Isabella’s ideas

  • Written by Isabella Diefendorf, Special to the Weekly

Isabella2I am 10 years old.

I have moved four times; the first was when I was about six months old.. I moved from New York to the Pacific Northwest, where I would spend the next nine years, growing, learning and raising chickens.

Then we moved to the Bahamas, which was an educational experiment that failed.

The plane ride to the Caribbean was brutal, almost two whole days on three different planes behind crying infants and fat men who took up two seats. (I would not recommend the experience).

But all the while I persevered; the destination was worth it, I thought.  My sister, Sofia, and I were going to attend school there for one whole year. My family had built a house and all was perfect. In the morning I would bike about a half mile to school, come home for lunch and go back at 1:30 for the afternoon sessions.

I was tricked by the teachers time and time again.

“Study your notes,” they would say and continue with “hint, hint, there’s a special something tomorrow!” So we would all go home and study and the next day, no test!

Then, a girl in Sofia’s  class actually got smacked with a ruler.

My parents were appalled and we only stayed two months.

Then we caught the plane to Florida.

My last move was the  most recent, from the Bahamas to Florida. I can tell you, the two are VERY different. My teacher doesn’t threaten fictitious tests and smack little girls.

I like Florida a whole lot better.

Also, my new school is better than I could’ve ever hoped for. It’s the size of a college campus with swimming pools, soccer fields and all.

They don’t stop there, they have crazy electives like TV production in an elementary school, for instance.

Compared to the soccer players of Washington state, the players in Florida are a bit wimpy.

Most don’t even go outside when it’s only slightly misting. That’s nothing compared to what we Northwesterners are used to.

Speaking of soccer, I want to say hi to my old team, The Blue Cheetahs!

Hi, coach Chuck and hi Sarah-Ann and Mackenzie and Alaina and Emilys A, B and E, and hi everyone! I miss you all.

One of the things I don’t miss is shivering at the bus stop on a cold winter’s morning in Bellevue.

Instead, I am basking in the warm sun like it’s summer. Ahhhh. In fact we are going through a cold front in Florida right now. Sixty degrees! Everyone get your ski jackets and mittens out! Sixty degree cold front.

People in Florida surely do NOT know what bad weather is. Not like us.

But I do miss the towering, snow-dusted evergreens and the grass that sparkles with frozen morning dew.

I love Florida and Washington both.

Why Smart Kids Struggle

  • Written by Erica Peterson, Campus Manager, Dartmoor School
We all know those kids. The student with 3000 songs on his iPod who can sing the lyrics to every song from memory, but can’t recall the year of the American Revolution.  The student who can glibly discourse with her friends, parents and teachers all day, but will hardly put two sentences together on paper. The student who can master a video game within 48 hours of its release, but can’t master spelling to save her life. It’s easy for baffled parents and educators to become frustrated with the students whose obvious intellectual gifts contrast so starkly with their academic outcomes.  Are these kids just lazy? Why don’t they succeed at school?

Dr. Mel Levine, founder of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, believes that student success, or lack thereof, is a lot easier to understand when we grasp what being smart really means. Drawing together research from neuroscience, cognitive psychology and child development, Levine has developed a framework for understanding intelligence as a conglomeration of discrete mental skills. He identifies eight categories of cognitive abilities that provide a detailed portrait of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. The first category has to do with skills that relate to attention, such as the ability to filter out distractions, the ability to sustain focus on one thing, and the ability to inhibit one’s impulses. Similarly, the memory category contains skills that determine how well a student can store, retrieve, and juggle pieces of information.  Three important categories have to do with the mental skills necessary to effectively take in and organize information: spatial ordering, temporal-sequential ordering, and higher cognition.  Two more categories deal with how a student handles specific types of especially complex information — language and movement. A final category of mental skills called social cognition relates abilities that allow students to get along with people.

Naturally, all of these diverse mental abilities are required for the complex tasks carried out in a school setting, but not every student has equal measures of aptitude in each area. Consider the dilemma faced by a student who has excellent abstract reasoning alongside weak impulse inhibition and an inability to regulate the speed and quantity of her written output. Such a student may have brilliant insights into the latest work of literature studied by her English class and a terrible grade on her term paper simply because she had a hard time keeping her paper focused and she couldn’t finish it fast enough to meet the deadline.

