Monday, October 16, 2017

Instruction for Dyslexics That Works

A diagnosis of dyslexia can bring with it a range of emotions. Some people are crushed, thinking that their, or their child’s, potential is irrevocably limited. Some are relieved: There’s something empowering about being able to name a condition and, of course, it’s validating to have a professional verify that the affected student isn’t “dumb” or “lazy.” But one of the most common reactions is confusion. Parents may feel overwhelmed and lost. Is there a way to teach literacy skills to a dyslexic child that really works? If so, how does one find it?

We are happy to say that the answer to the first question is an emphatic “yes!” There are several thoroughly researched, time-tested instructional methods that can help dyslexic students make sense of language. This instruction can occur in a variety of formats, but parents should always look these indicators of a highly-effective program:

  • Curriculum is multi-sensory, explicit, and structured. Orton-Gillingham, and programs based on it, is the gold standard when it comes to instruction for dyslexic students. There are lots of curricula (Wilson, Lindamood-Bell, Barton, etc.) that are O.G.-based, so don’t be thrown off by names. But research the curriculum to be sure it is grounded in this solid, well-researched approach.
  • Curriculum includes training in phonemic awareness by itself. Phonemic awareness (skills needed to recognize and manipulate the sounds in language), is a key component of good early childhood instruction, but older dyslexics need this kind of instruction, too; their brains are less able to develop these skills simply from exposure to language. Recent research shows that phonemic awareness instruction should happen by itself, not in conjunction with written letters, to be most effective. In other words, both phonemic awareness (sounds) and phonics (sounds plus letters) should be part of instruction.
  • Curriculum is administered by a certified reading or literacy specialist, or by an educator certified in an O.G.-based curriculum. No matter how talented, smart, or well-intentioned, standard classroom teachers and even special education teachers are not trained in the kind of reading instruction dyslexic children need. (Trust me on this; I used to be one! It wasn’t until I obtained a masters degree in literacy, then was trained in Orton-Gillingham, that I was prepared to teach individuals with dyslexia.) 
  • Other parents give the curriculum a thumbs-up. Ask to speak with parents of other dyslexic children (not just struggling readers) who have received instruction from the provider you are considering.
So now that you know what to look for, how do you find it? That’s often a little more complicated. High-quality instruction for dyslexic students can occur in a few different formats.

Services in Public School

Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate instruction from her school, often referred to by the acronym FAPE. This will probably take the form of pull-outs, meaning that a special education teacher or reading specialist will take your child out of her mainstream classes to work one-on-one or in a small group of similar students. Please note what we said above about the qualifications of your child’s instructor. If your district doesn’t provide a qualified reading specialist, you may need to do some research and be prepared to demand that your child receive instruction from someone who is properly trained; this should be set out in your child's IEP.  Most special education teachers are not trained in the specific reading instruction dyslexics need.

Dedicated Schools

Special schools for dyslexic children are few and far between, but if you’re lucky enough to live near one or are flexible and up for a new adventure, this might be worth considering. (Some families even move to new cities in order to be near top-notch institutions!) The benefits of a quality school that is dedicated to dyslexia instruction are enormous. Not only are the teachers knowledgeable and experienced in reading instruction, but curriculum that benefits students with this profile is woven into every subject. Most schools also teach students how to self-advocate effectively and use helpful technology that can assist them in college and beyond. And, perhaps most importantly, students become friends with other bright, creative, dynamic, wonderful kids who share their struggles.

Private Instruction (e.g. Tutoring)

Sending your dyslexic child to a special school isn’t feasible for lots of families for a variety of reasons. For kids who need help beyond what the special education services in their public school provide, private instruction is a great option. This usually occurs through two channels: established organizations or private practitioners.

Tutoring companies that specialize in reading disabilities, like Lindamood-Bell, can be good options for families. Look for an office that administers lots of benchmark assessments throughout instruction that clearly demonstrate that your child is making progress. Avoid tutoring companies that don’t specialize in reading disabilities; most of these organizations (Kumon, Sylvan, etc.) may provide great homework help for typically developing readers but don’t staff the specially trained teachers dyslexics must learn from.

Private practitioners vary enormously in training and quality. One surefire way to find a good one is to check out the International Dyslexia Association’s provider directory. Even if one of these professionals can’t take on another student, they may be able to point you in the direction of someone who can. Another suggestion is to speak with the administration at a school for dyslexic students or students with language-based learning disabilities. The expert teachers who work at these schools often tutor on the side. If they don’t, chances are the principal knows someone who will.

A few words about scheduling, no matter where your child goes for private instruction:

  • Set up at least two sessions a week initially. For younger children, shorter sessions (30-45 minutes) two or three times a week are better than an hour-long session once a week. Remember that your child will be working hard, and an hour in one go, even for older kids, may be too much at first.
  • Your child will likely be worn out at the end of a school day, so morning sessions work better than after-school sessions for some families. 
  • Some tutors will travel to your child’s school to work with him during instruction from which he gets little benefit, like spelling. While this can be an efficient use of time, some students feel self-conscious about being pulled out of class, making it hard for them to learn.
Summer Learning Opportunities

Summer slide, the tendency of kids to lose some of the skills they worked to gain during the school year, hits dyslexic students particularly hard. It’s tempting to give kids a break for the summer, but they need at least some opportunities to keep their skills sharp to prevent frustration when school begins again. The summer months are a great opportunity for multiple weekly sessions at Lindamood-Bell or with a tutor. For older learners, excellent schools like Kildonan, the Landmark School, the Brehm School, and the Gow School offer residential summer camps that blend expert literacy instruction with opportunities to explore the arts, play sports, and have fun getting to know dyslexic peers.

Look for our post next week on high-tech tools to help dyslexic learners (and adults!) with literacy demands.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Assessing for Dyslexia

The best kind of intervention is early intervention. When it comes to dyslexia, though, this can be tricky because dyslexia can’t be diagnosed until a child begins to show significant difficulty learning literacy skills. That doesn’t mean parents have to simply watch and wonder until first or second grade, though.

The earliest common symptom of dyslexia is late speech (though not all late talkers are dyslexic, and not all dyslexics were late talkers). There is a wide range of “normal,” but Reading Bright Start, a useful site for parents of children from birth to age five, provides some useful milestones to look for.

Kids may begin to speak later than expected for a variety of reasons, but no matter the cause it’s a good idea to have a child evaluated as soon as there is concern. A quick consultation with your child’s daycare or preschool teacher can be valuable; these professionals have worked with countless children and usually have a good sense of whether a child is behind or not. Free early intervention evaluations are available in every state for young children. Young kids just beginning school should be monitored, too. According to the International Dyslexia Association, at least one of a handful of measures* should be given to all school-aged children, beginning in kindergarten, to identify kids who are at risk for reading difficulties.

