Supporting Diverse Learners with Guest Laura Reber

School has begun just about everywhere in the US and with this new beginning comes new challenges. In particular, students with diverse learning needs may be struggling to adapt to an ever-changing school environment. The Mental Health Mamas are joined by guest Laura Reber, an experienced School Psychologist and creator of Progress Parade, an online tutoring service which offers specialized instruction. Tune in to hear about what it means to be a diverse learner, what parents can do to support their students and some of the stigma that surrounds special education.

Notes and Mentions

Connect with Progress Parade: https://www.progressparade.com/


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Transcript

Serena: Hey Everyone, I’m Serena.

Tina: And I’m Tina and we are the Mental Health Mamas.

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Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain, we are so glad you’re here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to you NOT as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as the parents of kids who struggle with their emotional health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You’ll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, NoNeedToExplainPodcast.com.

Serena: It is officially fall and if you’re anything like me, you may be struggling to get back to routines that maybe aren’t what we had hoped them to be.

Tina: Right. And I think that we had all hoped to put this pandemic behind us and return to normal and yet we are still having to adjust in new and different ways.

Serena: It is incredibly frustrating to feel like we have so little within our control for ourselves and for our kids.

Tina: Yes. And that’s why we’re going to do our best to continue to focus on the things that are within our control and to work to bring you some guests to help us out with this.

Serena: One of the concerns we’ve heard over and over again from parents and educators is about the disruption that our kids have faced in their schooling. And while all students have faced a disruption of some sort, like most things, there was a great deal of inequity in what this disruption looked like.

Tina: Mmhm. I think it will be a long time before we understand the implications of all of this. And as the parents of kids who struggle, we know first hand how challenging school can be in a normal year, let alone in the midst of what seems like a never-ending pandemic. We are excited to introduce our guest to you today who specializes in meeting the needs of diverse learners.

Serena: Laura Reber is an experienced school psychologist who has supported students with diverse learning needs for more than a decade. The experience of seeing how well students respond to individual instruction that is 100% designed with their needs in mind is what inspired her to create Progress Parade, which is an online tutoring service with specialized instruction. Laura, welcome to the podcast!

Laura: Thank you! I’m really excited to be here!

Tina: So Laura, let’s start by defining the term “diverse learner”. What does this mean to you?

Laura: Most “diverse learners” who come to us have been diagnosed with ADHD, learning disabilities or other disabilities. But I personally believe that everyone is a diverse learner. We all have diverse learning needs that make some things come to us more easily than other things come to us. Our schools and societies have decided that certain skills are important, and so people who struggle with those skills sometimes get diagnoses but, diagnosis or not, we all have struggles and strengths.

Serena: I love that. The idea that we all have struggles and strengths. And you mentioned the skills that our schools and society think are important, so before we move on could you mention a couple of those skills? Like what are you referring to?

Laura: Yeah. Well, I mean the obvious ones are reading, writing and math. You know, those are skills the schools have decided are important, that our society has decided are important. But also things like being able to sit down in your seat and be, kind of, focusing for long periods of time or keep your body still. You know a lot of times students disrupt...are disruptive to their classroom even though they’re not necessarily doing anything that’s a problem. But if they’re wiggling around a lot and kind of getting into people’s things and stuff then sometimes those kids end up with ADHD diagnoses. And that’s because they kind of struggle to control their behavior and to kind of sit still.

Serena: Right. Yeah. And as an adult, you know, for me, I can’t sit still all day. I can’t even imagine.

Laura: Yeah. Me either.

Serena: So, as you know, we are all about breaking down stigma and normalizing the conversation around raising kids who don’t fit neatly into a box and as a result are likely what you refer to as a diverse learner. So what are some of the ways that your organization works to break down that stigma and how do you support families in this challenging topic?

