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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Decoding Dyslexia's Legislative "Day on the Hill" Wednesday, February 17th

From Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts

February 11, 2016

Families, students, teachers, tutors, speech/language and other professionals welcome! This is a real opportunity to be heard.

Friday, February 12, 2016

What Kids Need from Grown-Ups (but Aren't Getting)

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Cory Turner
February 9, 2016

"We're underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that's because we're not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others."

Erika Christakis' new book, The Importance of Being Little, is an impassioned plea for educators and parents to put down the worksheets and flash cards, ditch the tired craft projects (yes, you, Thanksgiving Handprint Turkey) and exotic vocabulary lessons, and double-down on one, simple word:


That's because, she writes, "the distinction between early education and official school seems to be disappearing." If kindergarten is the new first grade, Christakis argues, preschool is quickly becoming the new kindergarten. And that is "a real threat to our society's future."

If the name sounds familiar, that's likely because Christakis made headlines last October, writing an email that stirred angry protests at Yale, where she is a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center.

When a campus committee sent students a memo urging restraint in choosing Halloween costumes and asking them to avoid anything that "disrespects, alienates or ridicules segments of our population based on race, nationality, religious belief or gender expression," Christakis wrote a memo of her own.

She lauded the committee's goals of trying to encourage tolerance and foster community but wondered if the responsibility of deciding what is offensive should fall to students, not their administrators.

"Have we lost faith in young people's capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?" Christakis wrote.

Many Yale students accused Christakis of being racially insensitive and called for her ouster. In December, she stepped down from her teaching duties, telling The Washington Post, "I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems."

Erika Christakis
What does Christakis' role in the heated debate over racial insensitivity and free speech on campus have to do with her views on preschool?

Surprisingly, a lot. I spoke with Christakis about her new book and the turmoil at Yale. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

What is this phenomenon you call "the preschool paradox"?

It is the reality that science is confirming on a daily basis: that children are hardwired to learn in many settings and are really very capable, very strong, very intelligent on the one hand. On the other hand, the paradox is that many young children are doing poorly in our early education settings.

We've got a growing problem of preschool expulsions, a growing problem of children being medicated off-label for attention problems. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that parents are frustrated and feeling overburdened. So that's what interests me: What is going on?

We have very crammed [preschool] schedules with rapid transitions. We have tons of clutter on classroom walls. We have kids moving quickly from one activity to another. We ask them to sit in long and often boring meetings. Logistically and practically, lives are quite taxing for little kids because they're actually living in an adult-sized world.

On the other hand, curriculum is often very boring. A staple of early childhood curriculum is the daily tracking of the calendar. And this is one of those absolute classic mismatches, because one study showed that, after a whole year of this calendar work where kids sit in a circle and talk about what day they're on, half the kids still didn't know what day they were on. It's a mismatch because it's both really hard and frankly very stupid.

We're underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that's because we're not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others.

Why do you think so many educators and policymakers have come to see play and learning as mutually exclusive?

Yeah, it's incredibly weird — this fake dichotomy. The science is so persuasive on this topic. There's all kinds of research coming not only from early childhood but animal research looking at mammals and how they use play for learning.

I think there are two answers. There really has been tremendous anxiety about closing achievement gaps between advantaged and less advantaged children. You know, we're always as a society looking for quick fixes that might close those gaps.

Unfortunately, it's had downstream consequences for early learning, where we're going for superficial measures of learning.

I think the other problem is that the rich, experience-based play that we know results in learning — it's not as easy to accomplish as people think. And that's because, while the impulse to play is natural, what I call the play know-how really depends on a culture that values play, that gives kids the time and space to learn through play.

What does playful learning look like?

Playful learning is embedded in relationships and in things that are meaningful to children. I use the example of the iconic [handprint] Thanksgiving turkey. When you really get into what's behind those cutesy crafts, a lot of curriculum is organized around these traditions, things around the calendar, things that are done because they've always been done.

When you look at how kids learn, they learn when something is meaningful to them, when they have a chance to learn through relationships — and that, of course, happens through play. But a lot of our curriculum is organized around different principles.

It's organized around the comfort and benefit of adults and also reflexive: "This is cute," or, "We've always done this." A lot of the time, as parents, we are trained to expect products, cute projects. And I like to say that the role of art in preschool or kindergarten curriculum should be to make meaning, not necessarily things.

But it's hard to get parents to buy into this idea that their kids may not come home with the refrigerator art because maybe they spent a week messing around in the mud.

Preschool teachers are very interested in fine motor skills, and so often they think that these tracing and cutting activities [are important]. I would argue that those are not the most important skills that we need to foster.

What are the most important skills we need to foster?

I think the No. 1 thing is that children need to feel secure in their relationships because, again, we're social animals. And children learn through others. So I think the No. 1 thing is for kids to have a chance to play, to make friends, to learn limits, to learn to take their turn.

You're talking about soft skills, non-cognitive skills ...

I actually won't accept the term non-cognitive skills.

Social-emotional skills?

I would say social-emotional skills. But, again, there's a kind of simplistic notion that there's social-emotional skills on the one hand ...

And academics on the other ...

Right, and I would argue that many so-called academic skills are very anti-intellectual and very uncognitive. Whereas I think a lot of the social-emotional skills are very much linked to learning.

