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Sunday, March 31, 2013

How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior

From the Child Mind Institute

By Caroline Miller
March 26, 2013

Kids who seem oppositional are often severely anxious.

A 10-year-old boy named James has an outburst in school. Upset by something a classmate says to him, he pushes the other boy, and a shoving-match ensues. When the teacher steps in to break it up, James goes ballistic, throwing papers and books around the classroom and bolting out of the room and down the hall. He is finally contained in the vice principal's office, where staff members try to calm him down. Instead, he kicks the vice principal in a frenzied effort to escape. The staff calls 911, and James ends up in the Emergency Room.

To the uninitiated, James looks like a boy with serious anger issues. It's not the first time he's flown out of control. The school insists that his parents pick him up and take him home for lunch every day because he's been banned from the cafeteria.

But what's really going on? "It turns out, after an evaluation, that he is off the charts for social anxiety," reports Dr. Jerry Bubrick, director of the Anxiety & Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. "He can't tolerate any—even constructive—criticism. He just will shut down altogether. James is terrified of being embarrassed, so when a boy says something that makes him uncomfortable, he has no skills to deal with it, and he freaks out. Flight or fight."

James's story illustrates something parents and teachers may not realize: disruptive behavior is often generated by unrecognized anxiety. A child who appears to be oppositional or aggressive may be reacting to anxiety—anxiety he may, depending on his age, not be able to articulate effectively, or fully recognize that he's feeling.

"Especially in younger kids with anxiety you might see freezing and clinging kind of behavior," says Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, "but you can also see tantrums and complete meltdowns."

A Great Masquerader

Anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body's ability to either face danger or escape danger.

So, while some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, some react with overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.

"Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader," explains Dr. Laura Prager, director of the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service at Mass. General Hospital. "It can look like a lot of things. Particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings, or because no one is listening to them, they might manifest their anxiety with behavioral dysregulation."

The more commonly recognized symptoms of anxiety in a child are things like trouble sleeping in his own room or separating from his parents, avoidance of certain activities, a behaviorally inhibited temperament. "Anyone would recognize those symptoms," notes Dr. Prager, who is also an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, and co-author of Suicide by Security Blanket, and Other Stories from the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service.

But in other cases, the anxiety can be hidden.

"When the chief complaint is temper tantrums, or disruption in school, or throwing themselves on the floor while shopping at the mall, it's hard to know what that means," she explains, "but it's not uncommon, when kids like that come in to the ER, for the diagnosis to end up being a pretty profound anxiety disorder."

To demonstrate the surprising range of ways young children express anxiety, Dr. Prager mentions a case she had just seen of a young child who presented with hallucinations, but whose diagnosis she predicted will end up being somewhere on the anxiety spectrum. "Little kids who say they're hearing things or seeing things, for example, may or may not be doing that. These may not be the frank hallucinations we see in older patients who are schizophrenic, for example. They might be a manifestation of anxiety and this is the way the child expresses it."

Problems at School

It's not uncommon for children with serious undiagnosed anxiety to be disruptive at school, where demands and expectations put pressure on them that they can't handle. And it can be very confusing to teachers and other staff members to "read" that behavior, which can seem to come out of nowhere.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in school settings, sees anxiety as one of the causes of disruptive behavior that makes classroom teaching so challenging.

"The trouble is that when kids who are anxious become disruptive, they push away the very adults who they need to help them feel secure," notes Dr. Rappaport. "And instead of learning to manage their anxiety, they end up spending half the day in the principal's office."

Dr. Rappaport sees a lot of acting out in school as the result of trauma at home. "Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home," she notes, "can act like terrorists at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior." Most at risk, she says, are kids with ADHD who've also experienced trauma. "They're hyper-vigilant, they have no executive functioning, they misread cues and go into combat."

"Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home, can act like terrorists at school, with intimidating kinds of behavior." Most at risk are kids with ADHD who've also experienced trauma. "They're hyper-vigilant, they have no executive functioning, they misread cues and go into combat."

When a teacher is able to build a relationship with a child, to find out what's really going on with him, what's provoking the behavior, she can often give him tools to handle anxiety and prevent meltdowns.

In her book, The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, Dr. Rappaport offers strategies kids can be taught to use to calm themselves down, from breathing exercises to techniques for distracting themselves.

"When a teacher understands the anxiety underlying the opposition, rather than making the assumption that the child is actively trying to make her miserable, it changes her approach," says Dr. Rappaport, "The teacher is able to join forces with the child himself and the school counselor, to come up with strategies for preventing these situations."

If it sounds labor-intensive for the teacher, it is, but so is dealing with the aftermath of the child having a meltdown.

Anxiety also drives a lot of symptoms in a school setting that are easily misconstrued as ADHD or oppositionality.

"I'll see a child who's having difficulty in school: not paying attention, getting up out of his seat all the time, asking a lot of questions, going to the bathroom a lot, getting in other kids' spaces," explains Dr. Busman. "His behavior is disrupting other kids, and is frustrating to the teacher, who's wondering why she has to answer so many questions, and why he's so wrapped up in what other kids are doing, whether they're following the rules."

People tend to assume what's happening with this child is ADHD inattentive type, but it's commonly anxiety. Kids with OCD, mislabeled as inattentive, are actually not asking all those questions because they're not listening, but rather because they need a lot of reassurance.

How to Identify Anxiety

"It probably occurs more than we think, either anxiety that looks disruptive or anxiety coexisting with disruptive behaviors," Dr. Busman adds. "It all goes back to the fact that kids are complicated and symptoms can overlap diagnostic categories, which is why we need to have really comprehensive and good diagnostic assessment."

First of all, good assessment needs to gather data from multiple sources, not just parents. "We want to talk to teachers and other people involved with the kid's life," she adds, "because sometimes kids that we see are exactly the same at home and at school, sometimes they are like two different children."

