Jenni Kephart is the CEO and founder of Unlocking Potential, an educational company serving families for the past 12 years. Over the past 20 years, Jenni has worked extensively with students from pre-school to high school and with a variety of learning needs.
In this episode we discuss the importance of individualised learning for kids.
Now a mom, Jenni has even more compassion for the needs of parents. She loves the challenge of adapting and customizing preparation for every single student and prioritizes a deep connection and strong relationship with each and every student, creating a trust and fluidity in the learning environment that allows for a highly impactful and enjoyable experience. In 2020, she developed an innovative virtual math program that has had unprecedented results for 2nd - 6th grade students in only 10 minutes a week. Jenni is deeply committed to each of her students and families and is constantly learning and growing herself as she empowers others to learn and thrive.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
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 behaviour, 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 from the digital age. Here is your host, Jamie Buttigieg.
Speaker 2 (00:32):
Hello parents. Today, we are talking about the importance of individualized education for our children. A topic that is indeed very close to my heart and joining us today is Jenni Kephart. Jenny is the CEO and founder of Unlocking Potential and Education Company serving families for the past 12 years. But over the last 20 years, Jenny has worked extensively with students from preschool up to high school with a variety of learning needs. Now, um, rather than me go into any more detail, Jenny, maybe you could share with our listeners in your own words, what you do, what you're passionate about and perhaps how you arrived, where you are today.
Speaker 3 (01:10):
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you Jamie, for having me. Um, well I always knew I wanted to work with children and I originally thought I wanted to be a child psychologist, which I decided in middle school. Uh, that, that was my path. So I started pursuing psychology and my first, uh, career really was working with children with autism as a one-on-one behavior specialist. So this was really vital part of my career because I started working one-on-one really from the lens of how can I support this student to eventually be independent. So I would go into the school and work with them in a classroom. I got to be in a lot of different classrooms over a lot of different years and observe, uh, the educational process work with students and not only end up supporting my student, but by virtue of just them socializing and learning, I ended up almost always working with like almost every single student in the class.
Speaker 3 (02:10):
So I feel like I ended up working with hundreds of students over the course of, you know, even my first few years as a behaviorist. And it really gave me this point of view of how different every student is, how different their needs are, whether they have a, you know, diagnosed learning difference or not how differently everybody thinks and how most situations educationally, at least in our normal school day are set up to teach to. However many students are in that class, up to me with 30 students in the exact same way and, um, really how that doesn't work very well for, for, um, for, for students. And often, sometimes even for teachers. So, um, after, you know, as I was doing this kind of, of midway through this part of my career, I also started doing some test prep and after school, um, academic support with students and I taught group classes and I also did one-on-one work.
Speaker 3 (03:11):
And I very quickly found out that the one-on-one work was much more of a fit for me and that it really felt right and good in that way. And so, uh, after doing some of that work for other companies, I, uh, with, along with a really amazing partner founded Unlocking Potential, and we, for the past 12 years have been doing work with students on anything from helping them prepare for tests to helping them learn math, helping them to enjoy math. <laugh>, I've created a creative math programs, um, for students and also some pretty interesting even online and virtual programs starting in 2020, we went fully virtual. So now we are, even though we're here based in Los Angeles, um, we actually are working with students all over the country and all over the world now. So it's been really amazing.
Speaker 2 (04:03):
That's fantastic. You can really amplify your reach now.
Speaker 3 (04:06):
Speaker 2 (04:08):
That's great. So, and, and one of the things I know that, uh, you are particularly passionate about, uh, with your organization unlocking potential is this concept of individualized learning. So perhaps for some of the parents listening today who don't know what that is, maybe you could, uh, tell us what individualized learning is and why it's so important for our kids.
