Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Attorneys at IEP Meetings

Parents sometimes ask whether it would be helpful if they brought an attorney to their IEP meeting. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) addressed this question last year in an advisory letter to the Illinois State Board of Education, which had sought guidance on the respective rights of school districts and families.

The DOE noted that parents have the right to bring anyone who has knowledge or special expertise regarding their child to the IEP meeting and that it is the judgment of the parents whether any particular individual falls within that definition. The DOE further noted that while the school district must give parents advance notice as to who will be attending the IEP meeting, parents do not have to advise the district in advance if they are bringing someone with them, including an attorney.

If a parent does bring an attorney to the IEP meeting, the district may seek to adjourn the meeting, but only if the parent agrees and the delay would not delay or deny the child from receiving an appropriate education.

The DOE notes, that "... in the spirit of cooperation and working together as partners in the child’s education, a parent should provide advance notice to the [district] if he or she intends to bring an attorney to the IEP meeting. However, there is nothing in the IDEA or its implementing regulations that would permit the [district] to conduct the IEP meeting on the condition that the parent’s attorney not participate, and to do so would interfere with the parent’s rights..."

They go on to state: "Finally, we would like to note that, even if an attorney possessed knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, an attorney’s presence could have the potential for creating an adversarial atmosphere that would not necessarily be in the best interest of the child. Therefore, [it is our] longstanding position is that the attendance of attorneys at IEP meetings should be strongly discouraged."

While there may be substantive reasons not to bring an attorney to the IEP meeting, we always suggest that parents try not to attend meetings on their own and that they should bring someone with them for support and to take notes. That can be the child's other parent, a friend, or an advocate. For other tips, take a look at our posts on this topic.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Different Ways to Solve the Problem of Algebra

Professor Jon Star of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a former math teacher, has been working to make algebra instruction more effective. We know that algebra is a tough subject for many students and have written in the past about ways to make algebra more readily understood by middle and high school math students.

Professor Star’s project, as described in Ed. magazine and online in the Graduate School Newsletter, has two aspects: first, he is working with teacher volunteers to show them that providing more than one way to solve a problem is more effective than insisting that problems be solved in one particular way. Second, he is having math teachers include more discussion in their classrooms. The idea is not to just focus on getting the correct answer, but to discuss how that answer was found or why someone took a particular approach to solving a problem. 

Working with colleagues, Star has created a set of curriculum materials designed for middle and high school students, which incorporates these approaches to teaching algebra. The materials are available at no cost for teachers to use in addition to their regular modes of instruction. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has included this approach in two new publications, a problem-solving guide for grades 4-8 and an algebra practice guide for middle and high school students.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Research Links Screen Time with Speech Delays in Young Children

You see it all the time. Little children with their parents' phone, iPad, or other handheld device. The temptation for parents is understandable; keeping a young child occupied can provide the distraction to enable a parent to complete an errand, do a task, or just catch their breath. It's an understandable impulse, and one we have looked at previously.

But it's not a benign activity, and new research shows just how damaging handheld screen time can be to the expressive language skills of very young children.

The study looked at roughly 1000 children in the Toronto area, ranging from six months to two years of age. By the time they were 18 months old, their parents reported that 20 percent of the children had average daily handheld screen time use of close to 30 minutes. Based on a screening tool for expressive language delays, the researchers found a significant correlation between increased screen time and delays in expressive language. For every half hour increase in screen time with a handheld device, there was a 49 percent increased risk of expressive language delays. There did not seem to be delays in other forms of communication, such as body language or gestures.

This study is preliminary and the researchers emphasize that more investigation is needed. But the results are of sufficient concern that they should give pause to parents who are inclined to hand over their phones or tablets on a regular basis to entertain a fussy baby.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Making the Most of Summer Vacation

Here in New York City, the school year runs until the end of June, but we know that in some places summer vacation has already begun. Whether your child’s school year is winding down or behind them, there are some steps you can take now to make the summer more productive and to set your child up for a smooth transition when the next school year begins.

New School? New Class?

For students who are starting a new school next fall, whether because they are moving up in their own community or whether your family is relocating over the summer, becoming familiar with the new school building will help diminish any anxiety your child is feeling as September approaches. Often, incoming students will have had a chance to visit their new school as part of a class trip, but additional walks around the grounds, tours of the building (if it is accessible over the summer), and exploration of the neighborhood around the school may all help your child feel at home in a new setting.