And it needs to use rating scales on a full spectrum of behaviors, not just the area that looks the most obvious, to avoid missing things.

Dr. Busman also notes that a child with severe anxiety who's struggling in school might also have attentional or learning issues, but she might need to be treated for the anxiety before she can really be evaluated for those.

She uses the example of a teenager with OCD who she's "doing terribly" in school. "She's ritualizing three to four hours a day, and having constant intrusive thoughts—so we need to treat that, to get the anxiety under control before we ask, how is she learning?"

Links to Related Content

How to Handle Hyperactivity in Kids with ADHD

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. 
October 28, 2012

Hyperactive kids with ADHD are always on the go, according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. It’s like they have a motor winding them up.

“Words like ‘Energizer Bunny,’ ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ and the ‘Roadrunner’ are common nicknames to describe the never-ending vessel of energy ADHD kids exhibit,” he said.

For instance, rather than sitting at their desk, they might jump up several times to sharpen their pencil, said Ari Tuckman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook. Rather than sitting at the dinner table, they might walk around it — or go and play with the pet, he said.

Physical hyperactivity isn’t the only concern. Hyperactive kids also experience racing — and “rarely singular or linear” — thoughts, Olivardia said. “The idea of ‘shutting their minds off’ is a foreign concept to someone who is hyperactive.”

“Perhaps the current setup of school, sitting still for 6 hours a day 5 days a week, is the real problem.”

Because of their hyperactivity, kids with ADHD can have a hard time in school, where sitting still is nonnegotiable. “[They] can miss much of what is taught simply because their brains are not as stimulated when they are still,” Olivardia said. (However, as he said, “Perhaps the current setup of school, sitting still for 6 hours a day 5 days a week, is the real problem.”)

They also might experience social problems, he said. And hyperactivity “can lead to more accidents and injuries if the child engages in reckless activities in order to get some of that energy out,” Tuckman said.

Handling Hyperactivity in Kids with ADHD

Parenting a child who’s hyperactive is no doubt exhausting. Tuckman and Olivardia shared these suggestions on how to handle hyperactivity.

Have a clear understanding of hyperactivity.

Being hyperactive is not the same as misbehaving, Olivardia said. Hyperactivity in ADHD is hardwired, he said. “It is analogous to feeling an intense itch and not scratching it. Even if you don’t scratch it, you’ll be so distracted by wanting to.”

In addition to educating yourself, educate your child as well about why they’re hyperactive, he added.

Find other “fidgets.”

Fidgeting actually helps kids focus, reducing hyperactivity. Olivardia referred to a book called Fidget to Focus, which describes the science of fidgeting and its ability to sharpen attention. He also suggested finding other ways to fidget, such as chewing gum or having an object to manipulate.

Create more engagement.

For instance, teachers can set up desks in a circle or have “stand-up desks,” Olivardia said. Kids with ADHD are usually more engaged when they’re moving around a bit than sitting still. Get creative, experiment and go with what works, he said.

Ignore the hyperactivity.

“Sometimes the best solution is just to ignore it,” Tuckman said. For instance, when your child is having dinner at home, if they’re eating their food and not misbehaving, let them stand or walk around the table, he said.

Get rid of excess energy.

“You can burn off some of that hyperactivity by allowing the child to be more active before they need to sit still,” Tuckman said.

The important thing is not to fight hyperactivity by telling your child to stop fidgeting, be still or stay seated, Tuckman said. In fact, “Simply saying ‘Sit still’ can be invalidating and lead to self-esteem problems in kids with ADHD,” Olivardia said. Instead, help your child channel their excess energy, Tuckman said.

“Remember that this same kind of energy, which can be a lot to handle as a parent or teacher when kids are younger, is the same kind of energy that can contribute to amazing things as an adult,” Olivardia said.

“Remember that this same kind of energy, which can be a lot to handle as a parent or teacher when kids are younger, is the same kind of energy that can contribute to amazing things as an adult.”

Many entrepreneurs were diagnosed with ADHD as kids, and today, use their energy to brainstorm exciting ideas and run out-of-the-box businesses, he said.

About Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor at Psych Central and blogs regularly about eating and self-image issues on her own blog, Weightless.

Subscribe to her RSS Feed.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Influencing Teens and Tweeners, Part 2

From Greater Good's Raising HAPPINESS Blog - Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents

By Christine Carter, Ph.D.
March 25, 2013

In my last post, I introduced the idea of “motivational interviewing,” a way to engage with adolescents to make them feel heard, understood, and, ultimately, receptive to our wisdom.

This technique, which has been proven effective in clinical psychology, is particularly useful when we want to influence our teens or tweeners to change their behavior.

I learned about motivational interviewing from U.C. Berkeley professor Ron Dahl, an expert on adolescents. From my conversation with Ron, and from reading his written work, I gleaned 10 tips for getting through to teens and tweens. For the first five tips, see this post.

Here are the next five:

(6) Surf their resistance like a wave. Say you want your teens or tweeners to get to bed earlier, or to spend more time on their homework. It’s normal for adolescents to resist you on these things, especially if they are feeling pushed to do something they are not ready to do—even if they agree with you on some level.

For example, they might recognize that they are not doing as well in school as they’d like, but they aren’t ready yet to commit to spending more time on homework and less time on video games.

Sometimes (often?) we parents cause kids to dig in their heels when we argue our own position more forcefully. This is like trying to be understood in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language: When we ask a question to a local who doesn’t understand English, we may get frustrated and ask again—but this time louder: “WHERE IS THE TRAIN STATION?”

Similarly, with teens, it doesn’t help to make the same argument again, but louder. We’ll just annoy them.

Instead of trying to persuade kids, we need to accept their resistance as normal and take with a different tactic—like one I list below, or in my last post.

