Talk, talk, talk.  Do psychotherapists talk too much?  Maybe. Many years ago, when I was a fledgling young clinical psychologist, the success of my private practice hinged on nonverbal communications. It went something like this: I saw a lot of 8- to 12-year-old boys who were depressed and/or acting out because of strained relationships with their successful and very busy fathers. These men wanted to help their sons but were essentially clueless, and their efforts to connect had repeatedly failed. This left their home in turmoil. And, of course, the mother and siblings suffered along with the troubled youngster and his father.

How did I approach these boys?  Talking? Reflecting their feelings? (Carl Rogers was one of my therapy supervisors –– yes, that one). Family therapy?  Nope. None of the above. After meeting with a distraught mother and a skeptical and very busy father, I would greet the boy, let’s call him Mark, in the waiting room and bring him to my office.  I made sure to dress in a suit and tie, emulating his lawyer or banker-type father.

“Talking gets to be boring sometimes, Mark. I’ve got some things down the hall that you might enjoy doing while we talk.” This was a little misleading, because I hadn’t planned on talking much, if at all. I would lead the somewhat bewildered youngster out my side office door and down the hall to a large room which I had a stocked with a ping-pong table, punching bags, rubber-tipped dart guns, a basketball hoop, and other neat stuff.

“Want to play some games while we talk?  Might make it easier.”  And without waiting, I would pick up a ping-pong paddle or start shooting a small basketball through a hoop above the door. Did we talk about his father, mother or siblings?  Did I ask him about his feelings?  Did I give him advice?  No, none of the above. We just played. We proceeded to establish a relationship based on activities while I poured in lots of positives, such as “nice shot.” “Boy, you nailed that one.”  “Duck!” (while having a gun fight) or “I can’t keep up” as we raced down the alley behind my office. The 6’4” weirdo psychologist, with his black suit-coat flapping away, trailing a red-faced boy. Neighbors didn’t know whether to laugh or call the child protection agency.

Did all of this take skill on my part?  Yes it did. Lots of it. And one of the trickiest things was to keep my mouth shut. I helped shape behavior with my facial expressions and body communications of concern, and later, as Mark’s behavior improved, my non-verbal feedback became more positive. What a great advantage I had. Instead of sitting in an office talking about Mark’s behavior as perceived by his mother and father, I was immersed in his real, true-to-life behavior.

Of course, the fact that I really liked young people was a great advantage, and I believe they sensed that. I also let Mark win many of these games or foot-races down the alley. Young people like to win (don’t we all)?  After a few weekly sessions, Mark caught on to the fact that I was giving him an edge, but that didn’t matter much. He still enjoyed winning and beating this 6’4” man who was dressed like his father. Was this approach effective? Starting with the very first session, when we returned to the waiting room, it was obvious from his mother’s expression that she was startled by Mark’s happy and excited demeanor. She hadn’t seen much of that lately.

While I was pretty much nonverbal, I never missed an opportunity to make physical contact, whether that was a slap on the back, a congratulatory handshake, or even a hug while wrestling or in horseplay. As a result of all of this, we became friends. Sometimes I would visit Mark’s home in order to carry the positive feelings from the office to the real world –– his real world.

After three or four few sessions, it was obvious that Mark’s mother was now more relaxed and reaching out to her son because she trusted that he was less likely to reject her. So now it was time to call in the parents for a little chat. Mark’s father had changed. He now opened his crossed arms and leaned forward, looking at me intently. While the idea of a psychologist seeing his son was still a mystery to him, he was now much more open to my suggestions. Like many of these businessmen, he was results oriented. He was less concerned with the process and focused on outcome. Kind of like playing the stock market. And he liked what he saw. His son was now more approachable and Dad was ready to follow my recommendations.

Most of my suggestions were brief and based on basic psychological principals, but he no longer questioned their significance because Mark was changing.  For example, in the past he would take Mark on a special father-son outing to a football game but would sit next to Mark and take business calls on his phone or listen to his radio. It just hadn’t occurred to him that the idea was to pay close attention to his son. To make a point, and to wave a red flag, I told him that if Mark wanted to do something foolish, during their special times together, such as digging a hole in the backyard, he should be there to help and encourage him.

The pediatricians who referred these kids were extremely pleased. In the past they had referred to medical practitioners who had used a lot of medical and psychological jargon in their reports, but the kids often didn’t improve. And it could be expensive for the families (no health insurance coverage in those days). My brief reports were straight forward, in plain English, and recognized that these youngsters were still under their pediatrician’s primary care.

Was this nonverbal approach just a one off?  Something for a narrow range of kids? No, I used this technique with other children and other problems as well.  One of my patients was sexually abused by a health-worker in a residential clinic. My approach again was to gradually and patiently develop a relationship through the use of activities.  We didn’t discuss what he had experienced until trust had been established, and sometimes not at all. The main thing was that he was now okay, and he could trust a man again.

