When educating our children, we constantly make choices — what to teach, how to teach it, how to respond to questions, and the list goes on and on. But we rarely give enough thought to what isguiding these choices.
Over the years, I have learned that each choice boils down to a simple and profound question: What do you value?
Most have us have not been encouraged to sit down to consider what we value in life (much less, education). This is NOT your fault. Unfortunately, the concept of values is rarely discussed in detail beyond “be a good person.” Yet understanding what we value in life is the first step in making decisions that are going to do us, and our world, the most good. Conscious connection with our values is what inspires us to be as good as we can.
Early in my education career, I was bouncing from issue to issue, constantly putting out fires and rarely feeling effective at my job. I was a stressed out and reactive educator. I did not feel like the choices I made mattered. I needed a plan, but I had no idea where to start. Unsurprisingly, all of this stress caused me to become super sick. I spent the week before and during my December break in bed. It was awful. Something had to give.
It wasn’t until I sat down and got real about what I value in education that I was able to start feeling my worth as an educator. And once I felt my worth, I was able to make a plan to educate in the way that felt important to me. Finally, I was connected to what I valued in education.
This is the secret first step to advocating for your child in the classroom and becoming a better educator. Your values act as a compass for the choices you make.
How do we decide what we value in education? A value is an abstract idea related to what we think is important in life and how we want to feel with regard to a specific situation, in this case, education.
Here are two great questions to ask yourself when determining what you value in education. I’ve added my personal answers below each question to prime your creative pump as you answer the questions for yourself.
How do you want to feel about how your child is educated? Or, how do you want to feel about how you’re educating your student?
I want to feel curious, relaxed, effective, and joyful in my classroom. I want to know what my students are thinking and feeling as we discover new ideas and begin projects. When I’m relaxed, I make better more effective choices and respond to challenges gently. When I feel this way, I can easily find the joy in my work.
What is important to you about education? Why?
Creativity, kindness, and confidence are the values that are most important to me in the classroom. When students are encouraged to be creative, they can “learn how they learn”. That knowledge can then be applied to any challenge they are hoping to overcome. Additionally, when the atmosphere of a classroom is kind, children feel safe to stretch their knowledge and express themselves with confidence in all areas of their life.
Now it’s your turn. Try this out for yourself! I’ve created a lovely printable to use as your guide as you determine what you value most in education. Fill out the form below and It will be sent directly to your inbox! Let me know when you’ve finished! Leave me a comment on this post or head to my facebook page and post there! I can’t wait to learn more about you and your thoughts about education.
When educating our children, we constantly make choices — what to teach, how to teach it, how to respond to questions, and the list goes on and on. But we rarely give enough thought to what isguiding these choices.
I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the 2e newsletter in the Fall. The interview that follows was released in the November 2016 edition of the 2e newsletter. The 2e newsletter is an excellent resource for parents, educators and other professionals that care for twice-exceptional children..
Finding the Right Learning Environment: A Conversation with Jade Rivera
By Linda C. Neumann
Author, educator, and coach Jade Rivera has made neurodivergent learners the focus of her work for much of the last decade. When asked to describe this population, she explains that they are individuals who, due to common variations in the human genome (such as giftedness, autism, and dyslexia, for example) process the world around them differently than do most others.
“I love the term neurodivergent,” she says, “because it quickly conveys exactly what I’m talking about with regard to giftedness or twice-exceptionality. It breaks down the myths surrounding these children, and it gets to the heart of what we’re really talking about – kids who are having a holistically different experience from what many people consider normal.”
Rivera began a career in alternative education following what she describes as a “brief, successful, yet unfulfilling career as a chemist.” She saw this new venture as a way to use her own personal and professional experiences as well as her compassion to help young neurodivergent learners understand who they are and how they learn. She works with parents and professionals as well to help them better understand and meet the needs of the neurodivergent learners they raise, teach, and care for.
What Makes a Good Learning Environment for Neurodivergent Learners
What does the “right” learning environment look like for kids who experience both learning and the world around them differently? According to Rivera, “connection, acceptance, and sustained support are the true needs of a learning environment.” She believes that advanced academics, iPads, and makerspaces are great; but, she says, “They only go so far if we don’t take the time to connect socially and emotionally and allow children’s abilities to unfold naturally, at their own sped-up or slowed-down pace.”
