Don’t let a learning difference stop you in your tracks with Elisheva Schwartz
Don’t let a learning difference stop you in your tracks
Preparing for GCSEs and A Levels can be incredibly difficult for students with learning differences; the very real pressure to do well can have a detrimental effect. In this episode, I talk to Elisheva Schwartz about how she came to realise her own learning differences didn’t have to hold her back by working with her individual strengths and weaknesses instead of against them.
Elisheva is a dyslexia researcher, mother, wife, intelligence re-define-er and podcast host. She’s on a mission to decode the dyslexic mind, and empower the dyslexic community to fully understand both the strengths and the difficulties of the processing style. Elisheva focuses on dyslexia, having been diagnosed with dyslexia herself, after spending her school years struggling to conform to educational expectations. She feels it’s important to raise awareness of and conversations about learning differences and how students can use these differences to their advantage.
What we explore on the show
In this episode you will hear:
- About the impact on Elisheva’s mental and physical health of trying to keep pace with other learners and perform in exams as a dyslexic student
- How she managed to fall in love with learning outside the school environment
- About the frustration of wanting intellectual stimulation but not being able to keep up with the demands of school
- Tips for parents on how to make learning more accessible for a child with learning differences
- About how labels can be useful, but understanding what works best for you/your child is best
- Why Elisheva uses the term ‘learning difference’ rather than ‘learning difficulty.’
Lucy: Welcome to the School Success Formula, Elisheva Schwartz.
Elisheva: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's such a delight to have the tables turned and have somebody else do the interviewing for a change. So, um, I'm just really enjoying being here. Thanks for reaching out.
Lucy: Yeah, because you're a podcast host as well, aren't you? Tell us the name of your podcast Elisheva.
Elisheva: Sure. So my podcast is called the Dyslexia Quest and I use dyslexia as a back door to talk about all sorts of topics like individual differences in learning, optimized learning environments, holistic flourishing, and just how to support non traditional students that are kind of round pegs, sometimes feeling like they're being squished into square holes.
Lucy: Yeah, definitely. And I've listened to your podcast and it's absolutely amazing and actually I've, I stole one of your guests, Lisa. Fantastic. Yeah. Wonderful. Yeah. Brilliant. So firstly, Elisheva, can you share with us your story about growing up dyslexic yourself and how you came to be a dyslexia quester?
Elisheva: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. And I'm actually really glad to be talking to parents that have high school age children because my background being somebody that was an non-traditional learner, I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when I got to third grade and I was diagnosed with just general learning disability, which I later realized was dyslexia and later was diagnosed as dyslexia. Um, I had a very difficult time in the school system by the time I was in third grade, I just was significantly falling behind the other children. That's when all of a sudden you switch from learning to read, but reading to learn. So my literacy skills, my numerous skills, numeracy skills just couldn't keep up. There was a really strong emphasis on a lot of rote memorization and getting the, you know, the building blocks for learning. So there's a lot of procedural learning, a lot of rote learning.
And that's when like I just started really hitting a wall academically. And a lot of my frustration started showing up behaviorally. And I started getting anxious and snarky and teacher started having a difficult time with me and I started getting, you know, sent into the hallway and sent to the principal's office. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was getting suspended for a few days at a time. But the story really comes to climax when I was a junior in high school. And I love talking about this time period because when people talk about students that are not flourishing in the traditional school system and especially with the conversation around learning disabilities or learning differences, very often we think of the second graders, the third graders, because that's when you start seeing those individual differences in learning because, um, that's when those issues start to really come to the forefront in terms of spelling words and literacy, and, um, picking up language and memorizing the multiplication tables. But actually there's another time period where all of a sudden it becomes a stressful time period again. And that's very often when you're getting ready for university. And that's because there is so much pressure at this time very often to perform well on standardized testing. And, uh, to be recognized by, you know, to be picked or chosen or recognized by a school and accepted. And so very often even if you have students that kind of found their rhythm, found a way of operating in school that works for them, all of a sudden those latent stresses and anxieties come to the forefront once again as they're getting ready to prepare themselves for standardized testings, for applying to universities. And so it can be an extremely stressful time. And it was for me and just the thought that I had this inaccurate thought that I felt like the rest of my life was really contingent on how well I did in school at this period of time in my life. And um, it completely paralysed me and at some point I got very rundown and fatigued and I woke up one day and I just couldn't face another day of school. That anxiety and the stress and the worrying of, you know, how I'll get my grades good enough to get into the university I wanted to get into, um just got to me. And I ended up staying in bed for several months. I dropped out of school for half the year and that was really my rock bottom moment where I realized I couldn't continue that way and so a lot of my life changed after that time when I got back to school at the very end of my junior year after being home for half a year, but that kind of was my body saying, you know what? We can't continue with the way that things are.
