Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays from The Yellin Center

It’s the day before Christmas
And each year at this time
We have a tradition
Of blogging in rhyme

It’s also the last blog
We’re writing this year
As we take some time off
For holiday cheer

But before we adjourn
Until January 2
We want to say “thank you”
To each one of you

To our loyal blog audience
That seeks news and ideas
We’re grateful you followed us
All through the year

A thank you to teachers
Who have worked with our team
Supporting their students
Helping them reach their dream

We also appreciate
The dozens of schools
Who sought out The Yellin Center
For training and tools

To the families who see us
For evaluation and support
We’re thankful you let us
Assess and report

We promise to continue
To be there for you
With strategies, guidance, and
Advocacy too

So thanks to you all
For a wonderful year
And we wish you a holiday
Full of good cheer!

Photo: CC by Bob Jagendorf

Friday, December 21, 2012

500 Posts and Still Going Strong!

Today marks our 500th Yellin Center blog post and we thought you might like to know something about the folks who write our blogs and who have helped us to reach out to you with news, information, and the latest research findings and educational tools since we first began blogging in August 2009.

Most of our posts in the past year or two about reading, books, and teaching strategies have been the work of Beth Guadagni, a Yellin Center Learning Specialist. Beth earned her bachelor's degree at Vanderbilt University, double majoring in English and secondary education, and her master’s degree in literacy from Columbia University's Teachers College.She is a New York State certified reading specialist who taught English at both the high school and middle school levels before joining the Yellin Center staff.

Our blogs about special education laws, schools, and the latest research findings have generally been the work of Susan Yellin, Esq., our Director of Advocacy and Transition Services. Susan has been an attorney for over 25 years and brings to the blog the perspective of a parent of three sons, one of whom has learning difficulties. She is also the author of an award winning book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010). Here at The Yellin Center she works with families seeking help to  understand the world of special education and to guide them as they make school decisions. She also works with college bound students with learning and attention difficulties as they move on from high school to post-secondary education.

Jeremy Koren, the Director of Communications at the Yellin Center gives our blog its "bells and whistles" and every so often will write a post on technology. Jeremy has been with the Yellin Center since its inception and, in addition to handling all of the technological aspects of our blog, especially the illustrations and video, is also the Yellin Center webmaster, responsible for our newly revamped website, our newsletter, and our Twitter feed. In addition to his many roles here at the Yellin Center, Jeremy will be adding a new one some time in the next few weeks as he and his wife Meghan, a former Yellin Center Learning Specialist, become parents for the first time.

Last, but certainly not least, is Dr. Paul Yellin, who contributes blogs on conferences and meetings he has attended, research that he has read, and issues of medical importance whenever his hectic schedule permits. 

We welcome guest bloggers and comments on our blog posts, and encourage you to sign up for our Twitter or RSS feeds to stay up to date. When you visit our offices, take a look at the bound volumes of past years' blogs in our reception area. It has been a privilege writing for you and we look forward to keeping at it for many years to come.

Photo: CC by minivan1411

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Musical Math

Flashcards and drills don’t feel like much fun to kids who are struggling to grasp academic facts. Tim Bedley, a veteran elementary school teacher, sought to combat this problem when he came up with the idea for his band Rockin’ the Standards, a talented trio who somehow manage to walk the line between being instructive and entertaining. Their surprisingly appealing math album contains tracks like “Parallel or Perpendicular?,“The Place Value Rap,” and “The 6’s Song,” tunes designed to help students remember basic mathematical principles and skip counting (enormously helpful for multiplication) in a way that sticks. Both the song lyrics and album are available for download. In addition, Tim's own website contains helpful resources for teachers, including videos on teaching techniques for a variety of subjects.

The band has also released a language arts CD, featuring songs like “Plural Y and F,” and “Parts of Speech.” Trust us, it sounds dorky, but parents and teachers should not be surprised to find themselves singing snatches of Rockin’ the Standards’ songs even when there are no kids in sight.

Watch a video of Rockin' The Standards below:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Opportunities for Young Authors with Scribble Press

Kids love to make up stories. Not only is helping them stretch their imaginations a lot of fun, it also builds important cognitive skills. One way to do this is to help them write their own books, and for families in New York City, this can be accomplished through a visit to Scribble Press. Children can visit the company’s  studio to make a book, experiment with a variety of art supplies, take a class, or arrange/attend a party. In the studio, kids write and illustrate their stories and then hand their pages over for binding. The professional-looking final product is available to take home the same day. Kids can also design their own puzzle, greeting cards, clipboard, lunch box, and more.

For families located outside the New York City area, or whose kids are too full of ideas to wait for a trip to the studio, Scribble Press offers an iPad app for designing books. Scribble Press for iPad  is a low cost app that allows kids to either pick and write from a template or design their own eBooks from scratch. They can actually “color” directly on the screen, making drawing easier than it is with one of the many web-based book creation sites which use a computer and a mouse. Best of all, kids can submit their books for publishing, and Scribble Press will print, bind, and ship their book to them.  An especially interesting feature is Scribble Press’s public ebook library, which allows other users to view books. This makes sharing with friends and family easy, and is a great source of ideas for children who aren't sure where to start. Some online products are free, but there are fees for most services, including printed books and all classes.

Whether you visit a studio or investigate the app, Scribble Press offers great options for budding authors to express themselves!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Rewards for Reading: Does It Work?