Rivera explains that, in her experience, setting high expectations for these learners is also essential. “I let my students know that they are capable of great and fulfilling feats,” she states. “I tell them that it’s our job as facilitator and student to work together to determine how they learn as well as what they want to learn so that they can live a life that is meaningful to them.”
When asked why traditional schools are often a poor fit for gifted and 2e learners, Rivera replies, “I think it’s important to note that traditional school has become increasingly difficult for neurodivergent children in the last 15 years, since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) went into effect. I might have had a more appropriate and innovative education as a 2e child in the 1980’s than most kids are getting now in 2016. Teachers have been systematically stripped of their abilities to be flexible and use their best judgment. They are forced to focus so much on achievement that they can’t afford to spend time on connection; and, as I stated before flexibility and connection are vital to a 2e child’s wellness in the classroom. Add to this the fact that teachers are rarely trained to educate gifted and twice-exceptional children, and you’ve got a recipe for misery.”
The Impact of an Inappropriate Learning Environment on Neurodivergent Children
In her work, Rivera sees the impact that being in the wrong learning environment can have on neurodivergent learners. “They are hit with the combo of depression and anxiety, which may show up as volatility and anger in the classroom, or possibly as withdrawal and lack of engagement” she explains. These students may find themselves incorrectly identified as having ADHD or an emotional behavior disorder; and they may be inappropriately remediated or medicated. They are at risk, she says, for being bullied, kicked out of school, or even treated for oppositional defiance disorder.
“Unsurprisingly,” Rivera observes, “the result is often a child with a poor self-image, one who might feel alienated and who has no real friends.” These are also children more likely to express thoughts like, “I wish I was never born” or “I want to die,” a situation that Rivera describes as both deeply sad and totally unnecessary.
Switching to a more appropriate learning environment, however, is not an instant cure all. According to Rivera, “Transitioning a child from an inappropriate environment to an appropriate one can be challenging. If the new learning environment is project-based or progressive, it might take the student a while to adjust to the new expectations put upon them.”
Furthermore, Rivera notes, the child may have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms that will take time and perhaps counseling to redirect. This healing process, in her opinion, must be the top priority.
Rivera has seen that kids pulled from the traditional classroom and placed in a progressive school “can become miserable in a wholly different way.” “All of the sudden,” she says, “they’re asked to direct and think for themselves after having very little experience doing that! It’s critical to scaffold these children into these new environments in order to set them up for success.”
According to Rivera, neurodivergent learners who make the change to an appropriate learning environment will “find themselves challenged and encouraged at their level and according to their learning style. Overall, they will have their needs to be seen and heard met. But this is not to say that it will be all roses and sunshine. There will be hard days, but there will be fewer hard days.”
Designing an Innovative Learning Environment
As part of her work, Jade Rivera designs innovative learning environments. Here are some thoughts she shared with 2e Newsletter on what an innovative learning environment should be.
“Many people equate innovation with technology, but innovation is so much more than that! When I think of innovation, I think of iteration – making a commitment to repeatedly coming back to the classroom’s academic, social, and physical design to make it better for everyone who uses the space. The basis for these changes should be feedback and observation, and the process for making changes should be one of testing out new ideas, observing and assessing their efficacy, and then coming back to design some more. It’s an endless process but an effective one. With a certain mindset, it’s joyful. Today, in its latest form this process is referred to as Design Thinking. To learn more about it, check out Stanford Design School’s website: http://dschool.stanford.edu/dgift.
To this end, every micro-school that I’ve led has held a strong commitment to reflection and iteration. I’m constantly absorbing all I can about educational theory and neurodivergent children so I can create the most effective learning environment possible. I’m proud to pass on this knowledge to others, like Edison Academy SLO in southern California. This private micro-school for twice-exceptional students is committed to providing a personalized learning environment for twice-exceptional students by focusing on their strengths. They create an individualized learning plan for each student in tandem with the child and their caregivers based on each student’s readiness, talents and interests. This is an example of a school that understands what twice-exceptional learners need.
Edison Academy SLO is the first up-and-running micro-school born from my Build Your Micro-School Summer Institute. I created the institute for people who read my book, but wanted more. The Build Your Micro-School Summer Institute is a 3-month course packed with guidance and information on creating your own innovative learning environment. Each week I host live calls and open office hours. I work with those enrolled to set goals and create lists of outlined action steps. By the end of our time together, each enrollee will have everything they need to create a thoughtfully planned micro-school ready to meet the learning needs of their community.
