Friday, September 13, 2019

Sleep and Memory

We've written countless times about sleep, and the importance of sleep for children of all ages.* Now, a new study paints a clear picture of how academic learning is significantly affected by sleep deprivation - and how this impact continues in effect over a period of several weeks.

A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Healthnoted in AAP Newsexamined the effects of sleep deprivation on 59 teens ages 15-18 at a boarding school in Singapore. The group was divided into two parts; one set of students could sleep for nine hours, which is the generally recommended length of sleep for teens of that age group. The other set of students were permitted only five hours of sleep, an amount not unusual for sleep deprived students.

After a period of four days, designed to replicate a typical school week, both groups of students were taught detailed facts about ants and crabs over the course of a six hour day. The students were tested on what they had learned 30 minutes and then three days after the lesson concluded. Some of the students (from both the sleep deprived and the control groups) were also tested six weeks after the lesson.

The study authors noted, " We found significantly reduced retention of factual knowledge after four nights of restricted sleep, and this deficit was still evident when tested 6 weeks later." The data shows:

  • 30 minutes after the lesson, the sleep deprived students retained 26% less information than the control group, a finding that the researchers note may be attributed to impaired encoding of the material in the first place.
  • After three days, the sleep deprived students retained 34% less than the control group.
  • Six weeks later, among those of the students who returned for follow up (14 sleep restricted and 22 of the control group), the sleep restricted participants retained 65% less of the learned material for certain responses.  

This study should be required reading for all teens who dismiss the importance of a full night's sleep.

*The links to our blog posts on sleep are too numerous to include. You can find them by searching the term "sleep" or selecting "sleep" from our list of blog topics, both of which are located on the right hand side of this post. 

Photo by Tracey Hocking on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Avoiding the October Surprise

Tomorrow is the first day of school for New York City students, but their older siblings and friends at college likely started classes days or weeks ago. College students who are new to campus living need to adjust to a wide array of  "self care" responsibilities. These are things that used to be done with parental support or, at least, parental awareness. They include getting adequate sleep, eating well, avoiding dangerous situations, and staying up-to-date on assignments.

One responsibility in particular can make or break a student's chance of success in college: maintaining his or her medication regime. Students who require medication, whether to treat a health condition, a mental illness, or AD/HD, have likely been taking these medications regularly, perhaps reminded by or assisted by their parents. They have parental help with obtaining prescriptions, including making appointments with their doctors, knowing about their drug plan coverage, and getting refills (in general, controlled substances - which include most medications for attention and psychiatric conditions - require that the patient be seen by the prescribing physician at least every three months), and monitoring side effects. Parents can often tell when their adolescent is not taking prescribed medications just by observing how they feel and behave.

Not infrequently, when a student arrives to begin college, they are eager to assert their independence and might decide they don't really need their medication. Or, they may have the best of intentions to continue their medication regime, but become distracted and don't follow through with taking their meds regularly.

Why do we call this the "October Surprise"? We first heard the term from a colleague who was describing a regular experience in her legal practice, when parents would call her and report that their college student suddenly was failing, or in the infirmary, or decided they couldn't handle college. Why? After some investigation, many of these students had stopped their medications as soon as they got to school. Since most of these medications don't stop working immediately, it took until late September or early October for them to be fully out of the student's system and for the student to feel the full effects of functioning without needed medication. Hence, the surprise in October.

College students may not realize that there is no opportunity for a "do over" in college. If a student fails a course, that "F" is there forever, impacting his or her GPA. I've sat with more than one set of parents who sought guidance in what they could do once their child has failed several courses and have been able to offer little solace.

Families need to begin when a student is in high school to create medical independence, but it is not too late to speak to a college student to make sure he or she has the tools to manage their medication. Students need to understand their medical or psychiatric conditions, know what medications they are taking and why, and how to keep their medication secure from those who would like to try their attention meds to "help" them study. Your student needs to understand that in addition to the legal and ethical issues involved, ADHD stimulants are called “controlled substances” because of their potential for side effects. They can do harm to individuals who are not under the supervision of a physician. Your son or daughter should know how to obtain more medication when they need it -- even if that means letting a parent know rather than making arrangements for a refill themselves.

Speaking with your student about his or her medications, the importance of taking them, and when and how to reach out for additional medication or to report problems is an important part of college readiness and can make a real difference in college success.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Monday, August 26, 2019

Starting the School Year with an IEP or 504 Plan

It's not uncommon for parents to tell us about issues with getting their child services or accommodations early in the school year. The stories tend to be similar: there was an IEP or 504 meeting the previous spring, where the team (including the parents) agreed upon the setting, services and/or accommodations the child would be receiving during the upcoming year. These might be the same school setting, services, and accommodations as in the past, or they could be modified based on how the student performed or what updated evaluation showed.

Most of the time there is a  smooth carryover to the new school year. The student reports to the agreed upon school or class, the teacher is aware that the student has an IEP or a 504 Plan and has had a chance to review it, and the specialists who will be working with the student (providing speech and language services, reading support, or other related services) begin their work with the student within the first week or two of the start of school.

Sometimes, however, the process does not go as well. In the worst cases, a student may be told that they don't have a seat at the school they expected to attend. Other times, related services may not be provided during the first few weeks of school because of lack of staff. Not infrequently, children who expect door-to-door bus service to school find that they don't get a pick up.

So, what are parents to do? Fortunately, you can find specific suggestions from organizations that specialize in supporting students and families.

  • For students in New York City, Advocates for Children of New York has detailed information on a variety of these issues, from failure to receive services, to lack of transportation, to not having a seat in the school your child expected to attend. 
  • Wherever you may live, our colleagues at Understood have an excellent article, "How Do I Get My Child’s IEP Going at the Beginning of the School Year?" , that sets out suggestions for immediate problems and ways to avoid such issues in the future. An important point that the author makes is that tone is important. "Delays in starting up IEP services are frustrating. But parents who escalate tensions with the school may not make as much progress as parents who remain calm and cooperative."
  • Some ideas for monitoring whether your child is getting the services to which he or she is entitled, and possible remedies if services are not delivered after a reasonable period, can be found on the Wrightslaw website. 