An article in Reading Today*, a publication of the International Reading Association, cautions against rewarding students for reading. The authors, Katherin Hilden and Jennifer Jones, of Radford University in Virginia, warn parents and educators that research has not found rewards to be particularly effective, and that if rewards are given, they should be the right kind.

Hilden and Jones discuss the two different kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within a person. For example, a child may spend hours drawing or playing video games because s/he finds the experience rewarding. A common phenomenon in people who are intrinsically motivated is the sense of “losing track of time” as they pursue the chosen activity. When a person is extrinsically motivated, however, they behave according to external factors; extrinsic rewards can be tangible (a prize) or intangible (praise), and extrinsic motivation may even result from desire to avoid punishment or a poor grade.

Hilden and Jones cite studies which have observed students working for extrinsic rewards, then ceasing the desired behavior as soon as the reward is earned. This is hardly a trend that teachers attempting to instill a love of learning in students should be perpetuating. For example, one study found that students who were given either a book reward or even no reward at all for reading were more likely to continue to read on their own than students given points, trinkets, etc. as a reward for books read.

The authors make several recommendations about rewards, for example, offering rewards that are linked to the desired behavior, like giving kids books, bookmarks, or journals as rewards for reading. Another suggestion is to make the reward social, like allowing students to eat lunch in the teacher’s classroom at special readers’ lunches or to allow them time to share their reading with others. Hilden and Jones note that social collaboration has been shown to predict reading motivation among students in first grade. Finally, students can be motivated to read if they have choices. The authors recommend that a variety of reading materials, including non-fiction selections and magazines, be available to students. Children should also be allowed to use e-readers if they prefer them.

While handing out goodies is an easy way to recognize a job well done, parents and educators should think carefully about ways to teach students that reading is its own reward.

*Hilden, K. & Jones, J. (2011). “Rewards for Student Reading: A Good Idea or Not?” Reading Today, 29(2), 6-7.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

News: Noteworthy Special Ed Programs, Museum of Mathematics, RCSN Camp Fair, NYC Holiday Tips

The excellent website Inside Schools has identified noteworthy special education programs  in New York City Public Schools. Some of these offer preferential enrollment to students in a particular zone and others are open to all students in a district or an entire borough on a first come, first served basis. We've blogged before about Inside Schools and other resources for finding schools, and you may find that article useful as well.

A new Museum of Mathematics opens in Manhattan this Saturday, December 15th, right in our neighborhood, at 11 East 26th Street (between Fifth and Madison Avenues). And if that isn't a convenient location for you, the Math Midway program of the Museum offers traveling exhibitions in locations including Florida, California, the Pacific Northwest, and Upstate New York. The Museum is targeted towards fourth through eighth graders, but promises to have information that will also appeal to older visitors. 

Resources for Children with Special Needs, a New York City nonprofit is once again sponsoring a Camp Fair in January. This year’s event is set for Saturday, January 26, 2013. The fair features camps for children with learning, attention, and behavioral issues as well as camps for children with medical disabilities.
We know lots of families visit New York City during the holidays and we have found a list of family friendly activities in one of the iconic areas of the city -- Rockefeller Center, home to the famous Christmas tree. Besides the tree, you can take an NBC studio tour and visit the Lego store. Don't forget to dress for ice skating!
Photo: CC by SimonPix

Monday, December 10, 2012

Math Gender Stereotypes Start Early

recent study by researchers at the University of Washington looked at how boys and girls associated gender with math, and examined how these associations correlated with strength of gender identity. The study included 126 girls and 121 boys between the ages of 6 and 10 years. Using Implicit Association Tests (computerized tasks that measure strengths of association among concepts) and measures of self-report, they found that boys and girls both associated math more strongly with boys than with girls. Furthermore, boys associated "me" with "math" more strongly than did girls, and their association of "me" with "male" was stronger than was the girls' "me" with "female".

Two new findings emerged from this study. First, math-gender stereotypes which prior researchers had found widespread in adults were present even in these young children. In addition, elementary school girls showed a weaker identification with math than did boys on both kind of measures used in the study, and this gender difference was seen before the ages when differences in math achievement begin to emerge (generally middle to late elementary school).

So, what are the implications for these findings? The study authors note that because the gender differences in their study came before actual differences in math achievement, they may play a part in shaping achievement, since girls might conclude that they "don't belong" in mathematics, since it is a field for boys.

What can parents of girls do to build a sense of "belonging" to the world of math? You might want to take a look at the work of  Danica McKellar, actress and summa cum laude math graduate of UCLA, who has written such tartly titled books as Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape . Her books are designed to make math appealing to middle and high school girls who may need a push to get them interested in the subject.

The Girl Scouts recently published a study on girls and STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, which includes an extensive resource list of organizations providing programs and information to build girls' interest in these fields. These websites and programs can help extinguish the stereotype that the University of Washington researchers found to still be pervasive.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Flocabulary: A Novel Way to Learn New Concepts

Fact: Studying vocabulary flashcards is not as much fun as listening to music.

Why fight it? Trade in your vocabulary drills, math lessons, and science cramming for fun rap videos by Flocabulary. Available at their website or on YouTube, Flocabulary videos are catchy rap tracks that teach a variety of important concepts in a format that is palatable and memorable. For example, here is a sample of some lyrics from “Carlito,” a vocabulary-based track about the importance of standing your ground.  In the song, man named Carlito takes his dog for a walk and encounters “an evil, malevolent old man” who wants to steal the dog:
“The man looked ready to punch, he was truculent,
Pugnacious, ready to fight, belligerent.”

