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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trauma-Sensitive Schools Are Better - Part 2

From the HuffingtonPost.com Education Blog
June 29, 2012

Part II

"There is much work ahead at the policy level. Helping educators understand that trauma is playing a key role in many of the problems they are seeing at school is going to require a movement."

Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment.

First. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids -- 3,328,750, to be exact. Since the 1970s, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011, the suspension rate's nearly doubled for white kids, to nearly 6 percent. It's more than doubled for Hispanics to 7 percent, and to a stunning 15 percent for blacks. For Native Americans, it's almost tripled, from 3 percent to 8 percent.

"Only 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs. The other 95 percent were categorized as 'disruptive behavior' and 'other', which includes violation of dress code, being "defiant" and, in at least one case, farting."

Second. If you think all these suspensions are for weapons and drugs, recalibrate. There's been a kind of "zero-tolerance creep" since schools adopted "zero-tolerance" policies. Only 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were for weapons or drugs, said the NEPC report, citing a 2006 study. The other 95 percent were categorized as "disruptive behavior" and "other", which includes violation of dress code, being "defiant" and, in at least one case, farting.

"One suspension triples the likelihood of a child becoming involved with the juvenile justice system, and doubles the likelihood of repeating a grade."

Third. They don't work for the kids who get kicked out. In fact, these "throw-away" kids get shunted off a track to college or vocational school and onto the dead-end spur of juvenile hall and prison. One suspension triples the likelihood of a child becoming involved with the juvenile justice system, and doubles the likelihood of a child repeating a grade. And those suspensions begin early.

In Pierce County, Washington, a study of nearly 2,000 children who were on probation, 85 percent were suspended before they reached high school. A heartbreaking one-third of these students experienced their first suspension between 5 years old and 9 years old.

When you hear information like that, you've got to consider that it's not the kids who are failing the system -- the system is failing the kids.

That's what Dr. Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, had been thinking for years. Now he had empirical evidence -- the CDC's ACE Study, the neurobiological research that definitely showed that traumatized kids cannot learn when they are over-stressed, and Helping Traumatized Children Learn, the book that Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) at Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, co-authored.

With all that in hand, he said, metaphorically, "Enough already." What he really said was: "I saw the data as providing us with powerful support for change."

He called a community-wide meeting. Each of the district's 23 schools sent a four-member team. Representatives from the district attorney's office showed up. So did local police (in a learning capacity), as well as the departments of children and families, youth services, and mental health. Local counseling agencies sent folks. They spent a whole day working with TLPI and talking about trauma and learning.

"The response has been nothing short of amazing: an entire community figuring out ways to turn the system from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of taking care of kids so that they can learn."

The response has been nothing short of amazing: an entire community figuring out ways to turn the system from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of taking care of kids so that they can learn.
  • Many of the district's 23 schools have adopted trauma-informed improvement plans. Suspensions and expulsions have plummeted. Arnone Elementary, for example, which has 826 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, 86 percent of which are minorities, has seen a 40 percent drop in suspensions.
  • Three hundred of the district's 1400 teachers have taken a course about teaching traumatized children that TLPI developed with the district and educators at Lesley University.
  • The attention to child trauma doesn't stop at the schoolyard fence. Local police alert school personnel of any arrest or visit to an address. Counselors identify children who live at that address so that, "at the very least, the school is aware that a second or third-grader is carrying something around that is a big deal," says Terrasi.
So many schools in Massachusetts are interested in adopting a trauma-informed approach that the state legislature is considering a bill -- House Bill 1962 -- requiring schools to develop an action plan to develop "safe and supportive schools." (Apparently, that's a little more positive wording than "trauma-sensitive.")

It's all well and good to advise schools to do everything through a trauma-informed lens, but when you get down to classrooms and students, what exactly does that mean?

The Arnone School staff, which was trained by TLPI's Joe Ristuccia in how trauma affects learning, instituted two programs: Collaborative Problem Solving, developed by child psychologist Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School. The other is the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support program, which is used in more than 16,000 schools across the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Education-sponsored program acknowledges that punishment, "including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions," is ineffective, according to a description of the program that appears on its website, "especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies".

Instead, "teaching behavioral expectations and rewarding students for following them is a much more positive approach than waiting for misbehavior to occur before responding."

These expectations include teaching children how to "show respect, responsibility, safety and kindness," says Peri Jacoubs, Arnone's assistant principal. Teachers use a system of rewards for good behavior, as well as positive reinforcement, such as telling a child who's walking in the hallway "I really like the way you're walking," instead of waiting for, or only saying or yelling, "Stop running", if a child starts running.

In Washington State, six elementary schools in the Spokane Public School District are becoming trauma-informed. After the successful adoption in Lincoln High School (see Part I of this series, as well as a longer story about how Lincoln High School changed its system), the Walla Walla Public Schools plan to figure out how to integrate the approach in its other schools.

The training for both school districts comes from the Washington State University's Area Health Education Center (AHEC). It started from completely different place than Massachusetts did -- wanting to reduce children's exposure to violence.

It began with juvenile justice and public health, but it soon became clear that "no treatment system was large enough or versatile enough to respond" to the challenge, says Chris Blodgett, AHEC director. The answer was to engage "universal" systems -- the ones that touch children every single day. That means schools. They adapted the ARC model developed at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, as well as the "Flexible Framework" found in Helping Traumatized Children Learn.


NOTE: You can order a nicely-bound copy of Helping Traumatized Children Learn (117 pages) for $12.00 HERE. Discounts apply for bulk orders. You can download the book as a free PDF or read it onscreen HERE.


Even though each state started down different paths, they've arrived at the same conclusions.
  • To be successful, this transition requires the participation of all schools in a district.
  • It takes an entire community to support the changes.
  • It takes more than one school district to have a long-term impact on a state.
  • And there's no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach. The training, the goals, the strategy -- all have "to be tailored to culture of community," says Susan Cole. One school, like Lincoln, might have most of its students grappling with severe and chronic trauma, while another might have a small percentage, but one that needs attention.
Or, as AHEC assistant director Natalie Turner, who does much of the training in Washington State schools, says: "If you've seen one school, you've seen one school."

"Understanding trauma is such a missing piece to school reform," says Cole. The changes that have taken place at schools such as Arnone in Brockton, MA, and Lincoln in Walla Walla, WA, are just the beginning, but they should be the norm, not the exception, she believes.

"There is much work ahead at the policy level," she explains. "Helping educators understand that trauma is playing a key role in many of the problems they are seeing at school is going to require a movement."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Calendar Quickie: The Power of Swimming

Using the Properties of Water to Benefit Your Child’s Sensory System

Drowning is a leading cause of death for children with autism. We can decrease this statistic. Find out how!

