Farewell to uniforms – I miss you!

I feel the panic slowly growing inside me: what will the kids wear to school tomorrow? Despite my initial shock over the prices of uniforms to be worn at school in Australia, I have deeply appreciated the concept of uniforms as such. Separate dress codes for summer and winter and clear rules, such as long hair tied together and “no hat – no play”, made life in the mornings easy. I now dread the murderous discussions on my “19th century ideas” on clothing versus what is cool.


Although uniforms made life easy I did think it was a bit of an overkill when our son forgot his sun protection hat and was not allowed on the yard on a cold and cloudy Melbourne day because of the no hat-no play rule. Or when Fanni was threatened with detention for wearing white socks with flowers rather than just white socks. But the bottom line is that everyone knew the rules, children and adults alike, end of story.

And it’s not only me as a parent who thought uniforms were a blessing. Our youngest said it was great because it showed everyone which school you went to. Our younger daughter in grade five said it was great because the uniforms were made for wear and tear and you could climb and do sports in them. Also, she said it felt safe that it would be hard for anyone to just walk away with a kid wearing a uniform from the school grounds.

The most interesting is that our teenage daughter, with her age-appropriate focus on looks and fashion, also felt it was a relief not to have to make those difficult decisions about outfit every single morning. For, as one of the girls I saw at a child psychiatry unit in Sweden put it: “School is like a bloody catwalk! Everyone constantly judges you.” Fanni says the girls at school could still express their individuality in how they wore their uniforms.

I think rules of appearance in schools are good. I don’t necessarily mean uniforms, but some sort of dress- as well as behavioural codes. They help keep the focus on what’s important. Or have we lost sight of what is important? Wasn’t it something to do with ensuring future possibilities?

One of the greatest problems of the Swedish schools today is their inability to prepare young people for the needs of the labour market. The so-called Beveridge curve shows that despite an increase in job availability, levels of unemployment have stayed the same in Sweden. Young people are either under-qualified for the jobs, lacking a high school degree altogether, or over-qualified after university degrees in subjects no one cares to value. The resulting unemployment has negative effects on the health of young Swedes.

So what can schools do to qualify people for jobs? Clearly, reading comprehension, using mathematical and logical thinking, and knowledge about democracy, nature, and the body are essential to be able to participate in society and the labour market. But I also think some basic rules of conduct should be taught.

As an employer, I have to say that coming on time, delivering work on deadline, clean and proper appearance, and polite behaviour are a minimum to get and keep a job. I don’t want my employees wearing a one-piece at work or fidgeting with their mobiles at meetings. At the café I expect the personnel to be polite and it would be great if the guy at the retail shop could use more normal words than “like” when explaining a product’s utility.

Call me traditional. Call me snobby. Call me ignorant of class. Or call me a presumptive employee and educate the kids at school so I can give them summer jobs. So they can build their CVs. So they can get other jobs and build their future. So we can be a society where we all contribute so we can afford paying for those who can’t. The way we are playing it now is missing opportunities for contribution.

The children and I have now decided to designate a set of clothes as “school clothes”. Rules include no tank tops, bare stomach, exposed underpants, or one-piece for school, only discrete make-up, and hair combed. I now have high hopes for Monday morning. Maybe we can discuss something of actual importance?

Love it, love it not

In the process of wrapping up our time here in Melbourne, I have prepared a list of what I especially like about Australia and hence will miss, as well as an opposing list. So on our last day, here it comes.

I will not miss
The crazy Aussie traffic. It’s not only that people drive on the wrong side of the road – it’s the way they drive. There is no sense of pacing the traffic or letting others cross even if the lights are red. Nothing is left of the laid-back and friendly Aussies behind their steering wheels. And the bikers are just mad.

A political climate oblivious to social determinants. In a country led by politicians who all have gone to private schools there is no sense of the huge socioeconomic differences that exist. Life is not fair and our early experiences differ based on the circumstances that our mothers had when they were pregnant, if our family experienced the stresses of poverty, and how our parents managed us during the first formative years of our lives. If the government is not willing to do anything about structural inequities, there is not going to be anything like the “lucky country” Australia once believed itself to be. And the detention centres are a disgrace to this “young and free” nation!IMG_0618

Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Canberra 2013

The two hours it takes me to get to and from work. In cosy Uppsala it takes me 7 minutes to bike to work unless it is snowy or icy (which it is 5 months of the year), when it takes me 12 minutes. The other way is uphill and takes 10 and 15 minutes, respectively, and I resent that prolongation every season. In Melbourne it takes me those 7 minutes to bike to the metro train I take to work. A useful perspective!

