Friday, March 30, 2012

How Brains Respond to Reading

Rejoice, bibliophiles! Recent neuroscience research suggests that reading fiction is more than just enjoyable; it can stimulate the brain in valuable ways and even positively affect a person’s behavior and social cognition. A recent article in the New York Times explains several fascinating phenomena discovered by scientists. 

Interestingly, reading words can activate parts of our brain usually reserved for handing input that our senses gather from the outside world. In one study, simply reading words referring to materials that people detect with their olfactory sense like “cinnamon” caused the areas of the brain that process smell to “light up.” In a different study, subjects saw words associated with smells (like “coffee”) and words associated with objects that have no strong smell (like “key”). Brain scans showed that the olfactory cortex responded only to the words associated with scents. Similarly, reading metaphors that evoke one’s tactile sense (e.g. “his leathery hands”) caused responses in the sensory cortex of test subjects’ brains. “The brain, it seems,” the article concludes, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”  

Similarly, our brains react to the social situations presented in novels in much the same way they respond to the social situations we encounter in our daily lives. Understanding stories causes people to engage the same skills they use to figure out what makes their friends and family feel certain emotions or behave in a certain way. One study even found that increased exposure to fiction was correlated with better social skills, like empathy and interpersonal understanding. Similar findings emerged in a study of preschool children: Those who had more stories read to them tended to have stronger social skills and a better understanding of the people around them.

Most of us know that reading to young children, or encouraging older ones to read their own books, is valuable for myriad reasons. Neuroscience has just handed us another.

photo from Difei Li

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Resource for Learning Math... And More

Learning mathematics requires that students grasp simple concepts and procedures and then build upon these to understand more complex or abstract material. When students have challenges with learning math in early grades, it makes it difficult for them to jump in, even with strategies and support, to learn higher mathematics as they move into middle school, high school, and beyond.

One tool we often recommend to students who struggle with math is the Khan Academy website. Founded by Sal Khan, a former hedge fund analyst with degrees from MIT and Harvard, the website and the nonprofit organization behind it grew out of videos Khan posted to YouTube in 2006 to help tutor his cousins in math. Now supported by grants from organizations such as Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Khan Academy offers online tutorials in a wide range of subjects including science and social studies and is now replete with sophisticated interactive features. But the heart of the Khan Academy website is step by step instruction in fundamentals, especially math, that can be accessed by students on their own or in class groups, to fill instructional gaps or build new knowledge.

Friday, March 23, 2012

It's IEP Season Again

For students who receive special education services from their public schools, Spring is IEP (Individual Educational Program) season, the time when school districts focus on reviewing annual goals and progress and putting in place students' IEPs for the next school year. If your student has an upcoming Annual Review, here are some things to keep in mind to help the process along.

If possible, sit down with your child's teacher before the IEP meeting. Get a frank appraisal of how things are going, where your child is doing well and where he is struggling. You want a chance to speak to the teacher without the entire IEP team present and to find out if there are any issues that may come up at the meeting.

  • Speak to your child about how the year has been going. What seems to be working well for her? How is she managing socially in her present setting? If your child is pulled out of class for services is that impacting classroom continuity for her?
  • Know what you want for the coming year. Is there a particular service that you believe needs to be added for your child? A classroom accommodation? A new or modified goal?
  • For high school students, the IEP meeting should include a review of your student's current accumulation of credits towards graduation, as well as what kind of diploma he is on track to receive. You should be aware of whether your child is required to take a foreign language to graduate and understand what it means to be "foreign language exempt."
  • Consider bringing your teenager with you; it's his IEP and he will need to be prepared to deal with his learning or other disability by the time he graduates. Clearly, not every student has the maturity or ability to participate in a meeting where his challenges are discussed and schools can often discourage parents from bringing their child, but they cannot exclude students and the IDEA stresses that high school students should be included in meetings where their transition from high school is planned.
  • Bring along paper and pen and take notes about who is in attendance and what is said and decided. If it is difficult for you to both take notes and participate in the meeting, you should bring someone with you to be your notetaker. By law, you have the right to bring anyone you wish to the meeting.
Remember that you are an integral member of the IEP team and that you can and should be heard at the meeting.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Study Finds Diagnosis of ADHD Increasing

A new study from Northwestern University finds that the number of U.S. children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has increased by a staggering 66 percent in 10 years.

The study will be published in the March/April edition of the journal Academic Pediatrics. For the study, researchers analyzed ADHD trends from 2000 to 2010 among children under the age of 18 who were diagnosed and treated by office-based physicians.

