Wednesday, September 27, 2017

ADA Accommodations for Good Students

Almost exactly two years ago, in September 2015, we wrote a post about new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice, which were a response to questions about testing accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Justice Department guidelines were very clear and set out the basic principles of the ADA and how they should be applied to testing and accommodations.
Still, we recently had a conversation with a private school parent where the question was raised as to whether a student who was doing well -- keeping up with class work and getting good grades -- would be entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA. So, let's look again at what the law requires, quoting directly from the Justice Department guidelines:

  • "Under the ADA, an individual with a disability is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (such as seeing, hearing, learning, reading, concentrating, or thinking) or a major bodily function... 

  • "To be 'substantially limited' in a major life activity does not require that the person be unable to perform the activity. In determining whether an individual is substantially limited in a major life activity, it may be useful to consider, when compared to most people in the general population, the conditions under which the individual performs the activity or the manner in which the activity is performed. It may also be useful to consider the length of time an individual can perform a major life activity or the length of time it takes an individual to perform a major life activity, as compared to most people in the general population. 

  • "A person with a history of academic success may still be a person with a disability who is entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA. A history of academic success does not mean that a person does not have a disability that requires testing accommodations. For example, someone with a learning disability may achieve a high level of academic success, but may nevertheless be substantially limited in one or more of the major life activities of reading, writing, speaking, or learning, because of the additional time or effort he or she must spend to read, write, speak, or learn compared to most people in the general population."

Keep in mind that the ADA is the primary disability law covering most private K-12 schools, although religious schools are exempt from the ADA. A good explanation as to how disability laws apply to private schools was prepared by the National Association of Independent Schools. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Phenomenon of Motivated Forgetting

Every fall, students return to school with a little bit less academic knowledge than they left with in June. There is no shortage of reasons or hypotheses for why this happens, but three researchers recently wanted to look more closely at what might be getting in the way of students taking their learning with them across time. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough, at The University of California and The University of Alabama,* explored the topic of motivated forgetting in college students – the concept that we may deliberately remove “unwanted memories” from our awareness because unpleasant memories may threaten our sense of self. 

In general, motivated forgetting is “the process by which people have difficulty recalling information and memories for events that are unpleasant, painful, or generally threatening to the self-perceptions” that we work to build about ourselves*. In other words, we are motivated to forget information that is damaging to our ego, or sense of self. As an example, researchers have found that people are less able to recall information from historical passages about atrocities when the perpetrators of those atrocities belong to the individual’s cultural group. The idea behind this is that it would be damaging to that person’s sense of self or identity to know that information, and so they are unconsciously motivated to forget it. When this research was applied to feedback about behaviors, psychologists found that even though people are just as good at recalling negative and positive feedback about behaviors peripheral to the self (i.e., not that important to one’s ego), they had a harder time recalling negative as compared to positive feedback regarding behaviors that are central to their sense of self. In other words, if I think of myself as a very honest person, and I am given feedback about how I engaged in a dishonest behavior as well as feedback about how I engaged in honest behavior, I am going to have a harder time remembering the negative feedback. This would not be the case if honesty was not one of the most important traits I think about when I consider my sense of self.

Interesting, but how does this relate to students' loss of academic knowledge after their summer break? 

Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough wanted to see whether students in a difficult math course suffered from motivated forgetting after the semester ended (i.e., during summer break). They hypothesized that students with a high math self-concept who felt stressed out by the course would have a harder time remembering what they learned as compared to students who did not consider math as integral to their sense of self, even if they were just as stressed out. The researchers tested this by giving the students an extra final exam, two weeks into their summer break (lucky them!). They found that, indeed, students who were more stressed out by the coursework were more likely to forget information, but only if they had a higher mathematics self-concept. Students who did not consider math an integral part of their identity were not affected by the stress.

This finding may seem a little surprising, since we would expect that students who care deeply about a topic will remember more of it. However, this study has pointed out for us that the more deeply we care about a subject or the more we feel it is an integral part of our self, the more we may be affected by ongoing stress about that subject or relevant coursework. Humans are always trying to protect their egos, so it makes sense that we would push out information after it is no longer critical if that information is putting our sense of self off balance. In other words, the students in the study didn’t forget the information until after the course ended because prior to that, it was critical to their grades. Once summer hit, it was relatively safe to forget. However, looking at the bigger picture, we know that math is cumulative, and the information learned in one course is important to take with us to the next, especially for the students in the study, who were primarily going towards majors and careers in fields related to STEM. 

