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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wendy Troxel: Does High School Start Too Early?

From NPR's TED Radio Hour

November 17, 2017

Sleep expert Wendy Troxel says teens are sleep-deprived because of early school start times that cater to adults. She says high schools should start classes at least an hour later.

Teens don't get enough sleep, and it's not because of Snapchat, social lives or
hormones -- it's because of public policy, says Wendy Troxel. Drawing from her
experience as a sleep researcher, clinician and mother of a teenager,
Troxel discusses how early school start times deprive adolescents of sleep
during the time of their lives when they need it most.

About Wendy Troxel

Dr. Wendy Troxel is a Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist at RAND and Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders. Her research focuses on the interface between sleep and health, as well as the implications for public policy. She is considered a leading authority on the connection between sleep and relationships.

A Raw Deal from Betsy DeVos

From Bloomberg

By The Editors
November 14, 2017

Rolling back regulations on the for-profit college industry will cause the public pain.

Turning her back on students. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a crowded field, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has emerged as the least popular member of President Donald Trump’s administration. Her support of the for-profit college industry at the expense of students is unlikely to improve her standing.

Under President Barack Obama, the government took steps to impose greater accountability on the industry and protect students from predatory schools. The policy is both just and cost-effective: For-profit schools saddle students with more debt and lead to higher default rates than traditional schools.

In 2016, the department issued the gainful-employment rule, which requires any educational program receiving federal student aid to demonstrate that its graduates earn enough money to pay back their loans.

Another set of regulations, known as borrower defense to repayment, makes it easier for students who believe they were defrauded by for-profit entities to plead their case and discharge their loans. It also increases the liability of schools for paying back the federal government if student borrowers demonstrate they've been misled.

DeVos wants to reverse those reforms. Last summer she announced plans to rewrite both sets of regulations, though the process will take at least two years. Meanwhile, the Education Department is actively undermining the rules already on the books.

In July, DeVos delayed enforcement of the gainful-employment rule until next summer -- a reprieve for more than 800 programs that had failed to meet minimum debt-to-earnings benchmarks. The department has extended the appeals process for failing programs and given schools more latitude to dispute the government's data by simply supplying their own.

And, it has blocked for two more years the measures that would help defrauded borrowers get out from under their student debts.

In the meantime, the government has delayed processing any of the 87,000 claims from students who've requested discharge of their loans under the existing law and is considering a plan that would make defrauded students pay back a portion of their loans rather than receive full relief. The impasse has prevented some victims from getting mortgages, passing employer background checks or resuming their educations at other schools.

The Education Department says these changes will save taxpayers as much as $46 million a year. But in the long run, holding for-profit colleges accountable for predatory and misleading practices will save the public even more.

The Trump administration has every right to re-examine the efficacy of federal regulations. But weakening the government's oversight of the for-profit education market is a bad deal for students and taxpayers alike.

Friday, November 17, 2017

With Teen Mental Health Deteriorating Over Five Years, There’s a Likely Culprit

From The Conversation

By Jean Twenge
November 14, 2017

Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country.

All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All Signs Point to the Screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades.

We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent only one hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide).

Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s Lost When We’re Plugged In

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows.

Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She is the author of more than 100 scientific articles and several trade books on the topic of generational differences, mostly recently "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood."

Early Education Is a Game Changer: New Report Shows That Reaching Infants and Toddlers Reduces Special Education Placement, Leads to Soaring Graduation Rates

From The 74 Million

By Kevin Mahnken
November 16, 2017

Access to early-childhood education significantly reduces students’ chances of being placed in special education or held back in school and increases their prospects of graduating high school, according to new research published by the American Educational Research Association.

The report synthesizes evidence of the lasting, long-term benefits of high-quality preschool programs, which have often been dismissed as transient.

Authors from Harvard, New York University, the University of California, the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin contributed to the brief, a meta-analysis of 22 experimental early-childhood-education studies conducted between 1960 and 2016.

Although previous research reviews had focused on programs targeting 3- and 4-year-olds, the AERA brief examined services offered to children between birth and age 5.

