Friday, August 31, 2012

Early Skills Can Predict College Success

A study by a team at Oregon State University led by Dr. Megan McClelland and published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly found that children who had greater attention spans at age four had an almost 50% higher likelihood of completing college by age 25. The researchers looked at 430 children and, after controlling for such variables as family background, gender, and early academic achievement levels, found that strong early attention abilities also predicted math and reading achievement at age 21.

That's all well and good, but if attention spans in young children are so important, can anything be done to build such skills in children who lack them?

The answer may lie in the games some of us remember from childhood -- games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light. An earlier study of 65 preschoolers found that when children who had low levels of focus played games similar to these they demonstrated improvements in both early language skills and self-regulation.

A review of this topic by New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope notes that the most effective way to to use games to build skills in young children is to begin with games with simple rules and to make them increasingly complex. For example, the games used in the Oregon research included a variation of Simon Says that started with copying the leader's movements but then required the children to do the opposite of what the leader did --such as touching toes when the leader touched her head. Other games that were found to build attention and executive function skills were singing in rounds and playing "Red Light, Green Light" using red for "go" and green for "stop." Try these. They are harder than you would expect.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Music Lessons Can Bring Lifelong Learning Benefits

Music lessons are a part of childhood for many young people, but it is not uncommon for youngsters to stick with their lessons for only a few years. Scientists at Northwestern University have looked at the impact of these early lessons on adults and have found that even a few years of lessons can have a positive impact on the brain years later.

The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at 45 adults who were matched for age and IQ. One group had no music instruction, another between one and five years, and a third group had between six and eleven years of lessons. Those who had at least some music lessons generally began their studies around age nine. The researchers measured electrical signals from the auditory brainstem of each of the subjects and found that those who had even short term music instruction showed improved processing of sounds. They also noted that the more recently the music lessons stopped, the more significant the improved processing.

“Thus, musical training as children makes better listeners later in life,” said Dr. Nina Kraus, Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern, in an announcement released by the university. “Based on what we already know about the ways that music helps shape the brain,” she said, “the study suggests that short-term music lessons may enhance lifelong listening and learning.”

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Impact of Clothing on Academic Performance

Any parent of a teenager knows that wearing the “right” clothes is an important part of fitting into – or standing apart from – particular social groups. Adults, too, know that the clothing they wear to their jobs or on social occasions sends a message to the people around them. What we wear can also impact how we feel about ourselves. As noted in research from a team at Northwestern University, it turns out that what we wear can also impact how well we do on academic tasks, specifically on tasks related to attention.

The researchers coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the impact of two influences occurring together -- the symbolic meaning of the clothes to the subjects and the physical experience of wearing them. The scientists begin their study by discussing some previously documented findings about the impact of wearing particular clothing on the behavior of individuals. They note that prior studies have demonstrated that wearing a bikini has the effect of making a woman eat less and perform worse on mathematical tasks. They refer to other research that finds that sports teams that wear black are more aggressive than sports teams wearing other colored uniforms.

The subject in this study were college undergraduates who were asked to wear white lab coats while performing certain attention tasks. Some of the subjects were told that the coat was a doctor’s lab coat, while others were told that the coat was a painter’s coat. When subjects wore a coat that they believed to be a doctor’s coat they scored better on measurements of attention than when they wore a coat that they believed to be a painter’s coat – or when they simply viewed a doctor’s coat and were asked to think about what it represented to them.

The authors present their findings in a particularly clear way and discuss numerous examples of earlier studies and questions that need to be addressed in future studies. If you have the time, it is well worth reading the original publication.

Friday, August 24, 2012

August is National Immunization Awareness Month

Although New York City's public schools don't begin classes until September 6 this year, many schools across the country have already opened. It's a good time to make sure your child's immunizations are up to date, especially since August is National Immunization Awareness Month.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a section on their website directed at parents that looks at what immunizations are needed for different age groups and considers questions parents may have about the safety of vaccinations.

All 50 states require that students be immunized and will not permit children without immunizations to attend school, although there are exemptions available for medical and religious reasons (which vary from state to state). Check out the requirements in your state for immunizations and speak with your child's pediatrician to make sure that your child also receives non-mandatory vaccines, such as a flu shot, when appropriate.

The Centers for Disease Control has created a list of childhood diseases that can be prevented by vaccination. Parents who question why their child needs to be vaccinated should find this important reading.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Disability Services at Nassau Community College

Yesterday found us sitting in on a meeting at Nassau Community College, on New York's Long Island, where a Disability Services Counselor was having an initial meeting with our son, who had decided -- at the last minute -- to enroll  in the College to further his career goals. We came away impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of the Counselor and optimistic that the services offered to our son would enable him to succeed in this new endeavor.

