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Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Empathy Affects Learning, and How to Cultivate It in Your Students

From InformEd

November 1, 2014

“The education system forces people to unlearn the empathy they were born with. It’s a system based on always seeming strong, contributing to the economy, and being number one. Being number one is the rule of game, and how we relate to others is fundamentally dismissed.”
–-Bernard Amadei, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Engineers Without Borders, USA

More than two decades ago, scientists made a discovery that fundamentally altered the way we think about empathy. While observing monkeys, they noticed that certain brain cells responded both when a monkey performed an action and when that monkey watched another monkey perform the same action.

The same cells can be found in the human brain. These cells, called mirror neurons, fire when we see something happening to someone else that we could imagine happening to ourselves, from stubbing a toe to winning the lottery.

The discovery of mirror neurons was a significant breakthrough because it revealed that our brains have evolved in a way that enables us to recognise and understand the emotions and intentions of others not just by thinking but actually feeling. It sent ripples through a number of scientific disciplines and challenged our understanding of everything from language and philosophy to psychotherapy–and certainly of empathy.

Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran has argued that these neurons allow us to learn complex social behaviors and has called them “the basis of civilization.”

“If kids had four or more adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning or behavior problems in school was 32 times as high as kids who had no adverse childhood experiences.”

Many species display empathy in some form, including rats, and chickens, and dogs, among others. But primates, and especially humans, have a more sophisticated capacity thanks to a more developed neocortex and a huge working memory.

In fact, human beings are hard wired for empathy: it’s part of what makes us deeply social animals, and distinct from other animals on the planet.

We now recognise empathy as the driving force behind much of human behavior, from social bonding and prenatal care to morality and human rights activism. Only recently, however, have we come to conceptualise empathy as a driving force for learning (and we’re not talking emotional intelligence here).

In 2012, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found a direct connection between empathy and learning capacity. Studying parent-pup interactions among rats, they discovered that certain mother rats, called “dams,” who, in their laboratory, tended to lick and groom their pups more, especially in stressful situations, reared pups with higher IQs. The rat pups that got a little T.L.C. from mom in their first few weeks in the lab were not only more confident and less fearful than the pups who did not, but they were also better at mazes.

So there you have it–people who receive empathy from others, especially from an early age, develop a higher capacity to learn. Part of the reason for this is that empathy is an especially effective antidote to stress. In humans, stress negatively affects learning and brain development in children, mostly affecting the prefrontal cortex which manages non-cognitive skills like self-control along with memory and reasoning. Poor children, who are at greater risk of adverse childhood experiences, are disproportionately affected.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who opened a clinic for poor minorities in Bayview-Hunters point in San Francisco, has studied the effects of stress on young minds.

“For our kids, if they had four or more adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning or behavior problems in school was 32 times as high as kids who had no adverse childhood experiences.”

Empathy can help reduce the damaging effects of repeated stress in human children.

The idea of a secure attachment relationship, a concept that’s been around since the mid-20th century, comes into play here as well. Secure attachment in rat pups is built through grooming, but in humans it is provided by an adult (usually a parent) comforting a child during tough times.

Researchers say that in American, for example, about two-thirds of kids have a secure attachment, and one-third don’t. The two-thirds with a secure attachment are more socially competent and confident through their lives. They’re better at dealing with other people and making friends. They’re better able to deal with setbacks. They’re more likely to be engaged in their studies. They’re more likely to graduate high school.

Empathy can help reduce the damaging effects of repeated stress in human children just like it did for the rat pups in the McGill University laboratory. This has huge implications for teacher education and training, and turns old notions of punishment and discipline on their head. And empathy isn’t just something for youth, either.

It’s a skill that can transform a community and build social capital, as we’ll see below.

Does empathy really improve academic performance?

The capacity to empathize is a revered trait in most societies across the world. Empathy is considered a motivating factor for unselfish, pro-social behavior, whereas a lack of empathy is related to antisocial behavior. But empathy isn’t just about hugs and pats on the back. It is a skill that can make young people more productive in work environments that require cooperation, and in a global economy that becomes more complex with each passing day. It is what turns today’s students into future leaders.

