Monday, December 21, 2009

Sibling Issues

Families where one child struggles in school while the other children do fine or even excel academically have some complicated dynamics. When the struggling child has other issues that impact his interaction with others, such as anxiety or attention difficulties or perhaps medical issues, the relationship between that child and his siblings can become even more difficult.

The child who struggles can't help but be aware that his siblings are doing better than he is in school. It doesn't matter what the age arrangement may be. If it is the youngest who struggles, he can feel hopeless about ever catching his brothers and he may have to deal with teachers who initially expect the higher level of performance that the older siblings demonstrated in school. If the struggling student is the oldest, he can't help but be aware that his younger siblings are excelling in ways that are not possible for him. And, of course, middle students are faced with both concerns as they look at their siblings.

Interestingly, it may be that siblings with learning difficulties get less support or empathy than those with obvious physical disabilities. As educator and author Rick Lavoie notes in his book, It's So Much Work to be Your Friend "There is no outward appearance of a disability, so his idiosyncratic and age-inappropriate behavior is often misinterpreted as willful and purposeful by others in his environment -- including his siblings." The nature of the sibling can also make a big difference. It is not unusual for one sibling to show empathy and understanding of his struggling brother while another sibling may make his impatience and displeasure obvious.

What can parents due to defuse this kind of situation and to foster understanding and self esteem?  One step is to avoid labels. We don't like labels as a way of describing learning diffiiculties and we certainly are uncomfortable when parents label any of their children: the smart one, the good one, the slow one. Don't laugh -- we've heard these used. Parents can also try to balance the need to teach the typically learning siblings to be understanding with the awareness that all siblings can be an embarrassment when a young person is trying to fit in with his friends. Where the struggling student needs expensive supports, such as a private school or tutors, siblings may have concerns that they will be shortchanged so that the family can meeting the struggling student's needs. Parents need to understand this and explain that they try to give each child in the family what he needs and that they love all their children equally.

There's no one formula and no simple answers to the family friction that can arise when one sibling has special learning needs. But perhaps the best tool families can bring to the holiday table is a sense of humor and lots of hugs all around.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning a Language

Students who struggle with reading and writing often find learning a foreign language to be an extraordinary challenge. Secondary schools are aware of this issue and will sometimes make exceptions to the foreign language requirement for some students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In New York City, for example, students are required to take a two credit (two semester) sequence in a foreign language to graduate from high school, but a student "identified as having a disability which adversely affects the ability to learn a language may be excused from this requirement if such student’s IEP indicates that such requirement is not appropriate. Such a student need not have sequence in a second language but must meet the 44 credit graduation requirement."

This sounds like it would be a great thing for students who struggle even with English, but families should be aware that it can have a down side, and should consider the impact of opting out of foreign language courses before seeking to add such an exemption to a student's IEP. The problem is that many colleges require that their applicants have several semesters of a foreign language in high school. Furthermore, whether or not a college requires that a student has a foreign language to be admitted, many colleges require that students take a certain number of foreign language credits as part of their degree requirements. Students who demonstrate mastery of a language, usually with an advanced placement test , may place out of a college language requirement.

So, what should parents and students do? First, start by considering whether it is really necessary for a high school student to be excused from taking a foreign language. Could the student manage to get through a course with some extra support? What about American Sign Language? This is taught in a growing number of high schools and the process for learning ASL is very different from French or Latin. It may be a good choice for some students. Next, think ahead about what colleges may be of interest to your child. We know it is early, but you can get a sense of requirements for entry and for graduation. Some colleges that have language requirements for entry or graduation will permit students to fill these requirements with courses on the culture of a particular country.

There is no one answer to the language dilemma. What is important is to be aware of your options and to consider what is best for each individual student.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's off to work we go...

We've written before about the importance of building affinities and how this can help a student broaden his interests and strenghten his skills. Students and parents often look at hobbies, extracurricular school activities, and community service as ways to acomplish this. We'd like to suggest another.

Working at a part-time job can build skills and responsibility for many young people, from the academically gifted to those who struggle in school. Although the concept of apprenticeship as a path to an adult career is something we think of in historical terms (Ben Franklin as a printer's apprentice comes to mind), working in an area of interest can help a young person decide if a particular career is really the right path for him. Even more gritty jobs, from sweeping a stockroom to flipping burgers, can bring benefits. The reward of a paycheck, the need to cooperate with others, and the reality of following instructions from a supervisor, can all help build maturity and skills that will stay with a young person into adulthood.

We know that some students need to spend all their time and energy on mastering their school work. We know that jobs are hard to find in this difficult economy. But we want to suggest that for some young people the benefits of working go far beyond the economic. Decisions about what to spend, what to save, and how to open a bank account are important steps toward adulthood. The next time your teenager asks for more pocket money or the newest electronic device, you might want to consider offering to help him draft a resume instead.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Clara Hemphill

An interview in the Princeton Alumni Weekly with Clara Hemphill got us thinking about all she has done to help families navigate the New York City public schools. Hemphill is the founding editor of the website, which is a project of the New York City based nonprofit Advocates for Children. We've written before about this terrific site, which is an invaluable guide for families whose children attend New York City public schools. She is also the principal author of three books: New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: A Parent's Guide, New York City's Best Public Middle Schools: A Parents' Guide, and New York City's Best Public High Schools: A Parents' Guide.

Hemphill has applied her experience as a foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist to the unraveling the enormous complexities of a public school system serving about 1.1 million students in 1600 schools. Her books and the Insideschools website are something we always recommend to parents interested in the New York City Public Schools. Hemphills books, as well as much of the website, are informed by visits to the schools that are profiled. This gives parents a real sense of the kind of school community that exists in each building, and helps clarify the complex process of finding the right school for a child.

