Monday, February 29, 2016

Helping Kids Build Self-Control

We've written before about the well-known "marshmallow test" conducted at Stanford University by Professor Walter Mischel and colleagues in the late 1960s and early 1970s to test the self-control of four-year-olds. After building rapport with the subject, the researcher would place a marshmallow (or another treat) and a bell on the table and explain that she had to leave the room for a few minutes. If the child waited until she returned to eat the marshmallow, he could have a second one. If, however, he could not wait, he was allowed to ring the bell and bring the researcher back, then eat the single marshmallow right away. Fifty years of following the subjects indicated that those who were able to wait earned higher test scores, demonstrated better stress management skills, and were even more physically fit than the kids who simply had to have the marshmallow.

Self-control is great to have, but can it be taught? Researchers say yes. According to Florida State professor Roy Baumeister, self-control is a bit like a muscle. This is great news because it means willpower can get stronger with exercise. The analogy probably makes sense to a lot of parents and educators, who have observed that, over time, many children get better and better at resisting impulses and being patient.

However, self-control is like a muscle in another way, too: Using it is fatiguing business. A person who devotes a great deal energy toward using self-control is likely to run out of will-power. Imagine an adult struggling to control her emotions during a stressful day at work, then returning home to the temptation of a slice of cake that is not part of her diet plan. Resisting the cake will be much more difficult than it might have been after an easy day at the office.

Exercising Self-Control

So how do adults help kids build the strength and endurance of their self-control? Several strategies employed by the four-year-old subjects of the marshmallow test in the heat of desperation are remarkably effective. One, distraction involves taking one’s mind off the temptation by thinking about other things. During the test, some children sang songs or looked away from the marshmallow while waiting. Another, distancing, means separating one’s self from the temptation, either physically (one boy in the test moved the bell to the other side of the table) or by using one’s mind (some children imagined that the marshmallow was only a picture instead of a real, tantalizing treat).
Both of these tactics would work well for anyone, but they could be good places to start with young children. For example, it may be easier for a child to listen during circle time instead of giggling with her friend if she chooses not to sit next to her friend (distancing). Another child might use distraction to wait patiently in line for a movie ticket by challenging himself to count the number of shoes he sees in line ahead of him or making predictions about the movie.

Ready for a more advanced approach? Dr. Mischel  explains that all humans have two systems that he refers to as “hot” and “cool.” The hot system is emotional, stress-induced, fast-acting, and simple. Our fight-or-flight impulses both draw from the hot system. On the other hand, the cool system is slow, reflective, and responsible for self-control. Mischel suggests teaching people to use the cool system in the moment while simultaneously “heating” the goal toward which they are working. A student struggling to buckle down and get his homework done now so that he can enjoy some videos later might spend a few moments reminding himself that, realistically, the homework won’t take all that long (cooling) and thinking about how good it will feel to relax, worry-free, in front of the computer when his work is done (heating).

One caveat to all this is that self-control is more complex for children living in stressful environments. For example, those who have a hard time trusting authority will find it especially challenging to resist their impulse to do what feels good now, even if an adult assures them that delaying gratification is worth it. Also, they may be depleted from being in a stressful home each morning before school so that it is more challenging to muster the strength to exercise self-control in the classroom. These children use the “hot system” much of the time.

Background aside, self-control is easier for some people to master, just as some people build muscle more easily than others. For those who struggle, making both the progress toward the goal and having the goal itself visible can help a great deal. We like checklists that allow students to see that they are getting ever closer to completing a project or finishing their work for the evening. A young person trying to lose weight might try writing his goal weight on an index card that he places next to his plate at meals to remind him to choose healthy foods.

Learning self-control is empowering, and kids will find their efforts even more rewarding if adults commend them for progress made. No one likes to feel that they are out of control, so helping young people to build willpower may lead to both better life outcomes down the road, and happier, more positive kids in the short-term.

Photo credit: crispy_dewdrops via flickr cc

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Shakespeare’s First Folio to Tour the Country

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. It’s impossible to quantify the impact of Shakespeare’s work on (primarily, but not solely) the English-speaking world. Shakespeare’s observations about human nature are timeless. His plots, which have mesmerized readers and audiences for centuries, still have the power to captivate. And it is estimated that he added 1,700 words (e.g. countless, laughable, grovel, dawn) and numerous everyday phrases (e.g. break the ice, it’s high time, for goodness sake, what’s done is done) to the English language.

