In this Episode
Jessyka Coulter interviews Jill Stowell for the "Love to Learn 2023" virtual event.
In this episode, Jill uses Stowell Learning Center's Learning Skills Continuum to explain why some students struggle in school.
You'll learn there are whole sets of underlying skills that need to be in place for optimal learning. If any of these skills are weak or inefficient, the attention system is going to be stressed, and the student will struggle.
Jill also explains why the vast majority of the students who are reported to have attention issues, do not actually have ADHD, but that most attention challenges are just a symptom of a weak underlying skills.
In this episode, you'll learn:
- Why students struggle in school
- Not all attention issues are ADHD
- Kids do well when they can
"I just really want the world to know that the struggles associated with learning disabilities and dyslexia do not have to be permanent. They really can change. The brain is amazing!"
- Jill Stowell
LD Expert Podcast with Jill Stowell
"Smart but Struggling" - What Does it Mean? - Jessyka Coulter, Love to Learn 2023
Jessyka Coulter: Well hey mamas. Jessyka Coulter, CEO and founder of Ace Cookie Tutoring.
Today we are continuing our discussion and Studying With Jesse as we talk to the founder and executive director of the Stowell Learning Center, Jill Stowell.
But thank you so much for being here with us today us, Jill.
Jill Stowell: Well thank you for having me Jessyka.
Jessyka Coulter: You are welcome, and I don't know why I'm struggling to decide if I’m gonna call you Jill or Mrs Stowell. I'm evidently going back and forth on that
Jill Stowell: You can call me Jill.
Jessyka Coulter: Wonderful. Well I know we are focusing on learning and specifically on students who struggle with learning. So, Jill, you want to tell us a little bit about why students struggle to learn?
Jill Stowell: Well that's kind of a big question. At our at our Learning Centers we really focus on helping students with learning disabilities, dyslexia, auditory processing, attention challenges. So kids, teens, adults who are bright but struggling with some aspect of school - sometimes socially as well. And so, these are people that- you know, that's a really good question. You look at these individuals and you think, “Well why are they struggling? They're smart. They have the ability to do it.”
But there are underlying skills that have to be in place to support learning. And we don't even really think about them very much when kids go to school. It's just, you assume they go to school, they're ready to learn. But there are whole sets of underlying skills that need to be in place, and if any of those are weak or inefficient, it's going to cause them to struggle.
Jessyka Coulter: Yes. I'm happy to hear that we agree on that because, yes, students I work with all the time, whether they are neurodivergent or neurotypical, there is, yeah. I see it all the time with study skills and, what you say, you know, we send them to school thinking they have those skills but what some parents don't realize, what the kids themselves don't realize, is they're not going to learn everything they need to know about learning at school.
Jill Stowell: Right right.
Jessyka Coulter: So but I guess I'm curious, Jill, what all underlying skills you mean because I immediately think about study skills but wonder if you have other thoughts.
Jill Stowell: Yes. So we think about learning like a Continuum - so think of it kind of like a ladder - with school skills and study skills, actually, are pretty close to the top, too, But you have this ladder and school skills, social skills are way up there at the top.
But the rungs of the ladder are whole sets of underlying skills that need to be in place in order to learn as comfortably and efficiently as you could.
So down at the very bottom rung of the ladder are what we call “Core Learning Skills. And these are really, you know, starting as low as the primitive reflexes that babies are born with.
If those reflexes continue to fire or they don't integrate and operate the way they're supposed to, then they just trigger little neurological interference - little neurological roadblocks to learning. And it's not that you can't get around it - we can - but it takes longer, you have to work harder, it impacts your attention… And so there are whole a whole set of many, many, many skills starting as low as primitive reflexes, but body skills, sensory motor skills, that allow us to sit in a chair and hold a pencil and move our eyes across the page and navigate a room. Those are all Core Learning Skills, and really those skills need to be so automatic that you don't even think about them.
I mean, if I have to think about right now not falling out of my chair? Well, I'm not going to be able to speak cohesively or listen or learn.
So we have Core Learning Skills, and then the next run up on the ladder is what we call Processing Skills. Big area, lots of skills: memory, attention focus, auditory processing, visual processing… Which, those processing skills aren't like– it's not your vision and your hearing, but it's how the brain thinks about the information that comes in through your eyes and your ears. And if you're not getting complete and accurate information, of course, that's going to impact your attention, your memory and so in that whole processing skills level, memory, attention, auditory and visual processing, language processing, processing speed… If any of those are weak or inefficient, you will struggle to get the information and put it together quickly enough to keep up, to learn.
And then we have, above that on the ladder, is Executive Function, and study skills kind of fit in that area of executive function.
