All too often, we hear from caregivers that their learners are unable to “memorize” sight words and math facts. You have probably seen it yourself – time and time again, a learner is unable to recognize a word while they are reading, such as “the” whenever they encounter it in written form. This is because their visual working memory (i.e. their mind’s eye) is weak so they are unable to retain and retrieve information independently. So, let’s explore a technique that, when done correctly, can create a huge impact in one’s ability to see success!
Airwriting is arguably one of the most effective methods of strengthening one’s imprinting skills. By definition, airwriting is the act of writing letters and numbers in the air. Your mind’s eye is like the imaginary blackboard of your brain – it is responsible for imprinting static information such as letters and numbers so that you can retrieve information instantaneously. Thus, in order for a learner to tap into their working memory as a resource for literacy and mathematics, they must be aware of their ability to imprint, i.e. see, information in their mind’s eye. Sensory exercises such as airwriting can help develop this awareness and are relatively easy to incorporate in any learning plan. It is unfair to expect learners to automatically recognize vowel sounds, word patterns, spelling words and the like without a stable working memory foundation. Airwriting is the agent to creating this strong foundation for learners to stand upon when it comes time to activate their learning potential.
How to Airwrite
Programs differ slightly on their approach to this invaluable technique. Some use only their pointer finger of their dominant hand, while others take more of a gross movement approach using their entire arm. Either way, it is imperative that educators and caregivers reinforce proper airwriting procedures in order for the learner to reap the full benefits. Make sure that learners are watching their finger and saying the names of each letter or number aloud simultaneously so that they can make the most of the process. If the concept of airwriting itself appears complex for the learner, sprinkle in a little color! Ask learners to pick a color to “write” with in order to increase engagement and to improve their ability to see the shadow effect airwriting leaves behind. You can also start by airwriting on a table, then working your way up to the air (eye level) in order to help learners relate to the meaning and purpose behind airwriting.
Once your learner has stabilized the act of airwriting, you can incorporate a range of sensory exercises to take the benefits or airwriting to the next level. Sensory exercises is a general term for any exercise that involves at least one of your six senses. In this respect, they are utilized as a way to further spark cognizance of a learner’s ability to see symbols in their mind by asking pinpointed questions about the information they wrote in the air. Sensory exercises can take several forms such as:
Ask learners to label the placement of specific letters/numbers. “What letter did you see second? First? Last?
Omit or insert a new symbol. “What if we put an ‘e’ at the end of this word?”
Manipulate the current pattern. “What if we change the ‘a’ to an ‘o’?”
Probing learners in this way creates a significant cognitive impression and helps cement the word / algorithm in the learner’s mind’s eye.
Consistency is Key
Airwriting develops a sensory connection between a learner’s visual, auditory, and kinesthetic systems. There is a multiplicity of ways one can organically incorporate airwriting into their learners’ lives both in and out of the classroom. From weekly spelling lists to multiplication practice, airwriting is a fun way to bolster a learner’s underlying skills and self-confidence at the same time. Regardless of the task itself, framing airwriting as a game does wonders for buy-in and success. Challenge yourself while encouraging learners to airwrite at home, in the car, at school, etc. in order to normalize the act. However you choose to swing it, consistently and repeatedly employing this technique into a learner’s daily lives rewires their brain (thanks, neuroplasticity!) to perceive and anchor information in a profoundly beneficial way. Give it a try and you, too, will see to believe!
Originally posted on LinkedIn.
This week marks one of the best holidays of the year: Thanksgiving. One of my favorite family traditions is to go around the table and say what we are thankful for.
Last year, like so many families, we had a scaled-down celebration. I remember that it was harder to find things to be thankful for as we headed into the first long Covid winter. The pandemic, after all, has done a number on all of us. And it’s been especially difficult for neurodivergent kids and their families. Neurodivergent learners rely heavily on routines; these past 20 months have been entirely unfamiliar. It’s caused tremendous disruption to these learners and their caregivers.
And yet, more than 20 months in, there are many silver linings that emerged out of the pandemic. Even in these difficult times, there are reasons for neurodivergent parents to be grateful.
A Newfound Acknowledgement
For far too long, those who learn differently have been overlooked brushed aside, or altogether ignored. Many curriculums at best, did not cater to them. At worst, these curricula forced them to conform to the ways others learn.
That changed a great deal during the pandemic. With 21% of American adults facing their own mental issues during the pandemic, mental health got much more deserved attention for children as well. Rather than only prioritizing outcomes: many schools and educators are looking beyond grades. They are focused on nurturing the entire child, supporting their enrichment, and prioritizing a child’s strengths and interests. Many schools, districts, and states have launched initiatives that focus on mental health and social and emotional learning (SEL).