Photo Credit: Photo by Yan Berthemy on Unsplash

Friday, August 16, 2019

Where to Find Information

We get lots of questions from families about how they can learn about topics relating to schools, special education, advocacy, and more. Sometimes, we are able to direct them to one of our blog posts (there is a search feature on the right hand side of each post that includes topics covered in our more than 1,000 posts). Other times, our administrative staff has the information at their very able fingertips, and can answer their question.

It's been a while since we shared a list of our favorite resources - websites and organizations that can provide important information that families need as they navigate their child's needs. Some are New York based, but others operate nationally. We've grouped them below by category and include our comments on what they provide. We hope you find them as helpful as we do.

Information on Schools

Great Schools is a national nonprofit that provides information about specific schools throughout the U.S. Parents can search by state or zip code and the data includes specific areas of academic performance as well as diversity and special education services. The site also provides other information for parents, but the school search feature is by far the most valuable tool. Families should use it as a starting point, not a decision-maker, but it can be very useful when exploring an area that is unfamiliar.

InsideSchools is a New York City resource that includes detailed reviews of specific schools as well as information about how to apply to schools in New York City. Also included is information on  things such as deadlines, districts, and decision dates. There are also helpful guides about topics including transferring schools within the City and special education. The quality of the information is excellent and we always recommend this site as the first stop for families looking into New York City public schools. 

Advocacy Resources

COPAA, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, is a membership organization for both parent and attorney advocates. Families who want to engage with their school system to obtain the best services and supports for their child can find information here about how to do this. As we noted in a post about COPAA back in 2011, "COPAA members communicate with one another through two separate listservs -- one for attorneys and one for parents and lay advocates. The listservs allow parents, advocates, and attorneys to seek guidance about specific issues that they are facing and to offer information about best and worst practices they have encountered in their local area. New court decisions impacting education are quickly shared, and COPAA maintains an archives with forms, court cases, and legal briefs that can be accessed by its members." A particularly useful feature for families offered by COPAA is "find an attorney" -- which does not require membership and which allows families to locate a special education attorney in their state or city.

Wrightslaw is a wide-ranging resource on special education. When we first wrote about this site in 2009, we noted, " is a commercial site, written by Peter Wright, an attorney, and his wife, Pam, a clinical social worker. The site is cluttered with announcements about their workshops, books, and other products for sale, but there is real substance behind this site and it is a great place to find an article explaining how the legal end of the special education system works. If there is a new court case that impacts special education, you can be sure that Wrightslaw will have both the text of the case and a discussion of what it means before almost anyone else."

Advocates for Children of New York provides information and advocacy on behalf of children in New York City who are at greatest risk for school-based discrimination and/or academic failure due to poverty, disability, race, ethnicity, immigrant or English Language Learner status, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness, or involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.They also have an education "hotline" to answer questions about New York City schools and services. [866-427-6033- Monday to Thursday- 10 am to 4 pm]. They offer guides on a number of topics, such as suspension and discipline, graduation requirements, and special education

General Information on Learning and Special Education

Understood is a consortium of 15 nonprofit organizations that have joined forces to support parents of children with learning and attention issues. Dr. Yellin is one of the experts who provide information for families via webcast "chats" and Understood also contains articles on a wide range of subjects, including academics and social-emotional issues.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Paying for IEEs - Revisited

Parents frequently ask us about having their school district pay for an independent educational evaluation - an IEE - such as those we provide here at The Yellin Center. We wrote about this subject at length in a post from November 2013, but it has become clear to us that it is time to share this discussion again. We have added some additional information, (see the boldface text below) and hope this post helps answer questions that you may have.

When Must School Districts Pay for Evaluations?
Parents sometimes ask us if they can have their school district pay for their child's evaluation at The Yellin Center. The simple answer is "maybe, under certain circumstances," and we thought it might be helpful to explain the laws and regulations that govern this area.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recognizes that an evaluation of a student in all suspected areas of disability is a crucial first step to determining whether that student is eligible for IDEA services and what kind of services will help that student to succeed in school. In fact, the "clock begins to run" with respect to the time limits set forth in the IDEA only once the parent consents to an evaluation of the student. The law anticipates that the school will then conduct an evaluation of the child and share the results with the parents and the IEP team, the committee that creates the student's Individualized Education Program. 

In many situations, this works out well for all concerned. The school district conducts an evaluation at no cost to the family; the findings make sense to the parents; the findings are incorporated into the student's IEP; and nothing more needs to be done. 

However, sometimes families do not agree with the findings of the school district evaluators and feel there may be something more going on with their child. Sometimes parents have had a long history of difficulties with the school and simply do not trust them to do an evaluation. Some parents of children enrolled in a private school do not want to have to work with the local public school district (especially in New York City). And, quite often, parents want the kind of in-depth, multi-disciplinary evaluation done here at The Yellin Center, rather than a more "cookie-cutter" series of tests given by their school's evaluators. In each of these situations, the parents seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) such as the ones we conduct here at The Yellin Center.

Before we look at specific rules and scenarios, we need to emphasize one important point. Parents have the absolute right to have their child independently evaluated and federal law requires that the public school district must consider the results of such evaluation. Dr. Yellin and his team frequently attend IEP meetings (via phone or other technology) to discuss the results of our evaluations and have been universally well-received by schools. However, the law does not require that districts follow the recommendations of our reports (or any outside evaluator).

So, when can a parent have a district pay for an IEE? 