I will miss
My walks on the beach – literally and symbolically. It has been an absolute luxury to have so much time to think and write. The walks on the beach (with my Nordic sticks) have been my greatest source of inspiration and companion on creating the blogs, but also for crunching ideas on papers or problems presented to me. During this sabbatical I have worked on 15 papers because I had the time and space to do what is so central to our work as researchers, but what we always lack the time to pursue to this extent.

The beautiful and new Royal Children’s Hospital that has made me feel proud to be a part of the Melbourne Children’s campus every time I entered the building. The space you work in is indeed important. Recently we wrote a paper on how child health centres are systematically more inclusive to mothers’ than fathers’ needs in their physical environments. The Melbourne Children’s is inclusive, inspiring, and creates a sense of hope and agency.


Photo: Alisha Gulenc

The school’s ability to attend to children’s individual needs. When the principal told me that I didn’t need to worry because they will know what my son needs to learn optimally, I thought it cheap school propaganda as well as a way to get me out of the office. Two weeks later the teacher pulled us aside and said with some astonishment that Joel is reading in English above his grade level, but that he needs to develop his fine motor skills. From four words and forty tears per hour he is now a confident writer above grade level.

The lifestyle where socialising and sports are integral to everyday life. To kick a ball in the park or play cricket on the beach is what people do when they “catch up”. My absolute lack of ability to manage any kind of ball is clearly a drawback, but as long as you are willing to make an effort and are “into sports”, whatever that means, you are excused. The kids of course quickly picked up “footy”, netball (basketball without the plank, kind of), as well as cricket.

But what I have enjoyed most was the warm welcoming into the social life of our neighbourhood, the hastily planned dinners, barbeques, and “hanging-outs” with friends. No booking weeks in advance needed. And yes, we do socialise and do sports in Sweden, it’s just that I think we’re too late for anyone’s January diary…

No pain, no gain!

No pain – no gain has been my internal working model as long as I can remember, although I wasn’t always aware of it. If I put my mind to something, I would get it, but it would cost me pain. For all I knew, this was the way of things.

So I was pretty chocked when the therapist at a group session turned to me and said, “Anna, you know that there are other ways than pain to get you where you want to be”. How did she know that this had always been my deepest belief and I never even knew? Clearly a blind spot of mine there!

Okay, so she knew because it was her job and she was good at it. And I was relieved: there is another way! Wow! Life with less pain, here I come!

This was ten years ago. I still don’t think I have figured out any of those other ways. Maybe I have become more tolerant of myself and others. Maybe I don’t throw my whole existence into things – I try to keep my innermost self safe. But I definitely do not “play it cool” and so the no pain, no gain axiom seems to be my companion still.

I don’t know about anyone who has achieved a lot without great effort. And although great effort is not the same as a lot of pain, I imagine that those who have followed their dreams or passions have had to make sacrifices and I believe some of those would have been rather painful.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Victoria market, Melbourne

So I admit: I clearly have a more desperate take on our soon leaving Melbourne than my children. Apparently, they know more about the world than their sulking mother. Our youngest one, 6.5, says he feels two things at the same time which he thinks is a bit strange, but okay: he both wants to stay with his friends and teacher here AND is eager to start as a first-grader in Sweden and play in his room.

The oldest one is even more sophisticated and says she is ambivalent – she has made so many friends here and knows the best bargains in town, but has really missed her best friends from home as well as her music and is looking forward to those things, but not the weather. Not bad from kids when people spend years in dialectic behaviour therapy to accept conflicting feelings as a normal part of life.

Our younger daughter (11) is also beyond her mother in development: she has developed object constancy (most 18-months-olds have) and knows that just because she won’t see her Aussie friends for some time they do not actually disappear. Whereas I behave as if everything that matters here would just be blown away at the bursts of the jet motors soon lifting us up in the air.

So while I sulk I try to tell myself: no pain – no gain, remember? For all the wonderful gains I have had during my sabbatical here, it is now time to cash in the pain.

