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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

In Defense of Snow Days

From EducationNext

By Joshua Goodman
March 26, 2015

Students who stay home when school is in session are a much larger problem.

In snowy climes, school superintendents must frequently decide whether an impending storm warrants closing schools for the day. Concerns about student and teacher safety must be weighed against the loss of student learning time, along with state requirements for days of instruction and the cost and inconvenience of extending the school year into the summer.

This calculus assumes, based on evidence of various kinds, that school hours lost to snow days equal lost student learning. Studies show that highly effective charter schools, for instance, tend to have longer school days and years than traditional public schools, and that increased instructional time is correlated with higher school effectiveness even within the charter sector.

Other studies have shown that schools fare worse on state tests in years in which they experience more weather-related school closings, seemingly providing direct evidence that closings reduce student learning (see Time for School research, Winter, 2010).

Discussion of instructional time loss, however, has rarely focused on individual student attendance, a surprising omission given that the average American student misses more than two weeks of school every year. While most absences are the result of illness or disengagement from school, some reflect the decision to stay home when the weather is bad, even though schools remain open.

In addition to reducing instructional time, student absences may impede the learning process by forcing teachers to split their time between students who have and have not missed the previous day’s lessons.

This study provides a fresh look at the impact of instructional time lost due to weather-related student absences, as well as to school closings. Using student-level data from Massachusetts, I find that each one-day increase in the student absence rate driven by bad weather reduces math achievement by up to 5 percent of a standard deviation, suggesting that differences in average student attendance may account for as much as one-quarter of the income-based achievement gap in the state.

Conversely, instructional time lost to weather-related school closings has no impact on student test scores.

What could explain these apparently conflicting results? It appears that teachers and schools are well prepared to deal with coordinated disruptions of instructional time like snow days but not with absences of different students at different times.

In short, individual absences and not school closings are responsible for the achievement impacts of bad weather.

Studying Instructional Disruptions

The major challenge of studying the effect of disruptions to instructional time on student achievement is that students and schools with high absence and closing rates are likely to differ in unobserved ways from those with low absence and closing rates. Simply comparing the test scores of students who are absent more and less often, for example, would ignore factors such as students’ health or family background that affect both academic performance and attendance rates.

In the same way, school districts that close school more often may have other policies in place that would lead to performance differences.

One way to overcome this challenge is to take advantage of weather patterns that affect instructional time. Although students have been known to pray for snow days, the amount of snow that falls in a given time and place is outside of their control. It is of course possible that regions that consistently receive more snow than others may differ in unobserved ways that are related to their achievement. Yet the amount of snow a given school experiences often varies a great deal from one year to the next.

This makes it possible to compare the performance of individual schools in years they experience an unusually large amount of snow to their performance in years they experience very little.

This is the strategy I implement, using data from Massachusetts spanning the years 2003 to 2010. In particular, I compare how students in a particular grade in a particular school fared on the state tests in years when winter weather resulted in numerous student absences and school cancellations to the test results for students in that same grade and school in years when the winter was milder and resulted in fewer absences and cancellations.

Massachusetts is an ideal state to conduct a study of weather-related absences and school closings as the amount of snowfall varies widely from year to year and across the state. Indeed, the average number of days with more than four inches of snowfall experienced by schools in the state during the study period ranged from just a single day in 2007 to nearly five days in 2005. In some years, the Boston area was hardest hit, while in others more snow fell in the Berkshire Mountains to the west.

As in most states, school closings in Massachusetts are at the discretion of the superintendent, who generally consults the weather forecast, neighboring superintendents, and other local officials before making a decision. Superintendents are typically reluctant to call a snow day for a number of reasons. Parents of school-age children may struggle to make child-care arrangements when schools close unexpectedly.

Massachusetts law requires all schools to provide 180 days of instruction. When schools close too often during the winter, instructional days must be added to the calendar in June. Because the state’s standardized tests are administered in the spring, snow days also reduce the amount of instructional time that schools have to prepare students for the tests.

Substantial gains in instructional time may be made
by simply improving school attendance.


Because the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not collect information on school closings, I solicited it from the state’s roughly 350 school districts individually, by e-mail and phone, with priority given to collecting data from the largest districts. I was ultimately able to obtain annual data on the number of school closings between 2003 and 2010 from districts serving more than half the students in the state.

Snowfall data come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Data Online. NOAA records daily weather data, including snowfall, rainfall, and minimum and maximum temperatures, all of which are captured by dozens of sensors scattered across the state. By mapping schools’ latitude and longitude, I assigned each to its closest weather sensor. This allowed the construction of annual measures of snowfall that are specific to each school.

My main analysis sample includes all students in Massachusetts public schools from 2003 to 2010 with valid state test scores in math or English language arts (ELA) from districts that reported a complete annual history of school closings. Student-level data on demographics, attendance, and achievement come from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Specifically, the data include student gender, race/ethnicity, family income as indicated by free or reduced-price lunch eligibility, special education status, and current grade.

A little more than one-third of the students are from low-income families. More than two-thirds are white, while 11 percent are black, 14 percent are Hispanic, and 6 percent are Asian.

I calculate student absences as the difference between the number of days a student was enrolled in school and the number of days a student actually attended school. The data do not include specific dates of student absences, so daily weather patterns cannot be linked to daily attendance. All analysis is therefore done at the annual level.

