Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Learn Mindfulness with Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel

Like that awful song your teenager has been playing on repeat all summer, the mindfulness trend is hot right now. Unlike that song, however, mindfulness is a trend we hope will stick around. Mindfulness can help improve attention and emotional resilience by simply encouraging people to be aware of what is happening around and inside them. Often it has been linked to meditation or yoga, but mindfulness can be taught in the context of everyday activities, too. Results of research exploring the effects of mindfulness suggests that it’s a very promising technique; children who learn mindfulness are able to sustain attention longer, resist impulses, self-soothe, and effectively control anxiety. In fact, in a recent blog post, we noted research that found that using mindfulness techniques has proven effective to reduce stress and depression and to improve parenting skills in parents of children with developmental disabilities.

For parents who think their children could benefit from mindfulness, Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel is an excellent resource. Snel, founder of the Academy for Mindful Teaching in the Netherlands, has worked to develop meditation and mindfulness training programs for more than twenty-five years. Her book is a user-friendly and effective tool that helps families use mindfulness and reap its benefits. The exercises in it are basic enough for children as young as five but nuanced enough to use with kids into their middle school years.

The book contains exercises for families to try together and explanatory passages aimed at adults that parents will find insightful and intriguing. In addition to the text, the book comes with an audio CD that leads listeners through more activities that promote calm and focus. Those suspicious that the book will smack of strange, new-age ideas will be pleasantly surprised by its down-to-earth tone and common-sense advice. To give you a sense of the program, here’s a short excerpt from the first track on the audio CD:

“A frog sits very still but is always aware of what is going on around it. It jumps, stops, and sits really still, being aware of everything around it. It only moves when it really has to, like when it’s hungry. It doesn’t waste energy doing things it doesn’t have to do. It’s aware of all the commotion going on around it, but it doesn’t react.”

Cultivating this awareness is a big part of Snel’s mindfulness training. In addition to learning to be attentive to their surroundings, kids are encouraged to turn the lens inward to find out what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing with their minds and bodies. Many children have difficulty understanding the escalation of their own impulses or feelings and aren’t sure how to control them, so providing kids with tools for this purpose can be enormously comforting. Parents can give staying power to the book’s worthy lessons by helping kids remember to use what they’ve learned when they’re presented with challenging situations.

Mindfulness can be very beneficial to children with attention difficulties and anxiety. But it can also help frazzled adults manage stress and feel more balanced. So, by sharing the lessons from Sitting Still Like a Frog with your kids, you may be doing yourself a favor, too.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bad News About a Bad Law

Back in May 2011, we wrote about a then pending Florida law that would prohibit physicians from asking parents about whether there are guns in their homes. The question, when asked by a pediatrician or family physician, can open the topic of gun safety and allow the doctor to counsel the parent about what is needed to make sure that their own and other people's children are kept safe. 

Gun advocates claimed that this would constitute harassment and somehow lead to records being kept by physicians as to which of their patient families had guns present in their homes. Opponents of the law pointed to limits on a physician's judgment, freedom of speech issues, and the appalling number of children injured or killed by playing with guns found in their home or another house at which they play.

The law was signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott shortly after our original post about it. In September of 2012 we were able to report that Federal District Court Judge Marcia G. Cooke had ruled that the Florida law was unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction which blocked its enforcement.

Late last week, we learned that the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, overturned Judge Cooke's injunction, which means the law can take full effect. You can read the complete 160 plus page decision and the dissent by Judge Charles R.Wilson here.

We hope that some of the groups that brought the initial lawsuit against this law will continue to seek to overturn it. The next stop for this would be the United States Supreme Court. We will continue to follow and report on new developments. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Recommended Reads: Before I Fall

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Ages: High School; will likely appeal more to young women than to young men. 

Adult Themes: Parents should definitely review this book before handing it to their teenage daughters. Several blunt references to sexual encounters are described and references to substance use are abundant. (A large portion of the action takes place at a high school house party with no parents in sight.) Oliver does not glorify this questionable content though, and we're confident that poised high school students can handle it. This book is inappropriate for middle school students, however.

