Full PreFrontal

Ep. 96: Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza - Pro-EF School Culture

December 07, 2019 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 96
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 96: Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza - Pro-EF School Culture
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Full PreFrontal
Ep. 96: Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza - Pro-EF School Culture
Dec 07, 2019 Season 1 Episode 96
Sucheta Kamath

Thomas Wolfe said it best, “Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs”. A school culture and a home culture can have a profound impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Executive Function engages the brain’s self-guiding system that takes us from challenges to mastery, from self-blindness to self-awareness, and from indifference to self-compassion. And that’s why it is important that growing brains and young learners from kindergarten through high school receive specific guidance to develop these skills with a strong cultural guardrail that sets the stage for future resilience in anticipation of elevated demands and ongoing everyday unpredictability.

Today’s episode features a team from the Springer School and Center from Cincinnati, Ohio who discusses how their school engages the school leadership, teachers, students, as well as parents to cultivate and promote the ProEF Culture. Springer’s Principal Eldrich Carr, School psychologist and Center Program Coordinator Dr. Mary Mulcahey, and Springer’s Director of Learning Programs Carmen Mendoza will share how best to help children that we know need help.

About Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza
Springer School and Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has many dedicated professionals, including  Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza. Springer is the only school in the region devoted entirely to the education of children with learning disabilities (LD) in grades 1-8. Springer is a unique environment where children learn the tools and strategies to address their learning disabilities and to find real success in school and throughout their adult lives.

Through its outreach programs, parents and professionals develop an understanding of learning disabilities and the most effective means to address them. Springer School and Center is the leading LD resource for children, families, and professionals throughout southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana.

Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, a clinical psychologist, is a Center Program Coordinator and educates parents and professionals through the development of courses. Her most popular courses help to educate the community about executive functioning.

Eldrich Carr is Springer’s Principal and is responsible for the day to day school operations. He works with families, teachers, and school leaders to develop an outstanding program for students who attend Springer.

Carmen Mendoza is Springer’s Director of Learning Programs and oversees curriculum and programming for students, parents, and the community.

Websites:

Helpful Articles

Show Notes Transcript

Thomas Wolfe said it best, “Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs”. A school culture and a home culture can have a profound impact on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Executive Function engages the brain’s self-guiding system that takes us from challenges to mastery, from self-blindness to self-awareness, and from indifference to self-compassion. And that’s why it is important that growing brains and young learners from kindergarten through high school receive specific guidance to develop these skills with a strong cultural guardrail that sets the stage for future resilience in anticipation of elevated demands and ongoing everyday unpredictability.

Today’s episode features a team from the Springer School and Center from Cincinnati, Ohio who discusses how their school engages the school leadership, teachers, students, as well as parents to cultivate and promote the ProEF Culture. Springer’s Principal Eldrich Carr, School psychologist and Center Program Coordinator Dr. Mary Mulcahey, and Springer’s Director of Learning Programs Carmen Mendoza will share how best to help children that we know need help.

About Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza
Springer School and Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has many dedicated professionals, including  Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza. Springer is the only school in the region devoted entirely to the education of children with learning disabilities (LD) in grades 1-8. Springer is a unique environment where children learn the tools and strategies to address their learning disabilities and to find real success in school and throughout their adult lives.

Through its outreach programs, parents and professionals develop an understanding of learning disabilities and the most effective means to address them. Springer School and Center is the leading LD resource for children, families, and professionals throughout southwestern Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana.

Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, a clinical psychologist, is a Center Program Coordinator and educates parents and professionals through the development of courses. Her most popular courses help to educate the community about executive functioning.

Eldrich Carr is Springer’s Principal and is responsible for the day to day school operations. He works with families, teachers, and school leaders to develop an outstanding program for students who attend Springer.

Carmen Mendoza is Springer’s Director of Learning Programs and oversees curriculum and programming for students, parents, and the community.

Websites:

Helpful Articles

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Producer: And, welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we are exposing the mysteries of executive function. I am here with our host Sucheta Kamath.

Good morning, my friends, goodness. We got a full house today. This is going to be an exciting conversation.

Sucheta Kamath: Thank you, Todd, it’s so great to with you, and yes, people are really going to get a treat today. Let me start with this idea. You have heard this from me several times, but my interest is in how we help students learn to learn and think about their thinking, and I’ve spent 20 years doing that myself. I have been a consultant and teacher to educators and even have gotten in front of administrators and decision-makers, policy makers, and this question often comes: how do I help my struggling learner master or meet demands? When that question comes my way, I often like to flip and say, how can we recognize that the learning is a struggle and not limited to only a few with disability but learning is a struggle because learning means learning something new that you already don’t know, and so applying best practices in teaching can benefit all learners, and this is something I’m excited about today to talk about. You’re familiar with this, Todd, and many of our listeners too, but I developed EXQ which is a cloud-based executive function training tool which is a curriculum that directly coaches or trains the learners from middle school, high school, and college, so that they develop the foundational skills in the area of executive function, including attention, focus, working memory, organization, mental flexibility, but the critical crux of the component that I like to address is the self-awareness, and this tool is designed to do that and this is giving me a chance to talk to a lot of leaders in schools. So, the question that kind of I like to ponder on often is are we helping a child or are we helping children, and how can we create a culture of self-awareness and self-help? So, how can a student learn from the teacher and eventually learns how to teach to self? So, my mission is to create a change in education so that we can teach students how to take the baton that comes from the educators to them.

