My College Advisor Told Me…(aka How To Stress Out a Family)

I just got off the phone with a parent who got some really bad information from the college counselor where his daughter attends school. This is a “prestigious” school , and the counselor has either lied or has no clue about what he is doing or how  powerful his words, which may have been off-the-cuff, resonate to a 17 year-old and her parents.

Four months ago, this college advisor directed the family to pursue a comprehensive list of 30! (what!) schools to which Monica should apply and/or earn acceptance.  Fast forward to last Friday, where the same counselor basically told the family that she “didn’t have a chance at any of the schools on the list” HE created.  Nothing had changed, except that Monica’s GPA had improved and she had added more volunteer experience to her resume.

The counselor’s words basically undermined years worth of effort.  Monica doesn’t see the point of even applying if she “has no chance.”  The dad, an accomplished professional, confided to me that he has felt sick and has had no sleep since the interaction.  This is justifiable, since he has invested more than $250,000 in tuition for the last  12 years, and now he feels that the school is dismissing his daughter’s needs because she isn’t what-they-consider  Ivy League material.  There may be some truth to his beliefs, as the school is known to publish statistics of Ivy League acceptance rates in all of its school marketing literature.

This kid is talented, and any school would be lucky to accept her and benefit from the gifts she would bring to the campus.  Instead of focusing on grades, standardized tests scores, and AP classes, it is important to remember what drives success in life, and none of those aforementioned items necessarily measures success.  What drives success is perseverance, goal-directed behavior, the ability to self-advocate and adapt, the ability to get along with others, and to meet a deadline effectively and efficiently.  How exactly does school measure this?

Sure, you can point to grades as the outcome of hard work, but I know many a productive researcher, educator, or entrepreneur who didn’t earn a grade commensurate with preparation and effort put into an assessment, particularly if learning and teaching styles didn’t match.   And standardized test scores?  Don’t get me started on this!  These tests measure what a kid knows on one particular day, not a cumulative assessment of knowledge.  Just a data point.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with the college counselor’s  words:  even if the odds are stacked against this kid getting into a college or university (which they’re not),  why would you say that to someone?  Why would you crush someone’s plan?  Why encourage someone to forego attempting to achieve a goal?  It makes no sense!

If I had been the counselor, I would’ve said what I always say to families, “Apply.  All They can do is say no.  And if they say no, don’t take it personally.  You will go to college and be successful if you believe in yourself.”

A Tale of Two Students

A Tale of Two Students

It was the best of first-days at school.  It was the worst of first-days at school.

Tammy transferred from private school to public school, and today was her first day of classes.  She was nervous, didn’t know anybody, and wasn’t thrilled with the choice to switch schools– a choice I advised her parents to make based on her educational needs.  She got through the first day and will return to the school tomorrow.  She told me, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought, and I like not having to wear a uniform.”  I reassured her that the days would get easier, she was building skills, and I would support her throughout the transition.  She texted me a brief thank you later that night.

Joanna transferred from private school to public school, and today was her first day of classes.  She was nervous, didn’t know anybody, and wasn’t thrilled with the choice to switch schools– a choice I advised her parents to make based on her educational needs.  She got through the first day and will NOT return to the school tomorrow.  She told me, “I hated every minute of it.  It was awful.  There was nothing good about the day.”  I reassured her that the days would get easier as she built skills, and I would support her throughout the transition.  She told me that she was not going back and hung up the phone on me.

What’s the reason for the difference?  The ability to power through a tough situation.

As you’re reading this, I’m sure some of you will contend that different situations present different challenges, and to a certain degree this is true.   However, this was not the case in these two situations.

Transitioning to a new school YEAR presents challenges to even the most confident learner.   Transitioning to a new SCHOOL can be even trickier.  Will I earn good grades?  Will I find my classes?  Will I be able to open my locker?  Will I make friends?  Basically, will I be accepted by my peers?  The natural “will I fit in” dilemma.

And this is where parents can help their children most of all:  foster an expectation that you need to “Commit to your Commitments” (one of my personal mantras).

In Tammy’s situation, the parents set an expectation that Tammy would attend and adjust.   In Joanna’s case, the mother and daughter had a history which allowed Joanna to bail out of a situation at the first sign of discomfort.  And that’s exactly what happened on the first day of school:  discomfort.  Joanna’s mom let her stay home from school on the second day to avoid any more discomfort.  Bad pattern.

Kids need to learn how to break through fears in order to successfully conquer them.  Kids who continue to avoid discomfort tend to develop a psychological defense method that basically says, “This is hard.  I am uncomfortable.  I do not like this.  I am shutting down.”

This is what really troubles me because no matter where an individual attends school or eventually works, she will have to face difficult situations without shrinking from them.  If she retreats at the first sign of a challenge, her self-esteem will continue to plummet and her anxiety will increase.  This sets the foundation for all future reactions.

