Friday, January 12, 2018

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

Over the years, we've written about sleep countless times. But one question that many families who come to The Yellin Center ask is just how much sleep is appropriate for students at different ages.

The National Sleep Foundation recently put together an expert panel, consisting of members of the American Academy of Pediatrics and 11 other groups, as well as half a dozen individual sleep experts. The panel reviewed existing literature and came up with recommendations for various age groups as follows:
  • Newborns (0-3 months)             14-17 hours per day
  • Infants (4-11 months)                12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years)                   11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years)            10-13 hours
  • School age (6-13 years)               9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years)               8-10 hours
  • Adults (18-64 years)                     7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65 years +)              7-8 hours
The panel noted, "Importantly, ... some individuals might sleep longer or shorter than the recommended times with no adverse effects. However, individuals with sleep durations far outside the normal range may be engaging in volitional sleep restriction or have serious health problems. An individual who intentionally restricts sleep over a prolonged period may be compromising his or her health and well-being."

There are variations in how much sleep children and adults need to thrive. But if your child -- or you -- is consistently sleeping outside these general guidelines, it could have an impact on learning and health, or be a symptom of an underlying medical issue. In either case, it is worth discussing with your physician. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

Last year, we wrote about research supporting a way to manage emails while managing stress. Tending to our internal needs while interacting with the external world has become a particularly challenging and important task as technology has increasingly saturated our daily realities. With smartphones vibrating in our pockets, lighting up next to our beds, and dinging at us from our desks, it can be easy to feel as if we are owned by technology rather than vice versa.

With so many distractors competing for our attention, and with attention being so vital for completing the tasks consistent with our goals and desires, we find ourselves in a historically unique predicament. Of course, while there wasn’t Facebook to check or text messages to respond to in the past, distraction was always a part of life. For example, one of our oldest ancestors might have been foraging for food when suddenly there was a rustle in the trees signaling a nearby predator. This would trigger a shift in focus away from the original goal (finding food) to a more pressing need for survival (escaping the predator). Illustrated in this example is that distractibility can actually be adaptive, which is precisely the reason it evolved. It is therefore important to remember that the key to optimal attention is not to avoid or somehow rid of distractibility, but to modulate our focus in the best way.

Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen emphasize this in their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. They present a wealth of interesting research regarding the brain, its cognitive feats and limitations when it comes to attention, our behaviors as they relate to focus and distractibility, and the impact of constantly shifting our attention as technology beckons. Finally, they suggest ways to take control and maximize your productivity and general well-being in the face of so much technological buzzing.

We appreciate and recommend this book, not just as professionals who work with many students struggling with attention, but as imperfect, self-reflective people who are always looking to understand ourselves better and improve the allocation of our own attentional resources. Perhaps you can challenge yourself to put the smartphone down and give it a read!

Friday, January 5, 2018


It's early January, and most of us are still working on our New Year's resolutions. Even if most of these promises to ourselves won't last the month, there is one easy fix for making life easier that might just stick longer - perhaps even permanently. 

Whether you are a harried parent, an educator, or a student, a simple white board can bring big benefits in helping to keep track of everything from shopping lists, to homework, to important dates. The key to making a white board an effective tool is size - the bigger the better - and prominence. Tucking your white board behind a door or in a corner will not be anywhere near as helpful as putting a large board of at least two or three feet in diameter smack in the middle of your room, your classroom, your office, or your kitchen.

You don't even have to have an actual board. There are now whiteboard or dry erase paints, that can transform any wall area to a white board. But you do need to keep erasable markers in a variety of colors (the better to catch your attention) nearby, as well as an eraser. And some boards are also magnetized, so magnetic clips will allow you to post fliers and reminders. Just don't overcrowd your board so that reminders get lost in the clutter.
It should draw your eye to its reminders and messages every time you pass by. And what if you don't really want to have everyone see that you have a doctor's appointment next Thursday? Use initials or other abbreviations that mean something to you but can still keep your essential information private.

