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  • 3 Apr 2022 7:28 PM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

    Dear NEALS Members and Supporters,

    It seemed like winter would never end, and yet April and spring have arrived!

    I wanted to take this opportunity to invite you to our Annual Member Conference which is being held online Thursday, April 7th, and Friday, April 8th.  Planning for this year has been challenging (due to the ebb and flow of COVID), but I am so very pleased to invite you all to events that will enhance your practice, invigorate your mind, and renew your joy in working with students and colleagues.  

    I am so excited to have Dr. Chris Thurber present on two amazing topics:

    Successful Advocacy:

    Easy Ways to Make Difficult Conversations Highly Effective

    Advocating for young people should be easy for Learning Specialists, right? You’re the invited expert, everyone wants what’s best for the child, and you’re sharing practical solutions. Yet advocacy can be surprisingly challenging for a host of reasons. Stakeholders—including Learning Specialists—may not agree on what’s possible. To bolster your efforts, this engaging workshop will introduce three specific tools to your advocacy toolbox: Radical Empathy, Appreciative Inquiry, and Motivational Interviewing. With practice, each will become a powerful asset in every future difficult conversation.

    Equanimity Essentials:

    Five Keys to Professional and Personal Thriving

    Self-care is the sine qua non of caring for others. Yet home and work responsibilities often eclipse personally restorative practices. This inspiring workshop will review the foundations of self-care before challenging participants to employ five different hacks that transform self-care wishes into self-care realities. For example, you’ll learn how to become one of the 9% of people who actually follow through on their New Year’s resolution. After all, you know how and why to take care of yourself. Now it’s time to embrace durable solutions to the perennial predicament of finding a healthy work-life balance.

    A little more about Dr. Thurber:

    Dr. Christopher Thurber is an award-winning writer and thought leader who has dedicated his professional life to improving how adults care for kids and to enhancing the experience of

    adventurous young people who are spending time away from home. A graduate of Harvard and UCLA, Dr. Thurber has served as a psychologist and instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy since 1999.

    An entrepreneur from a young age, Dr. Thurber founded Prep4School.com and Prep4Camp.com to teach young people how to prevent intense homesickness and make joyful, successful transitions to boarding school and summer camp. One of his first Prep4 videos won a Telly Award for best Non-Broadcast Instructional Video.

    His best-selling family resource, The Summer Camp Handbook, was recently translated into

    Mandarin to help launch the youth camping movement in China. And his most recent book, The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure, was described by The Atlantic as “a tour de force” and “the rare parenting book that respects both parents and children.”

    Schools, camps, and forward-thinking organizations on five continents have invited Dr. Thurber to deliver keynotes, contribute articles, and lead workshops for all audiences. He and his wife, Simonida, are the proud parents of two boys (Danilo, b. 2002, and Sava, b. 2004). You can learn more about Chris and access premium content on DrChrisThurber.com.

    I am also excited to incorporate mindfulness into our event.  Marie Nagode, my colleague at Dedham Country Day School, will lead us in a mindful meditation break during the lunch break.  Marie teaches yoga and mindfulness to youth and adults beautifully.  I always feel better after spending time with Marie.  I welcome you to learn how wonderful Marie is! Marie will be presenting at AISNE’s Health and Wellness Conference in May, and we are so lucky to have her work with NEALS.

    There are also opportunities to network and relax.  We will even be raffling off books (thank you Dr. Thurber and Susan Cole Ross for the books)! I hope you can join us for all or part of our conference.

    I am proud that NEALS has been able to deliver such high-quality programming to its members over the past two years.  If you are not a member, I welcome you to join us.  NEALS welcomes learning specialists, special educators,  and other allied professionals.  Whether in person or online, NEALS continues to live up to its mission:

    Promoting​ ​professional development​ ​for​ ​learning​ ​specialists​

    Creating community through​ ​collaboration,​ ​support,​ ​and​ ​advocacy

    I hope to see you online Thursday evening and Friday!


    Laura Foody

    NEALS President

  • 21 Jan 2022 7:30 AM | Chris Ouellette (Administrator)

    By: Chris Ouellette

    NEALS VP,  Director of Academic Skills Center Miss Hall's

    When I was growing up, I knew that my family was special. It wasn’t that we were perfect, far from it actually. My mother and I would fight incessantly, usually over the same thing, and it wore down our more sensible parts. No matter the fight, no matter how much we were hurting, there was always love. Nothing could make you forget it, nothing that happened ever moved that dial even slightly. This is the typical memory sparked when I share with my colleagues about unconditional positive regard, and it always leads to strong discussions.

