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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Arts Program Shows Promise in Special Ed. Classes

From Education Week

By Liana Heitin
May 20, 2014

Each of the visual arts, music, and dance activities Elizabeth Rosenberry engages in daily with her 2nd graders has a critical underlying goal: eye contact.

The veteran teacher opens class by crouching in front of a student and gently clutching his arms. "Zachary, look at me," she sings, matching his wide-open eyes with her own. The two paraprofessionals assisting in the classroom at the public school, P4Q @ Skillman, encourage the other five students, also seated in the semicircle, to watch the interaction and sing along.

Ms. Rosenberry is one of 240 teachers in New York City's District 75—a geographically dispersed collection of schools and programs serving students with the most severe cognitive and behavioral needs—to have received training in an initiative called Everyday Arts for Special Education, or EASE.

 Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, right,
uses singing in a lesson to encourage Jesus
Torres-Tiamani, left, to make eye contact as classmate
Ian Tokay looks on. The strategy comes from a
federally backed arts initiative for students
with severe cognitive and behavioral needs
—Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

In 2010, the district received a $4.6 million federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant—an impressive amount by arts education standards—to offer professional development in EASE at 10 schools and to study the program's effects along the way. The project was ranked fourth-highest among the 49 winners of i3 grants, and was chosen from 1,700 applicants.

With just a year left of that five-year funding from the U.S. Department of Education, a researcher who has been following the program says there's convincing evidence EASE has succeeded in improving elementary students' academic, socialization, and communication skills.

Even pending the final research results, the program is spreading: Teachers, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and paraprofessionals around New York City's 1.1 million-student school system have been requesting, and receiving, EASE training.

Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, center,
asks students Jesus Torres-Tiamani, center, in blue,
and Jeremy Andino-Colon, left, to make eye contact,
encouraging social engagement, during class at
P4Q @ Skillman, a public school in New York City.
Ms. Rosenberry is one of the teachers in the district
to receive training in the Everyday Arts for Special
Education program. Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

 In addition, the 640,000-student Los Angeles district is now piloting the program, though in a modified format, to help with an overhaul of how that district includes students with special needs in general education settings.

Kathy London, the arts instructional-support specialist for District 75, called the arts program "simple yet elegant"—and said it has garnered positive feedback from teachers in often very challenging settings.

"These are things anybody can learn," she said. "And once they get comfortable, we've seen how it really changes teachers' practice."

Adaptive Activities

The Everyday Arts for Special Education program, developed and administered by the Urban Arts Partnership, a New York City-based nonprofit, brings in "teaching artists"—working musicians, theater actors, and visual artists with education experience—to mentor elementary special educators and arts teachers on how to weave the arts into their teaching.

EASE is not a curriculum in the traditional sense; rather, it's a set of activities and techniques that educators have found helpful in both special education and arts settings. For the i3 research study, EASE teachers attend professional-development sessions and receive in-class mentoring from the teaching artists over three years, with less oversight as they progress through the program.

As Ms. London explained it, EASE differs from some other arts-integration programs in that the arts are not an add-on—they're the organizing framework for each lesson.

"It's not like there's a social studies lesson and then there's an arts component connected to it," she said. "This is a vehicle for delivering content."

In District 75—which serves about 23,000 students in grades K-12—a majority of students fall on the autism spectrum, although intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, emotional disabilities, and multiple (physical and cognitive) disabilities are also common. For that reason, the content of instruction varies greatly both between and within classrooms.

Some children may be working on early reading skills—letter recognition or phonemic awareness. Some may be reading fluently but with little comprehension. And others may be completely non-verbal.

"The program is definitely designed to be integrated into the academic curriculum, but with the caveat that for many of our kids, the academic curriculum means something different," said Jennifer Raine, the EASE curriculum designer.

And nearly all of the students in District 75 are working on social-emotional or behavioral goals—maintaining self-regulation, following directions, taking turns, and communicating with peers.

Through EASE training, which takes place on several full days throughout the school year, teachers in grades K-5 learn more than two dozen arts activities that they can adapt to whatever content they are working on and differentiate for individual learners. The activities emphasize communication, social skills, and group work; above all, they're meant to be fun.

"With the arts, there can be this denigrating attitude that that's what kids do to have fun but it's not serious learning," said Ms. Raine. "We're coming from the perspective that when you're making lesson plans of any kind, fun is not an extraneous element; it's an essential element."

One of the most versatile activities that teachers using EASE employ is called "kinesthetic matching." In that activity, a student holds a card with a visual cue—a picture, a letter, or a word. He or she then hops, slides, or dances to another person holding a corresponding card. For instance, a picture of a dime might go with the word "dime." While the student chooses, the rest of the class joins in and says "Boooooop!" in a drawn-out, sing-songy manner, finishing when the student has found and touched the match.

The movement and choral response are meant to keep the whole class engaged in the content being presented. The activity can help teach any number of skills: letter sounds, colors, vocabulary, weather, shapes, even social studies facts.

'Innovation' Grants Fuel Arts Education

The Everyday Arts for Special Education initiative in New York City is just one of three arts-education plans to win a federal grant in 2010 under the Investing in Innovation, or i3, competition by the U.S. Department of Education. Another New York City program was selected, as well as a project in Beaverton, Ore.

The Beaverton School District Arts for Learning Lessons Project: $4 million over five years.

This project, in the 13,000-student Beaverton, Ore., school district, aims to use the arts to improve literacy achievement for students in grades 3-5.

Teachers learn to integrate drama, music, dance, and other arts into reading and writing lessons, with mentoring from trained teaching artists. The grant includes a research component as well, conducted by WestEd.

Arts Achieve: Impacting Student Success in the Arts: $4.4 million over five years.

Studio in a School, an arts education nonprofit in New York City, partnered with other arts groups and the city school system to create benchmark assessments in visual arts, music, dance, and theater for grades 5, 8, and high school.

The formative and summative assessments are aligned to academic standards and will eventually be available online for all teachers. Also, teachers receive professional development and participate in learning communities.

"The thing about kinesthetic matching is you're doing stuff you have to do already as a teacher, and you're making it fun," Ms. Raine said. "The big unspoken secret of our work is a 'boop' can go a long way. It seems ridiculous, but my question is, how many more times is a kid going to be motivated to do what he has to do if he gets to make that sound?"

Channeling Energy

Some of the other activities are more focused on creating art projects: Students make shapes and jewelry out of tin foil, paint coffee filters, and take photographs, for example.

Others are more sensory-focused: Students pass around koosh balls when answering questions and bang colorful plastic tubes known as "boomwhackers" on the table when the leader points to their color. All the while, students practice making eye contact with each other, listening to directions, making choices, and communicating their needs and preferences.

"Definitely, the EASE philosophy is about channeling students' natural energy and tendencies and using them to develop skills you want them to work on," said Ms. Rosenberry, who has completed the required three years of the program and is now helping train other teachers.

