Month: September 2020

“Tell It To Me Straight, Doc…”

With about 500 blog posts under our belt, we look for inspiration where we can find it.

Those of you who follow this blog, know that we strive to talk in “down-to-earth, plain language,” which is the overriding, mission of the website (, the books and the blogs.

Parents, rightfully, come to me frustrated, worried and concerned.  They are looking for an answer, usually a “diagnosis.”

Even though many in the field seem comfortable with offering  a  definitive diagnoses, I am hopelessly muddling in the gray zone. Or as I explain to parents, as I push back on the label, “Well, you know it’s a ‘pie-chart’ of variables.”

Or to really make things really clear, I refer to what’s going on with their child, as a “soup-pot of variables.”

In other words in this “soup pot” (or pie chart) you can have a, helping of dyslexia, mixed in with a dash of impulsiveness,  a sprinkling of oppositional behavior and occasional meltdowns, coupled with a tendency to be socially annoying.  Oh, wait. We forgot to mention the pervasive spelling and writing issues with inattentiveness.

So, you tell me, what should we call it?

Thinking about the “pie chart,” brought to mind a kid I saw recently who stopped me in my tracks.

Nine year old, Liam, had been brought in to see me to assess his school struggles.

Midway through the testing, Liam stopped what he was doing and looked up at me. “Tell it to me straight, Doc,” he said.  “Do I have ADD?”

I have to admit, I almost spit out my coffee when Liam asked that question.  He’s nine years old!!!

How have we gotten to a point where a nine year old is asking whether he has a neurological disorder?

To answer Liam I did my usual tap dance, trying not to answer the question directly, mumbling something like, “Liam, listen, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

While shuffling papers, I continued, “We’re just trying to find out why school’s been so hard for you, so we can give you pointers on what can be done about it.”

Liam remained unmoved.

“Yeah, but do I have ADD?”

At that point, I probably squirmed my way into another part of the office, looking for something else for him to be doing to distract him from the question.

How could I talk to Liam about the “pie chart of variables,” no less the “soup pot,” so I chose the path of least resistance.

I avoided answering him.

Reflecting on the interaction, I don’t think I’d want the session on Psychology TV!

“Answer the child directly,” the viewers would comment.  “Tell him in straightforward terms whether he has the disorder or not,” the chorus would chant.  “Stop squirming and beating around the bush. We thought you were a doctor!  What’s your problem?”

My problem is I can’t see things in “black or white,” “this or that” terms.

99% of the time there is a pie chart (soup pot) to understand.  The different pieces are rarely of equal size or proportion, but they are there.

Takeaway Point

Hey, Liam, if you are reading this, there’s nothing wrong with your brain.

We just need to work on a couple of things.

Challenging Our Assumptions

No matter how many kids I’ve seen over the years, I am continually struck by the assumptions made about children and how wrong they may be.

Typical assumptions that are heard all the time include:

“He’s just not trying hard enough.”

“You just don’t care.   You need to care more.”

“If you just paid attention more, you’d know what you were supposed to do.”

“Your writing shows how much you don’t care.”

The fact is these are all assumptions, mostly attributing academic struggling to emotional variables such as low motivation.

A recent story about an 11 year old that I see frequently illustrates how we need to check our assumptions.

The boy, Ryan, was showing very low motivation for engaging with his township football team, even though he had always been a pretty good football player.  Not the most articulate of kids, he would just shrug when parents would challenge his lack of enthusiasm.

Grumbling something like,  “I don’t know. I just don’t like football.  I don’t want to play,” Ryan said.

“We know why,” his parents responded.  “You just want to get on your screens and play Fortnite.  Nothing else matters.”

Admittedly, I bought into this hypothesis/assumption.  So many of the kids I see seem to care about little else than their video playing or social media sites like “TikTok.”