So, with that in mind, I’m very, very excited to have three leaders from a school in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s Springer School and Center in Cincinnati and these three highly coveted educators are Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey, Principal Eldrich Carr, and Carmen Mendoza. So, Springer is the only school in the region that’s devoted entirely to the education of children with learning disabilities. It goes from first grade to eighth. Springer is a unique environment where children learn the tools and strategies to address their learning disabilities to find real success in school and throughout their adult lives. Through their outreach program, parents, professionals helped to develop understanding of learning disabilities and the most effective means to address them, so they are not just trying to educate children. They are also trying to bring some empowerment in the community they serve.

So, here’s a little bit about our guest today, Dr. Mulcahey is a clinical psychologist, she is the center program coordinator and educates parents and professionals through the development of many courses. One of her popular courses is about educating the community about executive function. Principal Eldrich Carr is Springer’s principal and he is responsible for the day-to-day school operations. He is certainly familiar with how to work with families, teachers, and school leaders, and he aspires to develop an outstanding program for students who attend the school, and lastly, we have Ms. Carmen Mendoza who is Springer’s Director of Learning Programs and Overseas Curriculum, and Programming for Students, Parents, and Community.

So, welcome to the podcast.

Carmen Mendoza: Thank you.

Dr. Mary Ann Mulcahey: Thank you.

Eldrich Carr: Thank you very much.

Sucheta: It’s fantastic to have you. So, Mary, you are a clinical psychologist and program coordinator and educator, so can you start us off by what is your philosophy and how have you applied that to Springer to help teachers develop their understanding of executive function in order to support the need of students in your school?

Mary: Well, I think most teachers now have some familiarity with executive function. We’ve had multiple speakers in Cincinnati in the summer which I think have been on your program like Dr. Russell Barkley, Thomas Brown, Lynn Meltzer and her group, so teachers have some familiarity. The challenge becomes how does one integrate these principles into the classroom in addition to all of the academic work that they’re also responsible for supplies, so that’s a major challenge, is helping teachers embed these strategies, techniques, into the classroom as well as helping parents to embed them in their procedures at home.

Sucheta: So, let me backtrack a little bit, so can you just, one more time and our listeners have heard it but it may be a good idea to redefine executive function and when you talk about the struggle about integrating strategies that are executive function pro strategies, what are the pain points for the teachers? Why are they not successfully able to — and not just in your school but generally, where do they find it most difficult?

Mary: In terms of what is executive function, executive function can kind of be thought of, there are many analogies. One is the air traffic controller. It functions as the executive who’s making decisions, deciding what’s most important, what are the steps to meet the goals that we have, and then also, as you were talking about, self-awareness, what kind of challenges, personal challenges, does one have in this area? What kind of mistakes am I making? What am I doing well? So, executive function really is about how we direct, manage, and organize ourselves, just get through our daily life, when we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night. Challenges, well, in terms of education, well, Springer is a school where most of our youngsters are here, not only because they have a learning disability, but also because the executive function piece is a greater challenge for them. Maybe then for other students, so while strategies that the general education teacher has in the community may work perfectly well for the typical youngster, our kids tend to need more exposure, more practice, more rehearsal with those kind of strategies, even something as simple as how do you enter the classroom and get ready for the day?

Sucheta: Yeah, and such a great example, people might dismiss the complexity involved in entering the classroom and bringing your mindset as well as attention to dive into the activity the teacher might have plan, and we’ll be talking a little bit more about that.

So, Carmen, you are the Director of Learning Programs, as well as curriculum, and kind of seeing this translate into the classroom, so teacher inculcates. There are certainly a variety of approaches to working with children with executive functioning challenges. What kind of principle went through the decision-making when you have finally probably created a curriculum for Springer or defined its approach?

Carmen: Well, I think what you’re asking is how we integrate that into our program from beginning of the day to the end of the day, and I would say kind of taking it back into what Mary Ann said earlier, we’ve had a lot of speakers that have come to Springer and educate our staff about executive function and I think our teachers are always evaluating as they’re teaching what are the difficulties or what are the strength areas the children are having as they’re learning, and so wtihin our academic curriculum, we’re always trying to embed and work on making the executive function processes strong for every student that’s in front of us.

