29 Oct Ali Kaufman Of ‘Space of Mind’ On The 5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School
Know your child and work with their positives and negatives. Every child is unique and we need to accept that. For example, kids with what I call a “busy brain” (like I had) often have trouble focusing in classes with 20–30 kids. They are not to blame as many unfortunately do… That’s why understanding your child allows you to work with them better, i.e., enroll in a smaller classroom setting, seek out a tutor, sign up for extracurriculars to use up energy, etc.
School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?
To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Ali Kaufman.
Ali Kaufman is a leader in educational thought, a prolific idea-maker, persistent problem-solver and a tireless fountain of energy and creativity. She is also the founder and CEO of Space of Mind, a modern schoolhouse in Delray Beach, with a vision and reach that’s redefining education — across the country. Founded in 2004, the program is rooted in the idea that students need only be THEIR best, not THE best, and that learning how to learn for the joy of knowledge yields more productive long-term results than learning for a test. Seeing things from every angle is the kind of thinking that initially inspired her to create Space of Mind, though since long before that, she has been passionately dedicated to inspiring others through self-discovery and social learning. Today, Ali is a thought leader and expert in the areas of alternative learning styles, limiting (or eliminating) school related stress, and reinventing education as we know it. A true coach by nature, Ali’s skills have been nurtured through professional experience in management, communications, public and customer service, and education & youth programming.
Ali studied Judaic & American Studies at Brandeis University and is a fierce advocate for social justice and civil rights. She volunteers her time and energy to support the Anti-Defamation League and their No Place for Hate education program to promote tolerance in schools across the country, has multiple projects launching to promote the arts — and artists — throughout South Florida and has also founded the non-profit, Community Classroom Project, which is dedicated to reducing school stress through family engagement in learning. To learn more, visit https://findspaceofmind.com/.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?
Asa kid, I had what I call a “busy brain,” which meant focusing in a class with 20–30 kids was nearly impossible. But I was lucky when I was placed in a gifted program, which offered smaller groups and more creativity and collaboration. For so many kids, that is not an option, and they either start getting into trouble, failing or give up on learning altogether. I wanted to change that. I wanted to create a program and a formula for teaching people with busy brains. I started with corporate executives, moved on to families, which led to teaching the kids in the family. It was actually the parents that helped me find my calling, as they said: “You changed my business; can you help my family and my kids?”
In 2004, I started coaching families (the entire family) on reducing stress, increasing organization and more. In 2010, I started homeschooling three to four students in my living room. By then, it became very clear to me that the traditional school day wasn’t able to accommodate these students’ needs and Space of Mind evolved into a full-time schoolhouse that now occupies a 10,000 sq ft campus in downtown Delray Beach.
We offer a boutique educational experience designed for our modern, social world. Space of Mind is now a creative, flexible and personalized educational environment that fosters social, emotional and academic growth for learners of all kinds, including children, parents, adults, families and educators. We currently have 80 students on our campus and also offer afterschool programs and adult classes. Our curriculum is so popular that we are now able to share it with other organizations and institutions around the country. Our motto: Learn the way you learn.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Certainly, the most interesting experience was with the first group of three teen girls who founded the Space of Mind Schoolhouse with me in my living room in 2010. They had all been private coaching clients of mine, so I knew how hard their school journeys had been up to that point, and all of them had pretty excruciating stories about bullying. Two came from the same school, one grade apart. One of those had been mercilessly bullied since 1st grade. She was a sophomore now and was eating lunch daily in the nurse’s office and afraid to raise her hand in class so was also falling behind academically, despite her incredible intellect, creativity and spunk. The other would have been starting that school year in their private school with enough discipline demerits to be one infraction short of getting kicked out. She had let me know about a group of girls who had already threatened to make her year “a living hell” should she return.
The first girl’s family was quick to sign up when I presented the idea that SOM could homeschool her — and that I would find her some friends before the year started a couple of summer months later. The second girl had confessed her predicament to me a few short weeks after the first family enrolled when she asked me (unprompted) about homeschooling as a way out or her misery paradox. I found myself at her family’s dinner table a few nights later, and her dad proclaimed in an already dismissive tone, that I had “10 minutes to convince him to stay at the table longer.” Two hours later, he retreated to his study and came back with a tuition check.