So, as the appointed intermediary I tried in my own way to lean in on Ryan, to see if I could get him to “buy in” a little and show some motivation, at the same time counseling his parents on how they could set their limits and expectations with him.

(Keep in mind, it wasn’t that the playing of football was crucial in my mind relative to Ryan, but it was a physical activity and it got him out of the house with other kids and in the past he had been very enthusiastic about playing.)

When I was alone with Ryan, I asked Ryan what was going on with football, about to start my leaning and then he said, “I just don’t want to play.  I don’t like it.”

Of course it was fair enough not to like it, but I pushed a little more to understand how he had gone from loving it the year before to wanting to quit. Ryan spoke in a low mumble, “They (his teammates) make fun of me a lot.  They call me names and I’m never included with them.”

My mouth dropped in an “aha” moment.

Feeling embarrassed and ridiculed, the wind was out of his sails.  It was just hard for him to effectively articulate these feelings, as it is for most of the boys I have known.  Being clear about feelings was never a strong suit of theirs.

Continuing in my role as intermediary, I explained to the parents what I thought was going on with Ryan.

As I spoke to them, they, too, were having their  own “aha” moment.

Whether Ryan was going to stay with football or not was a discussion they were going to have later, but for the moment, everyone in the room was checking the assumptions that we brought in.

Takeaway Point

Things are often not what they seem.

Before making the assumption, pull back a little.  Maybe there is something else going on.

Copyright, 2020
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Sentimental Hoarding

Over the years I have been somewhat plagued by what I call a Sentimental Hoarding Disorder (SHD).

My SHD mostly involves some form of paper. Certain items could never be thrown out and have been kept for many years. So, for example, if there was an article or a magazine featuring the Rolling Stones or the racehorse Secretariat, I still have it in a box or a pile somewhere.

The same has been true with any article related to reading disabilities and dyslexia.

With the symbolic start of a new year post Labor Day, I recently tried decluttering by tossing out some of the accumulated SHD sitting in piles. It was a good thing I didn’t have masses and masses of random objects and stuff, otherwise, I would have had to have called in a Rubbish Removals Clayton service or got myself a massive skip to dump everything in.

While painfully decluttering, I came upon a 2002 article from the New York Times titled, “How Learning to Read a Book is Like Learning to Play the Piano” (Brent Staples, 2002).

Extensively quoted in the article is Phyllis Bertin, the then director of reading at the acclaimed Windward School, a private school for children with learning disabilities/dyslexia.

The article summarized Ms. Bertin’s explanation of the philosophy underlying the school:

“Windward rejects just about all of the conventional wisdom underlying programs at traditional schools. The most important difference is that the school views reading and writing not as things that humans are “naturally wired” to do, but as acquired skills – like driving or playing the piano – that require structured practice and constant conceptual reinforcement.”

The article went on to say that Bertin felt many children who fall behind are “curriculum disabled,” by schools that do not know how to teach them.

Ms. Bertin likens the school to a conservatory where aspiring musicians practice scales and play exercises to prepare themselves for the masterworks they one day hope to play,” it was noted

Eighteen years later the article is as relevant now as it was then.

Just yesterday a mom called me upset that her 8 year old child was still stuck in an early first grade level.

“I don’t understand,” the mom said. “I don’t know how it happened, but his older brother just learned to read, like the light bulb went off in second grade and he was reading by exposure to school and other things.”

I said to her, “Yep, it’s what I call the ‘smooth road and the rough road’. About 80% of the kids get on the bike and by second grade they’re riding – no big deal. It’s a smooth road. For the rest, they are still wobbling at the starting point. They need much more patient, direct instruction with a lot of skill practice – just like learning to play an instrument or hit a tennis ball. I will send you an article I have from about 20 years ago that lays this all out.”

Takeaway Point

Beside the obvious disadvantage of creating clutter, a “Sentimental Hoarding Disorder” has some advantages.

Holding on to an article nearly 20 years old helps to adds fuel to the fire.


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