Sucheta: That’s great! So, can we backtrack a little bit, you and I have talked about this, you have incredible experience and before we systematically and officially began to talk about executive function, what was the typical approach to bringing a new curriculum or approach to teaching, and how does that differ from the way an executive function-centric approach needs to be?

Carmen: I would say that at Springer, we’ve been aware of the executive function and even before we started using the term ‘executive function,’ we were always tuned in to what attentional needs were demanded of curriculum, and so as we integrate curriculum, we’re always thinking how it’s embedded and how we roll out curriculum. It’s not then something that we all of a sudden now have a template that we run our curriculum through. It’s something that’s been a part of any type of curriculum selection and what are the demands on a student and how are we going to organize that, and how are we going to directly teach any executive function skills that are necessary to learn the curriculum?

Sucheta: Got it. So, let me ask Eldrich. Springer is a place as you have mentioned that has a pro-EF culture, what strategic steps have been taken by the school’s leadership to cultivate and promote that culture with each constituent group, so to speak?

Eldrich: Yeah, thanks for the question. I think that this is a really important one and really lies at the heart of what any school wants to do, so for us, the process begins with a firm understanding of who we are and what we will need to do with our students and our family. That goes into [00:10:23] a clear identity for ourselves and that is reflected through our mission and our core values that trickle down into decision-making processes, conversations, prioritizing what the idea of the school is going to be and what we are going to be doing. So, if you think about being a pro-EF school or a school that is very concerned with the EF functioning or the executive functioning of the students, it will filter down if the initial roots of the organization are cultivated really, really well, so once you’re in that spot and the leadership is in that spot, and the community kind of rallies around the idea of who we are and what we are going to be, discussions around curriculum, classroom management, schedules, all of these become much, much easier and you’ll see this domino effect where sure enough, culture will latch and it will be part of the consciousness when teachers go to teach or maybe a speech and language pathologist starts to have a conversation with a teacher, or maybe even in the sense that behavioral management or classroom management techniques are discussed between a school counselor and the rest of the staff. That, in turn, then helps support the students’ families because if it is at the forefront of the consciousness for the educators in the building, it’s certainly going to be at the forefront of the consciousness for the students, so we will start to embed vocabulary in various language that will help a student be more metacognitive and we will start a balance of that critical idea of metacognition and learning about our learning against the content objectives that the school will naturally have, and then of course, that then filters down into discussions that we will have with families at conferences, various back-to-school nights or open houses, or even just those side conversations that we might have with students about their day that take place very frequently between our staff and our families that are so concerned about their students flourishing while they are at Springer and afterwards.

Sucheta: Wonderful. So, one of the things that strikes me is you are embedding this idea that there is a lot of conversation and relationship built between the professionals, between the educators serving the needs of the students and you also are emphasizing a lot of making approach transparent which is always very, very powerful and helpful. If you could summarize for me what do you think are the three markers of such pro-EF culture then?

Eldrich: Yeah, I think that one, I would say, is having a firm understanding that is uniform across the entire organization. That to me is the first and foremost. There are so many variations on executive functioning or interpretations of executive functioning that the school needs to work very, very hard to have consistency along those lines. That to me is first and foremost.

Sucheta: So, which executive function, as Barkley described there in one of his papers, has summarized 32 approaches or 32 ways of defining, but which kind of definition have you as a school have adopted and accepted as a way to define and then manage with respect to executive function?

Carmen: This is Carmen. I was going to pop in on this one and just mention that Lynn Meltzer’s work, we tend to use that in our language and in our conversation with parents and with the students. She most recently was a guest here in Cincinnati for us in April and we have been utilizing her book that she wrote several years ago about promoting an EF culture in the classroom, and so that’s something that we integrate in our new staff training and in the conversations that we have as a staff.

Sucheta: Wonderful, thank you for clarifying that, and we have had Lynn on the show, so people can refer to that podcast as well. So, sorry, Eldrich, if you can continue, what are the two other markers that indicate a pro-EF culture when you are looking at leading your school?

Eldrich: Good, so I think it’s at first, you have a clear understanding across your organization within the community about what that is. I think the second key step would be an acceptance that students are going to come with any varying levels of executive functioning skills. There is one standard that we want our students either to achieve or meet, or we expect for them to come in with, that can be really, really difficult. So, a really healthy or a pro-EF culture is going to be able to establish and say that there is some type of range in which students are going to come into and that success may be a relative for lots of our students, and there’s got to be an acceptance of that idea. If there is not acceptance of that idea, you may have really high expectations and may never actually be able to meet those with lots of the students and lots of the families.

