When Giving “Positive Messages” to Children Can Harm

On an online support page for parents with children with dyslexia, one mom wrote in and shared a touching letter that her daughter had “written to God.”  In it the girl wrote of her shame of being different, “not normal.”   She pleaded with God to make her the same as everyone else.

Nearly all of the well-meaning advice from other parents were aimed at changing this little girl’s feelings and thinking by convincing her that “she is perfect” or that “her learning difference is really her superpower.”  Tragically these attempts to “make the child feel better” can short-circuit and interrupt real healing opportunities. Here was my response to the mom:  

My advice is quite different from what you’re reading here and I want to express it tenderly and with compassion for both you and your daughter and the many folks who are offering  different well-intentioned suggestions that amount to “correcting her feelings and thoughts. “  

When your daughter or any child writes such a vulnerable letter to God it’s important NOT to immediately try and convince her that her thinking and feelings are wrong.  When she feels so very broken, telling her that the conditions that led to her very real feelings of hurt and self doubt are really “gifts” or “a superpower” can further drive her wounding down, hidden away (only to resurface later and in different forms).  That’s when trauma turns inward from legitimate pain.  Believe me I totally understand the desire to protect our children and to try and help them reframe struggle into triumph.  But educational trauma is a vey real thing.  Our attempts to help our kids feel better is often a result of our own struggle and uncomfortableness with their pain.

It’s important that her feelings are allowed to be validated; and to hold space for them as a parent is difficult.  The most psychologically damaging habit we as parents can do with our kids is to try and convince them their feelings are wrong.  It’s a slower process but more beneficial to first acknowledge her thoughts and feelings of pain, frustration and of imperfection or “not being good enough.”  The most important first step is simply allow the child to have the space and relationship to express the hurt. Later, one can share compassion and empathy with stories from our own lives where we felt some similar things.  Messages of positivity or even examples of great and truly creative thinkers with learning differences can’t fit where’s there’s no psychological room. Timing is everything.

Only then do we stand a chance of helping children reframe struggle and real challenge and experiences with an ill-equipped or insensitive school system towards resiliency and hope and self-worth.

Years ago a study examined the traits of successful adults who also had Learning Disabilities.  One of the traits was “self-awareness,” which was described as being aware of the realities of the struggle without over-identifying with them and the diagnosis.  You can’t supersede one for the other with children. 

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15 Seconds of Life

Cuenca Shoeshine

I’ve heard it said that life is made up of individual moments and those that connect in waves. I’ve started using my old iPhone 6s and with clunky hand-held-ness to capture scenes here and there. Not sure if these will hold any interest but I hope so. Maybe a life’s moment in Cuenca will spark something in someone else’s.

Growing up in Brooklyn and NYC shoeshiners were always around in subways. As a kid I always thought of them as in the province of businessmen who seemed fancy or sophisticated. Or, maybe they were for the WW2 generation. Guys like my dad, working guys who’d occasionally get one, though more likely they’d shine and buff at home.

Here in Cuenca young kids are often trying to earn some coins shining shoes. They populate some of the downtown parks.

In my neighborhood and in this quick vid, there’s always one or two regular shoeshine guys at the mercado de veinte siete de febrero, my local open air market. They charge the usual going rate of 50cents. This guys has some classic skills. I’ve used him.

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“Nature, meet Nurture.” Attachment and Autism

Photo Credit: Nature vs. Nurture/Philosophy Talk

In general, infants with autism spectrum have eye gazes that focus more on objects than faces.

And that impacts the mechanisms of attunement between mother/father/ and child.  Less oxytocin, the “love chemical,” and less “feel-goods.”  

Unfortunately this dynamic can trigger the wounds of the parent. All parents are wounded because no parent is perfect because no parent was raised perfectly. Wounding is part of the human condition. It’s nothing to feel guilty about; it’s something to be aware of.

 Without the usual and expected validations from smiles, giggles, gurgles and reciprocal eye gazes (joint attention), the risk increases for parents to feel rejected by their own child. The result is often a subtle but very real moment-by-moment withdrawal by the parent from the child in an attempt to avoid painful feelings.  And round and round we go. 

