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Monday, October 31, 2016

A First-Timer’s Guide to Evaluation

From Smart Kids with LD

By Eve Kessler, Esq.
October 23, 2016

At a Glance
  • For parents who suspect their child may have learning disabilities, the evaluation and recommendation process can be daunting.
  • In fact, the process is a problem-solving exercise that need not be intimidating.
  • Below is a straightforward explanation of what you can expect, with answers to your most fundamental concerns.



The purpose of the evaluation process is to identify your child’s specific learning strengths, needs, and concerns in order to make recommendations for an educational program suited to his unique learning profile.

The process is essentially a problem-solving exercise that involves gathering information from various sources, including informal and formal observations, schoolwork and school records, standardized and specialized test results, and discussions with parents and professionals.

The process can be arduous, particularly for those who have not been through it before. Following are some tips to help you reach a successful conclusion:

  • Make sure you understand at the outset the purpose of the evaluation: Why is it being given? What areas will be evaluated? What information will be gained? What specific tests and subtests will be used and why? Are the evaluations administered in a language, form, and manner likely to yield accurate information about your child’s abilities academically, developmentally, and functionally?

  • Whether you or the district initiates an evaluation and whether it is to be performed by someone from the district or by an independent professional, be familiar with the qualifications of the evaluator. Get recommendations from people you respect before deciding whom to use, and make sure you have input into the choice.
  • When reviewing an evaluation, ask yourself: Does this sound like my child? How does this compare with other evaluations? What is getting in the way of my child being able to learn? How does this impact my child’s ability to be successful in school?
  • To ensure your understanding, get a copy of the evaluation and recommendations and discuss them with evaluators prior to the IEP meeting. It is helpful for the evaluator to attend the IEP meeting to discuss her report with the team.
  • An Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) is an evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the school district. Parents may obtain an IEE at their own expense at any time, but they have the right to request an IEE, at the district’s expense, if they disagree with a district’s evaluation or recommendations. If the district pays for the evaluation, it is the property of the district and becomes part of your child’s educational records. If you pay for the evaluation, it is your property and the results need not be shared with the school-based team.
  • If parents request an IEE at the district’s expense, the district must, without unnecessary delay, either initiate a due process hearing to prove that its original evaluation is appropriate, or ensure that an IEE is provided at the district’s expense.
  • If you share the results of the IEE with the team or if the school pays for the evaluation, the team must “consider” the results and recommendations when making decisions regarding your child’s educational program.
  • If new to a school system, consider informing your child’s school of past evaluations, services, and supports.
  • Prior to the IEP meeting, provide the school with copies of the evaluations you plan to discuss.
  • Inform school personnel of any services your child receives independently, outside of school. Ask that providers collaborate so everyone is on the same page.
  • Understand that the end result of the evaluation process is a team decision regarding eligibility and services.
  • You are a key member of the team and your input is valuable.

Adapted from A Web Guide to the Special Services Partnership, published by SPED*NET Wilton (CT) and available online at www.spednetwilton.org. Kessler is President of SPED*NET Wilton and an author of the guide.


Turning School Discipline Over to the Police Does Not Work

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
October 20, 2016

"It is hard to preach lessons to law enforcement when schools are not even following those lessons themselves." 


The ACLU of California has released a new report titled The Right To Remain a Student: How California School Policies Fail to Protect and Serve.

The report begins:

"Over the past two decades, police officers in the United States have increasingly displaced school administrators as disciplinarians, responding to minor offenses and conduct violations that pose no direct threat to personal safety. This increase in student-police interactions has funneled thousands of students into the school-to-prison pipeline and created adverse legal consequences for school districts.

The Right to Remain a Student: How California School Policies Fail to Protect and Serve details these consequences and describes the current state of school district policies in California that pertain to police on campus. Additionally, it shares model policies that both promote school safety and protect student rights. These model policies are designed to ensure that school staff will manage police encounters safely and equitably for all students—no matter their race, class, disability status, gender, or where they go to school."

It finds:

"Many districts have conflicting, vague, or absent law enforcement policies that provide little to no meaningful guidance to school staff on when to call police to campus or how to interact with police.

Most school districts give staff complete discretion to call police to address student misbehaviors that should be handled by school staff such as administrators or counselors, including:
  • a. General school rule violations (62% of districts give staff discretion);
  • b. Bullying and harassment (60.7% of districts give staff discretion);
  • c. School disruption (57.4% of districts give staff discretion); and,
  • d. Vandalism (66.7% of districts give staff discretion or even require reporting to police).

Very few schools (4% or less in each category) have policies limiting police contact for rule-breaking or minor offenses.

California school districts provide inadequate guidance to school staff on what they should do when police officers question students on campus.
  • a. Of school districts statewide, 70.9% allow police officers to interview students immediately upon demand, stating that staff “shall not hinder or delay” interrogations;
  • b. Less than 1% provide that an adult (not a police officer) must be present to make sure the student’s civil rights are observed during police questioning;
  • c. Only 1.3% of districts have a police ensuring that staff or police advise students of their constitutional right to remain silent.

California school districts similarly do not protect students who are arrested or removed from campus by police.
  • a. Of California school districts, 30% have no barriers to police removing a student from campus and 8% provide no guidance whatsoever about police officers removing students from campus;
  • b. Only 18.3% of California school districts require a school administrator to ascertain the reason the officer must remove the student from school;
  • c. Only 5.6% of school districts maintain any procedures governing the enforcement of arrest warrants on campus."