I think the biggest one is the use of language. When kids are speaking to one another and listening to one another, they're learning self-regulation, they're learning vocabulary, they're learning to think out loud. And these are highly cognitive skills. But we've bought into this dichotomy again. I would say "complex skills" versus "superficial" or "one-dimensional skills."

To give you an example, watching kids build a fort is going to activate more cognitive learning domains than doing a worksheet where you're sitting at a table. The worksheet has a little pile of pennies on one side and some numbers on the other, and you have to connect them with your pencil. That's a very uni-dimensional way of teaching skills.

Whereas, if you're building a fort with your peers, you're talking, using higher-level language structures in play than you would be if you're sitting at a table. You're doing math skills, you're doing physics measurement, engineering — but also doing the give-and-take of, "How do I get along? How do I have a conversation? What am I learning from this other person?" And that's very powerful.

What is high-quality preschool to you?

The research base is pretty clear. I'll start by telling you what it isn't. We start by looking at two variables. One set are called "structural variables" — things like class size, student-teacher ratios, or even the square-footage of the classroom and what kinds of materials are in the classroom.

And then there are so-called process variables, which are different. They tend to be more about teaching style. Is the teacher a responsive teacher? Does she use a responsive, warm, empathic teaching style? And then the other key process variable is: Does the teacher have knowledge of child development? And is that teacher able to translate that child development knowledge into the curriculum?

Which seems like a hard thing to measure.
It's actually not. And there are many good measures — things like: Is the teacher on the floor with the child? Is the teacher asking open-ended questions? You know: "Tell me about your picture" versus "Oh, cute house, Bobby." It's actually not that hard to measure.

But here's the thing. The structural variables are easier to regulate. And, if you have a workforce problem where you're not paying teachers well and a pipeline problem where there aren't good career paths to get into teaching, it's much easier for us to focus on the structural variables when those have an indirect effect only. The direct effect is the process variables.

My colleague Walter Gilliam at Yale has come up with this wonderful mental health classroom climate scale, which really looks at these process variables in very granular detail — so, not only looking at the interactions between the teachers and the children but how the teachers are interacting with each other.

You mount a spirited defense of unscheduled kid time [at home]. Less shuttling to and from sports practice, dance practice, swim lessons. Be sure, you say, to give your child time to sit on the floor and stare at the ceiling if that's what they want to do. I know a lot of parents who would find that view heretical.

That's because we don't have faith in young children. And we don't really have faith in ourselves. And we've been programmed to believe that the more enrichments we can add on [the better].

I think boredom can be a friend to the imagination. Sometimes when kids appear to be bored, actually they haven't had enough time to engage in something. We quickly whisk it away and move them along to the next thing. And that's when you say, "How can I help the child to look at this in a new way? To try something new, to be patient."

You've really kind of adultified childhood so kids really don't have those long, uninterrupted stretches of time to engage in fantasy play. And because we've kind of despoiled the habitat of early childhood, a lot of times they don't know what to do when given that time. So we kind of have to coach them.

I think there's a little bit of a repair process that we need to engage in. Because if you've got a kid who's used to going to a million lessons and only uses toys that have one way of using them and then, suddenly, you put them in a room with a bunch of boxes and blocks and say, "Have fun!", the kid's gonna say, "Are you kidding me? What?!"

I want to transition to Yale now. You were talking about creating a safe space earlier — for preschoolers. In a video taken of Yale students responding angrily to your Halloween email, one African-American woman berates your husband, who co-manages a residential college with you. She yells, "It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for your students, and you have not done that."

Is it possible to create a space that is intellectually safe, where free speech prevails, that is also comfortable?

I guess the question would be, "Is comfort the goal?" My hope is that young people of all ages could feel safe in a community where dialogue is welcome. That doesn't mean you get to scream at people and throw things at them. I would like to see people feel safe in a community where they could have different ideas.

We had at Yale a representative from Planned Parenthood come to speak. I think it would be really great if we also had an alternative view, and that people could listen and say, "You know what? I really disagree with that, but this does not threaten me to my core. I can disagree. Maybe I can even hone my argument better by hearing an alternative view."

I think we can have a safe community, but does that mean that we're always comfortable? Well, I think that's very unrealistic and probably not a good idea to aspire to being comfortable all the time.

You wrote in your email: "Have we lost faith in young people's capacity — in your capacity — to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?"

The counter-argument, lodged by many Yale students, is that some things — including Halloween costumes — are simply so offensive, culturally, that not only can they not be ignored, they shouldn't be allowed in the first place. What do you make of that argument?

I want to be clear that I would probably agree with the vast majority of things that my critics find offensive. So I think I have been very misunderstood. Yes, there are things that are horrible. There are things that offend all of us and hurt our feelings.

I also would argue that much of it is context-based. As I heard from many students after the fact, people have really different ideas of what is hurtful. And there were things in the [Yale committee's] email that didn't address some people's hurts. For example, costumes about disability.

I think my point was, because context matters and because the world is full of injury and there is no question that some people bear a disproportionate burden — I accept that — we can't really create a world where administrators, teachers or parents can insulate people from these kinds of things.

Now, I do want to be clear: There are all kinds of ways to respond to being hurt, including filing a police report, reporting to your supervisor or professor or RA in a dorm, talking with your friends, ignoring. To me, I think the social norming piece is really important because I believe we put way too much faith in these administrative guidelines, "suggestions."

