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Book review: At Wit’s End

Learning challenges can be corrected permanently.

That surprising assertion is my one-sentence summary of At Wit’s End: A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggles, Tears and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities.  The author is Jill Stowell, founder and director of Stowell Learning Centers Inc. in southern California. Jill’s experience helping students and adults overcome their struggles with learning, attention, and executive function is the evidence behind the assertion. For those who feel hopeless, At Wit’s End is one of the biggest morale boosters you could find!

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is titled “Navigating and Understanding the World of Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, and Other Learning and Attention Challenges.” The first few chapters in this section cover how to recognize learning problems and why a student’s behavior or emotions might mask the root of the issues.

The reader is then introduced to the seven learning skill systems that must be functioning properly in order for successful learning to occur: motor system and body control, visual processing, auditory processing, language processing, attention awareness and control, memory, and executive function.

Here’s a quote from the end of Chapter 5:

A weakness in one or more of these learning systems … will make school more difficult than it otherwise would be, even with strong intelligence and good compensating strategies. The good news is that none of these systems is static. With specific and intensive training, the brain can learn to work more efficiently in all of these areas.

When these systems don’t function well, a disruption in the person’s neurological development as an infant, toddler, or preschooler is often the underlying cause.

Next, the book discusses the five levels in what’s called the Neurodevelopmental Learning Skills Continuum. Skills at lower levels have to be performing well in order for skills used at higher levels to function properly.

From most basic to most advanced, the five segments of the Continuum are:

  1. Core Learning Skills (reflex integration; motor and visual skills development)
  2. Processing Skills (including memory, attention, auditory and visual processing)
  3. Executive Function (including organization, planning, problem solving)
  4. Foundational Academic Skills (reading, writing, math)
  5. Content area and higher learning (subject areas)

Each of these skill areas is discussed in more depth in the remainder of Part One.

Part Two of the book is titled “The Learning Skills Continuum Approach to Solving Learning Problems.” Here, Jill devotes chapters to how an individual can be trained to overcome deficits in core learning skills, listening skills, processing, attention, and executive function.

For instance, core learning skills are often fortified by training that involves movement (including bilateral movement and awareness) and balance. Auditory processing might be strengthened in part by listening to specially composed and engineered musical recordings. Students with attention problems are taught to recognize when they have lost focus (many of them don’t even realize it!) and adopt strategies to bring their focus back to the task.

The training techniques have been refined over time. Some training activities include products or research developed by other experts in the field of learning disabilities – whatever works to achieve lasting, positive results!

Each new client of the Stowell Learning Center has a thorough evaluation to assess exactly which underlying skills are weak, and the severity of the deficit. An intensive customized training program is devised and possibly refined as training proceeds. Although the program typically takes months to complete, many of the clients see noticeable improvements after only a few weeks of training. The improvements aren’t usually just in academic skills, but in attitude, sociability, and openness to life. How cool is that?

At Wit’s End is a fairly easy book to read, despite the new concepts and vocabulary you might find in it. Jill has made a point of explaining things as clearly as possible – after all, parents are the target readership, not professors. She has included many case histories of students of all ages to illustrate the concepts. If you are concerned about someone whose performance in school or life seems well below the capability that their intelligence would suggest, I’m 99.5% sure you’ll recognize a similar case in this book.

At the end of each chapter in the book, you’ll find “Action items” which involve visiting two websites the Stowell Learning Center maintains and reading (or listening to) information that relates to the chapter’s content. If you want to learn more about the Stowell Learning Center’s approach before you can get a copy of At Wit’s End, here are those links: http://www.learningdisability.com/ and http://fixlearningskills.com/.

I’ve been fortunate to attend two presentations Jill has given to gatherings sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Association. Like this book, her presentations were real eye-openers about how the brain develops and functions, and why some people have a hard time with certain tasks. It is so reassuring and exciting to learn that, thanks to the marvel of neuroplasticity, there is a way for struggling students, teens, and adults to improve how they learn – which in turn leads to navigating through life with more ease.

 

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Book review: Embracing the Monster

Among other things, the term “hidden disabilities” refers to ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental disorders that result in a person having lots of difficulty with functions most of us take for granted. It’s not obvious to anyone else that the person has extraordinary challenges in doing certain tasks, paying attention, or controlling emotions. A person with these hidden disabilities often is labeled as “stupid,” “slow,” “lazy,” “spacey,” “a hot mess,” and so on.