I worked with little girls as well. Activities often included dollhouses with puppets and miniature family figures, but also included some rough-and-tumble.  At the end of a session, I would lift young girls onto my shoulders and dance into the waiting room. I would then lower the girl, and like a shot, she would run to her mother and give her a hug. I guess it helped that I had challenged the girl while still in the playroom, to see which one of us could give her mother a hug first. Was I being manipulative? You bet! One of my greatest pleasures was to see the tearful countenance of a distraught mother’s face light up with disbelief and joy as her alienated daughter ran toward her with open arms and a huge smile.

Needless to say, some of these approaches might not be possible today because of legal exposure and cultural or social mandates (especially ones about adults not touching little people).

What about adults? I’m always amazed at what I can learn by playing golf or tennis with someone compared to verbal interviews.

Did this non-verbal, right-brain therapy stick? Today, I am sometimes approached in public places by former patients, now in their 30’s or 40’s, wanting to thank me for “saving their lives.”

I always like that, and the best part is that now we can talk!





Are Men’s and Women’s Brains the Same?

There is little doubt that men and women’s brains are not the same, but is that helpful in making decisions about people?  Not usually, because all brains are different and there are no two brains that are exactly alike –– as far as we know –– as far as science knows.

There are a staggering number of connections and chemical interactions in the brain.  It is made up of 100 million cells and a quadrillion synaptic connections (a message linking one part of the brain with another part of the brain). But even more limiting is the fact that the brain is trying to study itself, and all of us, scientists and non-scientists, have biases that have developed out of our experiences. These experiences influence how we interpret scientific findings.

If we ask the casual observer on the street, we find that most people believe the genders differ in their behavior and emotions, and of course these differences go back to the brain.  Standup comedians love the humor involved in pointing out these differences.  Some joke that men compartmentalize their thoughts and have one box for each subject such as wife, children, car, sex, (and mother-in-law in the basement!).  And the boxes must never touch each other.

Another much talked about difference is navigation.  People have observed that most men don’t ask for directions while women do, and that women navigate by relying on maps or local signposts such as “take a right after the McDonald’s,” while men claim to have big maps in their heads.

One popular explanation for these supposed brain differences is the division of labor experienced by our Hunter – Gatherer ancestors.  Men needed to range widely in order to trap and kill animals (Tarzan?) and would run through the bush triangulating their position relative to fast-moving prey.  They also had to react quickly, perhaps impulsively, to defend against attack. This might explain why more males suffer from attention deficit disorder.

Women, on the other hand, cultivated food and learned to verbally communicate with others to fend off male aggression, sexual and otherwise. But those supporting the equality of male and female brains are suspicious of these historical reports or believe they’re not relevant today.  After all, common sense told us the earth was flat and the sun rotated around our planet.

If there are real differences, they should show up in studies of animals.  And they do. This is not the place to examine individual studies, but Robert Sapolsky has done us a favor by reviewing some of the research. I refer the reader to pages 213 to 220 of Sapolsky’s book, Behave, The Biology of Humans –– Our Best and Worst, 2017.

Here is a quick review.  In guinea pigs, male aggression is due to prenatal masculinization of the brain. Also, male primates are more aggressive than female primates, while female primates are more affiliative and more involved in social grooming and interacting with infants.  Male adult rhesus monkeys are far more interested in playing with masculine human toys, i.e. wheeled toys, than feminine ones, i.e. stuff animals, and females slightly prefer feminine toys.

Of course, hormonal differences affect the brain. Males are more rough-and-tumble even when testosterone levels are suppressed at birth.  When pregnant monkeys are treated with testosterone their female offspring are more rough-and-tumble and aggressive than those not treated.

Sapolsky’s reporting shows that it’s also possible to look at humans because of CAH, which is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, a condition where the adrenal glands produce testosterone.  CAH girls are more rough-and-tumble, play with masculine toys, and show less tenderness.  CAH males are more aggressive, have better math scores, and are more assertive.  They also suffer from a higher percentage of attention deficit disorder and autism.

An inverse of CAH is AIS, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, results in insensitivity to testosterone. Women with AIS have less autism, are more anorexic, and have less athletic ability.

But those who do not support gender differences point out that the brain allows for plasticity, and some changes in the brain can take place based upon the environment and perhaps the culture in general.  According to Sapolsky’s review, maternal malnutrition impairs the fetal brain.  Maternal stress leads to more substance abuse, poor diet, blood pressure, and poor immune defenses.  And good rat mothering can even alter gene regulation in their offspring!

A recent study by Joel Daphna of Tel Aviv University, Trends in Cognitive Sciences and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, says the real question is exactly how different behaviors emerge.  On average, men and women do differ with respect to some brain and behavior changes, but these differences are found in large numbers and cannot be relied upon to predict individual behavior or attitudes.

