Amanda Morin of Understood: “Invest in the science of learning to consider neurodiversity in all of its facets”

Invest in the science of learning to consider neurodiversity in all of its facets. In recent years, advances in the science of learning have illuminated the ways in which ways humans learn. We know how to provide powerful, transformative experiences for all learners. Through neuroscience, psychology, and education research, we have begun to understand the […]

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Invest in the science of learning to consider neurodiversity in all of its facets. In recent years, advances in the science of learning have illuminated the ways in which ways humans learn. We know how to provide powerful, transformative experiences for all learners. Through neuroscience, psychology, and education research, we have begun to understand the ways in which students can be best supported to thrive — through engaging, effective learning experiences.

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 Amanda Morin of Understood.

As the associate director of thought leadership expert at Understood, Amanda Morin leads efforts to build knowledge of learning and thinking differences, and establish Understood’s social impact work as evidenced based and authoritative in the education field. An author and parent advocate, Morin has been working in print and digital media as a writer and editor for over 15 years, empowering parents and educators to affirm the pivotal roles they play in children’s education. Morin worked as a classroom teacher/early intervention specialist for 10 years. She taught kindergarten and worked with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities and led multidisciplinary teams to develop and implement Individual Family Service Plans.

Morin received a B.S in Education from the University of Maine and special education advocacy training from COPAA. She’s an advisor for the CAST/OSEP Center on Inclusive Software for Learning project and board member of both, the Scarborough Education Foundation and Matan’s Professional Advisory Board. Morin also holds a certificate in Universal Design for Learning from the UDL Implementation and Research Network.

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 come from a family of educators. My grandmother was a teacher and both of my parents were school psychologists. Teaching has always been a part of my life. Watching children learn amazes me.

I got my degree in elementary education and child development. When I was a classroom teacher, I was always drawn to the students who were a little more complicated or harder to teach. They seemed familiar to me, and it was years before I made sense of why, which is because they reminded me of the kind of student I was when I was growing up. I then shifted into early intervention, working with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities. I also provided education and training to parents.

When I had my own children and it became clear that they were neurodiverse, I had a choice to make about how I was going to show up for them and others. In part I made the choice to show up by shifting who and how I was teaching. I pursued training to become a parent advocate and moved from the classroom into education writing to teach parents. I’ve written several books on learning, including The Everything Parents’ Guide to Special Education, to help the average parent navigate complex educational systems.

I made the choice to lean into teaching my children that while they may need extra support in some ways, difference is just part of the human experience and celebrating and telling the world who you are isn’t shameful, it’s brave. It’s a choice that has pushed me to speak publicly about my own neurodiversity in genuine and sometimes vulnerable ways.

It’s also a choice that led me to work with Understood, a social impact organization that supports educators, individuals and families like mine to understand difference and learn how to thrive.

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?

It’s so difficult to pick the most interesting story, especially since in my career I’ve worked in so many different types of environments, but some of the most striking and memorable stories come from my time working in classrooms. Very early on in my career, I worked as support staff in a classroom for fourth and fifth graders with what was then known as “behavioral impairments.” (That’s since been changed to “emotional disturbance.”)

These were students whose behavior was seemingly too out of control for them to spend most of their day in the general education classroom and they faced a lot of stigma. The teacher I worked with was phenomenal and built a classroom culture in which all students felt safe, respected, and not defined by their differences.

One of those students was a tough kid with a lot of bluster who didn’t let anybody get too close to him, both literally and figuratively. He consistently got into trouble with other teachers and often got sent back to our classroom, where he’d respectfully sit right down and do his work. One day, he went too far, got suspended, and was sent home in the morning.

The next thing I knew, the students were coming in from lunch recess and there he was, walking in the door with the rest of the class. He told us he’d walked from home back to school because he’d rather be in school than at home. Home was too scary, he told us. School wasn’t. In school, he knew that if he did something wrong, we’d still welcome him back without being angry.

From that I learned the importance of looking beyond who we think students are and to challenge our beliefs that what we see in front of us is the whole story. It taught me to be empathetic, to start looking beyond any diagnosis students may have, and to actively build trusting relationships with my students.