The researchers published this work with the hope that educators will work on implementing stress-reduction techniques into their teaching. They also briefly discussed the concept of teaching students to interpret stress, and even failure, as a positive rather than a negative force. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough emphasized that, based on research done previously, it’s important to help students “approach classroom stress as a normal challenge that is a part of the learning process rather than a threat to their self-perception” so that they can avoid this phenomenon of motivated forgetting*** . We’ve written many times before about the concept of mindset, originated by Dr. Carol Dweck, which can be a useful classroom teaching tool for helping students at all grade levels learn about the positive value of failure. Ramirez, Jin, and McDonough make an even stronger case for its presence in the classroom, so as we settle in to the school year, let’s remember to give our students a reason to embrace the learning process, even if it is a little stressful.

* Ramirez, G., McDonough, I. M., & Jin, L. (2017). Classroom stress promotes motivated forgetting of mathematics knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 812-825. 
** p. 812
*** p. 821

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The NVLD Project

We recently learned of the NVLD Project, founded in 2013 by Dr. Laura Lemle, whose daughter was diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disability (NVLD) when she was five years old. Dr. Lemle, now in the real estate business, has a PhD in clinical psychology.

This nonprofit organization offers informational workshops, supports research, and has a blog where an array of writers share their knowledge and experiences with NVLD.  Long term, the NVLD Project seeks to have NVLD included as a specific disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the "bible" of medical diagnostics developed by the American Psychiatric Association. The NVLD Project notes that such recognition "will allow people who have NVLD to be covered for clinical care and it will foster more rigorous empirical research on the causes of and best treatments for NVLD."

So what, exactly, is a non-verbal learning disability? First, it involves a significant discrepancy between verbal and perceptual reasoning abilities, where the individual has strong abilities in such verbal realms as reading, vocabulary, and memory, but struggles with spatial, mathematical, and certain "big picture" tasks. In addition, organization, executive functions, and social skills can be areas of difficulty. An extensive discussion of the components of a non-verbal learning disability is set forth on the Project NVLD website.

The difficulties that characterize NVLD can be present in other learning and social disabilities, and distinguishing among the various labels for disorders may be less important than understanding the strengths and difficulties faced by each individual and developing specific strategies and supports to build on his or her strengths and to bypass or improve challenges. Still, understanding NVLD and researching why and how NVLD arises is an important first step to remediating this constellation of difficulties. Likewise, supports for individuals and families dealing with NVLD can be extremely helpful.

Monday, September 11, 2017

September 11, 2017

Today is September 11th and the horror and bravery of that date in 2001 and the days that followed has not diminished with the passage of 16 years. As we remember where we were on the date our city and our nation was attacked, and in many ways changed forever, we look back with excerpts from a post we wrote back in 2010.

September 11th - A Personal Story

Tomorrow is the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, an event that has become associated with many things since that horrific day -- courage, loss, terror, war, and retribution -- just to name a few. We suspect that you have no trouble remembering where you were when you first heard the terrible news. We were all touched by this event. But for those of us in New York, Washington and  Pennsylvania, and especially for those whose loved ones were lost  in the towers or on the ill-fated planes, there was, and still is, a particularly personal resonance to the events of that day.

Some of you may have seen a hard-hat sitting on a shelf in Dr. Yellin's office. On September 11, 2001 Dr. Yellin was the Chief Medical Officer of  NYU Downtown Hospital, located just three blocks from the World Trade Center. He was attending a meeting in mid-town Manhattan, about three miles north, when his Chief of Nursing called his cell phone to report a fire at the World Trade Center. He promptly left his meeting and took a subway train downtown to the hospital, knowing that the hospital emergency response team would be moving into action, but completely unaware of the scope of the disaster. He emerged from the subway into streets of chaos, and got inside the hospital building just as the first of the towers fell. It was pitch black in the daytime, with a thick cloud covering the glass walled lobby. The hospital staff was geared up to deal with injuries and survivors, but there were only a handful of survivors in those first, awful hours. As the scope of what had happened became clear, teams of doctors, nurses, and support personnel  went to the remains of the towers to see what they could do. Dr. Yellin joined them for a time and was handed a hard-hat by a Con Edison worker; debris was everywhere.

