I find in my work with Complex Learners that the more I know, the more I need to learn. There are so many disciplines that hold a piece of the puzzle, and each plays a part in understanding how children who learn and interact differently, can unlock their potential.

That’s why at The Wolf School, we initiated an annual Complex Learners conference. While there are many trainings and conferences that address specific diagnoses or treatments, we wanted to bring together experts in their field who could speak across multiple diagnoses, addressing how we better understand and work with the Complex Learner. We had an ambitious agenda, including two exceptional speakers, an amazing panel discussion, and breakout sessions putting it into practice by offering strategies for school and home.

I hoped for a good turnout, an informative day, and an energizing experience. I was not disappointed!

There’s so much to talk about, to share with you, and certainly to learn more about. But for the sake of keeping this the length of a blog post and not a book, here is one thing from each speaker and the panel presentation that really stayed with me.

  • Oimg_5337ur first speaker, psychiatrist Todd Levine, MD, almost always sees families after they have tried other therapeutic interventions that haven’t worked. But he emphasized the key to responsible diagnosing and prescribing is paying attention to pervasiveness. For example, in treating anxiety, a 5-year-old boy who is hyper-focused on dinosaur facts and looks anxious when talking about other things, is not the same as a 7-year-old boy who constantly worries about what event comes next. Breaking down when and how often behaviors occur is critical.
  • Neuropsychologist Allison Evans, PhD, spoke about the importance of translating neuropsychological evaluations, as the score on a test doesn’t tell the whole story. A img_5374child may know a lot, but may not be able to pull it out quickly or efficiently. In fact, two children may have the same score, but come to it in very different ways. Getting as much information as possible, including family history, current interventions, classroom environment, and behavioral observations, makes a significant difference in understanding Complex Learners and being able to make recommendations tailored to their needs.
  • Our panelists, including Dr. Levine, Dr. Evans, Speech and Language Pathologist img_5410Rosaline Granoff and Occupational Therapist Lise Gerard Faulise, all felt that a diagnosis might be a good jumping off point, but that most children they saw had several diagnoses and intervention needed to happen by peeling back the layers, treating one or two symptoms and making adjustments along the way. A multi-disciplinary approach is critical when working with Complex Learners.

Thanks to our incredible speakers, panelists and presenters, we have expanded our understanding of Complex Learners and the bridge between assessment and treatment. We hope to continue the conversation, whether it’s through articles, blog posts, trainings or conferences, and we encourage you to do the same.



Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.


WOLF WEDNESDAYS: 3 Things Teachers Want to Know About Your Complex Learner

As a parent, you know the new school year is off and running when you get that seemingly endless stack of paperwork to fill out about your child again. All the phone numbers and names of siblings and emergency contacts and medications and photo releases and lists of allergies. Yes, it gets a little tedious, but you know it’s all very important information.

Yet there’s a lot of info these forms don’t capture that your teachers are equally, if not more interested in. Your child’s teachers want to make the most of each day, and you are a significant part of the equation, especially if your child is a Complex Learner. Here’s 3 things your child’s teacher really want to know about that can help make the school year successful and fun:

Ongoing Communication

Your child’s teacher wants to hear from you and share with you. Don’t wait for this to happen formally at the Parent Teacher Conference. Let the teacher know things that might affect the day. Did your child not sleep well, was there a problem with medication, did the family goldfish pass away, was there a big fight with a sibling or friend? If your child gets upset hearing loud noises, the teacher can help him/her be prepared for fire drills. These things are helpful for gauging expectations and behaviors during the school day. In turn, you should learn what happened at school that might affect things at home. Was there a problem during recess, was a math lesson overwhelming, was their energy level very low or very high? You and your child’s teacher are in this together and having open dialogue makes a difference. You can also let the teacher know your best mode for communicating. Do you prefer email or phone calls? Would you like a brief check-in time during the week? If you don’t read emails and this is the only way the teacher sends updates, you will be missing out on an important connection.

Interests and Passions

Learning about your child’s interests and passions helps give the teacher conversation starters and helps in the development of the student-teacher relationship. It also offers topics that make learning easier. If your child struggles with reading, high interest materials make a difference. The teacher can also structure rewards specific to your child’s interests when the lessons are difficult or less appealing. These interests may change over time so it helps to keep your teacher up to speed on your child’s latest fascination. Your teacher can also let you know if something new sparks your child’s interest so you can make that connection at home.