Sucheta: Sorry, if I could interject, I really love this idea. You are one of those principals who have explicitly stated as a philosophy and leadership value which I really care about, but I often find when I do teacher education training and even parent education training, this acceptance is not made transparent. Not saying that they deny that such things exist, that students have varying degrees of executive function proficiency when they enter a particular grade, so within that grade, you have ranges of skill set, but I think when the school accepts that and verbalizes that, and identifies that, and then shares that understanding to their constituents, it is such a powerful thing because you are empowering every member to say it’s okay if you are not skilled and it’s okay if you’re much more skilled than the others; we have a way to support it, so thank you for making that transparent. It’s a really valuable asset.

Eldrich: Well, I appreciate you saying that, that’s a very high compliment coming from you and is something that we strive to do here at Springer for sure.

I think the last piece that I would say about this would be open and clear communication around goals and observations, and success and sometimes, that hard conversation around failure. We have to be communicating within ourselves as professionals who have been to school but also with our families. Some of the most fruitful conversations, I think sometimes, are the hardest conversations that we have because that sets the right tone and puts everyone on the right footing with one another to really help the child, and those conversations are often times difficult but they are also very much rooted in the idea that everybody around the table has the same goal and ambition for the child and that’s really to help them with their learning disabilities and sometimes that involves tough executive function skills.

Sucheta: That’s lovely. I mean, I can just get a sensation of how warm and collaborative community you all have. Already, I get a feeling for that, so thank you for doing that for our children because these are special children who for whom learning does not come that easy.

Let me get to Mary, as the psychologist, how do you empower the teachers to identify executive function weaknesses and what is your protocol and process of determining the need in the classroom?

Mary: Well, with our students, it starts before they come to the school because this is a private school, so there is an admissions process that Carmen is very heavily involved in, and so we collect quite a lot of information on our students. There is a psychoeducational evaluation that is usually done by an outside psychologist. We might have reports from speech language pathologists, occupational therapists if the child is in occupational therapy, school records, previous reports from previous placements. So, you kind of develop a whole picture of where is this child successful and where are the challenges? And just like in academics, so with the executive function piece, there will be some pieces that our youngsters are quite skilled at and then there are some perhaps that are lagging. Our thought here and I think in general in the community in terms of executive function is that these skills have to be specifically taught, and so many of our students again needed the steps broken down more for them and they needed to be repeated more often, and careful thought, taking on an analysis of kind of — there is a process — where is it breaking down that it’s not the students fault. These are skills that must be taught and this skill is going to have to be taught in a different way perhaps for you then for someone else, and again, it isn’t the student’s fault, it’s not the parents’ fault, it’s not the previous school’s fault. It’s just that it has to be done in a different way, so that’s kind of part of the entry into Springer, is having this whole picture of the student.

Sucheta: Thank you for explaining that. I think what’s another striking thing that most listeners may not be familiar with is that when there is a specialized school, the school actually has created an atmosphere where they are openly asking and inviting information that will kind of encourage parents to actually disclose information that may not be speaking favorably about a student — I mean, when I say that, that’s actually weaknesses and again, my fundamental belief is who doesn’t have weaknesses? And if you are a learner, the learning weakness means you haven’t learned how to learn yet, but that is your job.

And the second thing, again, I love what you identified for our listeners, that the attention needs to be paid to this fact that all skills that are a challenge need to be taught specifically and in a different way for different children, and that is what a school like yours specialize, and that doesn’t happen in ordinary environment because this point may not be paid attention to.

So, with that, do you mind walking us through the top three skills, if you may even generalize it that way, that often come up in children that you serve that requires this specific way of teaching?

Mary: Well, I guess if I could talk, I guess I could call them like the top three concerns maybe that get children to show up into our school building. Well, usually one that is a close concern to most parents and teachers is an issue with homework, so either fighting over homework, doing the homework, forgetting to turn it in, or the book doesn’t come home to begin with, so you know that organizational skills or homework, usually [00:20:56], and then another one is this tendency to perhaps make what we call silly mistakes so that it’s usually not the large huge pieces that cause these children trouble. It’s the inconsistencies from day to day, so one day, something, they have got their addition math packs down pat and tomorrow, you get the same kind of assessment [00:21:24], so the inconsistent performance, I think, from day to day which is part of executive function challenge and attention challenge, and then I think the other piece is also perhaps the youngster’s frustration with their progress and seeing that they are struggling when perhaps their periods are not in certain areas and certainly, with parents being incredibly concerned about the perhaps lack of academic progress in certain areas, particularly in reading. So, those are usually the kind of, I guess, top three that sort of get children or parents to begin to look in Springer’s direction in terms of serving their youngster.

Sucheta: Thank you, Mary, and you kind of nailed this, that one of the problems about executive function profile or the way it demonstrates its ugly head is it’s so casual, like somebody who shows problems with silly mistakes, we will not immediately equate it to executive function, so thank you for pointing that out and this is the invaluable thing that we all as a culture as a community, as a nation, maybe need to understand, that inconsistency is a mark of executive function proficiency and having inconsistencies cannot be trained or treated with verbal guidance. It has to be a process-specific learning.

