A Personal Journey and a Scientific Review
It has been a long time since I've written, and honestly I have hesitated with this post too. But it's too important not to start the dialogue.
I share my personal journey here in the hopes it can help others...
I struggle with depression and anxiety.
I have my whole life, even as a child.
I take medications that allow me to share my gifts with the world, and receive the beauty of life in return. They keep me healthy, and perhaps even save my life, given some of my childhood history.
I have travelled the country teaching about mental health and trauma, and my latest book, Ensouling Our Schools, details the work regarding trauma, mental health, and reconciliation. I am also a part of the Neuroscience in Education research cluster at UBC.
I am writing this because of several conversations I have had about neuroplasticity and mental health, and I think it’s critical we come to a balanced understanding of the two: where they intersect, and where they can collide if not understood properly.
There are two main concepts we need to understand here: mental illness, and neuroplasticity.
So what does neuroplasticity have to do with mental illness?
The obvious question is to what extent can the brain be rewired, in the case of a mental illness, to cure the illness. Can someone with bipolar disorder regain emotional regulation? Can someone with depression rewire the brain to respond more typically emotionally?
The answer, so far from research, is yes and no.
Neurological research has shown that unfortunately, mental illnesses damage the very parts of the brain that are needed for plasticity. For instance, in the case of depression, areas of the hippocampus are damaged that are needed for regulation of emotion. Impaired adult hippocampal neurogenesis and depression may therefore be reciprocally causative. High levels of glucocorticoids in depression also hinder adult hippocampal neurogenesis. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle we do not yet have an answer for.
On the other hand, neuroplastic reprogramming – i.e. exercises that promote brain development, can have some effect on depressive and anxiety related symptoms. Mindfullness, meditation, exercise, brain stimulation all have been shown to help. Help, but not cure. The challenge is that the work that needs to be done to reprogram the brain is extensive and in some cases lifelong. If one has to spend many hours a day to do so, it is not really supporting that individual to lead a normal life. Being a monk who prays 6 hours a day is not for everyone.
So here is where my personal journey perhaps can bring to life this conundrum, and the challenge facing people like me with depression. The life I have chosen to lead – spending fourteen hour days working, travelling constantly, being exposed to the trauma of others…is a high stress life. It does not leave room for the 6-8 hours a day of neuroplastic work that an adult my age would need to do to try to reprogram my brain – and even then would have a low chance of success given that my depression began in childhood (so it is chronic, and brain development was impacted), and I am 52 (neuroplasticity does reduce with age).
I had a choice, lead a simpler, more relaxed life with more time to focus on me, without medications, or swallow my pride, accept the medications, and lead the life I was born to lead.
I wrote this essay as a call, no a YELL, to slow the new wave of stigma being thrown at people with mental health issues as a result of the new findings around neuroplasticity and “growth mindset”.
In the last few months, I have had several people tell me I could, or should, get off my meds, because the brain can adapt if I just “do my work,” their friend did! I just need to do more exercise, spend more time in meditation, take classes in a new language, eat low carb, eat high carb (the brain needs glucose, ya know), work less, play more (shouldn’t we all), write reflective journals (will that get me tenure?), try CBD oil or 5htp (so replace one drug with another), and more.
It is shaming. It implies I should just be able to get over this. I could fix it if I just tried harder, was more dedicated, changed my “beliefs”. What it does is make me feel broken, a failure, not good enough.
I am an adult, with a strong sense of self – and I have cried many, many tears over this, even in the last few days. I am a scientist who knows the facts, and a spiritual person who can see beyond them and believes I can help myself to lead my best life, respond to my true calling, bring love and healing to the world, and share in its magic.
How would someone less strong within themself hear such a message?
I workout several times a week, eat a mostly healthy diet, meditate several times a week, have a regular spiritual practice – and I take meds.
Please stop telling me neuroplasticity means I can stop being depressed and get off my meds.
Please stop telling me your stigma around mental health means I should!
And for God’s sake, don’t tell a vulnerable child/youth in your care they can just heal themselves, and are a failure if they don’t, and give their friends the same message.