Motivators and Behaviors

You are the expert when it comes to your child. What kinds of situations or experiences make your child feel stressed or anxious? Does your child tend to shut down or get revved up when they feel this way? What interventions have you tried that worked, or didn’t seem to make a difference? Are there particular motivators, such as verbal praise, colorful stickers, or time with a special friend, that work well? Helping children stay calm and focused is an important part of the teacher’s job and the more they understand about your child’s behaviors and motivators, the more they will be able to provide an environment that works best for your child.


It’s important to create a parent–teacher partnership that supports your child’s learning and development both at school and at home. You and your child’s teacher are a team – learn from each other, share strategies and information, tell each other stories, and develop trust. Ultimately, you both want the same thing – a happy, healthy child that can move forward in his/her growth and learning. There will be bumps along the way as no school year is perfect. But together you can make it a fun, memorable and successful year for your child!


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

School to Summer: Tips for the Transition

dc6eqn5BiWhen the school year ends, kids are excited. They can’t wait to leave the hallways and homework behind. But despite the thrill of those summer months ahead, the transition can be hard. For kids who have learning, social and/or sensory challenges, this change in routine can be especially difficult and creating unexpected problems.

To make things easier for you and your child, here are a few things to watch for. Try to plan ahead and manage things with some of these preventative strategies.

The Outdoor Elements
For some kids, the sunshine calls and they’re off. But for others, the hot sun is like kryptonite, zapping them of all their powers. These kids might drag behind, complain, and, pardon the pun, experience “meltdowns.” Loose cool clothing, hats, beach umbrellas, water bottles and shade are extra important for these kids. Other enemies, like bugs, sand, even grass, can also get heightened in the summer Recognize what outdoor sensory elements trigger your child’s discomfort and come prepared. Find favorite things they can do to redirect their attention and calm them. Art supplies, special snacks, journals, or a favorite toy might do the trick. Special blankets to sit on, hand held fans, and bug spray are useful tools to keep ready for your bag of tricks.

New People & Places
Festivals, fairgrounds, vacations, family visits, cookouts and camp. So many fun things to do in the summer months! But interacting with different people, learning the social rules at new places, adjusting to a different schedule and routine, can feel disruptive and difficult. Help your child by preparing them for upcoming events and new situations. Create a visual or written schedule for the day, don’t force new friendships, and build downtime into your child’s day. In some cases it is helpful to create a code word or signal to use when your child feels overwhelmed or needs a break.

Less Structure
It’s great to not have the rigid schedule of school in place, but children still need a sense of their day to help them manage their time. Using a white board or notebook, make a schedule with things like free time, meals, chores, travel and screen time. Use pictures if your child is younger. Structure = security for most of us, so having routines in place makes a difference. And while bedtime might be later, make it consistent. Sleep is a priority for all of us! The whole family will manage summer activities and changes better if they are rested.

Summer is a wonderful season, especially in Rhode Island, but it’s okay if you don’t get to everything on your bucket list. Enjoy the little things every day. Give yourself and your child time to breath and enjoy each other. Your summer may not be 100% stress-free, but with a little planning, it can be full of special moments and family fun.



Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 12.12.35 PM

Take a Mindful Minute: 5 Strategies to Help Complex Learners Use Mindfulness

January is over, and those New Year’s resolutions you made going into 2016 might be taking a back seat to everything else you have to do. We all have good intentions, but let’s face it; there’s a lot on our plates these days.

Some mornings just getting out the door can make us feel hurried and stressed. But if you’re a parent or teacher of a child with complex learning issues, there’s one resolution you can make that won’t take a lot of time, and could have a big impact. You might want to consider adding a Mindful Minute to your day.

The practice of mindfulness, or paying close attention to the here and now in a purposeful manner, has received a lot of coverage in the news. Research has indicated that daily mindfulness can be attributed to a variety of positive outcomes including improved academics, reduced stress, cognitive flexibility and focus, increased compassion and even pain management.

Complex Learners struggle with a number of things that mindfulness helps address, including anxiety, difficulty organizing thoughts, and focus. It would seem a natural fit to engage Complex Learners in mindfulness, or what Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist who first coined the term, defines as a state of paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them.