On Wednesday, July 11th, from 7:00-8:30pm, Angelfish Therapy Owners Ailene Tisser, M.A., P.T., and Cindy Freedman, MOTR, CTRS, will be speaking at The Spiral Foundation (Sensory Processing Institute for Research and Learning) at 124 Watertown Street in Watertown, MA.

Their topic will be The Power of Swimming. Click HERE to download a PDF flyer about this event.

The properties of water can help to address sensory processing dysfunction. Tisser and Freedman will discuss pool activities that promote self-regulation, attention and modulation. They will specifically identify swimming strokes, motor planning, and tools you can implement to help your child. Learn about resources for training parents and professional staff on how to teach children with sensory processing issues to swim.

Location: The Spiral Foundation at OTA-Watertown
                    124 Watertown Street, Watertown, MA 02472

Cost:         $25 parent/professional ($10 for a second parent)

Contact hours are available for professionals.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools Are Better Schools

From the HuffingtonPost.com Education Blog

By Jane Ellen Stevens, Founder, AcesTooHigh.com
June 29, 2012

Part I (Part II Tomorrow)

The first time that principal Jim Sporleder tried the New Approach to Student Discipline at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, he was blown away. Because it worked.

In fact, it worked so well that he never went back to the Old Approach to Student Discipline.

This is how it went down:

A student blows up at a teacher, drops the F-bomb. The usual approach at Lincoln -- and, safe to say, at most high schools in this country -- is automatic suspension. Instead, Sporleder sits the kid down and says quietly:

"Wow. Are you OK? This doesn't sound like you. What's going on?"

The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face..."How could you do that?" "What's wrong with you?"... and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness. The armor-plated defenses melt like ice under a blowtorch and the words pour out: "My dad's an alcoholic. He's promised me things my whole life and never keeps those promises." The waterfall of words that go deep into his home life, which is no piece of breeze, end with this sentence: "I shouldn't have blown up at the teacher."


And then he goes back to the teacher and apologizes. Without prompting from Sporleder.

"The kid still got a consequence," explains Sporleder -- but he wasn't sent home, a place where there wasn't anyone who cares much about what he does or doesn't do. He went in-school suspension, a quiet, comforting room where he can talk with the attending teacher, catch up on his homework, or just sit and think about how maybe he could do things differently next time.

Before the words "namby-pamby", "weenie", or "not the way they did things in my day" start flowing across your lips, take a look at these numbers:

2009-2010 (Before new approach)
• 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 50 expulsions

2010-2011 (After new approach)
• 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
• 30 expulsions

"It sounds simple," says Sporleder about the new approach. "Just by asking kids what's going on with them, they just started talking. It made a believer out of me right away."

Trauma-sensitive schools. Trauma-informed classrooms. Compassionate schools. Safe and supportive schools. All different names to describe a movement that's taking shape and gaining momentum across the country. And it all boils down to this: Kids who are experiencing the toxic stress of severe and chronic trauma just can't learn. It's physiologically impossible.

These kids express their toxic stress by dropping the F-bomb, skipping school, or being the "unmotivated" child, head down on the desk or staring into space. In other words, they're having typical stress reactions: fight, flight or freeze.

In trauma-sensitive schools, teachers don't punish a kid for "bad" behavior -- they don't want to traumatize an already traumatized child. They dig deeper to help a child feel safe so that she or he can move out of stress mode, and learn again.

Pick any classroom in any school in any state in the country, and you'll find at least a handful -- and sometimes more than a handful -- of students experiencing some type of severe trauma.

What's severe trauma? We're not talking falling on a playground and breaking a finger here. This trauma is gut-wrenching, life-bending and mind-warping: Living with an alcoholic parent or a parent diagnosed with depression or other mental illness. Witnessing a mother being abused (physically or verbally). Being physically, sexually or verbally abused. Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce. Homelessness. Being bullied. You can probably name others.

Since at least 2005, a few dozen individual schools across the U.S. have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. But the centers of gravity for most of the action are in Massachusetts and Washington. These two states lead the way in taking a district-wide approach to integrating trauma-informed practices, with an eye to state-wide adoption.

Without a school-wide approach, "it's very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning," says Attorney Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a joint project of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Cole is co-author of a seminal book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn, sometimes known as "The Purple Book."


NOTE: You can order a nicely-bound copy of Helping Traumatized Children Learn (117 pages) for $12.00 HERE. Discounts apply for bulk orders. You can download the book as a free PDF or read it onscreen HERE.


"... a school-wide, trauma-sensitive approach enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn."

With a school-wide strategy, trauma-sensitive approaches are woven into the school's daily activities: the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, buses, the playground. "This enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn," says Cole. "The district needs to support schools to do this work. With the district on board, principals can have the latitude to put this issue on the front burner, where it belongs."

Many teachers have known for years that trauma interferes with a kid's ability to learn. But school officials from both states cite two research breakthroughs that provide the evidence and data.

One was the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). It uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

The study's researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person's risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.

A whopping two thirds of the 17,000 people in the ACE Study had an ACE score of at least one; 87 percent of those had more than one. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent.

Public health experts had never seen anything like it.

(By the way, lest you think that the ACE Study was yet another involving inner-city poor people of color, take note: The study's participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated San Diegans with good jobs and great health care - they all belonged to Kaiser Permanente.)

The second game-changing discovery explains why childhood trauma has such tragic long-term consequences: Toxic stress physically damages a child's developing brain. This was determined by a group of neurobiologists and pediatricians, including neurobiologist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

Together, the two discoveries reveal a story too compelling for schools to ignore:

"Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. Their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can't focus on schoolwork."

Children with toxic stress live their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. Their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can't focus on schoolwork. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work. They don't regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

When Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, learned about this research, it really didn't surprise him that trauma interfered with a kid's ability to learn. A 40-year veteran of public schools, "I wasn't unaware of this," he says.

But having empirical data gave him a good reason to try something in Brockton's 23 schools that had never been attempted: Create a trauma-informed school district that works in tandem with the local police department, and the departments of children and family services, mental health, youth services and a group of local counseling agencies.

Oh, he ran into resistance all right. Some teachers' knee-jerk reaction to an angry 15-year-old yelling in their faces is to yell back, kick the kid out of class, and talk with other teachers about how to punish the punk. Or, as Terrasi puts it: they regard the behavior as willful disobedience instead of a manifestation of trauma.

The same teacher is not likely to have the same attitude toward a six-year-old girl who's lost in a daze and will not participate in any class activities.