The night before the first day of school, I took the three founding students for frozen yogurt to introduce them and set the tone for the adventure we’d be embarking on together. Turned out — the second student had been the first student’s primary bully!
While the girls never became besties, they did learn to understand, tolerate and yes, even respect and enjoy time together. This proved to me right out of the gate what human nature has always reiterated: our environment sets up our emotions. I re-learned in this first year the importance of a lesson I learned in a college Psychology course about Maslow’s law that everyone needs to feel safe, loved and celebrated in order to feel successful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As a lifelong ADD-er, I’ve always gotten by on my quick wit, which is of course because of my busy brain. In the early 1980s, us busy-brained kids were labeled “Gifted” and given the kind of education everyone deserved but we were lucky enough to get: we learned with our hands, our hearts and our heads, but we didn’t learn from textbooks. Everything in those early years of half-day pullouts in Ms. Williams’ class from 2nd — 5th grade was collaborative and creative and totally inspiring. I learned some important belief systems then, and it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with ADD in my early 20s as a Brandeis University student and made money as a restaurant server that I realized the key to my success my entire life was to “stay in motion and stay in focus.” I knew from those early elementary years that moving while I learned kept me happy learning. This was true on the busy restaurant floor, as well. I also learned the hard way that studying in my college dorm bed wasn’t getting me anywhere good. I had to walk around campus with my notes or stand as I read. As Rhys Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods said, “Adrenaline creates endorphins, and endorphins make us happy.” We like to focus on what makes us happy and staying in motion allows us to move faster in between the things that make us unhappy and closer again to what does. This is the cycle of inspiration and action — we can’t ONLY do what makes us happy, otherwise laundry would never get done. It’s the same in school, work and life.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I like alliteration, so it’s not surprising that Passion, Problem-Solver and Pace came to mind in answering this question.
- Passion — Every leader needs to feel passionate about what they are asking others to do. That passion can’t just be about the bottom line; it has to be about something valuable on a deeper level, as asking people to give of themselves to a cause outside of their families and themselves is a HUGE ask, especially in today’s work environment where everyone wants to feel valued — and should. Operating a business during growing pains is not easy and we can’t always pay what that passion is worth, but sharing my passion is what keeps me going in the rough patches and knowing that my team is also passionate about our shared mission keeps us supporting one another when it’s needed most.
- Problem-Solver — Operating a growing business and leading its team is 100% about problem solving. Macgyver is my personal problem-solving superhero, and I am always looking for the creative solutions in every tough situation. I’ve also learned from an early mentor that asking for what I need is crucial to getting what I need; I’m never afraid to ask for whatever is standing in the way of the smartest solution on the table. There’s always a Plan B, but usually asking works!
- Pace — You can’t push the pace of change, and you can’t stop it. It just is what it is, so I’ve learned to keep up and I’m still learning how to adjust myself to slow down, but I’ve gotten infinitely better at it in the last few years! As a Transcendental Meditator, I’ve learned to use my breath as my body’s natural internal metronome, which as an ADD-er is vital. I also keep better boundaries on my time, take better vacations and do more daily things to make myself feel and look better. Of course, this is always a work-in-progress!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, lots of new projects in the works, including a book and a podcast. Right now, I am focusing on bringing the Space of Mind concept to students and families across the country. We will be doing this through virtual options, in-person educator training, curriculum partnerships, and more. We have mastered social homeschooling here in South Florida and have 80 kids this school year; it’s time to introduce our concept and style of learning to the world!
We are also launching a Gap Year in Fall 2022 for those kids that need one more year to learn about “adulting” before heading to college. We know so many more students can benefit and we want to make that possible.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority about how to help children succeed in school?
Sure, I founded Space of Mind in 2004 and since then have led thousands of students and hundreds of teachers through our specialized educational program. Our work and our results with our students are consistently featured in media reports and case studies about how to do homeschooling correctly for both the student and his or her family. I am now bringing my knowledge and the Space of Mind concept to the masses by offering our curriculum to be used by other institutions, authoring a book, and speaking on panels and as part of educational seminars. Today, I am both a thought leader and expert in the areas of alternative learning styles, limiting (or eliminating) school related stress, and reinventing education as we know it.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?
