Traditional education has long served as a foundational pillar in societal progress. Yet, its inclination to prioritize academic success over the holistic development of children remains a predominant concern. As students invest countless hours in classroom learning, more than 90% of the students are struggling to reap its full benefits. This results in unmotivated learners and a sense of disillusionment among parents and educators. This podcast addresses that critical imbalance head-on.

Introducing Aligned Learning Revolution, the podcast that re-envisions student learning for today's rapidly evolving landscape. It serves as a beacon for those seeking to supplement the conventional education model with rich, applicable learning experiences beyond traditional limits. Join a voyage of discovery that elevates the educational dialogue with insights from parents, teachers, and thought leaders who are altering the rules of student engagement and learning efficacy.

The show joins a diverse group of people who express their discontent with the current education system and offer their well-informed opinions on necessary changes. Listen to parents whose children deal with the challenges of a system that seems to be against them and how these families have successfully managed to navigate through standardized education to showcase their children's unique talents and abilities.

Don't let a single discussion pass by. Be part of the solution by listening and contributing.



blog image

Learning Unlocked: Supporting Students To Achieve Top Academic Performance With Leslie Thomas

February 18, 202460 min read

Leslie Thomas, the founder of Learning Unlocked, joins Kohila Sivas as they discuss the challenges and strategies related to teaching and supporting students, particularly those who struggle with academic tasks. They emphasized the importance of focusing on the main subject at hand, using positive language when correcting children, and allowing children to hold the pencil and do the work themselves. Leslie also highlighted the effectiveness of online learning and the importance of individualized learning approaches.


Watch the episode here


Listen to episode here


Learning Unlocked: Supporting Students To Achieve Top Academic Performance With Leslie Thomas

I have the honor to introduce our guest, Leslie Thomas, Founder of Learning Unlocked. She's also a certified holistic neuro-growth learning success coach. With 21 years of career in education, she has been a guiding force in the lives of countless students. Her teaching experience spans across a wide spectrum from elementary to high school, including exceptional students. Leslie also has shared her expertise by training other educators. Now,  we are excited to dive into Leslie's journey and the remarkable work she's doing as a certified holistic neuro-growth learning success coach in her coaching practice. Let's welcome Leslie. Thank you for being here.

Aligned Learning Revolution (Activate, Accelerate, Achieve) | Leslie Thomas  | Learning Unlocked

Leslie, welcome to our show. How are you?

I'm doing great. How are you?

I’m doing Awesome as well. I want to start by asking, if you have left your teaching position. What made you do that move?

I was ready to make a change because I didn't feel like I was being effective anymore. I was teaching, but I wasn't teaching in a way that I felt good about. I didn't feel like I was giving my students what they needed. I made a plan and in September. I left after almost 21 years officially. Now I can help in a way that I want and think the kids need it.


Thank you.

That's a long time. If a teacher is reading because many different people are reading this like teachers, parents, administrators, and even students, I'm going to have some students coming and sharing what learning looks like for them. As a teacher, why did you were not able to give what you needed to give to students in the way that you were working? You were an online teacher when you quit this?

Yes, I was, and that was my first shift. I was in the classroom for nine years. After nine years in the classroom, I started to feel that feeling that I think a lot of teachers feel where you're like, “I've been doing this for a while. I feel like I'm good at it, but it's not making a difference. The micromanaging was a lot. The increasing demands of almost busy work that were taking away from my students.” At that point, I took the opportunity to move online, and that was great. Online was still a relatively new arena many years ago. I had a lot of that autonomy back and I was able to do what I wanted to do because there weren't that many people in the online space to boss me around.

It was great for a while and then it wasn't. When a lot more people came into the online space, s  came the micromanaging and the requirements and the taking it out of what I feel like the teacher is the expert in the classroom. When you start to take the decision-making away from the expert, you lose a lot of the value that that teacher brings to the classroom. What I would tell a teacher is, “Look for opportunities to make your situation better where you can give the value that you can offer students in whatever that means.” For me, at first, that was moving online, and then eventually it meant moving out of the system altogether because it moved into the online space. I wanted to be able to look at kids as individuals and meet their needs. As well-intentioned as many people in the school system are, that's not what's happening.

A teacher is look for opportunities to make your situation better where you can give the value that you can offer students in whatever that means

We're not here to point fingers, but it's happening. It's a problem. We have to admit there's a problem so that we can make changes. Sometimes people say it's blame or we're trying to point fingers, but we're not. We're trying to say that there's a problem and the people that are getting affected are our students and then ultimately the teachers as well because a lot of passionate teachers are leaving the system

I’m feeling guilty about it. That was the hardest part. When I would talk to my teacher friends, they were like, “I still want to be there for the kids. I still want to do this career that I love.” I love that you said that about not blaming because I don't know anyone in the school system who doesn't want what's best for kids and people who are working very hard for that. It's not the most efficient way to do it right now.

Why do you think administrators have the need to micromanage teachers? What is happening? Do you think all your time working in the classroom, was it like that or did it increase over time?

I think it has definitely increased. Obviously, you have the element of management styles, different leaders approach things in different ways, but in general, I would say that the administrators are also feeling pressure and it's trickling down the hill. The administrators as a group are well-intentioned, former educators, most of them. They want what's best for kids, but not being in the classroom, so much of that power is taken out of their hands. They're trying to find ways that they can impact what's happening in the classroom.

Because they don't live it and don't experience it, they don't necessarily see the impact that what they think maybe is helping or providing accountability or creating a system where everyone does it the same so that if it's not working, we don't have it being an individual teacher. We're simplifying the variables. They have reasons for the things that they're doing. I don't think that they see the unintended effects of some of those things, which is muting the magic of what a lot of the teachers bring to the classroom.

It's their power. Everyone has their superpower. They have each way that they can take and customize even a curriculum. They can try to customize it according to their own way of doing it, but now it's not possible. It all needs to happen in a certain way, but also teachers are being judged in order to get results. Complete judgment. It's hard for them. Their class is not doing well. Marks need to go up, so more restrictions come down.

