Empowering Neurodiverse Learners: A Conversation with Dr. Bibi Pirayesh - SE3EP3 -Dr. Bibi Pirayesh
Today we are joined by Dr. Bibi Pirayesh. Dr. Bibi is an educational therapist based in Los Angeles who has been in private practice for over a decade. She has a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience and Education, a Master's in Developmental Psychology and she also has a Doctoral degree in education and social justice. Dr. Bibi is a sought-after speaker who is passionate about helping children with learning differences, and she speaks on topics such as neurodiversity, educational therapy, and learning disability as a social justice issue. She started the "Difference Not Deficit Project" to help shift special education one story at a time. https://www.oneofonekids.org/ https://understood.org https://aetonline.org This Episode is brought to you by Skill Samurai – Coding & STEM Academy www.skillsamurai.com.au
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Speaker 1 (00:08): Welcome to the Parenting in the Digital Age podcast. Many parents are concerned that their child might be falling behind. Others are just looking for ways to help their children thrive, not just in the classroom, but socially and well into their future careers. Each episode we explore the challenges facing parents in the modern world, from behavior, education, and nutrition to device and gaming addiction. We interview a range of leaders in the area of childhood development to help you successfully navigate parenting in the digital age. Here is your host, Jamie Buttigieg.
Jamie: Hello parents and welcome to Parenting in the Digital Age, the podcast that explores the unique challenges and opportunities of raising children in today's tech-driven world. In each episode, we dive into insightful conversations with experts and thought leaders to provide practical guidance for navigating the digital landscape and life as parents. Today we are joined by Dr. Bibi Pirayesh. Now Dr. Bibi is an educational therapist based in LA. which is definitely much warmer over there, who has been in private practice for over a decade. She has a bachelor's degree in neuroscience and education, a master's in developmental psychology, and she also has a doctoral degree in education and social justice. Dr. Bibi is a sought after speaker who is passionate about helping children with learning differences. And she speaks on topics such as neurodiversity, educational therapy, and learning disability as a social justice issue. She started the Difference Not Deficit Project to help shift special education one story at a time, which we're gonna learn more about, hopefully, in today's podcast. Dr. Bibi, welcome to the show. Please share with our listeners what you do and what you are passionate about. Bibi: Sure, hi, thank you so much for having me. So like you said, I work as an educational therapist, which a lot of people may not know what that is. It's a field that is still kind of becoming, I think, more well-known around the world, certainly here in California and in Los Angeles. It's a very well known field. And it's essentially an educational therapist is someone. who works with children with different kinds of learning challenges, learning needs, learning differences, learning disabilities. And my job is really, A, to help remediate learning disabilities that we can help to remediate, help students manage and understand their differences so that they can navigate the school system. And then also, to the best of my ability, to try and. educate and encourage schools and teachers and the educational institutions to understand neurodiversity so that they can meet the needs of students. So I sort of work in all of those areas at different points, but primarily my job really is to help students unpack their learning. Jamie: Yeah, that's wonderful. So how would you define neurodiversity for those parents who may not be completely sure of that term? We hear a lot lately. And Bibi: Uh huh. Jamie: why is it important to embrace it in our educational system? Bibi: Neurodiversity is kind of a, you know, it's sort of become almost a catch-all term. So a term that really aims to bring forth issues like learning disability, but also learning differences that might not necessarily even qualify someone as having a disability, but there's still enough difference that... the student is struggling in a neurotypical school, which is how all of our school settings are set up. So neurodiversity, I really think it's becoming a movement now. But it's a movement to help to push away from this kind of monoculture around learning, where we really see academic learning in this very narrow way. And any student who doesn't quite fit into that labeled as different or disabled. That is not to say that learning disability is not a real thing or that we're all different. That's not the point. The point, rather, is to help all of us understand that our lenses are very narrow and that we need to expand them and that our classrooms and our institutions should be a reflection of all the diversity that it. that exists in the kinds of learners that we have, as opposed to what we have now, which is to say, someone at the top says, this is what it means to be a good learner, and then that very narrow definition gets put at the top and everybody else gets marginalized from that place. Jamie: Yeah, yeah. Now I really do believe that educators within our school systems are they're working hard to address the needs of children with those different learning styles. But what are some of the challenges that these kids face in our current school system and how can we potentially overcome them? Big question. Bibi: Yeah, that's a big question. Jamie: But maybe let's start. What are some of the challenges that kids face in the current school system for those that are neurodiverse or, you know, have learning challenges? Bibi: Well, I think the biggest challenge is basically what I already