March 2014

Learning Rambles 2

I have been avoiding writing this. Shocker, I know. I (still) feel like I have to justify my writing, put out the disclaimer that it might not be that good, so that if it ISN’T that good, I already prepared myself and won’t be let down. Or something. But anyway.

I wrote Learning Rambles the other week, and more and more thoughts are swirling in my mind. I finished reading Your Brain on Childhood, and we just finished two horrendous weeks of administering MCAS (state testing), and all of that combined is making me think.

Our education system is SO messed up. For all students. And/but especially for mine, who are all special ed students.

During MCAS, my students were required to sit in a room and read grade-level texts, and answer grade-level questions, when they often aren’t at grade level. My 7th grader struggled through the reading comprehension part. She reads at a 2nd grade level independently. She got frustrated. Yes, I could read out loud to her. No, that didn’t help. She has a language disorder among other learning disabilities. The point is that there is this push toward getting all kids on grade level. And this push is doing more damage than good.

There is SO much research to state that kids don’t learn best when they are stuck in a classroom all day. Many studies, even other countries who do it better than we do, demonstrate that less homework, more time outside, more free play time, and more time to focus on what they’re interested in, make happier, more creative kids. AND, most importantly, it does NOT hinder development of intelligence! That’s the problem. That’s the fear, the false belief. Neuroscience, psychology, it all shows that kids are meant to learn and develop in one way. And our educational system is forcing them into another way.

And we wonder why anxiety, depression, attention issues, etc., are all on the rise? 

Grade level shouldn’t be the goal. That’s not to say that learning isn’t important, that acquiring new knowledge isn’t important.

Grade level doesn’t mean anything. I’m sorry, I know that’s a bold statement, but it doesn’t. Many of my kids are nowhere near “grade level” but have far more skills in various other areas of intelligence than I do. “Grade level” does not equal happiness. It does not equal success. It does not equal a future.

“Grade level” is an idealistic term, a way of trying to cram every student into a box, when in reality, most students don’t fit in that box. “Grade level” is why I hear parent after parent of elementary and middle school kids stress in IEP meetings, saying, “If she isn’t reading at grade level, how will she ever graduate high school or go to college?” 

Along with the “grade level” issue is the “teach to the test.” I wrote, a few weeks ago, about how my students seem to learn more, and are happier and calmer, more creative and more interested, when we are learning about things THEY want to learn about, things they naturally stumble upon. And oh, how I want to do that all day every day. But I feel like I’m in a constant battle. I can’t NOT teach them how to answer inferential comprehension questions from random reading passages, because that’s what’s required for them to pass MCAS, and to graduate high school. And even for those parents, and there are so many of them, who have similar opinions as I do – what are they supposed to do? We are in the minority. What will we do – band together and decide to boycott MCAS and extracurriculars and homework? Sounds pretty ideal and great to me – except when, because the system is so flawed, these kids aren’t going to get into college, because despite being clearly intelligent and creative, they don’t have a high school diploma (not from not learning, but from not passing a standardized test that in no way captures what a student actually knows and is capable of), nor do they have 100 hours of extracurriculuar activities to “prove themselves”. 

I just don’t get how that is fair. I don’t get it at all. It frustrates me to no end because I feel stuck. I have these beliefs and what I know are truths – and I also have the system. And I’m not strong enough to fight against the system. 

If you have made it through this incredibly disorganized and not even remotely logical rant, kudos to you. Dare I say it, I want to hear what you have to say. 

Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have a way of explaining what I’m trying to get at that’s much more succinct and cohesive than how I said it? Is this an uphill battle that isn’t worth fighting?

What do you think?


Thoughts that have been collecting

Included, but not limited to:

-I hate MCAS. Hate it hate it hate it. That’s about as profound as I can get right now on that topic.

-During a break from MCAS with one of my 5th graders, I witnessed pure bliss and joy as we scripted a Garfield episode. His smile and laugh – amazing.