(7) Genuinely appreciate their position and their participation in the discussion. Used sparingly, affirmations build connections. You might be shocked (or depressed) by what your teen is telling you, and tempted to point out the mistakes that could ruin their lives forever.

Instead, appreciate how hard the conversation might be for them, and thank them for their honesty:

“I can only imagine that this is an awkward conversation for you. I’m so grateful that you are willing to talk with me about your sex life. Thank you for explaining why you’ve been sneaking out with your girlfriend. Your honesty says a lot about who you are as a person.”

Don’t overdo this one, though, or say anything you don’t actually mean, or you’ll come off as inauthentic and manipulative.

(8) Shift the focus of your discussion. Offer a little relief by changing the topic ever-so-slightly. Perhaps you’ve been talking about how your daughter’s boyfriend sometimes makes her feel unattractive by making jokes about her weight. You might temporarily shift the focus of your discussion by saying something like,

“You’re pretty confident that you’re in love with Pete, though, and you say he’s ‘the one.’ Tell me more about that.”

(9) Side with their negative position. When my kids were toddlers, their dad and I used to laugh at how well “reverse psychology” worked, and if you are particularly skilled (meaning, you can do this without sounding critical or sarcastic), it might work with your teen or tweener, too.

For example, your teen might be ranting about how her other parent is really bugging her to try out for soccer; she wants him to back off and let her do her own thing. You could 'agree' with her position by saying something like,

“Maybe he should just leave you alone, even if it means that he isn’t involved in your college applications, which is what he’s trying to help you with.”

Or, you could say,

“Yes, you both might be better off if he focused his energy on your brother.”

(10) Help them make a behavior plan if your teen or tweener indicates that they are ready to make a change. Do this only if you suspect that they won’t be able to make a plan on their own, and if they indicate that they would like your help. Have them list:

  • the changes they would like to make;
  • the most important reasons for those changes;
  • the specific steps they plan to take;
  • the people who can support them—and precisely how those people can help;
  • the challenges or potential barriers to their success—and specifically what they will do when they encounter these difficulties.

Have them tell you their vision for their success—how will they (and you) know that they have been successful, or if the plan is working?

In what areas do you want to guide your teen or tweener toward better decisions? Which of these techniques do you think will work best?

Read Part 1 of this posting here.


Gold, Melanie A. and Ronald E. Dahl, “Using Motivational Interviewing to Facilitate Healthier Sleep-Related Behaviors in Adolescents.” In Behavioral Treatments for Sleep Disorders. Edited by Michael Perlis, Mark Aolia, and Brett Kuhn, Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2011, Chapter 38, pp. 367-380.

Sunshine and Lower Rates of ADHD Correlated

From The Columbus Dispatch

By Misti Crane

March 27, 2013

In places where sunshine is plentiful, fewer children have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new research.

This is the first report of a statistically significant correlation between sunshine — measured as “solar intensity” — and the disorder, said L. Eugene Arnold, an ADHD expert who worked on the study and a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Ohio State University.

Researchers say the study is provocative and should prompt more digging into the topic. But it’s far from conclusive evidence that sunny climates keep rates lower in states including California and Colorado and in countries including Spain and Mexico.

Martijn Arns of Utrecht University in the Netherlands led the research project. The study was published yesterday in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The researchers ruled out a number of other possible explanations for the geographic variability including low birth-weight, infant morality levels, socioeconomic differences and latitude. But they said other unknown factors could contribute to lower incidence in sunny spots.

Sunny states in the southeast, including Florida, don’t have low rates of ADHD. And often-less-than-sunny Illinois had an ADHD rate of 6.2 percent — identical to California’s — according to a 2007 federal survey. Ohio’s rate, according to that same survey, was more than 13%.

ADHD is an inability to control behavior, characterized by high levels of distraction, impulsiveness, an inability to remain still and a tendency to be abnormally talkative.

"As people spend more time in front of computers and hand-held devices in the hours leading up to bedtime, they’re getting less quality sleep. The blue light from the devices prevents the onset of melatonin, which naturally tells us to go to sleep.”

Arns speculated that our biological clocks could help explain the apparent connection with sun exposure.

As people around the world spend more time in front of computers and hand-held devices in the hours leading up to bedtime, they’re getting less quality sleep. “The blue light (from the devices) prevents the onset of melatonin, which naturally tells us to go to sleep,” Arnold said.

In theory, ample sunlight in some places could help make up for that, he said.

Arns wrote that vitamin D levels are an unlikely explanation for geographical variability, given another recent large study that showed no relationship between the vitamin and behavioral problems in children.

Previous research has found genetic predispositions that lead to ADHD, but scientists continue to look for other factors that contribute to symptoms in children and adults.

“Nobody has thought to look at this before. I think it’s a very important paper,” said Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert and clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, who was not involved in the sunlight research.

Sleeping difficulties are known to interfere with attentiveness, so the rationale behind the study makes sense, Barkley said.

He said the findings could prove important for children and clinicians if more research in a controlled setting confirms a connection between light exposure and ADHD symptoms.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Support the Autism Special Education Center April 9th at Whole Foods Framningham

A MAC - Massachusetts Advocates for Children - Program

Top 10 Items that Should Be Listed in an IEP

From SpecialEducationAdvisor.com

By Dennise Goldberg
October 20, 2012

We all know how important it is to have an IEP that addresses our children’s academic, developmental and functional needs, to ensure they are appropriately prepared for an independent future. Therefore, as parents, we have to make sure our children’s IEPs includes the necessary information to prepare them for life after high school.

The results of your child’s most recent assessments, report cards, state tests, school personnel and parent input will assist the team in developing an appropriate IEP.

Your child’s IEP should include the following information:

1.) A statement of your child’s Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance.