Especially if the disabilities haven’t been diagnosed, the person feels misunderstood and frustrated. He or she may be as intelligent and eager to succeed as anyone else, but has these invisible barriers to success. Furthermore, the person may not understand what’s wrong and doesn’t know what accommodations would help him or her to function better.

The book Embracing the Monster: Overcoming the Challenges of Hidden Disabilities by Veronica Crawford gives insight into hidden disabilities like no other book I’ve encountered. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone whose life is touched by invisible disabilities.

What makes this book special? Largely it’s because the author herself has several hidden disabilities, including learning disabilities, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and sensory integration dysfunction. Veronica didn’t just write about it from the outside looking in: she chronicles the events and feelings of being “different” in each stage of her life, from preschool to college to adulthood. It wasn’t until college that she received diagnoses, guidance, and accommodations for dealing with the “monsters” within – which, unrecognized and untreated, had driven her to despair and big-time unhealthy choices. In the book, you’ll see how she journeyed from the lows of her teens and early 20s to a successful career. Veronica is now President at the Life Development Institute in Glendale AZ, helping others with hidden disabilities achieve their potential.

I attended a presentation Veronica made at the annual Learning Disabilities Association conference in 2014. She spoke about how to disclose a hidden disability to an employer, which prompted me to spread the word in this blog post. While I was writing it, she was kind enough to answer my questions and read my draft via email.

In one of her emails, she mentioned that she’d written a book that might be of interest. I ordered a copy of Embracing the Monster – and you can too, from places like Amazon or LDonline.

I’m very glad to have read it. I only wish I’d read it sooner, especially as our sons were growing up. Parents who have observed mystifying struggles in their children, as we did, will no doubt cringe in recognition as they read about how grown-ups missed signs of Veronica’s hidden disabilities. You’ll also cringe at how her spirit was crushed time and again by her failures, despite trying as hard as she could to do a good job.

On the flip side, I cheered (to myself!) when reading about how Veronica used her positive traits and skills to get by at all stages of her life. Her personality, helpfulness in the classroom, and musical talent helped her dodge some bullets. Even some of her bad choices were ways to get by. For instance, as a teen she chose to abuse alcohol and drugs, in part because she felt it was better to blame academic failures on being drunk or stoned than to have others realize she couldn’t read or do math even when sober.

Along with her life story, Veronica includes a chapter where she lists potential warning signs of hidden disabilities at different stages of life, and ways one might be able to help. She compiled the lists based on her own experiences and those of others she has helped. I’d recommend this summary to any parent or professional who wonders what might be going on with a struggling-but-intelligent child or student.

Besides getting to read Veronica’s firsthand account of living with hidden disabilities, at the end of each chapter we also get insights from an eminent child and adolescent psychiatrist. Dr. Larry B. Silver, who specializes in learning disabilities and ADHD, met Veronica when she was a struggling young adult and kept in touch with her over the years. His clinical commentary helps put her struggles, triumphs, and survival strategies into perspective for all of us. The book ends with a chapter written by Dr. Silver, in which he explains several hidden disabilities in clear language.

When Veronica was growing up, many adults in her life wrote her off, or they saw that she had problems but didn’t take any steps to try to help her. One of the major themes in Veronica’s story is how very valuable it was to have true friends, mentors, teachers, employers, and professionals (like Dr. Silver) who saw beyond her failures – who saw a real person with much to offer, deserving of love, support, and opportunity. In fact, she admits that without these angels in her life, she may have given up on life entirely.

It took courage for Veronica to persist through her struggles, and it took courage to write this book. She says in the introduction that the intended readers are professionals, and parents who are agonizing about their child’s future, and most of all individuals with hidden disabilities who feel alone and hopeless.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter, titled “Happy in My Prime,” that closes her life story:

Every day I wake up and still struggle to read, to write, to listen, and to remember. I realize it is a part of me, but only a part of me…..

I am … laughing about the fact that that I can’t even read my own book very easily – not in the traditional manner anyway. I hope that by sharing all of this pain and all of this success … readers will either find someone who can help them or find the strength in themselves to look in the mirror and realize that there is a way they can achieve success or help others with hidden disabilities do the same.

 

 

 

Two books on motivating struggling students

Lately you’ve probably been seeing commercials and little blurbs in social media where parents are celebrating, and kids are moping, because it’s back-to-school time. However, those of you with students who are underachieving at school know the new school year will probably bring:

homework meltdowns and evasive action,

breaking in a whole ‘nother set of teachers,

notices about absences and tardiness, and calls to pick up your suddenly ailing child (oh really?)

trying to make sure all assignments are complete and turned in,

struggles to earn the lowest passing grade for a class,

countless arguments about the value of doing well in school.

