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Nov 24, 2020

Twice-exceptional (2e) children struggle because their gifts mask their challenges and their challenges mask their gifts. So, how do we educate 2e children? Today we are talking with super-mom and co-founder of Cajal Academy (, a private special education school in CT designed for 2e children. Cajal integrates intellectually-stimulating academics and expert therapies through highly-individualized but socially-engaged programs for children with verbal reasoning skills in the “above average” to “superior” range, with integrated support for learning, executive function, sensory processing, social, emotional and medical differences. We are going to discuss 2e children and the role neuroplasticity plays in programming for them.


child, skills, kids, learning, brain, challenges, task, develop, growth mindset, world, special education, disability, area, based, teach, school, neuroplasticity, question, people, fact


Cheryl Viirand, Dana Jonson

Dana Jonson  00:03

Hello, and welcome to need to know Dana Jonson. I'm your host, Dana Jonson. And I'm here to give you the information you need to know, to best advocate for your child. I'm a special education attorney in private practice, a former special education teacher and administrator, a current mom to four children with IPS. And I myself have ADHD and dyslexia. So I have approached the world of disability and special education from many angles. And I'll provide straightforward information about your rights and your school's obligations, as well as tips and tricks for working with your school district. My goal is to empower you through your journey. So there's anything you want to hear or comment on YouTube by me and this podcast at special ed dot life. You can also find me on Instagram at special ed dot life. Or you can email me, Dana at special ed dot life. Now the first thing you need to know is that sometimes I have a bit of a potty mouth. So if your environment isn't ready for that, feel free to pop in your earbuds. Okay, let's get started. Okay, so today we are here with Cheryl Viren, who is the co founder and Head of School for Kahala Academy in Fairfield, Connecticut, which is a special education school. And I always say and I say it a lot in my episodes that special education only happens in the public school. But you are a special education school for children for whom the public school doesn't have a program.


Cheryl Viirand  01:34

Right? So it is in fact a Special Education School.


Dana Jonson  01:37

It's fair to say special education even though you're not in the public school. And your focus in your school is to eat and for people who don't know what that is, it is twice exceptional. People say to E I have one question, is it a lowercase e or an uppercase e?


Cheryl Viirand  01:52

It's typically a lowercase. Okay,


Dana Jonson  01:54

because I see them both sometimes. And I wasn't sure which one's good. It could be either one. Okay, so what does that mean? What is twice exceptional.


Cheryl Viirand  02:01

So twice exceptional kids are actually some of the least well served by the current traditional educational systems as we're seeing to E kids are kids who have an area of outline high intellectual and or artistic gifts that's paired with an area of learning social, emotional, or physiological differences. So these are kids who many people define them based on how they being quote, unquote, gifted. That's a very loaded term.


Dana Jonson  02:32

Yeah, another very common conference. I know. It's very controversial.


Cheryl Viirand  02:37

Yeah. So there's a lot of socio economic bias that goes into those determinations. I know, you'll call me back, if I get a call at any point. I'll try. There's also as we can talk about later, there's a lot of ways that two kids are being desperately under identified for special education services. These are kids whose programming needs to both give them the level of intellectual challenge and rigor, it was really hard for them to develop their areas of strength, just like any child is raised to develop, while also needing to support their areas of difference. And typically speaking, what happens is that they get interpreted as one or the other. And so you have children who end up in a what starts to feel to them like a gotcha that, okay, they're either being the standard has been brought too low, and they feel like this is boring, and why should I bother more? alternatively, they're confronted with a teacher that says, well, gee, you're so bright, I'm sure if you only wanted to read you'd be able to


Dana Jonson  03:42

write well, and that's what I get when I when I go into schools with with students who are to a part of the problem is we may have figured out how to address their disability say, but no one's able to give them the curriculum, they need to keep them on track and focused and challenged, examined, or the other side of that is, well, they're so smart. And it's very,


Cheryl Viirand  04:05

very common, the


Dana Jonson  04:07

latter can mask the disability sometimes incorrectly. So it's sort of it's classically said


Cheryl Viirand  04:11

that the guests have the challenges and the challenges have good gifts. Yes. And so what ends up happening for a lot of these kids is that when they are struggling, a well meaning teacher who has not been trained in the intricacies of their disabilities, or how those might manifest, particularly in a very bright child is more often, or more likely to turn around and say that he just has a bad attitude. He just refuses. And children are very quick to figure out that they don't want to look like they don't know how to do something in front of their peers. And it might be easier to look like you're a quote unquote bad kid who does his own thing, and it's a tough kid than it is to look like a kid who in their eyes, what they feel like is that they're not as bright Okay, so what we're seeing is that there's these challenges for two kids actually started quite a bit earlier as well, we're seeing. So since we opened up the hall, we've heard from maybe 60 different families and 90% of them are describing that their children have experienced some level of school based phobia, school based anxiety. By the time they hit about second grade, we are hearing about school refusal as early as first grade. And


Dana Jonson  05:27

I see that a lot in elementary, it's mostly Elementary,


Cheryl Viirand  05:30

but I see it. Yeah. And when you consider that you're talking about kids who might be ninth percentile reasoning scores, school, for them should be a playground, it's a set a kid in a candy store to get them learn all these cool things and work their brains. And instead, they're shutting down. And they're leaving the elementary school with one of three storylines, or all three, I don't fit, I'm bad, or I'm stupid. And then what ends up happening is by the time you get to middle school in high school, the school districts really don't know what to do with this kid. And disproportionately this children are being pushed into one to one programs and


Dana Jonson  06:06

or at the high school level dropping out


Cheryl Viirand  06:09

or dropping out exam.


