Shut the duck up
Author: AM Scott
Whilst I didn’t coin the phrase, “shut the duck up” (see Mo Gawdat in Solve for Happy, 2017), it might be among the most pertinent pieces of advice I could pass on to parents walking a journey with their child who experiences learning difficulties, or any other child for that matter. It is advice easily uttered but difficult to implement. If you think you’re ready, read on.
The ‘duck’ is the worry; the bothersome thoughts that quack on and on as one might expect from the feathered species.
Quack, quack, quack.
The cacophony is a repetitive assault. It is not the type of audio input that puts the listener at ease. At best, the noise is meaningless and irritating. Have you ever paused just to listen quietly to the cacophony of a quacking duck? Not likely. You’ve probably moved away. That’s because a cacophony is a harsh, discordant mixture of sound, often associated with dissonance. It has origin in the Greek word, kakophōnos meaning ‘ill-sounding’. It’s a great word to describe a duck’s din! All ducks are at risk of sounding the same. Their racket is unpleasant and harsh, neither pleasant nor unique. There is no soft cooing or warbling to enjoy. Ever.
Ducks start quacking when they are alert, apparently. In response to a trigger or threat, they are off in uproar. The parallel is direct. Parents start worrying when they are alarmed too. Hearing that their child has difficulties sets any parent on high if not panicked alert.
The noise of worry starts externally, likely with person after person ‘calling you in’ to tell you that they are ‘very worried’ about your child. And they are. They are being honest, although the level of care in their delivery varies. It isn’t long before the noise evolves into an inner voice; a protective voice; a voice expressing concern for the now and for the future. Even when a parent has followed advice, sought the right intervention, done all he or she can, the jarring rhetoric continues:
“What if he fails?”
“What will she become?”
“What if this can’t be fixed?”
“What is wrong with my child?”
“Why is my child not like all the others?”
“Who is to blame?”
“Did ‘they’ identify this early enough?”
“Have others overcome this?”
“Should I try the newest ‘cure’?”
The duck quacks on, and on, and on.
It seems to me that, as a “Year 2000+” post industrial community, we have completely missed it when it comes to understanding the magical wonderment that is childhood. In our busyness we have ceased to celebrate the unique marvel that every child is. We’ve failed to enjoy the naivety and innocence of a child as a default position. At times, we are not mindful and appreciative of the moments we share with loved ones. We have traded the joy of early years with anxiety about the future, a competitive performance target and an ambitious but compelling vision for our child’s life – the next star, the next leader, the next world shape shifter. We’ve been sold, and we have bought into, a striving for an artificial success that robs us of now. We miss the present moment and the beauty of the creation that is each child. As parents, we are so worried about our children climbing to the top of their adult purpose that we miss the lazy days, the exploration and the discovery. No wonder the duck starts quacking when someone derails our aspirations with bad news or sheds light on our child’s difficulties. That our child is not ‘in the box’ and ‘marching to the beat of his own drum’ is a fear we hold, not a celebration we seek.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapists suggest that to drown out a thought, we should introduce another thought. We should drown out the duck.
How about we replace the raucous recording in our heads by embracing childhood and allowing a season just to ‘grow up and be’ rather than prepare for a future. What if we truly celebrated of the uniqueness of our children and catered for their diversity and difference without fuss ? How about we dispel the myth that ‘different is a problem’ and embrace the idea that the ‘system’ might have it wrong as it caters for conformity in an industrialised structure? What if we really grasped that the 21st Century demands in the workplace are going to be met by children who are problem solvers, out of the ordinary thinkers, communicators, explorers, risk takers and optimists. To completely turn our child’s ‘definition’ or ‘label’ around, let us choose to be different ourselves. Let’s consciously make a decision to drown out the noise of our thoughts and the noise all about us. Rather, we could begin to applaud our disruptors and game changers, our inventors and dreamers, our collaborators and our perfectionists and not worry about them.
Let us choose to shut the duck up and let our children soar and sing instead.
Are you sure about that?
Author: AM Scott
Parents of children, who are presenting differently to their peers or siblings, are often caught in an overwhelming place wherein they are willing to ‘try anything’. Their vulnerability is their instinctive desire to do ‘whatever it takes’ to remedy ‘the problem’ or resolve the difference. They seek school placements; various extramural programmes; medication and/or supplements; diets; technology; assessment. Parents usually want the best for their child. They want a happy child who is succeeding. They grapple to come to terms with the challenges that being slightly or dramatically out of step from the mainstream ‘norm’ brings when a child develops differently. Ironically, often times, those same parents also have goals for their children that include each one ‘reaching full potential’, ‘standing out from the crowd’, growing up to be ‘extraordinary’.
In searching for sure fixes and remedies, a parent can be beguiled and fall prey to good marketing of products and services that may be well intended at best, or exploitative at the outset. Parents in this place are vulnerable to the ‘next thing’, the ‘magic’, and the pressure of peers. It can be hard to find one’s voice andone’s mind. What if you turn something down, and it turns out to be the silver bullet? The question to ask is, “Are you sure about that?”
Questions to consider in order to be ‘sure about that’:
- Is your child on medication that is targeting the right need?
Has your child been seen by a specialist? Do you know and understand the benefits of the prescription, and the side effects? Do you have a clear idea of why the medication is indicated for your specific child? Are you sure that you have considered the risks of your child not having the medication he or she needs, if the support is indicated, before you deny him or her the opportunity? Have you got a monitoring plan in place wherein you are sharing feedback with the adults in your child’s day – therapists, teachers, au pairs, and family members? If you have been wary of western medication, and you use supplements, fasting, dietary restriction and other remedies ARE YOU SURE about what those herbs and oils or diet variances are doing to your child’s neurology, liver, kidneys and endocrine system?
- Is the programme you are investigating for your child well researched?
Well-researched or evidenced based practice will have clinical research papers associated with it and peer review processes to support it. A few articles on the web is not research, it is anecdotal evidence and likely biased in one direction or another. Researched practices like RAVE-O; multi-sensory learning; a spiral curriculum based on the age of the child and the related developmental ability, like Singapore Maths; Instrumental Enrichment; Cognitive Enrichment Advantage; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; Snoezelen; Sensory Integration, are all backed by science. Is the course you are wanting your child supported by the same? For starters, anything offered in 10 sessions or 20 weeks is possibly useful not harmful, but not likely developmentally appropriate: children learn at different rates, at different times and in different ways. A one-size-fits-all approach to frequency of exposure is already a flag, perhaps?
- Is the school you are considering registered, sustainable and properly governed? Does it have an ethos of care that promotes honest partnership with parents? Why does it exist?
The demand for independent schooling, small classes and a culture of care has made the market wide open to well-meaning educators or shrewd entrepreneurs who can accommodate your child as an individual, tomorrow. To be sure, be responsible and use your head as much as your heart.
