Friday, February 26, 2010

Executive Function

Executive function is a complex symphony of brain activities responsible for the “project management” parts of school and life. Generally, successful completion of any complex project requires the ability to break the project into a series of discrete steps, developing a plan for completing each step, and then executing the plan. Students whose executive function is not fully developed typically have trouble creating or executing a step-wise plan.

It can be difficult for schools and families dealing with a student with executive function difficulties. Whether or not a student has specific areas of academic struggle, if he doesn't write down his assignment, bring home his book, or hand in his homework, he will not succeed (or often even pass) the course. In some ways, dealing with executive function issues can be easier with younger children. For a second grader, having the teacher check to see that the assignment is written down, that the homework packet is in the student's backpack, and that the parent checks that the assignment is completed and back in the backpack, isn't generally a major problem. For a high school student, this kind of supervision can be uncomfortable for student, teacher and parent and can be humiliating to a teenager struggling for autonomy.

So how can parents help a student who is unable to get through the day without creating obstacles to his own success? One way to help is by establishing routines. This can take time but constant repetition of routines and procedures can automate behaviors even when a student struggles with serious executive function difficulties. For example, we know of one student who does a "lump check" every time he moves from one place to another -- home to school, class to class, and then home again at the end of the day. He pats his pockets to make sure he has his basic tools: wallet, keys, iPod, pen, cell phone.

Another student has a "launching pad" by the front door of his home. Everything he needs to bring to school is set up the night before on the launching pad (with help from his parents) and he knows that he needs to check this spot before he goes to bed. At first, he worked with his parents to create a check-list (books, homework for English, homework for sciences, gym clothes, etc) so he had to consider any item he might require. Eventually, the list was not needed, but he still used the hall table to set out his supplies for the next day. Every student and family will need to find their techniques for building competence in this area, but there are some basic guidelines that may help:
  • Strategies need to be developed in conjunction with the student. Rules imposed from above tend to be less effective and may be a trigger for rebellion.
  • These issues aren't going to be solved quickly. Patience is part of the process.
  • A conversation with the school or teachers about reinforcing organizational strategies can be very helpful.
  • Strategies need to be age appropriate so students are able to master the strategies without being embarrassed that they need help.
  • Positive reinforcement can help. Keeping checklists by the door and rewarding consistent improvements (like handing in homework for two weeks in a row) with small but desirable rewards can help even teens to put strategies into practice.
It's a tough balancing act to teach students organization while fostering independence. Parents will find themselves being too hands off sometimes and being too involved at others. But students who struggle with executive function won't improve their skills without practice and organizational strategies. It won't be easy, but the importance of these skills can't be ignored.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Forty Winks

A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego and reported by the media relations department at the University of California at Berkley gives a big boost to nappers everywhere. The study was conducted by Matthew Walker, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley who, together with his colleagues, looked at the impact of a 90 minute nap on 39 healthy young adults.

The study subjects, who were divided into two groups, were given a learning task that was intended to subject the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores facts) to a large amount of information. The two groups performed similarly on the learning task. Mid-afternoon of that same day, one group took a nap for an hour and a half and the other group stayed awake. Finally, in early evening, both groups were given more information to learn.

The results were clear. The group that had been given the chance to nap not only did better than the non-napping group, but also improved their own capacity to learn. "It's as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you are not going to receive any more mail. It's just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into another folder," Walker said in the U.C. Berkley report.

Next up for Walker and his team is an examination of whether the diminished amount of sleep that older individuals get compared to younger people is a factor in the difficulty some older individuals have in learning new information.

So, next time you feel badly for sacking out in the afternoon -- or next time you criticize someone for taking a nap while you are hard at work -- take a step back and think about a nap as a chance to clear your brain to allow it to better process new information. Maybe countries with afternoon siestas have a point!

Photo credit: mikecpeck via Flickr

Monday, February 22, 2010

Has Your Child Had Breakfast?

February is National Hot Breakfast Month, one of innumerable "holidays" created by marketing and advertising firms to promote specific products. But before we dismiss this pseudo-holiday as a creation of food company promoters, let's look beyond its origins to the importance of breakfast -- hot or cold -- to the academic performance of children.

