Monday, September 29, 2014

New Study Looks at Social Difficulties in Children with ADHD

A new research study from Japan finds evidence of differences in the brains of children with ADHD which may be the basis of social difficulties which these children frequently encounter.

Children with ADHD often struggle with inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, behaviors which can impair their interaction with peers. As one student we know with ADHD described efforts to arrange a social activity with other students who had similar difficulties, "It wasn't pretty. One kid wasn't paying attention and didn't realize we were trying to get together. Another decided at the last minute to do something else. And still another guy wanted to come, but had to stay after school since he was acting out in class." But scientists have questioned whether there is more to the social difficulties that children with ADHD encounter, beyond these behaviors.

In the present study, researchers used  non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy to measure changing blood flow in the brain to uncover the neural basis for the recognition of facial expressions. Being able to pick up on facial cues is an important skill that helps children get along with one another and understand social cues and expectations. The researchers found that while their typically developing control group had changes in blood flow to theirs brains when they saw either happy or angry facial expressions, the children with ADHD only showed changes in blood flow -- and thus response to -- happy expressions. They did not respond to angry expressions.

This was a small study (with only 13 subjects and 13 controls) and much more investigation remains to be done. Still, it gives some sense of the neural basis for the social struggles some children with ADHD experience; if you can't tell if your friend is angry with you, you won't be able to respond appropriately and social relations may suffer as a result.

photo and graphics provided under CC license

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Celebrate Banned Books Week

Happy Banned Books Week! From September 21st – 27th, libraries, authors, teachers, professors, and schools will honor works of literature that have been banned or challenged in a celebration of freedom of expression. Banned Books Week’s message of tolerance seems particularly poignant this year, given the conflicts currently raging in other parts of the world.

One of the best ways to celebrate Banned Books Week is to read the controversial books. There are plenty of picture books to read aloud to the youngest children, and numerous chapter books and young adult novels have been challenged as well. Visit the American Library Association’s page of Frequently Challenged Books for lists of titles.

Those who are really passionate about freedom of expression can take this a step further. Ask your local library or your child’s school if they’ll help you organize a banned book read-out. These events typically feature people from the community reading passages from literature deemed too controversial to be distributed. Too busy? Enjoy banned book read-outs from the comfort of your home by visiting YouTube’s Banned Books Week channel . There’s even a page of celebrity read-outs, where you can watch actors and authors read some of their favorite banned literature. One of our favorites is this video of Whoopi Goldberg reading Shel Silverstein.

And remember that nothing tantalizes like the forbidden, so lists of banned books may be just the thing to motivate reluctant readers! Talk to all young people, bookworms and bibliophobes alike, about the banned books they read. Ask them why they think the book was challenged and whether they agree with its critics. Ask them whether all books should be available to everyone or whether there should be restrictions. Challenge them to list the pros and cons of an unrestricted exchange of ideas. Don’t be afraid to pose questions without easy answers; these conversations are the kind of rich ones that stimulate young people’s critical thinking skills and give them practice structuring arguments.

Happy, free reading, everyone!

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Study Shows That Brains of Children with ADHD Mature More Slowly

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric disorders among children. Increasingly, practitioners are able to recognize its symptoms; its cause, however, has been a bit murkier. Past imaging has revealed that brain maturation seems to occur later among children with ADHD than in those who do not have difficulty with attention. Now, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has added further data to the late maturation observation: researchers found that brain connections that help with focus don’t develop at the same time in the brains of children with ADHD as in the brains of their peers.

A key finding was the interaction between two networks, the default mode network (DMN) and the task positive network (TPN). On default mode, when the DMN is in control, the brain falls into daydreaming or stream-of-consciousness thinking. The DMN is activated in even typically-developing brains when a person is between tasks or fatigued. Among children with ADHD, however, the DMN interrupts the brain’s productive TPN. These kids seem less able to turn off their default modes at will, causing them to shift into daydreaming mode. Instead of using his TPN to focus on what he’s doing or plan for what comes next, a child may tune out.

Saad Faruque via Flickr CC
Happily, thanks to neuroplasticity, brains can be rewired throughout our lives; even the neurons in adults’ brains can change in response to experience. Teaching children who suffer from ADHD to recognize those moments when their default mode network fails to switch off and giving them strategies to get focused could help many kids to “outgrow” ADHD.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Finding Educational Research from Harvard and Elsewhere

The faculty and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) are engaged in a wide range of research projects, many of which have practical application to teachers, school administrators, and others interested in the most up-to-date findings on education and educational policy. Up until now, however, there has been no central clearinghouse for all of the research undertaken by the Harvard educational community; research findings and reports have been published in academic journals and dissertations and sometimes mentioned in Ed., the magazine of the GSE, but finding information on a specific subject or project has been a bit of a hit-or-miss process.

To address these issues, the GSE has just launched a new initiative, Usable Knowledge, designed to make all of the research generated by the Harvard GSE community accessible to those who can benefit from it.

As noted by Jim Ryan, Dean of the GSE, "...No research finding — no matter how profound — will make much difference in the lives of students if it is simply left to dwell in the Ivory Tower. If we hope to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes, it is imperative that we make our research findings accessible to those who can act on them. Enter Usable Knowledge — a project that will take new ideas and innovative solutions generated by our faculty and our students and put them in the hands of teachers, principals, superintendents, policymakers, and others who can have a real impact on students, schools, and education more broadly."

