Friday, April 30, 2010

New York City Plans Changes to Special Education

New York City plans fundamental changes to the way children needing special education services will be educated, planning to move all but the most disabled students into regular schools by 2011. There has always been a tension between having children with special learning needs educated in regular school settings and having them educated in more restrictive settings. There are real benefits -- and detriments -- to both approaches.

In a regular classroom or a smaller class in a regular school, children with special learning needs have the opportunity to interact socially with 'typical' learners and to model their behaviors after children who find school less of a struggle. This educational model is generally less expensive to deliver and children who are served in regular schools, especially those in regular classes,  don't feel isolated from the mainstream. But this way of delivering education to children with special learning needs is effective only if the students with special needs are given what they require to succeed -- appropriate educational supports, teachers who understand the nuances of specific special education issues, and classroom settings where they can get the kind of extra attention they may require. 

For some children, a school or class focused on those with special learning needs can provide the kind of support that children who struggle with learning need to succeed. But these special settings can also become dumping grounds for children who are difficult to educate in regular settings or whose issues cause them to be disruptive in class. Complicating the entire situation are the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the New York State Education Law, which both require that children receive an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

In a report on this issue in yesterday's New York Times, a number of the details of this new approach were still undetermined. For example, will the students now to be educated in regular schools be part of regular classes, or will they generally be placed in separate classes in that school? The implication is that principals will have the ability to decide how to provide services for these students within their schools, but the requirements of the IDEA will undoubtedly limit the principals' discretion.

The City denies that this change is financially motivated, but spending on special education in New York City is almost $5 billion annually, including tuition at private schools.

The Times' article quotes Kim Sweet, the Executive Director of the excellent organization Advocates for Children as noting, "...they’re talking about changing the culture of all the schools in the city so that they can serve students that many of them were previously shipping out.This could easily fall flat if it’s not done right. If kids are stuck in schools that don’t have the capacity to serve them and are denied requests to move elsewhere, that would be falling worse than flat." We agree with Ms. Sweet and will continue to follow this issue.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More on the Limits of Labels

A recent article in the New York Times Well blog ("Little Known Disorder Can Take A Toll on Learning") about a constellation of learning and communication difficulties that are often referred to as "auditory processing disorder" illustrates why labels frequently miss the mark. It points out why labels like “autism” and “ADHD” do not adequately capture the whole picture of what is going on when a child struggles in school or in life.

Rather, it is critical to take a broad approach that considers the whole child and does not reduce these complex issues into simple labels. For example, we frequently see children previously diagnosed with attention deficit who have the kinds of language problems described in this article. When we do, we include the kinds of strategies and interventions described in the article, but as part of a broader, comprehensive learning plan. In fact, we think that even the label “auditory processing disorder” is often too narrow a focus that does not fully account for a child’s entire profile of strengths and challenges that relate to learning and behavior. Therefore, diagnosis and treatment of learning problems needs to begin with a comprehensive assessment that examines all of the factors that affect learning and academic performance. Students and their families should emerge with an understanding of their profile of strengths and challenges and a learning plan based on this profile - not with a label.

Paul B. Yellin, M.D., FAAP

Friday, April 23, 2010

FERPA, HIPAA and Becoming a Grownup

We've all heard the term "age of majority", which is commonly taken to mean the age at which a young person becomes an adult, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that status. But adulthood isn't a legal door that you walk through, emerging on the other side immediately. It's more like a tunnel that you pass through over a period of time, emerging several years later as a full adult, but not reaching full adulthood until you have passed all the way through.

The laws that govern the journey are sometimes established by individual states, since many milestones are determined by state law. For example, in Kansas, young people can get a "farm permit" at age 14 that allows them to drive in rural areas, while in New York and many other states, a full license is not available until age 18. Marriage, too, is governed by state laws. Most states set the age for marriage without parental consent at 18, but Mississippi requires that the parties be 21.

Federal law governs other important areas. Voting at age 18 was established by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution in 1971. The various branches of the U.S. military set the age for enlistment, which is 17 with parental consent and 18 without it.

