Wednesday, June 29, 2016

College Programs for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

We’ve written recently about the importance of supports for college students with executive function difficulties. Students who struggle with executive functions – organization, time management, and planning – may have excellent academic skills, but may not succeed in college because of their non-academic challenges.

Another group of students who may struggle in college despite their academic abilities and their absence of more “typical” learning challenges are those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). As described in an article in The Village Voice by Elizabeth Walters, “Because autism is such a broad term, it can be difficult to pin down. Some people with autism are nonverbal and have limited cognitive abilities, while others have IQs in the genius range. Clinicians refer to a "spectrum" because the term includes a range of individual disorders.”

Many students with ASD are capable of doing the academic work in college, but do not apply, or are admitted and are not successful, because of other factors. These include difficulties with social interactions, including reading the social cues of their classmates and instructors and responding with appropriate behavior; some expressive language difficulties; and the organizational and planning difficulties found in executive function disorders. In addition, students with ASD may have such “co-morbid” conditions as ADHD.

Given the prevalence of ASD – recent CDC data estimates that about 1 in 68 or 1.5% of children were identified with ASD in 2012 – colleges are increasingly encountering students with ASD who need appropriate supports to be successful. Furthermore, many colleges recognize the importance of creating an environment that is welcoming to students with ASD and is flexible enough to meet their needs.

College programs for students with ASD have been around for a number of years. The New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program began in the late 1980’s and offers both a path to a college degree and a non-college post-secondary track. The OASIS program at Pace University began under a different name in 2009. Other programs can be found at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson has a program at both its Metropolitan and Florham campuses. Fees vary for these programs, but none are free or inexpensive.

This makes the REACH program at five City University of New York (CUNY) campuses of particular note. The program - at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Brooklyn College, the College of Staten Island, Kingsborough Community College and LaGuardia Community College – is operated under a grant and there is no cost to participating students, although the future of grant funding is not certain.
The CUNY description of the REACH program notes:

CUNY’s mission is to provide affordable and accessible higher education opportunities to ALL New Yorkers, especially those who have historically not had access to higher education opportunities, like students on the autism spectrum. Inclusive higher education is the next great civil rights movement, and CUNY wants to lead this movement by cultivating a University environment that promotes the success and full participation of students with ASD. 

So far, students enrolled in the REACH program who have stayed with the program have improved their grades, and report greater satisfaction with their college experience. If the program can obtain funding to continue it will be instructive to see further results.

Friday, June 24, 2016

College Support for Executive Function Difficulties

Virtually every college in the country is required to offer “reasonable accommodations” for students with documented disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). These accommodations are intended to address issues faced by students with physical disabilities who have difficulty accessing campus, classroom, or course content. They are also designed to help students with learning disabilities who need things like extended time on exams, help with note taking, and technological tools such as “text to speech” and “voice to text” capabilities.

But what about students who are able to navigate the physical aspects of college and who do not have what we would consider “typical” learning challenges? Fortunately for these students, more and more colleges are offering supports and programs that address their particular needs.

Many of these students face difficulty with an array of competencies we broadly refer to as “executive functions.” These include difficulties with managing papers and materials, trouble with planning, and time management issues. Students who struggle with executive functions typically have difficulty managing long-term projects, such as research papers and cumulative work that extends throughout the semester, to be handed in at the end of a term. They will frequently complete an assignment but fail to hand it in. They may miss classes or deadlines or misplace required course materials. Despite strong academic skills, they will fail courses because they can’t “get their act together” to meet the requirements set by their instructors. Executive function problems are real disorders and are covered by the ADA. We've written before about ways that parents can help younger students who struggle with these issues. But once students head off to college, parents are no longer available to act as an organizational safety net. Finding support for college students who struggle with executive functions requires some investigation.