Is that really how behavior change happens? I don't know. I think for some things, absolutely, legal recourse makes a difference. But for other things, I think, peer norming is highly effective, and to me, Halloween costumes would be in that category.

We can't really predict people's intent. Often people use Halloween as an expression of satire, biting humor, and so we don't know. In fact, we had an amazing conversation with David Simon [creator of HBO's The Wire]. He came to speak to our students, and he was really pushing them.

If you go to a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, you know, you're gonna see things that would strike the average Yale student as offensive. But if you understand the history and the context, then there's a different interpretation.

As I've grown older, I've grown more confident in young people to have these conversations, to fight for their rights, to sometimes ignore things. They have a whole toolkit of strategies, and we have to start at a really young age, giving kids the space to talk to each other, to get to know each other, to listen to each other. That's linking back to my book.

I think the habitat has to be one that prizes dialogue and talking and listening skills. We have an opportunity right now to do that for a whole generation. We're kidding ourselves — like with the [preschool] worksheets — there is no limit to the number of suggestions and guidelines we can offer to students, but if they don't understand each other and are not willing to talk to each other and listen to each other, I think that's going to have limited impact.

Halloween costumes are sometimes indicative of a long and tortured past of institutional racism and oppression, and it seems what the students were arguing for here was institutional protection — an expectation that, "Why can't the institution just protect us from this craziness?"

And how well has that worked out [historically]?

Not very.

I don't mean to be callous. I have great empathy, and I think my teaching and my syllabus reflect that. I'm on the side of young people. But I'm more of an old-school lefty. I think it's very important for us to question establishment responses to things. Sometimes it's very important to have an establishment response, and other times I think it's less helpful.

And I would say, proactively trying to manage Halloween costumes, however gently worded, I think there's a downside. Or, at least, let's talk about the potential downside. And I think it might be an erosion of the faith in young people to influence one another and to listen to one another and learn from one another.

Why did you resign your teaching post?

I have great respect and affection for my students, but I'm worried that the climate of civil dialogue and openness — I'm not sure we're there yet. I have a lot of faith in students. And I think time is a great healer of wounds.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Transition Workshop February 23: Failure to Launch - How to Get Your Kid Off the Couch and Involved in Life Outside the House


February 10, 2016

Kathleen Pignone, M.Ed.
That's the topic of a presentation taking place at NESCA's offices in Newton at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 23rd, featuring Veteran Transition Specialist  Kathleen Pignone as speaker.

Participants will learn how to:
  • Contingency plan when Transition Plan A (and even Plan B) is not working out as hoped;
  • Create and balance a long-term plan with short-term attainable goals;
  • Foster social motivation and engagement and prevent isolation;
  • Develop motivation, perseverance and resiliency using a strengths-based and person-centered approach;
  • Help teens and young adults learn skills necessary for engaging in decision making and daily activities independent of parents;
  • Access key community resources.

Light refreshments will be served. Admission is only $20/person, and seating is limited.

To register, email info@nesca-newton.com, with "Failure to Launch" in the subject line.

When we receive your RSVP, we will send payment information and a confirmation.

Room for Debate: Is the A.D.H.D. Diagnosis Helping or Hurting Kids?

From The New York Times

February 1, 2016

The skyrocketing number of children with attention deficit disorders has led some pediatricians to question whether the diagnostic criteria for them — which is necessary for medication prescriptions and disability accommodations — is too subjective.

Some children may be over-diagnosed and over-medicated, while others who fall short of the diagnosis go unsupported.

Are attention deficit diagnoses helping or hurting kids?

The Debate

"The diagnosis does a disservice to children."

Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.


A.D.H.D. exists in an interesting paradigm: It is treatable with pharmaceuticals and behavioral modifications, but diagnosis is pretty arbitrary. Attentional capacity isn’t something one can possess in full — it exists on a spectrum. Our current diagnostic approaches are too black and white, and they end up providing a disservice to many children.

Children who struggle with symptoms of A.D.H.D, like impulsivity and inattention, are dealing with problems of “executive function.” Better executive function allows children (and adults) to make more considered choices, which can add up over time to make an enormous difference in quality of life.

Consider a famous New Zealand study that followed children for 30 years: The researchers found that better executive function in early life was associated with lower rates of substance abuse, divorce and incarceration. There was no threshold at which poor executive function became a problem for these kids: Each incremental increase in self-control early in life was correlated with better outcomes in adulthood.

In our current system, to diagnose A.D.H.D., clinicians rely on a threshold to distinguish pathology from normalcy in a child’s behavior. In one of the most widely used and well-validated diagnostic tests, a child needs to demonstrate 6 of 9 specific behaviors on a standardized form to be diagnosed, and thereby qualify for disability accommodations.

But the assessments, usually completed by a teacher and parent, are subjective. They must decide, for example, whether a child “often” has “difficulty organizing tasks and activities” — or “very often."

If the answers determine that a child falls into the pathological range for A.D.H.D., medication or cognitive behavioral therapy is prescribed, and the child qualifies for certain disability accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

If the child scores just below that cutoff and is pronounced A.D.H.D. free, however, there are no accommodations like extra time on standardized testing. Paradoxically, many children would be better off if they scored 1-2 points worse on their assessments so they too could benefit from treatment.