Yes, give them hope. Tell them living with a mental illness doesn’t have to be torturous. Tell them there are things they can do that will help them to heal, to live full lives, and to find joy. Teach them mindfulness strategies and coping skills, tell them about neuroplasticity and that they can grow and change. But tell them too, that sometimes we need help to heal from an illness, and when we do its ok to go to a doctor, and take the medications that make us well.
Stigma is killing our children, literally. 80% of kids with mental health problems don’t get help – they don’t seek it because they are ashamed. And some of them die from depression/suicide, others suffer silently, and many end up using other substances to cope.
Please, get the facts. It is well intentioned when we want someone to be well, but it is harmful when we imply it is not ok not to be.
In my work with universal design for learning and inclusive education, we talk about environments being disabling, rather than people being disabled. A polar bear has a disability in the tropics, and is gifted in the arctic. What this shows us is that environment, and community, is everything.
Now, there are some animals that have a more flexible skill set. Raccoons for instance, can live in many different environments. Their physiological make-up, skills, and talents fit in many different places and communities – not all, of course, but many. Polar bears, on the other hand, are specifically designed to live in a particular environment. Their physiology, skills and talents are uniquely created to flourish in that world, and that world only.
Some people are like raccoons. They can fit in, be happy, and be successful in many different environments. Others are more like the polar bear – they flourish in spectacular ways – but only in specific environments and conditions.
I have come to realize I am a polar bear. My physiology, skills and talents flourish in particular environments and communities, and parts of me die when I am in other spaces. As I get closer to 50 and gain life experience, I have learned to love being a polar bear. As a youth, however, it is a disability. Youth are all about fitting in. They have to move through environments not of their choosing (school, home, family, etc.), and be able to adapt to varying expectations socially, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In adolescence, it is much easier to be a raccoon.
Many polar bears struggle with depression, low self-concept, anxiety, and more because when fitting in is what counts, and you are a polar bear in the tropics – you can’t see a way to make it work. You can’t see that it is ok to be you.
We need to design environments for youth – physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually – that allow polar bears to see their worth, understand the specificity of their gifts and needs, and find their space in the world. And we need to train teachers to recognize the polar bears amongst their students, value them, and help them value themselves.
In January, I wrote, "In the coming weeks, I will be blogging about some of the important issues of this work - the intersection of CAST and CASEL's work with the Three-Block Model, funding models and their impact on children, families, and teachers, and more."
Hmm, seems to have taken more than a few weeks!
Often people ask me about the relationship between CAST's work, the "multiple means" principles, and the TBM. It's not a simple answer - this is complex work. What I do know is - diversity os a good thing, and we always have much to learn from each other.
I won't presume to tell people from CAST what they might/could learn from the TBM, but I will tell you what I have learned from them. A Lot! The whole idea of designing learning environments "to the edges" - to be accessible to the most people possible, underlies both models. The basic principle that all of our students deserve access to the social and academic life of the classroom inspires all of us to find better ways, to invest, to create and discover.
We have slightly different methods of getting there, but our destination, motivation, and determination are shared. All of the people I have met at the UDL-IRN have taught me a great deal, and I am grateful that they are so open to sharing and connection - practicing what we preach is important. Integrity.
I have not met anyone with more integrity than David Rose. In the short contacts I have had with him, a man who could easily choose to play the arrogant guru, he has been exactly the opposite. Open, supportive, inspiring. I have sought advice and ideas regarding large-scale implementation, and CAST has provided it.
As a PhD student, I was also influenced by the work of CASEL - the Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). I have always valued the relationships I have with my students, and they have with each other, and themselves. CASEL's work taught me how much of an influence those elements have in learning. Their neurological emphasis on the connection between SEL and academic learning is powerful, and has played a huge role in the development of "Block One" in the TBM.
It will take a village to raise our children - and our profession.
Celebrate the diversity of people's gifts.
Five Years.That's how long I have been in Manitoba.
That's how long the Three-Block Model has been "out there."As the New Year begins, I have been reflecting on this.
Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes all of the people working to spread this work and promote inclusive learning communities get tired. We have such a strong vision of what we're trying to achieve, such a focus on moving forward - we forget to look back and celebrate how far we've come.