And yet both children might be responding in their own way to a similar event: awakening to a mother's screams in the middle of the night, calling 911 in despair and watching in terror as police cart dad off to jail.

Tomorrow: So, if being trauma-informed is such a good thing, exactly what does that look like in the classroom?


NESCA Clinicians Ann Helmus and Stephanie Monaghan-Blout are active participants in the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (LTPI). We offer free or subsidized evaluations and other services through a number of charitable organizations with which we have had longstanding relationships. These include the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, whose work we are proud to support.


NOTE: You can order a copy of the U.S. Department of Education publication Tips for Helping Students Recovering from Traumatic Events HERE.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Anxious Girls' Brains Work Harder

From ScienceDaily.com

June 5, 2012

"Anxious girls' brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries. As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much..."

In a discovery that could help in the identification and treatment of anxiety disorders, Michigan State University scientists say the brains of anxious girls work much harder than those of boys.

The finding stems from an experiment in which college students performed a relatively simple task while their brain activity was measured by an electrode cap. Only girls who identified themselves as particularly anxious or big worriers recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task.

Jason Moser, Ph.D., lead investigator on the project, said the findings may ultimately help mental health professionals determine which girls may be prone to anxiety problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

"This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls. It's one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders."

"This may help predict the development of anxiety issues later in life for girls," said Moser, assistant professor of psychology. "It's one more piece of the puzzle for us to figure out why women in general have more anxiety disorders."

The study, reported in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, is the first to measure the correlation between worrying and error-related brain responses in the sexes using a scientifically viable sample (79 female students, 70 males).

Participants were asked to identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups on a computer screen. Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four ("FFFFF") while sometimes it was different ("EEFEE"). Afterward they filled out questionnaires about how much they worry.

Although the worrisome female subjects performed about the same as the males on simple portions of the task, their brains had to work harder at it. Then, as the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task, Moser said.

"Anxious girls' brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries," Moser said. "As a result their brains are being kind of burned out by thinking so much, which might set them up for difficulties in school. We already know that anxious kids -- and especially anxious girls -- have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math."

"We already know that anxious kids -- and especially anxious girls -- have a harder time in some academic subjects such as math."

Currently Moser and other MSU researchers are investigating whether estrogen, a hormone more common in women, may be responsible for the increased brain response. Estrogen is known to affect the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in learning and processing mistakes in the front part of the brain.

"This may end up reflecting hormone differences between men and women," Moser said.

In addition to traditional therapies for anxiety, Moser said other ways to potentially reduce worry and improve focus include journaling -- or "writing your worries down in a journal rather than letting them stick in your head" -- and doing "brain games" designed to improve memory and concentration.

The study was co-authored by Tim P. Moran, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Psychology, and MSU alumna Danielle Taylor.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Must Read: "22 Best Mobile Apps for Kids with Special Needs"

From Care.com

By Julie Rosenberg
May 23, 2012

"Enhance certain developmental skills with fun and new technology."

Technology has been - and continues to be -- a boon to people with disabilities, especially children. Mobile devices like the iPad enable children with developmental delays and other special needs to acquire life skills, engage in self-directed play, and perhaps most importantly facilitate communication with their caregivers. The ultimate equalizer in all this, however, is the almighty app.

"There's been a democratization of communication and learning software," says Howard Shane, Ph.D., "except now we just call them apps."

"I'm extraordinarily excited about what's going on with this technology and how it's changing the very nature of the kind of work that we do," says Dr. Shane, Director of the Center for Communication Enhancement in the department of Otolaryngology and Communication Enhancement at Boston's Children's Hospital.

The rapid-fire speed with which apps are being developed has made it difficult to distinguish good from bad, he says. Google "special needs apps" and the sheer volume of search results might leave you reeling. Ditto for an apps search at the iTunes store. But it doesn't need to be that way.

Special needs experts including Dr. Shane recommend that parents identify the child's needs and capabilities first and then try to match them with an app. "We really have no Consumer Reports strategy where there's an evaluation that comes up with some systematic way of telling whether an app is useful," he says. "There's just no decent reasonable filtering system, which is an issue that at some point needs to be addressed."

With thousands of apps and no recognized industry paradigm to evaluate them, how does a parent know which ones to choose? Enter the "Apps Consideration Checklist" that can aid parents and caregivers in this very process. This list is featured in a new book, "Apps for All Students: A Teacher's Desktop Guide. " Dr. Shane and his Boston Children's Hospital colleagues have created something similar called Feature Matching that you can download for personal use.

Free vs. Fee

Many apps offer a "lite" version, which is free and acts as a teaser to the fee-based one. This (marketing) technique usually works if the fundamental app is solid but the options in the robust feature-rich paid version are exponentially better. There's much more depth to the paid versions, says Dr. Bausch, associate professor in special education at the University of Kentucky, adding, "You usually get what you pay for." Fee-based versions allow customization as well as more options in terms of colors and font, and number of games and exercises.

"For children with disabilities, you're going to want to individualize an app for their particular need," adds Dr. Ault, assistant professor in special education at the University of Kentucky.

All the experts interviewed for this article were hesitant to recommend specific apps because of their shared belief that each child needs to be assessed on an individual basis, although Dr. Shane did cite some of his favorite free apps: Singing Fingers, Puppet Pals, Fireworks Arcade, and Virtuoso.

Care.com asked Shannon Des Roches Rosa, mom to a son with autism and an expert app reviewer in the special needs community at large, to suggest some of the better apps. For additional apps, check out her sought-after spreadsheet of reviews and recommendations.

Best Assistive Communication Apps (for nonspeaking kids)
  • ProloQuo2Go ($198) - Full-featured augmentative and alternative communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking. Provides natural sounding text-to-speech voices. This is a popular one with speech therapists.
  • TalkTablet ($89) For people unable to communicate clearly as a result of Autism, Aphasia, Down Syndrome, Stroke or Laryngectomy. With six US English ACAPELA voices (with children's voices)

