Friday, January 28, 2011

Special Education in Finland and Steering Clear of the Tiger Mom Controversy

Dr. Gene McMahon, former Director for the New York Institute for Special Education and presently an educational consultant and partner in the McMahon Advocacy Group, passed along an interesting article appearing in the Hechinger Report.

The article looks at research comparing how schools in Finland deal with students who are struggling in school. Finnish schools do not require formal identification or labels in order to begin offering extensive services. At all points along the way, Finland's handling of students with learning problems is more flexible and the end result is improved results over the bureaucratic U.S. system. Of course, it is important to keep in mind the differences in size and homogeneity between the two countries. Still, this is yet another argument for implementing such practices as Response to Intervention in U.S. schools, where students are offered supports as soon as they begin to have difficulties, rather than the older "waiting to fail" model where students needed to be substantially behind their classmates before they could be considered for special education and related services.


We have been intentionally staying away from the "Tiger Mom" controversy triggered by a new book by Yale law professor Amy Chu, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom . Parenting is tough enough without supporting -- or criticizing -- any one mode of parenting over another and is even more complex when cultural and ethnic differences are added to the equation. So we were pleased to see an article in Scientific American looking at  whether the propositions laid out in Professor Chu's book, which have been described as some as harsh parenting, are supported by science. The article includes an interview of Professor Laurence Steinberg of Temple University who has studied different parenting styles among various American cultural groups. Not surprisingly, Professor Steinberg notes that some of the methods espoused in Amy Chu's book are supported by research and some are not. But we like the fact that this piece throws light, not the heat of controversy, on this much discussed current topic.

photo credit: digitalART2 at

Monday, January 24, 2011

Monday Miscellany

A new study in the journal Science supports a learning strategy we have long recommended to the students with whom we work: using testing as way of learning material. We often suggest that students prepare for tests by thinking about what material might be on a test, and preparing test questions (ideally in a group) and then actually taking the test they have created a day or two later. The study notes that this method works particularly well when students need to demonstrate comprehension and draw inferences and that it is more effective than intensive studying or even concept mapping.


Another area we stress in looking at how individual students learn is the importance of understanding concepts, the unifying ideas that allow us to think about objects as part of a category. If you understand the concept behind something, you don't need to tax your memory with every example of such an item; you simply need to look at an item and see if it fits within the concept. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science looks at how young children learn concepts and finds that exposure to a diversity of objects best supports learning concepts. For example, young children who are exposed to three very different kinds of cups will have a better sense of the concept of a cup than children who are also exposed to three cups, but where the cups are essentially the same. The study left open several questions about how and why this exposure to a diversity of objects leads to concept learning, but it is a fascinating beginning to an area of inquiry.

We have written several times about Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, co-written by Susan Yellin, Esq. Another good resource for families dealing with college admissions and financial aid issues is the The Choice blog, written by Jacques Steinberg, who also wrote The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College

Friday, January 21, 2011

What's In a Name?

There are a number of names tossed around in the world of education, especially when it comes to getting educational services for children from public schools. These generally come from court cases, where the name of a party becomes a shorthand way of referring to the rights that a particular court decision created.

For example, parents who are seeking to place their children in private schools because their child's public school cannot offer him or her an appropriate education, can seek to have their tuition payments reimbursed from their public school. This is referred to as "Carter funding", from a United States Supreme Court case, Carter vs. Florence County School District. In that 1991 case the Supreme Court determined that Shannon Carter's parents were entitled to reimbursement of tuition and expenses for placing her in a school that had an appropriate program to help with Shannon's learning disability, when the local public school had failed to provide an appropriate program. Although this right to reimbursement has since been included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the process for seeking such reimbursement is still referred to as a Carter case or Carter funding.

In addition, at least in New York and in limited circumstances, where parents are unable to lay out the cost of private school tuition and await reimbursement, they may be entitled to have the private school receive direct payment from the public school system. This right is discussed in the case Connors v. Mills, where the Federal District Court noted that to decide otherwise would mean that "... a destitute child would be left in an inappropriate program because the parents would not be able to front the tuition of private placement." Connors funding is more limited than Carter funding, but parents should still be familiar with the term.

Another court case that is referred to as a shortcut name in the education field is Gebser. Parents may hear the term "Gebser letter". What is this? The 1998 United States Supreme Court case Gebser vs. Lago Vista Independent School District dealt with harassment claims. The Supreme Court noted that a school district could not be responsibile for its response to bullying or harassment claims unless it had notice that this kind of activity was taking place. As a result of this decision, parents whose children have been subject to such forms of discrimination have been advised to send their school a Gebser Letter, putting the school on notice about the problem.