A key thesis of the report is the need to distinguish between every day misbehavior of students and other behavior that may actually justify police involvement. As I emphasize in the book Ending Zero Tolerance, many schools do not even distinguish between these types of behavior in their own suspension and expulsion policies, which has also caused a dramatic increase in school exclusion.

In other words, it is hard to preach lessons to law enforcement when schools are not even following those lessons themselves.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Impaired Recycling of Mitochondria in Autism?

From Boston Children's Hospital
via ScienceDaily

October 18, 2016

Tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), a genetic disorder that causes autism in about half of those affected, could stem from a defect in a basic system cells use to recycle their mitochondria, report scientists at Boston Children's Hospital.


These iPSC-derived cortical neurons from a patient with tuberous sclerosis
complex show a large number of dysfunctional mitochondria (red/green).
The cell nuclei are stained blue. 
Credit: Courtesy of Sahin Lab

The scientists believe their findings, published online October 18 by Cell Reports, open new treatment possibilities not just for TSC, but possibly for other forms of autism and some neurologic disorders.

Mitochondria, the organelles responsible for cellular energy production and metabolism, constantly get recycled. Through a process known as autophagy ("self-eating"), cells literally digest their damaged or aging mitochondria, clearing the way for healthy replacements.

(Research on how autophagy works earned a Nobel Prize earlier this month.)

The new study, led by Mustafa Sahin, M.D., Ph.D., and co-first authors Darius Ebrahimi-Fakhari, M.D., Ph.D, a resident at Boston Children's Hospital, and medical student Afshin Saffari, in Boston Children's F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center, shows that autophagy is defective in TSC.


The scientists further showed that two existing classes of drugs counter the defect: the epilepsy drug carbamazepine, and drugs known as mTOR inhibitors. When treated, the dysfunctional neurons were able to clear damaged mitochondria and replenish healthy mitochondria, restoring a normal turnover.

"Our findings point to possible treatments for enhancing mitophagy for some neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases," says Sahin, who is also director of the Translational Neuroscience Center at Boston Children's and senior author on the paper.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Defects in mitophagy, or autophagy of mitochondria, have already been implicated in a number of neurologic disorders such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Mitochondria have also been studied in autism for years, but the findings have been largely anecdotal and inconclusive, in part because the autism population is diverse and hard to define.

"We decided to use tuberous sclerosis, a genetically defined disorder that has a high incidence of autism, as a model to understand the role of mitochondrial dynamics," says Sahin.

Sahin, Ebrahimi-Fakhari and colleagues studied both rat neurons and patient-derived neurons (created from induced pluripotent stem cells) affected by TSC and used live-cell imaging to examine the distribution and dynamics of mitochondria. They found that the TSC neurons as a whole had more mitochondria, and in particular more fragmented and dysfunctional mitochondria.

Axons Take the Hit

Then they examined the neurons' axons, the projections that send messages to other cells. Mitochondria play a critical role in axons, and are found in high numbers at presynaptic sites -- the tips of axons that form synapses or junctions with other neurons and release neurotransmitters. But the axons of both rat neurons and neurons from TSC patients were depleted of mitochondria.

"We think this could have implications for how neurons talk to each other," says Ebrahimi-Fakhari. "Synapses that lose the support of mitochondria might be releasing neurotransmitters too much or too little."

Diving deeper, they found that while mitophagy was increased in the body of the cell, it was reduced in the axons. Although proteins involved in the early steps of mitophagy increased in the axons, autophagosomes and lysosomes -- the organelles that do the digesting -- failed to appear around the damaged mitochondria. Instead, the mitochondria were being shuttled out of the axons, back to the body of the cell, without being replaced.

Therapeutic Opportunity?

The researchers were able to restore normal mitophagy and replenish functioning mitochondria -- in both neurons in a dish and in live mice -- in several ways:

  • by reintroducing a healthy copy of the gene mutated in TSC;
  • by adding rapamycin, an mTOR inhibitor that the Sahin lab has shown to improve TSC in animal models and that is currently in clinical trials;
  • with carbamazepine, a common anti-seizure medication, that enhances autophagy through a different mechanism of action than mTOR inhibitors.

Most notably, mitochondria were replenished at pre-synaptic sites, where their presence is most critical.

The findings shed intriguing light on what is already known about TSC and autism. Growing evidence, including from previous studies in the Sahin lab, shows that autism, intellectual disability and seizures in many patients with TSC may result, at least in part, from synaptic dysfunction.

Autism itself is increasingly seen as a disorder of synapses -- and this study hints at one possible way synapses might go awry.

"Our work defines mitochondrial homeostasis as a therapeutic target for TSC, and may also have implications for other neurological diseases that involve mitochondrial dysfunction," says Ebrahimi-Fakhari.

Journal Reference
  • Darius Ebrahimi-Fakhari, Afshin Saffari, Lara Wahlster, Alessia Di Nardo, Daria Turner, Tommy L. Lewis, Christopher Conrad, Jonathan M. Rothberg, Jonathan O. Lipton, Stefan K├Âlker, Georg F. Hoffmann, Min-Joon Han, Franck Polleux, Mustafa Sahin. Impaired Mitochondrial Dynamics and Mitophagy in Neuronal Models of Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. Cell Reports, 2016; 17 (4): 1053 DOI:10.1016/j.celrep.2016.09.054

When is a Student ‘Gifted’ or ‘Disabled’? A New Study Shows Racial Bias Plays a Role in Deciding

From Chalkbeat

By Alex Zimmerman
October 20, 2016

Racial bias among educators may play a larger role than previously understood in deciding whether students are referred for special education or gifted programs, according to new research from NYU.


