084: Unleashing Your Child’s Genius, with Jean Harville

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Kids with ADHD are bright, but it's hard for them to show it when the world is designed for neurotypicals. Notice, I said it's hard… not impossible. It's all about understanding your child's brain, their strengths and weaknesses, and addressing all aspects of life with a positive attitude. These key ingredients will help you unleash your child's genius.

Get curious and support your child in the struggles they have without judgement. With the knowledge we have about brain development and structure, we can better understand our kid's behaviors and the way they learn. We can also better understand their strengths and, in turn, lift their self -esteem.

In this episode, I'm talking with online reading strategist, Jean Harville, about the neuroscience behind a positive, strengths-based approach, as well as the tools, strategies, and mindset to help your child thrive. 


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My Guest


Jean Harville is an online reading strategist who helps moms nurture their struggling readers into confident readers using effective reading strategies through 1:1 teaching sessions with moms.

Jean is a certified special education teacher with 20 years of experience working with elementary level students to close their reading gaps. She worked in various settings from the public schools, private schools, and specialized clinics where she learned cutting edge strategies in building new neural pathways in the brain for teaching reading to those kids who think and learn differently. Jean earned her Master's degree along the way and just recently became a certified Reading Interventionist.



Jean Harville (00:03): We are pushing processes on them at an earlier age that their brains are not ready to understand the process of reading or the process of math. To think through all these different steps they have to go through. They're not ready to do that. So what are we doing with our kids when we're giving them such complex things to learn in school when their brain is not ready or developed to do that?

Penny Williams (00:32): Welcome to the parenting ADHD podcast where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHDaholic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams (01:01): Welcome back to the parenting ADHD podcast. I'm really excited today to be talking to Jean Harville, who is a reading strategist. In this episode we're going to talk a little bit about unleashing your kid's genius and what sort of mindset and strategies go with that process and that way of supporting our kids. Thanks for being here, Jean. I really appreciate you sharing some of your time and wisdom with everyone. Can you start just by introducing yourself, let everyone know who you are and what you do?

Jean Harville (01:36): Yeah, sure. Thank you so much for asking me to be on the podcast. I'm really excited too that I'm, here. I'm an online reading strategist and so I've had about 20 some years working with kids who think and learn differently. And I have been in that, in the schools, in the classrooms and watching some of my kids just struggle with who they are and what they can and can't do. And I was in the school system for a while and I even thought to myself, I need to go back and get more training because I just feel like I'm not really ready to teach my students. So I went back for my master's degree, came back into teaching in a classroom and it's just, there was something that's just nagging at me, the skills that I had. I needed a little bit more.

Jean Harville (02:29): I wanted to fully and better understand my students. And I told the principal one day, I said, you know, "I need to leave." And he said, "okay." And so I did. I made that transition. I made it in January, which was fine for my kids. So, one day I was looking down the hall and I saw this developmental center. I thought, well, I wonder what that is. Checking into it. It was a neurologist who is very interested in the dyslexic brain and how those with dyslexia learn. And about that time is when functional MRIs became available. So she decided to use MRIs and study the dyslexic brain and the non dyslexic brain and see the difference is actual structural difference in the brains, which I saw as fascinating. This was like around 1990 when all this came about.

Jean Harville (03:23): And so we developed a reading program that would help to create new neural pathways for these kids because the traditional reading programs just weren't getting what they needed. So that was just fascinating for me because it just gave me a more insight into the brain and brain development and what our reading programs were doing wrong. After that I worked in private schools and specialized clinics and so forth. And so I took all that knowledge and I then I was called out of teaching for a while, like go to China, adopt a couple of kids, come back, raise your kids. So I about 20 years right there. So I'm coming back into this. I thought, okay, they're heading off to college. What is my goal? What do I need to do? And I just found myself back in really wanting to help parents because I know when my kids were going through school, I wasn't teaching at the time, but I had parents would ask me, "Jean, my child is struggling here, what can I do?"

Jean Harville (04:29): I would give them some suggestions and they would try it out and they were like, "wow, this is great. It works." And so I was thinking, why don't I work with parents and help them to navigate what's going on with their kids who think and learn differently. Now that's something that I can provide online. So that's why I became an online reading strategist so that I can create the community of parents to kind of help them and to teach them and to bring them along into taking a look at their kids in a little bit different way.