What's more, all children would benefit from better executive function, and studies have found that their early environment affects it. We should shift from treating their distraction as a clinical disease, to targeting the best ways to help children maximize their ability to focus.

"Diagnosis is key to helping kids with A.D.H.D."

Tanya E. Froehlich is an associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati/Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.


Controversies in the news media have made many skeptical about A.D.H.D., and there are legitimate concerns about over-diagnosis and medication misuse when it comes to attention deficit disorders.

But strong scientific evidence supports the biological basis of this disorder and shows the dire consequences it can have on health and well-being. For example, there is evidence that individuals with A.D.H.D. can have delayed maturation and impaired neuronal connectivity in several parts of the brain.

A.D.H.D. often worsens academic, peer and family functioning, and is correlated with high rates of depression and anxiety, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, school failure,criminality, accidents and mortality, as compared to the general population.

Fortunately, behavioral interventions and medication can make a tremendous difference for children with A.D.H.D. Parent-child behavioral training and classroom interventions have been shown to improve family, social and school functioning. A.D.H.D. medication treatment has been linked to improved academic scores, as well as reduced rates of injurydelinquency, incarceration and substance abuse.

Access to these treatments is much harder without an A.D.H.D. diagnosis, and socioeconomically disadvantaged children are the ones who are most overlooked. In 2007, I found that among children who met gold standard diagnostic criteria for A.D.H.D., those who lacked health insurance were less likely to be diagnosed, and the poorest children were three to five times less likely than wealthier children to receive consistent A.D.H.D. medication treatment.

So, for children who truly have A.D.H.D. — including and especially the members of our most vulnerable groups — diagnosis and treatment are critical for well-being. We do these children a huge disservice by demonizing A.D.H.D. and denying them access to important services.

That is not to say that critics of A.D.H.D. diagnosis in America haven't made some valid points. Diagnosing A.D.H.D. should not simply be a matter of parents endorsing a certain number of attention deficit-related symptoms on a rating scale at a single point in time.

Instead, pediatricians need to verify that each child's symptoms are actually impairing functioning, are long-standing and present from an early age, and occur at school as well as home. As clinicians, it is our job to rule out the many other diagnoses and circumstances that can produce A.D.H.D.-like symptoms by carefully interviewing the family, conducting a physical examination to rule out mimicking medical conditions, and diligently collecting information from the school.

Unfortunately, all of this cannot be done in the typical 10- to 20-minute medical visit. And, even when children don't meet full criteria for attention deficit disorders, it does not mean we cannot help them, and that they aren't experiencing any difficulties.

The attentional and self-regulation capacities of all children can be improved by increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy and well-balanced diet, improving sleep, limiting electronics, teaching organizational skills, and increasing structure and consistency at home and in school.

Pediatricians must take a larger role in educating families about these critical lifestyle interventions, in addition to diagnosing A.D.H.D. and managing its medical treatment.

"Don’t rush to saddle children with the A.D.H.D. label."

Donna Ford, a professor of education and human development at Vanderbilt University, is the author, most recently, of "Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education."


Having spent about 25 years in education, I have seen teachers quickly assume that students who are more active than their classmates (and who are more active than their teachers’ tolerance for high activity levels) require medication.

I see too little time devoted to helping such students adjust or to finding intervention strategies to support them. The rush to saddle them with a disorder, with little prior intervention, contributes to misidentification and societal over-medication.

Even when drugs are truly required, students still need strategies to help them pay attention and adjust their behavior when they have lots of energy. It's unnerving to hear your student say, “I need my medication to pay attention,” or “I can’t sit still until I have my medication.” I have heard this more times than I want to remember, even from elementary-aged students.

Even when drugs are truly required, students still need strategies to help them pay attention and adjust their behavior when they have lots of energy.

There are several problems that contribute to A.D.H.D. misdiagnosis. The first is the subjective and limited nature of the evaluations used to diagnose an already high-energy population (kids). A checklist of behaviors should not be the only or primary source of an evaluation when so much is at stake.

Observation over a period of time and in multiple settings are needed. How active and attentive are students when they are watching TV or playing games, for example? What are they like in places of worship or when they are traveling, and so on? It is worth considering, in every case, how a child changes his or her behavior based on location and time of day.

It is also important to consider the comparison group when determining what counts as “normal.” For example, most students labeled as having A.D.H.D. are males and many are black males. But boys tend to be more active than girls, and African-Americans are known for being movement-oriented, tactile and kinesthetic. This is considered normal and healthy in the African-American community but not necessarily so in schools.

The structure of the school day also needs to be considered when we address the shorter attention spans, disinterest and frustration of students. Hours of seat work, few breaks, lack of recess, and few tactile and kinesthetic activities do not match how many students prefer to learn; it does not reflect their home and community experiences.

Schools need to be restructured to be more hands-on. This will help decrease unnecessary referrals, mislabeling and over-medication.

I, for one, would like to see educators examine their tolerance levels for children who require more active days, rather than jump to unnecessary labels and medication.

"Worrying disparities in diagnosis of black and white children."

Keith B. Wilson is a professor at the Rehabilitation Institute at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.


While the cause of A.D.H.D. is still undetermined, the discrepancy between diagnoses in black and white children is well established.

Though they are more likely to experience symptoms of A.D.H.D., children of color are less likely than white children to be given a diagnosis and receive medication.

