Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Motion and Memory

Numerous research studies have demonstrated that when subjects are doing more than one task at a time that their performance on both tasks tends to suffer. A new study adds an important new piece to this research, looking at what happens when individuals engage in two very different kind of activities and finding that when the tasks they are undertaking are sufficient diverse, there is no negative impact-- and in fact, there is a positive impact -- on performance.

Sabine Schäfer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany had 32 nine year olds and 32 adults engage in a complex memory task involving numbers while either sitting down, walking on a treadmill at a speed the subject selected or walking on a treadmill at a speed set by the research team. Both children and adults did better on the memory task when walking at the speed they selected. The effect was more notable in the children than the adults. No improvement was found when the researchers set the speed and Schafer and her team posit that the researchers' speed might have been too slow to provide cognitive activation, or that the need to walk at a particular speed might have interfered with the subjects' concentration.

Why is this study important? This study gives us one more tool to consider when working with children who struggle with attention. It supports what parents and educators have long observed about children with attention difficulties -- that letting these children select a task that allows them to move about a bit, such as sitting on a chair that swivels, or even on a large rubber ball -- can help them focus on the work at hand. The authors of the study note, "'...[H]yperactive children might also be able to profit from some type of consistent movement that does not require much attention ..." This study gives us one more tool to consider when working with children who struggle with attention.

Monday, June 28, 2010

RTI in the Country

We are in upstate New York this week, at the invitation of the Madison-Oneida BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), where Dr. Paul Yellin and one of our Learning Specialists are doing a week long training of educators and staff from the Hamilton Central Schools and neighboring districts. The training, over the course of five days, is part of the work these forward looking schools are doing to implement an important provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- something called RTI (Response to Intervention).

RTI is not a new concept. Teachers have always looked at how their students were performing and modified their teaching approaches accordingly. What is new is the move to use RTI to replace the old model of how children were determined to either have a learning disability -- or not. RTI involves using several different tiers of consideration when students are struggling. A good explanation of the legal background of RTI and how it is implemented can be found on the Wrightslaw website.

The most common model for RTI is to have a three tier process for deciding how to instruct students. And that is where the Yellin Center team comes in. Our clinicians are working with the Hamilton area educators to build on their knowledge of the various neurodevelopmental constructs that are involved in learning. Many of the educators have already had instruction from All Kinds of Minds which looks at these areas as they apply to classrooms. The first tier of RTI has been described as requiring good basic teaching, which is flexible to meet the needs of all students. Some students will still struggle, even if the classroom teacher tries to shape the curriculum to their specific learning needs. These students may need assessment from a school based team with particular expertise, to determine if they need further supports beyond those the classroom teacher can provide. Most students who need this additional support will respond well and will need no further intervention. However, a few students may continue to struggle, even when they are provided with scientifically proven strategies. For these students, a comprehensive assessment of their learning needs and the development of detailed learning strategies will be needed to help them succeed.

In addition to the general instruction they will be providing to a number of educators, The Yellin Center team will conduct three complete comprehensive multi-disciplinary assessments of students of various ages selected by the Hamilton Central School District, in which the school district psychologist and learning specialist will participate. By working hand-in-hand with our clinical team, these individuals will learn how to apply their knowledge and how to handle all but the most complex learning difficulties within their own district.

By the way, the Yellin Center will be in full operation, even as part of our team is involved in this exciting training process. Our other clinicians and our full administrative staff will be here all week for regular appointments and inquiries.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A New High School Model

New York City's initiative to close more than 20 large, struggling high schools and replace them with new smaller schools, often in the same building as the older schools, is looking like a success. According to a study by the nonprofit group MDRC, reported in Education Week, students moving from the large high schools to to the new schools -- called “small schools of choice” (SSCs) -- showed improvement in numerous areas.

Graduation rates climbed; 58.5 percent of the SSC students are on track to graduate in four years, an increase of 10% over students in non-SSC schools. Furthermore, by the time the students in the SSC schools were seniors, they had a graduation rate almost 7% higher than other students. And, significantly, the gains seen in the SSC schools were seen across a wide range of students, including male students of color, whose educational prospects, the study notes, "have been historically difficult to improve."