During my walk today I really did try and consider some other possible ways that allegedly exist. But to no avail. All that happened was that I ended up asking myself: Why did we have to do this in the first place? I hate change! My temperament likes predictability, I am not especially tolerant to the stresses of packing and moving, and I hate the idea of changing seasons to opposites. Especially when it means going to cold and dark from warm and light.

It would be nice to finish on a more hopeful note, but hey, guess what I felt when my group gave me a signed photo of themselves to take with me on my journey when I left Sweden in August? And I really didn’t want to leave and asked myself why on Earth we wanted to do this in the first place…

So I listen to Hey Jude played at the Monserrat concert finale by Paul McCartney himself:

For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder…

I remind myself that “playing it hot” costs and roll with the punch.

Summing up

With the year coming to an end I wonder what all happened. I am a bit wary of odd numbers for no reason at all, so years with odd numbers have always made me wonder if they are going to turn out all right. I have to say that 2013 has definitely turned out to be a good one – so far, there are a couple of hours to go.

For one thing, my grandmother turned 100 the year 2013. She is smart, wise, and still independent. It is stunning that the First World War did not seem to mess up her epigenetic coding although she experienced it when she was only one. Neither did WWII or the holocaust, where she lost friends and colleagues. The revolution in 1956 found her working hard at the hospital as a radiologist, as did the following communist regimes. Now, 24 years after the Wall has fallen, she still discusses politics, takes an interest in her great grandchildren, and delivers spot-on advice on work, family, and love.

We have had our share of births and deaths in my research group as well. Lilly is our second PhD baby and I think there are several more to come. Although sometimes I wonder whether working with children and families actually is conducive to wanting to have children of your own. In research we too often focus on the problems that need solving, such as preventing child behaviour problems as we aim to do in our new trial. Or how problems in the couple relationship in the transition to parenting can be alleviated.

We have also published work about the guilt and shame associated with having a child with bedwetting, which makes me think of the death we have had this year: Eva Österlund Efraimsson, a co-tutor colleague. She fell off the brim of a mountain, on a tour with her husband and one of her sons. All four of her children sang at the funeral that took place on the family grounds in beautiful weather. She was insightful, supportive, and funny, and we miss her.

The sabbatical in Melbourne was the major event of this year. Our children have adopted remarkably well, although they all managed to get into trouble on account of their talking back to teachers or disrespecting rules. They were very surprised when their actions warranted consequences, such as detention during lunch brake, because their perception was that they were only explaining themselves. Well, I think it’s useful to see that the Swedish way is definitely not the global way of treating children. I also think it’s a good skill to know when to keep quiet or at least know that choosing not to will have consequences.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Sydney 2013

It is not very often in a researcher’s life that a truly original or good idea surfaces. I did have one such idea this year, the one about shifting the curve that I discussed during a coffee with a professor. The article is now accepted for publication in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, coming soon, and I hope it will receive interest and will be discussed and used in the field of public health. I still have this shivering feeling that it may all prove to be wrong, but that’s how science advances.

I am lucky to have mentors whom I trust and who really wish the best for me. One piece of advice I have received this year is that the only thing determining if I achieve what I want from now on is courage. I have always thought of myself as a courageous person, speaking my mind, making my decisions, taking the consequences. But I think my mentor meant a different type of courage:

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. 

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

Although I also thought this was a quote by Nelson Mandela from 1994, it is actually from ‘A Return To Love’ (1992) by Marianne Williamson.

One thing I have learned this year is to give myself time and space to step back and consider things just a little before jumping to a conclusion or starting to solve the problem. I will now take a walk and have a think about this one.

The Nutcracker – or how experiences get under our skin

Walking along the shopping street near us we saw several man-high Nutcracker figures in the shop windows as Christmas decorations. They looked exactly as the Nutcracker costume used in the ballet we attended two years ago at the Budapest Opera House. Which is why my 11-year-old daughter started humming away on Tjajkovskij’s Nutcracker on our way home. She hummed the part when the rodents come out at night and try to steal the Nutcracker from the little girl. I remember that made a big impression on her.

Yet, my daughter neither knew which tune she was singing or where it came from. It was her brain that picked up one of its imprinted associations and had a little run about it.

That’s just how we learn – by association. It is a use it or lose it game in children and the younger they are, the more circuits the brain is capable of building up. Brain research in the past decade has clearly delivered its message: the more circuits the child builds up, the faster and broader its thinking goes, and the smarter the child becomes.