A 2013 study found that black children were 69 percent less likely to be diagnosed based on their symptoms, while Latino children were 45 percent less likely to get appropriate attention and treatment.

It’s not entirely clear why children of color are overlooked when it comes to these issues, though it could be a matter of lower expectations and a lack of resources.

But it’s not just A.D.H.D. These discrepancies are consistent across all forms of health care and education in the United States.

It is important to acknowledge that discrimination can be conscious (intentional) or unconscious (unintentional) on the part of educational and health care providers, but the effects are still harmful to both children and their parents and guardians. Without appropriate diagnosis, many black and Latino children miss out on badly needed opportunities to succeed.

While the cause of A.D.H.D. is still undetermined, the discrepancy between diagnoses in black and white children is well established.

Though they are more likely to experience symptoms of A.D.H.D., children of color are less likely than white children to be given a diagnosis and receive medication. A 2013 study found that black children were 69 percent less likely to be diagnosed based on their symptoms, while Latino children were 45 percent less likely to get appropriate attention and treatment.

It’s not entirely clear why children of color are overlooked when it comes to these issues, though it could be a matter of lower expectations and a lack of resources.

But it’s not just A.D.H.D. These discrepancies are consistent across all forms of health care and education in the United States.

It is important to acknowledge that discrimination can be conscious (intentional) or unconscious (unintentional) on the part of educational and health care providers, but the effects are still harmful to both children and their parents and guardians.

Without appropriate diagnosis, many black and Latino children miss out on badly needed opportunities to succeed.

"Failure to conform accounts for most A.D.H.D. diagnoses."

Susan Hawthorne, an associate professor of philosophy at St. Catherine University, is the author of "Accidental Intolerance: How We Stigmatize ADHD and How We Can Stop."


Current conventional wisdom is that A.D.H.D. is a chronic, physical and medically treatable condition, comparable to diabetes. But this is not the case. The diagnostic criteria really measure whether children (or teens or adults) fail to meet today's social expectations.

Even if there were a distinct physical cause of A.D.H.D. — something no one has yet demonstrated — why would it count as a disorder? According to the official diagnostic criteria, A.D.H.D. is treated like a disability because those who meet the criteria are impaired: They suffer from A.D.H.D.-specific symptoms.

For example, a distressed tween struggling to complete her homework could be a candidate for diagnosis. But her parents’ and teachers’ expectations are really at the root of her distress, and what marks her difference as a disorder.

More pointedly, children often get diagnosed not because they experience impairment but because they are difficult to manage, like a very active preschooler who will not sit quietly at circle time. Again, social failure accounts most acutely for the diagnoses of this disorder.

And as pressures to conform mount for children and adults, so do the number of diagnoses.

By high school nearly 20 percent of all boys will have met the diagnostic criteria for A.D.H.D., a huge increase from even 10 years ago. This categorization reflects many influences and expectations — including the pressures of a competitive, desk-bound world; time and money constraints on parents, teachers, schools and clinicians; and drug company research priorities.

Whatever the rationale, the corrosive effect of an increase in A.D.H.D. diagnoses is the spread of a cultural stereotype — that of the distractible student or annoying peer, marked for certain failures because of his or her difference. The spread of this stereotype also ensures that people will also stigmatize children who “seem” A.D.H.D., and will criticize the parents for not seeking diagnosis.

Might diagnosis and treatment be useful despite these concerns? Maybe. Typical treatment — medication — provides short-term gains in attention span and work completion. Despite professionals' expectations, however, medication has not been shown to improve long-term education or work achievements.

I believe we should move away from the A.D.H.D. diagnosis by individualizing expectations of children, developing more flexible care and education strategies, investing more resources in young people, and prioritizing research that is not beholden to drug companies.

Of course, some children would still experience serious social rejection or be unable to attend to any work at hand. These children, like those with severe A.D.H.D. symptoms today, would need special care.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Conference April 14th - Conquering the Cliff: Autism’s Journey into Adulthood

Hosted by Bridgewell
Sponsored in part by NESCA

Many families have described the transition from the educational system to adult services for their children with autism as “falling off a cliff.” As more and more individuals with autism are entering the adult world, service providers and families have been working diligently and creatively to develop supports and service models to meet the needs of this population.

This full-day conference is an opportunity to network with up to 500 human services leaders, professionals and family members, and will feature 18 workshops on a wide variety of topics.

Susan Senator
Morning Keynote Speaker: Susan Senator - "Autism Adulthood: Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life"

Conference Partners: Advocates for Autism of MA; Autism Speaks; Boston University; Center for Professional Innovation; Charles River Center; HMEA; Lurie Center for Autism at Mass. General Hospital; MA Dept. of Developmental Services; May Institute; Northeast Arc; Road to Responsibility.

NESCA Speakers: Marilyn Weber, Transition Specialist and Veteran Advocate, and Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, Director of Transition Services.

When:   8:00am - 4:00pm Thursday, April 14, 2016;
                    Social Hour to follow.

                   1657 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701

Cost:    $135/person; $75 Family Rate; $50 Student Rate    

For complete workshop descriptions and brochure, please visit: www.bridgewell.org/conqueringthecliff

Questions? Please call Jeri Kroll at 781-776-4137, or email

Click HERE to register.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Can – and Should – Young Children Really Meditate?