The results were impressive.

The programs reduced subsequent special education placement for participating students by 8.1 percentage points, reduced the chances of being held back by 8.3 percentage points, and boosted high school graduation by 11.4 percentage points.

Though high-quality preschool is generally thought to accelerate cognitive and language development in the near term, the researchers conclude that its effects can be detected as late as high school.

(Photo: American Educational Research Association)

“These results suggest that classroom-based ECE programs for children under five can lead to significant and substantial decreases in special education placement and grade retention and increases in high school graduation rates,” they write.

Tallying the financial blow of children’s academic struggles, the brief presents a case for greater public investment in early education. The estimated cost of placing a student in special education classes is roughly $8,000, and holding a student back a grade costs about $12,000, according to the report.

Meanwhile, each of the 373,000 American high schoolers who drop out each year earn almost $700,000 less over the course of their careers than peers with diplomas.

Although providing excellent preschool programs to the millions of children currently without them is an expensive proposition, economists have recently argued that later-life payoffs — better health, lower rates of incarceration, and higher earnings for participants — justify the costs many times over.

In a study of two of the oldest and most famous preschool experiments, the Carolina Abecedarian Project and the Carolina Approach to Responsive Education, Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman estimated that the programs yielded $7.30 of benefit for each dollar spent.


Yet even as states have contributed millions of dollars in new spending on preschool systems, skeptics like the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst believe that the impact of the programs is unlikely to be retained once they are scaled up to serve millions more children.

Others have pointed to evidence of “fadeout,” a phenomenon by which the positive impacts of preschool dissipate in the years following completion. One Michigan lawmaker, whose nomination to a post in the Department of Education was withdrawn after a cache of his old blog posts were criticized, denounced the federal Head Start early childhood initiative as “a sham program” this month.

“There have been a number of independent studies over the years that have concluded that these program children come to school with no more social or cognitive abilities than their non-program counterparts,” he wrote in one post. “So why then do we continue to pay for this failure?”

But the authors conclude that nearly 60 years of experimental studies indicate clear results from such programs that last into at least adolescence.

In fact, the effects on special education and retention were found to be greater when researchers followed up years later than they were at the end of the early-childhood programs in question.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Kids Use of Technology Soars

From Smart Kids with LD

November 12, 2017

Those concerned about the ever-increasing use of electronic devices, particularly among young children, may find the latest research from Common Sense Media troubling.

In a large national study of children ages 0 to 8 years, the results showed that 42% of children in the study had their own tablet device, compared to just 1% in 201l. Moreover the findings, reported in eSchool News, found the amount of time kids spend with mobile devices has spiked from 5 minutes in 201l to 48 minutes in 2017.

Narrowing the Tech Gap

While these increases are stunning, the study also found that the high-speed internet gap has decreased significantly between higher- and lower-income families (from 50 to 22 percentage points). Greater access is considered important for leveling the playing field and providing experiences to children who might otherwise be at a disadvantage when it comes to educational and job opportunities that require tech know-how.

In a statement acknowledging the complexity of technology’s growing access and usage among young children, Common Sense Media founder and CEO stated the following:

"Over the last six years, we have seen massive growth in media use and tablet ownership, and we haven’t even begun to experience the explosion of new technologies like virtual reality and voice-activated assistants in our homes. If we want to ensure our kids develop well and are successful in life, we have to make sure they get the most out of tech while protecting them from potential risks–and that means paying close attention to the role media is playing in their lives."

Guidelines for Parents

For those seeking guidelines managing their child’s tech use, the American Academy of Pediatrics released updated recommendations last year. Following are the highlights:
  • Children younger than 18 months: avoid screen time other than video chatting.
  • Ages 18 to 24 months: If you want to introduce digital media, choose high-quality programing and watch with your child to ensure they understand what they’re seeing.
  • Ages 2 to 5 years: limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programs. View together.
  • Ages 6 and older: enforce consistent limits on screen time. Make sure media use does not interfere with sleep, physical activity, and other healthy behaviors.