Speaker 3 (04:27):
Absolutely. I really think that there are two parts to it. One is the individualized part and one is the learning part and individualized, of course, you know, as I pointed to really seen every human being thinks about things differently, you know, a anyone that you talk to, even if you think you're talking about exactly the same thing we view the world differently and we see the world differently. And so when it comes to learning something, obviously, you know, someone, even if we all, we both know that three plus five equals eight, the way that we arrive at that is going to be different and the process is going to be different. And so, um, what I've really found in working with students is first of all, finding how do they think, what makes sense to them? What are methods that may work for them that maybe don't necessarily work for other people and allowing them to really discover, uh, how they arrive maybe at an answer to a problem or how they write or whatever the topic may be that we're working on.
Speaker 3 (05:26):
But, but beyond that, and this to me is actually more important for them to learn, to value their own way of thinking, because sometimes they think what happens is, you know, by the time I work with some of my students or my specialists, um, we get to them, if they're in middle school or high school, they've already made these decisions like, well, I'm bad at math, or I don't know how to do this, or this is a very weak subject for me. I'm not a good writer. You know, there's all these kinds of decisions that they've made along the way. And most of the time when we break it down, it comes down to, they were taught to think. And in a, in a sense, almost forced to think a different way than the way that they naturally think. And it, it gets hard not to make a decision at some point called well, I'm thinking differently.
Speaker 3 (06:09):
So obviously this is wrong. Um, and start to kind of devalue or think that they just don't have, they're not smart. They don't have a certain capacity. They're not good at something. So for me, the individualized learning process is really about students learning that the way they think works. And it doesn't matter how they think it works. You know, it always works because if they can find a way to get to, you know, the correct answer or get to whatever the end goal is, it, to me, it doesn't really matter how they get there. They just need to be able to arrive at that destination. And there's many different paths to any destination. And when they can find those ways of getting there, that intuitively just makes sense to them. They start to realize that they work and they start to value themselves. They start to have more confidence and not just, not just accuracy, which accuracy is very important.
Speaker 3 (06:58):
You know, it's important to be able to produce a results and results are important, but it's also important to be able to produce a result in a way that feels good. And to trust the way you think that way, if you don't always get the right answer, you don't have to throw everything out. You just know, okay, well, let me look back at that and see, where was the error or where was the mistake and, and not be so, um, upset by that or thrown off by that or self deprecating about that, but just look at it more as there's just another way here, let me find another way and, and have more creativity in that. So, um, in the individualized part, I think is really just about evaluating the individual process and the individual human being. Um, and then the learning part, which is really, to me, a whole other thing is that I really think that a lot of the way that education is approached is about teaching.
Speaker 3 (07:48):
So if you look, we have cu,cu, uh, curriculum, you know, this is the way we're we teach math at this school or in this district or in this country. And, um, so there's a lot of focus placed on the methodology. How do we get there? How do we teach? How do we teach this? And there's a lot of training, how is the best way to teach this? Or maybe here are some other methods or strategies of teaching. But what I believe is kind of the issue with that is we're not actually placing the attention where I think is the most important is how are students learning? Because the best teacher in the world could get up in front of 30 kids and teach them all really well, and maybe none of them will learn. It <laugh>, you know, or, or someone could not teach at all and someone can learn something.
Speaker 3 (08:34):
So I really think that the VA, the, the focus really, to me being on learning. Um, so it, it seems subtle, but as I've worked with different educators and specialists and I, as I've trained my people, and as I've gone through my entire journey of learning how to not teach, which has been a lot, you know, cuz I've, I've learned a lot of things along the way about what's a good teacher and all of that. And I've had to let go of a lot of things and unlearn a lot of things. Um, I think that the more that I focus on, how is this human being in front of me receiving what's happening? How are they learning? How are they thinking? I actually end up doing a lot less. They end up doing a lot more. They end up learning a lot more. And when I'm in there with them, it's not to say that.
Speaker 3 (09:21):
Um, I mean, I, I could be the one talking most of the time or maybe they're the one talking most of the time. It's diff it's different every time. Um, the focus is really on how are they, how are they, um, taking this in? How are they integrating it? Is this gonna stick with them? What do we need to go back to? So the focus is really on the student. And so yeah, individualized learning when you put it all together, to me just means how can we really value the entire process of every single student taking in what they, you know, need to take in and absorb what they need to absorb so that they can be successful in achieving the goals that they haven't led.