From Learning & The Brain

By Rina Deshpande
January 22, 2016

When picturing a kindergarten classroom in America, chances are you imagine messy finger paint on tables, blocks clinking on the rug, oversized read-aloud books, and little kids climbing through colorful Rubbermaid jungle gyms. (Perhaps you imagine a young Arnold being trampled by 5-year-olds in Radio Flyer wagons).

When picturing mindfulness meditation, you might imagine a serene-faced adult seated cross-legged on an amber silk pillow. Her eyes are closed and she is perfectly impervious to distractions in her surrounding environment.

Most young children have loads of rambunctious energy, hungry for answers to curious questions. And with or without silk props, many meditation practices are designed to cultivate stillness and silence within.

It’s therefore natural to question not only if young children should meditate, but also if young children can meditate. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence for both.

Brain Development in Early Childhood

The first years of a child’s life are crucial to setting up a strong foundation for relationships, learning, and mental health. According to the Center on the Developing Child, neuroscientists have found that 700 synaptic connections between brain cells are created every second in a child’s beginning years of life. (1)

If you’re trying to do the math, that’s about a few hundred trillion connections by age 3.

Eventually, this period of synaptic exuberance subsides as the brain naturally prunes away unused connections, a mechanism popularly referred to as “use it or lose it.”

Brain development is shaped by biology, environment, and external experiences and is studied in a number of ways, including a growing field of research known as epigenetics. Epigenetics is a subfield of genetics that studies things like how non-genetic factors, typically at the cellular level, can affect the way a given DNA sequence, and therefore the way a gene, is expressed.

According to the Center on the Developing Child:

“... positive experiences, such as exposure to rich learning opportunities, and negative influences, such as malnutrition or environmental toxins, can change the chemistry that encodes genes in brain cells — a change that can be temporary or permanent. This process is called epigenetic modification.” (2)

Young children experiencing adversity such as neglect, poverty, parental substance abuse, or prolonged periods of stress may be susceptible to a “toxic stress response.” Toxic stress can be as harmful as it sounds, destroying brain cells and significantly disrupting brain circuitry in foundational years, leading to emotional and mental health complications such as anxiety and depression in childhood or even later in adulthood. (3)

Development in early years often predicts emotional, academic, and social well-being and even physical health in adulthood. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child explains:

“Biologically, the brain is prepared to be shaped by experience. It’sexpecting the experiences that a young child has to literally influence the formation of its circuitry…If a child is preoccupied with fears or anxiety or is dealing with considerable stress, no matter how intellectually gifted that child might be, his or her learning is going to be impaired by that kind of emotional interference.” (4)

Learn more about the basics of early childhood brain development with Dr. Shonkoff in this short video from the Center on the Developing Child. (4)

Shonkoff recognizes that supporting healthy cognitive development in children is not separate from social and emotional development, making the case for intervention for children in early years.

So, is mindfulness the type of intervention that might help?

Mindfulness as Early Childhood Intervention

Contemplative practices – an umbrella term for practices like yoga and mindfulness meditation – have been studied primarily in adult and adolescent populations over the last few decades and are associated with increased activation in brain regions related to executive functioning. (5)

Executive functions (EFs) are a range of activities such as planning, decision-making, and self-regulation of attention, emotions and behaviors. As a result of positive findings in older populations, new research investigates the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions on executive functioning in elementary and early childhood settings.

Self-regulation, a type of executive functioning, is broadly considered to be the integration of flexible attention, working memory, and ability to inhibit one’s impulses. Self-regulation in preschool-aged children has been strongly correlated with academic success as measured by progress in emergent literacy and math.

An even stronger predictor than IQ, self-regulation in the beginning years of life is one of many functions that can predict math and reading achievement in elementary and middle school. (6)

Mindfulness practices have had mixed results in effectiveness on executive functioning in child populations, in part due to weaker design without control groups for comparison and due to reliance on self- or parent-reported data. Without a control group that receives alternative or no treatment, it’s hard to determine if any changes are linked to the actual mindfulness treatment or whether the changes would happen regardless.

And, with self-reported data like questionnaire and survey responses, it’s hard to calibrate if one person’s perception of “strongly agree” is the same as another’s. It’s utility as a measure of effectiveness, however, is revealing trends and prompting further precision investigation.

In a recent study by Lisa Flook et al. (2010), for example, early elementary children received training in Mindful Awareness Practices that included breathing awareness, body awareness and movement, and awareness of environment. Results revealed that, according to teacher and parent reports, children who started the program with difficulties in self-regulation showed significant improvement. (7)

This preliminary study call for more research on mindfulness as an effective intervention in even younger child populations – a way to offer children experiencing adversity a way to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, potentially preventing disruptions to healthy brain development.

But can young children really meditate?

Given what we know about young children’s development and naturally quick shifts in attention, even 10 minutes of seated silence with children ages 3-5 seems unrealistic. To manage the concern of long periods of quiet, shorter adaptations of meditation practice have been designed to help introduce children to meditational techniques by reading a related story, participating in walking and observation meditations, playing games like “breathing buddies,” as well as reflective activities. (8)

It’s important to remember, however, that in many Eastern classrooms, children are often introduced to more traditional meditational practices at an early age. In a recent research study by Tang et al (2012), 4.5-year-olds in China were trained in integrative body-mind therapy (IBMT) sessions adapted from the original Zen training program for adults. Standard IBMT sessions consist of 5 minutes of modeling and directions by an instructor, 20 minutes of silent meditation or meditation with soothing music, and 5 minutes of reflection.