People in education talk a lot about inspiring children to become learners and preparing them for lifelong learning. In my mind, there’s no better way to accomplish these goals than to build them directly into the design of the learning environment. I love to teach people how to do exactly that.
Have you ever heard a someone say something like this?
“Learning in a group is important for each child. It teaches them to collaborate and to share space with others. They will have the opportunity to learn from classmates and experience what it’s like to work with an authority figure other than their parents. Understanding how to navigate the classroom will help my child live a healthy, connected life as an adult.”
I have many times. In fact, before I started working with neurodivergent children, I might have thought like this too. After all, when described like it is above, group learning sounds great! The statements are hopeful, filled with positive wishes for young people. They’re also loaded with assumptions.
Let’s unpack those assumptions a bit.
Learning in a group is important for each child. What if the child is very different from the other children in the group? What if they are an introvert (meaning they need time alone to recharge their brains and bodies) like so many neurodivergent children are? In that case, learning in a group could be draining. If a student is highly sensitive, they may end up overly focused on the feelings and needs of those in the group. Group learning could be overwhelming to a very sensitive child until they learn to regulate their thoughts and feelings.
They will have an opportunity to learn from classmates. What if the child’s outlook, learning style, and ability level is far beyond or behind their classmates? If your child is advanced, he or she might end up teaching more than learning. I speak more about this in my post, The Subtle Exploitation of Gifted Children.
Understanding how to navigate the classroom will help my child live a healthy, connected life as an adult. How can we best prepare children for an unpredictable future? Is it by expecting a child to work within a structure from the past? That doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t resonate with what I know to be true either. With so many people doing jobs that didn’t exist fifty years ago, and the increasing prevalence of working from home, it is difficult to know if learning in a classroom with other children will prepare kids to become healthy adults.
Most of us have learned in a group setting in a traditional classroom. And for a lot of people, the system worked. It gave them the right amount of structure within which to find themselves. However, my guidance is for neurodivergent children and their caregivers. Too often, instead of building neurodivergent children up, the traditional model breaks them down.
When we find what works best for a particular child, we can mine the benefits of group learning. For example, one useful aspect of learning in a group is accountability. Accountability can be a great motivator for gettings things done. In order to open ourselves up to the process of accountability, we must first feel seen, heard, understood, and respected. This is particularly true for neurodivergent children, who have likely felt alienated and misunderstood in previous group learning experiences.
There is a continuum between group learning and solo learning. There are small groups that meet part-time, like micro-schools and co-ops. There are online classes that children experience together, separately in their own spaces. When we challenge our assumptions regarding how a child should learn, we open the door to creating a model for how a child learns best.
Ultimately, there is nothing inherently wrong with group learning. What is wrong is the assumption that group learning is the best choice for every child.
Still on the fence as to if group learning is best for your child? Click here to take a short quiz to find out more.
I grew up dancing and continue to take dance classes as an adult. I love the small, supportive nature of my classes and tend to thrive with teachers who are unwaveringly positive yet real. I also love to move with others in sync to a new choreography and problem solve how to best express ourselves through music. I’d like to hear from people who have had positive group learning experiences. What did you like about them? What worked?
To the untrained eye, a strengths-based approach to education can look much like a weakness-ignoring approach to education. We all want our students to feel positive about their learning experiences, but are we focusing too much on feelings and not enough on the demands of reality?
Some parents and educators think so. I do not.
When we educate in a strengths-based fashion, we are not ignoring weakness. Instead, we are reframing weakness into an opportunity for growth. How that opportunity is organized and shaped has a lot to do with what the student’s strengths are. In a strengths-based classroom, we offer the student a chance to learn what they need in the way that they want.
First, we must identify what our strengths are. Strengths are what we feel good about doing, not only what we’re good at. We may not be the best, but when we engage with our strength we feel calm, comfortable, connected, and curious. Some people call this a state of “flow”.
My personal strengths lie in the visual-spatial realm. I love nearly anything creative and hands-on. I would much much rather build you a three-dimensional timeline of the events leading up to World War Two than write a paper on it. Yet, here I am writing blog posts to you every month. (Funny how things work out.)
But if we’re friends on social media, then you’re aware of my love of knitting, embroidery, sewing, cooking, gardening, and about anything else I can do with my hands. It’s how I unwind after a long day of writing. Sometimes I use the Pomodoro Technique to break up my writing with knitting! It’s one way I’ve learned to use my strength to bolster a weakness.