If your child will be taking the bus, or the subway, or walking to school for the first time or in a new place, practice can make the process easier and less stressful for parent and student alike.

Summer Assignments
We’ve all had the experience of receiving a reading list at the end of the school year, with instructions to read a certain number of books and perhaps write a report – all due in September. It’s a rare student who has the drive and organizational skills to actually plan their reading and writing on their own so that August doesn’t bring a flurry of activity and anxiety. Parents can help by having their child unpack their backpack as soon as school ends, retrieving reading lists, assignment sheets, and supply lists for the next year. Breaking summer assignments down into manageable steps – and making sure that each step gets done on schedule – will alleviate the last minute rush that can interfere with a leisurely end to the summer.

Keeping Skills Fresh
Kids don’t want to spend their summer working on academic skills. Unless a student is required to attend summer school for academic reasons, or because he has an IEP that includes extended school year services, the best approach to keeping skills fresh or building new skills might be to use technology and games to make learning seem like playing. We’ve got more than two dozen suggestions for games involving almost every subject, for a wide range of ages. Check out these and our other ideas, such as coding and robotics resources,  for fun ways your child can exercise their mind over summer break.

And keep in mind that not all skills are academic. Summer is a great time to learn chess, work on swimming, and visit new places. Have fun and happy learning!


Monday, May 22, 2017

The State of Learning Disabilities

If you are a parent trying to better understand the issues involved in in your child's learning challenges, an advocate or professional in need of data about learning disabilities or special education, or an educator who is concerned about how schools deal with students who learn differently -- or some combination of these roles -- you will likely find valuable information in a report recently released by The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. The title refers to the fact that one out of five children in the U.S. has learning and/or attention issues.

The report uses data from the 2015–2016 school year and takes a wide-ranging look at the landscape of learning and attention issues in school age children. It includes information about new findings in neuroscience that look at brain structure and function. It looks at policy issues, such as the increased rate at which students of color and students from low-income families are identified as having learning challenges. And it has extensive data on topics like emotional and behavioral issues.

Whether you prefer to review the "Executive Summary" of several pages or the longer report, which includes videos, charts, and personal perspectives of those dealing with learning challenges, this is a resource to bookmark, download, and use again and again.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

That’s Show Biz, Kids!

For a lot of kids and teens, the best part of school comes when the school day is over and they can participate in their school’s theater productions.  This was the case for Yellin Center Learning Specialist Lindsay Levy, Ed.M. when she was in high school. Read her story and her reflections on what makes theater so rich with opportunity for children of all ages with a variety of strengths, challenges, talents, and affinities.

Lindsay remembers deciding against trying out for the school play when the opportunity was initially introduced to her in sixth grade because she didn’t want it to interfere with her studies.  She laughs now at what a needlessly serious middle schooler she was.  When she finally auditioned for a musical and was cast in a part, she learned that not only was she able to balance rehearsal with obsessiveness over homework, but also that she really enjoyed the experience, and found her fellow theater loving students to be a fun and welcoming group.  In college, where she spent most of her time and energy on her studies, she made time to include dance in her extracurricular activities.  While her psychology courses helped pave the way toward the interest that led her to The Yellin Center for her full-time work, her dance and choreography experiences started turning the gears that led her to what is now her work-outside-of-work (when she is not teaching Zumba) in community theater. 

As Lindsay prepares to choreograph and co-direct an upcoming community theater production of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she considers the ways that being involved in theater or other student productions can build important skills that students can use well beyond their senior play.

  • Collaboration - Teamwork is a huge part of being able to put on any show.  In order to reach the shared goal of a successful performance, everyone needs to work together.  Personal achievement is contingent upon group achievement.  Because of this, theater naturally fosters an environment in which helping is the norm.  Rehearsals and behind-the-scenes work are great opportunities for socialization and building social skills.

  • Listening - While speaking is clearly one responsibility of an actor, listening is a significant part of his/her work.  Directors frequently give “notes,” or constructive feedback and instructions, which are then expected to be incorporated into future rehearsals of scenes.  Cast mates need to pay close attention to each other’s lines and actions, in order to most effectively respond.

