(25 mins) In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman speaks with Bob Sornson, Ph.D.. Bob is a best-selling author, the founder of the Early Learning Foundation, and is a former classroom teacher and school administrator. Bob discusses how he came to form the Early Learning Foundation, the work it does with schools and community agencies, and how he thinks society can give every child the chance to have a successful educational experience.
For more about Bob and the Early Learning Foundation, visit: earlylearningfoundation.com
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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman, welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains…and we have with us today not only a best-selling author and international speaker, he’s the founder of the Early Learning Foundation which works with schools, community agencies, and parent organizations to help give every child the chance to have a successful early learning experience. Bob Sormsom welcome to Exploring Different Brains.
BOB SORNSON, PH.D. (BS): Thank you Dr. Reitman. I am delighted to be here.
HR: Well you can call me Hackie. Why don’t you introduce yourself to our Different Brains audience.
BS: Yeah, all right. I’m Bob Sornson and I’ve been an educator for about 45 years. I started as a high school special ed teacher and loved that work and helping those kids. I decided I needed to try to change the world in a little broader way and became an administrator. I started to focus on early learning success and noticed that we could be very successful if we intervene very early in the life of a child rather than waiting for problems to grow large. We were able to avoid putting a large number of kids into special ed by giving them the help they needed early on. In fact, we reduced our special ed rates to about 5% when our state rates were at about 14%. That saved millions of dollars, but more importantly it gave kids what they needed early on so that they could start being a part of the pathway to successful learning that needs to be in this day and age a lifelong pathway…something that we do throughout our professional lives and really throughout our entire lives. So I’ve started to work with people around the country and around the world to show them how to more specifically help kids be successful by personalizing, by knowing each kid well and giving them what they need at their level for as long as necessary…building up all of the essential skills. So now we work with schools and show them a very particular way to analyze kids around a small number of critical items and then help kids develop those skills or those capacities step by step instead of just pushing them through curriculum and watching them struggle. We try to understand where kids are at give them what they need for as long as they need it.
HR: Now what inspired you to get into this? Was there a particular trigger?
BS: In some ways it was my time as a high school special ed teacher. I looked at some of the kids that were coming to me as ninth graders and they might be a second grade level reader or a first grade level math student and yet, I could see they had a whole lot more potential than that. They had all kinds of potential to learn…and in some cases they were socially skilled or they were just plain skilled in mischief but they showed a lot of potential. So we did a pretty good job of helping them makeup for some of that disappointment and loss. Over the years we got a whole lot of kids out of special ed entirely. The kids who are in special ed, in our high school program, we used to get about 70 to 75% of them completely out of special ed before they graduated from high school…but that wasn’t good enough because those kids had been damaged to some degree and I needed to gradually figure out how, where, and why that happened.
So as I became an administrator of systems for children from birth to age 26 I learned that we just needed to focus at a younger and younger age level, trying to work with parents in some cases…but certainly being able to make a heck of a lot of difference working with schools and showing them how to look at kids as individuals and not just as kids that are pushed through standard curriculum in the same way as everybody else gets pushed through in that particular grade level. So I became pretty good at taking a careful assessment of children and their learning needs and or creating system for other people to be able to do that…and to truly build steps that are for them in their life one step at a time so that they never fall into that frustration, that failure, that decision that they are not good at learning. How many people, even as adults, have you met that at some point in their life said I’m not good at math, I don’t like math, I’m going to avoid math in every aspect of my life. For the most part that’s not because they are lacking in capacity to be good mathematicians that’s mostly because they had a horrible learning experience
HR: Yeah and I feel that we as a society, in the educational system, doesn’t discriminate between the different types of math. For instance you have to pass algebra to get a high school diploma and that may be one thing your brain just isn’t wired to do. Now when did you form the Early Learning Foundation?
BS: In 2001 I guess circumstances and life and opportunity kind of came together at that point I decided at that time that I was going to have to start teaching these ideas that I had been developing and writing about more broadly to more people, more districts, more communities. So we started the early learning foundation not having a clue where it might lead and now I’ve worked in 48 states and I’ve worked in a few other nations…and it’s a pretty interesting world out there but there’s still a lot of work to do.
HR: Now let’s say I’m a Different Brains parent, I’m watching this, my kids in public school and falls into some of these categories and they’re not being taught the way you’re talking about. What do I do?