“Nature, meet Nuture.”

What’s needed is for the parent to build a solidity and resilience of self that supports persevering through the hurt.  A great new book on what it means to develop your healthy self as the greatest gift to your child and partner is Brad Reedy’s new book “The Audacity To Be You.”Continued touching and gazing and talking to their baby will build attunement and foster self-soothing and repair when needed.  Studies show that when this happens babies and their parents increase the chemical oxytocin in their brains and with it, the feelings of healthier attachment and relationship.

There was a time when Autism was considered purely in psychological terms. At one point autism was thought to be a result of repressed emotions caused by poor parenting. Of course now we know that it’s an organic, neurobiological condition with struggles in social communication and sensory differences as primary markers. Most all efforts focus on the child and how to stimulate social learning skills. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Social thinking and perspective taking curriculums are two examples of evidenced practices.

Findings – by Ami Klin and Warren Jones of Atlanta’s Marcus Autism Center and Emory University, appeared online in the journal Nature.

“In a ground-breaking report (2013), researchers describe measurable decreases in in eye contact between 2 and 6 months of age in babies who went on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The babies actually started out with typical eye-gaze patterns. But month by month, they showed steady decreases in the amount of time they looked at a caregiver’s eyes in a video. Baby sibs who did not develop ASD showed the opposite pattern – with eye contact increasing month by month.”

Jones, W., Klin, A. Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2–6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism. Nature 504, 427–431 (2013). doi.org/10.1038/nature12715

“Such an early decline in eye contact would represent one of the earliest signs of autism identified to date,” emphasizes developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. “It may also suggest a new window of opportunity for effective early intervention, as eye contact is so crucial for learning and the normal development of social skills.”

#CognitiveScienceinParenting. #AudacityToBeYou

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Learning Differences and Oppression

The Many Faces of Educational and Racial Oppression

The racialized reality black students experience every day in American schools.

Even with the same behaviors as white children, “black boys are almost three times as likely to be suspended than white boys, and black girls are four times as likely to be suspended than white girls. Black students’ (mis)behavior is more often criminalized compared to other students.”

Studies and experience shows that oppression looks and feels like:

varying levels of self-hatred (including one’s own group) and isolation from the system one finds oneself in

disengagement when few people in authority look like you

lack of self accountability and self worth

separation of language

shame and hiding who you are

disruption of identity formation

I’m quite certain that the same or similar issues exist in most all communities of color most especially brown and Native Americans.

Now imagine being a black boy or girl AND you have a Learning Difference such as Dyslexia, another group independent of race that’s already being miseducated, and hiding from yourself.

Get underneath the behaviors. Our children need multisensory and multicultural education and therapy.

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Are Children and Teens with Learning Disabilities Potential Geniuses, or Victims of Educational Neglect?

Senators, Inventors, Entrepreneurs, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize Winners have all been people with Dyslexia.  So are kids with Learning Differences budding geniuses and leaders, or  are they victims of metastasized educational neglect?

Both are true.

Carol Mosely Brown, African American former Senator and US Ambassador, Philip Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Dr. Carol Grieder Nobel Prize recipient, and Charles Schwab all belong to the first prestigious group.

Photo Credit, Richard Ross

However on the underside, up to 80 percent of incarcerated juveniles suffer from learning disabilities, and belong to the second group. (Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University)

 A metastasized growth is defined as “the development of secondary malignant growths at a distance from a primary site of illness/cancer.” Having known and lost family and friends to stage four cancer I don’t use this term lightly when referring to the effects of educational neglect.

Children with learning differences such as dyslexia are misunderstood, often poorly educated and are victimized daily from the shame of feeling the very real protective need to hide their struggles. To hide who you are diminishes a healthy self. Daily trauma and wounding leads to a type of helplessness and hopelessness that can later metastasize into depression, anxiety, self-harm and addiction. Often the success stories we often (and thankfully) hear about, are the result of achievement “in spite” of one’s education or because a kid’s been fortunate enough to be born into a family that can afford the right private school or expensive educational therapists.

