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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Vaping, Cigarettes, and Teens

There has been a good deal of newspaper coverage recently on  the use of e-cigarettes, particularly the JUUL brand, which is shaped like a USB flash drive and is popular among teens. Like other e-cigarettes (also called vaping devices), these are battery powered and heat a liquid containing nicotine to produce an aerosol that is inhaled by the user.

Why the focus on JUUL? As explained by Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the New York State Health Commissioner, in a recent communication to health care providers throughout the state, this brand of e-cigarettes is almost odorless and is small enough to be used discretely almost anywhere. Students have been reported using them in school bathrooms (no surprise there) and even in classrooms and hallways. The liquid in JUUL devices is contained in a small pod, each of which may have the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. What makes JUUL especially attractive to teens is the flavoring added to the liquid in the pods. These flavorings -- by some counts as many as 15,000 different ones, including fruit and candy flavors -- are highly appealing to young users.

What these young users don't consider is that no matter what flavor they may choose to use, each pod of liquid also contains nicotine, which is highly addictive. As Dr. Zucker notes, nicotine in any form can impair adolescent and young adult brain development, particularly those functions affecting impulse control, mood disorders, and attention and learning. Furthermore, while the vapor from the e-devices seems to be just harmless water vapor, it actually contains toxic chemicals and ultra-fine particles that enter the lungs.

Some adults have noted that all e-cigarettes can be used to help smokers quit, but evidence has shown that many adults use both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes in different situations. There can, however, be no question at all that e-cigarettes pose a danger to young people and that parents need to be aware that they are not just a harmless fad or novelty device. They are a gateway to smoking cigarettes and they are a danger on their own.

Current data from the CDC on smoking and its effects on health is something to share with your teen. As the CDC notes, each day, more than 3,200 people younger than 18 years of age smoke their first cigarette and, each day, an estimated 2,100 youth and young adults who have been occasional smokers become daily cigarette smokers. Your pediatrician or family doctor can be a valuable resource on both the dangers of e-cigarettes and smoking and ways to help users quit.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Starting Early to Foster College Readiness and Independence

Today's New York Times has an excellent article on college readiness and what happens to many students who are not prepared for college, noting that almost one-third of students won't continue in college for their sophomore year and that only slightly more than half of students will graduate within six years (No, that's not a typo. Six years is the "new" four years).

As the authors note,  "...many teenagers go away to college only to recognize — either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above — that they’re not ready for college life." The Times piece cites two primary factors in college failure: the nature of college itself, with poor sleep patterns, lousy diets, and the easy availability of liquor and drugs; and the fact that many students haven't had opportunities to manage their own lives in a way that would prepare them to handle the personal and academic demands of college.

Notably, while the Times piece mentions students with emotional and executive function difficulties, it does not discuss students with previously diagnosed learning and related disabilities. For these students, there are additional complexities involved in arranging and using the accommodations and supports they need.

We've addressed many of these issues before in this blog, and you may want to take a look at some of these past posts once you have read the Times piece. They include:

Choosing the College that Fits

Things to Consider When Heading to College

How to Head Off Academic Trouble in College (in retrospect, perhaps doesn't say enough about fostering student independence)

Other suggestions are set out in your blogger's book, Life After High School -- especially the final chapters dealing with medication and managing the distractions of college life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Friday, November 16, 2018

Thanksgiving Books -- New and Old

This seems to be a year when seasons and holidays sneak up on us. Just yesterday, we were hit with the first blast of snow here in New York, snarling roads and surprising even the weather forecasters with its intensity. Next week is Thanksgiving, occurring on the earliest possible date, given the federal law that requires it to be on the fourth Thursday of November.

Among the many special things about Thanksgiving are that it has always been notable for its message of  friendship and inclusion and that it is celebrated by all of the cultures that make up the American melting pot. If your family tradition includes sharing books with the children at your Thanksgiving dinner (and if it doesn't, it might be a good year to start), there are a few books you might want to consider.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is a new picture book that was written by a member of the Cherokee Nation. It looks at how the Cherokee people express gratitude -  otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) - throughout the year in their celebrations and ceremonies.

If your family likes the Macy's parade, they might especially enjoy reading about how it got started, in  Melissa Sweet's Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade, which tells the story of the parade and the man who began the tradition in the 1920s (ages 4 and up).

Other good choices for the children at your celebration include:

The Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving by Ann McGovern
(ages 4 and up)
This classic chronicles the struggles of the pilgrims during their first year at Plymouth Colony, their friendship with Native Americans like Squanto, and the first, three-day long Thanksgiving celebration.

Fancy Nancy: Our Thanksgiving Banquet by Jane O’Connor
(ages 4 and up, and older kids can read this on their own)
Fancy Nancy helps her family prepare for a fantastic Thanksgiving meal, with all her usual flair. Comes with stickers!

Turkey Trouble  by Wendi Silvano
(preschool - 3rd grade)
A terrified turkey attempts to disguise himself to avoid becoming Thanksgiving dinner in this silly story, complete with a happy ending.

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey
(ages 4 and up)
 In this zany rewritten version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, children on a school field trip to a farm are troubled to learn about the impending fate of the turkeys they meet there. This funny story, full of Pilkey’s trademark humor, is sure to please both kids and parents. 

Thanksgiving on Thursday (Magic Tree House #27) by Mary Pope Osborne
(ages 6 and up to read on their own)
Jack and Annie travel back to the first Thanskgiving Day in 1621, where they learn about life in Plymouth. 

Little Critter: Just So Thankful
 by Mercer Mayer
(ages 3 and up)
Although Little Critter is initially jealous of the kid down the street who seems to have everything, he learns that there is much to be thankful for in this charming book 

Sarah Morton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boyand Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy In Pilgrim Timesby Kate Waters
(ages 4 and up; students in grades 4 and up can read it on their own)  
Through a series of photographs taken in a recreated colony, Waters teaches about the lives of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.

We hope you enjoy sharing these books -- and being together with family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, November 9, 2018


Earlier this week, we shared information about scholarships available to students with learning and other disabilities. But the number of such scholarships is very limited, and most offer just a small part of the expenses a student and her family will face in college. Of far more importance is the financial aid offered by individual colleges, and the way to obtain such aid is by filing a FAFSA application.

FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- is used by virtually all colleges and universities to determine whether a student qualifies for financial aid and to calculate the amount of aid each student needs. In addition, the information on the FAFSA is sent to the higher education agency of your home state and those states in which the schools you are applying to are situated. This information is used by the states when they distribute state financial aid money.

Until a couple of years ago, filing a FAFSA form posed a dilemma for most families. The form had been available each January, but it required the tax information from the tax forms that weren't due until that April. In fact, many families not only had not prepared the forms the FAFSA sought, but had not yet received the underlying tax information that they would need to complete those forms.

This dilemma was resolved beginning with the 2016-17 school year. Now, FAFSA forms are available as of October 1st each year, and the tax information required is for the preceding tax year. So, for example, for students planning to begin college in the fall of 2019, the 2019-20 FAFSA became available on October 1, 2018 and is due by by June 30, 2020. Of course, you will want to file as soon as possible (if you have not already done so). In addition to needing to know what you will be receiving before you begin college, funding is always limited and students who file earliest will have access to a bigger piece of the funding pie.

What makes it possible to have this earlier deadline is that the tax information that must be submitted is now from the prior tax year. This means that applicants submitting on or after October 2018 should submit their family tax returns from 2017, which were generally due in April 2018 and should be readily available.

The best place to get all the information you need about the FAFSA is the official FAFSA website. You can also find helpful discussions of specific topics related to your FAFSA application on the U.S. Department of Education blogs.

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