Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Some of Our Favorite Resources

There are some "go to" resources that we turn to time and again for information about schools and other subjects. You may already use them, but in case you don't and in the hope you find them as helpful as we do, we thought we'd bring a few of them to your attention.

The terrific website InsideSchools.org has reorganized its resources, making it easier to find information on such topics as free programs for students and families, a wide variety of publications on subjects such as how to find elementary, middle, and high schools, and tools for such important topics as How to Change Schools, Special Education, and English Language Learners.

Inside Schools is always a helpful resource for information about specific New York City Public Schools, with search options popping up right on the home page. But it isn't always up to date, since it depends on school visits to each of the schools it reviews. Parents should also take a look at the NYC Department of Education website, where more recent information (without the narrative discussion that makes InsideSchool's reviews so helpful) can often be found. 

In fact, the major limitation of InsideSchools is that it only deals with New York City Public Schools. Families who live outside of New York City can often find guidance on the website GreatSchools.org., which is a national nonprofit with information on both public and private schools nationwide. 

Another resource we like is the steady stream of emails from the A.D.D. Resource Center, headed by Harold Meyer, a founder of CHADD of New York City (Children & Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), the national volunteer-based organization. This resource isn't for those who are protective of their inbox - Hal Meyer is prolific and can send a half dozen or more emails each day about topics relating to attention and learning. But most of his emails are interesting and some are really excellent. You can sign up for his e-list from his website. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Considering Emotions in the Classroom

It’s been almost 100 years since Pavlov, one of the earliest behavioral psychologists, set the precedent of linking learning with positive emotions. We learn better when we’re engaged and feeling good. It’s only in the last decade or two, however, that schools have started to take emotions seriously by implementing school-wide programs. There’s no shortage of research out there reminding us that unhappy kids are going to have a lot of trouble learning, but newer research has started focusing on positive emotions as well. Here at The Yellin Center, we see a lot of students who are feeling down or frustrated, often because they haven’t gotten the academic support they need in order to feel successful. Thankfully, lots of researchers have begun looking at how we can help students experience more positive emotions and, more importantly, learn how to identify, accept, and respond to the emotions they feel.

From kindergarten to college, we see a relationship between emotions or mood and grades or achievement. We also know that students with lower moods perceive themselves as less competent. It would be impossible to run a study looking at the directionality of these relationships, but it’s clear that negative moods, lower achievement, and feelings of incompetence are linked, regardless of what causes what. Parents and teachers want students to feel good about their work and to be engaged in the learning process. Feeling anxious, sad, or angry can get in the way of academic engagement. According to one theory, the “Broaden and Build Model” (Fredrickson, 2001), positive emotions broaden our mind, allow us to explore more of our environment and make us more aware of what’s going on. Negative emotions, on the other hand, have a narrowing effect; we are more likely to become fixated on a certain aspect of our environment and miss out on other details. Positive emotions might also increase our consciousness of potential solutions to problems – cognitive flexibility and strategy use, in other words. Way back in the early 1900’s, developmental psychologists already knew that feelings of joy lead to children’s desire to play and be creative – two very important mechanisms in the learning process, especially during early childhood (Vygotsky, 1978).

In our work, we know that before any academic interventions or strategies can be put in place, we need to focus on helping students feel their best so they’re ready to tackle whatever difficult learning comes their way. We’re especially happy to see researchers turning away from exploring negative emotions and towards testing out different school-based socioemotional interventions that can increase positive emotions, emotional regulation, and engagement. Two programs that have been gaining traction are socioemotional learning programs and mindfulness meditation. Socioemotional learning programs help students develop their emotional intelligence through a programmed sequence of lessons on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. There are a number of commercially available curriculums that schools have the option of buying as packages, but lots of teachers are implementing socioemotional learning into their classrooms on their own, as well. One of the most important lessons for students is learning how to identify their feelings, respond to them appropriately, and develop a toolbox of coping strategies for moving to a more positive state, if necessary. This is an important set of skills to start working on before children even step foot in a classroom; it helps young learners face challenges, conflicts, and failures appropriately. Parents and caregivers can start introducing children to a robust emotional vocabulary and coping toolbox as soon as a baby starts to attend to the people around her or him.