According to Northwestern Medicine's Craig Garfield, M.D., first author of the study, increased familiarity with attention-related difficulties may be behind the increase. “ADHD is now a common diagnosis among children and teens. The magnitude and speed of this shift in one decade is likely due to an increased awareness of ADHD, which may have caused more physicians to recognize symptoms and diagnose the disorder.”

Of particular note, the study found that there has been somewhat of a shift away from primary care doctors towards specialists for ongoing management of ADHD symptoms in children. According to Dr. Garfield, "It may be that general pediatricians are shying away from treating patients themselves and instead rely on their specialist colleagues to provide the treatment and management of these medications.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Six Ways to Prompt Students to Think Critically About Text

Here are a few suggestions of concrete ways to prompt the student(s) in your life to look beyond the surface-level meaning as they think about a text. Even very young readers can take advantage of these ideas with plenty of scaffolding and suggestions during conversations. Allow older readers to ponder and discuss their ideas with less support. Remember that a “text” needn’t always be a novel; it can refer to a poem, short story, article, song, letter, advertisement, picture book…

1. Develop a Metaphor

Encourage students to think of situations that remind them of the text. These can range from personal experiences to world events.

“The story in The Lorax is like what is going on in many rainforests around the world. Trees are being cut down, and species are losing their habitats and being driven to extinction.”

2. Be Philosophical

Prompt students to think about which universal truths or themes are explored in the text.

“Gatsby couldn’t forget about Daisy, the way it is always hard to forget ‘the one that got away.’ He had always been insecure about who he was, and felt he wasn’t good enough for Daisy. Because of this lack of confidence, he arranged his whole life to shape him into the kind of person she could be with.”

3. Get Emotional

Ask students to reflect on the emotions the text made them feel. Be sure to prompt them to pause throughout the reading process so that they can track how their emotions change as the text progresses.

“I felt many conflicting emotions at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. I was touched that Carton would sacrifice himself and pleased that he had found goodness within himself that he didn’t know existed. At the same time, I was very sad that he was going to be executed. Still, his sacrifice meant that Darnay and Lucie would get to be together, which made me happy.”

4. Analyze

Challenge students to consider why did the author/creator made certain choices in writing the book. Consider its format, language, setting, etc.

“At first, the format of The Color Purple made it difficult to read, and all the spelling and grammatical errors made me think that Celie wasn’t very smart. But later, I realized she was actually very wise, and I really liked reading her thoughts in her own words because it seemed so much more authentic.”

5. Find Intertextual Connections

Can students think of books, movies, songs, poems, etc. that bear similarity to the text being studied?

“Aslan is a Christ-like figure in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because he allows himself to be killed by the evil witch in order to save Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy. Just like in the Biblical story, he comes back after everyone thinks he is dead and gone forever.”

6. Critique

Ask students whether they think the text was effective. Did it convey the author’s/creator’s point? Might it have been improved?

“The Rosie the Riveter ads are well done because they make women look powerful, which would encourage American women in the 1940s to join the war effort. Her face is tough, but still feminine enough that women would believe that she was similar to them.”

Image used under Creative Commons by Horia Varlan

Friday, March 16, 2012

High (School) Anxiety

Your blogger has had the opportunity recently to visit two local private high schools whose missions are to educate students with learning and related difficulties. Both The Churchill School in Manhattan and the Community School in Teaneck, New Jersey had invited me to speak to parents about the issues addressed in my book Life After High School.

In both schools, parents shared a very palpable concern about how their children would manage the transition from a specialized, supportive high school to post secondary education -- college or another kind of program -- and eventually to adulthood. These parents had all been through the special education process with their children, having emerged with spots in coveted, state approved (and publicly funded) schools where their children are taught in small classes by teachers with expertise in remediating learning difficulties. Many of these parents had provided their children with significant levels of support with tasks like organization, advocacy, and academics, beyond that customary for more typical learners.

The parents that I met at these presentations are far from unique in their concerns. Parenting any child is a complex process, but parenting a child who struggles in school is even more so. So what can parents of teens do now, while their child is still at home, to help foster independence beyond high school? Some helpful steps include:

Help your child understand how he or she learns. By really understanding their strengths and weaknesses and knowing what learning strategies work for them, students will be better able to arrange their academic accomodations and supports and to ask for the right kind of help.

Foster Affinties. Studies have shown that children who build on their interests and who pursue special skills, tend to be more resilient as adults. Students who may struggle with academics can have many areas where they are successful and should have opportunities to pursue their interests -- sports, hobbies, or the arts.

