Friday, July 30, 2010

The Tower of Babel

In a wide ranging address earlier this week to an amazing team of educators, researchers, and administrators from Cornerstone Literacy, Dr. Yellin invoked the story of the Tower of Babel to discuss how the different professionals in students' lives need to find a common vocabulary to communicate with one another.

If you recall the bible story, it begins with people all speaking the same language, which enables them to build a tower so tall as to challenge the supremacy of the Lord. So, to limit the ability of the people to cooperate together in such a task, the Lord has them all speak a different language, impeding their ability to work cooperatively.

Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Genesis 11:7)

Dr. Yellin pointed out that a version of this story can be applied to communications between educational researchers, clinicians, and teachers. They all speak their own language, each limited by their unique vocabulary and approach in how they can share information that can help inform others who play a role in educating children. Researchers may develop new ways to teach but teachers may not have ready access to these new findings; likewise, researchers may not get effective feedback from teachers in the classroom who are implementing their innovations. Clinicians may assess children but teachers often do not see the report in full, nor do they have a chance to let the clinicians know how the student is progressing. In short, without a shared framework and vocabulary, the professionals working to help students succeed may not be able to maximize their effectiveness.
So, what is needed to get all these professionals on the same page? Dr. Yellin explained that what is required is a conceptual framework and vocabulary for a transdisciplinary conversation about learning, mental productivity, and specific brain activities. This would require task analysis of academic functions, linkage of these tasks to cognitive constructs, and the understanding of neurodevelopmental profiles by all the related professionals. The result would be the ability to understand one another and communicate for the benefit of all students.
Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do... (Genesis 11:6 )

Monday, July 26, 2010

Happy Anniversary ADA

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law by President George H. Bush on July 26, 1990.

The ADA was a latecomer to the list of legislative initiatives that individuals with disabilities may encounter during their lifetimes. The predecessor legislation to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (which took the name we now shorten to IDEA in 1991) first became law 35 years ago as the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Section 504, the law that families of school age children may encounter because it provides services and plans for students with disabilities who do not qualify under the IDEA, is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

So, why is the ADA important to students who struggle in school and their families? Because the IDEA comes to an end for almost all students once they graduate high school. As we tell families all the time -- and can't stress too much -- there is no IDEA in college! College students with learning challenges (as well as those with physical and emotional disabilities) must rely upon the protections of the ADA to obtain the academic adjustments, modifications, and auxiliary aids and services they require to access the campus and curriculum.

Once these students finish their education, whether after high school, college, or at the post-graduate or professional school level, they will again have to rely upon the ADA as they seek employment and begin to work in their chosen field. As students move through their K-12 education, they need to understand not just their profile of strengths and weaknesses, but to know what their rights are and which laws apply to them. By high school, students who receive services under the IDEA or Section 504 should be aware of the impact of these laws on their education. They also need to begin to understand what kinds of rights may be available to them -- and the limitation of these rights -- under laws such as the ADA that they will need to rely upon as college students and adults.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rates of College Completion Drop

There was grim news from Washington yesterday about the rate at which American students complete college. A meeting convened by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center included release of the College Board's latest findings showing that the United States had dropped to 12th place among developed countries in the number of young adults with college degrees; it had once held the first place in this measure.

What is particularly disturbing is that the data on college enrollment differs so substantially from the actual numbers of students who graduate. Looking at all students who graduate from high school, close to 70 % enroll in a two or four year college program within two years. But when we look at what happens to these students, the story is very different. Approximately 57 % of students who matriculate in a four year college program graduate in six years. And for students who enroll in community colleges to work towards a two year degree, the completion rate after three years is less than 25 %. 

Economics plays a major role in the rates of completion. Students whose families are in the nation's highest income groups are more than 7 times likely to complete a four year degree by age 24 than those from the lowest income families. 

