Colleen Smereka – The Ripple Effect

My name is Colleen Smereka. I’m excited to share my story as part of CanLearn’s Celebration of 40 years of changing lives. 22 years ago I participated in the Partners for Learning program at CanLearn. This program had an extraordinary impact on my personal life journey.

When I started the Partners for Learning program my goal was to learn how to read and write better, but I learned so much more. I learned that I am intelligent, and with the right approach I can learn anything; the seed that all future decisions about my life grew out of. CanLearn allowed me to carve out a new life path.

Before CanLearn I wouldn’t try at learning because I didn’t want to look stupid. My inability to trust in my own ways of learning was holding me back in all areas of my life. Because I don’t learn like other people, I struggled to gain the confidence to embrace how I learn. In the program I was surrounded by people who were able to clearly explain how my brain worked. They helped me believe in my ability to learn. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could trust the people who were supporting my learning process. Everything I am today started because of the trust that was built between me and the people I met and the hope they gave me. In the program I found my voice and my confidence.

When I first started at the Partners for Learning program I had a dream to graduate from university, but I never thought it would be possible. After attending the program I had new found hope. I completed two degrees, a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Francis Xavier University and a Bachelor of Education degree from St. Mary’s University. Over time I learned to use my voice to express what I needed to achieve personal success. I also used this voice to help advocate for others with similar learning challenges and I have been working in this area ever since.

Last year I helped to set up a new college in the United States. It was amazing to bring the voice of disability to a college from the outset. My journey has led me to understand that there is something unique and valuable within me that only I can share with the world and I have the confidence and the voice to share it. The insight that I provide can change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people like CanLearn changed mine.

My life is proof that you can change a life through learning. Thank you will never be enough for what you have given me; the gift of learning is the greatest gift of all.

Thoughts about Adult Reading Difficulties

Too many adults in Canada struggle with reading skills. Adult literacy programs can change their lives. Adult literacy matters.

I have a car that I drive only occasionally. For some reason, I find driving difficult, frustrating and anxiety-provoking. I am not sure why – perhaps it has something to do that I was learning to drive when I first moved to Calgary and was going through the resettlement process. Anyway, I avoid driving whenever I can. I am quite happy to walk or use transit to get around. I am fortunate to have people in my life who are happy to give me a ride when I ask them.

I used to have a job that involved a lot of driving around the city. More driving did not help me improve my driving skills and confidence. I feel no embarrassment in admitting I avoid driving; I even joke about it.

I sometimes try to look at my driving issue through the lenses of adults with reading and writing difficulties, and I realize that avoiding driving is not the same at all as avoiding reading or not being able to read.

Struggles with reading come at a high cost. Unemployment, poverty, social isolation, poor physical and mental health and many forms of social maladjustment are unmistakably related to literacy challenges.

Reading difficulties also take an emotional toll. Reading researcher Steven Dyckstra coined the term “shame fatigue” to describe a host of negative emotions experienced by struggling readers:

  • Frustration, anger, anxiety and sadness
  • Learned helplessness and fixed mindset – struggling readers often believe they can’t learn so they have no interest in learning
  • Low self-esteem and self-defeating ways to deal with challenges, like quitting, avoidance and denial.

The research backing this up has been available for a long time; long enough to be doing better than we are.

17% of Canadian adults struggle with reading at the word recognition (decoding) level. Another 32% can read but lack the proficiency of a skilled reader necessary to succeed in the modern knowledge-based economy.
There is much talk about 21-century skills, the need for innovation and jobs that haven’t been invented yet. There is no doubt that these are essential and valuable conversations that will impact our future. However, for the future to be prosperous and bright we need to figure out what can be done to help the many people who can’t read or write.

What stands in the way of teaching literacy is not a lack of knowledge –the science of reading is well understood. I believe that what we need to do is put this research in practice so that we can:

  • Design effective programs that provide both explicit, evidence-based reading instruction and opportunities for struggling adult readers to re-frame negative learning identities
  • Keep in mind that various programs designed to help adults with employment, parenting, upgrading, GED preparation, etc. are very likely to fall flat for those with limited reading skills
  • Remember that when adult reading skills improve, everything changes for their children.