As the year winds down and lists of most important or most influential people abound, we want to thank Clara Hemphill for helping families throughout New York City master the nation's largest public school system.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Strategies are Key to Success

We recently received an email from a local psychologist, who told us that he had just completed testing of a student who turned out to have significant learning challenges. He asked where he might find someone to help this student and his school find strategies to deal with these issues. He was hoping we had some advice.

We're still shaking our head over this one. At the Yellin Center we fundamentally believe that assessment is only the first part of a process of both understanding how a student learns and -- of at least equal importance-- providing strategies and tools for the student to use at home and at school to remediate his areas of weakness and to build on his areas of strength. When a student and his family receive a "report" that details scores and numbers, but goes no further, they often need to rely completely upon their school to tell them what these scores mean and to decide what, if anything, they will do to assist the student.

 It's like visiting your internist who tells you that your tests indicate you have high blood pressure. "So," you ask your doctor, "what am I supposed to do now/"

"I'm sorry," this fictional doctor would reply,"I only give you the numbers. I will leave it up to you and the drug company to decide what you can do about it."

Of course, this is ridiculous. But so is providing scores and numbers on academic and other tests without providing information and support to explain what these scores mean and how these findings can be dealt with in school and elsewhere. That is why every one of our neurodevelopmental assessments ends with a meeting with the family and student (where appropriate) to discuss our preliminary findings and present some initial strategies to put in place immediately. Once the family has receive our full report, which includes numerous suggestions and strategies, they are invited back to discuss our full findings and to receive guidance on how to implement these strategies. We will also speak to their school or tutor to make sure that our report is clear to them and to discuss the strategies we recommend and how they can be implemented. It is simply the right way to do things.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Exercising Our Minds

On an almost daily basis, we are learning more and more about the benefits of physical activity and fitness. This week, articles in two prominent scientific journals underscore the relationship between physical activity and brain activity.

First, a study that appears in the December 8 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes the impact of physical fitness and cognitive function in more than 1.2 million young men doing military service in Sweden. When compared with less fit peers, physically fit young men performed better on measures of logical thinking and verbal comprehension. They found that cognitive function in identical twins correlated with fitness. Also, cognitive function improved in young men as their level of fitness increased.

Next, a study in the Journal of Mind Brain and Education examined the impact of 30 minutes of physical education on 40 seventh grade girls. After 30 minutes of aerobic activity, the students showed increased ability to ignore distractions and remain on task. The authors quote an earlier study that found that only 6% of American high schools offer daily PE classes. As schools face increasing pressure to prepare students for high stakes testing, PE is often sacrificed. The sad irony is that students actually learn more in classes they attend after participating in physical activity.

At the same time that physical activity is diminishing, screen time is on the rise. There is evidence that American students spend more than 5 hours/day in front of a computer or television screen. We are also seeing a proliferation of computer-based therapeutic interventions for enhancing focus and executive function. Some of these are expensive and time consuming. As parents consider these and other treatments to help their children increase their focus and academic performance, I urge them to start with the simple and natural interventions. Let’s not forget about sleep, nutrition, and EXERCISE.

(Photo credit)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Our Amazing Brain

We keep a large glass bowl of brains in our office -- the squeezable plastic kind, which we give to the younger students we see. They come in all sorts of bright colors and children always seem very pleased to receive a brain at the end of the day. They like to toss them and to show us how flexible they are.

An article in last week's New York Times reminded us that it is not just toy brains that are flexible. It told the story of a man named Henry Molaison, known only as H.M. during his lifetime. Mr. Molaison had surgery in 1953 to attempt to control severe seizures. Doctors removed two small sections of his brain, and although the procedure was successful in controlling his seizures, it destroyed his ability to form new memories. Now, a year after his death at age 82, doctors are beginning an examination of his brain, not so much to see what was destroyed, but to examine something that became evident as doctors worked with Mr. Molaison over the decades after his surgery -- the emergence of new pathways that seemed to enable him to form different kinds of memories, those for tasks rather than for facts and events.

We see the wonderful flexibility of the human brain in many ways. We know that many young people who exhibit poor judgment and impulsivity in adolesence go on to be thoughtful, acomplished adults after their brain finishes fully developing in their twenties. We know that appropriate reading interventions can change the brains of students with dyslexia and other reading disorders in ways that can be documented by scientists.
We have learned about studies of individuals with damage to one area of their brain who develop new pathways to enable them to perform functions they might otherwise have lost. Those who have seen Dr. Yellin speak about resilience and neuroplasticity have heard of how young people can overcome significant obstacles to emerge as competent and happy adults.

People like Mr. Molaison remind us how inappropriate it is to label people by the deficits that they have to be contending with at any point in time. There is good reason to expect that every struggling student has the real potential for success in their studies and their lives.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What Kind of School is Right for My Child?

Many parents ask us for guidance on what kind of school would be best for their child. The answers are as different as the students we see, but there are some basic principles that apply to all students and may be helpful for families thinking about schools.

The threshold question we always need to consider is what level of academic support does a particular student require. Some students will do well in a competitive academic environment and will need only to apply some basic strategies at home and at school to manage a complex curriculum. Other students will definitely need to be in a school that offers significant supports for students who learn differently. These students may need specialized reading programs, and a wide array of supportive services, and would be overwhelmed in a setting where other students are moving at a much faster pace. There are both public and private schools that serve both of these populations, although outside of the New York Metro region, it becomes harder to find private schools that support struggling learners.

The most challenging placement situation arises when a student needs more than minimal support but does not require the more restrictive setting of a specialized school. Some of these students may do best in a public school, where there can be sufficient supports for academic difficulties yet the student can be in a class with learners of all levels. Of course, that option is not always available in places where the public schools are underfunded or not responsive to student needs.
One thing we urge parents to consider is to make sure your child's school deals with all of his needs, including those outside the academic realm. If your son loves to swim, he will be happier in a school with a pool and a swim team, where he can excel outside the classroom. If your daughter loves to act, she will be able to be a star outside the classroom --even if she struggles with her schoolwork -- but only if her school has an active theatre program.

