Anyone who knows me knows I get fired up whenever I start talking about things I'm passionate about. When I met Diana Heldfond, founder of Parallel Learning, my heart almost burst right out of my chest! My number one mission is guiding families to resources they need to help their kids through learning or educational challenges. In my recent YouTube videos and podcasts, I've been doing what I can to connect families to helping professionals in my community. Diana contacted me recently to share her business ideas and we clicked instantly! Her vision is similar to mine, but with a technology and business background, she's ready to take this to a grand scale!
Naturally, I wanted to interview Diana, which I did, and those interviews can be found on my YouTube channel here, and on my podcast at EduSwitchboard, here. But this ended up being so important to me, that I want to share Parallel Learning's mission and vision for you readers out there. So, without further ado, I bring to you my interview with my younger, tech and business-savvy kindred spirit, Diana Heldfond!
Jana: "Diana, tell me about Parallel Learning."
Diana: "My name is Diana Heldfond and I am the founder of Parallel Learning. We are located in New York City, but also have a deep root in the Bay Area. The purpose of our business is to make specialized care for kids with learning differences more accessible to more families in a much more efficient manner. We created Parallel in order to remove many of the pain-points that families typically face when trying to get their child tested for potential learning disabilities and then when seeking ongoing care from educational and mental health specialists. There is no collaborative, integrated model for providing care and in turn many families are left confused and unable to get their child the help that they deserve. Technology is the key driver behind our platform; we are able to remotely test kids and then provide a highly personalized ongoing care regimen, administered all from the privacy of a child’s own home. We are also able to effectively track children's progress and make smarter matches between doctors, specialists and students through our highly personalized approach. In addition to giving parents the peace of mind that their children are getting the best care, we want to empower kids to be kids again and to take control of their education. Learning should be fun for everyone, but we need to acknowledge that each kid learns differently in order to achieve that goal."
Jana: "Diana, I could not agree more. I always say that assessment is only as good as what happens after it. It's really what a family does with the new information. It's similar to going to the doctor and finding out you have a medical diagnosis that is going to require you to change something, be it your diet, your exercise regimen, you might have to take medication, etc. Unless you take some effective action, nothing is going to change. By having an integrated and easy to access model, you should be able to have a farther reach and hopefully make the help students need more accessible.
Tell me about your background and what inspired Parallel Learning."
Diana: "Parallel was actually inspired by my own experience growing up with dyslexia and ADHD. I was lucky enough to be the youngest of six kids, all of whom struggled with various learning disabilities. My family took a very proactive approach to getting me tested and I was provided various resources to make sure I was able to keep up in school. I was very fortunate to attend Marin Country Day School for my K-8 education where they had a wonderful program for kids with learning differences. I then went on to attend high school in the Bay Area and then Georgetown University. During college I studied science, technology and international affairs and founded an ed-tech company. After undergrad, I moved to New York and took a job working in investment banking. Since then I have gone on to advise a few startups and invest here and there.
Parallel was inspired by my own experience navigating the world of learning disabilities and the stories I have collected from others over the years. My background working in finance and with startups ultimately pushed me to pursue this opportunity full-time and now we have a whole team dedicated to seeing its success!
Quick note on my personal story with learning differences: Even with every resource possible, I still struggled with the stigma of being “different” from my classmates and was frustrated by all of the extra time I was required to devote to my school work. As I reflect on my own experience, as privileged as I was, it infuriates me that I spent so much time and that my family spent so much money on a number of specialists who didn't make much impact in my life at all. Meanwhile, there were two specialists in particular who I worked with growing up who I attest are the only reason I can read or write at all. I hear stories like this all the time and what I really hope we can do at Parallel is cut out these inefficiencies that both students and families face today. In practicality, this means using technology to track students’ progress, regularly checking in and getting “smarter” about how we are matching students and specialists in the first place.
Jana: "Diana, you just hit a cord with me. As a psychologist, I'm super into data and tracking whether an intervention is making a difference. If you are able to show families that progress is being made through technology, it will be far easier to determine whether the intervention is working or if something needs to be tweaked or changed altogether. I can imagine that it's hard enough just to have a learning disability or ADHD. It is even worse that when you struggle with something, you have to spend more time in that area in order to make significant strides. So the more efficient and effective that process, the more likely the student will stay engaged and motivated.
Since we are currently in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tell me, what are you most concerned about during this time?"
