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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poll: Parents Believe Children Doing Better Academically than Scores Show

From Education Week's Blog

By Sarah Tully
April 23, 2016

A new national poll shows a disconnect between how well parents think their children are performing academically in school and how students score on tests nationally.

Learning Heroes, an organization that helps parents navigate the school system, released Thursday a poll, called "Parents 2016: Hearts and Minds of Public School Parents in an Uncertain World," to determine parents' concerns about their children's education. More than 1,300 parents of children in kindergarten through 8th grade participated in the survey in January.

About 90 percent of parents reported that they think their children are performing at or above grade level in reading and math. But results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, were far lower. For example, about 36 percent of 4th graders scored at or proficient in reading and 40 percent scored at or above proficient in math in 2015.

"We felt like that disparity was pretty shocking," said Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes. "Parents really don't have the true picture of where their child is."

Other key findings include:
  • About three-fourths of parents believe it is important that their children get a college education. That includes 90 percent of Hispanic parents and 83 percent of African-American parents.
  • About 38 percent of all participating parents worry that their children won't be prepared for college.
  • Paying for education was ranked as a top concern of parents overall. More than half—53 percent—of parents are concerned about their ability to afford college.
  • About 63 percent of parents say they communicate with their children's teacher at least once or twice a month.
  • Along with the poll, Learning Heroes put together a Readiness Roadmap to help parents find answers and solutions to their concerns. 

The poll was produced in conjunction with Learning Heroes' partners, including Common Sense Media, GreatSchools, National Counci of La Raza, National Parent Teacher Association, National Urban League, and Univision. The Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation gave financial support for the poll.


Sarah Tully explores the substantive role parents play in helping set the course of their children's education and the direction of America's public schools. She has covered education as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, the Orange County Register in California, and the online news outlet EdSource.

DNA Flips and Swaps ‘Scramble’ Genes Linked to Autism

From Spectrum News

By Jessica Wright
April 14, 2016

Most methods used to scan the genome are missing thousands of complex variants that alter DNA structure and may contribute to autism risk. That’s the upshot of a study published March 23rd  in the American Journal of Human Genetics (1).

Complex blips: People carry thousands of genetic variants, including
those that swap regions of DNA between chromosomes (purple lines).

Analyzing whole-genome sequences, researchers found that any given individual carries more than 5,000 variants that delete, duplicate, invert, insert or otherwise scramble segments of DNA. Traditional methods miss a large proportion of these variants, the researchers say.

“Whole-genome sequencing is another turning point, another game-changer in our ability to capture the many flavors of rare variation,” says lead investigator Jonathan Sebat, associate professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego.

People with autism tend to have just as many of these variants as controls do, even when the variants arise spontaneously. However the spontaneous, or de novo, variants are more likely to affect genes in people with autism than in controls, the study found. This suggests that the variants are important players in the genetic risk for autism.

Sebat and his colleagues reported in 2007 that people with autism have more large duplications or deletions — on the order of 20,000 bases — in their DNA than controls do.

And, in a study published last year, another team detected large flips and swaps in the genome in roughly one-quarter of 259 people with autism (they did not report the prevalence of these variants in controls). The new study shows that smaller versions of complex variants are present in everyone, says Sebat.

“When you assemble sequences and see all of the nooks and crannies of them, you find that they’re not so simple as you thought they were,” says Sebat.

The relevance of the new study’s findings to autism is unclear. There are too few people with autism in the study to parse the contribution of this type of variation to autism, says Hakon Hakonarson, associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Still, he says, “it is interesting to know that the number of these structural variants occur at a substantially higher frequency than people have thought before.”

Sequence Probing

Sebat and his colleagues analyzed the whole genomes of 71 people with autism and 164 of their unaffected family members. They designed a series of analytical tools to identify different types of genomic variants and found an average of 5,231 per genome.

Among these thousands of variants, about 250 alter the DNA in an unusual way — for example, ‘jumping genes’ that insert themselves at random places in the genome or an extra copy of a DNA segment that moves elsewhere in the genome, kicking out the DNA where it lands.

“Genes don’t just become deleted or duplicated, they can become completely scrambled,” says Sebat.

His team also found that de novo variants are present in roughly 20 percent of both people with autism and their unaffected family members.

This finding refutes the theory that the autism genome is somehow “fragile,” says Sebat. “Twenty percent of humans have a de novo hiccup in their genome, including me,” he says. “It’s just a normal part of human evolution.”