Plot: The book opens with seventeen-year-old senior Samantha Kingston’s death in a late-night car crash. Our immediate sympathies for Sam are tempered over the next few pages, however, as she takes the reader through some of her history. Wildly popular, pretty, and wealthy, Sam and her three best friends are the unchallenged queens of Thomas Jefferson High and have maintained their edge by making life miserable for anyone who crosses their path. They mercilessly put others down, start rumors, and exclude whomever they please, and their cruelty seems only to increase their social standing. Instead of death being the end for Sam, however, she finds herself waking up all over again on the morning of crash and relives the same day until the night is ended abruptly by her death. Again. And then she finds herself back in bed the morning before the crash once more. As Sam experiences her last day again and again, she makes different choices and learns more about the people around her, and about herself. Her last-minute discoveries cause her to question the school’s hierarchy, her relationship with her demanding boyfriend, her friends’ ruthless dominion over the school, and her own insecurities. Can Sam put things right and save herself? 

Our Take: This worthy book may come off initially as fluffy and trite. It's tempting to brush off Oliver's plot as a rewarmed version of an idea that’s already overdone. Before I Fall is tolerably well written, however; the first-person narration brings Sam to life and is so authentic that one suspects that Oliver put in a lot of time eavesdropping on teenage girls. More important than the style, though, is the fact that this book will get adolescent girls thinking without ever feeling preachy. Sam is still sassy and cool at the end of the book even after she has been made to understand the error of her ways, demonstrating that one doesn’t have to be dull and pious to be a good person. Oliver successfully walks a tricky tightrope here; she is able to maintain Sam's appeal while making it clear that many of the traits associated with popularity are negative ones. Another plus: things at the end of the book are not as tidily tied up as they might have been if Oliver were a lesser writer, making Sam's transformation and the rather fanciful plot feel real enough to be taken seriously.

Good to Know: Fox purchased the movie rights to Before I Fall in 2010. The movie version is still classified as “in development,” though, so enthusiastic readers may have a while to wait.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reducing Stress in Moms of Children with Disabilities

Parenting can be a stressful business, and parents of children with developmental disabilities know this all too well. Even though high levels of parental stress, anxiety, and sleep disturbance have been associated with poorer outcomes in the children of such parents, there has been little research as to how to best help these parents directly (as opposed to help aimed at their children).

A new study in the latest issue of Pediatrics has found that when mothers of children with such disabilities as autism, Asperger disorder, pervasive development disorder, and psychiatric conditions were given the opportunity to work with well-trained, supervised peer mentors, using Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for six weeks of group treatments in 1.5-hour weekly sessions, the mothers showed significant reductions in stress, depression, and anxiety, and improved sleep and life satisfaction, with particularly large effects in depression and anxiety. Another group, utilizing Positive Adult Development (positive psychology practice) also showed improvement, but not as significantly as the Mindfulness group.

Importantly, the moms in both treatment groups continued to improve even after the initial six week program, and the researchers report that the positive impact of the work with the peer mentors was still evident six months after the treatment period. The authors of the study note that helping parents to cope with stress and improving their mental health will not only enhance the quality of the parents' lives, but also impact their long term ability to function as effective caretakers of their children.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Activities for Families and Kids

Heading out for a family trip? Before you go (and even if you are staying close to home), take a look at Factory Tours USA, which currently lists 573 tours of factories throughout the US. Categories include agriculture, vineyards, glass factories and mines and mining. Most are free or very low cost and there are links included to let you check on details. The site urges that you contact the business in which you are interested to confirm hours and availability of tours. There is also a feature that lets you search by geographical areas, so you can plot your visits by category or location.

No matter where you are heading, if you are bringing kids of middle school age or older, it is always a great idea to visit one or more college campuses along the way or at your destination. Walk around the campus, take a tour (always free, but you may need to schedule in advance and hours vary during the summer, so check the college's website under "visitors" for the best information). The goal of these visits isn't to consider any particular school, but to start getting your child aware of the many different kind of colleges out there and to foster family conversations about college, how to prepare for college, and even the financial realities of college in today's world. Have lunch in the cafeteria and see what you all think about the "vibe" on campus!