(Don’t worry, the story has a happy, and non-violent, ending.) This is what’s fantastic about Flocabulary – can you think of a catchier, clearer way to teach three SAT words in a single sentence?  Listening to this song a few times will cement forty words likely to be found on the SAT into a student’s mind. As a bonus, students can follow the lyrics as they listen on the Flocabulary website and click on words they may not understand completely to get the definition in a handy pop-up window. 

Flocabulary makes videos for students as young as kindergarten and covers topics found in some of the most advanced high school physics and literature classes. All of the lyrics are free and so are some of the videos, but for access to all of them users must pay a small subscription fee. Visit the Flocabulary website to see how these infectious beats can help your youngster master math facts, geometric formulas, Shakespeare, story elements, civics, globalization, and more!    

Watch a sample video below.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Scholarships for Students with ADHD

We are often asked about college scholarships for students with learning or attention issues, and find it frustrating when we have to answer that such scholarships are rare indeed. So, with the deadline approaching for one such program, and several others coming up, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at this topic.

The Anne Ford Scholarship and Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship both have an application deadline of December 31, 2012. These scholarships were established by Anne Ford, former Chairman of the Board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities and her daughter, Allegra, whose challenges with learning and related issues were chronicled in the book Laughing Allegra. The Anne Ford scholarship is an annual $2,500 award for each of  four years for a student with a documented learning disability who will be pursuing a full-time bachelor's degree. The Allegra Ford Thomas scholarship provides a one-time $2,500 award for a student who will be enrolled in a two-year community college, a vocational or technical training program, or a specialized program for students with learning disabilities.

Shire, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures medications for ADHD, will offer a $2,000 scholarship and a year of coaching to fifty students who will be attending a college, university, technical school, or vocational school. Applications are due by March 27, 2013.

Learning Ally (formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) offers the Marion Huber Learning Through Listening (LTL) awards, which provide six scholarships for students with specific learning disabilities. Applicants must be a member of Learning Ally. The awards for the three top winners are $6,000 each and three special honors winners receive $2,000 each. The deadline for the next awards is March 15, 2013.

A helpful resource for scholarships and other financial aspects of college is available on the website of the College Board. Students and parents should also become familiar with FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Photo: CC by Tax Credits

Friday, November 30, 2012

Online Mapping Tools for Literature and Beyond

ReadWriteThink, an outstanding website published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, is packed with great tools of all kinds. Two of our favorite features, though, are free mapping tools that can help students make sense of a series of events in history or a story, or a process they might encounter in science or civics.


Timeline is a user-friendly tool that allows students to easily create functional, attractive timelines in no time. First, users type in the title and creator of the timeline. The next step is one that makes this a truly versatile tool: users must choose a unit of measure from options like Date, Time, and Event. After that, students simply enter each event by labeling it with a title, a time, and a brief description. The resulting timeline can be edited or printed. Before turning students loose with grade-level material, let them practice using this interface with a fairy tale like The Frog Prince or with short biographies from The Academy of Achievement.

Graphic Map

Graphic Map is a useful tool that allows users to easily create a concept map that charts highs and lows. Students can use it as a planning activity to help them visualize abstract ideas before writing a fictional piece, or as a post-reading tool to chart a character’s mood throughout a story or book. Creative teachers and parents can stretch its many uses beyond language arts by using it to chart spending over a given period of time, numbers of troops after key battles in a war, etc. The mapping tool is simple enough for students in fourth grade and up to use independently after a very brief tutorial.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

RAFT for Writing

Good writers understand that the perspective of the author, the audience to whom s/he is writing, and the form the writing takes are each as critical as the message they’re trying to convey. Adjusting writing in these ways can be a tricky concept for some students to internalize, however, especially if they have little experience beyond the famous five-paragraph essay. This is where RAFT comes in. RAFT is an acronym to help young writers remember these four important considerations when planning and executing a piece of writing:

R – role (who are you as a writer?)

A – audience (to whom are you writing?)

F – format (what’s the most effective format for the message you want to convey?)

T – topic (what information are you conveying in your writing?)

This simple, powerful writing procedure was developed by Dr. Carol Santa and her colleagues Lynn Havens and B.Valdez in 1994 and has since become something of a staple technique in the classrooms of many savvy teachers. Not only does RAFT help students remember the different considerations they should keep in mind when writing, it has huge potential for fun, creative writing assignments, particularly across disciplines. A history teacher could ask students to select the role of a colonist (details about the identity of colonist would be up to the student) and write some sort of communiqué in the format of the students’ choice to King George. A math teacher could ask students to write journal entries from the perspective of an athlete, which include different word problems as the athlete charts his/her nutrition, training, and competitive performance. A science teacher could ask students to take on the role of a negatively charged ion and compose a love letter to a positively charged ion.

The ideas behind RAFT are basic enough that parents or tutors can implement them at home even if a child has not learned the method in the classroom. Simply teach your student the acronym and then have fun planning different pieces of writing together by filling in the four categories. The more guided practice children experience, the more success they will experience using RAFT independently.

Write on!

For more information about RAFT as it was originally proposed, see Santa, C., Havens, L., & Valdes, B. (2004). Project CRISS: Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Photo: Creative Commons by dotmatchbox

Monday, November 26, 2012

New Research About The Neuroscience of Math

Last week, at the Learning and The Brain Conference Educating Diverse Minds:
Using Individual Brain Differences to Teach and Reach All Learners held in Boston, Massachusetts, I was fortunate to hear two fascinating talks by Dr. Daniel Ansari about the neuroscience of math. Dr. Ansari shared his groundbreaking research including the functional brain imaging that he used to discover the specific brain networks involved in basic numerical and mathematical tasks.