BS: Well if I were the parent of special-needs child at any age where they might be involved in school I’d be thinking very carefully about what I know about my kid. What he knows, what he’s able to do now what he’s ready to learn…and I want to have a conversation with the school folks and say hey my kid is still working on these basic math concepts what are you going to do about that? Or are you going to try to push him through ninth grade algebra. Here’s where my child is reading, how are you going to work at his level so that he’s not discouraged in fact he feels a large measure of success? Here are some social skills he needs to learn, here are some motor skills he needs to learn, whatever the range of needs he might be at this moment in time. Most schools aren’t carefully tracking what kids need and where they’re at. Instead they are very carefully tracking the standard content that is supposed to be covered for that grade level. There’s a lot of pressure on teachers to cover common core standards or the district curriculum or whatever it is that all people are supposed to learn. Lots of pressure to do that. Very little attention is given to knowing each student and being able to devise instruction that is matched to his needs. So if I have a special needs kid or child that has a label of some kind and therefore has a legal right to individualized education I would make sure that he gets the individualized education not just the standard education.
HR: Well now you’ve dedicated yourself and your life to this. Tell us about some of your books.
BS: Well my most recent book is called ‘Over Tested and Underprepared’ and it basically looks at the whole reason why we have a system like the one we do today. When I criticize it as a one-size-fits-all curriculum driven system I also needed to recognize that it was designed to be that way. The system that we have, came from a dolman by the name of Horace Mann who was the first Superintendent of Public Instruction in the State of Massachusetts. He was actually called the Secretary to the Board of Education but his first job was to go to Europe and look around and find a school system and bring it back to Massachusetts to create the first public schools in America. He chose the Prussian system, which was a grade 1 through grade 8 system. Standard first grade curriculum followed by standard second grade curriculum you covered it at this rate with the expectation in those days in the 1840s, 50s, 60s, was that some kids would come in for a few months, some kids might come in off and on for a few years…but very few students were going to stay around for all eight years. That was not the expectation…but that basic standardized model.
HR: Excuse me and that was based on primarily agricultural society, where everybody had to work on the farm and everything. School was like secondary thing.
BS: School was absolutely a secondary thing. We hadn’t even developed high schools yet. There wasn’t such a thing yet. So it was a grade 1 through 8 curriculum. In the early 1900’s, we added high schools and we started to add a little bit of pressure because we industrialized it. We turned everything into 60 minute periods and we separated the sciences and we put everything into these rote little packages and we rotated kids from class to class to class like an assembly line. We’ve kept all that but now, in the last 40 years, we’ve had the era of school reform
HR: And now here’s a paradox to me also in that you and I both believe in one size fits all does not work. That’s what the great coaches will tell you, you have to know each individual athlete, that’s what every great teacher knows, every great doctor knows every patient is different everything and everything. The paradox to me nowadays is one of the institutions, where you do get that individualized attention and work on your computer at your speed with the teacher talking to you is in the old fashioned one-room schoolhouses and some rural areas, where the teacher knows each of the 12 students have come from the different areas and works with them at their own level, their own place, all in the same class. To me, the irony of it is if people would buy into the early learning foundation principles, you’d be much better. So if I wanted to buy your books where do I go? And how do I learn about all your books?
BS: Oh you can always find everything on Amazon so just look at Bob Sormsom on Amazon, you’ll see a whole list of books. You can also get the access to the books or the list of books on my website but you can also pick up a whole lot of other free articles and information and videos and other materials that support all of these ideas and that’s EarlyLearningFoundation.com.
HR: You’re involved in a lot of different states, I see you’ve done a lot to save millions of dollars in Mississippi, for instance.
BS: Well it’s exactly right. We just have two projects in Mississippi and about a week and a half ago I got to talk to all the superintendent’s and central lead administrators in the state of Mississippi with an interesting message. My message is that Mississippi is the lowest performing state in the country. Our nation has not improved our education outcomes not one tiny little bit since the early 1970s, when we started to collect long-term data. All this pressure all this one-size-fits-all…all the standardized assessments, all the evaluation of teachers, all of the pressure to push kids through curriculum is not improving our outcomes one tiny little bit. So you can put all your work and effort into tweaking that system and it just probably isn’t going to pay off at all. Or you could start to make very small changes that would allow you to personalize instruction and guess what? It’s starting to happen around the country, there are places around the country that are making strong moves in this direction and two just to note, the states of New Hampshire and Maine. New Hampshire did this back in 2010 now require competencies for high school graduation, not just courses and credits, you have to actually show that you have certain competencies and you’d be able to prove and show that you have this skill, you have this knowledge, and you know how to use it at a certain level of proficiency. That’s when you graduate…and in the case of New Hampshire, they’ve been doing this now for a few years. They have reduced their dropout rate and they have now become either the number-one or the number two state in the nation in reading or math this past year. 2016 they were number one in reading and number two in math and they’ve been able to manage this transformation in relatively small number of years.