Jean Harville (05:34): It's just a new way for parents to take a look at their kids in a different way. Like what is the one unique piece that my child can do? My child is not broken. The brain is just different. They learn in a different way. So we take this, yes, reading is important. They need to be able to do reading, but why not teach them in a way that's going to be more relevant for them and one that's going to be helpful for them and also find that nugget, that genius of what they have and build on that, build on self confidence and help them to see their strengths.

Penny Williams (06:15): Let's start with a conversation about parent mindset a little bit because we kind of grow up and become parents with these certain ideas about school, school performance, academic performance behavior, a lot of things. And one of the biggest pieces for ADHD specifically is to really take a look at the fact that your child can walk through life differently or walk through childhood differently and still be a successful happy adult. And a lot of that can come through our expectations around school because that's a super big piece of our kids' childhood and it's so important, like you were already talking about a little bit to shift what we're expecting. I think about grades as the obvious thing that we tend to really hyper focus on that isn't necessarily a predictor of future success. What other sort of beliefs do you find that parents have that are creating a barrier or hurdle to really helping their child as much as they could?

Jean Harville (07:35): Absolutely. I have had so many parents and I've had to really rethink this myself too because I come from thinking about my growing up and what my parents did and I have those stories running in my subconscious brain also. Like this is the way you parent and it's many of the parents now. It's like I want my child to read and love books, to pick up a book and just voraciously go through books and read and read and love reading like I did. Well, there's nothing really wrong with that. But the thing is that reading looks different for our kids now. We do have libraries and we still have books, but reading is also on technology and is also on the computer. There are so many classrooms picking up on technology, so they need to be able to read on those devices as well.

Jean Harville (08:30): So that kind of takes them away from the book in a way. So you have to kind of think like, "well, okay, we are moving into an era. We've been moving into the era of technology and so reading is still valuable. They have to be able to read the devices and that sort of thing." And so shifting a little bit when they see their kids reading on technology. I remember going through the card catalog in a library and spending hours in a card catalog. It's so much easier now to just Google it and to find the pieces of information that you need.

Jean Harville (09:23): Then I think one of the things that I want to look at when I work with kids is not only where they need to improve in their reading, but also what are the things that make them so unique? And I don't think that was in the forefront of our parents minds when we were growing up. It was more like fitting in, fit in with the crowd. You go to school, you learn this, here's your A, here's your B, here's your C and that sort of thing, where now we need to take a look at the skills that they have in the schools. In Canada they do not have a grading system, at least at the elementary level. They do more checklists like, they can do this skill on this scale, or this scale. So the kids are not comparing themselves. They aren't comparing themselves to their classmates that they actually are just noticing what it is that they need to work on. So parents are thinking, "Oh my gosh, how can I tell if my kid is moving along where they are supposed to be because I don't have the ABC grades to score and those grades are so arbitrary anyway."

Penny Williams (10:30): Yeah. Then shifting the expectation that a kid is good at every subject. The math alone that they are required to learn now in high school and even earlier, they're teaching very complex math that 95% of us are not going to do. Probably 99% of us are not going to use in our adult life. If your kid is not getting an A in that and you know they want to be a writer or a teacher, not a math teacher obviously, but something where they don't need to use that, then we have to weigh how important it really is.

Jean Harville (11:22): Yeah. We were talking about brain development earlier and so much more is known about it and talking about the executive function for that. All of our kids struggle with, especially if they have attention issues and even learning disabilities, executive functioning as well, and that that does not develop until close to their 30's. A normally developing child, whatever that means these days, is in their twenties when they all develop this ability to organize, to verbalize, to all those skills that are necessary to get through school. So when I think about the brain development with the back of the brain developing first, which is social emotional area, that's for our little kids. They're all about the stories about the two vowels go walking, one does a talking, one is silent. They love the stories about that, but we are pushing processes on them, as I said earlier, at an age that their brains are not ready to understand the process of reading or the process of math or the process to think through all these different steps they have to go through. They're not ready to do that. So what are we doing with our kids when we're giving them such complex things to learn in school when their brain is not ready or developed to do that?

