Alyson Young of ‘The Learning Lab’: “Executive functioning skills”

Another valuable shift I’ve noticed is towards the recognition of how much exercise and diet impact learning. Again, it’s not perfect but people are starting to realize that for kids’ brains to work optimally, they need to move their bodies. These programs are moving in the right direction. As a part of my interview series […]

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Another valuable shift I’ve noticed is towards the recognition of how much exercise and diet impact learning. Again, it’s not perfect but people are starting to realize that for kids’ brains to work optimally, they need to move their bodies. These programs are moving in the right direction.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Alyson Young.

Aly Young was a passionate and dedicated teacher in public, private, and charter schools for 10 years with her bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Psychology before opening The Learning Lab. After becoming a reading, ESE and ESOL endorsed teacher through Broward County Schools, she noticed that there was a lack of individualized instruction for children with learning differences that was based in the neuroscience of reading.

The Learning Lab’s niche and expertise is reading, writing, and math interventions for children (K-8th grade) with specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. They also work with students with ADHD, auditory processing issues, and children who struggle with executive functioning skills. Aly utilizes research and evidence-based programs to provide expert instruction and remediation that are all backed by the science of reading. All of Learning Lab’s instruction is data driven and collaborated with the entire “ecosystem” of every child to reach the best results. Her ultimate goal is for every struggling learner to be able to demonstrate their brilliance in school and in life!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I was a psychology and sociology double major in college, and I did not know what I wanted to necessarily do with that type of degree, but I was just really interested in people, how they work together and how they interact. I’ve always had a love for working with kids so when I graduated, I got a job working as a first-grade teacher’s assistant where I met my mentor, Fran Rubio Katz. I did not know anything about the pedagogy component of teaching at the time. I learned just by being in the trenches and my background on the psychology component helped me to understand my students’ behaviors. Fran taught me a lot about mindful discipline, and we practiced Conscious Discipline as our classroom management system. From there I became a certified Florida teacher and started teaching first grade. Throughout the years after that I taught Kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade. Those are all big reading years, so I taught hundreds of kids to read and began to understand that their cooperation, and their success, was based very much on my connection and relationship with them.

It was just really amazing to see how all these other classrooms were being managed under a reward or punishment type of system and what I was doing with my kids was so different. A lot of the administrators were a little skeptical of that, but it turns out that I really did get the best results with my students because I had that relationship with them, and I wasn’t trying to create a sort of fear-based environment. Something that I did notice oftentimes was that the children who were having behavior problems, (typically the boys would have explosive behaviors and the girls oftentimes would have more like implosion), were exhibiting behaviors and emotions due to something going on beneath the surface. Those behaviors were really just a symptom of something else.

I became a reading endorsed teacher and started working as a higher-level specialist/interventionist in the school. At that time, never did anybody ever say the ‘D’ word, Dyslexia. In all my training throughout all the years that was never discussed or if it was, it was breezed over as one minor topic. I started realizing that for certain kids, the reading just wasn’t clicking, it wasn’t coming naturally for them. And at the same time, many of those kids were also having behavior problems.

I’ve worked in private, public and charter schools and I realized there was something missing. It didn’t feel right. Finally, when things were so unstable, my mentor Fran said “let’s do our own thing where we can work with these kids to teach them in the way that they need to be taught so that they can feel loved, successful and understand that they are amazing and smart, they just learn differently”. So, I joined her in this venture in 2014 and since October 2019 I am the sole owner of the Learning Lab.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have to say, when I think of the kids that have experienced the best results at the Learning Lab, I really have to think about our core values. Our core values at the Learning Lab are a marathon mentality, an attitude of gratitude, a growth mindset, an open heart and being goal driven/action oriented. We created those core values because we have seen what it takes to be successful in these types of programs.

There are two kids in particular that stick out in my mind when it comes to this. They were both so far behind, reading about two years below grade level, but they were “well behaved” in school. They both were very smart, social and likeable but just slid beneath the radar when it came to academics. No one even noticed that these kids couldn’t read. It was their parents who acknowledged that there was something going on, and they needed to get help in a different way. Nobody (at the school) was listening to these parents when they would continuously say “there’s something wrong”. It really was that growth mindset and marathon mentality to be ‘all in’ that helped these children thrive. Of course, the kids had to be cooperative and have some “buy in”, but it was the parent’s that had the willingness to put in the effort. They understood this was not going to be just a quick fix over the summer, and it is the children of those parents that really have the best results. When the parents model and demonstrate a “marathon mentality”, grit, and a growth mindset, they set the stage for their children to follow suit. It’s not about intelligence, it’s all about their work ethic, grit and mindset.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

A new project that arose out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been our homeschool support program. We created this program for kids that are a year or more behind and need the time to be completely pulled out of a traditional school setting, remediated and caught back up so that they can get back into the traditional school of their choice.