  1. The parent must disagree with the evaluation conducted by the district or consider it inadequate and notify the district of their intention to obtain an IEE.
  2. The district must then either file for a due process hearing with a State Hearing Officer or agree to pay for the IEE.
  3. The district can set criteria for the IEE's they will fund -- how much they cost, the geographic location of the evaluator(s), and the specific qualifications of the evaluator(s). However, the U.S. Department of Education notes that, "the district must allow parents the opportunity to demonstrate that unique circumstances justify an IEE that does not fall within the district's criteria. If an IEE that falls outside the district's criteria is justified by the child's unique circumstances, that IEE must be publicly funded." So, even if your district tells you that you are restricted to using the private evaluators on a list they provide, that is not strictly correct and you can and should push back to obtain the services of the evaluator you choose. 
  4. An IEE can also be ordered by a State Hearing Officer as part of a due process hearing when aspects of an IEP are in dispute. 

We also encounter situations where a district paid evaluation at The Yellin Center is part of an ongoing discussion between a family and a school district, especially when the district has not been successful in addressing a child's educational needs. And families need to keep in mind that The Yellin Center has always had a sliding scale for families who need assistance in paying for our services. 

There are countless resources available to explain this process to parents and school administrators, but some you might find useful are:
One subject not addressed in our original post on this topic is the rights of parents when a district refuses to evaluate, either because they do not believe that the child has a disability, or without even providing a reason. The IDEA only addresses the situation where a family disagrees with an evaluation that has been already conducted. To the frustration of many families, if the school district declines to evaluate a student, the only remedy of the family is to file a complaint with a State Hearing Officer to challenge this decision. In addition, as noted above, parents always have the right to go ahead on their own to seek an IEE. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Legal and Medical Checklist for College

A family member recently reached out for help; her 18-year-old daughter is leaving for college at the end of August and she wanted to know if there were any documents she should have her daughter sign that would make both day-to-day and emergency situations easier for them both. In addition, the family lives in one state and the college is located in another. She wasn't sure if that made any difference. I've always know that this mom was a smart woman, and her excellent questions and concerns just confirmed that. This is what I advised:

The federal law governing privacy of medical records applies in all states and would mean that the medical records of this college freshman would not be accessible to her parents. In addition, the student's doctors could not discuss her medical condition with her parents, even in an emergency. I suggested that the parents speak to the young woman and that they should discuss the benefits (and privacy concerns) of having her execute a general HIPAA Release Form allowing her doctors to speak with her parents. In addition, many student health services have their own forms and, if the student agrees, she should execute that form as well.

While we are on the subject of federal laws, FERPA, which protects the privacy of student records, gives students over 18 and those in college the sole right to their educational records. As we noted in a post back in 2010  (it's sometimes hard to believe we have been blogging for ten years and have posted almost 1100 blog posts!) FERPA has numerous exceptions, but we advised that our family member should have her daughter execute a FERPA release form (often available at the office that generates student grades/records) to allow her parents to access her educational records. In addition, students who are registered with their campus Office of Disability Services should check to see if there is a separate form that is used by that office.

This form, which can have different names in different jurisdictions, would allow the student's parents (or anyone else she designates) to make medical decisions when she is not able to do so. This is different than just medical information (covered by the HIPAA release) but is used for such serious situations as where someone is unconscious or so ill or injured that issues of life support come into play. I urged that the parents and student have a serous conversation about this form and that all involved understand its purpose and the wishes of the student executing it. Sometimes, this form is prepared in connection with a document called a Living Will, which is a written expression of how the party executing it feels about issues like artificial respiration and tube feeding. Note that this latter document is advisory, while the Health Care Proxy is a binding authority. Different states have different forms for this document, so I suggested to my relative that she search online for forms from reputable sources in each relevant state and make sure that the form they use covers the requirements for both state of residence and the state where the college is located. In general, these forms need to be witnessed. A form from the New York State Department of Health, fillable  and with a lengthy Q and A section, is available online.

This forms above will be sufficient for most situations, but some families also may choose to have their student execute a Durable Power of Attorney, a form that allows the person who signs it (here, the student) to give someone authority during the signer's lifetime to handle financial, business, banking, and other matters. The form can be useful if the student has assets or an interest in property. Different states use different forms and these forms can be a bit confusing to create. You may want to speak to an attorney if your family circumstances warrant creating this document. Likewise, most students this age neither need nor have a Last Will and Testament, but special situations may make this document important and now would be a good time to have one prepared by an attorney.

With all the paperwork completed, students and their families can concentrate on much more enjoyable issues, like decorating their dorm room, meeting new roommates, and hitting the college store for their stock of mugs, banners, and t-shirts. Here's to a great start to college!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Getting Back to Work and School

While it is still July and summer has weeks more to run, in many parts of the country, school begins by mid to late August. Your blogger has just returned from a couple of weeks of castles, cobblestones, and cake and, like many other adults going back to work after vacation, returning to the office took some determination.

For kids of all ages, returning to school after summer vacation requires some adjustment. By beginning a few weeks before the first day of school, parents can help smooth the transition from vacation mode to the early rising and more structured days once school starts. There are important ways to make the first day back to school less stressful for everyone.
  • Clearing Out Last Year's Backpack
Way too often, kids toss their backpack in the corner of their rooms as they come home from the last day of school, often leaving them untouched all summer. If you haven't done so yet, now is a good time to work with your child to locate and unpack this bag. Much of the contents can be tossed -- into the trash or the washer -- but there may be important papers that should be retained as well as information about summer assignments that will be due in the fall. And you may want to check out this guide from our colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics to selecting a new backpack.
  •  Summer Assignments
Most children have some kind of assignment to complete over the summer: a list of books to read, perhaps a book report to prepare, or even a longer report to hand in when school begins. The due date for these assignments seems far away in June, but leaving them to the days before school begins inevitably results in crisis mode. By locating these assignments (see the first item above) and getting started on them reasonably in advance, they can be completed slowly and carefully over the course of several weeks and families can avoid havoc the night before classes begin.

