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Richard Selznick

Focus of Interview:

About Dr. Selznick, the Book “The Shut-Down Learner”, learning difficulties in children, problems in reading, and how to improve reading skills.

Transcript of the Interview

 

Mike McQueen:

Welcome Everyone! My name is Mike McQueen, your friendly teacher-librarian. I’m here interviewing Dr Richard Selznick, author of The Shut-Down Learner. Dr Selznick, are you there?

 Richard Selznick:

I am. Hi Mike!

Mike McQueen:

Hey! Thanks for taking time to interview with me here.

 Richard Selznick:

It is my pleasure.

 Mike McQueen:

So Dr Selznick, would you start of by giving us an overview of your professional experience and background? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Richard Selznick:

Sure! I am a psychologist, I am the Director of The Cooper Learning Center which is a part of the Department of Pediatrics, Cooper University Hospital in the hospitals in Camden, New Jersey and my office is out in Vorhees, New Jersey. I have had, you know, lots of years in experience with kids that are struggling reading, spelling, ADHD issues, a whole range of things. And I was a former teacher, many millions ago in a galaxy far away at this point. You know, I also worked at a school for learning disabled adolescents when I was a young psychologist. It was a while.

Mike McQueen:

Alright. And tell us about your book, The Shut-Down Learner. What inspired you to write that? And give us a little overview about that book.

Richard Selznick:

Yeah. Well, you know, there were these kids over the years that I tracked in counseling or evaluating them. That just kept coming up to me as fast as kids really shut down, you know, shut-down learner and as we’re speaking right now, you know,  a number of them just kind of I see the image of these kids surfacing and they tend to follow a fairly consistent type of pattern.

 You know, and the pattern was they were often much more hands-on, spatial, visual in style. They were pre-action oriented kinds of kids but the whole reading, spelling, writing part of them didn’t work very well. You know, there was often related family tension growing, you know, depending upon the age and stage of the kid. There was quite a lot of tension around school, in getting work completed, you know, the back and forth arguments so which added to the shutdown in nature and that’s what sort of what’s behind the book, working with those kinds of kids.

 And I continue, I mean I do continue to do it, you know, evaluations, consultations, trying to help parents. I can’t be very, give a meat detail of a down-to-earth approach to psychiatry since I try to stay as much as I can  away from jargon and labeling. You know just trying to do a practical approach to it.

 Mike McQueen:

Right, right. And that reflects in the book too. It’s very practical and easy to understand and easy to relate to and I love the other examples of different students, you know, kids’ hypothetical means of different problems that they’ve gone through. That’s great.

 Dr Selznick:

Right. Yeah, thanks. And those are all very real kids, you know, anyone of you – those are people that I have interacted with over the years which sort of interesting.  There are also a bunch of adults in the book, you know, in terms of adults who identify with this kind of style and what’s happening in their lives.

Mike McQueen:

Well one of the – a lot of people that look into this mostly are parents and teachers. One of the first things that they have concern about is what are the warning signs to look for with someone that is a shut-down learner? So, what can you give us?

 Dr Selznick:

One of the things I talk about is a sort of formula for the shut-down learner and I joke since I was never good in math and I am really proud that I have this sort of formula, an algebraic formula, and the formula goes something like this. We have cracks in the foundation plus time, plus lack of understanding, plus strained patterns of family communication = a shut-down learner.

So my way of thinking is, what are those cracks in the foundation? Which are the first things that start to kind of lead toward a person becoming shut-down and I think that as early as kindergarten, maybe even earlier, but let’s say kindergarten you can start to see signs of what will potentially later lead to a child being discovered as shut-down.

 And you know, these early signs are what you see with when people talk about dyslexia and learning disability and they include things like, you know, letter naming, you know, not just singing the alphabet  song but being able to name letters at four years old, five years old, sounds that go with it, you know the associated sounds and phonemic awareness. All those kind of activities, you see kids that are a little bit, you know, rolling around in circle time, you know, not because they’re purely often erroneously called ADHD but because they have difficulty with language functions that are involved with circle times.

 I think you could start to see a child at five years old, show some of the indicators. The other thing that you might see is a child very positively, you know, loving things like legos and hands-on and being a very visual style child. And some people say, “Oh so if my kid loves legos. Does that mean he is going to automatically become a shut-down learner?” No, but that combination of difficulty with phonemic awareness, rhyming and really thriving with hands-on activities, those should be some of the things to monitor and watch.