Today, the Three-Block Model of UDL is being implemented in 5 provinces. In Manitoba, every school division has some teachers designing the learning environment of their classroom this way, and five school divisions have made it a divisional priority/initiative. We have strong research showing that building learning communities in this way results in less teacher stress and improved job satisfaction, improved student outcomes related to self-worth, belonging, intellectual and emotional engagement, and academic achievement K-12. Critical thinking is significantly improved, and students from marginalized populations such as Aboriginal students, students who are culturally and linguistically diverse, and students with disabilities all make significantly better gains in a Three-Block classroom than they do in typical classrooms. Designing instruction in this way closes the gap, including large effect sizes for struggling readers.
There are many anecdotal stories of students whose lives have been transformed, of teachers renewed passion and inspiration, of families and schools coming together. We hear it from all. Students from one classroom presented a panel to 100 teachers in the summer of 2014 talking about these impacts - you can view it on the videos page of this website:
We have a long way to go to ensure ALL students are socially and academically included in their classrooms and schools, and ultimately in their communities. But we have also come a long, long way. I am ultimately beholden, and grateful, to those that led the way before me - David Rose and the people involved in CAST, who developed UDL; CASEL, and significant mentors from their world who taught me when I was a classroom teacher about the importance of social emotional learning, belonging, and self-worth. Most of all, to the students whose lives inspired this work, and the educators I now work so closely with who have picked up the torch and are carrying it, I am so grateful.
In the coming weeks, I will be blogging about some of the important issues of this work - the intersection of CAST and CASEL's work with the Three-Block Model, funding models and their impact on children, families, and teachers, and more. But today, just for a day, let's remember, take a deep breath, and smile.
Yesterday my heart broke.
I was with a girlfriend and her 13 year old son. They were fighting about football practice :) He didn't want to go, she said he had made a commitment to the team and needed to follow through. Sounds normal enough, doesn't it? Then he said something that sent an arrow through my heart. "it doesn't matter whether I'm there mom, I'm like seventh string anyway." No, this isn't a rant about competitive sports. You see, the thing is, Lance (a pseudonym), has learning challenges. He is one of those kids who is brilliant and creative, and struggles with text. As I listened to him argue with his mother, I realized where it all came from. It came from us. From teachers and schools. From group work projects where Lance and his friends were never taught to value each other. He learned what many students who struggle learn - to keep quiet, try to be invisible, and let the "smart kids" do the work. He learned that we wasn't valuable to the team. That he didn't matter, his presence didn't matter. He learned that he had nothing to offer "the team." When we don't differentiate the tasks we assign in such a way that all students have a valued role, when we don't teach students how to work together, when we don't give every student in our class a voice, we give them a simple message...you have nothing to offer. You are seventh string.
THIS HAS TO CHANGE.
We must use programs like the RD program, programs that teach students to value themselves and others. We need to teach kids how to collaborate - that leadership doesn't mean taking over - it means finding out what the gifts of your team members are, and inviting them to offer them. It means making all of your teammates feel like you have their back. If Lance spent his days in a classroom where he felt like he made a valuable contribution, that he had meaning and purpose, he might think his presence on the football team, even if he's on the bench, mattered. He would know that he needed to have his teammates back. He would know how to be part of a team, and later, part of a community. Instead, he has learned that no one cares whether he shows up, so why should he care about them? He learned that from us. We can help Lance, and others like him, unlearn it. It's imperative. No child should think their presence doesn't matter.
You can find them at http://www.portageandmainpress.com/book_detail.cfm?biD=342
(ignore the "coming soon" - they're in!)
As the summer comes to a close, and the school year begins, I am reflecting on how far we have come in just four years, and where we need to go. When I came to Manitoba in 2009, UDL had been written into policy and legislation, but its translation into practice was negligible. As soon as I began teaching the Three Block Model of UDL - it spread like wildfire. I was inundated with requests to conduct teacher professional development. This was good news - because it meant educators were ready and willing to move forward with inclusive education - but they were looking for "the how."
