Friday, December 23, 2016

Our Holiday Wishes

Since 2010, we have posted a holiday poem, starting with a variation of  A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas). We've continued each year since and this year's offering is below.

It’s just before Christmas and tradition requires 

Our annual blog, all in rhyme

Some years are better; some best forgot,

But it’s fun and that always is fine.

We mostly look back on the year that has passed

On our work with both students and schools

On our recommendations to help kids to learn

Sometimes books, sometimes apps, sometimes tools.

We also look back at our work done with others,

Folks like Relay, QED, Understood

Where we share what we know and help to build knowledge

And contribute to things that are good.

But this year we look forward, to try to keep hope

As uncertainty brings some anxiety

After a bitter election, our nation’s in flux

And new challenges face our society.

So, as one year is ending and a new one begins

We have wishes both large and quite small

We hope they come true, both for us and for you

And they make our world better for all.

We wish for a world filled with peace and with caring

Where people respect one another

And however they worship, whomever they love

They learn how to live with each other.

We wish that all children – and parents as well –

Have a home, and good food, and good health.

That we all come together to focus on this

For that is the best kind of wealth.

We hope that our world, our dear planet Earth,

Can be cared for by all of its residents

That we each do our part to preserve it

From children, to parents, to presidents.

And we hope you have love and have friends and stay well

All the things that make life so worthwhile

And that when next year ends, you can look back and see

That you really had reasons to smile.

We wish you all a very happy holiday and a wonderful 2017. The Yellin Center will be closed from December 24th, reopening on Monday, January 2nd.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mindful New Year's Resolutions

In just a few short days, we’ll be celebrating the beginning of a new year and, with that celebration, many of us will be making New Year’s Resolutions.  There are always the old fallback resolutions for adults – the ones that are typically forgotten by the first week of February.  But for kids, the options are endless; they can use the resolution framework to reflect on 2016 and mindfully prepare for 2017.  New Year’s resolutions are an opportunity to practice those meta-cognitive and self-regulatory skills, which we know are important for both academic and personal achievement.
 As you gear up for your family’s celebrations, it may be a good time to guide your children or students in personal reflection.  This is a conversation that could happen around the dinner table, while wrapping presents, as your youngster is gearing up for bedtime, or whenever you all can find a quiet moment together.  It may be helpful to start by helping children and teens recall all that went right in their lives this year, how they’ve grown, and how they have contributed to their own successes.  What went really well for them in 2016?  How did I achieve that success?  What did I improve upon in 2016?  How can I keep up the good work next year?

Once you’ve worked together to find all the successes of the past year, it’s time to brainstorm what might be different in 2017, and how you and your child can prepare for what’s coming next in their personal lives.  Think about what worked, and what didn’t, in 2016 to make a plan for continued success.  What do I want to achieve in 2017?  What tools do I already have to achieve those goals?  What might I need help with to reach those goals?  What’s my contingency plan if I feel like I’m struggling – who are my support system?  

Whatever your goals are for 2017, we hope you have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year. Our resolution for 2017 is to continue to bring you information that can improve your lives and those of your children, students, and colleagues. We’ve got one more blog for 2016 (our 955th, not that we’re counting) and thank you, our readers, for giving us a reason to read, research, and write for you.

Friday, December 16, 2016

US DOE Guidance on Section 504 and ADHD

K-12 students who struggle with attention may be entitled to support and accommodations under either the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973).  For those students whose ADHD (which we will use here to include students with attention difficulties, whether or not they include hyperactivity) has a significant impact on their academic performance, or for whom attention difficulties occur together with learning or related challenges, the IDEA is often the best way to receive what they need to be successful in school.

The IDEA generally provides more extensive services, permits more parental input, and is available to students in both public and private schools. However, not all students meet the criteria for receiving IDEA services, which include having a specific category of disability (attention generally falls under "other health impaired"), and being in need of "special education and related services." For students with ADHD who do not meet the IDEA requirements and who are in public schools, Section 504 can provide what these students need to be successful in school despite their attention difficulties.

Earlier this year, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, which administers Section 504, issued a letter to offer guidance to states and school districts about problems with the way in which Section 504 was being applied to students with ADHD. These problems included:

  • Failing to identify students who may have ADHD;
  • Failing to properly evaluate students suspected of having ADHD;
  • Inappropriate decisions about the education, services, and setting that may be required by students who had been properly identified and evaluated; and
  • Failure to let the appropriate school personnel (especially teachers) know about the 504 Plan so it could be properly implemented. 
In addition to the extensive guidance letter (42 pages), the OCR created a brief, clear, two page document titled Know Your Rights: Students with ADHD. One point mentioned in this document, which often is raised by schools when they decline to consider a student with attention difficulties for a 504 Plan, is "Regardless of how well he or she performs in school, a student who has trouble concentrating, reading, thinking, organizing or prioritizing projects, among other important tasks, because of ADHD may have a disability and be protected under Section 504." We frequently find that schools use the excuse "but she gets good grades" or "but he is doing well on tests" when parents know that their child is struggling with attention and could learn and perform better with the accommodations and supports available under Section 504. We hope that seeing this issue set forth in black and white might help schools better understand their obligations to students with ADHD.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Lessons on Immigration for Difficult Times

Where did your family come from?

Unless you are of Native American ancestry, your relatives came to this country from somewhere – or from many somewheres. It may have been a recent arrival, or may have taken place many decades ago, but all Americans have a story of immigration in their past. As immigration became a hot topic during the election and continues to be discussed in inflammatory terms now that the election is over, students and their families, especially those who have recently arrived in the U.S., deal with fear, uncertainty, and possible discrimination.

This may be a good time for teachers to examine immigration with age appropriate lessons for their students. A post-election blog titled, The Election Is Over, But for Teachers, Hard Conversations Are Just Beginning from Education Week asks the questions: How can teachers begin to unite their classrooms? How can they soothe students' fears? We have some suggestions for programs, readings, and classroom activities – some of long standing and some designed to respond to issues raised in the presidential election.