Some children cannot focus on more than three math problems at at time, despite loving and showing real talent in math. After discussing it with the child and their caregivers, I may devise a plan in which the child will practice solving three math problems with a fifteen-minute “wiggle break” after which the student is responsible for coming back to finish three more and so on. With another student in the same circumstance, I may devise a plan to finish five math problems and then methodically increase the amount of problems over time. Five math problems become six the next day or week, then seven, and so on.
Another way to bring a strengths-based approach into your learning space is to catch your students or children doing something right. Praise them for their efforts in a concrete manner and enjoy the ripple effect of that one positive interaction. Examples of concrete praise include, “I like how you kept going even when things got difficult” or “Your hard work shines through on this piece of writing. I remember when writing was more difficult for you. Look at you now!”
Remember, as Dr. Ross Greene is famous for saying, “kids do well if they can”, and when we set them up for success by playing to their strengths, we’re putting that philosophy into action.
There are many more ways to support children in a strengths-based fashion. Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear your ideas!
This post is sort of like a guest post, but not quite. The brilliant Dr. Briscoe-Smith and I met in Oakland when she gave a presentation on implicit bias and how to talk about racism with kids. Her talk was so powerful that I knew I had to get her thoughts and strategies to you as soon as possible. This blog post is our brainchild. She wrote the first draft, and I integrated my understanding about the intersection of neurodiversity and implicit bias. Enjoy!
As many of you know, it is already a challenge to properly identify neurodivergent and differently-abled children as gifted. What may be surprising to some is that there is another layer to this challenge, persistent undervaluing of black and brown children that makes it even harder to see them as gifted; this layer is racism. While there is still unacceptable amounts of explicit racism operating to keep black and brown children out of the educational system, implicit racial bias is also operating, despite our best intentions.
There is plenty of evidence, both empirical and through our lived experiences, that proves how children of color don’t fare well in the educational system. For example, black boys are three times more likely to be kicked out of preschool, while black girls are six times more likely to be disciplined throughout their educational history. This is due, in part, to implicit racial bias. Our implicit biases are our unconscious, automatic, and stereotypical thoughts about other people. They happen outside our awareness, and are often antithetical to how we’d like to see others.
African American and Latino children are consistently overly disciplined, sent out of class, and rated as more problematic by their teachers. This happens even when black and white children’s behavior is the same. For example, when child behavior is controlled in empirical studies, black and brown children are disciplined more harshly, and rated as behaviorally challenging. Implicit bias has been directly implicated in all of these instances.
And just like there is a spectrum of skin colors, there is a spectrum of brain design. Children with both a skin color and a brain design in the minority are made to pay doubly for our implicit bias. Add this to the fact that gifted and twice-exceptional children are known to be intense, creative, and justice-minded, and you’ve got a recipe for misdiagnosis and misunderstandings. Our current education structure is failing a disturbingly large cross-section of students. Neurodiversity, racial, gender, and economic inequality are intersecting every day in classrooms all over the country.
Implicit bias has recently been implicated in the disproportionately low numbers of black and brown kids identified as gifted or twice-exceptional. In fact, these children are more likely to be identified as having learning deficits and behavior problems. The stereotype perpetuated by bias is that black and brown kids can’t be gifted, and that they are more of a problem in classrooms.
There are many well-intentioned educators who make biased decisions about black and brown children’s potential and behavior. These decisions add up to systematically keep these kids out of opportunities to advance, excel, and be seen as gifted or exceptional. This is often despite these educators explicit wishes to operate in more equitable ways.
We are all more likely to operate based off of our implicit biases when we are stressed or under time pressure. As educators, we are in situations like that multiple times a day; we are often in situations where we are making snap judgments about others, outside our awareness, and aligned with stereotypes.
So what to do about this? First, educators, parents, and other professionals that work with children must become aware of their implicit biases. There are great resources out there. You should start with the Kirwan Institute’s papers on education and implicit bias. You can actually assess your own biases through the Implicit Association Test. You could also take this information to the administration at your child’s school and ask them if the educators have had training in implicit bias.
But awareness is not enough; it takes practice and a commitment to change. The research out there is new on what it takes to change these biases. But one thing comes up as a potential means of reducing our negative biases — working on positive, genuine relationships with our children. Ask them questions like, “How did you come up with that idea?” and “What would you like to learn about?” Approach students with curiosity and open mind, then listen well. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.