Perhaps most relevant for students are two federal laws that govern health and education privacy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). FERPA was enacted and became effective in 1974 and was designed to make educational records accessible to parents and students and to give parents and students some control over how and to whom educational records were to be released. FERPA also provides that the right to a student’s records transfers from the parent to the student when the student turns 18 or enrolls in college, whichever comes first. This can be particularly difficult for a parent of a student with a disability, who may have been even more involved in school matters than parents of students without such special concerns.

However, even parents of college students still have access to their child’s school records in certain circumstances. Most broadly, FERPA permits high schools (for high school students who have turned 18) and colleges to provide information to parents if the student is a dependent on his parents’ tax returns. In addition, disclosure to a student’s parents is permitted when necessary to protect the health and safety of the student or other individuals, and parents of college students who have not yet turned 21 can be informed if the student has broken any law, or violated any rule or policy of the college restricting use or possession of alcohol or drugs. Student consent can also be used to override the restrictions on information imposed by FERPA. Students who work with their college Office of Disability Services can sign a release allowing their parents ability to converse via phone, email, in person with a disability services officer regarding their progress. It should be stressed that nothing in these rights FERPA extends to parents requires that a school provide parental notification. It simply allows the school to do so if they decide it is appropriate without running afoul of federal laws. In addition, FERPA allows for access to disability related information if it is within a faculty or administration member’s educational need to know.

HIPAA covers a wide range of medical and insurance issues, but the part that impacts families is the 1996 Privacy Rule, which is much like FERPA in its approach. This section of HIPAA covers how and when personal health information (PHI) may be released by a medical professional or hospital. It also includes a provision that transfers the right to PHI from parent to child at age 18. Families should discuss how they want medical information to be shared and make sure that is reflected in the instructions they give to their doctor.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Budget Cuts and Class Size

Reports today of the defeat by voters of more than half of New Jersey's school district budgets highlights a trend that will have a significant impact on students for years to come. In most years, more than 70% of school district budgets are passed by voters. The number rejected this year is the most since 1976. While it does not take an economist to understand the pressures facing families who must weigh the burden of school taxes at a time of lingering economic difficulties, we are deeply concerned that one inevitable result of budget defeats -- an increase in class size -- will have a long term negative impact on the children in the affected school districts.

It has been well settled by numerous researchers that small class size (generally 15 to 18 students in lower grades) is a significant factor in student achievement. Furthermore, these benefits are lasting, and have a particularly strong impact on younger children and "at risk" populations.

As districts around the country plan cuts to their budgets that include layoffs of thousands of teachers and increases in class size, this issue will arise in numerous districts and impact millions of children. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in an interview in today's New York Times that there could be layoffs of between 100,000 to 300,000 public school employees nationally, and that the impact could be “education catastrophe.” We hope that school districts and voters alike take every possible action to render his concerns unfounded.

Monday, April 19, 2010


We had a particularly handsome visitor at our offices today, and he reminded us all about how pets can be a positive influence on children, especially those who struggle with school or with specific learning issues. We've written before about how some schools have programs where students read to dogs as a way of improving the students' fluency and confidence. But pets can have a positive impact on children in a number of ways -- and these benefits aren't limited to dogs or cats.

Perhaps the most significant benefit of pet ownership for children is that it teaches responsibility -- and consequences. Goldfish that are not fed, or are overfed, will not be around for long. Puppies that are not trained or walked regularly will get into mischief and have accidents around the house. Litter boxes that are not emptied will not be pleasant to have in your home. Every family will have to determine what kind of pet will be suitable for their home, based upon the age of the children, the kind of home (city, suburban, rural), and whether there are people home during the day. Allergies can also be a factor for some children. Even the breed of presidential pooch was chosen so as to avoid exacerbating the allergies of one of President Obama's daughters.

Families should consider what will happen if the pleas for a pet are not followed up by suitable responsible behavior. Will mom or dad pick up the slack? Will the pet be returned to the breeder or pet store? Pets shouldn't be an impulse purchase. Research can be an important part of the process and having children do some or all of this research can be another important skill builder. There are books at all levels about animals and their care and building upon a child's interest in a pet can be an important tool in building his or her reading skills.