    I really enjoy discussions looking at unconditional love, best for family, versus unconditional positive regard, best for human interaction in general. Occasionally I have a counselor friend talk about unconditional positive regard in psychology, put forth by Carl Rogers within his client-centered therapy model. That model, found under the larger umbrella of humanistic psychology, has driven my educational work for years. It makes total sense to me, you put the whole person first instead of focusing solely on the dysfunction. Using the psychology lens, the therapist would accept and support their client regardless of the client’s actions. Using the teaching lens, the teacher would accept and support their student regardless of the student’s actions. 

    Over the last 20 years of my career in education, I have regularly had colleagues come up to me and ask me how I do it. Sometimes this is after seeing me working through a really difficult time with a student, and other times it is when they are having a challenging time with a student who I happen to work well with. After we talk about the situation, I usually ask how they are feeling about the student’s actions. When frustration or disappointment is expressed, my next question is almost always “did you show that to your student?”. If the answer is yes, my next follow-up question is “Why?”.

    It isn’t that I don’t believe that a student needs to know when they have made a less-than-stellar choice, they absolutely need to hear that feedback to grow from their mistakes. To me it is about setting the tone of the student-to-teacher relationship. If I show frustration or disappointment to a student because of their actions, I am signaling to that student that they need to meet certain parameters to continue the benefits of our relationship. Even if I know a student is lying directly to me, I choose not to call the student out at that moment. Instead, my choice is to wonder why the student felt the need to lie, and then to approach it later when the student may be less wound up. Oftentimes that student is lying to you because of a stressor, so choosing to call out the lie in the moment will almost certainly trigger the fight or flight response. Waiting even a day allows for the student to be more open to learning from the mistake. 

    While unconditional positive regard truly enhances my relationships with students, it can have unintended consequences with colleagues. With me, unconditional positive regard has led to a “this too shall pass” mantra. That mantra can make it seem like you are not taking a colleague’s concern seriously enough, because you are too “chill”. It is important to mitigate that potential challenge so that you are supporting your colleagues as well as the students. 

    Having this conversation earlier in the year with another teacher, my colleague referred to me as  a “gelatinous love machine, always chill and things will be ok”. I laughed at first, but definitely reflected on the comment for a couple of days. In the end, while I don’t believe I will adopt the moniker of “GLM”, I do know that I will continue signaling to the students that I regard them unconditionally.

    I will leave you today with the wise words of the group Common Market,  "Cause to me, "MC" means mentor the child"



  • 17 Dec 2021 10:38 AM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

    By Laura Foody, NEALS President

    I am having a moment of Deja Vu.  Last winter, I was hunkered down for the holiday break with my immediate family.  We did not travel because we wanted to stay safe and did not want to risk the health of our loved ones. Then vaccines came, and the infection rates went down, and the weather warmed up, and things looked good in June.  Ah, those were the good old days….

    Now we face the Delta and Omicron variants, and infection rates are rising once again.  We will see some extended family this holiday season, but we are trying to keep things low-key so that all can be healthy and safe.  Winter is looking unsure once again.

    The members of the Board at NEALS are aware that burnout rates of faculty and staff at schools are on the rise.  We are working diligently to figure out how to best support our members so that NEALS events can be refreshing, stimulating, and safe.  We also want to make sure the physical and mental health of our members and colleagues are bolstered rather than knocked down during these unsure times.  

    Due to the uncertainty of rising infection rates and viral variants, the NEALS Board has decided that the annual conference will once again be held online.  As much as we want to be in person and see our beloved members, we want to make sure that all are healthy and safe.  So, we will meet online in April for our conference day.  We will be communicating ideas about how to get the most out of our online conference (have a viewing party at school or offsite?) so that we can once again use this event as an opportunity to refresh ourselves and move into a spring that we hope will have decreased infection and hospitalization rates.  

    Be on the lookout for event announcements for 2022.  We will be hosting online talks about accommodations in January and February.  And, we are working on bringing an online conference in April that will help us safely connect with one another.  Please reach out to info@nealsonlone.com if you have any suggestions and/or ideas for conference speakers and topics.  And feel free to reach out if you would like to help plan this event. We want to hear from you!