Finally, in New York City, families may be given a Nickerson Letter (see page 30 of the linked document). This remedy grew out of a decision by Federal Judge Eugene Nickerson in the late 1970s. This document is given to families whose child has been approved for a special education setting but who has not been given a timely placement in such setting. In theory, it allows parents to enroll their child in any approved non-public school and have the tuition payed directly by New York City's Department of Education. In practice, however, it often achieves nothing, since the schools are usually full and are not required to take a student if they do not have room.

The name game in education can be confusing, and we hope this gives you a better sense of what some of these names mean.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Planning Your Trip to School Services

You wouldn't head off on a journey without the right equipment -- tickets, maps, proper clothing, and a plan. In the same way, parents seeking help for their children from public schools need the right equipment for their particular journey.

First, they need an understanding of the terminology used by schools and originating in the federal laws that give students with learning and other disabilities specific rights. It is also important that families understand the difference between the two laws that require schools to offer specific services to students with learning difficulties. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) both can be used to help struggling students. They both require that a student have a specific disability, but then impose different standards.

If a student has a disability AND because of such disability he or she requires special education or related services, then that student will be covered by the IDEA. An example would be a student with a reading problem, who needs specialized reading instruction. Without such instruction the student would not be able to make regular progress and move on from grade to grade. However, if a student had a visual impairment that required him or her to use special software and large print books to be able to access the classroom materials, but otherwise did well in school, that student would fall within the protections of Section 504. Students with attention difficulties who do not need other academic support generally fall under Section 504; those who have attention problems together with academic difficulties are most often eligible for IDEA services. The two laws are very similar for students in grades K-12, but parents are required members of the team that develops the IEP under IDEA, but are not necessarily part of the 504 Team that develops the 504 Plan.

So, once you know the terminology and are somewhat familiar with the laws that will apply to your child, what else can you do as you prepare to deal with your child's school? One important step is to create a record of your child's achievement and testing and of earlier steps you have taken to deal with your child's issues. Keep a folder, by year, of report cards, earlier IEPs or 504 Plans, testing, etc. Keep a log of who you spoke to and why and when. Document the results of all conversations (eg: 12/3/2010 - Called guidance counselor about setting up a meeting of the IEP team; she said she would get back to me. 12/15/2010 - received notice of IEP meeting to be held on January 20, 2010 -- see notice in file).

Do not attend meetings of the IEP Team by yourself. Bring a spouse and/or a friend or advocate. You need to be able to focus on what is being said while someone else takes careful notes, including the names and titles of all those at the meeting (or get a copy of the sign-in sheet, but be sure you can read all the names and positions). If you are not certain that you agree with the decisions of the IEP Team, you should tell them that and state that you need some time to consider this information. Remember, no matter how helpful the school personnel may be, the only person at the meeting who has no other consideration than what is best for your child is YOU. Even the most caring school staff has to consider the needs of other children, the financial impact of your child's needs, and staffing issues. So, plan for your meeting and you will find that your journey through the IEP or 504 process will be more likely to be a positive one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Two Mindsets About Learning

Fundamental to our work is the belief that students who understand their strengths and weaknesses can learn to use strategies to strengthen their strengths and remediate their weaknesses. An article entitled Even Geniuses Work Hard  by Carol S. Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, published in the journal Educational Leadership, builds on this belief by looking at how students' approach to learning impacts their academic growth. Dr. Dweck describes two types of students -- those with a 'fixed mindset' who believe their intelligence is an inborn trait and those who have a 'growth mindset' who believe that intelligence is something that can be developed over time.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Dweck and her colleagues have found that these two types of mindsets have an impact on how these students behave in school. Those who have a fixed mindset tend to avoid hard work and situations where they might "look stupid." Since they believe that not doing well in a particular task is a reflection of their fixed intelligence, they do not handle setbacks well. In contrast, students who have a growth mindset tend to value hard work, to appreciate the need to try different methods to achieve success, and face setbacks by looking at ways to overcome them -- a trait often referred to as resilience.

Dr. Carol Dweck
Dr. Dweck's team believes that teachers can do much to foster a growth mindset by how they teach and evaluate students. By looking at situations where individuals who have overcome challenges, teachers can impart a sense of the importance of perseverance. New information presented as a challenge, where students who have not mastered the information get a "not yet" grade, rather than failing, can build appreciation for the learning process rather than a measure of fixed competence. It is an approach to learning that involves understanding one's own mind and learning processes and results in more thoughtful students who value learning for the sake of knowledge and skills gained, not as a test of their intellect. For those who find this entire subject of interest, Dr. Dweck has published a book setting out this approach in depth.