Dana Jonson  06:10

They I think this is a correct statistic. It's like 2% of high school dropouts are actually gifted. Yeah. And it's because for quote, unquote, whatever reason, you can't see my air quotes. For whatever reason, the public school didn't fit, right now, they couldn't grow the standard route. Well, that's because they were so smart, that they masked the challenges to some degree, and they couldn't function until they dropped out.


Cheryl Viirand  06:36

Right. It's learned helplessness, right? It learned helplessness. And there's also another thing that we're seeing we're very, very fortunate alcohol to have on our team and internationally recognized neuropsychologist. Yeah, who has been working with children for decades, and in fact, has been recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern psychology in the US.


Dana Jonson  06:55

Well, let's talk about them. Let's talk about so I want to I want to cover all that I want to talk about how kahal came to be what it has turned into and and who is part of this team that you have, because it really is your approach towards the to E students that stands you apart from pretty much any other programming. I know, at least here in Connecticut, we don't have anything for two weekends, we just dumped No. And so I know there's


Cheryl Viirand  07:23

a gap


Dana Jonson  07:24

there. But I also know that your approach to students and your team and how you work together and decide how to individualize is what's right. We're different. new, innovative, innovative, right? Yeah. Okay,


Cheryl Viirand  07:39

well, so Ben, there's science behind it. There's a lot of time. Yeah. So basically, what we realized I got into this myself, because I was one of those moms who drew the lucky card of chewy calves. And there really isn't you won a lottery program. And what I found ugly for my younger one, yeah, he was that kid who had gotten really badly hurt by people just having no idea how to help him find his gifts, through a spice drawer of complications. And so we became very clear as we pulled them out and tried to figure out so where do we go from here? So we were that statistic that ended up in the one to one programming, you know, homebound instruction turned into homeschooling? Where do we go from here, right. But I had the advantage that over the prior, what, three to five years, I had been handpicking, a team of experts. My kids are complicated enough that I needed to find the practitioners in the community who had the real scientific knowledge and understanding, because my kids have a complex medical profile. So to be able to criss cross in a multidisciplinary way across the different areas where they might run into a difference requires that I find people who understood neurology, who understood immunology, and how various different components of the body interact. Then I found myself in this odd position, then I was exposed to all of this science. And whenever I was having a conversation with the existing educational settings, it was like we didn't even have a shared vocabulary. Because there's so much


Dana Jonson  09:13

vocabulary. Bring in a completely new set of words, that must have been great.


Cheryl Viirand  09:22

So what happened was that our team said, Listen, I'm not abandoning you, and I'm certainly not abandoning your kids. And so we started getting to work where there was no middleman anymore. And we said, okay, what happens if we take down all of the walls between all the different silos of specialty between psychology and neuro psychology and occupational therapy and physical therapy and speech and language therapy? What if, instead of sorting all of those people around the outside as quote unquote, related services, what if instead of those silos, we put those people at the center of the room and we say, Okay, what should education Look like, based on what we know today about how human child sized brains are developing, how they learn how they socialize, and the interactions between the body and the brain. And that is where we started to step into really what has become our mission, which is to empower kids to optimize their learning social and emotional outcomes by leveraging modern era scientific advances. So prior to about 10 years ago, it was believed that children or people had a stagnant ability in one area or another fixed mindset fixed by the time you got to the end of early childhood. And so if by the end of early childhood, you had a poor memory, sorry, you're stuck with a poor memory for life. If by the end of early childhood, you were a slow reader, you're always going to be a slow reader. And what happened about 10 years ago, when we got the development of the functional MRI and other technological advances, is that neuroscientists were able to see that, in fact, the human brain is constantly rewiring itself all the way to the end of life. So tasks that you do more often are going to get a greater proportion of neural networks and neural networks that you need to do a given task, crisscross your brain. And you're going to be building more of those networks out as you do new tasks, and old networks that you're not using as much will die off. So when you're trying to change a bad habit, for instance, okay, what you need to do is you're establishing a new neural pathway through your brain, when I see this stimulus, I'm going to do this new thing. And as long as I can hold off and not do that old thing, then that other network is going to start to atrophy. So this is called neuroplasticity. And we know about neuroplasticity yet for over 10 years. And yet, if you think about special education, especially education programs around the country, afraid to say even within outplacement settings, many if not most of them continue to focus on accommodating children's areas of difference. Okay, but now that neuroscientists know that we can meaningfully address not all right, but many, many, many areas of what we're formerly called disabilities, how can we leave it on the table, my conclusion as mom was that we have a moral imperative to take all of the science that's available, and Corolla to help kids. So coming again, back to me as Mom, I'm looking at kids who are held back by what by what I know, understand to be addressable problems, what could any mom want more than to take issues off the table that stand in the way of their children having a fulfilling life lived experience? So I'm not saying that I'm trying to hyper engineer, the super child, so he'll get the straight A's and get into? I'm not even asking those questions. I'm saying, How can I improve your life lived experience as meaningfully as possible as quickly as possible? So what we realized as a team was that we have the science that tells us that you can rewire the brain, the field of neuro psychology that Dr. Steven Magnus, who's a member of our team, has been involved in for decades, has now got very well, normed tests that allow us to understand what specific cognitive social emotional skills go into a given task. And so we're now we know, are you breaking it down? So


Dana Jonson  13:30

you're, you're taking what they need to do, and you're breaking it down into all those individual tiny, exactly. And then addressing each piece individually? Yes,