Studies suggest that even generally well nourished students who skip breakfast have some reduction in their memory and attention processes. For students who generally lack good nutrition, the impact of regular, healthy breakfasts is even more pronounced. These students, who are usually studied as part of reviews of the impact of school breakfast programs, show not just gains in memory and cognitive areas, but improve their attendance, behavior, and other important keys to success in school as well.

As we all rush around on school and work days, it's difficult to get children to eat anything, let alone a nutritionally sound breakfast. Some parents have taken a creative approach to this problem by giving kids food they like, that they can grab as they leave the house. A box of low fat milk or 100% juice with a slice of leftover pizza, a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread, or a cereal or granola bar carefully vetted for nutritional content, can all get a reluctant breakfast eater started on a better day in school. And for those students who will eat a healthy breakfast at home, hot cereal is an inexpensive choice and one that takes only a few minutes in the microwave. However you solve the breakfast dilemma, keep in mind that having a good breakfast will make a difference for your student once class begins.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Helping Teens Manage Money

A new federal law that is aimed at the problem of credit card debt incurred by teens who take advantage of credit made easily available to them goes into effect this coming Monday, February 22nd. The new law, The Credit Card Act of 2009, modifies the Truth in Lending Act by prohibiting credit card companies from providing cards to anyone under age 21 unless they have a parent co-signer (who is also jointly obligated to pay on the account) or unless they can demonstrate sufficient income and assets to pay any amounts which might become due on the account.

In addition, no credit line increases are permitted on cards held by individuals under age 21 unless the co-signer/parent approves in writing and will be jointly responsibile for the additional credit. The new law does not affect debit cards, although new restrictions on banks limit the ability of banks to extend credit beyond the limits of the account to which the debit card is linked and then charge excessive overdraft fees when such excess charges are incurred. Still, parents need to be aware of the issues debit cards can create.

The new law targets credit card offers to students and requires colleges to make public any arrangements they have made with credit card companies to solicit students for card accounts. It also prohibits offers of credit that are accompanied by gifts or give-aways -- the free t shirt ,or umbrella, or some other item, if a student signs up for a credit card.

Finally, the law protects anyone under age 21 from prescreened credit offers, the "you have qualified for a credit card" mailings that come to your home for your 17 year old who can't manage his allowance and owes money on his library books. Nothing in the new law will keep young people from having credit cards -- IF their parents believe they can handle the financial responsibility that goes with them and if the parents are willing to stand behind their decision by being responsible for the debts their child may incur. And there is no impact on parents who decide to give their teen a credit card that is an additional card on the parent's account. What this new law does is put more authority in the hands of parents to educate their teens about credit, debt, and money and to remove the enticement of quick and easy credit from teens who are not ready to handle the consequences of their decisions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Sleep Studies

Two new studies - one on the impact of sleep deprivation and another on ways to help teens get to sleep - have come to our attention and raise interesting issues. We have long believed that students who have good "sleep hygiene", who get sufficient, good quality sleep, are better prepared to deal with the challenges of school and to make the cognitive connections necessary for learning.

A report in the January, 2010 issue of Sleep of a study of 23 adults who were deprived of sleep for a total of 51 hours, after which they had two nights of recovery sleep, showed serious degradation in the sleep deprived subject's ability to do certain tasks that are associated with executive function. However, there were other tasks that were not impacted by the sleep deprivation. This small study raises more questions than it answers, but it hints at an uneven impact of sleep deprivation on important parts of the managerial functions of individuals.

A second study, reported by the Associated Press and appearing in Long Island's Newsday, describes a study based in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina middle school designed with numerous skylights so as to reduce the need for electric lights while providing a light filled environment. When researchers had some eighth graders wear goggles that limited their access to certain waves of light, they saw a delay in the onset time of a hormonal surge of melatonin that helps with sleep. The student subjects were only deprived of the specific light waves for five days, but researchers noted that students who leave for school before dawn, especially in winter, and who spend much of their days in windowless classrooms, can have their ability to fall asleep in a timely manner negatively impacted. This study, too, was a small one and can only be useful as a basis for further research.