There's an element of competitiveness. I've been in faculty meetings where they put up teachers' pass rates next to each other or they say like, “This was last year. This is this year.” Everyone in the room knows what changed between last year and this year. There's an attempt to motivate, but a lot of teachers will take that as like, “I'm not doing well,” then that adds to, they're working hard and their numbers aren't reflecting it. Sometimes in that case, teachers will go away from what they want to do in an attempt to make the metrics move in the direction that they need them to on what they're being measured.

Do you think the curriculums have over your years of being in the system getting harder and harder? Is that why the marks are falling?

I don't know if the curriculum itself is getting harder, but I think the expectation of how quickly the children will learn it or what they need. The standards aren't that different from when I started. There are differences, but I think the expectation of what the children are able to do at earlier ages, and then with less repetition. There are some standards that they learn in third grade and then they don't touch them again, at least where I am. It's not looked at holistically, which is a big part of it. I don't think it's harder, but I think what they're being asked to do is becoming more and more unrealistic, especially in the younger grades for their ages and what they can do attention span-wise and things like that.

It’s very short now compared to what it was before the rate attention span. Even for adults, it's getting less for us too. I had a good question when you were speaking, but I'll come back to it. What do you think all of this is doing to our students who are sitting in the classroom when teachers struggling, they're being micromanaged and they're being asked to produce and it's almost like produce, produce more results?

It's the stress. The biggest thing I see is people talking about anxiety. The anxiety is a result of the stress. The kids want to perform at their core. Kids want to please the adults in their life, their parents, and teachers and that pressure builds from such a young age. Especially if they have any learning differences, those students are becoming aware of those differences early on. The stress is like, “Why am I different? Why can't I get this grade if my friend got this grade?”

The comparison, and the very early feeling of inadequacy. I'm speaking in generalizations, but I've seen a lot of students as a coping mechanism, they almost develop like apathy. It's like, “I'd rather not try than try and fail.” You have that segment going into middle and high school, then you have the kids that try hard that they drive themself into a worse of a stress spiral, then you've got the other ones that are lost in the middle like, “I don't love school, but I'm trying.” It's almost like they go to 9:00 to 5:00 where their boss is pretty demanding, even if they like them.

Let's talk about parents in this situation. Even before too, but since COVID, the gap of students where they are and where they should be has widened. These reading levels have fallen, writing has fallen, and then Math has gone too. As a parent, how do you deal with it?  Do you go talk to the teacher? How do we supposed to solve this if I'm a parent of a child who's struggling?

That's a hard one because as a parent I've noticed the same things in my children. I look at them and I'm like, “I am a teacher and I'm a parent. I'm looking at this now from both sides of this equation.” I know that the teachers are working hard to try to close the gaps, but different students have different gaps. The hard part is that oftentimes the pressure is still on to keep going. You can't spend all of 7th grade covering what they missed in 6th grade. The pressure in that steam roller that keeps going, so often the kids missed that. I see parents are getting more and more frustrated because they want to help their kids. They go to the teacher. The teacher is helpless in the situation because the teacher's using every minute of every class period to try to give as much as they can.

Different students have different gaps

It's not designed for them to be able to fill the gaps and teach the new curriculum. The parents come to the teacher as the expert and the teacher sees the problem too, but has no method to fix it because they're on this treadmill of new standards every year that have to be covered. The parent ends up frustrated because they're like, “What do I do?” The teacher's like, “I don't know. “They will suggest tutoring or extra help at home or programs because basically, the answer is, “You got to get them caught up is what it comes down to.” I think that's hard for the parents because they're not experts in education. They don't know where the gaps are.

I've heard from many parents when they try even now things have changed. Try helping someone who's learning the Common Core. I'm Canadian. We have Math Makes Mense. In the US you guys have this Math Common Core. How much can they do it? It's not how you and I learned. We just found answers. We understood what was asking and we did. Now we have to show it in 300 or 500 ways.

The frustration is increased because the parents are like, “This is the answer, but I have no idea what you want me to show to get there.” I've seen parents on social media where they'll post their students' work and be like, “How is this wrong? The answer's right,” but it wasn't using the right method or strategy. I don't want to believe that parents are losing faith, but it's like they look at what their kids are doing and they're like, “This doesn't make sense. My students not being successful.” I think there's a lot of fear behind that because as parents, we want what's best for our kids. If we think we're already doing that and we're not getting the results that we want or that the kids need, then there's this fear of like, “What else can I do?”

This Common Core and here in Math Makes Sense, it distanced the help that how we would sit around our dining table or our dinner table. Our parents will help us and we'll help our kids. Now, you can't even do that. When you sit and the your child goes, “That's not how you do it, mom. That's not how we're doing, mom or dad.” You're like, “That is right.” Now you have an argument with your child because they know the teacher told them to do this, all these extra things to come up with this answer and you go 2 plus 2 is 4. They're like, “No, we have to separate twos and halves. Add those halves to get the four.”

The parents were like, “I don't know why your teacher would teach you that crazy way to do it, but this is the way.” When I would teach multiplication, I had to teach it in four different ways. One of them is called the standard algorithm. I would always call it, “The way your parents will know how to do it.” I was always like, “When you go home, your parents are going to be excited because this is how they learn to do multiplication. This one they can help you with. Go home and show them because this is the 1 out of the 4 that they will know how to help you with.”

You want to eliminate those fights. That's a waste of time for parents to sit there and show them. Now your son or daughter's doubting your own ability like, “Do you know what is going on?” They think the way at school is the way. You got a different way. You must be wrong. Sometimes that can happen too. it's taking away that family, valuable family time, doing homework and many families.

You've got a lot of parents losing confidence. The kids are losing confidence in their parents. I can't tell you the number of parents that FaceTime me, like my personal friends. They're like, “I'm not going to even try this one because I don't want to look dumb to my seven-year-old. Can you tell me how to do it?” It's second-grade Math, but it's this way that they don't understand. I get it. You get to calculus and maybe you aren't helping your senior, but we want to be helping our second graders.

It should be something very simple. I get those and I call them 911 calls to me, text messages from my friends. They're like, “This is four. I know the answer, but can you tell me all the other ways to do this because I've got to teach it to my son right now?” I'm like, “Okay.”

I send back a quick video or I draw it out on a piece of paper and send a picture. They're like, “Seriously?” I'm like, “It makes sense if you look at it, but not to them.”

