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. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Predicting Drop Out Danger

The statistics on college completion rates are grim. Fewer than two-thirds of college students graduate in six years, and less than half within four years of enrolling. Failure to graduate doesn't erase the debts these students often incur while working towards a degree they don't receive. It's a significant problem for students, their families, and colleges.

One of many approaches to helping reduce the number of students who fail to complete their degree was discussed recently in The New York Times Education Life section. Some colleges are using a technique known as predictive analytics to look at how student performance in specific courses can predict whether students will be successful in obtaining their degree -- or whether they will fail or drop out before graduation. The most predictive courses are those that are designed to give students the foundation for success in later courses.

So, for example, the Times article notes that nursing students at one school who got an A in an introductory biology course had a 71 percent chance of graduating; those who got a B in the same course had only a 53 percent chance. It isn't just differences between grades of A and B that matter. Schools that use this approach to monitoring student performance have found that grades of C or D in specific courses can be early signs of real academic difficulties, even if the student's other grades are higher.

This same proactive use of data can help schools monitor everything from whether students have signed up for the correct course sequence for their intended major, to whether they are logging into the school library regularly. Certainly, privacy issues can come up as the use of student data expands. The use of predictive analytics has not been in place long enough, or broadly enough, to provide statistics on whether its use has a long term impact on student retention and graduation rates. And schools note that raw data without strong advising to support struggling students is not sufficient. Still, this is an interesting tool that may prove useful in helping more students to complete their college education.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Online Learning Interventions

In an earlier blog, we discussed research  that noted the positive impact of "social-belonging" interventions on student engagement in college. When graduating high school seniors received information that most students worry about a sense of belonging, and that such worries subside after taking active steps to connect with others, they were more likely to use their college academic support services, join extracurricular groups, and choose to live on campus. One of the researchers involved in that study, Stanford University professor Geoffrey Cohen, was more recently involved in a related study that caught our attention.

The authors noted that worldwide, many people have enrolled in massive open online courses, i.e., MOOCs; however, far fewer have completed them. People in countries with relatively low United Nations’ Human Development Indices (based on factors such as life expectancy, education, and standard of living) are less likely to complete these free courses than students in more developed countries. The researchers explored whether psychological interventions may help to narrow this global achievement gap. The results were promising. MOOC students who participated in the following interventions improved in their academic performance, closing the persistence gap between students from less and more developed countries:

  • Value relevance activity: Students wrote about how their course participation serves their most important values.
  • Social belonging activity: Students read and summarized previous students’ testimony about how they were initially worried about belonging in the course but later became more comfortable.
The findings speak to the relevance of student mindset to educational outcomes. When students are struggling, teachers may be inclined to wonder how they can teach differently. While this may be of value, consideration of students’ internal experiences — and how they might be improved — is another important piece of the puzzle. Ideally, students will not only be presented with rich opportunities to learn but will have optimal mindsets for seizing those opportunities.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Diversity an Asset in Teams

A recent issue of Harvard Business Review included the article, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter.” The authors reviewed research findings suggesting that groups composed of diverse races, nationalities, and genders fare better than more homogeneous groups. Notably, diverse groups seem to process information better, more carefully tending to facts. They also outperform in terms of production, yielding higher returns and innovating more.
While most of the studies discussed in the article considered diversity in terms of racial, national, or gender identities, one interesting study considered general in-group and out-group diversity. Groups of same-sorority members and of same-fraternity members, along with similar groups that also included outsiders, were asked to solve a problem. While the outsiders were less confident about their answers, they were more likely to be correct. Diversity, beyond the particular skill sets and mindsets that each diverse member brings, may help to guard against "groupthink", i.e., the over reliance on group coherence at the expense of critical analysis.

The value of teams composed of people who are different from one another is certainly worth noting in the field of education. Educators themselves may benefit from collaborating with professionals who are different in their backgrounds and ways of thinking. Organizers of professional development activities should consider the value of teams that are not only interdisciplinary but diverse in other ways. Students working together in groups may have the richest learning experiences, and most successful outcomes, when those teams are heterogeneous. ​

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Restorative Justice

New York City's students are no strangers to traditional discipline policies. In the 2015-2016 school year, there were 23,000 suspensions. This reflects a sharp decline from the previous year, which saw 29,000 suspensions, thanks in part to a city-wide effort to reduce the use of harsh discipline with the City's 1.1 million public school students. Rates of exclusionary discipline (discipline that removes a student from the classroom) have been high enough in recent years to prompt educators to seek alternative discipline strategies. 