The report from the College Board group has a number of suggestions, but one in particular caught our eye. In 2007-08, the year from which their data was drawn, the average guidance counselor in U.S. high schools was working with 467 students. The American School Counselors Association recommends a maximum student to counselor ratio of 250 to 1. 

One issue that was not addressed in the report was the rate of college completion for students with learning differences, attention difficulties, and other issues that they must grapple with as they move on through college. These students can often be admitted to colleges but may lack the preparation and self advocacy skills to be successful. Families need to understand the issues these students face and prepare them for the next step in their education. They may find Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families co-authored by our Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, Susan Yellin, Esq., a useful tool in this process.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Joys of the Doing Nothing

Maybe it's the heat wave enveloping the country from coast to coast. Maybe it's the list of things to do during the summer to maintain and build skills that we have included in our blog and which we read on the numerous websites, blogs, and newsletters that we review every day. But there is something to be said -- for both children and adults -- about the joys of doing absolutely nothing.

For children, doing nothing can be a very busy activity. It can mean sitting under a tree and pulling up blades of grass, one by one. It can be climbing into the big empty box from the new refrigerator and thinking about what it might be like to be on the space station. It can be tossing stones into a large puddle or stream and watching them splash.

Grownups can sit for hours and watch the waves break against the shore. They can gaze up at the stars at night -- or on the lights of a city -- and think about the vastness of the heavens.

We've all had the experience where this kind of non-focused activity enhances our creativity and leads to insights and connections we might miss when we are thinking about the tasks in which we are engaged. But on a hot summer day or night, it is also a way to give ourselves and our kids a break from our busy lives. So turn off your computer when you can, find a bench or a tree, and don't do a thing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nature's Benefits

Summer is a time we can particularly appreciate getting out of our usual routines to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside, or the beach, or nearby parks. But there is more to these beautiful places than what meets our grateful eyes. Researchers have long documented the benefits the natural world can bring to our moods and our capacity for attention.

An article in a recent issue of the Observer, the magazine of the Association for Psychological Science, looks at the impact of the work of Stephen Kaplan and colleagues at  the University of Michigan. The article is well worth reading in its entirety. Kaplan first reported his findings over 20 years ago, noting that exposure to  natural settings had a substantial positive impact upon the brain's ability to focus -- the aspect of attention that researchers call voluntary attention. This restoration of voluntary attention in individuals who are fatigued is similar to the kind of improvement seen from sleep but can be obtained by simply taking a walk in a park or sitting in a garden.

Another benefit of exposure to the natural world is improvement in mood. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan , who were researchers at the University of Illinois, took Kaplan's findings and hypothesized that if people were less fatigued after spending time in natural settings, and if fatigue contributed to moodiness and aggression, than those who had exposure to nature might be tend to be less aggressive. They studied residents of urban housing developments who looked out on either greenery or barren urban settings and determined that those who were exposed to greenery demonstrated less aggression and impulsivity.

There is less clear evidence on the benefits of virtual nature -- viewing videos or watching television shows featuring natural settings. But it certainly seems clear that taking a trip to the beach, the mountains, or even a walk in a nearby park in the middle of a busy work day, can have important positive benefits for us all.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Two Very Personal Stories

We have just finished reading two very different tales of young men who struggled in school and life and who built upon their experiences to find their own unique paths to adulthood. These are not books for children; the authors are now adults and both write frankly about their struggles with their sexual lives in the face of their social limitations. 

The first book is by Quinn Bradlee, son of Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post and Sally Quinn, a well-known journalist. Quinn's book, A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures, written with Jeff Himmelman, tells the story of his life with learning disabilities and physical ailments caused by a genetic syndrome called Velo-Cardi-Facial-Syndrome (VCFS). Quinn was not given a specific diagnosis until adolescence, and he and his family struggled for years to understand why he faced so many physical and cognitive challenges and how best to help him. He attended several well known schools for students with learning differences: The Washington Lab School, The Gow School, and Landmark College, but did not obtain a college degree. 

