The Shut-Down Learner

Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child


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The Shut-Down Learner is based on the author’s clinical experience as a director of a program in the pediatrics department of a large teaching hospital that assesses and treats a broad range of learning problems. He has consulted with thousands of families, explaining complex data in straightforward terms understandable to the parents. He coined the term “shut-down learner” to describe children who thrive with hands-on tasks requiring visual and spatial abilities, but who become discouraged by their difficulty mastering core academic skills such as reading and writing.

As much as 40% of Americans experience problems with these core skills, and a significant proportion of them are spatial thinkers. This book is packed with techniques that parents can use to help their shut-down learner succeed in school and in life. In a friendly, non-technical style, the author helps us understand our child’s characteristics and offers specific approaches to break the downward spiral.

Dr. Selznick is a psychologist, a university professor, and the Director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper University Hospital.


Praise for The Shut-Down Learner


In reading Dr. Selznick’s book, I thought for a minute he was writing my biography! I was one of those shut down learners who was called lazy almost every day. I was a child who believed I was just not very bright, and I believed that for the first 30 years of my life. And like the rest of us, I was filled with shame and self-loathing. If this book had been available to my teachers and my parents back then, how much suffering could have been avoided. If your child is doing poorly in school, imagine how much suffering can still be avoided. This book is clear, informative and without jargon. But more importantly, in today’s world of diagnose it and medicate it, Dr. Selznick humanizes very real children with very real problems.

—Daniel Gottlieb, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, family therapist, host of “Voices in the Family” radio show, author of Learning from the Heart

Dr. Selznick not only challenges parents to gain a better understanding of their children, but also challenges the schools to understand how these children shut down. While wholesale revamping of curriculum is not being suggested, small changes can be easily accomplished. Children can be mentored. They can be encouraged. Teachers play a central role in altering the child’s negative belief patterns. The key is on relationship building. This does not cost money, but it takes time. As Dr. Selznick pointed out, sometimes taking a child for a walk or sharing a soda will long be remembered. Just conveying to the child that he/she is valued is enormously important on so many levels.

—William G Sharrar, M.D., Chief of Pediatrics, Cooper University Hospital, Professor of Pediatrics, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Dr. Richard Selznick is the rare academic who speaks the language of parents and is able to make learning and developmental theory readable. He has the gift to turn theory into practice and to offer parents hope where there was hopelessness and frustration.

—John Kellmayer Ed.D., Superintendent, Brooklawn Public School District

I always knew I had certain talents and gifts, but up until I read this book, none of my feelings about school made sense to me. The revelation was that the book validated my brand of thinking, which is something that had never had happened before.

—Patrick Flanigan, photographer and former shut-down learner

Dr. Selznick has a keen eye for professional observation and extraordinary empathy for the children and parents that are fortunate enough to cross his path. Without resorting to professional jargon, Dr. Selznick has created a resource for parents and teachers that promotes insight and understanding, relieves guilt, and provides strategies for intervention.

—G. Emerson Dickman, J.D., President of the International Dyslexia Association


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I am reading a wonderful book, The Shut Down Learner: Helping your Academically Discouraged Child, by Dr. Richard Selznick, and I think every school district, principal and teacher should make it required reading. It is all about identifying young children who might show signs of becoming “shut-down learners” and also helping children all the way up to high school or as adults who may have found that they finally did shut down and how to rebound from that.

The opening dedication to the book sold me before I started reading it. The author dedicated it to his father who “would never let a child shut down on his watch,” and he complimented his father with these words: “no one understood the art of developing a child’s self-esteem better than he did.” I now strive to live up to those words and hope to give that gift to my own children and the children I teach.

This is not about stroking children’s egos and never allowing them to struggle. It is about identifying strengths to build upon, including finding strength to develop skills that do not come easily. My column is not long enough for me to lay out an education plan here, but start with the book and get back to me. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down, and I am sure you will feel the same.

—Carol Veravanich,  The Orange County Register

Dr. Selznick is a nationally certified school psychologist and the Director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper University Hospital in Voorhees, NJ. The Shut-Down Learner (SDL) is based on his experience working with parents and students who are not doing well in school.