The SSC schools generally have about 100-400 students, divided over four grades. The schools they replaced sometimes had several thousand students. They are open to any student in their district and are often in historically disadvantaged communities. Part of the process of opening the SSC schools was centralizing the admissions process for high school students where students get to rank up to 12 schools they want; if their schools of choice are filled, they are placed by lottery. The SSC schools have other advantages: additional funding and community support, assistance with leadership development, and easing of some administrative restrictions that apply to other schools, such as the right to hire new teachers even during a hiring freeze.

The study is an early one in the lives of this initiative. The SSC schools began in 2002 and the study could look only at six years of progress. Still, these are encouraging findings and we are hopeful that this new model of high school education will continue to benefit these students and others to come. But we are also aware that the closing of the large high schools can be difficult and disruptive for the students who are attending them, especially students who are English Language Learners, as noted in another Education Week story.

Photo shows Jamaica High School in Queens, where two new SSC schools -- The Hillside Arts and Letters Academy and The High School for Community Leadership will be opening in September. A third SSC school is planned for the following year.he Hillside Arts and Letters Academy and the High School for Community Leadership are to open their doors in the Jamaica High School building in the fall.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Help for Military Families

Finding the right school or program for a child with learning or other disabilities can be a challenge for any family. Imagine how much more difficult this can be for a military family that needs to move from place to place every few years -- or even more frequently. Add to the mix a parent who may be deployed overseas, often in a war zone, for a year or more, and you multiply the stress exponentially.

The Wrightslaw website has a good deal of information for military families dealing with special education issues. Peter and Pam Wright, who operate the site, have shared with the readers their own son's military deployment, which makes this a subject of special interest to them.

Both the Army and Marine Corps have programs in place to help their members deal with the special education needs of their dependents, which were discussed in a Washington Post article late last year.  The Department of Defense has a website dedicated to families with special needs dependents, and released an explanation of upcoming expansion of existing programs for families which are being funded by the 2010 Defense Authorization Act.

Other resources include the STOMP (Specialized Training of Military Parents) website, which describes itself as "a federally funded Parent Training and Information (PTI) Center established to assist military families who have children with special education or health needs. STOMP began in 1985, it is a project of Washington PAVE, and is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education." Among the services that STOMP provides is a listserve, which families can use to gain information and contacts in their area, free one-on-one support for families dealing with special education issues, and trainings at various military installations.

We are pleased to see that military families, who sacrifice so much, are starting to get more of the support they need -- and to which the law entitles them.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A New Book

We're delighted to announce that a new book, co-authored by Susan Yellin, Esq.,our own Director of Advocacy and Transition Services,  is now available for pre-order at .

Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, by Susan Yellin and Christina Cacioppo Bertsch will be published in August by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.Hear what the publisher has to say:
Graduating high school and moving on to further education or the workplace brings with it a whole new set of challenges, and this is especially true for students with disabilities -- from learning difficulties, to attention problems, to physical, medical, and neurological disabilities. In Life After High School authors Susan Yellin and Christina Cacioppo Bertsch provide a complete overview of the issues such students and their families will need to consider, and outline the key skills they will need in order to succeed once they get there, using the experiences of students they have encountered in their work. “We hope to help students better understand their rights, responsibilities, and options as they move on to further education or the workplace—and help provide the tools they will need to succeed once they get there.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that every high school student with disabilities is entitled to a free appropriate public education. So it can come as a real shock for students and families to learn that IDEA and its rights and protections no longer apply once a student has graduated. Yellin, an attorney, and Bertsch, a former College Disability Services Director, understand this dilemma and sympathize with parents who face it. “Imagine always taking a trip by car, then suddenly being told you can no longer travel by car. All travel must be by air or train—with new rules, restrictions and fares. Frustrating? Confusing? Absolutely. This is what many families of students with disabilities feel when they leave behind the legal protections and procedures of high school.”

In their exceptional new book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families [August 2010, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 272 pages, paperback, 978-1-84905-828-5, $19.95] Yellin and Bertsch, provide an unparalleled informative guide, complete with extensive information about resources for students and parents who may be confused, worried and unsure of what to do next. They have written an essential handbook for students with disabilities and their families, designed to make the transition to life after high school as easy and painless as possible. “There is no single correct path for an effective transition, but the steps we have outlined can make the process smoother and can land students at their next destination with the skills and knowledge to be successful.”

