further information, The Siena School can be contacted on the web at www.thesienaschool.org.
Prior to launching TiLT, Debbie spent fifteen years writing inspiring books for women and teens. In doing so, she built a successful brand as a teen authority, was frequently interviewed and spoke about issues like media literacy, self-esteem, and confidence, and consulted for clients including the Girl Scouts, the Disney Channel, McGraw Hill, and Kaplan.
Debbie is no stranger to writing and publishing books. Since 1999, she’s authored many books, including Doable: The Girls’ Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything, Language of Love, Chill: Stress-Reducing Techniques for a More Balanced, Peaceful You, In Their Shoes: Extraordinary Women Describe Their Amazing Careers, the teen self-help series Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: The Real Deal, Run for Your Life: A Book for Beginning Women Runners, and more than a dozen preschool books based on the series Blue’s Clues. In 2008, she had the privilege of creating and editing the first-ever series of teen-authored memoirs with HCI Books, Louder Than Words.
Before becoming a writer and coach, Debbie worked in TV and video production, producing documentaries and PSAs for CARE and UNICEF, working on Blue’s Clues for Nickelodeon in New York, and developing original series for Cartoon Network in Los Angeles. She has an MA in Media Studies from the New School for Social Research and a BA in Communications from Pennsylvania State University.
In the summer of 2013, Debbie moved from Seattle to Amsterdam, where she currently lives with her husband Derin, homeschools her 13-year-old son Asher, and serves as lap-of-choice for her mischievous cat, Alex. She is an avid runner, traveler, and hiker, and claims reality shows and Twizzlers as her guiltiest of pleasures.
Their challenges are many. But for the parents who love them, their challenges are just as hard. They’re the parents frequently fielding emails from frustrated teachers and dealing with glares when their children behave inappropriately in public. They’re the exhausted moms and dads pushed into nonstop advocacy mode, the ones whose kids people think twice about inviting to their child’s birthday party. They’re overwhelmed, misunderstood, and isolated, which is ironic considering their kids are in every classroom across the country. Debbie knows this because she is one of these parents.
Differently Wired lays out a new vision for not only redefining the way neurodiversity is perceived in the world, but shifting the parenting paradigm so parents raising extraordinary kids can do so from a place of peace, joy, and most importantly, choice.
Each chapter in the book centers on one big tangible idea—or as Debbie calls them, “Tilts”—that will shift parents’ thinking and actions in a way that will change not only the family dynamic, but will allow for these unique children to fully realize their best selves. By making these shifts, parents everywhere will be rejecting what’s broken in the status quo. And that leads to moving the world closer to a place where difference is genuinely seen and valued.
“Differently Wired will help parents of children who think differently to accept their child for who they are and facilitate their successful development.” — Dr. Temple Grandin
Rich Weinfeld was warned about the quirky student coming into his fourth-grade class.
Her handwriting was sloppy, the third-grade teacher told him. Her sentences ran on and on. She used no punctuation. No capitalization. In short, the teacher concluded, she couldn't write.
Some educators might have been disappointed, anticipating the remedial work that lay ahead. But Weinfeld was intrigued and did something Mary White's third-grade teacher apparently never attempted: He actually tried to read the 8-year-old's prose—not concentrating on her mechanics or her handwriting, which Weinfeld admits was “a mess,” but on her ideas. And he was astonished.
“I knew she was gifted, and that's what I focused on,” says Weinfeld, then a teacher in Bethesda, MD.
Under Weinfeld's tutelage, Mary bloomed.
That was 35 years ago, before anyone had heard the words “twice exceptional.”
“If she had proceeded to have teachers like her third-grade teacher, she would have stopped writing,” Weinfeld says.
Mary White, now in her early 40s, has vivid memories of that difficult time. Her parents, both researchers at the National Institutes of Health, were going through a divorce, and she felt lost at school. She says Weinfeld “was the first teacher who really talked to me, who really communicated with me.” Regarding her depression and a learning disability that made organization (and tidy handwriting) difficult for her, she said Weinfeld “didn't care. He looked right past it.”
White now lives in Belleview, Wash.
Not coincidentally, she is a special education teacher for middle school students. Along the way, she graduated magna cum laude, with a major in literature and philosophy, from Beloit College in Wisconsin. She became a lawyer, worked in civil rights, criminal defense, and legal services for the mentally ill, and then returned to college for a master's degree in education. Now she's come full circle, in a sense, by returning to the classroom.
Along the way, the girl who couldn't write received the Hart Crane Memorial Award for poetry. She e-mailed Weinfeld recently to thank him, telling him about her multiple careers and asking for advice on how to teach students, some of whom are not so different from herself.