FACT: Individuals in substance abuse treatment have a higher incidence of learning disabilities than the general population.  One study revealed that 40 percent of people in substance abuse treatment have a learning disability, while another indicated that in residential substance abuse treatment programs, the percentage of people  with LD has been found to be as high as 60 percent.

Educational Traumas like these result in behaviors mentioned above, that get the treatment attention, but we need to acknowledge and treat the underlying wounds.

Hidden Reality: Educational Trauma and Wounding happen on a regular basis to students with Learning and Developmental Differences

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New Brain Imaging Research Debunks a Controversial Theory

In a new study from Georgetown University: Finding upends theory about the cerebellum’s role in reading and dyslexia

Science of Reading and Dyslexia Moves Forward

New brain imaging research debunks a controversial theory about dyslexia that can impact how it is sometimes treated. The cerebellum, a brain structure traditionally considered to be involved in motor function, has been implicated in the reading disability, developmental dyslexia, however, this ‘cerebellar deficit hypothesis’ has always been controversial. The new research shows that the cerebellum is not engaged during reading in typical readers and does not differ in children who have dyslexia.

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Conversations on Retirement and the Nature of Work.

***POOL PHOTO*** Former New York Yankee Derek Jeter participates in a ceremony to retire his number at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sunday, May 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Elsa Garrison, Pool)

The other day I got a call from Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame New York Yankee baseball player.

Me: “Derek, what’s up?”

Derek; Dude, “Are you retired or what? I can’t figure you out.” 

Me: “Look who’s talking, heh heh. Listen D, I got a call from Clint Eastwood the other day and we were talking about some of the same stuff. Clint was venting a little. “Sanford,” he whined. “Everyone seems to want to put me in a small box.” (“Pine? I joked”) “I want to keep directing even though I’m not in front of the camera much any more.”

Me now to Derek: “Derek I get it. For a while I wasn’t exactly sure either. When we moved to Ecuador in 2016 I was clear that I’d given up part of my work and definitely my day to day job. And for sure when my dad died last year the question of retirement became even trickier for me. In my own mind “retirement” was now connected to my own aging and even mortality. So full on “retirement” wasn’t something I was comfortable looking at too closely. And I didn’t like the box it seemed to be.”

But Are You Retired?

Derek: “Man, there you go getting all deep on me. I just wanna know if you’re working or not. Are you retired?”

Me: Derek look, when you left the Yankees you weren’t done with life. In fact you’ve gone on to do some pretty amazing things that contribute to Sports right? So when I sold the Bend Learning Center in 2016 it meant I’ve given up big parts of my work as a special educator. But I’ve come to see that I needed to redefine what working now means to me. The easiest way I can explain my “retirement” is that I’ve transformed the ways in which I now work, contribute and express myself.” 

Derek: “OK. What’s that mean, practically?”

Me: “It means I’ve let go of my role as an educational placement consultant. I gave up the Bend Learning Center which was my day clinic in Bend Oregon. It means If I get a call from someone looking for guidance on school or treatment programs for their child, I’ll refer them to someone else. The Bend Learning Center goes on because I was able to leave that legacy in other people’s capable hands. But there’s more to my desire to work and contribute than placement.”

Me: “What I’m telling you is this: I’ve hung up my cleats but picked up my hiking shoes. You see when I say I’ve changed the ways I work…here’s some more of it. I’ve written a children’s book on Anxiety that was recognized as the best new release. I’ll soon have another children’s book on Dyslexia coming out. And now that I’m free from placement work and the day to day clinic work I’m able to focus more on the parts of my ‘work’ that are also my true passions, not to mention learning a new language and exploring this beautiful Latin and Native culture.”

Derek: OK, I understand. So what else is going on? I mean I get the passions part. What’s that look like for you? 

Me: It means I get to choose projects that are most important and current for me. I’m now focused on using my experience in the cognitive sciences of learning, memory and attention, executive functions and motivation, in order to help programs that treat mental health issues of depression anxiety and addictions. 

Derek: Sounds good man. Thanks for the update. 

Me: Cool. Hey gotta go; Clint’s on the line.