For example, Chicago Public schools announced a $24 million plan to invest in mental health and trauma support programs for students and staff. Public schools in Miami hired 45 mental health coordinators, while also providing mental health awareness and SEL training to staff. Pew reports that the state of Maryland created a mental health response team to “address the needs of students who have experienced trauma during the pandemic and are stressed beyond their ability to cope.” This team is dispatched to schools and districts that are dealing with these issues.
While many of us are back to a more ‘normal’ school routine that is predominantly in-person, the last year and a half has created space for conversations about mental health. And hopefully, it ensures that mental health is a key part of curriculums going forward.
Availability of Resources Online
In the past, learning online or remotely was viewed as ineffective. If there’s anything we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that technology empowers us to do things we never thought possible: and that includes getting an education via video conferencing. Online learning is not perfect, of course, but it provides access to more resources than ever.
As a result of the move to digital learning environments, students have had greater opportunities to get specialized instruction. Students can meet with educational specialists all the way across the country via Zoom. They can talk with an educator who specializes in teaching the ways that best fit their learning style. Students can get more tailored attention when it works with their schedule. The flexibility and personalized attention break down significant barriers for neurodivergent learners.
At the same time, technology has empowered parents to connect and share information like never before. Even during the pandemic, I felt more connected than ever before to fellow parents. That is thanks to many more parents who used online forums to connect. I’ve found numerous resources that have been invaluable to my son, thanks to other parents who have come online during this time and connected with me. More than anything, it’s made all of us feel less alone.
It’s been a trying period for everyone, but teachers have been hit especially hard by the impact of the pandemic. Even before Covid-19 struck, an average of 36% of teachers were likely to quit their jobs in any given year. 77% of teachers are working more today than they were a year ago, and the top two reasons for driving teachers to quit their jobs are high stress and insufficient pay.
There are so many phenomenal educators that go unappreciated, underpaid, and overworked. I’m taking steps this year to ensure they feel valued and know the impact they have on my child. The parents in my community are offering additional volunteer hours, while I’ve heard of other parents providing classroom care packages to show gratitude to educators.
Teachers are truly superheroes: one study found that the average teacher works 400 hours of overtime every year. The National Education Association found that they spend an average of $459 on teaching materials annually – out of their own pocket. This comes even as the average teacher salary is at least 3.1% lower than the rest of U.S. jobs.
Teachers need and deserve much better. How parents, our schools, and society overall can better support them is a much larger conversation – one for a separate article. But I am endlessly grateful for the critical work they do every day for our children.
We’ve moved forward in many ways over the past 20 months. We’ve still, unfortunately, got a long way to go. But we would have a much longer, more arduous journey if it weren’t for the many silver linings that have come out of this pandemic. As a parent of a neurodiverse learner, that’s what I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving.
The first of the calendar year is near which also means an influx of health and fitness goals are as well. No one can deny the effectiveness of exercise – small steps every day lead to bigger goals and noticeable results. Your brain is a muscle and, just like any other muscle, it requires consistent attention and strengthening. Working out your muscles occasionally might spike your feel-good hormones, but it will not create the momentum you need to truly feel a difference. We acknowledge how difficult it is to kick start a new goal, especially one so seemingly trying as learning how to read or automating multiplication facts. Thus, it is even more important to train your mind and your body to embrace the work that needs to be done in order to achieve the results you desire. You do this by chiseling away at your goals a little bit each day. Once you see change, you feel more motivated to apply yourself and the grit necessary to rise above the challenge and see success. Let’s explore how brain science, mindset, and reduced stress all contribute to the efficacy of intensive instruction.
Neuroplasticity is Alive and Well!
In essence, neuroplasticity is the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction. The ability to retrain the neural pathways in the brain with consistent and repetitive stimulation (i.e. instruction) has been scientifically proven time and time again. Inch by inch, step by step, we have the ability to rewire the brain to process information in an efficient and optimal manner. Therefore, the plasticity of our brain is the reason why multisensory, evidence-based instruction delivered in an intensive fashion is extremely effective. Implementing sensory-based instruction four or five times a week develops the foundational skills learners require to stand upon in order to apply themselves and reach their full potential.
It is a well-known fact that it takes three weeks of consistent exercise to see change. The same bodes true for brain change as it does physique. School breaks present the ideal opportunity to start an instructional program on the right foot. Working on goals several days a week (with much-deserved recovery built-in) not only expedites progress but also gives learners a surge of confidence and inspiration to carry with them once they return to their school routine. Taking the first step towards a goal might be the hardest, but it opens the door of opportunity to establish a habit and a mindset that will carry one through the adversity one might face in order to reach independence on the other side. Starting an intensive program over a school break will establish the practice as routine, so that, once the learner goes back to school, the after-school sessions are no longer full of fatigue and resentment, but rather with excitement for the gains they know that they can achieve.
