Bringing 2021 to a close presents the ideal opportunity to look back on the year’s  achievements and learnings, and use these insights to lean purposefully into 2022 with a sense of gratitude and a renewed focus on our goals. This year was particularly enlightening—both for me personally and our organization as a whole—as we officially launched the Learnfully platform and steadily grew our community (one that is full of incredible caregivers, educators, supporters, and learners). As a teacher-slash-mama of four, I routinely practice reflection as a way to feel more grounded and improve how I act and react in different situations. This reflection helps me center myself and strive forward confidently each day, with the knowledge that my progress, while imperfect, is worthwhile to my children and other learners around me. In this article we’ll reflect on our top observations and takeaways of 2021 (our inaugural year) so that we can set our intentions for the next trip around the sun!

The Importance of Slowing Down

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can sleep when you are dead.” As a society, we are taught that hard work and hustle helps us  attain success and the resulting satisfaction. I am absolutely guilty of falling into this trap, working  long and hard, mindlessly checking boxes without allocating the necessary time for reflection and (when needed) the reprioritization of my efforts. Of the multitude of lessons the pandemic has taught us about our daily lives, one of the most indispensable is certainly the importance of slowing down. Back In 2019—before the unprecedented phenomenon of the last two years—Forbes released an article that highlighted the effect that slowing down can have by increasing productivity and stamina in both work and in life. Additionally, there are innumerable psychological and physiological reasons for slowing down as well. Ness Labs shared that, “By slowing down, you can build three key pillars to rely on in your life and work: intentionality, quality and sustainability.” In fact, you can actively balance your “calm and happy” neurotransmitters (like endorphins and serotonin) in many ways: spending time with loved ones, enjoying the great outdoors, eating healthily, exercising in a way that brings joy—the list goes on and on. By practicing the mentality and exhibiting the behaviors of slowing down when working with our learners, we model it for them, demonstrating the value it has to their own academic, social, and personal lives. They are then equipped to embrace it to strengthen their feelings of self-worth, self-confidence, self-determination, and their overall self-acceptance. This, in turn, helps them be more receptive and responsive to instruction, as they are mindfully present and engaged. So, let’s make a pact to work on slowing down so that we can ensure our actions build ourselves and one another up.  

Why Quality over Quantity Matters

Quality over quantity is a long-proven best practice in the teaching world. Educators are encouraged to reward effort over accuracy, instilling purpose and putting significance on a student’s ownership of their work rather than the specific work output itself. In a blog by Minimalism Made Simple, 10 Simple Reasons to Choose Quality over Quantity, they advocate that, “When you focus on quality over quantity, you achieve better results in your life. You’re much happier and accomplished because instead of focusing on numerical value, you focus on substance and depth.” Now, you don’t need to be a minimalist to prioritize qualitative experiences over quantitative ones. Taking the time to think about your priorities will naturally help you, in your roles as caregivers and educators, achieve this goal—and help your learners feel empowered as a result.

The Efficacy of Personalization in Virtual Learning 

Remote learning is here to stay, and we now know that personalization is key to ensuring remote learning success. However, due to the difficulties of transitioning to remote learning in a way that facilitated differentiated learning experiences during the onset of COVID-19, many learners (and their families) are hesitant to embark on the path of distance learning again any time soon. Fortunately, the Learnfully approach was built on the principles of individualization across all aspects of learning. Thanks to this, our learners have made great strides toward their full potential, instead of experiencing the learning loss backslide that so many children have been affected by. In a recent study conducted by the University of Manchester, researchers concluded that virtual instruction is just as effective as traditional teaching methods in advancing learners’ progress in building and applying underlying skills. For all of its negatives, the pandemic has provided us with a great learning opportunity by helping us scientifically examine different instructional practices, and determine which ones are effective in an online format. This has accelerated our ability to hone in on what makes the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.

