From a young age, child educator Maki Narusawa began to appreciate that she was unlike many of her schoolmates. Always energetic, she struggled to pay attention in school, as her mind would frequently wander.
Nevertheless, her academic performance was strong, and few teachers questioned her nature. After all, no two people are the same and most adults concluded Narusawa was just an unusually vivacious kid.
Narusawa herself never understood why she wasn’t like everyone else. She was isolated from other children and she suffered bullying throughout her school years.
“Sometimes when I’m explaining this to kids, I still tear up and get a bit emotional,” she admits.
During her undergraduate studies at UBC, Narusawa’s grades began to founder, as the heavier post-secondary reading load took its toll. In her third year, it all started to make sense when a name was given to her condition.
“I was diagnosed with [the inattentive sub-set of] ADHD, and giftedness,” she recalls. “And I remember when I found out, I started crying. I kept thinking, ‘If I’m gifted, why can’t I write this paper, finish this reading, or this essay?’”
Following her diagnosis, among the most important lessons Narusawa learned were patience and self-acceptance.
“I have to be more forgiving to myself – remembering that if I forget something, or make a mistake, that it’s gonna happen, and the point is to be always trying.”
She has even designated a highly scientific name for the occasional mental lapses, a term that cracks up her young students: “brain farts.”
After studying psychology, Narusawa went on to specialize in education for children with learning differences. She works as a special education assistant with the North Shore School District, and is passionate about affording all children the opportunity to succeed both socially and academically.
Many of the kids Narusawa works with face the same issues that she confronted: social stigmas, frustration, and problems coping with the rigours of a traditional classroom environment.
Narusawa is the founder of Camp Connect—a summer camp for children aged six to 11 with learning differences—which she will inaugurate this summer at UBC. Through Camp Connect, she hopes to help gifted and challenged youngsters associate with others who are dealing with similar circumstances, and provide helpful exercises and positive reinforcement.
“Do I think the social aspect of learning differences gets neglected?” asks Narusawa. “Yes, I would say so. There’s really not much support [in schools] to work on things like social skills, and self-advocacy for children with learning differences. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to develop Camp Connect.”
The youngsters Narusawa hopes will enroll in her camp are children with ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, and other social and learning-related challenges. Camp Connect will provide them with an accepting environment and a series of activities to improve confidence, self-esteem and interpersonal skills. It will also help parents and caretakers understand the difficulties created by dyslexia, ADHD and other learning differences.
“Adults often think ‘oh, they just need to focus more, they need to work harder and adhere to a schedule,’ but for some reason, a lot of people have a hard time getting their mind around dyslexia and ADHD, and it leads to a lot of frustration,” she said.
One of the aims of Camp Connect is to introduce parents to effective strategies to address their children’s learning difficulties and ease the associated stresses.
Camp Connect will be available in 4- and 5-day sessions beginning on July 3, at the UBC Aquatic Centre.