The data include students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which is given annually in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10 in mathematics and ELA. The ELA tests are typically administered during a two-week window in late March to early April and the math tests in mid- to late May. Although my annual measure of absences may therefore overstate the number of absences that could affect test performance, the weather-related absences that are the focus of the analysis almost always occur prior to these test-administration windows.

A Blizzard of Absences

The average Massachusetts student is absent 8 school days per year, but student absences vary by poverty status, grade, and race. In the sample of students used in my analysis, poor students are absent 10 days per year on average, 3 days more than nonpoor students. There are also striking differences by race in the average number of absences. Black and Hispanic students are absent 9 and 10 school days a year, respectively, compared to 5 days for Asian and about 8 days for white students.

In contrast, the average student misses just two days a year due to weather-related closings, a figure which does not differ notably across student groups. For most students, then, the amount of instruction time lost to absences dwarfs that lost to closings (see Figure 1).

The first step in my analysis is to determine how both student absences and school closings are affected by snowfall. In doing so, I distinguish between moderately snowy days, in which a school received at least 4 but fewer than 10 inches of snow, and days when more than 10 inches fell. To discern the effects of both kinds of days, I compare students attending the same school and grade in different years and adjust for the average amount of snow experienced in a given year statewide.

I find that each extra day with at least 4 but fewer than 10 inches of snow leads to just .04 additional school closings but .08 additional student absences (see Figure 2). The size of the latter effect implies that, for a classroom of 25 students, each additional moderately snowy day would result in about two students more being absent. Each day with snowfall of 10 inches or more, in contrast, leads to .51 additional closings.

Controlling for the number of moderately snowy days, however, heavy snow leaves student absences unaffected, since all students are generally out of school.

Snowy days thus affect instructional time through two channels. Some result in school closings, in which all students miss school. On other, less snowy days, schools typically remain open but a subset of students remains home. With information on the number of moderate and heavy snow days that schools experience each year, it is possible to disentangle the effects of absences and closings on student achievement.

Absences, Closings, and Student Achievement

I find that absences cause sharp reductions in math achievement. When the average student in a given grade and school is absent one additional day over the course of a year, average math achievement in that grade falls by 5 percent of a standard deviation, a large effect, roughly equivalent to 6 percent of the gap in math performance between low-income and nonpoor students in Massachusetts.

Given that the typical low-income student is absent three more days each year than a nonpoor student, this result suggests that student absences could account for as much as one-quarter of the income-based achievement gap in the state.

The estimated impact on ELA performance, while negative, is smaller and statistically insignificant (see Figure 3).

The larger impact of absences on math performance may be because in math, much more so than in ELA, understanding the current topic depends on having understood prior topics. Teachers may feel more obligated during math instructional time to try to catch up students who have been absent, thus depriving the rest of the class of instructional time. If teachers don’t review for those students, their days missed may have long-run effects, as they lose mastery of both the material presented in their absence and the material presented subsequently. Missing an ELA lesson may not have as deep an impact on a student’s ability to learn from subsequent lessons.

Because my analysis relates average achievement levels in a given school and grade to overall absence rates, the effects of absences on math achievement could be driven by students’ own absences or those of their peers. I suspect that both factors are important. In a separate analysis of the same achievement data, I compare the test scores of specific students to their own test scores in years in which they and their peers were absent more often. I find that student learning in math is equally affected by one’s own lost instructional time and the time lost by one’s peers.

This pattern provides a first suggestion that the harm caused by student absences may stem as much from the challenges frequent absences pose for teachers as from the instructional time lost by the specific students missing class.

School closings, in contrast, have no effect at all on student achievement for the sample as a whole, in either math or ELA. I find that school closings do appear to reduce performance in both subjects in schools serving predominantly low-income students, but the effect is smaller than .02 standard deviations for each day lost. In the main, then, it appears that individual student absences and not school closings are responsible for the achievement impacts of bad weather and that the magnitude of the estimated impact of absences on math achievement is substantial.

These findings, that weather-related school closings have little impact on student achievement, appear to conflict with those of a number of previous studies, which may have painted an incomplete picture of the relationship between bad weather, lost instructional time, and achievement. Finding a correlation between bad weather and declines in student achievement, prior researchers assumed that the effect runs through school closings.

This analysis distinguishes between the effects of school closings and of individual student absences and finds the latter to be the culprit in lowering student test scores.


In short, the impact of lost instructional time depends on the particular form of the time lost. Student absences sharply reduce student achievement, particularly in math, but school closings appear to have little impact. These findings should not be taken to mean that instructional time does not matter for student learning; the bulk of the evidence suggests it does.

A more likely explanation is that schools and teachers are well prepared to deal with the coordinated disruptions caused by snow days—much more so than they are to handle the less dramatic but more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance.

This result may seem intuitive to teachers, who are familiar with the management challenges of instructing students at different levels of preparation. When a few students miss a day or more of instruction, the teacher can review the recently presented material for those students who missed it, in which case the absent students’ peers lose out on valuable instructional time, or she may move forward with new material and risk having the absent students fall behind.

School closings, conversely, present no such coordination challenge. All students miss the exact same lesson, allowing the teacher to easily plan for ways to compensate. The lost time will have no effect on students’ standardized test scores so long as the teacher redirects time from nontested subjects or material to compensate for the missed lesson on tested material. If lessons on nontested material can be postponed, compressed, or eliminated altogether, school closings will not affect student test scores.