Here are just a few cognitive benefits associated with empathy:
  • Fosters insight into different perspectives and promotes genuine open-mindedness
  • Discourages hasty and superficial problem examination
  • Facilitates construction of more fully elaborated and frequently novel problem models
  • Discourages belief rigidity
  • Encourages cognitive and personal flexibility
  • Practices persistent probing, engaged examination of an issue in alternation with flexibility (Gallo)

As you can see, there’s a strong link between empathy and critical thinking skills.

Distributed and collaborative learning, with its emphasis on mindfulness, attunement to others, nonjudgmental interactions, acknowledgment of each person’s unique contributions, and recognition of the importance of deep participation, can’t help but foster critical thinking skills and greater empathic engagement,” says Jeremy Rifkin, social theorist and author of The Empathic Civilization. “In that sense, collaborative learning transforms the classroom into a laboratory for empathic expression, which, in turn, enriches the educational process.”

And there is hard evidence that this is the case. Empathy and academic outcomes research shows a remarkable correlation between students’ empathetic understanding and their academic performance. For example, researchers (e.g. Bonner and Aspy) have identified significant correlations between student scores on measures of empathetic understanding and their grade point averages, and a review of research related to empathy training/instruction indicates that this instruction enhances both critical thinking skills and creative thinking (Gallo, 1989).

A particularly interesting study from 2013 found that empathy works the other way around, too, increasing as a result of academic advancement.

The study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” was carried out at New York’s New School for Social Research, where researchers paid participants to read excerpts for only a few minutes before taking computerized empathy tests. Some read literary fiction. Some read bestsellers (selections by Rosamunde Pilcher, Robert Heinlein, and Gillian Flynn). Some read nonfiction, taken from Smithsonian Magazine. Some read nothing. This was accompanied by four other experiments.

According to the study, the results clearly show that “reading literary fiction temporarily enhances [Theory of Mind]. More broadly, they suggest that T-o-M may be influenced by engagement with works of art.” And by Theory of Mind, all the researchers really mean is a sort of cognitive empathy: Theory of Mind, or “mind-blindness,” is an inability to see things from any other perspective than one’s own.

“Our contention is that literary fiction, which we consider to be both writerly and polyphonic, uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences,” the researchers write. “Readers of literary fiction must draw on more flexible interpretive resources to infer the feelings and thoughts of characters. That is, they must engage T-o-M processes.

Contrary to literary fiction, popular fiction tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable. Therefore, it may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote T-o-M.”

In other words, by forcing you to think, empathize, and assume instead of handing you prototype characters whose actions and personalities can be squarely understood, literary fiction is “literally making you a more caring and emotionally intelligent person.”

Perhaps even more telling than studies like these is the neuroscience that underlies empathy and learning.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which lies at the front of the brain, is responsible for the regulation of both emotional responses and decision-making. People with damage to this area tend to exhibit antisocial behavior, impaired moral judgment, and in some cases a reduced capacity for critical thinking and other learning mechanisms.

Although most of their intellectual ability is preserved, patients with bilateral lesions of the vmPFC develop severe impairments in personal and social decision-making. They have trouble choosing between options with uncertain outcomes, and have an impaired capacity to learn from their mistakes, making the same decisions again and again even though they lead to negative consequences. These patients choose alternatives that give immediate rewards, but seem to be blind to the future consequences of their actions.

Scientists have confirmed a direct link between empathy deficits and reduced capacity for Theory of Mind. Why is this important? Because Theory of Mind has been shown to enhance academic performance

Interestingly, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has also been connected to deficits in detecting irony, sarcasm, and deception. Subjects with damage in this area have been found to be more easily influenced by misleading advertising. This has been attributed to a disruption of a “false tagging mechanism” which provides doubt and skepticism of new beliefs (read: critical thinking skills).

Especially relevant to the discussion on empathy, people with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are more likely to endorse self-serving actions that break moral rules or cause harm to others. This is especially true for patients whose damage occurred the earliest in life.

At the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, scientists have confirmed a direct link between empathy deficits and reduced capacity for Theory of Mind. In one study, seven of nine patients with damage to the right ventromedial cortex showed both impaired empathy and T-o-M. This was contrasted with patients who had damage to another part of the cortex (the dorsolateral), slightly less responsible for empathy regulation, and who showed no reduction in T-o-M capacity.