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

I’m working on several exciting projects! At the end of March, my latest book, Adulting Made Easy: Things Someone Should Have Told You About Getting Your Grown-Up Act Together, is being released. It’s a book that tackles and answers the questions many young adults don’t even know to ask as they start being fully in charge of their own lives. Many young adults, especially those who learn and think differently, find some aspects of being independent and having to advocate for themselves challenging. If we provide them with the tools they need to survive and thrive, they’re much more likely to feel a sense of self-efficacy and be successful.

While that focuses on young adults recognizing what they need to thrive, Understood’s Take N.O.T.E. initiative, another project I’m working on, guides the key influencers who think a child is showing potential signs of learning and thinking differences to find support. It was developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and first launched in the fall of 2020 with caregivers at the center. We’re expanding the 2021 initiative with free, digital-first resources to support educators as well. Take N.O.T.E. is a mnemonic device highlighting four steps to identify possible learning and thinking differences:

  • Notice if anything is out of the ordinary
  • Observe behaviors to determine patterns
  • Talk to other teachers and caregivers to validate
  • Engage with trusted resources, like pediatricians

Lastly, I’m excited to be working with a great team on a new Understood community initiative. We’re working to broaden our community later this year to expand educational support and deep user interactions to address the pain points many people experience as they navigate the ins and outs of learning and thinking differently.

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

I prefer to think of myself as a trusted, respected and authentic leader, garnering me authority instead of making me one, and I’m continually striving to grow as a leader. I think my authority comes from the multiple ways I’ve showed up in the education field over the past 20 plus years.

It comes from the on-the-ground experience of being a classroom teacher; I understand where teachers are coming from, what pain points they face, and the joy that comes from knowing you have the skills to ensure all students grow and learn from you. As an early intervention specialist, I spent a lot of time with families when they were first learning how to navigate learning differences and disabilities and was privileged enough to have them include me on that journey.

I’ve also earned authority through my lived experience, which I spoke about in my backstory. But I also came into the digital media space during a time when information that was written in positive, parent-friendly, non-medical ways wasn’t typical. It wasn’t common to have people providing free practical, actionable advice and support for families to understand issues around difference, disability, and special education. Instead, parents like me were spending their time reading medical journals, hearing stories of failure from other parents, or listening to clinical descriptions of what might happen in the future. It was frightening and lonely.

That’s where Understood comes in. I had the unique opportunity to help launch Understood in 2014 and use the combination of my skillset and life experience to proudly work toward changing knowledge, attitudes and behavior around how the world views and interacts with difference.

I tackle life with the belief that inclusion is non-negotiable. Nobody should ever have to prove that they belong, nor should they be apologetic about difference. It’s a view I bring to every interaction I have, whether it’s on social media, in my writing, with my own children’s teachers, providing professional development for teachers, talks with family support groups, or in national and regional keynote speeches. It’s also a view that has made me a visible, credible, and trusted authority in the field.

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?

What I like about this question is that the focus is on the education system. In some cases, it’s critical to look at the systems apart from the people who work in them, and education is one of those cases. Our schools are filled with talented, hardworking educators, who truly want what’s best for all students. That said, they’re working within a broken system that allows some of our most vulnerable students to slip through the cracks.

In my very first educational theory class in college, I was intrigued by John Locke’s concept that an adult’s role in educating children is to allow them to be curious, to answer their questions, and to help them explore what interests them to increase their knowledge. It just made so much sense. And while I wouldn’t embrace all of Locke’s theories of education, it’s striking to me that over 300 years later, we still haven’t embraced the idea that an education system’s role is to create expert learners by providing them access to knowledge via multiple means.

Systems change is slow-moving and that’s evident in public education, which as an institution is very risk averse. While it would be disingenuous to say there isn’t innovation happening in education, it is accurate to say it’s not happening at scale.

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

We’re doing a lot well, and it tends to get lost in the conversation about what we’re not getting right. We’ve recognized that family engagement is a critical factor in student success. That’s led us to increasingly include families in conversations and decisions about their child’s education. We’ve recognized that in most circumstances the least restrictive environment (LRE) for students with learning disabilities is in the general education classroom alongside their peers. We’re embracing the concept of Maslow before Bloom, which at its simplest means that students need their basic needs met before they’re ready to learn. All of this has happened because we have so many driven educators who are dedicated to the idea that “all means all” when it comes to learning and keeping those educators in our classrooms is truly something great.

