Published in the Educational Therapist journal, July 2017

Bullies and victims in Educational Therapy

It is important to help the learning disabled, humiliated, or anxious child that bullies as well as the learning disabled child who is bullied.

Dear Readers,

I’m thinking about two cases I had in which one of the aspects of the therapeutic alliance with my students was dealing with bullying.  That issue had profound significance for our work together: without encountering it there would be no progress on the reading and writing issues that each adolescent needed help with because bullying had so damaging an effect on each student’s self esteem.  An approach to this topic was critical to the success of each remediation, even though working through it may have limited the success of those reading and writing goals we had set together.  Remaining in a therapeutic alliance that I would not leave was important, even when I felt unable to help the child make progress toward better academic functioning.  Sometimes, the needs of a student are so great that educational therapy proceeds slowly, as sometimes it must.

The first case was one in which a privileged adolescent boy had ADHD, reading fluency and comprehension issues, with writing organization, spelling, and handwriting difficulty.  Jacob was a handsome boy with long brown hair and big blue eyes who struggled with his weight and with his complexion.  His school failures had led him to switch schools three times in the last five years.  He wasn’t a great candidate for tutoring, as the tutors were used to pulling him through work by taking a strong hand in writing his papers with him—nearly infantilizing him in the process.  

Not that resistance was easy. He had learned to expect tutors to do his work for him, and tutors were easily replaced.  When a school was concerned about his lack of progress, or when the boy complained about the fit with his school, his family would find another helper. The lure of the family’s financial support was irresistible to the schools that had accepted Jacob and had taken on the challenge of teaching him.

Jacob had a home on a wide NYC Avenue, with a bedroom filled with snakes and saltwater tropical fish.  The tank and the fish were exquisite to look at. He enjoyed feeding live food to his pets.  

This was the way of nature, he told me, as I cringed to see a mouse tossed into one of the snake’s cages.  “Good baby,” he’d say as the snake made short work of the mouse.  It wasn’t much different in the tank.  A few bait fish would be thrown into the tank, began to swim crazily to avoid predation, but they’d lose.  I couldn’t help but be upset by the scenes of death played out each time I visited.

“It’s like quail hunting,” Jacob said.  “We breed them to hunt. I release them and shoot them. That what they are for.”  He was referring to a pastime he favored in the country.  In the city, he kept a dart gun with a fairly powerful range.

In his world, he was right.  Little animals were bred to kill.  And that is the way of nature among predators within cages and without.

What cage was Jacob in, I wondered?  What was this competent boy, so shy in public, working through?  His mother made it home for dinner every day that she was in the city.  He ate together with his brothers and sisters daily, and she was at home for long stretches between visits to her philanthropies and friends.  She was a single mom with four children and kept a beautiful home that she shared lavishly with family and friends in NY.   Her home was filled with art, and a single low silver bowl of roses graced her dining table at all times.

Jacob was alone a good deal though he had one special lifelong friend who lived downstairs, a boy who had ADHD and Tourette syndrome, and whose family were in the movie business.  While his friend had a driver to take him to school, Jacob refused the ride, and instead enjoyed walking through the city to school.

When I met Jacob, I organized a math tutor for him and decided that I would work on the language skills in reading and writing that would be critical to his ability to write successful papers on his own.

The first day Jacob met the science tutor, he shot him in the bicep with his dart gun.  The tutor, a tall and strong young man, had the presence of mind to pull the dart from his arm and say, “What now?”  Jacob backed down immediately and decided he loved that tutor.  He did his work from then on and didn’t trouble anyone with a display of any kind.

Jacob tried to intimidate the math tutor, the first day she arrived to see him.  He told her he’d like to shoot her with his rifle.  She was a stout woman who had lived in NY a long time.  She said, “Jacob, you had better kill me with the first shot.  Because I will come up here to f**kyou up if you don’t.”  She quit, and Jacob was sorry to see her go. He told me he really liked her.

“Jacob, if you offer to shoot a woman, why wouldn’t she take you seriously? Don’t you get how strange a way that is to say you like someone?” I told him.  “Understand me right now.  Talk that trash again, take out the dart gun again, and I shut it all down.  Hurt anyone and we all go.  I go, the science tutor goes, and you can figure it all out alone.”   

So Jacob, who couldn’t leave off testing me yet, tried something new.  He told his teacher that he couldn’t hand in his paper on “Ode to a Grecian Urn” because he hadn’t seem me yet to write it.  His English teacher blew up at me: “Enabler!” she screamed into the telephone.  “Look what you’ve done to this boy!”  Now I had plenty to say to the teacher who shouted at me, but I also saw Jacob later that day.  

            “Jacob, I don’t write your papers, and you don’t get to delay turning one in because you haven’t shown your work to me. You’ve lost her good will, understand?  She thinks you’re a wus.  Is there any work done on the paper?”  No there wasn’t; he hadn’t started it.  It was late and he hadn’t told me about the paper.  He wasn’t sure what the poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” was supposed to mean.

“OK, so you don’t get the poem.  We can figure that out, but you have a new assignment.  You are going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to find and draw a Grecian Urn, and you are including that with you paper.  And you are going to tell the teacher that you were inspired to go look at this urn by her assignment.”  I knew this teacher and what how vain she could be, how frivolously she could make favorites of kids and denigrate others she couldn’t reach.  So Jacob went off to the Met with a sketch pad, and came back with a pretty fine drawing.

“I didn’t know you could draw!” I said. “What did you find out about beautiful people by looking at the urn?”

“I don’t know.  It’s pretty.  The poem says beauty is all that matters.”

“Is it?:

              Cold Pastoral!

              When old age shall this generation waste,

              Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

              Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, 

                          "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                          Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

              “What do you make of the figures forever frozen on the vase, never changing, never to hold their lovers in their arms, never to grow old or die?” I asked.

              “Frozen, are they? Looks good but it isn’t so good.  That’s the point, isn’t it?” Jacob said.

Jacob got a good grade on his paper.  Something about really looking at the urn long enough to draw the lithe figures on it helped him see the trap that the poet set in the poem’s line about beauty. 