The Southern Poverty Law Center , whose mission is “fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society … using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy,” conducted a survey of nearly 10,000 educators – both before and after the election. Among the findings was that the presidential campaign “elicited fear and anxiety among children of color, immigrants and Muslims; emboldened students to mimic the words and tones of candidates and pundits; and disrupted opportunities to teach effectively about political campaigns and civic engagement”. Their response was to present resources for use in classrooms at all levels to help students recognize and respond to bias against immigrants and those of other religions or cultures.

PBS public television has extensive resources for grades 7-12 to use in connection with their documentary mini-series, The New Americans, which explores the immigrant experience through the personal stories of immigrants to the United States. There are 11 interactive lesson plans that help teachers connect their students with the historical and contemporary aspects of immigration.

Scholastic, publisher of books and educational materials, has 76 different resources, ranging from interactive white board lessons to paperback books on all aspects of immigration and the immigrant experience.

Although these lesson plans and other resources are designed for use in the classroom, many can be used by parents who want to help give their children a better understanding of the history of immigration in the United States and of people who may look, sound, or pray differently than they do. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Important SAT and ACT Changes on Accommodations

The College Board has announced important changes to they way they determine testing accommodations for students with disabilities, effective January 1, 2017.

The new policy will apply to students who have IEPs or 504 Plans and to private school students with a formal, school-based plan. It requires school testing accommodation coordinators to ask only two questions when submitting most requests for student accommodations:
  • Is the requested accommodation(s) in the student’s plan? and
  • Has the student used the accommodation(s) for school testing?
If the answer is yes to both questions, eligible students can be approved to receive most accommodations on College Board exams. These exams include the SAT, PSAT, NMSQT, SAT subject tests and AP exams.

The College Board president, David Coleman, noted in an announcement of this change that, “The school staff knows their students best, and we want to cut down on the time and paperwork needed to submit a testing accommodations request.” That may be true, but steps by the U.S. Department of Justice to make sure the testing organizations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act were undoubtedly also a factor in the College Board decision. We wrote about this back in 2015, including links to the Justice Department guidelines. Earlier in 2016, the Justice Department began an inquiry into testing accommodations following a number of complaints. 

Another policy change by both the College Board and the ACT exam involves students who are English Language Learners (ELL). 

For the first time, the ACT exam will offer accommodations to ELL who are enrolled in a school's ELL program, starting in the fall of 2017. These will include:
  • More time on the test: up to time-and-a-half
  • Use of an approved word-to-word bilingual glossary (one that has no word definitions)
  • Testing in a non-distracting environment (i.e., in a separate room)
  • Test instructions provided in the student's native language (including Spanish and a limited number of other languages initially)
Similar accommodations will be made available effective starting in January 2017 (although extended time will not be available until later that year) by the College Board for its exams given to enrolled ELL students taking state funded exams in school. 

Tips for Students
Students, parents, and schools need to keep in mind that these new paths to accommodations are not foolproof. The College Board uses terms like "most" when referring to students with disabilities and the accommodations to be extended. 

Furthermore, as with their prior process for approving accommodations, it is important that these are not just listed in an IEP or 504 Plan, but are used on a regular basis. Students who have extended time on exams, for example, need to utilize this accommodation if they want to have it applied to their standardized testing. 

To be applicable to the SAT and other exams, accommodations must be formalized. An IEP or 504 Plan will do this. So will a private school's formal written plan. But extended time or other accommodations given informally by teachers or even school-wide without a formal plan will not qualify for this streamlined review. 

Likewise, the accommodations offered to ELL do not necessarily apply to all of these students. The College Board will extend its streamlined accommodations process only to ELL taking a state-funded SAT during the school day. It is not clear how this might apply to all ELL. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Study Looks at Impact of ADHD on Homework

It should come as no surprise to parents and teachers that researchers have found that students who struggle with attention and executive functions are less likely to complete and submit homework assignments. A study earlier this year in the Journal of School Psychology looked at this phenomenon over a period of 18 months in 104 middle school students who had definitive diagnoses of ADHD.

The researchers looked at all the steps that students had to complete to be successful with homework, something they called the “completion cycle.” These include:

  • Accurately recording assignments with sufficient detail
  • Bringing home the materials needed for the assignment
  • Planning ahead to complete the work (ie: not procrastinating)
  • Staying focused and completing the work correctly
  • Bringing the completed work back to school and handing it in.

Even where teachers or parents provided some homework support, most of these responsibilities fell upon students to meet.

Multiple teachers were questioned about assignment completion and their reports about each student were highly consistent across classes, with teachers reporting that students with ADHD were turning in an average of 12 percent fewer assignments than their classmates.

Furthermore, there was a strong correlation between the percentage of assignments turned in at the beginning of the study and students’ school grades some 18 months later, even when controlling for numerous academic and socio-economic factors that could affect grades. Poor homework completion was associated with low grades and low grades were associated with lower future homework completion rates. The study also found that students whose parents rated their “homework material management” as problematic at the inception of the study were likely to be reported by teachers as having a lower percentage of assignments turned in as the study came to an end.

The researchers note that homework assignment completion problems are persistent across time and can be an important intervention target for teens with ADHD. For parents (and teachers) dealing with students who seem scattered and disorganized in numerous areas of their lives, a focus on homework may be a good first step towards improving their school performance.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Especially Grateful

As your blogger read through our past Thanksgiving posts, a definite theme runs through the years - gratitude.

Some years it is for things like terrific Thanksgiving books for kids (still need something to bring with you for the younger members of your family?). Some years it is a special appreciation of all the schools and families who come to us for guidance and support and of the professionals (teachers, physicians,  psychologists, speech and language therapists, and occupational therapists) who trust us to help their patients.

