Supporting your differently wired student
Debbie Reber
Parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author, and the founder of TiLT Parenting

School always presents certain challenges for students who learn and think differently (kids with ADHD, dyslexia, giftedness, autism, anxiety, or other neuro-differences). But the Covid-19 pandemic has created even greater obstacles for these children – social isolation, academic and emotional regression, difficulty focusing and learning on a screen all day – as well as for the parents who are raising them. Debbie Reber is a parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a resource for parents who are raising differently wired children. She joins us to share ideas on how you can best prioritize and plan in the pandemic-era school landscape. She also offers advice on how to support your differently wired child’s cognitive, social, and emotional needs during this atypical time, while also taking care of your own emotional health and well-being.


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework to think about what differently wired children need throughout the pandemic
  • Warning signs that your differently wired child is struggling emotionally, academically, and socially, and advice on how to address these challenges
  • Why it’s okay to “lower the bar” and reset expectations of what academic success looks like this year
  • The importance of communicating with teachers and advocating for changes (if needed) to special education plans, including IEPs and 504 plans
  • Ways to help your child find academic motivation
  • Ideas on how to carve out more time and space for yourself, as well as for your kids


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Supporting your differently wired student  

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, especially if you're raising an atypical child during this a typical time. Today's guest is Debbie Rieber. She's a parenting activist, New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a website, podcast, and resource for parents who are raising differently wired children. She's also the author of Differently Wired: A Parent's Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope. Debbie shares her advice on parenting children who think and learn differently. She has some great tips and how we can set them up for success. Have a listen. Debbie, thank you so much for being here today.

Debbie Reber: Thank you, Emily, I'm happy to be here.

Emily: You used the term "differently wired" to describe kids who think and learn differently. I just wanted to level set before we dive into this conversation today about how you define a differently wired child.

Debbie: Sure. I use the term differently wired to describe a child who is in any way neurologically atypical. It's a definition that includes formal diagnoses like ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, gifted, anxiety, sensory processing issues, so any neurological atypicality. Then there are also lots of kids who may not have a formal diagnosis, but there's some aspect of the way that they are moving through the world that creates challenges in certain areas. All of those fit under that umbrella term.

Emily: You've used Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a basis for the hierarchy of needs for differently wired children who are living through this pandemic. I think it's a really fantastic way to frame what so many kids and their families are experiencing, and frankly, what they need right now, can you walk us through this hierarchy?

Debbie: So many of us are focused on academics right now, because that we're worried about school, but really, in this hierarchy, the bottom has to, again, be emotional safety. That's the most important thing is that our kids feel emotionally safe. Then we have the physical safety, which is really important now with COVID, especially, because of that is a very real concern, is making sure that our kids stay safe and keep those around them safe.

Then there's the social connection piece, which is another challenge for so many of us right now is helping our kids feel still connected to their same-age peers. Then getting to the top of the triangle, we have personal growth and development, because that really can't happen until those other needs are met. Then at the very top, so what I consider to be the least priority right now is the academic growth because we know that learning will not happen unless those other needs are met.

Emily: What signs should we be looking out for as parents to ensure that these needs are being met?

Debbie: We are likely seeing signs of higher levels of frustration. I'm hearing from so many families and experiencing it in my own home just a lot more sadness and unhappiness and disappointment around what many kids feel to be a loss of a year in their lives. Then there's all of the struggles that are probably most visible with schoolwork because so many differently wired kids are just not thriving with remote or hybrid learning situations.

Emily: What does success look like for differently wired kids right now? How can we reset our expectations as parents to be okay with that?

Debbie: Well, I'm definitely telling everyone that this is a time to lower the bar. I think that in terms of success, it's something that we have to define as a family based on our values, based on the things that are important to us. We want to focus on the opportunities where our kids can maybe grow personally, even if that's just helping them understand their own emotions better. Maybe they get through this year, having built more resilience and really understanding how they deal with disappointment. We can focus on physical health, we can focus on practicing independence skills.

I think we want to take a step back and in coordination with our child, think about, okay, what would feel good if at the end of the year, we moved forward on these things? Again, these are not in most cases going to be finishing the year with a 4.0 and a thing X test. It's really going to be about lowering that bar and thinking about how can we support our child's social-emotional development and growth during this time.