Jacob lived in a world of high fashion with a dressing room full of clothing, and a guest list of movie stars and beautiful fashion icons whenever his mother was home for dinner.  He understood the poem.

His teacher was very happy with his paper.  She felt he had turned a corner, and Jacob neither gave her nor received from her any further trouble.  His grades improved.  

When he graduated high school, he wore a ring his mother had given him, inscribed with a line from Invictus, “I am the captain of my soul.”  College wasn’t for him, but Jacob seemed to grow into his role as a member of a powerful family, and got a job he liked in the music business. 


Mindfulness in Education

I've just completed twelve weeks of training in mindfulness for children from Mindful Schools, and have studied the science, techniques and benefits of including mindfulness in a practice that treats people with learning disabilities, trauma, or anxiety.  In fact it can benefit any one, and the research supporting its benefits is becoming more plentiful and compelling.

Mindfulness is a state of awareness of the present moment, an non-judgmental presence with your own thoughts, feelings, and physical being.  The techniques are simple: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the breath, mindfulness of sensation, feeling, and thoughts without getting caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about them.  It is a way of letting go of the tendency to get caught in the past or the future, and to simply be with oneself without judgment in the present.

A wonderful byproduct of mindfulness is changes in the regulation of the nervous system, and sometimes that translates into greater calm. The goal is not to be calm, per se, but to be able to respond rather than react to stimuli.

I find this invaluable as I treat my clients, for whom I have high hopes at times, certain goals at all times, and worries for at times, too.  As I can be more present with my clients, so they, too, can be more present with themselves.  They can become less reactive to the shame or anxiety that being misunderstood has caused them, they can become more able to embrace changes in their habits of mind and their study skills, and more able to embrace a self-concept that helps them learn rather than hinders them.

The New York Times has covered the subject of mindfulness recently, and I have joined the group Mindful Harlem to further my own practice.  I hope you will look into this powerful meditation practice, too.

Case Study: Veata, a child with separation anxiety and NVLD

  “I would like to stop spitting.”



Veata was adopted from an orphanage in Cambodia at the age of nine months by a white couple that lived in the West Village.  Her parents sought educational therapy because Veata had so much trouble writing, doing math, and behaving in school.  Writing frustrated her; sometimes she’d refuse to do it.   She was evaluated in second grade, but the evaluator wrote that she might outgrow the symptoms though he suspected NVLD.   Therefore, the parents did not share the evaluation with the school.  Her testing showed high abstract verbal reasoning, but her visual spatial scores were below average. 

 Veata’s behavior in school was the presenting issue.  She seemed to look right at her teachers when they told her not to do something, and do it anyway.  She spit on her classmates; she got into tussles at recess.  Transitions were very difficult for her.  Her classmates shunned her and her parents were exhausted.  They had leave work from time to time and bring Veata home if she disrupted class too persistently.  Veata’s school was a local regular education public school and her teachers were at a loss.  Sometimes Veata could behave and attend to her work in class, especially in music class.  She could be extremely dependent on her teachers, but often incited mischief among the more distractible children.  

During our first interview I asked Veata what she would like to have happen if we decided to get together.  “I want to stop spitting,” she told me.  She did some writing for me and her handwriting was extremely neat, but the production of it was very slow.  She meant this story to be special, and when she gave it to me, she also gave me a little envelope with a quarter in it, as a gift.  During the intake interview she alternately clung to her mother, or ran about the room.

 Veata’s parents were in crisis.  The father had lost his job, and the mother had to travel frequently. Money was an issue.  Their friends had advised them that Veata was just bored by her class because she was so bright, and that she’d grow out of it.  This advice had created a false hope in her parents and they delayed getting help for Veata by two years.  Yet they were kind and gentle with their daughter, and in their presence, Veata could calm down and control herself.  Her behavior at home was variable, so the demand that she write or do math were taken up with minimal pressure to finish. 

Her teachers wanted management strategies for Veata’s behavior in the classroom.  Recognizing that she was bright, they tried to engage her in class work. Nothing worked for long.  She could become bored, anxious or defiant, especially during math and writing.  Putting Veata in a time out for negative behavior she exhibited on the playground or during class transitions was difficult to accomplish because the consequence could not follow poor behavior immediately. In fact, time out, when offered to Veata as a choice, was something she used to soothe herself, and was a great clue to cognitive and emotional underpinnings of her behavior. Using a token system for rewarding target behavior didn’t help for long, as she couldn’t adhere to a reward program that took all day to fulfill.  The principal resorted to calling the parents in to take Veata home at least once a week.   She told me privately that she wished Veata’s parents would move her to another school, but as this was a public school, there was no way she could counsel the family to more suitable placement.  Her wish was that I provide classroom management strategies, and help to counsel the family to a new school placement for Veata.

 Though it took another year, Veata’s parents applied to a special education private school in NYC that was suitable for her needs.  She was accepted and is now doing better behaviorally and academically.


Non-academic interventions:

·       Steer Veata to occupational therapy to relieve some of the stress that handwriting was causing her.  Veata liked this; she wanted to be able to do all her homework.

·       Create a safe zone at school where Veata could go when she felt overwhelmed by transitions, noises, or the physical pell-mell of her classmate’s bodies near hers. This was done. 

·       Request a Functional Behavior Analysis from all teachers and from Veata’s parents through the Department of Education with a trained behavior specialist.  Meanwhile: Do the ABC’s of behavior modification.  Observe the antecedent; note the behavior; create a consequence.  Rework the token system so that Veata had tokens she could earn a reward each hour rather than at the end of the day. The behavior target had to be expressed as a limited positive behavior, had to be taught, had to be simple, and had to be consistently applied.  Veata’s use of negative behavior to get attention or to avoid stressful transitions had to be reduced by lowering the teachers’ reactions to disruptive behavior and building relationships through positive behavior.  The target behaviors had to be limited to one or two to be realistic.   Veata’s teaches would be overwhelmed otherwise. Recommended teacher training from a school behavior specialist, who could also do a functional behavior analysis, and help with school placement.  Giving teachers positive actions to focus on helped relieve their stress, and helped them reduce the number of times their buttons were pushed.  Teachers needed steady praise and strategies.

