Hooray, we made it to summer, seems like quite an accomplishment for us families! We know that your family could very well feel exhausted from the last 18 months of uncertainty which is absolutely understandable. After you take the deserved time you need to decompress, optimizing the “free time” to find learning moments is a top priority, especially this year. Even before the pandemic, summer slide was scientifically proven – contributing to more pronounced achievement gaps and creating feelings of defeat in all learners. “Researchers have explored this topic for more than a century,” according Ariel Goldberg with edsurge.com, so why are we not able to conquer the summer slide as a community? 

By definition, summer slide is the learning loss children experience by not reinforcing the growth of their prior year. Learners who do not read, write and problem solve throughout the summer months can lose an additional three months of development achieved during the previous school year.  The three months of loss academically can impact a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence. Instead of starting the following school year strong, children who experience summer slide may experience lower self-worth which can create even more loss than the lack of practice, particularly if teachers do not spend the first four weeks of instruction reviewing last year’s concepts. At minimum, learning loss impacts the follow areas:

  • self-esteem
  • self-confidence
  • risk-taking 
  • motivation
  • mindset
  • social skills
  • stamina 
  • frustration threshold

Let’s explore ways that you as caregivers can naturally strengthen your learner’s skills while still providing the reprieve you deserve and without adding too much to your own plate. 

Key Steps to Maximizing the Summer Months: 

  1. Engage in fun-filled learning –  We certainly want your family to enjoy this summer and make the most of the time that you have together! Learning together can take many forms from card and board games, to conducting science experiments, cooking their favorite dishes, orchestrating outdoor activities and the like! It is imperative to treat these as moments to foster a love of learning holistically.
  2. Continue to build learning foundations – It is important to sprinkle in learning opportunities both organically and explicitly. In order to maintain your learner’s engagement, scheduling sessions with outside specialists can preserve your family dynamic and help to reinforce/progress the previously established goals from the school year. 
  3. Introduce something new – Especially during the pandemic, special interests and hobbies could have fallen to the wayside. Setting aside time (daily, weekly, in camps, etc.) to allow learners to explore something new can spark a love for learning novel tasks and increase their likelihood of taking risks when they return to school!
  4. Invest in the right screen time – We get it, some learners are burnt out from screen time after months of distance learning. Finding ways to incorporate learning opportunities via screens such as learning videos, brain games, instructional sessions can provide the balance between play and enrichment that your family needs to thrive this summer. 
  5. Encourage boredom – Brilliance follows boredom and structure is key to attaining this beauty during the summer, believe it or not. Establishing a routine can set learners up for success and provide reassurance for what’s to come each day and week. As a family, we create a boredom busters box full of ideas for our children to access and a space that serves as a creativity outlet so that they can feel free to make a mess and to lean into their boredom at the same time. 

Offering a Helping Hand

For more ways to engage your learners in the process at home this summer, check out understood.org’s list of resources as there are so many from which you can gain inspiration! At Learnfully, we aim to empower neurodiversity by supporting families as a whole. Please feel free to watch our past webinars (especially the one dedicated to summer slide: Rise & Shine), programs dedicated to bridging the disparity between potential and performance and summer YouTube video series to discover even more ideas as to how to utilize the summer months bolstering your learners’ strengths and building momentum academically, socially, and emotionally! 

Mindset matters, as mentioned in our spotlight on Carol Dweck’s phenomenal work with mindset. realizing your potential is half the battle to actually achieving it. If this is true, how do we help learners get to this level of self-awareness as caregivers and educators? Here we explore how grit and perseverance serve as two key factors to successfully rising over a perceived obstacle and coming out stronger on the other side.

GRIT: Guts, Resilience, Initiative, Tenacity 

What is grit really? We hear the term thrown around all of the time, but do we really know what it is and how it applies to nurturing our learners’ learning habits? I, an educator and mother of four, didn’t even realize the depth of the term myself until I happened upon Angela Duckworth’s 2013 TED talk, “The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”  According to her website, Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. She is also a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and in 2013 was named a MacArthur Fellow. Prior to her career in research, she was a STEM teacher at public schools across the country. Dr. Duckworth continues, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint…To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times and rise eight.” According to Duckworth, GRIT stands for Guts, Resilience, Initiative, Tenacity. These are the single most determinable characteristics for success as adults and, thus, should be shaped in learners early on.  Talent does not make one gritty. We need to be gritty about helping our children become grittier. The good ol’ role model theory is proven true here time and time again.  By allowing children to explore passions, schedule elective/after-school activities and set SMART goals, we are helping shape their lens of what they are capable of achieving. This insight opened my eyes to the value of allowing children to select their own passions and the empowerment that comes once they follow through on the commitment they made. Strength of mind is what allows learners to pursue passions and see themselves through a challenge. 

