“Unjamming” the River of the Mind *

Imagine this analogy of a child’s brain being like a river with a narrow bend in it, a few estuaries and many boulders. This river moves logs from where they are cut down to the saw mill where they will be turned into lumber. But, because of the narrowness of the bend, the owner has to constantly worry about log jams. He must spend a great deal of energy, effort, and time unjamming them. Logs keep butting into the boulders. They get lost by floating down an estuary, or get tangled with one another. Any new logs coming through the bend take an exceptionally long time to navigate to open water. Sometimes, they become so entangled with logs they never reach the saw mill.

Now imagine that the logs are reading, writing, math, and new ideas. Although the child may be very bright, if he or she has poor sensory and/or cognitive processing capabilities (the bend in the river) a number of things may happen to the information he or she is trying to learn.

Let’s say the child has a problem handling several pieces of information at once (simultaneous processing) or combining a series of ideas (sequential processing). With either of these problems, incoming information becomes “jammed” or “tangled” and is never understood. If the child lacks attention skills, the incoming information gets caught up with other information. It could get lost because it “floated” down the wrong path, or never entered the “bend in the river” to begin with. If the child has poor memory, vision, or auditory skills, or cannot create mental pictures of the information coming in, jamming, tangles, damage and loss occur.

The end result is that school work is affected. The child simple gets tired of the effort to untangle, unjam, and locate the information. Eventually, he or she gets frustrated and just gives up.

In study after study, child psychologists and educational researchers have found that immature or underdeveloped cognitive processing IS that symbolic, narrow bend in the river.

The way to improve these learning skills is to chip away at the boulders, widen the bend, and close off the estuaries. “Cleaning up the river” allows the child’s learning system to work more efficiently, enabling him or her to gather and process information easier and faster. This can be accomplished by making a child consciously aware of a correct way of listening, visualizing, focusing, prioritizing, and remembering. Practicing these processes ultimately leads to automaticity, producing a more smoothly flowing “river.”

* Paraphrased from an original article by Drs. Kenneth and Keith Gibson, founders of the PACE program.

A Parent Shares her Experience

Diane Stevens wrote this poem in November of 2000, which describes both her and her son’s experience working with Karen Stockstill at Specialty Tutoring. This poem also hangs in our learning center, as a tribute to Karen’s commitment to creating affordable and specialized services for struggling children, and her unwavering belief in every child’s potential to learn.

Tears, when I realized my son couldn’t read like the rest of his
classmates. When I realized he wanted to read like them so very much
in his heart.
Tears of heart ache

Tears, when teachers only saw his limitations. When they said to me,
“Now, Mrs. Stevens, you have to realize that your son is always going
to be behind.”
Tears of sadness for those teachers

Tears, when I took my son to see Karen Stockstill. When she saw the
potential and all the possibilities within my son.
Tears of redemption, finally someone else saw my son as I did

Tears, when my son read his very first book. When he sat in the back
seat of our van on a family trip and as he was reading he would call
out, “Dad, did you know that Wayne Gretzky had an ice rink in his
backyard?!” pause…
“Dad, did you know that Wayne Gretzky never fought?”
Tears of pride, just five months after meeting Karen

Tears, when Karen told us she was moving to Virginia.
Tears all the way home

Tears, when I realized how very lucky my son was to have had Karen in his
life for ten months. Tears for the lucky children in Norfolk, Virginia
who will be blessed by her.
Tears of thankfulness

Tears, when I realized another woman could love my son as much as I
did. When I realized… Isn’t that the ultimate goal in child raising,
To have your child be truly loved?

An Eye-Opening Viewpoint on ADHD

Ferrari Engines, Bicycle Brakes:
Advice to educators about how to help students with ADHD fulfill the potential of their powerful brains.
By Edward Hallowell
Educational Leadership October 2012 | Volume 70 | Number 2 Students Who Challenge Us Pages 36-38

Dear Educators,

I am a 62-year-old psychiatrist who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. Of all the people who helped me deal with these conditions, top prize goes to my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Eldredge, at Chatham Elementary School in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

She simply put her arm around me when it was my turn to read during reading period. No one laughed at my stammering and stuttering, because I had the mafia sitting next to me! Such a simple intervention, but profound in its impact.

Because of Mrs. Eldredge’s arm, I didn’t acquire the most damaging learning disabilities—shame, fear, and the conviction that you are stupid and defective. Many other teachers helped me along the way, but Mrs. Eldredge got me off to the right start. By eliminating fear, she enabled me to progress at my own pace, always believing that I could succeed.

To this day, I am a painfully slow reader and rarely read a book all the way through. But because of Mrs. Eldredge and the many other gifted teachers I was lucky enough to have along the way, I became an excellent student, graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard (where I majored in English!), and Tulane Medical School. Now I am a psychiatrist as well as a writer. I specialize in helping children and adults who have, you guessed it, ADHD and dyslexia.

