Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Depression in College Students

The National Institute of Mental Health has released a new publication on Depression and College Students. Written largely in a question and answer format and available for download, the booklet is designed for college students themselves and is intended to address the findings of a 2009 study which found that nearly 30% of students at two and four year colleges described themselves as "so depressed that it was difficult to function" some time in the preceding year.

The booklet notes that untreated depression can lead to self-medication with illicit drugs or alcohol, which can lead to secondary consequences such as engaging in unsafe sex. Of even greater concern, students with depression are more likely to consider suicide, which studies have shown is seriously considered by 6% of all college students and attempted by 1%. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds.

What we like about this publication is that it focuses on ways to recognize depression and on how to get help for yourself and for a friend or classmate, as well as an explanation of various treatment options.

Two helpful resources that are not mentioned in the booklet are the organizations NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which offers resources and support to individuals of all ages and Active Minds, which has groups on many college campuses. Active Minds describes its role as "to increase students’ awareness of mental health issues, provide information and resources regarding mental health and mental illness, encourage students to seek help as soon as it is needed, and serve as liaison between students and the mental health community."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Foreign Language Waivers

Your blogger spent time this morning with the seniors at The Churchill School in New York City and their parents and counselors. Churchill is a terrific, New York State approved K-12 school on Manhattan's East Side for students with language based learning disabilities. Churchill wanted their seniors to have a chance to hear about the issues discussed in my book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, in time to put the information to use as they prepare their college applications.

One topic which was on the minds of many of the students and parents was how colleges deal with students who do not take a foreign language in high school. Churchill follows the New York State curriculum, but has a blanket waiver for all of its students to receive a "Regents" diploma (now the standard NY diploma) without taking foreign language courses. Since many colleges require their applicants to have taken a foreign language for admission, this raises concerns for these college-bound 12th graders. They also raised questions about what kind of language requirements they might face once they get to college.

There is no single answer to these concerns. Most colleges will accept a student who has been exempted from foreign language courses in high school because of learning or related difficulties, provided they receive an appropriate explanation for such waiver, such as a letter from the guidance counselor. However, these same schools may still require that students take a certain number of credits of a foreign language (or otherwise demonstrate proficiency, such as by taking and passing an advanced placement exam or SAT II exam). While a small number of schools may allow students to take a course in a country's culture or history as a substitute for foreign language, many schools have at least some majors that require students to demonstrate knowledge of a foreign language in order to graduate and some require all their students to demonstrate such knowledge.

Complicating matters is the fact that individual waivers of foreign language requirements at the college level are not determined until the student has accepted admission and paid a deposit, as is the case with all accommodations provided to students with documented disabilities. Students need to ask the college's Office of Disability Services about the general policies on foreign language and whether waivers are generally available. Although a student cannot get a specific answer ahead of time with respect to what he or she will be offered, schools can tell you what their policies have been and what has been offered to students with similar disabilities in the past. As with so many aspects of the college application process, especially for students with learning differences, thinking ahead is an important part of success.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Banned Books Week

No matter how many times we look at lists of books that have been banned, or which have attacked by one group or another, we are always astonished. To Kill a Mockingbird? Of Mice and Men?? Harry Potter??? All of these have been the subject of banishment or attack.

Banned Books Week, which runs this year from September 24 to October 1is a great time to celebrate your intellectual freedom by reading or rereading some of the most classic books in our canon that were once considered too radical to be part of schools and libraries. While it is easy to brush aside book-banning as a thing of the past, the American Library Association reports that libraries in the United States received 4,660 formal challenges in the past ten years!

To see lists of banned and frequently challenged books, and to access ideas about ways to celebrate Banned Books Week, take a look at the ALA's website.

Don’t forget to take advantage of Banned Books Week to motivate reluctant readers. Nothing is more tantalizing than forbidden content. Telling a teenager that some people consider a particular book to be inappropriate reading material is often the only incentive you’ll need to offer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Funding Private Special Education

Children who are receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are entitled by law to receive an appropriate education at public expense. This right is often referred to as "FAPE" -- Free, Appropriate, Public, Education. But what is a parent to do when the public school which their child attends can't or won't provide an appropriate education?