Ask: Is the school registered with the requisite statutory educational body, in South Africa, the Department of Education of the Department of Social Development? Is the school associated with another body wherein it is accountable, like the SABJE, ISASA, Catholic Schools Association, South African Association for Home Schools? Is the school accredited by UMALUSI, the statutory body in South Africa appointed to monitor quality assurance? Are the teachers qualified and registered with SACE? Are the health practitioners registered with the HPCSA? Does the school have a board of governors or trustees? Is the school certain it is sustainable and how can they show you this? If the school principal is the owner, what is the plan for the school if something happens to that owner? How involved are parents in a formal organized platform (like a Parents Association)? Does the school own the land or building or is the lease long term and secure? How will the school report on your child’s progress and against what standards or criterion? Are you registering the child with the school or with the curriculum provider?
- Is the curriculum at the school or center built on learning that will take your child forward developmentally on a cognitive level?
To be sure, ask to see the full curriculum from Grade R to 12. Is the curriculum used internationally or nationally? Does it meet developmentally appropriate standards? What examining board oversees the promotion from this curriculum into tertiary education and is this entity registered in and of itself in a country? If you are seeking a specialist school, like a school for learners with autism, what does the school do that is in keeping with best practice in the area of autism and can the school point you to the framework for intervention they subscribe to, or not?
- Do the parent strategies you employ, take advice to try or find on social media strengthen your attachment and relationship with your child in a healthy way, or break the trust?
10 ways to be a better parent or 5 tips for 21st Century parenting found on a blog may be enriching but not likely the route to adopt for your child on first reading. To be sure that the strategies you employ as a parent are useful to your relationship with your child and also developmentally appropriate, consider talking to someone you trust like a mentor in the family, your spouse, the teachers at the school, your faith based leaders. Be prepared to hold the mirror up on your own practice and make adjustments if their advice resonates with you, uncomfortably or not.
- Do you seek advice that is trustworthy from professionals, friends and family who care and have the best interests of your child in mind, even more so than yours?
Are you sure that the person advising you has no other agenda than the well-being of your child – not to appease you personally, to ingratiate themselves, to secure your business (think of the sports coach or facilitator who will tell you only good things about your child to keep your business), to keep peace or dominate you in a personal power play? Think about difficult conversations you have had with staff at the school or a therapist or doctor: sometimes these are the very people being candid and honest with you to try to encourage your action and you may have reacted defensively at the time. No educator or therapist wakes up one day to set about upsetting a parent with bad news. It takes courage on the professional’s side to approach you honestly. Think back on these conversations. Are you sure you should have dismissed the feedback?
- Is the assessment of your child held in tension with the whole context of your child?
Are you sure that any assessment of your child has been a collaborative activity that has considered your child’s full world? Was there a good amount of time spent on the ‘background history’? Were many people consulted at the school, in your home, even yourself? A quick screener at a busy reading clinic or online is not an accurate assessment of whether the programme on offer will help your child, but it is a very effective way to get you to sign up!
- Is the extracurricular sports programme you have packed into your child’s already busy day really indicated and developmentally appropriate or is it a great cash generator for a smart entrepreneur?
Children need to play. Premature competition and sports specialization is detrimental to the well-being of your child. Why exactly have you signed your primary school child up for additional sports clubs? Are you sure of that answer? Is it fear that he or she may be ‘left behind’ in high school sport? Is it your own self-esteem? Is it yet another barrier to time with you or useful supervision whilst you are busy? Is it because you simply feel the social pressure around you and that if you didn’t, your parenting provision may be viewed as somewhat lacking in your social circle? Children need to unwind, to play, to relax, to connect with their homes, pets, siblings and parents. If the school you are attending offers 2-3 times a week sport or exercise, this is likely sufficient. Besides, recent studies show that role modeling is the best way to improve your child’s activity – active parents have active children. Are you sure you are as active as you ought to be?
Is your child old enough for competitive sports?
Experts in both youth sports and child development agree: Kids are not ready for competition until they are at least 8 years old. Before that, they just can’t handle the stresses of winning, losing, and being measured and scored on their performance. For children under 8, sports should be about physical activity, having fun, learning new skills, and laying the groundwork for good sportsmanship. That doesn’t mean that all kids will be ready for competitive sports as soon as they turn 8. For many children, it’s not until about age 10 that they can grasp some of the nuances inherent in competition. It’s hard to learn that sometimes, you lose even when you try your best. Developmentally, kids playing competitively need to have sufficient self-discipline and a good attention span. They need to be mature enough to listen to and respect the coach, as well as the standards of group instruction. If your child is super-passionate about soccer, but doesn’t have the patience to perform practice drills over and over, she may not be ready to join a competitive team. To decrease the risk of injury, kids should not play contact sports such as football until they are at least in middle school (age 11 or 12). There is also a risk of overuse injury if your child specializes in a certain sport or playing position at a young age.
Hibbard DR and Buhrmester D. Competitiveness, Gender, and Adjustment Among Adolescents. Sex Roles vol. 63, issue 5-6, September 2010.
And there are more questions to be sure about…
- Do you allow screen time that is balanced? Is that game benefiting your child? Are you sure your child needs 3G or internet access? Really?
- Are you sure that you have done the research on those age restricted games you buy your child? Why would you override the recommendation?
- How indicated is that technology you are pushing for your child to use – does the app assist your child or was it just an idea to try? Are your really sure you should be removing the cognitive role it fulfills at this point in your child’s life, or is it just a way of removing a hardship?
Bellavista is committed to educating children with barriers to learning using evidence based practice and a developmental approach to learning. Socially, physically, cognitively and emotionally, a child sets about the business of ‘growing up’ at his or her own pace, uniquely and beautifully. The programme offered at Bellavista School to support parents in raising a child with differences or disabilities includes only researched strategies. Our professional experience is that these work. We believe that good governance is prudent, accountability is responsible and professional practice is a given. There are no quick fixes. It’s journey of continuous gains, setbacks and celebrations. The process of child development is exactly that, a process. It takes time and each child will respond at his or her own pace. Resist the panic to do more. Our responsibility is to ensure exposure to the right strategies, repeatedly, until mastery is achieved. Our accountability is to our parents and also to the child. We will tell you where we are at, what your child needs and when your child needs it. We will be honest.
We trust the process. Do you? Are you sure?
Dyslexia awareness and training- spot the difference and does it matter?
Author: AM Scott
Advocacy is everything for a learner who experiences Dyslexia. Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty ‘hidden’ from sight. This makes the task of getting the help needed in school, university or the work place a perpetual challenge for a student. Teachers and trainers cannot see the disability and might comment on or even direct discipline towards it, “Did you learn?”, “Try harder!” or, “Watch your spelling!”.
Learners with Dyslexia need someone in their camp, fighting the good fight, batting for them, believing in them, holding hope or being the understanding shoulder to cry on. Be it a parent, sibling, teacher or friend, this ‘advocate’ needs to be aware of what Dyslexia is and how it impacts on the learning experience. Informed ‘champions’ of this learner make themselves aware with knowledge and gather insight from as many avenues as possible. This awareness alone makes things better for the student involved.