However, the study did find that de novo variants in people with autism are roughly 10 times larger, on average, than those in controls. And 11 percent of the variants in people with autism are likely to encompass genes — rather than swaths of noncoding DNA — compared with nearly 3 percent in controls.

The rate of de novo variants is high compared with that found in similar studies, says Aaron Quinlan, associate professor of human genetics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the new work. The finding may be skewed by the relatively small number of participants, and in particular having just 26 unaffected siblings, he says.

“Will these numbers pan out as we sequence more and more families?” he asks.

Still, the result implicates at least some of the complex variants in autism. For example, the study found a ‘jumping gene’ that knocked out a segment of a little-known gene called C3ORF35. There is one other example of a non-inherited mutation in this gene in an individual with autism. This second case boosts the evidence for this gene enough to make it a valid autism risk candidate, says Sebat.

So far, the analysis of whole-genome sequencing has lagged behind that of other genetic methods because of a lack of analytical tools, says Hakonarson. “The analytical methods are getting better,” he says.

The new study is “a nice addition to the field that says, ‘Hey, we’ve got to improve our ways of analyzing whole-genome data because there is so much more information there than what we knew about before.’”

  • (1) Brandler W.M. et al. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 98, 667-679 (2016) PubMed

Friday, April 29, 2016

Brains in Pain Cannot Learn!

From Edutopia

By Dr. Lori Desautels
January 9, 2016

"We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver's seat of discipline!"

Educators want nothing more than for our students to feel successful and excited to learn, and to understand the importance of their education. We want our students' attention and respect to match our own.

I believe that most if not all of our students desire the same, but walking through our classroom doors are beautifully complex youth who are neurobiologically wired to feel before thinking.

Carrying In

Educators and students are carrying in much more than backpacks, car keys, conversations, partially-completed homework, and outward laughter. Buried deep in the brain's limbic system is an emotional switching station called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned.

We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety. I am learning that the students who look oppositional, defiant, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.

Over 29% of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF). The thinking lobes in the prefrontal cortex shut down when a brain is in pain.

Trauma and the Brain

What is trauma? When we hear this word, we tend to think of severe neglect or abusive experiences and relationships. This is not necessarily true. A traumatized brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear.

In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear.

Trauma-filled experiences can be sudden or subtle, but the neurobiological changes from negative experiences cause our emotional brain to create a sensitized fear response. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies prioritize survival, and we pay attention to the flood of emotional messages triggering the question, "Am I safe?"

We react physiologically with an irritated limbic system that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration with an excessive secretion of the neuro hormones cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage other parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.

We are all neurobiologically wired for social connection and attachment to others. When children don't receive healthy connections in early development, the brain rewires and adapts just as readily to unhealthy environments.

If brain development is disrupted by adversity at any age, but especially in early development, the skills of problem solving, reflection, and emotional regulation are compromised and diminished.

Children and adolescents need stimulation and nurturance for healthy development and attachment. Students whose development is disrupted often walk through the doors of our schools mistrusting adults.

Prime the Brain

To learn and problem solve, we must prime the brain for engagement and feelings of safety. In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on Common Core proficiency while teacher training has often lost sight of the impact of understanding brain development in students. The almond-shaped clusters of neurons resting deep in each temporal lobe must be quieted if learning and well-being are to be exercised and addressed.

Educators too need to be aware of our brain states and subconscious emotional triggers that could throw us into a power struggle and a stress-response state as we interface with our students.

What can we do to create calm and safe brain states within ourselves and within the students who walk in with an activated fear response?

We first must understand that feelings are the language of the limbic system. When a student in stress becomes angry or shut down, he or she won't hear our words. Talking a student through any discipline procedure or thought reflection sheet in the heat of the moment is fruitless.

Here are three ways to calm the stress response -- two of them through immediate action, and the third by a brief science lesson.

1.) Movement - Movement is critical to learning while calming the stress and fear response. Teachers and students together could design a space, a labyrinth of sorts, where students can walk or move to relieve the irritation of the amygdale.

Physical activities such as push-ups, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and yoga movements help to calm the limbic brain, and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning.

2.) Focused Attention Practices - Focused attention practices teach students how to breathe deeply while focusing on a particular stimulus. When we take two or three minutes a few times each day or class period and teach students how to breathe deeply, we are priming the brain for increased attention and focus. These practices might also include a stimulus such as sound, visualization, or the taste of a food.

The focused attention increases an oxygenated blood and glucose flow to the frontal lobes of the brain where emotional regulation, attention, and problem solving occur.

3.) Understanding the Brain - Teaching students about their amygdala and fear response is so empowering. When we understand that this biology is many thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common.