By age five the least advantaged children have been exposed to 30 million less words compared to children in the highest socioeconomic groups in Northern America. Consequently, the development of their language skills will differ. The PISA test results reflect this trend: in Australia a difference, equivalent to two-and-a-half years of schooling, separates the scores of students in the highest and lowest socio-economic groups.

But not only does the environment affect children’s brains and learning – it also gets under their skin. In fact, it modifies their genes in ways that we are only beginning to understand.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi

I still remember a book my father gave me called The Double Helix, describing the discovery of the structure of our DNA. It was the story of Watson and Crick who were awarded the Nobel Prize for that discovery. I was fascinated: everything was coded in our genes and if only humanity got around to brake the code we would know all about human disease and what our futures might entail.

Through the human genome project the code was indeed described almost down to the last gene, just so that we would discover that things are not that simple. Genes can be turned on and off in a number of ways, interacting with each other and the environment – a phenomenon called epigenetics.

Through the chemical process of methylation, our DNA becomes modified as a result of environmental exposure. This means that molecules bind to the DNA, affecting its structure and the way it “acts” within the cell environment. The discovery of epigenetic processes marks a new era of genetics, as significant as the description of the double helix.

An example of what happens is demonstrated in a study of adults with posttraumatic stress disorder where those who have been exposed to childhood maltreatment showed specific epigenetic modifications to their DNA, very dissimilar to persons traumatised later in life. A recent study of twins suggests that not even twins share the same epigenetic programming: some pairs were already different in their methylation patterns at birth, some were similar, but became more different, while some followed the expected pattern of further increasing similarities over time.

Although the pathways through which epigenetic programming happens are not fully understood, if genes required for brain development do not activate as they should, the effects will be visible. MRI scans of the brains of children who have been exposed to poverty show less white and grey matter as well as less hippocampal volumes. The hippocampus is involved in associative memory and is very stress sensitive.

Now here comes the Christmas gift: effects of poverty on the hippocampus were mediated by parental care. Supportiveness decreased the effect, whereas hostility increased it. Thus, caring parents will always make a difference for their children in the face of adversity.

In terms of public policy this means that all children should be exposed to a loving and supportive environment, adequate stimulation, and a little Tjajkovskij to fend off delinquency

Mind your blind spots!

The other night I took my 11-year-old daughter to see Uncle Vanya, a Checkov play set up by a small theatre company here in Melbourne. It was a bit of a long shot, depressed Russian drama for a lively tweenie. To her credit, she not only endured the piece, but also enjoyed being at the theatre – her interest for acting seems to go beyond the comic scenes she loves putting up at school.

I found myself pretty gloomy after the show, entrenched by desperation, hopelessness, and no meaning in life. Not one character occurred to me as having any sense of harmony, of being where they wanted to be. They had either thrown their lives away and resented it all, were bored, or lived in an illusion about their own importance or moral grandiosity.

I asked my daughter the morning after which of the characters she liked the most. “The Nanny”, she said, without having to think twice. The Nanny! Of course! The Nanny is the only person in the play who actually seems to be in a good place. She offers love, caring, and consolation – unconditional positive regard – to anyone around, attends to her duties while everyone else succumbs to the chaotic dissolution of theirs, and is firmly rooted in her religious beliefs.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi

But didn’t I just say there was no one in the play who seemed to have a sense of harmony? How come I didn’t see that Nanny as clearly as my daughter did? In fact, I was so busy identifying myself with the frustration of these intelligent people not finding a way to make something meaningful of their lives that I simply did not see the Nanny. She was in my blind spot.

As professionals, one of the most important things we need to do is get to know our own blind spots. Usually, things that get hidden by the blind spot are painful experiences that we cannot bear to be confronted with and therefore conveniently hide from ourselves. In professional practice not bearing to see things can be detrimental for the people we are supposed to help.

I once had a medical student in my class for professional development whose blind spot we discovered at one of our sessions. The students had to tape their conversations with patients and we then analysed them together with the group. This student’s patient was in hospital for high blood pressure, a condition known to be aggravated by alcohol consumption. The patient had made several comments on “booze”, on “friends having a good time” – empathic opportunities for the student to inquire about alcohol. But he didn’t. When I asked what was going on, the student got very emotional. After a while he said he just couldn’t “go there”, asking questions about alcohol. His father had been an alcoholic.