Which brings me to you—wonderful, dedicated, life-changing teachers. My dad was a teacher for the final 20 years of his life, so I know firsthand what goes into a life of teaching. Of all the professions, I believe yours is the most noble—and certainly, in the United States anyway, the most unfairly underpaid.

I’d like to give back to you a bit of what I owe you, not in the form of money (would that I could!), but in the form of knowledge I’ve gained over the years in how best to help students who have ADHD.
It all begins with Mrs. Eldredge. Get that arm of safety around your students in any way you can. All of us learn better and do better when we feel safe. Fear and humiliation, which once upon a time were standard teaching tools, should be relics of the past.

It is a neurological fact that feeling safe opens up the brain, whereas feeling anxious and afraid clamps it down. So step one is to make sure all students feel as safe as possible. Remember, learning itself can feel dangerous. You are asking a student to leave his or her comfort zone and enter into new territory. A teacher’s best gift to all students—not just those who have ADHD—is to allay fear, provide encouragement, and make the safari into new jungles of knowledge feel safe enough for them to take the trip and want to come back forever after.

Step two is to adapt a strength-based model, which acknowledges that there is a potentially serious downside to ADHD but recognizes that there also is a potentially spectacular upside as well. The current medical model is deficit-based, as the name itself demonstrates: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although preferable to the previous model that labeled students as “bad,” “lazy,” or even “incorrigible,” the medical model slaps a pathological diagnosis on the student, and a pretty miserable-sounding one at that. True, it’s not as miserable as its predecessor, which was “minimal brain dysfunction,” but still, who wants to have a “deficit disorder”? How much enthusiasm can you expect someone to muster to deal with that? It’s no wonder many students reject the diagnosis and refuse to accept the label.

Here is the model I use when I present the diagnosis to students. I say to the student, “I have great news for you.” At that the student, and his or her parents, look up. This is not what they’d been expecting to hear.

“I’ve learned a lot about you,” I go on. “I’ve taken your history, and I’ve read what your various teachers have had to say about you. As you know, we’ve also done some tests. After putting all this information together, I’m now able to tell you that you have an awesome brain.”
“Your brain is very powerful. It’s like a Ferrari—a race car. You have the power to win races and become a champion.”

“However,” I continue, “you do have one problem. You have bicycle brakes. Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control your powerful brain, so you can’t slow down or stop when you need to. Your mind goes off wherever it wants to go, instead of staying on track. But not to worry! I’m a brake specialist, and if you work with me, we can strengthen your brakes.”

Which is true. Treating ADHD is all about strengthening brakes. For individuals with ADHD, the inhibitory systems in the brain don’t work well enough to control all the power the brain possesses. The brain can’t inhibit incoming stimuli (hence the individual is distractible) or outgoing impulses (hence the individual is impulsive and hyperactive).

But consider also that each of those negative symptoms can lead to a corresponding positive one. The flip side of distractibility is curiosity, a valuable quality indeed. The flip side of impulsivity is creativity, a hugely valuable asset. You can’t be creative if you aren’t somewhat disinhibited. And the flip side of hyperactivity is a quality that, at my age, I’m grateful to have. It’s called energy.

As a brake specialist, I can help these children strengthen their brakes. But what can you as a teacher do?

Above all, embrace the strength-based model. Make sure you and the student understand ADHD in the same way: race car brain, bicycle brakes. Then, when that student is disruptive you can simply say, “Joey, your brakes are failing you now.” This sets a limit, but it does so in a nonshaming way—especially if Joey has already accepted you, the teacher, as someone who is going to be part of the team devoted to helping him strengthen his brakes.

These are some other interventions you can use in the classroom:

  • Set up predictable schedules and rules. All children need structure, but for those who have ADHD, schedules and rules are as essential as maps and roads are for drivers. Without them, these kids can get completely lost.
  • Have kids with ADHD sit near you. Being physically close to the teacher increases a student’s level of attention. Being far away makes it easier to lose track of what’s going on.
  • Break down large tasks into small ones. A large task can intimidate anyone, but it completely bamboozles and overwhelms the student with ADHD, which can lead him or her to give up or suffer a meltdown.
  • Introduce new material in terms of old. For example, “Today we start studying fractions. Fractions are just division written differently, and you’ve already mastered division.”
  • Balance structure with novelty, so that when the class gets overstimulated you introduce structure, and when the class gets bored you introduce novelty. Too much new material gets confusing, and too much drill gets boring.
  • Make sure the class gets recess, and provide frequent brain breaks (brief periods of exercise in which students stand near their desks or stations). Physical exercise, even for one minute, presses the reset button on the brain and refreshes students mentally.

All these strategies, and many more, can help. But the most important one of all goes back to Mrs. Eldredge: Make sure students with ADHD know you like them and are on their side.