Build Self Advocacy Skill. By the time a student graduates from high school he or she should have attended one or more of the meetings where their IEP is developed, and certainly should have an understanding of the services they receive in school and why they receive them. It is not easy to get a teenager to deal with this aspect of their lives, but it is important to enable them to work towards independence.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Life After High School in Newsday

A special section in yesterday's edition of Long Island, NY newspaper Newsday included an informative article about planning the transition to college for students with learning difficulties, with content informed by Susan Yellin's book (co-authored with Christina Bertsch) Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families. Part two of this useful series is planned for next week.

Susan Yellin, Esq. provides advocacy and college transition planning services at The Yellin Center.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Redshirting" -- Holding Back Younger Children

New research on diagnosing younger children with attention issues has come out at the same time that media sources have drawn attention to what is sometimes called "redshirting" - the practice of holding younger children out of kindergarten for a year so that they do not move through school as one of the youngest children in their class.

In an article in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, researcher Richard Morrow of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues looked at more than 900,000 Canadian children over an 11 year period. The cut-off for enrollment in kindergarten in Canada is December 31st. The oldest children in any given kindergarten class will have January birthdays and the youngest children will have been born in December. Morrow and his team noted that children with December birthdays were 39% more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 48% more likely to receive medication to treat ADHD. Furthermore, the likelihood of diagnosis and treatment decreased with each month of age -- so children born in March, for example, were less likely to be diagnosed and treated with medication than children born in October. This study raised concerns both about the rate of diagnosis and the impact of treating young children with ADHD medications. As quoted in Time Magazine, Morrow noted, “What is clear from our study is that younger children in a classroom are more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD and drugs to treat that ADHD... but their relative maturity should come into play. Something to keep in mind when we look at behavioral problems is whether the behavior relates to differences in age and maturity.”

The social, academic, and even athletic consequences of holding children back was the topic of a recent segment on 60 Minutes. What was apparent from the piece was that parents had a variety of reasons for holding children back. Some did it because they felt their child needed more time to mature. Others wanted to give their child an academic advantage and still others wanted their child to have additional size and coordination for future athletic endeavors. What was noted by the correspondent was that parents who were holding their children out of kindergarten were generally affluent; families with fewer resources or where both parents needed to be in the workforce could not afford the additional year of nursery school or child care that comes with the decision to hold back from kindergarten enrollment. The segment also highlighted parents who felt strongly that holding their child back from kindergarten was both unnecessary and fundamentally unfair to other children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken the position that schools need to deal with children at all levels of school readiness and that parents, communities, and pediatricians need to work together to make sure that all children are ready to begin school with the tools to succeed.

Perhaps the best perspective on this issue is one we heard from a parent who faced this question when her now adult children were of kindergarten age. Both children, born two years apart, had November birthdays in a district where the cut off date for kindergarten was December 1st. She and her husband decided to keep one child on track and he entered kindergarten as one of the youngest in his class and remained so throughout his school career. They decided to hold another child back for a year, and he entered kindergarten and moved through school as one of the older students in his class. "In each instance," she noted, "it was the right decision. I don't think there is one right path, just what seems to be the right path at a given time for a particular child."

Friday, March 9, 2012

The History of Sleep Recommendations

Over the past several years we have written a number of blogs about sleep: how lack of sleep  impacts learning, falling asleep, the importance of sleep for adults, and the impact of sleep deprivation on teens.

But, for all the attention we have paid to the subject, we were most interested in a new article that looks at recommendations about sleep and how much children actually sleep from an historical perspective. Never Enough Sleep: A Brief History of Sleep Recommendations for Children, published in this month's Pediatrics, looks at recommendations in medical literature from 1887 through 2009. The researchers were able to identify 32 sets of recommendations about how much sleep children should have, which broke into 360 age-specific sleep recommendations.

There were several interesting findings. First, the amount of sleep recommended by "experts" and the actual amount of sleep that children had per night each fell by about 70 minutes through the course of the 20th century. In addition, in the 83% of studies where data was available to compare actual sleep to recommended sleep, the amount of actual sleep was 37 minutes less than recommended sleep -- a number that held steady for all ages of children and over the full time frame of the data studied. 

The authors note that while the medical literature they reviewed -- from the earliest to the most contemporary sources -- all talked about things like "sleep hygiene" and the pressures of modern life (from radio, to television, to computers and video games) on childrens' sleep habits, only one study actually provided research based data for the amount of sleep children should receive. The authors note this lack of hard science and urge that empirical studies be undertaken to understand the actual mechanisms by which inadequate sleep impacts health and performance.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Should College Planning Begin?

