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Sunday, September 24, 2017

A New Paradigm of Public Education (?)

From The Boston Globe

By David Osborne
September 5, 2017

If we were creating school systems from scratch, would we teach the same way we did 50 years ago, before the advent of personal computers? Would we send children to school for only eight-and-a-half months a year? Would we let schools survive if, year after year, a third of their students dropped out? Would we give teachers lifetime jobs after their third year?

Few of us would answer yes to such questions. And thankfully, public schools are changing, particularly in cities, where the needs are greatest.

In Boston, for instance, 86 percent of students are minorities, 45 percent speak English as a second language, 20 percent have disabilities, and 70 percent are “economically disadvantaged.”

Cookie-cutter public schools can’t meet the needs of all these children, so we are innovating. Boston has 27 independent public charter schools, which use their freedom from most district and state rules to create new models that work for inner-city children.

Boston Public Schools has six in-district charters, six “innovation schools,” 20 “pilot schools,” 10 “turnaround schools,” and three selective “exam schools,” in addition to 77 traditional schools. The nontraditional schools have increased autonomy over their curriculums, budgets, schedules, and staffing. In general, the more autonomy schools receive, the better they perform.

In Lawrence, the state took over the failing district. Superintendent Jeff Riley, a former BPS principal, brought charter operators in to run three of 33 schools, gave all the schools increased autonomy, raised teacher pay, and replaced half of the principals and about 10 percent of the teachers in his first two years.

In Springfield, state and local leaders created an “Empowerment Zone” to turn around six failing middle schools. Its seven-member board, which includes the mayor, superintendent, and school committee chair, negotiated a new contract with the teachers union, with longer hours, more pay, and the right to elect leadership teams that help principals run each school.

The board turned the worst-performing school over to a charter operator, split two others into smaller schools, and brought in charter veterans to restart two schools. New operators and restart principals can hire entirely new staffs, if they choose to do so. This year the Empowerment Zone added a failing high school, giving it 10 schools.

Born of desperation in our inner cities, a new paradigm of public education is emerging, to fit the realities of the 21st century. It’s just common sense: Schools work better when their leaders have the autonomy to run their schools; when they are held accountable for performance, with consequences for success and failure; when parents can choose among diverse public school models; and when those in charge of steering the district don’t also row (operate schools).

Let’s take these one by one. Autonomy means that school leaders make the key decisions: whom to hire and fire, how to reward staff, and most important, how to structure the learning process. There are dozens of options, from personalized learning with educational software to project-based learning, from intensive tutoring to peer learning.

Principals in traditional public schools get to make almost none of these decisions. Somehow, we expect them to produce higher performance with few of the tools available to managers in other industries.

Accountability means that schools are required to produce positive results for students, from academic growth to parental satisfaction to healthy graduation rates. If schools fail, they are replaced by stronger operators; if they succeed, they may expand or replicate.

Parental choice means that parents can choose between different kinds of schools, since their children come from different backgrounds, have different learning styles, and thrive in different environments. This works best if parents get sufficient information about school models and quality and can choose through a simple process, rather than applying to multiple schools, one by one.

Finally, separation of steering and rowing means that school boards and superintendents don’t employ everyone who works at their schools; instead, they contract with independent, nonprofit organizations to operate schools.

In the traditional model, they are politically captive of their employees: If they upset too many adults who vote in school board elections, they may lose their jobs. In a contract model, even if they close a school, they upset only those who work at one school; for other schools, they’ve created an opportunity to expand. That makes it much easier to do what’s best for the kids.

This last principle mainly exists with independent charter schools in Massachusetts, which helps explain why they perform so much better than other public schools. (Even the unions’ favorite research institution, at Stanford University, says charter students in Boston learn twice as much as demographically similar students in BPS.)

Two legislators, however, have introduced a bill to let other districts adopt Springfield-style zones, which could contract with independent operators.

The teachers union in Springfield supported the Empowerment Zone, but the statewide union opposes this new legislation. Let us hope, for the children’s sake, that common sense prevails.

David Osborne’s new book is “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System.” He directs a project of the same name at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Reading, Writing and Empathy: How Denmark is a Leader in Teaching Social Skills

From The Christian Science Monitor

By Sara Miller Llana
September 15, 2017

A path to progress: The country's status as a leader in teaching social skills is one reason it’s often ranked as the world’s ‘happiest’ country. Do Danes know something the rest of us don’t?

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK—Jennifer Larsen, a soft-spoken Danish teacher, strides into the classroom undeterred. She tells the 12- and 13-year-old students to put away their cellphones and fidget spinners. Some continue to goof off. But as she starts her weekly lesson in “social learning,” which begins with a “check-in” to gauge how each child is feeling, they quiet down.

Ms. Larsen’s main lesson of the day involves taping two signs to different ends of the classroom with the words “I agree” and “I disagree.” She then reads a series of personal statements: “I want to be better at solving problems with my friend.” “When I get angry I want to hit someone.”

The students in the sixth-year class at the Møllevang school in Faxe, a municipality in rural Denmark southwest of Copenhagen, have answered these questions before. But that exercise was done anonymously: Their heads were down and they responded by raising their hands. This time they are told to move to a side of the room that best characterizes their answer, publicly staking positions that even some adults might find hard to be candid about.

“I have friends who help me when I’m sad or mad,” Larsen continues. The children shuffle around the room, but, in the end, only one boy stands at the “I disagree” wall. With a nervous laugh, he notes his solitary position. “But you are very honest – that is very good,” Larsen says. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have any friends.”