Perseverance is Key

“If you are not struggling, you are not learning..If we believe that we can learn, and that mistakes are valuable, our brains grow to a greater extent when we make a mistake.” Jo Boaler 

Dr. Jo Boaler is the Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education at Stanford University and is another scholar who has, in conjunction with Dr. Carol Dweck, shed light on the profound impact of seeing yourself as capable of achieving your goals through several works, primarily her books Limitless Mind, Mathematical Mindset, and youcubed, a site dedicated to revolutionizing the way we teach and perceive mathematics as a whole. Boaler postulates that depth and accuracy are much more important than speed; she has proven the tell-tale theory of quality over quantity is what makes the difference in how one feels and connects with math. As educators, we must understand learners’ why, allow their voices to be heard and known and help shape failures as an integral part of the learning / growth process as it is a clue to work harder to achieve one’s purpose. By allowing opportunities for learners to try new things, lean into discomfort and walk through fear, they learn to rise to the challenge and realize their potential as a result. Based on her research at Stanford University, Boaler found that students who struggle more and learn slower than the “norm” are showing higher levels of success later on as adults.  It is the learned behavior of perseverance that helps push learners through the challenge, then the feelings of success kick in thereafter.  Although it can be challenging for the adults involved, helping learners see the value in setting and sticking with personal goals can make a huge difference in how they approach learning in the long run. 

The combination of a growth mindset, grit and perseverance is the ideal algorithm for rising above learning (and, let’s be honest, life) obstacles. Nurturing learners through the process can shape their view of their potential for lifelong success in learning and beyond. I have seen great benefit in modeling this theory and you can too, one step at a time!

Note: this article was originally published on eSchool News.

As April marks Autism Awareness Month, it’s been so heartening this year to see businesses and our government show solidarity and launch numerous initiatives that support neurodivergent learners.

Movie theaters now have “sensory friendly showings.” The Utah Jazz took efforts to make their arena certified by KultureCity, making the stadium more accommodating for fans with sensory needs. President Biden signed a proclamation calling April 2, 2021 as World Autism Awareness Day. 

These are all worthy efforts and initiatives. But I’m also aware that for many parents, this April could be the first time they are recognizing Autism Awareness Month, or the first time it’s been on their radar. Maybe they just received a diagnosis and are feeling overwhelmed. As great as these initiatives are, the parents of neurodivergent kids may need something simpler: connection, guidance, and empathy from other parents who know their situation. 

Six years ago, my oldest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A few years later, my younger son was diagnosed with ADHD. My husband and I have learned a lot about neurodiversity in a few short years. We’ve grown together and with our two sons. We can honestly say that we wouldn’t change a thing about our family. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, either. 

That’s why we wanted to celebrate this month by sharing a few things with others in similar circumstances. We wanted to share some guidance we wish we knew when we started our journey as neurodiverse parents.

A learning difference diagnosis is NOT the end of the world.

My husband and I were worried upon learning about our oldest son’s ASD diagnosis. These worries were compounded by the long waitlists for remediation resources. We were both unfamiliar with the diagnosis and were anxious that we were not doing enough. We didn’t know if we were making the right moves. It felt extremely isolating to not know what to do or who to turn to. We did as much research as we could, but we also took tangible action, getting our son into therapy. 

As time went on and the therapy started taking effect, we felt better as we started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. As working parents, we wanted to work toward solutions. We felt better taking action and by having a better understanding of the diagnosis. We also quickly realized that a label was just that — a meaningless label. We have two delightful kids. They happen to have a hard time adjusting to society’s norms. It’s our job to guide them through it.

Be patient with your kids. But also be patient with yourself.

