Self-Induced Autism?

Raising two teenage boys and interacting with hundreds of school-age kids has led me to an intriguing question: Is it possible that some children develop autistic characteristics even though they have normal neurodevelopment? How does this happen? What are the symptoms and what can we do about it?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder with two distinguishing characteristics—a person with autism has deficient social skills and exhibits restricted behavior (hyper-focus). For example, individuals with autism rarely make eye contact when interacting with others and often do not respond to auditory stimuli like the calling of their name when focused during an activity. Autistic children are limited in their interests and activities, focusing on a single topic, program, toy or game. They get “lost” in what they’re doing. Have you seen these characteristics in children you know who are neurodevelopmentally normal? Probably.

help me

Let’s be honest—getting lost in a project, a movie, or a game and occasionally not responding to a familiar auditory cue like the calling of our name is something we’ve all experienced. We can thank our reticular activating system for helping us pay attention to what we think is important and for blocking out the thousands of sensory stimuli that surround us every moment. We have also not made eye contact with individuals in certain social settings. All normal, right?

What I’m experiencing, especially with pre-teens and teens, is a new normal. This new normal is much more akin to the hallmark characteristics of autism—social deficits and restricted behaviors. These manifestations have gone beyond the occasional to the habitual. My conjecture: The myriad invited stimuli and the constant competition among those stimuli to capture kids’ attention have caused children to adopt behaviors that mimic those of autistic individuals. I believe it’s self-induced because the stimuli are invited from the outside rather than stemming from an internal “neuro-anomaly.”

Why is this happening? Why are these social deficits and hyper-focus traits showing up in non-autistic kids like my boys?

Avoidance. Relating and communicating are hard. They require vulnerability and courage in an atmosphere of safety in the company of authentic role models. As long as I can stay focused on something else—lose myself in it—I can avoid the vulnerability of relating, and if I work hard enough I can develop the ability to tune people out even to the point of not hearing someone’s voice.

I could delve into the polyvagal nerve and its role in strengthening our ability to read social cues and capture sensory information so we feel empathy,or even explore the role of mirror neurons. We’ll save those for another time.

What can we do about our kids’ deficient social skills and hyper-focused tendencies? Here are two simple actions to get us started:

  1. Stop avoidance behaviors. What activities do we use as cocoons? Do we tune out particular kids? Let’s build awareness of our avoidance behaviors—and avoid them.
  2. Start connecting. Carve out time to sit side by side or face to face, or go on a walk with your child or student.  Ask about their interests—what’s capturing their attention? Inquire about their thoughts and feelings on issues at school, relationships with friends, what they’ve seen on YouTube,or the posts and tweets they’re reading.

Our kids need to reconnect to those in their lives. Let’s help them develop positive social skills so they get to know their teachers, their parents, and their peers. Someone did that for us—let’s pass it on.

 

What Can You Do In Five Minutes?

  • Listen to a songhigh five
  • Organize your desk
  • Read status updates on Facebook
  • Breathe and be thankful
  • Score a multiple-choice quiz
  • Brush your teeth
  • Eat your lunch ( if you had to J )
  • Check the weather
  • Download an e-book
  • Talk with a student about the effort they are showing and how it’s a sign of strong character

 

There are many actions we can take in a five-minute time period. Some of those actions we do out of necessity for ourselves, others we choose to do out of necessity for others. Our students—those eager to learn and those less eager to learn—crave acknowledgement. In the fast pace of curriculum expectations it’s easy to focus on the product of our teaching and neglect the person of our teaching.

Take a moment and find at least one student today who would benefit from your attention and acknowledge them for who they are.

That was Then. This is Now.

classroomOLDApproaching my 35th year as an educator brings me to a place of reflection—a series of comparison-contrast moments. Who was I as an educator then and who am I as an educator now? Sounds like an intriguing exploration.

Then, I acted like I was the sole influence on learning in my classroom. I knew the content. I loved the content. I taught the content.  Now, even on my best day I know that my influence is simply one of many.

Then, being the “cool” teacher was a personal hot pursuit. Now, the hot pursuit is discovering how cool each student is.

Then, I diligently marked up papers with comments and corrections so students could learn from their mistakes. Now, I know that in their drive to gain competence, students crave feedback and most often zero in on the greatest area of growth.

One of the professional habits I have developed over my years in education is to activetechnology_classroomly reflect as I go along. By decreasing the amount of time between my “then and now” comparisons, I am able to adjust more frequently and with a higher degree of effectiveness. It also allows me to model an active reflection process with those I teach. Tracking your own progress and making strategic adjustments as a learner is a hallmark of a professional educator. This is my encouragement to you: set aside a weekly, if not daily, time to reflect on your own classroom effectiveness.