In recognition of the significance of this year, Washington, DC’s Folger Library is sending one of its most prized artifacts on a tour through all 50 states: the 1623 First Folio. (Yes, that Folger. The library’s founder, Henry Clay Folger, was not only an enthusiastic collector of Shakespeare-related artifacts; he was also the nephew of J.A. Folger, founder of San Francisco-based Folger’s Coffee.)

As its name suggests, the First Folio is the earliest collection ever amassed of a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Assembled by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues seven years after his death, it contains eighteen plays that, were it not for the folio, may never have been preserved, including Macbeth, The Tempest, and The Taming of the Shrew. Printing a folio was expensive, so few copies of the book were made and even fewer survive today.

This rare book may be viewed in New York City at the New York Historical Society  from June 7th through July 17th; to find out where else it will travel, use this interactive map. Can’t wait that long to see it in person? You can read a digital copy of the First Folio in its entirety while you wait. In addition, the Library’s website offers excellent resources for teachers and for parents and kids.

Those with an addiction* to Shakespeare because of his madcap*, zany* comedies; his monumental* histories; the remorseless* savagery* shown by some characters in his tragedies; and the overall radiance* of his words may consider it torture* to contain their excitement* as they await this ode* to the great man himself.

*word coined by Shakespeare

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Case for Reading Aloud to Kids – Of All Ages

Most of us know by now that reading aloud to young children is critical. Listening to stories helps children build familiarity with the way books work, increases receptive language and critical thinking skills, and establishes positive feelings about reading. But Rebecca Bellingham, an instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, believes that reading aloud shouldn’t stop once children are able to read for themselves.

In a recent TED Talk, Bellingham explains that adults are simply more proficient at reading than children. This means that grown-ups can demonstrate the kind of prosody that good readers use: emphasizing certain words, slowing down during important parts and speeding up during suspenseful parts, and pausing to wonder in appropriate places. A truly skilled reader will ask questions of the text, too, which is something easily demonstrated by an adult reader. Modeling all of these good practices gives the young people listening implicit instruction about what they should be doing in their own minds as they work through a text. 

Bellingham advocates reading aloud at home for other reasons, too. Both kids and adults may spend time within the same four walls, but she worries that, more and more, individuals are interacting with their own screens and not each other. Parents who read to children can use the book as conduit for connecting with their kids. Simply sharing the journey of a good story can be a bonding experience, and books can spark important and interesting family conversations.

Here are some recommendations for reading to young people, especially at home:
  • Allow your audience to have a say in the books you choose. Remember that chapter books are excellent read-aloud candidates; even though reading aloud is appropriate for all ages, it will be difficult to get a twelve-year-old excited about listening to The Cat in the Hat. 
  • If possible, preview the text ahead of time. A quick skim will help you plan how you might want to use your voice to make the story come alive.
  • Ask what happened during last night’s reading before you begin a new section. Reviewing text that’s already been read is a great habit for any reader of any kind of text.
  • Model the way the story affects you. Pause after the author says something profound to show that it was worth thinking about. Allow joy or sadness to creep into your voice in appropriate places. Make comments and ask unobtrusive questions aloud (e.g. “I wonder why she did that;” “Who is this guy?”) but then keep right on reading. We don’t’ recommend asking your kids to answer comprehension questions about reading at home; the primary goal of leisure reading is to be pleasurable, and you don’t want anyone to be put on the spot and start to shut down. They’ll get plenty of comprehension questions in school. 
  • Many children won’t want to sit still while listening, and that’s OK. Drawing or coloring or building with Legos can be a great way to keep kids' hands occupied while their minds are focused on the story. We know one family in which the children used evening storytime to pair clean socks that had just come from the dryer while their mother read to them!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

LitCharts Are Excellent Tools for Pre-Reading

At The Yellin Center, one of our favorite strategies is called “frontloading.” Useful for all students, frontloading is particularly good for those who struggle to identify the most important ideas in a lecture, lesson, or text. The principle is very simple: Students prepare themselves for learning with a preview of the lesson, concept, or reading. Examples include watching a Khan Academy video; a short introduction from an instructor; or a walk-through of a textbook chapter, focusing on the headings, captions, and images, before reading the whole thing. We find that students who frontload are more prepared to learn because they can more easily identify the most important information.

Literature can be difficult to frontload, however. Unlike textbooks, novels don’t have headings, diagrams, and images that can be previewed. Luckily, though, students who struggle with reading comprehension can prepare themselves to take on literature in a number of ways. One is to watch a movie version of the book* if one exists (keeping in mind that these versions often differ from the original book). Another is to use summaries like CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. For students who struggle with reading, though, these summaries can seem intimidating because they take the form of long blocks of text. So the original editors of SparkNotes have created a thoughtful, innovative, and free resource called LitCharts.

LitCharts provides resources for getting the most out of more than 250 plays, novels, and short stories, ranging from contemporary works like A Long Way Gone and The Fault in Our Stars to classics like Henry V and The Great Gatsby. The site (and its accompanying, free app) is interactive, so students can choose the format and content that will help them most. The “front page” for each book is called the Chart Board, which provides a visual representation of the whole book. Themes in each chapter are represented by color-coded rectangles, and by hovering over one of them the user can read a relevant, thematic summary snippet from that part of the book.

Its visual presentation is probably the best feature of LitCharts, but all of the other good stuff we’ve come to expect from literature companion sites is there, too: background information about the author and the story; a plot overview; and analysis of key characters, themes, symbols, and quotes. There is even information about how to cite LitCharts if a student references it in an essay. We also like the chart available for each book, which, once downloaded, presents key information about the author, context, and plot all in one document for easy reference.

LitCharts is not a substitute for the rich experience of reading a wonderful piece of literature, but it can help make that experience both more pleasant and more valuable to students who need support.

*Lots of parents and teachers may bristle at this idea, and we can understand why. A large part of the joy of reading is turning the pages in breathless anticipation of what will happen next. Many people feel that previewing a book in such a way “gives away” the story. For typically developing readers, we agree; we’d much rather read a book first, too! However, for students who struggle mightily with decoding, comprehension, or attention, advance knowledge of how the plot will unfold can actually help them build important reading skills.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Helping Kids Cope with Frustration

Grit and perseverance are the topics of many books, blogs, and articles lately. Many experts believe that determination is a quality adults should strive to cultivate in themselves and in their kids, and most parents would probably agree that grit is important. But watching one’s child struggle with a task is not easy, and it can be difficult to simply sit back and watch, as many parenting experts suggest. Here are some tips – from a Scholastic article by Rachel Bowie and from our own toolkit --to help kids feel less frustrated so that they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and dive into another attempt at something challenging:

For children in early elementary school, says pediatrician and author Dr. Harry Karp, the style of an adult’s communication is key. Children of six and seven years old are well into developing their receptive language skills, but they’re still relative beginners, and frustration and anger may make them even less skilled at understanding what they’re hearing. Adults should accommodate by using short phrases and repetition. Calmly acknowledge the child’s feelings and show empathy without laying it on too thick. Say, “You’re frustrated, Sarah. I can see you’re frustrated. It’s hard at first. But I know you’ll get it.”

Kids in middle and high school often feel tremendous pressure to balance their social worlds, academics, family obligations, and extra curricular activities. And anxiety makes them more prone to frustration. One tack author Michele Borba, Ed.D. suggests is helping young people recognize the signs that they’re starting to feel frustrated so they can begin to calm themselves down. Does your teenager grind his teeth? Tense his shoulders? Start snapping at people or shut down? He may not be aware that he’s drawing near an explosion until it happens, so helping him spot warning signs can help him feel a sense of control. Next, give him some suggestions. Perhaps he can walk away from a task for five minutes or repeat a mantra to himself (“No one is perfect at first” or “I don’t have to be perfect; I just have to try my best”) until he feels calmer.

One of the most helpful things adults can do is to offer lessons on perseverance rather than tips for succeeding at a specific task. No kid of any age likes to be preached at, but children are interested in, and will be comforted by, stories of their parents’ own struggles. Share an anecdote about a time you failed at something you can now do with ease. Or reassure kids that no one is born an expert. For real-life examples of people who overcame difficulties to achieve great things, visit the blog Opening Lines.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Long-Term Impact of Bullying

We’ve blogged about bullying several times in recent posts – including looking at the impact of peers on stemming bullying behavior and using technology to reduce bullying. Unfortunately, the occurrence of bullying, with one in four students reporting being victims, is all too common itself.  The importance of preventing such cruelty is intuitive, but some recent research  has yielded data that highlights the seriousness of this issue.

In an article published late last year in JAMA Psychiatry, a team of researchers from Finland and Israel looked back at data collected in 1989, when over 5,000 eight-year-olds in Finland were surveyed about their experiences, or lack thereof, with bullying.  The researchers then looked at national health records to see if these same children went on to receive treatment for psychiatric disorders when they were between the ages of 16 and 29 years old.  They found that being bullied when young correlated, after adjusting for other factors linked to psychiatric risk, with nearly twice the risk of needing psychiatric treatment later in life.  It is also interesting to note that most of the eight-year-olds who bullied others had existing psychiatric symptoms at that time as well as later.  This suggests that incidents of bullying should be red flags for both the victims’ and the perpetrators’ need for help.

Photo credit: One Way Stock via flickr cc

Friday, February 5, 2016

Chrome Accessibility Extensions

Often, when searching for student-centered solutions for learning differences, we are quick to look at tools and programs specially designed for diverse learners. We forget that many of the everyday tools we use have been designed for accessibility in mind. This is true Universal Design, where one tool can be used by all, regardless of their limitations. Microsoft has a wealth of accessibility features across their products. Similarly, Google’s Chrome has several extensions to make web browsing accessible to those with reading and writing challenges. Most of the add-ons and extensions are free, making them a cost efficient alternative to some of the pricey third party resources. 

Reading and Writing Extensions

The Chrome extension Readability removes visual clutter from web pages, making them easier to read. Reducing visual noise will benefit students with attention, visual processing, and reading difficulties. If Chrome isn’t your browser of choice, readability has expanded its product line to include apps and add-ons for Firefox and Safari. The High Contrast extension allows you to alter the coloring of your webpage with several high contrast filters, making the text easier to read. 

The Zoom add-on will make reading easier by allowing you to magnify the webpage. Another great tool is the SpeakIt extension, which converts text into speech, reading the passage using a synthesized voice. ChromeVox is a screen reader designed for the visually impaired. For writing, Voice Search allows users to use voice commands to search Google and locate information online. Voicenote II is a simple and functional digital notepad that will allow you to take notes using your voice rather than typing. 

A Suite of Accessibility Features

Google has put together a suite of accessible features in their Read&Write for Google Chrome extension. This collection of tools was designed specifically to aid students with print disabilities and English language learners. Using this add-on, students can hear words, passages, or entire documents read aloud, and even hear the text translated into a different language. There is also speech-to-text capability with this extension. When typing online or in a Google Doc, integrated word suggestions will pop up, helping facilitate the writing process. Students are also able to highlight portions of the text or make voice notes. You are able to try Read&Write for free with a 30-day trial; after the trial period you can keep a free basic subscription or upgrade to the premium paid version. However, teachers are eligible for a free premium subscription. To register and activate your subscription, go to after installing the Read&Write for Google Chrome trial. 

Checking Accessibility

Online accessibility is important whether you are a consumer or creator of web content. If you are ever concerned about the accessibility of a web page, you can use the WAVE Chrome extension to evaluate web content for accessibility issues. WAVE can provide visual feedback about the accessibility of traditional websites, as well as personal sites, intranet pages and password protected sites. It is important to note that no data is sent back to the WAVE developers and all analysis is done within the web browser to ensure secure, private evaluations.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Goalbook App

Today’s Ed Tech review is for teachers –specifically special education teachers. It also happens to be one of our favorite resources. Goalbook is one of the few educational technologies that was created by a coder - one who also spent time as an educational specialist for students with disabilities in East Palo Alto, California. So Goalbook gets both the educational and the technology side of Ed Tech, which makes for the design of a very valuable and informed tool. Many teachers would agree that actual classroom teaching is the great aspect of the job, but the paperwork and IEP planning can be a bit tricky sometimes and at times a lot less rewarding, especially when you are trying to coordinate the schedules and insights of multiple people on your multidisciplinary team, and track results from the multiple services a student receives, all the while adhering to FERPA. This is where Goalbook can assist.

The Goalbook Toolkit really takes the mystery out of IEP writing and planning by helping educational professionals collaborate and communicate to devise meaningful, achievable goals for their students, as well providing amazing tools to track each student’s progress. Their entire system is aligned beautifully with all Common Core and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) standards, while also offering instructional ideas to achieve set goals. As a learning specialist, what really set Goalbook apart was how closely their team collaborated with the people at CAST to ensure that they infused multiple levels of support so that each accommodation and modification is truly differentiated and UDL-aligned. Beyond their framework, they also offer professional development and showcase the research that backs their approaches and model on their website.

Over the years CAST has shown that UDL isn’t just the best practice for diverse learners but, rather, that differentiation has merit for all learners. With this in mind,  Goalbook offers a new framework, Goalbook Pathways, for tailoring school-wide curriculum with the goal of helping schools provide and “design engaging, rigorous instruction for all students.” Again, just like with the Goalbook Toolkit, each instructional strategy is aligned with the Common Core and principles of UDL, as well as broken down into multiple levels of rigor. Sample formative assessment measures and professional development opportunities are also included with the model.