233: School Struggles Series

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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This week, the Beautifully Complex episodes are all about lessons learned from the 24 expert workshops in this month’s free School Struggle Summit, taking place September 28th through 30th, 2023. I always learn so much from our summit sessions, and I’m excited to share it with all of you. I’m posting a short podcast episode each day leading up to the start of the conference so you can get some quick wins before the deep learning and the summit begins.


The Need for Flexibility in Education

In this episode, I explore the crucial importance of providing adaptable approaches to education for neurodivergent children and those who struggle in school. Prepare to discover three key ways to implement flexibility in education, ranging from the flexibility of the learning environment to accommodating different modalities of learning and allowing individualized planning and organization.

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Normalizing Differences in Education

Normalizing differences in education is a key topic for creating schools that are equitable to all learners. I share valuable lessons learned from experts on how to embrace neurodiversity, different learning styles, and unique needs in the classroom. Join me as I uncover strategies to create a culture of acceptance, foster community, and encourage open conversations about alternative approaches to learning. It’s time to make education a place where every student feels seen, understood, and successful.

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Fostering a Culture of Community in School

Connection and a sense of belonging are integral to learning. Join me as I explore strategies for creating a community that not only supports academic growth but also celebrates individual differences. Tune in to discover how building a culture of community can positively impact students’ emotional well-being and engagement in the learning process.

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Offering Just Right Challenges in School & Beyond

The concept of the “just right challenge” plays a crucial role in supporting growth and success for neurodivergent kids in school. I share insights on finding the balance between pushing children outside their comfort zones and ensuring they can still achieve success. I emphasize the need to meet kids where they are and create opportunities for growth, all while understanding the ever-changing nature of neurodiversity. Tune in to learn more about the Zone of Proximal Development and how to navigate the complexities of setting appropriate challenges for struggling students.

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Neurobiology’s Role in Availability to Learn

In this episode, I discuss the role of neurobiology in our ability to learn. Join me as we uncover the science behind how our nervous system’s state impacts our availability to learn. We will explore the concept of regulation and why it is crucial for optimal learning. Get ready for some eye-opening insights that will challenge the traditional educational norms we’ve been accustomed to.

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Refocusing on Big Picture Goals

I’m diving into the big picture goals of education and how refocusing on those overarching goals helps struggling learners thrive. Join me as I discuss how understanding the true purpose of education and the true purpose of each task or assignment can level the playing field for struggling learners and enhance a child’s learning journey.

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Register for the free School Struggles Summit Sept. 28-30, 2023. If you can’t make those dates, a Fast Pass is available with lifetime access. 

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Penny Williams [00:00:03]:

This week, the beautifully complex episodes are all about lessons learned from the 24 expert workshops in this month's free school struggle summit taking place September 28th through 30th, 2023. I always learn so much from our summit sessions, and I'm excited to share it with all of you. I'm posting a short podcast episode each day leading up to the start of the conference so you can get some quick wins before the deep learning and the summit begins. This is one of those episodes. Welcome back, everyone. In this short episode, I want to talk about flexibility in education and learning. Our educational system is rigid because it's designed to enforce conformity. And most of us have experienced how bad of a fit that is for neurodivergent kids and other kids who struggle in school.

Penny Williams [00:00:57]:

They need to learn differently and to demonstrate what they've learned differently. They need flexibility in their education. But how do you create that flexibility in such an inflexible environment? The need for flexibility is a topic that comes up again and again in the workshops in the upcoming free school struggle summit. Kids who learn differently need us to think about their education differently. The law in the United States requires it, but it's rarely fully implemented for our students. You'll learn a lot about how parents and educators can be flexible for students with learning challenges and why it's so crucial during this summit. I'm going to provide you with 3 ways to implement flexibility from our experts right here right now. First is flexibility of the environment.

Penny Williams [00:01:53]:

Who says that the only way to learn and do school work is sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor, scooted up under the desk with your materials on top of the desk. Some kids need to move. Some kids need to stretch out. Some kids need a softer seat to focus on something other than how hard that seat is. One can learn and complete school work just about anywhere as long as it works for them. If your kid or student wants to lay on the floor under their desk and they're on task there, then let them lay on the floor in front of their desk or under their desk. Maybe more kids will want to do it. That could happen.