He has also identified atypical patterns of brain activation in children experiencing significant difficulty learning math. By correlating these imaging patterns with other measures of academic performance, Dr. Ansari’s work is already providing important insights into the diagnosis and treatment of math difficulties.

I look forward to sharing some of these exciting and important developments when I speak at The West End Day School this coming Wednesday, November 28 at 6:30 PM on "Why is Math So Hard?"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Meaningful Thanksgiving

Whether your ideal Thanksgiving is a hearty home-cooked meal around a table filled with family and friends, or a dinner out at a favorite restaurant, or serving food to others at a shelter, Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, transcending culture, region, and religion.

It has also become a day to shop, with many stores open on Thanksgiving itself, and others open in the very early morning hours of the following day.

Whatever your plan for this year, we hope you will take some time to remember what this holiday is all about. Parents and teachers can use video links from publisher Scholastic's website to access stories about the trip on the Mayflower, the life of the Pilgrims, and the first Thanksgiving feast. Last year at this time, our blog featured a number of Thanksgiving book recommendations, and you might want to take another look at the list. If you want to help others this Thanksgiving and beyond, you can check out the websites of New York Cares or look through the list of organizations involved in Hurricane Sandy relief.

The Yellin Center will be closed on Thursday and Friday of this week, as our team celebrates the holiday with their families.

We wish all of our patients and readers a Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo CC by Lizard10970

Monday, November 19, 2012

Motion Math Offers Innovative, Instructive Math Games

We’re back with yet another math app recommendation, but this one is special for several reasons. One is that Motion Math aligns nicely with some recent, exciting research* we've been reading about the cognitive processes that lead to math understanding. Another is that Motion Math offers games for kids across developmental levels, and while math apps for older learners abound, there aren't many good ones for children as young as age three. Here are summaries of Motion Math’s great offerings:

Hungry Guppy – ages 3-7

In this game, youngsters begin by simply matching the number superimposed on their guppy with a floating bubble containing the same number of dots; the fish can’t eat the bubble unless the numbers are the same. Things get more complicated, though, as bubbles containing different numbers of dots begin to appear. Children can use a finger to combine bubbles to obtain the right quantity of dots. For example, to feed a guppy with a 6 on it, they can drag together bubbles containing two dots and four dots, and bubbles containing three and three. Because of its interactive nature, the game does a nice job of helping children pair quantities with numeric symbols.

Hungry Fish and Wings

These games are appropriate for all ages; any child old enough to appreciate the concepts of addition and multiplication can play and benefit from them. In Hungry Fish, players must add the numbers in floating bubbles to attain the number displayed on their fish. (Unlike Hungry Guppy, players see numbers and not dots.) Wings teaches multiplication with an innovative combination of numbers displayed in various formats, including numerals, rows of dots, clusters of dots, and groups of dots so that students can use their visual skills to appreciate how multiplication works.

Motion Math Zoom and Motion Math HD

An understanding of the number line is critical to math. And even students who are comfortable with the number line when it shows whole numbers can have a hard time appreciating amounts when they’re shown as fractions and decimals. Both of these games allow students to practice these important concepts in interesting ways. Motion Math Zoom, best for children in first through fourth grades, asks players to place a number on a number line. Whole numbers are represented by frogs, and decimals are represented by ants to indicate that they are smaller. Ten ants are lined up on the ground next to each frog, and players must zoom in and out as they scroll along the line to place the numbers correctly. Motion Math HD, meant for learners who are ready for instruction in fractions, deals solely in fractions and decimals and requires players to tilt their iDevice back and forth to move the number around the screen. The goal is to get it to bounce down on the right part of a section of number line that goes from 0 to 1. Not only are both games fun, they provide an important bridge between appreciation of quantities and the symbols that represent them.

All of these great iOS games are available through the iTunes store. Prices vary according to whether the game is downloaded onto an iPhone or an iPad, but some are free and all are inexpensive.

*Gabriel, F., et. al. (2012). Developing Children’s Understanding of Fractions: An Intervention Study. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Sasanguie, D., Van den Bussche, E., & Reynvoet, B. (2012) Predictors for Mathematics Achievement? Evidence from a Longitudinal Study. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Vanbinst, K., Ghesquiere, P., & de Smedt, D.(2012). Numerical Magnitude Representation and individual Differences in Children’s Arithmetic Strategy Use. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 6(3); and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Interim Changes to an IEP

Parents of students receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are generally familiar with the annual review process. This is a meeting that takes place each year, usually in the spring, which reviews the student's progress under his or her Individualized Education Program (IEP) and sets forth the plan for the coming school year -- services to be provided, goals to be met, and how and where the student will be educated. Every three years this review becomes a "triennial" and includes a re-evaluation of the student's level of performance and academic functioning.

Parents who have worked with this system for a number of years know that the annual or triennial review is the time to bring up concerns and seek different or additional services. This is a time when they are a mandated part of the team that decides how their child will be educated and the other folks around the table usually are those who know their child best -- classroom teacher, special education teacher, school psychologist, and others.