Training on how to remediate Dyslexia or how to teach reading to a learner with a brain that sees text differently is an entirely different matter. Education and health professionals invested in how the brain learns to read text will busy themselves with causal theories, neuroscience, pedagogy, assessment and evidence-based practice. Good training takes time and covers aspects of a child’s speech-language, socio-emotional and sensorimotor development. Further, it considers cognitive capacity for memory, planning, association and attention. The training offered and received must push the professional ruthlessly to apply valid assessment for Dyslexia as well as gain mastery over a multisensory, structured, research based methodology. Understanding of theory must stay in tension with skilled practice in order to graduate from such training and move on to reach each learner, young or old effectively.
A trained practitioner is a specialist educator. An informed person is an excellent advocate for the dyslexic learner. Know the difference. Be the difference because the difference matters.
At Bellavista School, the professional staff is sensitized to Dyslexia and many of the teachers and therapists are expert or specialist practitioners in the field. We actively train other professionals through the Award in Literacy and Dyslexia offered at Bellavista S.H.A.R.E. in a bid to extend our reach and make a difference to the lives of learners with barriers to reading. The course is accredited by the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) and takes 18 -14 months to complete, an indication of how deep the training is. Simply put, no one can become an expert in this field in a few hours or days. Beyond the post graduate professional training, Bellavista raises awareness in the form of workshops and evening talks to ensure that the person in a child’s life who is the ‘advocate’ knows enough credible information to be a loud, strong voice for that learner. Currently, Bellavista is working with a steering committee and SAQA to register a professional body called the Institute of Specialist Practitioners in Inclusive Education. This body will accredit specialist practitioners who have invested time and resources into becoming experts in Dyslexia and Literacy so that these professionals are recognised but also so that vulnerable learners and their families are assured of the integrity of the trained interventionist.
On holding hedgehogs, honey badgers and hands
Author: AM Scott
Academics aside, what does it mean to be a school, how does a school fit in a community, and how should we approach all the children in our care?
“It takes a village to raise a child”. In a village, children are born, given to the inhabitants to protect, nurture, guide and develop to their full potential. In the village, all the adults take ownership of the children. They are ours, not yours and mine. Some of the young un’s may be easy going, like a retriever that is always happy, always interested and an obliging companion; others are hedgehogs; some may be honey badgers. How we handle these little ones represents the essence of our values. How we hold the children, at every age, and handle their little person is at the heart of a healthy village.
The collective noun for hedgehogs is ‘an array of hedgehogs’. These small creatures lure us with their cuteness but caution us with the 5000 spines that bristle and protect it. They’re lactose intolerant and can cover about six feet a second on running. They can be domesticated but never quite ‘blend’. Over seventeen species are identified, some immune to adder venom. They have poor eyesight but enjoy heightened senses of smell and hearing. A baby hedgehog enjoys the endearing term, ‘hoglet’.
In our village, the adults have an array of hoglets and hedgehogs. They are cute and we choose to handle them with care and caution. We need to hold each one just firmly enough not to drop him, but not so tightly that we either provoke a spike or prompt a rapid bolt from our company. We need to exploit the hedgehog’s strengths and offer support for the areas of difficulty. When they’re cute, they are ours. When they are not, they are ours. We hold too tightly at our peril. We snatch too impulsively at risk of hurting ourselves and even dropping them. We must approach our hedgehogs with commitment, forethought, planning and love to hold them ‘just right’.
Honey badgers are not thought of as fondly as hedgehogs. Also known as ‘ratels’, these fearless creatures wreak havoc wherever they go and might even squirt a stinky liquid in their wake when threatened. These ‘cute’ furry creatures dig like crazy and go underground to escape danger or capture prey. They shamelessly invade and occupy another animal’s den or lair. They are rude and mean, eagerly picking a fight! They eat anything. Honey badgers are thick skinned and also immune to snake venom. In fact, they eat snake. They bite. They’re gritty. They are content to be alone but teams of honey badgers will work together with any materials to escape capture.
We all know a few honey badgers and they are ours. They’re smart, they’re resilient and they are creative problem solvers. Honey badgers will survive the big wide world. These ratels test our limits and our resources. They have potential to divide and conquer, rendering chaos that ultimately affects the whole village. Should they bite, or dig, or squirt in their wake, they remain ours. Ever in ‘fight or flight’ mode, the honey badger is wired to self protect. It is our role to create a safe space, to reduce the threat and to build constructive limits. Regardless of their disposition, like hedgehogs and retrievers, the honey badgers are ours; ours when they break the school rules; ours when they are fractious and ours when they’re mean. How we create and maintain their boundaries is everything and we need to be united and proactive as we do this, in agreement, staying steadfast and consistent. After all, if push comes to shove in this life, we want a honey badger on the team.
Hedgehogs and honey badgers, like retrievers and all others, find their place in the sun and how we hold them matters.
- Firstly, hold hands. Hold hands with the hands that have been given hedgehogs and honey badgers to love and raise. Together, we have a better chance at softening the prickles and containing the chaos.
- Secondly, make a choice and be intentional. Choose to hold the hedgehogs, spikes and all. These spiny little creatures are a gardener’s best friend, but need to be handled with care. Although the cute factor can soften our boundaries, a child who is all bristles is not going to be sociable and accepted in his peer group. Even cuties need parameters!
- Thirdly, take care. Carefully approach the honey badger – she’s volatile and, quite frankly, doesn’t need you, or so she thinks. Just as honey badgers work in teams, so should we with our strong willed, feisty kids. Parents, teachers and therapists should talk together. Au pairs and extended family should be in the loop. We should study the honey badger’s ways, observe the cues, recognise the triggers, define the boundaries, hold hands and hold on!
Back to the original question: what does it mean to be a school, in a community with the community’s children in our care? It means we need to hold all the children, from hedgehogs to honey badgers, in the palms of our hands, at the centre of our purpose in the community, in our minds, in our strategy and within agreed parameters that create safety for all: children, families and staff. It means the children are ours and always will be ours. They are our purpose and mandate. Their needs are everything: safety, acceptance, development and nurture needs. It means that we are the collective, all of us together.
We need to hold hands.
Help! The kid is dyslexic… what can I do?
One of the most frequent conversations held around Dyslexia is the expression of concern and panic by teachers who feel under informed or under qualified to deal with a learner who has Dyslexia. Training is good and intervention essential, but every teacher can support these learners and make a difference, without expensive resources and specific up skilling. Here’s how:
1. Let the child have time to process information. Back off on time allowed when it is not absolutely necessary to work at pace. Let them think and seek clarification as they process new text or information.
2. Stop marking spelling on every written expressive task. The spelling will not improve because you circled and underlined it. Likely, any corrections will be erroneous too. Rather, assess the flow of ideas and the structured thoughts of the writer.
3. Reduce the amount of homework you prescribe. Go for quality not quantity with these kids. Can they show you in one or two examples what they know? If so, drop the rest of the exercise.