Of course, there are other helpful resources for those seeking information on educational research. ERIC, the Educational Research Information Center of the U.S. Department of Education, is celebrating its 50th Birthday this year. ERIC is one of a number of programs of the Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, including the What Works Clearinghouse, which has been the subject of a previous Yellin Center Blog. With a budget of $200 million and a staff of nearly 200 people, the Institute is itself a rich resource for those interested in research on educational subjects. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Back-to-School Help

For New York City students, the excellent website InsideSchools has a list of free and low cost programs that offer supplementary instruction for students in elementary through high school, designed to allow them,  "to explore new interests, get extra support, and supplement what is being taught during the school day." As  Liz Willen, one of the InsideSchool bloggers notes, New York City Schools have still not recovered from significant budget cuts and that, coupled with increased specialization of many schools -- music, art, technology, etc. -- means that some students lack access to programs they want or need. This list is one way to access such programs or skills.

Now that school is well underway, homework is something both students and their parents need to deal with on an almost daily basis. A website from the New York City Department of Education has a list of resources to help students at all levels (and their parents) with homework and test preparation. The Brooklyn Public Library has homework helpers at many of its locations, ready to assist students in grades one through eight. Families from other areas should check with their local library; many have in-person or online assistance available.
photo: bgilliard/flickr
And don't forget some of the "tried and true" resources for homework and academic support - websites like Kahn Academy, with video instruction in almost every subject in which a student might need assistance, and Spark Notes study guides and Spark Charts instructional materials for students at all levels, including medical and law school.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Different Ways to Think About and Apply to College

High school students, especially seniors, can't help but think about college. So much of their high school career -- coursework, extracurricular activities, grades, and standardized exams -- have been undertaken with thoughts of how these will translate into college acceptances by the second semester of senior year. Many students have spent time in recent months visiting campuses and deciding where they want to submit applications this fall.

Before you or your senior decides where to apply and, ultimately, where to enroll, we'd like to make a suggestion that may help inform your decision process.

Take the time to read or re-read the book Colleges That Change Lives: 
40 Schools That Will Change the
Way You Think About Colleges, by Loren Pope. Originally written in 1996, with a current 2013-14 edition updated by Hilary Masell Oswald, this book is a breath of fresh air in the world of competitive admissions, large schools, and ivy envy that permeates many students' college search. The narrative descriptions of these almost universally small colleges focus on the quality of teaching, the engagement of students with their professors, curriculum, and classmates, and the impact that this kind of personalized instruction has on alumni long after graduation.Most of the schools in this book accept a large percentage of applicants -- and a large number are SAT/ACT optional and take a goodly number of "B" students. But the education they provide is rigorous and meaningful, with many having a required core curriculum that gives students a deep understanding of their world and its unifying themes. Most have significant study abroad components, and it is clear that the authors believe this gives their students a significant advantage after graduation. 

Just a few examples of the different programs described in the book are:
  • Emory and Henry College in Virginia, where, as the book notes, they do "a very good job supporting students who haven't hit their stride yet" with strong academic support services.
  • Cornell College in Iowa (which the authors stress was the first Cornell, founded some dozen years before the ivy league Cornell), whose 1200 students study under a Block Plan, where they take one course at a time in an academic year of eight blocks of three and a half weeks each.
  • Goucher College, in Maryland, where the 1500 students are required to spend at least one term abroad -- even if just the three-week January term or a summer. The book notes that around 30 percent of the students go abroad twice. One aspect of Goucher that is newer than even the most up-to-date revision of this book is that students can apply in one of several ways, including via video. The video application, only available for students who are applying via the non-binding, early action application, asks students to submit a short video about themselves and their goals. It is not the only way to apply to Goucher, but it may be just the way for some students to best demonstrate what makes them a desirable candidate. Take a look for yourself and see what you think. We hope this becomes a common way for other schools to learn about their applicants. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Nutrition News... And More

Sometimes it seems like one subject just shouts out to be the subject of a blog post -- and today that subject is nutrition.

First, we came upon an engaging new book called Jesse's Magic Plate - The Fun Way for Kids to Learn About Healthy Eating, by Donna Daun Lester, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and teacher.

Written as a read-aloud story for children as young as three and to be read on their own by older children, this colorfully illustrated book uses a magical plate to explain healthy eating in terms children can apply to their own eating preferences. Lester uses the idea of "power foods" and the benefits they bring to children to encourage children to try new, healthy foods. As the magical plate explains to Jesse when telling him about the importance of eating colorful fruits and vegetables, "We feel our best when we eat them, but it may take some practice to like some of them."

The book is based upon the USDA My Plate food guidance system, and Lester urges her readers to visit the site and use its wealth of information.

Jesse's Magic Plate includes separate sections with lists of healthy foods, broken down by category -- protein, grains, vegetables, etc. -- along with colorful illustrations of food groups. Several pages of illustrated faces and other components for children to use to make their own "magic" plates are also included.We particularly liked that this book is designed for children, to help them understand the benefits of healthy eating and the steps they need to take to make eating better part of their daily lives. Parents can't always be around to help children make smart food choices and it is crucial to empower kids to enable them to make wise food decisions on their own.

Of course, not every food is right -- or even safe -- for every child, and food allergies can be a huge concern for many families. We recently encountered the mouth-watering baked goods created by No Nut Nation, which are certified free of peanuts and tree nuts. If this is an issue for a child or an adult in your life, this can be a delicious solution to finding safe prepared baked goods.

And, finally, a new article published as a supplement to Pediatrics earlier this week, builds on studies of a group of about 1,500 children who were followed closely up to age one. The follow up studies looked at several aspects of the children's nutrition when they reached age six. Among the findings were that early preferences for fruits and vegetables -- and for sugary beverages -- developed during the first year of life were still evident at six years of age. As the researchers noted, "It is not clear whether these associations reflect the development of taste preference during infancy or a family eating pattern that manifests at various ages, but the studies do point to the need to establish healthful eating behaviors early in life."