“How do we help them deliver their gifts to the world?” she asks. “Personally, to me, that's the question.”
American School Board Journal - www.asbj.com - March 2010
Michael, let’s start with you. As a special education attorney, how big a deal is the Endrew F. decision?
Michael: Endrew F. is potentially the most important special education decision that a court in the United States has come down with since the law passed in 1975. It is a real game changer, it you really get into what the Court is saying. Endrew F. is coming up on its first anniversary on March 22, and it all depends on people understanding it and implementing it.
In 1982, the Supreme Court interpreted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the first time. In Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley the Court found that in order to be appropriate, education under the IDEA must be "sufficient to confer some educational benefit" or provide a "basic floor of opportunity.” In Endrew F. the Court redefines the Rowley standards; I don’t agree with what some say that it doesn’t change much.
The Supreme Court states right in the decision that this is a markedly more demanding standard. And the Court doesn’t just do that if it isn’t important. We have to remember that Endrew F. was a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court, with the decision written by the Chief Justice. That in and of itself is important, because when something is that clear, and written as well as it was by Chief Justice Roberts, we should take it very seriously.
What about this expectation of “meaningful progress”? Did the Court define that?
Michael: Yes and no. Most lawyers answer questions that way, I’m afraid. “Meaningful” means different things to different people. “Progress” is the important word here. In the early 1980’s, some courts used terms like “meaningful benefit” and it is hard to measure. Obviously, it’s a very subjective standard. By rephrasing it as “progress” we can really translate it into something that is measured. Because the Court said, they wouldn’t pass the law if they weren’t going to shoot for progress. When IEP teams sit down to measure goals, progress can be measured by a reading level, or by a student doing something 4 out of 6 times. You can measure “progress” much more than you can measure “benefit.” We just need more people to understand that.
Now on to the application of Endrew F., how does this decision impact IEP meetings?
Rich: We have clear guidance from the Supreme Court that we are to look at each unique individual, and we have the ability to develop an understanding of both their challenges and their strengths and write measurable goals that are in line with what they are capable of achieving according to their potential. And a hallmark of this case, from an advocate’s view, is that we must expect measurable progress for each child. It’s important to call upon school officials to carefully deliberate about what goes into an IEP, to have cogent reasons for their decisions, and to treat parents as full partners in the process.
You mentioned potential, how important is that word in the Endrew F. decision?
Rich: Advocates and educators have been talking about helping kids realize their potential since I started teaching 43 years ago, and probably before. But it always sounded a little “pie in the sky” or an unattainable goal. And schools had guidance from previous Supreme Court decisions that they really weren’t expected to give these students the best education, they were just tasked with giving an “appropriate education.” But, now the Supreme Court has used the word “potential.” And that was very important to me as an advocate. The Supreme Court said, in order to understand if a child is making meaningful progress, you have to understand the child’s potential. So, the progress that is expected of each child is individualized and it is related to their unique potential.
Let’s talk about these IEP goals. The Court says they need to be “reasonably ambitious.” How should schools and parents approach this standard?
Rich: The first step in setting goals is to have very carefully crafted present levels. We need to know where the child is functioning right now, both in terms of their strengths and their challenges. We establish present levels by, first, having very good and detailed formal assessments. We gather data from teachers in terms of what is happening in the classroom and how the child is doing on school-based assessments, and we gather data from parents about what the child can create when the teacher is not there and they are working on their own. If we do that right, and we pull all that data together, we get a good idea of where the child is presently functioning. And then secondly, we know what the child’s potential is, and then we can set a reasonably ambitious goal. And then when we are creating an annual goal, we can project where should we reasonably expect the child to be in a year’s time.
Rich, you’ve said if IEP goals are just copied over year after year, they show a lack of progress.
Rich: Exactly. That was really the issue with Endrew F., that schools were repeating the same or similar goals, year after year. And that is an indication that nothing or very little was being achieved, because the same goal was needed the next year. So, if you are seeing the same goals on the IEP two years in a row, it is an indication that your child is not achieving or the goal is not right. Someone needs to take a careful look to write a goal that is really centered with the new present levels your child has achieved at the end of the previous year.
Parents should understand where the goal came from, and it comes exactly from the present levels. So, for example, knowing that a child is reading on a second-grade level in terms of their decoding, then we know that next year, we want them to progress to a third-grade level and based on their potential, maybe we set that goal even higher. But those goals should be a meaningful target and it should be understandable to the parents.
The other part of the goal that is very important are the “givens” of the goal. Say for example, “We know that kids can learn to decode words if given evidence-based interventions, provided with fidelity.” It’s very important to write those type of words right in the goal so we know what is to happen. And the parents can then reasonably expect the schools to tell them during the year, what is the methodology, how do they know it’s evidence-based, how it is being delivered with fidelity, in terms of how often and for how much time. Without that kind of specific language in the goal, parents don’t have much to stand on in terms of knowing what exactly is being done in school.