Speech and language sessions for young children don’t focus much on reading skills. It’s too early for that. Instead, the therapist helps children to understand the sounds that make up language, which is a critical foundation for literacy down the road. Strengthening skills early can prevent or lessen many struggles children may otherwise have when they begin school.

Sometimes, though, the signs of dyslexia aren’t addressed until elementary school (or later). Never fear, though; with the right instruction (look for our upcoming post on that topic) there is still good reason to believe that older kids can learn important literacy skills at any age. Recent neurological research indicates that brains are plastic throughout much of our lives—great news for adults!

When seeking out an assessment for an older child, a good assessment should probe all areas in which the child appears to be struggling. An assessment that only seeks to determine whether a child has dyslexia may miss other important issues that are contributing to that child's academic struggles.  Among the aspects of an assessment that are most helpful in determining whether a child has dyslexia or another language based learning difficulty are the following:

Intelligence – A child with a cognitive deficit is not considered dyslexic.

Oral Language Skills – It’s important to rule out a language impairment. Dyslexics typically have strong higher-language skills, though they may struggle with building blocks, like word pronunciation.

Phonological Processing
– These measures usually don’t involve written language at all; rather, the assessor will examine the way your child identifies, pronounces, recalls, and manipulates the sounds in language. An assessment of phonological processing must be a part of dyslexia evaluation.

Word Recognition – This means reading familiar words in isolation.

Decoding – This means reading unfamiliar words in isolation. Students may be required to read “nonsense words,” too, to ensure that they aren’t simply recognizing the word’s shape instead of actually interpreting the individual letters.

Spelling – This is usually one of the toughest tasks for dyslexics.

– Some dyslexics can stumble along with good accuracy, but measures of fluency will reveal how taxing literacy processes are for them.

Reading Comprehension – Dyslexics usually have the cognitive skills to understand grade-level text but score poorly on measures of comprehension measures. This is an artifact of their difficulty decoding the text.

Vocabulary Knowledge
– Most dyslexics have smaller vocabularies than their peers because of their difficulty processing oral language and accessing written language.

The assessor should also ask about physical and emotional health and family history and educational history. Issues with any one of these areas can interfere with a child's learning.

If it turns out that your child does need special reading instruction, the resulting report will be invaluable. It will help service providers make a treatment plan, and it will demonstrate your child’s needs if you need to negotiate with the district to get your child the services s/he deserves. We have countless posts on this blog about all aspects of assessments and special education laws. Start with the "search" feature on the right hand side of this post, looking for posts on subjects like "IEE" (Independent Educational Evaluation) and "IDEA" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

So what happens if your child is diagnosed with dyslexia? Look for our next post on effective instruction for dyslexic learners.

*Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR); Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS); Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI); and AIMSweb screening assessments

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Monday, October 2, 2017

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month

It’s Dyslexia Awareness Month! During October, we’ll be running a series of posts about this common and commonly misunderstood condition.

First, test your knowledge. Below are some statements you may have heard about dyslexia. Can you tell which ones are myths?

  • Dyslexic kids are mentally handicapped or lazy.
  • Boys are more likely to have dyslexia than girls.
  • Dyslexic people see letters backwards.
  • Dyslexics can read better with the help of colored films.
  • Dyslexia can be cured.

OK, that was a trick, because ALL of the above statements are FALSE. In my work with dyslexic students, first at Columbia University’s Teachers College, at The Yellin Center, and now at Hillside School in Colorado (where we serve only young people with dyslexia), I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about this disability. So what is dyslexia? And what isn’t dyslexia? The answers may surprise you.

Dyslexia is a genetic, lifelong, language-based disability. It is neurological in origin; brain scans of dyslexics show that they process language differently than typically-developing youngsters, even when they’re just listening or speaking and not reading at all! Dyslexics are most certainly not cognitively limited. In fact, a person must have average to above-average intelligence in order to be diagnosed with dyslexia. And dyslexia is positively correlated with creativity, which will not surprise anyone familiar with Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Pablo Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, and Henry Winkler, (all dyslexics).

The International Dyslexia Association, an outstanding resource, estimates that 15-20% of the population is dyslexic. Only 13-14% of the school population receives special education services for literacy because of dyslexia, though. (Look for our upcoming post on instruction that words for dyslexics.) This reason for this disparity is two-fold: some dyslexics have a fairly mild impairment and don’t qualify for special services, and some dyslexics go undiagnosed. This is especially true for students with attention deficits or who are viewed as having “behavior problems” or those in ESL classes. Dyslexia affects boys and girls in equal numbers, though boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis, possibly because girls “fly under the radar” more frequently.

Interestingly, speakers of any language can be dyslexic, even those who speak logographic languages (which use a different symbol for each word, like Chinese) instead of letters. This is because dyslexia is a disorder of language processing, and that means language in all its forms, even oral language. Most dyslexics were late talkers as young children, likely because they struggled to recall and produce the sounds that make up words. (Look for our upcoming post on assessment to learn more about the early signs of dyslexia and when to seek a professional opinion.) Dyslexia is considered a reading disability because this task is particularly difficult for affected individuals and has an enormous impact on their lives, but spelling and even pronouncing words can pose serious challenges as well.

Dyslexia can occur alongside other difficulties, and comorbidities like ADHD and dysgraphia are common. Many dyslexics struggle with math, too. It’s difficult to tell whether there is a causal relationship because a dyslexic’s difficulty processing language may make it hard for them to benefit from instruction across subjects. However, I’ve worked with a number of dyslexic students who were impressive mathematicians. It’s useful to remember that dyslexia affects each person differently.

Be wary of anyone claiming that they can help dyslexic learners with the aid of special glasses or colored films. Dyslexia is a neurological condition and has no relationship to vision. In the reading world, common knowledge is, “If the eyes work for seeing, they’ll work for reading.” Of course any student struggling with reading should have a vision screening to rule out poor vision as a factor, but a dyslexic with 20-20 vision will still have difficulty reading written words. There is no evidence to suggest that colored films do anything more than hold a child’s attention for a few minutes while they’re still novel. And the belief that dyslexics see letters backwards is completely false. Dyslexic children do reverse words when reading and writing, but typically-developing readers do, too. Learners tend to stop reverals when the sequence of letters begins to have significance for them, and this understanding takes much longer for dyslexics to develop.