The indigienous Māori people of New Zealand have a word for autism. It is ‘Takiwātanga’, which translates to my/his/her own time and space. Parents are often hard on themselves and blame themselves if things aren’t going “as expected.” It’s important to be patient, be consistent, and live life one day at a time. 

Everyone has good days and bad days. I used to think I could do it all: but telling myself that I can do everything only made things worse for me and my family. Thinking I could do everything and bury my emotions almost broke me. I learnt to swallow my pride and asked for help, even if it was “easier to do it myself.” I learnt to let other people help me, communicate clear expectations, and not to expect the same results. Don’t hesitate to ask your friends and family for help if you need to: they would likely love to help and be flattered that you asked. 

One mechanism I’ve turned to help keep me focused and organized is writing. I write everything down, to-do lists, journaling, things I need to prioritize, etc.  This system of writing everything down, prioritizing it, and being realistic about what I can and cannot accomplish has been highly effective for me. I’m not going to complete every item on the list, unfortunately. But I’ve gotten to the point where I am okay with the items I cannot accomplish. 

Finally, do not lose your sense of self. It’s imperative to your own hobbies, your own space, and your own life to feel a sense of balance. Do not hesitate to ask a family member, friend, or babysitter for help, so you can pursue the things outside of family that are important to you. Often it’s our own guilt that gets in our way and makes us feel selfish. It’s critical to set this thought aside. This will help you bring a fresh energy and perspective to your family life. 

Understand Your Child’s Strengths and Advocate for Them

It is important as parents to have realistic goals for our children. It’s easier to get school, teacher, and community support when you’re part of the solution. Explain the situation, understand any system’s limitations, and offer solutions that are mutually beneficial. If the system doesn’t work, however,  it’s time to find a new one that does. 

As you are researching and advocating for your child, most parents feel alone and scour the internet in search of answers. Some of us can get lost and spiral into a web of negative & impertinent information that can make things worse. Instead, use the internet to look for groups of parents, specialists, etc., and find resources that can get you a professional opinion. Every child, neurotypical and neurodivergent, is unique. Just because your child has the same diagnosis as another child, it doesn’t mean that the same solution works. 

As parents, a majority of our conversations are often about what the child can’t do. Take a step back and take the time to understand and nurture their strengths as well. If you can, make the time to enroll your child in activities they enjoy. It’s so important to cultivate their interest and passions, whatever form they take. 

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that you do what makes you and your family happy. Eliminate all external toxic sources. Do what works for you. If you need to take a day off from your routine or if you need to cut ties with a certain person who drains you, do it. My circle of family and friends is a lot smaller than it used to be. But they are extremely special and supportive — and I know I can turn to them for just about anything. 

Lastly, remember to take a breath and enjoy this journey. Remember that as a parent of neurodivergent children, two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward. Take the time to celebrate everything you’ve accomplished as a family, no matter how small. Life is hard and it’s the small moments that are often the most meaningful.

Note: this article was originally published on eSchool News.

Math. Social Studies. Science. There’s no shortage of important topics the U.S. education system imparts on our youth.

And yet, there is a set of skills that’s not given enough attention in the classroom: Executive Functioning. 

Executive Functioning is the management system of the brain it refers to how well students pay attention, organize and prioritize, stay focused on tasks through completion, regulate their emotions, and keep track of the things they are doing. While Executive Functioning is starting to gain some deserved attention in the classroom, parents can have a huge impact on the growth of these skills for their children.

In this piece, we’ll look at why Executive Functioning has been historically overlooked in our education system and how parents can help their children learn these skills. 

How Did We Get Here? Why Executive Functioning is Overlooked

The U.S. public education system has always been focused on results. Results in the form of grades, standardized test scores, and student performance. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2001, schools that did not consistently meet federal standards for proficiencies could face funding cuts. The Every Student Succeeds Act, ushered in by President Obama, largely transferred the accountability of these assessments from the federal to the state level. 

Under both laws, however, the incentive for schools is to ensure students are meeting state or federal proficiency standards. That’s why many curriculums — understandably so — have been geared toward achieving certain benchmarks for each grade level.