A middle-school teacher and her students have named the amygdala "Amy G. Dala." By personifying this ancient, emotionally-driven structure in our brains, the students are befriending their fear responses and learning how to lessen negative emotion.

We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver's seat of discipline!

Why Gifted Latinos are Often Overlooked and Underserved

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Claudio Sanchez
April 17, 2016

Humberto Araujo (center) is a second-grader who was identified as gifted
at Echo Mountain Primary School in Arizona. If he went to a school across
the state, it's possible he would never have been noticed. Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Three million school children in the U.S. are identified as gifted. That's roughly the top 10 percent of the nation's highest achieving students.

But Rene Islas, head of the National Association for Gifted Children, says tens of thousands of gifted English language learners are never identified. We sat down with Islas and asked him why.

He started out by explaining that there are several different measures for identifying gifted children. The most common in schools is recognizing achievement, above grade level work. But that poses a problem for English language learners, or ELLs, he says.

Is that because not being fluent in English masks their giftedness?

I can give you some personal experience about this. My mother, a single mom in Tucson, Ariz., worked hard to put me in the best school she could afford. I was labeled ELL. That meant a watered down curriculum and not being exposed to learning opportunities. It wasn't until she moved me to a more affluent, white neighborhood school that educators recognized that I had more potential than people at my previous school recognized.

Humberto and his mother, Zaira Yanez, pose for a portrait outside his
school. Not knowing English, she says, sometimes keeps her from
helping Humberto more. Elissa Nadworny/NPR

Even when schools identify ELL students as gifted, you say the impulse is not to place them in accelerated programs, despite evidence that they benefit from more challenging work while they're learning English.

It's leaving talent on the table when you have these high performing students but you're restraining them. Gifted [ELL] students are actually harmed if they're held back. To me, the real issue is, how many geniuses are being hidden within their school system?

What about the process for identifying gifted ELLs? When schools test ELLs for giftedness, they often rely on observation and prompts consisting of symbols, manipulatives, spacial relationships and patterns. Are these non-verbal tests effective?

The assumption is that if you take away the language barrier, you can make a neutral assessment. We're finding out that's not true and this is a barrier for Spanish speaking students. The consensus out there is that you need multiple measures [verbal and non-verbal] to identify gifted students with language disadvantages.

What about IQ tests?

It's one identification model often used, even though it's difficult to measure true IQ because of language barriers.

In fact, you argue that schools' over-reliance on IQ tests is one reason gifted programs are so racially and ethnically homogeneous. The research, meanwhile, shows that all gifted kids, including ELLs, share an important trait — advanced academic ability.

Researchers have found that a gifted child often knows 60 percent or more of the curriculum that'll be presented in a full [school] year. So imagine if you knew almost two thirds of the content the first day of school.

What about children of immigrant parents who are recent arrivals or are in the U.S. illegally? If their child is gifted and bored to death in school, how likely is it that they'll demand that their child be tested or placed in a more challenging academic program?

There's fear involved when it comes to Hispanic students in particular. There's [also] a high premium on assimilating, fitting in. These are disincentives to go out and apply for a gifted and talented [program]. Our association, NAGC, is often the first stop for parents who encounter those barriers.

Other than NAGC's advocacy for these students, aren't there laws that protect the rights of gifted ELL's the way the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — IDEA — protects students with learning disabilities?

Federal law does not require support for gifted students.

On a final note, under the new federal education law — Every Student Succeeds Act — states for the first time will be required to break down and disclose gifted students' achievement data. School districts will also have to show that teachers who work with gifted students are getting the training they need. It's unclear though what the consequences are if they don't.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Autistic People Are Not Failed Versions of “Normal.” They’re Different, Not Less

From Ideas.Ted.Com

April 4, 2016

When people with developmental disabilities have the support they need to thrive, everyone benefits. In a speech at the United Nations on April 1, Steve Silberman made the case that it’s past time we all learned to honor neurodiversity.

An edited version of his text follows:

"We are living at a very exciting time — a time of great hope for autistic people and their families. Society is on the brink of a major transformation in its understanding of autism and other developmental disabilities, and everyone on the leading edge of this transformation — whether they’re a teacher, a policymaker, a disability-rights advocate, the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, an autistic person themselves, or several of these things at once — is playing a crucial role at this long-awaited turning point in history.

We’re evolving as a society from viewing people with autism merely as checklists of deficits and dysfunctions — seeing them solely through the lens of pathology, only in the light of the things they can’t do or struggle to do — to viewing autism as another way of being human, with its own distinctive strengths and positive attributes as well as profound challenges.