But what parents sometimes do not know is that the IEP that emerges from the annual review is not etched in stone and the requirement for an annual review is a legal minimum, not a maximum. So, parents and schools can seek a new meeting at any time. Furthermore, changes to an IEP can be made without the need for a meeting. The IDEA specifically provides:

Section 614(d)(3)(D) Agreement.--In making changes to a child's IEP after the annual IEP meeting for a school year, the parent of a child with a disability and the local educational agency [the school district] may agree not to convene an IEP meeting for the purposes of making such changes, and instead may develop a written document to amend or modify the child's current IEP.

The regulations which amplify the law, further go on to state:

Section 300.324(a)(4) (ii) - If changes are made to the child's IEP in accordance with paragraph (a)(4)(i) of this section, the public agency must ensure that the child's IEP Team is informed of those changes.

So, parents should keep in mind that they have options if they are not happy with how things are going under their child's IEP. They can contact the head of their IEP Team, raise their concerns, and if agreement can be reached, the IEP can be modified without need for another meeting. If that does not work, they can seek another meeting of the IEP Team, even if they are not "due" for another annual meeting, and bring their issues to the full IEP team. It's their right to do so.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Search For and Organize Information for Higher Education

Students in higher education these days spend less and less time hitting the books and more and more time hitting the screen. Many assigned readings are available as PDFs now, and students required to do research are likely to find much of the information they need through online searches rather than from paper pages. This shift results in lots and lots of saved files, which can be hard to manage. Enter Mendeley

Mendeley is a free service that helps users intuitively organize computer documents so that they’re easy to find and use. After downloading the program for free, readers can simply drag and drop a PDF file onto the Mendeley icon on their desktop where the program will extract key information like the title, author, and keywords, then store it. Users can choose how to organize all their stored files, and if they still can’t find a file they’ve stored, they can search for it easily. Always hated typing up Works Cited pages? You’ll be happy to know that Mendeley compiles them automatically. Not only does Mendeley make organization easy, it allows readers to highlight and make notes on PDFs as they read, and to collaborate with other users by designating documents as “public.”

One of Mendeley’s most interesting features is its ability to function as a search engine. The research catalogue, made up of the millions of papers stored in Mendeley by all its users, is searchable, and users can type in a few keywords to access a list of papers that might contain useful information,although it should be noted that not all of those papers will be available for free. Click on the title of a paper that sounds like it’s on target, and more information about it, and about other related papers will appear.

Mendeley is available for free download.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Time to Move on College Applications

November seems to be rushing by, especially if you (like your blogger) spent much of the last two weeks in the dark after Hurricane Sandy brought her wrath to the New York metro area. Once our lights came back on yesterday, it suddenly dawned on us that Thanksgiving is just over a week away -- and so is the ideal date for college bound students to complete their applications.

Yes, we know that even early decision applications are not due until the very beginning of December, but we have always urged the students with whom we work to consider Thanksgiving weekend to be their unofficial deadline for completing all of their applications, even for regular admissions. There are several reasons for this. First, many colleges have rolling admissions and are literally "first come, first admitted." You want to give yourself the best chance possible to gain admission so waiting until the school has filled its allocated spaces doesn't make any sense. Even for schools without rolling admissions, the simple fact is that an earlier application generally gets reviewed earlier and by an admissions officer who has not been reading applications every day for months. You may not get acted upon sooner, but you have a better chance to make a good first impression. In addition, colleges want to see strong interest from the students they admit. They understand that students who need to see their financial aid package may not be able to apply "early decision" since this would bind them to accepting a place without knowing if they had sufficient financial aid to attend. But submitting your "regular decision" application early will make it clear that you are very interested in that school even if you are unable to apply "early decision."

What if you still haven't decided where to apply or even if you want to go right to college or take a year off to work or travel? Don't panic. Many schools accept applications well into the spring. And almost all colleges will allow a student who has been admitted to defer admission for a year to travel, work, or volunteer. The time to apply for such deferment is after you have been accepted.

So, where does this leave a high school senior? Try to finish your applications by Thanksgiving, but understand that there are options even for those who are still not finished applying by Presidents' Day. And, whenever you apply, please make sure your applications are complete and have been carefully edited before you press "submit!"

Friday, November 9, 2012

Food for Thought: Using Snacks to Learn Math

Food as an incentive in the classroom is hardly a novel concept. Students are often given a treat if they earn a high score, and whole classes may be rewarded with a pizza party for behaving well or demonstrating certain learning goals. Food is an effective motivator, but we have some great ideas for turning snacks into learning tools for math as well!

Cheez-Its, for example, can be great tools for teaching geometry. Measure one of the crackers and draw a series of squares or rectangles so that an even number of Cheez-Its can fit inside. After handing out a shape and a handful of Cheez-its, explain that each cracker represents one square unit and ask kids to fit them into the shape. Once they’ve done this, it will be easy to count the number of crackers inside the shape to determine its area. Next, ask kids to count the number of crackers lined up along the length and the width of the shape, then multiply the numbers together. This tasty, hands-on activity will help them to move beyond simply memorizing that area = length x width. They will understand the reason for the formula, and be more likely to recall it and to use it correctly. (Thanks to Day in the Classroom blog  for the great idea!)

Hungry for more ideas? Foods that come in different colored pieces, like M&M's, Skittles or Fruit Loops can be excellent tools for teaching all kinds of mathematical concepts. Possibilities abound for helping younger learners appreciate basic number concepts. For example:

  • Ask students to categorize the pieces by color, then count and write numbers to show their results.
  • Use food to practice the concepts of “more” and “less.” After they have divided the pieces into color groups and counted each, ask students to construct sentences to compare different color groups. (e.g. “There are more purple pieces than green pieces.”) If working with more than one student, make it a competition to see who has the highest number of yellow, red, etc.
  • Write an equal sign (=) on one index card and a greater than/less than sign (>/<) on another. After kids have divided the colors into groups, ask them to place the cards between groups of colored pieces to show that one group has more or less than another. Challenge kids to figure out how to use just one greater than/less than card to show any relationship. (Answer: They can turn it to face the other direction.)

