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Sunday, August 2, 2015

What Kids Need for Optimal Health and School Engagement

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

By MindShift
July 27, 2015

Reprinted from “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids” by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown & Sarah Miles, with permission from Wiley. Copyright © 2015.


Even the best-laid plans will likely remain plans without effective communication and professional development for school faculty and staff, a mechanism for soliciting and truly hearing student voices, and extensive parent education on the goals you are trying to accomplish with your new policies and programs. It seems so obvious, but we’ve seen schools take this part for granted and watch all of their hard work go nowhere.

Communication is often the ultimate key to the success and sustainability of a particular reform, and, as you have heard us say a number of times in this book, bringing the school community together to dialogue and solve problems, even though it will be difficult at times, is the best way to accomplish what you set out to do.

Research shows that including a variety of stakeholders—from parents to students to teachers and staff—in the design and implementation of a school change is critical to its success (Mitra & Gross, 2009; Osberg, Pope & Galloway, 2006; Rice, 2011)

Will everyone buy into your plans for change? Most likely not, but being inclusive, communicating your plan honestly and effectively, and supporting it with data will give you the best chance for success.

In order for students, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators to work together toward effective school change, all parties need to have a basic understanding of what kids need for optimal health and school engagement.

At Challenge Success we developed a mnemonic aid: PDF. It stands for playtime, downtime and family time. We looked at the research for protective factors for kids—those things that every kid needs in order to thrive physically, mentally, and academically—and we boiled these down to three main categories for well-being. Our mantra is “every kid needs PDF every day.”


Play is really the work of kids. It helps them to solve problems, negotiate with others, try out new ideas and identities, and develop self-regulation, among other things. Playtime can include structured activities, such as Little League and an after-school art class, and it can include unstructured activities, such as playing with toys, going to the playground, and shooting the basketball with friends. For tweens and teens it can also include some time spent on social media.

Denise Pope
For all ages, research suggests that play—especially when it is freely chosen, unstructured, and kid-directed—is linked to a wide variety of positive outcomes including increased cognitive skills, physical health, self-regulation, language abilities, and social skills (Alliance for Childhood, 2010; Barker et al., 2014; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).

Experts agree that every child needs some time for play every day, but we know that many kids don’t get this. One reason may be, as we noted in Chapter Two, that time spent in school has increased. Twenty years ago, the time spent in school ranged from five to six hours a day, but currently children in the U.S. spend at least six to seven hours a day in school (Juster, Ono & Stafford, 2004).

In our own research with Challenge Success schools, we have found that, on average, after you count hours in school and hours in structured extracurricular activities such as sports, drama, or debate, as well as hours for commuting and paid work, middle school students report that on a typical weekday they have approximately 1.5 hours of free time, and high school students report having approximately 1 hour (Conner & Pope, 2013a).

Another nationwide study found that children under 12 years old have approximately two hours of free time during the day and that this decreases as they get older (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).

In addition to differences between younger and older children, the amount of free time reported in the research varies depending on family income: Children from lower income households often have more free time than peers from households with higher incomes (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001; Larson, 2001.)

Of course, the benefits (or risks) associated with the amount of free time depends on what kids do with that free time. Watching TV for three hours each day may be detrimental to kids, but spending unstructured time playing with friends or family is associated with positive outcomes (Barnes, Hoffman,Welte, Farrell & Dintcheff, 2007; Larson, 2001).

Unfortunately, time for free play within school hours has also declined. Many schools have reduced or even eliminated recess for elementary school children, and several have cut back on free play and play-based learning in the early grades such as kindergarten and first grade (Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Bilello, 2005).

For instance, we used to see several hours of free play and free choice activities in the younger grades, where kids could build in the blocks corner or enact their own stories in the dress-up area, but more schools are focused on traditional, often worksheet-based, literacy and numeracy activities now.

We recommend keeping ample time for recess in school, as well as carving out time for kids to have more choice in activities in the classroom so they are able to use their imagination, build and make things, interact with others, and have some ownership over what and how they are learning. As we mentioned in Chapter Four on project-based learning, these kinds of play-based projects and activities, in which students of all ages have a choice and voice, can lead to authentic motivation to learn and important lifelong skills.

Playtime for middle and high school kids looks a little different from playtime for younger kids, both at home and at school. For kids in middle school and high school, playtime often means spending time with friends as well as doing things they enjoy, such as extracurricular activities. Activities such as sports, visual and performing arts, community service, journalism, and academic clubs can be sources for positive playtime for teenagers (Mahoney, Cairns & Farmer, 2003; Mahoney, Larson & Eccles, 2005).

In our research, the vast majority of our sample of almost 8,000 high school students reported that the main reason they participate in extracurriculars is because they enjoy them (Conner & Pope, 2013a). Other studies have also linked participation in extracurricular activities to positive social and academic outcomes (Mahoney et al., 2003). When kids participate in these activities, they have a chance to interact with peers, learn new skills, exercise, and challenge themselves in rewarding ways.

Research also shows that you need to find the right balance when it comes to extracurricular activities. We know that kids have many wonderful extracurricular choices these days, and parents tell us they don’t want to disadvantage their children by restricting what they do. Unfortunately, over-scheduling students in too many hours of extracurricular activities and limiting free unstructured playtime may do more harm than good (Levine, 2006).

How much is too much?

In our survey results, we found that when high school students participated in very high amounts of extracurriculars during the week (over 15–20 hours), they had more emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, slept less, and experienced higher stress levels than those doing fewer hours of extracurricular activities (Conner & Pope, 2013a). Dr. David Elkind (2007), one of the country’s most respected experts on play, recommends that kids have around the same amount of structured playtime, such as time for extracurricular activities, as unstructured playtime, such as time to shoot hoops or hang out with friends.

In fact, friends are of the utmost importance to tweens and teens and understandably so (Berscheid, 2003; Gifford-Smith  & Brownell, 2003). Making and sustaining friendships is an important part of adolescents’ overall social and emotional adjustment (Buhrmester, 1990); by interacting with peers, teens begin to form their own identities.

Ideally, the majority of the time teens spend with their friends should be in person, but we know from recent research that some (or much) teen interaction may take place via mobile phones and social media. The Pew Research Project found that texting is now the most common form of communication teens have with their friends (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell & Purcell, 2010). Pew researchers also found that the percentage of teens using social media rose from 55 percent in 2006 to 81 percent in 2012.