Best Visual Schedules Apps
  • ChoiceWorks ($14.99) Helps children complete daily routines, understand and control their feelings and cultivate a higher threshold for patience (e.g., taking turns and not interrupting). Helps foster a child's independence while also promoting positive behavior and emotional regulation.
  • Routinely ($4.99) - Build visual schedules on iPhone or iPod Touch. Helps children with developmental delays anticipate and better prepare for transitions.
Best Social Cues Apps
  • Social Skill Builder (Free) Interactive videos teach key social thinking, language and behavior that are critical to everyday living. Specifically helps teach problem solving and friendship/life skills, critical thinking, emotions, and consequences.
  • Hidden Curriculum for Kids ($1.99) - Apps for Children with Special Needs (a4cwsn.com) describes it as, "Real life-based entries spur conversations about the countless 'unwritten social rules' that we encounter every day and that can cause confusion and anxiety." Great for kids on the autism spectrum.
Best Language Apps
  • Speech with Milo : Verbs ($2.99) Created by a licensed speech-language pathologist. Milo is an animated mouse that performs over 100 actions such as 'bounce,' 'count,' and 'play'. Great for infants, toddlers and children with language delays.
  • Splingo's Language Universe ($2.99) - Children practice their listening and language skills by interacting with the images and animation on the screen to follow Splingo the alien's spoken instructions.
Best Literacy Apps
  • Write My Name ($3.99) - Helps children with fine motor delays and sensory processing issues practice emerging writing skills by writing their name and tracing upper- and lowercase letters. Includes over 100 familiar sight words.
  • Bob Books Reading Magic ($1.99) - Teachers your child how to make the connection between letters and sounds; sound out simple words; and spell the words they've read.
Best Early Learning Apps
  • Injini: Child Development Game Suite ($29.99) - Play-based learning exercises and games that are well suited for children with cognitive, language and fine motor delays. Originally designed for and tested by children with autism, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome as well as typically developing preschoolers.
  • Bugs and Buttons ($2.99) Teaches counting, path finding, patterns, sorting and tracking as well as fine motor skills such as pinching.

Best Math Apps
  • Math Evolve (des Rochas Rosa says this one is the most fun) - ($1.99) - Children can practice math facts, number sense and mental math skills. Rosa votes this one as "most fun."
  • TeachMe ($0.99, includes spelling as well) - Teaches age-appropriate math skills. Rosa votes this one as "most functional"
Best Telling Time App
  • Telling Time ($1.99) Features include a free-play talking clock, a digital clock alongside the analog one, three levels of difficulty for each activity, and the chance to win prizes.
Best Fine Motor App
  • Dexteria ($4.99) Therapeutic hand exercises (not games) to improve fine motor skills. Activities take full advantage of the multi-touch interface to help build strength, control, and dexterity.
Best Memory Apps
  • Fruit Memory Match Game ($0.99) An interactive cousin to the classic Memory card game, using fruit.
  • Crazy Copy ($1.99) Similar to the popular handheld game Simon Says of the 1980s, this memory game is "easy to learn, hard to master."
Best Apps for Self-Directed Play
  • Toca Hair Salon - ($1.99) - Kids can be masters of their own domain - hair styling, that is. Toca Hair Salon features six different characters with lifelike hair that kids can cut, color, comb and style. The characters make fun faces and sounds while being groomed.
  • My Underwear ($0.99) Based on a popular board book by Todd Parr, kids can be as silly as they want all while playing with underwear. Hundreds of options abound including finger-painting their own underwear designs and feeding underwear-hungry monsters as briefs and BVDs fall from the sky.
Best Art Apps
  • Faces iMake ($0.99) Kids have a hoot creating faces from unexpected combinations of objects like light bulbs, spools of thread and strawberries.
  • Zen Brush ($2.99) Simulates the feeling of an ink brush, enabling the user to make fluid strokes. Choose from 50 style templates, three shades of ink, eraser tool, brush size adjustment slider, and undo function (1 time).
About Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Shannon's radio interviews on autism, parenting, and blogging include KQED Forum, KCUR Central Standard, and News Talk KIRO. She has been a speaker at several conferences, including BlogHer and UCSF Developmental Disabilities. She has edited several anthologies and contributed stories to numerous books, including the award-winning My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Shannon and her son Leo were featured in Apple's iPad: Year One video, which was introduced by Steve Jobs at Apple's iPad2 Keynote in San Francisco. She, her husband and their three children live near San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recruiting: Another Shriver Center Study

Express Yourself – Capturing the Facial Expressions of People with ASD and Those of Their Neurotypical Peers

Download the Express Yourself Study Flyer HERE.

Express Yourself is a research project studying children and adolescents aged 10-17. We are recording facial expressions produced by people with ASD in various situations. In order to analyze their expressions, we place tiny reflective stickers on subjects' faces, and capture the movement of those stickers with the same type of cameras used to create movies like Avatar and The Polar Express.

Participation in this study will involve one to two visits to our laboratory at the UMass Medical School Shriver Center in Waltham. In the first visit, your child will complete a series of standardized assessments. Based on this information, we will determine whether he or she meets the specific qualifications for the study. If so, we will then schedule a second visit to return and complete the research task.

When selected participants return for the research task, we will introduce them to the motion-capture cameras and place 32 tiny reflective stickers on their faces. They will then watch videos, view pictures or participate in conversation. They will be asked to respond to the images or videos using a computer keyboard or by retelling what they just saw.

Participants receive gift cards to Amazon or Toys R Us, and a small gift. The Shriver Center in Waltham is reachable by public transportation and has ample free parking.

To learn more about participating in Express Yourself or other studies underway in the F.A.C.E. lab at Shriver, please contact the Research Coordinator at (781) 642-0276, or facelab@umassmed.edu

Principle Investigator Dr. Ruth Grossman describing the Express Yourself project. Dr. Grossman is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UMass Medical School and also an Assistant Professor at Emerson College.

More Than Just 'Quirky' - The Asperger's Diagnostic Gender Gap

A Newsweek Web Exclusive

By Jeneen Interlandi

"Because they may have different symptoms than boys do, some girls with Asperger's Syndrome don't get diagnosed."

Liane Willey watched from behind a two-way mirror as doctors at the University of Kansas performed a series of psychological tests on her 5-year-old daughter. From the day the girl was born, Liane had worried about the child's behavior: as an infant, she would not suckle. As a toddler, she bit other children and refused to let anyone hug her.

Doctors had continually assured the young mother that her daughter was normal, if a bit quirky. But with each passing year, 'quirky' had become less apt a description. By the age of 5, she had no friends and a profound obsession with monkeys. "If another kid came to school with a toy monkey or something with a monkey picture on it, she would freak out," Liane says. "She would try to take it away from the other kid, because she didn't get that not everything 'monkey' was hers."

Liane had been a quirky child herself, and knew the difficult path that lay ahead for her daughter. "Growing up, I tried everything—psychotherapy, group therapy, antidepressants—none of them gave me a better sense of the world or my place in it," she recalls. "For her, I wanted something that would actually work, and I wanted them to put a name to the angst once and for all." Doctors were hoping the psychological tests would yield-up some clues.