That math system failed the family unity coming together, helping new children up to grade 5 or 6. You should have no problem. Those are all minimum-grade Math. Every parent knows how to help our children even if we don't have higher standards of Math.

You get there. Most people are going to check out regardless of how we're teaching it. The thing about Common Core that kills me is that the idea behind it is to help math make sense to different kids. It’s showing different strategies in different ways. I have seen kids who could not learn multiplication with the standard algorithm with the partial product. It made total sense to them. I don't think it's all bad, but it's done much damage to like that relationship you were talking about. The way that it's presented, the mandatory requirement on these methods.

The way I always taught it was, “There's more than one way to do anything. I'm going to show you these ways and then you pick the one that works for you.” Different kids would pick different strategies and they would all end up with the right answer. That part of it I don't think is bad, but there are many pieces of it that have been twisted, and presented and required understanding of every strategy is hard.

I had teachers who marked it wrong. The child did it in the one way that made sense to them. That's where it goes wrong. Some teachers take the curriculum to the point of, “I got to follow it this way. They ask me to show it in three different ways. I got to get every student to do it three different ways. That child cannot think in three different ways because our mind can't do all that. I got to think in this way, the one that makes sense to me.”

It's what it's supposed to be. It's the same thing. I always say, “Math Doesn't Make Sense,” because we called it Math Makes Sense. The program is called that. That's one of the reasons why kids are losing their interest in Math because there are many mandates that you have to solve in five different ways. I don't see the five different ways. I see two maybe. The other three, I can't see it.

It feels like busy work a lot of the time because to the kids, if you think about it, they're like, “I have the answer. I'm not sure why I have to do it three different ways. If I have the answer and the answer's right I know how to get the answer.” A lot of kids need to know why. They need to understand why it matters. I don't know why it matters that they have to know how to do it five ways.

Let's talk about parents getting help from teachers. When kids start struggling or we go to parent-teacher interview or conferences and you hear bad stories, “It's not working out.” Sometimes it's on the report card, you find out, “Sometimes we're busy and we don't pay attention.” What's the best way for parents to approach when they find out or their child comes home or on a report card to go directly to the teacher and talk? What tips would you give them?

I always recommend that parents never talk to a teacher about an academic issue until their student has. As parents, so often, we want to fix things for our kids and sometimes they need us to do that. When it comes to school and talking to your teacher, you have to teach your kids. It's a learned skill. They have to practice it and learn going to their teacher respectfully and asking question. If the student is not doing well, that's harder for them to address. It's better when it's a specific thing like, “Why did I get this answer wrong? I don't understand. Why did you take those points off? That wasn't late. I'm not sure why you marked it late.” Issues that kids have with teachers. Oftentimes the kids come home, they tell the parent because they were nervous or scared to tell the teacher and then the parent goes to the teacher.

As parents so often we want to fix things for our kids and sometimes they need us to do that. But when it comes to school and talking to your teacher, you have to teach your kids. It's a learned skill, they have to practice it and they have to learn going to their teacher respectfully and asking a question.

When we cut the student out of the equation, there's a lot lost there. 1) The relationship between the teacher and the student because the teacher needs to see the students care, right advocate for themselves. Also, the students need to learn that this is their education. This is the learning process. Even young children can learn to approach a teacher respectfully and ask their questions and their concerns. What I always coach my students and my children is role play with them, I give them ideas of what to say and how to say it. I'm like, “Smile when you say so it so that she knows you're not.”

I always tell them too, “If it doesn't resolve, if she's mean, if they don't listen to you or if they dismiss you or all the fears that kids have of what would happen, then I will get involved. I have your back always, but you try first.” As parents, I think that's hard for us to step back. Let our kids go in there and try first, then if it doesn't work or if the child gets an answer and it doesn't help, then as parents, it's important that we are there that the kids see, “I tried and it didn't work. My mom has my back. I tried and look at that. I fixed it. My mom didn't even have to get involved.”

The relationship with the teacher got stronger. The learning to solve a conflict. These are skills that transcend into other areas of life. I work with university students. Guess what I work on with them? “Go talk to your professor. Have you talked to your professor? Have you gone to their office hours?” “Nope.” That's the first step. You got to go and show them you care about your teacher.

That's what I tell them. The biggest thing is they always tell teachers, “Kids don't care what you know until they know you care.” I wish they would tell that to students too. Teachers want to know that you care. They want to help you. Often, we see apathy, falling asleep or whatever it may be. When they come to you and they have a question, most teachers are not annoyed by that. They're like, “This kid is worried about his grade or has a question.” It's a good place for kids to start.

I remember my Biology in university. The book was this thick and it was on the whole book. I'm like, “I'm not going to study all of this book. There has to be a cheat code somewhere about this. Are you going to test me? It's on all the systems of the human body. I cannot go into all the details.” I had a great relationship because that was one of the things that I've learned from early on is go to the teacher, show them you care and you're working hard day after day,” so when they mark your test, they know you already because your face is on it. It's just not paper. They have a face to it.

That's important too. I went to my teacher, biology teacher and asked him, “Out of this whole book, where should I even begin? Is there a part that you would tell me I have to focus on?” He picked up the book and a whole bunch of papers, like picked up pages like this out of the book and said, “If I were you, I would focus on these pages.” They were 80 pages or something, but out of this book was gold for me.

I'm like, “That's great.” I sat down and adjusted the whole 80 pages and thought, “What questions can they ask?” I go to the exam. One of the questions was 25 marks. That came from those 80 pages. If I had not gone, I would've studied the whole book in the wrong sections. He didn't tell me exactly, “Go study this question.” He gave me 80 pages to study. Those things were in those 80 pages.

He probably would've given that same tip to any student that came and asked. You were the only one that came and asked. Oftentimes when kids are like, “They're not going to help me.” I'm like, “They'll help people who ask.” That's a big thing for me is ask, “What's the worst he can say?” “I'm sorry you have to study all 800 pages.” You didn't lose anything or he can help you zoom.