Finally, a dyslexic is a dyslexic for life. There is no “cure,” but this doesn’t mean there is no hope. With the right instruction, almost all dyslexics can learn strategies to read and write and manage their dyslexia in a way that allows them to access the kind of opportunities that interest and suit them.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts throughout the month of October about dyslexia!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

ADA Accommodations for Good Students

Almost exactly two years ago, in September 2015, we wrote a post about new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice, which were a response to questions about testing accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Justice Department guidelines were very clear and set out the basic principles of the ADA and how they should be applied to testing and accommodations.
Still, we recently had a conversation with a private school parent where the question was raised as to whether a student who was doing well -- keeping up with class work and getting good grades -- would be entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA. So, let's look again at what the law requires, quoting directly from the Justice Department guidelines:

  • "Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as seeing, hearing, learning, reading, concentrating, or thinking) or a major bodily function... 

  • "To be 'substantially limited' in a major life activity does not require that the person be unable to perform the activity. In determining whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity, it may be useful to consider, when compared to most people in the general population, the conditions under which the individual performs the activity or the manner in which the activity is performed. It may also be useful to consider the length of time an individual can perform a major life activity or the length of time it takes an individual to perform a major life activity, as compared to most people in the general population. 

  • "A person with a history of academic success may still be a person with a disability who is entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA. A history of academic success does not mean that a person does not have a disability that requires testing accommodations. For example, someone with a learning disability may achieve a high level of academic success, but may nevertheless be substantially limited in one or more of the major life activities of reading, writing, speaking, or learning, because of the additional time or effort he or she must spend to read, write, speak, or learn compared to most people in the general population."

Keep in mind that the ADA is the primary disability law covering most private K-12 schools, although religious schools are exempt from the ADA. A good explanation as to how disability laws apply to private schools was prepared by the National Association of Independent Schools. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Phenomenon of Motivated Forgetting

Every fall, students return to school with a little bit less academic knowledge than they left with in June. There is no shortage of reasons or hypotheses for why this happens, but three researchers recently wanted to look more closely at what might be getting in the way of students taking their learning with them across time. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough, at The University of California and The University of Alabama,* explored the topic of motivated forgetting in college students – the concept that we may deliberately remove “unwanted memories” from our awareness because unpleasant memories may threaten our sense of self. 

In general, motivated forgetting is “the process by which people have difficulty recalling information and memories for events that are unpleasant, painful, or generally threatening to the self-perceptions” that we work to build about ourselves*. In other words, we are motivated to forget information that is damaging to our ego, or sense of self. As an example, researchers have found that people are less able to recall information from historical passages about atrocities when the perpetrators of those atrocities belong to the individual’s cultural group. The idea behind this is that it would be damaging to that person’s sense of self or identity to know that information, and so they are unconsciously motivated to forget it. When this research was applied to feedback about behaviors, psychologists found that even though people are just as good at recalling negative and positive feedback about behaviors peripheral to the self (i.e., not that important to one’s ego), they had a harder time recalling negative as compared to positive feedback regarding behaviors that are central to their sense of self. In other words, if I think of myself as a very honest person, and I am given feedback about how I engaged in a dishonest behavior as well as feedback about how I engaged in honest behavior, I am going to have a harder time remembering the negative feedback. This would not be the case if honesty was not one of the most important traits I think about when I consider my sense of self.

Interesting, but how does this relate to students' loss of academic knowledge after their summer break? 

Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough wanted to see whether students in a difficult math course suffered from motivated forgetting after the semester ended (i.e., during summer break). They hypothesized that students with a high math self-concept who felt stressed out by the course would have a harder time remembering what they learned as compared to students who did not consider math as integral to their sense of self, even if they were just as stressed out. The researchers tested this by giving the students an extra final exam, two weeks into their summer break (lucky them!). They found that, indeed, students who were more stressed out by the coursework were more likely to forget information, but only if they had a higher mathematics self-concept. Students who did not consider math an integral part of their identity were not affected by the stress.

This finding may seem a little surprising, since we would expect that students who care deeply about a topic will remember more of it. However, this study has pointed out for us that the more deeply we care about a subject or the more we feel it is an integral part of our self, the more we may be affected by ongoing stress about that subject or relevant coursework. Humans are always trying to protect their egos, so it makes sense that we would push out information after it is no longer critical if that information is putting our sense of self off balance. In other words, the students in the study didn’t forget the information until after the course ended because prior to that, it was critical to their grades. Once summer hit, it was relatively safe to forget. However, looking at the bigger picture, we know that math is cumulative, and the information learned in one course is important to take with us to the next, especially for the students in the study, who were primarily going towards majors and careers in fields related to STEM. 

The researchers published this work with the hope that educators will work on implementing stress-reduction techniques into their teaching. They also briefly discussed the concept of teaching students to interpret stress, and even failure, as a positive rather than a negative force. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough emphasized that, based on research done previously, it’s important to help students “approach classroom stress as a normal challenge that is a part of the learning process rather than a threat to their self-perception” so that they can avoid this phenomenon of motivated forgetting*** . We’ve written many times before about the concept of mindset, originated by Dr. Carol Dweck, which can be a useful classroom teaching tool for helping students at all grade levels learn about the positive value of failure. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough make an even stronger case for its presence in the classroom, so as we settle in to the school year, let’s remember to give our students a reason to embrace the learning process, even if it is a little stressful.

* Ramirez, G., McDonough, I. M., & Jin, L. (2017). Classroom stress promotes motivated forgetting of mathematics knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 812-825. 
** p. 812
*** p. 821

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The NVLD Project

We recently learned of the NVLD Project, founded in 2013 by Dr. Laura Lemle, whose daughter was diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disability (NVLD) when she was five years old. Dr. Lemle, now in the real estate business, has a PhD in clinical psychology.

This nonprofit organization offers informational workshops, supports research, and has a blog where an array of writers share their knowledge and experiences with NVLD.  Long term, the NVLD Project seeks to have NVLD included as a specific disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the "bible" of medical diagnostics developed by the American Psychiatric Association. The NVLD Project notes that such recognition "will allow people who have NVLD to be covered for clinical care and it will foster more rigorous empirical research on the causes of and best treatments for NVLD."

So what, exactly, is a non-verbal learning disability? First, it involves a significant discrepancy between verbal and perceptual reasoning abilities, where the individual has strong abilities in such verbal realms as reading, vocabulary, and memory, but struggles with spatial, mathematical, and certain "big picture" tasks. In addition, organization, executive functions, and social skills can be areas of difficulty. An extensive discussion of the components of a non-verbal learning disability is set forth on the Project NVLD website.

The difficulties that characterize NVLD can be present in other learning and social disabilities, and distinguishing among the various labels for disorders may be less important than understanding the strengths and difficulties faced by each individual and developing specific strategies and supports to build on his or her strengths and to bypass or improve challenges. Still, understanding NVLD and researching why and how NVLD arises is an important first step to remediating this constellation of difficulties. Likewise, supports for individuals and families dealing with NVLD can be extremely helpful.