And every year we are grateful for our amazing Yellin Center team - the clinical staff and administrators without whom we could not do what we do. Their care for the families we see and their dedication to our shared vision make us grateful for them every single day.

This year, we are especially thankful for family. No matter where you stand following this year's contentious election, it has not been an easy few months. Some families have been divided along political lines while others have relied upon one another to deal with their stress and concerns. Parents have needed to explain the election process and its results to their children (and our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics have some sound advice on this) We hope that even if your family has not been united as recent political events have unfolded, that you are able to come together around the Thanksgiving table and remember all the things you like about one another.

As for the Yellin family, we will be gathering, as we do each year, to watch the parade, spend the day talking and sharing and eating and catching up with family members we see all too seldom. It's a blessing to have far-flung family come together and support one another. We wish you a terrific Thanksgiving.

The Yellin Center will be closed for the Thanksgiving weekend, reopening on Monday, November 28th. 

Photo credit: Terry Ballard via flickr cc

Monday, November 21, 2016

Math Achievement Gap Persists

STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – have gotten a lot of press in recent years. Most notably, there’s been an earnest movement to increase the number of girls and young women who choose to engage deeply in these fields. Historically, men have been disproportionately represented in college majors and careers that depend on math and science knowledge. This tendency trickled down all the way to elementary school, where an achievement gap persists between girls’ and boys’ math achievement, beginning in first grade. New research compares data from a large cohort of children who were in kindergarten in 2011 with a similar data set gathered from the cohort of students who were in kindergarten in 1999.

The researchers who analyzed all these data were expecting – and hoping – to find that there were some significant changes not only in the math achievement gender gap over the 12 year period but also in the way teachers perceive students’ math abilities. Unfortunately, what they found in the 2011 cohort is strikingly similar to what they found in 1999. Boys continue to outperform girls, and the gap widens as children get older. For example, by the spring of grade two, when looking at the students above the 99th percentile, only one out of every five students is female. In other words, most of the top performers are boys.

In addition to this achievement gap, the researchers also found that teachers underrate girls’ performance. This means that teachers think girls are doing more poorly in math even when their scores are equal to that of boys. Girls have to outperform boys to be perceived as doing equally well. This is not a surprising finding, given prior research. It is reminiscent of a New York Times article, which references a meta-analysis of many studies. However, much of the research about the phenomenon is conducted with adults. The data garnered from this 2011 cohort confirm that the bias exists with young children as well; teachers seem just as likely as office managers to fall victim to this unfortunate bias.

The authors of the new study, which was published in an open access journal by the American Educational Research Association so it can be read by anyone for free, have a few data-backed hypotheses about why this achievement gap appears as pronounced as ever. The first ties in to teachers’ biased perceptions. Stereotypes about girls’ math ability persist, and these stereotypes likely affect teacher ratings. Ratings, in turn, affect teacher expectations and expectations affect how teachers interact with students. For example, girls often receive less direct feedback about their math work as compared to boys. Teachers are also more likely to attribute a girl’s math difficulty to a lack of innate ability, while they believe a boy who is struggling just needs to work harder. All of these conscious and unconscious beliefs affect how teachers and parents interact with students, and those interactions can play a big role in how girls approach math and feel about their math capabilities.

In addition to stereotypes, the researchers raise the question of whether the different types of learning behaviors seen in young boys and girls may contribute to the differences they found. Boys are more likely to use out-of-the-box strategies, while girls are more likely to use familiar procedures that adhere to teacher direction. Following procedures may be helpful with early math skills, but it’s the creative, bold thinking that helps students achieve higher-level math skills. These problem solving differences are likely due, again, to the different expectations placed on girls and boys from a very young age.

It’s unfortunate that the gap and the bias persist, but despite the bit of bad news, many more girls and young women are choosing to stick with the STEM fields than ever before. Being aware of our biases and actively working to overcome them is an important component to helping girls feel confident and successful in math. Teachers who believe in their students, recognize their own potential for subconscious bias, and are motivated to overcome the achievement gap hurdle are going to help these numbers shift for the next cohort of students.

Friday, November 18, 2016

New AAP Media Guidelines and Family Media Use Tool

Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated their policy guidelines regarding screen time for children, looking separately at young children up to five years of age and at older children and teens.

The backbone of their polices for children of all ages, as it has been in the past, is that parents should make sure that screen time does not displace other activities that are critical to healthy development. In other words, families should balance a light diet of media time with physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face interactions. The AAP policy notes that digital media can provide older children with new ways to acquire information and ideas and with increased opportunities for social contact and information about health and life style. For older children, who generally use digital media without constant parental supervision, risks include negative health effects on weight and sleep; exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts; and compromised privacy and confidentiality. 

The AAP continues to recommend no screen time for children under 18 months of age, except for video-chatting (FaceTime or Skype with relatives). Children from eighteen months up to two years old can begin to watch some high-quality programming, as long as a caregiver is present to enhance their understanding of the media and make the experience interactive. The AAP cautions that just because media is advertised as "educational" does not mean that it offers real benefits to children. Between the ages of two and five, children can watch up to one hour but, again, caregivers should be present and engaged. Screen time is used most effectively when caregivers can relate the information on the screen to the world around them, highlighting the interactive nature of the experience. Once a child hits six years old, parents should be consistent in the limits they place on screen time. Most importantly, as noted above, screen time should not replace the more critical activities of childhood, including sleep and active play. 

The AAP also suggests creating media-free zones at home (e.g., no media in the bedroom) as well as media-free times, such as dinner or car trips. As children get older, caregivers should continue to discuss their online presence, including safety and what it means to be a upright online citizen. The policy for older children urges parents to discourage entertainment media during homework time and to make sure that teens don't sleep with their phones, tablets, or computers in their bedroom. Finally, for children of all ages, parents should model responsible use of media, limiting their own use and remaining "present" during family time.