So, that brings me to Carmen. Carmen, you have this window into the students as they come through the door and you are deciding, determining if the student is an appropriate fit for the school. How might your school approach a child that needs support and growth in their emotional regulation? Because as Mary was saying, we have not been able to handle frustrations that go along with difficulty in learning is one of the reasons that things can fall apart for a learner.

Carmen: Absolutely. Learning is emotional. For most of us, there is an emotional response when learning comes easy and there is an emotional response when learning is hard. Some of our students have a hard time regulating their emotions. What is a typical emotion might be magnified for them or it takes them longer to cool down [00:23:43] other students, and so we can’t separate emotion from learning, so as we are looking at students that would be a great fit for our program, we have to look at that and often times, and I know as professionals at Springer, we talk about students that come to us wounded or having gone through trauma in some way, and certainly, that is a part of their learning profile, and so it is something that we are aware of and I think that’s really the first step. A lot of times, when students come into our environment, that emotion is better regulated because things are stepped out for them in such a way that makes it easier for them to handle.

Sucheta: And there is so much research out there that talks about this idea that students with learning disabilities, and they are grouped together and they are learning with others who also have learning difficulty, they tend to have better experiences, and as you just pointed out, that better experience is to kind of know and discover that I am not the odd one and learning being difficult does not mean I will not learn. It is just something that I need to work around it. Wonderful.

One more thing about that emotional regulation that I think often is when we talk about executive function, it takes a while to establish this relationship between cognitive aspects of thinking about your skills and abilities to reach a goal versus the emotional aspect of thinking and skill set to achieve goals, and people think that emotions and behaviors are somehow not related, so again, you weaving that into your not just assessment but making that as a priority to support the growth of your children is a remarkable plan put in place, and probably a good one for all the students who are experiencing such difficulties.

So, Eldrich, what information is helpful for parents or what steps can they take to support the school who has a pro-EF culture itself?

Eldrich: Yeah, I think that this is kind of a really important aspect in the sense of that so much of the conversation could take place around students, but parents play such a large role in partnering with schools to make sure that the overall plan for the child is very, very effective, so the first thing I would say, I don’t think it will be new to anyone or anyone of your listeners but there has to be a deep relationship between the school and the family, but it only has to feel comfortable coming into the school, speaking with the staff and the school leadership and being open and honest about feedback about the child’s success. There is often times where a child might present in a certain way in the school and then go home and melt. There is something that happened over the course of the school day was what was held in and they get in the car and it just wasn’t working. I would also extend that out to say that it’s also about the T. I think there’s something that we often want to know at our school, is how tired is the child? It’s a great indicator of how much work the child is putting in from a cognitive standpoint to be successful in school and how much that might indicate to us that we need to continue to differentiate, and along those lines, I think that it’s nearly impossible to think that good executive function will only be worked on at school, that there has to be a pairing between families and home life, and the school. Strategies that are being implemented at the school need to be mirrored or echoed at home and vice versa. The most success that we have with our families and our students is when everybody is on the same page, whether that surround using checklists, being able to preview upcoming events to work with kind of flexible thinking. The deeper and stronger that relationship is between the school and the family, and also the student, that’s where you’re going to have the most success with these kids.

Sucheta: Fantastic. I’m so enthralled by our discussion and really, I’m so glad I’m doing this joint interview because really, all three of you are painting this picture of what goes into considering the child’s success, and a child without a family life is really not a child, and another important point that you pointed out, just like Mary and Carmen were talking about, executive function, using executive function, I like to describe it as gas in the car — the more you use it, the less it becomes, the less available it is, so somewhere, you need to stop and fill the gas tank again, and when you are exposed to intense, having to self-regulate can be exhausting for a child, so a child’s behaviors may be remarkably different at home. Do you all have any thoughts about the general well-being of the family that often gets ignored or not ignored, but becomes even a critical element when managing a child with learning difficulties or disabilities, do you have any insight about that? I’ll throw this out all three of you if you don’t mind sharing some ideas.

Eldrich: Yeah, I think often times, when we see families that first come to us and students that first come to us, it’s a real struggle everywhere. I think that we don’t get a lot of students where everything is going just fine, whether that be at school or at home, so when we can finally get a child into our environment and we can get them in a place where they feel understood, they feel less scared, they feel willing to accept some of the challenges that they are going to have for a long, long time, that can actually help temper the home life. That emphasis between the two can’t be made strong enough, and in the same way, one of our real goals as well is not only to help the child be better informed about their own learning but to also help the family understand their child, to help the family understand the child’s learning profile, the better they can do that. Sometimes, we see a growth in empathy and patience. It’s the parent or the family that can’t really understand or fathom why a child’s behaving the way they are, and then all of a sudden comes to an understanding and that relieves them from a sense of pressure or guilt, and we can really change a lot of families in that perspective. That’s a really important part for us, is to try and help the entire family dynamic improve through some of our work.