Diana: "School is already hard enough when you have a learning difference. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like for students today having to attend virtual classes. I know first-hand how frustrating it can be to struggle in school and I'm very fearful of the residual effects distance learning will have on children's mental health and overall development. Furthermore, it has to be extremely worrisome as a parent who is witnessing this all first-hand and closer than ever to their child’s education. This is why we are building Parallel - we really want to give parents the peace of mind that their child is receiving the best care. We do that by aggregating top-tier clinicians and specialists and providing personalized support plans for each child’s unique scenario. Now more than ever, this highly personalized approach is very important because as new problems arise or situations evolve (especially due to COVID), we have all of the resources on our platform to support families through those transitions."
Jana: "I couldn't have said it better myself. You know, I also work in public education and I'm seeing the effects on a large scale with hundreds of teachers, thousands of students, and their parents. Whatever we can do to ease the burden on everyone right now is a step in the right direction.
I know you are just getting started with Parallel, but please give our readers some idea of the services that you'll be providing, how families can access them, etc."
Diana: "Parallel’s main customers are children who have or might have learning differences as well as those children’s parents. The children are from every grade from preschool through college. They are smart and unique humans who want to do well and feel confident in their abilities but may be struggling in one way or another. Obviously, there will always be certain cases in which in-person diagnosis or follow-up care is necessary, but for a good chunk of children struggling with various learning disabilities, online care through our site is a worthwhile solution.
Parallel is an all-in-one platform for parents and children to learn about learning differences, get diagnoses if appropriate, find qualified care providers and receive affordable treatment. On a technical level, this means connecting families with care providers who can both evaluate and administer ongoing care. Our online community of top-tier educational and mental health specialists (including speech and language pathologists, reading and writing tutors, educational therapists and so many more) are all easily accessible through our platform to work with children on an ongoing basis.
Parallel’s main value proposition is that it transforms a complex, frustrating system into something that is simple, transparent, and helpful. Those values are at the heart of all of our decisions—helping visitors and customers find the answers they need as quickly and easily as possible while moving them toward the next step of care. We also foster a collaborative approach to care in which doctors, specialists, and families are encouraged to work together to ensure the best outcomes for the students they work with."
Jana: "You know, this sounds like the utopian IEP process. I love it! Tell me something, as I ask this to everyone I interview, when would be the appropriate time for a family to check out Parallel Learning or what are some signs or symptoms that may be a good reason for a parent to visit your site?"
Diana: "Typically when kids exhibit some form of complications in the classroom, whether it be inability to focus, rowdiness, disorganization, poor time management, etc, that can be a trigger for learning disability of some sort. I am no expert in this field and I do not pretend to be (hence why I seek the council of folks like yourself), but I feel strongly about detaching the negative connotations we hold with the keywords listed above. If a teacher highlights this type of behavior in a child or a parent recognizes this behavior, by all means they should come to Parallel. Inevitably, we want to become the first spot families come to when looking for answers."
Jana: "That piece about shifting the negative connotation is so important. If a child is exhibiting a behavior that seems out of the norm, that is typically telling us something. It's sending a message, even if we don't know what it is yet. That's a perfect time to seek some help, and it may have a pretty easy fix. Speaking of, what is, or might have been, one of your favorite interventions or strategies you'd recommend for a struggling learner with ADHD or a learning disability?"
Diana: "I am very excited about the resources and tools that we can share with one another through this platform in general. There are so many helpful tricks that I devised in my own day to day that helped me get through my entire education. In addition to medically proven interventions or supports, I think there is so much room for students to educate other students, for parents to educate other parents and providers to educate other providers. I also think that there's a huge opportunity to change the stigma around learning disabilities more broadly by the content we share on our site. As a founder myself, I love seeing all of the Fortune 500 CEOs and founders who struggled from learning differences such as my own. The best thing we can do for the kids that come to our platform is inspire them to do whatever they put their mind to and make sure they have the resources to achieve those goals."
Jana: "Well, Diana, this has the capacity to help so many families and is totally aligned with my personal practices at JP LEP. I'm excited for the possibilities and am looking forward to seeing Parallel Learning grow into a supportive, collaborative, integrated and easily accessible system of care. I understand the initial site will provide resources and you plan to be up and running in the next month or so and with more functionality just after the new year. Please keep me posted on your progress and I will be connecting to Parallel Learning as soon as you're live!"
Diana: "Jana, thanks so much for having me!"
Avid readers, if you've made it to the end of this article, and you're interested in learning more about my practice at JP LEP, please head over to my website. I provide psycho-educational and school neuropsychological evaluations, Executive Function Coaching, and Parent Coaching following my assessments and Educational Coaching for any questions related to learning challenges and navigating the educational system. And again, my video interviews and podcasts with Diana and many others can be found on my website under the Resources and Podcast tabs or at EduSwitchboard on your favorite podcast player!