What’s new this year is the Family Media Use Tool. This online tool allows family members to work together to decide how media is going to play a role in their home. It provides customizable options for media-free zones and times, as well as how screen time is going to be used by each family member. For example, toddlers may be designated as co-viewers only, meaning they only engage in screen time as a joint activity. Older children may be designated as allowed to use social media and watch age-appropriate shows, but not visit new websites without permission. Older teens may be able to have freer use of the internet, but limits on where they can use their screen devices, so that parents can keep an eye on what they are viewing. The tool also allows families to choose some suggestions for what they can do instead of screen time, including joining a team sport or playing board games. The media use plan includes tips for online citizenship as well as reminders for kids to keep their eyes off the screen while engaging in conversation. The plan is printable and can easily be made into a contract or star chart for helping children learn how to be knowledgeable and conscientious consumers of media.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

New Attention Being Paid to Attention

When might a student’s focus be more likely to drift to the window rather than stay with the task at hand? Would it be when the material is easy or when it is difficult? A new study set out to explore and build on past research regarding this question.

Psychologists at the University of Illinois presented subjects with math problems to solve while pictures of neutral scenes, as potential distractors, flashed on a computer screen. As indicated by eye-tracking devices, participants who were given only easy problems to solve (Group A) were more likely to look at the distractors. In contrast, participants who were given only challenging problems (Group B) were less likely to look at the distractors. Financial incentives were incorporated into a variation of the experiment, but they seemed to have little impact. The more challenge that the participants encountered when working on the problems, the less likely they were to be distracted, regardless of financial incentive. 

Some participants were presented with a mix of easy and hard tasks. How distractible they were at any given time did not correlate with the difficulty level of the particular problem they were working on then. In other words, it seemed to be participants’ overall level of engagement with the task, rather than the difficulty level of any particular item, that accounted for the differences in distractibility between Group A and Group B.

The results suggest the importance of making sure that students are cognitively engaged. It is not enough to identify and assist students who may be struggling with coursework; it is also important to identify, and find ways to stimulate, students who may be bored with material that is not challenging them enough.

Friday, November 11, 2016

AAP Encourages Minors to Participate in Medical Decisions

Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released an updated policy statement about informed consent for medical procedures. This update, the first since 1995, was also the subject of an explanatory article in The New York Times. The AAP policy goes into great detail regarding not just parental informed consent, but also assent by minors. Legally, all patients must be provided with enough information about medical conditions and procedures in order for them to agree to undergo any treatments. Children, however, are under the care of their parents, who are the ones providing the consent. That’s where assent comes into play. Even though children (anyone under 18) can’t legally make their own medical decisions, it’s still considered best practice to explain as much as possible to them in age-appropriate language, and to allow their voice to be heard in the decision-making process.

We’ve always taken student participation very seriously here at The Yellin Center, and we’re thrilled to know that the medical community is continuing to advocate for including children and teens in the decision-making process. Allowing children and teens the opportunity to become actively engaged in the conversation about their healthcare allows them to practice these decision-making skills safely for later on, with the understanding that parents and doctors ultimately (and legally) have the final say. Even more importantly, the AAP notes that letting kids and teens “in the loop” – helping them understand everything that’s going on – can promote empowerment and compliance with treatment.

Even though this policy statement was released by medical professionals, the sentiment translates well right down to the classroom level, and it’s something many teachers are starting to embrace. When kids understand why they’re being asked to do certain tasks, or learn certain concepts, they can develop an appreciation for their time in school. Similarly, many students can benefit from knowledge of how all brains work differently and what strategies might help them learn best, just like a doctor may explain to a child why she has to get her tetanus booster. It could make that shot a little less painful, and that classroom activity a little more worthwhile, from the child’s perspective.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Kid-Friendly Apps for Scheduling and Task Completion

Ever since the iPhone and iPad were introduced, app developers have been busy making life easier for children and caregivers. Many children, but especially those who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, benefit from keeping to a daily routine and knowing what to expect throughout their day. Two apps by BeeVisual help kids and their parents manage a predictable daily schedule and organize a long-term calendar. 

The first, Choiceworks App, is a task management app filled with useful tools. Its most basic function allows the user to create to-do lists with pictures, audio, reward choices, and custom photos or titles. Kids can then swipe through each of their tasks - like taking a bath and finishing homework - as they complete them to earn their reward choice, which has an optional countdown timer. This simple setup helps kids become more independent in carrying out their routines while enjoying the use of a phone or tablet. The Choiceworks App also has “Waiting” countdowns, to help kids identify activities they can do while they wait, and “When I am _____, I can _____” screens, which help them choose healthy ways to respond to their emotions. Most everything is customizable with highly recognizable icons, so caregivers can enter their own activities or even photos of a child demonstrating for herself exactly what it means to “brush teeth”.

There is a set of digital Companion Books embedded within the app to accompany the different task boards. These books are meant to be shared with the child before using the app, so she gets an idea of what the app intends to do. For example, the Companion Book about waiting talks about how hard it is to wait, why it’s important, and some good activities to do while waiting. What your blogger likes best about the app is the child-friendly task manager. Enabling children to progress through their own schedules by sliding tasks from “First I Need to” to “All Done,” leads to gains in independence while children learn the beginning skills of time management and delayed gratification.

BeeVisual also makes Choiceworks Calendar, an iPad app. This app is a child-friendly calendar app that uses pictures to display what is coming up today, this week, or this month. Like the previous app, everything is customizable so caregivers can put in photos and new activities. There’s also a countdown feature – the app will count out loud the days until an upcoming event that a child may be looking forward to. This app is a simple way to introduce kids to the concept of time beyond the daily routine, and can help them think concretely about long-term goals. Both apps are available on the iTunes store for under ten dollars.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Here at The Yellin Center, we’re always on the lookout for new games or apps that can help kids and teens build up their self-confidence, executive skills, and mindfulness.  The “newest” activity taking hold of teens and young adults, however, is actually something many people probably associate with their grandparents.  Knitting (and crocheting) has surged in popularity over the last few years, especially among millennials.  It’s not uncommon to see commuters stitching away on the subway or even college students knitting while they listen to a lecture.  Many young knitters tout it as a stress-reducing hobby that leaves them with a tangible product of their hard work.  Educators have begun to look at knitting as a way to help kids engage in a calm, relaxing activity that requires a deep focus and may help decrease feelings of anxiety.