The "Sally-Anne" test involved a simple skit: 'Sally' put a marble in the basket and then walked away. Once she was gone, 'Anne' took the marble out of the basket and put it in a box. When 'Sally' returned, the doctors asked where she would look for her marble. Anyone over the age of 5 is expected to know that Sally would look in the basket first, because she doesn't know that her marble has been moved.

Expecting Sally to look in the box first suggests that the test-taker doesn't understand that other people don't know everything they know, and vice versa. Psychologists refer to this as a "theory of mind," and people who fail the Sally-Anne test are said to lack one, meaning they can't anticipate other people's thoughts and feelings. Liane's daughter failed the Sally-Anne test, along with every other assessment meant to screen for Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, which the doctors promptly diagnosed her with.

The good news was that they had caught it early.

It's not uncommon for girls with Asperger's to go undiagnosed well into adulthood. Like heart disease, this high-functioning autism spectrum disorder is 10 times more prevalent in males, so doctors often don't think to look for it in females. But some experts have begun to suspect that unlike heart disease, Asperger's manifests differently, less obviously in girls, and that factor is also causing them to slip through the diagnostic cracks.

This gender gap may have implications for the health and well-being of girls on the spectrum, and some specialists predict that as we diagnose more girls, our profile of the disorder as a whole will change. Anecdotally, they report that girls with Asperger's seem to have less motor impairment, a broader range of obsessive interests, and a stronger desire to connect with others, despite their social impairment.

But much more research is needed before those anecdotes can be marshaled into a coherent picture. "Ultimately, we might want to look for different symptoms in girls," says Katherine Loveland, a psychiatry professor and autism researcher at the University of Texas in Houston. "But we have a lot more questions than answers at this point."

Answering those questions has proven a tricky proposition: to draw any real conclusions, many more girls will have to be studied. And that means more of them will have to be diagnosed in the first place.

Anyone who knows a boy with Asperger's syndrome might tell you that the disorder (characterized by obsessive interests and an inability to connect with others) is impossible to miss. For starters, the things most boys get obsessed with are difficult to shrug off as quirky. Imagine, for example, a 7-year-old boy with encyclopedic knowledge of vacuum cleaners or oscillating fans but almost no friends or playmates.

Now, replace oscillating fans with something more conventional - say horses or books - and imagine a girl instead of a boy. A horse obsession, even one of frightening intensity, might fly under the radar. "Girls tend to get obsessed with things that are a little less strange," says Dr. Elizabeth Roberts, a neuropsychologist at New York University's Asperger's Institute. "That makes it harder to distinguish normal from abnormal."

That observation is consistent with a 2007 study of 700 children on the spectrum, which found that girls' obsessive interests reflected the interests of girls in the general population; the same was not true for boys.

In addition to more socially acceptable obsessions, Roberts says, the Aspie girls she sees are more adept at copying the behaviors, mannerisms and dress codes of those around them, than Aspie boys tend to be. "From my personal experience, they seem to have a greater drive to fit in than boys with Asperger's do," she says. "So they spend a lot of time studying other girls and trying to copy them."

When social settings change, this can spell disaster. "As you move from high school to college, or from one group of friends to another, you have a whole new set of rules to learn," said one Aspie woman who asked not to be named. "Not only do you lose your own identity, but if you end up surrounded by the wrong people—mimicking their behavior without understanding the motivations behind it can lead to big trouble."

Of course, it's not just different symptoms that stymie diagnosis—cultural conditioning may also play a role. What looks like pathological social awkwardness in a little boy can seem like mere bashfulness or just good old-fashioned manners in a little girl. "We tend to notice shyness in boys as 'off,'" says Loveland. "In girls, we can almost see it as a good trait." And while boys are often diagnosed when they begin expressing their frustration as aggression and find themselves in trouble at school, girls —even Aspie girls—learn to internalize their feelings, not to act out, which can make them both more anxious and less noticeable.

But even as they effectively mask Asperger's in girls, social mores might also make the disorder more harrowing for them. As they approach adolescence, girls face greater pressure to be sympathetic and empathetic than boys do.

"By the time girls reach junior high, their social networks have become extraordinarily complex, and Aspie girls can't keep up with all the nuances."

"By the time girls reach junior high, their social networks have become extraordinarily complex, and Aspie girls can't keep up with all the nuances," says Janet Lainhart, a doctor at the University of Utah's Brain Institute. "Boys struggle socially as well, but their peers mature much slower so their inability to empathize is seen as more forgivable."

Not everyone is persuaded that the symptoms of Asperger's differ between boys and girls. Ami Klin, (formerly) director of Yale's autism research group, cautions that no Asperger's trait can be defined as gender-specific quite yet. "It's a possibility," he says. "But I don't know anyone who has tested it and I can think of many exceptions to any rule you come up with about what narrow interests or other traits each gender has."

"...their desperation for human interaction—combined with their inability to gauge the intentions of those around them—can make girls with Asperger's easy prey for sexual predators."

What everyone does seem to agree on is that without diagnosis, girls are unlikely to get the support—including special education and behavioral therapy—that has proven so helpful to boys with Asperger's. Even worse, their desperation for human interaction—combined with their inability to gauge the intentions of those around them—can make girls with Asperger's easy prey for sexual predators.

"That is a real distinction and my real concern for girls on the spectrum," says Klin. "That they will be more susceptible to rape, abuse and drug addiction because of their social deficiencies and because they aren't getting the right guidance."

Despite the urgent need for more research, Klin says that scientists who study ASDs have effectively orphaned this population. Because there are so few of them, girls are often yanked from studies altogether so that they don't muddy up the data. As a result, only a very small body of work addresses the Asperger's gender gap, even though such studies could lead to better diagnosis of both autism and Asperger's.

Preliminary genetic analyses suggest that autism may be caused by different genes in each gender; and at least one MRI study has found differences in the brain anatomy of boys and girls on the spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen, a renowned autism researcher, has shown that high levels of fetal testosterone may also play a role. But that work has yet to be replicated, mainly, say Loveland and others, due to a lack of funding or interest. "A lot of people see Baron-Cohen's work as 'politically incorrect,'" says Loveland. "Any time you start talking about a biological basis of sex differences, you are looking at controversy."

Meanwhile, many schools and clinics that work with children on the spectrum have begun forming girls-only clubs in an effort to build better support systems for girls with Asperger's. Lainhart has created a group at her Utah practice. The first things her girls, who range in age from early teens to late 20s, wanted to know: how to plan a dinner party and how to hold a dance. "They really want to understand how to do these very-female things, they just need the guidance to get there," she says.

