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Letting Go and Being Okay

For our Pathways Institute Ask the Expert blog, we asked parents for their stories, with the idea that it would be helpful for parents to hear from other parents about their struggles and transformations. We asked: What has this journey of parenting kids with learning differences meant to you? How has it transformed you? This is the response from one of our parents. She requested to remain anonymous out of respect for her children.

I grew up in an alcoholic family system where there was one crisis after another. In-between there was a fair amount of numbness and once in a while good times.  I spent time in therapy, at first trying to get control of my own self-destructiveness, then surrendering to the reality of needing help. I learned to be able to deeply think, wonder and take the time that I needed to understand myself. I was challenged to understand that drama, and emotional upset were different from being present and being in real contact with myself.  I learned to meditate and continue to do so daily –  I highly recommend it.

When I turned 30,  I was no longer terrified of intimacy. I got married and by 32 had a daughter and a son. I couldn’t have asked for more, I was truly happy and felt on the right path for life.

Then, when my son was young, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.  I was told he should go to a school that specialized teaching dyslexic boys. This was hard to hear but thankfully the school was in the same town we lived!  I told myself, “this dyslexia thing is just a little hiccup. Things will be fine.” I thought my son would beat this thing called dyslexia and perhaps be the next Steve Jobs, Charles Schwab or Sir Richard Branson.

During my son’s first year in the special school, my mother was diagnosed stage 3 breast cancer while caring for my father who was in the late stages of  ALS.  I believed I would be fine and I could handle all of it.  But I just couldn’t. My family was fractured and I felt completely out of control about everything and kept wanting to scream:  “WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO ME AND LETTING ME BE IN CONTROL?”  Somehow, in the middle of all it all and in a moment of grace, I was reminded of Al Anon something I had done before and I went to a meeting.

It took a while for me to get clear-headed in Al Anon and watch my self-righteousness cool down, soften and  slowly peel away by listening to the wisdom, generosity of spirit and great humor of the group members.  I started to realize I needed to surrender the “people, places, and things” I couldn’t control, and a shift happened: things greatly improved for me with my siblings and parents.

But as things got better with my family, I realized I was not done with my work in Al Anon. I was still in a battle of wills: my will versus reality regarding my son and dyslexia. I realized I needed to stay in Al Anon years after the family crisis had abated because I was treating dyslexia like alcoholism and my son as if he were an alcoholic.  I was trying be in control an uncontrollable situation.

My son  was making progress in school but it was slow and no one was telling me he was going to be the next Steve Jobs.  The experts were saying that he was struggling to accept his learning difference, which is why he is so angry and anxious all the time.  He needed therapy, additional tutoring and massive amounts of patience from his parents.  I wasn’t very good at patience; I would get upset, angry and anxious.  I would try to force solutions.

There were times when my son behaved like a PTSD survivor.  He would be given an assignment in math and by the time he got home he couldn’t remember how to do the problems.  He would descend into anger, escalate, perseverate and explode in rage, because his brain was having  a brown-out and sometimes a full black-out.  I would  panic and think, “I have to do more of this and more of that, find people who can help him.” I would email the teacher, upsetting my son and creating serious problems in my relationship with him.

Gratefully, in Al Anon I learned to not talk to the dyslexic kid when the dyslexic kid is doing homework.  I learned to  breathe, walk away, and stay calmly,  “I’m sorry homework is so hard for you.”  I have learned to calm down because there  is nothing I can “do” and more importantly I now have faith that my son is okay and going to be okay even in the middle of his struggle. Our son has the help he needs, is allowed to appropriately express his feelings and thoughts about how hard having dyslexia is at times, and is loved no matter what.  I have begun to understand that I can never protect both my child from the suffering and struggles that come with life, including this one.

I am also now learning that I need to come to terms with being OKAY even if others in my life are struggling or suffering.  Being okay doesn’t mean I am uncaring about another’s struggles , in fact there are times that I am involved in trying sort out my son’s learning problems and participate in the process supporting or  finding a solution. It just means that I don’t have to join the suffering.