 You know, first grade, you know, I will be looking at the reading development, the spelling, you know, the basic decoding skills, how are they emerging. And you know, too often people tell, “Oh you know how boys are, you should just wait it out” and I just take the very opposite approach to that, you know.”

 Mike McQueen:

So it’s like diving right in, right away.

 Dr Selznick:

Right, I think so because when you go back to the formula of cracks in the foundation plus time, that’s a very important part of it because very often the cracks are there.

And then, the parents are sort of told, “Well let’s wait and see.” So now, the cracks are widening so time is kicking in and there is sort of a lack of understanding. That’s the third component, lack of understanding where, oh you know, he just doesn’t like to read or he’s not motivated or he just should try harder. I mean that shows to me a lack of understanding because, you know, really what’s contributing to the child showing those are skill deficits that he had back you know when those cracks were first identified.

Mike McQueen:

What would you say because a lot of parents and teachers worry they don’t see, you know, the problems don’t really surface right away when they’re young like in younger elementary school. A lot of the problems with struggling readers or just kids in general like may be showing shut-down role surface later in elementary school or middle school.

 What common warning signs would you say about those older kids?

 Dr Selznick:

Well the older kids, you know I think one of the and its a simple test that parents can do. You know reading fluency is a huge contributor to kids getting discouraged. So let’s say you have a fifth grader or a sixth grader and you haven’t really necessarily you know, no one’s picked up on it. And the school said, “No we think he’s okay, he’s kind of average. Oh, open up a representative book and listen to the child read. Does it sound smooth? Does it sound like it’s comfortable, comfortable style reading, fair, fluent, automatic?” I joke with parents and say, “It sounds like he’s driving down dirt road with a lot of pot holes, you know, very choppy, bumpy road.” You know, how does it sound?  You know you could tell that right away. I mean that’s something that the parent – you don’t have to be a trained reading specialist. I don’t think, I’m not knocking that, but you know you can hear how smooth it sounds. I think that is a huge indicator. You know, no one likes to read when it’s strained you know, and laborious and choppy. Reading is hard enough without those variables, you know.

 Mike McQueen:

Well, and I think a parent that who’ll gonna be looking for those possibilities, they would just need to make sure that they’d pick a book that is in the correct themed grade level you know, because I think a lot of parents would probably just grab some, any book and not even realizing that it could be difficult.

 Dr Selznick:

That’s correct, that’s really important. Yeah you have to make sure that it’s fit to a fifth grader. If a school has sent home a representative social studies book or science book or story or ask a child to read it out loud, how does that sound? So yeah, it should be within reasonable rate of their instructional level.

 Mike McQueen:

So what are some common problems that you know notice with reading with shut-down learners? I know you talked about type one and type two readers in your book. What are some examples of problems that you notice?

Dr Selznick:

Well you know, the type one readers are the classic dyslexic style kids and you know, part of the problem, like I said, many of the kids that I described in the book are not seen as severe enough to warrant service to special education. There are many kids who fall into the lower end of the average range where the parent pushes for evaluation and they get, you know, the message, I think from special team, “Well you know he’s okay.”

 Well, often this type one readers, they say these are the ones that show the signs of difficulty with phonics, decoding, breaking words down there. They particularly have trouble with large, unfamiliar words. I always use with parents an example like porcupine. You can go through three or four years or five years of reading material at school and not hear upon the word porcupine.

Virtually every kid I work with knows what a porcupine is, but many of these kids when they see it in the text don’t have you know, they don’t have the skills to break that word down. So they’re guessing at it, they’re saying ‘perkepuny’, you know that kind of thing.

 The type one readers are the classic dyslexic style, meaning they have mild, minor, severe decoding problems, they have reading fluency difficulties and it’s somewhat of a misnomer that they always have spelling and writing problems. They might be able to memorize the spelling test, but they always have trouble spelling when they’re writing in context and they’re often in trouble when they’re asked to spell, you know, words in isolation. So that’s type one. They’re the ones in vast majority that do get researches to special ed. This is a very very common syndrome, the type one difficulties. And I just use type one, type two because they kind of make sense to parents, you know. It’s a simple kind of model.

 Type two are the kids that read fluently but when you ask them what they’re reading, you know, tell me the story back or use the example of telling me, where the Eskimos go when they left the village. You know, “What Eskimos?” So the whole text passes them by or maybe not the whole thing but the comprehension, they have trouble with  factual answers, with high order thinking and inferential reasoning, all those kinds of things. And that’s a very different style child in terms of the breakdown and the remediations required, you know, than the type one kid.