The fact that changes in student absence rates are strongly associated with changes in student achievement demonstrates that instructional time lost to these student-level disruptions matters for student learning. Increasing instructional time does not necessarily require lengthening the school day or year. Substantial gains may be made by simply improving student attendance.

The negative achievement impacts associated with student absences imply that schools and teachers are not well prepared to deal with the more frequent disruptions caused by poor student attendance. Schools and teachers may benefit from investing in strategies to compensate for these disruptions, including the use of self-paced learning technologies that shift the classroom model to one in which all students need not learn the same lesson at the same time.

In the meantime, superintendents watching the weather forecast should consider erring on the side of cancellation when an impending storm is likely to be severe enough to substantially disrupt student attendance. Their decisions may not please working parents scrambling to arrange child care. (As a Boston-area parent, I speak from experience.)

But closing school for everyone appears to be better for student learning than adding to the challenges posed by American students’ already low attendance rates.


Joshua Goodman is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Monday, March 30, 2015

April 13th: The Discovery Museums 2015 Speaker Series - N.Y. Times Columnist Frank Bruni on College Admissions Mania

From The Discovery Museums

March 26, 2015

From Diapers to Diploma:
A Healthier Way to
Navigate Your Child's Path to College

Monday, April 13, 2015 — 6:30 to 8:30pm

R.J. Grey Junior High School Auditorium
16 Charter Road, Acton, MA

Increasingly, American parents start worrying about college admissions when their children are barely out of diapers. And by middle school, kids have been thrust into the competition for the Ivy Leagues. But that's a dangerous game, one that teaches kids a curious set of values, sets too many of them up for disappointment and perverts the true purpose of education.

It's also built on a myth: that success hinges on going to a highly selective school.

Frank Bruni will talk about a better, healthier way to think about and approach all of this, distilling the research, life stories and advice in his new book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," being published on March 17th.

This event is free of charge but pre-registration is required.

Register HERE.

Copies of "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania" will be on sale at the event thanks to The Concord Bookshop, and Frank Bruni will be signing copies following his presentation. Come prepared to purchase your copy!

Light refreshments will be served.

About Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times since 2011, joined the newspaper in 1995 and has ranged broadly across its pages. He has been both a White House correspondent and the chief restaurant critic.

Mr. Bruni is the author of two New York Times best sellers: a 2009 memoir "Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite," about the joys and torments of his eating life, and a 2002 chronicle of George W. Bush's initial presidential campaign, "Ambling into History." His new book "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," is being published in March, 2015.

Mr. Bruni grew up in White Plains, N.Y. and Avon, Connecticut. He is a 1986 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned a B.A. in English. He earned an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University in 1988, graduating second in his class and winning a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.

Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn

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

By Katrina Schwartz
March 26, 2015

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head...”

When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand. Researchers have found that when students use their bodies while doing mathematical storytelling (like with word problems, for example), it changes the way they think about math.

“We understand language in a richer, fuller way if we can connect it to the actions we perform,” said Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.

Consider this word problem:

Two hippos and two alligators are at the zoo. Pete the zookeeper feeds them at the same time. Pete gives each hippo seven fish. He gives four to the alligators.

In an experiment on third graders, students were divided into two groups. One group read through the problem twice. The other group acted out the story as they read it, physically pretending to feed fish to the hippos and alligators as they read the problem. Both groups of students were asked how many fish the zookeeper fed to the animals.

The answer:

“Kids who acted out the story did better on this problem,” Beilock said. The kids who read the problem often got “eleven” as a solution. They had missed the word “each” in the problem. But because the acting kids had physically mimed giving each hippo seven fish before moving on, the difference was ingrained.

“What was important was matching the words with specific action; that led to enhanced learning,” Beilock said. “And after they’d acted it out they could actually do it in their head and get some of the same benefits.”

The Body and the Brain

Scholarly study goes back a long time in history, but in terms of human evolution, many of the academic skills now required for successful functioning in the world are fairly new to the human brain. As neuroscientists investigate how humans learn, they often find that newer skills and aptitudes are mapped onto areas of the brain that also control basic body functions. Increasingly, this work is helping to illuminate neurological connections between the human body, its environment and the process of learning.

“In order to really engage our students and help them perform at their best we have to move beyond what’s happening in the head,” said Beilock at a Learning and the Brain conference. “We have to go beyond that.”



This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1966 book The Secret of Childhood:

“Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

Increasingly scientists are proving Montessori right. Researchers are studying the body movements of children as young as four-to-six months old and have found earlier and more frequent movement correlates with academic learning down the road. Kids who could sit up, sustain “tummy time” longer and walk were all correlated with future academic success, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomics, family education and type of future education, among other mitigating factors.

“A very strong predictor of academic achievement was how early kids were moving, exploring their world,” Beilock said. “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change.”

Once kids are on the move the adults in their lives use directives and other more complicated language forms. As kids are coached by their parents, they begin to understand the directions and change behaviors. And once a child can do something on her own, she’s more likely to internalize what’s happening with others.

“There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain,” Beilock said.“Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn.”