alluded to. It's this idea that there is one way to be, and you need to kind of fit into that. So for example, if you are a learner who really struggles with the linear two-dimensional models that are required and are kind of placed on a pedestal when it comes to academic learning. If that's not how you process the world, if that's not how you see the world, you have no choice but to force yourself into that system. And I think that's really the biggest challenge. We don't try and kind of understand, okay, well, what is the way that this particular child comes, for example, to the task of reading or math or whatever it is. so that we can teach them in the ways that their brains learn. Instead, we say, no, this is the way that we do it and you need to basically assimilate into that. And then, I think the other really, really big issue is, which I think kind of goes hand in hand with our very positivist view, is the stigma that's attached with not quite fitting in. and the ways in which children feel othered and they feel shame and you know really can't make friends with their own learning and as a result continue to suffer throughout their academic careers. Jamie: Yeah, and that's heartbreaking to see particularly as a parent. We haven't had a great chance to chat before the podcast, but one of the things that we do in our business here is we have learning centers for kids. We teach kids coding, computer program, robotics, STEM, all the cool stuff. But each student has a tailored learning path. Every student in our classrooms is working on their own project at their own pace, based on their interests, their skill levels, and our educators really try and sit with these students to understand what those needs are so that you can walk into any one of our given classes and, you know, you'll have five or 10 students all working on their own thing and experiencing their own level of success. No one in there feels like top of the class or bottom of the class or I'm a slow learner. Like it's a really neat. inclusive space. Bibi: Mmm. Jamie: But that's not always practical for schools. Like this is a private enterprise, you know, that we're very passionate about. And I think all education should be this way. But it's not always practical. In your view, how can schools maybe address some of these challenges with individualized learning? Bibi: You know, I think that, I don't know if I agree that it's not practical. It's not practical when our school systems are built essentially to create, certainly in the U.S., this is what I see, is that we have school systems that are... created for two things. One is to kind of pick out, like put kids on a hierarchy, pick out the best kids, have them go to the best colleges, and have them go on to sort of get the top level jobs. And then the other is to kind of figure out where in the, I guess you could say in the workforce, everybody else fits in. So our systems are basically based on the old factory models, and that's what we're still. trying to really essentially teach to. And unfortunately, in spaces like that, people who are neurodiverse don't quite fit, because it's very much a survival of the fittest kind of mentality. So if you don't follow that definition, then you're not really. You're not really a concern. So my short answer is, in order for schools to change things, we really need to reconsider kind of our ideologies and think about what it is that. we see as the purpose of education. And it's not something that we can really look at in isolation, it's tied into everything else from culture to our economic system. So I don't have an easy answer for you on that, Jamie: you Bibi: but I think one really, really important thing for teachers because I do know that teachers also really, really struggle with this because they're also kind of have to operate within these very, very narrow. bounds and spaces. One thing that helps is to recognize that that's not how it should be. And what you just described is really the way that it should be. Now, why it's not, I think there are deeper political reasons around that. Jamie: Yeah, definitely. I was listening to a podcast the other day that was quite interesting on artificial intelligence. Actually, I think it was at Microsoft. Anyway, they were talking about how teachers can because in Australia we're saying, you know, there's a percentage. I'll call it 50-50, but it's probably the wrong number. Half the teachers are really embracing AI and saying, how can we use it to, you know, really enable our students, particularly those with learning differences, to really thrive in our classroom? Then you've got half saying, hey, this is wrong. We shouldn't be using it. It's cheating. Let's let's. and not so much ignore it, but, you know, there's certainly that challenge, but one teacher was actually using it for assessments, you know, talking with the AI to say, hey, I've got some neurodiverse learning or this particular student thrives this way, how can I better assess this student as opposed to just the blanket way that we, you know, methodology that we're using currently? And I thought that was quite inspiring and I thought that was quite an interesting way to use it. So I think I'm quite excited to see some of these tools. brought into the classroom, because I think the whole systemic thing or looking, that's a big shift to turn, like changing our Bibi: Yes. Jamie: ideology around what education should be. I agree wholeheartedly, but that's gonna be a big shift to turn. But in the meantime, perhaps there are some more, like, again, I don't have the answers here, but tools like AI can be used to give the teachers more scope and more ability to really help those neurodiverse learners. Bibi: You know, I think it's so interesting that you bring up the AI issue. I recently wrote about it actually, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle specifically about kind of this huge discourse that we were seeing in