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Home » Individualized Learning for the Neurodivergent, with Christina Sullivan | EDB 311 – DIFFERENT BRAINS

Individualized Learning for the Neurodivergent, with Christina Sullivan | EDB 311 – DIFFERENT BRAINS

Individualized Learning for the Neurodivergent, with Christina Sullivan | EDB 311 - DIFFERENT BRAINS

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Evolve Learning Community’s Christina Sullivan discusses how the micro-school gives unique support to students that have struggled in traditional classrooms.

Christina Sullivan is Co-Founder and Clinical Director of Evolve Learning Community (ELC), and provides individual therapy, coaching, training, and consultation in the community. From ELC’s website: “ELC is a progressive and inclusive homeschool drop-off program that supports cognitively average to above average middle and high school students who are neurodivergent, gifted, have anxiety or mild learning differences. We also provide in-person and virtual tutoring and one-on-one classes for learners ages 5-18.”

Christina Sullivan, MSW (Master in Social Work), LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), ADHD-CCSP (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Certified Clinical Services Specialist), earned her Bachelor’s in Psychology from University of Maryland at College Park and a Master’s in Social Work degree from Barry University in Miami. She is also the mother of a now-adult son diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,

For more about ELC: https://www.evolvelearningcommunity.com/ 

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION


Note: the following transcription was automatically generated. Some imperfections may exist.   

 

DR HACKIE REITMAN (HR):  

Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And today we’re lucky to have right here at a different brain studio, Christina Sullivan, the co founder and clinical director of the Evolve Learning Community, which she’s going to tell us all about welcome, Christina. 

CHRISTINA SULLIVAN (CS):  

Thank you. 

HR:  

Introduce yourself properly to our audience, not the way I did. 

CS:  

Okay. I’m Christina Sullivan. And I am the parent of in now young adult who has autism. And I was always a licensed clinical social worker. But when he was diagnosed, it gave me an opportunity to learn everything I could about having a different brain and what that was like I found the mental health field to be not adequate and dealing with autism. And so I’ve worked in Miami Dade County Public Schools, I’ve worked in community mental health and private practice. And then I started Evolve Learning Community in 2016.

HR:  

Well, what a great segue, because now you can tell us all about evolve learning community, what is it?

CS:  

It is a small micro school, and our school was set up, all of the kids are registered with the district as being homeschoolers, which allows us to personalize their learning. It also allows us to not have to follow some of the state mandates like testing, that often don’t capture our kids true learning styles or where they’re at academically. We’re small, and our program is set up just to accommodate all different types of learners.

HR:  

So you’re taking the unique approach that every brain is different. Exactly. And it’s not one size fits all at Evolve Learning. 

CS:  

Correct. 

HR:  

Tell us a little bit about your own journey that led you to co founding Evolve.

CS:  

So like I said, My son was diagnosed in around 2005 or so. He was about three years old. And I knew he was unique. And I knew being in the mental health field that this was a population that whose needs were being misunderstood, their needs were not met. And through working in Miami Dade County Public Schools, I found there was just these antiquated beliefs about our population of kids. And being a parent, I got to see what other people didn’t get to see. And then I transitioned to private practice, where I got to train parents and train people in schools and work more intensely with this population. And I just loved it. I also found that many of the kids that I worked with were just so happy, just happy, happy kids. But as they increasingly became closer to upper elementary and middle school, they became depressed and anxious. And that broke my heart. So I started researching, like, what is causing this transition for them. And the common factor was school, it was traditional settings where people thought we need to fix these kids, they’re broken, or we need to make them fit in. And I just found that that is breaking their spirit. So me along with another homeschool mom, we started evolve. We wanted to serve kids that were different, that learned differently, and we wanted to make it okay, so more. We talked about neurodiversity being like you know, the trendy term, well, neuro affirming, right, we wanted neuro affirming care, we wanted to teach them how to advocate for themselves, how to learn about their brains, how they work, and then how to work with their brain and not against it, and that they don’t have to change or conform for anybody. And that their path. While it might be different academically, they could still get to wherever it is they want to go.