Not exactly something to look forward to, is it?

Well, what if we could motivate our intelligent, capable kiddos to do their best, instead of dragging their feet?

When our sons were teens, I bought two books that offer plans for motivating students who are underperforming.  Although I didn’t really follow through with their plans, both books helped give me a better perspective.

I found the first book while wandering through a big chain bookstore. The title captured our situation and needs perfectly. It’s called Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child. Michael B. Whitley, PhD is the author.

In flipping through this book now, I see that Chapter 2, “Characteristics of Underachievers,” by itself is worth the price of the book. I found myself going “yup,” “uh-huh,”  “absolutely” to all the subheadings in the chapter, including “Underachievers fear feelings of personal responsibility” and “Underachievers make excuses that keep them irresponsible.”

The book goes on to identify six types of underachiever, with a chapter devoted to each: The Procrastinator, The Hidden Perfectionist, The Martyr, The Shy Type, The Socialite, and The Con Artist. There’s a chapter about well-intended actions we might take that fail to help underachievers, followed by chapters outlining fundamental principles for parents and disciplines for change.

Dr. Whitley advocates a model of parenting called the Totally Positive Parent, which pretty much means being compassionate, understanding, merciful, and patient while being disciplined, firm, and not accepting any excuses. The parents have to overcome their (understandably) negative emotions and adopt an attitude of helping the son or daughter develop self-discipline and take a longer view to the rewards down the line.

The book then presents an “easy-to-follow, proven ten-step program to help children get back on track.” It involves goal setting, linking the student’s achievement to attaining those goals, helping the child develop a plan, explore the decisions to succeed or fail in carrying out the plan, and following up. Sample dialogues on how you would conduct some of the discussions are included.

Why didn’t we do the plan? Why didn’t I become a Totally Positive Parent?

Burnout, from everything we’d been through with both sons, was a big factor. For me to internalize and effectively carry out Dr. Whitley’s program would have meant reading the book many times and rehearsing and … I didn’t have the energy or the confidence we could pull it off. To our sons, it would have seemed phony and lame – “Why is Mom being weird all of a sudden?”

In my case, it would have been better to attend workshops or classes about the program, and then a support group and follow-up Q&A with an expert if things didn’t play out according to plan. On my own, reading a book – it wasn’t going to happen. (If you follow the link to Dr. Whitley’s website, you can sign up for a free monthly newsletter with tips. I wasn’t aware of this, back in the day. The website also has a parent forum, but I see the last comment was posted over a year ago.)

If you read the reviews on Amazon, and the comments on the parent forum, you’ll see that many parents have been able to use the program successfully. So, it can be done ….

It should be noted that this book does not address what to do about students who have learning disabilities, Aspergers or ASD, ADHD, deeper emotional disturbances, etc. While I appreciate how Dr. Whitley talks about six varieties of underachievers – they’re not all the same –  he doesn’t talk about our kids, who have other challenges along with underachieving tendencies. I suspect the ten-step program may need some adaptations to be effective for them.

(By the way, the piece of paper I found in this book as a bookmark was a list of what Nathan had to do for school on a Thursday in his sophomore year. “History – turn in 3 assignments; Driver’s Ed – TURN IN NOTEBOOK!” etc. Sound familiar?)

I forget who clued me in on the second book, which is called The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child. The author is Richard Lavoie. He was known to me from his video about the F.A.T. City workshop, which I saw while Nathan was being assessed for learning disorders in sixth grade. The video shows educators and other adults experiencing simulations of what it’s like to have learning disabilities, including the negative input from teachers, peers, and parents. It is very worthwhile viewing.

The Motivation Breakthrough includes students who have ADD and/or learning and processing disorders. The six secrets in the title are related to six different motivators students may have: praise, power, projects, prestige, prizes, and people. One chapter is devoted to each. The book includes strategies that teachers can use in the classroom, and that parents can use at home to motivate academic performance and household chores.

The book states that rewards, punishment, and competition are not effective motivators. The deepest motivator is success.

Lavoie also talks about the three elements that must be present to be motivated: an attractive goal, a realistic amount of effort required to achieve the goal, and a good likelihood of achieving the goal.

This makes sense to me. In fact, a few years ago I used this concept in a presentation to a small group of children’s writers, getting them to think about why their characters choose to take certain actions and not others.