As rudimentary as it is, the lesson in this kinetic classroom of students in hoodies and track pants is designed to teach social awareness and instill empathy – and in the process make Denmark and perhaps even Europe a more civil place to live.

It is part of a mandatory course added to the curriculum in this municipality in the hopes of teaching students to care for one another at a young age, a quality that school leaders worry is being increasingly lost in modern society.

Around the world, the importance of empathy as a character trait is garnering increased attention in an age of rapid technological change that experts worry is breeding narcissism and physically cutting people off from one another. This is to say nothing of the polarized politics that has deepened a sense of “us” versus “them” in many Western democracies, including the United States.

At its deepest level, encouraging empathy is seen as a step toward moving away from the ethos of individualism that characterized 20th-century societies toward a greater tolerance of other cultures in the interconnected world of the 21st century.

Numerous pilot programs are under way in the US to foster emotional intelligence in students, including an $11 million experiment in Kentucky called the Compassionate Schools Project. Other initiatives are taking root from China to Finland.

In Denmark, empathy has long been a part of the zeitgeist of the nation, taught and valued everywhere, from preschools to corporate suites. Many parents consider their children’s kindness in the classroom just as crucial as their math or science scores.

But here, too, pressure is mounting for the country to do more. Debates about immigration rage domestically and across Europe amid the refugee crisis and a wave of terrorist attacks. At the same time, access to the internet is increasing the chances of cyberbullying and the isolation of young people.

As a new school year starts in Denmark, teachers and academics are refocusing attention on some of the country’s oldest methods of empathy education, and establishing new programs such as the one in Faxe, which they say is crucial to countering all the negativity and division.

“Empathy is very important for democracy,” says Mette Løvbjerg, Møllevang’s headmaster. “You can’t have a democracy that is functioning if nobody puts themselves in another one’s shoes.... If we don’t teach our children that, then we don’t have a democracy in 50 years. It’s under pressure already.”

Bullying, teen suicide, school shootings: these were the crises that generated some of the new thinking about educators’ responsibility for the emotional health of students in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Schools in the US and other countries urgently devised prevention programs, while a more ambitious movement took root.

Known as social and emotional learning, it has spread rapidly, going from fringe idea to mainstream acceptance in the past decade.

SEL programs go much further than specific prevention campaigns. The curricula aim to help students navigate negative emotions, empathize with peers, foster more resilience, and stay calm and focused. Research has shown these skills not only correlate with academic achievement, they can also predict future success, in some cases more than traditional markers such as grades. One 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health followed kindergartners over almost two decades.

Researchers concluded that those with greater social-emotional skills were more likely to experience “future wellness” in schools and jobs. They were less likely to become criminals or have serious substance abuse problems.

Mark Greenberg, a leading researcher in the field of emotional development in schools who co-wrote the 2015 study, says these revelations changed perceptions in educational circles.

“I think the whole issue of social and emotional learning as a central issue for education is growing dramatically in schools around the world,” he says. Empathy in particular has gotten increasing attention for a variety of reasons, he says, among them “the problems of hatred that we are seeing, and the [decline in] understanding others.”

SEL is not without critics. Some worry that it conflicts with the rigors of academia. Others don’t see the classroom as being the place to teach everything about human character. Still others, including Dr. Greenberg, say that while many programs – such as meditation – sound like a good idea, schools often don’t measure their effectiveness.

In Denmark, the tension between academics and well-being is less pronounced, even if it is growing. Developing the “whole child,” not just good students, is a mantra heard from the Ministry of Education on down. Teaching is understood to entail both uddannelse and dannelse, the first being the classical concept of academic training, the other the formation of good citizens and their ability to morally relate to the world.

“What comes first, academic skills or well-being? We can’t answer,” says Jonas Borup, who works on the inclusion team at the Danish Ministry of Education in Copenhagen. “You have to feel good in school to learn something. For us, you can’t have one without the other.”

Recently some academics in the US have proposed that schools should integrate such instruction into daily teaching, rather than offer weekly or monthly SEL classes.

In other words, do what’s de rigueur in Denmark.

On a recent morning, first-year teacher Helle Eskesen at the Øster Farimagsgades school in Copenhagen receives a visit from a young student who has injured her eye. The girl tells her instructor she is concerned that other students will make fun of her because of the swelling. So Ms. Eskesen makes a quick decision: She calls a “class meeting” to talk it through to prevent any teasing.

Later in the class, the teacher spends time with each student before they break for recess, going over what activities they plan to do and ensuring that no one is left out. Both moves are classic Danish empathy education, moves fused into normal instruction and going beyond just holding an occasional class on the subject.

“It’s not Empathy 101 in Denmark,” says Jessica Alexander, an American writer who co-wrote “The Danish Way of Parenting,” which looks in part at how empathy is taught in schools, with Danish family psychotherapist Iben Sandahl.

Danish schools are staffed by “AKT” teachers (the initialism stands for behavior, contact, and well-being in Danish). Larsen, the teacher at Møllevang, is one. Like her, other AKT teachers often have their own classrooms, as well as the responsibility for addressing social conflict as it arises. They help students work together and engage those who feel lonely or left out.

Klassenstime further buttresses character education. It is an hour traditionally set aside for teachers to deal with the social side of their students. The concept has recently been revamped, but it is so ingrained in the culture that there is a cake named after it.

Sometimes klassenstime works almost like mediation to tackle a problem. Girls and boys might be separated to deal with specific issues. Other times instructors teach emotional awareness with programs such as Cat-KIT, a communications tool to help students navigate many different situations – for instance, when a child gets angry during recess, says one of its founders, Annette Nielsen.