Monday, September 11, 2017

September 11, 2017

Today is September 11th and the horror and bravery of that date in 2001 and the days that followed has not diminished with the passage of 16 years. As we remember where we were on the date our city and our nation was attacked, and in many ways changed forever, we look back with excerpts from a post we wrote back in 2010.

September 11th - A Personal Story

Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, an event that has become associated with many things since that horrific day -- courage, loss, terror, war, and retribution -- just to name a few. We suspect that you have no trouble remembering where you were when you first heard the terrible news. We were all touched by this event. But for those of us in New York, Washington and  Pennsylvania, and especially for those whose loved ones were lost  in the towers or on the ill-fated planes, there was, and still is, a particularly personal resonance to the events of that day.

Some of you may have seen a hard-hat sitting on a shelf in Dr. Yellin's office. On September 11, 2001 Dr. Yellin was the Chief Medical Officer of  NYU Downtown Hospital, located just three blocks from the World Trade Center. He was attending a meeting in mid-town Manhattan, about three miles north, when his Chief of Nursing called his cell phone to report a fire at the World Trade Center. He promptly left his meeting and took a subway train downtown to the hospital, knowing that the hospital emergency response team would be moving into action, but completely unaware of the scope of the disaster. He emerged from the subway into streets of chaos, and got inside the hospital building just as the first of the towers fell. It was pitch black in the daytime, with a thick cloud covering the glass walled lobby. The hospital staff was geared up to deal with injuries and survivors, but there were only a handful of survivors in those first, awful hours. As the scope of what had happened became clear, teams of doctors, nurses, and support personnel  went to the remains of the towers to see what they could do. Dr. Yellin joined them for a time and was handed a hard-hat by a Con Edison worker; debris was everywhere.

Time became irrelevant. The mission to save survivors became one, instead, of serving the recovery teams and the local residents, who had no electricity or other services in what was, for many months, a disaster zone. Three days later, when Dr. Yellin made it home by train in a pair of dusty scrubs, people kept shaking his hand and thanking him. He knew that there had been far too little for him and his team to do on that fateful day.

Recalling the events of September 11th or seeing the devastation from the recent hurricanes can be unsettling for both children and adults. Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Healthy Children"  website have helpful information about how parents can speak to their children about disasters of all kinds. 

Photo: SMU University Libraries

Friday, September 8, 2017

Who Says There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

Here at The Yellin Center we love our lunch. Some folks bring interesting things they've cooked at home. Others order from the limitless selection our Manhattan location provides. And for birthdays and other special occasions we all get together for pizza or some other treat.

So it was a particular pleasure to hear that all students in New York City public schools will now be able to get both breakfast and lunch for free. What this means is that the 75 percent of the 1.1 million New York City public school students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch (breakfast has been free for all students) need not identify themselves or have any stigma attached to their "free lunch" status. All families are asked to complete a School Meals Form to enable the school system to get federal funds for this program.

While we are on the subject of lunches, a piece earlier this week in  The New York Times looks at how school lunches nationwide may change under the current federal administration. Whether or not changes implemented under the Obama administration designed to make lunches healthier -- more fruits and vegetables, less unhealthy ingredients -- are rolled back, it is clear that local communities are more aware of healthy eating and that school lunches will reflect both this trend and local food preferences.

Getting kids involved in food preparation can only raise their interest in healthy eating and bring families together. We've written before about ChopChop, a terrific resource for teaching kids about healthy cooking. It's worth checking out. Even if your child takes advantage of a free healthy lunch in school, there is always dinner that needs to be prepared!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Private School Admissions: An Early Start

Finally, even the last schools to start the year -- those in New York City -- are opening their doors to students tomorrow. Parents everywhere can take a deep breath and know that their children are settled in to their school and class until late next spring.

Unless, of course, your child is moving to a new school level after this year. Or you are thinking about moving him to different school. Or it is time to consider a private special education setting. For these families, there is no respite come the fall. For many private schools, especially those that are well regarded for their academics or general reputation, or those that do a good job helping students with learning or other challenges to succeed, the early fall is the time to begin the admissions process for the following school year.

Parents who go to a private school's website will see that there are open house dates scheduled for as early as the beginning of September. Application deadlines vary, but tend to align with those for college admissions. Many schools have rolling admissions, filling spots as qualified applicants apply and closing the application process once their classes are filled. Other schools have a fixed deadline and will then look at the body of applicants to make sure their classes are balanced in terms of things like academic abilities, gender, and special needs.

So, parents who are thinking ahead and considering a different school for their child for next year should not delay in launching their investigation. Not sure where to begin? The guidance counselors in your child's current school may be a good starting point. If your current school is not a good fit, or if your child is aging out, they should be able to point you to places to consider and can sometimes help shortcut the admission process. You can also look at some of the local and national websites that list schools and often have features that allow you to search for specific attributes and locations.

Most schools have colorful websites, filled with photos of happy students and statistics about enrollment and achievements. Still, the school website is the best place to begin your investigation. Look at information about curriculum, special learning supports, and important numbers, such as class size and tuition. Sign up for an open house or small group tour, the earlier in the term the better. An open house with presentations and tours of empty classrooms may yield some sense of a school's atmosphere. More helpful is a tour that occurs during the school day and gives parents a glimpse of what goes on in classrooms.

If possible, look at the classroom for your child's current grade.  These students will likely be his or her classmates. Can you see your child fitting in with this group? Is the classroom a calm and welcoming place? Is there individual attention to students' needs, especially important in a special education setting? Then, if possible, visit the classroom for the grade your child will be in when he or she enrolls.This will give a sense of what is being taught, a possible teacher at that level, and what the classroom for that grade looks like. Can you see your child fitting into this setting?

And what about those families who children need to make a school switch at the last minute, or in the middle of the school year? These could be children with newly diagnosed learning challenges or who are just not fitting in to their current school. Or a family may have to relocate mid year for work or other reasons. Are they just out of luck? Fortunately, many good schools, both for typical learners and for students with special learning needs, have last minute or mid-year spots available. Choices may be more limited, but parents should reach out to schools and inquire. And parents should keep in mind that public schools must enroll every child who lives in their district.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

School District Calendars

We've written before about how calendars - high tech and old fashioned paper - can help keep students and families on track. But there is one calendar that every family with school age children should have handy, and which they should review now as the school year begins - the calendar for their school or school district.