"Academic achievement" generally refers to a child’s performance in academic areas (e.g., reading or language arts, math, science and history). “Functional performance” generally refers to skills or activities that are not considered academic or related to a child’s academic achievement. It is often used in the context of routine activities of everyday living. This section should include input from the child’s parents regarding their concerns as well as their child’s strengths.

2.) A statement of your child’s eligibility category.

The thirteen eligibility categories are autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury or visual impairment including blindness.

3.) A statement of the Special Education, Related Services, Supplementary Aids and Services provided to your child.

All services should be based on Peer-Reviewed Research to the extent practical. “Peer-reviewed research” generally refers to research that is reviewed by qualified and independent reviewers to ensure that the quality of the information meets the standards of the field before the research is published. However, there is no single definition of ‘‘peer reviewed research’’ because the review process varies depending on the type of information to be reviewed.

We believe it is beyond the scope of these regulations to include a specific definition of ‘‘peer-reviewed research’’ and the various processes used for peer reviews.

4.) A statement of Measurable Goals, including Academic and Functional.

While many parents focus their attention on placement and services, they inadvertently overlook the goals section, which is one of the most essential components of an IEP.

The discussion of the proper amount of services and placement will be decided directly based on the written IEP goals. This is why it’s important to write effective IEP goals for all areas of need.

5.) A statement of your child’s Program Modifications, Accommodations or Supports for school personnel.

Accommodations do not reduce grade-level standards but rather help provide access to the curriculum.

Accommodations can include visual presentation, auditory presentation, multi-sensory presentation, response, setting, organization, timing and scheduling. Modifications actually lower learning expectations and should only be used if this is the only way for the child to be successful. Parents must understand if modifications to grade level standards are being made their child may be at risk for not meeting graduation requirements.

6.) A statement of any accommodations that your child is receiving on State or District Wide Assessments.

To ensure your child is being tested in the appropriate environment. Students who test in smaller groups tend to feel more comfortable and experience less anxiety. Also, if the IEP Team determines that the child shall take an alternate assessment, a statement of why should be included that describes why the child cannot participate in the regular assessment, and which particular alternate assessment selected is appropriate for the child.

7.) The projected date for the beginning of Services, Frequency, Location and Duration.

All details on when the service begins, hours of service, end of service, where service occurs and how long service will be given.

8.) No later than your child’s 16th birthday (or earlier - 14 in MA - based on state law) - A Transition Plan in the IEP outlining Post-Secondary and Independent Living Skills goals, with Transition Services listed on how the goals will be accomplished.

Transition services outlined in IDEA state that the IEP must include appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment and, where appropriate, independent living skills.

Also, it must include the transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the child in reaching those goals. Your child’s needs, likes and dislikes must be considered when developing this plan, so it’s imperative that your child be an active participant in the process.

9.) No later than 1 year prior to your child’s age of majority, a statement that your child has been informed of their rights when they reach the age of majority, which in most states is 18 years old.

Once your child is 18 (check for the age of majority in your state), they have the right to sign their IEP; parent’s rights transfer to the child. Basically, your child holds their own educational rights and can make decisions on their own, unless you have a document signed by a judge giving you full conservatorship.

10.) A description of your child’s appropriate placement in the Least Restrictive Environment.

Least Restrictive Environment is defined as “In General. To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

How to Influence Your Teen, Part 1

From Greater Good's Raising HAPPINESS Blog - Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents

By Christine Carter, Ph.D.
March 11, 2013

Decrease their resistance to your wise advice.

I frequently hear complaints from parents that their teenagers—or, more accurately, their adolescents—are irrational.

Kids say they want to get into a good college, for example, but then they miss school because they’ve stayed up half the night watching movies. Or they say they’d like to keep taking guitar lessons so that they might be able to join their friends’ rock band, but they refuse to practice on a regular schedule or to show up to their lessons.

The first thing to accept is that it is your adolescent’s developmental job to take the irrational position, the position that they knowyou’ll disagree with.

Teens are driven to individuate, or to gain autonomy and independence by differentiating themselves from us, their loving parents. This is why they sometimes take positions we just know they couldn’t possibly really believe.

(Except that they do really believe in their take on things, at least emotionally!)

Once we understand that adolescents are highly likely to take seemingly irrational stances on things, there are strategies for us to influence our adolescent children without endangering their need to individuate. This post is based on a conversation that I had with Ron Dahl about raising teenagers, as well as some of Dahl’s written work.

I asked Dahl what he does with his children when he wants to influence them.

His answer? He uses techniques from a clinical method called “motivational interviewing.” Motivational interviewing has proven effective in motivating behavior change in teens in difficult arenas, like drug and alcohol abuse, disordered eating, and risky sexual behavior.

Dahl’s advice was to learn to use it as a parent for the more mundane areas where we’d like to see growth in our children, so that if we need it for a bigger problem we know what we are doing. Here are five motivational interviewing techniques that decrease kids’ resistance to our influence:

(1) Express empathy. Kids and teens are much more likely to listen to us if they feel understood. Resist the urge to give advice or to “finger-wag”—two things that tend to create defensiveness and resistance to our great ideas. Instead, reflect back to adolescents theirposition on things.

(2) Ask open-ended questions to understand their position. We want to encourage our teens to share with us their innermost motivations. To do this, we can phrase our questions non-judgmentally in ways that will prompt the adolescent to elaborate.

Even if we are giving kids a choice about what to talk about (“Do you want to talk about what it is like when you lose your temper at school, or do you want to talk about what makes it difficult for you to eat a healthy lunch?”) Dahl recommends that we always also throw in a super-open-ended question like, “...or maybe there is something else you would rather discuss? What do you think?”

(3) Reflect what they are saying, not what we wish they were saying. This can be a simple restatement:

Adolescent: You say that I have to do all these things to make the team, but I think I’ll make the team even if I don’t jump through those hoops.
Parent: You’re not sure all this work is necessary.

