It’s a Wednesday afternoon and children are arriving at Insight Academy after school has let out – hanging up their backpacks on hooks, greeting their teachers, chatting with each other and settling in. Located in lovely new offices at the 625 Fair Oaks Avenue building in South Pasadena, Insight Academy is the dream school of Dr. Oren Boxer and teacher Elaine Ricci.
Boxer is a pediatric neuropsychologist whose main practice, Insight Collective, focuses on evaluating kids with learning differences like ADHD and autism and helping them learn, grow and develop. Ricci has been teaching in some capacity for 27 years – in Catholic schools, charter schools – teaching K through 8 and says she’s seen it all.
Boxer tells us he had the idea for this academy for several years and was trying to figure out how to put it together when he met Ricci. “It wouldn’t happen without Elaine,” he says, “I had the idea but she breathed life into it to make it happen.”
A huge Cubs fan, Boxer, hails from the Highland Park area in North Chicago. His wife, Alexis, was raised in South Pasadena, so after he graduated from University of Chicago and completed his education at Alliant University and did his intern postdoc at UCLA, he started practice here in the southland. Boxer is on faculty at UCLA where he writes, teaches and trains students and has a private practice in the Palisades and up until recently was in Pasadena. But 14 months ago, an opportunity came to move into the current space in South Pasadena where he happily walks to work every day.
Dr. Boxer has two children in the South Pasadena schools and has lived here for the past six years saying moving here was a no brainer. “Because I’m from a small community in North Chicago, this had a very similar feel to that – with family-oriented, good schools, good morals – it felt different from LA, where we were pretty much terrified to raise our kids. South Pas is such a great town. It just made sense.”
Once in the new space, Boxer began to envision the academy he had in mind. “As a neuropsychologist, there’s a lot of training and assessment and understanding development – helping explain that to kids and parents,” he explains. “But there’s a huge intervention piece, where we are uniquely positioned to know everything about how they tolerate learning, how they learn, how does the learning disability manifest in different areas and how do we support them and what does the research say is the best way to support these learning differences. So I wanted to have an academy or program that understands these kids and offers things to help with their development.”
But he needed a partner. “In discussing the program with my wife, we knew we needed to find somebody to help run it. I don’t have the time to do it. And it can’t be a student. It needs to be somebody who has a lot of experience working with kids.”
As fate would have it, Elaine Ricci had just posted her services as an academic coach on a local community group and Alexis saw it. Ricci had been teaching locally for over 27 years, 10 of those years at Holy Family, and after teaching online during the pandemic, had taken a sabbatical. As of late she has been integrating programs that the Smithsonian offers into curriculum. Then Dr. Boxer called. She was intrigued and thought this would at the very least be an interesting conversation. They both describe the meeting as something extraordinary where they just kept bouncing ideas off of each other, one after the other, and Ricci says, “it just works!”
It is obvious the two have tremendous mutual respect for what each brings to the program. Ricci expands, “Oren said, “I am the one who creates the soil in which these kids can grow. And then they can go back and go into the schools and go into their classrooms and bloom and grow and take what the teacher says.” And I almost lost it. Because in 27 years, I’ve sat with thousands of children who you want to reach. As a teacher, you see what they need but you can’t give it – and not just kids who struggle, any kids, because you have 30 students.”
Ricci tells us that Dr. Boxer is a human being who understands children and brains and how they work. In any given situation she is able to confer and collaborate with him to understand what is happening with a child’s brain when they do this or that behavior and is then able to incorporate that into how she is teaching them. “To work with a human being who inherently gets it is a joy that I couldn’t have created. I never would have known a person like that existed. And when I walked in, every person who works in this collective is similar. He’s a human who attracts good humans. So after 27 years, I can’t imagine a better place to come to work.”
Echoes Boxer, “Because even though I learned all this stuff about how to support kids and development – Elaine’s been doing it for all these years. So getting to see how she does it with kids, and thinking about it together is just an incredible opportunity.”
Part of the reason Boxer created this academy was he saw the need through his own two boys who have ADHD. “The schools are great and they do everything they can. But they can’t teach my kid how to study, they can’t teach my kid how to stop obsessing about that one thing the other kid said to him. Teachers don’t have time for that. And there are good after school programs out there. But none of them teach these three aspects of life which is, how do I understand kids? How do I understand myself as a learner? And then, how do I figure it out? How to just get this homework done that the teacher has – and there are tools for that. The goal is to teach the tools and to teach them that they simply learn differently. And that’s okay – and to normalize that because, especially in elementary school, the kid who does the assignment first or the kid who raises their hand first, they’re the smartest, right? That’s what kids think, right? And to help them understand that you can be the smartest and still struggle in school. And be the slower reader and not understand the math, but still intellectually be the brightest, most capable kid in that class.”