As young children move and explore their worlds, they are learning through touch. Early bimanual training correlates with the robustness of the corpus callosum, a part of the brain that facilitates quick communication between the left and right brain hemispheres, Beilock said. This connection between using ones hands and swift communication in the brain may be part of the reason learning to play music is often correlated with math ability.

“Math is a very recent cultural invention,” Beilock said. The part of the brain responsible for numerical representation also controls finger motion. Many children first learn to count on their fingers, a physical manifestation of the connection. The studies of very young learners have solidified Beilock’s conviction that academic learning is inherently connected to the body.

Gesturing to Learn

A colleague of Beilock’s at the University of Chicago, Susan Goldin-Meadow has done extensive research into how student gestures can indicate a more nuanced understanding of math than students are often able to articulate verbally. Goldin-Meadow did a lot of work around problems of equivalence, which children often struggle to understand.

She found that often students gesture in ways that indicate they understand how to solve the problem even if they are simultaneously describing an incorrect solution.

“It’s particularly helpful for teachers because it may give you insight into things students may not be able to express,” said Goldin-Meadow at the same conference. Not only could gestures be a good clue for teachers, but when students produce what Goldin-Meadow calls “mismatches,” meaning they are saying one thing and gesturing a different understanding, it indicates they are primed to learn.

And, when teachers produce “mismatches” in their own speech and gestures, it helps students already in that primed state to learn by offering several strategies.

“Encouraging kids to use their hands brings out unsaid, and often correct ideas, which then makes them more open to instruction and more likely to learn,” Goldin-Meadow said. She also found that showing two ways of doing a problem with speech had very little effect on learning, but showing two methods when one was in gesture helped learners.

And the connection between bodies and learning doesn’t stop with the younger grades. Beilock studies how well students comprehend abstract concepts in high school physics. Many classes focus on listening to lecture, reading a textbook and doing physics problems. Beilock hypothesized that if students could feel an abstract concept like angular momentum on their bodies, they would both understand and remember it better.

She and her colleagues used a rod with two bicycle wheels attached to test their ideas. Students spun the wheels and then tilted the rod in different directions. As they changed the angle, the force they felt changed dramatically. In her experiment, one set of students got to hold and experience the wheel. Another group just watched the first group and observed the effects they were feeling. They were all quizzed on the material a week later.

“Those students who had more motor activation did better on the test,” Beilock said. “And those students were the ones who got the experience.” But what if one set of students was just better at physics? Researchers at DePaul University have replicated this experiment, strengthening the scientific link between hands-on experimentation and powerful learning.

Environment Matters

Just as body movement and involvement can have a huge impact on learning, so too can the spaces where we learn. While neuroscientists are starting to be able to prove this link with their experiments, this concept is nothing new. Philosophers, writers and practitioners of Eastern religions have long made the same connection between the power of nature to relax the mind and readiness to take on the world.

“When we are in nature, our directed attention has time to rest and replenish,” Beilock said. That’s important because focus is like a muscle that gets tired. One researcher asked students to take a walk through the downtown of a college town. They weren’t asked to do anything in particular, but they naturally encountered a lot of stimuli. The other group took a walk in a natural setting. The nature walkers were better able to focus when they returned.

Visual distractions apply to the classroom as well. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

The Body and Anxiety

One way to help students reduce test anxiety is to let them work it out through their bodies beforehand. Beilock did an experiment with freshmen high school students before their first final. She asked them to write down concerns about the test and connect to other times they felt similar. They were told to be as open as they wanted and that their writing would be confidential. A control group of kids was told to think about what wouldn’t be on the test.

This activity had little effect on kids who didn’t experience much test anxiety. But students experiencing high levels of anxiety saw a six percentage point gain on their test scores. And, when Beilock analyzed those students’ writing, she found the strategy was particularly effective for students whose writing revealed an eventual acceptance that the test was a minor hurdle, not the big scary all-consuming event they’d been worried about.

“We can start leveraging the power of our bodies to help us learn, think and perform at our best,” Beilock said. Too often students are cooped up inside for six or more hours, sometimes without an adequate recess, and more likely than not, with little attention paid to how their bodies could be powerful learning tools in the classroom.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

7 Ways to Bring Self-Advocacy to Your Next IEP

From The Friendship Circle Blog

By Karen Wang
March 25, 2015

It’s IEP season. Will your child attend the meeting?

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), children are permitted to attend their own IEPs, “whenever appropriate.” The State Department of Education in Kansas (Note: Massachusetts, too) requires a student to be invited to his or her IEP at age 14 or younger if post-secondary goals or transition services will be discussed.

But much younger students can also benefit greatly from being a part of the IEP process. An increasing number of school districts invite students to make a self-advocacy statement or presentation starting in fourth or fifth grade.

How does that work when the student does not comprehend language well? Or when the student is non-verbal? How can sensitive topics be discussed without upsetting the student?

The truth is that these situations are when self-advocacy is needed the most!

Isn’t Self-Advocacy Out of the Reach of Most Students?

Self-advocacy, especially at an IEP, seems out of reach for many students. How does a person get to the point where it becomes a reality? I know that it took my son several years before he understood what his IEP is and why his opinions are important. I found it necessary to introduce these ideas early and repeat them often so that he would be prepared for transitions to middle school, high school and – in the future – adulthood.