Parents tell us that the most helpful step they took in deciding where to enroll their child was to visit several schools. Nothing takes the place of seeing a school and getting a "gut" feeling as to whether your child will be a good match for what it has to offer.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Building Financial Skills

Does your teenage know the difference between a credit card, a charge card, and a debit card? Does he know what happens when a credit card bill is not paid on time? Can he figure out how much he will pay in interest charges for something that takes him six months to pay for in full?

Students in high school -- and beyond -- face numerous financial decisons every day and parents can't expect them to understand the issues involved in the money they spend and the expenses they incur unless they have had early and frequent exposure to what we like to call "financial education". Parents may not want to share details of the family exchequer with their offspring, but children should still be aware that bills come into the house and have to be paid regularly. Maybe they can put the stamps on the envelopes at first, and later do the math to make sure the utility bills are correctly calculated. They should see that parents write checks, or pay bills on line. They should have a bank account of their own, where they can deposit gifts and allowance, and which they can access with decreasing supervision as they get older.

We hear too many stories from parents whose children make poor financial decisons and who lack basic financial literacy, from writing a check, to managing basic financial software like Quicken, to understanding why and how they need to stick to a budget. Money is a complicated subject for adults, let alone kids. But by exposing young people to the nuts and bolts of budgets and bills at an early age, families can make it more likely that their children will understand the financial issues they encounter and become financially responsibile adults.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Building Affinities with Holiday Gifts

Unless you spent the entire Thanksgiving weekend on a remote island, you have been bombarded with all sorts of ads, emails, and media stories about the start of the holiday shopping season. Whether you were lined up at the local mall just after you finished your turkey dinner, or will do your shopping online, or even if you are one of the hardy group who hits the stores on Christmas eve, there are some things you might want to keep in mind when shopping for the children on your list.

We believe that having an interest in a particular subject helps to build competence and confidence in children. Whether it is dinosaurs, trains, birds, flowers -- or any other subject -- doesn't matter. What is important is that a child has a chance to study a particular topic, to read about it, to think about it, and to become an "expert"on it in his classroom and in his family.

Gifts that foster a child's affinities, or give him a chance to explore new ones, are far more important and lasting than the latest robotic pet that will entertain for an hour or two before being set aside. Think about what interests a particular child -- and what might start an affinity or interest that will stay with him for years.
Some examples:
  • A beginners collecting kit for rocks, or stamps, or coins
  • Some real artists' chalks and a pad of good paper
  • Beginners' supplies for knitting or sewing
  • Tickets to a show or a trip (with you) to a museum
  • A subscription to a magazine -- from Sports Illustrated for Kids to Calliope, which explores history
Whatever you decide to give, think about how it can help a child think, grow, and foster new interests.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

We're Thankful

Whether you are planning your menu, looking forward to seeing family, or getting ready to leave for the airport, we are all aware that Thanksgiving is tomorrow. It's a perfect time for us to pause for a moment to give thanks for the many blessings we have received this year.

We're grateful for the families who come to us with their children, and who tell us how their experience at the Yellin Center has changed their lives for the better.

We're grateful for our amazing staff -- our learning specialists, our support staff, and our Clinic Manager. Their dedication, caring, and professionalism shine through in everything they do and we know that families and students appreciate them too.

We're grateful for our physician colleagues and to the psychologists, speech and language therapists, and occupational therapists who send us their patients (and often their own children) when they encounter learning difficulties. We're grateful, too, that they are there when the families and students we see need their specialized services.

We're grateful for the schools we work with, whose dedicated teachers and administrators want to understand how their students learn and who seek our advice and support the learning plans we recommend.

We're grateful for our beautiful new offices, where students, staff, and families can work efficiently and comfortably in our well designed suite.

And, since we are also grateful for our families, we will take the holiday weekend off. There will be no blog this coming Friday and we will pick up again on Monday, November 30th. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

There's No IEP in College

Students who have received special education services during high school -- and often throughout most of their school careers -- are often surprised to learn that their IEP does not continue in college. The IDEA, which is the federal law that guarantees a free appropriate education to students with disabilties who are in need of special education services, does not apply to students who have graduated from high school (with an exception for those who receive IEP "diplomas" which allow students to continue to receive special education services until age 21).

What does apply to students in college is the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. This law requires colleges to provide students with accommodations to give them equal access to their class materials and school buildings, to provide them with extended time to take examinations and any other reasonable accommodation that will "level the playing field" with their nondisabled classmates. Colleges have the right to require documentation of a disability and need not provide all the accommodations a student is used to getting or that he may request. While colleges may look at the accommodations and services provided to a student during high school, as reflected on his IEP, they will make their own decisions about what accommodations and services to offer.

What can a high school student who learns differently or who has a physical or emotional disability do to make sure he gets the support he needs in college?
  • Make sure that the college you are going to attend has sufficient support services. Some schools do the minimum to comply with ADA requirements; others make support for students who need extra help a fundamental part of their mission.

  • Make sure that your testing or medical reports are up to date. Colleges want current documentation of a disabilty.

  • Check out the campus Office of Disability Services; speak with a counselor there and learn all you can about what supports that college offers to students.

The college application and decision process is fraught with enough stress for students and their parents. Understanding a student's rights to services and knowing what a particular college can provide can help smooth the way to a successful college career.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thanks, But No Thanks

We've recently met with several families, from a number of different public school districts, who have encountered a similar problem. They each have have a child who was struggling in school, and they met with school officials to explore their options. They were offered support services and accommodations and when they asked whether their child needed to be evaluated for eligibility for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they were told they didn't need to "do anything formal".

"We don't need to classify your son," one family was told. "We'll give him what he needs without having to go through that".

