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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Placing Limits on Screen Time

From Smart Kids with LD

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.
December 15, 2014

"Developmentally, children benefit most from active play and social interaction, not touching a screen or pushing buttons that light up and ding."

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, 64% of babies ages one to two watch TV and/or videos for slightly more than two hours daily, and preschoolers use media on average 2.2 hours to 4.6 hours a day.

Citing a lack of evidence that screen time provides educational benefits to young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under age two avoid all screens - televisions, computers, tablets, and phones - and that parents monitor and manage electronic media exposure for older kids.

Developmentally, children benefit most from active play and social interaction, not touching a screen or pushing buttons that light up and ding.

Recommendation Meets Reality

In my experience, screens occupy and calm kids when they’re grumpy, overly demanding at a bad time, or need to settle down from high-energy activities. To say this is “bad” probably won’t change anything. In my office I see 18-month-old toddlers scrolling through iPads like pros. Saying, “Don’t” may be right, but it just doesn’t work.

Given that children are using screens, I feel that it’s essential that parents have guidelines for setting limits:
  • Using videos to get ready for bed is not a good idea even if the passivity quiets children down. The body’s inner clock responds to light as the signal for waking and sleeping. An electronic screen generates as much light as the noon sun. Try music instead. Obviously, personal interaction such as reading and singing are best.
  • Different types of electronics impact the brain differently. Watching TV is passive. Research indicates a limited amount of passivity allows time for creative daydreaming, which can lead to new ideas and “aha” moments. Note the word “limited.” Without limits, kids can shift into TV mode too easily. Playing with an iPad is different. It’s interactive and stimulates the brain as children make choices to scroll, touch pictures, play, etc. Research suggests too much of this kind of play can be over-stimulating.
  • Research suggests that children don’t learn language skills from TV or screens as well as they do from real people. Actual social interaction with people on screens (e.g. Skype or FaceTime) is more positive. Children’s TV programs have picked up on this, with characters talking as if they are speaking to the viewer and pausing for a response. There’s not enough research to show this is as effective as a real two-way interaction.
  • Limit screen time when children are young. Some researchers recommend limiting screen use to 30 minutes at a time, with a 5 to 1 ratio of non-screen time to screen time for very young children. Allowing unlimited screen time is like letting toothpaste out of the tube. You won’t be able to put it back. Setting limits early enables you to limit time later so your child will actually play with friends, be part of the family at dinner, and not binge during homework time.
  • Think about the educational value of what you’re allowing your child to see. Although research hasn’t demonstrated actual educational benefits despite the claims of manufacturers, if you’re allowing games, use ones that are potentially good. rates games, videos, etc. in terms of educational value and appropriateness for different ages.
  • Make sure your child has electronics-free solo playtime. A child needs to learn to entertain herself. Children who are “addicted” to the immediate gratification of fast-paced electronics often complain of boredom when asked to rely on their own creativity or interests.
  • Limit electronics for play dates. Social and physical skill development associated with playing, creativity, and exploration are not achieved by playing side-by-side on tablets.
  • Don’t have the TV always on in the background. You can have music playing instead.
  • Interact with your child when using electronics rather than having screens babysit. Talk about videos, pictures on the tablet, games, etc. Fun activities can be an opportunity for interaction if you use them.
  • Ask questions, share memories of the pictures on the phone, or talk about what’s happening on TV. Often children’s shows have messages built in; this is a great chance to talk about them. Just sharing and short comments are fine.
  • Most important, monitor your own use of electronics. Are you on your phone at dinner with your child? Are you attending to your child’s play or your text messages? With adults this is rude; with children this is deprivation. It is also bad role-modeling and poor parenting. No other words for it.
 In this electronics-driven world, we need to carefully balance children’s developmental needs with the lure of technology as entertainment, education, and babysitter. There are real reasons for caution—there are already 4-year-olds being treated for screen addictions.

Children are using screens at a younger and younger age, so parents must think about what they will and won’t allow.


Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Community-Based Supports: Critical Components of Effective Transition Planning


By Marilyn Weber
Transition Specialist and Parent Consultant

Director of Transition Services

December 20, 2014

In Massachusetts, schools are required to begin planning needed transition services beginning when the eligible student is 14 for the IEP developed that year. In order to facilitate this planning process, The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) designed the Transition Planning Form (TPF) 28M/9 to be used prior to or at the time of annual development of the student’s IEP.

Transition planning using the TPF can promote collaborative discussion among team members, creative thinking, and a sense of self-determination and shared responsibility for the student. Moreover, it requires the team to look beyond what is provided to students inside a school building and consider the ultimate goal of special education, being prepared for adult life.