An article in today's New York Times looks at the different approaches to beginning college preparation taken by traditional, nonprofit private high schools and their newer, for-profit counterparts. As the Times article asks, " Is it better to get a jump on the process but risk turning high school into a staging ground for college admission? Or is it preferable to start later, when students are more developmentally prepared but perhaps missing opportunities to plan hobbies, choose classes and secure summer internships?"

We think there is another perspective that needs to be considered -- that of students with learning, attention, and related difficulties who receive support services in high school and who anticipate needing accommodations in college. For these students, the process of getting ready for college simply can't wait until their junior year. They need to begin preparing for college almost as soon as they begin high school. This doesn't mean that they have to decide where to apply, just that there are decisions they need to make and skills they need to acquire long before they are almost ready to graduate. These include:


Students with learning issues need to use their time in high school to learn about their challenges, to be able to express how they learn best and to develop strategies for handling the increasing workload of high school (and then college). They need to be able to ask for help when they need it and to negotiate for themselves. These skills are crucial to college success, when it will fall upon them -- not their college and not their parents -- to arrange for accommodations and to make sure they are implemented. Ideally, they need to learn about the Americans with Disabilties Act, which provides the legal basis for the accommodations that will help them succeed after high school.

Curriculum Decisions

All students need to take and pass specific courses to graduate from high school. But students with learning differences need to make sure that modifications they are granted by their high school, most commonly a waiver of the requirement that they take a certain number of foreign language credits, don't preclude their acceptance at a particular school which they hope to attend. Most colleges want their applicants to have taken a foreign language for admission and many also require that a student take a foreign language in order to graduate. Waivers and substitutions are possible, but not guaranteed. And not every major at a college may have a language requirement. Students who are offered a modified high school program without a foreign language, or students who attend a specialized high school which does not offer foreign languages, should be prepared to deal with the consequences when applying to college.


Students who have an IEP and receive special education services are required to be re-tested every three years, a process called a triennial review. Sometimes, especially when a student has had an IEP in place for a number of years and all is going well, the school and/or the parents may not seek to have full testing done for each triennial review. But the SAT/ACT exams require up-to-date testing as part of their process for granting accommodations (such as extended time), and college disability services offices do as well. Testing during the 10th grade year -- or as soon as a student turns 16 and can be tested with the adult version of the most common IQ test, the WAIS-IV-- is ideal. Colleges want to see the WAIS, rather than the WISC, the version of the IQ exam given to children under the age of 16. Keeping this information in mind during the earliest years of high school will help make both the SAT/ACT accommodation process and the college application process go more smoothly.

These are only a few of the issues that college bound bound students with learning and other difficulties need to start working on in high school. However ideal it may be for students to focus only on the immediacy of high school issues and to forgo planning ahead until college application deadlines loom, this may not be the best path for students with learning challenges.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Stewart Black (modified)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Our Annual Tax Reminder

As you begin pulling together the various forms that have arrived in the mail over the last few weeks, and vow that this will be the year that you get your taxes done well in advance of April 15th, we want to remind you that you may be able to deduct certain expenses you incur in connection with a child's special education needs.

IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses, contains an extensive list of expenses that may be deductible as medical expenses, subject to the limits that apply to all medical deductions. These expenses may include tuition at a private, special education school, attendence at special education conferences, and tutoring fees for students with learning disabilities.

There are conditions and restrictions on all of these deductions. An excellent and extensive discussion on this entire topic from 2009, now on the Great Schools website, is still a useful overview of this subject. Only a tax professional can give you specific guidance on this issue, but you may want to read the IRS publication or look at our 2011 Tax Tips post to help you ask the right questions.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Reading Aloud ... Every Day

On March 7, LitWorld, a non-profit organization which promotes global literacy, will launch its third annual World Read Aloud Day.

According to LitWorld, 739 million people across the world are illiterate, and participation in events like World Read Aloud Day helps raise awareness of the problem. In addition to collecting books and providing literacy instruction to people across the globe, Pam Allyn, founder and director of LitWorld, hopes to promote the love of reading even to those who have already mastered reading skills. Last year, 200,000 participants from 60 countries and all 50 United States participated in World Read Aloud Day. Allyn hopes to reach 1 million participants in 2012.

To register for participation in World Read Aloud Day, visit LitWorld’s webpage.

A post on the New York Times Learning Network Blog includes Tips and Tools for World Read Aloud Day by Wendy Gorton, as well as a link to an extensive list of "Great Read-Alouds" from the New York Times.