So where does all this leave us?  I draw two conclusions.  One is that there are differences between the genders, but when it comes to individual assessment one needs to look at behavior rather than theorizing about gender.  This reliance on studying behavior is why the field of psychology has made progress over the past forty years.  The study of behavior is much more reliable and achievable than theorizing about what goes on inside a person’s brain.

My second conclusion has to do with arrogance.  We still have a lot more to learn about the brain. I’m reminded of a three-year-old at the beach filling her pail with water in an effort to diminish the size of the ocean, or to discover what is lurking at the bottom of the sea. We now have exploratory submarines and underwater research gear, but I believe we should be careful about inferences about the brain and gender, although findings to date have been interesting.

Would I ever use perceptions about gender, based on research and experience, in decision making?  I would have to conjure up an artificial situation such as being assigned to select 1000 individuals for hand-to-hand military combat and the choice would be 1000 randomly-selected males or 1000 randomly-selected females.

Based upon what I think I know, I would be foolish not to choose the males.  While all the females could be better than all of the males at lugging 50 pound backpacks up steep mountain trails and engaging in guerrilla warfare, I think this is doubtful.  However, there is no doubt that some number of females would do better than some of the males.

When evaluating folks in the real world, on an individual basis, for occupations such as childcare or military combat, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, motivation, and rigorous evaluation –– not gender.

Many students do poorly in school and the labor market, especially students from the lower socio-economic class. Poor kids are more likely to need help with self-control, which tends to be better developed in children who grow up with both parents in the home. It takes a coordinated effort to establish routines and teach frustration tolerance. Kids who don’t develop self-control at an early age have difficulties with both academics and behavior as adults.

The next obstacle can be the school itself. Since the best public school teachers, equipment, and materials are often found in wealthy neighborhoods, it is highly probable that the assigned school for lower and mid-level kids is inferior. There are other educational options, but a single parent may not have the time or resources to provide them. Public school systems have magnet schools, fundamental schools, charter schools, and other options, but getting into these exceptional programs is sometimes daunting.

Another obstacle is the neighborhood itself. A high percentage of poor kids are also experiencing physical, nutritional, and emotional handicaps. The kids whose parents have the resources, gumption, or fortitude to get them enrolled in better schools and other city services tend to be creamed off, leaving a residue of frustrated kids in the disadvantaged peer group. Drugs are easily available on the street.

By eighth grade, many of these students don’t demonstrate the type of mental ability or motivation needed for advanced academic work, but well-meaning politicians and parents insist that all kids are the same and all should be capable of a Harvard education –– if just given the chance. Anyone opposing this stance is labeled a bigot or a racist. This is nonsense, of course, but non-academic kids are caught in this trap. They would prefer career education and eventual access to the job market, but instead are assaulted with abstract academic courses and mandated state achievement tests. All of this can lower self-esteem and is often damaging emotionally.

Unless the student is a high academic achiever and really wants an entirely academic school program, he or she should have exposure to a variety of modern and advanced career programs. This is the path to a decent job and career. If this allows for a way forward, it’s likely that these students and their children will move up and enjoy the benefits that come with a higher socio-economic environment.

All of this is discouraging, but as long as well-meaning school reformers and members of the upper class pick up most of the marbles for their college-bound kids, it won’t change. And let’s please remember, only 25% or so of the general population, not just students from the lower socio-economic class, have the basic mental ability, concentration levels, and motivation for college-level academics.

Here is proposed legislation that could begin to help our frustrated kids:

Source: Mack Hicks


By Senator (Insert name).


A State of (INSERT NAME) bill to be entitled CAREER PATHWAY TO SUCCESS.

WHEREAS, the majority of American students are not motivated for, or capable of, a full range of college prep academics, and

WHEREAS, fewer than 20% of all U.S. college students graduate from college in four years, and

WHEREAS, outstanding college loans amount to trillions of dollars, and

WHEREAS, college graduates with non-technical majors have low employment levels, and

WHEREAS, recent economic challenges nationwide highlight the critical need for job skills, and

WHEREAS, the pressure to succeed in academics and national and statewide academic tests results in school dropout, delinquency, unemployment, and classroom disruption,

WHEREAS, career students are not appreciated for their high mechanical and spatial intelligence,

NOW, THEREFORE, this legislation is to be enacted by the State of (INSERT NAME).

  1.  Any students, regardless of race, social class, or family income, entering the eighth grade with 3rd through 7th grade teacher reports or test achievement scores placing them in the bottom 20% of that student’s countywide school population will be invited to participate in this CAREER PATHWAY TO SUCCESS.
  2. Any students, regardless of race, social class, or family income, entering the eighth grade who have placed in the top 20% truancy rate over the previous two years will be invited to participate in CAREER PATHWAY TO SUCCESS.
  3. Other students falling outside these criteria will also be accepted into this program with parental permission.