Low Academic Expectations and Poor Support for Special Education Students is ‘Hurting Their Future’

From The Hechinger Report

By Sarah Butrimowycz and Jackie Mader
November 11, 2107

Being challenged yet supported in class proves elusive for many students with disabilities.

MONROVIA, California — Mark Nelson was ready to take a final during his sophomore year at Monrovia High School in Southern California in 2011. He knew it would be easy; he said tests in his special education classes almost always were. But after handing out the exams, Nelson’s teacher made a shocking announcement to the class of students with disabilities: She would give them all the answers.

The teacher read each multiple choice question aloud, Nelson recalled, and told them what option to select. She presented it to the class as though she was doing them a favor.

Nelson, who has dyslexia, a processing disorder and verbal apraxia, which means he sometimes says words in the wrong order when he speaks, was aghast. As part of his special education accommodations, he was allowed to use a teacher-created study guide while taking tests. He rarely studied but still got As. He was frustrated enough by how little he was learning that he and his family were on the brink of suing the school district.

Now his teacher had so little faith in his ability to learn that she was offering to help him cheat.

“If you’re giving kids the answers, you’re not helping them at all,” he said. “You’re hurting their future.”

Special education is a notoriously weak point in the nation’s education system, despite the fact that 6.6 million, or roughly 13 percent, of all public school students receive such services. Too often, by the time these students reach high school, problems that began in the early grades have reached a point of no return; too many children are pushed out into the real world ill-prepared for what lies ahead.

Experts estimate that, if they receive proper support along the way, up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school with a traditional diploma, fully prepared to tackle college or a career. But only 65 percent of special education students actually graduate on time, compared to 83% of all students.

Only a third of students with disabilities who enroll in four-year colleges graduate within eight years, according to a 2011 federal study.

At some schools, students like Nelson are underestimated and stuck in classes that are too easy for them and that don’t prepare them for higher education. Others face the opposite problem: they’re left to struggle in classes that are too difficult for them without the support they need to succeed. The two scenarios are so common they have created a crisis for the millions of special education children the American education system serves.

“We’re really letting down a huge, huge number of kids,” said Gretchen Andeel, co-founder of the Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita. “If we can get them remediated and get them the right services and the right support through high school then they’re going to set the world on fire.”


These schools aren’t only failing their students. They’re violating a federal law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts identify students in need of special education services and provide them a “free and appropriate education.” That law was reinforced this spring when the Supreme Court ruled that districts must provide “more than de minimis” education to special education students.

“Do I think the school did enough? Not really. Did I think they did an okay job? Yeah, it was okay. But I don’t think a school should be going for okay. I think they should be going for good, or maybe better than that, at least.”
-- Brad, former special education student in Minnesota

Mark Nelson ultimately became proof that special education students who get the support they need can be successful after high school. He still lives in Monrovia, California, just east of Los Angeles, but with his pickup truck and ever-present cowboy hat he looks like he’d be at home in Texas. At 22, Nelson has a stable job as a salesperson at REI and is one semester away from finishing an associate degree in biological math and science. He’s thinking about getting his bachelor’s next.

But it wasn’t an easy path.

Even before starting high school in 2009, Nelson knew he wanted to go to college. In his freshman year, however, he realized that he wasn’t academically ready for higher education and that he wasn’t learning enough — fast enough — to get him there. He had fallen behind his peers after enrolling in special education in second grade. He had spent fourth grade learning to structure sentences, when his peers were writing full paragraphs, and middle school writing paragraphs, when his peers were tackling essays.

Yet, throughout his first eight years of schooling, he’d felt like he had adequate help and was at least advancing. When he got to high school, it was more like treading water. He was almost exclusively placed in separate classes for special education students. “When they separate you into different classrooms it can just debilitate you,” he said, adding that the content was “dummied down.”

Special education high school students used books more appropriate for middle school and never had to write essays of more than a few hundred words. Even things that were designed to help him, he said, such as being allowed to use study guides on tests, hurt him in the long run.

“I was being put in classes that were way too easy for me. I could have graduated … with a 4.0 if I wanted to.”