What about electronic reminders and calendars? Aren't they more helpful? They are helpful and can be lifesavers for folks on the go. But the whiteboard is not intended to replace them, only to supplement them. Further, a whiteboard  can be seen by everyone in your household, so they are terrific for  such reminders as "Thursday is recycling pickup" or "Turn down the heat before you leave for the day".

Some other uses we recommend for the students with whom we work include:
  • Use a whiteboard to create a timeline for homework tasks, setting out when these will be done 
  • Create a checklist of tasks to accomplish each day, or each week. Cross off each assignment or responsibility when it is completed. For students who have difficulty breaking large tasks into their component parts and having a sense of accomplishing each step in the process, this visual reminder of progress can be extremely valuable
  • Putting "to bring" lists out in the open for each student in the family (and for parents, too) can help family members remind one another about things to take with them when leaving for the day. "Joe, did you bring your sneakers for gym?" "Mom, I need my permission slip signed. Did you give it back to me?" 
Our whiteboard has the message "Blog on Friday" written at the top. We can cross it off now ... and hope that our reminder has been helpful to you too.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Scratch Programming and Community

More than 23 million users sharing almost 28 million projects gives some small idea of the popularity of Scratch, which describes itself as "a programming language and an online community where children can program and share interactive media such as stories, games, and animation with people from all over the world."

A project of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, Scratch was recently celebrated in Ed., the Magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on the occasion of Scratch's 10th anniversary. When children were asked to share what they would tell a friend about Scratch, the top 10 responses included such terms as "excitement", "imagination", and "possibilities".

The developers of Scratch aim to help children -- generally from ages 8 to 16, although there is a version for younger children, ages 5-7, available as a free app called ScratchJr. -- "think creatively, work collaboratively, and reason systematically." There is no charge to use Scratch.

In addition to information for parents about Scratch, to enable them to understand how it works and to explain the guidelines of the Scratch community, the folks at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have created an online community for educators, ScratchEd, to enable them to share resources and stories. Scratch is a resource worth checking out. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Our Holiday Poem

We continue a tradition we started in 2010, blogging in rhyme for our last post of the year.

Every year around this time
Our blogging turns from prose to rhyme
It’s only once in every year
So, loyal reader, have no fear

We’ve rhymed suggestions, apps and tools
For students, parents, and for schools
We’ve rhymed our thanks to families
Who’ve brought their kids for us to see

We’ve thanked teachers, doctors, tutors, and more
Whose faith in our work means so much
Who gave us a great recommendation
That brought folks through our door

It’s been a special year for our Yellin team
We’ve had weddings and babies galore
Our staff’s been heroic and creative
And we couldn’t ask for anything more

But when we look beyond our walls
It’s been a time of some dismay
Our nation is divided
A bit more every day

So we will share our wishes
That things will change for all
For peace, love, and understanding
On issues great and small

We wish you all the best next year
For you and all your crowd
And that the year that's coming
Is one that makes us proud.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
The Yellin Center will be closed from December 23rd until Tuesday, January 2nd. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

NY State Adopts Changes to Diploma Requirements

We have been following how the New York State Board of Regents, the body that oversees public education throughout the state, has been making changes to the graduation requirements for New York students with disabilities.

Most recently, we wrote about changes the Regents adopted in 2016 to create a path to a diploma - called a "local diploma" - for students with disabilities who were unable to pass sufficient Regents exams to obtain a Regents Diploma, the "gold standard" academic diploma for New York students.

At that time, we noted that all changes to the strict Regents diploma requirements were

"... part of a delicate balancing act. Parents and educators want to make sure that all students -- including those with disabilities -- are offered a rigorous curriculum to prepare them for adulthood. On the other hand, both parents and schools recognize that because of their disabilities, some of these students will not be able to meet the highest bar set by certain state exams and risk being left without a high school diploma despite their best efforts to achieve this crucial credential."