Knitting enthusiasts believe that the craft can help young people engage in mindful thought, which we know is an invaluable tool for growing minds.  Some children and young adults don’t respond well to the traditional practice of mindful meditation, which typically requires sitting still, with idle hands.  This type of stillness has the potential to increase rather than decrease anxiety for newcomers.  When someone is knitting, however, the body and fine muscles are quite active, but the repetitive nature of stitching allows the mind to be both deeply focused and free to wander with its thoughts. 

The research on knitting is still emerging, but studies thus far, conducted mostly with adults, have found emotional and psychological benefits of the craft.  It has been linked to decreased heart rate and blood pressure, feelings of calmness, and lower emotional distress.  Going at it as part of a group, such as with the knitting club written about by Jane Brody in The New York Times, has additional benefits beyond solo knitting, including higher self-reported happiness. School psychologists and teachers are starting to take advantage of knitting’s newfound appeal to begin introducing the practice into the classroom or student support groups.  Training the mind to maintain focus on a single activity is a hard feat, and it’s something a lot of students struggle with.  Knitting has the potential to improve students’ attention to a task.

Knitting is just one of many hobbies that encourages thoughtful action and deep focus in kids and young adults.  Building model planes, taking and editing photos, baking, or another crafty endeavor can lead to similarly positive feelings and a calm, peaceful mind.   Knitting is unique, however, in its ability to be taken on-the-go and used in almost any scenario without disturbing others around the crafter.   

Photo credit: Derya via flickr cc

Monday, October 31, 2016

Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching

We know from a vast amount of psychology literature that people are chock-full of biases, which impact our judgments and behaviors. For example, gamblers use both winning streaks and past losses to support the likelihood of future winnings, despite the laws of probability that contradict both theories. People may, for safety reasons, choose to drive rather than fly despite the greater preponderance of lethal car crashes than plane crashes. In making decisions about with whom to associate, people tend to deem out-group members to be more similar to one another than in-group members. The list goes on and on. 

A study released earlier this year suggests the importance of being wary of such limitations and biases as they play out in classroom settings. Researchers analyzed five years’ worth of student evaluations of teaching (SET) from thousands of students about hundreds of instructors at a French university. They also applied rigorous analyses to the data from a 2014 study that looked at SETs from an American online course in which the students were, depending on which group they were randomly assigned to, told the instructor’s gender (which was only sometimes true). Interestingly, there was no statistically significant correlation found between SETs and actual student performance on anonymously graded finals. There was a statistically significant finding, though: male instructors, or those perceived to be male, were rated more highly than female instructors.

Another interesting finding emerged in the comparison of French and American data. Among the French students, it was primarily males who tended to rate the male instructors more highly than the female instructors. Among the American students, it was primarily the females who rated the male instructors more highly. Consistent across both countries, though, were the overall relatively low ratings of female instructors, regardless of student achievement. While there is certainly room for subjectivity in evaluating teaching aspects such as enthusiasm and fairness, even what should be a much more objective measure— promptness— was found to be subject to bias. Despite taking the same amount of time to return assignments, the female instructors were rated as being significantly less prompt than the male instructors. This highlights the concerning extent to which biases can color perceptions

The conversation about gender bias in education is not new. However, much of the research done has focused on teacher biases as they relate to, and impact, students. Now we see that it is a bi-directional issue. As in all contexts, it is important to identify and be aware of biases as a first step in minimizing them or guarding against their being accepted as unquestionable truths.

The question of what may be a better, or the best, means of evaluating teacher effectiveness is an important one. This continues to be debated and opinions will continue to shift as new information comes to light. For example, the finding reported earlier this year that erroneous scores were used to link student performance to teachers has raised some eyebrows higher over one particular method. Finding an A+ means of grading teachers is certainly not easy. It is a worthy pursuit for continued exploration, but in the meantime, teachers should focus on using the best methods at their disposal for bringing out the best in their students.

Despite the many impressive things our minds allow us to do, clearly people are far from perfect in forming assessments.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Doodling and Visual Note-Taking

As far back as your blogger can remember, drawing in class has been a big no-no, often resulting in a stern “talking to” after class. Even today, kids often have to get special permission from the school psychologist or learning specialist to be allowed to scribble away during lessons. What that special permission has taught us, though, is that allowing a child (or adult) to make pictures while attending to a lecture can help her focus and stay tuned in. So why not harness that power and take it up a notch? That’s exactly what Sunni Brown and Rachel Smith, two TED speakers, are hoping we’ll all start asking ourselves next time we’re sitting in history class or attending a board meeting. 

Brown and Smith, in separate TED and TEDx speeches, described and demonstrated the practice of visual note-taking, or doodling with purpose. For the most part, we’ve always relied on using the alphabet to take notes. Unfortunately, even the fastest young writers can’t capture everything a teacher says, nor should they. A previous blog post has already explored the ways in which verbatim note-taking cuts out the requirement for comprehension and synthesis during class, allowing students to record their instructors without absorbing what is being said. For many, taking notes by hand, using the alphabet, is a great system that gets them where they need to be. For others, though, it just doesn’t cut it. That’s where doodling can help.

Brown defines doodling as the process of making spontaneous marks to help yourself think. She heralds it as a preemptive measure to stop yourself from losing focus. Lots of us have small habits that help keep us focused – tapping our feet, twisting a rubber band, or doodling, for example. By expanding our doodles into basic iconography, we can use the habit to increase our comprehension and retention of lectures or meetings. According to Brown, the reason doodling works so well is because it combines visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthesia, the four modalities of sensory input in school, with emotion and context. That key piece – adding context with personal significance – is what leads to good learning.

