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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ivy Street School's 4th Annual Extravaganza at Berklee Performance Center Thursday, 6/11

From Ivy Street School
A Part of MAB Community Services

March 18, 2015

Please join Ivy Street School at their 4th Annual  Extravaganza, a talent revue featuring music, dancing, magic, comedy and more!

This fun-filled night not only makes their students feel like the stars they are, it is also Ivy Street School’s biggest fundraiser of the year, raising money for classroom technology, vocational programs, sports and recreation, music and arts programming, and professional development opportunities for their staff.

Extravaganza is always the highlight of Ivy Street's year. Don't miss out on your opportunity to experience it!

When:   6:00pm Thursday, June 11, 2015

Where: Berklee Performance Center
                   136 Massachusetts Avenue,
                   Boston, Massachusetts 02115

This event is free and open to the public. RSVP to: extravaganza@ivystreetschool.org.

Only One Childhood

From Consilium Divorce Consultations' Blog

By Gene Beresin, M.D. and Heidi Webb
March 17, 2015

Navigating divorce is an adult problem and responsibility. However, too often children find themselves caught in the crossfire of their parents’ marital conflict.

During a divorce, adults often become self-absorbed. In fact, they can become so focused on their own sadness, anger and worries that they inadvertently miss the needs of their children. Sometimes, divorcing adults can seem more like children themselves than their actual children.

I (Heidi) recall a child once saying that he’d had a dream in which all the bad people were wearing good masks, and all the good people bad masks. How confusing and troubling it must have been for him to see the two people he loved most acting in such contrary ways.

Lawyers advocating for their clients can fuel fires and drive bigger wedges between divorcing couples, in turn exacerbating adult behavior that may be damaging for the children involved. Attorneys who act in this way typically do not do so out of ill will, but because they honestly believe it’s in their client’s best interest; perhaps it will result in a better financial settlement, or a more favorable custodial arrangement.

However, what they don’t factor into the equation is the fact that many cases drag on for long periods of time, and in the midst of the fray, angry feelings and ill will between parents cause their children to suffer—sometimes in ways that will have a prolonged, if not lifelong, impact on their psychological development and relationships.

But eventually the case does end, the attorneys depart, and the parents and children are left with a lifetime of future interactions—birthdays, graduations, weddings—all of which may be riddled with bad feelings originating in the divorce process.

Most lawyers are not trained in psychology and child development, yet are tasked with the extraordinary obligation of securing the future trajectory of children’s lives. Few, if any, law schools have curricula addressing these important issues. As a result, when it comes to how children are perceived during the course of a divorce, it’s often in terms of the tax ramifications of child support, which parent will pay for which share of college, etc.—instead of the impact on the affected children’s emotional and psychological well-being.

Meanwhile, the emotional support that children really need during the course of their parents’ divorce is overlooked or minimized in the hope that they will somehow heal themselves—or that a therapist or other mental health professional will be brought in if needed. Parents may sometimes rationalize the war that surrounds their kids by believing that one’s personal victory will ensure a better life for the children—and, sometimes it will. But, many overlook the unexpected damages that can evolve during a bitter and divisive process.

Instead of waiting for the negative fallout that occurs when children’s emotional lives are not on the front burner, we’d like to suggest some tips for adults who believe that children only get one childhood—and that divorce is and should be an adult problem and responsibility.

We’ve coined the following tips ACTCIVIL:

1.) Children should never have to hear their parents bad mouth one another, or bear witness to their ACCUSATIONS.

Many divorces are heated, with one parent feeling that the other is at fault, or that he or she is the victim of abuse. While some accusations may be grounded in truth, others are perceptual—and there are usually two sides to every argument. It takes great restraint to refrain from making accusations in front of the kids, to the kids themselves about the partner, or to the partner within earshot of the kids. No child wants to hear harsh things said about a parent; and, such actions usually backfire and instead cast the instigator in a bad light.

2.) Children should never be their parent’s CONFIDANT.

It’s tempting to use a child as a sounding board, but please know that this can be damaging. While the child may appear to be a good support, kids need space to achieve their own developmental tasks—academic, creative, athletic and social skills should come first. When a parent uses the child as a confidant, it takes time and emotional focus away from the child’s own needs.

Furthermore, kids are like sponges; they absorb your energy, pain and struggles, and often feel guilty if they’re unable to solve your adult problems. No child needs to feel burdened by a parent’s problem—particularly one of divorce.

3.) Children should be able to TRUST their parents.