  • Memorization - Learning lines for a show can be an excellent and inherently motivating way to figure out what type of studying works best for a particular child.  How much should he try to learn at once?  What tricks help the dialogue and movement stand out in his mind?  How can he be sure he knows it?

  • Confidence- For children who may normally have a hard time with public speaking, saying lines as a character can actually be a less threatening way to practice.  For children who struggle academically, theater can be an opportunity to use strengths that they may not get to display during the school day.  For children who might not have done theater before, simply doing something new and seeing that they can take on and conquer a challenge can be confidence-building.

  • A Place for Everyone- Putting on a show involves so much more than the action the audience sees taking place on stage.  Productions need set builders, stage crew, painters, costumers, prop masters, pit members, ushers, publicity, etc.  While school can often be filled with a sense of feeling out of place, theater offers an opportunity for everyone to find a niche where they are comfortable, where they can thrive, and where they can find satisfaction and joy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Math Anxiety

How often do you hear someone say “I’m not a numbers person”? I’ve heard myself utter these words on more than one occasion, even though I’ve successfully completed multiple graduate-level statistics courses. Somewhere during our many years of educating students, we’re sending the message that some people just aren’t cut out for math even if they perform well through the years. What about “I’m not a words person”? Probably not as often, right? We put a lot of pressure on students to be competent, even excellent readers, regardless of whether they struggle with the skill, but, with math, we often let kids believe they either have it or they don’t. We covered this topic back in 2011, but there have been some interesting updates in the research since then.

 Research conducted a few years ago by Dr. Sian Beilock, the author of Choke, found that parents can transmit their math anxiety to children with phrases like “I’m not a math person either, and that’s okay”. Here at The Yellin Center, we know that success comes from practice and appropriate instruction, not innate ability. A 2015 study actually found that parents’ provision of more help with math homework predicted more math anxiety in students. Working together on math homework is a time when parents are inclined to let their children know that they don’t feel like “math people” through grimaces, comments, and visible frustration. An earlier study also identified math-anxious elementary school teachers as contributors to math anxiety, particularly for girls.

So how do teachers and parents help prevent the formation of math anxiety? A recent article in The New York Times provides some insight into the difficult subject. First, math begins at home, long before children enter school. Parents can point out the usefulness of math in the everyday environment – at the grocery store, while cooking, counting toys, etc. It’s second nature for parents to introduce young children to letters and literacy before school, but many adults, especially those who are anxious around numbers, might leave all the math work to the teachers. Research shows, however, that entering kindergarten with some solid early numeracy skills makes a real difference in achievement later on. There are plenty of bedtime stories out there that focus on numbers, as well. The website Pre-K Pages has a sizeable list. Most importantly, though, parents should work to overcome or face their own math anxieties and to be cognizant of how they are communicating to their children about math skills. Am I sending the message that this is another important skill to be conquered over the years, or am I telling my child that she or he might have what it takes, but might not?

If you want to take a short quiz to see where you fall on the math anxiety spectrum, check out this one, modeled after the tool used in the 2015 research.

Want to learn more about math anxiety? Check out these resources:

Aubrey, C., Godfrey, R., & Dahl, S. (2006). Early mathematics development and later achievement: Further evidence. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 18(1), 27-46.

Foley, A. E., Herts, J. B., Borgonovi, F., Guerriero, S., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2017). The Math Anxiety-Performance Link: A Global Phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(1), 52-58.

Maloney, E. A., Ramirez, G., Gunderson, E. A., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2015). Intergenerational effects of parents’ math anxiety on children’s math achievement and anxiety. Psychological Science, 0956797615592630.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Why 3K For All?

New York City's Mayor Bill De Blasio recently made a very exciting announcement about early childhood – by around 2021, all three-year-olds in New York City will be eligible for free preschool. De Blasio rightly called this investment “one of the smartest we’ve ever made in the history of this city.” We don’t need another study reminding us that early intervention has an unbelievably high return on investment, both financially and with regard to student achievement. A few other cities in the country have already begun offering this service to families, but NYC will be the biggest district to do so.