The new virtual schooling norm just does not work for certain kids. Many parents are realizing this level of attention and specific kind of instruction is what their child needs or may have needed even a year or more ago. This new level of awareness and shift in perspective due to the pandemic has helped us hone in on and perfect this program. Parents are withdrawing their kids from their public-school, taking charge of their child’s education by getting our help to do the teaching and appropriate interventions. Homeschool parents are expected to show the state data about progress and keep track of what is being worked on, so we provide weekly reports and constant assessments to cover all the bases for them. The kids have been having incredible results and are so happy. It is really amazing to see.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

I think the reason I consider myself to be an authority is because I understand the flaws in the system and how to address them. I see how this particular population of students just get lost in the system so consistently. I hear the same stories from parents every single time I talk to them, the same pattern of experiences that these parents are sharing with me. I understand exactly why this system is failing so many kids and I’m just following up on that information by implementing what the science of reading shows in regards to how to optimally teach kids. It’s pretty simple, really. I think that’s really where our strengths are and why we’re so successful.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

There is a reading to prison pipeline that many people do not know about. Third grade reading test scores are actually how the prison system predict what prisons will look like when those children will be 18. Third grade is when kids with learning differences hit what is called the “third grade wall”. They hit this “wall” because third grade is when students are no longer explicitly being taught how to read. They are now expected to open their textbooks and read to learn.

Why not look at that data in a different way and recognize we have a big problem here? What can we do to use that data in a proactive way? I don’t know how to necessarily “rate the results of the US education system”, but as a whole we are missing a huge opportunity by not really looking at the data with solutions in mind. We’re not educating our teachers to recognize the signs and to understand the science. I think that teacher’s professional development must discuss the brain science of how we learn to read and how to provide appropriate interventions. As somebody who was a teacher, speaking from experience, no one ever talked to me about Dyslexia. I even received extra education to become reading endorsed and no one ever talked about the science of reading. I think that by not looking at the data critically and not educating teachers about research, behaviors, and what to look for, we really are failing so many of these children.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

It’s hard to talk about the US as a whole, but I do think that I have noticed much more of a shift towards social and emotional learning. The term SEL has become more popular and I notice a shift towards understanding the importance and significance of teaching children about their social emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Understanding that building emotional intelligence, your EQ, is just more important, when it comes to a successful future, than your IQ. I don’t think it is where it needs to be yet, but I have seen a shift in that direction.

I also think more and more teachers, probably more predominantly in the younger grades, are understanding the importance of “flexible seating” and “brain breaks”. Not every kid is going to sit in a chair all day long and that’s OK. Maybe their brain literally can’t focus or engage when they’re sitting in a chair. Some people focus better when they can stand or sit on a ball chair. As long as they’re working and focusing it shouldn’t matter.

Another valuable shift I’ve noticed is towards the recognition of how much exercise and diet impact learning. Again, it’s not perfect but people are starting to realize that for kids’ brains to work optimally, they need to move their bodies. These programs are moving in the right direction.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Early identification — speaking specifically about Dyslexia because it impacts around 20% of the population. Going back to the prison pipeline, many of these people that are in prison, they’re finding that a lot of them are Dyslexic. If they just learned how to read, maybe they wouldn’t be there. The research shows that children can be identified as Dyslexic by the time they’re around 5, maybe five and a half. The intervention and teaching of how to read appropriately takes much less time when children are younger (5–7) as opposed to if they are identified when they are older (8 and up). If we can nip this in the bud from the beginning as opposed to waiting until they have emotional issues and poor foundational reading skills, it could make a huge difference. Sadly, many of these students who are late to be identified develop additional issues such as; anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They often times feel like they’re stupid or not good at school. These kids start to hate school while they are in 4th or 5th grade. If someone recognized this problem and identified it earlier, it would make a huge difference in their lives and in the overall mental health in our communities.

