Bonnie Low-Kramen is a highly sought-after TEDx speaker, teacher, and founder and CEO of “Be the Ultimate Assistant,” a curated training solution for corporate leaders and assistants creating synchronous and thriving work environments. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Staff Matters (out in 2023).

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Show Highlights

“We Wait too Long to Train Our Leaders” and develop the essential soft skills needed for a strong leadership foundation.

One of the biggest opportunities is to create “listening tours.”

Explore the SMES or Zone of Genius with the backbone of your organization for a partnership with your assistants.

The four things every staff member wants.

Resources to discover expertise lurking in your building.

Tips for schools create safer environments and lessen sexual harassment and workplace bulling.

The most powerful message to send your staff is giving them a financial investment for their professional development.

“It doesn’t seem logical to me that in 2023 we’re leaving it to luck, and that’s not good enough. I see that staff are suffering because of that lack of education. And let us really put the spotlight on this subject because it’s no longer possible to begin your job either as a school principal or leading a company, large or small, and not receive any supplemental training on how to do it well. Which leads to retaining people or chasing them away.”
- Bonnie Low-Kramen

Dr Chris Jones

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Energy flows to where attention goes!

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Read the Transcript here.

Bonnie Low-Kramen Transcript

Daniel Bauer (00:02):
There’s a paradox in leadership where with leadership, you’re expected to drive an organization toward greater heights to achieve things that they didn’t even think were possible. It’s always improving. In schools, we’re learning organizations, so we wanna learn from what works, learn from the mistakes, and get better and better. But often the paradox is that there’s not a lot of support or roadmaps or help along the way. You get the job and it’s like, good luck, get to the outcome, achieve the thing, or else, but where’s the real support? And today’s guest is an expert at these soft skills, these ways of supporting leaders so that they can better build culture and manage teams and work with their assistants. And Bonnie has a new book that’s out too called Staff Matters, which I highly encourage that you check out. And today you’ll enjoy her unpacking some of the things practically that you can do to build a better organization. Hey, it’s Danny, chief Ruckus Maker At Better Leaders, Better Schools, we create this show for you, a Ruckus Maker, which means you invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo, and you design the future of school. Now, we’ll be back with the main conversation after a few messages from our show Sponsors.

Daniel Bauer (01:33):
I’m sure you’ve heard that energy flows to where attention goes. If you wanna get more of what you want when you want it, as a school leader, I’ve got a tool for you. The secret is to celebrate the positive things happening on campus and to go multiple levels deeper to tap into why it even matters. When you do that, anything is possible on your campus, and I mean anything. And you start to get more of what you want, when you want it. If you’d like to spread more positivity and create more value for all stakeholders on your campus, go to BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/positive and download your free tool today. Learn how to recruit, develop, retain, and inspire outstanding individuals and teams to deliver on the vision of your school in leading people. A certificate in School Management and Leadership course from Harvard. Get started at Better Leaders, better schools.com/harvard. How would you like to increase student talk by an average of 40% more student ownership, more student discourse? Check it out for yourself by trying out Teach FX. Go to teach fx.com/better leaders to pilot their program today.

Daniel Bauer (02:52):
If executive functioning skills are integral to student success, then why aren’t they taught explicitly and consistently in classrooms? I have no idea. I have no idea why that doesn’t happen. But what I do know is that our friends over at Organized Binder have created a new course that will teach your teachers how to set up students for success via executive functioning skills. Learn [email protected]/go. Well, hey, Ruckus Makers. I’m joined today by Bonnie Low-Kramen, who’s a highly sought after TEDx speaker, teacher, and founder, and CO of be the ultimate assistant, a curated training solution for corporate leaders and assistance creating synchronous and thriving work environments. She is also the author of a forthcoming book out at the end of February called Staff Matters. Bonnie, welcome to the show.

Bonnie (03:50):
Thanks, Danny. It’s great to be here with you.

Daniel Bauer (03:53):
Thank you. Let’s go back to London in 2012. And you’re watching an opening speaker talk to executive assistants, and the speaker asks a question you have never heard before, the speaker asks, raise your hand if you feel well managed. What happened next? And what did that tell you?