Sometimes, a child has complex learning or other issues which make it difficult for a public school to put together an appropriate program. Some schools claim to be providing an appropriate education but are not doing so, so that the student is failing to make progress in his current setting. There are many excellent public school programs for children with learning or other difficulties, but there are also many programs that don't do a good job serving the children for whom they were designed.

Whatever the reason, parents may seek to remove their child from the public school program and place her in a private school that they believe can provide a better education for their child. Of course, the practicality of this depends on the private options available. In some areas of the country, such as here in New York City, there are numerous private alternatives to the public school system. In other regions, private schools that can work with students with learning differences simply don't exist.

For parents who are seeking to have their child educated in a private school at public expense, there are some basic concepts that need to be understood. The first is that public schools can only place children in schools that have been approved by their state to enroll children with specific categories of "disability." This is one of the ways in which the use of labels to provide services to children comes into play. So, for example, if your child is labeled "other health impaired," a category often used for children with significant attention difficulties, he may not be eligible to attend a private special education school that is only for students with "learning disabilities," even though he also has learning problems. Parents may need to have their child's IEP team consider whether he can be re-classified to make him eligible for a particular school.

Another consideration is whether a school appears on the state "approved" list. Here in New York, as in other states, there are lists of private programs that meet criteria for curriculum, calendar, and other factors. Many excellent private schools choose not to limit themselves to state curriculum or to give state tests, for example, and therefore do not seek to be placed on this "approved" list. Also, schools on the list agree to charge fees set by the state at a rate which is lower than the tuition they would otherwise charge. Parents whose public school district agrees to place their child at an "approved" private school do not pay tuition; the cost of this private education is paid by the public school and the state.

Public schools can recommend a private school for a student who needs one, but only if the school is on the "approved" list. If a school is not on the list, parents will need to bring their case before a State Hearing Officer who will order the school district to reimburse parents for private school tuition only if:
  • The public school failed to provide an appropriate educational program for the student; and
  • The private school is an appropriate setting for this student; and
  • The parents cooperated with the public school in looking at alternatives and generally exercised good faith during the process
Since private special education schools can be very expensive, it can be a real burden on parents to have to front the tuition costs and wait for reimbursement a year or more later. Because the rules for bringing a case to a hearing are complicated we generally suggest that parents work with an attorney with experience in handling these kinds of cases.

In very rare instances, some private schools will accept a student without payment up front and await payment from the public school district. This kind of arrangement is called "Connors funding" after a federal court case in New York that noted, "...when a parent does not have the financial means to front the cost of a non-approved private school...without external support, the child would have no chance at what has already been determined to be his or her opportunity to receive an appropriate education..."

Whatever parents decide to do, they need to be armed with information and to consider their options.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Phonological Processing: How to Use Sorting to Improve Phonemic Awareness

Phonological processing, the ability to distinguish speech sounds, is essential for reading. Except in the rare instance of a phonological processing disorder, all children are born with the ability to distinguish between speech sounds, although they may require some practice. A great way to sharpen a child’s phonological awareness is to present him or her with a sorting activity.

How to Use Sorting to Improve Phonemic Awareness

1) To set up a sorting activity, an adult finds and cuts out pictures of words from two different sound categories. (The use of pictures instead of cards with words written on them will encourage the child to attend to what he hears instead of what he sees. Try doing an image search of “long a words” or some other category to easily locate pictures.) Students should be comparing two different sounds each time. The possibilities for combinations are almost endless, but some great categories to juxtapose are words that start with b versus words that start with d; simple words with long a versus simple words with short a; or words that begin with s versus words that begin with sh. Note: If the goal is for the child to distinguish between vowel sounds, be sure you select one-syllable words; “sidewalk” would be a poor addition to a long i category because it has two vowel sounds and may cause confusion.)