Lucy: That's so shocking, that just the atmosphere around education and your difficulty in achieving an education had such a profound effect on your physical health.
Elisheva: Yeah. Well for me, I never really got recognized as being an individual with learning differences. It was never talked about. A lot of the work that I do in the world is about having the conversations that I wish were had with me at a younger age and about educating parents about understanding individual differences in a way that my parents never did and can ever talk to me about. So a lot of that is addressing that gap. That was really salient in my life, but I continuously tried to just do school the way my friends were doing it and I was always doing double as hard and a little bit behind. So I was working against my strengths perpetually fatigued and perpetually frustrated that I didn't feel like I was recognized and celebrated for both the effort and the understanding that I felt like I had. But also I think a lot of what ultimately contributed to my psychological and physical breakdown were beliefs that I had at that time period that just weren't accurate. And beliefs about how important university will be for my career life. Beliefs about you, you know, university would be my opportunity to either be intellectually stimulated or not. Um, I felt like I had this belief that all of what I wanted to accomplish in the world was behind the doors of specific universities and that's really giving over your power and your agency in your life. That's a very disempowering stance to take and it proved to be ultimately disempowering. So, um, I think that if I would have, um, not not bought into the narrative that depending on which school I go to, that's going to be where my future opportunities in life will lay, if I didn't buy into the narrative that if I get into a good school that would prove to all my teachers and prove to all my students and prove to myself that really I was intelligent, really I was capable, really I was competent, um, and also I was really craving to be intellectually stimulated; For years of being in the educational system even though I was struggling in school and not really thriving in standardized testing and not really getting the best grades, I was also bored and wanted more intellectual complexity instead of making a commitment that being in engaging intellectual environments or creating engaging intellectual environments are so, you know, seeking out friends that were willing to have those conversations and looking for audio books and looking for Youtube lectures by authors instead of committing that that energy would always be a big part of my life. I gave that over to, you know, I just hope that I'll get picked into a school that will deliver that for me. And now at this point in my life, I'm very committed because of the impact of that decision, that if there's something that I'm really craving, something that I'm really wanting in my life, I always ask myself, how can I ensure that that's a part of my life? So if I want adventure, if I want intellectual stimulation, if I want intimacy, if I want comfort, the question becomes, um not, you know, let me hope that I find the perfect job, or you know, something outside of my control comes into my life, but how can I actually find small ways in the life that I have right now to address that feeling? So I think that that, those, those kinds of shifts really make a difference in terms of your psychological resilience.
Lucy: Definitely. Yeah. That's amazing. So take us back… You have this real low period. So was it making that shift from believing that it was up to other people like the universities to say yes to you and that was what was going to determine your future, this reliance on others to actually having that faith and belief in your own personal agency, was that part of your turning point?
Elisheva: Yeah, that was a huge part. I mean, I was playing the game of try to get into a top university so that I can prove to myself and prove to others that I really have all this unseen potential that nobody was seeing and also so that I would, uh, be intellectually stimulated and fulfilled. And when I hit that rock bottom moment, I promised myself that I couldn't continue with this internal violence that I had in my own mind of saying, you know, you got to push yourself more. You got to do harder. You gotta make this work. You got to like exert yourself. You got to, you know, do whatever. Whatever it was that I was, I had this little cheerleader inside of me from, you know, second grade, constantly telling myself, put one foot in front of another even though I was really working against my strengths and against my skillset and it got to a point where that discomfort from being so critical on myself and pushing myself so hard was more uncomfortable than what I thought the benefits of what I dreamed would be behind, you know, a top fancy name brand university and I just promised myself that if I was going to experience difficulties in life, I want it to be from other people and other circumstances. Not because I'm so hard on myself and I'm pushing myself so strongly and I'm, I really have this kind of mean inner sports coach in my mind that's just always saying, you know, do better. You're not good enough. Push yourself harder. So I just chose. I remember so clearly the moment where I just chose, you know, no more violence internally.