Finally, parents need to consider another type of lesson that pets can teach -- the cycle of life and the "birds and the bees". Some species of small rodents and fish will eat their young. Many small animals and fish have short life cycles. The toilet bowl funeral service for a goldfish or the backyard burial of a gerbil can also teach life lessons, but families should think about the likelihood of these events before the trip to the pet store.

Friday, April 16, 2010

College Options

It's an annual ritual. Just as one high school class is finalizing its plans for after graduation, the rising seniors who will be graduating next year are focusing more intently on the college application process they will begin in the fall.

As your family plans to visit schools this summer, you might want to consider some programs we have encountered around the country that do a particularly good job serving students with learning issues. They include:

Mitchell College, in New London, CT which also has a terrific pre-college transitional program called Thames Academy.

East Carolina University (NC) and their Project STEPP , which begins in high school and provides continuing support through college.

The University of Arizona, whose SALT Center provides extensive supports for students with learning difficulties.

For more programs, you can browse through two guides we like to college programs:
The K&W Guide to Colleges with Learning Disabilities or ADHD or Peterson's Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADD. Neither of these guides replaces a careful read of a program's website, followed by a visit, but they are good places to begin. Remember to carefully review the discussion in the beginning of each guide about how they indicate the different levels of support offered by different programs.

'>rutlo via flickr

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Love Your Library

This is National Library Week, an annual celebration of reading and libraries that began in 1958. It would have been difficult to imagine, in the 1950s, what we can find and do in the libraries of today.

Online catalogs and reservation systems, internet enabled computers for research, and entire sections set aside for CDs and DVDs would have been totally unimaginable even 20 years ago. But two key elements of libraries remain unchanged -- books, the kind with covers and pages, and librarians, who now must be skilled with computers and technology, as well as books and other research materials.

A recent Wall Street Journal article looked at the pressures that libraries are under in these still difficult economic times, as they become resources for job hunting and even just a place to go to when you are out of work. Libraries are an equalizing force, letting everyone share in the joys of literature -- often in their own native languages. They are a place to read, to think, to imagine, to do homework, to read the newspaper --  all open to the entire community.

We have applauded new technologies that make reading accessible to individuals who struggle with printed words on paper, and we know many individuals who have been won over by reading devices such as the Kindle. But there is still a joy that comes with opening the pages of a book and entering into a world that you can carry with you as you explore its story. And libraries make this world -- as well as research, technology, and entertainment -- available to all, at no cost. Let's not take them for granted.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Medical Transition

We've written before about the importance of planning for the educational transition of students from high school to college and adulthood. But there is another kind of transition that is also important for adolescents -- the move from pediatric to adult medical care. For many young people, this transition occurs when their long time pediatrician may tell them that they are "getting too old" for their pediatric practice. Or the young adult may no longer feel comfortable sitting in a waiting room filled with young children and toys. For young people who see their pediatrician only for check-ups or flu shots, there may be a period when they have no primary care physician or they may be referred to an adult practioner whom they don't get around to seeing until they are dealing with an illness or emergency.

For young people who have ongoing medical issues this kind of transition is grossly insufficient. And all adolescents have needs that differ from somewhat older adults, ranging from school issues to sexual concerns. So what are young people and their parents to do to make sure they have ongoing medical care during this important transitional period in their lives?

Some pediatics specialists, who have worked with their patients with complex medical needs since early childhood, will continue to work with their patients until well into adulthood. This can delay the need for transition to an adult specialist. Other doctors, particularly general pediatricans, have a policy to treat young people only until a certain age.

Fortunately, there is a solution in the pediatric sub-specialty of adolescent and young adult medicine. The website of the American Academy of Pediatrics has extensive information on health related issues for teens and their families and for young adults. Another source for information about physicians who are focused on the health of this age group is The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine , an organization dedicated to "promoting optimal health and well-being for adolescents and young adults."

Young people and their parents should also be mindful that HIPPA, a federal law which deals with the privacy of personal health information, protects communications between young people over 18 and their doctors. This is in addition to other state laws that may insure the privacy of communications between younger teens and their doctors in areas such as reproductive health.

