Monday, November 29, 2010

Learning and the Brain

I recently returned from the Learning and the Brain: No Brain Left Behind Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I had a chance to hear about the rapidly expanding research findings in the fields of neuroscience, evaluation, and education. Applied imaging techniques like functional MRI and other technologies to measure brain activity are providing a great deal of insight in the fields of brain development, brain maturation, development of academic skills, normal variations, and learning differences/disabilities. I also had a chance to spend a full day focusing on the latest developments in reading diagnostics and dyslexia.

One clear message that emerged from the Conference is that traditional testing of students' abilities or achievement is not specific or sensitive enough to get at the kinds of variations we need to be appreciating to decide on appropriate interventions for individual students. Assessments that identify strengths as well as specific weaknesses will be critical in making treatment decisions as well as allowing for the kinds of research that has to happen so that we can move toward research based decisions in determining which strategies are most effective.

The many attendees at the Conference included a number of Learning Specialists and Clinicians who worked with me when I served as National Director of the All Kinds of Minds Clinical Programs, which were the predecessor to The Yellin Center.

AKOM Alumini: Paul Yellin, Molly Warner, Sarah Eskin-Drake, Hollis Dannaham, Craig Pohlman, and Jennifer Bitner

Much of so-called brain based interventions or educational strategies often grow out of personal agendas, individual points of view, or marketing initiatives, rather than unbiased peer reviewed research. But I was pleased to leave the Conference with the strong sense that interest in doing rigorous study of educational practice and interventions and linking these to the newest findings in neuroscience is increasing. As pockets of research collaborations between scientists and educators are appearing around the world, those of us in the field will have a richer, more vigorously derived body of knowledge to draw from as we make day-to-day decisions to best serve the children and families in our schools and clinics.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

We're Thankful

The eve of Thanksgiving is a perfect time to pause and give thanks for the many blessings we have had this past year. We know that times are still tough for many people and that there is much amiss in our local and national education systems. Still, we are grateful for many things.

We are thankful for the amazing Yellin Center team, who share their knowledge, enthusiasm, and professionalism with the families we see and whose insight into children and young adults helps hundreds of struggling students every year.

We are thankful for the schools we have had a chance to work with this year, including the Hamilton Central School District, the New York Insitute for Special Education, the Kildonan School, and countless private and public schools in New York, New Jersey, and throughout the country.

We are thankful for the many organizations with which we have worked, including Cornerstone Literacy, New York Foundling, and New York University's School of Medicine and Department of Pediatrics.

We are thankful for the schools and colleges that have hosted us for visits and presentations, including American University, George Washington University, Mount Ida College, Northeastern University, and Lesley College, to name a few. It is always enjoyable to speak to educators and parents who are interested in learning differences.

Most of all, we are thankful for the families and students that come to us with their academic struggles and who emerge from their experience here with an understanding of how they learn, strategies to address their areas of difficulty and to enhance their strengths, and a plan to move forward towards success. We get countless thank you notes, emails, and telephone calls that report that the experience at the Yellin Center has "changed my child's life," "created a sense of optimism we never had before," and "made the difference" to the students we see. We feel privileged to have such an impact on students and families.

We wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving! We are taking the holiday weekend off to appreciate our families and watch some football..See you next week.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Supportive College with a Real World Focus

We had the opportunity last week to visit Northeastern University in Boston and to meet with the dynamic Director of The Learning Disabilities Program, Mary Barrows. We had known about and were particularly interested in Northeastern because of the co-op program that is key to a Northeastern education. The co-op program had long been a five year curriculum that integrated periods of employment with semesters of classes. More recently, the program has been modified so that students can elect to participate in fewer co-op experiences and graduate in only four years.

As might be imagined, the focus on real-world work experience has an impact on Northeastern students' ability to enter the job market when they graduate and the school's successful placement figures reflect this. Furthermore, almost all Northeastern graduates who are out in the working world have indicated that they were better prepared for working because of their co-op experience.