Lucy: That's so fascinating because I think so many people in today's society have that internal violence, you know, ‘comparisonitis' on social media. It's like trying to force yourself to live up to academic expectations in school and I think it's just incredible that you made that decision and I think I can hear it in your voice, the softness with which you hold yourself and I just find that fascinating. So can you tell our listeners today actually what you do now because you have had amazing academic triumphs from what I understand. So how have you actually been able to achieve that by overcoming this internal violence as well as the learning… well, the problems that you had with your own learning?
Elisheva: Yes, absolutely. So one is when I graduated high school, I was completely burnt out on the cycle of trying to prove myself with grades in the beginning of every semester. I would be super optimistic and I would promise myself, you know, this is the semester that I'm going to do amazingly and everybody's going to recognize my brilliance and I'm going to get the top score in the entire grade. Um, and I would be super enthusiastic and really just, um, like when you commit to a new relationship and your heart is wide open and then often it would come to the testing or the finals at the end and because I didn't fully understand my learning difference and I didn't know how to support myself in terms of assistive technology, um, you know, if it would be a standardized multiple choice test in the classroom, I didn't know that I needed to advocate that either I have somebody read it to me because I was constantly misreading things or you know, taking it home to do it in a quieter room. But whatever the reason was and I would underperform on my grades and I would just be crushed. And this cycle was just wrecking havoc on my nervous system and my self sense of self esteem. I just kind of like had this belief that doesn't matter how hard I try somehow. Um, I won't see the success that I'm looking for. And I felt very disempowered. So when I got out of high school, one of the best things that I did is I took a break. I took a two year break before going back to university and I ended up, I did a gap year in Israel and then I actually got another, um, I ended up getting a Jewish studies fellowship here in New York City that paid me it to study. But what was nice about both those learning environments that completely changed my life is there was no homework, there was no test. It was all just for the delight and enjoyment of learning. There was absolutely no pressure and I was able to really transform my relationship to learning because it was not about proving yourself. It was not about accomplishment. It was just about just the delight and joy of exploring things that were naturally interesting to me. And so I promised myself at that time that any of the studies that I would go further would just be because I was desiring more learning because it was fun and delightful. And I waited until I was at that place where I was old enough that I was, that I felt like I took a break, my nervous system recovered and I was craving being in a learning environment and I really wanted it. And then I went back to school and I studied cognitive science. And at that point I was already extremely interested in educational environments, extremely interested in why our schools, look the way that they do in today's day and age, very interested in motivation, very interested in, um, you know, intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation. So I came in to the cognitive science department studying cognitive science and psychology already very interested in the subjects. There was personal meaning attached. And so my learning experience was very different.
Lucy: Amazing. Yeah. So what did you do, you know, you said when you were at school you didn't understand your own learning difference and how to accommodate and allow for it. So what did you do when you were in those two years in between school and university and while you were actually at university to enable you to learn with that sense of joy that you've just described to us?
Elisheva: Yeah. Well, so in the two years, the main thing that was different, which was that I just, there was a no testing and no homework environment. So it didn't matter how much slower specific skills came to me because it wasn't a race and that completely transformed my perspective on learning and it's actually the experience I had was really poignant because I was in this Jewish studies Jewish philosophy program and I was studying a lot of Hebrew texts. So as a dyslexic who decoding, you know, dense English is difficult for me, dense Hebrew. It was really something that naturally comes very slowly to me. But I realized that when there's no pressure to perform at the same pace and level as other people in your age bracket and you're not getting tested on it and nothing's timed, that even an activity that comes to me with a tremendous amount of struggle if I'm interested in it and I don't put any pressure on myself and there's no need to decode the piece of text at any specific pace. I can take as long as I want with a study partner or with a dictionary figuring it out. That even something that is really difficult for me can be a delightful experience that I chose to do and you know, it was only doing it for the joy of it. And I get into a lot of conversations in my consulting practice with parents about how much should I push my child to do the decoding and do the reading and the writing and do the spelling. And I always say that it depends on so many factors. Because if they're trying to keep pace for in that specific classroom environment with all the other fourth graders or all the other fifth graders, then having them actually read it in a book instead of an audio book will hold them back. But there are other environments maybe you know, at the beach on a, you know, on a holiday afternoon, during the summer. Maybe it's just with family where there are other environments where if you take out the pace level that you have to, you know, decode this at the same pace as everybody else at your age group. Or you take out the performance level where you're getting tested and you get graded on it. Really. As human beings, we can always move the needle in terms of our skills and our abilities. And I saw that I went from being exposed to Hebrew language pretty much the same age that I was exposed to English language like maybe four or five. And I spent my entire years going through a Jewish day school hardly able to read Hebrew because of the stress of the embarrassment of my peers picking it up so much quicker than me had me not want to even take any risks, and I had this aversion to even trying to decode the Hebrew, to being in this really depressurized environment where I could be as much of a novice as I wanted to. I had to deal with my own self consciousness and embarrassment, but I dealt with that pretty quickly. I pretended it was the first time I was encountering Hebrew instead of seeing Hebrew since I was four. Um, and in this depressurized environment, notice that anything we put our attention to, we can move the needle. The question becomes, is that worth it? Sometimes it is worth it. Sometimes it isn't worth it, but I think we're always able to grow and flex our cognitive muscles.
