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Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Decline of Play in Preschoolers — and the Rise in Sensory Issues

From The Washington Post's Blog
"The Answer Sheet"

By Valerie Strauss
September 1, 2015

Here is a new post from pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, author of a number of popular posts on this blog, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” as well as The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class and How schools ruined recess.

Hanscom is the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England.

By Angela Hanscom

I still recall the days of preschool for my oldest daughter. I remember wanting to desperately enrich her life in any way possible – to give her an edge before she even got to formal schooling. I put her in a preschool that was academic in nature – the focus on pre-reading, writing, and math skills.

At home, I bought her special puzzles, set up organized play dates with children her age, read to her every night, signed her up for music lessons, put her in dance, and drove her to local museums.

My friends and I even did “enrichment classes” with our kids to practice sorting, coloring, counting, numbers, letters, and yes….even to practice sitting! We thought this would help prepare them for kindergarten.

[Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today]

Like many other American parents, I had an obsession: academic success for my child. Only, I was going about it completely wrong. Yes, my daughter would later go on to test above average with her academic skills, but she was missing important life skills. Skills that should have been in place and nurtured during the preschool years.

My wake-up call was when the preschool teacher came up to me and said, “Your daughter is doing well academically. In fact, I’d say she exceeds expectations in these areas. But she is having trouble with basic social skills like sharing and taking turns.”

Not only that, but my daughter was also having trouble controlling her emotions, developed anxiety and sensory issues, and had trouble simply playing by herself!

Little did I know at the time, but my daughter was far from being the only one struggling with social and sensory issues at such a young age. This was becoming a growing epidemic.

A few years ago, I interviewed a highly respected director of a progressive preschool. She had been teaching preschoolers for about 40 years and had seen major changes in the social and physical development of children in the past few generations.

“Kids are just different,” she started to say. When I asked her to clarify, she said, “They are more easily frustrated – often crying at the drop of a hat.” She had also observed that children were frequently falling out of their seats “at least three times a day,” less attentive, and running into each other and even the walls. “It is so strange. You never saw these issues in the past.”

She went on to complain that even though her school was considered highly progressive, they were still feeling the pressure to limit free play more than she would like in order to meet the growing demands for academic readiness that was expected before children entered kindergarten.

Research continues to point out that young children learn best through meaningful play experiences, yet many preschools are transitioning from play-based learning to becoming more academic in nature.

A preschool teacher recently wrote to me: “I have preschoolers and even I feel pressure to push them at this young age. On top of that, teachers have so much pressure to document and justify what they do and why they do it, the relaxed playful environment is compromised. We continue to do the best we can for the kid’s sake, while trying to fit into the ever-growing restraints we must work within.”

As parents and teachers strive to provide increasingly organized learning experiences for children (as I had once done), the opportunities for free play – especially outdoors is becoming less of a priority.

Ironically, it is through active free play outdoors where children start to build many of the foundational life skills they need in order to be successful for years to come.

In fact, it is before the age of 7 years — ages traditionally known as “pre-academic” — when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences on a daily basis in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses are fully ignited and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.

Preschool years are not only optimal for children to learn through play, but also a critical developmental period. If children are not given enough natural movement and play experiences, they start their academic careers with a disadvantage. They are more likely to be clumsy, have difficulty paying attention, trouble controlling their emotions, utilize poor problem-solving methods, and demonstrate difficulties with social interactions.

We are consistently seeing sensory, motor, and cognitive issues pop up more and more in later childhood, partly because of inadequate opportunities to move and play at an early age.

What is our natural instinct as adults when issues arise? To try and fix the problem that could have been prevented in the first place. When children reach elementary school, we practice special breathing techniques, coping skills, run social skill groups, and utilize special exercises in an attempt to “teach” children how to be still and to improve focus.

However, these skills shouldn’t have to be taught, but something that was developed at a young age in the most natural sense — through meaningful play experiences.

[How schools ruined recess]

If children were given ample opportunities to play outdoors every day with peers, there would be no need for specialized exercises or meditation techniques for the youngest of our society. They would simply develop these skills through play. That’s it. Something that doesn’t need to cost a lot of money or require much thought. Children just need the time, the space, and the permission to be kids.

Let the adult-directed learning experiences come later. Preschool children need to play!