Northeastern is very much an urban school and outdoor spaces are not extensive. The campus buildings range from drab and utilitarian to soaring and modern. The campus spreads out over 73 acres and has 37 residence halls, 26 dining places, and almost 16,000 full time undergraduates. Campus spirit is enriched by the University's 18 division one sports teams and a stroll around the campus offers constant reminders of student support for the Husky teams.

In this large, urban setting, students with learning and attention issues can really benefit from the personalized attention and individual support offered by the Learning Disabilities Program.

Mary Barrows explained that the Learning Disabilities Program is an intensive support program requiring a separate application and fee. Students are accepted after submitting documentation about their learning or attention difficulties and are personally interviewed before a determination is made about whether they would be a good fit with the program. Ms. Barrows noted that the students in the program are assigned a learning specialist that they meet with two hours each week. They receive support from their learning specialist in the academic aspects of their courses, plus such more general learning related issues as time management, writing, organization, study skills, and self-advocacy.

Students who are not accepted to the Learning Disabilities Program, or who choose not to apply, are still entitled to accommodations through the campus Disability Resource Center, which assists students with appropriate documentation receive such accommodations and services as extended time on exams or note-taking services. The Disabilities Resource Center follows the legal standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Milestone

On the occasion of our 200th blog post, we thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of the topics that we have written about most frequently since we began this blog in August of 2009. 

Since then, we've spent much time explaining how services are provided for students in grades K through 12 under the IDEA and Section 504. We've looked at how these laws require students to be "labeled" or to fall within a defined category of "disability" and lamented the fact that these labels are often both too broad and insufficient to describe the challenges -- and strengths -- of particular students.

We've written extensively about college issues for students with learning challenges, ranging from transition issues in high schools to the college selection process and accommodations for college classes. We've discussed schools we have visited, and explained what they can offer students who learn differently. We've celebrated the publication of Susan Yellin's new book about Life After High School and informed our readers about conferences featuring college representatives.

We've spent a good deal of time on issues specific to New York City, ranging from new initiatives for public high schools to resources and programs designed specifically for families dealing with the New York City Department of Education. Although we see students and families from all over the globe (and have written about this fact, too) we need only to look out of our office windows to be reminded that we are in the middle of the amazing City of New York -- with all of its benefits and challenges -- and we are very much observers of the local educational scene.

We've shared educational research and trends from the numerous journals, newsblasts, and other resources that cross our desk and flow into our inbox, and from conferences and programs we attend. In fact, we are heading up to Cambridge, Massachusetts this very afternoon to visit the Learning Disabilities Program at Northeastern University and to attend the Learning and the Brain Conference and will write about these visits in future blogs.

We've particularly enjoyed when our blogs elicit reader comments. One of our purposes is to engage our readers, to bring them information they may find helpful, and to get them thinking about learning and education in a new way. We haven't run out of things to write about over these 200 blog entries -- but if we've not yet covered a subject you would like to read about, we'd love to hear from you. You can add your comment below or email us directly at

Monday, November 15, 2010

Activities and Achievement

It turns out that all those clubs and activities you got involved in during
high school may have done more than just burnish your college applications. A new study by graduate students from the University of Nebraska looked at the impact of student involvement in extracurricular activities during high school. "Adolescents' expectations about their occupational and educational attainment as adults predict their eventual educational attainment, and these expectations seem to shape and be shaped by extracurricular activities -- which, in turn, contribute to young adult educational attainment," noted Sarah Beale, the lead author of the study.

Surprisingly, neither volunteer work nor holding a job during high school seemed to have the same impact as involvement in clubs and sports. As might have been expected, students who were involved with drugs or who had brushes with the law had lower levels of education and achievement.