Of course, getting that guidance depends on getting the right diagnosis early on. And it turned out that Liane's daughter wasn't the only one to fail the Sally-Anne test that afternoon. Liane herself had not been able to distinguish between what she knew and what Sally knew. Doctors diagnosed her right alongside her daughter. Liane says that diagnosis changed everything for her.

"It was like a light bulb went off," she says. "I was able to seek out the right kind of treatment, and after a lifetime of mimicking others, finally find my own identity." And early diagnosis has helped her daughter (now a healthy teenager) avoid many of the pitfalls that Liane herself fell prey to.

"Her experience has been totally different from mine," she says. "She's had special education and behavioral therapy from the time she was a young girl, and if I introduced you to my three daughters today, you wouldn't be able to tell which one has Asperger's."

NOTE: Many thanks to Dania Jekel, executive director of the Asperger's Association of New England (AANE), for bringing this article to our attention.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Siblings of Children with Autism: How to Meet Their Needs

From the Special-Learning.com Blog

NOTE: Good advice in general for parents of children with any sort of special needs.

By Leslie Roland
May 6, 2012

Many families of children with Autism will say that the majority of their attention and time is focused on their child with special needs. It isn’t that these families aren’t sensitive to the needs of their other children; however, they are often dominated by the pressing concerns and needs of their child with Autism. Often parents feel torn, with very little left to share among all their children.

The siblings in a household with a child with Autism often display their own signs of emotional distress, mental health needs and behavioral difficulties. These behaviors may stem from mimicking the behaviors of their sibling with special needs as an attention seeking mechanism. The emotional and mental health concerns often stem from many, sometimes unavoidable, factors such as anger, jealousy, lack of own emotional needs being met and possible post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Parents typically find themselves frustrated, overwhelmed and at a loss as to how to manage or help the other children or child in the home.

One of the most reported symptoms or expressions of need that parents report to me is that their other child is “acting out” or exhibiting aggression towards him or herself, or even towards the sibling with Autism. Often parents show little/no patience for their typical child when it comes to their “acting out” behaviors or any impatience that child might show toward their sibling with special needs.

The following are condensed insights on how to recognize and meet the needs of typical siblings in the home with a child with Autism.


  • Anger usually presents itself as aggression such as hitting, pinching, kicking…etc. Aggression may be directed outward to others/animals or inward at self. Anger, however, may be more covert such as stealing, lying, manipulating, creating chaos and/or being oppositional. The sibling of a child with Autism may feel angry for several reasons. He/she may be angry or disappointed because he/she doesn’t have a typical sibling to play with and/or he/she may feel embarrassed of his/her sibling’s behaviors. A child in the home where there is a sibling with Autism may resent the instability in the home, the barrage of care providers in and out, the stress his/her parents always seem to be under and how his/her life always seem to shift around his/her sibling. Often a sibling may not have the opportunity to express his/her feelings, sometimes because the parent(s) are not able to express theirs. Many times a sibling is expected to have the emotional fortitude of a well-rounded, emotionally healthy adult and simply understand and accept the behaviors he/she witnesses or endures as well as all the effects of his/her sibling’s diagnosis on his/her life.
  • Allow your child time to openly and honestly talk about his/her feelings. Be sure to validate your child’s feelings as much as possible without condoning inappropriate behaviors. Your child needs to feel heard. It’s okay to tell your child that you’re sorry that he/she feels the way he/she does. He/she needs to talk about what he/she wants or wishes. He/she needs to feel protected from aggressive behaviors as much as possible and must be allowed to have some things that are just for him/her which aren’t altered or sacrificed.
  • Jealousy can occur with any siblings, but the sibling of a child with special needs may struggle with this emotion even more so. The root of this emotion is often insecurity. If a child does not know or understand his/her place in the home or the heart of his/her parents, insecurity and low self-esteem may develop. Sometimes, a sibling, as well as the parents’ needs and identities will just blend into the background and the endless therapies, providers and/or crisis. The other children in the home may be set safely off to the side and assumed “okay” and gratefully so. However, the children may receive the message that they aren’t as special or that their needs do not matter.
  • Parents need to be aware and careful of the messages they are sending to the other children in the home, especially when the focus and household seems to circle the needs of the child with Autism. It is important that a sibling has something that makes him/her special to him/herself and to the parent(s). He/she needs to be recognized with just as much energy as is given to the child with Autism. Make a date to spend quality time with the sibling at least once a week, separately and focus that entire time on that child.
Attention Seeking
  • Attention seeking behaviors can be a subset of jealous feelings, yet envy may not necessarily be attached. However, insecurity and mistrust may have a great deal to do with this behavior in a typical child. One of the key stages of human development is individual is given the opportunity to learn to trust that his/her needs will be met. Though the basic physical needs are often met, the basic emotional needs may not be. The child may not perceive him or herself as loved or even as visible in the household. This may be determined by what the child has learned to base love on; for example, the child may not feel loved if he connects love with the time the parent spins with him or the attention given to his sibling. The child’s attempts at obtaining attention may be associated with the fear that he/she will not be loved if he/she doesn’t earn it or bully for it. His/her attention seeking behaviors may be acts of desperation and may be a warning sign that there is a hole or a need within the child that is not being filled.
  • Again, parents will need to be as in tune with the other children in the home as they are with the sibling with special needs. A parent cannot assume that their child is managing or adapting and well adjusted. Parents may need to help their child recognize special things about him/herself as the child might have learned to ignore him/herself. Parents may need to be sensitive to their child’s need for time or attention, as minimal as it might seem. It might be as simple as noticing something new or making a big deal over a small accomplishment. These children need to feel seen and visible. Do not accidently reinforce attention seeking behaviors by isolating attention to times when the child has “earned” it by performing a certain way or when he/she has demanded it through negative behaviors. You do not want to send the message that the child has to be a certain way, whether good or bad, to deserve your attention.
  • Siblings may show symptoms of depression without being actually clinically depressed. Siblings may develop a feeling of helplessness, especially if their siblings with Autism are aggressive towards them or other family members or if the home is in constant crisis. They may feel isolated from peers or because their parents are isolated. Some depressive behaviors can be learned as means of dealing with the world or negative expectations. Parents can pass these learned outlooks to their children. Additionally, as the child grows up with feelings of unexpressed anger and insecurity with no sense of self importance, depressive symptoms may be a natural progression. Children may feel displaced in a home where they feel invisible and possibly unable to relate to their peers at school or in the community.
  • First, it is important to try to identify and address a child’s needs as early as possible; however, if the child does start to show signs of prolonged sadness, hopelessness, devalued sense of self and disturbs in mood or any signs of depression seek professional intervention as soon as possible. If you haven’t had a smooth line of communication with the child until now, it is never too late to start. Remember, the child did not come to this place magically or overnight. Acknowledge the experiences that contributed to your child’s distress and learn how to be his/her advocate as well. A parent may also have to look at how they handle stress and their emotions. The first intervention may require the parent learning how to navigate and express his/her feelings as well as developing health ways of coping with life.
  • A sibling of a child with Autism may have unfair expectations placed on him/her that is well beyond his/her years and/or comprehension. Often parents will lean on the typical child, even if he/she is younger or not much older, for support. They may misread the typical child as being emotionally ready and aware of his/her siblings needs and able to handle his/her sibling’s behaviors. These children are sometimes expected to always be sensitive, patient, understanding, nurturing and observant despite having to live with aggression, lack of personal space or having to give into the demands of a sibling who is having tantrum. These children are sometimes asked to care take for their siblings and sometimes their parents. These children appear older than their years and are often wracked with worry, stress and experience feelings of displacement from their peers.
  • It is imperative that siblings are allowed to be children and only expected to act as children. They need to have friends and be allowed to participate in activities outside of the home. Allow them to have typical reactions to atypical situations and guide them through any feelings or behaviors that are inappropriate. Help them replace those inappropriate reactions with appropriate, healthy ones, but do not devalue, discredit or make them deny their feelings. It is a parent’s role to guide the child through these difficult emotions and not simply expect them to fall in line and know their role. However, the parent must be at a healthy place emotionally to have the strength and wherewithal to be guidance counselor, referee and generally be able to recognize and meet the needs of a household.
  • Anxiety is usually a culmination of the insecurity, instability, ever-changing, strained environment and strained emotions that have gone unnoticed or undisclosed. Often, there is a sense of fear, uncertainty and a feeling of the person being or life being out of control. The known is frightening and the unknown is terrifying. Whether there has been a constant change of schools, homes or an environment where there were extremes from one moment to another, children in these household can develop anxiety. This anxiety may be related to their surroundings and their abilities to keep themselves safe. Moreover, anxiety can be related to their desires to have something be controllable and predictable in their lives. Anxiety may show up as excessive worry and catastrophizing over unpredictable events. The child may develop obsessive and compulsive behaviors or irrational fears.
  • Recognize that anxiety symptoms may signal a biological disorder or they may be your child’s way of trying to feel safe in a world he/she deems as unsafe and unstable. As mentioned earlier, make every attempt to protect your child from aggressive behaviors or excessive shifts in the environment. In a perfect world, this would be easy, but it isn’t always possible. When your child has been aggressed towards, make every attempt to get him/her to a safe place as soon as possible and emotionally and physically make sure he/she knows he/she is safe and you are there. Again, validate his/her feelings and try to give him/her time away from the home, possibly allow him to visit the grandparents or friends often. Allow a professional determine if his symptoms are biological or learned responses to stress. If they are learned, your child will need to learn to trust himself, you and his environment as this is something he/she may not have developed at a younger age. The interventions will be based on your child’s age, cognitive abilities, comprehension and degree of symptomology.
Of course, there are several other behaviors, needs and symptoms children may present. It is important to see these responses as possibly normal initial reactions with possible harmful outcomes if allowed to fester without interventions. It is important to view each child as separate individual with separate needs. Siblings need to have a forum to express their feelings and learn ways to identify their needs and individual special qualities.