To avoid reading or not to be able to read is not the same as avoiding driving!

I will probably continue to avoid driving and count on my friends to give me rides. A completely different approach is needed to help adults overcome their reading difficulties.

By: Nada Jerkovic

Brain Child Podcast: Maternal Mental Health and Social Support

Welcome to Brain Child! In this episode, Krista Forand, registered psychologist, interviews researcher Dr. Nicole Racine about her research related to parenting, maternal mental health and social support.

Relevant links:

Owerko Centre:
Health Parents, Healthy Children:
Parent Link Centres:
Families Matter:

Brain Child Podcast: Parenting Research with Dr Nicole Letourneau

Welcome to the first episode of Brain Child! In this episode, Krista Forand, registered psychologist, interviews researcher Dr Nicole Letourneau about what she has learned over the years through her research about parenting.

Listen to this podcast on SoundCloud. (Website)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes. (Website)

Relevant links:


Owerko Centre:

Dt. Letourneau’s research:

Uninventing the modern family: Nicole Letourneau at TEDxWhitehorse:

Dr Nicole Letourneau: PART 1: The 3 core concepts of development:

Dr Nicole Letourneau: PART 2: Early experience influences brain development:

Dr Nicole Letourneau: PART 3: Serve and return interactions are the basis of attachment:

Dr Nicole Letourneau: PART 4: Insecure attachment:

Dr Nicole Letourneau: PART 5: Keys to caregiving:


What Kind of Parent Am I? Self-Surveys That Reveal the Impact of Toxic Stress and More, by Dr Nicole Letourneau (2018)

Scientific Parenting: What Science Reveals About Parental Influence, by Dr Nicole Letourneau (2013)

Adult Learning in Family Literacy Programs

I am often asked how family literacy got started.

What’s the story behind it?

Family literacy is woven into the fabric of family life itself. It’s based on a very simple assumption of intergenerational learning. Intergenerational learning practices are found in all cultures throughout the world as well as across all levels of income and education. These practices are not special events; they are embedded in everyday interactions among family members. In the broadest sense, they are about noticing, talking about and exploring the things that children and adults wonder about and experience in their everyday lives.

This is what the researcher Denny Taylor had in mind when she coined the term “family literacy” after conducting a study to describe the rich and diverse uses of literacy within homes and communities.

Those of us designing and teaching family literacy programs should always keep this basic assumption in mind.

Parents take family literacy programs both for the benefit of their children and themselves. The benefits of family literacy programs for children are well documented. Now the field of family literacy is turning its attention to the possible benefits for adults, parents, grandparents and other extended family members.

Learning in family literacy programs is easy to recognize in children – like, say, learning the alphabet while enjoying a picture book – but what does it look like in adults? Here are my thoughts.

Parents and other grown-ups responsible for children’s well-being are adult learners. They have big dreams for their children, for themselves and their families. Like all adult learners, they learn from their life’s situations and events. They learn from problems resolved and goals achieved, but also from mistakes or ordeals.

Adult learning in family literacy programs involves a diverse range of skills ranging from traditional literacy skills of reading and writing, essential skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking to “soft” skills such as confidence, curiosity, and motivation for learning.

“To learn, people need to think about and name what they already know and do within the context of what their peers do and know.” Vygotsky, one of the most influential learning theorists, described this process as the social construction of knowledge. To participate in the social construction of knowledge, adults need to talk, play, work and learn together. In family literacy programs, parents learn by interacting with their children, by listening to other parents’ stories, but telling their own, by trying new behaviours and paying attention to what happens and by experiencing the sort of learning that can be created within their own families.

