Learning Differences

Learning Differences: 3 Profiles of a Story Stage Student

When Leigh and I started Story Stage, we had trouble finding the right words to describe the kind of kids we wanted to serve. As a speech-language pathologist, I had spent over 20 years seeing all kinds of students with all kinds of needs in public and private school settings, HeadStart programs, Early Childhood Intervention programs, and hospitals. All of the students I saw somehow “qualified” for services (through this or that standardized testing battery), and had come out of the process with a “diagnosis” that gave me permission to see them. That’s exactly what Leigh and I did NOT want to do at Story Stage. We had seen enough to know that the kids with formal diagnoses were not the only ones who needed a little extra help. What about the kids who scored pretty low on the tests, and were really struggling in the classroom or socially; but didn’t score quite low enough? Or the super shy or anxious kids who could use some social skills strategies? Or the kids who were just a little bit quirky (and are probably going to be rocket scientists one day), but couldn’t figure out how to make small talk?

Not that there’s anything wrong with a diagnosis. Our own kids have them! Diagnoses have their place, and we often need them to guide us in finding the right professionals, or to convince the College Board that our children need extra time on the SAT. But we do not need them to define the wonderful human beings who are our children. Neither my child nor your child is a diagnosis, and it makes my heart smile to think of how much more our children are than that! Leigh and I wanted to build a program committed to seeing the whole child, diagnosis or not.

So we decided that Story Stage would serve all students who learn differently. For us that simply means that our students need a different approach or a heightened focus on social skills and/or language skills to help them succeed in the classroom and with friends. Many of our students do come to us with a formal diagnosis. You’ve likely heard of most of them: ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder, Language Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder to name a few. But we are also thrilled to be able to broaden our reach, and try to “catch” some of the children who tend to fall through the cracks for one reason or another.

We are able to cast a wider net because Story Stage is not formal speech-language therapy or academic language therapy. Yes, those are our professional fields, but we will never tell you that Story Stage can replace your one-on-one therapy time if your child needs it. In fact, Leigh and I feel like one of our biggest roles at Story Stage is to help guide parents to the resources they need to help their child. All the professionals and terminology out there can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you are new to the world of kids who learn differently. In this blog post, we hope to begin to clear up a few things.

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We thought it might be helpful to profile some of the inquiries we get, and give you an insider’s view into how we would respond. Note: These profiles and names are fictional and represent a compilation of many different students. However, they reflect the “typical” type of call we often receive.

Alexa, age 12, private school student:

Alexa has no problems reading or writing in school. In fact, she’s a great student. Alexa doesn’t have any type of formal diagnosis, and has never received any type of therapy or tutoring. Her teachers describe her as very bright, if a bit quirky. However, Alexa has trouble connecting with friends. She’s not good at small talk, and struggles to pick up on social cues, like body language and tone of voice. Alexa finds it confusing that her friends aren’t interested in hearing her talk more about her love of reptiles, but her friends get frustrated that Alexa makes “random” comments when they are trying to have a conversation. Sometimes when her friends respond sarcastically, Alexa takes their comments literally. She gets her feelings hurt and gets angry inappropriately because of these social “disconnects.”

Here's what we told Alexa's parents:

Alexa’s story made us think she might be at risk for a social communication disorder. While we would love to have her in a Story Stage class, we recommended that Alexa’s parents also seek a evaluation with a Speech-Language Pathologist trained to work on social communication. The American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) defines social communication as the “rules for how we use language in different situations and with different people.” Story Stage is a great place to practice role playing things like small talk and understanding sarcasm. When we improv theater scenes in class, Alexa would get fantastic practice in responding with on-topic comments to extend the conversation. However, we wanted to be sure that Alexa didn’t need more focused intervention even though she was obviously a very high functioning student. Our best advice was to get an evaluation first, then schedule a Story Stage class the following semester. www.asha.org/public/speech/development/social-communication/

Spencer, age 9, public school student:

Spencer is a math whiz, and has the social schedule of a celebrity. Everyone wants to be around Spencer. He is good at making others laugh, and can also laugh at himself. Spencer’s parents recently went to his teacher conferences, and were told that Spencer is struggling with the writing assignments in third grade. Spencer’s teachers say that he has trouble organizing his thoughts into grammatically correct sentences, as well as putting sentences together logically to write a story. Spencer’s parents commented that when Spencer tells stories of his day at home, they don’t always make sense and are difficult to follow. They weren’t sure what to make of it, and they usually just helped him along as it didn’t seem to bother Spencer. Spencer goes to speech-language therapy once a week with a small group at his elementary school.

Here’s what we told Spencer’s parents:

Spencer is a great candidate for a Story Stage Class. Each child in our classes builds their own narrative story in the form of a play. Spencer would get lots of practice in story organization, while getting real-time feedback on whether or not his story makes sense as he and his peers act out scenes. Because oral language is the foundation for written language, Story Stage Class could really boost Spencer’s narrative writing skills. However, we also recommended that Spencer’s parents work closely with the SLP in Spencer’s school. We recommended they ask: 1) When is Spencer due for a re-evaluation?; 2) Do Spencer’s goals for therapy include narrative language goals and/or sentence building goals?; 3) Would it be possible for Spencer to go to therapy twice a week instead of just once?