Why is this important? Because Theory of Mind has been shown to enhance academic performance, too. A 2013 study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology tested a group of 49 kindergarten students and found that Theory of Mind correlated with academic performance over the course of the school year. And this is nothing new–countless studies before this one have confirmed the same thing: Theory of Mind predicts learning gains.

It’s not difficult to follow the path of logic from here. If empathy and Theory of Mind are inextricably interwoven on a neurological level, then empathy and learning must be too.

How to Cultivate Empathy for Learning

The challenge we all face isn’t why but how to cultivate empathy in ourselves and others, so that we thrive as individuals, as a society, and as a planet. Thankfully, the science increasingly suggests that cognitive empathy in particular is a skill that can be learned and mastered, and we are gaining a better understanding of just how to do so.

1.) Practice Role Playing. One of the primary methods of empathy training is encouraging a student to take the role of another. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families defines empathy as “the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care.” Teachers act as important role models in showing their students how to empathise with people. Through their own actions and behaviors, educators can teach their students how to recognise, understand, and react to the feelings of others.

Facial recognition, emotion skits, memory match, and empathy charades are just a few examples of the many role-playing games you can try.

2.) Focus on Non-Cognitive Skills. Chicago has a social program called One Goal which works with about 1,300 high school kids in the city, helping them to develop non-cognitive skills and leadership principles. Kewauna Lerma, once an aggressive 15-year-old girl who was arrested for punching a police officer, was one of the students helped by One Goal’s social-emotional learning program.

As a freshman in high school she had a GPA of 1.8. On her first practice ACT, she scored an 11, which put Kewauna in the bottom one percentile of everyone who took the test that year. By sophomore year, after she enrolled in One Goal, her GPA had jumped to 3.4. She graduated high school with a GPA of 4.1 and scored a 15 on her ACT and enrolled in Western Illinois University.

3.) Promote Emotional Literacy. One interesting example of this is the Roots of Empathy project, begun by Canadian educator Mary Gordon, which has been introduced into first through eighth grades across Canada. A mother and her baby visit the classroom once a month for a school year. Students are asked to closely watch their interaction, especially how they communicate and respond to each other. Over the course of the year, the children experience the baby and her mother as unique people with needs and desires for affiliation and affection not unlike their own.

They become attuned to reading the baby’s feelings and develop an empathic relationship with the baby and the mother. Children come to learn about emotional literacy, which Gordon defines as “the ability to find our humanity in one another.”

“Putting students into direct emotional contact with the parent-child attachment process and empathic bond creates ‘citizens of the world,’ children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat,” Gordon argues. “These are the children who will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied Roots since 2000, said it is particularly important to teach social-emotional skills with at-risk youths.

“The evidence is so clear that when you do it, it doesn’t interfere with test scores, but it actually helps them do better in school,” she said. “It builds resilience.”

Governments have helped subsidise the program’s expansion in other countries, too, including Scotland and New Zealand.

4.) Create a sense of community. The aim of a program called Responsive Classroom is to create a caring educational environment through various research-based techniques, including modeling, role playing, teacher reinforcement, reminders, and redirection. These techiques result in increased social skills, cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.

Particular strategies, which emphasize both social and academic learning, include an area that displays of student work, as well as a mix of whole-class, small-group, and individual instruction; morning meetings in which students exercise social skills through greeting, conversing, and solving problems; student participation in the development and enforcement of class rules; choice time, during which students can direct their own learning in both individual and cooperative group activities; guided discovery in which students have the opportunity to explore various learning experiences; and frequent assessment and reporting to parents.

An evaluation (Elliott 1992) compared the performance of students in a program school like this one with those in two comparison schools. It indicated that the program produced gains in students’ academic competence and social skills as determined by ratings of teachers, parents, and the students themselves in the fall and spring.

“The realization that we are an empathic species, that empathy has evolved over history, and that we are as interconnected in the biosphere as we are in the blogosphere, has profound implications for rethinking the mission of education,” says Rifkin. “New teaching models designed to transform education from a competitive contest to a collaborative and empathic learning experience are emerging as schools and colleges try to reach a generation that has grown up on the Internet and is used to interacting in open social networks where information is shared rather than hoarded.”