While children should be protected from adult themes that are inappropriate for them to hear, they do need to trust that their parents will ultimately tell them the truth. If you’re depressed, angry, hurt, or strapped financially, let them know—at a level that they can understand. You don’t have to go into tremendous detail, but if you’re stressed, let them know that you’re “out of sorts” and apologize. Or, if you have to be tight with money, let them know that you just can’t afford this or that. If you’re moving, notify them with plenty of notice, and let them ask questions.

But by all means, tell them the truth, even if that requires with minimal elaboration. This will earn their trust—and kids need to trust their parents, especially when things are confusing and their normal routines are being changed. If kids can trust that each parent will tell them the truth about their situation, they’ll have less anxiety, and a greater ability to cope. Leaving things unspoken, or worse, spreading lies, only promotes stress and insecurity.

4.) Children need to observe that disagreeing parents are CIVIL to each other.

Kids do best during and following a divorce when there is a warm relationship between each parent and child, as well as a harmonious relationship between the partners themselves. While parents may differ in their opinions, kids need to see and understand that we can all treat one another with respect during a conflict. This lesson not only applies to home life; it’s one that kids will carry with them as they withstand conflicts with peers and other adults throughout their lifetimes.

The tolerance and acceptance of difference starts at home, and though divorce can be a difficult time for parents to model this principle, it’s probably the most crucial. No child wishes a divorce on his or her parents, but if one does occur, he or she wants to know that those he or she loves and relies on the most can treat one another with civility.

5.) Children need to be INFORMED about their parents’ divorce.

When the decision is made to get a divorce (and it may be wise to seek counseling prior to this, either to see about saving the marriage, or conversely, to discuss how to orchestrate the most humane and fair separation), kids need to hear the facts. It’s wise for parents to plan a series of family meetings; the first that springs the news will likely be a shock for some, though some kids may have been expecting it.

Nevertheless, plan what you’re going to say, and aim to be concrete. It’s wise to not only explain what’s happening, but to remind them that you love them and that they will be taken care of.

Kids need concrete details; they want to know where they’ll live, whom they’ll live with and when the change will take place. They’ll also be thinking of holidays, vacations, birthdays and other important family events. This is why multiple meetings are useful. If you can’t do this on your own, it’s helpful to seek a counselor to facilitate the process. Try to find someone who is trained in child psychiatry, psychology or social work so that he or she will understand the needs of kids at different ages.

6.) Children need to have their reality VALIDATED.

While it’s tempting to hide some of the facts surrounding one’s situation from the kids, the reality of the divorce needs to be spelled out clearly to them (however, some facts, such as those with adult themes, should be kept private). Remember when talking to children about the divorce to keep things in a developmental context. An explanation for a 10-year-old is very different than that for a 16-year-old.

The 10-year-old may be able to understand, “Sometimes you and a friend just don’t get along anymore,” while a 16-year-old may need to hear, “You know we’ve had a long and stormy relationship. Maybe we got married too young, or maybe we didn’t realize how differently we approached life, personal values and the future. These things happen, and I really hope when you choose a partner, that you’ll keep these things in mind.”

For kids of all ages, ask open-ended questions: “Do you have any questions about the divorce?” “What’s worrying you?” Let them feel safe enough to have a conversation. Again, keep things at an appropriate developmental level. A 10-year-old’s question may be, “Who’s going to take care of me?” On the other hand, a 16-year-old’s may be, “What’s going to be my address?” “How can my friends contact me?”

7.) Children’s best INTERESTS always come first.

As noted above, it can be challenging during a contested divorce to keep children’s best interests in mind when a parent feels so much is at stake. As one considers finances, housing, child support, alimony, custody, etc., it’s important to consider what is really best for the children involved—even if that results in a less-than-ideal compromise between parents. If possible, it’s usually best for parents to share legal and physical custody. Ongoing access to parents whom the children love is really the first priority.

And for parents, ensuring that they remain part of their kids’ daily lives is important for both parties. While it can be difficult (given the circumstances of your individual situation), remember that YOU need to be the one to make compromises and sacrifices for the sake of your kids—without, of course, putting yourself in jeopardy. Life is a balancing act, and nowhere is this more evident than during a divorce. However, our advice is to let the kids’ interest take priority even if it tilts your scales a bit.

8.) Children need to understand that their parents can disagree and still LOVE them.