“We’ve written this book to help answer the many questions that students, families, and their advisors have asked us over the years,” write Yellin and Bertsch. “We hope to give the reader a unique perspective on transitioning to life after high school, and we aim to make this book a good, useful reading experience.”

Susan Yellin is an attorney and founder of The Center for Learning Differences, a New York-based nonprofit organization that runs an annual Life After High School program for students with disabilities. She is also head of the Advocacy and Transition team at the Yellin Center for Student Success, which provides educational evaluations and support for students of all ages. She and her husband, Dr. Paul Yellin, have three sons, one of whom has complex learning and medical issues, and all of whom have made the transition from high school. Christina Cacioppo Bertsch is the former Director of Disability Services for Fordham University in New York and the founder of CCB Educational Consulting Corp. where she works as a college counselor to students with a wide range of disabilities. In her private practice, Christina helps to identify supportive college settings and assists students with standardized test accommodations, applications, interview preparation, and self advocacy training. Christina and her husband, a high school administrator and supervisor of guidance, have two daughters.

For further information or for a review copy, please contact:

Katelynn Bartleson, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 400 Market Street, Suite 400, Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA. Tel: (215) 922-1161; Fax: (215) 922-1474; email:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Follow-up

There is news about a couple of issues we've discussed in recent blogs, so we're taking a moment to bring you up to date.

Free Metrocards for New York City students were threatened by budget cuts, an issue we addressed back in January of this year. The loss of free transportation to and from school would have hit low income families particularly hard and students and families protested this loss in a number of public venues, including a student march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Today's New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which issues the free passes, is near a deal with New York State which would require the State to contribute $25 million that would ensure that the free student Metrocards would remain available.We hope the dysfunctional New York legislature can keep this deal on track so that students and their parents are not penalized by the MTA.

Another issue we explored recently was a series of proposals from the New York State Board of Regents, the governing entity for schools in New York State, that would make changes to how special education services were provided to students. The Board meets again this coming Monday, June 21st and has just released its agenda and proposals. While it is not clear that the Board is making changes to VESID, which is the arm of the State Education Department that has been responsible for special education, they have proposed a number of important changes, which include how teachers are alerted to the contents of IEPs, changes to class sizes in certain situations, and removing limits on the size of speech and language groups. Parts of these meetings are accessible to the public via webcast, although it is not clear if the webcast will cover discussion and resolution of these important issues, which appear to be part of subcommittee discussions.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Colleges that Don't Require the SAT/ACT Exams

"Are there any college programs that don't require either the SAT or ACT exams?" a parent asked recently."My son has learning difficulties that make it difficult for him to get any sort of decent score, even with accommodations such as extended time. But I know that if he can get into a college that he can do okay."

There are hundreds of such programs and the best place to find them is on the website of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, generally known as Fairtest. Fairtest's mission goes far beyond helping students and their parents find colleges that don't require standardized tests for admission. They also work on the elementary and secondary level, seeking to "end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial."

The Fairtest list presently includes over 800 schools, none of which require SATs or ACTs for all entering students. However, these schools will require such entrance exams for some students, such as international students, or some students who don't meet their grade criteria. In addition, these schools may use standardized tests for placement purposes, for example, permitting students with a score above a particular point to "place out" of a beginner level course.

For students for whom college admissions tests are a barrier to continuing their education after high school, the schools on the Fairtest list -- and they include many excellent programs -- may be more flexible options for consideration.

Friday, June 11, 2010

When to Take on Your School District

Parents often ask what they should do if they don't get what they want from their child's school. Do they fight? Do they accept what the school is offering? How can they decide what is the right thing to do?

The excellent website Wrightslaw deals with this very issue in their newest newsletter, looking at what issues parents need to consider when they are trying to decide whether to "Settle or Fight?"