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4. This enrollment is strictly voluntary. Students who wish to return to academic                    programs at a later time will be accommodated.  Students enrolled in the CAREER          PATHWAY TO SUCCESS shall participate full- time in education and training                  leading to career certification and industry certification.

  1. These students shall not participate in federal or state-wide achievement testing.
  2. Successful completion of career education will result in a standard career education high school diploma (not special diploma).
  3. These students shall learn citizenship within their career modules utilizing teacher-guided video lectures and hands-on experience, including basic personal finance, money management, US history, and work-place attitudes and behaviors. A passing grade from their instructor-teacher is needed to satisfy these requirements.
  4. Upon program completion, regardless of age, students will have the option to attend l career training at a public school vocational training center, a career program at a community college, or a county career college.
  5. School districts shall submit financial requests and have 4 years to re-allocate resources to fully implement THE CAREER PATHWAY TO SUCCESS program.

If you agree with the thrust of this legislation, please cut and paste this document and send it to your school board and state and federal representatives.


I read an article recently in a London Newspaper that reviewed a TV program titled “The Secret Life of Five Year Olds.”  I am writing this article as a precautionary measure because some of what we read in today’s newspapers reflects an entertaining but superficial view of child development.  In this particular article, the headline focuses on gender differences and at what age they are “fixed.” The teaser is that adult behavior in the boardroom really begins in nursery school.

Furthermore, the writer asserts that gender options should remain open for every child because biological differences between males and females are “modest.” The picture accompanying the story shows a little girl applying bright red lipstick to the lips of a five-year-old boy, who is wearing fluffy, feminine clothing. The picture is cute, no doubt, but is it necessary, and where is all of this going? The article’s final paragraph states:  “It’s the old adage. You can’t be what you can’t see.  Luckily, thanks to this compelling TV program, what our five-year-olds are seeing has become all too painfully clear.” Anna Maxted, Family and Features, The Daily Telegraph, Feb. 2, 2017.

So is there something painful about what these kids are seeing?  Somehow, I missed that, unless they mean boys acting like boys and girls acting like girls (Careful, we mustn’t let stereotypes rule us!).

What the article really reveals is that gender differences at age five are pretty much what parents have always experienced in the majority of their kids. As with any generalization, there are always exceptions, but the TV show reports the following observations:

•The boys’ football (soccer) team loses a penalty shootout and the captain declares he is changing his team’s name to “suckers” and then begins to sulk and blame his mates.

•When left to their own devices, boys the trash the studio while the girls are more competent and compliant. Extra tasks need to be added to keep the girls busy.

•Boys are also blunt in their opinions and referred to a drink made by their teacher as disgusting, while the girls tactfully indicate it is good but admit they don’t like certain flavors.

•And what about so-called “gender fluidity?” When these five-year-old TV “actors” are asked to cross-dress, the boys are horrified. This is what the professionals interviewed for the article call “gender boundary maintenance.” Most parents have other, less fancy names for this.

The writer of this article finally seeks professional input. In response, a psychologist states that our personalities are not fixed but are rather like plastic (referring here to the brain, I think), and it takes until the mid-20s to really complete maturity (of the brain).

So, does boardroom behavior really begin in nursery school?  I think the answer is no.  Boardroom behavior begins at conception, with powerful genetic influences, and is affected strongly, even in the first 12 months of life, as pointed out in neuropsychological research from the University of South Florida, reported in an earlier paper.  After that, future behavior is influenced all through early life, with solidification in the early 20s, but plenty of opportunities for changes in behavior, even after that

What’s the point of trying to show that gender differences are modest when they really aren’t?  Unfortunately, what isn’t raised in this article is what we might lose if we do not have a firm gender identity. Is it good not to feel comfortable with one’s own identity?  What about a father as a role model for his son, or a daughter accepting her mother as a role model?  And, truth be told, genders differ in so many ways that it would require an encyclopedic listing to cover even a small percentage of those differences.

Why then do we see continuing journalistic efforts to soften gender differences?  Is this a response to the highly publicized but tiny percentage of people who express trans-gender feelings? Or does the attempt to show that boys and girls are the same go much deeper and reflect a longing to know where we came from, how our personalities develop, and where we are headed as humans?

Before we go too far, we had better question the ethics of exposing a general population of children to this type of exploratory research on gender identity. I think most research granting agencies would have concern about enticing kids to forego their biological sex-role predisposition in order to study what happens in their lives over the following 25 years. What are the unknown and negative effects of experimenting with kids’ sexual identity?