It’s important for kids to appreciate that conflict is a part of life. Most of all, however, they need to know that despite the divorce, they remain deeply loved by their parents—and that, no matter how difficult life may be for each parent, their ultimate well-being will prevail.


Divorce is tough for both parents and kids—there’s no way around it. But when divorce is going to happen, it may actually be the better situation for all concerned. The key is to make it as productive and growth-promoting as possible for everyone in the family.

About the Authors

Heidi R. Webb, Ed.M., J.D. has been licensed to practice law in Massachusetts and before the Federal District and Appeals Courts since 1986. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Heidi received a masters in Education from Harvard University, where she concentrated in counseling and consulting psychology. Soon after graduating, she was granted a fellowship with the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, D.C.

Hoping to merge her backgrounds in education, psychology and law, Heidi embarked on a solo law practice in 1998 to give clients a more effective means of navigating through their divorce, and into their next life stage.

At her firm, Consilium Divorce Consultations, clients receive not only legal advice, but life-planning strategies, and emotional, financial and logistical support during this critical life transition. They are guided through the labyrinth that is the divorce process, and helped to make calm, informed decisions, hire appropriate legal counsel and start their new journey after divorce with attainable goals.

Gene Beresin, M.D. is executive director of the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

In Defense of Snow Days

From EducationNext

By Joshua Goodman
March 26, 2015

Students who stay home when school is in session are a much larger problem.

In snowy climes, school superintendents must frequently decide whether an impending storm warrants closing schools for the day. Concerns about student and teacher safety must be weighed against the loss of student learning time, along with state requirements for days of instruction and the cost and inconvenience of extending the school year into the summer.

This calculus assumes, based on evidence of various kinds, that school hours lost to snow days equal lost student learning. Studies show that highly effective charter schools, for instance, tend to have longer school days and years than traditional public schools, and that increased instructional time is correlated with higher school effectiveness even within the charter sector.

Other studies have shown that schools fare worse on state tests in years in which they experience more weather-related school closings, seemingly providing direct evidence that closings reduce student learning (see Time for School research, Winter, 2010).

Discussion of instructional time loss, however, has rarely focused on individual student attendance, a surprising omission given that the average American student misses more than two weeks of school every year. While most absences are the result of illness or disengagement from school, some reflect the decision to stay home when the weather is bad, even though schools remain open.

In addition to reducing instructional time, student absences may impede the learning process by forcing teachers to split their time between students who have and have not missed the previous day’s lessons.

This study provides a fresh look at the impact of instructional time lost due to weather-related student absences, as well as to school closings. Using student-level data from Massachusetts, I find that each one-day increase in the student absence rate driven by bad weather reduces math achievement by up to 5 percent of a standard deviation, suggesting that differences in average student attendance may account for as much as one-quarter of the income-based achievement gap in the state.

Conversely, instructional time lost to weather-related school closings has no impact on student test scores.

What could explain these apparently conflicting results? It appears that teachers and schools are well prepared to deal with coordinated disruptions of instructional time like snow days but not with absences of different students at different times.

In short, individual absences and not school closings are responsible for the achievement impacts of bad weather.

Studying Instructional Disruptions

The major challenge of studying the effect of disruptions to instructional time on student achievement is that students and schools with high absence and closing rates are likely to differ in unobserved ways from those with low absence and closing rates. Simply comparing the test scores of students who are absent more and less often, for example, would ignore factors such as students’ health or family background that affect both academic performance and attendance rates.

In the same way, school districts that close school more often may have other policies in place that would lead to performance differences.

One way to overcome this challenge is to take advantage of weather patterns that affect instructional time. Although students have been known to pray for snow days, the amount of snow that falls in a given time and place is outside of their control. It is of course possible that regions that consistently receive more snow than others may differ in unobserved ways that are related to their achievement. Yet the amount of snow a given school experiences often varies a great deal from one year to the next.

This makes it possible to compare the performance of individual schools in years they experience an unusually large amount of snow to their performance in years they experience very little.

This is the strategy I implement, using data from Massachusetts spanning the years 2003 to 2010. In particular, I compare how students in a particular grade in a particular school fared on the state tests in years when winter weather resulted in numerous student absences and school cancellations to the test results for students in that same grade and school in years when the winter was milder and resulted in fewer absences and cancellations.

Massachusetts is an ideal state to conduct a study of weather-related absences and school closings as the amount of snowfall varies widely from year to year and across the state. Indeed, the average number of days with more than four inches of snowfall experienced by schools in the state during the study period ranged from just a single day in 2007 to nearly five days in 2005. In some years, the Boston area was hardest hit, while in others more snow fell in the Berkshire Mountains to the west.