That works to some degree for certain subjects. There are many subjects where knowledge and competency can be tested and measured. But a student’s Executive Functioning is much harder to determine: how can you say whether a student is able to prioritize projects or budget their time at a satisfactory level? How do you track how they’ve improved their emotional regulation? Or their time budgeting capabilities or ability to pay attention? 

Executive Functioning has not been given the commitment of resources as other subjects in our education system. That’s due to extensive, grade-level federal and state assessments, often which are tied to funding. But that’s been exacerbated because Executive Functioning is also much more difficult for schools to evaluate and measure. 

Beyond testing and assessment, there’s an additional, simpler reason that explains why Executive Functioning hasn’t been a priority: lack of awareness. The skills have only in recent years become labeled under the umbrella of “Executive Functioning.” For decades, these skills did not have a name in the classroom. And if you don’t have a label for a group of skills, it’s hard to begin to address student shortcomings in a structured, standardized way. 

Why Do Some Children Lack Executive Functioning Skills? 

If you were asked what you did this morning, you wouldn’t describe how you brushed your teeth, ate breakfast, and left the house on time. Those are things that you do without thinking; things that are a given.

And yet, many children are unable to get out the door on time. They could be easily distracted when they eat breakfast, or forget to brush their teeth, or be late leaving for school. 

That’s due to prefrontal lobe development, key to executive decision making, which has the ability to grow until a person is 25 years of age. Simply put, a child’s brain is not fully developed in this area. The best way to accelerate that development and facilitate positive Executive Functioning is to provide consistency. If your child is a visual learner, you may want to write out their morning schedule which they can reference on a daily basis to help them remember tasks and their timing, for example. 

An additional way to build strong habits is to leverage positive reinforcement. It may be tempting to do certain tasks for a child such as throwing out their trash or clearing their dishes. Instead, look for the ways that truly motivate your child — perhaps it is a small monetary reward or time to play a video game. Or simply provide positive verbal praise and affirmations. Provide these types of rewards for when they complete these tasks; that way the task will become a habit. Are there going to be times when you are too exhausted and not willing to fight a battle with your child? Of course. Building these habits may never be perfect: but keep the big picture in perspective. 

What Can Parents Do About Improving these Skills? 

I can already hear you saying: I struggle with building routines on my own and holding myself accountable, how am I going to teach my children these skills? Trust me, I can absolutely relate!

First off — and this is key — give yourself some grace! Know that you will not adhere precisely to the routine every day. But do try to stay consistent: If a child has a chore to take out the trash every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., you may want to create a visual calendar with their name next to it. Then provide positive reinforcement — through whatever motivates them — until that chore becomes a habit. If you struggle with staying organized and completing tasks, try to build routines and reminders that will keep you consistent as well. 

Parents should also collaborate with their child’s teachers about issues that they see at home, get input on how the student acts in the classroom, and develop an action plan based on these insights.

Lastly, parents should turn to online resources like Understood.org which has a plethora of helpful advice on how to build healthy habits and cultivate Executive Functioning skills. In addition, tap your network: you’d be surprised how many other fellow parents might be dealing with similar issues with their children — and may have helpful tips, too. 

Harnessing and Emphasizing Student Strengths

Just as it’s important to build a routine for your child, that doesn’t mean you should remove their passions which seem less relevant to improving their Executive Functioning. If your child loves playing sports, that’s great — but build that play time into a structure!

Many parents of ADHD children know they may struggle with Executive Functioning. And their children also have many positive traits: their creativity, their spontaneity, and their resilience. Use these traits to help build Executive Functioning: Let children create their own morning schedule. Encourage them to be resilient even when they have difficulty following their routines. Let them be spontaneous and leave them free time, as long as it has parameters and doesn’t impact other routines.  

You don’t want to limit your child’s passions, but fit them into a larger structure so they can build these important skills.  All the while, make sure to positively reinforce behaviors that should be encouraged. 

Conclusion

Up to 90% of students diagnosed with ADHD also struggle with Executive Functioning and it can impact them in some capacity through their academic and professional careers. In the Covid era, there’s never been a better time for parents and schools to prioritize Executive Functioning skills. 

After all, while a child may not use long division much past high school, they will absolutely rely on their Executive Functioning skills every day of their life.