Timely Progress Monitoring Makes the Difference

Contemporary education practice has empirically proven the value of differentiated, multisensory, evidence-based instruction for neurodivergent learners. When implemented with fidelity, repetition, and consistency, we can be confident that these programs will lead to the improved development and application of the underlying skills targeted. One important aspect of program implementation is the rate at which a learner progresses in the program; learner progress must be closely monitored in order to guide subsequent skills development and goals. In order to expedite progress and, as a result, the feelings of success a learner experiences, specialists must ensure that they measure and communicate progress to the learner’s ecosystem. Learnfully has carefully crafted a progress monitoring system that allows us to leverage data to drive instructional efforts, yielding high levels of learner progress. Our educational specialists write weekly session notes, delineate monthly progress update forms, and conduct one-on-one meetings with a learner’s caregivers (and educators, if needed). We understand the need to track progress regularly and maintain transparency with all members of a learner’s care team. Because of diligent progress monitoring, we are able to maximize instructional time and accelerate learners toward their potential. 

A Community That Drives Purpose 

We’ve watched as the Learnfully community has grown from a few members in early 2021 to over 1500 in under a year. We hold our community in high esteem and are constantly amazed at the ways they are able to collaborate together. We are also vitally aware that a strong community is imperative to bolster our mission to ignite learning in neurodivergent learners. In their article, The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement, publisher Parents International found that learners with involved caregivers and a sense of community, “no matter what their income or background, were more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher-level programs.
  • Be promoted, pass their classes, and earn credits.
  • Attend school regularly.
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school.
  • Graduate and go on to postsecondary education.”

Communicating proactively with our community allows us to provide the highest quality instruction, improving education therapy outcomes. A strong sense of community and belongingness helps our learners too. It helps reinforce the lattice of support provided by our community and the learner’s care team, allowing families to lean into their discomfort and help learners discover their authentic selves, feel seen and heard, and activate their potential in and out of the classroom.

Honestly, I could write an individual blog for each of these ideas because I feel so passionately about every single one. Collectively, our top instructional reflections give us a roadmap for 2022 and help us anchor our efforts around what we value most—our learners and the ecosystem that supports them. I hope you’ll try your own reflective process, and I hope it sheds light on what truly matters in your life so that you can move forward with a stronger sense of purpose, recognition, and acceptance for what will help you thrive in the year ahead!

The holiday season is upon us—which means many of us will spend time with our immediate and extended family, whether in person or virtually. For neurodivergent learners, the holidays can present challenges: sensory overload, feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed, social isolation…the list is practically endless. I sat down with Suchi Deshpande, Learnfully co-founder and a parent of two neurodivergent learners, in order to uncover all the ways we can embrace our learners’ needs during the holidays (and frankly, all year long). In this timely discussion, we went over many of the common misconceptions family members have regarding neurodiversity, and the impact these misunderstandings have on learners. We strategized about ways that we (as parents) and our loved ones can advocate for better awareness and acceptance for our neurodivergent children to allow them to become their authentic selves. 

Here are some of the notable misconceptions (along with their more reality-based counterparts) that we discussed and felt were important to pass on to our community:

When a family member expresses incredulity at a child’s diagnosis, e.g.“Matthew doesn’t act like he has ADHD.”” We know diagnoses are often invisible, and stereotypes are superficial. Assume your family member has the best intentions, and acknowledge them for making an effort even if their observations are incorrect or don’t tell the full story.
When a family member assumes a caregiver does not want to be asked how they are doing, e.g. “I’m sure you’re tired of being asked about Lexi’s dyslexia diagnosis.” It’s important to understand the human side of caregivers as well as their learners. We want to be heard and seen and feel supported. While we aren’t looking for sympathy or offhand solutions, it’s important to consider (and nice to know) that family members genuinely care and want the best for our children.
When a family member thinks every diagnosis falls into a cliche or stereotype, e.g. “Since Adam has autism, he’s super smart, right? Like the Rain Man?” As caregivers we know not to assume or draw conclusions based on a societal impression of a learning difference. It’s important to impart this understanding to well-meaning family members, and help guide them to ask the right questions to learn more about a child.
When a family member misinterprets a diagnosis as the result of poor parenting, e.g. “Sara needs discipline—she’s just being naughty and acting out because she wants attention.” We know that neurodivergent learners are processing what is often an overwhelming amount of sensory information and trying to cope the only way they know how. Emotional and behavioral regulation come with effort and practice, and family members need to understand that it takes many small steps to meet these big goals.
When a family member incorrectly believes learning differences are related to IQ, e.g. “Jonah seems really smart, why doesn’t he perform well in school?”. IQ has no correlation with the natural brain variations that result in learning differences. Parents and caregivers of neurodivergent kids know that they are sufficiently intelligent individuals, and that it takes repetition and consistency to build the underlying skills to help these learners succeed.