"A lot of times, students with autism get taught in a one-to-one setting. [With EASE] we do a lot of group work, which is really challenging for them."

Through the program training, teachers are also urged to "wait and see what happens"—that is, give children a chance to express themselves, verbally or otherwise.

"It allows you time and space to notice things happening in your classroom, to tune in to each student and see what they're doing," Ms. Rosenberry said. "It's really easy, with students with these types of special needs, to say they don't have an opinion. But if you slow down, you can see Ian is looking at the pink boomwhacker," and he may want to use it.

Research 'Hard to Come By'

According to Philip Courtney, the chief executive officer of the Urban Arts Partnership, the research being conducted on EASE, as written into the federal i3 grant, "is the largest research project being done in the country in how arts intersect with special education."

Kristen Engebretsen, the arts education program manager at Americans for the Arts, a national arts-advocacy group, who has been tracking the EASE work along with the two other arts programs that received i3 grants, agrees.

Special education teacher Stephen Reese, right, holds
up the word “yellow,” inviting student Jeremy Betancourt, left,
to say it, during an exercise called “kinesthetic matching”
at the school. —Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

 "Quality research for arts education with special-needs students is really hard to come by. It's such a small niche," she said.

Rob Horowitz, the associate director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Teachers College, Columbia University, who heads the EASE research project, is conducting two impact studies—one looking at student scores on the state's alternative assessment for students with severe disabilities and another on measures of social-emotional learning. In addition, he's conducting what he calls an "extensive qualitative study" in which teachers rate and describe student progress weekly.

"It's a very large set of data," Mr. Horowitz said. "There were over 14,000 submissions last year." He and a half-dozen other researchers are conducting classroom observations as well.

As of now, the results have been encouraging, he said.

"The evidence is strong so far that, in fact, these activities are helping kids communicate and develop socialization skills in new ways," said Mr. Horowitz. The 2012-13 results found that between 77 percent and 84 percent of students participating regularly in EASE activities have made progress in each of the following areas: communication, socialization, compliance with directions, time spent on task, and engagement in school activities.

While the academic-testing results won't come in until next year, Mr. Horowitz said the program has also shown "positive effects" on students' goals for their individualized education programs.

The Urban Arts Partnership also has begun piloting the EASE program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2013, the LAUSD began moving hundreds of students with special needs from separate schools to neighborhood schools to comply with federal and state regulations and a 1996 court decree to reduce the number of stand-alone centers. The district looked to the arts partnership for help in training its art teachers to work with students who have severe needs.

The New York City group is now in its second year of providing professional development in the Los Angeles district. Twelve teachers were involved the first year; now approximately 45 teachers are receiving training.

Ms. London of District 75 says more teachers in the New York City district have been asking for training as well. About 100 or so teachers this school year attended professional-development sessions for EASE, though without the follow-up, in-class coaching that teachers involved in the research study received.

Further, Mr. Courtney said the Urban Arts Partnership is aiming to bring the program to prekindergarten classrooms, too. The timing could be opportune: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced plans to bring universal pre-K to the city, and his schools chancellor, Carmen FariƱa, has said she wants to see improvements in both arts education and special education.

In addition, next year, when the federal grant funding dries up, the program will continue to expand its reach by making the lesson plans available online for free.

In-Class Performance

For now, though, teachers in District 75 are most concerned about what's working in their own classrooms. Shenika Aspinall, who teaches 4th graders with autism at Public School 176X and just completed her first year of EASE training, said she was skeptical of the program at first.

"I wasn't too sure how well my students would follow directions, and felt they might be overstimulated," she said.

But she's seen an increase in spontaneous language and patience in her classroom, and is now a big EASE proponent.

"I was very surprised to see they did exhibit self-control and how calming the EASE activities were," Ms. Aspinall said of her students.

The music and singing, in particular, she said, have helped reduce behavioral problems. In fact, she now often puts on smooth jazz in the background to help students settle down.

Ms. Aspinall said the program has also rejuvenated her as a teacher.

"With common-core [standards] and assessments, as a teacher, you feel like your creativity has been taken away," she said. "What I like about EASE is that it's brought the fun back."


Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

How Emotional Connections Can Trigger Creativity and Learning

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

By Katrina Schwartz
March 15, 2013

Scientists are uncovering new insights into how people learn best. Some very recent neuroscience research has shown connections between basic survival functions, social and emotional reactions to the world, and creative impulses.

Students’ social and emotional reactions to learning are imperative to feeling motivated to learn and to their ability to creatively solve problems, according to Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who wrote Musings on the Neurobiological and Evolutionary Origins of Creativity via a Developmental Analysis of One Child’s Poetry [PDF].

Her research tries to understand why emotions are so important to learning by examining what happens to brain functions.

“Neuroimaging experiments show us that we use the very same neural systems to feel our bodies as to feel our relationships, our moral judgments, and our creative inspiration,” said Immordino-Yang, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on the neuroscience of learning and creativity.

Her work focuses on how neuroscience can help teachers understand the ways students learn best, and to that end, she’s created a free online curriculum for teachers.

“Help kids know how to make meaning and sense of
what they are learning so they can see who they are.”

The neuro-mechanisms responsible for feeling and managing the body’s physical survival and consciousness have been co-opted to also manage social survival. “Survival in the savanna depends on a brain that is wired to make sense of the environment, and to play out the things it notices through patterns of bodily and mental reactions,” Immordino-Yang writes.

“This same brain, the same logic, helps us make sense of and survive in the social world of today.”

To make something relevant to a learner, it should inspire an emotional reaction in the person, triggering these survivalist parts of the brain that indicate something is important.

[RELATED: Teaching Social and Emotional Skills in School]

“The way that we make meaning out of situations, and the way that we feel and evaluate things, is plated on the same neural platforms as do the basic job of managing our viscera,” Immordino Yang said. When a topic strikes a chord with a student it feels meaningful because the part of his brain firing is the same part that keeps him conscious and alive. It’s also the part of the brain responsible for novel, creative or new ideas.

“Creativity is representing some kind of relevant problem in a new way and making peopleunderstand it, and feel about it, and have some insight into something that matters,” Immordino-Yang said. She argues that creative moments are motivated by caring deeply about a subject. Furthermore, humans make meaning by relating new information to feelings, memories and other personal information to give it context.

To undertake that complicated process of internalizing information Immordino-Yang has found that it’s necessary to shut out external inputs and focus intensely on what’s going on internally. Asking students to constantly pay attention or allowing them to be distracted by games, phones, and other stimuli may deprive them of the important inward-looking time crucial to deeper learning.

“The way in which people learn information, the way in which they make it their own, assimilate it, are dependent heavily on a neural system that is fundamentally incompatible with external information and distraction,” Immordino-Yang said. Long term learning happens when the brain calls up old memories and incorporates the new knowledge into a personalized understanding of the world. And that’s often a creative process.