The 11th step in Al Anon is “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Meditation has given me an important coping and resiliency tool, and where I have learned about and practice detachment. Detachment isn’t disconnection or disinterest.  Detachment is the ability to say to myself, “Let go. There is nothing to carry, nothing to become distraught about.”

I use to think that I wasn’t allowed or entitled to experience real joy, freedom or happiness if others and in particular if my son was struggling.  What kind of parent would have a good day while their kid was struggling with reading?   I would sink into GUILT.  But I now realize not only am I allowed to be free of guilt and experience the good stuff in life, my son who struggles with learning needs to see that I  am okay.  In fact he deserve to see that I am not taking on his learning struggles psychologically and emotionally.  He needs to experience me creating positive interactions with him.  Otherwise, if I’m an anxious mess, a negative downward cycle begins to corrode our relationship – we are on a sinking ship together.  When I keep a sense of humor and my deep sense of gratitude, and keep moving forward, it gives him the feeling that he’s just a teenager and I’m just his mom, and everything will be okay. It gives him hope, and the balance we both need.

Yeah Right: The Day to Day Reality of Life with a LD

I recently sat down for coffee with a parent of a teenager with learning disabilities.  She told me her daughter has the “kitchen sink” when it comes to LD.  She went on to say that her daughter has a reading disability and an unusual ADHD presentation. Unusual I asked?  She said, “My daughter had been diagnosed fairly young with ADHD but several neuro-psychologists and psychiatrists still feel it’s not quite accurate”, she sighed, “even the experts are confused.“ Her daughter has short term memory deficits, extremely slow processing speed but her working memory is okay and her long term memory is superior.   Her daughter was transferred in second grade to a school that specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia and attention issues.  “This was the best decision we ever made. The school emphasized helping kids develop resiliency through acceptance of their LD, encouragement and building on their strengths.”  I thought it sounded like this family had a great outcome to a challenging set of problems.


Last week I was able to talk to her daughter, a high school sophomore and ask her about her experience and what it was like to have a learning difference.  “I hate having a learning disabilities because it make learning hard and sometimes I still worry about getting through high school and college.” You can imagine my surprise as I had preconceived ideas that she would talk about how great things are now.   She said that going to the  K-8 school was probably the best thing that happened but then she relayed a recent story.  She said that she was telling her current favorite English teacher about her K-8 school and how the teachers at that school always said that dyslexia was gift.  She lit up with laughter while telling me that her current teacher responded, “Yeah right”!  I asked her why that made her light up?  She told me that she understood why the school and teachers talked to the little kids about their “gifts”.  She remembered wanting to give up when she was in third grade and that positive message helped her to keep going and trying, but she said it wasn’t the whole story.  She felt it was important that teachers don’t sugar coat the challenges of having LD and they needed try harder to understand LD kids and be real with the older kids with LD.  She said that gifts came from dyslexia but dyslexia itself wasn’t a gift, it made learning so hard and still even now many teachers don’t understand and care about how hard it is for her to learn.  She told me,  “Many teachers seem clueless about what it’s like to have short term memory problems and how hard I have to work, repeat, repeat repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat and repeat to get things into my brain.”  After she shared all of this, I could only imagine how relieving it was for her to have her favorite teacher get it and her with that exclamation of yeah right.


This made me think about how important it is for all of us to remember and appreciate that all  kids have an inner psychological and emotional world.  Therefore it is essential that we support, accept, work with, appropriately and accurately accommodate kids with LD and their families in the reality of what it is really like day to day living with learning disabilities.  If we only focus on the negative such as neurological deficits then we will miss the blessings and gifts;  but likewise, if we only look for the positive such as strengths, then we will miss the challenges and even the suffering of the individual.  We have to have balanced approach and become interested in the whole child and the entire experience of what their life is like as they navigate learning and living with a learning disability.

Elizabeth Corsale, MA, MFT

Warning: Being Bad Can Feel So Good

Recently, researchers Nicole Ruedy, Francesca Gino, Celia Moore, and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Washington, the London Business School, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior in the The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Conventional theories of moral behavior and decision making assume that unethical behavior triggers negative emotions, and indeed, when participants in the study were interviewed before the study, they themselves reported an expectation that if they were to act unethically, they would feel guilty about it. These theories help support the idea that we are internally motivated to do the right thing, because it makes us feel bad not to.

