Ep. 23 - The Neuroscience of Resilience & Dyslexia w/ Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D.
Dr. Fumiko Hoeft is Director of BrainLENS at UConn and UCSF; Professor of Psychological Science, Mathematics, Neuroscience and Psychiatry, and the Director of the Brain Imaging Research Center at UConn; and Adjunct Professor at UCSF. She is a neurophysiologist, systems and developmental cognitive neuroscientist, and trained at institutions including, Keio Univ (Tokyo), Harvard, Caltech and Stanford. She held full-time faculty positions at Stanford and UCSF prior to her current appointment.
Danielle Scorrano: Welcome to READ, the Research Education and ADvocacy Podcast. In this series, prominent researchers, thought leaders and educators will share their work, insights and expertise about current research and best practices and education and child development. I'm Danielle Scorrano, the Windward Institute’s Research and Development Director, and your host of the READ Podcast.
Over the past few months and this summer, we as READ listeners have been learning about literacy at the intersection of social justice and what that means for number of communities, including students with difficulties and disabilities. And the last few months we have had incredible guests. Dr. Hugh Catts explained why early screening coupled with intervention of reading difficulties are essential for all early learners. Dr. Emily Solari conceptualized translational science for a framework for research. And Dr. Maryanne Wolf enlightened us about the dynamic, NOT the static nature of the reading brain and its implications for kids worldwide. So all of this learning got me wondering, what is actually happening in the brain when it learns to read? I hear the term neurobiological, but what does it really mean for me as a classroom teacher and how does literacy fit beyond academics with the focus on the cognitive aspects of the brain? How does social emotional learning fit into this? So, as I was thinking about it, and I happened to stumble upon the Ask a Brain Scientist series at Haskins Global Literacy Hub, I decided to reach out to our friend and science rockstar, Dr. Fumiko Hoeft, Dr. Hoeft is truly a pioneer and leader in science, literacy, education and everything in between. A few biographical highlights about Dr. Hoeft:
Dr. Fumiko Hoeft holds positions at both University of Connecticut and University of California, San Francisco, and as a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories and the co-founder of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub. She is Director of the Brain Len lab at UConn and UCSF, as well as the Executive Director of the Precision Learning Center. Again, those are just a few highlights. We'll include the links, her full bio on the pages of the READ website under the episode bookmarks. Dr. Hoeft’s work centers around the neuro-biological or brain-based components underlying brain processes and skill acquisition, such as literacy. She notably uses neuroimaging tools to understand the relationship between genes and the environment on the development of skills, particularly focusing on children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, Dr. Hoeft has been active in the community, specializing and leading R and D of cognitive based tools to disseminate into the education and community. A few of these tools include APP-RISE (Application for Readiness In School and Learning Evaluation), which is this gamified universal screener that identify strengths and weaknesses for personalized learning, looking at dyslexia risk and school readiness. She has also led the dissemination of the reading emotion and anxiety and learning and in a social emotional toolkit. All I have to say is thank you to Dr. Hoeft for this stimulating and thought-provoking conversation. See you after the episode READers.
Welcome Dr. Fumiko Hoeft to the READ podcast.
Dr. Fumiko Hoeft: Thank you for having me.
DS: I have to say, I think you and I first met in 2016 when you delivered the Robert J. Schwartz Memorial lecture and visit The Windward School, right. Was it 2016?
FH: Yes, I think that was it.
DS: It was a while ago, or seems like a while ago. I know anything pre-pandemic seems like a while ago, but I just remember when you were speaking to our audience, just how you were able to captivate the neuroscience and the brain in such a way anyone could understand.
And, but also you were so complex in in your talk. It was almost like this paradox of just showing the complexities of the reading brain and also simplifying it for teachers and myself at the time to understand. So I really appreciated that. And then I've seen many of your talks at IDA and following your work for a long time, so I'm excited to share all of it with our READ listeners. As we've started to record the READ podcast via zoom and virtually over the pandemic, I like to set the scene. So why don't you set the scene? Where are you today? What have you been up to? Have you gone for a walk? Let us let us know.
FH: Currently, I'm in San Francisco, even though my main position is at University of Connecticut. I have gone back and forth since, but primarily I've been to San Francisco because my family's here. I live in a place called Presidio, right across from the Golden Gate Bridge.
It's a national park and land, and so there's a lot of forest. What I try to do is I try to take a walk in the nature during meetings, but I cannot during this podcast, but usually I do that so I can get 10 or 15,000 steps. And so that has been my goal during pandemic. It's a small goal, but I try to keep it.
DS: Hmm. I love it. I did that this morning already. I've been reading separately away from the brain and reading, but just the benefits of getting a nature on every part of your body and the brain, you know, it's definitely has this mindful flavor of it.
FH: Can I just talk about the recent publication that we had since COVID started?
FH: I know we're jumping sort of ahead possibly, but it's not about dyslexia or reading, but we publish a paper looking at cross-cultural differences on the impact of COVID and mental health and in Asian countries, it was Japan, I'm Japanese, and then, in the United States and it turns out that, of course, people talk about how walking in the nature is important, but it turns out the how you think about nature and how you harmonize with nature, so it doesn't mean you have to be out there and kind of hug a tree, but how you think about an acceptance of nature in your everyday thinking and living was thought to be beneficial for having a better mental health outcome. So people who harmonize with nature better had much better mental health outcomes regardless of the culture that you were born and brought up in. I was very excited about that. So you can harmonize with nature without having to go out there if you don't have enough time in your day.
DS: I love that. Is that more just in line with like mindfulness and being mindful about the presence of nature around you?
FH: Yes. I think that's very related.
DS: Hmm. Okay. We will have to save that for a second episode. So, you did talk a little bit about your past year in pandemic. I'm going to ask you about that, but why don't you start by giving us information about your background? What do you study? Perhaps, tell us about the scope of your work. And is there a common theme over the course of your career?
