Monday, May 31, 2010

The Impact of Books in the Home

Having books in a home has a significant impact on the education level children will achieve, even where their parents have only a minimal education, according to a 20 year study led by Mariah Evans of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Researchers have long been aware of the correlation between the educational level of parents and the level of academic achievement of children. Professor Evans, a sociologist, looked at families in the United States and China (as part of a larger study) with a view towards finding inexpensive ways to help boost the achievement of children from families where parents had less education and where the family income made substantial expenditures on educational enrichment impractical. Although the study found the greatest impact of a book filled home occurred where there were 500 or more books in a home, the study also found that any number of books had some impact on the children in the home. The greatest impact was seen in China, where a 500 book library boosted achievement by 6.6 years. In the US, the boost in achievement was 2.4 years, and the average in the 27 countries included in the study was 3.2 years.

According to a report in Science Daily, Professor Evans noted, "Even a little bit goes a long way," in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit..."You get a lot of 'bang for your book'," she said. "It's quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources."

What this will all mean in the age of the Kindle and other electronic readers remains to be seen. But in the meantime, we are pleased to see our belief in the importance of books in the lives of children to be validated by scientific study.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New Teachers

We've just returned from Cambridge, MA, where we attended the graduation of our favorite student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Matt Yellin, and his classmates in the Teacher Education Program (TEP).

As we watched close to 700 students in this and other Master and Doctoral level programs in teaching, administration, and guidance walk across the stage (sometimes with children in their arms) to receive their diplomas, we were struck by the diversity of this group. Not just in the cultural sense, although there were students from every corner of the country and from all over the world. But this group was diverse in terms of their experience, as well.

Some graduates had worked for years as classroom teachers, or as reading specialists, or as administrators (often in several roles). Others were only a year out of college and had only taught as student teachers. In just the TEP program, one student was a physician in her fifties who had decided to make a career change and teach middle school science. Another was a gifted dancer, who decided to turn to teaching after a long career with leading ballet companies. He had already taught Latin for a couple of years at a parochial school and had decided to obtain his Masters degree to enable him to teach in a public school. Still another graduate was awaiting his Peace Corp assignment.

It was exciting to see the breadth of intellect and experience that will enrich students around the world for years to come.

Unfortunately, with too few exceptions, most of the amazing new teachers in the TEP program do not yet have job commitments for September. Even those schools with openings that want to hire them are not sure that they can, given budget freezes, layoffs, and financial uncertainty. Even our favorite graduate (who wants to teach high school history to urban students) is waiting for a firm commitment from principals who have said they want to hire him; they can't make an offer until they get a better handle on their budget.

So, as we unpack the U-Haul and load an apartment's worth of furniture into our garage, we hope that all these gifted new teachers -- and their colleagues around the country, new and experienced -- are able to pursue their passions and to share their skills with the students who can benefit from their enthusiasm and training. Job offers for Matt and his classmates can be sent to

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We're on the Radio

Wednesday at 11 am EDT on Sirius Channel 114 and XM 119, Dr. Paul Yellin will take your questions about Children Who Struggle in School: What Parents Need to Know.

Dr. Yellin, Director of the Yellin Center for Student Success  will be interviewed as part of the Doctor Radio Show, hosted by Benard Dreyer, MD, FAAP, Director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics of the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York

Joining Dr. Yellin and Dr. Dreyer will be Susan Yellin, Esq., who is the Director of Advocacy and Transition Services at the Yellin Center and the co-author of the book Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, to be published this summer by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

.Parents will have the opportunity to call in with questions during the one hour show. The call in number is 1-877-NYU-3627.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Strange Times for Teachers

It's impossible to pick up a newspaper lately without encountering an article about issues that are fundamentally changing the profession of teaching. President Obama's Race to the Top has states looking at how their educational systems operate. Budget difficulties are resulting in real and threatened layoffs of teachers in New York and elsewhere. And teachers' unions and the seniority protections imposed by their contracts, both part of how government and teachers interacted for decades, are under pressure.

