Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tax Tips for Families

As April 15th approaches families of students who may have special learning needs should be mindful of the tax deductions and other considerations that may help reduce the impact of private school tuition, special medical services, and some support services. The key to these benefits is that medical expenses are deductible, with limits, from your tax return. This will be the case for dependent children and, of course, for young adults who file their own tax returns.

The best discussion of these issues that we have seen can be found on the website Great Schools. Keep in mind that although some of the language in that article refers to serious learning disabilities, families of children with all kinds of learning difficulties may be eligible for tax benefits, so long as their child's school program is designed to remediate the specific learning difficulty. The key is to be aware of the issues and to raise them with your tax advisor (or keep them in mind as you use your tax preparation software). We all know raising kids is expensive. Being aware of tax benefits can help!

Friday, March 26, 2010

BOCES Programs

Your blogger recently had the opportunity to speak with a mother whose family had limited financial circumstances, and who was concerned about the costs of college for a less than stellar student. "Does it really pay for him to go to college?", she asked. "Why does everyone seem to feel that all students need to go on to college?" She has a point. But although not all students would be best served by college, almost all of them need some post secondary training to gain the expertise to pursue a trade or to gain skills to live independently. One place that New York parents can look for programs that begin this kind of training during high school are operated by the BOCES programs -- the Boards of Cooperative Education Services.

BOCES programs are designed to allow public school districts to offer an array of courses that are too specialized or too expensive to be offered by individual schools, and which students can begin in high school, ofen while attending their home school part of the time. For example, Barry Tech in Nassau County on Long Island offers over 40 courses for high school students, including culinary arts, automotive technology, and horse science and management. New York City offers career and technical education programs in areas ranging from fashion to construction trades in a variety of different settings.

While BOCES programs also offer training and services for adults, and some offer special education services that individual districts cannot afford to maintain, it is the programs for high school students that can be the most helpful to young people seeking to develop career interests and workplace skills while completing their high school diploma. Some of these students will go on to college. Others will enter the workplace right from their BOCES programs. But it's good to have a choice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Improving School Behaviors Through Mentoring

A recent study from the University of Rochester Medical Center looked at the impact that mentoring by adults had on elementary students with early signs of behavioral and social/emotional difficulties in school.

The students, who were in kindergarten through the third grade in urban schools, met individually for 25 minutes each week for 14 weeks with trained adults who were given background on each student and who met with the student's teacher to devise ways to reinforce newly learned skills in the classroom. The results of the study were profound; students who participated had 46% fewer disciplinary referrals and 43% fewer suspensions than a control group. Teachers noted improvement in all aspects of classroom functioning and girls (but not boys) had improvements in social skills. Researchers noted that all of the mentors were female but could not otherwise account for the differences in social skills improvement.

Mentors taught the students to recognize and monitor emotions in themselves and others and how to measure the level of their feelings. Students learned techniques to help them control strong feelings and to step back from intense situations. After the study was completed, the same skills training was given to the control group.

Key to the study was the fact that the mentors were not mental health professionals. In the kind of urban schools looked at in this study there is limited access to mental health services and this study was a step to looking at the efficacy of utilizing nonprofessionals to assist in building mental health resilience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Transition Program for High School Students

Long Island parents may want to attend a talk by our Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, Susan Yellin, Hicksville High School on Thursday, March 25th at 7 p.m. Sponsored by the Hicksville SEPTA (Special Education PTA), the talk will feature material from Mrs. Yellin's upcoming book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, written with Christina Bertsch and due out from Jessica Kingsley Publishers this summer.

Topics to be addressed include how laws change as students move from high school to college or the workplace; steps that high schools should be taking to pave the way for transition; considerations in selecting a college program; standardized testing; and how to obtain accommodations for various learning and other disabilities in college. There will be a question and answer period following the presentation. Admission is free and open to the public (use custodian’s entrance on side of building).

Questions? Contact Lori Pietrafesa (516-827-7692) or Cathy Ardito (516-938-5210).

Friday, March 19, 2010


Tomorrow is the first day of spring, and here in the Northeast the weather is a bit ahead of the calendar. The beginning of spring traditionally brings with it all sorts of tasks that transition us from the winter months -- spring cleaning, the spring holidays, readying our gardens for planting, and planning ahead for the summer or the next school year.