Though it is clear that the use of social media and texting is on the rise, the research is not as well-developed concerning the right amount of time for kids to spend on social media and on the quality of the friendships that are formed and maintained online (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). What we do know is that teens are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and have lower abilities to self-regulate than adults; therefore, social media can pose real risks to teens, including cyberbullying, sexting, and the negative influences of online “friends” and advertisers (O’Keefe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011).

Though many teens report that they feel less shy, more confident, and more popular when they use social media, most teens say that they prefer face-to-face communication and recognize some of the trade-offs when using social media (Common Sense Media, 2012).

With this in mind, we recommend that free playtime for this age group include time with friends, but parents and teachers should emphasize that the majority of this time should take place face-to-face rather than via social media. We recommend that teachers discuss the pros and cons of social media with kids as well as ask parents—especially those with preschool and elementary aged children, tweens, and young teens—to monitor online activities.

One suggestion teachers might make is for parents and kids to remove all social media equipment (phones, tablets, computers, televisions, and so on) from bedrooms at nighttime, and to keep most social media activity in a public place, such as a living room or kitchen, where an adult can monitor more easily.And, of course, parents and kids need to be sure they are not over-scheduling extracurricular activities

We offer the timewheel tool in Figure 8.1 as one way to track how much time each kid is spending on daily activities and where some balancing work needs to be done.

Finally, we encourage schools to build in time for play for kids of all ages. Along with creating more time for student-centered, project-based learning in which students have some say over what they do, several schools are utilizing design labs or maker fairs where students can create and build projects of their choice in their free time.

In addition, some of our Challenge Success schools have been planning specific times for joyful, unstructured activities that promote face-to-face interaction and playtime to help alleviate student stress at particularly intense moments during the year. For instance, some middle and high schools host spirit weeks or other fun traditions just before or after implementing standardized testing or after midterms or final exams.


The “D” in our PDF stands for downtime. As we showed in Chapter Two on scheduling, running from class to class followed by running from activity to activity is exhausting for adults and kids alike. Kids especially need downtime throughout the day for general physical and emotional health and well-being (Larson & Kleiber, 1993). We define downtime as time that is not focused on structured play or academics; rather, it is time to reflect and to do nothing much—literally. That might mean listening to music, reading a book, watching a television show, or spending time outside in nature.

As we discussed earlier in this chapter, we know there are good reasons to be concerned about screen time—both the quality and quantity—but a moderate amount of screen time, in which kids play a video game, watch a show, or check in on social media, may be a good way for kids (and adults) to relax before getting started on homework or heading out to the next activity.

Sleep is an obvious component of downtime for all ages, and as we have already noted, many kids just don’t get enough of it. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations have documented the relationship between sleep deprivation and ADHD, headaches, depression, obesity, and other health problems across childhood and adolescence. According to the National Sleep Foundation (2015), children ages 6 to 13 years old need 9 to 11 hours a night of sleep, and over half don’t get the recommended amount. Teens need at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night, and 80 percent don’t get this much.

In our research, students reported, on average, that they got between six and seven hours of sleep on a typical weeknight, well under the amount they need (Galloway et al., 2013; National Sleep Foundation, 2006). A typical teen has a lot going on, both in and out of school, and particularly within his or her body as puberty takes place. Because of this busy time developmentally, teens need rest and downtime for physical and mental health as they mature and begin to form their own identities.They need time to reflect and seek answers to some big questions:

Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? In the busy hustle and bustle of six or seven classes, extracurricular activities, social lives, and family obligations, this important reflection time often gets overlooked. So the next time you see a high school student asleep at his desk or a middle school student staring into space, consider how exhausting it can be to be a teen today. Educate parents to enforce bedtime routines and to encourage enough downtime throughout the day.

Sometimes when a teenager is lying on her bed after school, with earbuds in, singing at the top of her lungs—not looking like she is doing anything productive—that actually might be the best way for her to spend 20 to 30 minutes.

And, even though it might be torture for parents to watch this—knowing the kid has at least two hours of homework to do, a math test to study for, and a two-hour volleyball practice ahead (or a two-hour shift to fulfill at a paid job)—we urge them to resist interrupting this valuable time. After a brief respite, the teen will likely be more productive and, more important, will have found time to debrief and consolidate her thoughts (Carey, 2014).

We also urge schools to consider ways to build in more downtime throughout the school day. In Chapter Two we discuss late starts and longer breaks and lunch periods as important ways to increase downtime in school. Teachers can also schedule more time for reflection in their classes, and build in brief breaks before switching to new units or topics.

Family Time

Finally, it’s important for adults and students to know that family time is a significant protective factor. When kids are part of a family unit that spends time together, they are more likely to feel supported, safe, and loved unconditionally (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001). This holds true for kids of all ages and in all kinds of families. Recent research has shown that kids from preschool to twelfth grade benefit when they have regular family meals together (Fulkerson et al., 2006).

Specifically, Fulkerson et al. found that the frequency of family dinners was associated with a variety of positive aspects of development, including an increase in cooperation and getting along with others, higher expectations, a more positive sense of family values, and a commitment to learning.

These authors as well as others found that family time was associated with fewer high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and delinquency, and lower rates of depression, eating disorders, and antisocial behavior.

Other studies found that family rituals and traditions were associated with positive mental health outcomes as well as positive identity formation for adolescents and increased marital satisfaction for the parents within the family unit (for a review, see Fiese et al., 2002). Maybe it’s a family movie or game night, a regular Saturday morning hike, or cheering your favorite sports team—traditions and rituals like these and regular family meals help to build the support and connection kids need.

We know that juggling multiple work schedules and activities can be difficult, but when you make time for family members to be together and create a safe home base, you send a message that your child is loved and supported no matter what.

How can schools support family time? Teachers can limit homework assigned over vacations and holiday breaks to allow for more family time, and they can assign a few low-stakes, family-based projects each year, such as a biology assignment researching a family’s medical history or genetic family tree, to help build family connections.

Similarly, as we show in Chapter Seven, teachers can help promote a caring climate at school, similar to a safe home base, as a source of support for kids.When done well, advisories, tutorials, teacher-student conferences throughout the year, and informal times to build faculty-student relationships can all promote family-like relations at school and increase a student’s feeling of belonging.