  • Sleep
We've written before on the importance of easing into a school-year sleep schedule and how it needs to be done gradually. This is especially important when students have had few, if any, limits on their schedule during the summer months or when they are moving to a new school where their start time will be significantly earlier than it has been in past years. Teens, in particular, need far more sleep than most regularly get, and lack of sleep can have an impact on school performance.

  • For Children with IEPs
Parents of children with IEPs or 504 Plans should take time over the summer to review these documents, making sure that they (and their older children) know what services, modifications, and accommodations they provide. Sometimes, these can fall by the wayside with new teachers or new schools. It's reasonable to give schools a week or two to put services in place, but not much longer. As we have written before, if your summer includes a move to a new school, school district, or even a new state, you should be aware of your rights with respect to your child's IEP. 

  • Time to Get Comfortable
Summer is also the time to make sure your child is familiar with the route to school, or the bus stop. If he or she will be attending a new school, they may have had a tour before the last school year ended. If not, try to visit the school at least a few days before it opens. Going to a new place can be scary for anyone, especially children. The more comfortable they are with the school and the routine, the easier things will be when classes begin. 

Keep in mind, that there still are a number of weeks of summer fun ahead, and these tips aren't meant to cut them short. But, by doing some planning while summer is still in full swing, the end of the season will be a bit easier for children and parents alike.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Summer Subjects

We've noted before that the questions that families ask us tend to come in bunches. Many of them are seasonal, and lately we have been asked lots of questions that relate to changes that families may make over the summer and to summer activities. We thought these might be of general interest, so are sharing them with our readers.

For many families, summer is the ideal time to move. There will be less disruption in school and by the time the new school year begins, everyone will be unpacked and ready to roll. But what about families where children have IEPs? These have been worked out with the student's current school. But how does a child get an IEP by the time classes start in her new school?

Fortunately, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) sets out very specific rules for all kinds of moves -- to a new school within the same district, to a new district, or even to a different state. You can read one of our prior blogs- What Happens to My Child's IEP When We Move? to learn the details that may apply to your family. 

College Road Trip
Back in 2010, we wrote about a summer activity for many families whose children are approaching college age -- the College Road Trip. Take a look at our timeless suggestions for ways to get the most out of your travels to college campuses. And remember, even if your trip isn't focused on visiting colleges, any road trip can include a stop at a local campus, even if it is not somewhere your student plans to apply. Seeing a variety of campuses helps give context to what different schools look and feel like. 

Summer Vacation
We also have suggestions for Making the Most of Summer Vacation, tips like how to get ready for a new school, ways to keep skills fresh, and how to handle summer assignments. [Hint: don't wait for the last minute!]

Summer Skills Building
We've also got tips for ways to use the summer break to build vocabulary skills, phonics, and to improve math skills with a tool called Dreambox. 

Sun Safety
Finally, we have suggestions on keeping kids safe in the summer sun. It's not always easy to get children to use sunscreen or to cover up, but the evidence is overwhelming about the dangers of too much sun exposure over time. 

So, enjoy your summer, which is flying along way too quickly!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Changes Coming to NYC School Discipline

One of our favorite quotes from a NYC public high school administrator is that "Kids do dumb stuff." To be fully honest, he didn't say "stuff", but we assume our readers can make the substitution.

He uses this statement to describe the kinds of things that students do that can get them into trouble: fighting, smoking, wearing disruptive clothing, cutting class or unexcused absences, setting off alarms, misusing school property, gambling, and even "engaging in verbally rude or disrespectful behavior", something that teens can do with regularity. These are behaviors that school personnel are trained to deal with and often do so very effectively. However, since 1998, overall responsibility for school safety has been in the hands of the NYPD, primarily through its School Safety Division. These officers are in charge of security, such as building access, and can also get involved in incidents of student misbehavior either because they witness them or because school administrators seek their involvement. It is important to note that School Safety Officers receive special training in dealing with students and generally are familiar with a particular school and its students.

A major issue with having the NYPD in charge of school discipline is that it perpetuates the “school-to-prison pipeline,” described by the American Civil Liberties Union as "a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems." In recent years, arrests by School Safety Officers have declined. As noted in a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) looking at the 20017-18 school year,  School Safety Officers"were responsible for less than 20% of arrests and just 5% of summonses." The report stressed, however, that regular NYPD officers "who are not members of the School Safety Division continue to arrest kids with near total discretion" and that "369 arrests in schools (32% of the total) were for alleged incidents that occurred off school grounds and had no relationship to the school, indicating that the NYPD is using schools as a place to locate and arrest young people."

There is also substantial racial disparity in the students who are arrested and in the use of handcuffs, even when an incident doesn't ultimately result in an arrest. These are laid out clearly in the charts in the NYCLU report. 

All of this serves as background to a new agreement which will go into effect when schools open in the fall. This Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among the NYC Department of Education, the NYPD, and the City of New York is designed for "keeping schools safe places of learning; ensuring that discipline is administered fairly; eliminating disparities and inconsistencies in the punishment of students, and eliminating the use of summons and arrests for minor school misbehavior while continuing to advance school safety."

Among the changes in policy and practice set forth in the MOU are:

  • Police officers should not arrest or issue summons to students "whenever possible" for "low level" offenses such as disorderly conduct, graffiti, or possession of marijuana. 
  • School staff are not to involve either the School Safety Officers or the NYPD when students commit infractions such as clothing violations, cutting class, lateness, smoking, lying, or gambling (unless they can't be handled safely).
  • Both School Safety Officers and the NYPD, to the full extent practicable, in instances not requiring immediate arrest or other immediate action, shall consult with the principal of a school  prior to placing a student under arrest, or issuing to such student any form of criminal process on school grounds. Further, in the course of any such consultation, officers shall take into account any information provided by the principal.
  • Limits will be placed on use of handcuffs.
  • Both School Safety Officers and NYPD officers will receive additional training in areas relevant to dealing with students.
Although not included in the MOU, NYC will be hiring 85 new social workers for schools. In addition, schools will be using restorative justice practices that emphasize defusing conflict over suspensions in all middle and high schools starting in the next school year. Finally,  Mayor DiBlasio has also proposed that out of school suspensions be reduced to a maximum of 20 days from 180 days. 