One task that should be on the list for most families is something we like to call "a check up from the neck up". As the school year is moving into its last few months, it's a good time to review what has gone well and what has been difficult this past year. If your child has an IEP, an Individual Educational Program under the IDEA, this is traditionally the time of year that your school district will be calling you in for an Annual Review. We will be featuring an extensive discussion of how to prepare for the Annual Review in our upcoming Yellin Center Newsletter. But the idea of a spring check up really should extend to all students.

The first part of such a check up is a conversation with your child about what he thinks has gone well or not so well this year. Was there a particular subject that he really enjoyed? This can be anything from reading to athletics, to music, to science. Are there ways you can build upon that interest during the summer months -- in a camp, or school program, or with family outings? Was there something that she found particularly difficult or just didn't enjoy? Maybe you can work over the summer to engage her in this subject or to at least build her skills.

A year-end conference with your child's teacher can be very helpful in seeing where things stand. Your child's teacher has had a number of months to get to know your child and to see how she has grown, academically and socially, over the course of the year. Does the teacher raise the same concerns as your child? If not, you may have to push these conversations a bit to see why your child, for example, says she hates math and doesn't understand it while her teacher doesn't see a major problem. Or, you might need to investigate why your child says nothing about having difficulty with reading while his teacher reports that he is really struggling. Of course, you will have had input from the teacher at other times during the year, and have had a chance to see several report cards. But summing up a school year may bring clarity to what has been going on in the classroom.

So, as you air out your closets and think ahead about summer, take some time to clear the air about your child's school performance this year and to think about ways to address any concerns as you plan your summer activities.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Introducing Our Blogroll

From time to time we come across blogs that we believe would be of interest to our readers. Each of these deals with a different aspect of the world of education and their writers have a number of different perspectives. We hope you enjoy them.

Special Education Law Blog is written by Charles P. Fox, a Chicago, Illinois attorney who is also a parent of child with special needs. Fox, and his occasional guest writers, focus on legal and legislative news and deal with the broad spectrum of disabilities, not just learning issues.

The Wrightslaw Way blog from the team at the Wrightslaw website continues the mission of providing information on legal and practical issues dealing with K-12 special education laws. This blog is particularly helpful because of its question and answer format; it allows parents to raise specific questions regarding practices and procedures and get answers that help them navigate the system.

The Inside Schools Bloggers include parents, educators, and students. Each blogger has his or her blogs listed on the home page of the blog and readers can follow the day's post or the work of a particular writer. All of the blogs relate to the work of Inside Schools, which is to inform New York City parents about city schools and how they operate.

The New York Times Choice Blog, written by Jacques Steinberg, New York Times education writer and author of  The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College, looks at all aspects of the college admissions process and financing a college education.

We'll keep updating our list of blogs and hope you will let us know of blogs you recommend. We'll be pleased to check them out and share them with our readers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Emergency Planning

As your blogger mans the shop vac and bucket to deal with the aftermath of the storms that hit the Northeast hard this past weekend, we are reminded that nature, and other disasters, can impact school buildings as well as basements.

Within the past several weeks there have been two schools in the New York suburbs that have been hit by fire, necessitating relocating students and classrooms to other buildings. Other issues, including flooding, furnance problems, and structural instability are all possible reasons why students might have their regular building and classrooms compromised. And, of course, we have all seen what the devastation of earthquakes can do in places like Haiti and Chile. Does your school have a disaster plan?

We aren't talking about ways to protect the students. This has fortunately been a huge priority for many years and schools have drills for everything from fire to intruders in the building. But beyond the immediacy of the emergency, education still needs to continue and where there is a widespread disaster the stability of continuing in school can be helpful to students in ways that extend beyond the basics of education. Does your school have a plan for continuing operations if the school building is not available? Are records of all kinds available even if the building and the computers located inside it are not? Has your administration identified other locations (other schools -- public and private, local colleges, large office buildings, etc) that could be pressed into use for classroom space if necessary? Does your school or district have multiple ways of contacting families with the most up to date information -- email, local television stations, radio, and cell phones?

Of course, there are lots of things that schools and school districts have to deal with and as the sun comes up, power is restored, and the water dries up, it is easy to get caught up in the day to day business of education. Still, parents might want to remind their schools that planning for the proverbial rainy day isn't just good advice when talking about financial matters, but can be an important part of education as well.