One strategy that’s been sweeping the nation is restorative justice, a practice that originated as a community-based justice reform for criminal offenses, but has since trickled down into the educational system. Restorative justice is built upon the fundamental assumption that a school building is a community, and all members of that community should be expected to participate. It’s already been implemented with integrity in the Oakland, California public schools, and is potentially a great resource about which all teachers and families should be aware.

Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional discipline strategies because it replaces things like suspensions and being barred from team sports with an ongoing collaborative problem solving process that requires students to generate their own way of righting their wrongs. The transition to restorative justice starts by building a community. This difficult process depends on the availability of training for faculty as well as teacher and student buy-in. Changing the culture of a school takes time, but one of the most interesting and exciting parts of the process is the talking circle. This activity is an integral piece of restorative justice, but it shows promise as a tool for any educator to use to help bring a class of students closer together, and it also conjures up the types of activities used in family therapy sessions.

During a talking circle, students are able to speak without interruption, often through the use of a squish ball or other object that designates the present speaker. The time spent in circles is meant to help students get to know one another and understand why they do what they do. They are typically implemented as a form of mediation between students in conflict – to build empathy and allow students to find out the emotional matters underlying their peers’ behavior – but circles can be formed at any time, not just after a conflict has occurred. Stepping back from academics and opening the floor to student voices sets the community up for ongoing success. It’s a lot harder to enter a conflict with someone you’ve had the opportunity to get to know on a deep level. Talking circles, both as a prevention of and in response to behavioral issues or conflicts, help build reciprocal relationships wherein students feel protected and will, in return, work to protect the community they’re a part of.

Restorative justice was a direct response to issues like zero tolerance policies, school drop-out, and racial disparities in the use of harsh discipline. Research has shown promising results in high-need areas, but the principles of restorative justice and building a classroom community are important in all types of settings. By teaching kids early on how to interact with others they may not always want to get along with, maybe they’ll carry that empathy with them into adulthood and use it to feel connected to our beautifully diverse city, which is home to 8.5 million people from at least 190 countries.

For more information about restorative justice and discipline reform in NYC public schools, check out the following resources and articles:

  • A book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin, that lays out a step-by-step framework for building a classroom community.  His writing is directed at educators in high-need areas, but his philosophy and methods are far-reaching.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sleep and Productive Forgetting

We’ve blogged numerous times over the years about sleep, from sleep recommendations to tips for waking up. Meanwhile, scientists have been spending many of their waking moments trying to learn more about this important but not wholly understood phenomenon. The New York Times highlighted some recent findings.

Examination of mouse brains has revealed that their brain synapses, and accompanying amounts of surface proteins, are smaller when sleeping than when awake. Researchers were able to use a chemical to block this synaptic pruning in some mice but not others. All of the mice, before any were exposed to the chemical, were given a mild shock when they walked over a particular section of the floor. The mice that were then exposed to the chemical overnight, so were prevented from pruning their brain synapses, exhibited trepidation regardless of what environment they were placed in the next day. The mice that had been able to do their regular synaptic pruning only froze up in the particular area where they had received the shock.

The results suggested to one of the researchers that “You can forget in a smart way.” In this experiment, synaptic pruning seemed to narrow down or restrict the shock memory to the particular environment in which it occurred. At least one function of sleep may be for the brain to do some strategic self-editing to keep memories from becoming fuzzy.

photo credit: Rachel Fury via FlickrCC

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Make Mistakes

There is no shortage of articles out there - in newspapers, magazines, parenting books, and empirical journals - that extol the virtues of helping children fail with pride. Most recently, Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a lengthy, informative piece about what teachers around the country are doing to introduce failure and mistakes into their classroom culture.

As a Learning Specialist at The Yellin Center, I find myself discussing the idea with parents on a regular basis: kids need to see the importance of not getting it right the first time. The concept matches up with Dr. Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset, which we introduced in a 2011 blog post. I even blogged about the importance of failure last fall. Despite the ongoing coverage on our blog and in the wider media universe, one big question remains. What about kids who have already learned to fear failure? How do we help rehabilitate their sense of try-try-again when they are already fearful of taking on big challenges? From a psychologist’s standpoint, I’d like to know the tools for reconditioning this aversion to failure out of our older students, and instilling in them a new appreciation for the learning curve. This common situation is often brought up by parents who are looking for tips and tricks to reteach their children (and themselves) how to make mistakes.