Reduce Stress to See Success
There is no denying the uptick in anxiety learners face in the current societal climate. Studies show that our brains cannot take in information effectively if it is consumed by stress and distractions. Utilizing time away from the layers of stress that can be present in a school environment allows a learner to take full advantage of the instruction. Educators are able to make more strides in their learner’s abilities than during a typical school day by implementing instruction over school breaks when anxiety is reduced. Educational therapists and specialists are trained to teach learners strategies that will allow them to cope when faced with stress so that they are able to continue growth once they return to the classroom following a break.
Accelerate Your Learner’s Trajectory
Learners who are significantly behind in reading, comprehension, writing, and math can make significant gains in a reasonably short time if they receive the right sensory-cognitive instruction in an intensive manner with a trained professional. Struggling readers can see years of growth over weeks of multisensory, evidence-based instruction, for example. In a study conducted by ERIC, researchers proved that learners, particularly neurodivergent learners, who receive data-based individualization on an intensive basis experience the most gains in a short period of time allowing them to see and sustain success faster than their peers who receive instruction once or twice a week. To maximize growth, lay the foundation for how to learn intensively over a school break and continue to reinforce the gains made in the weeks to come! In sum, school breaks give the gift of time, so let’s not waste the time we have as caregivers and educators to give our learners the gift of bolstering their neural pathways and diving back into school with not only a stronger skill set but a richer view of their abilities to learn to their potential.
According to an April study of 1500 participants, understood.org found that in the remote learning environment, “nearly three-quarters (72%) of parents have become aware of or noticed their children may have learning challenges or differences.” The pandemic only punctuated the point that parents and educators appreciate insight into their learners’ underlying abilities in order to help differentiate levels of support. In order to uncover a learner’s present levels and wholehearted capabilities, parents and educators must seek inventories, screenings and evaluations administered by professionals in the field. There are very few affordable and accessible resources available that are able to provide pinpointed information into the inner workings of learners’ processing skills and aptitude abilities in areas such as literacy, math, executive functioning and cognition. Then, provide clearly defined recommendations, resources, and referrals to match the learners’ diverse needs. Once you uncover both how your learner is performing and what their overall potential is, you can streamline a plan to expedite progress and strengthen feelings of success. So let’s get started!
The Learnfully screening is truly like no other – we are able to discover an accurate appraisal of your learner’s skill set through two online evaluative sessions. To optimize learner engagement, we establish a strong rapport between learner and educational specialist before proceeding with the screening. Each screening is individualized in nature, yet standardized in administration. Depending on your learner’s needs and struggles, we are able to create a screening to specifically measure, then address, your learner’s current abilities in order to heighten cognizance of your learner’s entire profile. This way, you can understand how your learner learns best, what personality and instructional style works best to maximize engagement and what multisensory, evidence-based programs will develop, strengthen and apply the underlying sensory-cognitive areas of challenge. Areas that our screening explores are:
Reading/Literacy – phonological processing, phonemic awareness, decoding, spelling, sight words, reading fluency, comprehension and written expression
Math – computation, conceptualization, problem solving and word problem skills
Cognition – areas such as processing speed, verbal/visual memory and the like
Executive Functioning – each of the eight levels are measured
Traditional vs. Whole-child Screening Comparison
Traditional Classroom Assessment
Tina does not know how to write her ABCs, so she scribbles during class. This feedback leads to frustrated parents who think that their child is lazy in the classroom. This is because Tina is perfectly capable of writing her ABCs at home. This only increases Tina’s anxiety levels at school which makes her performance worse.
Learnfully’s Whole-Child Screening
Tina is a fluent reader and knows her ABC’s; however, she has undiagnosed auditory processing issues which makes it hard for her to consume auditory instructions. The parents now know that Tina is perfectly capable of completing her tasks when the instructions are written down, versus when delivered auditorily.
In traditional settings conclusions are solely based on the performance, as a result the root cause of the issue is missed and can go unnoticed. This turns into a lost opportunity to find effective intervention that helps them unlock their potential. In this case, just merely changing how the instructions are delivered would have solved the issue for everyone, reduced anxiety and increased confidence which helps Tina’s overall performance in and out of the classroom!
