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November: Learning Differences and Anxiety

A Conversation with Dr. Harris Finkelstein

I think a good place to start is what do I mean by processing differences and what are the most common applications? One difference is what we would typically call processing speed. I think we see this all the time, but we don’t really think about it. One kid can size things up in a split second and then another kid stands there for a long period of time before it dawns on them exactly what’s going on. And so there’s a difference in processing speed and the ability to size something up. When I talk to kids, I say, “If you were a defensive lineman in football, and there was a play that was starting, and you had slower processing speed, the play would be over before you realize what play is being run.” Right?

So I think that that happens to you a lot, every time you walk into a room, it takes you a while to sort out what’s going on. You’re not exactly sure what people are up to, or whether this is a good time for a joke, or if you should just sit and listen. So you’re constantly in this period of fog. You know sometimes people that do retail marketing, they say, “Don’t put anything within five feet of the front door” because people are almost literally blinded when they come in from the outside into your store. They can’t see what’s in those first five feet. Once they get beyond the entrance, then you can put up all your displays. And I think there’s a similar kind of thing that happens for kids as they walk into new situations over and over again. And then they can’t understand what’s going on. They get anxious and they say, “Oh, no. I’m going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing.” And they’re not able to sort it out. 

Let me just give you one other very common manifestation, which is kids that can’t deal with visual complexity. You give them one thing to look at or one very simple pattern and they’re okay. But they can’t take multiple visual cues. And so a lot of times we see these are kids with social issues, like they can’t take that facial expression, and that gesture, and that posture, put it together and say, “Okay, here’s where I stand with them.” And so if you can’t combine visual cues together, then you’re constantly at a loss.

It’s almost like when, if you get airlifted to another country where you don’t know the culture and suddenly you sit down, and you cross your legs, and all of the sudden, everybody wants to leave the room and not talk to you. And you wonder what did you do? So you’re not really picking up on what the standards are there. The same way for these kids, they’re not really sure, “What happened here. Why does everyone else tune in to these messages? I’m not getting them.” And so they constantly feel like they’re a step behind, or they’re an outsider to all of this. So I think those are the kinds of things that come up a lot. And then you see the anxiety either about performance or the anxiety about social success.

I also wonder what your thoughts are about how frustration might play a role in this. I think about kids we see with really high verbal capacity but low processing speed or working memory capacity where they get it, they know the answer, they have something wonderful to contribute, but because of processing struggles, they can’t contribute in the way that they’re intellectually capable and longing for. And so there’s just frustration constantly. And I can’t imagine that a buildup of that kind of frustration day in and day out wouldn’t contribute to something like this.

Absolutely. So part of what I think you’re talking about here is also children that have very different levels of functioning, depending on what the situation is. Right.  And in some situations they feel brilliant and they’re right on top of everything. And other situations, they feel like they just can’t compete. That creates a lot of frustration. I think that’s one big cause of feeling defeated. You have these kids just, there’s no motivation. There’s no effort being put out there. They just feel like they can’t do it. They can’t keep up. And they can’t describe to you why they can’t keep up with, but they just know that it doesn’t feel right. And these are the kids who, when they get a little older, like in high school, I say to them, “You really have not only a great extent of capability in your stronger area, like your verbal area, but you’re also exceedingly quick and you feel that quickness should extend to everything that you do. You’re not able to adjust to be able to go more slowly in certain kinds of things. So I think being able to shift into two different gears is very difficult for most kids. Most kids can’t do it.

So you just mentioned working with high school kids and at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about how wonderful it is to really dig in deeply with adults who can articulate what’s going on. But working with younger guys that have the same profiles to work with is a different story.  They can’t really either articulate to you or themselves what’s going on, can’t really figure out, “Why am I so quick to the answer, quick to success in this realm, and not in another.” And so it must feel like, “When is my genius going to show up? And when am I going to show up as someone who just can’t?”

Yeah, exactly.  I think part of the problem I take responsibility for in a way, because I think part of is iatrogenic, the psychology community has created this beast called positive self-esteem. And we want kids to feel good about themselves all the time. Then we feel like the avenue to get them to feel better is just by patting them on the back more and telling them how great they are. But then they get into the dilemma that you just described, that, “I don’t feel so great when I’m doing certain kinds of tasks. And that must mean that everybody’s been lying to me, or they just feel like they’re obligated to tell me these great things.” And so, I’ve been advocating much more for what I call realistic self-appraisal. And realistic self-appraisal is being able to recognize, “These are the things that I’m really strong at. These are the things that are challenges for me. And it’s not that I can’t do these, but I have to do them differently.”
I was dealing with, with a young man who just about dropped out of college after his freshman year. And we spent an entire summer just repairing his self-esteem. And the repair went all the way back to middle school. I had him do EMDR. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but it’s a technique that’s used with trauma patients. And we basically went over his academic traumas from the very first recognition of his difficulties back in middle school, all the way through high school. And when we were finished, he said to me, “It’s not that I can’t learn. It’s just that I can’t learn it that way.”