Note: If the satirical nature of this isn’t clear, let me simply say that I also got calls from Abraham Lincoln and Satchel Paige.

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First Public School for Dyslexic Learners in NYC

With Timothy Castanza at the helm, and spearheaded by frustrated but motivated parents, NYC now has a public school geared to the needs of students with dyslexia.

News article about the The Bridge School, a public charter school that will use Orton Gillingham approaches to teach dyslexic students.

Contact Bridge School

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Adapting Best Practices of LD Instruction Can Improve Mental Health Treatment for All Kids

Since rates of anxiety, depression and self harm, including suicide and substance abuse are decidedly on the rise, there’s s striking need for clinicians, counselors and mentors to think differently. We can and must learn different and better ways to connect and communicate with struggling kids and teens. The sciences of learning disabilities, motivation and attention can show us some roadmaps to those better ways. The best practices from specialized populations gives insights to help everyone.

The focus of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is in designing and delivering (teaching) curriculum in ways that give greater access to the widest range of abilities and learning differences. By varying motivational approaches (engagement), how information is presented (representation) and the ways in which kids interact and show understanding (expression), we can reach more kids with better results. This approach reduces the need for specialized instructions tailored only for one type of learner. While there will always be a need for special and intensive instruction, UDL helps to reduce that need. As is sometimes mentioned, building a ramp for wheelchair use or for someone on crutches winds up creating easier access for all.

We can take best practices learned when treating and teaching kids with learning disabilities, and apply some of them when working with all students. Think about using visual prompts when stimulating written expression for someone with dyslexia. It can help prompt and organize language for them; but this approach can also be useful when treating kids with anxiety and depression. Whenever you want to communicate and build connection with kids and teens who are struggling with mental health (whether or not they’re caused by or are secondary results from LDs), using approaches that put less wear and tear on working memory and processing speed are useful for anyone. They use smoother and more direct neuronal pathways, reduce cognitive load, and in many cases lessen resistance to therapy. Understanding the impact of a child’s learning profile can be an incredibly powerful part of communication. Understanding one’s own Learning Profile is to understand your own defaults, biases and preferences, all of which can either hinder or build communication and relationship.

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Testing and Evaluating Struggling Kids; a Tool, Not the Goal.

“When working with children and teens who are struggling in school, a thorough psycho educational evaluation is so helpful and necessary. But it is a tool for understanding. The goal is understanding, connection and treatment. 

Don’t confuse the tool for the goal.”

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Universal Design Approach to Therapy

In treating teenagers and young adults with depression, anxiety, and addictions, knowing the intricacies of their Learning Profile is powerful.

What are the easiest neurological pathways to accessing feelings and ruminative thoughts? 

I’m privileged to be leading and partnering with Evoke Therapy Programs, a long-time trusted leader in this field. 

We’re working to apply the latest and most important parts of Cognitive Science to help heal struggling teens in treatment through on-going clinical and staff trainings. The staff are incredibly engaged and reflective. High-level understanding of our children’s Learning and Cognitive Profile dramatically increases our options to lessen resistance, heal the root causes of wounding, and build our own community. Perhaps most importantly, this approach frees the heart to speak its most important truths.

Five Keys of a Child’s Learning or Cognitive Profile:
1. Language Processing 
2. Visual Imagery 
3. Kinesthetic Sensing
4. Executive Functions  
5. Processing Speed and Depth

These things matter. All Minds Matter. All Brains Matter.

 #HeartsandMindsTogether #BuiildingTreatmentSuccessFromWithin

#OuterTransformationFromInnerWork

#UniversalDesignInWildernessTherapy #PuttingMindInServicetoHeart

Evoke: “Bringing Out Your Voice”
evoketherapy.com
ldresources.org

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Questions to Ask Wilderness Treatment Programs

Photo Credit: Laura Collins-Hughes

Many struggling teens and young adults in Outdoor Behavioral Programs (Wilderness Treatment) have LD (Learning Disabilities) profiles. What do parents need to know?  Important Questions to Ask, from All Kinds of Therapy.Com

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