 ·       Explain Veata’s perceptual, social, math and writing issues to the teachers, and help them communicate their needs to her parents.  The teachers needed help to see past Veata’s defiant behavior to the non-verbal learning difficulties and the emotional factors that lead to it.  For example, separation anxiety in adopted children combined with inconsistent rules at home or at school can lead to manipulation and oppositional behavior.

·       Invite Veata’s father to spend a day observing her in class.  He saw and understood the extent of Veata’s disorganization and oppositional behavior. 

 ·       Begin to convince the parents that Veata needed a different kind of school so that her behavior issues would not subsume her academic life.  We attended a lecture together on special schools.

 ·       Meet at the school to help the teachers and parents communicate and begin to plan together for Veata’s well being.  Over time, when the school and Veata’s parents agreed that a new placement was important for her well being, everyone could relax a little more.

·       Invite Veata’s parents to visit schools with me.  Veata got into a school for children with learning disabilities that had an excellent record with emotionally fragile children.

·       Urge the Department of Education to apply Carter funding to this case.  They got funding, but have to reapply every year.

Some academic interventions:

 ·       Record Veata’s dictation of stories and homework assignments.  Bypass handwriting except in small doses. 

 ·       Read along with Veata so that she had multimodal feedback to help her attend for longer periods of time.  This was comforting and is always a great way to engage a child in good reading strategies. 

 ·       Practice math facts using computer games, manipulatives, songs, rhymes, and flash fact quizzes in which she could point to the answer from among several choices.

 ·       Take Veata outside during planned breaks so that she could get used to routine transitions when she was tired.  This worked when her father took her out.

 ·       Allow her to stop a task when her attention flagged, and switch to another, but to keep working for a full hour, with a large red timer on the table.  Didn’t always work. Some days were challenging.

Some resources for behavior management of special needs children:        

 Center for Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning

Challenging Kids, Challenged Teachers, by Leslie E. Packer, Ph.D., and Sheryl Pruitt, M.Ed., ET/P, from Woodbine House

 The Technical Assistance Center for Social and Emotional Intervention Provide recommendations of behavior consultants for teacher/parent/child.

Case Study: The Today Show Segment, March 11, 2016, 8 AM on NBC

The Case and its Origin

On February 15, 2016, I made a house call on a family whom the Today Show had chosen for me to work with as a children’s productivity expert.  Robert Powell, the producer, chose Aries, a third grade girl who had a great deal of trouble completing homework. The child was taking up gymnastics, and with the extra commitment of practice and competition, she would need better efficiency in order to be able to maintain her grades and be part of a team.

The Educational Therapy Design

Robert Powell and I designed a day in five parts. First, came an interview about the science of working with children with ADHD or executive function challenges.

We chose a backpack organization, a desk organization, a time management piece with planner, calendar and timer, a homework segment with the timer, a mindfulness meditation section for focus and concentration, and lastly, a recreational game segment.

The rational for these exercises was to organize materials, time, space, and thinking in order to become more efficient at homework time and throughout the school day.

The Day and How It Went:

I had research prepared for Robert about each part of the day, with the why of what I was doing supported that way.  In my experience, the thing most difficult for children with attention or executive function difficulties is the concept of  time itself. I typically give the student a shoebox and ask them how much can fit inside before the box is full and spilling all over the place.  That, I explain, is a good metaphor for time itself.  It’s finite, it occupies space in that we do physical and mental things that fill it, and it’s limited. 

The backpack investigation yielded a mix of hats (3), a water bottle that had spilled onto a binder, four reading books for class and for pleasure, and a number of loose papers.  We made headway in organizing the backpack by using a file folder with 7 pockets, some files, all beautifully labeled by Aries, and a system for filing them. Then we put the backpack together again, but found an exterior pocket for the water bottle. 

When Do I Get Up?

Next we worked with some worksheets I prepared for her with questions about time.  I asked Aries to read and answer a few questions about her day: What time did she get up?  She wasn’t sure, but she guessed about 6:45.  What time did she eat breakfast?  6:30. 

So Aries sense of time was challenged, and without an analog clock she had little opportunity to study one with a sweeping second hand or minute hand. When we estimated how long her reading assignments usually took, she said, “20 minutes.” We timed a reading homework assignment that Aries needed to do.   This she did, often supplying very short answers to a number of reading questions in 4 minutes.  She was amazed that a task that usually seems so long was accomplished so fast.  Aries’ sense of time is so mutable, it seems, that a short task can seem long (if it’s boring), and a long one can feel infinite if she doesn’t know how to get it done in sections.

Discovery: Decoding Issues and Answers

I noticed some spelling confusion, and did a quick fix on the sound that “oo” makes in words like “book.”  Aries needed to touch her mouth to feel how open her lips and jaw were when she said “oo.”  She is a kinetic child, and she seemed to be able to learn through her body very well.  Aries and her mother proudly announced that her school has just assigned a reading specialist to see Aries twice a week to help with her phonics and decoding skills.  When a young person is challenged by attention or executive function issues, spelling skills can develop slowly.  Aries had some difficulty with her handwriting and let me know that writing was a least favorite thing to do, organizationally and physically.  Her mother and I spoke about teaching Aries to type, which is being done and offering Aries some relief from handwriting. 

Complexity: Teaching Mindfulness Meditation

Aries and I did the most difficult part of the afternoon for her, a three minute version of a body scan meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work in mindfulness-based stress reduction.  Aries found this exercise tiring, and got in touch with some unpleasant feelings of hunger.  Mindfulness is not a relaxation meditation, but a meditation to put us in touch with our internal experience.  Aries did well to articulate what she found.  Using this to turn one’s focus to mindful work takes practice.