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?

The education system is at a crossroads right now. The pandemic has upended the systems that we’re used to, which gives us an opening to rethink them in new ways. That rethinking is the first key area to prioritize. We can’t let the opportunity to take back into brick-and-mortar classroom the learnings that have come from having to quickly adapt to new ways of teaching pass us by. That’s the first. We also need to:

Rebuild an equitable, inclusive education system thatempowers students with the skills and support to thrive in life. Equity is top of mind right now and that means considering the needs of all students, including the 20 percent of the population that have learning and thinking differences; variations in how the brain processes information (such as ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia) and that can impact skills like reading, writing, math, and focus.

  • In K-12 schools, more than half (54 percent) of the students in special education have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for learning and thinking differences — categorized as specific learning disabilities (SLD) or other health impairment (OHI).
  • 7 out of 10 of students with IEPs for SLD spend 80 percent or more of the school day in general education classrooms. The same is true for two-thirds of students with IEPs for OHI, making this more than simply a special education issue.

We need to support students, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. Research shows that what is effective for that 20 percent is effective for all students.

Meaningfully support the use of diagnostic assessments. We need to determine academic, social-emotional, and physical needs in order to prioritize support and services. Schools don’t need to look for new or improved assessments. Instead, to support students through diagnostic assessments, it’s important to focus on effectiveness, not efficiency, and consider multiple measures, such as qualitative and quantitative and formal and informal data. In the 2019–2020 school year, students missed or lost about 30% of learning, making high quality, evidence-based curricula more important than ever. The gaps in learning are greater for:

  • Elementary students
  • Students who didn’t receive their designated special education services and supports
  • Students living in families that have experienced financial instability or poverty
  • Students who live in low-income communities
  • Black or Hispanic/Latinx students who have experienced police violence towards minorities in their neighborhood
  • Students who have experienced illness or deaths in the family

Invest in the science of learning to consider neurodiversity in all of its facets. In recent years, advances in the science of learning have illuminated the ways in which ways humans learn. We know how to provide powerful, transformative experiences for all learners. Through neuroscience, psychology, and education research, we have begun to understand the ways in which students can be best supported to thrive — through engaging, effective learning experiences.

Apply what we know from the science of learning. This is especially critical to supporting our most vulnerable and marginalized students, for whom reducing the time it takes to close equity gaps will have lifelong implications. Studies show:

  • Barriers that prevent students from reaching their intended goal can be reduced by careful planning and design — be it in physical spaces, virtual spaces or thorough policies;
  • Flexible and supportive environments improve outcomes for all students.
  • Using data-backed, proven best practices empowers educators to become more informed, confident, and effective.

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

We’re headed in the right direction by talking about the importance of STEM and adding it to the curriculum in many schools across the country. Still, access and participation are limited for many students, including those with learning disabilities, especially when it comes to AP STEM classes where the use of accommodations shouldn’t be a barrier, but continues to be. Interestingly, the use of technology in STEM can make it more accessible to students with disabilities. We can increase engagement by:

  • Integrating STEM into other classes instead of isolating it as its own subject.
  • Highlighting the myriad of career paths that exposure to STEM opens up for students.
  • Dispelling the myth that STEM is coding and computer programming in order for students to see how it can enhance their future.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage the learning and thinking differences community in STEM subjects? How can parents and educators help the community pursue STEM and list three ways to increase this engagement?

In STEM, thinking differently is an incredible asset. In fact, companies like Google and Microsoft have hiring programs devoted to recruiting neurodiverse employees. It’s an entire field that relies on outside-the-box thinking to problem solve and challenge assumptions. STEM gives students who already think outside the box and tend to excel at hands-on learning a chance to truly thrive, which is something educators and parents can stress to increase engagement.

It’s also important to help both educators and students understand that the built-in accessibility features in some of the technology used in STEM classes can accommodate and remove barriers to learning.

