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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Managing Stress in College: An Action Plan

From Smart Kids with LD

October 28, 2013

Having a learning disability in college means dealing with a lot of stress. I made this diagram of all of the aspects of my life that have to be managed to keep my stress level as low as possible.

This is what works for me, but everyone is different. Use this template to devise an action plan that works for you.

Inside: My college has single rooms, which give me private space to de-stress. Items from home make my room comfy: lots of big pillows, photo collages, candles (flameless). I keep my room organized with storage bins and an extra clothes rack.

Outside: I bring my laptop outside to study and I also walk to a nearby café for a relaxing change of scenery.

Day: I have insomnia, which makes keeping a regular schedule even harder. I try to stay away from caffeine, or at least not drink anything caffeinated after noon.

Night: I try to go to bed at the same time every night during the school week. I set an alarm on my phone for 30 minutes before bed to turn off all electronics (they stimulate the brain), and mute my cell phone. I sleep with a fan running—it’s relaxing, plus the sound helps drown out dorm noise.

Time: The BIGGEST factor! Starting EARLY and PLANNING AHEAD are the biggest ways to reduce stress. I have a dry-erase calendar of the entire semester on my wall so I can see big papers, projects and tests all in one area.

I carry a planner with me at all times. I make a To-Do list for every week, breaking up reading and writing assignments into manageable daily pieces. I review my class notes every week so I don’t have to relearn everything before tests.

Extra: Something that gives you joy. I take acting class every week, and I love it!

Reward: After working hard I reward myself by watching movies or favorite TV shows on Netflix.

Eat/Drink: I am a picky eater, so I keep PBJ ingredients in my room in case the cafeteria menu is bad. I keep a water bottle with me to keep me away from caffeine and soda when I am thirsty.

Move: I sign up for a PE class every semester, so I exercise 3-4 days/week.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ask Stanford Med: Stanford Psychiatrist Taking Questions on Psychological Effects of Internet Use

From Stanford University's Medicine Blog "SCOPE"

By Lia Steakley
August 8, 2012

"...more than one out of 8 Americans exhibited at least one sign of problematic Internet use. Additionally, Chinese researchers have found that Internet addiction may cause changes in the brain mirroring those seen in people suffering from substance abuse and impulse control disorders."

Back in 2006, Stanford researchers conducted a first-of-its-kind, telephone-based study to determine if spending too much time online is a prevalent and damaging mental health condition. They found that more than one out of eight Americans exhibited at least one possible sign of problematic Internet use.

Fast forward to today. A recent University of Maryland study suggests that some U.S. college students have an unhealthy relationship with technology and the Internet and exhibit symptoms similar to those addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Additionally, Chinese researchers have found that Internet addiction may cause changes in the brain mirroring those seen in people suffering from substance abuse and impulse control disorders. These and related findings have led some to question the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind and others to voice concern about the powerful lure of technology.

To further explore how excessive Internet use may be harmful to our health, we’ve asked Elias Aboujaoude, M.D., director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic and the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic at Stanford, to respond to your questions on the topic for this month’s Ask Stanford Med.

Aboujaoude’s work focuses on obsessive compulsive disorders and behavioral addictions, including problematic Internet use. He was lead author of the 2006 paper that laid the groundwork to determine if compulsive online activity warranted a medical diagnosis. In his latest book, Aboujaoude explores how our online traits are unconsciously being imported into our offline lives.

Questions can be submitted to Aboujaoude by either sending a tweet that includes the hashtag #AskSUMed. When submitting questions, please abide by the following ground rules:
  • Stay on topic;
  • Be respectful to the person answering your questions;
  • Be respectful to one another in submitting questions;
  • Do not monopolize the conversation or post the same question repeatedly;
  • Kindly ignore disrespectful or off topic comments;
  • Know that Twitter handles and/or names may be used in the responses.
Aboujaoude will respond to a selection of the questions submitted, but not all of them, in a future entry on Scope.

Finally – and you may have already guessed this – an answer to any question submitted as part of this feature is meant to offer medical information, not medical advice. These answers are not a basis for any action or inaction, and they’re also not meant to replace the evaluation and determination of your doctor, who will address your specific medical needs and can make a diagnosis and give you the appropriate care.

Schools Can’t Prevent Bullying Alone—Parents, Teachers Need to Get on the Bus

From Thriving
Boston's Children's Hospital's Pediatric Health Blog

By Lisa Fratt
October 29, 2013

The suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick in September in the wake of repeated cyber-bullying is a tragic and timely reminder of bullying’s consequences. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, which means schools across the U.S. are rolling out skits, posters and even apps to raise awareness and prevent bullying.

However, the practice is pervasive; in 2009, one in five high school students admitted being bullied at school.

Yet, a recent study suggests that bullying prevention programs help bullies hone their harassment skills. Has this study delivered a knock-out blow to these efforts?

Bullying prevention is far from down for the count, says Peter Raffalli, M.D., pediatric neurologist and director of the Bullying and Cyber-Bullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative Clinic (BACPAC) at Boston Children’s Hospital. Some programs, specifically long-term comprehensive efforts that aim to teach tolerance and compassion, can be effective, he says.

Parents can boost the effectiveness of bullying prevention efforts by learning about the school’s program and engaging kids in conversation, continues Raffalli.

A good starting point is to learn what bullying is and what it is not. “Bullying has a very specific definition, and when it’s overused, teachers and coaches can become de-sensitized.”

True bullying is aggressive behavior that includes:
  • An imbalance of power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity—to control or harm others.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

It Takes a Village

A study, published in the Journal of Criminology in September, indicated schools that had deployed bullying prevention programs saw increased peer victimization (or bullying) after introducing the programs.

“The idea that bullying prevention programs arm kids with strategies to bully is dubious,” asserts Raffalli, who notes the study applied a broad definition to bullying prevention programs.

The researchers, based at University of Texas at Arlington, did not differentiate between one-day assemblies and year-long curricula. In addition, the cross-sectional study focused on a snapshot of bullying at 195 schools, rather than a longitudinal before-and-after evaluation of prevention programs.

Still, the two sides found some common ground.

The researchers noted that “the effectiveness of bullying prevention has yet to be proven.” They also called for “systemic change” within schools.

Raffalli agrees. “We need to foster a tolerant culture in our schools. It’s not easy.” Effective bullying prevention is multi-faceted and complex, and it requires parents to partner with schools. Prevention programs should introduce tolerance, compassion and problem-solving at the pre-school level and continue through high school. Waiting until middle school to introduce bullying prevention may be too late, as it’s very difficult to reverse behaviors after early adolescence.

Teachers should be engaged as well. History teachers, for example, may integrate discussions about individual differences as they relate to historical events.

Educating the Educators

Developing and deploying an effective program is easier said than done, says Raffalli. Massachusetts law requires evidence-based, age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention in each grade that is incorporated into the curriculum of the school district or school. However, critics claim the law lacks requirements to track bullying, and that it is underfunded and without oversight.