4. Put your red pen away. At the most, write constructive criticism in a colour that is less intimidating. Ban comments like, “Must try harder,” and “Did you learn?” altogether.
5. Fly the ”X” for errors. Rather, mark one or two points for review with a discreet underline.
6. Add “yet” to your dialogue. “He hasn’t mastered the times tables yet”, offers optimism in the face of reality.
7. Never, ever, keep such a child in from break or off the sports field because he or she must redo or complete classwork. Never.
8. Give these children subject choice opportunities or high interest tasks to enjoy often.
9. Do not read their marks aloud or have them call their result across the class.
10. Refrain from calling on the child with Dyslexia to read aloud, in front of his or her peers.
Sorry, we don’t fix kids.
Author: AM Scott
Sorry, we don’t fix kids is likely to be the strongest message any school, even a remedial school should send out. You see kids aren’t ‘broken’ so they don’t need fixing. Restoration, perhaps, is an entirely different matter. All too often a parent’s journey to placement at a remedial school has included someone very well meaning advising that placement at a school like Bellavista for ‘a year or two’, to ‘iron out all the problems’ and ‘sort them out’ is a solution to a developing problem. The referral is likely correct, but the rest is not entirely true. Integrated intervention to support a child with his or her learning needs or difficulty is powerful, very powerful, and there is significant research about that confirms that early intervention is better. So, when a school cannot offer what a child needs in order to be the best version of themselves, then placement that encompasses learning support and therapy may be a wise and excellent decision for a parent to take.
Sorry, we don’t fix kids and neither should a parent or any other significant family member. With all due respect to assertive and positive discipline techniques (as employed at Bellavista School) life isn’t a real time play out of “Nanny McPhee”. Rather, families and adults involved in the life of a child should accept and embrace the child for who he or she is, recognizing the individual’s strengths and interests as much as acknowledging the weaknesses that are bringing the bother. In a stable environment, with clear boundaries and unconditional acceptance, children thrive.
Sorry, we don’t fix kids but we do believe that children with different needs require advocacy to fight for their right to self-actualize. At Bellavista, we are committed to doing all that we know and all that we can to support the child as he or she is guided to approach the weaknesses that prevent participation in the mainstream school environment. This requires that we share strategies to get around the challenges if these are pervasive. We are obligated and compelled to offer each child only tried and tested practices, i.e. techniques and interventions that research has proved effective.
Sorry, we don’t fix kids. Rather, our intention is to build self-esteem and help each child face a feeling of challenge until he or she experiences a feeling of competence. We demand participation in chores along with other actions demonstrating independence, and so should you at home. Meaningful contribution creates belonging and belonging develops self-esteem. If we have an open door, we will, together with the child and parents, set high but not fantastical expectations for him or her. We need to take time to hear what each child has to say about his or her personal aspirations and future hopes, cutting through the thicket of their need to be ‘fixed’. From a young age, we ought to be determined to nurture the high interest of each individual; the world needs experts.
Sorry, we don’t fix kids. We are a school committed to allow our learners a regular childhood where school is an environment for safe play, socialization, adventure, mischief and memories. Life is not all about schoolwork and therapy. It’s about being a kid – the stuff that muddy clothes and grazed knees is made of. Theatre outings, sports days, dress up occasions and picnics in the park are as important as the alphabet arc and the multiplication tables to us.
Sorry, you won’t fix your kid. You can but work on being the best parent you know to be for your child. Increasingly, set your sights on becoming the best expert on your child, making space for your observations and the insight of others walking the child rearing path with you. Allow someone you can trust to hold up the mirror on your parenting for you.
Don’t break a child, yours or any other. Do everything you can, in this imperfect world, to keep adult worries off the shoulders of little ones in their formative years. Believe. Be vigilant. Trust the process. Whilst at Bellavista, we open our hands to say let us partner together to raise your child: this is a hope filled school and your child doesn’t need fixing.
Academic rehabilitation and recalibration – that’s what it’s all about – a Bellavista experience
Author: AM Scott
I enter my ninth year at Bellavista as the school enters its fiftieth and reflection is a dominant emergent theme. This past fortnight, the reflection has been on the successes of past pupils. I have just collated the results of the class of 2011 and of the twenty seven pupils, four children emigrated or moved without forwarding addresses, one opted to repeat a year and writes matric in 2017 and we lovingly remember Chris Loxton who sadly passed away in his high school years. Of the twenty two children who wrote the IEB and GDE matriculation exams, all passed and twenty achieved a Bachelor’s Degree entrance. Every one of these alumni is applauded for these excellent results that speak to their effort, tenacity and grit. Of course, the staff and myself have the privilege of knowing their respective challenges through their school journey and our ‘happy dance’ continued over days as we reflected on each individual and our memories of their time in our care.
After collating the results, my musings turned to ‘what is remedial school all about, really?’ Deeper than the obvious, which includes intervention through curriculum and therapy in an integrated way, it appears to me that placement here is about academic rehabilitation and personal recalibration for each individual over time. Parents write us letters expressing that they ‘have their child back’, that their lives as well as their child’s life have changed, that their child is understood. Past pupils write that they were with ‘teachers who cared’, that they were ‘given a chance’, that they were helped, that they belonged and were valued, that we ‘believed in’ them. Alumni letters, emails and text messages this past fortnight expressed gratitude, warm memories and acknowledgement for what ‘Bellavista gave me’. Just today we received an email from the parent of a past pupil who left us in his primary schooling years. He has matriculated with 7 distinctions and an 89% aggregate; was school prefect and received colours for academics, cricket, cross country and service to his school. He furthers his studies into a BSc in Maths and Physics at UCT this year.
On the matter of academic rehabilitation, I am likely stating the obvious when I say that many children (and parents) arrive here shattered and tired, worn down by trying to meet the demands of the mainstream environment. Even good and admirable intentions to assist and support a child in an inclusive setting deplete energy and stamina over time. Parent roles are blurred with that of a case manager and tutor and the child loses the access to Mum or Dad for downtime, pleasure and recreation, because it’s all about home programmes, facilitation, extra lessons and therapy. Mums anxiety is reflected in the child who experiences her concern internally. The young learner loses free time to play and exercise, relax and recharge as the whole day becomes scheduled to put in the ‘extra’. Emotionally, the message is ‘not good enough’ and ‘need help’ even if this is never verbally expressed. Anxiety creeps to an intolerable level, expressed in swinging moods, depression, aggressive behavior and agitation, if not school refusal, poor sleep, inappropriate appetite, social withdrawal and tears. Scripts and dietary support become a theme as every effort is made to hold the young one together to cope with the relentless expectation that school has come to represent. When a referral is made to remedial school, it can seem either the inevitable second prize or an enormous relief.