It takes creativity to synthesize new information within the context of old experiences and to reshape difficult concepts into something understandable. Immordino-Yang argues that the essence of that process requires the thinker to disengage from the world around them.

[RELATED: How to Fuel Students' Learning through Their Interests]

That doesn’t necessarily mean that daydreaming is the key to developing innovative ideas. There are times when insight strikes while the mind wanders, but Immordino-Yang says that in those cases the information is already present. When it comes to learning something new, the inward focus is often real work.

“Help kids know how to make meaning and sense of what they are learning so they can see who they are,” Immordino-Yang said. “Creativity is just an extension of that.” She gave the example of her young daughter who wrote a song about loving her young brother, but the imagery in the song incorporated space, planets, and the galaxy. She had just learned about those concepts, but in order to really understand their significance, she needed to express them within the totally understood and emotional space of family love.

Allowing kids the space for the interplay between the emotional and cognitive spaces will benefit the long-term learner.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Commencement Address to the Preschool Class of 2014

The Excelsior Preschool for the Gifted and Talented

By Cathy Lew
May 27, 2014

Friends, family, and members of the graduating class of the Excelsior Preschool for the Gifted and Talented,

I’m honored to be your commencement speaker today. Your teacher wanted me to read excerpts from “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” But I’m not going to do that—you’re not babies anymore. If you’re sitting here today, it’s because your mountains aren’t waiting for you—you’ve already been moving them.

As a fellow Excelsior alum, I see a preschool class that is uniquely equipped to solve the problems our world faces. I read some of your admissions essays to get a clearer sense of who you are, and wow. It’s inspiring to see how many of you aren’t afraid to defy convention. The number of you who drew abstract representations of yourselves instead of submitting a boring personal statement—that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes you exceptional.

You have all worked incredibly hard to get here. Just think: before preschool, you were still picking your nose—now you’re carrying spare tissues. A lot of you are feeling anxious about your future. Will the curriculum in kindergarten be rigorous enough to prepare me for the LSAT? Will I connect with the right influencers?

Here’s my advice to you, Preschool Class of 2014:

I. Find your passion.

Kindergarten is very different from where you are right now. No more mud castles or aimless hangouts in the sandbox. Get ready to work long hours, because naptime is a precious luxury where you’re headed. Preschool was your intellectual playground to explore your interests and, hell, to experiment. William Butler Yeats explained the transition from preschool best when he said, “Education is not the filling of a pail.” In kindergarten, you should be homing in on your passion.

Some of you are already showing great potential. I hope I don’t embarrass anyone by naming names, but Jayden, what you’re doing with building blocks is incredible. Forget developing Candy Crush Saga—we’re talking Candy Crush EMPIRE. Shiloh, the way you stare off into space makes me think that you could write the next great American e-book. South, your finger painting makes me believe in love. You are already on your way to running your own Bushwick loft gallery/communal living space.

II. The road to success is paved with obstacles.

You’re inheriting a set of challenges that no other generation has faced. Let’s be honest: you do a lot of talking, but you don’t communicate effectively. Your personal brands are a disaster. You’re at a disadvantage because your parents haven’t just chronicled every move you’ve made since birth—they’ve broadcast it to the whole world. I’ve seen videos of several of you “shutting down the crib” to the Black Eyed Peas.

One glance at Instagram tells me that you can’t relate to your peers, because you think a bulldog is your best friend. Each and every one of you has leaked nude photos. You’ve been letting your parents shape and manage your personal brand, without even giving consent. It’s time to own your image.

III. Show your gratitude.

Many of you have been taught that gratitude is saying “please” and “thank you.” Get out of that early two-thousands mentality. If you want your parents to know how grateful you are, learn how to code. It’s time to harness the skills you’ve gained from swiping on your mom’s iPhone and sending all of those cryptic e-mails to her co-workers. I’m not going to sugarcoat reality: the competition out there is fierce. For every time you sat on Dad’s iPad and almost broke the screen, other preschoolers were out there building touch screens that don’t even crack. Figure out coding, and you’ll be able to pay your own way through college or, best-case scenario, you won’t even need to attend.

Think big picture: you’ll run your house by the time you’re thirteen, and your parents won’t be able to say no when you’re invited to Calliope’s boy-girl sleepover.

IV. Build a strong support system.

Look at the person sitting to your left. Now, to your right. These aren’t just your peers—they’re also your greatest advocates. The only way to succeed is to support each other’s dreams and ambitions. Most important, don’t be afraid to ask each other for help. You can start living that advice today by picking up my new book, “The Rest of Your Life Started Yesterday: Living a Balanced Life From Preschool to Premed.”

It covers a lot of the topics I touched on today and so much more, from CSS drills to recipes for gluten-free after-school snacks. We Excelsior alums have to stick together, so I’m throwing in a special discount code for the first ten people who download the book on Kindle. Congratulations and good luck, Preschool Class of 2014!


From The New Yorker's "Shouts & Murmurs"

Unacceptable Options for Our Most Vulnerable Students

From Education Week's Blog "Top Performers"

By Marc Tucker
May 27, 2014

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute posted a piece on the Slate web site a few months back that made me wince. Not because I disagreed with him, but because his post highlighted how appalling the options are for the kids our system has failed.

Petrilli takes on those who have focused all their energies on getting poor and minority students into college. His point is that, even if we were somehow to vastly increase the proportion of high school graduates who go on to some form of college and succeed, there would still be a large proportion of high school graduates who would not succeed in college and who would be much better off if they left high school with some solid vocational skills that would enable them to earn a decent living.

He characterizes his opponents on this as those who would view a policy based on this idea to be a form of tracking that would inevitably create a vocational track to which a disproportionately large number of minority and poor student would be assigned.

From his point of view, as a practical matter, these vulnerable students are the ones suffering most from the present policy and most likely to be helped by the kind of policy he is proposing, so he suggests that laudable--but unreachable--aspirations are driving out the policy that would, in the end, help vulnerable kids the most.

I don't like the choices, and I don't think our country should, either.

First, let's look at the facts. Our high schools used to offer solid vocational education leading to good jobs in the building trades, auto repair and maintenance and so on. In our cities and larger suburban systems, many of these programs were in selective high schools run by people who matched the training slots available to the number of jobs projected, so a student who did well in one of these programs could be assured of a well-paying job. That is not true anymore.

The reality is that many--though certainly not all--high school career and technical education programs are little more than dumping grounds for students who are failing out of the regular academic program.

For the most part, solid vocational training programs that lead to industry-recognized certificates are not offered in our high schools anymore; they live in our community colleges, although they are often threatened there because they are more costly to operate than academic programs and bring lower status to the institutions that offer them.

In any case, if the idea is that we need to offer solid vocational training to students who are not willing to undertake further academic study or do not wish to do so, they will, for the most part, have to do that in our community colleges, not our high schools. Which means that they will have to leave their high school with sufficient academic skills to take credit-bearing courses in their community college.