Whether this is available online via the school website, or is sent to families in paper format (a vanishing practice in this digital age), the school calendar can be a treasure trove of information. First, the obvious information about when school is in session and when vacations and days off are scheduled should be added to kids' and parents' personal calendars. Also take note of "optional snow days" if you are doing long-term vacation planning for your family. In the event of a snowy winter, school may continue longer into the spring than you anticipate.

Make note of when marking periods begin and end and when mid-term or final exams are scheduled for each semester. This will enable you to work with your child to make sure that he or she is up to date before each marking period comes to a close. Once the marking period ends, it is often too late to make up homework or exams your student may have missed, and this may be reflected in their grades. If your school still sends report cards home with students (another vanishing trend), make sure you know when report cards will be issued.

School calendars can be very basic, such as the one for New York City public schools, or serve as a handbook for families, with information about every aspect of school or district operations - from the tax code for your district to the names and contact information for every building and district administrator. Some districts also include contact information for PTA officers and -- particularly useful for parents of students with IEPs and 504 Plans -- the officers or liaisons to the Special Education PTA, if your district or school has one. For New York City parents whose children have IEPs or 504 Plans, you may also find helpful information geared to the beginning of the school year from the folks at Advocates for Children, with a list of Q & A for families of students with disabilities.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Congressional App Challenge for Student Coders

The news out of the federal government hasn't been too good this summer, but we have finally found something positive and promising to report. Registration is now open for the 2017 Congressional App Challenge, an effort to encourage kids to learn how to code, through annual district-wide competitions hosted by Members of Congress for their districts.

The Challenge began in 2014 with a pilot program in which more than 80 members of Congress participated. By 2015, the House appointed the Internet Education Foundation to be the program's non-governmental sponsor and numerous companies -- tech and otherwise -- are now involved. In its first two years, the program included nearly 4,000 students from 33 states. Over 1,150 apps were created -- over 30 percent of which were created by girls. The 2017 competition launched on July 26th and runs thorough November 1, 2017. This year more than 165 Members of Congress are participating. Each Congressional District selects a local winner; winners will be announced during Computer Science Education Week in early December. The competition has no age restrictions, except that students may not have yet graduated from high school. Entrants (or at least some of the members if entrants are part of a team) must be from the Congressional District to which they apply.

The App Challenge isn't just aimed at experienced coders. The website for the program offers resources that can help students who are new to coding to learn the necessary skills.   All District winners will have their apps displayed in the U.S. Capitol. Find out if your Representative is participating in the App Challenge.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Back to School with an IEP

As summer comes to an end and the new school year begins, there are steps that parents of students with IEPs should be taking to ensure that their children receive the maximum benefit from the services and supports to which they are entitled.

You may have just recently had your annual IEP meeting, or maybe it was held many months ago. In either event, this is the time to review the IEP and make sure you are familiar with the services, supports, and accommodations it provides for your child. Is she due to receive speech and language therapy? Reading support? Extended time on exams? You can't count on your child to accurately report on what goes on during his or her school day. Some children are too young for this task. Others lack the organizational abilities to notice what services they receive or when. And adolescents are often ambivalent about needing and receiving special education services and won't always share with you whether they were getting (and attending) the extra support or accommodations to which they are entitled.

One way to keep abreast of what is going on in school is to set up teacher meetings early in the year and then at some regular interval thereafter. How often this needs to be done depends upon your child's age and school situation. It may be simple to learn what is going on with an elementary child. He or she probably has only one or two teachers, maybe in a co-taught class with both special education and typically learning students. It is more difficult to track the services being provided to a middle school student, one who may have several teachers and half a dozen classes. Even for these students, there may be a single "point person" - perhaps a resource room teacher - who can help you make sure your son or daughter is getting the support to which he or she is entitled.  While high school students may be more aware of what they should be getting and more likely to let you know if there is a problem, they can also "blow off" extra supports. Getting them to advocate for themselves and take responsibility for their own learning, while making sure they get the support they need, can be a delicate balancing act.

Make sure that your child's teachers are aware of the fact that he or she has an IEP and that they have a copy of it and have reviewed it. It happens less often than it used to, but sometimes schools still don't distribute copies of the IEP to each teacher, usually over concerns about student privacy. This misplaced effort to protect students' rights can be a serious problem if teachers don't know what a student needs and is entitled to receive.

One question that parents often ask is how long is too long for services to begin at the start of the new school year. It's rare for services to begin the very first week of school -- but they certainly should be in place by the second or third week of school. Anything later than that is unacceptable and should trigger at call to the head of your child's IEP team. Even if the school offers a reasonable basis for the delay (staff turnover, difficulty hiring new specialists, scheduling issues), the fact remains that your child needs these services and is losing time he or she cannot make up. Keep on top of this issue. And track this issue during the year as well. Turnover or absences may mean your child is not getting services for an extended period, even if things started out fine.

Parents of older students need to make sure their children know is that, more than ever, accommodations on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT depend upon students getting and using accommodations on a regular basis in school. Students who don't use their extended time, for example, may risk not getting extended time on one of these crucial exams, since it may appear that they don't really require this accommodation.

Think about your child's IEP as an obligation of the school to provide your child with "FAPE" - a free, appropriate, public education. Getting the school year off to a good start, with services and accommodations in place and a plan for monitoring these during the year, is the best way to help your child to be successful in his or her new grade.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Some of Our Favorite Resources

There are some "go to" resources that we turn to time and again for information about schools and other subjects. You may already use them, but in case you don't and in the hope you find them as helpful as we do, we thought we'd bring a few of them to your attention.

The terrific website has reorganized its resources, making it easier to find information on such topics as free programs for students and families, a wide variety of publications on subjects such as how to find elementary, middle, and high schools, and tools for such important topics as How to Change Schools, Special Education, and English Language Learners.

Inside Schools is always a helpful resource for information about specific New York City Public Schools, with search options popping up right on the home page. But it isn't always up to date, since it depends on school visits to each of the schools it reviews. Parents should also take a look at the NYC Department of Education website, where more recent information (without the narrative discussion that makes InsideSchool's reviews so helpful) can often be found. 

In fact, the major limitation of InsideSchools is that it only deals with New York City Public Schools. Families who live outside of New York City can often find guidance on the website, which is a national nonprofit with information on both public and private schools nationwide. 