During his sophomore year, Nelson and his parents hired an advocate who began attending meetings with them. Eventually, they decided no one was paying attention to their complaints so they sued. A week before the case was set to go to court, the district agreed to settle and pay for Nelson to finish up his high school career at a private school 20 miles away for students with learning disabilities. To Nelson’s delight, once he started there, his grades dropped as he was finally challenged in school.

“I knew I was being better prepared for what the world was truly going to require of me,” he said.


Monrovia Superintendent Katherine Thorossian was not at the district while Nelson was in school and was unable to speak to the specifics of his case. (Monrovia also now has a different special education director, and a few of Nelson’s teachers are no longer working in the district.)

“We’re really letting down a huge, huge number of kids. If we can get them remediated and get them the right services and the right support through high school then they’re going to set the world on fire.”
-- Gretchen Andeel, co-founder of the Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita

Thorossian said she was disappointed to learn that Nelson and his parents had been unable to work out their issues with the school system during yearly meetings to finalize his Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The regularly updated IEP is intended to detail a student’s ability level, set goals and outline any accommodations they will need for classes and exams.

“Those IEPs really are designed to make sure that there is a true partnership between the school and the home and that everybody agrees upon a plan of action, which is why everybody signs it at the end,” Thorossian said. “Something obviously went awry.”

She also said that she has not heard of any other cases of students being given teacher-made study guides for exams or answers for tests, neither of which would be appropriate. She added that based on his disability, Nelson should have been taught the same curriculum as general education students — something that the district strives to do for all special education students.

“They are general education students first,” she said. “We want students to be challenged.”

While Thorossian believes Nelson’s case was an anomaly for her district, aspects of his experience are replayed over and over in schools across the country. Interviews with more than 40 parents and students and 50 experts and advocates from 34 states painted a picture of low expectations and constant battles to make sure students get the support they need. College-bound students with disabilities were put in low-level classes, students sat in segregated classes despite the wishes of their parents and assignments didn’t match the ability levels of students — some were way too hard, and others far too easy.

Who is in Special Education?

Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.

Janae Cantu, who has dyslexia, recalls that as a sixth-grade student in Oklahoma, she started to notice that she was consistently learning in a separate classroom with a small group of students, and her assignments were drastically different from her peers’.

“What kind of drives me up the wall was why was I not doing the same stuff the other kids were doing?” said Cantu, who recently graduated from the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. “I understand getting assistance and things explained to me differently, but why weren’t we doing the same stuff?”

“I’m not incapable of understanding it, you just have to present it to me in a different way,” she added.

In Chouteau High School, as a college-bound student, Cantu spent most of her day in general education classes, but because of her dyslexia diagnosis, for one period each day during freshman year, the school assigned her to a special education class where she completed activities like building cars out of cereal boxes and racing them.

“It wasn’t helping me in reading or spelling or anything like that,” Cantu said. “It wasn’t really something that taught me skills to apply to my school work.”

Glen Bibelheimer, Chouteau’s principal, said that while he cannot speak to the specifics of Cantu’s experience, the school tries to ensure all students are “career ready and college ready.”

“If you’re giving kids the answers, you’re not helping them at all. You’re hurting their future.”
-- Mark Nelson, former special education student in California

“It’s not just one class that’s going to do it or not do it,” Bibelheimer said. The class Cantu described counts toward graduation requirements and is offered for students with disabilities in partnership with the University of Oklahoma. The goal of the class is to introduce students to technology. In addition to designing and racing cars, students learn how to use graphic design software under the instruction of a special education teacher.

General education students take a different computer class to meet the graduation requirement, although students with disabilities may also be placed in that class depending on several factors, like availability, student interest and counselor or parent input. Students can also drop a class during the first ten days if they are unhappy with it, Bibelheimer said.

Students with disabilities may be preemptively placed in the special education class as freshmen because school officials are just getting to know their ability levels, Bibelheimer added. “As we meet a student as a freshman at the door, not all of [their ability] is apparent as of yet,” Bibelheimer said. “When we figure out who these students are and what they can do, that’s when we try to meet them where they are.”