HR:  

Very positive message and you making that happen. Now, if someone watching this wants to learn more about Evolve schools and wants to enroll their child, how do they go about it?

CS:  

So our process is pretty simple. We have an online application where you can either get access to that application from our website, our website, I just redid it over the past year. I hope it’s become much more clear as far as the services we provide. But you can get a link to that application. You complete the application, I review it, and then we reach out and we schedule a tour. During that tour. It’s hoped that your child comes because we think they should be involved in the process. And we answer all your questions we get to know you we get to know your family some of the strengths and challenges you guys have had along the way and then sometimes we do a trial day. So like, if we’re not really sure, we’ll do a trial day. Also, I always leave my information with the families, like call me text me. It’s a big decision, it’s a big change. I think that we parents are indoctrinated into thinking, we have to do things a certain way with our kids, we have to socialize them, we have to put them in certain places. So when we start to learn, we don’t have to do that, that can be very scary to Right. Like, it’s scary to think, Oh, there’s another way I could do it different. So I help coach parents through that, through that transition to know that there’s many paths, and we we can take any of them. 

HR:  

What is your website? 

CS:  

EvolveLearningCommunity.com.

HR:  

Very easy. EvolveLearningCommunity.com. How do you incorporate the social and emotional learning right alongside all of the traditional things we have to learn. 

CS:  

So what is very unique about our program is that all of those things are seamlessly integrated throughout the entire day. So in traditional therapy, I client will go to a therapy office, and will talk with a therapist about executive functioning skills or social emotional learning, right. But then once they leave that setting, they’re not able to incorporate it or implement any of the tools or strategies most of the time, because they have weak executive functioning skills. So by nature of just having weak skills, like working memory, or planning or prioritizing or organization, those things then make it difficult to implement what we’re learning in real time. So what we found is that we implement the strategies all day long, every day. So we keep visuals up about all of the different executive functioning skills. So we spotlight them when we’re working on them or talking about them, we spotlight them. For example, when we have younger kids, younger kids like to roughhouse, for example. So, but what would happen is they could sometimes struggle, and then all of a sudden, it could turn into like a face grab or a fight. So that is this, the executive functioning skill of self regulation. So in order to help teach them how to self regulate, we didn’t stop them from playing, we allow it, but then we pause them intermittently. And say, check in with your friend, is your friend still? Okay. Is this still okay to be roughhousing? Because then you’re referencing the friend, you’re looking at their face, you’re seeing, are they getting upset? Are they still having fun, and then you’re able to modulate yourself based on the reaction of the friend.

So that’s like an example of how we would teach self regulation in terms of how we would teach an executive functioning skill, like task initiation, that shows up in different ways. So that shows up with getting started on work, getting started on chores at home, and also initiating a conversation with a friend. So initiation shows up socially, emotionally, and at school, in school settings. They focus on the school part, right? Do your math assignment, do this worksheet. But really, if we can initiate a social interaction, like hi, how are you? Hi, my name is Tina, nice to meet you. Like that’s a really big deal for our kids. So we foster that. And one of the ways we do it is we have a shout outs board. So our shout outs board is like a big blackboard. And anytime we see the kids initiate a social interaction by inviting somebody to join them, including someone who seems left out, offering help to someone who seems like they need help, encouraging, complementing, or going with the flow, which means being a flexible thinker, right? Like going with things even if you’re uncomfortable or don’t really want to do it. We spotlight that we’ll say, hey, Harrison, I love how you invited Johnny to join you for lunch. Or I like how you encourage them when they were struggling. And then at the end of the day, the kids get an opportunity to write on the child’s board, and they’ll give each other shoutouts for doing those things. And that makes the kid feel good who’s giving the shout out, and the kid feel good who’s getting a shout out.