As in most states, school closings in Massachusetts are at the discretion of the superintendent, who generally consults the weather forecast, neighboring superintendents, and other local officials before making a decision. Superintendents are typically reluctant to call a snow day for a number of reasons. Parents of school-age children may struggle to make child-care arrangements when schools close unexpectedly.

Massachusetts law requires all schools to provide 180 days of instruction. When schools close too often during the winter, instructional days must be added to the calendar in June. Because the state’s standardized tests are administered in the spring, snow days also reduce the amount of instructional time that schools have to prepare students for the tests.

Substantial gains in instructional time may be made
by simply improving school attendance.


Because the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not collect information on school closings, I solicited it from the state’s roughly 350 school districts individually, by e-mail and phone, with priority given to collecting data from the largest districts. I was ultimately able to obtain annual data on the number of school closings between 2003 and 2010 from districts serving more than half the students in the state.

Snowfall data come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Data Online. NOAA records daily weather data, including snowfall, rainfall, and minimum and maximum temperatures, all of which are captured by dozens of sensors scattered across the state. By mapping schools’ latitude and longitude, I assigned each to its closest weather sensor. This allowed the construction of annual measures of snowfall that are specific to each school.

My main analysis sample includes all students in Massachusetts public schools from 2003 to 2010 with valid state test scores in math or English language arts (ELA) from districts that reported a complete annual history of school closings. Student-level data on demographics, attendance, and achievement come from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Specifically, the data include student gender, race/ethnicity, family income as indicated by free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, special education status, and current grade.

A little more than one-third of the students are from low-income families. More than two-thirds are white, while 11 percent are black, 14 percent are Hispanic, and 6 percent are Asian.

I calculate student absences as the difference between the number of days a student was enrolled in school and the number of days a student actually attended school. The data do not include specific dates of student absences, so daily weather patterns cannot be linked to daily attendance. All analysis is therefore done at the annual level.

The data include students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which is given annually in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10 in mathematics and ELA. The ELA tests are typically administered during a two-week window in late March to early April and the math tests in mid- to late May. Although my annual measure of absences may therefore overstate the number of absences that could affect test performance, the weather-related absences that are the focus of the analysis almost always occur prior to these test-administration windows.

A Blizzard of Absences

The average Massachusetts student is absent 8 school days per year, but student absences vary by poverty status, grade, and race. In the sample of students used in my analysis, poor students are absent 10 days per year on average, 3 days more than nonpoor students. There are also striking differences by race in the average number of absences. Black and Hispanic students are absent 9 and 10 school days a year, respectively, compared to 5 days for Asian and about 8 days for white students.

In contrast, the average student misses just two days a year due to weather-related closings, a figure which does not differ notably across student groups. For most students, then, the amount of instruction time lost to absences dwarfs that lost to closings (see Figure 1).

The first step in my analysis is to determine how both student absences and school closings are affected by snowfall. In doing so, I distinguish between moderately snowy days, in which a school received at least 4 but fewer than 10 inches of snow, and days when more than 10 inches fell. To discern the effects of both kinds of days, I compare students attending the same school and grade in different years and adjust for the average amount of snow experienced in a given year statewide.

I find that each extra day with at least 4 but fewer than 10 inches of snow leads to just .04 additional school closings but .08 additional student absences (see Figure 2). The size of the latter effect implies that, for a classroom of 25 students, each additional moderately snowy day would result in about two students more being absent. Each day with snowfall of 10 inches or more, in contrast, leads to .51 additional closings.

Controlling for the number of moderately snowy days, however, heavy snow leaves student absences unaffected, since all students are generally out of school.

Snowy days thus affect instructional time through two channels. Some result in school closings, in which all students miss school. On other, less snowy days, schools typically remain open but a subset of students remains home. With information on the number of moderate and heavy snow days that schools experience each year, it is possible to disentangle the effects of absences and closings on student achievement.

Absences, Closings, and Student Achievement

I find that absences cause sharp reductions in math achievement. When the average student in a given grade and school is absent one additional day over the course of a year, average math achievement in that grade falls by 5 percent of a standard deviation, a large effect, roughly equivalent to 6 percent of the gap in math performance between low-income and nonpoor students in Massachusetts.

Given that the typical low-income student is absent three more days each year than a nonpoor student, this result suggests that student absences could account for as much as one-quarter of the income-based achievement gap in the state.

