Neurodiversity: The New Normal

We have learned to talk about cultural diversity, gender diversity and biodiversity. Now we can include the term neurodiversity.

Bing2

People diagnosed with autism have challenged us to stop talking about “having” autism as though it was a disease. We now talk about the autism spectrum – which we are all on to some degree. We could apply the same approach to ADD/ADHD. We all have issues with regulating attention.

There are lots of ability spectrums we could put ourselves on. We are moving away from talking about “disorders” that we “have” or “don’t have” – like diseases – to just talking about the way we’re made. There is no one way that a brain should function. All brains are different, and there are many ways of being smart.

There is no such thing as normal.

When we talk about normal, we are simply talking about the largest part of the bell curve – the percentage of a population into which the greatest number fits.

Standard_deviation_diagram.svgSchool is designed for kids in the middle of the bell curve. The most successful students are those who fall into the normal range in the two areas school rewards most – math and language. They are the ones who get called smart and get to think of themselves as smart. They are not better. They are lucky.

“I’m the dumbest kid in the class.”

I hear this line from some of the most intelligent kids I work with. They can talk about politics, music, history, computers, video games or relationships at an incredibly sophisticated level. They are knowledgeable and skilled in many areas, but they struggle in school where language and math are the main indicators of intelligence and success.

We know about multiple intelligences, but we don’t honour them equally.

Multiple-intelligence

What can I do as a parent?

As parents, we are in a unique position to honour the whole child, not just their “word smarts” and their “logic smarts.” We know where their strengths lie, and we cannot let the assessment of school be the final word. Our child is more than the grades they get on tests and report cards.

Encourage your child’s personal interests and abilities through extra-curricular activities or independently. Adopt a strengths-based perspective rather than focusing on remediating weaknesses. Wherever they end up in life, let it be because their strengths were honoured rather than their weaknesses judged.

How could school be re-arranged to honour neurodiversity?

  • Identify each child’s learning style and modify teaching and assessment accordingly
  • Open up the curriculum to focus on more than math and language
  • Give just as much importance to the arts and hands-on activities
  • Give children more opportunities to move around
  • Give children more opportunities to experience nature (If only in a playground redesigned to be a natural setting rather than a concrete slab beside a large lawn)
  • Move away from standardized testing as a way of measuring success and failure
  • Allow children to specialize in their areas of strength (We don’t have to be good at everything)
  • Address the emotional well-being of students, not just their academic acheivement

Forward this article to any parent, teacher or administrator you know who is concerned about kids. (See the share buttons at the bottom of this post).

_____________________________________________________________________

51q0LN5874L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Here is the latest book on neurodiversity

______________________________________________________________________

logo

Here is a must-visit website.
Some of you will already know the great children’s singer Raffi!

______________________________________________________________________

Here is an incredible blog written by a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. Have a look at some of his posts.

_____________________________________________________________________

======================================================================

     DON’T MOURN FOR US

by Jim Sinclair

======================================================================

Here is the text of a presentation given by Jim Sinclair at the 1993 International Conference on Autism in Toronto, addressed primarily to parents. In it he challenges us to think differently about all labels.

How To Talk To Kids About Terrorism

During times of crisis people reveal who they really are. We are living through such a crisis right now as terrorism spreads around the world, and we see the whole spectrum of responses – from empathy and kindness to hatred and fear. Where do we fall on this spectrum? Our kids are looking to us to make sense of it all.

terrorism6

A tiny minority of Muslims would identify themselves as radical jihadists, and yet Muslims around the world and in our own communities are being attacked or discriminated against just because they look like the terrorists shown on TV.

In school, our kids learn about people who helped slaves in the last century, who helped Jews escape the Nazis, who marched in the civil rights movement. We honor people who were on the right side of history. We shake our heads in disgust at those who were cruel and close-minded. We are living in a time when we are being asked to make similar choices. What side of history will we be on? Will we hold on to our principles of empathy and kindness or will we succumb to the fear of the mob?

Compare terrorism to something kids understand – bullying

Taping a fight.

Kids experience their own version of low-level terrorism. It’s called bullying. What is bullying? The use of fear and intimidation to gain power and control. This turns out to be a good definition of terrorism. To talk to kids about terrorism we could talk about it as bullying on a global scale. The world is like a giant schoolyard, and the terrorists are like the bullies.