HR:  

And that’s kind of a segue into the double edged sword. We’re seeing at all levels and all ages of social media. How have you guys tackle that? And is it presenting a problem and give us the two sides of the coin relative to evolve learning on social media?

CS:  

Luckily, most of our kids don’t care about social media. But we do Have a couple who are vulnerable to watching things that they shouldn’t be watching. At on our site, we have a no tech policy. So kids are allowed to use their phones during the day, because that’s what they do all day long. I mean, in the school setting, that’s what they do, they tab over on their computers to what they want to watch, and they’re not really paying attention to what they’re supposed to be doing. So our no tech policy really helps eliminate that. We provide lessons and structure around it, we teach them that, you know, you see something online, you can’t see it, you know, like, once you go there, you can see it, we do a lot of work with parents, teaching them about social media, and just about tech safety, and helping them to navigate through it. Because I think, oftentimes, the parents really struggle, you know, we’re in a whole new world of technology, and it just continues to evolve way faster than we can keep up. And it’s okay to know that we’re the parents, and we still make the decisions for our kids safety. And I think that’s probably one of the bigger challenges for parents to do. So a lot of education, and then asking the kids like what they think.

HR:  

Christina, could you speak to the excellent things Evolve those for the larger community? 

CS:  

Okay. We’ve done several projects. Shortly after the MSD tragedy we did. I don’t know if you know, David best, but he builds the structures, and then the community helps build the structures with him. And then they burn the structures in like a ceremonial type of way for healing. So we participated in that. We participated in a wonderful fundraiser for 100 Plus dogs of the Everglades, I believe it was called, but it was a fundraiser to, for a rescue group for dogs. And we’ve done stockings for veterans. Trying to think beach cleanups. So we’ve done multiple things. We’re very proud of getting our students involved in community service.

HR:  

Good stuff, good stuff, at Evolve. Do you have clubs there?

CS:  

We do. So they’re not traditional. So they’re not usually after school clubs. We have many clubs that we host at the end of each day. So for example, we had, we’ve had acting club, music club, Art Club, chill club, Chill Zone. And then we have gaming club gaming club is not gaming, like technology gaming, its traditional board games, card games. And the kids usually pick that because it ends up being social, or they pick art, art tends to be another big hit at our school, too. 

HR:  

So as founder and clinical director, and the big, big chief: tell us at Evolve what that entails for you.

CS:  

It’s a huge responsibility. I’m responsible for the parents. I’m responsible for the kids. I’m responsible for my team. And my team consists of teachers, academic success coaches, and interns. And I really try to stay connected and involved with all of the facets. So we facilitate parent groups. Because I want them to be educated. I want them to have a place to vent. I have meetings every week with the teachers. I have meetings every week with the academic success coaches, who are actually the therapists. And then with the interns, I meet with the interns for supervision. So it’s a lot I’m very busy.

HR:  

Can you talk a bit about the challenges that parents in general face out there, finding the right educational supports for their kids?

CS:  

I think that when they are in a traditional setting, the setting tells you what you’re supposed to be expecting and what you’re supposed to be doing. And oftentimes, I have found that there’s still these antiquated beliefs about neurodiversity, and parents get frustrated, you know, their kids come home and they have a hard time reporting what happens during the day, their kids come home and they report being bullied or excluded or misunderstood. And that’s very painful as a parent, it’s it brings up so much trauma, essentially, for these parents to have to deal with this and think there’s no other way. There’s no other option. So they start searching, they start looking. There’s a lot of private schools out there. There’s more and more micro schools popping up. So there’s a lot of variety and choices out there that parents A tab that they probably didn’t have before. But the search is still hard, I find that, you know, when you try to Google something, the things that pop up quicker are going to be the bigger programs that maybe have a bigger budget for ads and for being found. So that’s important to know to like, just keep looking, keep looking down the page, go to places, interview them go more than once, talk to people, you know, it’s not nothing is one size fits all. I’m not perfect either, right? Like my school is great. But it’s not going to serve everybody, there’s going to be other programs that might serve them better. 