The Irrepressible Need for Fun

Finally, Aries and I played a game of pick-up sticks.  Not the most educational game, but such fun, and Aries was excellent at it, as I thought she might be.  Let’s all remember that children need to have areas of life where they blow the experts away.  It’s exhausting to work hard and feel frequent doubt or confusion.  Play is a vital area to restore the balance of the day.  After all, these skills aren’t the goal of life, but just an assortment of tools to make life richer, easier and better!

Final Thoughts:

Had my job been to continue educational therapy with her, the discovery that Aries has an under-developed sense of time, some decoding and spelling confusion, and organizational challenges would keep me busy for a while.  However, these organizational strategies are something that parents can help their children learn with a little instruction and practice.  I often coach parents on how to be a good helper to young children, and it is very rewarding work.  Aries is an active, excellent learner, and I believe that she will grow in organizational skills over time.  She really wants to do well, which is a great beginning.

The Annals of Teaching Reading

S, a 6th grade adopted boy attending an excellent public school, began to work with me last spring the issue that presented itself was decoding uncertainty and poor fluency.  S was adopted as an infant from a Central American country, is an extremely bright and energetic brown skinned boy, loves soccer and loves to learn.  He makes connections to reading, and has a warm and loving relationship to his mother, whom he admires greatly.   My task in this case is to improve his decoding and reading speed and accuracy (fluency), to help him learn his math facts and develop better procedural memory for multistep math functions like long division (working memory), and to regulate his attention (ADHD) by learning to think about his own thinking (meta-cognition).

S and I work on reading the Scott O'Dell novel, The Black Pearl.  We look at an atlas of Baja CA, and then since it was nearby, a map of Guatemala and Panama.  I was in Panama this summer and S made an important trip back to Guatemala and tells me about the great temple he saw there.  In this way, we enable ourselves to move ourselves closer to the story and visualize the setting, perhaps more accurately than we could have done from the text alone, and to understand the diction and language of the text in which O'Dell tries to approximate the formality of Spanish.

S spend some time drawing his version of the Manta Diablo, a terrifying figure in the story, and we discuss how he envisions it like Godzilla, and how Ramon, the protagonist, envisions it as his mother has told him about it: a monster larger than a ship, once a land creature but now sent to the bottom of the sea by the priest, Linares.

Why spend time on this?  Visualizing the unfamiliar leads to good discussion about the meaning of a monster in our lives, and the uses of this monster so far in the story as a legend to frighten children into good behavior.  We also think that the main character may have to fight this creature, and we get goose bumps about it.

All this helps us to connect deeply to the text, to begin to care about Ramon, and to understand his courage as a character. In dealing with a pearl diver who is a bully, Ramon is silent but watchful.  S would have a different solution and tells me about it, his dark eyes narrowing. He might toss the bully over the side of the pearl divers’ ship and let him swim home!   This bully is scary!  All this enables us to use stories as they are meant to be used, even when decoding is slow, which is to learn about ourselves through learning about others.

Finally, we work on fluency and I gave S my analysis of the kinds of errors he makes.  Most of them are due to several factors:

  1. S tenses up, leans forward, and doesn't have all the breath he might need to stay relaxed.  So I remind him to lean back and breath, not to work too hard, and to scoop at least five words with the back of a pencil before he speaks.  He is so used to decoding being difficult that he reads word by word, and needs the practice of reading ahead before he reads aloud.
  2. S can miss words due to variable attention.  When he does, he is so smart that he tries to fix the sentence to match what he has said, and it slows him down greatly.  When I ask him to breathe and take the line again, he forgets to go back to reread from the beginning of the sentence. So I encourage him to go back farther and start at the beginning of a sentence to stay mindful of the meaning.  Reading is thinking, making meaning is key, and S is a natural at this.
  3. S is a hard worker, and I need him to relax and trust that he is a very good reader, using his brain power inefficiently to make up and change syntax of a sentence he has just misread to match the errors he has just made!  Better to relax, stop, and fix them.  So we need him to work less hard and to believe in his powers as a reader.  He doesn't notice when his reading gets choppy and stop to correct.  He plows ahead.
  4. S has some decoding issues when he encounters unfamiliar words.  Again, he is so smart that he memorizes words quickly, and so relies on word attack, syllabication and phonetic clues less than he should.

Finally we review our spelling and syllabication rules, and are creating a book of rules that S knows and is learning.  These principles of how our language works phonetically are a great relief to him, as he sees why words are spelled as they are, and learns how to break up unfamiliar words to sound them out correctly.

Our work is leisurely, our goal important and potentially life changing.  This is why I love teaching people to read.  It changes lives, changes self-perception, and unlocks the door to self expression.

The Skeleton Girl

“Where are my own fictions and fantasies? In what form can I bring them out and best employ them as another voice in the classroom? Can my role as observer, listener, recorder, interpreter, discourser, and connector be expanded to include mythmaker?”

– Vivian Gussin Paley

Vivian Gussin Paley helped establish the link between storytelling, language development, and literacy in young children and documented it through 12 groundbreaking books during her long career. Patricia M. Cooper of the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU writes of Paley’s curriculum, “It has long been recognized for its impact on young children’s psycho- social, language, and narrative development” (Cooper, 2005, p. 229). Nancy King showed how creative storytelling and writing development were linked for older children: “Teaching literacy through image-making and story-making in a collaborative learning environment makes it possible for children with varying abilities to learn from one another ... where they can risk asking for help, knowing that no one will be judged or ridiculed” (King, 2007, p. 214). Both Paley and King listened to children with curiosity and compassion, and by recording their stories and imaginings, they told children that their thoughts were worth recording, and that they, too, could find themselves in a story. The nature of story collaboration between storyteller and children enables the scaffolding of language development in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, where Vygotsky “believed, and found evidence to demonstrate, that what a learner could do with assistance at one point in time she would eventually be able to do on her own” (Beck, 2001, p. 297).

In New York City, Dr. Stephen Rudin has used Vygotsky’s principle, and the rich artistic resources of the city, to pair autistic children with artists, poets, physicists, and even a tango champion to coax language development and social relatedness from them. By enriching their experience and deepening their social connections, he helps them navigate an otherwise bewildering sea of language and learning.