There are a couple of things we know about bullies that are also true of terrorists. If we remind our kids and ourselves of these things, the bully is no longer so scary.

  • They have suffered in some way
  • They feel a lack of power and control in their lives
  • They try to make themselves feel stronger by making others feel weaker
  • The bully is the weakest kid in the schoolyard
  • The bully wins when all the other kids live in fear
  • The bully wins when the kids who see it don’t say or do anything

We need to respond to terrorism the same way we respond to bullying. We can punish the bully, but we need to understand the bully as well. We need to look at the causes. Where are all these bullies coming from? If we had this many bullies in a schoolyard doing this much damage, we wouldn’t just keep sending them all to the office. We wouldn’t equip all the kids in the schoolyard with weapons to fight back. We wouldn’t punish all the kids who look like the bully. We would start to ask deeper questions. We would start listening to them. We probably should have started doing that long ago.

Responses to terrorism

  • Justice for those who are oppressed thereby alleviating the situations in the world that create terrorists
  • Peace-making through words as a solution to conflict in the form of multi-lateral negotiations
  • Love of one’s neighbor no matter what their race, creed or gender
  • Empathy and respect – even for bullies

What do adults tell kids to do about bullying? Use your words not your fists. We need to take our own advice. Bombs are not the answer. Every time a bomb is dropped in the Middle East, it creates a hundred new terrorists.

What can I say to my child about the Muslim religion?

The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all descend from one common ancestor – Abraham –  who lived around 4,000 years ago. All three religions see Abraham as the first person to establish a relationship with Yahweh, God or Allah – three names for the same “person.”

Use the metaphor of a tree

terrorism3

If we think of it as a family tree, it started with the Jews (who believed that God made a special covenant with Abraham), then a new branch formed from that central trunk called Christians (who believed that Jesus was the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for) and then another branch grew from the same central trunk called Muslims (who believed that Mohammed was the last in a line of great prophets that included Abraham and Jesus). These are the three great monotheistic religions (those who believe in one God) in the world today. They are all branches of the same tree. They have their roots in the same earth, and the branches are reaching for the light of the same sun.

All three groups are seeking truth. All three groups preach the power of love, peace and justice. Throughout history there have been people who have used all three of these beautiful religions to justify violent actions, and that is happening again right now.

We can talk to our kids about terrorism by comparing it to bullying. We can also model for our kids a way of dealing with bullies – showing empathy and not letting emotions rule over reason. If we don’t do these things, we run two risks – the risk of letting the bully win and the risk of becoming bullies ourselves.

Too Many Kids Are Suffering At School

Where are empathy and compassion in our schools?

shutterstock_143064667 (2)

This recent e-mail is typical of the hundreds I get from distraught mothers. 

“Today was not a good day and the reason for my email. We were called to the school where he had overturned pretty much everything.  It was like we were looking at someone else’s child.  And he kept repeating he was a “bad boy.” It was heartbreaking. I was not aware that his teacher is not able to remove him from the room. Instead they are trained to remove the entire class…We are really struggling to find the right course of action for him.  The school is going to have a speech pathologist come in to see if he is struggling with language and speech.  We have made appointments to have his hearing & sight tested just to rule it out.  My gut tells me there is a disconnect with his classroom teacher and maybe a combination of him struggling with worksheets and more structure.  I really don’t know, all we know is this is not the boy we see at home.”

The only thing missing from this e-mail is the recommendation that he be put on medication. I’m sure that suggestion will be made eventually. The solution is always a technical one – professional specialists or medication. It is never a human one. This five-year-old boy needs empathy and compassion. He needs to be held. No one is listening to the mother’s “gut.”

Are teachers to blame for this situation? It’s more complicated than that. We all know there are good teachers and bad teachers. A good teacher has empathy and compassion. You feel for the child, and you act on those feelings. A good teacher doesn’t let institutions get in the way of their humanity.

Unfortunately, teachers become the product of policies, systems and procedures that they feel compelled to follow. Teachers have imbibed more than anyone the central lesson of school:

“Do what you’re told, and don’t talk back.”

Fear keeps people silent. Parents fear their child will be disadvantaged somehow if they speak up too much. Teachers have even more fear.

Students and teachers at The College School for brochures and the website.

They live under the shadow of administrators whose goal is to make the school look good. Administrators, in turn, obey their own superiors. It is a completely top-down system where no one is allowed to talk back, where we are all just following orders.