One very powerful example of the benefits of failure continues to pop up in articles and books – learning to walk. Babies spend quite a bit of time and energy pulling themselves up, only to fall back down. And once they’ve finally got standing under their belt, they are even more motivated to continue failing at walking. That is, until they succeed, as they all do, eventually. Babies don’t know that they’re supposed to be good at everything the first time; it seems like we’re hard-wired to push past our failures until we’ve accomplished our goal. If toddlers gave up trying to speak every time their words were misunderstood, we’d all be mute. Sharing this story with our middle- and high-schoolers can be one step in helping them rethink hardship.

One story, however, is not the cure-all. Many schools are already starting to incorporate a love of mistakes into their curriculum and climate, but it’s important for families to work together with schools so that students are surrounded by a supportive environment that values mastery over, for example, how something looks on a college application.

There are other strategies for parents to work on at home while classrooms are being slowly transformed into failure-friendly settings. First, be a positive role model. Consider the language you use about your own abilities, and introduce some new, visible challenges into your own life that your kids can watch you learn from. Even better is to involve them in the process. Maybe this means trying that really difficult recipe you’ve been putting off for years because you know it’s going to be a mess the first time around, or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to knit but you’ve made it known that you’re just not good with your hands. Now is your chance to model a new way of thinking about “ability” and growth. Give that recipe or that new hat a go, and laugh about it with your kids afterwards. And don’t forget to let them know how good you feel that you took a risk, and how excited you are to keep trying, because you know that deliberate practice is way more important than “talent.” Check out this episode of Freakonomics for more information about using deliberate practice to learn a new skill outside your comfort zone.

Once you’ve modeled the behavior, you can move on to offering the experience to your tweens and teens at home. It may be too much pressure for a middle- or high-schooler to give up the drive for perfection at school just yet, but any low-risk activity is a great starting point. This might be a really challenging video game, a new hobby, or a strenuous group activity like rock-climbing (there’s a reason we wear harnesses, right?). Paired with the right casual conversation about taking risks and messing up, any activity can jump start a child’s appreciation for falling off the proverbial horse. These activities, which don’t come with the same baggage as an upcoming math exam or the SAT, allow parents to embed little life lessons and healthier ways of thinking into conversation.

While you and your kids are working on making mistakes at home, it’s important to keep the conversation going with their teachers. Are students allowed to rewrite essays and correct their exams? Do teachers encourage students to take risks or, conversely, just to get high marks? Have teachers introduced the students to the language around mindset, grit, and failure? Odds are, your child’s school is already working to make failure an important and stress-free part of the learning process. Teachers and other school professionals could be a great resource for parents to learn more about how to support their children’s development, and open communication between parents and teachers is beneficial for everyone involved.

For more information about mindset, making mistakes, grit, and deliberate practice, check out the following books and resources:

  • A podcast interview with Duckworth, the author of Grit
  • "Mistakes Were Made" in the Harvard Ed. magazine, referenced at the beginning of this post.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Study on Communicating Biases

Meryl Streep made headlines last month with her Golden Globes acceptance speech that included a response to “one performance this year that stunned me,” i.e.,  Donald Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter during the presidential campaign. Her words garnered attention, just as Trump’s nonverbal behaviors had. This calls to mind the warning of a character Meryl Streep once played, the witch in Into the Woods. “Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn.” When considering the lessons we are teaching children, it should be noted that these lessons are being conveyed not just verbally, but nonverbally as well. 

A recent study built upon past research suggesting that:

a) implicit biases can be communicated through nonverbal signals

b) infants avoid or respond negatively toward objects after observing negative responses to them; and

c) evidence of social bias and prejudice has been observed in children as young as in preschool

Researchers at the University of Washington showed four- and five-year-olds a video of a person in a black shirt and a person in a red shirt, each target person being treated differently by an actor. The actor displayed either positive nonverbal signals (e.g., smiling, leaning in, using a warm tone of voice, eagerly giving a toy) or negative nonverbal signals (e.g., scowling, leaning away, using a cold tone of voice, giving the toy reluctantly) toward the targets. The actor then introduced a novel object. Each target labeled it with a made-up word and used it in a particular way. The video also explained that one target was part of “the dark-red group” and the other was part of “the black group,” and a friend from each group was introduced.