Executive function is big. It's high level skills. Our ability to self-monitor and manage our own attention and behavior, to plan and organize and follow through, all of those things. So really, as you said, if students are struggling, it's a skills problem. There's something underneath that's not supporting them well enough.
And so then what we see as parents and teachers, we see that they're struggling to get their homework done, or they're struggling with reading, or they don't seem to comprehend. But all of those are higher level. They're sitting at the top of the ladder and there are things underneath to support them.
Jessyka Coulter: Yeah, okay. It's nice to know that there's more skills going on underneath. I didn't realize there were so many rungs to the ladder. Thank you for sharing.
Jill Stowell: Yeah. And the thing is that students– all people, you know – and we see this so much with our struggling students – they come in with their own set of strengths and weaknesses. So they may have some real strengths.
But they also have some real weaknesses, and it's those weak skills that are just causing things to take longer and be harder that trigger that resistance that you might see as parents.
Jessyka Coulter: Okay. For sure. Now I know one of the things that you, do that the Stowell Learning Center does is really help kind of eliminate these struggles, eliminate these learning disabilities. So I'm curious, Jill, how that happens because we always say, you know, eliminate some of these big topics… I imagine some of our listeners are going, “Is that really possible?”
Jill Stowell: Right, right. It, you know, it kind of astounds me because I have actually been doing this for over 35 years. The research - the brain research - has been there for over 40 years. A lot of the research on the programming that we use is much older than that. So the research has certainly been out there to say that the brain can change, that we can develop new neuropathways, that we can learn more effective ways of processing information. But it is still a really common belief that if you have dyslexia, if you have a learning disability, you're just stuck with it.
The struggles associated with those do not have to be permanent.
The way that we have to deal with that is to take a look underneath. So, yes, we know they have a reading problem, but what is causing that reading problem?
Is it that when they look at the page their neuro timing is off and it just feels like things are moving all around?
Is it that when they listen to words or they read words, they they can't process the sounds and so some of the sounds sound the same or or they just can't connect to that?
We got to figure out what underneath is getting in the way and develop those underlying skills. And that doesn't look like academics. It looks completely different because it's working at a much more ground level.
But when you can process the world accurately, and you get a clear and complete message, well, then your brain is ready to learn. It has the information that it needs. And then that reading remediation or math remediation or whatever works and it sticks.
Jessyka Coulter: Okay so I guess I wonder Jill I mean are these things that are being done at the school level because I mean when I think about special education I think about what I've done as a teacher as a para I mean there's been a lot of the one-on-one support I don't know if there's been a whole lot of you know like you just mentioned with dyslexia you know what is really causing that I mean it seems like a lot of times you get that diagnosis and then we just all know what dyslexic or dyslexics are like you know the things that work without really what you mentioned with the hearing and with the visual
Jill Stowell: It is not happening in schools. You know I have to say one-on-one support – if a child can get that, that's going to make a big difference. And if they can get a teacher that really understands that they are really doing the best that they can, that kind of support is really important and helpful.
What we do is one-on-one. It's very specific to each student. It really is getting down into the processing and neurodevelopmental skills. It is not something that the schools are trained or funded to do.
But at the same time, you have to look and say, “Well school's job is to teach curriculum and and teach all these knowledge levels” and so that's not what we do. I mean it's just two different things.
What's unfortunate is just kind of the pervasive understanding that people have that “Well, we're just gonna help you get around it, but you're never really going to be able to love school, to go to college, to do what you want to do because, well, learning just isn't your thing.”
And that is so unfair. It's not true but we don't have that into the schools yet, but I'm trying to get that message out there.
Jessyka Coulter: Definitely. Yeah, that's one of the things I hope all of our listeners realize and that they really believe is that every student can learn. I mean, if they want to learn, any person, any student, they can.
Now I know one of the things we've talked about is dyslexia, but I know attention is also something you help a lot of students with.
And I hear that from a lot of the parents I work with, Jill, is that my kid isn't focusing very well. And I know with the way technology is right now that's one very big distractor and causer of lack of focus. But then I know there's obviously way more than that when we bring up like ADD and ADHD and things, so is there anything advice wise that you have for our parents that are listening if they have a kid struggling to focus, struggling to keep attention in class?
Jill Stowell: Wow. You said so many things there, in so many topics.
First I think it's really important to understand that not all attention challenges are ADHD.
ADHD has a real biological-chemical component to it and so when you're talking about true ADHD you probably – the literature is saying that the best way to deal with that is a combination of training and through the biochemistry, which could be diet or supplements, or medication.
But I would venture to say that 90 percent of the students that come to our centers have attention problems. Their parents report they're not paying attention well at school or they're not paying attention well when it's time to do homework. But those students, the vast majority, do not have ADHD.
