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.”

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!

Obesity IS Malnutrition

I’m really getting tired of watching people feed their kids crap food.  A steady diet of chicken nuggets, white bread, hotdogs, and processed food is bad for the body and the brain.  High fructose corn syrup is horrible; there’s absolutely nothing positive to say about it, other than it’s a cheap way to overly-sweeten foods to increase profits for junk food corporations.

In the USA, one out of every six kids is obese.  One in three is considered overweight.

Since 1980, childhood obesity has tripled, and since 1990 preschool obesity has increased by 60%.  (source:  JAMA, CDC)

The biggest excuse I hear from parents who feed their kids garbage is that “my son or daughter is young and can burn it off.”  Yeah, okay, but think about the nutrition foundation you have set for your kid. A big fat ZERO.  The eating habits and expectations that you set for your child will last a lifetime.  When you rotate a series of breakfasts that include sugary cereals or waffles,  lunches that include pizza, cookies, bologna on white bread, “fruit” roll-ups, and combine it with a dinner rotation of pizza, hotdogs, microwaveable meals in a plastic bowl, and soda, you are setting your child up for obesity, not to mention brain deficiencies.

Whenever I travel overseas, I notice that few, if any restaurants offer “kiddie meals”.  The little kids grow up learning to eat the same food as the adults.  No chicken fingers, no hotdogs with ketchup, no pizzas.

Yes, yes, once in a while everybody eats something bad for themselves, but when you do this consistently, you are harming your child’s potential.  Why would a child who has never grown up eating vegetables choose vegetables as an adult?  Why would a child who drinks soda or “fruit” juice  with almost every meal ever feel compelled to choose water or milk?  Why would a child who has been conditioned to eat foods with “fruit flavor” ever choose a piece of REAL fruit over the junk?  They don’t.  Then they grow up with the same horrible eating habits, usually combined with a sedentary lifestyle, and voila OBESITY. Not to mention diabetes, heart disease, cancers.

But wait, you defend these eating habits by saying that you ate like this as a kid?  Nope, you didn’t.  High fructose corn syrup didn’t sneak into the food chain until the 80s.  It’s so much sweeter than sugar and it’s so cheap.

Excuse #347 of not eating healthy foods:  It’s too expensive.  I call foul!  By eating whole grains, bulk veggies (even frozen), and fruits, you can fill up on real food and actually spend less.   What’s really expensive is paying for diabetes care, cancer treatment, or cardiovascular disease.  The cost of obesity-related medical expenses in the United States topped $190 billion last year… Don’t feel full?  Consider your environment.  If you’re eating on the run (in the car, on the way out the door, etc.), you’re not being mindful and will overeat.  Remember, it takes your brain about 20 minutes to sync up with the feeling in your stomach.  And if you want to see how healthy your diet is, click on the American Institute for Cancer Research’s link http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/diet/reduce diet quiz.html

Sorry for sounding so harsh.  No, scratch that.  I’m not sorry at all.  Feed your brain and body healthy food, and you will reap the benefits for a lifetime!

OBESITY IS MALNUTRITION.

The Case for Pong

Space-Invaders. Centipede. Tron. Galaga. Pac-Man. Mario. I remember, in 198X, after much anticipation (aka delayed gratification), the joy of finding an Atari gaming system under the Christmas tree. I had waited months to play the “realistic” games of destroying aliens and eating power pacs. I thought these games were so much better than Pong, which essentially used a line and a dot on the screen. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now, these were the first videogames.

Anyway, after an hour or so of sitting in front of the TV, if by some miracle the joystick didn’t break, I got bored or just needed to fidget (remember, I’m pretty sure I had ADHD before the diagnosis was available). I’d climb a tree, read a book, invent a game, or look for the elusive four-leaf clover. My neighborhood friends and I had pick-up basketball or kickball games, we tore apart Stretch Armstrong to see what made him stretch, we had superball competitions (who could bounce the highest, longest, most in succession, etc.) If someone in the neighborhood got a new refrigerator, we’d make a fort or a castle from the giant box. We laughed, got into arguments with each other (one time I smashed a tomato on my best friend’s head), we worked it out. Videogaming wasn’t that compelling. Living and creating was.

So what happened? Well in the 30+ years that videogames have become a part of our culture, the nature of the games has changed. Mortal Korbat, Halo, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal of Honor. These are NOT games for children. They are designed for adults, who presumably have fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, whose brains have developed to avoid desensitization to violent acts. Why do parents buy these games for children? I recently had one parent confess that she hated these games, and she feared that she was beginning to see signs of aggression towards her (although “she didn’t think he was the type to shoot people in real life”—does anybody think their kids will do this????) yet she bought these games to “keep the peace” in the household. Sad irony.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in a seminar at Johns Hopkins, listening to researchers present analysis from data they collected from gamers. The evidence back then was inconclusive, at best, but keep in mind we also didn’t yet have the technology to study the brain like we do today.

I just read a compilation of studies dating back to 1984, and most of those studies have shown that playing violent videogames increases neural patterns consistent with aggressive cognition and behavior.

One meta-analysis of 35 different studies (“Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and ProSocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of Scientific Literature” 2001) concluded that “exposure is positively associated with heightened levels of aggression in young adults and children, in experimental and nonexperimental designs, and in males and females.”
35 studies.

In another meta-analysis (“Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Western and Eastern Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” 2010), of 130,000 participants, the researchers concluded that “videogame violence exposure was positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect.”
130,000 participants.

I am sure that I will hear from people who have turned out “perfectly normal” and “successful”, but what good can come from violent videogames? Isn’t there a better way to spend your time?

Can’t we just go back to Pong? Or better, can’t we read a book or climb a tree?