These strengths offer potential boons to our communities and workplaces, but only if we are able to provide the appropriate accommodations, supports, resources and research to improve the quality of life for autistic people and their families.

We’re moving from viewing people on the autism spectrum as failed versions of “normal” to — as the industrial designer and writer Temple Grandin (TED Talk: The world needs all kinds of minds) says — “Different, Not Less.”

It’s easy to misunderstand this approach, which disability-rights activists call honoring neurodiversity, as making light of the very serious, day-to-day challenges that people with autism and their families face, particularly in a society that has barely begun to take up the challenge of building support systems for people who think differently.

People on the spectrum have been part of the fabric of the human community for a very long time.

Talking about autism as a common form of disability that deserves lifelong support and accommodations is very different from the ways the subject is usually discussed. Typically, autism is framed as a something new and fearful under the sun, a historical aberration, the unique disorder of our uniquely disordered modern world. But the comprehensive examination of autism’s history I undertook in NeuroTribes reveals that people on the spectrum have been part of the fabric of the human community for a very long time, hidden behind other labels such as “minimal brain damage” and “childhood schizophrenia.”

They were also literally hidden away from public view in institutions, locked behind walls of shame, stigma and secrecy. I’ve talked to older parents who were advised by their psychiatrists to put their son or daughter in the back ward of a state hospital, quietly remove their photos from the family albums, and never speak of them again.

Just a couple of blocks from where we’re sitting on this overcast morning in New York City, at Bellevue Hospital, more than 850 children were diagnosed with “childhood schizophrenia” in just a few years in the 1950s. Now we know that schizophrenia is in fact very rare in childhood, and that most of these children were on what we now call the autism spectrum. At least two generations of autistic people lived and died in institutions, where they were subjected to brutal experimental treatments and thought to be incapable of learning.

In Nazi Germany, people with autism and other disabilities were murdered by the thousands, in a practice run for the Holocaust against the Jews. Even today, in countries where autism is not well understood, autistic people are treated like animals, locked in attics and chained in basements.

In the past 15 years, the United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in searching for possible causes of autism in the human genome and in the environment. I’d like to tell you that this massive scientific effort has produced breakthroughs that enabled an autistic college student to control her anxiety, navigate her daily schedule, graduate and get a job; or enabled a young boy to communicate with his mother for the first time using an affordable keyboard. But it’s not true.

I have some deeply sobering news. A report issued recently from a major autism research organization in England called Autistica contained statistics that are a damning indictment of our failure to provide for the pressing daily needs of autistic people and their families. What every parent of a child on the spectrum knows is that, after high school, kids “age out” of the very meager amount of services that are provided for them. Families often describe this process as “falling off a cliff.”

There are very few programs to help young autistic people transition out of school and into the workplace, even if they’re fully capable of working and very eager to work. Likewise, there are very few options for autistic people who are unable to live without significant support. Many parents of autistic children have told me that they lie awake, night after night, worrying about what will happen to their son or daughter after they die.

Shockingly, in the United States, we don’t even know how many autistic adults are out there, struggling to get by with almost no support and resources, because a basic study of the prevalence of autism among adults has not yet been done here. A study like that was done in England in 2011, and the results would be very surprising to most people. By going out into the community, the researchers learned that the prevalence of autism among adults is approximately the same as the prevalence among children.

One of the most neglected areas of research today is what factors help autistic adults lead successful lives. A government report a couple of years ago found that in America, this research accounts for only 2 percent of the total funding outlay, and that number is falling. This is absolutely unacceptable.

We fool ourselves into thinking that autism is a “puzzle” that will be solved by the next medical breakthrough.

The brutal cost of that research gap was laid out in the starkest possible terms in the Autistica report: Autistic adults who don’t have an intellectual disability face nine times higher risk of committing suicide than non-autistic people.

Another report, issued by England’s National Autistic Society, reveals how much stigma and prejudice autistic people face every day of their lives. The vast majority of autistic people and their families report feeling socially isolated, and half of them say they only rarely leave the house, because when they do, they’re subjected to condemning stares, derogatory remarks, or more violent forms of bullying.

For folks on the spectrum who do have an intellectual disability, the leading cause of death, after heart disease, is epilepsy. Between 20 and 40 percent of autistic people suffer seizures. We know that epilepsy manifests very differently in autistic people than in non-autistic people, but there has been virtually no research to determine if the drugs used to control seizures work differently in autistic people, or have different side effects.