Another resource we like is the steady stream of emails from the A.D.D. Resource Center, headed by Harold Meyer, a founder of CHADD of New York City (Children & Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), the national volunteer-based organization. This resource isn't for those who are protective of their inbox - Hal Meyer is prolific and can send a half dozen or more emails each day about topics relating to attention and learning. But most of his emails are interesting and some are really excellent. You can sign up for his e-list from his website. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Considering Emotions in the Classroom

It’s been almost 100 years since Pavlov, one of the earliest behavioral psychologists, set the precedent of linking learning with positive emotions. We learn better when we’re engaged and feeling good. It’s only in the last decade or two, however, that schools have started to take emotions seriously by implementing school-wide programs. There’s no shortage of research out there reminding us that unhappy kids are going to have a lot of trouble learning, but newer research has started focusing on positive emotions as well. Here at The Yellin Center, we see a lot of students who are feeling down or frustrated, often because they haven’t gotten the academic support they need in order to feel successful. Thankfully, lots of researchers have begun looking at how we can help students experience more positive emotions and, more importantly, learn how to identify, accept, and respond to the emotions they feel.

From kindergarten to college, we see a relationship between emotions or mood and grades or achievement. We also know that students with lower moods perceive themselves as less competent. It would be impossible to run a study looking at the directionality of these relationships, but it’s clear that negative moods, lower achievement, and feelings of incompetence are linked, regardless of what causes what. Parents and teachers want students to feel good about their work and to be engaged in the learning process. Feeling anxious, sad, or angry can get in the way of academic engagement. According to one theory, the “Broaden and Build Model” (Fredrickson, 2001), positive emotions broaden our mind, allow us to explore more of our environment and make us more aware of what’s going on. Negative emotions, on the other hand, have a narrowing effect; we are more likely to become fixated on a certain aspect of our environment and miss out on other details. Positive emotions might also increase our consciousness of potential solutions to problems – cognitive flexibility and strategy use, in other words. Way back in the early 1900’s, developmental psychologists already knew that feelings of joy lead to children’s desire to play and be creative – two very important mechanisms in the learning process, especially during early childhood (Vygotsky, 1978).

In our work, we know that before any academic interventions or strategies can be put in place, we need to focus on helping students feel their best so they’re ready to tackle whatever difficult learning comes their way. We’re especially happy to see researchers turning away from exploring negative emotions and towards testing out different school-based socioemotional interventions that can increase positive emotions, emotional regulation, and engagement. Two programs that have been gaining traction are socioemotional learning programs and mindfulness meditation. Socioemotional learning programs help students develop their emotional intelligence through a programmed sequence of lessons on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. There are a number of commercially available curriculums that schools have the option of buying as packages, but lots of teachers are implementing socioemotional learning into their classrooms on their own, as well. One of the most important lessons for students is learning how to identify their feelings, respond to them appropriately, and develop a toolbox of coping strategies for moving to a more positive state, if necessary. This is an important set of skills to start working on before children even step foot in a classroom; it helps young learners face challenges, conflicts, and failures appropriately. Parents and caregivers can start introducing children to a robust emotional vocabulary and coping toolbox as soon as a baby starts to attend to the people around her or him.

A second intervention steadily gaining popularity is mindfulness meditation. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founding figures in the field, mindfulness is focused on learning how to be with your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way and to selectively attend to them. It can help students recognize their emotions and learn how to cope with them effectively in order to make space for positivity and calm. Research looking into the effects of mindfulness meditation in the classroom has found increased self-regulation, attentional control, and prosocial behavior (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2010).

We’re excited to see over the next few years what research comes out about school-based interventions that take the whole child into account – that is, academics that also focus on helping students feel positively empowered to engage in learning by giving them the tools to not just solve math problems but also manage the wave of emotions within each of us. In the meantime, feel free to check out the resources listed below and talk to your child’s school about how your child is learning to be emotionally empowered.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151.

Resources and Further Reading

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are (10th ed.). New York, NY: Hachette.

Snel, E. (2013). Sitting still like a frog. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Blog: Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Starting Early to Prepare for College

Parents of high school students have access to lots of information about preparing their children for college. But families rarely realize that there are steps to be taken as early as elementary school to set their students up for college readiness and success, especially in families where going to college is not a given and students may not fully understand how and why they should consider a college education.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is the professional organization for college admission professionals - admissions officers, counselors, financial aid counselors, and private college consultants. This year, NACAC has consolidated and updated several prior handbooks to create Step by Step: College Awareness and Planning for Families, Counselors and Communities. This multi-part publication includes curriculum for students starting in elementary grades and continues with separate guides for middle school and early and later high school years. There is also a section on financial aid and accompanying PowerPoint presentations. Spanish language versions are also available.

This curriculum is particularly intended for professionals who work with "underrepresented and underserved students to provide comprehensive tools for meeting the needs of first-generation students and their families." Starting with worksheets on things like "What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?" in elementary school, and moving on to questions for older students about short and long-term goals, and lessons on types of colleges and standardized testing, the curriculum is rich with ways to engage students to look at higher education through the lens of their life interests and where it can take them. And, as this curriculum makes clear, it is never to early to start to think about college.

Monday, July 31, 2017

When Parents Are Bullied

Much has been written in both the academic and popular literature about bullying -- what to do if your child is bullied, how to avoid raising a child who bullies, tips for parents and teachers who encounter bullying, and more. But we recently encountered a book that looks at bullying from a different perspective, one that we previously would not have thought about in terms of bullying - when children bully their parents.

When Kids Call the Shots, by psychotherapist Sean Grover, LCSW, looks at children who might be labelled "bossy" or "difficult" or "temperamental" and considers their behavior through a different lens. Grover views these children as bullies, and the targets of their bullying behavior are their parents. Understanding how and why this behavior develops and what parents can do to change their child's behavior is the focus of Grover's book, which grew out of his more than 20 years of working with both children and adults and his own experiences as a parent.

The book examines different ways that children become bullies, focusing on the three most common kinds of bullies: the defiant bully, the anxious bully, and the manipulative bully. Grover looks at the forces that drive each of these kinds of behaviors in children and then discusses the kinds of parents who are most prone to being bullied by their children. He continues with steps families can take to put together a support team (school officials, mental health professionals, and others) and ways parents can act to stop bullying behaviors. Grover spends time discussing family crises that may trigger bullying behaviors, things like divorce, trauma, and financial hardship. 

The book has a positive approach and a hopeful message, focusing on the fact that there are reasons why children behave this way and why parents may be feeding into this behavior. And his specific guidance on how parents can improve their family dynamic is something that should be helpful for parents asking the question: "What happened to my sweet, adorable child?"

Monday, July 24, 2017

Helping Young Children Start the School Year

Starting a new school year is a big adjustment for a child at any age, but it can be particularly disorienting for very young children. Preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids are comforted by routines, and so their first time in even the best of classrooms with the most insightful and empathetic of teachers can be a challenge. Here are some ways you can start now, during summer vacation, to ensure your little one’s year gets off to a great start.