Cash-strapped and time-pressed schools may designate a one-hour assembly as bullying prevention. It’s a start, but doesn’t go far enough. “Assemblies and posters raise awareness … temporarily. But kids become de-sensitized and the behavior and culture of the school don’t change. These strategies need to be supported with curriculum.”

Some schools make other basic errors, too. The “Kumbaya model” with the bully and victim sitting together to hash out their differences is a no-no. “We know mediation doesn’t work with bullies, but teachers continue to suggest it.”

What can parents concerned about their own child’s victimization or school climate do? Raffalli suggests:
  • Look for warning signs in children, including changes in sleep patterns, frequent trips to the nurse, a drop in grades or school avoidance.
  • Ask open questions. Most kids don’t want to admit they are bullied and will respond negatively to the question “Are you being bullied.” Instead, try “Is there a lot of drama at school?” or “How are kids treating each other?”
  • Inquire about school’s bullying prevention programs. At what grade does it begin? How are teachers involved? How are bullies helped?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Executive Function: Flexible Thinking Strategies for Life-Long Success

From NCLD.org - The National Center for Learning Disabilities

By Lynn Meltzer and Michael Greschler
Research Institute for Learning and Development

October 28, 2013

"I try to help Jan with her homework, but she gets frustrated when I show her an approach that may not be the same as the way she was taught in school. She gets stuck doing things over and over so that homework drags on for hours."
--Parent of 6th-grader

Cognitive flexibility, or the ability to think flexibly and to shift approaches, is a critically important executive function process that may be especially problematic for students with learning and attention difficulties. Students who have difficulty shifting also struggle to cope with unexpected changes in their schedules, routines, or homework, and may be viewed by their parents and teachers as “rigid,” “stubborn,” or “single-minded.”

The ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected situations improves when children begin to understand their learning profiles and they are taught appropriate executive function strategies.

Why Is Flexible Thinking So Important for Academic Performance?

As students advance through the grades, they are required to interpret information in more than one way and to change their approaches and strategies when needed. As the curriculum complexity intensifies, flexible thinking becomes increasingly important for some of the following reasons:
  • Reading comprehension requires students to go back and forth between the major themes and supporting details and to sift and sort information as they read.
  • Written language requires students to balance the important concepts and main ideas with the supporting details they want to communicate in their writing.
  • Math competency involves shifting between word meanings, procedures, and operations.
  • Science and History require students to use context clues to prioritize and focus on the most relevant information.
  • Foreign language learning necessitates that students shift between their native language and the language they are learning.
  • Studying and test-taking require students to go back and forth between topics or problem types that are presented in different formats.
How Can Parents Help Children to Become Flexible Thinkers?

Many of the following strategies can be embedded into daily activities at home, including homework and family (or solo) time.

Activities with multiple-meaning words (such as “windy” or “scale”), word categories, and number puzzles can build children’s flexible approaches to language and numbers from the preschool years onwards (e,g., Amelia Bedelia books, word games).

Visualizing and discussing jokes, riddles, puns, and ambiguous words which evoke humor can help children to recognize that ambiguities in language can affect meaning and that it is important to use context clues when reading. Parents can use car trips and dinner time conversations to have fun with jokes, riddles, puns, and multiple-meaning words. Some examples:
  • What did the calculator say to the student? You can count on me.
  • What do you get when you eat crackers in bed? A crumby night’s sleep.
Reading comprehension: When children come across words or sentences that do not make sense to them, they should be encouraged to stop reading and ask themselves key questions such as:
  • Is there a word or phrase that could have more than one meaning?
  • Can I emphasize different parts of this sentence to change its meaning?
Written language: When children become stuck and cannot write, they should be encouraged to use strategies to organize and prioritize to “unclog the funnel.” (See funnel image and explanation in “Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge.”)
  • Graphic organizers help children to shift between the main ideas and supporting details.
  • Templates help children to organize their ideas and to shift back and forth between the writing and checking stages.
Math: Students often try to solve math problems in only one way and should be shown how to look for alternative approaches which may be more efficient. Multiple math formats help children to recognize that the presentation of problems may differ between class work, homework, and tests. Encourage children to recognize that they may need to shift from one operation (e.g., addition) to a different one (e.g., subtraction). They can ask themselves questions such as:
  • Do I know more than one way to solve the problem?
  • Does this look similar to anything I have seen before?
  • Is this problem the same or different from the last problem?
Studying for tests and quizzes: Children need to extract and memorize information from many sources, including textbooks, homework, and notes. Help your child to recognize that:
  • She or he needs to study differently for different kinds of tests. A multiple-choice test requires a focus on details and facts whereas an essay question depends on “telling the story” rather than simply cramming in details.
  • Different study strategies may be needed in different subject areas. For example, reviewing the major ideas in notes and textbooks will help students to prepare for a history test, but class work and past homework assignments are more important for math.
Parents can help children to become flexible thinkers and to reduce the information overload. When students learn to shift approaches flexibly, they can “unclog the funnel” (see “Executive Function and School Performance: A 21st Century Challenge,”) and their academic grades will begin to reflect their true potential.


Download a (NOTE: Really excellent!) FREE e-book and infographic about executive function. Recommended!


Recommended Resources
About the Authors

Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., is the President and Director of Research at the Research Institute for Learning and Development (ResearchILD) and Director of Assessment at the Institute for Learning and Development. She holds appointments at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Tufts University. She is also a fellow and past-president of the prestigious International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. Her work includes numerous articles and books for professionals and parents with an emphasis on assessing and teaching executive function strategies.

Michael Greschler, M.Ed. is the Senior Research Associate at the Research Institute for Learning and Development and the Assistant Program Coordinator of ResearchILD’s SMARTS Executive Function and Leadership Program. He has an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and 8 years of experience teaching academic skills to struggling students using fun, innovative techniques.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Letting Our Autistic Kids Have Chill Time

From Squidalicious

By Shannon Des Roches Rosa
October 22, 2013

"Autistic people of all ages deserve extra time and effort to ensure that you're understanding their needs properly, even if what they're doing doesn't make sense to you, even if you think you know better, even if you think it's for their own good."

One message I think autism parents don't hear enough: it is so important to make time and space for our autistic kids to be themselves. To do what they like. To be completely relaxed and unstressed. To not have other people making demands on them (even to help them), to not be figuring out how to ask people for help so they can do what they want to do. Legitimate, unfettered chill time.

We try to make that time available to Leo, as much as we can: going to the beach, hiking, trampolining, swimming, all things he loves. But sometimes he just wants to sit down, sing, and pound on a damn ball. So he gets to do just that. And this is what it looks like:

He's a happier kid and we're a happier family-of-his when he gets time to be his own happy autistic self. Being Autistic and mostly non-speaking in a world built for non-Autistics means Leo spends a disproportionate amount of his time negotiating, problem-solving, or figuring out how to communicate his needs -- and not always successfully, despite the best efforts of his family, teachers, and friends. And that doesn't include sensory assaults from bickering siblings, clothing, or loud noises.