Earlier this week, the Regents implemented another change, this one made without the usual notice to the public. It permits students who are unable to pass the English and math Regents (even at the lower passing rate for students with disabilities of 55 percent) to obtain a local diploma if their district certifies that they are prepared for entry-level employment and "showed proficiency" for those subjects in which they did not pass the Regents exam. 

Why is this so important to some families of students with disabilities? The credential which would otherwise have been available to these students who were unable to pass the Regents exams is the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential (CDOS). A local diploma is acceptable for college, military service, and employers; the CDOS is not. This change will increase the graduation rates for New York students and for some it will mean that they are eligible for jobs, military enlistment, or even college where they would not have been before this latest rule change. The long term impact of arguably lowering academic standards will be harder to quantify, but for the relieved parents reportedly attending the most recent Regents meeting, these longer term issues are not paramount. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Some Old-News Updates on Best Practices

Two articles you may have missed in The New York Times reiterate some important points about how to help children with two very different but very common difficulties – anxiety and disruptive behavior. 

The first article, an opinion piece written by Dr. Perri Klass, whose work and writing have been featured in a number of our blog posts (check out her other informative pieces in The Times here), reports on a meta-analysis that investigated the effectiveness of different therapies and drugs used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders in children. To read the meta-analysis on your own, see the reference at the bottom of this post. A meta-analysis is a large research undertaking that combines the results of many smaller studies to get a better idea of the big picture. This meta-analysis looked at a combined total of 7,719 patients between the ages of five and sixteen. As expected, the researchers found that exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a preferred treatment. With this type of therapy, children as young as five years old are exposed to what makes them anxious so that they can practice dealing with the triggers with support, while they simultaneously work on changing how they think about the things that make them feel bad. The researchers also found that the newer types of anti-depressants can be helpful, but they are best when used in combination with therapy (and they were found to be not as effective when used alone, as compared to the exposure-based CBT).
For those of us working in the field, this meta-analysis didn’t really tell us anything groundbreaking. It does, however, get the message out that there is an evidence-based way to help children who are suffering from the kind of anxiety that interferes with their ability to function at home and school. It also reiterates, for parents and caregivers who are seeking help, the importance of finding a therapist who focuses on this type of therapy in her or his work with anxious children.

The second Times article, from October, is another opinion piece, published in the Fixes column, and written by Suzanne Bouffard. In her column, Bouffard describes the process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a technique developed by Ross Greene, who wrote a book we love to recommend at The Yellin Center - The Explosive Child. Bouffard begins by describing the typical disciplinary methods used at many schools, even preschools, across the country. Children are typically removed from the educational environment as a disciplinary measure - they may be put in time out, forced to complete useless assignments as punishment, or even suspended from kindergarten. The main point that Bouffard makes here, and that is at the foundation of my field - school psychology - is that these exclusionary tactics may temporarily stifle unwanted behaviors, but they are also often psychologically harmful and, even more importantly, do not teach our youngest students what they should be doing instead. There’s an unfortunate persistent idea that kids behave well when they want to, but the truth is that kids behave well when they can. Taking a child who struggles with regulating her behavior and excluding her from the classroom and putting her in isolation, for example, does absolutely nothing to help her practice the skills she needs to do better next time.

Collaborative problem solving was described in one of my previous posts on this blog. Bouffard’s piece takes the philosophy behind it and puts it in a very real context, with real examples of families who have seen what a difference it can make. I highly recommend reading the article and thinking deeply about the kind of discipline your child experiences at home and at school. It offers us the opportunity to ask ourselves some potentially difficult questions about whether we’re really using what the field of psychology likes to call best practices when helping our children and our students grow into well-adjusted citizens.

Wang, Z., Whiteside, S. P., Sim, L., Farah, W., Morrow, A. S., Alsawas, M., ... & Daraz, L. (2017). Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Pharmacotherapy for Childhood Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Jama Pediatrics, 171(11), 1049-1056.

Photo by MichaƂ Parzuchowski on Unsplash