The answer to the question is different in every circumstance, but there are some basic principles that families should consider when faced with this issue. The first is to understand what they can expect their child's school to do for them. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) only applies to students who have been diagnosed with specific disabilities and that require special education services because of such disabilities. So, even if your child has a disability, the school may decline to classify him or her as eligible for services under the IDEA (although he or she may be covered under another law known as 504) if your child is doing well in school. The standards for this determination are shifting and some states are more difficult to deal with than others.

Even once a child is classified as eligible under the IDEA, you may not be satisfied with the services set out in your child's IEP. Here it is important to remember that the standard of education the school must provide your child is not optimal but appropriate, sufficient to permit your child to advance from grade to grade. As parents, we all want the best for our children but, unfortunately, schools are not required to provide everything we think our child should receive.

We encourage parents to think about whether their child's IEP is not adequate, or is not being properly implemented. If the IEP on its face is a good one, sometimes going back to the head of the IEP team and pointing out the school's failure to do what it promised can help get things on track. But if the offer of services is substantially short of what you believe your child requires, that may be a situation where you need to appeal to a Hearing Officer or State Review Officer (depending upon your state) to seek additional services or a different placement for your child.

Then there is the unpredictability and expense of litigation. Appealing to a Hearing Officer requires compliance with specific rules and is somewhat like a trial. We always suggest that parents use an attorney or an advocate if they are going to do this. One resource for finding an attorney or advocate is the website of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, COPAA. Parents who have decided to fight for what their child requires have helped carve out important new rights for children who struggle. There is much to consider when parents are deciding what to do and often a skilled attorney or advocate can help lay out the potential costs and benefits.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Get Off the Sofa!

Parents of college students have one more reason to try to get their sons and daughters off the sofa this summer. Even when the economy makes summer jobs problematic, sitting around while on vacation can not only impact a parent's patience, but the student's grades as well.

A study out of Saginaw State University in Michigan,  presented at the Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine looked at 266 undergraduate students and found a link between higher grade point averages and at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity each day. The study controlled for factors such as gender, race, and academic variables (including major, since the researchers posited that majors in fields such as kinesiology would be more likely to be active). The researchers determined that those students who met the higher activity levels had GPAs .4 higher than those who did not exercise.

Studies of younger students have shown the correlation between exercise and academic performance, but the focus on fitness in college students has not been looked at as extensively. We looked last year at the impact of fitness on a group of over one million military recruits in Sweden and on a relatively small group of American 7th grade girls, both of which groups showed distinct correlations between physical activity and cognitive performance.  This new study reinforces what research has told us about other age groups and hopefully will inspire college students - and all students - to get moving, both this summer and all year round.

Photo Credit: Mike Baird at

Monday, June 7, 2010

All Input, All the Time

How wired up is your family? Do any of you have your Blackberry or iPhone at the dinner table? Can you ignore a vibrating cell phone in your pocket while you are in a meeting? When is the last time your entire family spent a day together without electronic gadgetry? Can't remember? You may find the extensive piece in today's New York Times on the impact of modern gadgets on families and on individuals' brains to be of great interest.

The article looks at current research on how the brain reacts to -- and is changed by -- the constant stimulation and multitasking that is part of contemporary lives. It looks at one father whose addiction to his electronic world has impacted his family and how difficult it is for individuals who are used to constant streams of information to put their sources of stimulation aside. What we found fascinating is the discussion of findings from teams such as the one at Stanford University's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. Researchers at the Stanford lab looked at individuals whom they labeled "heavy multitaskers" because of their use of gadgetry, and others who used these devices more sparingly. They found clear differences in the abilities of these two groups to focus on a specific task at hand. The heavy multitaskers were not able to focus on the question in front of them; they were distracted by other information. In contrast, individuals who made limited use of electronic gadgets could better focus on a particular question and scored better on lab tests.