I didn't stress. Otherwise, I would've stressed the whole time and then I ended up with a 91 in that course because I knew that 25-mark question on the final exam. That's also the stress. The minute you go talk to your teacher, you eliminate that unnecessary stress on you. Even if they say, “I can't tell you anything on the test. Go study the whole book,” now at least you know you have to study the whole book. Otherwise, I don't know if I have to study the whole book or not. I'm studying there thinking all this time instead of I can focus on studying it. Going to the teacher and telling your kid to go do it first. I love that. Teach it from the beginning. Even kindergarten, it's not saying, “Have you talked to your teacher?”

“What did your teacher say when you asked her? You haven't spoken to her yet? Tomorrow before class.” The earlier the better because it's many things. It's talking to adults and talking to people in authority. It's conflict resolution. It's self-advocacy. It's taking ownership of their own learning and all the things we want for our kids. That's one easy way to do it.

There are many skills that can be taught through that. Let's go on to talk about your business as a holistic neuro-growth learning success coach and your practice, you called Learning Unlocked. I love that name. Tell us a little bit about that and what you do as a learning success coach.

It's been wonderful. I help kids unlock their learning. When I picked the name, I went back and forth and I thought, “It feels like sometimes learning is locked away. It's hidden for some kids.” If we could give them the right key, they could unlock it and figure it out. That's what I do. I have students in a wide age range. I do multiple different subjects. Every session is different. Every coaching client is customized to them. I love it. I love the ability to do what they need.

Do you have a master key?

No. I have a bunch of keys that I try out and each one is fitted. It has that kid's name on it. The master key isn't a real thing when you're trying to unlock your learning. We have to try lots of different keys. The key is I am not the one that needs to unlock the case. I need to give my students the key and empower them to unlock their own learning because often, we try to fix it. I am handing them the key. I'm giving them their tools and then I'm showing them, “You can do this. Try it. Watch what happens.” Some of them have very different keys depending on what they're struggling with. It's been amazing to watch the process. It's exactly what I wanted to do. Impact them individually in how they need it.

The key is I am not the one that needs to unlock the case. I need to give my students the key and Empower them to unlock their own learning.

When you give them that key and they open, they go, “Wow.”

The best part is watching your confidence. Most of my career was in elementary. Nothing will break your heart more than a 7 or 9-year-old who has no confidence or whose confidence is dwindling. They come in and over the course of a couple of months, they start to see success. It doesn't take much that they're like, “Huh.”

I have one little girl. Her teacher was giving fax tests on multiplication facts. It was the sixes. She was worried about it because she was afraid she was going to get left behind because if you don't pass it, the rest of the class would move on. We worked hard on how we remember things. It's not a matter of drilling it. We have to remember how we learn and what we need to do.

Anyway, when she started passing those, all it took was passing two, and then all the stress around that was gone. We would say every session, “You've done it before. You've already done it. You know you can do it. Go do it again on the 7s or 8s.” The fact that she had that validation, even her mom has been texting me. She's excited. Her reading, like the subjects doesn't work with her in the confidence is across the board.

Coaching that transcends. In tutoring, that does not happen. I was a tutor for many years with hundreds of students. I couldn't get that. It's like they're borrowing my confidence. The minute they leave away from me, confidence level start diminishing because they're not close enough where they feel like, “I can give them answers. I can help them with that problem.” Whereas in coaching, it's the empowerment of words and taking that stress away. It's you that's going to solve, but I'm going to give you the key. I'm not going to open it for you. You'll open it when you find where to put it. You don't even show them sometimes how to put it or where to put it because that is the process they have to go through to come to that so then they could do it next time.

It's often showing them and directing them at places to look, “You are only seeing the evidence that says this. Look at some evidence that says this.” It's showing and guiding. The coach is the best name for what we do because it is that we are coaching them through the process of what they're trying to do, whether that's learning to learn or learning Math. Along with that, they find confidence. It's not like tutoring. I love that we are called coaches because that's the best type of relationship that encapsulates what we do.

You have to stand on the sideline and wait for them sometimes to make the mistake because otherwise how would you know how their brain is working? You have to wait for them to do it. Do they recognize that as a mistake? In math, this mistake is a mistake. In other subjects, it's a little forgiving. Math, if you get a wrong answer is definitely wrong. It's not a given subject.

How do we know what that child is thinking if we don't give them space for the process? We can identify their weaknesses and concepts. We don't give them space in tutoring. You have limited time. You got to get going. You have to get them to finish the homework. You got to get them to the next test. It's like what teachers do, “I can customize this. I have to mask the problem and then keep going because we've got to get it done.” It's the same similarities in that touching the surface.

You're on the same treadmill. You're behind the teacher's treadmill catching what they weren't able to do now when you're tutoring, you're on that treadmill. That's why with coaching it's like, “I know that you have a test on this, but we got to address this because this is much bigger. It's an overarching issue.” We have the autonomy to do that. When we start addressing the real big things, then many other things fall into place.

You have some very interesting ways that you work with them. You already shared with us the key to unlocking it. Tell me some of your pillars. You have very unique pillars that you have set out in your business to go under the surface, finding what's lurking below the surface because most of us as tutors and teachers, we can only touch the tip of the iceberg, the problem.

A big thing I work on is called simplifying the story is what I call it. It teaches kids to take this big overwhelming, scary, anxiety-ridden thing. Let's break it down because much of kids' stress comes from getting started or feeling overwhelmed, paralyzed by that big terrifying essay problem teacher or whatever it is. We're going to break it down. We're going to break it into chunks.

That allows them to have more manageable pieces but also gives them the ability to see, “This is like hopscotch. We're going to go from 1 to 2 and then from 2 to 3. We're going to keep going down the line.” It's like turning the flashlight on the monster. It's not that scary when you break it down and look at it. It allows them to take the fear out of it, which we know the stress and anxiety is a huge blocker.

It's chemicals. When you become stressed, you are going to block your neurons. You're not going to have the chemicals passing through. You're not going to be able to think. That's why a lot of students get fogged. They are on the test. They get the anxiety, but now you no longer know what you even know. You might have studied all night long or all week long and prepared. If you let that anxiety come in, we're over, it's over. now we're doing something else talking how we're bad on this test. The conversation even changes.