That doesn't include all the times we've misunderstood his needs without knowing we misunderstood them, because of the communication gap -- again, despite our best efforts. His life can be fairly frustrating and anxiety-ridden. He so, so, so needs time to relax and do what he likes.

This is why I think autism parents need to be extra careful to find as many ways to understand our kids as we can. We also need to pick our battles. I almost threw my computer across the room this morning in reading an autism parent's prideful recollection of how she spent hours torturing her teenage autistic daughter, demanding the daughter wear a specific item of clothing and insisting that she (the parent) was not going to "give in to autism."

The daughter did her best, used her best words, tried repeatedly to express her needs -- and ended up in tears because of a mother who would rather impose her will and "beat autism" than understand why her daughter didn't want to wear the item. Maybe the clothing was itchy, maybe the daughter's thermostat worked differently than her mother's, maybe her personal sense of style was being violated -- who knows? Certainly not her mother, who recounted her daughter's distress and attempt to negotiate at length, while crowing about not "giving in" for her daughter's own good.

I am not naming names because this parent is self-righteousness incarnate as well as an Autistic-hating, repeat offender and she doesn't deserve your attention. But it's important to spread the message that "my way or the highway" incidents like this are absolutely the wrong way to approach conflicts with an autistic child.

It's not easy to be Autistic, and it's not easy to be Leo, even though in general he's the happiest and most affectionate boy I know. So, I beg you, Please don't forget how hard it is to be an atypically-communicating person like my son.

Please share the message that Autistic people of all ages deserve extra time and effort to ensure that you're understanding their needs properly, even if what they're doing doesn't make sense to you, even if you think you know better, even if you think it's for their own good.

And, if you have the time, please help share the message that happy stimming is a reasonable and healthy thing.

About Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Shannon Des Roches Rosa's writing and interviews are featured on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, MacWorld, Redbook, Parents Magazine, PBS Parents, SF Weekly, SF Gate, AOL News, and Shot of Prevention. She also writes about autism, parenting, evidence-based approaches, iPads, vaccines, and geekery at www.Squidalicious.com, as BlogHer.com's contributing editor for parenting kids with special needs, and as a co-founder and editor of The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She is also one of CafeMom's autism experts, and is one of Babble.com's Top 25 Autism Bloggers.

Rosa'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 handsome husband, and their three capricious children live near San Francisco.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Can Parents Get Involved in Online Reputation Management (ORM) in a Productive Way?

From Cornerstone Reputation

By A.G. Suduiko
October 15, 2013

"... a parent who polices her child’s digital footprint to the level of a private detective can easily smother the child, whereas one who gives no guidance leaves the child vulnerable in an age where online reputation matters more and more."

Parents, no doubt, want only the best for their children. This can be tricky when it comes to balancing helpful motivation and advice against the dreaded extreme of “helicopter parenting.”

Nowhere is the struggle for striking this balance clearer than in the college admissions season, where students run the danger of feeling more pressure coming from their parents than their peers, or even their college counselor!

For many parent-child relationships, this is a pivotal, formative moment: the child is learning the critical life skills of self-promotion, representation, direction, and the like; yet college is also a critical life phase, and it is natural for the parent to want to offer their wisdom and experience in guiding their child, as they have always done. Indeed, as bad as the label of helicopter parent may be, the opposite extreme – a completely hands-off approach – seems, to many, to be downright negligent.

It is no surprise, then, that parents would want a hand in their child’s ORM, whether it be pursued as a step in the college admissions process, or as a more general approach for helping their child in an increasingly plugged-in world.

The dangers here are just as present as in the example of general college admissions: a parent who polices her child’s digital footprint to the level of a private detective can easily smother the child, whereas one who gives the child no guidance leaves them vulnerable in an age where online reputation matters more and more.

What would life be like if the parent quietly watched the child, just out of sight, throughout the course of their whole school day, through their extracurricular activities, and so forth? Talk at the dinner table could consist of the parent remarking point-by-point on what the child did right and wrong, redefining what it means to micromanage.

Though it may not always seem so, the digital age offers parents quite a similar potential: if they so choose, they can, with little effort, view all of their child’s public digital footprint, probably containing some material which the child did not submit to the web with their parents in mind as the target audience.

Just as the hypothetical real-life micromanagement scenario seems an environment which can totally stunt a child’s growth, rendering him forever dependent upon his parents’ guidance and opinions, so too can digital micromanagement stifle the developmental space of a child. If every comment made or link posted is scrutinized and brought to light by the parent, the child will have a harder time finding her own way, thereby being made unable to comfortably form a representative digital footprint in the first place.

Suppose instead that the parent watched the child just as much as in our Orwellian “Big Father” hypothetical, but addressed the child’s behavior in a different way: instead of making every action of the child nightly table-talk, the parent instead used the child’s behavior as a guide for his own parenting, seeing where the child may need help and focusing more effort on giving the child the necessary support and guidance in that area. Such guidance may not even require reference to the particular behavior which the parent witnessed – though, in some cases, direct reference may be the correct course of action.

The same is possible with social networking and ORM: if a parent can resist the potential for micromanagement and instead use the increased availability of record of their child’s behavior to inform and tailor their own parenting style, they can help the child not only in terms of Online Reputation Management, but also in regards to the greater scheme of the child’s developmental path and maturation, a process which far transcends ORM.

Of course, as we alluded to in our last example, some behavior may merit direct discussion with the child, while some may merit a less direct approach. Part of this difference certainly falls upon parental discretion, but it is important to remember that ORM is as emergent a practice as the social media which necessitated its inception.

This creates a funny sort of paradox: the child needs guidance from a parent regarding media with which the child is better-versed than the parent!

The result is that the parents could probably do in most cases with guidance on social media just as much as their children, if only to be savvy enough to offer their children informed and practical guidance. There are several ways the parents could accomplish this: they could get involved with social networking themselves; they could conduct research into the various social media -- their cultures, nuances, and functionality; or they could themselves get savvy through the help of an ORM mentor.

The last of these choices would reap the twofold benefit of making the parent both social media savvy and ORM savvy, but the choice in how to approach solving the problem would fall upon the parents’ knowing how best they learn, from what position they can best be of aid to their child, and the like.

The key, as we have seen through our exploration of the parent-child adventure, is knowing how to practice balance.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Child With Autism Becomes a Teenager With Expectations

From The N.Y. Times' Parenting Blog Motherlode
"Adventures in Parenting"

By Priscilla Gilman
October 20, 2013

The night before his 13th birthday, Benj came to the door of my office and knocked in his typically abrupt way. “Mommy, I need to talk to you,” he said. “I’m really worried about tomorrow.”