education about people being like, oh my God, you know, it's the end of the college essay, it's the end of education, everyone's going to be cheating. And actually my take on it... was what it usually is, which is, well, what if we looked at this from the lens of kids who have learning disabilities? Because oftentimes when I personally do that, it shifts everything for me. And I think that the AI question and the way that we come to it is actually directly tied to our ideologies. So, you know, whether we... see this as a tool that we can incorporate in our schooling and education, or if we see it as something like that's going to get in the way of our evaluation process, I think says a lot about kind of what your views of it on education are in general. But I do agree with you. I think it can be an incredible tool for... for neurodiverse students and allow for the type of accessibility that they would have never had before. So if you're a student who has disabilities that... disable you from being able to write, for example, at certain levels. And that is the requirement for access into any kind of higher level institution. A tool that can help you with that is important. It's not cheating. It's not that I don't understand the potential negatives of something like AI, but I think that usually when we center the needs and voices of people who kind of fall outside of the status quo, suddenly everything opens up. So yeah, that's my take on AI. Jamie: Yeah, well said, well said. So, you know, one of the challenges, I suppose, for those students in the school system who aren't doing so well because of those learning differences or learning disabilities is positive or is their self-esteem and their self-confidence. So how do you help children with learning differences develop a positive self-image and a growth mindset? Bibi: Yeah, I would say that in many ways, that's really the key to the work that I do. I think the big way in which that happens is when you have the opportunity to be able to really slow things down with the students and allow them to. actually unpack their own learning and then see with their own eyes that they can in fact learn to do something. It might be, you know, it might start off with much smaller steps than what is expected, but slowly if you're able to help them to see that yes they can do this, and they always can when you do it at their level, that begins to, you know, undo some of that negative self-talk and um... You know, the self-esteem, which kind of, you know, those issues, I think, again, arise from having to constantly operate in a system that is built against you. Um, so, so it's really by helping them, um, I guess you could say, make friends with their brain and trust it again. Um, it's very slow work. Um, it requires. really the privilege of being able to take that time. For example, this is one of the reasons why it's so hard to do this work with kids who are in high school, because when you're in high school, you're already in that kind of like mindset of, oh my God, I have to do this, I have to do this. So a lot of the time, it can become more about just helping them survive. But especially for younger kids, I think one of the big parts of my job is to really act as a boundary and a buffer between, you know, this, this constantly overwhelming pressure of trying to make learning about success and achievement and moving forward and instead really just creating the space where the student can get to know their own learning. And then, you know, once they are able to do that, little by little, they kind of take it and run with it. I think ultimately it just comes from having a deep trust that every child can and does learn and you don't have to worry about that. Jamie: Yeah, that's quite profound. One of the ways that we actually do that in our own classrooms is at the end of every single, we have a one hour coding class, but at the end of that class, there's a reflection journal that every student needs to fill in. And there are three simple questions. And we say, what's one thing you learned today? What's one thing that challenged you today? And how did you overcome that challenge? And that recognition, that third piece is how did you overcome that challenge? Is often that piece where the lights come on, so you know what, I actually did get through that. you know, and that moment of feeling successful because they overcame the challenge. And our educators in our classrooms are instructed never to give the answer, but always Bibi: Mm-hmm. Jamie: help the student arrive at the answer, whether that's collaboratively in teams with one another, or whether that's just asking better questions. But sometimes the questions we can ask, sometimes the questions we ask in the classroom can help build that self-confidence, build that growth mindset, and leave them feeling inspired when they leave the classroom. And I don't think those things are terribly hard to do. I think we just need to challenge ourselves as educators to ask better questions, if I can simplify it. Bibi: And you know, the second, I think the second part of that is really important as well. It's kind of getting students to understand that in order for you to learn, you have to have some kind of challenge. You have to have some kind of obstacle. That's how learning happens. So, you know, obstacles are not a bad thing. They're actually a necessary component. Jamie: You're right. Bibi: Yeah, so I think that the second part is really, really important too in your process. Jamie: and getting them to reflect on what that challenge was, to recognize the challenge and to articulate it, as opposed to just leaving the classroom and feeling this sense of frustration and not being able to understand what it was that actually challenged them. So that reflection piece in education is in my view, super important. Let me go back a step. So I'm really curious, what? got you into all this. How did you become an educational therapist