You're giving so much of your attention and your working memory to those thoughts that you don't have what you need to focus on the test. That's another thing that I work with my kids on. I call it the, “I can do hard things.” If we talk about that before we get there, like, “This test is going to be hard.” If we go in there scared of it, that's going to be a different experience than if we go in there being like, “Just because it's hard, it doesn't mean we can't do it. People do hard things every day. I do hard things every day.” Another thing that we focus on is it's confidence, but it's also teaching them not to shy away from it when it's hard or get stressed out by it to take an approach like, “This is another problem. I've done things like it and I can do this.”

“What can I use from the previous experience?” What can you draw from it? It's important. How about if parents are helping at home, what do you suggest should they be? They sometimes take on the teacher position, sometimes the tutor position. What's your suggestion for them working? What's the great good way to set that up at home?

I've worked with a lot of parents over the years and their biggest frustration is that they want to help their kids. They know the material, but when they sit down to work with their students, it becomes like the kid is spaced out or they think they understand it, but then when they're like, “Now you do one. They didn't get anything. What I've realized over the years is a simple question of, “Who's holding the pencil when you're working with them?”

Oftentimes the parents will be like, “What?” I'm like, “I want you to picture last night at the dining room table when you were working, who was holding the pencil?” One time this one mom is like, “I was taking the notes because he doesn't know how to take notes. I was going through the book and pulling out the important things, but he was with me the whole time.” I was like, “That was just it. He was passive in this process. He was sitting there. He was bored. He was watching his mom write things down in a notebook that came out of his Math textbook. If you are holding the pencil, chances are the student's not getting what they need.”

Make the student hold the pencil. Make the student do the work. That sounds obvious, but parents don't realize. They think it's showing. They think it's teaching and modeling. The other thing that's interesting is 90% of the time, you're sitting there with one workbook and pencil. Nothing could stop you from going to get 2 pieces of paper and 2 pencils. They can do it with you. That doesn't seem to be how it shakes out at most dining room tables.

If you take the pencil away, the learning is shut down. I've had parents come back to me and say, “I had no idea how hard it is to not be like, ‘Not like that,’ and take it away from them.” Sitting there and trying to teach them without taking the pencil away from them, them holding the pencil is not magic, but it shifts the focus from the parent to the student doing the work. If the student is doing it, they have a much better chance of understanding it.

It shifts the responsibility. They're like, “It's now your turn, mom. You go ahead. I'm going to sit and watch you.”

They love that. As a whole, they love the opportunity for mom to do. This poor mom burst into tears. She's like, “I was cheating and I didn't even realize it.” I'm like, “You weren't cheating. You were trying to help him, but he didn't get anything from that.” That simple shift, but it's simple in essence, but hard in practice for a lot of parents to relinquish that control and then watch the child struggle, which is another thing we know. They need to struggle, like you said, we can see where their gaps are and how their brain is working. Often, as parents, we're like, “Not like that.” We take the pencil back when they get to the good part where they're going to show us what they don't understand.

We don't want our kids to fail. It comes from that protective mode. I can do that with other kids. I have coached for many years now, but when not with my son, it's almost like I got to catch him before he falls or something because it's that mother instinct. We got to go and catch them, but let them fall. It's okay because that's when they're going to know how to get up. You're not going to help him. Let's fall and stay calm.

“Let's experience that failure now at the dining room table. Feel what it feels like, then we'll figure it out together. That way when it comes to a little higher stakes, we already know what it feels like to not do good on it. Check. We've experienced that, but you also know how to solve the problem.”

Using the word, “No, it is not like that,” because as parents we use casual language like that because we say, “Don't catch that. Don't do this.” Even when they're learning, if you avoid that type of language, “No, it's not like that,” instead, “That's interesting how you are doing that question. That's very interesting. Can you explain why you're doing this way?” Now they're going to start explaining. A lot of time, while they're explaining, they already know they have done something wrong because they're like, “That doesn't make sense what I said because they're speaking out loud,” versus just writing something. Even avoiding that type of language, because when you say no, it's automatic like, “I've done something wrong.”

I used to work with a student who had severe autism. They said no to her so much to the student, “No, don't touch,” this word. When I started working with her, they didn't give me all the vocabulary that she hated. I was doing some respite work at her home. Her parents were gone. That was my first shift, and we were doing fine, but then I accidentally said, “They didn't give me the list. If I had the list, I wouldn't have used it.”

I'm a newbie then I said to her, “Don't touch.” She quickly went to the kitchen and brought back a knife. That's how I triggered her because they kept telling me, “Don't touch. Don't do.” No was a big trigger. Over the years, when I worked with her, I started working after that trigger. I'm like, “Good. I grabbed the knife from her. I promise I will never say those things to you again. I got it. Let's stay cool.” I took the knife.

Sometimes it comes because no is something casual. It’s like feeding and helping her bathe, then I had to swallow the noes because I don't know if the scissors or the knife would come next time at me. We would laugh about it because I would swallow the bo, then she would come mad, but then she would stop like it's okay after I had a relationship with her. That's how these words are because we use it so much, they become like these triggers like, “No, that's not how you do it.” You say that 20 or 30 times in a session with your child. All they heard was, “No, that's not how you do it.”

“That's wrong.” I try to say things like, “That's a good start.” The way that you say it has a big impact on how they view the process of fixing it. Is it like, “No, I was wrong,” or is it, “Okay, we're not there yet. Show me to hear what happened and then we go from there.” Those words are hard.

After you explain something to them, sit down and give them a lesson or explain to them, “This is how it works.” It's always good to leave them. Don't sit and watch over their shoulder like this, because I used to do that with my son. I want to make sure he does it right, that protective mode. It shows up like this then I have to learn to give it to him. You leave and give them 10 or 20 minutes. You come back and say, “How did it go? Do you have any questions? How did it go? Show me what you got and tell me what you did.” Those are very good strategies to go. If you're going to be that mom and you're training yourself not to get involved and take the pencil.

It's harder than you think. I practice what I preach. hen I'm working with my own kids, I'll catch myself. What was funny was I was working with my youngest son and preparing for his midterms. We were doing Math.I realized I was holding the pencil. I kept trying to shove it in his hand he was like, “Mom, I have my own pencil.” He had a pencil already, but I was trained to not be the one holding the pencil. I kept trying to give it to him. He was like, “I don't need your pencil. Thank you. I'm already doing my Math over here.”