Because if any of your underlying skills are weak or inefficient, it will stress your attention system. So that's just – that is a symptom. And that's one of the things in our evaluation that we're always looking to see is, “okay the parent is reporting attention problems. What is that really? Is that truly on the side of ADHD or is it because they have weak auditory processing? Or they have retained reflexes that cause them to wiggle in their chair all the time and they can't focus?” So we have to look for, again, for the real root.
Now, you said something about technology and, oh my gosh, that is such a huge distractor and part of it is – well it's a distractor for everybody because social media, technology, video games, they're all built to trigger our dopamine reward system in the brain. We just – they're addictive – we just want to keep going and they're built that way.
So it's really… the biggest thing you can do is together with your teen, set up a system and teens really need to be involved in this, kids need to be involved in this. They want to be able to play their video games, you know they have other things that they need to get done, and so together you really need to solve that problem in a way that's going to meet both needs. And chances are, having technology in your workspace is – your social media, your phone, your iPad… now the challenge is, a lot of work is on the computer, and so you're going to have to really problem solve that with your kids because it's– they're so quick about finding other things to do.
Jessyka Coulter: Definitely. It’s one of the big points I try to make when I work with teens is, if your phone's in your room, even if it's on airplane mode, even if it's off, if it's literally in the room, it's a distraction. Mm-hmm. Yeah I actually had that question not too long ago from another parent. She said that all of the assignments are on the computer, which you know, I don't know about you, Jill, but to me I'm like okay, the research does not support that we're going to learn as much from that as we can by hand but then she's like, my kids aren't allowed technology in their rooms so where are they supposed to do their homework?
So. Okay. Well I guess I wonder Jill, I know we've kind of jumped around a little bit, are there other things that you think our listeners should know? I mean, we could talk about learning differences and kind of all the different core skills all day long but, and if there's something specific I should have brought up?
Jill Stowell: You know, I just think that in all these years that I've been working with with students of all ages really, a big understanding that I think every parent, every teacher needs to have is that children do well when they can. Teens do well when they can. Adults do well when they can. And when they don't, it's almost always a matter of can't as opposed to won't.
And so, again, looking at “if my kid won't do this,” because I hear parents saying, I mean, it's what it looks like. They'll say, “he won't pay attention. He won't do his homework.” But what is underneath that because there's something that he can't do or that's too difficult. There's– it's a skills problem, it's not an attitude problem. And I know with teenagers, I mean, it can certainly look like an attitude problem, but what's underneath that attitude? So I just think that's a really important thing to know.
And and then to me, I just really want the world to know that the struggles associated with learning disabilities and dyslexia do not have to be permanent. They really can change. The brain is amazing! But we have to identify what's underneath that. What skills are not– what underlying processing skills are not supporting the learner well enough, and develop them, and so that the brain then can learn the way it should.
Jessyka Coulter: Yes. I like that. I like that a lot, Jill, so I'm happy we're talking. I'm glad I asked you that. And I know that you have an awesome freebie for our listeners as well, so you want to tell a little bit about that?
Jill Stowell: I have a free copy of my book, At Wit's End: A Parent's Guide to Ending the Struggle, Tears and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities.
It was the first book that I wrote, actually, and it was really because I just needed parents to understand why their smart child might be struggling in school, what was the root of that, what could be some of the causes, and what can be done about it.
Jessyka Coulter: Well all right, I'll make sure that link is down below so everybody can grab that. And then, Jill, you want to tell us where all our parents can find you online if they have some follow-up questions for you?
Jill Stowell: Well we are everywhere on social media – Stowell Learning Center – and we do have a private Facebook group called Mom Squad so if you look for SLC Mom Squad in Facebook groups, and that is a great place for parents to get resources, to ask questions, and so that. And our website. We have tried to just load it up with all of the information that you would need so if you're looking for specific information about different challenges that your child has or different events, that you can get support and help. Stowellcenter.com
Jessyka Coulter: Beautiful. Well thank you so much Jill. I know I've learned a lot, so thank you so much for sharing with us today.
Jill Stowell: Well thank you, Jessyka, for having me and for hosting this event. It's really a fantastic resource for parents.
- Episode 71: Ronnie Gardiner Method® for Building Social Connection, Executive Function & Attention – Jill Stowell
- Episode 70: The IEP – What Parents Need to Know – Dina Kaplan
- Episode 69: Embracing Differences and Building Social Emotional Health – Suzanne McClure
- Episode 68: Executive Function Tips for Parents, Teachers, and Students + T.E.F.O.S. – Part 2 – Seth Perler
- Episode 67: The Executive Function Online Summit PLUS a Special Message for Kids – Part 1 – Seth Perler
Listen, Watch and Subscribe
Subscribe to the LD Expert podcast in your preferred player and sign up for our weekly newsletter. Get the answers and proven solutions for dyslexia, learning differences and attention challenges sent directly to your inbox.