Denise Pope, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Co-Founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools and families to provide practical, research-based tools to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for kids.

Maureen Brown, MBA is Executive Director of Challenge Success and Sarah Miles, MSW, Ph.D. is Research Director.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Dr. Ross Greene to Speak September 30 at Ivy Street School Special Education Summit Co-Hosted by NESCA

From NESCA and
MAB Community Services

July 30, 2015

Ivy Street School is proud to announce that Ross Greene, Ph.D. will be the keynote speaker at its annual Excellence in Special Education Summit. 

Ross Greene, Ph.D.
Co-hosted by Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) and the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts (BIA-MA), the Summit will also include workshops on topics relating to brain injury, autism and effective transition programming.

The goal of the Summit is to highlight innovative research and its practical implications for special education.

It is held in honor of the late John Pratt, Associate Director of the Whitehead Institute for 25 years.

Dr. Greene is the is founder and Director of non-profit organization Lives in the Balance and the originator of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions approach to improving outcomes for behaviorally-challenging youth. He served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School for over 20 years, and is now adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech.

The event will be held September 30th. Visit our website for updates and more information.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Increased Autism Prevalence: Untangling the Causes

From the Education Week Blog
"On Special Education" 

By Christina Samuels
July 27, 2015

Autism prevalence rates have soared in the last two years, from 1 in 150 children in 2000 to 1 in 68 children in 2010, according the most recent autism surveillance report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a recent study from Penn State University used federal special education data to suggest that many of those "new" cases of autism are a result of what is called "diagnostic substitution"—instead of children being categorized as intellectually disabled, they're now being categorized as having autism.

Along with the study came a chart that neatly describe the researchers' assertions. As intellectual disability rates trended down, autism diagnosis shot up:

So that proves that new cases of autism aren't really new at all—just children who are receiving a different label, right?

Well, not necessarily, though researchers agree relabeling plays a large role, plus our ability to better spot children with milder cases of the disorder, plus a shift in what behaviors are considered to be markers of autism. (For example, the latest version of the "bible" of psychiatric disorders, the DSM-5, changed the diagnostic criteria for autism.)

But when you strip away all of that, are there still more cases of autism out there? That's the question researchers are still trying to answer.

First, a primer on autism: The disorder is characterized by difficulty in communication, a high reliance on routines, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. In 2013, the DSM-5 got rid of several related disorders, such as Asperger's Syndrome, and classified them all under "autism spectrum disorder."

The U.S. Department of Education keeps statistics on how many children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are classified with what disability. As of now, there are 13 disability categories to choose from, and students can receive only one diagnosis. Autism was added as a category in 1990.

The Penn State researched used data from 2000 to 2010 to make the point about diagnostic substitution. As genetic researchers, their assertion is that one larger genetic syndrome could lead to a number of different manifestations: while one diagnostician could call it intellectual disability, another person could look at the same set of symptoms and call it autism.

The paper was published online July 22 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B.

Autism is a difficult and complicated disorder to diagnose, said Santhosh Girirajan, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of anthropology at Penn State, and the leader of the research team. He likened the disorder to the poem The Blind Men and the Elephant: six blind men, each feeling a part of an elephant, assert that the elephant is like a wall, or a snake, or a rope. All are partially correct, but none of them are able to grasp a sense of the elephant as a whole.

"This [study] tells us this is probably one big disorder," Girirajan said. And if so, he suggests, there could be a future where students with disabilities are grouped not just by the name of their disability, but by their specific need. For example, some children with intellectual disabilities and some children with autism and some children with specific learning disabilities could be grouped together to receive therapies that can help all of them.

Is relabeling the full story? 

Using federal special education data to judge autism's true prevalence is problematic, however. Schools and districts are not staffed by medical professionals. While one district may evaluate a child as having an autism spectrum disorder, another district could see the same child, with the same set of behaviors, and come up with a different disability—or find no disability at all.

However, those special education figures were the best we had until 2000, when the CDC started its monitoring program and attempted to bring some rigor to the diagnosis. For its reports, the CDC actively monitors several sites around the country (the most recent report monitored 11 sites) and examines child data reported both from medical and from school sources.

Instead of relying on a doctor or a school to say "here is a child with autism," the CDC expert clinicians comb through the records themselves, looking for behaviors that are associated with autism and making their own assessment based on diagnostic criteria.

The time it takes to examine all this data is the reason the latest report was released last year but uses information gathered in 2010, said Jon Baio, an epidemiologist for the CDC and principal investigator for the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. The next report will use data collected in 2012, he said.

Baio agreed that relabeling could have played a role in some of the autism rate increases. But CDC data show that the fastest-growing group of children with autism are those with normal to above-average intelligence. These are children who presumably would not have been misidentified as having an intellectual disability, he said.

"When you peel away all that has changed over time, what has changed to put children today at an increased risk of having autism? We really don't know what that may be at this point," Baio said.

Why does autism prevalence matter?

Baio explained that having a good handle on the number of people with autism helps policymakers focus on planning for needed supports and services. And the CDC collects a great deal more information than just the autism prevalence.

"The number is just a number. It represents just a small part of what we collect in the surveillance system," Baio said. "What we collect data on is the placements of these children, the other diagnoses, birth characteristics, adaptive fucntioning—we publish a lot of findings in addition to prevalence."

David Mandell, the associate director of the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has criticized the CDC approach to assessing prevalence. Without direct examination of children, there's no way to truly tell how widespread autism may be, Mandell says.

But in concurrence with Baio, Mandell said that the prevalence numbers are most valuable if they can be combined with research into causes. Also, Mandell said that reseach into evidence-based interventions that can improve the lives of people with autism is just as valuable.

"I think we've gotten quite fixated on the number," said Mandell. "We just haven't done as good a job at making those other things as compelling."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bill’s View: Ensuring that Independent Education Evaluations are Credible and Persuasive

From Mass. Advocates for Children

By Bill Crane, Esq.
May 23, 2015

Bill Crane is Of Counsel to Mass. Advocates for Children. He works with other MAC attorneys on systemic special education issues, consults to attorneys representing low-income parents and students in special education disputes, and writes for the MAC blog.

Crane was a Hearing Officer at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals from 1999 to 2014.


This is the sixth of occasional postings on special education law and practice. [1] In this posting, I explore a few ideas that may help practitioners ensure that independent education evaluations are credible and persuasive.


