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.