Okay, guys, looking ahead, does Endrew F. give families with special education students what we need, or is there more to be done?
Rich: It gives us a direction and it gives us a lot of optimism for the future in terms of the language in the decision, using words like “potential” and “unique child” and stressing the importance of parent involvement. It is very clear about the direction we are heading. Now we want to see how it is interpreted. We want to see how individual courts will interpret it, how school districts will interpret it, and that’s just starting. Initially we heard some school districts say, ‘Oh there’s nothing really new here.” But we think there’s a lot new in this decision, and it really changes the standard. And we’re starting to see court decisions that support that.
Michael: It moves the ball down the field. It is, to use that word again, progress. More certainly has to done for sure. First off, people need to really understand the Endrew F. decision. People need to get into the mindset of what the Court is doing. The important battle ground in the IDEA now, is not the court, or the due process hearing, it’s back to the IEP table. The IEP meetings are more important than ever. That’s where people are going to have to understand what this decision calls for.
Parents should pick up certain words out of the decision. Besides talking about “progress” – which is a whole new way of looking at it, the other words out of Endrew F. are words like “challenging” and “ambitious.” Those are words that the Supreme Court now uses to define the kinds of goals that people with an educational disability should be given. We never had that before, and it sets a higher standard. The school system side of the IEP table, if they didn’t get it themselves, should be reminded by the parents, “The Supreme Court says we should be ambitious, and that goals should be challenging. How are these IEP goals challenging my child?”
Last question. How do parents know when they need an advocate or a special education attorney?
Michael: When you are coming away from a meeting at the school or certainly an IEP meeting, and you just don’t feel good about the education that your son or your daughter is about to get, based on what you just heard, you should talk to somebody. It becomes pretty clear. You are talking about the most important thing that a parent does, which is raise their children. I’d also say, if you feel like you need someone’s help, don’t wait. You never get those days back.
Rich: There are probably two points that may dissuade a parent from bringing in an advocate. First, parents may be afraid that if they bring someone with them to the meeting, it may cause discord between the parent and school. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our focus is on collaboration. We think we can achieve great things for kids while still being respectful. And secondly, to be frank, parents don’t bring advocates because of the expense. But, we are committed to serving everybody, and we have a sliding scale so that no parent needs to feel that they can’t have a professional with them to help articulate the needs of their child.
We believe special education consultants or advocates are really valuable at any time during the process. They can help communicate the child’s needs, define what should be in the goals and present levels, and outline what should be in the accommodations. And also, an advocate can help remind the schools of these new Supreme Court standards that we’re talking about and making sure the IEP teams are cognizant of setting the bar higher. It’s all about realizing the unique potential of the child.
Attorney Michael j. Eig is the founder and owner of the firm Michael J. Eig and Associates, PC. Special education advocate Rich Weinfeld is the director and founder of the Weinfeld Education Group, LLC.
The two experts are frequent collaborators, including the presentation “To Infinity and Beyond: The Rediscovery of Potential in Endrew F.” at the 2018 Diamonds in the Rough Conference.
2018 Diamonds in the Rough Conference welcomes our featured speaker, Dr. Joyce Cooper-Kahn, author of the ground-breaking Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning. WEG is proud to present a conversation with Dr. Cooper-Kahn on current understanding of these critical life skills, the schools’ role in addressing them, and the obstacles that children and teens still face.
Q. Dr. Cooper-Kahn, I’d like to start with a simple question. What are executive functioning skills and how do they impact children and teens?
It’s easier to describe than to truly understand, but executive functioning is an umbrella term for the processes and skills that allow us to manage ourselves and our resources in the service of a goal. Executive functioning is critical to the development of mental control, as well as emotional and behavioral regulation.
Q. You are serving a dual role this year at the Diamonds in the Rough Conference, providing an in-depth training on March 9 and serving as the conference keynote speaker on March 10. What can attendees look forward to in both of these presentations?
The Saturday keynote will focus on what we know that helps kids with executive functioning and what gets in the way of good intervention. The focus will be on the sorts of interventions that can easily be incorporated into the general education classroom and that meet the needs of most of the kids with executive functioning delays. With just a little bit of tweaking of the typical classroom, we can meet the needs of about80 percent of the kids with executive functioning delays.
We’re also going to talk about what gets in the way of intervention and why this happens. I am planning on staying for the whole day, because the Diamonds Conference has so many great speakers that I want to hear too. So, I’ll be around to answer questions later in the day.