                                                                          Illustration by Austin Kleon via flickr cc
Smith gets more into the nitty-gritty of how we can adapt doodles into note-taking. Doodling is freer than writing, and allows you to see the big picture displayed across a page. By looking at the page as a canvas rather than a series of sequential lines, we can draw-quite literally-connections between pieces of information that come up at different times. Most importantly, drawing what you hear requires you to listen to and to understand what’s being said, so that you can translate it into your own system of icons. Doodling allows you to capture what you’re hearing in a way that’s relevant to you, and Smith advocates doing so with a personal set of icons that can be tweaked depending on the circumstance.

There are three steps to start your doodling-as-note-taking endeavor. First, pick a tool. This may be a notebook, a pencil, a thin marker, a set of colored pens, or a tablet with a drawing app. Second, develop a few basic icons. Trying to come up with your icons while you’re doodling during a lecture is like trying to develop a new language while writing – it takes 100% of your attention. It’s best to figure a few out beforehand and practice using and adjusting them over time. Third, focus on capturing the speaker’s main points. You can always add details later to capture the smaller pieces of information, and seeing your icons will aid your recall of these details. Smith’s final piece of advice – don’t get sucked into the drawing. Focus on listening and using your icons. Nobody needs to understand your drawings except you.

I took a shot at some visual note-taking based on these two TED talks, using the starter icon Smith taught her audience. My drawing skills have always been wanting, but when I look back at the notes I took, the pieces fit together. The doodles I made do a good job reminding me of the information because I had to really engage myself in the process of creating them.

For more information about visual note-taking, check out these websites:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Teen Diet Recommendations Have Lost Some Weight

Our colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have some updated recommendations for promoting healthy eating habits in adolescents. Based on a review of studies looking at adolescent obesity and eating disorders, the recommendations include that family discussions focus not on weight loss but rather on generally healthy behaviors, such as exercising and eating nutritious foods. Research suggests that parents’ comments about their own weight or that of their teenage children, even if encouraging, tend to be counterproductive. Such comments actually increase the likelihood of the adolescents gaining an unhealthy amount of weight or developing eating disorders. The AAP report also notes that dieting tends not to work, with efforts to restrict caloric intake leading to binge eating and, ultimately, weight gain.

With the prevalence of obesity and eating disorders having increased in the past few decades, efforts geared toward their prevention are as important as ever. Both types of conditions are associated with medical complications as well as psychosocial challenges, i.e., certainly counter to our goal of having happy, healthy students who are optimally available for learning. Parents with the best intentions, who may be inclined to encourage their teens to lose weight, may be wise to heed the AAP advice and shift focus from the numbers on the scale.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

FCRR Resources and Materials for Elementary Teachers

Teaching reading, especially to large classes of students who all come to school at different levels with a diverse range of exposure to literacy, is one of the most challenging parts of an early childhood educator’s job. Finding materials that can be adapted to work in your unique classroom can be difficult. Not all programs are created equal; it’s hard to judge the worth of many instructional resources because most don’t come with extensive research reviews explaining the benefits, or lack thereof. Luckily, The Florida Center for Reading Research has been working for decades to build up an impressive library of resources for teachers of students from pre-school through fifth grade. All of their materials were developed with the intent of bringing the findings from research on reading instruction into the classroom. Their website includes materials for teachers as well as innumerable downloadable printables to be used with students.

One of the best features of the FCRR website is the section Empowering Teachers, which aims to help teachers make “sound instructional decisions to improve reading outcomes.” There are layers upon layers of information, including an extensive overview of what skills are necessary for early readers and how teachers can work on those skills in the classroom. There’s even detailed guidance regarding how to differentiate instruction for diverse learners in a large class setting. Teachers can also find basic tutorials for using progress monitoring assessments and planning in-class interventions.

When your blogger was tasked with providing a reading intervention for a first grader who hadn’t yet mastered his phonics skills, I relied heavily on the activities on the FCRR website. There’s even a set of professional development videos to help new users get started with the instructional materials. There are so many different types of tasks from which to choose, it was hard for my student to get bored before I switched to the next activity. One of his favorite activities was sorting pictures of familiar objects and animals into different jars based on the sounds at the beginning of the word. Building up my binder of activities did take a lot of time initially, but you only need one set of materials to use with many children. If the materials are laminated, they can last for years.

The FCRR website includes all their resources for free as well as additional information about ongoing research and projects with which you can get involved. It’s a truly invaluable set of research-backed instructional materials for teachers at the elementary level.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Teen Driver Safety Week

It sometimes seems like there are "weeks" or "days" for all sorts of things, most of them them the creation of some marketing mind trying to get attention for a product or event. But this week's commemoration of Teen Driver Safety Week is one event that no parent should ignore. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. To put the issue in context, the CDC provides the following statistics: In 2014, 2,270 teens in the United States ages 16–19 were killed and 221,313 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes; six teens ages 16–19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries.

