Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Study Looks at Impact of ADHD on Homework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Especially Grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Terry Ballard via flickr cc

Monday, November 21, 2016

Math Achievement Gap Persists

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

New AAP Media Guidelines and Family Media Use Tool

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

New Attention Being Paid to Attention

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

AAP Encourages Minors to Participate in Medical Decisions

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Kid-Friendly Apps for Scheduling and Task Completion

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2016


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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Derya via flickr cc