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 Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Monday, December 4, 2017

Rejecting Accommodations

The mother of a high school student with attention and reading difficulties recently asked us what she could do to make her son take advantage of the accommodations provided in his IEP. Since her son's learning and attention issues had been diagnosed in fifth grade, he had an IEP that provided for extended time (1.5 times standard time) and a quiet place to take his exams.

As a practical matter, that meant that when his class was taking a test in class, he went to the school library, where he was placed in a small side room. The librarian kept an eye on him while he took his test and he returned to his classroom when he was finished. He went along with this plan until he reached high school, at which time he announced to his parents that he didn't want to be singled out from his friends and that he was embarrassed to have to leave the class for testing. The more his parents pushed back, the more adamant he became. That's when his mom reached out to us.

We had some questions, the answers to which would help determine what might be appropriate to do or say in this not uncommon situation:
  1. Does this student understand why he has been granted extended time and a quiet exam location? Does he understand his learning and attention challenges and how they affect his learning and taking exams? Parents can't expect their students to be comfortable with doing something different than their classmates unless they understand WHY they are doing so.
  2. How was he doing in school? Did the extended time, or failure to utilize the extended time, make a difference in his grades? If so, this could have an impact on his GPA and longer term consequences as he moved on from high school. Did he understand that this could limit his college options? Or, did he find that there really wasn't any substantial difference in how he did? If that was the case, as sometimes happens, he would have to think about the next question.
  3. Was he planning to take the SAT or ACT exams? These two testing companies do not follow the IDEA. They are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and avoid discriminating against students with disabilities, but they largely determine whether to grant accommodations based upon what a student had been granted and USED during high school. A student who did not use his accommodations might not get them for these high stakes examinations.

These questions helped this family sit down and discuss this issue. His parents shared his most recent testing that supported the need for accommodations, and showed their son how his reading rate improved when the evaluator gave him extra time to complete reading tests. They discussed his plans to attend a competitive  college and looked at the GPA that that particular college required. Eventually, they agreed that the student would forgo his accommodations for two or three months and see how things went. They advised his teachers of this decision, emphasizing that it did not mean that he was declining his extended time. He found that his grades did drop a bit during this period and ultimately he decided that he wanted to continue to use his accommodations. Since the decision was his, it was one that he adhered to. Last we heard, he was using his extended time and quiet location and doing well in school. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Laptops in Lectures: Update

In a blog post last year, I shared the reasons I did not allow laptops in the classes I taught at Brooklyn College.  Succinctly, taking notes on a laptop leads to less learning than taking notes by hand, according to research.  When we are able to record notes as quickly as they are spoken, our brains don’t have to process the information – it goes straight from our ears to our screens.  Recently, The New York Times published an update on this line of research, and I wanted to share some of this interesting information with our readers.  According to the Times article, which referenced a study by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda of McMaster and York Universities in Canada, it isn’t just the laptop users who suffer during lecture.  The researchers gave a lecture to a group of students, all of whom were taking notes on a laptop. Half of the students were also given twelve simple tasks to do while taking notes.  One task, for example, was looking up what was on television at a specific time that evening.  This was meant to approximate typical multi-tasking by college students, who are often on Google, Facebook, or Instagram while also trying to take notes during class.

The results of the study are interesting and potentially alarming.  While it’s not surprising that the students who were given the distraction tasks recalled less from the lecture on a 20-question multiple-choice test, the more notable finding is that the students who were seated in view of the multi-tasking students also performed worse compared to students who were not multi-tasking and were not seated in view of a multi-tasker.  This spillover effect puts other students, not just the kids on Facebook, at a seemingly unfair disadvantage.  The study’s authors warn against a total laptop ban, however, noting that this would be “extreme and unwarranted.” 

Sana, Weston, and Cepeda argue that rather than banning laptops completely, their use should be carefully curated so that students are not simply using them for note-taking, which studies have confirmed is detrimental to learning.  Rather, they recommend the use of web-based research, pop quizzes, online case studies, and discussion threads, all of which can “foster positive learning outcomes.”  They also recommend that instructors have an open conversation with students about the use of laptops in classes, and discourage their use when the technology is not a requirement for learning (e.g., slides are provided, textbooks cover all the information).  Finally, the authors note that instructors have the responsibility to build enticing, interesting classes that can compete with the allure of online browsing.  Inevitably, college students must be responsible for their own learning.  It is up to the instructors, however, to lead them in the right direction.

One important exception to discouraging laptop use was noted by the author of the Times article: students with disabilities who require laptops for note taking, to access lecture materials, or otherwise, must be permitted to use their devices in class. This can single out these students as having disabilities, but the author notes that it is a matter of weighing the needs and best interests of one group of students against those of others. 


Photo credit: Tyler Ingram 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How is the School Year Going So Far?

Most years, on the day before Thanksgiving, our blog post contains lists of things we are thankful for, or Thanksgiving books for kids,  or a discussion about gratitude. While we are no less grateful for family, friends, colleagues, and so many other things in our lives, this year we are taking a different approach to Thanksgiving -- using it as a good time to pause and take stock of where your child might be at this point in the school year. 

It is now around three months into the academic year and students have had at least one report card. Review of last year's work has been completed and new content has been taught for a while. So it is a good time to pause and see how things are going so far -- and yet it is early enough in the year to make changes that can make the school year more productive and satisfying for your student. 

For all Students
Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to clear out backpacks. Far too many students will have failed to do this since school started. Ideally, older students should do this on their own, but students with organizational or executive function issues of all ages may need some support with this task. Papers that aren't needed currently should be kept in a "reserve" file, since they may be needed to prepare for year-end tests. Other items can be tossed or, if current, replaced neatly into the backpack - ideally, in clearly marked notebooks or folders. If this task is repeated regularly, perhaps every couple of weeks (or, failing that, at each holiday break throughout the year) some order may prevail. 