In the story below I have used a traditional Inuit myth, “The Magic Drum,” to help a traumatized homeless immigrant child develop language skills. Trying to relate to my student’s hunger for connection and love, I named my version of the story “The Skeleton Girl” and framed the story to help my student, Moon Orchid, find the words to express the wish to be nourished and loved. I used my skill as a storyteller to mine my personal associations with hunger to build a bridge of metaphor to my student’s associations with starvation. Paley said that as teachers we are all “anecdotalists” and that we learn our craft best through stories and our places within them (Paley, 1991). Here, then, is the story of “The Skeleton Girl.”

“OWWW! I’m hungry!” the little girl howled as she raced through my living room to my tiny apartment kitchen. She flung open the refrigerator and helped herself to some roast chicken.

She gnawed at it, down to the bone. Nine years old, this tiny Chinese American child was living in a shelter five blocks from where I live in Hell’s Kitchen, in New York City. It was early fall, and the girl was in the third grade. She had repeated second grade, retained because she had made no progress in school the year she had become homeless.

I had begun teaching her to read at the shelter, but the noise and chaos in the one common area made it very hard to work. Her mother would interfere with the lesson, scold her child, and bring her other two toddlers into the common room, making it impossible for the little girl to relax. The girl’s reading was not progressing.

When I observed her at the shelter, at her school, and in her after- school program, I saw a thin, withdrawn girl, who wouldn’t eat any more than a bit of rice, and perhaps some soup, no matter what nutritious meal or snack was being served. Moon Orchid was never hungry, she told me. Her schoolmates ignored her, though once I asked two of her classmates in the after-school program why few children chose to play with Moon. “She’s homeless, that’s why. She smells.” Well, Moon Orchid didn’t smell; what she did was keep her head down and her lank hair over her eyes, never acknowledging her classmates’ tentative greetings. The other girls shrugged and walked on. My client remained alone.

So I began to teach her at my home, though I was unsure that I should do so. Would it hurt Moon Orchid to be in my home when she had none? Would I identify with her too strongly, and become too angry at the world to take up my role as her reading diagnostician and teacher? Once she was in my home, would the phenomenon of transference, especially if it led me to act as a rescuer, cause me to cross the boundary of my limited role as her educational therapist? Would I be able to remain her “true friend and good writer,” as Ann Kaganoff, PhD, describes the process of being a good educational therapist? There didn’t seem another choice. The local library was closed for renovation, and the shelter’s offices were off limits. So to my home she came.

The materials I chose for Moon Orchid were books that I was hopeful would be easy reading for her: Corduroy, by Don Freeman, and The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. I wanted to use stories with predictable patterns, and I wanted her first experience with me to be one in which she was completely successful in her decoding, so I could gauge whether Moon Orchid had had enough reading experiences to internalize common narrative structures. I wanted to know whether she could make good predictions about stories, and to observe her decoding and comprehension skills with material that offered little challenge to her. What decoding strategies did she know and use? Mostly, I wanted her to have fun reading with me.

But reading proved very difficult for Moon Orchid. I read her The Carrot Seed, a little allegory of faith in which a little boy plants a carrot seed that nobody thinks will grow, but to everyone’s surprise, the seed becomes a giant carrot. She liked the story and could decode it, although her reading was dysfluent. When

I asked her if she’d like to make a drawing about the story, she seemed unable to understand my desire to see her interpret the story in her own way. Instead she carefully traced a drawing from one of the pages of the book. When I asked Moon Orchid to retell the story to me, she grew frustrated because she couldn’t remember the story “exactly.” The child appeared too frozen to make any mistakes that might allow her to learn.

In late October of that first year, I picked her up at the shelter, as I always did, to walk her to my apartment. She flung herself down at the table, and after she had downed the milk and chicken she had come to expect and relish, she was agitated. I brought out my copy of Corduroy, a sweet story about a teddy bear who is passed over by customers in a toy shop because of a lost button on his overalls. Happily, a lonely little girl takes him home, sews a button onto his overalls, and he is as good as new.

However, it was exactly the wrong story to read with Moon Orchid that night—or was it? She hated it. “Look at that stupid bear! He must be Chinese!” she cried. I was dismayed. With the crayons and drawing tablet that I kept nearby, I asked her to draw me a picture of what was going on. She drew an enormous black spiderweb with a bloated spider in the center. The spider had a human face, and the face was Chinese. Scolding words poured from Moon Orchid’s mouth, and I felt grief and anger as the voice she channeled sounded so much like her mother’s voice. So the little bear with the unlovable defect was this poor child.

I pleaded, “All right, Moon, all right. Let’s make another drawing together while I tell you a good story.” Since I told stories on radio and at a few venues in New York, I had a good stock of them. Images of ice and snow kept coming up for me, even though Moon’s temper that night was white hot. So I started a drawing of a snowscape, with a beautiful woman’s face in the snow smiling up at us, while Moon gave her a white dress. I told her a version of Cinderella in which the fairy godmother is a spirit in a tree, and when Cinderella shakes the tree, the things she needs fall down out of it. I drew a tree into the snowscape. “Now, who is this lady we made?” I asked. “I wonder who she is?” Moon Orchid wrote under the picture, “The Woman in Charge.” I was deeply moved. This was the first original writing that Moon risked during our sessions. It would make a good title for a fairy tale.

Later that session, Moon Orchid took another risk; she dictated a poem called “The Flower,” modeled on the language of The Carrot Seed. It went: “We could look at it and love it/ We could wait for it and watch it/ Then it grew. It was beautiful.” She had absorbed the narrative of that story!

The memory of her gnawing a chicken bone and now the loveliness of our snowscape drawing gave me the idea of telling her a story based on the Inuit legend mentioned earlier, “The Magic Drum.” My adaptation of this tale turned out to be what broke the ice in Moon’s reading development and helped in the important work of freeing her imagination from her starved reality. Moon asked me to tell it over and over, and to write it down so she could read it.