Young children participated in twenty 30-minute sessions – a total of 10 hours of mindfulness practice – over the course of a month. In contrast to a control group, the mindfulness group’s performance on two stimulus-discrimination Stroop Tasks to measure attention significantly improved. The mindfulness training group also showed significant increases in effortful self-control (an executive function) as reported by their parents. (9)

Research is still required to confirm the beneficial impact of integrative body-mind therapy (IBMT) on child brain development, though preceding neuroimaging studies of IBMT in adults demonstrated promising results.

After just one month of practice, fMRI on adult participants revealed enhanced functional connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum as compared to a control group receiving relaxation activities, suggesting that the mindfulness training may enhance focused attention. (10)

Yi-Yuan Tang and her team plan to study IBMT in American settings in order to determine the impact of mindfulness on self-regulation in early childhood across cultures.

What does meditation with young children look like?

Mindfulness can take various forms, silence in a seated posture being one of them. Paying attention to the breath or sounds within our outside of the body is another form. Walking mindfully with each step is another. Mindfulness is simply paying attention, without judgment, to the present moment. (11)

In the last decade, various organizations and programs have emerged to support mindfulness in classrooms. One such organization begun in 2008, Mindful Schools, offers certification and video resources on how to teach mindfulness to elementary-age children.

The following sample video offers student-friendly listening to the sounds of bells and sharing their experiences, and it all takes less than fifteen minutes: K-5 Mindfulschools.org Lesson. (12) Scroll down and click on the K-5 Curriculum Demo. At 5:33, you can get a sense of how students receive scaffolding support to move from listening to sounds outside of themselves to listening for sounds inside of themselves.

If meditating silently on external or internal sounds feels less appropriate as a mindfulness introduction to your students, consider adapting mindful practice ideas to meet your young students where they are. For example, you might play a familiar song and have your students gently tap their noses each time they hear a particular note or word. To help encourage awareness and regulation of attention, perhaps sing overlapping rounds of “Row, row, row your boat,” allowing children to learn strategies for how to focus their attention on their part.

Equally important is supporting children as they learn to re-focus attention when they’re momentarily distracted (if you’ve played this singing game before, you know how challenging it can be!).

Mindfulness is not simply sitting perfectly still; music and movement often make ideal mindfulness entry points for elementary-age children.

As mindfulness research in early childhood settings continues to grow, so shall science-based, kid-friendly resources for the classroom. Improvement of programs and refinement of research is undoubtedly the ongoing goal, but waiting for perfected materials means waiting to offer potentially life-altering resources to our children while they’re still children.

Let’s help them evolve into healthy adults by offering them simple mindfulness tools now.

References and Further Reading
  • Center on the Developing Child (2009).Core Concepts in the Science of Early Childhood Development. [Multimedia Article]
  • Center on the Developing Child (2009).Deep Dive: Gene-Environment Interaction. [Article]
  • Shonkoff, J., & Garner, A. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), E232-E246. [Paper]
  • Shonkoff, J. (2009, October 1). Center for the Developing Child: The Science of Early Childhood Development. [Video]
  • Lazar, S. W., Bush, G. L., Gollub, R., Fricchione, G., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. NeuroReport,11(7), 1581-1585. [Paper]
  • McClelland, M. M. and Cameron, C. E. (2012), Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Improving Conceptual Clarity and Developing Ecologically Valid Measures. Child Development Perspectives, 6: 136–142. [Paper]
  • Flook, L., et al. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. [Paper]
  • Elizabeth Willis & Laura H. Dinehart (2014) Contemplative practices in early childhood: implications for self-regulation skills and school readiness, Early Child Development and Care, 184:4, 487-499 [Paper]
  • Tang, Y., Yang, L., Leve, L., & Harold, G. (2012). Improving Executive Function and Its Neurobiological Mechanisms Through a Mindfulness‐Based Intervention: Advances Within the Field of Developmental Neuroscience. Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 361-366. [Paper]
  • Tang, Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,107(35), 15649-52. [Paper]
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology-Science And Practice, 10(2), 144-156. [Paper]
  • Cowan, M. K-5 Curriculum Demo: Class One – Mindful Bodies and Listening – 1st Grade Classroom. [Resource]

About Rina Deshpande

Rina Deshpande is a teacher of children and adults in academics and self-regulation through mindfulness practice. After teaching bilingual (Spanish-English) third grade and fifth grade as a public school teacher in New York City, Ms. Deshpande helped found Relay Graduate School of Education as Assistant Professor of Practice and Director of the Elementary Masters Program where she designed, taught, and coached elementary teachers in the classroom.

Believing that ongoing learning is the foundation of improving instruction, Ms. Deshpande attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Mind, Brain, and Education program, where she earned her masters degree. She presently continues self-regulation and emotion-regulation research as an HGSE fellow and is a contributing writer to Sonima.com.


Therapeuic Yoga and Mindfulness at NESCA

Yoga, meditation and other mindfulness practices are rapidly gaining recognition as effective treatments for conditions such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, anxiety and depression.