One thing has remained constant from then until now: helping students discover who they are now and who they are becoming. And to think I get to influence that—this could be the most important work on the planet. Wouldn’t you agree?

How I Transformed My Teaching Style—a Superintendent Looks Back

Bregy2I knew I wanted to be a teacher in fourth grade. Years later I realized my childhood ambition by becoming a math teacher. However, the reality didn’t match the dream.

Frankly, I was a horrible teacher—the kind that literally held the geometry book in my hand and read lessons straight from the book. I struggled to make the content come alive. I could see that my passion for mathematics and pretty much every other subject fell flat.

I felt let down and exhausted. Was this how teaching was supposed to be? Was my dream a mere fantasy? Could I still find fulfillment in teaching? I wrestled with these questions and doubted whether I should continue in the profession. I wanted to be an excellent teacher, but I didn’t have the skills.

Around the same time, a colleague told me about Quantum Learning. She had recently attended a five-day program, and she said it had already transformed her practice. I wasn’t sure if it would work as well for me, but I decided to try it anyway.

Bregy3I don’t remember who led the program, but I do know that it marked a turning point in my career as an educator. Unlike my university classes, which were taught in the same dry manner in which I delivered my geometry lessons, Quantum Learning modeled excellent teaching from the moment I walked in.

I returned home determined to apply what I had learned to my own classroom. I felt a little intimidated—the teacher across the hallway had a Quantum Learning background, and I could hear her classroom buzzing with curiosity. But I pressed forward and told my students that things were going to shift in our classroom.

The first thing I changed was the level of input my students had. I became less of an instructor and more of a facilitator. When students realized that they had a voice in our classroom, they began to take ownership for their learning and pay more attention.

I also got to know my students better and started considering their social and emotional development as well as their academic abilities. Students came alive in this environment—and so did I. I felt a renewed energy every day as I walked into class. My dream had become a reality.

Today, I’m a superintendent in the Chicagoland area. The last four years I served District 300 in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago, and Quantum Learning played a key role in my professional and student development plan.

Bregy1When I became superintendent in District 300, one of the biggest challenges was the number of initiatives. The great thing about Quantum Learning is that it pulls so many things together, including the Common Core standards. It gives kids the opportunity to apply what they’re learning, and ultimately it turns responsibility for learning over to the students.

I recently moved to the North Shore of Chicago to serve North Shore School District 112, and I’m looking forward to introducing Quantum Learning to my new staff. It’s unlike any other professional development program out there—it makes a real difference in the lives of teachers and students alike.

How to Build a Brand of Educational Excellence—The Ultimate Guide

ELA TeacherWhat is your brand? You have one. We all do—brand is how our community perceives who we are and the work our organization does.

Administrators often let their brand develop haphazardly. But the most respected brands—the ones that communicate educational excellence—are intentional.

Defining Your Brand

Your brand is your core message. It states the non-negotiables to which you are unwaveringly committed. For some districts it’s achievement. For others it’s college readiness. The more clearly defined your values, the more pervasive and credible your brand will be.

A hallmark of a strong brand is common language—a consistent message embodied and expressed by each person in your organization. Consider crafting a memorable phrase that pays. At the Oceanside Unified School District, for example, former Superintendent Larry Perondi’s phrase was “Kids First.”

Shaping Culture to Match Brand

Your brand is only as good as your organizational culture. Your brand is what you value above all else, and culture is the expression of that brand.

To ensure your culture reflects your brand, follow this simple axiom: Experiences shape our expectations—expectations shape our expressions.

Expressions

Principal SignBegin by evaluating the things people say and do in your schools, at the district office, and throughout the community. These are your expressions.

Let’s say your organization values excellence—good qualities in high degree. You would expect to see excellence embodied at every level. You would see teachers attending professional development, parents engaged at meetings, students thinking at higher levels, and realtors praising the quality of education in the community.

In this example, the expressions reflect the organization’s non-negotiable values. They reflect a brand of excellence.

Expectations

Next, discern what the expressions say about expectations. Our expectations shape our expressions, which are the synthesis of our perceptions, perspectives, mindsets, and beliefs.

In a district defined by excellence, for example, you would notice that decisions are made and problems solved through a mindset of excellence that permeates classrooms, staff rooms, and board rooms.

Expectations are not willed into being. Our expectations are shaped by our experiences.