While Quinn's story is compelling, it is diminished in the telling by his frequent references to his illustrious ancestors and powerful present day contacts. His extraordinary privilege and the infrastructure available to him are not something available to other individuals who struggle with similar problems.

Atypical: Life with Asperger's in 20 1/3 Chapters  by Jesse Saperstein (a distant cousin of your blogger) is the story of a young man with "mild" Asperger's syndrome. Jesse and his family dealt with the impact of his difficulties with social interactions from the time he was a young child, but he did not receive a diagnosis of this form of high functioning autism until he was 14. His issues did not include learning challenges, but his serious lack of social cognition set him aside from his classmates and created substantial difficulties for his family. As the author warns his readers at the beginning of his book, "Please be forewarned that you are about to read the observations and life lessons of someone who entertains himself by farting in public and conversing in gibberish with his cats." 

Jesse graduated from college but after drifting in and out of a number of jobs, he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. It was this experience, and his work at a camp for children with HIV and AIDS, that helped him move beyond his own difficulties and led him to write his book and become a motivational speaker. He's an excellent writer and we'll be looking for his next book.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Terrific Week in Hamilton, NY

I spent the last week in June, together with one of our Learning Specialists, in beautiful Hamilton, NY, where we met with a team from the Hamilton Central School District – Principals, Learning Specialists, Reading Specialists, Classroom Teachers, and the District Psychologist, Occupational Therapist, and Superintendent of Schools. Joining us was a representative from the Madison-Oneida BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services).

Over the course of the first day, I gave a series of presentations that included an overview of the emerging neuroscience about learning and its implications for classroom practice and assessment. I spoke about the basis of our clinical framework and how it is compatible with Response to Intervention (RTI) and consistent with emerging scientific knowledge. Particular attention was paid to looking at what the District was already doing for struggling students and bringing to these steps the notion of applying the concepts of differential diagnosis and neurodevelopmental profiles to an analysis of learning differences – with a particular focus on Tier 3 of RTI.

The lecture portion of our training visit looked in depth at the eight neurodevelopmental constructs at the core of our clinical model, and their linkages to the educational process and academic difficulties. We described how to apply this model to elucidate the specific breakdowns underlying each student’s academic difficulties. We also demonstrated how to develop individual plans based on a deep understanding of each student’s unique profile of strength and weaknesses. We ended our first day by discussing the issues faced by a specific student with long-standing difficulties, whom we would be assessing the next day. Together, we planned the assessment.

Our second day was spent assessing this student, who had been selected by the District, with the consent of his parents. We assessed two more students on the remaining days of our five day visit, (ultimately including both elementary and secondary students). For each assessment, the student’s parent(s) observed from one room and the Hamilton team from another location. For the remaining assessments, members of the Hamilton clinical team (the District Psychologist and Learning Specialists) participated in various parts of the assessment under the supervision of Yellin Center clinicians.

It was a gratifying experience and one that everyone agreed worked well for the Hamilton team. It would not have been possible without the terrific administrative support and troubleshooting from the District staff that made it possible for the parents and educators to observe the assessment process via remote technology, without intruding on the students’ experiences. The Hamilton Central School District is also the beneficiary of extensive professional development support from Colgate University, located in Hamilton. As both a visiting clinician and a proud parent of a Colgate graduate, I can appreciate the incredible community of support they provide to their local District. We also can’t thank our hosts enough for their hospitality and wonderful company.
Our next step will be a presentation, together with the Hamilton Central School District, at the New York State School Boards meeting in October in New York City, as an example of “best practices” in intervention and implementation of RTI. Our Yellin Center team is looking forward to continuing our work with these dedicated educators and to defining the next steps in our collaboration.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday Links

New Jersey's High Numbers (Education Week)
Stanford Ushers in the Age of Bookless Libraries (NPR)
Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot (New York Times)
Later School Start Time Leads to Better Students (Scientific American)
Celebs Join the Fight for Better School Lunches (Parenting)

Photo Credit

Friday, July 9, 2010

College Road Trip

Many families of high school students spend at least part of their vacation doing what we here in New York call the I-95 Shuffle. Whether they head north, to Connecticut, Massachusetts, or elsewhere in New England, or go south through Philadelphia, Delaware, Maryland, D.C, and into Virginia and the Carolinas, Interstate Route 95 will take them to dozens of college campuses.