But readers of this blog will recall that, about a year ago, I reported on a study my organization did on what it takes to succeed in the first year of our community college programs. Very little writing of any kind is assigned to first-year community college students because their instructors have discovered that their writing skills are very poor.

The most challenging math assigned to first-year community college students is about Algebra I and a quarter, and a large fraction of high school graduates do not have enough mathematics to succeed in an Algebra I college class.

The textbooks in the average first-year community college occupational program are written at the 12th grade level, but most high school graduates who arrive at community college cannot read at that level, because their high school textbooks are written at an 8th to 9th grade level, so their instructors create PowerPoint presentations to convey the main points in the text.

Community colleges are shutting down programs for welders, not because there is no demand for welders--there is very strong demand-- but because the students in those programs cannot do the mathematics needed to be successful in them.

If the gradates of our high schools cannot do the reading, writing and mathematics needed to be successful in core vocational programs in our community colleges, I can assure you that the least able of high school sophomores will not be able to be successful in them if they are offered in the junior and senior years of their high school programs.

The United States economy will not succeed without an ample supply of young people who have the skills and desire to become skilled technicians in large numbers. The young people coming out of our high schools who have neither the interest or ability to pursue a career requiring a long academic preparation will have no future if they do not have a viable vocational and technical career option.

But the hard fact is that the lowest performers in our high schools do not have the academic preparation to pursue either a vocational or an academic option.

It does not have to be this way. I recently completed a two-week study of the vocational education system in China. That system faces a lot of challenges. But the Chinese have an advantage over us that is inestimable. At least in Shanghai, the only place for which we have this kind of data, the high school students who rank lowest in academic performance are light years ahead of ours in the same rank. The majority of these students come from migrant families, a large fraction of whom live in appalling conditions in Shanghai. If Shanghai can do this, there is no excuse for us.

There is a shining exception to the point I have made here about high school vocational programs and it can be found in Massachusetts, which has a strong program of vocational high schools in its regional vocational high schools. But Massachusetts is actually not an exception to my point; it proves my point.

Massachusetts leads the nation in high school academic performance across the board. Massachusetts' children do not have to choose between an adequate academic education and vocational education. They can get both.

The United States needs a strong vocational education and training system. American students need a strong vocational education and training option. It may once have been possible to provide a vocational education and training option that required little or no formal education. Those days are long gone. Whether we provide our vocational education in regular high schools, regional vocational high schools or in our community colleges, that education and training will not succeed unless the students who participate in them enter them with much stronger academic skills than they now have.

End of story.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Revolutionary Approach to Treating PTSD

From the New York Times Magazine

By Jeneen Interlandi
May 22, 2014

Bessel van der Kolk wants to change the way we heal
a traumatized mind — by starting with the body.
Credit Illustration by Matthew Woodson        

‘If we can help our patients tolerate their own bodily sensations, they’ll be able to process the trauma themselves.’

Bessel van der Kolk sat cross-legged on an oversize pillow in the center of a smallish room overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. He wore khaki pants, a blue fleece zip-up and square wire-rimmed glasses. His feet were bare. It was the third day of his workshop, “Trauma Memory and Recovery of the Self,” and 30 or so workshop participants — all of them trauma victims or trauma therapists — lined the room’s perimeter. They, too, sat barefoot on cushy pillows, eyeing van der Kolk, notebooks in hand.

For two days, they had listened to his lectures on the social history, neurobiology and clinical realities of post-traumatic stress disorder and its lesser-known sibling, complex trauma. Now, finally, he was about to demonstrate an actual therapeutic technique, and his gaze was fixed on the subject of his experiment: a 36-year-old Iraq war veteran named Eugene, who sat directly across from van der Kolk, looking mournful and expectant...

Read this intensely interesting article HERE.


25th Annual International Trauma Conference

Psychological Trauma:
Neuroscience, Attachment and Therapeutic Intervention
May 28 - 31, 2014
Seaport World Trade Center, Boston, MA

 Theme: What We Have Discovered Over the Past
Quarter Century about Traumatic Stress and Its Treatment

Conference Director: Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D.

Keynote Speakers:
  • Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D.
  • Ruth Lanius, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Alexander McFarlane, M.B., B.S. (Hons), M.D.
  • Pat Ogden, Ph.D.
  • Jaak Panksepp
  • Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D.
  • Richard C. Schwartz, Ph.D.
  • Stephen J. Suomi, Ph.D.
  • Martin H. Teicher, M.D., Ph.D.
  • Ed Tronick, Ph.D.
  • Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., and
  • Faculty of the Trauma Center and Justice Resource Institute
CLICK HERE to download brochure and registration information.


Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Into High School

From Education Week

By Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman
May 20, 2014

At this school, they go all out around the student's emotions," Jameisha, a 12th grader, told us. "They ask, they listen. I don't wake up and think, 'Oh, I hope this don't happen.' I think, 'I'm OK. I'm fine. I'm ready to learn.'"
-- Jameisha, Fenger Academy High School

Chris Whetzel for Education Week
At Jameisha's South Side Chicago high school, a full-on commitment to social and emotional learning, or SEL, has transformed the environment from a nightmare of urban violence to a place where kids dream of college.

And although the circumstances and challenges may differ at other public secondary schools, around the nation we are seeing a new recognition that social and emotional factors markedly affect academic engagement, achievement, and educational attainment in the adolescent years.

What would it take to weave social and emotional learning into the daily fabric of our nation's high schools? What distinct practices, programs, and structures help schools embed SEL into ongoing teaching and learning? How does this effort vary from school to school, in response to the conditions that make a school unique and shape its climate?

From 2013 through early 2014, we asked these and other questions as part of an in-depth investigation of social-emotional learning in five diverse high schools located in communities across the United States. Most SEL efforts take place in the elementary grades, and most of the research to date has focused on discrete programs within schools. We know far less about secondary schools that make social-emotional learning central to their mission, linking it inextricably to academic development.

Still, the dichotomy between "noncognitive" and "cognitive" factors in learning is clearly giving way to a more capacious view that appreciates the complex interplay between the two. (Witness recent back-to-back Commentaries by David Conley and Mike Rose on this topic.)

Angela Duckworth's talk of "grit" lends muscle to the "soft" qualities traditionally attributed to character skills. And long-overdue attention to the deleterious effects of zero-tolerance policies has recently elevated another strand of SEL: replacing punitive discipline with restorative practices that heal rather than harm.

The schools in our study were working on all of these fronts. With four of them, academic and social-emotional learning had entwined in their DNA from the start, although their designs and the students they served were decidedly distinct. All four reported academic results that stood out compared with those of schools with similar demographics: strong attendance and low dropout rates, good proficiency results on state assessments, a high percentage of students going on to college.