Mary: This is Mary, and I think one of the major relief that happen for families when they come to Springer is that they have a sense that they no longer have to be teaching reading at home after school, they are not teaching writing at home after school or not teaching math. It’s almost like some children are in school during the day, and then they come home to the parent and are homeschooled at night, so when you come to Springer, these professionals here are trained specifically in these specialized interventions, and you can be a parent, you can do fun things in the evening with your child, you can relax. There is just this incredible sense initially, I think, but I’ve observed and experienced myself, is that there’s just this lifting of a burden and a sense that if you have a concern, there are people here that you can talk to, you get a partner. There’s almost like there’s another person who is in the boat with you when we are trying to ride some of these waves, and I think that’s a huge relief for many families.

Carmen: And then, I would add too — this is Carmen, I would add too that the child himself, when they are participating in our program here at Springer begin to go home and use the word ‘strategy’ or use the words ‘I’m thinking about how I’m going to best approach at this,’ and they begin to share that with their parents, and then as parents they begin to understand that their child has a different approach and that they can talk with the teachers at the school about that, and then that helps them approach things differently at home, whether it be that it’s not only helpful for me to understand that [00:31:44] coming up but I want to know it the day before it comes up, those kinds of conversation begins organically happen at home and sometimes, it’s the child leading this conversation, so it’s kind of an approach of all kinds of different things that help the parents understand executive functioning.

Sucheta: Yeah, that’s really powerful, I think, the shift where they begin to strategize, they begin to take ownership of their own skills. Mary, what you said about having actually an opportunity to simply be a parent and not a teacher who is having a second school at home which is devastating and mind you, not many parents are good at it, and they are not supposed to, and as you said, Eldrich, that there is such a release of pressure and guilt. Such a powerful emotional state to create for the child who then can actually feel like I belong to a larger community and I’m not alone, and there is hope for me, so we are talking about building hope which is fantastic.

So, Eldrich, this question is for you: would you mind describing some specific examples of pedagogical techniques or activities that your school uses to support students with executive functioning?

Eldrich: Yeah, I’m happy to go through a few. Some of these may be pretty basic, so please tell me if you want me to get more specific, but I’m going to start at very much in the school design process. When it comes to scheduling and creating schedules for students, one thing that I think you would find with our environment is that the schedules are very, very consistent. We want to try and get students into a spot where they don’t have to memorize a six-day rotation when it comes to the schedule. We want them going to math at the same time or having a snack at the same time, and that allows them to build a routine and that routine then in turn will help create habits and those habits are really what we are looking for when it comes to promoting a lot of these executive functioning skills. Right along with that, if there is for some reason going to be a change or something new for the child, we do a lot of previewing with our classrooms. Our teachers do a lot of talking about what’s going to come up next or what might be coming up a week from now, or how we might approach something if the circumstance were to arise, so those two really do come hand-in-hand, right? Trying to create some types of routines for our students to really find success in it, and then also at the same time, undoubtedly schools are schools and things are going to change and being able to preview what the students — and that helps from any number of different angles from basic logistics to helping students in their emotional state. If you’re looking for something that is very kind of grassroots and in the classrooms, I can talk about lists and flowcharts, and strategies —

Sucheta: Give us one or two examples of the outcome I think that will be great as well.

Eldrich: Yeah, so one example that I could give you would be for the writing process for students that are struggling with executive functioning skills, the writing process can be very, very difficult, brutal in some respects, so we have checklists that help students begin the process and organize their steps, and these checklists are sometimes very, very small. Everything here is how you set up your paper, here’s where your name would go, and then here’s where the first sentence would begin on the page, to here is what the first sentence would be about, to alright, that first sentence is going to be supported by these two next ideas. So, our checklists are varied from time to time, but using those in the writing process would be a good example where we see that on a very concrete level with our students.

Sucheta: So, do you mind addressing this issue that I can see some educators pushing back because they might feel that this is babying the student? What is the difference between this being a pro executive function approach versus simply compensating for the difficulties the students have? And I know the answer but I would love for you to say that.