    I wish you all a well-deserved school break and a happy and healthy New Year.



  • 12 Nov 2021 10:00 AM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

    By April Pendergast, Learning Specialist at Kent School

    Last year, the COVID messaging from all powers that be seemed to uniformly pump the brakes. “Be gentle on them.” “We are all struggling, go easy.” These phrases appeared ubiquitous in our private-school landscape of “rigor” and “challenge.” We dealt with rolling closures and quarantines, hyflex half-Zoom technological mayhem, and general mass hysteria. No one, to a person, in public or private schools, admin, faculty, or staff, felt like they were doing anything remotely close to the job they signed up for, and none of us felt good at what had for years become a profession that brought us joy and meaning. 

    Still, it was comforting to have something to do day after day. We had a reason to shower and dress (at least from the waist-up), students and a subject to dance around however remotely, and something to listen to other than hospital overflows and supply chain woes. In a way, I loved having more time with my family, even if it meant juggling four Zooms at once all while fixing lunch. I also loved the challenge of learning something new, knowing that the more tools I had in my toolbelt the better an educator I would be, regardless of where (or when) we came out of this. I wasn’t certain we would ever go “back to normal” or anything that looked like the profession I’d grown to love. 

    I had underestimated, therefore, how thrilling it would be to step back in the classroom this fall able to do some of the hands-on learning I used to implement as a rule. We could do think-pair-shares! We could do flexible grouping! We could work together on posters! We could lend each other pencils and not stare at a screen the whole block! What joy! 

    At the end of the second week back, as tentative and nervous questions from colleagues floated in, I was reminded of something I’d warned my fellow teachers-in-arms the week before we welcomed students back to campus: “The messaging this year is ‘back to normal,’ but these kids are going to be coming to us from a wider array of backgrounds than ever before. I get the feeling this year is going to be much harder than we anticipate.” 

    Sure enough, in my first classes, I asked how many students had spent most of the past year either fully or partly remote, and 75% of the students raised their hands. In the first weeks, advisors let me know of students who took their classes remotely while taking care of their younger siblings as their parents worked. Others hadn’t seen their family in a full year and a half for fear of getting stranded in their home country and not being able to make it back to the States. If meeting the needs of a diverse student body has always been a challenge, the coming year was bound to stretch us even further. 

    But again, my Pollyanna outlook on this challenge got a little excited. Maybe this is it, this is the time. This is the moment of opportunity for real change, where we as Learning Specialists might be less an addendum to the curriculum and more embedded in an effective and meaningful rigorous academic experience. Maybe we can help bridge the gap between what students carry into the classroom in their metaphorical backpacks (a family with substance abuse issues, crushing anxiety, or an undiagnosed slight auditory processing disorder) and the high standards we know they can achieve. I’ve spent the past few years making inroads into personal relationships with individuals on the faculty as a supportive friend; my job, when it gets down to it, is not only to provide strategies and supports to help students navigate the curricular challenges put before them, but also to help faculty and students understand each other so that each can avoid causing the other frustration. 

    I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by admin, faculty, and staff who are all inner Keatings; they all embody true citizenship and care for their fellows and students. They are all also doing amazing things in the classroom that, in the hustle and grind of our busy schedules, can too often go unsung. I’m making it my mission this year to help faculty celebrate each other and remind each other we are a community of educators, all learning from one another and pushing toward the common good. I’ll bang the drum. Here’s the oar. Let’s row!

  • 1 Sep 2021 11:17 AM | Chris Ouellette (Administrator)

    Happy September to you! Each year I find myself surprised at how fast we get to this point in the summer. Every educator I spoke with was looking forward to a mega-recharge this summer as most of us had been going steadily since March 2020 (summer 2020 found the need for intense Covid planning). I am hoping that your recharge process happened, and your energy is re-focusing towards your students! 

    I wanted to start by giving a shout-out to Dave Conley and Dr. Chris Thurber for their Summer Seminar Series workshop with the Status Café on 8/18! 

     “In the well crafted 90 minute workshop that David and Christopher presented, I came away having participated in a dynamic conversation and had activities to use in my classroom that provide examples and active engagement. Thank you NEALS for inviting educators into this experience and for continuing to create opportunities for us to grow as humans and educators!”