The study, the first of its kind to show a direct link between teacher bias and referrals for special services, found stark differences in how teachers classify students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds showing identical signs of disability or giftedness.

Teachers were more likely to see academic shortfalls as disabilities among white students, even when students of color demonstrated the same deficits. They tended to see these struggles as “problems to fix,” the study explains, if students were white.

And, students of color were more likely be referred for special-education testing when they had emotional or behavioral issues compared with identical white peers — and were less likely to be identified as gifted.

Those findings may help inform a debate that has divided researchers: Is special education racist if students of color tend to represent a greater share of its population? Or do problems associated with poverty that can affect cognitive development (lead exposure, for instance) mean that students of color might actually be underrepresented in special education settings?

The study, which is set to appear in the journal Social Science Research, doesn’t resolve that debate. But it does offer evidence that bias plays a role in both over- and under-classifying students for certain services.

“The issue is that racism affects all of us, and teachers are in positions of power,” said Rachel Fish, the study’s author and a professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School.

Educators are an important focus because they are responsible for about 75 percent of all referrals for gifted or special ed programs, according to the report. And in the vast majority of cases, the evaluation process confirms a teacher’s suspicion.

Fish was able to isolate a student’s race as a deciding factor by giving 70 third- and fourth-grade teachers culled from an unnamed large, northeastern city a survey that described identical behaviors, but signaled different racial identities.

Teachers were randomly assigned to read profiles of fictional male students who showed signs of academic challenges, behavioral/emotional deficits, or giftedness. The only thing that changed was their name: Jacob, Carlos, or Demetrius.

The teachers who participated were more likely to see academic deficits in white students as “medicalized problems to fix,” while black and Latino students with the same deficits were seen as ordinary. The implication, according to the study, is that “low academic performance is normal for [students of color], and not a problem to remediate.”

And in terms of behavioral challenges, black and Latino students’ actions were “seen as more aggressive and problematic than misbehavior by white boys.”

That could have troubling implications for equal access to appropriate education services because students who are classified as having behavioral issues tend to be treated differently.

“If you’re labeled with an emotional behavior disorder, you’re likely going to be excluded from the general education classroom and it’s likely you’ll be greatly stigmatized,” Fish said in an interview. While there isn’t much conclusive research on how students’ classifications affect them down the road, there is evidence that being labeled with a behavioral disorder is associated with future incarceration.

The study also found that bias helped determine whether students were considered gifted: Teachers evaluated white students’ skills more favorably than their black and Latino peers.

The picture is slightly more complicated for English learners. Teachers tended to refer a student with mild academic challenges for special education services if he was a white ELL student, as opposed to a black or Latino ELL peer.

They were more likely to perceive Latino boys as having behavioral issues if they were non-native English speakers. But they were less likely to perceive white ELL boys as having behavior problems than their white non-ELL peers, according to the study.

Many of these problems are evident in New York City, where students of color are under-represented in gifted and talented programs, and white students often face less severe behavioral interventions.

Still, Fish acknowledges that the study has some limitations and shouldn’t be overgeneralized. Because it relies on a small group of teachers evaluating fictional students, it’s hard to claim that her findings apply in real situations across the board.

But Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College who studies inclusive education, said that while previous research has shown racial disparities in gifted and special education, this study is among the first to describe one mechanism of how that sorting happens.

“We don’t really have very good ways to get at implicit bias,” she said. “And this is a really, really good way.”

Still, like Fish, Oyler is careful to point out that the findings don’t suggest teachers should be branded as racists; there are larger institutional factors at play that enable implicit bias.

“What is wrong with our system that we continue to sort and label kids at both ends of the imagined bell curve,” she asks, “and then give them different kinds of educational opportunities based on what we perceive them to be?”

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Teen Suicide is Contagious, and the Problem May Be Worse than We Thought

From Newsweek
via MSN.com

By Max Kutner
October 21, 2016



Lucrecia Sjoerdsma knew what to watch for: the lingering moodiness, the sudden disinterest in what once brought joy. But her daughter, Riley Winters, a ninth-grader at Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was always smiling—the 15-year-old used whitening strips because she loved showing off her perfect teeth. “Her smile really matched her personality,” Sjoerdsma says.

A petite girl with brown hair that went just past her shoulders, Riley seemed to be a happy, goofy kid and a kind young woman who could sense when others were down and find a way to cheer them up. Riley liked hiking and rock climbing. She spoke of joining the military or becoming an archaeologist, a physical therapist or a dental hygienist. She had plenty of time to decide.

Even though her mother had no sense that Riley was having problems, she knew it was important to talk to her daughter about suicide, and so she did. Between 2013 and 2015, 29 kids in their county had killed themselves, many from just a handful of schools, including Riley’s. There had been gunshot deaths, hangings and drug overdoses. And then there were those choking deaths the victims’ parents insisted were accidental.

Riley knew of at least two of the kids who had killed themselves the previous winter: an older girl at school (they had mutual friends) and a boy in her Christian youth group. Such peripheral connections are all that seem to connect most of the kids in the area who had killed themselves, and school and county officials began to worry they were witnessing a copycat effect...until copycat became too weak a word. It was more like an outbreak, a plague spreading through school hallways.

About a year after Sjoerdsma and her daughter last spoke about suicide, Riley was staying at her father’s house one night when she downed a small bottle of whiskey, then sent out a series of troubling texts and Snapchat messages. “I’m sorry it had to be me,” she wrote to one friend. Then she slipped on a blue Patagonia fleece and snuck out the basement window, carrying her father’s gun.