The three-hour workshop on Friday gives us time to dig in a little deeper. We will talk about interventions for the general education classroom, but also look at more intensive interventions for those that need more. We’ll talk about the principles of intervention, and then we’ll look at specific strategies for how you apply the information in the classroom and at home. These longer workshops are always really fun because there is time for interaction—time for participants to share their expertise and their questions. There are always great questions, because most people come with a whole backlog of experience, and we learn from each other.
Q. It’s been ten years since Late, Lost, and Unprepared was first published. How has our understanding of executive functioning skills changed in the last decade?
It’s a very exciting time for people who are interested in executive functioning. There have been huge changes in our understanding. There’s been rapid growth of data on executive functioning, so on a neurological level we have better brain imaging techniques as the years go on, and we have the advantage of having these super large databases. Researchers can now share data digitally and have these cooperative agreements to share data around the world. So instead of studies with 150 subjects, we have some studies with 20,000 subjects. That allows us to see patterns with confidence that we might never have seen otherwise.
There used to be a primary focus on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and even when we wrote that book, that had already started to change. Now, we have more and more data about executive functioning and how it operates based on new understandings of neurological development. We know that executive functioning depends on structures, connections, and communications within the brain. It is really a much more complex process.
We have seen new data in the area of neurological functions that affect executive functioning development, and we’ve also seen increased research in specific diagnoses, and how they seem to affect the patterns of weaknesses. There are new findings in the way that executive functioning unfolds in typical development. That’s something we need as a yardstick for atypical development, and we haven’t had that in the past.
Clinically, there’s been an explosion in research on interventions.
But in some ways, the current situation mirrors the situation we had when we wrote that book. There’s no absence of data to guide us in addressing the problem, the problem is getting it into the hands of the people on the front lines. It’s important that we distill that information down so it is useful to people who are trying to help kids on a daily basis. The goal is to put this new information in the hands of parents and teachers. Being able to bring research and theory to practice is one reason the Diamonds in the Rough Conference is so tremendously important.
Q. What do you think is the schools’ obligation to work on these skills with their students?
Schools definitely have an obligation to work on these skills if you work from the legal requirements. There was a clarification letter from the Office of Civil Rights in Education in 2016 that defined ADHD more specifically in order to give guidance to schools. In it, they stated that one of the symptoms of ADHD is that students often have difficulties organizing tasks and activities. That may not seem like much, but it is. And the last iteration of IDEA specifically talked about preparing students for independent success post-high school. So, how can you do that if you cannot organize your effort?
To me, it is inherent in the legal requirements for schools. However, the problem has been how we approach this with the schools. Schools are designed to educate kids, and they are designed to do that according to the unfolding of typical development. Special education was introduced into the content areas, but until recently there was little talk about delays in these processes of learning So, when we began to include executive functioning in educational plans, we sort of tried to create a separate category.
But in fact, I think the way that it works better is to focus on the content areas, what schools know best, and use them to teach executive skills. Because you cannot teach executive functioning in the abstract, you need content. The school content and the curriculum goals give you the way to work with them. Many of us have to shift what we are asking of the schools.
If you look at the Common Core standards, embedded into those standards are executive skills and assumptions about what students can do. There are all sorts of ways that you can build goals and objectives, using the curriculum standards as they exist. That way, you are helping the child and you are speaking a language that the schools understand. I have had much better success with that, then telling a school, “This kid does not organize well. So, my goal is for him to get better at organization.”
I think good special ed teachers have been helping kids with executive functioning for ages. And if you look particularly at first and second grade teachers, their whole skill set involves teaching kids how to be students. They are great at teaching routines and habits. So, now the next step is, how do you systematically build a plan of support in order to move the child forward in his or her development of executive skills? How do you monitor their current level of functioning and help them according to their own readiness and timetable, to get to that next, more independent level? We don’t want to be in the business of just supporting kids, we also need to teach them to manage their demands when they are their own.
Q. What’s the biggest obstacle you see right now for young people when it comes to improving these critical life skills?
There are many challenges in helping kids with executive functioning, but I really think that the biggest obstacle I am seeing right now is a failure of compassion and understanding. The kids can be way behind in their ability to meet expectations, and being that far out of sync means that adults can get frustrated and impatient. They may make the mistake of interpreting a lack of success in the child for a lack of caring. And when they do that, they lose the child.
I once had a therapy supervisor that said to me, “Children can forgive a mistake of the head, it’s a mistake of the heart that they have trouble letting go of.” It’s so important that we truly understand the long course of development of executive functioning, and how delays will make that more extended and put kids out of sync. If we can continue to teach and support them, despite the extended length of time it takes for development to take hold, then we can remove so many obstacles for them.