That’s a reaction (along with a bit of eye rolling) you might expect to get from Complex Learners (and lots of adults) when given this definition. But here are a few ideas for integrating mindfulness into a child’s day at home or school in easy and helpful ways:

1) Start with a minute. And for some kids, even that may be too long. Sixty seconds of Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.58.27 AMquiet without a specific task can feel like a long time to children who are distractible and anxious. At The Wolf School we use the phrase Mindful Minute, but it might last 30 seconds for younger students and 10 minutes for older or more practiced students. Have children start with a short period of time and work their way up.

2) Just breathe. Encourage children to focus on their breathing during their Mindful Minute to help create a calm and relaxed state. Students should try to breathe from their belly rather than from their chest, and to breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth. For some kids, placing their hands on their stomach gives them a tactile way to pay attention to breathing and helps them focus.

3) Listen to music. Playing slow-tempo music and focusing on the sound and vibration of each note is a great way to experience mindfulness for Complex Learners. New-age music or classical music work well, and if children start to think about other things, they can be reminded to acknowledge their thoughts and then gently bring their attention back to the music. A few minutes of peaceful music can help calm and relax even the most stressed of us.

4) Use guided practice. Sometimes it helps to have an exercise or activity that takes children through a sensory experience. Using a bell or meditation music, children can focus on a single sound and notice as it gets softer. Students can visualize a special place, or tap their thumb to each finger, narrowing their focus to the touch of their fingertips. Ask children to close their eyes and breathe in a scent (e.g., lavender, orange peel), focusing all of their attention only on the smell of that object. These activities can sharpen their senses, enhance memory, and feel calming to kids.

5) There’s an App for that. With mindfulness becoming mainstream, supports and resources are abundant. Search on-line for an app for your phone or guided meditations you can download to the computer or tablet. is a favorite at The Wolf School, offering 2 to 20 minute guided meditations complete with beautiful nature scenes and soothing sounds.

Wolf students practice mindfulness school-wide on a daily basis. They use it as one of numerous strategies that help them get ready to learn. It’s become familiar and helpful, particularly before test taking or challenging tasks. According to one student, “It helps me relax because I’m not thinking that I’m going to get it wrong.”

It’s important to remember that the practice of mindfulness takes (you guessed it) practice. As a teacher or parent you can have fun sharing but also learning about mindfulness yourself. And as you know, the more you feel calm and relaxed, the easier it will be to positively engage your child. So take your own Mindful Minute and take care of yourself. It will help make up for all those other resolutions.



Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.

move copy

Move to Learn: 5 Types of Movement that Support Complex Learners

Stop by The Wolf School on any given morning and you will see students mtlrunning and throwing balls in the gym, swinging on the suspended equipment in our Sensory Arena, moving down the hallway on scooters, or standing next to their desks stretching their arms into the air. Is this gym class? Fun and games? A way to keep kids busy?

Actually, it is none of the above. This activity is purposeful and critical to our students’ educational progress. We call it Move to Learn. It ranges from a formal Move To Learn morning class developed and run by the Physical Education teacher and an Occupational Therapist, to exercises called Brain Gym® that are facilitated in the classroom, to academic lessons that incorporate movement.

With mounting evidence supporting the positive impact of exercise on brain functioning, this approach seems like (pardon the pun) a no brainer. But most schools don’t have the luxury of a Sensory arena or the ability to structure their day around movement. And parents aren’t always clear on what and how much activity will benefit their children day-to-day.

Here are five types of movement that are particularly helpful for Complex Learners, but also have positive a impact for all children. Many of these are easy to implement at home or school. Not only will his type of activity improve focus and attention, but in addition has benefits for general health and well-being.

1) Heavy work/resistance. Activities and exercise that create resistance access neurochemistry in ways that are calming, organizing, and focusing. Pulling, pushing and lifting are all considered heavy work. Specific examples include walking uphill or up a flight of stairs, raking leaves, taking out heavy bags of trash, weight lifting, even carrying stacks of books or groceries. If children are at their desks at school or home, they can do chair sit-ups by holding the sides of the chair and lifting themselves up and down several times. This provides a short break from work that actually helps sustain continued attention.

2) Crossing midline. Movement that crosses the midline of your body actually helps to get the left and right side of your brain to work in synch. It attunes each side of the brain to the other, and helps the stronger side support the weaker side. Drawing or walking in a figure eight, interlocking hands and swinging arms side-to-side like an elephant trunk, and windmills (hand to opposite foot or knee) are examples of crossing midline activities. The ability to cross midline is an important skill for handwriting, reading and other learning that most of us take for granted but that may need to be fostered in younger children and Complex Learners.