When Riley’s mother and friends saw the messages, they went looking for her at local parks, gas stations and friends’ houses, all the while begging her via texts and calls to come home.

The next morning, they found her body in the woods behind her father’s house. She’d shot herself in the head.

Three days later, and two days before Riley’s memorial service, another Discovery Canyon Campus student killed himself. Her daughter probably knew the boy, but they weren’t close, Riley’s mother says. Nine days later, yet another classmate committed suicide. He had been on the swim team with the boy who’d just killed himself.


And that wasn’t the end of it: Five students from the school of 1,180 died by suicide between late 2015 and summer 2016, a rate almost 49 times the yearly national average for kids their age.

It’s not just at that one school. As of mid-October, the total for teen suicides this year in El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, is 13, one short of the total for all of 2015. Neighboring Douglas County had a similar crisis a few years ago, and news of a classmate’s suicide no longer fazes students in the area, kids say.


“It’s become almost commonplace,” says Gracie Packard, a high school junior in Riley’s district. “Because it doesn’t happen once every four years. It happens four times in a month, sometimes.”


The youngest person to die this year in El Paso County was 13. “[Even] for a job that’s generally pretty tragic, it’s disheartening,” says Dr. Leon Kelly, the county’s deputy chief medical examiner. “You feel powerless. You feel like,Another one?

“Another day, another kid. It’s hard.”


Death on Instagram

Sociologists have long said people who form bonds are less likely to kill themselves, but sometimes the opposite is true—studies now show that one person’s suicidal behavior can spur another’s, and one death can lead to more deaths.


Decades of research prove that a startling range of emotions and behaviors can be contagious—from moodiness to yawning. Young people are especially susceptible; they obsess over fads and fashion trends and copy illicit behaviors from peers, such as smoking, drinking or speeding. Or suicide.

Using a statistical formula typically applied to tracking outbreaks of diseases, researchers at Columbia University and other institutions confirmed in 1990 that suicide is contagious and can be transmitted between people. Contagion spreads either directly, by knowing a suicide victim, or indirectly, by learning of a suicide through word-of-mouth or the media. Those same researchers found that people ages 15 to 19 are two to four times more prone to suicide contagion than people in other age groups.

The way it spreads can be so similar to that of diseases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has sometimes gone into a region to investigate spikes in suicides.

Analysts call those spikes suicide clusters—an unusually high number of people in an area kill themselves (or attempt to) in a short period of time. The clusters tend to happen where people socialize, such as schools, psychiatric hospitals or military units.


Madelyn Gould, one of the analysts who made the contagion discovery, has said these clusters make up between 1 and 5 percent of teen suicides but are vitally important to understand because “they represent a class of suicides that may be particularly preventable.” And a few consecutive suicides can devastate a community.

Another reason it is crucial to understand these clusters is that suicide is likely becoming more contagious, thanks in large part to social media. Analysts have long assumed that a suicide typically has a profound impact on six people, but that estimate is from the early 1970s and limited to close family members. Social networks (both online and in real life) are much bigger today, and soon-to-be-published research by Julie Cerel, president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology, shows that a suicide may now touch around 135 people, and about one-third of them experience a severe life disruption because of that suicide.


She and her colleagues had found that people who know a suicide victim are almost twice as likely to develop suicidal thoughts as the general population. The closer the relationship, the greater the risk; the younger the person exposed, the greater the risk.

Young people aren’t the only ones facing a suicide problem; the national suicide rate across all demographics is at an almost 30-year high. But more than three times as many teens are killing themselves now than in the 1950s. Most of these suicides aren’t copycats, but some areas across the country are suffering from the sort of contagion that has stricken Colorado Springs; the CDC investigated cases in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2014 and Palo Alto, California, in 2016. Other clusters have likely gone undetected because it’s often so difficult to make the connections between victims.




Suicide prevention advocates tend to blame television and newspaper coverage for inspiring copycats, but for teens, social media are a growing problem. Instagram pages for kids who kill themselves sometimes contain hundreds of comments. Many are about how beautiful or handsome the deceased were, how they can finally rest in peace and how there should be a party for them in heaven.

Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says the message seems to be that if you kill yourself, you’ll not only end your suffering but also become the most popular kid in school. Teens sometimes have more than 1,000 Instagram followers, so kids far beyond one school or community can see digital shrines to dead friends. Moutier says those posts can seem as if they’re romanticizing death.

Scholars are struggling to keep up with the evolving technology, and they say there’s still a paucity of research on how suicidal thoughts spread through social media. “It makes these deaths no longer isolated,” says Cerel, and kids “are exposed and perhaps profoundly affected by someone they might have never even met in person.”


Analysts say clusters could become harder to spot, because they typically occur in a specific area, but social networks for teens now spread far beyond a school, a neighborhood, even a city.

The Choking Game

It’s hard to identify “patient zero” in the Colorado Springs suicide outbreak because kids today are so interconnected, and the families involved have kept many details private. Researchers also know that they can’t limit their search to one group; the first suicide at one school may have been inspired by the death of a student at another. Other factors muddling the search: The coroner’s office doesn’t always track where the deceased went to school, and districts are hesitant to say how many teens they’ve lost to suicide, citing student privacy laws and fear of copycats.

One known precursor to the current wave of suicides was in 2011, when a Colorado Springs father found his 12-year-old son suspended from a bunk bed. The parents insist it was not a suicide and instead blame the “choking game,” in which a person cuts off blood flow to the brain and then releases it in order to feel lightheaded or even high. The coroner’s office ruled the cause of death “undetermined.”


