Thursday, June 29, 2017

Apps for Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Do Kids Lie?

In this age, when terms like "alternate facts" are part of the common parlance and newspapers like The New York Times feature articles like "Trump's Lies", complete with graphics, it may be instructive to look at why people, especially children, learn to tell lies and what motivates them to do so.

The June issue of National Geographic Magazine contains an extensive discussion of why people lie, in a piece entitled "Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways". The article looks at the behavior of both adults and children. Adults may lie to cover up bad behavior, or to inflate their own image, or to gain an advantage over others. Colorful tales of con men, politicians, and outright criminals illustrate these motivations.

But why and when do children first learn to lie? The National Geographic piece looks at the work of Professor Kang Lee at the University of Toronto, who has determined that children of two or three don't generally try to conceal their misdeeds, and they don't consistently lie about having done something contrary to the rules (here, peeking at a toy when the adult cautioned them not to do so before he left the room) until about age seven or eight. This "skill" seems to coincide with the acquisition of two specific abilities - the development of what is called "theory of mind", which enables us to consider the perspective of other people, and what are referred to as "executive functions", which are the abilities to plan, pay attention, and control our behaviors. As these two skills first emerge in children (and executive functions notably continue to develop well into early adulthood) children become more skilled at lying.

Not all lying is malicious. Reasons for lying include helping other people or avoiding rudeness. But parents may understandably be concerned about children who lie repeatedly, or who lie about things that can be harmful to themselves or others. We've written before about what parents can do when their children lie, and it may be a good time to take another look at these suggestions.

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.