Screening Review & Consultation
The discussion following the screening administration paints a vibrantly clear picture about your learner as a whole. The findings shed light on interests, strengths, areas of need/challenge, differentiated recommendations (programming and short/long term goals) as well as the importance of proactive collaborative efforts with your learner’s ecosystem. We are able to gauge academic, cognitive and social-emotional skills in order to delineate a personalized learning plan that will help your learner not only reach, but realize their strong learning potential. In the screening report itself, we are able to report on the following components:
Relevant background information
Learner strengths and interests
Areas of challenge
Learner Impact (in and out of the classroom)
So now that you have the screening results and recommendations in hand, what’s next? Learnfully Educational Specialists will help secure a plan that will place your learner on the path to confidence and success. We will take care of finding the best fit Educational Specialist in terms of interests, certifications and personality so that you and your learner can start seeing and feeling progress right away! Also, we pride ourselves on proactive communication with the learner’s ecosystem – parents, educators, outside specialists – so we will make sure to maintain collaborative efforts with anyone on your learner’s team in order to provide insight and maintain consistency across all environments. Lastly, if we find that your learner is in need of supplemental support such as speech therapy or comprehensive psychological assessments, for example, we can provide you with the resources and referrals your family needs!
Almost every time we meet with a family to discuss their learner’s Executive Functioning profile, we are asked this question. So what is working memory anyway? As a parent and educator myself, I would love to provide insight into working memory and how it impacts learning throughout our lifespan!
What is Working Memory and How Does it Differ from Short-Term Memory & Long-Term Memory?
Working memory involves the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form to be used in active cognitive tasks. It is required for all planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving tasks. It differs from long-term memory, which is information taken from short-term memory and stored away into long-lasting memories. Think back to your high school graduation, wedding date, or birth of your first child—these are long-term memories. Short-term memory and working memory are more closely related; it’s generally held that short-term memory is only very briefly retained, while working memory is kept slightly longer to facilitate active tasks. For instance, when someone tells you a phone number, your short-term memory picks it up long enough for you to write it down. By contrast, working memory is retained a bit longer: a series of plot points you are told about a show, or story you are listening to, for example—you need to engage your working memory to make sense of the show.
In a study published in The Educational Psychology Review, the author links the importance of working memory to learning tasks and outcomes, “In order for information to enter long-term memory in a form that allows later retrieval, it first must be present in working memory in a suitable form.”
There are also other types of memory, such as explicit (those available to you consciously) and implicit (mostly subconscious) memory. Explicit memory can be further subcategorized into episodic and semantic memories, which deal with events and knowledge about your surroundings.
How Working Memory is Related to Executive Function
Working memory is one of the three overarching component sub skills of Executive Functioning. Simply put, working memory is your brain’s ability to temporarily store information (think placeholder or sticky note) for a number of seconds in order to focus your attention on manipulating that same information for another use. It is a cognitive skill that is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision making and behavior. Struggling to calculate math mentally, visualize letters while spelling, follow multi-step directions, and self-check one’s work are just a few examples of how weak working memory can present and prevent one from reaching their learning potential.
How it Affects Learning
Emerging readers and mathematicians are required to activate their working memory many times a day in and out of the classroom. Whether it is recognizing a word pattern, vowel sound, number, operation – whatever the sensory (visual, auditory, tactile) input is, our learners must tap into their working memory and make connections to information stored in their long-term memory almost immediately upon receiving the input. Visual and verbal working memory join forces to allow learners to fully process the communicative world around them.
Learners who struggle with language processing skills and sustained attention, find it difficult to “keep things in mind” which is another way of saying utilize their working memory. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Approximately 10% of us have weak working memory; however, the estimates of the percentage of weak working memory in students with specific learning disorders, including dyslexia, ranges from 20 to 50 percent. Weak working memory is a core difficulty for students with ADHD, Inattentive Type.” This is primarily due to the fact that information must pass through their prefrontal cortex, where our Executive Functioning skills such as attention and regulation are housed, before it can reach the areas in the brain that they need to fully access information. So, if the front of their brain is unable to perform, then it serves as a block to the rest of the brain.
Working Memory and Anxiety
Anxiety can impact one’s memory skills as well. I like to refer to this as the “stress fog effect”—the anxiety and stress that learners experience is a double whammy because not only are their brains wired differently to start, they also have to discover methods to prevent their increase in anxiety from gating the rest of the pathways in their brain from functioning.
ADHD and Memory
According to research, children with ADHD have working memory challenges compared to their neurotypical peers. ADDitude.com expands on this link, “Many experts today argue that attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is not, at its core, an attention problem, but rather a self-regulation problem exacerbated by weak working memory.” Dr. Russell Barkley of the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, refers to working memory as the GPS for the brain—but also points out how it is disproportionately weaker in people with ADHD.
Strategies to Improve Memory
Although there is no easy fix here, educators and caregivers can explicitly teach strategies to support learners discover how they learn best (metacognitively). Examples include learning how to: bullet point notes, jot thoughts down on sticky notes within text, maximize various checklists, use airwriting as a technique to learn math facts and word patterns, chunk information into sections and assignments into manageable parts, and list the steps for more complex tasks to execute—to name a few! We recognize that working memory is a somewhat abstract concept, so please contact us if you are curious to learn more or have a question about a specific learner or strategy!
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