By focusing exclusively on long-range research into alleged “risk factors” for autism, while ignoring the need to dramatically improve the quality of life for autistic people and their families today, we fool ourselves into thinking that autism is a “puzzle” that will be solved by the next medical breakthrough.

Instead, what autism really is is an enormous population of men and women with tremendous potential who are being denied what everyone deserves: the chance to live a happy, healthy, safe, secure and productive life. Viewed in this light, autistic people are one of the largest disenfranchised minorities in the world.

Imagine if society had put off the issue of civil rights until the genetics of race were sorted out, or denied wheelchair users access to schools and public buildings while insisting, “Someday, with the help of science, everyone will walk.” Viewed as a form of disability that is relatively common rather than as a baffling medical enigma, autism is not so “puzzling” after all. Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodations is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability rights movement proves.

What would a better world for autistic people and their families look like?

Last week, I attended a summit conference called Autism at Work, hosted in Philadelphia by one of the largest software makers in the world, SAP. There were representatives there from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Ernst & Young, and a number of other leading companies. SAP has made a commitment to hiring hundreds of autistic programmers and product managers in the coming years, based on a model developed by Thorkill Sonne of Specialisterne. The project has taken off in seven countries, including India, Germany, Canada, Brazil and the United States.

Instead of forcing potential autistic employees to prove their worth by charming a recruiter in a face-to-face interview, SAP takes potential employees through a five-week process in which the candidates can demonstrate their abilities by showing the quality of their work in ways that draw on their natural strengths and interests.

The program includes training in basic life skills, and SAP’s mentors take the candidates out for pizza and sporting events, so they can get to know the individuals behind the diagnostic label. Then the company builds a “support circle” around each candidate that enables them to build their skill set working in a team.

Let’s move beyond shallow “awareness” of autism to appreciate autistic people in the fullness and depth of their humanity.

The project’s director in the United States, José Velasco — who is the father of two autistic children himself — explained that because tech employees are generally so hard to retain and expensive to replace, the company benefits from the fierce loyalty and intense focus of its employees on the spectrum. Many had been unemployed for years before SAP hired them. “This is not about charity,” he said. “It’s about increasing our profits and building value for our stockholders.”

There have also been promising recent developments for autistic people with higher support needs. A new set of Medicaid guidelines in the United States, crafted with the input of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, ensures that people with many types of disabilities have the opportunity to live and work in truly integrated settings, instead of in group homes and segregated day programs. 
A number of states have passed laws or regulations to eliminate sheltered workshops (segregated settings where exploitation and abuse are rampant) and ban the payment of sub-minimum wages to disabled workers.

Inclusion does not mean simply inviting people with disabilities into our workplaces, classrooms and communities as a compassionate gesture. It’s about ensuring that every member of our society is given the greatest chance for success. When people with developmental disabilities have what they need to thrive, everyone benefits. That’s the message behind the notion of honoring neurodiversity.

Later this month, the first neurodiversity conference ever to take place in Africa will be hosted in Ghana. Neurodiversity student groups are popping up on campuses all over the world, where young people on the spectrum learn to take pride in their identities, have confidence in their potential, and develop skills to become powerful advocates for their needs and the needs of other disabled people. Let’s move beyond shallow “awareness” of autism to appreciate autistic people in the fullness and depth of their humanity. We have much to learn from them."


Steve Silberman is a writer and contributing editor for Wired who covers science and society. He is the author of "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity," a book exploring neurodiversity and the link between autism and genius.

Decades ago, few pediatricians had heard of autism. In 1975, 1 in 5,000 kids was estimated to have it. Today, 1 in 68 is on the autism spectrum. What caused this steep rise? Steve Silberman points to “a perfect storm of autism awareness” — a pair of doctors with an accepting view, an unexpected pop culture moment and a new clinical test. But to really understand, we have to go back further to an Austrian doctor by the name of Hans Asperger, who published a pioneering paper in 1944. Because it was buried in time, autism has been shrouded in misunderstanding ever since.

Educating America on School Funding Inequality

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
April 18, 2016

NPR is embarking on a three week tour of school funding. The stories will range from social science and policy to first person accounts from schools across the country. This morning was just a primer of the days to come:

Over the next three weeks, the NPR Ed Team will unveil a vast collection of "School Money" stories told in collaboration with station reporters across the country. Our goal: To give voice to this school-funding imbalance and to explain what happens when many of America's poorest students also attend its poorest schools.

Here's one cause for alarm: The achievement gap between this nation's wealthiest and poorest students is growing dramatically, not shrinking.