Special education students across the country reported low expectations in school, regardless of their actual ability level or future plans. The vast majority of those interviewed said that the problem often isn’t the fault of individual teachers, but a failure of the system. Districts have no financial incentive to go above and beyond for them.

Poor education for special education students typically starts in elementary school, most often with a student not being given the services to which they are entitled or not being properly diagnosed.

By the time those students reach high school, they may be several grade levels behind their peers, with the clock ticking. “The older a child gets the harder it is to make up for lost time,” said Pam Lindemann, founder of IEP Advocate in Florida, which helps families navigate special education. “It’s just a reality thing. You have a limited time to make things change.”

One Minnesota parent, Sarah, felt that urgency when her son, Brad, got to high school. (Their last name is being withheld at their request that Brad not be publicly identified as having a disability.) Brad was first enrolled in special education in second grade. Like Nelson, he has dyslexia, along with dysgraphia, which makes writing difficult for him.

But unlike Nelson, he was constantly placed in general education classes that were too difficult, because teachers didn’t realize how much trouble he had with reading and writing and that he was falling behind. They assumed that he didn’t want to do the work, not that he couldn’t do it without support, his family believes.

“They don’t understand,” Sarah said. “In Brad’s case, he’s a super-smart kid who’s covering up for his deficits and they don’t care. They don’t get it. His test scores don’t show it.”

A Minnesota parent, Sarah, sent this writing sample of her son’s ninth-grade
work to her superintendent in a letter that argued her son’s disabilities were
not being taken seriously by his teachers. Photo courtesy Sarah

Brad did well on multiple-choice standardized tests because he had memorized enough words to grasp the meaning of short questions and text excerpts. The set of words he knew by sight helped him choose correct answers. “His system fails when he has to determine random words or subjects,” his mom wrote in a letter to the superintendent in April, 2014.

On the longer assignments he had to write for class, his work looked more like that of an elementary school student than a high schooler, with what his mom called “minimalist handwriting.”


After getting several Ds in the first few semesters, Brad failed two courses during his second semester of sophomore year of high school. Sarah filed a complaint with the state and went through mediation, which earned Brad the chance to use assistive technology, allowed him to make up some of his failed classes and paid for private tutoring and an outside evaluation.

That evaluation confirmed Sarah’s beliefs: Brad’s reading comprehension scores were above average for his grade level, but his scores in fluency and accuracy were extremely low. He scored in the fifth percentile for reading unknown multisyllable words. It meant that Brad could get the gist of a text, but was unable to decode individual words he had never seen before. He was missing a foundational reading skill.

As part of the mediation, the school district paid for Brad to get outside tutoring to learn reading strategies, lessons he began the summer before his senior year in 2016.

Sarah still worries that he lost out on 10 years of practice in reading and writing, and he still barely passed his senior year math classes. She suspects he either has undiagnosed numeracy problems or that his dyslexia and dysgraphia affect him in the subject. Either way, he didn’t get the help in math that he eventually received in English, so he saw a tutor this summer to make up for it.

When Brad was in elementary school, he said he wanted to go to MIT and become an engineer. He graduated high school this year with a 1.9 GPA and was rejected by the University of Wisconsin-Stout and the University of North Dakota. He’s attending community college this fall and is doing well so far, but Sarah said that even the process of enrolling there was difficult — years of struggling at school and not being understood have left him with self-doubt and anxiety.

Brad said that overall he had a good high school experience; he made great friends and enjoyed most of his classes. But it could have been better.

“Do I think the school did enough? Not really,” he said. “Did I think they did an okay job? Yeah, it was okay. But I don’t think a school should be going for okay. I think they should be going for good, or maybe better than that, at least.”

Special Education Glossary
  • IEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.
  • Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.
  • Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.
  • Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Huffington Post. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

ADHD: Behind the Behavior

By Ellen Littman, Ph.D. with Eve Kessler, Esq.
November 11, 2017

At a Glance
  • ADHD and co-existing executive function challenges are highly complex conditions that have far-reaching effects not only on the individual with the condition, but also on those with whom he interacts.
  • Understanding what drives the behavior of your child with ADHD may help you respond in supportive and compassionate ways rather than with anger and resentment.