Emily: For kids who think and learn differently, who maybe have a hard time focusing while they're in front of a screen all day, what can we do to help set them up for, at-home learning success, despite these challenges?

Debbie: Again, this is something that I really recommend parents create with their children. Rather than having this top-down set of rules or policies, create policies with our kids about what school's going to look like. Are there things that you can take off our kids play right now so that they're not feeling as stressed? We really want to get clear with our child about our policies around homework. Is homework going to happen? If schoolwork and homework is going to happen, where will that take place? Should we create a special environment? How involved are we as parents going to be in managing the homework or overseeing schoolwork?

There all these types of family dynamic considerations that we want to create with our child. Then there's the practical things like making sure that we built in breaks for our kids, getting them outside to move their bodies periodically, little things like making sure we've got a charging station for all the devices and headphones, especially if everyone's working at home and there's a shortage of chargers and plugs. That's definitely happened in my house.

Emily: I love your idea about creating a plan for success together. How do you bring your child's teacher into that plan? How can you make sure that you're on the same page with the teacher, as you said, lowering the bar right now?

Debbie: This is tricky because teachers are doing the best that they can right now and everyone's making it up as they go along. That's certainly what I'm hearing from people all over the country. I think it's really important to understand the constraints that our teachers are under the stressors that they have to try to make remote or hybrid learning work. Also, look at them as a partner. We're all working towards the same thing. We're all working towards our kids, getting through this, and thriving on the other end of it.

Approaching them with challenges in a compassionate way not in a blaming or shaming way, but just keeping that communication door open and I think it's really important as parents that we know that we can really ask for what we need right now. Again, there are no rules for how so many of our kids are doing in school these days. I think there's a lot of room to design a scenario that would be better for your child. If what the school has proposed, isn't working.

Emily: How can we better advocate for our kids especially if you have a child who has a special education plan, like an IEP or a 504 Plan? What advice do you have to continue to be their strongest advocates?

Debbie: I actually just interviewed an expert on education law recently and she reminded me that as parents, we have the right to ask for changes and accommodations for our kids, IEPs, and 504s really at any point throughout the school year. So many of us feel like we've got this document, and now this is the living-- This is the document we've got to live with for the next year until we have another meeting. In fact, if the accommodations, as outlined in those plans, are actually not helping our kids get through this strange time in education and we need more or different accommodations added in there, we can call a meeting at any point and push for those.

I would encourage parents to take notes, keep track of things that aren't working, get your information lined up, and reach out to parent groups to see what kind of accommodations are other parents finding they're able to get pushed through and then ask for those meetings and keep asking for what you need. Again, there's no rules. There's often a lot more space to design something that would better suit our kids than we may realize.

Emily: Let's talk about motivation for a second. It's especially challenging for kids who are differently wired. What can we do to help them continue to stay motivated? What should we be keeping in mind as we try to encourage them to stay motivated?

Debbie: This is such a tough one right now because many of us as adults are not feeling motivated either and so it's hard to expect our kids to feel really excited about schoolwork and really life. Many of them are just down about everything. I think it's important to, first of all, realize that we can't make our kids be motivated. There's nothing we can do to make them feel that. What we want to do is try to encourage them to explore things that they are interested in, try to help them dive deeper into passions even if that's a video game.

Look for ways to spark other extensions of creativity through that video game. We need to start where they are. We also know that having a sense of control over one's life feels really good. Certainly, this is the time when many of us and our kids don't feel a sense of control. Think about ways that you can give them more choice or own something, a decision or decisions in your family so that they can feel a little more empowered.

Offering rewards and punishments to do things is a default for so many of us especially if we're stressed about schoolwork that's not getting finished. We know that those rewards and punishments can actually have the opposite effect and kill motivation. We want to look at this as a time to help our kids better understand what internally drives them and try to expand on that.

Emily: So many parents have seen their kids regress throughout this pandemic. What are some of the biggest challenges that parents have shared with you about what their differently wired kids are struggling with, and what's your advice on how to try and address some of these?

Debbie: I think the biggest thing I have heard is the social challenges that these kids who most or many of them already have lagging social skills and maybe small social lives. They've seen those disappear, and they're feeling really isolated. If that is something that's happening for our listeners, I'm encouraging families to reach out to try to find online support groups for kids. A lot of occupational therapists and psychotherapists, they're doing all their work remotely right now. Many have recognized this need and are creating small groups for kids to hang out, whether it's a moderated discussion or interest-based online groups.