Empathy curricula now exist in over 20 states across Australia and the US. In many schools, empathy curricula start as early as first grade. What will you do to be part of the movement?

About Saga Briggs

Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA. You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs @

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Test Preparation Tips: On the Road to Academic Success

From the Beyond BookSmart Blog

December 4, 2014

I won’t forget the day I took the road test to earn my license. I’d been (reluctantly) attending three-hour classes on Saturday mornings and cruising around with both my mom and dad (who, by the way, took drastically different approaches to educating me on the nuances of driving). By the time my road test came, I’d felt that I had practiced enough, studied enough, and focused enough to walk away with a piece of plastic that would finally give me the freedom to cart myself all over town.

When the state trooper approached my door on test day, I froze. Do you turn your wheels toward the curb when parking uphill, or away from it? How many feet away should you park from a fire hydrant? I’d felt as though everything I’d been studying and practicing had fled my mind.

To make matters worse, the trooper asked me to solve math questions throughout the entire test (my worst subject, mind you). When we pulled back into the RMV parking lot, I thought I’d failed for sure. If not on my license, definitely on the math questions.

The good news? I passed. More good news? The math didn’t matter; he explained that he wanted to simulate how difficult it is to concentrate on a conversation with friends in the car while driving -- and believe me, I refused to drive friends around for quite some time after that.

When I reflect on both the way I prepared for the test and subsequently took it, I realize that many of the strategies I advise students to use when preparing for their academic exams could have helped me on what I’d considered at the time to be the most important test of my life.

Below are three test preparation tips that can help your child stay on the road to academic success.


Imagine a stop light. You know that you stop at red, slow down at yellow, and cruise through when it’s green. If it makes sense to operate your car that way, it also makes sense to manage study materials that way. When your son or daughter has a whole unit to pore over, they can start by color-coding the material. Encourage them to go through their notes and highlight everything in green that they totally know. That's the stuff they don't need to spend a lot of time studying.

Then, use yellow for the things they “kinda-sorta know” to cue them to slow down and review those concepts. Any areas in red indicate a full stop: this content is totally unfamiliar to them. They might even tell you “I don’t remember even learning this stuff.” By color-coding, your child can spend time more effectively by focusing on the red and yellow material the most.

See the next technique for how to make that possible.

Three Days Out

Despite attending classes for weeks on end and driving with my parents any chance they let me, I left all of my review work for the night before my test. This meant I’d had an entire volume of material facing me all at once, creating a heightened sense of anxiety. To help remain calm for tests, use the color-coding to guide your child in creating a study schedule three days ahead of the test.

Day 1: Study the red material only. Day 2: Quiz yourself on the red material and then begin studying yellow. Day 3: Review red and yellow together (hopefully most of it sticks by now!) and review the green zone. This approach will help your son or daughter repeatedly attend to the difficult content across multiple days and reduce the overwhelming feeling of having so much to study in so little time the evening beforehand.

And what should they do if some material from the red or yellow zone just won’t stick? Try strategy number three.


It's the irregular stuff that stands out in our minds, not the mundane. Therefore, creating funny memory tricks can help your child easily access the material when it comes time to take the exam. If I’d done this for my road test, I would have known that the wheels turn away from the curb when parking uphill if I’d remembered it as “up, up and away helps me stay!”

Or, I might have known that you park ten feet away from a fire hydrant with this rhyme and alliteration combo: “Ten feet can clear the street for the fire fighter’s fleet.” It’s certainly much more fun to recall those lines than to try to arbitrarily remember “away” and “ten” as answers.

Want to see if it works? The next time you find yourself parked on a hill, ask yourself about which direction to turn your wheels and see if “up, up, and away!” doesn’t cross your mind.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

New “Picture Communication Book” Helps Police Help People with Autism and Others


December 15, 2014

For Law Enforcement Professionals and Other First Responders to Better Communicate with People with Autism

NESCA’s Director of Behavioral Services Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA has produced a new “Picture Communication Book”, to assist law enforcement professionals and other first responders whose interactions with autistic individuals may be complicated by the difficulty some have in responding to, or with, spoken language.

It has already been enthusiastically embraced by the City of Newton, Massachusetts Police Department, which pointed out that the book will also be helpful to them in their contacts with others whose ability to communicate with them might somehow be compromised, including non-English speakers, disoriented or overwhelmed elderly people and intoxicated individuals.