Benj is on the autism spectrum, and special days cause him more than the usual trepidation. I rushed in with reassurances about the specifics that had concerned him in the past. “What’s worrying you, honey?” I asked. “I’ve told the school to do the special gluten-dairy-free treat for you, and remember we’re going to have the home party this weekend.”

But it was not the mundane details of the day that were on Benj’s mind. “Mommy, I’m nervous about becoming a teen.”

“Nervous about becoming a teen” is such a typical Benj way to put it. I’d shared his anxiety when he was younger. For children with communication difficulties, what could be worse than the social maelstrom of middle and high school, with its cliques and pressure to conform? As social situations became increasingly complex and his peers increasingly sophisticated, I feared that literal, innocent, honest Benj would be picked on, manipulated, or excluded.

But as those years actually approached, my fears were largely allayed. Benj is in a small, special education class where each child’s unique set of strengths and challenges is understood. The school has a no-tolerance policy for teasing, ostracism and bullying. There’s no in group or out group and no norm or standard or box to fit into because these kids are all quirky, each in his or her own way.

So I felt no sense of impending doom at the prospect of Benj becoming a teenager — but he did. “When I’m a teen I’ll have to have hang-outs with my friends all the time!” he told me. “And I’ll have to date people! That’s what teenagers do. They hang out with their friends, and they date.”

I wondered where he’d picked up these conventions about what it means to be a teenager. It was only this year that at the suggestion of his school counselor, Benj began to call get-togethers with peers “hang-outs,” chiding me if I referred to them as the now babyish “play-dates.” “Hang-out,” with its connotations of relaxed, mellow, easygoing camaraderie, is a bit misleading as far as Benj is concerned; socializing with peers can be challenging and arduous for him. More “hang-outs” means more stress. I can’t imagine what he thinks dating holds.

I reassured him that becoming a teen did not mean he had to start dating immediately. “You can date when you’re ready, sweetheart,” I told him, “and that might not be for a long time. And, of course, you can have more hang-outs if you want them. But it’s important to remember that you also need your good alone time.” Benj is a classic introvert who needs long stretches of private time in his room, reading, playing Solitaire or noodling around on the guitar.

Benj thanked me for understanding that he needed his private time, but then insisted that he needed to make sure he was having some hang-outs. He decided on “2.5 hangouts a month” as the right amount. I wondered what would constitute a “half-hang-out,” and then realized that mathematically inclined, precise Benj was averaging the number of hang-outs: 2.5 a month is 30 a year.

“Benj, I want you to know that there isn’t one set definition of what a teenager is. When I was a teenager, I spent lots of time with my friends, but Daddy didn’t have lots of hang-outs or girlfriends when he was a teenager and he was happy that way.”

Parenting Benj, a child very different from the one I’d imagined having, has impressed upon me just how important it is to move beyond normative expectations about what our children will or won’t be, should or shouldn’t do. But again, just because I’ve realized that doesn’t mean that Benj has. Social norms are powerful things, and as much as I may think he isn’t hearing the siren call of “normal,” his surprisingly conventional definition of being a “teen” is proof that he isn’t immune to fears about fitting in.

Our most essential tasks as parents, in fact, may be to recognize our children’s individual temperaments, needs and aspirations and to help them resist prescriptive conventions and imagined ideals in figuring out what’s really right for them. When E.E. Cummings wrote: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” he described the sort of courage I hope to foster in all three of my children, one that enables them to attain the maturity that comes when we identify our own natures and try to live in accordance with them.

“People are different,” I told Benj. “There’s no one right way to be a teenager. And there’s no set way that you have to be, Benji, ever. I will always support you in doing what’s right for you, Benj, not some idea of what a teenager, or a man, or a person should be doing.”

Benj’s 13th year has been one of amazing social growth for him. He had his first phone conversation with a friend, invited a girl to his school’s winter dance (just as friends!), and enjoyed regular “hang-outs” with peers thanks to his social skills group. And he continues to derive a great deal of satisfaction and happiness from his “good alone time.” He’ll even smilingly call out as he ducks into his room: “I’m going in for my private free time!”

Did he hear me, when I promised him he never had to learn to conform? Who knows. Whether you’re turning 13 or 50, it can be difficult to ignore who the world expects you to be — or who you think you’re expected to be. But so far, Benj is managing. He’s growing up into who he really is.


Priscilla Gilman is the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Parent Advocacy: Putting Social Skills in the IEP

From Smart Kids with LD

By Ann McCarthy
June 4, 2013

My advocacy clients who have children with ADHD often express concern about their child’s social skills. Yet their child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) focuses solely on academic performance.

They are right to be concerned. Challenges with social skills can and do impact learning (e.g., following directions, class participation, group work, etc.), as well as life outside the classroom including personal relationships and workplace interactions.

Although parents are often intimidated by the IEP process, you need not hold back when it comes to addressing social-skill deficits with your child’s team. You know that social skills are vital for success in life. Teachers know this too. That is the common ground on which to begin the discussion.

The IDEA is a good place to start the conversation, as it provides the justification for including social skills in the IEP. The law notes that the purpose of special education is to prepare students with disabilities for “further education, employment, and independent living,” all of which require social competency.

Including Social Skills in the IEP

ADHD is essentially an executive function disorder. And executive function deficits can have a negative impact on social development. Writing IEP objectives to address executive functions and social skills can be tricky.

Dr. Timothy Heitzman, Pediatric Neuropsychologist at the Southfield Center for Development, recently shared a helpful strategy with me.

To create measurable IEP objectives, Dr. Heitzman suggests shining a light on the results from a behavioral rating scale such as The Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF), a tool often used to assess executive function and social skill deficits in children.

BRIEF consists of two questionnaires—one to be filled out by the teacher and the other by the parent—each consisting of items that target behaviors within the relevant setting (school or home). The raw scores are then tabulated to provide aggregate information in eight areas related to executive functions.

For areas where the scores are elevated, Dr. Heitzman advises the IEP team to look at the raw data.

For example, if a child’s Inhibition score was elevated (reflecting difficulty with controlling impulses and stopping behavior), then the team should drill down to the raw data where they will find, in this case, that the child interrupts others. That’s a specific behavior that can be turned into an IEP objective:

"With no more than two visual reminders from teacher during a 45-minute period, Tommy will raise his hand and wait to be called on during classroom discussions 90% of the time."

Social Skills Instruction

Once objectives have been written, the next challenge is teaching the behavior through direct instruction.

Using the example of planning for social interactions, Chris Abildgaard, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven in Wallingford, CT explains how to teach the skill.

Abildgaard recommends coaching the student before entering a social setting and developing a Plan A and Plan B. He offered this sample ‘social planning checklist’ that may be used as both an instructional tool and a way to help children develop a sense of reflection and self-monitoring:

____ Do I feel good about how to ask Johnny if he wants to play with me? If not, who can I ask for help?

____ I know what I am going to say and have Plan A.
It is________________________________.

____ If Johnny says ‘no’ or another roadblock appears, I am ready with a Plan B.
That is________________________

____ After I did either Plan A or Plan B, I thought about how I did. Sometimes I may need to talk with an adult to help me with this part.