At the cutting-edge of this treatment revolution, NESCA has provided therapeutic yoga services to children and adolescents for the past several years, with excellent results.

The NESCA yoga program is rooted in the belief that self-regulation and self-awareness skills are essential foundations of success and general well-being.

Sessions are designed to work with the learning style of each participant and to be appropriately engaging and fun in order to promote active participation. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On Special Education: Understanding Accommodations and Modifications

From Parents Have the Power
to Make Special Education Work

By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
February 1, 2016

Of all the terms in special education, two of the most confusing for parents are “accommodation” and “modification.” We always saw these terms on our son’s IEP and, like most parents, never fully understood what they meant.

This is unfortunate, because knowing the difference can have a significant impact on a child’s education.

Both accommodations and modifications function together in a student’s IEP or 504 plan, but you need to understand how they affect your child’s curriculum and academic progress.

What is an Accommodation?

An accommodation is something that changes how a student learns, but doesn’t change the instruction itself.

For example, an accommodation might mean that a student is seated at the front of a classroom to compensate for a hearing or vision deficit, but the student participates in the same curriculum as the rest of the class.

Or, a student might be given extra time on tests to accommodate an executive function disorder, but the teacher still expects him or her to answer the same questions as all the other students.

Accommodations can also include the use of an assistive device, such as a specialized chair or desk, a computer, or a pencil grip. The curriculum remains the same as for the other students in the class, so teachers should have high expectations that a child with accommodations will be able to learn the material.

What is a Modification?

A modification changes what a student is expected to learn. Modifications alter the curriculum or the instruction for a student with disabilities.

For example, the student might be given easier questions on a test or shorter and simpler reading assignments. In general, a student who receives modifications is not held to the same standards as his or her general education peers.

Other examples of modifications might be for a student with a math disability to do fifth-grade math in a seventh-grade math class. Or, a student might be required to know half the words on a spelling test that the other students are learning.

One important aspect of modifications is that they should be, in the words of a recent U.S. Department of Education advisory letter, “aligned with State academic content standards for the grade in which a child is enrolled… so that the child can advance appropriately toward attaining those goals during the annual period covered by the IEP."

The letter also reminds IEP Teams to create goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and to estimate how much progress toward reaching grade level that the student will make.*

In other words, modifications should not “dumb down” the curriculum so that a student can appear to be successful without actually making meaningful and effective academic progress.

Our Experience with Modifications

As we write in our book, our son has a language-based learning disability that affects his reading and written composition. By the time he became a fluent reader in the fourth grade, he was behind in his writing ability. After all, if you can’t read, you can’t write. By the time he reached middle school, the academic demands were much greater than in elementary school.

Our school kept telling us that his writing problems were due to fine motor deficits, not a learning disability, despite independent testing that clearly showed the disability. Testing also showed that he was reading and comprehending at a college level, but his written composition was well below grade level.

Instead of giving him appropriate instruction, however, the school’s solution was to have him write as little as possible. In middle school, we began to get progress reports that indicated he had been “excused” from his written assignments.

It was clear that the school was modifying his curriculum rather than trying to teach him how to write. There was no attempt to have him make progress toward writing at grade level.

This was without ever having discussed writing modifications in our IEP meetings.

When confronted about this, the district’s director of special education proposed a formal modification for our son’s IEP that would excuse him from ever writing more than a single paragraph. After all, she continued, once he graduated from high school he could choose a college major in a subject that didn’t require any writing. Then, when he graduated from college, he could apply for jobs that didn’t involve having to write. In her mind, the solution was that simple.

Interestingly, when he did eventually attend college, he majored in English literature and Classical languages, both of which require a great deal of writing.

Accommodations and Modifications Can Alter Expectations

Based on our experience, we want parents to be vigilant and pay attention to how accommodations and modifications can affect the school’s expectations for their child.

We came to realize that “excusing” assignments was a modification and not an accommodation, one that made no attempt to allow our son to advance toward his grade level of writing ability.

Such a modification was not part of our son’s IEP, and it was inappropriate for a student who had the ability to do the assignments with the proper instruction and accommodations.

Modifications can be appropriate in certain circumstances but they are no substitute for proper and effective accommodations designed to help a student learn. Improperly used modifications can lower a teacher’s expectations for what a student can do, something we discuss in a previous blog article, The Problem With Low Expectations.

This article documents how certain school systems around the country misuse modifications to make the schools look better on standardized tests than they would have otherwise, and to reinforce low expectations and stereotypes for students with special needs.

Your Child’s IEP Must Clearly Specify the Difference

When discussing accommodations and modifications with your child’s IEP Team, we recommend that you:
  • Make sure that any proposed accommodations and modifications are clearly spelled out in your child’s IEP.
  • Be aware of how the proposed accommodations and modifications align with your state’s academic content standards and still meet your child’s unique needs. These standards should available on your state’s department of education website.
  • Determine how the proposed accommodations and modifications will help close any grade level gap in your child’s performance. The accommodations and modifications should support IEP goals that are “ambitious but achievable.”
  • Use independent testing to verify what your child is capable of doing before you agree to any proposed accommodations and modifications. Don’t just rely on school testing, especially if you feel that the testing doesn’t fully describe your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Schools are required by law to use appropriate accommodations and modifications for children in special education, but it is unfortunately your responsibility to see it is done correctly.