These are some steps that you can take to prepare your child to become a self-advocate, beginning with his or her IEP:
1.) Practice “I” statements. Advocating for oneself means explaining wants, needs, likes and dislikes. The first time my son made a self-advocacy statement at his IEP, it was a simple fill-in-the-blank worksheet with statements such as:
  • My name is _____.
  • I like _____.
  • I don’t like _____.
  • At school, I need _____.
  • At school, I don’t want _____.
  • At home, I want _____.
  • At home, I don’t want _____.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) offers one path to learning how to make these “I” statements. A speech therapist can assist by helping to teach the student how to say, “I need help,” a difficult concept to express on both cognitive and oral-motor levels for some students.

If your student isn’t ready this year to make a self-advocacy statement at the IEP, then first-person statements can be written into the IEP as speech goals or as social-adaptive goals so that he or she will be ready at next year’s IEP.

Indiana University and the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center have self-advocacy checklists with enough goals for 10 years’ worth of IEPs.

2.) Offer choices. Autism Speaks has compiled a self-advocacy guide based on best practices in the field. One of those practices is to teach decision-making by offering choices beginning early in life. For example, “Eggs or cereal for breakfast?”

Over time, these choices turn into a wealth of personal experience that guide future decision-making processes.

3.) Ask for help. Asking for help can be difficult for just about everyone with and without disabilities. But no one is an island, so we all have to ask for help sooner or later – it’s a necessary life skill. Learning how to request assistance – through sign language, AAC or verbally – can be written into the IEP as a social-adaptive goal, and it’s an important step in self-awareness.

4.) Self-disclosure. Does your student know what his or her diagnosis is and how to explain it? Knowing the right time and place to disclose one’s disability, if at all, is a sensitive topic among adults with disabilities.

Self-disclosure is necessary at the doctor’s office and in crisis situations. A medical alert bracelet or necklace can be worn discreetly and shown to community helpers on an as-needed basis. A few individuals give out business cards that explain their special needs.

My son has learned that he is more likely to receive assistance from peers when he self-discloses during recess or transitions at school.

5.) Person-Centered Planning. Person-Centered Planning is a set of processes that helps a person determine his or her desired outcomes in life and to put supports in place so that those outcomes can be achieved. For example, the focus person chooses supportive individuals who can be members of his or her team, and the team works together to identify obstacles and opportunities to help reach the goals of the focus person.

Person-Centered Planning is already used in some school districts as early as first grade to create and achieve social-adaptive goals.

6.) Practice self-reflection. Reflection and self-analysis are complex cognitive activities that can be modeled for years before they are actually put into practice. Share your thoughts with your student as you ask and answer these questions for yourself:
  • What would happen if….?
  • How did you feel when….?
  • Next time I would like to…

7.) Keep trying! If it didn’t work out today, don’t give up! Self-advocacy is a lifelong project that moves slowly at first and gradually builds up momentum over time.

All through his elementary years, my son could not find the words to express his feelings and wishes. Then one day he told his speech therapist that he didn’t like it when she pulled him out of math class – so she returned him to class.

From there his interest in self-advocacy snowballed, and last month he was named Student of the Month in middle school for his communication skills: he checks in with teachers at the beginning of every class, takes notes, and follows up with questions via email. And he has already submitted his annual self-advocacy presentation to the IEP team.

About Karen Wang

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities."


NESCA Transition Services

Transition is the process, ideally beginning at age 14 if not sooner and extending through high school graduation and beyond, by which an adolescent or young adult masters the life skills necessary to function independently in post-secondary school or the workplace. NESCA offers complete transition assessment (including testing and community-based observation), planning and consultation services, coordinated by Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS.

Free Talk on Mindfulness Practice for Children at Atrium School Thursday April 9th

From Atrium School

March 23, 2015

Dr. Christopher Willard, a psychologist specializing in mindfulness techniques for children and adolescents, will be speaking at Atrium School in Watertown at 7:30pm on Thursday, April 9th.

Dr. Willard is a practicing clinician and educator, with teaching appointments at Lesley University and Harvard Medical School. Has been featured in The New York Times, and on cnn.com and abcnews.com. He authored Child's Mind (Parallax Press, 2010) which was critically acclaimed by Thich Nhat Hanh, Susan Kaiser Greenland, Mary Pipher and others. He also wrote the Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety Workbook (New Harbinger Press, 2014).  

Atrium School parents invite you to join them for an entertaining and interactive evening in which you can learn about a few short practices to help children of all ages understand their emotions, stay calm, and better deal with stress and daily challenges.

When:   7:30pm Thursday, April 9, 2015

Where: Atrium School
                   69 Grove Street, Watertown, MA 02472

This event is free and open to the public.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Heavier Homework Load Linked to Lower Math, Science Performance, Study Says

From the Education Week Blog
"Curiculum Matters" 

By Liana Heitin
March 26, 2015

The optimal amount of homework for 13-year-old students is about an hour a day, a study published earlier this month in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests. And spending too much time on homework is linked to a decrease in academic performance.

Researchers from the University of Oviedo administered surveys to 7,725 Spanish secondary school students, asking about how many days per week they did homework, how much time they spent on it, how much effort they put in, and how much help they received. The students also took a test with 24 math and 24 science questions.