In clinics the other day, the team saw a child with a number of behavioural issues. It was hard to get a grip of what was going on, it sounded a lot like ADHD, but the teacher had indicated many emotional problems, such as anxiety and low self-esteem, while the mother did not describe such problems. This is quite unusual, as on measures of child behaviour parents are generally more sensitive to children’s emotional problems than teachers are, while teachers are flawless in identifying externalising problems.

During the testing it became clear that the child was clever and had no attention, memory, or hyperactivity problems. He did, however, have problems warming to the situation, was not very excited by the small rewards presented to him, and was rather gloomy and quiet throughout the morning. The diagnosis suggested was general anxiety disorder, affecting all aspects of his life.

Why did this clever and emotionally available mother not see that her son was anxious and depressed more than anything else? Because it was in her blind spot. She had grown up with a severely depressed parent herself and could not bear to see the same thing happening in her son.

So what’s with me and the Nanny in Uncle Vanya? What keeps me from seeing her uncomplicated contentedness amidst the complicated and struggling intellectuals? If I find an answer I will get to know yet another of my blind spots and that might save me some future troubles.

Meanwhile, make sure to attend to your own blind spots!

I would go nuts!

Imagine having a child with such severe allergies that they can die from intake of the smallest amount of the allergen. We have friends who have a daughter who has 22 allergies and has been hospitalised 30 (!) times for anaphylactic shock. That’s 30 times of not knowing whether your child will make it or not.

The mother of this child desperately pleads to all staff caring for children to understand that this really is serious. The last hospitalisation had been caused by a mistake in the school kitchen: the staff mixed up lactose intolerance and cow milk protein allergy, so the child’s special food had been prepared with lactose free milk – full of the cow milk protein she was so allergic to!

Such mistakes are awful and unprofessional, but avoidable with further education and better routines. But what about something as simple as picking up some groceries? As a parent to an allergic child, shopping will take you much longer as you read every single label to make sure your child is not exposed to anything dangerous. You become painfully aware that most of the things you used to shop say “may contain traces of nuts”; in fact, 65% of all products in a supermarket have precautionary labelling!


At every birthday party or dinner invitation, the hosts will empathise with you as they discover during their preparations that anything and everything may contain traces of either peanuts, tree nuts, egg, milk, sesame, fish, wheat, or soy.

Which is why a study performed by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is both so elegant, important, and frustrating. The allergy team at MCRI clearly understood the everyday stresses of parents when they designed this study. They selected 128 items among chocolates, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, biscuits, and cookies, foods most likely to carry precautionary labelling. If you are a parent or grandparent, start counting how many such items you purchased last time you went shopping for the kids.

Of the 128 samples, only nine (7%) with precautionary labelling had detectable levels of peanut. The others had nothing! Of products that had precautionary labelling for hazelnut, milk, egg, or soy, none were found to have any detectable level of those allergens. None! Of the 9 samples containing peanut, all were below the dose someone allergic to peanuts would react to.

Good thing then, that 22% of parents of children with food allergies simply ignored precautionary labelling statements, according to a survey performed by the same research group. But would you dare to ignore such statements if your child had been hospitalised 30 times for anaphylactic shock?!

So why do manufacturers employ precautionary labelling? Of  course because they want to avoid liability. And because there is legislation to say product content has to be stated. The big question is why they are still allowed precautionary labelling in most countries? Why is it ok for billion dollar industries to routinely print such statements on their products, putting the workload of selecting possible products for their children to eat on parents who are already under enough stress?

As a parent of a severely allergic child I would go nuts. I can totally see why our friend says she needs to fight for her daughter because no one else will. Except the father, I would hope. And it is a fight with high stakes.

The food industry will not be the one to take the first steps toward more rigorous regulation on the exact amounts of allergen that needs to be present for precautionary labelling. However, judging by the number and intensity of the comments on my friend’s blog post about her daughter’s last hospitalisation, there could be a storm of parents demanding change. And I am proud that my host institution has given them such a firm foundation to stand on with their study.

Have fun at the supermarket next time, figuring out those precautionary labels!

Can creativity be forced?

I know, sorry to offend your intelligence – of course it can’t. But I simply love pointing out the fact! Creativity is something your brain does when it feels like it. You can make use of it if you are tactical, but to command your brain to be creative at this very moment is just not going to happen.