Those things really matter right now, and, of course, encouraging virtual playdates. It's not ideal, but it can be enough to help them stay connected and even practice some of those social skills. Then the other thing that I'm hearing the most right now is just that, sadly, kids are really-- They're just hating life right now. They're feeling super down about remote learning. Again, they're feeling like they're losing time.

When you're a kid, you don't have that perspective. A year in a kid's life is everything. It feels endless. As parents and caregivers, it's really important that we recognize that and always be a compassionate listener. Practicing empathy with them and not dismissing even if this is the hundredth time that we've heard the same complaint in 100 days.

Being that steady source of empathy and compassion. "This is really hard. I know you're feeling really disappointed right now. I'm here if you need anything." We want to just hold that space for them.

Emily: It is hard to find space right now. How do we carve out the time and space for our kids who may need a little bit more of our time and attention that, frankly, we don't always have?

Debbie: It is so hard, yes. I have so much empathy for parents who are just trying to juggle all of it. Especially those with younger kids who are more demanding and less understanding about what a parent needs to do in any given day. If you aren't doing family meetings already, this would be a great time to start those and really work with your kids to design guidelines or policies for your family where everybody, the parents and the kids, get a chance to talk about and you can do this with really little kids, but to talk about the things that they need and the things that they're concerned about. "This is what I need to do for work."

Really respectfully work with your child to create a schedule, to create some boundaries and some guidelines for space and how spaces will be used. Then keep revisiting those.

For little kids too, I think we often feel really guilty if we aren't available for them, and we know they really are disappointed with that. Part of that for us as parents is being okay with their disappointment and reminding ourselves and them that it's okay to feel sad, and you will get through this.

We can, of course, help redirect our kids and maybe put a visual list on their wall, other things can do when mom or dad isn't available. Get creative about ways you can spend time together, where maybe you're co-working, I do this with my son a lot, he'll be working on Kerbal Space Program or Minecraft or something and he wants me available to show me a cool build he's done but I've got work to do. We'll just sit on the couch next to each other, and then we're together but we're both getting to do what we need to do.

Emily: We always hear about these importance of "self-care." Everyone has a different definition of that. What's your definition and how can we try to build this in because we know it's so important to take care of ourselves during this time as well?

Debbie: The way that I define self-care, it's very simple. It's two things. The first is that it is an intentional action and the second is that it is something just for you. On the nights that I have to cook, for me, I plug in a podcast that I love, it might be a recap of a trashy reality show whatever it is, but I've turned cooking something I have to do into a self-care act because I'm intentionally listening to something that I know brings me joy while I'm doing it. That's just a very simple example.

It's really about the intention because when we intentionally do something we know is going to feed our soul or our emotional or mental well being, then we're reminding ourselves that we're worth it, that we are important and even if it's a five-minute shower with the door locked or no child can like ask you a question or interrupt you.

Emily: Imagine that. [chuckles]

Debbie: Right, exactly. It doesn't have to be a big thing. I think self-care, it gets a bad rap because people think of getaway weekends or lavish spa days but really, it can be a five-minute dance party to Justin Timberlake in your pajamas like it's so simple, but it's just a way to say, I'm doing this for me because I matter.

Emily: Finally, what resources would you recommend parents check out to help them and their differently wired kids thrive as we continue to live through this challenging time?

Debbie: First of all, I just share that TiLT Parenting, which is my podcast, I've been doing a lot of episodes on education and pandemic parenting, and I release that weekly. If people want to check that out, it's at tiltparenting.com. Another of my favorite resources is understood.org, which is specifically for parents who are raising kids with learning and attention issues. They have a great new tool called take-note, which is free and it helps parents really observe and notice what's happening with their kids so that they can better understand how to get them support, and how to have better conversations with pediatricians or therapists if those are things that we're focused on right now.

Then lastly, I would just say join a community. Right now is the time to connect and to remind ourselves daily that we are not alone in this. There are other parents struggling with these same things. If you're into social media, there are lots of Facebook groups and a lot of in-person groups have moved remote and I'll just throw in the name of my Facebook group is Tilt Together. If people are interested, it's just for parents with differently wired kids. It's a place to get resources and share and get advice.

Emily: I couldn't agree more community is so so important right now. Debbie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Debbie: Thank you.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.