The critical importance of evaluations is perhaps self-evident to those who practice in this area. [2] For the vast majority of special education disputes—such as, a disagreement regarding what special education or related services should be provided to a particular student—evaluations typically drive the discussion and become essential to a parent’s success, whether at an IEP Team meeting, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) dispute resolution processes, or federal or state court. [3]

An independent education evaluation (IEE) is an evaluation where “the parent selects the evaluator.” [4] Parents rely on IEEs to level the playing field and participate, to the extent possible, as equal members in the planning and implementation of educational services for their son or daughter.

But, an IEE is essentially useless to a parent if others will not rely upon it to determine the special education needs of the student and how those needs should be met. Hence the importance of parents considering whether they are doing as much as possible to ensure that their evaluator, and therefore his or her evaluation, is credible and persuasive.

Before considering this question, I provide an overview of the law regarding a parent’s right to an IEE.


The Massachusetts and federal special education requirements ensure that a parent has the right to obtain an independent education evaluation at private expense at any time. [5]

Privately funding an IEE gives the parent complete control of the process of choosing an evaluator and the scope of the evaluation, thereby significantly improving the likelihood that the evaluation will be useful to the parent.

But, for many parents, public funding of an IEE is essential. The remainder of this section will consider how parents may obtain school district funding of an IEE and what limitations this may place upon the IEE. [6]

An IEE at school district expense is intended to occur only after the school district has conducted its own evaluation with which a parent disagrees. [7] Once the parent communicates to the school district that he or she disagrees with the school district evaluation, the school district must then either pay for the cost of the IEE, or file a hearing request with the BSEA within five school working days. [8]

The BSEA Hearing Officer will require the school district to pay for the evaluation either if the Hearing Officer finds that school district has failed to file with the BSEA within the required five days, [9] or the Hearing Officer finds that the school district’s evaluation was not “comprehensive and appropriate”, [10] or the parent meets income eligibility criteria discussed immediately below.

Massachusetts requires a school district to pay for the entire evaluation if the student is eligible for free or reduced cost lunch or is in the custody of a state agency with an educational surrogate parent and, alternatively, requires a school district to pay for part of the cost of evaluation if the family income is greater than 400% of the federal poverty guidelines, but equal to or less than 600% of the federal poverty guidelines. [11]

The school district has an obligation to determine whether the parent has the right to a free evaluation and if not, to offer information about the above sliding fee scale. [12] In order to take advantage of the sliding fee scale, a parent must be willing to provide family financial information to the school district. A parent has the right to decline to provide family financial information to the school district; this would preclude the parent from taking advantage of the sliding fee scale but does not otherwise impact a parent’s rights regarding an IEE. See 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c).

These rights to have an IEE funded by the school district continue for 16 months from the date of the evaluation with which the parent disagrees. [13] The statutory and regulatory language is clear (and BSEA Hearing Officers have determined) that these standards give a student the right to public funding of an independent evaluation regardless of whether the school district’s own evaluation is “comprehensive and appropriate”. [14]

Another possibility is a BSEA order for school district funding of an evaluation. A BSEA Hearing Officer may do so “when necessary in order to determine the appropriate special education for the student.” [15] However, BSEA Hearing Officers have seldom used this authority.

One of the practical difficulties of a parent relying upon an IEE that is funded by the school district is that there is little guidance as to what the IEE must include. Massachusetts special education regulations provide that IEEs funded by a school district must be “equivalent to the types of assessments done by the school district.” [16]

In addition, federal special education regulations state:

(e) Agency criteria. (1) If an independent educational evaluation is at public expense, the criteria under which the evaluation is obtained, including the location of the evaluation and the qualifications of the examiner, must be the same as the criteria that the public agency uses when it initiates an evaluation, to the extent those criteria are consistent with the parent’s right to an independent educational evaluation.

(2) Except for the criteria described [immediately above] in paragraph (e)(1) of this section, a public agency may not impose conditions or timelines related to obtaining an independent educational evaluation at public expense. [17]

And, the United States Supreme Court, after reviewing the federal statutory and regulatory requirements regarding IEEs, has stated that the “IDEA thus ensures parents access to an expert who can evaluate all the materials that the school must make available, and who can give an independent opinion. They are not left to challenge the government without a realistic opportunity to access the necessary evidence, or without an expert with the firepower to match the opposition.” [18]

This general language is useful but has not always resolved specific questions regarding what actually must be included within an IEE.

Another weakness of IEEs funded by school districts is that they are conducted at rates that were set by Massachusetts in 2004. [19] By statute, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) has responsibility to set these rates. [20] EOHHS regulations do so, but EOHHS has been delegating the analytical work to the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA), which also makes recommendations about which regulations to review and when to do so. [21]

The United States Department of Education has explained that rates for independent education evaluations must “allow parents to choose from among the qualified professionals in the area”. [22] However, the antiquated Massachusetts rates are so low (as compared to prevailing rates used by evaluators) that this federal standard is often violated. [23]

The Massachusetts regulatory scheme allows exceptions to be made to the state rates only in the unusual situation where a different IEE rate can be justified on the basis of the “unique” circumstances of a particular student. [24]

As a result, many low- and moderate-income parents who can only obtain an IEE if funded by a school district, are effectively denied their right to an IEE under state and federal special education laws. [25]

I now turn to the central question to be addressed in this posting: what can parents do in order to ensure that their independent education evaluation is credible and persuasive, and therefore useful for the purpose of determining a student’s special education needs and how those needs should be met?


The effectiveness and usefulness of an evaluation depends to a very large extent on whether the particular evaluator chosen by the parent is someone who appears to others as both credible and persuasive. It may be tempting for a parent to select an evaluator on the basis of the evaluator’s technical expertise and experience and because the evaluator will likely reach conclusions consistent with the parent’s educational objectives for the student.

But, if the evaluator does not also have sufficient credibility and persuasiveness so that an IEP Team or a BSEA Hearing Officer will rely upon the evaluation, the evaluation may have limited practical utility.

It is not difficult to understand the qualities of an evaluator that will give him or her credibility in the eyes of a BSEA Hearing Officer.