    ~Jennifer Pytleski, Performing Arts Chair and Theatre Director at Darrow School in New Lebanon, NY.

    We are diving back into a year with an inkling of a more typical school year in terms of schedule. While it is important to continue with pandemic support, other items on school agendas will start to come back into focus. Two of the items on Miss Hall’s agenda are looking at the way we use meetings, and more importantly, really examining our assessment policies. In the 2008 Edutopia article titled Why is Assessment Important?, they connect the questions of “Are we teaching what we think we’re teaching” and “Are students learning what they are supposed to be learning”. While this article and interview are a worthwhile read, I can’t help but get stuck on the phrase “supposed to be learning”.  Joe Feldman, author of 2018’s Grading for Equity (which I highly recommend checking out), encourages us to rethink our “inherited” grading strategies which he has found “perpetuate disparities that have been going on for years by race, income, education, background, language” (Harvard EdCast, 2019).  

    It would be difficult to say that assessment is not valuable. Assessment allows us to see what students know, allows us to help prescribe for the students’ futures, and allows us to get a sense of whether we are teaching effectively or not. Assessment will not be going away during my lifetime, nor should it. The more important questions that we need to wrestle with are “Why do we assess?” and “How do we assess?” our students. The most poignant question I have given my colleagues to navigate is “should you give a student a summative assessment when you know that the student isn’t ready?”. The most common reason when someone answers yes, is that my colleague has mapped out their curriculum, and that when they get to the end of the lesson, the students need to take an assessment to demonstrate (read: prove) what they have learned. My response is invariably some iteration of “that seems to indicate that you feel all students learn at the same pace”. No educator has ever responded to that question with “of course all students learn at the same pace!”. All of this leads into my hopes for my colleagues, both near and far. Here are my challenges for your assessment strategies this year. 

    1.Use Formative Assessments

    This is the bread and butter of how an educator knows where their students are at. Frequent, low-stakes, and informal assessments are the best way to get a sense of your students’ knowledge. Entry and exit slips give you a real time sense of where they are at. Check the oil using a dipstick, try having the student write a letter to a friend about a concept. Try having informal interviews with your students, casual conversations can help identify any misconceptions that they may have. 

    2. Do it Differently

    Please allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding using different mediums. If you like to give traditional tests on paper, try to think about a student giving their answers orally or having them write their answers on the board. If a student needs to write an essay, couldn’t they also deliver that work in presentation format? Try changing the setting in which you give your students an assessment, can you go outside or to a different part of the building? 

    3. Post-test Conferences

    Try to have a post-test conference with a student if you are unsure of an answer that they have given. The first thought tends to be: grade the question as is, giving partial credit for an answer. I would actually encourage you to meet with the student before the grade is assigned so that the student can clear up any confusion in their answer. 

    4. Allow for Retakes

    I really encourage you to allow for retakes of an assessment whenever it is possible. Using the growth mindset “not yet” allows us to support students arriving at the material at their own pace. I can’t honestly remember the last time I missed the mark on something for my boss where they didn’t ask me to redo it, so why can’t we view our students in the same light? 

    Boom! There are four challenges that I believe will help us get closer to getting this thing called assessment correct! Where do you see the most opportunity in these challenges? How many can you act on? 

    Thanks for listening, 



  • 19 Jun 2021 12:10 PM | Chris Ouellette (Administrator)

    By Melissa Rubin, Principal at The Student First

    Normally, at around this time each year, I get excited about potential professional development opportunities - and I enjoy sharing them with you all. I love taking advantage of the “downtime” that summer provides to further develop my skills so that I can find new ways to better support my students. Usually I jump at the chance to do webinars, or even week-long conferences, especially if the setting is nice (like the Cape or VT). The key word here though is “usually”. And we can all agree that this year has been anything but. 

    The month of May is always a big push - the students are tired, we’re tired and there is a lot of work to get done before the end of the school year. But this May? Good gosh! All I kept saying was “the struggle is REAL”. And it was!!! 