HR:  

Now it sounds as though the Evolve school straddles the fence between school and home learning, in a way. And if I’m a parent, debating homeschooling, or utilizing Evolve, what some advice you might have, generally for making that decision.

CS:  

So the good thing about Evolve is that they’re registered with the district as homeschooled, but we know parents need to work. We know parents need to work, we know parents struggle with the idea of homeschooling their own child, that’s really big thing to take on, especially if your kid has different needs. So we are a drop off program, kids can be dropped off Monday through Friday 8:45 to 4. And what they get are therapeutic interventions that help them with their executive functioning skills, their anxiety, their social, emotional learning, and social understanding. And we also have two teachers on staff and they provide the academic piece.

HR:  

Interesting.

CS:  

So they’re not at their home. Yeah, they’re on site, we have a campus.

HR:  

Now is there. One type of different brain that you see more of than other types of different brains?

CS:  

Not necessarily, I could say what we serve best. So for evolve, who we serve best, we serve sixth grade to 12th grade. And we serve those kids that are kind of the ones that will fall through the cracks, right. So they’re not the kids that need a separate classroom that have significant behavioral concerns are struggle with communication skills. They’re not the kids who are doing well in a traditional setting. They’re the ones that are in the middle, they’re being excluded, bullied, they’re struggling to reach their academics. Those are the ones that we work best with. So they’re bright kids, but their executive functioning skills tend to be kind of weak, and they’re the ones that tend to be alone a lot not making friends misunderstood. Maybe they still get in trouble for being misunderstood.

HR:  

Is there testing that’s involved to go to Evolve?

CS:  

I do expect that parents provide whatever psychological or psychiatric evaluations the student has had to date. I also like to review any previous IEPs or any evaluations that have been done, it helps us make our recommendations and it helps us decide whether they’re a good fit for our program.

HR:  

Talk to our audience a little bit about IEPs for the beginner. 

CS:  

Okay, so IEP s are individualized education plans, they are given to students who meet criteria or eligibility for certain. It’s not necessarily diagnoses, because diagnosis is separate from the school based eligibility criteria. But they do still use terms like Autism Spectrum Disorder speech, delayed language impairment, learning disorders or differences. So an IEP is created in order to help decide what goals need to be met by that student so that they’re making progress in their traditional educational setting.

HR:  

How have you found the parents of such individuals to be?

CS:  

I think that they feel a lot of relief when they find a place for their kid. I think that in my case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My son and I are a lot of like, and we joke about it, and I think we should, right like we are we laugh about it. It’s funny. I think that parents who have kids who are different have struggled with PTSD. They have seen and witnessed things that are very scary for them and create a lot of anxiety for them. So there they can be triggered. And it’s important to be aware have that and not to judge it, right to be aware of, hey, the parents need just as much compassion, and caring and belonging and connection and inclusion, as their kids do, because they’ve been isolated. They’ve been on this path and didn’t realize, you know, they were on this path.

HR:  

And has the modern day educational system at college and Master’s level and PhD. Has it caught up with neurodiversity, in your opinion?

CS:  

I think they are. There’s a lot of universities now that have entire programs that are devoted to people who are neurodiverse, and who provide the support that they need, much like the support we provide at Evolve. So support for social understanding, getting involved in social activities, executive functioning skills, right, like, being able to remember to brush your teeth and shower and do your homework, and not get distracted by gaming or your phone. Those are really important things. And there’s a lot of universities that have programs now that will support students on campus to help them be successful.

HR:  

What do you think the education system at large, could learn from the work being done at Evolve?