Put yourself in the shoes of a decision-maker—for example, imagine making a difficult/conflicted medical decision as to whether you are going to have invasive, high-risk, high potential gain surgery, or you are going to pursue a long-term plan of physical therapy with little risk but less potential gain, at least in the short term. Also imagine that there are persuasive arguments on both sides, and as the patient, you are the sole decision-maker.

You don’t have sufficient medical expertise yourself, so you look for an expert to help you decide. What would be the qualities of an expert whose opinion you would trust to guide you in making this decision?

You would likely want someone who not only has sufficient expertise and experience and who not only takes the time to understand your particular situation. You would also want someone who is willing and able to understand both sides of the dispute and who is open to thinking through with you, in an unbiased, logical and practical way, the pros and cons of each approach.

It would also be helpful if this person would be willing to talk to (and consider the opinions of) the surgeon and the physical therapist who would provide the two alternative treatments. If you could find such a trustworthy person, you would be happy to simply follow this person’s guidance.

So too with a BSEA Hearing Officer who is faced with very difficult decisions, where potentially persuasive arguments are being made for each position. As a Hearing Officer, I breathed a sigh of relief when I felt sufficiently comfortable with a particular expert so that I could allow myself to be guided by that person’s opinion. It always helped if the expert had an impressive depth of knowledge about the student, the student’s particular disability, and how it should be addressed.

But what often tipped the balance between one expert and another was whether I felt that the expert had a balanced perspective, perhaps having consulted both to school districts and to parents in previous cases, and because the expert was able to think through the intricacies of the particular student in an intellectually honest way after considering the arguments for both sides.


Editor's Note: NESCA clinicians routinely observe children in their current classrooms and proposed placements, participate in TEAM meetings and testify as experts in mediations or at BSEA hearings as necessary. These services are generally unavailable from hospital-based and other institutional practices.

In most disputes, a critical component of establishing the credibility and persuasiveness of parent’s evaluation is for the evaluator to have observed all relevant programs.

The expert will likely need to observe the student in his or her current program so that the expert can see firsthand how the student is functioning and learning in school—essentially, what the educators are observing on a daily basis. The expert will also likely need to observe the school district’s proposed program (which may be different than student’s current program) to have an opinion as to whether this program is appropriate for student. Often a key question to be considered by the Hearing Officer is whether the school district’s proposed program, if inappropriate, can be made appropriate with certain modifications or other adjustments.

Finally, the expert may need to observe the program proposed by parents. It is critical that parent’s expert have sufficient time and opportunity to observe these programs so that the expert will be able to reach opinions that are credible and persuasive to the IEP Team and, if need be, to a BSEA Hearing Officer.

Without the benefit of these observations, the expert may be forced to form opinions exclusively on the basis of formal testing (often within the expert’s offices), interviews and record review, thereby leaving the expert open to criticism that he or she has no understanding of how the student actually learns in school and that he or she has limited ability to determine whether a particular program could actually be appropriate for student or could be made appropriate.

Massachusetts has comprehensive standards providing parents with the right to have experts observe student’s “current program and … any program proposed for the [student].” [26] A school district is to provide a parent and parent’s expert with an opportunity to evaluate fully the student’s educational program, including student’s performance in that program. [27]

An observation may include evaluation of both academic and nonacademic aspects of the student’s educational program, [28] and a school district may not impose arbitrary limitations—for example, limiting the observation to certain, specific classes or activities—that would preclude a full evaluation. [29]

The complexity of the student’s needs, as well as the programs to be observed determine the scope of the observation. [30] The end result must be that the observation will be sufficient for the purpose of the parent’s being able to participate fully and effectively with school personnel in determining the student’s appropriate educational program. [31]

It is generally the expert, not the school district, who is best suited to know the nature and length of the observation that are needed in order for the expert to be able to accomplish these objectives. [32]

The Massachusetts statute explicitly requires the school district to schedule the observation so as to provide “timely access” to the parent and parent’s expert. [33] At the same time, the expectation is that the parent and school district will plan together the logistical aspects of the observation over a reasonable period of time. [34]

The school district has limited ability to restrict the nature and scope of a parent expert’s observation. As a general rule, a school district may impose limitations on a parent’s expert’s otherwise appropriate observation in only the following three respects: (1) to ensure the safety of students in the program, (2) to ensure the integrity of the program while under observation, and (3) to protect the students in the program from disclosure of confidential and personally identifiable information. [35]


Perhaps the most significant potential hurdle in establishing the credibility and persuasiveness of a parent’s expert is that the expert does not know the student as well as those who teach or provide therapy to the student on a daily basis.

Because of this disparity, the opinions of parent’s expert may possibly be discounted if they are inconsistent with the opinions of student’s teachers and therapists. This is particularly likely to occur if parent’s expert has not observed student at school, spoken to those implementing student’s IEP and reviewed student’s school work.

A special education decision by the First Circuit in 2012 illustrates this point, as follows:

"The hearing officer gave little weight to this testimony [of parent’s two experts]. Instead, she credited the testimony of educators who had worked directly with Sebastian at BICO and observed his daily progress there over a number of years….

The testimony offered by [parent’s two experts] was controverted by [student’s] educators, who interacted with him regularly. The administrative record makes clear that [parent’s experts] spent relatively little time with [student]. Moreover, [one of parent’s experts] never consulted [student’s] teachers or reviewed his schoolwork. [The other parent expert] never formally evaluated [student] or observed him at BICO.

Given this record, it was entirely proper for the district court to give due deference to the hearing officer’s weighing of the testimony offered by [parent’s experts]. There was nothing clearly erroneous in that determination." [36]

The following cross-examination of a parent’s expert witness similarly illustrates the importance of the expert’s talking to the student’s teacher for purposes of evaluating the student’s progress within the school district’s program (and this reflects the kind of questions and answers I typically observed as a Hearing Officer when parent’s expert had not talked to the student’s teachers):

Q: So would you be surprised to learn that [student] had made progress in her educational program at school?

A: No. Most children make some progress.

Q: And you didn’t talk to the teachers about her progress, did you?

A: No, I did not.

Q: So you really can’t comment upon whether or not she made progress at school, can you?

A: Only by the reports that I looked at.

Q: And the reports don’t really comment about progress, do they?