Many IEP teams are just beginning to address social skills and executive function deficits with students, as much of the thinking in this arena is still quite new.


If you believe that your child has social skill deficits that should be addressed, here are three excellent resources to jump-start your next IEP team discussion:

Ann McCarthy is a special education advocate and serves as the Managing Director of The Southfield Center for Development in Darien, CT.

Don’t Get Taken for (Too Long) a Ride! Watch Out for Silent Waivers in an IEP

From Special Education Today
A Special Education Law Blog from Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP


NOTE: Special Education Today is well worth following. Go HERE to enter your email address and receive updates automatically.


By Robert K. Crabtree, Esq.
October 3, 2013

Parents should keep an eye out for language in their IEPs that might have them unwittingly signing away the right to limit the duration of their child’s transportation to and from a placement to an hour or less each way. Massachusetts special education regulations provide, at 603 C.M.R. §28.06 (8)(a):

"The district shall not permit any eligible student to be transported in a manner that requires the student to remain in the vehicle for more than one hour each way except with the approval of the Team. The Team shall document such determination on the IEP."

Notwithstanding this regulation, some school districts have begun to include the following language in IEPs:

"Parents understand student may be on the vehicle for over an hour due to distance and traffic constraints."

Apparently, districts have been urged to incorporate this language into IEPs by a task force made up of several statewide organizations of school administrators that focuses on reducing the costs of transporting students.

While we would support reasonable strategies that might make transportation to and from appropriate placements more efficient and cost-effective without harming students, the effort to include this sort of provision in IEPs undermines a basic protection tuned to students’ need to have their days devoted as much as possible to learning, free of the fatigue and distraction of excessive daily van-time.

Parents should be on the lookout for such language in a proposed IEP and, unless they are willing to allow the district effectively to ignore the travel duration limits that are ordinarily required, should refuse to permit what amounts to a blanket waiver of the requirement.

At most they should reject the IEP in part, noting that they accept the statement regarding the possibility that transportation may take longer than an hour only insofar as unforeseen circumstances, such as inclement weather or major traffic disruptions, may on rare occasions cause the trip to last more than an hour but reject the statement insofar as it implies that travel between home and placement will typically require more than an hour.

If the reason for too long a ride is that a van is picking up too many students and/or bringing them to too many different locations, a parent can insist that the district correct the problem by, for example, assigning an additional van or rearranging the pick-up and drop-off schedule for the student to reduce travel time.

In some cases, if the distance to a day program requires more than an hour’s trip, parents may be able to call for a residential placement for that reason, even if they could not otherwise make a case for residential services as necessary for the student to make meaningful progress.

While circumstances may make a longer ride unavoidable, the regulatory requirement for “the approval of the Team” to permit that exception to the rule means that the Team, including parents of course, must explicitly consider the factors that lead to that need, the potential effects on the student, and alternative ways to transport the student to reduce the expected length of the ride each way and/or to make the time on the ride productive toward the achievement of the student’s goals and objectives.

If a ride must exceed the one hour limit, the Team should consider and provide any accommodations that might help reduce the wasted time and undermining impact of long rides – i.e., fatigue, lost learning time, etc. For example, a long ride in a van with several peers might offer an opportunity for a specialist to assist students in the development and practice of pragmatic skills or, in some cases, an aide might be able to help a student reinforce selected academic skills.


Robert Crabtree is a partner in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Who is Gifted?

From Greater Good
The Science of a Meaningful Life

By Jill Suttie
October 22, 2013

A new book argues that other factors, besides IQ, are important in academic success and in life.

Basic Books, 2013, 397 pages.
I remember taking an IQ test with a school counselor when I was a young kid. The first question posed to me was, “What is an orange?” I knew the answer!

“It’s a color,” I said.

Wrong. I remember how flustered I was hearing I got it wrong. Luckily, the tester coaxed the “right” answer out of me, and I recovered enough to finish the test. But that brief panic still haunts me, making me wonder how close I was to “flunking” the IQ test and being defined for the rest of my life.

So, it’s with some interest that I read Scott Barry Kaufman’s new book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, writes about the fallibility of IQ, SAT, and other intelligence tests, while outlining the research that shows what other factors are important in academic success and life.

Kaufman has an axe to grind: placed in a special education class at a young age himself, he had to fight his way out of the labels and expectations placed on his intelligence. Luckily for him, he persevered, overcoming obstacles and ending up doing his Ph.D. at Yale, where he studied cognition and intelligence with some of the premier researchers in the field.

With a firm grasp on the genetic, psychological, and neuroscience research on intelligence, Kaufman paints a complex picture of what goes into cognitive ability besides SAT and IQ scores. Individual traits, like grit, passion, and perseverance, as well as environmental factors, like mentoring opportunities and welcoming learning environments, make a huge contribution to a child’s ability to learn—so much so, that Kaufman argues we shouldn’t rely on intelligence tests at all.

“Stereotyping students with disabilities on the basis of a disability label or standardized test score is not only unsupported by the best evidence from the field of psychology and education measurement, but it’s also just plain discrimination,” he writes.

He argues that even students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds can become “gifted” if given the right encouragement. One intervention in North Carolina schools called Project Bright IDEA, which targets disadvantaged students, found that when teachers were trained on how to encourage “gifted” behaviors—like persisting, listening with empathy, flexible thinking, and questioning—in their students, those students’ performance went way up.

In fact, 24 percent of the students who received this special instruction moved into gifted and talented programs, and even those that weren’t scored 50-100 percent higher on academic assignments than their peers in regular classrooms.

Outcomes like this show that parents and teachers need to consider kids unique gifts and nurture those with appropriate challenges and encouragement. Kaufman argues for the elimination of competitive evaluations, suggesting instead a system of cooperative learning, where kids are valued for what they can do, rather than getting the best grade.

Though genetics play a role (which, he argues, they do for all traits), environmental influences are much more prominent than we may think. He presents research on how teacher expectations and cultural stereotypes—like “girls can’t do math”—shape the way teachers teach and evaluate their students, while also affecting student performance.

In fact, the book is chock full or research, punctuated by Kaufman’s own story of overcoming the odds. His book gives credence to the view that cookie-cutter approaches to education will miss the special gifts each child brings into the world.

Whether kids have high IQ’s, special needs, schizophrenia, or ADHD, each child is capable of learning, and may hold the key to solving difficult problems or creating the next masterpiece of art…if we only give them a chance.

“People with all different kinds of minds are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things in their own way,” writes Kaufman. “Surely we can value the talents of student identified by a single testing session while still giving less stellar and even poor performers multiple bites at the apple.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

November 12th: Jessica Minahan Speaks at NESCA on Successful Interventions for Students with Sexualized Behavior

A Special FREE Evening Presentation

While relatively uncommon in school-aged children, sexualized behavior can be very upsetting to parents and professionals. It sometimes even results in students being removed involuntarily from the public schools.