They have placed copies in each of their 25 patrol cars.

Minahan has also volunteered to teach Newton police officers about autism and train them in effective use of the book.

NESCA plans to offset its costs by offering the book for sale to police and other agencies throughout the state and beyond. It may also be appropriate for others who often encounter people with autism, including, for example, school bus drivers.

As its name suggests, the Picture Communication Book employs graphical representations of common words, phrases and scenarios, such as “I’m lost”, “I need help” and “Where is your mom or dad?” Each of the illustrations is captioned in English and Spanish and can be quickly and easily displayed to the person being interviewed, enabling communication by pointing.

The book is organized by topic. It opens to a general information section, which describes how to use it, provides basic information about autism including important safety facts (“Many people with autism have little or no understanding of common dangers…”) and offers some useful tips on responding to someone with autism (“Officers should not interpret the person’s failure to respond to orders or questions as a lack of cooperation or a reason for increased force….”).

The illustrated sections, tabbed for easy access, relate to gathering information, giving information and identifying medical symptoms. Each includes between ten and 20 picture communication symbols, developed by Mayer-Johnson, LLC and used with permission. The book is printed on heavy stock for durability, and spiral bound so that it can be folded flat with its pages easily displayed.

While precise statistics are scarce, it appears that compared to the general population, people with autism are at increased risk of arrest, and that their contacts with police are often challenging, for themselves and the officers. Certain “stimming” behaviors such as hand-flapping, coupled with difficulty interpreting social cues and respecting personal boundaries, may even be perceived as threatening. It is hoped that the Picture Communication Book will help to defuse the tension, and prevent escalation, in such circumstances.

For additional information about, and to order, the Picture Communications Book, please contact Amanda Renzi at NESCA, by calling 617-658-9800 or email to

About Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA

Jessica Minahan is Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA (Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents), in Newton, Massachusetts.

She is co-author, with Psychiatrist Nancy Rappaport, of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, and author of The Behavior Code Companion. She blogs on The Huffington Post and in Responsive Classroom, consults to numerous school districts and is a speaker in high demand nationally.

Minahan holds a B.S. in Intensive Special Education from Boston University, and a dual master’s degree in Special Education and Elementary Education from Wheelock College. She has a certificate of graduate study (CGS) in teaching children with Autism from University of Albany, and received her BCBA training from Northeastern University.

Her additional Massachusetts and other professional certifications include Teacher of Students with Special Needs (Pre-K through 9), Intensive Special Needs (All Levels), Professional Early Childhood (Pre-K through 3), Special Education Administration (All Levels, Initial), Crisis Prevention Intervention Trainer and Wilson Reading Level 1.

Since 2000, she has worked with students who exhibit highly challenging behavior in both their homes and schools. She specializes in creating behavioral intervention plans for students who demonstrate explosive and unsafe behavior. She also works with students with emotional and behavioral disturbances, anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorders.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Developing Emotional Regulation Skills Through Yoga

From the Beyond BookSmart Blog

By Hannah Gould, M.Ed., RYT
December 12, 2014

Editor's note: This week our guest blogger is Hannah Gould M.Ed, RYT, who coordinates the therapeutic yoga program at NESCA. (Please read her full bio below.)

Mind-body practices like yoga are ideal for developing emotional regulation skills because to make sense of emotions, both the mind and the body must be involved.

Emotions are interpreted and labeled by the mind, but they are experienced through the body. A racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, a tightly clenched jaw and even an attack of the giggles are all physical phenomena that we learn to associate with various emotional states.

Developing emotional regulation skills is a primary goal for most of my young yoga students. Regulating emotions is a critical component of executive functioning. Executive functioning covers the full range of skills required for efficient completion of tasks, including both self-regulation skills (managing attention, emotion and arousal) and meta-cognitive skills (planning, organizing, sequencing and flexibility of thinking).

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to understand and respond appropriately to one’s own emotional experience. Along with the other self-regulation skills, emotional regulation provides the foundation on which the meta-cognitive skills can be built.
Weathering the Emotional Storm

I think of emotions as being like the weather. They shift and change constantly and sometimes unpredictably. Our emotional state creates a backdrop for all of our experiences and activities, powerfully affecting how we perceive situations and how skillfully we are able to respond to demands. We each have our own emotional climate. Personally, mine feels a lot like Southern California; generally pleasant and mild with occasional floods or periods of drought.