For the first three to six months of placement, even longer for some children, we set about academic rehabilitation intensely and deliberately. Teachers and therapists will establish what he can do and work from there, building esteem more than skill at this point. We will learn her ways and anxieties, and hear his story. We will seek to hold the safety of structure in school in tandem with her emotional comfort. Positive reinforcement will dominate over negative or punitive discipline when he needs it. Connection with the child and earning her trust is more important than neat writing and straight sheets initially. Facilitating the feeling of legitimacy that comes with communicating and sharing ideas of his own is a primary focus. Basically, we spend months and then years restoring children’s trust in ‘schooling’ by celebrating and developing each person’s individuality. This is what each member of the Class of 2011 took with them when they left us. Yes, strategies; yes, skills to deal with pervasive difficulties that won’t go away; yes, facing a hard high school slog. Also yes to knowing ‘my challenge’ and holding a vision of a future with my dreams, interests and aptitude in mind.
The recalibration is the respite from a perpetual sense of failure coupled with an exposure to practical strategies that work. An important part of our role at school is helping every child know his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. We talk openly about this balance once the trust is established. We also engage plainly on strategies that are researched and effective, and the various supports that the child expresses as useful. This may be medication. It may not be medication. It may be diet, exercise and sport, anxiety management tools like sensory calming activities or psychological methodology. It may be ways to learn the tables or apps that type when the child dictates his thinking. It may be firm discipline and high expectations exercised by teachers until internalised by the child. Perhaps it will be just kindness and consistency. Maybe it will be individualised intervention therapeutically or access to curriculum that is structured to support how the child learns.
Make no mistake, and hold in your mind as a parent when you start to compare Bellavista’s activities and approaches to a mainstream school, everything we do here has intention. The intention is to facilitate your child’s academic rehabilitation and recalibration. Everything! When we have tuck, what seamless clothes we wear, the time we allow for sport, the outings we plan, the homework or not, the cycle test demands, the frequency of therapy, the way we write reports, the issues we call your child up on, the awards we give or don’t. Nothing lacks consideration and intent. My heartfelt plea to parents as we start this new school year is that you join us in this intent. Get to know the staff. Learn to trust the process.
ADD – What is is NOT ~ guest post by Mrs A Clark
ADD, with or without hyperactivity, is reportedly one of the fastest growing diagnoses among children in the world. There are many theories as to why, but today I am not going to discuss why, but rather, in simple terms, what it is… and more importantly, what it is not.
To put it very basically, ADD is diagnosed on the grounds of inattention, excess activity and a lack of impulse control. It is not as a result of bad behaviour, poor parenting or lack of discipline in the classroom. There is a chemical dysfunction in the brain that impedes self-regulation and disrupts the child’s ability to stop, think about and consider the action or its consequences . Children with ADD require help so that they are not labeled as ‘naughty’. These learners cannot willfully make themselves focus on a task, sit still or slow down. It is not in their brain’s wiring to do so, and to expect them to do this just leads to poor self esteem, as they know that they are unable to make themselves do what other children are able to do… like sitting still, or not thinking about the mechanics and design of a space ship, or not categorizing animal species according to carnivores, herbivores and omnivores in their head… because the teacher wants to cover the letter ‘r’ so that they can get through the curriculum, and mother wants him to finish his food so that he can go for a bath and finish the night time routine.
For some children, medication helps to balance brain chemicals correctly so that they are able to self-regulate, where for others, stimulants are contra-indicated. Your doctor will know more about this and help you decide what type of medication and dose, if any, is suitable for your child.
I am very privileged to teach a class of 14 children in a remedial school. Of these 14 children, at least 10 of them have a diagnosis of ADD with or without hyperactivity. Some are on medication and some are not. The one thing they all have in common is that they are smart, some even gifted, but the haven’t always had a chance to prove , explore and celebrate it, not within the school system we perpetuate in the main. These children need flexible teachers and parents who understand the way that they learn, despite the system. The adult in their world can help them to explore different ways of helping them with their three main difficulties: attending to a task; channeling over-activity (or sometimes under-activity); and reducing impulsivity.
So this is what it is NOT: It is not something the child can snap out of. It is not something they can improve by trying harder. It’s not something that can be regulated by through positive reinforcement like a sticker chart or rewards system. They simply cannot do it without our help – without physical prompts, touch or eye contact, without sensory regulation and frequent movement breaks, without adapting to their needs. If they need to stand and learn, then let it be. If they need to jump and learn, then let it be. If they need to fidget with a fidget toy then let it be, but don’t make them do it all by themselves. We are the ones that need to help them discover what makes them concentrate best, or what makes them stop, think and then act.
We have to also give them the opportunity to think about the things they want to think about. Giving them time out to discover things in their own heads. And even when they have the strategies, they still need our help to bring them back to our reality. Because their reality is not our reality. And while you want to do the ‘r’ sound, they might just be busy designing groundbreaking methods of recycling, hands-free computers or a new space ship.
Beat them or join them? You don’t really have an option when it comes to technology and the young generation.
Recently, Bellavista S.H.A.R.E. hosted an evening talk to look at the cyber world and its impact on relationships, with some emphasis on cyber bullying.
The generational distinction in the room was marked. After one hour of solid, research based input on the reality that technology has propelled young people into a new social world, and is relentlessly advancing, there were still plenty of 35-somethings who believed that parenting and schooling youngsters through the disruption involved gate keeping, limit setting, search history checking and removal of devices as a primary response. In other words, the Boomers and the GenX just don’t get it yet.
Our world is disrupted. Cyber relationships exist and are as real and demanding and difficult to navigate as any face-to-face interaction, individually and in groups. There is a cyber culture that exists and is thriving. There are group dynamics on an undefined playing field. Symbols and conventions are the new ‘body language’ not a failed emotional intelligence. There is bonding and collegiality, romance and animosity in the digital dimension of human interaction, as much as in the face to face. I am bold enough to assert that to simply attempt to shut down/ remove/ isolate as a mechanism to understand and support our youth we are failing to be the adults they need us to be.
Karen Moross, facilitator of the Family Life Center’s Adolescent Counseling Training in Johannesburg shared her insights into the ever evolving virtual world of electronic and computer based communication and information sharing has drastically altered an individual’s social interactions and ways of communicating. Digital media technologies have created new social contexts and in some cases altered existing ones. Along with the potential benefits and opportunities, this explosion of technology brings several challenges that require our attention. The salient points raised:
- Cyber bullying is not tightly defined yet and we are imposing what cyber bullying is on the cyber “natives’ who can define it better.
- Cyber bullying can mean devastation and we need to get a feel for it.
- In defining it, we need to understand intent, the repetition (i.e. how big is the audience?), the power differential at play and the extent of the relational aggression involved.
- Our young people are ‘always on’.
- The persistence of the aggression is a further factor.
- Young people will not tell adults (parents or teachers) when they are being bullied in cyber space, as our default position is to take the tech away. This is not helpful. Rather, we are imposing social suicide.
- We need to support, understand and guide a response that is empowering and relevant.