Kids have no organization to represent their interests – other than mothers and fathers. Teachers do, but even this protection comes at a cost. Teachers are given strict instructions from their unions about what they can and cannot do or say. They are constantly coached about how to protect themselves.

Over arching all these systems of control are professional governing bodies with the power to discipline teachers. At any moment a teacher can be accused of any number of things and submitted to a ritual of public shaming made even more efficient by social media. Fear rules teachers lives, and kids are the ones who suffer.

“If a child comes toward me crying, I was instructed to put my hands in the air.”

Are you saying we should get rid of accountability and transparency? I am saying we need to balance them with humanity – with empathy and compassion. Systems are set up to serve us and safeguard us. When they begin to hurt us and hurt our children, we need to do something we weren’t taught how to do in school – talk back.

Amanda-Whiteman-2

Half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. They report that the culture of school is just too oppressive. There is no tolerance for creativity or innovation. There is no place for human connection. Empathy and compassion are not just ignored; they are frowned upon. And this is the environment into which we send our kids. They can’t quit in the first five years.

What is the solution? Individuals. In the age of conformity and herd behavior, we need individuals who will stand up and speak out – teachers, parents and administrators who will talk back to systems based on fear and have the courage to connect authentically with children.

Advice for administrators

Question policies and procedures that are not kid friendly – that are put in place on the advice of insurance companies to avoid litigation. Schools can practice due diligence without shutting down our humanity.

Advice for unions

Do more than protect teachers’ interests. Protect children’s interests too.

Advice for professional governing bodies

You were set up to “protect the public interest.” Don’t just protect the interests of the fearful public, but the compassionate, progressive public as well.

Advice for teachers

You have as much freedom, humanity and compassion as you claim for yourself. Do not let fear, instilled by systems and institutions, rule your decisions.

Advice for parents

Keep talking back to school – teachers and administrators at all levels. You can be a powerful voice for children’s rights – your own child and all children. Listen to your gut. Always be on the side of your child.

How Do I Motivate My Child?

Psychologists tell us there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic (coming from inside) and extrinsic (coming from outside). Extrinsic motivation usually takes the form of rewards or punishments. It works with little kids who sometimes need an incentive to do things they don’t see the value of.

shutterstock

We need to help our kids move from external motivation to internal motivation.

How do we do this? By letting go. When kids reach an age when they are able to see the consequences of their actions, take a step back. Let them begin to take charge of their own lives. We teach responsibility through freedom and natural consequences.

Many parents get stuck in the time-honored technique of external control known as nagging.

“I have to push him.”
“I’m always ‘on him’ about getting things done.”

This might be good preparation for an assembly line worker or a galley ship rower, but it’s poor preparation for adulthood. Employers want adults who are self-motivated, self-directed and self-regulating. No boss wants someone they have to be ‘on’ all the time.

People become what they are perceived to be. We can instill a negative narrative, “You’re lazy and need to be pushed” or a positive narrative, “You’re a capable, responsible person who knows what needs to be done.”

Things you can say to your child to promote self-directedness:

  • “It’s your choice.”
  • “You decide.”
  • “I trust your judgment.”
  • “Let me know if you need any help.”

Natural consequences are the best teacher. When kids are young, they are not always able to see the consequences of their actions, so we protect them. That’s the way it should be.

But many parents carry on this protective role too long, so kids never learn how to accept responsibility for their own actions and take charge of their own lives. In our attempt to protect our children from negative experiences, we rob them of some of life’s greatest lessons.

study3

Homework and studying are the two biggest battle grounds where the issue of motivation is played out.

Option 1: Natural consequences. If I don’t do my homework or study, I will fall behind and possibly fail. (Sometimes failing is the necessary prerequisite for learning to take greater responsibility.)

Option 2: Nagging. The child shuts down and turns off. The parent ends up wanting it more than the child does. When we push too hard, the result can be counter-will. “I’m not going to do it because it’s what you want me to do.”

Nagging is rooted in our need for control and fear – fear that my child will fail. When we try too hard to control, our fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to trust our kids and give them loving support. Love sees the best in a child, not the worst. People become what they are perceived to be – capable, responsible, trustworthy.

Talking Back to Perfectionism

The perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect child.

Perfectionism affects all of us, and it is taking its toll on our children, our relationships, our health, our politics and the environment.

little-boy-108317_1280 (2) Pixabay

Many children suffer from perfectionism. They stress about getting it right, about being the best, about not disappointing Mom and Dad. The other form perfectionism can take is underachieving. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Where do our children learn perfectionism?