This kind of attention to children’s emotional needs – and their awareness of others – is widely supported in Danish society. “As a parent, I treasure much more that they’re good people ... than that they get high grades,” says Ms. Sandahl, who is also a former schoolteacher and has written a new book, “Play the Danish Way.”

By many measures, Denmark already excels at instilling emotional well-being. Since the European Union started ranking happiness in 1973 as part of its Eurobarometer surveys, Denmark has come out on top almost every year. Other polls rank Danes among the highest in the world in caring, freedom, health, and income.

Foreigners have been fascinated by the country’s culture, writing a multitude of books on everything from the ethos of hygge, which roughly translates into being together in a cozy manner, to its generous welfare systems to its flat corporate hierarchies. Christian Bjørnskov, an economist and leading researcher on Danish happiness, says he believes trust in others lies at the heart of the Danes’ sense of satisfaction.

“The more you learn about other people, and are taught to respect them and tolerate the way they live, the more you trust others,” Mr. Bjørnskov says.

Still, Denmark is facing challenges that would sound familiar to American educators. The first is academic pressure. On tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that measure scholastic performance of 15-year-olds in mathematics, science, and reading, Denmark was coming in below its peers in northern Europe. What alarmed administrators was how much those from disadvantaged homes, including immigrant households, lagged behind.

Bridging that gap was the impetus behind a far-reaching educational reform in 2014 that, among other things, made the school day longer by about an hour. The latest rankings show Danes scoring above the OECD average in all three subjects for the first time.

Some teachers complain that the latest reforms are still too academic in focus. They formally removed klassenstime as a subject set aside in the schedule, for example, though teachers have the autonomy to continue it during allotted “extra hours.” “Everything is now about what the students can do, and can’t do. Everything is measured,” says pedagogical supervisor Elina Sommer, who co-created the “social learning” program in the Faxe schools. “The soft values, like empathy, how to be social, well-being, it’s like they are faded out.”

The Ministry of Education counters that the reforms are aimed at improving academic performance and preserving the enduring focus on contentment and character. Mr. Borup notes, for instance, that along with the reform package the ministry implemented a national assessment of well-being for every class in 2015.

Until recently, encouraging social cohesion has been relatively easy in Nordic societies, which have long been far more homogeneous in terms of culture, religion, and income than most countries. Yet immigration, especially as migrants poured into Europe in 2015, has caused more dissension. Newcomers from the Middle East in particular have become a flashpoint, giving a boost to the anti-migrant Danish People’s Party that has hardened political rhetoric across the board.

Last year Danes stunned the world with the adoption of a controversial “jewelry law,” which allows authorities to confiscate cash and goods from refugees and asylum-seekers to fund their integration costs. The law has sparked the kind of incendiary rhetoric that has characterized immigration debates in the US under the Trump administration and in Britain after a majority there voted to leave the EU.

It’s also brought new tensions to classrooms.

At the Hedegårdenes school in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen, one-third of the 400 students, from the first year of school through the ninth year, come from immigrant backgrounds, and another third from what administrators call troubled homes. The school has received 50 Syrian refugees as well. As a result, says Thomas Brinch, vice principal, “the work with empathy is more important than ever.”

“The kids need to treat each other with respect no matter where they are from, what their religion is.” But it’s also important, he says, that children from other countries learn how to fit into Danish society.

Schools see empathy as a way to deal with another challenge as well: the saturation of social media. The impact of technology on young people’s behavior is being carefully monitored in Denmark, simply because it is one of the most connected countries in the EU, says Camilla Mehlsen, who writes about education and technology (and whose 9-year-old has an iPhone). According to EU Kids Online, an international research network, 81 percent of Danish children use the internet daily, compared with an average of 60 percent in Europe overall.

Social media is the subject of klassenstime on a recent day in the classroom of Ida Nielsen, a fifth-year teacher at the Hedegårdenes school. The class has drawn up social media user guidelines together and is now discussing what they mean in practice. One of the first rules sounds simple enough: Don’t say anything mean.

But it leads one boy to question if that just applies to people, or whether they may make negative statements about not liking longer school hours. Another asks if they are allowed to say mean things about Donald Trump in relation to climate change, after he pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord. “But he is also a person, too,” another classmate counters.

Such discussions are crucial, says Ms. Nielsen, when asked about the pressures to devote time to academic learning during the day. “This is their lives,” she says. She also sees fostering well-being as a way to clear space for academics. “It sets you free to learn stuff,” she says, “if you don’t have a lot of conflicts and problems all the time.”

Students are given a lot of freedom. In Nielsen’s class, one youngster chooses not to sit at his desk at all. Elsewhere students drape legs over chairs. In a first-year class at another school in Copenhagen, one boy says he is feeling angry so he tells his teacher he is leaving the room – and does cartwheels down the hallway for a few minutes.

It would be easy to conclude that it is the students who rule the schools. But Mr. Brinch, Hedegårdenes’s vice principal, disagrees. “They have to feel comfortable to learn,” he says. “Sometimes they need to take a walk. Adults, we like that, too.”

Still, some Danish educators think the country isn’t doing enough to encourage empathy and well-being.

In Faxe, teachers recall a group of sixth-year students a few years ago who were part of what became known as the “hell class.” Students often booed each other and hurled insults. Jane Sterup, who works as a special educator and pedagogical supervisor with Ms. Sommer, was called in to sort it out.

She instituted new forms of communication, started the daily “check-ins,” and tried other exercises to promote tolerance and respect. “There was no more booing,” says Ms. Sterup.