The estimated impact on ELA performance, while negative, is smaller and statistically insignificant (see Figure 3).

The larger impact of absences on math performance may be because in math, much more so than in ELA, understanding the current topic depends on having understood prior topics. Teachers may feel more obligated during math instructional time to try to catch up students who have been absent, thus depriving the rest of the class of instructional time. If teachers don’t review for those students, their days missed may have long-run effects, as they lose mastery of both the material presented in their absence and the material presented subsequently. Missing an ELA lesson may not have as deep an impact on a student’s ability to learn from subsequent lessons.

Because my analysis relates average achievement levels in a given school and grade to overall absence rates, the effects of absences on math achievement could be driven by students’ own absences or those of their peers. I suspect that both factors are important. In a separate analysis of the same achievement data, I compare the test scores of specific students to their own test scores in years in which they and their peers were absent more often. I find that student learning in math is equally affected by one’s own lost instructional time and the time lost by one’s peers.

This pattern provides a first suggestion that the harm caused by student absences may stem as much from the challenges frequent absences pose for teachers as from the instructional time lost by the specific students missing class.

School closings, in contrast, have no effect at all on student achievement for the sample as a whole, in either math or ELA. I find that school closings do appear to reduce performance in both subjects in schools serving predominantly low-income students, but the effect is smaller than .02 standard deviations for each day lost. In the main, then, it appears that individual student absences and not school closings are responsible for the achievement impacts of bad weather and that the magnitude of the estimated impact of absences on math achievement is substantial.

These findings, that weather-related school closings have little impact on student achievement, appear to conflict with those of a number of previous studies, which may have painted an incomplete picture of the relationship between bad weather, lost instructional time, and achievement. Finding a correlation between bad weather and declines in student achievement, prior researchers assumed that the effect runs through school closings.

This analysis distinguishes between the effects of school closings and of individual student absences and finds the latter to be the culprit in lowering student test scores.


In short, the impact of lost instructional time depends on the particular form of the time lost. Student absences sharply reduce student achievement, particularly in math, but school closings appear to have little impact. These findings should not be taken to mean that instructional time does not matter for student learning; the bulk of the evidence suggests it does.

A more likely explanation is that schools and teachers are well prepared to deal with the coordinated disruptions caused by snow days—much more so than they are to handle the less dramatic but more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance.

This result may seem intuitive to teachers, who are familiar with the management challenges of instructing students at different levels of preparation. When a few students miss a day or more of instruction, the teacher can review the recently presented material for those students who missed it, in which case the absent students’ peers lose out on valuable instructional time, or she may move forward with new material and risk having the absent students fall behind.

School closings, conversely, present no such coordination challenge. All students miss the exact same lesson, allowing the teacher to easily plan for ways to compensate. The lost time will have no effect on students’ standardized test scores so long as the teacher redirects time from nontested subjects or material to compensate for the missed lesson on tested material. If lessons on nontested material can be postponed, compressed, or eliminated altogether, school closings will not affect student test scores.

The fact that changes in student absence rates are strongly associated with changes in student achievement demonstrates that instructional time lost to these student-level disruptions matters for student learning. Increasing instructional time does not necessarily require lengthening the school day or year. Substantial gains may be made by simply improving student attendance.

The negative achievement impacts associated with student absences imply that schools and teachers are not well prepared to deal with the more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance. Schools and teachers may benefit from investing in strategies to compensate for these disruptions, including the use of self-paced learning technologies that shift the classroom model to one in which all students need not learn the same lesson at the same time.

In the meantime, superintendents watching the weather forecast should consider erring on the side of cancellation when an impending storm is likely to be severe enough to substantially disrupt student attendance. Their decisions may not please working parents scrambling to arrange child care. (As a Boston-area parent, I speak from experience.)

But closing school for everyone appears to be better for student learning than adding to the challenges posed by American students’ already low attendance rates.


Joshua Goodman is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Monday, March 30, 2015

April 13th: The Discovery Museums 2015 Speaker Series - N.Y. Times Columnist Frank Bruni on College Admissions Mania

From The Discovery Museums

March 26, 2015

From Diapers to Diploma:
A Healthier Way to
Navigate Your Child's Path to College

Monday, April 13, 2015 — 6:30 to 8:30pm

R.J. Grey Junior High School Auditorium
16 Charter Road, Acton, MA

Increasingly, American parents start worrying about college admissions when their children are barely out of diapers. And by middle school, kids have been thrust into the competition for the Ivy Leagues. But that's a dangerous game, one that teaches kids a curious set of values, sets too many of them up for disappointment and perverts the true purpose of education.