Opinion: A Generation of High-Performing, Low-Income Students Is Getting Lost in the Crowd. Some Reasons Why — and What Can Be Done

From The 74 Million

By Timothy Daly
April 16, 2018

Why don’t more low-income and minority students succeed in school?

There is plenty of talk about bad schools, insufficient resources, turbulent neighborhoods, and the like. And, yes, lots of disadvantaged students start school behind their more advantaged peers — and, because of these myriad challenges, stay behind. But there are many others who demonstrate success in school, at least for stretches of their educational careers, but fall off along the way.

Instead of resigning ourselves to these outcomes, we must instead ask: Why, specifically, does this happen? And how do we fix it?

At EdNavigator, we have spent the past two years providing sustained educational support to hundreds of families in and around New Orleans, in all types of schools. Each of them has been afforded access to a Navigator — someone with deep roots in their community and professional experience in teaching, counseling, or school leadership — who serves as their personal education adviser.

Through this work, we have gained deep insight into the day-to-day interactions of families and schools and the obstacles they confront. Our experience has brought the questions above and others to the forefront for us.

Today, we’re sharing the stories of five students we have been supporting in a new paper, Lost in the Crowd.

In it, you’ll meet:
  • DeAnthony, a talented fourth-grader whose middle school options are bleak;
  • Amalia, who earns straight A’s in class, yet scores below grade level on most state tests;
  • David, whose signs of brilliance are overshadowed by challenges with attention and focus in class;
  • Kendra, a sixth-grader who has attended four schools since kindergarten; and,
  • Joy, a high schooler with a bright future, but also with an inattentive guidance counselor.

Though they are anecdotal in nature, we believe these profiles mirror the experiences of countless families. Moreover, they align with research showing that talented students from low-income families are not maximizing their potential as often as more privileged peers and are less likely to be identified for gifted programs, have access to challenging coursework, or enroll in selective colleges.

Together, they illuminate many of the reasons high-performing students from low-income communities slip off track.

Here are some of them:
  • School choice doesn’t work as well as it should for their families. Although it opens some doors, low-income parents of high-performing students face numerous barriers to placing their children in schools with high-performing peers, leaving them to choose among very similar schools that tend to specialize in raising the achievement floor, not the ceiling. High performers are left adrift, while “average” students get lost in the crowd.
  • Students are shut out at an early age. Many lower-income parents are unaware of the processes for accessing rigorous, selective schools, so they cannot take advantage of them when their children first show signs of high potential in preschool or kindergarten. When this potential becomes more obvious in later grades, seats in those schools are no longer available, having been claimed by early-bird students from higher-income, better-networked families.
  • Families rarely receive clear, complete information about their children’s performance. Sometimes, tests indicate that students may not be doing as well as their grades suggest. In other cases, they signal exceptional potential in students who would otherwise be overlooked. Yet educators do not consistently use test data for these purposes, help families understand divergent information, or counsel families toward opportunities.
  • Small challenges can have major ramifications. For all these students, the difference between success and failure may come down to seemingly minor factors, such as the family’s ability to track down paperwork at the right time, having reliable transportation to school, or whether anyone notices a sign of potential in a child’s grades or test results.

Many of these challenges are complex and interconnected; at the highest level, solving them requires schools and school systems to find ways to prioritize the interests of individual students and families as well as students in the aggregate.

However, we believe there are also practical solutions that would help more high-performing students from lower-income families thrive — strategies that would improve educational outcomes for all students if implemented well.

For example:

  • Help parents map out their children’s educational pathway early. Affluent families tend to have clear educational goals that they begin working toward from the day their children are born, if not sooner. They set up college savings accounts, consider elementary school options when deciding where to live, and join waiting lists for high-quality preschools. Many low-income families know what they want but do not have a plan for getting there. Students usually gain access to guidance counselors in middle or high school; parents should have a “guidance counselor” for themselves, starting when their children are infants.
  • Continue increasing high-quality school options. School choice by itself is not a solution, but it is a useful tool for families — and a scarcity of quality options remains a pressing concern. Expanding the number of schools that can serve a diverse student body well and holding all schools to high standards would mean fewer dead ends and bad choices for families.
  • Increase the capacity of existing schools to serve high-performing students more effectively — for instance, by investing in personalized learning, school-based tutoring, and competitive academic clubs, as well as improving access to out-of-school learning centers and high-quality, affordable after-school and summer learning programs.
  • Direct additional resources to educators and schools. Ensuring that schools have the right funding to hire effective guidance counselors, give teachers time to assess student progress comprehensively, and provide rigorous coursework and academic programming to meet the needs of high-achieving students is essential.
  • Focus schools on getting the basics right. Even in the absence of additional resources, there are many steps schools can take. Poor communication with families, inattention to existing data, missed deadlines, and lost paperwork are all challenges with straightforward, inexpensive remedies.
  • Provide clearer, more accurate information about academic progress. When parents are made aware of issues that threaten their children’s educational success, they tend to act decisively. Yet many families receive mixed or misleading messages about their children’s performance, leaving them uncertain about what data to trust and how to respond. Schools can address this issue by improving report cards, enhancing information systems, and assisting teachers with data analysis.
  • Expand early warning systems. We typically think of early warning systems for students as focusing on high-risk issues like absenteeism or behavior problems. We should continue investing in these systems, but also use them to spot high-potential students who should be monitored and kept on track.

We hope these case studies help education leaders and policymakers more deeply understand how these and other families experience the education system and explore ways to improve it. Expanding educational opportunity and improving academic outcomes for students from low-income families is a challenge with profound consequences, not only for students and families themselves but for our nation’s future as well.

Unfortunately, too many schools are poorly prepared to support these students, even when success is right in front of their eyes. We find ourselves asking: What needs to change for more students to reach better outcomes? How many more children like them are lost in the crowd every day?

Read the full case studies in Lost in the Crowd.

Timothy Daly is a founding partner of EdNavigator, a nonprofit organization that helps hardworking families stay on track for success in school and beyond.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Why American Students Haven't Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years

From The Atlantic

By Natalie Wexler
April 13, 2018

Schools usually focus on teaching comprehension skills instead of general knowledge—even though researchers know better.

Every two years, education-policy wonks gear up for what has become a time-honored ritual: the release of the Nation’s Report Card. Officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the data reflect the results of reading and math tests administered to a sample of students across the country. Experts generally consider the tests rigorous and highly reliable—and the scores basically stagnant.

Math scores have been flat since 2009 and reading scores since 1998, with just a third or so of students performing at a level the NAEP defines as “proficient.” Performance gaps between lower-income students and their more affluent peers, among other demographic discrepancies, have remained stubbornly wide.

Among the likely culprits for the stalled progress in math scores: a misalignment between what the NAEP tests and what state standards require teachers to cover at specific grade levels. But what’s the reason for the utter lack of progress in reading scores?

On Tuesday, a panel of experts in Washington, D.C., convened by the federally appointed officials who oversee the NAEP, concluded that the root of the problem is the way schools teach reading.

The current instructional approach, they agreed, is based on assumptions about how children learn that have been disproven by research over the last several decades—research that the education world has largely failed to heed.

The long-standing view has been that the first several years of elementary school should be devoted to basic reading skills. History, science, and the arts can wait. After all, the argument goes, if kids haven’t learned to read—a task that is theoretically accomplished by third grade—how will they be able to gain knowledge about those subjects through their own reading?

The federal No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted in 2001, only intensified the focus on reading. The statute required states to administer annual reading and math tests to students in grades three through eight and once in high school, and attached hefty consequences if schools failed to boost scores. The law that replaced No Child Left Behind—the Every Student Succeeds Act, enacted in 2015—has eased the consequences but has hardly weakened the emphasis on testing.

What is tested, some educators say, gets taught—and what isn’t doesn’t. Since 2001, the curriculum in many elementary schools has narrowed to little more than a steady diet of reading and math. And when test scores fail to rise after third grade—as they often do, especially in high-poverty schools—subjects like history and science may continue to be relegated to the far back burner through middle school.

To some extent, it does make sense to focus on reading skills in the early years. One component of reading is, like math, primarily a set of skills: the part that involves decoding, or making connections between sounds and the letters that represent them.

But educators have also treated the other component of reading—comprehension—as a set of skills, when in fact it depends primarily on what readers already know. In countries that specify the content to be taught at each grade level, standardized tests can test students on what they’ve learned in school.

But in the United States, where schools are all teaching different content, test designers give students passages on a variety of topics that may have nothing to do with what they’ve learned in school—life in the Arctic, for example, or the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

The tests then ask questions designed to assess comprehension: What’s the main idea of the passage? What inferences can you make?