Monday, January 10, 2011

It's Camp Time Again!

There is something satisfying about planning for the summer when we are in the midst of a snowy winter. With more snow predicted here in New York for later this week, we are turning our attention to summer choices for children. One reminder that summer planning should begin soon is the announcement we recently received about the Annual Camp Fair sponsored by Resources for Children with Special Needs (RCSN). This Fair is located in New York City and  features a wide array of programs -- some for children with mild attention issues and some for children whose medical, learning, or emotional needs are quite significant. Attendees get a free copy of the comprehensive 2011-2012 Camp Directory and a chance to meet with camp directors. Other RSCN publications will be available at a significant discount. Admission to the Camp Fair is free.

Most children with learning difficulties can do well in almost any summer program. Without the stress of classroom demands, these children can enjoy recreational activities and build important self esteem and social skills as they interact with their peers. The American Camp Association, which accredits numerous camps, is an helpful resource for finding a camp program. It also has a separate section of its website with information about what families should look for in a camp and lists of camps that fit specific criteria.

Other children, however, need a special setting for summer because their behavior, attention or learning issues make it difficult for them to manage in a typical camp environment. Although the break from school is often a welcome relief, it also means the loss of structure and social contacts for these children and increased supervision and stress for their parents. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of summer programs designed for children and adolescents with learning differences and accompanying behavioral issues.

These camps include:

Summit Camp, in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. We have visited this impressive but expensive program and seen it in action. The information on the website gives an accurate feel for the kind of child the camp serves and the programs Summit offers.

Camp Kehilla and Kehilla Kayyf are programs of the Jewish Community Center in Roslyn, New York, designed for “high-functioning children and teens with minimal learning disabilities, speech and language delays” and other issues. The day camp program, for younger campers, is located at the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Huntington, New York. The sleep-away program for pre-teens and teens is located in Poyntelle, Pennsylvania.

In addition, a number of private schools and a few colleges have summer programs. These include the Kildonan School, the Landmark School in Massachusetts, Winston Prep School (both in New York and Connecticut), and Landmark College in Vermont.

Start thinking about warmer, fun filled days ahead!

Photo credit: Steven Depolo via Flickr

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Online Resources for Educational Research

There are numerous online resources for new scientific findings in the field of education. Some of these are delivered to us via regular newsletters or newsblasts. Others are out there to be found, but need to be proactively searched. These sites are often designed for different audiences -- parents, scientists, educators-- and can sometimes be focused on specific areas of research or knowledge. Some of the sources we find most informative are:
With the increasing emphasis on scientifically validated methods of instruction as part of the move to a "Response to Intervention" model of instruction in schools, having access to information about what works in classrooms and how students learn is crucial for teachers and parents. These resources can help.

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Mapping the Brain

    Scientists at Harvard and other research universities have received a $40 million dollar grant to map brain connections -- a field that neuroscientists are calling 'connectomics.' As discussed in an article in the New York Times Science Times, the hope is to eventually reveal the connections in the complex wiring of the human brain. At this point, efforts are concentrated on mapping a mouse brain, which has only a small fraction of the neurons present in the human brain. Any work on human brains is a long time off.

    The process of mapping involves using newly created machines which slice sections of the mouse brain less than 30 nanometers thin (a nanometer is 1 one-billionth of a meter) and scan them for study under an electron microscope.

    What impact might this literally 'cutting edge' science have on regular folks in the future? Nothing in the short term, since even the mouse studies are proving challenging and human studies are not on the immediate horizon. But in the long term, scientists hope to enable surgeons to operate more precisely on individuals with brain disorders like epilepsy, and to begin to understand the organic basis for certain mental illnesses. Just as information from currently available technology, such as functional MRIs, has enabled neuroscientists to better understand certain learning difficulties as dyslexia, and to track the remediation of this reading disorder, there is hope that a detailed understanding of the connections in the brain will lead to better understand of how individuals think, remember, and learn.

    If this all sounds a bit disconcerting, you are not alone in your discomfort. Just as the mapping of the human genome raised a number of ethical and moral questions -- like the desirability of knowing that you are likely to get a particular disease -- there are numerous concerns that could arise from the mapping of the human brain. Can there be one single "map" for all brains? How do we distinguish between the brain connections we are born with and those that are created by our life experiences and what we have been calling neuroplasticity?  As one scientist involved in the mouse studies notes, this "...will either be a great success story or a massive cautionary tale." Still, whether we are ready or not, science is moving ahead and we can expect to hear more about this subject in years to come.