Friday, May 30, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou: Works for Young People

We were saddened to learn of the recent death of literary powerhouse and cultural icon Maya Angelou. Most of her work is best read by older teenagers and adults, but luckily a number of pieces will allow young people to benefit from her wisdom and insight, too.

For example, Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” is available as a picture book with fun, zany illustrations by Jean-Michel Basiquiat. Young children will enjoy Angelou’s beautiful words and gain inspiration for coping with everyday fears such as imagined monsters in the dark or new, frightening experiences.

Slightly older kids may enjoy Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou, an anthology of her more accessible poetry at its whimsical, soulful best. Angelou was a champion of painting stirring imagery with her words; accordingly, each poem in the book is accompanied by an illustration. Artistic kids might enjoy doing their own drawings based on some of the more vivid lines from her poems, even ones not included in the book like “On the Pulse of the Morning.”

Those with wanderlust will love My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me, a magical volume that will transport readers to the stomping grounds of the Ndebele tribe in southern Africa. Readers will be entranced by the richly colored photographs and introductions to the people and their traditions.

After reading her work, kids may be interested in Angelou’s life story. For those between the ages of 8 to 12, Maya Angelou: Journey of the Heart, is a good biography by Jane Pettit based on Angelou’s own memoirs.

Maya Angelou receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011
Maya Angelou lived a rich, vibrant life. Though her loss stings, we are lucky that we, and future generations, can continue to enjoy and learn from the evocative writing she left behind.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Caution Urged in Use of Infant Sleep Machines

They are ubiquitous in baby's bedrooms -- machines designed to help mask disruptive noises and to provide a soothing sound to lull baby to sleep. As any sleep deprived parent of an infant will attest, anything that helps a baby sleep is generally a good thing, but recent research reported in the journal Pediatrics concludes that these machines can produce sounds at levels that can damage infant hearing and, even when played at less than maximum levels, can also have a detrimental impact on speech and language development.

The researchers looked at 14 models of infant sleep machines (ISMs) from online and traditional retailers. The ISMs made a variety of sounds, from heartbeats to whirring to an array of nature sounds. The study measured sound levels using a device designed to simulate the ear canal. Sound levels were measured at three distances, meant to replicate placement in the crib or on the crib rail; on a table near the crib; and across the room from the crib. All of the ISMs produced sounds that exceeded a sound level previously recommended to be the maximum noise level that is safe for infants when placed in the crib or a nearby table. And all but one device exceeded that maximum noise level even when placed across the room.

The researchers caution that more investigation is needed to determine how ISMs are actually used by parents and how masking normal household sounds, including conversations, can impact language and behavioral development in infants. In the meantime, they urge that ISMs should be used at low volume, for short periods of time, and that the device should be placed as far as possible from the infant.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lawsuit Results in Fairer LSAT Accommodations

Thanks to our colleague, Jo Anne Simon, Esq., whose legal practice focuses on disability civil rights in high-stakes standardized testing and higher education, we have just learned of a Consent Decree from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, which changes the rules for individuals with disabilities who seek accommodations to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

We have written before about the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) and their refusal to comply with a survey of accommodation practices by the United States Government Accountability Office, as well as how the American Bar Association was urging the LSAC to end their practice of "flagging" scores of students who took the LSAT with disability accommodations. Flagging is the practice of annotating score reports of individuals who receive extended test time due to disability, something which the College Board (SAT, AP, and other exams) and the ACT folks have not used in the last ten years.

The Consent Decree is the result of a lawsuit brought by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, several individual students (represented by The Legal Aid Society - Employment Law Center), and the U.S. Department of Justice against the LSAC. Its terms are sweeping and include:
  • An end to flagging of LSAT scores
  • Creation of a panel of experts to establish "best practices" in handling accommodations, which the LSAC shall be required to implement
  • Creation of a fund of almost seven million dollars to compensate individuals who were turned down for LSAT accommodations because of inappropriate requirements by the LSAC.
  • Permitting many candidates to submit testing conducted within five years of the date of the request for testing accommodations, instead of within three years as currently required.
These changes are long overdue and should bring fundamental fairness to an exam that is a required by virtually every law school in the country. Anyone even thinking of applying to law school should read this decree in its entirety.