On a daily basis, teachers have their students practice skills and strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences.” And teachers select books that match the given skill rather than because of the text’s content. Rarely do the topics connect: Students might read a book about bridges one day, zebras the next, and clouds the day after that.

Cognitive scientists have known for decades that simply mastering comprehension skills doesn’t ensure a young student will be able to apply them to whatever texts they’re confronted with on standardized tests and in their studies later in life.

One of those cognitive scientists spoke on the Tuesday panel: Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who writes about the science behind reading comprehension. Willingham explained that whether or not readers understand a text depends far more on how much background knowledge and vocabulary they have relating to the topic than on how much they’ve practiced comprehension skills.

That’s because writers leave out a lot of information that they assume readers will know. If they put all the information in, their writing would be tedious.

But if readers can’t supply the missing information, they have a hard time making sense of the text. If students arrive at high school without knowing who won the Civil War, they’ll have a hard time understanding a textbook passage about Reconstruction.

Students from less educated families are usually the ones who are most handicapped by gaps in knowledge. Another panelist—Ian Rowe, who heads a network of charter schools serving low-income students in New York—provided a real-life example during his remarks.

A sixth-grader at one of his schools was frustrated that a passage on a reading test she’d taken kept repeating a word she didn’t understand: roog-bye. The unfamiliar word made it hard for her to understand the passage. When Rowe asked her to spell the word, it turned out to be rugby.

The implication is clear. The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on.

That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills.


Another panelist—Timothy Shanahan, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois and the author or editor of over 200 publications on literacy—went on to debunk a popular approach that goes hand in hand with teaching comprehension skills: To help students practice their “skills,” teachers give them texts at their supposed individual reading levels rather than the level of the grade they’re in.

According to Shanahan, no evidence backs up that practice. In fact, Shanahan said, recent research indicates that students actually learn more from reading texts that are considered too difficult for them—in other words, those with more than a handful of words and concepts a student doesn't understand.

What struggling students need is guidance from a teacher in how to make sense of texts designed for kids at their respective grade levels—the kinds of texts those kids may otherwise see only on standardized tests, when they have to grapple with them on their own.

That view was endorsed by Marilyn Jager Adams, a cognitive and developmental psychologist who is a visiting scholar at Brown University. “Giving children easier texts when they’re weaker readers,” she said during the panel discussion, “serves to deny them the very language and information they need to catch up and move on.”

The failure to build children’s knowledge in elementary school helps explain the gap between the reading scores of students from wealthier families and those of their lower-income peers—a gap that has been expanding.

More affluent students may not learn much in elementary school, but compared to their disadvantaged peers their parents tend to be more educated and have the money to provide knowledge-boosting perks like tutoring and trips to Europe. As a result, those wealthy children are far more likely to acquire knowledge outside of school.

Poorer kids with less-educated parents tend to rely on school to acquire the kind of knowledge that is needed to succeed academically—and because their schools often focus exclusively on reading and math, in an effort to raise low test scores, they’re less likely to acquire it there.

The bottom line is that policymakers and advocates who have pushed for more testing in part as a way to narrow the gap between rich and poor have undermined their own efforts. They have created a system that incentivizes teachers to withhold the very thing that could accomplish both objectives: knowledge.

All students suffer under this system, but the neediest suffer the most.

The NAEP is a valuable educational barometer, but it’s important to understand that while standardized tests can identify a problem, they can’t provide the answer to it.

While some elementary teachers have embraced the approach advocated by the NAEP panel, it’s clear that most have been trained to in methods that aren’t supported by research, and that many are resistant to change.

The University of Illinois’s Shanahan noted that when he speaks to teachers around the country, they’re aghast at the idea of giving struggling readers grade-level books—even when their state’s literacy standards call for doing so.

Still, schools in some parts of the country are embracing the kinds of insights offered by the panelists. Louisiana has not only created its own curriculum but has also asked the federal government for permission to give tests based on that curriculum rather than passages on a variety of randomly selected topics.

If that movement spreads, the National Assessment of Educational Progress may finally live up to its name and the American education system may at last be able to unlock the untold potential of millions of students.