A second intervention steadily gaining popularity is mindfulness meditation. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founding figures in the field, mindfulness is focused on learning how to be with your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way and to selectively attend to them. It can help students recognize their emotions and learn how to cope with them effectively in order to make space for positivity and calm. Research looking into the effects of mindfulness meditation in the classroom has found increased self-regulation, attentional control, and prosocial behavior (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2010).

We’re excited to see over the next few years what research comes out about school-based interventions that take the whole child into account – that is, academics that also focus on helping students feel positively empowered to engage in learning by giving them the tools to not just solve math problems but also manage the wave of emotions within each of us. In the meantime, feel free to check out the resources listed below and talk to your child’s school about how your child is learning to be emotionally empowered.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151.

Resources and Further Reading

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are (10th ed.). New York, NY: Hachette.

Snel, E. (2013). Sitting still like a frog. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Blog: Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Starting Early to Prepare for College

Parents of high school students have access to lots of information about preparing their children for college. But families rarely realize that there are steps to be taken as early as elementary school to set their students up for college readiness and success, especially in families where going to college is not a given and students may not fully understand how and why they should consider a college education.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is the professional organization for college admission professionals - admissions officers, counselors, financial aid counselors, and private college consultants. This year, NACAC has consolidated and updated several prior handbooks to create Step by Step: College Awareness and Planning for Families, Counselors and Communities. This multi-part publication includes curriculum for students starting in elementary grades and continues with separate guides for middle school and early and later high school years. There is also a section on financial aid and accompanying PowerPoint presentations. Spanish language versions are also available.

This curriculum is particularly intended for professionals who work with "underrepresented and underserved students to provide comprehensive tools for meeting the needs of first-generation students and their families." Starting with worksheets on things like "What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?" in elementary school, and moving on to questions for older students about short and long-term goals, and lessons on types of colleges and standardized testing, the curriculum is rich with ways to engage students to look at higher education through the lens of their life interests and where it can take them. And, as this curriculum makes clear, it is never to early to start to think about college.

Monday, July 31, 2017

When Parents Are Bullied

Much has been written in both the academic and popular literature about bullying -- what to do if your child is bullied, how to avoid raising a child who bullies, tips for parents and teachers who encounter bullying, and more. But we recently encountered a book that looks at bullying from a different perspective, one that we previously would not have thought about in terms of bullying - when children bully their parents.

When Kids Call the Shots, by psychotherapist Sean Grover, LCSW, looks at children who might be labelled "bossy" or "difficult" or "temperamental" and considers their behavior through a different lens. Grover views these children as bullies, and the targets of their bullying behavior are their parents. Understanding how and why this behavior develops and what parents can do to change their child's behavior is the focus of Grover's book, which grew out of his more than 20 years of working with both children and adults and his own experiences as a parent.

The book examines different ways that children become bullies, focusing on the three most common kinds of bullies: the defiant bully, the anxious bully, and the manipulative bully. Grover looks at the forces that drive each of these kinds of behaviors in children and then discusses the kinds of parents who are most prone to being bullied by their children. He continues with steps families can take to put together a support team (school officials, mental health professionals, and others) and ways parents can act to stop bullying behaviors. Grover spends time discussing family crises that may trigger bullying behaviors, things like divorce, trauma, and financial hardship. 

The book has a positive approach and a hopeful message, focusing on the fact that there are reasons why children behave this way and why parents may be feeding into this behavior. And his specific guidance on how parents can improve their family dynamic is something that should be helpful for parents asking the question: "What happened to my sweet, adorable child?"

Monday, July 24, 2017

Helping Young Children Start the School Year

Starting a new school year is a big adjustment for a child at any age, but it can be particularly disorienting for very young children. Preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids are comforted by routines, and so their first time in even the best of classrooms with the most insightful and empathetic of teachers can be a challenge. Here are some ways you can start now, during summer vacation, to ensure your little one’s year gets off to a great start.

