I am personally and professionally thrilled to share with you a guest post written by Sunnyside Micro-School’s educational therapist, Cindy Miner. Cindy offers years of experience in education working with bright and exceptional learners in Bay Area schools and learning programs including public, private, and nonprofit settings. With a home-based practice in Alameda, California, Cindy meets K-8th grade learners one-to-one and small groups. She also supports and collaborates on student success teams at schools. Schools have hired her on request to share her knowledge and practices for development presentations to teachers and parents. Cindy, thank you so much for being an inspiring member of the Sunnyside community!
Cindy and I will be hosting a webinar to discuss more about her work with Sunnyside Monday, August 20th at 1 pm PST. Follow this link to learn more and register. Hope to see you there!
Ever feel sincerely excited to teach something to a child, to have been confronted with a complete
lack of connection or interest? Even teachers with experience, training, and beautifully
designed lesson plans have faced this moment. Good teachers throw the plan out the
window, and focus on a place of connection, because they have no choice.
In my work, a key connection place is having kids influence what they are learning. My job
is to customize the experience to make learning more enjoyable. I refer to my strategies as
“learning frameworks” because they offer a structure to make the invisible, visible.
Who I Teach
Most of my learners are high on intellect with skills at a different level. For example, when I
come in to Sunnyside, a micro-school in Oakland California, the learners often have deep
knowledge in specific areas. These learners are bright, intellectual, active, and curious.
However, their curiosity is self-selective, and often not necessarily related to what I am
trying to teach them.
How I Teach
To make the invisible components of learning more visible, I use Learning Frameworks that
are scalable and individualized. They can be pared down or amped up according to the
learner in front of me. Activities are customized according to the students, based on what
What I Teach
My content specialty is language arts and literacy. While most of my students love hearing
stories and information, reading and writing stories may not come as easily. Framework
strategies help ease this challenge. Here are five qualities of frameworks:
Frameworks are taught with direct instruction. After enough practice, they become a habit.
To learn them, interactive modeling is important. I try to make it interactive with dialog
and demonstration, letting them do more and listen less.
The content that layers into the framework is adaptable, and can be swapped out in a
moment. If a student is talking about Harry Potter as I come in, then some form of content
from Harry Potter becomes part of the lesson. For example, character names can serve as a
means for decoding practice with direct instruction on word parts.
The strategy is straightforward, allowing a student to feel competent and capable using it. Even if the material is complex, it can be less daunting when packaged in an approachable, inviting, or familiar way. All of my learners need a sense of “I can do that…” to enter into the task. Frameworks provide a welcome mat for a safe entry to taking a learning risk.
The overriding challenge is always: engage the learner. This means being on the same track
and finding what motivates them. Engagement is eased with visual materials, color, and
format. I try to fill my bag with materials that are colorful, playful, mysterious, or funny,
even what might look merely like a game. These serve to draw in curiosity or bring a
cautious learner’s guard down. When something works for a student, I make sure to point it
out, so that they can advocate for themselves and know how they learn best.
Once a task is on the table and the learner is curious, then I am looking to create a hands-
on, interactive, tactile experience. The visual, kinesthetic, and verbal happen
simultaneously or in close association to access as many neural networks as possible for
learning to light up and make an imprint.
These five qualities come together through frameworks to foster connection. This respect
for the learner’s interests and abilities boosts a chance for success.
My students’ notebooks might include mnemonics, graphic organizers, and colorful models
that systematically organize the details of their learning for ongoing reference. At
Sunnyside, when I line up the kids’ notebooks, each looks different. The same strategy has
a unique representation by each learner. This is what I look for – a framework connected
with that learner became their own.
Find Your Frameworks
Frameworks are embedded into our own routines and woven into our world. What do you
do automatically and invisibly that could be made visible to the young ones in your
presence? Parents and teachers can look for ways to make the structure of everyday life’s
tasks more apparent. For example, the mystery of a meal is revealed by the experience
cooking in the framework of a recipe or whatever system you use to turn ingredients into a
You can learn more about Cindy and her amazing work on her website Learning Frameworks. And don’t forget to sign up for our webinar Monday, August 20th at 1 pm PST. Cindy will be sharing more insights and answering all your questions about using learning frameworks with gifted and twice-exceptional children.
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.
I think we can probably all agree that gifted and twice-exceptional children are really really neato.
Sometimes they ask questions that deepen our understanding of the world and the people in it.
Or they make jokes that show wisdom beyond their years.
They might complete amazing feats of computer/software engineering that push the envelope of what people think is possible.
A lot of the time they show such a deep understanding and empathy for others that you worry how to best protect such a sensitive little soul.
And still… there is so much more to these guys than this.
I realize that not all gifted children will display these types of behavior or reveal their talents in these ways. More than anything, it’s these children’s sensitivity and drive that make us stand up and take notice, regardless of the details.
And perhaps they’re struggling to integrate into their community due to these differences.
So how do we stand up and take notice?
After all, you really want the world to know how cool your kid is! Are you trying to expedite that process by pressuring them to add very large numbers in their head at the dinner table in front of your parents? Do you quiz them about history facts when you have guests over? Do you have them proudly announce all their accomplishments to your friends and family?
These are some examples of the subtle exploitation of gifted children. The intention is so pure, but the result can be quite damaging.
Often gifted children are tasked to tutor others in the classroom or are the constant example of a child who’s “doing it right”. It’s easy for a stressed out teacher in an overfull classroom to rely on the child who finished his 30-minute activity in 3 minutes as an assistant.
What message does this send our gifted and twice-exceptional children? The message is that we care more about what they can do and less about who they are.
Don’t get me wrong — some children LOVE to show-off, perform, or have an audience… and that’s great. (I also know that this type of personality has it’s own set of challenges).
When it comes right down to it, the issue is about choice.
To give a child choice is to give them respect and acceptance, two beautiful needs for any human.
If your child was to say to you “I don’t want to do math right now” or “I don’t want to be the teacher’s assistant,” how would you reply?