Boxer says that blows their mind. “Yeah, when I tell kids that, yeah. First of all, they think I’m lying to them and I tell them I’m a doctor, I can’t lie to them,” he chuckles, “and they totally buy that. And so understanding that school stuff, these are practice skills, right? Some kids get them right away, some kids have to practice more, just like soccer practice or gymnastic skills. And we just need to learn how you can practice in a smarter way, or in a way that makes sense to you.”
And there’s an evaluation piece that comes with this. When a family comes in, they’re
asked to fill out a rating scale to help the doctor understand their child’s executive functioning skills. He reviews any past assessments or reports that had been produced for that child, they reach out to teachers and they fill out a rating scale and they connect with teachers to make sure they know what’s going on at school. “If we need to say, “hey, this kid, can you just set it up where that workload is a little bit lower so we can teach skills instead of just rushing to try to get through an entire worksheet.” And because they’re here, they have access to things that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to like different working memory training programs and behavior regulation programs. Our mindfulness specialist is going to come out probably in a few weeks and teach some mindfulness skills to kids.”
Academy members also have access to the assessment team. So if parents would like to have their child evaluated to just do a brief academic screener to see where they are compared to other kids in their grade, that is available here. They have students that are training to be evaluators, graduate students, so they can do the testing free of charge. And for a complete assessment with Dr. Boxer, Academy members would be prioritized.
Insight Academy is open after school lets out every day that our public schools are in session. Their philosophy for only being open when school is open is so that when there is a free day, like a bank holiday or teacher enrichment day that the families can take that day as a fun, free day so everyone gets a mental health day.
When I observed the students, there were six of them. They were so sweet and friendly – very interested in what I was doing there. They introduced themselves and I saw them engaging with one another and just seemed genuinely content. Ricci gets three hours a day, 15 hours a week and says, “I can actually sit with them and have a conversation where I can actually, physically watch them. As a teacher, when you have 30 kids, you have to learn how to read a room really fast. And I can do that. But here, I get to say, Okay, well, let’s try this. One of the things that we do that I just love is that Dr. Boxer tells me “just do whatever you think is right.” At school math time is 9 to 10 and reading time is – it’s all very prescribed because it has to be, because you have to control chaos. Here I’ve now taught the kids how to choose for themselves what they want to do first, and they can watch the clock. They have their folders and they may say “okay, I want to do my reading. Second, I want to do my math. They choose what works for them.”
Ricci talks to me about how they learn about socializing here too, mentioning that schools are 75% social and 25% academic. All those concerns about who they’ll eat with or sit with or do they have the right backpack etc. She says here, because they are a small number, they get very comfortable interacting with one another, helping each other with a skill – “so they’re learning life skills while they’re learning academic skills, which is something I think they lost in the pandemic,” she says.
“And I want to point out,” interjects Boxer, “Elaine just went over a couple things that are pretty remarkable. Every one of these kids has either a student support team in place or an IEP or a 504 plan – and the fact that they all come in and they’re sitting around eating their snacks and going through their work to see what they need to do today… these parents are getting calls from teachers saying “hey, your kid isn’t sitting still” or “they were disruptive”. But here, I mean, it’s just remarkable. They just sit and know what to do.”
“And it’s consistent,” continues Ricci. “They know they’re loved. They know they’re respected. They know their dignity is not going to be taken. And so they’re comfortable.”
“Kids are used to going into school and teachers like to teach them something,” adds Boxer. “And then there’s the outcome, like, what did you do? That’s right or wrong, right? Here, what Elaine does, it’s really magic, is that she lets kids figure it out. And that’s what learning is, right? Like when they’re babies they explore their environment. They crawl around, they learn stuff, they start speaking, no one’s teaching them how to talk. They
naturally start speaking – kids are natural learners. So the way she asks them how they want to do their test, and allowing them to think it through – that is the best way for kids to learn. So it’s amazing that she’s able to do that.”
And of course it’s not all homework. Like Ricci explained, it’s social and they do fun activities and projects. Recently they had a lot of fun figuring out how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the unhoused. Incredibly, none of them had a peanut allergy but had also never made them before. So there they all were, figuring out how to make 25 sandwiches. “One little guy was frustrated because his jam wasn’t spreading and was like “what is that?!” And it was a strawberry and he couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t spread. So that was a bit of learning and then they had to figure out how to get them all in the sandwich bags and they all had gloves on. And then they wanted to create colorful bags to put them in and they used facts they had learned that day about dinosaurs and put that on the bags. They were so into it! So yeah, I come into work every day without having a clue what’s going to happen. We have fun.”
If you haven’t gathered already, this is pretty revolutionary; to have an after school learning program with built in neuropsychology along with other specialists like speech language therapists and mindfulness trainers who come in and consult all under one roof. “It really works beautifully,” continues Ricci, “Dr. Boxer has created a model. If you can find a team that’s able to do this – this is doable anywhere. But you have to want it and it has to be your passion. It has to be “I want kids to grow”.
One thing in the offing is the addition of a transportation system to bring the children here from the schools. Boxer is hoping to have something in place by the end of the year. It will be exciting to see what’s next for Insight Academy!
For information visit InsightCollectiveAcademy.com