There needs to be a life and interests as well as semblances of stability and consistency outside of the home. Parents need to do their best to take care of themselves emotionally and mentally in order to model healthy ways of handling stress and dealing with emotions. Find ways to create stability and consistency in the home as much as possible even if it’s just consistent parent/child time each week.

Do not ignore behavioral concerns, but also do not treat behaviors with impatience. Some behaviors and ways of thinking may need to be unlearned and replaced with healthy ways of handling stress and frustrations. However, some behaviors and moods may signal biological issues that may need to be evaluated by a Psychologist, Clinical Social Worker and/or Psychiatrist.

Do not take any need or behavior for granted and advocate for the wellness of all family members, including your own.

About Leslie Roland

Leslie Roland is an experienced, Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) with over 5 years of experience in the field of social work. She is currently employed by Step by Step Academy,  a private, non-profit treatment center for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) established in 2002 and located just outside of Columbus, Ohio.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Three Biggest Fears for Raising Boys Today

From Yahoo's Blog The Shine - Parenting

June 19, 2012

Attorney, TV legal analyst, and author Lisa Bloom is out with her new critically-acclaimed book "Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture" and she's here to give a wake-up call to parents raising young boys.

From failing schools to an economy of incarceration, Lisa explains the major threats hindering our boys ability to succeed in today's world and offers up real solutions to these urgent issues.

In Lisa's words:

"At this very moment, through no fault of their own, our boys are caught in the vortex of four powerful, insidious, often invisible forces that conspire to rob them of their future. First, our heartbreakingly subpar schools. To say that twenty-first-century America doesn’t value education is like saying Donald Trump doesn’t prioritize humility.

Class sizes grow, as kids sit on the floor or are crammed into “temporary” classrooms in hallways or bathrooms. School buildings crumble, leak, and emit toxic fumes. Junk-food school lunches make our kids sick and fat (while bloating the profits of giant food processing companies), dropping their test scores. Teachers are reduced to begging on charity websites for books for first graders.

At even the best schools our kids graduate without knowing the basics of U.S. history or the rudiments of science. Our kids already enjoy some of the shortest school days and school years in the developed world. And now we are witnessing a new sickening trend: in over one hundred counties in America, state budget cuts have pared the school week down to only four days. Hooray! An extra day every week to watch Fear Factor and play Xbox!"

Read More: http://lisabloom.com/site/lisas-books/swagger-excerpt/

Lisa Bloom is an attorney, legal analyst for Avvo.com, and author. For more, check out www.LisaBloom.com. To purchase Swagger, click here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What Is Working Memory and Why Does It Matter?

From www.LD.org - The National Center for Learning Disabilities

By Annie Stuart
Published April 20, 2012

Remember the day when someone rattled off a phone number while you just hoped against hope you'd recall the string of digits as you were dialing? That was working memory toiling away. With the advent of cell phones, you may no longer use it this way very often. But working memory still plays a central role in learning and our daily lives.

If working memory is weak, it can trip up just about anyone. But it really works against a child with learning disabilities (LD). You can take steps to help a child with weak working memory, whether or not LD is a part of the picture. Start by understanding what working memory is all about.

What is working memory?

Working memory is your brain's Post-it note, says Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. "It makes all the difference to successful learning," she says.