Today those efforts have evolved into a mandatory course for second- and sixth-year students and is being adopted as a requirement by all schools in the area. Sommer and Sterup are sharing their lesson plans with other districts across the country as well.

Students, for their part, don’t seem to mind the character training along with the reading and writing, either. “It teaches us to be together in a good way,” says Cilie Noddebo, a 12-year-old emerging from Larsen’s “social learning” class.

Still, not everyone embraces so much emphasis on students’ souls. Sterup says some parents have told them the lessons they’re imparting belong at home. “They say, ‘that is the parents’ problem, not the school’s problem.’ But the problem is in school, so it is our problem,” she says.

The two have been called “old-fashioned.” That’s just fine with them.

As Sommer puts it: “Let us be together, like humans, to have hygge time, to talk, play games, not always be with a phone or an iPad, not always think about studies, tests, academics, career. Just be together.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Children's Sleep Problems Linked to Attention Disorders

From Education Week

By Sarah D. Sparks
September 19, 2017

It's well known that students find it harder to focus if they haven't slept the night before, but new research suggests sleep problems and attention-deficit disorders may be linked in ways that escalate both problems.

While there is not evidence yet on whether attention deficits cause or are caused by sleep problems, or whether both are linked in some other way, "We know that poor sleep and ADHD frequently co-occur; often sleepiness aggravates ADHD symptoms and ADHD symptoms make it difficult to go to bed, fall asleep, and sleep well, said Karen Sampson Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Resource Center on ADHD. "There does seem to be a relationship between the two difficulties."

Now researchers are looking for new ways to improve students' attention deficits through more sleep-related treatments, such as light therapy and better bedtime routines.

The studies are part of a growing body of evidence of connections between attention deficits and sleep problems that could also intensify debates in the education field over school schedules and extracurricular activities that can throw off students' sleep cycles.

As many as 30 percent of children with attention deficit disorders also have significant sleep problems, including insomnia, delayed sleep, and daytime drowsiness, prior research has found.

Katherine Peppers, a pediatric nurse and mental health specialist in Raleigh, N.C., sees it in her own practice. On average, she said, the students with attention deficits she works with take nearly twice as long to fall asleep as other children their age.

"The average child falls asleep in 20 to 26 minutes; kids with ADHD may not fall asleep for 52 to 55 minutes," Peppers said.

"During that time, they're not just lying in bed quietly; they're up and down, they're petitioning for a snack and water ... so it can be really challenging for parents with school-age children to get them out of bed the next morning," she said.

Yet it has proven difficult for school officials or medical practitioners to identify sleep disorders related to attention deficits, because so many U.S. students already get too little sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends school-age children get nine to 11 hours of sleep each night, and that teenagers get eight to 10 hours of sleep. The group found that American students—particularly teenagers—regularly fall short of those goals.

Data from two global studies—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—found 70 percent of U.S. teachers reported 4th and 8th grade students' sleepiness limits instruction "some" or "a lot" in math and science, far above the global range of 48 percent to 56 percent.

"What we know at this point is sleep deprivation can look very much like ADHD, and it's very difficult to get an accurate read when 70% of kids [overall] are sleep deprived," Peppers said.

In a gathering of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology earlier this month, J.J. Sandra Kooij, the founder of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Network, argued that while not all attention disorders are associated with sleep problems, disruptions to circadian sleep cycles are an "important element" contributing to students' symptoms.

"Based on existing evidence, it looks very much like ADHD and circadian problems are intertwined," said Kooij, an associate psychiatry professor at Vrije Universite Medical Center in Amsterdam.

The circadian cycle is one of two interconnected systems that govern sleep. While everyone gets sleepier the longer they have been awake, they also become sleepy in response to changing light during the day. Early-morning, short-wavelength "blue" light increases alertness, while longer-wavelength "red" light that increases near dusk triggers the brain to release the sleep-promoting chemical melatonin and a drop in body temperature.

Yet Kooij and her colleagues have found on average 1.5-hour delays in the release of melatonin and lower body temperature before sleep in 75 percent of people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A 2015 analysis by John Herman, a sleep specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, found mixed evidence of whether ADHD is caused by delayed or disrupted sleep, but did find evidence that melatonin improved sleep problems for children with ADHD.

Improving Sleep Habits

In a pilot study last year, Peppers and researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that children ages 5 to 11 with ADHD showed improved symptoms after a 20-week program in which they and their parents learned about the importance of sleep and how to create a good routine before bed.

The hardest change for most families? "No screen—no phone, no tablet, no laptop, none of that—for two hours before bed," Peppers said.

For students with attention deficits, who are more than twice as likely to experience difficulty with and take longer to complete homework, that's a heavy lift.

In research on adolescent students with ADHD, Joshua Langberg, a co-director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Center for ADHD Research, Education, and Service found middle and high school students with attention deficits are most likely to experience homework problems in the early evening, and, "considering the frequency with which adolescents with ADHD experience significant homework problems, homework management and completion difficulties are likely significant risk factors" for their sleep problems.

Peppers advised schools to encourage families of students with attention deficits to schedule homework time before dinner, to separate it from the bedtime routine, and use screen-dimming tools if students have to use computers after sunset.

"We really focus on the importance of helping the child transition from day to evening," she said.

Educators evaluating students with attention deficits should also consider recommending that parents reach out to a pediatrician to determine if physical sleep problems are exacerbating students' symptoms, Peppers said.

For example, Herman also found that children with ADHD often have mild apnea—a condition in which a child stops breathing for short periods during sleep—and that surgically treating the apnea improved children's attention deficits more than using stimulants, which themselves can disrupt sleep.