More and more colleges offer coaching in study skills, organization, and time management. Of course, students need to have the ability to take advantage of these services; just because a workshop on organization is available, doesn't mean that students with significant organizational difficulties will manage to show up.  Another resource would be to work with an executive function coach, ideally a clinician or learning therapist with a strong background in neuroscience, educational psychology, and special education. This individual would start by meeting with the student face-to-face but can often continue to work via Skype or other technology. The goal isn’t to organize for the student, but to give him the tools to internalize the skills needed beyond academics to succeed in college.

As you investigate college options for your student, look for descriptions of services that support executive functions. Ask if the campus Office of Disability Services has counselors who specialize in executive function disorders or if they can refer to off-campus professionals who can assist with these skills. And remember that there is no “do over” for students who fail college courses or get poor grades because they have not sought or taken advantage of the accommodations to which they are entitled. The time to arrange support for executive function difficulties is before problems arise.

Photo credit: IsaacMao via flickrcc

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Design Thinking in the Classroom

In a recent blog, we wrote about how the maker culture is invading K-12 classrooms, and how design thinking is transforming traditional learning. We looked at how to get your kids making, creating, and designing. In today's post we are going to dig a little deeper into the “design thinking” buzzword and unpack what the integration of design thinking means for 21st century teachers, students, and schools.

Design thinking is a structured, but creative, approach to generating, rethinking, and tangible problem solving. It involves taking real-world problems and using research, analysis, and brainstorming to come up with solutions (Gerstein, 2013). Students then physically build and test their ideas through experimentation and product refinement.

Design thinking is supposed to be a messy, dynamic, and collaborative problem solving approach to real world problems. So, as students walk through each stage of the design process, it is important they remain flexible and return to previous steps if need be. Progression through the design process is not intended to be linear; it is fluid and creative in nature. However, a brief description of what occurs in the classroom during each step of the process is as follows:

1. Discovery
Students will discover a challenge or problem, and work to develop a clear understanding of the problem. They should research the problem and gather as much information as they can.

Example: College student is a very active marathon runner who loves to move around. She finds it very difficult to stay still in her chair but is expected to sit through a 75 minute math class without standing up.

2. Interpretation
Students will work to clearly articulate the problem they want to solve and why it is important to solve it. During this process students may need to go back and redefine the problem several times to further narrow the scope of their project.

Example: The student enjoys movement and needs to be able to move quietly, from a seated position, without distracting others in the classroom.

3. Ideation
Students will begin to brainstorm and come up with solutions for the problem.

  • The student could tap her feet under her desk (no, because that would distract others)
  • The student could roll a wooden dowel under her feet (no, because the floor is hardwood and it would make a loud noise)
  • The student could tie bouncy elastics to the bottom of her chair to press her feet on during the lesson.

4. Experimentation

Students will select what they think to be the best solution and begin to build a porotype of their solution. They will then test their ideas.

Example: Find a chair and test out different widths and types of elastics. Determine if there is any noise made or if other students are distracted by the noise made. Make sure that the elastics don’t break and are easily added and removed before and after class.

5. Evolution
Students will begin to evolve their ideas and refine what needs to be reworked. This may call for students to return back to the discovery, interpretation, or ideation steps of the design process.

Design thinking is an exciting concept, but it can be daunting to figure out how to integrate these ideals into your classroom routines. Thankfully, there are several resources out there to support interested educators who wanted inspire their kids to think, create, and experiment. Design Thinking for Educators is a great resource for educators who want to learn more.

Their website houses a plethora of videos that discuss the intricacies and rationale behind design thinking, while modeling real world examples of how the ideas are played out in a classroom. Design Thinking for Educators also has a downloadable toolkit to get you started in your design journey. Alternatively, Stanford’s School of Education has a wiki that outlines some great design thinking projects and challenges that innovative educators could attempt with their students.

Design thinking is a fascinating novel way to think about and engage students in the learning process. It gives the students autonomy over their learning, and teaches them how to find answers to their own problems through experimentation and research. Happy designing!

