Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Advocacy and Services in Westchester and Putnam

Many New York City parents know that Advocates for Children and other nonprofit organizations provide excellent, free or low cost help for families struggling with school related issues. But we want to make sure that parents in Westchester and Putnam Counties are aware of an agency with offices in both locations that offers similar services to families in these suburbs north of New York City. The Educational Advocacy Program is a Program of the Westchester Independent Living Center (WILC) and its satellite office, Putnam Independent Living Services (PILS). Some of the services offered include:

Watch for news about my presentation on Life After High School for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, scheduled for some time in May (postponed from April 30th) at the Westchester location.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Try OWL for Writing Help

By the time a blog has reached almost 700 posts -- as ours has -- it sometimes pays to look back and see what newer readers may have missed. We were reminded of this recently when we recommended that a student use the Purdue OWL to help with his writing and realized that it had been several years since we mentioned this terrific tool for writers of (almost) all ages.

Created and operated by Purdue University, the Online Writing Lab is a free resource (designed for those in seventh grade and up) with answers to questions about grammar and usage, information about teaching writing, English as a second language, and dozens of links to resources parents can use to help their children.

With a selection of podcasts, vidcasts, and downloadable guides, OWL has something for everyone who writes - student, educator, and -- of course -- blogger. Try it the next time you have a question. If they don't have the answer listed you can always email them for guidance. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Least Restrictive Environment

Some recent parent questions have prompted us to take another look at a basic principle of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), the concept of Least Restrictive Environment, or LRE.

The text of the IDEA defines the goal of LRE in somewhat labored prose, as:

To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

A simpler way of looking at LRE, and one that has been adopted by the New York City Department of Education, among others, is to think about a continuum. One end of this spectrum would be educating children in their neighborhood schools in a regular class without any special supports. That would be the least restrictive setting possible. Next, and somewhat more restrictive, would be educating children in regular classes with specialized supports. This could include providing accommodations or curriculum modifications to a particular child in the regular class, or having a para-professional come into the regular classroom to assist a student. To the extent that a student is "pulled out" of the classroom for some or all of the day, for services like speech and language therapy or resource room, that would be more restrictive, but still within the confines of a regular class most of the time. 

Further away from the least restrictive end of the continuum would be a self-contained class in a regular school, followed by a specialized school. On the most restrictive end of this continuum would be residential schools for children with the most significant disabilities, who cannot be served in any less restrictive setting. As the New York City Department of Education notes, any move away from a general education class should be considered only if a "child would not be able to make meaningful progress in a general education class, even with the help of supports and services."

Why is this important? Being in a regular class offers children with learning and other challenges the opportunity to make friends in their neighborhood and to improve behavior, communication, academic, and social skills. Typically learning children benefit as well; they gain in social and emotional growth and in their understanding and acceptance of diversity. Classes where typical learners are educated alongside students with learning challenges, with the addition of a special education teacher in the room (sometimes called Collaborative Team Teaching) is one way significant numbers of students are getting the benefits of these opportunities. 

Not every child will do well in a general education setting, and many children only begin to thrive when they are in a more restrictive setting where they can improve both their academic skills and confidence. But all parents should understand the goals of LRE and consider how they may apply to their own child's educational setting. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Caffeine and Memory

Anyone who has spent time at the Yellin Center may notice that we like our coffee. But we know that some research has raised issues about the impact of caffeine on learning and development, specifically noting in a blog we wrote last fall that Swiss researchers found that caffeine can slow brain development in rats. Caffeine consumption in young people is significant -- a recent study in Pediatrics notes that approximately 73 percent of children ages 2-11 consumed caffeine in a given day-- and rates of consumption are remaining steady, even as children drink less soda, because highly caffeinated energy drinks are accounting for a higher proportion of caffeine intake.

We were therefore pleased to find some good news about caffeine in a recent study appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience. It had long been known that ingesting caffeine before learning tasks improved subjects' memory for the material learned. In the new studies, the order of was changed; first, test subjects learned new material and only after that did they consume caffeine. The researchers found that this post-learning intake of caffeine had a positive impact on memory as much as 24 hours after caffeine ingestion. There was a correlation between the amount of caffeine ingested, with the maximal impact leveling off after 200 mg. (roughly the amount in one to two cups of medium strength coffee). Of note, this research was done on people, not rats.

So what is the "take away" from this study? Parents still need to keep a careful eye on the caffeine consumption of their children, but perhaps adding coffee to the mix for older students during exam week might not be such a bad idea.

Photo Credit: Toshiyuki IMAI/flickr

Friday, April 18, 2014

Putting Advice to Work

Several months ago, your blogger was featured in a webinar from ADDitude (the magazine folks who also have an informative website) on "Determining if Your ADHD/LD Child Needs an IEP or a 504 Plan and How To Go About Getting It." Like any presentation, especially those not in front of a live audience, it wasn't clear to whether the information provided would actually be put to use by parents.