Why is this of concern to parents, especially parents of children who struggle in school? Because studies have shown that the most significant factor in the kind of year any child has in school is the quality of that student's classroom teacher. We don't know if the movement to set aside seniority rules and to measure teacher effectiveness (and job security) by looking at student test scores is going to help students, unless measurements of teacher effectiveness take a broader look at what makes a teacher excellent. What kind of atmosphere does that teacher create in a classroom? Does that teacher nurture independent thinking and thoughtful reasoning? Are students kind to one another and accepting of differences? Do the students want to come to school? These qualities may be difficult to measure, but they are every bit as important as the scores that students get on standardized tests.

As parents look on at the seismic changes impacting our schools and the dedicated  individuals who spend hours each day with our children, we can all hope that quality teaching, and the benefits it brings to our children, are the most important consideration to policymakers at all level.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Talking Seriously to Young Children

A Dutch researcher has  looked at the kind of language skills that young children need to be successful in their classrooms. Lotte Henrich's April, 2010 doctoral thesis at the University of Amsterdam, entitled Academic language in early childhood interactions. A longitudinal study of 3- to 6-year-old Dutch monolingual children, looks at the kinds of language used in classroom settings and compares it to the language demands that young children encounter in their lives outside school.

What Henrich calls "academic language" is the language used by teachers as early as preschool to provide instructions and convey information. It is more complex than casual language, with more difficult words, conjunctions, and clauses. Proficiency in this kind of language enables children to understand instructions from their teachers and to show that they have understood what is being taught in class.

Looking at 25 Dutch families (a part of a larger study with 150 children) over a period of three years , Henrich determined that acquisiton of academic language can be strongly influenced by the way that parents communicate with their children. Those children whose parents engaged them in serious conversations and who included them in interesting discussions demonstrated increased facility with academic language. Other influences included the extent to which parents read to their children and told them stories. We've often heard that reading to our children is important, but this new research indicates that talking to them in a serious way, and including them in the back-and-forth of conversations, can build language skills that will help them in the classroom.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Recommendation for Families Struggling with Executive Function

We've been re-reading a terrific resource for parents of children who struggle with executive function difficulties. As we noted in this blog on February 26, 2010, "executive function is a complex symphony of brain activities responsible for the “project management” parts of school and life." Understanding the origins of these difficulties, recognizing when they occur together with learning differences, attention problems, or other disorders, and figuring out how to handle the problems they create for students and their families are all discussed in the very readable book Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents' Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning. 

Written by two Maryland based clinical psychologists, Joyce Cooper-Hahn and Laurie Dietzel, the book offers specific strategies for situations that families will encounter in day-to-day life, including such difficulties getting started with homework, helping children who interrupt so they won't forget what they want to say, and what to do when your child arrives at sports practice late or unprepared.

We believe in the importance of strategies to address specific learning and behavioral difficulties and the focus on these strategies, broken down into manageable steps, is particularly helpful. Whether you read this cover to cover, or pick and choose among the issues discussed and strategies recommended, we believe this book can be a useful tool for parents dealing with their child's executive function difficulties.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Services and Transitions for Young Children

Services for infants and young children who exhibit delays or difficulties with learning or development are among the most effective -- and cost effective -- interventions that can be provided to any age group. Early diagnosis and treatment can have an enormous impact on young children and can resolve or minimize a variety of physical and developmental obstacles to school success in years to come. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children with hearing impairments "will have the best chance for normal language development if any hearing loss is discovered and treatment begins by the age of 6 months—and the earlier, the better." This is why hospitals routinely test the hearing of newborns before they are discharged after birth.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law governing educational services to children with disabilities, has a separate section which provides for “Early Intervention Services” for infants and toddlers under 3 years of age. This “Part C” does not require that a child have a disability, which is a basic part of eligibility for school age children. Instead, it looks at whether the child has, or is at risk of having, a developmental delay. An excellent guide to Early Intervention Services is available from the New York City organization Advocates for Children. 