Gerstein, J. (2013, March 11). "Hacking the classroom: Beyond Design Thinking." Retrieved from

Friday, June 17, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Asked to Look at "Educational Benefit" under IDEA

Parents of students who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are aware that this federal law requires that their child receive a free, appropriate, public education, universally referred to as FAPE. But just what is considered appropriate has been the subject of litigation almost since this law was enacted in its earlier form (under a different name) in 1975.

The prevailing standard for "appropriate" was articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1982 in the Rowley case, which we examined in this blog more than six years ago. As we noted at that time, the Court set the standard for appropriate far lower than parents and their supporters would have wanted, stating that the IDEA required only:

"...personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction … and should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade."

Over time, the Rowley standard has been subject to interpretation by courts throughout the country and the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, whose decisions are subject to review only by the Supreme Court, have diverged in their views about what constitutes an appropriate education.

Now, a case is being considered for review by the Supreme Court from the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which affirmed the decision of a lower court that providing "some" educational benefit to a Colorado student with autism was sufficient to meet the standards required for FAPE. The Supreme Court has asked the Obama administration's representative, the U.S. Solicitor General, to weigh in as to whether the Court should take on this case.

 The question posed by this case is described in the amicus brief  filed by Autism Speaks, which urges the Supreme Court to consider it:

 "Some circuits require a substantial educational benefit (often described as a “meaningful” one) while others ... require only a just-above-trivial educational benefit. [Supreme Court] review is necessary to resolve the conflict over an issue of paramount importance to children with disabilities, their parents, and their school districts."

The problem, as the amicus brief notes, is  "that the just-above-trivial educational standard adopted by the Tenth Circuit ... and by other courts of appeals, is not reasonably calculated to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities, and therefore impairs their access to an education and opportunity for independence and self-sufficiency."

We will continue to follow this case and to see if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to grant a writ of certiorari and accept this case for review.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New NY Diploma Requirements for Students with IEPs

Earlier this year, we wrote about changes to diploma options for New York State students that affected students with IEPs who could not pass required Regents exams, the "gold standard" exams that were required for graduation with a "Regents Diploma."

Now, additional changes have been put in place by the New York State Board of Regents, the body that sets the standards for all schools statewide, that take effect on June 20th of this year, so that they will apply to students due to graduate with the Class of 2016. 

Essentially, students with IEPs who have not been able to pass Regents exams otherwise required for graduation can still graduate with a "local diploma," which is sufficient for college admissions, employers, and the military, if their school superintendent (or the principal of their "approved" private school) has determined that the student has met the learning standards for the course. These standards include the final course grade as well as grades on homework, projects, class work, quizzes and tests, as well as "actively participating" in (although not necessarily passing) the exam required for graduation. 

Students will still be required to pass English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Regents, since these two subjects are deemed foundational skills. But they will not be required to pass other Regents exams and, instead, can be judged competent in these subjects by a superintendent's review as outlined above. 

The Board of Regents notes that these newly announced changes are intended to be in addition to other “safety net” options currently available to students with disabilities to graduate with a local diploma. These are:
  • Pass five required Regents exams with a score of 55 – 64
  • Receive a local diploma via appeal if all of the conditions of appeal are met.  This option is for students who score up to three points below a score of 55 on a Regents exam 
  • Score between 45-54 on one or more of the Regents exams required for graduation, other than ELA or mathematics, but achieve a score of 65 or higher on another required Regents exam which can compensate for the lower score. A score of 65 or higher on a single examination may not be used to compensate for more than one examination for which a score of 45-54 is earned.
All of these alternative paths to graduation are part of a delicate balancing act. Parents and educators want to make sure that all students -- including those with disabilities -- are offered a rigorous curriculum to prepare them for adulthood.  On the other hand, both parents and schools recognize that because of their disabilities, some of these students will not be able to meet the highest bar set by certain state exams and risk being left without a high school diploma despite their best efforts to achieve this crucial credential. These newest changes by the Regents, together with their earlier modifications of graduation requirements, are an effort to strike the best balance for these students.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Time Management and Homework Resources

Earlier this spring, we looked at some of the extensive resources tucked away on our website, starting with a look at tech literacy. Today we explore our suggestions for ways to manage tasks, lists, and homework. Take a look and see if they help.