Caregivers of neurodivergent learners ultimately want what is best for their children, and it can sometimes feel like a tightrope act to balance this with the natural desire of their family to feel included. By leaning into this discomfort and airing potential misunderstandings with your family, you’ll set a course for them to embark in an honest discussion and orient them to better embrace your child for who they are. You’ll also be doing your part to debunk the many common misconceptions about neurodiversity and help our community evolve into a warmer and more welcoming support system. Try to release your preconceived notions. Instead, listen attentively to your family’s concerns and seek to understand their actions.  Do your best to afford every family member the level of involvement and understanding they need to accept your child and feel accepted themselves.

One of the most commonly unnoticed and, thus, undiagnosed diagnoses is Dysgraphia, a diagnosis involving the impairment (physically and cognitively) with written expression. Here we explore the definition of this diagnosis, the symptoms one can look out for, and how it is treated. 

So what exactly is Dysgraphia? 

A recent study conducted by The National Center for Biotechnology Information stated the prevalence of dysgraphia is, “between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing.”  According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Dysgraphia is a learning disability which involves impaired ability to produce legible and automatic letter writing and often numeral writing, the latter of which may interfere with math. Dysgraphia is rooted in difficulty with storing and automatically retrieving letters and numerals.” Like several other learning differences, dysgraphia can stand alone or can go hand in hand with one or more learning disabilities. Common morbidity presents itself in learners who are diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and executive dysfunction, just to name a few. 

What symptoms are paired with Dysgraphia? 

One of the first signs that a learner is struggling with writing is noticeable in their actions. They might refuse to write their name on a worksheet, crumple their papers up or even avoid writing tasks by creating excuses (frequent bathroom breaks, anyone?) In essence, learners with dysgraphia have unclear, irregular, or inconsistent handwriting, often with different slants, shapes, a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as a combination of cursive and print styles. They also tend to write or copy things slowly.

Caregivers or educators may notice symptoms when a child first begins writing assignments in school. Some key signs of dysgraphia to watch for include:

  • Cramped or improper grip, which may lead to a sore hand/fingers
  • Difficulty spacing things out on paper or within margins (poor spatial planning)
  • Varying shades of writing (i.e. darker letters or small tears in their paper due to tight grips/force when writing)
  • Frequent erasing and/or scratching out
  • Difficulty organizing their written work 
  • Inconsistency in letter and word formation and spacing
  • Poor spelling, including unfinished words or missing words or letters
  • Unusual wrist, body, or paper position while writing

What methods are used to treat Dysgraphia? 

“Writing is a skill, not a talent, and this difference is very important because a skill can be improved by practice.”

Robert Stacy McCain, American Journalist 

Oftentimes, a combination of personalized Occupational Therapy and Educational Therapy strategies are needed for learners to strengthen the underlying cognitive and motor skills that correlate closely to writing with independence. Occupational Therapists, for example, can address the fine and gross motor skills that are responsible for serving as a foundation for formation, spacing and endurance, while Educational Therapists can provide systematic support to the organization, planning, thought process and the like that goes into fluent written expression. In all honesty, writing and the layers of complexity that it involves may never be easy for dysgraphic learners, but, with the guidance and help of certain specialists, learners can apply differentiated techniques that work best for them so that they are not limited by their challenges. 

Understood has created a fantastic list of methods one can use in order to develop dysgraphic learners’ writing skills as well in their blog, 8 Expert Tips on Helping Your Child with Dysgraphia. Assistive technology is also one of the most widely accepted accommodations for learners who struggle with the symptoms of dysgraphia. Potential solutions include, but are not limited to: 

  • Utilize pencil grips and hand strengthening toys (such as stress balls) to encourage a healthy, proper grip. 
  • Provide extra time to take notes and copy material. 
  • Give the learner access to peer or teacher notes to remove the variable of notetaking altogether. 
  • Allow the learner to use an audio recorder or a laptop in class. 
  • Provide paper with larger spaced, different-colored or raised lines to help form letters in the right space. 
  • Allow the use of graph paper (or lined paper to be used sideways) to help line up math problems.
  • Encourage learners to type and utilize keyboarding when possible/appropriate. 