So, what can adults learn in a family literacy program? I believe that the possibilities are endless:

  • Parenting and learning go hand in hand. People learn parenting skills in many ways: from their own parents, from observing others, from books, articles, books, media, experts and parenting programs. It doesn’t matter how parents learn. What matters is that they engage in continuous learning. Family literacy programs are one of the pathways parents may decide to take to enhance their parenting skills. This is a unique pathway because family literacy programs go beyond telling parents what to do and why. They have a parent child interactive element which can be viewed as an additional “on-the-job coaching” approach to learning. A simple way to explain this is to through a sports coaching analogy. The job of a sports coach involves teaching the rules of the game, providing diverse and multiple opportunities for players to practice their skills and providing feedback that encourages them to reflect on the game, stay motivated and not to give up. Parent-child activities in a family literacy program are based on the similar approach.
  • Reading is the key to all learning in adulthood. Children move from learning to read in their early childhood years to reading to learn in middle childhood years. In adult years, people who read well and who read every day are able to develop new knowledge and skills that allow them to be confident, adaptable, employable and engaged in their world. Reading parenting books /articles and critically thinking about the parenting information available on the internet are perfect opportunities for adults to engage in reading practices that help us think well, speak clearly, problem-solve, make decisions, use digital tools, regulate emotional well-being, etc. One easy way to help parents engage in deep reading is to introduce them to children’s books which tackle parenting dilemmas, highlight characteristics of typical child development and promote love of learning, persistence, empathy, learning from mistakes and other key growth mind ideas.
  • Writing helps adults find their voice and develop self-awareness. Many adults, even if they have achieved literacy, don’t acquire depth of understanding of writing is for, for themselves. It is just something they had to do at school. (For many of us, learning math has been a similar experience – we have mastered the basics, but we don’t really get it.) In a family literacy program, adults can play with writing, to make it their own, in hopes that they will do the same for their children. At the end of this blog you can find and download the journal used in CanLearn family literacy programs to encourage parents to articulate their thoughts and develop self-awareness through writing.
  • Emotions are important part of learning. The confidence or anxiety we hold towards learning can greatly influence if and how we engage in learning, what we learn and how we apply the knowledge and skills we learn in our everyday life. Too often, adults are hesitant to learn a new skill or pursue further education because they think they are not good at learning. They are afraid of speaking up because they are afraid of being wrong, they feel that their opinions don’t mater or that their prior experiences are not valid. In the hands of life circumstances, some adults forget to think positively. In a family literacy program, adults can start noticing, observing and reflecting on behaviour and emotions of children that have a positive impact on them. With the guidance of a family literacy facilitator, they may notice that young children tend to believe that they can be anything they want to be, that they will draw or paint even if the results are just squiggles and they will sing even if no one can understand the words. No matter how small the thing they achieve is, they will be proud of it and share it with people they trust. These are all important characteristics of growth-mindset which is the key to lifelong learning.

Are family literacy programs at their best when they make sure to identify clear adult learning goals and incorporate deliberate strategies to facilitate adult learning?

I believe they are. What is your opinion? Share with us on Facebook.

Written by: Nada Jerkovic


Download Our Family Journal. (PDF)

Podcast: Special Interview Episode with Dr. Gerry Giesbrecht

In this episode, psychologist Krista Forand, interviews researcher Dr Gerry Giesbrecht, from the Owerko Centre (Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute) in Calgary, Alberta. Dr Giesbrecht discusses his research, which focuses on how supportive spouses can have a positive influence on infants’ stress responses.

In celebration of Father’s Day this week, Dr Giesbrecht’s research reminds us that fathers (and other partners) play a crucial role in the development of healthy stress responses in children (among other areas of development).

Listen to the podcast now.

Web resources provided in the podcast:

The Impact of Early Adversity on Children’s Development (Website)

Residual Effects of Early Life Stress (Website)

The Owerko Centre (Website)

Strengths in ADHD (Website)

Stay tuned for more interviews from local researchers about ADHD related topics!

ADHD and Preschoolers – Child-sized Bundles of Energy

Close your eyes and imagine.

You’re at a park. You’re surrounded by children, and their screams and giggles are filling your ears. To your left, there is a boy jumping off some playground equipment. To your right, there’s a herd of children hollering as they chase after and tackle one another. In front of you, a girl is hanging upside down, even though she probably shouldn’t be. You are surrounded by child-sized bundles of energy and, well, chaos.