Or, you can reflect what they mean but use different words:

Adolescent: I’m not an alcoholic!
Parent: That label really doesn’t fit you.

Or, try reflecting what they are feeling:

Adolescent: I’m not an alcoholic!
Parent: It really makes you angry when you think you are being labeled in that way.

Finally, try amplifying or exaggerating—without sarcasm!—what they are saying if the adolescent clearly expresses some ambivalence about their resistance to your influence:

Adolescent: I’m really not sure that I need help or treatment to deal with this.
Parent: Your life is really fine right now, just the way it is.

(4) Show them their inconsistencies—gently. One thing that we can reflect back to our teens, using the above strategies, are their conflicting motivations—the inconsistencies between what they say their goals or beliefs are, and their current behavior.

What to say, then, to that teen who wants to join the garage band, but has not been practicing regularly or learning the music? First, ask her permission to tell her what you see.

If she says she’s willing to listen to your perspective, gently point out the discrepancy between what she says she wants and what she’s doing to make that happen in a non-judgemental, factual way:

“You really want to join Jack’s band, but before they’ll let you audition, you need to learn all the songs on their playlist. You haven’t started learning those songs yet. It seems like the play is taking up a lot of the time that you might spend practicing, and that when you get home from play practice, you just want to chill out in your room instead of practicing more or starting your homework.”

(5) Support their autonomy and emphasize their personal choice and control. Teens are most likely to change when they recognize the problem themselves, and when they are optimistic about their ability to solve the problem. We can help by expressing our confidence in their abilities, and by emphasizing that we can’t change them—that the choice about whether or not to change is the adolescent’s alone.

Dahl recommends saying something like this:

“Whether or not you make any changes in your activities or your behavior is entirely up to you. I definitely would not want you to feel pressured to do anything against your will.”

All of these techniques take practice. (At least for me. The only thing that seems to come naturally to me is bossiness.) Stay tuned for five more tips next week!

I drew heavily on this chapter for this posting:
  • Gold, Melanie A. and Ronald E. Dahl, “Using Motivational Interviewing to Facilitate Healthier Sleep-Related Behaviors in Adolescents.” In Behavioral Treatments for Sleep Disorders. Edited by Michael Perlis, Mark Aolia, and Brett Kuhn, Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2011, Chapter 38, pp. 367-380.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Assessment: Transition Tuesday Talk at NESCA 7:00 - 9:00PM April 2nd

Measuring Preparedness for Post-Secondary Education and Independent Living

Kate DellaPorta, Psy.D.
Drs. Jason McCormick and Kate DellaPorta will talk about the whos, whats, whens and hows of transition assessment. They will be covering the different components of a transition assessment, including formal and informal measures. This talk will be geared more towards students pursuing post-secondary education and independent living.

Following their presentation, there will be an opportunity for smaller group discussions led by professionals in the field. We still have seats available, for this session and for the remainder of the series.

The cost is only $15 per individual session. We accept all major credit cards for advance registration by phone, or cash (exact change please!) and personal checks at the door. To register, call Amanda Renzi at 617-658-9800 or email nesca@nesca-newton.com.

All sessions take place in the lower lobby of our building at 55 Chapel Street in Newton, from 7:00 – 9:00pm. There is ample free, off-street parking in the lot opposite the main entrance, marked with a blue, Chapel Bridge Park banner.

Fixated by Screens, but Seemingly Nothing Else

From The New York Times - Health

By Perri Klass, M.D.
May 9, 2011

The mother brought in a note from her son’s elementary school teacher: "Dear doctor, I think this child needs to be tested for attention deficit disorder."

“She’s worried about how he can’t sit still and do his work,” the mother said. “He’s always getting into trouble.”

But then she brightened. “But he can’t have attention deficit, I know that.” Why? Her son could sit for hours concentrating on video games, it turned out, so she was sure there was nothing wrong with his attention span.

It’s an assertion I’ve heard many times when a child has attention problems. Sometimes parents make the same point about television: My child can sit and watch for hours — he can’t have ADHD.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

The child may be playing for points accumulated, or levels achieved, but the brain’s reward may be the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Children with ADHD may find video games even more gratifying than other children do because their dopamine reward circuitry may be deficient.

Indeed, at least one study has found that when children with ADHD were treated with methylphenidate (Ritalin), which increases dopamine activity in the brain, they played video games less. The authors suggested that video games might serve as a kind of self-medication for these children.

So increased screen time may be a consequence of ADHD, but some researchers fear it may be a cause, as well. Some studies have found that children who spend more time in front of the screen are more likely to develop attention problems later on.

In a 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics, viewing more television and playing more video games were associated with subsequent attention problems in both schoolchildren and college undergraduates.

The stimulation that video games provide “is really about the pacing, how fast the scene changes per minute,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis , a pediatrician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies children and media. If a child’s brain gets habituated to that pace and to the extreme alertness needed to keep responding and winning, he said, the child ultimately may “find the realities of the world underwhelming, understimulating.”

But a 2007 study in the journal Media Psychology compared television watching in a group of children diagnosed with ADHD and a group without.

The researchers concluded that most differences were accounted for by family factors and environment, including whether the children had televisions in their bedrooms. ADHD by itself didn’t seem to make the difference. The connections between ADHD and screens, the authors concluded, were complex.

Elizabeth Lorch, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and one of the authors of that study, also studied children’s ability to comprehend televised stories. While children with ADHD were able to recall facts from the stories they watched just as well as other children, there was a difference in their ability to understand the narrative and to separate out what was important.

“Why did an event happen, why did a character do this — that’s where the comprehension and recall of children with ADHD tends to fall down,” she said.

Her co-author Richard Milich, also a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, suggested that besides the primary implications of this problem for academic performance, this finding may also shed light on social difficulties.