HR: We’re talking with Bob Sornson of Early Learning Foundation. Bob thanks for making the time with us today. Aside from a best-selling author you’re an international speaker. What have you learned going around the world? Are there any countries or particular models that have really struck your fancy?
BS: There are places all around the world that I think do a better job of just plain sitting down and having respectful conversations and working out plans together without awhile lot of acrimony and yelling, screaming, and politics. So the amount of ridiculous conversation and politics that gets foisted onto our education decision-making process is unusual and it certainly isn’t particularly helpful. So as I look around the world I see lots of examples of progress. Canada a close neighbor, they’ve made a whole lot of progress in the last 10 or 15 years and are among the top 10 nations in the world. I like particularly some of the work that they’re doing with their early childhood popular patience. Finland is an international leader they sort of discovered by accident back in 2000 when we first started doing the international tests. They realized that they were the number one nation in the international comparisons and they frankly weren’t exactly sure why because they hadn’t designed their system to do a lot of testing. They did, in fact, very little testing of their students, but their outcomes on the international visa assessments were at the top and are still within the top five or six internationally.
One of the nations that I think is most interesting is Poland. A very poor country back as the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Eastern European countries were starting to push away from the communist bloc. They were impoverished, they were in chaos, they were a mess…but somehow a gentleman that had been a chemistry professor in one of the Polish universities was appointed to be the director of education, the Minister of Education and he created a small quiet revolution in Poland. In the middle of all this chaos he found ways to train and hire the very best people to be teachers. He treated them professionally he consolidated and focused the curriculum and he took the steps in the middle of chaos to begin to make incredibly quick improvements in the system that probably would not have been possible in a quieter more stable time. It was because there was so much fuss just trying to survive in Poland that he was able to do most of this work under the radar and Poland is now a top-ten nation in the world in terms of its learning outcomes.
HR: Pretty amazing story Bob. Is there any other topics we haven’t covered that you would like to cover?
BS: Absolutely, things near and dear to my heart are anything that helps kids get on the track to be successful. We know that for the most part kids need to experience success in their early years or else they’ll start to disengage and think they’re not good and essentially identify themselves as not good at reading, not good at math, not good at school, not good at learning…and when kids make that identification it’s hard to change that status. So I like to do everything possible to get kids off to a healthy successful start in the first eight years of life. So birth through third grade, those are the key times for me. So learning academic learning issues are one thing we can talk about, math and the progression of skills that are important for math in the early grades. There are 29 skills between preschool and third grade and those are the ones I want kids to learn really really really well, giving them all the time and help they need to support that. There are other parts of the developing child that I think we aren’t paying very much attention to as a society but absolutely definitely in our schools. So I’ll just mention a couple of those. One is in the area of self-regulation self-management social-emotional development a lot of kids are coming to school with negative attitudes towards Authority. They’re not good at calming themselves down focusing persisting delaying gratification, managing themselves so that they can be listening and quiet at the right time, excited and noisy at the right time. That’s called self-regulation or self-management.
It doesn’t happen by accident it happens in good homes and in good schools and classrooms and we’re needing to focus a whole lot more because the level of self-regulation and self-management kids are bringing with them to school has become more and more of a problem. So dealing with that both in families and in schools is an important part of my work. Another piece is taking a look at the sensory motor, sensory neural, sensory and grade of skills of kids. These are do you have a strong core, do you have good hand strength, do you know where your body is in space, do you have good balance, both moving balance and static balance, can you cross midline, do you have a general sense of agility… because basic motor skills like throwing and catching and balancing and crossing midline are related to neurologic development and if kids are poorly developed metrically, if they get very little exercise, if they have a poor sense of where their body is in space, if they can’t use their hands and their eyes together they’re going to be less successful in school. We are seeing an incredibly larger number of kids come to school with poorly developed motor and sensory motor skills. So dealing with the behavioral and self-regulatory development motor skill development as well as academic and language development are all part of the picture for me.