A: No. [37]

A 2008 BSEA ruling included an affidavit from parent’s expert, explaining the importance of speaking with student’s teachers:

"I cannot complete a thorough and proper evaluation unless I am allowed to speak with the personnel who implement [student’s] educational plan. As part of an evaluation, I need to ask questions of pertinent staff to clarify and get their impressions regarding [student’s] development over the course of years, understand how [student’s] IEPs have been formulated, and understand the nature of how he has progressed.…

To not be able to speak with relevant educational staff would be a substantial omission in regard to my professional practice, and I would be limited in my ability to assess student programming and make recommendations." [38]

In this 2008 BSEA ruling, the Hearing Officer found “that the integrity and usefulness of [parent expert’s] evaluation would be compromised and the essential purposes of his independent education evaluation would be undercut if Northbridge were allowed to preclude his access to Northbridge staff who are implementing Student’s education plan, such as Student’s special education teacher.” [39]

Other BSEA decisions and rulings have noted the weakness in the parents’ case or discounted parent’s evaluation or expert testimony because the evaluator did not speak with the teachers. [40] Several other BSEA decisions have noted that an expert had sufficient understanding of the student, in part, because the expert had spoken with student’s teacher and others involved in the student’s education. [41]

For these reasons, it is imperative that in most disputes, parent’s expert make every effort to have a meaningful discussion with those who are implementing student’s IEP, and that the expert review student’s schoolwork. As with a school observation, not only can the expert learn important information about the student and his/her current educational services, including the progress that he or she is making, but can also gain credibility by demonstrating that the expert understands and has taken into account the perspective of student’s teachers (and others) who work closely with student on a daily basis.

An added potential benefit is the possibility of resolving the dispute by parent’s expert and the school district’s experts (including teachers and other professional staff working with student) finding common ground during these discussions. Likely, if parent’s expert and the school district’s experts can agree, the parties will reach agreement.

In contrast to the area of an expert’s observation of a student’s program as discussed above, there is no statute, regulation or advisory that explicitly addresses an expert’s speaking with school staff. But, for a number of reasons, it seems clear (at least to me) that parents have a right to this, and that the BSEA would enforce it.

First, to my knowledge, there is only one BSEA ruling/decision addressing the right to have parent’s expert speak with school staff. The one BSEA ruling addressed this issue in some depth and concluded that parent had the right to have her expert speak with all staff who were implementing the student’s IEP. [42]

Second, there are many instances of BSEA hearing officers noting the importance of an expert’s speaking with school staff or discounting the testimony of experts who failed to do so. See, for example, the decisions cited in footnotes 40 and 41. Similarly, when I was a BSEA hearing officer, school attorneys routinely sought to discount any parent expert who had not spoken with school staff.

In light of this, it would seem unlikely that a BSEA hearing officer would conclude that a parent’s expert should not be allowed to speak with school staff.

Third, school districts have no legitimate interests in precluding access to their staff, other than issues such as timing and scheduling (similar to the school’s interests relative to observations, discussed above). Fourth, the United States Supreme Court has made clear its intent that parent’s “expert [have] the firepower to match the opposition” [43] (discussed in greater detail above) which can only occur if the expert is given access to school staff and allowed to review student’s schoolwork. [44]

Parents and their experts may run into practical scheduling issues because some school districts may not be used to providing this access and because some experts may not be used to allotting time for it. Parents and their advocates should be talking to their experts about this early in the process, and parents and their advocates and their experts should allow as much time as possible to work through any scheduling issues or other concerns with the school district.

The expert should determine when and how to communicate with school staff — for example, in person while the expert is already at the school for an observation, by telephone before or after the observation, during a separate meeting at a time that is convenient for the expert and school staff, or in some other way.

Ultimately, it is a matter of school staff assigning sufficient importance to these communications so that parent’s expert will have a meaningful opportunity to understand the perspective of those who are working directly with the student.

The end result should allow parent’s expert to have sufficient access to school staff so that the expert fully understands the school staff’s perspective regarding student’s special education needs, how these needs are currently being met and how they should be met in the future.


State and federal special education laws provide a way for parents to participate in educational decision-making by obtaining an independent education evaluation or IEE. Yet, the usefulness of the IEE will depend, to a very large extent, on whether parent’s evaluation has sufficient credibility and persuasiveness with the IEP Team and the BSEA Hearing Officer. This requires that parents choose an evaluator who is a credible expert.

It also requires arranging for the expert to observe student’s programs, meet with school staff who are implementing student’s IEP, and review student’s schoolwork.


[1] In my first posting (September 2014), I reviewed the United States Supreme Court’s decisions pertaining to special education. In the second posting (October 2014), I gave an overview of First Circuit special education decisions. In the third posting (December 2014), I discussed the “retrospective testimony” rule. (Retrospective testimony refers to testimony, in a BSEA proceeding or court appeal, that certain educational services not listed in the IEP would actually have been provided to the child if he or she had attended the school district’s proposed placement.)

In the fourth posting (February 2015), I discussed a recent decision by the First Circuit that discussed settlement agreements used to resolve special education disputes. In the fifth posting (March 2015), I reviewed a recently-revised Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Advisory on the use of paraprofessionals for individual students with disabilities.

[2] In the words of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in a recent decision (South Kingstown School Committee v. Joanna S., 773 F.3d 344, 346-47 (1st Cir. 2014)):

"Evaluations are integral to the way IDEA works… They assist in determining … [t]he content of the child’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP sets forth the services a disabled child will receive and the educational goals for that child. The IEP thus gives practical substance to IDEA’s right to a free appropriate public education. And for that reason, evaluations are a key means—perhaps the key means—for deciding the content of the protections IDEA offers."

[3] Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee has prepared a useful “flier” regarding special education evaluations under state and federal special education laws. It may be found at: http://www.mhlac.org/Docs/ed_sped_evaluation.pdf

[4] South Kingstown School Committee v. Joanna S., 773 F.3d 344, 347 (1st Cir. 2014).

[5] See 34 CFR 300.502(b)(3) (parent … has the right to an independent educational evaluation); MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“A parent may obtain an independent evaluation at private expense from any specialist”); 603 CMR 28.04 (5)(b) (“The parent may obtain an independent education evaluation at private expense at any time”).

[6] Both state and federal special education laws address the issue of public funding of IEEs. But, a parent’s rights to an IEE under the federal regulations (34 CFR 300.502(3)) are generally less protective than those rights under Massachusetts special education statute and regulations, and therefore the latter will be the focus here.