    So, as I think about how I want to spend the next couple of months, the idea of PD is not at the forefront of my mind. I feel conflicted though because I don’t want to lose out on this opportunity of time to learn. As a compromise, here is how I am going to approach the next few weeks…

    First and foremost, it’s time for some self-care. A social worker once shared a great philosophy that I need to internalize more - “self-care is not selfish”. I need to allow myself to recover and replenish my own energy so that I can be ready to help the kids come September. In keeping with this, I will be participating in NEALS’  Wellness Workshop on June 29th, entitled Self-Care for You

    Finally, I am behind on my YA reading. Usually (there’s that word again), I can get through a few books that my students are assigned during the school year… that definitely did not happen this year. So, why not take advantage of this time to catch up on reading?! I love doing it, I can do it anywhere (especially in the sun!), and it would benefit my students as I could then better help them with reading comprehension, and even analytical writing if I’ve actually read the text. So, I am going to read this summer! A lot! Given that I work with a number of middle and high school students these days - all of them reluctant readers, I’m going to focus on finding appealing titles for them, and making sure they read and understand them.

    I started this week, and I’ve already read 3! And it was so much fun!  I’ve been behind on my graphic novels so I wanted to address this gap in knowledge first. I was finally able to read Class Act, by Jerry Craft, the sequel to New Kid, and loved it - maybe even more than New Kid. The way Craft addresses microaggressions, colorism, and socio-economic differences in a private middle school setting is truly genius. Everyone - young and old - should read both these books and talk about them. As a side note, one of my AP lang students was asked to compare New Kid to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me - what an awesome assignment! It’s amazing how two, seemingly disparate books can address the same themes - and talking about which style is most effective, was a great conversation. 

    I also read Terri Libenson’s first two books, Invisible Emmie  and Positively Izzy. Again, I really enjoyed them - in large part because of the quirky and realistic characters Libenson develops. I can imagine a number of my students relating to these characters. Great for middle school girls in particular. 

    Now I need to transition to rereading The Handmaid’s Tale (a summer reading assignment for a few of my students). I’m curious now that I’ve caught up on the Hulu series whether my perspective/reading of the book will change. 

    I wonder, what are you planning this summer? Any books high on your priority list to read? Any interest in getting together to talk about books?  

  • 31 Mar 2021 12:18 PM | Chris Ouellette (Administrator)

    As we near the final stretch of the 2020-2021 school year, I have begun to look back at the notes from my 1-1 sessions with students. I try to write down the questions they pose about education, because oftentimes this anecdotal evidence turns into great data or lends itself well to professional development. I spent some time thinking about the best way to present this information, and I came to the conclusion that a student Wishlist would work perfectly for our institution. 

    I Wish (for 2020-2021)

    I wish that my teacher knew how hard my other class was” 

    No matter the size of your student class load, it is important for us to realize that some classes still present more challenging work (content, # of assignments, tough late policies). Before we feel that a student didn’t do anything because they didn’t do our assignment, check in to see what work they may have had for their other course/s. 

    Potential Discussions: Late policies, extensions without scaffolding, shifts in necessary structure from 9th-12th

    I wish that my teacher would explain concepts further in class

    Flipping the classroom to support both independent discovery and virtual learning is a solid idea. There are also some students who do benefit from an auxiliary teacher explanation, as a video can’t answer their questions completely as they come up. This can lead to extra frustration and confusion in the classroom. If we are presenting a challenging concept with a flipped classroom approach, we should think about also having a small in-class lesson to support those learners who need a little more than the video, while still allowing for students who understand the concept to shine as well.

    Potential Discussion: Scaffolding independent learning opportunities

    I wish that my teacher was available when I was doing my homework

    I am just putting this one here because I think it is important to think about. I personally feel that it is unreasonable to ask a teacher to be on from 8:00a-11p. That being said, some of us have students learning virtually in different time zones. If late night is not an option for us, we need to set extra time slots during the day for students to ask questions...Remember: Some students need to set concrete appointments with us instead of just having an open block of time available.

    Potential Discussion: Use of time

    I wish my teacher would be clear with what they want

    We have many students who are developing their abstract thinking abilities in order to fully engage with the amazing material we are presenting to them. Many of our students, in particular younger students, often benefit from concrete expectations. If we want students to produce a specific number of items/problems/facts for full credit, we should ask for exactly what we want.  

    Potential Discussions: Scaffolding shifts from 9th-12th

    I wish my teacher would give us examples of assignments” 

    At MHS, we made a very clear decision to push our students from the Spring (connection over content) last year to our current school year where content has increased. I imagine that this year has brought so many new and innovative assignments for students. When we provide examples, solid student work should always be our go-to. Is the assignment we are delivering brand new? Excellent! High-five for innovation! This also means that we now need to complete the assignment to provide an example (or find a colleague to help).