2) Once the pictures have been obtained, the adult mixes up the pictures and presents them to the child, who should say their names. The first time the child does a sort, she may need guidance in the form of key words and modeling. For example, the adult could choose one picture from each category and pull them to the side, then select a third picture, saying, “Ok, this is a picture of a cAt. Here I have a picture of a fAn and a picture of a clOck. Hmmm, cAt, clOck; cAt, fAn. Which does cAt go with, fAn, or clOck? I’ll put it with fAn because I can hear the same /ă/ sound in both words. Now you choose a picture.” As the child becomes accustomed to sorts, the adult can simply present the pictures without providing any clues and ask the child how she should categorize them.

3) Once the child has separated the pictures into two groups, the adult should ask him to slowly say the names of the pictures in each group to check for mistakes. If he skips over an error, the adult should repeat the erroneous word and another correct word several times, drawing emphasis on the sound that does not match, (“Are you sure? Listen: lĕg, slĒĒp; lĕg, slĒĒp,”) and encourage him to move the card to the correct place. If he seems to catch on quickly, he can think of another word that would fit into each category.

Optional Step for More Proficient Students

Once the pictures have been categorized, students who are a little older will benefit from matching written words to their corresponding pictures. The adult can ask the child what she notices about all of the words in one column, drawing the child’s attention to the fact that they all end with t or they all have more than one vowel. Then the child can copy a few or all of the words into columns in a word study notebook for future reference. Children who enjoy drawing can create a picture at the top of each column to remind them of the sound represented there, such as a bug above the short u column.

Picture sorts are enormously effective for several reasons. First, the child must rely on the sounds in the word, rather than the letters he sees. This will serve him well as he begins to sound out words when reading or spelling them. It can also help older children who omit letters when reading or spelling to attend to all of the sounds in a word. Also, categorizing information develops higher order critical thinking skills that children will need throughout and beyond school. Finally, picture sorts are fun! Children enjoy looking at the images and creating order.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fall Events for New York Parents

Autumn begins next week and here in New York that means that fall programming is beginning at the city's cultural, educational, and other institutions. We want to let you know about some of the programs we think can be helpful for parents and students.

A new program for parents begins tomorrow evening at The American Museum of Natural History in New York. The Wired Child: How 21st Century Technology Affects the Brain will look at how the technology which our children and teens are using impacts their brains and development. The program is in four parts, each on a Thursday evening, and features presentations by such speakers as Dr. Pamela Rutledge of The Media Psychology Research Center, Dr. Douglas Gentile, Director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, and Dr. Kirk Erickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. The fee for the four sessions is $240 and registration is available online.

The JCC in Manhattan is beginning its fall season with programs for parents, children, and teens dealing with learning and related issues. Among their offerings are separate programs for teens (Transitions) and for young adults (Adaptations) with learning and social difficulties, groups for which services are often limited. There are fees for all JCC programs.

Everyone Reading (formerly the New York Branch of the International Dyslexia Association) has several upcoming workshops for parents and teachers scheduled for this fall. These workshops cover topics from an overview of dyslexia, to spelling, to teaching social studies. There is a full list of workshops, all of which charge a fee, on their website.

Another New York City group gearing up for its fall programs is Resources for Children with Special Needs, whose free programs take place in locations throughout all areas of New York City's boroughs. The topics range from "Understanding Your Child's IEP", to "Special Education Made Simple," to "Getting Ready for High School." The programs are geared for parents and groups. Schools and organizations can request specific topics or arrange for presentations in Spanish.

Last, but not least, our own Susan Yellin, Esq. will be speaking at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York on Getting Ready for College: A Guide for Students with Learning Differences and Their Families on Thursday, October 13th from 6:30pm – 7:30pm. There is no fee for this program but pre-registration is required. Contact jane@plattjohnson.com to register. Mrs. Yellin is the co-author of the award winning book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Experiments from Scientific American

At The Yellin Center, we often encourage students who are having difficulty understanding or recalling complicated processes to experience them in a variety of different ways. Instead of just reading about a concept, students can visualize it, write about it, represent it on a graphic organizer, or employ one of a myriad other methods to internalize and remember it.