This may seem like a great suggestion by a thoughtful school district, but it is anything but. Students who are struggling have a right to be evaluated, and if they are found to need special educational services, they have a right to those services. The school district is not doing this student a favor. They are avoiding having to include this student in their roster of those receiving special education services, which is carefully scrutinized by the State to make sure children aren't being classified unnecessarily.

Another issue is that when services are offered informally by a school, they can be stopped at any time. We've seen this happen when there has been a change of staff at the school, or it can occur when the school sees some improvement in the student's performance and unilaterally decides to withdraw services. In contrast, a student who is receiving special education services under the IDEA continues to receive services which are updated at least annually through an Individual Educational Program (IEP). Services cannot be terminated completely unless the child is formally discharged from special education after a meeting of all concerned parties, including the parents.

Parents should be aware of their rights to services for their child and avoid substituting informal arrangements for the legal rights and protections of the IDEA.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


If you are a parent of a student in a New York suburban public school, and your child is receiving special education services under IDEA or Section 504, your Special Education PTA, or SEPTA, can be a valuable resource. The SEPTA is primarily a suburban phenomenon. In New York City, every school must have a Parent Association or Parent Teacher Association, but parents whose students are receiving special education services don't have the same kind of district wide group we see in areas outside of the city.

There are some terrific, active SEPTAs that provide programs and support to parents throughout the region. One of these is the Westchester East Putnam group, which holds a variety of programs throughout the year for parents of children who learn differently. There are also a number of active groups on Long Island. Check out your district's SEPTA and see what they are offering.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The School of One

The latest issue of Time Magazine features a list of the Inventions of the Year, which includes a pilot program in New York City public schools called School of One.

In a system of over one million students, the program is tiny; it began last summer with an initial group of approximately 90 seventh graders in a single middle school and plans are to expand it to 20 schools by 2010. The initial group of students submitted applications to be included in the program and all had passed the New York State tests for their grade level. The summer start allowed the initial students to try the program during the abbreviated summer day of only four hours. The students all worked in one large renovated school library, to keep careful tabs on how the program was implemented. There was significant outside funding and corporate support and the subject matter was limited to math. In short, conditions were as close to ideal as could be created in a New York City public school.

These considerations mean that we should this program with some reservations. So, why the enthusiasm and plans for expansion? Because this is a significant departure from the basic way students have been educated for the last 100 or more years. Instruction is completely individualized, with evaluations before and after every learning segment to determine whether the student has mastered the material. Goals are separately targeted for each student, and interactive game-like activities engage the students as they work both alone and in groups to master the subject matter. This approach is very much in line with that of CAST, The Center for Applied Special Technology, where Dr. Yellin is a member of the Board of Directors. It may well be the model for the classroom of the future. But there is a long way to go before it can be even tried in a wide arrange of classrooms, for all kinds of students and for every subject. We'll see how the School of One project progresses over the next few years.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Student, Know Thyself

Does your son know if he has an IEP or a 504 Plan? Can your daughter explain to her teacher why her learning difficulties require accommodations? Has your 14 year old read his IEP?

Clearly, the age of your child and the nature of their learning problem will determine when and whether he or she should know this information. But we have encountered students about to begin college who really don't understand their own learning issues and haven't had to advocate for their own learning needs or special accommodations. We believe that every family with a student who has learning differences needs to commit to educating their child about his learning style, understanding his strengths and weaknesses, and knowing the strategies that he requires to succeed in the classroom.

Even in elementary school, students should be able to describe their strengths and interests: "I'm really good at math and I like music alot!" They should also be aware of where they struggle and what strategies they need to do to deal with their areas of weakness: "Sometimes I have problems paying attention in class. I do better when I sit in the front of the room and I sometimes have to get up and walk in the back of the classroom to help me stay focused. "

By middle school, most students should be encouraged to attend their IEP or 504 Team meeting. They can offer their own view on what works for them and what doesn't and raise concerns that their parents and teachers might not consider, such as the social impact of pull-out services or the difficulty they are having getting to their locker. We know that it is often hard for parents to sit through these meetings and hear their child talked about in terms of diagnoses and scores. But for many students, having a chance to participate in planning their own school lives is an important benefit.

High school students should be practicing their advocacy skills. Those who will be moving on to college will not have mom or dad to arrange for test accommodations or to intercede with their professors. They should be encouraged to meet with their teachers and to take the first steps to raise questions and concerns about their IEPs, accommodations, and future plans. By being given a chance to handle many issues on their own, they will be better equipped to move on to college, and then the workplace, as an effective advocate for their own needs, and with a clear sense of what they need to be successful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We often encounter students with learning differences who are concerned about how to manage their SAT exam. Many students, particularly in the eastern part of the country, don't automatically consider taking an alternate test that is accepted at virtually all colleges, the ACT.

There are a number of differences between the two tests that all students should consider when deciding which to take. Start by checking the website and admissions materials for the colleges to which you are interested in applying. Some colleges  may have specific requirements; for example, that students taking the ACT take the newer version of the test, which includes a writing section. Next, consider whether you will need to take SAT II Subject Tests for the colleges to which you would like to apply. These are offered in the categories of English, history, mathematics, science, and language, with several choices and levels in most categories. Every college website will specify what their requirements are for these, including what subject areas they want to see. Some schools require SAT II tests if you are submitting SATs but not if you are submitting ACT scores, since the ACT exam is based on four distinct subject areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. Since the SAT II Subject Tests are administered by the College Board, just like the SAT, the requirements for accommodations are the same. If a student is granted testing accommodations for the SAT, she will have the same accommodations on the SAT Subject Tests.