That's a good tip don't take that pencil away as much as possible. What about those students? These days, writing is hard because we're all like these machines have taken. I like to type in, text and all this. Sometimes, I find that some parents they focus on their writing much. If they're doing Math and they're like, “You got to write need. Erase the two because it's falling off the line. Put it back on the line,” then it's like a battle. You have to pick your battle. That's not a battle at that time. If you're teaching math, then numbers can go wherever. As long as 2 plus 2 is coming out as 4 and they know why it's coming out as 4, it can be messy. It can look messy. Eventually, you can work on the writing separately. Working on 2 or 3 skills at the same time, what do you think? What's your take on it?

It’s overwhelming. It does the opposite of what you're trying to do. You're trying to empower them and build their confidence yet the more things that you point out that they're doing wrong, that are ultimately inconsequential. Who cares if the two aren't in the right spot if the goal is to get them to do the addition, but now even though they did the addition, they're worried about how they wrote the two. It's like a double whammy.

It makes the kids feel like, “I got the addition and I didn't write the two. I wrote this one backward.” What I always tell my students is, “As long as it's legible, because if you can't read it, then it doesn't matter if you did it right. I'm glad you know how, but you have to be able to show me how. I don't care if the seve it's up here. As long as I can read it and follow your work, we're cool.”

I think in anything, whether it's if you have a student who's very behind in composition, like, “Let's start with the content.” Parents hate to hear that because the worst thing they'd want is a kid who doesn't know how to spell or doesn't use capital letters. They look at it as like, “He doesn't write well.” First I think have to get them confident with getting their ideas out of their head because many kids tell me they hate writing, it's not because they have bad handwriting. They don't say, “I hate writing because it's hard to remember the grammar roots. I hate writing because I have to put it on the line and make it look pretty.”

That is not why they hate writing most kids, because they don't like coming up with ideas. They don't like getting their ideas down on paper. They don't like having to elaborate on something they feel like they've already said. It's the same idea there. It's like, “Let's take this big thing and work on this, and then later, we can come back and do some trim work and make it look prettier.

Also, having a writing session on its own. Both of us can sit and say, “I'll write my G. You write your G. How does it look? Let's put them on the line so they don't fall off the line. They're going a little low. They're going a little high. You can teach those by one letter at a time. When you're doing Math or Science, if we try to focus about, “You're not writing on the line.” They're hearing that voice versus the subject itself at hand.

It's not that they're not important handwriting, of course, it's important, but we have to treat it as a separate target. If what we're working on right now is addition, let's work on addition if what we're working on over here is making our capital letters, touch the top of the line and the bottom of the line, then we're going to work on capital letters.” Oftentimes as adults, we forget how overwhelming those types of multiple directions can be to kids like, “Make sure you add things up. Don't forget to make your letters right. Draw the line, circle the final answer, keep everything in its box,” and with the stress.

There are too many information at the same time. It's like overloading the computer, opening all the files at the same time and it's like, “I can't handle it. I'm shutting down.”

They do it. Oftentimes, it's not because of the addition. It's the overwhelm.

As a holistic learning success coach, how does it feel now that you're out of the classroom and you're working with very small number of students where you're delivering transformations? Every session is a transformation. You can see them grow confidence growing, they're asking questions and are involved. how has it changed for you?

it's surprising because I feel like this whole journey of teaching has led me to this. I wouldn't change my teaching career at all the struggles and the different things, parts of it that weren't great because it's part of my journey to get here and this is what I feel like I was meant to do. I don't think I would be as good of a holistic learning success coach if I hadn't had all the experiences that came before it. when I meet with these students and when I see the changes that it's making, the most impressive part is that as a coach or a facilitator, I'm not doing it for them.

I'm not swooping in and fixing it. it feels great to be empowering these kids and allowing them to genuinely understand it and the look on their faces. that happens in the classroom too. I wouldn't say that we don't have those moments with kids that are magic, but the difference is we have many kids that we're trying to serve. you don't have magic moments with every kid.

Especially if they're struggling, it's hard.

I was an ESC teacher for almost all of my career. Having those babies in my class that struggled and watching them and having that voice behind me going, “You got to move on. You're behind everybody else in the grade.” Here, that doesn't happen. We spend as long as we need to spend until you've got it and until you are confident. It's a whole different world. I love watching their faces. I love even my middle school boys who are in middle school.

They're like, “I'll text you.” One little boy texted me screenshots of his grades with no happy face emojis because he is a middle school boy. They were all As and Bs. He just sent them it. I didn't ask for those. That was his moment of pride. Not only did he check his grades on his own, because he cared, which was one thing we were working on, but he had all As and Bs. He took a screenshot of every single class and sent them to me because he was proud of himself. That's huge.

He has got a relationship with you, now he wants to show to you. A lot of my students do that too. I never asked them to do that. I would ask, “Have you told your parents?” They're like, “Not yet.” I'm like, “You should.” They always send me first what they got on their test or quizzes. Sometimes, they even tell me, “I've made a mistake and here's the mistake that I've made.” They will pick up on the mistake because we always learn to learn from the mistakes. Mistakes are not mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities. Let's learn from them. They always write that as well, “I got one wrong, but here's how I got it wrong.” They've already fixed it, then learned from it, and it's not a mistake.

They'll say, “I already know what you're going to say. I haven't talked to so and so yet, but I'm going after the fifth period.” It's amazing because you hear them and you're like, “It's getting through. It's making a difference” With the tone of their voice and their presence, you can see everything that you want, the ownership, autonomy, pride, confidence and obviously the good grades, but it's so much more than that with coaching. It's much more helping them develop as a learner.

That's something parents have to remember. Sometimes it's not the marks that come first. If you have a struggling student, it's those little like they sit taller, walk better or have a smile on their face now versus before they were down, grumpy and not feeling good. Now, at least they're coming to your lessons with, “Let's do this.” Those are marks too, which we don't give a grade to. All of those little messages that we see are improving so much and sometimes it takes longer. I was going to ask, what is the reason that these kids struggle? If a student is struggling in grade five, what is the reason? What do you think?