To figure out why educating kids beginning at age three is so important, we just need to look at the amazing work done by The Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC), a controlled study carried out in the 1970’s. Plenty of wraparound early intervention services continue to exist in a number of states, but there is very little research on the long-term effects of these services, and whether they are financially reasonable undertakings. A study published after a 30-year follow-up assessment of the children in the ABC project adds to the overwhelming evidence that success as an adult starts with high-quality care that begins at birth.

The children in the study received high-quality care all day starting at eight weeks old. Their mothers increased their earning power by receiving subsidized care, so they could invest more in their careers. The children were immersed in language and interactive play with trained educators. Parents also received tips and parenting instruction, while all the children had access to quality health care. The young children came out of the program with early literacy skills, self-control and self-regulatory skills, higher engagement with the environment, and a solid foundation for kindergarten.

After decades of follow-up, researchers believe that the financial return on investment is about 13%. That’s quite a bit higher than your typical investment in the stock market. The societal benefits top even that high number, with reduced crime, better health, lower drug use, lower blood pressure, more years of education, and larger contributions to the economy. Since the children had subsidized care, parents were able to go to work full time and experience true upward mobility. They found positive effects in maternal education, labor force participation, and parental income. However, the researchers specifically note that these effects are due to the high quality of the wraparound care provided, and that low quality childcare is likely to take a steep toll on children’s and families’ well-being.

Finding high-quality affordable childcare in New York City is, some would say, an impossible feat. We’re looking forward to seeing how the 3K For All plan unfolds over the next few years, and what effect is has on children and their families.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Improvisation: Music To Our Ears

Q. What do the following have in common?
• An entertaining Whose Line Is It Anyway? episode
• A successful meal despite the forgotten vegetable broth on the grocery list
• An effective response to a surprising question

A. Improvisation.

In a world that’s generally unscripted, and where the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, improvisation is an important skill. David Wechsler, who developed the popular Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), defined intelligence as, “the aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment.” To deal effectively with one’s environment is often, essentially, to improvise.

Improvisation has long been a subject of interest to Dr. Charles Limb, who is not only a neuroscientist but a jazz musician. In an interesting TED Talk, Dr. Limb discusses the research he conducted along with Dr. Allen Braun on what happens in an improvising brain. The subjects of their study were musicians who played the keyboard while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In one condition, they played a given piece they had memorized. In the other condition, they improvised over the chord progressions from the song. When improvising, versus playing a memorized piece, fMRI data revealed:
  • Increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (an area associated with decision-making and self-directed behavior)
  •  Decreased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex (an area involved in monitoring, judging, and correcting).
It seems that creativity is facilitated by one frontal lobe area turning on as another shuts off, so that ideas flow without being unduly inhibited or censored. Worry about judgement, whether from others or from ourselves, can be paralyzing, and it is worth noting that there is neurological support for giving ourselves permission to take some time to just brainstorm and create freely.

While it was David Wechsler who included creative adaptation as part of his definition of intelligence, and while we often use some of his tests here at The Yellin Center, we also acknowledge that the capacity to evaluate creativity is quite limited within any controlled assessment setting. Also, it should be noted that even some responses that may be marked wrong according to standardized scoring procedures may suggest more creativity than the kind of thinking that leads to the “right” answer. For example, one task has the child look at two rows of pictures and identify the two pictures, one from each row, that go together conceptually. A creative mind may be able to make links that are not the traditional ones but are clever nonetheless. The ability to find connections that may not be readily apparent on the surface has driven many important innovations over time, and sometimes you need to do some playing around to find them. After all, you can’t spell IMPROVE without IMPROV.

Photo credit: Nayuki via Flickr cc

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Last Minute College Decisions

College admission letters and emails have been received. Financial aid packages have been offered. Most students have made up their minds and sent in their deposits for their place in next year's freshman class. But, for some students, the decision process is not complete. What might be the issues that would keep a student undecided until the very last minute?

First, it is important to know that almost all colleges comply with the Mandatory Practices of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which include:

[Colleges] agree  they will permit first-year candidates for fall admission to choose among offers of admission and institutionally-affiliated financial aid and scholarships until May 1, and state this deadline explicitly in their offers of admission, and not establish policies nor engage in practices whose effect is to manipulate commitments prior to May 1.