One of the basic problems with this push for answers is that psychological research can go only so far in solving the question of who we are and how we got here. As with any science, psychology is better at answering the “whats” and less adept at answering the “whys.”  Since we humans are far too complex to be broken down into small pieces and analyzed like the parts of a computer, perhaps common sense, philosophy, and accumulated wisdom still have a place in offering us a deeper understanding of our role in this world.  And that includes five-year-old boys and girls, bless them.




Can our brain really be at war with itself?  Surprisingly enough, there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this concept.  While both sides of the brain are involved in every decision we make, there is still a significant difference in how the two hemispheres of the brain work, giving rise to wholly distinct takes on the world.

The left side of the brain focuses on detail and control.  It manages verbal ability, language, and written skills. It is also more predictable. The right hemisphere of the brain encompasses intuition, imagination, new experiences, and looking at the big picture. It is inclined to exaggerate and sometimes ignore the facts.

Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist believes that over the past 2500 years there’s been a battle going on in our brain with ever greater reliance on the left side of the brain. He believes that the left hemisphere is so concerned with control and denial that it is “like a sleepwalker, whistling a happy tune as it ambles towards the abyss.”

(Ian McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press, 2009.)

Could a right-brain rebellion save us before we freefall into the void? Was Donald Trump’s election triggered by a right-brain insurgency?  According to Bret Stevens, our country’s economy is now “overregulated,” and this tight control was ignored “by coastal elites because we are mostly in the business of producing and manipulating words –– as politicians, lawyers, bureaucrats, academics, consultants, pundits, etc. These regulations and tight controls are the bane of anyone who produces or delivers things, such as jet engines, burgers, pool supplies, you name it.” Stephens goes on to say that “when those of us in the word-making world use the term “overregulation,” we are mostly putting a name to a concept we rarely experience consciously.” (Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20, 2016.)

Is this left brain – right brain idea just pop psychology or is there something to it?  Maybe the election polls will help us.  Clinton received votes from women, college graduates, and of course the media.  Not all women are left-brained, of course, but they are verbal and make up the majority of college students.  They lead boys in language skills by a full two years at age thirteen.

Another bit of support comes from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The basic and most important needs of right brainers and career education grads are security and livelihood. This is all the more true for the 70% of Americans who have not graduated from college. On the other hand, college graduates, wordsmiths and academics are concerned with much more esoteric needs higher up the hierarchy, such as self-actualization.  Maybe this is why, when they fly from New York to Los Angeles, they don’t look down and notice all those folks in the Midwest who produce and deliver things –– rather than talking or writing about things –– people who are concerned about jobs and crime in the streets

If there was going to be a left-brain, right-brain civil war, who would be appointed to the post of Commander-In-Chief?  A right brainer who lacked verbal pretensions and told it like it was?  Someone who looked directly at the big picture and didn’t try to dance around things?  Someone like World War II General Anthony McAuliffe who responded to a German general’s request to surrender, at the Battle of the Bulge, with one rather rude word: “nuts.”

Someone who shows expression and personality?  An entertainer?  I believe Jeb Bush might have won the presidency if he had taken off his professorial glasses and asserted himself with personality and vigor.  It may be unfortunate, and even dangerous, but since the days of the Nixon-Kennedy debates politicians do well on T.V. if the camera likes them –– and only if the camera likes them.

Needless to say, getting the camera to like you requires experience in front of a camera.  This experience is something that newly minted General Trump shares with Ronald Reagan, another right brainer and entertainer, who was also a person of ridicule to those who spent their time writing, attending seminars, and mixing with other elites in order to share abstract and even poetic thoughts about public policy and self-actualization.

So General Trump was awarded his 5 stars by the ground-pounders in the trenches rather than the media and the Ivy League professors.  And why did they select him?  Because he promised to respond to their needs, the needs at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy.  He promised to support the police and attack terrorists in order to provide security.  He promised to loosen up regulations and make life easier and more profitable for those who were in the business of delivering things.

monk cover and civil war 156And they believed him. Should they have? Right brainers easily grasp the big picture and rely on intuition, without the modifying and balancing effects of details and controls.  This can lead to a wondrous but rocky ride –– or a crash landing.  If you wanted a right brainer, you got him. Now buckle up and hold on to your hats!



Students in the lowest socio-economic class do poorly in school and the labor market.  How difficult is it to help youngsters or their families move to higher levels? Despite the inspiring scenario in the Broadway play, “My Fair Lady,” it’s takes more than diction lessons to move up.

Is it even possible? Anything is possible, but let’s take Keiko. He was born into a very poor, single-parent family and the initial obstacle he faces is in the first 12 months of his life. Unknown to him, this is a time when his brain will experience more changes than at any other time in his life span. If he suffers physical or emotional abuse, his brain will not develop properly.