If I told you that these kids were in late-elementary school or early-junior high, you’d probably suspect that they had ADHD. After all, when people think of children with ADHD, they tend to picture a child who is full of energy, absolutely cannot stop moving, and is all over the place. Perhaps, they are even in to everything. And they probably don’t like the word ‘no’ (although, most kids don’t).

But what if I told you that you’d just walked in on a preschool class at recess? Some people might argue that it had to be a class full of kids with ADHD, while others would say the scene is absolutely normal. So, which is it?

This is the challenge. Can you diagnose ADHD in preschoolers? Should you be diagnosing it? And, what do you do for preschoolers with ADHD?

Simply put, yes, you can diagnose ADHD in preschoolers. The most recent diagnostic guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics have indicated that any child between 4-18 years old should be assessed if there are behavioural concerns. This assessment should be used to determine whether these concerns are part of normal child development or if they could be associated with a medical condition, like ADHD.

This is where the challenge comes in, and why professionals are needed to make the diagnosis of ADHD. What is normal child development and behaviour?

As it turns out, preschoolers are supposed to be into everything. That’s part of normal development. Does ‘the terrible 2’s’ sound familiar?

The typical preschooler is inattentive, impulsive, and has high energy levels – all of which are diagnostic criteria for ADHD. But all preschoolers do NOT have ADHD. Preschool-aged children are only just beginning to develop the capacity to sustain attention and inhibit impulses.

The typical preschooler does not like the word ‘no’. In fact, resistance to following directions and rules is normal. While some people might believe it has to do with difficulty listening and following instructions – both associated with ADHD – it’s actually part of normal development. The preschool-age is when children first start to experience a desire for more independence, along with developing a sense of self-awareness, and beginning to engage in more goal directed behaviour.

In summary, the mere presence of inattention and hyperactivity does NOT equal a diagnosis of ADHD in preschoolers.

So, if there are concerns about a preschooler’s behaviour, professionals usually look at the extent to which the child is into everything. In other words, whether or not their behaviour can be considered outside of typical development. But remember, development and growth is a spectrum, and it’s normal for some children to develop – and thus outgrow the typical preschooler impulsivity and hyperactivity – quicker than other children.

Typically, when evaluating a preschooler for ADHD, a pattern is noticed.

Because preschoolers aren’t usually placed in situations were high-levels of attention is required, most of the symptoms they present with have to do with hyperactivity and impulsivity. And, because of the degree to which they are experiencing hyperactivity and impulsivity, studies have found higher rates of reported accidents, unintentional injuries and visits to the emergency department. Some examples of the behaviours that have been reported and documented are:

  • Falling off furniture after excessive climbing.
  • Leaning, falling, or jumping out of windows.
  • Running into traffic-filled streets.
  • Turning on stoves and reaching across burners.
  • Unbuckling restraints and standing up in cars and strollers.

However, it’s not just risky behaviour that could result in broken bones, concussions and physical injuries. Studies have also found that preschoolers with ADHD are more likely to be suspended or expelled from preschool. This, in turn, forces parents to find alternative means of childcare, or take time off work to look after their child themselves. There have even been reports of parents losing their jobs because of how many times they’ve had to go to the school to deal with their child’s inappropriate behaviour or take time off work to care for their child after they had been suspended/expelled.

This is why it is so important to properly diagnosis ADHD in preschoolers. One, if identified, the ADHD and its symptoms can be managed. This means that preschool issues, ER visits, injuries and even parental job issues all decrease. Two, studies among people with ADHD have shown that the earlier the condition is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome. And, as it turns out, ADHD in preschoolers is quite stable, with >60% of children still meeting diagnostic criteria at age 7.

Now, as every pediatrician will tell you, kids aren’t just mini adults. Because of all of the growth and development preschoolers are going through, they don’t respond to medical treatments the same way that older children and adults do. This means that their ADHD treatment has to be customized to them.