Lucy: Yeah, definitely. That's a real growth mindset. You know, that belief that you can always get better. You can always improve no matter, you know, how your brain is wired, you know, what your social circumstances or your family circumstances are or whatever. I think that's the real message of hope. You've taught there briefly about how parents can kind of moderate learning for their children with learning differences and you know, recognizing for example, when they just need to have the information and it doesn't matter whether they read it or hear it or see it and you know, when they can take the time. Have you got anything else that you can say to parents who maybe are struggling with a dyslexic child or you know, with other learning differences and to help them to make those decisions, to make education more accessible and more successful for their children?
Elisheva: Yes. Um, one is self awareness is key. So everybody learns slightly differently. There's no two people that have the exact same strengths and weaknesses profile. Everybody has their own preferred ways of learning and everybody has a different profile in terms of strengths and weaknesses and values and characteristics and interests. And so parents creating a culture in the home where the question of which way do I learn best is constantly brought up, is transformative. And I deal with a lot of parents. And in this, you know, they're trying to figure out their children in second grade or third grade and it can, it can be stressful for the child because – and for the parents, because they're asking their children, you know, which way do you like to learn best? Is it best when you listen to, an audio lecture? Is it best when you write notes is best when you highlighted and you know, the third grader, the fourth grader, they don't have the self awareness to know exactly. And so then it becomes like, I think my learning style is highlighting, but I'm not actually sure. And then it becomes stressful. Like, did I say the right thing? Maybe I'm making it up and it's not really my best learning style. And it's all inaccurate. And so what I'd like to remind people is it's not about having the right answer. It's about knowing to constantly notice when something's really enjoyable, really delightful. When you're thriving in that environment, maybe you're thriving more than your peers and when something seems extra laborous and you're struggling more than your peers, it's about developing the awareness so that you constantly are like “note to self: This was an environment I was thriving.” “Note to self: This is not one of my strengths,” and as you continuously make those note to self's and you talk about it with your kids and the kids talk about with their parents. Hopefully by the time you get to university, you'll be so tuned in with the ways that work for you. You'll be able to customize both a study plan and a life that really works for you.
Lucy: That's just amazing. One of the chapters of my book is all about learning what learning works for you, what, what, what methods of learning work for you, but you've just explained it so beautifully. It's like this constant scientific experiment, isn't it upon yourself and this constant sense of curiosity about how your brain works to really kind of maximize it and have that sense of flow in your learning, isn't it?
Elisheva: Yeah. Yeah. Like I hear all the time, people are like, I'm not sure if I'm dyslexic, I'm not sure if I'm ADHD, you know, I don't know, am I in or out? And I'm just like, just notice, do you need a quiet environment? Like it's less these, these tools, these names are helpful because they have us think about the archetypes, they have us think about things that have been helpful for most ADHD people, things that have been helpful for most dyslexic people, but if you're one of those people that you're like in a loop where you're like, sometimes I feel dyslexic, sometimes I feel not, then don't worry about the label, and if you've noticed that listening to audio books always helps you, then you know, just go ahead and listen to audio books. That's literally what's going to make the difference in your life. The label is only a jumping point for you to find tools and resources that are helpful, but if the tools and resources are helpful, make a difference in your life, then just go and run with it.
Lucy: Yeah. It's such an enlightening and empowering way to think of it. Okay, we've nearly run out of time because I've got to run off and fetch my kids from school, but um, I just wanted to pick up on the, the term you use: ‘learning difference' and we've used it throughout this podcast, but I think when I heard you use it for the first time it, that was the first time I'd heard somebody use it. No, I just think it's a really beautiful way of explaining, you know, the differences between different people's brains. I just want to get your perspective on why you think it's a more accurate term than maybe it things like learning difficulty or learning disability as well as being a kinder term.