The fifth school, Chicago's Fenger Academy High School, embraced SEL as a strategy for turning around years of poor performance and unremitting school violence. There, restorative practices took center stage.

We presented five case studies on the different high schools and SEL in a report released earlier this year, "Learning by Heart: The Power of Social-Emotional Learning in Secondary Schools." We received support for our work from the NoVo Foundation. (NoVo also helps support Education Week's coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement.)

Regardless of the design or approach, we identified a handful of key elements that all our study schools shared.

Although none enrolled more than 600 students, in each school a web of structural supports ensured that adults could know students well and support their development. These supports included advisory periods that gave every student a home base; prioritization of strong and purposeful teacher-student relationships; design and structural choices that kept class sizes small; formal assessment systems that focused on support, not censure; and grade-level and subject-area meetings that created a professional-learning community among faculty members.

These schools intentionally cultivated a sense of community through shared norms, values, and language. Transition programs welcomed incoming students; rituals and assemblies brought students and faculty together for recognition and problem-solving. A focus on acceptance of differences, inclusive practices, and the habit of reflection seemed to develop a sense of belonging and agency among students in each school.

Students had ample opportunities to learn and practice core social skills (e.g., apologies, decisionmaking, self-regulation). Everywhere we observed protocols for thoughtful classroom discussion, an emphasis on participation, and zero tolerance for exclusion.

We saw our study schools forging constructive alternatives to destructive disciplinary policies, including peer mediation or juries and peace circles. Yet they also demonstrated other powerful restorative practices that did not bear that name—by meeting students' basic needs for food, shelter, health, and safety.

Student motivation and academic standardization often stand off like rivals, yet our study schools found ways to link serious scholarship to what students cared about. Among the many practices we observed were project-based learning, student choice, reading across the curriculum that connected to life's lessons, students as teachers, and service learning. Each of our study schools also trained its sights on students' developing the beliefs and habits that result in satisfying and productive lives and learning—beyond school.

What are the policy implications of what these schools have shown us?

To start, we need new language that ends the "versus" between cognitive and noncognitive factors in our discussions of learning and mastery. Academic, social, and emotional learning are deeply mutual. In turn, we need learning standards that treat SEL as integral to the curriculum; Illinois, for example, includes standards for SEL development in its state learning standards. And the complex business of taking stock of student gains in SEL offers one more argument for performance-based assessments.

Our investigation underscores the critical role that supporting structures and practices play in secondary schools: advisory groups, student choice, norms of mutual respect among youths and adults, intentional and inclusive community-building, and more. Evidence-based SEL programs participate in that ecology, we acknowledge, but their potential increases when schools integrate them into daily instruction in a systemic approach.

The convergence of academic, social, and emotional learning serves all students well, we found. It misses the point to embrace SEL largely as a behavior-management or character-development tool for at-risk students in urban schools, though certainly such programs play a part in closing the achievement gap. Our five study schools demonstrate the power of SEL to enrich student learning, aspiration, and engagement across the entire spectrum of students.

We applaud the rising interest in restorative-justice programs as an alternative to harmful zero-tolerance policies. Yet the students affected by them often need much more than the chance to right their wrongs and stay in school, however critical these outcomes are. They usually need help managing the chronic stressors that underlie their defiance—worries linked to family, health (mental and physical), safety, and sometimes food and shelter, too.

Though cognizant of the limits of what schools can do, we also know the exorbitant costs of the consequences of neglect and school failure.

Finally (though perhaps first of all), teacher-preparation programs must equip new teachers with the core competencies necessary to foster social and emotional learning. They need guidance in creating the safe, respectful, motivating, and engaging classrooms in which young minds and characters can develop. It goes without saying that embedding those same characteristics in their professional education would lay a strong foundation for their success.

The vision of weaving social and emotional learning into the daily fabric of our nation's high schools seems understandably daunting. We offer five proof points that it can actually happen:

The Power of Social-Emotional Learning in Secondary Schools

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Power of Positive Words

From GreatSchools.org

By Deborah Tillman
May 26, 2014

When your child doesn't live up to your expectations, TV's "America's Supernanny" Deborah Tillman says there's a way to lift them up to be their best selves.

How I Overcame My Chronic Anxiety Disorder

From Harper's Bazaar

By Chrissy Rutherford
May 21, 2014

With or without drugs, battling anxiety can be nerve-racking.

Suffering from anxiety is so common now (or at least openly discussed) that I don’t feel a hint of embarrassment when it comes to talking about it, whether it’s with friends, strangers or our BAZAAR.com readers.

Who doesn’t feel anxious about some life events? A first date, a big test, an important meeting—it’s just as common as any other emotion we feel. However, at 13 years old when my chronic anxiety began, it didn’t feel so normal at all—it turned what I believed to be my "normal" life completely upside down.

As a child I was very outgoing—I studied ballet and tap dance, I sang in my school chorus, I performed in school plays—I simply loved being on stage. I always thought it was silly when kids complained of pre-show jitters. What was there to be nervous about? It wasn’t a feeling that I experienced a lot. But one day, like the flip of a switch, everything changed. Suddenly, I was completely frightened to even speak in front of my 20-person classroom, let alone get on stage in front of hundreds of people.

While people can experience anxiety at any point in their life, not all experience a definitive moment-in-time trigger as I did. Art Markman, the professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Change, explains that, "when there is a key triggering event, then the anxiety is often associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). However, there are plenty of people who suffer from long-term anxiety that do not have a clear source."

I fell into the latter—and I remember the trigger of my chronic anxiety like it was yesterday. It happened one morning in January 2001, a classmate vomited on my school bus. Like any other child present, I was grossed out, but didn’t think much of it, until the next day when I was frightened to go to school. I stayed home for the next 3 days, convincing myself that I might get sick if I went to school.

When I finally returned to school, I began to see my school guidance counselor, and by "see" I mean I would avoid any situations that made me nervous by heading to her office, after I had exhausted my nurse visits.

When my situation wasn’t improving, I was sent to the school psychologist, who threw around the idea of putting me on medication to alleviate my anxiety. Markman explains,

"...it’s not clear what tips the balance between the normal responses to anxiety, which is triggered by aspects of the environment, and more general anxiety and depression. For people really suffering, though, medication can be an important part of the treatment process. It’s hard to work on changing thought patterns and responses to the environment when suffering from extreme anxiety.”

If given the chance, I probably would’ve chosen to go on medication as my anxiety was truly affecting my day-to-day life, but my parents were convinced I could work throughout it on my own.

I experienced a slight setback when my guidance counselor, whom I had begun to really trust and rely on, left the school. So, I began to see a therapist outside of school, who got me to start meditating to help keep my anxiety at bay. With time, it helped to keep me in my classes—but I still couldn’t help feeling confused and depressed about what was going on inside my body, when all my friends were going on to do normal teenage things.