Students who did homework more frequently—i.e., every day—tended to do better on the test than those who did it less frequently, the researchers found. And even more important was how much help students received on their homework—those who did it on their own performed better than those who had parental involvement. (The study controlled for factors such as gender and socioeconomic status.)

The researchers also found that prior knowledge—measured by previous letter grades—was a better predictor of test performance than any homework factor.

Regarding the amount of time students spent on homework, the results were a bit more complicated.

Overall, students spent on average between one and two hours a day doing homework from all subjects.

Those who spent about 90 to 100 minutes a day on homework scored highest on the assessment—however, they didn't outperform their peers who spent less time on homework by much. The researchers therefore determined that going from 70 minutes of homework a day to 90 minutes a day is not an efficient use of time.

"That small gain requires two hours more homework per week, which is a large time investment for such small gains," they wrote. "For that reason, assigning more than 70 minutes homework per day does not seem very efficient, as the expectation of improved results is very low."

And after 90 to 100 minutes of homework, they found, test scores declined. The relationship between minutes of homework and test scores is not linear, but curved.

"The key is that the optimum time is about 60 or 70 minutes [of homework] a day," Javier Suarez-Alvarez, co-lead researcher on the study, said in an interview.

The study does, of course, come with some caveats. As the researchers note, the results are not causal; they only show a correlation between homework and test scores. Also, the survey did not distinguish between math and science homework.

Suarez-Alvarez said the study also brings up questions about how factors like "academic intelligence, self-concept, and self-esteem" play into academic performance.

Even so, the study offers some insights that middle school teachers may find helpful. "Our data indicate that it is not necessary to assign huge quantities of homework, but it is important that assignment is systematic and regular, with the aim of instilling work habits and promoting autonomous, self-directed learning," the researchers write.

Or as Suarez-Alvarez put it, "Maybe it's more important how they do the homework than how much."


Chart: From "Adolescents' Homework Performance in Mathematics and Science: Personal Factors and Teaching Practices," Journal of Educational Psychology , March 16, 2015.

The Goal Driven IEP: A Parent’s Guide to What to Ask For at Your IEP Meeting - Free Workshop Wednesday, April 1st

From the Danvers SEPAC

March 25, 2015

This workshop will cover:
  • Specific items and wording parents should ask for in their child’s IEP.
  • Common mistakes seen in ineffective IEP plans.
  • How to ask for specific goals, approaches and outcome measures that will be sensitive to whether progress is being made.
  • Common best practice approaches to address: learning needs, social pragmatics, organizational skills and behavior/emotional problems (i.e.,What to ask for, how to define it and how would you know that progress is occurring).

Speaker: Dr. David Stember holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and maintains faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital. He is a recognized expert in cognitive behavioral/exposure-based therapy for anxiety, learning and behavioral disorders. He is the prior Director of Behavioral Medicine at North Shore Children’s Hospital, and maintains private practice offices in Salem and Arlington, MA.

When:   7:00 - 9:00pm Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Where: Holten-Richmond Middle School Library
                   55 Conant Street, Danvers, MA 01923

Babysitting: An adult with experience working with children with special needs will be available to babysit, but you must register in advance.

For more information, please contact Keri Smith Holian at keri_smith_94305@yahoo.com, or Tom Savage at tsavage@mysavagerealty.com.


NESCA FAQ: Why does an evaluation at NESCA always address educational issues?

NESCA considers testing for both diagnostic and educational purposes to be inseparable elements of an effective evaluation. Because your child’s disability will inevitably affect his or her performance in school, it is essential to understand the nature and extent of that impact. Much of any necessary remediation may well happen in school, and we need to be able to write well-reasoned, specific recommendations about how the school should address your child’s special needs.

These recommendations must be made persuasively, in a way that maximizes the likelihood that the school will recognize the recommended services as integral parts of the "free and appropriate public education (FAPE)" that public schools are required to provide to children with special needs. In addition, your child may need, and be entitled to, accommodations for his or her disability in the academic setting, and this also needs to be carefully documented.

Friday, March 27, 2015

NESCA Director Dr. Ann Helmus Speaks at EARCOS Conference in Malaysia


March 27, 2015

NESCA Director Dr. Ann Helmus spoke this week at the annual EARCOS Leadership Conference in Kota Kinabalu, a Malaysian city on the island of Borneo. EARCOS, the East Asia Regional Council of Schools, is an organization of 144 member schools. They enroll more than 100,000 pre-K to 12th grade students.

One EARCOS objective is to develop collaborative educational partnerships within the region as well as worldwide, to foster greater access to expertise; another is to promote intercultural understanding, global citizenship and exceptional practice.

NESCA Director Ann Helmus, Ph.D. at EARCOS in Malaysia

"It's Not What's Wrong with the Children, It's What's Happened to Them"

From Edutopia

By Jennifer Ng'andu
January 22, 2015

It has been said to me many times that it's the child who is acting out that needs you the most. And yet, all too often, the systems that are most likely to deal with young people in crisis do more damage than good.

A recent report from the Juvenile Law Center on how to improve outcomes for young people in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems underscores this point. The report, which was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), points out that the juvenile justice system relies heavily on a strategy of harsh punishment when its real goal should be helping and healing young people who are struggling.

When young people have behavioral challenges, the system usually asks, "What is wrong with this child, and how do we stop it?" Instead, they ought to be asking, "What happened to this child, and how do we help them?"