It's also built on a myth: that success hinges on going to a highly selective school.

Frank Bruni will talk about a better, healthier way to think about and approach all of this, distilling the research, life stories and advice in his new book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," being published on March 17th.

This event is free of charge but pre-registration is required.

Register HERE.

Copies of "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania" will be on sale at the event thanks to The Concord Bookshop, and Frank Bruni will be signing copies following his presentation. Come prepared to purchase your copy!

Light refreshments will be served.

About Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995 and has ranged broadly across its pages. He has been both a White House correspondent and the chief restaurant critic.

Mr. Bruni is the author of two New York Times best sellers: a 2009 memoir "Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite," about the joys and torments of his eating life, and a 2002 chronicle of George W. Bush's initial presidential campaign, "Ambling into History." His new book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," is being published in March, 2015.

Mr. Bruni grew up in White Plains, N.Y. and Avon, Connecticut. He is a 1986 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned a B.A. in English. He earned an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University in 1988, graduating second in his class and winning a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn

From KQED's Blog "Mind/Shift"
How we will learn.

By Katrina Schwartz
March 26, 2015

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head...”

When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand. Researchers have found that when students use their bodies while doing mathematical storytelling (like with word problems, for example), it changes the way they think about math.

“We understand language in a richer, fuller way if we can connect it to the actions we perform,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Consider this word problem:

Two hippos and two alligators are at the zoo. Pete the zookeeper feeds them at the same time. Pete gives each hippo seven fish. He gives four to the alligators.

In an experiment on third graders, students were divided into two groups. One group read through the problem twice. The other group acted out the story as they read it, physically pretending to feed fish to the hippos and alligators as they read the problem. Both groups of students were asked how many fish the zookeeper fed to the animals.

The answer:

“Kids who acted out the story did better on this problem,” Beilock said. The kids who read the problem often got “eleven” as a solution. They had missed the word “each” in the problem. But because the acting kids had physically mimed giving each hippo seven fish before moving on, the difference was ingrained.

“What was important was matching the words with specific action; that led to enhanced learning,” Beilock said. “And after they’d acted it out they could actually do it in their head and get some of the same benefits.”

The Body and the Brain

Scholarly study goes back a long time in history, but in terms of human evolution, many of the academic skills now required for successful functioning in the world are fairly new to the human brain. As neuroscientists investigate how humans learn, they often find that newer skills and aptitudes are mapped onto areas of the brain that also control basic body functions. Increasingly, this work is helping to illuminate neurological connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head,” said Beilock at a Learning and the Brain conference. “We have to go beyond that.”



This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1966 book The Secret of Childhood:

“Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

Increasingly scientists are proving Montessori right. Researchers are studying the body movements of children as young as four-to-six months old and have found earlier and more frequent movement correlates with academic learning down the road. Kids who could sit up, sustain “tummy time” longer and walk were all correlated with future academic success, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomics, family education and type of future education, among other mitigating factors.

“A very strong predictor of academic achievement was how early kids were moving, exploring their world,” Beilock said. “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change.”

Once kids are on the move the adults in their lives use directives and other more complicated language forms. As kids are coached by their parents, they begin to understand the directions and change behaviors. And once a child can do something on her own, she’s more likely to internalize what’s happening with others.

“There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain,” Beilock said.“Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn.”

As young children move and explore their worlds, they are learning through touch. Early bimanual training correlates with the robustness of the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that facilitates quick communication between the left and right brain hemispheres, Beilock said. This connection between using ones hands and swift communication in the brain may be part of the reason learning to play music is often correlated with math ability.

“Math is a very recent cultural invention,” Beilock said. The part of the brain responsible for numerical representation also controls finger motion. Many children first learn to count on their fingers, a physical manifestation of the connection. The studies of very young learners have solidified Beilock’s conviction that academic learning is inherently connected to the body.

Gesturing to Learn

A colleague of Beilock’s at the University of Chicago, Susan Goldin-Meadow has done extensive research into how student gestures can indicate a more nuanced understanding of math than students are often able to articulate verbally. Goldin-Meadow did a lot of work around problems of equivalence, which children often struggle to understand.

She found that often students gesture in ways that indicate they understand how to solve the problem even if they are simultaneously describing an incorrect solution.