Many of my students, however, seem to have an emotional climate more like my home state of Massachusetts, where it might be warm and sunny one day and freezing with snow flurries the next.

Classroom teachers have expressed to me that they are perplexed and sometimes frustrated by the variability of some students’ academic performance and behavior from one day or moment to the next. I imagine this kind of variability must be frustrating for the student as well! But from the perspective of a yoga teacher, I do not find this perplexing at all. It may simply indicate a shift in the student’s “emotional weather.”

Within our personal emotional climate, the weather can be affected by many external and internal factors. Sensory experiences, hunger, fatigue, excitement and anxiety are just a few of the elements at play. In order to do the important business of learning and socializing, children are constantly asked to draw their attention away from their inner experience. When teachers and parents say “pay attention”, they are asking children to focus on listening to directions, complete an assigned task, or “read the room” for social cues.

For many students their internal state, is ignored and their “emotional weather” can quietly build in the background until it is unleashed with the force of a hurricane.

Becoming mindful of the variability of our own emotional patterns is an essential part of the practice of yoga. I know that my downward dog or warrior pose is different from one day to the next because I am different. My mood, my energy level, competing demands for my attention and the degree to which I am holding tension in my body are constantly fluctuating.

Beginning yoga students tend to meet these natural fluctuations with mental resistance or physical force. Over time and with practice, the assumptions and judgments that tend to arise quiet down and more mental space is made available for present moment awareness. The body and mind establish an open line of communication and are able to support each other, along with the breath, as an optimally functioning team.

A New Way to Pay Attention
Through yoga and other mindfulness practices, children can learn to “pay attention” in a very different way. Yoga offers tools for building self-regulation skills (such as awareness and control) that are fun, healthy and compelling for children. The balance pose called tree pose is one of my favorite of these tools to work with. To do tree pose, one foot is planted firmly on the ground like a tree trunk. The other foot is lifted off the floor, knee turned out, foot resting on the calf or thigh of the standing leg. The arms may be in a variety of positions that can make the balance easier or more challenging.

Balance poses are captivating for children and adults alike in part because they are so dynamic. When we hold tree pose, we can rarely achieve stillness for more than a brief moment before we begin to sway and need to correct our balance. When new yoga students attempt tree pose, they wobble back and forth like a sapling in a windstorm. As they become more practiced at the pose (and the underlying process of self-monitoring), the wobble subsides and they begin to resemble a deeply rooted tree in a gentle breeze.

The skills practiced in tree pose directly apply to regulating emotions. To hold tree pose, students need to filter out external distractions, tune in to internal sensations, and continually adjust their muscle actions. In any situation children can learn to engage in a similar process; noticing sensations in their bodies, recognizing the physical cues that may signal frustration, overwhelm or exhaustion, and applying appropriate techniques to maintain emotional balance.

Maintaining balance, whether physical or emotional, is both challenging and deeply satisfying. Nothing makes a child feel prouder than getting through a difficult task without the familiar emotional upheavals he may have experienced in the past. At first, this may be a wobbly process indeed. When a child melts down, lashes out or withdraws she is desperately seeking balance, like the sapling in the windstorm.

Just like teaching tree pose, supporting children who are learning to regulate their emotions requires patience, encouragement, and sometimes a little hands-on assistance. It is always okay to fall down. Simply get up, take a deep breath and begin again.

For more tips to help students develop emotional regulation skills, click below

Download Emotional Regulation Tips Now

Hannah Gould, M.Ed, RYT is an experienced classroom special educator and yoga teacher. Hannah coordinates the therapeutic yoga program at NESCA, a private pediatric neuropsychology group practice in Newton, MA.

Hannah has developed a unique visual yoga curriculum and teaching methodology called Yoga Connects based on her years of experience bringing yoga to people with special needs in a variety of settings.
Yoga Connects parent-child sessions are offered at NESCA, and professional trainings are available for schools and other organizations.
Hannah believes yoga is a natural fit for people with autism and other special needs, and has affirmed this belief by witnessing the incredible focus, boundless joy and inspiring growth of her students.