Laura: Yeah. I love the mission of breaking down stigma! I think stigma is something I’m always happy to break down. I think it really just prevents people from getting the help that they need and also makes them feel badly about themselves when they really don’t need to feel badly about themselves! We all need help sometimes and needing help just means that. It doesn’t mean that we failed. It doesn’t mean anything else besides that we need help. And one example I like to bring up about our diverse learners, about the students we work with is that when parents reach out to hire an executive functioning coach. A quick summary for those who don’t know what an executive functioning coach is, it’s somebody who helps students learn how to organize themselves, plan long term projects, prioritize and manage their time, study effectively and more! So sometimes remind parents that even executives at big companies often hire coaches to help them work smarter, not harder. And that’s really what executive functioning coaches do for students! I sometimes think, you know, the word “tutor” can have a stigma, so maybe something like calling it coaching helps because everyone needs a coach sometimes whether it’s athletes or executives or anyone else.

Tina: Mmhm. I love that idea of using “coach” language. It’s so normal, right? We personally know or have at least come to know that our kids need support and we know how to seek that support. Practice makes...not perfect. I’m not gonna say perfect, but you know what I mean.

Laura: Yeah.

Tina: It seems with the pandemic that we are hearing more and more from families who might not have traditionally thought that they needed to seek support and now they do. So let’s normalize this. Can you talk us through how you might coach a parent to seek support through the school, for example?

Laura: Of course. Yeah. There are lots of different systems in place at the school that are there to support our kids and actually there’s a big movement nationwide, here in the US at least, called “multi-tiered support”. And the idea of multi-tiered support systems is that everyone is in the support system. It’s called multi-tiered because there’s different tiers so some kids may need more support than others but everybody’s in the same system. So what that means is that if a student has a challenge, whether academic or behavioral, they should be able to get some support at school before the problem gets to the point where they might need something like special education. So sometimes that support might look like meeting with small groups of students for academics or a reward plan in place or change in the environment for behavior. But the goal of these multi-tiered systems is that students get help when they need it and it’s to recognize that it’s totally normal that a certain percentage of students need help, so we just need to be prepared and have that structure in place to give those students help when they need it.

So if a parent is seeing a challenge at school, the first thing I’d suggest is asking the teacher if the school has any resources the student can access to get help as soon as possible. And this is kind of how we talked about stigma. I think stigma really prevents parents from asking for help early. They think it means there’s something wrong. But again it’s...there’s just a certain percentage of kids that are gonna need help. It’s expected. That’s what’s normal so get that help. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, it doesn’t mean anything besides your kid needs a little help. And early intervention is the most effective way to prevent future challenges. And if your student gets some help at school and is still struggling, then that’s when it might be time to consider more formal help like in the form of an individualized education plan or IEP.

Serena: Yeah, so I hear you talking about this multi-tiered system of intervention in which all students are included somewhere in the tiers and it sounds like what our schools here refer to as RTI or Response to Intervention. Is that accurate?

Laura: Yep, that’s 100 percent accurate. Response to Intervention is one of the examples of a Multi-tiered support system where all children are included in the support at some level.

Tina: So what are some of the other terms you might use for these multi-tiered support systems?

Laura: I would say the biggest ones are probably RTI or Response to Intervention or MTSS or Multi-Tiered Support System. Those are the two major ones. Or Positive Behavior Intervention Support System, PBIS, is on the behavioral side. So the theory and the kind of framework behind all of them is the same that, you know, if many students in our school are struggling with a specific behavior or academic then we need to look at our, the whole school’s instructional model. But if only certain students are struggling then we need to work with those students early, as soon as possible. So the idea is really that, yes, everyone is included in the support framework at some level and that we want to get kids support as soon as possible rather than waiting until they need Special Education. Essentially we want to get them help as soon as possible.

Serena: Mmhm. Yeah. Thanks for that clarification. So in addition to the formal supports you mentioned, so we’re throwing lots of acronyms out there at everybody...MTSS, the RTI, the IEP...what more can parents do?

Laura: Yeah. So if the “multi-tiered support system” isn’t enough or if it’s something the school has determined they don’t need. And kind of how we talked about this. Usually you’ll know your kid is in the Multi-Tiered Support System because you’ll hear the word, “academic or behavioral intervention” being used. Which sometimes is like, parents are like, what’s an academic intervention? That sounds, like, so formal. Really it just means tutoring, you know, academic intervention is essentially specialized instruction, usually in a small group or one-on-one.