So, what can we learn from this study? Thinking about the future is shaped by experiences. A student who is involved in the French club, or the math team, or plays on a sports team, learns about a new subject, or about teamwork and leadership. This kind of learning can impact educational achievement which can, in turn, have a positive impact on careers and adulthood. The benefit goes beyond the well known positive impact of high school activities on college admission officers. So, join a club or play a sport -- or urge your student to do so. It can be a helpful step in helping to plan for adulthood.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Uncertain Times in New York City

The announcement this week that the New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, would be leaving and would be replaced by Cathleen Black, a publishing executive with no educational experience as a teacher or administrator (and who attended private schools and sent her children to private schools as well), left parents and professionals feeling uncertain about what would happen to them, their children, and education in New York City.

A special education attorney who works with families of children with substantial disabilities expressed concern about how children needing special educational settings would be treated under a new regime. "It used to be," our colleague reported yesterday, "that even though the City often fought these families over what services and placement their children would be entitled to receive, there was a genuine concern for the child. Department of Education attorneys understood that these children needed to be in school and getting services somewhere, even if they argued the details of arrangements. Now, that has changed and in more and more cases the interests of the child are just ignored. Kids with profound needs are being kept at home because the City is digging in its heels about providing services. And that is a tragedy. I am deeply worried about what message the new Chancellor will be sending to her legal troops."

A teacher we know was concerned about what would happen to the new initiatives put in place by departing Chancellor Klein. "I finally got set in a terrific school that was opened under one of Klein's programs. I wonder if I will have a teaching job next year -- or the year after that," he said.

Of course, before a new Chancellor takes the reins, she will have to be granted a waiver from the New York State Department of Education, which must waive the legal requirement that the New York City Chancellor have a certificate in educational leadership and at least three years experience in schools, neither of which Ms. Black has. Chancellor Klein had been granted such a waiver before he took office.

While we are looking at the change happening around the City, one change that is good for everyone is the movement of the terrific website Inside Schools to the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. Inside Schools is an excellent, independent resource for families looking for information about public schools in New York City and it had been experiencing serious financial difficulties. A new grant has enabled it to move to its new home and secures its future. We are delighted!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Kildonan School

The Kildonan School, a day and boarding school for students with dyslexia and language based learning differences, located about two hours north of New York City, welcomed Dr. Paul Yellin and Susan Yellin, Esq. (who directs the Yellin Center Advocacy and Transition Services) for a day-long visit yesterday.

Our team had a chance to meet with several members of the school's leadership, from the Headmaster to the heads of the middle and elementary programs, and to sit in on a number of one-on-one instructional sessions in which students worked intensively with skilled instructors, who employed Orton-Gillingham methodology as well as amazingly creative visual and computer based tools to assist students who clearly had significant issues with reading and language. The Yellin Center visitors also got to sit in on a middle school math class and watch how the school's seventh graders were taught about decimals.

The beautiful rural setting of the school includes stables (horseback riding is part of the program from the earliest grades) and views of rolling hills and trees. A new athletic facility greets visitors entering the grounds, and separate buildings house each level of the school -- elementary, middle, and upper.

The students our team met were most impressive. They were mature for their years, serious about learning, and enthusiastic about their school and all it had done for them. Over a delicious lunch in the school dining room, a group of juniors and seniors talked about their difficult experiences before they came to Kildonan and how  their Kildonan education had helped bring about a transformation in their academics, their self-esteem, and their confidence about their future. The Kildonan staff believes that by focusing on students with dyslexia and language based learning issues, they can best serve those students who will benefit from their approach. They actively seek sources of scholarships to help offset tuition for those who need it but remain concerned that the cost of a Kildonan education is an issue for many families.

The day finished with a terrific dinner with the heads of the middle and elementary divisions, as well as the Academic Dean and one of the teachers. Much of the school's leadership and staff reside on the school grounds, and the dedication of the staff was clear, both throughout the day and into the evening discussions about ways to assist Kildonan graduates with their transition to college and the adult world.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Focusing on College Issues

Yesterday's New York Times was a rich source of information for college bound students and their families.