“This inability to see causal relations may affect this social problem we’ve known for 30 years,” he said. “These kids have dramatic social problems. They’re highly rejected by their peers.”

It may be a self-perpetuating loop, experts say: Children who have trouble with social skills may be thrown back even more to the screen for electronic companionship.

Children whose brains need neurochemical rewards seek out an activity that provides it. Children with social problems spend more time alone, facing a screen. Children struggling in the classroom develop mastery in a virtual world. I talk to parents of children with ADHD about basic dos and don’ts:
  • No screens in the child’s bedroom.
  • Pay attention to the content of the games, especially to violence.
  • Set limits on screen time, and look for other ways to manage family interactions.
If I can’t tell parents what they hope to hear, at least I can argue that these children’s fascination with the glowing screen may teach us something about their brains, the neurobiology, the rewards, and even their yearning and learning.

How *Not* to Praise A Child with Low Self-Esteem

From D. Willingham's Science & Education Blog

By Daniel Willingham
March 7, 2013

"... adults are biased to do exactly the wrong thing: trying to 'buck up' kids with low-self esteem by offering 'person praise' ('you're a great kid!'), when these children will actually suffer more after a failure if they have received such praise."

Readers of this blog are probably aware of the research, pioneered by Carol Dweck, showing that certain types of praise, especially praise that focuses on who the child is, rather than what the child has done, can have counter-intuitive effects.

A new report (Brummelman et al, 2013) shows that the consequences of certain praise for kids with low self-esteem can be particularly destructive. 

In Experiment One, 357 Dutch-speaking parents (87% mothers) read brief descriptions of children, some with high self-esteem ("Lisa usually likes the kind of person she is") and some with low ("Sarah is often unhappy with herself.").

Parents were asked to describe what they would say in response to something the child was described as having done (e.g., "she has just made a beautiful drawing.")

Responses were coded as praising the child's personal qualities (e.g., "You're such a good drawer") or the child's behaviors (""you did a good job!"), other praise (e.g., "beautiful!") or no praise.

The figure shows an interaction--children with high self-esteem were less likely to receive person praise than children with low self-esteem. Children with high self-esteem were more likely to receive process praise.

Experiment Two examined whether children with high or low self-esteem respond differently to person praise.

313 children (mean age about 10.5 yrs) completed a standard measure of self-esteem. Several days later at their school, they performed a computer task that (they were told) pitted them against an opponent from another school to see who had faster reactions. They were told that a webmaster would monitor the competitors' performance. (In fact, there was no competitor or webmaster; everything was controlled by the computer.)

After a practice round the webmaster gave either process praise ("wow, you did a great job!"), person praise ("wow, you're great!") or no praise to the subject.

Next, the subject played against their "opponent" and were told that he or she won or lost.

Finally, subjects were asked to rate "how you feel, right now" by agreeing or disagreeing with adjectives like "ashamed," and "humiliated." (They had made similar ratings before the game.)

The graph shows difference scores, based on the two measures of shame (taken before and after the reaction time game).

As you would expect, the students who were told they won (the open figures in the graph) didn't feel much shame. Students told they lost (closed figures) felt more.

In addition, the students receiving person praise feel more shame, overall, but crucially, all of this effect is due to the students with low self-esteem. They are represented by that highest point on the graph at the upper left.

The effect size is pretty substantial--around d = .5

So, it seems that the 'person praise' makes the children with low-self-esteem feel more invested in the game, more like they have something at stake. So when they lose, they feel more shame.

The high-self esteem students, in contrast, shrug off the loss, even after the person praise, because they generally feel more secure about their abilities.

The message, coupled with the result from Experiment One, is that adults are biased to do exactly the wrong thing--try to "buck up" kids with low-self esteem by offering person praise ("you're a great kid!") when these children will actually suffer more after a failure if they have received this praise.

The interpretation hangs together, to my mind, but I'd like to see this effect replicated. In particular, the measure of shame seemed heavy-handed. As far as I can tell, students were not asked about other feelings, just those related to shame, so there is a really chance that demand characteristics played a role. (That is, that students were reacting as they thought the experimenter expected them to, not necessarily as they felt.)

Still, an interesting, possibly important experiment.


Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication: doi: 10.1037/a0031917

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Must-See BBC TV: My Autism and Me

From the BBC's "Inside Out"

January 30, 2012

In this Newsround Special, 13-year-old Rosie takes viewers into her world to explain what it's like to grow up with autism - a condition which affects how children see life, and the way they relate to others around them.

With the help of beautifully crafted animation, Rosie introduces other children who have the condition: Tony, who gets totally obsessed with things but struggles to make friends, Ben, who has suffered from terrible bullying, and Rosie's own little brother Lenny, who turns the house upside-down daily to try and make sense of things.

These children tell their own stories in their own words to give a vivid and moving insight into what it's like to be autistic. It's a condition that affects the way you live your life and see the world around you.

Our presenter Rosie was born with autism. She says even though living with it is difficult, it makes her unique and who she is. As well as telling her own story, you'll find out how Ben, Tony and Lenny are affected by the condition.

Lots of children with autism get bullied at school and can find it hard to get jobs when they grow up.

In our special film Rosie wants to tell the world what autism is and what it's like to live with it.

When Anxiety Interrupts a Child’s Life

From The New York Times Personal Health Blog

By Jane E. Brody
December 17, 2012

Is it any wonder so many children are anxious?

As the horror in Connecticut demonstrates, children today may be confronted with unthinkable realities, events their parents and grandparents could never have conceived.

But much of what children fear is rooted more in imagination than in reality. Parents may be called upon to ease anxieties about everything from strange noises to water, from spiders in the yard to monsters under the bed.

Comforting children seized with irrational fears can be a difficult task.