One of the best ways to learn science, for example, is to pair reading or hearing about concepts with hands-on experiences. For parents interested in helping their kids interact with scientific principles, Scientific American provides a great resource. Their Bring Science Home page contains a series of experiments that are simple and fun, yet also highly instructive. Each is introduced with a "key concept" section which provides important background information on the phenomenon the student will observe during the experiment. The student who is less than captivated by learning about pressure in physics should gain much more enjoyment, and understanding, from the balloon rocket activity!

Science experiments not only make scientific concepts both visual and tactile for kids, they can also be tremendously motivating. Visit the Education page at Scientific American's site for great experiment ideas and other educational resources.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Making our Children Feel Safe

How can we make our children feel safe in our complex world?

It has been a summer of natural disasters -- from wildfires in Texas to huge areas of floods here in the Northeast that began with Tropical Storm/Hurricane Irene and continued into this week, with unrelenting rain that overflowed already swollen rivers and streams. This weekend is the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks  and the morning headlines are filled with news of new threats to New York and elsewhere. When we adults are unsettled, how can we help our children feel safe?

There are no easy answers, but the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has some helpful suggestions. They have created a series of Facts for Families with guidelines for parents to use when talking to their children. One set of guidelines is designed for conversations about war and terrorism and another set is for parents who are helping their children deal with natural disasters. We hope these help  you talk to your children about these difficult subjects. And we wish you a safe and peaceful weekend.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Advocates for Children of New York

We are extremely pleased about our recent partnership with Advocates for Children of New York. AFC's mission is to promote access to the best education New York can provide for all students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. We are working with AFC to help deliver our innovative educational assessment program to a small group of young people in need of educational support, and hope to expand our collaboration with this important and inspiring group in the future.

AFC, "fighting for the rights of students since 1971," provides free or low cost individual legal advocacy assistance for families and children who are having difficulty obtaining appropriate educational services -- including special ed, disciplinary, and other types of issues. They also work to ensure that children in the foster care system or whose families are homeless do not lose out on their education because they are moving from place to place.

Advocates for Children produces informative guides for parents on issues such as grade holdovers, the educational rights of immigrant families, and children with behavioral issues. Information is available in multiple languages. The organization has served as the lead counsel on a number of groundbreaking lawsuits that have helped to secure the rights of New York City children, and conducts over 40 different training workshops on education law and child welfare issues.

Advocates for Children of  New York provides a free education helpline, Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 4 pm at 1-866-427-6033. Parents can call and speak directly with an attorney or advocate at no charge.

Read about some of their success stories here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fall Newsletter is Out Today

The Back-to-School edition of our e-newsletter is out today. This time around, we have helpful articles about building phonemic awareness in young readers; alternative college programs; and psychoeducational assessment.

If you're not yet on our mailing list, be sure to sign up here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Highlighting Tips

As the new school year begins, parents may be wondering which of the myriad products on the shelves goes beyond bells and whistles and will actually assist students in staying organized. We have found some products that can be very useful for helping kids make sense of reading assignments.

Highlighting Tape

Students who are issued school copies of textbooks can’t write in them, making active learning strategies like highlighting and underlining a challenge. Luckily, a product called highlighting tape allows students to temporarily mark important information. The tape is fluorescent and transparent, and a removable adhesive sticks it to the page until it’s time to return the book. Downsides to this product are that, at ½” wide, it is too thick to highlight single lines of text, and it comes somewhat inconveniently packaged in a standard tape dispenser, making it a bit unwieldy. Criticism aside, it can be a fantastic tool for students who would benefit from being able to mark in their textbooks to help them focus on important information and review for tests. It is available in a variety of colors from Amazon. And don’t forget to pick up a pack of small Post-Its for making margin notes!

Erasable Highlighters 
For students working from their own books or photocopies, erasable highlighters can be a great tool. The process of highlighting may be intimidating, in part because it is so permanent; students are reluctant to “mess up” their texts. Erasable highlighters can eliminate a student’s fears of highlighting the wrong part, however. Each marker has a colored tip on one end and a tip that dispenses liquid to earse the highlighting on the other. For kids just learning active reading strategies, these can be a great tool. Dri-Mark, Pilot, Office Max, and Crayola all manufacture erasable highlighters in a variety of colors.