In 2013, a 15-year-old from the same school district strangled himself, and his parents blamed the choking game. The number of teen suicides started picking up in the spring of 2015, when a Discovery Canyon Campus student shot herself. The next month, three local kids took their own lives. From June to November, there were five more suicides in the Colorado Springs area; in December, there was on average one teen suicide per week. The deaths surged again toward the end of the last school year, beginning with Riley’s suicide.

Those tracking the situation are convinced it’s a contagion, but they’re unsure how it’s spreading. That makes it all the more frightening and difficult to stop. “It’s two years in a row we’ve dealt with the same sort of terrifying trend,” says Kelly, the medical examiner.




Colorado’s Child Fatality Prevention System, which investigated all youth suicides in the state from 2010 to 2014, identified risk factors, including family arguments, relationship breakups and physical or emotional abuse. Others blame regional factors, like the nearby Army and Air Force bases, as the children of people serving in the military are at elevated risk for suicidal thoughts.

(A parent’s deployment can lead to increased responsibilities at home for a kid or emotional problems because of the separation and possibility of a parent’s death.) Some blame the high altitude, which researchers have linked to suicide.

Analysts also point out that young people don’t always know how to get through stressful times. Adults tend to end their lives because of major life stressors, Kelly says, but for a kid, the breaking point is often less significant.


“These risk factors line up like lights on the street,” says Richard Lieberman, a mental health consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “For a kid to go from thinking about suicide to attempting suicide, all these lights have to turn green.”

One light might be a fight with a parent. Another might be a flunked test, a breakup, a peer’s suicide. Kids might contemplate suicide for months, and then the final act is often on impulse, “if everything falls into place,” says Scott Poland, a school crisis expert from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Poland and Lieberman are working with Discovery Canyon Campus and its district.

Riley didn’t show any obvious signs of mental health problems, according to her mother, and wasn’t in therapy or on medication. “Teachers even said, If you would have given me 200 names, hers would have been at the bottom of kids who would do this.”

But Riley was having trouble in the classroom—she fooled around during class, and her grades suffered, which added pressure. “She kept saying she hated school; she just didn’t want to be there,” Sjoerdsma says. She also struggled with her parents’ 2005 divorce. But even a few hours before her death, at a Christian youth group gathering she was dancing around and holding hands with friends, says Sjoerdsma, acting like “her normal self.”


In the car with family friends on the way to her father’s house, Riley rolled down the window and stuck her hands outside. She liked to feel the cool mountain air on her palms. When she was dropped off, she told the people she was with that she’d see them tomorrow.

‘Unhang’ Yourself

A little more than a week after Riley’s suicide, Brittni Darras, an English teacher at a different school in the area, posted on Facebook that she had learned of another student’s attempted suicide during a parent-teacher conference. “As her mom sat across from me, we both had tears streaming down our faces,” Darras wrote. “Feeling helpless, I asked if I could write my student a letter to be delivered to her at the hospital.” The mother agreed.


After the student received it, the mother emailed Darras to share what the girl had said: “How could somebody say such nice things about me? I didn’t think anybody would miss me if I was gone.”

Darras had lost a student to suicide a few years earlier. “It’s something that, as a teacher, you never entirely recover from,” she says. “Losing one in my teaching career was more than anybody should ever have to go through.” When she heard how the girl in the hospital had reacted, Darras decided to write letters to the rest of her 130 students. It took her two months. Her students were thankful, and word of what she did spread; nearly 200,000 people have shared her Facebook post.

Darras is one of many people in the Colorado Springs area fighting to stop the suicides. The initiative Safe2Tell, which began as a pilot program in the city in the 1990s and expanded statewide after the Columbine High School killings in 1999, lets young people anonymously report threats by others. State police receive the reports and connect with local law enforcement and schools to intervene.


Last school year, Safe2Tell received 5,821 tips, up 68 percent from the previous year. The largest category involved suicide threats.

“For years, in all the work in suicide prevention, we’ve really focused on one thing, and that is seeking help if you need it,” says Susan Payne, the initiative’s executive director. “That meant putting it on the victim that’s struggling to make a phone call or seek help.” Her program encourages bystanders to look for warning signs in others and report them.

Daniel Brewster wants that too. On December 31, 2015, hours before he and his daughter Danielle, 17, a Discovery Canyon Campus student, planned to celebrate the new year, she hanged herself. Brewster later looked at his daughter’s phone. “This is the part that kills me—I know she was texting other kids at the time and letting them know,” he says. She wrote, “My feet are off the floor,” and “Everything is getting hazy and dark.” None of the kids intervened; one responded by suggesting she “unhang.”




“Just having a meeting with [teens] and saying, ‘OK, here are the signs; here’s what you look for; here’s what you need to do’—that’s not enough,” Brewster says. “It needs to be ingrained in these kids’ heads, because they’re our first line of defense.” Of all the young people in Colorado who killed themselves from 2008 to 2012, more than a third had told someone of their plans, according to a state report.

Danielle’s was one of at least three teen suicides in the Colorado Springs area in a three-week span. Then, six weeks later, Danielle’s mother hanged herself in her daughter’s bedroom. “They’re supposed to be here,” Brewster says, choking on the words. “We’re supposed to be in this house together.”




Some local students are starting their own prevention efforts. Gracie Packard was in the eighth grade when she set a date to kill herself. She had struggled with anxiety and depression since she was young and later practiced cutting. She couldn’t sleep, her grades were slipping, and she was losing weight. She would cancel plans with friends and stopped dancing, once a passion of hers.