Cami Anderson: Disparate School Discipline, the ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter and Civil Rights — 5 Key Points That Get Lost in All the Noise

From The 74 Million

By Cami Anderson
April 10, 2018

Last week, we saw national headlines about two seemingly disparate events: the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the crescendo of a national debate about whether Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should rescind Obama-era guidance about school discipline. These two milestones have more in common than many people think.

For those not following the debate about student discipline closely, in 2011, the Council of State Governments published a methodical and rigorous study of student-level data from around the country. The study, Breaking Schools’ Rules, found that black students, particularly African-American boys, are disproportionately suspended and excluded from school, compared with their peers.

Subsequent research around that time, including data from the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, found that students with disabilities are also disproportionately punished, compared to peers.

Other studies in the past five years have pointed out that LGBTQQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning — students face similarly disparate discipline.

In response to this growing body of evidence, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to inform educators that federal laws prohibit discriminatory discipline practices and that the Office for Civil Rights could investigate districts and schools that are out of compliance with those legal requirements.

Many advocates and educators, like me — at the time, I was the superintendent in Newark — felt the letter was a commonsense, welcome light shined in dark corners, and a rallying cry for collective action.

Surprisingly (to me at least), the guidance has become a passionate cause for right-leaning think tanks and some politicians. Their arguments take many forms. Some believe the disproportionate data are explained by life circumstances rather than bias. Some say the advocacy is a classic case of federal overreach, tantamount to Washington telling teachers what to do. Some have tried to make the case that the guidance spurred “discipline reform” that has made schools more chaotic and less safe.

As with many issues in our current discourse, key points that we should be talking about have gotten lost in an ideological food fight.

Here are five points for discussion:

The facts are the facts. An independent report issued by the objective and bipartisan General Accounting Office just last week affirmed the obvious: Exclusionary student discipline affects black students far more than their white peers. As one example, African-American students make up 55 percent of school-based arrests even as they comprise only 16 percent of the student population (and 0 percent of the perpetrators of mass school shootings).

Another example: Recent studies show that black boys are far more likely to receive negative teacher attention than their peers (often for the same behaviors in kindergarten), and African-American girls are thought to be “less innocent” than their white peers.

And, while wonky types like to argue about whether the data are causal or correlative, being in serious trouble in school means a substantially increased likelihood you will be involved with the justice system for the rest of your life. Adult biases are at play, and they push kids into a criminal justice system where the same biases can end their life.

The law is the law. King died four years after one of his signature accomplishments: passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination and segregation on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or gender in the workplace, schools, public accommodations, and federally assisted programs.

Title VI of that act went on to further clarify that no person shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination under any program receiving federal financial assistance.

Federal guidance or not, “Dear Colleague” letter or not, the federal government has a legal mandate to uphold the law. If those who oppose the guidance — which simply gave further information about how this relates to school discipline — wish to relitigate the Civil Rights Act, they should be bold enough to say this is their intention.

Yes, support for schools and building capacity matters. One thing about which some right-leaning think tank leaders and I can agree: We must replace antiquated practices with new ones. We can’t simply be against suspensions and expulsions; we have to be for a new set of policies and practices — and we have to invest in training, support, and coaching for teachers, student support staff, school safety agents, administrators, families, and organizations that work alongside schools.

Policy alone is not the answer, but it is certainly an important piece of the puzzle. Many conservative politicians and thought leaders seem to abandon their belief in holding schools and educators accountable for results when it comes to disproportionality in school discipline data.

Blame won’t solve the problem. It is tempting for district schools to suggest charter schools are the biggest offenders of disproportionate discipline — and for charter schools to say districts are incapable of solving problems. It’s easy for teachers to say principals are the problem, principals to say teachers are the problem, schools to say families are the problem, or families to say other families are the problem.

Where we see progress on this issue, we see people working together to build the skill and will of all the adults in a community to prevent incidents in the first place, and to respond to children in developmentally appropriate ways when they occur.

What matters most: upholding students’ civil rights. What does the anniversary of King’s murder have to do with the current debate about school discipline? The very law that he and so many others fought to enact is about establishing the federal government’s role in ensuring that citizens are free from discrimination when accessing public institutions.

From an educational standpoint, this means protecting students’ civil rights. The federal government is responsible, by Constitution and law, for ensuring that the societal inequities that exist because of race, class, ableism, and sexual identity are not cemented in schools.