3) Vestibular. Our vestibular system helps our body know where it is in space and supports balance, which in turn helps us to integrate other incoming sensory information. Head changing activities like spinning, rocking and swinging are alerting for children and stimulate vestibular processing. Most children don’t change their head position through the school day, so incorporating opportunities for this kind of activity can be very helpful (e.g., tumbling, yoga positions like downward dog, tucking in like a ball and rolling side to side, touching toes before transitioning to the next activity). At home the Wii Fit Dace Dance Revolution is a fun way to increase your child’s activity level and incorporate vestibular movement.

4) Endurance/fitness. We all know the benefits of cardio and strength-training activities, but for Complex Learners, engaging in gym class and organized sports can be difficult socially. It is important to find ways your child can get endurance and fitness exercise as the cardio benefits they will receive may not be gained in other ways. Exercise has been shown to improve memory and focus as well, so walking, biking, swimming, soccer, basketball, etc., will improve overall health and impact learning.

5) Nature. There is new evidence that demonstrates physical activity in nature is actually more powerful than other kinds of movement. In fact, many children suffer from a “nature deficit” lacking opportunities to be outside in green space. Recent studies suggest that free play in green space may actually have greater health benefits than organized sports. We could all benefit from more time outside so find a beach, a nature trail, or a big open field and walk, run or play!

For Complex Learners, input from an Occupational Therapist is critical to address targeted needs, but all of us can benefit from movement to support focus, attention and memory. The more we move, the more we learn, so don’t just take a break. As we say at The Wolf School, take a movement break!

annaAnna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving complex learners.


No More Holi-daze: 6 Tips for Happier Holidays with Complex Learners

It’s that time of year.

Whether it’s Thanksgiving or New Year’s, Hanukkah or Christmas, Kwanzaa or Solstice – there’s a whirlwind of activity that brings wonderful, joyful memories but also plenty of stress-filled moments.

For children with complex learning profiles, the holiday experience feels even more intense. Schedules are less predictable, stores are overwhelming, Aunt Betsy from Toledo can’t stop hugging and kissing you, weird food shows up on the table that people want you to eat, and you’re expected to play with cousins you hardly ever see. You’re staying up late, overexcited, and probably eating more sweets. For Complex Learners, it’s a perfect storm of sensory overload and disrupted routines that can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, and meltdowns.

With a little planning and preparation, a lot of potential difficulties can be addressed. Here are a few ideas to help you and your Complex Learner manage this busy time of year and enjoy the special gatherings and activities the holidays bring.

1) Preview visits, parties and family gatherings. Let Complex Learners know what to expect at family or school parties. What happens first? Who will be there? Review social rules like how to greet your host when you get there and thanking your host when you leave. Set a specific amount of time for visits and see if there is a quiet place your child can go if things get too loud or overwhelming. Schedule a check-in time during the visit or party to see if your child needs additional support. If sitting through a large group dinner is hard for your child, agree on a set amount of time they can manage at the table and then let them be excused to play or have some quiet time.

2) Make or bring familiar foods. The holiday dinner table can paralyze Complex Learners with all the choices, smells, and textures. Be sure to make or bring something you know your child likes and will eat, whether it’s a dish to share or some particular foods to have on hand just in case. Your family may raise an eyebrow if everyone is eating turkey and your child is eating chicken nuggets, but it may just be worth avoiding a major struggle. You can always let your host or others know about this ahead of time.

3) A bag of tricks.  Bring sensory supports like gum, fidgets, a noise-blocking headset or a special cushion for the dining room chair. Complex Learners may be uncomfortable in dress clothes so if they need to wear something more formal, bring their favorite sweatpants to change into after a set amount of time. Have a selection of quiet activities you child can do like puzzles, card games or coloring books.  Having a handheld device with electronic games or a favorite DVD to watch as a backup can save the day.

4) Gift Getting 101. Complex Learners may need to practice what to do if they receive a gift they don’t like or how to stop and say thank you before charging on to open another gift. Role-play various scenarios ahead of time and help your child understand the perspective of the gift giver. Try and keep things simple – too many gifts can be overwhelming to Complex Learners.

5) Go outside. The weather may not always cooperate, but long visits and family meals need to be balanced with fresh air, movement and exercise. It’s important to keep your child engaged in physical activity to help with sensory and emotional regulation. A family game of tag or a holiday hike will go a long way.