Meanwhile, other kids around town, as well as one of her siblings, were killing themselves or attempting to. “It was pretty much all around you,” she says. She recalls telling herself, “If things aren’t better by this date, then you’ve tried your best, and you can end it.”

Her friends sensed something was wrong. Days before she planned to die, they staged an intervention. “We’re worried about you,” they told her. Their concern, plus a suicide prevention nonprofit she stumbled upon called To Write Love on Her Arms, convinced her to ask her mom for help. “I was physically shaking. I could hardly breathe,” she says. But “that 30 seconds of bravery in being willing to say out loud to somebody you trust that, ‘Hey, I’m not OK,’ it’s going to be one of the scariest things you’ll ever do, but it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do.”


She soon started therapy. Now 17, Gracie shares her mental health story publicly and advocates for suicide prevention. An event she hosted in September drew 150 people.

City and school officials are also working to stem the rising death toll. Last spring, the El Paso County Public Health department hired a specialist to create a screening system to identify young people at risk.

But not all parents are willing to address the problem. Kelly, the medical examiner, says family members almost always request that his office cite a cause of death other than suicide, such as the choking game. “I’ve had relatives ask me if I would call it an autoerotic asphyxia because they didn’t want to tell Grandpa that his grandson had committed suicide,” he says. “That really speaks to what we as Americans think about mental illness.”


None of the obituaries for the Colorado Springs kids seem to mention suicide (a common omission everywhere), and it’s unlikely that their memorial services included more than a vague reference.

Some worry that discussing suicide might inspire more kids to do it, but just because suicidal behavior can spread quickly doesn’t mean it has to. Moutier, from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says thinking suicide is contagious might give young people the impression that anyone can “catch” it, even a stable, happy kid. That’s not true, she says.

Whether the parents of the deceased will admit it or not, suicide in most cases involves an underlying mental health condition. Researchers have found that if someone close to an adolescent dies by suicide, the adolescent’s mental health history is a bigger predictor of future suicidal behavior than his or her relationship to the suicide victim.

El Paso County’s most recent teen suicide was on September 19—a hanging on school grounds. Because teen suicides there tend to spike at the end of semesters—when students may feel as if they’re losing whatever support they had at school, Kelly says—officials may not know until winter break if things are improving. Students aren’t necessarily sending panicked glances around the classroom, wondering whom this plague will strike next. They have other things to worry about—exams, rehearsals, sports games, college applications.


“When it first happens, that’s all that is on everyone’s mind,” says Chloe Love, a junior at Discovery Canyon Campus, who does suicide prevention work. Then they move on. They have to. “Sometimes,” she says, “the memories just hurt too much.”



Sjoerdsma says she won’t hide how Riley died. “I’m fully aware that my daughter committed suicide, and I don’t know why.” She has done social work, and her husband is a local middle school teacher; neither saw the signs. Since her daughter’s death, she hasn’t been sleeping well, and the spate of suicides makes the grieving process more difficult.

At night, she often lies awake, thinking about how she and Riley used to say good night: “I love you here to heaven,” Sjoerdsma would say. “I love you back to heaven,” Riley would respond.

Sjoerdsma still says it every night. Only now, there’s no one to say it back.

Many Kids Not Ready for Kindergarten

From Michigan State University
via ScienceDaily

October 26, 2016

Many children are still learning to control their behavior as they enter kindergarten and may need educational support to develop that critical skill, indicates one of the most conclusive studies to date of early childhood self-regulation.


The federally funded study, co-authored by Michigan State University scholars, shows major differences in how self-regulation develops in children ages 3 to 7. While some enter preschool more able to control their behavior and ready to learn, others don't develop such self-control until they get to kindergarten -- or even later.

The findings come as preschool and kindergarten classrooms in the United States have shifted focus over the past few decades from social and emotional skills, such as self-regulation, to more academic skills. The researchers suggest it may be time to put some of the focus back on self-regulation, widely accepted as a marker for future success.

"If you can help children to develop this fundamental skill of behavioral self-regulation, it will allow these students to get so much more out of education," said Ryan Bowles, associate professor in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "Self-regulation is very predictive of academic success."

Together with recent MSU graduate Janelle Montroy, Bowles and colleagues analyzed the data from three separate studies that measured the "Head, Toes, Knees and Shoulders" task, in which young children are instructed to do the opposite of what they're told. If they're told to touch their head, for example, they're supposed to touch their toes.

This ability to do the opposite of what they want to do naturally and to stay focused for the entire task involves self-regulation.

A clear pattern emerged in each of the studies, with participants generally fitting into one of three trajectories: early developers, intermediate developers and later developers. On average, the later developers were 6-12 months behind intermediate developers and at least 18 months behind early developers. Overall, about a fifth of the 1,386 participants appeared to make few gains on behavioral self-regulation in preschool.

"I was surprised by the consistency of the findings," said Bowles. "To replicate the same finding multiple times in a single study is remarkable."

Echoing previous research, the study also found that development of self-control was linked to several key factors: gender (boys were more likely to be later developers), language skills and mother's education levels.

"It's well known that self-regulation is crucial to helping kids get an early jump on education, from math to literacy -- really all the skills they learn in school," Bowles said. "So the kids that develop later are really missing out on these great opportunities. They're already behind."

The study, which appears online in the journal Developmental Psychology, was co-authored by Montroy, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Center; Lori Skibbe of MSU; Megan McClelland of Oregon State University; and Frederick Morrison of the University of Michigan.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Friday, October 28, 2016

After the Diagnosis, Then What?