Rescue Time, Freedom app, and Stay Focused
All four of these online productivity monitors allow users to track how much time they spend on certain websites and even block certain sites from themselves or during predesignated times.

This free product (upgrades available) is the best of both worlds: a to-do list and a timer. Students can enter their tasks to keep track of their responsibilities, the use the timer to keep track of how long they should be working and when to take breaks. Pomodoro is both a desktop application and a smartphone app. Students who are easily distracted by their phones may want to use it only on their PCs; used in conjunction with Slife, Rescue Time, Freedom app, or Stay Focused (above) to block distractions, Pomodoro can help students stay focused and organized.

This great app is excellent for those who want to coordinate to-do lists with other people. Wunderlist will send email reminders to members of a group and the group organizer can check to see which tasks have been completed. Group members can use an in-app chat feature to discuss tasks, too. This app, which is free for iOS and Android, is ideal for families or students and professionals who do lots of collaborative work.


We love this simple, free app! Just type in things you need to remember and your smartphone will alert you when it's time to get things done. You can even attach notes, documents, videos, or images to items on your list. Any.Do works with almost all devices, both mobile and desktop.

This clever app allows users to create to-do lists and organize tasks by priority. It's simple, elegant, and effective. For iOS only.

Remember the Milk
Manage responsibilities and prearrange text or email reminders so they'll show up when you need them.

Make Custom Checklists
Easily create checklists for your child using this free resource. A checklist can help foster independence so kids can get through routines (getting ready to go to school in the morning or to bed at night, for example) without forgetting anything. 

myHomework - free, or $4.99 per year without ads
This award-winning app allows students to stay on top of just about everything. Users can input classes, assignments, tests, and grades, and myHomework will send alerts and reminders and even help students to prioritize tasks. The streamlined layout keeps distractions to a minimum, too.

Here's a helpful tip: Making timelines can be a particularly helpful way to plan an evening of work or a multi-step project. Check out our model, then try making a timeline of your own.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How Schools Serve - and Fail - Students with IEPs

Two new reports landed in our "in box" recently, both looking at how students with IEPs under the IDEA are served in public schools -- one specifically looking at New York City high schools and the other, far broader, at students of all ages throughout the U.S.

Students with Disabilities in NYC High Schools

INCLUDEnyc, formerly Resources for Children with Special Needs, a long-time resource for students with disabilities in New York City, has looked at the new 2017 New York City High School Directory and, together with the folks at, has some cautionary words for families of students with disabilities seeking to apply to public high schools.

The 2017 Directory no longer states, for every school, "This school will provide students with disabilities the supports and services indicated on their IEPs." This simply was not true and parents often found out their child could not get their mandated IEP services at their new high school. The new Directory has more information on how schools serve students with disabilities, but the way that they define disability and the retrospective nature of the information they include may not be helpful to families seeking definitive answers.

So what should parents do?  Consider attending one of the July information sessions held in each borough. And definitely ask specific questions of each school you are considering.

New D.O.E. Report on How Students with Disabilities Fare in K-12 Schools

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has released a new report (with data from the 2013-14 school year), which found:

  • Students with disabilities served by IDEA are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities. 
  • Students with disabilities are more likely to be retained or held back in high school: Students with disabilities served by IDEA are 12% of the student population, but 21% of high school students held back or retained. Even more disturbing discrepancies are found with students of color and English language learners.
  • Elementary school students with disabilities served by IDEA are 1.5 times as likely to be chronically absent as elementary school students without disabilities. 
U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said about this data, "The ... data are more than numbers and charts—they illustrate in powerful and troubling ways disparities in opportunities and experiences that different groups of students have in our schools ... [and] create the imperative for a continued call to action to do better and close achievement and opportunity gaps.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Downside of Multitasking

How many other things are you doing while you read this blog? Listening to music or a podcast? Watching something streaming on a screen? Texting? Making a shopping list? You’re multitasking, the often highly valued ability to do more than one thing at a time. We all do it and are often quite proud of our juggling of multiple tasks. But are we really getting more done – and done better – this way?

