Wednesday, November 30, 2011

KidRex Lets Kids Roam The Internet Safely

KidRex is a useful search tool for parents and teachers worried about letting children run loose online.

Users can type any search criteria into the field on the appealing homepage, and the resulting pages will each be screened by Google SafeSearch for adult content before they are displayed. Sites geared towards children are emphasized in searches; for example, a search for “Africa” turned up several pages by PBS Kids first before listing denser results like Wikipedia farther down.

Set KidRex as your kids’ homepage to allow children to explore their online world in safety.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Brain Structure and Function in ADHD

Recent findings presented at a November meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and reported in the Wall Street Journal revealed that children with diagnosed attention difficulties showed functional differences in a key part of the brain associated with important aspects of mental controls. The study looked at 19 children with attention difficulties, and a control group of 23, and conducted functional MRI scans to look at how their brains functioned when engaged in a memory task.

The fMRI scans revealed that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that coordinates mental activity, functioned differently in children with attention difficulties.

Another recent study, from researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center (associated with the NYU School of Medicine, where Dr. Yellin is on the faculty of the Department of Pediatrics), indicated that adults who were diagnosed with attention problems during their childhood have physically different brain structures, including decreased cortical thickness and gray matter volumes.

When considered together along with other studies indicating structural differences in areas such as the caudate nucleus (which plays an important role in memory and learning), a body of knowledge about differences in brain structures and functions in individuals who struggle with attention is beginning to emerge.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gratitude and Kindness

This week's New York Times Science section surveys research on how expressing gratitude -- by doing such things as keeping a journal of things you have appreciated, or by doing something nice for someone else -- can have a beneficial impact on how people view themselves and others.

It reminds us of an ad we have seen on TV recently in which someone observes a stranger doing a good deed -- from opening a door for someone to helping a neighbor rake leaves. In each instance, the observer goes on to do his or her own good deed, which is observed by someone else, who is then moved to do a kindness, and so on. It's corny, but now we know that this kind of "paying it forward" is actually supported by research.

Christine Carter, Ph.D a sociologist, and director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Parents program (part of the Greater Good Science Center which "studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society") notes that fostering gratitude in teens is particularly difficult, because this age group is moving to separate from their parents, a process that doesn't translate into appreciating their parents -- or anyone else. She suggests that for teens, parents focus on fostering kindness rather than specifically urging gratitude. She also urges parents to allow for sarcasm and humor when teens express themselves, since the concept of gratitude still gets through.

So, as we sit down to celebrate with family and friends tomorrow, we will try to honor the spirit of Thanksgiving and hope that you and your family have a happy and thankful day!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Children's Book Recommendations

On our list of things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving are some terrific children’s books. They’ll be sure to set the mood for your celebrations this year, as you and your family take time to reflect on all the reasons you have to be grateful.

Yellin Center Recommended Thanksgiving Books

Fancy Nancy: Our Thanksgiving Banquet by Jane O’Connor
(ages 4 and up, and older kids can read this on their own)
Fancy Nancy helps her family prepare for a fantastic Thanksgiving meal, with all her usual flair. Comes with stickers!

Turkey Trouble by Wendi Silvano
(preschool - 3rd grade)
A terrified turkey attempts to disguise himself to avoid becoming Thanksgiving dinner in this silly story, complete with a happy ending.

The Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving by Ann McGovern
(ages 4 and up)
This classic chronicles the struggles of the pilgrims during their first year at Plymouth Colony, their friendship with Native Americans like Squanto, and the first, three-day long Thanksgiving celebration.

'Twas the Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey
(ages 4 and up)
 In this zany rewritten version of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, children on a school field trip to a farm are troubled to learn about the impending fate of the turkeys they meet there. This funny story, full of Pilkey’s trademark humor, is sure to please both kids and parents.

Thanksgiving on Thursday (Magic Tree House #27) by Mary Pope Osborne
(ages 6 and up to read on their own)
Jack and Annie travel back to the first Thanskgiving Day in 1621, where they learn about life in Plymouth.

Little Critter: Just So Thankful by Mercer Mayer
(ages 3 and up)
Although Little Critter is initially jealous of the kid down the street who seems to have everything, he learns that there is much to be thankful for in this charming book

Sarah Morton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, and Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy In Pilgrim Timesby Kate Waters
(ages 4 and up; students in grades 4 and up can read it on their own)  
Through a series of photographs taken in a recreated colony, Waters teaches about the lives of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.

The Yellin family's Thanksgiving tradition includes an early start to the day, enjoying breakfast with family overlooking the route of the famed Macy's parade in Manhattan. This year, the younger children in the clan will be able to read a new book by Melissa SweetBalloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade, which tells the story of the parade and the man who began the tradition in the 1920s (ages 4 and up).

Friday, November 18, 2011

Study: Fast-Paced Cartoons May Slow Children’s Executive Functioning

Few parents would argue that watching television is a beneficial activity for their kids, but many assume it is a harmless way to keep children engaged for relatively brief periods of time.