King implored us all to act with the “fierce urgency of now” when it comes to realizing a day when all citizens have equal rights. Let’s keep the focus first on supporting schools and families to ensure that all young people, not just those we perceive to be compliant, thrive and excel.

We need to embrace an approach that builds the capacity of schools to support the healthy identity of every student — and holds them accountable for creating bias-free environments in accordance with civil rights laws.

Cami Anderson, superintendent of Newark Public Schools from 2011 to 2015 and superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City (including the suspension centers and the schools on Rikers Island) from 2006 to 2015, is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project, a coalition of education leaders working to find new approaches to school discipline.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Study: Kids Who Struggle with Executive Function Vastly More Likely to Experience Academic Difficulties

From The 74 Million

By Kevin Mahnken
April 15, 2018

"Kindergartners who experience deficits in executive function — a set of cognitive skills that allow people to plan, solve problems, and control impulses — are much more likely to face academic difficulties in elementary school. In math alone, their odds of struggling by third grade are increased fivefold."

Kindergartners who experience deficits in executive function — a set of cognitive skills that allow people to plan, solve problems, and control impulses — are much more likely to face academic difficulties in elementary school, according to a new working paper that was presented to the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. In math alone, their odds of struggling by third grade are increased fivefold, authors find.

The study, conducted by Pennsylvania State University professors Paul Morgan and Marianne Hillemeier and University of California Professor, Irvine, professor George Farkas, is the latest in a growing body of research exploring the connection between executive function and student achievement.

Prior experiments have suggested a link between the two but largely demurred on whether particular skills could be honed to improve academic performance.

Morgan, Hillemeier, and Farkas focus particularly on the EF skills of working memory, the ability to retain information over time; cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift between different facets of a problem and integrate new information to solve it; and inhibitory control, the ability to look past distraction and stay on task.

Children often stumble in developing all three if they have developmental or learning disorders or have suffered brain injuries or other trauma. In the classroom, the absence of these abilities sometimes manifests in disruptive behavior or an unwillingness to learn.

Kids experiencing EF deficits can be overwhelmed by relatively straightforward tasks and have a hard time dealing with frustration.

The authors studied a nationally representative sample of over 8,000 children participating in the Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Kindergarten Cohort of 2011. The survey assessed students’ proficiency in math, reading, and science, as well as their development of the three EF skills, in both spring and fall of the years between kindergarten and third grade.

Children were asked to remember and repeat a sequence of number combinations to test their working memory. To demonstrate cognitive function, they sorted picture cards by color, shape, and border.

And, to gauge inhibitory control, teachers instructed children to complete a task and then evaluated whether they could be distracted from completing it.

Participants who showed signs of deficits in EF skills were much more likely to experience repeated academic difficulties in first, second, or third grade. After controlling for the students’ race, gender, socioeconomic status, and English language status, the authors found that problems with any of the three EF skills were predictive of low math achievement.

Working memory was revealed to be a particularly notable risk factor. Children with deficits in their working memory were at five times greater risk for low achievement in math, 2.8 times greater risk in reading, and 2.3 times greater risk in science.

The odds of experiencing repeated reading difficulties were roughly two times greater for children with a lack of inhibitory control than for those without.

The research team notes that its findings are not causal and that experimental studies are necessary to substantiate the connection between executive function and school performance.

Other researchers, like University of Michigan professor Robin Jacob and the American Institutes for Research’s Julia Parkinson, have expressed skepticism about interventions that target executive function deficits to solve math or reading deficits.

As the development of “brain-training” games and software has grown into a billion-dollar industry, a lively debate has been waged over whether it is truly possible to enhance brain function for children or adults.

The authors suggest that the potential exists to design treatments combining cognitive and academic development — particularly if they focus on building working memory.

“Our analyses suggest that experimentally evaluated interventions designed to remediate working memory deficits as well as academic skills deficits during kindergarten might be expected to be more effective in reducing children’s risk for repeated academic difficulties than efforts designed only to remediate academic skills deficits, including across multiple academic domains,” they write.

Inflammation During Pregnancy is Linked to Baby's Brain

From Oregon Health & Science University
via ScienceDaily

April 9, 2018

A study has established a link between inflammation in pregnant women and the way the newborn brain is organized into networks. The results may provide promising avenues to explore treatments with potential to change these negative impacts on newborn brain function.