and an advocate for children with learning differences in the first place? What did your journey start out Bibi: Yeah, Jamie: like? Bibi: I mean, I think I came to the field in a very different way than most people. I think a lot of people come from a background in special education or teaching itself. I came from a research background. I mean, research and education I was interested in. I think I just had this intrinsic sense from a very young age, even though I felt comfortable in school, it was very obvious to me a young age that it wasn't a place that worked for everybody. And I was really interested in understanding, you know, how does the brain work and how can we use that knowledge to inform teaching and education? And like many, many people who work in research, I think I was frustrated by the lack of connection between research and practice. And I just, you know, really happened upon, I took a job, you know, one summer when I was... going through that what am I gonna do next, moments in life that many of us have. And I took a job working essentially with kids, with this particular population, not something that I had any background in specifically in a practical way. And I just immediately fell in love with it. Not just because I love the work with the kids, but also because I was like, oh, okay. this is exactly a place in which that research does get translated into real practice. So for example, what we know and understand about the way that the reading circuitry works in the brain, we can translate that into creating changes for a child who has dyslexia. And that was really, really exciting. And that's kind of what brought me into the field. Jamie: That's wonderful. That's a nice backstory. Thank you for sharing that. What's your view on say in-person therapy versus online therapy? Like what are the benefits and challenges of online educational therapy compared to say in-person sessions? Bibi: Yeah, so, you know, one of the kind of like fundamental principles of working with, you know, differently abled kids is this concept of multimodal teaching and learning. So the more of the senses that you can engage, the better. I also generally, I just think that, you know, the closer that human beings actually are with each other, like in a real in real space and time, the better. However, when the pandemic happened and so much got switched to online, I think for me and many other colleagues, one of the things that we viewed is that for some kids, the online actually works a lot better. So a lot of my students, for example, who struggle with ADHD or executive function difficulties, benefited, I mean not all, but many benefited from the online format. So I think, you know, for me in my practice, I really take, because I have a hybrid practice, but it's really a case by case basis. For some students, I really insist, no it has to be in person. For others, online is just as well and, you know, with LA traffic and everything that we have, can work, because, you know, it's not just about the students and it's about the whole family. something has to work in their everyday lives. So both depending on the situation could potentially work, but I think that if you're gonna be doing online, there's certain things that you really need to learn and be aware of, it doesn't just directly translate. Jamie: Yeah, yeah. Well, and I suppose when you're online, you don't have access to Boo the therapy dog. Bibi: Oh my gosh, yes, boo boo. He does come online and say hello sometimes. Jamie: I was doing my pre-share research and thought, that's wonderful. So what role does Boo the Therapy Dog play in educational therapy? I'm curious. Bibi: Oh, Bubu plays an incredibly important role. He loves all the kids and the kids, you know, really, really love him back. He just kind of intuitively knows when a student is struggling with something, he like goes and snuggles up next to them and just his presence seems to calm them down. He is a very, very active member in our kind of the... the breaks that we take in between things that we do. You know, he throws the ball, he catches things, he snuggles, he just does all the things that kids need in between the difficult tasks that they sometimes have to do as well. And you know, he just brings an element of play and calm that I think the kids are really grateful for. Jamie: That's wonderful. I love it. I really do. What are some of the maybe practical tips or advice that you can give to parents who are supporting their children with learning differences at home? Bibi: Well, I feel like if you already know, so if you've already gone through the diagnosis and you've already secured the services and the supports, I think there's two really important things. One is to remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. So you're not trying to fix something. You're trying to basically help a student learn how to live like this in their life. and to have patience with that. And the other big thing that I would say is to also get some support for yourself because it's not easy to manage. I mean, I think parenting is already a very difficult child, but when you add a learning disability into the mix, it becomes a lot more challenging, especially in systems that are not open to that. So I think remembering to take care of yourself is also important. And then the other big thing that I would say, especially when it comes to kids with ADHD and executive function disabilities, is to remember that it is not their fault. They really cannot sometimes do the simple things that one would expect. They're not being defiant. They really struggle with it. So I guess that ties back into the patients and the self-care, but remembering that tends to be really important for parents. Jamie: That's wonderful advice. And I think many parents who are faced with these challenges sometimes forget themselves in the process. Bibi: now. Jamie: And I do hear a lot of that, you know, we just need to