  • Start setting your child’s biological clock. Summer sleep schedules with later wake-up times can take a while to undo, and your child may launch her first day at school cranky and sleepy if you don’t plan ahead. At least a week before her first day, get her used to the new schedule by dimming the lights in her play area an hour before her school-year bedtime. Be sure to offer her toys or books instead of electronics in the hour before she goes to bed; the quality of light emitted by screens stimulates the brain and makes it tougher to drift off to sleep later. Get her ready for bed following the same routine you anticipate using during the school year (pajamas, brushing teeth, etc.). Similarly, wake her up at the same time she’ll get up on school days and take her through her anticipated school-day morning routine. Learning these steps in advance means your child has one less new procedure to learn when school begins.
  • Visit the school a few days before the first day. Narrate the trip there in an excited tone of voice so that the route will feel familiar to your child when you report to the school on the first day. If you can, pop into your child’s classroom and explore the playground. This will help your child begin to visualize what school will be like and help her to feel more at ease on the first day.
  • Familiarize your child with his new teacher by referring to her by name instead of saying “your teacher.” If you can find a picture of his teacher on the school website, print it and hang it in a prominent place so she’ll look familiar to your child on the first day. 
  • Role play circle time, lining up for lunch, and show and tell with your child so she’ll know what to expect. Play the part of the teacher and recruit stuffed animals or siblings to act as her classmates. 
  • Model a positive attitude. When you feel anxious or tired, verbalize your feelings and talk through your plan for energizing yourself and realigning your positive thinking. (“Wow, I’m feeling really worried about tomorrow’s big meeting! I guess feeling a little nervous before a big day is normal. I think I’ll listen to some music I like and imagine myself doing really well in the meeting.”) Watching you will help your child realize that these feelings are normal and give him some strategies for coping with them. 
  • Instead of asking if your child is nervous about beginning school, casually ask how your child is feeling about the new year. Resist asking whether your child feels nervous; this suggests that there is something to be nervous about! If your child is behaving normally and doesn’t give you any reason to worry, it’s best to keep worst-case scenario preparations for the initial separation under your hat. Your child will take cues from you about how to feel about the first day.
  • If your child seems anxious or you’ve had difficulty with separation in the past, choose something she can bring to school that reminds her of her family. An article of clothing or piece of inexpensive jewelry is an especially good choice because your child can touch it whenever she needs comfort during the day without having to go to her backpack. Give her a bracelet of yours or let her borrow her brother’s lucky bandana. 

One big no-no: Don’t sneak away on the first day. Although this seems like a good idea for the child who tears up every time you take a step toward the door, resist the urge to wait until his back is turned to disappear. Such behavior can do damage to your child’s trust in you, resulting in the fear that you could vanish at any moment. Instead, assure your child that you love him, that you’re leaving him in a very safe place that you have chosen carefully, and that you will see him in four hours, then bite your lip and leave. Chances are good that you’ll have to pry him away from his new friends by pick-up time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Research Explores Pitfalls of Homework Help

One question we get a lot here at The Yellin Center is how parents and caregivers can help students grow as learners at home, during homework time, or with supplementary educational activities. We love giving parents and students strategies for building up skills at home, as long as these activities are fun and stress-free, especially during the summer. New research out of Tufts University, conducted by Dr. Melissa Orkin, Sidney May, and Dr. Maryanne Wolf, explores the ways in which parents’ helping behaviors during homework time contribute to how kids feel about their work. 

Homework time, especially for struggling readers and students with disabilities, can be a stressful time for kids and parents alike. Often, homework tasks are not differentiated to meet a student at her or his instructional level; this means that students are often sent home to do work independently that they are not yet able to do. This can lead to task avoidance (a tantrum or power struggle, for example) and negative attitudes towards learning or school. In these situations, parents naturally feel the impetus to sit with their child and help them through the task while building up their skills.