-Yoga tonight was sweaty and exhausting and great. I was in my body and grounded and feel wonderful.

-Fat talk needs to stop now. Period.

-I did two things that I had been avoiding and feel so good about it

-Today felt and smelled different – very clearly Spring-like. Hopeful.

-Hearing different philosophies and beliefs about the soul, the body, what happens after death, is incredibly draining but very thought-provoking, and dare I say, somewhat comforting.

I found my calm.

This morning I was anxious. Probably for a few reasons I could figure out, for a few others that I’m ignoring or avoiding, and a few that have not yet been excavated.

Anyway, I debated going to yoga or staying home on the couch under blankets. I love the Saturday morning class. But I had gone to yoga Thursday night, seeking grounding and calm, and got frustrated with myself. I couldn’t get out of my head, I couldn’t ground myself, I couldn’t quiet my thoughts. I left yoga judging myself MORE (productive, right?), texting a friend, “Yoga is supposed to be the ONE place where I can ground myself.”

Now, obviously judging how you’re feeling is like, the least productive thing in the entire world, but when you’re in the moment, it’s easier said than done. But, nevertheless, I got dressed and went to yoga. The anxiety in my stomach was swirling but I walked into the studio, put my mat in my favorite spot, stretched a bit, and lay down on my back, putting my hand on my belly, trying to feel myself breathe.

All of a sudden, a sweet voice popped into my head, saying, “Find your calm.” It was Brooke, an adorable, amazing girl, that despite never having met in person, I feel a deep connection with from the way her mom invites us into her head and her life, and because she reminds me so so much of all of my wonderful kids I work with. 

“Find your calm” became my mantra as I breathed in and out, and by the time class began, I had found it. My thoughts slowed down, my heart slowed down, I breathed deeply and felt myself relax.

Brooke: I hope one day I can tell you this, and I hope you understand, but please know that YOU helped ME find my calm.


When my students have Occupational Therapy testing done, one item that is evaluated is their ability to initiate a task. I joked to a coworker the other day that initiation is the measure I would score lowest on.

There is often so much that I need to do and want to do. And I know that if I just started, I would get going, and I’d feel better about it. But I cannot, for the life of me, get myself to start.

I sit there knowing I would feel better if I just DID the thing I was avoiding, or putting off…..and yet, I can’t do it.

Why is that? What is it about starting a task that seems so dreadful, so daunting, so much that we end up avoiding? Why is it that this occurs even for pleasurable tasks?

How do we just DO IT, at least start it, especially when we know we will feel so much better once we get the ball rolling?

Do you ever avoid tasks? Do you struggle to begin something? What works for you?

Learning rambles

This is going to be incoherent but I have to write before I lose the thoughts and the concepts deep into the folds of my brain, never to be even partially articulated. 

I’m reading a book. It’s called Your Brain on Childhood, by Gabrielle Principe. I’ve only read about 60 pages so far, but I’m captivated. It’s very research-heavy, citing lots of studies regarding child development, animal development, and ultimately the clear theme is that our kids aren’t being kids. Between phones, ipads, computers (all screens), lack of true “play” time (which is actually a necessity for kids! It’s how they learn – truly learn! Not just memorize what they’ve been taught), and a push to be fastersmarterwisermoredeveloped, we’re causing more problems than we’re solving. In trying to help our kids be smart and brilliant and successful, we’re actually doing the opposite sometimes.

Now, I speak as someone who is NOT a researcher, not an expert in human development, not (yet) a mother. So I can’t speak with fact or certainty. But I can speak intuitively, and I can speak from experience, with about a zillion kiddos, all across the spectrum.

And I can observe. And notice what is hardly a surprise: that the rise in learning disabilities is increasing. That more and more kids are on IEPs. That more and more kids are falling behind in school, and more and more kids are hating school. That anxiety and depression are consuming kids younger and younger. I can’t convince myself that this is random, that there’s no reason behind this. Why is it, well, I can’t state with certainty. But from my observations, of my own students and my friends’ children? I’m observing the amount of homework is increasing. That kids have less and less time to play. That more of an emphasis is placed on MCAS and other state testing. That the “fun” units can’t be taught in school because there’s no time. That kids are taught rules and things to memorize but there’s no time to learn what they want. There’s no more time to learn naturally. 