Photo courtesy Dachalan

Friday, March 12, 2010

How Learning Interventions Can Change the Brain

For much of the last decade, scientists using functional magnetic resonance imaging have demonstrated that areas of the brain associated with reading can show increased activity in individuals who have been exposed to effective reading interventions. Shaywitz and others have explained their findings in such accessible books as Overcoming Dyslexia, which includes examples of brain images of individuals before and after reading interventions.

A fascinating study by Thomas Keller and Marcel Adam Just of Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging that appears in the December 10, 2009 issue of the journal Neuron takes this kind of neuroimaging a step further, using the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) process to look not just at discrete areas of the brain but at the crucial connections between such areas. This "white area" of the brain contains the pathways that make higher order thinking possible. As the authors note, "Although the basic computing power of the brain surely lies in individual neurons, it is only in their collective action, made possible by white matter connectivity, that enables the multi-centered large-scale brain networks that characterize thought."

The study involved three groups of eight to ten year olds. 35 poor readers received reading interventions. 12 poor readers did not receive any reading instruction beyond regular classroom lessons. And 25 good readers also received no specific interventions. The study demonstrated clear increases in connective matter only in the students receiving the interventions. The study authors raised the question of whether the increase in brain connections or the improvement in phonological decoding ability came first -- but suggest that it is also possible that such changes develop interactively, "as one might expect in a dynamic system such as the brain".

This is one more in a series of exciting scientific windows into the complexities of learning and the brain. By keeping abreast of the latest imaging techniques and what they can tell us about learning, we can better focus remediations and strategies to help all kinds of learners expand their skills.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


New York parents of students receiving special education services may be familiar with VESID, which stands for Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. VESID has long served a dual function in New York. It is an adult service agency, which deals with individuals over the age of 18 with a documented disability, and coordinates programs and activities to help them find productive work and lead independent lives. As part of this adult mandate, which is the same as agencies in every state established under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (the same law that provides "504 Plans" for students of all ages), VESID counselors may start working with students while they are still in high school, to plan for post high school transition to college or the workplace.

VESID also has an additional function; it is the arm of the New York State Education Department that operates the special education system in New York State. As the VESID website notes, it is presently responsible for the following functions:
  • To oversee the implementation of federal and State laws and policy for students with disabilities;

  • To provide general supervision and monitoring of all public and private schools serving New York State preschool and school-age students with disabilities;

  • To establish a broad network of technical assistance centers and providers to work directly with parents and school districts to provide current information and high quality professional development and technical assistance to improve results for students with disabilities;

  • To ensure a system of due process, including special education mediation and impartial hearings; and

  • To meet with stakeholders through the Commissioner's Advisory Panel for Special Education Services.

There has been discontent in some circles with how VESID performs this part of its role, which has also been impacted by budget and related staffing issues that have impacted its ability to do its job. We have learned that there is now a proposal before the New York State Regents (who supervise all educational matters in the State) that "would include combining all P-12 education issues, including special education, under a new Regents P-12 Committee"which would replace VESID.

Adoption of this proposal can have a real impact in the way the special education services are overseen in New York. We will continue to follow this matter to let parents know of any changes to the special education system.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Video Games and Learning

Parents who have been concerned about the impact of video gaming on their children  have new scientific evidence to support what many of them have noted from their own observations: children who own and use video game systems perform more poorly in certain school tasks than those who do not own such systems.

A new study, done as a randomized trial, the "gold standard" in research, appears in the journal Psychological Science (not available for free online) and summarized in an article by Ed Yong, which appears in a newsblast from the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society. The researchers, Robert Weis and colleagues from Denison University, recruited 64 boys, ages 6-9, who did not already own a video game system. They gave half the boys a Playstation 2 and three "all ages" games. The other boys did not get a game system. Parents were told the game systems were an incentive for participating in a study of development, not that it was gaming itself that was being studied.

After four months there were significant differences in reading, writing and spelling skills between the two groups of boys, differences which were also noted by their teachers. Interestingly, the differences did not show up in math. After looking more closely, the researchers determined that it was not gameplaying itself that diminished academic skills, but rather the fact that the students with their own game systems spent significantly more time playing than children who did not have their own systems and only played occasionally at the home of a friend. It was the time the students did not spend on outside academic tasks, like reading, that seemed to be the reason for the difference between the two groups.