May first is next Monday, leaving almost no time left for students who have not yet made up their mind. And why would a student still be undecided about their college choice? There are several reasons why this might happen. 

  • Students whose first choice(s) did not offer sufficient financial aid to make their favorite school a practical financial choice might still be speaking to the Financial Aid Office, trying to improve the package offered to them. If they have already gone through this process, they might still be exploring family resources (grandparents, perhaps) and other ways to help make up the tuition gap to allow them to accept the offer.
  • Family issues can upend even the best thought out plans. A "local" choice can become long distance (and possibly less desirable) following an unexpected family move. Death or divorce can change both the family arrangements and available resources for some students. These graduating seniors may need all the time they can get to figure out their next steps. 
  • Health issues - medical or emotional - can arise that may impact a student's decision. A flare up or sudden onset of either kind of condition can mean that college enrollment may need to wait a semester or more.
  • The "once in a lifetime" opportunity. Some fortunate students may have a last minute option to do something truly special -- travel the world, join an orchestra (or a rock band, ballet company, or Broadway production), work on a science project -- that might make it worthwhile for them to postpone their enrollment. 
For those students who are not simply undecided, but who may have be faced with one of the situations described above, the best path is to immediately contact your desired school's Office of Admissions and see if postponing your enrollment for a year (or a semester) is possible. This is less likely to be granted if your postponement is due to financial reasons. But it never hurts to ask. Why ask? Because deferring enrollment has important benefits, including not starting the application process over again and knowing that you will be admitted when your period of deferment is over. 

And what about students who are torn between two or more acceptances and are waiting until the last minute to make up their minds? It isn't easy to decide, but they should know that more than one-third of college students transfer to another school.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Social Cognition and the Benefits of Being Nice

In a recent New York Times article, “Be Nice — You Won’t Finish Last,” author Sarah Maslin Nir reflects on having been a generally kind and amiable person, which served her well as a child and then seemed to link to a lower social status as a teenager. She then considers her experiences in the context of work by Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, who has studied the phenomenon of popularity. Dr. Prinstein draws a distinction between likability and status, and has researched their respective trajectories. The kind of friendly and altruistic behaviors that Nir displayed from early childhood link to positive outcomes in adulthood, including in romance and business. The status of Nir’s cooler teenage peers, however, which may have emerged from a combination of power and dishonorable behavior, is actually associated with negative long-term outcomes. In particular, high-status teens are at increased risk for going on to engage in dangerous behaviors.

Dr. Prinstein notes that being open and kind fosters likability, which in turn facilitates opportunities for enriching experiences and learning, which then contribute to advancement. “Be nice” is clearly good advice from a moral standpoint, and following the Golden Rule should be encouraged for its own sake.

 It is worth keeping in mind, though, that social skills are also important for academic and lifelong success. This is why here at The Yellin Center, we include social cognition among the various areas that we look at and discuss as part of our assessments. A student could have plenty of intellectual resources, but without being able to understand, relate to, and get along with others, one’s learning and achievements could only come so far. With collaboration having become an integral part of the classroom experience, students generally have ample opportunity to hone and utilize skills that will be vital in the rest of their lives, across settings.

 It should be noted that being socially skilled is not synonymous with being extroverted, despite what may be some common misconceptions. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has been a key figure in synthesizing and sharing research regarding introversion. Introverts, representing one-third to one-half of the population, are not necessarily shy, but prefer and thrive in environments where social stimulation is relatively low. They tend to listen more than they talk, to think before speaking, and to have careful, sensitive temperaments. These qualities, all aspects of social cognition, can foster achievement, creativity, and a valuable kind of leadership. Being an extrovert or an introvert is not better or worse; often what is most important is finding the right fit between personality and niche. Keeping this in mind, educators should be careful not to encourage class participation to an extent that is at the expense of identifying and nurturing students’ differing natures and assets; but certainly “Be nice” is a goal worth having, for many reasons, for everyone.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Clear Guide to Assistive Technology

Usually, when we write about a resource document, we carefully set forth what it says and offer guidance to the readers of our blog to help clarify and explain its content.

This isn't needed for the excellent guide from the ARISE Coalition (Action for Reform in Special Education) that provides detailed, clear information for parents about assistive technology (AT) devices and services;  students' AT rights; parent advocacy tips for acquiring AT; and resources for more AT information and special education support.