Executive functioning extends into so many aspects of daily expectations for our kids, and it sometimes seems really hard to work with the child instead of in opposition to them. Once adults start feeling helpless, then they want to make that feeling to go away, and the easiest way is to blame the child.
Teachers will diligently teach a way to do a task, and then they will even repeat this a second time, and on the third time that child has that sort of project, they are like, “We’ve already been over this, how come you don’t know it yet?” We can succeed with students when we teach these step-by-step skills while sitting next to a child instead of across from them, and with an understanding of the pain and the demoralization the child can be feeling. We need to teach students these skills, while accepting that they need the neurological readiness as well as the teaching and support, and that we have no way of predicting when they will be independent.
Q. How do ADHD and ASD impact executive functioning skills?
We know that among the population of youth with delays in executive functioning, two of the largest sub-groups are those with ADHD and those on the autism spectrum---as well as kids with both of those disorders. We also know that there are somewhat different patterns between those groups, as well as within those groups.
The complexity of working with kids who are on the spectrum is that you may have more anxiety. There are problems with flexibility and shifting that you don’t always have with students that have ADHD, although you do with some. However, there’s also a huge amount of overlap in the executive functioning problems and symptoms that you see in the two groups.
We know that cognitive flexibility is more of an issue for folks on the spectrum, and you have a speaker coming to the conference who is one of the leading experts, Dr. Lauren Kenworthy. She is the author of a program called Unstuck and On Target that addresses both executive functioning and cognitive flexibility in the populations of kids who have autism spectrum disorder, and I understand she’s also extended that program to ADHD populations too.
As far as ADHD, that’s more my expertise, particularly in this area of cognitive control. Organization and planning, working memory, initiating tasks, and task monitoring, those are the things that are so often out of whack in kids with ADHD. They need a lot of support and teaching.
No one can tell us with any of these populations how much change will happen because of teaching compensatory techniques verses how much change will happen because of fundamental changes in the neurological underpinnings of executive functioning. We are always in the business of working on both. We work with short-term strategies that help a child to meet the daily demands, and at the same time we are planning our long-term interventions. Those meta cognitive skills are critically important – we need to help children and teens to think not only about what is the task, but also how will I monitor my progress, and how will I adapt my efforts along the way to reach my goals.
Q. You wrote in Late, Lost and Unprepared that it can be difficult to distinguish between kids with specific learning disabilities in content areas (reading, writing) and those that struggle with the process of learning. Have we gotten better in making those distinctions? How can we help teachers understand these differences?
The problem is separating the content from the process. Executive functioning is a process, it has no content, it is a function. To reach a goal, we run data through our executive functioning processes. You can run math, you can run getting your chores done, through the executive functioning processes. To separate the two out, requires that you look at the content separate from the process and the only way to do that is very fine-tuned evaluations. And that doesn’t mean only formal psychoeducational testing, it also means fine-tuned observations.
I’ve heard a lot of kids say that they dislike reading, and when I ask them what it is they dislike, they say, they have to answer all of those comprehension questions. Some of them dislike writing and others will say, “I can’t remember what I’ve read.” This indicates to me that it is not the ability to read that is the primary problem, it is a matter of being able to hold on to the information long enough to answer the questions, or perhaps to organize the information in a way that will allow them to meet the demands.
The testing really does help, if it is comprehensive, but it’s not the only thing we have to go on. We also have lots of information based on teacher and parent observations. Further, if we ask the kids, they can often describe to us the areas with which they are having trouble.
Q. Can students struggle with executive functioning skills and not have any significant diagnosis at all? If so, how can any parent help their child improve these skills?
Yes, of course. My best example of this, although there’s a chance that in this day he’d be diagnosed with ADHD, is the “absent-minded professor.” He’s the guy who is a brilliant scientist but fails to show up at his own wedding because he lost track of time.
All of the characteristics of executive functioning exist along a continuum. There is a point when a person is unable to meet their demands and where it is limiting their success, and that is the place where we call it a pathology. There are lots of people hovering around that border between prepared and unprepared, successful and unsuccessful, and they are going about their lives without a diagnosis.
The way we teach people to function better is applicable to all kids and applicable in a general classroom. We focus on personal best, rather than perfection. We celebrate each movement toward better functioning. We teach habits and routines; that is always the cornerstone of intervention, because once something becomes a habit, it no longer lives in the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning. And we focus on helping youth to think about how they will accomplish tasks, teach them strategies for planning and organization, guide them and support them until they perform these strategies independently.
A conversation with Ned Johnson about stress, student achievement, and how to give kids more autonomy
2018 Diamonds in the Rough Conference speakers Ned Johnson and Dr. William Stixrud have a new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.