Neuropsychologists at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, report that just having a mother suddenly change her facial expression from one of love and sympathy to a frowning scowl sends the infant brain into spasms that can be measured on an MRI. If Keiko’s mother doesn’t have the time or capacity to give him a fairly reliable, consistent, and nurturing emotional environment, he is already headed for big trouble when it comes to academics and self-control. And additional help in prekindergarten or a Head Start program comes much too late to really make a long-term difference.

Keiko also needs help with self-control. This often requires a family with both parents in the home. It takes a coordinated effort to establish routines and teach frustration tolerance. Kids who don’t develop self-control at an early age have difficulties with both academics and behavior as adults. Having an absentee father lurking about doesn’t help matters, either.

His next obstacle is his school. Since the best public school teachers, equipment, and materials are found in wealthy neighborhoods, it’s highly probable that Keiko’s school is inferior. There are other educational options, but his single-parent mother may not have the time or resources to provide them. Public school systems have magnet schools, fundamental schools, charter schools, and other options, but getting into these exceptional programs is sometimes daunting.

They require navigation through a rather complex application system in order to enter early lotteries. In one of these elementary schools in a Florida county, only 60 out of 550 applicants were accepted. In a middle school, 60 students were accepted from a pool of 168 applications. Many of these schools, including voucher schools, require private transportation, which is not available to Keiko’s mom.

Another obstacle is the neighborhood itself. Keiko not only lives in a poor neighborhood, but the high percentage of kids in his peer group who are also experiencing physical, nutritional, and emotional handicaps increase his problems. The kids whose parents have the resources, gumption, or fortitude to get them enrolled in better schools and other city services tend to be creamed off, leaving a residue of frustrated kids in Keiko’s peer group. Drugs are easily available on the street.

Even if his school is average and classroom behavior is mostly under control, Keiko will suffer because many teacher assignments today require computers and online access. Keiko has to search his neighborhood to find a Wi-Fi connection. Also, “flipped classrooms” where students are exposed to basic courses at home through the utilization of videos and online work in order to leave more time in the classroom for special projects, won’t help. He doesn’t have digital access and his mother doesn’t have the time or energy to help him. She works part-time and must care for his two siblings.

At this point, Keiko doesn’t demonstrate the type of mental ability or motivation needed for advanced academic work, but well-meaning politicians and intellectuals insist that all kids are the same and all should be capable of a Harvard education. Anyone opposing this stance is labeled a bigot and a racist. This is nonsense, of course, but Keiko is caught in this trap. He would prefer some career education, beginning in middle school, and eventual access to the job market, but instead is assaulted with abstract academic courses and mandated state achievement tests. All of this lowers his self-esteem and is emotionally damaging.

Anything else? Unfortunately, this is a depressing picture and there are no easy fixes.  Occasionally, a child survives this wretched beginning and emerges to do exceptionally well in academics or business. We all hear about people from poor backgrounds who have made it, but this was before we systematically creamed off the “best” kids to other schools. These exceptional cases are the result of intact families or stability and support coming from loving grandparents and/or other family members.

What’s to be done? It would help significantly if other parent figures could offer consistency during the first 12 months of life.  This could include grandparents, volunteers, and even that “lurking” biological father. Other volunteers could provide transportation and know-how to get children like Keiko into better school environments such as magnets and voucher schools. They could also serve as role models. School- sponsored tutoring usually helps.

Unless he is a high achiever and really wants an entirely academic school program, Keiko should have exposure to a variety of modern and advanced career programs. This is the path to a decent job and career, but if he still retains a discernable dialect, poor posture and appearance it makes employment difficult. “Dress for success” is not just a cute slogan. If Keiko finds a way forward, it’s likely that his children will move up and enjoy the benefits that come with a higher socioeconomic environment

Vietnam Oceania 127All of this is discouraging, but as long as well-meaning school reformers and members of the upper class pick up all the marbles for their college-bound kids, it won’t change.



In a recent Wall Street Journal article, columnist Peggy Noonan suggested that elites are distancing and detaching themselves from those at the bottom of society. What she calls a historic decoupling between the top and bottom and a disregard for the overall good of society. It’s what Noonan calls “forsaking our countrymen.” Noonan is writing about income and poverty levels, but I wonder if this is happening in education?

Noonan uses German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral decision to take in over a million Muslim refugees as an example of the pursuit of high ideals, but with little concern for the burden of social and cultural change experienced by people who live closer to the edge. Merkel’s decision, of course, isn’t a burden to those on the top.

Vietnam Oceania 127In one county in Florida that prides itself on innovative programs and a strong and dynamic core of administrators, a newspaper exposé showed that achievement in 6 to 8 schools in poverty areas was not only significantly below schools serving middle and upper middle-class families, but test scores were lower than comparable schools in other counties. Is this an example of Noonan’s hypothesis that the elite have less empathy for those on the bottom?