In college/university, IDEA, the law that requires student success/maximum achievement in high school, no longer applies.  Colleges only need to follow ADA/ADAA regulations and a 504 plan only guarantees access to help NOT success , so Joanna will need the ability to “power through” tough situations if she wants to earn a degree.

There’s no perfect school, no perfect program, no perfect career, so it’s important to at least work on these skills at this point (by teaching appropriate self-advocacy, anxiety management, etc.).  If she knows she has to face the situation without having an “out”, she can learn to desensitize herself from whatever it is that’s driving the discomfort.  It’s painful and slow, but it’s part of the process and must happen in order for her to be independent one day.

Independence and self-confidence are “far, far better things that she does, than she has ever done.”

(Thank you, Charles Dickens. )

The Homework War: What Is It Good For?

The Homework War:  What Is It Good For?
With the start of the new school year just a few days away, I anticipate that many progressive, cutting-edge schools will show parents and students clips from the film “Race to Nowhere”.  For those of you unfamiliar with the content (check out RacetoNowhere.com) , it’s a documentary that laments the incredible pressure kids today face, which then often leads to classroom cheating, apathy in learning, or self-destruction.   Ironically, almost every school that I know showed the movie last year had kids at that very moment who were stressing out over loads of homework, ambiguous assignments, and seemingly endless projects.
Which leads me to my acronym of NIMS, “Not in My School”?  No school ever thinks it gives their students too much homework, frivolous homework, or homework that isn’t “higher order thinking” material.

Sure, whatever.
So let’s talk about homework.
According to the research presented by Race to Nowhere, here are some trends:

1.  Reading for fun declines significantly after age eight.  Why?  Too much homework.

2.  Homework doesn’t seem to increase academic achievement.   In fact, students in countries that had the least amount of homework generally scored HIGHER than students in countries that had large amounts of homework.

3.  The amount of homework assigned to kids from 6 to 9 almost tripled between 1981 and 1997. Assigned homework increased from about 44 minutes a week to more than 2 hours a week. Homework for kids aged 9 to 11 increased from about 2 hours and 50 minutes to more than 3 and a-half hours per week.  This seems low, based on what I see with the families I coach.  The typical high schooler I know is doing 4-5 hours of homework, 7 days per week.  Ridiculous.

4.  Most teachers receive zero/nada/absolutely no training in research about homework.   So whatever the teacher believes about homework is the student’s responsibility, even if the assignment is bogus.  How many teachers know their stuff is bogus, and if they did, would admit it???  NIMS.

5.  When homework impacts a student’s grade dramatically, it is easier for the student to fall behind and fail.

Okay, so most homework is pretty useless, but I recognize that most teachers will still give homework to their students.

For those of you teachers who “like” or are required to give homework (as I was), here are some points to ponder:

1.  Do not take a late assignment without penalties.  This is the worst “accommodation” I have ever seen implemented in the schools.  Yes, emergencies come up and situations arise that sometimes necessitate accepting work the date, but it should NEVER be the NORM.  What kind of false expectation are you setting that kid up for in real life?  No job is going to continuously allow an employee to turn proposals, analyses, and reports in after the “drop” date.  It would be MUCH better to help the student set and keep target dates and anticipating and knocking through glitches.  And any late work should have at least a nominal penalty, even if it’s just one point.

2.  Homework should be graded based on completion, NOT accuracy.  If the student completes the assignment in full, or shows an attempt to answer the assignments, that kid gets full credit.  PERIOD.  You should review the homework during the next day’s lesson in class.  DO NOT COLLECT and grade.  Your students need to learn error-analysis and make corrections so that they can build upon the lesson.  If you don’t need to review the assignment during the next class, it was really just busy work, and you should have never given the assignment in the first place.

When I taught modern languages, kids and sometimes parents occasionally said they “didn’t understand the assignment”.  Once I explained to them that the student could simply write “I do not understand” in every blank, the excuses faded.  And guess what, those very kids, when compelled to write something in the blank, actually answered the questions.  I was stressing work ethic, not necessarily content mastery.  I expected kids to make mistakes and form questions to bring with them to class.

3.  Have kids write the homework questions.  It’s much more difficult and active learning when you have to create a question, rather than passively answer the teacher’s questions.  I frequently had kids write 2 math problems and provide the solutions.  Sometimes I would use this in the next day’s lesson; other times I would use their questions as the test questions.  The students loved this because psychologically, it was an “easy” homework (it wasn’t, LOL) AND they had buy in from each other in the class.

Okay, I’m jumping off my soapbox.  I challenge you all—teachers, researchers, parents, administrators, and students—to monitor the value of your child’s homework situation and take action!

Should My School Test My Child for a Learning Disability?

Ok, you’ve now decided to get your child (or yourself) tested.  What should you look for in a specialist?  What type of testing should you get?  Where do you start?

Parents can choose to have their child tested through the school system or they can choose testing through an independent psychologist.  The learning specialist, special education coordinator, school nurse, or guidance counselor can usually help guide parents who want their child tested.  Since independent testing can be costly and often is not covered by insurance, many parents choose to have the school conduct the assessment.  If a child’s needs are “obvious”, a basic evaluation can usually identify the sources of the academic difficulties.