I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that my most successful speech/language therapy sessions are the ones in which we veer off course and have a completely child-directed, randomly-flowing, session. It can’t be a coincidence that my students seem to learn more when we’re talking about something that they brought up or noticed. It can’t be coincidental that what they seem to retain most comes from natural learning opportunities, and often ones they have brought upon themselves.

I don’t know what else to say. There are clearly a lot of thoughts in my head and I realize this is anything but coherent, and probably full of vast accusations and gross generalizations. But I gave you the disclaimer that this is based on absolutely no fact, nothing but my own brain, my life, my experiences. I’m sure they’ll be more to come, more to say, and maybe some cohesiveness eventually. But in the meantime?

Does anyone else, whether you’re a student, a professional, a parent, get this? Feel the same way? Totally disagree? Tell me your thoughts. It’s okay if they’re not based on anything other than the neurons firing in your head. 

“What do I tell him?”

The mom of a 7-year-old kiddo who I just started seeing in a social pragmatics group, approached me before group this week.

Glancing at her son, she whispered, “He’s asking why he has to come to this group. What do I tell him?”

Such a common question. The parents I work with want what’s best for their children. Especially when they are in the early stages of an autism-related diagnosis, they are anxious and worried. They don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. They want to protect their child, yet empower him.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that while yes, I am a professional, nobody knows their child better than a parent does. So it’s a parents’ decision as to what to say or do. However, I do have my opinions. And I shared them with this mom.

I told her that we will get to talking about it in group, in a few weeks, once we’ve established some sort of cohesion and a sense of safety between the boys and me. I told her that when we do talk about it, we talk about how everyone has things that are easier for them and harder for them. I told her how I always, right off the bat, use the example that I’m really good at reading, but drawing is hard for me. Inevitably, one of the kids always replies, “I’m so good at drawing!!!” and I use that to say, “That’s great! It’s harder for me, but that’s okay.” And that opens up a discussion of everyone sharing what is easy and hard for them.

I explained that our kids are smart. And that even if they don’t know, diagnostically, that they have social-cognitive difficulties, they know it on an intuitive level. They’re aware that it doesn’t come as easy to them. They’ve felt frustration and sadness and confusion. And I firmly believe that it’s validating to know that others recognize it, that it’s okay, and that there are groups and ways to help make it easier.

Mom said, “Yes! That’s what I told him! I said that he’s so smart at things like math and science, but the social stuff can be harder for him sometimes. Is that okay? I don’t want him to feel like I’m pointing out his faults.”

I told her that in my opinion, yes, it’s absolutely okay. There’s a difference between accusing, and pointing out failures, and factually acknowledging strengths and weaknesses. I told her that when we keep it a secret, when we lie to our kids or tell them fakely, with a big smile on our face, “There is nothing wrong with you!! You have so many friends, all the kids like you,” that they know that something is off. It’s validating to hear, “I know this is hard for you. It’s hard for other kids too. It’s not a big deal.”

I always tell my kids and students that even for people who “social stuff” comes easier for, have difficulty here and there. I explain that what’s tricky for me is to sit back and let others talk sometimes.  And that’s okay. And I then ask, “Does that ever happen to anyone else?” And I validate anything they say. And if they say, “Sometimes I get frustrated with friends” or “Sometimes I don’t know what to say in a conversation,” I let them know that I get it. That I feel that way too, sometimes, and that probably other kids do, too.

It’s a big deal in that we want to help our kids get to a level of succeeding, we don’t want to ignore their challenges. But it’s not a big deal in that it’s not a huge secret. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Validate them for our kids. Let them know that we get it, that it’s not a “bad” thing. That we all struggle sometimes. That we’re going to help them as best we can.

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