    With the significantly reduced amount of time students have to get adjusted, providing sample work can be an easy way to counteract that reduced time.

    Potential Discussions: Supports in the classroom

    Thanks for listening to the wishes of some of our students. What have your students been wishing for this year? Check out the NEALS Discussion Board to give your input! 

    *Check Out the Events page on the website and make sure you mark the dates for our:

    Annual Conference Deconstructed in April



  • 17 Mar 2021 2:35 PM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

    Dear NEALS Members and Supporters,

    I am spending some of my Spring Break time reflecting upon this past year and how much our world has changed.  I have adapted so much of my life to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.  My desire to adapt my practices as a learning specialist (even beyond the current global crisis) so that I can better serve my students and colleagues has become an unwavering  commitment.   NEALS has been and will continue to be a great resource to help me adapt and improve my work.

    Adapting and Adjusting our Practices is the theme of this year’s annual conference. With this in mind, our first adaptation has been to deconstruct our annual conference into smaller virtual events throughout the month of April.  Our month of learning will kick off with a session led by Dr. David Stein, a neuropsychologist who has adapted his assessments so that they are contactless but still in person.  We will also hear from Dr. Leslie Laud about incorporating Self Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD)  into our work with students. NEALS Board Members are also planning some social hours and discussions.  Keep an eye on our Events page for upcoming programming. 

    NEALS’s mission is:

    Promoting​ ​professional development​ ​for​ ​learning​ ​specialists​ 

    Creating community through​ ​collaboration,​ ​support,​ ​and​ ​advocacy

    We are striving to live up to our mission even during these challenging times.  I want to thank all of you for your continued support of NEALS.  We would not be able to continue our programming without our members and supporters!  

    I wish you all a joyful and healthy Spring!



  • 26 Feb 2021 1:22 PM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

    Dear NEALS members, 

    My, how we miss seeing each other in person! But we are so looking forward to seeing you this April for our month-long NEALS Conference (Deconstructed) on Zoom. We are excited to have neuropsychologist Dr. David Stein as keynote speaker. With a presentation on “Contact Free Testing” of students, he will kick off our professional development theme of adapting and adjusting our practices on Wednesday afternoon, April 7th.

    Please join the discussion online with your suggestions for topics for April’s month of sessions and for our successful Summer Seminar Series.  Be sure to “subscribe” to receive email updates as fellow members weigh in.

    Starting February, 2021 with gratitude: we are so grateful for what NEALS does for teachers of students with learning challenges. Without our learning specialists, well-equipped with excellent professional development, students with learning disabilities would struggle even more with the recent shifts to online learning. For this and more, we are particularly grateful to the NEALS Board as they juggle new responsibilities at work and envision new horizons for our precious and prescient organization. Laura steers us soundly at the helm, Chris creates new connections for us as Vice President, Melissa organizes us all and our documentation as Secretary, and Bethany manages our financial responsibilities as Treasurer. They and our other directors are eager to expand the Board; so please reach out if you’re interested in serving on the Board with us.  It’s a joy-filled service whether planning our programs, supporting our members with services and communications, or ensuring the sustainability of this valuable organization.

    Personally, I have been bowled over by your support of the Cole Fund for Educational Equity, providing NEALS memberships and benefits to underserved and undervalued schools. This fund means so much to me and to the NEALS Board. On behalf of our most vulnerable students, the Cole Fund brings voices to the table that we need to hear, while it shares our extraordinary network and resources with teachers and schools that would otherwise have no access. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity of like-minded individuals offering Cole Fund donations in excess of $20,000. We have surpassed our initial goal of including teachers from one school with finite resources and hope to reach out to a second school as the endowment grows.  

    Finally, I am so grateful to Eden Dunckel and those of you who have read Sliding Home: Two Teachers Head for the Mountains to Teach Our Kids for a Yearor contacted me with your kind words about my family’s adventure in learning. I hope it has been a source of support and inspiration for teachers and families schooling kids at home. 