Eldrich: Sure, sure. So, from my perspective, there is a difference between babying students and coddling students which would be doing things for them which they can do for themselves. The students that we are talking about can’t necessarily do these things for themselves yet and the goal is to try and model for them and get them into a point in which they can start to do these things for themselves, and once they can, then you start to wean off of the strategies and you test it. Sometimes, you will pull a strategy back and the child won’t have as much success and maybe you need to re-implement that strategy or find one that is less intrusive to the learning environment that will help them succeed, but there is a big difference between babying and coddling students, and helping them do things that they just can’t do quite yet. Oftentimes, we also talk about strategies that are developmentally appropriate for our students. My expectations and the strategies that we would have planned for our first and second graders certainly would be very different than the strategies we are trying to implement for our seventh and eighth grade students, but that is a tough challenge that I often see when I discuss kind of our school and our environment with other teachers, is this reluctance or not even a reluctance but knowing where the line is between helping children and enabling children, and I think that there is a big difference between these two pieces.

Sucheta: That’s great, and I wonder if, Mary, you have some thoughts about knowing where that line is and how can teachers develop this acumen to distinguish where they are cockling versus where they are enabling or facilitating the skill development.

Mary: Well, I think the facilitating piece is based on where the student’s challenges are. Again, Springer is a school with kids who have diagnosed disabilities in some areas, and so the strategies are more about teaching. This isn’t a school where a teacher will say to a student, “Well, you should’ve learned that last year,” if the student isn’t demonstrating the skill, it hasn’t been taught to mastery, and part of the individualized approach [00:37:44] because it’s a small teacher to student ratio, is that the student doesn’t demonstrate something, well then, you back up and you break it down for them, and then you proceed forward. Enabling, I don’t see too much up here because the purpose is for the students to gain independence. Many of our students are here for an average of just three years. Some are here longer, but our goal is to have a confident learner who understands their own learning challenges and what works for them, who can discuss how many days in advance I need to start studying for a test, or I need to get my mom to ask me some questions that I have written down about the science chapter to be ready for the test. So, I think when you work cooperatively with the student and with the family, you have a better chance at kind of arriving at the sweet spot in terms of where to start because it’s a learning process for the teacher and for the school as well, is where to start with this child, and they will usually let you know if something is too easy, and so that’s great, we will look at the quality of the work and say, “Yeah, you know, you’re right, you got this, so let’s move on to this,” just in a step-by-step fashion in a way that makes a child feels confident and the parents as well.

Sucheta: Carmen, do you want to add a few things about this?

Carmen: I was just, in my mind, thinking that it’s really about knowing that child and it’s about having that understanding, and I think the language of finding that sweet spot is always something as parents and as teachers. We don’t want something to be too easy to get we don’t want something to be too hard, and then the other thing I would add is that learning a strategy about how to approach something, like a writing task that Eldrich mentioned, the whole goal is to externally provide that structure, so that internally, they are creating that structure themselves one day and being independent at that process, and so as we state that in lots of lessons that we have here at Springer, it can be a slow process and sometimes for others, a quicker process to make the strategies internal and embedded into our learners.

Sucheta: Yeah, no, that really makes sense and I think all three of you are really talking about having sensitivity and reserving the right as a teacher and educator to provide a certain leeway with full understanding that you are not doing that because you have no regard for a student’s ability to develop a skill but rather it’s very much done with that in mind, and coddling to me is really saying that we just need to get through this, so let me see what I can do to help so that you can do it, and if you’re resisting, that’s because it’s going to create friction for both of us, so why don’t we just circumvent? So, that’s not at all what specialized approach is that you are talking about is creating for the students, so I really think that adds value.

So, let me kind of bring our conversation to the end here. This is a philosophical question. So, this is always concerns me or has fascinated me, that special education is so rich with a deep understanding of the process of learning as well as sure shot methodologies that work, but regular education somehow doesn’t necessarily use those strategies. Granted, it does take a little bit more effort if we focus on observing students using strategies and inculcating them systematically, but why is it so hard to apply these best practices in special education to regular education?

Mary: Any thoughts about that?

Eldrich: Oh, I’d be happy to [00:41:27] this. I surely hope this comes across in a way that is supportive of all educators and all practitioners because I think that there is a time and a place and a role for all types of schools, but I think that sheer size is a real challenge, right? We can do what we can do in our environment simply because of the ratios that we have. Our ratios are very small, somewhere between 1:5 to 1:7 in our classrooms, and that’s a large part of our program. We have lots of time to have conversations about students, we make a lot of time to have conversations about students, we know our children’s learning profiles very, very intimately, we know our families very, very well, and there has to be something to be said for just the sheer size and scope of what some teachers have to do, and hats off to all of them that are in environments that are not like ours. I can only imagine what that must be like to want to do some things and to know students in a certain way and at the same time, be tackling class sizes that are in the upper 20s and low 30s, so I think that that would be the first place that I would start with this conversation, is that sheer size and scope is a significant challenge for implementing some of the practices that we do.

Sucheta: Yeah, that does make sense, and I also feel extremely compassionate for all the educators for doing this job which is so, so hard. I mean, it’s rare to have a homogenous classroom where all children are skilled equally and invested in learning equally, and talented equally. So, it’s just a dream and that’s just not a reality, right?