For a long time, people were hesitant about prescribing preschoolers with medication because of the potential side effects. And this is understandable – because children are still growing and developing, they tend to be more sensitive to medications and their side effects. Plus, we have yet to discover a drug that doesn’t have any side effects. Consequently, there were few studies looking into the use of ADHD medication in preschoolers. Today, there still isn’t a lot of data, but we do have one high-quality study which has become the foundation for our most recent guidelines about ADHD in preschoolers.

Here’s what’s been found.

Stimulant medication is effective among preschoolers. However, the impact on ADHD symptoms is not as large as that seen in school-aged children. And, preschool children tend to experience more side effects when taking stimulant medication. Some of the reported side effects included:

  • Decreased appetite.
  • Decreased growth (seen in both a decrease rate of weight gain and a decreased height).
  • Increased difficulties falling asleep.
  • Increased mood swings.

In fact, as the study reported, these side effects were so severe that 11% of the children had to stop taking the medication.

Additionally, we don’t currently have any long-term (years to decades in the future) data on the side effects of using stimulant medication in preschoolers.

Because of all of this, parent behaviour therapy has been proposed as an alternative to stimulant medication, and is actually considered first-line in the preschool population.

Parent behaviour therapy helps parents learn the skills necessary for having a child with ADHD or attention problems. Its focus is on promoting positive parent-child interactions, strategies for setting age-appropriate limits and expectations, and managing negative behaviours. And, it’s been shown to be very effective. As was reported, after undergoing 10 weeks of parent behaviour therapy, 7.2% of study participants had improved to the point that they were no longer eligible for medical treatment of their ADHD. Additionally, 6.9% of study participants met criteria for stimulant use, but the parents declined medication based on how much their child’s symptoms had improved with only parent behaviour therapy. And, when medication was necessary, combining it with parent behaviour therapy allowed for lower doses of stimulants to be used.

So, what are some of the key points and recommendations to take away from this?

  1. Be patient – both with your child and yourself. Raising kids is hard. Period. Having a child with ADHD, especially a preschooler who is naturally supposed to be hyperactive and impulsive, brings with it an extra set of challenges.
  2. Get help if you have concerns. Just because hyperactivity and impulsivity are normal parts of development, doesn’t mean that what you and your child are experiencing is normal. If you have concerns, speak with your child’s doctor. In this case, it’s better to be overly cautious, go to the doctor and find out if your child’s behaviour is developmentally normal, as opposed to ignoring your concerns and delaying your child getting diagnosed and appropriately treated.
  3. Give parent behaviour therapy a try. Just because parent behaviour therapy has been recommended does NOT mean that you are a bad parent. Parent behaviour therapy is not training parents to be better parents, but helping them learn to work with the special needs of their child. If you need to, think of it this way. Preschoolers are too young to attend a behaviour therapy course and learn anything. But, mom and dad can. And (most of the time) children look up to their parents and listen to them. Think ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ As an added bonus, even if your preschooler’s hyperactivity and impulsivity doesn’t meet criteria for ADHD, it’s been suggested that parent behaviour therapy can still help in managing these traits.
  4. Remember, you and your child aren’t alone. Having a preschooler diagnosed with ADHD can be intimidating and scary. Especially when you consider that ADHD tends to be a chronic condition. But, you and your child aren’t alone. The medical professionals who work with you and your child are not just there to provide medication refills – they are your support team. Their goal is to help you and your child in whatever way they can, so that your journey with ADHD is as smooth as possible. There’s no such thing as a dumb question. Just ask, and they will be more than happy to help.

Want to know more? There is a podcast for that!

Listen to the podcast now.

You can also subscribe to Inside ADHD on iTunes.

Amanda Marchak, BSc Materials Engineering, MD Candidate (Class of 2019)
Amanda Marchak completed a Bachelors of Science in Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta, with a special interest in biomedical applications. After realizing that her interests were more clinical-based as opposed to research-based, she began pursuing a medical degree at the University of Calgary. Amanda is set to graduate in 2019, and hopes to pursue a career in pediatrics. As a volunteer at the the CanLearn Society in Calgary, Alberta, she works in collaboration with a team of psychologists and physicians to help provide information to individuals, and their families, about ADHD and Learning Disabilities.