These are the bones of the story:

Once upon a time an old married couple had a daughter who would not marry. Many hunters came from far distances to win her hand, but she turned them all away until one day two brothers, alike and tall of stature, strong as bears, came to see her. They did nothing out of the ordinary, so her parents were amazed when she became attracted to them. She invited them inside her parents’ igloo and fed them. As they stood up to leave, she even followed them outside of the igloo to see them off. Once at the door, however, these two men put on the form of white bears, for they were really bear spirits. They seized the girl and dragged her away from home until they came to a hole in the ice, and down they dove with her. Finally, at the bottom of the sea, they left her alone.

Now all alone, this girl looked around her. “Hmmm!” she said to herself. One part of the ocean behind her was black and dark, but the way before her was lighter. So she reasoned, “I’ll go walking toward the light, and then I’ll find my way up somehow.” And that is what she did. But as she was walking under the sea, the animals that lived there nibbled on her until she had nothing left to her but bones. It was as a skeleton that she found her way to the surface again and came out through a hole in the ice to the world above.

The Inuit girl sat down and wept. “Who can ever love me now that I’m a skeleton,” she wailed. Finally, to comfort herself, she took some snow and made a toy igloo that fit in her hand, and lay down with it. “If only I had what my parents have,” she thought, and fell asleep. When she awoke, what did she see but a full-sized igloo standing next to her! Every day she made a model of something else she needed, and the next day it would appear. In this way she got clothes to hide herself in, because she reasoned, “If anyone comes along who wants to be friends, I don’t want to scare them.”

One day some hunters came by, and when they saw the igloo, they approached. The girl was very lonely so she ran out to meet them, but they were frightened and ran away. That night they told their father about the strange girl, and he decided to go see her for himself. “I’m not afraid of anything, because I am old and have lived a long time already.” So he went to see the skeleton girl. While he approached, she sat quietly, so as not to scare him, and invited him inside to eat. They talked a long time and had such a good time that she decided to dance.

“Take this drum and make music, old man. I will blow out the lamp and dance to it.” And that is what they did. The beat he called up was like the heartbeat of the whole world. When she lit the lamp again, she found that she had become a beautiful maiden. The girl was overjoyed to see her flesh restored, but the old man was even happier.

“You play for me now,” he said, and she blew out the lamp and played the drum for him. When they had finished, she eagerly relit the lamp and sure enough, a gorgeous young warrior stood before her. The man took her back to his village and everyone was amazed.

“You see,” he explained, “I was an old, old man, and this girl was forsaken; a living death was her lot. But we found the rhythm of the magic drum and here we are, man and wife.”

Moon Orchid asked to hear the story many times: it spoke to Moon and to me. Hardship is real for many children, and disasters happen. Traditional oral literature includes many stories of hard realities that children face. Fairy tales begin with premises that reflect what poor children understand: “They were hungry ... their parents were not their true parents ... they were lost in the woods.” So I would argue for starting reading programs with material that reflects the child’s world in some removed but palpable way.

I cannot say that my teaching was the only literacy breakthrough for Moon Orchid, but it was an important one in which a caring educational therapist could unlock some of literature’s delights for her and set her back on the path to learning. Moon Orchid escaped her abusive mother, who threw her out onto the street one rainy night when the girl was sixteen, and rang my doorbell, asking for help. I dried her off, and fed her. At my kitchen table once again, she made plans for her future. Eventually, Moon Orchid found a true home with her aunt, a restaurant worker, and, later, Moon Orchid went to college.


Cooper, P. (2005). Literacy learning and pedagogical purpose in Vivian Paley’s storytelling curriculum. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 5(3), 229–251

Freedman, D. (1968). Corduroy. New York: Viking Press.

Beck, S. (2001). Editor’s review of Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry. Harvard Educational Review, 71(2) 296-309. Retrieved January 7, 2010, from ISSN 1943-5045.

King, N. (2007). Developing imagination, creativity and literacy through collaborative storymaking: A way of knowing. The Harvard Educational Review, 77(2). Retrieved January 7, 2010, from ISSN 1943-5045.

Krauss, R. (1945). The Carrot Seed. New York: Harper & Row. Paley, V. (1991). Storytelling as teacher research. The Quarterly, 13(4), 18.

Boston and New York AET Study Groups: Collaboration on NLD Clients

On April 26, 2009, Laurie Fox, Joan Manchester, and Deb Fencer traveled from Boston to NYC to meet and work with the NYC study group of AET. The subject of the day was “getting to know you,” and we relished the chance to put our heads together to discuss nonverbal learning disabilities (NLD) and how to treat our clients who have one of the many variations of this disorder. Curiosity ran high among the NYC group as the day approached. The meeting was well attended enough to have to borrow chairs from the waiting room of Susan Micari’s office suite so that there would be seating for all.

Susan Micari, Pamela Feiring, Evan Flamenbaum, Laura Doto, Susan Stein, and our guest Diana Abramo welcomed our Boston friends around 1 PM, and at 3, our usual end time, the hallways and lobby were still lively with discussion on the issue of the day, nonverbal learning disabilities. Our colleague and friend from Long Island, Jackie Levine, was unable to attend and was sorely missed. Laurie Fox brought a favorite volume with her, The Source for Non-verbal Learning Disabilities, published by LinguiSystems in 1997, while Deb Fencer and Susan Micari each brought a copy of Joseph Palumbo’s Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (Norton, 2006), a great resource for the diagnostic variations of this disorder. High on our list of thoughts to share were the patterns and variations of cognitive differences our NLD students have, and how they differ from the typical Asperger’s diagnosis.

Evan Flamenbaum, an educational therapist and clinical social worker from New York, spoke eloquently of the need to diagnose not from a checklist of behaviors, but from an in-depth examination of family dynamics. He noted that several children he has worked with may have developed symptoms that look like NLD from having parents who had personality disorders, and he commented that we should always look at the totality of the family to see whether some of our students’ issues might be reactive in nature. We are all mindful that treatment of the client includes education and advocacy of and for the families of our students. I recalled the father of one of my NLD students, who wanted me to “fix” his son, warning me, “It’s A’s and B’s or nothing! It’s Harvard or nothing!” Interestingly, the display case in the family dining room was filled with toy Greek, Roman, and Civil War soldiers, and though my student was an aficionado of war and its tactics, the display case belonged to Dad!

