Friday, January 13, 2017

Supreme Court Hears Case on Educational Benefit

Last June, we wrote about a case that was being considered for hearing before the United States Supreme Court, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed to hear this case and oral arguments before the Court were held this past Wednesday. As we had discussed, the case was brought by the parents of a child with autism who were seeking reimbursement for private school tuition from their public school district in Colorado, and is focused on the level of educational benefit that a school must provide to a student with a disability eligible to receive special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The IDEA requires that a student receive an "appropriate" education, often referred to as "FAPE" - a free, appropriate, public education -and if a district program does not provide FAPE, then the district may be required to pay for the student to attend a private school that does provide such benefit. The "appropriate" standard was first formulated in 1982 and over the years there has been a divergence among  states as to what that standard really means, with terms like "more than de minimus" and "meaningful" being applied by courts in different states in different ways. Resolving this different interpretation of a federal law is one of the key roles of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In the Endrew case, the student's parents were not satisfied with the very minimal progress he had been making in his public school program, both academically and behaviorally. By not adequately addressing his emotional and behavioral needs, the public school  program did not enable him to advance academically. The Endrews decided to enroll him in a private school and to seek reimbursement for the tuition they paid. Notably, once removed from the public school and receiving support for his emotional and behavioral needs, young Mr. Endrew made real academic progress; no one disputes that the new program offered him substantial benefits. 

In what Justice Alito described as "a blizzard of words", the attorneys representing the school district, the parents, and the U.S. government sought a clear standard for the benefit to be achieved under FAPE, one that would meet the needs of students, recognize that students with severe disabilities might not be able to make the same kind of progress as other, less disabled students, and not place undue financial burdens on school districts to pay for private school tuition. The goal, as noted in the brief filed by the Solicitor General, representing the U.S. government, should be to have the Supreme Court "clarify the proper FAPE analysis and establish a uniform standard to guide courts, state educational agencies, and parents across the country". We will see if the court is able to do so. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

ThriveNYC Gears Up for Improved Mental Health Care

Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report that restated the importance of family-focused therapies for young children experiencing emotional and behavioral problems. This means that the best way to provide young children with support is to treat the whole family; parent training, family therapy, and access to social services are still the best medicine for problems in early childhood. That same report, however, also discussed the barriers that many children and families face when seeking help. 

In 2016, New York City began working to eliminate those barriers, and open the door to mental health care for all of our eight million neighbors. Here at The Yellin Center, we always look at the big picture for every child, and we know that learning is extra hard when students are also carrying the added weight of mental health challenges, which one in five New Yorkers do. We think this initiative has the potential to do some real good for our neighbors, and we’d like to tell you about these exciting plans and how you can get involved.

ThriveNYC, spearheaded by NYC’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, is a city-wide initiative to raise awareness about mental health and increase access to services around the city. This comprehensive mental health plan is based around a five-step plan. First, we have to change the culture. In other words, ThriveNYC wants to make mental health everyone’s business. One in five New Yorkers experiences a mental health problem at some point in their lives, but the topic is something that many families are uncomfortable talking about. You may have noticed the ThriveNYC ad campaign that debuted around the city last summer. It features photos of New Yorkers talking openly about their mental health concerns: “Addiction does not define me. Today I Thrive.” By opening up the conversation with our families, our teachers, our children, and our neighbors, we can make it easier to ask for help.

One of the most exciting parts of this first step is Mental Health First Aid – a free eight-hour course for any New Yorker to learn how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness. The city hopes to train 250,000 New Yorkers with this course, offered in both English and Spanish. One version of the course is specifically geared towards community members who work with young people.

The second piece of ThriveNYC demands early action. Echoing the AAP, the comprehensive plan is focused on identifying children from birth through college who are experiencing adverse life events (e.g., divorce, financial strain) or reporting feeling sad or hopeless – two predictors of mental illness later on. Identification is the first step to early intervention, and the earlier a child or family can find help, the better the outcome. To do this, ThriveNYC is hoping to put mental health clinics and consultants in schools across the boroughs.

ThriveNYC’s third step is to close the treatment gap by expanding care to under-served pockets across the city. The goal is to not just increase service availability but to also bring treatment provision up to expert-recommended standards. That means working with clinics, hospitals, and other professionals to locate residents in need and provide them with the care they deserve.

Partnering with communities is the crucial fourth step in the ThriveNYC initiative. For example, Connections to Care (C2C) will integrate mental health services into other programs that are already serving communities so that more people can find help. Most importantly, ThriveNYC believes that by teaming up with local organizations, which are trusted in their communities, they can help people feel comfortable enough to reach out and access care.

The fifth piece of the ThriveNYC program involves the way our city government collects, shares, and uses data. As an educator, your blogger has always known the importance of collecting data and using them in a way that makes sense. ThriveNYC plans to open a Mental Health Innovation Lab, which will allow the city to coordinate its data-gathering effort and analyze that data in a way that leads to providing the services that New Yorkers want and need.