“It’s particularly helpful for teachers because it may give you insight into things students may not be able to express,” said Goldin-Meadow at the same conference. Not only could gestures be a good clue for teachers, but when students produce what Goldin-Meadow calls “mismatches,” meaning they are saying one thing and gesturing a different understanding, it indicates they are primed to learn.

And, when teachers produce “mismatches” in their own speech and gestures, it helps students already in that primed state to learn by offering several strategies.

“Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn,” Goldin-Meadow said. She also found that showing two ways of doing a problem with speech had very little effect on learning, but showing two methods when one was in gesture helped learners.

And the connection between bodies and learning doesn’t stop with the younger grades. Beilock studies how well students comprehend abstract concepts in high school physics. Many classes focus on listening to lecture, reading a textbook and doing physics problems. Beilock hypothesized that if students could feel an abstract concept like angular momentum on their bodies, they would both understand and remember it better.

She and her colleagues used a rod with two bicycle wheels attached to test their ideas. Students spun the wheels and then tilted the rod in different directions. As they changed the angle, the force they felt changed dramatically. In her experiment, one set of students got to hold and experience the wheel. Another group just watched the first group and observed the effects they were feeling. They were all quizzed on the material a week later.

“Those students who had more motor activation did better on the test,” Beilock said. “And those students were the ones who got the experience.” But what if one set of students was just better at physics? Researchers at DePaul University have replicated this experiment, strengthening the scientific link between hands-on experimentation and powerful learning.

Environment Matters

Just as body movement and involvement can have a huge impact on learning, so too can the spaces where we learn. While neuroscientists are starting to be able to prove this link with their experiments, this concept is nothing new. Philosophers, writers and practitioners of Eastern religions have long made the same connection between the power of nature to relax the mind and readiness to take on the world.

“When we are in nature, our directed attention has time to rest and replenish,” Beilock said. That’s important because focus is like a muscle that gets tired. One researcher asked students to take a walk through the downtown of a college town. They weren’t asked to do anything in particular, but they naturally encountered a lot of stimuli. The other group took a walk in a natural setting. The nature walkers were better able to focus when they returned.

Visual distractions apply to the classroom as well. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

The Body and Anxiety

One way to help students reduce test anxiety is to let them work it out through their bodies beforehand. Beilock did an experiment with freshmen high school students before their first final. She asked them to write down concerns about the test and connect to other times they felt similar. They were told to be as open as they wanted and that their writing would be confidential. A control group of kids was told to think about what wouldn’t be on the test.

This activity had little effect on kids who didn’t experience much test anxiety. But students experiencing high levels of anxiety saw a six percentage point gain on their test scores. And, when Beilock analyzed those students’ writing, she found the strategy was particularly effective for students whose writing revealed an eventual acceptance that the test was a minor hurdle, not the big scary all-consuming event they’d been worried about.

“We can start leveraging the power of our bodies to help us learn, think and perform at our best,” Beilock said. Too often students are cooped up inside for six or more hours, sometimes without an adequate recess, and more likely than not, with little attention paid to how their bodies could be powerful learning tools in the classroom.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

7 Ways to Bring Self-Advocacy to Your Next IEP

From The Friendship Circle Blog

By Karen Wang
March 25, 2015

It’s IEP season. Will your child attend the meeting?

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), children are permitted to attend their own IEPs, “whenever appropriate.” The State Department of Education in Kansas (Note: Massachusetts, too) requires a student to be invited to his or her IEP at age 14 or younger if post-secondary goals or transition services will be discussed.

But much younger students can also benefit greatly from being a part of the IEP process. An increasing number of school districts invite students to make a self-advocacy statement or presentation starting in fourth or fifth grade.

How does that work when the student does not comprehend language well? Or when the student is non-verbal? How can sensitive topics be discussed without upsetting the student?

The truth is that these situations are when self-advocacy is needed the most!

Isn’t Self-Advocacy Out of the Reach of Most Students?

Self-advocacy, especially at an IEP, seems out of reach for many students. How does a person get to the point where it becomes a reality? I know that it took my son several years before he understood what his IEP is and why his opinions are important. I found it necessary to introduce these ideas early and repeat them often so that he would be prepared for transitions to middle school, high school and – in the future – adulthood.