The next logical question is “Should I have the school test my child?”  My general answer to that is “no,” unless a family’s personal resources render the school the only choice for any testing.  Here’s why:

Please remember that the school systems are not really designed to offer comprehensive evaluations, but rather to identify students with learning problems, primarily when the students are older and the academic failures/difficulties are more noticeable and measurable.  The widely accepted definition that a learning disability is a “severe discrepancy between the child’s cognitive ability and his/her academic achievement” makes it difficult for a school evaluation to catch subtle learning problems, especially in bright kids who have compensated for their achievements or who are younger students.  A student with learning problems may get good grades because s/he works all afternoon, evening, and weekend to achieve the grades.  The student may have strong verbal communication skills that overshadow a deficiency in reading or writing.  It’s a lot more difficult to diagnose an 8-year-old, second-grade student with a reading disability than a 17-year-old high school senior who expresses reading problems that are “two years below grade-level”.

The school system usually does not include specific tests that could offer insights into the child’s learning.  Few, if any, parents know what specific tests to request from the school.  Based on my experience in helping families, the schools do not have the resources to conduct all the tests needed for a thorough diagnosis.  I have met scores of families whose children were evaluated by the school system only to be told that no problem existed, when in fact, the child actually did have a learning disability that appeared in more thorough, independent testing.  My motto, along with those of the evaluators whom I trust is “If a school-based evaluation shows a disability, it is probably there.  If it doesn’t show a learning issue, seek independent testing to tease out the core issues.”

Schools are so burdened and are doing the best they can with increasingly limited resources.  School psychologists are stretched to the max, sometimes serving ALL the schools in a district or region.  Despite the school’s best of intentions and the urgency of your personal situation, it may take many months to have your child evaluated by the school.  One recent family I know initiated the process in October, got on the schedule for February, and after many snow-days, staff illnesses, and schedule conflicts, had the testing completed in April, only to receive results in May.  That family lost essentially one school year of academic interventions.

Whether you choose school-based testing or independent testing, please ask the following questions of the evaluator:

1.  How is testing conducted?  What are the exact steps?  Testing usually takes 6-8 hours, and can be conducted in one looooong day, or broken into days—either consecutive or spread apart.   Find out.

2.  When will you receive the report?  Two weeks?  Two months?  Longer?  Find out.

3.  How will the results be provided?  Will there be an analysis of results or just a bunch of numbers/data for each test?  Find out.

4.  Will the evaluator offer recommendations and suggestions, or simply present the problem (which you probably already suspect since you’re getting your kid tested in the first place)?  Find out.

5.  Will the evaluator be available for follow-up questions and clarifications, or does s/he disappear at the end of the school cycle?  Find out. r

Know your evaluator before you commit the time and resources to the testing.  Knowledge is power!

(Some of the information presented in this post is adapted from an article written by Dr. Robyn Waxman in Baltimore, Maryland and was originally printed in a paper version of our newsletter.  It my professional opinion that independent testing is more thorough than school-based testing, however, I do not speak for other psychologists regarding this matter, and this opinion should be regarded as mine solely.)

Should I Get My Kid (or Myself) Tested?

Well, by now, everyone should know that my answer will always be “yes”, since it is important to know how your brain works and processes information.  But my families often express a lot of confusion over whether or not to test, not to mention what those test results mean.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed by the number of parents who have their kids undergo hours of testing, sometimes paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, only to shove the testing results into the kitchen drawer.  And even more amazing are the teachers and administrators who pull out a pristine copy–with no notes or markups in the margins–at a 504 or IEP meeting.

Is anybody reading these testing results?

What do the testing results mean?

Does anybody know how to take the testing results and implement practical, results-oriented interventions? (Ok, that’s my job)

Beyond a specific diagnosis, such as ADHD or depression, most families don’t understand what the psychoeducational evaluations communicate about the learner.  Some parents fear the “label” while others feel relief at the”label”.  But besides the “label”, test results often outline a child’s natural learning style, detailing the specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as the biological reasons for the learning challenges.  For example, the psychologist can use the results to explain that a child ” is smart but just has problems with memory.”  After so much frustration, possible self-blame, or self-loathing, it can be quite powerful to hear a specialist reinforce that he or she is smart and capable, and back it up with EVIDENCE.

Probably the most important point to remember about the psychoeducational evaluation is that the PROCESS of testing provides the results.  No single test can be used to diagnose.  No individual score can stand alone to indicate a specific strengths or weaknesses.  Specialists look for a PATTERN of strengths and weaknesses that emerges across several tests.

In future posts over the next few weeks, I’ll go through what to look for in an evaluator, how to read the results, what the most commonly-used tests assess, and how to implement and incorporate results into an action plan.

 

 

 

 

Reading is NOT Natural

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading is NOT natural process!