Finally, ThriveNYC puts the onus on the city government to hold up its end of the bargain. Mayor DeBlasio and the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene are going to be working over the next few years to create an organized system of mental health care in our city. NYC WELL, for example, launched this past October. This is an anonymous, free, 24-hour call center that offers mental health support. They go beyond the classic emergency mental health hotline to also provide trained peer support, short-term counseling, assistance setting up appointments with a clinician, and follow-up calls to check in with callers and make sure they were able to connect with a professional in their community.

If ThriveNYC sounds as inspiring to you as it does to us, you may be interested in the following resources linked below for getting involved and potentially making a difference for a family in your community.

And, of course, check out the website and let your family, friends, and neighbors know it’s time to start talking openly about mental health.

Friday, January 6, 2017

News Literacy Project

There’s been a concerning juxtaposition emerging over the last few years. As adolescents and young adults increasingly turn to social media for news and information, there has been a concurrent rise in the creation and widespread distribution of fake news. Much of this fake news is, not surprisingly, spread through the intricate webs of social media, like Facebook and Twitter. Students are not, however, routinely taught how to fact-check what they see and determine what is real news and what is meant to “persuade, sell, mislead, or exploit.” 

Fake news has come a long way from those magazine ads that look like real articles but say “Advertisement” in tiny print on the top. Now, there are whole sites dedicated to producing and distributing fake news, and many of them have names modeled after legitimate publications. Have you ever heard of the Denver Post, a reputable local paper? What about the Denver Guardian – sneakily named but completely fake (it was recently shut down after the Post exposed it)? Do you think a fifteen-year-old could tell the difference?

A recent podcast on National Public Radio (NPR) tracked down one fake news mogul and found out some very interesting and surprising information about one of the biggest fake news distributors out there. Even though it may seem easy for some to see the red flags – the missing byline, the lack of sources, the single-outlet coverage – millions of students are currently lacking the skills they need to discern real from fake on an ever-expanding internet. And when that means that young adults show up armed at local pizzerias that happened to be the unfortunate target of a fake news virus, it’s time to think about integrating fact-checking into the K-12 curriculum.

The News Literacy Project (NLP), which partners with reputable sources like The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, and NPR, is hoping to help students change course. NLP’s education programs, including its "checkology" virtual classroom, is helping teachers, administrators, and students learn more about the rise in fake news and how to spot it. A typical three-week literacy course includes interactive lessons with journalists, student projects, and teacher-led lessons based on NLP’s curriculum. NLP believes that “knowing the standards of quality journalism empowers students as consumers and creators.” The coursework covers print, broadcast, and online reporting. Students are taught how to search for credibility, analyze primary and secondary sources, think critically about incoming information, and seek out different points of view. In the age of the echo chamber, where we typically surround ourselves with news that fits our own values and beliefs, learning to seek out valid, reputable sources that disagree with our own ideas is increasingly crucial.

We think The News Literacy Project has the right idea in mind, but talking about credibility with children can start with one discussion at the breakfast table. Consider sharing an age-appropriate article you’re reading with your pancakes and see if you can challenge your family to brainstorm why the article was written, what it hopes to achieve, and who it includes as credible sources. Then practice finding the holes, and see if you and your family can fill those holes with other credible information. Learning how to integrate lots of sources to get the full picture is a useful skill not just for reading the news, but also for navigating the complicated social world of childhood and adolescence.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Common Core - Unique Ways of Thinking

During a recent vacation visiting a friend, your blogger decided to go out with her one night to a PTA meeting. The topic at hand was Common Core math. The speaker, a math specialist at the school, acknowledged that helping kids with homework can be challenging and potentially frustrating for parents who were taught math in a different way. Borrowing and carrying the one, for example, may be the obvious way to solve a subtraction problem to a parent, but not to his/her child.

The speaker emphasized that students, such as my friend’s daughter (already a mathematician and doing fractions with Belgian waffles at breakfast), will be taught a variety of strategies for solving math problems, so they will be equipped with an arsenal from which they can select what works best for them. For example, without automatic recognition of the answer to 4x3, it could be solved by:
  • Adding 4 three times
  • Knowing that 4x2=8, and then adding 4 more
  • Drawing 4 circles, with 3 dots in each
  • Using graph paper, or a sketch with dots on regular paper, to make a rectangle with a length of 4 and width of 3, and finding the area
A problem such as 43-7 could be solved in various ways, such as:
  • Identifying that 40-7 is 33, and then adding 3 more
  • Mom and Dad’s good old fashioned borrowing and carrying method
  • Representing 43 by sketching bars-of-ten and the leftover ones
Then breaking a bar up into ones and crossing out the number of dots being subtracted

Clearly, some problem-solving methods will be more efficient than others, and efficiency is ultimately encouraged. However, the teaching of various strategies allows for:

a) options for students who are struggling with other methods

b) conceptual understanding rather than just rote memorization of procedures

c) foundations to turn to when thinking about more challenging problems in the future

For my friend’s daughter, and for breakfast enthusiasts such as myself, the world makes most sense in terms of waffles. For others, this might not be the best methodology. Exposure to various ways of viewing and analyzing problems creates doors where there might otherwise be walls. We may be entering from different angles, but it is important that we each enter in a place from which we can have the personally clearest view, while ultimately seeking out the most efficient route to get there.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Our Holiday Wishes

Since 2010, we have posted a holiday poem, starting with a variation of  A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas). We've continued each year since and this year's offering is below.