Basic (Special Education) Rights - Workshop in Concord Monday, January 12, 2015

From the Concord SEPAC

December 15, 2014

Presented by the Federation for Children with Special Needs

This workshop provides families with an introduction to their rights and responsibilities under:
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA);
  • Massachusetts Special Education Law; and,
  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB). 
This workshop is designed to help parents learn to be effective partners with their child’s school to decide their child’s eligibility for special education, and to plan, make decisions and monitor their child’s progress in school.

This workshop is highly recommended for parents just starting the special education process or parents that have a child on an IEP but have never attended a Basic Rights workshop before.

When:   7:00 - 9:00pm Monday, January 12, 2015

Where: Ripley Administration Building
                   120 Meriam Road
                   Concord, MA 01742

Registration is not necessary but requested to ensure that we have enough handouts for all. RSVP to

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Surviving Team Meetings

From Parents Have The Power
To Make Special Education Work

By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
November 14, 2014

The Team meeting experience can be stressful and confusing for parents who have children in special education. We know, because we went through fifteen years of them. Over the years we gained some insights into why these meetings can be so emotionally draining and we’d like to share some thoughts on the underlying dynamics of a Team meeting and how to prepare and make them productive.

Types of Meetings

The first thing to understand is the different types of Team meetings, because each can have different goals. There are meetings to determine eligibility for special education, meetings to determine annual goals and develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and, every three years, a meeting to reevaluate the student to see how much progress he or she is making. There can also be additional meetings to discuss specific concerns that may occur during the school year.

The first Team meeting parents might attend is the initial eligibility meeting to see if their child has a qualifying disability as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This meeting is held after evaluations have been performed by the school to determine the existence of a disability. Once the Team agrees that the child needs special education services, parents and school personnel work together to create an IEP.

After the initial meeting, the Team meets annually to update the IEP, define new goals, and discuss any concerns. Then, every three years the school must perform a reevaluation of the child and discuss the results at a Team meeting. Finally, parents or other Team members can convene a meeting at any time to discuss a wide range of issues that do not fit into the time frame of the annual meeting.

Understanding Conflicting Agendas

Regardless of the type of Team meeting, and with special education in general, parents need to realize that they are regarded as outsiders by school personnel. School employees who work together on a daily basis know each other and their positions in the school hierarchy intimately. They understand the culture and the unwritten rules of the school. Parents are rarely aware of this subtext.

This inherent tension surfaces in Team meetings because there are usually two agendas happening simultaneously: parents wanting an appropriate education for their child and the school district wanting to contain costs. The stronger agenda is that of the school district. It has more people and more resources, and they present themselves as the education experts. Parents can easily believe that it is the school professionals who know best, leading parents not to question what they are told.

The school’s primary concern, though, is often not the student’s welfare, but the fact that special education services can be expensive, and the school district must pay for them. Although IDEA is clear about a student’s right to an appropriate education, school officials watching their budgets will often come up with creative ways to deny expensive services, yet never admit that this is their agenda.

The parents’ agenda, on the other hand, is usually open and transparent as they talk about what they think their child needs. This can make Team meetings confusing and uncomfortable for parents, who rarely understand or even suspect the existence of these conflicting agendas. Accepting this reality and understanding the school personnel’s position, however, can help you better prepare for your next Team meeting.

Preparing for Team Meetings

Begin your preparation by writing down your thoughts about how your child’s disability affects his or her education, how your child is currently doing in school and at home, and what your concerns are for the future. You might also want to list your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This becomes your parent report to help the Team better know your child from your perspective.

Next, create a preliminary agenda and share it with your special education liaison. Collaborate with that person and if possible, create the final meeting agenda with the liaison. Try to be realistic about the number of items that the Team can cover in a single meeting. When you arrive at the meeting, hand out copies of your parent report and the agreed-upon agenda to make sure that everyone has this information. This is a good way for you to document your concerns and goals for the Team. Documentation is critical in special education.

One essential aspect to advance planning is to request in writing copies of any reports or evaluations that will be discussed at the meeting. Ask to receive these documents at least two days before the meeting so you will have time to study them and prepare any questions you might have about them. Having these documents in advance is a right guaranteed by federal law (34 CFR §300.623(a)).