  • Start setting your child’s biological clock. Summer sleep schedules with later wake-up times can take a while to undo, and your child may launch her first day at school cranky and sleepy if you don’t plan ahead. At least a week before her first day, get her used to the new schedule by dimming the lights in her play area an hour before her school-year bedtime. Be sure to offer her toys or books instead of electronics in the hour before she goes to bed; the quality of light emitted by screens stimulates the brain and makes it tougher to drift off to sleep later. Get her ready for bed following the same routine you anticipate using during the school year (pajamas, brushing teeth, etc.). Similarly, wake her up at the same time she’ll get up on school days and take her through her anticipated school-day morning routine. Learning these steps in advance means your child has one less new procedure to learn when school begins.
  • Visit the school a few days before the first day. Narrate the trip there in an excited tone of voice so that the route will feel familiar to your child when you report to the school on the first day. If you can, pop into your child’s classroom and explore the playground. This will help your child begin to visualize what school will be like and help her to feel more at ease on the first day.
  • Familiarize your child with his new teacher by referring to her by name instead of saying “your teacher.” If you can find a picture of his teacher on the school website, print it and hang it in a prominent place so she’ll look familiar to your child on the first day. 
  • Role play circle time, lining up for lunch, and show and tell with your child so she’ll know what to expect. Play the part of the teacher and recruit stuffed animals or siblings to act as her classmates. 
  • Model a positive attitude. When you feel anxious or tired, verbalize your feelings and talk through your plan for energizing yourself and realigning your positive thinking. (“Wow, I’m feeling really worried about tomorrow’s big meeting! I guess feeling a little nervous before a big day is normal. I think I’ll listen to some music I like and imagine myself doing really well in the meeting.”) Watching you will help your child realize that these feelings are normal and give him some strategies for coping with them. 
  • Instead of asking if your child is nervous about beginning school, casually ask how your child is feeling about the new year. Resist asking whether your child feels nervous; this suggests that there is something to be nervous about! If your child is behaving normally and doesn’t give you any reason to worry, it’s best to keep worst-case scenario preparations for the initial separation under your hat. Your child will take cues from you about how to feel about the first day.
  • If your child seems anxious or you’ve had difficulty with separation in the past, choose something she can bring to school that reminds her of her family. An article of clothing or piece of inexpensive jewelry is an especially good choice because your child can touch it whenever she needs comfort during the day without having to go to her backpack. Give her a bracelet of yours or let her borrow her brother’s lucky bandana. 

One big no-no: Don’t sneak away on the first day. Although this seems like a good idea for the child who tears up every time you take a step toward the door, resist the urge to wait until his back is turned to disappear. Such behavior can do damage to your child’s trust in you, resulting in the fear that you could vanish at any moment. Instead, assure your child that you love him, that you’re leaving him in a very safe place that you have chosen carefully, and that you will see him in four hours, then bite your lip and leave. Chances are good that you’ll have to pry him away from his new friends by pick-up time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Research Explores Pitfalls of Homework Help

One question we get a lot here at The Yellin Center is how parents and caregivers can help students grow as learners at home, during homework time, or with supplementary educational activities. We love giving parents and students strategies for building up skills at home, as long as these activities are fun and stress-free, especially during the summer. New research out of Tufts University, conducted by Dr. Melissa Orkin, Sidney May, and Dr. Maryanne Wolf, explores the ways in which parents’ helping behaviors during homework time contribute to how kids feel about their work. 

Homework time, especially for struggling readers and students with disabilities, can be a stressful time for kids and parents alike. Often, homework tasks are not differentiated to meet a student at her or his instructional level; this means that students are often sent home to do work independently that they are not yet able to do. This can lead to task avoidance (a tantrum or power struggle, for example) and negative attitudes towards learning or school. In these situations, parents naturally feel the impetus to sit with their child and help them through the task while building up their skills.

When students are given homework tasks that are too hard to complete independently, they may begin to feel incompetent at managing the academic demands. It would be natural to assume, therefore, that helping your child through the task would increase her or his feelings of competence. However, Orkin and her colleagues found that one common type of homework help, which they dubbed intrusive practices, can actually lead to feelings of helplessness. When students feel helpless in the face of academics, or that they will be unable to produce work at the level expected of them, they will often become very frustrated or have an emotional outburst during work time, seeking to avoid the task.

Intrusive homework help practices include things like checking children’s homework or correcting mistakes when reading. These types of behaviors can contribute to a product (or achievement) oriented learning environment rather than a process-oriented learning environment. Ideally, we want children to value the process of learning, not the output. Sometimes this means taking a step back during homework time and allowing mistakes to be made. Fostering a process-oriented environment also entails providing specific, effort-based praise rather than intrusive corrections during reading or writing that limit the student’s autonomy while working. It’s important for parents and teachers to endorse growth and effort rather than “prescribed standards of success.”

Taking a step back and letting your child make mistakes can be extremely difficult, but research continues to show that encouraging risk-taking while building academic skills is incredibly important for helping children develop a love of learning and a growth mindset. It may take some getting used to, but next time it’s homework time at your house, see what happens when you let mistakes happen while offering up a healthy serving of effort-based encouragement and praise.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

School's Over... No, School's About to Start...

Here in New York City, where most schools run until the end of June and do not begin again until after Labor Day,  the first part of July is a time for students and teachers to catch their breath and to bask in the prospect of weeks of summer break looming ahead. But much marketing by retailers is national in scope, and we've noticed that stores that sell school supplies are busy reaching out to families whose children return to school as early as mid-August. These ads -- for clothing, binders, electronics and the like -- are only going to increase in frequency until things hit a crescendo as summer comes to an end.

So, loathe as we are to interfere with the relaxation that comes with summer, it may be time to consider some products that can make your family's return to school less stressful and more productive. In our work with all kinds of families, we've found that some basic items tend to be the most helpful.

A large white board, mounted in a central location (kitchen wall or door, near the front entry, right by the mud room or garage) can be "command central" for busy families. Need something from the grocery? Write it on the white board. Have a project or permission slip due? Make a note on the whiteboard or actually hang it from the board with a magnetic clip. Some families use a board that is divided into days of the week. Others reserve one area for each family member. And others write on it helter-skelter with lots of colors and underlining. Whatever works for your family...

A large bin or basket for every family member, lined up near the most used exit door. This can hold a backpack, gym clothes, homework folders (which should be in the backpack), and anything else that needs to leave the house with that person. Even mom and dad can find this useful as a place for keys, sunglasses, phones, etc. If you can locate the baskets near a place to plug in a long power strip, everyone can put their phones away (if you can pry them from their hands) and charge them for the upcoming day, all at the same time.