To learn more about the Transition Planning Form (TPF) 28M/9 or to download a copy, visit the MA DESE web resource regarding Transition from School to Adult Life -

Page two of the TPF features the action plan for the student. It outlines how the student is going to develop necessary skills to be prepared academically and functionally for postsecondary education/training, employment, and adult living through instruction, employment and community experiences.

While community experiences are arguably the most important aspect for transitioning a student from a structured and often sheltered school program to an included and community-based postsecondary life, this part of the action plan may be limited, forgotten and/or misunderstood.

So what are community experiences?

Community experiences are those that occur where the student plans to work, live, play and go to school as an adult. These experiences provide opportunities for students to take skills that have been learned in isolation and generalize them outside the school walls.

They additionally provided critical opportunities for development of self-determination and independence around living, transportation, recreation and leisure.

Community as it pertains to employment (may be labeled as employment or as a community experience):
  • Company tours;
  • Informational interviewing;
  • Job shadowing and job exploration through paid or unpaid internships;
  • After-school or summer employment;
  • Using a one-stop career resource center;
  • Visiting a vocational counselor’s office.
Community as it pertains to education (may be labeled as instruction or as community experience):
  • Participation in community college;
  • Certificate program;
  • Adult education;
  • Dual enrollment in public college or university;
  • Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (ICE) program;
  • Fitness classes.
Community as it pertains to social skills:
  • Greetings and social amenities (e.g., please, thank you, you’re welcome);
  • Walking in hallways and crowded spaces;
  • Waiting in lines;
  • Leisure activities/joining community clubs;
  • Developing new friendships and relationships.
Community as it pertains to safety:
  • Identifying strangers;
  • Identifying community members that can offer help (e.g., police, fire fighters, help desk workers, store owners);
  • Interactions with law enforcement officers.
Community as it pertains to emotional health:
  • Meeting with a therapist outside of school;
  • Visiting a recovery learning center;
  • Yoga classes;
  • Support groups.
Community as it pertains to independence:
  • Shopping (food, personal care);
  • Banking and managing money;
  • Driving/learning public transportation/assisted transportation;
  • Using a laundromat;
  • Locating health care providers.
 Community experiences should be individualized based on the needs and postsecondary goals of the student. Creating a supportive action plan requires the team to become familiar and stay current with resources beyond the school walls.

To learn more about including community experiences as part of transition planning for your child and/or to participate in community-based coaching services through NESCA, complete our intake fact sheet today:

Indicate your interest in consultation and/or a coaching intake with Transition Specialist Marilyn Weber under Reason for Referral.

About Marilyn Weber, Transition Specialist

Ms. Weber is a seasoned advocate and parent consultant, specializing in transition services and skill development for adolescents and young adults. Ms. Weber joined NESCA in Fall, 2014 in order to offer Community-Based Skills Coaching services as well as short-term consultation to families and professionals.

Ms. Weber brings decades of experience working in schools and community agencies as a job developer, job coach, work study coordinator, school to careers coordinator, transition coordinator, parent and professional trainer, and Parent Consultant. She received her advocacy training through The Federation of Children with Special Needs (FCSN), Wrightslaw and OSEP/COPAA’s SEAT program with a practicum at FCSN.

Ms. Weber was the Partnership Director for DRYVE, a youth career center funded by the Workforce Initiative Act. She is a member of Massachusetts Advocates for Children Autism Advisory Committee and Transition Coordinator Subcommittee which recently passed “An Act Relative to Students with Disabilities in Post-Secondary Education, Employment and Independent Living.” She is the proud mother of a young adult with Autism.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Knock to the Head: A High School Football Player's Story of Traumatic Brain Injury

From the HuffPost Sports Blog

By Journey Bailey
December 15, 2014

"Had this injury not occurred I would already be attending a university pursuing my dream of becoming a journalist. Instead, I am playing catch up with what my life could have been."

Something felt terribly wrong. At first I was just a little woozy. Five minutes later I threw up Taco Del Mar all over the locker room floor, and then had the unfortunate aim of collapsing in it. It was clear that this was unlike any concussion I had received in my past.

The next morning I woke up in a hospital room gasping for air. Oxygen tubes lining my throat were making it harder to breathe. The cranial deposit tubes shoved into my skull were dripping blood onto my hospital gown making me so nauseous that the prospect of walking to the bathroom seemed utterly impossible. Luckily for me, a urinary catheter was painfully snaking through the tip of my penis to the base of my bladder.

As I slowly regained consciousness I began to hear voices from the other side of the room. Dr. Sweeney, the neurosurgeon most credited with saving my life, was explaining to my terrified mother that I had sustained a subdural hematoma -- medical lingo for severe bleeding of the brain.