Today’s youth are relating to others everywhere and anywhere, 24/7/365. They need support in the form or relationship etiquette in this reality. They have to contend anonymity and disinhibition, communications that involve ‘asynchronicity’, i.e., these can be edited and changes. Regardless of ‘privacy settings’ their posts and interactions are networked publicly and these are stored for a period undetermined by themselves. These communications are replicable and searchable. Every online user is making a digital footprint that has the potential to shadow them forever.
How do we get over our denial as adults, our ‘ban the device’ mentality and, in truth, our fear? To start, we need to develop critical thinking in our young charges. We need to teach and coach digital citizenship no differently to how we teach manners and common decency. We need to respect privacy and yet build a secure relationship with the child or adolescent that includes trust. It is our role to restrict access appropriately, for example at family meal times, but also to build resilience when the child is knocked down in the virtual world. Until early adolescence, we can be active and proactive gatekeepers. Once adolescent, we need to negotiate fair and respectful monitoring. We need to be available in person, and I suggest, 24/7! Perhaps, most controversially, we should take our heads out the sand and join their world. What is it to be ‘always on’? What pressure do you feel when noone likes your picture? How does it feel to post a profile picture or an Instagram update from a body image point of view? Who is looking at your posts? Who is looking at your significant other’s posts? Whose posts are you curious about? What is it like when you message someone and they don’t return the call? Is it comfortable to have a ‘friend’ or ‘follower’ who you don’t actually know in person? What loaded meaning accompanies a full stop or an emoji?
We can’t lead the next generation safely into a world that is not going away if we don’t know what that world is. More than any hashtag out there, we need to embrace #know!
Author: A Scott
4 Ways to Manage Challenging Behaviour through Good Teaching Practice
- Be Clear About the Purpose of the Lesson
Be explicit about the skills or knowledge that you would like your learners to acquire, rather than simply what activity you would like them to complete. Communicate these learning goals to your learners so that they understand the expectations of the lesson and support them to link the new knowledge and skills that they are acquiring to:
- Prior learning
- Subject matter in other learning areas
- Life in general
For example, a lesson that begins something along the lines of, “Today I would like you to read chapter 4 in your textbook and answer the questions on page 45″, fails to communicate the relevance of the lesson and is unlikely to inspire enthusiasm in even the most conscientious learner.
However, “Today we are going to look at how to interpret graphs. It’s an important skill that will be assessed every year in Mathematics for the rest of your school career and will help you in other subjects like Science, Geography and even English comprehension. You’ll find it useful at university and in life in general. Let’s look at a few examples of where adults have to interpret graphs…” While it may not set their world alight, it communicates the true intention of the lesson and its relevance to their lives.
A visual representation or map of the lesson, project or topic is helpful in providing learners with the ‘big picture’ and can be useful in helping those who are absent during a topic to determine what they have missed as well as highlighting the importance of catching up. This puts the learning activities in context, making the purpose clear.
- Establish Classroom Routines
Establishing classroom routines so that learners know what to expect each time they have a lesson with you can be extremely helpful in maintaining good discipline. This is particularly important if you only see a class once or twice a week.
- Whenever possible, aim to be in the classroom before the start of the lesson to greet learners (and their uniforms!), welcoming them into YOUR classroom. Address learners personally, warmly and professionally, thus setting the tone for communication for the rest of the lesson.
- One of the routines should be an expectation that work begins as soon as they enter the classroom. For particularly challenging groups, an engaging activity waiting at their desks may be effective.
- Have a seating plan and place learners strategically according to their needs and their behaviour. This plan should be flexible, allowing you to modify it depending on the requirements of the lesson. Learners should be familiar with the expectation that you determine where they are placed and that this may change frequently.
- Check homework This can be achieved in a number of different ways, for example by asking learners to: write a sentence or two pertaining to the homework task; to summarise their findings in three points; to complete a quick test or to respond to targeted questions as they enter the room or before they are allowed to be seated.
- Establishing a routine for what learners should do when they’ve completed a task can also be helpful. For example, ensure that learners are familiar with checking their work through the use of a technique such COPS as a check for Capital letters, Organisation, Punctuation and Spelling. Consider establishing an ‘Extension Box’, with activities designed to further develop learners’ skills in your learning area.
- Engage Your Learners
Grabbing learners’ attention from the beginning with an intriguing object, picture, quote, classroom layout or prop stimulates curiosity, engaging them from the beginning. Maintain the mystery and let them guess and get it wrong. This prepares their brains for learning, stimulating them to make connections to the topic at hand. By linking the surprise to the content of the lesson, they are more likely to remember it. A ‘starter’ activity as a classroom routine can be an effective way to get learners excited to begin the lesson. It need not always be a surprise: it could be a game, a quick quiz or any other engaging activity. It’s a good opportunity to consolidate learning from the previous lesson or a quick way of assessing what information learners have retained or whether they’ve done their homework.
- Summarise what you know about the topic in 5 bullet points – reduce to 5 words – reduce to one word.
- Just a minute – pupils talk on a topic without hesitation or repetition for one minute.
- Describe a word/concept/character/event to a partner without saying the taboo words. Similar to the game 30 seconds.
- Verbal tennis – divide the class into 2 groups who take turns to say a word related to the current topic. No words can be repeated. Scored as tennis.
- The answer is XYZ – now write the question.
- Groups devise multiple choice questions designed to catch out other groups.
- Solve a lateral thinking problem in pairs or groups- prepares learners for thinking.
Often learners behave poorly because the pace or challenge of the lesson is unsuitable. Learners who find the lesson too difficult, or who are unable to access the text or materials in use because of their reading age, may choose to use avoidance tactics like misbehaving or distracting others. Similarly, learners that are insufficiently by the lesson can be equally disruptive.
Consider a few of the following ways to meet the needs of all learners:
- Consider providing learners with activity choices to allow them to choose the task that best suits their strengths. For example, a choice between writing a poem, creating a rap or designing a poster. Each can be used to assess learners’ knowledge about a topic.
- Consider providing different tasks or materials for learners who are ‘gifted’ or ahead of the class. It’s crucial that they don’t simply receive more work when they finish the class task quickly as this leads to boredom. Instead, provide them with more challenging questions, tasks or projects from the outset. The material for this could easily be sourced from the grade above.
- Similarly, create different tasks or materials for learners who are struggling. They may need more opportunities to practise a skill or require consolidation of the previous lesson. Ensure that materials are appropriate to their reading ability and, where appropriate, encourage alternative methods of recording, such as writing frames, diagrams, labelled drawings or flow charts.
- Aim to address the learning needs of individual learners. For example, in lessons where there will be considerable note-taking, kindly print your PowerPoint presentation for your Dyslexic pupils, allowing them to highlight and annotate rather than copy.
- Learners themselves are the best source of guidance in this regard. Discuss with them (in private) what they find challenging in the classroom and the ways in which you can assist them. They are often surprisingly insightful and will often appreciate your time and concern, resulting in improved behaviour.