Living with a child with ADHD can be confusing and frustrating. On any given day, he may have difficulty getting started, make impulsive decisions and poor choices, miss social cues, engage in stressful emotional interactions, and need downtime to regroup. He is likely to be disorganized and may over-react, under-react, hyperfocus and appear oppositional.

What you must remember is that ADHD is not a character flaw or a deficit in attention. It is a heritable brain disorder with chronic lifespan management challenges.

The hallmarks of the ADHD nervous system are inconsistent attention and an inability to self-regulate.

Although we are still refining our understanding of what ADHD is, advances in technology confirm that ADHD brains are different from non-ADHD brains. They vary in size, structure, functionality, activation, and connectivity.

These neurological differences influence how we get through the day—from what motivates us and how we learn and pay attention to how we process, store and retrieve memories and how we control behavior and regulate emotions.

Behind ADHD Behavior

A brain needs to be motivated, engaged, and attentive to function well. Motivation is controlled by the promise of reward. When exposed to a rewarding stimulus, brains respond by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. This dopamine-reward system is responsible for motivation, positive reinforcement, and pleasure.

A typical brain doesn’t need much more motivation than the internal and external stimulations it receives throughout each day. It is able to self-regulate, prioritize, manage time, and remain adequately challenged to address and complete life’s everyday tasks and responsibilities. But the ADHD nervous system needs more.

Dopamine-deficiency and inconsistent focus. The dopamine-deficient ADHD brain struggles to stay motivated by the mild rewards of ordinary activities, long-term gratification, and external obligations others deem “important.” This is not a character deficiency. Nor is it a consciously self-serving or irresponsible choice, although it may appear that way to non-ADHD family members.

The ADHD brain has been described as an “interest-based nervous system”: It seeks high-stimulation situations, stronger incentives, and more immediate rewards, which trigger a quick and intense release of dopamine and with it a rush of motivation.

Hyperfocus. Dopamine is the brain’s most intense reward. The ADHD nervous system can “get in the zone” of amplified dopamine production and hyperfocus many times each day. Deficits in attention or executive function dissipate when the ADHD brain is interested in and challenged by an activity, attracted by a unique or unusual task, or thrown into a competitive environment.

Pleasurable incentives (food, sex, exercise, competition, music), risky and extreme activities (fast driving, motorcycle riding, waterskiing, skydiving), high-risk and high-intensity careers (policemen, firemen, ER and EMS workers), and crises amplify spikes in dopamine production and motivate the brain to focus.

This need for a dopamine rush is why the ADHD brain often procrastinates – it waits until the last minute, creating a crisis, in order to function optimally in a short amount of time.

Low stimulation or too much stimulation. Bored or under-stimulated ADHD brains may become restless and demand an immediate reward and more stimulation. While you may think your child’s fidgeting, noise, laughter, yelling, or conflict-making behaviors are inappropriate and unprovoked, their under-aroused brains, needing stimulation, are demanding it.

On the other hand, an over-aroused brain can lead to sensory overload – an inability to modulate responses and a tearful, irritable, or aggressive “crash” – and a sudden demand to withdraw, tune-out, or have alone time. It’s a neurological balancing act.

What the ADHD nervous system wants and why is important for family members to recognize and appreciate, because it is so different from what non-ADHD brains need.

When previously incomprehensible behaviors are understood as a neurological struggle for self-regulation, many of your child’s responses and behaviors will make more sense and induce acceptance and compassion, instead of triggering anger and resentment.

This article is based on The Impact of ADHD on the Family, a presentation by Ellen Littman, Ph.D., sponsored by Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities; What the ADHD Brain Wants (and Why), an article by Dr. Littman, published in the Spring 2017 issue of ADDitude Magazine; and Secrets of the ADHD Brain, by William Dodson, M.D., published in ADDitude Magazine.

Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Dr. Ellen Littman is a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board.

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