Cheryl Viirand  13:40

or no? So, yes, or Yes,


Dana Jonson  13:44

yes. Yes, yes, I


Cheryl Viirand  13:45

know, if you're talking when you're looking at a child. So there's neuropsychological analyses that we can go and get neuropsychological evaluations, they have a lot of individual tests within them that allow them with a skilled practitioner to get a sense of what your relative strengths or weaknesses are with it with respect to a given task. And by the way, you can also go down the hall to the auditory processing evaluator, who will give you an edge word processing evaluation, that's norm tasks, and it gets at how will you process sound. And then you can go down the hall to the reading specialist, and then you go down this other hall to the occupational therapist, and you're left what ends up happening is these kids have all of these evaluations. So mom is getting bounced about from practitioner to practitioner and is hearing Oh, he's got ADHD, no, he's got output organization deficit within auditory processing. No, he's got and mom is left with, oh my goodness, this is whack a mole. And he says, okay, so


Dana Jonson  14:46

you're the second person to refer to me as


Cheryl Viirand  14:51

hilarious. So then you end up with this program that says what we'll do 30 minutes working on auditory processing, and we'll do 30 minutes working on executive function and we'll do 30 minutes working on So, well, guess what? So the child doesn't have a sensory processing challenge at 2pm on Tuesday, because that's when the oh geez available. This


Dana Jonson  15:10

goes, you know, you can't like the deer crossing sign, like is that that's only pulled


Cheryl Viirand  15:16

out? Yeah. Yeah. So what we, what we realized is if you take all those evaluations, and you rip them apart, break them down into about 150 individual data points, and then you reassemble those data points based on specific functional tasks that we asked the child to do as they travel through the world. So learning tasks, yeah, so give me an example. So social task, like so an example of a task would be, let's say, structuring an essay, which is like incredibly complicated, complex task. Yes, you can even go I mean, we could even just start with memory. So just look at the question of memory. Now, obviously, you're called on to remember things all the time, right? So if you break that down, and you look at all of those different ways of looking at memory that come out, so an auditory processing, you're looking at, how will you remember the sequence of sounds, and visual processing, you're looking at how well do you pick up symbols and remember symbols when you're looking for them. But these are all these different ways to access memory, and some are verbal and some are nonverbal. And you can quickly see where we, once we create these snapshots, we literally draw a green box around everything that's 86th percentile and above, and a red box on everything, the 16th percentile on below. So everything that's in that green box, this is outline strengths, and everything that's in that red box that's in quarantine, because that is an area that for this child, our goal. I mean, remember what I was saying before about these kids, starting from the earliest experience, are having these experiences of disconnect with the world around them, which add up to an experience of Trump. Mm hmm. If I'm going to when you are in trauma in a trauma state, you're thrown into this freeze flat fight flight reaction state, where you are now in the part of your brain that we share with lizards. Now, let me ask you, have you ever taught calculus to a lizard? Does that strike you as a good idea?


Dana Jonson  17:15

I wouldn't even let them in


Cheryl Viirand  17:18

a good policy. So when you are in the or the lizard part of your brain, you are not capable of learning, right? You are also not a very good friend, you are also not feeling calm and safe. So until we get out of the lizard brain, we are not learning. So what we're seeing is with these two e kids who are coming in, in a state of fear simply at doing academics, you have to start by reducing down from the trauma. Right, and part of that is you have to stop re entrenching the view that they can't, you have to stop they want. Exactly they need wins. So the way we look at it is you have to start running them through their areas of disability to get to their strengths and their gifts. So teach to the way you learn. That is something you'll hear and see and most special education outplacement scrubbers, right. But we take it a step further, because again, there's this hell bent mom behind this program that was unwilling to accept for her children challenges that could be addressed. And so what we realized is that with the data analysis tools that are out there, we can identify the specific skill that is holding somebody back, which may be manifesting in a variety of different areas. So a challenge with structuring information to encode it can come across as being low math facts, low sight words, core social cognition, lots of social conflict, because you don't know how to predict what the outcomes are going to be. All of this can come from having a challenge with structuring information so that you can encode it. Well, that makes sense.


Dana Jonson  19:00

Many of you think even for children have learning disabilities, if they're not addressed at the elementary stage, by the time you get to high school, particularly with girls, you've gotten emotional disturbance,


Cheryl Viirand  19:12

right? So as you don't know where to go, right, to anticipate what is going to access what's going to be at fail,


Dana Jonson  19:18

and it's that gaslighting or learned helplessness I called gaslighting learned helplessness of I did all this and it didn't wasn't successful. So why should I earth would I do it again? Exactly. Right. So the population is not any different and how they do that is I would I'm hearing that Yeah. But I think that


Cheryl Viirand  19:38

the of the challenges for two kids I think, in part, one of the things that we're looking at is, you know, these kids starting right from early childhood, even just as their language is developing, they don't yet developmentally no child at that age is developmentally able to understand the difference between their internal And the external experience. So they don't know that they need to communicate that they're thinking about things differently. they presume that everybody sees things the way they do. So if you are meaningfully differently wired, both in terms of your strengths, and in terms of your weaknesses, it is more likely that you're going to be having interpreting directions differently, or having a different habit making different connections in your brain and the people around you. So the example I like to use is little Johnny is sitting in preschool, and he's told to color the whole class is told to color trees on pictures of trees with realistic colors, and he colors his pink, and then it gets in trouble for not following directions. But Johnny was thinking about his favorite cherry tree in bloom, you Hmm, okay, so he was following directions. But now he's just had the experience of being shamed for being an aberrant, quote, unquote, bad child, when there was a difference here, where his credit he did it, see


Dana Jonson  20:58

what else he did wrong? Exactly. And it's not being explained to him they had in his mind,


Cheryl Viirand  21:02

that's correct. So now teachers do not feel safe. And now sharing your ideas does not feel safe. And now rather than jumping into color with vim and vigor, he might check the papers around him and say, Oh, wait, green. Ah, she means treason summer. Okay, I can color trees in summer. So then you start to have self doubt. So that's all setting the stage at a very early and of course, that will be the experience for every weekend. But we're seeing these trends,


Dana Jonson  21:34

but it is a trend, I think it's fair to say as a trend.