According to Dr. Selznick, the term shut-down-learner means “children who thrive with hands-on tasks requiring visual and spatial abilities, but who become discouraged by their difficulty mastering core academic skills such as reading and writing.”

Dr. Selznick wrote this book to give hope to families of these children. So often, school failure has set up a pattern of negative interactions between the school, child, and parents that wind up leading to a child who just quits trying. Depending on the situation, the child can become completely shut down.

Dr. Selznick writes about Alex, a typical SDL. In an interview with his mother, he described a child’s motivation as seeping out slowly “like the air seeps out of a pinhole in a tire.” He then asked, “When do you remember the difficulty with school beginning to emerge for Alex?”

Alex’s mother said, “For Alex, it wasn’t the air slowly seeping out. I think there was a big puncture in first grade because the teacher gave the kids worksheet after worksheet after worksheet….He would come home at the end of the day with a half-dozen of these worksheets, which he was asked to complete for homework, on top of all the ones he did not complete in school…Can you imagine? First grade! He was six years old!”

In the book, Dr. Selznick describes how he works with these parents and children to discover their strengths and capitalize on that as a way to motivate and excite them about learning. In the chapter called, “The Shut-Down Learner’s Perspective,” a former SDL tells what helped him come out of his shell. He says, “I was the guy with the camera.” He goes on to say about Dr. Selznick’s book, “I think the most important thing is to help mentor the kids and teach them how to value and use this visual-spatial talent that they have. That’s what [is] great in your book. That really struck a chord with me. It’s like this gift that they don’t understand.”

If you have a child who is struggling in school, you will enjoy reading Dr. Selznick’s book. It can change the way you interact with your child and possibly “make all the difference in their future.”

The book offers suggestions for how to dig out of the despair and learn to understand and appreciate the strengths of your child.

—Livia McCoy, Richmond Parenting & Education Examiner

The new academic year nearly always holds a lot of promise for parents. While the kids figure out what to wear the first day and have the excitement of meeting up with friends they haven’t seen for a while, that excitement soon wears off. For some kids, that’s when they start moaning about homework, disliking school, and looking for excuses. It might be that instead of just lazy or unmotivated, you might have a shut-down learner.

I got a review copy of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child by Dr. Richard Selznick a couple of months ago, and thought the beginning of an academic year was a good time for a review.

In Dr. Selznick’s words, a “Shut-Down Learner” typically comes in two styles:

1. Disconnected, unmotivated and difficult
2. Pleasant and terribly insecure

Where the first style disconnect and give an attitude of not caring, the second style is more social but rarely participates. General signs of the shut-down learner:

  • disconnected
  • fundamental reading, writing and spelling skill weaknesses
  • increased avoidance of homework
  • dislike of reading
  • hatred of writing
  • little/no gratification from school
  • A student may have a poor vocabulary, poor listening skills, give short and less-developed responses to questions, get overwhelmed by too much verbal input, and possibly exhibit weak reading comprehension.

However, where the children thrive and succeed are in the spacial-based areas. Typical characteristics include: being a “Lego kid,” loving puzzles, engaging for hours with hands-on activities, loves taking things apart, good visual detail and recall, and enjoying movement-based tasks.

Any parent of children beyond early elementary years knows the tasks and work become less spacial-based and more language-based. The first fifty-four pages go through the description of a shut-down learner. The remaining one-hundred or so pages go through working with a shut-down learner.

At this point I should say that I believe I have two children who (to varying degrees) are less language-based and much more spacial-based. I’ve seen some of the characteristics of the shut-down learner in their approach to school and school-work.

Dr. Selznick gives several good suggestions for diffusing the tension that may build in the home, how to find help getting a good evaluation of your child’s skills, and suggestions for how work with teachers and others in your child’s academic environment. Dr. Selznick interviews a few students to show their struggles and eventual successes.

I liked the non-technical writing style, and found it an interesting and quick read. The care and concern for students struggling in school is evident through the suggestions and examples that Dr. Selznick provides.

It will be a book that I share with teachers this academic year – I wish that I had this book a few years ago.