Penny Williams [00:02:38]:

But again, what is that harming As long as kids are on task under their desk, they're learning, then it's totally okay. We give you permission to fly in the face of normal traditional classroom or homework structure. We need to offer more flexibility Let kids listen to music or YouTube if it works for them while they're doing schoolwork. It took me a really long time to realize that listening to music helps every one of my family members focus, even though it eliminates every shred of possible focus for me. It does not work for me, but it is pivotal for every member of my family. We're all different So let your kid try things they think will be helpful. Let your students try things they think will be helpful. If they turn out not to work for them, then you just pivot and you move on.

Penny Williams [00:03:37]:

Number 2, we need flexibility in modalities. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Everyone. Neurotypical neurodivergent doesn't matter. We all have strengths and weaknesses. This is especially true for kids and teens who struggle in school. Some struggle with reading, some struggle with writing, some struggle with math. There are tools and accommodations that can help with all of those things, but also being flexible with the expected outcome can make all the difference to kids with learning challenges.

Penny Williams [00:04:13]:

For example, kids with dysgraphia have a hard time with writing, handwriting, and also written expression. Which can also be true for those with executive functioning challenges. If they need to learn about cell biology, And they need to demonstrate what they've learned about cell biology. Does it have to be by writing a five page paper? No. It doesn't. Students can also demonstrate what they've learned about cell biology through a video, an oral presentation, a poster, a model, or a diarrama, even an animation that they built. A kid with writing struggles is likely to do a lot better creating a video or a PowerPoint presentation than writing a scientific paper. And they've met the goal of learning about cell biology and demonstrating what they've learned.

Penny Williams [00:05:06]:

We need to be flexible in how we allow kids to demonstrate what they've learned and how they learn it in the first place. Our third area of flexibility that I wanna highlight is in planning and organization. We often assume that everyone plans and organizes the exact same way. That one system should work for all the students in a classroom. That's just not true. Students with executive functioning delays or deficits can't instinctually plan and organize. It isn't innate. And the ways you do it may not make sense to someone else.

Penny Williams [00:05:44]:

It may not make sense to that student, that child, that teen. So it's really important to allow students to organize themselves and their schoolwork in alternative ways. Frankie Bagdad talks a lot about this in her session on tools and strategies to help get school work done. So the teacher may have asked you, the parent, for a 5 section spiral notebook and 3 colored folders for their class. Your kid may be lucky to get everything in one folder or notebook. That was my kid when they're rushing to get packed up at the end of class. It's okay for different students to organize their materials in different ways, work with each individual to devise an organizational plan that works for them. Try things if they don't work, pivot, try something else.

Penny Williams [00:06:35]:

It's okay to go through that process. It is the process you should be going through. So that's just touching on the concept of flexibility in education with kids who struggle in school, join us for the 2023 school struggle summit and you'll learn a lot more about implementing flexibility and education so that all students have the opportunity for success. Go to the behavior revolution.com/school to learn more and grab your free spot. That's the behavior revolution.com slash school. I really hope to see you there. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share.

Penny Williams [00:07:20]:

And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com. And at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Penny Williams [00:00:00]:

Welcome back to beautifully complex. In the previous episode, I talked about the importance of flexibility even though our educational system is extremely rigid, part of the journey to helping our system evolve into being more flexible, is normalizing differences and neurodiversity. This is a key component of so many of the workshops in the upcoming free school struggle summit, September 28th through 30th, 2023. Again and again, the expert told me that normalizing differences is the first step to making education work for students with school struggles. We need to normalize different learning styles, different social styles, different sensory needs, different environmental impacts, making mistakes, working at differing speeds, different interests, different motivations, different sensitivities, different regulators and dysregulators, different feelings of safety, or more easily not feeling safe. Different relationship dynamics, different predictors of academic success, different definitions of success, different ways of showing what you learned different means of planning and organizing and so much more. We are all different in so many ways and that's the world we live in. That's being human, but in a rigid system structured entirely around conformity Differences are punished to force conformity.

Penny Williams [00:01:32]:

That leads to millions of kids who feel unseen and misunderstood. That is very damaging to an individual's mental health, likely for their entire lives. So how do you normalize differences in schools? Our experts provide a number of ways to do this in their summit workshops. I'm going to highlight a couple for you here right now. Number 1, create a culture of kindness and acceptance in the classroom. Create a community in your classroom. I'm going to elaborate on this more in the next episode, but creating a feeling of community in a sense that everyone has a part or a role fosters acceptance and the understanding that there are positives that arise from different people coming together. While it sounds like fostering community is just for the elementary grades, You can do it through middle and high school too.