Colored food pieces are also ideal for practicing statistics. Try the following ideas:

  • Practice calculating percentages and fractions by having students count the total number of pieces they are given, then breaking the amount down by color. (To make this really concrete, be sure each student or group of students is given exactly 100 pieces of food.)
  • Have students practice making bar graphs, line graphs, or pie charts to reflect the number of pieces of each color.
  • Go online to find out the color distribution followed by M&M producers. Ask kids to count up a small number of M&M's and then compare them to this average. Then give them a larger number and ask them to repeat the exercise. Guide them to notice that the larger the sample size, the closer their numbers should come to the published averages. This is a great lesson in real life statistics, because in some cases larger sample sizes won’t get closer to the “right” average. Help kids understand why this is.

One cautionary note. Many schools have policies about food in the classrooms as part of their food allergy or healthy eating policies. M&M's, for example, have a "may contain peanuts" warning on their labels. So check carefully before implementing these ideas in classrooms.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Word for Brainstorming Practice

Brainstorming can be tough for a lot of young writers, who may dread sitting in front of a blank sheet or staring at a blinking cursor as they wait for inspiration to strike. Free writes (or free talks) – timed exercises dedicated to writing (or talking) about anything related to the topic that comes to mind for one or two minutes – can be great places to start; students can read back over what they’re written or replay their recorded talk and begin to get some ideas to write about.

OneWord is a web application that gives students a consequence-free place to practice this skill. Each day users can log on to get sixty seconds to write about the word of the day. If they want to share their writing (they can choose a username so as to ensure anonymity), they can upload their response to the site. Students can view other users’ responses as well. This final feature is a particularly helpful one, as students will have plenty of examples to consider to prepare them to write about the next day’s word.

In our perusal of the site, we did not find any objectionable content. Still, parents should be aware that entries are not subject to approval before they are posted, and that there is no feature for reporting inappropriate material. As such, this site may be best for high school students or for younger students who are supervised during use.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Great Math Apps for iOS

These math games win our admiration for their solid skill-building potential paired with creativity that makes learning fun!

For Using Coins

Coin Math
Free for a limited time for iPad and iPhone; ages 5 to 12

Younger children will benefit from the early levels of the game, which allows them to practice identifying various coins by name and value. As they gain skill, older players can practice paying for items and making change, all using coins. A piggy bank feature even helps kids investigate the concept of saving money while they’re “shopping.”

Two Player Games

$4.99 for iPad; 5th grade to 8th grade

This app allows children who are close in age to help each other learn. It’s a fantastically imaginative game that pits the North Pole against the South Pole. The screen is divided into two hemispheres oriented so that players can easily read their own half of the iPad as they add and subtract simultaneously. The goal is to arrive at the same total using different numbers. With every successful equation, the globe spins, changing day into night and night into day. The seasons also change. Players must be prepared to weather storms of multiplication and division, and ripening bananas in spring act as parenthesis, requiring players to take order of operations into account.

Everyday Mathematics: Multiplication Baseball
$1.99 for iPad and iPhone; ages 3 to 10

In this new spin on the old ball game, players pass the device back and forth to take turns “batting” by answering multiplication problems. The higher the answers, the farther the batter runs around the bases. After three wrong answers, the player strikes out and must hand the phone over to his/her opponent.

Other Great Games

Math Ninja HD
$1.99 for iPad and iPhone; ages 3 to 10

For the student with a quirky sense of humor, Math Ninja is an addictive way to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Correct answers will earn skilled ninjas more weapons for their arsenals, like ninja stars and smoke bombs. The weapons can then be fired at the evil Tomato-san, a devious looking tomato, and his robot cronies shaped like wheeled cats and dogs. The graphics are bright and cartoonish, and although students will enjoy aiming poison darts at their adversaries, there is no blood, tomato juice, or oil shed during combat.

Splash Math
$9.99 for iPad and iPhone; 1st grade to 5th grade

This app has the same kind of quizzing and games as many other apps, but, impressively, all Splash Math apps are tailored to teach the skills designated by the Common Core State Standards for public education. Different apps are available for each grade from one to five, and students will enjoy the bright graphics and imaginative motivators (like the addition of different sea critters to their personal aquariums) as they practice a wide variety of important, grade-level skills.

Friday, November 2, 2012

After the Storm

It's been quite a week here in New York, and we hope you are reading this blog in your warm home, with lights on and family around you. The Yellin Center was closed at the height of the hurricane, but has been open and busy since Wednesday. We aren't sure how, but our building on West 29th Street somehow escaped the mandate that all power would be turned off south of 34th Street (and remains off for most downtown areas as of Friday afternoon).

Most of our staff, including Dr. Yellin, still have no power in their homes, and getting to the office has required patience and creativity. We've got folks sleeping in cold apartments, in the homes of friends who have electricity, and with relatives.

Still, we have no complaints. We are all safe, our homes are intact (if cold), and we know that things will be better for us soon. We know that is not the case for many of our patients, friends, and colleagues and we are deeply concerned about them. We know that this blog is read by folks all over the country, so we wanted to let you know that we are up and running -- and to share our concern about those who have lost their homes, their businesses and, most tragically, their loved ones.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Online Productivity Monitors Can Help Find Lost Time

Do you ever wonder where your time goes? Two productivity monitors that track your online activities, Slife and Rescue Time, can tell you exactly.