We see the same problems in our education system as well. For example, children who are exposed to traumatic events in early childhood are more likely to act out in school. Preschools all too often respond to that behavior by suspending or expelling children. Children of color are especially vulnerable to harsh discipline.

Consider recent data (PDF, 2.1MB) from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which shows that children of color are far more likely to be suspended or permanently expelled from preschool. For example, black children account for 18% of the preschool population, but represent 48% of suspensions.

These preschool suspensions are particularly troubling because of how they might shape a child's future pathway. A suspension may or may not change a child's behavior, but what is certain is that it provides the first touch of punishment that may latch onto and follow that child throughout his or her education and life experiences.

Reasons for Hope

I recently went to Baltimore to learn about some of the innovative ways in which community leaders are trying to replace harsh punishment with caring support. I had the chance to sit down with third-party, school-based mediators at the Center for Dispute Resolution at University of Maryland (C-DRUM).

Based at the School of Law, C-DRUM addresses school truancy and discipline cases in communities where families are under high degrees of stress, especially from economic hardship and community violence. C-DRUM's legal mediators help school-aged students and families work with educators to address the issues at hand and get the kids back into the classroom.

When the C-DRUM mediators ask what happened to these children to keep them from coming to school or prompt them to act out in class, they often find that the problem is health-related. Children with untreated asthma often act out and get sent to the principal instead of the nurse. Children living in inadequate housing with problems such as mold and insects might miss school because they are chronically sick.

When parents themselves have poor health at home, children are often sidelined or unable to complete assignments because of their role as part-time caretakers.

Once C-DRUM is able to discover what is happening, it's easier to find solutions that help a child to get back to school and back on track. For the majority of communities without such an important resource, we can easily imagine how thousands and thousands of children fall further behind or drop out permanently.

Alternatives and Solutions

So what other alternatives are we seeing in the community? How can we implement practical solutions that move us from a policy of zero tolerance to a practice of nurturing resilience? RWJF funds several school-based programs working to address the cycle of trauma and discipline, a few of which are listed below.

I hope they inspire new thinking about ways for communities to create alternate pathways for youth who are challenged with various adversities.

Trauma Smart: Trauma Smart is an early-childhood trauma intervention model that addresses the effects of complex trauma -- such as community and family violence, poverty, illness, and homelessness -- for preschool-age children, their families, and the Head Start teachers who care for them.

System of Care: Clayton County (Georgia) Juvenile Court has a program called System of Care, which partners with local schools and law enforcement to find ways of disciplining young people while keeping them in school and out of the juvenile justice system. Since 2004, the program has reduced school arrests by 83 percent and gained national attention as a promising model.

The Safe Schools Consortium: The Safe Schools Consortium is a multi-stakeholder collaborative in Chicago that works to keep kids in school and promote safe school climates for all students. Specifically, they are working to help schools replace harsh disciplinary policies, which lead to high levels of suspensions and expulsions, with a commonsense approach that allows young people to take responsibility and learn from their mistakes while they are in school.

All of us must to work together to replace cycles of trauma and punishment if we hope to build a culture of health and learning. As long as our first instinct is punishment instead of healing, we will lose kids before they ever have the opportunity to find their own potential.

There are solutions out there. At home and in school, we want our kids to be curious. We encourage them to ask "why." As grownups, we should expect the same of ourselves.

The Woburn SEPAC's 9th Annual College Fair for Students with Learning Differences - Wednesday, April 1st

From the Woburn SEPAC

March 25, 2015

The Woburn SEPAC's 9th Annual College Fair for Students with Learning Differences will be held next Wednesday, April 1st at Woburn Memorial High School from 5:30 - 8:00pm. At least a dozen colleges and post-high school programs are expected, including Landmark College, UMass Boston, ITT Tech, Johnson & Wales, Middlesex Community College, Curry College and more.

Also, this year, there will be small discussion groups for families, also involving people knowledgeable about helping students be successful in college.

There will be three tables of small group discussions. Each will run three times: 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30pm:
  • "What Colleges Look For" - hosted by Woburn HS Guidance Counselor
  • "College Life" - hosted by Woburn's Special Education Director and one or more college students who had IEPs or 504s in high school.

When:   5:30-8:00pm Wednesday, April 1, 2015
                   5:30, 6:30 and 7:30 for small groups
                   6:00 - 8:00pm to meet with college reps

Where: Woburn Memorial High School
                   88 Montvale Avenue, Woburn, MA 01801

Any questions? Please email the Woburn SEPAC at wps.SEPAC@gmail.com.


NESCA Transition Services

Transition is the process, ideally beginning at age 14 if not sooner and extending through high school graduation and beyond, by which an adolescent or young adult masters the life skills necessary to function independently in post-secondary school or the workplace. NESCA offers complete transition assessment (including testing and community-based observation), planning and consultation services, coordinated by Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Camp Guidelines for Kids with LD and ADHD

From Smart Kids with LD

March 17, 2015

Although it may not feel like spring yet, it’s just around the corner—and that means it’s time to think about summer plans. If camp is on the list of possibilities, now is the time to begin looking for a suitable environment that will bring out the best in your child socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

While summer camp won’t change his character or make her learning challenges disappear, the right setting could give your child enough self-esteem to approach the school year feeling capable and confident.