- Schools are run in silos; teachers and department heads don’t talk to each other and as a result the students suffer. Here at Space of Mind, we have project-based learning, meaning you learn about science and math at the same time, or music and writing together.
- In regular schools, nothing is customized to the individual student and how they learn. That means some will succeed (that prefer that learning style), but most will struggle or fail.
Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?
Space of Mind has proven that meeting a student where they are produces better outcomes. The mental health epidemic we are simultaneously in right now and the rise in school shootings, school refusal, bullying and dropping out are indicators that we are experiencing system failure. Covid sent millions of families to seek out safer alternatives, and what they found was that school choice can offer all kinds of options that are no longer taboo. To meet students where they are puts families at ease, increases senses of both safety and self for the students and allows teachers to be in their creative sweet spot.
Project-based learning and integrating curriculum subjects allows for students to approach learning in a more creative and accessible way. It also allows educators to collaborate and support one another in the facilitation of learning. This can be more effective not just for the students and teachers who are able to work and learn with more social and academic engagement, but it’s also good for the bottom line. Space of Mind’s approach to education is as much about aligning educators with one another as it is with their students, and we’ve seen the benefits!
Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Lower the stress of the morning routine. Parents can set their kids — and families — up for success by starting the morning with their own meditation, setting their kids up with their own routines to rock their morning rituals with independence, and most importantly, by not bringing up stressful questions and topics. There is a better time than the morning to ask the tough questions. Furthermore, try to use silent reminders — like a checklist by the door — for each family member so they can see if they have what they need without a verbal nag. If you must ask questions, though, keep them open-ended! Peaceful mornings kick off productive days!
- Try and see (and accept) your kids in their entirety: the good and bad behaviors and moments are clues as to how they are feeling within themselves and their environment. One of the reasons we work so closely with the entire family here at Space of Mind is because we know the kids, and on both the good days and bad days, we make it our goal to meet each child where they are and guide their parents to see beyond the struggles and lay the foundation for them to turn into successes.
- Know your child and work with their positives and negatives. Every child is unique and we need to accept that. For example, kids with what I call a “busy brain” (like I had) often have trouble focusing in classes with 20–30 kids. They are not to blame as many unfortunately do… That’s why understanding your child allows you to work with them better, i.e., enroll in a smaller classroom setting, seek out a tutor, sign up for extracurriculars to use up energy, etc.
- Talk to your child. Remember those car rides home from school, those dinner conversations about how the day went? Well, they rarely happen these days. I always tell the parents and families I work with that the best way to help one another is to talk to each other. Get to know a typical day, a good day, a bad day. Ask questions, pry when your child doesn’t want you to, and show you care about them.
- Stop with the pressure. We all want our kids to succeed in school and do their best. But for many kids, the pressure from parents weighs on them heavy. As parents, you have a role in your child’s success. Support them, believe in them, and push them. But don’t pressure them to be the best, to do more than they are capable of, or to not be happy with anything less than perfection. It’s hard to be a kid these days…and the last thing they need is overwhelming pressure from home.
As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?
Educators teach because they love to learn! The way to attract great talent is to let them use their talent. Teaching isn’t about data; it’s about design. Lesson plans can’t be mass-produced; they should be customized to the students they’re for. Teachers began leaving the field when creativity and autonomy was stripped from their schedules. Also, obviously teachers need to be paid more. Arguably, they are all at once and often the first responders for medical, safety, social, emotional and academic breakdowns, and they are responsible for educating the generation that is supposed to save us from ourselves. Surely, we can value that higher.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I have looked up to Oprah Winfrey as a mentor since I was in elementary school watching her show afterschool with my mom and learning everything school wasn’t teaching me. I recognized Oprah as an inspired and lifelong learner even back then, and I loved that I knew that we were learning together with her. I could see her inspired questions formulating in the moment during fascinating conversations with guests and audience members. I could understand the contextual conversation each show was fitting into within the fabric of her seemingly unlimited mind and consciousness. As an entrepreneur-in-the-making, I also have been acutely aware of Oprah’s business savvy, paving the way for women in any industry to value herself with equality in a man’s world.
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