Students display sexualized behavior for a host of reasons, and there is not a single common profile. For most students, pointing out that the behavior is inappropriate and it needs to stop is all that is needed, but for some, the behavior will persist and require specific interventions.

Jessica Minahan will tackle myths about sexualized behavior, and teach practical and effective interventions. Her talk will be of benefit to parents and professionals alike.

When:    7:00 – 9:00pm Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where:  NESCA, 55 Chapel Street Lower Lobby, Newton, MA

This talk is FREE and open to the public. Seating is limited. To reserve seats, please call Amanda Renzi at 617-658-9800, or email arenzi@nesca-newton.com.

About Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA

Jessica Minahan is Director of Behavioral Services at NESCA.
She is co-author, with Psychiatrist Nancy Rappaport, of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, published by Harvard Education Press. Copies may be purchased at the event.

Minahan holds a B.S. in Intensive Special Education from Boston University, and a dual master’s degree in Special Education and Elementary Education from Wheelock College. She has a certificate of graduate study (CGS) in teaching children with Autism from University of Albany, and received her BCBA training from Northeastern University.

Her additional Massachusetts and other professional certifications include Teacher of Students with Special Needs (Pre-K through 9), Intensive Special Needs (All Levels), Professional Early Childhood (Pre-K through 3), Special Education Administration (All Levels, Initial), Crisis Prevention Intervention Trainer and Wilson Reading Level 1.

Since 2000, she has worked with students who exhibit highly challenging behavior in both their homes and schools. She specializes in creating behavioral intervention plans for students who demonstrate explosive and unsafe behavior. She also works with students with emotional and behavioral disturbances, anxiety disorders, high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

Placing My Disabled Son in a Group Home Was the Best Thing I Ever Did

From XOJane

October 21, 2013

There’s a neighbor in our building who will no longer acknowledge us. Her hostility started in the summer of 2008, right around the time we sent our then 10-year-old son, Jack, to a group home.

She used to be friendly, but now she won’t say hello or even make eye contact. Once she let the elevator door close in my face after I asked her nicely to hold it. Her hostility started in the summer of 2008, right around the time we sent our then 10-year-old son, Jack, to a group home.

I’m sure she’s not the only one who’s outraged that we “put him away.” But I don’t care — he’ll be 16-years-old soon and I have no regrets. In fact, there are not many things I’m certain of, but one thing I know for sure is that we did what was best for all of us, and that includes Jack.

Because he can’t talk or feed himself and is physically challenged, Jack needs assistance with every aspect of daily living. He is also unable or unwilling to drink, so he gets all his liquids through a feeding tube (figuring out the reason why, after the umpteenth ICU hospitalization for dehydration, stopped mattering).

When Jack lived at home, we depended on aides seven days a week and sometimes for overnight shifts. Some of the aides were nice to him, but not to me. Some were nice to me, but not so great with him. I was friendly with a few, others gave me the creeps. Dealing with them was difficult in all the ways that managing employees can be and more, but I was desperate to keep the rotation going. With two other kids and a job, I lived in fear that one day someone wouldn’t show up.

Sometimes there were fights between the aides and me over scheduling. One weekend, I suspected that two day aides were trying to sabotage the night aide by leaving their shifts without having properly cared for Jack, in hopes that the night aide would be overwhelmed and quit over his agitated, deficient state. Our home had become a dysfunctional workplace, with all the ugly cutthroat competitiveness and politics that go along with it.

I once received an anonymous multi-page letter in the mail from a neighborhood parent who had observed my son with his aide in the park and felt his care was “not as good as it could be.” Yet this particular aide was extremely punctual and reliable, and it seemed too risky to give that up. In fact, the thought of trying to get through even one day without help scared the hell out of me.

Sometimes I would feel bad that Jack was in his pajamas in bed at 6 o’clock when other boys his age were still active. But the aide had spent hours feeding and bathing him and was exhausted and ready to go home. And I was tired, too.

I know of a family who can’t bring themselves to place their autistic 22-year-old son in a group home. He lives in a big house with his parents, attending a day program and languishing alone in the backyard, swinging on a swing or ripping up leaves. I heard his mother adds vodka to her morning orange juice and doesn’t stop drinking till bedtime.

Now Jack lives in a brownstone on a quiet block with a group of other boys his age. There are several counselors there who work as a team to provide for his basic needs. They’re young and strong and never seem tired. When Jack lived with us, his aides used to wheel him around in a big stroller. Now, his counselors prefer to hold his hand and walk with him everywhere, improving his strength and balance every day.

His home also has a nurse, social worker, den mother and manager. He is never alone, and neither are his caretakers. I never worry that his needs aren’t being met. In fact, I know his needs are being exceeded in ways they never could be when he lived with us. Whenever Jack is off from school, the team takes him and the other boys on a trip to an amusement park, concert or movie. Although we try to visit him every week, sometimes his schedule is too jam-packed to squeeze us in.

Twice a year we hire an aide and take him on a special family vacation so we can all be together and his brother and sister can bond with him. They were young when he lived at home and probably don’t remember much, but I know they’ll remember the good times we have with him now.

Granted, not all group homes may be as great as the one we found. But because Jack will never be able to live alone or care for himself, and we know that one day my husband and I will be old—and, eventually, dead—putting him in one was simply inevitable.

It’s pretty much impossible to have complete peace of mind about your children’s futures but ironically I do have it with him. I’m so grateful he’ll be able to live where he is with his housemates for the rest of his life. And because we had this opportunity and made the decision early on, we all gained so much--Jack included.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

3LPlace Life College in Somerville, MA: A Place to Imagine a Future

From 3LPlace Life College
Launching January, 2014

"Maturing children and adults with disabilities must be able to imagine adult lives that they can live successfully."
-- Deborah Flaschen, 3LPlace president and co-founder

Concern about the future is perhaps the most significant common denominator among parents of children with developmental disabilities. And with good reason.

Looking at autism alone, recent research indicates that in the first two years after high school more than 50 percent of individuals did not work or attend school, 79 percent lived with their parents, 60 percent received some type of supplemental services (such as speech therapy, mental health counseling, and case management), and nearly 40 percent received no services whatsoever.

3LPlace, a four-year-old non-profit in the Greater Boston area, is working to offer another path. In this new video, 3LPlace co-founder and President Deborah Flaschen talks about the motivation behind creation of the Life College opening in Somerville, Massachusetts in 2014, and its unique strategy of harnessing interests and passions to drive learning.

The 3LPlace Life College residential transition program will provide experiential learning of the critical skills needed to live and work in the community. The operating premise is that these skills are best acquired IN the community, not in a separate, protected environment.

The program is flexible in duration with most students projected to stay two or three years. The 24/7, 11-month program will serve a diverse mix of students with various developmental disabilities. With a student to staff ratio of 3:1, 3LPlace Life College offers a relationship-based developmental approach that begins by working to maximize each student’s creativity, interests, motivation, and communication to leverage self-advocacy and independence.