So, it was good to receive an email last week from a mom who wrote,

"I wanted to take a minute to thank you. I have an 8th grader finishing up middle school and heading to high school next year. He has been struggling since elementary school. In 7th grade I was finally able to establish a 504 plan for him. Two years later, his grades continue to slide and he goes up and down. They give him extra help in reading, then he does well and they pull him out of the extra help classes. It’s a vicious cycle. I have been pushing for reading and writing help since September.

"In October I listened to your Attitude Webinar on IEP and 504 and what to ask for. I stuck to my basic points: ADHD qualifies a student for an IEP [an Individualized Education Program] under OHI [the category of Other Health Impaired]. After several meetings and finally getting the school board involved, they tested him again and agreed that his reading and writing were seriously deficient. The school has agreed to the IEP and he started in the facilitated reading and writing classes the day following our meeting...

"It was that key piece of lingo …“IEP qualifies under OHI” discussion you talked about in the webinar that I needed. I followed your advice to stay calm, listen, be nice, state what you want and stick to a few key points. It’s interesting, I do this all day in my “day” job, but when it comes to your kids, your emotions get in the way. I decided I was going to strategically approach it like I would negotiate anything else and it worked! THANK YOU."

This mom was right on target that we need to take the skills we use in the workplace and other aspects of our lives and put them to use with our children. It is very difficult to stay calm and focused when dealing with your child's school and the more your child is struggling, the more difficult it is to use your skills to help
them. That is why the respected special education attorney Pete Wright, who runs the Wrightslaw website with his wife Pam, titled his basic primer for parents, From Emotions to Advocacy. This is why I always suggest a few key points to parents attending an IEP or other significant meeting about their child:
  • Don't go in alone. Bring at least one person with you who will stay calm and focused and help you to do the same. You have the right to bring anyone you want with you - a spouse, a friend, an advocate, but if you plan to bring an attorney you should let the school know so they have the choice of having their attorney present. Otherwise, they may require the meeting to be rescheduled so their attorney can attend. This is one reason why most attorneys don't generally attend IEP meetings.
  • Take notes. If you can't focus or participate while taking notes, have someone with you (who can be the person mentioned above) who can do this for you. 
  • For formal meetings, like those of the IEP team, ask for a copy of the attendance sheet that will passed around. Chances are you won't use it for anything, but it sends a signal that you are making a formal record of the meeting in case you need to appeal the decisions reached. 
  • Come in with a list of the issues you want to address. Just like the most effective shopping trips start with a good list, you will be shopping for services and supports for your child. While you might learn things or hear ideas that will change your mind about items on your list, at least you won't forget to raise important points.
  • Don't be pressured to agree to anything or to sign anything at the meeting. While services under an IEP will not begin until you sign off on them, taking a few days to consider things is perfectly reasonable and will allow you time to think about what your child really needs. 
And, as the mom who wrote the note mentioned, "stay calm, be nice, state what you want and stick to a few key points." 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Questions for the College Bound

Whether you are a graduating senior who already knows where you will be attending school next year, a high school junior who is starting to get serious about the college application process, or a younger student or a parent who has questions and concerns about college, there are a few things to consider that might not be on your radar.

Retention Rate
You probably would not want to take a job in a company where most people quit after the first few months. You might rightly be concerned that there was something about that company that was problematic. In the same way, it is important to ask about the retention rate at any college you are seriously considering. How many students come back for their sophomore years after their first year? How many continue on to complete their junior and senior years as well? While some top universities have almost a 100 percent retention rate, others lose up to a third or more of their students from freshman to sophomore years. The reasons for this can vary and can include economic, social, and academic readiness factors, although some research has demonstrated that lack of retention may not have anything to do with whether students have learning disabilities.

What a low retention rate should do is prompt careful questioning about why students don't return and to weigh these factors into your own equation of what is important in a college. Is the school too isolated or does it empty out on weekends, leaving out of town students with little to do? Are the course offerings too sparse? Are there limited opportunities for research or advanced work for serious students? Is it a bit too much of a party school for you or your student? While it is always possible to transfer to another school, checking out your college choice carefully may enable you to avoid this process.

Time to Graduate
The four year college degree is not always a four year process. According to a Time analysis of U.S. Education Department figures, four year completion rates for a B.A. or B.S. degree can be as low as 30 to 40 percent, with the lowest rates in public colleges. There can be many reasons for this -- and most students do finish within six years of matriculating. But difficulty registering for courses needed for their major or switching to a different major and thus needing additional courses are two prime reasons for these numbers. Given the extraordinary expense of college, with no discount given if you can't get into the specific course you need, students and their families should give considerable thought to what majors are available and what percent of students are able to register for their first choice of classes. Note that many schools permit students registered with the Office of Disability Services to have priority registration, which can be huge benefit and can also allow students to select professors whose teaching style will best align with their learning needs.