The basic ACT is strictly multiple choice. There is an optional writing section which some schools require, but the basic test has no writing. This is a substantial difference from the SAT, where although two sections, mathematics and critical reading (formerly “verbal”) are multiple choice, the writing section is part of the basic exam and is not optional. Students for whom the physical act of writing is difficult or whose learning disabilities impact organizing written work might want to stick with the basic ACT exam, especially if they have difficulty obtaining the kinds of test accommodations they would like. Those students with disorders that result in impulsive behaviors may do better on the ACT where their scores will not be lowered if they guess on problems where they are not sure. The SAT deducts a quarter of a point for wrong answers, although there is no deduction for failing to answer a question.

Another difference between the ACT and SAT is the nature of the questions. As we have mentioned, the ACT focuses on subject matter content, so that students can study each area to improve their score. The SAT may have dropped the word “aptitude” from its name, but it still measures general reasoning and problem solving skills more than specific subject content. Students whose learning issues make them less comfortable with complex reasoning may find they are more comfortable with the ACT, whereas bright students who have not applied themselves to the content of their high school courses might do better on the SAT, where knowledge of specific course content is not as important.

The SAT is longer – 3 hours and 35 minutes (including the writing section), for those who take it without extended time. The ACT is only 2 hours and 55 minutes, but will last another 30 minutes if you need to take the optional writing section. Students with poor attention may find that they do better on the standard ACT.

One way of deciding which test works best for you is to try them both. Since this can involve signing up for both tests, applying separately to the College Board and ACT for the accommodations you may require, paying for two different tests, and actually taking them both, a far better way to evaluate which is right for you is to take practice tests.
There are real differences between the SAT and ACT that might make on or the other test a better fit for a particular student. Students with learning disabilities who will require testing accommodations should look at both tests, and possibly take one or more practice tests of each, to determine which test will best meet their needs.

You will be able to find much more information on this and other subjects in a book by our own Susan Yellin, Esq. and Christina Bertsch, entitled Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and their Familes due out in spring 2010 from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. More information will appear on later blogs.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Health Literacy

Our good friend, Dr. Benard Dreyer, Co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Health Literacy Project Advisory Committee, and Professor of Pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Center, speaks about the challenges of communicating information to parents and children in an article in the November, 2009 issue of the AAP News.

The article explains that health literacy is "the ability of patients and parents to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate decisions." It points out that sometimes pediatricians think that parents really understand what they are being told, when the truth turns out to be that the parents did not have a good understanding of diagnosis, instructions, or treatments.

Dr. Dreyer is the editor of a supplement to the current issue of Pediatrics that presents extensive information on the issues surrounding health literacy throughout the country.

An important question in the area of health literacy is how to share information with young patients. The kind of information shared with an eight year old would not be the same as that given to a teenager. The way in which information is shared is also important. Young patients, Dr. Dreyer recommends, should be able to "teach back" what they are told. And their parents should be able to explain their child's main problem and what they need to do about it and why. This will demonstrate that they truly understand what their pediatrician has wanted to share with them.

We deal with the issue of effective communications all the time here at the Yellin Center. Students who complete our full assessment process join with their parents in a "demystification" at the end of the assesment day, where the preliminary findings of our team and initial learning strategies are explained in a manner designed to make sure they are understood by both parents and students. We have been delighted to hear of young children who have gone home after this demystification and shared the document we created especially for them with their teachers, and even their friends, to explain how they learn.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Future of Assessment

We've written before about the limits of labels, and we continue to encounter parents who are uncomfortable with a special education system that requires that students be "classified" by what purports to be a description of the student's disability.

This coming Monday evening, November 9th, Dr. Yellin will be speaking at REDS - The Resurrection Episcopal Day School, in New York City -- as part of its lecture series entitled "Working Together – The Collaboration among Parents, Teachers, Clinicians and Scientists To Support Learning and Development in All Children”.

Dr. Yellin's talk is entitled The Future of Assessment - What are we really trying to measure and how does it translate to the classroom? He will be looking at what current testing claims to measure and how it should be looking to understand how students' minds really work. He will explain how new findings in neuroscience and brain imaging have enabled clinicians to see how effective interventions can truly change how brains work, and how emerging partnerships between educators and clinicians will enable classroom teachers to benefit from the deeper understanding of learning that science has helped to achieve.

Parents, teachers, and others who are looking for a better understanding of how to link brain science to the classroom should find this a worthwhile evening.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Favorite Web Resources

The web is an amazing tool for researching any topic, and the well known search engines such as Google or Bing are good places to start for many searches. But there are a number of specialized sites that are particularly helpful to families and students dealing with learning differences. We want to share some of our favorites.

LD onLine is a compendium of articles on a wide range of topics, written by experts such as special education attorneys, psychologists, and educators. It is a good place to start for general information on a topic relating to learning differences and, as with most of the sites we will mention, has an internal search feature. The search feature also will find articles that may not be new but will still be helpful in explaining a particular subject. is a commercial site, written by Peter Wright, an attorney, and his wife, Pam, a clinical social worker. The site is cluttered with announcements about their workshops, books, and other products for sale, but there is real substance behind this site and it is a great place to find an article explaining how the legal end of the special education system works. If there is a new court case that impacts special education, you can be sure that Wrightslaw will have both the text of the case and a discussion of what it means before almost anyone else.

More specialized information can be found on the site of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). While this site has an enormous amount of information on dyslexia, it also has links to its branch organizations, which have local programs and activities. For example, the New York City branch of the IDA includes an announcement of its annual conference in March, 2010 at which Dr. Yellin will be speaking on “Neuroplasticity, Resilience, UDL, & Dyslexia - New Pathways to Success".

We'd like to know what sites you find most helpful. Please let us know.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Two Family Stories

We were recently reminded of two books, both worth reading by parents of children with significant learning difficulties. Neither is new, but both are still very timely and deal with the kinds of problems many parents share.