So, along with having a plan for moving beyond high school academically, families should also consider the medical needs of their teen and make sure he or she has a relationship with a physician he or she can rely upon for meaningful medical care.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Paying for Student Performance

This week's Time Magazine reports on the work of Harvard economist Roland Fryer Jr.and his colleagues at the Harvard Education Innovation Laboratory in looking at how monetary incentives can improve the performance of school children. An extensive controlled study involving students in four cities used different payment methods and different areas of academic competence to examine whether students would respond positively to payments for performance. One subgroup involved New York City elementary and middle school students, who were paid for higher scores on standardized tests. The results showed no real change in test scores or any other parameters. Chicago ninth graders who received payment for better grades did improve their grades a bit, but did no better on standardized tests.

Where improvement was seen was where students were rewarded for small actions that were within their control and which were not complicated for them to implement. These included Washington students who received payments for improving attendence and behavior, who showed changes in both of these areas, as well as improved reading skills. The greatest improvements were seen in Dallas students who substantially improved their reading comprehension scores when they were paid to read books and take a quiz showing they understood what they read.

One possible reason for these different results is that the tasks where payments were correlated with improvement were very specific. Those that were broader -- better grades, or better test scores -- may have been too hard for students to figure out how to achieve. Think about it. Even a motivated student might have trouble figuring out just what he has to do to get better test scores.

There are many issues to study further, and Dr. Fryer indicated that he intends to do so. But in schools where most students struggle, any information that helps adults understand what motivates students to do better is an important addition to the formula for improvement.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Charter Schools

We recently had the chance to speak with a parent whose son, with special learning needs, is a student at a New York City Charter school. She was upset with the efforts of the school to have her place her son elsewhere, since the school claimed they were unable to meet his educational needs. "They are happy to have my other two children," this frustrated mother noted. "But this child has greater needs, so they don't want to keep him."  This mom decided to become involved in a new organization, the New York Charter Parents Association. Charter schools cannot turn away students or have a selective admissions policy. But they are faced with meeting the goals set in their charters. If they do not meet these goals, they risk losing their charter.

Whatever the cause or result of this family's situation, it highlights an inherent tension in charter schools throughout the country. An analysis by the Boston Globe last summer noted that Massachusetts charter schools enrolled fewer special education students than public schools in the same area. In New York City, charter schools are competing for space in crowded school buildings with services for children with special needs.

Both regular public schools and charter schools (which are also public schools, but may receive funds from private sources as well as public) are faced with limited classroom space and resources. As long as there is  a shortage of space and money, and as long as some children are in need of specialized, and often expensive, support services, there will be pressure on both regular public schools and charter schools to meet the needs of the children they were designed to serve. There are no easy solutions, but we all need to pay attention to the issues.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Us!

We're taking a break from educational and related content to wish ourselves a Happy Third Anniversary! It has been three years since our team of clinicians and administrators, most of whom had formerly been associated with the All Kinds of Minds Institute, came together under the leadership of Dr. Paul Yellin to create The Yellin Center for Student Success.

Since that time, we have worked with almost 1,000 students from pre-K through adult, from right here in the New York area, as well as from across the country and around the globe. We have helped these students and their families understand their learning profiles and have provided them with strategies to help them in school, at home, and in life.

We have worked with numerous schools and consulted with school districts from all over the U.S., several of which have sent teams of teachers and staff to our offices to observe student evaluations and learn from our team. Our clinicians have attended numerous conferences and presented at programs as diverse as the NY Dyslexia Association and the Practicing Law Institute.

But in addition to our extensive professional acomplishments, we have had some important personal milestones as well, and we thought this would be a good time to share them with our readers. Since the Yellin Center began on April 1, 2007, our team has :
  • Celebrated one marriage and one engagement (with an October, 2010 wedding date);
  • Welcomed two babies;
  • Started graduate school in psychology (actually, this applies to two of our administrative staff!)
  • Written a book (on transition from high school, due out this summer);
  • Become fans of Central Michigan football and its quarterback (the brother of one of our clinicians) who is highly rated in the upcoming NFL draft; and
  • Supported a new teacher who graduates from Harvard with a Masters of Education in Teaching and Curriculum this May.
It's been a terrific three years and we look forward to many more. We are grateful for the support and enthusiasm of the students, families, and schools with which we have worked. And we know we are extraordinarily fortunate to have the terrific team of gifted professionals and administrators that help us do our important work!