Cheryl Viirand  21:37

Yes. And so now. So for us, the question is, how do you create the ideal program for kids who have this as a known part of their, of the cohort? So part as I was saying, we identify what are those low lying skills, so we put them in quarantine, in that we want to help the children find ways to access their gifts. by us doing the heavy lift of understanding, as you were saying, before, we take the tasks, we have to understand them just as granularly as we understand the child's strengths and weaknesses. So if we see that we have in front of us, a child who has extremely low free recall, but very high story recall, now we're going to present things through stories, because that's going to allow them to pop into their high skill set, discover their strengths, discover their gifts, discover that it's safe to try and start to let go of some of the fear, which is keeping them held in this trauma state, which impedes all learning. So getting those wins, getting those wins, exactly. But we don't stop there. Because what we do is we take those low lying skills that we've identified, and we say, Okay, what are what I call the domino once. Okay, so if you have a whole string of dominoes, all standing up in a row, what is the first one that when you push that down, it's going to make the all the rest of them topple and maybe toppling out? branch line going out all these different directions? That is our dominant one. So we look for what is the low life skill that is causing the most secondary and tertiary effects? That's the loin skill we want to go after first is the dominant one, because that's we're gonna have the biggest flow through throughout the child's life. So what do with that information once you know what skill you want to go after? That's where we go back to all of that science that neuroplasticity. So my co founder is Heather Iverson was an occupational therapist, who has decades of experience working with an incredibly wide variety of kids in a wide variety of settings, including public school settings. And what she realized is that the occupational therapists toolbox, it isn't just about discrete protocols for handwriting training, and motor function. Rather, it is a flexible toolbox, and philosophy of using movement and games to rewire a child's brain. So what we're doing is we're taking those skills, we're taking that toolbox, and we're saying, okay, so if the skill that we want to grow, build up, went back to my earlier example, if the skill is how to structure information to encoded, well, you can start with simply having a whole bunch of objects in the floor and put them in categories, right? I'm not testing math facts. I'm not testing sight words. I'm saying I am building up the skill set, would you need to learn math facts and to learn sight words, but that skill set, we do it in a very granular and scaffolded way? So you just add one additional cognitive skill to it at a time so that you're building up those neural networks across different parts of the brain and building up the capacity to


Dana Jonson  24:46

perform when I was one of your open houses? And I don't know I don't remember if it was I actually observed it or if it was in the slide


Cheryl Viirand  24:52

the video, but can you remember? Yeah, exactly. I


Dana Jonson  24:57

have it next It was I believe it was tracking that one of the students was doing exam and it was really neat. It was I would never have thought of that as a try. So can you talk a little bit about an exam like a concrete example? Absolutely. So,


Cheryl Viirand  25:15

visual tracking is a perfect one, because it's kind of a very discrete skill set and doesn't have a lot of other component composite skills within it. So if you are reading a book, you are constantly going from left to right, and then you go down a line you go left to right. And that's great until it is working. And saving, that's when you use the bookmark, right? in school and public schools, or in traditional school settings, you're told to just put a bookmark there to follow. Well, that is worked out for my son, he hated the bookmark. I think part of it was the texture part of it was the sensory, but he just, it was just a visual overload to have this piece of paper going down the page, we tried different colors, we tried bright versus don't we, it didn't matter what we did it, he found it very, very frustrating. So my co founder said, Well, I guess we're just gonna have to teach his brain to visually track. So what she did was she did piece of paper, and she bought a bunch of colored dots up in rows. And it was four different colors. And then she put little round mats on the floor with these four same colors. And she told him, this, I should mention, he's an athlete, he's a self taught drummer. He's a very, very physical, very physical job. So she told him to jump from circle the circle, calling out the colors as he went across the line, she simply tried to teach his brain how to go left to right in a horizontal line, and then go back to the beginning of the next row and go left to right again. Now this lat this piece of paper is taped to the wall, four feet away from him. So he has to, you know, track you can't use this finger to go across. And he really struggled a little bit all over the place. And so she realized, ah, what that is, if you think about each skill as being a ladder, I just started him on rung to, for him, he needs wrong one, he's not ready for round two, which was a surprise because he's such an athlete. And he knows his colors. So she took out the verbal part. And she took out the balance part as well. So she had him sit on the floor with the same math. And she gave him something somewhat similar to drumsticks, and she told him to drum it, he didn't have to do the word recall to find the words he didn't have balance where to hold his body up. He just had to sit and drum, which is right in his wheelhouse. Suddenly, he's bopping along, he's adding in all these riffs. He's having a grand old time, and you can see complete fluency and no errors as he goes across the lines. So then she had him stand up again, and put the word or no, she has still well drummy put the word recall in. Okay, still drumming, but now he has to call up the words. And again, you see him halting, you see the challenge. And so for him, if you look at his profile, he has visual processing challenges that she has brought up from third to 16th percentile to being an area of real strength. And he has word recall challenges. And so the reason that she is pairing these tasks together is because if he can visual track while doing his Achilles heel of word recall, that means that the brain has had to allocate so much resources to visual tracking, that when you take the word recall back out again, he can read a book. And sure enough, we did this as our area of focus for two weeks, every day has integrated into what we call brain broers. So Rainbow is our activities were for the kids, they think they're playing. It's games, he's drumming on little surveys, he's happy as a plan. But what we know is that it is scaffolding up these skills. And we can put two kids together who have totally different profiles Mm hmm. Through a game or activity that calls on multiple skills, where for one child skill A is the one is the weakness that they need to be building up. And the other one skill is the strength that scaffolding skill B, which is that we Yes. And I was able to observe that