Yes. I love this thread of conversation. I often, I think by benefit of who I’ve work with, the students that I’ve worked with, and having now been at it long enough that there’s enough of them that are in the professional world and doing wonderfully that I know with certainty, “You’re going to be okay.”
That I think that I want students as quickly as possible to know their learning profile with the same kind of objective, emotionally neutral way people talk about their personality types. No one is “really bummed” that they’re an extrovert or an introvert.  It just is.  They learn to navigate situations in an emotionally neutral way, but the world has created an environment where the learning profile can’t exist in a similar fashion.

That’s right.  So I realize I still haven’t answered your question yet about what to do. And we’re getting there.  But here’s another really important point, which is when you’re dealing with young children, there’s still this mindset of, “I’m going to be good at everything.” And shifting out of that represents, actually, a loss.  It’s almost like a death. “This is the self-concept that I had, that I was going to be good at everything. And now you’re telling me that I can only be good at some things.” And there’s almost a mourning process that goes on somewhat for the kids. But who it really goes on for, is the parents, right?  It’s the parents, “My beautiful child who was going to be wonderful in every single way now seems to be just another human being that has strengths and challenges.”

And so I think that this is really difficult for parents, but in dealing with children, I think part of it is the kids, particularly the kids that come to you, they need a healing period to get past this experience that they’ve all had of not being successful in many different ways. And so I need to think before that they are confronted with their learning style and whatever objective way we want to present that. I think we have to also give them a lot of mastery experiences and help them to see that all of these strengths that we constantly talk about with them are real, that they actually can do all these things really, really well. And for many of them, they need to be able to really believe that first, before they’re able to hear the other part.

And I think that’s one of the things that Pilot does really well is by making a more normal environment where everybody is like this, you can be yourself and have your strengths, even if you have some things that you’ve been challenged in. So to get into a more direct way of thinking about this, I think one piece of it is certainly helping children either explicitly or more implicitly understand that they don’t work in the same way at all times, that there may be certain kinds of things where they really shine and other kinds of things that they can do, but maybe they can’t do it as fast or as easily. They just have to do it in a different way and helping them to understand what those sorts of things are.

But the real key that I think is missing for a lot is examining the self-talk. And when I’ve articulated this self-talk to middle school, high school, and beyond, it basically goes something like this. “Oh no. I’m not going to be good at this. Maybe I shouldn’t even try, this is going to be a failure. This is not going to work out.” And so on. And I think that if we can build enough self-knowledge to get to a point of saying, “Oh, this is one of those things that I know comes to me a little more slowly, that I don’t really get at first, that I have to use my strategies to get, but I know if I do this in the way that I need to usually I’m okay.”
So, now that shift is really easy to say, it’s not so easy to actually publish, but I think if we work on getting kids from that, “Oh no” to, “Okay, this is one of those things.” And we walk them through and help them with their self-talk. That’s where I think we see the real difference in terms of level of anxiety, level of frustration, and so on.

How do parents or educators even begin that process of recognizing that?  Where do we look for the baseline or know, “What does the self-talk look like right now?”

Here’s the other side of the coin that I wanted to also suggest in terms of parent approach, school approach, and so on, which is I think a lot of the parents that you have, especially of your newer students who were pretty naive to this whole issue, they feel like their child’s learning disability, or even their ADHD is basically just a 9:00 to 3:00 issue. They’re just a regular kid. During their school hours, they need something different, but otherwise they’re a regular kid. And I think that if we can broaden their awareness and help them to understand that the same complexities of processing that their child struggles with in school often happen outside of school.

And so the kid doesn’t do well on the soccer team, because there’s this flurry of activity going on, they can’t make sense of it, or the kid who’s stuck out in the outfield in baseball and then their mind is wandering, or even the kid who’s with these parents who, out of their best intentions, have all these activities planned and all these fun things going on, and everything’s changing from moment to moment, and the kid doesn’t know what’s happening next. All of those things have an impact on how much processing they have to do.