It’s just before Christmas and tradition requires 

Our annual blog, all in rhyme

Some years are better; some best forgot,

But it’s fun and that always is fine.

We mostly look back on the year that has passed

On our work with both students and schools

On our recommendations to help kids to learn

Sometimes books, sometimes apps, sometimes tools.

We also look back at our work done with others,

Folks like Relay, QED, Understood

Where we share what we know and help to build knowledge

And contribute to things that are good.

But this year we look forward, to try to keep hope

As uncertainty brings some anxiety

After a bitter election, our nation’s in flux

And new challenges face our society.

So, as one year is ending and a new one begins

We have wishes both large and quite small

We hope they come true, both for us and for you

And they make our world better for all.

We wish for a world filled with peace and with caring

Where people respect one another

And however they worship, whomever they love

They learn how to live with each other.

We wish that all children – and parents as well –

Have a home, and good food, and good health.

That we all come together to focus on this

For that is the best kind of wealth.

We hope that our world, our dear planet Earth,

Can be cared for by all of its residents

That we each do our part to preserve it

From children, to parents, to presidents.

And we hope you have love and have friends and stay well

All the things that make life so worthwhile

And that when next year ends, you can look back and see

That you really had reasons to smile.

We wish you all a very happy holiday and a wonderful 2017. The Yellin Center will be closed from December 24th, reopening on Monday, January 2nd.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mindful New Year's Resolutions

In just a few short days, we’ll be celebrating the beginning of a new year and, with that celebration, many of us will be making New Year’s Resolutions.  There are always the old fallback resolutions for adults – the ones that are typically forgotten by the first week of February.  But for kids, the options are endless; they can use the resolution framework to reflect on 2016 and mindfully prepare for 2017.  New Year’s resolutions are an opportunity to practice those meta-cognitive and self-regulatory skills, which we know are important for both academic and personal achievement.
 As you gear up for your family’s celebrations, it may be a good time to guide your children or students in personal reflection.  This is a conversation that could happen around the dinner table, while wrapping presents, as your youngster is gearing up for bedtime, or whenever you all can find a quiet moment together.  It may be helpful to start by helping children and teens recall all that went right in their lives this year, how they’ve grown, and how they have contributed to their own successes.  What went really well for them in 2016?  How did I achieve that success?  What did I improve upon in 2016?  How can I keep up the good work next year?

Once you’ve worked together to find all the successes of the past year, it’s time to brainstorm what might be different in 2017, and how you and your child can prepare for what’s coming next in their personal lives.  Think about what worked, and what didn’t, in 2016 to make a plan for continued success.  What do I want to achieve in 2017?  What tools do I already have to achieve those goals?  What might I need help with to reach those goals?  What’s my contingency plan if I feel like I’m struggling – who are my support system?  

Whatever your goals are for 2017, we hope you have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year. Our resolution for 2017 is to continue to bring you information that can improve your lives and those of your children, students, and colleagues. We’ve got one more blog for 2016 (our 955th, not that we’re counting) and thank you, our readers, for giving us a reason to read, research, and write for you.

Friday, December 16, 2016

US DOE Guidance on Section 504 and ADHD

K-12 students who struggle with attention may be entitled to support and accommodations under either the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).  For those students whose ADHD (which we will use here to include students with attention difficulties, whether or not they include hyperactivity) has a significant impact on their academic performance, or for whom attention difficulties occur together with learning or related challenges, the IDEA is often the best way to receive what they need to be successful in school.

The IDEA generally provides more extensive services, permits more parental input, and is available to students in both public and private schools. However, not all students meet the criteria for receiving IDEA services, which include having a specific category of disability (attention generally falls under "other health impaired"), and being in need of "special education and related services." For students with ADHD who do not meet the IDEA requirements and who are in public schools, Section 504 can provide what these students need to be successful in school despite their attention difficulties.

Earlier this year, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, which administers Section 504, issued a letter to offer guidance to states and school districts about problems with the way in which Section 504 was being applied to students with ADHD. These problems included:

  • Failing to identify students who may have ADHD;
  • Failing to properly evaluate students suspected of having ADHD;
  • Inappropriate decisions about the education, services, and setting that may be required by students who had been properly identified and evaluated; and
  • Failure to let the appropriate school personnel (especially teachers) know about the 504 Plan so it could be properly implemented. 
In addition to the extensive guidance letter (42 pages), the OCR created a brief, clear, two page document titled Know Your Rights: Students with ADHD. One point mentioned in this document, which often is raised by schools when they decline to consider a student with attention difficulties for a 504 Plan, is "Regardless of how well he or she performs in school, a student who has trouble concentrating, reading, thinking, organizing or prioritizing projects, among other important tasks, because of ADHD may have a disability and be protected under Section 504." We frequently find that schools use the excuse "but she gets good grades" or "but he is doing well on tests" when parents know that their child is struggling with attention and could learn and perform better with the accommodations and supports available under Section 504. We hope that seeing this issue set forth in black and white might help schools better understand their obligations to students with ADHD.