FH: Yes. So I was trained as a physician at a university called Keio University in Tokyo, Japan. And then I trained both as a basic and translational neuroscientist at a couple institutions in Boston and LA- at Harvard, Cal Tech, and Stanford. I spent a lot of time at both doing clinical work, but also research training. I'm a mix of a clinical minded, sort of a researcher, I guess, in a way what I am now. I'm very interested in the neuroscience of dyslexia and how children, how we all learn to read and learn another language. I'm particularly dedicated to thinking about ways to make research more accessible useful for practice. That’s kind of what I'm very interested in and that's where my passion lies. Should I talk a little bit more about kind of the overall kind of projects that we do in our lab right now? Is that a good time?
Okay. So we try to have these three main arms in our research, and I think it's related to what I just said, which is some basic neuroscience research and then some translational research that has more direct impact practice. And then also we love to do outreach and work with advocacy groups in policy. So we have all these three things blended in our laboratory. In terms of the basic research, we have a couple of NIH funded research projects trying to come up with new theoretical theories of dyslexia and neurobiological models. The most recent one that we propose was the neuro noise hypothesis of dyslexia in 2017 with Ken Pugh and Roland Hancock. And so we have projects where we're pursuing and kind of testing our hypothesis and that sort of more on the basic side. And then we have some of these more translational projects also often funded by NIH, but also foundations like Oak foundation, where we're looking at, for example, how learning different languages in English- when the English learners are multilinguals as a baby or a child can shape our brain and the reading brain in particular and how we learn English and read and learn to read later on.
We also study how children or young adults learn to compensate. If you're identified with dyslexia, some individuals learn remarkably well on how to compensate and become a good reader later on. And then some individuals will struggle throughout, even though they may receive the best evidence-based interventions. And so we're using a lot of the latest neuroscientific tools to study plasticity in the brain and how different parts of the brain are different or plastic in different ways and maybe that's related to how easily some people learn to compensate earlier on. And then we take the scientific knowledge, and we try to come up with, based on the strategies of the information that we learned, a more revised or refined interventions, and then the currently available evidence-based interventions to try to add on certain pieces and test to see if we can capitalize or leverage children's strengths, as well as weaknesses and individually in kind of profiles of children. So there's a couple projects around that. That's a little bit more translational and we have more kind of quicker impact on children and families out there.
And then, we're very interested in the social emotional aspects. It comes from my personal experience, but also from talking to a lot of families who come in a lot of schools that we've work with in terms of how important the social, emotional, mental health and the motivational aspects are to learn and for children to succeed in general and especially in these children with dyslexia. I think that's a very important piece that we're very, very excited about. We develop tools and we look at how mentoring. Works and have a positive impact on children with social emotional skills.
I can keep on talking, so I get too excited and keep on talking too much, but one of our most recent projects we're just funded by NIH is a NIH network focusing on social or emotional wellbeing. So there's six networks funded by the NIH in the country. We're working to create a national network that focuses really on emotional wellbeing and how to characterize it, how to help and promote that and what the neuroimaging is. We're hard at work, working on mind, body interventions and what it means to have good and strong social, emotional wellbeing. I'll stop here because I know I can come back to different projects later on.
DS: As you were talking, I was taking mental notes in my mind and I was like, I wish I had brought a notebook or something to speak with you. There were a couple of key things that you mentioned that I want to dive deeper in including the neurobiology of dyslexia when you first talked about the new theoretical framework. I definitely want to ask you a question like that. I also want to ask you a question about the implications of interventions and the compensation that you spoke about because I think that's really interesting from the perspective of an educator. And then of course, we had spoken a little bit before we recorded, and I know you and I have had a lot of conversations about this already, but the social emotional piece. We've already talked about nature and well-beings, we might as well just dive deeper into emotional wellbeing here. Let’s dive into understanding dyslexia. As we return to the neurobiology of dyslexia, why is it important for the public- whether it be educators, policy, makers, families- to understand dyslexia as neuro-biological? Can you also define what neuro-biological means?
FH: So neuro-biological means that it's not something that you can track like a cold or it's not something that just happens because children are lazy or they lack motivation. I don't think if you ask anyone, including myself, I don't think if you ask anyone, do you want to struggle to read and would you rather just sit around and do something else? And knowing that the teachers are going to get upset, their parents could get upset. You feel bad because you are going to fall behind. I don't think anyone would choose to be that, and I think that's one thing we have to understand.
I think the other piece that we need to understand is this neuro-biological piece. There are fundamental differences, not just in dyslexia, but anyone. You and I, we have different biological makeups and it makes me vulnerable to certain things compared to you. You have a great talent for speaking in the public and communicating with people. And I unfortunately don't have the genes and I say it in a more casual way because there's no genes for, I mean, there's some genes that are related to anxiety and public speaking and so on. Each individual is biologically different and people are going to have strengths and people are going have differences and weaknesses. In terms of specifically about dyslexia, there are these kinds of neuro-biological differences that makes them more challenging to learn to read. And it's very frustrating that you sometimes see or often see, even with the most educated, most understanding family members or teachers or individuals. Because they're invested in their children or their students, they think, if I could push them a little bit more like other kids. I know I'm not trying my best and I need to motivate my kids better. That's a great goal and we do need to motivate our kids better, but we just need to also understand that there's fundamental differences or neuro-biological differences between one person and another, that makes some things more challenging than the other. We might have to try different strategies and think about it differently and not always think that pushing is the only answer. And that's kind of one thing that I often think about, especially with my children as well, and our family conversations that we've been having recently.
DS: Hmm. That's interesting. So, focusing specifically on dyslexia as it relates to reading and literacy, where do we, if we were thinking about dyslexia and in the overall framework of kids who struggle to read, where do we even start to tackle that problem? I mean, obviously you said the importance piece is understanding, but do we start with something like early screening?
Where do we even just approach tackling dyslexia and how it relates to illiteracy in the country, in the world?