Implicit bias operates as a smog to alter the way we see children. It obscures their true abilities and gifts with stereotypes and lowered expectations. Step closer to children of color, slow down to really see them. Then question whether or not your perceptions have been altered by the smog.
You have the ability to see children truly and to advocate for them wholly.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard University. She then received her clinical psychology Ph.D. from University of California Berkeley. She then went on to continue her specialization in trauma and ethnic minority mental health through internship and postdoctoral work at University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness or foster care. Much of her work has been with schools, as a clinician, consultant and trainer. Currently she is a full time professor at the Wright Institute and she provides consultation and training to bay area nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma informed practices and cultural accountability. You can learn more about her work at http://www.drbriscoesmith.com.
This month, my friend and colleague, Megan Maxwell-Smith has written a brilliant guest post that I think will resonate with many of you. Megan, an online writing coach, shares four activities to engage reluctant students to write. Check out Part 1 of this two-part series here!
4 Activities for Engaging Reluctant Writers
Reluctant writers will experience more success and more confidence if you toggle the amount of organization, mechanical skill, and new content creation that’s required for writing activities.
Since there are so many components to the writing process—from coming up with ideas, to constructing logical arguments, to refining language and style—it’s also helpful to allow students to focus on building one skill at a time.
The following targeted activities allow students to engage their strengths and also use scaffolding for their weaknesses so that writing is more approachable and fun.
Activity #1: Add in More Structure with Frames
For some students, frames cultivate creative energy by removing the need to think about structural details.
How to Do It:
Create fillable templates that include spaces for whatever elements your students are working on, such as topic sentences, transitions, or analysis.
Activity #2: Take Away Structure with Free Writing
Free writing helps students who balk at structure or who find it difficult to turn off “complete sentence” mode for mind-map activities. It also helps students who need to tease out their thoughts and see what they already know, or those who write with many mechanical errors.
How to Do It:
Create a big idea question on the topic you want students to write on. Then, create sub questions that will help unpack the topic even further and inspire more thinking. Set a timer for around 10 minutes and talk your students through the freewrite, beginning with the big question and periodically adding in sub questions. Before starting a freewrite, cue students to turn off their own “correctness” police so they don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Additionally, let them know the additional questions are there for help, but students do not have to address them.
Activity #3: Take Away the Writing Altogether with Oral Brainstorming
Let your students focus on ideas, the seeds of writing.
How to Do It:
Write broad categories on slips of paper or half-size note cards. Put them in a stack or a bag so that students can draw one at a time. When a student draws a card, start a timer for one minute. The goal is for the speaker to say as much about that topic as possible in the time. The thoughts can include personal experiences and associations, but should not deviate from the topic.
Take the first turn in order to model the “free association” nature of this activity and show students they really should just say whatever comes to mind.
- US presidents
You can also include units of study you know students have knowledge of, such as the French Revolution, volcanoes, or the circulatory system. This makes for a fun group activity but can also be done one-on-one if the instructor alternates turns with the student.
Activity #4: Offer (Bad!) Samples
This is a great activity to practice revising, since most of us can’t resist the urge to correct what we think is wrong or clumsy.
How to Do It:
Offer students sample writing that stinks. I like to make up a character so that students feel perfectly free to voice their opinions: they’re not correcting someone they know and respect; they’re correcting Joe, a confused but well-meaning Icelandic exchange student who is still learning English.
Rather than focusing on actual errors, such as misspellings or grammatical slip-ups, offer writing that is awkward, terse, or under-developed.
This is best done as an open-ended, collaborative exercise. Ask students what they think doesn’t work about the writing. (They can point out what does work, too, if they’re so inclined.) Try to draw out as much as you can. If the answer is, “It sounds babyish,” ask “Why?” Model answers to this: “I notice that Joe kept using the word thing instead of a more specific word.” Or, “Joe used and three times in this one sentence! I wonder if there’s a different way he could have put that thought together.”
If using this activity with students who struggle with verbal communication, you can skip the description of the process and jump right to making changes.
Megan Maxwell-Smith is an online writing coach who specializes in making writing less stressful. She loves creating practical templates, outlines, and checklists so that students of all skill levels can successfully follow the writing process and adapt it to suit their unique learning styles. Her commitment is to helping students build skill and confidence in writing as they enjoy expressing themselves.