A lot of times certain principles are very focused on the black and white, like the quantitative data but not paying enough attention to the qualitative data. I’ve experienced this myself for example, I had this 4th grade girl a few years ago and she sounded beautiful when she read, but she could not tell you a single thing about what she had just read. She could tell you a beautiful story, but she couldn’t put it down on a piece of paper. She was very smart and likable, and all of the teachers loved her, but she just slipped through the cracks. When we spoke to the school they weren’t concerned because they said, “it’s not impacting her grades or her school day”. But as it turns out, this girl was going home every night and stress eating and ended up developing an eating disorder. Even though it hadn’t affected her performance in school, she was feeling so much angst inside. I feel like there’s not enough attention and focus on what’s going on behind the scenes with these kids and why they are feeling these certain feelings. As it stands now, they don’t qualify for any help because they are “passing”.

Really understanding the science behind how children learn. What I focus on is of course the science about how Dyslexic children learn. The science shows the only way for a dyslexic child to learn how to read is through an explicit, systematic, sequential, multi-sensory, and intensive program such as the Orton-Gillingham method, but it also shows that it’s beneficial for everyone to learn how to read using this approach. The “Whole Language” approach to reading instruction is what is typically taught in classrooms now. The more we move away from Whole Language Reading and more towards science, the better.

Executive functioning skills. Teaching kids executive functioning skills as explicitly as we teach them that 2 + 2 = 4 is crucial to success. Kids don’t know how to study, get organized or plan for assignments. Everyone expects them to open their agenda (or computer) and know what to do or how to get started. They must be taught these skills.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

I think that there’s been some really great shifts toward magnet programs that provide STEM. There is a magnet school in my neighborhood that has a marine biology program and it’s amazing, but STEM shouldn’t just be available in a magnet program. It should implement across the board and infused in the curriculum. I say throw out (or recycle) the science textbooks and engage in science through hands on, multi-sensory exploration and engagement. That’s how kids learn. They are not really going to learn, take ownership and become passionate about something like STEM through a textbook.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

I think the idea that we need to engage girls more in these subjects is a due to outdated gender stereotypes. Little boys are given tools to play with and bugs to explore. Little girls are given dolls and kitchen sets to play with. So, starting from a very young age we start to think boys are good at certain things and girls are good at different things.

I think by normalizing exploration, discovering, asking questions and engaging kids in science and math through life skills at a young age will eradicate the false impression that science and math are boy things.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

We can increase engagement by showing children examples, teaching out of the box, teaching them to think outside of the box, teaching them to solve problems and helping them understand that these things aren’t just “boy things” or “girl things”. Not to give him another gender stereotype example, but my daughter in preschool is baking almost every day, that’s math. She’s four years old and when you’re four, that’s math. I’m not expecting her to know all of her numbers, but she’s doing math and science every day. Show children that science and math can be untraditional in the things they are already doing.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I am pro-STEAM. The reason I feel it is so important, is because although having the science, technology, engineering and math exposure is critical, the amount of background knowledge, confidence, culture and open-mindedness that you gain from being exposed to humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music and visual arts, is at the core of building a well-rounded person.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

First thing I would say is teaching our educators the importance of differentiating instruction for students who are not neuro typical learners. Following the science behind how to teach children to read efficiently is critical.

I also believe teaching executive functioning skills, life skills, and exposing students to many different trades is vital. I know people always joke and say, “turns out I spent another day of my life not needing to use the Pythagorean theorem, but I sure do wish someone taught me how to do my taxes or how credit works”. Beyond that, culture, open-mindedness, how to think for yourself, thinking outside of the box and being creative with more focus on the arts and music could absolutely improve our education system.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

At the Learning Lab, one of the quotes that we believe in is “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. That is an Aristotle quote that totally rings true for me. We can only get so far academically, if we have children that are emotionally unhealthy. We must consider the significance between how children learn and building trust, honest connections and relationships with their teachers. We cannot expect a child to learn without the social and emotional aspects in place. Learning is an emotional process and understanding that, is the most important thing.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama is an incredible role model for all kids. Not only everything that she has accomplished herself professionally as a woman, but also what she’s been able to give back to the community and the kind of person that she is. Everything she did as the First Lady to encourage kids to move their bodies coupled with educating children that what we put in our bodies fuels our brains is absolutely one of her greatest legacies. I think she made huge strides in her time as first lady. She embodies how to be a holistic healthy person in mind, body, and spirit.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can keep up with the Learning Lab on Facebook and Instagram.

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