Speaker 2 (10:02):
Yeah, yeah. That that's tremendous, there's so much to unpack there, but, uh, particularly that subtle distinction between teaching and learning and having this student centered approach and this learning centered approach and, you know, uh, in our learning center, as, you know, we, we, we focus on coding and stem, so similar, but different to what you guys are doing. And, uh, I think a couple of the important elements for us is this two-way communication or this, you know, authentic conversation that needs to happen between the educator and the student, because quite often that's when you uncover, uh, not just the challenges, but the opportunities in that learning and then can quickly adapt, uh, your curriculum, uh, to suit that student and get them the best possible learning outcomes. Uh, but, but also I think it's, it comes down to that availability of learning or availability of curriculum.
Speaker 2 (10:47):
So we've got, uh, I think we work this out the other day in terms of what we offer in terms of coding curriculum. If a student were to come to Skill Samurai once a week, uh, there is enough curriculum for 30 years for these students and our EDU yeah. It's, it's CRA it's absolutely crazy and it's growing. Uh, but our, our educators, uh, kind of need access to this because, you know, there are specific examples where they'll come to me and say, Hey, this student isn't quite thriving. And we, there's always this exchange even between the coaches and the educators and myself, uh, you know, talking about individual students and, and, and just modifying that pathway or that learning path to suit that student that's when we get the biggest, uh, breakthroughs. But I, in your opinion, um, you know, what are some of the most, um, important elements of individualized learning for you?
Speaker 3 (11:37):
Well, I love what you're saying about, you know, the collaboration between you and your, you know, your coaches, your educators, because I think that, um, if we're taking our job seriously, it, it actually takes a team to really support any student. You know, it's, it's not just one mind because we all end up with our own perspective of, you know, who this student is or how they think, but ultimately we are all always changing and we are all always growing. So, um, I think that the, you know, the, the kind of phrase or mantra, maybe you could say that I've put together that really works for me is "student by student, session by session, moment by moment." And I think that really ultimately it's a function of a full attention and of, and presence with another human being, uh, that is everything. And I think it's the greatest gift we can give anyone is our full attention.
Speaker 3 (12:39):
And sometimes the hardest one, uh, especially in this digital age. Right. <laugh> um, so I think that for me, when I go in with a, with a student, I am as, as, as good as I am at what I do. And I'm really the, the best person that I know at what I do. Um, I'm usually kind of terrified on one level because, and, and, and if that's, if I am, that means I'm doing something right, because I have no idea what I'm going to do with that student. I I've learned to slowly let go of trying to control anything about the session. And, um, that to me is takes a lot of trust. So I think trust is another very important element, because if I'm gonna really do my job the way that I want to do it, I want to kind of create on the fly, what I'm doing with that student.
Speaker 3 (13:32):
It doesn't mean that I don't have some sort of plan or maybe some sort of topic, or they might come in with, I have to write this essay, or they might come in with, you know, I have to, you know, get better at this part of the test or whatever it is, you know? So there, there may be some sort of goal, but I really try to let go of how, how am I gonna get them there, because the second that I know how I'm going to get them there, it usually ends up diminishing that whole part of them, you know, discovering it and learning it and taking it one step at a time. And I like to, I like to think of it as like a discovery in partnership. So, so we are both in there in the trenches, you know, or in the jungle or whatever, you know, metaphor you wanna use, um, discovering together, how do we get to the other side?
Speaker 3 (14:17):
How do we get to this goal? We have a goal in mind, but we really don't know what's the best way to get there. And what I find is, even though that feels like in our kind of modern society, where we're always looking for like hacks and, and, and tricks and tips to get things faster and, and strategies, I actually find that we get there the fastest and most effective way when we let go of the preconceived notion of how we're gonna get there. And, um, so it does, it takes a lot of trust and it takes, um, you know, in the face of fear as a human, where what we will grab is control. We wanna control things when we're scared of them and anything unknown. It doesn't matter if it's a math problem, or if it's, you know, a life, you know, decision we have to make or anything like that is a part of that unknown.
