Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Seeing Things Clearly in the Classroom

Here at The Yellin Center we routinely screen the students we evaluate for vision and hearing problems. These are not in depth exams, but are designed to pick up vision or hearing difficulties that should be followed up with an ophthalmologist or hearing specialist. Students who can't see the board or clearly hear instructions from their teacher will not be able to perform at their best.  

As with most school districts, the New York City Department of Education arranges for regular vision screening of all children (during pre-K and in first, third, and fifth grades). Students who are new to the City or who are referred for special education evaluations, as well as students whose teachers suspect a vision problem are also screened by the DOE. At this point in time, routine hearing screenings have discontinued. The DOE outlines its procedures for screenings on its website.

But is screening for vision problems enough? Finding a problem is only one step in improving a child's vision. Researchers in Baltimore recently published findings that demonstrated the effectiveness of a highly proactive approach to helping children with vision deficits. Second and third graders from low income families were given eye examinations and those that were found to need glasses (182 out of 317) were given two pairs -- one for school and one for home. Furthermore, teachers made sure that the students wore their glasses in class and made sure that any broken glasses were promptly repaired or replaced. The researchers found that the students who now had reliable vision aids, without burdening their families, had statistically significant improvements in reading.
Both parents and teachers need to be mindful of the need for children to not only have the corrective lenses they need for maximal visual acuity, but to actually have their glasses with them and to wear them at all appropriate times. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

NYC Resources for Families

One of the great things about New York City is the number of terrific organizations and resources available to help families with a wide array of issues. 

InsideSchools is one of these organizations. Their nonprofit mission is to provide independent information on New York City's public schools, enabling parents to know what their school options are and to make knowledgeable decisions about schools based on the best available research on every public school in the City. They are in the process of updating their search tools and they continue to offer reviews of individual schools, as well as guides to such important topics as how to transfer schools, a guide to special education in public schools, and how to enroll in elementary, middle, and high schools. Inside Schools was initially a project of Advocates for Children of New York (see below), before moving on to be part of the  Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

Inside Schools is seeking volunteers to assist with reviews for charter high schools and middle schools across through the city. If you are interested and have at least six hours a week to volunteer, reach out to, sharing a bit about yourself, the grade level in which you are interested, and what neighborhood you know the best. 

Another excellent nonprofit that supports New York City families and students is Advocates for Children of New York, (AFC) whose work is directed at "...children who are at greatest risk for school-based discrimination and/or academic failure due to poverty, disability, race, ethnicity, immigrant or English Language Learner status, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness, or involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems."
Among their extensive services are a Helpline, which offers advice in a variety of languages and a wide array of written guidelines and resources. AFC also is involved in policy work and litigation, including a number of groundbreaking court cases that have extended the rights of students with disabilities. 

Even after many years of working in the world of education and special education, we often turn to these organizations' websites, for information about a particular school or school district, or guidelines to share with a family we are assisting. They are both worthy of your support.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Resolutions for Children and Families

Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics, through their parenting website,, have come up with a list of New Year's resolutions for children of different ages, all designed to help foster good habits and good health.

Marco Verch via Flickr
The lists are extensive, but a few examples for children ages 5-12 include using sunscreen, wearing a helmet for biking and similar activities, and not sharing any personal information -- or sending a photo -- on the internet. Resolutions for older children include avoiding peer pressure to try tobacco -cigarettes or e-cigarettes - drugs, or alcohol, avoiding distracted driving, and dating respectfully. Many of the suggestions have embedded links to extensive information elsewhere on the AAP site.

Other good ideas for starting the new year on a positive note come from Parenting magazine, which suggests resolutions for the entire family to make together. These include a weekly ritual - playing a game, having a movie night, volunteering as a family, exercising together - maybe a walk or a bike ride, and eating healthier, which can include having the entire family plan and prepare meals together.

Experts tend to agree that most people who make New Year's resolutions have trouble keeping them. But some steps may make it more likely to be successful with changes in behavior. Picking just one resolution at a time, instead of a long, aspirational list, can increase chances for success. So can making small changes; a family that never eats dinner together because of busy schedules may find it impossible to stick to a resolution to eat every dinner together around the table. But starting with a commitment to one or two nights of "family dinner time" each week can be a reasonable goal, one that even busy households may be able to reach. And research has shown that there are real, tangible, impacts on children's health and behaviors as a result of regular family meals.

Photo credit: USDA via Flickr

Friday, December 21, 2018

Our Annual Holiday Poem

For years we’ve written Christmas poems
To finish out the year
To share what we’ve been up to
And to send folks some good cheer

So, continuing tradition
We’re posting a new rhyme
To thank the many families
Who’ve given us their time

They’ve brought us their dear children
Who are struggling in school
And whom we help to see their strengths
And succeed with helpful tools

To the many schools with which we work
From all around our nation
We’re grateful for your trust in us
And send appreciation

To the doctors and the therapists
Who send their patients here
We do our best to help them
All throughout the year

To those who take the time to read
Our blog, newsletter, and tweets
It means so much that you’re out there
Our readers can’t be beat

To those folks who help our office run,
The only thing to say
Is that we couldn’t do the work we do
Without you every day

And so as this old year runs out
And the new is almost here
We wish you Merry Christmas
And a wonderful New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Toys for Young Children

Any parent who has watched their toddler play with a box, or a wooden spoon and saucepan, can attest to the joy to be found in simple items. This feeling contrasts with the concern many parents feel as they watch their school-aged child stare into a screen as they spend far too long playing a game or passively watching a video . It's no surprise, then, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently released a reminder of the importance -- and joys -- of simple play in the development of children.