The children were asked which target person they preferred, what the novel object should be called, and how the object should be used. The latter questions were asked because imitation, or failure to imitate, has been shown in the past to reflect children’s feelings about a person. The children were also asked which friend they preferred, and an imitation measure was taken.

Results showed that children explicitly preferred the person who was treated with positive nonverbal signals, and that they were more likely to use that person’s label for an object, even though they were not significantly more likely to imitate the displayed use of that object. Further, the children showed more positive attitudes toward the friend identified as being in their preferred person’s group, and they were more likely to imitate this friend.

While the implicit biases actors displayed in this experiment may be less subtle than many displayed toward individuals and groups in natural settings, the implications are certainly interesting and worthy of further exploration. Adults have great potential to teach children many things, including — it seems — biases. It is likely wise to heed the words of the witch.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sugar Cravings in Kids

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and, like Halloween, that may mean a tidal wave of heart-shaped candies is about to take over your child’s diet. In preparation for this celebration of sweets and sweethearts, we have some tips for helping your children (and yourself!) learn to curb those sugar cravings. These recommendations come from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Intuitive Eating program, set out in a book by two forward-thinking nutritionists.

Even though we’re all born with a love of sweet foods, a full-fledged sweet tooth and the cravings that come with it are more a product of our environment. Eating a diet high in sugar leads us to crave more foods with even more sugar. The first step to reducing our “need” for sugar, therefore, is figuring out all the places that extra sugar is getting into our and our children’s food. There are the obvious culprits, of course – candy, baked goods, sugary cereals – but it can be quite surprising, and unsettling, to realize just how prevalent sugar is when it comes to foods we may think of as healthy. Much of the packaged and processed food sold at grocery stores is loaded with sugar. Some particularly naughty culprits are granola, yogurt, beverages, jams or jellies, canned fruit, and tomato sauce. Foods marketed as “low fat” also often have extra sugar to replace the taste you lose when you remove the fat. Figuring out the biggest contributors can help you and your family develop a battle plan to start cutting back.

Barring a child from enjoying a treat every now and then, especially on a holiday that more or less is focused on sharing sweet treats with friends, is an unrealistic endeavor. However, there is plenty of room for cutting back. Two of the most common “uses” of candy are rewards and bribes. It’s tempting to use some chocolate to get your child to finish her homework, or take them out for a sundae after earning a high mark. However, associating sugar with the feeling of relief (finishing homework) and pride (getting good grades) has the potential to devalue both the sugary treat and the activity or endeavor. Instead of turning to sweets, consider some potential alternatives. For example, lots of children crave nothing more than honest, effort-focused praise after they’ve done something really noteworthy, just so they know you are really proud. The American Academy of Pediatrics also warns against the growing “tolerance” to candy as bribes and rewards; eventually, children are going to expect bigger and bigger incentives, potentially negating their natural motivation to succeed and feel good about their work.

Another area to reconsider is the use of sweets as a marker of celebrations. Birthdays, sports games, holidays, and family milestones are often defined by a cake or other sugary sweet. Some schools have begun trading in the birthday cupcakes for healthier options, or celebrating in a different way altogether. When your blogger was in elementary school, a school birthday was focused exclusively on the treat, even though there are plenty of other ways to spend those twenty minutes. Maybe the class can snack on some strawberries while the birthday child leads a game of freeze dance. Birthday parties and sports games also seem to be dominated by brightly frosted cupcakes and candy bars, but it’s likely that fruit and popcorn will go over just as well if the kids are really engaged in having a good time with the activities.

Finally, consider changing the culture around “junk food” in your house. Rather than making chocolate and cookies the forbidden food under tight lock and key, make them available just like all the healthy food you’re already offering around the clock. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but we all know that we crave what we can’t have. Helping kids learn how to balance their nutritional needs and make choices that will make them feel good on the inside is a surefire way to set them up for good eating habits. That doesn’t mean your nine-year-old isn’t going to eat one too many cookies every now and again, but habits are developed throughout our childhoods, and kids will naturally choose foods that their bodies need if all the options are on the table.

If you are considering recalibrating the way your household consumes sweets and treats, don’t forget to be open and honest with every member of the family about it. Even young children can understand the value of nutrition, and we know that they’re much more likely to be on board if they have a voice in the matter.

For more information about some healthier snack options for growing bodies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a short guide that may be helpful.