Speaker 3 (15:05):
And, um, the other kind of, um, kind of almost quote that we have or thing that we use that's, to me, the backbone of our, of what we do is, um, we empower students to powerfully approach the unknown. So when that's great, everything that we do, it's about them saying, it's okay to not know, because most of the time what students think is, oh, if I know it, I'm smart. And if I don't know it, I'm not smart. I can't tell you how often that gets collapsed. And so it, when, whenever you find a student saying, well, I don't know, then it's always a question. Okay, well, what do you know? Or they, they learn to ask themselves, what do I know? And then it becomes an exploration. It becomes a journey. It becomes a, a step by step process instead of it being, whoa, I know exactly how to add it's this, this, this, and here's all the methods.
Speaker 3 (15:55):
And let me show you six different ways you can do it. And, you know, a lot of times those are the kinds of things that ends up leading students, either overwhelmed or confused or, or not understanding versus when they have the opportunity to kind of figure it out for themselves. I get blown away, like constantly. I've had second graders teach me new ways to do subtraction that I have never thought of before. And I've been doing this for, I've been doing subtraction for many years, you know? So it's, um, I think it's really incredible when you go in open. And I think learning is something that should be fun and it should be, um, exciting. And I have a, I have a, almost five year old son now, and I think becoming a parent has also really changed the way that I think about students.
Speaker 3 (16:38):
Um, because working as an educator and working with students for so many years and being a parent, it's such a different thing and such a different perspective. And I am constantly humbled as a parent, um, by any potential judgments I've ever made about parents, <laugh>, they're gone. They're just, I, I get it. I bow parents everywhere for, for the job that you do. Um, but I think that, you know, my, my four year old loves learning, I mean, loves it. He loves reading things. He loves making new connections and discoveries, and I think it's very naturally, um, ingrained in us to love learning. So if we are able to support the process that we kind of are naturally born with about loving learning and being almost designed and programmed to learn, then I think that learning can be a really, really fun, really rewarding, really deeply moving and connecting, um, opportunity, no matter what age you are. And that's something that's also really important. And I, I notice if I leave a session and I'm inspired and I'm like, wow, and my mind is blown. And I feel that way. And if I'm feeling that way in a session, then I know it's working. It doesn't matter what got accomplished or what didn't get accomplished, because I can tell that they're feeling that and I'm feeling that, and we're in this whole thing together. So it's much more than just about the content. It's also a lot about the experience.
Speaker 2 (17:58):
Yeah. It really is. Again, you said so much, uh, uh, there's so much gold in what you've just said there, but, you know, um, you know, part, part of that, you know, you mentioned the fluidity of each session and how, you know, the learning path can change in, in, in a session and just being open as an educator, to be able to be flexible and adapt is where some of the biggest breakthroughs can often occur. But it's also something that parents struggle to get their head around. You know, parents come in often sort of saying, you know, well, what will my child learn? When will they learn it by? And what is the path? And, and, and, and you're right, the minute you start planning out that path, sure. You've gotta have a goal. And we always have a goal when, when there's a child in, but it's how we get there is, is, is really based and built around that student and how they learn and how they adapt. And, uh, you know, I think we've been conditioned as parents to, uh, you know, expect a process or an outcome or something quantifiable when we walk into a learning center like yours. Uh, so it's, it really is changing that mindset of parents as well. Um, so, you know, you mentioned being a parent being an educator. So what are some of your challenges as both an educator and a parent, and how do you face those challenges? That's a really broad question. I know. So take, take it where you wanna take. No,
Speaker 3 (19:13):
I, I, I think again, being I've, I've accomplished a lot of things and I feel very good about where I've come in my life, but being a parent is for sure the most challenging thing I've ever done. <laugh> um, and I think, I think a lot of it actually has to do with what I was seeing earlier about attention. Um, as a parent, we ha we're not, it's not like all we do is be a parent. Like that's, our only job in life is to be a parent. You know, we, we have all these other things that are pulling our attention and all these other things to do. And, um, and I think that finding a way to, as a parent or as an educator, get both, both humans together, giving their full attention. And, and it doesn't mean that you always have to do that because I, I don't think that as a parent, I have the capacity to give my full attention to my child for, for very long at all.