This is a subject we have written about before and is explored at some length in my book, Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and Their Families, but it is still an area that trips up some students. Colleges almost always have two kinds of requirements: high school courses they require to admit a student and the courses students are required to complete to graduate. If you or your student has a particular area of difficulty, such as a language based learning disability that makes it extremely difficult to learn a foreign language, or a math disability that makes completing a math requirement just about impossible, it is crucial to be aware of the requirements of your chosen college. Your high school may have waived or modified certain courses because of your learning disabilities, and the college may have admitted you because not all majors require a foreign language or a math sequence. But, depending on what course of study you choose, you may find yourself required to take courses in which you are not able to succeed. Keeping this issue in mind can avoid this problem.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Drop Everything and Read

Tomorrow, April 12th, is Drop Everything and Read Day, an annual celebration of the joys of reading. The date of this event was chosen to coincide with the birthday of beloved children's author Beverly Cleary, who featured her book Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Sponsored by groups including the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), D.E.A.R. has expanded to a month of activities intended to support teachers and parents in instilling the joys of reading in children -- and in taking time for their own reading as well. There is a web page with resources to help parents and teachers encourage reading. As one teacher notes, when writing about how she uses silent reading in her classroom, "The authors of children's literature and their books kids love can tame even the wildest of students, can motivate even when following a tough act like lunch, and can be a teacher's best friend."

Whether it is part of a regular classroom activity, a program at your local library, or a bedtime ritual you share with your kids, setting aside a regular time to drop everything and read -- or be read to (preferably with a cuddle, for young children) can build a love of reading that can enrich children's lives forever.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

News You Can Use

Our electronic mailbox is full of useful information on a wide array of topics, ranging from an analysis of upcoming changes to the SAT exam to worthwhile charities that are helping students who learn differently. Here are our top picks:
  • Inspirica, which provides one-on-one tutoring and test preparation in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, has created a presentation entitled A Glimpse into Upcoming Changes and Recent Update: SAT-ACT, which explores the reasons behind the newly announced changes to the high stakes exams taken by essentially every college bound student. 
  • Prompted by the interest of her own daughter, who has an autism spectrum disorder and a fascination with American Girl® dolls, a Westchester, New York mom has created a re-sale shop for these historical dolls and their extensive books and accessories, with the nonprofit mission of developing job skills and employment opportunities for young women with autism spectrum disorders. They welcome donations of gently used American Girl®merchandise. Call Marjorie Madfis at 914-428-1258 for more information.
  • Resources for Children with Special Needs, a New York nonprofit, now has a You-Tube channel with presentations on topics including how to choose a summer camp, how to prepare for a successful IEP meeting, and how to organize your documents to better advocate for your child. Some of the selections are available in Spanish.
  • Active Minds, a national nonprofit dedicated to utilizing the student voice to raise mental health awareness among college students, is one of the sponsors of Stress Less Week, April 20-26 - when college students are coming to the end of their year and can face particular stress and anxiety. The purpose of this event is to spread awareness about stress and anxiety disorders and create a supportive environment, where students can speak up about their difficulties and receive support from the campus community.
If your school, nonprofit, or organization has a new program, publication, or upcoming event that would be of interest to our readers, please let us know, so we can include it in a future listing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

This Friday, April 11th, Dr. Paul Yellin will be the Keynote Speaker at a forum titled Silent Crisis: The Impact of Chronic Stress and Trauma on Early Childhood Learning and Development. His presentation will look at a number of important considerations in the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development of children under stress from the environment in which they live.

Starting with the famous "marshmallow experiment" and its follow-ups, he will look at how children's impulses are shaped by whether they have - or don't have - a reliable, trusted adult in their lives. He will discuss how early language skills are acquired and the importance of exposure to language in this process. He will then proceed to look at how the developing brain is impacted by stress, using images of brains in different circumstances to clarify his examples. 

Dr. Yellin will then speak about  neuroplasticity - rewiring our brains - to see how this ability is part of resilience, the ability to bounce back, recover, and ultimately overcome adversity. When children have a "turnaround" person in their lives, they are often able to succeed even if their early development was fraught with stress and lacked the language input and emotional support that is optimal for brain development. 

This event, with other speakers including Aletha Maybank, MD, MPH, Assistant Commissioner of the Brooklyn  Public Health Office of the NYC Department of Health; Evelyn K. Blanck, LCSW, from the NY Center for Child Development and Renee Wilson-Simmons, Dr.PH, Director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, is co-sponsored by Healthy Start Brooklyn, Central Harlem Healthy Start, and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Downstate New York Healthy Start, in collaboration with the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership.

The forum will be held at the Oberia Dempsey Mult-Service Center, 127 West 127th Street in Manhattan and admission is free and open to the public. It begins at 9 a.m.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Poetry Month Revisited

April is National Poetry Month and last year at this time we ran a series of blogs on all kinds of poetic forms, from the acrostic to the villanelle. You can find the full series of poetry blogs, all written by Yellin Center Learning Specialist and top-notch blogger Beth Guadagni, by searching "poetry" in our blog labels on the right hand side of this page.

However, we did want to at least mention this month long event and share suggestions for ways you, your students, and your family can celebrate this wonderful form of literature.

The website of the Academy of American Poets has suggestions for poetic activities for every day of the month. And for those who don't know offhand just how many days that includes, try reciting the poem, "Thirty days hath September...", which had its origins in the 16th century or earlier.

If  you are a budding poet with social media leanings, you can participate in a Twitter poetry contest sponsored by National Public Radio. Have fun!

Do you know the poem about this flower?
photo credit: Martin Ramsden