There’s a lot to consider for any child, but for kids with LD and ADHD there are additional factors that must be taken into account. The following summer camp guidelines are designed to help you find a setting in which your child will be a happy camper.


Sorting through program possibilities can be overwhelming. Narrow your options by establishing objective criteria that define your non-negotiables:
  • Day camp, overnight camp, travel camp?
  • Coed or single-sex?
  • How long is your ideal program?
  • General (athletics, arts and crafts, games, etc.) or specialized programming (drama, computers, specific sports, music, etc.)?


Faculty, counselors, and staff at camps for children with LD and ADHD should have specific training and temperaments. To determine competence look into the camp’s hiring criteria, the counselor to camper ratio, and training requirements for counselors, specialists, and supervisors. Find out about supervision and support for bunk counselors, and training for front-line staff in issues common to campers with LD and ADHD.

Ask also how counselors communicate with families, and what are grounds for counselor dismissal.

Health and Safety

Sending your child off on his own raises concerns about health and safety, especially if your child takes daily medication, tends to be impulsive and accident prone, or suffers from allergies or other medical conditions. To evaluate this aspect of the camp get answers to the following questions:
  • What medical personnel are on staff?
  • Where is the closest medical center?
  • Is the staff trained in emergency procedures and de-escalation techniques?
  • Who administers medication and how is compliance assured?
  • What is the policy for campers who get sick?
  • How are emotional meltdowns addressed?
  • How often are facilities inspected for health and safety issues?
  • What personal hygiene guidelines does the camp use?
  • Are campers unsupervised at any time?
  • What kinds of supervision are in place at night?


Though all camps present a positive philosophy, some are wonderful, nurturing environments while others may foster frustration. Ask about accommodations for children who need extra help, and make sure that your child will not feel excluded or incompetent during mainstream activities. Even in specialized settings, some programs expect standardized behavior regardless of abilities. Standards are wonderful if they help your child grow; they are debilitating if they make your child feel incompetent.

Food and Nutrition

If your child has health-based dietary restrictions, make sure they are medically documented and the staff can ensure that they will be strictly observed. If it’s a matter of preference and your child is a non-mainstream eater, ask the following questions:
  • Can special diets be accommodated?
  • Who supervises preparation and distribution of special diets?
  • What is the camp philosophy on nutrition?
  • Can campers receive food packages from home?

Social Skills

Summer camp is a practicum in social skills. In addition to requiring constant interpersonal interaction, most camps do not offer a place to relax in solitude. If your child has social concerns that must be addressed, ask if social skills are taught at camp and how social inappropriateness is corrected. Are counselors trained in social skills instruction and managing social issues common to children with LD?

It’s critical to be careful, but equally important to remember that self-esteem stems from individual accomplishment. Children with LD or ADHD learn best when new information is presented in safe, supported increments. “Safe,” however, does not necessarily mean “limited.” Without challenge, no one can grow. But when you eliminate challenge that is overwhelming and unmanageable, your child will not have to face frustration and failure.

The most important element for ensuring a wonderful summer experience is an informed parent. If you are not sure how your child’s needs relate to summer programs, get help from professionals who understand both your child and the camp context you’re thinking about.

After considering your child’s age, assets, challenges and interests, remember to respect the attributes that make each person unique. Some kids love camp no matter what the deficits, others detest it despite the attributes.

Take the time to learn what things your children love to do, and find a place where they can do them in healthy, happy ways.

"Understanding My Child's Learning Style" - Free Presentation in Beverly March 30th

From the Beverly SEPAC

March 24, 2015

The Beverly SEPAC will be hosting a presentation on learning styles given by the Federation for Children with Special Needs. It will take place from 6:30 - 8:30pm on Monday, March 30 at the Beverly Public Library, at 32 Essex Street, Beverly, MA 01915.

The speaker will explain the different ways people, especially children, take in and generate information, and how those different ways can greatly affect how and whether they succeed in school and in life.

Participants will learn about various learning styles and how they can be understood and harnessed to help children achieve success in many different environments, including the classroom.

This very valuable workshop is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Jessica Minahan's Behavioral Revue Coming Soon to a Venue Near You!


March 18, 2015

We've previously noted that Jessica Minahan, M.Ed., BCBA, NESCA's director of behavioral services, is a speaker in high demand nationally and, we might add, one very busy woman.

She has no fewer than nine speaking engagements between now and June 3rd that are open to the public, many more if we were to include "members only" events. And she'll kill 'em all. Always does!

Here are some you might want to attend. If links are available, click on them for additional information and to register.

March 25, 2015Lexington SEPAC
Wareham, MA
Effective Strategies for Students with Anxiety-Related and Oppositional Behaviors

March 28, 2015 - Celebrating Excellence Conference
Needham, MA
Keynote Speech: Being Part of the Solution: Effective Strategies for Students with Anxiety-Related and Oppositional Behavior
Milford MA
Theory Into Practice: Effective Strategies for Students with Anxiety

April 15, 2015 - Behavioral Health Conference, Northshore Education Consortium
Wakefield MA
Stoneham MA
Delving Deeper: New & Effective Interventions for Students with Anxiety-Related or Oppositional Behaviors
Participants will receive a copy of Minahan's new book: The Behavior Code Companion

May 22, 2015 - ABAi 41st Annual Convention