For more information, visit www.3LPlace.org, or call Life College Coordinator Andrea Albert at 617-440-4415.

Our mailing address is:

50 Whitman Street,
Somerville, MA 02144

New Cases of Autism Have Levelled Off After 5-Fold Surge During 1990s

From ScienceDaily.com

October 16, 2013

The number of newly diagnosed cases of autism has levelled off in the UK after a five-fold surge during the 1990s, finds research published in the online journal BMJ Open.

The findings differ from widely publicized results issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year, which reported a 78% increase in the prevalence of the condition in eight-year-old children between 2004 and 2008 in the US.

Prompted by these data, which found that one in every 88 eight year old children in the U.S. had been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder in or before 2008, the authors wanted to find out if there were comparable rates in the UK.

They used entries into the General Practice Research Database (GPRD), which contains around three million anonymised active patient records from over 300 representative general practices in the UK -- equivalent to 5% of the UK population.

Data from practices enrolled from 1990, when the GPRD was set up, were used to calculate the annual prevalence (number of people living with the condition) and the annual incidence (number of newly diagnosed cases) of autistic spectrum disorders among eight year olds, all of whom were born after 1996.

Annual prevalence rates for 2004-2010 were calculated by dividing the number of eight year olds diagnosed as autistic in that or any previous year, by the number of eight year olds enrolled in the database for each year.

Annual incidence rates were calculated by dividing the number of eight year olds who had been newly diagnosed with autism between 2004 and 2010 by the number of eight year olds enrolled into the database for each of those years.

The results showed that the annual prevalence and incidence of autism did not materially change over the entire study period, for either boys or girls.

The annual prevalence of autistic spectrum disorders was estimated at 3.8 per 1000 boys and 0.8 per 1000 girls, while the annual incidence was estimated at 1.2 per 1000 boys (1190 in total) and 0.2 per 1000 girls (217 in total).

Girls were about 75% less likely to be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than boys.

The UK prevalence of about 4/1000 children is substantially lower than the equivalent US figure of about 11/1000 children in 2008, which was reported in 2012.

"The large difference between countries is closely similar to differences in rates reported for children diagnosed and treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the two countries," the authors point out.

Their previously published research, based on the same database, showed that the cumulative incidence of autism among children born in UK between 1988 and 1995 increased continuously by a factor of five during that period.

And they say that both studies provide "compelling evidence that a major rise in incidence rates of autism, recorded in general practice, occurred in the decade of the 1990s but reached a plateau shortly after 2000 and has remained steady through 2010."

Similar widespread sharp rises in the number of children diagnosed as autistic were also seen in the 1990s in other parts of Europe and North America, they add, making it unlikely that better understanding of the condition or a broadening of the diagnostic criteria alone could have been responsible for these simultaneous large increases.

Given the apparent sudden halt in the rise in rates from early 2000 onwards -- at least in the UK -- the "actual cause of the dramatic rise in the 1990s remains a mystery," they write, emphasizing that the suggestion that it might be linked to the MMR vaccine has been conclusively ruled out.

Journal Reference

B. Taylor, H. Jick, D. MacLaughlin. Prevalence and incidence rates of autism in the UK: time trend from 2004-2010 in children aged 8 years. BMJ Open, 2013; 3 (10): e003219 DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003219

Monday, October 21, 2013

How to Teach Teens About the Brain

The Science of a Meaningful Life

By Amir Flesher
September 18, 2013

At a high school in Vermont, Amir Flesher gives his students a glimpse into how their minds work—with the goal of making adolescence less painful and nurturing their growth into happy adults.

Why did I feel alive and connected during the week I spent living on a farm in Ecuador, but depressed and unmotivated as soon as I got back home? Why do I find certain types of faces attractive and others ugly? Why do I laugh?

These are a handful of the questions that my students have tackled in “Science of the Mind,” a six-week, interdisciplinary elective I helped create six years ago at Compass School, an innovative private school in Vermont. The 11th and 12th graders in Science of the Mind use psychology, neuroscience, and mindfulness practice to confront some of the questions they are asking of themselves and the world.

Harvard psychology professor Joshua Greene
addresses the Science of the Mind class in 2012.

My students are typically burning with two broad types of questions. The first revolves around understanding why they experience strong feelings such as sadness, anxiety, attraction, and joy. One of my students suffered from waves of sadness so powerful that she regularly fled the classroom to sob uncontrollably in the solitude of a locked bathroom stall. She was puzzled by these attacks because she has a stable, loving family, is socially connected, intellectually gifted, and was engaged in meaningful extracurricular activities. That her sadness felt unjustified made it that much worse.

The second category of questions revolves around the fundamental nature of reality. For instance, a group of roughly half a dozen of my students regularly spends lunchtime kicking around a hackeysack while vehemently debating the nature of time and space. In Science of the Mind, this common adolescent fascination with “the big questions” is channeled into deep engagement with philosophical problems such as free will and the nature of the self.

While adolescents often lack the tools to get a handle on powerful emotions and big questions, recent research in cognitive science is offering unprecedented insights into these areas. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has done pioneering work exploring how contemplative practices like meditation can help us manage negative emotions and cultivate positive ones.

Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard University, has shed light on how gut feelings and reason battle it out in the brain to influence moral decision making. Through Science of the Mind, I draw on scientific insights such as these to help my students make sense of their own minds and their place in the world—in the process, hopefully making adolescence a bit less painful for them and nurturing their growth into healthy and happy adults.

Nearly every student who has taken the course has called it a transformative experience. “I became much more aware of my significance and place in the universe,” says one student, “which is one of the most important lessons I can think of.”

What’s more, I believe the course offers lessons not only for students but for educators—lessons in how science can help foster students’ intellectual and emotional growth, and in how we might build new types of educational experiences that promote their overall well-being.

Deconstructing the Mind

Science of the Mind is built on the understanding that our perceptions, emotions, and values are mediated by a nervous system that has been shaped by evolution. Unfortunately, we do not come equipped with a user’s manual explaining how our biology sets the stage for how we navigate a world quite different from the one in which our neurobiology evolved.

The Science of the Mind class at Harvard Brain Bank in 2012

The course is designed to be one integral piece of such a user’s manual. Through neuroscience and various disciplines of psychology—including cognitive, evolutionary, social, and moral psychology—students begin to deconstruct the human mind.

One underlying message of the course is that human behavior and the human mind have been shaped by evolutionary forces that are quite impersonal, affecting billions of people over millions of years. When students consider this, they begin to see their own problems and shortcomings in a new light: They understand that the forces that have shaped them have shaped all people, which helps them feel a bit less weird during adolescence and a little more connected to others.

Another core message is that the notion of a unified Self is actually a composite of sensory inputs, perceptions, memories, thoughts, and emotions. As one student put it, “Our experiences and neurobiology are a collection of arrows all pointing inward to a point that isn’t there.” This realization helps many students feel less bound to negative thoughts and emotions and better able to grow and change.