Both function similarly, sitting quietly in the background and keeping track of every site you visit and how much time you spend there. But each can take a more active role if you choose, limiting the time you spend in particular areas such as news, email, and games. (You can categorize sites yourself.) You can generate reports for your own activity and for the time your family members -- including your children -- spend online. These reports can plot the data by hour, day, and week. You can set time goals (i.e. I will spend a minimum of three hours doing online research each day,” or “I will spend no more than 15 minutes answering email,”) or, in cases of extreme addiction, completely block distracting sites from your family members or from yourself.

Each service can be downloaded for a small fee, but if time really is money, the cost may be worth it.

Photo: Gary Cycles / Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Children, Football, and Concussions

As a parent, pediatrician, and lifelong football fan, I was naturally drawn to the article on the first page of yesterday’s New York Times, “A 5-Concussion Pee Wee Game Leads To Penalties for the Adults.” The article was particularly timely as we embark on a major initiative at The Yellin Center to better understand and address how concussions affect academic performance. As I read the Times article, I followed the narrative as the litany of concussions in this single football game in Massachusetts unfolded. As Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute aptly noted, there were undoubtedly many more concussions than those that were diagnosed. While I do believe that adults need to be held accountable for their decisions when they are responsible for children’s safety, I think we are fooling ourselves if we believe that this alone is an effective way to address this problem.

As a former Chief Medical Officer of a hospital, this football game is what we would call a “sentinel event.” Like the canary in the coal mine, sentinel events often tell us that there are big problems that need to be confronted. In almost every case, individual errors in judgment can be identified. However, when one looks closely through a process called a “root cause analysis” one usually finds that these kinds of errors in judgment are often more widespread and that the sentinel event represents a “perfect storm” of causes. Taking an immediate punitive approach often short-circuits the root cause analysis and discourages people from coming forward in the future to report minor problems before they become major ones.

It’s clear that concussions are not only a problem for the youngest players. A follow-up article in today’s paper about concussions in high school football refers to a study from the Pediatric Brain Trauma Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital that found that 486,000 combined head impacts had been recorded over a five-year period among players from the football teams at Brown, Dartmouth and Virginia Tech, as well as two men’s and two women’s hockey teams.

Was I the only one that was stunned when I read that based on the rules of “safety” the weight limit for 10 year olds in the Pee Wee game was 120 pounds? 120 pounds is more than 20 pounds above the 95th percentile for 10 year olds! Furthermore, as the Times notes, “rules are only as effective as the adults charged with enforcing them. Four of the five injured boys have resumed playing football…”

So, I think that we all have some serious work ahead of us in examining the safety of contact sports for young children. We need to begin with a root cause analysis of the Massachusetts sentinel event. And we have to seriously entertain the question about whether it is ever possible to make these contact sports safe enough for young children.

Photo: woodleywonderworks / Creative Commons (modified)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Games to Build Visual Skills

Visual perception is critical to academic success in many areas. Reading, geography, math, art and art history, foreign language literacy, and the sciences are just some of the subjects that rely heavily on visual discernment. Below, we've described some games that are so much fun, kids will have no idea they’re actually building their visual skills!

On the Dot

When reading aloud, it is common for students to substitute a visually similar word (for example, “from” instead of “form”). This can happen to inattentive readers or to readers with poor sequencing skills. Another possibility is that the student needs to build his/her visual acuity.

Visual perception is clearly an important skill in reading, and it is not necessarily related to the quality of a student’s eyesight. A child with 20/20 vision may still have difficulty perceiving clusters of letters accurately, which suggests that s/he needs to strengthen cognitive skills like visual acuity and spatial reasoning. Luckily, a simple board game can help.

On the Dot is recommended by expert reading instructor Al Moore to help students strengthen both visual acuity and spatial reasoning in a fun way. Play is simple: After looking at a card with a configuration of dots on it, players stack a series of transparent cards, each printed with their own dots, to recreate what they see on the card. The first to accurately copy the pattern on the card is the winner. Single players may time themselves to determine how many patterns they can replicate in five or ten minutes.

Guess Who?

Fluent readers rely on their visual memories to read words, and most of us use the same memory function to check our spelling. To improve this cognitive skill, as well as to give any student, regardless of learning style, a serious higher-order thinking workout, try playing Guess Who?.

This old favorite seems to have fallen by the wayside, but it deserves a resurgence. In this two-player game, each player privately selects one of 20 characters. Then players take turns trying to guess the identity of their partner’s character through a series of yes/no questions designed to eliminate possibilities. Though most people would hardly call this game educational, in fact it is great for developing important cognitive skills used in reading. To play, one must look at a variety of visual stimuli and determine what is similar about them and how they differ, the same way a proficient reader can identify a word at a glance because of its visual characteristics. It also reinforces listening comprehension, particularly at the sentence level, and short-term and active working memory.
Guess Who? provides both the medicine - a hefty dose of cognitive strengthening - and the spoonful of sugar to help it go down.

Seeing Stars

Seeing Stars – not your average board game – is designed specifically for reading instruction. Its price tag is considerable, and your family is unlikely to play this game around the kitchen table on a Saturday night. Still, it is enjoyable for children and has been demonstrated to be effective in helping them improve the cognitive areas critical to reading.