Penny Williams [00:02:29]:

Be open with your students about who you are and what you're interested in, and they will feel safe. To share their true selves with you, and that creates bridges for connection. Number 2, talk to kids about how things can be done in different ways, but still meet the same goals. If you're going to learn about World War 2, for example, have an open conversation with the students about their ideas for how to learn the material and how to demonstrate what they've learned. That discussion alone is fostering a positive perspective on differences. And there's so much more about this in the summit. Join us for the 2023 school struggle summit to learn more about how normalizing differences so that all students have the opportunity to feel seen, heard, understood, and successful at school. Go to the behavior revolution.com/school to learn more and to register for your free spot.

Penny Williams [00:03:37]:

I really hope to see you there.

Penny Williams [00:00:00]:

Welcome back. I spoke a little bit about creating a culture of community in your classrooms in the last episode on normalizing to ferences, like all the topics and concepts that I'm highlighting from this upcoming school struggles summit this week, The importance of creating community and fostering connection came up in many of the workshops in the summit. You might ask why this is important. Some would say that it's not that you got a school to get knowledge not to build social relationship sir to make each other feel good. Actually, nothing is further from the truth. These formative years are when kids learn how to interact with others and navigate relationships. This sets the foundation for life, but this is also untrue when focusing on the goal of learning knowledge. Because we can't learn without feeling connected without connection, we don't feel safe.

Penny Williams [00:01:01]:

Kids do not feel safe without connection, psychologically safe. If we don't feel safe, Our emotional brain and our survival brain have taken over, and our thinking brains are now inaccessible. That means that without connection, our brains are physiologically unavailable to learn. They are not available for learning. Connection is truly fundamental to learning but how do we cultivate connection in our school environments? A culture of community is really how you do that. In Brendan Meaghan's workshop on differentiating instruction, he talked about how, when he was teaching, He hung posters and decorated his classroom with his own interests to get kids to talk about their interests too. And to connect with them. Katie Plunkett, teacher, and founder of the comm classroom outlines the importance of purpose in her summit workshop on motivation.

Penny Williams [00:02:06]:

In a community, everyone has a job, and there are lots of responsibilities to cover. You can create the same dynamic among your students, which not only builds connection, but it also normalizes the positive aspects of differences of people being individuals, everyone contributes in a community, and every contribution is needed. Mister Chaz shares the powerful role connection plays in reaching and guiding others in his session. He reminds us that when kids feel connected to you, they feel safe and trusting, essential to voluntarily going on the journey with you, we don't wanna force kids to learn and to perform in school, we want them to come on this journey of learning with us voluntarily, excitedly. We're not just talking about teachers in school here. These concepts are powerful for for parents and the time that our kids are at home as well. Kids and teens always feel better when they genuinely feel like part of a team. The parent child connection is also crucial to getting your kid to come along on that journey voluntarily with you.

Penny Williams [00:03:27]:

I hope you'll join us for the 2023 School Struggles summit. To learn more about creating a culture of community and fostering connection at school, go to thebehaviorrevolution.com/school to learn more about the summit and to grab your free spot. If you're not available, September 28th through 30th, of 2023. Don't worry. You can purchase a fast pass, and that is available all the way through the end of the summit. And then you'll have access to all the sessions forever to watch them in your own time and in the way that works for you.

Penny Williams [00:00:00]:

There are a few things in life that hinge on being challenged, the biggest of which is growth. Growth in knowledge is obvious when we're talking about school. But we also went to grow skills, resilience, and emotional regulation among other things. Chris doesn't just involve pushing through, especially when we're talking about kids who may be behind developmentally, or highly sensitive, like those who are neurodivergent. We know that we have to meet our neurodivergent kids where they are to create opportunities for success. But that means we have 2 big concepts here that seem like they contradict each other. Growth and meeting kids where they are. We want to challenge enough that there's progress and growth, but not so much that the child can't succeed which typically leads to giving up and feeling incapable.

Penny Williams [00:00:57]:

Challenge without gauging all the factors that uncover capability in the moment will do more harm than good. That's why we need the concept of just right challenge. A just rate challenge falls in that middle zone that psychologists love Vigoski named the zone of proximal development. You're challenging enough to push the child a bit out of their comfort zone, but within the range of what's doable for them. You're not challenging so much that the expectation is impossible for them to reach. That that goal is unattainable. The concept of just right challenge came up again and again and again throughout the school's struggle summit workshops. For this year, 2023.