How do you like that? In an era when we know what the weather will be like days ahead and what our pulse rate is when we exercise, we don’t know when our brain will feel like doing some lusty exercise of its own.

I have had a couple of days of grumpy non-creative, not especially productive low. While I was wondering how long it will take before I feel the ideas flow faster than I can get hold of them, I thought I might share some thoughts.

A few years ago I listened to Alice Flaherty, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist. She was inspiring, effectively erased some myths about creativity (such as alcohol or depression would enhance it), and had hands-on advice. I went home to my research group and immediately implemented some of the ideas.

Interestingly, things we don’t traditionally associate with productivity really enhance creativity. In fact, things that have with lust, in its neurobiological – dopamine – sense, to do are excellent creativity boosters. Such as taking a walk or run somewhere nice, enjoying art, music, or a good book, doing yoga, or basically anything else you like. Apparently, hot showers can do wonders!

So the trick is to do something you enjoy when you need your brain to cooperate with you on solving something difficult. Next time you are on a tight deadline in finishing something that requires creativity, go have a little fun-break! Tell your boss there is good evidence for that.

Another trick is to let go of your need for control and do it on your brain’s terms. Whenever an idea pops up, write it down. Whenever you feel eager to get started with something creative – try and go for it! If nothing else, do it in your head.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Rock engravings of creative ancestors in Hamburgsund, Sweden

Now here are the do nots:

  • Do not try the same solution again and again, as in throwing in the coin, not getting the drink, kicking the machine, throwing in another coin… In stead, try describing the problem in a different way (lateral thinking);
  • Do not self-censor a first thought or draft. That will definitely kill creativity. According to a study on freestyle rappers presented in Nature, when we are in a good creative flow, our frontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and conscious monitoring, is dissociated from what we are doing. Self-censoring is a typical act of the frontal cortex coming in uninvited;
  • Do not drink alcohol to enhance your creativity. The result will likely be not only unsatisfactory, but also possibly embarrassing;
  • On the personal level performance anxiety and existential anxiety will hamper creativity. Organisational anxiety stemming from uncertainty or dysfunctional relationships will have the same effect. So whatever you do, don’t feel anxious

Sometimes, it is also necessary to accept that your brain is simply not in the mood. Don’t push it – you couldn’t. What you can do in stead is stuff that is routine to you, but you don’t mind doing. Like mowing the lawn, vacuuming, or cooking. This creates some “unsupervised” time from the frontal cortex for your brain to go creative.

I personally like ironing, love the scent and the look of neat clothes hanging. A pity that my daughter says only geeks wear ironed school dresses, so I am not allowed to iron hers. Luckily, there are heaps of other things to iron tonight so who knows what I will be capable of tomorrow!

All kinds of minds

Do you remember your favourite teacher? Most people do. What made them so exceptional? Although studies trying to find out why some teachers are great based on their personality, subject matter, or disciplinary style have mostly failed, there seems to be one thing that counts.

Your favourite teacher is someone who understood your kind of mind, that is, your needs as a learner, and attended to those needs as well as to you as a person. In other words, a great teacher is a teacher who facilitates student-centred learning.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi 

In his book A mind a time that should be read by all of those even thinking about educating young people, Mel Levine outlines eight different neurodevelopmental systems that affect our learning. It is easy enough to see what the (1) attention control and (2) memory systems entail. The (3) language system includes both the production and understanding of language as well as phonemic awareness – a really important skill for reading, entailing knowing what kind of sounds different letters and letter combinations make.

The (4) spatial ordering system, the one where my particular challenge sits, has to do with left and right, discriminating those 3D-patterns, and finding your way. The (5) sequential ordering system, deals with chains of information, helping us know what comes after what when solving an equation, writing as essay, or cooking. It also has to do with time management: I am sure you know someone who just never gets it right when it comes to estimating what time things will take.

The (6) motor system is not only important for writing, doing sports, and preventing accidents due to clumsiness. Recent psychological research on infants has demonstrated that motor function is directly related to 12-month-olds’ learning. When infants were taught to put balls in a certain bucket they were able to predict what the demonstrator was going to do with the balls to a much higher extent than infants who were only allowed to watch what the researchers did, without possibility for own motor experience. 

The (7) higher thinking system has to do with abstract thinking (what mass, democracy, etc entail), logical problem-solving, as well as critical and creative thinking. Surprise time: this is my favourite!