When students are given homework tasks that are too hard to complete independently, they may begin to feel incompetent at managing the academic demands. It would be natural to assume, therefore, that helping your child through the task would increase her or his feelings of competence. However, Orkin and her colleagues found that one common type of homework help, which they dubbed intrusive practices, can actually lead to feelings of helplessness. When students feel helpless in the face of academics, or that they will be unable to produce work at the level expected of them, they will often become very frustrated or have an emotional outburst during work time, seeking to avoid the task.

Intrusive homework help practices include things like checking children’s homework or correcting mistakes when reading. These types of behaviors can contribute to a product (or achievement) oriented learning environment rather than a process-oriented learning environment. Ideally, we want children to value the process of learning, not the output. Sometimes this means taking a step back during homework time and allowing mistakes to be made. Fostering a process-oriented environment also entails providing specific, effort-based praise rather than intrusive corrections during reading or writing that limit the student’s autonomy while working. It’s important for parents and teachers to endorse growth and effort rather than “prescribed standards of success.”

Taking a step back and letting your child make mistakes can be extremely difficult, but research continues to show that encouraging risk-taking while building academic skills is incredibly important for helping children develop a love of learning and a growth mindset. It may take some getting used to, but next time it’s homework time at your house, see what happens when you let mistakes happen while offering up a healthy serving of effort-based encouragement and praise.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

School's Over... No, School's About to Start...

Here in New York City, where most schools run until the end of June and do not begin again until after Labor Day,  the first part of July is a time for students and teachers to catch their breath and to bask in the prospect of weeks of summer break looming ahead. But much marketing by retailers is national in scope, and we've noticed that stores that sell school supplies are busy reaching out to families whose children return to school as early as mid-August. These ads -- for clothing, binders, electronics and the like -- are only going to increase in frequency until things hit a crescendo as summer comes to an end.

So, loathe as we are to interfere with the relaxation that comes with summer, it may be time to consider some products that can make your family's return to school less stressful and more productive. In our work with all kinds of families, we've found that some basic items tend to be the most helpful.

A large white board, mounted in a central location (kitchen wall or door, near the front entry, right by the mud room or garage) can be "command central" for busy families. Need something from the grocery? Write it on the white board. Have a project or permission slip due? Make a note on the whiteboard or actually hang it from the board with a magnetic clip. Some families use a board that is divided into days of the week. Others reserve one area for each family member. And others write on it helter-skelter with lots of colors and underlining. Whatever works for your family...

A large bin or basket for every family member, lined up near the most used exit door. This can hold a backpack, gym clothes, homework folders (which should be in the backpack), and anything else that needs to leave the house with that person. Even mom and dad can find this useful as a place for keys, sunglasses, phones, etc. If you can locate the baskets near a place to plug in a long power strip, everyone can put their phones away (if you can pry them from their hands) and charge them for the upcoming day, all at the same time.

A supply closet can really help prevent last minute store runs. This can be anywhere you have a couple of extra shelves, which you can stock with packages of notebook paper, folders, glue sticks, boxes of pens and pencils, and printer paper - all bought on sale, of course.  If you have room for a pencil sharpener, manual or electric, all the better. And as the school year progresses, this is a great place to put "leftovers" -- those pieces of poster board you didn't use, the markers left over from a project, or glitter from a craft project. As the year unfolds, these items may come in handy and knowing where to find them is the key to putting them to use. Some families find a similar cabinet in the kitchen for lunch supplies is also helpful - stocked with sandwich fixings that don't need refrigeration, sandwich bread or wraps, juice boxes, packaged healthy snacks, and paper or plastic bags or reusable lunch containers.

A large, easy to read clock in the kitchen can help keep everyone on schedule during the crucial parts of the morning. Too often there are small clocks on various appliances, each off by a minute or two. When catching the school bus or commuter train requires a precise departure time, it can help to have everyone's schedule synchronized.

As you think ahead of other ways to make the transition from summertime to school time easier, don't forget to take plenty of time to read, relax, and enjoy the break from school.