As with Whitley’s book, I found Lavoie’s book useful in helping me understand the behavior and challenges of our sons. I didn’t really implement specific suggestions from the book, mainly because I didn’t see a strong fit for Alan (the only one in school by the time I read the book) among the six motivators. You could say that, based on what I was reading, I didn’t have the third element of motivation: a good likelihood of achieving the goal.

It does seem like this book would be useful to teachers, especially those with seriously underperforming students. A good proportion of the book deals with classroom dynamics and strategies.

Dear readers, have you followed the tips in either of these books, or other books like them? Have you had success? Please leave a comment with your experiences!

Book Review: Crazy by Pete Earley

Before getting to the book review, I want to apologize for the length of time since my last post. The rush project at work has been extended. Also, since the end of April, our family has faced a flurry of difficult situations, ranging from annoying (sporadic loss of Internet service) to worrisome (Alan is at risk for not graduating from high school on time next month) to crisis (Alan was in an accident, enduring a few weeks of painful recovery.) Our coping skills have been stretched many different ways, all at once, and it’s not over yet! Fortunately, Nathan has been relatively stable for the last few months, and has not been contributing to our stress.

Most of you probably have been through periods like this. I’m trying to remind myself that this is a snapshot in time. Down the road we’ll look back at this and say, “Oof! That was a colossal mess, but we made it through.”

ANYWAY, those of you who help teens or young adults with mental illness might be interested in reading Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.  The author, Pete Earley, is a journalist whose son began showing signs of mental illness while away at college. As his son’s mental condition spiraled downward, Pete tried to get help. And that’s when he confronted the broken “system” for treating the mentally ill. His outrage inspired him to investigate further.

Probably only a quarter of the book is devoted to what happened to Earley’s son (he couldn’t be treated against his will, broke into a house, entered the criminal justice system, and narrowly avoided a jail sentence.)

The rest of the book covers Earley’s investigation into the mental health system. He reviews the reasons mental hospitals were phased out decades ago. With no funding allocated for alternative treatment, thousands of people with mental illness are homeless and/or rotate through the criminal justice system.

Earley visited the psychiatric unit of Miami’s main jail and got to know the inmates, correctional officers, psychiatrist and judges involved. He met the leaders of local NAMI chapters and visited a treatment program that prepares the mentally ill to re-enter the community. The book also discusses the conflict between those concerned with the civil rights of the mentally ill and those trying to treat them.

Injuries or deaths sometimes occur when police officers without appropriate training confront a person with mental illness who is exhibiting unusual or dangerous behavior. The book outlines the success of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for police officers, which has saved money and lives where implemented. Earley advocates for the expansion of this program to all police departments in the US as one step toward improving the appalling mental health crisis in our country.

I read this book last summer. It was given to me by a friend who has had personal experience with mental illness and the criminal justice system. The book made me angry, sad, and ready to write letters and get involved. Charge!

Truthfully, I have not taken action, other than starting this blog and continuing to search for the best possible outcome for Nathan. But the book Crazy underscores one of the main ideas behind Climbing the Cinder Cone: that for better or worse, we parents are on the front lines of dealing with young adults who have mental health challenges. If we can pool our knowledge and experience, we might contribute to better outcomes for our family members and our society overall.

Two books for multiple diagnoses

This is the first post discussing books and other resources that we’ve used and that may help you.

The books discussed below are different from most of what we found out there because they acknowledge the mixture of things that can be going on in one person.  No one book about AD/HD, Asperger’s, or bipolar disorder ever completely described what we were seeing in our son.  These two books came a whole lot closer.

The first one is called Different Minds:  Gifted Children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, and Other Learning Deficits by Deirdre V. Lovecky.  If you follow the link to Amazon.com, you’ll see a lot of very positive reviews – so you don’t have to just take my word for it! Our copy has five bookmarks stuck in it and some highlighted pages, which are sure signs this was a helpful book.  I remember really liking how the book was organized, and it sticks in my mind as the one that described Nathan best. The explanations and advice are directed to both parents and professionals.

A few years ago Nathan was in the outpatient program at the Behavioral Medicine Center for several weeks. The leader of the family group therapy advised us to get this book:  Kids in the Syndrome Mix of ADHD, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, Bipolar, and More! by Martin L. Kutscher.  This book is slimmer than the first one and has more lists and short passages, so it’s a good one if you don’t want to face reading many long paragraphs. It also covers some conditions (anxiety, OCD, Tourette’s, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Central Auditory Processing Disorder) I hadn’t seen mentioned in many other books like this. The last chapter is an overview of medications.

Please let me know if you’ve looked at these books and what you thought of them. Have you found other similar books that were better, or worse?

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