This Clinical Report, Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era, was designed to guide pediatricians in speaking with parents, but contains important research findings and recommendations that parents will find helpful as well. The authors of the Report include Dr. Alan L. Mendelsohn, FAAP, who, like Dr. Yellin, is a member of the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, at New York University School of Medicine.

The report notes the importance of imaginative play, problem solving, and physical activity and especially supports the use of "guided play", where children use toys as part of an interaction with their caregiver. This can build social skills and language in a way that solitary play cannot.

Among other topics covered are the need to limit screen time. The Report notes, "there is presently no evidence to suggest that possible benefits of interactive media match those of active, creative, hands-on, and pretend play with more traditional toys."  The Report also discusses the need for toy safety, what to look for in toys for children with disabilities, and the importance of using books for pretend play. Especially in this season of gift giving, this Report is something parents should read, while incorporating its suggestions into their purchases and play with their children.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Gillen Brewer School

Your blogger had the opportunity to attend a professional open house last week at Gillen Brewer School, a special education school for young children located in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The school serves children from just under three years of age through age 10, in ungraded preschool and elementary classes. The staff and the school itself were most impressive and the education and support offered to the students clearly met each child at his or her own level and worked to make them more independent and to help them learn.

Gillen Brewer was founded to serve children with challenges with speech and language, gross and fine motor skills, learning, and sensory and social-emotional development. As the Head of School, Donna Kennedy explained to our visiting group, the children at Gillen Brewer "need adult support around functional use of skills." In addition, the school believes in the importance of partnering with parents and families and offers workshops and events through its School-Home Partnership Program.

The school provides that support for its students with numerous speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and doctoral level psychologists (five of each profession, for a student body of less than 100 children), as well as special subject teachers. Students come to Gillen Brewer (named for the grandmothers of the founders) with a variety of challenges and functional levels and the school offers two class models for its elementary students. Those students with more significant impairments, including those who lack functional communication and who need augmented communication devices, are served in a class of not more than six students, with one head teacher and two assistant teachers. Those students who have functional language and need adult support to communicate not more than around 30 percent of the time are served in a slightly larger class of up to 10 students, with one head teacher and two assistant teachers.

The school takes advantage of its New York City location with athletic activities at Asphalt Green, workshops with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and field trips to numerous city locations.

Among the students Gillen Brewer serves are those with medical issues (the school has three nurses on staff, to enable them to serve students who are nurse dependent) and those with mild to moderate autism, although Ms. Kennedy noted that the school does not utilize the ABA approach with its students with autism and that those students they will serve best will have mostly speech and language deficits. The school cannot serve students who are explosive or whose issues include aggression, wandering, or “running away.”

Such intensive support and remediation does not come cheap and the school is seeking to add a legal parent advocate position to assist its families and their attorneys with obtaining reimbursement from public school districts via Carter funding. In addition, the school will endeavor to offer Connors funding where parents are unable to lay out tuition while they await reimbursement, something they believe is important to their mission to maintain a diverse student body. Gillen Brewer no longer accepts referrals directly from school districts as an approved nonpublic school, although students who were enrolled by their districts are still "grandfathered in" to this status. The issue, one faced by most private approved schools, is that the difference between what New York State will pay them and their actual costs is significant and cannot be sustained by the school long term.

One good way to get a sense of how Gillen Brewer advances its mission is to view some of the videos on its YouTube channel. They showcase a school and staff dedicated to improving the life of students with significant challenges.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Impact of Social Media on Teenage Brain and Behavior – And What To Do About It

We are delighted to welcome Hima Reddy, Ph.D., to our team of bloggers. Dr. Reddy is a licensed psychologist and learning specialist at The Yellin Center, who will use her specialized training and experience to inform and engage our readers.

Social media is part of our daily existence. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and LinkedIn are just a few of the popular sites out there. A recent study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that twelfth graders spend nearly six hours per day on digital platforms, which raises the question: what does this mean for the teenage brain?

A recent study reported in Child Development looked at the results of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of approximately 61 high school and college students, age 13-21, to examine the impact of peer influence on multiple brain regions. Researchers found that both cohorts showed greater activation in the area of our brain involved in reward and pleasure, the nucleus accumbens, when they were viewing ‘Likes’ of their photographs on Instagram. A popularity effect occurs. Teens watch their photos receive a large amount of ‘Likes’ and are reinforced (rewarded) for putting up such a great picture, which explains why teenagers keep up that steady stream of photographs.

The study also examined age related differences in brain responses to social media. Researchers found that high schoolers experienced a stronger response to social reward than college students. High schoolers were also less likely to use the part of their brain responsible for cognitive control when they viewed pictures of 'risk-taking' behaviors, such as alcohol use, smoking, and partying. Researchers suggest that, “Social media tools offer an opportunity for adolescents and young adults to socialize one another to norms relating to these activities.” It is clear that the teenage brain is sensitive to peer approval and vulnerable to risk-taking. Much like the golden age of TV advertisements, social media platforms provide a visual gateway for public consumption.

The long term impact of social media on the developing brain remains to be studied. Parents and educators need to be aware that social media use becomes a habit that is reinforced 20, 50, or hundreds of times per day. Habits this strong can be hard to break.