FH: So, we know that we just talked about the importance of neuro-biological differences. We do know that dyslexia and some individuals with dyslexia have weaknesses that have been shown over and over and over that's related to the phonological and orthographic system in the brain.
And, um, but we also know that it happens quite early. Even if we look at children in preliterate brains or children before entering kindergarten, where they haven't had formal exposure to learn to read that you do see some weaknesses in the phonological and orthographic brain systems. And we've shown it, compiling all the studies together and doing what's called a meta analysis. We published this as early as 2016, but people have known this for a long time that you could be at risk and we can identify these risks earlier.
So I think as you said, it's very important to screen children early. Some people think that it means it's labeling children early, but I don't think it is. It's about identifying risks early. It's not that we're going to diagnose them with dyslexia. We're identifying the risks so that we can prioritize resources and help children. And also at the same time, this is an opportunity to identify their strengths as well, and we can leverage that as we talked about already briefly.
So I think it's important not to think that this is a tool that will be labeling kids, but it is a tool that will help us identify children for their strengths and weaknesses so that we can better serve for our children's success. I think early screening is very important.
We do know from the literature and research that the return of investment is very high. If we can put in a small amount of money in early screening, early, or preventive intervention or evidence based education, that is going to go very far with the same amount of money you put in later on. We also know that the effectiveness is very different. If you can identify risk earlier on, say in pre-K or kindergarten that, or compared to that, if you start in first grade or second day, second grade for every year that we wait, there's about 25 to 50% reduction in effectiveness. So why wait, especially if there's science that supports us and tells us that we can identify children's risk early on with a very high accuracy.
DS: I've heard in previous presentations, I think it was a recent IDA presentation you gave, the economic value of it too. For $1 spent, you get a 16 to $30 in return. In terms of investment, what do you mean by that?
FH: Thank you for remembering the numbers. I was trying to think of it. I didn't want to say anything incorrect from what I said and overrule what I said before, but that's absolutely true. If you can give quality and evidence-based early education compared to or non evidence-based instructions early on pre-K and kindergarten that is supposedly have a return of investment of 16 to $30. So if it's the local economy, some people said that there's a $16 return of investment. If it's a global economy, there's $30 in return of investment for the dollar that you spend. Some people think that if you put in investments early on, then they're going to grow up to be very educated and go to somewhere else, New York or somewhere in London and work there.
And it's going to not come back to your local economy, but that's not true either.
DS: But what I hear you're saying in terms of the neurobiology of dyslexia, from the importance of early screening, to even the fact that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and particularly for students with dyslexia, I'm reminded of your work on resilience. Now, resilience is used in a lot of different research settings. Sometimes people will take it in the popular education or popular media almost to the fact where it's a buzzword. So for your purposes, how do you define resilience as it relates to students with reading disabilities or just even students with dyslexia?
FH: Resilience to me in general is to have a positive outcome then expected given its biological vulnerability. So the example that I like to use, not in biology in humans, is for example, is a Palm tree swimming in the storm. You see a sway in the wind, but it doesn't bend or break. And that's how I think of when I think about resilience, or a dandelion growing up in the desert. There's crack, there's no water and yet you see this flower that's full of kind of watery moisture and that's remarkable. And that's how I see resilience.
DS: Interesting. As, as you were speaking, I closed my eyes for a second and pictured myself on a beach near a Palm tree or in the desert next to a dandelion. But I really like how you brought that visual because it really helped me conceptualize what you mean by that. Now you spoke about compensation, earlier as you describe to your work and I've read papers by you, or the one paper I read by you, I believe was from 2016, where you differentiate between cognitive and social emotional resilience. What do you mean by these terms?
FH: There's different levels and I'll let me try to explain it in different ways. The way I see it is there's a lot of protective and positive sort of factors- one is the big bucket of resilience factors, and then there's another bucket of compensation. We can talk about compensation, but I'll put that aside for now. Within resilience, I see cognitive and social emotional resilience. So when you think about resilience also there's two levels and hopefully you can close your eyes and maybe mentally imagine this. If you think about the cascade from risks, whether it's biological or some kids might have environmental or both, and that would lead to poor reading, it doesn't have to be dyslexia necessarily, but risks can lead to poor reading outcomes or other poor outcomes, such as poor mental health, poor educational outcome, income and those kinds of things, or poor reading comprehension as an outcome of poor decoding problems as in dyslexia. So when you think about that risk sort of like a vertical line, you can think of resilience happening at two stages. One is you have the risks, but you don't develop dyslexia. Of course, that might mean that you're lucky and you didn't get passed on the risk genes from the parents, for example, but it could also mean that you have those biological vulnerabilities, but somehow you were spared from having a severe or being ever being identified. Not because they were missed from the school system, but because they somehow ended up being a good reader. And that in my mind is sort of a resilience from the LD and dyslexia perspective.
Another level of resilience is you might be identified with dyslexia and the natural sort of cascade of events could be that you're going to end up being a poor comprehender because you cannot decode. And if you can't decode, then you can't comprehend. That's going to lead to a lot of different problems. But some kids, even if you are poor decoder, somehow learn to comprehend quite well. And, and so that's another level of resilience that they have better outcome, even though they have all the characteristics of the biological sort of dyslexia. So I see that happening at two levels. And then I'm going back to your original story. There's two levels of components which is cognitive and social emotional. And when you think about cognitive and social emotional resilience, the cognitive piece we try to identify are all the factors that were important to that has been listed in the literature, but not quite categorized this way. We see a lot of these things like executive functioning and executive functions, some language skills, morphological processing skills and morphology, and that kind of information being very important for cognitive resilience. And we did a series of neuro imaging studies and then also kind of a collection of neuro imaging papers to see how that might be playing a role.
There’s also a social emotional piece that we looked at and there's a number of different factors and I'm trying to pull out my notes so I want to kind of really miss things. We can characterize them into internal factors within the child, for example, growth mindset, hopeful thinking, sense of coherence, locus of control, or that you feel that you have control of the situation you're dealt or Self-determination. Those things were very important factors. If you look at family factors that promotes these social emotional resilience, there's again, family cohesion, maternal affect, and a strong parental attachments and relationship and understanding of the child's condition of reading difficulty or dyslexia.