Monday, June 17, 2019


When your blogger was the parent of young children, any large vehicle was a source of excitement. Bulldozers, fire engines, tow trucks, and cement mixers were fascinating to my kids and I went out of my way to point them out when they came past or parked near our home. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to re-live that experience when I attended the District of Columbia's 11th Annual City-Wide Truck Touch Event.

The morning-long event featured approximately 30 municipal vehicles used to clean and repair streets, change traffic lights, collect refuse, clear snow, provide emergency services, administer mobile health care, and more. Children (and the young at heart) were welcome to climb on all the vehicles, which sat in the large parking lot surrounding the old R.F.K. sports stadium. Doors were wide open and welcoming and uniformed D.C. employees were present in abundance. Horns, sirens, and all buttons were available for pushing, and the noise could get deafening -- but no grown-ups had a discouraging word. Questions were answered:  What was the biggest vehicle towed by a huge tow truck? A fully loaded cement mixer that had overturned on the highway -- and  explanations about the work of the truck operators and emergency workers were enthusiastically answered.

But this event wasn't just for fun. Grownups had a chance to register to vote, to enter the elementary school lottery, to learn about the municipal water supply, and other important activities. There was free water and shaved ice for all and free lunches for all children. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning, for folks to bond with their neighbors, and for children of all ages to get to know and become comfortable with the public employees -- firemen, police officers, sanitation crews, bus drivers and more -- who work in their neighborhoods. If your town hasn't yet tried this event, it might be worth looking into!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Pride Month - Resources for Students, Families, and Educators

This June marks the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the uprising at a gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village, that marked the beginning of the gay rights movement in the U.S. Out of this event has grown the Pride Movement, encompassing a broad array of individuals; both Presidents Clinton and Obama issued Presidential Proclamations declaring the month of June to be Pride Month.

The Pride Movement has expanded over the years and now seeks to promote education, legal rights, acceptance, and self-fulfillment for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or gender non-conforming (LGBTQ).

Advocates for Children of New York has created an excellent LGBTQ Education Guide, setting out the rights of LGBTQ students in New York City Public Schools. The Guide is very detailed, giving specific contact information and covering such topics as bullying and harassment, transfers for safety and other reasons, the rights of students who do not live with their families, and how students can change their names. This is a valuable resource for students, parents, and educators.

Still another helpful resource is from our colleagues at The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has a Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health and Wellness. In a section of the AAP website dedicated to Adolescent Sexual Health, there are links to excellent resources for physicians and other health providers and a link to a policy statement that includes ways to make medical care welcoming to all young people and for pediatricians to obtain and share needed information to help support LGBTQ young people (and parents) and to provide them with the care they need.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shining a Light on NYC Special Education Crisis

Anyone dealing with special education laws in New York City -- parents, attorneys, teachers, schools, and hearing officers -- knows that this is a system in crisis. Too few hearing officers, extensive delays, even too few hearing rooms (all of which are located in often inconvenient downtown Brooklyn) are just a few of the issues apparent to those who are seeking legal intervention to obtain the services and setting that children with disabilities are entitled to under law, specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Now, thanks to a report prepared by an outside consultant, Deusdedi Merced of Special Education Solutions, LLC, and made public by The City, the full extent of the problems with this system and how these problems impact students and families is being made clear. The report was initially commissioned in early 2018 by the New York State Department of Education and the consultant was charged with examining the policies, procedures, and practices relating to impartial hearings in New York City. According to Mr. Merced, a well-regarded attorney who has served in roles in all aspects of the special education system in New York, D.C., and elsewhere, delays in completing this report were "directly attributed to actions taken by the New York City Independent Hearing Office and/or New York City Department of Education."

When the 49 page report was issued on February 22, 2019 it was only released after a public document disclosure request by The City was granted. The news of the report with a link to its contents appeared in yesterday's edition of The City.

In addition to the discussion of the report in The City, there is another piece about the report, its findings, and the current state of special education proceedings in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Both news reports make for a quick and concerning read. The report itself is dense with information, but some crucial findings include:

  • New York State has almost as many due process complaints (the initial step to contest an issue under the IDEA) filed each year as the next six largest states combined; 90 percent of these are filed in New York City.
  • Logistical issues abound:  On an average day there are 122 hearings scheduled but there are only 10 hearing rooms. Hearing rooms often lack sufficient furniture and are poorly ventilated.
  • Hearing officers are poorly compensated and there are frequent recusals. There are insufficient hearing officers for the number of matters. Hearing officers are appointed without anyone checking on their availability (few do this as a full time career).
  • Failure to use uncontested methods -- mediation - or to keep students in their current uncontested placements adds to the burdens on the system. 
The report urges prompt action -- by both NY City and NY State -- to keep this vital avenue for parental redress open and functioning. We hope someone is listening.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Calling In" to Build Classroom Tolerance and Learning

We are living in an era when statements that are racist, sexist, cruel, or just ignorant or unkind, are no longer given a pass in our society -- and that's a real step towards making a better world. But "calling out" people who make such offensive statements can often involve harsh language and humiliation. And when an inappropriate (or worse) statement is made in a classroom setting, it is important that teachers respond in a way that not only challenges or corrects the statement, but also educates the speaker and the listeners.