Still, we need to be open to looking at a number of variables that impact sleep, particularly in young people, and we need to search further to better understand how the sleep process -- or lack of sleep -- impacts the day to day functioning of students in their classrooms and at home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Four Sons

We've written before about how labels can be unfair to children and how they are insufficiently descriptive of what is really going on with any individual. We recently encountered a discussion of how labeling can be detrimental in a very unexpected context. Robert Dobrusin, a rabbi in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writes about how labels have unfairly limited the characters encountered in the traditional telling of the Passover story. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt, a familiar part of the Old Testament, is told in a ritualized form as part of the Passover celebration. One key part of this ritual telling is the story of four sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who cannot even ask a question. Every year, at the Passover meal, families read about these same sons, and tell the story of the exodus to answer these children's questions.

Rabbi Doursin notes, "I am troubled by the fact that we don't let them change. Throughout history they will always be wise or rebellious or simple or unquestioning... How can we set them in stone the way we do? There is one simple reason. They don't change because they each have been given a name: wise, rebellious, simple, unquestioning...How much wiser it would have been [if these children had been described] as the one who asked a wise question, the one who asked a rebellious question, the one who asked a simple question, the one who did not ask at all?"

He goes on to explain that when we label individuals we can be too quick to jump to conclusions about their actions. Only when we eschew labels and keep open the possibility of change can we then open the door for individuals to move beyond the roles their labels describe to growth and change. Whatever our beliefs, and whatever holidays and traditions we celebrate, it is excellent advice. Indeed, there is strong evidence that labeling or defining children by their limitations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because they tend not to see past their label to the possibility of their own change and growth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow Days

Here in New York City the recent snow is almost gone. There are icy spots on some sidewalks and slushy puddles at the corners, but at street level there is little left of the foot of snow that feel just 48 hours ago. The rooftops we see from our windows are still coated in white, but that is steadily melting, as the sun hits the surfaces.

City kids had a day off from school, declared in advance by the Mayor. It's rare for city schools to close for snow so this was a particularly welcome treat -- at least for kids and teachers. We've checked in with some families to see what they did with their snow day. One mom we spoke to, with daughters 7 and 9, invited friends for both her girls. We could hear the squeals in the background as we spoke to her, and she told us there was an elaborate game of dress up going on. Another mom said her teenager was catching up on homework -- after sleeping until almost noon.

Things weren't very different out in the suburbs, but there enterprising young people could earn a tidy income by shoveling snow for folks who couldn't, or didn't want to, shovel out their own walks and driveways. It was good to see that hard work didn't scare off everyone.

Whether you spent the day baking cookies with your children, curled up reading a book, or trying to get your kids off of the computer so that you could check your work email, we hope you and your family took some time to appreciate the change from the daily schedule.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Advancements in Neuroscience

When we talk about our work at the Yellin Center we often use the term neurodevelopment. Dr. Yellin often refers to advances in neuroscience. Yet we don't always stop to explain why these terms are important and what they mean to parents and students who want to understand more about how individuals learn.

We were reminded of this when we read a profile in yesterday's New York Times Science Section of Dr. Samuel Wang, an associate professor at Princeton University (Dr. Yellin's alma mater), whose research and writings are focused on looking at how the brain actually functions.

Dr. Wang looks at functional MRIs to find relationships between the structure of brains and how dogs function. Why dogs? Because their MRIs are readily available and have no privacy laws that protect veterinarians from donating them for scientific study. As for applying this technology to humans, Dr. Wang urges caution, although he is excited by the advances that are now making it easier to answer some of the many questions about how people actually think and learn.

So, when we talk about neuroscience or neurodevelopmental constructs in our work, we are talking about how scientists have been able to link brain structure and function with mental tasks. Perhaps nowhere has this work gone further in humans than in the area of dyslexia. Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz of Yale University who have used the functional MRIs to map the brains of individuals with dyslexia.

