Different Learners by Jane Healy, Ph.D.

When I was asked to promote Jane Healy’s book, I hesitated because one, I hadn’t read it and two, I have never written a book review. But since I am a huge fan of two of her past books (Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect) I was curious to read a book with a title that is intentionally ‘label free’. Within minutes I was hooked. Jane has done it again. She has the ability to turn science into practical, usable information while she is slowly selling you on a more holistic approach to supporting different learners.

My training as a PCI Certified Parent Coach has taught me to embrace the family as a living systems model and look beyond the child’s behavior (that’s generally why parents seek coaching in the first place), but I look at the whole family, environmental issues, day to day stressors, the child’s learning environment, etc. Jane completely supports that approach when trying to determine if a child has a learning issue and whether it is the result of genes, brain chemistry, environment or lifestyle.

I found myself nodding in agreement with her firm stance on limiting media in a child’s life and how we need to get our kids outside more often enjoying and exploring nature. And stress – painfully I have watched the detrimental effects on my own children. Jane makes several convincing arguments for why we need to slow it down, especially for students who learn differently. So many of them give up.

Jane does an excellent job describing the latest research on the brain in language that even I could comprehend – never did develop that analytical side of my brain! She talks about medication and rightly questions the amount of drugs prescribed to children. As parents we want our children to fit in and find success in school, but often medication is prescribed too quickly as a remedy. As Jane says, “In my opinion, expediency, convenience, or outside pressure are very lame reasons for messing around with your child’s brain chemistry.”

In her chapter “How Your Child’s Brain Works” she devotes the last few pages to motivation. I hear too often, ‘If he were just more motivated . . . “ So we tell our child to get motivated which Jane feels is “a waste of breath”. Jane has a few more thoughts about motivation – this is my favorite:

“One major reason for ‘motivation’ problems is that school curricula are often too rigid to accommodate a student’s need to learn differently and to repeat things for mastery. Policy makers, take note: expecting all students to achieve mastery without adequate support is a recipe for the ultimate motivation problem, dropping out.” (my emphasis)

I particularly liked her chapter on stress. She outlines the stressors our children face in this culture such as school, bullying, and social networking – factors that clearly contribute to an overload on the developing brain. I’m glad she advocates for slowing it down especially for teens. As parents we can become oblivious to what I describe as the silent stressors in our children’s lives such as Facebook, texting, and the Internet. I appreciate that Jane gives parents permission to set appropriate limits on the use of media while providing up-to-date research on screen exposure and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Appendices are as important as the rest of the book so don’t overlook those at the end. Jane provides a list of known learning disabilities. And she walks parents through the process of diagnosis with strong recommendations to get second and third opinions if necessary. And if you are like me and have a hard time with ‘psycho babble’ she recommends finding an advocate for yourself and your child.

Parents will find this book user friendly as well as a ‘call to action’. For all of us who are parents with different learners – Jane is our ‘Oprah’. She completely understands what it’s like to both be a child with learning differences and a parent who is struggling to get answers. Here’s one ‘call to action’: She encourages parents to advocate for those parents who cannot advocate for themselves. After reading this book those who learn easily will have a deeper understanding for parents of children who learn differently.  “We say we care deeply about our children’s learning. But do we care enough to do what needs to be done?”

From all of us, . . . thank you, Jane.

Your Brain is a Rain Forest

Your Brain is a Rain Forest by Thomas Armstrong – Reprinted from Ode Magazine

Imagine for a moment that our society has been transformed into a culture of flowers. Now let’s say for the sake of argument that the psychiatrists are the roses. Visualize a gigantic sunflower coming into the rose psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist pulls out his diagnostic tools and in a matter of a half an hour or so has come up with a diagnosis: “You suffer from hugism. It’s a treatable condition if caught early enough, but alas, there’s not too much we can do for you at this point in your development. We do, however, have some strategies that can help you learn to cope with your disorder.” The sunflower receives the suggestions and leaves the doctor’s consulting room with its brilliant yellow and brown head hanging low on its stem.

Next on the doctor’s schedule is a tiny bluet. The rose psychiatrist gives the bluet a few diagnostic tests and a full physical examination. Then it renders its judgment: “Sorry, bluet, but you have GD, or growing disability. We think it’s genetic. However, you needn’t worry. With appropriate treatment, you can learn to live a productive and successful life in a plot of well-drained sandy loam somewhere.”

The bluet leaves the doctor’s office feeling even smaller than when it came in. Finally, a calla lily enters the consulting room and the psychiatrist needs only five minutes to determine the problem: “You have PDD, or petal deficit disorder. This can be controlled, though not cured, with a specially designed formula. In fact, my local herbicide representative has left me with some free samples if you’d like to give them a try.”

These scenarios sound silly, but they serve as a metaphor for how our culture treats neurological differences in human beings these days. Instead of celebrating the natural diversity inherent in human brains, too often we medicalize and pathologize those differences by saying, “Johnny has autism. Susie has a learning disability. Pete suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Imagine if we did this with cultural distinctions (“People from Holland suffer from altitude deprivation syndrome”) or racial differences (“Eduardo has a pigmentation disorder because his skin isn’t white”). We’d be regarded as racists and nationalists. Yet, with respect to the human brain, this sort of thinking goes on all the time under the aegis of “objective” science.

The lessons we have learned about biodiversity and cultural and racial diversity need to be applied to the human brain. We need a new field of neurodiversity that regards human brains as the biological entities they are, and appreciates the vast natural differences that exist from one brain to another regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other important mental functions.

Instead of pretending that hidden away in a vault somewhere is a perfectly “normal” brain, to which all other brains must be compared (e.g., the rose psychiatrist’s brain), we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.  Read more . . .