HR: What’s the name of your website EarlyLearningFoundation.com.
BS: EarlyLearningFoundation.com and there are a couple of materials there under competency. They can get some materials so that they could look and see what skills a child should have at the end of preschool, at the end of kindergarten, at the end of first grade, second grade, and third grade. That could be a really good guide for parents to say to the schools hey are you going to work on this? Are you going to be successful helping my child learn to this? This is what he needs, this is what we have to help him do don’t worry about some of that fifth grade content until he has those second and third grade math skills.
HR: Bob, what is the single biggest thing you want to leave our audience with today?
BS: For decades I worked with kids who are identified in one way or another as having different brains but what I eventually realized is that, hey guess what? We all have different brains. The idea that there’s one brain and one size fits all brains except for a few exceptions it just erroneous. It is erroneous to its core. We are so wonderfully different…and what you just said about people being able to be together, talk together, and to plan together, depends on our ability to recognize that we are different and still respect and love one another and treat each other respectfully as we work out our plans and our problems and our differences. All of this is stuff that can happen. There are so many examples of good people working together bringing different skill sets and different orientations and attitudes and beliefs and experiences and concerns.
The idea of Different Brains, to me, is not just a small group of people within the society…but what you’re talking about represents every single human being that I’ve ever come across and every single human being that we’ve ever served in the schools. So creating safe places in school where you can be who you are and get the learning that you need eventually might lead to creating societies where you can be who you are and work together to complement each other. A couple of the very bestselling books that I have our children’s books. One is called ‘The Juice Box Bully’ and that’s sold about a hundred and twenty thirty thousand copies so far. Another one is called stand in my shoes kids, learning about empathy. I’ve sold a lot more kids books than I have some of these professional more academic books but they’re all about just being able to recognize one another and our needs, basic empathy, noticing other people, having the social skills and the respect for other people, to listen, observe, and work together in a peaceful and appropriate and respectful way that’s all it is. That’s what we need to do in our schools eventually. That’s what we need to do in our society.
HR: Bob Sornson you just ended on such a positive forceful enlightened educating note. You’ve made my whole day and you’re an inspiration. Thank you so much for being with us here at Different Brains.
BS: Thanks Hackie, great to see you
Different Brains® Inc. founder Harold “Hackie” Reitman, M.D. is an author, filmmaker, retired orthopedic surgeon, former professional heavyweight boxer, the past chairman and president (and current board member) of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, and a neurodiversity advocate. However, it was his role as a father that led to the creation of the DifferentBrains.org website.
Hackie’s daughter Rebecca grew up with epilepsy, 23 vascular brains tumors, and underwent 2 brain surgeries before the age of 5. Her struggles and recovery put him on the road to, through 26 professional heavyweight boxing matches, raising money for children’s charities (to which he donated every fight purse).
Rebecca eventually went on to graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Discrete Mathematics, and Dr. Reitman wrote and produced a film based on her experiences there (The Square Root of 2, starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s Scandal). After graduation, Rebecca received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Hackie, shocked at his own ignorance of the topic despite being an M.D., embarked on years of research that culminated with his book Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Neurodiversity (released by HCI books, publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series).
This experience revealed to Hackie the interconnectedness of the conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, while alerting him to the in-fighting and fractured relations that often plague the organizations tasked with serving the community. Convinced that overcoming these schisms could help all of society, Hackie forged the Different Brains philosophy of inclusive advocacy: “Supporting Neurodiversity – From Autism to Alzheimer’s and All Brains In Between”.
In the company’s initial years of operation, Hackie self-financed all of the content on DifferentBrains.org, all of which offered free to view to the public. Currently he is the host of our weekly interview show Exploring Different Brains, writes blogs for the site, and tours the country speaking at conferences, conventions and private functions, all with the goal of improving the lives of neurodiverse individuals and their families, and maximizing the potential of those with different brains. Separate from Different Brains, Hackie is the founder and CEO of PCE Media, a media production company focusing on reality based content. He recently co-executive produced the documentary “Foreman”, the definitive feature documentary on legendary boxer and pitchman George Foreman.