With time, my parents and my therapist helped me to develop coping mechanisms to get me through my everyday life as an anxiety-ridden teenager. I always kept a pack of Altoid mints close to me when I was convinced I felt sick to my stomach.

When I had to deliver a presentation in front of the class, I would ask my teacher if I could go first, which was daunting on its own but gave me less time to sit through class with my heart pounding out of my chest. I meditated at night, and visualized doing whatever was causing me stress. My mother was also a constant reminder that I was capable of being stronger than the bad thoughts inside my head. I really relied on these “safety behaviors” as Markman describes them.

"Carrying Xanax is one kind of safety behavior," the doctor explains, "In its most extreme form, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) involves elaborate safety-behavior routines that someone performs to help them reduce their anxiety. The potential problem with safety behaviors is that people learn that the behavior is the thing that gets them through the fear, rather than facing the anxiety-provoking situation itself."

However, my mother really pushed me to face my fears. By my freshman year of high school, after several years of avoiding the school bus, my mother made a deal that if I could get on the school bus, she would continue to drive me every morning—and I got on it.

When I got older, I eventually turned to Xanax as my big-girl coping mechanism, simply carrying the pills with me translated to a king of "safety behavior." Aside from performing, speaking in front of a class, and vomiting (also referred to as emetophobia), I was also extremely afraid of airplanes.

I spent many years avoiding any situations that would involve traveling by plane—I never studied abroad in college or went on spring break with my friends. I only got on a plane when absolutely necessary, i.e. my brother’s wedding and the birth of his first child—to which I spent most of the flights with my head in my mother’s lap, in tears.

It wasn’t until I got the opportunity to fly to Miami for Art Basel in 2012 for a work assignment that I realized I needed to make an honest effort to kick my anxiety. I hadn’t been on a plane in almost 3 years, and the week leading up to the flight was completely agonizing. I would lay awake in the middle of the night thinking about my impending trip.

Eventually, I got to the airport—with my mother along for the ride because, at 25, I had still never been on a plane by myself. I secured a prescription to the benzodiazepines from my physician, and it really helped. It didn’t change the negative thoughts in my head that something terrible would happen to my airplane, but it sedated me. I felt a little more calm and my heart wasn’t racing during the entire journey.

I realized, like my other fears that I had conquered, it would only get better with practice. So, I made a conscious effort to face my fears with small steps. I traveled with friends that I felt comfortable with, across country, eventually working my way up to an international flight, all with the help of Xanax.

A year after my first trip to Art Basel, I was set to return again for work, but this time I would fly alone, and when I got to the airport, I was anxious but I didn’t feel the need to take my Xanax. I knew at that point I could survive a two and a half hour flight chemical-free.

I’m finishing this story as I am embarking on my second cross-Atlantic journey sans Xanax (but I still keep it in my bag just in case, of course—safety behaviors can work). I would never say that I’ve "conquered" my flying-induced anxiety, I believe that I will have it for as long as I live, planes are just unsettling. However, I know that I have a handle on my chronic anxiety, and I don’t let it stop me from doing the things I need and want to do.

Looking back on the past 14 years as an anxiety sufferer, I’m amazed at the progress I’ve made, and thankful that I had the support of family, several therapists, and very understanding friends to get me through very challenging times.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the Teen Brain

From Psych Central

By Janet Singer
May 19, 2014

When my son Dan was at a residential treatment program to battle his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, my husband and I were encouraged by the staff there to let him make his own major life decisions, without any input from us.

This didn’t make sense to us and we consulted Dan’s therapist outside of the program, who said, “But he’s only 19. His frontal lobe development won’t even be complete until he’s 24. Of course he needs your guidance with these decisions.”

Specifically, Dan had decided to leave college so he could stay “as long as possible” at the residential treatment program. Thankfully, we did intervene, and Dan left the program after a nine-week stay. He returned to college.

Before this discussion with my son’s therapist, I had never realized there is a biological reason why teens and young adults think and act the way they do, often exasperating their parents. The frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that typically ask: “Is this a good idea? What is the consequence of this action?” are not fully connected in teens and young adults.

My guess is anyone who has parented a teenager is now nodding his or her head in agreement. Now that I understand a little more about brain development in teens, I realize they actually have somewhat of an excuse for acting the way they do.

So what does this mean for teens and young adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder? Well, not only are these young people battling OCD, they are also dealing with their not-yet-completely developed brains. Both of these factors often involve a lack of good judgment as well as the inability to make smart decisions.

It’s a double whammy. And for parents and other loved ones of teens suffering from OCD, it can also be doubly challenging. In Dan’s case, we were fortunate he was never an antagonistic teen, but I still often found myself shaking my head in disbelief: “What was he thinking?” Was it his OCD or his age that caused him to think and act a certain way? Was it both? Or neither? Who knows?

Decision-making and impaired judgment are not the only deficits experienced by a “young” brain. I’ve previously written about the fact that teens experience more difficulty in overcoming fear than adults and children. This finding might help explain the surge in anxiety and stress-related disorders during adolescence, as there is actually a physiological reason why teenagers do not handle stress well.

Not surprisingly, this can acutely affect their OCD, as well as their treatment success. Of course, if OCD is present and diagnosed in childhood, treatment early on can help ease the chaos of the teen years.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that we should not automatically “blame” OCD for all the frustrating behavior in teens and young adults with the disorder. I actually find that comforting in a way; some of the baffling behavior our teens and young adults exhibit should diminish with age. And the rest?

Well, hopefully, exposure and response prevention therapy, the frontline treatment for OCD, will do the trick.


Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder.

Janet has been published on various mental health sites, and also has her own blog at ocdtalk.wordpress.com, where she shares Dan’s story and talks about anything related to OCD. She is married with three children and lives in Massachusetts.


Singer, J. (2014). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the Teen Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 20, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-and-the-teen-brain/00019520

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Brain Training Seen as Dud for Attention-Deficit Children

From Bloomberg.com

By Laura Colby
May 21, 2014

Robin Hansen was hoping to help her son pass a community-college baking course when she heard about Cogmed software.

Hansen paid a psychologist $1,500 for the five-week training program, sold as a learning and memory aid. Her son, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, worked 50 minutes, five days a week, on Cogmed’s memory tasks.

The psychologist detected gains from Cogmed, but they weren’t obvious “and didn’t translate into any real-world skills,” said Hansen, a design engineer in San Francisco. Her son, Warren Leon, failed the baking class, denying him the certificate he wanted to become a pastry apprentice.

“I felt devastated,” said Leon, now 23. Two years after the Cogmed course, he is attending a school for adults and children with learning difficulties.

Students use the Cogmed Working Memory Training program
with Special Education teacher...
 Read More

As U.S. sales of Cogmed are increasing, so are questions about the effectiveness of the software, sold by U.K.-based publisher Pearson Plc (PSON) through psychologists and to schools.

