Friday, January 29, 2016

Tuning In To Your Body To Help Cope With Stress

“Listen to your heart.” It’s a well-worn cliché. However, it is advice worth following, according to recent research reported in The New York Times. Increased heart rate is one of the numerous physical symptoms, along with shallow breathing and a palpable surge of adrenaline, experienced during times of stress. In moderation, it can be helpful; but in excess, it can undermine performance. The degree to which this physiological arousal and its accompanying emotional state then returns to normal (i.e., resilience) varies among people. Dr. Martin Paulus and colleagues set out to learn more about why this occurs.

Their study involved healthy adults who were asked to complete a questionnaire about their self-perceived levels of emotional and physical resilience. The subjects were then put in brain scanning machines and given face masks that the researchers controlled to create periodic moments of breathlessness. Those who had rated themselves low in resilience had distinct response patterns. As their masks threatened to close, their brain scans displayed relatively little activity in the areas that monitor body signals. When breathing then became difficult, they displayed relatively high levels of physiological arousal. In contrast, subjects who had rated themselves higher in resilience showed an almost opposite activity pattern, which paralleled that of soldiers and elite athletes who had participated in an earlier study. In these cases, when the masks threatened to close, the portions of the subjects’ brains that process body signals were highly active. Despite this, activity in the brain areas that intensify bodily arousal was rather slight. In other words, these subjects closely monitored the initial physical signs of stress but then diminished the response.

This suggests that paying close attention to your body may be important to effectively coping with stress. It makes sense, then, that mindfulness training programs such as one recently employed in Baltimore public schools have been shown to be so beneficial. So “Listen to your heart” is more than just a song from the 80's or the advice from your otherwise at-a-loss friend. It is an evidence-based strategy for keeping your cool.

Photo credit: via flickr

Monday, January 25, 2016

Gallup on What Makes a College Degree “Worth It”

A majority of people in the United States believes that it is important to get a college education. For one thing, adults with only a high school diploma earn, on average, considerably less than adults who graduated from college. Perhaps more importantly, a more advanced degree also allows graduates more choices about the jobs they take and the lives they lead. The perception that college is critical prompts ever-rising numbers of young people to drive themselves into heavy debt to attain the goal of attending college. But is it really worth it?

The results of a recent study by Gallup provide some interesting answers. The Gallup-Purdue Index collected information about 30,000 college graduates in the United States, going beyond just salary to measure the subjects’ engagement in their work, the extent to which they thrived socially and financially, their sense of purpose, and even their physical well-being. The results indicated six elements of emotional support and experiential learning in college that are correlated with long-term career and life success.

These experiences impact graduates’ lives so heavily that Gallup calls them the “Big Six.” Adults who report experiencing all of the following six elements in college perform better on every measure of long-term success than graduates who missed out on these experiences. In college, successful adults generally report:

1. Encountering a professor who made them excited about learning

2. Working with professors who cared about them as people

3. Having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams

4. Working on a long-term project

5. Placement in a job or internship where they applied what they were learning

6. Being extremely involved in extra-curricular activities

The difference between the outcomes of graduates who experienced all six elements versus those who experienced none of them is nothing short of astonishing. For example, results indicate that 82% of Big Six graduates felt prepared for life after college. In contrast, only 5% of those who had none of these experiences felt prepared. Sixty-five percent of employees whose college experience contained all six elements reported being engaged at work while only 25% of those who experienced none of the elements did. Keep in mind that the adults polled are all college graduates.

In light of these results, Gallup’s Brad Busteed, executive director of Education and Workforce Development, advocates adding graduation requirements that would prompt colleges to provide students with experiential learning and supportive relationships in addition to traditional coursework.

College hopefuls, and their parents, should read the original article and view the results in detail; careful selection of a school that can provide this winning formula could make all the difference.

Photo credit: State Farm via flickr cc

Friday, January 22, 2016

National Handwriting Day

Thanks to the folks at the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, tomorrow is “National Handwriting Day.” The date of January 23rd was chosen in honor of the birthday of John Hancock, whose name has become slang for a signature. Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, and his large and distinctive handwriting has become among the most famous in our nation's history.