—Technology News

Your teenager is struggling in school, and you’re convinced it’s because he’s just not applying himself. He barely does his homework, there’s a constant struggle at home, and the more you push, the more he retreats.

This is the classic case of a shut-down learner, says Dr. Richard Selznick. Selznick, who serves as director of the Cooper Learning Center, a division of the Department of Pediatrics of Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, assesses and treats a broad range of learning and school-based academic and behavioral problems. Over the years, Selznick has consulted with thousands of families and has discovered that, unfortunately, shut-down learners are a fairly common group of learners. “The prototype shutdown learner is a teenager who feels pretty beaten down by the time he comes to me,” Selznick says. “He has an emotional block, and his battery is depleted. He’s got his parents coming at him, the teacher. It’s too much.”

Selznick’s recent book, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child, is written for parents of just this kind of kid. “I try to present things to parents in a very down-to-earth way, without any jargon, so that it’s digestible and not threatening,” Selznick says. “The message is this: parents need to understand these kids. Yelling at the kids, telling them they’re not trying hard enough—this doesn’t work.” Selznick explains that in many cases, parents just need to back off, be less aggressive about the homework, and find a way to relate to their child’s struggles.

“These kids may have a range of learning disorders,” Selznick says, “but I want to stay away from the labeling because in the end, these kids have a great number of strengths that they need to key into.”

As Selznick explains it, the shut-down learner tends to be a problem-solver, someone who learns spatially and thrives with hands-on tasks that load on visual and spatial abilities. On the downside, they often lack the core skills necessary for success in school. “These kids often get all the way through the system, getting more and more disconnected because they simply can’t learn the way teachers want to teach,” Selznick says. “But when you say to the kid, ‘Look, you’re really good at this stuff—if I put you in a room with a hundred kids, you’re better than ninety of them’—then the kid feels okay, like ‘I’m good at a lot of things. I’m smart.’”

Selznick says the key is that these children learn differently; they need patience and understanding from parents, and they also need their parents to believe in their strengths and to empower them.

“They can be a hard group to work with. They’re giving their parents a hard time, they look bored in class, they’re disconnected,” Selznick says. “Or, the second type I see is the ones who are more pleasant in the social area, but they’re masking their insecurities. Either way, they need to understand that they’re really smart kids and they’re good at things, too.”

In fact, Selznick says, if these kids can survive school without losing too much self-esteem, they have a good chance at being highly successful.

Lloyd Stone, a classic shut-down learner growing up, has turned out to be successful despite his earlier challenges in school. Today, at 53, Stone is president of Manny Stone Decorators in New Jersey, a company that designs and builds trade show exhibits for clients on a national and international scale. I’ve overcome this and adapted to it and have actually been able to assimilate into society by creating a different path,” Stone says. “It’s almost like a mutation … I branched out in other directions that got me to the same place.” Stone’s experiences in school have also given him a very specific take on best practices in business: “I hire B students. A students, things come too easily to them,” Stone says. “I want the B student, the guy who has met with defeat and has been able to learn from defeat.”

This should be music to many parents’ ears. However, Selznick urges parents to trust their instincts when their kids are young and to spot the learning problems early. “Some people will say, ‘Oh, you know how boys are. He’ll grow out of it.’ But if your gut tells you something’s wrong, get it checked out,” Selznick says. “Save your kid the trouble later.”

If you think your young child might fit the mold of the shut down learner later on, here are a few things to look for:

  • Tuning out in circle time
  • Highly spatial and visual learners
  • Active or over-active
  • Difficulty with language-based activities such as reading and writing

Shut-down learners don’t develop overnight, and early intervention is key. Selznick suggests that if the problems persist into 1st or 2nd grade, a visit to a child or school psychologist is probably a good idea.

—Anna Weinstein,

If your child has a reading disability, like dyslexia, if he feels defeated, hates school, and comes home sullen and miserable and angry, Dr. Richard Selznick’s The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child can be of tremendous help. It can help you better understand why he’s miserable or angry. It can help you to better understand dyslexia and its emotional effects. More importantly, it gives you simple, sound, and practical advice on how to help him.

Here are a few samples:

1. Identify the “cracks in the foundation” as early as possible. Find a professional who knows the “red flags” to identify for early learning problems. So much heart-ache can be avoided if you address the skills weaknesses early.