fix this. We need to get some help to fix this. And it's about working with it, understanding it, and how can I help my child thrive? And that's really well put. Thank you for sharing. I noticed something interesting on your website. It's called the Difference Not Deficit Project. Tell us about that. Bibi: Yeah, I mean, that's something that grew out of kind of both what happened in the pandemic where everyone was isolated and disconnected and kind of struggling quietly on their own and feeling very, very alone. And also, sort of it relates back to the idea of storytelling as a form of advocacy. because I think that for most people, advocacy begins or they come to an issue usually through a personal story. So, you know, stories of what, you know, whether you were a teacher or a parent or a student, because we were all struggling during the pandemic, sharing that and kind of talking about how does this manifest for you in your life? How have you been struggling with it? How have you, like you said, reflecting on what have been the challenges and what are the ways in which you're working to overcome them or to navigate and move around them? Sometimes I think it's not even just in writing your story, but also in just reading other people's stories that we feel more called to action. And I think that call to action piece is really important, especially for us currently in the US. with so many different things that are happening in the country, you know, I think that the rights and needs of kids with learning disabilities or disabilities in general is something that we need to really be aware of and be fighting for. So that's what the Differences Not Deficit project is, is to kind of share stories in order to access the movement. Jamie: So how can parents, educators, policymakers join the movement? How can they share their stories to help you create a more inclusive, equitable education system for all learners? Bibi: Well, you know, it's like you said, you know, we can't like wake up one morning and say, okay, we're gonna like, we're gonna fix our education system and we're gonna have a revolution. And sometimes that happens. But I think the most important thing is to begin in your community. And your community are the very, very small places. So whether it's the school or the classroom or the living room. or even just kind of the conversations that you have. So for example, one of the things that, you know, often when I work with, you know, do professional development for teachers, et cetera, and they're always asking like, okay, so like, you know, what do I do? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to help when the school says this, when the school says that? And my answer is always, it doesn't have to be some big thing. It can be something very small. So for example, if you have a student, who you know needs something, and you're contemplating whether you're going to provide that because maybe they qualify for it, maybe they don't. Always ask yourself, whose side am I really on here? Am I on the side of helping the student, or am I on the side of helping to uphold the system? And oftentimes that very, very small question, but in every single interaction that we have, can... can really go a long way in kind of changing the ways that we respond and the ways that we take action. So it doesn't have to be some big thing. For me, it's more about that awareness piece, that being conscious of this decision that I am making about the students. So for example, whether I'm going to take this late paper or not, whether I am going to provide these extra notes or not. These can be life-changing, moment to moment, but life-changing decisions for kids. And to really kind of try to understand that and not be so stuck on, we tend to be stuck on like, well, what is fair? And it's unfair to the other kids and it's the death of the college essay or cheating or whatever our thought processes are. Kind of constantly remembering what the purpose is, what the purpose is of the work that we do. Jamie: Yeah, it's a great question to ask and approach your decision making from. Are there any books or resources or do you have a list of resources somewhere on your website for parents who perhaps want to learn more about neurodiversity or educational therapy? Bibi: Sure, I believe I have a resource page on my website. I think that if you want to learn, just in terms of online resources, if you wanna learn just about learning disabilities and neurodiversity in general, a really good resource that we have is understood.org. That's a really great resource. And then if you wanna learn more about educational therapy. There's an association, the Association of Educational Therapists, and their website is aetonline.org. So that would be another place. And I believe those are both linked on my resource page. They may not be, but I believe they are. Jamie: Yeah, I'll pop them in the show notes as well as a link to your site as well for those who are interested in reaching out. A light question that we like to ask all of our guests, Dr. Bebe, before we do wrap up, I want to respect your time as well, is if we had a time machine and you could go back to your 12 year old self and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you give? What would you say? Bibi: Wow. My 12 year old self, well let's see, my 12 year old self had just moved to the US. I was a fresh new immigrant who didn't speak English and I was kind of mortified in the space. I think that I would say, trust yourself, it's going to be okay. Trust yourself, yeah, you're doing okay. Jamie: Wise words indeed. Dr Bebe, thank you so much for your time and generosity today. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. I know that their parents listening, he will gain an enormous amount from today's chat. And thanks so much for your time. Bibi: Thank you so much. Thank you. Jamie: Cheers and bye for now.
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