And then there's a peers and the schools component where they have good peer relationships, where they feel like they have a good mentor, where they feel like they're supported by teachers and small group sizes. And those were important factors to us that had a positive social emotional outcomes or contributed to social emotional resilience and were protective factors. That’s how we looked at the literature and kind of categorize them, if that makes sense.
DS: Here's a question for you. When I think about executive functioning, for example, you see the cognitive aspects of executive functioning, and then there's also this element of social emotional resilience. Would you say that something like a strong executive functioning system could help the cognitive resilience, as well as the social emotional resilience, or are they separate?
FH: Absolutely. I think they should interact. We know that in the brain, there are a lot of places that these systems interact. And so it's not just hot and cold, that cold is cognitive executive function and warm is more self-regulation. Clearly, there's a lot of similar basis to it. And you see that in the brain as well. And that has an impact. The social emotional can have an impact in cognitive and the cognitive will have an impact on social emotional aspects of executive functioning. And we are just talking about this in the national emotional wellbeing network and how to separate, but also keep them together because they're closely linked. So that's a great question. That's hotly discussed by experts right now.
DS: That's interesting. It's something I've always been thinking about what I find fascinating about your work. Just to put some context on where I've been in terms of my role as an educator at Windward, I've been really invested in the social emotional piece of children's development with our Associate Head of School and I- Jon Rosenshine- have often gone to learn at Character Lab with Angela Duckworth and just thinking about how that directly applies to the classroom. What I find really fascinating about your work is that you are adding the neuroimaging piece to this, and you came out with a paper looking at, I think it was grit and growth mindset, and the relationship on that. I dove into that paper. I remember you sending me brain images anyways, before I go down a rabbit hole about this, what have you learned in studies, particularly in neuroimaging studies about the role of social emotional learning skills and child development, and specifically as it pertains to students with disabilities, like dyslexia?
FH: I'm going to try to answer some of the questions or maybe a lot of the questions, maybe I might go off tangent. So please do keep me bringing you back and track me back so that I can stay on track. But thank you for bringing up that paper on growth mindset versus grit that we compared within a single paper. I think it's helpful that I'm not Angela Duckworth nor Carol Dweck in a way, because we we're not the founders of that concept, so we have more of the liberty to try to merge things together and study it. I find it often the case that we end up in our own silos and research that if I'm a literacy researcher, I'm going to dive deep into literacy. And I'm going to forget about executive function, forget about math and just study it. And if someone asked me, how is it related to executive function, I have no idea. We do have an idea because we try to study it, but we often tend to fall into that trap of just studying deep into one and forgetting that the whole brain is linked together, as you were just asking me.
It's interesting that we were comparing a growth mindset and grit, and one of our studies, and we were able to look at the brain networks and how they were related. We do see a lot of similarities, but we do see differences. For example, growth mindset was more related to the reappraisal, the glass half full mentality, which sort of makes sense, and also is linked to the intrinsic motivation network. So, those all really made sense to us. And on the other hand, it was interesting because the grit network was more related to where we think about it more as a determination towards a long-term goal. It was related to when we see overlap with the persistence network or anticipating for a future and long-term reward. So not something that go for a quick reward, but something that's been shown to be important for future reward. And all these networks seem to be involved, which made sense, given how grit and growth mindset are defined in the literature. It was interesting because often we sometimes use it almost interchangeably or kind of think that anything positive it's going to highly correlate. And so we're just going to measure all together and not really thinking about it as it's different aspects. So I think you could be high in grit. There's a lot of commonalities, but you can still be high in grit and low in growth mindset. And of course, with growth mindset, people talk about there's a lot of controversies in the literature, but people talk about in terms of having different kinds of growth mindset, depending on the topic or what the context is. And I think that's very true. With any kind of social emotional context, you could have no anxiety and you don't have to be an anxious all the time, but it could suddenly kick in especially when you're giving a public talk or in other situations. So a lot of these things are very fragile and context dependent.
DS: I think I do have a follow-up question though, and then I can circle back to that second question. So I was lucky enough actually, to go to UCSF a couple of years ago and visit your lab and see everything that you're doing, look at an FMRI machine. When you're talking about persistence networks to an educator, to a parent, how are you even mapping this in the brain? If I were to just learn about the magic of neuroimaging, how is it even possible to map a construct like grit or map a construct like persistence or locus of control or anxiety?
FH: So there's several ways to do this. One is you have an identified topic or process that you are interested, it might be grit, or it might be no working memory or whatever it might be. And then you identify a test that you think closely measures it. So for example, I'm going to make this up, let's see if it works- locus of control that you feel like you have control over the situation.
And that might be something that an educator is interested in. We can't just say let’s measure locus of control, measure in the scanner and scan them. We try to find a measure that's really related to it, which could be a survey questionnaire that has been validated and how it's defined. And that will be one proxy. Another one will be something like, for example, you come up with a very basic task or a cognitive task, in this case, it might be, you have two stopwatches. And then we're just going to randomly give you one that looks like a football and you have to do a certain game or play a certain task, which is a time estimation, task, something mundane, like a time estimation task.
And then you're just given a stopwatch or you're allowed to choose between a basketball and football shaped stopwatch, for example. Even some simple manipulations like that. And even some simple tasks, like you have to estimate a time using your stopwatch. So whatever 60 seconds you have to stop that stopwatch. That is going to make a difference. Whether or not you chose it. And some people might say that's a metric of giving them locus of control or it's related to locus of control. So you might do a similar task inside the scanner. And then when they're given two choices versus not, and you might measure their brain activity. You might, for example, have them go to a waiting room and have them see how much they persist and practice during break time, and they will use that as a metric, maybe for an experimental persistence condition, even though it's not a very real world example. So we try to take everything from this real world construct to a measurable survey to measurable in scanner tasks that we think approximates the real world construct and try to link those together. So when they're doing a task, how much brain they use, or what part of the brain, how much activation they have, and they relate that to the survey measures where they might relate it to locus of control. Does that makes sense?