We knew that the Counselor "knew his stuff" when he directed our son to sit across from his desk and politely motioned me to a chair off to the side in a corner of the room. He was absolutely right. College students need to function independently and it is a time for parents of students with disabilities to step back and let their offspring take the lead. This can be hard for parents of young adults who have needed extra support in earlier levels of school, and it does not mean that parents can't continue to be helpful in many ways. What it does mean is that colleges expect the student to understand their areas of difficulty, to advocate for their own needs, and to be responsible for their own academic lives. Had our son not wanted me present for the meeting, the Counselor would have been fine with that too.

Some of the highlights of the meeting that can be helpful for all students with learning and other disabilities:
  • Ask about early registration -- which allows students with documented disabilities to register before any other students -- through your college's Office of Disability Services. Nassau Community offers this, as do many schools, and it can be a lifesaver for students trying to get into specific courses. Our son was way too late to take advantage of even regular registration deadlines and was closed out of several courses, but registration for the spring semester will be far easier if he takes advantage of the early registration this coming fall. 
  • Consider why your student is enrolled in college. Our son had been out of high school for several years and most recently worked as an aide in a special needs preschool. He wants to become a regular teacher and knows that he needs to obtain an education degree to reach his goal. "I can see that you are here because you want to be," noted the Counselor. "I can't tell you how many students come to my office and it is clear that the only reason they enroll in college is because their parents want them to. They don't know why they are here, have no sense of what is involved, and often are not successful because they don't really want to be in college."
  • There are a wide range of services available for students with learning and other challenges, even in financially strapped community colleges like Nassau. But the key is making use of them. "What do you think I can do for a student who comes to me in November and tells me that he has missed several classes, hasn't done his homework, and has just failed his midterm exam?" asked the Counselor. "Nothing!" He urged our son to stop by early and often to report on his progress.
  • It is important that a college student really understand why he needs accommodations and how a specific accommodation is going to help him succeed. Our son's disability documentation noted that he has dysgraphia -- difficulty with handwriting. He asked if he could be provided with copies of the class notes, where they were available. The Counselor asked him to explain why and pressed him when he simply said that they would be helpful. Only when he explained that it was hard for him to take notes and concentrate on a lecture at the same time did the Counselor say, "Yes, that's a reasonable accommodation for you." 
  • Educational records, such as disability documentation, are protected under FERPA, the Family Educational  Rights and Privacy Act, and our son was reminded that the forms he would be giving to his professors to obtain his academic accommodations would not mention anything about his disability.   The Counselor stressed to him that he was under no obligation to offer any explanation to his professors, just to advise them that he was entitled to certain accommodations. That is correct, but it can be helpful for students who are comfortable discussing their disabilities to be somewhat more open with their professors, so that they can better understand what is going on with the students they teach.  
One other note: after sending two older sons to college and graduate school, our visit to the Bursar's Office to pay for the upcoming semester reminded us how affordable community college can be compared to four year schools. We'll let you know how things go at Nassau, but from what we have seen and heard so far, we are looking forward to a successful academic journey.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Extra-Large Letter Spacing Helps Dyslexics Read

A recent study from an international team of researchers found that Italian- and French-speaking children with dyslexia were able to read faster and more accurately if they were given texts with extra-large letter spacing. The texts used in the study increased the space between letters, between each word, and between lines of type, but not the actual size of each letter.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that children given texts with increased letter spacing were able to read about 20% faster, and researchers noticed that the children made only about half as many errors. The scientists hypothesize that the technique should work for English-speaking children as well.

A free iPhone app called DYS is available for parents who want to experiment with this method as they seek to help their own children. The app has two purposes: the first is to compile data from users about which spacing they feel is most beneficial to them, and the second is to give readers the tools to determine which spacing helps them read most efficiently. Learn more about the app in the iTunes App Store, or watch the video below.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Study Links Early Snoring to Behavior Problems

A sleeping toddler snoring away may seem cute to parents and other observers, but a new study in the journal Pediatrics raises concerns about the impact of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) -- loud, persistent snoring -- on the future development and behavior of children.

Researchers enrolled 149 child/mother pairs in a prospective study that tracked snoring through the child's third year and categorized the children as non-snorers, transient snorers (who snored at age two or age three but not both) and persistent snorers.The choice of the age group of two to three years was based upon the fact that SDB is known to peak during this period.

The study found that there was a significant increase in behavior problems in the group with persistent SDB even when adjusting for such factors as gender, race, and socioeconomic status. These behavior problems included hyperactivity, depression, and attention. The findings of this study are consistent with findings of studies looking at older children and which hypothesize that the interruption in sleep caused by SDB can interfere with neurological development.

Two other significant findings in this study were that children who were breast fed were less likely to have SDB and that a low socioeconomic level made it more likely that a child would have transient or persistent sleep disordered breathing. None of the children who were fed breast milk for more than a year developed SDB but one-quarter of those who never were fed breast milk or who were fed it for less than one month developed SDB.