Making Team Meetings Productive

Many parents feel uncomfortable at Team meetings. One reason is that there are often more school personnel than parents, which can leave you feeling outnumbered. Another reason for discomfort is that the main topic, your child, can be an emotional one. If there are significant problems to discuss, it can be hard to focus and think clearly. It can be even harder to listen to the conversation and take notes. In some states and school districts, recording a Team meeting is allowed, but there is no universal right to do this. See our blog topic, Recording Team Meetings--Not That Simple, for more information.

With these thoughts in mind, we offer the following tips:
  • Don’t go to a Team meeting alone. If possible, bring bring a spouse, relative, or friend who can be supportive and take notes. Immediately after the meeting, write down your thoughts and impressions of what was said and agreed to. If someone took notes, get a copy of the notes. Send a written summary of your understanding of what was agreed upon to your special education liaison as soon as possible. Include a list of any agreed-upon action items along with a timeline of when they will be accomplished. The letter lets the school personnel know what you expect them to do and serves as documentation for your records.
  • Since Team meetings can be intimidating for many parents, consider hiring a professional advocate who can help with navigating the meeting and negotiating with school personnel. An advocate who understands the laws can speak up on behalf of your child’s rights. Parents who do not know the laws and their rights may miss important opportunities for their child.
  • If you have an outside professional evaluate your child, consider bringing that person to a Team meeting to explain the results of his or her evaluation and what it means for your child’s education.
  • Find a forum other than a Team meeting to express anger or frustration. Use a spouse or trusted friend for animated discussions about what may be troubling you. A trained advocate can be a good sounding board for your concerns as well as a source of advice for how to proceed when you encounter roadblocks. You might also want to talk to other parents who have been through Team meetings for their input.
  • Keep an open mind at Team meetings and consider all suggestions thoughtfully. If you find it necessary to seek a due process remedy, the mediator or hearing officer will want to know that you first have made every effort to cooperate and try reasonable suggestions that school personnel offer.

Ultimately, there is no magic formula for surviving a Team meeting, but an awareness of the different agendas in the room, advance preparation, and written follow-up give you the best possible chance to obtain the appropriate education that is your child’s right.


The above article was adapted from Chapter 8, “Team Meetings” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Paradox of Modern Parenthood: Free Talk by Best-Selling Author Jennifer Senior January 21, 2015 in Wayland

From the Discovery Museums
Presented in Partnership with the MIT Club of Boston 

December 12, 2014

In this talk, Jennifer Senior will explore some of the unseen forces that are making modern parents so anxious, including the historic transformation of the child's role; the liberating-yet-confusing introduction of personal choice; and dramatic changes to how we live and work.

In so doing, she hopes to make parents see that their challenges, which they so often assume are of their own making, are in fact part of a much larger picture, and that they are by no means struggling alone.

She will also speak about what can be done to help us think differently about raising children, examine the distinction between happiness and joy, and ultimately shed light on why most parents still say that raising children is the most meaningful thing that they'll ever do.

When:   6:30 - 8:30pm Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Where: The First Parish in Wayland
                   50 Cochituate Road, Wayland, MA

This adults-only event is free, but space is limited and registration is required. Light refreshments will be served, including hors d'oeuvres and dessert provided by Idylwilde Farm in Acton, MA.


N.Y. Times Best-Selling
Author Jennifer Senior
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor at New York magazine, where she writes profiles and cover stories about politics, social science, and mental health. She won the Front Page Award from the Newswomen's Club of New York in 2014, the Erikson Prize in Mental Health Media in 2011, and her work has been anthologized four times in The BEST American Political Writing.

Jennifer has been a frequent guest on NPR and numerous television programs, including Charlie Rose, The Chris Matthews Show, Morning Joe, Good Morning America, and Today. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, and in 2003-2004 was a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, published in January of 2014, is her first book. It spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list, is being translated into ten languages, and was named one of Slate's Top 10 Books of the Year. This March, Senior spoke at both the TED 2014 annual conference and at the Sydney Opera House. She graduated summa cum laude in anthropology from Princeton University in 1991. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her husband and son.

Paperback copies of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood will be on sale at the event, thanks to The Concord Bookshop.