Four years later, the model is being practiced in schools and school divisions across the country. I am committed to more than 60 professional development workshops in the next 6 months, and will travel to Spain and other countries to begin sharing the work internationally. The first book has sold close to 7,000 copies, and the second book, units, and reading assessment packages are being eagerly awaited (YES they really are coming, honest!). The summer institute at the University of Manitoba this year involved 121 educators from two provinces in an intensive immersion. Forty of these students were returning, having previously done the introductory institute, and now looking to the advanced institute to train them in how to facilitate their colleagues learning. I was deeply moved by their commitment to the diverse students in their care, to each other, and to our profession.
The question facing me now is the paradox that faces all reforms as they grow. How do we maintain the integrity of the model as it spreads (i.e. make sure that what is called the "Three Block Model" is really what it is meant to be), while allowing for regional and individual flexibility in its implementation? How do we balance the need for it not to be a one woman show, with the need to be sure that those who teach it to others truly understand it themselves?
According to Borka (2004), facilitators must "understand the goals of the program," but this model is deep and complex, unlike a specific subject curricula. So how do we ensure integrity and fidelity, while being inclusive of diverse perspectives and needs? How do we provide effective teacher professional development/learning, on a large scale (ie beyond what one person can do), in a way that leads to lasting change?
What are the core goals, beliefs, and components of the model that every facilitator, and every teacher must integrate deeply into the learning?
I have my thoughts, but I'd like to hear yours...
Despite the snowy weather outside, I am busy making arrangements for the two summer institutes we will be running at U of M in August. For the last two years 70 teachers from all over the province have come together for two weeks of full day, intensive immersion in the Three Block Model of UDL. It is the best two weeks of the year for me! When it began, I was worried. How do you create community with such a large group in a lecture theatre? Could I do what I did in schools with adults at a University? It was amazing. To have seventy passionate educators come together, giving up two weeks of their summer, and INVEST in their profession, and in the experience, is inspiring. We live that two weeks in a UDL classroom. The students, adults though they are, have an experience unlike how they were taught when they were growing up - and this reshapes how people conceive of teaching and learning, of what it can and should look like, sound like, and feel like.
For two years now that experience has left me with awe, and enough inspiration to keep flying and driving all over this country to try to bring that practice to more teachers, schools, and of course, kids. This summer, I decided to take the next step. Drawing from the 140 students who have lived that experience, and implemented the model in their own roles, we are running an advanced institute in addition to the normal one. This institute will focus on leadership training - learning how to teach this method to others, present workshops, facilitate planning, and so forth. It will also address some of the deeper levels of the framework - including the role of the resource teacher, inclusion of students with significant disabilities, teaching literacy and numeracy in a UDL classroom, and more. It will be a deep, impassioned exploration of how we can create truly inclusive learning communities in our schools. I can't wait!
Returning from New Brunswick, and returning soon to Alberta and BC, it is clear to me that across his country teachers are all wanting the same thing, and being challenged by the same thing - inclusion. Globally, inclusion has been policy now for many years. The Salamanca statement was signed by 92 nations almost two decades ago. As is often the case, however, policy preceded training. It's appropriate to tell teachers that this is the direction in which we are going - but then training in "the how" must be provided, and this is where governments and universities across this nation have fallen down. I meet very little resistance to the concept of inclusive education these days (occasionally, but rarely), it is the how of meeting competing pressures to meet the needs of diverse learners and improve achievement outcomes that teachers are struggling to reconcile. I believe UDL can provide the framework that both supports inclusive education and improves student engagement and achievement for ALL learners. Thank you to the teachers and educational leaders of New Brunswick who welcomed me to their province, asked thoughtful questions, and expressed genuine caring for their students!
Yesterday, MAUDeL met to plan our next two years. We went through a PATH process led by Rod Lauder and Cheryl Martens. We wanted to set goals, and begin to plan practical steps for getting there. Our organization is a collective - a collective of passionate, inspiring people who care deeply about inclusive education and the educators, students, and families involved in it. We have members from the Manitoba Teachers' Society, Manitoba Education, Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Center, Manitoba Association for Community Living, the three Manitoba universities, and many school divisions. We have begun to develop goals and a vision - but I'd like to ask you for your input - what should our goals be? What are your dreams for education in Canada or the US? Please comment!
I am an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Inclusive Education, and the developer of the Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning.