Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Achieve Transfer

Transfer, the ability to apply learning to a novel situation, is a tricky thing. It’s not so hard for students to memorize, say, the definition of “subject” and “predicate” when working in a grammar textbook. Grammar exercises, however, are futile if students continue to produce incorrect sentences in their own writing because don’t know how to apply what they learned on a worksheet. Without being shown how to use new knowledge in other contexts, many students struggle to recognize how a concept can be applied to a slightly different problem or task. This is a very inefficient way to learn. Students who don’t understand how to transfer what they learn must memorize hundreds and hundreds of discrete skills rather than just a few core ones.

In response to the excellent publication from Deans for Impact, The Science of Learning, we have a few ideas about how to ensure that students can transfer what they’re learning to solve problems in all kinds of contexts.

Find Similarities Between Tasks that Appear Different on the Surface

In our own practice, we’ve observed that findings by Richland, Zur, and Holyoak (2007) hold true: students can transfer their knowledge and skills to new situations if they’re able to figure out what the new situation has in common with tasks they’ve already navigated successfully. For example, some kids would have a tough time determining what the following word problems have in common:
  • Ryan sells 14 candy bars that cost $1.25 each. How much money does he collect?
  • If each of the 5 players on a basketball team scores 8 points in the game, how many points does the team score altogether?
  • A baker can decorate 40 cookies each hour. How many will he frost during a four-hour shift?
Many students struggle to know which operation to use in word problems because each scenario seems completely different. The problems above may seem disparate because one is about money, one about baskets, and one about cookies. In fact, though, each can be solved through multiplication. Comparing the problems can help students find similarities. Observant students, for example, might notice that “each” is repeated in all of the problems above. This word often signals multiplication. Students may find it useful to keep a sheet of notes on key words and the operations they often indicate.

Identify the Steps in a Multi-Step Procedure

Catrambone (1996 and 1998) suggests that students label the steps in multi-step procedures, such as conducing experiments, solving complex math problems, or writing. Such labels make it easier to compare the approach needed to work through similar tasks that appear different on the surface.

Producing a piece of academic writing is one of the most complex multi-step tasks asked of students. Generally the student must establish an argument, provide and explain evidence, rebut conflicting arguments, and all the while relate each point to the main point. Comparing one essay with another, though, might confuse some students. If one piece is about the use of allusion in a poem and another about the merits of recycling, what could the essays possibly have in common? Challenging students to label the steps each author conducted (stating thesis, referring back to thesis with each topic sentence, providing evidence, explaining evidence, etc.) makes it apparent that good essays, no matter the topic, have a lot more in common than might appear. Identifying the steps used to complete a task make the similarities between different tasks stand out, helping students to recognize how they can use the steps they already know to accomplish novel outcomes.

Provide Both Concrete Examples and Abstract Representations

Students often understand concrete examples best, but concrete examples can be hard to generalize so that the principles in them can be applied to other scenarios. Goldstone and Son (2005) found that learning is maximized when students are given a combination of concrete examples and abstract representations. The best learning outcomes occurred when students were exposed to concrete examples first, then gradually introduced to the abstract principle. Deans for Impact states that a combination of concrete examples and abstract representations “help students recognize the underlying structure of problems.”

To use this principle in a physics class, an instructor might begin teaching the concept of momentum by assigning the following word problems (i.e. concrete examples) and asking students to find the answers:
  • Find the momentum of a 7-kilogram bowling ball traveling 17 MPH.
  • Find the momentum of an 85-gram marble traveling 17 MPH.
  • Find the momentum of a 450-kilogram car traveling 20 MPH.
  • Find the momentum of a 283-ounce matchbox car traveling 20 MPH.
Next, the teacher should provide the following definition and formula:

“Momentum is determined by the mass of an object and its speed. The formula for calculating momentum at a given moment is p=(m)(v), where m=mass and v=velocity.”

Most textbooks provide concrete examples and formulas, but few ask students to do the work of defining the relationship between the two. This is where lasting, transferable understanding is formed.

In our example of the physics class, the instructor must help the students to see the relationship between their answers to the concrete scenarios and the abstract principle that defines momentum. Ideally, students will come up with a statement defining the relationship between the two, such as, “More mass and/or higher velocity results in more momentum. When mass, velocity, or both are decreased, momentum decreases.” That is transfer at work.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Supporting Anxious Children

While collaborating with fellow teachers in different parts of the country, your blogger has noticed a common theme: anxiety in students is becoming a much more salient issue in today’s classrooms. Data supports the notation that anxious tendencies in children is on the rise; a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that 25.1 percent of kids 13-18 in the United States have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. 

Many colleagues have shared that they feel ill equipped and under prepared to mitigate these types of social-emotional and behavioral challenges. But behavior and self-regulation aren’t the only concerns teachers or caregivers are faced with when supporting children with mental health issues. Students who are dealing with psycho-social stressors often struggle to focus on their learning and their academic performance often wanes as a result. For example, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology surveyed a group of 1,197 students without a diagnosed reading or math disability. The students who were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were more likely to be in lower achieving reading and math groups.

We have written before about self-regulation strategies and teaching children mindfulness; some of these ideas and tools may be effective interventions for helping students cope with anxiety and behavioral difficulties. However, another excellent resource is an informative book written by Dr. Nancy Rappaport and Jessica Minahan titled The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students. The Behavior Code provides strategies to determine causes and patterns of behavior in order to effectively de-escalate challenging situations. The book is also a treasure trove of worksheets and practical resources.

In their book, the authors emphasize that misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying cause and is a form of communication that serves a function and has a pattern to it. They explain that a displayed maladaptive behavior is often the symptom of underdeveloped skills, such as weak executive functioning, poor self-regulation, or immature social skills. The behavior is often the child’s attempt at solving a problem the best way they know how. Children will continue to engage in the problematic behavior due to the function it serves in getting them a desired result. For example, whining may get the teacher’s attention. Often, when teachers systematically evaluate behavior they will discover a pattern to what triggers or causes the behavior and what function it is serving. Knowing the cause, function, and pattern to challenging behavior is the first step towards helping build effective, personalized, interventions in order to support the child

The authors also provide some tangible tips for working with anxious students:
  • It is common for teachers or caregivers to publicly praise positive behavior. However, children with anxiety don’t always want any extra attention from peers, which can make this strategy ineffective. Private or non-verbal praise is often better for students with anxious tendencies.
  • Students with anxiety often enter into negative thinking cycles. Vague or non-specific praise is easy for them to dismiss. The authors suggest using fact-based praise with specific examples of how the student has done. 
  • There are new biofeedback tools that can turn calming down into a game for students. One such tool is EmWave, which gives students a black and white picture that will slowly fill with color as the device monitors the child’s heart rate and the student begins to calm.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Playing with Politics and Government

The political season is in full bloom and wherever you live and whatever your political perspective, you can't escape the primary stages of the presidential election process. And, as we all know, things are only going to get more interesting and intense as we move towards the November elections. 

As noted in a recent NY Times article, former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is a major force behind a video game that brings the election process to life for students, called Win the White House, The game is one of several created by iCivics, a nonprofit organization Justice O'Connor founded in 2009, after she retired from the Supreme Court in 2006. Other games (there are 19, each with lesson plans) include "Do I Have a Right?" and "Bill of Rights."  

The games are all aligned with the Common Core Standards and designed to be played by students of varying ages. In addition to the accompanying lesson plans, each of the games offers DBQs (document based questions), classroom activities, and tools to teach such other skills as formulating an argument. All of the iCivics games and tools are free, although some require registration.

Justice O'Connor is not the only "Supreme" involved in iCivics. Through her encouragement, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has joined the iCivics Board of Directors and the organization has received an award from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as support from numerous leading foundations. 


Friday, April 15, 2016

Strategies for Promoting Self-Regulation in Children

We recently wrote about promoting mindfulness in children, which received a great deal of response and thanks from parents and teachers who were trying to address social and emotional learning with their children. They noted, however, that it has been hard for them to find tangible, effective ways to teach children skills like mindfulness and self-regulation. In response to their comments, we are going to dig a little deeper into self-regulation – the processes we use to calm ourselves down when feeling upset, angry, or overwhelmed or cheer ourselves up when feeling dejected or sad.

Social-Emotional Development and the Brain

Often, as parents or teachers, we think that children will be able to develop regulatory skills on their own. This is correct to some extent, as children do begin to develop self-soothing and self-regulatory abilities in infancy, and they continue to develop these over time. However, it can be hard for children to learn how to work through big, overwhelming feelings in a thoughtful, proactive manner. They often need to be explicitly be taught strategies for regulating their emotions and responses.

For more information, Dr. Shonkoff, Director, Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University gives a wonderful three-minute overview of the relationship between brain development, cognition, and emotional regulation in his video Brain Builders.

However, the salient question for many teachers and parents is how to translate all the information they know about the importance of fostering a child’s social-emotional development into fun and effective learning experiences. Luckily, we are here to help, and have outlined a few of our favorite resources and ideas for you below. 

Gross Motor Actives that Promote Self-Regulation

At The Yellin Center, we often recommend that students who are struggling with self-regulation or impulse control participate in gross motor actives that promote mind-body awareness. Examples of such activities are martial arts, ballet or yoga. A research study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison supports this notion. Researchers looked at using a school based Tae Kwon Do training program to develop self-regulatory skills in students in kindergarten through fifth grade. They found that at the end of their three-month intervention the students in the martial arts program demonstrated greater improvements in “cognitive self-regulation, effective self-regulation, prosocial behavior, classroom conduct, and performance on a mental math test (Lakes & Hoyt, 2004).

Yoga is another activity that can help promote self-regulation in children. The children’s yoga and mindfulness program, Move with ME ™, provides video yoga classes to teach health and self-regulation skills to children through stories and pretend play. As children go through each video they will have fun pretending to be everything from a lion to a rocket ship. Beyond their yoga videos, Move with Me, also offers trainings, informative self-regulation activities, and other mindfulness curriculum materials. Best of all, Move with Me is constantly staying current on the latest research in social-emotional development in children and sharing that with their users.

Mind Up Curriculum

Scholastic has a curriculum called Mind Up that helps children “focus their attention, improve their self-regulation skills, build resilience to stress, and develop a positive mind-set in both school and life.” The lessons and curriculum are broken up by age group, and provide resources for children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

What we like best about the Mind Up curriculum is that it was created by neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and educators who use the notion that knowing one’s own brain can empower students to learn complex skills and overcome challenges. When developing their instructional strategies they integrate the latest neuroscience research on how our brain works and how it impacts learning. Here at The Yellin Center, that is exactly what we do and believe in. By knowing how their brain works, and what parts of their brain control their actions, feelings, and learning, students are often better able to overcome their challenges. If you head over to the Scholastic Website you can download a sample lesson plan and excerpt from the program to determine if the materials would meet your needs.

Lakes, K. D., & Hoyt, W. T. (2004). Promoting self-regulation through school-based martial arts training. Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 238-302.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Medical Students - News and Resources

In addition to our work with K-12 students, The Yellin Center has long worked with older students in college, graduate, and professional schools. One important piece of this work is the assessment and support we have offered to approximately 100 medical students, who are often sent to us by their academic dean when they encounter difficulties with school or licensing exams, or with their "rotations" in the clinical aspects of their training.

In fact, we are delighted to announce that we have just been awarded a grant (together with the nonprofit Center for Learning Differences) from the Sergei S. Zlinkoff Fund for Medical Research and Education that will allow us to quantify the impact of our work in the assessment and remediation of these students, with a view towards providing medical educators with guidance in helping these students to achieve success in their studies and careers.

As part of our work with medical students, the Resources section of our website has information on a number of tools and apps that can help medical students with the unique demands of their professional studies. As we noted in an earlier post, this section of our website isn't always easy to locate from our home page, so we are taking the opportunity to shine a light on this helpful information. 

photo credit: University of Exeter via flickrcc

Friday, April 8, 2016

Hidden Gems: Tech Literacy

If you are reading this blog post, chances are you are familiar with our website. As our "face to the world" and our first interaction with many of the families, students, and schools with whom we work, our website needs to convey important information about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. What sometimes gets lost as we provide this necessary background and explanation of our work, are our terrific lists of resources for students -- young and older -- as well as parents and educators, which are tucked away in the "back pages" of our site.

These lists, numbering roughly a dozen separate subjects at any one time, include many of the resources we frequently recommend in our Learning Plans, and are meticulously supplemented and kept up to date by Yellin Center Learning Specialist Beth Guadagni, M.A. We think you will find them helpful, and will be shining a light on them here in our blog over the next week or two. And, for those who don't want to wait, we invite you to explore all our resource listings at any time.

Today, we begin with our list of resources for students interested in tech literacy.

Codecademy – upper elementary – adult
This a free web-based program that teaches users Javascript, Ruby, Python, CSS, and other languages. It is also available as an app for iOS devices. In addition to learning coding languages, users can learn to build an interactive website, a Rails application, and more.

Hopscotch – ages 8+
A simple programming iPad or iPhone app, Hopscotch is an award-winning program that students can use to make their own animations, apps, digital stories and games. The basic app is free, but Hopscotch School Edition is available as extension for $9.99. Here, teacher-centric features improve the integration of Hopscotch as a learning medium. 

Tynker – ages 8+
Tynker offers self-paced, online courses designed teach children to code at home or at school. The program infuses step-by-step instructions with games, videos, and puzzles. Price: approx. $50 per course or $399 for an entire classroom

Made with Code – upper elementary – high school 
This resource page, brought to you by Google, showcases disruptive technologies that are being made with code and offers free projects to give students a taste for programming. There are also community-building resources and real-time events for students who develop a real interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). – kindergarten - adult offers tips for both learning and teaching computer science. There are also courses, tutorials, and up-to-date statistics on growth in the computer science industry. Introductory courses and tutorials are free.

girls who CODE – high school
This organization is dedicated to inspiring young women to enter the STEM fields. They offer summer intensives, clubs in many neighborhoods, and mentorship programs.
Mozilla Webmaker - upper elementary - adult
Make your own apps and websites, learn about events in your area, and interact with other programmers of all levels for free on this well-designed, accessible, and fun site. 


Whiz Kid Robotics - beginners to pros
This innovative company aims to make STEM fun by offering all sorts of programmable robot kits to get kids hooked on robotics. Kits vary in complexity, so there's bound to be a project here that is suitable for nearly anyone of any skill level. Visit Whiz Kid's Robotics Guide and STEM resources for links to outstanding activities, organizations of interest, and more.

SparkFun is an online retail store that sells the bits and pieces to make nearly any electronic project you can imagine possible. It sounds complicated, but SparkFun's products and resources are designed to make the world of electronics accessible to the average person. In addition to products, SparkFun offers classes and online tutorials designed to help educate individuals about embedded electronics. Its ever-growing product catalog boasts over 3,500 components and widgets designed to help you unleash your inner inventor.

NASA Robotics Alliance Project
An extensive library of resources, for educators and students in elementarymiddle, and high school. 

Some resources may not be appropriate for all learners. We urge you to carefully review any of the products, services, or tools linked from this blog prior to allowing children to use them without adult supervision.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Graduation Options in New York

We continue to speak with parents of public high school students who are concerned and confused about the diploma options available in New York for their students, especially those with with learning and other challenges.

For many years, students in New York had the option to graduate with a high school diploma without taking Regents exams, the New York Statewide tests that were first administered in 1878.  At least until the era of Advanced Placement exams, Regents examinations were considered the "gold standard" for New York State students, but all students had another path to a diploma available to them if they could not pass a sufficient number or Regents exams. This was the "local diploma."

Local diplomas, which are actual graduation credentials and recognized by such by colleges, the military, and employers, were available for a number of years to students who could not achieve a passing score on sufficient Regents exams, but who could pass a less difficult Regents Competency Exam. However, as we wrote back in 2011, Regents Competency exams were being phased out and, at this point, are no longer available to most students. Local diplomas are no longer an option for students in public schools who do not have an IEP or 504 Plan and cannot pass the required Regents exams. 

So, what can students with or without IEPs do if they are struggling to pass Regents exams?

  • There is an appeal option, available to all students who score 62 or higher on their Regents exam. As explained in an excellent fact sheet from Advocates for Children of New York: "Students who successfully appeal one Regents Exam and meet all other testing and course requirements will be awarded a Regents Diploma. Students who successfully appeal two Regents Exams will be awarded a Local Diploma. Students cannot appeal more than two exams." Note that a student will still have to have an IEP or 504 Plan to be eligible for a Local Diploma (and students with Section 504 plans must have plans that specify that they are eligible for the Local Diploma).
  • Students with IEPs or 504 plans who score between 55-64 on required Regents examinations can receive a local diploma. This option is not available to general education students. The rules are complicated and we suggest you review the advisory from the New York State Department of Education on this "safety net" option. Note that there are also special graduation options available to English Language Learners.

For students with disabilities who had an IEP, there had been another option, but its name was misleading to all concerned. Called an "IEP diploma" it was not a true graduation credential and not an actual diploma. Instead, all it signified was that the student had met the goals of his or her IEP. It was not accepted by colleges, the military, or many employers who required a high school diploma. This option has been replaced by two others, the  Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential (SACC) and the Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Commencement Credential. The SACC is for students with significant disabilities who take alternative assessments. The CDOS is designed to indicate readiness for work, and can be awarded on its own or in conjunction with a Regents or local diploma.

As you can see from the information and links above, this is a complicated subject. The best resource for all families is the high school counselor, among whose responsibilities is making sure that all students are on track to graduate with the highest level credential they are able to achieve. If you are not fully comfortable with where your student is in the path to graduation and what kind of diploma they are entitled to receive -- and are going to receive -- you need to meet with your student's guidance counselor without delay.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Less Work and More Play

We were intrigued by a recent article from Play and Playground News about a Texas school district that had added recess time for its kindergarten and first grade classes so that the students had two fifteen minute recess periods in the morning and two more of the same quantity in the afternoon -- for a total of one hour of recess each day. The students had previously had only one fifteen minute recess break each day.

When the new policy was implemented, teachers had reservations about how it would affect instruction. But the impact was definitely a positive one. Teachers reported that disciplinary problems declined, and that students paid closer attention in class and did better at such tasks as following directions, working independently, and solving problems without help. Parents have also reported improvements since the additional recess time was implemented, especially in the area of social skills.

The changes in the school day were spearheaded by The Link Project, a group of researchers and educators from Texas Christian University interested in changing how schools function, based upon research "that shows that children who engage in more physical activity and play and less academic content daily will do better academically than children who are sedentary, less creative and active, and pressured with more academic content daily." How the additional free time would work with older students at different developmental stages and with different academic demands is still an open question. But it certainly would be interesting to see research on this age group.

The Today show did a segment on this project, which is available to view. 

We've written before about the importance of recess, and the guidelines from our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics which note the importance of recess on children's social, academic, and physical well-being. With spring weather upon us, it would be incumbent upon both teachers and parents to keep the benefits of recess in mind in the midst of the year-end academic pressures.