Clearly, there are more questions to be answered. But by moving beyond earlier studies which looked only at the correlation between academics and gaming, and using the more rigorous format of a randomized trial, this new research can help parents make better informed decisions about whether and how to allow their children access to video games.

Photo Credit: Sean Dreilinger/Flickr

Friday, March 5, 2010

What's Cooking?

Parents get lots of advice about things they should be doing with their children to build academic skills. They are rightly reminded that reading to and with their child will help build reading skills and a love of reading. In a similar vein, trips to libraries, museums, and musical events will build skills and interests for children of all ages.

But sometimes reading just one more book is more than a tired, working parent wants to do on a school night. And taking children out to events and exhibits may be problematic when there are younger children who are not ready to enjoy these excursions. A recent conversation with a mom of two boys reminded us that cooking with children can be another way to build skills and interests at home. Think about the skills that go into planning and preparing a simple family dinner -
  • Observational skills are built by reviewing what ingredients are in the pantry or fridge.
  • Children learn to plan step-by-step as they review recipes and decide what they need to prepare a particular meal.
  • Language skills are built by reading labels and recipes.
  • Measuring helps build competence with fractions and arithmetic skills. What if we doubled a recipe? or made only half a box of pasta?
  • Motor skills are improved by cutting (with proper supervision) and adding and stirring foods.
  • Important safety skills are modeled by parents and utilized by children: how to use a stove (with careful, age appropriate supervision), how to deal with sharp utensils, and how to handle hot items.
  • Social interactions include cooperating in a crowded kitchen, taking turns, dealing with mistakes, and dining together with others when the dinner is ready to eat.
Sure, it's more work and definitely more mess cooking with children. But it's great for the children and can one day lead to having competent cooks to share the responsibilities for family meals. Enjoy your dinner!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing isn't Easy

We are particularly sympathetic today to all students who sit with their head in their hands, at a desk or in front of their computer, trying to get started on a writing assignment. Even when the assignment is quite specific -- comment on how the lead character changed over the course of the book; or give three examples of how the United States economy was different in 1929 and 2009; or discuss the role of greenhouse gasses in climate change -- it is hard for some students to get coherent words on paper.

Think about it. First, there is the need to understand the question. That requires remembering the material you have learned on the subject. Next, you need to order that material in your mind to begin formulating a response. You need to be concerned with the mechanics of writing: spelling, grammar, sentence structure. You have to be competent at keyboarding or letter formation, and these skills need to be sufficiently automatic so you don't use so much mental energy getting the words onto the paper that you have no more space on your mental desktop to consider how you will be answering the question.

And this is where the question is set out for you and the response has a limited number of correct or good answers. Things are even more difficult when a student needs to use her creative skills, such as when she is asked to write an essay on any subject of her choosing. Here, the student needs to use her higher thinking, her creativity, and possibly her memory, to come up with a topic. There is an aspect of social skills, in the choosing of a suitable topic. Even more sophisticated language skills are needed to create a piece of writing that is interesting to the reader.

And so, on a day when blogging is not going well, yet our faithful readers are eagerly awaiting our lastest word on schools, education, and helping their child, we beg your indulgence and remind you something that we have realized once again today -- that writing isn't easy.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What if Everyone Had an IEP?

An article in today's New York Times about how schools in New Jersey are using online personal learning plans to motivate students and raise test scores got us thinking. What if every student had an IEP -- an Individual Learning Program -- which is now only required for students who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

The personal learning plans that the Times article discusses are primarily designed to help students focus on career  goals. An IEP under the IDEA is far broader, focusing on academic skills and strategies that are designed to help each particular student learn more effectively. Of course, good teachers always individualize instruction, but it is generally done informally. What if our schools had the resources to individually evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each student, to determine what approach to the materials would make them most accessible to that student, and to modify the curriculum to meet each student's special need?

It's not as far fetched as it sounds. We recently had the opportunity to speak with our favorite student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Matt Yellin, as he prepared a series of lessons on the Second World War that he would be teaching to his high school history classes at a Boston area school.  We were fascinated by lessons that included links to photos, maps, and videos that each student could use in different ways. Some could map the progress of the battles across the Pacific, using online maps with embedded images and text. Others could focus on different issues, also following their interest and level of understanding with a choice of materials. Gone are the days where everyone has a single text, which is too hard for some students and too easy for others. There is a way to go before every student has fully personalized lessons, but new technologies bring that day closer.