Elisheva: Yeah. I love how you phrased it because I really do think it's about accuracy first and kindness second. And one of the reasons I actually started my whole entire podcast is because I kept hearing things about, you know, the strengths of the dyslexic processing style, the gift of dyslexia. When I was in university and I was studying learning disabilities and no one ever talked about the strengths of my university program only from a deficit based mindset. But then at the library and online I started hearing like whiffs of this ideology and I was at the place in my life where I was just like, I would wish that this is true because this is such an empowering nice mindset, but it's possible that all these individuals that have learning disabilities are successful despite their learning disability, not because of their learning disability. And I said I come from a science background – I'm super inquisitive. I'm going to start a blog where I talk to all the people that are actually involved in laboratory research, showing the strengths of the dyslexic for us processing style and seeing if it's research, if it's evidenced based. And what I found pretty quickly is that it is evidence based, there is a plethora of research and the way it works, the way it works with all strengths and weaknesses is on the other side of every single weakness is a strength. And on the other side of every single strength is a weakness. And you see it in personality psychology all over the place that you know somebody that is very, you know, conscientious, on one hand, maybe a little neurotic, on the other hand, there are just two sides of the same attribute and the same thing in terms of learning differences where very often you're seeing a trade-off where it's big picture at the expensive of small details or wrote procedural learning. So it's big picture narrative ideas at the expense of really procedural rote information. So it's forest at the expense of trees and Asperger's on the other side of the continuum is tree sometimes at the expense of seeing the big Meta forest picture. So, um, it works like that with everything you even see in terms of really extreme developmental disabilities. You talk to people that have children that have Down Syndrome and other extreme developmental disabilities and their parents would say, you know what, without the extra specific cognitive abilities that they lose with Down Syndrome, they're extra, you know, emotional capacities that get opened, extra spiritual capacities that get opened up with these, these individuals. And you really see that it's a constant trade off with one skill and ability is really… that's the way the brain works. And I can go on and talk about this more for like an hour in terms of many columns in the brain and how the brain is specialized and how, you know, we use different parts of our brains for different skills, but I know you have to get the kids, but the, the main gist of it is that there's no such thing as having a significant deficit without that also being the other side of a strength.
Lucy: That's so empowering to hear. I've used that word far too many times today, but you know, it's just fascinating and you've given us such an insight into, you know, the real positives of having a learning difference and how parents can be really… I'm going to use the word again, empowered to find ways to make it, help their children to thrive in education just by finding the things that work for them and taking the pressure off where the pressure doesn't need to be felt. So thank you so much. It's been an absolute joy to talk to you. I feel really bad that I have to cut it off.
Elisheva: Do you have 30 seconds for me to say one more thing just for anybody listening that gets frustrated by that and feels like, you know, my learning difference or dyslexia or ADHD, whatever is getting in the way of all my dreams and I'm struggling behind my friends and it feels like a disability. I do want to say that in specific environments you are disabled, but it just means you need to find other environments where the other folks that were thriving in this environment feel disabled in that environment and that it can be a disability in specific environments, but you just need to find the right sandbox to play in.
Lucy: So true, so true. So, Elisheva, can you tell us, I'm sure there's going to be people who are gonna want to know more about you, get more of your amazing wisdom. How can people find you and listen to your podcast and all that kind of stuff.
Elisheva: Yes. It's at the Dyslexia Quest on Instagram. Please join us. We have, you know, um a really nice community over at Instagram and Instagram is where I'm really enjoying being and otherwise it's ElishevaSchwartz.com and Elisheva Schwartz on Facebook
Lucy: And if they search for the Dyslexia Quest that's in, um, the podcast apps?
Elisheva: The podcast is in iTunes and Stitcher and I think a couple other podcasts, but if you go to my website, elishevaschwartz.com, you'll see all the podcasts there also, or you can just search on itunes the Dyslexia Quest.
Lucy: Fantastic. Well thank you so, so much for sparing the time for us today.
Elisheva: My pleasure. Thank you, Lucy.
Lucy: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Connect with Elisheva
The Dyslexia Quest Podcast on iTunes
More podcasts on dyslexia and learning differences:
Lucy on twitter: @LucyCParsons
Contact Lucy by email: firstname.lastname@example.org