I wanted to write this article for my many friends who are playing football in college right now, and to the younger athletes out there playing high school and youth football. This is the article I wish I could have read back when I was in your shoes; back when I still had a chance to become the person I wanted to be. Also, this is a confession to the closest people in my life whom I have never shared the full extent of my suffering with.

Subdural hematomas result from Post Concussion Syndrome, an aptly-named injury that occurs when the brain sustains one concussion, and then endures another before the first one has had time to heal. From fifth grade to high school, I sustained seven concussions. The last two, which resulted in the subdural hematoma, occurred during my sophomore year. That was the injury that ended my dreams of gridiron glory for good.

Although I am grateful to be alive, I did not walk away from my long history of head injuries damage-free. Depression, suicidal thoughts, skull disfigurement, a higher risk of developing dementia, and a severely plummeting scholastic GPA are some of the most prominent side effects of having sustained so many concussions. The bottom line is I am only a fraction of the person I used to be. And that's what hurts the most.

The first thing to know about concussions is that they occur far more often than you might think. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention, 47 percent of high school football players are diagnosed with a concussion each season, with 35 percent of those reporting multiple concussions in a single season. But those statistics are just the tip of the iceberg.

Saying that the number of concussions that occur each year in high school football can be represented by the number of concussions that were diagnosed by doctors is like saying that the number of Americans that speed in their cars per year can be represented by the number of people who have received speeding tickets.

The reality is a lot more drivers are speeding, and a lot more football players are receiving concussions. The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that some 85 percent of concussions go undiagnosed.

There are many reasons for this lapse. Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that reporting a concussion to your coach can be counter-productive to your advancement as a player. What people outside the sports world might not understand is that a sports team is like a highly competitive corporation where every employee is desperately working to get promoted, or get moved to a "first-string" position. As a player who would religiously spend 365 days a year lifting weights, running sprints, and dieting like an Olympian, the last thing I wanted to do was tell my coach that I had to sit out for two weeks because I got my "bell rung."

Just like in a corporation, CEOs -- or coaches -- rarely show genuine loyalty towards their employees -- or players. As soon as an employee/player becomes unable to perform he is tossed aside, and the next player in line is promoted to take over. He is also unlikely to receive his hard-earned position back after taking a week or two off. The bottom line of a sports team is winning -- just like the bottom line of a corporation is making money, generally regardless of ethical or moral concerns.

This ideology is ingrained into athletes -- in the guise of being a "team player" -- so pervasively that they become convinced that it is selfish to consider the health of their own bodies before the success of the whole team. This alarming trend of not reporting head injuries to coaches or training staff accelerates the rise in traumatic brain injuries.

"A concussion is called a mild brain injury, but there's nothing mild about it," insists Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School. "They're just mild compared to severe brain injuries that land players in the hospital with tubes in their head for days or months." In other words, sustaining a concussion is not as benign as simply having your "bell rung" or getting a little "cussy" as my old football coaches used to joke.

Regardless of how it is romanticized by ignorant football jargon, the word concussion is synonymous with brain damage. Back in the glory of my pigskin days the perspective held by my teammates and myself was that concussions were routine, normal, and even a sign of toughness. We peacocked our head injuries as if they were stripes on a soldier's uniform that mark military accomplishments.

Here's what nobody explained to me until it was already too late: concussions damage an important part of the brain called white matter, a vital part of your central nervous system that delivers information from one part of your head to another. To sum it up; the more concussions you get, the less clearly you think.

Exposing yourself to head-on collisions on a regular basis is like playing Russian roulette with your brain, and each time one of those collisions results in a concussion another bullet is added to that spinning gridiron chamber, increasing the odds that your next concussion will be your last. Some players like me kept pulling the trigger until it was too late.

Fortunately, the severity of my injury was not as detrimental as it could have been. Many who have endured my same injury are now permanently mentally disabled. I was lucky to be able to walk away mostly intact, but I did not get away unscathed.

One of the common lingering effects among players who receive traumatic brain injuries is depression. There are plenty of seemingly logical reasons to feel depressed after sustaining the caliber of brain damage players like myself have endured -- not being able to participate in previously enjoyed activities like going tubing, snowboarding, dirt biking, roller coaster riding -- anything that may potentially cause trauma or sudden jolts to my brain. Most days I feel nervous enough just driving to school. My life may seem together on the outside -- healthy family, a roof over my head, and a new Chevy Spark in the driveway. Yet my history of concussions has rewired my brain to make me feel depressed for neurological reasons that expand beyond the reach of my control.