Finally, the (8) social thinking system helps us get by in managing the unwritten social rules of a classroom, a workplace, and relationships in general. Kids who are weaker in this domain often suffer at school, where “the social spotlights are glaring”, as Mel Levine put it.

Now what school system truly has the capability to attend to students’ needs based on their particular types of minds? Not many, but in his book Disrupting class Clayton Christensen outlines how using IT at schools could actually promote true student-centred teaching. By using computer software that addresses the strengths of that particular student’s kind of mind, all children could actually reach their potential and develop their less apt neurodevelopmental systems.

Because of my spatial ordering system challenge I had a hard time with anatomy at med school. But by using my stern attention, (then!) excellent memory, and well-equipped sequential ordering and higher thinking systems, I created ways to learn. I even used my not so excellent fine motor skills to draw the slices of a human body (sorry – it’s an occupational hazard to think that’s not strange) to get through the exams. I also had the judgement not to become a radiologist – my grandmother put in her 50 odd-years there so we’re still good as a family.

So send a warm thought to your once favourite teacher. And remember to appreciate when your child comes home with something like the individually formulated assignment note I found under a pair of shoes today, when I – I have to admit – cleaned the house: “Brilliant work Fanni (…) I very much liked the beautiful amethyst gemstone whereby you discussed its chemical composition, uses, places to find, and value. Possibly you could have provided detail on the hardness of amethyst (Mohs scale) and what shapes its crystals grow in, too.”

I am reading into this that my daughter needs some encouragement on using her spatial sequencing system. Ouch! Luckily, her dad can see those crystals in his head, no problem.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, photographing her brother who obviously has no problems in his spatial sequencing abilities. Not my genes in work! 

The heroine who will never get a medal

An assistant principal in a rural town, the name of which elicits immediate furrows in the foreheads of professionals who know the maps of social disadvantage in the state all too well. With the looks of someone who respects, but does not overrate, herself she is a woman you would pass by without much of an afterthought.

But make no mistake: she is a superhero of sorts. She stays put where most others flee. She stares long and hard where others choose to sigh and look away. She takes action where others feel it’s not their responsibility. She follows through. She advocates, argues, does the paperwork that seems too complicated and yet futile to many others. She is wise and generous and does not take ‘no’ for an answer. Yet, she is not absorbed in her own kindness – righteousness is not her thing. She simply knows what’s right and acts upon it.

ImagePhoto: Fanni Sarkadi. To see beauty anywhere and everywhere is a gift.

I met her yesterday. She had simply taken her car, gone home to the family at 5 o’clock in the morning, saw to it that they had everything they needed and drove them to the clinic. She made the school pay for the visit, assisted the assessment as much as she could and then drove them home. She never stopped smiling.

To understand the importance of what she had done, let’s play a game. Name any disadvantage you can think of. Poverty? Check. Family disruption? Check. Cognitive disability in the family? Check. Now let’s see what it takes to get this child to the adequate services.

So, the mother would have needed to articulate the problem of the child seriously struggling academically and socially at school, take the child to a GP and get a referral to a community pediatrician. Oops, that takes knowledge of the system and being able to navigate it and advocate for your needs. If you can’t read and write and have a hard time understanding many words that’s pretty hard.

But say mother had gotten a referral and was to get the child to the tertiary centre for assessment. Oops, you need transportation for that. Without a license that leaves you with public transports – again, reading maps and timetables requires academic skills. But say mother knew which train and tram to take. Oops, that costs money which she doesn’t have. Was it all ever going to happen, then? Correct. Which is why our heroine made it happen, going through all the steps it takes.

When Sir Michael Marmot in his report Fair Society, Healthy Lives talks about proportionate universalism this is what he means. Actual universal access to universal services through addressing barriers. Of course it would be wonderful if every child in need had his or her own hero or heroin. The next best thing is to build systems that are heroic enough to grant equal access to everyone, irrespective of ability and resources. And we have such a long way to go!

Although this assistant principle might never get a formal prize, I think she got something else yesterday. She was highly regarded and reinforced by the team. And the child she intended to help received what she was entitled to: great quality assessment, a diagnosis that will give her the right to supports along the line, and the satisfaction to have done the right thing. Again.

She made not only my, but the whole team’s day. Why she did all this? I think it’s as simple as it is beautiful: she couldn’t not do it.