It is better to catch writing challenges early in order to alleviate unnecessary struggles.  If you notice your learner struggling with any of the aspects within the writing process, please do not hesitate to reach out to your support ecosystem (educators, Learnfully Specialists, OTs, other caregivers, etc.) because they very well could qualify for a dysgraphia diagnosis or at least get access to techniques that will make their writing lives easier. Silencing one’s voice by not allowing them to communicate in written form can be detrimental to their self-esteem and their ability to express themselves in general. So, please join our mission to empower neurodiversity and seek support if your learner is facing written expression hardships. 

As an Educational Specialist myself, I have always prided myself on maximizing learner engagement and, thus, expediting progress through positive reinforcement and the fun-factor. If learners feel seen, heard and understood, they are more likely to lean into discomfort and to challenge themselves towards success. Motivators such as positive praise and token-based systems can ignite a profound drive in learners. As a result of this, Learnfully developed a research-based reward system, Success Sparks, that are used as a driving force throughout instructional sessions. We reward effort and not accuracy for it is effort that cascades change in performance and underlying ability. Let’s explore why and how Success Sparks work to develop, strengthen and apply our learner’s skills to guide them towards realizing, then reaching their full potential.

Start with Why

Token Reward Systems have been used for centuries to encourage and shape desired behaviors because they enhance intrinsic motivation so that individuals can conjure up the strength they need to face adversity and overcome learning obstacles. Research with individuals in classroom settings using token economies has been firmly established the efficacy of token reinforcement in altering a wide range of responses (Kazdin, 1977). In a study conducted by Gonzaga, educators utilized a token reward system with preschool, elementary, middle, and high school learners experiencing behavioral challenges and found great success.   The majority of individuals respond positively to rewards. For those who do not, we differentiate our use of positive reinforcement accordingly. 

How it Works

Here’s how our Educational Specialists use the Success Sparks System:

  • Break the session down into smaller chunks of time. Waiting an entire instructional session to earn a Success Spark can seem like too big of a goal and many learners will lose interest therefore impacting the efficacy of the system.
  • Choose up to three behaviors to address at one time, rewarding effort over accuracy. We select a behavior that your child is already doing well, one behavior that needs a little improvement, and one challenging behavior to allow learners to see and feel success one step at a time. 
  • Create an appealing reward menu or game board with a variety of learning tasks. Our Educational Specialists set an agenda at the start of each session to maintain clear goals, then offer rewards worth a variety of Success Sparks to keep it exciting.
  • Frame the desired behaviors in a positive way. Instead of saying, “Don’t sound the word out aloud,” we create a goal like, “Say the word in a burst.” Using positive reinforcement, state which behavior we want to see so we can reward the good behavior with a Success Spark.
  • Place a Success Spark on their chart as soon as they earn one. We offer immediate acknowledgement for good behavior by giving our learners a Success Spark for meeting his goals. 

Small Steps to Big Goals

Studies have proven the efficacy of successive approximations or baby steps towards a larger goal – one step at a time, in other words. Once a learner earns a set number of Success Sparks (small steps), our Educational Specialists reward them with a handwritten note and a Spark Award in the form of ribbons (big goals). Many of our learners, then, hang the ribbons on their wall to serve as a constant reminder of the hard work and dedication they put into our sessions. As their efforts unfold, their collection of ribbons grows. This form of delayed gratification can be difficult to employ as a motivating force which is why the ​​Success Sparks are in place for immediate inspiration towards the larger goal.  

Learnfully’s Educational Specialists are experts in positive reinforcement and are loyal to personalizing their approach to meet each and every learner’s needs. The use of a structured, reliable system such as Success Sparks dramatically improves learner engagement and grit so that they can achieve their goals and feel confident while doing so. Spark Success in your child by enrolling in one of our many programs, your learner will assuredly find joy in the learning process as a result.