[7] See South Kingstown School Committee v. Joanna S., 773 F.3d 344, 347 (1st Cir. 2014); 34 CFR 300.502(b)(1); 603 CMR 28.04(5).

[8] See MGL c. 71Bs, s. 3; 603 CMR 28.04(5)(d). See also 34 CFR 300.502(b)(2).

[9] See, e.g., In Re: Newton Public Schools, BSEA # 1300077 (February 6, 2013); In Re: Hampden-Wilbraham RSD, BSEA # 02-1842, 8 MSER 144 (May 24, 2002).

[10] See 603 CMR 28.04(5)(d). See also 34 CFR 300.502(2).

[11] See MGL c. 71B, s. 3; 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c).

[12] See 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c).

[13] See 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c)6.

[14] See MGL c. 71B, s. 3; 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c); In Re: Lanesborough Public Schools, BSEA # 12-7024, 112 LRP 28285 (May 25, 2012); In re: Carol (Attleboro Public Schools), BSEA# 09-3926, 110 LRP 38989 (May 19, 2009); In Re: Lowell, BSEA # 08-4003 (February 25, 2008); In Re: Foxborough Regional Charter School, BSEA # 06-3158, 106 LRP 34379 (May 30, 2006).

[15] 603 CMR 28.08(5)(c). See also 34 CFR 300.502(d) (indicating that hearing officer may “request[] an independent educational evaluation as part of a hearing on a due process complaint”).

[16] 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c)1.

[17] 34 CFR 300.502(e)(1) and (2).

[18] Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 60-61 (2005). See also 34 CFR 300.502(e) (limiting the conditions that a school district may impose upon a parent’s independent education evaluation obtained at public expense). See also M.M. v. Lafayette School Dist., 2012 WL 398773, 11 (N.D.Cal.) (N.D.Cal.,2012) (“would be difficult for many parents to ‘match the firepower’ of the government if they could not afford to pay the evaluator to present her findings at an IEP meeting that necessarily includes the District’s assessment team. The Court therefore determines that the ALJ erred in not awarding the costs of presentation as part of the ‘full cost’ of the independent IEE.” [footnote and citation omitted] aff’d in relevant part, 767 F.3d 842 (9th Cir. 2014); Meridian Joint School Dist., No. 2 v. D.A., 2013 WL 6181820, 5 (D.Idaho 2013).

[19] See 114.3 CMR 30.00.

[20] See MGL c. 71B, s.3 (“the secretary of health and human services under section 13C of chapter 118E shall establish rates for educational assessments conducted or performed by psychologists and other trained certified educational personnel notwithstanding the provisions of any general or special law or rule or regulation to the contrary”).

[21] EOHHS Team Evaluation Services regulations specifically address the rates for IEEs (114.3 CMR 30.00). These regulations were last revised in July, 2004 when the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy had responsibility to issue these regulations. For purposes of IEE rates, CHIA has also used two other more generic rate regulations for IEE rates regarding certain kinds of evaluations because these more generic rate regulations have been updated more recently than the Team Evaluation Services regulations. These two more generic rate regulations are for Psychological Services (114.3 CMR 29.00) and Rehabilitation Center Services, Audiological Services, Restorative Services (114.3 CMR 39.00). The former of these was last revised in January 2008 and the latter in June 2011.

Team Evaluation Services regulations only govern non-hospital-based evaluators. Separate Medicaid regulations govern hospital rates. Hospital evaluators have been willing to use Medicaid rates to conduct IEEs but there is often an excessive wait time (for example, 6 months to a year) and the evaluations typically do not include a school observation, which is often a critical component. Hospital rates for evaluations, which vary by individual hospital, are higher than the IEE rates.

[22] Letter to Anonymous, Office of Special Education Programs, United States Department of Education, 22 IDELR 637 (February 2, 1995).

[23] For example, neuropsychological evaluations are often the most important evaluation in determining a student’s educational needs and paramount to developing an appropriate IEP. The state maximum rate for a neuropsychological evaluation is $900, while $2,500 or more is the rate typically charged by private evaluators. The state rate is set at an hourly rate that is 28% lower than Medicare and 38% lower than BlueCross/Blue Shield.

[24] See 603 CMR 28.04(5)(a).

[25] To address these shortcomings, “An Act to Provide Equal Access to Evaluations for Children with Disabilities” has been filed with the Massachusetts legislature (lead Sponsors: Rep. Tom Sannicandro and Sen. Barbara L’Italie; House Docket No. 1027- Senate Docket No. 1626).

[26] MGL c. 71B, s. 3. See also 603 CMR 28.07(1)(a)3 (“Parents have the right to observe any program(s) proposed for their child if the child is identified as eligible for special education services”); Technical Assistance Advisory SPED 2009-2: Observation of Education Programs by Parents and Their Designees for Evaluation Purposes (hereinafter, “Advisory SPED 2009-2”). The Advisory SPED 2009-2 is a particularly useful source of guidance.

[27] MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“Parents and/or their designees shall be afforded access of sufficient duration and extent to enable them to evaluate the child’s performance in a current program and/or the ability of a proposed program to enable the child to make effective progress.”); Advisory SPED 2009-2 (“The law is clear that a district may not arbitrarily limit observations to certain academic classes if such limitations would not allow an observer to evaluate fully whether a program is or would be appropriate for the identified student with disabilities.”).

[28] MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (school committee must allow “observations of a child’s current program …, including both academic and nonacademic aspects of any such program”).

[29] See MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“Parents and/or their designees shall be afforded access of sufficient duration and extent to enable them to evaluate the child’s performance in a current program and/or the ability of a proposed program to enable the child to make effective progress.”); Advisory SPED 2009-2 (“The law is clear that a district may not arbitrarily limit observations to certain academic classes if such limitations would not allow an observer to evaluate fully whether a program is or would be appropriate for the identified student with disabilities.”).

[30] Advisory SPED 2009-2. (“The complexities of the child’s needs, as well as the program or programs to be observed, should determine what the observation will entail and what amount of time is needed to complete it.”).

[31] MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“To insure that parents can participate fully and effectively with school personnel in the consideration and development of appropriate educational programs for their child, a school committee shall …”); Advisory SPED 2009-2 (“The purpose of the law is to ensure that parents can participate fully and effectively in determining the child’s appropriate educational program.”).