Bonnie (04:15):
I was at the back of the room and there were 250 people, mostly women in the room. And what I saw was a real shocker. There were very few, maybe 25 people who actually raised their hand. And you expect to see something like, yes, I am well managed, but really I was being more like not sure, kind of reluctant, very happy, lackluster, no real enthusiasm. And I remember standing at the back of the ballroom thinking, what is going on here? Because I’m looking around and I’m seeing very seasoned executive assistants here and in London these are real serious professional people. And they were being asked a very serious question, and they were answering for sure. And that sparked a real curiosity in me to understand like, what is going on? Why is it like this?

Daniel Bauer (05:19):
And I think we’re quite curious about that too. Like you said, you expect folks to raise their hands and say that, yeah, I’m well managed

Bonnie (05:32):
When you first began your career, but I remember coming outta college I had an assumption in my mind thinking, well, whoever’s managing me who’s ever given that responsibility of being my executive, they must know a lot and they must be right about everything because they’re being given this responsibility. And wow, it didn’t take very long to find out that that’s not true.

Daniel Bauer (06:00):
We make assumptions about organizations, leaders that are highly effective. And you think that the training, the support, all of that would be there. But more often than not, when you look under the hood, so to speak, it’s just, there’s an absence, there’s a void. I’m currently working on a book myself on entry plans for principals. And you would think that districts would say, here’s what highly effective principals do. Here’s basically a roadmap, if you will, for running an effective school. And that’s just not the case. Usually you get the job and it’s like, good luck, don’t mess it up. I think that that brings us to another question. When you got home from London, you read an article and the article’s title was, We Wait too Long to Train our Leaders. Isn’t that kind of what we’re talking about? But what did the article teach you?

Bonnie (06:53):
I mean, this was aha, moment number two, where when I started digging into the research I was putting my mind on the fact that, well, okay, so where do leaders learn how to manage people? And the obvious answer is m b A programs, business schools, that’s obvious. And I started looking into the curriculum at very famous business schools, and then yes, smaller ones found that article written by Jack Zenger in Harvard Business Review called “We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders.” And it was one of those moments that made me gasp because what he and his team had done, and Jack has written many books, and I’ve since met him and been in conversation with Jack, he and his team did a poll of 17,000 leaders around the world in 2012, and they figured out that the average age that a leader gets their very first training is age 42.

Bonnie (07:56):
And that was that, it was like Eureka. That’s the reason it’s not that leaders were setting out to be poor leaders. They simply haven’t learned how. And, and even worse, in 2021 during the pandemic, Jack and his team did the poll again, Danny, and they figured out that the average age is now 46. So it went up four years. You don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out that most leaders are out of school more than 20 years before they get their first training in managing people. And I asked Jack, when I had a chance to speak with him in New York City, I said, why is that? Why are business schools even some prominent ones not teaching this? And he said, Bonnie, “The wheels of academia move slowly.” And you know, apropos to our conversation today, and isn’t, it has not been in the curriculum.

Bonnie (08:57):
The curriculum is about black and white subjects, macroeconomics, international finance, accounting, that kind of thing. And he said, Bonnie, what you’re talking about are soft skills, emotional intelligence relationships. And he said, the truth is most, most college professors are not trained to teach that. The silver lining in the pandemic is that business schools, and I, business professors have told me this, they are taking a look now. They are revising curriculum now in 2023, started in 2022 to add curriculum into the program because no leader was trained about how to manage a workforce that’s partially at home, partially in the office And working in a hybrid remote way. It was unprecedented when the pandemic hit in 2020. So obviously business schools are keenly aware that some changes need to happen. So that’s a really great thing. The issue with that is the curriculum’s not gonna be ready till 2024- 2025. So what do people do in the meantime? It’s an issue, Danny, I think of the world running far faster than our human ability to keep up with those changes. That’s what I see. And my hope is that staff matters can create an opportunity for some new conversations between the leaders and the staff that’s sorely needed, desperately needed.

Daniel Bauer (10:39):
And figuring out some of the I guess the soft skills that you mentioned in terms of leading effective teams, and it’s something ignored you were talking about in business school, same is true when you become a principal and you go to undergraduate school to get that certification, it’s about assessments it’s about discipline, it’s about legal, but not necessarily how to manage and work with people to create change. And it’s such a missed opportunity, but all those little things are actually what leads to the outcomes that we want. And I don’t realize, or I understand why that gets missed so often. So it sounds like staff matters is a good manual In terms of building those great cultures.