But when put to the test, so to speak, the people who cheated actually experienced an immediate boost in emotion, which the researchers termed a “cheaters high.” The researchers went on to say that once people have this experience, it may be difficult to resist future unethical behavior, especially when someone can “derive both material and psychological rewards” from the behavior.

Those of us working in the field of “process addictions” or compulsive behaviors (such as compulsive stealing or sexual behavior, gambling, compulsive eating, etc) are certainly not surprised by these results – it validates the behavior we see all of the time. Indeed, many of the people we see are they themselves flummoxed by their own behavior – they don’t understand why they continue to repeat a behavior they don’t feel good about and goes against their morals, beliefs, and even self-image, and wreaks havoc in their lives.

The short answer, which these researchers have validated, is that they do it because in the moment it feels good. It gives the person a boost and if that person is feeling depressed, anxious, having difficulty coping, can’t assert what they need and want in a healthy way, etc. this little boost is a way to escape all of that, for a moment. And the escape works, which is why when all of the negative feelings return (which they always do, in addition to the feelings of shame due to the behavior), eventually the desire to do it again comes back, and thus the compulsion is born.

This important study helps to explain how and why motivation, behavior, and feelings don’t always align with morals and values. It also helps to make a case for treatment for people who compulsively repeat these behaviors; they need help with a transformation that will give them a deeper, longer-lasting experience of happiness, so they can give up the “boost” of the “cheater’s high.”

Samantha Smithstein, PsyD

The Myth of the Average

The following is an interview Todd Rose, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Square Peg, and co-founder of Project Variability. In his recent Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average he explains the myth of the average and how it harms kids in the education system by depriving them of learning, and our society as a whole, robbing us of needed talent and creativity.

We found his work to be highly relevant to the work we do at Pathways Institute, where it is part of our stated mission to help all children “function at their highest level and bring their unique gifts to the world.” We began the interview by asking him about the Myth of the Average:


L. TODD ROSE:  The Myth of Average is a belief that’s been prominent in most sciences and in education. It’s the belief that we can use statistical averages to understand individuals. Scientists have come to realize that it’s a myth, and over the last 10 years have been moving from averages to individuals, so for example we’re hearing a lot of things like ‘personalized medicine.’  Unfortunately, education has not quite realized the myth yet, and so what we have is a situation where not only do we accept the idea of designing something for the individual based on the average, we actually promote it.  The myth is that the average is fits for most people, when, in fact, it doesn’t.

Interviewer:  And how does that hurt us?

L. TODD ROSE:  When it comes to designing environments it hurts us in two ways.  As I said in my TEDX talk, the first is that you can be incredibly talented in one area, but average or below average in another. For example, say you’re really gifted in math, but you are an average or below average reader. The way our education system is designed will make it very hard for us to be able to get at your talent, because even in math class many of the problems are reading problems, so the reading problem can mask what you’re really good at.

The second way it hurts us is that someone can be unbelievably gifted in something, but their environment won’t challenge them because it’s teaching to the average. They end up getting on-board and doing only what they are supposed to. In this way, designing environments to averages end up hurting even our best and brightest.

Interviewer:  So how does that play itself out in our everyday world?  How are these problems going to effect all of us, even if they don’t harm us personally?

L. TODD ROSE:  Good question.  To me, the effect of the Myth of the Averages is even broader than education.  It’s really about how we develop our current and future talent pool, and as you know we have big challenges in our society and need all of the talent and creativity we can get.

We already have all the raw talent that we need! If you think about something as big as finding a cure for cancer, we need as many people who have the talent and the work ethic becoming scientists and chasing down this problem as possible.  But if we design our educational environment so that an individual’s limitations make it almost impossible for us to get to their talents, then we are going to lose a whole bunch of talented individuals, and in my mind we’re in danger of losing the cure for cancer.  If we extend this myth of averages all the way it has very serious implications, because when we studied cancer on the average, it led us to conclusions that were not helping us actually cure people.  And since we’ve gone away from average and started studying cancer, individual cancer, we’ve made great progress.