DS: Absolutely. I mean, I was just taken into the magical world of science. And as you were talking, I was reminded of you and we'll talk a little bit more about it later, but your work with Ask a Brain Scientist and I loved the way that you bring these highly scientific principles into real-world application, but that makes a lot of sense. In following up on that, we think back to the role of social emotional learning skills for students with dyslexia or learning disabilities. I know you've done a lot of work in terms of mentoring and, and tracking the role of SEL. What have you learned in these studies?
FH: Yeah, thank you for asking. So I think there's several, a lot of things that we've learned and we're continuing to do research on this. Number one: This might seem common sense and people might say, oh, you don't need a brain scan to do this. I knew this from a long time ago, but it's nice to have a confirmation in the brain or confirmation using statistics and data. So I might repeat things that people might think is common sense, but we do know that stigma does have a strong impact in children with LD. And it's somewhat surprising because often people think the stigma and stereotype threat where you might underperform because of the existing stereotype and stigma out there is more prevalent for in racial minorities or gender, where it's obvious and you can tell from a mile away. Whereas some people, a lot of people have had a hard time, really characterizing stigma and the impact on social emotional outcomes and academic outcomes on [children with LD]. And we've recently did a compilation of kind of research studies that compiles everything together, and we are finding this impact. The stigma does impact children that's has an invisible disability in a way like LD and dyslexia. So that was really nice to be able to show this because we had a hunch, but then people were very controversial and seeing that there is, and there isn't, that was one thing that we learned, other things that we learned. It has been shown over and over in the literature, but we had a pretty large sample showing there's a lot more anxiety, a lot more depression in individuals with LD, which is something that a lot of people know already. They have a lower sense of mastery and lower growth mindset. And this has not been that obvious in the literature of LD.
I think people always know or often think about the mental health and negative mental health outcomes, but then there's these other kinds of social emotional competencies that are quite strong and negatively impacted. The other thing I wanted to say is that on the other hand, so there's two more things. I really am a strong advocate of peer mentoring that even the parents can't do, or sometimes the teachers can't play that role necessarily.
Near peer mentoring means someone who's close to their age, who has the same kind of characteristics of learning differences, such as LD or dyslexia or ADHD, for example. And if they were near peer mentored, they were protected from a lot of negative consequences that even sometimes you see in typical non dyslexic, non LD kids. One example is interpersonal relationships gets bad or worse over the course of the year for everyone somehow- I mean how they self-rate themselves. I'm not sure if that's really getting worse, but this is how it was perceived at least in our research study, even in non LDs. There might be a lot of stress going on- I don't know what it is but it's even worse for children with LD. If they went through the mentoring program, they were protected from worsening of the interpersonal relationships, so there's a protective effect. There's also a protective effect from worsening of depression. So if you're not mentored and you have LD, kids tend to worsen in their depression. But if you go through mentoring, they were not only protected, but they even got better in terms of their depressive symptoms. It had a double kind of- it went in opposite directions, which was, I thought it was fantastic. Also it protected them from having a drop in self-esteem that often happens over the course of the school year, and in turn, it actually increased as well. So increase in one group and it went down in the other. Self-esteem, depression, interpersonal relationships all had a positive impact by going through these mentoring programs, at least in our research project. And this was the first it's been shown. We were very excited. I think one thing to know also, which is quite interesting is how much they perceive their mentors as effective. So in a way we don't really have strong evidence of how good the mentoring was. We don't have good characterization of that, but if the student thought that they were they had a good mentor, that was almost enough in a way, which is quite interesting. So you don't have to feel like, I'm not an officially certified mentor. I don't know what that is, but you can try to build a good relationship. As long as it's meaningful and important to the student, you can have a good impact. We do see some preliminary evidence that even mentoring would help the mentors. So it's not just being mentored that's good and has a positive impact, but mentoring will have also a positive impact, which I thought was quite exciting for us.
I have just one final piece of information that's kind of hot off the press. It was published, this year or late last year. We looked at, at the UCSF Dyslexia Center, Virginia Sturm was the first author, but we looked at children with dyslexia and looking at their emotional reactivity. We had behavioral and survey evidence that actually showed that emotional reactivity might be even heightened in individuals with dyslexia. This is on average, as we said earlier, there are large individual differences. Each child is different. So on average, even if we might see heightened, emotional reactivity, it doesn't mean that every child's with dyslexia is going to have heightened emotional reactivity, but that's what we found. We found evidence not just through behavior and their facial expressions, but from the amount they were sweating and these kinds of physiological responses. And we found brain evidence as well. Emotional reactivity heightened usually means a good thing. You could be more emotive and emotionally reactive, and that's usually considered a great thing and great asset to have. On the other hand, there's also a little bit of a downside. It could make individuals more prone to anxiety, and more prone to depression. And I think that might explain some of what we're seeing in that individuals with dyslexia sometimes are often put at a disadvantage, partially because of many factors because they just don't do as well in reading is very important and that's one thing. Also there's some stigma, especially if you're not in a dyslexia school and you might not have the opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded people, then you could be misunderstood and there's persistent stigma. Also, because of these characteristics and emotional reactivity, you're more sensitive to capturing what's going on in the surrounding, which might make them more prone to anxiety and depression. There are a lot of factors that are playing a role, but I thought that was quite interesting, what we've found. So those are some of our recent research findings.