Here’s a conversation with Ned Johnson about stress, student achievement, and how to give kids more autonomy.
Q. There is a lot of interest in your new book The Self-Driven Child, co-authored with clinical neuropsychologist Dr. William Stixrud. Dr. Madeline Levine said, “This is one of the most radical and important books on raising healthy, resilient, purpose-driven kids.” That’s high praise. So, why might the book be considered radical?
To Bill and me, it’s not radical at all. To us, it’s common sense. As Bill would say, “You should make peace with reality.” And a huge chunk of that is, you really cannot control your kid.
The “radical” language is because, it’s almost a complete 180 in what most of us as parents have been led to believe we should be doing. We are overwhelmed because we think that we are responsible for our kids’ success, happiness, safety - everything. It ultimately doesn’t lead to better outcomes. It looks good in the short term, but in the long-term it is a hot mess.
This idea that your kids are going to be more successful and less stressed, by you doing less strikes some people as insane. In part because, we think, “I will feel better when I feel more in control.” So, the parent may want to jump in there, fix things and take control of their kids. But by definition it is a bit of a zero-sum game. The more control I try to exert, the less there will be left for my kid.
There’s been a thousand books written about “letting your kids fail.” We’re taking a different tack. This is not “let your kids fail.” Instead we’re saying, you just cannot be the manager of your kid’s life. We encourage parents to see themselves as consultants to their kids, rather than task masters.
Q. Parents with children that struggle with attention and executive functioning deficits spend a good deal of time helping their children navigate school. The idea of giving your child more autonomy may be terrifying to these parents. How can we help both the parents and children in this scenario?
I’d say, take the long view. You only grow by a challenge. If we clear all the obstacles from a kid’s glide path, he’ll end up at a place that will look successful but he will have no idea how he got there.
(Here Ned goes into a very detailed and fascinating story about studies with stress and baby rats. Researchers found that baby rats who are stressed and then return to a nurturing mother, over and over, are conditioned to tolerate stressors. The rats, which were actually dubbed “California laid back rats” were more likely to take risks. Which, in the rat world, would be exploring an open space instead of hiding. If the rats were stressed and then returned to a stressed-out mom, they became the most screwed up, neurotic rats ever. And the rats that lived life without stressors? They did not develop the courage to take risks at all.)
So, this is what we want for our kids. We don’t want to shield them from stressors that they can handle. You want your child to experience mild or moderate stress and you can say, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.” You would of course step in and protect them from an overwhelming stress, but we don’t want to shield them from mild or moderate stress.
Now, how do you get your child to do that thing that might be stressful? Well, if you child is tough, rigid, mentally inflexible, these are all signs of being anxious. He wants to have more control. We’re trying to develop all those executive functions, and mental flexibility is a big one there.
The pre-frontal cortex is sort of like #igotthis and the amygdala is #ohcrap. Under stress, that #ohcrap seems to metastasize over everything. So, what we want is for the pre-frontal cortex to be in charge.
The problem is, if he is sensitive and that amygdala fires off, you are not engaging the rational part of his brain. And you think you are, you’re giving him facts and reasons, but his amygdala says, “Don’t listen.”
So, what I suggest to parents is to just simply say, “May I offer you some advice?”
Because that gives your child a sense of agency. You can relax a bit, let him take charge a little. (And why would you want to give your child advice at that moment if he doesn’t want it anyway?) Let your child come back to you when he wants. If this calms his amygdala, then you are engaging the rational part of the brain again, and your child is able to hear facts and logic and not just respond emotionally.
Is the stress we’re seeing with our kids and achievement unique to the DC area?
Yes and no. This thing with stress is, it’s not any one thing, it’s everything. So, part of the way I feel about students and achievement stress is cumulative – a percentage of it is your temperament, part of it is how much stress your parents are under, part might be trying to compete with an older sibling, and so on. You start adding it all up.
I think what’s probably the case in places like DC, the ambient stress is higher, because it’s expensive, there’s too much traffic, there’s this sense of endless competition. My best friend and former business partner lives in Portland, and they are much less likely to think about test prep in the 9th grade. So, I think geography is part of it.
There’s also something in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) called shared delusional disorder. Imagine growing up with an entire family where there is a sense that, if you don’t go to an Ivy League school, you’ll never be successful. Their kids trot into kindergarten wearing Yale and Dartmouth t-shirts. You’ll start to absorb that from your family or your culture, and you’ll start to believe it. In fact, despite evidence to the contrary, a lot of people believe this. As much as it is a stereotype, it’s a confirmation bias, and what happens is you ignore contradicting information.