Mike McQueen:

Right, okay. So that skill, they may be just don’t have the disability or problem, learning problem they just lack the skills to be able to read.

 Dr Selznick:

I mean you often see difficulty showing up, you know it gives the Wechsler you know, WISC and stuff and Wechsler.  You often see cognitive variables that may be contributing to some of this comprehension problems, you might see a low vocabulary score for example or low similarity sub-test on the WISC that would predict some of these comprehension difficulties. So they question clear issues that are often, yeah, that can be identified with these type two kids.

Mike McQueen:

Okay. And you mentioned earlier that language, what can you tell us about the importance of language with reading and shut down learners?

Dr Selznick:

Well, you know the whole language – to me its a sort of a language-based system. I try to explain it as systems to parents, you know like, I can see the visual system, working well for example so the Lego kids, they put blocks together and they can make you know, spatial designs and create drawings and they’re wonderful with that kind of visual and hands on system. But when it comes to the other side, you know, the kind of language system there’s so many complex little sub-variables like you know distinguishing between phonemes or sounds.

 You know you hear the difference between /a/ and /i/ you know. Can the child distinguish that easily or blending sounds or  they just may have, you know I mentioned in the book “tin ear” for language, that was a term that was used. You know, like when you have a tin ear for music, you know, you’re not yet very good with picking up sounds with music but sort of like the same concept with language. Or you know, you may not connect to rhyming patterns or when you’re listening to stories, you may miss a lot of the information.

 And so the language system is often seen to be on the weaker side with these kids. And you know, since reading is a language process, reading is language but then printed form. It would stand to reason that you know with the language system, even without reading is not working as well that you know, you could see that kind of contribution.

 Mike McQueen:

And I know there’ a lot of research about the importance of the first five years of child life and how many words are occurring to family, especially kids that come from poverty or lower income families and lack of words when they start school don’t have a wide vocabulary and I’m sure that that plays a role in foundation of reading  is low.

 Dr Selznick:

That’s a huge contributor especially to the comprehension side. I mean I think it could also lead to type one issues but yeah the research is pretty clear that those kids are not getting the kind of exposure to, you know, the schema, the words, you know that are available and significantly less vocabulary and word awareness in terms to see amount of words that they have been exposed to that kids from better circumstances is getting. Even kids who have been read to or brought around, you know, reasonable middle class can have these issues. You know, and that’s a lot of what I was describing in the book too.

 Mike McQueen:

I have a mini-course that I’ve developed with different lessons to teach parents and educators how to help struggling readers. This is called Eight Ways to Hook a Struggling Reader. One of my – I don’t want to give away because you know I might get you bored but I don’t want to give away. But one of the things I talk about is parents and teachers trying different things. What are some of the techniques that you could suggest to parent and teachers, what are the things that they could do to try to help their child or student if they’re starting to shut down? And specifically with reading, I mean, I guess you can say in general but if you can guide to a reading, what are some of the important things you that you think could be done?

Dr Selznick:

Well, you know with the parents one of the things we talk about which isn’t exactly answering your question to start with I think it gets the thought going is that in particular the moms, that the moms really need to trust their judgment. You know, if they think something is going on with the kids, there usually is. And I really try to validate that for moms but if there isn’t something going on then okay but most of the time when mom has suspicion that there is some kind of reading difficulty, then there usually is.

 Now a lot of what your question is I think is very dependent on variables such as the age of the child, you know, the stage of development, you know how shut down, how discouraged. A lot of the boys which you’re specializing in which I think is great, the boys I saw with my own son, come 5th grade, and he didn’t have a reading problem are just becoming immune to reading. They’re much more oriented toward you know, quick cut visual activities and reading as a process has become really hard.

 You know so much depends on whether the child has a legitimate problem or not, you know is the child unmotivated because of these issues we’re talking about. If that’s the case I would really encourage the parent if they can if they have the resources to find a good tutor, what we call a Learning Therapist, who can work with the child. There’s nothing like skill development to help motivation, you know if your skills are weak, then that motivation is going to be undercut.

 So you know, if you have a 7 or 8 year old child who’s still pretty positive and you know, willing to go to this learning center twice a week then do that if you can. At home, you know, make it fun. Try to find books within that range of interest. You know, baseball, there is great authors and they’ve gotten in a whole series of books that kids love and sports books, you know things like that.

 You also have to really pay attention to instruction level this is – I’ll find this discussed enough in the modern kind of educational world but it’s somewhat old school concept. Independent in instructional frustration level you know if you go to the library of Barnes and Noble, you know wants to look cool and take a book that’s just way too hard, well that’s trying to shut down and discourage the child from reading so really  track harder that kind of independent. Where is it comfortable, that comfortable range where you can read without too much assistance?