It could be anything.For most students, it's a lack of time. They're not where they need to be, in my opinion. They need more time on whatever it is. Whether they needed more time in grade 4 or 3, everyone is capable of learning. If a student is not learning, then it's more than likely the pace or the environment that they're in when they're learning. That contributes to their mindset. It's like a snowball. What we have to do is unpack the snowball. If the pace was too quick and they didn't get what they needed to get, and they're in an environment where the students know each other's grades, well then that impacts the confidence then now we believe we're not good at Math, then we have to address that. To me, it's never because a person can't do it.

They haven't unlocked it. They've lost the key. They didn't find the key in the right time. Nobody showed them where the key is. They didn't discover it. It's locked.

You would be amazed how many kids don't believe that simple premise of, “You can learn anything. It's not impossible.” They're like, “No. You don't understand. I can't do Geometry.” We hear people say it all the time, “I can't do languages.” I am guilty of saying, “I can't do art.” The other day my, I was like, “You can't learn art. You either have art or you don't.” My husband is like, “Do you hear yourself? You preach all day every day that anyone can learn anything. It's about mindset and working at it. How much time are you spending trying to get better at painting?” I'm like, “None.”

He's like, “You can't say it's impossible for you to be good at art because you're not trying.” We do it as adults. We almost don't think of it, but it's important to let kids know,  “You can learn it. It might take more time and effort. It might take a different way of doing it.” The idea that you will always be bad at Maths not real.

We tell our kids sometimes as parents too, “I am not a Math person. I've never was good at Math.” We're giving them messages, then they're going to reply to you next time you ask them to do homework like, “I'm not a math person either.”

The number of kids that I've sat in conferences and the parents have said, “He's like me. I always struggled in Math too.” I'm like, “It's not destiny. We just have to unlock it.”

It's not genes.

We have to figure it out. What do we have to do?

Until grade eight, I was struggling in Math. I didn't understand it at all until I spending time having the right mentorship and people coming, and spending time. As you say, “I'm not an art person,” but you haven't spent time.

I'm not trying to get better at art. That's why I'm not getting better at art. I'm not trying to unlock my hidden artistic potential. It's not getting unlocked. If students do, if we work to unlock them, like when they realize that is true, that they can learn it, even if they've never said out loud, “I don't think I can learn Math,” oftentimes that's at the root of their stress and anxiety is the belief that they can't do it. 

A couple of failed tests is good enough. I said to myself already, “I'm not a Math person. Here's the proof.” It's perfect sometimes parents can also go the other way. We're talking about all these things that parents can see how it affects and how some things help their child, but some things can backfire on us. Sometimes we say, “I was good at Math.” That is also another way of getting the child very stressed out about, “They were good. I better be good.”

“I don't understand why you don't get it. It's not that hard. I had an A in fill in the blank.” It's an attempt to instill confidence like, “You come from me and I was good at this.”

“I was bad at this.” Both of them do the same thing from the child's point of view that either, “I'm not good. I should be good. Now I'm not good, then I have some problems with me now.” We got that message into their stories that's going to produce more stories to validate that story. It's important as parents to watch what we're saying around our kids.

Also, to correct them when you hear things that they say to recognize the limiting beliefs that they already have, to catch them and to be like, “Like my husband did to me.” To say, “I'm sorry, you can't. Why would you think that? Is that true?” We don't want it to become something that they think often that they take it for granted.

Your work is online. You are coaching them online. During COVID, online learning happened, but that is emergency learning, online learning, it's different than a structured, well-established way of coaching them online is totally different. What would you tell parents who fear that like, “My child is not an online person? They can't do it. They're just going to fool around.”

No one is an online person or not an online person. It is about the relationship between the student and the coach whether we are sitting next to each other, a Panera bread or sitting across the computer screen. The student and the coach engage. The coach is there to say like, “This is what we're doing. This is how we're doing it. The students buy into what we do. They want this. They start to get that feeling of sitting straighter. No kid is not an online kid. Is it going to take more direction for some kids? Is it going to take more of a structure like, “This is where we sit. This is what we do?” Absolutely. The goal and the key is the relationship and the time that we spend together.

How we do that, like the tools that we use to build that relationship is not as critical. Honestly, during COVID, and the emergency learning, that was a hard one for me because I had already been online for eight years. I was doing online learning very differently. It is possible to be engaged, learning and focused. Everybody was scrambling during COVID. That was not anybody's best work for the most part. This coaching is not that. This is structured. It's planned, and organized and it builds that relationship. Once I have that relationship with your student, it doesn't matter if we're sitting on the hood of your car at a park or next to each other at a Panera or online, we're working together as a team. How we do that is the important part.

They're motivated and engaged no matter what it is. I love online because I took my business online many years because the minute the student that I have, there are other tutoring companies that put them into large groups. If I have like 25 or 30 kids on Zoom, I can't even see half of my students what they're doing. How many can I put into my eye line 3 or 4 max? After that, I'm rotating my views. I can see how is ineffective and for a lot of tutors do it because they want to make the most money. That's not what we do. We never post any of our coaching sessions like that. We are very customized. We don't do that. What I love about this medium, where we meet our students is the minute they turn like this, you already know they're distracted. They're not with you.

If they were doing that while I'm sitting beside them in a library, at a house or at some place, we're tutoring one-on-one, you won't find the little movement of their head when they're not paying attention because it's hard. You're not looking at them like this. They don't move your head, I see you moving, but here it's instant. They look away. You know they're not there. I find the attention I can get with my student online. It is way better than if I was sitting with them because I had a tutoring business where I sat beside them, across from them in front of them. The attention that I get is huge here.

You'll say like, “I'm sorry, are you on your bed? Maybe that's not the best place. Why don't you carry me over to the desk and we will work there?” The one-on-one piece is huge. If I were to start exactly talking to my dog, you would know immediately that I was no longer here with you. There's no hiding honestly in this. If the kid wants to do it in their pajamas, okay. That's a beautiful part of it. It doesn't matter.  The where it is unimportant.

It's a fear that came with COVID because they were put on big screens and into a lot of these little cubes. That's why these group tutors who wants to make more money, parents have to be careful because you are setting them up for failure because there's a possibility that they can be on another screen and playing, and the tutor or whoever's hosting that would not even know. They can't attend to 30 or 50 kids at the same time.