And so I would say to parents think about creating a more simple environment for your child to process with a lot of advanced notice, and schedules, and easier transitions, and less going on, and slower pace, and all the things that you know about. And see if that helps your child to be more calm, more able to process, more able to adjust to different kinds of things. It’s a little boring for the adults, but for the kids, they may start to feel less stressed. So I think you can start to become more aware of those things by shifting around what you’re doing with your child and seeing how your child responds.

So where do we begin?  If we recognize that this is a risk factor for kids who learn differently, every student at Pilot then would fall into a risk category for anxiety.  Certainly trying to create positive and healthy self-talk from a very young age, that’s an action item that we can take on here from the school’s approach. How about for the child who arrives in sixth grade and has already internalized a lot of these things that we’ve been talking about? Aside from sending them to you, saying, “We’re here now, Harris. Help us.”  What can the school do to unpack and reverse that? 

I think that actually, I spoke a little bit derisively before about exposure and desensitization, but I think there is an equivalent to that in the academic sense.  Let’s say your sixth grader is very anxious about writing and has had a lot of negative experiences about writing. If we could just show them one effective strategy that can make one component of writing a little bit easier and more successful, and repeat that over and over again, to show them that this is actually something that makes a difference and they can do it. That’s the first step.
And that is the proof of concept in a sense. “It’s not that you can’t do it. If we do it this way, we get a different outcome.” And then we can start to work on the self-talk and understanding that, “Look, I know that your experience tells you this is the way it’s going to work out, but let’s just break it down, and go step-by-step, and we’ll see that doing it this way may give you a different kind of outcome.”

And I suppose that being really explicit about those functions, of those pieces of the process, is important.  We need to say, “Look at what we’ve done here. You’ve taken one small step toward being an intuitive, automatic writer. Look, we’re on our way.”

You’re highlighting something that’s very different than the traditional approach, which is to help kids along and say, “Oh, you did a great job.” Right?  And you make it painless and not confront the issue. And what I’m suggesting is nobody acknowledges, “This is really hard for you. And you’ve had a lot of trouble with it in the past, and this is the way that you would usually do this, but we’re going to make this very explicit shift. And it’s doing these two things differently that creates a different outcome, here.” So we’re really demonstrating that, “This is not just good luck or because your teacher likes you, they’re giving you a good grade. This is something that you ultimately will be able to do to create a different outcome for yourself.” 

Yes.  And I know that it is true for older teenagers and young adults: that recognition and some clarity around what they’ve been experiencing can be helpful.  We can say, “Writing is an incredibly complex process. If sat down and tried to make a list of everything your mind is doing to write one single paragraph, it would be such an enormous list.”  So uncovering where the breakdown is happening and taking a second to pause and say, “This is a huge endeavor, but we’re doing it,” all of that is helpful to a student who feels like, “I cannot do it. I can’t move forward with writing.”

So I imagine, there’s a version of that that would be equally helpful and affirming to any aged student who just feels undone at the prospect of beginning what they feel is an incredibly complex process, one that feels very simple to a learner who intuitively navigates, say, writing a paragraph about what they did over the summer.

Right. And so I think for the child, that’s, I’ll use this word loosely, but been traumatized by their school experience, I think we have to approach that task very cautiously, and break it down into bite-size steps, and really work on that very first step until they’re able to tolerate that successfully. But I think you’re also raising that there is a developmental progression here, too. That what we’re talking about in terms of breaking the process down, being more aware of it and knowing different strategies, that’s more like a middle school type of thinking. And we’re not going to get that, of course from the very young ones.
But for the very young ones, I think just knowing that, “Teacher, Mom, Dad, that if I follow what they asked me to do in the way they asked to do it, it seems to get me to a better place.” And so I think just, even on that level, if we can just help to guide them to feel like, “Okay, I may not know how to do it, or may not understand it, but I know how to do it differently. And I’m getting a better result.” I think for the first, second, third graders, that could probably be enough.

To learn more…

Read: As Dr. Finkelstein details in our conversation, demystifying learning differences and giving students confidence in their ability to learn differently goes a long way in combating anxiety.  Consider using children’s books as a way to start the conversation with your child. Books like Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and Holy Enchilada by Henry Winkler all feature protagonists who learn differently, and their journey toward discovering pride in their abilities.
Listen: Check out the Neurodiversity Podcast, a podcast that seeks to reframe what once was referred to as disabilities or disorders and celebrate the abilities and powers of neurodivergent thinkers.  Another great podcast worth listening to is’s In It Podcast, a podcast geared toward supporting the parents of children who learn differently.  Both podcasts have several episodes that take on the topic of anxiety and learning differences.
Watch:  Hear Dr. Jerome Shultz explain the experience of processing speed deficits and two very different responses to those experiences.  

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