Wednesday, August 30, 2017

School District Calendars

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Congressional App Challenge for Student Coders

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Back to School with an IEP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Some of Our Favorite Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Considering Emotions in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Resources and Further Reading

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

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

Blog: Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students 

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Starting Early to Prepare for College

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

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

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