The Stanford researchers did not determine whether the individuals who they labeled multitaskers had different brain wiring that predisposed them to function in a distracted way, or whether they had damaged their ability to concentrate by their heavy use of gadgetry. But parents who are considering their child's latest request for another computer, smart phone, or other device to add to their already substantial electronic collection, may want to think carefully about the impact of their decision -- and to unplug themselves a bit to be a role model for their overstimulated child.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Grade Retention

We are occasionally asked if we think a student would benefit from the “gift of time.”  In general, having students repeat a grade - grade retention or, as students will sometimes call it, being "left back"- is not an effective way to deal with students who struggle in school. As noted in a document from the National Association of School Psychologists, a review of the research in this area indicated that "For most students, grade retention had a negative impact on all areas of achievement (e.g., reading, math, and oral and written language) and social and emotional adjustment (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Still, school districts continue to use grade retention, often in response to the requirements imposed on schools by the No Child Left Behind law. Here in New York City, the issue of grade retention is sufficiently common that the excellent nonprofit, Advocates for Children has a series of parent kits with guidance on handling what they call "holdovers" for different grades. Essentially, for students who are not subject to state-wide testing (which occurs here in the 3rd and 5th grades) schools must look at several performance measures when deciding whether a student is to be retained,  including classroom performance, test scores, and attendance and students must meet standards in two out of three of these areas. There are exceptions for students with IEPs and for English Language Learners, but they are not automatic. Students in the 3rd and 5th grades must pass the state-wide tests in language arts and mathematics in order to be promoted. 

Until schools bring their policies in line with the research that indicates that grade retention is generally not a way to help students and, in fact,often  leads to lower self esteem and higher drop out rates without long term improvement in academic performance, parents will need to be proactive if they are concerned that their child is in danger of being retained. As the statement from the National Association of School Psychologists notes, "When faced with a recommendation to retain a child, the real task is not to decide to retain or not to retain but, rather, to identify specific intervention strategies to enhance the cognitive and social development of the child and promote his or her learning and success at school." That is why the answer is to understand why the child is experiencing academic failure, by means of a comprehensive diagnostic assessment, and to then develop and implement strategies to address the specific areas of academic breakdown and build upon areas of academic strength.

Parents may sometimes decide, for a variety of reasons, that grade retention is a reasonable choice for their child. But whether it is something parents want or something which is forced upon them by their school, one thing is certain. Retaining a child in the same grade will never be effective if that time is used to repeat the same lessons and procedures which didn't work the first time around.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Diagnosing Attention Difficulties

We read with concern the article in yesterday's New York Times about computerized devices designed to "test" for attention difficulties. This is the latest in a group of highly commercialized tools to "objectively diagnose" ADHD. The current research simply does not support these claims. They will be nice little profit centers for clinicians, because they require no labor--but won't replace clinical diagnosis as the gold standard.


  • Attention is complex. For example, we know that there are at least three different brain systems involved in regulating attention-one to regulate alertness, one to regulate incoming information, and the other to regulate how we behave and how we work. Research is showing that what we call ADHD is really a group of symptoms with multiple causes, that may involve each of these systems in different ways to different degrees in different people. Also, children with attention problems often have other problems, called "co-morbidities". So, it is not likely that there will ever be a single "objective diagnostic test."
  • When children have symptoms like inattention/hyperactivity/impulsivity, it is important to consider all of the possible causes, which consideration is called "differential diagnosis". That requires the kind of comprehensive assessment that we perform. Comprehensive clinical assessment remains the "gold standard" for diagnosing ADHD.
  • We look closely at attention and its impact on learning-"Is inattention leading to calculation errors in math? Is the child missing details when listening or reading which is affecting her ability to follow instructions or understand what she is reading? Is impulsivity leading to behavior problems, poor organization of writing, reading and math errors?
  • More often than not, children with attention problems have other things going on that might be affecting school and life even more (e.g. language problems, memory problems). They will not respond to medication. Frequently these other problems are causing more problems than the attention deficit. In fact, attention may improve once they are addressed.
So, it is our opinion that a comprehensive diagnostic assessment remains the "gold standard" for diagnosing "ADHD". Furthermore, even when ADHD is diagnosed, treatment will need to be individualized, since many, if not most, children with ADHD have other problems (co-morbidities) that need to be diagnosed.

With regard to Quotient, the tool mentioned in the Times article, we think more research is warranted to determine if there is a potential role for this kind of tool as an adjunct to the diagnosis of disorders of attention. We don't use Quotient in our practice and don't plan to in the near future. We don't believe, at the present time and based upon existing research, that it adds to or replaces a comprehensive assessment including data from home and school.