Inflammation is a normal part of the body's response to infection, chronic stress or obesity. In pregnant women, it is believed that heightened inflammation increases the risk of mental illness or brain development problems in children.

A study conducted by researchers at OHSU in Portland, Oregon, has established a link between inflammation in pregnant women and the way the newborn brain is organized into networks.

The results, published in Nature Neuroscience, may provide promising avenues to explore treatments with potential to change these negative impacts on newborn brain function.

The research team, led by Damien Fair, P.A.-C., Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral neuroscience and psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine, and Claudia Buss, Ph.D., professor at the Charité -- Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Berlin, Germany and associate professor at University of California Irvine, collected blood samples from 84 expectant mothers at each pregnancy trimester.

The samples were measured for levels of the cytokine interleukin-6, or IL-6, an inflammatory marker known to play a role in fetal brain development.

Four weeks following birth, brain connectivity patterns of the offspring were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scans. At age 2, the children were also tested for working memory performance, a key skill that supports academic achievement and is frequently compromised in mental health disorders.

The data from mother and child show that differences in the levels of inflammatory markers are directly associated with differences in newborn brain communication, and later to working memory scores at age 2. Higher levels of the marker during pregnancy tended to result in less working memory capacity in the child.

"Importantly, this doesn't mean that every exposure to inflammation will result in a negative impact to the child; however, these findings provide new avenues for research, and can help health care providers think about how, and when, inflammation might impact a child's long-term learning development and mental health," said Alice Graham, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine.

A notable aspect of the study, according to Graham, is the development of a model that can accurately estimate information about maternal inflammation during pregnancy based only on newborn brain functioning.

Created using artificial intelligence known as machine-learning, the model is based on the biomarkers identified in the study and can be applied to cases beyond the initial research group.

"Now, we have an approach that can utilize MRI brain scans of a newborn to accurately estimate the mother's overall levels of inflammation during the time of her pregnancy," she said. "This understanding provides some information about future memory function of that child approximately two-years later, creating a potential opportunity for research surrounding early clinical intervention, if necessary."

In the future, Fair believes that research should focus on how factors before and after birth -- such as society and environment -- interact to influence the impacts to brain function and cognition in newborns.

"Increased stress and poor diet are considered normal by today's standards, but greatly impact inflammation rates in all humans, not just expectant mothers," he said.

"Just as important to understanding how the immune system and inflammation affect early brain development, we also need to understand what common factors contribute to heightened inflammation so that we may target therapies to help reduce the rates of inflammation and overall impact on the developing brain."

Journal Reference
  • Marc D. Rudolph, Alice M. Graham, Eric Feczko, Oscar Miranda-Dominguez, Jerod M. Rasmussen, Rahel Nardos, Sonja Entringer, Pathik D. Wadhwa, Claudia Buss, Damien A. Fair. Maternal IL-6 during pregnancy can be estimated from newborn brain connectivity and predicts future working memory in offspring. Nature Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-018-0128-y

Monday, April 16, 2018

Nation’s Report Card Shows Students with Disabilities Lagging

From DisabilityScoop

By Michelle Diament
April 13, 2018

A routine look at how fourth and eighth graders across the country are performing in reading and math finds children with disabilities struggling to make progress.

For fourth graders with disabilities math scores were down in 2017 compared to 2015 while reading was unchanged. Meanwhile, eighth graders with disabilities saw a slight increase in performance on reading but remained stagnant in math.

The findings released this week from the government’s National Center for Education Statistics come from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, nearly 585,000 students at over 28,000 schools across the country took the test on tablet computers in early 2017.

The assessment found limited improvement for the nation’s students on the whole with a small uptick in reading scores among eighth graders, but scores holding steady in all other categories.

Even still, scores for typically-developing students outpaced those for children with disabilities across the board.

Among those with disabilities, the average math score for fourth graders dipped to 214 from 218 in 2015, while eighth graders averaged 247, the same as in 2015.

In reading, students with disabilities in the fourth grade were steady at 187 while the average score for eighth graders climbed to 232 from 230 in 2015. All scores are out of a possible 500 points.

“The report card is in, and the results are clear: We can and we must do better for America’s students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate. More alarmingly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite billions in federal funding designated specifically to help close it.”