As science advances, we will have more answers to questions about how individuals learn. For the moment, we link our work to existing science and carefully follow the research literature to incorporate the newest findings about brain science into our work.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Helping Children at Risk

A compelling story in yesterday's New York Times looked at the lives of children attending the Mott Haven Academy. One third of the students are in foster care. Another third are from families so fractured that the New York City Administration for Youth Services is involved in supervising them. And the rest are "just" mired in poverty. Many of the children profiled in the article have significant learning difficulties or emotional problems -- sometimes both.

Key to the school mission is stability; the school keeps children enrolled as they move back and forth from one foster family to another or from their parents to foster care or some other setting. Busses transport the children throughout the Bronx to make sure they can continue in their familiar school setting no matter where life may take them. The warmth, understanding and stability provided by Mott Haven Academy make a significant difference in these childrens' lives.

The agency behind the Mott Haven Academy, which is a charter school, is The New York Foundling , founded in 1869 and serving the children of New York City continuously for the past 140 years. In addition to the Mott Haven Academy, The New York Foundling programs include The Fontana Center for Child Protection, dedicated to prevention and treatment of abused and neglected children. Founded in 1999 by Dr. Vincent Fontana and Dr. Mel Schneiderman, a leading psychologist, the Fontana Center works to eliminate the scourge of child abuse by research and education about best practices to impact this field.

Sometimes a look at children in the most difficult of circumstances, right here in New York City, can give a different perspective on the day to day issues impacting our own lives. It did to us.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Links - Homework Help

Avoiding Homework Wars  from LD On Line.

Homework Tips for Parents from the National Center for Learning Disabilties

Homework Help from the New York City Public Library

Parent Toolkit - Homework from All Kinds of Minds

Homework Tips for Parents of Children with ADHD from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Upcoming Dyslexia Conference

The New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is holding its annual conference on March 8th and 9th in New York City. This Conference is always informativie and features leaders in the field of learning and education, including our own Dr. Paul Yellin.

The New York Branch of the IDA is headed by our friend and colleague, Jo Anne Simon, Esq., who has been a leader in the field of disability law for many years.

Speakers at the Conference include David Rose, Founder and Chief Science Officer of CAST, whose Board Members include Dr. Yellin. Dr. Rose will be speaking on UDL, Universal Design for Learning.

Dr. Yellin's presentation is titled  Neuroplasticity, Resilience, UDL, & Dyslexia-New Pathways to Success. It will look at recent research from the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education and specific strategies for overcoming dyslexia. The talk will provide an updated review of neuro-plasticity and emerging technology, along with implications for clinical care, educational policy, and parenting.

We hope to see you there!

Monday, February 1, 2010

A History Lesson

There is some interesting history to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Most parents dealing with getting public school services for their child don't have the time or perspective to think about how the system that provides special education and related services for millions of public school children came into being.

The story actual begins with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which dealt with the segregation of schools by race. Attorneys who argued on behalf of Linda Brown and almost 200 other students of color included future Supreme Court Justice Thurmond Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court decision in the Brown case determined that ‘separate but equal’ education based upon race was a violation of the Constitution —establishing the principle that access to public education is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms. The eventual impact of this decision went far beyond declaring the illegality of excluding students from schools because of their race.

A series of local court cases that followed went on to extend the ruling in Brown and look at students who were excluded from public education because of their disabilities. Adding to the public awareness raised by the cases that followed Brown, were revelations by a young television journalist, Geraldo Rivera (yes, that Geraldo Rivera) of horrific conditions at the Willowbrook State School in New York. Rivera’s 1972 award winning exposé featured hidden cameras showing how more than 6,000 developmentally disabled children and adults lived in a facility designed for 4,000. By using the power and reach of television, the Willowbrook story helped bring the issue of how individuals with profound disabilities were denied decent care—let alone education—to the attention of the American public.

In the mid-1970s, when Congress began looking at how the nation’s eight million children with disabilities were being educated, they found that more than half were not receiving appropriate educational services and at least one million were excluded from school completely.

It was against this backdrop that the legislation that became the IDEA -- the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act -- was first created. There's more to this story, of course, and we'll look in future blogs at the individuals behind the key court cases that established the principles that are fundamental to the IDEA today.