CS:  

I believe that the current education system that we have started during the Industrial Age, and it was created to create workers. And what we want to create are thinkers, and problem solvers and inventors, and entrepreneurs, and people who can find what their passion is, and follow that passion. It may not be a traditional path. And we’re so busy teaching math and science and history and reading and writing. And those things are important. But what about the kid who comes in and can build a computer by the time they’re 10? Are we really and who has all the different learning disabilities? Are we really going to push that kid to be focused on algebra? When they really need to be: go build more computers. And I say that because we have a student, we had a student, and he that’s exactly what he could do. He struggled with dyslexia. dysgraphia, dyscalculia, like he really struggled. And we worked with him one on one for a long time. But that boy could build computers, and he can fix any electronic thing. And he was our IT guy at our school for the five years he was there. And I mean, he’s amazing. But what if we kept trying to fit him into this square peg? Right, like we decided early on, that’s not where he fits. And there’s so many kids like that. And I think that’s where schools struggle. And I think schools should bring back shop class, they should bring back Cooking and Home Ec, right? Like, these are the classes that you and I probably had when we were younger, and that there are kids who just do better working with their hands.

HR:  

Well, you bring up an interesting point. An interesting problem we’re having at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, where I’m on the board and been involved there a long time is that we’re so proud of our 96% high school graduation rate there. And we had so many kids go into college. And a lot of the board members and real benefactors of Boys and Girls Club are real champions of industry. And they’re in different industries. And they they need employees in those industries, carpenters, electricians, yeah, all those things. And what we’re finding is a lot of our kids are finishing high school, and going off and becoming carpenters and electricians. They’re making themselves close to six figures. And it’s great, but they’re not going to college. And then the question is, what are we trying to accomplish? And sometimes, you can go in a great big circle. And what I like to think of is, I want, for instance, all of our interns to find what you love doing, figure out how to make a living at it and help other people while you’re doing it and be able to support your family and everything and live happily ever after. That’s great.

CS:  

And also some of our kids might not leave home, and that’s okay. There’s plenty of millennials out there that are still living with their parents and they aren’t struggling with you know, a brain difference, right. And I remember thinking about my son who goes to Florida Polytechnic, which is a STEM school, and I was like, if he wants to come home and play guitar and teach math. That’s great. What a great life. That’s a great life. Like who are like we were taught like, oh, we must move out of the house, we must buy a home, we must like we must do these things. But who says we must like, let’s redefine how, what success looks like or what happiness looks like.

HR:  

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to cover today?

CS:  

Well, I do like to think that we use best practices when it comes to working with people with different brains. Because we’re therapists, and not we started as therapists starting this program, and not educators starting the program. And I think that’s different. I think that’s a different feel. As therapists, we are very familiar with all of the diagnoses. And we know the strengths and weaknesses that come with that. We find that when we address the barriers to their academic success, that’s when we get academic success. So like, we can’t just think that, Oh, my kid is bright, because I put them in the setting, they’re going to be successful. Not necessarily, if they have anxiety, if they’re being misunderstood, if they have difficulties with getting started on projects, low frustration tolerance, difficulty with flexible thinking, if they have these difficulties, it doesn’t matter how bright they are, they’re never going to get there, because they have these other things that need to be worked on. And that’s what I find, is not necessarily worked on in an academic setting. So we spend a lot of time working on developing connections with our kids. We connect with them first as the adults that are in our program. And then we start to link them with other peers. So they are feeling a sense of belonging and connection that they did not get in any other setting. And I know 100%, but that’s accurate. So that’s a big, that’s a big part of our program. 

HR:  

That’s great. It’s great that people have a choice to go to evolve and let you guys take it from there a little bit to take also some of the weight off of the parents shoulders for so much that and learning what’s out there and available. If my child has a different brain

CS:  

Yeah. 

HR:  

Well, Christina Sullivan has been a pleasure to have you here today. Thank you. Thank you so much for being here at Different Brains. Keep up the great work you’re doing at the Evolve Learning Community. And I’ve learned a lot from you today and I want you to keep up the good work.

CS:  

I want you to keep up the good work. This is great. These interviews are great.

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