But I do think part of it is that DC feels more competitive, people are more sleep deprived, and people are more stressed, than if, say, we were living in Albuquerque or something.
You and Dr. Stixrud have been doing talks together for a few years. What is it that you enjoy about working together?
Our knowledge and experiences complement each other well. Bill and I started working together on this book in 2014, but we’ve been thinking, talking and lecturing together for about ten years. It’s interesting going through this as a road show. The introductions can be like, “Dr. William Stixrud, a highly respected neuropsychologist, etc. etc.” - and then it’s “Ned Johnson is a tutor geek.”
But the advantage I do have is that I’ve probably spent more time one-on-one with more 16 and 17-year-olds in the country than anyone. There are lots of teachers and there are lots of therapists, but most people don’t see ten adolescents a day during the most stressful period of their development. I have such an opportunity to sit there and watch children’s eyes light up in a test prep session. My whole thing is, how can I best deliver the research and what I’ve learned to help other kids and parents.
What should we look forward to in your presentation at the upcoming Diamonds in the Rough Conference?
I know Bill has been to the Diamonds Conference before, but this will be my first time, and I’m really excited. I think the first thing is, we’ll be approaching the audience with the understanding that parenting kids is hard. And parenting kids who fall outside the narrowly defined scope of what “normal” is, is even harder. These are kids whose reactions are likely to be more intense, whose needs are broader. Parenting can really go from a full-time job to an over-time job.
I work with lots of kids who have anxiety. Bill says almost by definition the kid who has learning difficulties has anxiety, because all day long they are feeling like they are not measuring up. What I say to kids is, “Your reactions are totally normal, because you have a human brain, right? But what’s happening, is that your reactions are just more intense.”
There’s a line we have in the book, that “this is chemical, it’s not character.” We are all born with a temperament. Some people are really sunny, right out of the womb, and others are more like Eeyore from Winne the Pooh. If we know that these things are chemical, rather than character, the question is how do we take that into consideration, and what can we do to bend that a bit. We can focus on the things that can increase a kids’ sense of control, and ways we know improve well-being like meditation, sleep and exercise.
What is the biggest takeaway for attendees?
I want people to understand that growth is not linear. We can see this so clearly with bodies, and its ten times more so with brains. While how tall you grow is limited by your genes, we have so much more control over how we help our brains develop in healthy ways.
Ned Johnson is President and Tutor-Geek for PrepMatters, an organization that provides academic tutoring, one-on-one test preparation and college counseling services.
The holidays are a hectic time for many adults. Add the factors of travel, anticipation and parties and you may have some stressed out kids too. Mary Elliott, WEG Communications consultant, talks with Dr. Lisi Levisohn about practical tips that can help any family enjoy a more peaceful winter break.
Dr. Levisohn, does everyone feel stress around the holidays? Is it natural?
What I sense from the media and discussions with others over the years is that it is indeed common to feel stress around the holidays—there is pressure to make everything great, to find the perfect present for everyone, or sometimes the stress is around complicated relationships with extended family. But in my practice, thinking of the kids I’ve worked with, I’d have to say they are really looking forward to the holidays – whether it is Christmas or Hanukkah. In fact, I suspect most kids don’t see the holidays as a stressor. They see it as a welcome release from what they are experiencing in school or throughout the rest of the year. And they are excited about the specialness of the holidays—and all kinds of good associations they have.
That said, there are still aspects of the holidays which could be stressful for children, especially for a kid who might have anxiety, be twice exceptional, or have some processing issues. One potential source of stress relates to uncertainty. For example, if your child feels anxious when they don’t know what to expect, whether it is a change in routine or they are not sure what the expectations for them are going to be, or whether they will be able to handle those expectations, that can be a source of stress. Sometimes, if they know something big is coming, even though it might be something they look forward to, it can be a source of underlying stress. Their mind and their body are getting ready for something unusual and something big, so they are getting signals that they are supposed to be on high alert. The other source of potential anxiety would a social one for a child who might have more trouble interacting with a big group. So, with the holidays, there can be uncertainty with travel plans, lots of anticipation, and plenty of social interactions like parties - all of which can be challenging for many kids.
Although most kids are looking forward to the holidays and would say it is a happy time, sometimes when parents themselves are filled with anticipation or stress, that can translate into their interactions with their children. Through their body language and intonation, parents can be expressing their own holiday stress. Kids can pick up on that.
How can the holidays be less stressful for children who have ADHD, anxiety or other challenges?
One thing is just to pay attention to your own feelings. Reassure yourself, as the parent, that it is a time of joy. Take a little time to center yourself, especially in your interactions with your kids. If there is something big coming up, it can be helpful to talk about the event a few days beforehand in a very relaxing way.