Geneva, age 16, homeschool student:

Geneva is a quiet, thoughtful teenage girl. She attended a public elementary school until 6th grade, but then transitioned to homeschool. Geneva has a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, and has been in therapy to work on social skills for many years. Her mom reports that Geneva does well in school when the material is straightforward and fact-based. However, as the curriculum has gotten more complex, Geneva struggles with questions that require her to make predictions about what might happen, draw inferences, and come up with solutions to problems. She has good ideas, but it often takes her a little longer to get them across. Geneva’s mom is hoping that a Story Stage Class might give Geneva a place to practice her conversational skills and problem solving skills in a safe, supportive group.

Here’s what we told Geneva’s parents:

We felt like Story Stage was a great fit for Geneva. Because she was already receiving speech therapy and had been recently evaluated by a neuropsychologist, we felt this was a good time for Geneva to try out her skills in a supportive group setting. Working through story-building with a group of peers requires a lot of problem solving! We were excited to get Geneva in class and help guide her to predict what might happen next in the plays we would create. We also thought that improvising dialogue would be great practice for Geneva’s conversational skills and also for her inferencing skills. (What might you say in a scene to let the audience know you are a marine biologist?)

All three of these students had great semesters at Story Stage! Alexa’s parents got her in to see a speech pathologist, but therapy was not recommended at the time. (However, we all felt better having ruled out something that might have required one-on-one intervention). Sometimes it helps to have someone who’s “been there” give you a few tips along the way. We love writing plays with your children, and we also love helping you along on this journey. What we love best though is that Story Stage is a place for the whole child, diagnosis or not.

What Jenna Taught Me (Post by Leigh Scanlon)

When we receive shocking news, we all remember where we were and who was with us. I remember where I was and who I was with when news arrived that the Space Shuttle was struck with disaster, or when the Twin Towers collapsed. These kinds of stories are part of the universal experience that unites us all. As a community we followed these stories as they unfolded and grieved for the suffering of the victims. We found resolve in a time of uncertainty and grew closer. We loved our loved ones a little harder and thy neighbor a little deeper. We asked why did this happen? What went wrong? How do I move forward?

On the day I received the news that my daughter had a language disorder, I felt as if the rug had been ripped out from under me. That was five years ago, but I can still remember vividly where I was standing, what I was wearing, and what I was feeling at that moment. It wasn't that it was entirely shocking or surprising; I had certainly noticed that my daughter’s speech and language were delayed compared to her peers. On several occasions, Jenna's teachers and other professionals had even alerted me to Jenna’s speech delay. I also knew in my gut, as mothers do, that something was not right. But no matter what had been previously discussed, it did not prepare me for what I saw written in black and white. The results of the evaluation became real and raw when spoken by a professional giving a diagnosis. All I could think was, "Why did this happen? What does this mean for my child?" I was devastated. Of course, this is not on the scale of the world tragedies like the Space Shuttle crash or 9/11, but for me and my child…. our course had changed. Things would not unfold as I had envisioned.

If you have a child who has been diagnosed with a learning difference, you know how I felt. It's those feelings of uncertainty for our children's futures, where the plans we had for our children suddenly seem turned upside down. It's that gut-wrenching feeling of not knowing where to turn, who to listen to, or what steps to take next. It's those days when we refrained from telling a friend or neighbor about any of it, for fear that our children would be judged or misunderstood. It's this day we grieved, suffered, and were left with questions. We felt alone and will remember this day when a doctor, therapist, or a diagnostician told us the story that changed our children's paths, and also changed us.

For me… Jenna’s diagnosis gave me a bigger purpose in life. At the time, I was teaching in a private preschool that I adored. I began to see my role as a teacher in a different light, and became an advocate for children who were not meeting their educational milestones. I felt a new sense of responsibility to communicate with parents honestly about their children, and to share concerns from the classroom. I also decided to take my career in a new direction. I wanted to learn more about how to work with a child with learning differences. Not only did I want to help Jenna become a better reader and writer, but I also wanted to help other children who would need the focused, intentional learning that children with learning differences require. After much research, I decided to train as an Academic Language Therapist, through The Academic Language Therapy Association and the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council. Today, I am so happy to be an advocate, not just for my child, but for other children who struggle as well. Through Jenna’s story, I found my people, my passion, and the joy that comes when we help kids find and see their true potential.

Today, Jenna is a bright, spunky eight-year-old who always wears a smile. And yes, she has a learning difference, and her brain is “wired” differently. With the right support and interventions, Jenna (like all children with learning differences) can do well in school and grow into a successful adult. Yes, her journey may be different. My journey is different, too, and most days I'm really grateful for that.