A recent study led by Professor Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson of the University of Virginia, and reported in the journal Pediatrics, found that certain kinds of television viewing by young children may not be so benign and may, in fact, have a significant negative impact on children.

The study examined 60 four year olds, mostly white and middle or upper-middle class in background, and found that their executive functioning – their ability to maintain attention, control behavior, and solve problems – was severely compromised after just nine minutes of watching a fast-paced cartoon (in this case, the popular Sponge-Bob Squarepants). Other groups of children spent nine minutes watching Caillou, a realistic cartoon that moves at a slower pace, or drawing without watching television at all.

Psychologists administered assessments immediately after the nine-minute interval, testing to see how well the children solved problems, followed rules, remembered what they had been told, and were able to delay gratification. The drawing and Caillou groups performed similarly, while the Sponge-Bob group lagged far behind.

The authors note that their study raises important implications about the learning and behavior of young children. They caution parents that what children watch may affect their life-long executive functioning. However, it should be noted that the study investigated only the immediate effects of fast-paced television shows and did not probe long-term results, although the authors did reference the findings of earlier studies which indicate that the impact of television watching may have some longer-term impact.

Professor Lillard has created a Q & A site that offers guidance for parents based upon the findings of her study.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Phil Campbell

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Look at SAT and ACT Issues

We've been getting a new wave of questions about the relative merits of the SAT versus ACT exams and about what to do when a student has difficulties with both of these tests. A quick review of our blog history (which can be accessed on the right side of this page) reveals that we haven't written in depth about these subjects for over two years. So, at the risk of repeating ourselves, we want to summarize the key issues that students and their families need to know.

First, there are differences between these two standardized college admissions tests. As we have noted, each was designed to measure somewhat different kinds of college readiness. The SAT exam was designed to measure "aptitude," that elusive, inherent quality that was once -- but no longer -- thought to correlate with college performance. The ACT is more focused on the body of knowledge that a student would generally need to have accumulated during high school to be successful in college. We have looked at these differences in more depth before and still stick by our recommendation that for students who are undecided about which test to take, trying a few practice exams from both testing companies may be the best way to decide.

Second, we want to remind students and parents that testing accommodations -- extended time, use of a computer for essays, and other accommodations that are designed to mirror the kinds of support that students with learning or attention issues may have been receiving in high school and which are necessary for such students to properly demonstrate their abilities -- require lots of time to arrange. The testing organizations need documentation, sometimes more than one round of documents, to make their determinations, and families want to leave time to appeal from a denial of accommodations. Students who need accommodations for these tests should apply at least several months in advance to allow time for this process to work.

We always urge students to check out the sections of the websites for the SAT and ACT that outline the procedures and generally available accommodations for students with learning and other challenges for the most up to date information, but to make sure that they allow plenty of time to complete the accommodations application. Students planning to take the PSAT or PLAN, the early versions of the two tests, should keep in mind that taking such pre-tests without accommodations may have a negative impact on the decision of the testing organizations to provide accommodations. Once you have shown that you can take the tests without accommodations, even if you could do much better when using the accommodations you are used to getting in high school, you have weakened your argument that such accommodations are truly necessary.

Finally, students who decide that neither of these tests will work for them, or who have taken one or both of these tests and have done poorly, need not lose heart. As we have recommended in the past, the nonprofit organization FairTest lists numerous colleges, many of them nationally recognized, that do not require standardized tests for admission.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I Love to Write Day

November 15th is the tenth annual I Love to Write Day!  Founder John Riddle, author and founder of the event, urges everyone to take time to write, be it a letter, a poem, or a story.  “Just write something that’s meaningful to you,” he urges.

Many literary centers hold competitions, host workshops, or invite authors to speak.  Contact your child’s school or library to ask about special events.   For additional information and ideas, visit the project website at

Write on!

Photo used under Creative Commons by Erin Kohlenberg

Friday, November 11, 2011

How Disabilities Impact Military Enlistment

Today is Veterans Day, when we stop for a moment and give thanks to those who have served -- and who continue to serve  -- our country.

We thought it would also be a good time to look at how the armed forces deal with students with learning and related challenges. We've written before about efforts to address the special education needs of children whose parents are in the military, but not about how the military deals with learning or attention difficulties in individuals who seek to enlist.

The key to understanding this subject is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not apply to the military services; they are not required to accept any applicant who does not meet their standards or to offer any accommodations to individuals. Although each branch of the military sets its own standards, all of the standards for enlistment have their foundation in the same provision of the Selective Service Act that permits each arm of the military to declare someone unacceptable for service. This exemption from the ADA does not apply to civilian employees of the military and the various branches have actively sought to include individuals with specific disabilities in their civilian workforce.

Individuals who have a physical condition that limits mobility or stamina or who have a history of behavior disorders will automatically be disqualified from all branches of the service. The unifying principle behind the list of disqualifying disorders is that they may interfere with an individual's ability to function as part of a group, to operate anywhere in the world, to deal with stress, and to make effective decisions under pressure.