I don’t think so. In order to compete with private schools, voucher-driven schools, charter schools, and other competitors, the school district established high quality magnet schools, which inadvertently tend to cream off middle and upper middle- class families. Those without awareness of these programs or access to transportation, or an inability to jump through the hoops to qualify for a magnet, voucher, charter, or private school, were stranded in their neighborhood schools.

So, we have social-class segregation based on circumstance, not a diabolical plot cooked up by the school board or public school administrators. There’s little doubt that more could be done for those at the bottom who are left behind. Better teachers, more tutoring, and, especially career education, would give the vast majority of those left behind the opportunity to feel good about themselves and to eventually become independent citizens.

A closer analogy to Chancellor Merkel’s move was forced integration of our schools. This is a better fit because poor and lower middle-class students were thrust suddenly into middle and upper-middle class schools. While motivated by racial concerns, this actually had more to do with social classes. As with the Syrian refugees, forced integration left it to those on the bottom to struggle to cope with the abrupt cultural shock.

Also similar to Chancellor Merkel, the powerful people who set this in motion could take the moral high ground when there were objections and refer to complainers as narrow-minded and racist. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but there were some positive aspects to the forced integration of schools: at least kids on the bottom were exposed to good teachers, materials, and equipment.

What to do about those left behind? Efforts to surmount social-class barriers have never worked. Government and private research shows that beefed up preschool is not enough, and recent research at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, illustrates the importance of the first 12 months of life. There are more brain changes taking place at that time than at any time in the life span, and the physical and emotional effects of poverty can create long-lasting intellectual and emotional deficits.

Ten or fifteen percent of those left behind, who are capable and motivated for abstract academic work, can continue to take state-mandated achievement tests and study college prep curricula. Parents of other students should decide whether formal standardized testing is necessary, and their children should be given the opportunity to engage in career education. Unfortunately, as with the waves of migrants entering Germany as well as our previous attempt at forced integration, opponents of career education will take the moral and humanitarian high ground and label those who want realistic solutions for students on the bottom as racist.

So, I don’t think education elites are intentionally forsaking lower socio-economic class and working families, but they need a realistic view of those at the bottom and what can help them survive in our society. They must recognize individual differences and not propose solutions based on the concept that all students are the same or have the same academic potential. Sophisticated career education must play a major role if we are not to, in Peggy Noonan’s words, “forsake our countrymen.”






How do we maintain a healthy brain, especially in our later years? Research on neural plasticity continues to show the potential for regeneration in cognitive ability. My advice to friends and colleagues is to begin exercising unused areas of the brain. People with left-brain personalities who enjoy detailed, sequential tasks may benefit from creative, non-verbal endeavors.  Lawyers, bookkeepers, engineers and the like might forego crossword puzzles and take up art or other hobbies that promote right-brain attributes such as spontaneous creativity.

I have no research to support this recommendation, but my understanding of the literature points me in this direction. More recently, commercial products are available and claim to substantially increase memory and mental fitness. So called brain-training groups are becoming popular. The brain-training industry is forecast to grow to $1 billion in the next five years. 1.

What does the research show? One study had one experimental group use online games aimed at improving reasoning and planning. A second group did exercises to boost short-term memory and attention. A control group just browsed the internet.


What happened? Those using the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks they practiced but their performance wasn’t any better than the control group. And none of the groups showed improvement in skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks. So these folks improved in the tasks they practiced, but it didn’t generalize to other areas.

This reminds me of group therapy with adolescents.  Within the group, much improvement is noted in empathy, self-control and communication skills. But when they step outside the therapist’s office, they tend to revert to their former behavior. This doesn’t mean brain-training doesn’t have potential. Some bright and well meaning people are working in this area. Stay tuned.




  1. Naik, Gautam. “Study Finds Limited Benefits.” The Wall Street Journal, 21 Apr 2010.

According to mythology, Marie Antoinette was made aware of starvation among commoners.  Her response to the famine and shortage of bread was “let them eat cake.” It is doubtful that she ever said these words and they are similar to a statement made by Marie-Therese, the wife of Louis XIV some 100 years earlier. These words do suit my purposes nicely, however.


The great truth in this mythological story is that the upper class does not always recognize the needs of lower-class citizens. Could we be repeating this mistake today when it comes to education? Even though here in the United States we pride ourselves on not being class conscious and offering equal opportunity to everyone, the hard, cold, scientific truth is that our efforts at class equality are unrealistic and may be the cause of negative educational outcomes for all social classes. It’s just not possible for everyone to have an equal opportunity for every level of education. Most people jump to the conclusion that what’s holding back advanced academic education is poor teaching and/or inappropriate teaching materials.

These good folks believe that if the system could be changed, much as the French revolution led to gradual economic improvement which eventually headed off starvation, every student could have their fill of cake. But the critical difference is that eating cake is not like learning. Almost anyone can eat cake, but learning requires certain pre-existing capacities and capabilities within each student.