Penny Williams [00:01:49]:

I suspect because kids who struggle in school are often pushed to fit within a system that wasn't designed for them. Traditional school is not designed for neurodivergent kids for different learners and different thinkers. This might be in the name of growth that pushing, but it ends up making kids feel like something is wrong with them or like they're a failure. We talk about tempering this with setting expectations independently based on what would be a just right challenge for each student. That provides the opportunity for success For every individual, we want to challenge just enough for growth. So that's a little bit challenging, but it's still doable for that child given their learning challenges where they are in that moment and in that environment. But we don't wanna challenge so much that we break them that it is not doable for them under the current circumstances. It's really difficult sometimes to know where that just right challenges.

Penny Williams [00:03:06]:

Where is that zone of proximal development And what I always teach people is to take tiny, tiny baby steps forward. Just have it slightly more challenging each time so that you can gauge where that zone of proximal development is. Gauge where that zone of just right challenge lies for that kid in that moment. In that environment. There are many things that play into what is a just right challenge And what's a just rate challenge in the classroom today may be way too high of an expectation for the exact same student in the exact same classroom tomorrow because what is so true of neurodiversity is that it is very inconsistent experience. So be very mindful of offering just right challenge, not pushing too much, not pushing for pushing sake, giving kids tasks that are doable but slightly challenging for them. I hope you'll join me in the 2023 School Struggles summit along with the 24 amazing experts so that you can learn a lot more about that just right challenge and how to craft opportunities for growth and success for kids who struggle in school. Go to the behaviorrevolution.com/school to learn more and to grab your free spot.

Penny Williams [00:04:40]:

There is an opportunity to purchase forever access to this conference so that you can have the sessions to work through in your own time. I really hope to see you there. Teacher parents, other professionals, any caring adult, for a child who struggles in school. This is the conference for you, and it can change your life. And your kids are your students' lives. So I really hope to see you inside.

Penny Williams [00:00:00]:

Welcome back to Beautifully complex. As I've said over and over in this podcast series this week, Our educational system is centered on correction and compliance. For many, many decades, Normal kids have succeeded, and all others have been segregated. While we no longer segregate all the kids with learning difficulties, We still haven't embraced diversity and individuality in learning, and all the gifts that embracing it really, truly offers. What really gets me riled up about the lack of individuality in education is that we have science that proves There's a better way. Why is avoiding change more important than leaning into what we know about human biology learning and wellness. I'll never understand it, but I will keep lifting my voice about the changes we need every chance I get. So what is it that biology is teaching us about learning? Number 1, how our body is feeling dictates our availability to learn.

Penny Williams [00:01:13]:

If your nervous system is disregulated, Your cognitive function is reduced and you cannot learn. A dysregulated kid may be sitting at their desk They might seem to be listening to you, but they are not taking everything in, processing it, and learning because their body is actually sounding alarm bells at them. A dysregulated kid could also be Out of their seat, moving around, they could be avoiding the work. They might be irritable. Maybe they're asking to leave the classroom repeatedly. Their body is also sounding those alarm bells and telling them that they need to fight or flee. That student's cognitive function is also reduced, and they're not learning much either. Remember the way Charlie Brown heard his teacher.

Penny Williams [00:02:07]:

Does that happen? Charlie was an anxious guy. That means that his body was sounding alarms, and he was dysregulated. He wasn't really hearing a processing what the teacher was saying because of that. This is the experience that many of our neurodivergent kids have in the classroom. Their nervous system has been activated and triggered. They are dysregulated. Their thinking brain is as available, if available at all, and all they're hearing, their whole experience is kind of this fish tank won't won't won't won't sort of experience. Clearly, Charlie Brown wasn't learning at those times.

Penny Williams [00:02:53]:

He was not hearing what the teacher was actually saying. And your child or student isn't either if they're dysregulated. Even if they're at school, even if their body is in the classroom and their butt is in the chair, Even if they're not being disruptive, if they are dysregulated, they're not fully available to learn. So that means that just getting kids to school doesn't mean they're going to learn. And I'm gonna dive a lot deeper into that. In the next podcast episode here, which is the last in this series for this week. Regulation is a topic that comes up in the majority of the workshops in this school struggle summit in 2023. It's that crucial paramount pivotal to learning.