Photo credit: via flickr

Monday, May 19, 2014

Safety for Working Teens

As school lets out for the summer many teens head to their summer jobs. But the kinds of work that many teens are able to get -- such as in restaurants with slippery floors and dangerous cooking equipment, or doing landscaping or construction work -- combined with lack of training for these temporary workers, can lead to increased likelihood of injuries on the job.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, there were approximately 17.5 million workers less than 24 years of age, and these workers represented 13% of the workforce. While some of these workers are young adults, many are still in their teens, so it is particularly concerning that the rate for emergency department-treated occupational injuries of young workers was approximately two times higher than among workers 25 years and older.

If your teen has a summer job, it might be helpful to share the information in a publication from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Are You a Teen Worker? which contains information about the age limitations for many jobs, what a young worker should expect in terms of training and safety from their employer, and what hours teens of different ages are permitted to work under federal law. Teens should also be reminded that certain rules about their employment may be impacted by laws specific to their state -- minimum wages, for example, can be higher than the federal minimum, just not lower. You should check with your State Department of Labor for specific information and for instructions for obtaining working papers, which many young teens need to obtain a job.

Photo Credit: Sugarfrizz via Flickr CC

Friday, May 16, 2014

Looking at Reading Skills of Students with Learning Difficulties

The folks at the Arise Coalition (Action for Reform in Special Education) have done it again -- putting their considerable knowledge and influence behind a movement to improve education for New York City school kids. We've written before about the Arise Coalition, looking at their report on the need to improve transition from high school for students with learning and other challenges.

Now they have undertaken an initiative to address the discrepancy in reading skills between students with disabilities and their classmates. In a note to supporters announcing this initiative, the Coalition noted, "In 2013, only 6% of students with disabilities in New York City met state standards in English, as compared to just over 26% of their peers without disabilities who met those same standards." They observed that even for those opposed to standardized testing, these are disturbing results. This is especially true because similar differences have been seen nationally in Common Core tests given to fourth and eighth graders.

This effort to improve reading skills is just getting underway, but the Coalition has compiled a list of resources for individuals and organizations who want to know more about building literacy in students with learning challenges. It is such a useful list that we are including it here in its entirety, with thanks to the Coalition:

The International Dyslexia Association:
The Iris Center:
LD Online:
National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials:
National Center for Learning Disabilities:
National Center for Special Education Research:
National Center on the Use of Emerging Technologies to Improve Literacy Achievement for Students with Disabilities in Middle School:
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development:

We were especially pleased to see that two of the resources listed are part of CAST - The Center for Applied Special Technology, where Dr. Yellin is a member of the Board of Directors.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Active Learning Beats Lectures for STEM Classes

Most college students have had the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall with a professor standing at the front, lecturing -- and sometimes even droning on -- for an hour or more at a time.  Especially when the material being taught is in one of the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, or mathematics -- this kind of teaching can be difficult for students to follow, and interest levels may lag.

When a group of researchers did a meta-analysis (a review of research findings) of 225 studies that compared student performance in STEM classes that utilized traditional lecture format versus those that were taught by "active learning" methods, they found, according to the National Science Foundation, that 55 percent more students fail lecture-based courses than classes with at least some active learning. This may mean that these students are unable to move ahead to more advanced STEM classes, something that can impede national initiatives to increase the number of students majoring in these fields. 

Active learning includes such practices as asking questions and using "clickers" to tally responses, calling on individual students or groups of students, or having students clarify information for other students. Active learning is not necessarily related to class size; it can take place even in lecture halls of several hundred students.

So, what does this mean for students and instructors? As the lead author of the study, Professor Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, noted when questioned by the National Science Foundation, "If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning, according to our analysis," Freeman said. "There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we're talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out every year." It's something for both students and professors to think about.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Searching Far Afield for Schools

We live in a mobile society; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2010, 6.7 million people moved from one state to another. When families with school age children are involved, moving becomes especially complicated. How can parents learn about schools and school systems that are far away from their home town?

There are several websites that can be helpful in this process, and can be at least a starting point for gathering information. One is the site Great Schools, a national nonprofit whose website notes that it has "profiles of more than 200,000 PreK-12 schools and more than 1,000,000 parent and community ratings and reviews of schools." Parents can search for reviews of schools by location and schools are rated based upon their general performance and such specific areas as test scores. Great Schools also has information on topics of general interest, including a guide for families who are moving and need to consider a new school.

For parents interested in private schools, the National Association of Independent Schools has a good deal of information on its website, as well as a "school search" feature that allows for selecting such desired features as specific sports programs (from archery to wrestling and just about every sport in between) and the level of support available for students who learn differently -- "focused on learning differences" or "supports learning differences".