In the field, we have all observed that NLD students want desperately to connect socially, but that their visual-spatial processing difficulties make that connection difficult with peers in the bustling confines of the classroom and playground. Though some of our NLD students connect well with adults, and especially in middle school they are capable of succeeding very well academically, we all noted that when the demand for more analytic thinking and novel problem-solving tasks increases in upper middle school, our students may become overwhelmed, and anxious, and a smaller subgroup can react to these challenges with a flight/fight response that increases their isolation. I recounted a typical complaint from my NLD high school student: “Why do I have to read Streetcar? If they want me to understand Stanley, why can’t I just read a psychological abstract?”

Deb Fencer noted that Asperger’s syndrome students seem to have less anguish over not connecting with peers, and she thinks it is because they can have stronger cognitive strengths in the non-verbal domain, though they may have the same difficulties with critical thinking about literature. The rote memory strengths of NLD children can be a boon to them, but can disguise their deficits in novel problem solving until these children become overwhelmed. Verbal mediation of all sequential and problem-solving tasks is one way to begin to train NLD children in pattern recognition and to begin to help them develop better coping mechanisms to deal with frustration as they tackle the kind of analytic tasks in writing that baffle them.

Thinking of assistive technology for our NLD kids, whose handwriting and fine-motor issues are extreme, Susan Stein brought up the Smart-Pen, a recording device that works with a special pad and a pen that records data as you write down key words from a teacher’s oral presentation. Diana Abramo brought several websites and articles to our attention. During her time at Harvard University in 2009, Diane’s research skills will make a great contribution to our work as ETs. offers a chart that illustrates good distinctions between NLD and Asperger’s syndrome, as did Laurie Fox’s source from LinguiSystems. also has a wonderful article that Diana showed us, entitled, “When Asperger’s and NLD Look Alike” which further teases out the differences between Asperger’s.

Our last meeting in early June will focus on the NYC area that have strengths (hidden or acknowledged in the mission statement) in working with children with learning disabilities. Our guest will be placement expert, Dr. Davida Sherwood, former head of the Gateway School. In June we’ll set the agenda for 2009–2010, which will include hot topics like current research in the treatment of dyslexia and ADHD, as well as further collaboration in pursuing publication of our work with children in educational therapy in New York.

All in all, the meeting was a wonderful chance for practitioners from Boston and New York to discuss cases, issues, and tips to improve our work and to keep us connected to one another. We look forward to visiting Boston next year to reciprocate and extend our working relationship into the future. Thanks to everyone who attended.

Susan Micari is a member of the AET Board of Directors and is a study group leader in New York City, where she also maintains a private practice. She has worked as a learning specialist in indepen- dent schools, and home schooled students with learning disabilities in humanities, comparative religion, art history, and writing. Susan assistant-taught a course in language development at Bank Street College of Education and has authored various articles on teaching family literacy. Her work includes the development of a family literacy program for Women in Need, Inc., a project where she went on to teach at two shelters in NYC and the Bronx.


Bang, M. (2002). Dawn (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

High School Students with NLD: Case Study Analyses

When we work with students with nonverbal learning disabilities, we often face a daunting combination of anxiety and tendency to become overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of work as they enter upper grade levels. Students can become cognitively and emotionally overwhelmed, they may avoid work, and because they are so verbally adept (“obviously smart,” in the words of one school administrator I worked with), they are often accused by teachers of having a defective character instead of being recognized as having cognitive difficulties. Their parents can become baffled and overwhelmed by their loss of self- esteem, a decline in grades, or the appearance of social difficulties related to teachers who don’t understand them. Here are a couple of stories about NLD children, showing the way that verbal mediation in the areas of critical thinking, executive function, and writing tasks can help them navigate the demands of school.

The Case of M: A Fifth Grade Boy Diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities

M, an anxious, round-faced, soft-spoken boy with a Beatles haircut and black-rimmed glasses, writes furiously in his journal. He is in public school on the upper west side of Manhattan, and he starts his session with worries about a bully in his class who is calling him names and has instigated a water balloon incident on the playground in which he is the victim. He wants to brainstorm ways of handling the problem without involving his parents. When he tells the teacher about the bullying, he feels it incites more teasing about his slower- moving and rounder body and about his wanting to do the right thing. “I hold the door for everyone going into recess. Why don’t they like me?”

M is an expert on the life of John Lennon and the Beatles; he dreams of visiting Liverpool, England, to see where the whole phenomenon started. M and I start our sessions collaborating on how to avoid conflict with the boys in his class. M wants to be able to read the danger signs, and then to use words to defuse the bullying. M has some difficulty judging the effect of his actions on others, and difficulty reading the social signals from others. His peer group doesn’t know much about the Beatles, so it is hard for him to share his enthusiasm with them.

“When you see the boys take water balloons out of their backpacks, what can you do then?” I wonder aloud with M.

“I can tell the teacher! I can throw them right back at them if they throw them at me.”

“You could do that. What might happen if you throw the balloon back and it breaks on someone?”

“I could get in trouble, but it wouldn’t be fair!” M pleads.

“That’s great predicting, though. If the teacher sees you with the balloon, you might be the one to get detention, right?” I reason, helping M to draw some inferences by pic- turing the scene. “Plus I wonder what the other boys think when they see you join in the balloon throwing.”

“Maybe they think I want to fight. So what should I do?” M shrugs. “I tell the teachers about the boys but nothing happens. They just wait and throw them later after school.”

“I’m wondering if walking away is a good idea when you see the balloons come out. Maybe if you aren’t in the middle, you won’t get wet, and you won’t be tempted to throw the balloons back.” We experiment with different ways of picturing the scene and the outcome of various choices M can make.