In 2013, young people ages 15-19 represented only 7% of the U.S. population. However, they accounted for 11% ($10 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focuses on five most significant risks when teens are at the wheel, and has created a "5 to Drive" campaign to address these: 
  • alcohol use
  • not wearing seat belts
  • distracted driving
  • speeding 
  • extra passengers, especially other teens
There are a number of steps parents can take to reduce the risks when their teens drive. Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have looked at the risk factors noted above and add a few of their own: nighttime driving, driving older vehicles, driving by teens who do not have a license, and unmedicated ADHD. They propose solutions which involve both parents and teens, including graduated driving laws, restrictions on nighttime driving and carrying passengers, and zero tolerance for alcohol use by teen drivers. 
Both the AAP and the American Automobile Association urge parents of teen drivers to consider entering into a contract with their children, first discussing the many factors that impact safe driving and then coming to an agreement about how and when their child should be operating a motor vehicle and what the consequences will be for any infractions. The AAP also offers links to information for parents about their role in safe teen driving and to clear, colorful charts (good for sharing with your teen) showing how different risk factors can affect teen driving safety.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Exercise Continues to Top the List of Learning Strategies

Memory and exercise have come up plenty of times in our work with students here at The Yellin Center, and we’ve written about them quite a bit, too. Only recently, though, have studies begun investigating the ways that exercise can help jump-start the parts of your brain that make memorization of academic material more achievable. Back in 2012 we reviewed research that debunked the myth of the “brain training” apps, which unfortunately continue to be popular among folks who want to improve their cognitive functioning. Since then, we’ve always been on the lookout for evidence-based strategies that can really make an impact on how kids and adults learn. Exercise began popping up more and more often as a crucial part of keeping our bodies, our brains, and our minds healthy, and it was only a matter of time before researchers started to look more closely at the relationship between movement and learning. Over the last few months we’ve seen a lot of research pointing to the positive effect of exercise on memory.

Exercising after studying, for example, can increase your test scores on an exam taken the next day. Light yoga combined with meditation improves communication in the parts of your brain concerned with memory and attention. Participating in moderate exercise four times a week can boost scores on a standardized memory test. Even exercising lightly while you’re learning new information can help you encode, or store, that information for later use. It’s not yet clear exactly how exercise leads to improved memory and attention, but at least one study found that moderate exercise leads to neurogenesis, or the growth of brain cells in the parts of your brain that deal with memory. Light activity, rather than an intense workout, may stimulate your brain just enough to prime it for learning.
We already know that exercise is important for keeping our bodies and minds healthy, but now we have an even better reason to get in those weekly 150 minutes – it’s one more evidence-based strategy for helping students learn new information. So what do we do with all this great data? Here are a few suggestions for incorporating some real-world “brain training” into your schedule:
  • Find a movement that’s fun for you, such as walking with friends through the park, riding your bike, or skateboarding.
  • Take movement breaks while you’re learning something new or studying for an exam. A five minute dance party is sure to get your blood pumping.
  • Don’t shy away from moving during learning, either. A treadmill or stationary bicycle with a book stand might work for some, while listening to material with headphones while jogging, riding a bike, or taking a brisk walk could be more enjoyable for others. When outside, always keep the volume at a level where you can still hear what’s going on around you.
  • Make the most of gym class and recess, and don’t worry so much about improving specific athletic skills. Spend the time running around and having fun. 
  • Combine movement with mindfulness, meditation, or light yoga. Focusing on our own minds and sitting with our thoughts and feelings can help us get the most out of movement. 
  • Keep it up! Finding activities that are enjoyable now will help kids stay active and healthy as they grow.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Choosing the College that Fits

The school year is well underway and high school seniors are busily considering the next stage of their lives. That means it’s time for them to think hard about where they want to be next fall. We’ve written in the past about the value of a college education, when to start planning for college, and how to navigate the world of FAFSA and student aid. Today we’re going to take a slightly different angle and consider the biggest question of all – how do I choose the school that’s right for me? Is there even such a thing as a “good school” or is it just a “good fit”? So much of our work here at The Yellin Center focuses on matching a learning environment to each individual student’s needs. The post-high school years are no different; every student has unique needs and expectations when it comes to higher education. 

There are a few questions every student needs to ask her- or himself before setting off on the four-year journey to a bachelor’s degree. First and foremost, we should take some time to reflect on who we are as individuals and why we’re going to college in the first place. If the first answer that comes to mind is “I have to go to college to get a job that pays well and offers stability” that’s fine, but put that thought on the back burner for just a moment. What else do you want to get out of your education? What else would you like to experience or accomplish? Perhaps there’s a particular area of study you want to explore, or a big project you’d like to become involved in. Different universities and colleges offer very different experiences. For example, your blogger chose to attend a small women’s college with no sororities, a very active student government, and a deliberate focus on developing engaged citizens. This was after spending my freshman year at a large public university with strong Greek life, huge lectures, and a focus on research. Neither campus was better than the other, but it was clear which was right for my individual needs and aspirations.

Another question to ask yourself is who you want to surround yourself with. Research has shown that classrooms full of people from all different backgrounds do more to push their students to higher levels of thinking. That means that the most comfortable campus isn’t always the one where we’ll thrive the most. Ask yourself how you feel about entering a situation where you’re forced to think differently and form bonds with people from different cultural backgrounds, races, faiths, and political ideologies. How does a specific school stand up to our expectations of diversity? On the other hand, some of us really benefit from the comfort of being close to home, surrounded by other students in similar situations. Do you feel that you would benefit more from engaging deeply in a community you’ve grown to love, such as what you might find at a local school or community college? Or do you want to dive head first into the unfamiliar and challenge yourself to see the world from a different perspective? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. Take a few moments to consider your own limitations, aspirations, and expectations.

After considering these questions, it’s important to take into consideration the preconceived biases we already have about colleges and universities. First and foremost, we need to fight the inclination we have to equate the relationship between a school’s “ranking” and the quality of education we can get from a school. Instead of relying on one publication’s ranking system, decide what’s most important to you and build your own ranking system based on those criteria. Another resource that may lead you to schools you had not considered is your high school guidance counselor. Connect with current and former students of colleges you’re interested in to get a feel for the rigor of the classes, the nature of the instructors, and anything else that you have deemed important. And remember – you can build a challenging, rigorous course load at any school. It’s more important to find a campus that offers the types of classes you want to take and a variety of degree tracks you’re interested in. It’s normal and expected to explore a few different paths before choosing a major, so try not to lock yourself into a school that doesn’t provide wiggle room for exploration outside of what you think you want to do. We’re not the same people at age 18 as we are at age 20, so we can’t expect to stick to a plan we made our senior year of high school. 