These kids really need you. You can help them turn what could be disastrous outcomes into spectacular successes. Helping kids with ADHD excel takes a lot of time and energy. But your energy is much better spent if you think of your work not as treating a disability, but as helping your students unwrap a gift.

“Professionalize” Your Parenting

How to Be a Professional Manager of Your Child

In our years of experience working with families at Specialty Tutoring, we have heard numerous stories about battles between parent and child, brought on by pressures to keep up with schoolwork. Our Learning Specialists work one-on-one with children who have learning difficulties; however, another important element of our program is guiding parents to recognize their child’s strengths, help their child manage challenges and gain confidence, and foster a positive environment and attitude toward learning in their own home.

It is a natural tendency for parents to become emotionally involved when attempting to manage their child’s homework and study behavior. This emotional investment may often lead to a battle. So here’s an alternative mindset for parents looking for some relief: Use a “professional” approach in your role as the “manager” of your child. Consider your own employment experience. The manager who has been most effective is not the one who rules and commands, nor is it the manager who threatens and enforces punishment. The most effective manager helps others succeed in accomplishing tasks by guiding and giving direction. Utilizing this business-like and results-oriented approach may help reduce the number of conflicts at home, and most importantly improve studying and learning. Apply these four characteristics of a good manager in your own home.

  1. Be objective. Take a minute to watch your child “attempting” to complete his homework. Look at the details of what is going right and what is going wrong. If you had never met this child before, and you were asked to provide a course of action to improve his efficiency (and ignoring everything outside of the behavior observed right at this moment) what concrete advice would you give?
  2. Select appropriate and clear-cut rules. If an expectation is too difficult, the child is less likely to try, or will become discouraged and frustrated. If an expectation is too vague, it will be difficult to enforce. Clear-cut rules provide less “wiggle-room.” Your job is to resist the urge to demand any more or any less than exactly what was agreed upon originally. If the expected behavior is attainable and specific, then the opportunities for success, and even rewards, will present themselves more often. Its win-win!
  3. Be consistent. This is the most challenging aspect of being a good manager. When you are consistent, your child knows not only exactly what to expect after a certain behavior, but also that the consequences will be enforced, or the reward produced, every single time. (To better appreciate this point, consider your employment experience again. How do you view those people in your workplace who constantly change their minds and their rules to suit their moods?)
  4. Emphasize what is being done right over what is being done wrong. This is the most rewarding (and hopefully habit-forming) aspect of being a good manager: Finding the “right” in every situation. By pointing out what your child is doing correctly before suggesting necessary improvements, you are increasing the chance that your input will be received favorably. Children tend to be on guard and sensitive to criticism, and many will immediately “turn off” if you begin the conversation by being critical. Tuning-out can be a defense mechanism to prevent feeling hurt by negative comments, since being criticized by someone close to you is especially hard to handle.

Successfully implementing all four of these good manager characteristics does take practice. Here’s a scenario to get you started thinking about how you can use them with your own child.

You walk in and see your child with school books and papers strewn haphazardly on the table, her cell phone vibrating continuously, a TV on in the background, and Facebook on the laptop screen next to her. You take a deep breath and say, “That’s great you got your homework out without being reminded. And good job remembering to bring your science book home since you have that big test tomorrow.” Pause to objectively survey the situation and stifle the urge to scream as another text comes in. “Why don’t you go take a look at the rules we wrote up about what’s allowed to be on the table when you do your homework, and see if you can make some adjustments here?” Remember to breathe! “And while you’re there, take a look at what’s up next on the Extra-Chore list. Remember we agreed that if you choose not to follow the homework rules exactly as we created them, you will be doing the next job on the list right after dinner.” Take a quick look at the returned test in her book bag and compliment her on the one tough problem that she got right. “I’ll get dinner in the oven while you get organized, and I’ll set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes for you to finish your math assignment on your own. Then we’ll both be ready to quiz each other on the science questions for 15 minutes. That plan should get everything done in time for you to check Facebook before bedtime.”

Remember – it’s never too late to establish a good manager approach that works for your family!

Additional Resources

Lindamood-Bell Programs ~ 30 Years of Helping Children

We are proud to offer these proven programs in our sessions, and respect the fact that they are updated as new research on reading and instructional techniques becomes available. For more information on Lindamood-Bell programs, click here.

* Specialty Tutoring is not affiliated with, certified, endorsed, licensed, monitored or sponsored by the Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes Corporation.

ADD/ADHD Resources


Resources for Families Dealing with Learning Disabilities

LD Online is a useful resource for families navigating the sometimes challenging world of learning disabilities. This site provides a list of common signs of learning disabilities.

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) is an organization providing information to families dealing with learning disabilities. This site provides access to help for parents:

Understood provides support to parents through personalized resources, free access to experts, practical tips, and more.