An essay by Caren Osten Gerszberg, originally appearing in the Times Choice Blog, an ongoing feature dedicated to college admissions and financial aid, was included in the print edition along with comments from readers. Gerszberg wrote about the problems with the Common Application and the difficulty uploading essays and fitting them into the strict format and limits of the online forms. Her daughter had neglected to take all necessary steps to make sure her information was accepted by the Common Application and it went out to a college with part of her short essay missing. Commentators included the Director of Outreach of The Common Application, who noted that the difficulty could have been avoided by using the "preview" feature before pushing the "send" button. Both the essay and the comments provide important guidance to any student working on applications -- online or on paper -- this fall.

Even more informative was an entire special section of Sunday's paper -- which appears regularly several times a year -- called Education Life. This issue included a terrific piece by Abigail Sullivan Moore, titled Accommodations Angst which looked at an issue that we often encounter with the students with whom we work -- when and how to apply for accommodations, particularly extended time, on SAT and ACT exams. The article includes information from a number of experts in the field of education and disabilities, including our esteemed colleagues Matt Cohen, Esq. and Jo Anne Simon, Esq. Matt Cohen is the author of the excellent book, A Guide to Special Education Advocacy, from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Jo Anne Simon is nationally recognized as an expert in disability discrimination in high stakes standardized testing and higher education. She was also a generous source of guidance for your blogger's new book, with Christina Bertsch, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, which contains a complete explanation of the history and administration of the SAT and ACT tests and the laws governing the accommodation process.

Some of the issues covered in the article by Abigail Moore include differences between the College Board, which administers the SAT exam, and the ACT exam, both of which are accepted by virtually all colleges as part of their admissions process. The article notes something we find all the time in practice: students who have been diagnosed or first received accommodations only a year or two before first taking the SAT or ACT exams have a far more difficult time making their case to the testing companies.

It's prime time for applying to college. Most high school seniors have pretty much decided where to apply and are (or should be!) working on applications. Sophomores are watching their older classmates engage in the process of application preparation and juniors are thinking about ways to burnish their records and considering issues relating to standardized tests. Students with and without learning and attention difficulties should find the Education Life section of the Times helpful -- and will also find much information applicable to all students in your blogger's new book.

This is also a good time to remind our readers that consultations with Susan Yellin, Esq. to assist students with learning and other challenges to navigate the college process, are available at The Yellin Center. Contact Mrs. Yellin directly at or call our office at 646-775-6646.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Link Roundup

Teens are Still Reading for Fun (Washington Post)
Death to the SAT (Fortune)
White House Takes Stand Against School Bullying (NPR)
Skip Parent-Teacher Conference, Go to Jail? (Time Healthland)
How to Raise a Creative Genius (CNN)

Photo Credit

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vocabulary in Middle School

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have looked at the teaching of vocabulary in middle schools and have noted what parents have also observed -- that while elementary students routinely learn vocabulary words as part of their spelling lessons, and high school students drill intensively in vocabulary as part of their preparation for standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, there is not much direct vocabulary instruction given to middle school students.

The authors of an article in the October issue of the journal Educational Leadership look at existing research and conclude that " a system of cross-content, whole-school vocabulary instruction can result in better reading comprehension." What do they mean by that? Words that students encounter frequently, in various academic settings, and in somewhat different formats, need to be not just familiar to students, but thoroughly understood. They recommend The Academic Word List as one source of these words - such words as "distribute," "perceive" and "contrast," which students may encounter in such diverse subjects as literature, science, and history. They go on to note that it is important to consider the difficulty and frequency of specific words in an academic context and suggest such online tools as Word Count to help select those words which students might most benefit from studying and understanding. The authors found that students need multiple exposures in these important words, across content areas, to fully understand their meaning. They suggest that vocabulary instruction be limited to only a few words each week, with teachers of different subject matters using the same words (hence the "whole school" aspect of this instruction) and demonstrating that they can take on different meaning from one area of academic study to another.

 For situations where teachers may have difficulty with defining specfic words in a clear enough manner to instruct their classes, the authors suggest such resources as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. The authors conclude their article with lists of resources to support the instruction of vocabulary in middle schools. Even where schools may not adopt this type of program, parents can implement some of its elements at home.