A quick look at the list of organizations and individuals that comprise the ARISE Coalition gives some sense of the substance behind this resource, but it also is so clearly written that it is a "must read" for any parent with a student in New York City public schools -- whether he or she receives special education services or not. The section describing different kinds of AT and what these devices can do can also be helpful for children who do not reach the threshold of having a disability, but may still benefit from AT.

Furthermore, although it is written for New York City parents and references the New York City Department of Education's Family Guide to Assistive Technology, the ARISE Coalition guide can provide helpful information to parents outside of NYC, especially in the "Additional Resources" section at the end.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

A new "issue brief" from Penn State University (with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) notes that elementary age students who participate in school based programs in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) show:
  • improvements in social behaviors 
  • fewer conduct problems
  • less emotional distress, and
  • improved grades and test scores (11% gain)

What is Social-Emotional Learning? According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization that works in the areas of research, practice, and policy make to help make evidence-based social-emotional learning a part of all students' education, SEL involves five core areas of competence:

  1. Self-awareness -The ability to accurately recognize one’s feelings and thoughts and how they influence behavior.
  2. Self-management - The ability to regulate one’s emotions, understanding, and behaviors to establish and achieve goals. 
  3. Social awareness -  The ability to understand and empathize with others, to understand behavioral norms, and recognize resources and supports.
  4. Relationship skills - The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with a variety of individuals and groups. 
  5. Responsible decision-making -  The ability to make constructive, ethical choices about personal behavior, social interactions, and school and to understand the consequences of various actions.
Learn more about how your family and your school can build on the research about SEL and help children reap the personal and academic benefits that SEL can provide. 

Thanks to @jeremykoren for letting us know about this new report. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Targeting Environmental Risks to Children

Parents of children with learning and other challenges often wonder if environmental factors could have caused or been a factor in their child's difficulties. As noted in a recent issue of Pediatrics, this question was behind the 2015 founding of Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks) by scientists, physicians, other health professionals, and advocates. Project TENDR's mission is to raise awareness of the risk from toxic chemicals to the development of brain-based disorders in children, including intellectual and learning disabilities, autism, and ADHD.

In July 2016, TENDR issued a Consensus Statement, intended to be a Call to Action ...

"to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals that can contribute to the prevalence of neurodevelopmental disabilities in America’s children. The TENDR authors agree that widespread exposures to toxic chemicals in our air, water, food, soil, and consumer products can increase the risks for cognitive, behavioral, or social impairment, as well as specific neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Di Renzo et al. 2015; Gore et al. 2015; Lanphear 2015; Council on Environmental Health 2011). This preventable threat results from a failure of our industrial and consumer markets and regulatory systems to protect the developing brain from toxic chemicals. To lower children’s risks for developing neurodevelopmental disorders, policies and actions are urgently needed to eliminate or significantly reduce exposures to these chemicals. Further, if we are to protect children, we must overhaul how government agencies and business assess risks to human health from chemical exposures, how chemicals in commerce are regulated, and how scientific evidence informs decision making by government and the private sector."

The Consensus Statement coincided with the June 2016 signing of amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Nation’s primary chemicals management law, but the authors of the Consensus Statement note that this legislation, while "an important step," provides "too little action at too slow a pace."

The Consensus Statement sets out frightening information about the vulnerability of developing fetuses and children to environmental toxins. So what can parents do to avoid exposing their children to these poisons?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children initiative has a comprehensive list of steps parents can take to reduce the exposure of their children to pesticides, including links to information about organic foods. The AAP site has similar helpful information about numerous other risks, such as lead and mosquito spraying. Scroll through the list of topics to find those you want to review and take the recommended actions to reduce the risks to your family.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Our Philosophy on Philosophy

In an earlier blog, we discussed the importance of educators teaching children not just content but how to think. It is worth noting that teaching philosophy to children may have benefits that include some less readily apparent ones. One study, that tracked thousands of students in schools across England, found that participation in philosophical discussions correlated with reading and math gains. This was a bonus finding, given that the philosophy course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy.