Bonnie (11:28):
That’s my hope. I was able to interview like 1500 people for the book, including many leaders, assistants, HR professionals and recruiters who shared their actual stories and case studies. And I asked leaders, where did you learn to manage people? And they confirmed that they did not learn it in business school, including that I got approval from people to include their stories in the book. People like Hug Jolie, who teaches right this minute at Harvard, and he wrote the book, the Heart of Business. He’s the former c e o of best. He understood the value of going out of his c e o office and going down with the people who are selling you your phone and your computer and your television. That’s yeah. But even he said he did not learn how to manage people in college.

Bonnie (12:27):
So it doesn’t seem logical to me that in 2023 we’re leaving it to luck, and that’s not good enough. I see that staff are suffering because of that lack of education. So you know, that’s why I’m delighted to be speaking with you today. And let us really put the spotlight on this subject because it’s no longer possible to begin your job either as a school principal or leading a company, large or small, and not receive any supplemental training on how to do it well. Which leads to retaining people or chasing them away.

Daniel Bauer (13:08):
Do you have some practical advice if that’s the reality, it could be two decades before a leader gets that great training. And so there’s an absence of training, but there also are probably many instances of other leaders who haven’t gotten training. They’re doing their best, but they’re providing a really poor example of what to do. It’s more an example of what not to do. A Ruckus Maker listening, if that’s their experience leading a school, what advice would you have?

Bonnie (13:41):
Step one would be to look at the people who were already on the payroll. No matter what the organization is, somebody at some point hired each and every one of those people for a ring. At least one reason, but probably many reasons. And so, Danny, what I see is one of the biggest opportunities that leaders are doing is that they’re skipping over the people they’ve painstakingly hired in the first place. Those staffers see and hear everything, but they may not be saying what they’re seeing and hearing out of fear, or are feeling as if their opinions and their thoughts really are not of interest to their leaders. And my suggestion for any leader is start with, it’s if you have a thousand people on your payroll, of course it’s impossible to talk to a thousand. I’m saying choose your top five from different departments, just like Hubert Jo Lee did, to go down to the floor and meet with the team leader, actually have conversations with some key staff members who

Bonnie (14:56):
What I would bet any of them a nickel is that once you start asking questions, how are things going? What are you worried about? What do you see that we could do better? What do you feel that is happening that you wish I knew, but I don’t know that you think I don’t know. And, and then just listen. Because if you choose carefully people, they call them listening tours. You’ve probably heard that term. Enlist carefully. People who you want input from, and I promise every leader, they’re gonna get an earful. That’s one of the easiest things to do. And during the pandemic, the leaders who had the highest retention were the ones who spontaneously on any given day, picked up the phone and called staff members and said, Hey, you’re home. How are things going? How’s the family? Anybody sick. How are the kids? The idea that leaders actually care about us is one of the easiest things to do, and it’s the thing that is missed most often.

Daniel Bauer (16:12):
Well said that quote. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think it was Teddy Roosevelt, but I could be wrong on that. So I think that’s what you’re illustrating. People wanna know that their leader cares. I think you talk about the four things that every staff member wants. What are those four things?

Bonnie (16:35):
Last year I gave a TEDx talk, and in my mind, I was thinking, well, this might be the only TEDx talk I’m ever gonna give in my life, so I’m going to, okay. Or Neil, what I believe are the top four things that staff want. And that number one, hands down no contest is respect. They wanna feel respected for the role that they occupy, for the seat that they have. They want to feel respected for it. And, and the antithesis of that is to feel like a number and that they don’t matter. they wanna feel that they matter. No way they, it can be the janitor. They wanna feel that they matter for what they do. Second thing is to have a sense of belonging and purpose in the company. That there’s a reason that they’re there and that they are part of a system and they understand expectations and other people see them for who they are.