Dana Jonson  29:18

that I knew I saw in person, not that not an idea. But that was really neat to watch to students who were working on two completely different skills, doing the exact same activity and being able to help each other when appropriate. And there was no what's the right word there is no Oh, you can do that. I can't or I can't do it because he can do it. It was sort of like no, now it's your turn. Let's see what you can do like this hard. It's hard for you.


Cheryl Viirand  29:47

It's really so that's another really important thing to watch is that we guess pretty cool to see. Another really important part of our program and really foundational to it is that we teach the kids The science behind all of it.


Dana Jonson  30:02

So in our admission, so they're on you're explaining to them what their disabilities are basically like, what exactly what a concept. When


Cheryl Viirand  30:11

a child walks in the door, we start by teaching them neuroplasticity. Uh huh. We start by teaching them how their brain actually learns. So if I'm looking at a child who has learned through life experience, that taking risks is unsafe, that putting your own creative ideas out there is unsafe, that being in school is probably unsafe, and being with peers is going to lead to somebody laughing at you, at some point, if that is their life lived experience. I've got a lot to break down there. But the first step is I have to teach them that it is rational to believe that growth is possible. So in the admissions process, we are looking for kids who are super high, bright kids, we're looking for kids specifically for our program, who have high verbal reasoning skills. So we are going to use those high verbal reasoning skills that is their superpower. So we're going to access all of this growth and facilitate all this growth through their superpower.


Dana Jonson  31:07

Well, and all the science behind the growth mindset is that understanding the growth mindset is,


Cheryl Viirand  31:15

what is what leads to the growth.


Dana Jonson  31:17

Yeah, exactly. For me when I was I was I have dyslexia and ADHD, and I was diagnosed as 19. And that was like a game changer, because I was like, Oh, now I know. Right? So just having that understanding was like, Oh, it's like, try hard. If it doesn't work, try try again, then try something different. Right, then try what you're doing isn't working, doing it more harder? isn't gonna get better?


Cheryl Viirand  31:43



Dana Jonson  31:43

And the other thing you said that I find fascinating is that breaking down of all the pieces, you know, breaking it down, because when you think you've broken down a skill, to what like to a really small component of it, and then to realize that you could actually break that out more exactly is it is the fascinating thing to be able to have,


Cheryl Viirand  32:04

you know, the luxury of being able to do that. And that. It is actually Absolutely. And that's where as a team? Well, I mean, I pinch myself every day, we feel so extraordinarily privileged to have the team that we do. And that team has been drawn to this tiny little school wasn't for, you know, but a startup, a nonprofit, if that's if you think that's a heavy lift to bring in really expert scientists, but for all of us, it's a completely mission based team. Our feeling is that not just for the two week community, not just for this little school, there is a desperate need to innovate education to align it with neuroscientific research. Yeah. So now that we know that you can do now that we know that you can systematically that we have the tools to understand what problem Am I trying to solve. And we have a toolbox developed in therapeutic settings, which includes ot PT CBT, what we realized is we have these tests and tools that we can use to identify what problem are we trying to solve, which is always the step one for us, what problem are we trying to solve? First, you figure out what you're trying to solve, then we realize that we have this toolbox out there that have all of these tools and strategies that have been developed in therapeutic settings within the OT, PT, psychotherapy, settings, etc, which can be used to drive neuroplasticity so we can identify the specific problem we need to solve. And then we can get to work on actually increasing the capacity to do that little line task. So then the question becomes how do we get the child agency over that process? And that's where developing the growth mindset for the child is huge. Creating that sense that it is rational to believe that you can


Dana Jonson  33:56

be huge for any child, right? Human or? Good point? Yes. Yeah.


Cheryl Viirand  34:03

Absolutely. So we pair that with personalized strategies that we develop to we go back to all those skills that are in quarantine. Right? So are sometimes I'll get a phone call from a parent will say, you know, I think the program looks amazing, but I just am really torn between putting my child in a bubble, so that they can really feel successful now and then how are they going to get through college versus keeping them in sort of a sink or swim environment? And so that they kind of find a way to get along in the real world?


Dana Jonson  34:35

Yeah, and my one, I get that a lot. That's not the real world. And what I usually say to that is no, it's not we're in school, we're trying to learn so well get to the real world.