Last year, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, my battle with depression culminated with me pointing my uncle's gun to my head while bawling in the kitchen. I was not planning on pulling the trigger, at least not on that day, but I was considering the option enough to make me curious of what it would feel like to have a pistol pressed against my temple. Gradually, I have fought to gain control over my emotions through willpower and concentration, but this is a mental war that I must wage everyday. Statistics show I am not alone. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that "teens with a history of concussions are more than three times as likely to suffer from depression as teens who have never had a concussion."

These days I am trying my best to live a healthy lifestyle; I exercise six days a week, drink kale smoothies for breakfast, and study for hours on end every night. But there is still not one hour that goes by in which I don't think about the person I could have been. There isn't one night that I lay in bed and don't think about how many IQ points I may have dropped over the last few years, or how much more likely I am now to develop Alzheimer's disease later in life. Every time I take a shower and rub shampoo over my head I feel the dents in my skull which remind me of how lucky I am to be alive, while making me wish I was dead at the same time.

At this point in my story, maybe you're wondering if I think it was all worth it. Considering all the undeniable pleasures football had to offer -- those Friday night lights, scoring touchdowns while the crowd cheered, being included in the most elite social groups in high school -- was playing football worth it? The answer is no. Not by a long shot.

Undoubtedly, football played a constructive role in shaping the young man I am today. Daily doubles taught me about dedication, running sprints in the hot summer sun taught me how to push myself, and tackling running backs twice my size taught me how to be brave. But there are other ways to obtain such life lessons that do not involve a risk of permanently damaging your brain.

My intention here is not to vilify football, a game I revere and respect to this day. Rather, it is to tell you truthfully that playing football took something away from me that I can never get back. It robbed me of the potential to utilize the brain I was born with, and instead I must now live the rest of my life with the fear of growing up to be like Mike Webster. Webster, who some say was the best center to ever play in the NFL, was a member of the Pittsburg Steelers who developed a brain disease shortly after his career called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) -- brought on by too many blows to the head. Webster died at the age of 50 from the disease. I have to wonder daily. Will I be dead at 50?

Back when I was on the team roster, our team trainer would issue warnings about the dangers of concussions at the beginning of every season, but I would merely shrug them off because I was convinced that one day I would play in the NFL, and the lucrative glamour of the professional athlete life out-shined the possible risks of potential brain injuries. But what I didn't realize at the time was that my odds of actually making it to the NFL were next to zero. Statistics on show that only 0.08 percent of high school football players will make it to the NFL, whereas every single high school football player could suffer some degree of irreversible brain damage.

I may not be able to do mental calculations like I use to, but the math on this one is simple enough for even myself to understand. Playing football is a bad gamble. It may not seem like it while you're in it, but it is jeopardizing the things that are most important to you and your future. Things like being happy, developing critical thinking skills, retaining memories, and all other forms of basic cognitive function that are necessary to maintain your sanity.

Even though I have developed strategies to help supplement my deteriorated cognitive abilities, the progression of my life is still at a deficit from all of the years I lost trying to figure out how the hell I was suppose to be "normal" again. Last term, I received straight A's for the first time since my brain surgery; an accomplishment that makes me happy, but only until I remember that I did so while attending community college. Had this injury not occurred I would already be attending a university pursuing my new found dream of becoming a journalist. Instead, I am playing catch up with what my life could have been.

Earlier I said this is the article that I wish I could have read before it was too late, but now that I think about it, I doubt that I would of listened. Instead, I would have read this and said f**k that. I'm going to keep on playing. This guy may be talking about other kids, but he's not talking about me. No, I am talking to you. It is certainly not my wish to dash any athlete's dreams. If your heart's calling is to play football and there is no way you can be swayed by scary statistics, then go ahead and play. I know what it feels like to love the game more than anything in the world. The talent, the adrenaline, the strategies, the bonding, the failures, the triumphs. It all used to mean a lot to me, too.

But the next time you're out on that field pushing for that first down or tackling that running back and you start to see stars, feel dizzy, or develop a headache that won't go away, don't ignore the signs in order to stay in the game. Think about having tubes shoved down your penis. Think about having dents in your head. Think about crying yourself to sleep while trying to decide whether or not to buy a shotgun off of Craigslist and blow your brains out.

If you think you have a concussion, consult your coaches, and If your coaches belittle your symptoms like mine usually did, then consult your team trainer. If the trainer decides to return you to full contact before you feel 100 percent be prepared to refuse until you've seen a doctor. Don't sacrifice your long-term health as an individual for the short-term success of your team. Take it from me -- it's not worth it.

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.