What's Ahead for Special Education?

From the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Blog
"Usable Knowledge"

By Leah Shafer
September 7, 2017

How federal policy may shift for students with disabilities — and how educators can continue to advocate.

Federal policy has transformed the education of students with disabilities in the United States. Prior to the 1970s, exclusion was largely the rule for millions, who were placed in separate schools from their peers and often inappropriately educated because of their physical and behavioral disabilities.

But in 1975, the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (originally the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act) began the process of ensuring that these children be integrated with their peers whenever possible, and evaluated, accommodated, and supported to fulfill their potential.

The Obama administration expanded federal protection of students with disabilities, but as the Department of Education reviews all policy guidance in the wake of President Trump's executive order on regulatory reform, there's a concern in the special education community that policies may shift.

We spoke with Laura Schifter, an expert on special education policy and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, about what districts can expect, and how schools can continue to support their most vulnerable students.

"The Trump administration could potentially rescind that guidance or take away those regulations — similar to the way it took away Obama’s guidance protecting transgender students."

How is federal policy shifting for students with disabilities?

The Obama administration put forth several guidance documents that changed the way the federal government protected students with disabilities. Now, the Trump administration could potentially rescind that guidance or take away those regulations — similar to the way it took away Obama’s guidance on protecting transgender students.

We don’t know what’s going to happen, but from my perspective, the hope is that the regulations and guidance stay in place.

What polices, specifically, could be rolled back?

The Obama administration released a regulations package in December 2016 that they called Equity in IDEA. The regulations were meant to get more states to address the fact that there are disproportionately high numbers of students of color identified for special education, placed in segregated placements, and disciplined at high rates.

In part, the regulations ensure states have a consistent way to measure significant disproportionality, and the regulations provide additional flexibility for districts in spending IDEA money on interventions.

Another important guidance letter that came out in August, 2016 was on supporting students who have behavioral issues associated with their disabilities, ensuring that those students have behavioral supports in school. That guidance really dives into the implications for practice, expounding on how to implement positive behaviors interventions and supports, and ensuring students have the services that they need.

A third piece of guidance, which was issued in November, 2015, is about defining free and appropriate education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. It also ensures that FAPE is tied to the academic standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled.

The guidance emphasizes what’s called “standards-based IEPs,” which ensure that IEPs (individualized education plans) focus on how to help students access grade-level content tied to academic standards. It’s trying to get schools to move away from creating either very remedial IEPs or IEPs unrelated to academics.

"I think the most important thing is for principals and teachers to empower themselves by learning what’s in the law and best practices for students with disabilities."

Can states continue to follow these guidance documents, even if President Trump rescinds them?

Of course. Guidance works by sending a signal that should the Department of Education monitor enforcement, then this is the lens they will use to interpret the law. I think in this case, if the guidance documents are rescinded, some states will likely excel and continue to do the good work they’re doing for students with disabilities, and some districts within states are going to do the same thing. But other states and districts, without a federal backbone, just aren’t going to make progress.

What advice do you have for teachers who want to continue to support children with disabilities, even if their state or district chooses not to follow these guidelines?

Teachers or principals can be huge advocates in changing perspectives in the district. I think the most important thing is for principals and teachers to empower themselves by learning what’s in the law and best practices for students with disabilities.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students who find out that the district they taught in was not following the law, or that they had felt like things weren’t going well in the classroom, but they didn’t know where to turn to find helpful information. If they were empowered to know the law and then advocate on behalf of implementing it effectively, I think that would lead to real change.

A lot of people in special education have a mindset that it’s all about compliance, but if you take a step back and understand the purposes of the law, I think you’ll see this less as compliance and filling out IEPs left and right, and more thinking about, “Well, how do I problem solve to ensure my school is better meeting the needs of kids with disabilities?”

And when educators find ways to increase opportunities for students with disabilities through frameworks like Universal Design for Learning, they will see benefits for students with and without disabilities across their schools.

"A lot of people in special education have a mindset that it’s all about compliance, but if you take a step back and understand the purposes of the law, I think you’ll see this is less about complying and filling out IEPs left and right, and more thinking about, 'Well, how do I problem solve to ensure my school is better meeting the needs of kids with disabilities?'”

If these guidelines were rescinded, would teachers perhaps have more flexibility in how they help students?

These guidelines are based on good practice. I think most teachers want these additional tools. They want to ensure that behavior goes smoothly in their classroom, and ensure that kids are reaching high expectations.

The Obama administration also worked to disseminate tools, research, and strategies about implementing these guidelines, and I don’t know why we would take a step back from that. They started an initiative called Rethinking Discipline to help districts reform their discipline policies. They had webinars disseminating that information to school leaders. And those last two guidance letters I mentioned actually gave examples and advice to practitioners to make them usable.

If these letters are rescinded, then that’s fewer resources for teachers and states in thinking about implementing IDEA and civil rights laws. And changing that model so that the federal government doesn’t have as much of a role in education means we lose a big resource that’s trying to give valuable information to practitioners.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Anxiety May Alter Processing of Emotions in People with Autism

From Spectrum News

By Jessica Wright
September 6, 2017

A brain region that processes emotions, including fear, tends to be smaller in children who have both autism and anxiety than in those who have autism alone, according to a new study (1).

Fear factor: Children who have both autism and anxiety have an unusually
small amygdala, but only on the right side of the brain.

The findings suggest that the difference in volume of this region, called the amygdala, is related to how these individuals process emotions.