We'll begin each week with a question to guide our coverage. For this, our first week:

"How do we pay for our schools?"

NPR's has also created a website with loads of data and interactive tools to give the average person a sense of how schools are funding nationally and locally. See HERE.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Free Talk and Book Signing with Autism Activist and Blogger Susan Senator Monday, May 2nd

From Understanding Our Differences

April 27, 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016
for a talk and book signing with

Noted author, public speaker, autism activist

at the Newton Education Center
100 Walnut Street, Newtonville, in Room 210
7:00 PM 
Click here to register and save your space.

Advance registration is requested, as space is limited.
Attendance is free.

Susan's books will be available for purchase and signing, including her latest, Autism Adulthood: Strategies and Insights for a Fulfilling Life.

Read more about Susan's books on autism parenting here.

Why Do Girls Tend to Have More Anxiety than Boys?

From The New York Times Blog "Well Family"

By Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.
April 21, 2016

The laid-back, underachieving boy; the hyper-achieving, anxious girl. Over the three decades since I graduated from medical school, and especially over the past 10 years, this pattern has become increasingly common in my practice.

In one case, which is pretty typical, my patient’s parents are concerned about their son. He’s not working hard at school and his grades are sliding. At 16, he spends most of his free time playing video games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, or surfing the Web for pictures of girls. He’s happy as a clam.

Both parents are actually quite proud of their 14-year-old daughter, who is a straight-A student, an athlete and has many friends. But when I met with her, she told me that she isn’t sleeping well. She wakes up in the middle of the night, feeling remorseful about having eaten a whole slice of pizza for dinner. She often has shortness of breath.

Recently, she has begun cutting herself with razor blades, on her upper inner thigh where her parents won’t see. She hasn’t told her parents any of this. On the surface, she is the golden girl. Inside, she is falling apart.

Why is it that girls tend to be more anxious than boys?

It may start with how they feel about how they look. Some research has shown that in adolescence, girls tend to become more dissatisfied with their bodies, whereas boys tend to become more satisfied with their bodies. Another factor has to do with differences in how girls and boys use social media.

A girl is much more likely than a boy to post a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit, while the boy is more likely to post a photo where the emphasis is on something he has done rather than on how he looks. If you don’t like Jake’s selfie showing off his big trophy, he may not care. But if you don’t like Sonya’s photo of herself wearing her bikini, she’s more likely to take it personally.

Imagine another girl sitting in her bedroom, alone. She’s scrolling through other girls’ Instagram and Snapchat feeds. She sees Sonya showing off her new bikini; Sonya looks awesome. She sees Madison at a party, having a blast. She sees Vanessa with her adorable new puppy. And she thinks: I’m just sitting here in my bedroom, not doing anything. My life sucks.

Boys are at lower risk for the toxic effects of social media than girls are, for at least three reasons. First, boys are less likely to be heavily invested in what you think of their selfies. “Does this swimsuit make me look fat?” is a question asked by girls more often than by boys.

Second, boys tend to overestimate how interesting their own life is. Third, the average boy is likely to spend more time playing video games than Photoshopping his selfie for Instagram. And in video games, unlike social media, everybody truly can be a winner, eventually. If you play Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty long enough, you will, sooner or later, complete all the missions, if you just keep at it.

Parents can’t easily change any of those factors. You can’t easily get a girl to be less concerned about her looks; or to overestimate how interesting her own life is; or to care more about completing all the missions in Grand Theft Auto than about how many likes she’s getting on Instagram (nor is it clear that this last change, even if accomplished, would be a change for the better).

So, what can you do, to improve the odds for your daughter?

If your daughter is the girl sitting in her bedroom looking at other girls’ social media, maybe she shouldn’t be in her bedroom at all. In the typical American household today, when kids go home, they go to their bedrooms and aren’t seen again except perhaps for meals. That’s crazy.

A family can’t be a family if the kids spend more time alone in their bedrooms than with their family members. Insist that your daughter, or son, do whatever they’re doing online in a public space: in the kitchen or the living room.

There should be nothing in the bedroom except a bed: no TV, no PlayStation, no screens. That’s the official recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Another suggestion: fight for suppertime. And don’t allow phones at the table. In a 2013 Canadian survey of kids across a range of backgrounds, those who had more meals with parents were much less likely to have been feeling sad, anxious or lonely. They were more likely to help others and more likely to report being satisfied with their own lives.