Some of these traveling families will have rising high school seniors, who will be submitting college applications this fall. Others will include students entering 11th grade, who have begun to think about where they want to apply but have some time before they have to start narrowing down their choices. In our new book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, my co-author Christina Bertsch and I recommend that families with even younger students take advantage of family vacations to visit and take a tour of a college campus on their vacation route. Sometimes these early visits can get students thinking about the kind of place that will be a good fit for them, and help focus their efforts during the rest of high school.

While it is always best to try to visit campuses while classes are in session, this is often not possible during the summer. While our "to do" list is not complete, it can help you get started with your own family's summer college road trip:
  • Make sure to call ahead to the admissions office to see if tours are available at the time you plan to visit.
  • Take the time to have a meal in the college cafeteria -- checking out both the food and ambiance.
  • Go to an information session (check ahead to see when these are scheduled) to learn what the college requires for admission -- and what it offers that will appeal to your son or daughter.
  • If your student has been receiving academic accommodations in high school for learning, attention, or other issues, make a point of scheduling a meeting with the Office of Disability Services (which can have different names at different places) and discussing whether your child might qualify for accommodations in college, what documentation he or she may need, and what kind of accommodations the college generally offers. Remember, having high school accommodations does not mean a student will always receive accommodations in college!
  • Students should keep a log of the schools they visit, noting their observations and impressions. Parents may want to do this too, so that months later when the family sits down to discuss applications, everyone can remember what they thought of a particular campus.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More Sleep News

Two new studies emphasize the importance of sleep in the lives of young people. We've addressed this issue before -- and no doubt will address it again -- but sufficient, regular sleep really does make a difference for everyone, especially children and teens.

A study released last month at a conference sponsored by the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, looked at 8000 four year olds and found that the most significant predictor of language and early math development was a regular relatively early bedtime (prior to 9 p.m.). The lead researcher of the study, Dr. Erika Gaylor, noted that, "Getting parents to set bedtime routines can be an important way to make a significant impact on children's emergent literacy and language skills.”

Another study presented at the same conference looked at teens of driving age, and was prompted by the concerns of a sleep researcher whose own daughter needed to get up at 6 am each day for a school day that began shortly after 7 am.  Dr. Robert Vorona, associate professor of internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, looked at Motor Vehicle Bureau data for two adjacent counties in Virginia and found that the county where the high schools opened at 8:40 am instead of 7:20 am had a 40% lower rate of auto accidents among students. This supports earlier studies in other areas and is linked to what scientists have long known -- that sleep needs of young people change at puberty and that growing teens need around 9 hours of sleep at the same time as their daily rhythms shift and they find it difficult to fall asleep much before 11 pm. This means that going to sleep earlier to offset an early start to their school day is not much help. Schools need to re-think early start times for high school students. Their students' lives may depend upon it.

photo credit:  sdminor81 at

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Film for the 4th

We've got a suggestion for families this 4th of July weekend. In between the cook-outs, trips to the beach, and fireworks, find a couple of hours to rent the movie 1776 and watch it with your children. The Broadway version of this musical film won the Pulitzer Prize; the film version retains much of the Broadway cast.  It's a charming and conversation provoking look at what was going on as our Founding Fathers negotiated what would become the Declaration of Independence. And that is, after all, what this holiday is all about.

We're in holiday mode too and will return to blogging on Wednesday, July 7th.

Have a safe and happy weekend!