Early intervention services come to an end once a child turns 3, and he or she is then covered by the same section of the IDEA that deals with students in elementary and high schools, although services for these younger students are also available for children who are experiencing developmental delays, in addition to those with specific categories of disability. These Preschool Special Education Services can differ from those offered under Early Intervention -- generally being less, rather than more extensive. Part of this is due to the funding for each of these programs; the more money available, the richer the services offered, although in these days of governmental budget cuts, services at all levels are under financial pressure. 

There is still another transition for children when they turn 5, this time from the Preschool Special Education Services to regular Special Education. At this level developmental delays are no longer a basis for eligibility; a child will need to have a defined disability and require special education because of such disability in order to obtain services under the IDEA. 

The most important thing parents need to know about obtaining services for young children, according to a mother who is in the process of transitioning her son from Early Intervention to Preschool Services, is to "trust your gut. If you think your child has a delay or other problem speak to your pediatrician and arrange to have your child tested." These evaluations are done at no cost to families and the earlier a problem is diagnosed, the early interventions to help resolve it can begin.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Benefits of Music Training

More interesting findings from the Learning and the Brain Conference we attended last week in Washington, D.C., this time on how music training improves skills in children with language based learning differences.

Bharath Chandrasekaren and Nina Kraus of Northwestern University presented research that looked at a number of studies that documented that children with a variety of language based learning disorders have difficulties with noise exclusion -- the ability to exclude extraneous noises while processing language. Whether this common problem is a symptom or a cause of underlying language issues, such children face additional difficulties when they are trying to process language in a noisy classroom or similar environment.

The presenters then looked at the documented findings that musicians have demonstrated a number of skills that enable them to have strong speech perception even in noisy environments. For example, musicians can hear their own instrument even in the midst of an orchestra playing. There are also social benefits to being able to pick up on conversation and cues in the context of a busy playground or event. Although the study authors stress that more research is needed, they propose that students who struggle with noise exclusion ability may improve when given musical training, since "musical experience benefits all the underlying skills necessary for successful learning in background noise."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Tale of Two Colleges

We had the chance this past weekend to visit two Washington D.C. universities that take different approaches to working with students with learning disabilities. The kind of differences we encountered should be considered by students and families planning for college, no matter where they choose to apply.

George Washington University is a vibrant urban campus in the city of Washington. We had the chance to meet with the Director of Disability Support Services and to discuss the process for getting support and the kinds of supports offered to students. The Director was welcoming and her office clearly took its responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act seriously. Students with documented disabilities of any kind could receive accommodations and physical modifications to give them equal access to the classes, dorms, and other university services. But, there was no special support program offered for students with learning issues. Like any student, a student with learning challenges could use the school tutoring services, but no proactive supports were in place to help these students. It's a fine school, but we wish it did more to support students who learn differently.

We found a different story at American University, located at the edge of Washington, in a more suburban setting. There, we spoke to both the Disability Support Services staff and the Coordinator of the Learning Services Program run by the Academic Support Center. We were impressed by both staffs and the supports they offer. American offers the required supports under the Americans with Disabilities Act through the Disability Support office but also has a staff member whose role is to help students with assistive technology -- special tools and programs that will enable them to access the curriculum despite their disabilities.

Students who have disabilities relating to learning can enroll in a freshman year program at American that offers extensive learning supports. This program requires a separate application and a separate fee, but enables students who learn differently to get started on their college education with a safety net of supports that can continue less intensively throughout their years at American. We think this kind of support can make a real difference in helping students with learning challenges achieve academic success.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attention and Girls

We spent this past weekend at the excellent Learning and the Brain Conference in Washington, DC., the theme of which was Using Brain Research to Enchance Student Attention and Engagement in Learning.

We'll be sharing our thoughts on several of the sessions we attended, and want to begin with a talk by Patricia Quinn, MD, who has written several books dealing with girls and attention difficulties and who gave a compelling presentation about the underdiagnosis of attention problems in girls. Since girls tend to present with symptoms of inattention rather than hyperactivity, their symptoms are often unappreciated by teachers and even parents and and they suffer in silence.