Speaker 3 (20:08):
Actually, <laugh>, I try to be pretty, pretty honest about that. Um, but, um, I really think that it comes back down to fear. Like I was saying before. I think that there are sometimes if I'm just really honest with myself, you know, if I, if I have to interact with my, my child or my phone, the phone's just a lot easier and <laugh>, there's, there's more to do and it keeps me engaged and it's, it's a little bit more known and I can control it more. And, you know, there's more there, whereas my four year old, you never know what's, what's gonna happen. You know, when I, when we start that conversation or, or do something, or am I gonna get upset or am I gonna, you know, is something gonna happen there? And, and I think that I have to be really, I think, as far as how do I approach those challenges first is a lot of honesty, um, both with, within myself and also with my, with my child, with my, my, my husband, my partner, you know, um, I, I think, I think honesty is very important.
Speaker 3 (21:05):
So when, when I do, you know, get upset or something happens with my son, we talk about it. You know, we, we, we look at it together. We talk about our feelings. We, we talk about what happened. We look at that together. And, and I think communication, you know, is another thing that, um, it's sometimes easier not to, it's sometimes easier to just try to pretend like something never happened or try to try to not, you know, talk about things. But, um, I think that comes back down to that attention and, um, you know, learning really what works for you. Um, I find that in general, as a parent and as an educator, when I'm happy, you know, I'm, I'm happy, I'm taking care of I'm resourced. <laugh>, I'm, um, rested, you know, I'm, I'm inspired, I'm, you know, I'm learning, I'm growing. I'm happy with the person that I am, guess what, it's a lot easier to be.
Speaker 3 (21:56):
Um, with my son, it's a lot easier to be with my students. And I also believe that they, no matter what we say, they're going to pick up on how we are and they can feel it, you know, a, a, a student that's with a, with a teacher, an educator who's not very excited about learning or not very excited about being there is gonna know no matter how enthusiastic that you know, educator is. And so I think one of the things that like my students will, some, the older ones will sometimes comment on and the younger ones won't, but they'll get it is how much I actually really love being there, how much I actually really love interacting with them. And, and, um, how joy joyful it can be. Um, so I think that, um, I think that I, you know, as an educator, it's, it's also getting the attention of my students sometimes, you know, sometimes, you know, we do things virtually, so every now and then I can tell they're on their phone or they're doing something else, or, you know, any of that.
Speaker 3 (22:53):
And, and even just finding that way, I, I choose to take a tactic. That's not so much about like, control, like, Hey, put that away. Not that I don't every now and then just make a request or be like, Hey, can you, I see you're on your phone. You can put that away. It's fine. But I also look at it as my job to engage my student. That that's my job. It's not, it's not their job to engage with me. It's my job to pull them in. So what can I do to pull them in? What can I do to do that? So it's, it's almost like a sense of partaking personal responsibility for everything. Um, as much as I can, you know, of course, as a parent, that's a little bit harder too, <laugh> than as an educator. I think, I think everything's more challenging as a parent personally.
Speaker 3 (23:36):
Um, but it's what a great opportunity for growth too, you know, and I feel like I'm always growing and I'm always learning. Um, and if I'm not, then usually there's something that I'm, I'm avoiding or I'm afraid of, or I don't wanna look at. And those can sometimes be the most rewarding opportunities is, um, whatever happens. I view as a learning opportunity, whether it be with my students, with my son, with the relationships in my life or my business or any of those things. Um, so I think as much as I can, I approach with compassion for myself, um, compassion for others, and just really looking for having an open mind and continuing to grow and learn, and sometimes let go of my ego, let go of control, which are the hardest things to let go of, um, and find myself hopefully powerfully approaching me, unknown myself, you know, every day.