From Parents Have The Power
to Make Special Education Work

By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
October 25, 2016



Parents who realize their child is struggling, who suspect something is amiss, will seek out the advice of a pediatrician, a psychologist, or perhaps another professional. At first, parents don’t want to notice that their child isn’t perfect. They may suppress their feelings, but eventually, if their child is not achieving the usual milestones, some professional they know may suggest testing. That person may diagnose a disability, which leads to the question: “Now what?”

Varied and Complex Reactions

Receiving a diagnosis of a learning disability or a developmental delay can be devastating and surprising news. Some parents deny that there is a problem and will not accept the diagnosis. Other embrace the diagnosis and research everything about it. Some will share it with other parents and some won’t.

The reasons for these varied reactions can be complex.

For some parents, a diagnosis of a disability brings out fear and shame. They refuse to let their school know about the diagnosis, believing that there is a stigma to having a child in special education. Fearing the label “disabled,” they refuse to explore the option of special education services, hoping their child will get by without additional help.

For other parents, a diagnosis brings a sense of relief. Once they understand what is behind their child’s issues, they can begin to plot a course of action to help their child more forward.


Grief, Disappointment and Acceptance

For most parents, there is an initial grieving process. Their beliefs about their child may be challenged. What if their child won’t be able to go to college and achieve in a similar fashion to themselves? What if the diagnosis means a new way of life and a change of plans and expectations?

Grief and disappointment are common reactions.

Some parents even feel anger toward the professional who made the diagnosis. Others blame each other for being the cause of the disability. Fatigue sets in as parents struggle to understand what professionals are telling them.

Receiving a diagnosis for a child is a hard experience, but accepting the diagnosis can eventually lead to a positive outcome for your child.


Working Through the Confusion

Because there are a variety of diagnoses that a child can receive, the process becomes confusing. Parents hear terminology that they have never heard before and feel even more confused. People they have never met before will be delivering complicated news about their child. Many parents wonder if they can trust the opinion of a stranger who doesn’t know their child the way they do.


Fortunately,there are things that parents can do to help them work through the confusionand put them on the road to becoming an advocate for their child’s education.

What You Can Do:
  • Locate a Parent Training and Information Center: Each state in the United States has a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center. These centers can advise you of resources in your area. Go to The Yellow Pages for Kids at the Wrightslaw website to find a center near you.
  • Ask for a Referral to Special Education: Contact the special education department in your child’s school district to request assessments in all the areas in which you suspect a disability. As long as your request is in writing, schools must comply with your request within a specific timeline set by your state’s department of education.
  • Build a Team of Independent Professionals: Seek out independent experts who can do a comprehensive and objective assessment of your child’s special needs. Relying only on school testing can lead to a narrow view of your child, sometimes with important information missing.
  • Understand the Terminology: Parents will hear many new terms for different disabilities such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Nonverbal Learning Disability, Cerebral Palsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Be sure to ask the professional who gives you the diagnosis to be clear and explain the term so you can understand it.
  • Locate Parent Support Groups: Seek out groups of parents who have children with disabilities. Other parents can be a great source of trusted information. Find local groups of national organizations that are pertinent to your child’s disability, such as such as CHADD or the Autism Society.
  • Do What You Can in the Moment: We have discovered that mindful living is especially helpful when you have a child with special needs. It is pointless to project many years into the future and worry about your child’s well-being then. It is easier and healthier to focus on what you can do today, this week, or this month to help your child.
  • Remember That You Are Not Alone: Thousands of parents have children who get a diagnosis of special needs every year. Consider family members, friends, neighbors, and clergy as sources of support. If you belong to a faith community, ask if there is a special needs ministry. Many churches have them to create accepting communities for children and teens with special needs.

Beyond Academics: What a Holistic Approach to Learning Could Look Like

From KQED's Blog "Mind/Shift"
How we will learn.

By Katrina Schwartz
July 6, 2015


UChicago CCSR and The Wallace Foundation

From a child’s perspective, school, extracurricular activities and home are part of the continuous experience of life. From the perspective of teachers, coaches and parents, those experiences may seem more differentiated and are thus treated separately.

However, if the adults in a child’s life approach his or her growth as a collaboration following a clear developmental path, every child will have a better chance at a life filled with choices and the skills to achieve goals, according to a report.

“The idea is that if everybody starts to have a common understanding about what they’re trying to do and what an effective approach would be, and they understand that it’s a shared responsibility to help kids develop and learn over time, then hopefully it will lead to more discussion,” said Jenny Nagaoka, lead author of the Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework and deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR).

“Kids will be engaged in learning and internalize the academic side if you are also helping them work to develop in multiple ways,” she said. Engagement doesn’t come only from exciting content, but from a student’s own ability to self regulate, apply skills and find some relevance in the lesson.

The CCSR report makes the case for better integrating aspects of a child’s development using a compilation of developmental psychology, neuroscience, sociology and education research perspectives. By combining insights from each of these areas, the report’s authors strive to paint a clearer picture of how to support development of the intangible qualities underlying both the cognitive and non-cognitive skills emphasized in school, clubs and at home.

The report identified three “key factors” that young people need to be successful. Many programs that focus on closing the equity gap only address educational attainment. But through research and interviews with both experts and youth, the CCSR researchers have developed a broader definition of success that includes young people becoming aware of themselves and the wide range options available to them, while developing the competencies to pursue those options and make good decisions as citizens of the world.