Bonnie (17:33):
They have the freedom of belonging. People then are free to be who they are. And I’ve had staff say to me, Danny, that they stay in jobs that might not necessarily be the highest paid, but they stay because they feel free to be exactly who they are. Number three, fair compensation. People wanna be paid fairly. And there are far too many people in the world who in all the tumult with the workplace are underpaid. And then fourth is to receive ongoing support for professional development and growth. There’s almost no, nothing more powerful than for a staffer to have money invested in their professional development, which sends a message. The message they get is, I’m worth it. I’m worth taking time off to go to that class, and my executive is willing to pay money for me to go. It’s another way of having a staffer hear words like, these are golden words, things like, I have complete confidence in you. I believe in the work you’re doing and we appreciate you. Those kinds of things are the goal of the staff. So it’s respect, belonging, fair compensation and support to keep learning and growing.

Daniel Bauer (19:00):
Beautiful in that. That’s Okay. So cool. I’m enjoying this conversation, Bonnie. We’re gonna get some messages from our sponsors, and when we come back, I love to hear about how we can work with our assistants more effectively.

Daniel Bauer (19:18):
The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast is proudly sponsored by Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership. I know many mastermind members and many Ruckus Makers who listen to this show that have gone through the program and have loved the experience. But don’t just take it from me. Let’s hear how some of the Harvard faculty describe the impact in their heart. For this program, Leadership is joyful work, empowering others to do their best work. Principals do that with teachers and teachers do that with students. And empowering others to educate themselves or to be educated is just one of the most important things we can do in this world building. We’re building people, we’re building the next generation of leaders and educators. Learn more about the program and apply at BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/harvard.

Speaker 2 (20:16):
In post pandemic classrooms, student talk is crucial. And when classrooms come alive with conversation teachers and students both Thrive, Teach FX helps teachers make it happen. The Teach FX instructional coaching app provides insights into student talk, effective questions, and classroom conversation quality. Teach FX professional development compliments the app and empowers teachers with best practices for generating meaningful student discourse. Teachers using Teach FX increase their student talk by an average of 40%. Imagine that 40% more ownership over the class by students. Ruckus Makers can pilot Teach FX with their teachers. Visit teachfx.com/betterleaders to learn how. That’s teachfx.com/betterleaders.

Daniel Bauer (21:12):
As students progress through their K 12 experience, schoolwork only gets harder and more complex. And at the same time, students are asked to be more independent in their learning. Young people struggling with executive functioning skills will fall further and further behind the pandemic. Let’s be real. It’s only made things worse. The remedy is found in equipping students with executive functioning skills. Our friends at Organized Binder have released a new self-paced course and it teaches you how to teach these executive functioning skills and set up your students for success. Learn [email protected]/go and start setting up your students for success today. Again, that’s [email protected]/go. We are back with Bonnie Low-Kramen, the author of Staff Matters, which is coming out. If you’re watching the video, if you’re listening to the podcast, the book Staff Matters is out and go pick it up. And before the break, I mentioned how I’d love to talk to you about working with our assistants. Effectively, most principals, not all, but most, have some kind of assistant, and usually they are underutilized. And so what tips do you have with effectively working with your assistant?

Bonnie (22:32):
I worked with several groups of school secretaries, and that’s, education is one of the few remaining places using the term secretary. So in some, they’re being referred to as assistants, so it’s essentially the same. But as a school, we refer to assistants in the world as the backbone of the organization and right arms to their leaders and the eyes and the ears and the lifeblood. They’re pretty important yet, you point to one of the main complaints of assistance around the world, and that is that they feel under-leveraged and underutilized. Now there’s no sense hiding from the fact that no one works as a school secretary because they’re looking to get rich. The motivation to work in a school is different from working in a corporate environment.

Bonnie (23:33):
And so there needs to be an acknowledgement that there are all kinds of reasons why people hold down jobs, but if someone is selecting that work, the baseline for all work, no matter if it’s a school secretary or anyone actually, is to be treated as a professional and with respect. That is the basis for all relationships. And I would urge principles to explore as secretary’s SME, s m e subject matter expertise. What is that? Subject matter expertise is a SME, everybody has a SS e, we all are walking around being experts in at least one thing, but probably many things. And what I see is that any assistant is being asked to do the job description, the tasks on a paper But it’s not so simple, especially in a school setting. What’s not on that task list is to have, you know, really great communication with parents and students and teachers and be the eyes and ears for the principal.