Seeing Stars, a game developed by the famous reading program Lindamood-Bell, encourages children to latch on to the reading process in a non-traditional way. The programs at Lindamood-Bell are heavily visual, guiding children to learn the shapes of words and the letters within them rather than processing words letter by letter. This is an effective approach for children who struggle with phonemic awareness and phonology. Consequently, Seeing Stars is all about mental imagery. In this game, a student is asked to visualize a real or nonsense word, then alter it by transposing, removing, adding, or substituting letters to form new words. For students who must memorize orthographic patterns in order to spell - in other words, students who cannot “sound out” words in order to spell them - this process helps students form a strong, mental image of words that can easily be recalled later during reading and writing tasks.

Seeing Stars may not replace Monopoly as a family favorite, but its value goes far beyond entertainment.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Week to Focus on ADHD

A coalition of national organizations, including CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), have declared this to be ADHD Awareness Week, and we thought that this would be a good time to look at the facts about ADHD to help parents, educators, and students better understand this condition.

The CDC notes that ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorders of childhood, with 9.5 % of children being diagnosed with ADHD at some point. Boys are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than are girls. Some of that difference may stem from the fact that there is more than one kind of ADHD; the National Institutes of Mental Health notes that there are three different types of ADHD:
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
  • Predominantly inattentive
  • Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive
A girl who seems to daydream in class may not be as likely to be diagnosed as a boy who can't sit still and is disruptive, but both students may have ADHD and may need treatment and strategies to get the most out of what is going on in their classrooms.

Research is clear that ADHD has a real, brain-based cause and also has a genetic component. It is not caused by parenting styles or food allergies, although environmental toxins may be a factor in its occurrence. Co-morbidities, conditions that are often diagnosed in individuals with ADHD, include anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities. 

While diagnosis of ADHD is generally made by looking at the how many symptoms occur in various settings -- such as both at home and at school -- it is important to take a nuanced look at what is going in an individual before deciding on a diagnosis and before determining the appropriate treatment. For example, a student who is struggling to process what is going on in his classroom because of a language disability may appear to be inattentive, when the difficulty is actually a learning problem, not ADHD. Only by addressing the language processing difficulty will this student be able to attend properly in his classroom. 

What about treatment? This needs to be an individualized decision, especially for children. There are many medications that can be effective in helping with ADHD symptoms, and the National Institutes of Mental Health has a good explanation of what these are. But these medications can have side effects and parents may want to consider behavioral strategies before they decide whether medication is the best choice for their child. It is crucial that parents work with a physician with experience with these medications to make the right decision for their child.

Related articles from The Yellin Center Blog about ADHD

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Planning to Protect Your Children's Future

This week is National Estate Planning Awareness Week. It's a good time for all parents, especially parents of children with learning and other challenges, to think about whether they have taken the steps necessary to ensure their children's future -- financial and otherwise.

It helps to understand what happens when parents don't have wills. In the event that both parents die by an untimely accident or illness that leaves behind minor children, a court will award custody of the children based on "the best interests of the child." The preference of the parents for one family member over another, for example, won't be clearly known to the court that makes this decision. In addition, any funds left behind by the parents (savings, investments, life insurance, or proceeds of a "wrongful death" lawsuit) will be placed in a trust by the court, to be administered according to state law and to be released in full to the child when he or she attains majority, usually at age 18. Only children with the most significant disabilities will have their funds placed in a trust that is administered by a court-appointed trustee. A child with significant special needs who may be receiving benefits from a state or federal agency will lose those benefits that are income based, at least so long as the money left behind by the parent lasts.

In contrast, parents who have sat down and thought about their children's future and who have put in place a plan for what will happen after they are no longer around can take important steps to protect their children and make sure they will have access to their legacy in the most effective and helpful ways.

First, parents can name a guardian for their minor children and for children with significant disabilities who will be in need of guardianship as adults. While this instruction from parents is not controlling on the court administering the parent's estate (see the "best interests of the child" standard mentioned above), it can go a long way to influencing the naming of a guardian, particularly when parents set forth their reason for their decision.

Second, parents can create trusts to hold the assets which will be available to help support their children. These trusts can be set up during the parents' lifetime or, more commonly, in their wills. They can specify how assets are to be spent, at what age(s) their children will receive some or all of the principal of the trust, and who will control the trust purse strings and make necessary financial decisions during the term of the trust.

Most children will reach an age -- 21, 25, 30 -- when they have sufficient judgment and maturity to manage the assets in their trust. But other children will be unable to handle their own finances in any way, especially the significant sums that may have been left to them in a trust. This situation can arise when a child has significant physical or cognitive disabilities, emotional difficulties that impair judgment, or is addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling. The situation will be different for each family, but parents will know which children fall into this category. For these children, a trust may need to last through their lifetime. And, for children with special needs who are receiving government benefits, parents need to work with a skilled financial planner or special needs attorney who can help set up a trust, generally called a Special or Supplemental Needs Trust, that will ensure that their child can continue to receive their benefits, while being able to supplement the limited categories of items that such benefits cover by providing funds for such items as housing, travel, and education.

After years of legal practice, your blogger has learned not to be surprised at how many parents of young children don't have wills. Often writing a will is something they plan to do, but just haven't gotten around to yet. Sometimes, they can't agree on who should be named as a guardian of their minor children and put off this contentious decision by avoiding writing a will. Planning for the future by writing a will is something that all parents, particularly parents of children with special needs, need to make a priority.

Photo: Jeremy Koren