Cheryl Viirand  34:45

Well, and my response is, I don't I think that's a false dichotomy. I don't know why we're looking at is either we're going to put them in a bubble, or we're going to have them preparing to be in the real world. Our approach is, we're going to put them in a bundle while we address the challenges that require the bundle. Yeah, but we are steadfastly going after not only developing those skills, but giving this whole separate set of skills to the child and how to self monitor, self manage and self regulate. So to do that, going back to, you know, that list, which sometimes is a laundry, yeah, skills that are in quarantine, well, for this child to happily go out in the world, whether they're just going to soccer practice on Thursday night, or they're hanging out of the play date, we have to give them an understanding of what those are, what are those things that suddenly become hard for you? Because otherwise, they're just smacking the kid in the face? So he's trucking along, he's trucking along is going great. This is even sleazy, whoa, how can I have no module for that, right? They don't need to go through the world, we can tell them in advance, here are the things which are, which are harder for you than others. And if we do that, in the context of science, in the context, explaining to them, your body is a combination of an electrical set, and a chemistry set. And we're going to teach you how to understand how those two are interfacing. And we're going to teach you that being human means that you're not on a spectrum. There's like a myriad spectrum of how well do you process visual information? How well do you process social information? How well do you maintain emotional regulation? How well does your body maintain temperature regulation? So all of these different spectrum now we can understand that my collection of strengths and weaknesses is no, there's no value judgment on that anymore. It's no longer that I'm inferior, or that I'm lesser or that I'm bad. It's just that this is where I sit on that huge diversity of being here. And I love that's


Dana Jonson  36:47

one of my favorite things. There's the board.


Cheryl Viirand  36:50

Exactly. So yeah. So what we do is we come to these strategies for how the child can manage each of those different things. Well, now you have to make that you have to make that concrete so the child can own it didn't have her child was a really complex profile. That's frankly, mine does, where you have some physiological components and medical components, some social components and emotional components about prior experiences, etc. And every child needs to be taught, the growth mindset needs to be taught, what is it that we don't get rewarded for getting an A, we get rewarded for trying something we think will be hard, they get rewarded for showing grit and perseverance and for showing kindness towards others, and empathy towards ourselves. So what we determined was that it all started one day when we gave my son a typing test. And he talked along and he got a 92. And he was like, Oh, my gosh, I got a 92. He said, That's fabulous. He said, I'm going to do better. So then he tried again, but this time, instead of having his fingers in the right position, he was using his first fingers, because he could go faster that way. So we try some things. And we said, Oh, what do you mean? Oh, yeah, why did you get a better score? We said, Yeah, but the first time you did something you thought would be hard. And the second time, you knew how to make it easy. So this school is a place where we don't reward you for getting a great score using the skills that are already your strengths. This is a school where we're going to reward you for working through the stuff that's hard. So we realized that this constant growth mindset is one of the zillion big grown up ideas that we throw out, as if it makes sense to a child. But he doesn't those words have no meaning to children. So what we did was we took sticky notes, and we stuck them up on a whiteboard. And on each sticky note, we wrote out one very granular level skill. And that skill is either related to growth mindset, or it's related to one of his personal strategies for managing his own set of quarantined issues. And those sticky notes, we know that it's time to put up a new sticky note. In fact, we make a big celebration out of it. When we see somebody reveal an emergent skill. So if you think if I go back against the idea that every skill is a ladder, and I want to start you where you are on that ladder, so I'm not going to evaluate you based on whether or not you're able to perform at rung five, because other kids are ready to write Ron five. If you're on rung one. And suddenly you start showing me run to well, by golly, I'm going to celebrate rum two, because that means


Dana Jonson  39:28

that I love that. It's also part of when you say the growth mindset, it's what we say to ourselves, right? When we say I can't do it exactly told our brain to stop working exact said I can't do it. When you say I can't do it yet. It opens up yourself. Like you're it's like you're tricking your brain and feeling like you can


Cheryl Viirand  39:48

do exactly and this all comes from research by Carol Dweck. Yes, a terrific TED talk on this but I really recommend showing the power of simply telling a classroom of children the concept of yet So on our whiteboard, we have in three foot high letters yet. And after every single task that we do every activity, the kids go back to the whiteboard, and each child has their own city. Yes. And some of the gets overlap. Sometimes they're sharing. And sometimes they're totally different. So after each, each activity, the child does a self assessment of whether or not the giving yet came up. If it didn't come up, we put a knot symbol, if it came up, and you didn't nail it, they put an X, if it came out, and they didn't know they put a checkmark. And what we see is because we arrange these sticky notes in that scaffolded way, what we see is that having the honesty of putting the axe when they didn't nail it ends up for them being empowering. Because what happens is, we've seen moments where one of the kids feels like they've had a colossal fail. And if there has been an outcome they did not like, and we've gotten them to the airport, sometimes with some challenge, we send them to the airport, and we haven't checking up and you're starting with these lower rungs on the ladder, if you will, that were impossible when that sticking the first one up. But today, it's second nature. So we don't ever take those Yes, down. So they're checking off and they realizing


Dana Jonson  41:18

Oh, and then they get to see visually exactly how much they've checked off. And exactly. And that's part of Carol duacs research, which is the I just totally lost my train of thought, oh, in part of Carol Dweck research, which is that the growth mindset is embracing the challenges, right, and embracing the modaks, evaluating the mistakes and saying it's okay that I'm maxing this off right now, because I'm not there yet. Right? I'm just not there yet. It's just me, I'll get there, but not today.


