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