Experiences

Every activity, every interaction immerses people in what you value. At Quantum Learning, we teach that “everything speaks.”

When a district’s meetings respect opinions, encourage solution-finding, stay on topic, and are well organized, attendees experience excellence. When classrooms buzz with curiosity, teachers acknowledge effort, and everyone feels safe and supported, kids are enveloped in an experience of learning worth revisiting.

If what you see and hear in the community and throughout your district is incongruent with what your organization stands for, you’ve got work to do.

Educational Excellence Starts with You

Teachers of the YearOur first inclination is to address expressions directly. But in the model we’ve presented, you build your brand by changing the interactions people have with and within the district.

This is accomplished from the inside out. Brands are built from the organization’s culture out to the community and from you out to the organization. You are your brand.

Everything you say and do can add credibility to your brand. For example, Larry Perondi nurtured his brand through Quantum Learning’s 8 Keys of Excellence, which help him repeat his values consistently and often.

When you’re intentional with your brand, the positive effects will last for years to come.

Images from Ben Russell, Deval Patrick, and Tim

The Shocking Truth about Professional Development

Teachers are the Classroom's Chief Learners

Hate professional development days?

Then you’ll love this—research suggests that most PD has no lasting effect on classroom instruction or student achievement. But you already knew that from experience, didn’t you?

The shocking truth is that most teachers come to PD with a book or a computer or a grocery list—anything to occupy their time while they listen to boring, irrelevant information they’ll never apply in their classrooms.

In fact, teachers typically find more value in “common sense, intuition, word of mouth, personal experience, ideologically laden ideas about progressive or traditional instruction, the guidance of mentors, and folk wisdom” than they do in traditional PD programs—regardless of the fact that districts spend millions of dollars on PD each year.

No doubt this explains the phenomenal success of events like EdCamp. These informal, peer-driven “unconferences” cut through the nonsense and give teachers opportunities to share and connect in a rich, meaningful way. Teachers learn from each other, rather than a single presenter, and discuss the questions that interest them.

Why Most Professional Development FailsAppreciate teachers for the learners they are when developing PD programs

Many PD programs fail for the same reason traditional education often fails—neither one takes into consideration the way our brains naturally learn.

Think about it: What is PD if not another classroom environment? And what are educators attending PD if not learners? PD programs need to model the principles of good teaching, yet so often the presentation hinders learning rather than opening minds to new possibilities.

The brain has a natural craving to learn. However, emotions such as boredom, stress, and fear can easily cloud the brain, making it difficult to grasp and retain new information. The role of educators then—whether they are presenting to teachers or to students—is to support the brain so that it is able to do its job.

In this sense, the brain is like a climbing vine. The vine has an innate and tenacious drive to grow vertically, but it needs to be planted near the right kind of support in order to capitalize on that desire.

Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems

To make PD more effective and less tedious, we need to teach to the brain’s natural learning systems, just as we would with students. Teachers, like all students, learn best when they are respected as learners and when their social, reflective, cognitive, physical, and emotional learning systems are attended to.

Incorporate motivational posters like these into your classroom and your PD programsHere are a few ways to do this in your district’s PD:

  • Instead of lecturing at teachers, engage them in meaningful conversations with the facilitator and one another.
  • Ask teachers to think deeply about their classroom experiences. What are they already doing well? Where could they improve?
  • Explore the neuroscience behind learning to help teachers understand how to orchestrate a dynamic classroom experience.
  • Give teachers the opportunity to stretch and move around the room at various points in the day.
  • Encourage feedback and questions after each segment.
  • Prepare the room with motivational posters similar to those you would use in your classroom—whatever will affirm teachers’ value and radiate positive energy.

Most importantly, find PD programs that take the expertise and systematic approach of traditional PD and combine it with the dynamic, participation-based approach of programs like EdCamp.

We want teachers to leave PD renewed and energized, with concrete takeaways they can apply in their classrooms—or even schoolwide—right away. PD programs should make a significant difference in the lives of students and teachers and continue to shape the learning experience long after the PD has ended.

How Safe Are Your Students from Bullying?

Fruit BullyingNearly 20 percent of U.S. students report being bullied in the past year according to 2014 data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

With statistics this staggering, it’s no wonder that bullying is a hot topic in education today.

Much of the conversation focuses on what to do after an incident is reported.

We’d like to take a slightly different approach today.

What if, instead of focusing on what to do after bullying occurs, we talk about how to discourage bullying in the first place by empowering students and creating a supportive classroom culture?