Author: J Cooke
I think therefore I am
“Imagine a method…
…that improves how EVERY person learns…
…from the youngest child with Down Syndrome…
…to gifted students…
…and everyone in between…
…that unlocks university gates for students from
…and can also prevent dementia in the elderly… That method is FEUERSTEIN”
Feuerstein Institute: http://www.icelp.info/
It is all well and good that schools decide to be ‘thinking’ schools and deploy useful programmes that provide ‘hangers’ to direct and scaffold our intention to develop higher order thinking skills, but what are we doing about developing the underlying cognition to use in a metacognitive learning curriculum or approach?
The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment (IE) is a series of non-curricular paper and pencil tasks that focus on perceptual and motor function. The programme teaches all learners how to think. The IE tools give structure to a teaching method that helps children approach learning differently, using researched cognitive exercises to develop skills such as reasoning, problem solving, empathy and emotional intelligence.
The brain can change and grow. Every child has potential for learning. Bellavista School has actively embraced cognitive education principles for over three decades. Knowing that the brain is characterised by ‘plasticity’ inspires the staff to used mediated learning experiences that deliberately develop new neural pathways. The Feuerstein Method was pioneered by Prof Reuven Feuerstein, a child psychologist, to help children who had gone through the Holocaust during World War II. For more than 70 years it has been used worldwide, to help children enhance their abilities and to help adults who experience events like strokes or head injuries. Bellavista School rolls out the work of Feuerstein, the pioneer of cognitive education theory and practice, in its curriculum across all grades as a set timetabled lesson, several times a week.
In keeping with the work of Vygotsky and Feuerstein whose work is aligned, Bellavista School uses social mediation to develop real learning: another person works alongside students to guide and direct them struggle through new learning in order to achieve mastery, or learning. The Feuerstein Method fundamentally deploys this concept of mediated learning, where another person (in the classroom, the teacher) leads and directs children to explore their thinking, solve problems, consider all aspects of a situation, draw conclusions, plan their time, organise their thinking, set goals and so much more.
Staff who were steeped in knowledge of the Instrumental Enrichment tools, a practical programme to articulate the Feuerstein Method, proposed that the School should deliberately include it in the school timetable.
“The observations to date speak for themselves. The transfer of skills is seen in higher levels of empathy, reasonable judgment, a systematic approach to problem solving and improved organisational skills,” reports Fleur Durbach, Deputy Principal.
Miriam Wilder, Deputy Principal notes, “The Instrumental Enrichment provides children with significant barriers to learning with opportunity to explore and develop alternate neural pathways to enable them to access their learning potential through a systematic and graded process.”
IE has a place for every learner, regardless of ‘measured ability’. Learners with an aptitude for Mathematics can extend their cognition exponentially, developing skills of logic and reason. Children with language difficulties experience the thrill of solving non-verbal, non-routine problems in a logical, systematic way. At every point, there is opportunity for the learner to explain his or her thinking, and so demonstrate understanding.
The School reports direct impact to learners’ IQ scores. In one particular year the school dealt with the tool of Comparison. Learners assessed on the WISC-IVUK that year all had elevated scores for the subtest, Similarities. Quanitifiable evidence like this, albeit anecdotal action research, spurred us on to implement Instrumental Enrichment school wide.
One of several cognitive education programmes integrated into the fabric of Bellavista School, Instrumental Enrichment is taught for two – three hours per week alongside the mainstream curriculum and other therapy interventions. Exercises are not specifically linked to traditional subjects; however, some exercises do tie in to particular skills and integrate with, subjects like trigonometry, life skills, or language learning. All Foundation Phase staff, and some therapists and INTERSEN educators, are trained and certified by the Feuerstein Institute in Israel. Under the careful guidance of Prof David Martin, Mass, USA, the interventionists are prepared to steer real cognitive development in their learners carefully, through the use of Instrumental Enrichment (IE) tools. Parents are invited to attend training so that they can carry the expectation and the mediation methodology into the home. A school-home partnership can only accelerate efficacy.
Ask any child at Bellavista about IE and they are likely to tell you that they “love it” or “its fun”! It is novel to the point that the pupils might not even think it is work or ‘school’! Is that not what real teaching and learning should be about?
“The Feuerstein Method is the only educational method that teaches students the process behind thinking and learning skills in an organized, structured way.” Feuerstein Institute 2016
When things don’t add up: Dyscalculia
When things don’t add up!
Dyscalculia is described in the DSM-V as a Specific Learning Disorder. i.e. “A neurodevelopment disorder of biological origin manifested in learning difficulty and problems in acquiring academic skills markedly below age level and manifested in the early school years, lasting for at least six months; not attributed to intellectual; disabilities, developmental disorders, or neurological or motor disorders.” Like any Specific Learning Disorder, it covers as spectrum of difficulty ranging from mild, to moderate or severe.
How much do we know?
Research into Dyscalculia lags significantly behind that for Dyslexia by some 30 years. However, it is estimated that approximately 6% of the world’s population is at risk, and 40% of dyslexics are. Dyscalculia is a life-time reality that may be identified at school, but is experienced in every day living.
Barriers to learning Mathematics might include Dyscalculia and other hurdles
Dyscalculia may be rooted in the physiology of the brain and possibly related to load on memory. Like any ability or disability, mathematical aptitude can be familial or an inborn disposition. It is usually defined as a difficulty with arithmetic skills that is not explained by low intelligence or inadequate schooling. Difficulty in Mathematics may be due, rather, to an inappropriate exposure to numerical teaching (i.e. limited concrete experiences and too much abstraction at too young an age, or no exposure at all) and poor curriculum. There is some hypothesis that gender bias and other social influences can affect an individual’s developing numerical competence; likewise, that a teacher’s attitude and aptitude in the subject would have a direct bearing on the individual learner’s attainment.
A barrier is a barrier that ought to be recognised, but intervention for a learner with Dyscalculia demands a specific focus, including ‘un-teaching’ (Chinn, 2013).
How does Dyscalculia look?
- Dyscalculia affects one’s ability to understand, remember or manipulate numbers or number facts, e.g., multiplication tables or number bonds.
- There may or may not be a co-morbidity with other Specific Learning Disorders like Dyslexia.
- A learner identified with Dyscalculia might have difficulties with time, measurement and spatial reasoning.
- There might be difficulty with everyday tasks like reading analogue clocks and internalizing a sense of time.
- Comprehending financial planning or budgeting might be challenging, e.g., estimating the cost of items in a shopping basket.
- There may be problems differentiating between left and right and difficulty navigating or mentally ‘turning’ a map to face the current direction.
- Estimating and measuring an object or distance could prove challenging.
- Inability to read a sequence of numbers, or transposing them when repeated, such as turning 38 into 83 might be noted.
- In day-to-day life, the person might get frustrated when trying to keep score during games or follow sequences demanding in games or activities, like dance or sport.