The keystrokes being entered to write this blog serve as a reminder, however, that handwriting is arguably less crucial a skill than it once was. Nevertheless, as we discussed in a prior blog post, some research suggests that handwriting may assist in the learning process in a way that typing cannot. There are also certainly situations in which handwriting is the only available means of written communication, or even a note-to-self. Handwriting clarity thus serves as an important tool for conveying information as well as for keeping organized. Students with graphomotor difficulties often face a unique array of challenges across academic areas.

Occupational therapists can help struggling students to strengthen the abilities underlying effective handwriting as well as to use assistive devices such as unique pencil grip products. We at The Yellin Center tend to recommend skill building in conjunction with bypass strategies, and so advise that work-arounds such as speech-to-text software should be considered as well, in appropriate contexts. Fluency in capturing and expressing information is important for optimizing the amount of material available for processing and the quality of ideas that can be generated. Therefore, it behooves students to use strategies that will help this fluency in the short-term while building the handwriting skills that will help them later.

          Happy Handwriting Day

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Low-Tech Assistive Technology

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Assistive Technology (AT) is any “item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” AT resources can be implemented to increase function in all areas of one’s life, including school, work,  home and in the community. Here at The Yellin Center, we evaluate students’ needs and provide strategies to amplify their abilities across all of these settings-not just school.

However, in our 21st century learning environments there is a common misconception that assistive tech is predominantly digital. Although there are a wealth of complex, innovative high-tech tools, assistive technology includes a range of low-tech resources as well. For example, in the late 80’s Sam Farber, the founder of OXO Good Grips kitchen tools, noticed that due to his wife’s arthritis she was having trouble using her peeler to skin potatoes. He decided to research and design a set of ergonomically-designed kitchen tools that anyone could use regardless of functional ability. Today OXO tools are sold in every major department store, and aren’t only used by people with physical limitations. Mr. Farber redesigned a common tool in such a way that anyone can use it; that is a true example of Universal Design.

Similar to how Mr. Farber made the kitchen accessible, there are a variety of low-tech tools designed to help make academic tasks accessible. For writing, alternative pencils such as the Twist and Write, or pencil grips, like Abilitations Egg Ohs or AbiliGrip, can greatly improve the writing process for students with fine and graphomotor challenges.

Abilitations Egg Ohs

Students with similar motor challenges may also benefit from using slant boards or raised lined paper, which is a modified version of traditional lined paper. Augmented paper can also be useful in math. Math Notes paper uses a raised, grid format to help students properly align their work, thus avoiding calculation errors. Tools are also available to assist students with the reading process. If a child has trouble tracking lines due to vision or attention challenges they may benefit from tools such as the Blue Trakker Reading Guide or a See-N-Read.
Alternatively, enlarging the print of a book or using magnifying bar such as the Carson MagniBar can also aid students in the reading process.

Low-Tech tools also help students participate in non-academic tasks as well. For example, a student may not have the hand strength to work traditional scissors, but there are a variety of self-opening models for students to use. Students with gross motor challenges may struggle to raise their hand to respond to a question. Instead, they could use a simple buzzer on their desk. Communication can be facilitated using a pictorial system such as the Flip n’ Talk, which helps students convey their needs without having to use words. AT can also help students with self-regulation and attention challenges. Some students may require fidget toys, or special seats, such as the Sissle SITFIT, to allow them to quietly move without distracting themselves or their peers. Alternatively students may find it helpful to roll their feet quietly on a foot roller, or that a weighted lap pad helps calm them.

So, although edTech is a growing industry, not every accommodation needs to be complex or expensive. Sometimes, like the OXO peeler, it is the simple resources are merely a modification of a traditional tool that can make all the difference. The empowering nature of low-tech strategies is that they can often be used by every student, not just those with learning differences.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tech to Combat Bullying

We've written a number of times about bullying - most recently about how influential students can help curtail bullying. But bullying continues to be a troubling issue, leaving kids and adults alike feeling hurt and bewildered. This is the age of the Internet, however, so never fear: Tech has come to the rescue yet again.