Eldrich: Correct.

Sucheta: And I’m really fascinated about how they do make things happen. However, I do think, like a few of the strategies that you mentioned, even talking about the future and helping the students connect with their future selves can add incredible value to getting the student to be more engaged in learning or taking charge of their learning, and that is not limited by sheer size or scope of their teaching, so maybe there is some opportunity that they can take advantage as well, or maybe we need to have a greater dialogue about what are their challenges that make them and not take advantage of those opportunities.

So, in closing, I’m going to throw this question at all three of you, you have been real troopers. I always wonder about our own executive function and in order to manage and help people to achieve goals, we need to be, as you said time and again, you all are deeply aware of each students strengths and weaknesses, and you are maneuvering or strategizing, and guiding teachers, so how would you describe your own executive function and how has that informed your approach to education in general?

Mary: From my perspective, my philosophy that indeed, these skills, these behaviors are taught: how to be organized, etc., and having someone, a teacher along the way who assisted in that, someone who taught you how to break down that fourth grade chapter in science and study the terms, you use flashcards, something like that, and those are things that teachers can do, but having somebody break that down or having someone talk with you about that you became incredibly angry about a grade that you received, and kind of where is that coming from? What do you think went wrong with that? And it’s not the end of the world to get a C. Nobody has died from failing a math test in the fourth grade, and so kind of also helping myself as a learner with those kinds of disappointments along the way, but just to help kids take risks because that’s how we learn.

Carmen: Right, and this is Carmen, I was just going to add to that that I think a lot of people have very intuitive and strong executive function skills, not everybody does but some people do, and when a challenge is in front of you, I think it’s an opportunity to learn, and so your first hard class might not be until high school. Everything has been easy up until that point, then all of a sudden, you have to think about how you’re going to approach a task, how you’re going to organize yourself, how we are going to pull out the salient information, and if there’s someone along the way that can help with that process, that is a really big benefit to the learner and I think at Springer, the one thing that’s different is that we are anticipating that and we are seeing that in our students early instead of a sink or swim kind of mantra, but I think for a lot of people, as they become metacognitive about their own executive function, they’re learning it by chances that they’re going through in their educational programming.

Sucheta: One quick question, Carmen, so are you saying that your own metacognitive skills, you stumbled upon them through self-discovery and now, you see the benefit of teaching it explicitly?

Carmen: I think for me, that that’s how I would state it, yes, there were certain courses in high school that were hard, there were certain courses that were hard in college for me. I think the learning never ends, I think as I began working at Springer and was exposed to different speakers and different books, it causes you to think and reflect on your own learning. It’s not unusual for [00:46:57] to say, “Oh gosh, can I see that? That really helps me,” or “Can you state that again?” like we are aware of our own learning in our environment because we are analyzing our own learners all the time. So, yes.

Sucheta: Absolutely.

Eldrich: My story is probably a little different and shout out to independent public schools right outside Cleveland. This is actually a relatively vivid memory for me. I remember my parents coming home from a conference with my sister and science teacher Mrs. Noyce who basically told my parents that I was doing just fine academically but I was never going to be able to reach my optimal potential unless I learned some study skills.

Sucheta: Oh, God.

Eldrich: And how I learned how to plan appropriately and organize appropriately, and I don’t know how much my teachers talked at the time but it seems like every classroom I went into for the next 10 years, everybody was telling me the exact same thing, so from Mrs. Noyce all the way to Mr. McGinnis, my social science teacher, Mr. [0047:54], my English teacher and soccer coach. This is something that I just carry with me all the way through 12th grade, and by the time I got to college, I really had been able to put together a lot of the executive function skills that I needed and really been lucky to have landed here I did, so that’s kind of my story, but a little bit different that I didn’t need so much self-discovery because I had a lot of really great teachers and supportive parents looking out for me along this line.

Sucheta: And it sounds like you were open to that feedback and didn’t get hostile. That’s good.

Eldrich: I’m glad I sound like that now because I’m not exactly — that wasn’t always the case. I feel bad for some of those teachers along the way, but they did a good job and maybe a shout out on your podcast will make some amends.

Sucheta: Well, it has been nothing but joy talking to the three of you. Thank you, Mary, thank you, Eldrich, and thank you, Carmen for being on this podcast. You have given us a wealth of information and really, our framework that actually leads to success, so you have set the stage for many, many educators to maybe kind of pull up those details and deploy them for themselves, so thank you.

Carmen: You’re welcome.

Eldrich: Thank you very much.

Producer: Wow, what a great conversation. Unfortunately, it’s all the time we have for today. If you know of anyone who might benefit from listening to today’s conversation and we would be grateful if you would kindly forward it to them, so on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s wonderful guests from Springer School and all of us at Cerebral Matters, thanks for listening today and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.