The workforce environment is not dissimilar. We’re trying to get people to be the most productive and effective person they can be. But if the environment is designed around averages, it makes people less efficient, less creative. So, you know, in every sector of society this idea of average has turned out to be a sort of barrier to advancement.

Interviewer: I see.  And so what does Ban the Average mean?

L. TODD ROSE:  Well, to me it’s step one of a two-step process that gets us away from this average and toward helping our institutions become institutions of opportunity that can actually nurture individuals.  So Ban the Average is the first step. It’s about helping people realize the average really is the problem. We can’t move forward until we realize that.

The phrase “Ban the Average” comes from the Air Force, which gained insight about the Myth of Average 60 years ago, when cockpits, jumpsuits, and instruction was designed for the mythical average person.  They they realized it was a problem, and even though they didn’t really know what the solution was that didn’t stop them from saying, ‘You know what?  We know the average is hurting our performance and shrinking our talent pool, so we’re going to ban the use of average.’ That initial step was enough to make a signal to the market that things were going to change, and it forced designers and entrepreneurs to create better solutions.  So we can talk about solutions, which is ultimately what needs to be done, but until we have the common understanding that the myth of average is a problem we’re not going to get very far.  So Ban the Average is the first step.

Interviewer:  And how does Project Variability fit into this?

L. TODD ROSE:  Project Variability is an enabling organization.  We see this emerging new science of the individual and we have the knowledge that we to be able to create an environment that understands individuals and nurtures individual potential.  At the same time, we’re seeing a massive shift toward technology in every sector of society, from workforce to science, and in education.  So we see a wonderful opportunity to combine those two in ways that enable us to do things that are almost magical, quite honestly, and that won’t actually cost more money. We can do things in education today that we only dreamed of before.  But it requires making good choice.

What we realized as a team was that those choices are rarely going to be made on their own because people in all parts of the current system have an interest in keeping the status quo.  What we’ve decided to do is be an organization that exists solely to initiate the transition from average to individual.  We’re doing it as a messaging campaign: to communicate to the public so people understand what’s possible and what to ask for, to ultimately create the demand. At the same time, we’re going to enable scientists and entrepreneurs to create solutions that will meet the demand. The truth is, is we exist to put ourselves out of business.  We just need to change the demand structure and help create some new solutions. At that point our goals have been met.

We highly recommend you watch Todd Rose’s Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average.

And a special thank you to Peter Dippery of Fuse Media for help making this interview possible.

Ask The Expert: Is It Necessary To Test Again?

My son was tested 3 years ago and was diagnosed with a math disorder and now his school is asking for an updated full evaluation because next year we will be applying for high schools.  Why does he need to be tested every 3 years?  What does the full evaluation entail and can’t he just be tested for the math disorder?

Your child needs to be retested every three years in order to determine how the current recommendations and accommodations are meeting your child’s needs. It is hoped that the changes that were put in place based on the initial assessment have helped your child. As your child gets older and advances in their academic career, he or she might need changes to their accommodations. This may include receiving additional time when taking in-class tests or additional academic help with certain subjects. Also, as your child gets older, s/he will have a better ability to not only discuss their difficulties, but also to understand how their difficulties influence them, why they get special accommodations, etc.

The full evaluation will include academic and intellectual testing, which will help compare your child’s potential with how they are performing in the classroom. It will also include academic reports, input from parents, teachers, and your child, and other measures which are designed to better understand and evaluate your child.

Retesting just for the math disorder would not take into account other aspects of your child that may have changed over the past three years. It is likely that he or she will have different strengths and weaknesses. Also, depending on your child’s age, he or she can be more involved in the process and start to become their own best advocate. In addition, as children age, there are more tests available to better determine the specific issue(s) that are affecting your child.This will result in more thorough, complete, and accurate recommendations and accommodations.

Jason Arkin, PsyD

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