You can think of working memory as the active part of your memory system. It's like mental juggling, says H. Lee Swanson, Ph.D., distinguished professor of education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. "As information comes in, you're processing it at the same time as you store it," he says. A child uses this skill when doing math calculations or listening to a story, for example. She has to hold onto the numbers while working with them. Or, she needs to remember the sequence of events and also think of what the story is about, says Swanson.

Brief by design, working memory involves a short-term use of memory and attention, adds Matthew Cruger, Ph.D., neuropsychologist with the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City. "It is a set of skills that helps us keep information in mind while using that information to complete a task or execute a challenge," he says. Working memory is like a foundation of the brain's executive function. This is a broad and deep group of mental processes. They allow you to do things like plan ahead, problem solve, organize, and pay attention.

"Working memory helps us stay involved in something longer and keep more things in mind while approaching a task," says Cruger. "And, how can you plan ahead if you don't use working memory to keep your goal in mind, resist distractions, and inhibit impulsive choices?"

But if you struggle with working memory, pieces of information may often evade your grasp like a quickly evaporating dream. You find yourself stripped of the very thing you need most to take action.

Types of Working Memory

"You can't overemphasize how often working memory is used in the classroom," says Cruger. Children (and adults) use two main subtypes of working memory throughout the day. Both develop at a similar rate during childhood, and often reach their highest level in early adulthood.

Verbal (auditory) working memory taps into the sound (phonological) system. Silently repeating that phone number while dialing makes use of this system. "And anytime kids are expected to follow a multi-step set of oral instructions, they are using these working memory skills," says Cruger. If there's a weakness, however, they may not be able to keep the instructions in mind while working with them, he says. This is true even when they fully understand what to do. Other tasks that require use of this type of working memory are learning language and comprehension tasks.

Visual-spatial working memory uses a kind of visual sketchpad of the brain. It allows you to envision something, to keep it in your "mind's eye." Students use this skill to do math and to remember patterns, images, and sequences of events.

They might use it to visualize the layout of the classroom during the first couple of weeks of school, says Cruger. "A teacher says, 'Once you're done with this, go to the center area, take something to do and then go to this table and work on this,'" he says. "That involves multiple steps where the child is negotiating himself in the world." If not identified, a deficit of this type is ripe for misunderstanding, he says. For example, it might seem as though a child is simply not paying attention.

How is working memory linked with learning and LD?

Working memory can be a central problem for many people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), says Cruger. Or, it may be one of many things that is weak among a set of attention and executive functioning problems.

Those with weak working memory are likely to have learning disorders, too. In a government-funded study, Alloway and colleagues tested more than 3,000 grade school and junior high children in the U.K. They found that one in 10 had very poor working memory.

This turned out to be a reliable indicator of who would struggle in the classroom, she says. In fact, when following up six years later, they found working memory to be a more powerful predictor than IQ when it comes to learning.5 "Ninety-eight percent with poor working memory had very low scores in standardized tests of reading comprehension and math."

These weaknesses may show up later, when executive skills of comprehension and analysis come into play, says Swanson. "Schools do a pretty good job of drill and repetition and teaching kids phonics, but when you get into things like comprehension, it can begin to fall apart."

And, if a child has a learning disability, weak working memory can add insult to injury. For example, a fifth grader who is still sounding out words while reading is relying heavily on working memory to help compensate. This puts a huge tax on the working memory system, says Cruger. At this stage, you want reading to be more automatic. You want to be able to look at a word and recognize it, he says, and not have to recruit attentional or working memory resources to the task. But for a child who needs to compensate but can't rely on working memory, the process can become all the more painful.

This weakness may compound things, especially for those with LD, says Alloway. "I've worked at schools where the average 10-year-old can remember and process four pieces of information, but one with poor working memory can look like an average 5-year-old," she says. "For this child, the teacher talks too fast, making it hard to keep up. So the child may eventually start disengaging altogether."

Combine these challenges with high anxiety, which also puts demands on working memory, and it becomes more than a double whammy. "Your emotional state can play a role in working memory performance, which can in turn influence performance on tests," says Alloway.

How can you diagnose working memory problems?

So how can you know whether or not your child has a problem with working memory? First, watch for signs. Then, consider testing to confirm the weakness, assessing both types of working memory.

Know the signs. Alloway has helped develop a 22-item checklist, standardized for grade school and junior high students and published by Pearson Assessment in the U.K. (A U.S. version will soon be available.) Called the Working Memory Rating Scale (WMRS), it helps teachers identify this problem by listing behaviors that are typical of someone with poor working memory such as:
  • Abandons activities before completing them
  • Looks like he's daydreaming
  • Fails to complete assignments
  • Puts up a hand to answer questions but forgets what she wanted to say (This is typical for a 5-year-old, but not for an 11-year-old, for example.)
  • Mixes up material inappropriately, for example, combining two sentences
  • Forgets how to continue an activity that he's started, even though the teacher has explained the steps
Alloway emphasizes that students always be compared with peers to know what is typical for a given age group. That's because working memory develops over time. The average 5-year-old, she says, can hold and process one or two pieces of information. But a 10-year-old can do this with three and a 14-year-old with four.6 A kindergarten teacher recently told Alloway, "Now it makes sense why they don't listen to me because I always give them about four instructions at a time!"

Consider formal testing. A school psychologist can test for working memory with tests such as the Working Memory Index in the WISC. Unfortunately many with poor working memory go undiagnosed. That's because they learn to compensate, says Swanson. "Their knowledge base or basic skills acquired in specific academic domains, such as reading or math, helps them deal with any working memory demands related to a particular task."

Although diagnosis can help you understand what underlies any difficulties, Swanson cautions to find assessments that actually test working memory and not just short-term memory. "The test has to involve interpreting information as it is coming in." He recommends two:
Assess both types of working memory.

From an educational perspective, it is important to know the difference between them because children with different learning needs may have very different working memory profiles, says Alloway.

"A student with a reading disorder can have a weakness in auditory working memory but relative strengths in visual spatial working memory," says Alloway. "But another student withdyspraxia may have deficits across the board but particularly with visual spatial working memory."

Also be aware that auditory working memory usually affects learning more so than visual-spatial working memory, says Alloway. That's because, with so much information relayed verbally in school, it's harder for a student to easily find ways to compensate.

Now that you understand the role of working memory, perhaps it's time to seek help for your child. Without intervention that specifically addresses this weakness, students with poor working memory won't catch up over time, says Alloway. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to help.


Working Memory and Learning

Working memory is the ability to store and manipulate information in the mind for brief periods. Lisa Archibald of Western University joins Cheryl Jackson to discuss working memory and its role in a child's ability to learn.