So, individuals with learning challenges may be able to enlist if they can pass a battery of cognitive and functional tests. Young people with a history of attention difficulties who have not required medication for that condition for three or more years will generally be granted a medical waiver and be permitted to serve in at least some branches of the service. Students who want to enroll in their campus ROTC programs will find that these programs will not admit individuals who would not meet the requirements of the branch of the military with which they are affiliated. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Study Shows No Link Between ADHD Medications and Cardiac Problems

A report in the November 1 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine included the results of a large study designed to clarify whether ADHD medications are associated with an increased risk of serious cardiac problems (the study was not designed to monitor minor side effects -- only significant heart complications). The authors sought to quantify the risks which these medications may pose for the 2.7 million children for whom they are prescribed each year. In particular, they wanted to determine if previous anecdotal reports of negative cardiac events were supported by a review of the data from a large number of patients.

The study did not find any association between ADHD medications and serious cardiac problems.

The researchers reviewed data compiled over the course of at least three years from four geographically diverse health plans (Tennessee Medicaid, Washington State Medicaid, Kaiser Permanente California, and OptumInsight Epidemiology) with more than 1.2 million members between 2 and 24 years of age.

While this is only one study, it is reassuring and is consistent with other studies and clinical experience indicating that these medications are safe and effective when clinically indicated, provided in appropriate dosages, and monitored for possible side effects. It is also important to bear in mind that medication decisions need to be individualized, must involve ongoing communication between parent, patient, and physician, and are only one part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Estimation Skills and Dyscalculia

Just about everyone is familiar with dyslexia, a learning disability that can make reading a difficult process because of an inherent difficulty in connecting sounds to symbols like letters. Fewer people, however, have heard of dyscalculia, a learning disability specific to mathematics. Like dyslexia, true dyscalculia affects only a small portion of the population (estimates range from 5-8%), yet it poses a tremendous difficulty to those affected by it.

Studies indicate that children who demonstrate difficulty differentiating between different sounds during their early years of life are at risk for dyslexia. Similarly, preschool-aged children who demonstrate difficulty with estimation tasks may be showing early signs of dyscalculia. Several recent studies have found that young children’s innate estimation capabilities are predictive of their later performance in math. Kennedy Krieger Institute research scientist Michele Mazzocco, Ph.D. says that children with dyscalculia lack “number sense,” an instinct for quantity that cannot be simply memorized.

Emerging research in this field was considered as we redesigned some of the assessment tools we use at The Yellin Center to evaluate children’s math capabilities. For students who demonstrate difficulty in math, we now administer a brief, proprietary dot estimation task in which children are given brief exposures to cards with varying numbers of dots, then directed to complete different estimation tasks. The results are often illuminating, and we appreciate the increased insight we can gain by better assessing our young students' estimation skills.

Image used under Creative Commons by Shawn Campbell

Friday, November 4, 2011

Study: Intensive Training Trumps Traditional Instruction

A recent study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that intensive, daily instruction offered for a short time was more effective in helping struggling readers than the remedial reading programs typically offered by Swedish schools. 

Over the course of three years, the Reading and Fluency Training Based on Phonemic Awareness (RAFT) study worked with a group of 100 nine-year-olds. Half of the children were given 40 minutes of daily, intensive reading instruction for a 12-week period. Instruction included structured exercises in linking letters to sounds, phonetic awareness, and fluency. The control group was given their school’s traditional reading remediation offering, such as tutoring or a special reading class.

The results of the study showed that the children in the experimental group made significantly more gains in all areas tested – word decoding, spelling, reading speed, and reading comprehension – than the children who received standard school services.

Read Science Daily’s coverage of the study here.  

-Beth Guadagni, M.A.

Image used under Creative Commons by Elizabeth Albert

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Visuwords: Word Webs to Help Build Vocabulary

Word webs can be a great way to teach students new vocabulary. Rather than simply examining the definition of a word, students have to arrange many words according to their meanings and thus consider finer points of their definitions as they determine how best to connect them. Visuwords, an innovative “online graphical dictionary” takes the idea of word webs to a completely different level.

With Visuwords (recommended for students in grade 5 and above), students can type just about any word (“rhythm” or “Jefferson”) or combination of words in common expressions (“blow up”) into the field at the top of the page, and moments later a word web will appear below. Using the key along the left edge of the screen, students can interpret the different colors and styles of connective lines to determine how the linked words are related to each other; options include “opposes” (e.g. “blow up” opposes “scale down”), “derivation" (e.g. “communicate” is a derivation of “communication”), “is a part of” (e.g. “photosynthesis” is a part of “light reaction”) and many, many more. The colored dot behind each word on the web indicates its part of speech. Best of all, a student can view definitions for any of the terms on the web by moving the mouse over a word, an ingenious way to provide lots of information without making the web too cluttered. Students can drag words around to make the web easier to view, or group similar concepts for deeper processing.

Visuwords can be a fantastic way to learn the shades of meaning inherent in complex words, and it can function as a thesaurus as well.