For parents looking for information about public schools, a number of cities have websites dedicated to providing information and reviews. In Philadelphia, the Notebook, a nonprofit website that also publishes a print edition, describes itself as "an independent voice for parents, educators, students, and friends of the Philadelphia Public Schools," and has search features for schools on every level. Here in New York City, parents turn to a website we have often mentioned, InsideSchools, for well-respected school reviews and general information about the New York City Public Schools.

Of course, these sites should only be starting points. Additional research, school visits, and conversations with anyone who might be knowledgeable about the educational landscape in your new community are all vital. But when you need a place to begin, these sites might just point you in the right direction.

Photo Credit: John Benson via flickr

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Use of "Touch Screen Devices" by Toddlers

The  American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long cautioned parents to limit media exposure of young children and updated their recommendations as recently as 2013.

A new study on this subject from a team led by Dr. Ruth Milanaik, an attending developmental and behavioral physician at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York on Long Island, New York, looked at the very youngest children -- infants and toddlers up to age three -- to examine what the researchers called "touchscreen device usage" or TDU, to see how use of or exposure to such devices as smart phones and iPads impacts children's development.

Dr. Milanaik noted that the study was prompted, in part, by the observation that the "number one toy" that parents gave their children to play with at a newborn follow-up clinic was a smartphone. In an article on the study in Forbes, she noted that parents were substituting smart phones for books and other baby toys and stated, "Many parents did not seem to bring any other distraction for their children except the touch screen devices.”

The study found that the majority of parents questioned believed that TDU had educational benefits. However, developmental scores showed no significant difference between children who had access to such devices and those who did not. Furthermore, children who played non-educational games (such as Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja) on touchscreen devices had lower receptive & expressive language scores compared to children who engaged in other types of TDU. The authors caution that it is possible that children with slower language development may prefer playing non-educational games and that it would be inappropriate to conclude that lower scores in language were caused by TDU.

Dr. Paul Yellin commented,  "Dr. Millanaik’s quote may get to the heart of the matter. It may not be the devices per se, but rather the fact that they are used instead of reading or speaking to children. This is consistent with recent research demonstrating the importance of exposure to language in the early years."

Friday, May 2, 2014

Children in the Juvenile Justice System

The school age students we see at the Yellin Center are brought to us by their caring, concerned parents who want to know how to help their child succeed in school and in life. Sometimes, a teacher, school, physician, or tutor will suggest that families work with us to identify why their students are struggling and to help them with strategies to foster success. These children, from loving homes with lots of support and encouragement, are primed to overcome whatever challenges they face.

But not all young people come from the kind of  homes and families we are used to seeing. Too many of them, often those living in poverty and subject to abuse or neglect, spiral down into lives of gangs, violence, and crime and wind up in the juvenile justice system as inmates. We usually don't give them much thought, except perhaps to be glad they are not out committing crimes. But, recently, several circumstances have come together to remind us that there is another aspect to this issue -- and to these children.

First, a friend and colleague with years of work in the justice system has been speaking to Dr. Yellin about the young people she has encountered and how the prison system fails to offer them the kinds of educational supports which they need and to which they are entitled by law. Advocates for Children, the NYC based organization that works with families and students in all aspects of educational rights, has long been a leader in this area and has created a fact sheet outlining the rights of court-involved youth arising from J.G. et al. v. Mills, a 2004 federal court case brought by Advocates for Children of New York and the Legal Aid Society against the New York City Department of Education.

But there is much more to this issue. First, there is the failure of the prison systems, worse in some states than others, to deal with the educational and other needs of imprisoned youth. A report from the Southern Education Foundation entitled Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform Juvenile Justice Systems into Effective Educational Systems notes that most of these young people have learning and/or attention problems, as well as emotional difficulties.

Further, as we have seen when New York's governor proposed college education programs for adult inmates in state prisons, it is difficult to get popular support to spend public money on programs for those who have been convicted of crimes, even when data supports that such programs reduce recidivism.

Perhaps the most compelling item we have encountered recently is a new article appearing on the website of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, entitled Up From the Depths: Juvenile Offenders Who Turned Their Lives Around. No matter what your views are on whether or how to help young people who are in the prison system, you should take a moment to read these stories of how prosecutors, political conservatives, and convicted felons came to their present views on how to change the lives of these young people -- and the system in which they are enmeshed.