Closer to home, check out free or very low cost workshops for kids at stores like Home Depot, whose next free workshop for kids 5-12 is Saturday, August 2nd. Loew's offers free Build and Grow workshops.

And Michaels craft stores offer 30 minute craft sessions for kids while parents shop, for a $2 fee. They also offer an array of longer classes. All of these classes (except those for shoppers' kids at Michaels) require preregistration.

Thanks to Jeanette Pavini of Good Housekeeping magazine for some of these ideas.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Agricultural Science for Kids

There is something about summer that makes even the most resolute city folks think about farms, growing fruits and vegetables, and rolling fields that seem to go on forever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service has just the ticket for sparking kids' interest in matters of farming, noting on a website geared for children and their parents and teachers that "agriculture is more than just cows and pigs on the farm."

The Agricultural Research Service is the chief research arm of the U.S.D.A. and employs some 2,100 scientists at 100 locations nationwide, including a few outside the United States.

The site features a "cool careers" section which allows kids to explore the many kinds of scientists who work in the field of agriculture, from chemists and horticulturists to hydrologists and nematologists (scientists who study worms). There is a "for teachers" section with an extensive list of resources and classroom activities, educational puzzles and crosswords to print, and a separate section on science projects (including ideas for agricultural focused projects and how to set up a successful project). 

Teachers may want to use the site to help them plan for the coming year and parents may want to spark their children's interests in connecting with the science behind the bounty at their local farmers' market. It's chock-full of information and ideas and a great way to get kids involved in this important aspect of the world around them. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Read and Rise Program Cultivates Literacy

A meeting at The Yellin Center yesterday among educators and others looking to improve outcomes for young children in New York City's Harlem neighborhoods, gave us the opportunity to meet Shirley H. Smith, Ph.D., who serves as a consultant to Scholastic, Inc. Dr. Smith introduced us to Scholastic's Read and Rise Program, part of the Scholastic FACE initiative -- Family and Community Engagement. Read and Rise is one part of the FACE mission to work with families and community resources to build early language development and literacy skills in children and address the fact that some 35% of children begin school without the language skills they will need to succeed.

Read and Rise is designed to reach parents and caregivers to help them to build oral language and other pre-reading skills in their children by building on the child's primary language and familiar culture. Such basic everyday things -- reading aloud, sharing songs and stories, and talking about cultural traditions -- are emphasized as ways families can help prepare their young children to start school ready to learn to read. In fact, the program is based on research that demonstrates the impact of early language development and home environments rich in books and reading as factors in long-term academic success.

The program includes a workbook for parents of children from infants and toddlers through third grade, including stories to read aloud, suggestions for engaging children in reading, and recommended books. There are separate books to read aloud along with a guide for parents as to how to maximize the reading experience for their children. There is also a web version of the program as well as information on how community organizations can obtain grant funding to enable them to implement Read and Rise. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Algebra in the Real World

A couple of years ago, Queens College Professor Andrew Hacker wrote a provocative piece in The New York Times entitled, "Is Algebra Necessary?". In it, he notes that completing required high school or college algebra courses is a significant bar to graduation for many students. He explains that it is not the useful aspects of mathematics that are the problem; instead, it is the way algebra is taught and the tenuous connection between classroom formulas and real life applications that raise questions about the usefulness and necessity of algebra courses.

We have seen a number of students, with and without math disabilities, struggle with this subject matter and are not surprised by Dr. Hacker's statement that in the City University system in New York, where he taught since the early 1970's "...57 percent of its students didn’t pass its mandated algebra course. The depressing conclusion of a faculty report: “failing math at all levels affects retention more than any other academic factor." "

There are many excellent tools, books,  and games that help students build algebra skills and support the importance of mathematics and algebra as part of school curricula and as a life skill. Take a look at the "tags" along the right hand side of this blog page for the subject "algebra" to see our relevant posts.