The amygdala is thought to be involved in autism, but exactly how has been unclear. Some studies have reported that it is larger in children with autism than in controls and perhaps normalizes later in life — but others have shown that it is smaller.

The new work suggests that the amygdala’s size depends on whether the children also have anxiety. Anxiety is also associated with a small amygdala in typical individuals (2).

“It is no longer sufficient to say, ‘Is the amygdala different in children with autism?’ The question you have to start asking is, ‘What components of autism are related to the amygdala?’” says lead researcher John Herrington, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Roughly 40 percent of children with autism have anxiety, although some studies put this number much higher. It is not clear whether a small amygdala contributes to autism and anxiety or results from these issues.

Either way, the findings underscore the importance of grouping children with autism by relevant features. “The heterogeneity of autism is discussed often, so it is really good to see a study that takes the approach of subgrouping children,” says Christine Nordahl, assistant professor psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, who was not involved in the study.

Right Size

Herrington’s team used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the volume of various brain regions in 53 children with autism, 29 of whom have anxiety, ranging in age from 7 to 17 years. They also scanned 37 controls matched for age and intelligence. The work is part of a larger study aimed at finding biological indicators of anxiety in children with autism.

The researchers diagnosed anxiety using a clinical questionnaire, the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule, along with an ‘addendum’ that accounts for autism features that may mask or mimic features of anxiety.

The children with autism show no difference in amygdala volume when compared with controls. But the subgroup of children with autism and anxiety have smaller amygdala on the right side of the brain than the other children with autism. Why the difference appears only on the right is unclear. The results appeared 8 July in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The findings suggest that researchers should take anxiety into account when studying autism.

“Talking about an ‘autism brain’ misses out on those who do or do not have anxiety,” says Mikle South, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who was not involved in the study.

Scientists should look for amygdala changes in children with autism who have atypical forms of anxiety, such as intolerance of uncertainty, South says. Herrington’s team excluded 10 children who have only this type of anxiety, which is often seen in people with autism.

Scientists should also focus on amygdala size across development, says Cynthia Schumann, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the MIND Institute, who was not involved in the study. Other work has shown that the volume of the amygdala changes as children get older; the new study grouped together children across a wide age range.

The researchers plan to investigate whether certain parts of the amygdala underlie the region’s connection to autism and anxiety.

  1. Herrington J.D. et al. J. Autism Dev. Disord. Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed
  2. Schumann C.M. et al. J. Neurosci. 30, 4419-4427 (2010) PubMed

The Economic Case for Letting Teenagers Sleep a Little Later

From The New York Times

By Aaron E. Carroll
September 13, 2017

Many high-school-age children across the United States now find themselves waking up much earlier than they’d prefer as they return to school. They set their alarms, and their parents force them out of bed in the morning, convinced that this is a necessary part of youth and good preparation for the rest of their lives. It’s not.

It’s arbitrary, forced on them against their nature, and a poor economic decision as well.

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends that teenagers get between nine and 10 hours of sleep. Most in the United States don’t. It’s not their fault.

My oldest child, Jacob, is in 10th grade. He plays on the junior varsity tennis team, but his life isn’t consumed by too many extracurricular activities. He’s a hard worker, and he spends a fair amount of time each evening doing homework. I think most nights he’s probably asleep by 10 or 10:30.

His school bus picks him up at 6:40 a.m. To catch it, he needs to wake up not long after 6. Nine hours of sleep is a pipe dream, let alone 10.


There’s an argument to be made that we should cut back on his activities or make him go to bed earlier so that he gets more sleep. Teens aren’t wired for that, though. They want to go to bed later and sleep later.

It’s not the activities that prevent them from getting enough sleep — it’s the school start times that require them to wake up so early. More than 90 percent of high schools and more than 80 percent of middle schools start before 8:30 a.m.

Some argue that delaying school start times would just cause teenagers to stay up later. Research doesn’t support that idea. A systematic review published a year ago examined how school start delays affect students’ sleep and other outcomes. Six studies, two of which were randomized controlled trials, showed that delaying the start of school from 25 to 60 minutes corresponded with increased sleep time of 25 to 77 minutes per week night.

In other words, when students were allowed to sleep later in the morning, they still went to bed at the same time, and got more sleep.

An early start to the day for high schoolers has long been customary,
but there are many arguments against it.
Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

There are costs to pushing back the start times of schools, of course. Our local school system, like many others, uses the same buses for elementary, middle and high school. Not wanting to start elementary school too early, it starts high school earlier to save money on transportation.

Other costs to delaying start times come after school, when later school end times result in later after-school activities. These can interfere with parents’ work schedules and run into evening hours, when it gets dark and additional lighting might be necessary.

A Brookings Institution policy brief investigated the trade-offs between costs and benefits of pushing back the start times of high school in 2011. It estimated that increased transportation costs would most likely be about $150 per student per year. But more sleep has been shown to lead to higher academic achievement.

They found that the added academic benefit of later start times would be equivalent to about two additional months of schooling, which they calculated would add about $17,500 to a student’s earnings over the course of a lifetime. Thus, the benefits outweighed the costs.

This was a reasonably simple analysis, though, and it did not persuade many schools to change. A recent analysis by the RAND Corporation goes much further.

Marco Hafner, Martin Stepanek and Wendy Troxel conducted analyses to determine the economic implication of a universal shift of middle and high school start times to 8:30 a.m. at the earliest.

This study was stronger than the Brookings one in a number of ways. It examined each state individually, because moving to 8:30 would be a bigger change for some than for others. It also looked at changes year by year to see how costs and benefits accrued over time. It examined downstream effects, like car accidents, which can affect lifetime productivity. And it considered multiplier effects, as changes to the lives of individual students might affect others over time.