The study authors note that interventions to treat snoring have been shown to be helpful and urge that children be screened for sleep disordered breathing. They also stress the positive impact of breast feeding and urge that parents consider this protective factor when making feeding decisions.

Photo: Elizabeth / Creative Commons (modified)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Use of Antipsychotic Medications by Children and Teens On the Rise

A new report on the increased use of antipsychotic medications by children and teens reveals some disturbing trends. The report, which appears in the Archives of General Psychiatry, analyzes data gleaned from the 1993-2009 National Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.

The data revealed that from the early years of the survey until 2009 the number of doctor visits at which children received prescriptions for antipsychotic medications rose from .24 to 1.83 per 100 children. For teens, the increase was from .78 to 3.76 per 100 individuals. Antipsychotic medications include such drugs as Abilify and Risperdal. These medications have been approved -- and have been used effectively -- for such serious conditions as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

According to Dr. Mark Olfson, lead author of the report, the problem is that most of the time these medications are not being used for their approved purposes but, instead, are being prescribed for such conditions as ADHD and disruptive behavior. As noted in a release from Medline, a service of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Olfson notes, "Only a small proportion of antipsychotic treatment of children (6 percent) and adolescents (13 percent) is for FDA-approved clinical indications ... These national trends focus attention on the substantial and growing extent to which children diagnosed with ADHD and other disruptive behavioral disorders are being treated with antipsychotic medications." Olfson further noted that most of the children and teenagers receiving the antipsychotic medications were not receiving psychotherapy. In addition, he noted that research has not yet determined what the long term impact of these medications may be on the developing brains of young people. Antipsychotic medications can have significant side effects.

Dr. Paul Yellin, the Director of The Yellin Center notes, "Antipsychotic medications can be an effective treatment for certain disorders and their thoughtful use by experienced physicians can be helpful. What is of concern is their use, particularly in young children, for conditions such as ADHD, where there are safer, better studied alternatives that work well."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dyslexia No Bar to Sports Success

Dr. Yellin is an avid fan of the New York Jets and has been since he was a kid.

So, it was with a good deal of interest that we noted a recent article in New Jersey's Star Ledger that revealed that both Jets head coach Rex Ryan and new team addition Tim Tebow each struggle with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability. The article notes that the coach and quarterback learned about their dyslexia at very different points in their lives. Tebow has a family history of dyslexia and both his father and brother have the same learning difficulty. Researchers know that there is a genetic predisposition to dyslexia in some families. Tebow learned about his dyslexia when he was in elementary school and was home-schooled through high school, moving on to the University of Florida.

Coach Ryan did not discover that he had dyslexia until he was in his forties but was able to rely upon his other areas of strength to earn his college and masters degrees in physical education.

Whatever the fortunes of the Jets this season, young people with dyslexia should be aware that there are numerous successful athletes with this learning disorder and, in fact, some experts believe that the ways that individuals with dyslexia need to adapt to read effectively can be helpful to them in a number of future careers, including business and the arts. Read a longer discussion of this phenomenon.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Suspension, Disability, and Race

A new report, Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School, provides a disturbing perspective on the impact of school suspensions on students with disabilities and on African-American students (and on those students who fit into both categories).

The report, written by Daniel J. Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, is from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and analyzes data released in March 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education

The report notes the enormous number of school days lost to suspension -- more than three million per year -- and the fact that districts that suspend more students do not show that removing so many disruptive students from their classrooms results in any benefit (in the form of increased test scores) to the other students in their system. 

Among the most compelling findings are:
  • the higher rate of suspensions for students with disabilities: 13%, or twice the rate of their nondisabled classmates,
  • higher rates of suspension for all African-American students: 17%, which is far higher than any other racial group, and
  • very high suspension rates for students who are both African American and disabled: 25%.
As we have noted before in this blog, there are special procedures in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that require an examination of the reasons a student with an IEP is being suspended and the relationship of that student's actions to his or her disability. This would be expected to result in fewer, not more, suspensions of students who have or are suspected of having a disability, not the greatly increased numbers revealed in the data contained in the report.
This is a well written and accessible report, worth reading for its analysis and suggestions for finding alternative approaches to discipline that do not result in excluding from school those students who often most need to be there.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Best 100 Young Adult Novels

We love best-of book lists, and National Public Radio has just released a great one. After inviting listeners to nominate their favorites, NPR has published a list of the best 100 novels for young adults.