Laughing Allegra, The Inspiring Story of a Mother's Struggle and Triumph Raising a Daughter with Learning Disabilities,by Anne Ford, is the story of how Anne came to realize the extent of her daughter's learning difficulties and to find resources to give Allegra an opportunity to maximize her potential. Certainly Anne Ford, of the automobile family, had contacts available to her that most parents simply don't have. But that didn't diminish her concern, her efforts, or her worries about what would become of Allegra when she grew up. She dealt with many of the issues that all parents of children who struggle need to face: explaining her child's difficulties to her families, balancing the needs of her other child, and maintaining a sense of optimism in the face of challenges. A follow-up book, On Their Own, Creating an Independent Future for Your Adult Child with Learning Disabilities and ADHD, tells that story of what happened to Allegra as she entered adulthood and then goes on to give advice to other families.

A Special Education, One Family's Journey through the Maze of Learning Disabilities, by fashion designer Dana Buchman, contains less guidance for other families, but is a highly personal, very readable story of Dana's daughter, Charlotte, and how her entire family dealt with Charlotte's learning difficulties.

Not surprisingly, both authors went on to put their talents and contacts to use in the service of children who struggled. Anne Ford went on to become involved in the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), where she served as Chairman of the Board, and established a scholarship for students with learning disabilities. Dana Buchman has become involved with PROMISE, the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick or Treat for Unicef

The stores are filled with costumes from the goulish to the silly. Families have purchased bags of candies, and then tried to hide them from the kids (as well as mom and dad) so that there will be some left for the trick-or-treaters. Parties and pranks are being planned. There is no way to avoid it -- Halloween is tommorow.

But we'd like to remind you of another Halloween tradition, one that parents may remember from their own childhoods -- the little orange containers, often milk containers from school lunch trays, covered in printed paper, with holes cut into the top for coins. We used to push them forward, "Trick or treat for UNICEF", we'd mumble, and obliging grownups would drop a coin or two into our collection box. We knew we were collecting money for "poor kids" but probably couldn't tell you a lot more than that about the process.

UNICEF -- originally created as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund  -- was founded in 1946 to help the children of Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Now operating in 191 countries, it has programs in areas such as education, children's rights and gender equality, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and environmental interventions, such as safe drinking water. It's worth a look at their website to see the scope of their work and the good that they do.

So, set up a bowl of coins next to the bowl of candy near the front door. Make sure your kids have their orange collection box. And take a moment or two to educate them about why they are collecting coins and how UNICEF helps children around the world. It's a lesson that will help them appreciate how much they have and how much they can work with others to help children who are not as fortunate as they are. Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Digital Youth Project: Facebook May Be Helping Your Kids Learn

The announcement yesterday of the establishment of a new center at UC Irvine to foster collaboration and research around digital media and learning brought our attention to an interesting 2008 research paper known as the Digital Youth Project, which was developed by the some of the same core group of researchers involved in this new center. 

The study (as well as the new center) is part of the MacArthur Foundation's digital media initiative.

To conduct the study, researcher Mizuko Ito and her associates interviewed and observed over 800 kids and young adults -- focusing primarily on their use of games, gadgets (such as Ipods and mobile devices) and social networking interfaces. 

Two of their major findings were that kids use social networking and online media to further develop friendships and interests, and that kids engage in self-directed learning online. The implications mean that adults ought to facilitate kids' engagement with digital media, and not necessarily hinder it by blocking or restricting access to these devices or websites (with supervision and moderation, of course). The study also finds that adults have a key role to play in establishing goals and expectations for informal learning via these means.

Further, the study suggests that in order to remain relevant, educational institutions need to stay up-to-date with technological developments in new media.

Read a two-page summary of the project's findings here.

Via BoingBoing by way of DML Central.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A World without the SATs

I am deeply engrossed in reading a book recommended by Jo Anne Simon, Esq., whose legal practice focuses on helping teens and older students deal with high stakes standardized tests, from the SATs and ACTs to professional licensing exams. The book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann, was published in 1999 but the issues it presents are still very timely.

Lemann looks at how college admission testing became ubiquitous in the United States and how it created barriers for students from particular backgrounds as they sought to move on to college. We here at the Yellin Center are particularly concerned about the barriers for students with disabilities as they seek the testing accommodations they are entitled to under the law, and which the testing organizations often balk at providing.

We are pleased to see that growing numbers of colleges -- including some highly selective schools -- are making the SAT and ACT tests optional for their applicants. We applaud the work of the nonprofit group FairTest in working to demonstrate the problems with standardized exams and providing lists of schools that have dropped these exams as part of their admission decision.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Here, There, and Everywhere

Our office has recently undertaken an armchair trip around the world. It began with a question we posted on the ten foot long blackboard that runs the length of one of our hallways: "Where are you from?" Students of all ages took a moment from their busy day at the Yellin Center to add their replies and to list what they liked best about New York City (the Empire State Building, toy stores, and "my house!" topped the list).

We had always known that families came to the Yellin Center from not just the New York Metro area, but from all parts of the country and from overseas as well. We've just been too busy to think about just how broadly our work has become known. So, after seeing some of the states and countries listed on our blackboard, we decided to look a bit more closely at where the students we work with are from.

We took a couple of maps, one of the U.S. and one of the world, and marked them to show the homes of the students we have seen in just the last couple of years. We were amazed to find that we had markers in five continents, 14 countries, and 34 of the United States, plus the District of Columbia! We are pleased to be an important resource for students and families in the New York City area and equally pleased to see that families come to us from all over the world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Parkside School

I recently had a chance to visit the Parkside School, which enrolls 84 students with language based learning differences in its townhouse setting on New York City's Upper West Side.

Parkside is an ungraded program for students from five to ten years of age. With a staff of 80 teachers, speech and occupational therapists, and social workers, Parkside has a broader view of what constitutes a language based learning problem than many other schools. As Leslie Thorne, one of its founders and presently its Educational Director, noted, "There is no such thing as just a language problem".