Parents may want to download KnowBullying, an app from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The app provides users with starters for tricky conversations, shares warning signs to watch for, issues reminders to check in with kids, and provides numerous helpful tips. There is a section for educators, too, which is helpful because identifies school staff awareness as a key factor in prevention of bullying.

Kids who aren’t sure what to do about teasing will be relieved to discover an app called StopIt. Many young people don’t report bullying to an adult because they are embarrassed or fear being labeled a tattletale. StopIt allows them to report bullying to their school anonymously, straight from a smartphone. Currently, more than 80 schools in the United States use StopIt, and the number is growing. (StopIt is available to corporations, too, in efforts to curb unethical or illegal behavior and financial and reputational risks.)

One of the most effective ways to stop bullying starts with kids themselves. Even if your child is not a victim, he likely witnesses, or has witnessed bullying at school, and if he’s like most kids, he’s not sure what to do about it.’s video Be More Than a Bystander can help him understand bullying so he’ll be empowered to act the next time he sees cruel behavior.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Help with Procrastination

Lots of students admit, rather guiltily, that they are procrastinators. They know they shouldn’t wait until the last minute to get going on big projects and papers, but they just can’t seem to get started and can’t understand why. When students still live at home, this frustration is often shared by their parents. Everyone seems to want to change the young person’s tendency, but no one seems to know how.

Procrastination doesn’t just wreak havoc on the quality of final products, grades, or sleep schedules. An article in Observer, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, explains something that many procrastinators probably already know: Procrastination takes an emotional toll, too. People who know they should get started on projects, but just can’t, seem to feel anxiety and guilt. This drains mental energy and makes them feel even less prepared to get working. Drained, they procrastinate even more. This can be a vicious cycle.

Luckily, there are ways parents can help, and independent students can tailor these suggestions to work for them, too. At The Yellin Center, students we identify as having challenges with sequencing often struggle most with procrastination. It may appear that they are unmotivated, but, in reality, their difficulty with breaking one big project into sequence of steps causes them to be unsure where to begin. They see a large, daunting task, instead of recognizing how every big project is really nothing more than a series of smaller, manageable pieces. Even if the student has never been evaluated to determine whether he has weak sequencing, helping him identify those steps is a great tack for adults to try. Step One should be making a list of steps.

Once the steps are identified, the student needs a game plan, which will vary according to the task. Maybe the goal will be to complete only the first step on the list for now; we find that often just getting even a small start on the work starts momentum that can be surprisingly easy to maintain. Or maybe the student should be helped to devise a schedule so she knows when she should do what.

For kids who struggle a great deal with procrastinating, a classic experiment from the Sloan School of Management at MIT may provide insight. The results suggest that external deadlines (set by parents if the teacher doesn’t establish them) may be best at first. In the experiment, researchers assigned proofreading tasks to three groups of students. The first group was asked to hand in one paragraph a week, the second to hand in all three paragraphs together at the end of three weeks, and the third was asked to select their own deadlines. In the end, the first group far outperformed the other two groups, with the second group struggling the most to get all of the tasks done at once. Even group three’s self-imposed deadlines were not as effective as the deadlines established by the researchers for group one.

Procrastination can be frustrating for all parties involved, so we hope this post provides some ideas that may work for your student. Go ahead and give one of them a try today – there’s no time like the present.

Friday, January 8, 2016

New Study on Impact of Influential Students on Bullying

Reducing and abating bullying within schools is a focal point for teachers, parents, and policymakers. There are a plethora of programs, tools, and research into the topic and yet little significant evidence has been yielded on how to definitively curb bullying. A new study from researchers at Princeton University (working with colleagues from Rutgers and Yale) suggests that key, influential students may be able to hone and shape a school culture that is intolerant of bullying. Theories of human behavior posit that individuals often attend to and emulate the behavior of people within their community in order to learn the social norms and constructs. Researchers used this notion to identify, often through social media, key influencers in the social network of 56 middle schools in New Jersey, and analyzed their ability to reduce bullying and school conflict.