2. If the cracks are widening, seek outside help if possible. Don’t be passive and wait for the schools to intervene. They may, but it’s often a long process. Many of the children I see are not bad enough to warrant the school’s intervention. It’s a negative snowballing effect. Use word of mouth in your community to find people who can intervene

3. Know the kind of reading problem you’re targeting. There are essentially two types. In the first type the child has trouble decoding the words and reading fluently. This type is the largest majority of the struggling kids. In the second type, the child can read fluently, but has great trouble understanding what he/she has read. Get clear on what you are targeting!!!! Don’t scattershot your remediation.

4. Take the heat out of the interaction. For most of the struggling kids, the daily ritual of yelling about school is a constant. Households are tense. Lots of blame goes around. Pecking at your child, nagging and yelling are not working. Why continue?

5. Find the child’s true strength and help kid embrace it. The shut down learners that I know do not feel very good about themselves and they do not see their strengths. Most of these kids are very solid in the visual spatial dimension of ability. This is often not valued in school. The kids need to learn to value this trait and see it as a potential.

6. Find someone to connect and mentor your child in school. If your child is older, push the kid to have one adult in the building as child’s mentor. It should be someone that your kid can form a relationship with. Too often shut-down learners go through school not bonded to anyone. This is tragic.

7. Keep your humor. Try not to let school problems become all consuming. Go out for an ice cream sundae with your kid even if he hasn’t done his homework! School problems can be so all consuming – don’t lose touch with your kid’s good qualities.

Fortunately, the value of The Shut-Down Learner doesn’t end with advice. Dr. Selznick shows you how to apply this advice. With great sensitivity, he writes about several of the shut-down learners he has known. He shares their conversations and insights and shows how they didn’t let their learning problems and the rigidity of schools destroy their lives.

In 160 well-written, easily understood pages, Richard Selznick has given parents of discouraged, defeated, and demoralized learners, a simple but powerful set of ideas for helping them help their children.

—Howard Margolis, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds


Click here to read a review in The Futurist

Logan school takes new approach to building strength

As students file into Jace Dutweiler’s Flex Time technology period at Logan Elementary School, they grab kits of Legos and get to work. The determination and excitement for these special periods can be seen on their face, and by the eager way they begin to build.

Flex Time is a new concept developed by Principal Bob Fisicaro and implemented at the beginning of the school year. Based on a book by Richard Selznick called The Shutdown Learner, the program aims to find strengths in children and allow them to explore them, rather than a constant focus on test taking and scores.

“The educational system is primarily tailored to students with a verbal type of intelligence,” Fisicaro said. “All students should learn how to read, write and reason, but our staff is honing in on educating the whole student.”

There are many different types of learners spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, logical and more and Fisicaro hopes to identify with all of them at Logan Elementary. A second book that influences him in developing Flex Time “Strengths Finders 2.0” by Tom Rath helps to determine to what types of activities certain learners might be better suited.

For six and half hours each day students have a regular school day, but for 30 minutes small groups get to participate in classes that they enjoy and have expressed interest in. The smaller group instruction generally less than 10 children allows teachers to give more personal attention and gives the students a chance to really get involved in the subject.

There are eight sessions, or cohorts, throughout the year, each one lasting four weeks. In addition to the technology class there are also options for puppetry, guitar, piano, perspective drawing and special math classes.

The idea is to allow students that may have talent in a field other than normal scholastic achievement to be able to experiment and find the types of things they are good at and that they like to do, and in the small class groups instructors can more easily recognize skills.

—Rebecca Forand, Gloucester County Times

Timeless truth, different delivery #5 – Why?

While most of us are somewhat keeping up with tech changes on a personal level, I sense a level of skepticism by some about the value of using more tech in our instructional delivery at the school level. This is brought home in the dichotomy of hearing a principal pooh-poohing the idea that his school needs to move ahead with integrating technology, and moments later he gets a message on his Blackberry! It is true- we tend to get the value of tech for our personal use, but why don’t we allow students the same level of use as they try to do their work? The fact is we find it difficult to break out of our “teaching box” and teach differently than we were taught. We want to make sure that we are not leaving out essential skills and that is a good thing. However, given how much things are changing, I believe we are remiss if we don’t make time for both the conversation about what is truly essential (and what we can leave behind – we are not teaching penmanship as much anymore are we?) and how we will deliver instruction in relevant and engaging ways. We are moving from a culture of teacher delivery to a culture of guided exploration/collaboration and we must engage students in the learning process.