If your student isn’t getting that or doesn’t qualify for an individualized education plan or IEP, there are still lots of things you can do. You can ask if there are outside services in the school or in the community that your student may be able to take advantage of. Some schools have partnered with tutoring programs that students can participate in after school. Sometimes that’s in partnership with community organizations or sometimes the school has some funds where their own teachers will do some tutoring. So that could be something that your student might be able to take advantage of.

Parents are also always free to pursue outside services. If your student is struggling with behavioral challenges then counseling might be relevant or helpful. And you know, often insurance does cover counseling. And then there’s of course companies like Progress Parade where we can support academics. So definitely still seek help inside the school and also outside the school too.

Tina: Awesome. Thanks for that. We also know that getting help through school often comes with a label and that brings up a LOT of feels for people. Tell us a bit about your experience with parents’ feelings around labels and your perspective on the value of labels.

Laura: This is a really interesting question because I’ve really seen parents go both ways with this one! I’ve seen parents whose kids desperately need services and really resist the label which also means they can’t get the support if they don’t have the label, at least in the school setting. And then I’ve seen parents whose kids are doing mostly fine in school but the parents are desperately seeking that label for their student. So it’s interesting and understandable to have these different reactions. What I have seen as a general trend which I think is really encouraging is that it seems like labels are less stigmatizing and that students who have IEPs are more and more incorporated into the general education classrooms, instead of isolated into special classrooms the whole day. So that’s encouraging to see and I think there is a general trend of just more inclusion, more acceptance out there in the schools which is great to see.

That said, I’m so personally ready for a revolution where we kind of move beyond labels. I don’t know if either of you are familiar with Iowa’s model of special education, but I really like what they’re doing. For students to get services at school in Iowa it just needs to be determined that they are an “eligible individual”. They don’t need a specific label to get services. And I like this because it makes us focus on what the individual student actually needs rather than getting hung up on a particular label. I think people sometimes believe that things will be solved when they get a label, but growth is really dependent more on the supports and services a student gets rather than the label they might have. So I really like to focus on what they need and how to get that to them. And so I like that about Iowa.

Yeah. And I think to just kind of add something on to that, many communities do find value in their label. I think that, you know, I’ve seen people with autism; a lot of them prefer to be called autistic individuals. I’ve seen a lot of really great communities, strong communities. Same thing with ADHD, you know. And I think to the extent that labels help people understand themselves and seek community, I think that’s helpful. If they cause you to believe you are limited or broken, then that’s not at all helpful. I like labels to the extent that they help people but that’s it.

Tina: I love that “eligible individual”, I love that language because it doesn’t stigmatize, for sure and I totally hear you about that. I think that labels can make you feel a little broken sometimes and I can appreciate that as well. You know, labeling for us, although it was a super hard process, it did, for the most part, get us what we needed. You know and we hope through this podcast to help parents feel like they CAN do something to be proactive to help their kids through some rough patches. So what tips do you have for parents who are struggling to help their kids at home?

Laura: My biggest tip is that YOU ARE DEFINITELY NOT ALONE. This has been a tough, tough year because kids have been at home more than ever. And we are definitely designed for community and not isolation. So I’d encourage parents to seek out support like finding this podcast. You know, this is a source of community for people. Find people that get you and feed you. Find groups of other parents that relate to you and your community and you can find that locally through your community or also through things like facebook. I’ve seen some really great active Facebook communities of parents with different, you know, populations and really giving each other a lot of great support. I think, you know, just don’t hesitate to support yourself and make sure that your needs are taken care of, too. That’s just as important as worrying about your kid.

Serena: Yeah, I love that. You say, “Don’t hesitate to support yourself”. That’s awesome. And you know, one of our big things, right? Self-care, connection...you hit them all. They are both so very important.

Tina: And you are not alone! You are not alone.

Serena: Absolutely. Yeah.

Laura: Definitely.

Serena: We know that you are a big proponent of adopting a growth mindset, not just for kids, but for adults as well. So can you explain what it means to have a growth mindset and why is it important for all of us?