The New York Times recently looked at the other side of multitasking – monotasking. It’s not the same as being mindfully aware of what you are doing. It’s simply doing one thing at a time without turning one’s attention to other tasks or distractions. It can be a matter of life and death when behind the wheel of a car, but today we will limit our discussion to other situations. Why does this matter? If we can do more than one thing at a time, doesn’t that make us more efficient and let us handle more information and be more productive? Not necessarily.

Studies have shown the downside to multitasking, including a recent study of workplace behavior that found that “shorter focus duration was associated with lower assessed productivity at day's end.” Another study, from 2014, found that turning from the task at hand to something else for just a few seconds doubled the errors that the study participants made in the primary task.

These studies have all dealt with adults in the workplace. But what about the impact of multitasking by students on their learning and studying? The findings here are disturbing. In one study, when researchers observed 263 middle school, high school, and college students studying for 15 minute blocks in their homes, they found that students started switching to other technology after less than six minutes, on average, into their study session. And these were students who were aware that their studying was being monitored. Those who interrupted their studying tended to have more technological distractors available to them and those who accessed Facebook while studying turned out to have lower GPAs. On a positive note, those students who used study strategies were more likely to stay on task.

An excellent survey of the research on this topic and on what the researchers think about how media and technology distractions affect learning can be found in an article on Mindshift, from KQED News. As with many behaviors parents want to impart to their children, modeling the target behavior can be an effective technique. If you want your child to be able to limit their multitasking to improve their learning and performance, you may decide that paying closer attention to a single task -- and explaining to your child what you are doing and why -- may help make this point.

photo credit: Craig Dennis via flickrcc

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Maker Culture in Schools

Maker culture is an off-shoot of traditional "do it yourself" (DIY) and craft culture. Adweek describes the maker movement as “…the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans…” Unlike the DIY movement, Maker culture is centered on tech; it involves computer programming, robotics, 3D printing, and digital and graphic design. The movement is so developed that it has its own magazine, Make, and hosts Maker Faires all over the world. Now, maker culture is pervading schools and your blogger is very excited about this creative shift in the education space.
Maker learning provides students with a hand-on, highly interactive way to explore the world around them as they engage with STEM concepts. Through a maker environment the learning a student does becomes intensely personal, project-based, and internally motivating. Maker culture is cross-curricular by nature and blurs the dichotomy between arts and sciences as students creatively design and construct novel technological products. Maker activities engage students in design thinking, a concept that is so powerful it is being integrated into curriculum at select schools. These schools are not alone. The Next Generation Science Standards advocates for computer science, engineering, and tinkering to be a part of every American child's education.

Maker projects can be as simple as using recycled materials to create a new toy. The materials used can be as basic as old cardboard to as advanced as 3D printers. Teachers could also have students explore stop motion animation by creating their own film to share. Or have students use MIT’s Scratch, a free computer programming tool, to create stories, games, or animations. Another way to infuse maker culture into a classroom is have students sew with conductive thread. This will allow them to make wearable electronic apparel or digital stuffed animals. Maker culture doesn’t have to be complex, it simply has to inspire students to invent, design, and create new products.

For teachers looking to bring maker culture into their own classrooms, an excellent resource is the book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. The authors advocate that no matter your classroom budget there is a way to integrate maker principles into your students’ learning. They provide tips and ideas for students and teachers to learn together by interacting with a variety of high and low tech tools and materials. Edutopia also has a storehouse of Maker Education related articles that teachers can use to empower them to carry out maker projects in their classrooms. Maker Ed is another maker culture innovator where teachers can peruse their resource lists or get connected to maker events going on near them. It may feel daunting to take on such a large task in your classroom, but there are a lot of excellent resources out there to help support you in joining the maker movement. 

Happy Making!