Penny Williams (12:43): I like that you've used the word "process" over and over too ,because with executive functioning especially, we tend to take for granted how complex some processes really are. My son has dysgraphia, which is a handwriting learning disability. And when you really start to break down the demands on working memory, on all of this other neurology, the motor function and control and the fact that all of this is piling on at one time, it helps you to understand why they struggle so much with writing. And I think so much of this and so much of unleashing your child's genius is understanding where their strengths and weaknesses lie and then using the strengths as much as we can, and then accommodating the things that they struggle with. There's so many tools and assistive technology and strategies that can help, but you kind of have to understand what they need and the way that their brain is working in order to figure out what to do to be helpful.

Jean Harville (13:55): Yes. And I also like teaching our kids through multisensory — using auditory or visual or tactile or movement. Even movements in the mouth with the way sounds feel in the mouth. And a lot of our kids, you think and learn different. They don't have the feeling around the mouth and know when their tongue is moving and look in a mirror and say, my tongue is actually moving when I'm talking or if they don't have that since it's difficult for them to process it to just speak to those sounds and to track and see if they are saying the word correctly. So we have to take a look at our kids and see where their strengths are, where their zone of genius is. Like, my child can take apart this toy and can totally put it back together again. That's amazing. And that's what this child has, this huge visual spatial field and can do that and they can take it apart and put it back together again and it's like, "Oh, that's amazing that they can do that." Yeah. So I think we just have to take a look and see what's there. What is the best modality that they learn with.

Penny Williams (15:06): Yeah. And everybody has strengths and weaknesses and it feels like our kids have so many more weaknesses because they struggle in these areas that have such a high demand on them in childhood, like executive functioning at school. And so it feels so much like it's a much bigger part of them almost. And so really being mindful as a parent of what are my child's strengths? What can I use? When my son was in early elementary school we modified spelling homework since he has dysgraphia. He's not writing it, that was just torture. I got a set of alphabet cookie cutters and play-dough and he would spell them that way. We would do the hop ball and he would jump around the house and spell, or shape uncooked macaroni or spaghetti into letters and words. There are so many other ways. And really those are much more engaging and fun than sitting down with a piece of paper and writing it with pencil. Right?

Jean Harville (16:11): Right. I know. If I'm having fun, then it's gotta be great.

Penny Williams (16:16): You're engaged, not saying, "Oh, I can't do this" because we found a way that he could do it and there's just so much of that that's possible. Again, you just have to know what you're needing and where the gaps are and how to fill those in is really crucial, but then also shifting your expectations to ask, "what's really important for my child? What is it going to take for my child to feel competent and confident and successful?"

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Penny Williams (18:13): You and I were talking earlier before we started about kids getting this message that they can't, they can't, they can't and so they end up automatically assuming that they can't after receiving that message for so long. My son is definitely a case of that because he's so smart. He never quite got the level of support that he needed in school despite the probably hundreds of meetings we've had over the last 10 or 11 years. But that message starts to build for them and we have to be able to help them feel like there are good parts of themselves, too.

Jean Harville (18:50): I love when you said, "I can't do this." That's a message that a lot of our kids will say. And so what happens is they're thinking, I can't do this. They tell themselves that over and over, and there's an emotion with that too. It's a sadness and then it turns into I'm not good enough. I'm not good enough. They keep telling themselves that. So the subconscious brain doesn't judge. It says, "Hmm, little Timmy is saying I'm not good enough. Okay. He said that a lot of times, now we're going to build that neuropathway for him so he's not good enough." Whenever he gets close to an assignment or reading or something that he doesn't feel good enough about, his brain will say, "Timmy, back away, back away. You're not good enough. Remember you're not good. I'm going to protect you."

Jean Harville (19:36): And there's no judgment. It was our brain. Kids don't know that. The brain doesn't know that. But what the brain knows is what you put into it. And when you connect it with an emotion, then that neuropathway is built. So what do we do when we start hearing our kids saying these negative things, negative thoughts, even with ourselves as adults? If I say I do not want you to do taxes and I'm the person that has to do the taxes, I've talked myself out of it. So I procrastinate. I put it away. The procrastination is a huge barrier. And so I have to tell myself, "I've done it for the last 20 some years. I can do this." But I have to retrain my brain every single year so I can move through this. If you have a negative thought yourself, you could try this method.