Time became irrelevant. The mission to save survivors became one, instead, of serving the recovery teams and the local residents, who had no electricity or other services in what was, for many months, a disaster zone. Three days later, when Dr. Yellin made it home by train in a pair of dusty scrubs, people kept shaking his hand and thanking him. He knew that there had been far too little for him and his team to do on that fateful day.

Recalling the events of September 11th or seeing the devastation from the recent hurricanes can be unsettling for both children and adults. Our colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics' "Healthy Children"  website have helpful information about how parents can speak to their children about disasters of all kinds. 

Photo: SMU University Libraries

Friday, September 8, 2017

Who Says There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?

Here at The Yellin Center we love our lunch. Some folks bring interesting things they've cooked at home. Others order from the limitless selection our Manhattan location provides. And for birthdays and other special occasions we all get together for pizza or some other treat.

So it was a particular pleasure to hear that all students in New York City public schools will now be able to get both breakfast and lunch for free. What this means is that the 75 percent of the 1.1 million New York City public school students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch (breakfast has been free for all students) need not identify themselves or have any stigma attached to their "free lunch" status. All families are asked to complete a School Meals Form to enable the school system to get federal funds for this program.

While we are on the subject of lunches, a piece earlier this week in  The New York Times looks at how school lunches nationwide may change under the current federal administration. Whether or not changes implemented under the Obama administration designed to make lunches healthier -- more fruits and vegetables, less unhealthy ingredients -- are rolled back, it is clear that local communities are more aware of healthy eating and that school lunches will reflect both this trend and local food preferences.

Getting kids involved in food preparation can only raise their interest in healthy eating and bring families together. We've written before about ChopChop, a terrific resource for teaching kids about healthy cooking. It's worth checking out. Even if your child takes advantage of a free healthy lunch in school, there is always dinner that needs to be prepared!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Private School Admissions: An Early Start

Finally, even the last schools to start the year -- those in New York City -- are opening their doors to students tomorrow. Parents everywhere can take a deep breath and know that their children are settled in to their school and class until late next spring.

Unless, of course, your child is moving to a new school level after this year. Or you are thinking about moving him to different school. Or it is time to consider a private special education setting. For these families, there is no respite come the fall. For many private schools, especially those that are well regarded for their academics or general reputation, or those that do a good job helping students with learning or other challenges to succeed, the early fall is the time to begin the admissions process for the following school year.

Parents who go to a private school's website will see that there are open house dates scheduled for as early as the beginning of September. Application deadlines vary, but tend to align with those for college admissions. Many schools have rolling admissions, filling spots as qualified applicants apply and closing the application process once their classes are filled. Other schools have a fixed deadline and will then look at the body of applicants to make sure their classes are balanced in terms of things like academic abilities, gender, and special needs.

So, parents who are thinking ahead and considering a different school for their child for next year should not delay in launching their investigation. Not sure where to begin? The guidance counselors in your child's current school may be a good starting point. If your current school is not a good fit, or if your child is aging out, they should be able to point you to places to consider and can sometimes help shortcut the admission process. You can also look at some of the local and national websites that list schools and often have features that allow you to search for specific attributes and locations.

Most schools have colorful websites, filled with photos of happy students and statistics about enrollment and achievements. Still, the school website is the best place to begin your investigation. Look at information about curriculum, special learning supports, and important numbers, such as class size and tuition. Sign up for an open house or small group tour, the earlier in the term the better. An open house with presentations and tours of empty classrooms may yield some sense of a school's atmosphere. More helpful is a tour that occurs during the school day and gives parents a glimpse of what goes on in classrooms.

If possible, look at the classroom for your child's current grade.  These students will likely be his or her classmates. Can you see your child fitting in with this group? Is the classroom a calm and welcoming place? Is there individual attention to students' needs, especially important in a special education setting? Then, if possible, visit the classroom for the grade your child will be in when he or she enrolls.This will give a sense of what is being taught, a possible teacher at that level, and what the classroom for that grade looks like. Can you see your child fitting into this setting?

And what about those families who children need to make a school switch at the last minute, or in the middle of the school year? These could be children with newly diagnosed learning challenges or who are just not fitting in to their current school. Or a family may have to relocate mid year for work or other reasons. Are they just out of luck? Fortunately, many good schools, both for typical learners and for students with special learning needs, have last minute or mid-year spots available. Choices may be more limited, but parents should reach out to schools and inquire. And parents should keep in mind that public schools must enroll every child who lives in their district.