I can remember my wise grandmother telling me, "Through pain comes triumph." As a teenager, this sounded odd to me. Why must we experience pain to feel or do good in this world? I didn’t understand then, but now as an adult, I do. Beautiful and wonderful things can appear out of tragic times. It doesn't necessarily take away the pain, but goodness can be found.

It is my hope that wherever you are in your child’s story ... a new diagnosis, or one you've know about for years ... that you will share that journey to help other parents. I invite you to subscribe to our blog so that we can share here. There's no judgment here. In our community, you are not alone and many of us have learned to see the beauty in our children’s personal stories.

Here in the pages of our Story Stage blog we hope that you will find a sense of community, guidance, resource and direction. We hope to help you and your child navigate their story.

Stories Are My Superpower

…and why I want all kids to have it too.

In the Spring of 2003, I was sitting in a movie theater with my then 4 year old son, Sam, waiting for the new Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, to start. I thought it was supposed to be a sweet story about some fish. Yeah...right.

Back then I was a young Mom wrestling with the idea of sending my little bundle of love and incessant energy to kindergarten the following Fall. It's all I could think about. Would he be okay? What if something bad happened, and I wasn’t there to save him? How could I know for sure which school would be best?

About mid-movie, the sweet story about fish turned on me. Was this a parenting class? I didn't sign up for this! But there it was. Nemo was about to teach me a lesson I'd never forget, as the little fish on the big screen seemed to start talking directly to me.

Nemo's Dad, Marlin, was trapped in the belly of a whale and had given up all hope of finding his son. He told his friend, Dory, "I promised him (Nemo) I'd never let anything happen to him." And Dory replies, "Well, that's a funny thing to promise. You can't never let anything happen to him, then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo" (because she could never remember Nemo's name).

My heart was suddenly in my throat. I caught my breath. I may or may not have promised something similar to Sam once or twenty-five times.

Back on the big screen, Marlin and Dory were hanging on for dear life trying to decide whether or not to let go and fall to the back of the whale's throat. Dory started speaking "whale" and translating to Marlin, but I didn't need a translator. What I did need was a box of tissues:

Marlin: What is going on?

Dory: I’ll check *starts speaking "whale"*

Marlin: Stop it! You can’t speak whale!

Dory: Yes I can!

Marlin: No you can’t! You think you can do these things but you can’t Nemo!!

*Marlin freezes, and realizes what he’s just said.*

Dory: He says it’s time to let go! It’s gonna be all right.

Marlin: How do you know?! How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?!

Dory: I don’t!!

No tissues. Nope, not even a napkin. Couldn't even see the fish on the screen through my big ugly-cry tears. In less than 10 minutes, the master storytellers at Pixar had bared the raw truth that every parent in that theater felt to their core. It is HARD to let go.

I think about Nemo every time I have to summon my strength and remind myself that I "can't never let anything happen" to my children. I thought about it a lot when I dropped Sam off in New York City for college this past August. Fourteen years later, it was time to really let go.

Sam has ADHD. How do I know for sure that he will be okay? That he will remember to turn in his assignments, manage his time, focus enough during lectures, keep up with his keys and I.D. card? How do I know something bad isn’t gonna happen? I don’t. But I do know that I'm not alone...and so did Pixar.

Story is our universal experience. It reminds us that we are not alone. With this blog we hope to share our stories and insights as professionals and as parents. We created our program, Story Stage, to help students with learning differences find their voice and be able to share their stories. All sorts of children struggle with verbal and/or written expression, and they all need to be heard and understood. Story Stage is a creative, collaborative place where we work on building narrative language for social skills and for academics. But, this blog is a place for you...the parents, and teachers, and therapists, and all who support and advocate for our children who learn a little differently.

We have so much to share with you, we can hardly wait! Here's what you can expect in the weeks ahead:

  1. Straight talk about therapy and tutoring. We hope to address confusion in terminology and professions, and share our insights and opinions about all. Leigh and I have 20 + years of experience, professional and personal. Between us, we have 3 children who learn differently. We've done our homework and research, we promise.

  2. Review games, books, movies and other products that you can use at home to build your child's language and literacy skills. We will also give you ideas on how to intentionally use these products with your children.

  3. Share research articles and reports in everyday language, so that we can start a conversation about the work that's being done to help our students.

  4. Link you to other great blogs and websites geared toward helping our students with learning differences.

So why are stories my superpower? First of all, they help me find "my people," ...you know, the ones who understand my journey and are willing to walk it with me. And second of all, they helped me do well in school. Stories are important across the curriculum. Think about it: math story problems, historical stories of World War 2, Macbeth, stories of climate change and space exploration. The list goes on and on.

The fancy term for this is narrative language skills, and there's lots of research to support it but we'll get to that later. For now, know that I think it's one of the most important skills we can purposely build in our children. There's not a skill set in the books that will get you more bang for your buck. Narrative skills help you make friends, advocate for your cause, write essays, and figure out what numbers to manipulate to solve your math problem.

So, if I could give your kids a superpower, what would it be? Story Power.

Stay tuned. We will explore lots of ways to build narrative skills both to make friends and make grades. Thanks for joining our conversation.