Penny Williams [00:03:43]:

When you embrace making sure that kids are regulated, it changes everything about learning and school. And you're gonna learn how to do that in the summit. So join us for the 2023 school struggle summit and learn a lot more about helping kids to be regulated In school, outside of school, when they're doing homework, when they're at school activities or functions, this applies to both parents and educators. To grab your free spot for the summit, which takes place September 28th through 30th 2023, you'll go to thebehaviorrevolution.com/school. You can grab a free spot, participate on those 3 days, You're not available. You can purchase a fast pass and watch whenever you want on your own time and pace.

Penny Williams [00:00:01]:

Welcome back to Beautifully complex. I wanna start by asking you a simple question. What is the goal of kids going to school? Yes. You might have many goals, and that's not a bad thing. But if you had to simplify all of them down into one main goal. What is that goal? According to United States Education Law, called IDEA, the goal of k through 12 education is to prepare kids for further education, employment, and independent living, also known as adulting. Right? We've lost a good bit of that in education in the last 60 or 70 years, we don't teach life skills, and we rarely teach employment skills at school now. And those losses have ushered in generations of kids who don't feel the purpose of school.

Penny Williams [00:01:00]:

Other than to go because some adults said that they have to. We worry about kids being disinterested in education and disconnected from learning, but this is precisely why that happens. A lot of the real life stuff has disappeared and no other purpose has taken its place. Kids don't understand why they have to learn long division when they walk around with a calculator in their hands, 90% of their day every single day. I can tell you that 30 plus years out of high school, I've never once used trigonometry in my life. And I remember that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 because it was a catchy rhyme, but not once in my adult life, Have I used that particular information? Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we should stop teaching all of the staff that most of us don't use as adults after school. I do advocate for less of that, though.

Penny Williams [00:02:08]:

But what I'm saying right now is that we need to get back to teaching kids why they are learning certain things that they're learning. We need to get them excited about learning because all of life is learning. It's one long learning experience. So back to my question about the goal of education, This is important because we get stuck in the minutiae, and we often lose sight of that overarching goal of education When a kid is struggling with a learning task or assignment, the very first thing that we should do is ask what the true goal of that task is. The answer is most often to learn about a particular topic and to demonstrate that they've learned about that topic. When you step this far back, it opens up a lot of doors. So let's talk about an example. Let's say a kid has a math worksheet with 42 digit multiplication problems, 40 of them.

Penny Williams [00:03:13]:

The instructions say that you must show your work and you will be graded on showing your work. Points will be taken off if you do not show your work, but this kid is overwhelmed struggles with lining up the numbers in these math problems and never writes down any calculations that he can do in his head. Yes. This is my kid. Does it sound familiar to you? These worksheets often incited meltdowns, Epic meltdowns. That is until I learned that I had to step back and focus on the big picture and I had to marry that with what my child needed. I had to marry it with meeting my child where he was. So what is the overarching goal of completing this math worksheet for homework? There's 2 things.

Penny Williams [00:04:09]:

Right? One is to practice the process of 2 digit multiplication to commit it to memory, and the others to show the teacher that you know how to do it. You can do it successfully. Does every student need to do 40 of these problems to meet this goal? No. Does every student need to show all of their work to get the correct answer? No. Does every student need to complete the task with pencil and paper? Answer is still no. Should a student have to do all forty problems when it takes him 3 hours, but his peers only take 30 minutes. No. That's punishing a student for having a disability.

Penny Williams [00:04:58]:

If a student only does 10 of these math problems, completes them digitally, doesn't write out every computation, but still gets the right answers. Did they meet the goal of the assignment? Absolutely. 100%. They practiced the computation, and they demonstrated to the teacher that they know how to do it. The modality was different. The expectations were accommodated, but they met the goal of the assignment. This is just one example of the processes that many of our summit experts recommend when working with students with learning challenges. You'll learn a lot more on this topic in the School Struggles summit, which starts tomorrow, September 28th. 2023.

Penny Williams [00:05:54]:

It's free for the next 3 days, or you can purchase forever access by purchasing a fast pass. Which actually is available immediately. You could go today on 27th and purchase the FastPass and go ahead and dive into these workshops. I hope you'll join us so that we can help struggling learners shine. Go to thebehaviorrevolution.com/school to learn more and to grab your free spot. I truly genuinely hope to see you inside the summit so that you can learn better and do better. That's all we ask.

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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