Are we getting better at engaging students? Yes and no. A recent study released in March 2009 from the Speak Up National Research Project indicated that “students are generally asked to ‘power down’ at school and abandon the electronic resources they rely on for learning outside of class.” (Education Week, 4/1/09) Furthermore they don’t believe they are being adequately prepared for the tech demands of the marketplace. We can pooh-pooh the importance of engagement, but must acknowledge that how learners learn continues to tip in the direction of visual-spatial intelligence, and to not deliver instruction in those ways is simply sticking our heads in the sand. Richard Selznick, author of The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Disadvantaged Child, believes that 4 out of 10 elementary school students may give up on learning before graduation time and become “school casualties.” In his counseling work he has noticed that almost all of his clients are strong in “hands-on” and weak in language skills. The problem of course is that most classroom instruction is highly verbal and subsequently “deadening” to them. Their disinterest, distraction, and failure to follow through on work is sometimes viewed as laziness and low motivation. These students are sometimes diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia and prescribed medications. We can and should do better for kids who are square pegs and don’t fit our standard round holes, rather than knocking off all their God-given edges. We all know stories of people who barely survived school and once freed from formal education went on to make significant and meaningful contributions to life.

Recent research around the concept of “flow” in teenagers again points to the need for engagement and motivation. (“Flow” is the state in which we are so engrossed in doing something that we forget everything else. For more info, see the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi done in the 1990’s and reported in his books.) When do teenagers experience “flow” and when don’t they? Not surprisingly, classroom time rated among the worst experiences in terms of “flow”, while extracurricular activities were among the highest. 

So what does this have to do with nurturing faith? I suggest that a deadening education is an education that tends to discourage faith. When we don’t acknowledge that students are uniquely created and learn in different ways, then we disrespect them as persons and cause them to feel somehow “less than.” Without opportunities to learn using their individual strengths, we are disregarding how they have been created. Given that many of our students are visual-spatial, by not allowing them to tap into these strengths as learners, we are providing a deadening education. If as a learner I feel no sense of acceptance or place, it will impact my faith in a just and loving God. If I can’t feel a sense of being valued from my teacher for how God has made me, it will affect my desire to embrace the teacher’s worldview. If I am discouraged in my learning, how can I possibly desire to learn more? I pray that we are not fulfilling Neil Postman’s analysis that many children begin formal education as question marks and leave as periods, with the feeling, “if this is learning, I want nothing more to do with it.” How can this be honoring to a God who has provided us with a fantastic creation that is full of learning possibilities? God has made us to be learners, and when we shut that down in students, we bear an awful responsibility for the impact on their learning and faith development.

Technology is a gift that we have been given to nurture faith and make learning more accessible, engaging, and collaborative. What is holding us back? Some of you may not have the technology you need, but others of you have more technology than you are even using. As one administrator commented, “It’s like we have a Learjet that we only drive to church and back.” I encourage you to have this dialogue around technology, engagement, instructional delivery, and faith – for the sake of the kids – and determine how to best move forward.

Nurturing Faith

Educator calls for new approach to nontraditional learners

Born and raised in Westerleigh, Richard Selznick gleaned a lot from his dad, a long-time borough educator

STATEN ISLAND, NY — WESTERLEIGH — We’ve all known children who psychologist Dr. Richard Selznick labels “Lego Kids.” They’re youngsters who are great with their hands and spatial relationships, but utterly lost when it comes to reading, writing and spelling.

They become what the former Westerleigh resident calls “shut-down learners” — increasingly disconnected and discouraged with themselves and with school.

They’re the subject of a book he recently published, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child (Sentient Publications,, which is focused on how teachers and parents can best provide necessary emotional support.