- The curriculum and curriculum pace are ever increasing challenges. The school learner with Dyscalculia may confuse the operational signs +, -, x and ÷, struggle to ‘bridge ten’ and, later, have trouble entering variables on a calculator. In fact, offering a calculator as support might help a learner with mild Dyscalculia, but could highlight the sense of inadequacy in a severe case. Even in a very low number range (1-10), the child will present with difficulties relating to addition and subtraction bonds, multiplication and division tables and mental arithmetic and may often prove unable to grasp and remember mathematical concepts, rules, formulae and sequences.
- A learner with Dyscalculia under pressure of the curriculum or in unsupported environments could develop an enduring performance anxiety regarding Mathematics and mathematical-numeric devices. Anxiety for Mathematics is real and the learner needs to feel secure in an emotionally consistent environment.
- The learner may do fairly well in other subjects and could be perceived as ‘lazy’ or ‘careless’ in Mathematics.
- These learners might manage geometry and science, which require logic rather than formulae, until a higher level requiring calculations is reached.
There are screeners that could be applied to determine a learner’s risk for Dyscalculia, but a documented history including error analysis, anecdotal and/ or systematic observation and strong record keeping of evidence of difficulty form the best base for advocating for the learner and providing appropriate intervention and accommodations. A professional can determine if a WISC-IV or other IQ assessment might be valid.
If you or someone you know is struggling with Mathematics to the point that he/she cannot progress or gain access to schooling or certain subjects, you should seek advice from an Educational Psychologist, qualified specialist educator or call Bellavista S.E.E.K. (www.bellavistaseek.org.za)
Bellavista S.H.A.R.E. is hosting Dr Stephanie Gottwald and Dr Sarah Wedderburn in Johannesburg, South Africa in June 2016, with a line up of other local experts, to address the issue of Dyscalculia, as well as how it might relate to Dyslexia. See www.bellavistashare.org.za to secure your place.
Author: AM Scott
Help! My brain is in pain.
Further to the previous discussion around anxiety, educators would no doubt add that a ‘brain in pain’ cannot learn. When a child experiences trauma, loss, sadness, fear or anxiety, the brain’s greatest priority is survival. It simply cannot put risk-taking and new learning ahead of this objective. A learner in a classroom comes with his or her whole world – memories, attachments, families and circumstances. Subconsciously, the child’s brain is calibrating towards equilibrium, keeping all the stressors in check in order to survive. If one aspect of a child’s life is under duress, then the child is anxious and learning may not be likely, no matter how cleverly designed the lesson plan or how kind and experienced the teacher. Likewise, if the child is stressed and traumatised at school, the fight/flight response will spill over into the home. Parents know something’s wrong when they have an anxious child in meltdown. Teacher’s know the same.
Trauma is not just accident, neglect or abusive experiences in crime situations and relationships. A traumatized brain can also be a fatigued, over-medicated, malnourished, worried brain that is feeling isolation, worry, anger, poor attachment and fear. All negative experiences can render the brain in pain. Neuro biological changes that are a natural bodily response heighten the fear response and charge the body with cortisol and adrenaline. The brain does not distinguish one negative experience from another. All incoming negatives invoke the same response. Our heart, blood pressure and respiration rates increase with the excess secretion of neuro hormones. When this becomes a chronic state of being, instead of a temporary one, our brains are in in pain over time and our learning slows or stops entirely. We present as anxious or depressed, flighty or aggressive and irritable.
Train the Brain
Whilst not the entire solution, it might be helpful for parents or teachers to assist the child in reaching a calm and safe brain state instead of an activated fear response when there is no present danger. There are strategies to self regulate or modulate the system and ‘nurse’ the brain in pain.
Breathing deeply focuses our attention and prepares the brain for attention. It can facilitate the ‘get on task’ step before staying on task. Mindfulness strategies that include focusing on a stimulus like a sound or visualisation could have a valid place in our classrooms 2 -3 times a day to increase oxygenated blood flow to the brain. A brain well fed can regulate, attend and solve problems.
Take a brain break often! Movement calms the stress response. Physical activities like chair push ups, ‘jumping jacks’, squats, yoga calm the limbic brain and allow the child to put his or her focus back on the learning task at hand. Movement breaks are good for all learners (young and old) and doing these at regular intervals benefits everyone without isolating the child who needs these most in front of his or her peers. Get some ‘brain break’ ideas here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=AFkVjzKoqLA
Understanding the Brain should have a place in every school curriculum. Carol Dweck’s research on a Growth Mindset provides evidence that children who learn about their brain achieve their potential better. Teach the learners about the biological structure of the brain, the fight-flight response in their bodies, and the associated reactions which are natural and to be expected. The amygdala is the emotionally-driven structure in the brain that responds to the experiences in our lives. We cannot control the experiences, but we can do much to regulate the response over time, saving the fight-flight for when we really need it. Metacognition, or thinking about my thinking, will assist the brain in pain to regulate the response. Teach the child to stop-think-go or self regulate.
Author: AM Scott
Anxiety management is everything!
Anxiety shuts down learning. Period. An anxious child can be exposed to outstanding educational practice yet will make very little progress if the anxiety is not managed. Anxiety is an emotional state in which a threat is not immediate, but anticipated. When in this state, the body is responding only to the need to physically survive. Higher order activities take a back seat.
Anxiety and fear are adaptive behaviours in place to preserve our well being. Consider a real threat, for example, an imminent collision between a person and a bus, at this point, a person is not occupied with activities like memorizing a poem or solving an algorithm. A person in such a position of threat is only thinking, “Get me out of here!!” Such anxiety is normal and short lived.
Chronic anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder is an entirely different matter. In this case, fear and anxiety are experienced in an intensity and duration that are not proportionate to the eliciting threat. The anxiety can be severe and persistent, affecting daily functioning. It causes distress, disability and even impairment. The prevalence of Anxiety Disorders in children is reaching 31%. Children experiencing an Anxiety Disorder are impaired socially, in their academic functioning and in their development of a healthy self esteem. Anxiety Disorders respond well to treatment, especially if this is part of management between the school, family and professionals. Dr Stancheva and Prof Venter were perfectly clear when addressing attendees at a workshop held at Bellavista School recently. The research indicates that Anxiety Disorder (of which there are several categories) if correctly diagnosed but left untreated, cause impairment over a lifetime.
As I reflected on this in the context of a school, I can but consider how many children are broken and anxious, fearful of the school system, of separation from a parent and home, of exploring and discovering. Anxiety is a very real issue for us. One might expect that the teachers and therapists will first be concerned to settle anxiety (not an overnight exercise) before learning outcomes can be addressed and achieved.
Educators ought to speak with the children about a Feeling of Challenge, helping them to embrace a natural anxiety or fear that comes with facing something new or demanding. Each adult can place before each individual child opportunities for success, this to elicit a Feeling of Competence that builds confidence. Given that every child is individual and at their own stage of journeying with anxiety, parents ought not compare their child, or their activities and tasks, against a same age peer and his/her curriculum, in or outside the school or family. Parents are in an ideal position to partner with the school and professionals in it to avert impairment caused by anxiety.
Author: AM Scott