[32] See, e.g., In Re: Mansfield, BSEA # 1307030, 19 MSER 100 (May 2, 2013) (allowing the expert to observe for an entire, continuous school day on the basis of the expert’s determination that this was necessary to appropriately evaluate the student).

[33] MGL c. 71B, s. 3.

[34] Advisory SPED 2009-2 (“The obligation to provide “timely access” to the program for purposes of observation is a core component of the observation law. … It is also important to note that the timely access requirement does not mean that a school district must allow observations on demand, or that parents or designees may unilaterally set a schedule for observations. As noted, school administrators may take a reasonable period of time to inform school staff and plan the logistical aspects of an observation.”).

[35] MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“School committees shall impose no conditions or restrictions on such observations that are not necessary to ensure the safety of children in a program or the integrity of the program while under observation or to protect children in the program from disclosure by an observer of confidential and personally identifiable information in the event such information is obtained in the course of an observation.”); Advisory SPED 2009-2 (“The observation law states that districts may not condition or restrict program observations except when necessary to protect: 1. the safety of the children in the program during the observation; 2. the integrity of the program during the observation; and 3. children in the program from disclosure by an observer of confidential or personally identifiable information he or she may obtain while observing the program.”) (emphasis in original).

[36] Sebastian M. v. King Philip Regional School Dist., 685 F.3d 79, 86 (1st Cir. 2012).

[37] School Board of Independent School Dist. No. 11, Anoka-Hennepin v. Pachl ex rel. Pachl, 2002 WL 32653752, *7 (D.Minn. 2002).

[38] In Re: Northbridge, BSEA # 09-2533, 14 MSER 348 (October 30, 2008). I was the Hearing Officer in this dispute.

[39] Id.

[40] In Re: Pittsfield Public Schools & Central Berkshire Regional School District, BSEA # 08-4603, page 26 of slip opinion (October 3, 2008); In Re: Springfield Public Schools, BSEA # 06-2169, page 19 of slip opinion (July 10, 2006); In Re: Southwick-Tolland Regional School District, BSEA # 06-6583, 12 MSER 279, page 21 of slip opinion (October 26, 2006)

[41] In Re: Chicopee Public Schools, BSEA # 05-2920, 11 MSER 87, page 20 of slip opinion (June 8, 2005); In Re: Gill-Montague Regional School District, BSEA # 01-1222, 7 MSER 194, page 27 of slip opinion (August 17, 2001).

[42] In Re: Northbridge, BSEA # 09-2533, 14 MSER 348 (October 30, 2008).

[43] Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 60-61 (2005).

[44] See also 34 CFR 300.502(e) (limiting the conditions that a school district may impose upon a parent’s independent education evaluation obtained at public expense) and 603 CMR 28.04(5)(c)1 (mandating that an IEE must be “equivalent” to the assessments done by school districts).

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Free EdTech Workshop Series at NESCA for Students with Learning Disabilities (and Parents!) Resumes Wednesday, 7/29


July 28, 2015

NESCA Intern Courtney Rose Dykeman-Bermingham, a rising senior majoring in neuroscience at Mount Holyoke College and volunteer at their AccessAbility Services (AAS) office, discusses top tech tools students with learning disabilities and executive function challenges to use to optimize educational experiences.

Program Schedule

July 29: Kurzweil 3000 Firefly — This is more than a screen reader; it can help your child organize their notes and makes finding specific passages easier.

August 5: Evernote — An innovative way to organize materials, it can create compilations of notes, images recordings and more.

Each sessions will include a seminar, relevant demonstrations and a Q&A period.

The use of these technologies is most beneficial for high school and college aged students, but parents of younger students would also benefit from the knowledge.

When:   9:30 - 10:30am on Wednesday, July 29th and 
                    Wednesday, August 5th

Where: NESCA (Lower Lobby Meeting Space)
                   55 Chapel Street Suite 202, Newton, MA

Who:     Students, and parents or guardians of students with
                   language-based learning disabilities, attentional
                   and/or executive function issues.

Cost:      FREE!

To enroll, please email info@nesca-newton.com, and include the student’s age or grade. Advance registration is appreciated!

Private Tutorials

Courtney Rose Dykeman-Bermingham also offers private tutorials on the use of all of the tech tools specifically discussed in her workshop series, as well as many other apps and web-based programs in the areas of executive functioning, time management and general organization. Her fee, $60/hour or $30 per 1/2 hour, may be paid by check or credit card in person or by phone when appointments are made. Please call 617-658-9800, ext. 0 to schedule appointments. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Harvard Researchers Have Mapped the Five Child-Rearing Techniques You Need to Raise Kind Kids

From Quartz

By Cassie Werber

June 8, 2015

Ask parents how important it is to instill kindness in their kids, and most will rank it high: even as their very top priority, according to Harvard researchers.

Not born angels. (Reuters/Daniel LeClair)

But children surveyed by the university’s Making Caring Common (pdf) project said, overwhelmingly, that they were getting a different message. The researchers spoke with 10,000 kids at a range of middle and high schools in the US in 2013 to 2014. Nearly 80% said that their parents taught them that personal happiness and high achievement were more important than caring for other people. But all is not lost.

The study makes some recommendations for raising children that genuinely believe kindness is important:

1.) Give kids opportunities to practice being kind. Children aren’t born with an innate ability to act kindly, but learn it in the same way as they might pick up an instrument or a language. Daily opportunities to practice—something as simple as helping another child with homework—can make a difference.

2.) Children need to learn two important skills. These will help kids build a wider “circle of concern,” the researchers say. Children need to learn to “zoom in” on individuals, and truly listen to them. They also need to be able to “zoom out” to see a bigger picture—effectively, learning to put human experience in context.

3.) Kids need role models. That doesn’t mean being perfect parents. It means working on empathy, and demonstrating concern and sympathy so that children can be exposed to it.

4.) Help children manage destructive feelings. Shame, anger, and jealousy can override the intention to be kind. Kids need to know that such feelings are normal, but can be addressed in different ways. Children are “moral philosophers,” the researchers write. “When adults spark children’s thinking with ethical questions they put issues of injustice on children’s radar and help children learn how to weigh their various responsibilities to others and themselves.”

5.) Adults should stop passing the buck. Parents worry about children’s moral state, the researchers note, but it’s hard to find adults who admit they might be part of the problem. Adults need to interrogate the messages they’re sending, and ask themselves: what values am I really instilling?