At least three studies or multi-study overviews published in peer-reviewed journals since 2012 have called Cogmed ineffective for ADHD. A fourth review included Cogmed with other products, and found the group ineffective.

Anil Chacko, a professor of psychology at Queens
College in New York, led one of the...
Read More

Some 6.4 million U.S. children have been diagnosed with ADHD, defined as persistent inattention or hyperactivity that impairs learning or socialization.

Brain Training

The recent research suggests that some parents and schools using an emerging array of “brain training” programs to battle the condition are finding disappointment, as the Hansens did.

On its website, Pearson says Cogmed is “proven to increase working memory, which underlies attention, behavior, and the capacity to learn.” The company lists dozens of published studies on Cogmed on the site -- both pro and con -- and cites its own 2012 analysis of research to back its claims.

Working with psychologists, “80 percent of Cogmed end-users report they experience improvements in inattention by 30 percent on average,” the company said in a statement. “Cogmed has therapeutic utility for persons with ADHD,” the statement said. Lynne Baldwin, the psychologist who worked with Warren Leon, declined to comment.

Cogmed is part of a $1 billion brain-training market, according to SharpBrains, a San Francisco research house that forecasts growth to $6 billion by 2020.

Growing Market

Most of the purveyors, including the widely advertised Lumosity website, are oriented toward general consumers for self-help such as memory improvement. Part of the market, occupied by Cogmed and others, caters to psychologists, families and schools dealing with learning disorders and attention-deficit problems.

One of the latest studies in the field said that Cogmed should not be used to treat ADHD children. The study, led by Anil Chacko, a psychology professor at Queens College in New York, appeared in the March issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Chacko’s look at 85 children had “statistical power,” was 50 percent larger than most previous studies and “marks a significant point” in research on the product, according to an editorial by Susan Gathercole, a cognitive psychologist at Cambridge University in England.

Eleven percent of U.S. kids between 4 and 17 had an ADHD diagnosis in 2012, up from 7.8 percent in 2003, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Ritalin’s Role

At least half of the children with ADHD have other learning or developmental problems, making treatment more difficult, according to Susanna Visser, who studies the attention condition for the CDC.

As ADHD cases multiply, so does interest in potential software-based treatments, according to SharpBrains. It estimates that sales of programs aimed at learning disabilities, including Cogmed, will triple to about $600 million in 2020 from $210 million in 2013.

Pearson declined to disclose sales of Cogmed, other than to say they are growing in the U.S. The company, which publishes the Financial Times, competes with Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, in providing business news and information.

The standard treatments for children with ADHD include therapy to modify behavior and stimulant medications such as Ritalin. Not all children benefit from the drugs and there has been debate over their side effects, potential abuse and over-prescription. Psychologists say Cogmed should be used as a supplement to other treatments.

Green Aliens

“At no time should Cogmed replace medication,” said Sheldon Kaplan, a psychologist in Jacksonville, Florida, who has used Cogmed with patients. Chacko said his study took into account whether children were on medication or not -– about 30 percent were -- and found no difference in results.

Cogmed runs like a series of video games, without the flashy design and rapid-fire action of Grand Theft Auto and its ilk. Accompanied by a cartoon-robot guide, users have to blast moving asteroids in a certain order, whack green aliens or remember the sequence of blinking lights on a cube rotating in outer space. A narrator praises users when they do well, and the game gets harder. After mistakes, it gets easier.

Parents are urged to offer stickers or treats to get children to complete the training. Psychologists can monitor the patient’s progress in real time online.

Brain Buzz

“It’s like a gym for the brain,” said Heather Goldman, a psychologist in New York City who charges $2,250 for the training, including weekly meetings with patients.

Cogmed’s sales will grow to more than $15 million this year, which will make it the largest brain-training product aimed at learning difficulties, overtaking Scientific Learning Corp. (SCIL)’s Fast ForWord software, according to Alvaro Fernandez, the chief executive officer of SharpBrains. Scientific Learning declined to comment.

Sellers of these products say they promote neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change -- for better or worse -- over a lifespan. Neuroplasticity is real, but not all of the claims made in the marketplace are, some research scientists said.

“It’s such a buzzword right now,” said Tom Redick, a psychology professor at Purdue University who studies working memory. He said he isn’t involved with any commercial products.

Digital Strategy

Pearson bought Cogmed in 2010 from Sweden’s Karolinska Development AB (KDEV), a commercial arm of the Stockholm research institute of the same name. The price was less than $100 million, according to J. Travis Millman, vice president for new business and innovation at Pearson’s clinical assessment group.

Though that’s relatively small for Pearson, whose sales last year were 5.18 billion pounds ($8.72 billion), Cogmed fits with the company’s strategy of moving into digital products and services to reduce reliance on printed media.

The shift is especially important in the U.S., where declining college enrollments have squeezed textbook sales. North American education accounted for about 55 percent of Pearson’s revenue and 61 percent of operating profit in 2013.

The company gets 13 percent of its profit from testing for K-12 students, including assessments used to measure ADHD symptoms, according to Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie Capital USA in New York. Cogmed is sold both by Pearson salespeople that market clinical assessments to psychologists and by those that offer educational products to schools, according to Mark Yaphe, general manager for the product.

Psychologist Fees

The U.S. is Cogmed’s fastest-growing market, according to SharpBrains. Pearson sells licenses for the software to between 500 and 1,000 psychologists in the U.S., for prices of about $100-$200 per patient, practitioners said. They said they charge patients between $650 and $2,250 for Cogmed training, including testing and supervision services.

Pearson’s Millman said the company has stepped up marketing to schools in the past year. Schools pay a price per student similar to the licensing fee for psychological patients, Millman said.

Cogmed has drawn research interest partly because it targets working memory, which is like a mental jotting pad needed to remember and manipulate information for performing complex tasks such as math problems or analytical reasoning.

Working memory is regarded by psychologists as essential for academic success. Pearson’s meta-analysis in 2012 covering research until then found average gains of 26 percent in tests of visuo-spatial working memory and 23 percent in verbal working memory.

Far Transfer

Chacko said these measurements don’t reflect true working memory. Children in his study showed no improvement in reading, math or spelling. “Our data suggest that Cogmed really only improves the more basic, and arguably less important, short-term memory on tasks that closely resemble Cogmed training tasks,” Chacko said.

Scientists call this divide the difference between near transfer and far transfer.

To explain the terms, Zach Shipstead, a professor at Arizona State University who published a critical review of Cogmed in 2012, used an analogy to music. Someone who trains on the piano might get better on the organ -- an example of near transfer, he said. To see whether they gained more broadly and achieved far transfer, “you should be testing them on a drum set or a tuba,” he said.

Unblinded Ratings

When it comes to showing whether Cogmed users attain far transfer, “the research is less mature in that area,” Pearson’s Millman said.

Psychologists and school officials who have adopted Cogmed said in interviews that surveys of parents and their own impressions of patients after training showed the program works.