One of the most common childhood fears involves separation from parents. Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage that typically starts around 9 months and ends at about age 3.

However, for Daniel Smith, author of “Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety,” the trauma of parental separation exploded at age 4 and continued through age 13.

“I became hysterical, nauseated, unable to enjoy anything whenever I was separated from my parents,” he recalled in an interview. “I had a pit in my stomach and icicles in my chest. Although I wanted to go to camp, when my parents dropped me off, the counselor had to drag me out of the car by my ankles. ”

Of course, some fears are functional, like those that keep children from taking such risks as running into traffic or touching a hot stove. But when anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to lead a normal life — go to school, sleep at a friend’s house, learn to swim, cross a street — it morphs into a disorder that often warrants treatment.

According to Golda S. Ginsburg, an expert on childhood anxiety at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, anxiety disorders affect one in five children in the U.S.

“Although we are doing a better job of identifying anxiety disorders in children and have effective methods to treat them, they are still underdiagnosed and undertreated,” Dr. Ginsburg said.

Root of the Problem

Dr. Ginsburg explained that childhood anxiety disorders typically result from an interaction between biology and environment. For some, like Mr. Smith, there is a strong hereditary component.

His mother, Marilyn, a psychotherapist, suffered acutely from anxiety her entire life, though she ultimately learned how to keep it under wraps most of the time.

Even without a hereditary influence, Dr. Ginsburg said, “Some children are born with a certain temperament that increases their risk of developing an anxiety disorder. They may be behaviorally inhibited — shyer, reticent about approaching novel conditions.”

But only half of those children end up with an anxiety disorder, she added, while some children who are not inhibited do develop these conditions.

Dr. Ginsburg said that parental behavior also has an effect, especially parents who “model” anxiety, communicating verbally or behaviorally that something is dangerous.

She cited parents who are overprotective or overly controlling, who constantly identify dangers in the child’s world that are not real threats — warning a child, for instance, not to touch a handrail on a staircase because it is full of germs.

In describing how genes and behavior can interact, Mr. Smith wrote that “a child registers who’s raising him.”

“It was not until I was nearly twenty, deep into my own way with anxiety, that my mother spoke to me explicitly about her anxiety and the grief it caused her. But by that time she was essentially talking to herself. I’d become her,” Mr. Smith wrote.

Unlike people with psychoses, who fear nonexistent risks like microphones in their molars, “the anxious fear actual risks: disease, dismemberment, assault, humiliation, failure,” Mr. Smith wrote. He described chronic anxiety as the “drama queen of the mind.”

Danger lurks at every turn, no matter how remote the odds that anything bad actually will happen.

As with adults who suffer from anxiety disorders, the most successful, scientifically validated treatment for overly anxious children is cognitive behavioral therapy (commonly called C.B.T.), sometimes in combination with an antidepressant drug like Zoloft (sertraline).

In effect, C.B.T. reprograms the brain, using words and behavior to replace irrational or dysfunctional thoughts and actions with rational ones.

In one study of 488 children aged 7 to 17 suffering from separation anxiety, generalized anxiety or social phobia, C. B. T and Zoloft used individually significantly reduced the severity of anxiety; combining them worked even better.

Offering Relief

Tamar E. Chansky, a psychotherapist who treats anxious children and adults and wrote a practical guide, “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety,” said the goal was not to put down children’s fears but to help them see that their fears are unwarranted and that they can overcome them.

She has created a “master plan” for helping children gain control over their anxiety:

  • Empathize with your child. Resist the temptation to tell the child there is nothing to worry about, and instead acknowledge the child’s concerns and the effect they have.
  • Describe the problem as coming from “the worry brain” that jumps to conclusions and cannot be trusted. Give worry a name, like “brain bug.” This takes the focus from the child’s particular fear and makes anxiety itself the problem.
  • Rewire and resist. Ask your child what she is really worried about and what she thinks might happen. Then ask her to check whether these thoughts really make sense. Help her find inner strength, the voice that tells worry it is not the boss.
  • Teach relaxation techniques to temper the biological alarm to fight or flee whenever fear takes over.
  • Help the child focus on what he wants to do and what he would do if worry were not in charge.
  • Finally, reinforce your child’s efforts, praising her for getting through a tough situation.

For those in need of professional help, between 10 and 20 sessions of C.B.T. can produce “meaningful clinical improvement in 50 to 75 percent of children,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “Anxiety is a chronic illness that can emerge in times of environmental crises or change,” she said.

“Prevention is important. I want parents to be proactive rather than reactive. A minor adjustment can prevent re-emerging anxiety from interfering with a child’s life.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Stories That Bind Us

From The New York Times Column "This Life"

By Bruce Feiler
March 15, 2013

"The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative."

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table.

I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”

But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

Families may want to create a mission statement similar to
the ones many companies use to identify their core values.

It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion.

The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was September 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time.

The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. ...”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital.

But, we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. No matter what happened, though, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.

Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Cmdr. Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.

Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down.

He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.

“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves.

When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship.

This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.


This article is adapted from Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

Understanding Development in Preschoolers

From NCLD.org - The National Center for Learning Disabilities

March, 2013

Resources for Early Literacy Success

It’s fun to watch preschoolers grow. You can track their physical growth by measuring their height with a yardstick, but how can you measure young children’s development in other areas? For example, how can you be sure a preschooler is learning and mastering age-appropriate language skills—and how can you detect early warning signs of a possible problem with learning or behavior?

Get Ready to Read! is here to help you answer these important questions.

This series of articles provides simple guidelines for preschoolers’ development in several areas, introduces ways for parents and teachers to provide enriching learning experiences, and suggests possible “red flags” for concern.

Check out:

NCLD's Interactive Learning Disabilities Checklist

Concerned about your preschooler’s learning and development?