The selection process was an interesting one, inviting ire from NPR fans who couldn't believe that favorites like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret were left off the list. Judges managed to narrow the list of over 1200 nominees down to 235 finalists, in part by holding firm to the idea that “young adult novels” are books intended for readers between the ages of 12 and 18. Therefore the Little House on the Prairie books, all winners of the Newberry Award, and many other much-beloved tomes, were deemed too juvenile for a vote of this nature. Books written for adults but read by many young adults, such as classics like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Jane Eyre, were also given the ax, though it seems that the judges were unable to part with some titles intended for adults; Dune and Catcher in the Rye both made the cut.

The list of finalists is an eclectic blend of timeless and contemporary titles that vary hugely in sophistication, reading level, and theme. Literature snobs may turn up their nose at some of the results (Twilight? The Vampire Academy??), but parents and educators of reluctant readers will rejoice that the list contains books the teenagers in their lives may find more accessible than the oft-recommended classics on the list (like The Giver, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies). The list is also a great place to turn for fresh ideas. We’re willing to bet you've never even heard of the winner of the fourth place slot. Whether teenagers are looking for a way to pass the few weeks left before school begins, or planning ahead so that they’ll have their mandatory recreational selection in place when classes begin, this list is an excellent place to begin.

100 Best-Ever Teen Novels (NPR)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Color-Coding Algebra

Algebra introduces students to ideas that were previously foreign to them. Suddenly, they are expected to work on both sides of an equal sign, calculate with negative numbers, and told they can’t add all the numbers in an expression together they way they’re accustomed to doing. To help kids navigate this confusing transition, try using color-coding to help them grasp concepts and notice details. 

Negatives vs. Positives

Prior to beginning algebra, most students have not had much practice with negative numbers. They are often not accustomed to taking a number’s sign into consideration. To help draw students’ attention to this important factor, ask them to highlight positive numbers in one color and negative numbers in another.

-12 + 4 =

(4)(-6) =


Color-coding is a great strategy for helping algebra neophytes understand the idea of like terms. When adding or subtracting in expressions containing variables, ask students to highlight unattached numbers with one color and like terms with other colors before solving. Grouping blue terms with other blue terms will seem a lot more natural than grouping x’s with other x’s. Tip: Ask them to include the sign preceding each number in the highlight so that they will understand which numbers are positive and which are negative in tricky equations. When there is no sign, ask students to add in their own addition sign, then highlight it.


4n + 3x - 4 = 7x - 2n + 10      ->        +4n + 3x - 4 = +7x - 2n + 10

Friday, August 3, 2012

Book Review: What Chefs Feed Their Kids

Most parents would agree that it’s important to teach children to appreciate a wide variety of healthy, nutritious foods from a young age. To professional chefs who are also parents, however, it’s easy to imagine that this principle holds more weight than it does in the average home. Fanae Aaron, a new mother, found herself wondering what chefs put on their own kitchen tables as she took on parenting for the first time. She began to make inquiries of chefs around the country, and the result is the cookbook What Chefs Feed Their Kids: Recipes and Techniques for Cultivating a Love of Good Food .

The recipes in the book are diverse in both flavor and nutrition. As an added bonus, most are relatively simple to prepare, as most chefs have little time to devote to their domestic kitchens before rushing out the door to work in professional ones. You can view some sample recipes on the book’s website above, or in a New York Times article about the book.

Not only are the recipes appealing, but the book itself is very user friendly. Aaron demonstrated keen insight when she recognized that different foods appeal to children of different ages; she chose to divide the book into chapters based on a child’s age instead of by types of dishes. The first chapter, meant for parents of infants, features a series of tasty purees, while the next few chapters are for toddlers (ages 1-2 ½), preschoolers (ages 2 ½ to 5), big kids (ages 5-8), and early adolescents (ages 8-11). Here’s hoping that the tasty dishes in this book will elevate your child out of his grilled cheese rut!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Depression in Teenage Girls

A newly released report from SAMHSA, the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, notes that an average of 12% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 -- some 1.4 million teens -- experienced a major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year. 

The report utilized information from the 2008 to 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

In contrast to the data for girls, the rate of MDE for boys in the same age group was 4.5%. Furthermore, the rate for girls rose from 5.1% to 15.2% between the ages of 12 and 15. Data also indicates that older teens are more likely to get treatment for MDE. About 33% of girls ages 12-14 received treatment while 40% of those ages 15-17 had treatment for their MDE.

The SAMHSA report noted that the increase in MDE in girls coincides with the onset of puberty and urges targeting middle school teens with prevention and intervention efforts to minimize the occurrence of such depression and to mitigate its impact. Pamela S. Hyde, SAMHSA's Administrator noted "It is crucial that we provide adolescent girls the coping skills and social supports they need to avoid the onset of depression, and to offer behavioral health services that foster resilience and recovery if they experience it."

SAMHSA was established by Congress in 1992 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

The National Institute of Mental Health website has a wealth of information on depression in teens, including a link to a teen focused booklet with answers adolescents may have about the symptoms and treatment of depression.