This week, we welcome guest blogger Sylvia Hall from GAB-on! As a parent of a child with learning differences, Sylvia was able to take her family’s challenges and build a unique way to help families connect.
In the delicate fabric of human relationships, connection is the thread that binds us together. It is a core, fundamental need for human development and helps us get the most out of our lives. For parents and children, communication is the cornerstone of the relationship that cultivates connection and the ability to give and experience love.
Dr. Ned Hallowell says, “Connection should be the life blood of all families, schools, and organizations.” However, children with learning differences often face a lack of sustained connection due to their unique challenges. This disconnection can result in various struggles in their lives, including difficulties forming relationships at school, in their community, and within the family. Consistent and positive connections play a transformative role in empowering these children. Nurturing such connections over time, children can lead more connected, relationship-rich, and fulfilling lives.
I’ve always described our son as a “boy full of joy.” He could light up any room with his smile and energy from the time he could walk. When he was entering sixth grade, he was so excited to begin the school year at a new school as he was eager to meet friends.
After the first several days, a recognizable pattern emerged: “How was your day?” “Fine.” “What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.” Although this dialogue seems to have become a rite of passage, for our family it wasn’t something we were comfortable with. We recognized that, although our son may desperately want to share parts of his day with us, given his executive function challenges (particularly in working memory), he was struggling neurologically to do so.
Our son Austin inspired us to create GAB-on!, an app that connects children and their parents through simple, meaningful conversations about their daily experiences both in and out of school. We built it for all kids because these simple conversations can nourish healthy connections and conversations.
Throughout the day, children enter GABs, short 3–5 word entries on any device such as a laptop, tablet, or phone, These serve as summaries of key events that occurred throughout their day to spark their memory at home to drive conversations. Parents receive the GAB entries and serve as a starting point for conversation.
“Onion skin and lake water” was the very first GAB that Austin sent home. It was a game changer. It didn’t just spark a simple conversation about his day, it was a glimpse into his world. I was so curious to hear the story he wanted to share from his science class that night at the dinner table and it didn’t disappoint. We heard about walking down to a pond with his class and holding a vial to fill with water, bringing the vial back to class and looking at the water under a microscope, seeing a bug in the water and naming her Robeta, and then creating a newsletter to share Robeta’s journey with his classmates.
We were in awe at everything he shared and what we learned, not just about his school lesson but about where that lesson led him. We felt so connected and I was excited to share our experience the next morning at school drop-off. However, as no other parents had heard any of this experience from their child, no one could share the excitement with me.
Conversations between parents and children provide a window into the child's world. They allow us to understand our child's experiences, perspectives, and challenges. Conversations are a key ingredient in strengthening the bond between parents and their children. But child-led conversation opens a door to understanding where a child is challenged and, as importantly, where they find their joy. Developing a child’s voice and agency to communicate their interest and passion can help lay out an aspirational roadmap. They also enable the child to feel heard, understood, and know they matter.
Trust and emotional security are fundamental to a child's well-being. For children who learn differently, these elements are even more critical. They often face additional challenges and uncertainties, which can lead to feelings of insecurity or anxiety. Consistent child-led conversations with parents can help alleviate these feelings. They provide a safe space where the child can express their fears, frustrations, and hopes. They reassure the child that they are loved, accepted, and valued for who they are. This cultivates trust and emotional security, which are essential for a child's emotional and psychological health.
A few months into eighth grade, Austin entered a GAB that read “armor.” That evening we had company at the dinner table and, when the GABs came up for discussion, he didn’t recall what “armor” meant. I jumped in (not recommended) and asked if it had to do with his welding project and he nodded. The conversation then dove deeper into his welding creations, which he enjoyed sharing. However, the next morning at breakfast, Austin shared with me that he remembered what his “armor” GAB meant. It had nothing to do with welding. It was a reminder to talk with me about two boys in his class that were setting him up to take the fall for things they were doing in the classroom. He didn’t know how to prevent it or what to do about it, and sometimes he wasn’t even aware that it was happening. This conversation allowed me to help him navigate the steps he can take to change his situation (and also caused me to pick up the phone and have a discussion with his wonderful teacher).
We developed GAB-on! because our son wanted to share his day with us while he was away from home but the tidbits he was able to tell us were like pieces from different puzzles. He didn’t yet have the tools to retrace and recall whole parts of his day and he didn’t know how to start to tell us about it. With the GABs, Austin has the agency to choose what he wants to talk about with us and a few words that he captures at school are enough of a hint to remind him of that moment later in his day. What starts out as a conversation about a lesson or activity in a certain subject often leads to bigger conversations.
Conversations between parents and children with special needs are about building a strong, loving, and supportive relationship that nurtures the child's development and well-being. They are about empowering the child to express themselves, to help understand their emotions, and to navigate their world with confidence and resilience. They can change a child’s trajectory (and outs). Simply put, conversations build connections and it’s what both children and parents need most.
Sylvia Hall is the proud mom of two teenagers and co-founder of GAB-on! GAB-on! connects and empowers children and their parents through simple, meaningful conversations about their daily experiences both in and out of school.