DS: That's really interesting. And I appreciate you talking about the emotional reactivity. As you're talking, I was grounding myself as an educator and also as someone who speaks a lot to families and parents, and thinking about the important implications of understanding the role of stigma, of creating the structures to support mental health and emotional wellbeing, of ensuring that there's positive mentoring and family and school based support for students with language-based learning disabilities, and also understanding that emotional reactivity. 'm excited to learn more about that. As you're talking about emotional wellbeing and you spoke about literacy, I want to end our talk and our discussion on COVID. I know you have been out front doing of number of projects, in fact, to understand the implications, the effects of COVID and to help counteract some of the widespread negative, I shouldn’t say some of the negative, but all of the negative, widespread pervasive effects that happened as a result of the pandemic, including emotional wellbeing and literacy. So has COVID-19 pandemic reframed the scope of your work or how has it, and what projects have you been working on in order to help understand and mitigate the effects associated with literacy and emotional wellbeing?
FH: Let's see, that's a lot of interesting things that we could be talking about, but let me try to catch some of them. I think all researchers were forced to, because we had to shut down our center, shut down our research, especially because we do heavy in-person kind of research that really made us rethink about how we do research. That has led to a lot of great things. I think in terms of research, we've seen a lot of progress in remote testing, remote assessments and remote education, and remote education technology. So these kinds of areas have made a lot of progress, partly because we were forced to, and I think it was really, really overdue. We knew the promise of education technology. We knew the promise of these remote call-ins and conferences, WebEx, zoom, and so on, but we weren't capitalizing on it. And this has given us a good opportunity to know that we can reach a larger population with a caveat of course. Even though we might show where have been seeing the impact or positive impact of education technology and remote assessment and now we know we can reach a lot, if they don't have land connections, if they don't have wifi, which a lot of places don't, even if they're not in the most poor or remote areas. For example, in Alaska, I heard that about 50% of the people don't have access to internet if they don't go into schools. When there's a shutdown, you can't go to the community center, you can't go to the library, you can't go to school. That is really is going to change the way you access education and opportunities.
I think we did learn a lot about education technology made us think a lot about this, and we've gotten much better at this, which is going to really help research and has helped it already and the reach we can have, whether it's outreach or whether it's a science and doing this kind of science. In terms of what we have done, we've done a number of things leveraging these resources.
One, we received an NSF grant very early on and we provided education technology as a way to provide tools to the public who wanted some kind of formal literacy instruction, even though it's through games and it's less interactive than what you would get through a teacher in the classroom. But we were able to provide that as a service, but also be able to do a research project where we could give progress reports, where we can measure and can prevent some of the COVID slide through education technology. It's called the RESCUE project, and we're coming closer to the end of this, but we were following up with children. We learned a little bit about what kind of predictors or what kind of factors are important in providing education technology to the home, sort of in the wild. It’s not in the hands of the teachers, it's in the hands of the parents and the kids, and what kind of characteristics are important. So we learned a lot about it.
And that was one of the research projects as part of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, which Ken Pugh and I co-founded and a number of great people are, co-leading such as our Windward partners, also Ben Powers, who is leading and directing it right now, as well as many researchers like Maryanne Wolf and Maureen Lovett to name a few. They were remarkable. I mean, all of you were so remarkable in stepping up when we were drowning, Ken and I were drowning in research and shutting down our labs to create a resource library that would be open and free for the public and resources. And it just kept on coming out, whether it's webinars or other resources and so on. I feel very proud even though I did very little and contributing from that we were able to put out during the pandemic. Finally, as part of this, I started the Ask a Brain Scientist series in the fall for half a year or so, and just gathered everyone in the country who was interested in learning about brain science from eight to 13. We had kids from two years old joining to a 70 year old signup. And so it was quite exciting to see a lot of people joining, sometimes not joining, but many people, a lot of people joined throughout the course, and we topics that were relevant or we thought was relevant to kids, like why is multitasking bad? I saw my children multitasking during class and I couldn't tell them that they need to not look at YouTube or other things during class. So I talked about multitasking in the brain. We talked about the importance of sleep and the brain. We talked about Black Lives Matter and what it has to do with our brain. We had a really great time. I would really love people to check out our website because we have our finals, the honors project online, where children optionally submitted an honors project where they made all of the made a video. And it was just fantastic. It almost made me cry, especially knowing that some of the kids had a background of dyslexia or not feeling comfortable with academics in school, but how they really shined during this project. It was quite remarkable. I was almost in tears on the final day.
DS: I love that. Oh, I'm definitely going to check that out myself and as well, share the link to that website in the READ podcast web page. Do you have time for one last question? Okay, perfect. So in my final question for you, I think I could have sat with you for an entire day just to learn from all your research and all that you're doing. As we look forward post pandemic, or just as you look forward to the next year and your own research, I want to draw back to the purpose of READ and READ is Research, Education, ADvocacy. And I like to interview leaders and researchers in the fields who are intersecting this work, and you've been doing it for so long throughout your career and have made a lot of impacts. But as you look forward, where do you see your work intersecting in terms of research, education and advocacy?
FH: Hmm. I'll just say, I'll keep on doing what I love doing, which is, I think at the intersection of that. Let me think a little bit, where do I think my work is going in terms of research, education and advocacy, right? That's what you said.
So what I would love to do, and I'm doing bits and pieces of it right now by kind of just picking where I can and in a way, the lowest hanging fruit in a way by looking at, for example, the impact of education technology, and then making that more as a kind of raising some money for it also so that we can provide it to the public for free, which we did through the Haskins Global Literacy Hub.
I'd really love to have this more coherent program where we can think about how we can democratize education and how we can live up to what we believe in, which is reading and learning is a human right. How can we best support it as teachers and researchers and work together. I think there's been great progress. I love kind of reading some papers on team sciences that some people from Florida State, Yaacov and others and Sara Hart and all those other people put out. And I think so team science is becoming a norm in a way. And I love that. I think people are believing that we need to democratize education. Education technology is one step forward, but we're going to miss out on everyone basically in the poverty zone or certain communities will not benefit from it if we just work on education technology. So that's not the solution either because people don't have computers at home, not enough computers, not enough smartphones and not enough land connection going around to be able to end people. So every not everyone can benefit from it. But I think so there's so many areas to go into. I don't know where to start, but I think that is important. The other thing, I really feel that it's important is with the DEI movement of diversity, equity and inclusion. I love that movement. I think it's exceptionally important. I do feel like often people think about this in terms of racial minorities and social economic minorities or social economic and racial minorities. And I really do feel like there's much more to diversity than that, including those who learn differently and those with physical and non-physical sort of disabilities. And I really do hope that the DEI movement that we're everyone is going through and changing the worlds right now will be very inclusive and more inclusive to look at kind of the intersections between those with disabilities, those who learn differently into this DEI movement.