They found that delaying school start times to 8:30 or later would contribute $83 billion to the economy within a decade. The gains were seen through decreased car crash mortality and increased student lifetime earnings.

Since it would take at least a year for any students affected by changes in start times to enter the labor market, there would be no gains in the first year. Costs, however, would accrue immediately. These included about $150 per student per year in transportation costs and $110,000 per school costs in upfront infrastructure upgrades. Even so, by the 2nd year, the benefits outweighed the costs. By 10 years, the benefits were almost double the costs; by 15 years, they were almost triple.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge other potential costs not included in this calculation, including parental difficulty in adapting to later school start times.

But even in a model where the per-student, per-year cost was increased to $500, which would compensate most parents for delays, and where the upfront per school cost was increased to $330,000, the economic benefits to society would still outweigh the costs in the long run.

Further, it’s important to understand that these benefits may actually be underestimates. The researchers were careful to model only outcomes for which they had empirical data from sleep duration, such as car crashes and academic performance. They didn’t model other real, but quantifiably unknown, benefits, like improvements in rates of depression, suicide and obesity, or the overall effects on health.

Some schools are beginning to take this seriously, but not enough. When it comes to start times, the growing evidence shows that forcing adolescents to get up so early isn’t just a bad health decision; it’s a bad economic one, too.

Aaron E. Carroll is a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine who blogs on health research and policy at The Incidental Economist and makes videos at Healthcare Triage. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronecarroll. His new book, The Bad Food Bible, will be published on November 7.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Missing Autistic Girls

From Edutopia

By Carly Berwick
September 11, 2017

In the past two decades, autism diagnoses have soared—but new research shows that girls have frequently been overlooked, leaving them without crucial support.

On a recent hot summer afternoon, eight women sat at a table drawing and crafting at Felicity House, the world’s first community space devoted solely to women with autism. Opened just two years ago, the historic town house in the middle of New York City is a haven for women with a condition that limits their ability to communicate and interact with others.

The women who gather here have spent much of their lives seeking to understand how and why their brains work differently. While making art, learning poker, or attending classes, they’re able to talk to others who share similar experiences—confusing social interactions where they “said the wrong thing” or bosses or coworkers who’ve asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

"I find it easier to meet people here. You don’t have to explain yourself,” said Lauren, a woman in her 20s, that afternoon. “No one’s like, ‘What are you thinking?’” added Emma.

The women turned the conversation to high school, bringing up memories and reflections of living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during their school years.

“I was a good test taker, but that doesn’t mean my executive functioning was up to par,” remembers Allison, who switched high schools to a “less pressurized one” because she needed to “go at my own pace.”

Many women at Felicity House discovered they had autism when they were older, missing a key intervention window that might have made their experiences at school and home easier. Far from being alone, they’re part of a group sometimes called “the lost generation.”

Autistic women are diagnosed much less frequently—and often at an older age—than boys or men. In the past two decades, as more research on ASD has been conducted, diagnoses among children have soared. Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of kids diagnosed with autism more than doubled, and today, one in every 68 children is diagnosed with the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Yet the large majority of these diagnoses are for boys, who are diagnosed more than four times as often as girls.

That may start changing soon due to a growing body of new research finding that autistic girls are dramatically underrepresented in autism diagnoses—often overlooked or misdiagnosed—due to a mistaken assumption that autism exhibits in the same way in girls and boys.

“We’ve found that while boys and girls with autism are facing similar problems in school and at home, some of their underlying brain functions are different,” said Kevin Pelphrey, a leading autism researcher and director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at George Washington University. “This results in some differences in the symptoms of the autism and suggests the need to tailor treatment approaches by gender.’’

Pelphrey, who encountered these disparities among his own children—two of whom are autistic—is part of a team conducting ongoing research devoted to uncovering what autism looks like in girls and how best to treat it. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project brings together top autism researchers from around the country to explore different facets of the gender bias in autism, including genetics, brain imaging, and behavioral development—a significant breakthrough for autistic girls and the field of autism research.

In the coming months, Pelphrey and his team will start putting the findings into practice with the launch a new, 10,000-square-foot center for autism diagnosis and therapy at the university.

Dangerous Blind Spots

The researchers have already found biological and social differences in how boys and girls exhibit signs of autism, but the misconceptions around the disorder have been a long time in the making, and undoing them won’t happen overnight.

Popular stereotypes and generalities have played a role, priming parents and teachers to look for telltale signals of autism such as hand flapping and verbal tics, failure to make eye contact, or a laser-like fixation on trucks or dinosaurs.

And researchers, reacting to the apparent prevalence of autism among males, may have unknowingly created a gender bias in the science itself—by conducting their research predominantly on autistic boys and men, and then forming conclusions about the condition that have been applied to girls and women as well.

For autistic girls, whose lives can be changed by early diagnosis, the mutually reinforcing trends in culture and science represent a dangerous blind spot.

The new research is finding that autistic girls may display fewer repetitive behaviors than boys and tend to be more social, verbal, and engaged. Autistic girls are also more likely to be obsessive and have a harder time regulating emotions, leading to diagnoses of other problems like anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) instead of autism.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism by the time they’re 18 to 24 months old, with a diagnosis ideally made by the time a child enters school to maximize a key window for intervention. The consequence of missing that critical opportunity to diagnose girls is an increased risk for serious mental and physical health problems and lifelong struggles in school, work, and personal lives.

Camouflaging the Signs

School provides another window for invention for girls who may have slipped under the radar.