But be mindful of what you say at the table. Discussions of poor grades or disappointing test scores are out of bounds. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Of course. The origin of the universe and the meaning of life? Certainly. But the personal shortcomings of your child are, as a rule, not appropriate suppertime conversation in a loving family.

A third suggestion: No headsets and no earbuds in the car. When your child is in the car with you, you should be listening to her and she should be listening to you – not to Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus or Akon or Eminem. Teach the art of face-to-face conversation. Or play a word game. Or have the whole family sing a song. Or make up a limerick, as my family and I did last night. It sounds corny, but it helps.

If your daughter is not sleeping at night, or is cutting herself with razor blades, then limericks at the dinner table are not likely to be a sufficient cure. I do prescribe medication, cautiously and judiciously, for the clinically anxious girl. There is also a role for professional counseling, alongside or sometimes in place of medication.

Regardless, medication should never be the most important part of the treatment. The most important part of the treatment is to prioritize the family, to give your child a secure grounding in a loving home.


Leonard Sax is a psychologist and a practicing family physician in West Chester, PA, and the author, most recently, of “The Collapse of Parenting.”

Understanding Genes Linked to Autism-Relevant Behavior in High-Risk Siblings

From the University of Miami
via ScienceDaily

April 12, 2016

Infants who demonstrated less initiating joint attention, using eye contact to share an experience with another person, tended to have higher levels of autism symptoms at age three. 

University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences psychology researchers are searching for early markers of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previously, UM researchers published a study predicting ASD symptoms from children's behavior in the first year of life. Infants who demonstrated less initiating joint attention, using eye contact to share an experience with another person, tended to have higher levels of autism symptoms at age three.

Recently, UM researchers published another study in the journal Autism Research examining associations between specific dopamine genes and initiating joint attention in high-risk siblings, children who have an older brother or sister with autism spectrum disorder.

Devon Gangi, who received her Ph.D. working with U.M. College of Arts & Sciences Psychology Professor Dr. Daniel Messinger, is a co-author of the study and now a postdoctoral fellow at the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis.

She explains, "Joint attention is especially relevant for the development of children with autism and high-risk siblings."

The researchers studied two groups of children -- high-risk and low-risk -- from infancy until they turned three years old. Joint attention behavior was observed during interactions with an examiner in the first year of life, and genotypes were collected for two dopamine genes, DRD4 and DRD2.

Gangi explains, "Early levels of initiating joint attention have been linked to later levels of ASD symptoms in high-risk siblings. So we examined whether these dopamine genes might help explain differences in early levels of initiating joint attention."

Researchers studied these particular genes because they are linked to attention. "We are interested in dopamine because we know it is associated with attention in all kids, and attention is especially important for kids with autism. Attention to others is about connecting with another person, and that can be difficult for kids with autism spectrum disorder," said Dr. Messinger.

The findings show that in high-risk siblings, children with more genotypes linked to less efficient functioning of the dopamine system displayed lower levels of initiating joint attention.

"Finding links between genotypes and behaviors that are especially important for the development of children at risk for autism, such as initiating joint attention, may help us to understand and identify high-risk children who are at the greatest risk for difficulties in particular behavioral domains even before they show delays or difficulties," said Gangi.

The study is entitled, "Dopaminergic Variants in Siblings at High Risk for Autism: Associations with Initiating Joint Attention."

Journal Reference
  • Devon N. Gangi, Daniel S. Messinger, Eden R. Martin, Michael L. Cuccaro. Dopaminergic variants in siblings at high risk for autism: Associations with initiating joint attention. Autism Research, 2016; DOI: 10.1002/aur.1623

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

FDA Moves to Ban Shock Devices Used on Those with Special Needs

From DisabilityScoop

By Michelle Diament
April 22, 2016

The Food and Drug Administration is moving forward with plans to ban devices used to administer electric shocks to those with developmental disabilities in an effort to modify their behavior.

The FDA wants to ban electrical stimulation devices used to treat
self-injurious or aggressive behavior citing an "unreasonable and substantial"
risk to public health. (FDA/Flickr)

The agency said it will issue a proposed rule Monday barring the use of what are known as electrical stimulation devices, which use electrodes that attach to the skin to deliver electric shocks with an eye toward conditioning individuals not to engage in self-injurious or aggressive behaviors.

“FDA has determined that these devices present an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury that cannot be corrected or eliminated by labeling,” the federal agency said in its proposal, which comes two years after an advisory panel meeting on the issue signaled that the FDA might act on the devices.

The use of electrical stimulation devices has long been controversial.

The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts — which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities as well as those with behavioral and emotional problems — is the only facility in the nation known to be using the devices.