Before you laugh this off as pie-in-the-sky thinking, consider how powerful it would be for students to embrace the following truths that we explore with students in our Quantum Learning programs:

1.      Just because someone is offering rejection doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

Students tend to accept rejection without a second thought. That’s because part of them worries the rejection really is valid. Even the student who throws rejection back in the face of a bully has still taken on the rejection and accepted it. Their anger is indicative of their deep hurt.

What students need to hear is that they don’t have to take on other people’s rejections. In Quantum Learning, we teach students that if a bully (or anyone for that matter) doesn’t like them, it says more about the bully than it does about them.

When students realize that they don’t have to accept everything that is said about them, they can choose their response rather than going with their gut reaction that may escalate the conflict. They feel empowered to respond without fear of criticism.

2.      Flash judgments often lead to painful labels and hard-to-shake masks.

bullying quote 2It’s easy for students to forget that they personally contribute to unsafe classroom cultures by making flash judgments about others. Students who have taken a label to heart may wear a “mask” rather than acting according to how they feel.

At Quantum Learning, we invite students to speak openly about the labels they’ve been given and the masks they wear. This is usually a very emotional time for stude

nts and marks a major turning point for many of them.

The awareness that they are not the only ones hurting helps students take the first step toward authenticity in their relationships. It also encourages them to give others space to be themselves, rather than making flash judgments.

3.      Develop resiliency by owning who you are and not letting others define you.

Victims of bullying are never to blame, and we certainly need to address bullying head on. But the reality is that all of us face negative comments from time to time, whether they’re meant to be hurtful or not.

Developing resiliency is critical. When students (or adults) own who they are, they are less likely to be bullied. And if they do become targets of bullying, they will be better equipped to handle the attack without letting it tear down their self-esteem.

4.      Speak with good purpose about yourself.

bullying quoteOne of Quantum Learning’s 8 Keys of Excellence is “Speak with Good Purpose.” When speaking to or about others, we need to do so with honesty, clarity, and in a way that makes a positive difference.

What we don’t typically consider is the importance of speaking with good purpose about ourselves. We become our own worst bully when we feed ourselves negative self-talk.

When students identify negative self-talk, whether spurred by a bully or something internal, they can replace it with a more positive and accurate personal affirmation statement.

These are just a few ways of discouraging bullying. When these principles are embraced and embodied by teachers and their students, students will feel empowered and the classroom culture will shift to one where differences are respected.

Images from Susie Cagle and The Anti-Bullying Blog.

How Fear Prevents the Brain from Learning

Four embroidery hoops of different colors with brains stitched on different colored backgrounds

Have you ever felt your body freeze up in response to a stressful situation? Perhaps your heart began to race and your breathing became fast and shallow. That’s your autonomic nervous system at work, and it’s warning your body that there’s danger afoot.

Physiological changes such as the ones above are triggered in part by the vagus nerve, which connects the brain stem to your bodily organs. Nerve impulses move along the vagus nerve from the brain to the body, but they also move from the body to brain.

This last point is particularly important. Often it’s our body that controls our response to fear, not our brain. We can be in an objectively safe setting, but if something sensory triggers the autonomic nervous system, we may feel fearful.

A Tale of Two Vagus Strands

The vagus nerve consists of three strands, all of which respond to fear differently. Let’s look at the first two, which are more primitive and reactive.

Mule deer in the road practicing his "deer in headlights" look.The first vagus strand produces a freeze reaction. If you’ve seen a deer in headlights—either the real thing or a motionless, terrified person—you’ve seen the freeze reaction in action. In the classroom, the freeze reaction may manifest itself as a momentary inability to speak or move, perhaps in response to an impending exam or a comment from a teacher or classmate.

The second vagus strand produces a “fight or flight” response. A student caught up in a fight mentality may run out of the classroom at inappropriate times, talk back to the teacher, or bully other students. Alternately, a student caught up in a flight mentality may avoid eye contact or sit away from other students.

Traumatic Residue

As mentioned, the first two vagus strands can trigger a fear response even when there is no objective threat. An extreme example is a student who suffers abuse at home. The student may feel unsafe and act out at school, even though there is no danger of harm.

Mugs with the "Keep Calm" logo that say "Now Panic and Freak Out."What’s really going on when a student reacts in fear for no apparent reason?

According to Stephen Porges, the neuroscientist behind the polyvagal theory, the amygdala stores traumatic memories as a kind of emotional “residue.” This residue makes the sympathetic nervous system hyper alert. It goes into continual overdrive, trying to detect danger. The student’s rational side is no longer in control. The student is now subject to a complex interaction of brain chemicals and hormones.