After reflecting on your needs and considering the academics, look into the available extracurricular activities and clubs. When you’re not studying, how do you want to spend your time? What campus activities would you find most rewarding? Is it important that there’s studio space on campus? What about research opportunities or professional organizations? Again, the best source of information is often current students. The college website is a good starting point for information, but you won’t really know a place until you’ve heard first-hand accounts. You don’t have to visit every school you’re interested in, but make sure your top few contenders are on your schedule.

Finally, consider any special needs you might have, like accessibility issues, a learning disability, or ADHD, that interferes with your learning. If you make use of testing accommodations, or class modifications like recording lectures or receiving a copy of the notes, make sure to contact the school’s office for students with disabilities to get a sense of how effectively they operate and how supportive they are of student needs. Don’t stop there, though. Reach out to students and instructors to get their take on these issues as well. Some campuses are more open and supportive than others. For more information on navigating life after high school with a disability, check out the book by Susan Yellin, Esq., the Director of Advocacy and Transition Services here at The Yellin Center.

Picking a college or university that fits your needs takes some time and willingness to explore, but it’s well worth it. All those little details add together to make up some of the most rewarding years of your life.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Rethinking How College Students Take Notes

Over my five years of teaching undergraduates at The City University of New York campuses, your blogger noticed a growing trend of students relying on their computers during class and, later, their tablets and even smartphones. My students were using these devices to do everything from take notes and view readings to play Candy Crush and make weekend plans. Some of my highest-achieving students were quietly texting or gaming under their desks, while some of my struggling students were rushing to type down every word I said; there didn’t seem to be a real pattern to how device usage related to student grades or engagement in discussions. 

After discussing the topic with my students and exploring the research, I decided to implement a no-device policy. Their one saving grace was a mid-class “tech fix” that I allowed – a few minutes in the middle of class when students could check their phones and “check out” as a way to relax and refocus. Without this break, students’ device “withdrawal” may get the better of them when they’re trying their best to pay attention. If college grads are going to be expected to use computers for almost all tasks once they enter the work force, why did I decide to go back to the old-fashioned pen (or pencil!) and paper policy? The answer was clear and simple – Evidence-Based Research. There’s a lot of research out there about the way millennials engage with their devices and how tech use influences grades, happiness, relationships, and sleep. There are even university departments completely devoted to studying the relationship between people and their technology.

So how does technology play a role in college students’ learning? For starters, students who take notes on paper have the upper hand when it comes to test performance. This may seem counter intuitive – if we take notes on a computer we can capture so much more of what the instructor is saying, right? This may be true, but if we’re just blindly typing every word we hear without processing the information, we don’t have to summarize or paraphrase the concepts in our heads. When we take notes by hand, we’re forced to process all that information and be selective about what we want to write down. This helps us learn the material by focusing in on what’s important and how the concepts relate to one another. No matter how many times I reminded my students that all my slides were available online, a significant number insisted on trying to re-type everything I said – no easy feat given my rate of speech! When I took away their ability to use a keyboard, I nudged them towards developing effective note-taking skills. When I checked in with my class a few weeks after instating the policy, I got only positive feedback. The take-home message here: put away the laptop and immerse yourself in the lecture while jotting down only the most important, inter-related points. You can always audio-record the session or use a Livescribe Smartpen  if you’re worried about missing information.

Photo credit: Luke Jones: flickr cc

Friday, September 30, 2016

Reward, Punishment, and ADHD

The effects of reward and punishment have long been under examination by research psychologists. From Pavlov’s dogs to Skinner’s rats to the continually evolving theory of behaviorism, we have gained much knowledge about how positive and negative reinforcement can impact our daily lives. While general principles have become fairly well understood, we know less about how reward and punishment may differentially impact particular groups. A recent study by a team of researchers from Japan and New Zealand set out to explore how reward and punishment may specifically affect children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Groups of children with and without ADHD were presented with a choice of two computer games to play. In both games, a win would result in points and an animation; a loss would result in a point-deduction and a laughing sound. The latter (punishing) condition occurred more often in one game than the other, even though the frequency of point-awarding and animations were the same in both. While both groups of children indicated a preference for the less-punishing game, this preference was significantly more pronounced for the children with ADHD.

The implications of these results could extend to parents and educators developing behavior plans. An emphasis on positive, versus negative, reinforcement is already a widely-accepted tenet of good practice. However, a particular sensitivity to punishment in students with ADHD may warrant special consideration in developing plans that encourage, rather than discourage, efforts toward success.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Once Again, Banning Books

There are some events that we wish would become obsolete, so we didn't have to revisit them year after year. But censorship seems alive and well, so we are writing again about Banned Books Week, which began on September 25th and runs through October 1st this year.

This event is spearheaded by the American Library Association  (ALA) and its Office of Intellectual Freedom. We've written about Banned Books Week before: in 2011, 2013, and 2014. [This is our 933rd post, so we beg your indulgence if we revisit certain subjects.] But the list of banned books keeps changing. The 2015 list, for example, includes Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, two books that became extraordinary Broadway productions and which won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Musical, respectively, in 2015.

Many classic books also have been banned in different places at different points in time, including The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1984.

It's instructive to see where challenges to books originate, and the ALA has created a graphic illustrating this information. One of the benefits to our digital age is that access to books no longer depends on the standards of a local library, school board, or bookstore. Books are available in numerous formats from a wide variety of sources, and there is an extraordinary trove of information that readers of all ages can access as they make their decisions about what to read.

Why are some books challenged? The reasons seem to change over time, since the subject matter of contemporary books tends to reflect our society's focus and concerns, but sexuality and religion seem to be the most frequent reasons. Of course, parents need to make sure that the books their young children read are suitable for their level of understanding and reflect values with which they are comfortable. But making certain titles unavailable for older teens and adults in a community violates the Library Bill of Rights established by the ALA, which includes such rights as:

  • Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  • Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  • Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.


Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association