Officials with the Rotenberg Center have insisted that the approach is a last resort for those with “life-threatening behavior disorders.” But disability advocates argue that the skin shocks are inhumane and the FDA now appears to agree.

“Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of the individuals who are exposed to these devices,” said William Maisel, acting director of the Office of Device Evaluation in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “These devices are dangerous and a risk to public health — and we believe they should not be used.”

Particularly troubling, the agency said, is that many of the people at risk of receiving electric shocks are not able to communicate or make their own treatment decisions because of their disabilities.

In a 2014 FDA report, investigators said they learned of burns, scars, muscle spasms, seizures and other effects from those who received the skin shocks. Former Rotenberg Center students told the agency that the experience left them “fearful” and “anxious.”

According to the FDA, between 45 and 50 individuals at the Rotenberg Center are currently believed to be exposed to the shocks. Some individuals may need time to be transitioned to a new treatment approach if the rule is finalized, the agency said.

The Rotenberg Center said in a statement Friday that it had not been notified by the FDA about the proposal.

“Aversive therapy, which may include continent skin shock treatments known as the GED (graduated electronic decelerator), are incorporated into treatment plans for students who struggle with violent, abusive or mutilating behaviors toward themselves or others, only after their families have exhausted other therapies, residential programs and psychiatric facilities,” the statement said. “We hope that the families directly involved will have a voice before any final decision is made on this matter.”

The proposed rule will be up for public comment for 30 days before it can be finalized.

9 Out of 10 Parents Think Their Kids are on Grade Level. They're Probably Wrong

From nprEd
How learning happens.

By Anya Kamenetz
April 21, 2016

"In a recent survey of public school parents, 90 percent stated that their children were performing on or above grade level in both math and reading. The nationally administered test known as the Nation's Report Card, or NAEP, suggests a very different reality. About half of white students are on grade level in math and reading by fourth grade; the percentages are lower for African-Americans and Hispanics."

In public radio's mythical Lake Wobegon, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

The first two conditions are merely unlikely. The third is a mathematical absurdity. However, a new survey suggests that almost all parents believe it to be true.

In a recent survey of public school parents, 90 percent stated that their children were performing on or above grade level in both math and reading. Parents held fast to this sunny belief no matter their own income, education level, race or ethnicity.

The nationally administered test known as the Nation's Report Card, or NAEP, suggests a very different reality. About half of white students are on grade level in math and reading by fourth grade; the percentages are lower for African-Americans and Hispanics.

Bibb Hubbard founded the new organization, Learning Heroes, that commissioned the nationwide survey of 1,300 parents of kids in grades K-8. She calls this result "shocking."

"There is this cognitive dissonance happening," Hubbard says. "We've got to find good, productive ways to educate and inform parents."

The mission of Learning Heroes is to provide tools and resources to do just that. As new standards, new curricula and new tests are sweeping through schools, they are trying to help parents understand what is expected of students so they can, in turn, help their students succeed.

Morgan Polikoff, who researches K-12 education policy at the University of Southern California, says the "Lake Wobegon effect" is actually no surprise.

"Kids are getting passed on from grade to grade, a large percentage of kids graduate high school on time," he explains. "So certainly parents have been getting the message for a long time that their kids are doing just fine."

In fact, the high school graduation rate is over 80 percent, and fewer than 2 percent of students are held back a grade, so perhaps parents can't be blamed for thinking their own kids are at least on par with their peers.

Polikoff points out that on the other hand, the grade-level standards on the NAEP could be seen as "ambitious." But most state tests don't show 90 percent of kids performing on grade level, either — not even close.

But, he adds, the disconnect between parent perceptions and test scores is still "a problem."

First of all, many high school graduates must take remedial classes when they get to college, and the college graduation rate is relatively low.

"It also could be an equity problem," says Polikoff, noting that "the gaps between reality and perception" are larger for African-American and Hispanic parents than for others.

The Common Core, Polikoff points out, once offered the prospect of having most students around the country take the same annual tests aligned to the same standards. This might have made it easier for parents to compare and build a general understanding of what it means to be "on grade level."

But the reality in the past few years has been messier: states adopting, then abandoning the Core, and joining, then leaving, the two official Common Core testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC. So there is less of a critical mass behind any one test. Even passing or "cut" scores can change from year to year.

The solution Hubbard offers is more about people than test scores. "Build deeper relationships and ask tougher questions of your student's teachers," she suggests. "Instead of the teacher just saying, 'He's a great kid,' ask, 'Is he reading on grade level?'"