An excellent discussion of a technique for handling such situations in a classroom appears in an article by Loretta J. Ross in the Spring issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine - "Speaking Up Without Tearing Down". Ms. Ross proposes that when teachers are faced with language or an argument that is wrong or offensive, that rather than "calling out" the student, that the teacher "call in". As she explains, 

"Calling in is speaking up without tearing down. A call-in can happen publicly or privately, but its key feature is that it’s done with love. Instead of shaming someone who’s made a mistake, we can patiently ask questions to explore what was going on and why the speaker chose their harmful language. 

"Call-ins are agreements between people who work together to consciously help each other expand their perspectives. They encourage us to recognize our requirements for growth, to admit our mistakes and to commit to doing better. Calling in cannot minimize harm and trauma already inflicted, but it can get to the root of why the injury occurred, and it can stop it from happening again."

Ms. Ross makes clear that calling in is not for every situation. She notes that when people use bigotry, fear, or lies to hurt others, that they should be called out for such speech or conduct. But she explains that a classroom is a special setting, where mistakes and misunderstandings need to be acknowledged and opportunities for learning abound. She gives a number of examples as to how a teacher can begin "a call in conversation" to address offensive or ignorant statements, and to educate and enlighten his or her students. Her examples include:

  • “I need to stop you there because something you just said is not accurate.”
  • “I’m having a reaction to that comment. Let’s go back for a minute.”
  • “Do you think you would say that if someone from that group was with us in the room?”
  • “There’s some history behind that expression you just used that you might not know about.”
  • “In this class, we hold each other accountable. So we need to talk about why that joke isn’t funny.”
This article should be required reading for every educator -- and everyone who lives or works with others. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Skip-Counting – The Threes & Sixes, Plus a Game

Today's post winds up our "From the Trenches" series by Colorado classroom teacher and former Yellin Center Learning Specialist Beth Guadagni. In Beth's prior posts, she explained how our brains learn math facts and how she uses songs to help her students -- all of whom have dyslexia -- learn the fours multiplication facts.

Our last post gave background and instructions for teaching multiplication facts for four and eight. Using different songs, Beth explains how the same techniques can be used to teach the math facts for threes and sixes.

Skip-Counting by Threes

“Three” is repeated three times to get the rhythm to work out. We add “and thirty-six” at the end in the same way people add “and many more” to the “Happy Birthday” song. Jazz hands, while optional, are highly recommended.

Row,                   row,                      row                      your                     boat,

Three,                 three,                   three,                   six,                        nine

Gently                down                    the                       stream,

Twelve,               fifteen,                   

Merrily,             merrily,                   merrily,                 merrily,

Twenty-one                 Twenty-four                   Twenty-seven

Life is but a dream.

Thirty   thirty-three

…and thirty-siiiiix!

Skip-Counting by Sixes

Happy                birthday                to                     you,

Six                      twelve                    eighteen          twenty-four

Happy                birthday                to        you,
thirty                  thirty-six               forty-two

Happy                birthday               dear           [name]

Forty-eight               and                 fifty-four

Happy                birthday                 to you!

Sixty                   sixty-six                 seventy-two!

Game: Domino Draw

To give students practice applying skip-counting sequences to real math problems.

Materials for the game:
A set of dominos, turned face-down or in a bag.
If you don’t plan to play long enough to go through a whole set of dominos, use a timer so that students play for a set amount of time. Be sure, once it goes off, that everyone has had the same number of turns.
There are two variations here.

1. To target the sequence students are learning:
On his turn, each player draws a domino at random. He adds the number of dots on the domino, then multiplies that number by the sequence you’ve been practicing. For example, if his domino had 11 dots on it and you were practicing the threes, he’d get a product of 33 and earn 33 points.

2. Once students have learned all the sequences, try this variation:
On her turn, each player draws two dominos at random. She adds the number of dots on each domino, then multiplies them together. For example, if one domino had four dots on it and the other had twelve, she’d get a product of 48 and earn 48 points.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Skip-Counting by Fours ... And a Multiplication Game

In her last post, Colorado teacher Beth Guadagni shared the concepts behind one of the methods she uses to  help her students (all of whom have dyslexia) learn number sequences. As part of her advice "from the trenches" we share the specific techniques that she uses in teaching them to work with fours, getting them ready to do multiplication and division. 

To help students memorize number sequences that will help them with multiplication and division.

First, make sure the students know the song. I like to start with the fours and use "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"  because the rhythm of the song fits perfectly with the number sequence, which is not always the case. Don’t try to teach the whole song-number connection at once! I usually like to start with the first five or six numbers, or the first two lines. In this case, the song breaks nicely after 28.

1. Write out the numbers from 4-28. Sing the first line and then ask the students to repeat it. Do this a few times.

2. Next, ask the students to close their eyes. Cover a number, then ask them to open their eyes. They should sing the line, filling in the missing number when they get to it. Do this a few times, covering different numbers each time.

3. Once they seem to be comfortable, add the next line of the song and repeat the procedure.

4. Cover or erase all of the numbers in your chosen lines and sing through them with the students once or twice.

5. Ask students to write the sequence as far as they’ve learned it.

For additional reinforcement, I like to hand out a sheet on which I’ve written the sequence they’ve learned a few times. Each time, it is missing more and more numbers. They have to complete the sequence by filling in the missing numbers, then cover the top part of the sheet when they’re ready to tackle the next, more challenging section. At the end of the sheet, they have to write the whole thing from memory. I also like to include a few multiplication and division problems from that family that they have to solve, using the memorized sequence to help them. They are not allowed to peek at the sequences from the top of the sheet unless they’re really stuck!

Teach the whole song, bit by bit, this way until you’ve taught the whole thing.

Take            me              out                    to the                     ballgame, 

Four          eight            twelve                sixteen                    twenty 

Take me out                to the crowd, 

Twenty-four               twenty-eight 

Buy me some                 peanuts and                      cracker-jacks, 
                             Thirty-two                      thirty-six                          forty 

I don’t care                           if                           I ever get back…. 