That philosophy is reflected in the extensive use of symbols and symbolic play to help students understand tasks, schedules, and expectations. As Ms. Thorne explained, the children need to have language skills to advance socially and to get ready to learn. In addition to programs developed by the Parkside staff, the students use such proven methods as "Handwriting without Tears" and "Stern
Math", as well as other math and reading programs.

The Parkside program is ungraded; students are placed with others of similar ability, with consideration for their age. Parkside is on the New York State "Approved" List, which means that students can be sent there by their home districts without cost to their families. It also accepts students privately enrolled by their parents.

When asked to describe what disabilities Parkside students might face, Ms. Thorne indicated that they would include: "speech, language, primary communication difficulties, students who have a hard time thinking flexibly or who have difficulty regulating their bodies." She also indicated that Parkside would enroll students with "high functioning autism".

As we visited classes ranging from the youngest students to those who will be leaving Parkside this spring, we saw significant growth and progress from class to class. Parkside students move on to both mainstream and specialized schools when they leave this strong and supportive program.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Resilience and College Success

Yesterday almost 100 parents and high school students braved strong winds and a steady downpour to hear Dr. Yellin speak about "How to Help Struggling Students Make a Successful Transition to College and Adulthood: Resiliency, Neuroplasticity and Overcoming Early Challenges". This keynote talk was part of a conference sponsored by The Center for Learning Differences and the Compass Project and held on the campus of C.W. Post College.

Using information about recent studies in the fields of neuroscience and education, Dr. Yellin discussed how early struggles with learning can be overcome and that students who have the right kind of adult support, and who understand how they learn, can go on to successful adult lives even if they started out with substantial difficulties.

The conference then broke into separate sessions for the high school students, who meet college students with learning issues for a frank conversation about what they could expect as they move on to college, and a presentation for parents by Dr. Lisa Korman about the transition process from high school to college.

Finally, the entire group heard from representatives of local and national colleges who discussed their programs and the learning supports they offered. Students and parents had an opportunity to speak one-on-one with all of the college representatives and lingered to ask questions long after the program had concluded.

"It was just great," one parent reported. "Dr. Yellin's talk was terrific and we feel so much better informed about the kinds of college programs out there. It wasn't easy getting my kid up early on a Sunday morning but it was really worth it!"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) is a resource every parent with a child who needs special school services should know about. COPAA was founded in 1998 and its members are attorneys, special education advocates, and parents who are advocating on behalf of their own child. COPAA is actively and specifically pro-child. It will not accept as a member anyone who works or who has recently worked for a state or local department of education or who is on a school board that is involved in legal action against a parent.

Although it offers special services and information to its members, the COPAA website has numerous public resources that can be helpful to families. Perhaps most useful is its "find an attorney or advocate" feature which lets parents locate COPAA members in each state who can represent families seeking services from their local school district, help with "Carter" funding, or help with other educational issues, such as school disciplinary procedures.

COPAA is also an active voice in special education advocacy, and the public areas of its website contain information about its "friend of the court" briefs in legal matters and the work of its Washington, D.C. office in helping Congress shape legislation that will help our children. There is also an extensive list of resources that parents, advocates, and attorneys will all find helpful.

COPAA is holding its next conference in St. Louis in March. There will be training sessions for all levels of knowledge and opportunities for networking with others who share a commitment to helping children. If you decide to attend, look for our own Susan Yellin, an attorney and the Yellin Center's Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, as well as a proud COPAA member.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nobel Winner Overcomes Dyslexia

Yesterday's New York Times Science Times section contained an interview with Dr. Carol W. Greider, who won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work with telomeres. Dr. Greider, who is now at the John Hopkins School of Medicine, told of her experiences as a young student with dyslexia.

The article quotes her as saying, " I kid I had dyslexia. I had a lot of trouble in school and was put in remedial classes. I thought that I was stupid". She goes on to explain, "I kept thinking of ways to compensate. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn't spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was very good at that."

Many of the students we see at the Yellin Center who have difficulty with parts of learning also struggle with issues of self esteem. They may question their abilities across the board, until they understand that they have areas of strength as well as weakness and that they can leverage their strengths -- as well as remediating their weaknesses -- to achieve success in school and in life.

Dr. Greider explained that when she began doing science experiments she "loved" it and "had fun with them". She had found the kind of work that fit her learning style and achieved the highest level of success.

While only a very few students grow up to win the Nobel Prize, we believe that young people who grow up understanding how they learn, appreciating their strengths and with strategies to improve their areas of weakness, and following their areas of interest and affinities will win another important prize -- appreciation of themselves and their work.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Teasing and Bullying

A newsletter from a terrific group operating on Long Island, Child Abuse Prevention Services -- CAPS -- reminded us of the harm that can be done to children who are the victims of teasing and bullying.

The frequent target of such behaviors is the child who is a bit different from her classmates, who may march to his own drummer. He or she may have low self esteem or poor social skills. Sometimes, the same issues that make a child a target of bullying will make it more likely that a particular child can be "egged on" by classmates to take the role of bully, rather than victim. A good discussion of the impact of bullying on children with learning and attention differences by Marlene Snyder, Ph.D., discusses the damage bullying causes for both victim and aggressor.

We recently learned that a student who had visited the Yellin Center was the victim of repetitive teasing by classmates. The student's mother explained that when she brought this hurtful behavior to the attention of her child's school, she was advised that the school had a strong policy against teasing and bullying and that the students who had targeted her child would soon find the tide of their classmates' opinion turning against them. We wonder how long the victim would need to suffer for the social system in that competitive school to "solve" the problem.

CAPS firmly believes that bullying, constant criticism, threats, and other similar sustained and repetitive patterns of behavior that hurt a child's emotional development or sense of self worth are forms of emotional abuse. It notes, on its website, that national figures indicate that, one in 10 students in grades six through 10 report being bullied "sometimes" or "weekly" and that in the average classroom of 20 students or more, two to three students spend every day in fear of being bullied, harassed or worse.