Jean Harville (20:28): This is something that you can work with your kids on. You hear your kids say "I'm not good enough" or something like that. And that's basically what most of these comments will narrow down to, either they'll say "I'm not good enough" and then they'll procrastinate or they'll just back away and be reluctant to read or to do math or whatever. When you hear these negative comments, you say, "okay, we're going to write this. Just kind of write it down. And if you get time when you're not in the thick of things and you can just mention, " Timmy, what are your thoughts around reading?" And they'll go, "I dunno, it's boring." And when they say boring, that means it's hard. That's really the message that they're giving you. You say, "well, okay, it's hard."

Jean Harville (21:20): "What is it about reading that's hard?" And they may be able to tell you. Think about what they have done in their life that was hard and they were able to move through it. Let's say little Timmy was on the soccer team and first he struggled with being able to kick the goal or to kick that ball or run and kick the ball, but he was able to figure that thing out over time. He was able to kick the ball and actually made goals. Tell him, "Remember when you started soccer and that was really hard?" Then they can talk about the progress that they made in learning that skill. "How do you feel about soccer now?" Again, "I love that I am a great soccer player."

Jean Harville (22:03): "So that's something that was hard to begin with. You moved through the process of training and learning the skills and now you're a great soccer player." Think back to where your child thought something was hard and moved through to where they are now. And now you say, "look at what you can do now. You can put that model airplane together in a snap of a finger." Find evidence that they were able to move from something that was hard to something that now they can do. They come up with that through questioning and they may come up with, "geez, when something's hard, I'm able to figure out hard sayings step by step by step. But I just think about step by step by step so I can do hard things."

Jean Harville (22:50): Would I take a step one step at a time? Yeah, that's a lot lighter. It's a lot more positive. And so the way the brain works is that then the old pathway needs to be broken before you can create that new pathway. And after maybe 10 or so different statements or new affirmations that are created by you and your child, record those. Either your child can record them, depending on their age, or you can record them because they love to hear your voice and put that recording on when they first wake up in the morning and it goes through the different positive things that they have created about themselves. Or you can do it in the evening. Probably two times would be most convenient for the child and you could just turn it on when they are getting ready to wake up or they're going to sleep.

Jean Harville (23:45): The brain is hearing. That's the two times. And also another one is after they have exercise. Those are the times when the brain, the conscious brain, is aware and the subconscious brain is not. You're able to get that message into the conscious brain and be able to create the new neuropathways. And after about the first 21 days you are about even with the old pathway and the new one, the old one's just about to break and that new one is really building stronger, and take that to 67 days. It's two and a half months of every day having them listen to these new affirmations. And when you get out to that 67th day, they have a whole new mindset about doing hard things. It's just, it's incredible.

Penny Williams (24:34): It's really fascinating. And we're talking more and more all the time about neuropathways and how we can change the brain. And it can be hard to do, but we can rewire some of what's going on. And the more positive the experiences are, the more times that they've met adversity and did well, the more that is taking over in a sense because we're literally making these new neuroconnections. I think it's important to say too, if it's all negative all the time, that's wiring the brain in a different sort of way. It's having an impact physiologically on your neurology, positive or negative. So, which do you want? The positive, of course. One note I made while you were just talking is about doing hard uncomfortable things. It's kind of a trait for a lot of people with ADHD and especially autism.

Penny Williams (25:38): And I see it so much with my son. We're really working on it heavily in therapy with him right now — to sit with and move through discomfort, because his whole life he has just worked on avoiding. "How do I shut down this feeling right away?" And, of course, he has created these negative, damaging coping mechanisms with this real compulsion almost for shutting down any discomfort. And I see it now in so many kids now that this amazing therapist that we started seeing in 2019 shared his perspective on it, because he's not a specialist in ADHD or autism. So he brought this whole different viewpoint to the things that were going on. And I see that with school stuff, too. So much is "well, this is really overwhelming," or "this is really hard and I know I'm not going to feel good doing this so I have to put a stop to it. I have to do whatever I can to get away from it."