Forty-four                   and                            forty-eight

Once they’ve memorized the song, there’s one more part to add: students have to count on their fingers while they sing it. (I allow my too-cool high school students to keep their hands on their laps, as counting on hands that are held in the air feels babyish to some of them.) This is essential if they’re going to use the song to solve math problems.

Each time they say a number, they have to hold up another finger, so that by the time they get to, say, “thirty-six,” they are holding up nine fingers and will know that thirty-six is the answer to four times nine. This is trickier than it sounds. At first, when they have to both sing and track on their fingers most kids lose their place in the sequence. To practice this skill, we sing the song until I call out “Stop!” and students have to write down the last math fact they sang. For example, if I stopped them right after they said “twenty-four,” they should have six fingers extended and so they’d write “4 x 6 = 24.”

Why This Works:
Songs are incredibly powerful mnemonics. Most students seem to remember tunes easily, and this prompts them to recall the number that goes along with each change in tone and matches the number of syllables for that particular line. Students see the number sequence while they are hearing the sequence and the song, meaning that they store the information in several formats in their memories. Eventually, they count on their fingers while singing as well, adding a tactile element. Teaching the song in segments is quite important, too; as with any new skills, students must demonstrate mastery before they can tackle new material.

Once students have gained some comfort with skip-counting, you may want to introduce a game to help reinforce their skills. My kids like the card game "War".

Game: Multiplication "War" 

To give students practice applying skip-counting sequences to real math problems.

Materials for the game:

One or two decks of cards (Use two decks shuffled together if you’re playing with three or more students)
  • Ace = 1
  • Jack = 11
  • Queen = 12
  • King =0

Because War can take ages to wrap up, I often set a timer for around seven minutes while my students play, and the winner is the one with the most cards when their time is up.

There are two variations here.

1. To target the sequence students are learning:
Each player lays down a single card, face-up. They have to multiply the card by the sequence you’ve been practicing and say the product aloud. The player with the highest product keeps the cards from that round.

2. Once students have learned all the sequences, try this variation:

Each player lays down two cards at once. The player with the highest product gets to keep all the cards from that round.

If two players get the same product, they lay down two cards face down, then use a second pair to get the tie-breaking product.

Why This Works:
Students who aren’t focused don’t learn well, and games keep kids engaged in the learning task. This game is fast-paced enough to ensure that students have to use the skip-counting sequences they’ve learned many times during the allotted interval.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Strengthening Paired Associate Memory with Song

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses teaching her students with dyslexia in Colorado. 

Like many students, mine have struggled to learn their math facts. Automaticity with the multiplication tables is essential for math far beyond simply multiplying numbers; students use multiplication when working with fractions, doing long division, calculating area and volume, and in so many other applications that it seems rather silly to try to list them!

Perhaps most importantly: students need to have a sense of multiplication to determine whether a solution to a math problem makes sense. As Dr. Yellin will tell you, memorizing math facts involves a particular part of memory called paired-associate memory. Paired associate memory involves linking and storing two related data bits, retrieving one piece of information when presented with the other piece (eg., a sound with a symbol, or the number 28 when presented with 4x7).

Paired-associate memory is what we use when we learn someone’s name, remember that the color of the sky is called “blue,” pair the /ch/ sound with a "c" and an "h" together, etc. There’s no immediate context for these associations (although savvy students and educators can invent contexts to make information “make sense”); they just have to be memorized. Paired-associate memory is generally not a strength for dyslexic students, like mine, although people who don’t have dyslexia may struggle with this skill as well.

I learned skip-counting songs from a colleague and was amazed by the ease with which her fifth graders learned the number sequences. I was eager to try this concept in my class, but I was a bit apprehensive, too. Would my high school students be willing to sing strings of numbers to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Wheels on the Bus”? The answer was a resounding “yes!” Although they were a little hesitant at first, my students were as pleased as I was that they could commit number sequences to memory with only a little practice. In fact (and this is true), one day one of my students, frowning darkly, exploded, “I’m really mad that I made it to eleventh grade before anyone taught me this!”

I’m going to spread the sequences over a few posts, which also is what one should do when teaching these songs. I’ll share a game for practicing math facts in each post, too. Learning the songs is important, but it’s not enough; one has to practice using the sequences to answer actual math facts, too. We'll present detailed instructions on how to use this technique in your classroom in our next post, but you can get a sense of how this process sounds from this YouTube video, posted by another teacher who used this technique. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Pictionary and Charades to Learn Vocabulary

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses in her Colorado classroom. Today, she writes about ways to help learn vocabulary.

To help students learn vocabulary words, in English or in other languages.


  • words to be studied, each written on a slip of paper
  • list of words’ definitions
  • something to draw with, and on
Students take turns picking words at random by drawing slips of paper. They must get the other players to guess the word by drawing it, or by acting it out. The first one to guess the word correctly gets to select the next word and draw it/act it out.

Why This Works:
My students can’t get enough of this game, so one of the primary reasons it works is that it keeps them engaged. Even my most introverted student thinks it’s great fun because I allow him to choose who will go next if he guesses the word correctly. The game allows the students to move around, as well, and research indicates that movement helps some kids learn faster and stay engaged longer.

People remember information more reliably when concepts are stored in their memories in multiple formats. Memorizing a list of words and their definitions gives students only one format in which to interact with, and remember, material. Having a mental image to associate with a word—whether it comes from a classmate’s drawing or the memory of a classmate performing an action—seems to help my students remember new words more quickly than any other exercise we’ve tried. Further, as they guess which word is being presented, they pore over the list of definitions with more vigor than they would to complete any worksheet or test I could give them. And in a surprisingly short time, they don’t need to reference the list at all.