Our Hero: The Third Vagus Strand

If you’re wondering what happened to the third vagus strand, it hasn’t been forgotten. When functioning properly, the third vagus strand overrides the false warning signals and tells the body that it’s okay to relax.

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom while students eagerly raise their hands.It’s only in this relaxed state that deep learning occurs. Students must feel safe—emotionally, physically, cognitively, and socially—before they can think critically and creatively. They must have a well-trained third vagus strand.

Classroom Application

This raises the question: what can educators do to create a sense of safety and stimulate higher-order thinking?

Here are a few suggestions from Quantum Learning:

  • Honor students’ unique contributions. Every child has a hidden genius, and that genius naturally surfaces when talents are celebrated and accomplishments are acknowledged. Some students may naturally gravitate toward math, while others gravitate toward reading. Whatever a student excels in, those talents need to be recognized and valued.
  • Establish expectations early in the semester. Students will feel more comfortable when they know how the classroom will operate and how to interact with others. The 8 Keys of Excellence help accomplish this by giving students a common language.
  • Acknowledge students’ efforts regardless of the outcome. Create an environment where it is safe to try and fail. When a student completes a task incorrectly, give them a chance to fix the mistake and provide positive feedback on what the student did do well.
  • Outlaw putdowns and negative self-talk. The 8 Keys of Excellence are helpful here as well. Speak with Good Purpose encourages students to speak kindly and thoughtfully about others and themselves.

This is just a handful of ideas. Quantum Learning includes many more suggestions for encouraging safe learning environments, and we’re sure you have some of your own. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Co-authored by Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education, George Mason University; Author Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems.

Images from Hey Paul, Blue Moonbeam, Blue Square Thing, and Audio Luci Store.

8 Keys of Excellence that Build Resiliency & Grit

Imagine the level of resiliency children would have if they had a strong inner core of character. They would experience less bullying, less giving up, less self-destructive behaviors. They would live lives of greater confidence, greater peace and greater purpose.

Resiliency is the focus of Educational Leadership’s September 2013 issue. Research indicates that resiliency—a positive response to failure or adversity—is a major factor in students’ academic and personal success (O’Dourgherty, Masten and Narayan in Handbook of Resilience in Children). Positive, supportive school cultures and caring, motivating teachers can help build resiliency in students, especially in children who have been exposed to higher levels of risk.

How? First, resiliency is strengthened as children learn social-emotional strategies such as identifying personal values and conflict resolution. And that is a good start. Second, it’s about strong character—the inner core of who we are. Building character in children as they acquire strategies strengthens their sense of identity, personal resolve, internal motivation and ultimately, their success. This combination develops resilience at a deep level—at the level where grit lives. Grit is the combination of perseverance and passion on the way to a goal. It’s the stick-to-it-ness needed to enjoy the sweet smell of success.

8 Keys
The quintessential question, “Who am I?” drives a nearly insatiable desire to build a solid core of values—principles upon which we guide our thoughts and actions. The 8 Keys of Excellence is a set of guiding principles that build a foundation of excellence—good qualities in high degree—upon which grit an take root.

INTEGRITY – Match behavior with values.
Demonstrate your positive personal values in all you do and say. Be sincere and real.

FAILURE LEADS TO SUCCESS – Learn from mistakes. 
View failures as feedback that provides you with the information you need to learn, grow, and succeed. 

SPEAK WITH GOOD PURPOSE – Speak honestly and kindly. 
Think before you speak. Make sure your intention is positive and your words are sincere.

THIS IS IT! – Make the most of every moment.
Focus your attention on the present moment. Keep a positive attitude.

COMMITMENT – Make your dreams happen. 
Take positive action. Follow your vision without wavering.

OWNERSHIP – Take responsibility for actions. 
Be responsible for your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. “Own” the choices you make and the results that follow.

FLEXIBILITY – Be willing to do things differently.
Recognize what’s not working and be willing to change what you’re doing to achieve your goal.

BALANCE – Live your best life.
Be mindful of self and others while focusing on what’s meaningful and important in your life. Inner happiness and fulfillment come when your mind, body, and emotions are nurtured by the choices you make.

Build it and it will be there.
The building of character is a purposeful act, not to be left to chance. It requires the diligent and conscious attention of teachers and parents. Resiliency increases in the presence of supportive mentors who possess strong character and in an environment saturated with excellence—good qualities in high degree.

It starts from the inside out—from the core of who we are—our character. Resiliency and grit are the result of strong character purposefully developed and continually nurtured.