Dr. Quinn noted that girls with weak attention often present with social difficulties, anxiety, and depression and she shared one report in which 40% of teachers surveyed indicated that they were unable to identify girls with attention difficulties. This reinforces our belief that it is crucial to examine the individual components of learning and behavior to see what is really going on when children struggle.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Timeless Authors

This week marks the 100th birthday of Leo Lionni, author and illustrator of more than 40 children's books, including Little Blue and Little Yellow and Nicolas, Where Have You Been?

Lionni is one of many authors whose work for young children has stayed in print and has become part of the childhood memories of several generations. If your child has not had the chance to encounter Lionni's work, we recommend it, along with that of other timeless authors, including:

Ezra Jack Keats - who broke the color barrier in mainstream children's publishing;

Beverly Cleary- whose memorable characters populate dozens of books for a variety of reading levels;

E.B. White - who brought Charlotte, Wilbur, and a farmyard full of animals to life;

Eric Carle - whose simple text and brilliant artwork bring us enchanting hungry caterpillars and brown bears; and, of course,

Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), who taught us all to hop on pop and what to do when the sun did not shine and it was too wet to play....

These are only a few of the timeless classics we all grew up with, and which we can share with our own kids. Drop everything and read!

photo credit: flickr

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Medical Information on the Internet

Just how accurate is the medical information parents find on the internet? A team of British doctors from Nottingham Hospital's Department of Pediatrics looked at this question by using the Google search engine to research five common pediatric issues. They studied the first 100 responses that came up for each question and categorized them as either consistent or inconsistent with current medical recommendations. Those that were not responsive to the specific question were listed as "no answer".

As reported in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, of the 500 total responses, only 39% of the responses were correct. The remainder were either incorrect (11%) or did not answer the question (49%). Of interest, government sites all gave correct information.

What does this mean for American parents seeking information about their child's health? Stick with websites that you have reason to trust -- for example the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics has a wealth of information for parents. And for accurate information on important questions, there is no substitute for speaking to your pediatrician or other health care professional. 

photo credit:  flickr

Monday, May 3, 2010

What's an Appropriate Education?

We've looked, in earlier blogs, at how the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, helped set the groundwork for the laws that opened the public school systems of the nation to children with disabilities. Many other Supreme Court cases have helped shape the laws that govern special education. Today, in honor of Law Day (May 1st), we are going to look at a case that has frustrated parents and advocates since it was first decided in 1982.

Parents who want the ideal education for their child with learning and other disabilities often come up against the standard set in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that their child's education need only be "appropriate". The meaning of appropriate has been much discussed over the years, but it is generally still held to be the standard set forth in 1982 by the U.S. Supreme Court in what is known as the Rowley case.

Amy Rowley was deaf, with minimal residual hearing. Her elementary school decided that she did not require a sign language interpreter in her classroom, since Amy was very bright and was skilled at reading lips. Her parents sued the school, arguing that even though Amy was getting passing grades and progressing from grade to grade, she was missing a portion of what was going on in the classroom and was therefore being denied a "free appropriate public education," which is often referred to by the acronym FAPE.

The Supreme Court found that Amy was not entitled to a sign language interpreter. The Justices set out a narrow view of what constitutes FAPE and stated that to meet that standard an education under the special education law must merely provide,

"...personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction … must meet the State's educational standards, must approximate the grade levels used in the State's regular education … and should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade."

In short, the Court found that FAPE fell far short of requiring excellence; it only required that academic progress be made. In the years since the Rowley case was decided there have been changes in the law and much commentary that raises the question of whether the minimal Rowley standards still apply. However, Rowley has not explicitly been overturned, by the Supreme Court or by newer versions of the IDEA, and parents who expect that their child will be receiving the very highest level of instruction under the IDEA, to fully maximize his or her potential, are often disappointed.