CAPS brings educational programs on child abuse and bullying into local schools by means of volunteer educators and offers programs for parents and educators on issues ranging from child abuse to internet safety. Long Island parents should learn more about these programs.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Calhoun School

As the fall open houses for New York City private schools continue, I had a chance to visit The Calhoun School on Manhattan's Upper West Side this past week. Calhoun has a large building housing grades 3-12 where it has about 725 students and a smaller building several blocks south for its pre-school (3 year olds) through first grade program.

Calhoun describes itself as a "progressive" school, and the school philosophy recognizes the importance of learning through experience and understanding that students have multiple intelligences and a variety of learning styles. As the Head of School, Steve Nelson, describes it, Calhoun believes that "Schools should not be stressful... making students sit still in a classroom shuts down the neural pathways that lead to learning. "

The physical setting of Calhoun mirrors its mission. Classrooms are designed as open pods, separated by walls but open to the center of each floor. Teachers and students who were asked about this arrangement noted that the noise from adjacent classes didn't pose a problem and the open system was something "you get used to". Classes are small, consisting of 12-15 students.

The student body is diverse, and the school involves its Director of Diversity in the admissions process to sustain this diversity. The students greeting visitors were articulate and clearly enthusiastic about their school. Unlike many schools which carefully guide prospective parents on tours, Calhoun invited visitors to wander the building and speak to students and staff. Only once they had a chance to do so did a more formal information program commence.

There was a good deal of space in the upper school dedicated to the arts, including state of the art theatre facilities, and students have numerous opportunities to take electives in such areas as music, painting, pottery, and improvisation.
Calhoun would not be a good fit for most students with learning disabilities or signicant attention issues. It is not a "specialized" school as are some other schools we have visited. But for students who would not be comfortable in a highly competitive setting or who "march to their own drummer", its progressive philosophy, appreciation of individual learning styles, and rich program in the arts, could make this a good choice for a private school setting in Manhattan.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

School Fair

New York area parents looking for a private school for a child who has special learning needs may want to mark their calendar for Thursday, October 29th from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., when the Manhattan JCC holds a free Special Needs School Fair at their Amsterdam Avenue building.

The event will feature a wide range of schools -- some for students with serious cognitive or other disabilities as well as others with strong programs for bright students with learning differences. This latter group of schools includes Winston Prep, Aaron School and Aaron Academy, Gateway School, Mary McDowell School, and the Hallen School. Since most of these schools will fill their openings for September 2010 early, this is a good way for busy families to check out several schools at one time.

Each school will have a representative present to speak to parents about the profile of the students it serves, the application process, tuition, and other issues. For more information, contact Melissa Lader at 646-505-5729 or

Monday, October 5, 2009

Windward School

I had the chance to visit the Windward School in White Plains, New York last week and spend some time with Maureen A. Sweeny, the Director of Admissions.

Windward is located on two campuses -- The Lower School for grades 1-4 and the upper school for grades 5-9. The settings are impressive, with spacious facilities, and attractive grounds. Windward limits its student body to very specific students, those with language based learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) who are of average to superior intelligence, and who do not have behavioral issues that would interfere with their instruction. The Windward program is not designed to be a long-term educational setting. Students stay at Windward for an average of 2-5 years, at which point most students have had gained the skills necessary to succeed in a mainstream school. Windward works with families to find the right next school setting for their students.

The instructional program used at Windward is based on the Orton-Gillingham multisensory reading method and there is a strong emphasis on developing effective research based techniques for teaching and on training Windward faculty in the most effective ways to help these students. Windward has a Teacher Training Institute to share this knowledge with other professionals. Students are taught in small groups geared to their reading skills and learning needs and a visit to several classes showed them to be enthusiastic and engaged in the learning process.

Ms. Sweeney told me that Windward was working to create a more diverse student body and is committed to helping families who are unable to obtain funding for tuition from their public school system (by means of a "Carter" proceeding). Families interested in Windward should begin by arranging to visit the appropriate campus.

Friday, October 2, 2009


We are pleased to report that we have opened up the blog to your comments. We look forward to hearing from readers about your thoughts on our articles, your questions about learning, and your desires for future articles.

To post a comment, be sure to click on the article title, taking you to the specific page dedicated to that article. Scroll down to the bottom of the article and click on "Post a Comment." You can comment anonymously if you prefer. Don't be shy -- let us know how we can make this blog more useful for you!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Disclosing Differences

We recently had the opportunity to meet with Helen McDonald, the Director of Admissions at the Threshold Program, a post-secondary program for students with learning differences and cognitive limitations at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We also had a chance to speak with Threshold students and take a tour of its compact urban campus.

The Threshold Program was founded in 1982 and serves students from all over the country in its two year curriculum and additional one year Bridge and Transition programs. More than half of the Threshold students have physical or psychological conditions in addition to their learning difficulties and the average student enters with the reading and mathematical skills of a 4th or 5th grader. Clearly, this program is for students with profound learning issues, well beyond the vast majority of students we see at the Yellin Center.

One thing we learned during our visit is that the Threshold faculty has undertaken extensive surveys of its past students, and their research both validates the value of their program for the students it targets, and provides an important lesson for all students -- even for those with relatively minor learning difficulties or other kinds of disabilities. In a 1996 study entitled Beyond Threshold, faculty members Fran Osten and Carole Noveck surveyed employers of workers known to have learning disabilities. They asked how the timing of the workers' disclosures of their learning difficulties related to the employers' assessment of their workers. Not only did employers rate employees who disclosed their disabilties early on higher than those employees who did not disclose, or disclosed later in their employment, but 79% of the employees who disclosed their learning disabilities during the hiring process received raises and/or promotions compared to those who did not disclose early on -- only 25% of who received raises and/or promotions.

We believe this remarkable difference should be considered by all students who struggle with learning as they complete their education and move into the workplace.