Perfectionism used to be fueled by organized religion which held up a model of perfection that no one ever felt they could achieve. We were all sinners from birth.

Today consumerism has taken over the job of defining perfection. You are what you buy, and you will be judged by what you buy. You will also be judged by how you look (which can be improved by what you buy).

School also teaches perfectionism. Kids feel that their performance is constantly being evaluated, and the standard is 100% which no one ever achieves.

Finally, if we’re really honest with ourselves, they can pick up perfectionism from us – parents who are victims of the same epidemic.

Perfectionism is driven by shame and fear.

Humans are social animals and one of the ways we keep each other in line is through shame. Like school yard bullies, we criticize, mock and degrade anyone who falls outside our social norms. More subtle forms of shaming include gossip and all the little judgments we pass on each other every day.

This is where fear comes in. We fear that the same kinds of judgments will be passed on us. And so the illness begins. Fit in at all costs. Perfectionism is really about conformity.

How do we talk back to perfectionism?

Here are some things we can say to our children, but we need to believe and practice these attitudes ourselves!

  • Dare to be different. There is no one right way to be (weight, appearance, intelligence, personality). It is OK to be different. In fact, it is good to be different.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people with more possessions, intelligence, whatever. It doesn’t matter.
  • The only person you need to compare yourself to is yourself. Are you growing, learning, changing for the better?
  • Your value as a person does not depend on your performance or your appearance.
  • You do not have to accept the judgments (real or imagined) that others pass on you.
  • Talk back to media images of perfection: beauty product ads, home renovation shows, bridal magazines – the list is endless.
  • Avoid shaming language: How could you? What were you thinking? Is that the best you can do?
Perfectionism and procrastination

Perfectionism can lead to procrastination – rooted in fear that the outcome will be less than perfect. “Any job worth doing is worth doing poorly.” As a perfectionist, when I first heard this, it drove me crazy. No way is that true! The older I get, the more I see the truth in it. It lets the perfectionist off the hook. It calls the perfectionist’s bluff. Just do it. Don’t use the fact that it might not be perfect be an excuse for doing nothing. Do something – even if it’s not perfect.

 

 

Beyond Fundraising

Schools need parents to create change

As we begin a new school year, parents will receive newsletters from school with information about what’s going on, what’s coming up and maybe even an invitation to participate in some way. My advice – get in there!

community-897761_1280 (2)

Schools are like dysfunctional families. They exist in a kind of bubble where they create their own reality and come to believe in their own definition of “normal.” Dysfunctional families behave better when visitors are over. What schools need are more visitors from the outside world – reality checks – and parents can be that.

No shame and blame

In every school there are great teachers and every board has its great principals, but there are still too many dysfunctional situations. Schools need to be challenged – not attacked and criticized – but spoken to in a rational, adult way about the choices they are making – about technology, about rules, about so many aspects of our kids’ day-to-day lives.

Here is a list of questions I have received from parents:

• Why are they learning from blurry, disconnected photocopies instead of textbooks?
• Why are they watching Disney movies in grade 3?
• Why do they take away recess as a punishment?
• Why are they so quick to suggest medication for my son?
• Why is EQAO causing so much stress?
• Why are kids not allowed to run or use a ball at recess?
• Why does our playground look like an abandoned parking lot?
• Why is my child still being bullied even after I’ve reported it?
• Why does my child say he hates his teacher?
• How can I get my child to like school?

Parents “hand their kids over” to the school system, and then feel shut out. Too many parents do not feel welcome in their schools or feel like they are simply being tolerated or patronized. Others simply keep quiet out of fear of repercussions for their child.

Parent councils too often are just token illusions of involvement. At the monthly meeting, parents are told what is going on in the school, but they are seldom asked for their input, and any input they do give is seldom acted upon. Parents come out in September eager to have an impact on their child’s education, and within a few meetings realize that this is just going to be about fundraising.

Parents need to be part of the discussion about how money is spent, curriculum priorities and school culture. What makes a great school? Ownership and a common core vision. This can only happen through meaningful discussion and participation.

The principal dictates what happens in the school and the teacher dictates what happens in the classroom. Too often our schools resemble small dictatorships. They need to become more democratic. That means more parental input at the local level.