Following up on Dr. Hacker's article, the Times came up with suggestions for using algebra within the context of the subjects covered by the newspaper. In a post on its Learning Network titled, "N Ways to Apply Algebra With The New York Times", Patrick Honner lists numerous ways to apply algebraic formulas. These include:

  • Exploring the housing market, including the impact of changing mortgage rates and whether it is less expensive to buy or rent an apartment
  • Reviewing the numbers used in college rankings and creating an individualized formula for ranking colleges
  • Looking at the costs of owning a car and exploring depreciation rates
  • Determining whether it pays to buy a seven day, 30 day, or single ride MetroCard
Whether you and your students agree or disagree with Dr. Hacker, we can all agree that algebra is not disappearing from high schools and colleges any time soon. If you love it, or just want to get it over with, spending some time applying algebra in the real world may be a useful way to use your brain this summer. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Heading to College? We've Got Lots of Advice

Now that summer is in full swing, high school graduates heading off to college in the fall should be thinking ahead to what they need to do to make their freshman year -- and their entire college career -- a success. This is even more important for students with learning and other challenges who have had access to accommodations and academic supports in high school. Over the five years we have been writing this blog, we have addressed a number of issues that college students need to think about and act on to ensure their success.

Students taking medication need to think about how they will refill their prescriptions. Incoming freshman also need to make sure they have contacted their college's Office of Disability Services and submitted documentation of their learning or other disability. Having an IEP or 504 Plan in high school is not sufficient for college accommodations; there is no IEP in college!

It is important to discuss the need to stay on top of academic challenges if they occur. Too often, students don't want to face the fact that they are in academic difficulty, or they want to keep the fact that they may be failing one or more courses from their parents. The problem is that once a student fails a course, this becomes part of their academic record and can have consequences such as suspension, dismissal, or even just a lower GPA. 

Students in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- who haven't already registered for  fall courses, might want to consider research that indicates that students perform better in courses that involve "active learning". And avoiding courses with frequent tests may not be the best decision, since research has found that frequent testing can actually boost learning in college classes.

There are lots of other resources in our blog posts that college bound students may find useful. Try our search feature (on the right hand side of the page) to look for tips for technology, writing, and organization. We hope you find these helpful!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

New Pediatric Concussion Guidelines

Watching the amazing players on the World Cup teams, we suspect that the high level of play and the drama of many of the games will help make soccer more popular here in the U.S., especially among young people. But we can't help but notice the frequent and often traumatic contact between the players' heads and the ball and the lack of any sort of protective headgear. Parents are understandably concerned about this.

We were particularly interested, therefore, when we learned of the release last week of the first comprehensive pediatric concussion guidelines from pediatric emergency medicine researchers at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) together with the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation (ONF). The guidelines were developed by an expert panel including over 30 members across Canada and the United States, and included representation from the full spectrum of pediatric health disciplines (emergency medicine, family practitioners, neurologists, rehabilitation professionals, etc.) which worked for over two years and reviewed more than 4,000 academic papers.

"These are the first comprehensive pediatric guidelines that we're aware of; they reflect the very best available evidence today," said Dr. Roger Zemek, who led the panel. "It was fascinating to see how recommendations have changed over time. Years ago, children were told to 'rest' after concussion, which means something entirely different today with the onset of technology – now, rest also includes a break from screen time."

The guidelines include numerous tools and instructions for parents, schools, physicians, and coaches. For example, the guidelines provide a pocket tool to be used by a coach or parent at the sideline to recognize concussion and offer advice on when to remove kids from play and when to seek emergent medical attention. For the emergency department physician, algorithms are provided to guide the decision whether or not to obtain CT scans, and examples of written discharge handouts for patients and families are included. For family physicians and nurse practitioners in the community, the guidelines provide recommendations for ongoing symptom management and decision tools to help navigate 'return-to-learn' and 'return-to-play'. For school boards, the guidelines provide an example of a policy statement regarding pediatric concussion.

We have long been concerned about the impact of concussions on learning  It is encouraging to see the expertise of so many researchers and clinical physicians come together to offer practical guidelines that reflect the best current knowledge.