These are some steps that you can take to prepare your child to become a self-advocate, beginning with his or her IEP:
1.) Practice “I” statements. Advocating for oneself means explaining wants, needs, likes and dislikes. The first time my son made a self-advocacy statement at his IEP, it was a simple fill-in-the-blank worksheet with statements such as:
  • My name is _____.
  • I like _____.
  • I don’t like _____.
  • At school, I need _____.
  • At school, I don’t want _____.
  • At home, I want _____.
  • At home, I don’t want _____.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) offers one path to learning how to make these “I” statements. A speech therapist can assist by helping to teach the student how to say, “I need help,” a difficult concept to express on both cognitive and oral-motor levels for some students.

If your student isn’t ready this year to make a self-advocacy statement at the IEP, then first-person statements can be written into the IEP as speech goals or as social-adaptive goals so that he or she will be ready at next year’s IEP.

Indiana University and the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center have self-advocacy checklists with enough goals for 10 years’ worth of IEPs.

2.) Offer choices. Autism Speaks has compiled a self-advocacy guide based on best practices in the field. One of those practices is to teach decision-making by offering choices beginning early in life. For example, “Eggs or cereal for breakfast?”

Over time, these choices turn into a wealth of personal experience that guide future decision-making processes.

3.) Ask for help. Asking for help can be difficult for just about everyone with and without disabilities. But no one is an island, so we all have to ask for help sooner or later – it’s a necessary life skill. Learning how to request assistance – through sign language, AAC or verbally – can be written into the IEP as a social-adaptive goal, and it’s an important step in self-awareness.

4.) Self-disclosure. Does your student know what his or her diagnosis is and how to explain it? Knowing the right time and place to disclose one’s disability, if at all, is a sensitive topic among adults with disabilities.

Self-disclosure is necessary at the doctor’s office and in crisis situations. A medical alert bracelet or necklace can be worn discreetly and shown to community helpers on an as-needed basis. A few individuals give out business cards that explain their special needs.

My son has learned that he is more likely to receive assistance from peers when he self-discloses during recess or transitions at school.

5.) Person-Centered Planning. Person-Centered Planning is a set of processes that helps a person determine his or her desired outcomes in life and to put supports in place so that those outcomes can be achieved. For example, the focus person chooses supportive individuals who can be members of his or her team, and the team works together to identify obstacles and opportunities to help reach the goals of the focus person.

Person-Centered Planning is already used in some school districts as early as first grade to create and achieve social-adaptive goals.

6.) Practice self-reflection. Reflection and self-analysis are complex cognitive activities that can be modeled for years before they are actually put into practice. Share your thoughts with your student as you ask and answer these questions for yourself:
  • What would happen if….?
  • How did you feel when….?
  • Next time I would like to…

7.) Keep trying! If it didn’t work out today, don’t give up! Self-advocacy is a lifelong project that moves slowly at first and gradually builds up momentum over time.

All through his elementary years, my son could not find the words to express his feelings and wishes. Then one day he told his speech therapist that he didn’t like it when she pulled him out of math class – so she returned him to class.

From there his interest in self-advocacy snowballed, and last month he was named Student of the Month in middle school for his communication skills: he checks in with teachers at the beginning of every class, takes notes, and follows up with questions via email. And he has already submitted his annual self-advocacy presentation to the IEP team.

About Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities."


NESCA Transition Services

Transition is the process, ideally beginning at age 14 if not sooner and extending through high school graduation and beyond, by which an adolescent or young adult masters the life skills necessary to function independently in post-secondary school or the workplace. NESCA offers complete transition assessment (including testing and community-based observation), planning and consultation services, coordinated by Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS.

Free Talk on Mindfulness Practice for Children at Atrium School Thursday April 9th

From Atrium School

March 23, 2015

Dr. Christopher Willard, a psychologist specializing in mindfulness techniques for children and adolescents, will be speaking at Atrium School in Watertown at 7:30pm on Thursday, April 9th.

Dr. Willard is a practicing clinician and educator, with teaching appointments at Lesley University and Harvard Medical School. Has been featured in The New York Times, and on cnn.com and abcnews.com. He authored Child's Mind (Parallax Press, 2010) which was critically acclaimed by Thich Nhat Hanh, Susan Kaiser Greenland, Mary Pipher and others. He also wrote the Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety Workbook (New Harbinger Press, 2014).  

Atrium School parents invite you to join them for an entertaining and interactive evening in which you can learn about a few short practices to help children of all ages understand their emotions, stay calm, and better deal with stress and daily challenges.

When:   7:30pm Thursday, April 9, 2015

Where: Atrium School
                   69 Grove Street, Watertown, MA 02472

This event is free and open to the public.