Unlike a healthy diet, many other special ingredients are necessary to allow for academic proficiency. In general, these include two-parent families, nurturing, structure, the development of self-control, stimulation of the brain through parent reading and family discussions, early reading, etc. etc. And learning abstract academics at a high level is probably limited to 25 to 40% of the student population anyway, due to the normal distribution of intellect. I live in a modern, progressive community, yet only 19% of the population have a college bachelor’s degree.

Most students need bread in order to survive, but I’m afraid we are insisting they eat cake, instead. In this analogy, cake equals college. Our present mythology is that all children will attend college and eat the academic cake whether they like it or not. We will force feed them cake even if it makes them sick, and that is exactly what it is doing.

This push for college is based on mythology which rivals that of 18th century France. This belief asserts that all students have a right to college and all students are capable of college. Anyone who does not attend college is left behind, rejected, and somehow discriminated against. How about that apple tart with the cherry on top (Harvard)? Yes, Marie-Therese loves that idea. All of those hungry children enjoying a never ending birthday party right there at Harvard! Goodie, kind of like Alice in Wonderland.

How is it making them sick? The majority of our student population, especially those coming from a deprived background, do not find abstract academic work relevant in any way, shape, or form. But does it actually make them sick? Because they don’t have the skills they could learn through advanced career education, they become economically deprived adults with few salable abilities in the competitive marketplace. They are sick, but it’s more a chronic disease than an acute infection, and unfortunately it lasts a lifetime.

And to make things worse, through the process of creaming (siphoning off), those students who are least likely to want cake are being rounded up in neighborhood schools for forced-feeding. Parents who have the knowledge and wherewithal to get their kids into better public and private schools take them out of the neighborhood schools. Critics blame these elite schools for taking the best and brightest students, but it’s actually the parents who do most of the creaming. This is simply because they want the best for their children.

These parents search for good public schools in wealthy neighborhoods, schools that often require transportation (which some poor parents can’t afford), and public magnet and charter schools, as well as private schools. Public schools also cream, both within and between schools. For a partial list of institutional creaming devices, both overt and subtle, please see my book The Elephant in the Classroom.

At the present time, schools are evaluated based on the test scores of their students. In order to keep that all important school grade high, students who desperately need career education are often not referred to career programs because they are retaking that darned algebra test for the third time! So there we have it. These hungry students are sampling cupcakes to prepare them for the kitchens at Harvard.

101_0126Will creaming in our society ever end? No, and it probably shouldn’t. We live in a competitive meritocracy and constantly strive to be the best. For example, many times in our history we have set up selective hurdles for immigrants. Business recruiters go to elite universities because they believe those universities have done much of their work for them by creaming off the best students. Even though I don’t like to be thought of as elitist, when I get on an airplane I want the best pilot to fly my plane. Creaming even extends to children’s play time because parents are careful to arrange playdates that expose their kids to right kinds of friends.

But I think this education thing is different. The concern here is what happens to those who have not been creamed; those who have been truly left behind educationally? Answers to this question are found in some Florida public schools with Wall-to-Wall Academies. Ninth grade students select exciting and sophisticated career options such as aeronautics, where they can earn a pilot’s license. And those students who are turned on by academics have an opportunity to pursue college and eat cake as well as bread, if they wish.

So let them eat bread –– and cake.



Some naive school reformers think all schools can receive high test scores because they believe all  kids have the same academic potential. This just isn’t true. Only 30% or so are capable of advanced academic work. As a result, all schools, public and private, fight over the best students. Kids with the most academic potential are creamed or siphoned off by other schools, or the parents themselves.

Below is a list of ways kids are creamed. I just learned of two additional ways of creaming: Require parents to do volunteer work or ask for extra money for special programs, uniforms, etc. Here is the old list.

  1. A wealthy neighborhood draws higher-achieving students at the expense of schools in moderate and poor income areas. (Parents not residing in a wealthy neighborhood can, and do, give fictitious residency addresses or find courses available in the top schools that are not available in their local school, triggering automatic enrollment).
  2. The opening of courses or schools that require parental vigilance will lead to creaming. An example is magnet schools.
  3. Any programs or schools with waiting lists create a selective population. Examples would include charter schools and fundamental schools.
  4. Programs requiring parent or student private transportation.
  5. Having the best teachers and courses because of insider information.
  6. The use of private tutors.
  7. Having parents who are active in the school, such as room mothers or PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) members.

Overt selection:

  1. Children in AP (advanced placement).
  2. Children in gifted classes.
  3. Children in gifted charter schools (These are public-private schools).
  4. Children in the International Baccalaureate Programs.
  5. Children admitted to college-prep courses based on achievement test scores. (Public school collegiate academies).
  6. Children admitted to collegiate high schools that promise a high school degree and two years of college credits –– all in only four years!