Cheryl Viirand  41:51

Exactly. And what we've seen is these moments where they come in so distraught to the expert, and by the time we go through, and we show look, you nailed this one, you nailed this one, you now this one, you know this one, these kids who many of them are perfectionists, they're very, very hard on themselves. When they see us excited about all of these granular level skills that they nailed, they're able to come back to perspective about the fact that they aren't there yet. So that's been the most powerful part of it. And it's been very interesting to see how difficult it can be for a child to wrap their brains around this whole system and approach when coming out of traditional school environment. So they are so accustomed to systems of reward and punishment, that far, looking at it are really outcome based, as opposed to effort based, and that it's a really, it can be a really big transition, to wrap your mind around this other approach. But the value of doing that, is that, first of all, we're getting to the truly valuable life skills, of being able to maintain your own sense of mission and your own sense that the sense that you are on a developmental path, which is positive. And, and, and also the courage to let go of preconceptions about your limitations. And actually, for, for me, probably one of the most exciting days for me in this entire process has been when our second child had been on a program for 16 days on day 16. He said to me, I used to think that it was well he walked in the door with an understanding that his, his area of difference was something immutable. But there was no way you could ever change it. And you could have filled in the blank, it could have been dyslexia, it could have been discovery, it could have been dyspraxia could be any specific learning disability. And he believed that it was gonna you don't really have to try once you've decided that it's immutable, there's no way you're going to overcome it. Right on day 16. Semi. I used to think it was impossible to overcome this. But now I see that perhaps I was wrong. It must be possible, because I'm already beginning to feel that I'm getting better.


Dana Jonson  44:19

That's amazing


Cheryl Viirand  44:20

that I mean, guess at all way in two weeks? Yes, really. That's exactly what we're in this for. And that's where the power is. Getting granular getting scientific. So our hope as a team is that we can develop these innovations to be a toolbox that we can eventually be packaging this curriculum and teacher trainings and certification programs and disseminating so that we can help to make neuroscience accessible in all classrooms for all educators and for all students. And that's something we need and that's when we can get to you know, the ideal. Yeah, to me, kids. Along with all other kids really can be in an inclusive environment all together. In order to do that we have to have environments that have the framework, the science and the tools that they need to be able to meet everybody's needs. Otherwise, we're just pushing onto the kids that have you left of adapting themselves to an environment that isn't made for them. And as you prepare, well, you, you and kahal are definitely


Dana Jonson  45:21

filling a need that we have not only in Connecticut, but I think everywhere because there really there isn't a lot for two, eight around the country is there's less than 20 schools across the whole country for two is amazing. It is unbelievable and incredibly underserved. Yeah, yeah. And I mean, like I said, I have that a lot where I have to tell parents, you know, well, you get to choose, do you want to address these issues? Or do you want to address the academics because I can't find a school that does both. So you are filling a very important need. And thank you very much for all your very hard work, not just for your own children, but all the other children that you are


Cheryl Viirand  45:57

more positively in social problems.


Dana Jonson  46:03

So this has been really awesome. And I have one last thing that I'd like to ask you or wrap up on this. Where did the academics come in? Because we've talked about how we're addressing all of the the challenges those corny teen yells. So where do we get to the academics, which is absolutely


Cheryl Viirand  46:25

essential. So one of the things I believe very firmly for all kids, but especially for two weekends, is you are not going to bring up that confidence and help them have that feeling of success until you address the academic needs as well. So what we do is we use project based learning as our curricular framework. So project based learning is been developed by the buck Institute for Education over the last 30 years as a very powerful framework, where you are integrating curricular skills, not as individual siloed academic areas, but rather through you give the children a driving question. And the in order to answer that driving question, they're going to end up needing to access and learn all these different areas of curricular content.


Dana Jonson  47:06

So and I think I think there's a misnomer with project based learning. I think there's this concept that like, we're in the middle of the crafts from putting things together like that's, that's, that's project based learning. So I want you to be clear that that is no, that's not where we're here. Yeah.


Cheryl Viirand  47:21

So what we're talking about is we start by taking all of the curriculum standards that need to happen for a given grade level. But bearing in mind, as we said, we're looking at the scaffolding here. So right, it's really not what is the next skill for this grade, it's what's the next skill for this child, which may or may not be in a linear progression. But we take those skills, and we combine them in projects that might last a couple of months even, but are going to integrate a number of different content areas, because that's really better matched to the real world. So in the post Google world, we don't need to memorize facts and figures, because what do we adults do? Right? You go to Google, and we look. So what we need to learn how to do to be successful, a 21st century world, and in particular, again, thinking about the to the population, these are outlining thinkers, if you look back in time, to be thinkers, Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Steven Spielberg, they they have been some of our greatest mathematics, scientific and cultural leaders. So if you think differently, and you want to be able to make a difference in this world with those different ways of different perspectives that you can bring to the picture, then you need to have certain skills, you need to know how to solve problems, you need to know how to break big exciting problems down into composite steps that you can then start to execute on


Dana Jonson  48:45



Cheryl Viirand  48:46

critical thinking, absolutely. And you need a lot social collaboration skills, you need to know how to listen to appear, including one whose ideas may be far less interesting than your own. And to figure out how are you going to convey your own ideas in a way that is not dictatorial, but rather, is about a shared a truly shared collaboration with a wide range of people. It's so important right now, there's also a lot of executive function skills that you need to develop along the way. Yeah. So if you think about, you know, the kid who is maybe going to go on to MIT and make some huge scientific discovery, how are they going to be able to organize that work, communicate that work, be a thought leader, together with peers who might be all over the world, and truly be collaborative. So that's what the project based learning framework allows us to do. So to give you an example, our current project, the big driving question we posed to our kids, is, does the brain rule the body or does the body rule the brain? Now, this is if you think about there's a lot of traditional health science curriculum that would be presented in any elementary school or frankly, high school. And there's also there's lots of opportunity for teaching about electricity. To appreciate how the nervous system works, chemistry to appreciate how neural chemical releases work and why they alter your mood experiences. It is intentionally a question two is there is no one answer, you cannot get a satisfactory answer to that question on Google. At the end of the project, the kids are going to be creating an information booth at a public library where they are going to be presenting their findings and their views on that question. And they might choose to do that through a skit, they might choose to do that through a movie or a PowerPoint, or they might choose to do it through some sort of electrical model, that choice of how to manifest their winnings up to them. This is totally different from tests and quizzes. This is totally different from worksheets. And it requires we put front and center the skills that for many to the kids and the ones that lag the furthest behind social skills, executive function skills, and friendly, you know, the ability to regulate your own mood and your own thoughts as you're in what can be very frustrating situations.