DS: I appreciate you talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. As we think about DEI in a larger framework, I think it's important to see how these different marginalized groups can often be excluded or face the systemic barriers that impact equity and access. You talked about children with learning disabilities and in this episode, as we did focus on children with LD that impact literacy. We're also currently in a great social reckoning to face the historical and systemic injustices in this country. So I'm also thinking more broadly at even the intersectionality when children identify with a learning disability and are also from a racially or socioeconomically marginalized community. So you're the person to ask. I mean, is there a brain basis to this and within the scope of even targeting marginalized and vulnerable communities, do you look at these social inequities within the lens of neuroscience and how is this all impacting the brain?
FH: Great question. It's very topical and it's very complicated, as you can imagine. Unfortunately, not too much has been done in the LD populations or individuals in children and adults, but also, especially when it gets to this intersection between LD and other kinds of DEI issues such as socioeconomically challenged individuals, racial minorities, and so on. But I'm going to step back before talking about brain sciences a little bit and talk about a definition and some examples. We often talk about stigma and stereotype, and I'm sure you can imagine what stigma and stereotypes mean, but it's generally sort of an oversimplified view of someone or something that's often an inaccurate representation of a particular person. And so for example, I'm Asian. So it's easy for me to use Asians as an example. Some people, and I've heard this personally, Asians are bad drivers or they are workaholics and there might be some good things that people talk about that they're good at science or math, for example. And if you take girls for example, because I'm a female, also some people talk about girls loving pink and girls loving dresses and cooking and not good at science or sports and so on. And that kind of perpetuates further these stereotypes and stigma and the problem is that it really does start impacting their performance as well and their learning abilities. So that would be something called stereotype threat. This is the risk of becoming like that stereotype, especially the negative stereotype, which is the problem. If it's all positive stereotype. And if we can be just by believing, I think the great thing, and people have documented that as well, but in terms of this negative stereotype, and most of this work again has been done in racial minority, particularly those that are socioeconomically challenged and not in the LD population, but it has shown over and over again that these individuals particularly perform worse in these kinds of threatened environments. So they might be performing perfectly fine and equal to their racial majority peers and non social economically disadvantaged individuals so advantaged individuals. But when they're put in these kinds of threatened environments, their performance dramatically goes down. We did some research in LD and recently published this. And so we looked at a quantitative review of the literature in LD on stigma and stereotype threat. What we were able to show, it was a first glimpse into looking at stigma and stereotypes threat in these individuals. What we found was that in these individuals, there was a strong relationship between stigma and how stigma is perceived and the outcomes of psychological wellbeing of these individuals. Also, there was a building strong relationship or significant relationship between stereotype threat, the reduction in performance, based on these kinds of existing negative stereotypes and their performance as well. So it could be academics, it could be psychological and so on. We concluded in research and papers saying that stigma or stereotype threat are salient experiences in those individuals with learning disorders or learning differences. When you think about the intersection and those who have LD and are racial minorities are socioeconomically challenged, you can only imagine the exponentially larger impact that these individuals might receive that has been completely or often ignored from the research literature. So that's one thing I've really wanted to point out. And now that there is evidence, at least from our work, combining all the research that other people and the great work that other people have done. I think that it's really a timely for us to really pay attention to this social emotional kind of stigma stereotype threat kind of environments in particular because we know that there's a lot of strategies to reduce this. And what's important here is- and it hasn't been done that much in LD populations again- but people have shown what is effective and, and people have looked at, for example, mindfulness is important or effective, Having a role model is important to having a growth mindset is important, being able to externally attribute. For example, if you performed poorly on a test, being able to reframe and reappraise that situation is very, very important. As teachers and families around or friends around these individuals, we can help them by emphasizing that threatening environment. Take down all the male scientists, posters, and deemphasizing it is a test on reading or test on learning and that it's going to be labeling them or a high state test, for example. Those are very important things that we can help. Also self-affirmation is known to be important. If they can reflect on their value system, talk or write about what the value- their family members, their Teddy bears, whatever it might be, pets, friends, those are known to reduce maybe reducing. We don't really know that biological mechanism, but it could be reducing anxiety, um, and removing some of these threatening kind of by feeling assurance and that you're kind of cared for and trusted, I think could really help these individuals. And just finally, in terms of brain sciences, because there's not too much on it and it's predictable in a way. People have shown that stress response and cortisol responses, physiological response seems to be exaggerated in these kinds of environment. So you can imagine why they might underperform in terms of the brain areas, the ventral ACC has been shown to be very important and the key in this region is important because it's an very important region in controlling mood and also resolving conflict. You can easily imagine how this might be related to stigma, the stereotype that might impact their performance. I'll stop here. And if you have any comments or questions, I'm happy to take that on, Danielle.
DS: You know, I think as you were talking, it's funny because when I asked the last question about 10 minutes ago, I was like, this is the last question, but of course, all of your research and expertise spawns, further questions. I do appreciate you talking about the neuroscientific basis because even just beyond what we're learning right now, in terms of all the impacts of the systemic social injustices that are happening, your research and what you and other neuroscientists have shown, and even when you talked about the cortisol that there is a physiological and brain basis to something like stereotype threat. So I appreciate you talking about that. And even beyond addressing this at a systemic level, I do see a through line in this episode about the empower of relationships, whether from mentors or teachers or parents or communities. So thank you for ending with that. Thank you so much for ending with that, but where can we find you? I mean, can people interact with you on Twitter, on your website? Where can people learn more?