My students’ memories for vocabulary have improved, and I’ve found that the Pictionary/charades approach helps my students to understand the new words more deeply as well. Even seeing vocabulary words in the context of sentences—a valuable learning experience, to be sure—pales in comparison to playing with the words. When deciding how to portray a word’s meaning to their classmates, my students have taken to connecting personally with the words. For example, one of my students hates to sit still. He loves nothing more than working up a good sweat. His drawing for the word “laborious” showed a stick figure mowing a lawn and smiling. My whole class now remembers that word easily because they connect it to this young man, who has developed a reputation for enthusiasm about chores the rest of them hate to be assigned at home. Charades and Pictionary have helped my students see how to use these words in their lives to express information about themselves or people they know. The information feels relevant because they’ve given it a context.

Although this activity really works only in a group setting, a student studying independently could use it as well. Spending a few minutes imagining how one would draw or act out vocabulary words on a list will still help a student to translate concept from one format (verbal) to another (visual or kinesthetic), leading to deeper and more lasting memories of the words’ meanings.

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

Thursday, April 18, 2019

More From the Trenches: Interleaving to Maintain Math Mastery

We are continuing our series of posts by Beth Guadagni, who shares the strategies she uses in her Colorado classroom. Today, she looks at how she uses interleaving to help students maintain math mastery.

To help students retain math procedures they’ve already learned.


Math problems from previously studied units

I put together review sheets that students complete a few times a week. A simpler approach would be to flip backward in a textbook, choose a few pages at random, and do a problem from each section. Note that students should have a way to check their answers* if they’re going to tackle this independently.

Why This Works:

Like many students, my group generally does a good job of performing newly learned procedures once they’ve had some practice. Performing that procedure a few weeks or months down the road is a different story. To combat this, I use interleaving, one of Dr. Yellin’s most useful and widely applicable strategies.

One thing we know about memory is that we’re able to store a lot more things than we’re able to find easily, rather like a very large, disorganized closet. Brains are good at keeping thought processes efficient, and so information that we have to access often is stored in a place that makes it easier to find. Information we don’t need often, however, takes a lot longer to find, and sometimes we can’t find it at all. Here in Colorado, my students spend a lot of time enjoying the outdoors, so I use a trail analogy to explain this to them. A pathway that is traveled often is well worn, making easy to find and follow. You can hike faster along a trail that’s been traveled a lot, just like one’s brain can quickly find information that has to be accessed frequently. A less popular trail, though, like a seldom-referenced memory, is much more challenging. You might lose it altogether, and if you can follow it, your progress is going to be slowed by rocks and overgrown plants.

Back to math: Constantly circling back to concepts we covered earlier in the year causes my students continually access procedures they’ve stored in their long-term memories, communicating to their brains that this information is important and so the pathways to it need to be efficient. My students complete only a problem or two from each past unit of study at a time, and we spend only five to ten minutes reviewing every few days. This small investment pays off in a big way, though; when I graded their math finals at the end of the last semester, I was pleased to see that they recalled concepts from August just as well as the ones they’d learned in mid-December.

*See our previous post on Photomath, a free app that uses smartphone cameras to scan and solve math problems.
Photo by Matt Gross on Unsplash

Monday, April 15, 2019

From the Trenches - Photomath

We are delighted to welcome back Beth Guadagni, one of our all-time favorite bloggers. We'll let Beth explain what she has been doing and what her posts will be about...

I’m excited to be collaborating with The Yellin Center on a new series of blog posts! 

I was lucky to work as a learning specialist alongside Dr. Yellin for several years when I lived in New York. Before I attended graduate school and subsequently worked at The Yellin Center, I was a classroom teacher, and when I moved from New York to Colorado I returned to a classroom setting. Currently, I teach math, reading, and language arts at Hillside School in Boulder. All of the students at our small, private school have dyslexia. I teach our oldest students, a mixed grade group of high school students. They are bright, curious, and simply delightful.

I certainly miss many things about The Yellin Center, but the wealth of knowledge I gained working alongside Dr. Yellin has made me a far better teacher than I was before. I find myself designing lessons inspired by the brain-based strategies I learned to recommend to students who came to The Yellin Center for assessment. My students learn more quickly, and they really enjoy learning about how their brains work and why we approach learning tasks in certain ways.

We thought that others might find value in suggestions from someone who has applied these tactics in a real classroom with real students. I’m excited to share a variety of games and teaching techniques, and the rationale behind them. I hope you enjoy reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed working on it!


One thing every high school teacher learns pretty quickly is that students will almost always know more than she does about technology. One of my freshman was aghast to learn that I didn’t know about Photomath and I’ve been using this remarkable app, and encouraging my students to do the same, ever since.

Photomath is an app for both Apple and Android that uses a smartphone camera to scan a math problem. Within a second or two, the app displays the answer.

Here, in no particular order is a list of reasons I love this app:
  • It scans typed or handwritten math problems. (It cannot, alas, solve word problems.)
  • It produces an answer in just a second or two
  • It displays the steps used to attain the solution, along with brief, clear explanations. Users can access multiple explanation modes for some problems. 
  • There are animated instructions for many problems, showing the steps in a sequence like the one I’d show a student on the whiteboard. 
  • When it scans the formula for a line, it will display a graph.
As a teacher, it’s frustrating when a student proudly hands in a completed problem set and every answer is wrong. Without an answer key (which some textbooks feature but many worksheets do not), students often don’t know if they’ve been using a procedure incorrectly. Photomath eliminates that uncertainty.

Of course, it’s imperative that students don’t abuse Photomath. I’ve given my group a few guidelines. First, they are to use it only after they’ve completed a problem. If their answer was wrong, they are not allowed to simply change it and move on; they must check their work (using the Photomath’s explanation, if they want) to find their error. My students raise their hands only when they’re still confused, meaning that fewer hands go up. I get more time with the students who really need my help, and they spend less time sitting around waiting for me. It’s a win-win.

Watch for more suggestions from the trenches in future posts!