Join us for the third annual SEL Day coming up on March 11, 2022!  SEL Day promotes Social-Emotional Learning, a proven method for teaching kids the emotional life skills that every parent wants for their children to excel in school, work, relationships, and life. Find out more about how you can participate here!

As schools look to return fully in person next year there will be many uncertainties educators will face. While, there are hundreds of questions going through the minds of teachers, there are even more going through the minds of parents as they have had to navigate the ill prepared education system over the last 14 months.  There are numerous resources to measure and prescribe curriculum to meet the academic needs of students as they return to the classroom. However, the social and emotional requirements of students have changed while the resources and training necessary have not caught up to the needs of our families, teachers and students. As parents advocate for their students, it is imperative that they have awareness of the social emotional and Executive Functioning needs of their students.  Creating informed relationships and partnerships with the educators, tutors, counselors and any other support your child is fortunate to have in their family will ensure a happy, healthy student with a bright future.

How did you become interested in/passionate about SEL growth? 

My favorite Maya Angelou quote has always been: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Reading this quote as a teacher stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink everything I was doing in my classroom.  As an educator in an inner-city school, I felt the pressure to ensure my students were achieving at academic levels of their uptown peers.  I didn’t want them to continue in the cycle of poverty they had come from, so I felt a personal responsibility for their future.  However, after years of district prescribed, skills-based teaching and testing, I knew there was something missing.  No one had ever asked these students what they wanted, what they needed and what they thought.  This was my first step into the realization that relationships are as important (if not more) than the lessons in any text book.  This was where my passion for social emotional learning (SEL) began.

As a parent of three sons who struggled with learning disabilities, I knew the emotional hardships learning could take on a student and their family. Schools would focus on their reading and math skills, which often left them feeling disconnected and defeated.  I knew that they learned differently and struggled constantly, but my greatest concern was that they were also not learning skills on how to be successful in life.  Although the boys were well behaved, teachers were always frustrated and impatient with them because teaching them was so difficult.  One by one they lost confidence in themselves and began to show signs of struggle in their social emotional skills and overall mental health.

What is Social-Emotional Learning and why is it important? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning (SEL) as, “The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”  They remind us that SEL is an integral part of education and human development. These systems of emotional intelligence help us navigate our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship building skills, which lead us to responsible decision making.

How do learners present when they are facing SEL challenges?

Students who struggle with gaps in their SEL might be: insensitive to other’s feelings, judgmental of others, have a hard time accepting criticism, argumentative, blame others, have emotional outbursts, exhibit bullying behavior, struggle making friends, overreact, have poor coping skills, or feel the need to always be right.

What role does Executive Functioning play in SEL? 

Along with their learning difficulties came large gaps in their Executive Functioning (EF) skills.  These are areas of learning such as adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, which help us to navigate the world as we focus our attention, remember instructions, multitask, set and achieve goals and control impulses.  The EF skills combined with SEL, support student success because when students have self-awareness and self-management skills they have stronger social awareness which leads to successful relationship building.

With a lack of EF skills and/or low social emotional skills there are many issues that could arise, such as socially inappropriate behavior, trouble controlling emotions or impulses, easily distracted or hard time paying attention.

For my own sons they withdrew, struggled with attention, became depressed and one even ended up with school-based anxiety.  Although this is a worse case scenario, when the needs of students SEL and EF are not met, this can become the outcome.  This is why in my own classroom, with the school I led as a principal and in my own home I have become an advocate for programs that support the whole child.

What programs or curriculum have you utilized to address said struggles?  

Many schools, including the ones I have worked in have successfully used curriculum, training and ongoing professional development from Second Step, Soul Shoppe and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  I have found these to be powerful tools if they are used and monitored to fidelity. The schools that educate parents, teachers, school staff and students find the most success with these programs.  The entire culture of a school can be positively changed with a commitment to social emotional learning as families, teachers and students feel safer and are happier. These types of programs bring awareness to struggling students and provide resources to teachers, families and students, so that stories like my sons’ don’t have to happen to others.

Using what I had learned about SEL and EF I was able to help my boys become successful young men who are passionate in their careers, thrive emotionally, and build healthy relationships.  They went from students who lacked confidence and deemed themselves as, “dumb,” to adults who run their own business, manage others and are compassionate beyond their years.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website