By the time a child starts school, the autism gender differences can be more magnified, says Connie Kasari, a researcher on the NIH study and a professor of psychological studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kasari’s research has focused on how autistic boys and girls interact and socialize in different K–12 school settings, such as the playground.

Girls tend to camouflage their autism symptoms more and engage differently with peers and adults than autistic boys, she says. Sometimes these social interactions make it even harder to pick up on the signs of autism because girls tend to try harder socially and have a greater desire to make friends. Girls will often turn inward when they sense they are not fitting in or understanding social situations, while boys may act out their frustration, becoming upset and signaling an undiagnosed behavioral issue more clearly.

Especially when autistic girls are more verbal or higher functioning, their autism symptoms may also present themselves as other problems like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or anorexia, which are more easily identified and diagnosed, researchers have found.

If you are an adult in the school yard, you may notice boys with autism. They may try to enter a group and if they get rejected, they walk away. Girls tend to be more persistent. They hover. It might seem they are doing OK. But if you look closer, you will see they are not.

That was the case with Allison Hamilton-Rohe’s daughter, whose teachers first suspected she had ADHD, before realizing she was autistic.

Talkative, sociable, and prone to frequent hugging, the girl was diagnosed with autism at the age of 8, after a “very difficult year at school,” says Hamilton-Rohe, noting her trouble concentrating in a seemingly chaotic class and frequent temper tantrums over small changes—particularly at the end of a busy day.

Hamilton-Rohe had asked her daughter’s school to look into an evaluation three years earlier, but dropped it because the school thought it wasn’t necessary. Eventually, her daughter’s inability to process lots of stimuli at once, need for structure and time alone, and one-track mind led to a diagnosis of autism, she says.

Hamilton-Rohe’s family decided to move to Montgomery County, Maryland, in hopes of getting support for the girl within general education classrooms there. The school district has programs for students with autism within general education schools and classrooms, and has opened autism resource centers at both the elementary and secondary levels to address the growing number of autistic students.

Learning to Navigate

As with Hamilton-Rohe’s daughter, the experiences of autistic girls—both their diagnoses and services—often depend on what kind of classroom or school they’re in. A broad CDC-backed study of 11 states, for example, found that the ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with autism depended somewhat on the diagnostic services available within a district or school—schools with strong special education services had more comprehensive evaluations and earlier diagnoses for students.

When I tell people she is autistic, they have a hard time because she does look at them, talk to them, and ask questions. They expect autism to show up like it does in Rain Man.

Like many large districts, the 35,000-student Minneapolis Public Schools has both self-contained classrooms and inclusion programs for the nearly 900 students with autism.

While the more than 4-to-1 ratio of boys to girls diagnosed with autism applies in MPS, the district reports differences in how autistic boys and girls interact socially and what they’re interested in, affirming the new research.

One particular gender-specific challenge the district notes is helping older autistic girls—even as early as fourth grade—discuss their changing bodies and navigate interactions with the opposite sex.

It’s important to be as direct as possible, say district special ed teachers, scripting conversations and noting the appropriate time to give hugs. The discussion can take a particular urgency for older girls, who may not be aware when social rules are being broken or manipulated—a prospect particularly frightening for girls who are undiagnosed and could run a greater risk for sexual predation or abuse.

Without support, autistic girls can face a number of challenges and be “isolated and mistreated,” resulting in anxiety and depression, according to Julia Bascom, executive director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization run and composed of people with autism.

“By the time a child is in middle school, they know they are different. If they aren’t given a reason, they come to the same conclusion—that something is wrong with them,” said Bascom, who is also on the board at the Felicity House. “The suicide rate for autistic individuals is nine times the general population. This information saves lives.”

Correcting the Imbalance

It may take a decade for the autism research on girls to correct the imbalance in diagnoses. When it does, there could be twice as many diagnoses for girls, and benefits for the entire field, as scientists refine or discard outmoded theories.

In the interim, others are identifying interventions to address the disparities in diagnoses and treatments now, noting that differences in autistic behavior may also warrant different treatments for girls.

Some districts, like the nation’s largest, in New York City, have found that it helps to pair general education teachers with special education teachers in a co-teaching model, where teachers share classroom responsibilities and both receive specialized training in teaching students with autism. Called the ASD Nest Support Project, the program helps ensure that all teachers know how to identify and support children with autism and serves more than 1,200 autistic students in 43 schools in the district.

And Pamela Ventola, a researcher on the NIH study on girls with autism and a professor at Yale University’s Child Study Center, has found that a long-standing behavioral intervention called Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) helps girls in particular.

PRT motivates children with ASD to learn typical behaviors, such as fluid speaking or give-and-take conversations, by having parents and practitioners ask questions such as “Can I play with you?” or “What is that?” to get a child to verbalize or take turns in an everyday play setting with immediate positive feedback. Ventola is now working with Connecticut’s New Haven Public Schools to bring her research to the classroom by helping teachers implement PRT with autistic students.

It’s not too late for adult women with autism either, after they leave the supports of school and home.

Thanks to the growing awareness of the particular experience of women with autism, a handful of female-only autism networks have emerged, among them social outings for teens called “Girls’ Nights Out” at Yale’s Autism Program and at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Felicity House, whose programming re-creates school-based supports in some ways, but without the fraught experience of being an adolescent.

“When you graduate, it’s like, no more [individualized education program], no more help,” reflected Lauren at Felicity House on an afternoon this summer. “So it’s nice to have a place where people recognize you still might want to do things with others and people appreciate you as a person. It is nice to know you are not forgotten.”