Current anti-bullying programs are constructed by adults to address adult defined problems. The distinguishing feature of the program model used in this study is that researchers trained the students on anti-conflict ideologies and then let them independently lead their own messaging campaigns. This gave the autonomy to each student to change and shape their school culture by addressing the problems they saw using their own voice. Students were encouraged to make their anti-conflict stance well known through social media posts, and printing posters they designed, while also suggesting positive ways to resolve issues they confronted in their own smaller social circles.

The report, “Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools,” found that the middle schools who used social influencers saw a 30% decrease in student conflict over the course of the year. The rate of decreased student conflict also appeared to be correlated to the number of social influences each school had; the more social influencers present in a community, the higher the reduction in bullying behavior.

For more information about the program used in this study or to review the anti-bullying curriculum they used, head over to the Roots program. The researchers at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Health have generously made their anti-bullying curriculum open source for anyone interested in using their ideas in their own communities. The curriculum is "user friendly" and uses specific examples and illustrations to explain how communities of influence work,

For example, the Hoberman Sphere functions as both a toy and a visual reminder of social networks. When expanded, it represents the way in which communities of influence can have an expanded impact.
We are excited to see a program that empowers students to make a tangible change in their own communities, using their own grass roots ideas of how exactly to affect that change. We believe there is a lot of power in a program that tackles bullying from the bottom up, rather than the conventional top-down approach.

Monday, January 4, 2016

High School Athletes: Thinking Ahead to College

Applying to colleges can be an overwhelming proposition for most students, but those hoping to play sports in college have an additional series of factors to consider. This is especially true for students hoping to play for universities and colleges known for their academic standards, which tend to allocate fewer resources to athletic recruitment. However, athletic skill can be powerfully influential in the admissions process, so it's worth students' time to learn about the process and develop and implement a strategy.

First, students should familiarize themselves with the National Collegiate Athletic Association's many rules and regulations. Athletes should check with the Eligibility Center, where they can learn what criteria they must fulfill to play college sports. They can also download a helpful guide for college-bound student-athletes from the website. Finally, they should register for the NCAA to begin making themselves visible to coaches.

Most high school students don't launch seriously into the processes of researching and applying to colleges until at least their junior years. But, according to Amy Rader Kice, assistant dean at St. Edward's University, athletes need to get moving sooner. Rader Kice writes that coaches often begin contacting highly promising athletes during their sophomore years, and many athletes know up to a year in advance which school they'll be attending and representing. It may be best to start narrowing down a list of schools during a student's freshman year of high school, then initiating contact with coaches the following year.

Marketing one's self as a college-level athlete is a lot like applying for a job. Because NCAA rules limit the amount of contact coaches can have with prospective college athletes, students should initiate contact themselves; there's no penalty for that. Again, this is particularly important for students who want to attend academically rigorous schools, says Keith Blackwell, founder of a subscription-based website designed to connect student-athletes and college coaches called Elite College Sports.

Students should submit whatever evidence of their prowess they can—videos of them playing, statistics, times, etc.—along with evidence that they can perform in the classroom as well. GPA, standardized test scores, and recommendation letters from teachers as well as coaches are all useful to coaches, who don't want to risk recruiting athletes who may lose eligibility if their grades aren't up to par.

Any serious athlete knows that training in the off-season is important. By the same token, summers can be critical periods for athlete recruitment, too. Many universities offer summer workshops in which coaches work with high school athletes; start looking for postings in February and March. For those who can afford to attend, it's a win-win: coaches are on the lookout for promising talent, and the athletes can benefit from coaches' wisdom and tips at the same time.

Finally, students should remember that a super-sonic fastball or a perfect three-pointer aren't the only things that turn coaches' heads. Coaches want to recruit students who demonstrate leadership, initiative, and resilience. Good sports who are enjoyable to have in the locker room are a pleasure to coach and can buoy a whole team's spirits. Demonstrating good citizenship may be just as important as demonstrating athletic skill.