Penny Williams (26:42): We've dealt with school avoidance and school refusal for years. And it's super, super hard because everybody in the world is saying that your kid has to go to school and your kid is saying, "you'll have to take me there dead or not me out to make that happen." Physically not going. That's been an issue for us for awhile. And, the reason is that there's so much anxiety in that environment. There's so much stress in that environment that a lot of them really internalize and take that message to heart in a way that not only is programming them to say "I can't," but it's also really stressing them out and causing a lot of anxiety. And then you see a lot of behavior that is challenging and unwanted, you know? It just keeps circling back to really understanding your child and where their strengths and weaknesses lie and what is hard for them or what they perceive as hard for them, and keep working on ways to get them to be able to sit with discomfort because it's so, so important.

Jean Harville (27:55): The reason why I got into really wanting to work with the kid's mindset is that for myself, while I wait, I think back to childhood incidences that happened to me and why I think I'm small. I don't want to stand out because I didn't want anyone judging me or whateve. And so, I'm like, why can't we go back to the kids right now while they're in childhood and give them the tools to work on their mindset, work on the negative things? What we know about the brain now and the neuroplasticity of the brain, we can make those changes and give them those tools and give to parents those tools that they can work on these negative things now and not let them sit with them and stew in them their whole life. And that just brings him back when they're adults. "I can't do anything. I'm dumb. I don't amount to much of anything, I'm not valuable." So if we can give him those tools now, why not?

Penny Williams (28:55): Yeah. And celebrate when they succeed. We used to have pizza and cake if the kids had a great week at school or just little accomplishments I would make much more of a big deal out of because that's what really sticks with them. They're going to remember that. He did Science Olympiad and his team won a medal and he strutted around with that medal. He totally didn't believe it was possible for him. And so, when he saw and felt that it was, we made a super big deal. "You get to pick where we're going to go for lunch, we're going to go out and celebrate. Look what you did." And I took a picture of him looking at that medal on his neck and I put it on the refrigerator for like two years, because it really lit him up. It was almost inspiring. It showed him and reminded him that yes he could.

Jean Harville (29:55): Yeah. It's so much better than a reward system. You do this, you get that. It's just what you're doing. You're changing the way they're thinking about themselves, you're motivating them. And it's much more intrinsic than an extrinsic award. If we can really change their thinking, the way they think about themselves, their thoughts and their emotions and their beliefs about who they are, that is key.

Penny Williams (30:21): The beliefs. Yeah, that's huge. And it takes a lot of work. For a marathon you can be really positive for a couple months and then it didn't work. And your kid hasn't completely shifted their idea about themselves and think, "Oh well that doesn't work." It's a lifestyle, almost,

Jean Harville (30:42): Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And you'll fail first. You have to keep working on it and find someone who knows how to do this and keep talking with them and talk with other moms and friends and that sort of thing. Like you said, it is a marathon and you'll get there if you keep working on it and tweaking it along the way.

Penny Williams (31:02): Yeah. Such good information. I know we only have a short time together and we're running to the end of that, but I think you've really given us that overarching nugget of wisdom that we need. The foundation of where we need to be parenting from is to look at strengths and tailor what we're doing to our child and who they are and where they are.

Jean Harville (31:28): Absolutely. Shifting those beliefs that your child has about themselves.

Penny Williams (31:32): So important. And it comes down to not wanting the conversation to always be about ADHD or dyslexia or weaknesses.

Jean Harville (31:42): Right, exactly. We all have unique brains and we're all different. The past few years they've taken away the disability terminology and bring it more to thinking and learning differently. And I love that. I love that we're not broken. None of us are broken.

Penny Williams (32:04): We're just all human. Well, thank you so much again. For everyone listening you can connect with Jean, can link to her website, the onlinereadingstrategist.com and other ways to connect with her in the show notes for this episode and those are at parentingADHDandautism.com/084. Again, I appreciate you being here. I know that our audience has learned a lot and it's going to help them to help their kids.

Jean Harville (32:35): Well, I totally appreciate you asking me to come.

Penny Williams (32:56): With that, we are at the end of the episode and I will see everyone next time.

Penny Williams (33:02): Thanks for joining me on the Parenting ADHD Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and mama retreats at parentingADHDandautism.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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