M is reliant on adults to be his mediators. He also experiences difficulty with math and with comprehension of inferences in his reading. He would like to be more inde- pendent and able to understand the demands of his teachers, and more nimble at negotiating his place in his peer group. His oral precocity creates expectations for him to be equally adept in all areas of the curriculum. However, the disparity between his verbal and his visual-spatial skills makes it hard for M to play catch, to write easily by hand, and to make social judgments.

M’s mother is a wonderful advocate for him. His grades, with the help of a homework helper, have been strong. About a year ago his parents sought educational therapy be- cause homework was becoming a tussle between M and his mother, who wanted to step away from organizing his efforts and enforcing M’s compliance in doing all his work. She recognized that organizing his planner and understanding what the directions on his homework required was causing M to spend a great deal longer at his homework than was normal.

He has an assignment to write a mystery story that uses elements of suspense to help the reader make predic- tions about the killer in a whodunnit tale. This is a difficult assignment for M, as he tends to write formulaic stories in his journal that all begin with vampires and end in bloody mayhem and death.

“M, when I think about vampires, I don’t usually have to wonder who the killer is. Mostly I know it’s the vampire if I read about bite marks on somebody’s neck. How can we make it a mystery who the killer is?”

“This is a good story,” M insists.

“It is, but the assignment is to write a mystery, right? Should we read a page or two from a mystery story I have here to see how the author does it?” I ask. I pull out Molly Bang’s Dawn, a retelling of the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife. I read:

“One day I was in the swamp when I saw a Canada goose in the water near me. Geese need open space; they should never be in the swamp. The bird had been shot, and its wing was broken. I picked it up, carried it home, and nursed it to health. In a few weeks it flew away. One morning a young woman came into the yard and asked if I needed a sail maker. She was dressed very oddly, with a heavy brown cloak over a dress as pink as your cheeks. She had a long slender neck and tiny teeth, delicate and white. She had a scar on her arm. I noticed it when she took off her cloak. How could I know what it was from?” (Bang, 2002. p. 6)

M and I look at the illustration of the woman dressed in the colors of a Canada goose, and of course, M understands who she is. I ask, “So how did we know she was the goose turned human? The story didn’t say so.”

M says, “It’s the clues in the picture and in the description.”

“That’s it exactly. So how can we make clues in your story so people reading it can figure out who the killer is?”

In this way, M can begin to have concrete examples and strategies of words and ways to make predictions possible, and good inferences probable, in his writing. If he can do this, then we can work on his ability to make more and better inferences from his reading for language arts class.

The Case of R

R, a student with NLD, attends a demanding private high school. He has been receiving poor grades on English essays and has great difficulty understanding the symbols and inferences in his texts. He feels misunderstood by the teacher, and he is. The teacher thinks he is obstinate and unwilling to take her editing suggestions. She can’t recognize that his interpretations are improving, and that at present they are the best he can do. He is in danger of giving up in class. He is a wiry, tall, and tense young man, very anxious, and had difficulty making eye contact with me for the first 6 weeks of our therapy sessions together. He has a quirky sense of humor, which consists of reciting whole scenes from Monty Python movies when things get tense, as a way of establishing contact with me. I know these movies so I can appreciate his taste, even if the timing of his recitations is sometimes awkward. R has a fascination with Sparta, Rome and military tactics and even has a display case in his home filled with toy Greek and Roman soldiers.

We break the ice together when I buy and read a book he recommends to me about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998).

But we are not working on battle tactics today. I am trying to help R organize his essay in response to a very difficult essay question he must address about Toni Morrison’s Sula, and the paper is behind schedule. R must decide why the town of Medallion, Ohio, needs Sula to be their outcast and enemy, in order to be “good” themselves.

“WHY can’t I just read an abstract about this book, so then I’d know the answer? Why do I have to read the book? I don’t get it!” he tells me in exasperation. “The teacher isn’t going to give me better than a C no matter what I do.”

I am afraid that he is right about that. She hasn’t seen the incremental improvements in his analyses as worthy of her comment or reward.

“Books are like mysteries. We have to read the clues and decide for ourselves what they mean,” I say.

“No, there is only one right way. HER way,” R says bitterly, and he is right to some degree. He does have a teacher who is teaching her interpretation of the book.

“If we can reason it out well, and organize a good argument, she will reward that,” I say and hope I am right. I have to help R reason his way through the clues so that the teacher’s interpretation at least makes sense, and so that he can argue one of his own. “In any case, there is no getting out of writing it. So, what does Sula do that makes people hate her?”

“She steals her best friend’s husband,” R says.

“Right, and how does Sula feel about it? Is she sorry?” We look in the text to see. No, there is no evidence that she is sorry for what she has done.

“How do you think people feel when someone hurts them, and then has no guilt about it, no remorse?”

“I don’t know.”

We picture some situations in school that could make a kid unpopular. We wonder together what would make R’s friends, who do get his sense of humor, turn away. “If they trusted me. If I took something of value from them. If I never asked them about it.”

“Right. There are rules about behavior in groups. People have to know what to expect if you want to stay on their good side. So why would the town need her to be on the outside, to be their scapegoat?”

“So we can define bad. So people can enjoy their in-status?”

R’s conjecture is supported by the text, and we find the examples. Through several sessions we work on finding evidence, making connections, and working up an outline consisting of complete sentences, to relieve R from having to reinvent the essay again.

A postscript: R did graduate from high school and went on to win a college scholarship based on his excellent memory for facts and details. He currently receives coaching from an onsite educational therapist in order to remain organized and to help him with the critical thinking demands of his English classes.

High school students with NLD are in danger of being misunderstood by their teachers. Their language skills may be excellent, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations about communications skills and the ability to interpret others’ intent. They need assistance in understanding tasks that are based on comparing broad trends and concepts rather than on the memorization of facts. When assistance of this nature is provided then students with NLD can excel.


Bang, Molly (2002). 2nd edition. Dawn. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Association of Educational Therapists Website