 And I’d say take the tension out of it you know, there’s a lot of tension at home around reading. “Oh what’s that word again? You’re not paying attention.” You know, those kinds of messages are just generally not helpful, see try to make it positive. I would also suggest carving out some time, the early you start this, the better. You know, if you sort of create a bit of a quiet time that “Okay, between 7 and 8 is our family reading time, this is what we do. And there’s no you know computer interferences, there’s no net, TV but this is what we do.” And then the early you start that kind of habit then, when the kid’s 12, “Oh this is what we do.” You know, so I kind of like that and wish we have done that in my own time.

 Mike McQueen:

When you mentioned that you know try to find books within the instructional reading level, you know, I agree with you. I kind of always encourage parents to let teachers worry more about the academic training. I mean because it’s tricky because as parents we are also supposed to help them learn and do stuff at home.

 So many parents like you kinda mentioned, they get too intense and they (???) you know kids really have to – you know, I think parents have a great opportunity to try to instill a love of reading by you know, immersing them in books and things that they like. Just like you said, if a kid likes baseball you know, you get them more kinds of baseball books.

I typically don’t worry too much about the reading level you know, if it’s a younger reader and they pick a book and even if it like a 7th grade reading level about baseball. They may find, you know they may find information just out of the pictures or even if they can’t really read it but just going through by looking at it, they’ll you know in their minds they’ll be thinking, “Hey I’m reading you know, I’m reading a book about baseball.”

 Dr Selznick:

Yeah you know Mike, to say a point and I certainly think there’s a lot  of truth to that. I think that in many ways you have to sort of go individually at a time you know is your child a kind of kid who’s gonna pick up a reasonable biography say on Ted Williams and you know, maybe not a lot of pictures if it’s too far above his head, he might have a sense in his reading but you might wanna guide the child little closer to that fit, with that range, with reasonable fit between their ability level and what’s on the page.

 With that said, I also think that you know, reading aloud and having a parent read the page you know when kids are getting older. You know, come out and lets read together, you know listen to the story putting books on you know a CD and listening to it. You know, you get a lot out of that as a process and that’s where language development certainly continuous and learning you know, getting a lot more information coming in you know, the enjoyment. So I actually agree with you.

Mike McQueen:

I think teachers struggle with the same thing, they have so many different kids, so many different learning styles and interests, it’s hard to keep up especially if things change. You know, kids don’t always stay the same.

 Dr Selznick:

Yeah it really is because also one of the factors, I was thinking about is, to answer one of your questions that you had sent me in the email. You know, teachers have, you know, its mixed ability grouping in their classrooms by mark. You know the old ways seems much more stratified you know the  90% talent above kids were in one class to the next one down. You know, that kind of thing, but now its mixed ability grouping for better and for worse.

 So what happens when you have a kid who is able to swim in the deep end of the pool, you got a few of those kids who made a dip in the pool but these kids are really comfortable in the shallow end of the pool, that’s very hard as a teacher. You know it’s hard to not have those shallow and kids feel a sense of embarrassment because of you know they are reading sort of picture books when the kids out in the deep end pool reading much more you know they’ve got through the books Harry Potter, you know, that kind of thing.

 Mike McQueen:

Okay last topic, help me understand about, you mentioned action-oriented and visual-spatial help me understand how teachers and parents can first of all figure out if the kid is more visual-spatial and then what do they do about it?

 Dr Selznick:

Certainly it’s a family style, you do see often one parent say oh I was just like like that as a kid and if you listen to the professions that the parent has got involved with what we, usually one or the other parent is involved with say, you know they’re entrepreneurs, they’re business people. You know, my friend is a trade show designer who he identifies himself as a shut-down learner adult but he’s wonderful, building different exhibits. But you know he doesn’t love reading or writing so he would watch for that in the family system and watch for, you know, where’s the child, where are they gravitating toward?

 You know, do you see these parents get it right away when we ask, “Is your child a Lego guy?” “Yeah he loves, he could do that for hours.” You know, that kind of a kid or he loves to be outdoors. He’s building tree houses and doing this, you know he’d love to build, he loves to put things together. That tells me that kind of brain style, the mechanical thinking, hands-on, action-oriented, visual style child is probably playing out.