The particular intervention in this study was a course called Philosophy for Children (“p4c”), with a curriculum focused on facilitating questioning, reasoning, and collaboration. Teachers and students who received the p4c intervention generally reported positive responses such as increased listening skills, self-esteem, and confidence to speak. Perhaps an enhanced sense of ownership over their learning helped the students stay actively engaged with their course work, thereby contributing to improved levels of performance.

The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (“PLATO”) notes that people of all ages can engage in philosophical thinking, and that young children — with their natural curiosity — can actually be particularly eager pupils. By encouraging active listening and questioning, philosophy not only helps students to more accurately ascertain truth but to find personal value, and therefore productive engagement, in their schoolwork.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Understanding Federal Disability Laws

Parents often ask us to explain the differences between the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). And, for post-high school students who are no longer eligible under the IDEA, we get similar questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We've written about each of these laws numerous times in our more than 900 posts, often comparing and contrasting them. You can use the search feature on the right hand side of this page to search the "tag" for each law.

A 2016 Arizona case that ended up in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit contains a helpful explanation comparing and contrasting these several laws. Thanks to attorney Pete Wright for bringing it to the attention of his colleagues. The excerpts from the Circuit Court decision appear without quotation marks, citations, or footnotes, and we have added in headings to make it easier to read. You can see properly formatted text in the full court decision.

The Circuit Court explained:
There are three primary and overlapping pieces of federal legislation... The IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the ADA.

Congress enacted the IDEA to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education [or FAPE] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living. The IDEA focuses on making a FAPE available to disabled students through development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). States receiving federal financial assistance under the IDEA must have in place policies and procedures to properly develop IEPs for qualifying children.

Section 504
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is broader than the IDEA; it is concerned with discrimination in the provision of state services to all individuals with disabilities. It provides that no otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance
Like the IDEA, section 504 applies to public schools that receive federal financial assistance ...
The regulations adopted pursuant to section 504 require qualifying public schools to provide a free appropriate public education to each qualified handicapped person.

How FAPE Differs Under Each Law
FAPE is defined differently for purposes of section 504 than it is for the IDEA. Under ... section 504 regulations, FAPE requires "regular or special education and related aids and services that
(i) are designed to meet individual educational needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of non-handicapped persons are met and
(ii) are based upon adherence to procedures that satisfy the requirements of [the law]".
Section 504's regulations gauge the adequacy of services provided to disabled individuals by comparing them to the level of services provided to individuals who are not disabled. One method of ensuring that the educational aids and services are designed to meet individual education needs as required under [504] is to implement an IEP developed in accordance with the IDEA, but a showing that FAPE was denied under the IDEA does not necessarily establish a denial of FAPE under section 504.

Title II of the ADA was modeled after section 504.... It provides that no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.
[Both Section 504 and the ADA include the right to sue for damages. However, a public entity can be liable for damages under § 504 (or the ADA) only] if it intentionally or with deliberate indifference fails to provide meaningful access or reasonable accommodation to disabled persons.

While the IDEA remains the best option for many of the students we see, it is important to be aware that there are other federal laws that can help students -- and all individuals -- get the help they need to overcome their challenges. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Supreme Court Hands Win to Students with IEPs

Yesterday, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the findings of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (whose members currently include Neil Gorsuch, who has been nominated to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court bench) that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students entitled to special education receive an “educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis.

We have written previously about this case, Endrew F., and looked at how courts have interpreted the requirements of the IDEA that students receive FAPE - a free, appropriate, public education. The questions for courts over the years have focused on the meaning of "appropriate" and looked at what schools were required to do for students who qualified for special education under the IDEA. 

The seminal case on this question was Rowley, which we examined in this blog almost seven years ago. In yesterday's decision, the Supreme Court looked back at Rowley and noted that it involved a student who was in a regular classroom, doing well, and able to participate in tests to measure her progress. The Justices noted, 

 “Rowley sheds light on what appropriate progress will look like in many cases: For a child fully integrated in the regular classroom, an IEP typically should be 'reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade' ... [However, they also noted that] Rowley did not provide concrete guidance with respect to a child who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level."