A supply closet can really help prevent last minute store runs. This can be anywhere you have a couple of extra shelves, which you can stock with packages of notebook paper, folders, glue sticks, boxes of pens and pencils, and printer paper - all bought on sale, of course.  If you have room for a pencil sharpener, manual or electric, all the better. And as the school year progresses, this is a great place to put "leftovers" -- those pieces of poster board you didn't use, the markers left over from a project, or glitter from a craft project. As the year unfolds, these items may come in handy and knowing where to find them is the key to putting them to use. Some families find a similar cabinet in the kitchen for lunch supplies is also helpful - stocked with sandwich fixings that don't need refrigeration, sandwich bread or wraps, juice boxes, packaged healthy snacks, and paper or plastic bags or reusable lunch containers.

A large, easy to read clock in the kitchen can help keep everyone on schedule during the crucial parts of the morning. Too often there are small clocks on various appliances, each off by a minute or two. When catching the school bus or commuter train requires a precise departure time, it can help to have everyone's schedule synchronized.

As you think ahead of other ways to make the transition from summertime to school time easier, don't forget to take plenty of time to read, relax, and enjoy the break from school.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 or Introduction to Child Development has spent some time learning about the history of attachment theory and its creators, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth – practically household names among those in the psychology or education fields. Like most topics in an introductory course, it’s hard to see how this 60-year-old theory, often demonstrated through fuzzy videos of a Strange Situation experiment, applies to modern day parenting and child development. A recent article in The New York Times by pediatrician Perri Klass, however, brings the relevance of attachment theory into the 21st century and discusses how pediatricians can use it to monitor the parent-child relationship. The goal, according to Dr. Klass, is for pediatricians to pay attention to how parents and babies interact at the one-year checkup, and to provide parents with strategies for developing a more secure, responsive connection to the child if warranted.

Attachment is the reciprocal bond that forms between parent and child. Evolutionarily, it keeps children safe; parents are hard-wired to want to keep an eye on the child, and the child is hard-wired to use the parent as a secure base from which to safely explore her environment. When parents are tuned into and responsive to an infant’s and growing child’s needs, that child feels safe and secure, and develops the idea that the world is a trustworthy and exciting place. When parents are having difficulty demonstrating a consistent, responsive style of parenting, the baby or young child may demonstrate an anxious, insecure attachment response. This means that the baby or child may not seek comfort from the parent, or may avoid the parent in stressful situations. This is a sign that the infant or child is experiencing more stress than would be expected based on the situation. All babies and children depend on their caregivers to regulate their levels of stress and other emotions. Therefore, when parents are not always available to respond to a young child’s needs, that young child will endure more stress and will have difficulty developing appropriate coping skills for stressful situations.

With newborns and very young children, being responsive means attending to the child’s every need, and helping them work through stressful situations by providing physical and verbal comfort. As children get older, however, finding that balance of responsiveness and allowing independence becomes trickier. The goal for any human is to eventually move farther and farther away from the parent, until they have developed the coping skills necessary to explore the world independently. Parents who tune into their children right from the start can begin to learn the cues for when it’s time to step back, and when they are still very much needed to provide comfort. As children get older, they learn, through their parents’ actions, that they can depend on their parents to be there when needed, and therefore they feel safe enough to inch further and further away.

The article in The New York Times encourages pediatricians to help parents monitor their own responses to their young children, and to offer support when an insecure attachment style is developing. Every child is resilient, and children who were insecurely attached during infancy can develop a secure attachment later on. Most importantly, parents should feel comfortable talking to their care providers, whether it’s the pediatrician or the nursery school teacher, about how to help foster that secure bond. Every relationship, but especially the early attachment bond, is a two-way street. If something is getting in the way of a parent being physically and emotionally available for their child, that parent deserves help and support. As the importance of attachment theory continues to spread, we hope that pediatricians and other professionals who work with families will be available to help parents and caregivers find that support, and to help families feel that asking for help is the first step to success.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Apps for Summer

With folks hitting the road for the July 4th weekend and other summer trips, families will be spending lots of quality time together all across the state, country, and globe. But there’s one piece of travel we may not think about very much – down time. Every trip, but especially the long haul plane and car rides, involves some significant amount of time when there really isn’t much for kids, or parents, to do. Waiting at the airport, sitting in the back seat of the car, or transferring from one train to the next – these are probably the hardest parts of vacation to plan. What are the kids going to do during all this “in-between” time?

Since tablets and smartphones became synonymous with child-rearing, the options for down-time have increased exponentially. But watching YouTube videos or playing mindless jumping games for hours on end is not most parents’ goal. Luckily, NPR Ed recently published an article highlighting some of this summer’s best apps for kids. Some of the best apps are educational, but kids can’t tell they’re learning while they play. NPR recommends that parents turn to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews apps, games, movies, and other media directed at families. They aim to provide parents with information about age appropriateness and learning potential so that families can make proactive choices about how kids spend their screen time. The reviews are very comprehensive and cover things like what skills are being worked on; what the experience is like for the player; whether the media includes positive messages, violence, or other noteworthy features; and the overall quality of the media.

The NPR piece gives a shout out to Motion Math (5+), which is one of our favorites here at The Yellin Center. What’s notable about the Motion Math series of apps is that they engage the player in immersive experiences, like learning basic economics while running a pizzeria. Another series of apps rated highly by the folks at Common Sense Media is Toca Boca. One of the Toca Boca apps is Toca Lab: Plants, which offers young kids (6+) an opportunity to freely explore and experiment with the basics of botany. There’s no “winning” in this game; the game is focused on kids growing plants and evolving them into new species by discovering what plants need to survive. This cute game packs a big science punch for young minds. Other Toca Boca games are focused on habitats, chemistry, train sets, and building robots. Parents can choose apps for their little gamers based on their trip’s destination.

For the even younger crowd (2+), there are a plethora of colorful, slow-paced puzzle apps. Some well-rated examples are Slide & Spin; which works on fine motor skills and is reminiscent of those classic wooden toy boxes that allow toddlers to tap, slide, and twist knobs to make objects pop out of boxes; and Busy Shapes, which gives kids a digital playground to explore and manipulate as they learn how objects influence other objects.

An absolutely adorable app that popped up in our search is Peek-a-Zoo, rated five stars on Common Sense Media. Peek-a-Zoo is extremely simple and geared towards the youngest of gamers. The game has children choose an animal based on a facial expression or emotion. For example, one screen asks “Who is surprised?” and it’s the child’s job to use the facial cues to pick the correct animal.

Common Sense Media also has curated lists of apps based on age, including the Best Kids’ Apps to Download Before a Flight. Before you set off for the airport or pile into the car for your upcoming family road trip, consider curating a set of apps for your children to use. And for the purists among us, there’s even a highly rated app version of the classic license plate game, where family members compete to spot license plates from different states or with different designs.