 You know, often you see it in drawings here at the center when I evaluate a child, there’s a part when I talk to parents, somewhat off to the side, without the child present, “Why don’t you want to go draw at the board? You know, they use whiteboard markers and often I come back and this is incredibly elaborate you know, kind of – it doesn’t necessarily be all that artistic but its elaborate, creative. You know you see a lot of action in the drawings and visualization. “Wow! Look at you, that’s really incredible.” Or I come back with minimal blocks and built a garage and a city with you know with cars and toys and stuff.

 So, you see all that playing out and I would encourage that, I would say to the parents to really point that out, “Wow! You’re really great with that – that’s what architects do. You know, that’s what photographers are good with.” There’s a lot of professions out there that have your kind of thinking skills and kids need to hear that.

 Mike McQueen:

And I think it’s a little more common in boys, I find that more boys are visual-spatial and action oriented I mean that’s no secret. When it comes to reading you know, reading is a very, typically is a very – what’s the word? sedentary, stationary, you know you’re sitting in one spot so the visual-spatial and action-oriented and probably not going to want to go struggle to be sitting there for too long.

 Dr Selznick:

And in general I have the girls are able to sit stiller at one spot than the boys. But I – and there was a point where the editor would ask, “What about the girls?” I was mostly writing about boys, and she said that what about the girls, well you know… But then I have a parade of girls coming to me and I do describe them in that kind of style too where you know, they’re very – they’re often quite pleasant at school and they become sort of field hockey kids and engage with all sorts of activities. But there’s somewhat, their foundation may be shaky as well again, the type one reading foundation may be weak with some of those girls so that needs to be addressed to.

 Mike McQueen:

For the most part it seems pretty common now. A lot of boys you know, you can’t stereotype I mean for sure there’s girls that are very much more you know, visual-spatial. One thing I would suggest especially if a parent or teachers suspects that kid is very you know, action oriented they can’t sit still and they just hardly become like that. You know, I always suggest that guide them to materials that are short, you know that are thinkable, that they could read in a short amount of time. That’s why a lot of boys I think, or a lot of kids don’t likely to struggle with novels. There’s not a lot of pictures. Not lot of visual, a lot of fitting in reading you know.

 Dr Selznick:

You’re right. It’s a huge issue right now. And I do think that the technology, the technological aspects of our world are feeding into it inevitably. I mean, it’s getting a lot tougher just to work through you know I mean, you’re reading that novel like, it’s three weeks away now and you’re still reading that novel? Are you kidding? Why can’t I just get the movie and be done with it. You know, I think that mentality and I see it all the time, I do thinks there’, which is why I think your website and the work that you’re doing is great. That boy decline is a very real variable. And it’s not just with kids who are shut-down learners, I see this as an almost across the board phenomena.

 Mike McQueen:

You know, I think a lot of parents just don’t even realize the techniques the kid, their kid, teachers as well. Teachers probably struggle diagnosing and catching those kids there that are so much visual. Just for me, I went through school, I was very much a visual learner, and I learned to be a ??? but I didn’t understand that. You know I wouldn’t have known as a kid that that would be a part of a technique that parents and teacher to help like teach the kids to learn by themselves if their visual and what can they do about it, you know.

 Dr Selznick:

I mentioned in the book you know, vocabulary development, you know using a little picture clues on the front of the index cards things like that to the extent that they could put you know information into more visual terms. The more they will connect to it and recall it later on, that’s what I see with these kids. And it really fits into their learning style.

 Mike McQueen

Well Dr Selznick, you are awesome for taking time to talk with us, thank you so much.

 Dr Selznick:

It’s my pleasure.

 Mike McQueen:

I can’t wait to encourage all the people to read your book, The Shut-Down Learner and I know you have a website too. What’s your website?

 Dr Selznick:

Well, surprise of all surprises its called www.shutdownlearner.com. In addition to the book, there are also a lot of blog and a lot of information to that website, maybe like some of these, youtube videos. These are blogs that I post about some of these issues I tend to take a little bit of swim to get to the tide approach, you know in terms of some things that are out there in the field. The blogs may be of interest to you or people following you or stuff. On that blog, website you know get that type of information. And the books’ on Amazon. And also of course on Facebook, I’m the Shut-Down Learner. What I try to do on Facebook is to put every morning, say not from me directly, you know or an article that I wrote. But you know, a link of interest, struggling with ADHD, reading, whatever something that I found of interest that I think that people who are following it would find the value. You know, so you might want people to click on the old like button on Facebook for Shut-Down Learner. And that’s where I send them.

 Mike McQueen:

Alright, sounds good.

 

 

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