“The shut-down learner (SDL) concept has been percolating in me for some time,” says Selznick, who acknowledges math and spatial-visual skills have never been his strengths.

“Virtually all of us have a mix of strengths and weaknesses and, depending upon what’s asked of us, feel either competent or incompetent. Unfortunately, in school, students are labeled either ‘smart’ or not. So, sadly, many shut-down learners see themselves as ‘dumb’ or losers; they don’t understand their gifts and, tragically, finish high school with little sense of personal value,” he said.

There’s no easy fix for dealing with SDLs, said Selznick, director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper University Hospital in Voorhees, N.J. “But parents can help first by understanding their child and the impact of the SDL’s primary learning strengths and weaknesses, and encouraging those strengths,” he said.

Selznick, 53, was born on Staten Island, the only child of Mel and Betty, both now deceased. He grew up in Westerleigh, attended PS 30 in his community and Markham Intermediate School in Graniteville, before moving on to Stuyvesant High School, then the University of Rhode Island. He earned a masters degree at New York University and his doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia.

His father taught in South Beach, was an assistant principal at Prall and Morris intermediate schools, then a long-time, popular principal of PS 22, Graniteville. “He was one of the few principals I knew who actually liked noise and tumult. To him, a quiet school was not a happy one,” said his son.”

He also served as athletic director and travel camp director at the Island’s Jewish Community Center.

Selznick himself taught at Bernstein Intermediate School, Huguenot and PS 55, Eltingville. Child psychology seemed a natural fit for Selznick, who’s worked with children since he was 15, as a camp counselor.

He and his wife Gail, an attorney, have two children.

Selznick believes the most valuable influence on an SDL is an encouraging relationship with an understanding, caring “mentor,” not necessarily a professional.

In school, the SDL often feels disliked by teachers and, rather than change, blames others. “Teachers need to understand these kids have reading issues and to stop nagging them, and eliminate the tedious worksheets that contribute to the children feeling disconnected and badgered,” he said.

The “magic” teachers, including his late father Mel, get it. They intuitively understand a child’s value and are able to make the child feel valued, says the psychologist, who still “gets chills” recalling “To Sir with Love.”

“It’s never too late for classic SDLs to progress and have successful lives,” said Selznick. “One young man couldn’t understand why he was doing poorly on his medical-school entrance exams. After testing him, I told him he had a reading disability that had gone unidentified. He’d been smart enough to cover up his weaknesses. He was so determined to become a doctor, he worked hard at the Center on reading remediation and is a very successful doctor today.”

Among Selznick’s inspirations are Joe Namath, Mick Jagger/Keith Richards (collectively), Woody Allen and Damascus, the 1967 Horse of the Year, but primarily his father.

“He inspired me in many ways, above all his deep respect for people’s humanity, no matter their walk of life. He almost never said a disparaging word about another person or stooped to gossip. I was the rare kid who really had direct access to his parent’s life.”

Selznick says we have light years to go in terms of improving our approach to “Lego Kids.”

“We need alternatives that don’t translate to parents as ‘you’re dooming my child,’ as some fear when they hear things like vocational education,” he said.

Joel Cohen is a freelance reporter. He can be reached through the Advance at

Joel H. Cohen, Staten Island Advance

about the author

Richard Selznick Ph.D

Dr. Selznick is a psychologist, a nationally certified school psychologist, and a graduate school professor. As the Director and Founder of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper University Hospital, Dr. Selznick oversees a program that assesses and treats a broad range of learning and behavioral problems in children. The Cooper Learning Center is the leading program in its region, offering not only assistance with children, but also parent and teacher training programs.

In addition to his role as the Director of the Cooper Learning Center, Dr. Selznick functions as a school consultant, and throughout the year he speaks to numerous parent groups, schools, and regional conferences on topics such as dyslexia, bullying, and ADHD. He has appeared on the nationally syndicated Lynne Doyle show, “It’s Your Call.”

Dr. Selznick strives to offer his audiences and patients with practical and applicable strategies for the challenging issues they face. He hopes to provide parents and teachers with the necessary methods to help children with academic problems. A native of New York, Dr. Selznick currently lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey.

Dr. Selznick's website is