Bonnie (24:55):
And so it serves the principal to perhaps allow the school secretary to sit in on a meeting or two where all secretaries are still 95 to 97% female. So chances are it’s a woman to have her sit in on a particular meeting or two upon which she might have some input. It is valuable for them to have one-on-one time so that to understand what the subject matter expertise of each secretary is we each have a resume. But it may be that your school secretary, I’m just talking here, whose partner or spouse is actually the chief of police or the chief of the fire department. And they happen to know a lot about active shooter plans or disaster planning. And that’s a real hot button in school these days. You don’t know whose expertise is lurking there unless you ask.

Bonnie (26:00):
And so it really speaks to the point we talked about earlier, which is to take, principals would do well to take the time to take a fresh look at the secretary’s resume and to actually have a one-on-one at least once a week. But some assistant executives have like a 10 minute check-in daily. It really depends. It’s very particular to their partnership. But in 2023, it is a partnership. It’s no longer this hierarchical system, mainly because of the complications of our workplace and the idea that, I don’t know the last time I checked, we still don’t matter who you are, we only get 24 hours in a day, only a certain amount of hours that we’re at our work. And so the smart school principal understands the talents and skills of their secretary so that it’s possible that maybe the secretary can actually handle situations that doesn’t even have to be involved in, mainly because she is a stepdad. She’s been there 10, 15 years to not leverage what she knows. It’s not only what she does the tasks, it’s about what she knows, the institutional knowledge and who she knows. It’s all about people, isn’t it? She happens to know who to call, who. Like, that’s, that’s the secret sauce with assistance in my view

Daniel Bauer (27:37):
That network effects. So if you call it SMEs, I call it the zone of genius. But it’s identifying people’s gifts, making sure that you put ’em in positions where they can shine, where they can, you know, show their brilliance. So thank you for

Bonnie (27:51):
It’s a win-win, isn’t it? Huge. Win-win the morale improves, productivity improves, their confidence increases. It’s just a win-win to fully understand someone’s zone of genius. I love that. SME what’s your SME any, any assistant when you know, you ask her or him what the smee is, they’ll tell you, I’m the PowerPoint guru, I’m a foodie. I know all the great restaurants . They have an array of expertise. I promise you that.

Daniel Bauer (28:28):
Brilliant. So in our intro chat you shared a statistic that was shocking to me, that only seven US states require training around sexual harassment in their companies and the rest of the states, which is the majority. That this is an optional thing that that really is dumbfounding. It blows my mind. So maybe it’s true for schools as well, but we wanna have environments, obviously, that are, are safe and inclusive and welcoming and not where you’d find sexual harassment. So how can, how can schools create those safer environments?

Bonnie (29:07):
It is a complicated subject. And most any staffer would quickly acknowledge that no real change happens in any institution, whether it be corporate or educational without support from the top. That unless it’s supported by your leaders, it’s not going to happen. So therefore, and in my books, I have a whole chapter, I literally call it sex, which is about gender in the workplace. And I expose the reality, the data around the subject. The reality is that when the majority of people who are sexually harassed are women. It’s not that men are not sexually harassed. Some are, but the vast majority are women. And the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual harassment are men. And so therefore, in our educational systems, there needs to be an expectation set upfront before anybody gets hired that there is a zero tolerance policy around sexual harassment.

Bonnie (30:10):
And that it is a subject that is talked about and it is taken out of the land of the forbidden and the taboo. Because the reality is that it is a traumatizing experience. Any woman who, and I’ve experienced mild versions of it in my life, fortunately, but some of the stories that I share in the book and some are not shared, are jaw dropping. And the, and there are huge problems with both sexual harassment and workplace bullying. But the reality is that when it happens, the trauma of it lasts for years. It’s not just temporary. It stays with a person. And so, like most other things, Danny, education is the key. So we need to shine a light and say, we are not, this is no place for sexual harassment and this is no place for workplace bullying. Guess what?