That’s purely a sit and get they're going to talk at the kid. There's no way that they can have that many kids in one Zoom session. Even when I was teaching online, I never had more than 8 or 9 because you get much bigger than that and it's not effective. I would hold multiple sessions and invite different kids to different things because you've got to keep it to where you have interaction and control of the dynamic.

If you are a parent reading, you have to check into what class they're putting your child. In a Zoom large class, it's not possible. We also don't use Zoom. We have our own platform that you use where the engagement and ramifications are all there. It's much different than what this allows us. It is a fear that parents have to overcome, but it's the best medium for them. I have worked with Neurodivergent kids in the past. It's how they need their environment.

The newer environment causes anxiety. If you can set up on your house and the coach can come and teach them in that space, the parent told me that he loves that you are doing this online with him because if he were to come to your office, house or wherever you're going to meet, that's a change in environment that he has to get used to. For 15 or 20 minutes, he's scanning the environment and getting used to you being beside him and all this stuff. That type of kids doesn't even like somebody sitting close to them or beside them. Sometimes, there are smells they don't like. Sometimes they don't like lots of things. Her thing was amazing for my son because he loves being in his space.

There are many situations like that. Maybe there's a younger sibling. if they have to drive to a place, and then what do we do with the younger sibling and then have the parent is split? We could have 100 scenarios of why being able to have that time at home is effective. The takeaway has to be that all online learning is not the same. You can't lump it all into one big clump and say, “It's bad. It's not effective. It doesn't work for my child,” like you wouldn't say, “School doesn't work.” That's general. There are pieces of online learning. There are ways to do it. There are platforms and formats that work and then there are others that are less effective. I think we have to be careful to not just bunch it all together and say, “Online learning equals bad because it's not true.”

Is there anything you want to say before we close off this interview? It's been amazing. You've been giving so much tips. Thank you.

I'm excited about this opportunity and the direction that I think parents are open to. My clients came pretty quickly and many parents were like, “I need this. I need help with this.” I'm excited about the ability to help kids in such an effective way and help parents who are frustrated, stressed and scared. I feel like it's a shift that we went from this scary time of like, “What are the ramifications that COVID will have on education?” We still don't fully know what that is going to be, but this opportunity to make an impact in the way that we are as holistic learning success coaches makes me feel positive in the education space for the first time in a while. I'm like, “This is working. This is doing something great. I feel excited about it again.” Thank you. It's an exciting time to be doing this kind of work.

Thank you for stepping up and listening to your heart because our students need this type of relationship. That's what is going to get them to succeed because they need the key.

They need the key that says Kohila and Leslie. They don't need the general master key because it's not going to work for them. They need to find their key and then they need to learn how to use it. That's the rest of their lives. What I tell my students, “You are going to be learning as long as you're alive. Never stop learning. Once you have that key, that's the biggest gift you could ever give yourself. Find it and learn how to use it.”

Thank you Leslie for being here.


There you have it. That was a great conversation with Leslie Thomas. She's one of our certified learning holistic neuro-growth learning success coaches. I love some of the tips that she shared. One of the tips was, “Who's holding the pencil or pen during your sessions with your son or daughter?” If you're holding it, majority of the time, you are taking ownership of learning and you are letting them go into the passive learning zone. If you want your child to be active in learning, make sure that they hold the pencil or the pen the majority of the time. I love that as a parent myself, I like to make sure that my son does not make a mistake. I tend to step in too quickly. in order to train myself, what I would do is I would help him with something and walk away.

I would give him a time, “Let's do it for ten minutes and then I would come back to check.” don't sit over their shoulder and watch what they're doing because it's too much pressure for them. It's too much pressure for you as a parent because you will probably want to step in and help them. That's something that I love. Watch out for the words you're saying, “No. That's not it. That's not how you do it,” because all of these things shut them down. Every word you choose, make sure that it's empowering your child. Make sure that you are getting them to speak. If you say no, they're going to shut down. If you say,  “That's not how you do it,” they're going to shut down. It's important to train us and the words we use. The only thing you have to do is to step away and come back.

Sometimes kids have a problem getting to work. They might not have the motivation to work. It's important not to lose your patience with them. Set a timer. give them some time to maybe rest, maybe they're tired. Look at all of that you can be a great coach as well at home. if you're looking for a great coach, an opportunity to work with the coach and now in this episode, we also talked about the difference between these large groups on Zoom that put your children into group tutoring, it doesn't work. That's an online stuff. That does not work. That's the emergency online learning that you have experienced because students who are in those little boxes disappear like, “I can't teach more than four students in a class.”

As learning success coaches, we have a very individualized approach. We always have very small groups or one-on-one, depending on what your child's needs are. Knowing what your child needs and what will help them the best is important as well. I hope all these tips have helped you to help your children in your home. At home, set up a place where they can learn with you because that's the best learning and possible way you can make connections with your children no matter what age they are, even if they're teenagers continue to push and be there for them. Thank you and I'll see you on another episode.

Important Links

About the Guest

Leslie Thomas

Aligned Learning Revolution (Activate, Accelerate, Achieve) | Leslie Thomas  | Learning Unlocked

I was born in Miami, FL and have lived in Florida my whole life. I have been married for 20 years and have 3 wonderful sons: Maddox, Judson and Hayes. I was a teacher for 21 years (10 years in traditional classroom, 11 years in virtual classroom) before starting Learning Unlocked, and have taught elementary, high school, ESE, and trained teachers. My certifications include: Elementary Ed 1-6, Exceptional Student Education, Physical Education K-12, Health K-12, Reading Endorsement, and English for Speakers of Other Languages. I love the Florida Gators, reading, the beach and watching my boys play their sports!

blog author image

Kohila Sivas

Kohila Sivas is a parent and a lifelong learner. She has been a classroom teacher at all levels and a Special Needs Instructor and is a Professional Math Interventionist, a Master NLP coach, and a #1 Best selling author.

Back to Blog

Follow Us

Follow Us



Contact Us


  • (778) 378-2640

  • Monday - Friday, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm

© Copyright 2024. Learning Success Choches. All rights reserved.