KEY FACTORS

Agency: It’s important that young people feel they have the ability to influence the outcome of their lives. This doesn’t negate the fact that external factors can constrain choices, but a successful person recognizes their agency even within those constraints. The report notes, “having agency also requires having the competencies to be able to manage one’s environment, a sense of what one values, the ability to manage one’s emotions and behavior, as well as a belief that conscious self-directed action is possible.”

It can be harder for young people coming from marginalized communities to develop a strong sense of agency when faced by factors like violence or a lack of experiences that allow them to try on and experiment with new identities. However, adults working with those young people should recognize the importance of developing agency and give them opportunities to try it out when the stakes are low.

Integrated Identity: The process of getting to know oneself happens throughout childhood and into early adulthood and plays an especially important role in the teenage years. Forming an identity is some combination of discovery, construction and creation, but at its core it is a process of figuring out one’s beliefs, values, goals and experiences. All humans are multifaceted, but integrating an identity is about fully inhabiting all sides of the self.

This process can be more challenging for kids coming from disadvantaged communities where the coping mechanisms that work at home may not transition well into school or work environments. School often reflects a dominant white, middle-class culture, forcing kids who don’t come from that background to make a bigger lift when integrating their identities.

This is profoundly unfair to kids coming from a different background from the dominant one, as it presents a whole other set of values and beliefs that must be incorporated into the sense of self.

Competencies: The report notes that the ability to perform roles, complete complex tasks and achieve specific objectives requires a set of competencies that include things like interpersonal skills and critical thinking skills. To some extent, the competencies a person may need will depend on what path in life they choose.

All of these factors play an underlying role in determining how successful a child will turn out to be. Additionally, four components underlie all cognitive and non-cognitive learning: self-regulation, knowledge and skills, mindsets and values.

Researchers note these components are malleable and can be easily influenced by experiences and relationships. They are also more or less important at different stages of a child’s development.

For example, 12-year-olds are very oriented towards identity, groups and finding a sense of comfort in friends, while older adolescents are often questioning their identity, looking to differentiate themselves. “If teachers can tap into that place, they can engage students more effectively,” Nagaoka said.

Early childhood educators often think about children in this holistic way, paying attention to social and emotional skills in addition to things like recognizing letters and numbers. Often this practice is dropped when a child turns from five to six and enters the first grade, even though developmentally, that child could still use those supports. That’s where the network of adults around that child could better integrate their supportive efforts.

IMPLICATIONS

While this report attempts to draw together disparate areas of research to offer a more complete picture of how children develop and use resources, relationships and experiences around them to make their way in the world, there are some clear ways that parents, educators and policymakers could integrate this holistic view.

Academics aren’t everything: Teachers often see themselves as responsible for specific academic content, but schools will never see the success they desire without accounting for some of the non-cognitive factors that play a role in development. The report points out that adults must act with a holistic approach to learning: “Cognition, emotion, affect, and behavior are reflexive, mutually reinforcing, and inextricably associated with one another as a part of development and learning. Adults will make little headway if they target only one particular component or subcomponent in isolation.”

Educators need a developmental lens: Too often, structures and practices are at odds with the developmental states of the children they are meant to serve. Schools and even parents are often more oriented towards the needs of adult – such as discipline and quiet – than towards what works for kids.

All kids need access to rich opportunities: At almost every step of the way kids from marginalized communities face more challenges to becoming successful adults than kids from wealthier and better educated homes. Adults need to help young people develop the skills and dispositions to cope with the world as it is, while helping them build the courage to change the status quo.

The focus on testing and accountability in school undermines educators’ ability to provide developmental experiences. “Testing has started to define what matters in schools and that’s how we think about what is successful,” Nagaoka said.

This way of thinking creates incentives for school leaders, teachers and parents to focus on only on the academic content, while neglecting the many other factors that lead to success. In many cases schools have lost sight of what they want their students to become in favor of high test scores, which might not get them anything in the real world.

“Narrowing the focus onto one thing is a lot easier than saying there’s a lot of things we need to be paying attention to,” Nagaoka said.

Schools must be safe places for educators: “In the current state of things, schools are not particularly safe places for teachers to be experimenting or practicing or doing something they don’t know for sure will work,” Nagaoka said. There’s no clear roadmap of practices and policies to ensure the kind of holistic education this report is advocating. It will take trial and error.

“Adults learn and grow and organizations improve by being allowed to make mistakes and overcome them and learn from them,” Nagaoka said. If this is the advice we are giving students about their learning, it only makes sense to allow educators the same growthful stance and professional agency.

Be careful measuring non-cognitive factors: Many school districts are realizing that non-cognitive factors are important to success, but the immediate instinct has been to try and quantify those things. The report’s authors caution that course of action, noting that in many cases the factors aren’t compatible with a standardized test-based accountability system.

“It’s more about understanding where kids are and understanding where kids need more support,” Nagaoka said. There’s no “right place” for a seven-year-old to be on the self-actualizing scale. Nagaoka suggests more diagnostic or formative assessment tools for evaluating how a student’s noncognitive abilities are developing.

Learning happens throughout life, not just at school: The daily real-world experiences are often much more potent and lead some students to question the value of what they are taught in school. If educators don’t address that disconnect and help students to reconcile those implicit messages with the values of school, those students may get lost.

“We’re trying to shift the narrative and helping people see the commonalities in what they’re working on,” Nagaoka said. She suggests that developmental psychology should be a part of all teacher training programs and hopes that there will be more cross-pollination among educators about how to support kids’ growth.