Lastly, I’d say that students who learn and think differently may have had more than their share of failure. They often work twice as hard to get the same results as their peers for the same shining results, which makes them hesitant to take risks. Letting them know that in many aspects of STEM, failure isn’t the end, it’s the beginning of an iterative process of improvement may alleviate hesitance to try something new.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) 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?

In some ways, I think it’s a false dichotomy. There’s a natural connectivity between STEM and the arts. My college-age son, who is neurodiverse, helped cement my thoughts on this a few years back. He’s an award-winning videographer and photographer. The work he creates is truly art. However, there’s also science behind it. He built a camera dolly, which required an understanding of engineering and physics, and with every photo that he takes he’s using math to calculate the angles.

Thinking beyond my own home, though, research scientists write up the results of their experiments to publish in journals, which takes not only scientific skills, but also strong communication skills. Inclusive design and architecture sits right at the intersection of art and engineering — most buildings aren’t just structurally sound, they’re aesthetically pleasing, too. While appreciate the debate, I don’t think it’s that easy to separate STEM from STEAM, nor do I think we ought to.

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?

Provide a living wage for teachers! When I was a classroom teacher, I was barely able to live on my salary, and was only able to do so because my state has a low cost of living. I always had a side gig, whether it was tutoring, teaching summer school, or writing. If we want to retain quality teachers, we need to pay them what they’re worth so we don’t lose them to the private sector.

Invest in trade schools, not just monetarily, but ideologically. Our current education system tends to see college as the optimal post-secondary experience. But for so many students, it’s not. I’ve seen too many students who learn and think differently drop out of college because the core classes weren’t worth sticking out to get to what they really wanted to learn. We need to start normalizing the value of going to school to become things like a cosmetologist, an HVAC technician, a mechanic, a medical assistant, or a culinary artist.

Incorporate social-emotional learning into all classes. It’s always puzzled me that we so often only teach these skills to students who we think lack them and not to all students. I’ve seen so many students eagerly try out their new conflict resolution skills with classmates who can’t engage with them because they don’t have a common language or shared understanding to use.

Require dual certification for general education and special education for all teachers. This one is important enough to me that I’m going to count it as my fourth and fifth change, in part because it requires changing teacher prep programs as well as certification requirements. Currently, many teachers are only required to take, at best, a few classes in special education before they leave college. But we know that every teacher is going to have students in their classroom who need extra support.

I was so ill-equipped to support those students in my classroom when I began teaching. In fact, once I took additional courses in special education, there was a time when I felt like I should apologize to all the families and students I didn’t know how to support. I felt like I’d failed them all and as if I shouldn’t be in the classroom. So many educators struggle to see their own successes, especially while teaching during a pandemic, and many are leaving the classroom because they don’t have the professional development and support they need. All educators should be able to feel a sense of self-efficacy, feel confident in knowing they’re using evidence-based practice, and have the tools and training they need to support all students.

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

My favorite quote is by Neale Donald Walsch, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Anyone who has spent any time with me will tell you how often I talk about needing to sit in a place of discomfort before you move forward. To be honest, pretty much everything I do is outside of my comfort zone because I’m a walking contradiction. I love meeting new people, speaking about my passions, learning new things, and teaching, but I’m really a very introverted, shy person who gets easily sensory overwhelmed and anxious in crowds and by traveling. I’m constantly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone in order to be a better version of myself, to do good, and to do my part to leave the world a better place for having lived in it.

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 🙂

Oh, so many amazing people to choose from! There are two people I’d love to sit down with: Brené Brown and Hannah Gadsby. I have such admiration for both. Brené’s work has informed so much of my own work on empathy and taught me to show up for and lead others the way they need me to, not the way I think they need me to. Hannah’s work just makes so much sense to me. It’s the kind of funny that makes me laugh so hard I can’t catch my breath, and it’s also the kind of recognizable truth and experience that makes me nod emphatically and follow my partner around the house asking him to “just watch this because it’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all these years.” And I feel like both of them would be perfectly comfortable sitting in what, for other people, might be uncomfortable silence, but for us would just be silence.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can also follow Understood on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook for helpful information to support the learning and thinking differences community.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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