6) Think of others. Help your child find simple ways to give to family members and friends so they can experience how it feels to give and not just receive.  Let your child select clothes or toys to donate to kids in need or find opportunities to give back to the community. This time of year is a natural fit for learning perspective taking and helping kids think outside of their own view and needs.

Don’t forget – managing holiday stress is a team effort. Rely on teachers, friends and family to support you as you work to make things easier for your complex learner. And remember to breathe! Taking a minute to relax and breathe deeply is a simple thing you can do with your child or by yourself to help alleviate the daze of the holidays!

Anna Johnson, Head of The Wolf School

Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.

This series is a partnership between GoLocal and the Wolf School.

hand holding

You’ve Got a Friend in Me: 7 Tips for Helping Complex Learners Make and Keep Friends

One of the hardest things for parents of Complex Learners is watching their child get left out. She doesn’t’ have any friends. He’s never been invited to a birthday party. These admissions can be heart wrenching, because regardless of the academic and educational concerns parents have for their child with learning differences, they may be deeply worried that their child will be rejected and lonely.

When children struggle with making friends, it may be connected to their learning and attention issues. Difficulties with listening and interpreting social cues make conversation problematic. Complex Learners have trouble understanding the rules of games and the concepts of sharing, accepting other viewpoints, taking turns and following directions. Problems with regulating emotions, understanding body language and interpreting tone of voice can create situations where children overreact because they misinterpret humor or sarcasm.

For children who don’t feel like they fit in at school or at outside activities, there can be negative effects. They can loose confidence and not want to try new things. It can damage self-esteem, and emotions like sadness, anger and hopelessness can occur regularly and feel overwhelming.

The good news is there are ways to help. Parents and teachers can provide supports and strategies for successful social interactions and many of the skills we take for granted when making friends can be taught. Here are some ideas:

1) Find a good social match. Ask teachers about students who might have similar interests or who are more accepting. Watch for kind and caring kids on the playground or in the neighborhood. Sometimes Complex Learners do not mature as quickly as their peers, so someone who is a year or two younger might be a good social match.

2) Structure play dates & hanging out. Set a short amount of time when you bring new kids together – an hour and a half to two hours should be fine. Plan a beginning, middle and end so kids understand the flow of their time together and go over this with your child (e.g., first you’ll play a board game, then have snack, then you can choose between drawing or making things with clay). Depending on the age of the kids, you may want to have the other child’s parent there for all or part of the first get-together.

3) Find common areas of interest. Choose something to do that both children will enjoy. Activities that are movement-based (e.g., mini-golf) or hands-on (e.g., a cooking project) are good for kids with sensory and attention issues. Be sure to add in some downtime like stopping for a snack or looking at picture books or comics together. This gives kids a break from being “on” the whole time.

4) Level the playing field. Avoid activities that one child excels in and another does not. Remove the element of competition as much as possible. If there are particular toys or things that are especially hard for your child to share, put them away temporarily.

5) Review the ground rules. Are there areas of the house that are off-limits? What behaviors are expected (e.g., using good manners, sharing) and what behaviors are not okay (e.g., ignoring your guest)? Go over these things ahead of time so your child understands expectations.

6) Anticipate hiccups. Things don’t always go as planned. Talk to your child about being flexible and have a plan B in case something doesn’t work out. Encourage your child to think of strategies to use if he/she gets angry or frustrated, like taking a five-minute quiet break. If things start to get difficult, have a few activities kids could choose from and do independently while still hanging out together.

7) Practice. You can role-play with your child or read them stories about friendship to reinforce concepts like perspective taking. This could be as simple of asking a guest what they want to do, or making sure there is give and take in conversation. Creating a Friendship File can also help spark conversation and social interaction. Developed by Michelle Garcia Winner, this is a tool for gathering and remembering information about friends. It can be a mental or written list, or it can be made with pictures and include interests, things to talk about, favorite singer or TV show, number of siblings, pets, and anything else that helps your child get to know their friend.

Friends are important. They give us a sense of acceptance and belonging. But for Complex Learners, the experience of making friends is a little like Buzz Lightyear’s from the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story. Buzz lands in a situation where he doesn’t understand the social rules of being a toy. This creates a host of complexities with another toy, Woody, that ultimately get resolved when they’re both on the same page and working together. Like Buzz and Woody show us, friendship takes some work, but ultimately it’s worth it.

annaAnna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.