    Sincerely yours,


    Susan Cole Ross, past president (2011-2020)

  • 30 Jan 2021 3:53 PM | Laura Foody (Administrator)

     By April Pendergast, Learning Specialist at Kent School

    Greetings, all. As I write this, I’m staring ahead at re-entry into school life from the holidays. The complexities of day-to-day activities have compounded this year, and even as the vaccine rolls out among our compatriots, it’s difficult to see a road ahead that leads back to “life as we knew it.” It’s hard to handle, and I’m in my 40s. I have compassion for the student population also dealing with this Brave New World.

    It’s natural in times like these to seek comfort, and comfort usually connotes falling into old, familiar routines: family dinners, snuggly PJs and fluffy slippers, a warm cup of herbal tea in front of a glowing fire at night. But what happens when those familiar routines are not “good for us?” What if we have heart disease and the family dinners are full of cream sauces, carbs, and red meats? What if that cup of herbal tea turns into a cup of wine and the fire to a TV aglow with anxiety-producing images deep into the night? 

    As learning specialists, we work with a population of students whose comfortable routines, by and large, do not serve them. We all know how difficult it is in a “normal” year to help students change these routines, and with the extra pressures of this global emergency, the rungs on the ladder to success for these students may seem even further apart (or caked in slippery mud and about to break). Is lasting behavioral change possible during this time? After all, we know we need to attend to Maslow before we attend to Bloom. 

    I would argue that holding my place as an instrument of behavioral change for students is essential during this time, and that doing so may help attend to both the student’s SEL and academic needs; holding the process of identifying steps in the student’s behavioral chain and ways they can mitigate triggers and actions to manipulate consequences is in fact acknowledging Maslow’s levels of needs *so that* they can begin to work with Bloom’s levels of engagement and understanding. 

    Helpful in putting the necessity of working with students to develop healthier academic habits and routines as they emerge from the pandemic is the metaphor of the “elephant” and the “rider,” introduced by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt and popularized by Dan Heath in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Research in psychology and neurodiversity shows that the problems faced by our less successful students are, by and large, not a result of a deficit of knowledge, but a deficit of behavior (“I know what to do, I just can’t do it”). Enter the idea of the “elephant:” our limbic system or “id” reacting emotionally to fight/fly/freeze in response to stimuli, and our “rider:” our vastly smaller frontal lobe attempting to steer and regulate the giant elephant on the path to goals set for us by ourselves or others.

    The elephant, the “doer,” is stronger; it follows a set of entrenched familiar routines seeking comfort and affirmation (even when these routines are unhelpful or unhealthy, their very familiarity is what provides comfort and affirmation). This can frustrate the rider, the “knower” (and those trying to aid the rider by setting well-meaning, if ineffective, goals) if the rider’s relationship with the elephant is acrimonious. Attempting to force the elephant through “willpower” alone doesn’t respect the elephant’s strengths and needs, and it will ultimately undermine our ability to reach the goal. In this way, the elephant educationally represents Maslow’s levels and the the rider represents Bloom’s; in order for the rider to get to where he needs to go, the elephant must be well-cared-for. 

    Thus, of course, effective change is slow and incremental. We teachers might not see the outcome of this slow and effective change in the year we row through academic life with the student, and in an atmosphere of assessment and outcomes, a pressured rider may rush a reluctant elephant… and one can only imagine where that leads. More importantly, effective change is compassionate. An effective rider knows their elephant well and sees where the elephant might scare on the path ahead; they coax the elephant around these challenges by setting an alternate course. My Catholic mother-in-law calls this strategy “avoiding occasions of sin.” For my students, I would call this avoiding triggers and practicing alternate actions. 

    Because we also know that effective behavioral change happens at the point of performance, and a learning specialist’s schedule is typically bounded by the structure of the school and/or boarding day, an effective specialist can utilize their time with the student-rider not only to set goals, but to analyze their behavior chain and troubleshoot the path to the goal in a way that is respectful and compassionate to their elephant. Availability for checking in at the point of performance may or may not be possible, but setting aside time at the beginning of each meeting for post-mortem analysis might begin to set a habit of mind for this type of metacognitive awareness. I am lucky to work with incredibly supportive and dedicated colleagues in the Academic Resource Center and English Department at Kent School, and I am looking forward to testing this protocol in the coming months. 

    If it’s helpful, please feel free to use this visual in your practice. Peace and prosperity to you all. 

     1 The connection here is opaque but valid and a subject for another blog post.

     2 Research shows that teacher attitude, the belief that the student can learn, is the most salient factor in determining student success, but again that’s a subject for another blog post. 

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