Students in Science of the Mind meet for three hours a day, five days a week. Half of that time is a humanities block that includes simulations of classic psychology experiments and close readings of recent articles and book chapters related to visual perception, memory, and decision making; it also involves guided mindfulness sessions in the tradition of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.

The other half is spent in a science block in which they study neuroanatomy through activities such as dissecting a sheep brain after a visit to the Harvard Brain Bank, where they get to handle human brains. One month into the course, each student delves deeply into a self-chosen question—like those in the opening paragraph of this article—which they address by writing a popular-science-style article that we publish in our class Science of the Mind Journal.

A cornerstone of the class has been a visit to Greene’s Moral Psychology Lab at Harvard. Greene’s team has amassed a mountain of data derived from study participants solving moral dilemmas while in brain scanners. Their results suggest that moral reasoning involves a complex battle between gut feelings, based in evolutionarily older parts of the brain, and reasoning, based in the more recently evolved neocortex.

Greene’s take-home message is that we must be cautious about trusting our gut instincts because they evolved in a world that is quite different from the infinitely more complex, technology-driven, globally connected one in which we live today. Most of my students have found Greene’s work to be a catalyst to helping them get a hold on both their strong emotions and on the big philosophical questions tugging at them.


More on Science of the Mind

Check out the Science of the Mind Journal that Amir Flesher's class produces each year.


The student who struggled with crippling sadness was intrigued by an analogy that Greene uses to frame evolutionary perspectives on human psychology: Humans crave foods packed with sugars because they are concentrated sources of energy. When this biological mechanism evolved, which results in these foods causing pleasure, food was potentially scarce, and sugar-packed soda was non-existent. That high-sugar foods are now associated with a slue of debilitating health problems underscores that in a modern context, adaptive traits are often divorced from—and can even counteract—the evolutionary advantage they confer.

This insight gave my student a scientific and historical context for her general sense of fear and apprehension in daily life. She saw that while the fear our ancestors experienced in small, controlled doses on the savannah is an adaptation that helped them avoid mortal dangers like predators, this same fear response can easily get out of control in the relative safety of 21st-century affluent Western society, where it is set off by a barrage of non-mortal dangers like getting into a fight with your mother or being stressed out by homework. The student went from being baffled and isolated by her fear to understanding it and feeling deeply connected to others because of the link that a universal neurobiology provides.

Another student used Greene’s work to fundamentally reevaluate his view of free will. That our moral decision making capacity is mediated by neurobiology in ways that are both predictable and unconscious led him to conclude that the faculty of will is not entirely free, but rather constrained and governed by our neural architecture. Rather than being disheartened by this realization, it served as a catalyst for curbing his sense of adolescent invincibility and hubris. He felt more empowered by peeking under the hood of his brain and grasping some of the neural processes that limit free will than he felt undercut by realizing that his will was not as free as he had previously believed.

A Reservoir of Ease

Another important component of Science of the Mind is the practice of mindfulness, the moment-to-moment awareness of our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. While cognitive science serves to unpack the self at a conceptual third-person level, mindfulness practice does the same thing through direct first-person observation of the mind. Working hand-in-hand, cognitive science and mindfulness form the backbone of a comprehensive contemplative studies program.

2012 Science of the Mind student Jillian Murphy
examines a human brain at the Harvard Brain Bank.

I have shared mindfulness with students in one-time workshops, two minutes of practice at the beginning of every class period, and intensive multi-day retreats involving long periods of silent practice. The common denominator that students report from all these varied “dosages” is that mindfulness gives them a chance to experience moments of silence and calm in the midst of their hectic daily lives, helping them cultivate a reservoir of ease and stability that they can use when the going gets rough.

Emerging research on school-based mindfulness programs suggests that even one to 10 minutes of mindfulness practice, combined with 15-40 minute of discussion, can have a positive impact on cognitive performance and mood; however, more deeply experiencing the benefits of mindfulness takes significantly more training, which requires discipline and intensive practice time.

It is for this reason that people go on meditation retreats—lasting anywhere from several days to three months or more—in which practitioners spend 10 to 15 hours a day in silence and formal meditation practice. Such practice can result in profound shifts of perspective and previously unheard of improvements in cognitive performance.

Practice this demanding is developmentally inappropriate for teenagers because it lacks an outlet for social interaction, play, and for processing the difficult emotions that may arise in such deep silence. However, there are retreats for teenagers that feature these missing elements, including those organized by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme), founded in 2010 to bring the benefits of more intensive practice to teens.

iBme retreats combine about five hours of formal practice a day with educational workshops, small group work, and lots of good old fashioned summer camp-type fun. iBme has served over 400 teens on residential retreats across the country, many of whom feel fundamentally transformed by the experience; one wrote that her retreat “taught me that my own thoughts and emotions are nothing to fear. iBme created a nurturing environment that allowed me to be a truly authentic version of myself. If everyone got to experience the retreat, the world would be an amazing place.”

The Next Phase: Semester School

Inspired by the success of iBme, not to mention my eye-opening experiences with my own students over the past six years, I am developing plans to expand my Science of the Mind class to a new and exciting format: a contemplative studies residential semester school, in which high school juniors and seniors will spend one semester away from home engaged in cooperative living, a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum centered on Science of the Mind, and extended periods of mindfulness practices.

Front Cover of the 2012 Science of the Mind Journal.
Artwork by Rachel Cote

There are currently around a dozen semester schools operating like this in the United States, focusing on one theme intensively, but this would be the first program dedicated to contemplative studies. The fundamental goals of the program would be to provide high school students with a safe, supportive, and invigorating environment in which they can get to know their own minds better—and, as a result, feel more connected to themselves and others.

My students who have completed existing semester programs tell me that living in a small, cooperative community with a group of 40 like-minded peers for several months goes a long way toward achieving these goals, even when it is not the explicit or primary aim of the program. While students in the six-week, three-hour-a-day version of Science of the Mind have reported profound shifts in their understanding of their minds, 15 weeks of a residential program that includes several weeks of extended mindfulness practice promises to be seismically life changing.

I hear regularly from alumni of Science of the Mind how the perspectives and tools they gained from the course have helped them deal with everything from the stress of finishing a college term paper to existential questions such as choosing a life path. In feedback she wrote to me last year, one former student captures my hopes for the course perfectly:

“Science of the Mind frames education as an essential part of being a happy, moral person. The class connects facts and comprehension to the project of living well. It’s kind of about empowerment—learning how to use knowledge to understand yourself, and how to use your self-knowledge toward change.”

Her comment resonates with the feedback an Inward Bound teen retreat participant gave at the end of his retreat: “At this moment I feel I have learned more lessons about myself and others in the past five days than I did in the last year of school.”

Through a contemplative studies semester school, I hope to create a place that will empower many more students to experience what these two already have, and then some.