Talking through an event in advance, describing the place, even looking at pictures online of the venue is a relaxed, preparatory walk thru. This way, things won’t seem so uncertain or unpredictable and the child can start to visualize and imagine the place or the event.
A parent might use a schedule, even if it is going to a party, and help their child by breaking up the evening into parts. This way, you give the event a structure and it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. And perhaps most importantly, the child knows this party is not endless.
Pay attention to your child’s needs. Maybe that holiday party would be great for an hour. You do not have to totally pass, instead you can make it a smaller adventure. Make a plan that you’ll check in with each other at a certain time, and that way you can see how your child is feeling. These are good skills to teach kids anyway. You are modeling a healthy strategy and teaching planned flexibility.
You don’t want to let your kids dictate every plan and decision in your family life—that wouldn’t be good for your kids either! But, including your kids in some decisions can feel reassuring and empowering to them. For a family vacation, you can give your kids some choices, by saying, “Here are the two places we’re thinking about going, which one appeals to you most?” It’s good to allow children to weigh in when planning a special trip, because this gives them some feeling of control along the way.
How might reducing screen time help reduce stress?
It’s best to stick to whatever your house rules are about technology and individual devices during a regular weekend, even as you head into vacation time. For car travel, if your kids have screens in front of them, set a schedule so they take breaks and don’t get overwhelmed by it. Bottom line is to set up routines in advance, make sure your kids know them. Too much screen time can take a toll, so limits can benefit the emotional health of your child.
On the flip side, watching a movie together is different than the kinds of video games that kids might do online or with another kid, and they impact their mood differently. Cuddling up on a couch and watching a movie with your child can be a wonderful positive tradition during the holidays.
What are some tangible ways that all families can slow down and find joy during this hectic time?
Sometimes kids resist a planned activity, but it is okay to say, “We’re just going to do this now for a while.” They usually end up enjoying it. Take a winter walk in the woods or visit your favorite hiking trails. Get out into nature as a family, even in the winter. It’s fun to bundle up and go out. As a parent, I know from experience that following up an activity with hot chocolate or ice cream always makes it more fun and special. Take in interesting holiday displays walking through town, or paint pottery as a group activity (even teenage boys can get into that sort of thing!). Take your child to an arts and crafts store, pick out some new supplies so it is already a treat, and then go home and create. If a child is older, ask her to help you build a fire in the fireplace, and then sit together and enjoy it afterwards.
Do you have any gift giving ideas for students that also promote wellness?
Tap into your child’s strengths. For visual spatial learners, there are a lot of great puzzles out there.
Let’s say you have a child that is dyslexic or dysgraphic, but they are really talented building or solving strategy puzzles. So much of school is language-based and text-based, which can be frustrating and difficult. At home, you can provide toys that highlight their unique strengths and help them feel successful.
Give a gift that can become a happy and peaceful family activity. If your younger child experiences frustration at school, consider a gift like building blocks that can be worked on in the center of the family. As you child is working, give him positive feedback. This tells your child that he is smart and has talents that people admire.
Pretending toys, depending on the age of the kids, can be great. Even a pack of little dinosaurs, can lead in to a pretending activity with your child and many great conversations. Whether your children are good at pretending, or you want to model pretending for them, stuffed animals, dolls, even little cars can be a nice way to lead into pretend play, which is great for all kids’ development.
Consider giving a good book, one that can be read aloud or shared. There are lots of options for younger kids, but even for older kids, large "coffee table books" with photography around an area of interest, cookbooks or books with jokes or funny stories can bring the family together.
If your kid is into music, download a new album that the family can listen to together. Or if your child plays an instrument, consider a gift that can recognize that skill and then enjoy an impromptu concert.
So, a big takeaway here is that parents consider giving gifts that can be enjoyed by the whole family in one way or another. Also, it’s helpful to pick gifts that allow children to show their strengths and lead to greater parent-child engagement.
Any last words for parents, Dr. Levisohn?
If you suspect that your child might be stressed about an upcoming holiday event, just open the conversation. Just ask, “Are you feeling a little anxious? Is there something that’s on your mind?” And if they are, be sure to validate and sympathize with that feeling, and then talk about what’s coming up. Help them understand that feeling, and that it is normal and something can be done about it. And if your child isn’t as verbal, try introducing an activity that is peaceful to help reduce those anxious feelings.
Lisi Levisohn, PhD is a licensed psychologist, a developmental neuropsychologist, and mother of two teenage boys and one teenage daughter in Silver Spring, MD. Dr. Levisohn provides neuropsychological and psychological assessments for WEG. This week, she’ll be enjoying her own family’s peaceful, laid-back Hanukkah traditions.