Parents may want to find some quiet time this weekend to speak to their student about how things are going in a general way. Is her reading group a good fit? Does she have friends in her class? Does she get along with her teacher? Although many of these kinds of issues come up informally in day to day conversations, having a targeting discussion can be fruitful, and can sometimes reveal issues that parents need to address before more of the school year goes by.

For Students with IEPs or 504 Plans
Hopefully, you had reviewed the IEP or 504 Plan when it was created or revised, likely last Spring. Are your child's teacher(s) following the IEP/504? Is he getting the accommodations and/or services it provides? Sometimes, schools may delay a week or two before they begin related services such as speech or occupational therapy, or academic supports such as resource room. They may need to get staff in place or determine appropriate groupings. But, by now your child should have been getting the supports and services to which he is entitled under his IEP/504 for quite some time. If this isn't the case, you should contact the school (case manager, head of guidance, or principal, depending on who heads up the IEP team). 

If your student is getting what is provided for in the IEP/504, but things are not going well, this is the time to call for a new IEP or 504 meeting. You are entitled to do so at any point, not just annually. But a formal meeting is not required to make minor changes, and you may find that you can effect the changes you want more quickly by meeting informally with the head of the IEP/504 team and putting your agreed-to changes in writing.

For High School Seniors
If you haven't completed your college applications, this holiday weekend might be a good time to do so. Those who are applying early decision or early action will have submitted their applications earlier this month, and most other students are aware that they have until the end of the calendar year, or even later, to finish up their applications. But many places have rolling admissions and once their places are filled, even strong applicants will not be accepted. In addition, students who are applying to specialized college support programs need to keep in mind that these programs are generally small and admit on a first come - first serve basis. While latter applicants might be accepted to the college itself, they can be closed out of the support programs they need to succeed. 

So, Thanksgiving can be more than a time for thanks. It can be a time to take stock of how things are going for your student and to take steps to improve things if there are problems that need to be addressed.

In the meantime, all of us here at The Yellin Center wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 17, 2017

The December Dilemma

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and the Christmas season is already evident in stores, advertisements, and decorations. In a year when the political climate has been challenging for diversity of religion and culture, it may be a useful time to think about how public schools handle religious holidays, how schools can accommodate students' differing religious traditions, and how historical and secular aspects of religious holidays can be celebrated in public schools without making some students uncomfortable or crossing the line between secular and religious education.

We've looked at this subject before, in the context of a presentation by Matthew Yellin, then a NYC public high school social studies teacher (and now Assistant Principal at the same school) on how "separation of church and state" does not require that teachers refrain from teaching students about religion or letting students discuss religion. In fact, Matt noted, "[religion] is an explicit part of my curriculum. Not only is discussing religion in public schools allowed, it is actually mandated by my curriculum."

This topic has also been addressed in a series of resources looking at the legal issues surrounding religious and holiday celebrations in public schools and best practices for teachers that can help them teach about religion as a historical and cultural part of society, while avoiding religious teachings that take a particular position, or are insensitive to the multi-cultural aspects of public schools, their students, and their mission. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League has created a multi-page list of religious and secular observances that teachers can use to infuse their classroom with an understanding of the many ways that a wide range of religions and religious practices impact our culture and our lives.

As you ponder these issues, enjoy your school's holiday concert - religious music and carols are fine, so long as they are part of a larger array of musical offerings. Have a happy and inclusive holiday season!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The IDEAL School of Manhattan

The IDEAL School, a K-12 private school, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, incorporates its goals of diversity and inclusion in every aspect of its program. Your blogger had the opportunity to visit IDEAL School during a recent Open House and saw these principles in action. Students and teachers alike spoke about their experiences, and it was clear that all of them valued this nurturing and accepting school community.  
The student body includes typical learners, students with some learning or other challenges, and a  number of students with significant learning or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome.  Individualized instruction at a foundational, standard, or even honors level, is the key to providing instruction for students with different learning needs. Small class size, embedded support and services, and a "no pull out" policy (where services are provided during elective periods so as not to remove children from the classroom) helps students at all levels build critical thinking skills and creativity. 

IDEAL has two specialized programs in addition to its standard curriculum - the Zenith Program, in which about one-third of their student body of approximately 180 participate, and the Dylan Program. The Zenith Program is designed for students needing an additional level of academic, behavioral, and related services support. The Dylan Program is for students with more significant needs, often 1:1 support, which IDEAL provides by an associate teacher. Both the Zenith and Dylan Programs may be paid for by a student's public school, using Carter or Connors funding.

The arts and technology are both important parts of the IDEAL curriculum, for all students. Drama, art, music, and dance are part of academic content through cross-curricular units. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) classes in the middle school (continuing as electives in the high school) include robotics and film making, with tools such as a 3-D printer and a green screen to help enhance the creativity of students.

The Lower School and Upper School are located in separate buildings, a couple of blocks from one another. This year, IDEAL will graduate its first students since it was founded in 2006. A program to extend the IDEAL education for students with IEPs who are entitled to publicly funded education through age 21 and who need more time to build skills, has begun and IDEAL has also engaged a college advisor  for its 11th and 12th graders who plan to attend college. 

As we visited classrooms and saw students of all levels of ability in their classrooms, it was clear that this is a special place, where every student is learning at his or her own pace, as part of a diverse student body. For families who share its values and approach to learning, this may well be an IDEAL school option.