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


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