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.