Have meaningful discussions

• In every school there are great teachers who feel the same way you do. They are often parents themselves. Get to know them and support them.
• Get to know your child’s teacher on a personal level and have meaningful discussions about education and child development.
• Get to know your principal on a personal level and have meaningful discussions about school culture.
• Get to know other parents and find out what their concerns are.
• Discuss issues of concern to you – issues relating to your own child as well as issues affecting the whole school.
• Attend parent council meetings and make sure important core issues get discussed.
• Look for follow up on these discussions – what has changed?
• Challenge items on the agenda that are trivial or don’t really create change.
• Does your school use social media? Is there a way you can open up discussion there?
• Don’t be afraid to say what you think. There are many parents who feel the same way you do.
• Don’t allow yourself to be written off as a crazy parent. The vocal parent is sometimes isolated and ignored.
• Adopt a thoughtful, patient, intelligent, respectful approach – and don’t go away.

THINK before you speak. Is what I’m going to say…

T     Thoughtful
H    Honest
I      Intelligent
N     Necessary
K     Kind

If it meets these criteria, then speak. It is the only way things will change.

(In many American schools, parents have been incredible agents of change – transforming individual schools and whole school districts. Rent the 2012 movie “Won’t Back Down” with Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter. (It’s on Netflix) Based on real events in California, it shows how parents can change schools.)

“I don’t want to go back!”

Let’s not forget what we learned this summer. We learned who our boys are without school.

children-516342_1280 (2)

If we were lucky, we saw our boys as they are in nature. We saw our boys as they are with unstructured play. They may have complained about boredom at times, but we had the chance to see them as relaxed kids who were free and natural and happy. We have to remember that this is who our boys really are.

The great educational theorist, John Holt, said, “In school, we do not see children as they are. We see them as school reveals them to us.” This past summer we got to see who our boys really are. They love to move, they love to have fun, they love to laugh, and they love to have the freedom to be themselves with all their spontaneous, wonderful energy!

Now it’s time to go back into “the system.” Let’s remember that it is a system; it is not a natural environment. Some kids manage OK in school; some actually like it, but for many – especially boys – school is not a pleasant place. A.S. Neill asked the fundamental question, “Do we make the child fit the school or do we make the school fit the child?” In our school system today, the child is expected to fit the school. “Sit still, be quiet, and do what you’re told.” We must work to make the school fit the child. Eventually our schools will become more boy-friendly. Parents will become more active in advocating for change, and teachers will become better trained in gender differences. But we’re not there yet. So how can I help my child this fall?

7 Tips for transitioning back:

1. Mental rehearsal. Talk about the first days of school. Talk through the routines of morning and dinner time, of homework time and bedtime. Part of this will be a discussion about how can we manage these times better than we have in the past, but just as important is the mental rehearsal. When children have a mental picture of how a process will “look,” they will find it easier to comply.

2. Get to know your child’s teacher as a person. Don’t wait until there are problems. Establish a positive rapport early on, so that if you do need to talk to the teacher about anything more serious, you will be talking to someone you know and get along with.

3. Always be on the side of the child. When your child expresses frustration, boredom or anxiety, don’t try to talk your child out of their feelings. Just listen. “I hear you.” Let them keep talking. That is how they work their feelings out. Do not take the side of the school against the child. You are always the child’s number one ally, providing coaching and strategies but most importantly affirmation – best expressed in the form of a hug!

4. Have a routine. Have backpacks and clothes ready the night before. Do homework at the same time and place every night. Bedtime rituals such as a bath, pyjamas, teeth brushing, reading with Mom or Dad are all visual and tactile cues that signal it’s time to “come down.”

5. Have a family policy around screen time. No electronics until homework is done. No electronics in bed. Recharge devices overnight in Mom and Dad’s room. Two one-hour sessions of screen time would be a reasonable maximum between getting home and bedtime.

6. Read to your kids! The printed word still rules at school. Only 21% of children in grade 3 report that they read together with a parent on a regular basis. Reading together is bonding and stimulates the parts of the brain that screens don’t.

7. Keep summer alive. Just because we’ve all gone back to the institutional routine, we don’t need to let that rule our lives. We can still have fun. We can still get out in nature. Every week end (and maybe some evenings too) can be a “little summer” – a chance to be free, spontaneous and relaxed. Stress is the number one issue in kids’ lives and the greatest obstacle to learning. Let’s keep summer alive during the whole year.