Bonnie (31:14):
The kids are watching, the kids are watching closely the behaviors of adults. They’re sponges, aren’t they? So this problem is very important to address openly among adults in organizations so that our children don’t see role models that somehow make it okay to comment on women’s bodies or You know, using language that is sexual in nature. And it spreads into you know, online social media and the things that are okay and what are not okay. And it really is going back to a baseline of professionalism and respect. And a respectful workplace does not permit sexual harassment or workplace bullying, period. End of story. So even if it’s not mandated by the state to have sexual harassment training, it is valuable to have it, to have something, to have something is better than nothing. The key there is, and I include this in the book, Danny, is that unless, so it’s, so yes, I’m advocating for training, but unless the leader says this is important to do, because if they don’t, if they’re like, we have to do this. It’s a box we have to tick, it’s just an obligation that it loses all effectiveness. So there really does need to be an authentic commitment to understanding why this is dangerous.

Daniel Bauer (33:01):
You gotta lead from the top And set those in those priorities.

Bonnie (33:07):
And I think from the middle, I think teachers have influence on principals definitely. But that requires speaking up, doesn’t it? Hopefully leaders, your principals, your superintendents are making it safe for teachers to raise issues that are of importance to them. I do think change can be influenced from the middle.

Daniel Bauer (33:35):
Bonnie, if you could put one message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message read?

Bonnie (33:45):
Respect everyone. No exceptions.

Daniel Bauer (33:49):
If you were building your dream school, you had no constraints in terms of resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. How would you build this dream school? What would be the three guiding principles

Bonnie (34:01):
That would everyone receive? A written set of expectations in our school. And our school begins with the principles of respect and professionalism for everyone. Number two, there is a response that they, that everyone understands, that they have a responsibility to speak up about issues that matter to them. And that there’s a commitment and a celebration of diversity in our, our and that just like everyone is a me, a subject matter expert, everyone is there for a reason. And maybe the question becomes for everyone in our school, what’s your reason? What’s your purpose? What lights your fire? And when we ask those questions, then race and age and shape and size become much less important. And it becomes more about what a person cares about. That would be my dream school.

Daniel Bauer (35:10):
Some powerful questions to end with there. We covered a lot of ground, Bonnie. So of everything we discussed today, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?

Bonnie (35:20):
My mother, who was a school secretary, she used to say, just try to leave the world a little better than the way we found it. That every person is dealing with a battle, every person. And, and we don’t see it. We don’t necessarily see, we only see a portion of what other people are going through. And so my message to each and every one of you and your listeners is to choose kindness. To choose kindness. Just a friendly, what can I do to help you? What do you need and how can I help? Kind of thing. That may be just the thing to make somebody’s day. And you know, we just, we just don’t have any idea how we really do touch people in the world. So every day’s a new opportunity to give it another shot. And I, I think that’s, that’s a worthy, worthy endeavor. Thanks, Danny.

Daniel Bauer (36:23):

Daniel Bauer (36:25):
Thanks for listening to The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast, Ruckus Maker. How would you like to lead with confidence, swap exhaustion for energy? Turn your critics into cheerleaders and so much more. The Ruckus Maker Mastermind is a world-class leadership program designed for growth-minded school leaders. Just like you. Go to BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/mastermind. Learn more about our program and fill out the application. We’ll be in touch within 48 hours to talk about how we can help you be even more effective. And by the way, we have cohorts that are diverse and mixed up. We also have cohorts just for women in leadership and a BIPOC only cohort as well. When you’re ready to level up, go to BetterLeadersbetterschools.com/mastermind and fill out the application. Thanks again for listening to the show. Bye for now and go make a ruckus.



Transform how you lead to become a resilient and empowered change agent with Harvard’s online Certificate in School Management and Leadership. Grow your professional network with a global cohort of fellow school leaders as you collaborate in case studies bridging the fields of education and business. Apply today at http://hgse.me/leader.


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With TeachFX, teachers see how much student talk happened, the moments of students sharing their brilliance, and the questions that got students talking. Learn how to pilot TeachFX with your teachers. Visit: teachfx.com/betterleaders


Why do students struggle? I’d argue that they lack access to quality instruction, but think about it. That’s totally out of their control. What if there was something we could teach kids there was something within their control that would help them be successful in every class? It’s not a magic pill or a figment of your imagination.

When students internalize Executive Functioning Skills they succeed.
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