While most children have problems with learning and behavior from time to time, consistent patterns of struggle should not be ignored, even in preschoolers.

Use this checklist as a helpful guide to determine if your young child may be at risk for learning disabilities.

Monday, March 25, 2013

“Learning is Great; Homework is Not.” Elementary Student Voices on Homework

The Conversation Continues...


From the Blog Chris.Thinnes.Me

By Chris Thinnes
March 9, 2013

"At some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the distinctions between the fires we light in our classrooms, and the extinguishers we send home in backpacks."

Last year in Texas, on a visit to a New Tech high school with school and district leaders from the EdLeader21 PLC, we had the opportunity to hear from students that an intentional culture of deeper learning had a transformative impact on their lives.

Among many highlights was a young woman’s response to questions about the differences between her experiences as a senior at New Tech @ Coppell, and her close friends’ experiences at the district’s central high school.

On the subject of homework, she told a story about how her friends, for a couple of years, were jealous because they thought she didn’t have ‘homework’ at New Tech. She admitted, as well, that she was secretly delighted that she did not — on her account — have to suffer through the boring nighttime chores her friends complained about on Facebook.

Then, one evening, one of her friends called her on her cell phone to see if she could hang out. She told her friend that she was still at school, and still at work on a video that a few of her New Tech friends and she were putting together.

Her friend interrupted her: “But you said you don’t have homework. And like every time I call you, you’re doing something that has to do with a project at school.”

"I didn’t ever think of it as homework, like my friends did at their school, because I was making choices about what I needed to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who I should be doing it with.”

All of us in the room suspected where she was headed with this story, and were thrilled to hear it confirmed: “I realized that I didn’t ever think of it as homework, like my friends did at their school, because I was always making a choice about what I needed to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who I should be doing it with.”

This young lady was, obviously, drawing a distinction between ‘homework’ as it has always traditionally defined (in its worst instantiations, as compulsory rote exercises to which students are submitted, without regard to their specific needs or the effectiveness of the exercises’ design), and something more like ‘learning at home,’ as this young woman experienced it: activities students decide to pursue, because of their active interest and authentic investment in continuing their inquiry, discovery, or problem-solving on their ‘own’ time outside of school.

Perhaps we don’t (yet) live in a world, and we don’t (yet) work in a system that supports us making a simple choice between one approach to ‘homework’ and the other approach to ‘learning at home’–but perhaps hearing students’ experiences (such as this young woman’s) will help us move on the path that history, research, and common sense suggest that we should tread.

Imagine my delight, then, when
a great 4th grade teacher showed me samples of her students’ recent work this morning: three papers called “Should Kids Have Homework?”, “Why Kids Shouldn’t Have Homework,” and “Should Elementary Students Have Homework?”

This teacher had the confidence (having long ago invited students’ voices into the design of their learning experiences) to let her 9- and 10-year-olds both ask and answer the questions that matter to them most about their learning.

It turns out the membership rolls for the
Alfie Kohn Appreciation Society have swelled in recent weeks. Here’s a case in point, from one paper–in a section devoted to the deleterious impact of traditional ‘homework’ on family life and private time:

"In fact, other than not improving grades or test scores, elementary school homework also causes conflict, especially with parents. 'You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,' one father reported to Alfie Kohn. Alfie Kohn is a famous education author. He wrote 'Down with Homework,' which is a very important article for this project. This article is a very proud sponsor of Kohn’s brilliant work."

Another student elaborates on missed opportunities outside of school that follow from the overassignment of homework:

"One of the reasons homework should be eliminated is kids have spent the entire day at school, and the little time they have should be spent learning instruments, playing sports, enjoying time with their family, and most of all relaxing to get ready for the next school day. This would not only make kids more joyful in life, but parents too–because then they would not have to help their kids."

A third student challenges conventional assumptions about the academic benefits of traditional homework, particularly when assigned by the bargeload:

"Finally, more than two hours of homework negatively affects test scores. According to scientists, more than two hours of homework makes the brain soak up too many things, and is too tired to learn or work ahead, which negatively affects test scores.

Also, if a kid stays up till 10:00 trying to finish, they will be too tired to go to school and learn."

But easily my favorite excerpt of all — particularly for any naysayers who come out of their caves, or down from their towers, to mumble tired rejoinders like, “Sure, kids say they don’t like homework. That’s because they can’t understand why it’s so good for them. They don’t understand education the way we do.” — is this simple truth, tagged by a fourth grade girl:

"Learning is great; homework is not."

Part of our joint efforts, as teachers and as parents, to support our children’s learning is to understand the impact of its least effective elements on our children’s lives. At some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the distinctions between the fires we light in our classrooms, and the extinguishers we send home in backpacks.

Let’s work to listen to the voices of students — who are, after all, the individuals who have the most salient, if not the only, experience that’s relevant to the matter — and support a more effective framework to balance their learning and their lives.


Here are some references worth considering, from one of the fourth grade students’ papers:
About Chris Thinnes
Chris Thinnes is an educator, leader and life-long learner helping to transform educational programs and communities, in order to ensure that children are empowered to learn, to create, to lead and to serve in a changing world. As a private school leader and a public school parent, he is particularly interested in collaboration between public and private school learning communities, to transform education and opportunity for all children.

He is Head of the Upper Elementary School and Academic Dean at Curtis School, a member of the National Advisory Group of EdLeader21, a member of NAIS’s advisory council on diversity (CTA), and Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education (CFEE) at Curtis.

Educators and parents/guardians from 125 private and public schools participated in the most recent CFEE conference on Parent-School Partnerships in the 21st Century: Teaching and Learning at Home and at School,” with Carol Dweck, Richard Gerver, Nikhil Goyal, Steven Jones, Ken Kay, Alfie Kohn, Wendy Mogel, Ken Robinson, and Yong Zhao.