When we see students whose brilliance belies their grades, we can avoid a lot of heartache and frustration by taking the time to investigate exactly where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Often times, these students have unusually divergent skills, developing highly refined talents in some areas compromised by much lesser abilities elsewhere.

When we understand exactly what type of problem a student may be experiencing, we can turn a frustrating situation into an opportunity to grow.

Good Apps for Children with Autism

  • Written by Dara Schmeck, MS CCC-SLP
The New York Times recently published an article about finding good apps for children with autism. This is certainly a daunting task, as at last count there were more than 140,000 apps for the iPad alone and more than 500,000 for the iPhone! There are many apps available that are designed to work on language, fine motor skills and cognition, as well as a multitude that were designed for fun but can be adapted to facilitate skill development.

One term mentioned in the article is the idea of “self-learning.” This is when a child would be using an app on their own, and the app provides feedback on performance (correct/incorrect). Although this can be a valuable experience, your child may learn more if technology time becomes more interactive. Many children with autism struggle with social skills; isolation activities, such as self-learning, do not further those important interaction skills. You can join your child, using the app together, and practice skills like turn-taking and giving and following directions.

Please be sure to share some of your favorite apps with us! I am currently exploring using apps in speech therapy as a new way to target receptive and expressive language skills.

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Is your child struggling in school?

  • Written by SEPAC

Is homework avoidance the norm for your child?  Does the mere mention of homework send your child into a meltdown and you over the edge?  Or maybe your child doesn’t seem to be reaching their potential and you are perplexed. Problems in the classroom and homework struggles might indicate a learning disability or other conditions that make learning difficult.

SEPAC (Special Education Parent/Professional Advisory Council) will present “When Learning is Difficult: Support for Struggling Students” Wednesday, January 25, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the NSD Admistrative Center (3330 Monte Villa Parkway, Bothell). Come learn about factors that can inhibit learning, strategies and resources for supporting your child, and information about the steps that can be taken in school and outside of school to obtain assistance.  In addition, hear from NSD staff about the process available to parents and teachers to identify, evaluate and support struggling students.

This presentation is for all parents, teachers, and other professionals looking for solutions to make learning easier for their student. No childcare will be provided.


Teaching Snails - Lessons on Learning, the Brain, and the Importance of Timing

  • Written by Erica Peterson, campus manager, Dartmoor School

Learning at a snail’s pace just got a little faster, according to researchers at the University of Texas, Houston.  Yes, top researchers from the UT’s Health Science Center have been working on training snails, and a computer program that models the biochemical processes in the snails’ brains has helped them get a lot better at it. In the terms of a neuroscientist, learning is called “long-term synaptic facilitation,” and in order for it to happen in both snails and people, multiple chemical reactions in the brain have to work together in just the right way. John Byrne, senior author of the study from UT, thought that a computer model could help scientists discover when the chemical processes in the brain align to make learning more possible. Apparently, he was right.

Learning is all about timing, as far as the brain is concerned. Researchers demonstrated this by using the computer model of the chemical interactions in snails’ brain to predict times that the snails would be ready for learning. Based on these predictions, the UT team developed a training schedule for the snails specifically designed to be sensitive to the brain. Other researchers administered training at regular 20 minute intervals, without regard to the snails’ readiness. As suspected, snails that were trained using the special schedule learned better and remembered their training longer.

Of course, snails aren’t people. Scientists are a long way from being able to predict optimal learning schedules for brains as complex as that of the average human. Luckily, it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to tell us that when it comes to learning, timing is important.  We may not be able to track protein reactions in our neurons, but all of us have experienced times when our brains were tired. Or low on fuel. Or grumpy. Or distracted. Any number of things can turn the human brain off.

That’s why all of us can benefit by paying better attention to the brain’s readiness to learn. This is especially important for educators and parents, who often work with students who may not be able to articulate their own state.Are our students’ brains ready? Do our students have sufficient nutrition, or is their blood sugar crashing? Are they ready to focus or are they distracted by an emotion or by an environmental disturbance?   Are they rested, or are they wilting after a sleepless night playing video games? We may not be able to schedule classes by our brain chemistry, but we can still be brain-sensitive as we plan our lives and our students’ educational experiences.