For students like Endrew F., who has autism and significant behavioral issues which interfere with his ability to benefit from his education, the standards applied to Amy Rowley back in 1982 were not of practical use. These children have disabilities that make it unlikely or impossible for them to function in a regular classroom and the standards used for more typical learners with IEPs could not readily be applied to them. What some schools -- and the courts reviewing their conduct throughout the country -- did was to take advantage of the differences between a student like Amy Rowley and students with more extensive disabilities. Since advancing from grade to grade, passing tests along the way, was not a practical goal for these students, schools and courts believed that schools were required to provide an education that merely offered "some" or "more than de minimus" or a "just above trivial" educational benefit. 

In yesterday's decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court soundly rejected that approach, and noted that "If is not a reasonable prospect for a child, his IEP need not aim for grade level advancement. But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives." Furthermore, ... "the progress contemplated by the IEP must be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances... A focus on the particular child is at the core of the IDEA. The instruction offered must be 'specially designed' to meet a child’s 'unique needs' through an '[i]ndividualized education program.' "

As the Supreme Court noted in the conclusion to its decision, "When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Teaching Health Care Providers About Psychopharmacology and Mental Health

I was fortunate to spend the past weekend continuing my work as Faculty-in-Training at the REACH Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming children’s health services by empowering their care providers – parents, doctors, teachers, counselors, and therapists – to know and use the most effective methods for identifying and assisting children with mental health conditions.

My involvement with this organization began in 2011 when I had the opportunity to participate in an intensive Mini-Fellowship, Patient-Centered Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care.  The Mini-Fellowship was designed to address the growing shortage of pediatric psychiatrists by providing pediatricians, family physicians, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, psychiatrists and neurologists with up-to-date training in the use of psychiatric medications  for children and adolescents.  

Since 2011, The Yellin Center’s involvement in children’s mental health and psychopharmacology has grown steadily.  Therefore, I was thrilled when I was invited to apply and was subsequently accepted in the REACH Institute’s Faculty Training Program.  Having completed the first two phases of training, I am hopeful that I will complete the process of becoming a full-fledged member of the REACH Institute’s National Faculty within the next few months.  My work with them already has had a significant impact on my practice and I look forward to ongoing collaborations with experts to ensure that my knowledge and skills continue to grow and remain current.  I also am excited about the prospect of participating in the critical work of addressing the growing shortage of pediatric psychiatrists and increasing access to high quality mental health services for our nation’s children and families.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Literacy Support in NYC

We recently learned about an exciting new initiative from the New York City Department of Education – their Equity and Excellence Initiative. One pillar of this platform is called Universal Literacy. The DOE has called for universal literacy for all public school students by the end of second grade; they believe that with the right supports, by 2026 all students will be reading on grade level in second grade. To jump start this process, 103 new hires joined the DOE team as dedicated reading coaches in the spring of 2016, and they all received intensive training over the summer. Their role is to work with the younger elementary grades’ teachers and administrators to provide dedicated literacy support. Over the next few years, all elementary schools will have access to a dedicated reading coach with specialized training. If your child is having difficulty with reading or just needs some extra support, it may be a good idea to find out what your school is already doing to improve literacy in its K-2 classrooms. A dedicated coach may already be on staff.

One of our favorite organizations, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), recently published a new fact sheet on literacy. AFC is a local organization that protects the rights of our city’s children most at risk of school failure or discrimination. Their website has an extensive list of guides for parents about navigating your way through the school system. Their new literacy fact sheet is called "Parent-Teacher Conferences: Questions to Ask your Child’s Teacher about How Well He or She is Learning to Read and Write."  It provides a very detailed list of questions to ask teachers during conferences, including more targeted questions for when there are concerns about the progress your child is making.

Another noteworthy literacy document on the AFC website is called "Questions & Answers about Literacy: A Fact Sheet for Families of Students who Need More Helping Learning to Read and Write." This fact sheet provide a brief overview of the Response to Intervention framework, which is one way that schools figure out which students need extra support and what level of support they require. It also has information on how to find the right person in your district to talk to about getting help, and it outlines the rights of families surrounding the special education evaluation process. The fact sheet includes some descriptions of other services to consider, such as classroom accommodations and structured multi-sensory reading instruction, a Yellin Center favorite.

The AFC website is chock full of resources, including a guide to early intervention services in NYC and their short podcast about the NYC high school application process. They are a terrific independent, nonprofit resource, always deserving of support.