Dana Jonson  51:01

I think the example you gave to me earlier, which I think outlines is really well is the typing example.


Cheryl Viirand  51:07

Yes. So don't tell that and, and Siri, in terms of the way that we go about looking at making our progress and development for the kids, right?


Dana Jonson  51:19

Well, so Well, you're tying to the student, you broke it down to the smaller pieces without ever touching, typing.


Cheryl Viirand  51:25

Exactly. So I had a student come in who has a challenge with motor coordination. And we did a typing task, maybe the second week, and we got six words per minute. And we focused on that motor cohesion, coordination, challenge, doggedly everything that we do. So as we're presenting this project based curriculum, that's where the content comes from the modality that we use to present it is all of that science stuff we talked about earlier. So if I need to be creating new neural connections across the brain, I'm going to be using the content out of my project based learning curriculum in order to provide that content. So we every day, we're going to do some motor activities, we're using the the body is an incredibly powerful learning modality even if you don't have a gross motor coordination. So we always integrate movement into it. So we're here we are focusing on improving those gross motor coordination skills, paying attention to typing. We're about a month later, we do the second typing test. And this time, that is six words per minute, there were 13. And it's just it's exactly that example, or the perfect demonstration of how we focus on what problem we're trying to solve. The problem was not typing, right, the problem was motor coordination. So we focus on improving motor coordination, the lo and behold, look what happened to typing. And at the same time that that happened to typing, we started to catch a ball. And at the same time that we started to catch a ball, it's just it starts to float in all these different areas, right. So that's what it's bringing it all together through the project based learning curriculum, and deeply integrating all these pieces together, which gives us the opportunity and the potential here to really what we find is, the more we dig into this model, of identifying what problem we're trying to solve, looking for, what are all available lovers how to solve it, and then giving agencies to the children through teaching them the science behind it, doing all that flowing it through the carpet, though project based learning curriculum framework, what we're finding is that we're really turning on its head expectations about what kind of changes you can make and how quickly you can we've had to turn ourselves on our head to be quite honest, do we think about priorities totally differently? We aren't thinking about when we're doing our lesson planning, we aren't thinking about what's the next chapter in the textbook, we're thinking about, okay, what's the next rung on the ladder? And each of the relevant scaffolds for each of these children? Now, how am I going to do that, while I teach other human body works, okay.


Dana Jonson  53:59

As more object based, you're able to when you have different levels of skill,


Cheryl Viirand  54:05

or before


Dana Jonson  54:06

or different ages, you can all be working on the same project at but at your own level. Exactly. So for those who need more enrichment, you can


Cheryl Viirand  54:16

ratchet it on or sagging it down or and one of the things that's exactly another reason we chose this framework is that I mean, I think for for high analytical reasoning, kids, it's, it's really, I think, hands down the best framework for them to use because it's the one that gives you a playground to develop those analytical skills. Remember, we said about neuroplasticity, if you aren't using it, you're going to lose it right? So we got to be developing those skills. But additionally, if you're talking about a cohort of kids, where you might be one child could be two years ahead in math and two years behind in English. So if what you have is kids were grouped by the same age, and you only have high school kids, or you only have elementary kids, well, what's going to happen For the child who's five grade levels ahead and reading, he's got nobody to read with and discuss a book. And what's going to happen for the kid who has four levels behind in math, they're just going to feel alone, isolated and behind. Whereas when we bring together the mixed age cohort, the mixed group cohort, there's always a natural peer, for every aspect of every project, or pretty close as we grow out our cohort. So that's the reason that we are at K through 12. School, rather than just being a smaller subset. So it's just everything about this model, at least a little bit different than what we seen elsewhere. But that's excited about doing and it's


Dana Jonson  55:37

what we need. We are now across the board, we're talking about and we're seeing this is a problem or, you know, the critical thinking and the problem solving skills are what are missing primarily. So I love seeing this, I love seeing this model. And I love that you're here in Connecticut, where you need it so badly. It'll take transplants. Okay, all right. Yes, you can come to Connecticut and go there too. So for people who want to find kahal How do we find kaha?


Cheryl Viirand  56:06

we better start by spelling it. Yeah, it is c a JAL And you'll find lots more information there about to the kids and what we're finding and talking to families


Dana Jonson  56:18

and more information, contact information if you want to reach Cherrill


Cheryl Viirand  56:21

your house salutely. Absolutely, please do reach out. And we are excited to be here with you. Thank you so much for having us.


Dana Jonson  56:29

Thank you. You'll probably be back I'm sure. Thank you so much for joining me today. Please don't forget to subscribe to this podcast so that you get notifications whenever new episodes are available. You can also find this podcast on his website at special ed dot life. You can follow me on Instagram at special ed dot life or you can email me at Dana at special ed dot life. I want to know what you want to know. So please reach out with your comments and questions. And I'll see you next time here on need to know with Dana Jonson Have a great day.