Some scientists say these reports are questionable because there is a well-known bias at work when evaluators know their subjects received the training being studied. For that reason, rigorous studies often keep evaluators in the dark about which study subjects received a treatment, and which didn’t.

Mark Rapport at the University of Central Florida found that “unblinded raters reported significantly larger benefits” of working memory programs, including Cogmed, in a review published last year of 25 research papers.

“People have a tendency to look for behaviors that confirm their expectations,” Shipstead said, especially if they are working with the child or have paid for the training.

Web Testimonials

Cogmed’s website features testimonials from school special-education staff who have tried the program. In at least two of the cases cited, the districts where Cogmed was used have discontinued it.

Rhonda Cunningham is quoted on the site saying Cogmed “was very, very successful” in an experiment with five learning-disabled children in the Natalia Independent School District in Texas. Cunningham, formerly a psychologist in the district, wrote her doctoral dissertation at Walden University, an online college, on a dozen Natalia special-education students who later used Cogmed.

The dissertation reported results similar to Chacko’s -- improvement on some kinds of working memory but no change in academic performance. In an interview, Cunningham said three-quarters of the dozen students made academic gains that came several months later, too late for the dissertation.

Natalia has no further plans to use Cogmed, said Melissa Cortez, the district’s special-education facilitator. She said she didn’t know whether the program worked.

Mixing Strategies

Others say ADHD students using Cogmed in combination with other strategies have improved. Ninth graders in the Digital Literacy class in Bay Village City Schools, near Cleveland, typically average a sixth-grade reading level when they start the school year and improve by three grade levels by the end, according to Barbara Marsh, who teaches the course.

About seven or eight of the 30 kids in the class, which uses Cogmed and other interventions, have an ADHD diagnosis. Each year, about half of the ADHD students improve to normal level, according to Richard Bogielski, the school psychologist.

“I can’t say we could draw a causative link” to Cogmed, he said. “It’s one of the ingredients.”

Goldman, the New York psychologist, said she trains about 20 children a year on Cogmed and finds it difficult to attribute their improvements solely to the program. Between the therapy, medication and online training used on her patients, “it’s hard to tell what’s what,” she said.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, Warren Leon said he’s looking forward to finishing the school year. Once it ends in June, he said he’ll spend summer vacation with his family before figuring out what to do next. He has no plans to try to take the baking course again. “I’m afraid of having a repeat performance,” he said.

Why Children Can't See What's Right in Front of Them

From BBC News - Health

By Philippa Roxby
Health Reporter, BBC News

May 24, 2014

Scientists say there is an explanation for (most) children ignoring their parents when they're busy.

It is an experience as familiar as it is frustrating to many parents and teachers - getting children to pay attention to simple instructions while they are engrossed in watching television, playing a game or reading a book.

Such is their ability to ignore what is happening outside their immediate focus that even talking through a megaphone would have little effect on their responsiveness.

But scientists believe there is actually a reason for their lack of awareness, which is linked to how the brain develops.

"A child trying to zip up their coat while crossing the road may not be able to notice oncoming traffic, whereas a developed adult mind would have no problem.”
--Professor Nilli Lavie, University College London

They say children are not intentionally ignoring us; in fact, they are experiencing inattentional blindness.

This blindness is the difference between looking and seeing what is actually there, between hearing and registering what is really said. The result is a lack of awareness, especially outside the immediate focus of attention.

According to Professor Nilli Lavie, from University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, children have much less peripheral awareness than adults.

"Parents and carers should know that even focusing on something simple will make children less aware of their surroundings, compared to adults.

"For example, a child trying to zip up their coat while crossing the road may not be able to notice oncoming traffic, whereas a developed adult mind would have no problem with this.

"The capacity for awareness outside the focus of attention develops with age, so younger children are at higher risk of inattentional blindness."

Prof Lavie's views are based on an experiment she carried out recently to test levels of inattentional blindness in children and adults. She asked more than 200 visitors to the Science Museum, in London, to judge which line on a screen was the longest in seven different examples.

On one screen a black square flashed up and participants were asked whether they noticed it or not.

While 90% of the adults were able to spot the black square most of the time, children performed far worse, with fewer than 10% of seven to 10-year-olds spotting the square.

Eleven to 14-year-olds also showed lower awareness and that awareness decreased as the difficulty of the task increased.

Don't try and engage us in conversation, we're concentrating.

"I didn't expect the older children would also suffer from inattentional blindness.”
--Professor Nillie Lavie, University College London

This was a finding that surprised Professor Lavie.

She says: "In children, the primary visual cortex wasn't responding to the object on the screen and this appears to develop with age, until 14 and beyond. But I didn't expect the older children would also suffer from inattentional blindness. It would be interesting to see at what point they fully develop."

Previous research in adult brains suggests that the primary visual cortex is the part of the brain responsible for perceiving things, because if this area is damaged then people tend to experience less peripheral awareness.

There are obvious safety implications to this delayed development. Something as simple as texting while crossing the road becomes much more dangerous if awareness is impaired, for example.

But there are upsides to inattentional blindness too.

Who wants to be distracted by anything and everything around us? Surely a lack of peripheral awareness means we can retain our focus and concentrate.

Psychologists argue that we all have a limited capacity for attention, to some degree, and when carrying out very demanding tasks, it's a trait that is necessary.

Richard Wiseman, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, has studied human visual processing in great detail and describes it as "enormously complicated".

"Big parts of the brain are dedicated to it. It's very difficult, so we don't want to be processing stuff that's not important.

"That's why you need inattentional blindness, otherwise you'd not be able to focus - and that's not a good way of getting through the world."

Because the brain gives us the illusion it is constantly monitoring everything, he says, we are surprised when we don't notice something obvious.

Professor Wiseman has used and refashioned the now famous selective attention test, first created by Daniel Simons, to demonstrate how easy it is to miss the presence of a gorilla in a video.

While watching the video, people are asked to concentrate on something else, in this instance on the number of times a ball is passed between people playing basketball.

"As adults we are constantly learning what is not important, so maybe we are more likely to get tripped up."
--Professor Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire

In another test, he asks people to concentrate on a card trick. During the trick, certain background items change colour, but few people notice because they are focused on the cards.

Prof Wiseman says creative people are likely to be better at spotting things than others, whereas individuals who feel anxious or worried about the task are less likely to notice the gorilla in the room.

He says there are many occasions in life when we miss the blindingly obvious just because we are totally focused on another problem. Car drivers have said they didn't see the pedestrian because they were looking out for other hazards, for example, and airline pilots have missed warning lights in the cockpit because they were busy dealing with other issues.

"As an adult we are constantly learning what is not important, so maybe we are more likely to get tripped up," Prof Wiseman surmises.

When it comes to inattentional blindness, we are all prone to it, we all complain about it and yet it is essential to everyday life.

Just don't expect your children to be happy when your focus on the television renders them invisible.