Laura: Definitely. We are huge fans of growth mindset here at Progress Parade. Having a growth mindset is essentially a way of viewing challenges and setbacks. People with a growth mindset know that they can improve their skills and can see their challenges as a way to grow! A fixed mindset means more that you’re stuck where you’re at and you won’t get better, no matter what work we put in. So when we have a fixed mindset, a challenge presents a massive problem because the problem has no real resolution if you’re kind of stuck where you are or fixed. We all have growth and fixed mindsets at times. So just because you have a fixed mindset at certain things, don’t be hard on yourself. It’s something that we all kind of move in and out of with various challenges and at various points in our life. But the truth is that we all do grow and we do change. The more we can take on a growth mindset, the more we’ll be ready to grow and encourage our students to grow and be ready to really tackle those obstacles when they come up and know that they’re making us stronger.

Tina: That is amazingly hopeful! And we are all about hope. So, thanks for that!

Laura: Yes, of course!

Tina: Can you share with our listeners some of the services that you provide through Progress Parade?

Laura: We offer one-on-one academic services, tailored to each individual learner. The learners we most often work with have been diagnosed with ADHD and/or a learning disability. For students with ADHD, we often provide executive functioning coaching or homework coaching. Common challenges of students with ADHD (outside of the executive functioning/organization/time management/task completion stuff) are struggling with the writing process, keeping track of the math process without getting the whole problem wrong for making a small mistake. For students with learning disabilities, we often use multi-sensory methods to teach to their learning challenges. Some of the well known multi-sensory methods for reading are Orton-Gillingham and Wilson, and for math are Touch Math.

Serena: And this is all virtual, right? Available to anybody?

Laura: Yes. One-on-one online. Anywhere you’ve got an internet connection.

Serena: OK. And is it true that anyone can seek support for their student from Progress Parade? So, like, do they need to have a label or a diagnosis?

Laura: It’s true that anyone is welcome to seek support through Progress Parade. We’re like team Iowa. You just have to be an eligible individual and eligible just means you have an area you want to grow in. No, you don’t need a diagnosis or anything like that.

Tina: And what is the best way for people to learn more and connect with you?

Laura: They can visit us at www.progressparade.com and book a free consultation on our home page. Those consultations are directly booked with me so we can have a conversation about your student and I can answer your questions and learn more about your student’s needs. They can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram.

Serena: So we will definitely provide links in our show notes and on our website so people can connect with you. It sounds like an awesome opportunity to get a free consultation. I would totally take advantage of that. One more question for you today. If we were to imagine a future in which all of our kids were able to learn in a way that maximizes their unique strengths and abilities, what would that look like? And what do you think we might need to do to move closer to that preferred future?

Laura: Yeah. If that were a reality, I really believe we’d have all of our major societal problems solved. But more tangibly, I think the world would just be a lot kinder of a place. When everyone is encouraged to utilize their unique strengths and abilities, they get in the zone and make a huge difference with whatever they’re working on. That’s when we see our best work out of ourselves and out of each other is when people are really like, I’m doing what I’m good at, what I love doing, and I know I’m good at it. And then when that’s the reality, they feel good about themselves and are a lot less likely to kind of lash out on other people. You know, I think a lot of the kind of grumpiness that we see and unkindness that we see is a lot because people are miserable and feeling badly about themselves and it’s easy to take that out on other people. I think when you’re feeling good about yourself and when you’re in a good spot it’s a lot easier to be helpful and kind to people.

And I think one huge thing we can do to get there is a big part of what we talked about today...is removing stigma and encouraging people to be who they are. The only way to get anywhere is to start where we are and the only way we’ll be comfortable starting where we are is if we know where we are is totally fine!

Tina: Love it! So Laura, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing some of your wisdom. We love the work you’re doing to support all of the diverse learners out there!

Laura: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been a pleasure!

Tina: So podcast friends, we are, as always, grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts, leaving us a review, subscribing and please share with others. You will find more content on our website, NoNeedtoExplainPodcast.com. You will also find an email address. We would love to hear from you by email so send us an email!

Serena: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks again for listening!

Serena: Bye!

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