Speaker 2 (24:31):
Yeah. Yeah. There's, there's so much passion, um, with how you answer. And I look, I, I think you're doing a tremendous job, not only raising your son, uh, but with the, uh, countless number of students and parents and families you're helping in your communities. And I say that because you've, you are helping these, uh, kids in your own son develop a love of learning. And to me, that is the greatest gift you can give anyone, and that will serve them throughout their whole life, not just their time with you as an educator. So thank you and well done for that. Uh, there's no denying the passion I can, I can see and hear that. Um, a, a fun little question we like to ask all of our guests, uh, here on the podcast, and that is if you were, uh, able to go back and give your 10 year old self one piece of advice, and I know this is difficult, uh, but what would that advice be?
Speaker 3 (25:20):
Well, I like to think of, I think we give a lot of advice in the world and especially to young people <laugh>. So I like to think of it more as what question would I ask my 10 year old self? Cause I think that, that, I think that questions often lead us down a road that has us learned more than necessarily just telling somebody here's what you should do. Um, so I think if I could ask my 10 year old self, a question or some question series of questions, it really would be, what are you inspired by? You know, what do you, what do you love? What do you think is great about you? What, um, lights you up every day? You know, what would you do with the rest of your life, if you could do anything? Um, I think we just get so bogged down and even, I think it starts very young with what should I be doing?
Speaker 3 (26:09):
What's the right thing to do? What, what directions do I need to follow? What am I doing for everybody else? And I think that, um, really that focus on what makes me happy, you know, what, what do I love? And, and almost trusting that the taking care of other people is going to almost naturally happen when we are truly looking at how can I have what I love and what I'm inspired about, be just as important as what I have to do or what, what, what other people do I have to make happy? Um, so I think that's what I, I think I would just ask myself, <laugh> those kinds of questions. If I could go back,
Speaker 2 (26:54):
That's great. You flipped that really well. And, uh, and it's a great perspective to see the world from, um, particularly if you could go back to that age, uh, but you know, nothing stops us asking those questions now, and no doubt you've asked those and you still continue to ask those of yourself, uh, as we do now. Um, uh, where can our listeners find you online? Uh, where, where, how, how can they get in contact with you or, uh, get in contact with unlocking potential?
Speaker 3 (27:17):
Yeah, we have a website it's, uh, unlocking potential plural, unlockingpotentialspecialists.com you're in the us. So there's no.au on.au on it. So it's just unlocking potential specialists.com and, um, you know, we, I, I love talking to parents, honestly. I love talking about any of this it's so it's such a fun opportunity and it's so inspiring to me and, and very fulfilling for me. Um, so I always offer anybody a, a 15 minute inquiry call that they can schedule. So if any parents have any questions about, um, obviously our services and what we provide, um, but also anything that I can do to support them, they can schedule a call there. Um, and as we kind of continue into this again, digital age, I'm a pretty old school person. I do a lot of phone calls and, and, and meetings and that kind of thing. Um, we're gonna start to try to include things like this recordings of podcasts and just other helpful things for parents. I'm really, uh, it's really important to me to support families, um, support students and just in general to support human beings cuz we're all in this together.
Speaker 2 (28:31):
Yeah, absolutely. Jenny, uh, thank you so much for your, um, generosity in your time and knowledge today. I know that, uh, parents will get a ton out of what you've just, um, given them today. Uh, and, uh, thank you for being with us.
Speaker 3 (28:42):
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. Jamie,
Speaker 1 (28:47):
If you enjoyed the show, please connect with Jamie on LinkedIn or Instagram. You'll find links in the podcast. Description parenting in the digital age is sponsored by Skill Samurai, coding and stem academy for kids. Skill Samurai offers afterschool coding classes and holiday programs to help kids thrive academically and socially while preparing them for the careers of the future. Visit www.skillsamurai.com.au.
Contact Jenni: https://www.unlockingpotentialspecialists.com/