FH: We have a website, brainlens.org. Some people type it in and I'll say, do you mean brain Less? L E S S but now we do have a brain and we call ourselves brain lens.org. So that's sort of one place to check us out. The other places, Twitter. Yes. Fumiko Hoeft, like my full name, so you can find me on Twitter as well.
DS: Dr. Hoeft, thank you so so much. It's always a pleasure to talk with you and learn from you. And I know with all your work with HGLH and just obviously we are very well connected with you. So I look forward to learning more from you and having our READers check out all the resources that you are providing for the country and the world. And a final note to our READers. Now it's your opportunity to immerse yourself in nature, going to walk like Dr. Hoeft, you know you go for walks. Anyways, thank you so much.
FH: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me. That was fun.
DS: To be honest with you. I had seven more questions I wanted to ask Dr. Hoeft. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Hoeft for coming on the READ podcast. I always learned so much from you and it is such a joy to speak with you. There was so much to learn from this episode and resources for further action. Please read more at readpodcast.org, where you can access my top read bookmarks or top moments from each episode by visiting each page on our website. I added a number of resources that relate to Dr. Hoeft’s work. And I just hope that you listen, you learn, you check them out as much as possible. My goal is to continue to connect and learn from inspiring leaders and advocates in research and education. If you have any thoughts, questions, or ideas of topics and speakers, feel free to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also invite you to like, subscribe, and share the READ podcast with friends. You can learn more about future events this fall with the Windward Institute and our friends and collaborators by staying connected with us on our website, thewindward school.org/wi or on social media. And in fact, our fall 2021 and winter 2022 brochure is out, it's live. Please check out all the courses and workshops that we have to offer and a number of webinars that will be coming out as the fall continues. So thank you again, Dr. Hoeft, thank you to our READers. And I think that's it. I'm signing off. Until next time, READers.
Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., leading cognitive neuroscientist, joins the READ Podcast to explore pressing questions about the brain, resilience, and learning disabilities. Dr. Hoeft examines the definitions of resilience and outlines its promotive factors related to the reading brain and children with learning disabilities. She cites the latest brain research on the role of stigma and stereotype threat in children with LD, drawing implications on how to combat stigma and cultivate a more inclusive environment in schools. At the end of the episode, Dr. Hoeft discusses her leadership to support the worldwide community during and post-pandemic and calls for solutions to democratize education for all.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. The Neurobiology of Dyslexia
Dyslexia is neurobiological, meaning its markers and factors are brain-based.
"[Neurobiological explains] how each individual is biologically different, and people are going to have strengths, differences, and weaknesses. In terms of dyslexia specifically, there are neurobiological differences that makes it more challenging for them to learn to read."
2. Early Screening and Evidence-Based Education by the Numbers
"Early screening is NOT a tool to label kids, but it instead identifies the risks so that we can prioritize resources and help children. Screening helps us identify children for their strengths and weaknesses so that we can better serve their success."
Did you know?
- It is most effective to identify children earlier in Pre-K or Kindergarten. For every year we wait to identify and intervene for reading difficulties, there is about a 25 to 50% reduction in effectiveness of remediation.
- For every $1 spent on high quality and evidence-based early instruction and intervention, there is a $16 to $30 return on investment from the local to global economy.
"If there's science that supports and tells us that we can identify and remediate children's risk [of reading difficulties] early with a very high accuracy and effectiveness, then why wait?"
3. Cognitive and Social Emotional Resilience
Dr. Hoeft defines resilience as experiencing a positive outcome given a biological vulnerability.
Cognitive resilience is when a child has difficulty with decoding and word level reading skills but demonstrates strong reading comprehension skills. Cognitive resilience can be promoted by strong skills in:
- Executive functioning
- Morphological processing
Social emotional resilience can be promoted by:
- Internal factors (e.g., growth mindset, locus of control, self-determination)
- Family support (e.g., sense of stability, maternal and parental attachment, positive relationships)
- School-based community (e.g., peer, mentoring, teachers, small group size)
Did you know? Current research explores the relationship between the social emotional and cognitive aspects of resilience in the executive functioning networks of the brain.
4. The role of stigma and mentoring for children with learning disabilities
There is a correlation between a learning disability and the prevalence of mental health and social emotional outcomes such as depression, anxiety, lower sense of mastery, and growth mindset.
"Stigma does impact children who have an invisible disability like LD and dyslexia."
Research shows that near peer mentoring has benefits for children with learning disabilities including their perceived levels of stress, depression, and interpersonal relationships. Read more about Dr. Hoeft’s study on near peer mentoring here.
"Self-esteem, depression, and interpersonal relationships all had a positive impact [when children with LD] went through these mentoring programs."
The research has found that mentoring has a multidirectional impact on mentors and mentees… bottom line: there is an incredible power of positive, trusting relationships!
5. The call to democratizing education through:
- The expansion of team science and collaboration between researchers and schools
- Education technology
The prioritization of support and access for children who live in poverty or who have little access to education technology and Internet
"I'd really love to build a more coherent program where we can think about how we can democratize education and how we can live up to what we believe in, which is that reading and learning is a human right."
A larger focus on intersectionality of identities and understanding of how stigma and stereotype threat impacts students with disabilities
"We concluded in research that stigma or stereotype threat are salient experiences in those individuals with learning disorders or learning differences."
When you think about the intersection and those who have LD and are racial minorities or are socioeconomically challenged, you can only imagine the exponentially larger impact [of stigma and stereotype threat] on these individuals that has been completely or often ignored in the research literature.
6. Initiatives that targeted the educational and community needs during and post-pandemic such as:
- Leveraging the promise and identifying the gaps of education technology
"We knew the promise of education technology but we weren’t capitalizing on it… And even though we might show a positive impact on education technology, if you can’t access to internet when there’s a shutdown, that is going to change the way you access education and opportunities."
- Providing research-based literacy support to measure and prevent COVID slide
- Supporting teachers, families, and children with free resources
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests.